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Walking Wounded

Chapter 1: A Simple Twist of FateTop

Location: Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, North America, Sol III

It was towards the end of the workday when the blonde desk secretary looked up from her screen to see a tall, gray-haired admiral strut through the doors. Although his clean-shaven face was calm with soft wrinkles, his blue eyes were ablaze with rage as he completely ignored the protesting ensign in command red at the desk.

“Sir?” she stood up. “Sir! You can't go in there!”

Passing through the reception lobby, Admiral Kostya set his focus on the doors in front of him. As they opened, Rear Admiral Pamela Krockover stood in the center of her office with her Vulcan aide camp, Ensign S'kak, standing next to her in conversation. The two officers immediately halted their exchange as Kostya marched into the room.

“What the hell do you think you're doing, Krockover?” the admiral bellowed at the aging rear admiral with short grey hair.

Realizing his fervor, Krockover looked back to S'kak.

“Would you mind getting the admiral and I some coffee?” she peacefully asked. “Cream and sugar in mine.” Turning back to Kostya, she offered him his choice of condiments. “Any cream or sugar for you, sir?”

“Why did you counterman my criminal investigation order?” Kostya ignored the latter question, determined to have his own as the center of conversation.

“Nothing for the admiral,” Krockover turned back to S'kak. As the Vulcan officer left the room, the doors closed, and the junior admiral gave Kostya her full attention.

“I'm sorry, sir,” Krockover offered. “I thought that Criminal Investigation Command fell under the JAG office, not operations.”

“One of my ships was destroyed, and I want to find out WHY!”

“Captain Roth's official report indicated that there was no basis for a criminal investigation. The Republic's sensor logs confirm everything she reported. Allegiance was destroyed in a diplomatic incident with the Tholians.”

“That's not good enough!” Kostya demanded. “I know that Republic's command staff had something to do with it!”

“Unfortunately,” Krockover replied. “My superiors disagree. I'm sorry sir, but there will be no investigation.”

“It doesn't matter,” the senior admiral sneered. “When Republic gets back to 39-Sierra, I'll drag Carter and his merry band of do-gooders off that heap and throw them in the stockade! They WON'T get away with causing the destruction of the Allegiance!”

“If memory serves,” Krockover replied. “The Allegiance was under covert orders from you to attack any non-Federation vessels in orbit of Sigma Omicron Five. Those orders were in conflict with Republic's, which were to solve the mystery of the terraforming malfunctions.”

“I was acting on the basis of a possible external threat causing the malfunctions! Lives were at stake if Allegiance hesitated upon entering the sector!”

“And how did you know of this 'external threat', admiral?” she questioned. “Republic didn't know of any outside influences until they discovered the planet was a Tholian hatchery. Did you know something that they didn't?”

Krockover, taking lessons from her Vulcan subordinate over the years, learned to keep her emotions suppressed during a heated debate; a tool she found useful in her position. Her question caused Kostya to hesitate, and as she noticed a small amount of sweat forming on his forehead, knew that she had caught him at an impasse. However, due to the clandestine nature of the Allegiance's orders, there was no way to prove that Kostya was the true cause of her demise. Still, the admiral's silence was her personal affirmation to his guilt.

“No matter,” Krockover pushed the subject aside. “Republic did the best she could under the circumstances, and if it were not for her, Allegiance's entire crew would be dead. As it stands, more than a dozen of her officers owe their lives to the Republic's quick actions. Commendations will be awarded once she arrives at Deep Space Nine.”

“Commendations?!” the senior admiral interjected with provocation. “That's outrag . . .” Kostya paused in mid-sentence. “What do you mean Deep Space Nine? I've assigned her to Starbase 39-Sierra!”

“Yes you did, admiral,” she replied. “However, Republic has recently been reassigned, and their mission no longer falls under the central Operations Command.”

“Impossible!” he spouted. “No other Starfleet office can take control over operational forces except for OpsCom! I'M in control of fleet forces, and Republic will be assigned to EXACTLY where I decide!”

“I'm afraid you're in error, admiral.”

“Oh, and what did you do? Transfer Republic to freighter duty? Or perhaps she's an in-system courier now?” It was clear by Kostya's tone that he was being sarcastic.

“Actually,” Krockover responded calmly. “Republic has been assigned directly to the Office for Research and Exploration.”

“WHAT?” he shouted. “Galaxy Exploration Command is the controlling authority for exploration vessels! Research and Exploration NEVER has starships assigned directly to them!”

“Research and Exploration has many vessels available to them, admiral,” the rear admiral countered him. “Republic is no different.”

“Are you kidding?! Those are unarmed civilian research vessels! Not heavy cruisers! Did Janeway put you up to this? I remind you, Krockover! I outrank you!”

“Yes, admiral,” Krockover replied smoothly. “You do. But I have no control over these matters. Republic now falls under the auspice of Research and Exploration, and she's due to commence deep space exploration operations in the Gamma Quadrant.”

“Are you telling me that a bunch of scientists in the Blue Towers are going to issue orders to a Galaxy Class starship?!”

The elderly woman was unmoved. “Admiral Paris has the authority and the right to assign vessels to special duty whenever he sees fit. If you have problems with the transfer of Republic, I suggest you take it up with him.”

“Paris?” a stunned Kostya replied. “The C-in-C overruled my authority?”

“If that's what you wish to call it,” Krockover answered. “However, I doubt you'll get him to change his mind. Starfleet was publicly humiliated by the incident at Cestus Three, and by sending Republic to a remote part of the frontier for a while, the Fleet Admiral is allowing the political environment to cool down here in the Alpha Quadrant. Do you disagree with that strategy? Or should we have Republic's constant presence in the core systems remind the press corps of Starfleet's blunder that handed a Federation planet over to the Gorns?”

Although it was only a few seconds, the time that passed where Kostya and Krockover stared at one another in silence seemed like an eternity.

“This isn't over, Krockover,” the admiral hissed through gritted teeth before spinning around and exiting the office. Pam looked at the door for a long time after he left.

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic

“Hold still, please,” admonished the Extremely Marginal Housecall, mark whatever-the-hell-model-number this one was.

“Maybe if ya weren't fritzin' like a half-dead light bulb, I wouldn't have ta hold still. Ever think a that?” Hawk challenged as the hologram – whose photons continued to seep from his force fields – ran a dermal regenerator over a cut on his forehead. Though his remark was quickly followed by an increase in the severity of dermal regeneration, causing a minor sting for a half-second, Hawk verbalized nothing more. Though he did offer the hologram a cold stare that threatened de-compilation of his program.

“There, all done.” reported the hologram, as he deactivated the dermal regenerator and withdrew the device from Hawk's forehead. “Now really, was that so difficult?” questioned the doctor, his British accent unintentionally cutting his sarcasm in half.

“Can I get outta here now?” was Hawk's only response, still fuming over being relegated to the hologram's care. Granted, Republic's sickbay had been over-flowing with casualties for nearly twenty hours, ever since her close encounter with the tholian web. As such, her entire staff had been on-call for the bulk of that time, only recently dwindling back in numbers as many retired for much needed rest.

Still, he had saved the ship. He felt such a deed entitled him to at least a modicum of preferential treatment, at least as far as health care was concerned. If not for his intervention, the Republic would likely be a debris field at the moment. Certainly, the medical staff could have provided him with at least a flesh and blood individual to tend his wounds. Even a med-tech would have sufficed over the current photonic foible of Starfleet.

“Not just yet, I'm afraid.” responded the hologram with an obviously contrived and forced smile across his lips.

Flopping back on the bio-bed as if he had just been shot with a phaser, Hawk sighed – loudly. “What n'the hell else could ya possibly need ta fix? I feel fine!” Hawk protested.

“A good sign, certainly, considering you came in here with multiple contusions, abrasions, broken ribs, internal bleeding, sprained joints, not to mention suffering from physical, if not mental, exhaustion.” replied the Emergency Medical Hothead, as he scanned the contents of a PADD.

“Yeah, well, that's 'bout normal fer me after most away missions,” Hawk stated, pushing himself up and off of the bio-bed, “so unless you've got somethin' more serious n'that, I'm outta here.” he added, without looking back at the hologram.

“Lieutenant!” the hologram shouted after him.

Irritated, Hawk stopped and groaned, before spinning on his heel as he began to tear into the hologram. “Ya know, yer the most annoying, irritating, pain-in-the-ass…” he stopped then, suddenly, as he laid eyes upon Captain Kimberly Roth standing next to the hologram. “Uh… sorry, ma'am. I was just, uhm…” he stammered, at a loss for words.

Putting up a hand, Roth shook her head gently from side-to-side, a slight smile creasing her lips, “It's alright, Lieutenant,” she assured him promptly, before turning her gaze towards the EMH next to her. “Thank you, doctor, you're assistance was invaluable.” she stated with an appreciate bow.

The hologram, for his part, smiled broadly at his captain and nodded with respect and gratitude for her approval. It seemed even holograms appreciated the ego stroke of their captain.

“You're dismissed.” Roth then told the program, who obliged without response, retreating to another ward of the vast sickbay facility. Turning to Hawk, she narrowed her eyes for a moment as if gauging him, before extending her arm towards the nearest egress. “Walk with me, Lieutenant.” she asked without asking, as Captain's so often do.

“Alright.” he replied, mildly confused, as he stepped to the door. As it opened, he waited and allowed her to step out into the corridor before him, before joining her. He wasn't sure what this was all about, but typically, when a Captain wanted to talk to him as it seemed Roth did, it wasn't something good…

“My apologies for the doctor,” she began without pause as they moved down the corridor, her hands clasped behind her back, “I wasn't sure how long my communiqué would last, and wanted to speak with you in a setting you might find more comfortable.” she told him, glancing to him for a reaction. Seeing his befuddled furrowed brow, she explained further, “the ready room can be disquieting to some, intimidating to others.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess so.” Hawk replied, as they turned a bend.

“I was impressed with how you handled your first command,” Roth revealed, “your own after action report stated the facts and events well, but those of the rest of your team offered considerably more insight into your strengths, as well as your weaknesses, as far as command situations go.” the Captain stated. “Granted, you took a few right turns where I would have turned left, a risk that some may have viewed as unnecessary, but that's not to say any of those choices where the wrong ones to make. Sometimes, it's not about the decisions themselves, so much as you're ability to make them in critical situations.” Roth imparted upon him. Hawk, for his part, simply nodded in silent agreement, unsure what - if anything - to say.

“There's one portion of you're report though, that's rather vague.” she said, slowing to a stop. Looking Hawk in the eyes, she continued. “Hranok, Evok, whichever you prefer. How exactly did he perish?” Roth questioned, her eyes trained upon his in a search for the truth.

Taking a deep breath, Nat paused for a moment before offering his response and explanation. “He took his own life.”

“I see.” Roth stated, not taking her gaze from his. It was stern, yet without actual accusation. As if a dark thought had crossed her mind, but the seed hadn't taken.

Exhaling, Hawk recalled those moments, knowing she required more explanation. “We'd made it back ta Station Ops. Least, what was left of it. Place was comin' down 'round us, magma meltin' the place from the foundation up. Mid-way 'cross Ops, he pushed me away suddenly. Deck plates started ta heave, give way. There was no way ta save 'em.” Hawk apprised her. “I can't say fer sure why he did it,” Hawk stated, “but n'my experience, when someone working for the Syndicate fails in their task, suicide usually seems like a good option to 'em. Protects their family, at least.”

For a moment, Roth said nothing, her features stoic as a Vulcan. “Alright,” she commented finally. “next time, be sure to include such details in your official reports.” she admonished.

“Yes ma'am.” Hawk acknowledged.

Resuming their walk through the corridors of the Republic, Roth turned their conversation to another matter. “Starfleet Intelligence likely isn't going to be satisfied with your safety aboard the Republic any longer. I was curious what you thought on the matter.”

“Ta be blunt ma'am, SI ain't happy with anything, anytime.” Hawk countered. “They'll likely pitch a fit, try ta re-assign me, likely standard protective detail. They've got the weaker hand, though, ma'am. I hold all the top cards, n'they know it. I'll deal with them when the time comes.”

“Remaining aboard may cost you any credit you have left with them.” Roth cautioned.

“That don't matter much ta me. First time in a helluva long time, I feel like I belong here. I ain't givin' that up just cause they got their britches in a twist.” Hawk concluded.

“Lieutenant,” she said, stopping once again, this time with the twinge of a smile creasing the corners of her mouth, “that's exactly what I was hoping you would say.”

Chapter 2: Homeward BoundTop

Location: Chief Helmsman's quarters, USS Republic
Shiptime: 07:52 hours (next day)

Looking at himself in the mirror over his bureau, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk scrutinized his appearance. Nothing was any different than it had been in the days and weeks past, mind you. He simply felt different. Felt even as if he looked different. Which made no logical sense, as much as he hated to consider logic. All of his career though, he had seen a slightly different reflection each morning. It unnerved him now to see such a difference in himself.

Taking sight of the chronometer, he took a deep breath before heading out the door. Walking briskly down the corridor, he darted into a turbolift as the doors closed, and called out for his destination: the Main Bridge. As the lift ascended, he tried to ignore the fleeting glances from others. It was as if they too could see something different in him, could see a change.

As they slowed to a stop, the doors parting to admit those inside to the bridge, Hawk felt himself tense. For a moment, no one moved. None of the occupants exited, none of those waiting beyond the door frame entering. It took him a moment to realize why. Stepping forward onto the darkened command center, it's lights dimmed for night watch, he made his way down the narrow ramp.

His instinct was to take his station, the Helm. Today was going to be different, though. As he imagined many days would be from now on.

Turning to his right, he stepped towards the Junior Lieutenant seated in Commander Carter's normal position. The Junior Lieutenant, in turn, rose and offered a PADD to Hawk. Accepting it, he surveyed it's contents and nodded.

“Night shift is relieved, begin day watch.” he announced after a moment.

Without pause, the lights increased in intensity, and officers funneled in and out of the turbolifts, swapping assignments. It was an abnormal scene for him to watch, at least from his perspective. It was downright weird to watch Lieutenant Jack Snyder take the Helm instead of himself. Weird was part of the job, though.

With a moments hesitation, Hawk turned his back to the Executive Officers post, before sitting back in the seat itself. He felt out of place, to say the least. Glancing to his right and to the Captain's unoccupied chair, he was thankful for not having to leap that particular hurtle today. 'Someday, though…' he heard his mind say.

But not today.

Today was just one small step.

“Sir,” prompted the Ops officer on duty. “Sir?”

Off-guard, it took Hawk a moment to realize that the prompting was meant for him.

“Yeah?” he said at first. “Er, uh, yes ensign?” he recovered.

“Sir, our lateral sensor array is out of alignment by point-twenty-one microns. Should I re-align? We would need to drop out of warp.” reported the Ensign.

'My first command decision…' he thought to himself.

“No, ensign.” he replied. “Mark it down fer later.” he ordered.

“Yes sir.” replied the ensign from ops.

Glancing at the stars streaking by before him on the view screen for a moment, he shook his head and smiled at the irony of things, of life, and of his present circumstances, and suddenly felt more like himself.

“And ensign,” he addressed the Ops officer again.

“Yes sir?” he queried.

“Don't call me sir n'less where 'bout ta explode.” said the Second Officer with a wink and a grin…

“Captain on the bridge,” shouted Chief Rainier at the ops station. Kim Roth strolled out of her ready room, causing the bridge crew to turn and look at her momentarily before returning to their duties. For her part, Kim walked casually into the command pit where Lieutenant Nat Hawk sat comfortably in the command chair.

Since his return as first-time away team leader at Sigma Omicron, Hawk was bestowed with extra duties to help hone his leadership abilities by the captain – which included time on the bridge as the CDO, or command duty officer. Normally, this rotating position was shared amongst the senior officers with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and above, but occasionally, a selected number of junior officers would be chosen to perform the task. As head of the navigation department, Nat was a natural choice for such a duty, but due to disciplinary problems and the unusual nature of Republic's latest missions, the chief helmsman had not the chance (or perhaps, the desire) to serve in the center seat. However, recent events had changed both Hawks attitude towards the Republic's chain-of-command, as well as his senior officers' opinions of him – each for the better. As it turns out, the missing ingredient for Nat to dutifully accept orders from his immediate superiors, as well as his their own ability to confide in his judgment, was a simple matter of trust. The life-and-death scenarios of recent weeks served to establish this vital link, as everyone aboard the Republic found themselves in dire straights with no one but themselves to rely upon in order to survive.

“Enjoying your new duties, Mister Hawk?” Captain Roth asked with amusement. Nat looked up to his skipper with a devil-may-care grin and replied, “Heck, it ain't all that different from the con, ma'am. I jus' have to remember that there'r other stations on the ship 'sides the helm.”

With raised eyebrows, the assistant helmsman, Lieutenant Snyder, turned from the navigation controls momentarily to look at the two officers with amusement.

“Does this mean I'm stuck with a double shift?” Jack Snyder commented to his departmental head. “Or do I have to call you 'sir' now?”

“Pfft,” Nat waved his hand, getting up from the captain's chair. “Even if I said yes to either, y'wouldn't do it.”

The exchange brought forth chuckles from several of the bridge crew as Hawk relieved Snyder at the helm console, and Captain Roth took the command chair with a smile.

“Careful, gentlemen,” she warned in jest. “One of you is liable to make Lieutenant Commander before too long, and I'd hate to see the other in a court-martial due to insubordination.” As she crossed her legs and adjusted her duty jacket, it was clear the captain was enjoying the light-hearted atmosphere. It was an environment she worked hard to cultivate over the past few weeks since Sigma Omicron, ensuring that her officers were not afraid to be themselves in front of their commander. Although every leader has their way of gaining trust and respect from their subordinates, this relaxed, friendly manner was Kim's own method, and the crew responded positively. She was never worried about anyone taking advantage of her laid-back form of leadership, for if there were ever a question that someone was stepping over the line, either Commander Carter or Chief Rainier would put them in their place.

As if almost on cue, the port-aft turbolift doors parted, and Commander John Carter, accompanied by Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais, walked out onto the bridge. They passed Lieutenant Snyder coming off shift, and as doors closed once again, the newcomers proceeded to their stations.

“Well, it's official,” Carter announced, walking down the side of the command pit.

Roth looked over her shoulder in curiosity. “Number One?” she inquired.

“Starfleet has approved the transfer request,” John explained. “Lieutenant Beauvais is now a member of Republic's crew.”

For her part, Zoe smiled silently as she took her post at the tactical station.

Kim, however, was slightly more somber at the thought of Lieutenant Danzig and his premature departure from the realm of the living. After allowing a brief moment of mourning, the captain smiled and turned to the new tactical officer.

“That's good news . . . Welcome to the family, lieutenant.”

“Approaching destination coordinates in three minutes, mark,” announced Nat from the helm as Carter took his seat to the captain's right.

“Take us out of warp at your convenience, Mister Hawk,” Captain Roth ordered, and moments later, the main viewscreen changed from the streaked starlines of faster-than-light travel to normal space.

At first, it was only an insignificant speck in the vast backdrop of pulsating stars, but as the Galaxy-Class starship slowly moved closer, the dimly lit object took shape. Initially, a thin metallic disk emerged, with diffuse starlight splashing across its axis, and highlighting the merest hint of something other than black space. As the monolithic structure smoothly exposed tertiary sets of dorsal and ventral spires, the disk revealed itself to be not a solid form, but a hollow ring, complete with a central hub and radial spokes. Boasting a taupe hull of minute and intricate plating carved into its fascia, lit portholes and windows beamed with the presence of civilization. Small craft and courier ships flew silently to and fro the ring-edge docking ports, while larger capital ships remained coupled to the apex of the mooring spires.

The station was not so much a utilitarian hulk as it was a towering example of Cardassian architecture. Despite the temperament of its creators, this was not the inhuman form of a mere mining station; it was a work of art. No Starfleet facility bore more beauty and poise than this metropolis-in-space, for no matter the species, all who gazed upon her form could feel the striking presence of an honored landmark; a placeholder of history.

Captain Roth slowly stood up from her chair, gazing with respect and admiration at the viewscreen. Although other members of the bridge remained at their positions to maintain ship operations, no one could ignore the spectacle ahead. As the crew became entranced, Kimberly, without removing her eyes from the viewer, cued Lieutenant Beauvais at tactical.

“Hail the dockmaster,” she ordered. “Request permission to commence docking procedures.”

As the lieutenant keyed in the request, she nodded silently in response upon completion of the task.

“Greetings Republic, this is Deep Space Nine,” returned the authoritarian voice over the subspace comm. “Your transfer of operational command has been confirmed by Starfleet Headquarters, and you're cleared to dock at gangway two. Welcome home.”

“Republic acknowledges,” Roth replied.

Location: Conference Room Three, Deep Space Nine

Four Starfleet officers entered the conference room, all wearing operations-branch uniforms. The four took seats next to each other at one end of the table as a tall, dark man turned around to face them.

“I know all of you have been waiting along time to be reassigned, and I can imagine some of the misgivings you feel towards Starfleet Personnel Command at the moment regarding the issuance of your orders.”

“That's an understatement” whispered Ensign Palrak, sarcastically to the others.

Admiral Ross continued to talk, “Ensign Palrak and Ensign Ken'du, you are to report to Captain Johnson on the USS Fearless for you new assignments, Lieutenant Merrick and Ensign Jenkins, you are to report to Captain Roth on the USS Republic.”

Ensign Palrak gawked as replied with an outburst, “Oooh man… You're splitting up one of the best operations teams in the quadrant!”

“I'm sorry,” stated Admiral Ross. “Normally we wouldn't do something like this, but the Republic and Fearless are in need of good quality officers.”

“Thank you Admiral,” said Reia, trying to keep the briefing formal. “I am glad you think highly of us.”

“Good luck on your new assignments… Dismissed” concluded Admiral Ross.

The four officers stood up and began to leave the conference room.

“Wow, that was a short briefing…” commented Ensign Ken'du

Ensign Palrak sighed, replying “heh, maybe the Admiral wanted to apologize to us in person.”

“Yea… sucks that we're being split up,” said Ensign Ken'du sadly.

“Lieutenant Merrick… a moment please?” asked Admiral Ross.

“Sir?” inquired Reia as she turned around.

The doors slid shut, leaving only Admiral Ross and Reia in in the room. Ross walked over to a table with a pile of PADDS.

“How well do you know Ensign Jenkins?” asked Admiral Ross, walks back towards Reia with a PADD in hand.

“Off the record sir?” inquired Reia.

“This is all off the record lieutenant,” said Admiral Ross as he sat down. “Intelligence reports that Ensign Jenkins may be working for a covert group within Section 31, and that group appears to have some interest in one of Republic's officers.”

Reia sighed, not sure what she was about to get into. “I take it my assignment on the Republic will be more just working in Operations?” she inquired.

Admiral Ross dropped a PADD on the table, sliding it over to Reia. “Ensign Naruko Kuga. She's the current Chief of Operations on the Republic. Just before the Republic was attacked by the Tholians, she disappeared and was picked up by the Runabout Vaal several days later. I want you to play detective for me… find out more about the group that Ensign Jenkins is working for and their interest in Ensign Kuga.”

Reia felt as if she was being pushed, yet she wanted to affirm the admiral's trust in her. “Aye, aye, sir”

Location: Tolkath Home, Betazed

As the matriarch entered the room, the Tolkaths noticed she was not alone. At the sight of the unexpected guest Yaxara gasped slightly. Thoughts concerning her presence flooded Mrs. Tolkath with fear.

After a moment of awkward silence, Kestra introduced her friend. “Yaxara, Jaren, you know Admiral Janeway.”

Yaxara was the first to speak, the words stumbling out of her mouth. “Is everything . . . is everything. . .”

Janeway intervened to calm the worries of the anxious mother. “Yes everything is alright; Reittan is fine as far as I know.” She continued, “I wanted to be here personally to hear the outcome of the debate today. After all, it does concern us all.”

“Speaking of decisions,” Jaren began, walking closer to the two with his hands behind his back, “what is the outcome?”

At news of the amendment's passing, there was a collective sigh of relief; Reittan was safe, for the time being.

The admiral continued, “I have locked out his records, so anyone trying to get to them has to go through me. That also means I will be alerted to anyone requesting his records.”

The lights within the home had come to life as the last ray of light disappeared behind the horizon.

“Where are our manners?” Kestra suddenly asked. “Here,” she said, “sit down.”

As they were moving over to the chairs Yaxara asked, “We have been wondering about this last transfer, to the Republic . . . if you . . .

“If I had anything to do with it?” the Admiral interjected. “Yes, I did. I felt . . . he was needed the most there. Don't worry,” she continued, “he is in good hands there.” The admiral paused stared out the window as if in deep thought. “Very good hands . . .”

Just as suddenly as the reflective mood had overtaken the Admiral, it took its leave.

After sitting down and getting comfortable, the four continued in conversation that carried on late into the night.

Location: Counselor's quarters, USS Republic

The Counselor, exhausted from the latest mission sat down at his desk. The flashing view-screen caught his attention, alerting him of a new message.

As Tolkath adjusted the screen to his view, he let out a drained sigh. He suddenly twisted the chair, stood up and then headed toward the shower, the messages could wait. He stretched his aching body and removed his starfleet uniform.

Being a counselor, Starfleet afforded some relaxed regulations regarding attire required to be worn while on duty. The Lieutenant Commander wore his uniform with pride while on duty; this practice avoided ill feelings of others because of the extended luxury of being able to work casually.

After cleaning up and dressing into a jump suit, the counselor laid down on his Vulcan bed and was about to close his eyes. Out of the corner of his eye he suddenly noticed the priority of the message. How he had missed it earlier, eluded his mind; he was more tired than he realized.

He quickly rose and traversed his way over to his desk. Looking closer he noticed he had received two messages while he was away. The first was from his mother, the second was encrypted.”

“Computer,” he said slightly anxious, “display message two.”

“Authorization?” the computer voice inquired.


At the recognition of the code, the view-screen began to fill with color. As the image materialized the Counselor's eyebrow raised inquisitively.

“Counselor Tolkath,” the familiar voice began. “We have a slight problem.” The admiral then paused. It was the two second pause and the concern in the admiral's voice that alerted Reittan to the possible severity of the situation. “Someone aboard the Republic has repeatedly tried to access your records. And when I say repeatedly, I don't mean one or two times or in the same manner. This person has been persistent in trying to get your records. So be alert. And congratulations, I just left your home on Betazed. This is a small, yet great victory. Janeway out.”

The counselor began to become increasingly more uneasy, and frankly quite confused. “Congratulations? What does that mean?”

The pain of someone giving birth in sickbay, floated to his conscious, then ebbed away into the sea of voices and emotions. Reittan was not surprised by this event, it often occurred when empaths were exhausted beyond reason. But, even these strong feelings did not sway the Counselor's focus.

The Lieutenant Commander continued to try to decipher the Admiral's message. His records slightly concerned him, but oddly enough it was the congratulatory part that held his attention.

“Computer, save message.” Reittan would get back to it later when he was more mentally astute.

Fearing retribution if he could not say he had gotten right to her message as soon as he could upon further contact with his mother, Reittan opened the message to hear her voice.

“Reittan, dear, it's me.”

The counselor rolled his eyes and said to himself, “of course it's you mother, who else would it be?”

As soon as he had finished the thought, his mother continued, “Don't get smart.”

Reittan shuddered and wondered, “How does she do that?”

“Dear, the Council has ruled on the amendment.”

This news riveted the Counselor's attention to his mother.

“They ruled in favor of amending the Code of Sentience. The usage of telepathy can be used in self defense, or in the event of war.”

Reittan was filled with exuberance; the fatigue of the previous assignment melted away and the admiral's message finally made sense.

“I know you are really excited, it has come as a great relief to us to, contact us when you get back from saving the Federation. Love you.” The face of Yaxara Tolkath faded into the blackness of the view-screen.

“It passed!!!” The thought repeated over and over in Tolkath's head. Years of worry and dread had been eased somewhat. It passed. Even the weaving in and out of the pain from the current birth couldn't dampen his day.

Reittan walked over to the window of his quarters and watched the stars slide by, while the Republic was making her journey towards DS9. His shift would begin in a few hours, he bathed in his excitement for a while more, then went to sleep.

Location: Chief Tactical Officer's Quarters, USS Republic
Shiptime: 1645

Zoe had gone through and gotten herself adjusted to the new quarters that she had. She was never one to have too many belongings – nothing that she couldn't just replicate. Her cut on her head had been repaired and she had decided to take a quick shower and get cleaned up before she headed to the “Hill”. It had been a long couple of days with the destruction of the Allegiance and now with the arrival on the Republic.

She wasn't too keen on leaving her current assignment on the London, but one had to do what they had to do to survive. She of all people understood this when she had gone through the difficult times and battles in her life.

Now that she was back to being, hopefully, somewhat normal, she finished adjusting her hair. Giving herself a once over, she smiled that everything was back in place. As she left her new quarters, she looked back again and realized that this was going to be home for awhile, and that she was going to have to fix it up to her tastes. But that could wait until a later time. She had been invited to socialize with the crew. Knowing that this was a good thing, she didn't want to pass it up as it would allow her to get to know the people that she was now going to call a family.

She exited her quarters and headed to the mess and looked around. She spotted the commander speaking to another crewmember in the corner by the windows. Replicating herself a drink, she headed over there and smiled as she waited for them to finish enough for her to interrupt. “Sirs,” she said. “May I join you?” With the nod, she sat down and joined them, entering into conversation.

Location: Promenade, Deep Space Nine

With Vulcan precision eyes, the new Chief Science Officer for the Republic watched the people run to and fro with daily business around the promenade of Deep Space Nine. It was weird for her to be back on her old stomping grounds. But since she was now hiding underneath a different alias, she couldn't interact with those that she had called friends all those years ago.

It pained her deep inside, but she shoved her feelings aside – she had a job to do and now she had to protect herself again. She watched as the others that were to be assigned to the Republic come out of the conference room at the other end of the hallway. She had already looked into some of their histories discreetly along with the rest of the crew of the Republic.

Coming across some barriers and locked crew members, she realized that this wasn't going to be the ordinary mission that she was embarking on. There were too many different factors in the equation and she didn't like that. The more factors that were present, the more of an opportunity for something to foul up her mission.

She wasn't going to end up the way that the rest of her teammates were going to end up. Surviving wasn't an issue for her. The real issue was who was going to interfere with her plans enough that would end up discretely removed from the manifest. She took a note of everyone that she couldn't find out information for. These were going to be the people that she needed to gather intelligence on first hand – allowing for more of an opportunity to have her cover blown.

That was okay with her though, she knew why she was there, but they wouldn't. To anyone in Starfleet, she was a walking corpse. Anyone who thought that they recognized her were sadly mistaken, as she technically had died many years before to the hands of Section 31. There were always complications though. Now here she was in what she would call her past, still living life as best as she could under the circumstances.

Normally she would remain low during such times as these, but she had to agree with the Admiral, maybe it is the time to stop hiding and take a more proactive stance towards life. She could change her ways and become a normal person again, but she knew that the organizations out there that wanted her dead would never cease until they had her lifeless body in their hands – and she wasn't going to go down without a fight.

Sipping her tea, she continued her cold calculating of her new mission and the people that she was going to interact with. All she had to do was wait until the Republic came back to berth with the station in order to take on new crew and her mission would really begin.

Chapter 3: BetrayalTop

Location: Runabout Vaal, Alpha Quadrant

“We're about 3 hours from Deep Space Nine, Admiral…” stated a lieutenant.

The Admiral, a middle-aged woman with a stoic face, took a seat at an operations console as she sighed with relief. “Looks like we might make it after all… McCain must not have been informed about our passenger.”

“Pardon me, admiral,” asked the lieutenant. “But why don't we just eliminate Naruko Kuga now?” The officer glanced across the runabout cabin to the rear of the vessel, where a human-sized, transparent tank was clamped to the floor. The tank was filled with a blue gel infused with bubbling gases, and contained the floating, unconscious body of Ensign Kuga.

“That would take all the fun out of it, lieutenant,” she smiled morbidly. “Besides, I prefer to keep her alive for now,” said the Admiral, as she inputted a few commands into the computer.

The lieutenant stared blankly at the viewport before returning to face the Admiral, “But if our passenger poses such a great risk to the Federation, should we not take more precautions to ensure she doesn't fall into McCain's hands?”

“Indeed… I have, in fact, already taken care of that..” commented the Admiral as an image came across the nearby communication screen. It was an spitting image of herself on the comm viewer.

“Hows your end coming, my sister?” inquired the Admiral.

“Everything is going along as planned. However, Admiral Ross may be on to us.”

“Has Ensign Jenkins been spotted?” the Admiral assumed.

“Maybe. They're assigning a Lieutenant Merrick to the Republic, possibly to keep an eye on him… Should I reassign him?”

The Admiral rubbed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. “No… Continue as planed, Admiral Ross is just giving us some extra insurance.”

“I see your point…”

Suddenly, the Admiral was thrown to the floor as the runabout shook violently. Outside, a Starfleet Defiant-class ship shot several volleys of phaser-fire and quantum torpedoes at the small craft. On the surface of the attacking vessel was the registry name, “USS Coeus”.

“Send out a distress call to the Kasagi!” ordered the Admiral to the pilot, as another volley of enemy fire hit the runabout. She attempted to walk to the aft crew cabin only to be tossed about with each hit. Helplessly, the admiral watched as a biotank containing an unconscious Ensign Kuga was beamed off the runabout.

“Shields are failing!” cried out the injured lieutenant. “I don't think we'll last another hit, Admiral!”

For a moment in time, the Admiral felt as if time had stopped, watching the Runabout explode around her. As a last volley of weapons fire hit the vessel, the Admiral was engulfed in a flash of light and fire. The Runabout was no more.

Location: Brig, USS Coeus

Naruko sat on one of the bunks in the brig as she looked at the security officer in front of her. “Not much of a talker are you?” she asked only to hear the sound of the force field hum. “That's what I thought” she added before laying back down.

A few moments passed as the doors to the brig opened with McCain entering the room, and a handful of others in tow. McCain walked over to the cell, looking at Naruko, smiling in his victory. “Hello again, Ensign Kuga.”

Naruko looked at him questioningly. “What am I doing here… Sir?”

McCain gave a nod to the security officer to let down the force field. As the force field dropped, he entered the cell. “Do you think I would let one of the greatest weapons invented by the Federation to simply…” He rubbed his hand through Naruko's hair while she jerked her body away from him. “…go on living on that out-dated death trap of a Galaxy Class ship?”

Naruko tapped her heels three times, hoping she was asleep and in a nightmare.

McCain let out a big laugh. “I'm sorry Naruko, but there will be no fairy godmother to save you.” McCain gave a nod to his attendants, and they proceeded to rush into the cell, overcoming the ensign as she screamed for them to stop.

Location: Ops, Deep Space Nine

Captain Kira walked down the stairs from her office, “Report” she ordered.

A young Starfleet cadet looked at the panel confused, “I'm not sure what to report, Captain. One minute, the sensors momentarily detected a craft before it disappeared again.”

“A cloaked ship?” questioned Kira.

The cadet, still confused and unsure about the readings, replied “I believe so, sir. But it would be rather odd for a cloaking device to fail for a split second then start working again.”

A voice from the other side of Ops interrupted. “Sorry Captain, but I have an incoming communication from the Kasagi.”

Kira turned to face the viewscreen. “On screen.”

An image of a human male Starfleet captain appeared, sitting in his command chair.

“This is Captain Kira of Deep Space nine, how can I help you?”

“This is Captain Duncan of the USS Kasagi. Our science officer is tracking an intermittent contact in sector zero one nine. Possibly a vessel. Have you picked up anything?”

“As a matter of fact, captain, we did. Do you have any information as to what it might be?”

“Not at this time, but we are moving in to investigate. If you wish, we can keep you updated on whatever we come across.”

“That would be most reassuring Captain,” replied Kira. “Thank you.”

As the communications channel was closed, the young cadet whispered to himself, “And I thought this would be an easy shift…”

Location: Main sickbay, USS Republic

Doctor Cromwell stood back from the table where his patient lay. The medical team had just brought him in and positioned him on the examination table. Dutifully, Leon began a more intense scan of the body with a nurse's assistance. The dark-haired patient lay motionless on the bed, unconscious of everything surrounding him.

The area on the back of the head that had taken the blunt force was beginning to swell and redden due to the broken capillaries on the skin.

“That's going to hurt a bit when he wakes up,” the Doctor mumbled to himself.

“What's that Doctor?” the attending nurse inquired.

“Oh, nothing. I want a full bio-scan of the Counselor.”

“Yes sir,” the ensign stated as she began preparing for the scan.

Leon scanned the unconscious Lieutenant Commander with his tricorder one last time to make sure the damage was no more serious than a mild concussion. He paused for a moment.

The pause was interrupted when the sickbay's door suddenly hissed open, announcing the arrival of the Captain into the softly lit room.

“I came as soon as I heard,” Captain Roth stated, slightly shocked from the incident. “What happened?”

“It was blunt trauma to the back of the head,” Leon answered matter-of-factly. Turning the head gently and pointing to the swelling above the occipital lobe and the cerebellum. He paused to look up at the biomonitor which began to display Reittan's life signs.

Half-jocularly, he continued, “I didn't realize you could sneak up on an empath like that.”

The Captain gazed at the unconscious Counselor, perplexed. Her mind wandered back to the conversation she had with him in her ready room.

Tolkath had entered the room with a look of concern on his face, something somewhat out of character for the usually jovial Lieutenant Commander.

“Captain,” he began, “there is a matter of concern I have concerning the crew of the ship.”

When the Counselor had entered, Smoke, who had previously been nestled on his owner's lap, raised his head to see who was addressing the Captain.

The Counselor continued after giving a brief pause to acknowledge the unusual little life form.

“I have been sensing some strong feelings of malice aboard the ship, though I can't quite pinpoint the exact source, if it is just one.”

“What do you mean Counselor? How strong are these feelings?”

“There are two kinds of emotions radiating from crew members that I am concerned about. One is hatred, pure undefiled hatred towards an individual; enough hatred to be . . . well . . . murderous.” Tolkath paused to allow the Captain to absorb what he was saying. When Captain Roth had nodded expressing her understanding he continued. “The other emotion, the one I am most concerned about, is that of complete coldness.”

“What do you mean by coldness, commander?” Roth enquired.

“It is a cool, calculated coldness, the type that means someone is trying to remain undetected . . . undetected by an empath,” the Counselor began.

“It is that kind of feeling . . . the apathetic, yet spiteful feeling I am sensing. Like someone . . .” The Counselor trailed off, lost in thought. “It is like someone is going to hurt someone else, but not for personal reasons. It's more like they are going to hurt someone because they have been told or paid to.”

The memory began to fade until it had vanished into the present time.

“But, this is interesting,” Leon continued. He had been so absorbed in his tricorder readings that he hadn't noticed the captain when she drifted out of their previous conversation to her own memory of the counselor.

“What is it?” the Captain asked, hoping it would lead to some insight as to why the Counselor had been attacked.

“Here,” the Doctor said pointing to the brightly lit bio-monitor.

Roth's eyes focused in on the image of the Counselor's brain. She followed Leon's pointed finger towards the lights representing the area of the paracortex. The eyes of the Captain widened in subtle disbelief.

“The paracortex is much larger and more developed than normal,” stated the Doctor, confirming Roth's observations.

“But Doctor, don't those who have this phenomenon . . .”

“Go insane? Go mad?” Leon said finishing her statement. “Yes. It must be the Vulcan side of him, all of the training he has gone through, that counters the potential madness.”

The pieces of the puzzle had begun to fall in place for Captain Roth.

The Captain, knowing there was little more to do for the Lieutenant Commander, told the Doctor, “I am going back to the bridge. Keep me posted on our Counselor's condition; especially tell me when he wakes up.”

The Doctor affirmed he would follow the Captain's orders before returning to treating his patient.

Location: Executive Officer's quarters, USS Republic

John Carter “huffed” in frustration.

“Don't be like that John,” Shannon Harris asked from the doorway, where she was leaning. “It's not like I TOLD Lieutenant Simms to have a complicated pregnancy you know.” Shannon placed one hand on her hip to emphasize her point.

“I know Shannon,” Carter answered with a dismissive wave, “It's just that we're finally in port, no one's trying to kill us,” John looked sideways for a moment, “Well, not YET anyway… and I was looking forward to the two of us spending some time together OFF the ship.”

Shannon Harris felt her eyebrow raise. “And just what's wrong with the ship?” her tone seemed more agitated than John had expected.

“Nothing”, the XO offered as he stepped closer, “but we've been spinning our wheels here for a while, and I'd like to show you around DS9 a little. I haven't been here in a long time.”

“Ten years, seven months, eleven days, fourteen hours, six seconds, mark.” Shannon said softly.

“What was that?” Carter asked.

“Nothing,” the doctor explained, nervously running her fingers through her hair. “I didn't realize you'd been stationed here before.”

“Well, not exactly,” Carter said with a smile, “I was on the test crew for the Defiant, a while back. Never actually got to see this place then; but Discovery ended up here during my first tour. Besides, Quark pours a mean pint.”

Doctor Harris gave the tall officer a gentle hug, then backed away toward the door. “I really can't John,” Shannon said with regret. “The Lieutenant is really at a delicate stage right now. Take a rain check?”

Reluctantly, Carter nodded and walked ahead to join Harris in the main corridor. “I guess I'll have to, won't I?”

Shannon patted Carter's shoulder, then stood on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “I'll make it up to you.” She smiled.

“Ok Shannon,” Carter relented as he put his arms around Republic's resident pediatrician. “I think I'm going to hit Qua…” he felt a smile cross his face, “that is, the embassy.”

John turned after giving Shannon a light peck on the cheek, then stepped toward the door and turned back again, “Can I pick you up anything?”

“Anything but a dabo girl, John,” Harris offered with a playful wink. Then the hatch shut, leaving her alone in the XO's quarters.

Location: Promenade, Deep Space Nine

The bustle of activity was unmistakable, and John Carter felt himself smiling as he worked his way through the various humanoids, sapiens and sentients that made DS9 a mosaic of life from all quadrants of the galaxy. A central landmark of the Cardassian-built station's merchant sector was Quark's Bar, recently sanctioned by Grand Nagus Rom as an official embassy of the Ferengi government.

Quark's had all the charm a spacer could want out of a second-rate gin mill, but between the festive decorations and impeccably clean gaming floor, it was easy to forget the more unsavory things that might be going on from moment to moment in the bar's darker corners on the upper level, where smoke tended to hang like the early morning fog off San Francisco Bay. That, John Carter decided, as he took an empty seat at the bar, was probably just how Quark wanted it.

“Credit for your thoughts…Commander?” came the slightly piercing voice of the establishment's chief bar tender, as he wiped away the remnants of a Jovian sunspot with a rag.

John Carter took a moment to regard the being who asked the question. The large lobed forehead and flanking ears where unmistakably Ferengi, to say nothing of the ridged nose, and the slightly green coloration over the bar-tender's eyes, but what really caught Carter's attention, as well as confirmed this particular Ferengi's identity, was the unmistakable multi-coloured, striped waist-coat.

Carter smirked, wondering if Quark had recognized him, or if the proprietor was simply being courteous to the uniform. “Is it too early for a root beer?”

“Bah!” Quark scoffed, wagging his finger, “You Hu-Mahns! You can keep your root beer!” the small entrepreneur couldn't hide his contempt for the beverage, “You're the one who's lost an eye Commander Car-tear, not me,” Quark smiled. “I'd remember you no matter what rank you were.” The Ferengi Major-Domo flipped the bar rag over his shoulder and continued, “and John Car Tear of Mars is the one Hu-Mahn I know who would never touch that sickening, syrupy poison.”

“Fair enough,” Carter smiled, pleased that he'd managed to make an impression on the infamous Quark. “Tell you what”, he offered, “I'll take an Aldeberan whiskey. And don't water it down.”

Quark's jaw hung open for a brief second. “Commander,” he said in mock-astonishment, “I'm wounded. Do you honestly think that I would risk the wrath of one of Starfleet's most infamous officers, just for the sake of profit? Why,” Quark knelt down, producing a dusty decanter from under the bar, half-filled with a pale green liquid, “if I tried to cheat you, you might decide to invade Ferengenar on principle!”

Carter laughed as Quark poured a short glass of the verdant concoction. “Invade? No,” he answered, “WAY too much work. Though I might have to blockade the planet. Just until you said you were sorry.”

“Ah, yes. Spoken like a true pirate. And tell me Commander,” Quark said, leaning forward on the bar, “would you even bother with a ship? Or would it just be you yourself?”

“I'm glad we understand each other,” Carter said, `clinking' his glass against the crystal decanter.

“That we do, Commander.” Quark looked Republic's XO over with the practiced eye of a jeweler appraising a find. “I like the patch by the way. What happened?” he asked with a leer, “Jealous husband? Or was it the fury of a lover scorned?”

John winced as he felt the warmth of the whiskey spread down his throat and chest. “A little of both to be honest.” Carter set the glass down. Quark obligingly filled it again.

“Now that sounds like a story!”

“For another time,” Carter offered. He looked across the interior of Quark's watering hole, not sure what he was looking for. Then he found it.

At the far left dabo table, Carter spied Nat Hawk, reluctant hero of Sigma Omicron V, and helmsman of Republic, who was now clearly in his element. Hawk sat at the table with a modest stack of chips in front of him and a pretty, blonde dabo girl on his knee. The empty glasses arranged around Hawk like the wall of an ancient castle told Carter that the helmsman had been there for quite some time.

“Same old Hawk.” Carter muttered, turning his attention back to Quark. “Do me a favor, will you Quark?”

“Oh, anything to keep Ferengenar safe, Car-Tear. How can I avoid a blockade today? Hmm?”

John looked back over his shoulder, indicating Hawk with a nod. “Don't let that guy get too far along tonight, will ya?”

Quark shook his head with a 'tisk'. “Oh no, Commander,” he countered, “I'm not here to baby sit your crew. You want to keep that man out of Ro's sights, you'll have to do it yourself. Besides,” Quark looked to the right of the room with a nod of his own. “He's already got a shadow.”

Carter followed Quark's gesture and spotted Zoe Beauvais, sipping at a drink in a secluded booth on the bar's second tier. “Well I'll be.” Carter downed the rest of his whiskey, then slipped off the bar stool and made his way to the winding staircase that lead to the upper floor of the cantina-cum-embassy.

Indignant, Quark called back, “You're welcome!”

Location: Junior officer's quarters, USS Republic

Lost in her own thoughts, Shannon Harris was suddenly, distinctly aware that she had no place to be, or rather that, at that instant, she was nowhere. No need for a uniform, quarters, or even physical being. At least, not at the moment. Why should she bother? She knew where her patients were, knew that Lieutenant Simms was resting comfortably, she even knew where John was. He was in Quark's, and had been stationary for some 18 minutes. Shannon also knew that his pulse was slightly elevated. Oh, nothing to be concerned with, certainly, but something…or was it some one, had caught his attention. She knew that much at least.

A pico-second of concentration was all that was needed to tell Shannon the rest. Zoe Beauvais was also in Quark's, as was Nat Hawk, and that civilian reporter John had been so leery of. What caught Shannon's attention was the fact that Lieutenant Beauvais was two feet from John Carter, and her heart rate was also slightly elevated. She could guess why.

In the simple, safe, nothing, there were things Shannon Harris knew for certain, and she no longer cared about why or how. All that mattered was that that John was off the ship, HIS ship.

He was with someone else, and Shannon Harris hated the thought of that.

Chapter 4: Subspace MessagesTop


TO: Mister Arthur Cromwell, patient #41568, Elysium penal colony
FROM: Doctor Leon Cromwell, Chief Medical Officer, USS Republic
CLASSIFICATION: Personal, Low Priority, Standard Encryption

Dear Dad,

It's been three days since Republic arrived at Deep Space Nine. The Tholian incident I wrote about in my last letter has been marked classified by Starfleet – something that Republic's missions seem increasingly prone to. So forget everything I told you about the look on John's face when the Tholians beamed us directly to the bridge.

This is Republic's third bout at a major repair depot in the past six months, and I'm sure we're running up quite a bill at HQ. Starfleet vessels only get this banged up during war, so it's no wonder why some high brass have us under the microscope. Fortunately, the switch of operational command to the Office of Research and Exploration is keeping us out of the reach of Kostya. At least for now.

The switch rotated more civilian crew to the ship, and the change is refreshing. Instead of endless encounters with Starfleet uniforms in the corridors, I see a bit more fashion variety nowadays. I even ran into an old colleague from the Bremerton: Do you remember me talking about that oceanographer Susan Hayworth? Well, she came in on the last rotation, and we seem to have picked up where we left off. Nothing serious, just drinks and the occasional holosuite novel on our spare time. I'll let you know how it works out.

Speaking of holosuites, Vic helped me through the engineering portion of my Bridge Officer's Course during our time here at DS9. The command test is only a week or so away, and I'm getting rather nervous. John hasn't given me any hint of what might be on it, and only warns that it's supposed to test every fiber in my psychological profile. Since he's the test proctor, I'd expect no less. But what makes me uncomfortable is that he just stares at me through that eye-patch of his, turning up only one side of his mouth into a half-smile anytime we talk about the test. I'm starting to regret following his wishes and NOT giving him a prosthetic eye implant at Starbase 39-Sierra.

Republic is due to depart DS9 soon and head to the Gamma Quadrant. She may be an old ship, but deep space exploration the perfect mission for her, and everyone is eager to get underway. I promise to take a short break and come see you when Republic is in your sector. Until then, don't be too hard on the doctors or nurses. Remember: they're there only to make your life easier!




TO: Commander John Carter, Executive Officer, USS Republic
FROM: Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus, Field Researcher, Starfleet Center for Astrophysical Research (SCAR)
CLASSIFICATION: Personal, Low Priority, Standard Encryption

Hello old friend. I can't tell you where I am for two reasons. One, it's classified. Two, I don't know. Grav waves are becoming a nav hazard, so I know we're core-ward, but that's about it. Although the vessel I'm on is as state of the art they come, our research is public knowledge. Subspace interface partitioning and reconstruction. We're using short-range probes to repair warp eddy damage to a nanoscopic subspace rift. I miss the hustle and bustle of exploration and rescue missions, but this is the first time I've been challenged in an theoretical field experiment in years *without* something trying to blow us up. It's refreshing and thrilling to experience the adrenaline rush without the ever-present threat of grava-chrono-nucleo-atomic-quantum-subparticulate-tachyo-phasic disrupterphasertorpedoelimpetmines ripping the ship apart while erasing our grandparents from existence and blowing up 95% of the alternate-dimensional copies of Admiral TeaParty. Tough trade off there, but for the greater good of our other-selves I think I'm going to have to lower the shields for that one.

Speaking of the Admiral, you'll never guess what Task Force One is up to these days. Picket duty. For, I kid you not, the Vulcan System. Cushy, but pointless.

If you're not too busy, record a quick note and pass it along to SCAR HQ. It's still on Luna, albeit not for long. Com lag is too great and the top brass want to move the main think tank out to 39-Sierra. I think it's all political, but they have some of the best and brightest from the private sector acting as 'Research Consultants'.

I bumped into Tanna Myrr on Ceti Proxima Four a few months ago. *Doctor* Myrr said hello, and gave me some good news. A certain former captain of ours just entered Starfleet Academy… again. Not bad for a nine-year-old; although she did learn from some of the best. Last Tanna had heard, Tommy Ranier was on half pay for an 'incident' in a saloon on Rigel Seven. Something about a dancer from Orion and an old debt.

Everyone is pulling doubles, so I have to hit the rack or I'll regret it come oh five fifteen. If she's still speaking to you, give Shannon a hug for me, and tell Leon I said hello. I think he still owes me a dirty limerick and two haiku involving xenobiological organ transplants from the last poker game.

Virtus, out.



TO: Captain Kimberly Roth, Commanding Officer, USS Republic
FROM: Captain Robert Duncan, Commanding Officer, USS Kasagi
CLASSIFICATION: Starfleet Priority Three, Security Level Encryption

Captain Roth,

It comes to great sadness to inform you that the Runabout Vaal that had Ensign Naruko Kuga on board has been destroyed in a deep-space accident. We have found DNA traces in the wreckage of the runabout that has been identified as Ensign Kuga, along with a log recorder indicating that she was being escorted to Deep Space Nine to rejoin your crew after being missing in action for the past week. Unfortunately, no bodies were found among the wreckage as it is rather difficult to pick up the pieces due to the wreckage being spread across 2 light-years, therefore we're forced to record your Ops Chief as missing-in-action. We will continue to investigate as to the cause of the accident, but at this time we believe that the warp reactor in the runabout overloaded.

Captain, I wish I could give you better news about your Chief of Operations. If we find anything new, you will be the first one informed.

Best of Luck,

Captain Duncan
USS Kasagi


Chapter 5: Zen's EndTop

Location: Captain's ready room, main bridge, USS Republic

Reia stood in front of the Captain's desk, feeling the sweat running down the side of her face. It had been almost three months she last stepped foot on board a starship. Not so long for some, but long enough that she got used to the daily 'nothing' of Deep Space Nine life. She had hopes to head back to the Academy for a year to finish her command courses, but Starfleet apparently had other plans for her.

Captain Roth placed the PADD containing Reia's service record on her desk as she picked up a cup of coffee. “Well lieutenant,” she started while taking a sip. “Looks like you have had an interesting career so far.” Taking another quick glance at the PADD again, she continued “. . . bronze star during the battle of Tyra, the Dominion Campaign medal . . .” Roth was impressed, but worried as she stopped on one item in particular. “What happened in the Torga system?”

Reia closed her eyes for a second, remembering the fatal decision she made over three years ago. “We were conducting repairs on a Cardassian power station on the fourth planet. The section that my team and I were in had lost power and life support. We were cut off from the surface of the planet and the USS Malinche couldn't get a transporter lock on us. The only way to get power back online before we ran out air was for someone to fix the damaged coils from inside the core. But who ever entered the core would die shortly afterwards due to the radiation.”

Roth got the feeling that there was more to the story. “Go on.”

The lieutenant took a small breath as she continued to confess her sins, “With all honestly Captain, it should have been me to enter the core and repair the coils. I had the most training to fix them.”

Captain Roth stood up from her chair and looked Reia in the eyes. “You're absolutely right. You should have. But what I want to know is why you let that poor Ensign go instead of yourself.”

“Ensign Douglas volunteered to enter the core . . . he could have been one of the best engineers in Starfleet if he lived . . . but I let him enter the core when I should have gone . . . I was too scared to go.” Reia bowed her head, trying to hide her guilt. “I will not make that mistake again . . . that decision will continue to haunt me for a long time.”

Roth took a quick glance in Reia's eyes. “The truth is, lieutenant, I already have a Chief of Operations. Unfortunately, she is still missing in action, and won't be listed as 'presumed dead' until after the investigation into her death is complete. Even afterwards, I am not about to replace her with you unless you prove yourself to be a better officer than the one who sent Ensign Douglas to his death. As far as the rest of the ship is concerned . . . you are here on a temporary basis until I can find a replacement. Understood?”

“Yes Ma'am,” replied Reia with a nod.


Location: Lab Two, USS Coeus

The doors to the lab opened with Zen Kuga entering the room, stopping to look at the lab bed. He shook his head, muttering despairingly, “no, no, no” over and over again until McCain walked up behind him.

“Josh, you said she would be left out of this!” Zen declared somberly as he turned his head to face McCain.

McCain let out a chuckle. “I never said for how long, Zen. Besides, I think your daughter may have something to say to you…”

Zen turned back around to look at his daughter who stood up from the lab bed. She was wearing a strange black body suit that appeared to be grafted onto her skin, and a blank expression on her face suggesting that she was in some sort of trance-like state.

“My god . . .” Zen stammered, looking in shock at his daughter.

McCain then walked over to Naruko and whispered into her ear, “…kill Zen Kuga.” Turning around to look at Zen, the commodore said, “Well Zen, I think your services with the organization are complete.” With a smile, he walked out of the room, snapping his fingers as he exited.

Naruko then pointed a phaser toward her father…

Location: Main bridge, USS Coeus
Time: Two hours later

McCain entered the bridge of the Coeus. His first officer, Commander Isaac Romahof, stood up from the command chair and stepped aside. “Commodore on Deck!”

Walking over to his chair, McCain ordered “At ease, commander. I want Naruko to pilot the Dragon, so have it ready for launch within the hour.”

Isaac raised an eyebrow, “Are we going ahead with the operation sir?” he asked.

“I want the Dragon launched and it's target destroyed by the time the Republic enters the Gamma Quadrant,” McCain ordered sternly.

“Sir, do you truly feel that now is the time to launch this operation?” the commander questioned. “We don't even have the most recent intelligence report on the Dominion homeworld.”

“You have your orders Commander,” said McCain, looking rather disgusted towards his first officer.

“Yes sir,” Isaac plied apologetically before exiting the bridge.

Chapter 6: Walking WoundedTop

“…Veer off, you crazy son-of-a-bitch!”

The words fell on deaf ears as the gargantuan Galor-Class cruiser grew before him, encompassing his entire forward field of view.

