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Den of Lions

Chapter 1: A New BeginningTop

Throughout the history of starship construction, the increasing size of vessel classes required a huge leap forward in technology. In the early days, the rotation of the Earth was utilized in sequence with chemical rockets to lift payloads into orbit. This was fine for small parcels, such as a single cargo pod or three-person habitat module. However, such miniscule contraptions could not serve the future to come, for interstellar travel asks for much larger support systems for the humanoid explorer. Indeed, as the centuries flew by, construction sites had quickly evolved into enormous birdcage-like designs that delicately cradled the infant craft like a mother's womb. Today, the next level has brought spacecraft assembly into the belly of a metallic titan that support not only erection equipment and personnel, but hosts entire cities that are multi-faceted, self-supporting communities. Starbase Thirty-Nine-Sierra was one such facility, and as most of its population went about their daily business, this mammoth spawning ground for deep-space exploration vehicles was about to give birth yet again.

The hum of the turbolift subsided as Captain Roth adjusted her hair. She had hoped to find just the right style for this day, but as she grew nervous with each passing hour, she gave up and opted for the standard brushed-back bangs and bun. The bags under her eyes revealed that sleep was fleeting during the previous days, but it wasn't just the hearing that had half of her officers tied up in litigation: This was the first time in four years she had stepped on the bridge of a starship, and as the doors slid open, her pulse doubled.

“Captain on the bridge,” shouted Chief Rainier who was currently operating the rear science station, and all eyes briefly looked Roth's way before returning to work.

For a moment, she stood there marveling once again the expanse of the command center. Although she had seen it many times since arriving onboard, this is the first time it was fully manned and buzzing with activity. Lieutenant Danzig greeted her with a smile from the tactical console as the captain strolled onto the bridge. Commander Carter's head popped up from within the command pit, and as he laid eyes on her, he stood up.

“Good morning, captain,” John said confidently. “We're getting a green light from all systems, and all personnel have reported aboard.”

“Thank you, commander,” she replied, walking into the command pit. Turning the corner, Counselor Tolkath gave her a nod that was reciprocated with a smile. Stopping in front of the command chair, she looked around at each station; Lieutenant Hawk and Ensign Kuga on con and ops, Lieutenant Hranok at the main science station on the starboard side of the bridge, and Lieutenant Commander Burke at the engineering station. Taking another glance at Lieutenant Danzig at tactical, Captain Roth took note of the enlisted technicians and couriers checking over minor systems, and delivering status reports to Chief Rainier.

“It looks like we're ready, number one,” she said finally.

“It certainly seems so.” John smiled, knowing all too well of her nervousness in being a starship commander again after all theses years. And although the counselor to her left had already tuned himself in to the emotional status of everyone around him, experienced officers like Carter didn't need telepathic abilities to feel the surge of excitement throughout the ship.

“Lieutenant,” Captain Roth turned to Danzig. “Put me on speakers.”

With a press of a button and a nod, Kim spoke to her entire crew at once. Over one thousand traveling companions would accompany her into the unknown on this day, and whom she would have to rely on if they were to make it home safely. One thousand souls that looked to her for guidance and leadership, hoping that she would instill faith and confidence in them to perform their duties with diligence and pride. It was a symbiotic relationship, and one she did not take lightly. Kim knew that deep inside, being a captain was not a privilege, but an enormous responsibility.

“Attention crew,” she beckoned, hearing her voice reverberate throughout the corridors of the ship. “This is Captain Roth. It's been a very long twelve weeks in port, and I know you've gone through a lot. The loss of Captain Marshall may still weigh on your minds, and I grieve with you. I can only hope to serve you as well as he had, and earn your trust in return. From here, we pick up the torch that Republic's former commander held aloft in the spirit of discovery, and despite our past losses, might we continue to move forward. Departure stations, please.”

As the captain and executive officers took their seats, the chirping of consoles and communications chatter slowly increased as main systems came online and personnel secured the ship for launch.

“Lieutenant Danzig,” Roth called out to the tactical chief. “Hail the dockmaster and request departure clearance.”

“At once, Captain,” replied Danzig instantly. He hailed the dockmasters, “This is the USS Republic, requesting departure clearance.” Danzig received the reply from the dockmaster in moments, “Captain, we have clearance to leave.” Danzig prepared himself for the ship leaving, he was very excited but did not show the emotion, and he was already enjoying his time on the Republic.

Ops,“ came the call to the young Ensign Kuga. “Seal the main gangway. Release umbilical and gravitational support.”

“Aye Ma'am” Naruko replied as her hands waved across the console, the faint sound of the ship's main power taking over from the support systems as the umbilical and gravitational systems were released. “Ship sensor's has confirmed we are running on internal power and all support systems are released, crews also reporting all airlocks are secure.”

“Lieutenant Hranok,” she turned to the Bolian in science blues. “Clear all moorings. Give us a pre-departure scan and open the space doors.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Engineering,” Roth focused her attention on the red-haired Australian at the portside bridge station. “Mister Burke, do we have your blessing to bring the main engines to full power?”

“We can get there at full throttle, Captain.”

“Very well,” the captain replied, glancing towards John Carter to her right. “Commander? Would you do the honors?”

With a smile, John looked to the viewscreen where a straight line of navigation strobes blinked towards the space doors ahead. “Running lights, please,” he ordered. “Take us out, Mister Hawk. Nice and smooth.”

Like a concert pianist moments from beginning a performance, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk flexed his nimble fingers as they hovered over the flight controls of the Starship Republic. Drawing in a deep breath to steady himself, his own adrenaline and exhilaration threatening to overwhelm him, he went over the proper sequence for what was to come silently to himself.

For reasons beyond his comprehension, each time he found himself at the controls of a ship he had either never flown before, or not flown recently, felt as if it was his first time at the controls of any ship whatsoever. Not in the aspects of apprehension or inexperience, but in the pure thrill of the new adventure that piloting each class of ship brought with it. It was, he observed to himself, very much like foreplay.

Hawk didn't need to look around the bridge to know that he was not alone in his feelings of excitement and anticipation. Whether like Ensign Kuga, his would-be partner at Operations, for whom this was the first time embarking upon the adventure, or like Captain Roth and Commander 'Cyclops' Carter, simply the latest, everyone of the Republic's crew, new and old, shared in some level of the drum-beat of apprehension and wonder at what lay beyond.

Right now, that drumbeat of emotion seemed a bit too literal for Hawk, as his pulse pounded in his ears, he anxiously awaiting the order that would set them off upon their journey. And it was because of his own self-absorbed distraction, his own enthusiasm, that he almost missed the very cue he was waiting for.

“Aye, aye, C'mander, smooth as a Risan woman's bikini line.” he replied, unable to keep from uttering the first thought that came into his head. He couldn't help but smile, not so much at his comment - which incited some chuckles from a few amongst the crew - but at finally being able to get under way.

With practiced ease and grace, the tips of his fingers danced across the interface panel before him. Activating the RCS thrusters at both the port and starboard bow of the saucer section, he kept one eye on his flight path and the other on the view screen, as the Republic began to maneuver backwards, away from the docking port of Starbase 39-Sierra.

Slow and steady at first, he waited until they where nearly one hundred meters out before adding the starboard aft RCS thrusters of the stardrive section to the chorus, gently turning the ship in that direction and towards the opened space doors of the starbase's upper dome.

Like on ancient earth airfields, indicator lights ran the floor of the massive docking bay in a straight, repeating line, indicating the desired departure vector. As the Republic came to an angled equivalent of this vector at thirty degrees, Hawk deactivated first the port and starboard bow thrusters, and then the starboard aft thrusters, before applying a brief burst to their port aft siblings - just enough to bring them to a momentary halt.

Without hesitation, he then switched on the ship's inertial displacement drive, also known as the impulse engines, at one-third standard maximum power. The difference was evident to only the most experienced pilot, as the ship's inertial dampers compensated by increasing power to the field by zero-point-four percent.

Though by no means righted on a proper zero degree departure vector, nor at regulation thrusters-only speed, the Republic performed and responded in perfect form to her pilots commands, and the concert pianist analogy reoccurred, with the Republic as a well tuned piano. When synchronized like this, pilot and vessel both put forth their best performance, each allowing the other to do so by doing so itself. It didn't make much rational sense, especially given that the Republic was simply a machine, but never the less, it was true.

As the Republic reached the halfway point between starting point and the space doors, an indicator light came on his console. An automated warning message from the station's traffic control that not only was he exceeding regulation velocity, but that his approach vector was improper.

Hawk paid no attention to either message, deactivating the indicator light, which served only as a nuisance, and a formality in comparison to accepted docking and disembarking maneuvers that had been in play since the days when James T. Kirk himself had set the non-regulation standards.

Keeping his eyes on the forward view screen, Hawk slid his hands across the smooth surface of the console and, acting on memory and intuition alone, activated the port aft thrusters, modifying the ship's vector. Accessing the auxiliary control thrusters, he eased the ship into a Z-plus ten-degree angle at port, in essence 'slanting' the ship, as she neared the opened space doors.

Like diving into a rich black pool interlaced with diamonds, the Republic emerged from the inner sanctums of Starbase 39-Sierra and once more flew freely through the great interstellar void which was her home. The feeling of relief and liberation at once more being on their own, once more being independent, seemed to pass over the bridge crew like a wave, crashing upon a rocky shore. They were alive once again, having survived the storm of politics and bureaucracy.

“Out of morbid curiosity,” came the rich voice of the Republic's new Captain, Kimberly Roth, “just how close did we come to the frame work of those space doors, Lieutenant?”

“Heh,” Hawk snorted jovially, “close enough ta keep ma skills sharp, ma'am.” he replied, surprised anyone but him had noticed the minimal clearance provided by his maneuvering.

Not knowing what heading to set, Nat simply indulged himself, piloting the ship on an approximate course towards Earth. Though at one-third impulse, the trip would take a few hundred - if not a thousand or so - years, so it really wasn't of any consequence. Just being able to sit at the controls of a starship once more made Nat feel more relaxed than he could explain. It was engrained in his very being, to be a pilot, which was one thing he accepted about himself without resistance.

“Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm eager to get underway,” remarked the Captain, as she glanced quickly from Cyclops, to Ensign Kuga, and up to Lieutenant Danzig, the new Tactical Officer.

“Course headin', ma'am?” Nat queried, turning his head towards her.

“Oh how I wish I could offer some sort of poetic response, 'second star to the right' or something like that.” Roth admitted with a sheepish grin. Turning her head to her immediate right, she prompted her executive officer. “Mister Carter, if you'd be so kind, once more?”

Obliging the Captain with a nod, John Carter turned his small console to face him so he could read off the proper information, “Helm, set a course, heading two-one-nine mark three,” commanded the first officer, “velocity; warp factor seven.”

Entering the coordinates into the helm, Nat consulted his star charts for what was along this heading. Deneva, Coridon, the Tendaris Cluster, Starbase G-6 and Kazar where amongst the highlights of potential destinations approximate to their course. Considering their speed though, a relative 'fast' warp seven, something told him their journey was going to be a little longer than most of those possibilities allowed for.

“Aye aye, course'n speed plotted.” Hawk reported, a few seconds behind having actually inputting the information.

“Then by all means, Mister Hawk,” the Captain responded, straightening her posture as she leaned forward, ” . . . engage.“

Silently, he complied, and with the press of a single button, a number of things occurred in such short order it was nearly impossible to nail down into a timetable. The ship's warp core registered a need for increased power and energy production, and hastened such. The nacelles, charged with plasma, projected a warp field that encased the entirety of the Republic.

Then, like a runner reacting to the firing of a starter pistol, the ship launched forward beyond the realm of light speed, breeching the once thought unbreakable barrier in a swirl of light to any who might observe. Within a second or two, the Republic had darted from a relative stand still in galactic comparison; to plowing ahead at thousands of times the speed of light. Even now, after more than three hundred years of warp capability, it was still astonishing that it was possible.

“S'it just me, or s'warp seven seem a helluva lot faster after sittin' still fer a couple weeks?” Hawk queried, not expecting a response.

“I think after sitting still for so long, thrusters would seem fast.” the Captain remarked lightly. Turning her attention once more to Carter, she lowered her voice as she addressed him in some degree of privacy, “Commander, I'd like you to prepare a briefing on the Sigma Omicron V terraforming project for thirteen hundred hours.”

“Aye, Captain,” Carter replied with a nod.

“Mister Hawk,” the Captain remarked as she stood from the center chair, “if you've got a moment, I'd like to speak with you in the ready room?” she asked, while not really asking at all by the simple technicality of her being Captain.

“Uh, yes ma'am,” Hawk replied, a combination of wonder and worry crossing his mind, as he slid out of his seat.

“Mister Carter, the bridge is yours,” she said as she led the way off the bridge, Hawk in tow.

John Carter sat back easily in the command chair as Republic sailed through the blackness. Carter surveyed the bridge, happy to finally see that, for the first time since he'd signed on to Republic, every department was fully staffed. 'Maybe things are finally looking up for us', he thought.

As a normal rhythm returned to the bridge, John began to think about what lay ahead. He didn't know much about their next assignment. The orders had been cut weeks ago, but the now infamous trial of the 'Republic Eight' had sidetracked things a bit.

John worked through the options in his head. During the Kreltan Offensive, some months ago, Vladimir Kostya had ordered that one of Republic's conference rooms be turned into a War Room of sorts. They hadn't needed to use it, but John wondered if it might come in handy.

One of the less glamorous jobs of a starship's Executive Officer was to file crew fitness and activity reports, in short, to make sure that everyone could fill their job and do it well. This meant that John Carter had a keen sense of who exactly was on his ship and what they could do. The problem was that there was no telling what Republic was sailing into until they got closer to the Sigma Omicron system.

Combing through mountains of data and coming up with every possible contingency was not something John Carter prided himself on. He was much more of a seat of the pants sort; preferring to adapt to a situation and, in all honesty, trust in his uncanny Martian luck, to get out of a scrape. Sure, John was smart, but he didn't consider himself to be analytical. Luckily, there was someone on Republic who was, and coming up with contingencies was what he did best.

Tapping a control on the arm of the Captain's chair, Carter heard the chirp of a comm channel opening.

“Bridge to Commander Forrest.”

“Forrest here bridge, go ahead.”

“It occurs to me that you could use a job around here. Have a minute to chat?”

“I suppose. You upstairs?”

“Yeah, just minding the store, come on up, we just got new seat cushions.”

John closed the channel and smiled inwardly as he felt the wave of amusement on the bridge. 'Wow, did I miss this' he thought, glad that he was able to enjoy his job again.

Conrad Danzig was trying to keep busy. It was his first week aboard the Republic as Chief Tactical Officer and he was going through all the systems and crew reports he could, this was a promotion for him and he was determined to make it work. Also, he was trying to keep busy so he wouldn't miss his wife so much. She would be joining the ship shortly but she had her own career and her own things to do and so had been unable to join Conrad when he first came aboard. It was a shame but she was really beginning to do well and the move had come at a bad time.

Conrad was in his quarters, going over a number of crew reports. From the looks of it, the people he would have in his departments were very capable, he hoped he would be able to interact with them well. Technically as Chief Tactical Officer, he was responsible for Security as well and Conrad was hoping he would be able to manage such a large merged department. Even though Conrad was pleased with his officers he wanted to make improvements, he wanted to go through more battle drills and increase the power of the weapons systems. Conrad didn't really believe in perfection, there was always that bit more, that little extra improvement to be made, no matter how good his officers were, he would want more. Alice, his wife, had noted this aspect of his character, she regarded it as a flaw, and he thought it drove him to succeed.

Conrad checked the time, it was getting late. He collected the PADDs into a pile and put them in his desk. He looked at the picture of his wife and then decided it was time to sleep, he had done enough for his first day.

“So, lemme get this straight,” Lieutenant Nathan Hawk said, furrowing his brow in utter confusion, “ya want . . . me . . . ta be Second Officer?”

“Well, for right now, I'm simply considering you for the position.” replied Captain Kimberly Roth from behind her desk.

In his life, a great many things had either surprised or confused Nathan Hawk. Calculus had been a bitch to wrap his head around, any and every commendation he had ever gotten had been astonishing considering his disciplinary record, and the basic concepts of duty and self-sacrifice had initially been difficult to grasp as a Cadet. This particular situation, though, was perhaps the most confusing and surprising to date.

“You want . . . me . . . as third in command of the Republic?” Hawk asked of his Captain, once more seeking confirmation of the potential offer on the proverbial table.

“Theoretically, if I decide to follow Commander Carter's recommendation, yes.” the Captain replied, in a straightforward, business like manner.

“Carter recommended . . . me?” Hawk asked, so dumbfounded he could do little else but ask questions to which he already knew the answer.

“I'm going to presume he didn't inform you of his recommendation then?” Roth asked, trying to contain a smile.

“Well, but, what 'bout the Lieutenant C'Manders? I mean, ain't they gonna have a problem takin' orders from a Lieutenant?” Hawk asked, truly thrown for a loop.

“Initially, it's possible. However, the position itself supersedes rank. Theoretically, an acting Ensign could hold the position and issue orders to a full Commander, where that the case, unlikely as it would be.” Roth explained.

“Why not one a them?” Hawk asked, flat out.

“As Commander Carter sees it, and I'm forced to agree, while there would appear to be a number of candidates on the surface, once you examine individual service records, it's fairly clear that when it comes to familiarity with the ship and crew, past command experience, bridge commander qualifications, et cetera, the list is actually considerably short.” Roth informed him.

“Yer not sure, though, right? 'Bout me?” he queried.

“Honestly,” Roth began, leaning back in her chair, “no, I'm not. I've read your service record a half-dozen times, and honestly, I'm amazed you're not in the stockade. For every one searing disciplinary report, there seems to be at least two glowing commendations, recommendations, or reports of valor, leadership capability, et cetera. Which why I'm considering the recommendation.”

“There's good stuff 'bout me in ma service record?” Hawk asked, adding another drop in the bucket that was his confusion.

Roth couldn't help but chuckle at this statement, “Most of it is glossed over in your public record, but your command record is different and contains reports generally not for public consumption.”

“I ain't really ever been in command b'fore,” Hawk stated, honestly, “I mean, durin' the war I was Squad XO fer a good while, but, when ya think 'bout it that was just commandin' three other people.”

“Every account in your record during which you where required to take a leadership role reads the same, no matter the numbers involved. You kept your head on straight, you lead with confidence and valor, you emerged victorious - even if you did take a few too many risks on occasion - and you never left anyone behind. All of which is . . . ideal, for a Commanding Officer. Even if only in an emergency situation such as it would be for you.” Roth said. “To be honest, if that's all your record contained, I wouldn't hesitate to assign you the position. It's the numerous infractions of both regulations and even laws, that give me pause.”

“I dunno why I'm sayin' this, but, if ya look at each instance, ain't none of those problems ever concerned anybody but me, really. I mean, drunk and disorderly, refusing a direct order, failure to file a flight plan,” Hawk prattled off, “it's all little shit, er, pardon ma French ma'am.”

“It may indeed be . . . minor in the grand scheme of things, but it's when you look at it all as a whole that, I have to ask, are you the right person for this job?” Roth replied.

“I dunno,” Hawk replied, honestly. “I mean, I'm not sure maself if I'm right fer this r'not. But, I guess, I'm just sayin' if yer gonna make this call based on ma record, just look at each instance individual-like.”

“It sounds to me as if you want the position?” Roth questioned.

”. . . I dunno,“ Hawk replied with a shrug, “I'm not sure, ta be honest. I just know I don't wanna not get it cause a the wrong reasons, ya know? If I ain't right fer it, that's one thing, but if it's cause a all the scuffs on my jacket . . . well that just don't sit right with me.”

“I understand,” Roth replied, nodding her head. “Putting aside what you want, do you think you could handle it?” she asked.

“Depends on how much paperwork's involved,” he replied with a snort of laughter and a devil-may-care grin. The Captain in turn also smiled at the comment. “I mean, I guess. Never backed off from a challenge, that's fer sure.”

“Yes, there's an incident with a Nausicaan during your senior year that demonstrates that fact rather well,” Roth replied with a mischievous grin.

“Heh, yeah, well, he was askin' fer it, after the way he talked 'bout the Peregrine-Class.” Hawk replied, sure of himself.

“Well, I think I've heard what I needed to. Let me speak with Commander Carter again, and I'll let you know within the hour.” the Captain said. “Then the ball will be in your court, as to whether or not you want the position.”

“Alright,” Hawk replied, standing and moving to the door, “Should I send ole Cyclops in now fer ya?” he asked.

“Please.” replied the Captain, smiling.

Chapter 2: Planetary PrecariousnessTop

Sigma Omicron Five was a Class F world bordering on Class C. It's erratic orbit around it's star almost had it assigned as Class Q by the Starfleet Cartographic Office, but with crustal veins of rare minerals, it was it's most dominant feature according to the numerous geological survey teams. However, “rare” was a loose term among geologists, as the various unique ores and crystalline outcroppings could be easily reproduced by replicator technology. Therefore, the only reason this planet became of interest to Starfleet was for its climatology prospects.

Through most of the long journey around its star, this planet was a frozen wasteland. It took 78 Earth-years to travel the distance, and for approximately 60 of those years, the thin atmosphere of methane and carbon dioxide was frozen solid to the surface crust. However, orbital mechanics indicated that at perigee, Sigma Omicron Five became atmospherically active, as the various frozen gasses sublimate back into a vaporous state. Further still, the solar wind heated the atmosphere at its closest point to the star, causing the surface temperature to soar to nearly 700 Kelvin and exciting the gases to an almost plasma state. If it were not for the cooling molten mantle, Terraforming Command would have overlooked this planet.

In fact, the low temperature of the barely-plastic subsurface lithosphere almost disqualified Sigma Omicron Five as a terraforming candidate. Indeed, the thin non-oxygenated atmosphere, drastic surface temperature variances, and lack of any water would seem to make the possibility of any life-bearing biosphere improbable. However, instead of having a completely cooled mantle (which would have put it solidly in the Class C planetary category), this planet's interior was at a temperature that, although not fully melting the iron and nickel substrate, softened it to the point of plasticity; a sort of wax-like state that allowed it to flow (albeit slowly) under the centrifugal force of the planetary axial spin. It was this barely molten mantle that a terraforming regime became possible.

The single, most dominating factor behind Sigma Omicron Five's extreme surface temperature variances was the super-thin atmosphere: almost 1,000 times thinner than Earth's. Without protection from the solar wind emanating from the white giant star it orbited, there was no way the planet could maintain a viable atmosphere, even with the standard 1-G gravity. For every trip around the star, Sigma Omicron Five had a majority of its methane/carbon-dioxide gases stripped away. Although there was ample storage of the atmospheric gases in the crust, there was simply no way for a thick atmosphere to form.

Fortunately, Starfleet terraforming scientists borrowed a page from Earth's dynamic lithosphere: as a molten iron outer core spins around the planet beneath the surface under the centrifugal force of axial spin, a magnetosphere results, and ultimately forms a radiation belt that protects the planet from solar wind. All Sigma Omicron needed was a hotter core that spun fast enough to create it's own magnetosphere. After that, a thick atmosphere could build up, and planetary temperatures would fall into a tolerable range as solar heat is retained during apogee, and distributed evenly during perigee while the new radiation belt prevented overheating. Finally, the introduction of a fast-growing species of photosynthetic bacteria would convert the methane and carbon dioxide atmosphere to oxygen and water: The final ingredient for a life-bearing environment.

As Commander Madhava looked out through the expansive viewport of his office, he gazed at the four enormous antimatter reactors in the distance. They stood twenty stories high, and began casting cylindrical shadows as the white face of Sigma Omicron rose on the eastern horizon among a black, star-speckled sky. Each was a testament to unsurpassed engineering legerdemain, as thousands of the most intelligent minds of the Federation worked collaboratively to produce these citadels of technology. Without these powerhouse marvels, the terraforming project to heat the planet's mantle would not be possible, as it was only these reactors, which held the combined power of a supergiant star focused downward towards the core, could accomplish the nearly insurmountable task.

Unfortunately, as with most cutting edge technologies, design and application were two completely different realities.

“Station three all clear, commander.”

Madhava walked back towards his desk and pressed a button on the computer console to respond to the audio message.

“Thank you, lieutenant,” he replied, recognizing the voice. “Inform me when the injectors pass the level five diagnostic program. We'll attempt a restart tomorrow if all goes okay.”


Although the reactor towers initially performed eloquently, mishaps, some of them major, began occurring shortly after they were brought to full power. If it wasn't the control matrix, it was the intermix chamber, and if it wasn't that, it was the flow regulators, etcetera, etcetera. Once a diagnosis was made, something else malfunctioned that was completely unrelated. Currently, the antimatter flow itself was contaminated by the bypass flow causing wild variances in the energy output of tower three. Put simply, the antimatter was spiked with a foreign substance that caused a cascading shutdown of the reactor system. Another roadblock for the project that he had to report to Admiral Kostya.

The commander sighed with frustration. “The Republic's on her way. The Republic's on her way,” he whispered to himself for reassurance.

Rumor had it that Doctor Bruce Burke was the Republic's new chief engineer. “That man knows antimatter like a Scotsman knows his whiskey,” Montgomery Scott once stated during a stopover at one of the project design meetings. Hopes were high in the commander's heart that Burke could breath new life back into the troublesome reactor towers.

He looked back towards the viewport, taking in the natural scenery, and imagining what the world would look like when the project was finished. As Sigma Omicron rose higher into the sky, it highlighted the bleak, gray landscape. The surface was mottled with crystalline boulders of quartz, plagioclase, and naturally occurring methyl-silo derivatives. They formed at regular intervals along the ground, and it reminded Madhava of the lakebeds back in his native India during the dry season, as polygon-shaped cracks in the mudflats fit so neatly together like a jigsaw puzzle. Now, as Sigma Omicron Five was in early perigee, the methane/carbon-dioxide ice that was frozen to the ground was beginning to sublimate, forming a quiet haze over the landscape. In the next two Earth years, the temperature would jump from the current -50 Celsius to almost 300, and it was imperative to have the reactor towers at full operation by then – at least according to Kostya.

“It's not like the planet's going anywhere,” Madhava thought. “With as much at stake in this project, you'd think he'd want to take his time.”

The pressure constraints from the Starfleet brass weren't stifling, but it was enough to put the current setbacks into a realm of precariousness where the commander felt that all eyes were on him. Although not voiced, he got the ominous feeling that his career was hinging on the project's success.

Suddenly, the alert klaxon sounded.

“Code red! Section Four! Medical emergency!”

The seriousness of the situation was accentuated by a soft tremor below the commander's feet. He looked out the viewport to see a thin thread of smoke rising out of a lower-story window on reactor tower four. The green strobes on the top of the tower, usually used to help landing craft steer clear of it, switched to a disquieting red as another message came over the loudspeaker.

“Plasma fire! Section Four! All personnel evacuate! Repeat: All personnel evacuate Section Four! Emergency suppression systems activated!

With his heart skipping a beat, Madhava slapped the intercom button on his desk.

“What the hell is going on?”

“A plasma conduit blew in tower four! Level two, corridor C-8!”

“C-8?” Madhava asked with exasperation. “We just replaced that conduit last week!”

“Aye sir, I can't explain it either. But Crewman Nelson is on his way to the infirmary with severe plasma burns!”

“Damn it!” the commander muttered. “I'm headed down there!”

Yet another setback to report to Kostya.

“The Republic's on her way,” he muttered to himself as he hurried out the door. “She's on her way . . .”

Chapter 3: Passion Of The BruceTop

Chief Engineer Bruce Burke was not particularly happy about the rumors about Nat Hawk's ascension to Second Officer, as was attested by a rare but heated display of emotion and subsequent ten kilometer run in the hypergravity gym. He would probably regret it in a day or so; perhaps the soreness would keep his mind off of the problem.

Burke went to bed late, straight from the gym, and had just gotten to sleep when there was a particularly cranky knock on his door, followed by a repeated mashing of the door chime. It sounded urgent.

As the door opened, he saw it was Nat Hawk standing there with a grin that told him he was about to get stunned.

“Lieutenant, what can I help you with?”

“There is a problem I think you should look at. I think we've got a burst helium tank on deck three.”

“It's three hundred hours, Lieutenant Hawk. Hiroko Ishihara is on maintenance watch.”

“But the temperature is starting to slide, and it's shipwide.”

“From a liquid helium disk? No, it's something else wrong,” Burke headed to his computer. “Come in Lieutenant. Let's check this out.”

Nat walked in, looked around with brazen curiosity at Burke's quarters. They were larger than his, much to his chagrin, and they were very nicely appointed. There were bookcases crammed with materials and a lot of antiques. It was both warm and masculine. There was also memorabilia from sports, which appeared to be of a personal nature. He noticed a picture of a beautiful woman and young toe-headed boy with a striking resemblance to Bruce, but didn't know who they were.

“Wow,” Bruce said, as he investigated the internal sensors. “The starboard airlock is unreadable. It looks like the sensors are down. We might have a slow environment bleed. Heat and air are dropping.”

Bruce continued to work the problem, erecting forcefields and switching to auxiliary scan modes. It was clear just where he needed to take a look for the problem. Outside the airlock.

“Nat, I'm going to have to go EVA to investigate this. It might be a meteor strike, corrosion, or a faulty hard seal . . . .but this airlock is definitely coming apart.”

Nat nodded, “I guess the least I can do is get to the bridge and take us out of warp for you.”

“Thanks, that would be appreciated,” Bruce flashed a smile as he grabbed his boots.

Nat returned the smile, “Just be careful out there.”

There comes a time in a man's life when choices are presented, paths are revealed and a decision needs to be made about which way to go. Joining Starfleet was probably the best choice the young officer had ever taken. Serving aboard the Republic had resulted in adventure, prestige and the chance to serve with some damn fine officers.

Taking the job of assassinating Nat Hawk was the next best choice the young officer had made. Successfully completing the contract would result in enough latinum to buy a small planet. People had to look out for themselves as best they could.

The young officer quickly entered the Materials Bay and locked the panel. A quick series of commands, tricked the computer into thinking the Bay was still empty, giving the young officer about 45 seconds to complete the task they had set out upon. The officer quickly moved among the raw materials crates and pallets, the replicator at some point would use most of these. Near a pile of raw food proteins, the officer stopped and quickly pulled a large crate away from a stack of others. A security code entered in the side of the crate caused it to open revealing a large amount of basic soy proteins. Reaching into the soy, the young officer quickly pulled out a plastic wrapped object. The young officer quickly closed the crate and slid it back into place. The officer slid the wrapped package into their tunic and left the Materials Bay as soon as possible.

The young officer knew that killing Lieutenant Hawk would require a weapon, but the shipboard sensors were programmed to detect any unauthorized weaponry. That is why the young officer had arranged to smuggle aboard something the sensors wouldn't be programmed to detect.

The young officer knew that after Nat was found dead there would be a very small window to escape the ship. Having the authority to order a shuttle to be placed on “maintenance rotation” did make that part easier. A quick warp trip to the rendezvous point to collect the payment, Starfleet would be left behind.

A spacewalk was just what Bruce needed . . . all the tension in his jaw seemed to evaporate in the microgravity of space. It was doing wonders for his neck and sore legs as well.

This was only the third time Bruce had seen the Republic from outside the ship, and his first spacewalk to repair something on her. His magnetic boots made walking on the hull feel a bit like walking in fine sand. His calves were taking the punishment well, after all he was still in shape. He could pick up the ball and play any day without physical trouble of any kind.

His space walk actually began in shuttlebay two, where he signed out an EVA Pod and proceeded to land atop the main shuttle bay. He proceeded from there on foot. The malfunctioning airlock was rarely used, it was for emergencies only, and was located on the mid section of deck 3, facing aft.

“How's the weather, Bruce?” He heard Commander Carter say over the comm.

“It's fair and clear. 22 in the suit. A bit nipply outside it.” Bruce took several moments and was then heard to say, “I've acquired a visual on the airlock.”

“We can see it, but go ahead and get closer.”

“From the looks of it there is a lot of frozen gas clinging to it hull. I don't see air venting, but this would seem to confirm its existence. The starboard airlock is completely destroyed . . . corroded, consumed, blown apart, I have no idea. The whole area around the jamb appears chewed away. I can see inside. It's like there's been an explosion. I don't know how this went unnoticed by sensors or the crew.”

The silence from Carter on the bridge was perhaps not a bad thing, so Bruce stepped closer. Bits of metal and glass crunched under his feet. Burke got as close as he could to the gaps around the hatch and tried to see in.

“I have no explanation for this. I am activating my tricorder. Perhaps sciences will determine what happened.”

“We are receiving your tricorder readings,” Captain Roth said. “Mr. Burke, can you see inside?”

“Yes, . . . the walls of are ripped open, I can see conduits, isolinear circuits, optical, a air supply line, . . . and a ruptured liquid helium disk. It may be a long shot, but it looks like the tube punctured somehow. Maybe this is collateral damage. I don't know how even the strongest internal explosion could've breached the hull.”

“We copy that,” Roth said. “You said the hatch was still in place, were the explosive bolts on the hatch blown?”

“Negative. I don't think that's what blew this out. If this had penetrated the other direction, it would've ruptured the inner seal and decompressed all of decks three and four – parts of deck five, including the main shuttlebay. If we hadn't manually effected the forcefields this whole section might have succumbed to metal fatigue in a matter of hours.”

Carter's voice returned, “We've got a lot of data here now. Please return to the ship and help us analyze it.”

“Acknowledged, returning to the EVA Pod now. I guess that's the thing to do. I brought a caulking gun with me. I don't think I'm going to seal this breach with it. When I get in I'll have a read of the tricorder data.”

Chapter 4: Axioms and IntuitionTop

Location: Counselors Office, Deck 8: USS Republic

Reittan entered the office with PADD in his left hand and a cup of terran hot chocolate in the right, a habit picked up from his Grams. The first few days since leaving the star base had been seemingly quiet around the counselor's office, normal with the excitement of a new mission ahead. Many people seemed to forget their troubles for a time, but Reittan knew as routine set in, so would their difficulties. His staff was working like a well-oiled machine; they would be prepared for the influx of people needing their assistance. Tolkath was looking over the latest shift changes and announcements for the day.

“Hmm,” he thought to himself “Looks like engineering is trying to keep themselves useful and important,” as he spotted the latest report of the space walk and ensuing mystery.

The counselor rounded his slate colored desk still engrossed with the news of the PADD and the contents of his mug. The counselor then sat down in his chair. Sensing his weight, the chair gave way. Reittan fell backwards spilling the hot chocolate all over the front of his Starfleet uniform. He had dropped his PADD trying to free his other hand to catch himself but to no avail.

“What the. . .” Reittan exclaimed as he headed towards the ground and landed banging his head with a thud against the back of the broken chair.

Rolling off to the side of the derelict, Reittan picked up his now empty mug and PADD, which had luckily avoided the liquid surge of hot chocolate and placed them atop of the desk. Then he began investigation into the reasons for the collapse of the once sturdy chair. Immediately the culprit was spotted, the support beams had completely vanished. No signs of phaser activity or any other indications of a practical joke.

“That's odd,” the Lieutenant Commander thought to himself. Then it dawned on him. The announcement from engineering flashed in his mind and he became an instant convert. Tolkath reached up to his Comm badge and tapped it.

“Counselor Tolkath to engineering.”

“Engineering here”

“I need you to come to the Counselor's office to investigate a broken chair, and bring something to clean up some hot chocolate. I'll explain when you get here. Tolkath out.”

Reittan knew he could get to his quarters and change before engineering would respond, and quickly headed out into the corridors only to receive a variety of responses to his chocolate soaked uniform.

“This makes a great sociological experiment. How people react to spilled hot chocolate on their counselor,” he thought to himself as he scurried off to his living accommodations to change.

Location: Main Bridge, USS Republic

The low, gentle hum of the Starship's engines was a constant reminder to Lt. Commander Douglas Forrest that he was aboard the USS Republic, once more. He never could figure out how people could become used to that background noise. Forrest figured he missed out on about two hours of good sleep each night because of its presence. Then again, Forrest was not a space jockey. He was not at all comfortable with the thought that between him and open space were a few meters of metal and a force field. Granted it was a lot more pleasing than atmospheric flight.

Forrest wondered about the continued need to have Intel Officers aboard `Fleet ships. He's seen the benefit during the Dominion War. Having someone outside the Chain of Command with command responsibilities was good, when your enemy could change shape. But now, during times of peace, it could lead to demoralization of the crew and resentment from the Command Staff. Orders were orders. Forrest had been thoroughly briefed by Admiral Paris before reporting to Starbase 39 Sierra. The good Admiral had been quiet specific to inform the Intelligence Officer to “assist Captain Roth to the fullest extent of your knowledge and abilities”. It was nice to be able to handle an assignment above board.

Douglas Forrest took a slight breath before stepping onto the bridge. There was a time when being called before Republic's “Warlord” would have put him instantly on the defensive, but, as he took a few strides down the ramp that led to the command pit, even Douglas Forrest had to admit that things change. The question was, how much more were they about to. “What's on your mind, Cyclops?” Forrest asked with the barest hint of a smile.

John Carter's face twisted in a sour scowl as he nodded to the seat to his left, traditionally left for the ship's Counselor. “Don't you start. I'm REALLY hoping that doesn't catch on.”

Forrest shook his head. “You're a little late for that, XO. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to say thank you for what you did on the starbase. You went to bat for me, for all of us, and I won't forget it.”

“Least I could do Commander,” Forrest commented simply. “Despite what you may think of my branch, some of us really do know what side we're on.” What Forrest was leaving out of course was that by siding with the crew of Republic during the Cestus III trial, he'd all but destroyed his career and made an enemy of one of the most devious and clever men in `Fleet. However, in Forrest's estimation, having the crew as allies for what might lie ahead was worth the risk.

“Now, what's this about a job?” the Intel. Officer asked.

“Right,” Carter gave his head a quick shake. “I was speaking to the Captain earlier and, seeing as how the Dominion War is over, and we're unlikely to get a covert assignment, well, ever, I'm not sure I see the point of having an intelligence officer on board.”

Forrest cocked an eyebrow. “You're FIRING me?”

“Not exactly.” Carter explained. “Call it an experiment in resource allocation.”

“O-kay . . . ”

“Look, I've been over all the personnel reports, and I know you've read most of them. Truth is that I don't always need seven geo-physicists, or xeno-meteorologists, or . . . ”

“We have one of those?”

“Three actually,” John said with a smirk. “My point is. These are all smart people with analytical minds who are all pretty good at problem solving.”

“So where do I fit in?” Forrest asked, expecting the other shoe to drop.

“Well, the way I figure it, you intel boys are 90 percent analyst. In an exploratory mission, we're going to need as many options as we can get for whatever we run into, so I'd like you to, well, analyze, theorize, whatever it is you do.”

“Like what, a strategic . . . think tank?”

“That's the general idea. If you're interested.”

“Actually?” Forrest couldn't help a small smile at the prospect of actually putting some of his more formidable skills to use, “it sounds like fun.”

Carter smiled. “I was hoping you'd say that. Go through the files, put your team together, and assuming the Captain approves, you can consider yourself our Strategic Operations Officer.”

Write what you know. That was the age-old Terran axiom that served both journalists and authors alike. Write what you know . . .

Living by that sage advice was problematic though, for Leah Warner, who found herself amidst nothing she knew. Her assignment aboard the Republic was turning out to be a fairly dull and yet, also challenging one, so far. The dull portion was currently the largest hurtle in her path. Nothing was really happening aboard Republic that was really 'news worthy' as far as she was concerned. Mysterious malfunctions didn't exactly win you the Pulitzer, after all. The public didn't care about that sort of daily grind, run-of-the-mill minutiae. They wanted intrigue, action, drama, political upheaval – anything more exciting then their own lives.

