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A Mission of Vengeance

Chapter 1Top

Admiral James Maverick walked around the desk and offered Captain Marshall a handshake, “Welcome to Delphi, Captain. I've already read your report.” He offered Marshall a seat in front of his desk, as he took his seat.

Marshall replied, “Thanks for the welcome. What I had to deal with was serious. It was like nothing no one has encountered yet. It's all in the report.”

Marshall continued, “Sir, my crew needs a rest. We've got several wounded. I don't know how many casualties, a newborn baby. The Republic needs some serious repairs. We could use it after this ordeal.”

“Yes, I know,” James' expression changed to concern. “You were the first to be in contact with them, but not the last. Within the last 10 hours, there have been 3 attacks on Federation ships. I'm afraid things are more grim than initially thought. It appears the Kreltans are starting an advance into Federation space, and right now the only thing in their way is this starbase and her support craft.” James tapped a key and a screen to the right of Marshall came down and showed the three attacked areas.

Marshall replied, “My word, I don't believe this. It's like the Dominion all over again. They must be stopped at all costs. I can't imagine what these creatures are capable of.”

Maverick nodded, “Your ship is currently under repair and your wounded is being cared for. The Republic should be ready in three to four days, but I'm afraid there's no time for rest. I've recalled all of our ships from their current missions. We're going to find out what these people want and who exactly they are, and the Republic is first on the list.”

Marshall responded, “We'll do what we can Admiral. The crew is up to it if you really need us. They're the best I've ever served with.”

Maverick continued, “Agreed. Starfleet is still recovering from the Borg and Dominion, though with peace talks from the Romulans, that's one less thing to worry about. I'm sending the Galahad here,” he pointed to one of the attack positions, “She's going to be conducting scans of wreckage from the Dreadnought that attacked you. I want the Republic to go to these coordinates,” He pointed to another area of the map. “There is an M class planet and a Demon Class planet there. Conduct scans, and if attacked defend yourself. We need information before anything else. I'm also sending the Firestorm two systems away from you to do the same, if you find yourself over matched, call them in.”

Marshall commented, “Will do Admiral. We barely stood up to them. Hopefully we can even the odds a bit. The General that I encountered was very cocky, he somehow infiltrated our computer core and dug up the classified portions of my personnel file. If they did it to me they could do it to every single member of Starfleet. I would suggest alerting all of our ships.”

“They've already been alerted. In fact our scientists here have analyzed your sensor readings, and discovered something interesting. We had to use sensor modifications from the USS Voyager to conduct bio-scans, but it appears that our friends aren't true cousins. They seemed to be enhanced changelings, genetically engineered from the DNA up. They're intelligent, but only intelligent of information that was given to them from their first formation, they don't seem to have the ability to adapt quickly to new situations and information. That may be our only advantage. Well, Captain, good luck. I'll be on the Firestorm if you need me further,” James walked around and escorted the Captain out while shaking his hand. “Report what you find to me and to the base, we're going to go on the fly on this one, until we have complete intelligence on them.”

“Understood. I'll contact you as soon as we get something. Rest assured the Republic won't rest until we do find it,” Marshall said as he left the Admiral's office.

He walked back toward the Republic to be brought up to speed on repairs and personnel changes.

<location: main bridge, USS Republic, Delphi Station>

Sleep had eluded John Carter since the arrival at Delphi station. He'd checked in with Doctor Cromwell as well as Doctor Harris with regard to Commander Taylor's child, but didn't stay too long in sickbay.

From the start of his service onboard the Republic, Carter and Lana Taylor had seemed to be at odds. It seemed to John that Lana's mind just wasn't on her job. Considering Lana's circumstances, John was glad that the Executive Officer's priorities were on her child. In fact, he'd have been worried if that hadn't been the case. Add to that the romantic relationship that was brewing between Commander Taylor and the ship's Captain, and what John Carter found himself in the middle of was having to insist that either his Captain or his XO resign.

Over the course of the rescue of the U.S.S. Zurich, Commander Taylor's medical condition had worsened and Carter had been appointed acting XO. John couldn't help but think that, if situations were reversed, he'd resent the hell out of the person that “stole” his job. So, that explained the way that Commander Taylor was staring daggers at him through the Sickbay partition.

On Republic's bridge, things were slowly returning to normal. It was the beginning of the day shift, but since the Galaxy Class vessel was under heavy repair, most of the crew had been assigned light duty. Lieutenant Suvek, the Third Watch Officer had stayed on for a few hours, and as John Carter stepped onto the bridge, he heard the end of Suvek's conversation with Ensign Ann Ready.

“I'm reporting to you, because I'm unable to locate the Chief of Security.” said 80psi.

John took a few steps out of the bridge turbolift and stepped down to the Command Deck. “To be honest with you Ensign,” he said with a smile, “I don't even know who's in charge around here anymore. Sorry our introduction was so rushed before.” Carter extended his hand to the Ensign. “I'm John Carter, pleased to meet you. I THINK I'm still head of Tactical.”

Ensign Readdy shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you too. I hope we can get a chance to work together, as a team.” said the ‘pistoned’ officer. She leaned over and whispered.

“I hope the pistons and air supply lines of my exoskeleton don't bother you too much. They can be handy in tight situations.” she added, with a wink.

Carter remained silent, but cast a wary look at the officer with the odd mechanical suit. ‘There HAS to be a good explanation for this . . .’

<location: CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

“Let's see…” muttered Leon, as he reviewed his datapad. “According to these specifications I've run past Lieutenant Commander Sawyer, our new sickbay layout can handle over twice the amount of casualties than the original Galaxy Class design.”

“So no more overflows to cargo bay two?” asked the gravely female voice of the grey-haired Doctor Fernmore, who sat directly across the desk from Doctor Cromwell. The entire senior sickbay staff was assembled in the CMO's new office, which held a larger seating arrangement than the previous. To either side of Fernmore were the black-bearded Doctor Yezbeck, and the male Vulcan, Doctor Y'lair. The Caribbean neurosurgeon, Doctor Tyler, adjusted his dreadlocks while leaning up against a console to the left of Leon's desk. Doctor Harris, the red-haired embryologist and pediatrician, paced the back of the room with her arms folded. With the exception of the civilian-attired Doctor Cromwell, the rest of the staff donned blue Star Fleet uniforms, each with the rank of Lieutenant.

“Nope,” continued Leon. “The new triage design converts two of the nursing wards into one fully functioning trauma center similar to the main ward and the recovery ward. All unnecessary medical research equipment has been moved out of those three wards and into the adjoining life sciences lab. This makes more room for additional biobeds, and allows me to re-designate the wards as triage one for the main ward, triage two for the recovery ward, and triage three for the newly converted trauma center.”

“This sounds similar to the organizational orders you made prior to our rescue mission for the Zurich” remarked Doctor Yezbeck.

“Yes,” responded Leon. “I knew we were going to have a large influx of casualties, so I had to do something that would support that. The three-tier triage system has proved very effective for centuries on Earth, and during the Dominion Wars, it helped my staff and I save thousands of lives. I felt that since Galaxy Class vessels boasted ample habitation space, we could take advantage of this major repair and redesign our sickbay based on the triage system.”

“What about medical research?” asked the logical Doctor Y'lair. “You've moved most of our scientific equipment to the life sciences labs.”

“I've sent a proposal to the new Chief Science Officer about having a closer working relationship between the life sciences department and sickbay,” Doctor Cromwell explained. “Every Thursday will be designated as a training day, and we'll have half of our staff rotated through life sciences, and half of life science's staff here in medical. It may be shaky in the beginning, but in the long run, all of us will benefit from the research experience with life sciences, and in turn, we'll have a backup medical contingency in another department should we need it.”

The raised eyebrow on Doctor Y'lair yielded a single-word response. “Efficient…”

Cracking a smile, Leon regarded the adjective as a Vulcan compliment and responded “thank you.” Turning back to the datapad in his hands, he glanced at the next order of business. “Ah, yes. Shift assignments. The past few days has offered me a glance at your individual medical skills. I'm going to try and match senior shift leaders with officers who have less time in surgery. So… Doctor Y'lair, you and Tyler will take gamma shift. Doctor Yezbeck, you and Doctor Fernmore will take beta shift. Doctor Harris and myself will be alpha shift. Our shifts will rotate every two weeks so everyone has a chance at each time slot. As for emergency designations, Doctors Harris and Y'lair are designated as primary away mission personnel, along with myself. The rest of you are designated as primary shipboard personnel. As with shift assignments, emergency designations will rotate every two weeks. Any questions?”

Doctor Cromwell waited a few moments for his staff to respond. As the room remained quiet, Leon nodded his head and concluded the meeting. “Very well. We still have a standing order from the Captain to perform physicals on all personnel. We haven't had a chance to do that during the past few days with all the emergency missions we've been on. So now's our chance. Dismissed.”

As everyone filed out of the office, Harris was last to leave as Lieutenant Commander Carter walked in the office. Both Leon and Shannon stared at the tactical officer in a brief moment of shock. It was plainly clear why, as the uniform color of the acting executive officer had changed from operations gold to command red.

“So it's official?” stuttered Leon.

“Afraid so, Doc,” replied Carter somberly. “The Captain's already approved her transfer off the ship. Looks like I'll be wearing two caps until the Captain officially chooses a new exec.”

“Will it be you?” Leon asked, his mind still lingering regretfully on the brief tenure of Commander Taylor.

“I'm not sure yet, but the Captain is still on the starbase. If we get a new XO, he'll probably find one there. Hopefully, he's been able to wrangle a few days rest for us out of the Admiral.”

Changing the subject, John took a slightly more official tone. “What's the situation here?”

“The repair crew is finishing up, and sickbay will be fully operational in about twelve hours,” reported Leon. “Our new design will be able to handle twice the amount of casualties, I'm proud to say. Also, I've made new shift assignments in light of our recent performance, and we're continuing our ship-wide physical exam schedule. In fact, you're due for yours soon…” Doctor Cromwell started thumbing through his schedule as Carter began an abrupt exit at word of his upcoming physical.

“Just wanted to make sure everyone was all right Doc,” he offered. “Don't forget. Poker in my quarters Saturday, 1900. Bring your credits,” he said with a smile. With that, he stepped into the corridor.

Harris glanced at him with a quiet smile as he passed through the door. She seemed to be staring at the new red uniform, if not with admiration, at least curiosity. A snarl from Leon broke her from her daydream as she looked back towards the CMO. As he frowned at the datapad in annoyance, she offered “is something wrong, doctor?”

“Yes!” blared Leon, maintaining his intense glare at the datapad. “I've been Chief Medical Officer of this ship for three days now, and I STILL don't know who the ship's counselor is! Have them report to me ASAP!”

Chapter 2Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Marshall arrived on the bridge when he left his meeting with Admiral Maverick. He had some changes to make.

“Captain,” it was Carter, “Any word about when we're shipping out?”

“Four days to make all repairs. The Kreltans are a more serious threat than we imagined. I'll explain it all to the crew later.”

“Very well,” he replied, “I also noticed that you approved transfers for Lieutenant Commander Sawyer, Commander Taylor, and Lieutenant Commander Forrest.”

Marshall responded, “Always on top of things are you Carter? Sawyer had agreed to stay on for a shakedown cruise. Now that it's over, she's free to go. Commander Taylor needs to be with her child right now, so I had no choice but to approve that transfer. As for Forrest, Starfleet Intelligence recalled him for a classified mission. Something to do with the Klingons, I think.”

“What about Ensign Zelk?” Carter continued. “Our helmsman?”

“Standard reassignment,” Marshall replied. “You know how it goes: the lower in rank you are, the more often you move around. Between you and me Carter, things are going to be different around here. Your temporary assignment as Executive Officer is no longer temporary. Congratulations, Commander.”

“Thank you sir,” he replied.

“As a result of your new rank, I need you to oversee repairs while I fill the vacant department head positions. That being said, I need to head to sickbay. Commendations are in order for Doctor Cromwell and his staff.”

<location: CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

A civilian-clothed Bajoran, wearing a silver-gray V-neck jumpsuit with a black belt, sat across the desk from Leon. His flowing brown hair was highlighted by the ceremonial earpiece on his right ear, and his nose crest was cinched downward with annoyance. Although his body position indicated a relaxed demeanor, the furrow in his forehead indicated otherwise.

On his side of the desk, Leon was standing with his hands planted firmly on the surface. He was hunched over slightly, leaning on his arms, and slouched to look directly into the Bajoran’s eyes. Leon’s casual civilian dress usually offered a façade that placated most Star Fleet crewman into thinking he was a calm, laid-back individual. Most of the time it was true. However, his poisonous expression while facing this Bajoran overwhelmed any content idiosyncrasies kindled by Leon’s usual ivory turtleneck sweater.

“Counselor B'Rell,” Leon directed sternly. “I’m not sure you’re completely familiar with the chain-of-command on this ship. Despite your illusions to the contrary, your psychological unit falls under MY department. Just because you and I share the same civilian rank doesn’t mean you can separate your section from the medical staff.”

“On the contrary, doctor,” retorted the counselor. “There is a very clear difference between my counseling group and sickbay. While your people are taking care of wood-splinters, mine are scattered throughout the ship responsible for ensuring the safety of family members and crew alike during a saucer-sep. While YOU are busy fawning to the petty demands of a pregnant commander, I’M left to soothe the mental trauma of YOUR neglected patients piling up in Ten-Forward.”

Leon’s face became flushed with anger, and it took every ounce of restraint to prevent an outburst. In carefully accentuated fragments, he responded spitefully to B’Rell.

“Now listen up . . . and listen good. As long as I’m chief medical officer aboard this ship, YOU will report to ME. If you do not follow that order, TO THE LETTER, I’ll see to it that you’re analyzing the migration patterns of globflies on Q’onos for the rest of your career. Now get the hell out of my office.”

Counselor B’Rell stood up calmly with a straight face, and turned around to exit the office. Just before going through the door, the smug Bajoran turned around and said “You know, doctor, these emotional swings you deal with could be due to some underlying emotional stress. You should come by my office to talk about it.”

The taunt gave the precise response that B’Rell had hoped for. After inhaling deeply, the purple-faced chief medical officer howled with rage.


With a smirk, B’Rell exited the office. A few moments later, Captain Marshal came walking in, looking back down the corridor in confusion as he entered.

“Trouble?” asked the captain, obviously taking note of Doctor Cromwell’s screech that still resonated throughout sickbay.

Leon, regaining his composure looked up at him and said. “No. No problem. Why?”

Noting the sarcasm without response, Jim changed the subject. “I just wanted to commend you and your staff for an excellent job throughout the past few days. We’ve been under an extraordinary amount of stress since leaving Utopia Planitia, and the sickbay has dealt with it superbly.”

“Thanks,” said Leon. “I’ll pass your praise onto the rest of my staff.” As the captain paused briefly, Leon picked up on a subtle hint.

“You didn’t come down here just to say that, did you?” he asked.

“No,” replied the captain, turning around to face the wall with a detached expression. He folded his hands behind his back and continued. “Commander Taylor has left the ship, and I’ve promoted Carter to the exec position permanently.”

“I had a feeling you’d pick him, after hearing what happened in the stardrive section.”

Jim turned around to face him with a concerned look. “What does the crew think? I feel like I blew my first actual combat mission. I must look like a failure as a captain.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Jim,” replied Leon. “You did exactly what you needed to do. The Kreltan commander was expecting to fight you, not Carter.”

“But . . . the crew. They must think Carter’s really in command, not me.”

Leon sat down behind his desk, leaning back into his chair. “Jim, everyone on this ship knows that you’re the captain. They also know the decision you had to make. Remember the Borg attack on earth twelve years ago? We all know the story: Captain Riker had to change combat tactics because his former commander was assimilated into the collective, and knew everything that Riker knew. When Picard was rescued and resumed command, no one thought any worse of him. Neither does your crew think worse of you.”

Slamming his fist against the wall, Captain Marshal hissed “It’s not just that! People died because of my inability to fight! The total casualty count was 78 dead! All of them under MY command! Damn it! I’ve never lost that many people before!”

“Jim . . . “ soothed Leon, sitting forward in his chair. “It wasn’t your fault. Neither will it be the first time you’ll lose people. When they sign up with Star Fleet, they know the risks.”

“Did Lana know the risks?” asked Marshal. “Or did she leave because she didn’t think I could command?”

“She left because she had a baby to take care of,” responded the doctor. “For God’s sake, Jim! Stop blaming yourself for everything! You and Lana both knew that one of you needed to leave, and her baby was just the catalyst. She acted responsibly, and so did you on the battle-bridge yesterday!”

Leon stood up and walked in front of the desk. Captain Marshal still looked towards the wall and Doctor Cromwell looked intently at him from behind.

“You’re a fine captain,” he offered. “And you’ve got a fine crew. Trust in yourself, and trust in them.”

At that moment, the door to the office hissed open, and Lieutenant Harris came walking in. “Doctor, engineering reports that they’ve been able to establish that larger power conduit you asked for, and . . .” Harris paused after noticing the captain. “I’m sorry, did I interrupt anything?”

Captain Marshal turned around to face Leon in the eye. “Thank you, doctor,” he said, straightening his uniform. “I’ll be on the bridge.” With that, he walked out of the office.

“Anytime,” Leon replied, looking after him with concern.

<location: executive officer’s quarters, USS Republic>

The door chimed as John took one last look in the mirror at the red command uniform. Shaking his head in disbelief of the events during the past four days, he waltzed over to the card table. Jazz music played in the background, as Carter announced “come!”

As the door whispered open, Doctor Cromwell walked in. He carried with him a glass vessel with an amber liquid, and offered it to Carter. The new executive officer accepted the gift as he read the label.

“Benecian Scotch Whiskey . . . 2311,” read John. “Geeze, Doc, this is a fine bottle. How’d you get one so old?”

Leon put his hands in his pockets as he replied. “The Bremerton stopped by Benecia a year ago, and I picked up a case in trade for some old Saurian Brandy.”

Carter opened the top and sniffed the top. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “It’s the real stuff!”

“Yeah, we’d better take it easy with that,” warned Leon. “It’s not like synthehol. It will definitely leave you out of control.”

“Well, it may be only three of us,” replied Carter, pointing to the card table where poker chips were stacked along with a deck of cards. “Only Vic replied to my invitation, even though I sent it out to the department heads.”

“Maybe they didn’t want to lose their credits to you tonight!” joked the doctor, as Carter ordered a pair of whiskey glasses from the wall-mounted food replicator.

John Carter stepped back over to the card table, setting down two short glasses baring the seal of Starfleet Academy. Leon Cromwell took a glass and held it up against the light. “Interesting,” the Doctor offered. “I never figured you for the sentimental sort.”

Carter leaned back in his chair and cocked his head sideways. “Oh, I don't know.” John said lightly. “What's the old saying? We all different ships, one Academy.” For a moment, John let his mind wander to a distant afternoon, under a certain sumac tree he enjoyed when he had to study, but Doctor Cromwell's voice brought Carter back to the present.

“I suppose you're right.” He said simply. Harris tells me you were back there recently?“

“Does she?” John said, not terribly careful to hide the glee in his voice. John felt his smirk return. “What else did she tell you?” Carter leaned forward slightly, resting his elbows on the table.

“Not much really,” Leon offered, “but I'll say this for you, Lieutenant Commander, you do make one hell of a first impression.”

“Yeah,” John said, somewhat bemused. “Tell that to the XO.”

Leon felt his eyebrows rise. “Excuse me? Last time I checked Carter, you were the XO.”

John looked surprised for a moment, then glanced down at the red piping on his sleeve. “Score one for you Doc,” he said, “but I wish things had gone a little smoother.” Carter reached for the deck of cards in front of him and began to shuffle absent-mindedly. “Still, this is a first week I'm never going to forget.” Across from Carter, the doctor poured his prized spirits into the short glasses.

“You got that right by a half.” Leon said, with more than a little frustration. “I was starting to wonder what else the galaxy had in store for us.”

Both men jumped slightly as the door chime sounded.

Carter stood up and pulled his duty tunic and pushed up the long, red sleeves of his under shirt. The Martian officer smiled as he stepped closer to the door. “You're late.” he called through the door. Then the comm system beeped.

=/\= “No John, I'm not. However, if you don't open this door in 16 seconds, I will be. Virtus out.” =/\=

Carter braced his arm against the doorway of his quarters. Behind him, Cromwell stood up and sipped his whiskey. Cromwell let a few seconds tick by, then related to the silence.

“Aren't you going to…”

“Shhh.” Carter said as he held up his hand to silence the Doctor. “I've been waiting for something like this to happen for YEARS.” The silence continued for a few more seconds. “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…” John keyed the control to open the doors to his quarters.

On the other side of the door, the tall slim figure of Victor Virtus, still dressed in his science blue uniform, stepped into his friend's quarters. “Hello Doctor.” Virtus said with a nod. “You'll have to excuse our new XO, but I imagine he's terribly pleased with himself just now.” Virtus calmly took a seat at the card table.”

“You're damned right I am!” Carter shouted in delight. He turned his head to explain to clearly confused Leon Cromwell. “Three years, Doc! I've been waiting three years for Vic to be late for… well anything. Gotcha, Vic.”

“You mean to tell me you haven't been late for anything in three years? Even when you were off duty?”

“I am nothing if not punctual, my dear Doctor.”

“Until now.” Carter added.

“Afraid not John.” Virtus said. “Computer,” he called out. “Ship time relative to Federation standard please.”

There was a soft chime as the voice called back “It is exactly 1900 hours.”

“Son of a…” John Carter shook his head as Leon Cromwell sat back down at the table. “You lied. A man named Virtus LIED to me.” Carter said in mock outrage.

“Clever, Doctor Virtus.” Cromwell said. “You knew he couldn't pass up the chance to get one over on you, so…”

“So he lied.”

“Not at all John.” Virtus explained. “I simply did what you would have. Adapted my plan to fit the situation.”

Carter sat down wondering if either of the two men in the room with him knew how much fun he was really having. He sat down and shuffled the cards again.

“Alright gentlemen, the game is…”

The door chime sounded again to interrupt the game's host. “Come.” Carter said.

Across the table Cromwell turned to Victor Virtus “At least it wasn't red alert.” He offered.

The doors opened as Captain Marshall entered.

“Gentlemen, looks like you got a good game going.” he said

“You play Captain?” asked Virtus.

“No,” Marshall answered, “I was never good at cards. Long story. Anyway, I have a message from Ashley Sawyer to show each of you.”

Marshall handed a PADD to each of them as they read:

Begin Subspace Communication:

I'm sorry I had to leave so quickly after we docked. I was informed at the very last minute that Doctor Beverly Crusher herself could perform the emergency procedure required to save my life. The procedure was a success, and I am now feeling great, and miss you all. Captain Marshall was extremely helpful in getting my transfer papers handled over subspace, so I now have a position with the Starfleet Corp of Engineers as Executive Officer with the rank of Commander. I just wanted to drop you guys a line, and let you know that you were a fine crew I was proud to serve on. I didn't get a chance to look over the transfer reports, but I hope your engineer can keep the Republic together for you. I'm sorry I'm not there to oversee the repairs, although I did get a look at the blueprints for the new sickbay ward.

It was an honor to serve with all of you, and I wish you well on your journey and mission.

Live Long and Prosper,
Commander Ashley Sawyer
Former Chief Engineering Officer, USS Republic NCC 76241
Executive Officer, SCE Gold Team, Starfleet Command

End Transmission

“The new Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Commander Mark Maddox arrives in the morning. Later tomorrow we have a half-Cardassian science officer coming aboard.”

Virtus raised an eyebrow as Marshall answered, “Don't worry Vic. Seems like you told me we were short handed.”

“You want to play Jim? We could teach you,” said Leon.

“I'll have to take a rain check. I'm going over to the starbase to see a friend. We'll do it sometime, and while we're at it, I'll have to tell you how I ended up on Trachus II. Have a nice night.” Marshall left and headed for the starbase to see his friend.

Chapter 3Top

<location: Runabout Edison, NCC-02112BD, enroute to Delphi Station>

The small vessel dropped from warp and slowly came about to begin it's docking procedures. The station was a few light years away but Starfleet protocols called for all vessels traveling at high warp to drop their speed to one -half impulse when approaching any star base or space facility. The pilot of the small craft was no stranger to these policies. In fact, the young crewman had received several awards and commendations for his skills. Unfortunately, the skills had yet to be displayed for anyone who could remove the young man from the dreadful task of transporting crew and special envoys across the quadrant.

The cabin of the runabout was dark and quiet. The only light came from the PADD of a Starfleet officer that had been awake most of the trip. Mark Maddox, a veteran in the field of Starship mechanical engineering, had been working on a report for the brass at Fleet Headquarters about the incident that destroyed the USS Crockett and killed hundreds of people. No one was sure on what exactly went wrong during the test flight but it was obvious that the experimental power source was very unstable. Maddox tapped in a few more words before he was satisfied with his work.

Maddox heard the communication between the pilot and docking command. What a great sound, he thought. Runabouts were not very comfortable on extended transports. The chief began gathering his things from an overhead compartment directly above his seat. As he stood to close the compartment, the shuttle softly touched down on the deck of the starbase. Mark twisted and turned his way to the exit hoisting his duffel bag on his shoulder.

“Lieutenant Commander Maddox?”

Mark turned quickly in all directions but could not locate the voice. Stepping from the runabout, Maddox bumped into a Saurian dressed in a Starfleet uniform.

“Greetings sir, I am Yeoman S'serid, crew quartermaster. You can leave your things here and I will have them transported to the Republic.”

“Great,” Mark replied dropping his bags next to the runabout, “I have to admit that this station is allot bigger than I expected.”

The yeoman nodded and made a motion for Maddox to follow him. “That is a common misconception sir. If you will please follow me, I'll take you to the docking port for the Republic.”

Mark shrugged. The Saurian certainly kept things short and down to business. Of course, the stress of dealing with hundreds of crewmen daily could take its toll on anyone.

After several twists, turns, and turbolifts; Maddox and S'serid made it to the docking port that was connected to the Republic. Mark sighed as he touched the controls and the computer welcomed him to the Republic by name. The chief turned to offer his appreciation to the yeoman but the little alien had quickly scurried off. Mark shrugged once again and stepped onto the Republic. He stopped by a computer terminal to locate his quarters and quickly set off down the corridor.

<location: executive officer’s quarters, USS Republic, Starbase Delphi>

“You have GOT to be making that up!” came the shout from Leon Cromwell. “The Right of what?”

John Carter slowly and deliberately fanned out his cards, taking a small sip of the Benecian Scotch. “Statement.” He said simply. It's called the Right of Statement. It's pretty interesting actually.“ Carter placed two cards face down on the table. “Two please Vic.” Victor Virtus nodded silently and passed two cards, face down to Republic's First Officer.

Leon meanwhile was not only sitting on a healthy pile of chips, he was also content to keep the cards Victor had given him not long ago. “Wait, wait.” he said, shaking his head, “This Right of Statement is some ancient Romulan custom? How did you even know about the damned thing in the first place?”

“Mister Carter here has quite an affinity for the Romulans.” Victor incited. “House takes one.” Victor took a card as Carter rolled his eyes.

“It's actually pretty simple Doc.” John explained. “When I was in my third year a the Academy, I took a course in Interstellar Law and Diplomacy.”

“And you can see how well he paid attention to THAT.” Virtus added. “Your bet, Doctor.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I'll check for now. Please Carter, go on.”

John flipped a red chip into the pot. “I'm in for five. Anyway,” he said, careful not to let his eyes leave the cards in front of him, “We studied the Treaty of Algernon, and the parts of it that do, or do not apply since the Dominion War. All that business with the Defiant and all.”

Doctor Cromwell felt a brief shiver as John Carter referred to the carnage of the Dominion War as something so casual. 'Still,' the Doctor’s brain reminded him, 'we all deal with stress in different ways.' “Yeah… all that.” he finally said. “I'll see that and raise you five more.”

“So I did a bit of digging,” John went on trying to get a read on the Doctor as he spoke. In point of fact, it hadn't been working all that well, judging from the sizable pile of chips in front of Cromwell, but John was starting to recognize some of the Doctor's 'tells'. Everyone had them, it was simply a question of whether or not anyone KNEW that they did, or how well they hid them.

“And I found a footnote to the Right of Statement in one of the recently declassified Enterprise logs.”

“Which Enterprise?” Cromwell asked.

“Uh oh.” Victor whispered under his breath, as he tossed in a chip to stay with the game.

“Which Enterprise? There's only one Doc.” Carter said flatly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“No, there are…” Cromwell was surprised at himself for having to think about it for a moment, “Good God, Eight of them.”

“Sure if you want to get technical,” Carter quipped. “But as good as Herriman was, even Garrett, you can't tell me that Kirk didn't set the bar. There's a reason why the emblem for the Enterprise was adopted to be the symbol of Starfleet for the next hundred years.” John flipped a blue chip over and over in his fingers, tossed it into the pot, and then followed it with another. “Fifty.”

“Fifty!” Cromwell said as he set down his cards briefly. “Hell son, you didn't have to do that. You could have but in five. You could've checked!

Victor Virtus set his cards down and regarded his neatly stacked collection of chips, sorted by color and arranged in descending amounts. Virtus took four blue chips off his pile and added them to the pot. “In for a hundred,” he said flatly. “Call.”

The comm system chimed, cutting through the tension around the table.

=/\= “Bridge to XO.” =/\=

“Carter, go.” John called out.

=/\= “I know it’s late sir, but the captain asked me to advise you when Chief Engineer Maddox has reported in.” =/\=

Carter regarded his cards one more time. “I should probably go do my job gents,” he said. “But not before the hand is played out.”

Doctor Cromwell stared stoically across the table at Carter and Virtus while attempting to read into the fifty-credit raise of the executive officer. He was not concerned with Vic, who likely wanted to stop his friend early while the pot was low. However, Leon knew that the favorite maneuver of every flight officer he came across was to fake his opponent into thinking that they were facing more firepower than reality dictated. In fact, the recent Kreltan attack on the Republic showed that Carter utilized these ruse tactics quite well. The doctor looked down at his hand: two kings and two jacks. If Carter was faking, and Leon folded, he would be throwing away a damn good hand. With his eyes settling on the executive officer, he shook his head with a smile.

“No, I'm not ready yet Mister Virtus. Carter, I think I'm onto you. I'll see the hundred, and . . .”

Doctor Cromwell slowly pushed his healthy stack of chips into the pot.

“I'll raise you everything you got left.”

Leon was quite pleased with himself, waiting to see how his new first officer would react.

Calmly, John took a last sip of whiskey before a smile swept across his face. Following the doctor's challenge, he pushed his entire stack into the pot, placed his elbows on the table, and smartly said “Agreed.” He turned to Vic and said, “I'll assume you'll follow the smart course of action and fold?”

Virtus, who watched the showdown with reserved amusement, replied “Not this time, John. I'm in.” With that, the science officer picked up his stacks of chips and placed them neatly into the pot. Raising his eyebrows, he asked “your cards, gentlemen?”

Leon smirked and laid his cards on the table, certain he had outsmarted the tactful Carter. “Two pair, my turn-and-dodge friend!” he said with amusement while taking a sip from his glass. “Weren't expecting that little maneuver, were you?”

With a smile that raised one side of his cheek, Carter laid down his hand: three aces and a pair of queens. “Not at all, my good doctor,” he replied to the befuddled medical officer. “When my opponents are trying to outsmart me, I just fly right to the target.”

As John began to rake in the pot, Vic laid his cards on the table. “If that's the case,” he interrupted. “Then perhaps you need to file another flight plan.” The table in front of Virtus displayed a hand that caused both Cromwell and Carter to drop their jaws: a full house.

Carter stood up and began to chuckle as Cromwell stared at the hand. “You had it the whole time, and didn't even twitch . . .” the doctor finally stuttered.

Virtus explained. “Statistics, doctor. Based on John's recent poker history, I concluded with a 95 percent confidence interval that he was not bluffing and wouldn't back down. You, on the other hand, possess a scientific curiosity, and concluded with a 90 percent confidence interval that you would stop at nothing to see what Carter would do if you challenged his healthy raise. Therefore, all I had to do was threaten to end the game early to start you two on the proverbial showdown.”

“Face it, doctor. He beat us!” laughed Carter, who placed his empty whiskey glass into the wall-mounted food replicator. “And robbed us blind in the process!”

“On the contrary, John,” Virtus reacted. “I let you both fight to the end, and took the winnings. A clear-cut case of survival of the fittest. Wouldn't you say, doctor?”

“More like survival of the opportunist . . .” replied Cromwell sourly as Vic shrugged and stacked his winnings together.

“Well, gentlemen,” announced Carter. “I'm off to greet our new chief engineer. You may make your way out at your convenience. I'll expect to see you back here next Saturday so I can get my credits back.”

“Would you like a de-tox?” asked the doctor, referring to the quarter empty whiskey bottle on the table.

Carter shook his head. “No need, doctor. I'm fine, and technically still off-duty. Good night, and thanks for a great game.”

As he walked out the door, both Doctor Cromwell and Lieutenant Virtus swore they heard him mutter “and an expensive one.”

John Carter stood outside the door to his quarters and tilted his neck to each side and smiled as he heard a faint, but satisfying 'crack'. “Damned Engineers,” he said out loud, “Always working the numbers.” Carter made a mental note to correct himself. Victor Virtus wasn't an engineer anymore, at least not on THIS ship, though John also wondered if there was really any such thing as a 'former' engineer. He chuckled and decided there probably wasn't.

Republic's XO ran a hand through his hair and shrugged his shoulders as he walked to a comm panel on the corridor wall. “Computer,” he asked, “What is the location of Chief Engineer Maddox?”

“Lieutenant Commander Maddox is in his quarters.”

“Specify.” Carter continued.

“Deck eight, section three.”

“Thank you.” John added, strictly for courtesy's sake. There was no response.

Carter took a few steps, enjoying the fact that it was actually quiet on Republic for once. As he stopped in front of the nearest turbo-lift, he began to notice just how still the ship could be. Quite a contrast to his first few days on board.

John had been posted to the Republic for exactly one week, and already he'd rescued a starship, had at LEAST one run-in with someone from the future, and lost his Chief Engineer, Conn Officer, and the former XO, to personnel shake-ups. Not to mention taking on a ship almost twice the Republic's size, and splitting his ship in two… on purpose no less.

There was a quiet hiss, and John Carter stepped forward; straight into a closed turbo-lift door.

“Ungh!” John grunted as he keyed the door's control again. “What the hell?” The hiss repeated itself, but this time John resisted the urge to move. The noise wasn't coming from the turbo-lift at all. The noise was instead emanating from the officer in Operations Gold, striding down the corridor toward him.

“Evening Ensign Readdy”, he said with a small nod. “What are you doing up and about? Isn't McDermott on watch? Or did you switch shifts with her?”

“No, actually, I was just taking my nightly walk. If you heard hissing, that was my exoskeleton. They have pneumatic pistons that activate while walking,” replied Readdy. “And please call me '80psi',” she added.

Chapter 4Top

<location: main gangway, docking berth 12, Delphi Station>

Jim was heading over to Starbase Delphi. He quickly found his way to the bar to see his friend. After a drink of fine Kentucky Bourbon, he heard a voice.

“I figured I'd find you here,” she said.

Jim turned around and saw Captain Rachel Blake of the U.S.S. Emerson.

“Rach, I knew you were here,” Jim said, “How are things?”

“Busy,” she said they found a table. “The Emerson is heading to the Benearius system. We're surveying the ruins left by the Chodak Empire there.”

“If I remember right, the Chodak were an ancient race. Most of their remains are in Romulan space and we're just finding them in the Federation,” Jim said.

“Jim you're still sharp as a tack. Hawkeye says hi, and he's pulled some strings to fill your crew while you're here,” Rachel said.

“I appreciate it Rach, it's been a while since the Eagle. I thought that they'd have your ship survey the wreckage of that Kreltan ship Republic encountered.”

“I read the report Jim. I didn't want the assignment. It's a good thing you're alive after that ordeal,” she said. “Frankly, from what I've heard, you haven't been acting like the same Jim Marshall since you've been back.”

“First time I've lost crew under my command. I just didn't expect it to be like this.”

“You're not that brash young Commander that I knew from the Eagle anymore. I like you better like this,” Rachel said.

“You're not the same Science Officer I knew from the Eagle either Captain. Now we're on the same level,” Jim replied.

“I know and there's something I need to tell you, but not here,” said Rachel.

“What is it? You know what happened last time you said you had something to tell me,” Jim replied.

“I know,” Rachel said, “Want to come back to my quarters?”

<location: Captain’s quarters, USS Republic>

The next morning, Marshall stumbled in the door after his night with Rachel Blake. He found the hypo that Cromwell gave him if he should have a hangover. Putting on a fresh uniform he approved the transfer of Lieutenant McTaggart to chief of tactical.

After that he touched his combadge:

“Senior Staff, briefing in the Observation Lounge in 20 minutes.”

<Location: Observation Lounge, USS Republic>

Captain Marshall entered the room at exactly 0902 hours. He surveyed the room and noted that everyone was present that was required to be. With that he decided to get things started.

“Well everyone, we made it through our first mission. Because of that we had to make some personnel changes. Commander Taylor has been transferred to the Starbase to care for her baby. Therefore I have named Lieutenant Commander John Carter as Executive Officer. Taking his former position as Chief of Security/Tactical is Lieutenant McTaggart.”

“Yes sir,” the Lieutenant replied.

“Lieutenant Commander Sawyer, our former Chief Engineer, has been promoted to Commander and named an XO in the S.C.E. Doctor Crusher informs me that the procedure she needed was a complete success. Filling her spot as Chief Engineer will be Lieutenant Commander Mark Maddox.” Turning his direction the Captain said to him, “I trust the engine room meets your approval?”

“I have not had a chance to visit the engine room yet Captain,” Maddox said, “However I do look forward to working there.”

Doctor Cromwell sat quietly in the briefing, still slightly bemused in his Sunday morning haze. The new faces around the table added to the perplexity, yet Leon's introverted personality prevented him from socializing at this formal gathering. “They'll be plenty of time to get to know the new officers when they get their physical,” he thought. He scanned each of the faces briefly, ensuring he didn't make eye contact too long.