He held his course without pause.

He knew exactly what he was doing.

Because it was the only thing left that he could do.

The only way he could keep fighting.

The old Peregrine's weapons where gone.

The only weapon he had left now was the nimble craft itself.

The only thing he could still fight with, his own life - his own death.

“…Damn it, Wildcard! It's suicide!”

His fate - perhaps his destiny - was only moments away.

Moments that could not be measured by time.

The hull of the Cardassian warship so close, so clear, that he could make out each minor detail.

His end was upon him. And he embraced that end;

The end of a short and tragic life.

A long awaited release from the pain of that existence.

And it would be a heroes death, more than he had ever hoped for.

More important, he would finally know peace.

Even if only by knowing nothing at all.

“…You crazy fool! Get the hell out of there!”

He felt the jarring impact, heard the crunch of metal.

Yet he did not feel the effects, the snap of bone.

A fireball expanded before him, as each hull tore into the other.

He felt it's heat, it's radiance, but was not consumed by it.

He expected to feel it sear his flesh.

Instead, he felt a rush of cold throughout his body.

In the moment, he did not understand any of what happened.

Perhaps that was part of death?

His vision blurred, but not from injury.

His senses dulled, but not from death.

Only as the scene of carnage faded did he begin to understand.

Only as his senses returned, did he realize what had happened.

“…Transporter room to Bridge, we've got him!”

Most would have been pleased to cheat death.

He was not pleased, though.

Because he had not cheated death.

He had been cheated of death.

And as the moment faded, so too did his agony over that truth.

Bolting upright with a start, a sheen of cold sweat coating his naked body, he looked around at his unfamiliar surroundings with disorientation. His breathing shallow and quick, adrenaline surging through his veins, he took in deep breaths and waited for the haze of dream and nightmare to clear from his mind. Closing his eyes, he forced himself to focus on the here and now. Forced himself to bury those thoughts and feelings, those memories, back into the dark depths. To step back from the brink once more, just as he had been snatched away from it once upon a time.

As his eyes opened, he quickly surmised he was not aboard the Republic, but instead on station Deep Space 9. He quickly took notice of someone else beside him on the firm Cardassian mattress. A rather attractive young woman who shared his state of undress, sheathed only by the same thin sheet as himself. This, in of itself, was not so disconcerting as was the fact that he had no idea whom the young woman was, or how he had come to be here, nude in her bed, and smelling of sex.

Sex, and something else.

It only took a moment to identify what that something else was. It was as familiar to him as anything he knew. His own breath had smelled of such for most of his life. Glancing to the small end table beside the bed, the short glass still containing a mouthful of the amber liquid only confirmed what he already knew it to be. For the life of him, though, he could not understand how or why. It had been his constant companion, his crutch, his escape, for so long. Yet in the three weeks since Sigma Omicron V, he had not touched so much as a drop of his old stalwart beverage of choice.

At least, not until now, apparently.

Gingerly extricating his legs from the silken bed clothes, he placed his feet upon the floor and took note of the rather unique sensation of alien traction carpet upon bare skin. It was quite a contrast to Starfleet, who even with focus on function tried to fit comfort into the equation. Something the Cardassians had apparently considered irrelevant, judging by the rough texture beneath his toes. A rough texture that reminded him all too much of his own parched throat and dry mouth. Looking to the glass, even now, a part of him wanted so badly to reach for it. To accept it's soothing embrace again.

Pushing those thoughts aside, he stood up, his feet unsure beneath him. As equilibrium returned to him, he followed the trail of discarded clothes that lead from the door. Gathering each item, he found it odd that almost all of it was his, something else that didn't make sense until he finally found an article of clothing that wasn't his. The flimsy, see-thru, strategically patterned garment brought back a piece of the puzzle. She was a dabo girl at Quark's, he recalled now, the memories flooding in…

~ his arms wrapped around her waist ~
~ her upon his lap ~
~ the raucous laughter of the bar ~
~ the scent of her perfume ~
~ the taste of her lips ~
~ the sensation of her flesh; her caress ~

Even as the latent images of memory rushed through his conscious mind, he found with each question answered, more simply took their place. Pushing his questions and doubts aside for the moment, he sifted through the pile of clothes and began to dress. Sitting back upon the edge of the bed in order to pull his boots on, he caught sight of his own faded reflection in the view port. He was surprised not only by what he saw, but by the angry disappointment he felt towards himself. Stepping over to the transparent aluminum barrier, he scrutinized his appearance.

Uniform wrinkled and smelling of cheap perfume and even cheaper whiskey. Eyes bloodshot, hair mussed and disheveled. He tried in vain to mend the condition of his hair, to straighten the creases in his uniform, and as he did, he spotted something else from the corner of his eye. Latched to upper pylon one, just as she should be, the sterling visage of the Republic. The battle damage that had marred her hull for nearly a month since their encounter with the Tholians now repaired. The repairs to her internal damage close to completion as well. If only his own 'internal damage' could be so easily fixed, he mused.

As his gaze drifted back to his own translucent reflection, he saw something in his own eyes that he had not seen before, nor had ever expected to see. Disappointment. He had never been the model Starfleet officer, so he had seen that look before from many others over the past ten years. It was a kind of sadness, twined with either sympathy, empathy, or disgust. Sometimes all of the above. Yet never before had he seen it reflected back at him from his own eyes. It did remind him of something though. No, not something. Someone…

~ sitting around a table in Quark's ~
~ the Bolian Gren, Sven Buttenhoff; his friends ~
~ spotting her across the bar ~
~ the reporter, Warner ~
~ disappointment and hurt in her eyes ~
~ the dabo girl kissing him ~
~ breaking the kiss, looking for her in the crowd ~
~ she's gone ~
~ “What are you looking for?” ~
~ “Nothin' 'mportant,” he lied ~

She was why he had been at Quark's. He had arranged to meet her there. Had wanted to see if there was anything to what he had felt that day that seemed so long ago. That day in the ship's Gymnasium, before the mission. The day that had focused him on the path he had now stumbled off of. She had expected more of him. She had expected him not to falter, and he had let her down. Even though they barely knew each other, whatever existed between them was strong. Was something he had never experienced before. Could it be… was it somehow… love? How could it be, though? He barely knew her. But he barely knew what love was, either.

He had known sex, had known attraction.

Had he ever let himself know love, though?

He had to find out. Had to make things right. He may have faltered on his new path in life, but he would not let that be the end of it. Looking to the Republic once more, he knew where his future lay. And it was certainly not in the quarters of a dabo girl whose name he didn't even known. Stepping away from the window and towards the door with determination, he stopped abruptly in the door way at the sound of a voice choked by sleep, as his stranger lover called out to him.

“Wait,” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper, “you don't have to go.”

Pausing to consider his words carefully, he turned to her and replied simply, “Yeah. I do.” He knew she deserved more than that, though. “This ain't who I am anymore.” he told her. Considering himself though, he amended, “At least, it ain't who I wanna be.”

As she looked at him, her expression neutral and unreadable, he prepared himself to launch into an explanatory speech. When she opened her mouth though, rather than reply, she simply yawned. “Whatever,” came her nonchalant reply, “look me up if you come back this way.” she tacked on, so like what he himself might have done not so long ago.

He didn't bother to tell her that he would not be doing so, nor did he offer his explanation of how their interlude had been a mistake. One of his own weakness. As he stepped into the poorly lit corridors of Deep Space 9, the single door sliding closed in his wake, he questioned those decisions. Wondered whether, perhaps, by offering his life as an example of how dark the road she was on could become, he might be able to help her somehow. Who was he to counsel another on mending their ways and straightening out their life, though?

Making his way through the unfamiliar passages that seemed to stretch on for eternity, he found himself experiencing another unfamiliar emotion as he approached a pair of fellow Starfleet officers. Embarrassed by his unkempt appearance, he at first kept his head down and his eyes trained upon the traction carpet beneath his feet, intending to pass them by without exchange. At least, he had hoped to do so, until he found he recognized the duo as their paths neared crossing. Captain Kira Nerys, commander of this station, and Lieutenant Ro Laren, station chief of security.

Though it increased his own remorse at his recent actions, he realized he could not simply pass them by without acknowledgment. Both officers where of note within the Federation, and even more so within Starfleet. Not only did their reputations precede them, but he himself respected them both more so than he did many of the rest of Starfleet's most noteworthy officers. Because like Voyager's executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Tom Paris, Captain Kira and Lieutenant Ro had both overcome their own reputations to achieve what they had. Something he aspired to, now. Not only that, but in the current climate of conspiracy within Starfleet courtesy of men like Vladimir Kostya, these two women where also allies.

Mustering up all the inner strength he had - which was less than abundant at the moment - he straightened his posture as he neared the two Bajorans, and offered a respectful and distinct nod at each woman, accompanied by what served as a respectful greeting from one officer to another, “Cap'n. Lieutenant.” he said simply as he passed. Though Ro did not recognize him, she nodded in return. Kira offered more, “Lieutenant Hawk.” she replied simply. He was at once both pleased and dismayed that Kira knew him. She of course would know him to a degree, considering her level 10 access to such things as the 'Republic 8' hearing files.

As he came upon the Republic's berth and stepped through the alien design of the airlock, passing the cog-shaped burgundy pressure doors that remained withdrawn into the bulkhead, he wondered of he would have the opportunity to make a better impression on Kira. Such an abnormal thought caused him to stop just within the confines of the Galaxy-class vessel and shake his head quickly, as if casting off the thought. It was one thing to sober up, yet another to earn the respect of those he served with. Being overly concerned with what impressions he made upon superiors though, that was still one step still to far for him.

Returning to his previous stride, he set a mental course through the corridors for his quarters. He didn't even know what time it was aboard ship or if he had missed his duty shift, but he intended to clean himself up and fix that, too, if it be the case. Halting at a set of turbolift doors, he pressed the call button and wondered to himself how he might approach Warner. His thoughts where cut short though by the low wail of an alarm klaxon sounding three times, followed by an unfamiliar voice over the intra-ship comm.

“Security alert, all hands, general quarters.”

As his lift arrived and a trio of enlisted personnel emerged and hurried off down the corridor, he stepped inside, called out his destination of the bridge, and tapped his communicator, eliciting it's familiar chirp. “Hawk ta bridge, report.” he stated quickly, grateful for his new position as second officer, and as such, the ability to use such short hand with even the Captain instead of having to request information.

“Beauvais here,” came the reply, “Counselor Tolkath has been attacked, we don't know by whom or why. He's in Sickbay. We may have an intruder aboard. I'm afraid that's all the Captain relayed, sir.”

Pressing and holding down his communicator to mute the channel without closing it, he quickly prompted the computer, “Locate C'mander Carter.”

“Commander Carter is en-route to the main bridge.” reported the synthetic voice of the Republic without hesitation.

“Computer, change destination ta Sickbay.” he ordered before releasing his hold on the communicator and addressing Beauvais once more as the lift altered it's route. “Inform C'mander Carter when he gets there that I'm headin' ta sickbay.” he told her.

“Understood.” acknowledged Beauvais, who obviously had her hands full deploying security teams and ensuring no one left the Republic.

As his lift descended towards deck twelve, he reflected on his gut reaction to the security alert - that it was something to do with him. Ever since Hranok/Evok's disclosure on Sigma Omicron of his true status as a hired-by-force assassin for the Orion Syndicate, his regard towards his own security had gone up ten fold. It had cost him every last favor, every last iota of tolerance and slack cut to him by Starfleet Intelligence to remain aboard the Republic in the aftermath of such. A concession the division only made on a number of exacting terms, one of which included the Republic's assumption of another vessels exploratory mission into the Gamma Quadrant. A mission the ship and crew where soon to undertake.

With all of this in mind, and with Tolkath's genetically provided gifts for insight, empathy, and telepathy, he felt increasingly sure his instinct was indeed the only logical explanation to such an assault. This had to be connected to him, nothing else fit. Tolkath was one of the few people aboard that anyone intending harm to him would have to disable before making such an attempt, even if that did show their hand prematurely and remove the element of surprise from the equation. The harder one tried to conceal themselves from a telepath, the more aware a telepath became of such a presence, it seemed.

He did not wait for the doors to retreat as the turbolift car slowed and stopped, instead angling his body through them as they opened. Charging through the halls of the Republic, he was upon Sickbay in an instant, surging through those doors as well. In his haste, he almost surged directly into Captain Roth, hardly able to stop himself before colliding with his commanding officer. Though startled, she was not at all surprised to see him. She had expected as such the moment she had received the call from sickbay concerning Tolkath; earlier than that even, since her conversation with Tolkath before his assault.

She saw the concern in her Helmsman's blood-shot eyes, knew his thoughts and hers ran parallel.

“He'll be alright,” she told him.

Looking past the captain, to the still form of the Republic's counselor, he could feel himself beginning to boil within. This was his fault. He had stayed here, aboard the Republic because of his own selfish desires. Now it was beginning to cost those her served closest with, as the ever vigilant, unforgiving, dark hand of the Orion Syndicate made itself known. “This s'my fault,” he said softly his eyes still on Tolkath. Turning to his Captain, he added, “I shouldn't've stayed here.”

Roth's response was immediate and purposeful, though caring in tone. “If I believed for a minute that you're presence aboard this ship put anyone else at risk, you wouldn't be here, Lieutenant. Part of this ships continuing mission is to protect those in need, whether those people are strangers or our very own.” Placing her hand on his arm, she went on. “That mission puts us all at risk sometimes… yourself included.”

Though he could not believe his captain's words, he forced himself to nod and appear as if he did. If for no other reason than to avoid a debate that would accomplish nothing at this juncture. Stepping away from his commander, he turned his attention to Doctor Leon Cromwell. He could read the concern in his friend's eyes, concern not for the out-of-risk Tolkath, but for him. He wondered how much the doctor knew of his exploits of the night before. At the moment though, it didn't matter. He needed to know what happened. Needed to do something about it.

“What happened?” he asked of Leon.

“Blunt force trauma,” Cromwell responded thoughtfully, a graphic of the Vulcan-Human-Betazoid's cranium replacing the life-sign readout on the console above the bio-bed. Rotating, it focused in on the occipital lobe and the cerebellum, highlighting an area laced with fracture patterns. The decisive blow had accomplished what had been intended, no more and no less. Though momentarily perplexed at why Tolkath had not been killed, he quickly picked up on the message that had been meant for him via the counselor's injury.

“This wasn't just 'bout incapacitatin' Tolkath.” he revealed, drawing Roth over to the bio-bed and focusing both her own and Leon's attention upon himself.

“How can you be sure?” Roth questioned as she stepped up behind him and considered Tolkath's docile form. Outwardly, he revealed nothing of the violence that had befallen him, nor the violent struggle that he likely fought within himself on a regular basis.

“B'Cause if it was just 'bout removin' Tolkath as a threat, he'd be dead.” Continuing, he pointed to the fracture patterns on the hybrid's skull as he explained. “This was a decisive attack, meant ta let me know it was decisive. Ta let me know they didn't wanna take me out the easy n'sloppy way, like blowin' up the ship. They tried that with Evok's back-up plan, it didn't work. This time, they're lookin' for surgical precision. A message ta the Federation, n'everybody else, that their wrath can be blunt n'bloody, or sharp n'swift.”

As Roth and Cromwell absorbed what he had told them, his own explanation lead him to another realization. A realization that inspired him and provided both the Republic and he himself an opportunity to turn the tables. “Whoever did this, they're still 'board ship.”

Both Roth and Cromwell's eyes widened with alarm, though it was the captain who asked, “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” he answered, turning to Roth. “They ain't gonna leave this up ta fate 'er technology. They're desperate, but they want more n'just a dead witness. They want a message and a trophy. Which is where they got stupid.” he rationalized. Without either officer having to ask the question, Hawk filled in the blank for them. “They don't know 'bout us goin' ta the Gamma Quadrant.”

Though at first both of his colleagues looked perplexed, not quite following is logic, it quickly dawned upon both of them what he was saying.

“They think this is just a layover,” Roth surmised, “and that their assassin has the perfect escape route in Deep Space 9, because we'll delay departure in order to investigate.”

“Which is why we gotta go, now, b'fore whoever the hell hit Tolkath, whoever's after me, finds out we're going 'cross the galaxy n'realizes they only way back s'through one big ole bottle neck.” Hawk concluded, his unwavering gaze upon Roth, propelling her into action.

“Roth to bridge,” she commanded as she pressed her communicator, “Commander Carter, are all personnel and equipment aboard in preparation for our mission?” she queried.

“Yes ma'am.” came Carter's confused voice in response.

Looking to Hawk, then to Cromwell, and finally upon Tolkath, she made her decision. “Contact Deep Space Nine, request emergency departure clearance, priority one.” she commanded.

“Captain?” questioned Carter simply.

“Just do it, John. Once we've detached umbilical and sealed the airlocks, make sure we have everyone we should and no one we shouldn't, then take us through the wormhole, full impulse. I'll explain later.” she answered with assurance as looked at Hawk once more.

“Understood.” the First Officer acknowledged, though it was doubtful he actually did understand his captain's reasoning.

Once more placing her hand upon his shoulder, Roth supportively instructed her helmsman to get some rest, informing him she would be assigning a security detail disguised as a maintenance crew in the corridor outside his quarters. Though he had begun to protest, not wishing to put anyone else in harms way, she cut him off. “They aren't at risk, they're doing their jobs.” Nodding to Cromwell, she advised the physician she would be on the bridge before departing sickbay.

As he himself turned to leave, Cromwell asked the question that had been on his mind and in his eyes since he had entered Sickbay a few minutes ago. “Are you alright?”

Taking a moment to consider his response, he turned to his friend, “No, I ain't,” he replied honestly, “but I will be.” Accepting this response, Cromwell nodded and repeated the captain's advisory to get some rest before turning his attention to a passing nurse and questioning her concerning sickbay business.

Though he made his way to his quarters, he did so not because he had been instructed to, but because he knew he needed to. His intent had been to recycle his uniform and partake of a sonic shower. As he stood just inside his cabin doors though, he found himself irresolute. He could not help but feel responsible for what had befallen Tolkath. Pondering his accountability, his thoughts dove further into darkness. How many other lives had been placed in danger because of his simple presence? Everyone aboard the Republic, all those on the Sigma Omicron terra-forming station… how many more people would be at risk because of him? How many more people would be hurt?

The image of Jess Warner's face from the bar, disappointed and hurt, came to him once more. He was even more unsure now what to do about her. He knew what he felt - or at least, thought he knew what he felt. Was it fair, though, to put her at risk so he could explore and express those feelings? To find out if she felt the same? Even if she did, that would only put her at an even greater risk of being hurt. Could he take that chance? Could he deal with it if he didn't? Agitated and upset, he paced back and forth across the room as he struggled with everything that had happened, that would yet happen, that he was responsible for…

Passing by the open doorway to the sonic shower, he caught sight of his reflection once again. More disheveled than he had been before, now bearing the added burden of an even graver reality than his own failings, he stepped over to the mirror slowly. Standing before it, he closed his eyes, wishing against logic than the reflection would be gone when he opened them. It remained though, as he knew it would. Wanting to change it, to be rid of it, to escape himself, he pushed his hands beneath the faucet in the sink below the mirror, letting the cool water stream through his fingers.

Cupping his hands, he filled them with water and leaned over, splashing it upon his face. Keeping his hands over his face, the water running down his face and neck, he stood upright once more, hoping once again that when he looked upon himself, he would not see what had had. Lowering his hands, he opened his eyes slowly, and stared at his likeness, unchanged. Overwhelmed, he lashed out, his right hand becoming a fist as it rushed forward and slammed into the glass, fracturing the mirror in a spider-web pattern. Even so, his image - distorted as it was - remained.

Flexing his hand, feeling the pain, watching the blood ooze forth from a dozen tiny cuts, he focused on the pain. It had been the one constant in his life, the one thing always real, the one thing he could count on to remind himself that this wasn't just a bad dream. Looking at the broken mirror once again, the blood that had been left upon it streaking down across it's surface, he still didn't know what to do about anything. Opening the drawers beneath the sink, he rummaged through the contents for a towel to wrap around his wounded hand, wishing he could do something about the wounds deep within.

Locating the shimmering cloth, he withdrew it and began to wrap it around his hand. When he moved to close the drawer though, something within it caught his eye. A faded holo-image. A family portrait. Taken nearly eighteen years ago. In a way, it was all he had left of them. The only real proof he even had of their existence. He hadn't seen it since he had come aboard more than six months ago. He tried never to look at it, tried never to remember his life before. In only made things worse, only made the pain more real. Looking at it now though, it helped him to realize that no matter what he did, he couldn't change how he felt.

Picking the image up, he turned away from the mirror, and moved back through the cabin door to the corridor. Though he spotted the security officers posed as a maintenance crew as the captain had promised, he paid them no attention. Moving through the corridors swiftly, he came to another set of cabin doors. Hers.

Pressing the request button, he waited for what felt like an eternity until she answered. Though surprised to see him, and still hurt by the events of the last day, she asks him in. Noticing his hand, she starts to ask what happened, but stops herself. Retrieving a med-kit from the desk drawer, she takes his hand and unwraps the towel-bandage without a word between them. For a moment, their eyes meet, but she pushes the moment aside, returning her attention to his hand. He breaks the silence between them.

“I wanna tell you my story,” he tells her, “not you as a reporter, just… you as you.” he explains, as she looks up at him, unsure if she can risk trusting him. Holding out his other, uninjured hand, he offers her the faded holo-image. Though she doesn't know what it means exactly, she understands it's significance, and agrees to listen.

It wasn't easy for him. It never was. In the whole of his life, he had only told this story - his story - three times. More often, anyone who needed to know the bulk of his life story could gain that knowledge through reading a classified Starfleet file. Rarely had he told the tragic tale himself, complete and full, with all the sorted details. Even those details which not even Starfleet knew. Or if they did, had sanitized for their official reports.

Somehow though, this time felt different. It still wasn't any easier for him to voice the truth than it had ever been. As he told Leah Warner his story, not in her capacity as a reporter, but in her capacity as… whatever else she might be to him - they might be to each other - something was different. Somehow, it felt right.

He had started from the very beginning as the Republic ebbed and flowed through the neutrino streams of the Bajoran wormhole at half impulse. He had paused to admire the breathtaking scene, as had Warner. It had long been a desire of his to navigate the portal that united two quadrants. He took solace in the fact he would have the opportunity again though.

Some things where more important, he realized. As the Galaxy-Class vessel had begun it's voyage through the Idran system at full impulse, seventy-thousand light years from where they had been only moments before, he had made the first revelation that many found shocking. That of the risk Starfleet Intelligence was willing to place innocent children into, once upon a time.

He knew she had many questions. It was a part of her, of who she was. Yet she didn't ask them. She simply listened, trying to keep her expression impassive. He had been surprised at how quickly the hurt hidden behind her eyes had vanished. Vaporized by his honesty, by his regret, by her own empathy. All of which he knew she could sense from him, not just through her genetic heritage, but through whatever strange bond they shared.

Looking at the faded holo-image she held with delicate grace, he spoke of those he so rarely did. Those whom he had, at times, refused to even acknowledged existed. Hoping that with his stubborn refusal, he could somehow refuse the pain of their loss. Though her eyes where fixated upon the image in her hands, he knew she was truly seeing him, as if for the first time.

Through the ten-year-old boy he had been, she could see through time to the man he was for the first time. Having even the first few pieces of the puzzle that was his existence helped her to make sense of so much more. Pressing on, he told her of that day. February 27, 2362. Two weeks after his tenth birthday, and the day that would determine the course of the rest of his life. One way or the other…

Chapter 7: Surprise PassengerTop

Location: Main bridge, USS Republic

As the doors to the bridge's port-aft turbolift slid open, Captain Roth, with her companion Smoke silently perched on her shoulder, walked onto the busy command center.

“Captain on the bridge,” announced Chief Rainier at the rear science station. The rest of the staff turned to look at her before returning to their duties. All that is, except for Commander Carter. The executive officer remained standing after removing himself from the command chair, and as the captain walked past tactical into the center pit, he addressed her.

“All sections have reported in,” John informed the captain. “Hatches were sealed and moorings cleared less than thirty seconds after you gave the order. All personnel still left on the station were beamed aboard. No one else has left the ship.”

“Excellent,” Roth replied before glancing at the viewscreen. Deep Space Nine was slowly diminishing in size among the backdrop of stars as Republic pulled away. “Whoever attacked our counselor is probably stymied at the moment. Any additional unlucky passengers that got trapped?”

“A few,” said John with a smile. “Mostly friends and family of the crew, but a few VIP's. Most of the really displeased ones have already checked in, and we informed them to settle down until we get this straightened out.”

“VIP's?” queried the captain. “Who?”

“Maybe you'd better talk to Captain Kira about that,” John instructed her with amusement. “She's waiting on a secure channel in your ready room.”

A smile crept across Kim's face as she and John realized that the prospect of a raving ambassador or two will make their next mission most interesting.

“Very well,” the captain said while stepping towards her office. “As soon as I'm done talking with her, set course through the wormhole. Heading 051 mark 6, warp 4. Assemble the senior staff in the observation lounge in one hour for a mission briefing.”


Location: Captain's ready room, main bridge, USS Republic

There was little protest from the small marsupial as Kim walked to the wall-mounted terrarium and unlatched the round, transparent-aluminum front door. “In you go,” she remarked, extending her arm and allowing Smoke to crawl into his abode. After sniffing around on the open gravel, Smoke slipped under the tropical brush and settled upon a small log to preen himself.

As the captain closed the cage, she sat down at her desk, pivoted the computer screen towards her, and pressed the flashing “COMM HOLD” button. In the blink of an eye, the blank, black monitor switched to the Bajoran face of Captain Kira Nerys. Like Commander Carter, she wore an amused expression on her face.

“Sorry for the quick departure, Captain,” Roth apologized. She still was getting used to seeing the former Bajoran resistance operative in a Starfleet uniform.

“It's your call, Kim. I only wish you would have let Lieutenant Ro do some investigating first.”

“You and I both know that Hawk's situation deals with some of the most unscrupulous people imaginable. If we didn't act quickly and unpredictably, my counselor's attacker would have had a better chance of getting away.”

“They still might've escaped, you know.”

“All the more reason to have Ro stay on the station,” Kim smiled back. “Besides, Lieutenant Beauvais has her work cut out for her here, and having another security chief around here would only make things more complicated.”

“I suppose. But come home in one piece, will you? We've gotten used to having a second starship around here, and the Defiant will get lonely.”

Kim was touched by the family-like remark. “Don't worry we'll be fine. Besides, we've got some unwilling passengers aboard that want to get back as soon as possible.”

“Some of them aren't all that unwilling.”

Kira's grin became a little more pronounced, causing Kim to raise an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Well, since you won't let me send Ro along with you, I've let one of my staff stay aboard. He might be able to help in a pinch.”

“What do you mean?” Roth inquired. “Who?”

Location: Exam room two, main sickbay, USS Republic

Counselor Tolkath remained immobile and unconscious on the diagnostic table as Doctor Cromwell remained deep in thought regarding the readings on the large wall-mounted viewscreen. Reittan's wound was precise and damaging, and if he had not been found in time, may have been deadly. So engrossed in treatment options was Leon that he did not turn around immediately when the doors to the room opened and closed.

“Doctor Cromwell?” came a smooth, familiar British accent. As Leon turned around, he saw the smooth-shaven face of Doctor Julian Bashir looking at him from the doorway. With a frown, Republic's CMO walked to a nearby computer terminal and pressed a button.

“Computer,” he grumbled. “Deactivate EMH.”

“The Emergency Medical Hologram is not active.”

“Damn engineers,” Leon muttered. “Run level three diagnostic on the EMH sub-processors. We've got another glitch in the system.”

“I assure you doctor, I . . .” Bashir's sentence was cut off by the computer's voice.

“Diagnostic complete. All systems normal.”

“What the . . .” Leon stood surprised for a moment.

“Sorry,” Julian interjected. “It's the real thing this time.”

Embarrassed, Leon's eyes grew wide as he addressed the newcomer. “Doctor Bashir?” he asked with trepidation.

“Good to finally meet you, doctor,” Julian walked forward to grasp Leon's hand in greeting. “Sorry I didn't come to see you sooner but I've . . .”

“Yes,” Leon interrupted. “Been on a mission in the Gamma Quadrant for the past three weeks. Captain Kira told me.”

“We were performing one of many relief missions to the Teplan Homeworld,” Julian explained. “The planet is recovering from a genetic plague inflicted by the Jem H'dar many years ago. As soon as I got back and heard the Republic was in port, I made my way here. Unfortunately, it looks like I'm stuck here for a little while.”

“I'm sure we can make arrangements to get you back to DS9,” Leon offered. “Our security department will probably not list you as a suspect for our counselor's attacker.”

“Not necessary,” Doctor Bashir returned. “Captain Kira actually ordered me to stay. She said I could use a little down time after my mission, and that the Republic was a perfect place to get away.”

“Let me get this straight,” asked Leon with confusion. “You come back from a three-week mission in the Gamma Quadrant, and your captain sends you right back out again? What kind of vacation is that?”

“Well, Republic IS a Galaxy Class starship, isn't she? Your recreation facilities are a cut above Quark's holosuites. Besides, I think Kira's orders had an ulterior motive.” Julian finished his sentence by looking at the unconscious form of Reittan on the diagnostic table.

“Yes,” Leon replied. “It seems we have a mystery attacker on our hands at them moment, and Captain Roth wants to make sure the fish doesn't get away.” Looking back to Bashir, he continued. “But why you? Why not someone from station security? No offense, doctor, but . . .”

“Please,” Bashir interrupted. “Call me Julian.”

The thought of calling one of Starfleet's most renown doctors by his first name was completely alien to Leon, especially since he just mistook him for the ship's EMH. However, Doctor Bashir had a certain charisma surrounding him that Leon could appreciate, and the fact that Julian accepted him as a respected colleague was a compliment in and of itself.

“I think Kira's motive was to offer someone with outside experience in Black Ops matters.” Turning his eyes from the unconscious counselor back to Leon. “Section 31 may be involved here.”

“We used to have an intelligence officer aboard,” Leon replied. “But Commander Forrest kept being recalled to other missions whenever we needed him the most.”

“Hence my presence here,” Julian iterated. “Who would suspect a visiting medical officer as a counter-intelligence advisor?”

“I guess I see your point,” Leon finished. He turned his attention back to the biobed. “The counselor's injury is healed, and I was finishing a diagnostic scan of his paracortex. I was about to wake him.”

“Please do,” Doctor Bashir replied.

Location: Observation lounge, main bridge, USS Republic

For a senior staff briefing, the conference table was unusually vacant. Normally, all departments would be represented, especially with an upcoming mission of which the crew remained uninformed. Yet, the expedited departure caught everyone by surprise, and to go from a light duty schedule to active duty within 60 minutes was not long enough for personnel to adjust their shifts. So, with Republic scrambling to resume normal operations, only five officers took a seat at the senior staff meeting.

Captain Roth, her dark blond hair tied up in a bun, propped her elbows up on the counter and interlaced her fingers. To her left, Commander Carter sat back in his chair, stroking his clean-shaven chin while staring out the viewport at the streaked starlines of warped space. Both were deep in thought, as Chief Rainier, the ship's senior non-commissioned officer, completed an oral report of the passenger manifest obtained during the hasty departure from Deep Space Nine.

On the other side of the table, two female lieutenants in operations gold sat quietly but attentively as they listened to the Chief-of-the-Boat. One of the lieutenants was none other that the tall, blond tactical officer, Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais, while the other was Republic's temporary new operations chief, Lieutenant Reia.

“So,” Chief Rainier concluded. “As soon as we got Ambassador Keil settled in his quarters, he quieted down about how he was 'kidnapped' from the station during his short tour of the ship. Apparently, the thought of spending some time on a Galaxy Class starship was more appealing when he saw how well stocked the food replicator was. As far as Crewman Swanson's family, they were very excited to be staying aboard, and we set them up in a family VIP suite. Unfortunately, the crewman's younger sister will miss out on a week of school, but we'll see if she can attend the ship's elementary class if our mission is extended. Overall, the Republic is hosting 37 unexpected guests, and Yeoman Sheffield has issued them all combadges and explained our emergency procedures to them in detail.”

“Glad to hear we didn't stir up too much trouble, chief,” Captain Roth replied to Brad Rainier's report. Turning to John Carter, she asked, “have all the crew reported in, Number One?”

“All Starfleet hands present and accounted for, captain,” the commander replied. “All except for our chief engineer. Commander Burke was sent back to Earth during our time in port, and I've temporarily assigned Lieutenant Pakita to the post. We never got our request fulfilled for a new chief science officer, so I've temporarily reassigned Lieutenant Butenhoff from engineering to keep a rein on all our new civilian scientists. I'm sure they'll work fine on their own, but I wanted an officer looking over their shoulder as a liaison to the chain of command. Especially with Counselor Tolkath out,” Turning his one functioning eye towards his captain, John continued. “But, it would help them if I could give them something to do, ma'am.”

“Right,” Kim Roth started authoritatively. “Officially, we've been ordered to map and catalog a previously uncharted nebula in sector 172 in the Gamma Quadrant. Those are the orders you will post to the crew. As for our unofficial orders,” Roth turned her eyes towards Lieutenant Beauvais, “we've got a mystery attacker to capture. My understanding is, lieutenant, that DS9 security sweeps showed no one leaving the ship via the gangway from between the time of the counselor's attack to the time of our departure. Since the transporters were not used except to beam people TO the ship after we left, and that none of the shuttlebay doors have opened a single time during the past seven days, we can assume that our attacker is still onboard and somehow avoiding our internal scans. Therefore, we need YOU to diligently, yet unobtrusively, find our intruder without letting them know we're onto them. Check every nook and cranny of this vessel. Hopefully, he or she will try to use the presumed lack of security measures to try an escape, leaving us with an opportunity to catch them. According to Doctor Cromwell's prognosis of the counselor's injuries, there could be more than one perpetrator aboard, so be extra watchful lieutenant.”

“I'm on it, captain,” Beauvais replied.

“Very well,” Roth replied to the security chief. “Keep myself and Commander Carter informed of your progress, and don't hesitate to sound the alarm if you find that our intruder is in a panic and putting more of our people at risk.”

The captain turned to the newcomer to the crew, Lieutenant Reia.

“Lieutenant, since you're a new face around here, I'll give you some time to get used to your position. Starfleet has sent us a nice handful of fresh junior officers for operations, but unfortunately, they're all inexperienced ensigns. That leaves only you and Lieutenant Junior-Grade Klaus as the senior officers in the operations department. However, your enlisted people are veterans, and have been through quite a bit with this ship, and you could do worse than to spend some time learning the ropes from them. Besides, the loss of Ensign Kuga has upset several of them, and they could use a morale boost from you. I doubt you'll find Lieutenant Klaus capable of such a task, so it'll be up to you.”

“I'll do my best, captain,” Reia replied nervously.

“Good,” the captain replied. Looking at the few faces around the table, Kim adjourned the meeting. “If that's all, you each have your assignments, and I expect you to be extra-diligent with an intruder aboard. Remember: We are hosts to civilians and children, and as much as I'd like to sound general quarters to alert everyone, the move could agitate our perpetrator into doing something more heinous than injuring our counselor. Dismissed.”

As everyone stood up and headed for the door, Commander Carter touched Kim on her shoulder.

“Could I talk to you for a moment, Captain?”

“Sure, John,” Roth replied, and the two officers stood until the last person left the room. “What's on your mind?”

“I don't like the idea of not sounding general quarters,” Carter explained. “Like you said, we've got children aboard. In my opinion, we should have beamed every civie off this vessel before leaving port.”

“You disagree with Starfleet hosting families aboard starships?”

“Yes, but that's not the point here, captain,” John explained, scratching the area of his face next to his eye-patch, indicating his frustration. “We've got a criminal on the loose, and by not sounding the alarm and sending all non-essential personnel to their quarters, you're taking a big risk.”

Kim nodded her head in agreement. “I understand your apprehension, John. Your service to this ship as tactical officer in the past has been commendable. And for what it's worth, I agree with you. But, I've weighed the options, and it comes down to this: We're dealing with VERY intelligent individuals who are after our friend, Mister Hawk. If our attacker is linked to the Syndicate, then I'm not even sure they're still onboard. If they ARE onboard, then tipping them off that we're aware of them makes them even more dangerous, as they'll stop at nothing to achieve their goal of escaping. If they think that we're not aware of them, then they'll be a little more careful, working to not sound the intruder alert, thus making us all a bit safer.”

“Let me get this straight,” John interjected. “You're trusting a possible Syndicate assassin to NOT hurt people?”

“It's how they work, John. In the shadows. Moving unseen. If they're given the option to stay out of the spotlight, they'll take it.”

“And what if we give them too much room?” John pointed out. “What if they succeed in their mission?”

“I'm not saying that there aren't risks here, Number One,” Roth became slightly more formal. “We knew that keeping Nathan Hawk aboard could come back and haunt us. If this attacker is linked to the Syndicate, and they're after him, we need to use unconventional means to capture them. They're expecting us to sound the intruder alert. By not doing so, we've stymied them. They don't know whether to try a quiet escape after attacking the counselor, or to try and fulfill their mission and continue hunting Hawk.”

“And if our intruder ISN'T a Syndicate operative?”

“If they're not linked to the Syndicate,” Roth continued. “Then I'm confident in Lieutenant Beauvais's ability to capture them without incident.”

“For the record,” John explained. “I want you to know I disagree with your decision in this matter, captain.”

“Noted,” Kim nodded her head. “To help put you at ease, commander, I'll compromise. If Lieutenant Beauvais detects an intruder aboard, then we'll find someway to get non-essential personnel to stay in their quarters. We can vein an ion storm, perhaps. Make it seem like a natural precaution to normal operations.”

“Thank you, captain.”

Back on the bridge, Lieutenant Beauvais was at the tactical station, reviewing the latest sensors readings. As soon as the captain and Commander Carter emerged from the observation lounge, Zoe turned to address Roth. “Captain, I'm picking up a debris field off the starboard side about 600 kilometers out.”

“Analysis Lieutenant?” inquired Roth as she took her seat in the command pit.

“The field appears to be a wreckage of an unknown vessel made of duranium and tritanium materials. The same standard hull composition of Federation ships.”

“Then it couldn't be a Dominion or Bajoran vessel?” asked Carter.

“The wreckage suggests that the vessel was much larger than a Sovereign Class” Beauvais continued her analysis. “I'm picking up what might be an escape pod in the debris.”

“Life signs?” asked Roth.

“Possible, sir … but I'm having trouble getting a reading due to interference from the wreckage.”

“Hawk, move us into transporter range of the object,” ordered Roth

“You plan on beaming it aboard Captain?” Carter questioned.

“Yes,” she stated clearly. “So far, it's our only clue as to what this ship was …”

Chapter 8: Workings of the MindTop

The Counselor sat back in his chair looking over the personnel files that he and the XO would soon be going over for their quarterly performance evaluation. The PADD rested on the chest of the counselor as he scanned the information being displayed. He was rather casual today, leaning back in his comfortable chair, and enjoying the ambient lighting mode of the room. This room was a sanctuary from some of the default brighter lit room settings on the ship. The softer lighting also helped those who were in a more anxious state to be able to calm down.

His only appointment for today had cancelled at the last minute; something about a forgotten birthday. So, the Counselor decided to get a head start in the finalization of crew assessments. Tolkath had conducted some of these evaluations personally, but most had been reported through a network of people in the psychology department and department heads. The Counselor was engrossed in names and reviews with his back to the door, when a sound signaled the arrival of a guest.

Half lost in the stories and psychological write ups of people, he answered, “Enter.”

As the doors slid closed behind the guest, Reittan sensed something wrong. The din of emotion and thought that emanated from the Starfleet Officers surrounding Tolkath had blanketed the intruder's intents. Now, his senses sharpened, the Counselor felt a life-form devoid of feeling, someone cold and calculated. A person trained to counter the intuition of empathic abilities.

The intruder lunged towards the Counselor, knocking him out of his chair and on to the ground beside his PADD. Reittan's eyes caught sight of some kind of hypospray and knew he had to get it out of the assailant's grasp. The two continued wrestling on the floor, jockeying for position. Finally the better trained assassin had Tolkath pinned with his face to the ground and his hands behind his back.

The intruder reached for the hypospray, when suddenly the assassin's body exploded with pain. But, it wasn't just pain. It was every emotion that the body could sense all at once. Every sensory neuron in the predator's body fired and re-fired as soon as the nerves could recover from the initial discharge. Unprepared for the emotional onslaught, the intruder's body writhed in pain and the assailant fell to the ground.

Reittan, upon realizing his helplessness, and knowing that nothing pleasant was hidden with in the hypospray, felt desperate, trapped. What happened next was an almost unconscious response. The Counselor began to concentrate, using his psionic energy as a defensive weapon against his attacker. It had worked effectively to begin with, but soon the attacker became accustomed to the empathic onslaught.

After getting out from under the Counselor sensed that the assailant was going to kill the Lieutenant Commander or die trying. Knowing he was out classed in hand to hand combat and realizing the attacker had gotten hold of the hypospray and was making his second wave of attack, Reittan realized what he had to do; this person had to be stopped or he would kill the Counselor.

Reittan dodged a swipe from the attacker, and he pressed in to the attacker's deeper, more painful, morbid thoughts; making the attacker relive them over and over again. Tolkath in order to make the attack more intense placed his right hand on the intruder's head and soon had the predator incapacitated. He was restrained, and if that didn't work he was in a position where the Vulcan death grip could easily be applied.

The Lieutenant Commander began to release the assailant from the psionic defensive attack when he heard the familiar hissing of the doors announcing another visitor. Assuming security had been called Tolkath was about to greet them when he felt a sudden feeling of shock and betrayal emanate from both the original intruder and the new visitor. They were surprised to see each other and upset that the other had been sent there; showing a lack of confidence in their work.

Reittan, distracted by his channeling psychic energy, towards his attacker, suddenly realized the same cold feeling radiating from the new guest. The original assailant suddenly vaporized in front of Reittan's eyes.

Knowing his life was in danger, he swung the psionic shield around to the new enemy. The mental strain caused the Counselor to start to sweat and had drained him of his energy. The Lieutenant Commander knew if he were to let go now, despite his exhaustion, he would die. As Tolkath reached into all the reserves of energy he had, he turned to face his new opponent. Scarcely had he began to turn when he felt a searing pain shoot across his head and all went black.

Reittan lay unconscious in sickbay, the scenario replaying over and over in his mind as if on auto play. The two Doctors, looking over Tolkath's bio-scans, prepared to wake the ship's counselor up.

“I don't understand,” Leon mumbled with bafflement. “All bio-readouts are in the green . . . his injuries are healed . . . he should be talking up a storm.”

Doctor Cromwell and Doctor Bashir stood around the diagnostic table with their arms crossed, observing the unconscious form of Counselor Tolkath with puzzled eyes. Although the injuries to the officer were severe, with blunt trauma to the head from multiple blows, the work to repair Reittan's physical wounds was complete. However, despite numerous attempts to revive him, the counselor remained motionless and did not stir.

“The only time I've seen cases like this,” Julian reminisced. “Was either influence by external telepathic forces, or through the patient's own mental defenses.”

“What?” Leon inquired. “Are you saying this is the result the subconscious attempting to protect the conscious mind from the horrors of the attack?”

“Possibly,” Julian replied. “But we won't know until we give him time to rouse on his own.”

“How long, do you think?”

“Days,” the Australian doctor from DS 9 shrugged his shoulders. “Weeks. Maybe months. It's hard to say.”

Leon shook his head. “No, the counselor is stronger than that. During a counseling session with me, he peered into my mind and saw many horrors from the Dominion War. I can't envision anything so traumatic that it would push Reittan's subconscious into short-circuiting his higher functions.”

“Then it has to be telepathic,” Julian concluded. “Someone or something is actively keeping him asleep.”

“But we have no other telepaths onboard,” remarked Doctor Cromwell. “The counselor here was the only one.”

“Then maybe his attacker *IS* still on board.”

The two physicians looked at one another, reviewing the possibility. After a moment, Leon shook his head again.

“If they are, then why simply keep him unconscious? Why not just kill him telepathically?”

“Maybe he or she doesn't have the ability.”

“No, that doesn't make sense either,” Leon explained. “If they have the ability to render unconscious, but not kill, then they would have used that power to escape by now.”

“I don't understand,” Julian admitted.

“It's like the Vulcan nerve pinch. The attacker knows that they can't physically overcome everyone on this ship, but if they could telepathically put someone asleep, they would have found a way to steal a shuttle by now.

Leon returned to watching the counselor's unconscious form.

“Maybe,” Julian suggested. “If we're dealing with telepathy, either with the attacker or the counselor here, we should consult a telepath?”

Leon and Julian looked at one another in thought once more before slowly arriving at the same conclusion.

Location: Chief Medical Officer's office, deck 12, main sickbay, USS Republic

“Doctor Cromwell, I'm not sure you're going about your diagnosis in the correct manner.”

A smooth, feminine British voice spoke to Leon as he sat behind his desk. As the doctor conversed with the small black computer screen, Julian Bashir paced around the office.

“I don't understand,” Leon replied in frustration. “Are you telling me this has nothing to do with a possible telepathic attacker?”

“Exactly. There are depths to the mind of an empath that medical science is only beginning to explore. You're approaching the problem as if Reittan was a member of a single telepathic species. He's not. Like me, his ancestry is a mix of different species. In his case, more than two.”

Julian stopped his pacing, and turned towards Leon with an expression of conviction.

“She's right,” he concluded. “We're ignoring the Vulcan aspect to the counselor's physiology.”

“Commander Troi,” Leon continued. “Could Counselor Tolkath's Vulcan ancestry be impacting his state? I mean, is there a possibility that his active telepathic traits are interfering with his Betazoid empathic abilities?”

“It's not an interference, per se. It's more of a hybrid between empathy and telepathy, where disciplined conscious control of his Vulcan traits are intimately intertwined with his natural Betazoid skills, and they're working in concert to protect his comparatively fragile human mental psyche. It might be best termed as psionic shielding. What appears to be an unconscious state to you is most likely an active defense mechanism carefully developed over the years to prevent a catastrophic backlash from extreme usage of his Vulcan/Betazoid telepathic/empathic abilities.”

“Are you saying that our counselor put his . . . unique . . . mental powers on overload to stop the attacker?”

“Yes, and by doing so, he has been forced to protect the multi-faceted human side of his mind from the enormous psychic energies he must have channeled to fend off his assailant.”

“Well, that's great,” Leon replied gruffly. “But how do we get our counselor back?”

“For the most part, it's up to Reittan. He has to find his own way out of the mental cocoon he's wrapped himself up in. However, you might be able to help by encouraging him to lower his defenses.”

“With all due respect commander, if he can't perceive us, how are we supposed to communicate with him?”

“The only active part of his mind at the moment is the R-Complex: What psychologists call the combined structures of the Basal Ganglia and Thalamus. They compose the most basic instincts of the humanoid brain. The only way to stimulate Reittan's higher functions is through the R-Complex. What you'll have to do is find some sort of outside stimuli that communicates on a basic level. A mother's voice or a nursery rhyme, perhaps. Something that pierces the shield of his complex paracortex and encourages him to . . . well, relax.”

”. . . I see.“ It was clear that Leon was at a loss.

“You're a connoisseur of classical music, are you not, doctor?”

Leon looked up to stare at Julian with confusion. His questioning expression suggested he was searching for both professional support from a colleague and an answer they could agree on.

“I think we should give something a try,” Doctor Bashir offered. “It's all we have to go on, and it comes from an authority in the field.”

Leon nodded his head before returning to the image of Counselor Deanna Troi on the screen.

“Thanks for taking the time our to help us, commander,” Leon offered.

“You're quite welcome, doctor. Titan out.”

After a moment of silence, Leon folded his hands and realized them on the desk.

“So what do you think?” he asked the doctor from Deep Space Nine. “Bach or Beethoven?”

“We may want to start small,” Julian suggested. “Like Commander Troi said, something a baby could recognize.”

At that moment, the intercom came to life with Commander Carter's voice.

“Doctor, prepare a medical team to meet Lieutenant Merrick and Beauvais in cargo bay one for a possible injured life form.”

Leon immediately stood up and tapped his combadge.

“Aye sir,” he replied before turning back to Doctor Bashir. “A chief medical officer's work is never done.”

“Go ahead and take care of it,” Julian offered. “I can tend to the counselor.”


With that, Leon grabbed a medical kit and exited the sickbay while Doctor Bashir returned to exam room two. Before long, the medical officer from Deep Space Nine sat on a stool next to the unconscious Counselor Tolkath, trying to stay awake himself to simplified computer reproductions of “Rock-A-By-Baby” and “Twinkle-Twinkle-Little-Star.”

Chapter 9: Odd WreckageTop

Location: Corridor, deck 5, USS Republic

Scratching her neck, the operative made her way to the Science office. As soon as she entered, she saw someone sitting behind the Chief's desk – her desk. “Excuse me, can I help you?” he asked.

“Yes, I believe that you are sitting behind my desk, Lieutenant –?” she asked, even though she knew exactly who he was. After all, she had the entire crew memorized, but that was for her to know and no one else.

“Lieutenant Butenhoff, and you are?”

“Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik, Chief Science Officer.”

“I'm sorry, Ma'am, I didn't know that there was someone assigned here already,” he replied getting up from behind the desk rather quickly after her stoic glare that could tear a man in two.

She scoffed lightly and headed behind the desk and sat down. “It was rather last minute. I was assigned to Deep Space missions before this and was pulled in order to fill the position temporarily until someone more permanent could be found. Now I can tell by your uniform that you are not of this department.”

“That is correct,” he replied. “Engineering by default. I was assigned here to help out with the new scientists that are coming along on this mission for the exploration of the Gamma Quadrant, seeing that we hadn't heard of anyone having the position.”

“Yes, well, this will teach you and your superiors, never underestimate the face value and never ever assume. Assumptions can kill. I take it that these are the reports of the staff?” she asked fingering lightly between the different PADDs that were scattered across the desk.

He straightened his uniform and said, “Yes. They just arrived right before you came in.”

“Well, Lieutenant that will be all for now. If I need anything else, I will know where to find you. I would hope that your station in Engineering is a bit more organized than this desk,” she replied. Yes, it was a bit harsh but there were standards and with her work in Starfleet Intelligence, they were very high.

He stood at attention and left the room. Now, she could breathe a bit. Collecting the PADDs in one fell swoop, she put them in the replicator and pressed the button and she turned back to the office as they were dematerialized. It was definitely small, but that is okay. Taking a quick tour of the main lab, she new that this was going to be a bit more difficult then what she had originally thought. That was okay, she was up for the challenge. It still disgusted her deep down that she was here on a baby-sitting run, and not one to regain the glory of Starfleet Intelligence.

However she looked on the bright side of things, maybe this way she would be able to find out who was responsible for the deaths and missing persons throughout her section. Gathering the rest of the information that she needed to present to the Captain, she headed to the bridge to check in.

Location: Cargo bay one, deck 4, USS Republic

Lieutenant Reia Merrick, along with Lieutenant Beauvais and a security team, entered the cargo bay where the two meter-long damaged escape pod lay in the center of the floor. As Beauvais and her security team stayed close, Reia moved in to examine the pod for a console or hatch. As she did so, her eyes focused on an all too familiar logo.

“What is it?” asked Beauvais

Reia pointed to the delta-shaped icon.

Beauvais formed a similar expression to that of Reia, not believing her eyes. “This can't be from Starfleet…”

Reia opened the console pad next to the logo, and a miniature video screen displayed a familiar LCARS design. With a few taps on the console, a concealed hatch opened on the side of the pod, and a strange blue gel dribbled out onto the floor. Wide-eyed, Reia pulled out her tricorder to examine the substance.

“Why so much bio-neural gel in this capsule?” she thought outloud. Slowly peeking inside, the team sees a human figure, and both Reia and Beauvais reach in to pull out the young human female.

At about that time, Doctor Cromwell and his medical team enter the cargo bay. “What's the situation, lieutenant?” he inquired.

“You better see for yourself, doctor,” Reia replied, not sure how to translate her surprise into words.

Doctor Cromwell moved closer to his new patient, and as he did so, an expression of recognition and disbelief formed on his face. With a quick tap of his combadge, he summoned Captain Roth. “Captain, you'd better meet us in sickbay.”

“What's the problem, doctor?”

“Let's just say we found someone…”

Location: Deck 12, USS Republic

Transporting the escape pod occupant to sickbay became more of a practice in crowd control than that of an emergency medical procedure. As Doctor Cromwell led the way through the corridors, two medical technicians tending an anti-grav stretcher followed, and the unconscious patient drew stares and gasps from individuals who recognized the face. Although Starfleet personnel, who by way of training knew to keep their distance, civilians were less capable of restraining themselves.

“Naruko!” shouted one young sixteen year-old who caught sight of the patient. The young man was a fond acquaintance of Ensign Kuga shortly after her arrival aboard Republic, as his parents were subordinate coworkers to the deceased ops chief. His shock and disbelief at seeing the face of the ensign was more than he could handle.

“Naruko!” shouted another person. It was an older man who worked in the ships arboretum and who knew the deceased ops chief from numerous encounters in the Ten Forward lounge. “Naruko! I . . . I . . . you're supposed to be dead!” Like the young teenager, the man also started to follow the stretcher through the corridors.

“Is that Kuga?” whispered one enlisted crewman to a companion as they rounded a corner and gawked at the spectacle moving towards them. As the crowd grew, and the corridors became packed, Doctor Cromwell's temper flared.

“Out of the way!” he shouted angrily. “This is a medical emergency! Clear the corridor!” Slowing down to come alongside the stretcher, he waved away the people following them. “Go back to your stations! Your questions will be answered in due time! Go away!”

Before long, the contingent arrived at the medical complex, but not before Doctor Cromwell summoned ship security, and stationed a pair of guards outside the facility. While he knew that the crowd meant well, and that their surprise and confusion was a natural response to the otherworldly sight of what was supposed to be a dead comrade, Leon did not fancy having a visitor every few minutes asking about the status of the newcomer and whether it really was indeed, Ensign Kuga.

“LSS module!” Leon ordered as the medical technicians moved the unconscious body to a diagnostic table. Seconds later, a life support system encased the patient's upper and lower torso with a plethora of computerized gadgetry. “Start an infusion of zee-three-six plasma. Oxygenation ratio of thirty percent.” While the technicians complied, Doctor Cromwell loaded a hypospray with a medical cocktail and pressed it to the patient's neck.

“Start cleaning this bio-gel off her,” he ordered. “But get a sample for laboratory analysis. I want to know exactly what this stuff is doing to her!”

At that moment, the doors to sickbay parted, and Captain Roth walked into the ward followed by Commander Carter. They silently watched from the sidelines as Leon stabilized the patient. As the doctor began an intensive bio-molecular scan, the results only served to heighten the mystery.

“The brain scan is an almost perfect match to Kuga's medical profile,” Leon muttered as he reviewed the ongoing readings. “Too perfect.”

“What do you mean?” Captain Roth interjected carefully, trying not to interfere with the doctor's work.

“Mentally, she's Kuga. But physically . . .”

“Are you saying she is, but she isn't Ensign Kuga?” Carter asked impatiently.

“I know it sounds odd,” Leon admitted. “Her brain functions are congruent to the last medical scan I did on her when she came aboard, but her cellular nucleotides tell a different story.”

“You mean she's a clone?” Roth asked.

“I think so,” the doctor replied. “But it's a very well designed clone. Normally, a simple genetic clone would have markedly different brain scans from one another – something normally found in identical twins. But here, it's nearly a perfect match.”

“Then how do you know it's a clone?” Carter inquired.


“What?” It was clear that John Carter was becoming frustrated at the scientific jargon.

“Telomeres,” Leon insisted. “It's a long repeating chain of nucleotides found in the genes of most human cells. When a cell undergoes mitosis, or cell division, the telomeres get slightly shorter. Over the lifespan of an individual, the telomeres can be used to gauge a person's age almost to the day.”

“How old is this clone?” Captain Roth asked.

“That's the most interesting part,” Leon explained, closing his tricorder and looking the captain directly in the eye. “She's nearly the same age as Ensign Kuga, and if it weren't for the medical scanners we have aboard the Republic, we wouldn't be able to tell that this is a clone. Whoever did this knew what they were doing, and nearly covered their tracks. But because we have the capability to determine the exact length of the clone's telomeres and compare them to Kuga's last scan before she died, we can tell the difference. This clone was grown from tissue cultured from Ensign Kuga exactly six months before she came aboard the Republic.”

The three officers looked at one another in silence while the medical technicians worked to finish stabilizing the Kuga clone. The news of a Kuga clone in itself was disturbing, and as the officers digested the information, Commander Carter was the first to speak.

“Captain? Doctor?” he addressed Kim and Leon. “A meeting, please.” The tone was stern and direct, leaving little room for negotiation.