Not for the first time, Leah found herself questioning her decision to take this assignment. If she could even call it a decision, since her editor had made it quite clear it was this assignment or being let go. Why he was so angry with her for a simple misunderstanding was something Leah couldn't fathom. So she had all but accused the Romulan Ambassador of being an agent of the Tal'Shiar; it wasn't as if that same thought hadn't crossed just about everyone's mind. 'The difference is, while it crossed my mind, I didn't say it, nor did anybody else,' Thrin - her Andorian editor - had told her afterwards.

Still, she had to wonder if it wouldn't have just been better to leave FNS behind. There where plenty of other news networks out there, after all, many of whom would love to get the daughter of the legendary Jack Warner on their staff. That wasn't how she wanted to establish herself though, by riding her father's coat tails. And while there was always freelance work, she knew it took a major network to really get a story out there. FNS had been her home growing up, had been her fathers home for his entire sixty-year career. Leaving it . . . felt more like leaving her father behind than anything else. Which was really why she was here, struggling to find a story aboard the ship of the dull.

“Write what you know,” she said to herself aloud, her voice barely audible, as she leaned back in the plush chair in the living room of her V.I.P. quarters on Deck 8. Looking at the blank PADD in her hand, she recalled the dozens of other times a story had eluded her for one reason or another. “Write what you know . . . ” she mused to herself, ” . . . I wonder if Thrin would publish a story on writer's block?” she asked herself sarcastically.

Ready to give up, Leah tossed the PADD across the living room segment of her quarters and onto the couch beneath the large oval window, and closed her eyes, running her hands through her hair, taking a deep breath as she tried to force herself to relax, to clear her mind.

Beep-Bleep-Beep. Beep-Bleep-Beep.

“Ohhh . . . ” she sighed, dreading who she knew would be on the other end of the comm-line. Pushing herself up out of the chair, she walked towards the desk, and, rolling her eyes, pressed the 'accept' key on the monitor's surface.

“Adjusting well, are we?” Thrin asked from the view screen, her tone laced with a combination of scolding, sarcasm, and actual concern. Saru'Thrin chri'Tha had been her editor since her first days at FNS, and before that had been an intern under Leah's father during his last year at the network. As a result, Leah never knew what to make of her. While her meager partial empathic abilities told her one thing, they also told her another. It was also a combination of emotions that never quite seemed to fit together that defined Thrin.

“All things considered, I'd rather be back at the peace talks.” Leah responded with candor.

“All things considered, so would I. But your little 'comment' has made all of FNS a few enemies now within the hierarchy of Starfleet Command, and they haven't been too accommodating of us since.” Thrin reported.

“Is that why you're calling, to bitch me out again?” Leah replied, quicker and nastier than she would have liked, swayed by Thrin's own emotional subtext.

“Not at all, if I wanted to . . . 'bitch you out' . . . I'd much prefer doing it in person, my dear,” Thrin replied. Leah couldn't tell whether she had meant that as a joke or not, and so said nothing immediately. “No, I'm calling because something interesting has happened.” Thrin said. “Take a look at this,” she added, as the monitor's picture shifted from that of Thrin's face to a recording of a group of Starfleet Officers, surrounded by an entourage of press.

It took Leah a moment to recognize that she was watching a recording from Starbase 39-Sierra, and that the officers displayed where from the Republic. The video was from some point during the recent hearing of the so-called 'Republic 8'. “So what? This is from the hearing, right? Of the Republic officers and the Cestus III colonists?” Leah said.

“Indeed it is,” Thrin replied, “funny thing is, after the feed went out live last week, Starfleet suddenly started a time delay of any other live feeds. By about point-five seconds.” Thrin explained.

“Why would they do that?” Leah responded, sitting down at the desk, figuring this conversation would take a little while.

“That's what I'd like to know, dear, and that's what you're going to find out.” Thrin informed her. “Tarb tells me that time delays of news feeds are only ever used in rare situations, and always with the Network's consent.”

“You mean Starfleet did this without talking to the network first?” Leah asked, surprised. Not only was that unheard of, it was also bordering on illegal, by interfering with free speech and freedom of the press, two of the dozens of rights afforded to Federation citizens.

“You got it, kiddo.” Thrin answered. “Not only did they not get our consent, we didn't even know about the delay until this morning when Tarb founded some abnormal encoding in the transmission logs.”

“Why was Tarb looking at the encoding of the transmissions?” Leah asked, curious as to why her department's resident tech-freak, an abnormally docile and agreeable Tellarite, would be wasting time, sifting through gigaquads of useless binary information.

“Oh, you know him, always something. He says watching binary code scroll by helps him sleep.” Thrin said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

“So he's sleeping in his office now? Great. I leave for a week and he regresses.” Leah replied, remarking on how her anti-social friend had gone from going to at least a meal a day with her, back to spending his entire life in the confines of a four-by-five meter office.

“Sweetie, I'd love to chat about office happenings with you, but we've got a story here,” Thrin responded.

“Right, so,” Leah said, getting back on track, “What did they hope to accomplish by a point-five second delay, anyway?”

“Your guess is as good as Tarb's. The only thing he can figure is it would be just enough time, if they where running the feed through some sort of computer program, scanning for something, to interrupt the feed. What such a program would be designed to scan for . . . could be anything, though. A name, a face, a date, an energy fluctuation . . . ” Thrin trailed off.

Leah thought for a moment to herself. What could Starfleet be trying to hide? Certainly, the whole Cestus III 'incident' had been a rather messy one. One, which the public was not yet privy to the full details on. What about it, though, could Starfleet want to hide?

“Thrin, hold on a moment,” Leah said, muting the communiqué before her editor could reply, “Computer,” she prompted, “do we have any personnel from Starfleet Intelligence aboard?” she asked.

“Affirmative,” replied the computer, “Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest.”

“Was Commander Forrest aboard during the Cestus III incident?” she asked.

“That information is unavailable.” replied the computer.

“Do any logs place him aboard during the hearing?” she asked.

“That information is unavailable.” said the computer, once more.

Leah didn't have any facts, any proof, but she trusted her instincts. And when it came to secrets and covertly delaying news feeds, only one aspect of Starfleet struck her as being involved. For now, it was just a hunch, but it was the best one she had.

“Thrin, I've got a hunch here, let me do some digging, I'll get back to you,” she said. Thrin didn't bother to reply, just abruptly terminate her signal.

“Computer,” she prompted once more, “ . . . locate Lieutenant Hawk.” she requested.

If there was one thing she was sure of, it was that Hawk's hormones likely over powered his judgment. Which meant that he was the perfect candidate to get information from . . .

Location: USS Republic, Deck 9 Residential Compartments, Room 0910

“The dream is becoming less frequent now, occurring every two months or so. . .” the Counselor trailed off of his personal log lost in thought.

It never had been really disturbing. In fact, the dream had served as a great reminder why he had entered Starfleet, and had been dedicated enough to be promoted so quickly. Many of his senior officers noted that they had rarely seen such diligence, such devotion to their field or to Starfleet.

Regaining his train of thought he continued, “I cannot believe how that incident would change the course of my life and lead me here to where I am today.”

Reittan looked up from his private desk across the room at the portside window. He watched the stars slide by as the Republic continued to glide her course towards her destination. Some of the crew had begun expressing concerns over just that. Where was the ship headed? Without answers, Reittan did just his best to ease their concerns. He had wondered why the Captain and the XO hadn't called the department heads together to brief them on the upcoming assignment. But, from his earlier assessment of Captain Roth, he had confidence in her leadership abilities. Besides, this was not totally uncharacteristic of Starfleet; a thought the Counselor relied on most when approaching an explanation.

Reittan shook his head back and forth, as if the thoughts would fly out. This was his personal time, not a time to worry of his work. It was now time to meditate. He had earlier gone to the gym, ten-forward for some socializing, and would soon be heading to sleep; a routine that was almost clockwork.

Tolkath stood up, his chair being pushed back automatically by the back of his legs. He then walked to a corner of his quarters dedicated for meditation, and then donned the traditional Vulcan clothing dedicated for said practice. Lit some candles that had already shown some wear; sitting cross legged as his Grandfather has taught him so many times, Reittan began the ritual. As he sank deeper, the world and its troubles drifted away to await his emergence from his immersion in tranquility.

Chapter 5: Subspace TermitesTop

For the past several days, Bruce Burke had rallied his side with his usual hard-at-it approach to the unexpected bleed of atmosphere through the skin of the ship, and the somehow related evaporated chair leg. The suspect damage to the airlock was scrutinized at length for two days with every forensic tool and technique at his disposal. Finding nothing, they had it refurbished. The counselor's desk chair was promptly replaced, his stained carpet gamma ray cleaned automatically by the ship. Shen Baowen, Rota Sonji, and even Theodore Petrov had dedicated the combined the full manpower of their respective wards. The obstinate problem finally focused on a possible explanation: the ship had termites.

These of course were no ordinary, wood-loving Kalotermitidae. They were not your domestic mineral eating parasite, or even metal termites. In fact, they weren't organic, they weren't even in sync with normal space. Burke was faced with the discomforting fact that they had somehow, possibly, picked up sub-space termites.

Sub-space termites never actually enter normal space, . . . but the corrosion of subspace which they eat creates macroscopic rift in normal space with evaporate or possibly dissolve normal matter. It was like burp after their subspacial meal. The collateral damage from one of these macroscopic burp bubbles can be catastrophic, . . . making the seal breach in the airlock look about as domestic as a misaligned torque sensor.

Though hard to scan for, Burke and his crew believed they knew just what to look for. They swept the ship repeatedly with internal sensors, even correlating lateral sensors in a novel and inventive intro-modal scan. They learned that these particular termites were not only entrenched in a subspace domain that made them hard to quarantine, they were temporally out of sync.

The ship was now infested, and it would be a matter of time before something else, or someone, intersected the burp bubble from a subspace termite.

Location: Main Engineering, USS Republic

Lieutenant Pakita turned away from the sensor display long enough to shoot Shannon Harris a withering glace. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“But . . . TERMITES!”

“If the Chief says we look for termites, we look for termites. Now either make yourself useful or make yourself scarce.”

Shannon moved to a secondary panel and brought up a detailed blueprint of the hull, and highlight the areas suspected of subspacial microfracturing. She then rotated the image to a three-quarter top-down perspective.

“Ummmm . . . Maria?”

“I said I don't want to talk about it.”

“But . . . . I think there's a pattern.”

The assistant chief engineer slowly turned to face the young doctor. “Shannon, we've been working on this problem for two and a half shifts. You've been helping for less then twenty seconds.”

“I know, but from this perspective, it looks like all of the 'damage' is being caused on the surface of a sphere centered around the front of the port nacelle, with a radius two hundred sixty-four point four meters.”

Maria ran an additional sensor sweep, and after a few seconds to verify the findings, heaved a sigh and started typing new work details. “Thanks Harris. I really do appreciate the help, but now you've made my whole staff look bad, and my desire to catch this thing is sublimating into my desire to throttle you, in a friendly and helpful sort of way.”

“Oh, for goodness sake. Maria, check the survey teams most recent reports. This is from data they collected less than five minutes ago. There is now way you could have known. You're as bad as John sometimes.”

The spicy engineer glanced sidelong at Shannon Harris, and smirked as she returned her gaze to her display,“ So how are things going with the Hero of Cestus III?”

“Fine,” Shannon blurted, blushing a bit.

“Just 'fine' at the moment?”

“No complaints, and the eyepatch makes him look a bit rogue-ish and dashing, like a modern day pirate.”

“Speaking of pillaging . . . ”

“Lieutenant Pakita, don't you dare!”

Maria retreated slightly and held up her hands in submission, “I was just going to suggest a snack on The Hill, pillaging a large bowl of chocolate mousse. Maybe someone should get their mind out of the waste reclamation tanks.”

“I'd love a quick dessert before bed,” Shannon exclaimed with finality.

“Excellent. I'll leave the Chief a message about OUR findings, and notify Gamma shift that I'm going to get a few hours of sleep before coming back four hours before the start of Beta shift to complete everything I should have done today. And speaking of beds, desserts, and quickies . . . ”

Heading for the turbolift, Shannon turned her head to shout over her shoulder, “I'm no longer talking to you until there is mousse to distract you from my personal life.”

“Aye-aye Lieutenant Commander.”

Daily Memorandum to all Engineering Staff

From: Lieutenant Commander Bruce Burke

I have heard astonishment from more than a few of you about the announcement that we have termites aboard. I want to reiterate that there is no immediate cause for concern. Ah besides, this is from what we can determine, one, single, and very lonely termite.

Ah that's nothing, on Loracus Prime there are more than 5,000 subspecies of termites.

The Enterprise D also had a brief run in with metal eating lifeforms. Ours just happens to eat the subspace out from under us, like termites eating the supports off of a lifeguard tower. To further that analogy, it's pretty hard for the lifeguard to know where to spray for the termites from up there, not to mention the spray wouldn't reach where it needs to . . . . probably because is carried off on the ocean wind.

Unfortunately, we cannot look down from our raised dias with infinite complacency. There is certainly a danger with this infestation, but there may be nothing we can do about it. Although our Ship's Counselor points out that the Heisenberg Principle would work in bringing them into our temporal sync, . . . and they infamous Heisenberg compensator would probably do that job acceptably. Beaming them into a subspace domain similar to our transporter would provide challenges. This might kill them, make them angry, make them leave us alone, make them like us, or possibly just make them hungrier. Shen Baowen, our deep thinker and ex-scientist and Diagnostics Officer believes it would be the latter.

Once we have them in our 4th temporal dimension we simply have to find out what to do with them. There are hundreds of things we can do to manipulate subspace domains, from destroy them, to annoy them, or even bring them into our final 3 dimensions where they would likely die.

Let's get creative people!! Before someone gets hurt!

Chapter 6: Terra IncognitaTop

Location: Main Operation’s Office, USS Republic

Naruko dropped the padd on her desk as the weight on her eyes lids began to sink in. “Computer Time?” she asked

“The time is twenty one thirty one hours” stated the computer

She massaged her eyelids as she stood up heading towards the replicator. “One cup of hot black tea” she ordered watching a stream of blue partials form on the replicator pad. She picked up the cup and took a slip of her tea only to be thrown into the replicator panel as the ship decelerated. The Tea spattered over the replicator and herself as the ship shook violently as if it where hit by something. Naruko picked herself up and waked over to her computer console, as she took a quick glance at the sensor data she realized that the ship had gone off course.

The room shook again as if it got hit by another volley of object this time the sound where closer, suddenly she could hear the screams of people beyond her door as she rushed out to see what was happening she was swept off her feet by the angel of death to take her into the cold depths of space. She fiercely tried to grab a hold of any object as she was sucked into space. Approaching the beautiful let deadly night of space, she suddenly felt her body being crushed as it was slammed into a forcefield and falling to the hard metal ground.

Naruko feel to her kneels as she tried to stand up, only to feel the pain of her insides. She could feel the bones in her rib cage crack with each breath she took, she managed to tap her commbadge only to hear static with her hails. She muscled the her remaining strength to pull herself up with what was the remains of a panel.

“Naruko . . . ” speaks the wind

“Who’s there?” cried Naruko as she forced herself to walk

“Naruko . . . ” speaks the wind

“Hello?!” shouted Naruko as she moved close to the sound

“Naruko . . . ” speaks the wind

“Hello?!” she shouted once one making her way to a door that appeared the sound was coming from.

Naruko approached the door slowly; as the doors slid open she felt the hand of death upon her cheek, but only to gasp in horror as to what she saw.

With a flash of light, she jolted up from her desk, realizing it was all a dream.

Location: First Officer's Quarters, USS Republic

0630 came awfully early for John Carter. Somehow, he'd thought that this cruise might be different; that he might have an easy day once the trial of Cestus III was behind him. Unfortunately, between a captain with the strangest (though Carter had to admit fascinating) idea he'd ever heard, and a report from his Chief Engineer with potentially deadly consequences, not only for republic, but for the rest of Starfleet, It had been a long night, and the morning had come too soon.

“Off” John grumbled at the alarm that blared through his quarters.

“OFF!” he screamed again.

“It's not going to stop until you actually get OUT of bed, John.”

The smooth alto voice had come out of the sanitation suite, and it took Carter a minute to remember whom the voice belonged to. The first officer sat up in bed and leaned forward to peer into the room that held the sonic shower, smiling slightly as he saw the shapely silhouette against the frosted glass partition. “Well that's a terrible idea.” Carter quipped as he swung his legs over the edge of his bed. “Did I let you talk me into that?”

“Actually, it was Victor's idea.”

“Sprock.” Carter spit. “I'm never going to hear the end of that.” Republic's XO ran his fingers through his hair and made the Carter family `Old-Man-Noise' as he forced himself out of bed and shuffled in the direction of the shower. He paused briefly to press his fingers against the control panel on the wall to silence his annoying alarm. Then, he continued to plod toward consciousness.

One of the benefits of being second-in-command of a Galaxy Class starship was that John's facilities included real running water, along with the fleet issue sonic shower. Carter reminded himself to thank the designers at Utopia Planetia as he splashed cold water on his face.

“Time check John?” Came the voice from the sonic shower.

“Oh-Dark-30.” Carter answered. “And why are you asking me? You could just ask the computer.”

Shannon Harris stood on her toes to peer over the frosted glass partition. “Well yeah, I COULD . . . ” she offered, “but you're a little more fun.”

Carter felt his face redden slightly. “Ok, point taken.” He conceded. “It's 0645.” In what could best be described as a 'scamper', Shannon quickly slipped from the seclusion of the sonic shower and made her way back toward the interior of John's quarters. “Sorry John, but I've really got to run.”

Carter turned his head to watch Shannon as she slipped on a set of science blue coveralls. They were similar to the uniform of non- commissioned or civilian contract crewmen; allowing for flexibility and freedom of movement with a v-neck that was accented by the right- over-left fastening that drew tighter at the waist. “You don't have to leave you know.” John reminded her.

“Actually I do. The DH briefing is at 0900, but Leon wants to check in with his senior staff first. There are some notes I need to get together.”

Carter turned his attention back to the face that looked back at him in the mirror working chemical beard suppressor into his skin. “Fair enough. Busy tonight?”

Now clothed, Shannon walked back toward Carter, stepping up behind him and stretching to rest her carrot-topped head on his shoulder. “Careful sailor,” she cooed, people are going to start talking.“ Harris gave the Martian commander a light peck on the cheek, and headed for the door.

“Let `em.” Carter called back as the door opened. “You're not on the bridge staff anymore, and at least technically I'm not your superior, Doc is.”

“Is that the way the rule is supposed to work? Or is that just how YOU'RE working it?”

“Doesn't matter,” he offered. “I'm following what the reg says. It's not MY fault if they didn't write it the way they should have.”

“Good point.” Shannon said from the hall. “And yes, dinner tonight would be wonderful.”

“Good. Don't let Leon give you too hard a time eh?”

“No worries John, he's a pussy cat.”

Location: “The War Room”, USS Republic

“You're sure you want to play it that way, XO?” Kimberly Roth asked from her place at the head of the conference table.

On her right, John Carter was leaning back in his chair. “Absolutely. He's a department head after all. At some point, we all had to step up. It's his turn.”

Roth nodded slightly but also clucked her tongue. “Fair enough. We'll have to wait and see what he thinks he's up to.”

The conversation was cut short, as the members of Republic's senior staff began to trickle in. Not surprisingly, Victor Virtus was first to arrive and take his place at the conference table. John nodded. “Doctor.”

“Commander. I see your alarm worked today.”

Though not technically a member of the crew for this cruise, Victor Virtus was one of the more qualified scientists onboard ship and would no doubt prove invaluable when dealing with the situation on Sigma Omicron V; a situation that was rapidly turning from a mere logistics exercise, to a bit of a whodunit.

The rest of Republic's command staff entered at irregular intervals, taking places around the conference table. Captain Roth looked at Carter and gave him a small nod.

“All right folks,” Carter piped up. “Let's get this show on the road shall we?” The lights in the room darkened and a holographic representation of the Sigma Omicron system took up space in the center of the table.

“We're three standard days out of Sigma Omicron V to investigate a delay in terra-forming operations. The planet itself has an exceptionally long orbital and rotational cycle, and from the looks of the initial survey scans is tremendously mineral-rich.”

John looked around the table to make sure that he had the crew's attention, then changed the display. The glowing sphere of the Sigma Omicron star and colored lines that had represented the planet's orbital path were replaced by the face of a dark-skinned man who's lined face was marked by dark hair interspersed with flecks of grey.

“This is Commander Sidig Madhava. He's a fifteen-year veteran of Terraforming Command, and this is the third project that he's been lead officer on. The Terraformers are experiencing a number of critical equipment failures. Some have been large, some small, but all have been important at the given stage the project was in at the time of failure.”

Carter keyed another control on the table face, and another face appeared. This one was a woman's face with longer sharper features, blue eyes that seemed to be aware of what was in the room, and shoulder-length brown hair, marked with a shock of stark white that fell across her left eye.

“This is Doctor Samantha Beckett,” Carter explained. “She's the lead scientist at Sigma Omicron V, and Commander Madhava and his engineers are following her plan for the actual terra-forming project. Dossiers for the rest of the terra-forming team members are in your PADDs if you need them.”

Again, John keyed a control and the light in the War Room returned to normal. “Fleet Command has given us the job of getting the project back on schedule which means two things.”

“First, we're going to use our replicators to fix or replace the equipment the terraformers have lost. Second, we need to lock down the project sights as best we can and get to the bottom of the equipment failures. Right now, Commander Madhava suspects sabotage, which I'm inclined to agree with. Doctor Beckett on the other hand has other suspicions.”

Carter paused to look at the assembled officers, pausing first to look at Bruce Burke, then Victor Virtus, as well as Hranok, Republic's resident scientist, then to Nat Hawk. “Mister Burke”, John spoke up slightly. “You'll need to coordinate with the terraformers to see what their equipment needs are. Hranok, Vic, see if you can figure out what's causing the failures and figure out a way to stop them.” Carter stopped again and leveled his gaze squarely at Nat Hawk.

“Mister Hawk,” he said coolly, “You'll be in command of operations planetside. Get these people back on schedule.”

Carter waited for the stunned silence in the room to give way to nervous looks around the table. “And, in case you haven't been keeping up,” John was now addressing the assembled officers, “Mister Burke has found another problem for us to deal with, but I'll let him fill you in on that.”

Carter sat down and looked to Captain Roth. Kimberly leaned forward in a way that almost looked like she was bracing for a photon torpedo impact. “Any Questions?”

The Counselor looked uncharacteristically stoic during the briefing; a reminder of his Vulcan ancestry. Upon the announcement of Hawk's appointment to lead the away team, a slight smirk glided over his lips. A sudden influx of emotion filled the room, yet the Counselor remained silent.

The Counselor's entire life he had been taught to never, in the proverbial terran phrase, “show anyone his hand.” Unforeign to the empathic and telepathic ways of life, Betazoids and Vulcans hardly ever told everything they knew; one exception to the openness of Betazoid life. Tolkath's grandmother had taught him indirectly this lesson as he observed her interactions with delegates from foreign planets. In the academy this teaching was reinforced as he studied deeper the delicacies of interstellar mediation.

The Lieutenant Commander watched the Senior Staff volley back and forth over the XO's and Captain's appointment. When the suggestion that Burke should be the head of the mission, Tolkath nearly broke his silence, but was beaten to the point when Burke unexpectedly conceded to Hawk's selection.

The Counselor could see Roth looking towards him during the positional tennis match as to ascertain his stance on the matter. Then she would look towards Dr. Cromwell who also remained without comment. Tolkath was enjoying the discussion all too well. Then for a moment Tolkath looked at the glowing holographic image displayed before him, lost in thought. He then looked around the war room taking in its environment. This addition to the Republic was unique to the Galaxy class. He unconsciously put his forefinger up to his temple and cradled his head in his hand. If this appointment and the upcoming mission were the only concern he had, he would have been grateful. But, things were beginning to not bode well in the psychology department.

Reittan came to when he felt the stare of both the Captain and the XO and the quick to follow question.

“What do you think Counselor?” Roth enquired.

The Counselor looked around the table at the faces now focused on him. He paused as though in thought bridging the fingers of his hands together. Solemnly the Counselor offered, “Well, I think it takes an awfully big Smoke to weigh a metric ton” in jest towards the Captain's pet.

His humor received a mixed reaction but seemed to lighten the mood somewhat. He then added, “But, I believe that Hawk is a good appointment.”

Lieutenant Nathan Hawk could feel the eyes of at least half the officers in the room upon him, but he had been the center of much worse attentions in the past, so was hardly concerned. He did have to admit - if only to himself - that he was anxious about taking charge of anything. While he had been in command of things in the past, it was usually in the heat of battle - a serious situation that required someone to step up and to not have time to contemplate all the possible outcomes. This was totally different, this was taking charge of a calmer, more organized situation and leading an investigation.

“Uhm,” Hranok stammered, “with all due respect to Lieutenant Hawk, wouldn't it be more . . . efficient . . . if this mission where lead by someone with a scientific or engineering background, considering the situation?”

The Captain turned her eyes to her First Officer, signaling to him to field the question.

“Lieutenant Hawk is capable of leading the away team.” Carter said simply, perhaps a bit more defensively than he would have liked.

“Of course, I don't mean to indicate otherwise. I owe the Lieutenant, at least in part, my life. I just meant that considering the circumstances, the mission might be better served with someone like Commander Burke in charge.” Hranok replied, discounting himself in charge as to not seem overly ambitious.

Lieutenant Commander Burke was eager to quell the gratuitous volunteering of his name, especially for fear that it would implicate him in any conspiracy against Nat Hawk. He turned right to the Bolian science officer with a calm, but annoyed look. “I think you'll find you're lacking a consensus, Lieutenant.”

Conrad Danzig made a great show of clearing his throat, turning heads. Burke jumped in before either of his superiors could, and delivered a withering glare. “Do you have something to say?” Danzig covered his mouth, fidgeted a bit. “No sir.” Burke's tone lightened considerably, almost to be mirthful. “Oh thought you were about to say something.”

Nat couldn't help but smirk at this, as Burke totally shut down both Danzig and any other objections that could be made. He also noticed Carter's look of surprise at Burke's unexpected defense of Hawk, considering the rumor mill had it Burke had apparently been pretty irate when the prospect of Hawk as second officer had first come out. For the Captain's part, she seemed contemplative; absorbing everything while projecting nothing.

“Mister Burke,” the Captain finally said. For a moment, Nat wondered if she would perhaps chastise him for having spoken up. “Why don't you fill us in on the terraformer's equipment problem?” she said.

“Well I received the diagnostic and molecular integrity scans they sent, and for the most part the equipment is standard Terraform Command issue. But, I admit, the modifications they've made to suit their environment were unencumbered by the engineering process. I couple that with an apparent lack of adequate preventative checks and maintenance on their hoppers and laser drills to explain their total lack of progress. I would like to add that it wasn't easy to get these scans. Working with these people has been a chore. The leader can't be bothered with work, has an enormous ego, and the whole team appears dysfunctional. I actually had to explain why I wanted the molecular integrity scans, and how to run them. Not to be cruel, but if idiots could fly, Sugga Mamma X would be an airport.”

“Sugga whata who now?” Hawk prompted, not quite understand the end of the statement.

“I forget the name of the planet,” Burke sighed.

“Sigma Omicron V,” Carter offered with an amused smile.

“Sounds like a fraternity ta me,” Hawk replied. “Who names these planets, anyhow?” he asked rhetorically.

“Yes, well, the point is that Sigma Omni is in serious danger of not getting terraformed.” Burke said.

“Sigma Omicron V,” Carter repeated.

“Aye, that's the one,” Bruce nodded, a bit detached.

“Well do we really even need it?” Hawk asked. “I mean, terraformin' ain't cheap 'er quick 'er easy. Why we botherin'?”

“Why else? Mineral deposits; natural, exploitable resources.” Danzig answered. “Terraforming is small in comparison. On Earth of old, wars where fought over stuff like this. In the early 21st century, one of the old nation states, America, invaded another of the old nation states just for it's fossil fuels. Granted, that nation state was lead by a tyrannical dictator, but removing him was just a side effect.”

“Thank you for the history lesson, Mister Danzig,” the Captain interjected. “Whatever the purpose of the terraforming operation, our goal is the same. To get them back on track. Those are our orders and that is what we're going to do.” she stated. “If there's nothing else?” she queried. “Dismissed.” she said after a moment, departing.

Chapter 7: ExtremesTop

Location: CMO's office, main sickbay, USS Republic

“He did WHAT?”

Doctor Saal Yezbeck sat in the corner of the small office staring at Leon with an expression of incredulity. For his part, Doctor Cromwell had removed his ivory turtleneck sweater and trousers to reveal a black undershirt and boxer shorts. As he talked with his senior surgeon, Leon was placing his stocking feet though the pant-legs of a medical blue jumpsuit; his personal choice for landing-party attire.

“Don't blame me,” Leon said defensively. “It wasn't my idea.”

“Are we talking about the same man who put a fellow Starfleet officer in sickbay a few months ago after with a phasor set to heavy stun?” Yezbeck replied.

“The one-and-only,” he replied. “Lieutenant Nat Hawk.” Doctor Cromwell pulled up the bulk of his jumpsuit over his body and slipped his arms through the sleeves.

“Look, don't get me wrong,” Saal said, shaking his head. “I'm sure he's a great pilot and fun to be around when he's not getting into trouble, but away team commander?”

Without looking at him, Leon pulled tight and secured the inside wrap-around flap of the jumpsuit's torso before doing the same with the outside flap. The result was the V-neck appearance of engineering overalls but in a different departmental color.

“I know,” he replied. “But Carter felt he was ready and capable, and the captain backed him up.”

“Did it ruffle the feathers of any other senior officers?” the black-bearded doctor asked while crossing his legs.

“Hard to tell,” Leon answered while attaching his communicator pin. “They're still a rather new group, so I don't think they feel comfortable with expressing their personal opinions yet.”

“Speaking of which,” Saal changed the subject. “What do you think of them?”

“I like the captain,” Doctor Cromwell said almost immediately. “Sensible and no-nonsense.” He continued to name off the newcomers as he secured a black utility belt around his waist. “I've had the pleasure of meeting Counselor Tolkath, and I think that he's not only well qualified, but experienced too. He'll be a great asset to the crew.” There was a hint of concern in Leon's eyes as he wondered if Saal would ask how he knew about the counselor, as he did not want to reveal he had a professional session with him. However, his mind went at ease as his senior surgeon continued.

“And the others?”

“Our engineer, Burke, seems very knowledgeable,” he replied. “And laid-back enough not to make the rest of us panic if there's ever an emergency.” Leon maintained his line of thought as he attached a tricorder and a medical pouch to his belt. “I didn't get a chance to meet our new science chief, Lieutenant Hranok, nor our new ops, Ensign Kuga. However, I did note that Kuga seems a bit young to be in charge of an entire department. I guess the officer shortage in operations forced the captain to make some tough decisions.”

“I heard Vic was back aboard,” Saal commented, drawing a surprised look from Leon.

“Ensign Scuttlebutt works fast, I see?” said Leon. “Yes, he's back aboard as a field researcher from the Corps of Engineers. It's anyone's guess on why, but I have a suspicion that it was his request after being handed a science project of some kind.” The doctor reminisced with a smile as he grabbed a gray, briefcase-sized medical kit from behind his desk. “At any rate, it'll be good to have him at the poker table again.”

Leon walked to the door giving Saal a final order.

“Watch the place while I'm gone, and no parties this time.”

As the door to the office whispered open, Doctor Yezbeck halted him.

“Wait,” he said, producing a small, palm-sized type-one hand phasor. Tossing it to Leon, the CMO looked at it inquisitively.

“It's a Starfleet installation, Saal. I don't think I'll be needing it.”

“Just following the sickbay rules,” the surgeon replied. “Which you wrote by the way.” He tilted his head back quoting the rule in the barest hint of mockery. “All medical personnel, unless forbidden by cultural taboos or a superior officer, shall carry some form of personal protection on away team missions.”

Leon looked at his subordinate with an expression that suggested he was not amused.

“If anything,” Saal smiled. “Consider it a good luck charm.”

With a glimpse of both amusement and compliance, Leon slipped the article into a concealed side pocket on his jumpsuit before leaving the office.

Slamming his clenched fists into the hard canvas bag, Nat Hawk could feel the dull ache of his tense muscles, could feel the pressure on his lungs from his shallow breathing, and could feel the perspiration on his brow. What he couldn't feel was calm, collected or in control – and that bothered the hell out of him. He wasn't any damn green-blooded Vulcan by any stretch of the imagination, but he had a knack for staying cool under fire. It was one of his strengths. Even when he reacted on adrenaline, even when his emotions got the better of him and he actually lost it for a second, he always got it back. He never really lost his control, his cool, not really. He was always at his own helm, even if it didn't appear so.

Except for right now.

Right now, he was out of control and spiraling downward. Right now, he was frustrated and angry and couldn't get a handle on it. Right now, he felt less like himself than he could remember ever having felt before. He wasn't Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, veteran of the Flying Aces 85th attack squadron. He wasn't a decorated combat pilot who had on more occasions than he could count pulled himself, his squad, and a dozen other ships out of the fire. He wasn't even the drunken, sex-crazed troublemaker that had earned him a reputation across twelve sectors. Right now, he was an angry and bitter ten-year-old boy filled with more rage and hate than any child has a right to. A ten-year-old boy nurturing the beginnings of a vendetta that would cost him nearly everything just for the chance to fulfill.

But it was worth it.

That's what he told himself, what he knew to be true, as he pounded away at the hard and heavy bag with a fury of blows that would have taken down a Nausicaan cold. He could feel his heart race, could feel the groundswell of hate, of grief, of guilt, churning within him. He could see the face of his enemy, the face that had haunted him most of his life, the face of a murderer before him, and yet he could not stop him, could not hurt him, could not even kill him. Even as he stood side-by-side with the enemy, as he earned his enemies trust and friendship, he knew he could do nothing equally as devastating, as hurtful, as purely cold and cruel as had been done to him. All he could do was drive his fists as hard and as fast as he could into an inanimate object in the pale hope it would give him some sort of release, some sort of comfort.

But it didn't.

Not even as he wailed at the top of his lungs, and slammed home upon the bag with such force that it broke the chain and sent it flying to the floor, and him to his knees, gasping for breath. Closing his eyes, he fell forward onto the mat, unable and unwilling to move. He could see their faces, all of them, there in the darkness of his own thoughts. He would have cried if he still could, but he had done so much of that in his youth, it held no more meaning for him. Not a whole hell of a lot did anymore. Only a rare few things, and most of them he knew he could loose just as easily. Which was why he kept so many things, so many people, at such a great distance. It was the only way to protect himself; the only way to survive.

If you could call his life surviving.

It was no surprise to him when their had been vocal objections to his assignment as leader of the away team; he had expected objections to the thought of him in a position of real authority since he'd spoken with the Captain concerning the vacant Second Officer position. What really bothered him, what had brought him down here in the first place to try to work out his aggression rather than drown it in alcohol, was that he really wasn't sure if they where wrong. He doubted himself, doubted his abilities, and that wasn't something that occurred very often. His dedication, his passion, his rage, and his determination - all of it usually clouded any doubts he had. Maybe that was the real reason he'd come down here after all. To pick at the open wound in his soul in a futile attempt to cloud his own doubts.

From across the room, the heavy mechanized groan of the large cargo doors opening drew him up out of his own abyss, and up onto his knees once more, as he craned his neck to see who the hell had overridden his lock-out.

He hadn't expected it to be her; the reporter, Warner.

Another time, another place, another personality for her, and he would have been happy to see her. Not here and now though. She had made her feelings for him abundantly clear, and he wasn't about to disappoint her by not reciprocating.

“Just what n'the hell ya think yer doin'?” Hawk asked, venom in his voice, pushing himself to his feet.

“Sorry,” she expressed, quietly, almost sheepishly as she stood a step inside the gymnasium, “I didn't know anyone was in here.” she lied, dropping her gaze a bit as she did.

“Bullshit,” Hawk spat, unwrapping his right hand as he walked towards her, “I locked tha door. How n'the hell'd ya get in?”

“Oh, well,” she began, glancing back at the door as she fumbled for a legit-sounding explanation, “I thought it was locked because I was a civilian. Officers only or something.” she remarked, not really answering his question. 'Her lies r'as transparent s'Aldebran crystals,' he thought to himself as he watched her gaze drift downward once more; an obvious tell.

“Ever stop n'think that might mean somethin'? Ya know, like, 'officers only'? As in, stay the hell out 'les you got a commission?” Hawk shot back, the fire within him still burning hard and strong. He knew logically he was overreacting, knew he was being a jerk, but he didn't care. What's more, it's what he had expected from her; unlike the thin tissue of lies he was getting.

“Sorry,” she offered again, almost sounding sincere this time.

He considered her for a moment as he switched to unwrap his left hand, his breath deepening, growing easier. She was without a doubt up to something, without a doubt wanting something, and quite likely specifically from him. Otherwise she would have stomped and yelled at his attitude a moment ago. If she wanted something from him though, she had to have something as well. Whether or not it was important to him or not was irrelevant; he wanted to know what it was, what would reduce her to this timid shadow of herself in the hopes of coaxing something out of him.

“Ya wanna make it up ta me, you'll help me get that thing n'the matter-energy converter,” he suggested, gesturing to the defeated and broken punching bag, his tone softening and his composure returning to him as he buried his aggression.

“Alright.” she agreed, her tone so soft he could barely hear her. She trailed behind him as he led the way towards the object of his wrath. He contemplated the lie he would offer when she asked the inevitable, as if on cue she did.

“What happened?”

“Must'a bin them subspace termites.” Nat offered as explanation for the broken chain as he crouched down to lift one end of the bag. As he struggled to find a good grip, he noticed a smear of pink and red across the fabric. He then noticed the subtle sting coming from his right hand; the knuckle of his middle finger, where the pressure and friction had eroded the skin away just enough to breach a capillary. He settled on using his arm to cover the smear of blood as he lifted the bulky object from the bottom.

“So I heard there was a briefing,” Warner remarked as they slowly moved, the bag between, towards and out-of-the-way alcove towards the back of the gym. “anything exciting happening? I could use a good story.” she informed, that being perhaps the first honest statement she had made. Knowing now it involved a story reaffirmed his belief she wanted something from him, but he doubted it was as vague and clueless as fishing for a story out of a briefing. Not to mention he found it hard to believe she would be that bold and upfront about it.

“Not much,” he replied, as the doors to the alcove split apart and he stepped through, ”'Cept them subspace termites. Ain't no story in that?“ he questioned, as Warner shuffled through the doorway.

“Maybe,” she conceded, as they heaved the broken bag onto the illuminated surface of the matter-energy converter, “I guess I'd just been expecting something more . . . juicy out of this assignment.” Warner added, as she stepped back and put her hands on her hips, taking in a few deep breaths. Nat stole a sideways glance at her as he moved to the converter's control panel, and despite himself, he had to admit she was rather attractive.

“Well, life 'board a starship ain't all phaser fights n'border battles,” Hawk mused, biding his time until she said something that raised a red flag of interest. “Most a it's just routine, n'more routine n'top a that.”

“Damn,” Warner responded, “don't suppose I could convince you to alter course for the Tholian border? Maybe stir up some trouble?” she requested, sounding playful. For a moment, he couldn't tell if it was false or genuine. 'She slippin' up, er am I?' he wondered to himself, as he entered the final command into the converter. A nanosecond later, the bag began to dematerialize in similar fashion to a transporter or replicator, only when it was finished doing so, nothing else happened. Nothing appeared in its place. Like depositing a used plate or cup into the replicator, it simply ceased to exist in any physical form; converted back into raw components of atoms and energy.

“Careful what ya wish fer,” Hawk advised, “we're gonna be pretty close ta the border, only a coupla parsecs distance 'er so.” he informed her as they made their way back into the gymnasium proper.