Until Carter came in, the only person he recognized was the operations officer, Lieutenant Sullivan. As the executive officer nodded politely at the gathering of senior officers, he took a seat next to the Captain's vacant seat. Leon then looked around the table in confusion. “Where's Vic?” he wondered, remembering the enjoyable poker game last night despite the loss of his credits.

The Captain continued, “Lieutenant Commander Virtus will be leaving us soon. To take his place is Lieutenant Raksha Xayide.” He then said to the half-Bajoran, half-Cardassian woman, “Go over the data we brought back on the Kreltans. That goes for all of you. We haven't seen the last of them.”

“I've already been brought up to speed on it Captain,” Lieutenant Xayide said.

The shock of Vic's sudden parting and increase in rank thrust Leon Cromwell out of his morning trance. He shot a quick glance to John Carter, his face displaying neither surprise nor disappointment at the parting of his long-time friend. As the Captain addressed Vic's replacement, a new chill crept into his spine as he recognized the Cardassian blood of Lieutenant Xayide. Although the nose of the new science officer betrayed a hint of Bajoran blood, the cold, staring eyes suggested a Cardassian upbringing.

“Wow,” thought Leon. “It must have taken one hell of a recommendation to get her into the academy.” The doctor's mind drifted briefly back to the recent Dominion Wars, where the Cardassians were considered an adversary rather than a friend. “I hope she's friendly,” he thought. “I don't want to have any inter-departmental squabbles with her, especially with the new life-sciences/medical training program.”

“Lieutenant Sullivan,” Marshall focused on the Ops officer, “A commendation has been noted on your record for your performance during our last mission. Your service was exemplarity.”

“Thank you sir,” he said.

Marshall then noticed Doctor Leon Cromwell sitting down the table from him. “Doctor Cromwell,” Marshall said as he rose, “Would you come down front please?”

Cromwell then came forward not knowing what the Captain was doing. Marshall continued, “It has been brought to my attention during our last mission that you went above and beyond the call of duty many times over. You served the crew of this ship with valor and with dignity. I have placed the highest commendation

I can in your file, but most importantly, by order of Doctor Beverly Howard Crusher, Director of Starfleet Medical, I am honored to award you the Leonard McCoy Distinguished Medical Service Award.” Marshall then extended his hand as everyone clapped. “Congratulations Leon,” he then replied,

The Captain shook his hand as the officers before him applauded. Leon's faced flushed humbly, as the only words he could mutter were “Thanks, Jim.” Realizing he had just addressed the Republic's commanding officer by first name in a formal briefing, embarrassment combined with modesty assisted his quick pace back to his seat. He felt the eyes of the new officers follow him as he sat down, hoping the briefing would move along to other business. As it did, Leon privately felt a surge of pride at the recognition of his service.”

“During our last mission, we made contact with the Kreltan Dreadnaught Indwelling under the command of General Jondav. It has been confirmed by Starfleet that we were the first to make contact with the Kreltans but not the last. Within the past two days there have been increasing attacks on Federation ships. The only thing that stands in their way is Starbase Delphi and the support ships that are here. Our ships have been recalled from their current missions. We're going to find out what these people want and who exactly they are.” Marshall paused to let what he was saying sink in and then said, “The Galahad is being sent here,” he pointed to one of the attack positions, “She's going to be conducting scans of wreckage from the Dreadnought that attacked us. We will be going to these coordinates,” He pointed to another area of the map. “The Taurusot system. There is an M class planet and a Demon Class planet there. We are to conduct scans, and if attacked defend ourselves. We need information before anything else.”

Carter then spoke up, “What if the Kreltans decide to attack again while we're there?”

“Glad you asked Commander” Marshall said as he pointed to another area of the viewscreen, “Admiral Maverick and the Firestorm will be two systems away from us to do the same thing we're doing, if you find ourselves overmatched, we can call them in.”

Marshall let things sink in before he said, “I know I am asking a lot of you. Some of you I don't even know yet, but we need to work together. Does anyone have any questions or wish to add anything?”

“How soon is it likely that we will be getting information from the wreck of that Dreadnought, if at all? No other questions yet,” asked Lieutenant McTaggart.

“Well, they're en route so we might be getting something back fairly soon,” Marshall said, “That is barring any difficulties. Frankly, I can't give you an exact time.”

“If the chance comes around,” the doctor asked. “I would like to get a good look at the Kreltans DNA pattern. If they're similar to Dominion changelings, we may get a better picture of who we're dealing with.”

“I'll see if I can get you what Starfleet has. Otherwise, I’ll see if we can't obtain one ourselves Doctor,” said Marshall, “From what Admiral Maverick told me there was evidence of genetic engineering. They only know what they are given. Let's see if we can gain access to one.” Marshall then turned to Carter, “Do you have anything?”

It was at that moment that John Carter realized just how big a situation the Republic had found itself in, and the prospect of a second war with changelings…aggressive ones at that, didn't give John cause to look forward to the next few days. On top of that, he'd just heard that a man he'd come to rely on more times than he could count would be leaving before too long.

'A battered ship, a rag-tag crew, and an enemy that was almost completely unknown.' John thought to himself. 'Time to see who came to dance.' John cleared his throat and leaned forward slightly.

“Just a few points of general business, for you all before we get to the fun.” He said to the room. “Doctor Cromwell has posted a schedule for medical examinations for all crew by department. We clear moorings in 36 hours, and I'd like all Alpha and Beta shift personnel cleared by then.”

Consulting the PADD on the table, he continued. I've been told that astrometrics is having processor lags. “Mister Maddox, if you could set up a detail?”

Maddox noted the information in his PADD. He had a strange feeling that those conduits in astrometrics were going to give him problems. The processors installed in that section had yet to be updated so Maddox expected a lag or a breakdown until they were replaced. The chief listened intensely to the conversation in the briefing. Much of what was known about these Kreltans was limited. Mark remembered hearing about them at the academy but no one could answer questions about them.

Carter's head turned slightly to the left as he looked at the “heads” of the Tactical Department. “If you can find the time tomorrow, I'd like us to meet and go over the away team protocols, please.”

“And for those of you who are new onboard, remember I'll need your initial crew rotations.” John sat back, somewhat amused at just how much of a First Officer's job was made up of paper work. He hated paper work. “Oh…” he added, almost as an afterthought. “One more thing…”

The smirk returned.

“Senior Staff has a standing invite to poker in my quarters. 1900, Saturday. Interstellar wars and temporal incursion not withstanding.” John was pleased that his last announcement brought at least some nervous smiles into the briefing.

“That's it for me, for now.”

Tom spoke up, “Captain, all information that Starfleet Intelligence has on the Kreltans and their ships has been uploaded into our databanks. I also think that since we seem to be a part of a task force, that we should maintain a communications link with as many ships in the force that we can, that way we can coordinate our efforts more efficiently.”

He paused for a moment, “I also have an idea about capturing a Kreltan. According to information available, there should be at least one cruiser-class and one frigate-class. If we could upgrade the torpedoes to a higher explosive yield, I believe we could punch a hole through one ship's shields in one shot. During that, we could lock on and beam a Kreltan into a security brig so that the Doctor may study it…err…him…the changeling. May not be exactly Starfleet methods, but by the way our ships are being attacked, I'm sure we won't be too frowned upon. Besides it's obvious they've at least captured a few Starfleet officers, I wouldn't mind returning the favor by getting a guest of our own. All we need to do is to match the high explosive yield to their shield modulations, as long as our weapons don't initially break through their shields, science and I could use the lateral sensor array to scan the modulation frequency during phasor hits and fine tune the torpedo.” Tom finally took a bit of a breath after his long-winded explanation.

Tom then smiled and turned to the Commander, “How much latinum was you planning on loosing tonight, sir?” Tom chuckled a bit.

“Oh, it's not me you have to worry about Lieutenant.” Carter said with a quick smile. “It's the smart guys in Science blue you need to watch out for.”

“Very well, we leave dock within the hour. Dismissed.” Captain Marshall said to conclude the briefing.

Carter pushed away from the conference table, stood up, and looked at Leon Cromwell. “What do you say Doc?” he posed to the tall physician. “You think you can take Mister Sullivan's latinum too?”

Doctor Cromwell looked over Lieutenant Sullivan before replying to Carter. Nodding approvingly, Leon said “yeah, I think we can work something out. Although, I’d be careful. I heard that ops officers hide cards up their sleeves!”

The officers enjoyed a chuckle at Sullivan’s expense as everyone began filing out of the room.

John smiled as he set his mind to getting Republic fit for space once more, pleased that the command staff seemed to be gelling at last. It had always been John Carter's belief that humor was what made humans truly unique in the universe. They took to it easily, and used it in a variety of emotional situations. To ease the grief of a friend, mark an accomplishment with good-natured ribbing, or, as in this case, to break the ice. Carter was pleased that it seemed to be working. Working for everyone that is except for the new head of the Science Department. John gave her a brief glance and knew at once that she wanted no part of “human” interaction.

Carter gave the half-Cardassian scientist a polite nod, which she returned, but made a note to himself to make her a part of the team . . . whether she liked it or not.

“See you all next week for poker.” John said. “I'm headed to drydock control so we can cast off. Don't forget those physicals people.”

Leon remained in the lounge, summoning Carter as he began to exit.

“Commander, can you stay for a second?”

The last of the staff exited as the doors whispered shut. John turned around and faced Leon from across the table. “What’s on your mind, Doc?”

Leon looked annoyed as he responded. “So, that’s it? You’re just going to let him walk off the ship without even a fight with the captain?”

Rolling his eyes, John said “what am I supposed to do? Tell Marshall that Star Fleet can’t do this? That he has to stay because I said so?”

“Damn it, John!” hissed Doctor Cromwell. “Not only is he your friend, but he’s our chief science officer! He was the first one to analyze the Kreltans, and you’re going to let them take him away from us on our toughest mission yet! We need him!”

“WAS our chief science officer. Spare me, doctor,” retorted Carter. “We all have out assigned duties, and for your information, his reassignment was his idea.”

This took Leon by surprise. Although he didn’t know Vic as long as Carter, Doctor Cromwell couldn’t believe that Virtus would request a posting away from the ship so soon after being assigned to it. There had to be something else.

“What do you mean?” Leon asked in a softer tone, slightly embarrassed at putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

“It means that Vic got a better offer from Fleet,” John stated. “Yes, you’re correct that he was the first scientist to analyze the Kreltans. That’s why they wanted him back at HQ. They offered him a promotion and a seat on the new investigative committee for the Kreltan advance into Federation space.”

“I didn’t know . . .” stuttered Leon, unable to find the words of apology for Carter.

“Nor should you,” Carter said in a conciliatory tone. “Yes, it was an abrupt decision on his part. However, between you and me, I’d rather have a man with his brain back on Earth helping to call the shots out here on the front lines. It’s safer for him AND us.”

Just then, the comm system came to life.

=/\= “Virtus to Carter. I’ve been on the main gangway for 15.4 minutes. What are you arranging, a 21 gun salute?” =/\=

John smiled as he tapped his combadge. “On my way, Vic.” He looked back to Leon saying “C’mon. I've got to head to drydock control, so let’s go say goodbye to him together.”

“Not before a quick stop off at my quarters,” Leon said with determination. Following Carter out of the observation lounge, the doctor grouchily muttered “he can wait five more minutes if he’s going to make snap decisions like that!”

Chapter 5Top

<location: corridor, deck 36, USS Republic>

Making his way through the corridors of the vessel, Mark talked to engineering. “I knew we were going to have trouble out of those damn conduits in astrometrics. I need those replaced as soon as possible. Mister Jackson. The base should have the correct updates.”

“I'll get a team on it right away sir,” Jackson replied, “Should I locate any other out of date hardware and try to retrieve the updates?”

Maddox turned a corner quickly and bumped into a crewman. “Oh sorry. No, we don't have time to replace every out of date item on the ship at this point. I need those processors in astrometrics and that's it. I'll be in my office if you need me. Maddox out.”

Just as he finished his conversation, Maddox stepped inside of engineering and head for his office. As he passed the main display, he noticed the antimatter projection nozzles had become slightly out of alignment. He sighed and walked over to the panel. After twenty minutes of playing with the controls, the antimatter stream was realigned. The streams were very delicate and if they were out of tune for an extended period of time, the dilithium crystal could become multi-fractured causing a chain reaction with horrific consequences. Maddox grabbed a chair and decided to monitor the streams for a period of time.

<location: main gangway, Delphi Station>

The stop off at the doctor’s quarters was to secure a parting gift for the former chief science officer of the Republic. As Carter and Cromwell walked down the gangway towards the station airlock, the huge words “DELPHI STATION - BERTH 12” splayed across the lighted hallway. Personnel and crew were going to and from the Republic in final preparations for debarkation. However, one Lieutenant Commander in science blues stood at the station side of the corridor admiring the view from the portholes.

“Didn't think we'd make it, did you Lieutenant Commander?” shouted Carter. As he and Doctor Cromwell strolled up, Virtus turned around to greet the two individuals. The doctor carried with him a green glass bottle, containing yet another specimen from his rare collection of fine drinks.

Victor Virtus regarded the bottle in the Doctor's hand with suspicion. “Actually, John,” Virtus commented, “I expected you 47 seconds ago. However, with the Doctor involved, that explains the lag.” Victor's manner was easy and efficient, but he was clearly pleased with himself.

Leon Cromwell simply shook his head. “How do you do that?” he questioned. “Why do you do that? What's your obsession with time, Doctor Virtus?”

John Carter looked around the trio's immediate surroundings. The traffic at the berth remained light, and the various denizens of Delphi Station appeared to have better things to do than pay attention to three ‘outsiders’. “You two sort this out.” Carter said simply. “I'll be back in a second.” With that the Martian officer printed down the corridor in the direction of a wall panel.

“Transwarp.” Victor said. “The Holy Grail of Starfleet Engineering.”

Cromwell was visibly shocked. “But, transwarp doesn't work,” he said. “Hasn't been tried in nearly 100 years.”

Virtus stepped closer to the Doctor, fingers of his right hand absently grooming the sides of his barely regulation 'fu manchu' moustache while he took the green glass bottle from Leon with his other hand. “It does work Doctor. Or at the very least, there's no reason why it shouldn't.” Virtus regarded the bottle.

“2266. That's an important year. John would approve.”

Leon was having trouble with the casual way his former crewmate had just dropped a major scientific revelation, while simultaneously discussing the vintage of Aldeberon Brandy. “He's not coming back is he?” Cromwell looked around. Still no sign of John Carter. “And don't change the damned subject!”

“John hates good-byes Doctor. That may be the one thing in the galaxy that he isn't any good at. Besides, we've already managed to be on the same ship three times. He'll turn up. He always does.”

There was a kind of resolve in Virtus' words that Leon Cromwell suddenly found comforting, almost as if Victor somehow knew that what he was saying was irrefutable. “But what about this transwarp business?”

“It works Doctor.” Virtus said again in a quiet tone. “But it cost me two weeks of my life, and I don't know where they are.”

“What? That's…”

“Impossible? No more so than forcing a quantum singularity to implode.”


“Ask your XO about it sometime.”

“Right, but speaking of time…”

Victor stepped back as the comm in the corridor chirped to life.

=/\= “U.S.S. Berkshire, en route to Jupiter Station, is ready for departure at berth 14. Last call for crew and passengers to report. Berkshire will clear moorings in 22 minutes. Mark.” =/\=

“Thanks for the brandy Doctor,” Virtus said as he stepped toward the airlock doors. “Don't take too much of John's latinum. He's got a rep to protect.”

The tall scientist stepped across the threshold, onto the gangway the led to the U.S.S. Berkshire. Two steps down the gangway, Virtus spun on a heel and shouted back to Cromwell. “One more thing…”


“Tell Carter he looks better in red. Thank you Doctor.”

Despite his frustration at having his questions dodged, Leon Cromwell smiled. “Will do Doctor. God speed.”

Victor Virtus nodded, and turned again to continue his way down the gangway as the airlock shut behind him leaving Cromwell alone in the corridor.

“Why is it these people can't answer a simple question?”

Cromwell's comm badge chimed.

=/\= “Y'lair to Doctor Cromwell. Sickbay is ready for your inspection Doctor, and your first physical is waiting in exam two.” =/\=

“That's more like it.” Cromwell said, now satisfied that he'd made a point with SOMEONE. “I'm on the way. Cromwell out.”

<location: corridor, level 5489-7G, Starbase Delphi>

John Carter shook his head as he strode through the corridors of Delphi Station on his way to Docking Control. He was a little disappointed in himself for not having seen Vic off, but that was the way they'd always done things. Why change now?

“Commander Carter?”

The voice brought John's attention back to the present. John spun to his left and looked in the direction of the voice he'd heard. It belonged to Tom Sullivan, Republic's Chief of Ops. He was jogging slightly to catch up.

“Glad I caught you, Sir.” Sullivan was carrying a PADD in his hand. He looked at it to check a few minor details, then continued. “Delphi's Quarter Master says they're holding 20 quantum torps for us.”

“Twenty? Our full load out is sixty. Where are the rest?” John crossed his arms in front of his chest, and couldn't help the sour expression creeping across his face. 'It's always something', he thought.

“The rest are onboard, but Delphi won't release the final 20 unless we send someone to personally oversee the loading.”

“So, talk to Lieutenant McTaggart. He's the Tac Chief.”

“That's just it sir, he's not. At least, not anymore. He declined the position, preferring to remain as assistant tactical chief.”

“What? Griffe! Why doesn't anyone want that sprocking job anyway? They never have these problems on the Intrepid!”

“No sir, I suppose they don't.” Tom Sullivan was thankful that years of poker had made I possible to keep a straight face in front of a clearly displeased First Officer, but Tom also noted that there was a certain irony to the situation. Carter had been promoted out of the Chief Tac position to acting XO because of a medical emergency, and his shift to XO had only recently become permanent. That had the effect of kicking everyone in the department up a notch, and was not always an easy process, despite what Starfleet PERSCOM might tell you.

“Captain's got the details of McTaggart’s situation,” Sullivan continued, “But what should we do in the meantime?”

Carter tapped his comm badge. “Carter to Ensign Readdy.”

=/\= “Readdy here, Commander.” =/\=

“Ensign, I need you down in torpedo control to make sure our final 20 birds get tucked in. Can you handle that?”

=/\= “On my way, sir. Readdy out.” =/\=

John tilted his head and looked at Tom Sullivan. “There you go. Problem solved…I hope. Now, if you'll excuse me Tom…” John took a few quick steps toward Docking Control. “I still have to see if anyone on the bureaucratic heap of slag will actually LET us leave!”

<location: corridor, deck 12, USS Republic>

Leon took long strides through the Republic’s corridors on his way to sickbay. The ship was due to leave port within the hour, and due to repair schedules and crew rotations, the shipwide personnel physicals were going slower than anticipated. Contact with a new species of shape-shifters made these exams even more imperative, as a sub-cellular scan and hemolytic analysis would give baseline data for comparison should any of the crew be “replaced” with a Kreltan spy. It was Doctor Cromwell’s intention to have the physicals completed before the next Kreltan encounter.

As he turned through the doors of the new sickbay complex, Leon was greeted with an explosion of cheers. The entire alpha-shift medical staff was gathered in the main ward, applauding at the doctor’s entrance. Stunned and confused, Leon was escorted by the red-haired Lieutenant Harris into the center of the crowd.

“Let’s hear it for the newest recipient of the Leonard McCoy Distinguished Medical Service Award!” Harris shouted.

Leon blushed with a deep red and put his hand to his forehead. He grinned from ear to ear, and chuckled at the poorly sung rendition of For-He’s-A-Jolly-Good-Fellow. Doctor Yezbeck displayed a mischievous expression on his bearded face as he walked over to an adjoining wall. There, a plaque was affixed to the bulkhead and covered in a red cloth. As Yezbeck pulled off the cover, a bronze-relief picture of Leon Cromwell in his early Starfleet career was displayed over a description of the highly regarded medical award. Doctor Cromwell stared at the picture in disbelief as he suddenly recognized his basic enlistment training graduation photograph from seventeen years ago. As a new recruit, he was no more than eighteen years old back then. The toothy grin was accompanied by a naïve expression, and completed by a hairdo replete with cowlicks and extended sideburns.

“Where in the universe did you get this picture?” exclaimed Leon in shock, and unable to remove his terrified eyes from the plaque.

“Oh, Lieutenant Commander Carter made sure we were supplied with the correct picture,” laughed Harris. “I think it suits the sickbay quite nicely, don’t you all?” The surrounding staff all nodded their heads, and replied with amused indications of agreement with the lieutenant.

“Take it down immediately!” shouted Leon in embarrassment. “That’s an order!”

“Oh, we couldn’t do THAT!” said Harris cunningly. “The executive officer made it a standing order that this plaque be displayed proudly at the entrance to sickbay. We all want everyone who comes through these doors to know who their chief physician is!”

As everyone clapped and laughed at their chief medical officer, Leon turned to look at Harris through squinted eyes of scheming vengeance.

“I’ll get you for this,” the doctor remarked quietly to her.

Harris continued to smirk as Leon turned to the crowd with a smile and said, “all right, you all had your fun! Now do I have to report you for dereliction of duty?”

With an occasional pat on the back, the crowd took turns to shake hands with Leon before returning to work. As the sickbay returned to a semblance of order, Doctor Cromwell took one last look at the plaque and shook his head in disbelief. Walking towards Harris, the only thing he could remark was “you’re going to be the death of me.”

“Glad to hear I’m making an impression on someone around here,” she retorted, and gained a raised eyebrow from her CMO. Picking up a PADD she showed it to Leon and reported, “I have the pre-launch duty roster ready. There’s been several crew changes over the past few days.”

“Any in sickbay?” asked Leon.

“Only six,” replied Harris. “Four nurses and two doctors.”

“Which doctors?”

“Tyler and Jensen.”

“Jensen?” Leon remarked with concern. “Whose going to culture our tissue samples?”

“What? You don’t trust me?” asked Harris with sarcasm.

“Come on!” replied Leon with annoyance.

“Fine,” she rebutted, pointing across the room. “If you want the new hot-shot from Starfleet medical, then you can have her. Frankly, I’m hurt.”

Cromwell gave the sarcastic Harris no response, but instead, followed her gaze across the room where an Andorian female lieutenant stood in medical blues. She was in discussion with two ensign nurses next to a diagnostic console.

“Who cut her orders?” Leon finally inquired.

“I’m not sure,” said Harris as she flipped through pages on her PADD. “Looks like her orders came from fairly high up in Starfleet Command headquarters.”

Quizzically, the doctor turned to look at her. “Sort of like my orders?”

Harris nodded in agreement at Leon’s observation. “Yes, exactly like yours.”

Ever since Leon was assigned to the Republic over a week ago, he never received word of why his civilian commission was reactivated three and a half years after his resignation. The order came from the highest level in Starfleet, and despite his best efforts, Leon did not have the omega-level security clearance required to gain knowledge of why he was recalled. Although the mystery laid quietly in his mind, the news of other crew assigned to the Republic on high-level orders only served to kindle his curiosity and concern.

“What about Tyler?” Leon finally said, moving on to other business. “He was a great neurosurgeon. I trust we have an equal or better replacement?”

“Lieutenant Ryda,” replied Harris. “He’s Deltan, and I’ve assigned him to gamma shift.”

“Deltan?” Leon asked. “I assume he’s on a regimen of pheromone repressors?”

Nodding again in agreement, she replied “yes, and he has an oath of celibacy in his file.”

“Oaths are all fine and dandy,” remarked the doctor as he accepted a PADD from a passing nurse. “However, pheromone repressors are the only things I want to hear about when a Deltan is aboard. The last thing this ship needs is every human on the ship tripping over his or her tongues. It wasn’t too long ago when that sort of thing was a problem, you know.”

“Yes,” said Harris in agreement. “We all know the story from fleet medical. Deltan biochemistry was so complex that is took half a century before a way was found to keep their pheromones from affecting human crew aboard Starfleet vessels.”

As Leon flipped through his PADD, the Vulcan doctor, Lieutenant Y’lair, walked up to him and Lieutenant Harris. Offering no hint of urgency nor concern, Y’lair remarked, “Doctor Cromwell, your physical exam appointment has been waiting in exam room two for precisely 7.82 minutes. I assume you won’t be keeping her from her duties too much longer?”

Leon took his eyes away from the PADD to look up at Y’lair and ask, “Who is it?”

“Lieutenant Xayide, the new chief science officer.”

Feeling his stomach tighten, Doctor Cromwell was unsure of how to approach the frosty Cardassian newcomer. As he looked apprehensively at the exam room door, Y’lair walked away as Harris patted Leon on the back.

“Good luck,” she said before returning to her own duties.

As Leon walked into the exam room with his PADD and a tricorder in hand, the door shut behind him offering little relief from the stale air in the small compartment. Lieutenant Xayide sat up straight on the diagnostic bed, and turned to give the doctor a stare of granite-like quality. Attempting to start the exam on a positive note, Leon offered a friendly yet neutral greeting.

“Well, Lieutenant. How are you doing today?”

She spoke to none since her arrival. Finding such a mere waste of time, there were far better things to do. The slightly ridge nose, would fight not to wrinkle in stoic annoyance of having to wait around for such a trifle as an “exam”. She was in prime health after all, the only oddity was the implant that sent endorphins surging through her system when faced with pain.

Somber did the stormy hues follow the Doctor. Repressing the urge to scowl openly. She always sat upright, she always acted with precise militant precision. The cold reptilian stare would linger, and for a good while she'd not even deign to speak.

When she did it was cold and even, melodious and sweet. If she'd ever think to be more jovial, she may just be appealing to hear and look at. A brow ridge would rise, as the elegantly plaited crown would dip in a passing semblance of a “friendly” gesture.

“Splendid, there is nothing I enjoy more than a physical. Proceed, Doctor.” Sarcasm dripped sourly from her words. And they almost sounded like a command. All in all it seemed like this whole physical thing was of great annoyance to her.

Leon stood motionless for a moment, absorbing the cool impact of the lieutenant’s words. Although he expected such a response, he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in frustration. Lowering his gaze towards the floor to take in a breath before continuing with the procedure, he looked up with renewed resolve.

“Well then, let’s get started,” he replied, hoping that the Cardassian science officer was in good physical condition as to expedite the exam. “Computer, begin recording data stream from exam room two, and enter it into the medical file of Lieutenant Raksha Xayide. Authorization: Cromwell-Two-Alpha.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Computer transfer link established.” =/\=

The doctor asked Xayide to lie down on the table, and for the first few minutes, the only sound in the room was the overhead diagnostic array slowly creeping a parallel path as it scanned the lieutenant.

“All metabolic functions appear normal,” said the doctor as he took readings from a large, wall mounted computer interface. “No systemic abnormalities in any of your organelle structures. Circulatory and nervous systems are operating within species norms. Skeletal structure and connective tissue are in good health, and your nucleic code and brainwave pattern correspond to Star Fleet medical file. ”

Doctor Cromwell produced a small sampling syringe, and began programming it for a hemolymph sample. “Sit still for just a moment,” asked the doctor as he pushed the device into her shoulder. Within a split-second, a small amount of Xayide ‘s blood was sealed within the stasis container of the small gadget.

“Thank you, that completes the sedentary portion of the exam. Now, if you’ll please step onto the anti-grav plate, we’ll test your metabolic rates.”

The doctor was holding his arm out, inviting the lieutenant onto the meter-wide circular floor base next to the exam table. As she dutifully marched over to the apparatus, it hummed to life. Xayide found herself in a zero-G environment, and constrained slightly by a half-wall of glowing energy.

“If you will, please begin to jog in place, and I’ll record your responses.”

Lieutenant Xayide started with a quick running motion before heavy breathing set in. As her pace slowed somewhat, the vascular ridgelines across her shoulders and neck began to rise in response to increased body heat. Although reptilian in evolutionary lineage, Cardassians are a warm-blooded species. However, other vestigial structures from their saurian ancestry still persisted, and actually gave them an efficient heat-radiating mechanism when overstressed. Thus, the increased surface area of Raksha’s shoulder skin allowed for a greater heat-exchange with the outside environment.

“Steady now, hold it at that pace. You’re getting your second-wind,” said the doctor. “Good. Very good. You’re heart is approaching your training threshold.”

Raksha grunted at the doctor’s edging, from both frustration and physical exhaustion. “Are you finished running me through your maze, doctor?” she finally said with spite and irritation.

Leon didn’t even blink, as he was too engrossed in the readings his console was receiving. “One more minute, lieutenant,” he responded finally. As the sixty-second interval stretched on forever in Raksha’s mind, the doctor finally gave the motion to stop.

“Computer, end recording, and update file. Authorization: Cromwell-delta-one-nine.”

=/\= “Acknowledged.” =/\=

Leon turned to the new science chief and reported his findings. “Excellent, lieutenant. I’m happy to say you’re in excellent health.”

=/\= “Bridge to Lieutenant Xayide. We are five minutes to departure. Please report to your station.” =/\=

As Raksha’s cold stare turned to Leon, she asked, “am I free to go, doctor?”

“Yes,” Leon responded. As she turned towards the door, the doctor felt it appropriate to render a friendly gesture to the new officer, if not for simple courtesy, then at least in consolation for the enduring trials of a physical exam.

“And lieutenant, “ Leon offered. “Welcome aboard the Republic. I look forward to working with you.”

For a brief instant. Precisely 4.5 seconds. The Half-Cardassian, would pause for thought. Perhaps a flicker of emotion would touch in the stormy eyes. Before that stoic, veil of indifference would return. The grey tainted lips would purse.

Cold the stare leveled upon the doctor once more, before she would give him a rare favor. The merest - near genial inclines of head. The intricate plaits held well away from her ridged and scaled flesh. The lightly ridged nose, the only clear indication of her Bajorean side - for once not wrinkled in disgust and scorn.

For the mere flicker of an eye, the hard exterior of the Obsidian Order conditioned soldier waned away. And she almost appeared . . . human. But gone it was, as she would right herself. Dutifully moving to the sickbay door. Her tone almost softened.

“Thank you Doctor. . .” For a moment she seemed unnerved by the slight quiver of geniality that caught in her tone. “I . . . look forward to working with you as well.”

A shudder of annoyance, as she would frown inwardly at herself. Spouting such nonsense was impractical. However . . . the soft words had slipped past her lips, anyway. With a sharp Cardassian curse against her considerably weaker half. She would pace towards the bridge. Events to ponder . . .

Chapter 6Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

While Carter was busy securing the Quantum Torpedoes, Captain James Marshall was preparing the Republic for launch.

“Lieutenant Sullivan, set up open comm frequencies with all of the ships in our taskforce. We'll need it in case we have to call the Firestorm in,” said Marshall.

“Aye Captain, I'll take care of it” said Sullivan.

He then moved over to the helm. He wanted to talk to his friend, “Jack, how's the helm feel?”

“Well sir,” said Jack, “ask me that when I get us out of dock. I find the Galaxy-class to be a challenge.”

“Have you ever piloted a Galaxy-class starship before?” asked Sullivan.

“No,” replied Snyder, “But I am fully rated on the design. The Republic should be a joy to fly.”

Marshall then directed his attention towards the Science station as Carter had returned. “Lieutenant Xayide, have we received anything from the Galahad on that Kreltan ship we destroyed?”

“According to what we have so far Captain, they had a standard warp core. They could only find out that their weapons were of a high yield,” replied the Science Officer.

“I could have told you that,” said Carter.

“Now Commander,” said Marshall, “They're the ones that have to tell the brass that.”

“Mister Maddox,” the captain pressed the intercom button. “Did you find the engine room?”

=/\= “Yes Captain, and she's in top form. I'm going to take just as good of care of her as Sawyer did. We'll show the Kreltans up.” =/\=

“Indeed we will. Prepare for departure. Bridge out.”

The captain turned to scan the expanse of the bridge.

“Let's get underway. Carter, sound yellow alert,” said Marshall.

“Aye sir,” said Carter as he pushed the button, “we're at yellow alert.”

Marshall took the command chair. “All hands prepare for departure. Commander Carter, hail the dock master.”

“Channel open,” he said.

“Control this is Republic, requesting permission to leave dock?”

=/\= “Permission granted Republic and bon voyage.” =/\=

“Republic confirms with thanks.”

The channel closed when Marshall said, “Lieutenant Sullivan disengage main umbilical.”

“Main umbilical disengaged Captain. The comm situation is all setup,” he replied.

“Very good. Lieutenant Snyder, take us out. One-quarter impulse.”

The Republic slowly began to leave Starbase Delphi. While they were leaving Marshall was feeding the appropriate co-ordinates into the helm. The ship had cleared the doors and began to move away from the starbase.

“Lieutenant Snyder, lay in a course to the co-ordinates I gave you. Let's shoot for Warp 8, we need that information ASAP,” said Marshall.

“Course laid in Captain. Estimated time of arrival 7.2 hours.”

“Engage,” said Marshall as the Republic went into warp.

“Carter you have the bridge. I have an appointment with the good doctor for a physical,” said Marshall.

“Aye, Sir.” Carter said calmly as Marshall got up. Carter was standing over the Tactical position on Republic's bridge, watching a replay of their first encounter with the Kreltans. 'You better think fast Mister Carter', he chided himself, 'Not even YOU could get that lucky twice.'

John felt his face twist as he continued to watch a chorus of intersecting vectors and velocities. Watching the graphic representation of a battle John himself had lived through suddenly made all of the lectures he'd given during his Advanced Combat Tactics class seem a little further away. As he'd been lecturing, John had a tendency to treat the scenarios as an academic exercise . . . which is of course what they were. But now…Now they suddenly seemed more real.

In the first engagement with the Kreltans, Republic had only lost a handful of crew. In his head, Carter knew that if he hadn't made the decisions he had, the situation would have been much worse, but he found himself thinking of all the crewmen, Ensigns, and Lieutenants who wouldn't be coming home…'Am losing it?' he wondered to himself.

To John's left, the bridge turbolift opened and a tall, lean Andorian male wearing Operations gold stopped in Front of him. “Lieutenant Regesh, reporting as ordered, Sir.”

Carter made a casual wave as he straightened up. “Thanks for coming so quickly, Regesh.” The Andorian simply nodded. Carter, meanwhile rubbed the back of his neck as he continued. “For reasons I'm still not clear on, Lieutenant McTaggart has declined the tactical chief position.”

“Unfortunate, sir.” There was just a hint of sarcasm in the blue-skinned alien's voice. Although he was the senior tactical officer after Carter was transferred to executive officer, Captain Marshall felt it necessary to move Sean McTaggart into the chief tactical officer’s position instead of Regesh. Although the Andorian did not dispute the decision, he was a bit insulted. He knew it wasn’t McTaggart’s fault, and the fact that Sean gave up the position showed he held respect for Regesh’s seniority and thought of him as a fellow colleague.

Carter felt himself chuckle, just a bit. “Anyway,” he continued, “I need a cool head at Tactical, and I know how steady you are under fire, so I want you as Tactical Chief. You already know most of the department, and…” He paused more for effect than anything else. “God help you, you know how I think.” Carter extended his hand. “I'm sure you'll do your Line proud.”

Regesh smiled, clearly pleased with his newfound position. “Thank you, Sir.” he said calmly. “I'll have a revised schedule ready for you by the end of the shift.”

“Excellent. On your way, Mister Regesh. I think we're all right for the moment.”

Regesh turned on a heel and walked back into the turbo lift, as John Carter settled into the center seat. 'Not a bad fit', he thought to himself.

<location: exam room two, main sickbay, USS Republic>

Lying on the exam table, Captain Marshall stared blankly at the diagnostic probe making its slow, overhead scan. Its tethered optical cables were routed through the ceiling to a large, wall-mounted computer interface where a life-size representation of the skipper was animated by superimposed, real-time images of his various internal body structures. Leon Cromwell stood in supervision of the automated physical exam, scrutinizing the minute bio-readouts from the sensory apparatus. Although the autonomous hum of the machinery resonated within the small chamber, the captain and doctor passed the time with focused conversation.

“I’m serious, Leon,” said the captain with sincerity. “You really should consider it. You’d make a great Star Fleet officer.”

Doctor Cromwell was comparing the computer information on the wall monitor to a handheld PADD readout of the captain’s medical files. “Look, Jim,” the doctor replied. “I just don’t think I’m Star Fleet material anymore.” He pressed a few buttons on the PADD and walked two meters to the other side of the wall display. “It may have been long time since I wore the uniform, but I definitely remember the kind of frightening military bureaucracy that one has to go through to get things accomplished in Star Fleet. It can be fatal, especially in the medical business. Even my civilian status in the Dominion Wars didn’t shield me from that.”

The captain looked towards the doctor from the table with a slightly supercilious expression. “I don’t think I have to remind you that Star Fleet is a mainly civilian organization. We only use a military structure for discipline and utilitarian purposes.”

As the computer signaled its completion of the scan, Jim swiveled on the exam table, and sat upright with his legs hanging down. He addressed the doctor with restrained enthusiasm.

“C’mon, Leon,” he urged on. “It wouldn’t require you to leave the ship. You have all the educational requirements, so you can take the remaining required Star Fleet courses and exams here on the holodeck. Starfleet Command can monitor your progress by subspace.”

The doctor placed the PADD on an adjoining counter and picked up a sampling syringe. He gave the commanding officer a weary look, as if he’s heard this conversation a dozen times in the past.

“Are you ordering me to take the courses?” he asked as he brought the sampler over to the captain’s shoulder and pushed the needle through the skin. A red vial of blood appeared in the chamber following a brief hissing noise.

“I’m asking you to look at your career, Leon,” said the captain, rubbing his shoulder.

Spinning around with a determined look on his face, Leon rebutted “I had a career, Jim. And up until a week ago, I was set on living my life as a research scientist. Then, out of nowhere, some top-secret high-brass committee drafted me back into my civilian contract with Star Fleet, setting me backwards to a time in my life I’d rather forget.”

He plugged the sample into an analyzer on the counter, and after a momentary hum, the computer registered a soft chirp.

“I’m pleased to inform you that you’re not a Dominion changeling,” Leon announced with sarcasm after considering the hemolytic readout. “On the treadmill, if you please.”

“Think about it, Leon,” the captain finally said as we walked over to the floor-mounted grav plate. “That’s all I’m asking.”

The two were silent as Marshall began an easy jog on the mill. After about a minute, the captain began huffing in exertion as Leon quietly analyzed the readouts. The tension in the exam room was high in regards to the last conversation, so Jim felt it necessary to change it.