Watching as the captain, first officer, and doctor walked off in private conversation, Lieutenant Reia Merrick observed as a nurse readied a petri dish in preparation for gathering a sample of the bio-gel. The lieutenant turned to look at the strange readings on the wall console, which displayed the physiology of the look-alike of Ensign Kuga. While Reia was no geneticist, she knew something about brain scans, as it was her specialty in an electro-neurology course she took at the academy while studying bio-mechanics. 'Clones almost never have perfectly matching brain scans to the original person,' she thought. 'There would HAVE to be small differences between her last scan.' Something didn't add up.

As the nurse finished gathering the bio-gel sample, she closed the petri dish and began walking back towards the medical lab when Reia intervened. “I'll take that if you don't mind,” she said pointedly.

Taken aback, the nurse was about to protest when Reia snatched the petri dish from her hand. “Follow me,” the lieutenant ordered.

In the medical lab, Reia sat at a lab bench, placing the bio-gel sample under an electron micrograph to get a better look at it. The nurse, watching over Reia's shoulder, asked “what are you looking for?”

“I'm not entirely sure,” the lieutenant admitted. “The bio-gel appears to be more of a highly-viscous electronic matrix than just standard medical bio-gel. It's reacting oddly with the clone's detached skin cells… look.”

The nurse nodded at the picture on the screen where molecules of the bio-gel morphed and merged with one of Kuga's dead skin cells that arbitrarily flaked off while it was in contact with her. Strangely, what was once a simple dead skin cell, suddenly registered as living tissue, and began to reproduce. Amazed, the two officers looked at one another.

“Not even Borg nanites can do that…” the nurse commented.

“But,” Reia shook her head. “The DNA analysis already shows that this is a clone of Kuga.”

“Let's take another look at that cell-replication process,” the nurse added, selecting a play-back function on the micrograph, and zooming in on the nucleus of the skin cell. Watching with surprise, Lieutenant Merrick and the nurse saw as the bio-gel rewrote the genetic code of the skin cell right before their eyes. The telomeres, on which Doctor Cromwell had based his conclusion about this being a clone of Kuga, were completely reconfigured.

“You know what this means?” the nurse gawked.

Reia, nodding her head, whispered in amazement. “She's not a clone…”

“She's not a clone!” Lieutenant Merrick shouted as she and the nurse emerged from the medical lab into the main sickbay.

“What in the world?” Doctor Cromwell replied, breaking off his conversation with the captain and Commander Carter.

“This IS Ensign Kuga!” Reia explained, point towards the biobed. “And the reason her telomeres make her look like a clone is because she is not human!”

“What?” Commander Carter exclaimed.

“How can she NOT be human?” a confused Leon asked. “I would have picked that up right away during the genetic scan!”

“She not human on the MOLECULAR level!” Reia explained further. “She can't be! The nucleic acids of her so-called 'human' cells are in a state of molecular flux. Breaking apart and reforming into new segments of DNA, telomeres included. According to the micrograph analysis that Nurse Watson and I just performed, her genes are being re-written, and I believe its due to the nano-enhanced bioneuro-gel.”

Immediately, Doctor Cromwell turned back to the biobed where the unconscious Kuga lay. Dialing a few commands into the wall-console, he activated the sub-cellular scanner and watched in amazement at the interaction of Kuga's cells with the bio-gel.

“Incredible!” he exclaimed. “Her cells show less than ten-to-the-minus-twelve percent degradation in genetic material from her last scan! Somehow, these nano-machines are maintaining genetic and cellular integrity despite the decreasing length of her telomeres. The re-writing of her DNA is somehow pre-empting normal biological mitosis! Her cells are replicating without the effects of the normal aging process! Technically, she could never die of old age, no matter how short her telomeres get!”

“These machines do more than just defy aging,” suggested Reia.

Roth looked at the lieutenant, “Go on.”

“These nano-machines are so electronically active with her neurons that they could, in theory, act as a electronic interface. Theoretically, they could speed up her brain functions and - and I know this sounds strange - might even allow her nervous system to interface with a computer…”

“What?” the doctor asked, flabbergasted.

“My studies at the academy involved electro-neurology, and these nano-machines are of a design that were only in the theoretical stage when I studied my courses in bio-mechanics. They were meant to allow direct neurological impulses to be converted to digital computer signals. Simple for small applications such as motor functions, but on their own and using the bio gel as a transmission medium, Kuga's brain could conceivably interface with an entire computer mainframe, with enough capacity to control something as hugely complex like a science probe or a small starship.”

“Who in the world would do this to her?” inquired Roth, thinking outloud.

Reia turned to Kuga as finished her theory, “I don't think this was done while she was missing, but rather… she was born this way.”

Leon looked completely confused. “How could these nano-machines have escaped detection by our medical scans? If she's really Ensign Kuga, she had biannual medical exams throughout her career, not to mention the academy entrance physical…”

“Look closer at her other cells,” Reia explained to Leon. “Especially her blood cells.” Reia pressed a control that caused the screen to zoom in closer to the DNA-modifying nanites. “Take a look at that mechanical superstructure.”

“My god!” Leon commented with disbelief. “Those nano-machines are structured so precisely that they actually mimic hemoglobin in Ensign Kuga's blood! No wonder we didn't notice them! They were hiding in plain sight!”

The four officers, plus the nurse, remained silent for the next several seconds, staring at the readings on the medical screen, completely dumbfounded. It was all they could do to suppress the incredulity of the concept that what they once thought was a normal human being was actually a bioengineered life form designed to interface with a computer system as complex and sophisticated as a starship.

“Whoever did this,” Leon finally broke the silence. “Not only knew what they were doing, but went to great lengths to fool us all . . . the Republic . . . Starfleet Academy . . . Starfleet Medical. Who knows who else may have scanned her and didn't see this.”

“Maybe we should worry less about who did this, and focus more on why they did it,” replied Captain Roth.

“Well,” Reia suggested. “Like I said, it looks as though she could physically interface with just about any computer system using these nano-machines. It's possible she could be some sort of weapon designed to take over a starship.”

“You don't suppose,” Carter theorized. “That someone sent her here in an escape knowing the Republic would pick her up?” Carter asked.

“You think someone wants to take over the Republic using Kuga?” replied Leon.

“Think about it,” explained John. “We're in the middle of the Gamma Quadrant. Both Starfleet and DS9 have our mission plan. There's nothing but space dust between the wormhole and the nebula we're going to survey. Tell me: what are the odds that our supposedly dead ex-crewmember shows up along our trajectory path in an escape pod? It's way more than a coincidence. Someone wanted us to find her, and I don't think that someone is any do-gooder towards the Republic.”

“There's only one way to find out why she's here,” Captain Roth stated. “Let's ask.”

“I have to agree with Carter,” Leon said sternly. “I'm extremely hesitant to wake her.”

“Why not?”

“Do YOU want to explain to her exactly who she is?” Leon rebuffed with rising anger. “Better yet, how about telling those dozen or so people who followed us to sickbay? Are you going to tell them that their friend isn't dead, but actually some sort of bio-mechanical zombie? Hell, I don't even know what will happen when I wake her! Suppose those damned nano-machines have reprogrammed her brain to turn us all into Borgs?”

Doctor Cromwell's words echoed in Lieutenant Merrick's head. The thought of the nano-machines turning ship personnel into Borgs seemed to make Reia bristle, but it also triggered a thought: Anyone who went to such lengths to hide this advanced biotechnology from Starfleet during Kuga's training at the academy would not stand by while her physiological secrets were divulged by the Republic crew. “She's being tracked,” Reia concluded to herself. “And they'll try to keep their little secret about Kuga from the rest of us.” The lieutenant's words were a quiet, rhetorical whisper, and went unheard by the officers around her. Realizing that she had to secure the bio-gel sample she had just analyzed, the operations chief absconded from the current situation and returned to the medical lab.

“Doctor,” the captain interrupted, as Reia left the main ward unnoticed. “We have to wake her at some point. Besides, from looking at the condition of the escape pod, she might very well already know who she is.”

“Then do it in the brig,” Leon suggested. “Allow her to wake from her coma naturally to reduce system shock, and keep her away from anything with access to the ship's computer.”

“That seems like a reasonable precaution,” Carter added.

Roth thought about the situation for a moment, and began to nod her head. “Very well,” the captain replied. “But let's beam her directly there. No need to parade her around the ship gathering everyone's attention.”

“Sickbay to transporter room two,” Carter tapped his combadge. “Make preparations to beam the patient in the main ward to the brig.”

Chapter 10: Martian DiplomacyTop

John Carter looked on as the body of Naruko Kuga disappeared in the haze of transporter energy. Republic's XO looked over to Leon Cromwell. “Any idea when she'll wake up Doc? I've got a feeling she'll have a lot to tell us.”

“No way to be sure John”, Leon offered as the two officers walked into the Doctor's office for some hard to find privacy. “To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure how it is she's still alive.” Leon gave a quick glance through the door to Lieutenant Merrick, “illegal nano-technology not withstanding.”

Carter nodded in agreement. “Mark my words Doc,” John said in a low voice, “this has Kostya written ALL over it.” Carter shook his head. “I just wish I knew why Republic herself was so important to him.”

John absently rubbed the back of his neck. “It's not firepower. There are plenty of other, more powerful ships in `Fleet.”

Cromwell nodded. “And it's not her crew,” the doctor added, “despite your charming personality.

Carter smirked in reply. “Plus, he all but assured me I'd never leave Republic, but why not order at least you and I re-assigned if all he wants is the ship?”

“Can't help you there either John,” Leon said, “but I'm sure you'll ferret out something.” Cromwell tilted his head and gave the First Officer an appraising glance. “How's the eye by the way? Are you adjusting to monocular life?”

Carter's expression soured. “I've been meaning to talk to you about that.” Carter's fingers lightly stroked the soft, black fabric of his eye patch. “Functionally, I think I'm fine. No trouble shaving, reading, anything like that, but there is a problem.”

“Oh? Headaches? Sometimes the supplemental lens I fitted you with causes distortions in depth-perception.”

“Nope, no pain, but since regen's a no-go for most Martians, I may have to ask you to break your word.”

Leon recalled one of the many late-night “bull sessions” as John had called them, when Leon, Carter, and then Chief Engineer Victor Virtus, would play cards, enjoy some of Leon's more exotic spirits, and in general solve the galaxy's problems. On one occasion, while Carter was on a rant about technology making humanity soft, the First Officer made Leon promise, then and there, that he'd never turn Carter into a “cyber-jacked freak.” Leon looked on gravely. “What's the issue?”

“According to `Fleet regs, I'm fine for active duty onboard the ship, but if I want to keep my flight status, I need to possess `functional binocular vision, or the corresponding racial equivalent to allow for normal operation of aerospace craft.' How's that for a mouthful?”

Leon smiled. “That sounds like Starfleet Medical all right. I'll make you a deal. I'll fix your little problem for you. Yoyodine Multi-systems just perfected a next-generation ocular implant. Self-contained, minimally invasive, even removable. We'll get you fitted.”

“And?” Carter added wearily.

“And you get me through the Basic Starship Combat Qualifications.”

“You're going through with it?”

Cromwell nodded.

“Good,” Carter smiled again, “your dad would be proud of you.”

“I think he might, but he'd never admit it.”

Just then, Carter's comm. badge chirped.

“Rainier to XO.”

“Go ahead Chief.” Carter acknowledged.

“Ambassador Keil is insisting on speaking with a member of the command staff, Sir.”

Carter rolled his eyes. “Did you explain to him that you ARE a member of the command staff?”

“First thing I did, Sir, but he's demanding a 'proper' officer.”

“Understood Chief. On my way.” Carter stepped out of the Doctor's office, nodding to Captain Roth on the way. “I'll be back when I can, Captain.”

Location: VIP Quarters, USS Republic

“Ambassador Keil,” John Carter tried his best to soothe what he could clearly see were ruffled feathers, “I understand how you feel, but please try to understand, we have a very delicate situation on boa…”

Across the well-appointed room the smallish, grey haired man clenched his fists, while his voice thundered throughout the room. “Delicate situation? Delicate situation?!.” Gunther Keil slammed his fists down on the dark wood table in front of him. “Mister,” he tilted his head up to look the taller officer in the eye. “You have no idea what a delicate situation is. Let me paint you a picture. Round about ten years ago it was another…”

“Commander.” John said coolly.

“Excuse me?” The elder man quirked his brow.

“I worked hard for my rank Ambassador,” Carter was careful to emphasize the elder man's own title, “I'd appreciate if you would use it, sir.”

“Of course Commander,” Keil spat with an icy edge. “How rude of me.” The admission did little to calm Keil's demeanor. The Federation ambassador walked slowly around the front of his desk, resting on the edge as he looked Carter over.

“Let me tell you what `delicate' means to me. I'm the Federation's duly appointed representative to re-open relations with the Malcorians.” Carter nodded as the ambassador continued. “You may recall that because of rash actions from another Starfleet Officer, a Commander as well, now that I think about it,” Keil tilted his head down and continued, “First Contact with the Malcorians was bungled into disaster. Now, thanks to this little hijacking of yours,” Keil pointed a fat, angry finger in Carter's direction, “You're helping history repeat itself.”

Carter folded his arms across his chest. “I thought Chief Rainier explained to you that this was anything but planned. I'm sorry that you're inconvenienced, but…”

“Which reminds me,” Keil pointed again. “Is it protocol onboard this ship to have members of the Federation Diplomatic Corps be shown around by a non-commissioned officer?”

Carter felt his eyebrow raise under his eye patch. “Chief Rainier is the senior NCO on this ship. He's logged more space hours than the Captain and myself combined.” Carter said matter-of-factly. “I should think that a man of your… experience,” he said, noting the deep lines in Keil's face and his stark white hair, “would appreciate his sense of… perspective.”

“Don't play word games with me, Mister!”

“Commander.” John corrected again. “I wouldn't dream of it, Ambassador, and I am genuinely sorry that you feel under-appreciated. If you're that unhappy, I'd be more than willing to offer you one of our shuttle craft, and you can go about your business.”

“Do you mean to say that you'd just cut me loose and leave me at the mercy of Gods-Know-What in the middle of the Gamma Quadrant?”

Carter nodded. “I mean to say.” The Martian officer stepped back toward the door to Ambassador Keil's cabin, and looked back over his shoulder. “I'll do my best to get you back on schedule as soon as I can Ambassador,” Carter explained. “But I'd like you to consider that `Gods-Know-What' is what brought the Federation out here in the first place. Think of it as a chance to catch up on your research. Good Day, Ambassador.” With that, John Carter left the cabin.

In the corridor, in route to a turbolift shaft, Carter nodded as he saw Republic's new Chief Tactical Officer, Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais, approaching. Without breaking stride, Carter held up a hand. “Don't tell me… let me guess. You're an Organian in disguise and you need to go explore higher planes of existence.”

“What?” Zoe asked, genuinely confused, “No, I was just on my way to check on the Ambassador. Scuttlebutt says he was giving The Chief a hard time.” The blonde Lieutenant fell in step with Carter, and continued back the way she'd come. “Have you even met an Organian, XO?”

“Not that I know of, but anything's possible. Any leads on Tolkath's attacker?”

Zoe shook her head. “I'm whittling away on the list. Sensor logs and security feeds are actually helping me figure out who DIDN'T do it, but I can't tell you yet who did.”

“Well, that's better news than I expected,” Carter admitted. “How soon can you clear the Ambassador and a the non- related personnel to leave? We should be able to coordinate with DS9 and make transfers fairly quickly.”

Zoe's brow furrowed as she thought. “Well, the Ambassador's clean,” she admitted, but I'm still concerned that we keep one hundred percent containment until we get Tolkath's attacker in the brig. I've got Narundi running down travel records and Doctor Yezbeck is looking for any exotics the standard medical scans might have missed.”

Carter folded his hands across his chest. “You think the Counselor was poisoned as well as assaulted?”

“Nothing I can confirm, just a feeling really, but an engineered neuro-toxin could explain some of the oddities Doctor Cromwell mentioned in his report.”

“Hmm,” Carter mused. “Get down to medical and see if anything from the scans pops out at you. I'm headed to the brig to check on a late arrival.”

“It's true then? Ensign… Kuga, is it? I heard someone say something about it.”

“Unfortunately, right now all it is, is something. Not sure what yet.”

“Well you better keep an eye on her, XO.” Zoe cautioned. “Anyone who could take three Capellans and a D'Haar Master in a brawl is bound to be a handful.”

Carter chuckled, despite the seriousness of the situation. “She was just brought onboard, Lieutenant. I'm pretty sure even Kuga couldn't bring down Tolkath from a quadrant away.”

“If you say so, Commander,” Zoe added with a smile. “I'll let you know what I get from medical.”

“On your way then.”

“Aye, Sir.” Zoe nodded and then stepped into the turbolift car.

John Carter felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck, what his Grandmother Rose used to call `someone walking over your grave.'

“Catch you at a bad time, John?”

Carter whirled back around, feeling his heart jump in surprise. It took a moment for his brain to register that the voice, which had startled him, belonged to Doctor Shannon Harris, Republic's pediatrician.

“Damn it! Shannon? What are you doing here?”

Harris cocked her head, looking crookedly at the XO. “Nothing I shouldn't be, if that's what you mean. Just helping Vic collect some data. Why? Is there somewhere else I should be?”

Carter felt his face screw into a scowl. “That's not what I meant, I just didn't expect to see you up here.”

“That's obvious.” Shannon shot back. The chill in her tone was hard to ignore.

“Excuse me?” Carter put his hands on his hips, now officially confused. “What does that mean?”

“Just what I said. Not only did you not expect me, I don't think you want to see me.”

“What?” John took a step forward, opening his arms to Harris. In response, the doctor backed away. “Shannon, what's wrong? I know we haven't been able to spend much time together, but…”

“But the new Lieutenant needs `special attention'? Don't insult me, John.”

“My god…” Carter said, “you're serious? The Lieutenant and I were discussing the hunt for Tolkath's assailant, not planning a weekend.”

“Losing your touch? It's been a while since the Devonshire.”

Carter felt his confusion being replaced with anger. “Now hang on a second.” Despite his attempts to keep things civil, he could hear the edge in his own voice. “Did I or did I not ask you on multiple occasions to get away with me for a little while when we were in port at DS9?”

“You know full well that Ensign Simms was…”

“And did I or did I not set up weekend liberty on Risa?”

Shannon shook her head again. “My fit-rep was due, so…”

“You couldn't ask Leon to re-schedule? He owes both of us, and as much as he might tease you or me for it, he'd help us make SOMETHING work if he could, but you didn't even ASK, did you?”

“John Thelonius Carter,” Shannon said angrily, “don't you DARE put this back on me! I'm not the one slipping off to seedy bars to break regs with a new arrival. I'm not the one whose heart jumps anytime ANY woman walks by. You're IMPOSSIBLE!”

“Seedy bars? What are you talking about?”

Shannon felt her eyes begin to sting with tears. “Stop it. Just stop it. I know.”

“Know? Know what?”

“I know you met Zoe in Quarks, and I know you bought a certain reporter a number of Aldeberan whiskies. You were with her for hours! Just stop lying!”

“Lying? When have I ever told you something other than the absolute truth? And just for the record, I didn't MEET Lieutenant Beauvais in Quark's she was there well before me. As for our reporter friend, you KNOW I don't trust her.”

“Fair bit of that going around.” Shannon blurted out.

Carter felt a sudden calm come over him as some part of his brain processed the last piece of information it needed to. He stepped back from Shannon and keyed the turbolift door control.

“Fine,” Carter said at last, “you don't trust me, there's nothing I can do about that. I've tried Shannon. I've asked, I've bribed, I've pleaded, but so help me if we can't manage to be together off this damn ship, then what's the point of hoping for something else?”

Dumbfounded, Shannon Harris blinked tears away. “What?” The turbolift arrived and John stepped into the car before looking back at Harris. “Don't forget I've seen the future Shannon. I liked what I saw… a lot, but we have to work at this together, and I'm tired of doing it alone. When you're ready to pull your weight, you know where to find me.”

Shannon Harris stared in silence as lift car sped away. Then she shook her head. As she did so, there was the soft rush of photons realigning, and all traces of tears and trauma were gone from the young doctor's face. “Pull my weight eh?” she said aloud with an edge of menace. “John, you have no IDEA what I'm capable of.”

In another wash of photons, 'she' was gone.

Chapter 11: ProgressionsTop

Lieutenant Desiree Chante Devenerux was furious. Once more she had to take over the psychology department while the Counselor lay in some sort of coma. The 5 foot 2 inch brown eyed woman was ready to pounce on the next person who walked in to her office. She paced the floor, her shoulder length brown hair slightly swaying side-to-side with her deliberate gait; her normally pale face was tinted red with fury.

She had been there during the Bajoran counselor's folly; she was the one who had left the graffiti on the walls of the Counselor's office. It was she who rigged the computer to not recognize the graffiti so it wouldn't clean itself up, and also to flash the “Bajoran moron” message across the view screen at the counselor's desk. She had prided herself in not getting caught. The ultimate insult to her was done when they had placed the pediatrician over the department. She knew that Carter and the doctor were in a relationship and felt that is how the woman got the position. In her journals she had referred to the doctor as “the slut sleeping her way to the top.”

Once again she was tired of the politics of Starfleet that seemed to work against her. What Devenerux lacked in height she made up with her temper. It had gotten her in trouble more than once, and one time it landed her with a formal reprimand after she knocked out a fellow crewman in ten-forward. Those who witnessed the situation could see no reason for the outburst except the possibility she had loss in chess.

She looked around her office and with clenched fists and gritted teeth said, “I had better get promoted after this incident.” She then slammed her fists on her desk.

She couldn't deny that Tolkath's current situation brought her some satisfaction. She had never really like him, especially since she had applied for the position, had been turned down, and the Lieutenant Commander had been appointed. Now she could run things the way she liked, at least until the Counselor returned to duty.

Suddenly an idea popped into her head. It struck her with such force that her anger deserted her, and she stopped pacing. Then an evil smile began in the corner of her mouth and spread.

“If it's politics they want, then it is politics they will get,” she muttered under her breath.

The plan was simple, go to Tolkath's bedside and feign worry for her superior. Her presence there may help her in her career. A thoughtful crewmember at the side of a wounded compatriot; she would begin the façade of being a saint.

She knew how to overt an empath's ability to sense emotion. She had done it ever since Reittan had usurped her rightful position. With new determination to secure a promotion, she walked out of her office; the doors give way with a soft hiss.

Upon reaching Sickbay she was a little startled to see a stranger scanning the counselor with his tricorder and the sound of . . . lullabies???

Doctor Julian Bashir was standing over the Counselor fascinated by the condition of the patient. He was so engrossed with the patient and the sound of lullabies being played that he did not hear the Lieutenant come over to where he was working until she spoke.

“Is he going to be alright?”

Doctor Bashir slightly jumped, startled by the new visitor.

“Yes, I do believe so.”

“What a relief.” Devenerux feigned.

The lieutenant looked at the unconscious counselor. Suddenly all the fury and hatred she had felt in her office for the Lieutenant Commander flooded through her body. She had let her guard down, after all, no one would notice and the Counselor was unconscious.

Suddenly, pain seared through her body and all her emotions inundated her. Memories that she had hidden so many years ago began to flood her mind. She began to relive her parent's death. The guilt surrounding their transport's demise wracked her body. If only the scanners had picked it up sooner, if only she had stayed with the ship instead of storming out and beaming over to the starship. The sound of red alert being sounded as she stepped off the pad when a Dominion vessel had entered the system flooded her memory. Her temper had once again driven a schism between Devenerux and her parents. She felt her stomach drop when she heard that the transport was destroyed, her only family aboard. She should have died with them. Other horrifying memories of close crew members being killed in the line of duty entered her mind as every neuron fired. Suddenly she fell to the ground.

Julian saw the Lieutenant fall to the floor and began scanning her. Her neural activity was 300 times normal levels. He stood in shock; it was as if every neuron had been activated. He had never seen anything like it. Suddenly the Lieutenant began to convulse. Bashir's mind realized what had happened. Tolkath's mind had viewed her as a threat. He called for a nurse to help him drag Desiree's thrashing body away from the Counselor. After pulling her out of the examination room, just as suddenly as the violent convulsions had set on, they dramatically reduced. After making sure the nurse had helped Devenerux into a bed and had ordered the nurse to give her a hypospray to try and get her neuron chemistry back to normal, he returned to his original patient.

The DS9 Doctor scanned the Counselor's brain once again. The paracortex had been activated, and was now returning to normal levels.

“Fascinating,” Bashir commented to himself as he rubbed his chin with his forefinger and thumb.

Suddenly, he realized that the Lieutenant was weeping in the next examination room. He walked over to find her trembling and sweating. The whole affair had drawn the entire staff's attention.

“I didn't mean to . . .” Devenerux stammered incoherently. “If only I'd stayed. . . I killed them. . .”

Realizing he had to protect the psychologist's fragile psyche, the Doctor administered a hypospray that caused Desiree to lose consciousness.

“It will be easier for her to cope with what happened after her body regenerates from this experience.”

But, what did happen? After making sure Deneverux was being attended to by the nurses, the doctor returned to the Counselor's bedside pondering the drama that had just played out. The sound of Braham's lullaby played on as Tolkath remained unconscious with the Doctor hovering over him.

Location: Chief science officer's office, deck 5, USS Republic

Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik was sipping on her tea as she quietly looked over the sensor readings that had poured in since before they had left DS9. To the untrained eye, they would just be readings on spatial dimensions, however, to a trained eye like hers and maybe a few others, they would see that it includes how many people were on the ship at the time, and the glitch in the sensors allowing the attacker to try to complete their mission now stuck on the ship.

However, as she looked through it deeper and deeper, the person was either still in hiding on the ship or was posed to be one of the new transfers, or it could have even been one of the former crew members. Her thoughts were interrupted by the swishing sound that the doors made when someone either entered or left. Waving her hand absent-mindedly over the readings, she looked up and saw the Chief Tactical Officer standing above her. “Can I help you?” she asked as she set her tea down.

“I am doing a background check on all crew members either assigned at DS9 or before that trying to find the attacker,” she replied simply. “You are the next one I have to interview. Do you have a moment?”

“No,” she stoically replied. “I have plenty of work that needs completely.”

“Well, good, it can wait,” Zoe replied sitting down and started recording the information on the PADD. “State your name and rank for the records please.”

“Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik, Daughter of Sorik.”

“You're place of birth?”

“I do not see the relevance in this, Lieutenant,” she replied stressing distaste on the rank. No reply came from the French looking woman. “Vulcan.”

True she could have listed the place of her birth, but she never really delved that deeply into this persona that she took on. “Why are you here on this ship?”

“I requested a ship that sees the frontier in order to further my scientific research and to increase our knowledge in the field.”

“Sounds ambitious.”

“I am a Vulcan; it is our nature to be ambitious.”

“So the records showed that you arrived onboard right before we departed. I saw you on the station, why did you not come aboard sooner?” she asked.

“I wished to see the Wormhole a few more times before I decided to come and get settled in.”

“I see. But you could have seen that from the ship.”

“Putting holes into the logic of a Vulcan is a very disrespectful thing to do. The viewing of the Wormhole is best seen from the Promenade. I have gone through there many times,” it fit both her truthfully and this persona. How she despised the science field. “Is there anything else?”

“Not for now. If I think of anything, I will come and find you,” she replied as she stood and started to leave the room. She stopped and turned slightly on her heel. “One more thing, Commander, could you please take a look at our newest visitor? I would like more information about her.”

With that she left leaving the Vulcan in a near state of shock if that was possible. Oh well time to living the lie again. She got up and headed out of her office. She just wished that this assignment would be over with and she would be able to go back to the way that everything was before.

Location: Deep Space Nine
Time: Two days ago

“Well, that was fun Doc,” Vance said to the medical officer who had finally finished the neural scans.

“I'm sure it was… But it's done now,” responded the doctor hastily as he walked away. “See your self out. And don't be late for the counselor.”

Vance snorted and left, his usual frustrated self when he had nothing important on his mind.

Naturally he was late for the shrink.

“Glad you could finally show up,” said the counselor. He had grey tousled hair, and was wearing a shirt and tie instead of the Starfleet uniform and Commanders rank he had earned. “Anything special keep you this time?”

“Look,” Vance replied. “I don't like seeing you, and the neural scans put me in a bad mood. I shouldn't be trying to take it out on you, but your handy, and your connected to the issues.”

Vance, it should be noted, was not a huge fan of counselors as a whole. And Commander Johanson was a particularly annoying example.

“I want you to tell me some more about your experiences during your captivity.” The annoying bastard said.

“Thankfully, I am in control of my memory,” Vance muttered to himself pouring another glass of whiskey. “So I don't have to relive that arrogant so and so's prying.”

“Well, I really think that you should continue seeing someone,” said the counselor. “But you've come a long way and I think you will manage on your own if you insist on being stubborn.”

“Great, can I go now?” Vance asked impatiently. He didn't really have anywhere to go, or anything to do, he just wanted to get away from the bastard.

“Yes Vance,” said Johanson. “You can go.” With that, the commander turned to his computer station and began making an entry into Vance's psych file.

Vance, naturally, left immediately.

“So, now what am I going to do?” Vance asked himself after he had returned to his quarters. Vance shrugged, and activated his comm to ask the computer system a question. “Computer, what is the location of the nearest fighter pilot who served in the Dominion War?”

“The nearest person matching that description is Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, currently stationed aboard the USS Republic. His current whereabouts are…”

“Don't worry computer, I know where the ship is,” Vance interrupted. “Nat huh? Death Wish himself… that's perfect.”

Vance walked off heading to the docking ring at DS9 that connected to the Republic.

Location: Officer's Mess, deck 3, USS Republic
Time: Present day

Vance sat in a corner of the Officers Lounge, he was sharing a table with a bottle of whiskey.

“That certainly felt like a wild goose chase.” Vance said to himself. “Seems like everyone on the ship knows Nat, and everyone had a helpful suggestion as to where he might be. If I didn't know any better I would swore they were sending me on a snipe hunt. Oh well, hopefully he'll show up here eventually.”

Vance Devloch stared into the bottle he had extorted out of the Bartender, He had been very surprised to actually find Irish Whisky on a Starfleet Ship. The booze was good and the food was decent. Not a bad place to kill some time. Now if only he could find “Nat” Hawk, His day would be complete

Stepping through the massive solid earth-oak double doors as they parted to reveal the Officer's Lounge, a part of his psyche cringed with caution, reminded of how many times that sound had heralded both the beginning and end of another drunken stupor. It was only his own failings that made it so, but he was still a ways from shaking off the bad memories. Until then, he had to keep reminding himself that it was only his own faults that lead to the wrong thing from the right place.

Stopping just inside the doors, next to the main service window, he caught the attention of one of the Lounges service staff tending bar.

“Lieutenant, it's been a while,” said the young Bajoran whose name escaped him, “what can I get for you?”

The question provoked the same warning voice deep in his thoughts that screamed for him to run from this place before temptation overtook him. Pushing the voice down, he replied to the young Bajoran, “Altair water.”

The befuddled look upon the Bajoran's face said everything, but without questioning, he nodded and departed back into the galley, only to reappear a few seconds later with a tall glass of the clear liquid.

“Anyone been looking for me?” Hawk queried, knowing someone had, but curious which of the patrons it was. Silently, the Bajoran acknowledged affirmative and pointed out another man across the spacious lounge, seated at one of the prime tables - center left - of the upper dining level.

Picking up the glass, he thanked the Bajoran before setting off toward the stranger. The fleeting thought that this person could, in fact, be the Orion Syndicate assassin came and went. No Syndicate employee would be that obvious.

“Word is you've been lookin' fer me,” Hawk stated as he stepped up behind the stranger.

“Ah! There you are.” Vance exclaimed. “Mr. Death Wish himself. I've been wanting to meet you for a good long time. And seeing as I've been exiled to that godforsaken station for “Mandatory Medical Leave”(said in a sarcastic voice) you just happened to wander into my path.”

With that Vance Devloch stood up and offered his hand. “I'm Vance Devloch, you may have heard of some of my stupider exploits that nearly got me killed.”

Setting his drink down upon the table, Hawk took the offered hand and shook his head slightly in recognition, muttering the other man's call sign, “Neuromancer?”

“Sadly not anymore. With the damage to my damn implant I can barely fly a simulator, let alone a shuttle. Which puts the beautiful wings I've left behind far out of my reach.” Vance said morosely. “These day's I'm just a lowly engineer.” As the sentence ended Vance poured himself another glass of Whiskey, and gave it a strong pull.

“Now if only Starfleet Medical would understand that there's nothing bloody wrong with me, I could get on with my life.”

Cracking a smile for the first time in recent memory - at least, while sober - Hawk nodded in both understanding and amusement. “Yep, yer a pilot,” Hawk declared, as if in blessing. Anyone who had ever flown a fighter was like this; like himself, like Vance. Outspoken, open, and usually at the bottom of a bottle. Though to what extreme varied wildly - he himself had set the bar for the most extreme, only now in the wake of recent events pulling back from it. “Ya gotta love how 'Fleet loves us durin' wartime n'treats us like kids ta be coddled soon s'the dust settles.”

“Aye, that's their usual game,” Agreed Vance. “But for me it's even worse. Some of the powers that be feel guilty about whats wrong with my head. And they keep trying to help me. They don't understand that I don't want their help!” As he neared the end of the sentence Vance's speech reached a crescendo, until he was practically shouting. Vance seemed to notice this, and looked around guiltily. “I just want this stupid thing out of my head. Either that or working again. Most day's I wish I had never volunteered for that stupid project.” With that Vance tossed back the glass of Whiskey.

Nat felt displaced to be on this side of things. Vance reminded him so much of himself, more so with each glass of Whiskey he polished off. While it was almost painful for him to watch - for more reasons than he could articulate - it was also oddly comforting. Yes, he had let his own faults and failings consume him, he accepted that. His demons had ruled him for most of his life, and to many degrees still did. Watching Vance up-end his glass again and again though, he found it oddly reassuring that he wasn't alone in that. “Never volunteer fer anythin',” He said, quoting himself, remembering his first assignment aboard the Republic. “So why come lookin' fer me?”

“Do you have any idea how tired I am with talking to Shrinks and Doctors, who ask me how I feel about losing something they have no idea about?” Asked Vance. “Never mind that I hardly know anyone on DS9. The thought of seeing a kindred spirit was more than I could pass up. And now it seems I'm stuck here for a while. Why the devil were you all in such a rush to leave anyway? I mean I know that DS9 can get kind of boring, but it's not that bad.”

“Ya really don't wanna know.” Hawk replied, finally taking his first sip of the Altair water. It was certainly… different. “So how'd ya go from pilot ta pitbull?” he asked, pitbull being the 'unofficial' designation of a fighter pilot engineer.

“Well, I'd always loved the more technical side of piloting, if there is such a thing; that's part of the reason I was brought into the Mars MMI project.” Vance started off. “Hell, I'd trained in both engineering and flight ops at the academy. And I needed something to do with myself without the beautiful black oblivion of space to touch. So I brushed up on the newer details of engineering, and started working my way up the corporate ladder as it were.” Vance poured himself another glass, this time sipping at it instead of downing it. “It's not the same, but it pays the bills, and it keeps me occupied. As any pilot knows, there's always something going wrong with an engine.” Vance finished.

“Ya got any experience with retrofits 'er antiques?” Nat asked.

“I'd a project or two I've worked on. Though, to be honest, there hasn't really been a whole lot of changes in the basics of impulse engine design,” Replied Vance. “And I could always use a new project, and an additional subject for late night reading. I love engineering, but some of the technical books are so dry they put me to sleep. And they help take my mind off of the frequent headaches.”

“Ever seen a mark-1 prototype in the flesh, so ta speak?” Hawk asked, knowing the answer - they where extinct as far as everyone else knew. They had only built five in the first unit, and two had been lost shortly after. The other three has vanished to time - most speculated into scrap. The only one known to exist at this moment in time was aboard this very ship, buried away in one of the lower cargo bays. And it was his.

“A mark-1 you say?” Asked Vance with a whistle. “I've seen the specs and the performance profiles, obviously, but never in the flesh. It's my understanding they were all sent for scrap when the production models came out.”

“I used ta think that maself. 'Til I got ahold a one.” he added with a grin. Amongst fighter vets, there was no greater myth, no holy-er grail.

“Well then what the hell are we still doing here? Let's go 'ave a look,” Vance exclaimed. “They wont mind if I take the bottle will they? I am on leave after all, and I didn't bring my minibar” As he said the last he stopped up the bottle, stashed it in his jacket pocket, grabbed his glass and got up to leave.

“Naw, they won't mind.” Hawk replied simply. Part of him wanted to say more, wanted to ask him 'Do you really need it?' - but he couldn't get passed the hypocrisy of such a question coming from him.

“Good, so how bad a shape is it in?” The conversation moves toward more and more Pilot jargon as Vance and Nat leave the Lounge, and head towards the cargo bay.

Chapter 12: Locked Down, Screwed UpTop

Location: Brig, deck 38, USS Republic

Naruko heard the hum of the force field next to her as she slowly opened her eyes and began to get her bearings. She took a glance to her right finding herself inside a cell, “Auh! why do I always find myself in a jail cell?” she thought to herself. With the sound of the doors opening to the brig, she quickly closed her eyes hoping to get the surprise on whoever had captured her.

“She's coming around, captain,” Doctor Cromwell's voice resonated in the spartan cell-block area of the security offices. Putting away his tricorder, Leon walked out of the cell and re-activated the force field behind him.

John Carter stepped close to the security field, feeling the electro static buzz near his nose. “Kuga? Naruko? Can you hear me? It's Commander Carter.” John looked back to Captain Roth for a moment, then squared his shoulders as his CO nodded. “Naruko, you're onboard Republic. Do you have any idea how you got here?”

Naruko's eyes jumped open as she sat up in a flash. Realizing where she was, she began to stutter the name, “Repub..lic?”

“That's right, ensign,” Captain Roth responded. “You're back aboard the Republic.”

“You've been missing for almost two weeks, Ensign. We need to know what happened to you.”

A flood of memories and sensations assaulted Kuga. But, while the scenes were traumatic, she felt remarkably calm. The Ensign stood up and walked gracefully to the security field. She looked the energized doorway over, then regarded her ship's XO. “I was visiting family.”

“Family? FAMILY!” Carter thundered. He could appreciate that Kuga had been through a lot. Cromwell's scans had confirmed that, but he was already suspicious of the manner in which Kuga had been 'returned' to Republic, and now he was being lied to. There was no quicker way to get under a Carter's skin than to lie. Especially to their face.

“You leave your post during red alert, disappear for almost two weeks, and then miraculously return…in the Gamma Quadrant no less…and the best you can do is; 'I was visiting family?'” Carter stepped away as he felt Leon Cromwell's hand on his shoulder.

“Easy John,” he whispered. “She may not fully realize what's happened to her.” Cromwell stepped forward, and regarded Kuga with a trained physician's eye. “Are you aware, ensign,” Doctor Cromwell seemed to be searching for the right words in which to ask about Kuga's physical condition. “Exactly who . . . or perhaps what . . . you are?”

Naruko seemed cold and unmoved. “I suppose I'm my father's daughter, Doctor.” she responded. “More than that, I don't think I can tell you.”

“I must admit,” Captain Roth added with concern laced with a touch of suspicion, “We're all quite shocked that you're even alive. But after examining your unconscious body in sickbay . . . well, I guess the word 'astonished' doesn't quite sum it up. Is there anything you'd like to tell us, ensign?”

Naruko looked at the four standing in front of her not wanting to say anything as she remembered what the Admiral said to her onboard the Runabout Vaal:

“You'll soon realize who you are,” the Admiral said to Naruko with a disgusted look. “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's going on here,” pleaded Naruko while struggling against the restrains within the biotank. Her words were muffled as the tank filled slowly with the blue bioneural gel.

“It's better if you don't know Ensign, and for you to go back to the Republic.” With that, the Admiral pressed a button on the tank controls, and Naruko fell into unconsciousness as the tank filled to capacity.

Naruko started to feel the burden that had been placed on her. “I'm sorry, but I would only be putting the crew and you in danger if I say anything.”

“Look Ensign, I may not know you, but most of the crew onboard this ship does.” Reia paused for a second trying to think of a way to persuade Naruko into giving up some hints on why she was here. “And they are concerned for you Ensign. All we want do is try to help you if you are in trouble.”

“Who did this to you, ensign?” Doctor Cromwell couldn't help but interject. “Your metabolism is unlike anything I've ever seen. Not even the Borg are so detailed in their physiology.”

Carter looked on, arms folded across his chest. He had calmed down a bit, but was still anxious for answers that had remained too elusive for his tastes. “Ensign,” he said firmly, “it's only a matter of time before we piece this together.” Carter couldn't help but give Reia Merrick a glance. “When we do, there'll be hell to pay by everyone… EVERYONE… involved. If there's anything you can tell us to speed things up…”

Kim Roth cleared her throat. “You're facing some very serious charges Ensign,” she offered, “and regardless of anything official, you're a girl who's in a lot of trouble right now. I don't need a tricorder to know that. Tell us what you know. We can help you.”

Naruko shook her head several times. “No. I'm sorry. I can't do that. Captain, if you have to leave me in the brig until you return to the alpha quadrant than you can, I give you my word I will not try and escape from the ship.”

“Naruko…” started Reia before being interrupted.

“If you don't mind I would like to be left alone until I am transferred off this ship,” said Naruko as she curled up into a ball.

Reia Merrick and the rest of the assembled officers stepped out of the brig and into the Duty Officer's antechamber, then the door hissed shut. Leon Cromwell was the first to speak up.

“Well, whatever else she is, she's scared to death and suffering from PTSD. I can tell you that for sure.”

Next to the Doctor, Carter 'huffed' in disbelief. “Are you kidding me Doc? Did you see the way she was sizing up the security field? She's working an angle. Cold calculating, by the numbers. No doubt Captain,” Carter said, shifting his focus to Kim Roth, “she's nothing more than a weapon that somebody put out here for us to find. I don't know what that is, but it's not Ensign Kuga.”

“John,” Leon said in disbelief, “she's scared. How can you…”

“No Doc, she's waiting. She's a threat, and we need to start seeing her as that. Not a shipmate, not a tragic mistake. She may be all those things, or used to be, but the longer she stays here, the more danger we're all in.”

Leon Cromwell looked at Kim Roth for some form of support, but he didn't get it.

“Right,” Roth said firmly. “She stays right where she is. No contact with any of the crew unless I personally approve.”

“Now hang on, Captain,” Leon objected. “That's a person in there,” he indicated with a sweep of the hand toward the door, “She's not a damned toaster!”

Roth's eyes were set and determined. “This is not a debate Doctor. I appreciate your feelings, but my decision stands. If you wish, you can file a complaint on medical grounds.” She didn't wait for the doctor to reply. “Merrick?”

Reia Merrick started, genuinely surprised that the captain had remembered she was there. “Ma'am?”

“I want to limit the crew's exposure to Kuga as much as we can. You're a new addition, so you won't have the sentimental vulnerabilities some of the others might. Keep an eye on her and find out what you can.” Roth stepped out of the antechamber with Carter and Cromwell following behind. Then, she looked back, adding, “You've got the ball, lieutenant. Don't drop it.”

“Yes Ma'am” added Reia as the others walked off she entered the Brig again.

After the other officers left, Reia walked over to the security officer on duty and asked, “Ensign please take a break for 10 minutes, I'll cover for you.”

The security officer gave Reia a blank, stare not sure what to make of the request. “Ma'am. I need authorization from Lieutenant Beauvais first.”

Reia returned with a cold death stare at the ensign, stating “Don't make me repeat myself, ensign. The Captain has given me full support over this matter.”

The security officer shook his head and muttered, “I'll have to put this in my report, ma'am,” before walking out of the room.

Watching as the security officer exited, she waited until the door was closed before activating the computer monitor. “Computer disable all audio and video recording, authorization Merrick theta six omega nine.”

The computer responded with a simple beep to confirm the order.

“So you work for them too?” questioned Naruko, wondering how big the organization really is.

“Work for who, ensign?” questioned Reia. “If you are indeed Ensign Kuga.”

Naruko was a little surprised, as Lieutenant Merrick wasn't coming across like the others she had dealt with on the Coeus. 'Perhaps she doesn't work for them after all,' she thought.

“I… never mind,” she stumbled, feeling it would be best that no one on the Republic knew why she was there.

“Ensign, I only want to help,” begged Reia walking towards the forcefield. “So please, give me something to work with.”

“Why did you disable the recorder?” questioned Naruko.

“I thought it would be best to have some private time,” replied Reia, hoping that her action would ease tensions between them. “Besides, you gave your word to the Captain that you wouldn't try to escape, and if you are indeed the real Ensign Naruko Kuga, then your word means everything. Now let me give you *my* word, whether you say anything or nothing at all I will do my best to protect you.”

Naruko sat in silence for a minute before she began to talk.

Reia sat on the cold floor of the brig in front of the force field of Kuga's cell; she couldn't help but feel pity as she looked into Kuga's eyes.

Naruko felt as if she was about to cut a limb off her body as she started to talk. “It began a couple of weeks ago after I first came on board the Republic. I was having these odd dreams…” she thought for a moment trying to put the right words in place ”…Like someone sending out a distress call, but I was the only one that could hear it.“ The memories began to flood into her mind as she recalled the events. “I don't really remember how I got off the ship, but I do remember running to an engineer who was working on some bio-gel. After I went back to my quarters to get cleaned up, everything seemed to fade away. The next thing I realize I was in a white room … I think I was communicating to some alien race in another dimension… not sure though… it still seems odd to me.” She took a deep breath and continued on with her story. “I was later placed in a biotank on board the Admiral's runabout, which was supposed to take me back to the Republic at Deep Space Nine. It was then that the Admiral told me that I wasn't supposed to talk about what I am and what had happened to me. All I knew was that I was going back to the Republic, and told to forget about whole encounter. But I got this feeling that if I didn't keep my mouth shut they would kill me…” Naruko took a deep breath. ”…or that is what I believe they would do.“

Reia sat in silence as she waited for Naruko to continue, still trying to soak up all the information, and not sure what to make of the story yet.

“Next thing I know, I found myself in the brig of the Coeus commanded by Commodore McCain. They did things to me… things I had no control over.”

It was clear that Naruko was feeling a bit uneasy with the situation.

“Who are they?” asked Reia, trying to get an understanding of this group of people.

“They call themselves the 'Organization'. During the trip to Deep Space Nine, the runabout was attacked by McCain. As far as I know, I'm the only survivor…” A tear slowly rolled down Naruko's left cheek. ”…They did experiments on me…“ the tears started to flow faster as she recalled how violated she felt. “They added a mind control device to me, along with some type of skin-tight armor. The next thing I knew I had shot my father with a phaser.” She bowed her head with a puddle of tears in her hands as she continued to cry.

Reia stood up and placed her hand on the control panel next to the cell door, and the force-field dropped. Walking over to Naruko, she sat down next to her, placing her arm around Naruko, trying to ease her sadness. “I know this is painful for you Naruko, but I need to know more,” said Reia, all the time thinking to herself, 'Poor girl'.

Naruko wiped the tears away form her eyes as she tried to get a hold of her feelings. “About a day later, I was taken to a secret drydock in the Gamma Serpentis system to be the sole pilot of a drone ship called the 'Dragon'. This ship was an extremely large and powerful warship, built for nothing more than to destroy any target it encountered. When I was strapped into the cockpit and interfaced with the ship, my orders from McCain were to attack the Founder's homeworld… to start another war with the Dominion…”

Naruko began to feel some relief as continued on with her story, ”…Just before I was supposed to launch on my mission, the XO of the Coeus, who I think was working as a Starfleet intelligence officer who had infiltrated the Organization, removed the mind control device that was attached to by back of my neck. He told me that I was in the gamma quadrant, gave me a set of coordinates to navigate to, and told me to jettison myself and set the self destruct on the drone. He said a starship would find and rescue me. I didn't know it would be the Republic.“

Reia sat in silence for a minute contemplating what Naruko has just told her, “This group, called the 'Organization', do you know *why* they want to start another Dominion war?” she asked.

“Far as I know, not everyone in the organization feels this way. I believe at one point I over heard McCain talking to someone high up in Starfleet… I never heard his name during the conversation, but I did hear McCain saying that they would get their war… one way or another.” Naruko closed her eyes trying to focus her concentration on her memory. “I'm sorry, but I can't remember anymore than that… most of it is still a burr in my mind.” Naruko stood up and started pacing the small cell. “What are you going to do, now that you know?”

Reia was unsure of what to do with all of the information. She knew that Roth was going to want to know this, yet at the same time, she felt as if she needed to help Naruko. “I'm not sure… Naruko, I may have to go the Captain about this, but I assure you that I will do my best to help you, ensure your safety, and maybe if we work together, we can stop McCain.”

Naruko gave a nod as she watch Reia walk out of the cell, turning the force-field back on.

Location: Office of the Chief of Operations, deck 6, USS Republic

Resigned to her office, Reia sat at her desk pondering everything Naruko had told her. This “Organization”, as the ensign had called it, seemed impossible to believe, considering the fantastic technology they must have possessed. But the very presence of Naruko, and her physiology thereof, was quite literally living proof. Recalling Admiral Ross's warning about a splinter group of Section 31, it suddenly dawned on her that if Naruko were aboard due to a spy in the midsts of the Organization, they would be tracking Republic, and it was only a matter of time before they tried to capture her back.

Putting two and two together, Reia muttered, “I have to take this to the captain.” However, before she could do so, the doors to her office slid open unexpectedly. There was no doorbell or announcement chime, it just… opened. As her eyesight focused on the figure walking through the open doorway, her stomach tightened as she recognized who it was. “Chris…” she whispered, as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Quickly, she jumped out of her chair and made a dash towards the cabinet next to her desk where she kept her phasor. But Ensign Jenkins was too quick for her. As Reia fumbled to find her weapon, Jenkins raised his hand and pointed an extended index finger towards her. Suddenly, a bright blue bolt of electricity erupted from Jenkins' finger, knocking Reia to the ground.

“Where is the bio-gel sample from Ensign Kuga?” questioned Jenkins, coldly.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” lied Reia, as the stunning effect of the electric charge faded from her brain.

“I know you're lying, Reia,” Jenkins revealed. “I accessed the medical logs, and the sample isn't being stored in sickbay. YOU were the last one to have access to it, so cut the crap and I'll let you live. WHERE is the sample?”

“I don't know what you are talking about,” lied Reia again, and while fear was creeping down every inch of her spine, she also became angry with herself for not keeping better track of Jenkins. ' Admiral Ross knew he was going to pull something,' she thought. 'I just wish I had guessed better on when.'

Meanwhile, Ensign Jenkins simply walked over to the secure Ops Chief console, touched his hand to the panel, and small blue threads of electricity danced over the surface of the computer, accessing Reia's personal logs and secure report files to Admiral Ross. After that, the location of the bio-gel sample became clear to the ensign.

“I was hoping to make this easy for the both of us…” Jenkins reached down and, with a swift clenching of his hand, grabbed Reia by the neck and picked her up off the floor with such ease that it was clear his strength far exceeded any humanoid. As Reia dangled from his arm like a rag doll, she struggled when Jenkins began to unzip Reia's uniform jacket with his other hand.

“Hey!” she gasped for air. “What you are you doing?” Feeling the cold hand of her attacker on her breast, Jenkins discovered the small foil packet that contained the single bio-gel sample she collected from Ensign Kuga in sickbay.

Smiling in triumph at his success in locating the item, he turned back to Reia with contempt, and in another flash of blue lightning, everything around Reia went black.

Location: Brig, deck 38, USS Republic

Naruko sat in her cell looking towards the security officer outside who was completely ignoring her. Suddenly, the console at the officer's workstation overloaded, throwing the young man to the ground. Surprised, Naruko stood up and moved to the force field, trying get a better look at the guard to see if he was alright. Before she could call out, the doors to the Brig are slid open, and another man in operations gold solidly and intently walked over to Kuga's cell.

“Who are you?” questioned Naruko with fear.

“Stand back,” said Ensign Jenkins while placing a hand on the force field. In the blink of an eye, the field dissipated and disappeared.

Watching in amazement, Naruko stammered, “How did you…”

“I never thought my older sister would be amazed at a such a simple trick like that,” Jenkins interrupted with amusement.

“Sister?” Naruko replied with a mix of surprise and fear. “I don't even look anything like you!”

“Look, we don't have time for this, Naruko,” stated Jenkins. Tapping his combadge, he called out to an unknown recipient. “Argus… Two to beam out.”

Within a few seconds, Ensign Kuga and Ensign Jenkins were no longer on board the Republic.

Chapter 13: The Resonance of WeirdnessTop

“This ship just keeps gettin' weirder n'weirder…” remarked Lieutenant Nathan Hawk to no one in particular. As the ship's Second Officer, he was currently seated in the center chair of Republic's bridge as Captain Kim Roth and Commander John Carter attended to the latest random act of galactic weirdness. He was glad to not be neck-deep in this one, though. He liked to be in the loop, for sure. Every once and awhile though, that loop turned into a noose. And to Hawk, it felt like just one of those occasions.

Cha'rik waited patiently for the turbolift to stop and once it did, she composed herself again. It was time to check in on her little babysitting project. With everyone else busy on the ship, she figured that this would be the perfect time to get everything squared away in her books. She exited the turbolift and headed to the science station at the back of the bridge. Here she would have a bird's eye view of the bridge and Hawk.

Taking note of the Vulcan Lieutenant in Sci-Med blue who took over at the main science station to his immediate right, Hawk stifled a sigh, and quipped under his breath, “Spoke to soon…”

“Excuse me, did you say something?” she asked turning her head to his direction.

“Guess them ears ain't just fer show, now are they?” Hawk asked with a smirk, eliciting similar expressions from some of the other bridge crew.

“No,” with that she turned back to her work, not knowing what else to say. No matter how old she really was and who she really was…she never learned how to be social the right way.

Nothing quite irritated Nat like a Vulcan. It wasn't a prejudice, just an annoyance. Rising from the command chair, he stepped forward into the center of the bridge to look over the shoulders of both Ops and the Helm. As he did so, he could feel the eyes of the Vulcan Science Officer upon him. As he tensed his muscles to turn towards her though, he knew before he saw that her attention had refocused upon her console. “Somethin' ta report, Lieutenant?” he questioned her.

“Not at this time, just calibrating the console to my specifications,” now how the blazes did he know that she was eyeing him up. This was going to be even a trickier assignment than she thought. No better way to know what she was dealing with than to fight them…but she was out of fight…she just wanted peace…

Wondering why a Vulcan would lie, he didn't turn his attention from her at first. After a few seconds though, he stepped back over to the command chair and sat down again. It was still an odd sensation, sitting in the center chair. He was used to a flight console in front of him, not two tiny command consoles which could override the rest of the bridge if need be. He was thankful to only be second officer. The idea of dealing with such responsibility more often wasn't quite appealing to him.

Checking the left-hand command console for any new information that had been filed relating to Ensign Kuga, he was disappointed to find nothing new. He had barely known the ensign during her brief stint at Ops. They had only encountered each other outside of the bridge once, shortly after she had come aboard. Still, sitting here on the bridge, the ship at station keeping, he was pensive for information. Realizing he had an untapped resource, loathe as he may be to utilize it, her turned his head towards Science station one again.

“Lieutenant,” he began, “you know anythin' new 'bout Ensign Kuga?” he questioned.

“Nothing new. Her scans are still being analyzed by sickbay,” she replied without turning.

A bit miffed at her dismissive tone, he straightened up in the center chair before continuing, “Well, whadya think it is?”

“I do not jump to conclusions, Sir,” with that she started looking over an anomalous reading on her scanners. There was a fluctuation in the space around the ship. Realigning her sensors, she started to train the sensors on it, then she detected the worst coming from the Brig. “Sir, there has been an unauthorized transport from the Brig, two lifesigns have vanished from the scanners. Not only that, I detected a disturbance off the port bow. Now it is gone.”

“Damn,” came his initial response, “Security alert, Mister Narundi,” Nat ordered of the eager young south-american ensign at Tactical as he fell back into the center chair. “Can ya confirm who beamed out?” he asked of the Vulcan Science Officer.

“Not yet, I am still trying to reconfigure the internal sensors to go from the logs of the signatures before and after.” With saying that the turbolift opened and out came Lieutenant Beauvais. She looked pissed.

“Lieutenant, Ensign Kuga is no longer aboard the Republic,” it was simple as she headed to her station. “Cha'rik, have you been able to determine who the other transporter signature was?”

“Not yet,” she replied. “The computer is still working on it. I should know momentarily.”

“Scan local space fer signs of a ship,” Hawk ordered Beauvais as she took over for Narundi at Tactical, who looked quite disappointed to be relegated to an aft station now that his supervisor was present. “Bridge ta Cap'n Roth,” he called out.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant.” came the captain's voice over the comm.

“Ensign Kuga n'somebody else, we ain't sure who yet, just beamed off.” Hawk reported.

“Any signs of a vessel?” Roth asked.

Craning his neck back towards Beauvais, he waited for her response.