“Risk is my business,” Warner shot back quickly, her normal flare returning momentarily, “yours too, as I recall. Isn't that what this starship is all about?” she queried, indirectly quoting one of Starfleet's greatest legends.

“Personally, I'm 'board ta fly this big-ass thing whereva the solar 'er political winds take us. Risk is just a part a'it.” Hawk answered honestly, if only by omission of some of the more shaded areas of his life, as they stopped on the mat that had housed the wrecked punching bag.

“This from the famed 'Death Wish' of the elite 85th attack squadron?” Warner countered, the flare still present, yet lacking the attitude she usually laced it with when speaking to or about him.

“Thems was different times,” Hawk explained, “war does some pretty funny things ta people. What scares the hell outta one fella n'makes him do somethin' stupid like shoot himself in the foot, gets that fella called a coward. Same thing makes another fella crazy n'arrogant, he ends up doin' somethin' just as dumb, cept cause he ended up savin' some folks, he gets called a hero fer it.”

Warner scoffed at the notion, “Uh-uh,” she began, shaking her head from side to side, “Nope, sorry. I may not have faught in the war, but you don't need battle scars to know that there's a pretty big difference between somebody who shoots himself because they're afraid to die, and somebody who risks his neck time and time again, willing to sacrifice his life, to save others.”

“That almost sounded like some sorta . . . compliment.” Hawk observed, taking a step closer towards her, wondering just how far she would go with this little ruse.

“I guess it sort of . . . was.” Warner acknowledged in an almost shy tone, as she took a step towards him.

“I, uhm . . . I think we got off on the wrong foot,” Hawk stated, inching closer to her as he shifted his stance, “maybe we can . . . start over?” he suggested.

“I'd like that,” Warner echoed quickly, before pressing her lips to his as her arms slid up around his neck and his hands to her hips, both of them on auto-pilot.

The kiss was electric. Despite himself, despite that he knew this was only a ploy for information, Nat felt invigorated, his grip tightening, pulling her closer to him. When she reciprocated, pressing herself against him, he began to question everything he had been thinking. Everything that he had suspected of her. Maybe this was the real her? Maybe the snarling bitch he had first encountered was just an oddity, a bad mood, or something equally able to be explained away.

Breaking the kiss, Nat looked down at her, into her deep, dark, beautiful eyes, and in that instant, he saw the truth. It both excited and disappointed him at the same time. Quickly, she looked away. He wasn't sure if she felt remorse, embarrassment, surprise or something else entirely. Letting his arms fall slack to his sides, he took a step back from her, forcing her to break her embrace of him. Neither said anything for what seemed like minutes on end.

“So, ya wanna fill me in on what this lil fishin' trip was all 'bout?” Hawk queried, his tone quiet and perhaps a bit somber.

She didn't look at him; she couldn't. She hadn't expected to find herself feeling anything except scorn for him. What she had been able to push aside as loosing herself in the part, however, she had been forced to admit to herself with the kiss. 'My god, I actually like him.' she thought to herself, surprised at the realization; and that she was able to admit it to herself so soon.

“My editor contacted me,” she finally replied, “apparently, Starfleet Intelligence put an illegal time-delay on all the news feeds coming out of Starbase 39-Sierra towards the end of through the trial.” she divulged, showing her hand. It was the least she could do now, to be honest with him.

“And ya wanted ta know why.” Hawk stated. Warner nodded, still unable to look at him; to look him in the eye. “Well, ya wasted yer time. I dunno anything 'bout a time-delay on news feeds. Try ta keep ma distance from SI ta be . . . honest.” he told her, emphasize on his last word.

“I didn't-” Warner started to say, defensively, before cutting herself off.

“Don't matter,” Hawk informed her, “If I hear anythin' 'bout SI meddlin' where they don't belong, I'll . . . let ya know.” he added, turning and stepping away, bound for the doors. A dozen thoughts ran through his head as he made the brief trek across the gymnasium, a dozen emotions to go with them, but one thought came through with dominance. 'If she calls after me, she's interested.'

As the mechanized groan of the cargo doors broke the silence, so to did her voice. “I'm sorry,” she apologized, not sure what else to say.

It was surprisingly difficult for him to suppress his desire to smile. “It's alright,” he responded after a moments pause, “we both played each other, I guess.” he remarked, the hint of a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth as he stepped away from the doors, allowing them to close. She smiled back at him, feeling more at ease, if still a bit awkward. “Ya said they delayed the feeds towards the end?” he queried.

“Yeah,” Warner answered, surprised to be back on the topic, “part of the reason it doesn't really make much sense. I mean, time delays aren't unheard of, but it's usually done upfront and with a court order to back it up. This is borderline unconstitutional.”

“Can ya show me the last thing that got aired live, b'fore the delay?” Hawk asked, walking towards an access panel on the wall; Warner mirroring his movements a second or two later.

“Yeah, uhm, Computer; access transmission logs, FNS-Alpha-Two-Five-Seven, file Thirty-Two-Omicron and display.” she ordered.

The black abyss of the panel was replaced with illuminated LCARS graphics, and a visual recording in the center of the screen. From the graphics super-imposed upon the video feed, it was obviously a news report. Nat watched the few seconds of video that showed himself, Carter, Cromwell, Tuvok, and others of the so-called 'Republic 8' as they entered the court room towards the end of the hearing, amidst dozens of reporters and spectators. Abruptly, the video terminated, looped back, and replaced itself with a still image of the first frame.

It took Nat a few seconds to put two-and-two together. When he did, his blood ran cold, his face turning a pale white. “This went out live?” Hawk asked, wanted confirmation before he went to his personal Red Alert.

“Yeah, right after this, they put the time delay in effect.” Warner answered.

“Frinx,” Hawk muttered under his breath. “I gotta go,” he said quickly to Warner, “but uh, we should . . . talk later.” he added, as he began to move towards the doors.

“Alright,” Warner replied, “wait a minute, though; do you know why they delayed the feeds?” she asked.

“I ain't sure - I've got an idea, I need ta go do some diggin'. I'll get back ta ya, ok?” he managed to reply, his mind running at battle stations.

“Okay,” she replied, a bit confused, but giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Chapter 8: At Home And AbroadTop

Location: Cafe Flore, Market Street, San Francisco, Sol III

Noontime in downtown was alive with the bustle of lunchtime patrons taking a break from their schedule for either food or a simple change of scenery. It was perfect day for outside relaxation, with clear blue skies allowing the sun to warm the faces of those who bask in the light. The Mediterranean climate was ideal for outdoor activities, with the occasional exception of rain and early morning fog. However, on this day, the fog lifted early, and the clean, sparkling city of San Francisco came alive with the robustness of a thriving metropolis.

There were plenty of diners and restaurants to choose from on Market Street. Some were newer, extravagant, multi-story eateries, while others were tiny, old buildings dating back several hundred years, survivors the great earthquake of 2035. One such shop was the Café Flore, a quaint, two-story 20th century-style structure with a façade made mostly of glass and preserved wood. Its outdoor dining area was alive with lunchtime customers enjoying the beautiful weather, as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the crowd. Most sidewalk tables were full, and multiple conversations echoed in the air.

However, sitting alone at one table was a woman who observed the passing crowd while silently sipping a cup of coffee. She wore black slacks and a grey shirt covered with a blue denim jacket. Around her neck was an aquamarine kerchief, pulled up over her hair into a bonnet, and only revealed the barest hint of red tresses. Her eyes were covered with the 24th century equivalent of a pair of sunglasses; a thin sheet of polarized transparent aluminum partially wrapped around the head with only a small, semicircular notch where they rested on the crest of her nose. An elastic strap attached to either end of the visor completed the design as it held firmly in place around the back of the head.

Despite her casual appearance, the mysterious woman was alert, looking back and forth as if waiting for someone. It didn't take long before a uniformed Starfleet rear admiral appeared from within the crowd and casually sat down at the table across from the observer. This admiral was an older woman, with graying hair and wrinkled skin, and the tell-tale half-smile she wore revealed her identity as Rear Admiral Krockover.

“No uniform, Kate?” she asked the mystery woman, and a distinct, gravelly voice returned the greeting.

“Are you kidding?” Admiral Janeway returned. “I can't go in uniform anymore in public. I wouldn't get more than a block before I'm surrounded by people asking for my autograph.”

A waiter came up to the table, recognizing that a newcomer now occupied the table.

“Can I get you something?” the maroon-suited attendant asked.

“Just a cup of coffee,” Krockover replied.

Kate viewed the waiter with her visor. The contraption was more than just fashion eye-ware. In fact, it was a little gift from Belana Torres after Fleet Admiral Morozov was assassinated. “A precaution,” the engineer stated, “just in case.” As Janeway considered the server, the micro-circuitry of the sunglasses scanned the man for weapons and communication devices, and the only thing it revealed was his PADD that transmitted a message for a cup of coffee to be delivered to table 15. With a last scan of the passing crowd, her visor revealed no listening or sensory devices closing in on their position.

“Besides,” Kate continued the conversation after the waiter left. “It's probably best that we're not seen collaborating, even with the hawks on the defensive after Cestus Three.”

“That reminds me,” Krockover changed the subject. “Thanks . . . Thanks for sending Tuvok to 39 Sierra. It might have gone a lot worse without him there.”

“It's in our own interests, Pam,” she replied. “If Carter and the others took the fall for Cestus, we might have had to cross Republic off the dove list.”

“What about Roth?” said Krockover. “Kostya assigned her. Republic could still be lost to the hawks.”

“I know,” Kate sighed. “But Carter wasn't left behind at 39 Sierra, and Roth's records say she relies heavily on her execs. If she pulls something, Carter will be there.”

“You might consider letting him know about all this.”

“No,” she stated flatly. “It's best he doesn't. Ignorance is bliss at this point, and Carter is already suspicious of several of the hawks in the admiralty, including Kostya. He's the kind of man that would march straight back to headquarters to solve this mess if he found out about it, and he'll have no idea how deep it goes.”

“But you were the one to let Picard and Riker know, and they didn't do that. They've got the same cavalier mentality that Carter has.”

“That's because Jean-Luc and Will have already felt the full weight of Starfleet against them in the past, and they know the drawbacks. Carter hasn't had that experience. He's a good officer, but we can't risk exposure right now. He did us a huge favor with Cestus, but that was just one battle. The war is far from won. On the contrary, it's just warming up. The council has a solid hawk majority, and even with Paris as the new C-in-C, it doesn't mean we hold the winning hand. All it would take is for one officer, like Carter, to publicly demand an explanation and the gig is up. The council would do an investigation and the next thing you know, every dove from here to the Ficus Sector would be implicated.”

“You should give him more credit,” Krockover said after a moment.

“I do,” responded Kate. “Just like I gave Hepburn credit, and S'toul, and Roberts. We need to solidify the doves, so if the worst happens, we'll be able to hold our own.”

“But we're so spread apart right now,” exclaimed Krockover. “The Enterprise is in the coreward frontier, the Titan is patrolling the DMZ, the Crazy Horse is at Q'onos, and Voyager is docked at DS-6. Heck, even the Republic is off near the Tholian border. What if it happens now? What if the hawks try a coup tomorrow? Or today even?”

She had a point. Kate put her coffee cup down and placed an index finger to her chin in thought. If the hawks make a move on ousting the president now, the doves would be too far from the action to do any good in time. Explaining the situation to those doves in the dark would lose precious time, and the hawks would have the advantage.

“We're not ready now,” she finally admitted reluctantly. “But the atmosphere isn't right at the moment for the hawks either. They need fear. They need the public fear induced by war to exploit the president's political weaknesses and use them as an excuse to replace him. It almost happened with Cestus, and they're going to try it again. What the doves need to do now is prevent the hawks from igniting another war. The more spread out we are, the bigger the chances that one of us will be nearby when they make their next move.”

“I guess the bright side of this is that the further the dove-ships are from Starfleet headquarters, the safer they are.”

“Yes,” Janeway said quietly, taking another sip of coffee. “Safe . . .”

Location: Sigma Omicron Five, 50 kilometers from the terraforming station

“Delta-one-niner, this is approach control. You're cleared for final approach. Your landing pad is one-eight-zero.”

“Delta-one-niner confirms,” said Kari. “Thanks control.”

'A milk run. That's what they called it,' she thought.

The able hopper pilot reminisced about service back in the Dominion war. She had performed countless missions under enemy fire, and even went down once thanks to a Jem H'dar photon grenade. Fortunately, her emergency transponder was picked up by an orbiting Federation starship, sparing her a dreadful death.

'Six silver stars, two flying crosses, and a legion of honor. So what am I doing now? Hauling a team of scientists across this barren piece of rock . . .'

The thought was sour, and almost depressing, but in peacetime, there wasn't much call for suborbital combat pilots. Instead, Lieutenant Kari Nelson found herself at Sigma Omicron, the dullest assignment in the quadrant in her opinion. Despite the fact that the planet would not even have an atmosphere for the next few years, let alone a life-bearing environment, she didn't understand why Starfleet would want a Level Eight geological investigation. It took teams of investigators to explore every square meter of the surface to fulfill such a request, and the duty to escort them to the most remote sections of the planet fell on the shoulders of the station's hopper pilots.

'A milk run,' she thought again, remembering what her comrades in the war used to call a flight of little importance with no combat whatsoever. 'This is nothing but a damned milk run.'

“Better strap yourselves in, gentleman,” Kari called out through the helmet of her envirosuit to the geologic team of six who sat in the cramped passenger compartment. “We'll be landing soon.”

As the space-suited scientists complied, Kari looked back out through the forward cockpit window. The beacons from the reactor towers blinked in the distance over an endless field of regularly spaced polygon-shaped boulders. They were approaching fast, and as Kari reduced the engine throttle, threads of blue lightning danced across the panels.

Sparks flew, and lights faded as Kari struggled with the hopper's controls. She gritted her teeth as the flight thrusters froze up and power levels plummeted.

“Approach control! This is delta-one-niner! I'm declaring an emergency! Repeat! This is delta-one-niner declaring a flight emergency!”

It was no use. The pleas were silent to the controllers as communications went dead, and as the stations four reactor towers were seconds in front of the hopper, Kari suddenly concluded that collision was imminent if she didn't do something quickly.

The barest hint of auxiliary power was left in the starboard thruster pack, and it took only a nanosecond for Kari to make the decision to use every last ounce of her strength to harness it. Her arm muscles strained as she focused her efforts into the control stick, shifting her hips to brace against the seat. Letting out a growl of pain, the impaired craft shifted it's vector to the right just far enough to miss the reactor towers.

Power levels went dead as Kari let out a sigh of exhaustion, turning her thoughts to emergency ejection. However, the sight before her now robbed her mind of those thoughts. The lighted viewports of one of the stations buildings pivoted into view as they drew ever closer.

'My god!' she thought. 'The ops center!' Again, the veteran pilot strained her muscles against the dead controls to no avail.

No one but the doomed scientists heard her warrior scream before impact.

Chapter 9: View From The TopTop

Location: transporter room 4, deck 6, USS Republic

Although the room was filled with officers ready for an away mission, none of them stood on the transporter pads. Instead, they stood around looking to ceiling or the floor, with a few of them leaning against the walls with their arms folded. Three of the officers were in sciences blues: the Bolian Science Chief, Lieutenant Hranok, Counselor Tolkath, and Doctor Cromwell. The other two were in operations gold: Chief Engineer Burke and Lieutenant McTaggart of the Republic's security department. Their silent loitering was making the young ensign at the transporter controls increasingly nervous.

“Time, ensign,” Burke ordered, with his Australian accent laced with annoyance.

“Sixteen-oh-four hours, sir,” he answered.

With an uncommon scowl, the engineer looked towards the doctor. “Four minutes,” Leon replied.

“If he's not here in sixty seconds, we're going down without him,” Burke muttered. “Captain's orders be damned!”

At that moment, the doors to the transporter room parted, and Lieutenant Hawk casually walked in.

“You're late, lieutenant,” the Chief Engineer said firmly.

“Better late than never,” Nat replied with a smile. “Status ensign,” he asked the young transporter operator in his southern drawl.

“We have a tandem transporter lock from Sigma Omicron, and they're signaling their readiness to transport, sir.”

“Let's get a move on, then,” replied Nat making his way to the transporter pad. With a pause, the other officers worked their way to the platform, and as the six officers readied themselves, Hawk gave the order.


With a negative warble, the ensign in operations gold frowned as he looked at the transporter controls.

“Stand by, sir,” he stated with confusion. “We just lost the transporter lock with their ops center.” After typing a few commands into the console, he attempted to regain the signal from Sigma Omicron. He shook his head as the computer refused to do so.

“It's no use, they're not transmitting their tandem lock anymore.”

Suddenly, the com system came to life.

“Transporter Room Four, this is the captain. We just got a priority three distress call from the station, and they're asking for our assistance. Beam that team down now!”

Jumping at the order, the ensign replied, “Yes ma'am.”

“Now hol' on there!” Nat called out to the operator. “Don' go beamin' us into a bulkhead or somethin'! If ops aint respondin' set us down in a nuther section.”

“Their office level is in the adjacent structure to ops, will that do sir?”

“Fine. Energize.”

Location: corridor 2-A, office level, Sigma Omicron terraforming station

With a cascade of blue-white energy, the Republic away team materialized in the midst of chaos. Starfleet personnel were frantically running both directions in the corridor, some carrying casualties, others in envirosuits with plasma torches. As the confused officers looked about, Nat flagged down one of the passing station crew.

“S'cuse me! What the hell's goin' on?”

“Hopper crash,” the technician in an ops uniform replied with anxiety. “It hit our ops center. There's decompression and several casualties.”

“I'm a doctor,” Leon spoke up. “Can I help?”

“Follow me,” the technician replied.

“Counselor?” Leon turned to Tolkath. “We could probably use your skills too.”

As the two officers in blue pursued the crewman into the ops center, a Starfleet commander approached the remaining Republic officers. Although he looked stressed, the appearance of the newcomers seemed to have a calming affect.

“I'm Commander Madhava,” he greeted the four. “Thanks for coming.”

“C'Mander,” Hawk acknowledged with a nod, as he accepted the elder, dark-skinned superiors hand. For a fleeting moment, Nat thought he saw confusion pass behind the Commander's eyes as he glanced quickly between the collars of Hawk and Burke. “Ya'll sure know how ta make new folks feel needed.” he added, trying to lighten the tense mood permeating the entire area.

“If you think this is something, you should have been here last week.” Madhava remarked, “It's been one crisis after another lately. I've been praying for your arrival since Admiral Kostya first told me you'd be coming.”

At to mention of the name Kostya, both Hawk and McTaggert visibly stiffened, Hawk's jaw going tight. This seemed to escape Madhava, but not Burke or Hranok.

“Anythin' else ya need?” Hawk inquired, wanting to ensure he at least made the offer of additional support. In his experience, most commanding officers tended to refuse it unless they truly needed it, even if it would lighten the load. It was safer though to make the offer and have it rejected.

“I think we can handle things for the most part,” Madhava replied with a thankful nod, “though, we could use Commander Burke's assistance getting our emergency force fields back in place. We won't be able to get back into Ops until they're up and running.”

Glancing to Burke, Nat simply gave quick nod. Even though he was in command of the mission, he was still uncomfortable giving orders to Burke since he did have the higher rank. He also wasn't really sure how to address him; by rank made Hawk eel a bit too subordinate, but calling him 'mister' was equally awkward. “Burke, why don't ya see what ya can do.” he suggested.

“Aye,” Burke replied, “Hranok, why don't you give us a hand, I hear this type of atmosphere can be hell with force fields.” he prompted.

“Yes sir,” Hranok replied, stepping up.

“My Engineer is right over there,” Madhava said, gesturing to a stocky Tellarite across the debris-laden room at a large console, “he's quite the fan of yours Commander Burke. As am I, I must confess. I'm sure Chief Grarn will be appreciative of anything you can do.”

“I'll see what I can do,” Burke replied as he walked across the room to converse with the chief.

“If ya can spare a moment C'Mander, I'd appreciate it.” Hawk requested.

“Of course,” replied the elder Madhava with a nod, “My people seem to have things under control. Not much else I can do right now except breath down Grarn's neck.” he added with a smile as he gestured towards an office door across the large ruined office space.

“McTaggert, yer with me.” Hawk said quietly, not really sure if he needed to. Then again, he didn't want to risk not giving him an assignment and leaving the diligent Security Chief standing there.

Following Madhava around the casualties and ruined office equipment, the sights, sounds, and smells brought Hawk back. Back to four years ago, back to the Dominion War and the carnage that had run rampant in it's wake. He - like many who had begun their careers amidst that turbulent and violent time - had come to associate the sights of fallen broken bodies and the smell of acrid burnt ozone and plastic with war; with combat. It was tough to equate it all to anything else.

“I'll be totally honest with you, Lieutenant,” Madhava said as they entered a small office and the doors closed behind them, “things are not going well. At all. This is just the latest and most dramatic set back of many. Quite frankly, I don't see any way we can get this project back on schedule.”

Hawk considered Madhava for a moment, and then considered what he had just admitted for another, longer moment, before he spoke.

“C'Mander,” he began, “I'm not sure what ta tell ya. I know this projects s'posed ta be important, but right now, with all this,” he said gesturing through the transparent portions of the doors, “I don't really see how me 'er anybody else pokin' ya'll with a cattle prods gonna do a damn bit a good.” he told him, bluntly.

Madhava seemed stunned for a moment, before he finally shook his head and smiled, “I'm sorry Lieutenant,” he said, earnestly, “I guess I'm just so used to being 'nudged' along . . . I thought . . . well . . . ”

“That they sent the Republic to turn figurative inta literal?” Hawk offered with a grin.

“Something like that,” Madhava replied, “don't get me wrong, I'm glad you're here. Especially Commander Burke. He's got quite the reputation for excellence.”

“So I've heard,” Hawk replied.

“It's just - none of this makes any sense. The errors, the equipment failures, the accidents. Not to mention this unrelenting schedule we're told to follow. I've been doing this fifteen years, and never have I even heard or read about a project this wrought with problems, or this stringent a schedule.” Madhava vented.

“If I may?” McTaggert queried. It took Hawk a moment to remember he was the one being asked for permission to speak. Nat once more nodded, glad for that versatile fall back gesture. “I presume you've ruled out sabotage, Commander?” McTaggert queried.

“Multiple times. After the first two incidents, we began investigating every one of them. None of them even have the hint of sabotage, or negligence, or any other human error.” Madhava replied.

“Damnit, Madhava!” shouted a new voice, as the doors to the office parted, “we're already behind schedule, what in the hell-!” she stopped herself when she realized Madhava wasn't alone. Nat recognized her from the dossier photo as Doctor Beckett, the project lead. “I'm sorry . . . I didn't realize our . . . guests had arrived.” Beckett managed.

“Lieutenant Hawk, allow me to introduce-” Madhava began.

“Doctor Samantha Beckett, project lead scientist, degrees in biology, exobiology, xenobiology an astrophysics, salutatorian a her Daystrom Institute class a 2369,” Hawk finished for him.

“Wow,” McTaggert blurted out, despite himself.

“Have we met?” Beckett queried, scornfully, of Hawk.

“No ma'am.” Hawk replied, his eyes narrowed slightly.

“I take it the Republic has arrived?” She queried Madhava.

“Yes ma'am.” Hawk replied, before Madhava could.

“And is there a reason Vladimir insults me by sending a common Lieutenant in charge of the team that's supposed to fix all our problems?” she asked, this time directing her venomous tone to Hawk directly.

“No ma'am.” Hawk again replied, a bit more edge to his tone than before.

The two glared at one another for a few moments, before Beckett finally fell back.

“Now that they're here, I expect this project to be back on schedule within the next seventy-two hours. Or else.” she threatened, turning on her heal as quickly as she finished.

“Or else what, ma'am?” Hawk questioned. Beckett didn't reply; she simply continued without pause out the doors and into the mist caused by the still burning fires in the office area.

“Lieutenant,” Madhava began, “I've known Samantha Beckett for four very long years, I'm not happy to say. In that time, I've seen her reduce trained Starfleet officers to tears. I have also never seen anyone stand toe-to-toe with her and not back down. My compliments.”

Hawk turned to Madhava and offered a restrained smile. “Lets get this show a yers back on the road, C'Mander. B'fore McTaggert here has ta arrest me fer somethin'.”

With that, Madhava did something Hawk hadn't expected of someone of his age and distinguish; he let loose a belly laugh that would make a Klingon seem timid.

Meanwhile, a decompression door blocked the entrance to the station's operations center, and surviving casualties were pulled from the wreckage and placed in the hallway outside. As they awaited transport to the infirmary, Doctor Cromwell and Counselor Tolkath arrived to help stabilize the patients. The first one served was a crewman with severe burns, and laid screaming on the floor.

“Easy,” Leon beckoned. “You'll be alright.” Focusing his attention to his belt, the doctor pulled out a hypospray and dialed a general pain repressor. When he looked back to the patient, Leon's eyebrows raised in surprise.

Without a word, Reittan placed his right hand on the forehead of the man in agony. Closing his eyes, the counselor focused on his unique telepathy training, and like an operator working a switchboard, repressed the pain signals surging into the crewman's brain. Suddenly, he fell silent, relaxed, and slipped into a deep sleep. Breaking contact, Reittan opened his eyes and looked back to Leon.

A look of stupefaction splayed briefly across Leon's face as he slowly lowered the hypospray full of painkiller, placing it back into his medical pouch. Shaking off the strange phenomena he just witnessed, the doctor turned his attention to his medical kit where he produced a dermal regenerator.

“Ever think of a career in medicine?” he asked Reittan sarcastically, casting him a wary glance.

“I'm already there,” the counselor said with a smile. “I just heal the mind instead of the body. The latter is your job.”

As Leon worked quickly on the patient, Reittan felt a surge of uneasiness come over the doctor.

“What is it?” he beckoned.

Pausing his work, Leon looked back to the counselor with concern on his face.

“Do you realize, that if Lieutenant Hawk wasn't late to the transporter room, we all might be dead right now?”

The Counselor paused as though he were forming his thoughts. Suddenly a strange expression crossed his face and Tolkath placed his right hand again on the crewman's head, and focused. Snapping out of his concentration abruptly, the Counselor emphatically said, “Doctor, this man needs surgery NOW! We have to get him to the medical facilities immediately.”

“Wha . . .”

Before Cromwell could finish his question Reittan was emotionlessly flagging down one of the medics who was racing to the scene with a gurney. Carefully, the three lifted up the limp body and placed it in the center of the cart.

Tolkath's emphatic response for the need of medical attention for the patient, then the dramatic swing to a stoic stance upon the arrival of the medic left Leon befuddled.

As soon as the body was situated, the Lieutenant Commander ordered the medic still Vulcan-like to “Get the man to the medical center and have a brain scan done immediately.”

The medic looked confused towards the stranger giving him orders.

Leon chimed in still not sure what exactly was going on, “I'm Doctor Cromwell from the Republic, do as he says.”

With that, the orderly headed hurriedly through the chaos to the medical center. Medical staff and other personnel continued to flood into the corridor.

Leon looked at the Counselor with an inquisitive look on his face. Tolkath seemed to be acting most peculiar. But there were more injured in the corridor that prevented him from asking anything.

As the two headed hurriedly towards the next disaster victim the Lieutenant Commander broke the uneasy silence between them.

“To answer your original question, yes we are very fortunate that Hawk was tardy to our meeting. We are not as immortal as many would like to believe.”

The doctor nodded in agreement. He bent down over the next unconscious patient with his tricorder out. Scanning the readings with his brow furrowed, the lights danced across the screen giving the individual a grim prognosis.

“So Counselor, what happened with the last patient?”

“When I was linked with him, there was an area of the brain that was blocked, meaning that some part of the brain was no longer functioning,” Reittan stated. He continued, “From what I have experienced that particular sensation usually means a cyst has ruptured in the brain.”

Leon continued his work, studiously on the patient as the Counselor addressed his other unspoken question.

“Something is very wrong here; I sense a lot of anxiety. . .”

“Well of course there is a lot of anxiety here, Counselor. . . I mean it doesn't take an empath to know that,” the doctor said sarcastically.

“No,” Tolkath continued, “it's something different, something bigger than just this incident. Someone is behind all this, and we have to find out who and why.”

“You think this whole thing is sabotage?” the doctor asked.

“I am certain of it, and we don't want everyone seeing our whole hand. And if the person behind all this doesn't know I'm an empath . . . Let's just say we won't give them anymore information than they aren't wise enough to look up.”

“Well,” Doctor Cromwell commented. “You were right with the last patient, so I have no reason to doubt you.” He produced his hypospray and dialed a quantity of medicine before injecting it into his current patient.

“But,” he added, reaching for his autosuture. “If you're feeling anxiety from this source, can you located it? Are there any other emotions you're detecting?”

As the doctor went to work on stabilizing the patient, Reittan looked upwards and closed his eyes in concentration.

”. . . the feelings are . . . indeterminate. But definitely from more than one individual. Dozens maybe. I also sense . . .“ He winced in confusion. “Hunger? Thirst?” The counselor grasped his stomach. “Yes . . . a powerful need to feed.”

“Predatory?” Doctor Cromwell asked, stopping his work momentarily to look at Counselor Tolkath.

“No,” he replied assuredly. “No hunting urge. Just hunger . . . . frustration . . . . confusion . . . combined to form extreme anxiety.”

“Maybe we should report it?” Leon offered.

“I'd be hesitant to,” Reittan replied. “If we're on to saboteurs here, we can't let them find out.”

The doctor finished off with his patient by spraying a wound sealant and applying a serum generator to her shoulder. Packing up his equipment he concluded, “then we'll ask around discretely.”

Leon tapped his combadge. “Cromwell to Hawk. The patient load here is manageable now. Have you found out what's going on around here? Equipment malfunction? Operator error?” He cast a wink to Riettan. ”. . . sabotage maybe?“

“Hawk here. Stan' by doc.”

A moment passed where Reittan raised an eyebrow towards the doctor. “That's discrete?” Leon's reply was no more than a shrug of his shoulders and a sheepish look.

“The c'mander here says they've looked into all those. So far, nuthin'”

“Well, then can you meet up with the Counselor and myself when you're finished? There's something we need to talk about.”

“Copy that.”

Chapter 10: Between A Rock And A Hard PlaceTop

Location: Main Bridge, USS Republic

“Confirm that Ops?” Questioned Kimberly Roth as she looked ahead at Republic's main viewer.

At the Operations position, Naruko Kuga tapped several controls and glanced at display screen on the console that wrapped over her lap. “Confirmed Ma'am”, the young lieutenant answered. “Comm. traffic confirms that one of the t-formers hoppers has hit the Ops Center.” Kuga's voice was surprisingly calm, given the fact that she'd just explained the danger Republic's away team was now in.

To Kim Roth's right, John Carter leaned forward in an outward show of the tension he was feeling. “Away Team status Tac?”

Above and behind Carter, Conrad Danzig tapped at the keys of the Tactical station. A short warble later, Republic's security Chief cleared his throat and spoke up. “Sensors show all life-signs green, XO.”

Kim Roth looked to her right as she stood from her seated position. “Well that gives us SOMETHING to go on at least,” she commented. Republic's captain tilted her head slightly, glancing behind her. “Open a channel to Lieutenant Hawk please.”

The comm system obediently chirped. “Channel open, Captain.”

“Hawk here, go ahead.”

“Lieutenant, this is the Captain. Status report please?”

“All us Republic folk 'er alright, ma'am. We didn't beam down 'til right after. Station's pretty banged up, though. The Doc's lendin' a hand fixin' folk, n'Burke's helpin' fix the joint up. Think he's got a fan club down here 'er somethin'.” Hawk joked, “I just talked with C'Mander Madhava, the station C'Mander. He seems ta have his head on his shoulders, good fella all-in-all. Doc'r Beckett's another story . . . wild n'chalk fulla attitude. Enough ta make me look tame n'timid.” he mused. “Big problem right now s'gettin' back inta Ops - 'er what's left, anyway. Somethin's screwin' with the atmospheric containment fields, Burke n'Hranok 'er tryin' ta get a handle on it. I'll let ya know if we manage to wrangle the field emitters back on-line. The Doc'll prolly be wantin' ta beam some casualties up s'well. It's a real mess down here, ma'am, no doubt 'bout that. Things 'er under control though. Still, all things considered, everybody down here'd rather be on Risa.” Hawk finished.

As Hawk concluded, Roth stood with one hand on her hip. “Understood, Lieutenant. Keep us apprised. Republic out.”

As the channel closed, Roth eased back into the center seat. “Sounds like he's got things pretty well sussed out, wouldn't you say?”

Carter shrugged almost casually. “Well, if there's one thing Hawk can do it's read people. He plays a mean game of poker. That's for sure.”

“Somehow I'm not surprised,” Roth quipped. “Still,” she added, “Let's see if we can give him a little hand.” Again, Roth looked straight ahead. “Con, assume high orbit. Contra-rotational bearing, please. Mister Danzig, give me a full-spectrum scan, and . . . let's give it two passes, just to make sure we aren't missing anything.”

The stereo reply of “Aye Captain” sounded on the bridge, as the various officers complied with their commanding officer's requests. Next to the captain, John Carter smiled slightly as the crew acknowledged what were essentially the first orders under fire from their new captain.

In the blackness of space, the bluish-grey hull of Republic pulled up and pivoted on her central axis, eventually assuming a position higher than standard orbit. Additionally, Naruko Kuga had positioned the ship so that her course took the vessel in the opposite direction of Sigma Omicron V's natural rotation. The end result would be that the ship's planetary sensors could get a complete rendering of the entire sphere, and by taking the course that had been decided, Republic could use the planet's own velocity to essentially complete two scans in the time it would normally take to finish one. The “counter-scan”, as it was known in some surveying and scientific circles, gave sensor crews twice as much data to work with and was generally accepted as a simple way to filter out small errors or scan anomalies that might corrupt the data. It was also a technique that Kim Roth knew well.

As the brown and white orb of Sigma Omicron V spun on the bottom of the ship's viewer, a beep came from the tactical station. “Second scan completed, Captain.” Danzig offered.

Roth stood up and turned, glancing back at the currently vacant Science stations on the bridge. “Thank you, Mister Danzig,” she offered, then took a few steps up the nearby ramp, headed toward the bridge turbolift. “You have the bridge, Commander Carter.”

On reflex, John stood and moved to occupy the center seat on the bridge, only offering, “Captain?” as an afterthought.

As she entered the turbolift, Roth looked back to her assembled bridge crew. “Captain's prerogative, XO,” she explained. “With Hranok on the planet surface, and Doctor Virtus locked in his lab, someone's got to look over the data. Besides, I wouldn't want you to think I was getting rusty up here,” she added with a smile.

“Not at all Ma'am,” he said smoothly. Carter sat back as his commanding officer headed down toward the Astrometrics lab. The Martian officer had to admit that he was pleased the Roth was determined to keep an eye on things planet side in her own way.

Stepping out of Madhava's office with McTaggert in tow, Nat made his way through the smoldering ruins of the station's office annex, adjacent to the obliterated Operations center. He tried to push back the memories of the war that had been flooding his mind since their arrival; the sights and smells of burnt and broken bodies and equipment made it a bit difficult, though. Pausing at an intact view port, he looked out upon the harsh and yet abstract beauty of the local terrain. The gaseous mist that engulfed the first meter of the surface reminded him of the badlands, somehow.

“Lieutenant?” McTaggert prompted after a moment, stirring Hawk.

“Somethin' just don't feel right 'bout this place, does it?” Hawk asked suddenly.

“Something is definitely off around here, that's for sure.” McTaggert answered.

Turning from the view port, he once again resumed their trek across the carnage that surrounded them. He spotted Burke, working with the Tellarite Chief, Grarn or Garn or something like that. Though he wanted the Commander's input, he also wanted the force field emitters on-line so they could get into the shattered remains of Ops and maybe make sense of how and why the transport had crashed. So leaving him be, he continued on, until he spotted Cromwell and Tolkath.

“Report,” he commanded, feeling a bit uneasy even just saying the simple order.

Reittan got an almost undetectable slight smirk on his face from perceiving Hawk's uneasiness as Dr. Cromwell began.

“The injured have been taken care of as best we know how, and the Counselor here turned out to be an asset,” Leon stated.

“Whuddya mean?” Nat asked, “We ain't even gottin' 'round ta beatin' confessions outta folks, yet,” he added with a dash of dead-pan and a dash of sarcasm.

“Well . . . let's just say that if you have a head ache, he's the one to look to for a . . . 'homeopathic' remedy.” eluded Cromwell.

“Ooook,” Hawk replied, not really sure what Cromwell meant, “Anythin' ta add, Couns'ler? Sense anythin' funny?” he queried.

The Counselor looked around a brief moment at corridor, as if looking for someone who was not there. When the counselor deemed it safe, he began his report.

“Something is wrong here Lieutenant..” the counselor began, and then paused.

“No offense, Couns'ler, but any poker player worth his chips coulda told me that,” Hawk replied, “I was wonderin' if ya had any more . . . specific . . . feelin's?”

The Lieutenant continued unshaken from the last remark, “I think it would be best if my empathic skills were not revealed at this juncture. Whoever is behind this is a master at covering up and getting those in charge to call it an accident.” Tolkath reported. “Also,” the counselor added, “there is more than just one person behind all of this. It is more like a group of people. Besides all the nervousness, I sense a frustration and it is not about the terraforming being behind on schedule.”

“Alright, we'll keep our cards close ta the vest.” Hawk replied, “mean time, Couns'ler, go with McTaggert,” he ordered, turning to the man in the gold uniform, “Do a level-by-level security check, get a feel fer the place, anythin' not quite right.” he directed to McTaggert, “While he's lookin' fer the obvious, Couns'ler, I want ya lookin' fer the less-than-so, any funny feelin's, any mental yellow alerts, let me know.” he told Tolkath. “Pay special attention and caution ta Doctor Beckett. I'd bet the farm she's likely got a big ole chunk a somethin' ta do with all this.” he advised.

“You think it's smart to usurp his authority like that?” McTaggert asked, his tone even. He wasn't questioning Hawk's orders, just playing devil's advocate.

“That's why the Doc'n I are gonna stick close ta Madhava. He may be in command 'round here, but I get the impression he ain't pullin' the strings. 'Sides, I don't think he'll mind us steppin' on his toes, long as it's ta get at whoever's tryin' ta stab him in the back.” Hawk explained

“Aye sir,” came both McTaggert and Tolkath's reply, almost in unison.

“Let the kashkau t'naehm begin,” remarked the Counselor as he looked furtively towards his companions.

Hawk and McTaggert looked at Tolkath with a questioned look on his face. “The who'n the what?” Looking around Nat saw only the doctor with a look of comprehension on his face.

“Mind wars Lieutenant, it's Vulcan for mind wars,” Cromwell explained.

“Oh,” Hawk remarked, “I woulda guessed some sorta expletive 'er an old fashioned sneeze.”

“Well McTaggert, let's get a start on this.” Tolkath commented with a slight smile over his lips. “The sooner we get this solved, the sooner these people can get back to their lives in peace,” Tolkath said as he looked uneasily around the corridor. Suddenly, the Counselor's gaze darted off down the corridor, as if he had heard or seen something. Nothing was there, however.

“What is it?” the doctor inquired seeing Reittan slip into his own world. The facial expressions on Tolkath's face reflected a look of perplexity.

“Hrm?” he replied, lost in thought. “Nothing, nothing,” he replied quickly, as he suddenly snapped back to attention. “Well, let's be going,” Tolkath said to McTaggert as he turned down the corridor.

“Watch yer asses,” Hawk told the duo, as they departed, to which McTaggert made the lame attempt at a joke by trying to crane his neck around to look at his own rear end before giving a thumbs up as the O-K. A combination of a sigh and a snort escaped Hawk then, “Wonder if I can put him on report fer bein' a doofus . . . ” he muttered under his breath.