“So, what do you think of our new officers?”

Leon responded without taking his eyes off the wall console. “I’ve only had a chance to meet Lieutenant Xayide, the new science chief. She’s the quiet, loner type. A stark contrast from Virtus.”

“Yeah, we didn’t get much of a chance to get to know him,” replied the captain. “Blame the Kreltans. Headquarters wanted Virtus as their eyewitness scientist.”

“Yes, Carter and I already talked about it.”

“Did you?” said Marshall between puffs. “I’ll bet he was upset.”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Leon remarked. “Thirty seconds left. Please run as fast as you can.”

With a groan of pain, the captain sweated his way through the half-minute sprint, soaking his black undershirt. Leon finally gave the signal to stop, and Jim gladly obliged. “You’re in good shape,” he said.

“Thanks,” Jim hacked while leaning on his knees. As he grabbed his uniform shirt from a nearby chair, he asked, “got a towel around here?”

“This way, ” said the doctor as he led the path through the door and into the main sickbay ward. The captain followed, and as Leon tossed him a silver length of cloth from a surgical locker, Jim noticed the bronze plaque on the wall.

With a smile and a chuckle, he tapped the honorary tablet with his knuckle. As if suggesting a positive note to the prior conversation in the exam room, the captain remarked “you look good in a uniform.” As Leon raised a wary eyebrow, Jim patted him on the shoulder with a smile before exiting the sickbay.

Watching what happened, Lieutenant Harris walked over to Leon, offering him a PADD. “What was that about?” she remarked, taking note of the uniform comment.

“Never mind,” replied the doctor as he accepted the device and scrolled through its contents. “Let’s see who’s next on the list. Ah, here we go. A new security officer, Ensign Reddy.”

Harris quickly searched the room and found another PADD on a desk by the nurses’ station. She brought it over to Leon and offered it to him in exchange for the one in his hand. “Sorry about that,” she submitted. “I had a chance to perform her physical yesterday.”

“How’d it go?” asked the doctor.

“Well, she’s a unique individual,” offered Harris. “She was wearing an experimental exoskeleton from Star Fleet security.”

Leon stopped. “A what?”

“An exoskeleton,” she explained. “It was a sort of tritainium-alloyed exterior body frame, with a lot of high-pressure pneumatics. I asked her to remove it before the examination, and was rather ambiguous about it. Apparently, Star Fleet has a few personnel scattered throughout the fleet who wear these things for some sort of generalized field-testing.”

“Does the captain know about it?”

“Well, Fleet security has to ask the captain if they’re going to have a test suit aboard. So, I guess he does. Anyway, I eventually coaxed her out of it to perform the physical, but she seemed worried about skewing the test data, or something to that effect.”

Leon shook his head. “Engineers,” he muttered. “They’re always up to something.” Looking back towards Harris, he asked, “who’s my next physical?”

“Lieutenant Commander Maddox, chief engineer.”

Leon could only close his eyes and shake his head at the coincidence, as Harris smiled and tapped her combadge.

“Sickbay to Maddox. Please report for your physical exam.”

Chapter 7Top

<location: main engineering, USS Republic>

Maddox sighed briefly. “Aye, I'm on my way.” His expression projected his feelings firmly on the subject of physicals. Maddox placed his work on his desk and stepped into main engineering. As he headed for the exit, Ensign Jackson matched his stride and handed him a PADD.

“I've got those components installed as you requested,” Jackson said firmly, “Astrometrics reported they are operating at 97.79 percent. I have to admit that is better than I expected.”

Maddox glanced at the young officer and smiled. It had been almost three years since the two had met on Starbase 323 for the Annual Cochrane Science and Mechanics Seminar. Maddox remembered the officer's face and how it seemed as though Jackson was only a kid. Of course the two talked and debated on the theory of warp pulse technology and disagreed on the relevance of the Dyson sphere so they instantly become friends. If it was one thing that engineers had in common, it was the nature of being very stubborn and hardheaded. When an engineer decides that his point is more logical than his opponents, the battle begins.

Maddox glanced over the data on the view screen of the PADD and nodded in a pleasing manner. “I'm impressed, Mr. Jackson. Of course, I had no worries.”

Jackson nodded. “So where to in such a hurry?”

“Well,” Mark began rolling his eyes, “They seem to have picked my number from the hat in sickbay. I really don't care for physicals but what can you do?” Since the loss of his arm, Mark felt it painful to visit with any type of doctor. The constant reminder of the incident was always attached to his body so he didn't need some needle poker to tell him that his prosthetic was 'functioning within normal parameters. The chief returned the PADD to Jackson. “You can file that on my desk so I can take a more in depth look at the numbers. I want to make sure that we don't have any other problems.”

Jackson nodded. “Of course sir. I made sure to run a level three diagnostic on the rest of the systems after the install and everything came back fine.” The ensign stopped as they rounded a corner. “Well sir, I think this is where I get off. I'll see you in engineering.”

Maddox gave a smile as the young man walked hurriedly down the corridor, leaving the chief to stand outside of the entrance of sickbay. He shrugged and stepped toward the door making them slowly open. As he stepped in, he noticed a group of nurses busy at work. Mark grabbed the attention of one of the nurses. “Lieutenant Commander Maddox reporting for my physical.”

The nurse gave the chief a nod and motioned him toward a bio bed.

“Please have a seat on the bed and I'll get Doctor Cromwell.”

As Mark sat down, he slowly scanned the expanse of sickbay’s main ward. He was familiar with the standard layout of Galaxy Class starships, as he made it a firm personal commitment to study every inch of a vessel to which he was assigned. However, the sickbay did not correspond to what he knew of the deck plans on this level. Although there seemed to be minor cosmetic and equipment changes, the most obvious change was the number of patient repositories. There were about twice as many biobeds than what he could recall from the plans, and the wall above each bed boasted two panels of which he was unfamiliar with. They were rectangular in shape, about thirty centimeters tall, a meter wide, and affixed at intervals of a little over half a meter in elevation. Every bed in the ward had them, and the chief engineer was puzzled as to what their purpose was.

Nurses and medical technicians were bustling about, performing physicals on other biodbeds with lower ranking crew personnel and civilian family members. The chief stared quizzically at the equipment arrangement surrounding him for no more than three minutes before a small side door opened, and two individuals walked out. One was Doctor Cromwell, the civilian chief medical officer he met at the staff meeting this morning, and the other was a balding and black-bearded lieutenant clad in Star Fleet medical blues. The two were holding PADDs and talking among themselves as they approached Mark.

Doctor Cromwell extended his hand to receive the engineers’ in a hearty handshake.

“Commander Maddox,” he greeted. “Glad you could make it down here. We’ve been very busy performing the crew physicals the past few days, but we wanted to make sure that you got yours done as soon as possible so you can get back to work.”

Turning to his companion, Leon introduced the individual. “This is Doctor Yezbeck. He’s our resident trauma surgeon and bionicist. I took a look at your medical file, and before I take you to the exam room for your standard physical, I wanted to make sure Doctor Yezbeck had a chance to look over your prosthetic arm.”

Although the lieutenant commander seemed ill at ease to the scrutinizing of his bionic replacement, the smiling lieutenant pulled out a medical tricorder and began to scan Mark’s arm. As he scanned the diagnostic wand around his appendage, he remarked, “ah, yes. A PlasmaTech BH-5 prosthetic. I installed several of these during the Dominion Wars. They’re very reliable.” Pressing a few buttons on the scanning device, Yezbeck nodded his head with a positive result. “Everything checks out. All your nerve strands have remained fully integrated with the acetylcholine interface nodes, and the tissue threshold mesh is well vascularized. I’ll add this updated scan to your medical file.”

Leon had a slight smirk on his face as he watched Doctor Yezbeck make his diagnosis. “A doctor and an engineer,” Cromwell finally remarked. “Interested in trading those dynamos in for some organic replacements?” he asked Mark.

The chief engineer looked both stunned and annoyed at Doctor Cromwell for the extra attention to his artificial arm. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t listen to him,” retorted Yezbeck with a smile. “Bionic replacements are a superior form of prosthetics to ordinary living tissue. If you listen to this quack, he’ll fill your ears with talk of genetic tissue replacement.”

“It’s my job,” interrupted Leon with amusement, “to ensure all personnel under my care receive every possible treatment option to their various medical conditions.”

“And if you listen to him,” returned Yezbeck as he packed away his tricorder. “I’ll be out of a job.” He began walking away, but added, “trust me, commander. Keep what you have. You’ll be better off.”

Leon looked down to the floor shaking his head. “I have a great staff here, but sometimes they let their opinions known a little too often. Come on. Follow me and I’ll explain.”

As the two walked towards the exam room, Doctor Cromwell explained to the engineer his view of prosthetic replacements. “I wouldn’t trade Doctor Yezbeck for anyone. However, when it comes to replacing body tissue, we tend to deviate on our opinions. Yezbeck is a firm believer in artificial prosthetics, and feels that patients are better off with the efficiency, longevity, and ease of repair that modern prosthetics offer. I don’t argue with him on those points, since he comes from a field where you’re dealing with mass casualties and need quick replacements for severed limbs or crippled organ systems.”

Mark and Leon entered into the small exam room. Motioning him over to the bed, Doctor Cromwell said, “please remove your uniform over shirt, and lie down here on the exam table.”

As Maddox complied, the doctor continued his point. “Yezbeck, is a pragmatist for the here and now. He wants to put his patients back together as quickly as possible, and send them on their way. It’s an important view for a trauma surgeon, but in my opinion, it doesn’t serve the long-term interests of the patient. My personal view on prosthetics is to repair and re-grow as much of the body tissue as possible before considering artificial replacements.

Mark lay down on the table, and Doctor Cromwell walked over to the large, wall-mounted computer display, and activated the scanning interface. “Computer, begin recording data stream from exam room two, and enter it into the medical file of Lieutenant Commander Mark Maddox. Authorization: Cromwell-Two-Alpha.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Computer transfer link established.” =/\=

The large, overhead sensor began a slow, parallel scan of Lieutenant Commander Maddox as the internal display of his body appeared in full-size detail on Leon’s monitor. The artificial limb in question showed up as a gray, metallic mesh in stark contrast to the bright, colorful organic structures.

“Look doc, I’ve already heard this tale,” Maddox finally said with annoyance. “The doctors who attached this limb said it was too complex of a structure to attempt a growth complex. As far as I’m concerned, I’m stuck with it, and need to learn to live with it.”

Leon took note of the engineer’s negative apathy on the subject, but still persisted. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said with a conciliatory voice. “Prosthetics definitely have their place. Yes, some organs are so complicated that we’re unable to differentiate all the necessary stem cells for every single structure and apply the standard hormonal growth complex. Organs such as eyes and cardio-pulmonary structures are next to impossible to duplicate organically. However, I’ve had success in the past with regeneration of limb structures. Now, I don’t want to give you false hope. It would take several months of sickbay visits to collect enough adult stem cell tissue from your body to attempt a growth complex for the different limb structures. But I’d like you to think about it. Organic replacement therapy is a growing field, and you’re a prime candidate for it.”

Mark stared at the overhead scanner in thought. If there is some truth to what the doctor was saying, then it may be possible to have a new organic limb to replace the current prosthetic. ‘Would it be worth it?’ he thought. ‘I’ve spent a long time getting used to my bionic arm, and if this replacement therapy fails, I’d probably be devastated.’

Although he did not understand everything the doctor was saying, Mark could relate to his approach. Leon definitely had a strong grasp of his particular field, and like an engineer, wanted to extend the possible benefits of expanded research to everyone. Not sure of the details involved, and whether the risk was worth it, he replied to Doctor Cromwell with reservation.

“I’ll think about it, doc.”

“That’s fine. Come on in with questions whenever you feel like it,” replied Leon. He left the subject at that, and busied himself with comparing the current medical scan to that of Maddox’s Star Fleet medical file on the PADD he was holding. “Everything looks fine, Commander,” he finally said. “I’ll take a hemolytic sample and we’ll then put you on the treadmill.”

As he prepped a sampling syringe, Leon changed the subject to what Mark saw as an off-the-wall topic. “Tell me commander, do you know anything about transwarp theory?”

Surprised by the question, Mark sat up on the table as Leon pressed the syringe into the engineer’s shoulder. “Well, only from what I learned at Star Fleet academy’s History or Warp Theory course,” he said with confusion. “Transwarp was an attempt to break the warp-10 barrier about a hundred years ago. Why?”

“Oh, no reason but curiosity,” replied Leon with shielded reservation. The conversation he had with Virtus, the Republic’s former chief science officer weighed on his mind, and the doctor was apparently trying to gain some background information. As he put the blood sample into the analyzer, Leon turned to Mark and said, “please step onto the grav plate, if you would, and begin a slow run. I’ll monitor your metabolic responses.

As Mark complied, Leon continued to egg him on about the issue. “So what was the controversy surrounding transwarp?”

“The going theory was based on macro-transporter technology,” Mark said between huffs of air. “Basically, the warp engine configuration was a two-stage process. First, a transporter field surrounded the ship, using a warp bubble as the flux matrix. Then, the ship was transported through interspace, ahead in the warp envelope, providing a time-differential that was supposed to decrease the travel time. The effect, in theory, was to reach speeds up to warp 15, depending on the engine configuration.”

Doctor Cromwell was listening to the techo-speech from the engineer, barely able to keep up with his vocabulary. Leon knew some engineering concepts, like basic warp theory. However, transwarp was a little out of his league.

“One minute left. Please run as fast as you can,” said the doctor.

Mark broke out in a light sweat as he raced through the last part of the physical examination. Heavy breathing resulted, and as Leon marked the training heart-rate threshold, he recorded the readings and motioned for Mark to stop.

“Computer, end recording, and update file. Authorization: Cromwell-delta-one-nine”

=/\= “Acknowledged.” =/\=

The engineer stepped off the platform, and leaned against the wall to catch his breath. As Doctor Cromwell returned the equipment back to initial start-up mode, he asked Mark, “so what happened? Why didn’t transwarp work?”

“The transporter field was cancelled by the warp bubble, and no warp envelope ever formed,” Mark replied, wiping the sweat out of his hair. He retrieved his over shirt and added “The test ships just shut down, and could only run on impulse. Why all these questions, doctor?”

“No reason, commander,” said Leon as he walked towards the door. “Thank you for taking the time to explain it to me. Your physical checks out, and you’re in good health. You can return to duty, and be sure to think about the organic replacement therapy we talked about.”

Mark watched the doctor exit the exam room, and followed him out. Throwing his shirt over his shoulder, he kept his eyes on Leon until he disappeared into his office, wondering what a medical doctor would want with information about a failed warp experiment from a hundred years ago. As he exited the sickbay, he shook his head and returned to engineering.

Chapter 8Top

<location: turboshaft 13-G, USS Republic>

Inside the turbo lift car, John Carter studied the PADD that Regesh, the new head of the Tactical Department had delivered, as promised, before the end of the Alpha shift. 'Good,' John thought, 'He's managed to keep everyone on the same shift, with one Duty Officer and three “floaters” in addition to staffing all the watch positions. Looks like I picked the right guy. Nice to finally get a break.' The lift car came to rest and once more Carter felt his head twitch slightly as the doors opened with a hiss to the busy corridors of Deck Eight.

As John worked his way through the concentric paths of the deck, he returned more than a few polite nods. There was no formal salute in Starfleet, but the organization prided itself on maintaining a civil level of 'Good Order and Discipline.' Carter chuckled to himself, as he considered how odd it was for an officer who had made a career out of ignoring the rules that got in his way to now be having thoughts that were chapter and verse out of the Starfleet Officer's Manual.

Along with all the written regs of Starfleet, there were several others that remained in the nebulous category of Conventional Wisdom. Simple things like don't eat before a zero-gee op, ignoring non-comms can be fatal, and; most important to Republic's First Officer at the moment. Don't put off the physical, because if there was one thing Starfleet Medical taught it's people, it was that paybacks can be hell. John Carter wanted to spend as little time in Hell as possible.

Carter paused briefly as the smoked glass doors to sickbay silently slid open. The ward was the picture off efficiency. 'And it better be,' John thought, after the good Doctor went through all those hoops with the re-fit crew at Delphi Station.' John stopped in front the Vulcan doctor, Y'Lair.

“Lieutenant Commander,' he said with measured tones, careful to keep any emotion he might convey to a minimum, “Do you require medical attention?”

“Actually, I'm hoping to avoid you folks for as long as possible. Don't take it personally.”

Y'lair's left eyebrow arched. “Certainly not. I believe Doctor Cromwell is in his office.”

<location: CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

“Computer,” Leon hailed the console on his desk, and as the warble of the acknowledgement tone rang, he slipped into the chair in front of the screen. “Connect me through to Starfleet Operations, PERSCOM division. I want to talk to someone who can shed light into my re-activation orders.”

The screen displayed the blue, wreathed Federation logo of an oval-framed starscape. Below the logo, a progress message indicated the various subspace communication arrays required to send a signal to Earth. After a few minutes, a young lieutenant junior-grade operations officer appeared on the screen.

“How can I help you, Doctor Cromwell?” sounded the chipper, upbeat response.

“Yes, I’d like to have another look into at my reserve-activation order from you guys when I was on the Bremerton.”

“Stand by, Doctor. Let me pull up your record.”

Moments passed while Leon waited silently, hoping to find some scrap of irregularity in the order. He had read it several times upon first receiving it over a week ago, but he took it at face value at the time giving no thought to it’s authenticity. Although PERSCOM confirmed it, they never gave a name to who signed the order. However, the assignment of new crewmembers on the Republic, with orders linked to the same source as his own, raised suspicion that something else was at work here. This time, the doctor was determined to find a face behind the order. They couldn’t dodge his requests forever.

The young face came back after about five minutes, an unusually long wait for a certified computer file. However, the response sent Leon’s nostrils flaring.

“I’m sorry doctor,” said the adjutant with a concerned expression. “We have no documentation of an activation order. According to our files, you’ve been on a Starfleet civilian contract since stardate 51129.8.”

Visibly shocked, Leon raced through his thoughts, reconfirming what he had just heard. “51129? That was five and a half years ago! I quit my contract after the war, and you guys called me back early last week!”

“Back?” returned the lieutenant in what appeared to be fabricated confusion. “Doctor, back from where? On 51129.8, you were assigned to Starbase 72, then to the U.S.S. Bremerton after the Dominion War, and now the Republic.”

“What are you talking about?” said the doctor, his voice starting to rise. “My tour on the Bremerton was under a grant from the Daystrom Institute! I was an independent research scientist, not on some damned Star Fleet contract! How the hell do you explain my Astrobiology doctorate at Memory Alpha? A long-term security sweep?”

“I’m sorry doctor. I have no record of you leaving your Star Fleet contract. According to our records, you received that doctorate under an extended leave of absence from Starbase 72, and subsequently reassigned to the Bremerton as part of your Star Fleet contract. As for an actual resignation, I’ll have to crosscheck that with Starfleet Security. At the moment, I can neither confirm nor deny that.”

Fuming, Leon was now shouting at the top of his lungs. “Are you seriously telling me that something I lived through didn't happen?”

“Doctor,” the young voice returned. “There’s nothing I can do. Our records show no sign of the resignation or re-activation orders you speak of. If you continue this abusive tone with me, I’m going to have to report this to my superiors.”

Leon’s jaw hung open with incredulity. He couldn’t believe his ears, and such, his thought processes were blinded by shear rage. There was only one thing he could do: quit for now, and try again after calming down. For the moment though, he was determined to get the last word in.

“Is that right?” he finally remarked with a sneer. “Well you can all go straight to hell! Confirm or deny THAT all you like!” Leon almost threw a fist through computer console, as he slapped his hand down on the disconnect switch. He was about to scream yet another obscenity when a nearby voice startled him.

“Um, Doc?” It was Carter, and his sudden appearance at his office door held an apologetic look on his face. “Is now a bad time?”

Releasing a sigh of absolute frustration, Leon rubbed his eyes. “John, I just don’t get it. Two weeks ago, I was having the time of my life as a carefree scientist in the Pacifica system, supposedly with my Star Fleet contract years behind me, and now I’m told that I’ve been under their thumb the whole time. Does HQ honestly make mistakes this big?”

Carter shrugged his shoulders after a moment in thought. “I’m not sure, doc. I’m sure they’ve made worse mistakes.”

Leon’s scowl returned, and his eyes shifted back and forth as if coming to a hypothetical conclusion. “The captain must be in on it,” he said with spite. “He was just in here a half hour ago saying I should actually be wearing one of those.”

The executive officer followed the doctor’s gaze, and it was focused on Carters’ uniform. Again, he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “actually, they’re kind of comfortable.”

“Don’t you start!” spat Leon.

“Geez,” John replied with a tormented look. “I come in here for a physical, and I get yelled at. You should work on your bedside manner, doc.”

Shaking his head with weariness, it was Leon who apologized this time. “I’m sorry, John. It wasn’t you. I’m just trying to figure out how I ended up here. That’s all. I’m years out of practice at being an M.D.”

“Not from what I keep hearing,” said John. “And I think that award you got shows you still got it.”

“Speaking of which,” shot back Leon. “You could have found a better picture for my staff to use on that damn plaque.”

Carter couldn’t help but to chuckle. “I thought it looked good!”

Leon squinted at the exec with a look of warning. “You’ll get yours too,” he grumbled while getting up from the desk. Changing the subject, he took on a lighter tone in his voice. “Come on. I think I’ve got room for you on the exam schedule.”

As the two walked out into the main ward, Lieutenant Harris met them. “Doctor,” she said. “Lieutenant Sullivan just arrived hoping to fit in his physical exam.”

“Is that so?” Leon asked, looking over to the biobed where Sullivan was watching the busy sickbay staff. The doctor stared for a moment, looking past the operations officer, and taking note of the bronze plaque that Carter, Harris, and the rest of the sickbay staff worked to surprise him with. A wily smirk began to creep across his face as Leon glanced briefly at both Carter and Harris. Vengeance would be his.

“Hello, Sullivan!” shouted Leon with a surprisingly upbeat tone. “I think we can work you in. Let’s mosey into exam two and get you started.”

As Doctor Cromwell and Lieutenant Sullivan walked towards the room, Carter looked confused and asked “hey doc, what about me?”

As Sullivan entered the exam suite, Leon stopped at the door and said. “Oh, I’m sorry John. I forgot, I’ve got a full schedule at the moment. Doctor Harris, would you take the commander in hand and perform his physical? I believe exam room one is empty.”

Harris’ face went livid as her eyes widened with horror. “Doctor?” she gasped questioningly as Carter began to comprehend Leon’s scheming face.

The doctor was about to enter the exam suite when he turned around once more and said “Oh, and Harris? The commander appears to have a prostration problem, as I’ve suddenly noticed some sweat on his forehead. You’d better run a level one sub-cellular exam to check for Polluxian rheumatism. It’s been a little out of control at the Mars colonies lately.”

“Doctor!” yelped Harris in panic. “Is that really necessary?”

Leon calmly looked back at her and said in a very stern voice “Doctor Harris, I’m surprised at you. We’re on the brink of war, and I should think that you’d be interested in the health and welfare of the Republic’s first officer. Please carry out my orders.” The doctor then disappeared into the exam room, and the associated wall-panel lit up to read “Exam in Progress – Do Not Disturb.”

Carter was unsure of what medical dialogue just took place between Lieutenant Harris and Doctor Cromwell, but was certain it had something to do with the bronze award plaque hanging on the sickbay foyer. John suddenly regretted sending the eighteen year-old picture of “Crewman Cromwell” to Harris.

“Um,” John started with reluctance. “I hope this exam won’t take too long . . .”

Harris, now pasty-white with trepidation, looked to Carter with the eyes of a frightened church-girl about to commit her first sin. “Commander,” she gulped in apprehension. “I’m afraid I have to ask you to go into exam one and remove your clothing.”

Exam One was a small, but well designed space. Well lit, with friendly curves. Carter had to admit that it didn't “feel” like the torture chamber he'd always associated with a visit to sickbay, and he had to admit that the company didn't hurt his impression of the situation.

Carter was following his Doctor's orders, and laid his dark uniform jacket across the back of a chair. He was unbuttoning the collar of his red under tunic as he asked Harris a question. “So, just what is this level-one exam all about anyway?”

Harris wasn't looking at her patient. Instead, she was prepping the wall-mounted console to record John Carter's bio readings. “It's a…” Harris cleared her throat, determined to show professionalism, despite Doctor Cromwell's manipulation of the circumstances. “It's a close, physical examination.”

Carter turned his head, looking at the Doctor's well-kept mane of fiery red hair. “How close?” he wondered.

“Only your mum would know you better.”

“Right.” John pulled his red shirt over his head, unable to keep from making what members of the Carter family called 'the Old Man Noise'. “How physical?”

Harris felt her face twitch in annoyance as she turned to look back at the XO of Republic. “Well, you won't be…dear god!” Shannon Harris looked on wide-eyed as she took in a sight the resembled the landscape of a barren, time-scarred moon, than a human being's back.

Over his years not only as a spacer, but also as a Starfleet officer, John Carter had been in his share of “colorful” situations. Most of his own doing. Carter would maintain that all of those were perfectly rational situations that could easily be explained, but while Carter's mind could justify his past actions, and his ego wouldn’t allow anything BUT action, it was his body that had ended up paying the price.

John's back revealed every night in a dark, seedy, alien jazz den, or missed step on an away mission. Even the rough style of play he enjoyed on the Lacrosse pitch in the form of deep scars at various places across his back, including the reminder of one or two nasty compound fractures, and more than a few shattered ribs.

Current Starfleet medical techniques had let John return to active duty in fairly short order each time, but his physiology, probably owing to his being raised on Mars, meant that while he didn't reject re-gen therapy, his scars stubbornly refused to fade.

Hearing Harris' surprise, John guessed what she was reacting to. “Sorry Harris,” he said in typically glib fashion. “You should see the other guy.”

“Oh, I'm sure.” Harris stepped closer and couldn’t help but raise her hand, inching her fingers toward a particularly vivid scar that ran diagonally down Carter's right shoulder blade. She ran her fingertip down the length of the scar. “Where did you get this one?”

John suppressed a shiver “Whoa! Cold hands there Shannon.” Then Carter thought for a moment as he felt where the Doctor had placed her fingers. That would be…a deuterium run during my Merchant Marine days, courtesy of some rather insistent Orion . . . um . . . businessmen.”

“Businessmen . . . right.” Harris blinked as she re-ran Carter's words in her head. “What did you call me?”

John turned around and quirked his head. “Sorry?”

“Did you just call me Shannon?”

“Did I?” John felt the familiar smirk pull at the corner of his mouth. “Hadn't noticed. Do you mind?”

“No. That is to say, well yes.” Harris backed away, turning her attention back to the instruments on the wall.

“Thanks for clearing that up. I'm sorry. The nickname thing is just sort of, well, a thing that I do.”

“No, Lieutenant Commander . . .”

“John, or Carter if you prefer, but my friends call me J.T.”

“Right. Friends.”

Carter took a step closer to Doctor Harris, when the room's comm system chirped.

=/\= “Bridge to XO.”=/\=

John looked up at the disembodied voice. “Saved by the bell.” He smiled. “Carter. Go.”

=/\= “Captain wants you on the bridge sir, we're starting our recon scans.”=/\=

John was already pulling his uniform back on as he answered the comm. “Copy that.” He said, in typical, clipped, flight jock speak. “I'm on the way.”

Carter straightened his uniform and looked at Harris who was busy not hiding her relief that John had been called away. “Sorry, Doctor.” John quipped. “Duty calls.”

“Doesn't it always.” Shannon said with a bemused smile.

Having brought himself up to Starfleet dress code specs, Carter stepped out of Exam One and walked through the ward enroute to Sickbay's large, sliding doors.

On the way, Carter caught sight of Leon Cromwell, who was finishing his physical on Tom Sullivan. John stepped halfway out the doors and looked at his Chief Medical Officer. “Thanks Yenta,” Carter said with a broad grin. “But you'll have to do better than that. The Old Man wants me on the bridge.”

Satisfied that he had foiled the Doctor's plot for some small measure of revenge, John Carter exited the room and made his way to the nearest turbo-lit shaft, headed for the bridge.

Leon watched John leave sickbay. Tom Sullivan was busy putting his shirt back on while exiting the nearby exam room as the doctor turned to him with confusion and asked, “who’s Yenta?” Sullivan stopped for a moment to stare at him in stupefaction, completely unaware of what just took place between Carter and Doctor Cromwell. A shrug of his shoulders indicated that the operations officer had no idea what the doctor was talking about, and Leon changed the subject. “Never mind,” he responded. “You’re done here Lieutenant. You’re free to return to duty, and I’ll see you at poker night.”

Tom smiled and replied “thanks, doc.”

As the lieutenant left the sickbay, Leon returned his attention to his ever-present PADD to identify his next appointment. However, before he could do so, a venomous voice broke him from his concentration.

“If you EVER do that again, I’ll have that picture of yours plastered over ten decks by carving it into the outside hull with a plasma torch.”

Leon looked to find a very perturbed Shannon Harris glaring at him through gritted teeth. Apparently, the revenge attack took her a little by surprise.

“You started it,” retorted the doctor. “Besides, last time I checked your file, you weren’t qualified in plasma mechanics.”

Harris stood there unmoving, as if awaiting a response that would better satisfies her current animosity towards him. After a moment, Leon raised his eyebrows in reconciliation, and offered, “okay, fine. Take the rest of my physicals for the day, and we’ll call it even.”

With a smile replacing her sneer, Shannon responded “sounds good to me.”

Wary of her sudden change in mood, Leon said, “that was quick.”

“It’s a snap, doctor,” she said with enthusiasm. “Sullivan was your last exam!”

“Does that make us even then?”

“I think so.”

“Fine, I’ll be in my office.”

Not quite rid of his anger at Starfleet for mismanaging his files, Leon decided to postpone contacting them again. It was his feeling that it would do no good to keep beating his head against the proverbial brick wall with the same set of personnel clerks. Leon felt that finding an ally in this quest might behoove him, especially if they had the necessary security clearances to find out the truth. Perhaps Carter was a candidate, but he would have to wait to talk to him again.

Instead, the doctor’s mind went back to his conversation with Lieutenant Commander Maddox about transwarp. According to him, transwarp did not work. However, the words of Victor Virtus, the Republic’s former chief science officer, still echoed in Leon’s mind.

‘It works Doctor. But it cost me two weeks of my life, and I don't know where they are.’

He mulled over what Maddox said about transwarp, mentioning that it was supposed to set up a time-differential. It then suddenly dawn on him that Virtus might be correct.

“Computer,” Leon beckoned with excitement. “Access engineering research database. Extrapolate from current knowledge of interspace warp physics: hypothesize what would happen if a macro-transporter field surrounded a starship-sized object generating a warp bubble, and attempted to activate a warp envelope in interspace.”

Leon hoped he had recalled everything that Maddox told him during the physical, and that he was feeding the correct information into the database. As the computer warbled several times, calculating and crosschecking the brain-dizzying formulas, the conclusion was finally reached.

=/\= “Said object would be traveling at speeds exceeding warp ten in respect to the surrounding universe.” =/\=

“Bingo,” muttered Leon.

=/\= “Unable to process last command.” =/\=

“Never mind,” replied Leon with annoyance. “Computer, what were the names of the vessels used in the Starfleet transwarp project a hundred years ago?”

=/\= “The U.S.S. Excelsior and U.S.S. Ti-Ho.” =/\=

“Computer, access the engineering logs of the U.S.S. Excelsior, and review the time index during one of its last transwarp field tests.” Leon sat back in his office chair, and folded his arms behind his neck.

=/\= “Acknowledged. U.S.S. Excelsior, NX-2000, commanded by Captain J. Stiles, completed its final transwarp field test on stardate 8506.3” =/\=

Sitting forward again, Leon concentrated on the computer’s voice. “Compare Excelsior test results with recent engineering hypothetical model. Did a transporter field form?”

=/\= “Affirmative.” =/\=

“Did a warp bubble form?”

=/\= “Affirmative.” =/\=

“Did the ship enter interspace and travel at speeds exceeding warp ten?”

=/\= “Negative.” =/\=

“Why not?” persisted Leon.

=/\= “The warp bubble and transporter field cancelled each other.” =/\=

Scratching his head, Leon attempted a different approach. “Were all systems functioning within the specifications required for the hypothetical model?

=/\= “Affirmative.” =/\=

“Then why was transwarp not achieved?”

A moment passed while the computer digested the doctor’s request. It warbled several times making noises that sounded suspiciously like a machine clearing its throat.

=/\= “Unable to comply. That information is classified.” =/\=

Leon frowned. “Classified?” he reflected with bewilderment. “Why would a failed, hundred year-old engineering project still be classified?”

Chapter 9Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

The Republic dropped out of warp and entered into orbit around the Demon-class planet that they were ordered to do.

“Lieutenant Xayide, commence scanning. Any sign of Kreltan presence?”

Captain Marshall asked, “Lieutenant Xayide, results of the scan?”

“There's a Kreltan base on the planet's surface. Looks like 3400 Kreltan life signs, 500 Orion, and 100 human. The non-Kreltan life signs are being kept in a contained environment.” reported the Lieutenant.

“We could attempt a rescue of the humans,” suggested Lieutenant Commander John Carter.

“I wish we could, our orders are information gathering. I'll talk to Admiral Maverick and see if we can't mount a rescue,” said Marshall. “Lieutenant Sullivan, check for any missing ships in the area, and then set up a closed comm channel with Admiral Maverick.”

“Aye Captain,” said Sullivan working ever diligently.

Suddenly, the doors to the turbolift opened and a human male in a Starfleet operations-gold uniform exited.

“Lieutenant Commander Matthew Riggs, Chief of Security/Tactical reporting for duty Captain,” said the newcomer.

“Good to see you Commander,” said Captain Marshall.

With a mix of anger and confusion, Carter rose from the XO's seat with a quizzical look on his face. “Captain! I just put Lieutenant Regesh in that position!” His voice was indignant but respectful. “Why are you changing my roster, and when were you planning on telling me this?”

“I’m sorry Carter. I made the decision after the meeting this morning. I meant to tell you, but in the rush to prepare the ship for departure, I forgot.”

“Didn’t we just recently make an agreement about keeping your senior staff in the loop?” the new executive officer reminded his captain.

“Matt Riggs is an old friend,” Marshall continued. “I introduced him to his deceased wife. Lieutenant Commander Riggs is a recent transfer from Starbase Delphi. He is a top-notch security/tactical officer, and former special forces.” Turning to Riggs, he said “Feel free to assume your station.”

“Thank you,” said Riggs as he headed for the Tactical console. Regesh, the Andorian lieutenant, glared at the newcomer who paid him no mind. As the former tac chief stepped aside and allowed Riggs to take over, he looked to Carter who made a waving motion with his hand, silently asking the blue-skinned lieutenant to calm down and acquiesce to the Captain’s sudden change of senior staff. Although he complied by turning non-chalantly to a rear science station, it was now clear that the subordinate officers within the security and tactical department would not look too kindly upon their commanding officer in the future.

“Helm, lay in a course for the M-class planet and engage at warp 6,” ordered Marshall.

Carter silently sat down, casting a wary look at his captain. Although it was within a captain’s prerogative to make personnel adjustments as they see fit, usurping an executive’s authority in front of the crew is a taboo in most leadership circles. John would remember this . . .

<location: security officer, deck 38, USS Republic>

Matthew Riggs was in his office setting up shop so to speak. It was always the hardest on a person settling in at a new command. One of the first things he placed on the desk was the portrait of his now deceased wife.

Riggs had been married to her for 11 years when she supposedly died in a shuttle accident. They never had kids they were working on it however her life had been ended abruptly and for no apparent reason. Starfleet Investigators couldn't find the reason for the accident to take place and left it as unexplained. His friend the Captain of the Republic was the one who first informed him to come down to Starbase 11's morgue and identify the body.

Like so many things after the Dominion War her death was unexplained. Matthew then placed images of his family and friends behind his desk.

He glanced at the padd that he picked up. It was the departmental roster for the Republic's security division.

After looking over the ship’s security records, he concluded that the woman that had been running the division in his absence was Ensign Ann Readdy. An unusual woman, she had been selected by Starfleet security to be a test-operator for an experimental exoskeleton that was supposed to enhance the abilities of security officers in the field. Riggs felt blessed to have such a woman on his team, and he selected her service file for review during a meeting. He'd approach the Captain and discuss things about getting her promoted to Junior Lieutenant. As he prepared for his paperwork he called her into his office.

Although she was not the most senior member of the department, he had hoped to offer her the position of assistant chief of security.

Minutes later, Ensign Readdy walked into Riggs’ office and saluted him.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” asked the officer. Ann was clearly nervous. After taking her seat, across from Riggs, she began playing with one of the air supply lines to her right leg-piston, a nervous habit.

Matthew put the pad down he was reading and placed his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Yes I did Ensign. I have read your service file. Seems you've had a nice start to a promising career Ms Readdy. I have also spoken to several people and that they have said you ran this department with the departure of your previous department CO. Now the paperwork.” Riggs said pointing to the padd, “Dictates that you have what it takes to be an assistant security chief. Now I work my people hard Ensign. I don't let any slack off or back off from anything. I want to know what you can bring to the table so to speak.”

“Sir, one thing I can bring, is dedication. I am dedicated to whomever I serve under, irregardless of personal differences, if any. Two, I've learned the importance of judicious use of weapons, whether they be phasors, photon torpedoes, or even my own pistons.” She took a deep breath. “I too, do my best not to back off from anything.” she added, as an afterthought. Ann still wasn't sure of herself, but she didn't want to let on. She didn't even dare smile.

Matt Riggs smiled, seeing the same fire in the belly that he had once himself as a young security officer. “I’ll bet you do, ensign.”

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

The Republic had dropped out of warp and orbited the M-class planet they were assigned. Sullivan was manning Ops, Riggs was going over his tactical display, Xayide was intent at her task at the Science console, and Carter was in his place in the XO's chair.

“Start the scan Lieutenant Xayide. Let's find out what's down there,” said Marshall.

“Scan beginning. It will take 3.75 hours to complete unless we can boost power from Main Engineering,” she reported.

“That's reasonable,” said Marshall.