“There is no longer any sign of the disturbance that Lieutenant Cha'rik had detected. Whoever they are, they vanished quickly. Between her work and my work, we might be able to get enough to find where they went.” Beauvais stated.

“Acknowledged. Continue scans of the area and begin an analysis of Lieutenant Cha'rik's sensor readings. Roth out.” commanded the Captain.

“They've gotta be at impulse if we ain't pickin' up anything…” Hawk reasoned aloud. Remembering something from the end months of the dominion war, he stepped over to Operations, which was being manned by a new arrival. Ensign Cail Jarn, a former Bajoran Militia Officer whom had been absorbed into Starfleet with most of his brethren when Bajor joined the Federation three years ago. “Cail, can ya saturate local space with inverse graviton bursts?” he questioned.

“Yes sir,” replied Cail, his tone indicating he didn't quite follow Hawk's reasoning. Despite this, he had already begun configuring to comply.

“Do it.” Nat ordered, turning away from Ops as soon as he had. “Beauvais, ready tractor beam, shields on stand-by.”

“Aye, Sir,” she started to ready everything. Within moments a ship shimmered into existence, and she initialized the tractor beam. It held momentarily. “I have them, trying to get information about the ship now.”

Looking upon the vessel, Hawk barely recognized it as Federation. If not for the trademark blue-red color scheme of her nacelles - if you could even classify the oddly-placed protrusions on the hull as nacelles - he would have thought it alien. As he scrutinized the vessel, he caught sight of brief flare of energy. Before he could say anything about it though, the flare upon the hull became an orb of amber energy that darted towards them.

“Shields!” he ordered, just as the unknown energy burst slammed into the ships forward hull. Unprepared, the inertial dampeners failed to cancel out the opposing force, and threw the ship - and her crew - roughly back. Hawk himself ended up on his ass in the middle of the bridge. As he pushed himself up, he watched on-screen as the blue-glow of Republic's tractor beam winked out, and the odd-looking ship banked hard to starboard.

“I'm losing them!!” Beauvais yelled against the sirens. “If you have anything, Cha'rik, give it to me!”

“I am already doing so. Flooding the immediate area again,” there was a pause. “No effect.”

She knew the class of a ship that looked familiar to the one that was out there, but her information being supplied would end her up being court marshaled. Right now, with only a few of the true Starfleet Intelligence members left, she couldn't end up in prison as a sitting duck. It reminded her of something that she had seen during her time before she went into hiding from Section 31. But she couldn't put her finger on it. Her mind was still fragmented from what the Borg did to her again. Then again, she would have broken the temporal directive as well. “Nothing. I am not getting any results…they have adjusted against what we were trying.”

“She's still out there,” Hawk stated, putting his hand on the back of the Ops station to steady himself incase the vessel returned. “Inverse graviton bursts mess with warp fields, which means they're stuck at impulse.” he explained. He knew whatever was out there couldn't have gone to warp, or Cha'rik would have picked up signs of that. His hunch had been right, but he hadn't anticipated the other ship packing such a wallop.

Location: Torga V, Cardassian Power Station, Control Room
Stardate: 53641.05 (four years ago)

Reia smashed her fist on the control panel in frustration. “Why won't you work you piece of Cardassian junk!” she yelled.

Although there was little time to spare, and the reactor would soon go critical, Patrick placed his hands on Reia's shoulders to try and ease her consternation. “Anything I can help with, lieutenant?” he asked with a smile.

“Not unless you got a magic wand that can fix this scrap-heap…” commented Reia.

“One minute and twenty seconds to core meltdown,” the computer announced.

She sighed, fearing that she would have to use her last option. It was an option of extreme risk, but considering how many lives were at stake on the station, she had no choice. With a lump in her throat and knot in her stomach, she turned to her companion. “I'm sorry Patrick… it looks like we won't be able have dinner together anymore.”

Patrick's face turned from a cheerful smile to confusion. He looked at the control panel, then towards the reactor room. His eyes grew wide with panic as he realized what Reia was about to do. “You… you know that anyone who goes into the reactor room will die from the radiation??”

Reia looked at the chronometer. One minute left before the power core exploded. She had to act now, or it would be too late. Her heart pounded as she stood up from the control console and began to walk towards the reactor chamber. “Nobody said the life of a Starfleet officer was easy…”

“Hey…” shouted Patrick, trying to stop Reia. His mind raced with thoughts of how to keep her from throwing her life away. He ran up to her, and as Reia turned around to face him, Patrick looked into her eyes. “Are you sure that this is the only way?”

The two stood in silence as Reia gave a nod to confirm Patrick's fears. He then grabbed Reia, pulling her close to him, and for a brief moment, the two locked lips with one another. After a kiss that seemed to last forever, Reia pushed herself away and said in whisper, “I'm sorry . . . please make sure everyone gets out safe.” She then turned around and resumed her walk down the corridor to the reactor chamber.

In a moment of passion, Patrick drew his phaser, set it for stun, then pointed it at Reia. “No… That's your job.” With a flash, an orange beam hit Reia in the back.

“What hit me?” Reia thought, just as she realized what happened to her. “Oh no…” she whispered with anxiety. Picking herself up from the cold metal floor, the lights in the control room flickered, and her heart raced as she dashed down the corridor despite the pain from the phaser hit.

Running down the corridor, time itself felt as if it had stopped, and her heart skipped a beat. With the lights of the corridor returning to normal she summoned the last of her will to keep moving.

Patrick had succeeded in stopping the reactor from going critical, but his last moments of life occurred just within the airlock of the reactor core.

Reia saw the injured body of her love through the window of the airlock; he was lying motionless on the floor, and his skin was blistered with bloody radiation burns. A wave of emotion flowed over her as she dropped to her knees in a scream of anguish. Tears of anger, regret, and sadness rolled down her face.

Suddenly, she saw the body move. Before she knew what she was doing, she had purged the atmosphere in the airlock and opened the door. As he lay near death, Patrick muscled all of his strength to speak. “Looks like I am the one who's sorry…” he barely managed to mumble under is breath, feeling the intense pain of his burned and radiated flesh.

Reia inched her way closer to Patrick, picking up his head, and laying it on her lap. “Please try to hold on,” she wept. “We'll get you back to the ship…” She started to reach for her combadge only to find Patrick's hand grabbing hers.

“I'll be dead by the time they get here…” he started to say before coughing up some blood. ”… I rather die here … with you.“

With all of Reia's strength, she pulled Patrick's body closer to hers and held in him tightly. “Why?” she whimpered, resting her head on his. Patrick wanted to answer, but only smiled as he felt his life slip away.

Location: Main sickbay, USS Republic
Time: Present day

The familiar beep noise echoed in the background as Reia laid unconscious on the diagnostic bed in sickbay. The doors to sickbay slid open as Captain Roth walked in. “Status Doctor?” she asked.

For his part, Leon was leaned over the table with a medical wand and a tricorder, scanning Reia's vital signs.

“Well, let's see,” the doctor started sarcastically. “I've got two of the ship's senior staff lying unconscious in my sickbay, both injured by a renegade assassin who still seems to be on the loose. A third officer from the psychology department appears to be all but brain dead thanks to some sort of 'psionic reflex' from our ship's counselor, who himself is apparently in a self-induced, telepathic coma. Our attempts to revive him have involved a series auditory stimulation experiments that include visual and behavioral descriptions about Mary and her Little Lamb.”

Completing his scan, Leon closed his tricorder and concluded his report with the barest hint of mockery. “So basically, everything's normal around here. How are you?”

Ignoring the doctor's colorful remarks, the captain looked down at Reia, and furrow developed in her forehead. “Wake her,” Roth ordered firmly.

“Captain,” the doctor replied. “No disrespect intended, but why is it that no matter the status of my patients, I always seem to get the same order from you? Can't this wait until she's has some time to recover?”

“Doctor, if this is related to the counselor's attack or about our guest in the brig I need to know now,” demanded Roth.

“At least you chose the one patient I CAN revive,” Leon commented as he dialed a stimulant into a hypospray. A second later, he pressed the instrument to Reia's neck and discharged the medicine into her bloodstream.

Reia's eyes slowly opened as she tried to adjust her vision to the intense light.

“Can you hear me Lieutenant?” asked Captain Roth.

“Captain?” questioned Reia feeling a bit disoriented.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Reia tried to focus her Swiss-cheese-of-a-brain to answer Roth's question. “Ensign Jenkins… He's after Ensign Kuga.”

“Bridge ta Cap'n Roth,” said Hawk over the comm.

Roth tapped her combadge to response, “Go ahead, Lieutenant.”

“Ensign Kuga n'somebody else, we ain't sure who yet, just beamed off.”

Reia clinched her right fist in frustration after hearing the news from the bridge.

“What?” Captain Roth replied with incredulity. Her eyes grew wide with exasperation. “How did it happen? Where did they beam to? Is there any sign of a vessel?”

“We're not sure how it happened yet, ma'am. The guard on duty was found unconscious, an' sensors briefly showed a vessel in our area. But there's no longer any sign of it. Whoever they are, they vanished quickly. Science Officer Cha'rik was able to record the sensor readins' an' she's analyzing 'em now. She might be able to get enough info ta find where they went.”

Roth shook her head in dismay and anger. 'Damn it!' she thought, with her instincts telling her to go to the bridge. However, after a moment, common sense took over, and she realized that her presence there wouldn't help the immediate situation. “Acknowledged,” she replied to Hawk. “Continue scans of the area and continue the analysis of Lieutenant Cha'rik's sensor readings. Roth out.”

After the order, Roth closed her eyes to calm down before returning her focus to Reia. “Why did Ensign Jenkins attack you?”

“He was after the biogel sample we took from Ensign Kuga. I didn't leave it in the lab, because I didn't feel it was safe there. So I kept it with me.”

“You WHAT?” Leon exclaimed, not believing his ears.

Reia felt angry with herself for not coming to Captain Roth earlier about the situation. “I'm sorry, captain.”

“You're . . . you're apologizing to the CAPTAIN??” Leon fumed. Roth was startled at the doctor's outburst. “You took a laboratory specimen from MY sickbay without telling me! Who do you think you ARE?”

“Doctor . . .” the captain attempted to interpose, but Leon was far too angry to acknowledge her.

“What you did was a gross violation of protocol! You had no right to do that!”

“Doctor!” the captain raised her voice. “That's enough!”

His eyes wide with rage, Doctor Cromwell finally acquiesced to his skipper.

“Why didn't you think the bio-gel sample was safe in sickbay?” the captain asked the lieutenant.

Reia sat up shaking her head. “I had some proof that Ensign Jenkins might pull something like this. Admiral Ross didn't just recommend me for this assignment. He wanted me here, captain.”

Before Roth could reply, the ship shook violently, and the alert klaxons sounded.

The captain, out of instinct, tapped her combadge. “Roth to Bridge, report!”

“Ya better get up 'er, ma'am. We finally located the cloaked ship, but whoever we're dealin' with, they don't seem ta take kindly ta us.”

“I'm on my way!” Roth replied, and headed towards the door. Before she exited, she turned to Doctor Cromwell. “Keep an eye on her.”

As the captain left, Leon turned to look at his patient with a cold, penetrating glare. “We're not finished with this,” he scolded her in a calculating voice. “You can be damn sure I'm going to take this up with the captain and XO at the next staff briefing. For now . . . get some rest.”

Reia watched as Doctor Cromwell walked intently away to his office. She fell into the bed, stared at the ceiling, and mumbled, “I really messed things up this time, huh Patrick?”

Location: Bridge, USS Republic

Turning to Beauvais, Hawk asked from the command chair, “Any damage from that last hit?”

“Internal Dampeners had issues taking the hit. Nothing major. I wouldn't recommend another hit like that, whatever it was.”

“Well it sure as hell wasn't phasers 'er photons, 'er even quantums,” Hawk mused, “or we'd have one helluva hull breech. At best.”

“Agreed. As far as I can tell the energy readings are very close to what we have learned of the Borg and the transwarp conduit technology they have.” Cha'rik slid her chair to the side to another station and started to pull up those records…at least the Borg history wouldn't have to come up…not just yet. “Analyzing now.”

“Oh, that's just what we need, Borg…” Hawk replied with a sigh.

“Not Borg, but similar. It looks Federation in sign, however, far more advanced.”

“Even better, time travel…” Hawk remarked with sarcasm.

“Time travel?” questioned Captain Roth as she stepped from the turbolift.

“A possibility but highly unlikely. Time travel is highly frowned upon by the Federation. Even though it is frowned upon, it is highly technologically advanced to travel. Some technologies can be advanced without time-travel. It just takes one hell of an engineer. From what I gathered from the ship while it was visible, this ship is not that advanced.” Cha'rik knew that this class wasn't from the Future, but now she was living a parallel life to what she lived before. This type of technology was indeed Federation, not Borg. However, with her internal mind fragmented and the databases here on this ship not up to speed…it was going to take some time.

Absorbing what she was being told, Roth paused a moment before turning to Hawk, “What happened?” she asked him.

“Somethin' told me they where still floatin' 'round out there, so I had Cail flood the area with inverse graviton bursts.” he reported.

“Makes sense. Disable their ability to generate a warp field.” Roth responded. “Then what?”

“Well they… I dunno what ta call it, didn't look like a cloak, but they appeared n'we snared 'em in a tractor beam. B'fore we knew it, they'd fired some sorta unknown weapon, took out the tractor and knocked us 'round, b'fore vanishin' again.” Hawk explained.

“If they have transwarp - or something like it - capability… why worry about graviton bursts?” Cail questioned aloud.

“Good question.” Roth replied. “Any ideas, Lieutenant Cha'rik?”

“The field is too understudied at this time. I do not have enough information to counter-act this…for now, I have not detected their escape. If they escape either with regular warp, impulse or transwarp, it would leave a signature…when that happens, I will be able to track the trajectory of the ship but not its destination,” she replied. “Of my studies of the Borg and the studies of technology returned with Voyager it could be years before we can determine what they are and how to fully stop them.”

Looking out at the stars on the main view screen, Kim Roth wondered, not for the first time this day, just what in the hell they had stumbled into…

Chapter 14: What Lay Beyond InfinityTop

Standing between flight control and operations, arms crossed, Kim Roth studied the forward view screen, hoping against hope for some visual clue as to the location of the enigmatic ship eluding them. On her right, Nathan Hawk had relieved his subordinate and returned to the helm. She could tell he was more comfortable in that position than he had been in command. Yet his capability to take the reigns when the situation called for it was a testament to the potential wrapped in rogue form. Even after his performance on Sigma Omicron V there had been a nagging question as to whether she had made the right choice. Now though, she found that echo of doubt assuaged, and finally understood just why John Carter had suggested him.

Angling to look down over the shoulder of her Operations officer, a dark skinned Bajoran named Cail, she studied the sensor readouts that flooded across his console. The age-old adage 'needle in a haystack' came instantly to mind. Despite the abundance of sensor data flooding in, for all intents and purposes, there was nothing out there. At least, nothing useful or out of the ordinary. Nothing to help them find their quarry, anyway. Particulate matter, radiation, energy, traces of this and that, nothing that couldn't be–wait…

“Ensign, put the sensor data feed on the viewer,” she ordered Cail, not taking her eyes off the console as he did as had been ordered. Even as the information displayed upon the larger screen, she continued to look at the active feed on the console. “go back, one third speed.” she ordered, turning now to the main screen.

Scrolling upwards in reverse of normal, the text that the computer converted the raw sensor information into passed by like it had a moment ago. It was only a few moments before the reading that had caught her eye did so once more. “There, that element,” she said, pointing to the periodic identification, “what's it's dispersal? How many parts per million?” she queried.

Focusing sensor bandwidth and scan, Cail furrowed his brow in confusion at the readings coming back. “It's a concentrated reading, ma'am.” he reported.

She had it. Turning on her heal, she looked to the Science station.

“Cha'rik, you said the earlier readings looked like indications of transwarp?” Roth questioned the Vulcan science officer.

“Yes ma'am, though not definitively.” Cha'rik replied.

“Did you consider any alternatives?” Roth prompted.

Hesitating for a moment, Cha'rik finally replied, “Of course. However, there is an old Terran phrase. Something concerning appearing and vocalizing like a web-footed swimming bird of the family anatidae?”

“The who n'the what now?” Hawk asked.

“Ducks, Lieutenant.” Roth explained, the corner of her mouth curling into a restrained smile as she turned back to face the view screen. “What Miss Cha'rik is trying to say is… 'If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…it's probably a duck.'”

“Last time I checked ducks didn't do transwarp.” Hawk retorted.

Her restrained smile expanding to a warm grin, she nodded, agreeing with Hawk. “And neither do our friends out there, it seems.”

“Captain?” Cha'rik questioned.

“Benamite crystals are rare, unstable, and decay rapidly. So how then could a concentrated quantity exist out here, in the middle of no where, a dozen light years from any star system?” Roth queried.

“Logically, they could not.” Cha'rik replied.

“Exactly. Unless they where somehow being stabilized by artificial means. Something our science isn't supposed to be capable of, last I heard.” Roth went on, leading her people along the trail of bread crumbs she herself had followed.

“Why would anyone want to even try?” Beauvais questioned from Tactical.

“Good question.” Roth observed. “Why would they?” she asked rhetorically - though looking at Cha'rik.

The Vulcan considered the question for a moment.

“Quantum slipstream.” she finally stated with impassionate distance.

“Bingo.” Roth said…

Location: Main bridge, USS Argus

The bridge of the Argus was rather odd in configuration compared to a standard Starfleet vessel. With far fewer consoles than most ships and only a hand full of crew manning them, the bridge felt… open. Almost unfinished. Pacing back and forth near the center chair, Rachel waited for Republic's next move with impatience.

“How long until we are out of the graviton field?” she asked.

“At current speed, four minutes, Ma'am.” answered the officer at helm.

Beside her, the doors from the corridor slid open with Jenkins and Kuga stepping through them on to the bridge. Rachel turned he attention to them as they entered, “Glad to see you both are okay. I take it no one was seriously hurt on the Republic, Chris?”

“Unfortunately ma'am, two people where injured during the escape. However, I had no other course of action to take.” replied Chris, sounding like a vulcan.

Kuga stood in disbelief looking at Rachel, whom she thought had died in the runabout explosion. “Admiral…?” she started to say, uncertain.

Rachel gave a little chuckle, “Are you okay, Naruko?…You look like you have seen a ghost.”

“I thought you died in the Runabout explosion…” said Naruko in dismay.

“You must be referring to my sister, dear.” commented Rachel, as she turned towards the viewscreen.

Chris whispered into Naruko's ear then, explaining, “She's a clone.”

“How many of her are there?” asked Naruko whispering back.

“There were six total, but she is the last one.” whispered Chris

“What do you think Captain Roth will do, Naruko?” interrogated Rachel.

“Well, I wasn't on the Republic long enough to know what Roth will do, but they do think of me as a member of the crew still…” Naruko answered, unsure of her feelings.

“Then she will do her best to get you back,” deduced Rachel, as she tried to plan out some strategy to get out of this mess.

“Why don't we hail the Republic and explain…” Naruko suggested, interrupting Rachel's thoughts.

“Impossible. I have standing orders to keep the members of this crew and ship a secret from the universe, and that includes you now Naruko.” Rachel informed her.

“Admir-” started Naruko. But she was cut off.

“I'm flattered that you wish to call me Admiral, but if you keep instancing on calling me by my rank, then call me Captain,” ordered Rachel as she looked at the helm officer. “How must longer?”

“Another minute, Ma'am, and should be able to go to slipstream,” answered the helm officer.

“Captain… If Roth is able to locate us, both the lives of this ship and the Republic will be in even more danger,” stated Naruko in protest of the current course of actions.

Rachel turned to face Kuga, replying, “I swore to protect this vessel and it's secrets and we will die doing so, Ensign, is that clear?”

“Cap-” began Naruko again only to be interrupted once more.

“Chris… Show Miss Kuga to her cabin,” ordered Rachel as she turned to face the view screen once more.

Location: Main bridge, USS Republic

Junior Lieutenant Maria Pakita had heard the call for the Chief Engineer to report to the bridge a hundred times before, at the least. This was the first occasion though where that call from the Captain was meant for her. She wasn't really the Chief, not full time, anyway. Though considering the Republic hadn't had a steady Chief since Victor Virtus had left the post a few months ago, she was the most consistent senior engineer aboard ship. A fact that, admittedly, made her a little anxious. Not so much in her abilities, but in her anxiety over the 'burden of command' as they called it.

She had never been faced with a situation where she, personally, would or could be responsible for another persons life. Not in the way she was as Acting Chief Engineer. She knew she could make the decisions, and make the right ones at that. What she was anxious about was how she would deal with the reality of it after the fact. It was a self-involved concern that she hated having run through her mind. Which just made the whole thing even worse. So, pushing the thought aside, she stepped forward through the turbolift doors and onto the Main Bridge.

Before she took her third step, she was being addressed by the Captain.

“Lieutenant,” Roth began, her attention focusing in upon Pakita, “what do you know about quantum slipstream technology?”

The question hit her like a hyper-spanner from three levels up. 'Quantum slipstream? Christ, what have we stepped into now?' she thought to herself as she tried to remember everything (which wasn't very much) she had ever read about the Voyager technology. She wanted to impress the Captain with her knowledge, but this wasn't the topic to do it on. “To be honest ma'am, not a lot.”

“Well then at least we're all in the same boat,” Roth replied, then added with a fleeting smile, “pardon the pun,” as she gestured for Pakita to take her place at the bridge engineering-1 station, which mirrored the science-1 station.

“It don't make sense,” Lieutenant Hawk commented from the Helm.

“Mister Hawk?” the Captain questioned.

“If they got some fancy-pants super-duper-warp-thingy, why'd the inverse graviton bursts stop 'em?”

“Quite simply, because slipstream drive operates via a narrowly-focused directed warp field that is initiated by manipulating the fabric of the space-time continuum at the quantum level via a vessel's deflector array.” Science Officer Cha'rik responded, sounding a little condescending in her explanation. As if realizing this, the Vulcan continued, “Which is why you're tactic was, and continues to be, successful. Though your intent may have been to limit standard warp travel, it accomplished the additional task of likewise limiting the unidentified vessel from utilizing it's advanced drive system.”

“Unfortunately, the graviton field we're generating drops off after a quarter-billion kilometers. So all they have to do is clear the field via impulse and we'll have lost them.” Roth pointed out, with frustration and disappointment.

“A fact I have used to calculate that we have less than three minutes before a vessel operating at maximum impulse could clear such a distance.” Cha'rik informed the bridge.

“Wait a minute,” Beauvais interjected from the tactical console, “we picked up the fact that they have benamite aboard from our scans, right?” she asked. Knowing the answer, she continued, “So if it's showing through whatever cloaking system they use, why don't we just lock on to that signal? We could be on top of them before they knew it.”

“Only problem s'the inverse graviton field. Second we stop saturatin' local space, feild'll dissipate like n'ice cube on Vulcan.” Hawk answered. “They'd be able ta slipstream right on outta here half-a-jiff b'fore we overtook 'em.”

An idea occurring to Pakita, her mouth acted before her brain could fully process it, “Not if we turn command control over to the computer.”

“That's crazy,” Hawk replied on instinct.

Roth cut him off from saying more with a quick glance before turning to Pakita. “Lieutenant?” she prompted.

Mindful that all attention was once more upon her, Pakita voiced her half-formed plan. “If we turn over command control to the computer, and pre-program what we want the ship to do, we could carry out everything we need to do in a fraction of the time it would take all of us to actually do it, even with the best coordination.” she explained. “So instead, we program the maneuvers in the sequence we would carry them out and then… let the computer do the job.”

“What, exactly, would those maneuvers be?” Cha'rik queried.

Realizing that what she was proposing was ambitious to say the least, Pakita took a deep breath before entering into the sequence of events, as she saw it.

“First, we locate the unidentified ship via the benamite readings. Once we have her basic location, we stop saturation of inverse gravitons. Less than a second after we do that, we should be able to create a stable warp field. The other ship will still be reading the sensor results telling them the field is gone as the Republic warps to their approximate location.”

“Problem is the transit time,” Hawk interrupted, “even if we go straight ta warp seven, it's gonna take us eight 'er nine seconds ta cover the distance. They'll be rev'd up n'ready ta slipstream outta here by then. We could miss 'em, 'specially if we don't hit the bull's-eye with the tractor beam on our first shot.”

“Which is why we don't try to tractor them at first,” Pakita countered, “while we're in transit for those eight or nine seconds, the other ship will, like Lieutenant Hawk said, be on the verge of going to slipstream velocity. Which means they'll be generating a pretty high-profile narrow-focused directed quantum warp field. The ships sensors can lock on to that which we use to extrapolate their position and identify their quantum warp field frequency, so we can match it and-”

”-and follow them into slipstream before they realize what's going on.“ Roth extrapolated, finishing Pakita's thought.

“That's the idea.” Pakita concurred. “Once we're in slipstream with them, they likely won't risk a ship-to-ship fire-fight, especially since we'll be within each others shield perimeters. We have to outnumber them, just based on the size difference between us, so we could beam a dozen security teams over and take control of the ship. Get some answers.”

For a few moments, no one said anything, as if each person on the bridge was running over the multitude of variables. She didn't know the new Tactical Officer, Beauvais, well enough to read her. Nor could she decipher what the Vulcan Science Officer, Cha'rik was concluding. Reading Nat Hawk though was like reading a flashing neon sign, and from the gentle affirmative nodding of his head, she could tell he, at least, agreed with the idea of the plan. Whether or not that was because he thought the plan viable or simply because it would require him to test his piloting skills at slipstream velocity for the first time, she didn't know.

“Lets make it happen, people.” Roth finally declared in a firm, assured tone.

It all happened so fast. It was a cliché, yet, it was true. The enterprising plan was based on a foundation of speed. Speed of thought and action more rapid than human or alien was capable of. Which was why command control had been turned over to machine. It was a risk, but as someone once said, that's what it's all about. The consequences of failure where variable and unknown. The odds of success slim and in doubt. The chance existed to be taken, though. So, either without any other options or without the time to think of any, it was the only choice.

Feeling isolated and helpless, the Captain and crew of the Starship Republic watched rather than manipulated their consoles, as the virtual mind of the vessel which made so much of what they did possible carried out it's program. In short order, the sensors scanned local space and homed in upon an unusual energy signature. That of benamite crystals. Then the inverse graviton bursts ceased, putting an end to the field of saturation engulfing them and their foe. Within nine tenths of a second, a warp field was established. Another point five seconds and the Republic had leapt beyond the realm of normal space-time and was propelled faster-than-light.

On the bridge of the Argus, a set of sensor alarms chimed, alerting the ships minimal compliment of bridge crew to the sudden change of things. They where both no longer bogged down and yet seconds from being over-taken by the goliath hulk that hunted them. Though anxious, there was also a sense calm. They had been upon the cusp of clearing the inverse graviton field, on the cusp of escaping via slipstream. Their foe would be both unable to stop them and unable to pursue, left to wonder who and what had beaten them.

Rachel, the Admiral–the Captain, and the last of her kind, could only smile as she contemplated the expression of her counter-part aboard Republic a few moments from now. One of defeat and confusion over this entire encounter. It would be something she might enjoy witnessing, if only it where feasible. Seeing the reaction to the knowledge that another had been bested by her, by the Argus, by what she represented, had always been one of her few pleasures of her existences. As she watched her helmsman adjust their narrow-focus directed quantum warp field, the fabric of space-time manipulating as if by her will, she wondered what the audacious Captain Roth could be thinking…

…Watching the forward view screen, Kim Roth marveled at the design of their adversary. Though there was nothing visual to discern as the geometric anomaly of a starship sped up in preparation for quantum slipstream, she knew the next few moments would make or break their plan. As the Republic slowed to match speed with the unknown, Roth concerned herself with her ship, not knowing how long she could survive the quantum stresses soon to be inflicted upon her. She hoped her acting Chief Engineer was as capable as her plan was risky.

For an instant, the two ships became as one according to the laws of faster-than-light travel, as their warp fields joined in harmony on the brink of acceleration beyond what was normally capable. As quickly as they had become one though, they divided once again into two, torn, pushed, pulled apart by a point-zero-four phase variance between them. The Republic was knocked away like a ship upon the sea during a storm, shaken but undamaged. The Argus was another story. On the literal brink, between here and there, between warp and slipstream, she could neither accelerate nor decelerate as the integrity of her quantum warp field was shattered like an egg-shell.

And like that proverbial egg shell, like her warp field, integrity pushed beyond the ability to be maintained, so too was the hull of the Argus shattered. Spewn through a half-formed slipstream conduit into infinity. Crushed and atomized by quantum stresses so great they could not be calculated. What had been an enigmatic starship was now little more than confetti, spread out for a dozen light years.

On the bridge of the Republic, every eye was upon the forward view screen, as if searching the void for an answer to present itself. When logic began to take domain over shock and confusion, one pair of eyes in particular turned to the port side of the bridge.

“What happened?” asked Captain Kimberly Roth as her eyes fell upon Lieutenant Maria Pakita.

“I… I don't… I don't know…” replied the stunned acting chief. For the life of her, she truly had no idea what could have happened. It was outside the realm of reason, outside of every variable she had considered. What she did know was that she was now face-to-face with one of her greatest fears. It had been her plan that lead to this point. To Pakita, that placed the blame for whatever happened upon her shoulders, no matter what anyone else said. How she would live with that fact, she did not know…

Chapter 15: A Tale of Two AdmiralsTop

Location: Earth

The sapphire sky over the Pacific yielded a crisp, cool day on the California coast. Deep blue undulating sea waves complimented a swift ocean breeze into San Francisco Bay as the rust-colored trestles of the Golden Gate Bridge shined like a crimson beacon in the sunlight. Nearby, various sized buildings of diverse design dotted the shoreline, their sporadic layout dwarfed only by the smooth, ivory walls of Starfleet Headquarters towering in their midsts.

The headquarters was composed of hundred structures, most devoted to a specific function within the multi-faceted bureaucracy of that which is Starfleet. However, there were a few that were more generalized in their services, one such building being the main operations building. While the lower levels were devoted to large scale communications and traffic control centers, the upper levels housed numerous offices and reception areas, as well as lecture halls and small conference rooms. The corridors were wide and roomy. These passageways were lined with a tan low-profile carpet, and adorned with carefully cultivated planters and framed paintings of stars and planetscapes. It was deep within the vestiges of this citadel that the Fleet Admiral's staff resided, each with their own spacious office and reception area, and boasting an ornate placard identifying the high-brass resident on the corridor wall outside. One such reception area read: Admiral Vladimir C. Kostya, Chief of Starfleet Operations.

Within the lobby, a transparent, crescent-shaped receptionist desk was situated toward the center of the room, and a young female lieutenant in command red sat typing away at a computer console. Towards the right side of the room, several empty recliners were situated around a coffee table and a viewing screen that currently displayed the olive-wreathed Federation logo. In the corner, a large saltwater aquarium, stocked with several exotic ichthyoids, bubbled away quietly. Towards the other side of the room, and just to the left of the receptionist, a wood-lathed door with an oval, Starfleet emblazoned window embedded in the center led the way to the main office of the admiral himself.

Within the circular office, numerous personal articles of the admiral lined the walls: A bookshelf full of antique literature; a pedestal upholding a model of an Excelsior-class starship; an ornately-designed 15th century Germanic suit of plate armor; an ancient Westminster grandfather clock; an authentic varnished wood globe of Renaissance-era Earth. All these possessions were but faint insights into the person who was Vladimir Kostya, as were the lesser items of painted portraits of Starfleet officers and holocubes of family members. In fact, it was the center of the office that told the tales of his exploits, and the position from which he wielded his power: his desk. This metallic, semi-circular monolith was a testament to the missions that the admiral had authorized, the dignitaries he hosted, and the officers he led. It was here where Kostya's authority rested, and it was from here where others learned to fear him . . .

“Are you MAD?” shouted the admiral, his nostrils flaring and face livid with incredulity. “Josh, what the hell are you doing over there??” Kostya was seated at his desk, muscles tense, and shoulders arched over the computer console as he scolded an individual over a secure communiqué.

On the other end of the open subspace channel, Commodore McCain of the USS Coeus, though submitting to Kostya's authority, remained unrepentant at the outburst.

“Sir, with all due respect, I'm carrying out my duty to you and the Federation.”

“Have you EVER heard of the word 'discretion'?” returned Kostya. “You're in the gamma quadrant to protect our interests! Not expose them for all the galaxy to see!”

“I acted with your bests interests in mind, sir. No more, no less.”

“How does this serve our interests? You exposed the Dragon Project! An experiment that I had ordered into mothballs years ago! Now I hear that you've been working behind my back!”

“The Dragon project was our best, long term investment. I pulled it out of mothballs when I realized that our operations in the alpha and beta quadrants were not going as planned. Your work with the Tholians and the Gorns have been less than successful, so I focused on the Dominion. You should be proud of what we accomplished with Kuga. She blossomed into more than we could ever have hoped for.”

“If you had succeeded in your attacks on the Founders, I might have agreed with you. But as it stands, you didn't. Dragon is a failure, thanks to you. Now I have to clean up your mess!”

“Don't bother,” McCain explained. “Republic already crossed paths with the debris field. We arrived two hours after they did. There wasn't enough debris left for them to identify the Dragon. The project is safe.”

“Josh . . . never, NEVER underestimate that ship! She's already interfered with three major operations, and this blunder is quickly becoming the FOURTH!” Kostya's eyes turned away from the screen. “I should have thrown Carter into the stockade when I had the chance . . .” he mused angrily.

“Chris, you know as well as I do that the technology of the Dragon Project is too advanced for standard Starfleet equipment to analyze. They'll be unable to identify the wreckage.”

It was most unusual for McCain to address the admiral by his middle name, Chris, instead of his first name. In fact, this was something done only by the closest of friends and confidants. However, it was McCain's way of disarming the admiral, and invoking a reminder of their common cause to the hawk movement.

“YOU don't know the Republic crew as well as I do,” rebuffed Kostya. “They're like Tiberian Bats. They'll sink their fangs in where they don't belong, and hang on until they've sucked every last drop of blood.”

“They don't know anything about the project. I'll stake my reputation on it.”

“Your reputation, Josh,” Kostya interjected through intense, squinted eyes. “Doesn't mean very much right now.” After a deep breath to calm himself, the admiral continued. “You're to report back to the Gamma Serpentis system at once – and this time, dismantle the entire project. If any shred of evidence is traced back to either you or me, we might as well turn ourselves in to the Federation Council.”

“What about Republic?”

“You leave Republic to me. Follow my orders, and don't screw up this time. If you weren't my friend, I'd have you demoted all the way back to crewman first class. Kostya out.”

Admiral Kostya closed the channel, and proceeded to slowly swivel his chair back and forth while he stared at the blank screen. His eyes betrayed a wandering mind and a longing soul, and as the back-and-forth motion of the chair subsided, Admiral Vladimir Christopher Kostya dialed a security code into the lower right drawer of his executive desk. A soft pneumatic hiss registered the opening of the compartment, and after pushing aside a few cherished trinkets and classified security tapes, he produced a deactivated PADD device. With a press of his thumbprint, the admiral brought title screen to life:

STARDATE 53718.6

Settling back into his chair, Kostya sighed. “I won't let them take you from me again, my darling,” he whispered. Sifting through several pages on the PADD, he stopped to read one page in detail, as if relishing a nostalgic memory:


Location: Captain's ready room, main bridge, USS Coeus, Gamma Quadrant

McCain, like Kostya, stayed behind his desk and stared at the blank screen after the communication concluded. There was so much he wanted to tell the admiral, yet he couldn't. Blaming the resumption of the Dragon Project on the Cestus Three and Sigma Omicron disasters wasn't the truth, but Kostya's position would be in jeopardy if he knew about “the Admiral.” While the Chief of Starfleet Operations knew all about black ops and Section 31, the Organization was far more coercive in their methods, and to obfuscate it was to protect Kostya.

Still, McCain longed to tell him the truth.

The Organization had the potential to be a useful tool to the hawks, but while “the Admiral” was in charge, its loyalties were in doubt. It's assets included numerous outposts in the gamma quadrant, mostly in asteroid belts and unpopulated star systems. As long as those self-sustaining bases remained undercover, and the occasional diversion of resources, ships, and manpower from Section 31 remained undetected by Starfleet Operations, the Organization was safe from the prying eyes of both the Federation and its enemies.

“The Admiral”, however, was another story altogether. Up until McCain had destroyed her runabout, she had firm control over the Organization. It was she who had ordered him to resume the Dragon Project many months ago, flying in the face of Kostya's orders. While assassination wasn't one of McCain's usual methods of dispatching an enemy of the hawks, “the Admiral” had proven resilient over the years to other forms of elimination by her subordinates. It seemed though, that Josh had been successful. Although she was far from being a dove, countermanding Kostya's mothball orders for the Dragon Project was what sealed her fate in McCain's mind. Despite Josh's agreement in the project's potential, his duty to the hawks and what they stood for was what took precedence. Besides, killing “the Admiral” had other benefits: the Organization was now his to control . . .

“Bridge,” McCain tapped the intercom button on his console.

“Yes, Commodore,”

“Set course for Gamma Serpentis Base,” he ordered. “Warp seven.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Inform all section leaders. I will meet with them individually in my ready room as soon as we dock.”

“Shall I tell them what it's about, sir?”

“Yes. Tell them that the Dragon Project has been compromised. Kuga's leash was cut. We have a spy in our midst.”

“Understood. Bridge out.”

The Kuga situation was the other variable McCain hadn't counted on. Everything was fine until the Dragon was launched with orders to attack the Founder's homeworld. It was then when they discovered that the mind control device had been removed from Kuga. The perpetrator behind it had already escaped, and the ship was no longer under the Organization's control. How a spy had managed to infiltrate their ranks was beyond his understanding, considering the level of secrecy of not only the project, but the entire Organization.

'It was probably that Doug Forrest character,' McCain concluded. 'He's the newest member . . . showed up two weeks ago . . . Lieutenant Sheppard said his jacket looked scrubbed.' The term “scrubbed jacket” was intelligence lingo for a personal record that had signs of computerized tampering. 'But the Admiral didn't listen,' he continued his line of thought. 'She said it was normal for Section 31 transfers to have ink-stains. If she only stopped to think that maybe Starfleet Intelligence itself had caught on to her little operation.'

“No matter,” McCain mumbled to himself. “The damage is done.”

His next course of action was simple. Follow his orders, and dismantle all traces of the Dragon Project. Then, divert the surplus resources elsewhere to reinforce their assets in the gamma quadrant. With “the Admiral” out of the way, there was no one to stop him from shaping the Organization into his own image of what the Federation needed most for its defense: the ultimate invasion force.

McCain cracked a smile at the thought.

Kostya's vision was of paramount importance: protect the Federation through a proactive military policy. In other words, the best defense is a good offense. “We cannot wait for our enemies to attack us,” Kostya once said to McCain. Josh took those words to heart, and in the near future, when his hawkish friend at Starfleet Operations sees what he has built here, he'll get the respect that's due him.

There, in his ready room aboard the USS Coeus, Commodore Joshua McCain vowed that under his careful tutelage, and guided by the principles set forth by Admiral Vladimir Kostya, the Organization would become the most powerful security force that the Federation has ever seen . . .

Chapter 16: Of Holograms and HemoglobinTop

Gamma shift in sickbay was perhaps one of the most uninteresting assignments on the whole ship. While there may be an occasional patient interned for overnight observation, or an on-shift crewmember from another department needing minor medical attention, there was very little happening while the rest of the crew slept. Oftentimes, the senior surgeon on duty would dismiss a majority of the sickbay staff several hours before the shift officially ended. While Doctor Cromwell frowned on the practice, he did not outright ban it, as the ship's CMO knew all too well what kind of mischief a bored medical crew could get into if they were forced to stay in one place for eight hours straight.

This evening was just such a night. Although Counselor Tolkath remained unconscious in exam room two, and a subordinate staff member of his, Lieutenant Devenerux, was also incapacitated in exam room one, both individuals were physically in good health. Their maladies were embedded deep within their subconscious mind, defying traditional medical treatment. Unfortunately, no other facility aboard ship was better suited to keep watch on them, and despite the inability of the sickbay staff to treat them, all anyone could do was sit and wait for them to arouse on their own.

Doctor Eliza Fernmoore remained seated at the Surgeon-On-Duty desk, or “SOD” desk, sifting through the latest weekly issue of the Starfleet Medical Journal. The time was roughly 0400 hours, Lieutenant Merrick was released to active duty several hours ago, and so, most the staff had been excused for the rest of the shift with nothing left to do. Aside from the blue-uniformed nurse who tended watch at the nurse's station, there was one lone chief petty officer checking the inventory of a nearby emergency equipment locker when the main door to sickbay opened.

Julian Bashir, chief medical officer of Deep Space Nine, was an early riser. Whether out of habit, or because he was aboard a starship on which he had little to do in order to occupy himself, the doctor woke up at this pre-dawn hour and began his morning routine. However, to his curiosity, there was a message from Doctor Cromwell in his VIP quarters' computer console. It was straightforward, but nowhere close to the proverbial point: 'Doctor Bashir, come see me when you get the chance.' A shower and a cup of Raktajino later had him strolling into the Republic's medical center, looking not so out of place, but definitely at a loss.

“Um, excuse me,” he beckoned to the gray haired Doctor Fernmoore.

The elder MD looked up from her screen without so much as a blink. Shallow age lines were etched into her face, and their patterns brought her expression to that of a perpetual scowl. Squinting briefly to recognize who had addressed her, she responded, “can I help you, Doctor Bashir?”

“I'm looking for Doctor Cromwell. The computer locator told me he was here in sickbay.”

“He's in the medical lab. Second door on your right down the hallway off the right of the surgical ward.” She didn't wait for a response before turning her attention back to her medical journal.

For his part, Julian simply raised his eyebrows in a silent 'sorry-to-bother-you' gesture before following the directions given to him.

Sickbay's medical laboratory was a large, spacious room with countertops, lab benches, and workstations lining the walls on one half, and two large wall-mounted viewscreens on the other. The large space in the center of the lab contained a single countertop island that supported a plethora of diagnostic and research machinery as well as one lone workstation. The only sound in the room was that of the computer console at the end of the counter where Doctor Leon Cromwell sat reviewing medical data.

It had been about twenty full hours since Leon had woke the previous morning, as the recent medical situations in sickbay and elsewhere drove sleep from his mind. After the Kuga-Jenkins escape, and subsequent destruction of an unidentifiable, technologically-advanced starship, the doctor found himself sifting through the only data available to him of the mysterious person they once knew as Ensign Kuga: the data recorded during her brief stop in sickbay. Time had passed as the doctor poured over the information, analyzing it and reviewing it from all possible angles. Early evening turned to late evening, and late evening turned to midnight. Before Leon knew it, he was pulling an all-nighter as the startling secrets about Kuga's unique physiology continued to reveal themselves one by one with each passing hour. Slowly, his eyelids began to creep closed on him, little by little, as if daring the unconscious realm to take over his mind. However, before they sealed shut for the last time, the door to the lab suddenly opened.

Sitting up abruptly, Leon turned to see Doctor Bashir greeting him with wakeful eyes, and a demeanor that suggested he achieved a full nights sleep. Leon was jealous.

“Has my staff stopped mistaking you for our EMH yet?” Leon asked, rubbing the sleep out of his tired eyes.

“Most of them,” Julian replied with amusement. “There were a few holdouts yesterday morning. Tell me, why are you still using a Mark 19 EMH?”

Tired, Leon was confused at the change of subject, as he had spent the last eight hours performing data analysis. But after thinking for a moment, he shook his head and snorted. “Well, when it actually *works* it does a pretty good job.”

“What do you mean?” Julian continued his line of questioning, his British accent highlighting his academic curiosity.

Although Leon was annoyed at having to interrupt his work to entertain a visitor, deep down inside, he was relieved that someone had diverted his single-track attention span. “We've had problems with it in the past,” he explained. “Mostly with sudden deactivation. Since it's not programmed for major surgery, and our need for the EMH so infrequent, we haven't considered it much of a problem. Just an occasional annoyance.”

“I'd hate to think that a computer program with my likeness is actually impeding your medical staff.” Although Julian's concern was genuine, the vanity of the statement mildly irritated Leon's tired nerves.

“Don't worry about it,” he replied gruffly. “Like I said, we hardly use it as it is. Frankly, the staff and I are wary of upgrading to one of those newer, surgically-certified EMH's. Can you imagine what would happen if it gave out in the middle of an operation?”

“The surgically-certified ones are actually really good. I've seen them in action. You might want to consider getting one, just in case you end up stranded in the Delta Quadrant like Voyager.”

“Voyager didn't have seven MD's aboard when she was stranded,” came the sour reply as Leon turned his attention back to the workstation. Even though Bashir was a renowned physician, he had inadvertently stepped on a raw nerve of Leon's, as he didn't like someone telling him what to do with his own sickbay facilities.

“True,” Julian admitted, remaining unaware of Leon's disdain. “But if weren't for Voyager, EMH's wouldn't be as popular as they are now. I've heard that some ships are even equipped with an intra-ship hologrid so they can quickly respond to emergencies anywhere aboard ship.”

“Actually, you're aboard just such a ship,” Leon informed him.

“Really?” Julian looked around the room, as if searching for one of the holo projectors.

“Yes, and to sum up the EMH hologrid in one word: worthless.”

Doctor Bashir remained inquisitive. “What do you mean?”

“We never use it,” he stated flatly.

“Why not? Surely it's a lifesaver when an emergency happens.”

Leon sighed with annoyance, slumping his shoulders as he surrendered to the fact that he would not be able to escape an argument. Halting his work with the computer, he swiveled his lab stool towards the CMO from Deep Space Nine to engage him eye-to-eye, giving him his full attention. “It's fine and dandy if you have a holographic doctor show up to a medical emergency in a remote part of the ship. But a lot of good a holographic medical kit will do you.” His sarcasm was not accusatory, but it was certainly opinionated. “Sure, the EMH works great when there's real-world medical equipment at hand, but if you've got an open head wound in the deuterium tank catwalks, by the time the EMH finds the nearest medical tricorder, you might as well have sent a trauma team instead.”

“You could beam a real medical kit to the EMH.” Julian was curious, but as he continued to pursue the subject with the exhausted Doctor Cromwell, he had no idea what can of worms he was opening.

That did it. Leon couldn't hold back his annoyance any longer. “Beam a medical kit?” Leon interjected expressively. “Why bother? We might as well just beam the casualty directly to sickbay. My point is that there's no need to waste time with an EMH elsewhere on the ship. These intra-ship hologrids for EMH's are a waste of resources and energy.”

Julian finally got the message. Leon was tired, and he realized he had pushed the doctor a little too far with his curiosity. He decided to offer an olive branch. In a conciliatory tone, he replied, “I guess that's why they haven't caught on very quick, eh?”

“Don't count on them EVER catching on,” Cromwell added, his irritation beginning to subside. “The Voyager doctor, and his ability to wander his ship, was a fluke. Mind you, a FANTASTIC fluke, but a fluke nonetheless. It's pointless to try and re-create his unique niche on other ships. The emergency medical hologram belongs in sickbay. Period. No amount of technology will replace a real flesh-and-blood doctor elsewhere on the ship.”

“But . . .” Julian started, but paused at the annoyed expression in Leon's eyes. The two looked at one another, realizing that they would have to agree to disagree on this subject.

“There's no point in arguing with you is there?” Julian finally asked.

“Nope.” Leon replied with a sense of satisfaction creeping into his drowsy voice. With the argument won in his mind, he changed the subject. “Is there something I can do for you, doctor?”

“Actually, I should be asking you the same thing. I got a message from you at my computer console.”

Leon turned back to his workstation, suddenly realizing what time it was. He closed his eyes in exasperation and muttered, “Damn! I was planning on asking you about this tomorrow after I got some sleep. Only 'today' turned into 'tomorrow'.”

“I'm sorry,” Julian offered. “When the computer said you were here, I thought you were on the night shift. I can come back later.”

Julian began to walk back towards the door when Leon stopped him.

“No, no,” he beckoned. “I'd better get this off my chest. If anything, so I can get some damned sleep.”

The DS9 doctor stopped as Leon gestured towards one of the wall-mounted viewscreens. “Have a look at this.” He entered a command on his console, and the blank screen switched to a large gray shape that resembled a quasi-round, wart-covered ornamental gourd. To the normal eye, it was a nothing more than a lumpy ball of oatmeal, but to Doctors Bashir and Cromwell, it was commonly known form.

“Hemoglobin,” Julian said as he walked up to the screen and looked over the molecule with interest.

“Are you sure?” asked Leon.

Julian slowly turned to face Cromwell with a look of annoyance. “I'm a medical doctor. I think I know a hemoglobin molecule when I see one.”

Leon allowed himself a half-smile. “I borrowed a sub-molecular data re-processor from engineering. Take a look at this sequence of the hemoglobin subunits.” Leon pressed a button that zoomed in on part of the molecule, and the new view revealed short, spiraled shapes interconnected in a seemingly random fashion by flat fields of bead-like objects. It vaguely resembled a jumble of pipes. “Now what do you see?”

Again, Julian looked over the molecular diagram. “Alpha helixes. Beta sheets. All composed of standard amino acid structures. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“And that's what you *should* see . . . at ten to the minus nine.” Like before, Leon manipulated the controls to zoom even closer to the hemoglobin molecule. “Now look at it at ten to the minus twelve. . . Look at those amine and carboxyl groups . . .”

“What?” Bashir inquired, look back at the screen. “I don't see what you're getting at.”

“There,” he pointed out. “Tantalum, tungsten, hafnium. There's even some rubidium there.”

Slowly, Julian looked over the forms in excruciating detail. He walked up to the wall, inches away from the screen, and focused on three particular points. As he did so, his eyes grew wide with comprehension as he understood what Leon was trying to show him.

“That's impossible!” Julian exclaimed, not believing his eyes. As if by instinct, he quickly spun around to where Doctor Cromwell was seated, and read the digital computer information from over his shoulder. After briefly looking back to the large screen, Bashir was clearly flummoxed. “Their atomic radii, weights, and valence charges indicate these atoms to be carbon and nitrogen! These readings can't right!”

“They're correct,” Leon replied soberly. “But the nuclear charges indicate heavy metallic elements. Somehow, they've been engineered on a quantum level to mimic lighter non-metals normally found in organic tissue. Medical scanners show hemoglobin, and any other scanner programmed for biological material will show the same thing. Only finely tuned sub-atomic scanners are able to reveal what these molecules really are.”

“It doesn't make sense,” Doctor Bashir mused. “The atomic weights of these elements alone should have revealed something.”

“Look closer at the nuclei.” Leon dialed a few keystrokes, and the graphical image zoomed into the center of one of the structural atoms. “Those aren't neutrons holding the protons in place. Those are antigravitons. They reduce the overall mass of the atom, and any spectrometer you look at will say it's nothing more than common elements found in organic matter.”

“Antigravitons? But . . . that's an anti-particle. How can it coexist with matter, let alone subatomic matter?”

“I don't know . . .” Leon stared at the screen, almost transfixed on the enigma.

Julian spoke up after a moment of silence. “Who could have designed these things?” he whispered in awe. “Who could have built them?”

“Someone with technology far beyond anything the Federation possesses, that's for sure.”

“Quantum dating?” Julian suggested. “Could it be from the future?”

“No,” Leon shook his head. “Quantum resonance frequencies are normal. They're from this time period. That much is certain.”

“But WHAT are they? What's their purpose?”

Leaning back on his stool, Leon crossed his arms and stroked his chin in thought. “From what I can gather, these molecules are actually highly-evolved nano-mechanisms. They not only oxygenate human cells like hemoglobin, but in Kuga, they also repaired them when they got old, re-enforced their membranes when they were under attack by viral organisms, and even fed them simplistic m-RNA instructions for protein synthesis.”

“You mean they had the capability to rewrite her DNA? That's something that Borg nanites would do.”

“Yes, but these little devils are orders of magnitude smaller than nanites, and much more sophisticated. They also communicate with one another through electrochemical stimuli, and act as a single cohesive nerve bundle. I've analyzed the signal patterns in the data records of a tissue sample we obtained from Kuga. It seems to be a simple binary language. In a nutshell, she had tiny molecule-sized robots flowing through her veins. Smart robots that could communicate with one another, influence biological functions in all regards, and swim circles around any Borg nanite.”

“How do they reproduce?” Julian asked. “CAN they reproduce?”

A furrow developed in Leon's forehead. “I don't know,” he replied sourly. “And we'll probably never know.”

“What do you mean? Surely there are still some functioning units left in the tissue sample?”

“Oh, there probably were,” Leon explained. “Unfortunately, our laboratory was the victim of a little robbery.” The doctor glared into space when he spoke the words, as a mix of anger and resentment at Lieutenant Merrick flowed through his mind.

Julian nodded his head in regret. “I see. That's too bad. It would have been nice to take a fresh look at the sample.” After a moment, he looked back at the screen. “So what's the next step?”

Leon shook off the negative thought, and returned his attention to the matter at hand.

“Well, since it was probably an engineer that designed out little friends here, it might be best to have an engineer take a look at what we've found.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Doctor Bashir said enthusiastically. “I have this friend of mine at Starfleet Academy. He used to be chief of operations at the station, but this sort of thing is right up his . . .”

“Um,” Leon interposed. “No offense, but I'd like to have someone *I* know look at it first.” It was apparent that Julian had yet again stepped on Doctor Cromwell's proverbial toes.

“If you insist, doctor.” Julian wasn't hurt, but he was also used to having the free reign of Deep Space Nine when it came to biomedical issues. He could not remember the last time he had to collaborate with anyone of equal stature regarding matters in medicine. It was almost belittling. “May I ask who you have in mind?”

“Doctor Victor Virtus,” he replied almost immediately. “If there's anyone who can figure this out, it's him.”

“Virtus . . .” Julian looked to the ceiling in thought. “Wasn't he one of the 'Republic Eight'?”

Leon's face collapsed into his hands. When he looked back up, his bloodshot eyes were wide with trepidation. “Dear lord, has anyone NOT heard about that sham of a legal hearing?”

“Most everyone on the station was glued to the network feeds for the Cestus Three hearing,” Julian admitted. He made a sound as if he was clearing his throat. “Actually, several of our staff were former Marquis, and they took an interest in your father's resistance movement. Sorry to hear about his sentencing. Actually, I know how you feel. My father was also . . .”

Despite Julian's intentions, Leon was not in the mood to swap family stories. Leon rolled his eyes as a thought passed through his head. 'First, he tells me which model of EMH I should have in my sickbay, THEN he tells me who I should hand this research off to, NOW he's prying into my father's situation.'

“Doctor Bashir,” Leon started as diplomatically as he could. “Not to be rude, but the situation between my father and I is a private matter. While I appreciate your candor, as well as your insights into the Kuga hemoglobin mystery, I'm very tired. I have a staff meeting at 0930 to present my findings to the captain and executive officer, and I'd really like to get some sleep.”

Julian looked at Doctor Cromwell, realizing that their personalities were running head-on into one another. He had experienced this before, both in medical school and elsewhere, but he couldn't escape the nagging feeling that despite their cordial first encounter, they each had a fundamental flaw that has and will continue to predominate their professional relationship: They were both used to being the proverbial 'top dog' in their field. No competitors, no arguments. Julian decided that it was time to leave sleeping dogs lie, and diffuse the situation by removing himself from the room. He nursed the hope that their next encounter would be somewhat friendlier.

“I understand,” Doctor Bashir nodded. “We can pick this up another time if you'd like. I'll give the robotic hemoglobin mystery some thought, and if I have any ideas, I'll be sure to let you know.”

“Thank you,” Cromwell replied, and with a slight bow, Julian left the room.

As soon as the door closed, Leon turned back to his computer console with a scowl. “I think I like him better as a hologram,” he grumbled to himself.

Chapter 17: Behinds the ScenesTop

Julian Bashir walked away from his meeting with Cromwell, frustrated with the situation, yet intrigued with the implications of Doctor Cromwell's findings. He thought about the disagreement that he had with the CMO of the Republic, their clash of personalities playing over in his mind. It seemed that Leon had judged him harshly; like he was incapable of doing anything correctly. He walked deep in thought, his hands crossed behind him and head slightly bowed.

He thought back on the situation he thought about their bickering back and forth. As he sauntered around the corner by the Counselor's room he murmured to himself while chuckling, “Reminds me a little of my Dad and Mum. . .”

Looking at the Counselor it finally clicked. “His mother. . .” The though struck Bashir with great force. They had tried everything except the one completely logical solution.

“If this works, maybe it will help lift some burden off Cromwell and help us get on with the hemoglobin theory.”

Yaxara Tolkath's face illuminated the viewscreen that had been patched into the Lieutenant Commander's room. Bashir was going to share his idea with the Republic's CMO, but thought twice when he saw the exhausted Doctor Cromwell leave sickbay. When Julian had explained the situation to Reittan's mother she seemed to react well to the news. The odd part of the interaction was when the majority of her concern towards the fellow crewmember that lay unconscious. It almost seemed to Bashir that this incident, or something like it, may have occurred before.