As the Counselor and Pro-Temp Chief of Security disappeared, off on their assigned task, Hawk turned to Cromwell, who seemed to be considering the Lieutenant with an odd look. “Somethin' wrong, Doc?” Nat asked.

“Hrm? No, nothing,” Cromwell replied quickly, “shall we?” he asked, gesturing back the way Hawk and McTaggert had come. Without a word, Hawk took the lead and headed back to Madhava's office.

Location: Commanding officer's suite, Terraforming Station, Sigma Omicron V

As Lieutenant Hawk and Doctor Cromwell followed Commander Madhava back to his office, it was clear that current events weighed heavily upon his shoulders. Past engineering mishaps, operational problems, and mysterious disturbances plagued the station, keeping it from coming to full operation. However, these were the first actual casualties of the odd events, and not only did it cast the commander in a bad light, but put the whole operation in jeopardy. The commander was not looking forward to his report to Admiral Kostya.

The Republic officers sat in the office for the next few hours as Madhava explained in detail each of the strange occurrences that had happened over the past few months. Both Hawk and the doctor did not fully understand the engineering part of the briefing, knowing full well that Lieutenant Commander Burke would give them his translated view of the technical issues when he was finished with the station engineer. So, instead of focusing on the minute details, the two Republic officers tried to look at the big picture as the commander went on about the problems without interruption. Towards his conclusion, no one in the office could offer an explanation.

“It doesn't look like there's any pattern to these events,” the doctor interjected. “They seem random with no apparent time interval.”

“Just cause somethin' seems random don't mean it is.” Hawk countered. “Could just be a sign a piss-poor plannin' on somebody's part. 'Er maybe stupidity. Not ta mention a couple other reasons, like tryin' ta throw anybody investigatin' off by makin' um think it's random 'er natural.” he rationalized.

“I agree,” the commander said with defeat. “That's why I was hoping your people could help. The only pattern I could see was that the problems started occurring as soon as we powered up the reactor towers.”

Standing up, Hawk took a step towards the view port in Madhava's office at this statement, and looked out across the hostile alien terrain at the massive reactors not far off in the distance. Outlined by blinking yellow lights, indicative of the stations alert status, a rare plume of planetary gas rose up around them, as if to obscure or even devour them. It stirred images of a type of 20th century earth entertainment format, motion pictures, of which Hawk had seen a number of in his youth in holographic form. In particular, the eerie scenes outside any view port reminded Hawk of a specific genre, designed specifically to frighten people. Though how an archaic, two-dimensional image could frighten someone, he never quite understood.

“We gotta go out there.” Hawk stated, unexpectedly.

“Our access to the towers was restricted after the crash; safety precautions in case of a chain-reaction explosion throughout the station. We won't be able to get you inside for at least a day.” Madhava replied.

“Naw, I mean, we gotta go out there - outside - around the towers.” Hawk explained.

Doctor Cromwell looked confused. “What makes you so certain that whatever we're looking for is external to the station?

“This whole mess started when them towers got brought on-line,” Hawk argued, “so it stands ta reason they play inta this whole mess more 'an anything else. Our best bet ta figure out why that is, is ta go on out there an look 'round.”

“But we've already examined the entire reactor facility, top to bottom. Both manually and with sensors. We didn't find anything.” Madhava countered.

“Did ya look 'round outside?” Hawk questioned.

“Of course not. There was no reason to. We found nothing to even suggest any sort of external breech. Not to mention the inherent danger; this planet is totally intolerable to humanoid life in it's current state, it borders on Y-Class. The combination of gaseous outcroppings and large pockets of crystalline formations do not bode well for someone in an EVA suit, Lieutenant.” Madhava reasoned. “It's too risky.”

“Risk is our business.” Hawk came back, with a sly grin.

“Um . . . ” the doctor raised a finger in apprehension. “Hawk, the commander knows this place better that we do. Frankly, the effects of decompression due to a smashed helmet visor from tripping on a boulder doesn't make 'risk' sound very appealing.” Cromwell argued.

“Trust me, Doc.” Hawk replied, assuredly. Pausing for a moment, he turned then to Madhava. “Where's yer EVA room?” he asked the Commander.

Looking between Hawk and Cromwell, Madhava finally let out a sigh, conceding to the brash young Lieutenant. “It's two levels down, section twelve. Come on, I'll show you.” he finally replied, stepping towards his office door.

“Hawk ta Hranok,” said Nat, as he tapped his communicator.

“Hranok here. Go ahead.”

“Report ta the EVA room, level two, section twelve.” Hawk commanded. “We're takin' a lil stroll.” he commented after a moments pause.

“Aye, I'm on my way.”

“Now let me get this straight,” the doctor asked with concern while following Nat out of the office and into the corridor. “You plan on hiking out onto this rock in EVA suits despite the fact that we don't even know what caused the hopper crash yet?”

“Calculated risk, Doc,” Nat responded as they entered the stairwell, “whatever's been causin' all these problems, whether man, machine 'er nature, s'been goin' after big fish. You, me, an Hranok are just gonna be lil bitty minnows in comparison.”

“Me?” Cromwell complained, stopping on the mid-way landing of the stairs. “Wait a minute, what do you need ME for? This is YOUR crazy idea!” he pointed out.

”'Cause, calculated risk 'er not, it's still a risk. An if somebody does smack their faceplate on a rock 'er cut their suit, they'll be better off if yer along ta patch 'em up.” Nat pointed out as he continued, undeterred, down the stairs.

“I don't know,” Leon said with a frown, following. “It's been a while since I practiced medicine in a zero-atmosphere environment.” There was some seriousness and some sarcasm in his voice, but it was clear that the doctor was dubious about the idea.

“You worry to much, Doc,” Hawk replied, moving once more through the corridors in pursuit of Madhava, “'Sides, somebody does get a breech, an it ain't sealed right off, won't be much need fer ya ta treat 'em.” he pointed out grimly. This stopped Cromwell in his tracks, as he opened his mouth to argue once more his point about the risk involved, but Nat cut him off “Just trust me, Doc. Ya know my luck when it comes ta risky ventures. We'll be fine.” He reassured.

“Fine,” the doctor surrendered after a moments pause. “But if we all die on this little adventure of yours, I'm never talking to you again . . .”

Location: Sigma Omicron Five, somewhere between the terraforming station and reactor towers

In the twenty-fourth century, humans rely heavily on technology to get from point A to point B. Whether it be transporters, shuttlecraft, or starship travel, the only reason to use one's own two legs for mobility was for recreation, or out of necessity.

As the three Republic officers emerged from the surface airlock, their clean white Starfleet-issue EVA suits were a stark contrast with the deep maroon rock outcroppings surrounding them. As they began their trek, the thin mist of methane and carbon dioxide reached only to their knees, and created wispy, rolling vortexes behind them as they walked through it. As Commander Madhava promised, the terrain was slow going. The smooth faces of the meter-tall boulders intersected each other at angles towards the ground, leaving no flat surface between them. More than once, someone got the boot of their EVA suit wedged into the crevices, nearly making Doctor Cromwell's prediction of a smashed visor a reality. It took a few seconds of maneuvering to get their legs unstuck from such a predicament, causing further delay in the kilometer trek to the reactor towers.

“Damn!” Doctor Cromwell's muffled voice sounded within his helmet. “I'm stuck again!”

“Just like before,” Hranok replied patiently, turning around to look at Leon. “Push up against the boulder with your arms, and wiggle your foot free.”

“I know!” the doctor snapped. “You just keep scanning! The more data you gather, the sooner we can go back!”

“Speakin' a which, you picked up anything yet?” Hawk asked, at the lead of the trio of Republic officers.

“Nothing yet, sir,” the Bolian replied. “Just the same quartz and plagioclase structures.”

“What in the hell 'er 'plagioclase structures'?” Hawk asked.

“Rocks, Hawk,” Leon said grouchily while catching up to the two officers after working himself free. “Nothing out here but rocks. Are you happy?”

“Oh I'm thrilled Doc.” Nat replied with sarcasm and wit. Stopping for a moment, he turned to look back. Not so much at Hranok and Cromwell, but at the station behind them, and the 'plagioclase structures' they had been clambering over. “Hranok, s'it just some carbon dioxide seepin' inta my suit, 'er are we climbin' in elevation a smidge?” he queried.

“As a matter of fact, we are,” said Hranok, looking at his tricorder. “It's a little odd that the boulders seem to be getting larger the closer to the reactor. But my guess is that they chose that site for the base because the boulder fields were smaller back there making construction easier. Since the reactor towers were, for the most part, pre-fabricated and set into place by hoppers, it didn't really matter where they put those.”

Now that they had been going for two hours, it was plain to see that the boulders stood over two meters tall, and their size increase didn't help their progress. As the officers pressed on towards the towers, they found themselves having to perform minor feats of rock climbing, helping one-another over the next precipice. Before long, Leon, being the elder of the three, pleaded for a break to catch his breath.

“Ya should take better care a yerself, Doc,” Nat commented with sarcastic scorn, “guess doin' medical supply inventories don't get the ole cardio goin' much, now do they?” he asked. “Y'know, f'ya need a good workout, coatin' a surgical suite in liquid medal is one helluva workout.” he added.

“Very funny,” the doctor replied sourly, recalling when Hawk had first joined the Republic, and wondering now if being brought along on this hike was Hawk's idea of getting even. While his heavy breathing slowed, he looked about their surroundings. “This fog seems to have gotten thicker,” he commented.

“We're close to the reactor towers,” the Bolian science officer replied. “There's always some excess infra-red radiation from antimatter reactors this big. It's causing more of the carbon dioxide ice to sublimate from the surface into the atmosphere. I'd say the fog is about 10 meters high by now.”

“Might be too risky ta go much further,” Hawk commented, “may've come out here fer nothing after all.”

“Fine, can we go back now?” Leon quickly responded with a mix of irritation and enthusiasm.

“Hranok, do one last scan b'fore we head back.” Hawk commanded, disappointed.

Leon frowned as he looked to Hranok who was focused on his tricorder. The Bolian had a noticeable look of confusion.

“What is it?” the doctor asked.

“I'm getting a low-frequency resonance in this area,” he replied. “I picked it up at our last stop, but it was congruent to the output of the towers. Now that we're this close, I'm able to differentiate between the two.”

“S'all that gibberish by chance mean ya found somethin'?” Hawk queried.

“I don't know,” Hranok said quizzically. “I can't lock in on a source. Either it's being refracted off of the surrounding terrain, or . . .” The science officer paused, and pivoted in several different directions with his scanners.

“Or what?” pressed Doctor Cromwell.

“Amazing!” the Bolian exclaimed. “Absolutely amazing!”

“Care ta fill us all in, Mister Hranok?” Hawk questioned.

“It's these boulders, sir. The crystalline structure is . . .” He paused again in confusion.

“What?” the doctor was becoming impatient.

“Well . . . it's changing,” Hranok concluded with uncertainty.

“Now I ain't no geology major, but, don't it usually take either quite a long time 'er some very specific external forces 'fer crystalline structures ta 'change'?” Hawk asked.

“I can't explain it,” said the Bolian. “Starfleet's planetary database had baseline dynamics on the planet's mineralogy. When we started out at the station, my scans were congruent to the database. But here . . . they're vastly different. They're much more pronounced and defined.”

A high-pitched warble emanated from Hranok's tricorder.

“What the hells goin' on?!” Hawk demanded.

“It's changing!” the science officer shouted. “The structure is GROWING! It's growing at an accelerated rate!”

“That's impossible!” Leon exclaimed. “That can only happen if the rock is molten! This planet is geologically inactive!”

“I know!” replied Hranok. “This is incredible! The cores of these boulders ARE molten! But barely. There's no heat source that I can find except for the molecular movement of these carbon and silicon compounds. It's as if they're melting the surface of a core crystal, allowing it to cool and crystallize, and then they heat the next layer out before letting that one cool and crystallize. THAT's why the boulders are bigger. It's as if there's a crystal forming inside it, and it's resonating with a frequency with a pattern I've never seen come from any geologic structure.

“Let me see,” Doctor Cromwell said impatiently. He grasped Hranok's gloved hand to pivot the tricorder's screen towards himself. Silence ensued where Leon stared at the screen, with eyes widening, and a furrow developed in his forehead. After a minute, he quickly grabbed his own medical tricorder, and flipped it open.

“Damnit! Will somebody explain just what n'the hells goin' on 'round here?!” Hawk shouted.

“I don't believe it,” the doctor finally replied. “These resonance patterns. They're like . . .”

“Spit it out, Doc!” Hawk ordered.

“They're indicative of neurological patterns,” Cromwell mused, entranced by his tricorder. “Organic neurological patterns!” he stated as he turned to look at Hawk.

“Yer sayin' these rocks . . .” Hawk began, looking around at the field of crystalline boulders they stood upon and within, ”. . . are alive?“

Chapter 11: Approaching ThunderTop

Location: USS Republic, “War Room”

Doug Forrest was lost in thought, at least the biological part of him was. He was looking at several data PADDs containing information on the staff of the Sigma Omicron V terra-forming station. While he was doing that, the micro-processor in his brain was accessing the Starfleet Intelligence operations database, trying to find connections where none seemed obvious. His eyes were locked on the face of Doctor Samantha Beckett.

`Hmm,' Forrest thought, `she's definitely got it together. Graduate of the Daystrom Institute, did a stint as a guest lecturer at the Vulcan Science Academy, she was even on staff at Cal Poly on Earth, so what's she doing in the back-end of Federation space? Ego? Resume building? How does someone like Beckett decide to go out here?

Forrest knew the answer of course. Everything about Dr. Samantha Beckett screamed that she was what psychologists used to call “Type-A”. She was hyper-competitive, a chronic over-achiever, and here pursuit of her goals routinely crossed the line from dedicated to obsessive, perhaps even dangerously so. There was nothing in her file that screamed psychotic per-se, but Forrest knew the type. In fact, he couldn't help but smile as he noted the similarities between Beckett's personality and that of many Starfleet Captains (not to mention a few First Officers) Forrest could think of. Nothing really WRONG about her, in fact, it was all a little too right, and Doug Forrest decided that was what bothered him.

The former covert operative felt the Intelligence mantra creep back into his head. `Focus,' he thought, `don't assume anything. Find the connections.'

He stared intently, almost willing the words of the PADDs to form into a combination he could use. Forrest loved minutia, loved playing detective, and loved making connections that others seemed unable to find. His attention lasted a few more long seconds, and then he saw what he was looking for.

During her time at California Polytechnic, still one of Earth's leading scientific research universities, and often a de facto feeder for Starfleet Command, Dr. Beckett had lived in a modest flat just outside San Francisco, in a residential quad most often reserved for Fleet personnel. A few more seconds of digging, thanks to the subspace link that Forrest's implant had to the SI database, revealed that the housing arrangements were made through the office Starfleet Personnel Command, Office of Starship Operations. The order was signed by then Captain Vladimir Kostya.

“Damn,” Forrest cursed aloud, “This guy's everywhere!” Republic's Strategic Planning Advisor hit his comm. badge. “Forrest to XO. Got a minute?”

“That depends, do I really want to know?”

“No, but I think you need to,” Forrest answered. “I'm in the War Room.”

“Great. I feel better all ready. I'll be there in five. Carter out.”

In the dark confines of the immersive holo-display of Republic's stellar cartography lab, Smoke bleeked expectantly at his `owner' who was bent over a sensor display intently.

“You just HAD some celery,” Kim Roth chided. “I don't want to spoil you, do I?”

Smoke chatted again and moved from the top of Roth's console, in a graceful, inky line. He snaked between her arms, pausing to regard what she was studying (albeit upside down). Smoke bleeked again.

“No Stinker,” Roth said with a huff of frustration. “I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Maybe nothing. Maybe . . . oh hell . . . ”

John Carter squinted as he entered the War Room. Forrest was already standing as the First Officer entered. “Well,” Carter asked, “how bad does it get?”

As soon as the doors sealed shut behind Carter and Forrest, a hum indicative of a power activation of some sort became audible, followed by the sudden coalescence of a force field containing holographic photons. Before either of the two men could react, the life-size and three-dimensional visage of Lieutenant Nathan Hawk stood behind them.

“What the-” Forrest muttered, before he was cut off by the hologram.

“Sorry I didn't have time ta program an interactive version, but I can guess yer both prolly askin' just what n'the hells a hologram a Hawk doin' here, 'specially with the real deal down on the planet. Well it's pretty simple; we got lil bit of a problem of an Orion sorta way.” the Holographic Hawk informed them. “Take a look at this,” the Hologram instructed, gesturing to a desktop monitor that activated on programming.

It displayed a still image of the 'Republic 8' amidst the media entering the hearing on Starbase 39-Sierra, which quickly began to play. After a few seconds, it stopped and returned to the first still image. “That lil clip got broadcast, live, 'cross the Federation. Only clip it turns out, ta be put out live. 'Cause a few hours later, durin' the festivities,” joked the Holo-Hawk. “Intelligence came on in like a cloaked warbird n'put a time delay feed on all outgoin' transmissions fer the news nets. Illegally, I might add, which I s'pose on principle I should be pissed 'bout, but considerin' it was designed ta protect me, that might be a tad bit hypocritical.” mused the holo-Hawk.

“Big problem is, that clip did get out, uncensored. Which means anybody lookin' close 'nough saw my face, an handsome as I may be accordin' ta most ladies, it's not real good ta have yer face plastered across a potential 985 billion view screens 'cross the galaxy when yer s'posed ta be dead accordin' ta the Orion Syndicate.” explained the Holo-Hawk with a sigh. “Oh, n'did I mention FNS caught on ta the time delay some time recent? N'our gal Warner happens ta be on the case? She thinks the Intel block has somethin' ta do with Forrest, since he's our resident black shirt, but if she's half as good s'her pop was at investigatin' then we're in fer a whole separate mess a trouble.” concluded the Holo-Hawk. “So, there it is, fellas. The syndicate might just have an idea I ain't so dead, n'ta where I am, plus we got the top news network n'the Federation sniffin' round us. Yet another giant pile a shit we can thank Kostya fer. Cyclops, I'd appreciate ya runnin' some interference with Warner. N'Forrest, now might be a good time ta contact yer shadowy masters.” holo-Hawk finished. A moment later, the hologram was gone.

As the lights came up, Forrest looked to Carter.



“How much trouble can one guy bring down?” Carter asked.

Forrest assumed that the question was rhetorical.

“I mean, really!” Carter threw up his force in frustration. “I don't have enough to deal with, now I have to baby-sit a reporter? And if the Syndicate saw the feed . . . ”

“Then every joker with a disruptor and a taste for latinum is going to come looking for him.”

“Us,” Carter added, not hiding the menace in his voice.

Forrest turned to face Republic's monocular XO. “You know,” the tall commander offered. “I could just kill him now. Always been a fan of transporter accidents.”

Carter smiled. “Don't tempt me,” he cautioned. “I've got enough trouble.”

Carter's comm. badge beeped almost on cue.

“Roth to XO! Get the shields up now! Set condition one throughout the ship!”

“Intruder alert?” Forrest questioned openly.

“Understood, Captain,” Carter said firmly, then he tapped his badge in turn. “Carter to Ops.” This time he didn't wait for the reply. “Shields up. Red Alert. Set G-Q, condition one.”

Carter and Forrest both strode out of the War Room and headed for the nearest turbo lift. As the pair walked, their path was marked with red tracer illumination and the blaring of klaxons.

Location: unknown

When the first hominid discovered fire on Earth, it was the advent of evolutionary change that would alter the balance of nature forever. A force wielded only by the indomitable will of the elements had leapt from the realms of the supernatural and landed in the hands of a species that had just barely gained the ability to walk on two legs. Suddenly, everything had changed. Warmth could be created from cold, tools could be cast in metal instead of stone, and most importantly, light could be had when darkness claimed the land. From that era forward, the raging heart of a blazing inferno would lead humankind's destiny to the stars.

If only Prometheus knew how hot fire could burn.

Shades of crimson, orange, and yellow permeated the thick soup of ionized gas as tracers of blue and white lightning streamed overhead. It is well known that plasma can become as hot as the surface of a star, and although this inhospitable world orbited close to such a body, it's solid surface of porous iron and tungsten was heated to such temperatures that it might as well have been molten. As it was, the high-pressure atmosphere, maintained by the planet's extraordinarily elevated escape velocity, kept heated metals in their solid form, and allowed for the crystallization of one of the universe's most unique life forms.

Within the cauldron of this searing maelstrom, the irregular metallic crust was paved smooth, and octahedral structures rose to meet the hellish sky. Their pattern was regular, and their enormity rivaled the tallest buildings on earth. Pulsating reflections of the charged atmosphere danced off the walls, intermingling with the dull, regular rhythm of smaller, incandescent flickers. These latter lights were miniscule compared to the aurora of fire blazing overhead. However, small as they were, their numbers were many, and some were even clustered together to form trihedral pyramids. The conglomerations were a site to behold; individual blocks of smooth-faceted crystals blinking independently either by themselves, or in response to a neighboring crystal. Together, the hundred or so crystals were reminiscent of a Christmas tree, with tiny lights switching on an off in no definite pattern.

Before long, one of the crystals at the bottom of the pyramid physically moved, rotating around to reveal two burning sockets inset in the face, suggesting a pair of eyes that only the devil himself could look into without fear. With a flicker of several more pulses of light, this one crystal moved out of the formation and extended six shards of long, spindly appendages, hoisting the central “body” crystal into the air, and walked away in spider-like fashion.

Its movement was smooth, fast, and direct. Passing several like-shaped mobile crystals, some pulsing with light as those in the pyramid, this one in particular was making a path to an octahedral structure, jumping onto it with it's legs, and scurrying to a trapezoidal-shaped hole located several meters off the surface.

Even deep with these smooth-shaped structures, the burning orange color of the outside environment permeated. The crystal life form scurried into a room that contained a trellis of vertical crystal rods, maneuvering to the closest set of different-colored cylinders. Like a high-voltage power cable, an arc of electricity leaped from two of the organism's appendages, and danced across the crystal columns like fingers on a keyboard. The ballet lasted less than a minute before the individual was off to the next cavern where it joined three other of it's kind.

The four smooth-faceted being stood equal distances apart, and each held out an appendage to towards one another, meeting in the center. As they did so, the familiar pulsing of incandescent light began again, in a now obvious form of communication.

“Our fractals sing once more,” the newcomer to the room blinked rhythmically.

Another responded in less than a nanosecond.

“It is 27 cycles too early. We are not prepared.”

Yet a third life form responded, adding to the otherworldly conversation.

“Time is irrelevant. The fractals sing. We must respond.”

“Agreed,” the fourth crystal 'spoke'. “Our lattice has worn thin from contact with the Non. We must rebuild.”

“It is settled. Assemble the birthing fleet. We will welcome our fractals and replenish our cooperative. The Non will soon see the light of the Tholian Assembly.”

As quickly as they gathered, the four crystal life forms broke contact. Each went their separate ways, deeper into the structure and summoning more of their kind. Outside the building, each blinking light of an individual paused momentarily before all resumed in unison with one another. The message was sent: Prepare for the arrival of the fractals.

Chapter 12: The Sleeping Dragon AwakesTop

Lieutenant Nathan Hawk's layman analysis hung in the air between the trio of officers, the statement unbelievable. They had no time to discuss it further though, no time even to absorb the information. Somewhere far beyond the horizon, a deep almost primal thunder began. The foreboding sound carried instantly across the planet's surface, resonating off the crystals like some sort of musical instrument. Hawk knew in that instant that he and his team where in trouble.

“Go,” he commanded as he stared off into the distance, his voice steady and determined, “back ta the station - now! Move it!” he exclaimed emphatically, as he turned to his colleagues and set off himself, guiding Cromwell in the process.

“Madhav- – -awk! Wha- -h-ll -s going on?”

They had no time to reply to the garbled transmission of the station commander though, as the ground began to erupt and explode around them. Without warning, a half-dozen massive geysers of pressurized planetary gasses began to shoot upwards hundreds of meters into the sky. Soon, every patch of exposed ground in-between the crystalline boulders were home to one. The foreboding thunder now combined with the deafening roar of the geysers into a cacophonous soundtrack of destruction, as the crystalline boulders beneath their gravity boots began to tremble and quake.

Caution went out the proverbial airlock as the trio moved across the jagged, diamond-sharp terrain with carte blanche. Powered by adrenaline, fear, and survival instinct, they moved quicker than anyone had a right to in the cumbersome environmental suits. With leaps and bounds that would have been considered a deadly risk five minutes ago, they raced towards the relative safety of the station. The threat of a tear or breech was now a distant secondary concern to their current situation, as what was already a hostile environment transformed into hell itself.

Adding to the chaos and hazards, the erupting planetary gasses now began to descend, blanketing the area around them in a thick fog of unknown elements. Each member of the away team quickly became little more than a hazy silhouette even at less than a meters distance. A salvo of distant pops and cracks like anti-matter fireworks added to the dissonance, which now included the sounds of labored breathing carried over the comm. Through it all, Hawk's only concern was for his people. No way in hell was anyone else going to die on his watch.

“We're not going to make it!” exclaimed Hranok, his voice laced with fear and dread.

“We'll make it! Just keep movin'!” Hawk shot back, assuredly.

A new peril suddenly joined the fray, as the previously distant pops and cracks engulfed them. Out of the corner of his eye, Hawk watched as one of the smaller, off-color crystals exploded. Splintered shards of crystal rained down upon them as they kept moving, perforating their suits and their skin like tiny daggers. Crying out in pain, Doctor Leon Cromwell stumbled to his knees, as the tiny spikes lacerated his right leg. Hranok, for his part, had gotten off easy, managing to shield himself with his forearm, the suits control panel taking most of the hit meant for him.

Hawk thought himself unharmed until he completed his current stride. That was when the pain finally hit him, washing over him in a wave so intense, he nearly blacked out. Struggling to keep it together, he lost his balance and stumbled, slamming down face-first onto the flat side of a fallen crystalline boulder. The jarring impact sent out cracks across his face-plate, and one of his teeth slicing through the edge of his tongue. Before he could recover on his own, he felt another hand under his right bicep, lifting him up. It was Cromwell. With all his strength, Hawk fought to right himself.

“We've got to keep moving!” shouted the Doctor.

“Go on ahead! I'll catch up!” Hawk ordered. The doctor didn't budge though. Turning to face him before he could verbalize his protest, Hawk looked him in the eye, “Go! I'll be right b'hind ya!” he reassured.

Begrudgingly, Cromwell obeyed after another moment's pause, setting off after Hranok, who Hawk noted, had not bothered to stop like Cromwell. Breathing in as deeply as he could, Hawk looked around at the chaotic scene as he struggled to fight back the pain. Looking around, he caught sight of the metallic glint of the cooling towers, and wondered to himself just how in the hell they where going to make it out of this one alive. Turning back towards the station, about to set off after the others, he noticed something else metallic shimmering off in the distance. It wasn't the station though; it was too high up.

Then the realization of what it must be hit him; a Hopper. With this fog though, it would be a needle in a haystack to find any of them. Inspiration striking, he felt for the hand phaser mag-locked to his waist. Removing it, he turned the device over and reconfigured the beam's damage intensity to less than zero-point-zero-one percent. Fumbling to right it in his thickly-gloved hands, he brought the weapon to bare and took aim at the meandering Hopper. Thumbing the trigger, he opened fire and hoped to hell he was on target . . .

Location: Hopper 12, Sigma Omicron

Seated at the co-pilot controls of the terra-forming Hopper, Lieutenant Commander Bruce Burke, clad in an environmental suit minus the helmet, struggled to see anything through the haze and fog that engulfed them. It was thicker than pea soup, as the Earth phrase went, and to add insult to injury, their sensors where totally scrambled by it. With only visual methods of detection, the chance of finding the away team was below minimal, but they had to try.

Without turning to the pilot, a young enlisted officer named Sanchez who had volunteered, Burke asked, “See anything yet?”

“If this fog was any thicker, I doubt I could see the controls INSIDE the cabin.” replied the Crewman. Burke was about to reply and agree with him when out of no where, a beam focused energy fell upon the front visor of the boxy craft. Both men quickly recognized it as a phaser discharge. No impact accompanied it though, nor any damage. Never the less, Crewman Sanchez reacted on his training, dropping them quickly to port, the beam moving off as he did.

'No,' thought Burke, 'as WE moved off . . . ' he realized.

“What the hell was that?” the Crewman exclaimed, confused.

“Steady our course and slow us down!” Burke commanded, neither bothering to answer Sanchez's question or explain. A moment later, the crewman complied, and once more, the phaser beam returned, bouncing harmlessly off the Hopper's visor once more. “That's it, that's them!” Burke exclaimed, “Track that beam to its point of origin!” Burke ordered as he scrambled to his feet.

As Crewman Sanchez complied and turned the boxy atmospheric craft into the beam, beginning their decent, Burke moved to the aft of the spacious cabin. Attaching his helmet to neck segments of the suits chest piece, pressurizing the seal. The Engineer then retrieved a pryo-elastic cable that was already hooked into a retractable gimbals to the front attachment harness of his suit.

“We've lost the phaser beam! Homing in on last position! Twenty meters out!” called Sanchez from the cockpit, as Burke activated a small atmospheric force field over a large, indented hatch in the floor of the cabin, before thumbing the control panel beside it to retract the hatch. Burke watched as they rushed passed the atmospheric gasses, bracing himself on a hand-hold as he stood on the edge. “Ten meters,” Sanchez called out once again.

“Hold at five!” Burke commanded through his suits comm-system. Sanchez didn't offer an audible reply, simply complied, bringing the craft to steady hold roughly five meters over the source of the phaser beam.

“Five meters!” Sanchez finally exclaimed, “you're clear!” he added.

With a silent prayer, Bruce Burke tightened his limbs flat against his torso, and leapt forward, falling through the opening hatch and it's atmospheric force field. The pryo-elastic cable quickly slowed his decent, and his boots found solid - if quaking - ground a moment later. Struggling to see even his own limbs in the thick clouds of gas, Burke activated the suits external light sources. Spotting the outline of what looked to be person, Burke cautiously took a difficult step over the uneven terrain. Shining the lights upon the familiar form as he moved in, he quickly identified the suits occupant.

“Hawk!” shouted Burke through the suit-to-suit comm-line, “Can you hear me?!”

“Yeah!” replied the Helmsman, “Never thought I'd be glad ta, though!” he joked.

“Where are the others?” Burke questioned, as he helped Hawk to his feet, taking note of the jagged crystal the pierced the Lieutenant's suit and ankle, a trickle of crimson blood running down the exterior of the suit.

“I sent them on ahead, I knew I'd only slow 'em down!” Hawk replied.

“Come on, we've got to get you aboard and locate them!” Burke responded as he helped Hawk along.

After only a few meters, Burke pressed a control on the chest plate of his suit, and the pyro-elastic cable began to retract, pulling them up in the process. It took them only a few seconds to pass through the outer hatch and it's containment field. As soon as they where aboard, Burke gave the thumbs up to Sanchez, who maneuvered them off into a climb. Setting Hawk down on the floor, Burke began to help the injured Lieutenant remove his helmet as he issued orders to Sanchez through the comm-circuits in his own.

“Use that position to plot the most likely route back to the station and keep us below twenty-meters; we still need to find the other two!” Burke ordered.

“We might not have time!” Hawk heard Sanchez reply, “I just got word from the station, the towers have gone critical! If they blow, anything outside the station's shields within five kilometers will be incinerated!”

“Suit up, Crewman!” Hawk ordered, pushing himself up to his feet, using the cabin wall as balance.

“Sir?” came Sanchez's questioning reply.

“Burke, help me ta the controls!” Hawk ordered. Hesitating only a moment, Burke complied and guided the Helmsman to the seat he had recently occupied. “Sanchez, get an environmental suit on, now! I'll take the controls!” Confused, Sanchez turned to look at Burke for an explanation or confirmation. “I gave you an order, Crewman! Suit up, now!” Hawk repeated. Glancing back to Hawk, Sanchez nodded and left his post.

Burke, for his part, leaned in over the injured Lieutenant's shoulder and asked, “What's the plan?”

“Yer 'bout ta become a human tract'r beam!” Hawk replied.

Bruce Burke had caught some form of streptococcus astris since he first arrived at this godforsaken outpost, and his body was at the limit of being able to hide it. Even now, as he stood on the quaking ground, reunited with his helmsman he was feeling progressively worse.

The mystery of viral promulgation inside a hermetically sealed starship was hardly something new, particularly for men like Burke with an aversion to medical assistance. Whatever this particular bug it was causing him angina pectoris and vertigo.

At the moment these spasmodic attacks of suffocating pain were complicating his life to a considerable extent, but the greater danger was not from inside, but from outside. As the ground quivered and rocked and he tried to signal the shuttle frantically with his hands through the dense fog, . . . dizzy on his feet, humble as a child, . . . he couldn't help but feel things couldn't get much worse.

He leaned precipitously on Lieutenant Hawk, . . . who winced and complained at his weight. No, . . . things couldn't get much worse.

Chapter 13: ChimeraTop

Stardate: 38786.4 – approximately two decades ago
Location: Research Outpost Zeta 4, Orbit around Talos III, Deck 6

The red klaxon lights illuminated the halls of the station, which seemed to be barren.

“Two minutes until self destruct,” stated the computer.

A young couple ran down the corridor towards the station's shuttle bay carrying a young child with them, who was wrapped in a towel.

“Daddy what's going on?” questioned the little girl.

“It's ok . . . we're going for a ride in the shuttle dear,” replied the father

Stardate: present time
Location: USS Republic, Deck 12, Corridor

Naruko had her usual morning of 30 minutes of Tai-chi workouts, though for a change it was a not so eventful morning. She just hoped her luck would last until the end of the day. As she turned the corner towards the turbo-lift, she felt a cold substance splash on her face.

“Hehehe . . . ” the sound of the giggling children was heard in the background.

“Hey! You two come back here with that container!” yelled a woman down the corridor; two kids dropped the container next to Naruko as they ran off in panic, and the contents splashed onto the young ensign. The woman chasing the children stopped just in front of Naruko, and she sighed with disappointment and the spectacle. “Oh my . . . I'm so sorry.”

“It's okay. I was on my way to the shower as it is,” said Naruko trying not to let anything ruin her good morning. “What is this stuff anyway?” she questioned as she wiped the blue-colored goo from her face.

“Bio-neural gel . . . ” replies the woman as she picked up the container ” . . . I was doing a little test to see if I can enhance it a little with the neuron connections.“

Before Naruko could make a comment, she began to feel a little lightheaded, “Well good luck with the experiment, I just hope you don't run into anymore thieves” she commented, taking a few steps into the turbo-lift.

Stardate: 38786.4 – approximately two decades ago
Location: Research Outpost Zeta 4, Orbit around Talos III, Deck 6, Shuttle Bay

The couple entered an old Type-7 shuttlecraft, meeting up with some of the other crewmembers of the station.

“Glad you made it in time Zen . . . ” said the pilot, only to take a peak as they entered ” . . . were you able to get the subjects out?“ he pondered.

Zen laid the little girl on the passenger couch, “I'm afraid I was only able to save one of them . . . ” as his voice sounded gloomy ” . . . the other was blocked by fire.“

“Damn, well . . . at least one of them is alive,” commented the pilot as he prepared the shuttle for launch. “Okay, we're going to have one chance at this, when they swing around for another pass.”

Zen took his seat at the operations console, and looked towards his wife as she wiped the blue gel substance off the child, hoping they did the right thing. “Let's get out of here.”

Stardate: present time
Location: USS Republic, Ensign Naruko Kuga's cabin

Naruko sat in the sonic shower, watching the bio-neural gel as it slowly evaporated off her skin. Her head felt as if it were going at warp speed around the galaxy, yet as invigorating as it was, she had the feeling that this was not a normal reaction. When the gel was finally gone, she could feel her mind and body slowly returning to normal, yet she felt more energized . . . something she had not felt in a long time.

The sonic shower door slid open as Naruko stepped out, but only standing for a second as she hit the ground in pain. Tears ran down her face as she let out a horrific cry of pain as her vision turned white.

Stardate: 38786.6 – approximately two decades ago
Location: Shuttlecraft Apollo

“Phew . . . ” the pilot sighed with revivify. “Well good to see that they didn't follow us.” He took a moment to look at the child and in a cold tone spoke, “what are you plans with her?”

“I still have access to the Federation birth records . . . I could easily make an I.D. for her,” commented Zen.

The pilot looked at Zen like he was crazy, “You know the organization will someday find out that she is still alive.”

In a tone of confidents Zen replies, “When that time comes . . . I'll be ready.”

Stardate: present time
Location: Shuttlecraft Cumberland, near Talos III

Naruko sat up sharply in an state of shock as her whole body felt numb and cold, as if she had been lying there for days, naked. As her eyesight began to return to normal, she noticed that she was not on the Republic anymore, let alone couldn't remember how or why she got onboard a shuttle in the first place.

“Auto pilot disengaged . . . destination reached,” stated the computer

Naruko picked herself off the floor and walked to the cockpit of the shuttle . . .

Chapter 14: Free FallTop

Location: Sigma Omicron V

It was something out of a nightmare. As columns of hot plasma shot upwards around them, Doctor Cromwell and Lieutenant Hranok found themselves trapped on all sides with searing beads of molten rock raining down upon them. Although their environmental suits could withstand torturous conditions, nothing could have prepared the officers for piercing shards of crystal lobbed towards them at the speed of sound, nor splatters of liquid iron at 2000 degrees. The protective outerwear around their appendages were now shredded, and even though the emergency restrictor bands sealed their suits at the shoulders and thighs, the pristine white color of their torso was becoming replete with scorching black pot marks that were eating their way through the insulation layer to their skin. The Bolian science officer had fallen unconscious at the destruction of his wrist-mounted suit controls, and laid dying in the doctor's arms as his oxygen ran thin. Only one crass thought ran through Cromwell's head:

“That does it. I'm never talking to that fly-boy again . . .”

Just as his mind had given in to the prospect of death, the doctor heard the piercing sound of hoverjets looming overhead. Looking upwards, Leon saw the redeeming face of Nat Hawk at the controls of a hopper.

“That son-of-a . . .” he muttered. “Where the hell did he? . . .”

At that moment, a space-suited figure lowered out of the side-door, suspended on a reeled cable. Leon's internal discomfort of small-craft flight made rumblings in his stomach, but the thought of a fiery death overrode his trepidation as young Crewman Sanchez found his footing on the rock bed next to the officers, quickly slapping a pair of D-rings onto the back harnesses of the doctor's and Hranok's environmental suits. With a thumbs up from the crewman, Bruce Burke reversed the cable winch in the passenger compartment, and the trio found themselves suspended in mid-air below the hovering craft.

Seconds later, the very spot where the two Republic officers were trapped turned molten, and bubbled with an impending explosion.

“Hawk!” Burke screamed. “Get us out of here!”

Gunning the throttle, the young helmsmen flew the craft between two huge pillars of plasma at the screeching protests of Doctor Cromwell. Weaving the craft between several other lava fountains before clearing the reactor zone, Sanchez and the rescued officers were finally hoisted aboard, displaying pale-white faces dripping with sweat.

With a devil-may-care grin gleaming through his cracked faceplate, Nat turned to the newcomers exclaiming, “welcome aboard! Please extinguish all smoking material and bring your seat to a full-upright position . . .”

“Hawk,” the doctor said through gritted teeth while lying face-up on the floor of the craft. “You do that again, and I'll shoot you myself!”

Realizing that Leon was still talking to him, Nat kept his grin, and turned back towards the cockpit viewport with raised eyebrows. “Yer welcome.”