Carter then spoke, “It wouldn't surprise me if there wasn't a Kreltan battle cruiser out there now.”

Marshall turned to him, “We've got to be careful. I don't want a repeat of last time.” Marshall then got an idea. He eyed Carter and saw a sign of agreement.

” Lieutenant Xayide, check your scanners and see if there's anything out there. Pay attention to any energy surges or anomalies,” ordered the Captain.

Xayide looked over her board and reported, “There is an energy surge of the type that matches the Kreltans in the database.”

“On screen,” said Carter.

“I see it,” said Sullivan. He went to the viewscreen and pointed it out.

“Yellow Alert. Good eyes Lieutenant Sullivan. Hail the Firestorm,” said Marshall.

“Channel open,” said Sullivan.

“U.S.S. Firestorm, this is the U.S.S. Republic. We have detected a Kreltan energy surge. Enemy has not been engaged yet, but we fear we will be soon. Please assist.”

Tom waited for the response to come in, which was rather quickly, “Captain, Admiral Maverick is responding on a secure channel, using Alpha-2 Decode program now, coming on screen.” He tapped his controls quickly and watched as Admiral Maverick appeared on the screen, the Sovereign Bridge layout, with every station manned was his surroundings.

=/\= “Captain Marshall, we've received your distress call and will be responding as soon as possible. We've detected a dilithium mining/refining facility. It appears that they arm even their smallest space bases. We have to finish our scans here, we could very well have a target that could slow down their incursion. Try to hold them off for an hour or so. Sorry, Jim, that's the best I can do. Firestorm out.” =/\=

Marshall didn't like what he just heard, but he had no choice. He figured that if he went now, they would still have the element of surprise. He leaned back in his chair and began to seek other options.

The screen fell back to the view of the planet, by way of Tom's fingers. He thought for a moment as he looked at the distortion, and his relays to the sensors. “Captain, I believe we may still have the element of surprise. The amount of energy the Kreltans are using for their cloak is emitting some high radiation and energy readings, their sensor capability could be diminished. If we are to hold off until the Firestorm arrives, we could either hide on the other side of the planet by the magnetic pole, or within the outer-most atmosphere of the Demon-class world, it's own energy field should provide excellent camouflage to their sensors.”

Marshall watched as Sullivan spun around in his chair to face him.

Carter then spoke up, “If we are to use the atmosphere of the Demon-class planet, it would give us a chance to see what that base is. Scans showed it wasn't a mining facility. It is possible that we could obtain a Kreltan for analysis.”

Marshall considered the thought and said, “Helm, make for the Demon-class planet and orbit in the outer-most atmosphere.”

“Marshall to sickbay. Doctor Cromwell, we are going to attempt to obtain a Kreltan for you to analyze. We'll need someone from your staff to help obtain it. Can you spare anyone?”

Chapter 10Top

<location: CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

The doctor jumped in excitement at the news. He had been searching for something that would take him away from these crew-physicals, hoping that a little digging into transwarp history would suffice. Since it was beginning to annoy him, Leon was happy for this change of task.

“I believe so,” he replied, tapping his combadge. “I'm anxious to see their makeup.”

=/\= “As am I. Bridge out.” =/\=

Immediately, Leon got up from his chair, and marched out of his office into the main ward. The sickbay was bustling at this moment, with a double-shift on duty as required by the yellow alert.

“Alright, everyone,” hailed the chief medical officer. “We have a mission coming up to head down to the demon planet and capture a Kreltan. The bridge just called and asked us to send someone to assist. Anyone on our away-team roster interested?”

Almost immediately, Shannon Harris raised her hand, “I’ll do it!”

“Nice try, Doctor Harris,” responded Leon, “but this is a demon-class planet. That means environmental suits, and we need someone zero-G qualified.” As Harris sulked, Leon looked around for another candidate. “Doctor Y’lair,” he pointed out the Vulcan medical doctor. “How about you?”

The response was as emotion-free as ever, “if you wish, Doctor.”

“Yes, I think you’re the best one for this job. Report to the bridge.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Y’lair.

As he strolled to the door, Leon followed him. In a quieter tone, Doctor Cromwell added, “Y’lair, be careful. From the sound of it, this is a very dangerous mission and I don’t want to lose you to some shape-changer in the field. Bring a phasor rifle if they’ll let you, and use as much force as needed. If you don’t think it’s possible to capture a Kreltan, get out of there. There’s no need to risk you and your team more than necessary.”

“I understand, sir,” Y’lair responded stoically. “I’ll take the utmost care.”

As the Vulcan left the sickbay, Leon turned around and tapped his combadge.

“Cromwell to bridge. I’m sending Doctor Y’lair to the bridge for the away mission.”

The voice that responded was that of John Carter.

=/\= “Roger that, Doc. Please have Doctor Y'lair report to the conference room.” =/\=

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Marshall rose from his chair to give his next orders.

“Lieutenant Xayide, upon our arrival, I want a detailed analysis of that base. I want it mapped, and what it is. We don't have time to beat around the bush on this one, so we'll have to get everything we can on it.”

“I'll do my best Captain,” said the half-Cardassian.

Marshall then turned to Sullivan, “Lieutenant Sullivan, keep tabs on that Kreltan ship. If they make any hostile movements let me know.”

“Yes Captain,” he replied.

“Bridge to Engineering. Mister Maddox, we'll be entering the outer atmosphere of the Demon-class planet. I want us to be able to boost power to all necessary systems. Also, are the shuttles been outfitted with torpedoes yet?”

=/\= “Not yet Captain, we'll get you all the power you need even if we have to find some Nickel-Hydride batteries to do it.” =/\=

“Good to hear, Bridge out.”

Marshall sat down as he considered his next move. He turned to Carter, “You have the bridge Commander. Keep me appraised of the situation. Watch that

Kreltan ship. I'll be in my ready room.”

After entering the office, he went behind his desk and sat down, deciding that it was time for a plan.

“Marshall to Riggs, I need to see you in my ready room ASAP. I want you to start working on a plan to go in that Kreltan base.”

=/\= “I'll be right up Captain. I have something to discuss with you as well Riggs out.” =/\=

Moment later, the new security/tactical department head arrived in the captain’s ready room. As he entered the office, he handed the Captain two padds.

“What's this?” asked Jim.

“Captain, one is a padd to request a promotion for one of my officers. And the second is information on how our weapons might be affected with thoseKreltans,” the Security Chief explained.

“I appreciate the weapons information. I've dealt with the Kreltans before, and let me tell you this, throw the regs out the airlock.” Marshall looked at the second PADD, “Ensign Ann Reddy, tell me why?”

Riggs replied, “Before I was assigned Jim she's been running the department. She's got everything organized, keeps them working. And I believe she warrants a promotion. I can't have a assistant who is a lowly ensign.”

Jim decided to play devil's advocate, “You feel she's the best qualified for the position? I know there’s at least two well qualified officers in your department that can serve as assistant. Both Lieutenant Regesh and McTaggart are able officers.”

Riggs folded his arms and glanced at his friend, “I've spoken to her Jim, and I feel she warrants a promotion to Junior Lieutenant at least. She gives me the impression she's got a good head on her shoulders, knows how to run a shop. And on any investigative side she keeps the boys in check.”

“Matt, here's what we're going to do. The thing is that I've been pleased with the way she's handled things. I assigned McTaggart to replace Carter, since I promoted him to Exec. However, McTaggart decided that chief of tactical wasn't the proper place for him and Carter assigned Regesh instead.” Jim paused before continuing. “That's when I got you. However, Readdy did show some imitative recently, so I'll agree to lieutenant junior-grade now, and we'll evaluate it again and see about full lieutenant in a few months.”

“So lieutenant junior grade?” Matt asked his friend.

“That's what I said,” replied Jim.

Then he softened Jim knew that Matt had lost his wife. Matthew nodded and went to the replicator for some coffee. The Captain was about to ask on the status of the Mrs. Riggs Murder investigation.

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

John Carter closed the comm. channel and scanned the bridge. His coldly efficient Science Officer was looking over the scan returns, as Captain Marshall made his way to the Ready Room just off the bridge. From the Center Seat, John called up a repeater display of the science station and looked at the results of the scans as well.

'Hmmm,' he thought. 'High winds, minimal vegetation, pretty dense rock strata. Reminds me of home.' Carter kept watching the results of the scans. The Kreltan facility was small by military standards. Nowhere near as massive as a Dominion or Klingon outpost would be, but what caught Carter's attention were the things he couldn't see from the immediate scans.

“Lieutenant Xylaid?” he asked. “Any sign of sub-surface levels. That place looks a little small to me.”

The Chief Science Officer almost appeared annoyed to be pulled away from her duties to answer such an insipid question. Any fool could see that the scans had yet to be fully compiled. It was far too early to expect a detailed analysis. 'Any fool would know that' Xylaid cursed silently, 'except for that bothersome, impatient human.'

“Scans are inconclusive at this time Lieutenant Commander. However, the planet's lower strata are quite dense. An ideal deterrent to transporter use.”

As the half-Cardassian officer spoke, Carter shifted in the command chair, leaning forward, one hand under his chin. “I'll bet it would.” he muttered. “That figures.”

John mulled over the tactical situation. Republic was making way to hide itself in the chaotic radiation of the system's Demon-class moon, but if Captain Marshall wanted to affect the capture of a Kreltan, then sooner or later, Republic would have to reveal it's position. Carter knew that getting their hands on a living Kreltan subject would be important to the understanding of this new enemy, but he also understood his current rules of engagement. Republic had been ordered to gather information as quietly as possible, and much as John wanted to play cowboy, he wondered if now was the time.

Carter watched with satisfaction as the Conn. Officer eased the U.S.S. Republic into a low orbit around the Daemon-class moon, effectively hiding the ship's presence from the Kreltan vessel that was also in the system. John opened a channel to the Captain.

“Bridge to Captain. We're tucked into the moon's radiation belt, Captain. Standing by.”

<location: captain’s ready room, main bridge, USS Republic>

“Move us into the outer-atmosphere of the Demon-class planet,” the captain responded with annoyance. “That is what I ordered and I expect it to be carried out. Marshall out.”

Focusing his attention back on his friend, “How's the investigation going?” Jim asked as he took a cup of coffee from Matt.

“We have some leads. Some evidence is showing up but its still early. The Feds are dragging their feet though.” Riggs referred to the civilian agency that was placed in charge of the investigation.

“We'll find out in due time. I just want them to catch the ones who did it,” Jim said. “That had to be one of the hardest things I had to do.”

Matt replied, “More so at the funeral. Her family has something to tell me but they're worried about it.”

“I know I miss her too,” said Jim, “I was almost late taking command of this ship due to the funeral. I arrived still in my dress uniform to the commissioning.”

“She would've loved to see you getting this.” Riggs said with a wave of his hand.

“I know she would have. Deal is I was pressured into taking this command,” Jim was saying, “When the Eagle was decommissioned and Hawkeye was promoted, I went to all the right parties, chaired all the right committees. I didn't feel ready, but on the other hand, a ship is a ship. I didn't want command right away, but people thought otherwise.”

“Ah the usual political mumbjumbo. Admiral Butters must have did it.” Riggs was not happy with a shrink in a position of Command.

“He was one of them,” Jim said. “The rest . . .don't really matter. I'm here now, and I'm going to do this.”

Matt asked, “What's with this Kreltan mission Jim?”

“The Kreltans, a race of shapeshifters much like the Founders. Last time out, somebody broke into our computer and stole the classified section of my personnel file. That program you gave me worked,” Jim was referring to the detection software that Riggs had developed for Marshall's files. “A General Jondav, had assumed my form and was bent on taking over the Republic and destroying the Federation from within.”

“I can't imagine what he would think about Yolanda!” Riggs mentioned the woman that was once Marshall's lover and now a traitor before Marshall was on the Eagle where he met Rachel.

“They'd get along like two peas in a pod,” said Jim, “but that was a long time ago.”

Matt had an idea, “Indeed. Request permission to have everyone armed in case of boarding by those shape shifters…”

“Granted,” Marshall said, “Also, have engineering put the forcefield around the warp core. Don't want to take any chances. Once we have that base mapped, find a way in. I want it blown up for good.”

Matt knew just the thing, “Oh yeah Plant Tricobalt Bombs that should do the trick.”

“That they would, but we don't know what's down there right now. There could be valuable information to us there. We need answers Matt,” said the Captain.

“A computer core dump would do the trick,” said Matt.

Marshall liked what he heard, “That would get us the information. It is a risk, but one I'm willing to take. How long would it take you get a team together?”

Matt said, “Five, ten minutes tops. For the core dump we need the CEO.”

“Marshall to Maddox,” the captain pressed his communicator. “We'll need you for an away mission to the Kreltan base in the Main Shuttlebay in15 minutes. Bring along the gear for a computer core dump, we're going to play hardball with the Kreltans.”

=/\= “I’ll be there in 10, Maddox out.” =/\=

“Thanks skipper. Now don't go pushing people around until I get back Jim,” Matt was kidding of course.

“I make no promises Matt.” Marshall said as they walked onto the bridge. Carter approached them, “Captain we are in orbit of the Demon-class planet in high orbit.”

Riggs then said, “We need to be pretty much in the atmosphere to hide the Argo.”

Marshall ordered, “Move us in closer, we're sending a team down to get information. If the situation warrants we're going to destroy that base.”

Marshall turned to Riggs, “Take care of the Argo.”

Riggs smiled, “Oh I promise not to scratch the paint dad.”

“Watch it,” said Marshall. He had one last thing to say to Riggs, “While you're there, Doctor Cromwell has been wanting to see if we can obtain a Kreltan to analyze it. They've been artificially enhanced, see if you can get one.”

“I'll bag, gag it, as long as you clean it and fry it,” promised Matt.

“We'll do our best. Good luck Lt. Commander,” Marshall said to Riggs.

“Luck goes with the territory Captain.” Riggs said as he entered a turbolift with Doctor Y'lair behind.

Marshall watched the doors close. He turned to Lieutenant Snyder the helm officer, “We're in orbit for the Argo Captain,” he said.

Marshall settled into the chair and said, “Let's get to work.”

Ten minutes later, Lieutenant Xayide reported, “Argo is away Captain.”

“Good,” said Marshall as Ensign Reddy arrived on the bridge. 'I was going to save this for later' he thought.

“Ensign Reddy,” said Marshall as he rose from his chair and approached her, “You have run the Security department well in the absence of a chief. Therefore, you are promoted to lieutenant junior-grade. With new rank comes responsibility as you will now be Assistant Security Chief. Congratulations.”

As the new Lieutenant manned the Tactical console, everyone on the bridge clapped. However, Carter was yet again taken by surprise. Although he clapped slightly to be polite, it did not hide the look of frustration on his face. There were two extremely talented security officers, Regesh and McTaggart, who also happened to hold the rank of full lieutenant in which the Captain had just thrust back down the chain of command by placing a new junior lieutenant as assistant tactical chief. From Carter’s perspective, his former department was being torn apart at the roots.

‘There’s going to be Hell to pay for this one,’ thought the executive officer as he pictured the look of incredulity on the faces of two lieutenants when the news reached them. ‘The worst thing any captain can do is alienate their own security force.’

Marshall returned to his seat as Sullivan announced, “Argo has landed on the planet.”

“I don't like this,” said Carter. “It's too quiet.”

“Agreed,” said the Captain, “Sullivan where's that Kreltan ship?”

“It's 200,000 . . . No, it's de-cloaking,” he reported.

“Red Alert,” ordered the Captain.

“Their weapons are charging,” said Reddy.

“Don't fire until they do,” said Marshall. “Open a channel,”

=/\= “This is Captain James Marshall of the Federation Starship Republic cease your hostile movements toward this ship. If you do not, we will be forced to fire on you.” =/\=

“No response,” said Sullivan.

“They're firing,” reported Reddy.

“Get a message to the Argo, and hail the Firestorm. Tell them we're under attack. Reddy, return fire.”

Readdy immediately began to return fire. This would her first “test” as assistant Chief of Security and she was determined to pass it. The Republic rocked from repeated weapons fire.

Chapter 11Top

<location: CMO’s office, main sickbay, USS Republic>

On a starship of over a thousand personnel, it’s amazing how departments can seem understaffed at critical moments. Leon dealt with staff shortages numerous times in the past, but usually it was a unique situation. However, the Republic’s sickbay had every personnel position filled and he still felt it wasn’t enough. With the redesigned sickbay, there were now more biobeds than staff, but it was Doctor Cromwell’s practice to have at least one medical technician standing by each bed during an emergency. So, with skepticism, Leon was forced to rethink his former medical conventions.

‘What about the overflow contingency?’ Leon thought to himself, as he relaxed in his office with a cup of coffee. A furrow engrained itself into his forehead as he mused over the new sickbay procedures. Currently, he had one medical technician for every two biobeds when all shifts were on duty, minus doctors, nurses, and designated away-team personnel. As if to exacerbate the medtech shortage, the new casualty-surplus protocol (now dubbed the “overflow contingency”) tripled the increased bed space. Although the system was meant for bed-ridden casualties that were stable, and simply needed to be moved out of the way, Leon still didn’t like the idea of only one technician for two patients in a worse case scenario.

“Hopefully, the joint training program with life sciences will close that loophole,” he thought. The life sciences department was still adjusting to their new head, Lieutenant Xayide, and hasn’t even had the luxury of their first day of joint training with sickbay. Thursday was the designated time for the weekly sessions, and it was only Sunday night. Leon held out hope that the Republic wouldn’t have to utilize the overflow contingency before life sciences had the chance to get some training time.

If Doctor Cromwell and the sickbay staff had any luck left after their last situation with the Kreltans, it quite possibly was thinning out. With only yellow alert as their warning, the Republic’s battle klaxon shattered the calm atmosphere of sickbay. All computer screens become outlined with the condition-red tracer lights as the staff scrambled to their stations. The ship shuttered briefly as multiple contacts with Kreltan weaponry registered.

For his part, Leon thrust his coffee cup into the wall-mounted beverage dispenser and peeled off his ivory turtleneck sweater in one swift overhead motion. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he snatched his light blue V-neck jumpsuit from the wall rack and threw off his boots. He replaced his footwear after quickly zipping into the medical garment, and on his way out of the office, he grabbed a large gray medical briefcase near the office door and slung a gray hard-shell backpack over his shoulder.

In the sickbay’s main ward, now designated as “triage-one” at the sounding of red alert, medical technicians took their places between every other biobed. Doctor Yezbeck, the short, balding, and black-bearded trauma surgeon, stood next to the gray-haired Doctor Fernmoore in the center of the room. With tricorder in hand, she displayed a firm, sober expression on her aged face, going over the revamped sickbay procedures silently in her head. Yezbeck was double-checking the contents of his belt-mounted medical kit as Leon briskly approached him.

“Report, doctor,” Leon asked Yezbeck.

“Triage-one standing by,” he responded.

Leaving the main ward, Doctor Cromwell did not await a response as he entered the recovery ward, now designated as “triage-two” at the sounding of red alert. The situation was similar to the main ward, with technicians standing by every other biobed, except that the doctor in the center was a young, scarlet-haired humanoid lieutenant in medical blues. She had a red-brown tint to her skin, and possessed a small, indented nose crest. Like Fernmoore, she too was reviewing the new medical protocols on her tricorder, and looked up as Leon came into the ward.

“Report, Doctor Hudson,” he ordered.

“Triage-two standing by,” Hudson replied with an alien accent.

Continuing his brisk walk, Doctor Cromwell went past Doctor Hudson, through the recovery ward, and into the entryway for the new trauma center. Originally, the nursing wards would have started here. However, the sickbay redesign merged two of the nursing wards to create a new sizable casualty ward with a layout similar to the main ward. The new trauma center, now designated as “triage-three” since the sounding of red alert, contained the same number of biobeds as triage-one and triage-two, and medical technicians were stationed at every other bed. In the center of the room, a bald Star Fleet lieutenant dressed in medical blues was in conversation with an ensign nurse as Leon approached.

“Report, Doctor Ryda.”

Pausing the conversation, Ryda looked towards Leon and replied in a Deltan accent, “triage-three standing by, Doctor Cromwell.”

“Thank you, and welcome aboard,” Leon said as he glanced down a side corridor where the remaining nursing wards lay empty. Ryda nodded and returned to his conversation with the ensign.

Spinning around on his heel, Leon followed his path back through triage-two, and changed course down a side corridor to the diagnostic room. This room, used for the diagnosis of exotic diseases within infected individuals, was set aside from the rest of the sickbay complex with a small sterile airlock. At the moment, it was unsealed, and Doctor Cromwell walked through it with ease. As it was designated as the stand-by room for away team personnel during a red alert, eight other individuals occupied the medium-sized chamber. Most everyone was readying their medical kits and hard-shell survival packs as Leon came into the room.

Recognizing his arrival, Doctor Shannon Harris, the red-haired pediatrician and embryologist, finished passing out palm-sized personal hand phasors, and addressed Doctor Cromwell.

“Stand-by teams at the ready, doctor.”

“Good job, Harris. Everyone seems to have followed the protocol precisely. Although . . . “

Harris followed Leon’s quizzical gaze and found that it ended at the young, blue-skinned, female Andorian that was just recently assigned to the Republic. Clearing her throat, Harris said, “allow me to introduce Doctor Favuuk.”

The young woman twitched a sapphire antenna as a graceful smile formed across he face.

“Pleased to meet you, Doctor Cromwell.”

“Welcome aboard doctor. I look forward to working with you.” He looked tired, and drowsily shook the new doctor’s hand.

Harris looked at Doctor Cromwell with slight concern as he made his way across the room to the two medics designated as Leon’s stand-by team. She followed him as he sat down, and offered him a hand phasor.

“Thanks,” he replied, tucking it into his jumpsuit pocket.

“You okay?” Harris remarked. “You look a little foggy.”

“No, I’m fine,” replied Leon. “Must be the red alert. I’ve been having more than my fair share of them this past week.”

Harris seemed to accept the explanation and returned to her team. From Leon’s view, it was the truth. Each time the red alert sounded, he jumped to his feet like he was a first-year recruit again. He wasn’t kidding when he told the captain that returning to his Star Fleet contract was setting him back several years. The Dominion War was something we had hoped to forget, but every time he turned around, Leon continued to encounter situations that reminded him of that terrible war. As he attempted to relax his mind, a young, black-haired ensign from Leon’s stand-by team asked him a question.

“Do you think we’ll have to beam down, doctor?”

Leon turned his head to look at the young man. “Concerned, Ensign Brooke?” he addressed him. “Don’t worry. Stand-by teams aren’t just for away missions. We’ll probably be needed for a shipboard emergency, if at all. Don’t worry about it. You’ll do fine.”

Although Leon kept a confident, worry-free façade on the surface, deep down he was concerned about the Kreltans, and for Doctor Y’lair. “I wonder how he’s doing,” he thought.

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Tom sent the message to the Firestorm and read the reply out loud, “Captain, Admiral Maverick reports that the Firestorm is pushing her engines as far as they can go. Estimated ETA is 2 minutes 14 seconds.”

Tom wiped a bit of sweat off of his brow, and refocused on his console. He watched the screen as two blue streaks of phaser fire accompanied with a photon torpedo seemed to smash into the screen. The ship rocked, but Tom held onto his console for stability, he ran his hands across his console, “Captain, forward shields down to 89%.”

Another dash of bright light showed on the screen and not three seconds later a large Sovereign Class Starship swung between the Republic and the Kreltan ship, letting loose it's angry armament of quantum torpedoes and phasor fire.

<location: main bridge, USS Firestorm>

James Maverick was sitting on the edge of his seat as the Firestorm's attack hit its mark. “Bring us into lead formation with the Republic, we'll stand off together. Mister Shon, hail the Republic and put Captain Marshall on screen.”

“Aye's” were announced and the Firestorm brought up the lead formation. James looked to the screen as Captain Marshall came into view.

“Captain, heard you were in a bit of a jam, and seeing that we were in the neighborhood, I thought we might arrive a bit early,” Maverick joked slightly, though never loosing his demeanor.

=/\= “You bet we're in a jam. We've got people down there to get information from that base, they're on their way back Admiral.” =/\=

“Understood,” James nodded, “We'll handle this damned ship, you get finish your away mission, ASAP, get your people out and then give us a bit of a hand. We don't have a live Kreltan to study, so I plan on bringing ship and all to starbase with us. If you have a Hazard Team or damned good security personnel, get ready to beam them to the Kreltan ship with orders to capture it. If we can't do that, then we'll blow them to Hell. Firestorm out.”

The screen went blank and the Firestorm's bridge rocked from phasor fire. “Helm, attack pattern Kirk Alpha. Tactical, once their shields start to buckle, switch to photon torpedoes and medium intensity phasor fire, I want that ship captured.”

“Aye's” came around again and James tapped the inner comm button, “Bridge to Hazard Team, get geared up and to your transporter room assignments. Prepare to capture the Kreltan warship.”

James watched the screen as if to burn a hole through it as the Firestorm launched it's assault.

John Carter felt a great sense of satisfaction as the large polished hull of the U.S.S. Firestorm swung through the view of Republic's main bridge. 'Damn, but that's a big ship', he thought. Carter leaned forward, shifting slightly as he settled in to the seat to his Captain's right. “Tactical!” he ordered, “stand down photon torpedoes. Lock phasors on the Kreltan's power systems once Firestorm blows their shields.”

“Captain,” Carter offered, “recommend we put ourselves between the Kreltans and the Argo to cover the away team's approach.”

Marshall considered the options as his officers slipped into the roles they were trained for. “Do it.” Marshall said simply. “We need to give Riggs time to live up to his reputation.”

“Aye, Sir.” John acknowledged. Carter glanced at the tactical display. “Xylaide, see if we can lock down the Kreltan shield modulations, and set up a tac net. Overlay our scans and theirs. We can end this quick and clean if we can work fast enough.”

“Aye, Sir”. The half-Cardassian officer's reply was crisp and short. After a few simple chirps from the controls, she spoke again. “Tactical Data Link established, Lieutenant Commander.”

Marshall then ordered, “Open a channel to the away team.” As soon as the channel was opened Marshall said, “Republic to Argo, Riggs we're taking fire, so you need to get back here pronto.”

=/\= “Sir, we haven’t even approached the base yet. If we abandon the mission now, we’ll have nothing to show for it.” =/\=

“And if you don’t get back here,” Marshall countered. “You’ll be without a ride home. We’re taking heavy fire, and have to break orbit.”

=/\= “To get through all that phasor fire, we’ll have to do a high-speed approach.” =/\=

“That's it exactly, we'll drop the shields long enough for you to get trough then you'll just have to land on your own. No time for the tractor beam,” said Marshall.

=/\= “We'll make it back Captain, just get those shields down. Argo out,” =/\=

“Tactical!” Carter ordered, “stand down photon torpedoes. Lock phasors on the Kreltan's power systems once Firestorm blows their shields.”

“Now we're in business!” John watched as his Tactical Display monitor showed a schematic of the Kreltan ship, marked with colors and patterns showing relative shield strength and as much sensor information as the two Starfleet ships could collect.

John felt his confident smirk return as the sensor display confirmed the battered state of the Kreltan shields. Carter felt himself tense, then cocked his head to his left. “Captain Marshall?” he asked, “Permission to step out and get Doctor Cromwell a little something?”

Despite the tension of the moment, James Marshall cracked the thinnest of smiles. “I'm sure you know just what to get him…”

Reddy reported, “Dropping aft shields, Argo is inbound. They're in.”

“Good,” said Marshall as he rose from his chair. The Kreltan ship turned to focus its fire on the Republic. Marshall figured they just saw the Argo coming back from the surface. Carter was entering the turbolift when Marshall said, “Tactical,” the ship then rocked knocking Marshall off his feet forward. He hit his head on the deck plate, and the last thing he heard was someone say, “Medical team to the bridge, captain is down,” before he blacked out.

Chapter 12Top

<Location: sickbay, diagnostic room, USS Republic>

As the three standby teams waited for call up, Leon paced the room. The ship had not sustained any casualties yet, nor was there word from Doctor Y’lair aboard the Argo. The constant shuddering from weapons fire had ceased, but the ship remained at red alert. “What the devil is going on?” Leon whispered restlessly to himself.

Suddenly, the ship jostled violently from another volley of weapons fire. Before anyone could say anything, the comm system came to life.

=/\= “Medical team to the bridge, captain is down,” =/\=

Almost immediately, Shannon Harris stood up and said, “I’ll go.”

Leon, recognizing the concern and emotion in her voice, waved her back. “Harris,” he said. “It’s okay, I can take this one.”

She stared at him with worried eyes. “I’d really like to go.”

Realizing that Harris’ feelings for Carter was beginning to affect her judgment, Leon felt it necessary to intercede. He walked up to her, placed a soothing hand on her shoulder, and replied. “Not this time, Shannon. If it’s the captain, I’d better go.” Although logical, the words brought no ease to Harris as her eyes betrayed a swelling anxiety.

“I’m sure he’s okay,” insisted Leon. “I need you here to take the next call, okay?”

Shannon conceded with a slow nod of her head, and sat back down as Leon and his team left the diagnostic room with their gear.

<Location: main bridge, USS Republic>

It took no more than thirty seconds before Doctor Cromwell arrived at the Republic’s command center. However, during that time, the ship was, for the most part, without a leader. Carter had stepped into the turbolift moments before the captain was rendered unconscious, and was currently rallying Lieutenant Commander Riggs and his Argo team in transporter room four with a security contingent. Although all stations were manned by trained bridge crew, there were no senior officers present when Leon arrived with his team. Lieutenant Reddy kneeled by the captain’s side, while Lieutenants Sullivan and Xayide allocated their attention evenly between their station and the captain’s situation.

The hum of Doctor Cromwell’s tricorder was the only sound filling the tense room, save that of computer chirps and minor electrical arcing from ship damage. Blood dripped from a large gash in the captain’s forehead as Leon came to a diagnosis.

“He has a severe concussion along with heavy trauma to the meningeal artery. We need to get him to sickbay.”

In response to the doctor’s instructions, the two medics who accompanied Leon to the bridge unfolded an antigrav stretcher. As they lifted the commanding officer onto the carrying device, Leon stood up and tapped his combadge.

“Cromwell to Carter.”

Moments passed before the response was heard.

=/\= “Carter here. Go ahead, doc.” =/\=

“We have a situation here,” responded Doctor Cromwell. “That last volley of weapons fire injured the captain, and we’re taking him to sickbay. You’d better get up here.”

There was a moment of silence on the bridge during which Carter swore yet another obscenity in Martian. If they abandoned the capture mission now, there would be a missed opportunity to give the Federation a decisive advantage against the Kreltan Confederacy. Carter had to weigh his options: abandon the mission and let this enemy ship get away, or continue with the operation, leaving the Republic without an experienced leader in the command chair. Although most officers in his position would have cancelled the away mission, Carter was a risk-taker, and had faith in his ship and crew. In an instant that startled every person on the bridge, Carter responded in a reluctant voice.

=/\= “Take the con, doctor.” =/\=

Confused, Leon replied, “what? You’re kidding, right?”

Carter responded in a much more distinct and sober tone. There was a sense of urgency in his voice.

=/\= “Doctor, I haven’t got time to explain. This mission is of utmost importance to Starfleet, and Commander Riggs and I have to go through with it. I need a senior officer on the bridge, and you’re the closest.” =/\=

Flabbergasted, Leon retorted in a panic-stricken voice. “John! I’m not a bridge officer! Get Maddox to do it!”

This time, spite came forth from the executive officer’s voice.

=/\= “That wasn’t a request, Doctor! And for you information, Maddox isn’t a bridge officer, either! He’s an engineer, and I need him in engineering so you can high tail it out of here if Riggs and I fail! Now I’m ordering you: Doctor Cromwell, TAKE THE CON! Carter out!” =/\=

Leon’s jaw hung open in disbelief. He didn’t even like coming to the bridge, let alone sitting in the command pit. An uneasy feeling began to creep into his stomach as he looked around to find the entire bridge crew staring at him.

“Do it . . .” sounded a raspy voice. Doctor Cromwell looked down to the antigrav stretcher where the injured captain was barely clinging to consciousness. “It’s okay, Leon . . . do it . . . I have confidence in you.” Marshall raised a shaky arm and touched Leon’s wrist. “Give yourself some credit, Leon . . . you’re better than you think . . .” The captain took one last gasp of breath before he lapsed again into unconsciousness.

“We’d better get him down to sickbay, doctor,” the medics insisted. Leon nodded his head in acknowledgement, and they slipped into the turbolift with Captain Marshall.

The moment of panic that held him hostage to Carter’s words seemed to take its toll on the anxious bridge crew of junior officers. They were caught in the paradox of being handed a leader of whom they knew little of his command ability. The fact that their new commander was a medical doctor, and not a certified bridge officer did not help to ease their tension. The only thing that Leon could do to cure this malady was to show that he was in control.

“Report, lieutenant,” came the words from Leon’s mouth, recalling that they were the same orders he gave his sickbay crew moments earlier. However, this time, Leon was looking at Lieutenant Sullivan, who turned to look at his status board.

Sullivan ran off a quick checklist. “Shields down to 78 percent. Minor damage to engineering subsystems. No casualties reported. All systems functional.”

“Good,” replied Leon in a confident voice, despite the look of shock still present on his face.

“Sir,” sounded the voice of Lieutenant Xayide. “Transporter room four reports that the away team has beamed out.”

“Thank you,” replied Leon, who turned to Lieutenant Reddy. “Well, Psi, I guess that makes you our tactical officer. Take your station.”

With resignation, Leon walked to the captain’s chair, and slowly sat down. The discomfort in his temporary position rang out in his mind like a bell, and the only thought that quelled his trepidation was the knowledge that the lives of the entire crew were now in HIS hands. This was not an uncommon situation for him, just a different place from which to carry out that task. It was now time to treat the entire ship the same way he treated his sickbay staff.

“Maintain position,” ordered Leon. “Await a signal from the away team.”

<location: transporter room two, USS Republic>

Inside transporter room two, John Carter cleared his throat and turned his attention to the racks of phasor riles on the wall. As he reached for a weapon, Lieutenant Commander Riggs and his tactical team entered the room, fresh from their harried arrival on the flight deck. Carter looked to Riggs as his men took positions on the transporter pad. “You know Commander, if you scratched the paint, dad's going to be a little angry.” Carter was pleased to see the other officer chuckle.

“Yeah, well,” Riggs said as he checked the charge of his hand phasor, “I was going to blame it on you anyway. Your record with small craft is…distinguished.”

Carter felt his left eyebrow raise. “Heard about that did you?”

“Yep.” Riggs said simply as he consulted the latest tactical download on his PADD. “To tell you the truth, it was something I always wanted to try. I'm just sorry you beat me to it.”

“I'll remember that next time.” Carter said lightly. Republic's Executive Officer stepped toward the transporter pad, but stopped short as Riggs raised his hand.

“Where do you think you're going?”

“I'm following orders. Marshall wants us to bag a Kreltan, and the scans show…”

“Can't let you do that Commander.” Riggs said flatly. “General Order 18. Captain's down. That puts you in charge, so you're not leaving the ship. Besides, if you're even half as good as your rep, you're the best one to have up here so we have somewhere to beam back to.”

John Carter slung the phaser rifle over his shoulder, and stepped back from the transporter pad. “Sometimes I hate this job.” He said with a wry smile. “Just take care of my…YOUR people.” John silently chided himself for the verbal slip. He wasn't in charge of Republic's Tactical Department anymore, and now, with Captain Marshall medically unfit to command, John found himself directly responsible for over 700 lives.

Regulations told John Carter he had to be on the bridge, and his sense of responsibility wouldn't let him do anything to jeopardize what was now his ship, but he didn't have to like it. John stepped back to stand just in front of the transporter control officer.

On the transporter pad, Commander Riggs double checked his deployment plan, then looked up. “Don't worry Commander, ten credits says you get the next one.”

“That's a deal Riggs. On your way.”

Riggs nodded and primed his phaser rifle. “Energize.”

After a soft flash and the whine of a confined matter stream, the Away Team was gone. Carter then quickly exited to the nearest turbo lift.

Chapter 13Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Tense seconds ticked by on Republic's bridge as Leon Cromwell waited for news from the Away Team. Republic and Firestorm were coordinating their efforts well against their Kreltan adversaries. Fortunately, to Leon's way of thinking, Lieutenant Reddy was using the ship's phasers to deal damage to the enemy without having to be ordered to.

It wasn't the thought of combat that bothered Leon Cromwell. True, he was a doctor, and above all was sworn to do no harm, but he was also a veteran of the Dominion Wars; the bloodiest conflict the Alpha Quadrant had seen in over a hundred years. Living through that gave Leon a new understanding, if not appreciation, that there were indeed times to stand and fight.

Clearly, this was one of those times. If even half of what Leon suspected about the Kreltan's was true, then Starfleet would have to stand its ground.

What frustrated Leon Cromwell at the moment was the fact that, while he could hold his own on an away mission, he was no tactician, and the doctor was genuinely afraid that his lack of experience in that area might get good people killed.

The Bridge of the U.S.S. Republic shook as her shields fought against a Kreltan barrage. “Hit on the fore-port quarter.” Ann Readdy reported, just as her training dictated. “Shields at 68 percent.”

“Any fix on the away team or their status?”

“Negative Doct . . . no sir,” Readdy corrected herself. “The Kreltan's have some sort of EM masking. It's not a cloak, but it's making for some damned odd returns.”

As Leon pondered his next move, he was unaware of the bridge lift doors opening, followed quickly by John Carter's arrival on the bridge. “Keep the shields up and hold station.”

“I'd advise against that, Doc.” John quipped as he strode toward the command deck. Despite the tension of the moment, Carter had the barest hint of a smile on his face.

Leon fairly jumped to his feet. “What the Hell?! What are you doing here?!” Cromwell stepped away from the center seat as if it had been some cruel torture device. He didn't wait for Carter to answer. “Forget it. I don't even want to know!”

Carter eased himself into the command chair, leaning to one side slightly as he regarded the situation on the ship's viewer. “Calm down, Doctor. I'll brief you later. Go see to my boss please?”

“Gladly!” Leon said, barely containing the very real anger he felt at the moment, but whether that was because of Carter's order, or Leon's own unease with his situation, the doctor wasn't sure.

Cromwell moved quickly for the turbolift, but Carter spoke before he could exit. “Doctor?”