“So doctor, what would you like me to do?”

“Well, was there something you said or did to help Reittan calm himself in the past; A lullaby, perhaps?”

Yaxara leaned back in her high back chair revealing more books in her office than had been shown previously.

“There is one song . . .” Doctor Tolkath began, “from when he was a boy that I used to sing to him when he would wake up in the night from a nightmare.”

“That will do,” interjected Julian. “Just a moment and I'll tell you when to begin.”

The doctor looked over the Counselor's biorhythms and data being displayed on the panel beside him. He then said to the attending nurse, “Watch the vitals and readings from the anatomy below his neck, and I'll keep an eye on his neurochemistry. It should let us know if this is working or not.”

The nurse gave a nervous look towards the Counselor's comatose body. She had heard from the other nurses what had happened to the person in the next room. Almost sensing the concern from the nurse, Julian assured her that as long that she wasn't perceived a threat by Tolkath, she would be alright.

Standing at his post, the doctor gave the cue to Yaxara to start singing. At first the song started out weak, and slightly broken. But, Mrs. Tolkath cleared her throat and started again. The melody was simple, yet one Bashir hadn't heard before.

The neural activity within the Counselor's brain started to increase. As the indicators climbed the scale slowly, the nurse gave an uneasy look at the doctor. The brain was reacting, but only getting more defensive.

“Come on . . . Come on . . .” Bashir whispered to himself, “calm down . . . calm down. . .”

The song carried on, just as the brain activity was going to reach the point where Lieutenant Devenerux had been assaulted, the readings dropped dramatically into normal levels.

The Bashir and the nurse gave out a collective sigh of relief as the lullaby came to a close.

“I take it he responded favorably?” Mrs. Tolkath inquired.

“Yes, very favorably,” replied Julian.

“Tell Reittan to contact me as soon as he can, I have class in a few minutes.”


The viewscreen flashed black.

“Odd. She didn't even make sure everything worked out completely. It's almost as if . . .” Doctor Bashir let the thought drift away as his patient gained consciousness.

Location: Chief Tactical Officer's office, USS Republic

The reports had piled high since she had first taken over the department, but Zoe knew that that was going to happen with any new assignment. Not only did she have to read all the current and upcoming events and reports, she had to read everything pertinent that had been archived. Ever since AR558, she had learned to never take anything for face value and make sure to know exactly what she was getting into.

The recent events had cascaded a flood of memories from the buried past to the now ever present time. She knew that she needed to get better control of these memories or she was going to spend more time than was necessary in the counselor's office and she hated doctors. She had done many different things that she wasn't proud of in her time, but she wasn't going to let it get her down, not now. She had finally gotten a good position to serve and she wasn't about to lose it.

Taking note that the Chief Counselor had finally awoken from the coma, she was going to give him some time before popping in and checking on him as she had been doing with the rest of the crew. She wasn't going to rest until she knew exactly who was there that shouldn't be there. Even though they had lost two crew in their latest incident, she needed to know for sure if they were the ones that they need to worry about or if they still had an intruder on board.

She had engineering up in arms about the sensor sweeps, but she wanted to make sure that if a grain of dust fell, that it fell off one of the crew, not someone else. It was hard trying to discern the impostor out of the rest of the crew, but she liked challenges, after all she requested to go to AR558 until they got stranded there.

Setting the reports back down to her over-cluttered desk, she closed up shop for the night and headed to bed. But first, she was going to stop at Stellar Cartography and enjoy a little bit of sight seeing to relax the mind and maybe hit the gym to relax her body before heading to actual sleep.

Location: Cha'rik's quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

Cha'rik was sitting in the standard meditation pose with her mind running rampant. She was kicking herself for letting go certain information than she should have corrupting the timeline, but then she realized that they pretty much had figured it out themselves and that there was nothing that she could do now to stop what had been found.

However with the destruction of the smaller ship, she was quite disappointed. She wanted an opportunity to dissect it before it went, but that didn't happen either. Now here she was trying to blend in with a crew that she personally didn't feel like that she belonged in. Her past was truly in the past and that there was nothing else that could be done about it. The hardest part was learning how to hide again. It still bothered her day in and day out that no one was returning the pages, either due to hiding or discovery.

There were so few of her left, even though she was one of a kind. The skin around her implants was sore from the inverse graviton pulses that the Republic had emitted in order to slow down the escape of the smaller ship. She shrugged the pain away burying it with all her other buried emotions and pains.

Stretching her back one more time, she still couldn't get into the meditation state; her mind was all over the place. Her old mentor would laugh at her for not being able to control her mind, but then again she was quite different than all the other Vulcans she grew up with, as well as all the other recovered assimilated Borg drones.

There was still the threat on board to her target and she wasn't going to fail this task or end up being the next target. That is what made this mission the hardest for her, not only was she having to protect a target (which she normally doesn't do) and having to protect her own life. She had to be careful with who she associated with, what she did, and how she behaved.

This was definitely difficult for her as she was used to the cloak-and-dagger-wet-work missions, not these out-in-the-open impersonation missions. Calming her thoughts even further, she shoved the rest of her feelings about the current mission and the recent events away to be assimilated at another time. The time now was to relax.

Chapter 18: Open SecretsTop

Location: Observation lounge, deck 1, USS Republic

The mood around the conference table in the observation lounge was subdued as Captain Roth heard the reports from each of the department heads. Lieutenant Beauvais, Lieutenant Hawk, Lieutenant Merrick, Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik, and Doctor Cromwell all were present, as was Commander Carter. The captain was relatively silent as she listened to the individual summaries, each outlining the written reports she read the previous evening. Even still, there was an unspoken tension in the air as the Captain cleared her throat and began briefing her officers on the next steps to be taken.

“Now that our mystery attacker has been identified, and is no longer on the ship, I'm going to send the Runabout Fowler back to Deep Space Nine with the guests we've had since our hasty departure. By request, a few are staying, but the rest have lives to get back to.”

Looking around the table, Captain Roth changed the subject. “You'll notice that we're a few faces short. “With the welcome assistance to Doctor Bashir, Counselor Tolkath is on the mend, and will return to duty shortly.” Roth gave a quick nod to Doctor Cromwell to silently confirm the as yet undisclosed prognosis.

“Lieutenant Pakita, however, has requested to be relieved of duty after the destruction of the mystery ship.” Roth's eyes lowered a bit and her mood seemed to darken. “She's taken the deaths of those people rather hard, and I would appreciate it if you all gave her a kind word over the next few days.” Kim glanced quickly down at the PADD on the conference table, which held electronic copies of all recent transfers and changes in status, and continued. “Unfortunately, that leaves engineering without a chief and short of available senior officers.”

“I might have an idea on that, ma'am,” Hawk announced.

“We're all ears, Lieutenant,” Roth came back, turning her attention to him.

“One a the folks who got Shanghaied when we left DS9, fella named Vance Devloch, he's an Engy… hell of an Engineer, Ma'am. Knows engines n'the like fairly well from what I seen. He's Starfleet, on leave from somewhere. Has his quirks. Think he'd make a pretty good actin' chief, though.”

Intrigued, Roth nodded and looked to Carter before turning back to Hawk, “Work it out with the XO. If all parties agree, I have no problem.”

“I want to close this meeting by saying a few words about our recently departed crewmates,” Roth started somberly. “Despite the questionable circumstances under which they left our ship, and the tragic way in which they perished, their loss is regrettable.”

“During their stay with us they served admirably, and I would like their memories to remain untainted for the rest of the crew. I've read the reports from each department outlining the events of the past few days, and while the final allegiances of Ensigns Kuga and Jenkins remain a mystery, I'm not convinced that either of them was personally working against Starfleet or the Federation.”

“In fact,” Roth glanced at Republic's newly minted Ops Chief, “Lieutenant Merrick's report leads me to the conclusion that whatever malevolent organization they belonged to did not have full control over their individual actions, and in the end, their character proved true. Because of this, a potential second war with the Founders was averted, for which we can all be thankful.”

“While the individual records of Kuga and Jenkins will be noted as having disobeyed orders, I'm not going to further shame their memory by placing any formal reprimand in their personal file. Such action seems pointless in the wake of their deaths.”

Roth gave another quick glance down the table, pleased to see that she still had the attention of her Department Heads. “Officially,” she offered, “while I'm against leaving any mystery unsolved, I'm considering all events concerning the recent attack on us finished as is.”

For a moment, some of the assembled staff looked first at the Captain, then at John Carter, somewhat surprised that either of them would let the unknowns remain unknown, but both the Captain and XO remained inscrutable. For her part, Roth continued. “Ensign Kuga offered detailed descriptions of a previously unknown black-ops group, working under the already dubious Section 31. Due to the lack of any physical proof of said organization's existence, I'm forced to declare the matter closed.”

“In regards to her escape with the help of Ensign Jenkins, the wreckage of the unknown escape vessel was scattered over five cubic parsecs, and while Sciences and Tactical have been able to make some educated guesses, the largest debris found was only microscopic in size. Our scans and incident logs have been transmitted to Starfleet Headquarters, and unless we're directed to further investigate the matter, I'm forced to consider that closed as well.” Kim paused to look at everyone around the table, ensuring that her words were clearly received.

“On the unofficial side,” she continued, her face becoming stolid. “I'm not at all pleased about what happened here. Who and what Ensign Kuga was could not be determined, and while that in its self is not troubling, the fact she escaped detection while operating as regular member of my crew is.” There was a marked edge to Roth's voice; less threatening and angry, more certain and resolved. “I do not blame Ensign Kuga for who she was, but I'm outraged that this ship was used as a venue to perpetuate a dark conspiracy. Furthermore, her escape was even more outrageous, if for no other reason than secrets were kept aboard this vessel. The entire operation happened right under our noses.” Roth was careful to stretch out those last four words, capping each with emphasis.

“For the past several months, operatives were lurking in the shadows of this ship, wearing the ship's uniform, sitting at this ship's table, hurting her crew and following the orders of someone other than her captain.”

Roth's next action drew the attention of everyone around the table as she stood up and slammed her fist into the surface. “This. WILL NOT Stand.” She thundered, barely raising her voice to a shout, but the menace in her voice seemed to intensify as her eyes glared furiously. “Every single officer aboard this ship swore an oath to uphold and defend the principles of the Federation and Starfleet. If others outside this ship dare to dirty the uniform by betraying that oath, then let me make it crystal clear. I will NOT stand for it on the Republic.”

An authority she seemed to radiate tempered the fury in Roth's voice; letting all the officers assembled know that, in this instance, she simply could not be moved to any other point of view. “Admirals and Interdiction Orders be damned,” she hissed. “I run this ship. Not some cloistered fool with a gold braid on his cuff, in an office a thousand light years away.”

She looked each officer lining the table dead in the eyes. “As long as you're aboard Republic, you follow MY orders. I will not stand for anything else. If any of you take exception to this, your transfers are waiting in my office.” Looking from person to person around the table, Captain Roth allowed time for her displeasure to sink in. Realizing that the tension in the room was stifling her officers, she slowly sat back down, satisfied her point was driven home.

“I'll tolerate bending the rules,” she continued, her tone becoming less harsh. “I'll welcome opposing views. I'll even encourage relaxed discipline when the situation allows for it, but I WILL NOT tolerate secrets. Not from me, and not at the expense of this ship. You're not just Starfleet officers, you're REPUBLIC officers . . . and we work together. Always; to the end. No discussion.”

Kim leaned back in her chair, shifting her eyes back and forth, looking for a consensus among her officers. “We have to stick together. We have to be very, very careful now,” she continued ominously. “Although we cannot prove it as well as I'd like, rogue elements in Starfleet have attempted to start a war three times in the past year. Each of those times, Republic has been at the center of it. Whether by coincidence or by design, we're now in the spotlight - perhaps the crosshairs- of these rogue elements. We cannot afford to keep anything to ourselves. If any of you . . . ANY of you . . . come across anything out of the ordinary in our daily operations, no matter how trite or benign it may seem, I expect it to be reported immediately to either myself or Commander Carter. When dealing with people outside of this ship, even family, take nothing for granted. One shred of misplaced trust on our part could have ramifications throughout the known galaxy.”

Pausing to look around the table one last time, she finally concluded the meeting. “In the meantime, I believe we have a nebula awaiting our science teams. Dismissed.”

As Republic's senior staff filed out, John Carter noted the absence of murmur and small talk that accompanied so many people in one place. In surprisingly short order, Roth and Carter were the only two left in the room. “I'd call that settled.” Carter commented.

“For now,” Roth said with a huff, letting relief and some relaxation ease into her body.

“What's next?” Carter asked as he strode for the door.

“Simple, we do our job and let nothing happen for once.”

Carter felt his eyebrow raise, feeling amused and uncertain at the thought. “And if 'something' happens instead?”

Roth steepled her fingers in front of her and glared at the polished wood face of the conference table. “Then,” she paused, “the gloves come off.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Vibrant colors more intense than those known to exist in nature invaded every view port aboard the Starship Republic. It was as if a sentient being was desperate to escape the vacuum of interstellar space. Massive swirls of reds, purples, and blues danced around and across the outer hull like the limbs, embracing the fragile Federation vessel. After so many long months - in some cases, years - spent in the company of darkness in one form or another, to be here now was like being born anew for the Starfleet crew. On every deck, the scene was the same, as people stopped and stared outward into the awe-inspiring rainbow.

Even now, nearly an hour after they had first entered the uncharted mass known only as the Ash'aar Nebula, it continued to draw crowds of on-lookers, and fill any area of the ship with a dance of color and light that made Earth's aurora borealis look like a planetarium light show. The crew lounge on deck three was no different, where every table along the outer bulkhead was occupied. Most of the other tables where not though, as people simply stood around with drinks in hand, taking it all in. The energy and mood of everyone aboard has shifted, and it could be felt in the air, as palpable as the tension usually was in it's place.

Nathan Hawk himself had seen many astronomical phenomenon in his day, like everyone else though, he had never before encountered something of such wonder and beauty. The thought of what possibilities awaited them on their extended tour of the Gamma Quadrant seemed less ominous as it originally had, and for the first time in… maybe forever… Hawk allowed himself to consider those possibilities as a Starfleet Officer instead of any of the other definitions that applied to him. Ash'aar had never been charted, never probed, never even scanned before today. It's name came from one of the stars it contained, which had played home to an encircling world and it's antique and long dead culture of which next to nothing was known.

What must it have been like for those people, so many millennia ago, to look up at the night sky and see… this. Had they appreciated or even realized this gift? Or had they taken it as common, and given it as much - but no more - thought than humans gave the black night sky? Had they known that long, long after they where gone, a part of them would live on in the memory of the galaxy through the name of this majestic cloud? He hadn't really ever allowed himself to consider such things before. He had always been so driven, so angry. If it didn't help him forget his pain, numb it, block it out, cloud it, it was of no use to him.

Things where beginning to change, though. His pain was still deep, his determination still firm, his resolve to right all that was wrong far from forgotten. Something unexpected had happened though, in the 18 months he had been aboard the Republic. He had finally begun to feel as if he belonged somewhere. That maybe, finally, after so much pain and loss, he had found something good. It was a strange feeling, hope. It had never fit into his life before, and even still it felt awkward. It was irrational and based on little else than thought. Yet it was also powerful, and addictive.

“Penny for your thoughts?” came a voice from beside him.

Glancing to his left, he found something else of considerable beauty. Leah Warner.

He had been attracted to her from the moment the Federation News Service Reporter had introduced herself on Starbase 39-Sierra so many months ago. She to him, as well. Both of them had disguised those feelings behind fear and doubt and a thick layer of sarcasm and verbal sparring. That had begun to change during the Sigma Omicron Incident, and took a dramatic shift towards the positive two weeks ago, as they had departed Deep Space 9. He had gone to her after falling off the old proverbial wagon and confessed more than just his sins. He had laid out his life for her, his secrets, his past, his pain. Exposed everything that made him who he was to her, something he had never done for anyone before.

“Lets see the penny,” He quipped with smirk.

Unexpectedly, she tossed something through the air towards him. He caught it awkwardly, and opened his hand to look down upon a small disc of copper.

“It's a reporter thing,” she informed him, “well, actually, it's a family reporter thing. My dad always says, 'if you want to give somebody your two-cents on something, you might as well keep the real things with you'. I added the 'penny for your thoughts' bit myself.”

“Cute.” he said simply, keeping ambiguous what he meant.

A moments silence passed between them before Leah echoed her question.

“So what's on your mind?”

Part of him wanted to admit exactly what occupied his thoughts, but he was decidedly against pushing things too far, too fast. So instead he told her what had been on his mind in the moments before his thoughts had turned to her. “Nothin' serious 'er life n'death fer a change.”

“I'm glad,” she told him, placing her hand upon his arm in a supportive gesture. Knowing she meant it, he accepted it rather than shrug it off as he normally would have.

It wasn't so long ago that she had been a stranger to him. Not to mention a potential liability. Just before Sigma Omicron, she had begun to be curious about him. Oblivious to the hornet's nest she was poking with a stick. Fate had stepped in though and kept her from having the time or ability to contact any sources. Nearly two months later, she had all the information - and it had come from the source. It had been a major gamble for him to confide in her. His story was one that any reporter would give their life for. She hadn't betrayed his confidence - and that meant something.

He just wasn't sure exactly what. He only knew what he hoped it meant.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” she asked.

“Sure,” Nat agreed, gesturing for her to lead the way.

Wandering through the corridors without purpose or destination, they made small talk, avoiding any real substantive issues. Somehow they ended up at the arboretum two decks down and spent a good deal of time in the artificial nature setting it created. They spotted Counselor Tolkath with Lieutenant Pakita by one of the meditation pools, both in casual attire. Whether it was an impromptu counseling session for the Junior Engineer, or two colleagues who had both experienced recent difficulties finding comfort in talking with one another, they couldn't quite tell. It was just another sign of the healing and hopeful atmosphere that now seemed to permeate the ship.

After nearly two hours, they ended up outside her quarters, both standing by the door, each waiting for the other to say or do something. He had never been shy about his intentions with women in the past. Things where different now, though.

“Had a good time,” he told her.

“So did I.” she replied, smiling.

Departing from what he would normally say in just such a situation as this, he took the road less traveled by.

“Goodnight,” he said to her.

As he turned to go, he felt her take hold of his hand and pull him back towards her. Pulling him into an embrace, she put her lips to his and kissed him softly, but with passion. Though taken by surprise, he returned the kiss. Pulling back after a moment, they looked into each others eyes and communicated so much without a word between them.

“Goodnight,” he said once more, his voice barely a whisper.

Separating from their embrace, he stood there as she turned and entered her quarters. Pausing for a moment, lost in thought, he then turned and headed down the corridor feeling something he hadn't in a long time: happy.

Location: Lieutenant Merrick's cabin, deck 8, USS Republic

Reia had spent the entire night thinking over what had happen the previous day it had gone through her mind over and over on what she should do next. She rolled over to the other side of her bed looking at a picture of a man she once loved, after staring at the picture for a few seconds she knew what she had to do. She threw her bed sheets off her and walked over to her desk.

“Computer open a channel to Admiral Ross.”

After several seconds of looking at a black screen an image of Admiral Ross appeared.

“Don't you think you're a little under dressed lieutenant?” questioned Admiral Ross chuckling slightly.

Reia felt a little embarrassed. “I apologize for my appearance sir, but I have completed my task on the Republic.”

“Go on, lieutenant.”

Reia then explained everything to Admiral Ross about what happened with Ensign Kuga and Ensign Jenkins.

“What happen to the bio-gel sample?” inquired Admiral Ross.

“I kept the sample on my person while I was considering the best, safest repository for it. However, Ensign Jenkins tracked the sample to me just before his and Kuga's escape.”

Admiral Ross's face looked a little disappointed as he spoke, “That's too bad. Well, I'll clear things up for you so you can return to Earth when Republic's mission is finished.”

“Sir, there is one more thing I would like to add to the record. I feel that Captain Roth should be told about everything, and my reason for being on Republic. Also, I would like to leave it up to her if she wishes for me to stay on board or not.” Reia felt somewhat responsible for what had transpired on the ship with regards to Jenkins and Kuga. Therefore, she felt obligated to try and convince Captain Roth to keep her onboard until she made up for it.

“Very well Lieutenant, but not a word to the other crew members. I will leave it up to Captain Roth on who she feels should be entrusted with this information. Ross Out.”

Location: Captain's ready room, deck 1, USS Republic

Reia stood at attention as Captain Roth read her report on everything she knew about what happened regarding the Jenkins-Kuga incident. There was worry lingering within her mind that this may leave a bad mark on her record.

For her part, Captain Roth placed the PADD on her desk and looked at Reia sternly. “Lieutenant, while I appreciate that you came forward to me with this information, I think there are some questions you need to answer. First, why did you take the bio-gel sample of Ensign Kuga from sickbay?”

“I had reason to believe that it would not be safe in the medical laboratory.” Reia took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, I was unable to place it in a more secure location before it was taken from me.”

“And this is when you were attacked by Ensign Jenkins?” interrupted Roth, wondering if Reia's intentions were the truth.

“Yes Ma'am.”

Roth still felt as if she had not been told the entire truth about Ensign Jenkins. “So, when were you aware that Ensign Jenkins was part of this… 'Organization'?”

“It was unconfirmed ma'am, but Admiral Ross and few members in Starfleet had their suspicions. The main reason you were not informed was because there was no real proof on the matter. Only speculation.”

Captain Roth sat in silence, pondering the situation.

“Captain, I would like to add one more thing…”

Roth broke away from her thoughts and looked at Reia. “Go on.”

“I wanted to let you know that I admire this ship… this crew, and that I feel that I let down everything I believe in. I let the shadows of corruption blind me, and I fear that my choices will have a negative, lifetime impact for not only on myself, but everyone around me.” Reia took a deep breath as she tried to gather her thoughts. “I… I know you have several reasons not to trust me, but I would very much like to stay onboard to regain that trust. Not only as member of this crew, but as a starfleet officer… someone who you can count on. I failed to keep a promise to Admiral Ross, but if you give me a second chance, I won't fail you.” She felt somewhat at ease after getting everything off her chest, but she was still worried about the Captain's attitude towards her.

“I'll think about it lieutenant,” Roth answered cryptically. “Dismissed.”

Chapter 19: Welcome ArrivalsTop

Location: Sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic

It had been almost a week since Reittan had awoken from one nightmare to another. His comrade lay in a hospital bed in a comatose state. While it was true the Counselor had no real control over what his mind had done to her, he still held himself accountable for Lieutenant Devenerux's current condition.

He stood there left arm folded while he chewed at his right thumb; his nervous quirk. He scanned the monitors, which had reduced in number considerably since he had regained full consciousness.

Doctors Bashir and Cromwell had given Tolkath a clean slate of health and told him he could return to duty. The Lieutenant Commander had returned to duty, but would spend some time each day at the bedside of his fellow officer.

Today was different; Tolkath had decided to take matters into his own hands. He would right, as much as he could, what his mind had done.

The idea had come to him while he had been with Lieutenant Pakita by one of the meditation pools, both of them hurting for the lives that had been so severely affected around them.

Looking at Cromwell and Bashir the Counselor went over in his mind the plan. A nurse brushing beside him brought Tolkath back to the moment. The nurse began bringing the bio-monitors back online, scanning Devenerux's life signs.

The Lieutenant Commander refocused on the two Doctors and asked, “You are sure that the physical aspect of her brain is intact?”

Both began to answer “Yes” but half way through Bashir stopped and let Cromwell finish the answer. He was beginning to, with measured difficulty, stay within his bounds with the CMO.

“By all accounts she should be awake,” Cromwell continued.

“Then let's begin.”

The theory was simple, go in telepathically and see what was wrong inside the psyche.

Tolkath could sense the nervousness and how uncomfortable the nurse at the bedside was.

The Counselor walked up to the unconscious Desiree and placed his right hand on the patient's forehead after brushing away her brown hair.

As the Lieutenant Commander, began to use his telepathy, Julian Bashir muttered softly to Cromwell, “Doesn't this seem a little rehearsed? Like he has done this before?”

Leon looked a Doctor Bashir incredulously. “He does have a PhD in telepathic studies.”

Julian had learned that there was no use in arguing with the CMO of the Republic. Though he wasn't going to pursue the thought further with Cromwell, he still had a strange feeling that something about this whole episode was to familiar to the Tolkath family.

The indicators on the bio-monitors began to move upward; brain activity was increasing. The neural chemistry was rising to normal levels rather than the lower levels they had been.

After five minutes had passed the Counselor straightened up and broke the psychic link. His dark eyes met the Doctor's and he spoke.

“It took a bit of persuading, but she should be coming-to momentarily.”

Doctor Bashir was going to question the Counselor on his statement, but as he opened his mouth, their patient suddenly stirred, opened her eyes, and regained consciousness. She sat up and looked curiously around the room.

“She will probably have amnesia and have to learn many things over again,” Tolkath stated. “But, it should be temporary. We just have to let the psyche reconnect with itself.”

Cromwell noticed the Counselor was shaking.

“Are you alright?”

“I am a little tired; I need some rest,” the Lieutenant Commander replied.

Cromwell noticed how Reittan had carefully avoided the question. Betazoids couldn't lie, but decided not to pursue with questioning him further. Even though all of the drama he still trusted the Counselor.

“I will be in my quarters if you need any further assistance.”

The Counselor Tolkath left sickbay still shaking and began massaging his right arm above the elbow, wrinkling his blue Starfleet uniform with every squeeze. Entered his room and collapsed on his bed.

Location: Guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

John Carter waved politely as junior officers and enlisted personnel gave him polite nods. At times like this, Republic's XO was glad that Starfleet had done away with any sort of formal salute. For hundreds of years, it had been enough to simply acknowledge a fellow, or superior officer's presence. As First Officer of Republic, John knew pretty much every officer onboard. There were a few exceptions however, and the man Carter was about to meet with was one of them.

John touched the comm pad near the bulkhead door in front of him. There was a faint electronic chirp, and the door opened. Carter took a few steps in to see the visiting Lieutenant Vance Devloch, Late of Deep Space Nine, packing his few belongings into a small bag. Like a handful of others onboard, Vance had been forced to stay on Republic while the ship's tactical department tried to get to the bottom of a mysterious attack. With the attacker now identified, Republic's `Shanghais' had been cleared to leave by her Captain. John, however, was hoping to press this particular visitor into service.

“Pardon me, Lieutenant. Do you have a minute?” John asked, taking a second to size up the man he addressed, “I'm John Carter, ship's XO. Don't think we've met.”

Vance looked up, heaving his `abduction bag' up on his shoulder. It was an old-style canvas bag first designed for pre-Eugenics Wars pilots to carry the bare essentials in a time when they didn't know when or where they might be flying to. The Lieutenant straightened up and smiled.

“Vance Devloch, at your service; though, since you obviously know my rank you probably know that too. What can I help you with sir?”

John was surprised how forward and how observant Devloch was, but was also glad to note that as a good thing. “Huh”, he said absently, hoping to ease the atmosphere in the room, “haven't seen a gig bag like that in a while. You a flyer?”

Vance snorted, rolling his eyes. “You could say that sir. I came out of the Dominion war with too many medals and the baggage to go with them.” Vance gave a wistful rub to his shoulder, one that was less out of pain, and more out of habit. “Unfortunately, I also came out medically unfit to fly. While flying was my life, Engineering was always my mistress.”

John smiled at the thought, and also reflected that circumstances for him were somewhat reversed. For him, command seemed something he was suited to, but John suspected that he'd always see himself as an aviator of a sort. “I suppose we've all got those,” he admitted. Should have figured you for a pilot. Is that how you met Hawk?”

Vance shook his head. “Well, we never met until just recently. There have always been people who've claimed that one or the other of us was the best pilot in the war, despite my protests that Hawk could fly rings around me. So when I finished with the canker mechanics and brain-shrinkers, I figured that a few drinks and some Flying stories would be just the thing.”

Vance paused as if considering weather to continue or not, shrugged and said, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a Flying Story?”

Carter shook his head.

“One begins 'once upon a time' the other begins with 'No shit, this REALLY happened.”

“Heh,” Carter smiled, genuinely pleased to have found some common ground with the Lieutenant. “I think I've used that line a few times myself.” Carter looked again at the bag on Devloch's shoulder. “You headed back on the shuttle?”

Vance shrugged and responded, “That's the plan. I have no idea what I am going to do with the rest of my leave. Probably try hiking on Bajor or something; either that or try to bank the bank at Quarks.”

John nodded slowly. “Would you consider a counter offer?”

“I might…” Vance answered, intrigued.

“How are you on Galaxy Class specs?”

“Most of the components are standard through the fleet,” Said Vance, “and the concepts never change. Actually, one of the things I was working on before being coerced into going on leave was a small part of the latest Galaxy class refit program.” Vance shook his head, as if bringing himself back to reality.

“And whatever it is, the answer is yes. Despite what command thinks, the last thing I need is to be feeling useless while on leave. Keep the mind busy and focused, that's the ticket.”

“Good answer.” John smiled, relieved. “Listen, I don't know how much you've heard about what just went down, but my ACE has asked not to be promoted to chief. Problem is that asking PERSCOM for a replacement would take forever, so…any way I could cut down on paperwork…”

Devloch nodded. “I don't know all the details, but it was pretty obvious to anything but a brain dead observer that SOMETHING nasty was going on. And,” he added with a bit of a smile, I'm always fond of whatever route requires the least amount of paperwork. Besides, this will give me a nice big toy chest to play with.”

“I'd call that settled then, ” Carter said as he turned toward the cabin hatch. “I should warn you. Republic's got…an unusual pedigree.”

“Well, if HALF the stories about this ship are true, at least I won't get bored. I never did like being bored. Besides”, Vance said with a grin, “how bad can it be?”

“Don't say that until after you've had a chat with Pakita. We've gone through two stardrives and half a computer core.”

“How did you manage to lose `half' of a computer core?” Vance continued.

“Let's just say that Republic wasn't always Republic. She used to be the Saratoga, but some of the command codes kind of stuck around.”

“Damn, you're serious aren't you ?”

Carter just nodded.

“Well, sounds like the logs are going to be interesting bed time reading.” Vance smiled, “Sounds like I don't think I really need to worry about packing. Though, it would be nice to have the rest of my usual gear from storage.

“I'll see about getting your effects from DS9 as soon as we can,” John offered.

“It's not too big a thing,” Vance countered, “I usually keep the replication patterns for the most important things right here.” Vance patted his pilot's bag. “Be prepared, is a good motto to follow.”

“Sounds good to me,” Carter said, as he stepped into the corridor, “With your okay, I'll pass my recommendation to the Captain that you come on as CoE, assuming your certifications are current?” It amused John that he only thought of Devloch's qualifications as an after-thought.

“Everything is current and up to date. Though you might hear some whining from Starfleet Medical. I passed all of my physical and mental check-ups. I'm sure as long as I talk to the counseling staff, I expect they'll allow it without too much screaming.” Vance inflected in such a way that a casual observer might get the impression that screaming Medical Officers were a GOOD thing.

“Oh, Leon will LOVE you”, Carter said with a smirk. “Consider this green light Vance. Welcome aboard.”

“Yes Sir,” Vance said. “Looking forward to it.”

“Carry on then,” Carter said as he headed down the corridor. He took a few strides, rubbing his fingers absently over the smooth cloth of his eye patch, considering his next stop for the day.”

“You seem pleased with your self,” a smooth alto voice offered.

Carter started and jerked his head to see Doctor Shannon Harris matching him stride for stride. “Haven't seen you in a while,” she continued. “Are we still okay?”

“You tell me,” Carter countered, “Are there any sick toddlers I need to worry about?”

Harris gave the XO an icy stare. “That's not fair John. Those `sick toddlers' happen to be my job. I'm sorry if work gets in the way, but to MY knowledge, I've never beamed over to a dying planet, or crossed the Neutral Zone… on purpose no less.”

The last remark made John wince, both because Harris had a point and because, as John sometimes forgot, one day the Romulans would come knocking. Thankfully, today probably wasn't that day. “Point taken, Shannon. I'm sorry,” John said as he took her hand. “It's just frustrating is all.”

Harris smiled and rested her head on Carter's shoulder. “I know John, just don't take it out on me, okay?”

“Fair enough,” John said, giving Harris a soft kiss on the forehead. “Tell you what, let's have dinner tonight. We can celebrate.”

Shannon felt a wicked grin cross her face. “Well THAT sounds promising,” she chuckled. “We haven't…celebrated in a while. What's the occasion?”

“I'm going to go see a man about an eye.” Carter said cryptically as he stepped into the turbo-lift.

Shannon blinked silently as the doors closed, and Carter was out of sight. Then, so was she.

Seated on the floor of Cargo Bay 4, his legs criss-crossed in what school children continued to label 'Indian-style' despite centuries of social progress, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk stared at the massive hulk of the prototype Peregrine-Class fighter that had sat untouched for the past few months. He had planned to restore the antique fighter to it's original configuration, and to that end had even collected or replicated a number of out-of-date parts to replace damaged originals. They, too, sat untouched, scattered on the floor around the noble craft like disturbed bones around a corpse. It was a depressing sight to say the least, especially for a pilot.

In his life, Nat had been many things, had many less-than-desirable quirks and qualities - some might say 'character flaws'. One he had never had though was the inability to make decisions. He made up his mind quickly, easily, and didn't look back later and question himself. He lived in the past to much already without analyzing every choice he made after-the-fact. So it was perplexing to him how he had managed to procrastinate on such a simple choice for such an extended period of time. Yet so often he had come here and stared at the ship as if waiting for it to provide him with the answer, and time and again he ended up back at the same damned dilemma.

After briefly looking for Hawk the old fashioned way, Lieutenant Vance Devloch had given up and asked the computer for his location.

“There you are,” exclaimed Vance as he entered the cargo bay. “You are not an easy person to find.” he commented, still wearing civilian clothing with his gig bag over his shoulder.

Looking up at Vance, Nat was tempted to ask if he could get that on record to forward to the ever-worried black shirts at Starfleet Intelligence.

“I doubt you'll be surprised by this,” Vance went on, “but the XO asked me to stick around as Chief Engineer, and I took the liberty of pulling a few strings with medical to make sure they don't screw this up.” Pausing for a moment, Devloch then continued. “Anyway, I just thought you might want to celebrate with me.” Suiting actions to words Vance pulled a bottle out of his bag.

Eyeing the bottle, Nat sighed and turned his attention back to the Peregrine, “Never thought I'd see the day I'd be sayin' this, but… I don't drink.” he told Vance, the words coming out like an embarrassed admission. It was the first time he had actually owned up to his sobriety despite the fact that with one note worthy exception, he hadn't had a drink since Sigma Omicron V.

“Well that's unexpected,” Vance said with a sigh, replacing the bottle inside his bag. “That's one more thing down on my list of things I hadn't expected to ever hear. Damn, and I am already over quota on flying solo.” he commented. After a moment, he said something Hawk had never expected to hear. “Some tea perhaps?” Vance asked as he pulled out a thermos and a small ornamental box of green tea. “It's the good stuff, earth grown.”

“Tea?” Nat echoed, looking at Vance as if he had just suggesting drinking plasma coolant, “I ain't that far gone yet,” he said with a grin and a chuckle. Pushing himself to his feet, he pulled out his trusty old flask from within the gray engineer's jump-suit he wore (he had quickly grown tired of looking like a walking banana in the standard regulation gold versions and replicated this one to his own specs) and stepped over towards Vance. “May only be synthehol, but it's better n'tea.” Nat remarked.

“Synthehol?” Vance repeated this time, a similar look on his face to the one Nat had just given him. “I also drink seltzer when I want soda, eat rice crackers when I want chocolate, chew gum when I want to smoke, and listen to a Vulcan Lyre when I want Klingon Opera.” Vance said, the sarcasm so thick you could hit it with a shuttle. “Thanks, I'll stick to tea. I like tea. Anyway, what's up?” he questioned with a glance around the bay.

Returning the flask to the inside pocket of his jump-suit, Nat sighed lightly with a hint of frustration and nodded towards the Peregrine. “She's drivin' me crazy. Keep goin' back n'forth on what ta do with 'er.” he explained, figuring Vance would understand if anyone would.

“Well… what are you options?” Vance asked as he sat down on the floor and started preparing his tea. Nat tried not to gag at the smell of the stuff as he launched into the details of his dilemma.

“Well, I can either restore 'er ta prototype specs an make 'er a museum piece…or…refit 'er an customize ta the teeth an maybe get some use outta the old girl.” Nat told him. “Trouble is any time I decide one way 'er another, b'fore I get started, I wonder if I'm doin' the right thing.” he explained as he paced towards the fighter. “I mean, she's a fighter - designed fer that, best at that - so part a me wants ta make 'er the best she can be. Other side though, she's a prototype - rare as can be - so then I think maybe she deserves ta be on a pedestal, so everybody else can see what the class was meant fer.” Sighing again, he slumped down to the floor, his back against the subject of his frustrations.

“Well it's yours, so you really ought to do what's best for you, not what's best for everyone else.” Vance said after brief consideration. “Also, you might want to think about the fighter itself. A thing should be used for it's intended purpose. A fighter should fly - should fight. They can put a replica on display if anyone wants to. That being said…It's your ship. You can do what you want with it. Though I'll gladly help you with either choice - you've got to make it.” Devloch proclaimed.

Neither one said anything for a long moment as each considered the situation. Vance then poured some tea into one of the tumblers intended for the nameless booze before offering a third alternative. “We could always just sit here and admire it.”

Nat snorted, almost laughing, as he retorted, “Been doin' that fer months already.” Shaking his head, he looked to Vance. “What would you do?” he asked.

“Well, since I basically can't fly it, I would make it into a museum piece. Or maybe a modern art expression of how I can no longer fly. Somehow shackling it's form to the ground, with weights and heavy imagery.” Vance said, delivering the last bit with powerfully maudlin sarcasm and finally, a smile. “If - like you - I could fly it? I would do my best to get every single G out of it and make it into the pinnacle of small craft of destruction that it should be.”

Nat considered what Vance had said for a moment as he climbed to his feet again and looked over the battered hulk.

“Well I ain't no artist, that's fer sure. An I can fly her - if I get 'er space worthy again…” he said, as his mind began to consider the various possibilities. Once again though, he felt the considerable weight of his decision slam home on him and stopped. “I dunno,” he stated, once more unsure, “feels like I'd be… I dunno, paintin' over the Mona Lisa 'er somethin', ya know?”

“Not really. The Mona Lisa was made to just sit there. This was made to soar,” Vance said with a glint in his eye as he took a sip of his tea. “Let it feel the true freedom of vacuum once again.”

Looking at Devloch with bemused accusation in his eyes, Nat quoted the engineer back to himself, “ 'feel the true freedom of vacuum once again'? Sure ya didn't Irish-up that tea?”

“Naw,” Said Vance with a sigh. “I'm just stuck with a poets soul, a pilots heart, and an engineer's job. Poetic Irish style maudlin verse comes with the territory.” Trying to change the subject, he asked, “Are you sure you don't want some tea?” Asked Vance. “It's really quite good.”

“Heh,” Nat laughed, “it's nice ta have somebody normal aboard fer a change. 'N by normal I mean totally abnormal a'course.”

“I have absolutely no idea what your talking about.” Vance said, somehow maintaining a straight face. “Now, I've been thinking. We could probably boost the acceleration considerably. I've had an antimatter afterburner design floating in the back of my mind for a while.”

Nat didn't bother to point out to Vance that technically, he hadn't said what he was going to do with the old Peregrine. He hadn't had to. Vance was a pilot at heart, whether or not his flight status had been revoked. A kindred soul of the same mold as Hawk himself. As much as he loved the Republic and trusted in his friends, it had been quite a while since he'd had someone to just shoot the breeze with.

“Well what goods it gonna do in yer head?” Hawk asked. Gesturing to an assortment of parts and equipment on the far side of the bay, he added, “There should be a PADD over n'that pile somewheres. Lets get ta work.”

Chapter 20: The Long Road AheadTop

Location: “The Hill”, Ten forward lounge, deck 10, USS Republic

Reia sat in the far corner of Ten Forward looking at the stars as her ears still rang with the conversation she had with Captain Roth a short while ago. Reia took of a sip of her sukeroot tea, hoping it would ease her mind as it did when her grandmother would give it to her as a child. However, the taste of the tea no longer seemed sweet to her, and instead, tasted bitter with the echoes of the conversation still fresh in her mind.

“I've looked over your record, lieutenant, and everything in the Starfleet databanks about the incident at the Torga V power station four years ago. What concerns me is what your commanding officer, Captain Sanders, said to you about the incident.” Roth read aloud from a PADD “…It's terrible to hear the news of a death of someone under command, and I am sure it's harder for young Lieutenant Merrick since this is her first command in an away mission. However, I can't help but wonder about the rumors of a relationship between Ensign Douglas and the Lieutenant, and my gut says that something else happened at that station that only Merrick knows about, but refuses to report…”

Roth stopped reading and looked at Reia. “It has more to say here, but I'm sure you know what's going though my mind… Why would Captain Sanders put this in his report unless he had no doubt that you were hiding something?”

“If Captain Sanders' suspicions were correct in his report, then this would not be the first time you have withheld information from your commanding officer,” Roth looked at Reia. “If you truly want to stay on board my ship, then I need to know from here on out that there are no secrets.” Roth emphasized the last three words of the sentence.

Reia wasn't sure how to respond to Roth's ultimatum, knowing that her career and a promise she made long ago was on the line now. “Have you ever been in love with someone you would sacrifice everything for just to touch them one more time?” She closed her eyes for a moment while holding back the tears. “That's why I cannot speak on this matter, captain.”

Roth considered the half-trill for a moment, “I'm not sure what you expect me to say, Lieutenant. You're asking me to trust you. You're asking everyone on this ship to trust you. Yet, you're not providing any reason to do so.” she summarized. “Normally, I don't question the word of a fellow Starfleet Officer, and if you gave it to me that I could trust you from now on, I might accept that under other circumstances. But you've already broken your word. You did so the moment you set forth on my ship and withheld vital information from myself and my senior staff. How do you expect me to have faith in it's veracity now?”

“I… I had a relationship. A serious relationship with Ensign Douglas.” a tear rolled down her cheek “I still have the engagement ring that he gave me a few days before the incident. I didn't want the official record to show that he… that he…” She paused for a moment not sure if she wanted to continue “I'm sorry Captain, I just can't.”

Leaning forward against her desk, Roth looked upon Merrick. Although she felt pity, she had to know for sure that she could trust the young woman. She couldn't put the lives of her crew at further risk by exposing them to someone she couldn't trust. “I'm not seeking to amend the record, Lieutenant. And under other circumstances, I wouldn't push the issue, especially considering how much this appears to be personal rather than professional. But I need something from you. Even if it's off the record. I need you to demonstrate that I can trust you. If I'm to take a leap of faith with you, I need YOU to meet me half-way. Whatever it is, presuming it's not criminal on your part, will stay between you and I.”

“What I failed to report… was that Ensign Douglas shot me with his hand phaser… I was planning to be the one to enter the reactor room. I was in charge, and it was my intention to be the one to die, not him,” Reia tried to hold back her tears as she recalled the event. “I didn't want Starfleet to view his death as a mutiny, and I didn't want his official record and his family to remember him as someone who had betrayed his orders…”

Stunned into silence, Roth bowed her head for a moment before turning her gaze back to the lieutenant. Reaching across her desk, she placed her hand upon Merrick's in a support, hoping to affirm the conviction of what she said next, “I'm truly sorry, Lieutenant. Both for your loss, and for pressing the matter. I can understand your reluctance to share those particular details, and in such a case, Captain or not, I do understand that decision.” Roth told her, looking off for a moment, back in time to a part of her own past. Folding her hands together on top of her desk, she sat up a little straighter as she spoke again. “There are some times when we have valid reasons to keep secrets, Lieutenant. Very few,” she told Merrick. “In professional matters - even personal ones that cross into the professional - I expect, and will not tolerate anything less, than the absolute truth. Whether or not personal details become part of the official record is something to deal with on a case-by-case basis; in scenarios such as what you've just told me. What's important is that they not be held back, because as painful as it may be to share them, it may be the difference between life and death. Not just of you or me, but of everyone aboard this ship. Do you understand?”

“I perfectly understand, Captain. At least, I do now. That's why I came forward with the information this morning about why I was assigned here.” Reia looked into Captain Roth's eyes admitting her sins. “I couldn't live with myself after what happen to Ensign Kuga. I feel somewhat responsible for what happened to her, but I was too consumed with Admiral Ross and his orders to come forward sooner.”

Roth nodded sympathetically, “Believe me, Lieutenant, I understand your dilemma. Admiral Ross does outrank me, and on the record, you were only following his orders. Off the record though, Admiral Ross is not aboard this ship. He's not your commanding officer - I am. If that is to remain so, I expect the whole truth and the complete truth from you from now on. Is that clear?”

Reia nodded in reply. “Yes Ma'am.”

“I want this to work, Lieutenant,” Roth offered. “You're a good officer - you just fell into an age-old pitfall… 'Only following orders'. That said… you've got a lot of work ahead of you. You may have provided me with a foundation on which to rebuild my trust in you, but the rest of the crew is another matter. It won't be easy, but most things worthwhile in life never are. I hope you're up to it. Dismissed.”

Time seemed to have slowed down for Reia as she finished her tea, Unfortunately, it hadn't bought her the piece of mind she was hoping it would. She stood up and headed out of Ten Forward and proceeded towards the turbo-lift to her cabin, still thinking about the conversation in the Captain's ready room. As Reia entered her cabin, she walked over to her desk and pulled out a small black box. As she opened it, she looked at the ring with a brief smile while a few tears rolled down her face. She knew from this point on that she had a long road ahead of her, and regaining the trust of this crew would be a challenge. Reia put away the ring, only to have a picture of her previous shipmates from the USS Malinche catch her eye. She picked up the photo and analyzed it for a moment, trying to forget the recent memories to remember the old ones. However, no matter how long she stared at the photo, the conversation with Roth still echoed in her mind. Reia paced around the room attempting to find a way to ease her mind. Finally, it hit her: Something she hadn't done since she lived on Earth. She proceeded out of her cabin to the turbo-lift. “Deck eleven.” She ordered as the hum from the lift drifted her mind back to an earlier moment in her life.

Reia approached the holodeck doors, and with a few inputs into the console, she entered the holodeck to find herself behind home plate in a small baseball field. “Computer, add a aluminum bat and medium size batting helmet.” Within a few nano seconds, the objects appeared next to Reia. She put on the helmet, and with a firm grip on the bat, she looked at the mound. “Computer add a softball pitcher, top speed one hundred kph.” Reia squeezed the handle of the bat a few times trying to find the swing grip as she waited for the pitch. The pitcher moved her arms in a circle, winding her pitch. Her program randomly selected through a series of computer calculations, and with a speed of 80 kph, the pitcher released the ball towards Reia. The pitch was thrown.

Within that second, Reia recalled the final part of the conversation with Captain Roth as she swung her bat with all of her skill and hit the ball. She watched the ball fly into the outfield, dropping the bat to the ground. A pain in her left elbow shot through her as an old athletic wound reopened. Despite the pain, she closed her eyes, taking in the atmosphere of the ball field. It felt good to be there once again.

Location: Chief science officer's quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

Lieutenant Cha'rik was studying the data from the nebula closely. After all, she would need to pull out any of the information necessary in case someone asked her, even though she wasn't a scientist. She was a warrior.

She was still having trouble keeping her mind in control of her emotions. She wasn't about to let herself break down and go through and give her position away. Even though the immediate threat was gone, there was something still wrong. Call it a gut instinct or not, but she had grown used to the feeling after the many years that she spent hiding from different organizations and different assassins.

Now that she was here to protect someone that she particularly didn't see the point too, she realized that it was her chance to hide from the other organization that was doing a damn good job keeping the fingers pointing between Section 31 and Starfleet Intelligence. She wanted to know more about it, but she knew that the more that she inquired about it, the more that she would be giving away her position.

After the meeting with the Captain, she really would have liked to come out in the open about who she was so that she didn't have to do the impersonation anymore, but she couldn't risk the wrong person finding out about that. She would hopefully be gone off of the ship once she found the hired assassin out for her target.

On another PADD next to the one that she was currently studying was the crew reports again. She made sure that she kept a close eye on everything. Even the slightest hint of problems could show her where to start looking for the said assassin.

Luck had never been on her side, but so far, she was doing pretty well compared to everything going on. Beauvais made her life quite difficult. The only way that she could go through and get what information she needed was tap into the Chief's security information. However, Beauvais had learned a long time ago how to keep things quiet if need be. They were both war heroes and if she could feel the pain, it pained her to do what she was doing to one of her own. However, she didn't have emotions, and she needed to get this job done.

Soon, hopefully answers would come apparent, but now to the focus of the Ash'aar Nebula.

Location: AR-558
Timeframe: Six years ago, during the Dominion War

Phaser blasts could be heard across the horizon and in the immediate area punching into the darkness of the night. Each volley that came across their defenses, they had one to return. However, against the Jem'Hadar, they were far and few between.

They had been losing far too many of their own, and now they were fighting for their lives again. Not only did they need to keep the array in Federation hands, they needed to keep themselves protected against the Houdini's that had made their way into their camp.

This time, they had made their way into their side of the camp. There weren't that many soldiers, but as she fought hard to keep her ground, she looked to her left as she thought that she saw something moving out of the corner of her eye. Just as she looked, she became on the receiving end of blunt force from a rifle. Fighting back, she felt herself get hit many different times but she didn't take them into account.

Next thing that she realized was a cool sensation flowing down her chest and falling backwards. As she looked up as she fell, she could see the soldier she was fighting fall as well, but another one standing behind him. She aimed her rifle the best that she could and fired. Even though her aim was crap, she managed to kill the soldier, ending the battle for this evening.

She struggled to move, but as she tried, an officer was standing over her pinning her down hard. She looked at his hands on her chest and could see the blood flowing through his fingers. As she started to get lightheaded, all she could hear was them ordering her to stay alive.

She fought hard to stay conscious but between the painkillers they were giving her, the pain, and the loss of blood, she felt as if she was slipping forever.

Location: Lieutenant Beauvais' quarters, deck 8, USS Republic
Timeframe: Present day

She woke up with a start clutching her chest. Looking down, she realized it was just the nightmare again that she suffered from time to time. Breathing heavily, she wiped the tears and sweat from her face and reached for the glass of water that she always had on the bedside table. Drinking it all down in one gulp, she started to take deep breaths. It wasn't the fact that the nightmare had been real, but it still plagued her and haunted her to this day.

Rubbing her hand over the scar, she got up from bed and headed over to the sink. The brilliant colors of the nebula cascaded and danced across the floor providing the necessary illumination. Turning on the faucet, cool water started to rush forth. Cupping her hands, she took up the water and splashed it on her face. As she looked at herself in the mirror, even though there was the brilliant Ash'aar nebula staring her back, all she could see was that fateful night at AR-558. Shutting her eyes momentarily and muttering to herself, she reopened them and looked back only seeing the nebula. She breathed a sigh of relief and tried to head back to bed for the rest of the night, even though she knew it was a fateful attempt and a waste of time after the nightmare that she personally lived those few years ago.

Location, Holodeck 3, deck 12, USS Republic

Cha'rik had made her way with her beautiful Sha'riens to the holodeck. She was getting stir crazy and couldn't take it anymore. Not only did she find the science field flat, her target was fine for the mean time. Everything was quiet for the most part on the home front. As she entered the holodeck, the light penetrated her tight black work-out fit. It was time to work off some of the aggression that was building up inside her. The kohl-tor was doing its best to keep her calm, but from time to time, it no longer worked.

When she was a younger Vulcan and more naïve, she didn't spend her time working on the kolinahr like the rest of the young Vulcans did. This forced her to leave Vulcan at a very young age. After many years of fighting and learning herself, she finally completed the kolinahr, but not to its complete success.

She walked to the console and inserted a chip with one of her training programs on it. She had to be careful not to let her true persona come out. With enough security encryption, no one would know what she had been working on here in the holodeck. The program self-initialized shimmering in a few fighters and then to the barren scenery reminiscent of Vulcan. She always felt better fighting in her natural environment. It was a harsh environment and it conditioned her to be ready and able for anything that was thrown at her. She didn't just receive perfect conditioning from living on Vulcan, but going through Starfleet Intelligence and the Marines.

Entering between the fighters, they came to life and readied their weapons for a full attack. She pulled the two short ceremonial swords from their resting place on her back and stood in defensive waiting for them to come closer. Once they came within range, she moved from her stoic position to an attacking stance and then gracefully danced among them slaughtering them down one by one. Her fighting techniques though refined over the many years she had been fighting were enhanced when she had been assimilated by the Borg. Their massive amounts of information both offensive, defensive, cultural was a golden database for anthropologist or anyone else that cared about that stuff. She used it for bettering herself and her fighting techniques. The more unique she fought, the better she had the upper hand in battle.

It didn't take long for the first round of failed contestants to disappear back into the holodeck buffer. Another set shimmered into the arena and then immediately came to life. These rounds continued until she was left with one last component. Sweat beaded off of her green-tinted skin from the intense workout that she was forcing her way through. As she brought her swords across the neck of the soldier, a chime could be heard. She finished killing him and tapped her communicator.

“Cha'rik here.”

“We have the latest sensor readings of the nebula as you requested, Ma'am,” came through.

“Wonderful. I will be there momentarily.”

She walked back over to the control console, removed the chip and cleared the memory of the program there. The foreign environment shimmered back to the black and yellow tiling. She then sheathed her swords and walked out of the holodeck back to her quarters to clean up before heading back to the mundane of the Science Department.

Chapter 21: Eye of the CarterTop

Dim colored lighting permeated the crowded room as conversation mixed with music reverberated in the air. Over a hundred people shared the space, some seated at round wooden tables towards the back and sides, and others on a clean white dance floor situated in front of a stage where a three-man band played. The attire of everyone in the room was unique at the very least, with some females in miniskirts, and others in long denim jeans or slacks with wide, loose-fitting hems around the ankles. Equally unique was the male portion of the crowd, many wearing half-buttoned V-neck shirts, and boasting ample gold jewelry around their necks. With respect to hair, both men and women wore outlandish styles upon their heads, usually of the long shoulder-length variety, or for those with more wooly textured hair, large cloud-shaped “fro” styles with small, tightly coiled strands. The melodies emanating from the musical group was a combination of rhythm guitar, bass, and electro-acoustic keyboard, and the crowded dance floor responded to the rhythmic tones with slow, bobbing gyrations of the hips, arms, and legs in a four-step pattern under the sparkling light of a mirror ball.

“Come on, Leon,” a serene, feminine voice spoke above the noise of the crowd.

Doctor Cromwell sat at one of the tables in the audience wearing his usual ivory turtleneck sweater. He was clearly uncomfortable where he sat, with arms folded, and an almost sulky if not embarrassed expression on his face. “I'm sorry, Susan,” he replied shaking his head. “I'm just not the best dancer.”

“Please?” the voice pleaded in return. The request came from a handsome woman in her thirties, with dark, almost ebony skin. Her long, flowing hair was jet black, and was a stark contrast to the sapphire blue eyes brimming with energy and intrigue. When she smiled, a set of brilliant white teeth showed off a pleasant, friendly demeanor. Thin, yet not petite, this young lady wore an outfit that rivaled the exotic attire of the dance crowd; long, bell-bottomed polyester slacks with a loose-fitting, sequin-covered chiffon blouse, complete with a pair of open-toed platform shoes.

“Look, why don't you just program a holographic dance partner?”

“Because,” she emphasized. “We're supposed to be doing things that each of us like. We went to the Brahams concert at The Hill last week, now this week, we do what *I* want.”

“I'm just not sure if this is something I can do.”

Susan's expression turned to frustration. She had been planning this special trip to the holodeck for over a week, and Leon promised to join her. However, Susan had detected a change in Leon's demeanor from when they dated on the Bremerton over two years ago. Back then, he smiled more, was the life of the party, and much more adventurous to try new things such as an anachronistic holo-program. Unfortunately, since she reunited with him aboard Republic during the last crew rotation, Susan found Leon to be much more sullen and moody, not to mention withdrawn; a hollow shell of his former self and much less fun to be around. She opened her mouth to ask what was the matter, but was cutoff by the pneumatic grinding of the holodeck's door.

With the hallway light pouring into the dimly lit room, Susan and Leon shaded their eyes to see a single figure walk into the space. It was only when the door closed that they were able to make out the face of Doctor Bashir.

“Here you are, doctor,” declared Julian in a chipper, upbeat British-accented voice. “I've been looking all over for you.” The announcement seemed almost a facsimile, barely hiding a personal motivation to mend recently soured relations with Doctor Cromwell. For his part, Leon acknowledged Bashir by turning back around to Susan with a silent 'here-we-go-again' expression complete with a sigh, raised eyebrows, and rolling eyes.

Susan took note.

“Interesting program you've got here,” Julian commented, placing his hands on his hips. He took in the strange surroundings, nodding in approval. “We have something from a similar time period on the station. It's a holo-suite program called 'Vics'.”