Regaining his composure, the doctor sat up while opening his medkit. Immediately, he administered a pain-killer to himself and a tri-ox compound to the unconscious Lieutenant Hranok. Using a pair of hemostats, a grunt of pain erupted from Leon as he pulled out razor sharp crystal shards from his leg and tossed them onto the floor.

“Anyone want to tell me what's happening?” he said with a quiver between fragments.

“Reactors have gone critical,” Bruce answered with a cough. “Don't know what caused it. When we realized you were in trouble, we got a hopper off the ground and came after you all.”

“Why didn't ya use the transporters?” Hawk asked from the cockpit.

“The radiation from the towers is off the scale,” the Australian engineer replied. “Can't get a lock, let alone any sensor readings. It's like staring into a spotlight.”

“We'd better start an evacuation of the station,” Sanchez said soberly.

“Good idea,” Hawk acknowledged. “Hawk ta Republic,” he said with a tap on his suit wrist-console. “Reactors have gone critical. We need ta get people off the surface.”

Although Commander Carter replied, the response was not what anyone in the hopper wanted to hear.

“Sorry, lieutenant. I'm afraid you'll have to find other arrangements.”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

Commander Carter was standing at the head of the command pit, staring at the viewscreen where at least a dozen, diamond-shaped spacecraft held at station-keeping off the Republic's bow. The condition-red tracer lights were pulsating on the walls of the bridge, and the newcomers outside had the firm attention of everyone on the bridge.

“Why? What's goin' on?”

Carter didn't move his eyes from the screen as he answered Hawk's question.

“We've got some unwelcome company,” he replied forebodingly.

Location: Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station, corridor

McTaggert never had completely trusted empaths; something about them being able to sense what he is feeling and thinking just never seemed right to him. After all, betazeds were open and honest. But how much information did they truly let on? The Counselor's reactions were not helping the situation either. He was acting erratic, constantly looking around the corridors as if they were being watched. The Counselor face suddenly looked up in puzzlement.

“No. . . it can't be,” Tolkath thought aloud to himself.

“What?” inquired McTaggert; but his question fell on deaf ears.

Reittan continued down the grey corridors that were occasionally dotted with doorways. His paced slow as his mind turned over the thought that the planet was alive. Inorganic sentient beings have already been discovered earlier by the Enterprise. The usual problem when encountering a new species is trying to communicate.

“Bloody empath,” McTaggert said unconsciously.

The phrase stopped Tolkath dead in his tracks. Turning on his assigned companion the Counselor coolly said, “There are many who feel insecure around and are biased towards us, while we can not always control our emotions, we can control our actions including the vocabulary we choose to use, Lieutenant.”

McTaggert had been lucky, if the Counselor had not been trying to pass off as a Vulcan the Lieutenant would have received a whole barrage of the Counselor's well-versed speech that usually left the recipient cowering.

“Now,” the Counselor continued after a deep calming breath. “What I was thinking about was. . . I will share with you after I use the commode.”

“A commode?” the Lieutenant enquired. “What is a commode?”

The Reittan slightly rolled his eyes. “A commode is also known as a bathroom, a water closet.”

“Oh.” “Are you sure you can find one? I haven't seen one recently.”

“Yes,” the counselor said with a slight head gesture, “there's one over there,” as he began his quickened pace towards it.

If the Counselor had not been so occupied with his current desire to relieve himself, he would have noticed the two individuals following them.

Outside the commode, McTaggert waited pacing back and forth. Just as he was about to make his next pass, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his neck and then everything went black.

Tolkath stepped out of the commode relieved, and ready to begin the investigation anew when he noticed his companion missing. . .

The corridor was empty, but the pointed ears of the Counselor picked up the sound of something being dragged across the hard, cold floor. The Lieutenant Commander decided it would be best to follow the sounds.

Tolkath stealthily rounded the corner of the corridor when he heard the soft hiss of an opening door. He knew he had to act quickly to get inside undetected. The Counselor darted in just making it through the doors to behind some containers. The shuttle bay looked ominous as Reittan assessed the situation.

The abductors leaned the unconscious lieutenant against the wall. Then suddenly a familiar voice broke the silence.

“Where's the Counselor?” the voice demanded.

Tolkath could not see whom it came from without revealing his position. He peered between the stacked containers hoping for a better view of Mc Taggert's abductors. It was so familiar, yet Reittan could not place to whom it belonged.

“Uhhh. . . Uhhh. . .” one of the thugs in a Starfleet uniform stammered. “We didn't see him. . .” he trailed off.

“You incompetent fools!!! Do I have to do everything myself? You come with me and you stay here and make sure McTaggert doesn't go anywhere.”

The voice was so familiar, but the Lieutenant Commander had more pressing things on his mind than identifying the voice's owner. There was only one entrance besides the shuttle bay's cargo door, and it was right behind him. The Counselor sized up the various octahedron containers sitting before him, and decided the biggest rust colored storage receptacle in front of him would hide him best. He moved quickly and quietly prying off the lid of the container and climbing in it.

The counselor had scarcely pulled the lid over the container, sealing him inside when the main abductor rounded the corner and stormed through the doors almost hitting them because of his speed. Reittan could sense the panic in his voice.

After he was sure the danger of his being spotted was over, he gently pushed up on the lid. The light flooded into the container, and as the Lieutenant Commander's eyes adjusted, he peered around the room.

The officer left behind to guard the unconscious McTaggert, was occupied tying the lieutenant up. Tolkath knew that his was the time to make his move. Carefully the Counselor climbed out of his place of refuge and inched his way towards the unsuspecting guard. McTaggert stirred, he was coming to. Reittan had to move quickly.

The Counselor was right behind the assailant when Lieutenant McTaggert regained his consciousness. As the lieutenants' eyes focused, he stared at the officer towering over him.

Just then, Tolkath cleared his throat. The officer turned around shocked and reached for his phaser, but was too slow. Reittan had reached around him in a bear hug. He then placed his right hand on the unsuspecting captors head.

“Let's see what he knows,” the Lieutenant Commander said slyly.

The Counselor began to concentrate, focusing on walking through the corridors of the officer's mind. Slowly he opened each door within his consciousness until he found the information he was looking for. Reittan's eyes widened with shock at the new revelation. When the Counselor felt he had found all the information he needed, he pulled his hand away from the Starfleet officer's head and tactfully pinched his shoulder, rendering him unconscious.

Reittan knew he had to hurry, he speedily untied the acting Security Officer and said, “We have to move, the others are in trouble,” and grabbed the phaser that had fallen to the floor during the struggle.

McTaggert began to stand up, his head aching and the world spinning. As the Counselor saw his companion swaying, he threw Mc Taggert's arm over his head and helped the lieutenant to his feet and both of them headed hurriedly out of the shuttle bay.

Location: Hopper 12, Sigma Omicron V

“Wha'd'ya mean, 'company', C'Mander?” Hawk prompted.

“Tholians, Lieutenant. At least a dozen ships, intentions unknown.”

Struggling with the flight controls of the atmospheric Hopper as he flew blind - no sensors, zero visibility - Nat Hawk couldn't help but struggle with a sneaking suspicion that what was happening planet side, as well as in orbit, where more connected than any of them truly realized. Taking his eyes off the view port ahead of him for a second, Nat glanced back towards Cromwell. The elder man was propped up against the port bulkhead, tending to himself now that he had stabilized Hranok - who Hawk now no longer respected, or trusted. His anger and disgust at the Bolian's cowardice could wait though.

“Doc,” he called back, “ya thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?” he queried.

Cromwell didn't bother to offer an audile reply, only nod his head in the affirmative before chiming it, “John,” he began, addressing Carter, “I think we might have an explanation . . . ” he trailed off, as he began to look around the cabin for something.

“I'm all ears, doctor . . . ” injected Carter after a moments pause.

“Hawk, do you have the tricorder?” Cromwell finally questioned.

“Sorry, never did ta begin with,” the Helmsman replied, “Hranok should still have it, 'les he left it b'hind too.” he jabbed.

Without reply, Cromwell proceeded to search the unconscious science officer in hopes of locating the data scanner.

“Doctor, if you've something to report, please do,” Carter injected once more, the tension in his voice evident.

“I can't find the tricorder,” Cromwell replied, absent-mindedly, “we had sensor readings,” he added, reporting now to Carter, “but we lost them. Needless to say, they raised a number of questions . . . ”

“A big one of 'em bein' just why n'the hell r'we tryin' ta terraform n'inhabbited planet in direct violation a the prime directive.” Hawk

“Say again?” Carter requested.

“The planet may be inhabited, John,” Cromwell replied. “We found evidence of what looked to be neurological patterns coming from the crystalline boulders that are spread across the planets surface. In my opinion, we're looking at some sort of silicon-based, non-humanoid life-form.” the Doctor reported.

“That could very well explain the Tholians presence.” Carter mused, sounding a bit irritated, no doubt at the architect of this entire situation . . . “I'll inform the Captain. In the mean time, though, I'm afraid you and the stations personnel aren't going anywhere. Not with a dozen Tholian warships in orbit who refuse to communicate.”

“Understood.” replied Hawk, as he caught sight of the stations external alert lights.

“Good luck.”

“Back at ya,” Hawk interrupted.

“Republic out.”

“Hawk ta Station Ops,” said the Helmsman, switching comm-channels.

“Ops here - or at least what's left of it,” replied Madhava's weary voice.

“Clear us fer landin' C'Mander, we're comin' in hot n'wounded.”

“Acknowledged, all platforms are clear, just take your pick Lieutenant. We should be able to beam you directly to the infirmary once you've set down.”

Silence fell upon the interior of the Hopper, as Nat Hawk maneuvered the craft over one of the station's landing platforms. Only after the slight jostle caused by setting down did anyone speak. And that anyone was Hawk.

“Thank ya fer flyin' explodin' planet airways, we hope ya enjoyed yer flight.” he commented as he struggled to his feet, as the high-pitched whine of a transporter beam enveloped them . . .

Location: station infirmary, Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station

Two major casualty incidents were quite enough to overwhelm the station's limited medical section, and as the dozen or so nursing staff completed their work from the hopper crash at ops, wounded began flowing in from all around the station from the erupting crust of Sigma Omicron.

Fortunately, for Doctor Cromwell, an overloaded sickbay was not too distant in his past. After shedding their environmental suits, the rescued Republic crew joined the mounting casualties in the main ward. For his part, Leon quickly patched his lacerated calf muscle with a dermal regenerator, but forwent the muscular re-integrator due to time constraints on the procedure. With a limp, the blue-suited medical officer found himself tending to the other station patients as well as the thermal burns and broken bones from injured coming in from around the station's perimeter.

“So why ain't the reactors blown us ta high hell yet?” Hawk asked with a grimace, and giving Cromwell an accusatory look as Leon removed crystal shards from the helmsman's torso. “Nice bedside manner, Doc. Never knew ya went ta the Klingon Medical Academy,” he muttered.

“They should have,” Burke replied. Uninjured, the engineer seemed to be the only one in the infirmary who was not in a large amount of pain. However, like the others, he was not happy with the current situation, and as he sat at a medic's station, mulled over the reasons why they and the entire complex were still intact. “But, with the controls and sensor linkups melted, not to mention all this interference, there's no way to tell why.”

“Maybe backup systems kicked in?” the doctor offered, sealing Nat's wound with a dermal regenerator.

“It's possible,” returned Burke. “But those would only last long enough for us to get in there and shut the whole thing down. We're long past that limit, and with Republic's signals being jammed by the planetary gases, we have no way to get clear.”

At that moment, the terraforming station's leader, Commander Madhava, walked through the doors.

“Status reports are in,” he announced ominously. “The station is, for all intensive purposes, floating on a lake of lava. Shield generators are holding, and as long as power is maintained from the backup fusion plants, we'll be okay. At least, as long as structural integrity holds. This place wasn't really designed to be mobile.” Turning to Nat Hawk, Madhava's expression turned inquisitive. “What the hell happened out there?”

“Pretty smooth sailin' actually . . . least 'til everythin' started ta blow up.” Hawk responded. “We got 'bout a klick out when we picked up some pretty funky readin's. Seems we ain't alone on this rock, cause them crystals ain't yer garden variety inert kind. The Doc got what looked like neurological patterns off 'em.”

“Lifeforms?” the commander replied with incredulity. “That's impossible! This planet would never have been selected for terraforming if life already existed here!”

“Even non-carbon life?” Doctor Cromwell asked.

“Yes!” Madhava shot back. “From everything we know about silicon-based and non-corporeal life, they shouldn't be able to exist in this environment!”

“What about proto-incipient organisms?” returned Leon. “Our close-proximity scans indicate that the boulders which make up the ground outside contain seed-crystals that may be an embryonic state of some sort of silicon-based life.

“No wonder Republic has a dozen Tholian warships given' 'em the silent treatment.” Hawk replied, a realization occurring to him. “These crystals ain't just any old lifeforms. They're . . . 'un-born' Tholians.” Hawk stated, a bit amazed.

“Baby Tholians?” Madhava exclaimed. “Are you telling me this planet is some kind of . . . nursery?”

“Why not?” asked Leon, joining Hawk's train of thought. “We don't know very much about the Tholians, let alone their reproductive processes. Since they're crystalline in composition, it stands to reason that they grow much like a plant. That's how crystals form in a non-biotic way.”

“But an entire planet covered in Tholian-seeds?” the commander tried to reason. “That's a population greater than any space-faring race that I know of.”

“You're assuming that every boulder becomes a full-fledged Tholian adult. In truth, many species will produce many more seeds than will actually survive to adulthood. It's a natural reproductive method to ensure a species survives.”

At that moment, the intercom came to life.

“Engineering to Commander Madhava.”

The flummoxed commander tapped his combadge. “Go ahead.”

“Grarn here, sir. Auxiliary operations report that they've been able to get some readings on the reactor towers with passive sensors.”

“Well?” Madhava pressed.

“This is extremely peculiar, but all four reactors have had their plasma streams . . . redirected.”

The station's skipper widened his eyes in surprise. “How is that possible?”

“We don't know sir. If only one had been misaligned, we would have contributed it to the geological disturbances. However, all four have been re-aligned in the exact same manner: They've been directed away from the planet's outer core and aimed at the upper mantle just below the crust.”

“That explains the geologic disturbances,” Madhava reasoned. “Any way we can shut down the reactors?”

“No one's shutting anything down, commander.” A voice came from the entrance to the infirmary. Heads turned to find Doctor Samantha Beckett looking at Commander Madhava through cold and distant eyes. The type of cold and distant eyes that Hawk had seen many times before in his life. They belonged to a very specific type of person; one who wasn't afraid to extinguish life.

Without knowing it, Hawk leapt forward and slammed himself into Commander Madhava, knocking the elder man off his feet, just a half-second before Doctor Samantha Beckett revealed the type-1 phaser in her palm, and fired it - and missed, hitting the console Burke was seated at, causing him to jump back in his seat and tumble to the floor to avoid it and the shower of sparks that erupted from the overloaded console.

Cromwell was on her in a flash, his hand grabbing her wrist, as he tried to wrestle the weapon away from her. Another phaser beam cut through the air, though, narrowly missing him.

“Back off, Doctor!” shouted a familiar voice.

As Cromwell hesitated, stunned more by the identity of Beckett's would-be savior, Beckett broke free from his grasp, and re-trained her phaser on the crumpled pair of Madhava and Hawk.

“Out of the way, Lieutenant.” Beckett ordered of Hawk.

Hesitant, Hawk turned to Madhava, who nodded in a silent order for him to comply.

“What the hell is going on here?” Madhava questioned.

“It's really quite simple, Commander,” she said, ominously, as she raised the setting on her weapon, “you're being relieved of your command.”

Then she fired.

Madhava vanished.

His screams cut short.


Surging forward towards Beckett, Hawk was stopped in his tracks by a phaser blast to the floor a half-meter in front of him.

“Please, Lieutenant Hawk,” said Hranok. “I'd rather not kill you. Mister Faro and the rest of the Orion Syndicate are willing to pay double the bounty for that privilege.”

Chapter 15: Trial By SwordTop

Stardate: present time
Location: unknown

Naruko stood alone in the white abyss, as her mind raced with questions “Hello . . . ” she called out as her voice echoed in the background.

“Hello” replied a voice.

“Where . . . Who are you?” asked Naruko as she spun in circles trying to pin point the unknown voice.

“Who are you?” implied the voice.

“I am Ensign Naruko Kuga from the starship Republic.” she replied, puzzled.

“Who are you?” said the voice again.

“I just told you who I am!” shouted Naruko

“This one has energy, yet no spirit,” said another voice.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” said Naruko.

“You are in the Universe,” replied the voice.

“I know that . . . but where in the Universe am I?” asked Naruko, feeling irritable.

“This one still does not understand,” the voice commented

“Understand What! You make no sense . . . You won’t tell me who you are, and stating that I’m in the Universe, but won’t tell me what planet . . . solar system . . . or any location!” said Naruko in an outrage.

“We are the Alpha,” said the voice.

“And the Omega,” said another.

“Great more riddles,” criticized Naruko, throwing her arms up in frustration.

“This one cannot understand, it does not flow from us,” said the voice.

“Yet it ends with us,” said another.

“Yet it is has been here before,” said the original voice.

“End . . . What? Here Before?” asked Naruko.

“All flow through the Universe,” said the voice.

“It is Random,” replied another voice.

“It must be purged,” said the voice.

“It must be purified . . . like the other,” concluded another voice.

Stardate: unknown – approximately two decades ago
Location: USS Roosevelt crash site, Talos III

“Damnit George your going to kill her!” shouted Zen.

“Shut your mouth Zen . . .” George replied as he looked over the readouts on the console. “. . . Be grateful I’ve kept you alive for this!”

“She is a human being George!” said Zen in an outrage, as he tried to loosen his restraints.

“She is a tool of mankind . . .” George replied, then whispering, “I’ll complete this project.”

“You’re insane George, stop now before you go over the edge.” Zen knew his words would be in vain.

Naruko’s body floated in a glass tank of an unknown blue gel-like substance with Borg like wires attached to her. The blue liquid in the tank slowly began to boil as a faint white glow formed around the tank.

“The birth of an angel,” George commented as he watched the tank glow even more intense.

Before Zen could react, the tank exploded with a flash of light. When the lighting of the room returned to normal, Zen took a look at George only to find him on the floor with a piece of glass protruding into his neck.

Like a strike of lighting, a Starfleet away team dressed in black combat suits entered the room, Zen took only a glance at a few of them as they rush towards the tank that Naruko was in. He could feel the crude restraints give way as one of the away team members approach him.

“Doctor Zen Kuga?” inquired a female officer. “Also know as Lieutenant Commander Naruaki Kuga of the USS Roosevelt?”

“Guilty as charged . . . and you are?” asked Zen.

“I’m Commander Packwell . . . I work for the organization . . .” she replied with haste, only to comment. “Commodore McCain will be pleased that you’re still alive.”

“Great . . .” says Zen sarcastically.

“Commander we got a live one over here!” someone shouted.

“Naruko . . .” said Zen, feeling disgraceful as he took a look at George’s corpse, “You got off easy, friend.”

Stardate: present time
Location: sickbay, USS Coeus

Naruko’s body lay in a stasis pod as two men stood over her body.

“Her organ functions are normal, however there is little brain activity . . . ” the Doctor sighed deeply. “ . . . She is not brain dead that I know of . . . the only thing I can think of is that she is in some type of coma.”

“I will inform the Republic of their missing shuttle and personnel,” replied McCain.

“What do you plan on telling them?” question the Doctor.

“I’ll give them the remains of the shuttle, as for Ensign Kuga, I’ll let Admiral Kostya deal with her,” said McCain, leaving the room.

“Sir!” shouted the Doctor.

“Doctor, I don’t need to remind you of your job, or do I?” implied McCain.

“Bastard . . . ” the Doctor mumbled as he watched McCain exit.

Location: conference room, USS Coeus

Commodore McCain stood at the window engaged in thought as he looked towards the stars. The conference room doors opened, and Naruko slowly walked in with her hands bound, and followed by two security officers.

“Admiral Kostya should be joining us soon,” said McCain as he continued to gaze at the stars.

A few minutes of silence passed quickly before the doors opened once again. However, it was not Admiral Kostya.

“Admir . . . ” began McCain as he turned to see who had really entered “Admiral . . . ” trying to finish his sentence.

The Admiral’s hand rose towards the Commodore in a command to keep silent. “Josh you insult me . . . ” her face flush with anger. “To think you would go above me and use Admiral Kostya as a puppet.”

“Admiral . . . ” began McCain again.

“Silence!” shouted the Admiral. “I’ll deal with you later, security please escort the Commodore to his cabin.” She watched as McCain left the room before asking a favor from the last security officer preparing to exit. “Before you go, could you please remove the restrains from Ensign Kuga?”

As the security officer unlocked the restraint, Naruko began to rub her wrists wondering what was going on.

The Admiral sighed deeply as she said, “I’m sure you have many questions Ensign.”

Naruko replied sarcastically, “That’s getting to the point.”

“I must apologize for the Commodore’s actions, However, that doesn’t really make anything easier after what he put you through,” said the Admiral. She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. “I’m going to make you a deal. You can go back to the Republic and continue your duties, but you must speak nothing what has happened to you and what you are. If you void this agreement, then I will have no choice but to remove you.”

“I’m sorry Admiral, but are you threatening me?” questioned Naruko harshly.

The Admiral stood and faced Naruko, “This is an easy offer and I will not put the Organization at risk because of some foolish experiment that started twenty two years ago.”

Naruko looked at the Admiral in shock and puzzlement. “. . . Experiment?”

The Admiral paced in frustration around Naruko, “Stop pretending you don’t know . . . ” Taking a glance at Naruko to notice her puzzlement, she continued. “For God’s sake, it was programmed into your memory!”

“What . . .” began Naruko as she was interrupt by the Admiral.

“You’re a synthetic human, created for the Aegis’ computer system . . . ” she sighed in disbelief. “ . . . That so-called man you call you a father has told you one too many lies . . . you even forgot who you are.”

“LIES?” shouted Naruko not wanting to believe what she is hearing.

“Believe what you want Ensign, but you being here was due to faulty programming in your recall function, and an insane man bent on talking to God,” the Admiral concluded, walking over to the commpanel.

Naruko shook her head back and forth. “This is unbelievable . . . I don’t . . . I won’t listen to this anymore!”

The Admiral gave Naruko a disgusted look and said, “You’ll soon realize it, maybe on the shuttle ride back to the Republic or maybe when we meet again . . . In any case you must keep this a secret, for your sake and ours.”

“I just want to know what is going on here,” said Naruko as she calmed down.

“It’s better if you don’t know Ensign, and for you to go back to the Republic,” commented the Admiral

“What are you going to tell Captain Roth?” questioned Naruko.

“That you were under the influence of an alien device that you came in contact with at Starbase 39 Sierra,” replied the Admiral.

“How do you know they’ll believe it?” implied Naruko.

The Admiral gave a slight smirk replying, “Oh . . . They’ll believe it Ensign . . . Because I told them to.” She pressed a button on the commpanel. “Security, please escort Ensign Kuga to my runabout.”

“Aye Aye Ma’am”

“You’re just letting me go? After I haven’t even said I would tell the truth or not?” taunted Naruko.

Two security officers entered the room and stood next to Naruko.

“You don’t even know what the truth is Ensign,” commented the Admiral motioning towards the security officers to take Naruko away.

Chapter 16: CrossroadsTop

With the pulsating red light of the alert indicators reflecting off the walls of the bridge, Carter closed his channel to the landing party and turned to the science station.

“Report ensign,” he asked Hranok's young African replacement. “What's happening on the surface? Is the station in any danger?”

“Hard to say, sir,” she replied. “The geologic disturbances are increasing, but they're well below the tolerance limit of the station's integrity shields. That place was designed to take on all sorts of radiation.”

“I'll bet the designers didn't have hydroplaning on a lake of lava in mind when they built it,” Carter commented. Looking back to the screen filled with diamond-shaped Tholian cruisers taking up station around the Republic, he tapped his combadge.

“Battlestations!” he announced. “All senior officers report to the bridge!”

“Auxiliary power to shields,” Roth ordered from the captain's chair. “Ops, is there anyway we can maneuver the ship between the planet and the Tholians, drop our rear deflector, and beam people up from the station?”

“I don't know, ma'am!” the young petty officer at the ops console replied. “I'm . . . I'm not sure if I can do that!” It was clear the inexperienced crewman was not fully trained in battle maneuvers. The assistant helmsman, Lieutenant Snyder, looked at the youngster with concern before turning to the captain.

“I think I can pull off the maneuver, ma'am,” he replied. “But I would need someone at ops who was quick with central transporter control to do it.”

“Where the hell is Kuga?!” shouted Commander Carter. “Open a channel to the Tholians!” he ordered.

The Russian tactical chief, Lieutenant Danzig, shook his head as a negative warble sounded from his station. “They're still jamming standard hailing frequencies,” he replied. Suddenly, a higher-pitched chirp lighted up his console. “But, I have an incoming transmission from Starfleet Command on the narrow-beam emergency channel.”

“On screen,” Carter ordered.

“It's a secure channel, sir,” Danzig replied. “Priority one: captain's eyes only.”

Carter and Roth looked to each other in surprise.

“They got our last log entry,” John commented. “Surely they know our situation. Why would they bother you with an eyes-only communiqué?”

Roth shook her head. “I . . . I don't know.” It was clear that Roth knew who the person on the other end was, but there was still bewilderment in her eyes as to the subject and timing. “I'll take it in my ready room,” she finally ordered Danzig. “Commander Carter, you have the bridge.”

“Aye, ma'am.”

Location: captain's ready room, USS Republic

As the doors slid open, Roth marched into the room with a firm, stubborn expression on her face. Taking a seat at her desk, she gave an order to the computer.

“Computer, disable all recording devices and monitors. Authorization Roth-alpha-two-niner.”

“Acknowledged. Systems deactivated.”

“Transfer priority-one security transmission to this console,” the captain immediately replied, swiveling the communications screen towards herself. “Security code five-seven-bravo-three-six.”

Replacing the wreathed Federation logo on the screen was the gray-haired head of Admiral Vladimir Kostya.

“Admiral?” Roth asked with incomprehension. “Why did you call me? We're about to go into combat! I'm needed on the bridge.”

“Carter can handle it from here, Kim.”

Roth was visibly irritated. “And what exactly am I supposed to do? Just sit back and watch the fight? Some captain you're making me out to be!”

“If you separate the ship and take command of the stardrive section, you'll have enough power to outrun the Tholians, and you won't need to fight.”

The captain was confused. “The ship needs all the power we can get from the warp engines if it's to stand any chance. If I separate Republic now, the stardrive would be short two phaser arrays, and the saucer would be a sitting duck. Besides, Carter would never go for it.”

“He wouldn't have to.”

Roth was stunned at the admiral's sobering reply.

“I'm ordering you to excuse yourself from the main bridge and take over the battle bridge. When you transfer the command codes down there, no one will be able to stop you from executing an emergency saucer sep.”

“With all due respect, sir, are you nuts?” Roth exclaimed. “There's at least eight hundred people in the saucer, many of them families and children, and you're planning to leave them behind to DIE?”

The admiral, with his sense of political correctness, placed a spin on the issue.

“Not die. They'll be casualties of war. Look, Kim. If you're smart, we can both still make some good on what happens here. You'll have a command again, and no one back at headquarters will know any different. I'll make sure of that.”

The captain finally put two and two together, realizing what the admiral was suggesting. He had no intension of saving anyone in the saucer, nor on the planet. He sent her out here knowing full well that they would run into trouble. Everything he had secretly briefed her on back at Starbase 39 Sierra was a lie, and there were never any plans to negotiate with the Tholians.. His whole reason for promoting her, giving her the Republic, and sending her on this mission was to have a lackey in the command seat. To have someone in charge to do his bidding . . . no matter the cost.

All the animosity towards Starfleet and the people who sent her to the stockade years ago was welling within her. She tried to do the right thing on the Thundercrest, and got court-marshaled for it. Now, Kim found herself in yet another ethical dilemma; one that was, by design, intended to force her into making a decision she knew was wrong, and if she tried to make it right, there's no telling what apocalypse would befall her and her career.

A lump formed in her throat, and her eyes brimmed with tears as she thought about the people who would die if she followed the admiral's order. Worse yet, her sponsor was ensuring that justice for the deceased would be overlooked and swept under the carpet. All for the sake of war.

War. That one, deceitful word that turned friends into enemies, and tyrants into patriots. An excuse to throw away innocent lives to the benefit of only a few, powerful oppressors who think only of themselves. They will lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want. Without a second thought, they will murder . . .

With a clenched jaw and burning eyes, Roth slowly looked back towards the screen.

“No . . .” she gnashed with a raspy voice. “No, admiral. They WILL know!” She buffeted her fists against the desk, seething with anger. “Just like they'll know that YOU'RE the one responsible for sending the Republic into this mess in the first place!”

“I thought you'd be smarter than this, Kim. I really did . . .”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

Captain Roth stormed out of the ready room with thundering silence. Crossing the walkway into the command pit, Carter caught a glimpse of her face, unsure of whether to comment on or question her secretive conversation. As she sat down in the command chair, John opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the alert klaxon.

With all eyes turning to the viewscreen, a bolt of orange plasma erupted from the nose of one of the Tholian ships. It grew larger as distance between it and the Republic closed.

“Evasive action!” shouted Carter.

“All hands! Brace for impact!” Roth managed to shout over the loudspeakers before collision.

As the vessel vibrated in response to the weapon, the blinding light on the screen gave way to a matrix of fine, crimson-glowing threads spread out across the space surrounding Republic. Personnel on the bridge regained their composure as they watched in awe the newly-constructed stasis web, trapping the ship in place as it orbited Sigma Omicron.

Roth quietly whispered to herself, “looks like we're going nowhere now, admiral . . .”

Chapter 17: Et Tu?Top

Location: station infirmary, Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station

Lieutenant Nathan Hawk eyed Doctor Samantha Beckett and her Bolian benefactor with deliberate scrutiny from behind the force-field of the main surgical bay, his gaze unflinchingly fixed on Hranok as the pair engaged in a furious whispered exchange on the other side of the infirmary. Unable to hear anything said between the two, he struggled to decipher what little he could from reading their lips - a skill he now wished he had spent more time developing.

Behind him, Lieutenant Commander Bruce Burke began coughing spasmodically. The stress of the current situation had sent his recently acquired illness from a nuisance level and a minor annoyance to that of a full-blown infection that was now crippling him.

Leon shook off the chill of watching Madhava vaporized, and immediately tended to the ailing engineer. The doctor helped him up onto a surgical bio-bed, and as Bruce propped himself up on his elbows, Leon ran his tricorder over him.

“This is one unusually virulent and stubborn strain of streptococcus you've got, Bruce,” informed Cromwell, eyeing the viral analysis on his tricorder.

“I hate to bother you with it at a time like this.” Burke seemed to joke.

“Don't worry about it,” the doctor returned. “The rest of these people are already taken care of.” He pointed to the rest of the bed-ridden patients with a few tending nurses within the medical-bay-turned-brig. Although Leon didn't like the idea of holding injured personnel hostage, he concluded there could be a lot worse places than a room full of biobeds and medicine. Picking up a hypospray, Leon loaded it with the proper medication.

“This should help ease the symptoms,” he stated, as he pressed the device to Burke's neck and thumbed the activator. “Unfortunately, there isn't much else I can do about treating the source. Not with just a hypospray, a half-dozen medications, and a tricorder, I'm afraid.”

“Is there a risk it could spread?” Burke inquired.

“No, it's not contagious at this stage,” replied Leon. “But each case requires a custom-formulated antiserum that I can't synthesize down here. We need to get you back to the Republic. Just try to rest for now,” the doctor ordered. “We can worry about shutting down the reactors once we get out of our little predicament.”

With a frown Leon turned to Nat. “Speaking of which, I'd like to know, A: Who are these friends of yours, B: why did they choose now to pull this little mutiny, and C: how the hell do we get out of this so we can get those reactors off-line and get everyone out of here?”

“Did ya miss the part 'bout threatin' ta kill me, Doc?” Hawk shot back, perhaps with too much venom in his voice. Realizing this, he turned to the Doctor and shook his head from side-to-side, slowly. “Sorry,” he offered, quietly. “But they ain't no friends a mine. Best I can tell, Hranok's either a Syndicate hit-man, 'er a Starfleet Officer gone real bad.” Hawk explained.

Leon slowly closed his eyes in comprehension, realizing the gravity of the situation. His stomach tightened with anxiety before he let out a sigh of disbelief. Most everyone in the Federation knew what happened to Fleet Admiral Morozov a month ago. The thought that Beckett and Hranok were members of the Syndicate, a criminal group with a reach so long that they could assassinate the highest-ranking Starfleet officer while he was home on Earth, made his skin crawl.

“John told me about your situation, but . . .” The doctor shook his head. “I had no idea they'd go this far.” He stared at the two conversing hired guns at the other end of the infirmary, unable to convince himself that they were members of the most feared criminal organization in known space.

“They seem awfully disagreeable,” Doctor Cromwell said while noting the disdain on Beckett's face as she whispered to the Bolian. “Do you really think those two are working together?”

“I doubt it,” he answered. “Beckett's get her own agenda. I think Hranok just saw this as n'oppurtunity n'decided ta take it. Figured Beckett fer the treasonous bitch she is earlier 'an us, made a deal ta help her n'exchange fer me.” Hawk said.

“Hey,” asked Burke. “Would you mind filling me in?”

The question was one Hawk was hoping Burke would not ask. Only Roth, Carter, Cromwell, and Forrest knew of his status as the key witness against Keevan Faro, and as a result, the entire Orion Syndicate. He wasn't anxious to explain it to anyone else, least of all someone he had only known for a few weeks.

“It's a long, complicated story.” Hawk answered, simply.

“I'd say so.” Cromwell added, rolling his eyes.

“Well let's have the short version.”

“One word; Kostya.” Hawk replied.

“Who?” Burke questioned.

Leon fumed at the thought. “Admiral Vladimir Kostya,” he answered with contempt. “Chief of Starfleet Operations and the worst thing that's ever stepped foot on the Republic.”

“Not ta mention one helluva sonuvabitch.” Hawk added.

Burke observed the mood for a long moment narrowing his eyes to mere slits. He propped himself against a wall and spit at the floor. “What I wouldn't give for an ice cold Tranya right about now.”

“Quiet!” shouted Beckett, suddenly, now just a few meters outside the force-field. “How dare you disrespect such a great man, a man of such vision and wisdom, as Vladimir Kostya! If not for men and women like him, the Federation would have been picked apart, piece by piece, by our enemies!”

“What n'the great state a South Carolina r'ya talkin' bout, lady?” Hawk countered.

“Just keep your mouths shut,” Beckett replied, “I don't want to hear so much as a peep out of any of you.” she stated, turning away from them.

Hawk simply couldn't resist.

“Peep.” Hawk muttered.

Beckett stopped.

Leon's forehead collapsed into his right hand as he crossed his arms. “You just can't help it, can you?” he muttered.

“Well what's she gonna do? Shoot me? Somethin' tells me little boy blue over there-” he said with a gesture towards Hranok, ”-wouldn't look to kindly on that.”

“You know, you're right,” Beckett replied, “My associate wouldn't be too pleased if I went and shot you, Lieutenant.” Beckett admitted. “Then again, I could always shoot one of your colleagues.” At that, she fired her small phaser. A few of the patients and nurses trapped in the medical bay with the Republic officers screamed at the action, and for a split second, Nat, Leon, and Bruce tensed. However, the phaser beam simply deflected off the force-field.

“Now keep your mouth shut, or next time, I really will shoot one of your friends.” Beckett warned.

Shooting Nat a stern look that suggested silence, Leon turned to the collection of injured station personnel they were holed up with. Deep inside, he knew that if he and Nat tried an escape plan, Beckett could simply vaporize everyone else in the bay in one stroke, just like Commander Madhava.

The next few minutes where spent in silence, as the trio of Republic officers considered their predicament.

“If there was only some way to get this force field down. . .” Leon thought aloud.

“Trust me, Doctor, there isn't.” came an unexpected reply from Hranok, now standing just beyond the force-field. “Besides which, even if you did manage to escape, where would you go? This planet was barely habitable when we got here, and now? Now she appears to be tearing herself apart.” he commented. “There's always the Republic though, isn't there? Oh, wait, that's right. She's surrounded by angry Tholian warships. Not as if she would be much more of a safe haven even if the Tholians went away.” Hranok taunted.

“That s'posed ta scare me, Hranok?” Hawk asked. “Oh no, the big bad Syndicate found me. What will I do?” he asked, mockingly.

“Heh,” Hranok snorted, “believe me, the Syndicate is the least of the Republic's concerns. No, my fail safe is considerably more of an immediate threat to the Republic.”

“What fail safe?” Cromwell asked.

“Oh, come on, you don't really expect me to show you all my cards . . . ” Hranok replied.

“Well why not? 'Fraid we'll escape? Botch yer plans?” Hawk challenged.

“Hardly.” Hranok replied, smugly. Pausing for a moment to consider things, he eventually settled the internal debate. “Lets just say that those pesky sub-space termites aren't exactly what they appear to be.” Hranok teased.

“Paratanium.” Burke stated, suddenly.

“Very good, Commander. A little late though. I've got to admit, when I heard you had been assigned to the Republic, I was worried you might catch on and nip my back-up plan in the bud. Thankfully, it seems your intellect isn't as towering as you might like everyone to believe.” Hranok said.

“Paratanium?” Cromwell queried, growing concerned.

“It's an alloy,” Burke answered. “It's only used in small quantities, and only when needed, because it breaks down easily when exposed to localized sub-space emissions in the g-band.”

“Localized emissions like those produced by my special breed of sub-space termites.”

“How exactly r'termites yer back-up plan?” Hawk asked with a laugh.

“The dilithium chamber,” Burke answered for him, “the inner seal is laced with paratanium. If those things dissolve it . . . ”

“Boom!” Hranok finished, laughing.

“Sonuvabitch . . . ” Hawk spat.

“It seems to be your destiny in life to bring death to anyone and everyone around you, Lieutenant.” Hranok replied. “You think on that for a while.” he added, before turning and walking away, back to Beckett.

“We've got to get out of here, now,” Cromwell said in a hushed tone.

“I'm open ta suggestions . . . ” Hawk replied.

“What about Hranok?” Cromwell suggested. “He's an empath, or a telepath . . . whichever! Maybe if we focus, if we concentrate, we might be able to-”

As if his mind was being read, the door to the far side of the infirmary slid open, startling the two hostage-takers standing nearby, and cutting off the rest of the Doctor's statement. There, standing in the doorway, was Counselor Tolkath holding a phaser in one hand, and propping up an injured McTaggert with the other arm.

“Riettan!” shouted Doctor Cromwell from behind the force field. As he did so, an orange lance of phaser fire flew from the counselor's weapon. Hranok had almost fired on the newcomers with his own type-II phaser, but Tolkath's shot hit the Bolian's firing hand, causing him to spin around and dive for cover behind a table.

Doctor Beckett used the moment to find a firing position behind a lab counter, opening fire at the Republic's counselor and security officer. Both officers dropped to the floor, barely dodging the return fire. As Riettan found his own firing position inside the room, he exchanged shots with Beckett as McTaggert performed a low-crawl across the floor, and to the surgical isolation controls. In a blue flash, the force-field vanished.

In a maneuver that was reminiscent of a pool diver, Leon sprung towards Beckett, tackling her to the ground. Nearby, Hranok, who was nursing an injured hand, took count of the odds against him, and scrambled towards the rear exit. Counselor Tolkath took several more shots to try and stop the Bolian, but they fell short, and in seconds, the rogue science officer had escaped.