“What!” Leon shot back.

“Thank you.”

Cromwell nodded, and then left the bridge, headed for the sickbay.

“Alright, Tac,” Carter shouted over his shoulder. “What do I need to know?”

“Shields are at 68% and I cannot get a clear fix on the location of the Away Team! Some sort of device being used by the Kreltans!” Readdy replied, with crisp efficiency. “I haven't heard anything from the Firestorm, sir!” she added.

<location: main turboshaft, USS Republic>

“Deck Twelve,” announced Leon with weary exasperation, and as the turbolift launched towards the designated level with a quiet hum, he leaned forcefully against the wall with exhaustion. Sweat rolled down his forehead as the doctor closed his eyes and felt his heart racing. His breath was heavy and burdensome, and the stifling atmosphere of the elevator cab forced Leon to open up the left flap of his V-neck jumpsuit revealing a black, perspiration-soaked undershirt. The recent jumble of events seemed to trigger a chain of repressed memories as Doctor Cromwell slid down the side of the turbolift to a fetal sitting position. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he was completely oblivious to the soft tremors that gripped his body.

“Doctor?” came the frantic cry, of the nursing assistant.

Leon’s bloodstained hands were fumbling with the diagnostic wand of a medical tricorder as he scanned the unmoving body of gutted Starfleet commander. The unconscious patient looked to be a veteran commander, with stoic age lines engraved into his face, and a thick patch of graying brown hair atop his head. His life signs were erratic, and as the precious, life-giving blood flowed out from the officer’s grievous wounds, the critical readings on the scanning device turned terminal.

“Damn it!” shouted the doctor, as the sounds of phasor fire echoed in the distance.

“Doctor, please! We have to hurry!” repeated the insistent voice.

Leon turned his head to look into the blue, frenzied eyes of a human female with black, curly hair. She wore a Starfleet lieutenant’s uniform, which, like Leon’s white physician’s tunic, was blood soaked and tattered. The panic in her eyes was very real.

“He’s dead, Higgins,” Leon replied with a sigh of resignation. “There’s nothing more we can do.” As he pulled a silver blanket over the body, he turned away from Higgins to look down the long aisle of the base camp’s infirmary. Either side of the aisle hosted a long line of biobeds that contained the dead or dying bodies of Starfleet personnel. At the end of the aisle, the open entryway billowed with smoke as an explosion rattled the corridor outside.

“That was the inner defense perimeter,” said Higgins with a shaky voice. “I think they’ve breached it. There’s nowhere else to go now . . . ”

Offering a last moment of remorse for the now deceased base commander, Leon bowed his head. Outside in the corridor, the steady beat of marching Jem H’dar soldiers loomed ever closer. Higgins began to whimper as Leon grabbed her arm.

“Don’t give up hope yet, Sarah,” offered Doctor Cromwell. “We’re an unarmed medical contingent. If they’ve any shred of morality in them, they’ll leave us alone.”

Leon knew it was a slim hope. “Even Klingons wouldn’t harm medical personnel taking care of casualties,” he reasoned. “There’s simply no honor in it.”

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his head as the troops rounded the corner into the medical ward. In military fashion, the Jem H’dar soldiers marched down the aisle, pointing rifles at anything that moved. Patients cried in fear as Higgins collapsed to the floor weeping. Only Leon stood up to face the enemy with hands held up in a non-confrontational demeanor.

“We’re a medical unit,” pleaded Leon. “We’re unarmed, and no threat to you.”

The leading soldier refused to lower his rifle, and instead, pointed it at Doctor Cromwell’s head.

“Where’s your commanding officer?” bellowed the lead soldier.

“He’s dead,” replied Leon, well aware of the phasor barrel staring him in the face. “He just passed away from massive internal hemorrhaging. I’m the last senior officer in charge. Please, spare the rest of us. We’re no threat to you.”

A tense moment occurred where Leon agonized over the soldiers’ response. This was his first face-to-face contact with the enemy, not to mention his first time being in command. He was already feeling regret over the fact that his first decision would be a surrender order. However, that order would never be administered as the shocking reply came from the Jem H’dar.

“Our order from the Founders is to destroy this base.”

With that, phasor rifles began to discharge throughout the room. Patients, still clinging to life in their biobeds, went screaming to their deaths at the point of a phasor rifle. Leon could only stand and watch in horror as bodies began disintegrating around him in a massive act of carnage. Finally, a phasor shot landed on Higgins, and in a squeal of pain, she disappeared in a glowing cloud of red mist.

“Higgins!” screamed Leon with incredulity. “You son-of-a-bitch!” he hissed at the soldier in front of him, grabbing the rifle barrel. A struggle took place where they both fell to the ground in a fight over the weapon. Realizing what was happening, a nearby soldier reversed his grip on his rifle, and with a heaving overhead arc, slammed the butt of the weapon against Leon’s head.

The turbolift doors whispered open as Leon gasped for air. From the floor of the elevator car, he found himself staring down an empty corridor aboard the Republic. The soft, repetitive blinking of the condition red tracer lights pulsated along the walls as the doctor slowly stood up and regained his composure. Wiping sweat from his forehead, Leon zipped closed the open flap on his blue, V-neck jumpsuit before carefully walking through the open doors.

Leon had not had a flashback to the Dominion Wars for well over a year and a half. Although his outpatient status from stress counseling required him to report such occurrences, he always shied away from the task, finding some medical or situational explanation for the incident. The walk towards sickbay was an eternity where Leon worked to shake off what he now dubbed “command-pit jitters.”

“What was he thinking?” he mumbled softly to himself. Although he was pleased that Carter trusted him enough to temporarily sit in the center seat, Leon was worried that he wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations of his commander and executive officer. After all, he was just a medical doctor, and a rusty one at that. ‘What in our recent history together makes them think I’m capable of performing the tasks of a command-grade bridge officer?’ he thought. Leon postulated the possibility that one or more of his past supervisors must have inserted the recommendation into his Starfleet file, because it seemed that every time he was reassigned, the subject of command schooling or full-commissioning came up. In fact, it became so annoying that it was one of the reasons he left his Starfleet contract two years ago.

“Starfleet doesn’t even recognize THAT,” he chided to himself, complaining yet again of his quandary with the headquarters personnel office. As the doors to sickbay parted, Leon walked briskly through on his way to the main ward. Triage One was marginally busy, with about ten biobeds occupied by conscious patients who were being treated for minor wounds and fractures. However, one of the beds contained an unconscious Captain Marshall, with Doctor Yezbeck and the Deltan Doctor Ryda tending to the internal auto-suture attached to the commanding officer’s head.

Yezbeck looked up to see Leon approaching them. “I thought you were on the bridge,” he stated curiously.

“Don’t tell me that’s getting around,” Leon replied, hoping to prevent yet another calamity similar to the award ceremony earlier that day. The last thing he wanted was a rumor starring the invincible ‘Captain Cromwell.’

Yezbeck replied, “it raised a few eyebrows down here. I sent Fernmoore to the diagnostic room to take over your stand-by team.”

“How’s the captain?” Leon asked.

“He’ll be fine,” replied the balding trauma surgeon. “There’s no major hemorrhaging, or any other damage to the surrounding tissue. He’ll be conscious in a little while, but probably have one hell of a headache.”

“I’d like to keep him here until morning for observation,” interjected Doctor Ryda. “Just to be safe.”

“Permission granted,” Leon said. “Carter will have to play the skipper for a while. Let the bridge know. I’ll be in the diagnostic room.”

Both doctors replied, “aye, sir,” as Leon returned to the diagnostic room.

Doctors Harris, Favuuk, and Fernmoore waited silently in the diagnostic room, each with their two-person stand-by teams geared up and ready to be dispatched. Some of the medics were busy checking over their equipment while others read letters from home on their personal PADD devices. The ship rocked occasionally from weapons fire, but the subsequent jostling went unnoticed.

The doors parted, causing several to look towards the entryway. As Leon walked into the room, most people returned to their tasks. However, Harris was inquisitive as to what occurred on the bridge.

“I though Carter put you in charge?” she said with confusion.

“He did, ” replied Doctor Cromwell. “But he apparently decided not to go on the away mission. He came to the bridge a few minutes later to relieve me, much to my surprise and relief.”

“Mine too,” replied Harris, happy to hear that Carter wasn’t in harms way.

“I guess I’m not needed here,” replied the gray-haired Doctor Fernmoore, who took over Leon’s stand-by team during his brief stint on the bridge. She began collecting her away-mission gear when Leon spoke words that made her stop dead in her tracks.

“How’s things going here, Higgins?” asked Leon, while looking at Harris.

Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing, and looked at Doctor Cromwell. Harris stared at him with concern and said, “Harris . . .”

Leon’s stomach tightened. “What?” he said with nervousness.

“My name,” insisted the red-haired Lieutenant. “It’s Harris. Are you okay, doctor?”

Leon looked around to everyone staring at him, and wiped the sweat from his forehead, which was beginning to condense for the second time that day.

“Um, Fernmoore?” Leon addressed. “Why don’t you stay here and take over my team for now.”

The older woman nodded slowly, looking at him with apprehension. She replaced her gear back on the floor and took position by the two medics that Leon brought to the bridge earlier. For her part, Harris flipped out a medical tricorder and scanned Leon.

“You’re adrenaline levels are rather high, not to mention an electrolyte imbalance. Maybe you should take a breather.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Leon with concern. “I’ll be in my office.”

Leon quickly exited the room. As he entered his office, he dropped his hard-shell pack and medical kit by the entrance, and slowly took his seat behind his desk. He stared into the empty space in front of him, both with concern and exhaustion over the events of the past hour. After ordering a cup of coffee from the wall dispenser, he activated the computer console and began monitoring the information coming from the bridge.

After a moment, he found that his thoughts were unable to focus on current events, and he turned the console off. With a sigh, he opened a drawer in his desk and produced a handheld transparent octahedral object, and placed it on the desk. Flipping a microswitch at its base, a small hologram of three individuals appeared, standing next to one another. The tall individual in the center was an aging Starfleet commander, who had a head full of graying brown hair. He was smiling, and wrapped his arms around the two individuals to either side of him. They each wore white medical jackets, and one of the individuals was a younger version of Leon, who carried a smile of his own that was not weighed down by the horrors of war. The other individual was a young, curly-haired brunette with blue eyes, and held a smile that was happy, cheerful, and full of life.

He stared at the hologram for a long time. Leon was caught in the paradox of remembering the strong thread of life that flowed vibrantly from his lost friends, while also trying to forget the horror of their deaths that he was forced to witness. Before long, the burning tightness in his stomach swelled into his throat, and tears welled within his eyes.

=/\= “Doctor, Captain Marshall’s injuries were minor. He’s conscious, and his treatment is complete. We’re awaiting for your post-exam to send him back to duty.” =/\=

The calling of the intercom forced Leon to quickly rid his eyes of mourning with a few wipes of his hand. Tapping his combadge, he replied “on my way.”

Chapter 14Top

<location: main bridge. USS Republic>

Upon exiting the turbolift, Captain Marshall turned to Carter and said, “Report.”

John Carter turned in reflex to his commanding officer's voice. John had expected Captain Marshall to be kept in sickbay for observation, 'But,' he reflected silently, 'if it were me, the Doc would have to stun me to keep me off the bridge'. Carter stood up and took position over Lieutenant Snyder's shoulder, staring hard at the screen.

“It's hard to say Skip.” John crossed his arms across his chest and glanced at Snyder's helm plot. “No word from the Away Team, or the Firestorm. She's keeping up the attack, and the Tactical Net is still up…” Carter stopped speaking to watch angry lances of phaser energy dart from the Firestorm, impacting on the shields of the smaller Kreltan vessel. “Ooo”, John winced, “that had to hurt.” Carter turned his head to call back to Lieutenant Reddy at the Tactical Station.

“Follow that up, Reddy.” He ordered on reflex, forgetting for the moment that Marshall had returned to the bridge.

“Aye, Commander,” Reddy said, as she keyed in the command to fire Republic's own phasers on the heels of the barrage from the U.S.S. Firestorm. Reddy smiled, as she reported the results. “Kreltan shields are out in their aft port quarter, Sir.”

“Excellent.” Captain Marshall said, pleased to see that his junior tactical officer seemed to be growing into the role. Marshall eased back in the center seat and pondered the situation. “Ops?” he called out to Lieutenant Sullivan. “Coordinate with sciences. See if you can punch a message through to the Away Team, now that the Kreltan's shields are down.”

“I've been thinking about that myself Skip.” Carter added. “Best guess from the sensor returns is that the masking is a function of their hull, not the shields.”

“Sure,” Marshall quipped, “why make it easy on us?”

Punctuating a moment of awkward silence, the comm. system chirped. The signal was noisy, and incomplete.

=/\= “Ri…s to Rep….. .e're *schrack* …ition. I've got one… and t.. *BREAK* ASAP. Stand… by.” =/\=

The sound of weapons fire and shouting could be heard under Riggs situation report.

“Get me a lock!” Marshall shouted. “I want our people out of there YESTERDAY!”

“If I may Captain?” came a sweetly hissing question from Lieutenant Xylaide. Marshall couldn't help but turn his head in surprise. The half Cardassian, half Bajoran Science Chief had scarcely said two words to most of the crew during her time on Republic.

“Impress me, Xylaide,” the captain said.

The science officer hid her inner revulsion at being addressed so informally by a mere human. Commanding Officer or not, what right did he have to take such liberties with her? She choked back her disgust and spoke. “Our enhanced sensors should be able to lock onto the power sources for the Away Team's compressor rifles…”

John Carter felt his eyebrow raise as he realized Xylaide had just referred to a Cardassian weapon. He wondered if she had noticed the slip as well. Or had she meant to let it go?

“But it will require the re-routing of power from our…”

“Do it!” Marshall ordered. “I've got a bad feeling about this.”

From her workstation, a series of beeps and whistles told the crew that Xylaide was already following her Captain's orders. What the crew couldn't know was how little respect she had for the man who'd given those orders.

As if on cue, Anne Reddy called out from her tactical post, high on the backside of the bridge. “Captain! New sensor contact! Two Oligarch Dreadnaughts, inbound at high warp. Heading two-seven-zero, mark three!”

“Damnit!” Marshall hissed. “We barely took out one. Even with Firestorm here, we're outgunned.”

“And they're coming right up our six.” John Carter remarked. “Conn, get me an exit vector, maximum warp. Tac, stand by to drop our shields to bring Riggs and the boys back.”

“Aye, Sir.” came responses from the bridge crew.

“ETA on Dreadnaughts?” Marshall barked.

“Thirty-one…NO! Twenty-eight seconds!” Ready answered.

“Griffe!” John Carter cursed. “This is going to get ugly!”

Readdy stayed poised to drop the shields. She knew this was a risky maneuver, but that's the only way they could beam up the Away Team.

“They're just about on top of us!” Readdy announced. “The window's closing! Fast!”

Beads of sweat formed on Readdy's forehead, piston cylinders, and airlines, but she maintained a cool head.

As Lieutenant Snyder input orders to the helm, John Carter braced his knees to roll with the slight pitch up to port, while the tactical plot now on the main viewer told him several interesting things.

First, the U.S.S. Firestorm must also have been aware of the incoming Kreltan ships, because it was now positioning itself to cover Republic's retreat. Part of John hated running from a fight, but he was also thankful to have man like the CO of the Firestorm watching his back. He'd never admit that of course, but the thought was there. The second thing a look at the tactical plot revealed was that the two massive Dreadnaughts was slowing as they approached.

“What the hell?” John muttered softly. To Carter's way of thinking, slowing an attack when you clearly had the element of surprise was about the least effective thing one could do in a naval engagement. First, it gave the enemy time to adapt, and second, and more importantly to John Carter's mind, it gave the enemy room to maneuver. John Carter felt his familiar smirk return.

“Don't look a gift horse in the mouth Mister Carter.” Captain Marshall said. The Captain glanced over his shoulder and addressed his half-Cardassian, half-Bajoran science officer. “You're running out of time Lieutenant!” he reminded her harshly.

At the science workstation, Xyaide input one last command into the console, and spoke coldly, and efficiently. “Re-initializing sensors. Prepare to energize transporters.”

Republic was rocked by the near miss of a Kreltan plasma torpedo as John Carter made his way back to his seat in the command pit. “Tac, stand-by shields.”

“Standing by Commander,” Readdy replied.

Carter tapped at the keys on his console that opened the comm system. “Carter to sickbay. Send an ERT to transporter room one.”

He didn't wait for the acknowledgement, and instead waited for the sensors to find what Xyaide had told them to look for; the micro-fusion power cells of the Away teams phaser rifles.

<location: somewhere aboard the Kreltan Dreadnaught>

Lieutenant Commander Matt Riggs was no stranger to combat. He'd been chosen by Starfleet Command to join the Elite Force program, and had equated himself well enough on countless Away Teams (some of which he would never be able to talk about), to have earned the respect of his fellow Tactical officers. Starfleet prided itself on a fair amount of discipline and civility, meaning the chain of command was nearly always obeyed (with a few notable exceptions, all involving a ship named Enterprise), there were occasions where it was a genuine pleasure to serve with people who knew the job well and did it. Anyone in Starfleet would tell you that Matthew Riggs was a pleasure to serve with.

Upon becoming solid after transport, Riggs had instructed the remaining five members of his away team to fan out in a simple line, with Riggs himself as “Tailgun Charlie”. From that position, he could not only direct fire and the movements of the Away team, but he would also be able to cover the team's escape, if necessary.

The Away Team moved with cautious steps down the darkened corridors of the Kreltan ship, pausing at irregular intervals to step over ridges and juts in the hallway that might have marked the joining of components. It made for slow going, and it made Riggs nervous. Over the mastoid comm unit that was strapped over his throat, Riggs was able to communicate with the rest of the Awa Team using barely audible vocalizations. Each member of the team also had an earpiece. This made nearly silent communication between all the Starfleet officers possible.

“Woczyk,” came the signal from Riggs. “Find me a Kreltan so we can get out of here.”

Two places in line ahead of Riggs, Ensign Sasha Woczyk consulted his tri-corder. The display of the device cast a pale green light over the Ensign's eye, in contrast to the red sheen of the corridor’s dim red lights off of his bald head. “No good, Lead.” he answered. “Something in the walls.” Sasha checked the tri-corder again, and gave the screen a light tap with his finger. “Must be something about the hull. We're blind as Tarkalian Bats.”

'Great!' Riggs chimed in mentally, 'we do this the hard way.' “Right.” he finally said after a few silent seconds. “McDermott, Regesh, you two advance to the junction. Woczyk, Sokek, you leap frog from there. Carlsberg and I will close up the line.”

Short replies followed, and the Away Team followed instructions, with Riggs checking behind himself every few feet.

What Riggs knew about Kreltans wouldn't fill the slip in a fortune cookie, and he mentally scolded himself for getting caught up in the truly alien design of the ship he was leading the team through. It looked more grown, or patched together than built. With very few straight lines, and oddly spaced access ways at various points along the walls and ceiling, presumably to allow access to other levels of the ship. However, Riggs noted the disturbing absence of ladders, or steps. He wondered then if Kreltans in their natural state even had need of such things, or if they even had hands or feet.

'Hot.' Lieutenant Regesh thought to himself. 'I'm too hot'. The native of Andor looked black in the hallway's subdued yellow lights, which Regesh found disturbing as he looked at his own hands; trying to maintain his own concentration.

Higher temperatures did odd things to Andorian temperament. Their native planet was a cool, temperate world with an average temperature f only 15 degrees Celsius. Because of this, Andorian physiology was adapted to conserving heat, moreso than cooling the body. As a result, high temperatures (like the environment Regesh now found himself in) could cause irritability, and even violent flashes of temper. Regesh was the very Starfleet model of discipline. Head high, back straight, eyes set, but he could feel blood pounding in his temples, and wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else.

Regesh could feel his control slipping away, and had the presence of mind to turn to Siobhan McDermott, the small but dangerous Terran woman directly behind him and opened his mouth to tell her he was unwell.

The words never came.

Siobhan McDermott's eyes went wide with surprise as Regesh turned to address her, but through the gap between the Andorian's arm, and torso, she saw the amorphous form of what had to be a Kreltan slither and ooze into the corridor ahead of the away team. In one fluid motion she pushed Regesh to her right, dropped to one knee, and raised her left arm to fire from the hip, but she was too slow.

Before her brain sent and received the signal to depress the trigger, the once quiet corridor was filled with an inhuman wail, like some strange, primordial beast had erupted from the deepest darkest places of McDermott's imagination to warn her that she had gone too far into her own fears. The cry also served to warn the rest of the Kreltans that their ship was no longer secure.

As the Kreltan…thing continued to cry out, a milky yellow tendril dripped from the center of it's mass, quickly dropping to the floor where it pooled. Then suddenly, the pool appeared to boil, and as bubbled formed and popped, dozens of shiny spikes took their place. In the blink of an eye, the Kreltan's tendril twitched, sending the spiked pallet vaulting from the floor, where it sank into Regesh's back with a sick, heavy “thunk”.

Regesh went with the shove McDermott had given him, but was genuinely surprised at the searing pain that soon followed. It overwhelmed his senses. So much so that he was only vaguely aware of the blood and other fluids that were filling his lungs… that his body was now desperate to expel. 'How strange', Regesh thought, 'To feel so much, and yet now, not feel much at all.'

As Regesh dropped to the deck, McDermott fired her weapon. She knew that even on full stun, it might take multiple hits to bring down a creature that had no nervous system to speak of, so immediately after the first beam left her weapon, she launched a second, to the same location. Instructors at the Academy called it “The Deuce”, and Siobhan McDermott had a fondness for how direct and effective it was.

The noise in the corridor ceased for an uneasy second or two as the Kreltan was overwhelmed with phaser energy. His undulating mass became rigid, and shook slightly as he toppled to the deck under his own weight.

In reaction to the sudden noise and phaser fire, Riggs and the other members of the Away Team fell back on hours of training, pressing themselves to either side of the hall, alternately standing and kneeling to give each other a clear line of fire. “MAN DOWN!”

“I've got 'em!” McDermott yelled, as scrambled to pull the body of her fallen crewmate to her side of the hall.

Riggs fired off two quick shots to cover Hannah Carlsberg as she inched forward to drag the fallen Kreltan closer to the Away Team's position. The tall, strong ensign knew how close the target would have to be in order for Republic to pull them all home in a single transporter beam. Hannah called on her considerable strength, but even for her six-foot frame, hauling a mass of what amounted to five cubic feet of inert plasma was slow going.

Too slow.

More Kreltans appeared in the hall ahead of the Away Team, and Anthony Woczyk screamed as an alien tendril dripped onto his head from the ceiling, pulling him up and into the unknown before Riggs could react. Kreltan plasma bolts spat down the hall as the Starfleet officers returned fire. Riggs fired up into the hole where Woczyk had been taken and cursed.


Sokek and Riggs lay down suppressive fire, as McDermott pulled Regesh's dead body with her, and Hannah Carlsberg heaved the downed Kreltan onto her shoulder. Brilliant flashes of energy shot past the two women as their teammates covered their retreat. With agonizing slowness, the team crept back to the point where they had first appeared on the enemy's ship. A point the Republic should have had in its transporter logs.

Riggs signaled Sokek to continue firing, keeping the advancing aliens at bay, then tapped his comm badge.

“Riggs to Republic! We need immediate evac! We have secured the objective, but I have two men down! Proceeding to zero position. Evac ASAP!”

Riggs had no way of knowing of the message go through, but if it didn't, then soon, it wouldn't matter.

Chapter 15Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Seconds passed as the crew tensely awaited the results of their last actions.

“We’ve got an exit window to parallel to the Firestorm one-six-three mark five, but it won’t last long,” Reddy announced at last. “Admiral Maverick is hailing us.”

“On screen,” ordered Captain Marshall.

In a blink of an eye, the star-speckled battleground disappeared to reveal the stressed, aged face of the admiral. Alert klaxons sounded in the background, and the reception was blurred with static, the result of weapons interference.

“Jim, were tracking several Kreltan ships inbound. They’ll be on us in seconds. Abort the snatch operation and let’s high-tail out of here.”

“Were planning to, admiral,” said Marshall with urgency. “But we’re trying to get our team back. As soon as they’re aboard we’re planning to go into warp.”

“Acknowledged,” he replied. “We’ll give you cover as long as we can. But hurry it up.”

<location: transporter room one, USS Republic>

Chief Perizata stood by the transporter controls, attempting to gain a lock on Lieutenant Commander Riggs' away team. It wasn't until the sensor information from the bridge was received that the team could even be tracked through the maelstrom of false echoes from the Kreltan cloaking device. Pinpointing the phasor rifles instead of life signs was a novel idea, and as soon as the readings were fed into the transporter computer, bright location signatures of all team members splayed out on the chief's monitors.

“This is transporter room one,” he replied to the bridge through the intercom. “Preparing to transport.”

Manipulating the controls, Perizata expanded the transporter field to retrieve the life signs surrounding the energy signatures. As he activated the beam, his entire console went blank, and the buffer capacitors went from their high-pitched whine that signified a transport, to a silent, power-deprived stand-by mode. Hitting the intercom, the chief yelped, “transporter room six, this is transporter room one! I've just had a power falloff from the distribution matrix! Can you re-establish the beam?”

=/\= “Standby, chief. We'll see what we can do.” =/\=

Just then, the doors to transporter room one slipped open, and Doctor Harris entered followed by two medical technicians. “Commander Carter told us to report here and tend to the returning away team.”

“I'm afraid it's for nothing, doctor,” Perizata explained. “I've transferred beam-out control to transporter room six on deck twenty-eight. Our power from engineering seems to have been re-routed to the bridge science station.”

Suddenly, Perizata received a positive call from transporter room six.

=/\= “Transporter room six to Chief Perizata! We've got the team aboard!” =/\=

Relieved, the transporter technician keyed in a text message to the operations officer that Riggs' team made it back to the Republic.

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

The channel quickly closed as the captain nodded his head. As a chirping came forth from Reddy’s tactical station, she quickly announced “Captain! Transporter room six reports Riggs’ team is aboard!”

“Shields up!” yelled Carter. “Engage warp drive!”

Sullivan replied, but a negative buzzing warble came forth from his console. With a frown, he reported, “engines not responding, sir. Power has been re-routed to the bridge science station.”

“What the hell?” screamed Marshall. “Science, what in blazes are you doing?” The captain stood up and spun around to face the science control station.

Suddenly, Sullivan acknowledged a new problem with the re-routed power feed. “Sir! I’m reading an overload surge!” Not a moment passed before the recessed science control station at the rear of the bridge burst into flames. The explosion hurtled Captain Marshall to the floor, and vaulted Lieutenant Reddy and a stream of debris over the tactical station and into the command pit. Although the fire-control systems activated, creating a floor-to-ceiling containment field around the science stations, all personnel around the rear wall of the bridge were instantly incinerated, including Lieutenant Xyaide.

<location: transporter room one, saucer section, USS Republic>

Harris and her team paused momentarily in the transporter room before deciding to head to the secondary hull to treat the incoming away team that was just re-routed to transporter room six. They were about to head out when an urgent call came in. It was Lieutenant Sullivan on the bridge.

=/\= “Damage control and medical teams to the bridge!” =/\=

A lump in Shannon's throat formed as she felt an intense worry and anxiety over the status of the bridge, and more importantly, Commander Carter. “Harris to sickbay,” she said, tapping her combadge. “My team will take that call. We're closer anyway.”

=/\= “This is Yezbeck. Acknowledged, doctor. Thanks for the help. We're getting rather tied up down here.” =/\=

Not bothering to respond, Harris immediately turned around to report to the bridge six decks up. She saw no reason to proceed over twenty decks down to the secondary hull and report to transporter room six, especially since the away team wasn't even aboard yet. `If they need another ERT team,' she thought, `they can call Fernmoore.'

<location: transporter room six, secondary hull, USS Republic>

Watching the multiple veils of white transporter energy dance across the beaming pads, Ensign Bryant kept a close watch on the power feed. If transporter room one was having power problems, there was always the possibility that it could spread to other parts of the ship. Fortunately, transporter room six was much closer to engineering, and as the backup transporter room, it was often the last line of defense against a transporter glitch during beaming. As the away team coordinates were received from Chief Perizata, Bryant wasted no time activating the transporter, knowing full well that lives were depending upon his quick actions.

Humanoid shapes formed on the transporter pads as the last sparkles of energy-to-matter conversion faded away. Members of the away team were both standing and lying down, and as Ensign Bryant realized that medical assistance would be required, his hand inched towards the intercom. However, before he could activate it, a sizzling lance of orange phasor radiation burned a hole in his chest. The force of the blast threw him against the back wall, and as he slumped to the floor, the last living expression on his face was that of complete shock.

The cold face of Lieutenant Regesh watched on as he lowered the phasor rifle. He looked around the room to find Ensigns Carlsberg and McDermott surveying the dead bodies of Riggs' away team around them on the transporter pads. Without the slightest hint of emotion, the Andorian addressed the two security officers.

“Did they get a message through?”

The purples eyes of the black-haired McDermott faced the Lieutenant and replied “If they did, they would have beamed us to a holding cell instead.”

“You are correct,” Regesh said. “This works in our favor. If they don't know we're aboard, we have a chance to infiltrate their ranks.”

Chapter 16Top

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Marshall slowly stood up, and dusted himself off as Carter tended to the injured tactical officer.

“It’s not bad,” admitted Reddy, but as Carter felt the surge of adrenaline in his blood, he shook his head ambiguously at the lieutenant’s singed uniform. “Honest, I’ll be alright commander,” she assured him.

“Sullivan, get us the hell out of here!” shouted Captain Marshall.

“The power surge ruptured the control systems between the bridge and engineering,” explained Sullivan in a shaky voice. He turned to the captain with pinpointed pupils. “I’ve got no control over the warp drive!”

Weapons fire rattled the Republic, signifying the arrival of the Kreltan attack force.

“Engineering,” shouted Carter while tapping his combadge. “Activate the warp drive immediately, or we’re all dead!”

=/\= “Unable to comply, commander. That energy feedback impacted our power distribution matrix. I need at least fifteen minutes to re-establish control over the antimatter injectors.” =/\=

“That does it!” shouted Marshall, tapping his own combadge. “Riggs, report to the bridge!”

<location: transporter room six, secondary hull, USS Republic>

A muffled intercom chirp warbled from underneath one of the bodies. Regesh walked up to it and rolled it over with a kick. The deceased face of Lieutenant Commander Riggs became upturned as a trickle of dried blood remained encrusted on his lower lip. His combadge was calling out to him.

=/\= “Riggs, report to the bridge! . . . . Riggs, can you hear me?” =/\=

“They'll be onto us soon,” observed the cold, hardened face of Carlsberg.

Regesh nodded with agreement. “You two research the shield frequency of this vessel, and transmit it to the mother ship on an encoded frequency. When you're done with that,” he smiled. “Report to their security department and return to duty.”

One of the bodies on the transporter pad moaned, and crawled off the deck on his knees. It was Chief Petty Officer Eldaro, and he overheard the conversation between the three Kreltan imposters. Escape was foremost on his mind, knowing full well that he had to remain conscious to inform the rest of the crew. The black-haired Chief Petty officer scrambled to the door, causing them to whisk open. However, he did not exit the room alive. Again, the Kreltan posing as Lieutenant Regesh fired upon the man and hit him squarely in the abdomen. He fell dead into the corridor outside, and as the doors returned again to there closed position, the McDermott imposter spoke to Regesh.

“What about you?” she said.

Just then, Regesh's combadge beeped with Captain Marshall's voice.

=/\= “Lieutenant Regesh, report!” =/\=

Tapping the combadge he acquired from the actual body of Regesh still aboard the Kreltan dreadnaught, he replied, “standing by, sir.”

=/\= “Report to the bridge immediately. Prepare to take command of the saucer section!”=/\=

A smile crept along the Regesh-clone's face as he replied, “looks like I'll be reporting to duty as well . . .”

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

“Saucer sep, captain?” asked Carter, while helping Readdy to her feet.

Marshall nodded as the forward portside turbolift breezed open. Lieutenant Harris and two medical technicians poured out onto the bridge followed by a three-person engineering team. “It’s our only option now.”

Harris flipped out a tricorder and marched over to Lieutenant Reddy. She gave a quick, concerned glance to Carter before tending to the tactical officer.

“But captain,” asked Carter over the hum of the medical scanner. “Shouldn’t one of us take command of the saucer section?”

“Negative,” responded Marshall sternly. “We’re going to do the best we can to use the stardrive section to help the saucer section and the Firestorm escape. I’ll need you at the helm.”

Harris retrieved a small spray-application device from her medkit and applied it to Lieutenant Readdy’s back. “It’s just a first degree burn,” she explained. “Your uniform offered protection from the blast. It’ll be okay in a few minutes, but I can give you something for the pain in the mean time.”

“I’ll be all right, doctor,” replied Readdy.

The captain tapped his combadge yet again. “Counselor B’Rell, we’re preparing to separate the ship. Have your people transfer all non-essential personnel to the saucer section and report to the bridge.”

=/\= “Acknowledged, captain.” =/\=

As he finished, the forward starboard turbolift opened. Lieutenant Regesh, the Andorian security and tactical officer, strode quickly up to Marshall and Carter.

“Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Your orders,” started Captain Marshall. “Are to proceed immediately with the Firestorm back to Delphi station. Follow whatever orders that Admiral Maverick gives you.”

“What about you, sir?” he replied.

“The stardrive section will be covering your escape,” Marshall explained. “Hopefully, Maddox will have the warp drive operational before we’re too heavily damaged, and we’ll rendezvous with you back at the station.” Turning to the remaining bridge crew, the captain chose his stardrive command staff. “Readdy, Sullivan,” he pointed. “Join Commander Carter and myself on the battle bridge, if you please.”

“Good luck, sir,” said Lieutenant Regesh, as the four officers strolled towards the exit.

Stepping into the turbolift, Captain Marshall replied “you too.”

Reddy and Sullivan followed the captain, but Carter paused momentarily at the door, catching the worried eyes of Harris. No words were exchanged, but the feelings of anxiety were mutual. Carter gave her one last glance before the turbolift door slid shut.

<location: main sickbay, USS Republic>

As the Republic jostled about from Kreltan weapons fire, the steady stream of casualties caused Leon to re-emerge from his office into the main ward. As he watched the increasing severity of the wounded, he became concerned about the tactical situation. “What’s going on up there?” he mumbled to himself.

“You tell me,” replied the balding Doctor Yezbeck, who was helping an injured patient onto a biobed.

Doctor Cromwell was caught off guard; not realizing that his inside voice had somehow found it’s way to his mouth. He looked around the busy sickbay, wondering where he could fit in. His duty roster was a bit too perfect, finding a place for every one of his doctors and nurses. All patients were being tended to, and there was very little for him to do.

Slipping back into his office, Leon retrieved his hard-shell survival backpack and his medical trauma kit. It took a cup of coffee and a moment of silence to shake off the effects of his post-traumatic flashback, and now that he found himself without anything to do, he decided to relieve Doctor Fernmoore of standby team duty.

The ship rattled yet again as Leon exited his office, and before he could make it to the diagnostic room, the comm system shrilled with Lieutenant Commander Maddox’s voice.

=/\= “Medical team to engineering!” =/\=

Instantly, the gray-haired doctor Fernmoore emerged soberly from the diagnostic room followed by Ensign Brook and an enlisted medical technician. Leon intercepted them before they left sickbay.

“Fernmoore, I’ll take this,” said Leon. “Go ahead and report back to triage one.”

She stopped prior to the main doors, and looked back at him. “Are you sure, sir? Doctor Harris and her team are already on the bridge, and that will leave only Doctor Favuuk and her team on standby.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” he replied.

Fernmoore shrugged her shoulders and walked back towards the main ward. The two medical technicians looked at each other before following Leon as he led the way to engineering.

Chapter 17Top

<location: engineering deck, USS Republic>

The turbolift doors whispered open as Leon and his medical team jogged into the corridor. The piercing sound of the saucer-separation alarm sounded throughout the deck as the condition-red tracer lights continued to pulsate along the wall.

“Must be worse than we thought,” said Doctor Cromwell to his two concerned medical companions as they continued their way to engineering. They were about to pass a turbolift door when it slid open, and the captain stepped out followed by Carter, Sullivan, and Reddy.

“Doctor,” greeted the captain, who continued past in a very determinate pace. Reddy and Sullivan followed the captain, but Carter paused briefly to converse with the doctor.

“Doc, were separating the ship.” The vessel shuttered violently again from weapons fire as everyone grabbed hold of the walls. As momentary as they were, the disruptive motions faded away as John and Leon continued.

“I can see that,” replied Leon sarcastically. “Do you have time to explain why?”

John started to walk again to catch up to the other bridge officers as he explained the situation to the Doctor.

“Look, doc,” he started. “A power surge rendered several systems inoperative, including the battle-bridge turbolift. The main turbolift dropped us off down here, so we’re having to make our way up to the battle bridge as quickly as possible. Unless you’re headed there, we haven’t much time to chat.”

“Close enough,” Leon said. He took pace alongside Carter as the two medical technicians followed. “Maddox called a medical team to engineering, and it’s along the way. So will you please tell me what’s going on out there?”

“Doctor, I really haven’t got time for this. We’re providing escape cover for the saucer section and Firestorm while Maddox fixes the warp . . . ”

As the ship jolted again from Kreltan weaponry, a conduit exploded behind the group of officers, further down the deck. As all heads turned towards the source of the explosion, a burst of phaser fire shot from in front of them, hitting Lieutenant Readdy in the ribs. She screeched an obscenity while spinning around and returning fire. Everyone took cover behind a nearby wall alcove with Reddy offering cover fire with her phaser.

“Kreltans?” Carter asked with exasperation. “How did they get on board?”

“Well, however they got on board, we’re now cut off from the battle-bridge!” shouted Sullivan, a phasor blast whizzing past the entrance to the alcove.

“Security!” shouted Marshall into his combadge. “Erect a containment field on deck 25, section 10!”

=/\= “Ensign McDermott here, captain. We’re unable to comply. The power matrix is still on the fritz, and we can’t re-route power to the internal field generators.” =/\=

As if by instinct, Carter tapped his combadge. “Security alert. All decks, general quarters.” A tapestry of different alarms sounded throughout the deck as Lieutenant Reddy pulled out her hand phaser.