For the first time since she entered the holodeck this evening, Susan broke a smile. Julian's upbeat mood was a stark contrast from Leon's downcast deportment, and although she uploaded this program for only herself and Doctor Cromwell, her companion's current frame of mind put a damper on their date. Doctor Bashir's arrival, though unannounced, made the atmosphere much more relaxed and to her liking, and a sly thought entered her head: It had been nearly an hour since she began attempting to coax Leon from the table for a simple dance, and she was getting nowhere. While she wasn't one to promote partner-swapping during a dance, her feet had been eager to hit the floor all night, and she would be damned if she left without doing at least one number.

With a grin and twinkle in her eye, Susan stood up, and to Leon's surprise, bluntly asked Doctor Bashir the question, “Would you care to dance?”

“And interactive too!” Julian observed, apparently assuming that Susan's attire made her one of the holodeck characters rather than a flesh-and-blood person. “Nicely done!”

Leon glared directly at Susan with a 'don't-you-dare' look in his eye. Susan, however, felt that Leon needed to be taught a lesson about how to treat woman on a date, and as she led Julian away from the table, smirked back in Leon's direction before they faded towards the front of the room.

As the two walked onto the dance floor, the crowd, by program, parted to make room. The band, which was in the middle of a funk-inspired instrumental, began a new song that included an undulating strumming from the lead guitar, accompanied by a percussion-based background symphonic reminiscent of a funk/soul combination. With the drums playing in a steady, four-to-the-floor beat, Susan began a rhythmic twisting of her hips and legs while simultaneously moving her arms and torso to the music. She started to take in-and-out steps as the tempo flowed, all the while keeping her eyes on Doctor Bashir.

Julian smiled at the unusual motions, but understood that as Susan looked at him, and the crowd began to form a circle around them, that he was expected to explore some moves of his own. In response to Susan, albeit less graceful, the doctor from Deep Space Nine began to mimic the woman's cadence, and as he did, the band started into the vocal portion of their song. Their tones were unusually high for an all-male band, and their words nearly unrecognizable, yet their lyrics seemed to run in step with the music. As if on cue with the vocals, the white-tiled dance floor lit up and came alive with pulsating, colored patterns.

Throughout the rest of the number, Susan and Julian played a game of follow-the-leader, as Susan led the doctor through more and more complex steps of the California Hustle. The moves were very articulate, not to mention stimulating, as she drew her unsuspecting dance partner towards her, and then away. The crowd began to clap to the beat in approval of the duo, but as the music approached a climax, Susan started a solo of her own, leaving Julian to watch in awe as she synchronized her feet and body in a 48-beat sequence, and ending in a multiple-spin rumba that brought the house down. The crowd cheered as the band finished, and Doctor Bashir, grinning from ear to ear, joined in on the applause.

Only Leon remained stolid as he continued to sit, watching the spectacle with arms crossed and resentment welling.

Susan blushed and smiled while she took a few bows for the crowd, brushing her hair out her eyes each time. She was about to turn back to Julian, but the doctor from Deep Space Nine had already headed back towards Leon's table, apparently dismissing the dance – and Susan – as another holodeck performance that had completed it's programmed sequence for his amusement. Raising an eyebrow, Susan watched after him for a moment before following.

“So that's why you like this music, Doctor,” Julian remarked while strutting up to the table, slightly out of breath.

“Excuse me?” Leon replied, barely able to hide his vehemence.

“Well, I can't quite make out the lyrics, but I believe they just sung something about 'staying alive.' What was the name of this musical group?”

“Um,” Leon muttered, showing little interest in Julian's question. “The Beavers . . . or something like that.”

“No . . . the Bee Gees!” Susan emphasized with annoyance. “They're one of the musical legends of Earth's late twentieth century. They were at the forefront of the art of disco.”

Julian turned around to face Susan with surprise. “Art of . . . disco?”

“At least *someone* is showing an interest in my hobby,” remarked Susan with a glimmer in her eyes and shifting a glance towards Leon.

Doctor Cromwell wasn't amused.

“I'd better be getting back to the lab . . .” Susan concluded, realizing that maybe Leon needed some time to think over the evening's events.

Julian looked at a loss. “You're . . . leaving?” he asked with confusion. “But, you're a hologram!”

“Computer . . . end program,” Susan announced. With an electronic whisper, the discothèque around the trio disappeared, followed a moment later by Susan's obsolescent outfit that shimmered away into non-existence, revealing a standard ship-issue technician's jumpsuit with combadge. All that remained in the black-walled, yellow-matrixed holodeck was the table and chair that Leon was utilizing.

With an amused expression, Susan shook Julian's hand and introduced herself. “Doctor Susan Hayworth. Ship's oceanographer.”

As the realization began to dawn upon Doctor Bashir, a knot formed in his stomach, and he looked from Susan to Leon, then back to Susan again.

“I'll see you later Leon,” she said, walking up to Doctor Cromwell and offering a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for the dance, Doctor,” she smiled at the befuddled Julian before exiting the holodeck.

After the grinding sound of the doors subsided, a moment of silence accentuated the awkward social situation as Julian looked at the exit for several seconds after Susan left.

“I . . .” he turned to Leon. “I just stole your date . . .”

Leon did not answer with words; he only crossed his arms and forced a smile that conveyed disdain bordering on contempt. Julian received the message, and could only manage a few words of apology.

“I'm . . . I'm terribly sorry . . .”

The two doctors looked at one another while Julian tensely hoped for absolution. Unfortunately, Leon offered none, and continued to stare at him thus exacerbating the already gauche atmosphere. The moment was unbearable, and without further discourse, Julian yet again found himself exiting a room after having his hopes dashed to warm the icy waters between him and Doctor Cromwell.

As the doors to the holodeck opened, Leon closed his eyes and laid his head down on the table, letting out a lengthy sigh. He barely heard Julian's voice in the hallway outside saying “good evening, commander,” before the doors closed again.

'Blessed silence,' Leon thought to himself, his ears still ringing from the raucous chatter of the dance club. A moment passed where he slipped into a light slumber, but a soft foot shuffling and a muted cough woke the doctor with a start.

“Um . . . doc?”

Leon sat up with surprise in his eyes, and turned to see John Carter standing casually with arms behind his back.

“Is this what you do on your spare time? Sit in an empty holodeck?”

With surprise turning to a sour expression, Leon rubbed his forehead. “You caught me on a bad night,” he replied. “I usually sit in cargo bay three and talk to the storage modules . . .”

John snickered with a half-smile, recognizing the sarcasm in his friend's voice. Noting the table and chair, he changed the subject. “I assume you've been studying?”

“Studying?” Leon was again taken by surprise. “What do you think I am? A cadet?”

“Your bridge officer's test is in less than a week. I'd think you would be studying.”

“Look John, I've been reviewing my coursework from the past three months, and with the exception of Warp Physics, I'd say I'm doing fine. What's to worry?”

“Leon,” John's voice turned from light-hearted to stern. “The exam is more than a comprehensive final to the holodeck courses you've been taking. It'll test every . . .”

“I know! I know!” Doctor Cromwell rolled his eyes. “It'll test every fiber of in my psychological profile. Listen, why do you keep trying to scare me with that?”

“Because, it's the truth. A senior bridge officer has to know his own weaknesses, AND how to overcome them. Have you been running that old Starfleet simulation I told you to?”

“The Kobyashi Maru?” Leon asked. “Yes. At least three times. I gave up a month ago because I got as far as I could, and wasn't able to win.”

“Uh huh . . .” John remarked skeptically. “That tells me you haven't run it enough.”

“Something tells me you didn't come find me on your off duty hours to discuss my educational situation.”

“Actually, you're right.” John started to lightly tap the eye-patch over his left eye. “A deal's a deal. You promised me a prosthetic.”

“Didn't you keep your appointment with Doctor Yezbeck? He's our bionics expert. I'm only the regen specialist, and as a Martian, your metabolism doesn't respond to regen treatment very well.”

“As a matter of fact, I did keep my appointment. But, it didn't last long. He showed me a series of different prosthetics, and talked about how easy the procedure was.”


“But, YOU'RE my doctor. As capable as Saal is, I'd rather have you do it.”

“Why's that?”

“Well, the way I see it – if you'll excuse the pun – you were the one to fix me up when I lost my old eyeball, so I think it's only fair that you put in my new one.”

“I'm honored,” Leon replied with a touch of insincerity. “Do I have a choice?”

“Nope,” John stated with a smile.

With a resigned sigh, Leon acquiesced and looked down at the table, reflecting upon the night's events. “Well, my evening is shot anyway. Come on . . . Let's see if we can find an open exam room . . .”

Location: Deck 3, Officers Mess
Shiptime: 2200 hours

Zoe was sitting staring out the window. The nightmares were still plaguing her, especially after spending some time at DS9. There were a few familiar faces there, but primarily she didn't know why they were surfacing again. It happened from time to time that the nightmares would come but then sooner or later, they would just leave and disappear into the ether leaving her alone.

However, this was the longest bought of nightmares that she had. It primarily involved the injury she took while fighting there, then again there were a few others of her friends and crewmates dying to the hands of the Jem'Hadar. She struggled to actually sleep each night. She didn't want to go and talk to the doctors aboard. Since the injury, she tended to steer herself far clear of them. She had gotten her fill of doctors after getting injured, and then being the war veteran she was, the post traumatic problems that she had and had to remain in counseling.

She sipped the warm tea from the mug just hoping that tonight would be different and that she would be able to sleep. She tuned out all the other bustling noises in the mess and just let herself listen to the quiet part of her mind. She tried to focus just on the stars and the nebula out there in front of them, but the thoughts of nightmares kept trying to creep back into the front of all her thoughts. Spending her energy to quiet her mind, she nearly jumped when someone came up and touched her shoulder.

“Excuse me, lieutenant?” the newcomer asked in a smooth, familiar British accent. As Zoe turned around, her eyes fell upon a familiar face. Doctor Julian Bashir, chief medical officer of Deep Space Nine, was standing next to her with an expression of puzzlement. “I don't mean to intrude, but I've a strange feeling that you and I have met sometime in the past. I hope that you'll forgive my memory?”

“AR-558, you were part of the team that came from DS9 to resupply the outpost when things went south.”

“I thought you looked familiar!” Julian replied, his eyes widening with recognition. “That was several years ago, and I've wondered how everyone else has made out since. How've you been?”

She thought quietly for a moment. She didn't quite feel comfortable talking about the nightmares that she had been suffering, but then again, maybe this was something that she needed to get off of her chest, and he was a doctor after all. “Physical therapy for my shoulder, extensive counseling for the PSTD and the nightmares which lately have decided to resurface.”

Julian listened with interest, nodding in comprehension, empathizing with the trauma she had endured since those fateful days at the outpost. AR-558 was perhaps one of the most heinous places in the war, and the fact that he, along with Sisko, Ezri, Quark and Nog, were able to make it out alive was a near miracle. However, what was often overlooked in the written history of that war was that several others had made it out of there alive along with the Deep Space Nine officers. Julian never overlooked that fact, and the pain suffered by others who had survived death must have been even greater than his; for many had been there even longer.

“So in the end it could be better. I've personally seen a lot of carnage, but getting injured myself makes the carnage real and too horrible to just forget.”

Julian followed Zoe's gaze out the viewport with a sullen expression. He could remember all too well the agony and terror of the Dominion war, and although the security officer's ghosts of the past still haunted her, it was a story he had heard countless times. Each time, the same problem arose: forgetting. Some tried to forget at the bottom of a bottle, others shaped their anger into blaming the other side for everything thus harboring a burning rage deep within, but each time the result was the same. In the end, those who tried to forget failed, and their souls were left drained and heart lifeless.

With a slight furrow in his brow, the doctor looked down in thought. “I know it may sound callous, but the truth is that you never forget.” He looked up again, directing his soft blue eyes towards the security officer. “It's all a part of you now, whether or not you want it to be. What matters now is how you learn to live with it.”

“Sometimes I wish that I could forget everything that I went through. However, I thought that I had come to terms with what I have been through. I didn't just go through the Dominion War but other things as well. It's just that the Dominion War sticks out most in my mind because of the injury I took.”

It hadn't occurred to Julian that Zoe was the victim of things worse than AR-558. Usually, the incident itself was enough to drive a human mind insane; away from Starfleet, and away from life. So, he assumed that since she was still wearing the uniform, that she was no run-of-the-mill officer. However, to have a person withstand the torture of the outpost-under-seige, and then stay in Starfleet only to endure even more horror was unthinkable. There must have been much more to this person than being simply tough-skinned. She obviously possessed an inner strength uncommon in normal people.

“What else besides the Dominion War did you participate in?” Julian asked.

“Second incursion of the Borg was the other 'campaign' I was apart of.”

The doctor remembered the incident a little over seven years ago. In fact, Worf had taken the Defiant into battle at Earth that day, and the Borg left the warship crippled in space and several of her crew dead. Again, as with AR-558, Julian knew that more than just Deep Space Nine officers were involved in the incident, but he had never talked with any before.

“Which ship did you serve on in the battle?”

“I was aboard the USS Thunderchild. We survived, just barely.”

'Wow,' thought Julian. 'Just like Defiant. Maybe she should talk to Worf.' He kept his inner voice to himself, listening to the lieutenant tell her story.

“The Borg were the reason why I joined Starfleet. It just took the Dominion War to determine my state of mind today. I have accepted what I went through, but acceptance isn't going to be enough here…”

“Why?” Julian spoke. The question came out quicker than his mind could gauge whether it was an appropriate query. Nevertheless, the damage, if any, had been done. And like his recent dealings with Doctor Cromwell, his stomach tightened as he wondered if he would have to endure a venomous tirade. However, from Julian's point of view, he had opened this particular Pandora's box, and the least he could do was see what was in it. “What will it take for you to move on?” he continued his line of questioning.

She thought quietly for a moment and then looked over to him. “See, I thought that I had fully accepted what I have gone through but with the nightmares still resurfacing and reliving that moment over and over, I just don't know what to do anymore.”

Julian raised an eyebrow. “Have the nightmares been away for a while, and just recently returned? Or have they occurred on a regular basis for the last several years?” His inquiry sounded diagnostic, but was not meant to be a professional analysis. “I ask,” he added. “Because if it's the latter, I'd say you've gone much longer than you should have without talking to a counselor. If it's the former, then you need to figure out what's changed in your life so dramatically so as to cause your nightmares to resurface. Either way, a professional psychotherapist can work wonders for PTSD.”

“They surface from time to time, but ever since I arrived on board I have been dealing with them again. It's just gotten worse the last few nights.”

“You're not alone, you know,” Julian reminded her. “Many, many veterans from the Dominion War and other conflicts have been through similar situations, and are still recovering from the emotional wounds. There's even some on this ship. Have you met Doctor Cromwell?”

“In passing.”

“According to his file, he was a POW in the Dominion War. While I don't know how he dealt with it, his experience must have been quite traumatic. Almost as bad as yours or mine. Perhaps sharing your thoughts with a fellow crewmate might help?”

She thought quietly for a moment. “I don't think that I am quite ready to be discussing such histories as I am new to the vessel and I don't know who all I can trust yet.”

“Oh yes,” Julian blushed slightly. “I suppose being new to a vessel makes it hard to trust people. But, I can personally assure you that the senior staff of this vessel have your best interests in mind.”

“I know.”

Doctor Bashir smiled. “You'll have to trust me on that. But look at it this way – after what you and I went through on AR-558, what would make me lie to you now?”

“True.” With that, she downed the rest of her drink and got up. “I have to get to my shift, Doctor. It was nice talking to you, and I may take you up on that offer to see someone about the nightmares.”

“Try to make it sooner rather than later,” Bashir added as Zoe walked away, causing her to pause and look back at him. “For your own personal happiness, if anything else. If we don't work to keep happiness in our lives, life can be a very dreary place.”

She nodded and left the messhall, heading to the bridge for her nightly shift.

Julian watched her as she left, admiring the lieutenant's physique. However, as the doors closed, he shook off the slight surge in hormones, realizing that she was much younger than him, and that he wasn't as flirtatious as he used to be. At least not since Jadzia passed away.

'Besides,' the doctor thought. 'I'm here for a reason, and it's not personal.' He sighed as he flagged down a waiter and ordered a nightcap.

Chapter 22: The Death of Lieutenant HawkTop

Watching the shadows play across the floor of the Observation Lounge as the Republic's position relative to the nearest star changing sifted slowly through the depths of Ash'aar nebula, a singular thought occurred to Lieutenant Nathan Hawk as his mind otherwise came up blank: I'm dead. Something else within his mind, another part of himself, answered: No. His subconscious maybe? What's it matter? Yer dead, he thought as something else, also dark and fluid of movement, yet not a shadow, entered the periphery of his vision. It crept slowly across the beige carpet, growing larger in every direction - but what was it? Blood, the other part of him replied once again. Blood? Who's bleeding? he asked himself. You are, the other part answered.

Something happened then, a memory, he remembered something. In image, no, a feeling? He wasn't sure. Whichever it was, it made him think of a knife, of pain. Had he stabbed someone? No, he told himself this time, not needing the other part of himself to do it. He had been stabbed, he remembered now. The darkness moving across the floor, the thing that wasn't a shadow - it was his own blood pooling on the carpet. Why didn't I know that? he asked himself with alarm. Cause yer in shock, the other him answered without delay. It made sense - or at least, he thought it did. If he had been stabbed though, why didn't he feel it? Shouldn't it hurt like he remembered, like he knew it should? Yer in shock, remember? Ya can't barely think, let alone feel, the other him said.

If I was stabbed, and I ain't dead, how come I'm just layin' here on the floor? he asked his other self. When no response came this time, he decided to find out. As he tried to remember how to move though, it occurred to him that you didn't move by thinking about it, but simply by doing it. So he did it. Bad idea, said his other self as he picked up his head. His vision swam, his head pounded, and pain coursed through his body all in the same instant. His head fell back upon the deck and his mind went blank again, his eyes closing for an instant/eternity. Forcing them open again, he saw the same scene before his eyes. Shadows, carpet, the conference lounge, and a pool of blood. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not, though.

This time when he tried to move once again, he was smart enough not to try to move his head. His hand seemed much less risky by comparison. Indeed, it didn't seem to cause offer any objections. It didn't accomplish anything though. He realized with a sense of dread that if he was going to actually do something other than lay here and bleed to death, he would have to try to really move. Not just a head or a hand, but everything, his whole self. I'm tellin' ya, that's a bad idea, warned his other self from deep in his mind. Something else though, yet another part of himself that had been silent up until now, conveyed a sense of defiance in response to the warning thought. Survival instinct, maybe? Move! he yelled at himself, drawing his focus back to the task at hand.

Fighting the pain, fighting his muscles, fighting for focus, fighting everything, he moved. He pushed himself up from the deck with his hands and arms. He drew his legs in underneath of himself, until he was on his knees. He braced himself against the bulkhead as he forced himself to his feet. The edges of his vision blurred and darkened, and he stumbled his first awkward step, keeping from falling only by his grip on the corner of the wall. He knew the door was there, ahead of him, but his obscured vision kept him from seeing it. He heard it though, or rather, maybe he felt the gentle whoosh of air instead? He didn't stop to give it enough thought to decide. One hand after the other clawing across the smooth finish of the cream colored bulkhead. One foot in front of the other, awkward and disjointed, across the traction carpet. As his vision cleared some, he saw finally the door the opened to the bridge.

The light from the bridge was darker than he thought it should be, until he remembered this was gamma shift. A few meters away, he saw a lithe humanoid body clad black with a Starfleet uniform. After another moment, he recognized from the form it was a female. Her collar and her hair the same color, lips full, eyes bright and expressive, attractive in a Starfleet sort of way. Beauvais, he realized, and as he did so, she turned to glance towards him, towards the sound of the door that had opened. Her eyes on him, her lips moved as she said something directed to him. He heard the sounds, the words, as she asked him with a subdued, friendly, professional smile if he had “Finally finished that conn report?” That's why he had been in the lounge, alone, he remembered now. He had been working on his conn report.

He wanted to call out to her, to ask her to help him, but he could not. He didn't know why, but he couldn't even seem to try to speak. As if he couldn't remember how. His eyes locked on Beauvais face, he watched as her expression slowly changed from professional friendly to first questioning, then briefly confusion, before finally to a mask of concern all within a second or two. “Lieutenant?” he heard her ask, prompting him for a reply, her voice sounding distant and faint. His mouth was so dry, he couldn't even make a simple sound. Watching Beauvais eyes, he saw them travel down along his uniform. He followed suit and looked down as well, to his left side and hip. The black of his uniform seemed… darker, somehow. Darker and wet, maybe? Putting his left hand to the his side, he pulled it back and found it coated red. Blood, he remembered. Looking back up at Beauvais, he could see she had realized the same thing.

Knowing that made it easy for him to accept what his body was saying, as he fell forward onto his knees. Beauvais was moving towards him now, her right hand moving to her combadge, everything moving so slowly now. Slower than even before. As the darkness claimed his vision again, threatening to claim him, he felt himself falling once more. Hitting the deck with a hard thud, he knew he had done everything he could. This battle could no longer be fought from the waking world, he somehow knew. At least not on his side of things. Feeling his body being moved, his head cradled, he couldn't help but hope that Leon wasn't the type to be groggy when he first woke up like most people where. He trusted his friend though, trusted him to do his best.

The last thing he knew as he allowed the darkness to overcome him was the sound of Beauvais voice, urgent and raised, as she called for an emergency transport for two to sickbay. Whether the sense of cold pins-and-needles he felt next was the transporter, or death, he wasn't sure he would ever know…

Location: Main sickbay, USS Republic
Shiptime: 02:21 hours

“Well, I guess no one will be calling you 'Cyclops' anymore,” remarked a sarcastic Leon.

“Okay, but, tell me again,” Carter asked while touching the area around his left eye, inspecting his near-perfect artificial reproduction of his natural eyeball. “why I can't have one of those fancy, multi-spectrum bionic eyes?”

The Republic's XO was seated in front of a medical mirror in exam room one, with Doctors Cromwell and Yezbeck standing behind him in light blue physician's jackets. Cromwell was using a tricorder and diagnostic wand to scan the ocular connections now connecting man and machine within Carter's head, while Yezbeck checked it's functional specifications against it's optimal settings on a PADD.

“It's a matter of compatibility, John,” Leon replied.

“You see,” interjected Yezbeck. “You had the luxury of growing up with a normal visual organ. Your brain has become accustom to a specific series of neural impulses from your organic eye. If we overloaded it with excess visual spectra that an enhanced prosthetic would provide, your system wouldn't be able to adjust.” the bearded physician explained. “Hell it's tough for even those who didn't ever have normal vision to accept all that data.”

In Republic's past, a change of pace was almost always preceded by an ominous blaring of the ship's comm system, or the warbling of an alert klaxon. Usually, there was some inkling as to the cause, whether it be the ship's status already being at condition yellow, or some thrashing of the hull signaling an enemy attack. Whenever such events occurred, the crew sprang into action, each knowing exactly where they had to be, and what they could be expecting next.

This was not one of those times, as the exam room's intercom came to life.

“Medical emergency! Doctor Cromwell to the main ward!”

Shooting Saal a perplexed expression, Leon immediately turned around and exited the exam room at a brisk pace. Before the doors could close, Yezbeck and Carter followed on heel's of the Republic's chief medical officer.

Of the two diagnostic beds in the main ward, a half-dozen medical crew were already huddled around the one closest to the door. A bright examination light beamed down onto the table where a single body lay immobile. However, as he approached, it wasn't the body that drew Leon's attention at first. It was one of the standing personnel, Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais. Her hands and uniform were stained a bright crimson red while her face betrayed an expression of horror and shock. Leon's stomach tightened in the realization that there were very few situations that could force such a reaction from a seasoned security officer. Looking down upon his patient, Leon felt as if he has just been shot with a phaser on heavy stun.

“Oh my god…” he gasped. In an instant, it was pushed aside as his instincts and training took control. “Get me a life support module!” Leon shouted. “Start a plasma infusion and 200cc's of ferrizone!”

As Yezbeck and Carter arrived at the table, both their eyes' widened with astonishment.

“Hawk…” John exclaimed.

“Activate internal scan!” Yezbeck ordered, turning around and running towards a wall-mounted computer console.

At the rear of the room, a pair of medical technicians rushed into the ward with a medical cart bearing a tetrahedral-shaped life support module. With scalpels, two nurses quickly cut off Nat's blood-drenched uniform, further staining the upholstery of both the bed and carpet, while accentuating the gravity of his injuries.

“Multiple stab wounds!” Leon announced over the clatter of medical alert chimes. “He's lost several liters of blood!” Working to seal and lock the life support module around Nat's body, Leon snatched an auto-suture from an offering hand and began to seal the hemorrhaging incisions. “Saal! What have you got?”

“The injuries have invaded the left side of the abdominal cavity from behind . . . directly through the eighth and ninth intercostals . . .” Yezbeck reported.

“Organ damage?” Cromwell questioned.

“The posterior mediastinum is nicked in six places . . .”

“I know that!” Leon shouted angrily. “I've got them! I need the organ damage!”

“Drop in blood pressure, doctor!” a nurse reported as another alarm joined the chorus.

“Increase arterial restriction . . . 15cc's of anasipulum!”

“Posterior lacerations of the left renal papilla and minor calyx!” Yezbeck finally said.

“Kidney damage. We can deal with that. What else?” he demanded harshly.

“Three perforations of the lower pulmonary lobe . . . looks like the diaphragm too . . . he's in bad shape . . .” Yezbeck commented, instantly wishing he hadn't.

“I'm getting a lot of bleeding from the diaphragm,” Leon stressed, his forearms turning a deep red as he worked. “Any thoracic damage?”

“Yes,” Saal responded. “The thoracic cavity was penetrated . . . looks like his left ventricle was nicked . . .”

“Damn-it!” Leon cursed. “Put his cardiopulmonary system on full support . . .”

“Yes doctor.” replied one of the medics.

Anxious moments ticked by in an instant and an eternity without conversation or commentary as the medical staff worked at a dizzying pace to keep the Republic's helmsman alive. Despite his grave concern, Carter pulled Lieutenant Beauvais aside, whispering orders for her to contact the bridge and place the ship on security alert. As she retreated to a corner of sickbay to do so, Captain Kimberly Roth and Doctor Julian Bashir entered Sickbay. Although Julian offered his help, Leon didn't respond, too engrossed with the situation. Yezbeck motioned him over to the diagnostic console. For her part, the captain walked over to Carter and quietly whispered, “What happened?”

“It looks like Hawk was attacked,” Carter said quietly, keeping his attention focused on the scene unfolding. “It looks pretty bad.” the first officer admitted, dropping his voice to a whisper. “I had Beauvais sound intruder alert.”

As if a switch had been thrown, Hawk's eyes rolled back into his head, and blood began to trickle from the corner of his mouth a split second before his body became rigid and he began to convulse violently.

“What the hell?!” Leon exclaimed, drawing his hands away from the seeping wounds. “Did the thoraco-abdominal bundle get lacerated?” he demanded, as he and three others struggled to keep Hawk as still as possible.

“Negative!” Yezbeck replied. “I don't see any nerve damage!”

“Then what the hell is happening!?” Leon demanded.

“I'm not sure!” Yezbeck admitted, staring at the monitor. “I'm beginning a system-wide neurological scan!”

“I'm getting multiple muscular contractions all over his body,” Leon explained, dialing a few buttons on the life support module. “It's indicative of a blood-borne neurotoxin . . . administer 500 cc's of quadrantropine!” the ship's surgeon barked.

“Quadrantropine . . . . ” Saal whispered to himself, the word jogging a distant memory as he began a new diagnostic program.

“What are you doing?” Julian asked softly, standing at the console next to him.

“A toxicology analysis . . .” Yezbeck replied without turning his attention away from the console.

“Give me something Saal!” Leon demanded urgently.

“Standby . . .”

“Saal!” Leon shouted loudly. “What have you got?”

With alarm creeping into his voice, Doctor Yezbeck turned around to face Leon.

“Uh, there's a toxin in his system . . . it's exhibiting asynchronous isomerism . . .”

The two doctors locked stares as they both realized what the diagnosis meant. Only a molecularly engineered poison can undergo asynchronous isomerism. Designed to kill by changing their atomic configuration to different types of compounds so quickly that an antidote cannot be synthesized in time, they had a 97% mortality rate. The last time that either of them had encountered such a substance involved the agonizing death of a Starfleet captain. Their only drawback was the difficulty in producing them - something that had obviously been overcome in this instance.

“Pull up the Starfleet Medical database,” Leon said to Saal in a raspy voice. “Figure out how many permutations they found to the molecular structure and synthesize an antidote cocktail.”

“I'm on it,” Doctor Yezbeck obliged, turning back to the computer screen. “But its molecular weight is at ten to the sixth. There's no guarantee that Starfleet has figured out every single permutation.”

Several medical monitors turned from a wary yellow to an ominous red as a new set of alert signals sounded. Like a gunshot, everyone in the room jumped at the cascade of warning tones. Immediately, Doctor Cromwell dialed several commands into the life support module.

“Begin a cardiovascular purge!” Leon ordered, his nerves beginning to unravel.

Upon hearing the order, Julian's medical instincts disallowed him to be silent any longer. “He's in shock!” the Deep Space Nine doctor exclaimed. “He won't survive the transfusion!”

“We've got to try!” Leon countered. “Inject 100cc's of hemolyte!”

“The toxin has permeated his tissues!” Yezbeck explained without taking his eyes of the medical screen. “A CV purge won't do anything!”

“Stasis!” shouted Leon, scrambling for solutions. “We can put him in stasis! Ready a stasis locker!” he ordered to a nearby technician.

“The toxin's isomerism is too random!” Bashir pointed out. “If we put him in stasis, he'll die!”

For a moment, all of the alarms stopped. Sickbay became a deafening quiet for a split second. Then, as quickly as the silence had come, it was replaced by a single, constant, dreaded tone from the cardiac monitor. Flatline.

“Cardiac failure, doctor!” shouted a nurse, her voice wavering. “Life support systems are maintaining circulation, but the blood pressure is dropping again!”

Leon abandoned his current idea of stasis in lieu of the new emergency. “Alright!” he conceded. “Forget stasis! I'll work to keep his vital organs from shutting down. You two give me some sort of defense against this blasted toxin – stat!” Refocusing his efforts to the life support module, Doctor Cromwell's fingers danced across the control panel at a dizzying pace, revitalizing neural pathways as quickly as the toxin paralyzed them. Or at least trying to.

Doctors Bashir and Yezbeck stood at the diagnostic console, both working in tandem, and feverishly accessing the toxicology database - Julian going through them at five times the speed of most humans. With dozens of images of different chemicals and antitoxins displayed on the screen, Julian abruptly halted his part of the search, selected several new molecular configurations, and activated the medical replicator. As the hum of matter/energy conversion faded, a hypospray materialized in the small alcove of the wall-mounted medical dispensary. Julian collected the instrument, and as he did so, shot a glance towards Saal who gave him a quizzical look. Julian said nothing, and only nodded in affirmation that he had the correct dosage. Quickly, he moved to the diagnostic table and injected the hypospray into Nat's neck.

“What was in that?” Leon asked, trying not to be too distracted from his work on Nat's cardiac system.

“The antidote cocktail you asked for,” Julian replied. “There's still no guarantee it'll work . . .”

“I could use a little less pessimism right now, doctor.” Cromwell replied.

The edge to Leon's voice was less distinct than what Julian had been used to lately, and although he could have easily attributed it to Doctor Cromwell's intense focus on his patient, Bashir decided that was the closest to a 'thank you' that he was going to get from the man – especially with Mister Hawk's life hanging by a thread.

A moment passed where a nurse wiped the sweat from Leon's forehead. Slowly, the medical monitors showed improvement in Hawk's condition, as the a few of the red-colored screens returned to yellow.

“That's it!” a nurse exclaimed. “The antidote is working!”

No sooner were the words spoken than Nat began to convulse once more. His body thrashed within the life support module, and alarms sounded once more as the yellow monitors were forced back into a deep crimson.

“His entire nervous system is shutting down!” Leon exclaimed in shock. “I can't keep up with the toxin . . . there's just way too many permutations! They're impacting every neuron in his body.”

Without warning, Nat's body went rigid as every muscle contracted into an intense spasm. His mouth frothed, and his eyes rolled back into his head, his eye-lids fluttering, and as quickly as the grave symptoms emerged, his body went limp. For an instant it seemed the convulsions had passed. Then a single ragged breath escaped Hawk's lips, and the dreaded tone of a cardiac flatline returned.

“Cortical stimulators!” Doctor Cromwell ordered. “Set for 500 faradays!”

Twin electrodes were fastened to Lieutenant Hawk's forehead, and with a static snap, his body twitched before falling limp again.

“800 faradays!” Leon ordered again, and the same electronic sizzle sounded with minimal results. All medical monitors now registered a steady red light.

“Again!” the CMO shouted, with even less effect. He called for the stimulators two more times before ordering another adjustment. With each jolt, Hawk's body responded less.

“1000 faradays!” Leon barked, his voice filled with desperation and determination.

“Doctor-” Julian began to suggest softly.

“Now!” Leon cut him off.

The technician complied. It made no difference. The screens showed no change. Hawk's body remained perfectly immobile as the piercing wail of the alarms registered the obvious conclusion that hit like a photon torpedo.

It was over.

Everyone in the room stood where they were, staring in disbelief at either the steady red lines on the synaptic monitor or Hawk's bloodied and lifeless form. Some had tears welling in their eyes, while others seemed almost catatonic. No one spoke a word, for there could be no explaining the event which had just transpired. Seemingly out of nowhere, a healthy, functioning member of this crew was snatched away from them in less than a few minutes. For some, especially John Carter and Leon Cromwell, the shock ran even deeper: A human being they initially considered a troublesome burden in their lives – and who, over the course of only a few months had defied all logic by becoming a close comrade-in-arms – was gone.


Over half a minute passed where nobody moved, afraid to break the fleeting moment, clinging in vain to the hope that by some miracle Nathan Hawk would spring to life once more. They hoped that this was simply a nightmarish dream that would pass momentarily, that Nat would recover in a few days, and he would be making jokes in the officers mess next week, bringing the usual round of smiles to everybody's face as he always did.

But the miracle didn't come. Their hopes slowly evaporated like a lone puddle in a blistering desert, leaving behind an empty, desolate terrain in depths of their hearts. Only Julian seemed to muster the courage to perform a closing act, as he reached over and closed Nat's lifeless eyes.

The motion stirred a chaotic spark in Leon's consciousness. With his pupils pinpointed and jaw clenched, Doctor Cromwell's upper lip twitched ever so slightly as his anger, sorrow, and frustration were all funneled into a burning rage. In a second of sheer fury, his right hand formed a fist and exploded into a nearby medical cart, sending it flying across the room, and crashing into an empty biobed in the corner. With his knuckles bloodied, Leon spoke no words as he stumbled backwards from the bio-bed and stormed out of sickbay.

Leon did not stop as he brushed past Leah Warner in the entrance to Sickbay. Her face, a mask of concern and anxiety, turned to one of shock and horror at the sight before her. In the silence, it didn't seem real. It couldn't be real. She refused to accept it. She looked around at those gathered in Sickbay, expecting someone to do something, anything. For a long moment, no one did. Then, finally, someone did. A face she knew from reports, Julian Bashir, opened his mouth to speak. The words he spoke hit her like shockwaves.

“Time of death… 02:27 hours.”

Chapter 23: Flooding EmotionsTop

The hum of the turbo-lift and the alert siren pierced Reia's ears. 'Why? Why does it have to be now?' she kept asking herself 'I was having such a good dream too,' she sighed in disbelief. The turbo-lift doors opened up revealing the bridge; she took a few steps, noticing no other senior officers present. She gave herself a little slap on the face to wake her up a bit. 'Great. looks like I'm in charge,' she commented sarcastically to herself, walking towards the operation station.

“Status report, ensign.”

The ensign took a quick glance at the woman standing behind him only to confirm who he believed it to be. “Two minutes ago Lieutenant Beauvais called for an intruder alert when Lieutenant Hawk came stumbling out of the observation lounge. He seemed to be covered in blood. They both beamed directly to sickbay within a few seconds.”

“What steps have you taken so far?” inquired Reia, trying to get an idea what she should do next.

“All transporter rooms, cargo bays, and shuttle bays have been sealed and no crew members are reported in those sections of the ship. All security teams have reported in at their assigned stations.”

“Good. Shut power off on all transporter rooms, except for transporter room one. It's only to be used in the event of an emergency. Also, place a modulating one-twenty-eight terra-bit encryption on all security locks.” Reia turned to face the on duty security officer, “Has the observation lounge been sealed yet?”

The ensign hesitated a little in his reply, “Not yet Ma'am.”

“Then get on it ensign,” ordered Reia as her attention turned towards the command chair. 'Go ahead sit in it,' her alter-ego whispered in her mind. 'Not yet' she returned the with a counter thought, convincing herself that it's not her time. She turned her attention back to the ensign at ops. “Have you determined the means of how the intruder boarded the ship?”

“No ma'am, internal sensors did not register any weapons fire or transporter activity.”

Reia thought about the many different possibilities of how the intruder got on board. 'He didn't transport in, so was he on the ship since we left Deep Space Nine. Did he fool our sensors somehow?'

“Any traces of a warp signature or unusual anomalies within transporter range?”

“Nothing out there but the nebula, Ma'am.”

“Keep looking,” Reia ordered. After a moment, a thought passed through her mind. 'Did a ship dock without us knowing it?' Turning to the security officer, she asked, “have all airlocks been checked?”

“Decks one through fifteen have checked out, no sign of tampering or entry in sometime.”

'Damn. How the hell did he…' Reia's train of thought was derailed when the current on-duty operations officer interrupted her.

“A report from sickbay is coming in,” the ensign paused. “Lieutenant Nathan Hawk died at oh-two-twenty-seven hours.”

To all present, time itself came to a complete halt, and the bridge fell silent at the news of Hawk's death.

When it happened, Zoe was sitting behind the tactical station on the bridge, reviewing the reports from the day shift. She had exchanged few words with Hawk prior to him going to the observation lounge to work on his CONN report. She hadn't realized how much time had passed as she got lost in her routine tactical reports. Not only that, but her mind kept going back to what she and Doctor Bashir had discussed only hours before.

As she recalled, she had heard the door swish open to the side of her when Hawk emerged. “Finally finished that CONN report?” she remembered asking him obliviously as she looked back down to her own reports. When she glanced back up to look at him, she knew something was wrong.

“Lieutenant?” she remembered asking him again. She looked him over, trying to figure out what was going on. Zoe recalled the shock she felt when Hawk pulled his hand from his side and saw that it was covered in blood.

Her memory recalled the event as if it were in slow motion. She got up from her station as Hawk fell forward to his knees. She ran towards him, tapping her combadge. “Medical Emergency!”

Zoe remembered her heart sinking when Hawk fell completely to the deck. She cradled his head in her lap as she did a quick diagnostic. They didn't have time to wait for the medics to make it to the bridge, so she tapped her badge again. “Emergency transport! Two to sickbay!” she ordered.

When Zoe and Hawk arrived, she remembered looking around the room, noting that it was vacant due to the late hour. She tapped her badge again, “Medical Emergency! Doctor Cromwell to the main ward!”

Zoe's memory sped up after that when people started rushing into the room from the woodwork. She recalled backing away from the medical personnel who started to treat Hawk. Shock had taken over her body and mind. Her chest, arms, and hands were still covered in fresh blood. With her arms still positioned as if she was holding him, she continued to back away until she hit the wall. She couldn't believe what had happened. Not only for what happened or who it happened to, but that it had happened on her watch.

She recalled her mind racing to nothingness. There weren't any conscious thoughts… just the same scene that had happened on the bridge replaying over and over in her head. She remembered words and orders being shouted across the room. Even though she could hear what they said, she didn't remember understanding them, nor did she try to understand them.

When time started moving again, Zoe remembered watching from a distance at everyone rushing to and fro in sickbay. She recalled feeling someone pulling her aside. She felt someone whispering in her ear. She looked and saw that it was Commander Carter. She nodded at what she heard and moved to a secluded corner of sickbay.

“Beauvais to the bridge,” she remembered tapping her combadge again. “Place the ship on Red Alert. Sound intruder alert,” she ordered distantly. She was still in shock. In all her years, and in all the blood and gore she had seen throughout the different wars that she had partaken, nothing had prepared her for what had happened on this night.

She remembered the details of what the medical personnel were talking about, but it didn't sink in due to shock. She remembered finding a stool to sit down. She recalled committing herself to what had happened, vowing to gather all the information possible in order to find the person who had done this to Lieutenant Hawk. Suddenly, what had seemed like fleeting minutes, she memory echoed what Doctor Bashir called out into the room.

“Time of death… 02:27 hours.”

Now, as she sat in sickbay, guilt flooded past all the shock and horror that she had been frozen within. She could tell that people were starting to flood out of sickbay. One of the medical personnel came over to check her out before clearing her for duty. She headed out of sickbay in a catatonic state, heading to her quarters to clean herself up before starting the investigation into the horrific murder of Lieutenant Hawk.

As he recalled, the Counselor was already having a sleepless night. It began when his eyes had suddenly opened, realizing that he had lost his sense of time. He remembered getting to his feet from his meditative posture. With a slight tone of trepidation he had asked “Computer, what time is it?” He had been in such a predicament before, it almost made him late for his shift.

“The time is 00:00” he recalled the computer replying that first wakeful moment.

After that, Reittan recalled breathing a sigh of relief; he had only been unconscious for two hours. The first signs of that strange loss of consciousness while meditating happened after the attack on him, and his mind was still recuperating from the constant psychic vigil he had held.

Reittan remembered lazily slipping back into his bed, his Vulcan garb for meditating still wrapped around him. He recalled that he paused, looking down at the ceremonial attire, arose again, and retired the garment the clothes closet.

After that, as his memory had recorded it, the lieutenant commander's exposed skin had suddenly prickled, as if a chill had set in. The counselor remembered having the feeling of a passing thought before donning his regular blue, loose fitting sleeping attire, and returning to his bed.

Reittan remembered quickly descending into sleep after that, when strange images permeated his dreams. The last time Tolkath had such a dream was only a few days after his encounter with the unknown assailant. He recalled that the dream kept repeating in his head, like he was stuck in a temporal anomaly which played the same moment in time. Only that time, things were different. . .

Tolkath remembered every detail of the dream, like one who had seen the same play repeatedly the exact same way. This time, however, he was in a different room, but with the same assailant that had attacked him earlier. Reittan remembered sensing the attacker's presence; feeling the brush of the assailant's brain waves and the scent of the deviant's biorhythms. He remembered that they were pleased… too pleased. Something had happened aboard the ship and it wasn't good.

Tolkath recalled jerking himself awake, not sure whether the dream was real or just a shadow. He remembered that he had been sweating, which was a huge indicator that his body had been under an unusual amount of stress, for it was the only time he could perspire.

“Computer, time.” He remembered barking out in a raspy voice.

Then he recalled a sterile voice replying, “The time is 02:21 hours.”

He knew he had to do something, as he recalled, but wasn't sure what at that moment in time. He had quickly changed into his uniform and walked as quickly as he dared to the turbo lift. The doors had hissed open when he recalled coming face to face with a startled Ensign returning to her quarters. He remembered allowing her to pass, and then entered the turbolift himself.

When the doors closed behind him, Tolkath remembered that he couldn't, in his panic, decide where to go.

“Main Sickbay,” he recalled the thought coming to him vehemently. Even during the fiasco with Devenerux, the Doctors hadn't shied away from him like many of the other crewmembers; even when they were uneasy about what was happening.

Reittan wasn't even sure if he had told the turbolift where to go. He recalled that, upon reaching the correct level, the intruder alert had been sounded.

From his memory, he could tell from a distance that pandemonium had encased main sickbay. Monitors were lighting up everyones' faces. He remembered that they had looked fearful; the fear was thick enough that his empathic ability was drowning in it. He could recall Cromwell's voice barking out orders.

“But, who?” the Counselor remembered asking himself, straining his senses in vain to tell who it was. Reittan recalled taking off at a full sprint when he felt an individual's cognitive functions had disappeared.

Tolkath had entered the sickbay doors just in time to hear Doctor Bashir announce, “Time of death… 02:27 hours.” He remembered looking towards the operating table to see Lieutenant Hawk's body lying motionless. Now, as shock had quieted the room to a deathly silence, the counselor looked around at his compatriots, knowing tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Instinctively after the announced death of Hawk the Counselor had slipped outside of the medical facilities to not break the revered silence within the room and tapped his com badge.

“Tolkath to Devenerux.”

“Devenerux here”

“Prepare the counseling center for grief clients. We have just lost Lieutenant Hawk.”

The pause before the Lieutenant's reply signaled her shock.

“Right away, Sir.”

Tolkath knew that the majority those who would take advantage of the services would not know Hawk directly; many would come out of pure shock of the passing of one in command in such mysterious circumstances. Even though it was known that many die in the line of duty, it was the loss of a sense of safety that would shake the crew. Many were prepared for death during battle or missions, but to lose one of the senior officers so suddenly only added to the chaos since the sudden departure of the Republic from her dock at Deep Space nine.

Chapter 24: Life and DeathTop

Captain Kimberly Roth stood in stark contrast to the overly-sterile environment of the ship's morgue, her unkempt appearance the result of the emergency call that had awoken her from an unusually sound and dreamless sleep. Even though that emergency was now over, she could not yet bring herself to depart the confines of sickbay. So she stood a few meters back from the surgical autopsy bed at the rooms center, and considered the lifeless form there upon before her. She had of course lost people under her command before; no one who made it to captain could claim otherwise. This time felt different though. Which she supposed only made a sort of ironic sense, since the loss in this case had, himself, been different - to put it mildly.

Lieutenant Nathan Hawk was, at best, an enigma. One she knew she was far from making any sense of. He was an extreme on either end of the spectrum, and though by no means tamed, he had in recent times demonstrated a sense of control no one had expected. When her first officer had initially made the suggestion of appointing the rogue helmsman second officer, the concept of such a man being third in overall command of her ship was jarring. So much so that she had first believed John Carter to be kidding - at least, until she had heard his reasoning.

Even with Carter's advocation though, she had remained unsure until after Sigma Omicron V, when she had caught up with Hawk in the corridor in the aftermath. No one would ever know for sure what had lead to Hranok/Evok's certain death on planet. Hawk had offered up an explanation of course, but even though she tried never to doubt the word of a Starfleet officer, she had to admit to having had a shadow of a doubt as to whether it was the truth, or just Hawk's version of the truth. Still, she had learned three critical things about Nathan Hawk from that mission - he was dedicated to the Republic, he was a capable leader, and he was much more than met the eye.

In the end, that had been enough for Roth to trust her first officer's advice and her own instincts. In turn, Hawk had not made her doubt his decision ever since, even handling the first minutes of the final Kuga incident without error. He had truly begun to make some tiny sense of peace with his demons, it had seemed, and now…

Now, she was looking down upon his blood-stained corpse, constrained within a surgical stasis field to preserve the remains from the moment of death for autopsy.

For a moment, she questioned whether she had made the right decisions with regards to Hawk. If she had not appointed him second officer, he would not have been on-shift tonight, working alone in the observation lounge. Of course she knew logically that such made no difference. Hawk's assassin would have gotten to him one way or another, one place or time or another. It had only been a matter of time, she had known. So had Hawk, when he had fought so purposefully with his guardians at Starfleet Intelligence to stay here, aboard the Republic, in the wake of the revelation that the Syndicate knew of his survival and location.

That Hawk knew the dangers did not set her mind at ease, though. Perhaps she should have forced him to go? No, she knew well enough that Hawk was one of those people that could not truly be forced to do anything he did not wish to. If she had tried, she had no doubt that Hawk would have simply taken his survival upon himself alone and been at more substantial risk in the process. At least by remaining here, there was a chance at keeping him safe. Or so she had reasoned with herself. Now she was second guessing many choices she had made pertaining to Hawk, wondering if anything could have been done to avoid this.

“Bashir to Captain Roth,” sounded the accented voice of the visiting medical officer from Deep Space 9 over the comm-lines.

Pressing her communicator, Roth replied.

“If you have a moment, I have the report you asked for.” Bashir informed her.

“I'll be there momentarily, Doctor.” she signaled back. “Roth out.”

Turning away from the deceased helmsman, Roth exited silently into the narrow corridor linking the various sections of Sickbay. After a dozen meters, she stopped and passed through a set of doors into another section of corridor. Within the medical equivalent of an airlock, she would normally be scanned and decontaminated by a bio-filter beam, but such had been deactivated for this case. As the first set of doors closed, the second set before her opened. Entering the smaller isolation room, a smaller yet better equipped version of one of sickbay's standard exam rooms, she watched Bashir work for a moment before addressing him.

“Report.” she commands simply.

Bashir, clad in a crimson surgical gown from head to toe, doesn't bother to turn as he responds to her request for information as he continues to work on his patient.

“Lets just say that the odds are against us and the situation grim.” Bashir offered in response.

“That much I think we're all well aware of, Doctor,” replied Roth, “I'm more interested in specifics.”

“Can you finish?” Bashir asks, looking up across the surgical table at Doctor Saal Yezbeck, his only compatriot for the moment.

“Suuuuure, leave me to clean up your mess,” Yezbeck remarks, trying to lighten the tense atmosphere to no success.

Turning away from his patient, Bashir removes the surgical gloves and disposes of them before pushing back the hood of the surgical garment, his hair no better than Roth's own now, matted and slick with perspiration. Roth waits patiently as Bashir takes a moment to compose himself and his thoughts.

“To say that the situation is bleak would be an understatement,” Bashir begins. “The damage was extensive, of course, as you well know. We've been able to repair the wounds themselves, thankfully, but the cellular damage is another matter…”

“How bad?” Roth asked.

“I'm not sure, yet. For the moment, it's wait and see. The next twenty-four hours will be critical.” Bashir answered.

“Long term?”

“If there is a long term, the after-effects on a cellular level could be… problematic.” Bashir replied.

“Specifics, please, doctor.” Roth insisted.

“We could be looking at anything from as minor as a chronic nuisance condition to as serious as a long-term or even permanent disability of various sorts. It's far too soon to even venture a guess at this point.”

“What about cognitive function?” Roth queried.

“Hopefully, that brain should be the one area unaffected. The extreme measures taken should have offered enough protection.” Bashir said. “We did have some complications, though. We had to use nearly triple the dosages of cortolin, dexalin and lectrazine. Counter-acting the cellular necrosis was successful, but only by ninety-two percent. Organ regeneration was partly unsuccessful - we had to implant an artificial ventricular bypass - and metrazine therapy will be required for the immediate future. I'm even considering use of vasokin therapy as well, but at this point the risks associated are too great.”

“A colleague of mine has had substantial success with a vasokin derivative.” Yezbeck interjected.

“End result, Doctor,” Roth questioned, keeping Bashir on track.

Turning back to his patient, Bashir sighs as he says, “All of this may well have been in vain.”

Feeling the weight of Bashir's words, Roth herself approaches the patient. “If he doesn't survive, no one will ever know the difference. He'll have died hours ago, like the logs say he did. But if he pulls through… who ever tried to kill him is going to wish they never heard the name Nathan Hawk.”

Location: Observation lounge, deck 1, USS Republic

With arms crossed Zoe stood staring at the pool of blood drying into the carpet. Samples had been sent to the lab per the doctor's request, that and she personally wanted to know who on this ship was capable of doing this. Not only that but she needed to know how fast the poison had started working its dangerous course.

Her mind was still racing from what happened. There had been no one on the Bridge so they would have had to access through the other door that was on the back of Deck 1. She kept trying to force the thoughts out of her head that there could have been more that she could have done. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get the thoughts to leave her mind. She knew that she should have been able to do something, but she couldn't even put her finger on the thing that she could have done. She knew that she was helpless against these thoughts due to the guilt that she felt for letting this happen on her watch.

She tried though to focus on the task at hand. The thought of maybe forgetting to do something more for him while he was alive weighed heavy on her mind. Now she knew that she would never be able to change the past, but was now forced into changing the future.

The blood pool was reasonable for the amount of stab wounds Hawk had endured. Some spots were darker, and she knew that was where the wounds themselves were. She looked at the room. Nothing had been touched since the incident had happened. Not one of the chairs had been disturbed. The attacker was definitely professional there was no doubt about that. Looking over the room once more, she still couldn't figure out how something like this could happen in Starfleet. She had known about his history when she read the personnel files when she came aboard the Republic, but the thought of an attack on someone never crossed her mind.

The veteran side of her kicked in. She was a fighter and she wasn't going to let something like this go quietly. She looked around the room one final time. She was going to go over this room with a as with a fine tooth comb looking for anything that was out of the ordinary or out of place. She knew though that if they found anything that they would be lucky with the type of attack that he had endured. Professional or not, they were aboard this ship now and they were stuck for the mean time. That meant that she had to go over the entire crew histories to see which ones stood out. It did cross her mind though that she might have to look deeper than that. If a professional like this was aboard, then their profiles would have been most likely created and definitely would be in a place of authority or of a position that reported directly to a senior officer. That way they would be able to get close without looking suspicious.

First and foremost she would go through the room, then she would take a look at the navigators aboard this ship. Then her attention would shift to the Engineering Department as those two were closely related. If that didn't make this task more difficult this was a Galaxy class ship.

Even though she knew that it wasn't a personal attack against her, this was going to be personal. It happened on her watch. That is what got to her the most. Secondly, it happened on a Federation Starship. Here they were in the Gamma Quadrant, at least she would be able to find the person that was responsible for this. It was the least that she could do to honor the recently deceased.

With that she locked up the room and headed back to her quarters. She wanted to take another look at her uniform to see if there was any transfer evidence. On her way there she was going to stop at the Morgue to collect the tatters of Hawk's uniform. The assassin hopefully made a mistake. It didn't have to be a big one, just enough to give her some form of direction. Yes this may be a professional that she was dealing with, but this was her ship.

Location: Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik's Quarters

Cha'rik's attention was jarred from the studying that she had been immersed in when red alert had been called. She quickly turned her attention to the matter at hand. Grabbing her uniform jacket she headed out of her quarters and went to her office. When she reported there, she heard the news that Lieutenant Hawk had been murdered. Dread washed over her as she realized that she had failed her mission.

She had studied the entire crew, not one of them had been out of place. Even the visitors that they had taken on from DS9 had passed the check. After their little incident everything had calmed down. Now everything was back out of place. The dread finally succumbed to rage as she dealt with the fact that she actually failed her mission. She had never failed anything in her life.

None of the training or any of her life experiences had prepared her for how she felt right now. She felt like she didn't deserve to be where she was. She knew that it was just the fact that she had failed not only herself but her superiors. It wasn't like there were a lot of them left in her department to criticize her, but she knew that this wasn't going to look good on her spotless wet-work history.

There was going to be no way that she would be able to make up for this failure. She was going to have to face the chorus of justice when the Republic returned to the Alpha Quadrant. She knew that she wasn't going to be able to get out of this one. However, she had to do something in order to semi-redeem herself. She was going to need to solve this and take out the assassin that was still stuck on the ship. At least that they were stuck here for the time being. She had this entire trip to find this person and either expose them for the murderous traitor that they were or kill them without leaving a trace. The rage inside her fueled her passion for the latter of the two options, but she knew that there was going to be protocol for a matter like this.

Tugging hard on her jacket she sat down at her desk and started to pull up every person that had reported on board the Republic current crew and visitors. As soon as the information was retrieved she went through it looking for any t that wasn't crossed or i that wasn't dotted. She wasn't going to let this go lightly. She was wronged; Starfleet Intelligence therefore had been wronged.

Hours passed as she looked over the information that she had been studying. She went through the entire crew record, she had gone through all the information that had already been documented about the murder and the current investigation after a little manipulation to get past the security check points that had been enabled.

It appeared that they didn't have any other information except that what truly killed him was poison. So few worked with poison these days that it would definitely narrow down the place that hired the assassin or the place that had trained it. She needed to do her own little investigation of the matter. But she had to be careful, she knew that she couldn't afford to be discovered, not now. She had to be able to out the person who did this before she could release her cover.

She knew if she could play it right she wouldn't have to reveal her true identity and that she worked for Starfleet Intelligence and that she had failed. That was what was getting her the most. She failed. It still angered her hours later. A small smirk crossed her face when she realized that the emotions that she had worked so hard to bury had finally gotten the best of her once more. It had taken her too many times to actually complete Kolinahr, but that's what she knew made her special and even more dangerous. She could be warm hearted or a completely a cold assassin able to slip by even the best of defenses.

Her mind shifted to her fiancé that she had been separated for all these years. The rage slowly melted into remorse that she didn't get to spend more time with him. She had loved him with all her heart. That's when she decided to shift her mind to the other side. She had spent so many years studying Section 31 in order to remove them from the galaxy. She had spent even more time learning from their stupid mistakes as they blundered behind her on her run. She even learned more in the last few years when she fallen in love with one of their former agents. He had taught her a thing or two that she didn't even know. That was when she realized, she wasn't dealing with Section 31, she wasn't dealing with a rogue agent. Yes there had been talk of another organization out there, but she didn't think that they would try to do something so bold.