Without pause, Hawk darted across the infirmary to where Hranok's phaser had fallen and retrieved the weapon, even as Beckett continued to resist, giving Cromwell one hell of a fight. Though Nat was confident the medical officer would emerge victorious, they didn't have the time for a drawn out brawl. Hesitating only long enough to lower the setting, he fired on Beckett, the beam slamming into her and knocking her over just before she could complete a rather nasty left-hook to Leon's jaw.

“Everyone alright?” queried Tolkath.

“More or less,” Burke replied, looking as if a shuttle had just hit him.

“Alright folks, listen up,” Hawk ordered, “with C'Mander Madhava gone, this station's chain a'command's been snapped. So looks like we're n'charge now. Burke, I need ya ta get them reactors off-line, pronto. Doc, something tells me he might need a helpin' hand from an M.D. so yer with him. Tolkath, McTaggert, you two've gotta get everybody ta the Hopper pad. It's the highest structure, n'only place big enough ta fit everybody t'gether. We don't know whose on what side though, so get yerself some phaser rifles n'treat everybody like a suspect. If all goes well, they'll owe ya their lives an won't care, n'if all doesn't go well, hell, no body'll know.” Hawk directed.

“What about you?” Cromwell inquired.

“I'm goin' after Hranok. He's gotta know how ta stop them things b'fore they dissolve that inner seal, cause from the way he just ran outta here like a yellow-bellied coward, he wasn't plannin' on diein' ta complete his mission.” Hawk answered.

For a moment, it seemed as if the Doctor was going to say something, perhaps challenge Hawk's rationale. Instead, he offered just two words of advice: “Good luck.”

“Ta all've us.” Hawk replied.

With a dissatisfied look, Leon looked around the infirmary at the multiple patients who would need evacuation to the hopper pads in addition to the healthy station personnel. The doctor had no idea what Hawk had in mind with the hoppers, as they were only sub-orbital vehicles and couldn't reach orbit. That, and the fact that the hoppers had limited passenger capacity almost made him think twice about what the Republic's helmsman was up to. However, Leon's trust in Nat, no matter how he seemed to find trouble wherever he went, had grown in this crisis due to his intuition and striving need to ensure everyone got to safety.

“Alright,” the doctor announced to the small group of nursing staff. “Get anti-grav stretchers and every piece of portable medical gear you've got. These patients need evacuation to the hopper pads immediately, so get started.”

As the medical crew started to retrieve their equipment, Bruce Burke was gripped with another round of spasmodic coughing. As soon as it subsided, Leon was at his side with a hypospray.

“This will give you an energy boost,” the doctor commented to the engineer as the medicine was injected. “The symptoms will subside for a few hours, but after that, you won't have any choice but to rest. Get to the control center, get those reactors shut down, and head back to the hopper pads as soon as possible. I want to be right there with a stretcher when the stimulant wears off.”

As Burke left the room, Leon turned to Tolkath and McTaggart who were busy binding Doctor Beckett's hands behind her back with a roll of adhesive tape. “Let's get her up there as well,” he grumbled. “When she wakes up, I have a few questions for her.”

In minutes, the station's medical bay was empty as Doctor Cromwell, Counselor Tolkath, and Lieutenant McTaggart spread out around the station to gather personnel, directing them to the hopper pads.

Location: Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station, level-A, hopper staging area

The horizon was an image out of a nightmare. Even with the station's shields at maximum, the fiery orange glow of erupting lava flows permeated the energy field. As several dozen station personnel gathered on the flat deck of the hopper pads, they gaped in awe at the geologic phenomena before them.

Tolkath and Cromwell were just as stricken by the vista as everyone else when they made the final climb to the staging level. Sigma Omicron's once starry sky had shattered into shades of scarlet and magenta as light from the molten rivers created an ominous haze in the upper atmosphere. Although the shields kept a breathable environment around the station's uppermost level, the heat convection stirred up winds that whistled past everyone's ears.

“Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here . . .” Leon quoted as he gawked at the spectacle. Minutes passed as he watched distant explosions in the planet's crust, throwing another geyser of flame towards the heavens. It took a young, red-headed lieutenant tugging at his sleeve to get his attention.

“Excuse me, sir,” she beckoned, and Doctor Cromwell shed his feelings of dread in trade for a moment of clarity. “But all station personnel have been accounted for. What do we do now?”

“Good question,” Leon muttered. Tapping his combadge, he attempted to contact his colleagues.

“Cromwell to Hawk.”

Seconds ticked by without a response.

“Cromwell to Hawk,” he tapped again. “Can you hear me?”

The doctor was greeted with silence once more. Irritated and worried, he tapped his communicator yet again, changing his focus.

“Cromwell to Burke. Do you read?”

“ . . . an't hear . . well. Systems respon . . . can . . . .few min . . . and by,” came the choppy response.

The doctor looked to Reittan for reassurance.

“We're probably getting interference from the overloading reactors,” the counselor reasoned. “Let's give them a few more minutes.”

“Not like we have much choice,” came Leon's usual gruff reply. And as he did so, an unusual tingling sensation swelled within his chest. A cascade of violet and orange energy enveloped him, and as he was about to panic with the thought that the station's shields had somehow failed, the doctor suddenly found himself in an entirely new environment.

The orange glow that had once emanated from planetary volcanism now danced off smooth, translucent walls. The incandescent light no longer appeared ominous, but more of a natural yet unknown function of the environment beyond the room where Leon now stood. With yet a new spectacle to gape over, several flashes of violet-orange light flickered around him as personnel from the hopper pad materialized beside the doctor. Soon, he found himself sharing the alien abode with Counselor Tolkath, as well as other station personnel to include the unconscious Doctor Beckett.

As Leon and Reittan looked at each other with astonishment, it suddenly occurred to both of them who they owed their rescue to.

“Tholians . . . ” the counselor whispered.

Chapter 18: Like A Fly In AmberTop

Location: Science Lab 4, USS Republic

Victor Virtus sat uneasily in the laboratory's less-than- comfortable chair, staring absently at the display screen. At present count, 49.7 seconds had elapsed between the time he'd asked the computer for a status report, and the screen's present state, which Victor was displeased to note, was blank.

Victor knew many things, or rather, thought about many things simultaneously, and just now, he considered what MIGHT be causing the processor lag. Among his favorite alternatives were, the spontaneous generation of sentience by the ship's holodeck creations, followed closely by infection of the computer core by a Borg nano-virus. Though Vic had to admit that the thrill of the latter proposition was simply curiosity as to how long it would take him to defeat the Borg algorithm. However, given Republic's current situation, and what variables he could account for given the ship's command staff, Doctor Virtus decided that it was most likely that the ship was on red alert.

To keep from being distracted by his “independent” research, Victor had disabled any and all alert messages through the science lab, confident that if anything of note did occur, he would be able to discern what it was. `An arrogant position', Virtus thought to himself, `but as John would no doubt remind me, “It's only arrogance if you can't actually do it”'. Determined to see what he'd missed, Dr. Virtus straightened up, gave his mustache a cursory grooming, and headed for the door.

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

`Trapped'. That was all John Carter could think as he saw the glowing orange lattice work the Tholians had thrown around Republic. He'd heard the stories. Everyone in `Fleet had; how the Tholians used a web of high-energy tachyon beams to hold ships in place by focusing gravity and god only knew how many other cosmic forces. The Enterprise, `Kirk's Enterprise' John reminded himself, had encountered the Tholians a hundred years ago when investigating the disappearance of the Constitution Class Defiant. In that case, the Tholian's had also used something that Science Officer Spock had called `Interpahse'. Whether that was by design or happenstance, Carter couldn't be sure, but he knew someone who would.

John tapped his comm. badge. “Carter to Pikita”, he called out.

“Engineering, Bridge. Go ahead.”

“Do we have any forward motion at all?”

“Negative, XO, we're putting out plenty of power, but it looks like were in still waters. Warp fields won't form in this thing, and impulse can't overcome the gravitic concentration.”

“Understood, Pikita,” Carter advised, “we're up for ideas up here.”

“Roger that XO. Engineering out.”

The channel closed, and Carter tapped his badge again “Bridge to Doctor Virtus.”

Before the Martian XO had finished his sentence, the bridge turbolift opened, and Victor Virtus strode down the ramp. “Standing by Commander,” Virtus quipped as he stood in the command pit, in a place usually reserved for the Ship's Counselor.

Kim Roth meanwhile, was pondering the scene on the viewer as well. She glanced to her right and seeing Dr. Virtus, gestured for him to sit. “Nice to see you again, Doctor Virtus”, she offered.

“Thank you, Captain. I apologize if I'm interrupting.”

“Not at all Doctor. It seems we have an interesting situation.”

“Seems that's our specialty,” Carter offered sitting at Roth's other shoulder. “Is this as bad as I think it is, Vic?”

Virtus thought for a moment, and then nodded his head. “At least,” he shifted his gaze to the scene on the viewer. “Is the web static, or is it fluctuating?”

“Tac?” Carter asked, “status of the web?”

Conrad Danzig looked at the sensor display at his station. “Perimeter looks stable at 25 meters beyond our shield envelope. Shields are stable and holding. No stress or contact with the web, whatever it is.”

Roth nodded grimly. “Communications with our guests?”

Again, Danzig answered in a clipped, crisp tone. “They're still jamming, Captain,” he explained, “But I think they're receiving. Translator is tied in.”

Kim Roth stood up and tugged at the hem of her dark over-tunic. “Tholian fleet,” she declared coolly, “this is Captain Kimberly Roth, USS Republic. You have violated Federation space and are illegally detaining this vessel. I caution you that these actions could be concerned an act of war, and would respectfully urge caution.”

`More flies with honey,' John Carter thought. `That's an interesting approach'. Meanwhile, Roth continued.

“I'd like to know the reason for this incursion as well as any light you could shed on the conditions of the planet surface. I assure you, we wish only . . . ”

In mid-sentence, a strange combination of squeaking, popping, and the grating of fingernails on slate filled the air. Seconds later, Republic's universal translator caught up with the alien noise. “You do not hear our words,” the ship's calm voice commented. “Overtures are unheeded, fractals are of the assembly.”

“Fractals?” commented Lieutenant Snyder from the helm.

Roth nodded. “We apologize for any misunderstanding, we didn't know that you had any interests on the planet, given its distance from your territory. If you could give me some details, perhaps we could come to an arrangement . . . ”

The jarring noise continued. “You do not hear us.”

“You misunderstand,” Roth tried to interject, “we're talking now. Can't we at least discuss . . . ”

“The intrusion is yours not ours!” the ship's voice argued by proxy. “Where it occurs is unimportant. THAT it occurred is paramount. This transmission ends.”

For a long moment, Roth looked at the lines that intersected on her ship's viewer. “Well,” she offered, “that could have gone better.”

John Carter glanced sideways at his Captain. “I don't get it.” He stated simply. “We're parsecs from Tholian space. What right could they possibly think they have to this world? Sure, it's loaded with minerals, but we're clearly in the right here.”

Most crewmen on Republic's bridge nodded in agreement, while Victor Virtus remained quiet. “I wouldn't be so sure John,” Virtus offered after a long moment.

“Explain please, Doctor,” Roth asked.

Victor stood and took a few steps toward the viewer, then began to pace from left to right in front of the center seat. “Something in their cadence is off.” The tall scientist looked back at the Tactical station. “Do we still have the un-translated messages?”

“Sure,” Danzig answered with a quizzical tone, “but you can't . . . ”

“Play them back please,” Victor asked, not really waiting for an answer.

Danzig paused, unsure of how to proceed, until Roth silently nodded.

As the strange alien noises filled the bridge again, Victor listened, pacing back and forth. After a handful of seconds, Virtus held up his hand. “There!” he exclaimed. “The pattern is different.” Play it one more time please.“

Kim Roth and John Carter exchanged curious looks. “Vic, you can't possibly . . . ”

“Shh!” Virtus shook his head, cutting his friend off. “Listen, John. Just listen.” A loop of the chattering Tholian warbles continued again.

Kim Roth stood up, somewhat slack-jawed. “I'll be damned,” she commented. “There's something there all right, but what is it? Don't tell me you can . . . ”

“Understand it?” Victor countered, “no, but in a very simple sense, language, no matter what its sounds are, is just an equation with each element representing either a concept or group of concepts. It's simply a matter of logic.”

Roth nodded. “So you, what? Just did the math?”

Virtus nodded, then turned quickly on a heel. “Captain,” he explained, “I think we've made some dangerous assumptions about the Tholians.”

In Republic's sickbay, Shannon Harris looked at the figurative pile patient reports that waited for her signature. Jimmy Tapscott was on the mend from a sprained knee courtesy of the holodeck's touch football program. Kesah Neen, one of the few Edoans onboard, was in isolation for the semi-annual molting his species underwent as they matured, and T'Darr was rather indignantly putting up with an opportunistic case of good-old-fashioned Earth measles. Statistically speaking, the kids onboard Republic were in fine health. `More or less fine', Shannon thought to herself with a shake of her head. “Wish I could say the same for me.”

Shannon had made the transition from acting Ship's Counselor back to Ship's Pediatrician with relative ease. At first, she was thankful for the less stressful situation, but as the weeks went on, she found that she missed being in the thick of things as they unfolded. The worst thing about it was that she not only liked Counselor Tolkath, she'd heard nothing but good things about his ability as a physician. Shannon knew for a fact that he'd been of great help to Leon, and for that she was grateful.

`Still', Shannon reflected, `He's on the bridge and I'm not.' Was that the best thing for her career? Would it affect her relationship with John? Shannon let out a frustrated sigh. `John', she thought, `It's harder than I thought it would be. Are you ok?' she wondered.

At that moment, awareness came over Shannon Harris. John Carter, Commander, First Officer, USS Republic, Human (Martian variant) 1.85 meters tall, 68 kilograms. Currently seated on the bridge, pulse steady at 72 beats per minute, blood pressure 180 over 60. Status: active.

The facts came to Shannon in a flash, and before she could even think about HOW she was aware of the information, the moment was gone. It was easy for her to assume John was on the bridge, the ship was on alert . . . that's where he was supposed to be, and she hoped that she'd be notified if he were ever hurt, but this was different. Shannon Harris was intimately aware of John's current vital statistics; not the information in his file, or the data from his last exam, but his exact medical condition RIGHT NOW.

A stab of fear came over Shannon. She was in sickbay, dozens of meters from the bridge. How could she know what she did? How could she be so certain she was right? Was it imagination? Was she tired? Or something else . . .

The atmosphere in the War Room was tense, but somehow refreshing. It had only taken a few moments for sensors to confirm that for the moment at least, Republic wasn't going anywhere. With the Tholians remaining silent and peaceful for the moment, Kim Roth had decided that the first order of business was to find a way out of the Tholian's web. Roth looked on approvingly as her XO, Dr. Virtus, Conrad Danzig, Assistant Engineer Pikita, and Doug Forrest took positions around the War Room's frosted glass table. Roth cleared her throat.

“Sit rep please, Tac?”

Conrad Danzig pivoted to face his Captain. “Same as before Captain, the web's in place, our shields are holding, and the Tholian ships are all holding station. They've taken up picket positions, but their weapons and shields aren't charged. I'm pretty sure they consider us out of the picture,” he glanced around the table, “for the moment anyway.”

There were as series of nods around the table.

“Engineering?” Roth asked.

Maria Pikita shook her head slightly, letting her dark hair fall to one side. “Nothing new from downstairs either, Captain,” she explained. “Warp core is in the green, and all impulse plants are online, but unless we can change the laws of physics . . . ” Maria tilted her head and gave a wink to her former Chief Engineer, who was seated to her left, “we just can't generate enough velocity to escape local space.”

“Doctor Virtus,” Roth smiled, “I believe that's your cue.”

“Thank you Captain,” Virtus said politely. “I've got an idea or two, but I'm more concerned with what we do once we get free.”

“How's that, Vic?” Carter piped up.

“Does this have to do with those `Dangerous assumptions' you mentioned, Doctor?”

Virtus nodded. “Yes ma'am. I believe we've made a fundamental error in our understanding of the Tholians. Not only their culture, but their physical nature as well.” Virtus brushed the sides of his mustache and continued.

“As you know, the Tholians are one of a very few silicon based lifeforms we've encountered, but I believe that they may have less in common with Horta or Species 8472 than they do with other, more advanced species.”

At that, John Carter felt his eyebrow arch. “More advanced as in Preservers more advanced or are they just good at hiding their tech?”

“A little of both I'm afraid, John.” Virtus straightened up and briefly regarded both Pikita and then Forrest who, for the moment, was still silent. “A few minutes ago, I had a chance to . . . analyze a raw sample of the Tholian language, and they appear to have no verb tense other than the present.”

Around the table, the assembled staff exchanged curious looks. Reluctantly, Pikita raised her hand. “Uh, Chief?” she asked out of habit, “Why's that a big deal? I mean, we know other sapient species that have less than standard languages.”

“True,” Virtus answered, “but remember that language is a vehicle for a species' psyche. It may be that the Tholians only prefer to frame themselves in the moment, but given their ability to manipulate space-time, and the fact that they are closer to energy beings in crystal shells rather than actual crystal beings, I believe that the Tholians have no past or future tense because they are non-linear.”

“WHAT?!” Forrest shouted, surprised at his own emotion.

Kim Roth spoke up. “Can you explain further please, Doctor?”

“Of course, Captain.” Victor stroked the sides of his mustache again. “Elementary physics tells us that energy can neither be created or destroyed, only changed. Further, we know from the Bajoran Prophets that it is possible for energy beings to exist across, or even outside of time.

If I'm right that the Tholians are essentially intelligent energy, then it follows that their lack of past or future tense in language indicates that they in fact exist in what we would consider past, present, and future simultaneously.”

“Sprock me,” Carter spit.

Conrad nodded. “That's why they're not worried about beating us . . . ”

“Because they know they already have,” Roth finished.

Shannon Harris was fighting a lethargy she had never known. She'd told herself that uncertainty regarding her still-developing relationship with John Carter had led to stress and lack of sleep, which explained her anxiety from earlier, but now it felt as if any movement at all took a supreme amount of concentration. She felt like she literally had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Luckily, her malaise was interrupted by the timely arrival of Saal Yezbeck. “Hey Shannon, I was just going to head to the . . . ” he stopped in mid thought, looking her over. “Wow, you look terrible.” He stepped in closer, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You ok?”

“You're sweet Saal,” she offered. “I just need to get some rest. Recharge the batteries a little.”

“I can get you some Somnambulex . . . ”

Shannon held her hands in front of her. “Oh no you don't,” she objected, “I'll manage with warm milk, or maybe a dram, but thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” he said warmly. “I'm headed to the Hill. Can I get you anything?”

“No,” she lied. `Get me out of this chair!' “I'm aces, thanks.”

Saal patted Shannon's shoulder. “Feel better, ok?” With that, he left.

Shannon didn't have the nerve to scream that she couldn't feel a thing.

Location: war room, USS Republic

Nervous seconds ticked by in the War Room, until Roth finally slapped her palms down on the tabletop. “All right then, ladies and gentlemen, changing physics it is. Any thoughts on that, Doctor Virtus?”

“A few,” he said, giving a curious smile to both Carter and Pikita.

Location: office of the SOD (surgeon-on-duty), main sickbay, USS Republic

“Anyway Shannon,” John explained, “it's the best option we have, and Vic swears it will work.” Carter stepped back from the desk where Shannon was still seated after giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “We've got room for one more on the bridge . . . if you want, I mean.”

Shannon shook her head. “No John, I think I'd rather stay here and get some work done.” As she turned in her chair, she suppressed a wince as she raised her hand. She smiled as John stepped forward again and took hold.

“I trust you John. Don't you know that by now?”

Carter nodded. “Of course I do, Shannon, I just . . . ” The normally supremely confident officer looked down briefly, then back into his lover's eyes. “This is a tough spot. Maybe the toughest one we've been in and in case we . . . well . . . I just wanted to make sure you were ok.”

Shannon managed to pat Carter's hand without letting the stress show. “Go do what you do John,” she said warmly. “I always feel better when you're on the bridge.”

“Right. Ok,” John said as he smiled back and headed for the door. He looked back at Doctor Harris and winked. “See you when we're out of this, Shannon.” With that, he headed for the bridge.

With the crushing, oppressive weight still on her soul, Harris whispered, “I love you too, John.”

In the red-hued quiet of sickbay, Doctor Shannon Harris still had work to do; reports to file, and prescriptions to initial, But that work would remain undone.

Her chair was empty. When the lights and monitors onboard Republic came back to life, Shannon Harris, MD, OBGYN, native of Australia was gone.

Location: main engineering, USS Republic

The warp core of USS Republic hummed with an odd syncopated rhythm, filling the cavernous space of engineering with eerie electricity. Maria Pikita looked at the pulsing blue rings of the intermix chamber and suppressed a chill. `Poor girl,' she thought, `you just don't sound right. This isn't going to go well at all.'

Over her shoulder, Doug Forrest looked on, biting his lip. “We're all dead,” he said grimly, “you know that right?”

“No way,” Pikita shot back, shaking her head. “The Chief knows what he's doing.”

“I know. That's what scares me.”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

“Where are we, people?” Kim Roth asked from the center seat.

“Engineering reports modifications to the warp core went faster than expected, Captain,” Snyder said from Ops. Station. “Lieutenant Pikita reports she's as ready as she's going to get.”

“Agreed, but all things considered, four hours beats forever.” Roth said, tilting her head toward the Tactical Station. “Any change from our friends, Mister Danzig?”

“Negative Captain, still ignoring us.”

Roth clenched her jaw. “Not for long.”

Behind the captain, Victor Virtus checked over his calculations displayed at the main science station. He knew the numbers added up, and he knew his theory was sound, but it remained to be seen if the universe would agree.

“You sure about this Vic?” John Carter asked, standing next to his friend.

Victor nodded. “It worked a hundred years ago John. It will work in two point four minutes. Besides,” he added with a smile, “If my transwarp program works, you'll be one of the fastest men in history.”

“Good enough,” Carter said. He gave the brilliant orange lines on the viewer one last look. `Here we come, you trippy little spiders', he thought. “Standing by for the word, Captain.”

Kim nodded. “Thank you XO. Mister Danzig, shipwide please.”

A quick chirp sounded. “You're on, Captain.”

“Ladies and gentlemen of the USS Republic. Someone once said that part of our mission was to go boldly where no one had gone before. We're about to make those words a reality. See you all on the other side.”

Making the `cut' sign across her throat, Roth took a deep breath. “Now Doctor.”

Nanoseconds after Victor Virtus activated his hastily compiled program, time seemed to stand still. All of Republic's crew had felt the translation to warp space before, but this was something new. Sensations expanded, consciousness grew beyond its normal confines, and for an instant, all the component molecules of Republic and her crew were everywhere at once, filling space and time.

Another instant later reality returned, but Kim Roth noted that it was dark, and quiet. After a tense few heartbeats, the bridge was bathed in red emergency lights, and dead displays and monitors flickered back to life. “Status!” Roth barked.

Responses in the affirmative began coming in from all corners of the ship, and John Carter smiled as he saw the main viewer begin to show their environment . . . with no sign of Tholian entrapment.

At the Tactical station, Conrad Danzig nodded and then spoke to the Captain. “Hull is intact ma'am,” he said firmly. “Pakita reports that ship systems crashed, but secondary and tertiary systems are coming online now. We're on impulse till they can restart the warp core.”

“Good enough,” Roth said with a defiant smile. “Well done Doctor Virtus.”

“Yes, it was,” Victor whispered, devoting a quiet moment to his vindication.

“Helm!” Carter barked as Republic continued to recover, “Get the planet between us and the Tholians, ASAP!”

Before the helmsman could answer, Conrad Danzig cut in. “Sensor contact! Unknown vessel bearing, zero-nine-zero! Whatever she is, she's fast!

“On screen!” Roth commanded.

Chapter 19: There Is A Reaction To Every ActionTop

Location: bridge, USS Allegiance

Zoe looked out at the scene in front of her. The USS Republic had been caught in the Tholian web. After having harsh words with the Captain about why they were standing still while they were trapped, all she got was ‘orders’. She bit her tongue and headed back to her station on the small bridge. It was nothing like any of the other stations she held.

She was still trying to find her ground. She had been pulled from her assignment on the London only days before. They had been in the Republic’s shadow the entire journey. They were told that they were observing their actions to report them back to Starfleet command. That didn’t make any sense to Zoe, but that didn’t matter. She was a Starfleet officer, and she had been serving under too many different commands to notice much. After all, during the battles of the Dominion War many people were promoted and many people died.

Now that the Republic was caught, a few of the other crewmembers had voiced their opinions when the Captain left the bridge for a secured transmission to Zoe, seeing that she had confronted the Captain on the bridge. She knew that she was going to get a formal reprimand once they returned to base.

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

For the first few moments as the view screen image shifted, all that could be seen was a blur of gray streaking towards them. For an instant, Captain Kimberly Roth thought that the image being projected was also being distorted somehow. Only as the mysterious blur sharpened did she realize this was not the case. As a Starfleet Captain, she wanted to issue a dozen separate orders, to be on top of things. She could not act though, she was frozen by cold rage at the realization.

“It's a Starfleet ship!” declared Danzig from Tactical as the de-cloaking sequence ended and the Federation ship zipped past them.

“Defiant-Class, USS Allegiance,” reported the young and inexperienced petty officer at the Ops console, where the missing department head, Naruko Kuga should have been.

Glancing to his Captain, John Carter saw all over her face, the shock and anger that was as clear as Denebian crystal, and only one person in all of Starfleet could make someone that angry; Vladimir Kostya. “Hail the Allegiance,” John ordered, prying his gaze away from his Captain.

After a few moments, Danzig reported with confusion, “No response.”

“Who commands the Allegiance?” Carter asked, standing and stepping forward, to a familiar place between Ops and the Conn.

“Captain Elise McDonald, sir,” replied Lieutenant Snyder from the Helm, having already drawn up a crew manifest.

“What in the hell are they doing here?” Captain Roth queried, suddenly, joining Carter.

“I've been repeating the hail, ma'am, still nothing.” Danzig informed.

“Ma'am,” Snyder interjected, “they're on a direct intercept course for the Tholian vessels . . . all of whom, I should add, have charged weapons and raised their shields.”

Location: bridge, USS Allegiance

The Captain ordered the ship to drop out of cloak and head to the Republic, now that they got free. Zoe thought that they would be coming to assist the Republic and see if they needed any assistance . . . that’s when her thoughts were shattered.

“Open fire on the Tholians!” the Captain ordered.

“Ma’am?” she asked turning around from the console. “It’s unprovoked, the Republic is free.”

“Are you questioning my orders, Lieutenant?”

Zoe stood up and looked dead into the Captain’s eyes. “Yes, Ma’am. I will not fire on the Tholians unprovoked.”

“Security, remove her from the bridge.” Zoe’s loyal security members came up and had questioning looks in their eyes. “To think you wasted your talents, Beauvais. I hand picked you for this position.” When the security forces failed to remove her from the bridge, the Captain pushed Zoe out of the way. When she did, phasers were drawn between all of the crewmembers on the bridge.

“Captain, I order you to cease and desist or be fired upon,” one of the security officers said seeing that Zoe had been technically relieved of her duty. The Captain ducked underneath the shot fired. She hit the fire button firing directly upon one of the Tholian vessels. Before the Captain could fire again or order retreat, the ship had been caught in a web themselves.

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

“I can't believe it! They've opened fire!” shouted the raw enlisted man manning Ops.

“What?!” questioned Roth, unable to believe what she was seeing before her own eyes.

“They fired first!” replied the young petty officer,”They're Starfleet! They can't do that!” declared the naive youth.

“They just did,” replied Carter, turning away from the view screen. In a matter of moments, things had gone in a complete three-sixty; from the Republic being trapped, to escaping, and now, to the verge of war once again, as a Starfleet vessel, without provocation, opened fire on an alien armada.

“Captain Roth, John, you may want to take a look at this,” reported Virtus from the Main Science station, bordering the starboard ramp.

“What is it, Vic?” questioned the First Officer.

“Three of the Tholian vessels are holding back, while the other nine appear to be preparing to engage the Allegiance,” Virtus informed, “which is an anomaly given known Tholian tactics. I believe I know why, though.” he commented, as he brought up a sensor analysis. “I'm reading an envelope of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere on each of these ships, as well as an equal distribution of over one-hundred-twenty humanoid life signs.”

“Our people from the station?” Carter asked, surprised.

“If so, they're short by at least three people, according to our last known figures.” Virtus responded.

“We have to stop the Allegiance.” Roth declared, suddenly.

“Ma'am?” came Carter's questioning response.

“They're endangering the officers from the station, they're endangering us, and they're risking all-out war with the Tholians, all because of . . . ” she trailed off, as she looked at Carter right in his good eye, for the moment no longer Captain to First Officer, but colleague to colleague. “ . . . We have to stop them.” she finally finished, not vocalizing what she, Carter, and anyone else who had been aboard long enough already suspected.

“Frinx!” shouted Danzig, shocking everyone with the outburst of profanity, “uh, ma'am, we won't have to worry about stopping the Allegiance ourselves. The Tholians seem to be beating us to it . . . ” he reported, as he switched the image on the view screen.

Location: bridge, USS Allegiance

“Captain! The Web is closing in on us! Weapons, engines, everything is neutralized,” the helmsman said.

“Time to impact?”

“Thirty seconds, if that.”

“Get her off my bridge,” she ordered to the Commander. “All hands, brace for impact!”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

Before them, the bridge crew of the Republic watched as a spherical lattice-work of tachyons formed blossomed around the Defiant-class starship. It did not stabilize around them, as had the web cast around the Republic. Instead, it began to contract inwards upon itself - and the Allegiance.

“Helm, take us into transporter range!” ordered Roth, dashing towards the center chair.

“Aye, full impulse!” replied Snyder.

“Mister Danzig, drop shields for transport, and deactivate our weapons systems.” Roth commanded.

“Our weapons status isn't hot, ma'am,” Danzig replied.

“I'm aware of that. I want you to deactivate the entire defensive system. I want it clear to the Tholians we don't intend to follow the Allegiance's example.” Roth explained.

“Aye, Captain,” Danzig replied with understanding and admiration.

“We'll be in transporter range in twenty seconds.” reported Snyder.

“Any chance of opening a channel to the Tholians, Lieutenant?” Carter questioned.

“They're still emitting a jamming field, Commander,” replied the Russian Tactical Chief.

“The tachyon beams have begun to penetrate the Allegiance's hull.” reported Virtus from Science, with calm and grace.

“I'm reading hull breeches and atmospheric decompressions throughout the outer sections!” added the unseasoned operations officer.

Location: bridge, USS Allegiance

Just as Zoe was being escorted off of the Bridge, the ship rocked from the ensnaring web. Sparks few everywhere as the hull buckled from the force that the web was creating on the small ship. Beams fell down throughout the bridge as consoles exploding. Picking herself up off of the ground, she evacuated the bridge. Activating the communications panel, she sent a wide beam distress signal. “Republic, this is the Allegiance. We are under attack by the Tholians. Please assist.”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

“We're entering transporter range!” reported Snyder.

“Bridge to all transporter rooms, lock on to any life signs you can and beam them aboard!” commanded Roth.

Location: USS Allegiance

With that, she ran down the corridor with the few of the crewmembers escaping from the bridge, leaving the dead captain in her chair. When she arrived in the transporter room, the chief behind the console laid dead on the floor. Right as she stepped over him to activate the transporters, she felt the oh-so-familiar tingling sensation as she dematerialized with the rest of the crew.

Location: transporter room 1, USS Republic

As the sensation vanished, the chief tapped his badge, “Captain, we have all that we can get and it’s not many.”

Chapter 20: It's The End Of The World As We Know ItTop

Location: main operations room, Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station

The hostile alien world upon which Lieutenant Nathan Hawk stood appeared to be, quite literally, coming to an end all around him. So to did the terra-forming station which, for the moment, was the only vestige of survival for humanoid life available to the over one-hundred-twenty souls within it's faltering confines. Gazing at the once mysterious and serene landscape, now engulfed in a river of molten lava that stretched far beyond the horizon, he questioned whether any of the lives now his responsibility would escape certain death upon this hellish world. He questioned himself as well, and his motives for being here, in the now-abandoned station operations, hunting for a hired assassin and traitor.

To his colleagues - to his friends - he had made the case that Hranok must have a means to stop the subspace termites before they reached the warp core. While securing the safety of the Republic was his primary goal, there was another reason he had chosen this task for himself. Leon Cromwell had sensed that truth even as Hawk tried to keep it deeply buried within him, yet had not challenged his decision. Whether Cromwell's choice was based upon faith, trust, friendship, or any combination of, it was something Nathan Hawk had not known for longer than he could remember. It also served to strengthened his resolve to secure the information he needed to save the Republic above his personal motives.

Drawing his attention away from the river of molten rock that battered against the station's shields, a new flash of electro-static energy caught his eye off in the distance. He knew without doubt that it could only have been from Hranok, in some last-ditch effort to either secure his own escape, or, the deaths of everyone on this world. With determination, he turned from the view port and stepped before one of the blacked-out consoles. Attaching a portable power-source he had retrieved from an emergency kit in the corridor, the control surface awoke in a flash. He paused as he looked over a computer-filed status report; they had less than twenty-five minutes, at best, before either the shields collapsed, or the reactors went critical.

Either option meant certain death.

In his twenty-seven years - twenty-eight next month, if he survived the day - he had faced his own mortality more times than most people did in an entire life span. Never before during any of those occasions had he truly considered the possibility that he may die. He had known death so well, with such great intimacy for so long, that he had once even come to question whether, in fact, he even could die. Though an arrogant and dangerous thought, it was one that he could neither prove or disprove without taking one final plunge into darkness. What he may find beyond that was the only thing that still frightened him, and that held him back. That and some unfinished business he was on the path of finally resolving.

Running his fingers across the console surface, he accessed the proper command protocols, and networked with the system he needed. As the activation key flashed ready beneath his wavering index finger, he swore to himself, swore to all he cared for, that he would not take that final step today. That today, they would live. All those in his charge, and he himself - if only to finish what he had started. Pressing the key and closing his eyes, he felt the energy envelope him, felt his molecules detach, only to feel them reform with one another a few moments later, the same wash of energy fading away. Opening his eyes now, he absorbed his surroundings, and for a moment, could not shake the smart-ass comment he might have otherwise said.

'The fourth circle a'hell . . . ' he said to himself.

Standing atop the flat surface of one of the four cylindrical reactor towers, he found the experience difficult to believe. Only the shimmer of the atmospheric force-field that now domed and protected the reactors from the savage variation of nature all around gave him faith that this was still reality after all. He could feel the searing heat as it rose from the burning rock just beyond the energy barrier that made his form of life possible in this environment. Hear the alien winds, thick with gasses that would have crippled his lungs in moments, as they rushed around the artificial envelope of oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. He could also see through the orange-red hue of perpetual twilight, the crouched-over form of Hranok working on something, his back to Hawk.

All around, the flashing red warning lights, signaling the impending meltdown or breech, only added to the ambience of the tense and dramatic situation. The phaser in his right hand was warm from his touch as he brought it to bare on his enemy. He had a perfect, unobstructed shot. With proper pressure applied by his thumb to the weapon's trigger, he who would betray and kill so many could be dead himself. As much as he craved to do just that from deep within, he knew better. Knew he needed his enemy if he had any hope of saving his friends and his ship. Even as he lowered the setting, he knew it was still too much of a risk. Hranok was on the far edge of another of the reactors; the blow from even a stun shot could push him beyond it without much effort. Though he kept the weapon level, he knew he could not use it.

Inhaling deeply, he expelled it in a quick blast, along with a single word - a name: “Hranok!!”

With a combination of rage and pure shock transparent across his features, Hranok turned quickly while still crouched at the small console he was tinkering with. He had not expected a pursuit, nor had he expected it to be Hawk himself, his target and reason for being on this hell-hole.

“It's over!” Hawk declared after a moment of silence, the phaser still leveled at Hranok's crouched form, as he took a step forward towards the edge of the tower he stood upon. He wanted and hoped that the Bolian would realize the futility of this situation and surrender, but he knew better. For an Orion Syndicate operative surrendered without completing its mission was suicide; for himself and anyone he cared for.

“You won't shoot me!” came the Bolian's challenging response, as he slowly stood.

“Are ya sure 'bout that!?” Hawk shot back, allowing some of his own anger to seep into his words. It was a battle not to actually follow through on the vague threat. He couldn't give in to his own lust for vengeance, though. Not with so much else at stake.

“You need me, Lieutenant!” Hranok shot back assuredly, a smug grin creasing his lips. He knew he held a very important ace up his sleeve, and he was going to play it until the last possible moment.

Hesitating for a moment, Hawk contemplated what few options he had. Right now, his best one was to play it cool, and to get Hranok away from the edge. Forcing the hate from his voice, he shouted with as much civility as he could muster; “You need to step towards me, Hranok.”

The Bolian's initial response was a snort of laughter; he was no fool. “Why in the hell should I do that? So you can shoot me?” Hranok deduced. Shaking his head from side to side, he continued, “If you want me, you're going to have to take me down on your own! No weapons!” he concluded, holding his arms away from his sides, his palms open, to demonstrate he himself was not armed.

Pondering the decreasing alternatives, which at this point consisted of complying, refusing and attempting more dialogue, or risk shooting him, Hawk knew he had little choice. He wanted some security of his own first. “I'll drop the phaser, but ya gotta step away from that console first!” Hawk stated.

Glancing to the console, Hranok considered his own dwindling options, before complying and side-stepping away from the console. He kept himself a meter from the edge of the tower though, to ensure Hawk had no safe shot. Finally, as he neared a place approximately opposite the console, he stopped. “You're turn, Lieutenant!” he shouted.

With the phaser still clutched in his hand, Hawk made a sudden leap across the meter-wide gap between towers, putting himself on the tower opposite Hranok rather than caddy-corner to him.

“One more step with that phaser and I swear to you, the Republic will burn in space!” he exclaimed, taking a half-step backwards to the edge, as if to emphasize his point. His emotions had begun to get the better of him, and that meant he would make mistakes. Hawk simply had to play his hand right to ensure they where the right mistakes, and not the fatal kind.

Without theatrics, Hawk lowered the weapon slightly, before throwing it away from the towers. With a flash as it passed through the atmospheric force-field, the weapon plunged into the river of volcanic lava that threatened to claim the reactors and the station. “Now step away from the edge!” Hawk ordered. Without reply, Hranok obeyed, stepping inward towards the center of the tower.

“You do realize I'm going to kill you!” Hranok proclaimed.

“Ya can try all ya like . . . ” Hawk replied to himself.

Without another word between them, Hawk charged forward, leaping across the final divide between them. Soaring through the air like the bird of prey that was his namesake, he slammed into Hranok before the Bolian could brace himself. Landing hard on his own left knee, he rolled to that side and stayed down as Hranok, in a display of skill and prowess, sprang back to his feet as if unfazed.

As the Bolian shifted his weight to his right side, Hawk could tell what was coming, and threw his own right arm up to block Hranok's left-sided kick. As the blow struck Hawk's arm, he lowered it quickly, twisting his wrist, and grabbed the Bolian's leg, pulling Hranok in towards himself, and forcing him off his feet. As the Bolian fell on his back, his free right leg kicked out and into Hawk's chest, sending the Helmsman back with a start.

Clamoring to his feet, Hranok surged forward to slam his coupled fists into Hawk's face, but the human rolled to the left as Hranok was in mid-swipe. Swinging his elbow back to the right, he caught the Bolian in the jaw, sending him stumbling to the side. Pushing himself to his feet, Hawk did not relent on his offensive, rushing towards the dazed Bolian. Throwing a right hook, Hranok was able to block it, and push Hawk back long enough to recover.

Keeping his fists up and he knees bent, Hawk stood toe-to-toe with Hranok, who took his own defensive posture. He let the Bolian throw a few punches, side-stepping and blocking them each, just to learn his pattern of attack. Then he struck back, slamming his right fist into the Bolian's nose before he could block it. Hranok, though off-balance and bleeding blue, countered with a dirty right hook of his own, catching Hawk in the right jaw, near the ear.