“Looks like we have security situation as well.” The captain walked over to a nearby wall console, and activated the display.

“Computer, lock out all command functions. Authorization: Marshall omicron-theta-three-six-five.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. All command functions disabled.” =/\=

A metallic chime sounded from deeper within the wall alcove where Lieutenant Commander Carter removed a wall panel, revealing a small vertical access-way containing a ladder. Lieutenant Reddy exchanged more phaser fire with their attackers as Carter motioned for the group to follow him.

“We can climb down a deck and retreat back to the stardrive armory!” he shouted over the weapons fire. “Captain, with your permission, I think we’d better forgo the battle-bridge until we can secure the stardrive section from enemy forces.”

As a phaser blast hit the bulkhead next to the captain, he replied, “it doesn’t look like we have much choice.”

The officers quickly filed one-by-one into the access-way, followed by Lieutenant Reddy, who covered their exit with bursts of her hand phaser. She looked over her shoulder to make sure everyone made it up the ladder before exiting herself.

<location: corridor, deck 26, stardrive section, USS Republic>

Per regulation, the ship’s armory was guarded at all times by a security contingent. Two human females of rather tall and brawny structure were stationed outside the door. Normally, they would be in a standard parade-rest stance, casually watching for any sign of someone who wasn’t supposed to be there. However, the Republic’s situation was grave, and with a saucer-sep situation plus general quarters, the officers were very much on the guard with weapons drawn and at the ready.

One of the officers had a blonde head of regulation-braided hair. She cautiously watched her side of the corridor, and turned her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“McDermott!” she shouted to her partner, while crouching to a kneeling position with hand phaser extended. The other officer, a well-trimmed brunette with purplish-blue eyes, followed suit as company advanced.

Around the corner, seven individuals approached the armory. Carter and Captain Marshall were in the lead, followed by Lieutenant Sullivan, Doctor Cromwell, and two medics. The last in the line was Lieutenant Reddy with her hand phaser covering the rear.

Happy to find the two officers at the ready, Carter greeted them. “Carlsberg, McDermott! Boy, am I glad to see you two!”

The two security officers lowered their phasers. McDermott replied “What’s the situation, commander?”

“It seems our infiltration mission has backfired, and we’re cut off from the battle-bridge,” explained Captain Marshall. “The saucer section has disengaged, and should be following the Firestorm out of the system, but there’s no telling until we get to a computer terminal.”

Carter dialed the command code to enter the armory, and the doors whisked open. “Everyone,” he motioned. “Inside, quickly!”

As the doors shut after them, Carter activated the locking mechanism, ensuring that anyone attempting to gain access to the armory would have a very tough time of it. Almost immediately, Carlsberg and McDermott started unlocking weapon racks and unlocking power cells from their charging cradles. For his part, the captain accessed a computer terminal.

“Computer, re-route all command functions to this console. Authorization Marshall theta-chi-seven-four-two.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. All command functions re-routed.” =/\=

Lieutenant Reddy began to breathe heavily within her pneumatic exoskeleton, and was forced to lean against the wall. Doctor Cromwell flipped out a medical tricorder and began scanning the nasty wound on her rib cage.

“I’m all right,” she insisted, shying away from the doctor.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” replied the doctor grouchily. He scanned her a few times before administering to her a hypospray.

“I just gave you a tri-ox compound to bring the oxygen levels up in your blood, and I’m going to seal the wound from bleeding. However, I can’t heal the wound fully unless I get you to sickbay. If you can, try to keep from using your exoskeleton so much. It seems the electronics are powered by using a portion of the oxygen in your blood to set up an electron gradient. If you hold back on using it so much, it should keep your system at a reasonable oxygen level and you won’t be out of breath.” Reddy was silent as the doctor pulled out his auto-suture and began repairing the wound.

“Carter,” summoned the captain soberly. “You’d better come look at this.”

John walked over the captain and looked at the computer screen from over his shoulder.

“Damn,” muttered the executive officer with dismay.

“What is it?” asked Lieutenant Sullivan.

“The saucer-section is getting away under cover fire from the Firestorm,” said Carter. “But it looks like the Kreltans have us, the stardrive, in a tractor beam. That’s why they stopped firing. There’s no response from engineering, so we can only guess that Maddox and his crew have been overrun. There’s no telling how many Kreltans are aboard the ship now.”

Both Carter and the captain looked at each other with very solemn expressions, as if both knew what had to be done next.

“Gather your equipment, people,” ordered Carter. “Carlsberg, McDermott, outfit everyone with a phaser rifle and five spare power cells.”

Following orders, the two security officers began handing out the equipment. Most everyone charged their rifles immediately, and slung them over their shoulders. However, the young enlisted medical technician protested with nervousness.

“Wait a minute! I’ve never used one of these before. They only taught me how to use hand phasers in Starfleet basic training.”

“Quiet, blue-shirt” ordered Carlsberg. “Do as the commander says.”

The young medic looked to Doctor Cromwell for support, but Leon only nodded his head in agreement. Reluctantly, the young man received the weapon, and slung it like the others.

After breathing a nervous sigh, the next words out of Captain Marshall’s mouth sent a shockwave through everyone in the room, except for Carter who was obviously anticipating it.

He touched the computer keypad, and announced “computer, activate destruct sequence. Authorization: Marshal omega-six-omega.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Does the first officer concur?” =/\=

With an intent expression, Carter followed suit and pressed his hand to the keypad.

“Affirmative. Authorization: Carter gamma one-two-five.”

=/\= “Destruct sequence activated. One minute countdown proceeding.” =/\=

Activating the comm system, Marshall announced over the ship-wide speakers.

=/\= “Attention all hands. This is the captain. Enemy forces have overrun the ship. All personnel are to report to the nearest lifeboat. All hands abandon ship. Repeat: all hands abandon ship.” =/\=

“Let’s go, people!” ordered Carter to the visibly shaken officers.

With swift, military movements, Reddy, Carlsberg, and McDermott led the way out of the armory and to the lifeboat station further down the corridor. The high-pitched warble of the abandon-ship alarm resonated throughout the decks, and the condition-red tracer lights continued to pulsate along the walls. The sound of exploding conduits and phaser fire echoed all over the ship, as well as the explosive launching of lifeboats from the outside bulkheads. The group of nine officers raced to the lifeboat bay with quick, determinate steps, and as Lieutenant Sullivan keyed the access sequence, the hatch slide open, and everyone filed inside.

The lifeboat was dark, and the air stale until Carter announced to the onboard computer, “personnel aboard.” Instantly, the chamber was bathed in a red light, revealing multiple flight seats, stowed equipment, and emergency machinery. The seats were all arranged in a circular pattern around a central, table-like pedestal where a monitor lay flat and parallel to the floor. As everyone strapped themselves into the flight seats, Carter slipped into the pilot’s chair and McDermott sealed the hatch.

“I hate these things,” muttered Doctor Cromwell, whose dislike for flying in small craft was returning to the surface.

“Everyone ready?” asked Carter. As everyone nervously nodded their heads, the executive officer announced, “Computer, code one dispatch.”

Immediately, a five-second countdown ensued. Suddenly, explosive bolts sounded as the outside bulkhead released the blow-away containment panel, and a powerful 4-G ejection thrust the lifeboat clear of the Republic. Everyone watched the monitor through the force of the launch as the stardrive section floated slowly away from the small craft. To their relief, the screen revealed that many other lifeboats had also ejected, indicating that there were many surviving crewmembers that would not be left behind to perish in the oncoming detonation of antimatter.

Without warning, the lifeboat jarred to one side as warning buzzers sound. The young enlisted medic gasped as the screen before them revealed a grizzly sight. The Kreltan ships were firing upon the emerging lifeboats, destroying many only seconds after being launched free from the Republic.

“Have they no decency?” screamed Captain Marshall over the ear-piercing thruster jets. “Carter! Can you steer us towards the Firestorm?”

Again, the lifeboat jarred to the side, sending the small craft into a spin.

“I don’t think so, sir!” shouted Carter, “They’re firing on us, too. They’ve hit our main thruster package, and I’m having a hard time steering with the backups.”

Struggling with the controls, the executive officer gritted his teeth with determination. “I’ll be damned if they hit us again!” The monitor switched from the battlefield to the Demon-class planet below. “We’re caught in the gravity well!” explained Carter over the incessant whine of the engines. “I’m activating the emergency landing cycle! Brace for impact!”

Chapter 18Top

<location: main bridge, U.S.S. Firestorm>

The bridge consoles of the Sovereign-class vessel were all outlined with red alert signatures as personnel remained fixated on their stations. Admiral Maverick, his face burning with gruff irritation and anxiety, sat firmly to the central command chair. He swiveled around to face his operations officer as said, “commander, what is the ETA of the pursuing dreadnoughts?”

The Vulcan female in command red fingered her console and reported “thirty minutes at present speed.”

The admiral pressed a button on his chair-mounted computer pad. “Engineering, can’t you get anymore speed out of these engines?” he asked with irritation.

=/\= “Admiral we’re going as fast as we can. Give me few more minutes and I might be able to squeeze warp eight out of them. However, with the Republic’s saucer-section in tow, it’s a huge drain on our engine power to maintain the tractor beam.” =/\=

“Do what you can, chief,” acquiesced the admiral.

“Admiral,” offered the emotion-free operations officer. “Even at warp eight, the dreadnoughts will catch up to us in less than three hours. I suggest we contact Delphi station and request backup.”

“Make it so, commander.”

The admiral looked even more uncomfortable as he pressed the chair panel again. “Transporter room, this is the bridge. See if you can utilize a little of our reserve power and start beaming personnel from the Republic’s saucer section to the Firestorm. There’s a possibility that we may have to cut her loose.”

=/\= “Acknowledged, admiral.” =/\=

“Admiral,” came the Vulcan commander again. “We have a response from Delphi station. They’ve dispatched Captain Ortega in the USS Gottingen along with a squadron of patrol craft. They’re proceeding at maximum warp on an intercept course with us. They’ll be able to reach us within two hours.”

With a sigh of relief, Admiral Maverick replied, “that’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

“Also,” added the commander. “Captain Ortega requests the status of the Republic and Captain Marshall.”

Scratching his forehead with a frown, the admiral asked “what’s the compliment of the Republic’s saucer section?”

“Seven hundred and ten,” replied the commander.

“And the crew we were able to beam from the all lifeboats before they were destroyed?”

“One hundred and eight nine.”

“That still leaves over a hundred unaccounted for?” asked Admiral Maverick with reservation.

“One hundred and sixteen to be precise, sir.”

Ignoring the cold, inhumane calculation, the admiral finally asked “and neither Captain Marshall nor Lieutenant Commander Carter are among the survivors?”

“Negative, sir.”

Looking off into space, the admiral mused soberly for a moment before offering a response. “Reply to Captain Ortega . . . Saucer section of Republic is intact and unharmed. Approximately ninety percent of her crew alive and well. Captain Marshall is . . . missing in action.”

“Aye, sir,” acknowledged the Vulcan commander. “Transmitting now.”

Still staring into space, Admiral Maverick looked upon the day’s exploits with somber regret. Under his breath, he whispered to himself, “and if he is alive . . . whatever gods there be . . . may they have mercy on his soul . . . ”

<location: somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

Streaks of lighting crackled across the black, cloudy sky highlighting the bleak, rocky terrain. Wind-swept gorges contained little more than ancient lava beds and lifeless caverns. In the air, dust and radionuclides clouded any and all sensing and communication devices, to say nothing of wreaking havoc upon any organic life. Nevertheless, pinned between a sharp outcropping of rock and the wall of a canyon, a charred, dented remnant of a starship laid alone among the gloomy landscape. Etched into its surface were the words ‘LIFEBOAT 27-G, U.S.S. REPUBLIC, NCC-76241'.

'It's not supposed to end this way.' Marshall thought. He did what he had to do, but even then it paid a price. He surveyed his surroundings, he hated it. His right knee was bothering him. He found a stable rock and sat down, trying to plan the next course of action. 'We have to get off this rock. First thing to do is round up whatever crew made it down here. Then we should try to survive with whatever we've got.

Distress call is doubtful, but hopefully the Firestorm will come back for us when it's safe.' He then noticed Lieutenant Reddy approaching. He asked her, “How are you holding up Lieutenant?”

“Just fine considering what we've been through,” she replied.

Marshall had to ask, “You didn't happen to see anyone else from our pod did you?”

“No sir,” she replied, “but I wouldn't count anyone out yet.”

“Got that right,” said Leon Cromwell. He approached from behind the Captain.

“Leon, take a look at my right knee. When we landed. . .”

The doctor ran his scanner and said, “A bit bruised, but no damage.”

Marshall responded, “Glad to hear it, but save whatever hypos you have for the rest of our people. I can live with this kind of pain.” The good doctor didn't look too happy with the order but didn't protest. Just then Sullivan and Carter arrived, they were banged up a bit.

“Now that we're all alright, we've got a new mission. Survive. The first thing we need to do is estimate how many of the crew made it down here,” said the Captain.

Carter then spoke, “We got about 700 in the saucer section.”

“It's possible that some got beamed to the Firestorm that made it into the escape pods,” chimed in Sullivan.

“Captain, in all honesty, there's no telling how many people made it down here,” said Leon.

“Very true,” said the Captain. “Let's do this. Sullivan, you and Reddy take off east. Carter, proceed west. Doctor, you stay here and wait for any of our people that may try to find us. I'll head south and let's meet back here in one hour.”

As the officers headed out in opposite directions, Leon called after them.

“Try not to stay out longer than necessary,” he shouted over the howling wind. “With the radionucleides in the air, I'll have to start giving out hydronaline hypos before too long.”

Leon could see they all responded with movements of their mouths and a positive wave, but he wasn't a lip reader, and the blustery air stream drowned their voices out. Assuming that he was heard, the doctor shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips with annoyance.

“Like they're any good at listening to their doctor anyway,” he mumbled.

Soon, he found himself alone and left to scrounge the precious emergency gear. The lifeboat was designed to carry fifty personnel, but he remembered that less than a fifth of that number actually rode the pod to the surface. As Leon pulled out the emergency shelter materials, he paused with a quizzical furrow in his forehead.

“I wonder where everyone else went?” he thought to himself. When he originally awoke after planetfall, Leon stumbled around in his medkit to find a stimulant that would bring him out of the light concussion he sustained. It took a few minutes for it to take affect, and during that time, he drowsily released himself from the flight seat and clambered out of the pod. When he gained full consciousness, he realized that he had inadvertently crawled up next to an outcropping of rock. It was then that he heard the captain's voice, and was subsequently assigned to be in charge of the landing site. Now that he actually had time to think about it, Leon recalled that he only saw four out of the eight other people that join him in the lifeboat.

Dropping the two large gray parcels of shelter material, Doctor Cromwell pulled out his tricorder. He set the apparatus for wide-field scan and searched for other life signs in the area. The electro-magnetic resonance of the charged atmosphere severely hindered his scan, and with an annoyed expression of distaste, Leon closed the device with frustration.

“It's no use in this environment,” he muttered. “I guess they'll show up eventually.” As he went back to setting up the base camp, Leon mused over the fact that he was currently alone, and it brought him no comfort, especially since there were supposed to be with him two security guards along with two more medics and an operations officer.

Leon retrieved the gray cases and continued away from the lifeboat, dropping a few chemical illumination devices on the ground as he went. He led a short trail to an area out of the wind. Placing one case on the ground, he pressed a button that caused a large, plastic bubble to inflate. Unlatching the other case, Leon pulled out the construction-foam sprayer, and began erecting a thick, radiation-proof wall using the inflated bubble as a back-form. Minutes later, a large dome-shaped shelter capable of housing fifty people was erected, and Leon nodded his head with satisfaction. He returned the equipment to its case, and began following the illuminated trail back to the life boat for the gathering of more gear.

Halfway back, Leon stopped after hearing what he thought was running footsteps. Activating his wrist-light, the doctor aimed it in the direction of the shadowy echo.

“Hello?” he shouted over the howling wind. There was no answer, and he was about to tap his combadge when he remembered that communication devices were useless in this atmosphere. “Anyone there?” bellowed nervously. With trepidation, the doctor increased his pace back to the lifeboat, unslinging his phasor rifle.

Again, the footsteps grinding across a gravely surface reached the doctor's ears. Whipping around with his firearm to bare, he shouted again. “Sullivan? McDermott? Is that you?” He watched for a moment, expecting to hear the shuffling again, then turned around to start back towards the lifeboat. As soon as he did so, he found the stoic, emotionless face of the blonde-haired security officer, Ensign Carlsberg.

With a relieved expression, Leon said, “don't scare me like that! I thought you were a Krel . . .” Before he knew it, a bolt of phasor energy pierced through his right ribs from behind. The doctor flipped around twice in mid-air from the force of the blast, and landed face-down on the rocky ground with a thud. Ensign McDermott strolled up from behind where the doctor was standing, and lowered her phasor rifle.

“That's two,” the Kreltan look-alike of the purple-eyed security officer said. “Where are the others?”

“Looks like they split-up and headed in opposite directions,” replied the stiff-jawed Carlsberg imposter. “I see two sets of tracks headed in that direction,” she pointed the way Carter and Reddy went. “And another set of tracks that way,” pointing towards the captain's route. “And a third set off towards the west.”

“That accounts for only four,” responded McDermott, the rough breeze barely feathering her shortly-cropped black hair. “There's one more somewhere around here.”

“It's of no consequence,” Carlsberg replied. “The wind will erase their tracks before too long, and it's to our advantage to take them out while their separated.”

“What about the Marshall-human?” McDermott said coldly. “We're supposed to take him alive if possible.”

“Then we'd better find him. You follow those set of tracks,” she pointed towards where Carter and Reddy went. “I'll take this set,” the Carlsberg-Kreltan announced as she began following Captain Marshall's tracks.

“What about the third set of tracks?” McDermott's annoyed voice carried over the wind.

“We'll eliminate that one if they return here. Otherwise, their delicate organic structures will perish soon in this environment.”

As the two imposters departed the area, leaving the unconscious Doctor Cromwell to die from the mortal phasor shot, another shadow scurried around in the darkness. Moments later, the scratched face of the enlisted medic clambered out of hiding from within a small, rocky alcove. His expression was of petrified fear. Clambering over to Leon, he realized the wound was grave, and that death would soon follow if he didn't do something. The crewman reached into his belt- mounted medical pouch and began retrieving the necessary gear to stabilize the doctor.

Chapter 19Top

<location: main bridge, saucer section, USS Republic>

Engineering teams completed their repairs on the rear bridge science stations as the repair crew leader approached the command pit. In the first officer's seat, the Bajoran Counselor B'Rell sat confidently in his sliver-grey suit, looking at the main view-screen, and watching the aft-view of the USS Firestorm. In the captain's chair was the Kreltan infiltrator posing as the blue-skinned Andorian, Lieutenant Regesh.

“We've fixed the science station, and located the source of the feedback,” explained the repair leader who, like the rest of the crew, was completely unaware that his commanding officer was an imposter. “Apparently, the sensor re-routing that the chief science officer performed forced more power into the pulse-generator manifold than it could handle. The entire system overloaded, rupturing many power-control circuits in the same conduit. It's fixed now, but no disrespect to the deceased, they should have known better than to try that.”

“Thank you, chief,” replied the Regesh-imposter. “Report back to your department.”

The engineer nodded and motioned for his team to follow him off the bridge. As the doors to the turbolift whisked closed, the Kreltan imposter announced, “send a message to the Firestorm. All systems repaired and fully functional.”

“Aye, sir,” replied Lieutenant Snyder at the helm. “Transmitting now.”

“Looks like we'll be okay, as long as we can get a new stardive section in a timely fashion,” said B'Rell. “What about the captain?”

Regesh showed little emotion as he replied to the question. “I doubt he survived the explosion,” he said. “It's a terrible loss.”

“I guess that makes you our commander until we're assigned a new captain,” concluded B'Rell.

“I guess so,” replied the Regesh-imposter with a very slight smile, carefully restraining his delight that he had successfully infiltrated the Republic's crew, and even had the luck find his way to the command chair.

<location: somewhere on the Demon-class planet, east of base camp>

Readdy and Sullivan took off in an easterly direction, her mind spinning with numerous thoughts and memories. She also hoped she wouldn't have to use her exoskeleton, given what Doctor Cromwell had told her just before they abandoned ship.

After about a half hour, Readdy became very uneasy, sensing something wasn't right.

“Are you picking anything up on your tricorder? Something doesn't feel right to me!” said Readdy, looking around.

Readdy and Sullivan continued eastward, with Readdy still sensing trouble. Little did she realize how right she was! What she was feeling was that of being followed, or stalked, like prey.

“How much further?” Readdy shouted over the howling winds, hoping Sullivan would hear her. The wind was whipping her air supply lines, making them hit each other continually, which began to hurt after awhile.

As time went by, the “gap” between the hunted and the hunters narrowed, until they were practically within sight of each other. Just then, Sullivan caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his right eye.

“Readdy! Drop!” she whispered. They both dropped to the ground as phaser fire erupted from behind. Both Readdy and Sullivan quietly separated, to make it more difficult to get both together. The Kreltans were just as sneaky, for one had circled around and was directly behind Readdy.

Readdy spotted his faint shadow and darted to her left, as he fired. The blast nicked the outer air supply line of her right “arm-piston”, rendering it useless. Readdy swung around and drew up her legs, planting her feet squarely in his stomach. With two distinct hisses from both “leg-pistons”, Readdy gave a mighty shove, sending the Kreltan at least 50 meters away. Readdy attempted to stand, then suddenly doubled over, gasping. She had ruptured the emergency “repair” made by Doctor Cromwell. Sullivan ran to her, having dispatched the other Kreltan.

“You're going to need to get back! I'll help!” said Sullivan, reaching for Readdy. He scooped her up and began walking westward, back to “camp”. Between a bleeding air supply line and ruptured lung, Readdy was in grave danger and needed help fast.

<location: somewhere on the Demon-class planet, south of base camp>

Marshall had rounded up 12 of the Republic's crew including the ship’s yeoman, Lieutenant Matthew Hathaway. “So Captain,” said Hathaway, “we managed to get the Griffith down here almost intact. Warp engines are gone but we should be able to salvage parts in case the other team managed to get the Fowler down here. Comm's gone on it.”

“You're telling me that we possibly have two Danube-class runabouts down here. All one of them needs is a comm system,” said Marshall with his phaser still drawn. “Precisely Captain,” said Hathaway. It was a chance at getting out of here.

Just then Marshall heard phaser fire. He saw McDermott approaching him. McDermott said, “Captain, please come with me. Doctor Cromwell has been injured.”

“Matt,” said the Captain quietly, “Did they come with any of you?”

“No sir,” he replied.

Just then McDermott raised his phaser rifle. “Captain, come with me,” said McDermott sternly.

“I'm not about to be taken to the doctor and gunpoint,” said the Captain. Just then McDermott pulled the trigger. Hathaway dodged the blast with himself. Marshall fired his phaser rifle at McDermott who fell down on impact. An ensign went over to examine McDermott. “She isn't human, Captain,” they said. Marshall considered the assessment, “Then we've got Kreltan imposters among us.” He took out his tricorder; it wasn't working. He then saw Hathaway not getting up and knew the man had given his life to save him. “Let's head back to camp,” said Marshall.

<location: base camp, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

Crewman First-Class Teague was less than a year out of Starfleet's basic medical corpsman’s course before being temporarily assigned to Utopia Planitia's personnel office. The Republic was the first starship he had ever been assigned to, and subsequently, his first deep-space mission. He had no idea that a week later he would find himself in a survival situation behind enemy lines.

Teague pulled out every medical contraption he could find in the trauma kit. Doctor Cromwell lost a lot of blood through a ruptured lung and disintegrated kidney. The crewman's first job was to close the wound off and attach a serum generator on the doctor's left shoulder. The auto-suture was able to seal the lung, but the more difficult task was re-routing the nephronic pathways to Leon's other functional kidney. Now, Teague was in the process of sealing off the small, bleeding vessels that he missed on the first pass with the auto-suture. The doctor was stable, but only a sickbay could bring him back on his feet. There was just too much trauma to his body for Leon to be recovering in a field situation.

As Teague was finishing off his emergency field surgery, footsteps began approaching. He stopped what he was doing, to stare towards the direction of the sound. He whimpered briefly under his breath before scrambling to grab Doctor Cromwell's phasor rifle on the ground. The crewman wasn't sure how to handle it, but it was the only defense he had. As the footsteps rounded the corner, a tall humanoid shined a wrist-light into Teague’s face after surveying the situation with the doctor. The crewman was about to fire when a bellowing voice sounded.

“Crewman! What the hell is going on here?” It was Lieutenant Commander Carter's voice, and he was visibly irritated.

At that moment, Sullivan came clambering over a rise towards the east, carrying Lieutenant Readdy. She was barely able to breathe, wheezing like and old bus.

“Got…Separated…Kreltans…attacked…Had to…use…exoskeleton…unnnhhh!” gasped Readdy. She struggled to remain conscious but she was fighting a losing battle.

John Carter looked over to Lieutenant Reddy, not bothering to hide his shock.

“Griffe! She looks like she got mauled by a Kapellan Power Cat!” Carter dashed to Reddy's side and looked over the strange hoses that had somehow been grafted to her body. John was out of his depth and he knew it.

“Teague?” he asked crisply, “Is the Doc stable?” Crewman Teague dropped the phaser rifle he had scrambled for and flipped open his medical tri-corder. The familiar warble of the scanning cycle played out in eerie contrast to the silence of the desolate planetoid where the remainder of Republic's crew had found themselves. Teague pushed the fear and uncertainty of the moment out of his head and focused on the task at hand. “Aye sir,” the crewman answered; a slight tremor in his voice betraying his outward calm.

“Then get over here! I have no idea what in the galaxy I'm looking at. I'll keep and eye on the Doc.”

Carter and Teague switched places, and they each knelt over their respective patient. John ran his fingers through his hair as he looked down at Cromwell’s Phaser wound. “Jeez Doc,” Carter mused, “I thought you knew how to keep your head down.”

Confirming that Cromwell's condition was indeed stable with a quick check of his tricorder's readings, John glanced over to the corpse of the Kreltan who had been Siobhan McDermott. “Oh, that's it.” he hissed. “I don't care what it takes now. No body kills my people and gets away with it. I'll take down the damned Confederacy myself if I have to.” Even as Carter's mind turned to thoughts of vengeance, which he was just now considering to be a simple matter of balancing the scales, he could hear the voice of Victor Virtus in his head.

If Virtus had been on the Demon class planet with the rest of the Republic survivors, he'd be urging John to not let his temper get the best of him. John Carter had the peculiar gift of being able to focus his anger into a kind of clarity of purpose. An amazing awareness that, rather than blinding him with rage, usually made it possible for John to out think and out maneuver his adversaries. just now, however, John Carter didn't want to think. He didn't want to revel in his own ingenuity. He was stranded without a ship, unsure of whom he could trust, facing an enemy whose motivations he didn't have the first clue about, and they'd killed people Carter was directly responsible for. For that he wanted the Kreltans to pay.

Just then, Carter realized what must have happened. Riggs security team had been compromised. McDermott and Carlsberg were here on the planet with the command crew, but that left Lieutenant Commander Riggs unaccounted for, and John had to assume that if one member of the team had been replaced, then they all had, which meant that at this moment, someone that wasn't Lieutenant Regesh was in charge of Republic's saucer, and was delivering them back to the heart of the Federation, with no one the wiser.

“Oh, sprock,” John cursed. “Shannon”.

Chapter 20Top

<location: USS Republic, saucer section, sickbay>

Lieutenant Shannon Harris was sitting in the Chief Medical Officer’s office, using a stylus to write notes on a datapad. She looked mildly irritated, and wrote with detachment laced by a small portion of frustration. Across the desk, Lieutenant Phoebe Hudson sat quietly in Leon’s chair with an uncertain, yet subservient expression, watching Counselor B’Rell pace the expanse of the room. The counselor, for his part, was dictating a letter of regret for the families of the missing and deceased officers from the stardrive section.

“And so, it is with honor and distinction that (insert officer’s name and rank here), served aboard the Republic, and will forever be in our memories. Signed, Counselor B’Rell Haydock, acting first officer, U.S.S. Republic.”

Harris finished writing with a last few wisps of her pen, and looked toward B’Rell. “Counselor, don’t you think it’s rather impersonal to be writing a general letter to all the family members? Wouldn’t it be more sympathetic to make individual letters for each officer lost?”

B’Rell chuckled with a condescending demeanor. “Nonsense, lieutenant. A general letter such as this shows how much of a team that the lost family member was a part of. Now, I think it’s best that you focus more on carrying out my orders rather than questioning them.”

Shannon raised her eyebrows with subdued surprise. If it were not for the fact that B’Rell was unaware that he was being patronizing, she would have been insulted. As it stood, he was plainly under the illusion that he was acting as a responsible leader.

“Come, Doctor Hudson,” he finally said to the quiet young medical officer behind the desk. “As acting chief medical officer, you have a lot of work to do in this sickbay.”

The counselor led the way out the door, as Hudson followed. She paused briefly to look at Harris with a worried look, betraying her anxiety and doubt about her new position. As a humanoid hybrid, and being part human, part Klingon, and part Orion, she already had difficulties with fitting in with the crew. However, the young Lieutenant Hudson was now being forced into a position that she was clearly uncomfortable with, not to mention ill-experienced. However, it was B’Rell with a newfound drive to teach and lead ‘lesser subordinates’ who placed her in such a position.

As the two left the office, Shannon sat in her chair, staring into space. The past twelve hours were absolutely horrendous, bordering on the unbelievable. Not only did she lose her captain, first officer, and department head, but only the saucer half of the ship survived it's mission, and that half was now being led by inexperienced leaders.

Before long, the balding and black-bearded Doctor Yezbeck came walking into the office, noticing that Harris was lost among her thoughts. “You okay?” he asked.

Breaking out of her trance, Harris shook off the veil of hopelessness that found it’s way into her mind.

“No, I’m okay. I’m just wondering how it came down to this. Surely there are more experienced officers onboard to lead what’s left of the Republic.”

Yezbeck shook his head, and leaned against the foyer. “Well, there may be, but Regesh is required to follow the chain of command here. There’s about forty or so aboard with the rank of lieutenant, but anyone above that rank is hard to come by. There were only six of the senior staff above that rank, and unfortunately, only B’Rell made it to the saucer section. Believe it or not, he technically out ranks us all.”

Shannon looked down to the floor. “But he’s an idiot. Surely Regesh could have found someone else to be a temporary first officer? Look at what he’s done! He put junior officers in place of every missing department head. Ensign Haggerty in charge of operations? He’s fresh out of the academy! B’Rell even put an enlisted in charge of security, and assigned our most junior doctor in charge of sickbay! This is ridiculous!”

Pursing his lips and nodding in agreement, Yezbeck replied, “there’s not a whole lot we can do until we get back to Delphi station. With any luck, Admiral Maverick will find us a new captain soon, and things will be set straight then.”

“And what if they are still alive?” Shannon reminded him. “Regesh and B’Rell seem all too willing to forget that possibility.”

“But the crew isn’t,” interrupted Doctor Yezbeck. “And neither is anyone else. The Firestorm and the Gottingen are coordinating a return mission while the patrol squadron escorts us back to base. They won’t give up until they have proof they’re gone.”

“I hope not,” whispered Shannon under her breath as she got up, and they both exited the office.

B’Rell had many of the sickbay staff gathered in the main ward as he administered orders. Hudson was at his side anxiously scribbling on her padd as the counselor gave a brief overview on how the sickbay should be rearranged.

“This triage system is most inefficient,” B’Rell declared. “And wastes resources that are better used elsewhere on the ship. Your are to abandon this procedure and return the sickbay back to its original state as soon as we get back to Delphi station.”

“We’ve found the triage system to be a blessing in extreme situations, counselor,” offered Doctor Yezbeck as the quiet murmurs of skepticism circled the room. “I think abandoning it now would be a mistake.”

“What would be a mistake,” acknowledged B’Rell, “would be to divert power and personnel away from other departments to treat minor medical conditions during your ‘extreme situations’. From now on, sickbay will be a place to treat major injuries and communicable diseases only. All departments will use their standard issue first aid kits to treat the marginally wounded.” Turning to Hudson, he added “carry our my orders, lieutenant. I’ll be on the bridge.”

Nodding with nervousness, the young medical doctor wrote the changes on her padd as the bemused staff of sickbay looked at one another in apprehension. B’Rell paused at the exit to look at the bronze award plaque of Doctor Cromwell and his recent medical commendation. The Bajoran counselor sneered at the tablet, wrinkling his nose crest. Pointing at the wall hanging, he looked at Hudson and gave a very stern order before exiting the medical complex. “Get rid of that.”

<location: base camp, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

Marshall had just arrived when he heard Carter’s exclamation about Harris.

“Carter if you are referring to Dr. Harris last I knew she was on the saucer section.” Marshall knew Carter well enough to know when something was wrong. “What's wrong John? Level with me please.”

“Just putting two and two together Captain.” John said crisply. He waved a hand toward what everyone thought had been Siobhan McDermott, though it was obvious now that whatever the thing on the ground was, it wasn't McDermott at all.

Carter looked up at his Captain. “If that's a Kreltan, sir… if McDermott's been replaced, then we have to assume that ALL of the away team's been compromised.”

John saw the flash of recognition in his Captain's eyes, then continued. “We had trouble getting the away team sorted out before we had to separate.” Carter went on, glancing at the tri-corder in his hand to make sure that Leon Cromwell was still stable. “No one's seen or heard from Riggs since the team got back, Sir.”

“Oh Hell.” Marshall whispered.

“That's right. I'm pretty sure we just left our crewmates in the hands of some very nasty customers, and they don't even know it.” Carter focused on Doctor Cromwell's condition while Captain Marshall adjusted to the possible repercussions of what Carter had just laid out.

On the ground next to Carter, Leon Cromwell stirred and opened his eyes. Carter looked down at him.

“Welcome back Doc.” John tried to keep the mood light. It was his primary means of dealing with stress; though just now, he had to concede he might not be dealing all that well.

The dazed Doctor Cromwell, looked into the face of his First Officer and scowled. “I knew it,” he sighed. “I'm in Hell.”

Carter stood up, closed the tricorder he'd been monitoring, and offered Cromwell a hand. “Maybe so Doc,” Carter quipped easily, “but at least you're in fine company.”

Taking the First Officer's hand, the Doctor rose to his feet. Then, Cromwell gave John a sour look. “Gee, thanks. That makes me feel SO much better.”

A few steps away, Crewman Teague, a first year medical technician was looking over the fallen body of Lieutenant Anne Reddy. “Um…Doctor Cromwell?” he stammered. “Are you well enough to take a look at her yet? Frankly sir, I'm a bit out of my league here.”

“That depends on what you consider ‘well’, crewman,” winced Leon. He rubbed his side tenderly and looked down at the black and bloodied scorch mark on his blue jumpsuit. The fabric was tattered, but a glint of recently sutured flesh showed through the hole. “I feel like I’ve been gutted.”

A brief moment occurred where Doctor Cromwell coughed spasmodically, hacking up a small amount mucous laced with steaks of black. He looked at the sputum momentarily; studying the specimen as it soaked into the ground.

“Coagulated blood,” observed Leon as he leaned over with elbows resting on his knees. He looked back to Teague with blood-shot eyes and asked, “what happened to me?”

“Phasor shot to your lower right pulmonary organ,” he replied. “It ruptured your lung and kidney. I had to do some surgery.”

Making his way painfully over to the medic, Leon looked both surprised and annoyed. “What kind of surgery?”

Teague began to look nervous, and he fumbled with the tricorder while continuing a scan over Lieutenant Reddy. “Well . . . you were in a bad way. Your lung was punctured open and bleeding, so I had to seal that off . . . Um . . . your right kidney was gone, so I had to do some rerouting of nephronic pathways . . . ”

Sitting down next to Reddy and Teague, the doctor replied sarcastically, “my kidney. . . so that’s why I feel so empty inside . . .” After a last grunt of pain, Leon looked sternly at the crewman. “Alright, so you sealed the lung. What else should you have done?”

Teague thought for a moment. His Starfleet training covered most basic medical contingencies, but advanced field surgery wasn’t on the list. He stumbled with words before Leon corrected him.

“Don’t you think there would be some blood left in the alveoli capillaries?”

The crewman closed in eyes in comprehension. “Of course. A vapor-release ferrousine compound.”

“Very good,” Leon said with a secondary cough. “Let’s have it.”

Crewman Teague picked up a hypospray and inserted a vile of medicine from the well-stocked trauma kit. An injection into the doctor soothed his cough, and brought his pain under control. However, Leon still seemed out of energy.

“Is there anything else I forgot, sir?”

It was almost funny, the way the young medic asked Doctor Cromwell the serious question. He chuckled softly before nodding his head. “No, you did fine Teague. I’m just going to need some time in a sickbay whenever we get out of here. Having an organ ripped from my body is a very traumatic experience. This is where Yezbeck would come in handy.

Refocusing his attention to the unconscious Reddy, Leon said, “What’s going on with her?”

“She came in gasping for air, saying she used her exoskeleton again.”

“Well,” asked Leon. “Did you give her a tri-ox compound?”

Again, Teague closed his eyes with nervousness, unbelieving that he had forgotten such a basic remedy. “Of course. I’m sorry sir, I forgot. First lesson in the Starfleet medic’s course: oxygen-breathing species need oxygen.” He slipped in the correct vial from the trauma kit, and immediately dialed the dosage level before administering it to the lieutenant.

Almost immediately, Reddy’s labored breathing came under control. She stopped gasping, and slowly opened her eyes. Blinking a few times, she looked into the scraped and soiled faces of Doctor Cromwell and Crewman Teague.

“I told you,” said Leon sarcastically. “That exoskeleton will be the death of you.”

Reddy leaned up against a rock with an annoyed expression on her face. “I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter, doctor.”

“Make a small medkit for her, Teague” said Leon. “Give her a few extra vials of tri-ox along with a hypospray.” Looking back towards Reddy, he continued. “As for you . . . try not to use the exoskeleton again. If you find you must, immediately use the tri-ox compound. With all of us stranded in this Kreltan hell-hole, the last thing we want is an out-of-commission security officer.” Leon smiled with a fatherly expression.