All she had to do was to wait. It killed her to think that she would have to wait in the shadows, but this assassin was sloppy to kill in the Gamma Quadrant. Now they were stuck aboard the ship with no where to run, but would have to make a report of some kind to a superior of some kind letting them know of the success of the mission. This is when she was going to be able to strike.

Though the assassin could wait until their return but for a target this large, they would become emotional and prideful of their work. She left her office in a rush as she knew that she was going to at least have a fighting shot in finding this assassin.

As soon as she arrived to the Bridge, she could see that it was busy with security officers looking over the logs. The Security Chief exited the lounge and Cha'rik looked at her closely while sitting down at her station. She could tell that the chief was not only distraught over the matter, but was upset at the same time. She was one that could mask her emotions well to the untrained eye but she could read her well enough. After she had left the bridge, a few of the officers started talking amongst themselves.

“I heard that she was the only one on watch when it happened.”

“I heard from Tarsis that it took her an hour before she returned to duty after it happened.”

“It's not like she knew him all that well.”

Cha'rik was at first amused at the banter between them but then they had crossed the line. She stood up from her station and walked over to them. Quietly and discreetly behind them she said, “not all of us knew him well. Not only was he a superior pilot, but he was a Starfleet officer. He was a senior officer of this crew and now has been murdered. You should be careful of your words and fear offending someone who knew him well. Above that, I will report you to the Captain myself if I hear anything more along those lines. It has been a long night for all of us losing one a member of our family. You should both be ashamed.”

Both of their faces turned bright red and she cocked and eyebrow in the typical Vulcan fashion. “Good, I thought so. I believe that you both were left with work that had a timed deadline and if I were you I would hurry before the Lieutenant returns.”

They then turned to their stations once more and she walked off the Bridge. She didn't want to be seen entering the lounge after the security protocol had been initiated. She was going to go the way of the assassin. Walking through the back way she stopped in front of the door and examined all the minute details. There may not be something out of place, but she was going to look for it anyways.

The way that she gathered it was that the assassin entered from the back entrance and then had exited the same way that they had come. They had gotten the job done quickly and efficiently to the point that the Security Chief on the bridge had been unaware of the actions that had been taken. The assimilation tubules came out of her hand and entered the control panel. Through sheer concentration she bypassed all the security protocols and the door unlocked and opened. She retracted the tubules and rubbed the back of her hand. It had been too long since she had used them and it irritated her skin every single time. However, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Entering the room, she looked around and saw that the chairs were all neatly tucked under the table save one that had been slightly pulled from its unused position. She looked at deck near it and saw the large pool of drying blood. She scanned the room taking in everything that could be seen to be studied at a later time. She didn't want to be in here too long in case the Lieutenant returned or she would have lots of explaining to do. After doing a three-sixty take of the room, she walked around the table and scanned the under the table for anything that could have been knocked out of place.

As she finished her turn of the table she ended at the edge of the blood pool. She knelt down and took a little disk out of her pocket. Barely touching the pool she had gotten microscopic evidence of what had truly killed the Helmsman. It verified the report that the doctors had already given the Security chief on what killed him. Even though she had no doubt of their professional abilities, it was truly a harsh night on everyone and there could be no room for error.

She then stood back up and in her minds' eye she could see what happened. The assassin had entered from the back entrance, and had come up behind him. Deftly they stabbed him in the back and he fell down to the deck and remained there bleeding out as the poison started working its deadly course. What she didn't know was how the assassin had quieted him so that he couldn't scream out. Either the assassin had a tranquilizer laced on their blade, or their hand covered his mouth. She would need to visit Sickbay in order to be sure of what happened. She walked towards the door and even though it was locked, it opened for her due to the commands that she had entered into the panel when she was linked directly to it. She turned down the corridor and headed directly to Sickbay to pay her respects.

Chapter 25: Mourning Cannot Wait Until MorningTop

Location: Arboretum, deck 7, USS Republic
Shiptime: 04:53 hours

Among the human race, and perhaps others, it is a right of passage for each child to ask inane questions of their parents in their early years: Why is the sky blue? Do animals talk? Where does dirt come from? However, at this early morning hour, the one question that Kevin Mackey was reminded of was 'do plants sleep?' It was asked by his three-year old grandson just last week when the retired entomologist tried to explain to the youngster why he was going to collect Nuvian grubs in the pre-dawn darkness of Republic's arboretum.

'What kind of question is that?' the old man replied, knowing little of what plants do during their nocturnal lives. All he cared about was gathering enough grubs for the Kayvor salad he promised his wife for her birthday dinner tomorrow night. It was her favorite dish, and it took a month of daily requests to Commander Carter for him to get permission to grow the tiny soil-dwelling insects in the arboretum, as their lifecycle requires the sap of fern roots to propagate. Without the proper population controls, the ship's main gardening space would become infested with the exotic bugs, so Kevin had to be extra careful about how he went about cultivating them, ensuring that the majority of the adults were harvested prior to their sunrise mating period. Whether or not the ferns themselves were awake or asleep while he worked did not concern him.

“I just hope they're grateful,” the man grumbled, knowing full well that if he left the grubs to feed on the fern roots, the plants would become sick. So, as he crawled along the ground under the canopy of leaves, 'old-man-Mackey' (as the kids called him) maneuvered his wrist-light to find the basal stems of the plants, and used a hand-trowel to uncover the pink, shrimp-like arthropods feeding on the roots. He had been at it an hour so far, with a good two-dozen specimens in his satchel, when he looked up to peer at the leaves and reminiscing about his grandson's question. “Do they sleep?” he snorted in amused mockery. He was about to go back to work when he noticed something unusual.

A pair of eyes were staring at him from the other side of the fern patch.

Startled, the man shouted, “Who is it?”

The eyes did not move. They simply remained where they were, staring directly at him.

“I said, who is it?” Kevin quipped, crawling up past the bundle of leaves to get a better look at his observer. As he pushed back the spiky foliage, he shined a light over to where the eyes were, revealing a man sitting on a park bench. The stranger's back was hunched over, his elbows propped up on his knees, and he was using his hands to rest his head on his chin. Unblinking, the eyes continued to stare at Kevin, causing a twinge of alarm to creep into the elderly man.

“Doctor Cromwell?” he recognized the stranger, noticing that Leon's hands and shirt were covered in dried blood. “What are you doing?” When Kevin asked the question, he realized that the ship's CMO wasn't looking *at* him, but *through* him, as if he weren't even aware that he was present. Spying a missing combadge from Leon's chest, the old man became spooked, and carefully crawled back into the brush with the door behind him as his new destination.

Minutes later, the commanding voice of John Carter echoed within the massive room.

“Computer, raise lights to standard illumination.”

Night became day, and as the XO stood at the door with the concerned Mister Mackey, a few of the arboretum's birds began to sing, confused by the sudden change to daylight.

“Where is he?” Carter asked quietly. Kevin pointed towards the back of the room, and after John squinted to see Leon through the underbrush, walked over towards his friend while motioning for the older man to leave the room.

It could have been a simple matter of bellowing orders at Leon, treating him like a raw cadet in order to get through his catatonic state. But John knew the doctor all too well, as they had spent many agonizing weeks together on the distant Demon-class planet known as 'Styx' where they were once stranded and nearly died. He learned of the root causes behind Leon's displeasure towards strict authority, and while he knew that the doctor would eventually come around, it was best to try and be understanding in the wake of Nat Hawk's death. After all, it wasn't just Leon who was struck by the disaster.

Walking up casually, Carter took a seat next to Leon on the park bench, mimicking his friend's position by hunching over to rest his elbows on his knees.

“Quite a scene down there,” John started the conversation, referring to the chaos in sickbay hours earlier. He wasn't expecting an immediate response from Leon, nor did he receive one. Instead, he acted as if the doctor heard him, but chose not to answer. “The captain demanding answers . . . a few nurses couldn't stop crying. Tolkath even felt something was wrong from three decks up . . . if it weren't for him, we never would have gotten Warner under control. It took Yezbeck and Bashir twenty minutes to get the place cleared out just so they could take the body back to the autopsy room . . .”

Leon didn't even blink.

“Do you remember when Captain Marshall died?” John asked rhetorically. “Neither of us were actually there, of course. But from what I heard, not a tear was shed. Not one. The ship's commander died, and everything went on as usual . . .” John snorted and rolled his eyes at the thought. “. . . or what passes as 'usual' around here . . .”

Leon's eyes finally shifted towards John in a blank stare.

“I guess it strikes me,” John continued, not taking any notice of his friend. “That a man isn't remembered by his position in life . . . or his rank, or his responsibilities. What's remembered is how he treated people. Was he nice, or was he mean? Did he treat others with respect? Or did he treat everyone like dirt?” A chuckle came forth from John as he looked at the ground. “Nat was a jerk!” he said with a smile. “But he was a nice jerk. If he saw you as trying to do the right thing, he had respect for you . . . and he showed it by kicking your butt at the poker table . . . or drinking you under it . . . whichever came first.”

Looking up to see that Leon was finally paying him some attention, John maintained his one-sided conversation.

“When Roth and I put him in charge of the Sigma Omicron mission, we put the odds at 50/50 that he'd either succeed, or punch the lights out of someone . . . turns out he did both. In fact, he risked his life down on that planet to save not just the Republic, but a lot of lives in the Federation to avoid a war . . .”

“. . . I've never seen . . .” Leon started in a raspy voice.

“What?” Carter asked carefully.

“That poison . . . I've never seen anything like it . . . he lied there dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it . . . not one damn thing . . .”

“Yeah . . .” Carter admitted with regret. “Yeah, I guess you couldn't . . . but you know what? Knowing Nat, he's probably laughing at us.”

“What do you mean?”

“He's laughing, Leon . . . he's dead, and on the other side now . . . wherever that may be. He's laughing because from his point of view, it's no big thing. I think that what matters to him now is that we get to the bottom of this.”

Leon didn't respond. He just continued to stare at John with a blank expression.

“Look . . . Nat's been running for most his life. People have been out to get him for a long time . . . this was all bound to happen sooner or later. What matters is that he lasted as long as he did. It's given us a chance to know him . . . and that's a good thing. But the people who did this are still out there . . . still on this ship. We need to figure this all out, and soon. Or else his death will have been for nothing.”

“So what the hell am I supposed to do?”

“When you were on Sigma Omicron Five, stranded on the surface in a pressure suit with lava geysers blowing up all around you, did Nat give up on you?”

“I thought he had . . .”

“But he didn't,” John stated emphatically. “He swept in with a hopper, and pulled you and Hranok to safety.”

“What the hell is your point?”

“My point is, Nat didn't give up on you . . . so don't give up on him. Yeah – he's dead. Nothing can change that now. But if his death is going to mean something, we've got to find out who did it. One of the clues is that poison . . . you've got some of the best medical minds in that sickbay . . . don't let the guys who killed Nat have the last word.”

John and Leon looked at one another in silence for almost half a minute. Leon closed his eyes and gave a deep sigh, concluding with a nod of his head.

For his part, John patted Leon on the back.

“Get yourself cleaned up. The captain's scheduled a memorial service at noon. After that, I think you've got a poison you need to analyze . . .”

Lieutenant Vance Devloch sat alone in Cargo Bay Four. alone this time, and admiring the prototype Peregrine-Class fighter that crouched waiting within. Though this time, he was admiring it in a different way. This time, no matter how he tried to look at it, it continued to appear as a monolith, a memorial to a kindred spirit. In stead of crouching waiting to soar through the heavens as it used to look; this time it looked tired, beaten down, and ready to give up and die.

Vance was drinking again. He was still over quota on flying solo with alcohol; but this time, it didn't matter.

Sometimes, usually the worst times, solo was the only option.

The Peregrine prototype was in apparently worse condition then it had been before. Parts and control and engine assemblies lay strewn apart in a sort of order-less pattern. However, all the pieces that were still attached to the structural airframe were fully functional and formed.

“I lost another wingman,” Vance said to himself. “I can't even fly, and somehow I lost another wingman. Everything I touch turns to ash. Every path I tread leads to the abyss.”

Vance poured himself another double of Whiskey. He was galloping towards the state of drunken bliss that comes right before the fall.

“What the hell am I going to do with you? I can't fly you, and your master's dead.” Vance paused for a moment before continuing. “Good god, your masters dead. There's Irony for you. Veteran pilot. Death defying Ace of the War. Took insane risks and flirted with death like a casual lover. And he gets stabbed to death. Oh what poor taste hath death. A subtle threat matched by unsubtle wit.”

Another double of Whiskey. Bottle's running low.

Vance pulls out one of his knives and passes it over and through his fingers in a casual display of slight of hand. Amazingly, though his marathon continues to try to reach oblivion, he manages to do it several times without drawing blood. Then, with a flick of the wrist he tosses it up into the air, and catches it just to throw it at a target pinned to a large nearby box. While several knives and daggers are near the bulls-eye, this one barely hits the target at all.

“Ach, well, least I scared him.” Vance was speaking of his perpetual enemy, the damned target. In Vance's mind the “Target” represented an incredibly diverse selection of “Evils” but since he'd heard of Hawk's death, it had remained the same. The Target was Nathan's killer. “Now if only I could get the reality to stand forth and stand still. Of course, if he/she/it doesn't do it soon, I wont be able to hit him anyway.”

Another double of Whiskey. Vance set's the tumbler aside and polishes off the bottle. Then picks up the tumbler again and resumes drinking.

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic

The morning following Nat Hawk's death, the counselor returned to sickbay to see if there was any way he could be of use. The shock still resonated within the main ward, and as Tolkath looked around the room, he made contact with Doctor Bashir. Though grief filled the room, he suddenly sensed a felling that all was not being told; something was being hidden.

There are few things unnerving as someone with a gaze that seems to be able to pierce to the center of the soul. Reittan's genetically dark Betazoid eyes often had that chilling effect on others. The only other factor that deepened the anxiousness was his empathic ability to actually sense what is happening. Doctor Julian Bashir became a victim to the penetrating gaze of the Counselor, even though the Lieutenant Commander had unwittingly done so.

Doctor Julian Bashir was not known for his ability to lie. In fact it was one of his weaknesses. The crowd had dissipated and the medical staff returned to their duties, before the Counselor approached the Dr. to see if anything else needed to be done. As he neared, Julian tensed and tried to walk away nonchalantly before he was intercepted by the Lieutenant Commander.

Pausing as the Counselor obstructed his path, Julian didn't attempt to offer an explanation for where he was heading, knowing the telepath would see through such. Instead, he simply tried to evade any discussion with the other man. “Excuse me.” he said, hoping Tolkath would remove himself. He did not.

Before Tolkath could open his mouth, even though he had no idea on just what exactly he would say to Bashir, Captain Roth stepped in, almost as if to protect Bashir from being questioned. “Walk with me, Counselor.” Roth said, gesturing into the corridor.

Intuition and training forced him to oblige his Captain. As Bashir departed, he could sense an overwhelming sense of relief from the medical officer. At the same time, he could sense an anxiety from Roth that didn't feel right for the present circumstances. It was more restrained and conflicted than was normal in the wake of such a shock.

“Can I help you, Captain?” Tolkath asked as he followed Roth into the corridor.

Glancing over her shoulder, Roth lowered her voice as she responded. “I'm not going to insult either one of us by playing games. You're no doubt aware that something else is going on with regards to the late Lieutenant Hawk, am I correct?”

Surprised by his commander's candor, he didn't answer right away. “I did sense… something. I wasn't sure what.” Tolkath divulged.

“I want to make this crystal clear, Counselor,” Roth said, stopping and putting her hand on Tolkath's forearm to indicate he was expected to stop also. She looked at him with a look of grim determination. “Lieutenant Hawk is dead. However… we've been preparing for something like this for quite a while, and we have what you might consider… a fall-back plan. It's desperate, and high-risk, but it's the only hope of setting things right.” she explained. “What I need from you right now is simple; carry out your duties as your normally would. Don't ask questions. Don't follow your instincts. Tend to the crew, and when the time comes, rest assured that I will call upon you for assistance.”

The Counselor hesitated, raised his eyebrow Vulcan-like, and dutifully consented with a “Yes sir.”

Kimberly Roth continued her gaze at the Counselor briefly before releasing his arm and returning to main sick bay. She knew she had asked Tolkath to do a difficult feat. He had to deny his basic instinct, his training, everything that made him an asset to the crew. It was like asking a bird not to fly, yet she knew he would honor his vow. Honesty was practically ingrained in Reittan; almost genetic because of his heritage.

The Lieutenant Commander headed toward the turbolift, headed to the psychology conference room. No doubt that Devenerux had called together the heads of the different shifts together in an emergency meeting given the rank of the deceased. He tried to put together some thoughts on how to handle the situation, but knew the ultimate decision would be a group effort. However hard he tried, the Counselor's mind kept returning to the scenario he had found himself in with the Captain.

The turbolift came smoothly to a stop at level 8 and the doors opened with a soft hiss as Reittan turned down the corridor towards the counseling department. Tolkath entered the conference room and looked around. The room was set up much like the observation deck with an oblong table surrounded by blue high back chairs. All of the supervisors had already assembled which had caught the Counselor by surprise. Devenerux sat next to Reittan's chair at the head of the table. Tolkath sank down in his chair, leaning forward while he rested his elbows on the table with his fingertips touching.

The room fell silent in shock as the Lieutenant Commander reported Hawk's death.

“No doubt many of the crew will be shaken because of the death of Lieutenant Hawk. With so many unexpected changes we should prepare ourselves for an influx of clients. How can we handle the situation? Suggestions?”

The process of addressing the issue started slowly clearly marking the stunned nature of the group of counselors. As the meeting advanced the ideas came smoother on how to address the increased load of Starfleet officers that the department would see. The meeting was quick, yet thorough; the way Tolkath preferred. As the meeting came to a close Reittan stood and looked at each individual surrounding the table.

“I need each of you to carry on as usual, in spite of the uneasiness I can sense here. We must be the foremost department on this ship to show serenity and assurance amidst the chaos that many will feel.”

Devenerux unconsciously let slip “Fake it 'till you feel it.”

The Lieutenant Commander looked towards her with a half grin on his face. Officers surrounding the table looked at her too. This was the new Lieutenant; the one the department had come to appreciate and admire.

She looked sheepishly around the table as she realized that her inner thought had become public; turning a bit crimson at the sudden attention.

Without drawing further attention to the quip, the Ship's Counselor dismissed the meeting and headed back to his quarters one level up. In order to remain vigilant to the Captain's command, he knew he would have to meditate much more until the Captain would call on him.

As expected, many new clients had sought out the psychology department in their time of grief and uneasiness. Tolkath worked to keep his mind, as much as possible, on the crew and his department. It seemed an eternity until Reittan received the call from the Captain requesting his assistance. Though it was still what passed for early morning aboard Republic - just shy of 08:00 hours - Roth, Tolkath and the rest of the senior staff had all been awake for hours already. They likely would be for the better part of the next few days as well, as the hunt for Hawk's killer consumed the ship.

To the untrained eye, the only thing abnormal occurring aboard ship was the shock and disruption associated with a sudden death. To an experienced officer though, the subtle changes throughout the ship where prominent. The security presence was staggering. Though in the camouflage of conducting normal operations, every key location or area sporting a mass of population was now under the eye of ship's security. Posing as maintenance crews in the corridors, waiting tables in the Hill or Ten Forward, running scientific analysis on the bridge, or even serving as orderlies in sickbay. This was of course in addition to the roving security details sweeping the ship in calm, diligent fashion, in search of anything out of place.

Normally, the presence of so many armed security officers across the ship - both overt and subtle - would have caused great tension amidst the populace of Republic; especially the civilians. But the combination of time of day and utter disbelief over Hawk's assassination had served to mute any such anxiety. The only person Tolkath felt emanating anxiety was Captain Roth, as he approached the first set of locked doors outside sickbay's isolation ward where she stood awaiting his arrival. Not saying a word, she unsealed the first set of doors and stepped through them, gesturing for Tolkath to follow, which he did. As the doors sealed behind them, Roth finally turned and addressed him.

“Counselor, everything I am about to show you, everything I'm about to inform you of, is classified and compartmentalized. There is no situation in which you are permitted to divulge anything you see or learn from this point onward. If at any time I believe you to be at risk for divulging any such information, I've been authorized to incapacitate and isolate anyone, for any reason, for any length of time as I see fit - and believe me, I will do so if I feel it necessary. Is that understood?” Roth said.

“Of course,” Tolkath replied, sensing just how deadly serious his Captain was about everything she had just said.

Pressing the controls before her, the next set of doors in the medical air-lock spread apart to admit them to the isolation ward. Waiting for them there was Doctor Julian Bashir and Doctor Saal Yezbeck, as well as a third form spread out on the surgical bio-bed, obscured behind a holographic privacy screen.

“Captain, for the record, I must restate my objections,” Bashir announced, “taking anyone else into our confidence this far into the operation is an unacceptable risk.” said the Lieutenant Commander. “No offense.” he added as he looked to Tolkath.

“Objections noted, Doctor.” Roth replied, unfazed by Bashir. Tolkath could not say the same for himself. As the doors sealed behind them, Roth turned to face Tolkath once more. “Earlier this morning, you picked up on something in sickbay - an unease beyond that which would be caused by Hawk's death. Your instincts where correct. There is much more going on here today than is known by anyone outside of this room.” Roth informed him. Turning her head to Yezbeck, she gave a subtle nod of affirmation to the Doctor, who in response manipulated the controls of the console before him. As the holographic privacy screen began to waver, Tolkath turned his attention to the form upon the bio-bed as he felt the tension levels of Roth, Bashir and Yezbeck spike sharply.

Upon the bio-bed lay Lieutenant Nathan Hawk.

As the deceased helmsman took in a shallow breath, Tolkath struggled to grasp the reality of the situation. He had felt Hawk die. Nothing in the universe could fake the tele-empathic impression of death. Though used far too often to represent the simply improbable, the tele-empathic impression of death was one of the few things in the universe truly, honestly impossible to manufacture.

“I know what you're thinking,” Bashir said to him, “you felt Hawk die… something which is impossible unless death truly did occur. Which, in this case, it did.” Bashir explained.

“I don't understand… ” Tolkath admitted. “The tele-empathic impression caused by death doesn't occur like someone turning a switch… it happens over the course of minutes, sometimes up to an hour. It… fades, as a result of the cessation of all neural activity… at which point someone is dead. They cannot be revived.”

“You're correct. Lieutenant Hawk did die, and he remained dead for well over four hours, within a standard morgue stasis field. His death was not 'faked'. He died. We simply… did the impossible. At least, it used to be impossible.” Bashir explained.

“How?” Tolkath questioned.

“I'm afraid we don't have time for that now, Counselor,” Roth interrupted. “You're not here for a show-and-tell, to be perfectly blunt, you're here for a reason. It's for that reason alone that you're not sedated and sequestered at this very moment. Which, to be honest, was the original plan when we spoke earlier in the corridor. We've had a bit of a… hiccup, though. As a result, we need your… expertise, and so we've brought you into our little cabal.”

Though struggling to both fathom and absorb all of this, Tolkath's instincts took charge as he asked simply, “How can I help?”

“We where able to repair the physical damage to Hawk, but what we've so far been unable to determine is the potential for damage to the… non-physical.” Bashir offered.

“In other words, the lights are on, but we're not sure if anybody's home.” Yezbeck quipped.

Reittan took a deep breath and looked at the motionless body laying on the bio-bed. He raised his right hand and placed his fingers on the helmsman's forehead. This would be entering completely new ground for Tolkath, unless everything was physically sound just as the Doctor's had said. The Ship's Counselor began his descent into the psyche of Lieutenant Hawk.

To the Lieutenant Commander the best way to describe what he was doing was to compare it to looking through a house for an item; though rudimentary it helped people to feel calmer about the process.

Everything within Hawk's psyche was checking out normally; bio-structure, neuronal pathways. But it seemed as Yezbeck had stated everything was normal, but in essence no Hawk.

The tension in the room surrounding Lieutenant Hawk increased as the Counselor closed his eyes and began to probe deeper. Inside the helmsman's mind the Counselor searched for a sign of consciousness, when he stumbled across a locked door within Nat's house of psyche. With a little mental exertion the Lieutenant Commander was able to let himself into Hawk's subconscious sanctuary, which out of survival instinct, turned prison.

As the Counselor arose, Bashir and Yezbeck met Tolkath with anxious looks.

“Captain,” the Ship's Counselor began as he turned to face his superior, “I have been able to make contact with the Lieutenant.”

There was a collective sigh of relief from those surrounding Reittan.

“He is disoriented, but I surmise that he will . . . return to us shortly.”

“But, couldn't you just have brought him into consciousness like you did to Devenerux?” Bashir inquired.

“No, Lieutenant Hawk will have to build his own strength, so he will have the strength to carry on the task ahead of him; complete recovery.”

Yezbeck intuitively stated, “Like a chick coming out of an egg.”

“Precisely, the chick must hatch itself in order to survive.”

The tension in the air had eased considerably since the Reittan had entered the room. Captain Roth dismissed the Ship's Counselor and reminded him of his orders. With a curt nod the Lieutenant Commander departed, and though he had left the isolation ward, as he once more walked amongst his colleagues, he himself felt abnormally isolated by what had just transpired.

Chapter 26: Maneuvers in the DarkTop

Location: deck 12, sickbay, main ward, USS Republic
Shiptime: 08:48 hours

After a shower in his quarters, Leon's nervous system returned to normal, coming down off his adrenaline high. As he scrubbed the blood from his hands, a sharp pain radiated from his fingers. The hand he used to strike the medical cart had swollen up, and he could barely move his digits. As a doctor, it was obvious to him that he broke something. Upon completing his bathing ritual, Leon donned a simple black T-shirt along with his usual duty trousers and boots before heading to sickbay.

Upon arrival, Leon flagged down Doctor Shannon Harris, who had herself recently arrived for her duty shift. Although it was unusual for the ship's CMO to be a patient in his own sickbay, Leon knew his staff well, and felt he could be in no better hands. After inviting him to have a seat on a biobed, Shannon retrieved a few tools from the emergency equipment locker by the nurse's station, and began scanning Leon's injured appendage with a tricorder.

“Mmmmm,” she remarked with the displeasure a teacher wields toward a misbehaving student. “A clean break across your third metacarpal.” Closing the clamshell-style scanner, Shannon exchanged the tool for a bone knitter, and tenderly grasped Leon's hurt hand. With careful, steady strokes, she combed the device's purple light over the injured area, re-calcifying the fracture with each pass.

“You know,” Shannon remarked. “I believe Chief Rainier is looking for another member to join the ship's boxing team. If you want, I can put in a reference for you.”

For his part, Leon looked back at her sourly. It wasn't a mean expression; quite the opposite in fact. Doctor Cromwell had come to admire Shannon over the past year, as the ship's pediatrician was both studious and punctual, not to mention stubborn. All qualifications that he felt was proper for a member of his senior sickbay staff. After all, if he couldn't count on his assistants' occasional disagreement with his own medical opinions, he didn't want them in his department. Besides, Shannon had cultivated a romantic relationship with his friend and XO, John Carter, much to Leon's encouragement. When he assigned her as temporary ship's counselor for the brief period after Counselor B'Rell's departure and Commander Tolkath's arrival, he was secretly disappointed at not being able to have her available for sickbay duty. However, the move turned out to be beneficial for both her and the crew, as she received a promotion to lieutenant commander, and the bridge had a fully qualified MD on the bridge during several crucial situations. Besides, in the end, she ended up back in sickbay, much to Leon's relief.

“Very funny,” Doctor Cromwell remarked. “And I assume that you never had an emotional outburst in the operating room during your career?”

“Nope,” she replied confidently. “But then, I've never had to experience the death of a comrade on the operating table, either.”

Leon didn't have much to say on that mark, as Nat Hawk's death was only hours old, and still fresh in his memory. His heart was numb, and although he hadn't made the same connection with the deceased navigator as other people had, he mourned for Nat as he would for any one of his sickbay staff.

“I hope you never have to,” he said to Shannon with remorse.

About that time, two individuals walked into the main ward from the surgical bay. Each wore red surgical smocks, but were missing the hair cap, masks, and gloves, indicating that they had disposed of them in the garment recycler moments earlier. It was none other than Doctors Bashir and Yezbeck, fresh from the autopsy table, wielding heavy excess baggage under their eyes.

“Is he in stasis finally?” Leon asked somberly. “We should probably go over his burial requests in his personnel file.”

“No,” Yezbeck remarked. “We embalmed the body into a casket, and beamed him to Cargo Bay Three in preparation for the eulogy ceremony at noon. Captain's orders.”

“A three hour open-casket visitation?” Leon asked quizzically. “That doesn't sound like something Nat would want.”

“We didn't ask questions,” replied Yezbeck. “We just did what she asked. They're leaving the cargo bay doors open for all crewmembers to stop by prior to the burial-at-space. Word is that the line is already backed up past the security offices further down deck.”

“Why would the captain put his body on display for so long? Hasn't this crew seen enough death for the moment? We just lost Kuga and Jenkins for Christ's sake!”

“Maybe she wants the crew to get over his death as soon as possible,” Shannon remarked, turning off the bone-knitter. “An open-casket visitation can help with closure for many people.” She put the the bone-knitter back into it's case, and motioned for a nearby technician to return the items to the locker.

As the technician collected the tools, Leon was startled at the recognition of the crewman in the blue jumpsuit.

“Ensign Narundi?” he ask with surprise. “What are you doing down here? Did you transfer from security?”

With embarrassment in his face, the young security officer scratched his goatee and looked to Doctor Harris with uncertainty. “Um, no . . . Just helping out.” Before Leon could comment again, the ensign placed the tools back into the locker, and exited the main ward en-route to the trauma center.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Leon said to Shannon with bewilderment.

“Lieutenant Beauvais has tactical doing a level one security sweep throughout the whole ship – incognito.”

“I see,” Leon nodded. Opening and closing his fist a few times, the doctor confirmed that his hand was healed, and slipped to his feet from the biobed. “Thanks for the help, Shannon.” Turning back to Yezbeck and Bashir, he continued. “Same thing to both of you. Sorry for my less than graceful exit, and I appreciate the help.”

“Our pleasure,” Julian replied politely. “And no need for an apology. I probably would have done the same thing in your place.”

With a curt nod, Leon headed towards the door. “See you all at the eulogy.”

The darkness had overcome him. It had consumed him. It was not simply the absent of light; it was the absence of all that was, all that he had known, all that he had been. Every sense submerged within such; sight and sound, taste and touch, no longer existed. In this anti-existence, he was only of thought; of being. Disembodied and disconnected from all things real and unreal, mortal and immortal. The rational part of him, whatever he was, came to the conclusion that in other circumstances, this experience should be frightening to him. Yet he felt no such fear, nor even truly confusion at what, in truth, he could not explain. He simply was.

Darkness became light.

Pure unadulterated white light, brighter than a thousand stars combined unto one, shone with an intensity that his rational self knew should cause his eyes pain and discomfort. As he realized that he could now see once more, he also realized it was not with eyes that he did so. Though he still heard and felt nothing, he had to have sight once more; to all he knew, you could not tell the difference between dark and light without such. Immersed in pure radiance, he considered that perhaps this was the 'white light' that had been spoken of for ages past from those brought back from the brink of death.


He was dead. This above all else he somehow knew to be true, to be real. He had been stabbed - murdered. The thought enraged him; the realization that he could feel rage strangely comforting. Amidst what was, in truth, a confusing state of being, he was relieved to experience something he had known well throughout his life. It was almost tangible - at least, as far as anything was in this disembodied quasi-existence. He found he felt something else as well, another emotion: annoyance. Whatever this was, whatever he was, he was annoyed as it's paradoxical nature.

'What the frinx is goin' on?' he asked, neither sure if he had spoken and heard or simply thought such. 'If this s'the after-life 'er somethin' than no way in hell was there any damned 'intelligent design' at work creatin' it, that's fer sure.'

'Why must everything have definition?' questioned another.

'Frinx!' Hawk exclaimed, 'Five minutes bein' dead n'ya go questionin' everythin' an end up pissin' off the almighty! Great work, dumbass!'

'I'm not 'god' Nathan,' came the other in response, the words or thoughts seeming jovial to Hawk.

'Ya ain't?' Hawk questioned, momentarily relieved. Then a thought occurred to him. 'If I'm dead… n'ya ain't the almighty… that kinda only leaves one other choice, don't it?' he queried, hesitantly.

'I'm not the 'devil' either, Nathan.' came the jocular response.

Bemused, Hawk inquired, 'Then who n'what the frinx are ya?'

'I'm whomever you want me to be, Nathan.' was the reply.

If he still had eye-lids, and could see whomever the hell he was talking to, Nat would have squinted suspiciously at that explanation. 'So if I want ya ta be James T. Kirk, then James T. Kirk's gonna up n'appear b'fore my eyes, hrm?'

No sooner had he remarked such than a shape took form before him. Unsure if it was the form before him or his own vision that was blurry, everything quickly sharpened and came into focus. And there, somewhere before him amidst a luminescent void stood the legendary commander of the original Enterprise himself, James T. Kirk, looking exactly as he had the day he had disappeared into the nexus just shy of 90 years ago.

“Like I said, I'm whomever you want me to be, Lieutenant.” Kirk said.

Somewhat startled, Hawk found that he too had taken physical form with - for lack anything better to call him - Kirk. Holding his hands before him, he could not deny the sense of relief that washed over him at the simple physical action. Touching his hands to his face, to his uniform, he found everything as it should be. Almost. Probing his back, he found no wounds and no blood. He was whole once again, if only in this place and for this time.

Turning his attention back to the pseudo-Kirk, he eyed the other man, sizing him up. He didn't have a clue what the other man was - if he was even a man for that matter - but he was fairly certain he wasn't actually standing across from the James T. Kirk - cool as such would have been. If whomever this was wanted to play games though, Hawk was willing to play along in order to get some answers.

“Lil' outta date, aren't ya?” Hawk asked, referring to Kirk's antique burgundy uniform. Without response or pause, the burgundy seemed to melt into black, as the vintage garment shifted into the modern style. Hawk had to admit, even for someone slightly over-weight and past his prime, Kirk - or the illusion of him - looked good in the new threads. “Nice trick.” he remarked.

“Like I've said, I'm whomever you want me to be.” Kirk said, self-assuredly.

“Yeah, ya did say that, didn't ya?” Hawk retorted. “So, if ya ain't 'god' n'ya ain't the 'devil'… n'yer prolly not Jim Kirk… so, what - or who - n'the frinx are ya?”

“That's… a little complicated.” Kirk claimed.

“Well unless I'm mistaken', I'm dead, so we've got a fair share a time fer ya ta explain it.” Hawk countered, crossing his arms across his chest.

“Not quite.” Kirk rebutted. “Besides, that's not why you're here.”

“Oh?” Hawk pried, “an why am I here? Better yet, where exactly is 'here' anywho?”

“You're here,” Kirk began, ignoring the latter question, “because you're a very troubled young man. A troubled young man in search of answers.”

Though his instinct was to offer up a snide remark - “Thank you, Counselor Kirk” came to mind - something, some part of himself, stopped him from doing so. “Isn't everybody?” he countered.

“In a way, I… suppose so.” Kirk agreed. “But the answers you're looking for… you've always had. You're just afraid to admit them to yourself.”

“Ya talk a lot 'bout answers… but what're the questions? I mean, what answers have I had? Ta what questions?” Hawk questioned, knowing a part of what Kirk said to be true and yet unable to understand exactly how or why.

“Questions you've asked yourself all your life, Nathan.” Kirk told him earnestly. “The confusion you're feeling - it's not confusion at all. It's fear. Even now, even here, even in death, you're afraid to admit things you know to be true to yourself because of what they mean in life.”

Somehow, outside of rational understanding and logical thought, Hawk knew Kirk was right. He didn't know how or why, yet he accepted it just the same. Whomever and whatever Kirk was, he knew the deepest parts of him. And as confusing as this all was to him now, Hawk knew that he would come to understand it all in time.

“Who are you?” he asked Kirk once more.

Kirk smiled at him, “Another question, another answer you already know.”

Despite the ethereal nature of everything, Hawk saw in Kirk something familiar, if only for a moment. He had seen in Kirk's expression something he knew from long ago, something simple that you tended to forget until you saw it again. Comforted by this, and curious, he took a step towards Kirk. As he did so though, Kirk seemed to move further away, though not by his own physical form. Stepping forward again as Kirk continued to move away, he felt things beginning to slip away from him. Walking at first, then, running, Nat reached out in vain to try to grab hold of what his rational mind told him was only an illusion.

“Wait!” he called, as 'Kirk' disappeared into the resplendent brilliance, “Who are you?” he demanded.

'I'm whomever you want me to be…' said the Kirk; said the other, now as he had been before assuming physical reality.

Light became darkness, once more–

–But within the fraction of a moment, as one transitioned to the other, Nathan Hawk could see in-between the two contrasting extremes. What he saw, in what could only have been the blink of an eye, was faces: some of people he knew, some people he had known, others that, though he didn't remember knowing them, he knew somehow that he did, or rather, that he would…

As the darkness reclaimed him once again, Hawk felt an unexplainable sense of peace. Where he had been, what he had at first thought of as death, was only an echo of what lay beyond life. In the darkness once more, he knew that he was not yet meant to go beyond that echo. As quickly as the darkness had reclaimed him, light began to filter in once more; only a much different light, shallow and welcoming. This light was real, was physical, not ethereal. This light came to him as he slowly opened his eyes once again upon another, different, familiar face. Groaning as his senses returned to him, he blinked as he focused upon this face.

“Feel like… shuttle… landed on me…” he croaked, his throat hoarse and dry.

The familiar face of Captain Kimberly Roth smiled down at him with relief and warmth, “All things considered, I'd say that's a good sign, Lieutenant.”

Location: “The Hill”, deck 10, USS Republic
Shiptime: 11:58 hours

The death of Nat Hawk would go down as one of the more unusual events in the history of Republic. Not only had the death been sudden and mysterious, but Republic's Captain, Kimberly Roth, had elected to put the body in state not in the ship's morgue or chapel, but rather, in one of the cargo bays.

Roth's reasoning had been simple enough. Hawk, despite, or perhaps because of his insubordinate nature, was well liked by the crew, and Kim correctly assumed that many of Hawk's crewmates would want to pay respects. While this was a breech of protocol, Kim Roth could be secure in the knowledge that, at least MOST of the time, Starfleet Captains didn't have to explain themselves. Still, the strangeness of Hawk's funeral didn't stop there.

With an hour to go until the services were to take place, word went out through Republic's various information networks that, rather than happening in the ship's chapel, or even arboretum, the ship's captain also made the decision to have services held “On the Hill”. To the uninitiated, that meant `meet in the bar'. Roth smiled as she thought of Nat Hawk's easy drawl and cocky grin, figuring he'd have liked it that way.

She looked across the room slowly, noting with approval that all of her senior staff was in attendance. Not all of them had liked Hawk, especially not at first, but most if not all of them had come to see Nat Hawk as a valued member of the crew, and perhaps even a friend. Roth felt her face twist a bit as she glanced at Science Specialist Marta Johansen; a civilian contractor who, if Roth's memory was right, was a geologist of some regard.

At the moment, her appearance belied anything but a scientific background. The dress she wore to the funeral was a shimmering affair, cut low across the front, with micro-fine straps across the back. The rest of the garment clung to her form, and while it was far from obscene, even Roth had to admit that it made for an especially alluring ensemble. Particularly the way the forest green color went with the brunette woman's eyes. To say nothing of the fact that, at the right angle, the fabric was translucent bordering on transparent. `No doubt that was Hawk's favorite outfit', Roth reasoned to herself.

A small lectern was set up in the center of the room, putting Roth at the center, and just ahead of the bar. Kim scanned the room, noting the arrival of Saal Yezbeck and Julian Bashir. She shifted her gaze to the gruff face of Senior Chief Petty Officer Brad Rainier and gave a nod.

“Attention on Deck!” Rainier's voice boomed through the surprisingly still confines of the bar. The collected officers and crew of Republic snapped to attention. The few civilians who were in attendance stood still, and respectful. While Starfleet eschewed many ancient military traditions, it still retained a few for formal, or unique occasions.

Roth cleared her throat. “Starfleet personnel live with the quiet, often forgotten knowledge that each day could be there last, and yet we press on. Our colleagues, now lost to history, thought that far flung ships would fall off the face of their flat oceans, yet still they pressed on.”

“There is something in us. Human, Vulcan, Andorian. Edoan, Efrosian, Deltan… a hundred species from a thousand worlds. No matter how far we go, no matter the obstacles we must overcome, somehow, we do. And I believe that is because we must.”

Roth briefly surveyed the crowd. Then she continued. “History records that Zephram Cochrane, who had already revolutionized human civilization was not satisfied. Can you imagine? NOT satisfied! So he set off into the latest frontier of his time. Yet, even after helping found Earth's colony on Alpha Centauri…” Roth turned her palms up, gesturing to the crowd. “he left.”

“For some reason he left, and was lost to those who held him dearly.” Kim felt a small smirk turn the corner of her lip up. “Now please don't misunderstand me. I knew Nat Hawk. Not as well as many of you, I'm sure, but I wouldn't presume that Mister Hawk and Zephram Cochrane had much in common, though they were both…infamous…in their time.” Roth was pleased that the remark brought the expected chuckle.

“We don't know what happened to Zephram Cochrane,” she explained, “But we know what happened to Nat Hawk. And, while I can assure you that justice will be served, that is not the purpose for our gathering here today…”

Toward the back of The Hill, Shannon Harris looked around nervously. “How's the hand, Leon?” she whispered.

“Fine,” he hissed, careful to keep his voice down during Captain Roth's remarks. “What are you fidgeting for? Is something wrong?”

“Where's John?”


“Where's John?” she repeated. “I know he and Hawk didn't always get along, but I honestly didn't think he'd miss this.”

“He didn't tell you?”

Shannon's eyebrow arched, as she folded her arms across her chest. “Tell me what?”

Leon smiled. “He's not missing a thing. In fact, he's probably got the best seat in the house.” Leon gestured to the armorplast viewport at the head of the room, bringing his focus back to Captain Roth.

“Nat Hawk didn't shirk at duty, and I'm sure he didn't have a Death wish, no matter what the Flying Aces might say. To the contrary, Nat Hawk has simply beaten the rest of us to the final frontier, and whoever or whatever awaits him there?” Roth looked over her shoulder toward Beta Antares, which burned a bright blue in the distance. “Well,” Roth said somewhat heavily, “they're in for a hell of a surprise, and while we will all miss our colleague, our crewmate, our friend, we too will press on.”

As if on a silent cue, three of Republic's Type IX shuttles, accompanied by a Peregrine Class fighter, a vintage small attack craft from the Dominion War, still favored and remembered fondly by those who flew them, streaked silently into view in a flying “V” formation, with the Peregrine in the left wing position. Three beats later the Peregrine pulled up and away… rocketing out of view. Seconds later, the bright, trailing flash of a photon torpedo streaked into view, sailing toward Beta Antares.

“You're right”, Shannon whispered to Leon as she reached a finger up to brush away a surprising tear. “Best seat in the house.”

Silent seconds went by as the Mk XII torpedo carrying the mortal remains of Nat Hawk were lost in the local star's corona. Then, Brad Rainier's voice again broke the silence. “Order! Dismissed.”

Chapter 27: Inquiring MindsTop

Location: “The Hill”, deck 10 forward, USS Republic
Shiptime: 17:45 hours

The funeral reception lasted for hours. Most of the crew had stopped by ten forward at some point during the afternoon, either on duty or off. Graciously, most department heads and section chiefs allowed leeway to mourn for the loss of Nat Hawk, and for her part, Captain Roth both accepted and encouraged on-duty personal to come by and pay respect. However, it was not the usual, somber occasion that one might expect.

By the time Commander Carter returned to the ship with his assembled group of aerobatic pilots, it was standing room only in The Hill. When the doors parted, the chamber erupted into appreciative applause at the quaint yet inspiring feat of formation flying by the commander et al. But Carter, willing to acknowledge credit where credit was due, presented Lieutenant Devloch as the Peregrine pilot, willing to accept only modest acclaim for himself and the other two co-conspirators, Lieutenants Snyder and Kroeger. It seemed fitting that each participating flight officer was somehow connected to Nat Hawk, whether it be Snyder and Kroeger as the second and third-shift helmsmen (as such, under Nat's command), or Carter as Nat's direct supervisor, or most importantly, Vance Devloch, Nat's long-time comrade in arms from the Dominion War. It was truly felt by all that Lieutenant Hawk's spirit was set free that afternoon.

The following hours were spent in celebration of Hawk's life, which included dancing, feasting, and cavorting over drinks and conversation. The live band, composed of several musically-inclined crewmembers, served selections of Dixieland-inspired tunes, along with more traditional renditions of jazz and rock. Synthehol flowed freely among the celebration, as did real liquor for the off-duty personnel (Nat would have it no other way, they surmised), and as they day wrapped up, the trickle of people leaving the party grew smaller, as eventually did the crowd inside.

After finishing a friendly conversation with Petty Officer Teague, Doctor Cromwell waved goodbye to the young medical technician as he exited The Hill before turning around to observe the near-empty room. A couple sat in the corner booth by the huge viewport engaged in their own intimacy, while Leon spied Commander Carter and Chief Rainier quietly talking at the bar. Without a second though, the doctor chose to join them.

“I never knew Hawk had so many friends aboard,” Leon interrupted.

“He kind of grows on you,” Carter replied half-heartedly, taking a sip of his drink. It didn't even occur to him that he spoke the comment in the present tense, as if Nat were still alive.

“TELL me about it.” The doctor flagged down the Tellarite bartender and ordered another Cappellan Mint Cordial. “I almost forgot why we were here after the first hour.”

“That was the point,” the chief added. “Lieutenant Hawk would probably be laughing at all of us if we stood around all teary-eyed.”

Leon took note that the Chief-of-the-Boat's comment was very similar to Carter's private pep-talk to the doctor in the arboretum earlier that morning, as both men seemed to agree that Nat would somehow be amused by their mourning of him.

“Still,” remarked Carter. “There was one person who was neither laughing nor teary-eyed.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. “Who was that?”

“Captain Roth,” John answered, taking another casual swig from his glass.

“Are you sure?” the doctor's forehead furrowed. “I didn't see her.”

“She left almost immediately after the eulogy,” Rainier stated. “No tears, no smiles. She just left.”

“Is that what you two have been chatting about for the past hour?” Leon had observed them earlier when the room was more crowded, noticing that they were in the same seats as before.

John nodded his head. “Mostly. We've been trying to figure out why she was more emotional over Kuga and Jenkins' deaths than over Hawk's.”

“Well,” shrugged Leon. “Maybe she didn't want the crew to mourn too long, afraid we'd have another Pakita on our hands if we did.” The doctor was referring to the mental trauma inflicted upon the assistant chief engineer, who asked to be relieved of duty after helping to stop the escaping Ensigns Kuga and Jenkins, which resulted in their deaths. “Besides, she wasn't particularly close to Hawk.”

“She was a lot closer to him than Kuga or Jenkins,” the chief reminded him. The comment resulted in a quizzical scowl to form on the doctor's face.

“Sickbay was just as odd,” Carter chimed in. “After you left, Leon, she shouted a few orders at Beauvais and Tolkath, talked quietly for minute with Yezbeck and Bashir, then left the sickbay. Just . . . left.”

“I think you're both reading too much into this,” Leon concluded, nodding thanks to the bartender who delivered his drink. Taking a quick sip of the dark green liquid, he added, “She's the captain. She doesn't have to explain her emotional state to anyone but me or the counselor, and personally, I think she should be allowed to mourn in her own way. I see nothing suspicious about her behavior.”

“Actually, you're wrong on that, my friend,” John corrected him. “Both the chief and I are the only ones on this ship who answer to her directly. If we see a change in her behavior . . .”

“. . . or LACK of change, in this case . . .” interrupted the chief.

“. . . then we need to know why.”

“Do you two feel that this . . . LACK of change, compromises her ability to command this ship in anyway?” Leon asked.

“No,” admitted John. “But . . .”

“Do either of you suspect that she's under the influence of any alien force?” Leon questioned further.

“No,” the chief answered, looking as if he wanted to add to the statement, but Leon refused to allow him to.

“Then I don't see a problem here. Let the captain be. She's a new captain who's lost three crewmen in the past two weeks, and I don't think we have a right to question her emotional state right now. Besides, none of us have had a chance to get to know her very well, and just because she doesn't act a particular way that we see fit under the current circumstances, it should NOT invite suspicion.”

Both Carter and Rainier looked down at their drinks in subtle shame, choosing not to reply to the doctor. Although they may have had nagging reservations about the captain, they knew Leon was right in his assertion that they shouldn't jump to conclusions.

The doctor chuckled, taking a long sip from his drink. After setting the glass back down on the lighted bar top, he took a long look at the ship's XO and COB. With all the cloak-and-dagger business of Kuga and Jenkins, not to mention the assassination of Hawk, it appeared to Leon that Republic's command crew was becoming weary at having to maintain a constant vigil against infiltration and subversion. In a morbid sort of way, they each missed Lieutenant Commander Forrest, the ship's former intelligence officer, whose job it was to keep watch over such matters. With Forrest reassigned elsewhere (probably undercover) there was no one to watch over their proverbial backside. Now, with one of their own falling prey to yet another mysterious force working aboard ship, it almost seemed as if they no longer could trust anyone. Not even the captain. Not even themselves.

“Beauvais will get the bastards,” Leon attempted to reassure them. “Hawk won't have died for nothing.”

“Damn straight . . .” John muttered.

Raising his glass, the chief proposed a toast. “To Hawk!”

“To Hawk!” Carter and Doctor Cromwell joined in, and the three men finished off their drinks with a final gulp.

After setting the glass firmly back down on the bar, Leon got up from his stool.

“I'd better check in with Sickbay,” he admitted. “We'll probably have some hangover cases.”

“I'll go with,” John added. “If you got the time, I'd like you to check on my new eye. I think the imaging circuits are set a little high. It's giving me a headache.”

“Sure,” Leon replied as the doors to The Hill parted, allowing them to exit. “Let's have a look.”

After the doors closed, Chief Rainier slowly stood up, and stretched his back after the long conversation at the bar. He scanned the room and noticed that the two young enlisted crewmen in the corner booth were getting a little more intimate than the COB felt was proper for public areas of the ship.

“You two!” he shouted with his best senior-NCO voice. “Knock it off before I make you cool off with 50 laps in the ship's pool!” Immediately, the embarrassed youngsters jumped at their chief's bellowing, straightening their uniforms and combing through their hair nervously.

With a snort of amusement, the Tellarite bartender returned to cleaning the bar after a long afternoon of countless toasts to Lieutenant Nat Hawk, former helmsman of the Starship Republic.

Chapter 28: Success to Failure and Failure to SuccessTop

Location: “The Hill”, deck 10, USS Republic

This was the moment that she had been waiting for. Elation ran through her blood forcing her heart to race faster and faster. She had confirmed the death once in the morgue, again at the wake, and now it was the final moments. The words of the lowly captain didn't even register to her mind as she waited and watched. Every person of the crew had attended. With the room packed, she could easily get away with looking like she was a part of the crowd, mourning for the loss of one petty individual. But she was gladder to be here now than anywhere else – it was a job well done.

For her here, this wasn't a tribute to the recently deceased, but a tribute to herself. After all, she had successfully managed to not only maim him, but kill him with her bare hands. He didn't even know what was happening until it was too late. She was good like that. True, the entire crew was under extreme scrutiny, but she passed at every check point. She had been lying in wait for weeks now. It all came down to perfect timing.

Watching the torpedo launch was the final step to her mission, and then she would be able to return to her post without having to be on this horrible ship any longer. She didn't mind the space travel; it just annoyed her when she was stuck in one place too long. The feelings of being trapped like a caged animal came to mind, but she quickly displaced those thoughts and trickled out of the room along with the rest of the crew. As soon as she could, she made a break for it.

Once she arrived in her quarters, she undid the top of her uniform. These federation uniforms always bothered her. They never fit her right, no matter how many times she had personally had them tailored to what was said to be perfection, but it wasn't up to her standards of perfection. Perfection in her eyes was successfully integrating herself into the environment, completing her mission, and then successfully getting taken right back out, only to rinse and repeat. Walking over to the console, she deftly pulled the small chip from under her desk and slid it into the computer. She entered her codes into the console, gaining her access to the communications system. She knew better though.

With them being in the Gamma Quadrant, any and all communications were being intercepted and scanned, especially after the wonderful death of Nathan Hawk. She pulled up the exhaust manifold and calculated a tight-beam transmission to mimic the frequency of Republic's propulsion wakes. It was going to be a small message, but it would have the large impact that it needed to have.

“The Benedict is dead.”

That was all that was needed. She removed the chip from the console and snapped it in half disposing of it in the waste receptacle. She moved to her bed chamber and removed the rest of the irritating uniform. The time now called for a drink of celebration for a job well done. Getting dressed down as it has been called, she walked out of her quarters and headed towards the mess to grab that drink.

The drink, having been savored to its fullest, was the end to her night. She always slept well after a successful mission. She headed back to her quarters in sheer bliss, but little did she realize her actions tonight did not go unnoticed…

There was an unexplained force that was nagging her. No matter what she did, she couldn't shake the disturbing feeling that it left inside of her as it had seeped into the deepest part of her bones. She had attended the memorial service because if she didn't she knew that she would become a suspect in the murder of the late Lieutenant. She had scanned the crowd, but everyone appeared to be mourning. She left with the rest of the crew and headed back to her office.

She had been scanning the frequencies. She knew the procedures of a wet-work mission: to report after the final verification after the target was dead. With the technology that they possessed today, one could never be too careful in this line of work. Waiting patiently, she continued watching over the communications system along with the rest of the systems for anything that no one else would be looking for. There was a code of conduct that the assassins held, and their means, even though different, still were in the same manner. The screen bleeped and she sat forward in her chair. ‘I caught you,' she thought to herself. It had come from one of the flight control officer's quarters. She looked through the manifest in her head quickly and determined who it was.

Entering the information into the computer, she tracked the individual in order to find the perfect time to attack. She connected the information into her neural network and left her office and headed towards her quarters. She was always armed to the teeth, but she liked to have more than what she currently possessed on her.

After gathering the few items, she walked to a point between the officer's quarters and the Mess. She would take her advantage in the many different secluded parts of the ship. She waited like a cat preying on a mouse hiding in the hole it called home. The female officer entered her line of sight and just as she was about to pass the darkened corridor, she grabbed her with her right hand across her mouth and a knife to her throat, pulling her back into the dark area. With her mouth touching her ear, she whispered darkly, “Do not do anything stupid.”

The door behind her opened as they backed towards it. She pulled the person down into a chair that she had set up in the nearly empty room. One lone light shined onto the chair and her prisoner, now in fear, looking for a way out.

“Who sent you?”

“I don't know what you are talking about.”

“Of course you do,” she sneered at her. “You know as well as I know that you were sent here on a wet-work and I want to know who sent you.”

She waited in silence sitting in the chair. She adjusted herself reaching for the knife that was hidden beneath her belt line. She felt a blade touch her shoulder from the darkness. She removed her hand from her belt-line. No words needed to tell her that. “I am not at liberty to say.”

“Wrong answer,” the voice said from the darkness.

She felt the blade deepen into her shoulder without piercing the skin. It was now or never or she wasn't going to get out of there alive. She whipped her arm out and knocked the blade to the side, pulling her retractable batons from her boots and jumped up. The lights in the room came on but only to a small dim. There stood two women, both assassins, one with batons, and the other with swords.

They circled each other in the room, waiting for the other to make their move. The assassin lashed out at the Vulcan woman only to be met with a sword. They went around and around teasing and testing each other.

“And what agency do you work for?”

“I work for the only true agency that there is. You?” the Vulcan asked. “By your style, I would say the Syndicate.”

“You are well versed in the ways of the different agencies, Vulcan.”

“One has to be,” she commented.

“What is your purpose here?”

“You managed to ruin my mission.”

The Assassin lashed out again, hitting her arm hard. They fought for a few moments and then they continued circling again. “You weren't good enough then,” she replied.

“I would not say that,” she replied. “I just was taken off guard, and it takes a lot for someone to do that. Through many lifetimes, little girl, I have fought many and killed many. Why do you not allow me to turn you in peacefully before either of us get too injured.” She shook her arm where she had gotten hit.

“Never,” the assassin replied.

“Have it your way.”

They started dueling properly. Even though the both of them were well skilled with their weapons, they still managed to draw blood and get injured. The fight continued on. With two well versed assassins continued fighting…it was going to be a long fight.