Stumbling back, Hawk struggled to shake it off. A sudden punch to the gut helped him with this. Lowering his right, he blocked a second attempt by Hranok, as he brought his own right knee into the fray, slamming it into the Bolian's lower ribs. Pushing Hranok away, Nat stepped back and delivered a left round-house kick, which was deflected. He was about to follow through with one from the right, when a flash of light caught his attention.

The red warning indicators atop the towers had shifted to yellow.

“Thank ya, Burke,” Hawk said to himself.

“Nooo!” erupted Hranok at the decrease in status, his plans crumbling before him. His gaze darted to the console a split second before he followed suit. Hawk had no intention of letting him finish whatever he had started. Coupling his fists, he brought them down together on the back of Hranok's neck, sending the Bolian stumbling forward. Though he reached the console, he did so dazed and without the ability to stop. Slamming into it at chest-level, the wind knocked out of him, his legs gave out from under him as his conscious mind shut off from the decisive blow to the back of the neck. His limp form slid to the side of the console before collapsing in a heap.

Stopping to breath, Hawk wanted to collapse, but settled for leaning forward and bracing himself with his hands on his knees. As he struggled to draw in breath, his adrenaline slowed, and the unbearable heat from all around him suddenly hit him like a duranium wall. Clawing at the zipper of the top jacket of his uniform, he struggled to shed the black and gray garment. Replacing his communicator on the deep red tunic, he cast the outer layer of his uniform into the molten stream as sweat exuded from every pour. He had been in more than his share of fights, but rarely under such adverse conditions.

Moving his right hand, knuckles bruised, to his communicator, he prepared to issue a return command to the Ops computer networked with the transporter system. Before he could, the high-pitched whine of an energy build-up began to emanate from an unknown source. Glancing around, he struggled to identify the source, until an expansion of orange light caught his eye. In the distance, he watched as the massive expanse of energy fluctuated as it drew a path across the length of the terra-forming station.

Without knowing what was happening, he likewise had no idea what to do in response to this strange phenomenon. Finally, the expanse of energy reached the Hopper pad bay, where he had told Tolkath and McTaggert to gather everyone together. There it lingered for a longer length of time than it had anywhere else during its sweep of the station. It was then that Hawk realized at least the source of the energy - the Tholians. Looking skyward, as if to visually locate the source, he found nothing but the red haze of atmosphere, twinged with the few stars visible through it.

As quickly as it had come, the fluctuating expanse of energy was gone.

“Hawk ta Cromwell,” he called out as he tapped his communicator. “Hawk ta Tolkath!” he shouted when Cromwell did not respond. “This s'Lieutenant Hawk a the Republic, ta anybody on the station!” he exclaimed, when the Counselor likewise did not reply. Nothing. Either they where all dead, unconscious, or against all odds, beamed away from this hell, likely only to face another sort, if it had indeed been the Tholians. Why they hadn't done anything to Hranok or himself was just another mystery of the moment.

Chapter 21: Arrivals And DeparturesTop

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

Captain Kimberly Roth watched in silence from the center of her own bridge as the battered hulk of the Defiant-Class vessel that had so suddenly appeared only minutes ago, was sliced through by the lattice-work of alien energy beams. Then, in an instant, she was gone, as a brilliant flash of white light erupted from her center and consumed the tattered and broken debris field that had seconds before been a starship. As the shockwave from the warp core breech washed over the Republic, she braced herself upon the back of the operations officers chair. As angry as she had been a few minutes ago with herself, with Kostya for sending that ship, and with the vessel's commander whom she had never even met, she was angrier now for what had happened; what she had allowed to happen.

“Commander,” Roth said, turning to her first officer, who stood only a few steps behind her, “I want answers, and I want them five minutes ago. Get down to the transporter room, find out just what the hell happened on that ship, why they opened fire without provocation or cause, and just who in the hell gave those orders.”

“Yes ma'am,” replied Carter, somberly, as he took one last glance at the view screen, and the few embers of debris that still burned in space. Quickly, he moved off to the port forward of the bridge and entered the turbolift.

“Mister Danzig, anything from the Tholians?” Roth queried her Tactical Chief.

“Negative Captain. They've still got that jamming field up.” the Russian reported.

“Any chance of penetrating it?” she questioned, irritated with the Tholian's continued unwillingness to communicate.

“I don't see how . . . ” Danzig replied, apologetically.

“Doctor Virtus, any ideas?” Roth asked, stepping over to the starboard science station. Before he could reply though, the deck beneath them lurched. Bracing herself against Virtus' temporary post, she spun around towards the view screen as soon as the ship stabilized. There, she found what she had been dreading.

The red-orange tachyon beams of the Tholian web had engulfed them once more.

“Carter to Bridge, is everything alright?”

“It would seem our earlier escape was in vain, Commander,” Roth reported with irritation.

“Understood. Shall I return to the bridge?”

“Negative. I need to know what happened with the Allegiance.” Roth replied.

“Understood. Carter out.”

“Captain, I think you should take a look at this,” reported Danzig, replacing the image on the view screen with a tactical analysis.

Roth didn't need her Tactical Chief to explain the graphic on screen. “It's contracting.” she surmised.

“Yes ma'am, and at this rate, she'll make contact with the shields in less than five minutes.” Danzig informed her.

“How long until contact with the outer hull?” Roth asked.

“Depending on how long our shields hold . . . six to seven minutes.” Danzig reported.

“Begin evacuations of the outer sections of the saucer section. Start with decks nine and ten, then decks eight and eleven. They'll be affected first.” Roth ordered with grim determination, not about to let her ship share the fate of the Allegiance.

“Aye, Captain,” replied Danzig, departing his post, bound for the turbolift.

“Curious that this web seems to be contracting at a considerably slower rate than the one that destroyed the Allegiance,” Virtus noted.

“I'm afraid we don't have time for you to analyze that, Doctor Virtus,” Roth replied, “I need one of two things from you in the next six minutes; either a way out of this web like before, or a way to communicate with the Tholians.”

“Yes ma'am,” replied Virtus, with a quick nod of his head, before turning his attention to his console.

Turning back to the view screen, Roth looked out through the web, upon the Tholian ships, and the planet destroying itself below, and wondered not for the first time, if any of them would make it out of this alive . . .

Location: transporter room 1, USS Republic

Zoe touched the wound on her forehead. The stinging from the cut reassured her that she was alive. She couldn't tell if it was bad or not, but she wanted answers. The wound would have to wait until everything calmed down. She felt the ship lurch slightly. This wasn't good. The web must have surrounded the Republic once again.

Within moments, someone walked through the doors to the transporter room. She gave him a glance and realized that he was one with some sort of authority. Before she could get over to him and ask him questions, he started asking questions himself.

She moved from behind the rest of the crew that made it off the Allegiance alive. She was the highest ranking officer present from her former crew.

“I'm Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais. I'm the highest ranking officer left alive.”

“John Carter,” Republic's XO said as he looked Zoe over. She seemed healthy enough, which for the moment, was all Carter cared about. “No offense Lieutenant,” he offered, “but I think you folks might have over-done the rescue just a bit.”

“Lightly put, Commander, my Captain went psychotic. I don't know what the orders were, but I figured out that bottom line a war was to be started here today.”

John felt his face twist into a scowl as he puzzled out the broader situation. USS Allegiance had warped out of nowhere and cut a swath through the Tholian ships that had held Republic in their web. Carter had originally chalked the newer ship's appearance to blind luck, but given what had just happened, and including the recent events of “The Republic Eight Trial”, he felt now that his least favorite flag officer might not be taking no for an answer.

It was becoming clear to John Carter that Vladimir Kostya was dead set on bringing the Federation into a war, and he apparently didn't care whom it was with. He quirked his head to the side and looked at the newly-arrived Lieutenant. “Can you define psychotic? And while you're at it, where exactly do you fit in?”

She frowned when he asked about her place in it all. “Sir, she gave the order to fire on the Tholians. I refused to follow that order and was in the process of getting removed from the bridge when the ship started to get crushed by the interlacing web. We weren't fully crewed. We were never given the reason for our mission or the fullest briefing of the mission. I realized that there was a problem when we were just sitting by when the Republic got into trouble.”

'Talk about hedging your bets' Carter thought, `I wonder if Kostya assumed we would fail in the first place?' “So, SOMEONE told you to wait nearby, Without making contact on the off-chance that something MIGHT blow up?” Carter shook his head. “That doesn't make and damned sense at all.

“Sir, I don't know what is going on. All I know is that the Captain went against Starfleet protocols and I made sure that she knew about it. A small fire fight broke out on the bridge as well.”

Carter couldn't help a small smile as the Lieutenant from Allegiance gave a small clue as to what she'd been up to. “Why do I get the feeling that you've got what `Fleet brass likes to call a `Colorful Record'? Not that you wouldn't fit in around here of course . . . ” he let the point trail off, curious as to the junior officer's reaction.

Crossing her arms, she looked him dead in the eye. “I may have a colorful past with the War, Sir, but I do not go against Starfleet protocol. What gets me is that the Captain hand-picked me for the position aboard the ship. I may have to take matters into my own hands, but not at the expense of Starfleet and my fellow crewmembers.”

Carter nodded. “Good enough for me. At least for now.” Carter turned on a heel and waved to an ensign in Operations gold. “Ensign, get the rest of these people to sickbay so we can get them assessed.”

“Now wait a second,” Zoe interjected, “I'm not going to . . . ”

“Oh, I'm not putting you on a cot lieutenant,” Carter said as he began to head out of the transporter room toward the turbolift. “I've got to get back upstairs.”

“Did we get caught back in the web?”

Carter nodded grimly. “Yep, and we had to twist the universe inside-out to do it once. Don't know if our luck's going to hold.”

“Damn,” she exclaimed. “I don't know about you, but I have thwarted death once today, and I don't want to do it again. I offer my services to you, Commander and to this ship until I can get back to the base and to the London.”

As the two officers entered the turbo-lift, Carter extended his hand. “I'll take whatever I can get, Lieutenant,” he commented. “We can always use another hand at Tac.”

“I'm not normally this bitter, but it's been a long couple of days; questions were left unanswered, protocols were broken, I disobeyed direct orders, I was removed from the bridge, and I nearly died today. I hope this helps you in your assessment. If this web that the Republic is caught in now is anything like the one that the Allegiance was caught in, we don't have much time to spend arguing about what happened aboard that ship.”

“Believe me, Lieutenant,” Carter said as the duo stepped onto the bridge, “arguing is the last thing on my mind right now.” Carter felt himself tense a bit as he looked at the angry orange lattice-work that once again had his ship ensnared.

Location: “The Hill”, deck 10, forward, USS Republic

Bracing himself against the bar, Lieutenant Conrad Danzig watched through the large windows of the ship's ten forward lounge as the tachyon beams struggled against the Republic's shields. Between those windows and himself, a Medical Team led by Doctor Saal Yezbeck was finally loading one of the lounges civilian workers who had been injured when the web had first re-engulfed them onto the anti-grav stretcher they had been waiting for. As they struggled to keep their balance, Danzig struggled to keep his cool, as the situation grew increasingly urgent.

“Lets go, lets go!” Danzig shouted, ushering the medical team towards the double-wide wooden doors.

With a sudden blinding flash, the shields finally gave way under the power of the Tholian web. From his place at the bar where he had made one last visual survey of the lounge, he knew only seconds remained before the web sliced into the hull. Just as the medical team cleared the doorway, the sound of screeching metal and cracking transparent aluminum reached his ears, and Danzig knew his fate was sealed.

He was not going to allow that fate to be shared by anyone else, though.

Throwing himself against the bar, he could already feel a change in the atmosphere as breathable air began to seep through cracks in the hull, as he struggled to reach the control panel an activate the atmospheric containment field. Slamming his fingers down on the control, he watched as it sprang to life in the still open doorway. He could still hear the voice of Doctor Yezbeck, just beyond it's safety, screaming for him to get out . . .

But it was already too late.

With a sudden roar and a rush of wind that reminded him of the harsh winters he had spent in Moscow as a boy, he felt himself being ripped away from this world, ripped away from the safe sanctums of the Republic. His instinct to survive drove him to claw desperately against the slick frosted glass surface of the bar, to try and grab hold of the back of one of the stools. He couldn't hold on though. As he felt himself in mid-air, the pressure of the encroaching vacuum crushing his lungs, everything seemed to slow down . . .

He watched for a nano-second in disbelief as the two forward-most windows shattered into a billion shards, disappearing into the void . . .

Another nano-second, as the bulkhead itself melted away under the heat of the tachyon beam . . .

One more, as he himself felt a twinge of warmth . . .

In his last moment, he could not make sense of so many things . . .

Why he was now outside the Republic . . .

Why he could not feel anything below his waist . . .

Why he didn't need to breath . . .

In an instant, his vision blurred, and went black.

Then he was gone . . .

Location: main sickbay, USS Republic

It was a scene that Republic's medical staff knew all too well. Casualties were flowing in from all corners of the ship, and that, on top of the rescued Allegiance crew, activated the emergency protocol developed by Doctor Cromwell called the Overload Contingency. Unfortunately, its creator was not present to witness its first usage since the redesign of sickbay over a year ago.

Normally, the main ward consisted of 10 biobeds, and 2 diagnostic tables. With the Overflow Contingency, two new medical bunks of stretcher design extended out from the walls above each biobed at 1.5 and 2 meters from the floor. Casualties that were stabilized but immobile were moved to these higher “biobunks” to make room for a more critical patient on the main biobed below.

It was this arrangement that kept sickbay from being overwhelmed.

As the doors to the main ward burst open with three, gold-uniformed operations crew, the gray-haired Doctor Fernmoore turned away from her patient on the diagnostic table to see two of the crewman carrying the third in a “fireman's seat” carry position. This young man was bloody and unconscious, with a left forearm contorted in a most unnatural position. With frustration, Fernmoore ordered “there's no more room in here! Put him in Exam Room 2!” Turning to a short, junior Klingon doctor with white hair and pink skin, she continued her line of thought. “Q'Tuir! Leave your patient with Nurse Copenhagen, and take care of this man.”

“Understood,” Q'Tuir responded, and after a nod to the young nurse next to him made a direct line to the exam room. Almost immediately, following, the doors opened again, and Doctor Saal Yezbeck marched in with a stressed, almost wild look in his eye. Directing personnel entering the room behind him, he pointed to a few empty biobunks for the new casualties arriving on stretchers.

“Are you okay?” Fernmoore asked. “What happened?”

“We just evacuated the Hill,” he replied while catching his breath. “But not everyone made it.”

“Who did we lose?”

“Danzig,” Saal exhaled with regret. “Our new tactical officer. He was helping people out of the room when the bulkhead shattered. He sealed the door to save us . . .”

Eliza placed a comforting hand on Saal's shoulder. “It wasn't your fault.”

Yezbeck had seen more emergency situations than anyone else on the sickbay staff, but it was never easy for him to see a comrade parish. Only one thing helped to override his mourning, and that was another emergency. With a shake of his head, he pushed aside the vision of Danzig's death and focused on the current situation.

“What's our status?”

“We're filling up quickly,” said Fernmoore. “We've activated Triage Two and Three, and it's compensating for now. But we're short a few people.”

“Where's Shannon?” Yezbeck requested, looking around the room of patients and fast-working staff.

“I don't know,” Eliza explained. “She hasn't shown up yet.”

“Yezbeck to Harris!” Saal tapped his combadge with irritation. No response occurred, even after a second try.

“Computer!” he shouted. “Location of Doctor Harris!”

“Lieutenant Commander Harris is not aboard the Republic.”

With shock, the two doctors looked at one another in disbelief. Could it be? Was their ship's pediatrician blown out into space like Danzig? With decompression reports coming in from the outer sections of the ship, it was the only explanation.

“Computer, Activate EHM,” Yezbeck finally said, knowing that every second counted with an understaffed sickbay.

“Unable to comply. Holographic grid is offline.”

“Explain!” he bellowed.

“Trans-dimensional shift impacted all extraneous computer algorithms and caused a reboot of the core systems. Alert status redirected higher processor functions to combat systems.”

“Medical override,” returned the now sour senior surgeon. “Yezbeck two-alpha. Re-initialize holographic matrix.”

“Acknowledged. System re-initialization commencing.”

“Thank you. Now activate the damned EMH!”

With an electronic whisper, the clean-shaven face of Doctor Bashir from Deep Space Nine faded into existence.

“Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” came the smooth British accent.

“We're understaffed and have casualties coming in from all areas of the ship,” Yezbeck explained. “Report to the Trauma Ward for triage duty.”

“Understood,” the EMH replied, and as it walked towards the nurse's station leading to the rear wards, a static sizzle followed by a kaleidoscope of dancing photons shimmered from the hologram. No sooner did it appear than did it fade away.

“I thought you FIXED that damn thing!” shouted Yezbeck to Fernmoore.

“I DID!” she replied. “I asked operations to take a look at it before we left port!”

“Well, they didn't do a damned good job, did they?!” he argued.

As before, the doors to sickbay burst open, and five more personnel raced in carrying two more casualties. As the doctors broke off their argument, they scrambled to help the newcomers. However, just before the doors closed, Shannon Harris stumbled in; her hair in disarray and a confused expression on her face. She looked around the sickbay, trying to get a grasp of her surroundings. Her combadge was missing from the chest of her blue uniform.

“Shannon!” Yezbeck exclaimed. “Are you okay? What happened?” He rushed over to help the stumbling doctor.

“I don't . . . I don't know,” she muttered. Her face splayed one of exhaustion, and as Saal helped her into the SOD (Surgeon-On-Duty) office, he sat her down on the sofa.

“Shannon, you don't look good at all,” he commented. “Let me get you a stimulant.”

“No,” she turned down the offer. “I'm okay, I just need to rest.”

“What happened? Where's your combadge?”

The red-haired pediatrician frowned, and felt her chest for the communicator.

“I must have dropped it,” she explained. “Although I can't remember where.”

Saal checked her head for contusions, although he found none.

“Did you hit your head on something?”

“I don't think so,” she replied. “Just give me a minute. I'll be okay.”

After a look of concern, Saal conceded after hearing a patient scream out in the main ward.

“Okay, but I don't want you out there if you're not feeling well. If you need to, take a bunk. Do you hear me?”

As she nodded, Saal went back into the main ward.

“There's internal bleeding here!” shouted Fernmoore as she hovered with a tricorder over a patient. “Why didn't they beam you directly to sickbay?!”

“We tried,” answered a standing comrade of the man on the diagnostic table. “But operations never responded. We got tired of waiting and just decided to bring him down here ourselves.”

“THAT does it!” Yezbeck exclaimed, overhearing the conversation. “Yezbeck to Bridge! I got people coming in sickbay that should have been BEAMED here instead of being carried! What's going on with operations?!”

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

Roth pursed her lips at the complaint from sickbay. Looking towards the young petty officer at ops, she watched as he frantically yet unsuccessfully worked the controls to direct various incoming requests to the proper departments. Realizing that ship operations were suffering at the absence of Kuga, she decided to make a temporary change.

“Chief Rainier!” she called, and the red-uniformed, white-bearded Chief-of-the-Boat turned his attention away from the damage control console at the rear of bridge.

“Yes, ma'am?”

“Take over the Ops station!”

“Yes, ma'am,” he replied, and dutifully marched down the ramp to the head of the bridge.

For his part, the young petty officer at the controls felt as if the universe was coming to an end. He had thought that the enlisted training program that Ensign Kuga initiated to help offset the department's lack of officers would suffice for him to take bridge duties. And, for normal operations, was working. But the change in alert status to battlestations was more than he could handle, and to have the captain, herself, relieve him of duty was tantamount to a court-marshal in his mind.

However, as Chief Rainier arrived at the station, he placed a comforting hand on the youngster's shoulder. Looking into the eyes of his senior NCO's, the young man realized that he was not in trouble, and that Captain Roth was more perturbed at the current situation than at his inability to perform at the ops station under battle conditions. Nodding his head, Petty Officer Third-Class Randall wiped his forehead of sweat, and swiveled the console away from him to excuse himself from the seat. Walking to the rear of the bridge, he worked to shake off the dread of failure as the turbolift doors slid open. Commander Carter and Lieutenant Beauvais stood in the elevator, and Randall stepped aside to let the commander and the blonde-haired lieutenant walk off the lift before entering himself.

“Commander,” greeted the captain as the XO walked down the side of the command pit with Lieutenant Beauvais in tow. “We're not doing too well at the moment. I hope you've got some good news for me.”

“Some,” John replied. “We've got about two dozen survivors from the Allegiance aboard, and have sent most of them to sickbay.” Turning to introduce Zoe, he continued. “Lieutenant Beauvais here is the surviving senior officer, and explained that her Captain was going against Starfleet regulations in their attack. If it weren't for her, the Republic would probably be in an even worse situation right now.”

“Welcome aboard, lieutenant,” the captain welcomed her. “Thank you for your help.”

A curt nod came from her end as she tried to locate the person that she was to assist on the bridge at tactical. She turned her head to the main view screen to see the events folding in around them. The ensnaring web at least wasn’t approaching as fast as it had while she was aboard the allegiance. Even though she wasn’t paying active attention to the conversation that the Captain and the Commander were having, she filed all the information later. It was a battle technique that she taught herself to make sure that she got all the imperative information first and foremost.

The shaking from the contracting plasma web against the ship's hull turned to a severe jolt that nearly knocked her off her feet. She quickly regained her balance as she looked to the Commander, and he had regained his balance as well.

Turning back to the commander, Captain Roth continued. “Unfortunately, we still may be facing just as bad an outcome. Decompression reports are increasing, and Mister Virtus has been unable to come up with a solution yet.”

“Any ideas, Vic?” John turned to his friend in the seat to the captains left. The veteran scientist was engrossed in his work on the console next to him, and did not look up to Carter when he replied.

“With every question you ask, John, it deprives me of 2.3 seconds of time to come up with a solution.”

“Got it,” John said. Turning back to the captain, he changed the subject.

“Where's Lieutenant Danzig? Beauvais here is willing to give him an extra hand at tactical.”

“Bridge to Danzig,” the captain tapped her combadge. A moment passed that indicated something was holding the lieutenant up, and as a reply finally came, a frown developed on the captains face as she realized the voice was not Danzig's”

“Sickbay here, captain. I've got some bad news. Danzig was lost in a decompression accident on deck ten.”

Both Carter and Roth were startled in the realization that one of their senior staff was no longer with them. The two officers looked at one another in horror, trying to decide if what they just heard was true. The captain opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a severe jolt to the ship that nearly knocked Carter and Beauvais off their feet.

“Report!” shouted Roth.

“Decompression at the forward end of decks 11 and 9,” Rainier immediately responded from the ops station. “Affected s ections reporting twelve casualties, two of them lost to explosive buckling of the bulkheads.”

“Lieutenant Beauvais,” shouted Carter as he retook his seat to the captain's right. “Take over tactical. Log in under Danzig's signon. I'll explain it to the department later.”

Sans hesitation, Zoe bolted up from the Command Pit on the Bridge to the tactical console directly above it. Her swift fingers allowed her to access the information that was pouring in from all over the ship. She realized that some things were below par, but she wasn’t here to criticize, she was here to save lives.

“Ma’am, we are currently losing power to the phaser banks. I have requested for more power allocation from Engineering. The forward torpedo tubes are severely damaged after that last jolt we had. The Tholians still do not have their weapons armed, unless you consider the web a weapon. Forward shields are starting to buckle. I have redistributed power between the aft and forward shields to compensate for the loss in power. However, if we don’t get out of this soon, we’re going to lose the nacelles,” she reported looking over the web crushing the shields of the ship.

The sheer pressure from the web on the shields was what was causing the buckling on the ship and the loss of life left and right. If there was only a way to get the shields to hold out a bit stronger or to increase the structural integrity field, they would probably have more of a chance. That was up to Engineering though to do.

Her mind was in disbelief at how the events were coming to unfold in front of them. As the space that they were occupying was getting smaller and smaller, she realized just how truly they were exposed both under the microscope and the macroscope.

After giving her report, she started to delegate the teams in where they had to be at that specific moment in the folds of time. From what she could tell, the Republic had a good crew aboard. From what she observed already, some were slacking in some areas, but for the most part, it was a well-oiled, large beast caught in the hunter’s trap.

She kept wracking her mind for ideas on how to get out of the situation peacefully. But from her monitoring on the Allegiance, negotiations didn’t really work, and then the twit of a captain ordered to fire and initiated the issue they were now faced with. If that captain would have survived all of this brutality, Zoe hoped that there would be some form of justice serve. Now all they had to do is figure a way out of it – easier said than done . . .

“Doctor Virtus,” Captain Roth said with desperation to the goateed engineering scientist in counselor's chair. “PLEASE tell me you've come up with something . . .”

Chapter 22: Off The BooksTop

Location: Planet Vulcan, City of Shi'Kahr

His plomeek soup had gone untouched for nearly twenty minutes now, since the server had brought it to him, yet despite this and the appearance it gave, he could not bring himself to eat it. How anyone could eat hot soup under the sweltering mid-day sun of Vulcan made little sense to him. He had been instructed to order it though, and to wait, and so now he did both as the dry heat that smelled slightly of cinnamon left him parched and unable to quench that thirst, less he raise his servers curiosity. This was far from how such things where supposed to work.

“I'm an Admiral, damnit,” he mused to himself, quietly, “when I want to meet with a subordinate, they report to me, not the other way around.”

The dry air felt wonderful on her skin. It had been too many years since she had been home. Finalizing her fusing with the civilian clothes, she walked from the corner to the table across from the man with the untouched soup. “I apologize for my tardiness. I had unfinished business to take care of. You should eat your soup. It will help keep you cool,” she told him.

Irritated, he said nothing as the Vulcan woman sat down across from him. After a moment, he pushed the bowl of soup in question across the surface of the table towards her. “Somehow, I doubt that ingesting hot soup will do me any good.” he replied, as he raised his left hand, calling for his servers attention. It was explainable now why he hadn't touched the soup; it hadn't been for him. “Water, cold. A pitcher and two glasses. With ice.” he ordered succinctly. With an affirmative nod, his server withdrew to fulfill the order. “Do try the soup,” he said, “after all, our server now believes it was ordered for you. It could raise his suspicions if you don't try it.”

She picked up the spoon adjoining the bowl and dipped it into the soup. A moment passed as she allowed the warm soup to warm up her body, creating chills on her exposed skin to the Vulcan arid air.

“It was for me,” she replied, waiting for the server to come back and give him his water before she continued.

After the server left, she looked at him. “So, what do I owe the pleasure of this meeting?”

Tipping the pitcher over, he poured himself a full glass, considering for the hundredth time how to go about this, before finally answering her. “I realize that this is the first opportunity for shore leave you've had in nearly two decades,” he said, stopping to take a rather large sip and then to swallow before he continued, “but we have a rather critical situation, and you're the only candidate qualified to handle it.” he finished.

He peeked her interest. “Yes, it has been too long for shore leave. However, I do not see how I am the only candidate,” she replied continuing her soup.

As he finished another sip, he inhaled deeply, bracing himself against the reality of what he was about to say, “Quite simply, because everyone else who could handle something like this is either dead, or missing.” he stated, his emotions difficult to restrain.

“Missing? The only true way to disappear is to go somewhere where no one will look for you. I did that for seven years.”

“No, you don't understand,” he said, shaking his head gently from side to side, “not missing like you chose to go missing. Missing, as in 'missing in action'.” he explained. “Of all our top operatives, twenty-two are dead, and thirty-seven are missing.” he revealed, having been taken aback by those numbers as they had come in over the past six weeks. “We even sent out the emergency call-back signal, four weeks ago, and nothing.” he continued, leaning in across the table and lowering his voice. “You and I both know there is only one way something like this could have happened.”

“Section 31 leaked our agents. What is my mission?” she asked as she allowed the reality to sink in. Section 31 had gotten more notorious this time around than they did before. It was happening sooner than she wanted it to.

Sitting back, he paused a moment, “Before we get to that, I need to explain some things to you. The first of which is that this mission is off the books. So am I, to be honest with you. Right now, we can't risk going through even our normal channels. As far as everyone and anyone else at Starfleet, or within the department are concerned, you and I have both gone missing just like everyone else. If you're not comfortable with that, walk away now.” he stated.

“I never walked away from the department. With Section 31 monitoring our every action, I would hope that would be the course of action. But then again, I have not been on the books since I disappeared from the future,” she replied finishing her soup. “Continue.”

“This is a very messy situation,” he started, as he poured himself a second glass of water, “very messy, very large, and with more players than anyone knows. We know one thing though, we know why Section 31 was willing to take such an awesome risk like this. The Orion Syndicate.” he said, stopping to sip. “Now I know you've never had first hand dealings with the Syndicate, but believe me, they're as dangerous - if not more so - than thirty-one. Thirty-one has weaknesses, limitations; they have to remain in the shadows. The Syndicate has none of those same vulnerabilities, in fact, it has very few. They control by fear, intimidation, and bloodshed.” he explained.

“I know of them through reputation. What is the mission?” she asked.

“To protect our greatest hope, our greatest weapon against the Syndicate.” he answered, producing a civilian-style padd from the simple black robes he wore, and sliding it across the table to her. It contained a photo of a young blond human male in a red Starfleet uniform, as well as the corresponding profile. “You'll find he's many things, none of which you expect. Underneath it all, though, he's got a good heart, and a capable mind. He's also the man responsible for providing the eye-witness testimony and evidence that allowed us to indict Keevan Faro early last year.”

She scoffed as she looked over the profile. “I heard about Faro skipping out before the trial. So why am I protecting him instead of going and getting Faro?” she asked setting the information down.

“Because without him, we can't touch Faro. Everything hinges upon his testimony. Testimony he won't be able to give if he's dead, which he's in extreme danger of being given that Section 31 is in bed with the Syndicate.” he explained, frustrated at the situation, and her attitude. “You have no idea how critical this is,” he accused, “he's the key to taking down the most powerful and influential crime syndicate in known space.” he stated. “Let me break it down for you, because I don't think you're getting the big picture here. This is a domino effect. With his testimony, we can take down Keevan Faro. With Faro under our thumb, we can take down the entire Syndicate. With the Syndicate out of the way, we can focus much more of our resources on Section 31. Thirty-one knows all of this, which is precisely why they're helping the Syndicate now. By exposing our operatives, most of whom where involved in investigations that in some manner connect with the Syndicate, they force us to reallocate all of our resources onto the enemy we can see, the enemy killing our operatives, while oblivious to the enemy pulling the strings, giving thirty-one a free hand.” he explained.

“I understand what is going on, but I do not see how I am the only one left to baby-sit an operative.”

“Did you miss the part about everyone else being either dead or missing? Our how about the part about two of the most dangerous organizations known to the Federation surreptitiously joining forces do to a common goal? Shouldn't those two things be more than enough for you?” he questioned. She didn't reply. She didn't need too. She simply continued to stare at him, knowing there was more to this than he was letting on. Finally realizing that she had perceived more than he had wished her too, he sighed, and looked away for a moment. “How about the fact that you're the only other person with a personal stake in this, the only person I trust at this point.” he said softly.

She shook her head lightly. “If we are the only ones left, then we need to do something more than just babysitting. I can hold the fort down for awhile. Did you pick a persona for me to embrace?” she asked as she folded her hands in her lap.

With a relieved sigh, he nodded, “Yes, it's on the same padd,” he told her, “you'll be serving as the chief science officer aboard the starship Republic. She's on assignment at the moment, but from what I know, that should be finished with shortly.” he informed her. “We had to be creative in how we protected him from the Syndicate. Normal methods simply don't work. Since he was Starfleet during the war, we simply re-instated him, placed him aboard an appropriate vessel. It's worked, so far, though not without a few minor hitches. A mobile fortress like an active Galaxy-Class ship has kept him alive for the better part of a year. As for doing things other than . . . babysitting . . . believe me, I'm taking care of things.” he finished.

“And what methods do I get to employ if I am discovered?”

“Obviously, remaining covert is best for the sake of the assignment,” he replied, “but the risks involved with discovery are minimal, given the nature of things. If you're discovered, explain everything to the objective, and anyone whom he deems appropriate. I know that's not exactly standard operation procedure, but, nothing about this is.” he said.

“Agreed. Same drop rates as before?” she asked filing the information for later.

“No, it's too risky,” he responded, “the changes are all explained within an encoded file hidden beneath you're persona's profile.”

“Interesting. Shall I investigate the connection between the two while I am babysitting, or am I just to remain to the objective?”

“Keep your focus on the objective. I'll handle the rest. I've got . . . friends . . . in high, public places on this one. People thirty-one can't go after without attracting unwanted attention. People thirty-one are too arrogant to consider a threat.” he said with a smile. Pausing for a moment, the smile faded away, “Thank you, both for not asking what my stake in all of this is, besides the obvious, and for taking the assignment. I know it's not exactly what you normally do.”

She turned the PADD over and folded her hands again. “I understand what is at stake if they succeed in their mission. When it is necessary to contact me, use the old means through Ms. Smith. That way it will look completely normal. I will collect my belongings and head to dock waiting for the assignment. I am assuming I have full access to whatever means I need?” she asked.

He nodded, “Everything is as you'll need.”

“It was nice to see you again. I am glad that your family is well. I must get back to work.” She slid the PADD into her pocket and folded her napkin then put it down on the table.

Sitting there as she departed, he couldn't help but ponder her choice of words - I am glad that your family is well - and wonder if, indeed, that was completely true . . .

Chapter 23: Enter The SpooksTop

Location: promenade, Deep Space Nine

Mixed in the intense crowd on the famous DS9 Promenade, an Ensign dressed in Operations gold and an odd female engaged in a conversation.

Ensign Christopher Jenkins, with one look by most females from any races, his charisma instantly attracted all. “Intriguing to see you here Admiral, and I must say you're looking lovely outside your uniform,” he rumored.

The Admiral, trying to blend in the crowd, however she couldn't help feel like she was sticking out like a sore thumb. “Save the flattery for someone else Ensign . . . You will be receiving your new assignment orders soon . . . to be transferred to the starship Republic . . . ” She paused for a minute to catch her breath and to make sure no one was listening in “ . . . I want you to keep an eye on a Ensign Kuga for us,” she conveyed.

Chris moved in a little closer towards to the Admiral and began to whisper in her ear. “Any preferred reason on how I should handle this?”

The Admiral gave a weak smile and whispers back, “I don't care how keep an eye on her, for all I care you could become her lover . . . Just make sure she doesn't speak about us.”

“And if she does?” Chris implied

The Admiral turns to face Chris giving him a kiss on the cheek, “Protect the Organization at all cost.” She walks off slowly blending into the crowd; Chris just gave a nod in agreement and proceeds to Quarks.

When the meeting came to a close, a ghost-like figure hid in the shadows finishing its watch over the two.

Location: Quark's Bar, lower level promenade, Deep Space Nine

The Bar was buzzing with noise, as crews from various Starfleet vessels enjoy themselves at the dabo tables. Reia and what was left of the crew of the Livingston sat at the same table they have been at for the pass several weeks. Quark approached the group of young Starfleet Officers.

“Can't Starfleet give you something else to do, besides take up space in my bar?” he said rudely.

“Quark, we're waiting for our orders from Starfleet. Until then . . . they told us to wait and relax,” said a nearby ensign.

“You could wait over at the Dabo tables, or how about renting some holosuite time . . . I have quite a collection of programs you might be interested in,” implied Quark.

“Sorry Quark, we're just here to relax.”

“Well, try doing other relaxing things . . . ” He turned to Reia. “What about you Lieutenant? I have quite a collection of holo programs from Trill,” Offered the Ferengi bartender.

Reia was about to respond when she noticed a familiar face entering the room. “Maybe another time Quark . . . ” she said, walking towards the bar, trying to intercept the newcomer who was an older looking gentleman.

At about the same time, Chris Jenkins walked into the room, bumping into Lieutenant Merrick. “Hey Reia . . . ” After giving him a blank stare, she ignored him and continued to walk towards the old man.

Quark looked at them both, and shook his head mumbling “Hue-mans”

“Who is that old guy Reia is taking too?” the nearby Ensign asked, but before Quark could respond, he was shocked when Reia gave the old geezer a kiss on the cheek. “What the . . . Did she just kiss that guy?”

Chris sat down at a nearby table with his shipmates from the Livingston, watching Reia out of the corner of his eye. “Oh no . . . He can't be back!?” added Chris.

“Who is that?” questioned the Ensign even more puzzled than before.

“That is Captain James Merrick . . . I thought he was retired,” replied Chris

The Ensign, looking dumbfounded, asked, “are you saying that old man is Reia's father?”

“Well duh, detective! Reia Merrick?! You don't see the connection there . . . ” replied Chris sarcastically.

“I thought she was Trill . . . ” began the Ensign has he was interrupt.

“She's half Trill you moron,” said Chris as he tried to drink out of an empty glass.

“Oh . . . So what is so bad about her father?” questioned the Ensign.

“Let's just say he is not a favorite in Starfleet . . . ” commented Chris.

“It's nice to see you again dad,” said Reia as she took a seat on a bar stool.

Jim looked at his daughter and gave a smile, “You've grown a little since the last time I saw you.”

“Speak of the devil you've gone grey,” she replied.

“It's only to charm the younger generation,” said Jim as he took a drink of his root beer.

Reia felt a little sick to her stomach. “Dad, I would think of hearing that from mom, but from you it's rather disgusting . . . anyway so how were you able to get your command back?”

Jim let out a small laugh, “I still have some friends in Starfleet, but honestly I think it was time for me to get back into saddle.”

“So what is your ship like?” questions Reia gleaming with excitement.

Jim just smiled and shook his head, “The Expedition . . . Oh she is an . . . interesting ship . . . ”

“Interesting?! Come on dad . . . I want details . . . Details!” demanded Reia.

Jim looked at Reia with a sad face replying, “I'm sorry Reia, but I can't hand out classified information in a place like this.”

“Can you at least tell me what class she is?” questioned Reia as her excitement went down the drain.

“Excelsior mark three . . . ” began Jim, when another person interrupted them.

A woman walked up to them and looked between the two. In a heavy French accent, she stated, “Sorry, I didn't realize that you had company, Sir.” She started to turn to walk away when she got stopped.

“It's ok Doc, I want you to meet someone.” replied Jim chuckling a little.

She turned back around to face the two of them. “Jéanne-Thérèse Marsol, nice to meet you . . . ?”

“This is my daughter, Lieutenant Reia Merrick,” said Jim.

Reia extends her hand “A pleasure to meet you Ma’am.”

Marsol almost reached up and slapped him until she restrained herself and bit her tongue. She replaced the smile on her face and looked at the woman. “Very nice to meet you, Reia. I see that your father's colorful past show true tonight. I apologize for my near fatal reaction.”

Reia return the smile, “Don't worry about it . . . Well I guess since I'm not going to get a tour of his ship I might as well be going.” she says constructively trying to beg her way onto the Expedition.

Jim looked at Reia with a grin on his face, “I know what you’re trying to pull here missy, and don’t . . . ” he began to say.

“Eh, don't fear, there are parts of the ship that I still haven't seen,” she replied smiling.

Reia’s gave her infamous 'sad puppy' face to her father, “Daddy, please can I have a tour on your ship?” she asked.

Marsol snickered as she heard her request.

Jim tried to toughen up by replying, “Look I can’t let you on right now, its just policy . . . ”

“Jim, I think that you should honor the request of your third child, that I know of. After all, if you don't, I'll find a way for her. Don't make me go rogue on you,” she replied pointing a finger at him.

Jim sat in silence for a few seconds, then mumbling “Women . . . ”

“Apparently you love us women-folk, Jim. After all, there's three children now . . . do you have any others you want to fess up to?”