Readdy accepted the medkit without a word, and strapped it to her belt. She knew very well that Doctor Cromwell was right. In her condition, she would have to do her best to avoid using her exoskeleton. Readdy hoped she wouldn't ever have to use them again, at least until the necessary “repairs” were made.

Ann turned to Carter and Marshall. Seeing their grim expressions and hearing the conversation, she knew the Kreltans had infiltrated the saucer section as well. Just then a horrifying thought crept in.

She feared that everyone, including her was going to die on this hell-hole of a planet and she would never realize her dreams, of moving up the career ladder, so to speak.

Turning to Teague again, Doctor Cromwell asked, “what happened to Ensign Brooke?”

The crewman’s lower lip began to quiver in having to remember a horrible event. Although he was a trained Starfleet crewman, he was still young and inexperienced. He was not emotionally well-equipped to handle much of what had occurred on this day. With tears welling in his eyes, he replied. “He’s dead. That . . . that thing killed him!”

Leon looked towards the dead body of McDermott. It was Carter who then interjected. “It was a Kreltan, doctor. They all were . . . everyone that came back aboard from Riggs’ strike team.”

The doctor let out a foreboding sigh, and leaned his head back against a rock face. “My God . . . that’s how they got on board.”

“And that’s why we had to destroy the stardrive section,” said Carter. “We probably got all the Kreltans that boarded the secondary hull. But as for the saucer section,” he turned to look at Captain Marshall with concern. “Seems that Regesh got away.”

Marshall couldn't believe what he was hearing. “There wasn't time to do anything else. I only hope the other ships realize that or the crew themselves figure it out. Because of that, we need to find a way off this rock.”

Marshall then proceeded to round up what senior staff was left. They crowded around him as he relayed the stories of the Kreltan imposters. He made a decision. “Here's what we're going to do, Reddy, I want a tricorder scan of everyone of our people. The tricorder's should have the Kreltan signature in them. If you find an imposter shoot them. Carter, you and Sullivan get camp organized. Doc, treat the injured. I'm taking some of the engineers to a couple runabouts that survived. I'm going to try to get us off this rock. How does that sound to everyone?”

With positive replies all around, everyone nodded their heads in approval. Doctor Cromwell raised his hand and said, “before everyone runs off, I’d like to administer hydronaline injections. The radionuclides in the atmosphere are already building up in our bodies, so we need to keep on top of that. In addition, everyone that doesn’t need to be outside should be in the shelter. The less exposure to this atmosphere, the better.”

Chapter 21Top

<location: USS Republic, saucer section, main bridge>

Starlines streaked across the main viewport as the Kreltan-imposter of Lieutenant Regesh watched the one dozen patrol craft escorting them back to Delphi station. Aside from the occasional warbles and beeps from the various consoles, the bridge was quiet until the turbolift whisked open. Counselor B’Rell strode out of the car and took his place in the first-officer’s chair next to the blue-skinned Andorian look-alike.

“All vacant department heads have been filled, and requests for replacement personnel have been transmitted to Delphi station,” B’Rell announced.

“Very good, counselor,” replied Regesh. “You’ve done well.”

It was too perfect, the Kreltan reasoned. He may have been the only spy aboard, but luck was on his side. Not only was he in command, but the highest ranking individual was an easily controlled power-monger. Making the Bajoran counselor his temporary first-officer was the best thing he could have done. All it took was some recognition, acclaim, and flattery to get him to do what he wanted. In addition, by putting young, inexperienced officers in charge of the departments, it strengthened his control. When things get difficult, it’s the young ones seeking approval and trust from their superiors that are most likely to follow unusual orders. The stage was set, but for how long? When would he be found out, and what could he get done before then?

The most crucial obstacle now was deciding what he could get away with before being caught. The easiest task was to discretely transmit information to his superiors via a warp-field resonance signature. However, the best outcome of this infiltration mission would be to capture this saucer-section and it’s intact computer core. Prisoners would be most welcome, but not a necessity. If he was found out, releasing poison gas into the ventilation system would take care of the immediate security problem, but then he would have to escape pursuers using this vessel’s back-up warp system – not a likely possibility.

The only way escape could be an option is if he could fly the ship to someplace where he knew there were Kreltan vessels waiting. Someplace like . . . Xenos? The planet Xenos, known to humans as Beta Taurii Three, was a Federation colony along the border of the Kreltan Confederacy. Little did the humans know the strategic significance of Xenos, nor that it was about to be overrun by a fleet of dreadnaughts. It was close enough for the Republic’s saucer section to arrive before the attack, but the trick would be to find an excuse for the ship to deviate there. Now that the Firestorm was off rendezvousing with the Gottingen, the only ships he would have to deal with would be the patrol craft escorting them to Delphi. A difficult task, but not an altogether impossible one. But first, a primer . . .

“Well, counselor, I definitely appreciate your expertise in these trying times,” the Kreltan-Regesh clone said. “Have you ever considered joining Starfleet?”

The counselor looked flattered, but also slightly embarrassed. “I’ve tried in the past, but have been unable to pass the entrance exam.”

“Exams are so pointless, in my opinion,” responded Regesh. “They never reveal the true capabilities of people.”

A flash of inspiration came across B’Rell’s face, as if he had found a kindred spirit in the common beliefs between himself and Regesh. “Agreed.”

“Well, there’s no time like the current to practice skills that will eventually be needed,” the infiltrator said while standing up. Looking to B’Rell with a half-smile and a twitch of his Andorian antenna, he said, “I’ll be in my ready room. Take the con, counselor.”

Recognizing that Regesh was suggesting that he was command material, B’Rell swelled with pride, and returned the smile. “Aye, sir!” As the Kreltan spy made his way to the ready room, B’Rell settled in the command chair, relishing with every last detail the position of authority.

The Kreltan infiltrator entered the ready-room and positioned himself in the chair behind Captain Marshall’s desk. Looking at the screen intently, he said “computer, recognize command authorization. Regesh, J’Ladar.”

=/\= “Command authorization recognized.” =/\=

‘Now we’ll see if studying those human computer protocols was good enough,’ thought the Kreltan. “Computer, deactivate all monitoring devices in this room for the next five minutes starting from my mark. Mark.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Monitors deactivated. Recording will resume in four minutes and fifty-nine minutes.” =/\=

Closing his eyes, the Andorian look-alike concentrated intensely in a meditative state. Suddenly, the blue-skin of the Kreltan spy changed color to a shade of pink, and the two long, flexible antennas disappeared from atop his head. Before long, a striking look-alike of Admiral Maverick sat at Captain Marshal’s desk. He shifted a set of wary eyes from side to side before returning his attention to the console.

“Computer,” the deep voice of Admiral Maverick called out. “Recognize command authorization. Maverick, James T.”

=/\= “Command authorization recognized.” =/\=

“Record following message in encapsulated security protocols. Transmit to subspace receiver station Epsilon-9 on a coded frequency. Destination: lead patrol-craft U.S.S. Hines escorting Republic saucer section. Message as follows: This is Admiral Maverick of the U.S.S. Firestorm. You are ordered to abandon your escort of the Republic and report back to Delphi station immediately. Intelligence reports that enemy vessels may be converging on the station. The Republic will be re-directed to a safe haven on separate orders. You are to maintain radio silence until your return to Delphi. Maverick out.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Message transmitted.” =/\=

“Computer, record following message in encapsulated security protocols. Transmit to subspace receiver station Epsilon-9 on a coded frequency. Destination: U.S.S. Republic. Delay transmission for two minutes. Message as follows: This is Admiral Maverick of the U.S.S. Firestorm. You are ordered to alter course away from Delphi station immediately. Intelligence reports that enemy vessels may be converging on the station. Your patrol escorts have been ordered to return to the station to assist in defense efforts. Your new destination is the colony of Beta Taurii Three. You are to maintain radio silence until your arrival. Maverick out.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Message transmission will commence in one minute, fifty-nine seconds.” =/\=

“Computer, download all federation security files pertaining to the defense of this sector and of Starbase Delphi. Transmit on a low-intensity resonance pulse piggy-backed on the Republic’s back-up warp signature. Direct transmission to sector three-gamma, mark one-three five.”

=/\= “Acknowledged. Warp pulse frequency established. Signal resonance in progress.” =/\=

Closing his eyes once again, the look-alike of Admiral Maverick concentrated intensely in a meditative state before changing once again into the split-image of Regesh, the Andorian tactical officer. Immediately, the Kreltan stood up and exited the ready-room.

On the bridge, Counselor B’Rell greeted the lieutenant with a bit of odd news. “Lieutenant, our patrol-craft escort has increased speed, and is no longer alongside us.”

“Odd,” fibbed the Kreltan-Regesh clone. “I wonder why they did that?”

He walked around the rear tactical console enroute for the command pit when Ensign Haggerty, the young red-haired operations officer that B’Rell recently promoted to department head, announced “sir, I’m receiving a coded message from Starfleet Command. Audio only.”

“Let’s hear it, Ensign,” Regesh replied while sitting down in the command chair.

At that moment, the entire bridge crew heard the voice of Admiral Maverick that, unknown to them, was a fabrication made by the Kreltan infiltrator.

=/\= “This is Admiral Maverick of the U.S.S. Firestorm. You are ordered to alter course away from Delphi station immediately. Intelligence reports that enemy vessels may be converging on the station. Your patrol escorts have been ordered to return to the station to assist in defense efforts. Your new destination is the colony of Beta Taurii Three. You are to maintain radio silence until your arrival. Maverick out.” =/\=

The Regesh clone twitched an antenna and looked at Counselor B’Rell with a raised eyebrow.

“Too bad we can’t help in the fight,” B’Rell said with disappointment.

“I’m sure we’ll get our chance again, counselor” replied the Regesh clone. He turned his attention to the helm officer and ordered “Lieutenant Snyder, alter course to comply with the admiral’s orders. Destination: the Beta Taurii Three colony.”

Dialing the co-ordinates into the helm console, Snyder responded “Aye, sir. ETA to Beta Taurii Three is six hours, thirty seven minutes.”

Barely able to restrain a smile, the Kreltan spy replied, “less than seven hours until we all can look forward to some much needed rest.”

<location: base camp, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

The outer wall of the survival shelter was made of an expanding silicon/polycarbonate resin, with compressed strands of tritainium alloy that sprung open upon application. In its stored, highly-condensed liquid form, it took up very little space, but when sprayed onto a surface at a pressure between zero and five atmospheres, it formed a hard, thick radiation-proof composite. By contrast, the inside wall was a thin, flexible plastiform layer that inflated into a large dome with an adjoining airlock. It provided structural support for the outer wall when it was applied, but now it became a soft, smooth barrier offering insulative comfort to the fifty-some refugees from the Republic’s stardrive section.

It did not take long for Lieutenant Reddy to scan the remainder of the crew for Kreltan lifesigns, revealing no other insurgents. Not long after, she, along with Captain Marshall and Lieutenant Sullivan, departed with an engineering team to the crashed runabouts, leaving the remaining crew to salvage what equipment they could from the nearby lifeboat. Now, with most of the dozen or so wounded stabilized, all that anyone could do is wait for the captain and the others to return. Doctor Cromwell, still recovering from the phasor wound, laid uncomfortably on a silver sleeping mat with his usual irritated scowl he wore in situations where he had very little control. Only Carter seemed to set a lighter mood as he strolled over to Leon with a standard issue metallic mug in hand.

“Coffee?” John offered the doctor. “I’m afraid it’s only reconstituted, but I was able to find some synthetic sweetener in the emergency rations.”

Doctor Cromwell accepted the gift and allowed his scowl to relax somewhat. “I’d rather have a belt of that whiskey from poker night, but since both will do the same thing to my only remaining kidney, I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“Your sense of humor’s returned,” chuckled Carter while taking a seat next to the doctor.

“The hell it has,” he replied. “I only hope that we survive this so we can look forward to another poker night. I don’t suppose you brought a deck of cards with you?”

John shook his head. “I’m afraid I left that in my other uniform. Besides, what would we use for chips?”

Leon looked at him squarely. “Rocks?”

Both men chuckled as one of the surviving crewmembers walked up to them. He was a well-build male human in command red, but only held the rank of ensign. Dirt dulled the normal crisp appearance of the uniform, and the five-o’clock shadow on his face strayed from Starfleet regulations for personal grooming. Nevertheless, he had a penetrating gaze, and was waiting for his moment to talk to Commander Carter.

Acknowledging the arrival of the newcomer, Carter looked up. “What’s on your mind, Hayes?” John asked, breaking from his conversation with Doctor Cromwell.

“Well sir, some of us have been talking. Those that came down in the runabouts know what condition they’re in. Although the captain seems hopeful, the rest of feel that they won’t have enough power to get back into orbit, let alone entering warp.”

“I’m sure that the captain will think of something,” John reassured him.

“That’s just it, sir,” Hayes replied. “We’d like you to offer him another option.”

“And what would that be?”

“The way we look at it, there’s almost sixty of us down here. We’ve got enough people and firepower to finish what Commander Riggs couldn’t.”

“Watch your words, ensign!” John bellowed. “Have some respect for your deceased comrades!”

The young officer wasn’t shaken by Carter’s authoritarian voice. “Sir, there’s no disrespect intended. We’d just like another crack at attacking the Kreltan base. Some want to do it because the Kreltans shot down some of our helpless lifeboats, others just because they hate the thought of dying in this place with nothing to show for it. Please sir, talk to the captain. We’d really appreciate it.”

John thought about it for a moment. He didn’t have any idea how far away the base way, but Hayes had a point. Sitting here behind enemy lines hoping to be rescued was no way to die, and there was something to be said for going out fighting. If the ensign had any point to this at all, it was morale. John knew all too well the distaste of defeat, and it brought him no joy knowing that the same feeling was creeping into the rest of his crew.

“Alright, Hayes. I’ll talk to him, but no promises.”

“Thank you, sir.” The young ensign turned away and left John and the doctor by themselves.

Carter sat silently for a moment before turning to the doctor. “What do you think?”

The doctor returned, “I think you should go find the captain.”

“Good idea.”

When it descended, the runabout Fowler came in on a semi-controlled landing, but still gouged a rocky path in its wake. It rested among a field of boulders at the edge of a canyon several miles south of base camp. Fortunately, the lower gravity of the Demon-class planet lessened the travel time between the two areas to only a few hours by foot. Captain Marshall and his team made it to the first runabout before noon, and set to work right away on repairs.

“I got the conduit sealed,” shouted Marshall from underneath a console. He held a multi-tool in his teeth while manipulating a component with his hands. “Try it now.”

A voice from the engineering compartment announced, “circuit closed!” Immediately, a shower of sparks erupted from a console across from the captain, causing several adjacent panels to flicker and dim.

“No! Cut it! We’ve got another overload,” the captain shouted. “It’s no use. There’s just not enough power left in the deuterium tanks to bring the main engines online.”

Three grease-laden engineers entered the compartment and approached captain Marshall.

“Sir, there’s still enough power to the anti-grav packages,” one of the technicians remarked. “If we watch our consumption levels, we may be able to get her moving again. Now, that won’t solve the problem of getting into orbit, since the anti-grav units only let us fly up to 50 meters above the ground. But, at least it’s something.”

Marshall wiped his forehead in exasperation. “I can’t believe we’ve come so far only to be stopped by this. We’ve got a semi-operational runabout here, just not enough power to get us into orbit.”

“What about the Griffith?” a second technician asked.

His companion shook his head. “No, that one had its main engines ripped off. Deuterium tanks and all.”

“Yes,” interjected the first technician again, “but it still has its anti-grav packages. We might still . . . ”

This time, the third technician chimed in. “The only thing good on the Griffith is the comm system and the replicator. . .”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted the Captain. “I appreciate your assistance here, but none of this helps us get everyone off this planet.” He turned towards the planetfall hatch in frustration. “We need another option. It doesn’t help us a whole lot having a runabout that can only float along the ground.” Marshall heard the last comment that was made and said, “Salvage what you can off of the Griffith and install it on the Fowler. Make the comm system a priority.”

Marshall left the technicians to work as he made his way to the airlock and stepped out of the craft. The howling wind lapped against his face as he made his way to Lieutenant Reddy, who took a lookout position nearby. He found that she had been joined by Lieutenant Commander Carter.

“What are you doing here?” he remarked to the first officer. “I thought you were back at base camp.”

“With our communicators not working,” explained Carter. “This is the best way to get a message to you.”

“Which is?” asked the Captain.

Lieutenant Sullivan, who was working outside the Fowler, witnessed the three officers conversing, and joined them. He walked up just as he heard Carter explain that the officers at base camp were wanting to attempt an attack mission on the Kreltan base.

“Are they out of their ever living minds?” shouted the Captain. “We’d never survive!”

“We can’t be sure of that, sir,” John replied. “Besides, it beats doing nothing at all. We’re not even sure if anyone is looking for us.”

Sullivan was slightly shocked by the news, and was hesitant to interrupt. “Um, Captain? Just to let you know the anti-grav units are up and running. At least we can move the Fowler closer to base camp. Comm should be up in a couple of hours too.”

John raised his eyebrows. “You’ve got a way for us to get off the planet?”

“Not exactly,” replied Sullivan. “We can scoot along the surface, but there’s no power to get us into orbit.”

“That still may be to our advantage, Captain” Carter explained. “We could fly low towards the base for a sneak attack.”

“On this planet?” Marshall asked with doubt. “Who do we got that can fly a ship that low in a charged atmosphere . . .”

The captain’s sentence trailed off as he realized whom he was talking to. John simply raised his eyebrows with an expression of both surprise at the question, and a touch of personal pride in his own abilities. The captain pursed his lips in unspoken acknowledgement, remembering that his first officer was one of the best pilots in Starfleet.

Looking toward Readdy, Marshall asked, “So what do you say, Lieutenant? Are you up for another combat mission?”

“I’m up for it. Now my exoskeleton is another story. I hope I don't have to use it anymore, but if I do, I will. If doing so kills me, I will have died a noble death.” said Readdy, with an air of pride.

She too, knew how crewmembers were feeling and it would be far better to die trying to do something valiant than to die doing nothing.

“How soon will this 'mission' take place?” Ann asked, now beginning to feel the rush of impending combat.

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

'Yellow alert? . . . Still? . . . Damn!' thought Lieutenant Kroeger as he entered the turbolift outside his quarters. Ever since the Republic’s saucer section left the demon-class planet, the ship had not stood down from yellow alert. It made sense, especially since they were still in a sector so close to the battlefront. Unfortunately, this meant that everyone had to pull double duty shifts, and the scant off-duty time was reserved solely for sleeping. However, no one seemed to care anymore. The entire ship had undergone a terrifying experience when Captain Marshall and Lieutenant Commander Carter were lost during the destruction of the stardrive section.

The crew was weary and battle worn, and still overwhelmed by the petty departmental changes that their temporary leaders had implemented as of late. The acting captain, Lieutenant Regesh, was a common sense Andorian tactical officer, but he chose a rather unfit first officer in the ship’s psychotherapist, Counselor B’Rell. The Bajoran civilian dubiously rearranged the chain of command on the ship so junior officers were in charge of many departments. No one really knew who was in charge of what anymore, except of course, the skipper and XO. Now, with the saucer being diverted away from their home station at Starbase Delphi due to an impending Kreltan attack, the crew could only do their jobs and wait until the Republic could be made whole again.

The doors to the turbolift whisked open, and Lieutenant Kroeger strolled out onto the bridge. The lights were dim, signifying that the ship’s time schedule was still at the latter half of the late-night gamma shift.

“Good,” thought Kroeger. “I’m not late.”

Clad in his operations-gold Starfleet uniform, he walked down the portside of the recessed command pit, and past the current on-duty bridge officer, Counselor B’Rell. Although the Bajoran did not show a hint of fatigue, Lieutenant Snyder sat at his helm station with drowsy eyes. He turned to greet Kroeger with an exhausted smile, happy to see that his relief watch had arrived. Without a word, Snyder nodded, swung the helm console away and stepped away from the station. Patting Kroeger on the shoulder, Snyder exited the forward portside turbolift and headed to his quarters for some much needed sleep. Wasting no time, the new helm officer slipped into his station, and pulled the swing-away console towards himself, positioning it over his lap.

“Begin day shift,” announced Counselor B’Rell. The lights of the bridge returned to standard luminescence, signifying the transfer from gamma to alpha shift. As the counselor was pulling a double shift, he remained in the command chair.

Kroeger dialed his log-on sequence, and his personal helm configuration splayed across the touchpads. After confirming the Republic’s course and speed, he glanced at the navigation readout. There was a text message waiting for him.


The helm officer smiled, realizing that the Republic’s Medusan navigation officer, Ensign Mahlanoy, had also logged in. Although current Starfleet computers were sophisticated enough to calculate the orbital algorithms, stellar shifts, and gravitational constants required to fly through the vast expanse of outer space, there were an infinite number of variables that could occur at any moment. So, to keep a ship from getting hopelessly lost among the stars, it required a trained guide behind the navigational sensors. In the past, and on smaller ships, any humanoid would suffice. However, it is well known throughout the Federation that a member race of sessile organisms, the Medsuans, were by far the best navigators in the galaxy. The only problem was that their physical form caused most humanoids to become irreversibly insane if looked upon. Recently however, larger starship such as the Galaxy class incorporated specially isolated living chambers to house members of the Medusan race. Today, Medusans now have the ability to live and work with humans as long as they remain sealed in their navigation suites and living chambers. One such Medusan was Ensign Mahlanoy, and over the past few weeks, he had developed a working relationship with the Republics’ helm operators.

‘How are you today?’ Kroeger typed his response into the messaging matrix.


‘Still no word yet from the search vessels?’


‘I hope not. Let’s keep a positive attitude, okay?’


Lieutenant Kroeger continued to make minor course corrections, as information on nearby gravitational disturbances and debris fields were entered into his console from the navigation suite. Although they were still far off, faster-than-light speeds required immediate course correction, for such obstacles would soon pose a threat to the Republic’s saucer section if her path was not corrected.


‘No, why?’ typed Kroeger.


Now that he looked at it, the warp field of the back-up drive of the Republic’s saucer section did seem to be flickering slightly. Normally, such deviation is dismissed as minor contact with sub-light ionization fields – a natural phenomenon. However, it is not often encountered. As Kroeger took a last look, he replied to his Medusan comrade.

‘Looks okay to me. It’s still well within nominal parameters. I’m sure it will die down soon. Ionization is a localized disturbance, you know.’


Hayden immediately looked at the way-point logs. It was true. The Republic’s warp field was resonating over the past several light years. That was far too long to be a standard cloud of hydrogen ions, and the field was still fluctuating. The resonance must be coming from within the ship, but what would be causing it? Kroeger frowned at the odd readings, and wondered whether it was worth saying anything to the Bajoran first officer. Throwing away the last of his ambivalence, Hayden decided to speak up.

“Sir,” he addressed the Bajoran first officer. “The warp field is fluctuating. Not just now, but over the past two hours. Should we do something to it, or just leave it there?”

The first officer stood still for a few seconds and said, “Lieutenant Kroeger, I will deal with this, just let us come home in one piece, okay?”

The young Lieutenant nodded and went back to work.

‘Insolent juvenile!’ thought B’Rell, as he went back to the command chair and sat down. ‘Why does he bother me with such trifles?’

The counselor believed himself to be a pragmatist; a person who sees the whole picture and doesn’t become overburdened by too much detail. Although he knew very little about warp drive technology or interstellar navigation, B’Rell knew enough that if the problem Lieutenant Kroeger spoke of was major, engineering would have said something by now. As it stood, the temporary first officer kept a clear delineation between departments, and felt that it was none of Haydon’s business to be reporting about warp drive inconsistencies.

Over an hour later, the Kreltan imposter posing as Lieutenant Regesh strolled onto the bridge from the adjoining ready room. The rest of the shift transfers had reported in, and as the temporary captain walked around the command pit, B’Rell stood up and greeted him.

“Sir, we’re about ninety minutes away from the Beta Taurii Three colony. All ship systems functioning normally.”

Before Regesh could reply, Hayden, still sitting at the helm station, cleared his throat loudly while looking straight ahead at the viewscreen. Although he was a junior officer, he was still the same rank as Regesh, and he knew it. Counselor B’Rell had been getting under the crew’s skin ever since the Republic's saucer section left the demon-planet, and although they trust Regesh, he had not directly participated most of the leadership decisions since Captain Marshall handed command over to him. Instead, the ship’s Bajoran psychotherapist had almost full reign over the Republic, making one lousy decision after another. By not reporting the resonance discrepancy, Hayden felt that B’Rell had done him an injustice, as well as the rest of the ship.

“Problems Lieutenant?” the Regesh clone asked, raising an eyebrow.

Haydon was about to speak when B’Rell cut him short. “Nothing that you need bother yourself with, sir.” His tone was direct and formal, offering a hint of exasperation at the helm officer.

However, Lieutenant Kroeger wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. “The counselor seems reluctant to mention an extended warp field resonance that my staff detected, sir.”

“It’s well within the nominal range, sir,” B’Rell answered emphatically, shooting a dagger-filled glance towards Haydon. “Since engineering hadn’t reported any anomalous operations, I felt it was improper for the helm officer to be making a fuss over it.”

Regesh said nothing for what seemed to be an eternity within the tense atmosphere of the bridge. In truth, only a few seconds had slipped by where he paused in thought, twitching his blue Andorian antennae. The lower ranking crew on the bridge maintained their stations, but watched the episode unfold out of the corner of their eyes.

“A warp resonance seems like a normal occurrence to me too, counselor.”

As a smile crept across B’Rell’s face, Lieutenant Kroeger turned around in disbelief. Of all the people he felt would challenge the counselor on such an issue, it would have been the Andorian tactical officer. As it stood, Regesh seemed to go out of his way to allow B’Rell to treat the crew as he saw fit. Although it was within the temporary captain’s prerogative to do so, the way the Bajoran psychotherapist ran the executive officer’s position was intolerable. It showed a blatant disregard for basic ship operations protocol, not to mention reckless. Surely Regesh could see that?

“Sir,” said Hayden straightforwardly, pivoting around in his seat to face the captain and first officer. “May I talk to you for a moment?”

“You most certainly may not!” shot B’Rell. “You will maintain your station, Lieutenant!”

It was clear that the counselor wished to maintain strict control over who disturbed the captain, but Kroeger persisted. He stared at the Andorian, awaiting an answer as if he did not even hear B’Rell.

Again, a tense moment of silence fell upon the room. Quite unexpectedly, a chuckle came forth from Regesh causing B’Rell and Kroeger to look at the skipper quizzically.

“If the lieutenant wishes to speak to me, counselor, by all means, he has the right.” Turning to the helm officer, Regesh continued. “Why don’t you join me for a stroll down to engineering so we can clear up this resonance nonsense?”

B’Rell threw a cold glance towards Lieutenant Kroeger as he got up from his seat and followed the Andorian tactical officer to the turbolift.

“You have the bridge, counselor,” said Regesh, as the doors whisked closed.

Inside the turbolift, Haydon was happy that he finally made his way past B’Rell and could finally get some answers about what was happening on the ship. Although there was a certain formality that must be maintained on the bridge, personal defenses could be lowered in a private conference such as this one. Again, he hoped that the equal rank between him and Regesh would yield some progress regarding the recent command decisions of the temporary first officer. However, instead of the situation making more sense, as he turned around to speak to the Andorian lieutenant, things got a whole lot more confusing.

Out of nowhere, a swift right hook came forth from the Andorian tactical officer. The blow was so forceful that it knocked Haydon’s jaw out of alignment. It threw him against the elevator wall, causing him to fall to the floor. Scrambling to activate his combadge, the helm officer was a second too late as a forceful kick knocked his communicator off his chest, breaking several bones in his hand. Blood dripped from the side of his lip as the shocked Lieutenant Kroeger looked up to see the stern, emotionless face of his temporary captain. The Regesh imposter only twitched an antenna as Haydon lost consciousness.

Chapter 22Top

<location: sickbay, main ward, USS Republic>

Kroeger, still nursing a bruised cheek, was restrained by a force-field in a biobed. Counselor B’Rell and Doctor Shannon Harris were at the foot of the bed discussing the lieutenant’s disposition while a pair of security guards stood motionless at the doors.

“Counselor, my scans indicate no hormonal imbalance nor irregular neural output. He’s completely normal.” Harris wasn’t particularly fond of B’Rell since he took over the executive officer’s position. However, mental diagnoses fell within the auspices of the ship’s counselor, and since the Bajoran was filling both positions at the moment, Kroeger’s disposition was in his hands. Still, the scarlet-haired medical doctor knew the physical indicators of psychological abnormalities, and her instincts were telling her another story.

“It doesn’t really matter what you think, doctor,” B’Rell chided. “This insubordinate officer attacked our acting captain, and until my duties allow for a full psychiatric examination, he is to be restrained and kept under observation until we return to port.”

“I didn’t attack anybody!” explained Haydon in desperation. “I’m telling you, the captain attacked ME! How do you explain my injuries?”

B’Rell maintained an emotionless expression, yet his voice was stern. “You’re lucky Lieutenant Regesh didn’t injure you worse than he did. Andorians are well known for their fierce self-defense methods.” The counselor began walking towards the sickbay doors, but stopped short before passing the attending security guards. Turning around, he looked back towards Haydon in the biobed with a suspicion-filled sneer. “I don’t know what you’re up to, lieutenant, but if it turns out that you have no mental abnormalities, you’re probably facing a court martial. If I were you, I’d maintain your right to remain silent.” With that, B’Rell left the medical complex.

Wide-eyed with the terrible possibility that his Starfleet career was in shambles, Kroeger looked towards Harris with fear-induced incredulity. “Doctor, I didn’t attack Regesh! Although I don’t know why, he attacked me! Please! You HAVE to believe me!”

Shannon was no fool. All her years of medical training taught her that it was the hidden clues that revealed the disease, and more often than not, the symptoms never matched the prognosis. Although the current situation only deepened the mystery of what was happening aboard the Republic, she felt that Lieutenant Kroeger was the first clue that something was terribly wrong. Walking up to the head of the biobed, Lieutenant Harris pressed a button on the wall console that released Haydon’s energy-restraints.

“I believe you.”

<location: base camp, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

At the main campsite, a fierce wind raged across the surface of the planet that the survivors of Republic's star drive had taken to calling “Styx”. The planet's new moniker was courtesy of Ensign Miguel Hayes, who observed quite accurately that: 'If this place wasn't Hell, it was damned close!'

John Carter turned his face to the setting sun and couldn't help but smile as he saw a symphony of red, pink and orange that accompanied sunsets on Styx. Behind the Martian officer, Doctor Leon Cromwell cleared his throat.

“Credit for your thoughts?” he said with an easy smile.

John turned, wondering just how long the Doctor had waited before making his presence known. He put that thought aside and spoke to the doctor. “Oh, you know Doc,” he said casually, “working out a plan to outwit an army of hostile shapeshifters with a handful of techs, half a runabout, and several assorted rocks.” Carter leveled his gaze at the Doctor. “Still not too late to come along you know,” John ran his fingers through his hair and felt his trademark smirk return to his face. “You could use a little more excitement.”

Cromwell leaned against an outcropping of rock and crossed his arms. “Oh, sure,” the Doctor shot back, “but what do we do next week?” Then, Cromwell's expression turned serious. “You're really going to do it?” Leon asked, “Go after them?”

John cocked his head sideways. “There's a choice?” John was barely aware of the edge of 'command' that had slipped into his voice, but Cromwell had obviously heard it. “Come on Doc,” Carter continued, “as nice a garden spot as this is, if we stay here we die. It really is that simple.”

Carter had a point, and Cromwell knew it. On Demon class planets like Styx, the air was barely fit for humanoid respiration, to say nothing of the heavy metals that permeated the soil, and the dangerously high radiation that streamed through the planet’s all-too-thin atmosphere. Some of the crew were already showing signs of poisoning, and a few had developed first-stage melanoma. Nothing Leon couldn't treat, as least as far as the symptoms were concerned, but the replicators from the salvaged runabout 'Griffith' wouldn't hold out forever, and once they were gone, potable water would be impossible to find. “So, what are you going to do?” Cromwell asked.

“We're gonna scream in there like Tarkalian fire-bats, and make sure those sorry sacks of plasma know they can't mess with Starfleet and not get spanked for it!”

“They know that already John. You already destroyed one of their flagships.”

Carter felt his temper flaring, but at the moment, he didn't care… he had to keep talking. “Then I'll just have to teach them again, won't I?”

Cromwell was surprised by the fury in Carter's voice. He'd heard of Martian tempers before, and had also learned fairly quickly that John Carter was not an opponent to be taken lightly, but the emotion he heard in his XO's voice unnerved him a bit. He thought it best to change the subject while he still could. Before all Hell broke loose.

Leon sat down on a rock and gestured for Carter to do the same. “Can I ask you something John?”

“Why stop now?”

Cromwell smiled, glad to see that Carter's sense of humor was returning. “Well,” the Doctor said tentatively, “I did a little checking. You know, back when we had a ship.”

“Oh?” Carter was laughing now. “And?”

“Seems that Victor wasn't the only crewman on Republic who has some missing time in his past.”

John nodded. “That's true Doc,” he answered, “but you know I can't talk about it. Temporal Prime Directive and all.”

“With this crew?! Give me a break. Consider it a dying man's last request.” The remark was meant to keep the conversation going, but it also put a fine point on the truth.

“Ok, Doc.” John relented. “I was XO onboard the Valiant II. An old Excelsior re-fit. Beautiful ship.” Carter looked up, with an almost longing expression. “We were on a simple survey cruise, making sure that our gravitic calculations for the latest Federation navigational charts were right, when we suddenly hit a patch of…heavy space.”


“Heavy space,” John repeated. “It's like super-dense dark matter. Vic said space was full of it. In fact, he figured that this stuff was why gravity worked in the first place. You ask me, I think he made it all up.”

“Are you serious?”

“As a Vulcan in Pon Farr.” John smiled. “We're minding our own business when something just plain pulls us out of warp. Pretty soon, we can't manage more than point-five cee. Vic figured it was that heavy stuff.”

“But . . . ”

“But it turns out that's not what it was.” John rubbed the back of his neck and tilted his head down as he continued his tale. “Vic was our Chief Engineer at the time, but we had the smartest ensign in the whole sprocking universe at ops.”

“Mir Tana.” The Doctor interjected.

“You know her?”

“We met at a conference on Barengarious VII. But . . . that's a story for another time. Please . . . ”

Carter gave his doctor a wry look. “Tana figures that we're being dragged down by a 'quantum anchor'.”

“I'm getting a headache.” Cromwell said, rubbing his temples with his thumbs.

Now thoroughly amused, Carter continued. “So we re-calibrate to get a better subspace resolution, and sure enough, something has us snagged. But . . . this isn't your run-of-the-mill Cosmic String.”

“Of course not.” Leon moaned grimly. “Get on with it, what did you do?”

“Well, the anchor's in subspace, which means it translates, at least in some way into real space, and warp space.” John explained. “In order to get away, we had to go . . . ”

“To transwarp.” Leon almost whispered the words, like they were some sort of lost gospel.

Carter nodded his head. “Whatever you say Doc, but you didn't hear that from me.”

“Of course not.”

“So our Captain…Tim Burroughs, gives Vic and Tana the green light, and before you know it, we're bending physics six ways from Sunday. Of course, there's enough brain-power on the Valiant just then to power a small fleet, so…”

“What could go wrong?” Cromwell quipped.

“Wait for it!” John shook his head and continued through his smile. “Vic gets the t-warp field up, and we're all set to go. I'm telling you Doc, I've never heard engines hum so beautifully in my LIFE!” Carter sat back on his rock, pleased to find himself actually enjoying the re-telling of something he lived through. “They're pulling hard, and we keep creeping closer and closer to light speed when all of a sudden, the string snaps back! Like letting go of a rubber band.”


“Oh it gets better. The string snapped back, but we were still attached to it.

Now, we're all big boys and girls, and we know our jobs. A quick scan of the star charts reveals that we're still in Federation space, but the stars aren't quite where they're supposed to be. The constellations were right, but they were just… off.”

“So then where . . . ”

“Not where Doc,” Carter corrected Leon, “when. The 30th century to be precise.” Carter stopped short as he saw Lieutenant Sullivan come into view. John got to his feet and pretended not to notice the shocked look on Doctor Cromwell's face.

“Sorry sirs,” Sullivan said, slightly out of breath. “I'm not interrupting anything am I?”

“Not at all Sullivan. What's the word?”

Lieutenant Sullivan stood for a moment, noting that Doctor Cromwell had still not moved or spoken. “Is Doctor Cromwell all right?”

“Sure. I think he just learned there are some questions that shouldn't be asked. What's up?” he asked again.

“Oh right.” Sullivan shook his head to get himself back on track. “Captain says that Fowler is as ready as she's going to get. I've got the volunteers scrounging up weapons and supplies at the repair site now.”

“How many?”

“Including you and me, twenty-two. More of the crew wanted to go, but Captain Marshall figured the runabout couldn't take many more than that.”

John stood thoughtfully for a moment. “That's a good call,” he finally said. “Small enough to be mobile and fairly quiet, but big enough to ruin someone's day.”

Sullivan heard the predatory edge in Carter's voice. “yes SIR!” Sullivan turned to head back to the staging area, then stopped and pivoted back. “One more thing, Commander Carter.”


“Captain said to tell you he had the inertial dampeners removed. Said you'd know what that meant?”

“Aye, Lieutenant,” Carter said with an easy smile. “You go ahead. I'll just get my gear. Prep for Dust-Off in 20 mics.”

“Aye, Commander.” Sullivan answered as he headed off with a confident stride in his step.

Carter looked around and found that Leon had stood up and was looking toward the setting sun. “We're not done yet, you and me,” Cromwell chided his friend. “There's still the small matter of how you got back!”

“Oh, I REALLY can't talk about that!” Carter said, as the two men laughed.

“Then what was all that business with the I.D.'s?”

“That goes back to flight training,” John explained. “Dialing back the inertial dampeners gives you more maneuverability, but puts a hell of a strain on your craft.” Carter turned his head to look at the sun. “We're taught never to do it, unless there's no other choice.”

John watched as Cromwell picked up the XO's tricorder and phaser, and handed it to him. “It's a pilot's way of saying he expects it to be a one-way trip.”

“I figured. Damned military-types.”

“Careful Doc,” Carter warned, “you might be one of us and not even know it.” John turned and walked toward the staging area where he knew his assault team (if one could call it that) would be anxious to get to work. “Gotta go Doc. I've got a base to capture.”

As Cromwell watched Carter go, he called after the Martian. “You still owe me 20 bars of latinum!”

“No worries Doc,” Carter called back, “I don't believe in one-way trips!”

<location: sickbay, main ward, saucer section, USS Republic>

As the guards stiffened their jaws, and focused their attentions on Doctor Harris’ activities, an angry shriek sounded from the passageway to the exam suites.

“What do you think you're doing?” came a shrill voice from the back of the room. Lieutenant Phoebe Hudson stood glaring at Harris and Kroeger with confusion and animosity. “The counselor gave strict orders that he be restrained until we return to drydock!”

Harris turned to look at the young alien-hybrid doctor whom B’Rell put in charge of sickbay.

“The counselor is acting against the best interests of this ship, and is putting the crew in jeopardy. Lieutenant Kroeger here was the first victim that we know of. I’m not about to stand around and wait until there’s another victim.”

Kroeger slid off the biobed and came to his feet. “What’s your plan doctor?”

Harris furrowed her eyebrows in thought. “I’m not sure. All I know is that we’ve got to break radio silence and get in contact with someone. C’mon,” she said, turning towards the door. “We’ve got to find Snyder.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” shouted Hudson. “I’m in charge here, and I say he gets back into the biobed and stays there until we dock!”

“Are you blind?” hissed Harris. “Kroeger is not a criminal, and I believe someone or something is influencing Lieutenant Regesh. Now, if you were a responsible department head, you’d relieve him of command at this very moment!”

“You’re just as crazy as him!” replied the young temporary chief medical officer pointing to Hayden Kroeger. “You’re relieved of duty, Doctor Harris!” she ordered. “Guards! Take them both to the brig! I’ll inform the captain!”

The two security guards began to draw their hand phasors when a pair of blue-uniformed arms reached from behind Lieutenant Hudson. She yelped for a split second while one arm put her in a half-nelson, and the other produced a hypospray. Within a second, the young humanoid doctor slumped into the arms of Doctor Saal Yezbeck who laid her gently onto a nearby biobed.

“Hold it!” commanded one of the guards, pointing a phasor in Yezbeck’s direction. With their attention diverted, Harris and Kroeger seized the opportunity to wrestle the weapons out of the arms of the two security guards. Moments later, both sentries were laid out on biobeds in a similar unconscious state as Doctor Hudson.

“Thanks, Saal” the scarlet-haired Harris said to the black-bearded doctor Yezbeck.

“Don’t mention it,” he said with relief. “She was perturbing me enough as it was. Ever since B’Rell put her in charge, she seemed to think she was God.”

“It won’t take them very long to figure out that Lieutenant Kroeger is loose, you know,” came a gravely voice from a side hallway. The gray-haired Doctor Fernmoore walked into the main ward after witnessing the minor mutiny. She paused to squint at the two conspiring doctors.

“You didn’t see what happened here, did you, Eliza?” The subtle resonance in Yezbeck’s voice offered the hint of a suggestive overtone. With the exception of a few, the sickbay staff was a fairly tight group of co-workers, but Saal wanted to make sure.

“See what?” replied Fermoore to Yezbeck’s relief. “I came into the main ward and found these youngsters passed out on the biobeds. Beats me as to what happened to them.”

“I owe you one, Eliza” offered Yezbeck.

“What’s our next step?” Kroeger looked slightly confused, and crossed his arms while watching the three doctors. He wasn’t sure of why they all stuck their neck out for him, but he was grateful that someone was on his side.

“Well,” Yezbeck started while taking a seat at the computer console by the nurse’s station. “First off, you and Harris need to find Lieutenant Snyder. It takes two junior officers and a medical officer to officially declare an individual unfit for command. Tell Snyder that he needs to take over the center seat, and that he’d better bring his sidearm. I don’t expect Regesh or B’Rell to like the idea.”

“What about you?” Harris asked while she and Kroeger picked up the hand phasors they acquired from the two unconscious security guards.

“I’m going to make a call to a friend,” replied Yezbeck, who began typing commands into the computer console.

“How?” asked the aged Doctor Fernmoore. “They locked out the communications network while we’re running under radio silence. You can’t use the subspace array.”

“I don’t plan to,” he said with confidence. Looking over his shoulder, he looked towards Harris and Kroeger. “You two better get going. Good luck.”

“You too,” offered Kroeger as he and Harris exited the sickbay.

Chapter 23Top

<location: deck 8, Lieutenant Snyder’s quarters, saucer section, USS Republic>

Snyder was sluggishly putting his boots on while trying to wake up from an hour-long sleep. Harris and Kroeger waited anxiously while the second-shift helm officer stumbled through a sleep-deprived mental state.

“Let me get this straight,” he asked with apprehension. “You guys think that Regesh and B’Rell are off their rockers, and that you and the sickbay staff are trying to relieve them of duty?”

“That’s right,” Harris stately flatly.

“Geez,” he said with exasperation. “I take one lousy hour off duty and all hell breaks loose.” Opening a drawer and producing his hand phasor, he locked it into his belt-mounted holster. “Alright,” he sighed. “Let’s go.”

<location: base camp, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

The last traces of crimson sunlight faded over the horizon as John Carter walked to the repair site. Twenty other survivors of the Republic were waiting nervously on the make-shift “flight-line”. Captain Marshall wiped the last of runabout Fowler's innards off his hands, and turned to face his first officer. “Took your time, didn't you Lieutenant Commander?”

“Yeah,” John answered with a nervous smile. “The lines at the o-club were terrible today. Thanks for taking out the ID's though.”

Lieutenant Sullivan stepped forward, interrupting his superiors. “Sorry sirs,” he offered. Then he turned his attention to Carter. “We managed to get six phaser rifles working. Twelve tricorders, and eight mark VI hand phasers.” Sullivan knew they were lean pickings, but given the state of life on Styx, it was the best they could do. In truth, it was more than Sullivan had a right to hope for.

“That's not a lot of material John,” Marshall offered.

“No Captain, it's not, but we don't have much choice.”

Marshall took a few steps away from the ad-hoc assault team and motioned for Carter to follow. As his First Officer caught up, Marshal turned so that the two officer's conversation was blocked.

“You're ready to go?”

“Aye, Sir.”

“That's it? 'Aye, Sir?'” Marshall's voice was worn. whether that was from the weather on Styx or stress, Carter couldn't tell. The Captain tilted his head and looked at Carter. “I'm still not comfortable with ordering you to die, you know.”

Carter couldn't help but laugh. “Permission to speak freely Captain?”

Marshall nodded, adding, “The last time you asked for that, you told me I'd have to quit my job.”

“Yes, Sir,” Carter answered. “But that was last week. I'm not so sure I want your job, sir.”

“What's on your mind Commander?”

“The way I see it sir, we're the lucky ones. If this doesn't work, then we're dead, and you get that much more food and water to figure something else out. Just try to remember that this wasn’t your fault, Sir.”

“That's funny coming from you, Carter.” Marshall said simply. “I always figured you'd be chomping at the bit to bring me down.”

For an instant, Carter's expression turned furious, then his training took over. “Not at all sir,” Carter explained. “When I get my own command, Captain, it won't be because I stepped on a good man to reach the chair.”

Marshall stood for a few long seconds, then looked back at Fowler, and the assembled crew. “Damn, Carter, you don't pull any punches do you?”

“Their worst nightmare, Sir.”

“Let's hope so, John.”

The two officers walked back to the flight line in silence. Carter surveyed whom he had to work with, and gave a few quick orders. “All right kids, listen up.” The survivors of Republic stood at attention, keeping all of their discipline, despite the days of grit, pain, and grief that Styx had visited upon them. “We're going in hard and fast, tricorders set on max to minimize our sensor returns. Primary objective is to Secure transport off-world. Failing that, we find the biggest thing we can and make it go boom. Stay sharp, stay hungry, and I'll get you home. Are we clear?”

“Aye, Sir!” was the chorus from the assembled crew.

In seconds, the hum of a mag-lev drive filled the air, and the re-conditioned runabout Fowler sailed gracefully toward the dark side of the planet. James Marshall watched and wondered if any of the crew he watched go would make it back to camp, or for that matter, if any of them would.

Behind the Captain, Leon Cromwell arrived to see Fowler as little more than a speck on the horizon.

“I was wondering where you were Doctor.”

“Had a couple of house calls at the Infirmary. Nothing serious, but it's getting worse.” Cromwell gave his Captain a quick look-over. “You look like Hell, Jim.”

“Then I've come to the right place haven't I.” he said with a mild quirk. “That friend of yours has quite a mouth on him.”

“He let you have it huh?”

“Not the way I figured he might, but yes, he spoke his mind.”

“Don't worry Captain, you can dress him down when they get back.”

Meanwhile, aboard the Fowler, Readdy was deep in thought. With what lie ahead, she was understandably nervous, yet, at the same time, she was eager to jump into the fray, so to speak.

Ann looked around, at everyone wondering what was on their minds as the craft made its way toward its destination. Looking at Carter, Readdy could sense the determination in his demeanor and drew off that for her own courage.

Readdy then resumed looking out the window, at the bleak landscape of this stygian planet. She glanced at her arm-piston cylinders and their air supply lines and saw evidence of the atmosphere's effect on them. She also felt a slight burning sensation in all her cylinders and air lines, but is choosing to ignore it, concentrating on the mission at hand.

<location: main bridge, saucer section, USS Republic>

The Kreltan spy posing as Lieutenant Regesh sat next to Counselor B’Rell in the command pit. Both watched the viewscreen with an air of confidence as the bridge crew went about their business. Most of the main bridge officers had now been replaced with younger junior officers and enlisted personnel, as the remaining senior crew had been re-assigned to less influential parts of the ship. As the stars passed quietly by on the main screen, the young petty-officer at the helm station made an announcement.

“We’ve arrived in the Beta Taurii system, sir.”

“Take us out of warp,” replied the Andorian doppelganger. “Maintain course to the colony on the third planet, and place us into standard orbit.”

“Aye, sir.”

A beeping warble came forth from the tactical console where a young ensign in operations gold said “sir, I’m receiving some odd sensor readings.” Suddenly, the alarm system activated, automatically bringing the ship to red alert. The loud klaxon sounded as the ensign shouted “three Kreltan dreadnaughts de-cloaking, sir! They’re converging on our position!”

Despite the terrified bridge crew, the Regesh clone suppressed a calm smile before standing up from the command chair.

B’Rell, out of a sense of self-preservation, barked tactical orders “shields up! Stand-by to transfer power to the engines!”

“Belay that order,” Regesh said confidently while adjusting his uniform. He strolled casually to the front of the bridge, positioning himself between the helm and operations station.

“But, sir” B’Rell asked in confusion. “Shouldn’t we take evasive action?”

“Negative, counselor” he replied. “We’re hopelessly outgunned and possess less than one-fifth of their speed. Put me on hailing frequencies.”

After dialing a few sequences into the communications console, the ensign at the tactical console announced “you’re on, sir.”

“This is Lieutenant Regesh commanding the saucer section of the U.S.S. Republic. We request your terms for surrender.”

A sense of shock rippled throughout the bridge crew as a stammering Counselor B’Rell interjected “uh, sir? Are you sure about that?” B’Rell wasn’t so concerned for the ship as he was for his own future career as a Starfleet captain. Nevertheless, he felt that spending time in a Kreltan prison colony would not help advancement of his position.

“It’s okay,” the Kreltan spy lied. “They’ll only want the commanding officer, counselor. Remember? They seemed to be focused on Captain Marshall during our last encounter. As soon as I hand myself over to them, you’ll be in charge of the ship. Whatever they decide to do to the ship, make sure that the crew get home.”

Most of the bridge crew were still recovering from the trauma of being handed into enemy hands when Regesh spoke those words to B’Rell. For his part, the counselor stood speechless as the Andorian clone strolled a few more steps to the front of the bridge and turned around to look at everyone with a fake, over-dramatic smile.

“It’s been an honor serving with all of you, and I . . .”

“Stop right there!” shouted a voice from the port-aft turbolift. The doors were parted, and Harris, Kroeger, and Snyder slowly walked out with their phasors drawn.

“Lieutenant Regesh,” announced Doctor Harris. “I declare you unfit for command and mentally incapacitated. You are relieved.”

“Doctor!” shouted B’Rell. “What do you think you’re doing! Return Lieutenant Kroeger to sickbay at once!”

“I do not recognize your authority, doctor” the Kreltan spy replied. “I suggest that you do as the counselor says.” The imposter was not happy at the appearance of both Harris and Lieutenant Kroeger, realizing at once that someone had actually taken the young helm officer’s word about the incident in the turbolift. However, it did not matter. The plan was nearly finished, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

“Sir!” shouted the ensign at the tactical console. “Four more Kreltan dreadnaughts are de-cloaking, and I’m reading the cloaking signatures of several more approaching!”

“You see,” said the spy cunningly. “There’s nothing we can do. We have to surrender.”

“Not if I can help it,” hissed Harris as she let loose a blast of deep-orange phasor energy. The shot would have hit Regesh squarely in the chest, but instead, a translucent field of energy made its presence known by dissipating the energy stream before hitting it’s intended target. Apparently, the Kreltan spy had made some contingency plans, and his casual stroll to the front of the bridge turned out to be more than just a coincidence.

The Regesh clone could no longer suppress a smile as the sapphire-blue cheeks became raised in a toxic grin. Twitching an antenna, he looked at Harris like a predator who had taken down its prey and was preparing to eat it.

“Kroeger!” whispered Harris. “Go to the helm and see if you can get us out of here!”

The Lieutenant holstered his phasor and made his way to the helm console to relieved the petty-officer on duty. Regesh watched with amusement as Haydon took his seat. Just as he was about to dial in commands, the Kreltan spy announced “computer, lock out all command functions. Authorization: Regesh-two-alpha.”

A negative computer warble emanated from Haydon’s helm station as he tried to adjust the course. There was no response, and as he tried several combinations of keystrokes, he shook his head in failure. “It’s no use, doctor.”

“Of course not,” taunted the Kreltan spy. “You made your computer systems far too easy to infiltrate. And now that we’ve proved how inferior your species is, it is time to put an end to your pitiful little lives. Computer: initiate extermination sequence Regesh-one.”

A hissing sound whined in the ears of everyone on the bridge as a pink smoke flowed out of the ventilation ducts. Immediately, everyone began coughing spasmodically.

“You see, doctor” explained the spy. “We are the superior life form. And the only way WE can survive, is if you perish. And as one of your human scientists if fond of saying, it’s survival of the fittest.”

As Haydon sank down into his chair, trying to cover his nose and mouth with the collar of his uniform, he glanced at his console where a text message was blinking.


In his smoke-induced affliction, Haydon looked quizzically at the message, and realized its sender was none other than the Republic’s Medusan navigation officer, Ensign Mahlanoy. He may have been sealed in his navigation chamber several decks below, but the non-humanoid navigator had a full readout of what was occurring on the main bridge. Haydon wondered what Mahlanoy meant by the missive when the pink smoke on the bridge began to turn white. Slowly, the chorus of choking crewmen began to die down, and the smoke eventually cleared leaving everyone still standing. Wondering what miracle had been bestowed upon them, Lieutenant Kroeger looked back at the console to find another text message.


Haydon, who had just learned a new swear word in Medusan, smiled as he looked up to the Andorian clone. The spy was looking around the bridge with a look of impending disaster. His smile was gone, and replaced with a grimace of frustration. He had used most of his contingency plans to capture the crew, and now was forced into playing the last card he had.

“Computer: initiate extermination sequence Regesh-two.”

Everyone on the bridge looked ominously around themselves, awaiting some new weapon for which the spy had pre-arranged. However, nothing appeared to happen.

“It matters not,” the Kreltan spy finally announced to the bridge. “You’re all doomed no matter what you try to do. This ship is now rigged to self destruct if you try to activate any of your propulsion systems.”

Looking down to his display, hoping to find another miracle from his Medusan companion, all Kroeger saw was a message reading:


Afraid to even touch the helm controls, all he could do was look back up into the smiling face of the Regesh imposter. He chuckled as he saw the hopelessness in Hayden’s eyes before turning to the entire bridge crew.

“So it comes down to this: Try to escape, and you die. Stay here, and you die. Either way, I suggest that you make preparations to enter whatever afterlife you believe in.”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t call a travel agent this early in the game . . .”

The aft-starboard turbolift doors parted to find Doctor Yezbeck wielding a phasor rifle. Before another word was spoken, a charge of bright white plasma escaped from the nozzle of the weapon, and pierced through the force-field that the Kreltan spy had so carefully devised to protect himself. As it made contact with the shape-shifter’s body, an ear-piercing scream came forth from the creature before it disintegrated into thin air.

The bridge crew gaped in awe at the destruction of the creature that had control of their vessel and crew over the past day. It was inconceivable to any of them how the spy had gotten onboard, but as it evaporated into a mist, the scene on the viewscreen behind where the creature stood displayed a more pressing problem: a dozen Kreltan dreadnaughts at station-holding off the bow.

“It’s okay, Lieutenant Kroeger,” Yezbeck acknowledged. They found the explosive device in the impulse manifold down in engineering about five minutes ago. You’re free to navigate now.”

“Aye, sir” said Haydon, returning his attention to the helm station.

Doctor Harris, who stood behind the command pit, stared at Yezbeck in disbelief. Saal only shrugged his shoulders while slinging the phasor rifle.

“I wasn’t always a doctor, you know.” Looking towards Lieutenant Snyder, Yezbeck motioned for him to sit in the command chair. “If you please lieutenant.”

Immediately, Snyder took a seat at the captain’s chair and gave his first order.

“Kroeger, get us out of here!”

The Republic’s saucer section glided past the Kreltan dreadnaughts while making a smooth, 180-degree turn. Within moments, the ships were converging on the starship, opening fire with brutal accuracy.

In a shower of sparks, the Republic’s bridge became littered with debris and smoke. The frantic young ensign at the tactical console continuously shouted status reports.

“Shields down to 23 percent! Warp drive is offline! We’re venting plasma!”

“Maintain course!” replied Lieutenant Snyder, as Yezbeck and Harris began tending to the wounded. “Try some evasive maneuvers to keep their fire accuracy at bay.”

“We’ve got fourteen dreadnaughts on our tail, six within weapons range!” shouted the tactical ensign. “Sensors indicate eight more ships de-cloaking.”

“We’re as good as dead . . .” muttered Snyder.

“The de-cloaking ships register as K’Vork class battlecruisers!”

Snyder paused for a moment as the announcement registered in his mind. He blinked, then asked. “Klingon ships?”

“Aye sir, and I’m registering several more cloaking signatures on their current vector. The Klingons are drawing the Kreltan weapons fire.”

“I’ll bet they are . . .” whispered Snyder.

“The Klingons are hailing us, sir.”

“Put them on the screen, ensign.”

The battlefield switched to the bridge of a Klingon vessel, where a gruff, aged warrior stood glaring at the Republic’s bridge in dissatisfaction.

“This is Captain Kur’esh of the battlecruiser P’tow. Adjust your course away from the battlefield. We have two cloaked Birds-of-Prey who will escort you back to Delphi station.”

Stunned, Snyder looked at the commander in disbelief.

“To what to we owe this spectacular rescue, captain?”

Offering a sneerful scowl, the Klingon captain grunted a reply. “Actually you owe it to yourselves. Before I leave you, there’s someone else that would like to talk to you.”

The Klingon walked off-frame, and was replaced by a human in the black uniform of a Starfleet intelligence officer. The well-groomed hair and brown eyes boasted a familiar face that wore an amused grin. Snyder, along with many others on the bridge, dropped their jaw.

“Commander Forrest?” Snyder said with incredulity.

“Glad to see you guys still remember me,” replied the officer. “We got Doctor Yezbeck’s message on Starfleet’s emergency transceiver thirty minutes ago.”

Harris shot a quick, quizzical glance towards the balding medical doctor. Yezbeck shrugged his shoulders and whispered to her “I wasn’t always a doctor, you know.”

“The truth is,” Forrest continued. “Three cloaked Klingon vessels were already tracking you after your patrol-craft escort left you, and you changed course. Captain Kur’esh’s task force was on its way to the battlefront when we were asked to divert from that mission and intercept you.”

“But,” asked Snyder, “What are YOU doing onboard a Klingon ship?”

The intelligence officer smiled. “Sorry, that’s on a need-to-know basis. Anyway, to put it plainly, you got lucky. We’ll clean up this mess at Beta Taurii, but you guys better hustle it back to Delphi station before Admiral Maverick puts you over his knee and gives you all a good spanking.”

“Aye, sir,” replies Snyder. “We’re on our way. Republic out.”

Lieutenant Snyder was about to sit back in the command chair when he saw Counselor B’Rell standing at the foot of the command pit with a dumbfounded expression. He turned to look at the new temporary captain with dismay, and was about to say something when Snyder cut him off.

“Counselor, you’re confined to quarters. Now get the hell off this bridge.”

Without reply, the Bajoran psychotherapist walked up the ramp to the port-aft turbolift and left the command center. As soon as the doors shut, the entire bridge erupted in applause. Smiling, Snyder sat down in the command chair, and gave an order.

“Lieutenant Kroeger, as soon as engineering reports that the backup warp drive is repaired, set course for Delphi station and engage at warp four.”

Chapter 24Top

<location: deep within the Kreltan base, somewhere on the Demon-class planet>

“Oh, sprock!” John Carter hissed as charged plasma bursts slammed into the corridor just head of him. “Watch the backside!” he yelled over his shoulder, “They're trying to cut us off!”

Fifteen pairs of eyes looked back from where the lead element of the Federation riding party had forced their way into the Kreltan installation. It fell to Miguel Perry and Thomas Sullivan to watch the back of the advancing Federation column. Sullivan checked the charge meter on his phaser rifle.

“Damn!” he spit, “I've got 60 percent Mike. How about you?”

Crouched in the hallway next to Sullivan, the dark haired Perry gave his crewmate a nervous smile. “Hell, Sir, I'd give my left arm for 60 percent. I figure I've got 20…” Miguel raised his rifle and watched as the weapon spit an angry orange beam down the dark corridor. A split-second later, there was an inhuman gurgle, followed by more particle bursts from an enemy position that Perry couldn't see, but he knew were there. “Make that 19 shots. Pretty sure I got one though.” Miguel smiled and waited for another sign of movement from his enemy.

“Just take it easy Mike. The Hot Shot got us this far. He'll get us out of this. Before you know it, we'll be eating Chinese on the shore of Lake Armstrong.” Sullivan leveled his weapon and squeezed off a measured shot.

“You're right,” Perry answered, “He's gotta have a plan.”

`How the Hell do I get us out of this?' John Carter thought to himself. He crouched low in the corridor as he remembered the assault on the Kreltan base.

The approach to the Kreltan base had been textbook. Coming in low and fast, the battered runabaout Fowler had made a soft touchdown just at the edge of where the strike team's tricorders said the Kreltan sensor envelope was. Carter had ordered tricorders be used instead of Fowler's sensors to take advantage of the tricorder's sensitivity, and the fact that a tricorder's emissions were almost impossible to detect.

Scopes were clear when the Strike Team left Fowler in two columns; most of Republic's volunteers were shivering now, marching through Styx near-desert conditions. For three miles, the Starfleet personnel marched in silence. Each one of them had their own questions. What would they find? Were any of their colleagues still alive? Was there even a way off of Styx?

At the head of the column, John Carter raised his right hand, signaling for the march to stop. For a few seconds later, he held up two fingers and made a fanning motion. On cue, the members of the volunteer force who'd been issued phaser rifles stepped out to the left and right of the column, then stepping forward to form a line at the head of the columns. This was a formation that Starfleet Marines called “The Anvil”, and John Carter liked it for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it presented the bulk of a force's firepower to be directed at a specific point. Second, the geometry of the line could be moved easily; from line-abreast to column, including any wheel or re-formation the course of a battle might call for. Most importantly to John Carter however, a tightly formed line of phaser-wielding Starfleet Officers could be a very intimidating sight, and John was becoming more and more aware of just how important psychological warfare was to his Kreltan enemies.

Carter closed his hand into a fist, and the Anvil advanced. The team moved cautiously before Crewman Teague whispered to Carter.

“Tricorder's got something Commander.” Carter leaned in to look at Teague's display as the Crewman continued. “I'm reading an EM field around that outcropping of rock. According to the scans, it hollow. Looks like it leads beneath the planet's surface.”

Miguel Perry raised his phaser rifle to fire and the rocky edifice, but Carter cut him off.

“Hold it Perry,” he warned. “What's up with that field Corpsman?”

“If I had to guess sir,” Teague rolled his eyes, “and that's all this is, I'd say it was their early warning system.”

Lieutenant Sullivan poked his head between Carter and Teague. “He's right Sir,” the newcomer said. “But I'm betting a phaser shot is the last thing you want to hit that 'rock' with. That EM field is tuned to charged particles. They're waiting for us to blast the door down.”

“Great,” Teague said. “So what do we do now?”

Behind him, Carter heard a soft hiss. The sound had become so routine, that he'd almost stopped hearing it. John felt his smirk return as he looked toward Lieutenant Anne Reddy. “Simple. We're gonna knock.”

Ann Readdy braced her left hand on the top of the rock outcropping that had gotten everyone's attention. She took in a deep breath, then looked around nervously. She saw that the twenty-person assault team was assembled behind her, ready to take the fight to the Kreltans who had caused them so much pain over the last few days. Ann had decided, like everyone else with her, that it was time for the Kreltans to pay.

Readdy felt a nerve twitch and there was an explosive release of air as the piston that augmented her experimental suit shot her fist forward. Fortunately, the integrated exoskeleton also toughened her skin and bones. Combined with the force generated by her arm piston, the results were quite destructive. The rock outcropping was shattered instantly, and the Republic Strike Team could see the service access tunnel that the rock had hidden.

“Now we're talking,” John Carter said with a satisfied smirk.

Conditions inside the accessway were dark and cramped. John Carter was inching through the corridor. John was buried in the middle of the marching order. His eyes were fixed on the tricorder in crewman Teague's hand that was now showing John the layout of the Kreltan base.

'We could run out of space here, awfully fast' he thought to himself. 'Odd that a race of shapeshifters would build their infrastructure with space for humanoids.'

John couldn't help the pessimistic thoughts as they raced through his head.

“If you could turn into a puddle of goo, why wouldn't you . . .”

John heard voices up ahead, just on the other side of the access way. Human voices, speaking Federation standard.

”. . . telling you, just hold out a little longer. 'Fleet won't let us rot here. Republic's close, and the Kreltan's . . .”

“For the love of god McTaggart, will you please SHUT the Hell UP!” The screaming man was tall and thin. He'd once been quite fit, but weeks of malnutrition and abuse from the Kreltans had warn him down considerably. His name was David Laurret, formerly a crewman on the U.S.S. Crazy Horse. He'd been officially listed as Killed In Action when his shuttle didn't return from observing a mild ion storm. It was filed as a simple accident, regrettable, but hardly unique. In reality, Laurret's shuttle-mate was a Kreltan spy, and Laurret had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I don't want to hear about the Kreltan Dreadnaught you destroyed.”

“Two Kreltan Dreadnaughts.”

“Aaarrggh! Stop that! We're dead. Don't you understand? Dead! Those blobs of jelly are using us as . . . as blue prints, and for the last time. No one knows we're here!”

The clatter of metal on metal caused David Laurret, Sean McTaggart, and the handful of other prisoners the Kreltans had kept to look toward the noise. As quickly as they could, the Republic Strike Team filed out of the access way. Sean McTaggart looked in shock as he saw John Carter emerge from the crawlspace.

“No sprocking way! Commander Carter?”

John gave his former assistant tactical officer an easy smile.

“Hey kid. You never call, you never write . . .” Carter moved with the rest of Republic's team to release the Federation prisoners. As Sullivan phased the lock off of the metal holding pen, a klaxon sounded and the room was filled with a pale red light.

“Grozit!”, John cursed. He crouched low and primed his phaser. “Get ready for company! Watch the door, and try and get the prisoners covered! Tricorders! Find me a way out of here!”

“On it, Commander!” As Sullivan looked at his tri-corder, two other crewmen worked to force the doors of the Kreltan brig. Sullivan looked up after a quick scan. “Out the door, left at the “T” junction.”

Then they came.

Kreltan shock troops some with wings, some with tentacles. John Carter saw dozens of forms. None of them human, and none of them friendly. They streamed into the room hissing and spitting, growling and screaming as they tore into the Federation invaders. Frantic lances of phaser energy fired at the shapeshifters. Some were caught by the shots, but most of the Kreltans were battle trained and simply let their bodies move “around” the incoming phaser shots.

Humans didn't have the same luxury.

Carter watched as five of his away team were cut down, and he felt rage building inside him as he realized that he might finally have bitten off more than he could chew. A Kreltan attacker with a humanoid upper half and serpentine torso slithered up to John and cocked its head playfully.

“Ssssnack?” it hissed.

John quickly raised his phaser to the snake-Kreltan's head.

“Eat this!” he yelled, as he depressed the trigger. the Kreltan thing slumped over, now missing a head. Carter scrambled to his feet and made for the cluster of Republic crewman who were fending off the attack. 'It's all about timing,' John thought. 'They can change, but not that fast. We just have to hit them when they're stuck solid.'

“We have to move, or we're dead! Give me a wedge,” Carter stood up and took careful aim at a Kreltan soldier who was attempting to close the doors to the brig again, reaching through what was left of two of John's crewmen to do it. The Martian XO squeezed off another shot through the Kreltan Ape-Thing's head.

“Sweep left! Head for the door!” Starfleet training took over as crewmen and officers alike worked together to lock their fields of fire and cut through the Kreltan ranks, as the crewmen with phaser rifles advanced toward the door. The smell of o-zone and charred flesh filled the room, but Starfleet's finest would not be denied. In seconds, the Republic Strike team was out of the brig and down the hall.

Once in the corridor, Carter found Lieutenant Sullivan. “Eight?” he asked.

Sullivan shook his head. “Nine sir, but there were four 'Fleet prisoners in the cell, and I found this.” Sullivan held up the remnants of a Starfleet issue tactical vest, with Mathew Riggs name plate on it. Sullivan moved to the back of the column

“Damn. That answers that.” Carter led the away team down the corridor. The hallway they were in stretched ahead of them. Carter stepped cautiously to the end of the hallway, then quickly ducked back to avoid a Kreltan plasma shot.

“Oh, sprock!” John Carter hissed as charged plasma bursts slammed into the corridor just head of him. “Watch the backside!” he yelled over his shoulder,

“They're trying to cut us off!” 15 pairs of eyes looked back from where the lead element of the Federation raiding party had forced their way into the Kreltan installation. It fell to Miguel Perry and Thomas Sullivan to watch the back of the advancing Federation column. Sullivan checked the charge meter on his phaser rifle.

“Damn!” he spit, “I've got 60 percent Mike. How about you?”

Crewman Teague slapped his hand against his tricorder.

“What the hell? This doesn't make any damn sense!” Teague checked the tricorder again. It was showing him after-images of his immediate surroundings, as if they were existing in two places at once. A blue light that Teague didn't recognize flashed on the tricorder's face.

“Hey G'rzec?” Teague asked the Ensign in science blue next to him what does this mean?”

G'rzec, a tall Bolian with pale purple skin took one look and answered.


“Chronitons? What do those do?”

“Ruin your day.”

“Can it get worse?”

Busily returning fire, down the corridor, John Carter was reviewing his options. More Kreltan plasma shots slammed into the wall, A third might have hit Carter in the chest, if it hadn't been blocked by the luminous blue portal that was forming in front of him. Looking into the portal was like gazing into warp space. Streaks of light pulled apart into their spectrum components. From somewhere inside the portal, Carter heard a voice.

“Move your sprocking tails! We can't keep this thing open for long!”

John looked down the corridor making eye contact with Tom Sullivan. Sullivan just shook his head, not sure what to make of the portal's sudden appearance.

“Hell if I know sir!” he shot back.

“Right! At this point I don't care. Any port in a storm!” Carter stepped back from the mysterious portal. “Exit's here kids, lets go!”

One by one, the Survivors of Republic stepped through the portal. After he was sure they were all through, John stepped across the threshold himself.

“Just once, I'd like for this job to make sense,” he chuckled to himself.

“I know what you mean,” said the voice on the other side of the portal, “believe me.”

John Carter surveyed the room he was in having stepped through the portal. The room was obviously based on Federation architecture, but it wasn't made out of duranium, or plasti-crete, or any other material John could identify. All around him, men and women of countless species dressed in differing styles of red, gold, and blue were seeing to the condition of the away team survivors, and directly across from him, John Carter was looking at… himself. A bit older, certainly, and a bit more weathered ; the uniform was wrong too (though John did recognize what could have been a Starfleet delta), but the smirk was unmistakable.

“Put me back.”

“Can't.” The older Carter said.

“Can't? Or won't?”

“Pick one.” Carter's older self cocked his head sideways, as John himself often did. “What would you do?”

“My sprocking job!”

“Watch the language. I can't wait `til we outgrow that, and 'Your sprocking job' was to get these people out alive. You've done that.”

John was absolutely furious. He hated not knowing the reasons behind things. Hated not being able to control his own course of action, and he hated time-travel. Right now, it looked like all three were staring him in the face; and smirking.

“My job was to take out that base and find a way for the rest of the survivors to get off that rock!”

“Taken care of. As it happens, Gottingen arrived at Styx four hours after you left. The Saucer's on the way back to Delphi, and you and the team will have barely survived a fusion plant explosion.

“You've got it all figured out?”

“You're asking the wrong guy. To me, this has already happened.”

“Cute. So…” John folded his arms across his chest, “let me guess. This gets classified, and we get mind-wiped, or whatever-it-is that you people do…”

“You'll be implanted. It's better than just dropping you in a desert wondering what happened to you. Plus it keeps the time-cops off your tail.”

“Implanted? Man, do I hate how that sounds.”

The mirrored conversation was cut short as another man entered the room. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit with red piping at the shoulders. John recognized it as a uniform that pre-dated Starfleet. He also recognized the man wearing the uniform as Daniels, the would-be benefactor from the 30th century who'd made it possible for Republic to face the Kreltans in the first place.

“Sorry John,” the balding man said, “but I'm already taking a pretty big chance.”

Daniels waved a hand at `Young Carter'. “You've got to get . . . uh . . . you out of here before he's missed.”

Carter shifted his weight, moving his hands to his hips.

“All right, let's get this over with, but… can I get a decent steak before you zap me?”

Carter's older self laughed. “We'll see what we can do.”

The harsh dawn of Styx roused John Carter from the darkness. There was a corpsman crouched over him with a tricorder.

“Doctor Cromwell! I've got another one here sir!”

John blinked as Leon Cromwell jogged over. The doctor offered Carter a hand.

“Jeez John, you look like hell. What happened?”

Carter got to his feet and rubbed his neck.

“We wired their fusion plant,” he explained. “Fowler barely made it out of the blast wave. Good thing the Captain removed the IDs.”

“Good thing.” Cromwell quipped. Leon ran his tricorder over John's face to confirm the corpsman's readings. “Far as I can tell, you're fine, but I'd like to get you back upstairs to run a few tests.”

“Fair enough Doc,” Carter relented. I'm in no mood to argue.”

Cromwell tapped his comm badge.

“Cromwell to Gottingen. Two to beam up.”

<location: transporter room one, USS Gottingen>

The last wisps of transporter energy faded from the pad, and Captain Marshall stepped off the platform to see Captain Ortega.

“Welcome aboard Captain,” he said.

Jim replied, “Thanks. I need a trip to sickbay and a shower.”

Ortega replied, “Make use of whatever you need. We'll be getting underway as soon as we have all human lifesigns down there.”

“Good to hear,” said Marshall. His knee was killing him. “I'd like to meet with my senior staff in your observation lounge in about three hours. I'm anxious to hear about the base.”

<location: Observation Lounge, U.S.S. Gottingen>

Captain James Marshall walked in and sat at one end of the table. Carter, Cromwell, Sullivan, Readdy, and McTaggart joined him. At the other end were Ortega and some of his people.

“Well, how's everyone holding up?” asked Marshall.

“I've been better,” said Carter.

“Fine for the moment,” said Cromwell.

“Doing fine Captain,” said Sullivan.

“I'm doing as good as normal sir,” said Readdy obviously unfazed by the events of late.

“It's good to see all of you again,” said McTaggart.

“Same here Lieutenant,” said Marshall, “Captain Ortega?”

“We've managed to retrieve 82 of your crew,” Ortega said. “I double-checked the numbers with Doctor Cromwell and they sounded right. We're en route to Starbase Delphi and should arrive in 16 hours. Your saucer had some difficulties and should be there in 10 hours.”

“I'm aware of what happened with our saucer. I just spoke to Lieutenant Snyder and Admiral Hall,” said Marshall. “Upon our return, Counselor B'Rell will be transferred off the ship. He was apparently made Acting XO and allowed the junior officers to run the ship. He shouldn't have done that because I don't recall him ever taking the bridge officers exam, and he made no protest when the temporary department heads were assigned. He has since been confined to quarters to be dealt with by me.”

Marshall looked around and saw no one fazed by what he just said.

They spend the next hour and a half going over what happened with the base. Marshall then got a communication from Admiral Hall. He took it in Ortega's ready room.

“Yes Admiral,” said Marshall.

“Captain, I'm going to get right to the point. I've relayed your report to Starfleet Command, they're not going to court-martial you for blowing up your stardrive section. In fact you and your crew are to be commended.”

“Thank you sir,” said Marshall. He was relieved but he knew that it was the right thing to do. “How bad is the situation?”

“We still have reports coming in from all over the Federation. It'll take some time for us to assemble them. I'll be sure you're notified. Hall out.”

Marshall walked out of the ready room to find everyone on the bridge, “Good news, Command's not pressing charges. In fact, the exact opposite; Commendations.”

Everyone cheered. They deserved it.

Marshall then said, “Let's get some rest.”

archives/a_mission_of_vengeance.txt · Last modified: 2020/10/25 02:55 by site_admin