Jim's face gave a slight smile as he replies, “Well I'm not too sure about those Orion women in . . . .”

Marsol reached her hand behind his head and smacked him hard. “I hope that teaches you some common sense there, but then again, that would be asking for a miracle. However, miracles happen, look at me.”

Reia looks at her father blankly trying to understand what she just heard.

Just as Jim was about to reply, a voice came over his commbadge.

”Captain, there is a priority two message from Starfleet Command”

”Roger that, I’ll be on the ship in a few minutes . . . ” said Jim, as he stood up from the bar commenting. “Sometimes it’s good to be the Captain,” winking towards the ladies as he walked off.

Marsol just stood there in disbelief. “Men. Can't live with them and can't live without them. And he's one of the worse,” she mocked.

“Well obviously, he did something right in his life, or he wouldn’t be in the position he his in today,” commented Reia as she sighed with Marsol.

“That can be debatable,” she replied. “He's got more of an attitude than I do, and I nearly got kicked out of Starfleet for mine. It's a nice little curse I got myself.”

“Oh I take it you didn’t know what happen to him during the war?” questioned Reia

“I know bits and pieces. He may have fought in the present war, but I have been through another one, myself. It created much havoc, let me tell you,” she replied trying to push the horrible memories of that war out of her mind. “It was a long time ago, in your standards, but it just feels like yesterday to me.”

“Well with any war, it was bad for all of us . . . ” Reia commented, hoping to switch to a different subject.

“Agreed. So, tell me, Reia, what's your area of specialty?” she asked quickly changing the subject.

“Operations . . . I was the Chief of Operations on the USS Livingston . . . ” as her voice choked a little “ . . . before she went up in smoke.”

“Ahh okay. He never properly introduced me. Chief Medical Officer on the Expedition. If he fails to get you aboard, there are ways around that,” Marsol replied allowing herself a devious smile in the process.

A friend of Reia’s walked up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. As Reia turned around, the newcomer addressed her. “Reia, the brass wants to see us again, I think it’s something about new orders.”

Reia gave a nod and watched her friend walk out of the bar. At that moment, she swore that she could hear Quark mumbling ‘About time they leave'.

“Well, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I got to go as well.”

“Take care of yourself, Reia Merrick. I hope to see you again one day soon. Let me know if you want that tour and he fails for you. I got my womanly charms and devious intentions,” she replied shaking hands. “Good luck with the Brass . . . I have a tendency to avoid them at all costs, nowadays.”

Reia gave a smile as she stood up, “You too, and try to take of my father if you could please.”

“Farewell for now,” she said as she herself was about to head back to the ship. She reminded herself while she was walking back to the dock that she was going to have to have a word with that man.

Location: promenade, Deep Space Nine

The Vulcan female walked the decks of DS9. Her feet remembered their old stomping grounds and she fell back into habit of station living. The sounds and smells made it all the better. Albeit the smells sometime repulsed her, she had gotten used to it when she served aboard here as a Security officer all those years ago. She watched people go as they walked passed her. Her eyes caught a few people sitting down. One of them looked too familiar, but she didn't want to believe it. Lowering her sight, she hoped to distract herself enough so that attention was not drawn.

Chris Jenkins, walking out of Quark's, bumped into the Vulcan lieutenant commander. Looking directly at her, the ensign noticed that she was somewhat familiar. “I’m sorry Ma’am,” he apologized with an odd look on his face.

She looked at him, deep in his eyes, analyzing him quickly. “My apologies, I must not have been watching where I was going,” she replied before she started to walk off again. Her suspicions were correct. He was one of them. Seeing that she was ordered not to do anything, she filed the information for later, but was still willing to take matters into her own hands if anything came of it. After all, she had to protect herself and she had to protect the organization.

Chris walked away, shaking his head and thinking, ‘That can’t be her . . . she’s dead?’

The Vulcan, ignoring Jenkins, continued walking throughout the familiar part of the station. It had changed very little in some respects since she used to serve aboard the station before the War. Nothing would be home like the Ma'at, her own personal ship. Unfortunately, it never survived the battle that ended up too many people dead. She longed for what she had before she enlisted in core. There is no running around, there was no fear of death lingering over her head, and she didn't have to always carry small weapons around on her body, even though she was the weapon herself.

She was the one that cleaned out the dirty, gather information, and not be caught. Holding no regrets about the past, she looked forward to what the future would bring to her. A finger made it past the blue of her uniform. She hadn't worn a real one in such a long time, she found the fabric irritating to her neckline.

Even though she was technically on leave from her real assignment, she never had to wear a real uniform with the department designations on it. Not knowing how long she was going to be on this assignment, she had made arrangements for someone to take her place if she were not to return when her leave was technically over. There was always an excuse to get off of the station that she was currently serving on.

Now walking these decks made her realize how big the station she was on truly was. The difference was by many many decks. Risks were something that came with the job, day in and day out. She understood what she was getting into when she switched out of a regular job.

At one of the windows, she stopped and started to analyze all the information about the crew of the USS Republic, the assignment of being a science officer, and the ship herself. The one thing she never regretted was spending too much time as a Borg. The internal cybernetics allowed her to increase her proficiency as well as it allowed to put a front on. Anyone who looked at her would assume that she was looking out the window to see the wormhole in action. Upon closer inspection, they still wouldn't be able to see that she was doing anything but looking at the stars and the wormhole.

A security officer walked by her and then turned around. He tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I'm sorry, Ma'am. I thought that you were someone else.” It had looked exactly like the security officer that he used to do rounds with.

“That is fine. Most people assume that I am someone else, and I only disappoint.”

“Sorry,” he said as he walked away. She was too old to be his former friend. He had seen the reports that she was dead, but didn't believe them. There was no funeral. He had only found out that she had died due to the Killed in Action report that he got on a weekly basis. 'Oh well,' he thought to himself as he continued his rounds.

She hated having to lie to her former friend. She immediately recognized him when he distracted her from her current task. She had grown many years since she had worked with him. She was a different person in many different respects than her younger self. This assignment irked her. It wasn't really the fact that she knew that she could do it, or that it was really out of her specialty. What really irked her and sent chills down her Vulcan spine was the fact that most of the Starfleet Intelligence core was either in hiding or dead.

Now to just wait for the Republic to dock.

Chapter 24: Vicious CirclesTop

Location: Reactor Tower 4, Sigma Omicron Terraforming Station

In an instant, Hawk was face down upon the surface of the fourth reactor tower, his vision blurred as blood trickled from a cut on his lip. He literally hadn't seen it coming, or rather, hadn't seen him coming. Now, the previously unconscious Hranok was standing over him, slamming his booted foot into Hawk's ribs with overwhelming force and speed. Only as the Helmsman's mind cleared from the decisive blow to the head he must have received did the fierce shooting pain finally register across his body. His instincts told him to fight, to strike back, but he had no strength left. All he had was the excruciating pain and the taste of blood in his mouth.

So, he did as he had done dozens, maybe hundreds of times before, and he used that which he had, and focused on that pain. Going deeper, he focused on the pain that had followed him always, in the back of his mind, eating away at him for nearly two decades now. The rage that boiled within him, the fury that had driven him in other desperate situations, now did so once more. As a brutal roar overcame him, straining his vocal chords, he summoned every last iota of strength he had left and struck back with sudden defiance. With exquisite force, he slammed his elbow back and into Hranok's left knee, shattering the joint like glass.

As it gave way, bending out and away from Hranok in an exceedingly unnatural way, it was the assassin-turned-saboteur's turn to cry out as he toppled over. The brutal sound was like fuel to Hawk's fire of rage, giving him much needed strength to push himself up from the warm metal surface. Seeing his enemies leg bent, bleeding, and broken at such an awkward angle fed the dark depths of Nathan Hawk even more. This was barely a glimmer of the justice - of the vengeance - that he had envisioned delivering upon men like Keevan Faro since he was only a boy. It was what he had craved more than anything, what had tempted him so often during his time undercover with the Syndicate.

As he stood over Hranok, the Bolian writhing in agony, all he wanted in that moment was to continue on this course. To make the traitor feel physically what he had felt emotionally every day of his life for nearly eighteen years. To be consumed by his own hate, to fade darker from his current shade of gray, to embrace his thirst for revenge. Taking a firm grip on the collar of Hranok's uniform, he pulled the Bolian up, forcing him to his feet. Grimacing in pain, Hranok caught sight of something in Hawk's eyes, and for the first time, felt fear as to what lay buried deep beneath the depths of Hawk's soul.

Pushing Hranok back with each step forward, Hawk moved towards the edge of the fourth reactor tower, never taking his eyes from Hranok's own as he did. He wanted the Bolian to see what he was up against, to fear him, to recognize the fierce determination and hate that ate away at him day after day. Above all else, he wanted the Bolian to understand just what a fool he had been to come after him, to threaten him, try to kill him, to betray him on a mission he lead. To realize just how futile the entire mission to assassinate him had been from the start. To understand that no one, not Keevan Faro, not Starfleet, not even the entire Orion Syndicate, could stop him.

“This s'how it's gonna work ya sorry sonuvabitch!” Hawk spat through gritted teeth at the broken Bolian. “Yer gonna tell me everythin' I wanna know, n'if fer one second I think yer hidin' somethin' 'er tellin' me a tale? I'm gonna break another body part 'ntil yer beggin' me ta kill yer sorry ass!”

“Okay, okay! I'll tell you whatever you want to know! Just don't kill me!” Hranok whimpered, a pale reflection of the experienced assassin he had initially appeared to be.

Jerking the Bolian forward swiftly, Hawk got in his face as he bellowed, “I make the rules, asshole! Ya wanna get outta this, ya shut yer damn mouth 'ntil I tell ya otherwise!”

“Alright, alright! I'm sorry!” Hranok sniveled apologetically, seeming less like a trained operative and more like a lackey.

“How do I save the Republic?” the Helmsman questioned without delay, even as a dozen different questions began to form in Hawk's mind as to just who the hell Hranok really was.

“Non-symmetrical warp field, just generate one, it'll push the 'subspace termites' out of the g-band, neutralize them!” Hranok answered, promptly, a tremor of fear evident in his voice.

“Who sent ya? How'd they find me?” Hawk asked next, adjusting his grip on the Bolian's collar. He hadn't expected such an easy time of questioning the Bolian, whose pathetic display was throwing Hawk for a loop.

“The Syndicate, someone saw the news feed, they recognized you!” Hranok explained.

“I wanna name!” Hawk demanded, leaning Hranok out further over the edge to make his point.

“Dresdan! It was Dresdan! Faro contacted him, Faro saw the transmission himself!” Hranok replied.

“Faro hates Dresdan!” Hawk shot back, leaning the Bolian out further, “Why would they work t'gether?!” he demanded.

“Because of me!” Hranok answered quickly, “Faro knew Dresdan had someone who could get inside Starfleet, but only for a little while! That was me, that's why I was selected!”

“What the frinx s'special 'bout you?!” Hawk inquired, pulling the Bolian in a bit, his own strength faltering as his injuries finally caught up with him, his adrenaline levels decreasing.

“Nothing! I swear! Please! Pleeease! Don't kill me!” begged Hranok as he erupted in whimpering sobs.

Of everything he had expected of a Syndicate assassin, the pathetic, sniveling, whimpering routine wasn't even on the list. It just didn't make any sense! Hranok had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes for the last few weeks. He had teamed up with Beckett, he had been responsible for the subspace termites that now - unknown to the crew - threatened to destroy the Republic. He had even taunted Hawk during their captivity in sickbay. How could he now be nothing more than a shell of a man, sobbing and pleading for his life?

“Who'n the hell r'ya?” Hawk finally asked.

“Nobody, I'm nobody,” Hranok replied, “I'm just a con-man who took the wrong people's money, I swear!” Hranok proclaimed. “I'm not even the real Hranok, I've never even met the guy . . . ”

Everything driving Hawk suddenly evaporated. The hate, the anger, the rage, the quest for vengeance - everything that had been brought to the surface in desperation to survive was gone again, in an instant. Buried back deep within him at the realization that nothing would come from killing the Bolian. In one quick movement, he pulled the Bolian in from the edge and released him, the blue-skinned alien collapsing into a heap like a marionette with the strings cut.

“Who'r ya?” Hawk asked, as he leaned back against the console for support.

It took the Bolian a moment to compose himself to the point where he could reply. “My names Evok,” he finally muttered, as he stopped sobbing, “I'm a two-bit con-man from New Sydney.” he continued, without prodding, “I made some really bad calls, took some money from the wrong people. Ended up in to Dresdan for nearly ten-thousand bricks of latinum. I couldn't pay it off . . . he was going to kill me, kill my family . . . I didn't know what else to do . . . ” Evok explained, sorrowfully. “He came to me a few weeks ago, told me . . . told me if I did this for him, if I killed you, he'd call it even. I didn't have a choice, I never meant for anybody to get hurt. I never meant for any of this to happen . . . ” the Bolian admitted.

Hawk had expected to feel little less than hate for this man, this coward who had betrayed them. As he looked upon the Bolian - broken, defeated, exposed, remorseful - he couldn't help but feel sorry for him, though. Evok was no saint; he was a thief and a con, and that had caught up to him. He deserved to be punished for his crimes, that was for sure. No one deserved this though. To be at the whim of the Syndicate, to live in fear, not just for yourself, but for your family. To know that you owed your life to the changing mood of a crime lord who would just as soon kill you as spit on you.

Battered, bruised, bloodied and broken himself, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk did something that surprised even himself. Pushing off from the console, he steadied himself, before stepping over to Evok, the man he had known for the past few weeks as Hranok, and held his hand out. At first, the Bolian had winced and braced himself for a beating. When that didn't come though, he had opened his clenched eyes and looked up at Hawk expectantly, fearfully, and been surprised by the outstretched hand. trepetitiously, he took it, as Hawk helped him to his feet, and held him up. As Evok put his arm around Hawk's neck, allowing him to stand on his one good leg, he looked at the Human and asked a question without ever saying the words.

“'Cause ya ain't one a them,” Hawk stated simply.

Tapping his communicator, Hawk issued the command, and a moment later, he and the man who had been sent here to kill him disappeared from atop the coolant towers.

Chapter 25: Crowd ControlTop

Location: Tholian Ship, in orbit around Sigma Omicron Five

“Damn it!” a station crewmember exclaimed with vehemence. “They've had us in here for HOURS! No food! No water! Not even a damn place to piss!”

“Relax, lieutenant,” Leon ordered. “If you have business to do, do it in the corner. As far as food and water . . . well, just be glad you're still alive. That's more than you'd be if they hadn't beamed us up.

Imprisoned in the translucent walls of the Tholian brig, all the survivors from Sigma Omicron Five could do was wait for their captors' next move. The fiery dance of red, orange, and yellow plasma reflected through the barriers giving the Spartan room the appearance of a cauldron of molten steel. Fortunately, the occupants did not experience the heat and pressure of the environment beyond.

“What do you think?” Leon turned to Reittan with frustration. “Can you detect any thought patterns?

“They're not so much thoughts as a complex mix of multiple emotions,” the counselor explained. “And vague emotions at that.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I had to guess, I'd say that the Tholians are communicating with each other through a free-roaming network of mental telepathy. Only, I can't discriminate between individuals.”

“You mean they're a hive mind?” Leon questioned, putting his hands on his hips. “Like the Borg?”

“No,” Reittan answered confidently. “Borg drones have no free will. There is definitely individuality here, only the thought- response frequency is so fast, I can't hone in on any one individual. All I get is the a resonating effect of emotional echoes from whatever thought was communicated among them before another one is transmitted. The Tholians seem to 'think' on a higher level than we've ever experienced. It's as if they perceive, interpret, and respond all at once with no time interval in-between.”

“That must be convenient,” Leon replied with both sarcasm and awe. “Being able to interact with the universe without that pesky little thing called 'time' in order to make a decision. Can you discriminate what their intensions are with us?”

“Hard to say,” the counselor replied calmly, closing his eyes in concentration. “They're perceiving a threat outside of themselves, and they're responding with anger, frustration, and confusion, with a combined determination to . . .”

Reittan's expression turned to a grimace, and his forehead wrinkled in distress.

“What?” Leon asked with concern. “What are they determined to do?” Counselor Tolkath knelt down, and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly to gain control of his own emotions before responding.

”. . . exterminate,” he whispered to Leon, not wanting to alarm the rest of the station personnel around him.

“Hey!” the doctor immediately shouted towards the unknown realm beyond the wall. The other prisoners only watched him silently with confusion. “Do you hear me? Talk to us!” he demanded. “What's happening? What's happening to our people?”

A moment passed where no response was given. Leon was about to yell again when an area on the wall in which he was facing shimmered and revealed a shocking scene. It was the Republic in an energy web, surrounded by Tholian ships with the scarlet-gray disk of Sigma Omicron Five glowing in the background. The web itself was closely hugging the Republic's hull at the bow and stern, and an orange lance of phaser energy emanated from her forward weapons in a futile attempt to cut out of the matrix-like net. It was not an image in motion, however. It was frozen like a photograph; a moment captured in time.

In response to the image, Doctor Cromwell's eyes grew wide with trepidation. In an instant where he reacted before thinking, he threw himself towards the wall and began pounding and kicking it with an almost panicked fervor.

“Stop!” he shouted, continuing with his relentless punching of the translucent barrier. “Stop what you're doing! We're NOT your enemy!”

With a voice that resonated throughout the room, an alien voice addressed the doctor.

*“You are the non. You must be removed.”*

“We're a sentient species!” Leon bellowed. “Just like you! You're committing murder!”

*“We react only to what the non have brought upon our fractals in the cradle.”*

“Hold on!” the doctor shouted. “We didn't know this planet was claimed by your species! You can't hold us accountable for these deaths!”

*“That is not correct.”* the bodiless voice continued. *“The non has visited this world during the before.”*

“Before?” Leon asked with confusion. “What do you mean 'before'? Before what?”

*“The before is the arrival. Our fractals slept. Your species pierced the veil, exposing their cradle.”*

“What?” the doctor shook his head. “Are you telling me that humans knew about this place before the station was built?”

*“You are the non. You cannot understand.”*

“There's no point in trying to reason with them, doctor.” A cold and familiar female voice interrupted Leon's tirade. Turning to face his inquisitor, Doctor Samuel Beckett sat on a stretcher after quietly waking from her phaser-induced slumber, compliments of Nat Hawk. “They're a dangerous species. A threat to the Federation.”

Staring at her, Leon started to put two-and-two together: Beckett worked for Kostya, and kept the terraforming going despite the mysterious deaths. Kostya, on the other hand, was the admiral responsible for the Cestus Three incident; an attempt to provoke a war with the Gorns by using Leon's homeworld as the excuse. The admiral lost that battle, yet it suddenly occurred to the Doctor that Kostya may have turned his sights towards another empire in an attempts to invoke conflict and expand Federation borders: The Tholians.

“What happened here?” Leon gritted his teeth, marching towards Beckett with fire in his eyes. Seeming to forget that she was a patient in his care, the doctor grabbed Beckett by the front of her shirt, picking her up off the stretcher. With a viscous glare, he asked “what did Kostya have planned here?”

“You wouldn't understand, Doctor Cromwell,” she spat back. “While you would have us lie down at the feet of our enemies, Vladimir Kostya is SAVING the Federation.”

“He's trying to start a WAR!” Leon shook her.

With a fanatically defiant look on her face, she pushed Leon away and scowled at him.

“We're already at war!” Beckett replied angrily. “We're always at war! Everyday! Everywhere! There are empires all around our borders who are just waiting for us to show a weakness! The Dominion was just the beginning! We NEED strong leaders like Kostya to protect us!”

“You're crazy!” Leon concluded with astonishment. “You know that?”

“And you're a fool!” she shot back, unrepentant.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a hand reached out and pinched Beckett on the lower neck near the shoulder. As she slumped down, Counselor Tolkath caught her, and laid the unconscious body back down on the stretcher.

“I should have known that bastard was going to pull something again,” Doctor Cromwell muttered with spite, referring to Kostya.

“This was a terrible mistake,” Leon turned back to disembodied voice. “Our leaders would never have allowed anyone to come here if they knew your children . . . your fractals . . . were on the surface.”

Looking back at the picture of Republic's life-or-death dilemma, Leon continued to plea his case.

“We will leave this place and not trouble you again . . . please, let our people go.”

*“We cannot allow this to happen again. The non must be punished.”*

“If you destroy us, and our ship you have trapped in your web, our leaders WILL be back, and in much greater numbers. When they find out what has happened, they will declare war. Many more of your fractals will die.

*”No! The fractals must survive!“*

“Then let us go, and they will. Our leaders will declare this place off-limits, and we will never return. Your fractals will prosper.”

*”The words on the non mean little to us. We cannot trust you.“*

“Then your fractals will perish.”

A moment of silence ensured where the unmoving picture of the Republic, caught in the Tholian web, turned Leon's stomach in knots.

“If we're to avoid war,” the doctor finally said. “And keep your fractals safe, you have to trust me . . . Please.”

Tensions on the bridge of the Republic were at an all-time high as consoles erupted into a shower of sparks and smoke permeated the air. Crewmen were frantically running to either stabilize a wounded comrade, or to secure a control station, or call for a damage team. Bathed in the pulsating red light, it seemed only those in the command pit were in control of the chaos, as Captain Roth and Commander Carter looked intently at the monitor ahead.

“Transfer all auxiliary power to shields!” shouted Carter, as a rear science station exploded.

“Stabilize energy reserves!” Roth followed. “I want all available power routed to the auxiliary batteries!”

“Decompression on forward decks eight and thirteen!” Lieutenant Zoe announced from tactical.

“Integrity fields on both nacelles failing!” Snyder said with a shaky voice at the helm. “The housings are beginning to buckle!”

“They're crushing us like a tin can . . .” Carter said ominously.

“Doctor,” Roth turned to Virtus in the counselor's seat. “I need a solution NOW!”

For his part, Victor Virtus did not remove his eyes from the console to his left. Dialing frantically, he replied, “we could try rotating the phaser frequencies, but I estimate only a 12.3 percent chance of being able to interrupt the Tholian web.”

“Tactical!” Roth turned her attention to Lieutenant Zoe. “Modulate forward phaser banks and cut this damned web loose!”

“Aye, captain,” came the response, and an orange beam shot towards the web matrix on the monitor. After a moment, the lieutenant shook her head, “no effect.”

“Again!” Roth ordered frantically, and another stream of fiery plasma erupted towards the shrinking energy net.

Without warning, the bridge stopped shaking, and the pulsating web on the monitor disappeared. Everyone on the bridge froze in place, confused at the sudden halt of destructive activity. The captain opened her mouth to speak, but before a word came out, the bridge exploded with multiple flashes of brilliant white light. As the blinding illumination subsided, the bridge crew gawked at the sudden appearance of nearly a hundred Starfleet personnel packing the now very crowded command center.

Carter didn't move. He only sat in his chair, staring at the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder directly in front of him. The commander turned his head slowly to his left to see an equally flummoxed captain, then reversed direction towards the science station, but found several more standing bodies blocking his view. The closest, who was actually in the command pit pinned between Carter's chair and the tactical arch anchored to the floor, wore a light-blue medical jumpsuit. Slowly, Carter's head tilted upward in controlled disbelief, and his eyes fell upon Leon Cromwell's face that bore an expression of mild yet surrendered irritation.

“Leon,” Carter greeted the doctor, as if they had casually met in the corridors of the ship.

“John,” the doctor returned the calm greeting, acting as if his sudden appearance and immediate standing location was the most normal situation in the galaxy. “You might want to think about leaving orbit.”

“Chief!” Carter turned to find himself shouting into the torsos of people standing directly in front of him.

“Aye sir?” came the muffled voice of Chief Rainier, far away at the ops station.

“Is everyone off the surface?”

“Aye sir.”

“Helm, set course 085. Best speed.”

“Engines engaged,” returned Snyder's strained voice, who had barely any elbow room to execute the command.

As the ship swerved away from Sigma Omicron and straightened to make a direct line towards Federation space, Carter turned back to Leon, who, out of no will of his own, remained exactly where he was.

“Care to explain this?” John asked Leon cautiously.

“All in good time,” the doctor replied. “First, I need a drink . . .”

Chapter 26: Second Star To The RightTop

Location: main bridge, USS Republic

The confusion on Republic's bridge was slowly reaching epidemic proportions when Kim Roth stood up to address the newly arrived guests. At the Ops position, Brad Rainier caught a wave from Roth out of the corner of his eye. “Attention on Deck!” he bellowed in his best `scare-the-hell-out-of-the-middies' voice. An instant later, the bridge was silent, save for the regular beeps, chirps and hum that came from a starship's normal functions.

“Thank you, Chief.” Roth surveyed the assembled group, nodding with approval. “It's good to see you again, and for those of you who were part of the station's compliment,” Roth again looked over the Chief, “We'll do our best to accommodate you.” She looked at the crowd again. “Where's Commander Madhava?” she asked, with an arched eyebrow.

“He's dead Captain,” Counselor Tolkath said matter of factly. Tolkath looked to his feet, at the still unconscious Dr. Samantha Beckett. “It seems Doctor Beckett had her own agenda.”

Roth nodded grimly. “I see,” the captain offered. “Everyone here get to Sickbay ASAP.” Roth looked at the clearly relieved Doctor Cromwell, “If we can prevail upon you, Doctor?”

Despite the ordeal of the last few hours, Leon felt an easy smile cross his face. “Permission to pass out afterwards, Captain?”

“Granted, Doctor,” she said, then turned to look at Rainier. “Chief? Lieutenant Snyder?” She asked the two crewmembers at the ops and helm consoles. “Can you get our guests squared away please?”

As Snyder stood up from the helm station, the COB was already in motion before the captain finished the order. “Leave it to us Captain,” he said, as they both headed to the turbolift and the crowd parted for him.

“Mister Carter,” Roth said, scanning the fast emptying bridge, “Take the helm please. We seem to have misplaced Mister Hawk.”

Location: Cargo Bay 2, USS Republic

The cargo bay's stillness was broken by the telltale whine of a transporter matter stream. An instant later, two space-suited forms hit the deck with an uncomfortable sounding thud.

“Sonuvabitch!” Nat Hawk yelled, rubbing the shoulder that had just slammed into the deck. “Jesus Burke!” Hawk cursed, looking back at his companion who was in a heap on the floor. “I thought you were the smart one! How did you get the transporters to hurt?”

“Wasn't easy . . . ” Burke coughed, then clawed at the helmet release for his environment suit. “Get me outta this thing, will ya?”

“Sure thing, Bruce,” Hawk commented as he knelt down to unlatch the engineer's helmet. In a flash, Hawk was twisting the helmet counter-clockwise, lifting it away from Burke's face. “So whaddid ya do?”

Burke coughed as he gulped fresh, albeit recycled air. “I set the station's transporters to send us out the minute Republic's shields were down. Didn't count on her moving though; hence the rough landing.”

Seeing Burke's greenish coloring, Hawk grimaced as he unfastened his own helmet. “So . . . we could have materialized in the middle of an explosion? Assumin' that's what mighta brought the shields down?”

“Could have, but didn't,” Burke said weakly. “Calculated risk.” The engineer's breathing was labored.

“Right. I'm never playing poker with you Brucey,” he quipped, then tapped Burke's comm badge. “Hawk ta Sickbay! Lock on for immediate transport!”

Burke was confused as he felt the tingle of a newly forming transporter field around him. “Wait . . . where are you . . . ”

Nat Hawk shook his head. “Can't believe I'm gonna say this, but I got a ship to save.”

Location: Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, Sol III

In the richly appointed halls of Starfleet HQ, Vladimir Kostya was weighing his options. He'd hoped that Kim Roth would play ball. Why wouldn't she? He'd offered her a chance to revive her career, to be instrumental in the defense of the Federation, to be a hero, but she'd thrown all that away with one simple word. `No one says no to me,' Kostya mused inwardly. `She'll learn that the hard way now'.

The next move would be crucial, Kostya knew. He'd have to play things closer to the vest then he had with the Cestus III affair. In that case, he'd relied too much on outside agencies. `Too many variables', he thought, `but this time I've got people I know I can trust.'

A chirp from the comm. system brought Kostya back to reality. Annoyed, he leaned forward and angrily stabbed at the control to take the call. “This better be important, Purvis!” he chided the Yeoman not five meters away in the office's receiving area.

“Yes, Admiral. Sorry to intrude sir, but we've just received word from Operations Control. They've lost contact with Allegiance, sir.”

Kostya went ashen. “What?”

“Operations confirms the loss of her transponder from the Intel grid at . . . . 1646 local.”

“1640 . . . that's over two hours ago! You're just telling me this now?”

“Apologies Admiral, but I wanted to be sure, and I wanted to go through proper . . . channels, sir.”

`Good', Kostya hissed silently. `At least the useless cow knows how to keep things quiet. That's something.' The head of Starship Operations cleared his throat. “What's the status of Republic?”

“Last report had her damaged, but functional. Intel's still got her signal on the plot.”

Kostya slammed his fist to the desktop. “How?” he blurted aloud. “How does that damned ship manage to slip away, every time?”

“Not sure Sir. I'll look into that for you.”

Rather than answer, Kostya simply punched the channel closed and fumed while the sun from a beautiful San Francisco day flooded through his office windows. The light didn't improve his dark mood.

Location: main engineering, USS Republic

Nat Hawk couldn't wait as the heavy doors leading to Republic's main engineering section. He anxiously squirmed through the doors and took off at a sprint for the vertical intermix chamber. As the central landmark for the room, it was impossible to miss. Hawk ignored a handful of questioning looks from the engineering staff as he walked toward the towering column.

“I don't want excuses, damn it!” Maria Pikita yelled from the upper observation platform, “just get those crystals re-aligned.” Maria huffed a long lock of hair out of her face and braced herself against the safety rail, surveying the lower portion of engineering's cavernous space.

She blinked in surprise. “Lieutenant Hawk? Is that you?” she called from above.

“The one and only, darlin'” Hawk said with a mock tip of the hat. “Lemme ask ya somethin'.” Hawk took a few steps around the intermix chamber, closer to the dilithium crystal armature. “How bad is an asymmetrical warp field?”

Pikita blinked. “Why do you want to know? And . . . ” she looked Hawk over again, “why are you wearing an environment suit?”

“No reason really,” Hawk said, as he pulled his phaser and pointed it at the crystal armature. “Jes' gotta few a bugs ta exterminate . . .”

Location: USS Republic, Main Bridge

John Carter, after relieving Lieutenant Snyder to help Chief Rainier with their guests, was pleased that he hadn't lost his edge as a helmsman. It had been months since he'd actually had to use the controls to steer Republic, but he always wanted to believe that he never stopped thinking like a helmsman. Apparently, he still was one. He checked the conn station's sensor plot, then looked back at the main viewer. “We'll clear the planet's subspace footprint in 45 seconds, Captain. Engineering has us cleared to warp out after then. Shall I set a course?”

Kim Roth waved her hand casually toward the main viewer. Set course for DS9. Maybe we can hide there for a while, seeing as how I just told our boss to go to hell.”

“I hear there's a future in piracy,” Carter offered casually.

Roth laughed out loud, an emotion she was surprisingly grateful for, considering the last few days. “You might be right XO,” she said. “After all, you're already dressed for it.”

Carter smiled. “Course set for DS9, Captain.”


Location: Captain's Ready Room, USS Republic

Kim Roth sipped at her cup of mocha. It was late in the afternoon, ship time, and normally she limited her use of caffeine, to say nothing of chocolate, but she was a woman without a career, and damn it, she was entitled to treat herself. Republic's Captain looked down briefly at the lithe form resting on the arm of her chair, and scratched the small creature under its chin. “I guess you needed the rest too, eh stinker?”

Smoke bleaked in the affirmative.

“Is that all, XO?”

Across the table, John Carter rubbed the back of his neck, a clear sign that, even though Republic was out of danger for the time being, he was still finding it hard to relax. “Well, I'm still waiting for Hawk's official report on what went on down in Engineering, but Pakita's own account of things was actually pretty even-handed.” Carter shook his head. “I still can't believe he did it, but according to Pikita and Vic, it did the trick; unorthodox or not.”

Kim closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth of her drink, allowing herself to smile. “I think you just summed up the man himself.”

“I suppose so, Carter agreed. Then he mentally brushed the thought aside as his face turned more serious. “In all seriousness Captain, what's our next move? I have to tell you, I don't like the idea of `hiding' as you put it, even if DS9 is the best port in the storm.” Carter forced himself to straighten up, making his family's `Old Man Noise' in the process. “This little nightmare makes twice that Kostya's tried to pull the Federation into a war, and he was using us to do it. Now, don't get me wrong Captain,” Carter said wrapping his fingers around the back of his chair, “I'm glad you told him off, gods know, but he's got connections, and criminal or not, he's still an Admiral! Whatever we're going to do,” he urged the brunette across from him, ” we can't do it alone, no matter how much I want to snap the sprocking weasel's neck. “

Roth calmly set her china cup down beside her, on the desktop. “Point taken, Number One, and we're not going to be alone when we do move against Kostya, but we have to get our own house in order first. That means fixing the ship and getting the crew squared, and DS9 is the best place to do that. I signaled them to expect us just after my conversation with Kostya during our Tholian engagement. After that fiasco, there's no way I'm taking us back to 39 Sierra.” Roth looked the tall Martian who was her second-in-command in the eye. “Carter,” she said, with the barest hint of motherliness in her voice, “This isn't the time to strap on the six guns and ride for justice. We've got to be smart.”

Carter nodded. He knew she was right, but the thought of inaction made part of him want to scream.

Meanwhile, Roth continued. “I've been in contact with other members of the Flag Staff. “We're not the only one's Kostya's managed to leave twisting. We've got friends. I just have to FIND them.”

“Speaking of finding,” Carter said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “We've still got a missing Ops Chief and a stolen shuttle to track down.”

Again, Roth nodded. She noted that she seemed to do that a lot in her First Officer's presence. “I've had a thought or two on that, but I want to run something by you first?”

Roth's explanation was cut short by the door chime.

“Come,” Roth answered. A second later, the hatch slid open and Zoë Beauvais, late of the USS Allegiance entered.

Zoë looked at Carter, giving the monocular officer a polite nod. “Sorry to intrude ma'am,” she offered, “I can come back later if you like?” She took a half step back toward the hatch.

Instead, Roth waved the young Lieutenant in. “Not at all, Lieutenant,” she offered warmly. “Have a seat. We were just talking about you.”

Zoë put that information at the back of her mind. The wound on her forehead was itching, but tolerable. The medics had enough on their hands with everyone else mysteriously showing up on the bridge all at once. “Ma'am,” she explained, I've got Dr. Beckett secured in the brig. She's still demanding counsel. I felt I had no choice but to pass on her request to HQ.”

Roth rolled her eyes. Much as she disliked the political state of the Federation at the moment, and despite the fact that she'd ignored orders from her immediate superior, Republic's captain couldn't bring herself to deny Samantha Beckett rights that were guaranteed to her by the Articles of Federation. Roth shot Carter a sympathetic look. “Wonderful,” she said woefully, “more lawyers.”

“Not for a while, Ma'am,” Zoë explained. “It was the oddest thing . . . the subspace array was down for repair, so I had to settle for carrier wave.”

Carter laughed out loud. “You used the radio?”

“Yes, Sir,” Zoë smiled.

“Well that should buy us a couple of centuries.”

Roth nodded. “That sorts Doctor Beckett until we can transfer her DS9. I think it's best if we keep that particular ace up our sleeve for now.” Captain Roth gave the young Tactical Officer an appraising look. “Lieutenant, have you thought much about your future?”

“Always thinking about it Ma'am, in order to get the job done properly. I was thinking about heading back to the London, seeing that I am technically on vacation right now when I got pulled into a side assignment that would have me back before the London would miss me. It was a poor choice, in my opinion, to take it. I don't like to go against the orders given me, Captain,” Zoë continued, “but that woman, Captain MacDonald, was hard to work with in the first place. It was either do the job or get kicked out of the Fleet. I didn't have much choice but to moonlight that assignment.”

Roth nodded. “Fair enough,” she commented, “but I'd like you to consider making your assignment on Republic permanent.”

“Ma'am?” Zoë stammered.

“What?” Carter returned. The tall man's face flushed. “Now wait a minute, Captain,” he protested, looking over toward Zoë. “No offense to Lieutenant Beauvais, but we just lost Dazing, and I don't know that putting another stranger at Tactical is what the crew needs right now.”

Carter pivoted to look the Lieutenant in the eye. “I swear Lieutenant, this isn't personal. You did a hell of a thing, stepping up when you came aboard, and I do want to thank you for that.”

“But?” Captain Roth commented.

“But we've had nothing but trouble getting anyone other than myself and McTaggart up to speed at Tactical, and frankly, the kid deserves a shot.”

Roth nodded. “I agree,” she said coolly, “but not aboard this ship.”

“Why the hell not!? . . . Ma'am?” he added awkwardly.

“Aside from Doctors Cromwell and Virtus, is there anyone onboard you trust more than McTaggart?” Roth asked pointedly.

“No, Captain. Which is why I want him at Tac.”

“I understand that,” the captain affirmed, “but since we can agree that Lieutenant McTaggart is above reproach, and given how fond you are of Mister Forrest, it seems to me that McTaggart is the perfect choice to watch over your favorite Black Shirt.”

Carter nodded, seeing the logic of Roth's position. “So you're figuring?”

“I'm figuring to let Forrest do what he does best.” She paused, taking another sip of mocha. “Once we get to DS9, I'll turn Forrest and McTaggart over to Captain Kira so that Forrest can find our lost sheep. If McTaggart is there, then it allows me two things. First,” Roth explained, holding up a finger, “we'll know what's happened to Kuga, and our own people can keep it quiet.”

Carter nodded, exchanging glances with Zoë, who felt a little like a fly on the wall. Meanwhile, the Captain continued.

“Second, if McTaggart does the job you and I both think he will, then it will only help his career.”

Carter once again folded his arms across his chest. “So, you've already made your mind up about this?”

“Not at all,” Roth shook her head. “I'll leave it up to McTaggart of course. It's his decision, but I think he'll take the opportunity. For now, I just wanted you to understand where I was coming from.”

Carter smirked. “Well, I do appreciate that.” The XO added.

“I thought you might.” Roth pivoted in her chair, looking again at the young Lieutenant. “So what do you say, Lieutenant Beauvais? Can we put you to work?”

“Sounds good. I think right now the best place for me would be here. There are many different people upset by our course of action and I can only imagine it getting worse with the destruction of the Allegiance. I was left out of the loop for it all you understand, but I have seen, no matter what, the ripple effects stretch to the deepest part of space. I'm your woman,” she said with a heavy heart. It displeased her the course of action that her career had taken, but now she had to do what she had to do to salvage it.

“Good,” Roth said to the pair, pleased that she'd managed to diffuse what could have been a tricky situation. “I'll let the two of you sort out the details, but there's no rush. We've still got a few days before we put in at DS9.”

Carter turned to Zoë. “I'm due to meet Doctor Harris on the Hill in 20 mics, Lieutenant. Why don't you join us? No time like the present.”

“The Hill, sir?” she asked quite curious. Through all the years of battle, she had seen many different uses for the term, 'The Hill'.

“It's our lounge, Lieutenant,” Carter corrected, “A hold-over from the ship's days as the Saratoga.”

“This ship was the Saratoga?” Zoë said in surprise. “I had no idea.” With new appreciation for her surroundings, Zoë looked the Ready Room over. “There's a lot of history on this ship.”

“I hope you're up to making some, Lieutenant.” Captain Roth offered.

“I can do that. Just let me stop by sickbay first and get myself attended to, Commander. Shall we say, 1700?”

“Sure,” John nodded. “See you then.”

archives/den_of_lions.txt · Last modified: 2020/12/14 06:10 by site_admin