Nathan Hawk felt worse than dead. Though, since he hadn't really felt anything while dead, that didn't seem as bad as it truly was. He had been semi-conscience for a few hours, drifting in and out as if bobbing above and below the waves of a tumultuous sea. He had no concept or time, nor did he dream when his closed his eyes. His mind, like his body, was too drained to dream. Movement was next to impossible, his breathing labored and shallow even as he lay perfectly still. It wasn't that his lungs where not up to the task, but rather his heart wasn't - having been injured, the vital organ was having difficulty oxygenating his blood properly - a condition Doctor Bashir could not guarantee him of a time frame to recover from. His death, it seemed, had almost been permanent. His salvation had laid within the most unlikely of all technologies; nanoprobes. Borg nanoprobes, to be precise - and make the situation worse, in Hawk's opinion.

The technique, Bashir had informed him at length, the genetically engineered Doctor annoyingly having rambled on for nearly half and hour, had originated aboard the legendary starship Voyager, courtesy of that vessels famed 'reclaimed Borg'. Apparently, the Borg where able to revive the deceased in certain cases, as long as 18 hours after death - perhaps more so, Hawk thought he had heard Bashir say. Though honestly, he hadn't been paying attention. The point was, he was alive once more. Even if he felt like road kill. He didn't know exactly how to feel, though. He was angry, for sure, at his assassin. Yet, if Captain Roth's ambitious plan was a success, it would be through said assassin that his long battle with the Orion Syndicate might finally come to a head. At the same time, despite having had no prior knowledge of said ambitious plan, he felt a sense of guilt over 'remaining dead' in the eyes of the rest of the crew. Likewise, his physical state left him feeling… so many things he couldn't put into words. Needless to say, it was all very overwhelming.

Amidst his warring inner battle - both of the physical and the emotional - he suddenly felt something he didn't know what to make of. Both vague and defined, it resembled more intuition than knowledge or emotion. As he tried to make sense of it, it suddenly dawned on him; a realization of something happening, something that was connected to him. It didn't make an iota of logical sense, yet he knew it to be true. Despite his near invalid physical state, he felt he had to be somewhere else. Somewhere specific. Knowing the grave risk, yet foolishly ignoring it, Hawk fought to get to his feet. Out of breath and sweating profusely from the simple task of standing up, he quickly realized he wouldn't make it out the door of the isolation ward, let alone to where he felt he needed to be. Thankfully, technology had a solution for him…

The fighting had continued on with a few sharp retorts from time to time. They were both bleeding and breathing heavily after fighting for so long. With one swift well place whack from the baton, the Vulcan dropped one of her swords. She swung back with her right hand thrusting towards the assassin. She met skin and thrust it deep into her shoulder dropping one of her batons. She snapped backwards though and lunged at her, knocking the Vulcan to the deck plate.

“See, not only have you failed once, but now you have failed twice,” she said grabbing one of the short swords that were on the floor and holding it to the Vulcan's neck. “Now you can join your precious Objective, Hawk, in the afterlife.”

“You first, bitch!” came the sudden reply from the most unlikely of sources, as Nathan Hawk clung to the threshold of the doorway for support.

The fight stopped as both women looked upon the deceased Lieutenant in utter shock; though the Vulcan betrayed such with only a piqued eyebrow.

“No! NO! It's not possible!” shouted the assassin, loosing all focus on the fight she was engaged in. It was in that moment of diversion, as she lunged for Hawk, intent on returning him to death, that the Vulcan struck.

She reached for the other sword lying on the ground and arced her arm around thrusting the blade down into the back. The Assassin dropped down to the ground crying 'no' as her final words. She pulled the sword from her back and wiped it off on her sleeve and then bent down slowly to grab her other one. “You are alive,” she said quietly heading towards the door.

“N'yer no science officer,” Hawk replied, struggling to stay on his feet as he stared at the assassins corpse. “Ya know, I really wanted ta do that maself.” he told the Vulcan, nodding to the recently deceased.

“I apologize, but I needed that as much as you did. After all, I was sent to protect you,” she said sheathing her swords.

“Phh, some job ya did,” he replied with a smirk, hoping that despite her genetics, the Vulcan could appreciate his humor.

She shrugged . “Babysitting was never my forte.”

Feeling like drained dilithium crystals, he addressed the Vulcan, “Normally, I wouldn't ask fer a Vulcan's help, nothin' personal, but could ya gimme a hand?” he asked her, unable to keep on his feet.

She reached out to him as he was about to fall. “We should get you back to sickbay.”

“I'll say,” he agreed, leaning heavily upon her despite his own ego. He watched as she interacted with a console set in the wall before them, and soon felt the familiar wash of a transporter beam. An instant later, he stood in the center of sickbay, much to the shock of the staff and patients all around him. “Ain't y'all ever seen a dead man b'fore?” he quipped meekly.

Chapter 29: The Nature of ThingsTop

Location: Sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic


“Sorry, just relax.”


“You might feel a little pressure. It won't last long.”

“OW!” John Carter pulled his head away from the diagnostic table that had been holding him still. “Grozit! Doc! What are you doing to me?”

Leon Cromwell shut down the small, pen-sized ocular scanner he had been holding and slipped it into the pocket of his anachronistic three-quarter length doctor's coat. “I'm trying to treat your headache,” he said sternly, “and you're not helping.”

John shook his head, rubbing his temple a bit. “And how is sticking a laser in my eye supposed to make the head ache GO AWAY!”

Leon clucked his tongue and reminded himself that, while his patient may have been many things; pilot, lacrosse player, First Officer… he was not a doctor. Cromwell managed to suppress a shudder at the thought of being treated by “Doctor Carter” and stepped over to the computer display on the table. “Honestly John,” Leon chided, “It's a low-level diagnostic device, not a laser,”

“Well it hurts.” John countered.

“Not because of me!” Leon sat down and looked over the technical specifications of John Carter's prosthetic eye. “You had a headache before we came down here. I'm trying to help you, but you have to be…forgive me for this…patient.

John shook his head again, blinking both eyes forcefully. It didn't make the pain in his right temple stop. “Are you sure you know what you're doing with that thing?” Carter asked, sounding somewhat juvenile.

“Damn it John,” Leon spit back, remembering what bad patients commanding, or in this case, executive officers tended to make, “I'm a doctor, not a…

“Is John giving you a hard time again, Leon?”

The question came from Doctor Shannon Harris, Republic's pediatrician and current romantic companion to the First Officer. She smiled at Carter and then waved politely at Leon before leaning against the edge of the entry to Leon's office “I'm pretty sure I can get him to shut up for you,” Shannon said with a wink.

“Not in my sickbay you don't”, Leon chided his colleague, “but if you can manage to make him less cranky, please, be my guest.”

Shannon glided almost effortlessly to the treatment station where John was still rubbing his temple, giving the red-shirted commander a kiss on the cheek. “Headache?”

Carter nodded his head, tilting slightly to rest on Shannon's shoulder. “It's nothing”, Carter said, softly.

“Liar”. Shannon knew a lot about the ship's First Officer. In fact, there was literally nothing OFFICIAL that she didn't know about him. However, one of the things that no file would tell her is that, in order for John Carter to admit that there was a problem serious enough to land him in sickbay…voluntarily, the situation had to be more than most people could bare.

Carter was glad that Shannon had made her presence known in sickbay, and had to admit, at least to himself, that having her there did make a difference.

At the diagnostic station, Leon looked intently at the technical schematics of Carter's replacement eye. “Has this happened before?”

“No,” Carter answered.

“Yes.” Shannon corrected. “His pulse and blood-pressure have been elevated for about a week. Nothing serious,” she continued, almost absently, “but he's been in pain. He didn't want me to tell you.”

Cater looked up at Shannon and scowled. “Thanks for that.”

“Oh shush,” Harris teased, “we're in Sickbay. Even Leon must know that something's wrong.”

“Exact…” Leon's face screwed into a put-upon frown, “hey!” Leon frowned disapprovingly at his crewmates, then looked back at the computer screen. “A nest of vipers,” he grumbled, “that's what they are. Try to help they question your competence. Tell them to get over it and you're an uncaring monster. Don't know why I even…”

Shannon looked at her superior with a cocked eyebrow, then looked down at John. “Does he do that a lot?”

“What, talk to himself?” John chuckled. “All the time. It's a wonder he passed the psyche eval. to take the command test in the first place.”

“I heard that, throttle-jockey!” Leon piped up, then he got up, turned the computer monitor so that both Shannon and John could see it, and walked around the desk, leaning on the edge, arms folded in a mix of consternation and triumph. “Now… do you want my help or not?” Both the officers stood and walked to Leon's desk. Carter frowned, not able to make sense of all of the displays and text streaming down.

“Wait…is that my eye? What did you find?”

Cromwell leaned back, uncrossed his arms and explained. “Well, I've gone through the medical data, and there's no sign of infection or rejection, so I wondered if there might not be a problem with the bio-mechanical interface between your optical nerve and the prosthetic itself.”

“And?” Shannon prodded.

“And,” Leon continued, “despite the remarkable advances we've made in bio-mechanical implants, thanks in large part to the Voyager mission, the human eye is still amazingly complex. Particularly the way that the brain works to process all that incoming information into something you can recognize.”

“Short version, Doc?” Carter asked.

“You never studied.” Cromwell shook his head disapprovingly. Then continued. “At any rate, I cross-referenced your particular model of implant with the Starfleet Corps of Engineers technical journals.”

“What did you find?” Shannon asked, now genuinely intrigued. Usually, the SCE took on large-scale construction or difficult terra-forming projects, things that almost any other organization would find impossible. According to reputation, the SCE would then turn around said project in a ridiculously short amount of time. As the saying went: `The difficult we do immediately. The impossible may take a day or two'.

Despite their well-deserved reputation, Shannon was a bit surprised that the SCE would bother with technical bugs in something as small as an artificial eye. `On the other hand', she supposed, `everyone needs a hobby'.

“Well,” Leon commented, “you know engineers. They love to criticize each other's work, and it looks like this particular model of prosthetic is prone to information overload.”

“So, what?” John asked, “It's telling my brain…too much?”

“Exactly.” Leon offered, somewhat surprised.

“I never studied.” John chuckled. “So, what do we do?”

“It's an easy enough fix,” Leon said, “but it means tying your eye to a medical display so I can adjust the definition. Too much, you get headaches. Too little, you can't fly.”

John grimaced at the thought of being grounded again. Despite no longer being an active small-craft pilot, he'd been careful to keep his hours up and stay qualified on most Fleet-issue ships. Making the transition from shuttle pilot to helmsman had been easy. Moving from Helm to Tactical had been something else, and while he was now confident that he was at the right place as Republic's First Officer, he did miss flying, and wouldn't want to be in a place where he COULDN'T any more, if he wanted to.

“Let's do it.”

Leon looked at the display at his desk, using his computer to send commands, changing the settings of John's prosthetic. “Looks good on this end, John, but look around for me.”

John turned his head, taking in his surroundings. From his perspective, everything looked as it should with the exception that some details were a bit too crisp. “Seems okay. The pain's still there, but it's more of a dull ache. Not like before.”

In the corner, Shannon Harris looked on, with relief. “Don't worry John,” she said in her typical smooth alto, “Now that Leon's cracked it, you'll be fine.”

Carter glanced over to smile appreciatively at Shannon, then looked forward again. At the repeat display station, Leon Cromwell felt his jaw drop.

“Wait!” he said urgently, “Go back.”

“Back where?” Carter asked.

“Look at Shannon again.”

“Do I HAVE to?” The First Officer mocked.

“I love you too, John.” Harris shot back.

“Just do it.” Leon barked. It was clear he wasn't in a joking mood.

Long seconds went by as John Carter listened to his doctor and looked over the attractive form of Republic's pediatrician. “What is it Leon?” Carter finally asked.

“Damned if I know,” CMO replied. “There must be more wrong here than I thought.” Leon looked down at the feed from Carter's eye again. For the most part, everything looked as it should: The diagnostic beds, the partition that marked the beginning of Leon's office; Even the plaques on the wall behind Cromwell. Everything looked just as it did with Leon's own eyes, except when John looked at Shannon Harris. For some reason, she appeared, on the monitor that represented Carter's vision, to be covered in a thin haze, as if the focus on a camera were a bit off.

Cromwell looked again at the settings for John's prosthetic. `No,' he said to himself, shaking his head, `the smart focus sub-routine is online and there's plenty of memory space. Everything he looks at should be crisp and in-focus'. Leon rubbed his chin. `And it is. Except for Shannon.' Finally, he blurted out, “Well that doesn't make any damn sense at all.”

“What's that Doc?” Carter asked.

“I think there's a software glitch somewhere.” Leon explained. “Brace yourself, I'm going to turn up the resolution a little. Let me know if it hurts too bad.”


“You're gong to what?” Shannon said in surprise.

Leon looked quickly at the red head. “I need to know if the problem is in the software or somewhere else.”

“Shouldn't you get someone else to do that?” Shannon offered. “I mean, you're a doctor, not an engineer.”

“Fair point,” Leon agreed. “But if I try this and it works, we won't NEED to call an engineer, will we.”

Shannon grimaced as she watched Leon increase the resolution settings on John's artificial eye. She felt anxiety growing as she processed just what the monitor was showing Doctor Cromwell, and wondered just how long it might be until he…until EVERYONE learned the truth.

John Carter inhaled sharply as the increased data feed through his prosthetic began to supply information his brain wasn't equipped to handle. As a result, the brain reacted as most other parts of the body would: it tried to withdraw, which in this case meant sending pain impulses through Carter's nerves to get him to stop doing whatever it was he was doing. “Right,” Carter said through gritted teeth. “Hurts now.”

On the monitor, the image changed. The thin haze that seemed to cover Shannon Harris became more dense and more defined, and Leon Cromwell blinked in disbelief as he could now make out the appearance of lines from three distinct sources, each apparently from a wall or ceiling, somehow converging at a point INSIDE the center of Shannon's body. Twin converging beams from each source were intersecting and continually scanning across Shannon's contours. Cromwell blinked again.

“What the Hell?!” The picture reminded Cromwell of the process that his diagnostic scanners went through when trying to get an accurate three-dimensional model of an object, but this was different. The lines weren't scanning Doctor Harris, Cromwell reasoned, and why would they? None of his equipment was scanning for anything at the moment. He was at a dead loss to explain what was happening.

Deep inside, Shannon could feel panic. “Leon,” she asked softly, “please stop. You're hurting John.”

Across from Cromwell's desk, Carter's eyes were shut tight, and he looked a bit flushed. Republic's CMO carefully considered what he was doing. Technically he was violating the most sacred of promises to a physician: Do No Harm. However, he reasoned, John was in no physical danger and was both conscious and aware of what was happening to him. Plus, (Leon hoped he was right in this case) John hated mysteries as much as the doctor himself did. “I'm sorry John” Leon offered, “but I need a little more information.”

“Doctor Cromwell,” Shannon said coldly, “stop this at once, or I'll be forced to report you.”

Leon knew he was in a tense spot, and as he eased the data feed back down, he looked back to Harris. “Shannon, I know it's unusual”, the confused physician offered, “but we need to know what John's dealing with so we can help him.”

With the feed turned down, Carter was able to focus his attention clearly on the confrontation across the room from him. There was more Leon needed to know. “Leon, wait,” Carter said weakly.

Shannon Harris had heard enough. To her mind, such as it was, her colleague had put the welfare of a fellow crewman second to his own objectives. What's more, it was John Carter, and every fiber of her being told her that was beyond the pall. “I'm sorry Doctor,” she said, still eerily controlled…detached, “but this experiment is over.”

Shannon Harris closed her eyes. Within three heartbeats, Leon's office went black.

In another instant, the emergency lighting was on, bathing Leon's office in a rich red. Odd shadows played across once familiar surfaces, giving the whole room an alien feel. There was no sign of Shannon Harris.

“What in the world?” Leon said as he stood.

Carter took a moment to shake his head, then looked at the remaining Doctor. “Boy Doc,” he quipped, “do YOU have a way with the ladies.”

Immediately, Leon moved to see to his patient. “I'm sorry John,” he offered with genuine compassion, “but the readings didn't make any sense.”

Carter stood, making his family's well-documented `Old-Man Noise' as he stood. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “this is my fault. I should have figured this would happen.”

Leon looked at Carter, now twice as confused as he'd been just moments ago. “What are you talking about? What just happened? Where did Shannon go?”

“She'll be fine”, Carter answered simply. “You just need to give her time to cool down.”

A second later, lighting and power returned to normal in Leon's office. A quick look at the status board on his desk told Cromwell that no other part of Sickbay had been affected, at least, not that he could tell. “Cool down? She disappeared!” Leon quickly tapped his combadge. “Doctor Cromwell to Doctor Harris. Report!”

“She's not going to talk to you right now. You pissed her off.”

Leon's eyes went wide. He was now genuinely afraid for his friend's sanity. “Computer,” Leon said to the omnipresent monitor of U.S.S. Republic, “location of Doctor Shannon Harris.”

Doctor Harris is not onboard the Republic.

Again, Leon tapped his comm. badge. “Cromwell to bridge,” he said, with the barest hint of desperation in his voice, “security alert!”

An instant later, Carter tapped his own badge. “Bridge, Carter. I'm on it.”

“Roth to Sickbay. You two all right down there? We read a small power fluctuation.”

“Nothing I can't handle, Captain. Carter out.” Carter smirked slightly at his reply, wondering if he was right.

Leon had seen that look on John Carter's face dozens of times, but he'd never been on the receiving end before. The smirk meant Carter was up to something, and Leon didn't like that feeling at all.

The blonde physician sat heavily back in his chair, arms folded as he looked at Carter, trying to figure what was going on. “All right,” he said after a few long seconds. “You have exactly two minutes before I tell the Captain you're crazy! Be glad I'm giving you that long!”

“She might believe you anyway,” Carter said as he sat, looking at either side of the room. “I think you got the settings right though. Headache's gone.”


“What did you see on the monitor?”

“Answer the damn question!”

“Calm down Leon,” John said, easing both his volume as well as tone of voice. “What did you see?”

Leon slammed his fist on the desk. “I don't know! That's the whole damn point!

“If you don't KNOW what you saw, what do you THINK you saw?”

Leon thought back, taking a moment to put things in order, to make sense of the events he'd just gone through. “It looked like Shannon was being scanned…”


“But there was no scan in progress and it wasn't quite right. She looked hazy… foggy. Almost like…

“Like she wasn't quite there?”

Cromwell felt himself push back with a start. “Exactly, like she was an illusion. It was like looking at smoke.”

“There you go, Doc.” Carter said simply, as if the matter was totally settled. “That's it exactly. Well…mostly.”

“Don't patronize me, John!”

Carter couldn't help but smile. “You already said it Doc,” Carter explained as he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “She's not quite there. Shannon's a hologram.”

“She's a what?!” Cromwell shot to his feet. “That's it, John, I'm sorry, but there's clearly something seriously wrong with you.”


“That's all you've got to say? Nope?”

“That's right.”

“And you expect me to believe that my pediatrician is a hologram?”

Carter threw his head back. “I don't care if you believe me or not, but that's what she is.”

“She's seen patients! She's delivered babies for gods' sake!”

“So does the EMH,” John said flatly, “you don't think twice about that.”

“That's different!” Leon shot back.

“Why?” Carter asked simply.

Cromwell blinked, momentarily stunned. “Because, that's what it's supposed to do, but everyone knows when the EMH is online.”

“Do they? How?”

Cromwell could feel his temperature rising. To Leon's mind, John was being far too casual about all of this. “The damned thing appears out of thin air!”

“Exactly,” Carter said, pleased to finally be making some progress. “And Shannon's done that more than once. How many times has she snuck up on you? Without any warning?

Leon huffed in disbelief. “You're joking!”

John shook his head. “Believe me Doc, it would be easier if I was.”

Now it was Leon's turn to sit back and put things into place. “But, I've read her file.”

“The ship's AI invents things all the time. How do you think the holodeck works?”

“But all those missions… the rescue on the Zurich…”

“She's never been off the ship, Leon. Shannon has only ever been onboard Republic or one of her shuttles, and she's never used the transporter.”

“My God…” Leon said as the pieces began falling into place, “You're serious, aren't you?”

“Pretty much,” John offered flatly.

“You're SLEEPING with her!”

Carter rolled his eyes “What has that got to do with anything?”

Leon blinked again. “Excuse me?”

Carter sat back and tried to relax. “Let me ask you this. Do you feel like you know Shannon?

“Of course.”

“Is she a good doctor?”

“Yes.” Cromwell could feel his frustration growing again, “but …”

“But what?” Carter asked throwing his arms up, “how does the fact that Shannon happens to be made of photons instead of atoms change anything? Did you consider her a friend yesterday?”


“Yes or no.”

“You KNOW I did!”

“Then ask yourself Doc… Ask yourself why she wouldn't be your friend tomorrow?”

“She's NOT REAL!”

“She was real to you yesterday, and physically speaking at least, nothing has actually changed. She was a collection of photons and algorithms yesterday, and she will be tomorrow. Is it really that important what she's made of to you?”

“John…” Leon's voice was surprisingly serious now, “you told me you loved her.”

“I do.”

“But…you can't!”

Carter felt his face screw into a frown. “Why the Hell not, Doctor?” Carter stood, and stepped toward Cromwell's desk. He placed his palms on Cromwell's desk and leaned in. “Maybe I misjudged you, Leon,” he said ominously, “but tell me this… Has Shannon ever made you laugh? Have you ever looked forward to seeing her come to work? Would you miss her if she was gone?”

Leon balked again. “I WOULD, but…”

“Then how is she not real?” John stood up and started pacing slowly. “It's so simple Leon. You thought she was real. I sure as Hell did. The whole damn ship did! So, she might as well be.” John stopped moving and braced himself against the back of the chair he'd been sitting in. “Are you telling me Organians aren't real just because they don't have bodies like ours?”

“Ok, ok… I'll concede that you have a point”, Leon said with a wave. “But how is this even possible? She's been outside sickbay, and the holodeck. I've had dinner with the woman! There's no remote emitter, no nothing!”

“Actually, I asked Vic about this a while ago. I suspected something was up when Shannon wouldn't go on shore leave with me, during the second re-fit, so I decided to occupy my time with something else. You remember what I told you about the Cestus Mutiny?”

Cromwell confirmed with a nod “God, what a mess…”

“In order to get the ship back under our control, Vic and Pakita had to get…crafty.”

Cromwell couldn't help but smile at the twinkle in John's eye. “Right,” Cromwell recalled. “Something about re-booting the ship's computer core?”

“More than that,” John continued. “Turns out Republic used to be the Saratoga.”

Cromwell audibly gasped. “But Saratoga was lost during the War with the Dominion!”

Carter shook his head. “She was abandoned, not lost. After the war, the saucer was recovered, and a new star-drive was attached.”

Cromwell looked askance at Carter's revelation. “But, that's not SOP, is it? At MOST, the saucer would have been refit for a Nebula Class…”

John smiled at his friend's knowledge of procedure. “I'll be damned,” he chuckled, “someone's almost ready for the command test.”

“Are you going to finish this or not?”

“Ok”, Carter said, sitting back in the chair in front of Cromwell. “I had Vic look up the specs of the Sara, and he had trouble getting to them.”

“Trouble? Like what?”

“All he's been able to piece together is that before the war, Saratoga was a test bed for a lot of cutting-edge tech, including a ship-wide holographic communication network. It even covered the auxiliary craft.”

Leon nodded. “But how did Shannon become…Shannon? I've never seen any holodeck program that reacts the way she does.”

“Vic's not sure. Best guess is some new kind of AI programming in the core.”

As John laid out the pieces for Leon, the two officers could hear the soft `swish' that most people in the 24th century knew was the initialization of a holo-field. Seconds later, Shannon Harris walked out from behind the partition that separated Leon's office from the main Sickbay ward. Harris marched straight toward John Carter.

“You knew. This whole time, you knew and you didn't let on?”

Carter stood up and looked Shannon in the eye. “Why would I?” he asked. “So, I knew you were a hologram, so what? I knew, you knew, so why does that matter?”

Harris felt her head drop slightly. “It really doesn't matter to you, does it?”

Carter simply shook his head.

“That settles it,” Leon muttered from his desk, still not quite sure what to make of the revelations he'd witnessed. “You Martians are weird.”

John tilted his head in Cromwell's direction. “Actually, we prefer the term `independent'.”

Shannon stepped closer to Carter and smiled. “Well, thank you for being either of those things, John.” Then she turned to Leon. Harris took a long moment to regard the Doctor, braced herself, and then asked, “So, where do we go from here, Leon?”

It was hard for Leon to swallow. A trusted colleague of almost a year – someone he considered a friend – was not the flesh-and-blood human he thought she was five minutes ago. There were no oxygenated blood cells pumping through her arteries. No nervous system, no muscular-skeletal structure, no organs. Just a computer-derived collection of accelerated photons that were quantum-inverted to resonate mass, density, and volume. THAT's who his staff pediatrician was. THAT's who Lieutenant Commander Shannon Harris was.

Leon stared at the wall for nearly a minute while John and Shannon patiently waited for him to gather his thoughts.

“It just doesn't make sense,” he finally mumbled before turning around to face Shannon again. “You're a Starfleet officer. You were born in Australia, and attended Starfleet Academy. You're in the Federation databanks as a regular citizen! How can you be a hologram?”

“Wasn't Commander Data of the Enterprise a Federation citizen?” Shannon asked with a touch of defiance in her voice.

“The first artificial life-form given that honor, if I recall,” John added his support.

“Not to mention the Voyager Doctor,” reminded Shannon.

“But that's different,” the CMO replied. “His program is documented. He was granted citizenship under the same circumstances as Data. His origins were never in question. You, however, have a HUMAN background . . . a FALSE background. A background of someone that you're NOT. You've been living a life based on a lie!”

“And why shouldn't I have the same opportunities as a human?” Shannon remarked with an edge to her voice. “Just because I was programmed in a computer and not born from a placenta doesn't mean I'm any less deserving of a regular life!”

“But you didn't HAVE to live a lie! You could have stated what you were, and not falsified records!”

“You would've liked that, wouldn't you?” she scolded. “If I told you who I was, and made any noise about how I should be treated like a normal humanoid, you would have brushed me off like you do the ship's Mark 19 EMH. You would have simply uttered those oh-so-convenient words `deactivate EMH' and all of your troubles would simply disappear. No sir. Not me. I'M in control of my life. Not just anyone who needs a splinter removed at the snap of a finger. And for your information doctor, I've NEVER lied. I've NEVER talked about my origins to anyone. You simply assumed that I was human based on those records which I DIDN'T have anything to do with.”

“Wait,” interrupted John. “Are you saying you're not responsible for fabricating your human record?”

“That's right. When I reported on board, my file was already in the computer, and from that basis, followed through with my programming as a medical officer under my own volition.”

“Reported on board?” Leon replied. “Don't you mean activated?”

Looking back at her CMO coldly, Shannon quipped, “It depends on how you look at it. I was activated on stardate 55890.2. The same date as when the Republic's computer core went online during its refit from Saratoga while in drydock. If you'll notice, my Starfleet record indicates that date as the day I reported onboard.”

“So that's it?” Leon questioned. “One day, POOF, you just started showing up in sickbay?”

“At first, all I did was treat the minor wounds of the refit crew. No one bothered me with any questions, and whoever programmed my personnel file had also assigned me quarters on board the ship. Why shouldn't I have used them? It was in my programming to live my life like any other human. It all appeared very natural to me. Back then, I might have told someone that I was a hologram if they had only asked. Later, as I took over CMO duties, medical personnel started reporting in. They introduced themselves, and I greeted them as a colleague of equal stature. When Doctor Yezbeck came on board a month before we launched, he took over the CMO reins from me. By then, I had realized who I was, especially when I saw Saal upload the Mark 19 for the first time.” Shannon's toned turned sour. “The way he treated it . . . like a simple machine. A medical tricorder had more respect in his eyes. After that, I realized I had to avoid talking about my past, and to come up with excuses for not leaving the ship.”

Leon felt guilt creeping into his chest. Like Saal, he also treated the EMH like dirt. It was only activated . . . HE was only activated . . . when Leon had no choice, sending him to do his bidding, and shutting him down when he was no longer needed. It never occurred to him – even based on the Voyager missions – that a hologram, if selectively programmed to have a free will, can evolve to the point of sentience like any organic being. And while the ship's EMH may have not been online and active as long as Shannon or the Voyager Doctor, it too had the potential to become a living organism if only given the chance.

“If you're the ship's medical hologram, why do we have the Mark 19?” Leon asked in a softer, more conciliatory voice. The acceptance of the truth about Shannon was starting to sink in as he began to sympathize with her position.

“I don't know,” Shannon shook her head. “He doesn't have the range around the ship that I do. His program can't access the old Saratoga intra-ship holomatrix. I don't even think he's aware of it. For that matter, I don't think he's even aware of ME. In fact, because we both use the same projection buffer in sickbay, his program can't run when I'm in the same room. Regardless, when Saal uploaded him prior to our launch, he became Republic's official EMH. Believe it or not, I'm fine with it. In fact, I prefer it that way so no one goes snooping around MY holomatrix.”

“A disguise,” John commented. “For a condition that most of the crew would prejudice you against.”


“That explains the problems we've been having with the EMH,” Leon concluded. “We thought it was a software problem.”

“Nope, it was just me. When he's active, and I have to enter the room, I'm forced to close down his program so I can maintain my own matrix. It's nothing personal.”

“So you have control over ship functions?” Leon asked. “Is that how you could manipulate my diagnostic equipment just now?”

“Nothing high-level,” Shannon admitted. “Just a few medical systems that can handle my interface, and some secondary systems that the rest of the humanoid crew have regular access to. No different than a crewmember using a control panel with their fingers. It's just faster when I do it without having to maintain my holographic body.”

“So,” started John, while resting his elbows on his knees. “If you can access the old Saratoga intra-ship holomatrix, and the EMH can't, does that mean you were programmed . . . born . . . on the Sara?”

“As far as I can tell, I'm just a computer remnant of when Republic was the Saratoga. Mind you, a rather *large* remnant, but a remnant nonetheless.”

“You're a ghost, then?” John smiled. “From a ghost ship?”

“I guess you can say that, yes.”

“What happened to Saratoga?” Leon shifted the subject slightly. “Did you serve as the official EMH on that ship?”

“I don't really remember very much,” Shannon admitted with a subdued frown. “I can only recall an occasional image from daily life. The computer core was heavily damaged.”

“Wiped clean, or so the salvage report said,” interjected John. “But there was no record of you. At least, not in any report that my security clearance gave me access to.”

“Question is,” the doctor remarked. “Who activated you? Who created you?”

“In either case, I don't know. I only know that I 'am'. That I exist. That I'm here, and that I have a job to do and a life to live. Even if part of it happens to be in secret.”

“Sounds like a solid case of sentient, intelligent life to me,” John smiled at her.

With ambivalence giving way to blushing, Shannon returned the smile. “Flirt.”

“Who else knows?” Leon finally asked the uncomfortable question.

“Just you two,” Shannon returned. “I've been avoiding our new counselor like the plague, though. If Commander Tolkath lays eyes on me even once and doesn't pick up any thoughts, my secret is blown.”

“Right,” John concluded. “I'm crossing you off the list for annual psych evals.”

“What about the captain?” Leon had a knack for cutting through to the end chase. “She'll have to know eventually. Especially after that speech she gave about the Kuga-Jenkins fiasco. A secret like this could almost be a court-martial offense in her eyes.”

“Give her some credit, Leon.”

Amused astonishment washed over Leon's face. “Credit?” he exclaimed with raised eyebrows. “THIS from a man who just finished explaining about how 'suspiciously unemotional' she was at Hawk's funeral?”

“Hey!” John responded defensively. “The chief and I were only swapping theories. It was you that busted our bubble. Besides, the captain knows all too well about court martial procedures, and I think she'll understand the tough position Shannon is in.”

“So what do we do?” said Leon, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I'm involved here on a personal level, so I'm not sure if I can be considered unbiased,” John admitted. “One of the reasons I haven't said anything up until now is because I feel strongly that Shannon has a right to privacy on this issue. As a physician, I'm sure you can understand.”

“Are you kidding?” Leon remarked sardonically. “Do we seriously keep everyone in the dark about a sentient holographic program that roams the corridors of the ship with a falsified Starfleet personnel record as camouflage from not being human?”

“Leon!” shouted Doctor Harris.

“I know it sounds harsh, Shannon, but it's the truth. By your own admission, you're a computerized fragment from this ship's past that no one onboard knew about until this evening except John. It affects the crew, and it affects the captain's perception of her own vessel. How can we, in good conscience, claim this to be `personal in nature'?”

“Because Shannon is sprocking alive!” gritted John. “She's a person with rights!”

“A person whose very existence is tied to the proper functioning of this ship,” explained Leon. “There are so many things that can go seriously wrong by the crew's perception that Shannon is a living, breathing human independent of the ship's higher computer functions. What if we lost the processor core in the middle of an operation? What if an alien computer virus took over Shannon's program and started to wreak havoc? What happens when the engineering crew eventually stumbles upon her program in the computer core? Not to mention when she and Counselor Tolkath inevitably cross paths? What will we tell everyone then?” He looked tensely at both John and Shannon, waiting for them to speak. “Well? Do you have an answer? I sure as hell don't!”

The three officers mulled over the situation in silence. Each of them had their own reasons to be reproachful about Shannon's revelation, and each didn't like the idea of being backed into a corner on the issue of morality. Yet, in spite of the repercussions, one of them actually felt good that the secret was finally revealed. Shannon, herself, had been hiding this for well over two years, not knowing who she could trust. Finally, two people whom she cared a great deal about were privy to the information, and they had accepted her for who she was. Despite humanity's current prejudice towards photonic life forms, these two individuals still treated her as if she was one of their own – as a friend. From her point of view, there could only be one way to return their generosity.

“I'll tell the captain . . .” Shannon finally stated with trepidation. “I'll let her make the decision of who should know.”

“Are you sure?” John asked.

“Yes,” she replied quietly. “Despite what Captain Roth told you about keeping secrets, she's about to reveal one of her own to both of you . . .”

“What do you mean?” the two men said in unison.

“I didn't figure it out myself until my sub-routines picked up the activation of the closed- circuit transporter system in the isolation room early this morning.”

“What are you talking about?” Leon demanded.

At about that time, Julian Bashir abruptly entered the room with a soberly serious expression on his face.

“Don't you know how to knock?” Leon criticized him sharply.

“Sorry, doctor. But, I think you're going to want to see this . . .”

Chapter 30: Confessions and ConfrontationsTop

In her condition, Cha'rik struggled to hold up Hawk in addition to herself as they stood the main ward of sickbay. Two nurses came running to aid her and took control over the lieutenant. She barely made it to a bio-bed herself before the pain started to kick in full swing. Her legs felt weak and all she wanted to do was curl up and sleep after that fight with the Syndicate assassin. It wasn't because the fight was short, or just exactly where she was hit, or the fact that she had been out of the loop for such a long time. She just felt old doing what she was doing now, as she had been doing it for most of her career. It didn't take long for Bashir to walk back into the main ward after letting Doctor Cromwell know what had happened, and it made her cringe for a moment realizing what soon was to come.

Aided by a pair of medical technicians, the risen Lieutenant Nathan Hawk eased himself onto one of the central bio-beds with the last remains of his own physical strength. He allowed his eyes to close, as if by doing such, he would conserve that much more energy.

He knew everyone would have questions, but at the moment, he had no strength to answer them. As he lay there, hearing the hushed voices of others throughout the room, the sounds of medical equipment, the sounds of the tricorder being passed over him, he found that for the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt safe.

Roth, Yezbeck, and Bashir had gone above and beyond any expectations he had ever had of anyone doing anything. They had literally raised him from the dead. He had grown to consider John Carter and Leon Cromwell as friends since he had come aboard. Now he added Roth, Yezbeck and Bashir to that list, despite the fact that he knew little of them personally.

Though he wasn't yet certain, he thought it likely that the Vulcan he knew as Cha'rik also may have had something to do with this all as well. Certainly, she had been the one to eliminate his assassin, which was enough to place him in her debt.

“Are you insane?” asked Saal Yezbeck in a hushed tone of voice, as he leaned in close to Hawk's ear.

Hawk had neither the strength nor reason to open his eyes as he replied, “Depends on who ya ask.”

Before Yezbeck could scold him further for his departure AMA, another voice asked the sixty-thousand-dollar question.


The question had come from Republic's First Officer, who was the first one to speak. As the commotion outside Leon's office continued to brew, John Carter simply stood against the back wall, trying to stay out of the way, not to mention make sense of everything that was going on.

Carter glanced behind the partition that parked Leon's office, noting that Shannon had left. John thought about that for a moment, but reasoned that as a pediatrician, Shannon might only be an extra body in an already crowded Sickbay. Besides. if Leon really needed her, he knew now that she would literally be right around the corner.

In one bio bed, he saw Leon Cromwell, tending to Republic's Chief Science Officer. How the young Vulcan woman got herself in trouble was anyone's guess, but right now John had bigger problems. In the next bio bed over was a living, apparently breathing, and, as far as Carter could tell, a very much alive Nat Hawk.

There was tension in Sickbay. Whenever patients were involved, there was always going to BE tension, but this was different. Normally, the current of emotions came from not knowing whether a patient was going to live or die. This time however, the doubt came from somewhere else.

Mere days ago, Republic's entire compliment had begun to come to terms with Nat Hawk's sudden and violent death. Even now, as he scanned the situation, Carter could feel the slow boil of rage climbing up his gut. Nat Hawk was alive, and someone had attacked his ship's Science Officer. Quickly, John compared what he knew with what his eyes (now both fully functional, thanks to Leon) told him. Anyway he looked at it, there was something he didn't know, and as the XO of Republic, that upset him a great deal.

Given the previous revelations of the day, John had expected Leon Cromwell's anger at “intruders” in his sickbay (one of whom had been certified dead for quite a while) to be swift, terrible, and above all loud. In point of fact, it was none of those things. Carter looked on as Leon Cromwell simply did what doctors do. He saw to his patients.

After seeing that Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik was out of danger, Leon met John's penetrating gaze with one of his own, then glanced up to the room's ceiling. “You better check in with the Captain,” Cromwell said coolly. “I'm SURE that she'll will want to be…. advised of everything.”

“Right.” Carter said with a nod. “I'll be in touch.” Carter nodded and spun on his heel, headed for the nearest turbolift.

Inside the turbolift, Carter leaned against the curved bulkhead, and weighed his options. As he spent long seconds in thought, he heard the soft whisper of a resolving hologram. “Is this what you meant?” he asked the reformed Shannon. “About the Captain keeping secrets? You think she knew about this?”

Shannon nodded. “I'm pretty sure. There are no orders to the effect,” she explained, stepping closer to Carter, placing her hand on his shoulder, “but if you consider who was looking over Hawk in Sickbay before Leon looked in on things…” her voice trailed off, as if she may have already betrayed a confidence.

“Who? Bashir and Saal?” Carter questioned. “What about them?”

Harris looked into Carter's eyes. “Come on John,” she offered, “you HAVE to have read Saal's file by now. There's a lot of stuff missing.”

She had a point, Carter knew. Plus, over the months, Saal Yezbeck had done a very good job of not being noticed. So much so that Carter found he was beginning to take the seasoned physician for granted; handy talent for a spy to have, if Shannon was right about him. “Hmm,” John murmured. Then his thoughts turned to Bashir.

Julian Bashir, as far as anyone in Starfleet knew, was one of the Best of the Best (sir). He'd taken a post on Deep Space Nine as an able, if over-eager 'frontier doctor' and over the years had found himself on the front lines of not only the Dominion War, but also the Gowron Mutiny, and the Bajoran Secession, however brief it may have been.

There had been rumors that Bashir was somehow favored, but from what John could tell it wasn't political connections. While there was no denying that he was a gifted physician, as well as quite personable (indeed, Carter had to admit that he'd come to like Doctor Bashir quite a bit) there didn't seem to be too much about the man that Carter hadn't come to expect from anyone in Starfleet.

Bashir was a model officer and doctor. Just like Saal Yezbeck.

“Damn it.” Carter hissed as the turbolift opened to the bridge.

Kim Roth was there, waiting, with Smoke, her bright-eyed companion perched comfortably on her shoulder. “Everything all right in Sickbay, Commander?” Her tone was inquisitive. Not accusing.

The disarming calm of her voice caught Carter off guard, but he knew that the things he had to admit, as well as the questions he wanted answered, would have to be addressed in private. “I think we need to discuss a few things, Captain,” he said a bit too formally.

“Fine by me,” Roth said as the headed down the ramp to the Command Deck. She glanced over at Reia Merrick. “Ops,” she said smoothly, “you have the bridge.”

Inside the Ready Room, Roth moved smoothly to her desk, pausing a moment for smoke to slide, like furry, supple ink, onto the top of Roth's office chair. “So,” she said as she sat, “Hawk's alive?”

Carter simply blinked, not expecting that she would beat him to the punch. “Uh… yes, actually.” There were two chairs in Roth's office on the other side of the desk. He didn't sit. Instead, he braced his arms on the back of the chair and leaned forward. “Would you care to explain how that can be, Captain?” Carter's tone had no hint of humor.

Roth's face screwed into a bit of a frown, and she clucked her tongue. “For what it's worth, Carter, I'm sorry.”

John nodded.

“But it really was the best way, in my opinion, to handle the situation.”

“Any particular reason you kept me out of the loop? How could you let us go through the charade of a funeral? Grozit! We gave the man a fly-by for Gods'sake!”

Roth sat back in her chair, surprised that Carter's tirade was so measured. “Two reasons, Commander,” she offered. “One, we weren't sure, at least initially, how many Syndicate Operatives, or even hired guns for that matter, their were onboard. Second,” now, Roth couldn't help but let a crooked smile cross her face, “you're a rotten liar, John.”

“Excuse me?” Carter blurted out.

Roth waved her hand and smiled, not dismissively, but warmly. “Commander, you're good at a lot of things, and God help the enemies of the Federation when you get a ship of your own, but as strong as you are, there are some things you shouldn't do.”

Carter cocked his head to the side. “Uh, thank you?”

Roth propped her elbows on her desk and rested her chin on her hands.

“I've seen you work for a few months now, Carter,” she explained. “I know damned well that this crew isn't really mine. They're yours.”

Carter rolled his eyes, afraid of where the conversation might be turning. “Now hang on a minute Captain. I'd never…”

Roth nodded. “I know you're not after my job, Commander,” she said, “but I also know that this crew would march lock-step out the main shuttle bay if you told them to. Because they trust you.” Kim paused a moment to let her words sink in.

“After everything this ship's been through, all the shake-ups in command and staffing, the manipulation of Cestus and Sigma Omicron V, the crew knows, to a man, that you will always shoot straight with them. I didn't want to take that from you.”

Carter shook his head. “No, you could have…”

“John,” Roth continued, “in order to give us some breathing room and ferret out Hawk's assassin. He had to die. What's more, the crew had to BELIEVE he was dead, which means you had to believe it.”

Carter dropped his head, genuinely surprised. “Wow.”

“I don't think you realize how lucky you are, XO.” Roth commented. “Most ships function on discipline. The idea that you do what the captain says because that's your training, and that's your Captain. End of story.”

Roth placed her hands back down on the desktop. “You, on the other hand could tell the crew to meet you on Romulus, dressed for war, and they'd go!”

Carter couldn't help a smile at that thought.

“Trust me when I tell you, that's a damn rare thing. Actually,” she admitted, “I'm a little envious.”

Chapter 31: Re-AdjustingTop

In sickbay, Leon was shaking off the shock of two photon torpedo-sized bombshells dropped on him within the space of 15 minutes. He had just begun to accept the truth behind the non-corporeal nature of one colleague, when he was suddenly faced with the renewed corporeality of another. His first inclination when laying eyes on Nat Hawks' body was to ask why they had beamed his casket back on board, but when he saw the bio-monitors registering activity, his mouth dropped open while his brow curled into a deep furrow. After going through three different operational tricorders to confirm that the body was alive and that the instrumentation wasn't malfunctioning, Julian Bashir spent about two minutes explaining to Leon the resurrection procedure to the CMO, without much response.

“How do you feel?” Leon asked the former helmsman, still slightly unconvinced that it was the real Nat he was talking to.

“Like shit,” Hawk replied, “how d'ya think I feel?” he retorted. “I got stabbed, poisoned, spent a couple hours as a corpse, b'fore gettin' brought back from the dead; it's like every hangover I ever had came back ta bite me on the ass, then karma took it's time bitch-slappin' me 'round.” Hawk explained, with obvious effort.

Although he didn't fully understand all of the lieutenant's vernacular, the response helped to solidify Leon's grip on reality, and that Nat had indeed staged a miraculous rebirth. And while the doctor was of course happy to see he was alive, a renewed knot of anxiety began stewing in the pit of his stomach. It was guilt. Guilt that there was nothing he could have done to save Nat in the first place, compounded by the realization that he had absolutely no part in bringing a former patient back from beyond the grave.

“Thought we lost you there,” the doctor managed to say with a lump forming in his throat.

“Ya, you, me an Jim Kirk.” Nat acknowledged, not explaining the latter inclusion. “Bashir an Yezbeck pulled some sorta rabbit outta their med-kit, though. Damned if I understand any of the how,” he informed Cromwell.

“Yes,” his telltale brow-furrow reforming. “About that . . .” While Leon's guilt was strong, it was quickly being overrun by the rising fury against the men who had kept the secret from him. He turned his head towards Saal, and shot him a long, penetrating stare of betrayal.

For his part, Doctor Saal Yezbeck knew this was coming. He looked down to the floor with a twinge of regret, biting down softly on his upper lip while he scratched his beard.

“I'd like to have a word with you, doctor,” Leon finally said, not turning his eyes away from Saal. “In my office.”

The last three words validated the universal assumption that Leon was beyond infuriated. And as the two physicians began walking towards the door, the CMO glanced in Bashir's direction with such animosity that he was barely able to suppress the urge to expel him from sickbay.

In the office, no sooner did the doors slide shut than did Leon begin his invective against Doctor Yezbeck. “How . . . dare . . . you . . .” Leon growled through gritted teeth.

“Look, Leon . . .”

“Don't ‘Leon' me!” he spat back. “Last time I checked, the sickbay was supposed to be run by ME! It's bad enough I had Lieutenant Merrick stealing tissue samples from the lab, but what's this crap about you using the isolation room transporter to make a slab of meat out of Hawk's DNA?”

Leon was still bitter over the lost tissue samples from Kuga, and while the revelation about Shannon wasn't as outrageous, this most recent surprise was highlighting a disturbing trend in his mind: Leon no longer felt that he was in control of his own department anymore.

“Did it ever occur to you that there might have been some ethical questions involved in that?” Leon continued his tirade. “Not to mention what you and Bashir did to Hawk himself? The man is now, for all intensive purposes, a walking CORPSE!”

Saal did not respond, feeling that there was little he could add to calm his boss. Instead, he stood there, resolved to take the abuse blow by blow.

“I haven't been this angry since Captain Marshall beamed me off the Zurich!” shouted Leon, as he took a random swipe at a deactivated PADD on his desk. The instrument fell to the floor with a clatter, but not before leaving a stinging pain in his hand, as it was the appendage he had injured the day before when Lieutenant Hawk died on the operating table.

“He saved your life,” Saal commented softly, wishing immediately that he hadn't.

Glaring at Saal, the pain in his hand subsided as Doctor Cromwell cursed under his breath. “He put the lives of three dozen patients in jeopardy that weren't stable enough for transport! Or have you forgotten that? How many of them did you have to perform emergency bypasses on when their circulatory systems collapsed? Seven? Or was it Eight?”

“I know that you're probably not going to be able to forgive me for this, but…”

“Forgive you??” Leon hissed with incredulity. “You and Bashir conspired against me on that diagnostic bed yesterday morning! You lied to me when you injected him with that hypospray! It wasn't the antidote I asked for, was it?”


“So, instead of following the orders of the lead physician on the case, you went out on your own?”


“And tell me, how is that in accordance with your Hippocratic Oath?”

“He was already dead,” Saal reasoned. “His life functions were on full support, and the toxin was shutting down every neuron in his brain. It was only a matter of time. Bashir had to act quickly.”

Leon's eyes widened. “So it was Bashir??” He screamed so loud that it was enough to reverberate beyond the office and into the main ward beyond. “Is THAT whose orders you're following now??”

“No,” Saal answered calmly. “He was under orders too.”

“The captain?” Leon asked, remembering Shannon's foreshadowing of a secret. “Is that who?”

“Yes, and she was under orders from even higher.”

“You mean you're ALL taking orders from a cloistered fool with a braid?” Leon mocked Roth's anti-conspiracy speech she made following the Kuga-Jenkins tragedy.

With a hesitant nod, Saal confirmed Leon's assertion. “Yes. But it's not what you think. There's a lot more at stake here than anyone realizes . . .”

Leon rubbed his eyes with excruciating frustration. He had heard that line one too many times in his dealings with Starfleet, and he had heard enough. Two bombshells was his limit for the day, and with resolve to take the subject to the captain next, he handed down a reprimand to his second-in-command of sickbay.

“You're off rotation until further notice. Report to Fernmoore for ward duty.”

It was a blow to be taken out of a leadership position, but Yezbeck was tough-skinned. In his opinion, it was better than being banned from sickbay altogether, so he assumed Leon still had some trust for him.

“I understand,” Doctor Yezbeck offered in compliance.

“No, Saal,” Leon returned with controlled, yet unrelenting anger in his voice. “I don't think you do.” Without another word, Leon left the room, leaving Yezbeck to stand alone in the office.

“Well,” Bashir began, looking a little uneasy, “I suppose today is a day of firsts. Not just one fallen officer back from beyond, but two, in a way” he commented to Cha'rik as she lay on the biobed, trying and failing to use humor to ease the tension after Doctor Cromwell's raging voice sounded throughout the entire ward. Casting a glance at the office door, Leon Cromwell emerged fuming and determined, marching straight out the main doors to sickbay without saying a word. A moment after the CMO left, Saal Yezbeck slowly wandered out of the office looking sullen and quiet, and found his way to Nat Hawk's biobed to tend to the ailing helmsman. Despite his 'seniority' in Hawk's medical miracle, Julian was glad Yezbeck had taken it upon himself to fill in his superior, as it spared Bashir from Cromwell's immediate wrath.

“In a way,” Cha'rik responded quietly to Julian's attempt at humor. She had been sworn to a certain level of secrecy about being who she was especially after a death order had been issued on her head. In a sense, it had been completed,

“I don't suppose it would make things easier if you knew that I've been fully briefed concerning your… situation… would it?” Julian asked. “Because the Admiral, whom you met with on Vulcan, was indeed the brains of this particular operation. If that's of any relief.” Bashir lifted a medical tricorder and began to scan Cha'rik, professional instinct taking charge over personal discomfort.

She looked at him oddly. “Not really. It would not surprise me of that situation, seeing how little I was really briefed on the situation and the process used. The Admiral never ceases to amaze me.” She took a deep breath to help ease the pain that was coursing through her body. “It is nice to see you again, Julian.”

Surprised at her reaction considering the ethical issue at hand, Julian considered the possibility that she was not yet aware of her level of involvement in things. Most specifically, Hawk's resurrection. “Arria…” he began, as he loaded a hypospray with a pain-killer, ”…Are you' aware of just why, exactly, the Admiral chose you for this assignment over everyone else at his disposal?” he questioned, as he injected the medication, noticing a decrease in blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension within expected levels as the pharmaceutical coursed through her veins.

“Probably because I have been trained on how to keep a situation under control, the fact that we needed someone that knows how important this situation is, and the fact that I am packing plenty of nanoprobes. Just a guess though. I am assuming that you are here for being a master at your craft,” she stated as she started relaxing a bit from the pain medication that he administered.

Nodding, Bashir activated a tissue regenerator and began to pass it over one of the soft-tissue wounds, “It was actually a paper I co-authored with the Voyager EMH that inspired the Admiral. The 'resurrection' technique which we utilized was originated their - aboard Voyager - during their tenure in the Delta Quadrant. Although in those circumstances, it was a post-mortem move of desperation, where as here, we anticipated the Lieutenant's 'assasination' and prepared for that eventuality. It's all really quite amazing, especially when you consider…” realizing he was rambling about medical matters once more, Bashir stopped himself as he switched to a series of bruises and continued to administer treatment. ”…my point in broaching the subject, originally, is to… I suppose, to offer some sort of apology for the method in which we… I… used you.” he said, finding the words difficult. Putting down the soft tissue regenerator, he retrieved an osteo regenerator, but paused before tending to the broken ribs. “I know you may not feel an apology is required due to your sense of duty or logic or… whatever else. I know… more than you might be aware of… about the things people are capable of when they allow their beliefs to override their judgement, their ethics, and… I wanted you to know that was not the case here. I'm glad Lieutenant Hawk is alive, but I'm not proud of how it was accomplished.” he told her.

“I would have offered them if asked, but I understand why what was done and how it happened. With everything that I have been through, it is not uncommon to be tossed into the unknown.” She looked at him. “At least we were prepared for the unfortunate. For all they are concerned, he is dead just like me. At least now he has a better chance of surviving the never-ending battle.”

“Better even than that, actually,” Bashir replied, feeling somewhat redeemed by her understanding. As he tended to her ribs, he explained, “The main reason I agreed to take part in this… 'conspiracy' - for lack of more appropriate term - was that besides saving the Lieutenant's life, his 'death' would have positive effects for the Alpha Quadrant. I'm not sure if you know much about the Lieutenant's importance, but it would seem he's the key witness against Keevan Faro and, by association, the entire Orion Syndicate. This Faro apparently has been in hiding since his indictment, but with Hawk 'dead' said indictments will be dismissed and Faro will resurface. At least, that's what the Admiral is hoping for, as are we all. If everything goes according to plan, Starfleet will be able to capture Faro while Republic remains on assignment in the Gamma Quadrant and Hawk remains deceased. At which point the Federation can bring him to justice, Hawk can 'return from the grave' and offer his testimony, and I've been lead to believe this Faro's conviction would be the start of a chain reaction that may well damage or even destroy the entire foundation of the Syndicate.”

“That is pretty much what I have come to believe as well. Hopefully all will work as planned and we can have somewhat normal life to return to the Alpha Quadrant. However, I do not know what will happen.”

Just as Julian was about to say something, he was interrupted by Security and Lieutenant Beauvais entering Sickbay. She directed the two security officers around the impostor science officer. She walked over herself looking between the two of them. “Is she medically fit for transport?”

Slowing, not sure what was going on, Bashir replied. “Yes, she is.”

“Good. Lieutenant Commander Cha'rik, you are under arrest for murder. You are to come with me,” Zoe ordered. She was going to get to the bottom of this, and she didn't care what she was going to have to do to get answers. She had heard of the fight, and had found the mess that was on its way to the morgue. She wanted answers, and she didn't care what it was going to take to get them. This all happened on her watch, and it wasn't fair to those that had been affected by the tragedy aboard the Republic.

The two guards escorted the impostor of a science officer out of sickbay and to the Brig.

It was an unusual experience, to watch one's own funeral. It wasn't what he had expected it to be. He had lived his life fast and hard, knocking over anyone in his way. He had always presumed that, when he died - likely as a direct result of some stupid risky stunt of his own creation - he would be memorialized, at best, by a round of drinks from the few pilots who could tolerate him. Nothing more grandiose, and certainly he would not be truly missed by anyone. Or so he had always thought. The reality of watching your own funeral taught him different. He had seen it in Leon's face, heard it in his voice; that raw emotion that he never expected to elicit from anyone. Adjusting to the fact that he could actually be cared for and, vice-versa, care for others, would take him some time.

So much had happened in the time he had been aboard the Republic. So much had changed; and for once, for the better. He had always lived his life on the edge of existence, always pushed every boundary and taken the risks no one else thought sane. He had become so notorious for such that he had been branded as having a death wish; a brand that he, in classic Nat Hawk style, took upon himself as a pilot call sign in defiance. It had been true, though; he had had a death wish. The pain of his life had been such that the prospect of a 'heroic' death in battle seemed the perfect way out of things. An end to the anguish and rage that fueled him without the stigma or waste of suicide. Though, as he thought on it now, it was a bit ironic to give a rats ass about the stigma of what others thought of him post-mortem.

Irony, like tragedy, like risk, was a recurring theme of his life, though. A part of him hated Starfleet, even now, and yet it was within it's ranks that he had come to find as much peace as he had known since childhood. He had made a career of taking risks beyond the realm of survival and had always survived them; and now, it seemed, not even death could hold on to him. Logically, he knew better; Bashir, Yezbeck and Roth had all been plotting and scheming since just after the Sigma Omicron V mission, when Nat had used up every last iota of good will he had with Starfleet Intelligence. They had prepared for his eventual demise, and planned for the end-result of it rather than try to prevent it, in order to accomplish a far greater goal than simply saving his ass.

Part of him wanted to be angry that the only way to protect him was to, in fact, let him die. He wanted to be angry for never having known prior to this all about their clandestine plans to resurrect him. He couldn't bring himself to direct his oft-surfaced rage at any of them, though. It would be too hypocritical of him to be angry at them for taking such an enormous risk to save him, when he had made a name for himself by taking just such risks himself. There was also a certain brilliance to their plan that Hawk had to admit, he admired. If all went well, word of his demise would reach that bastard Faro within a matter of weeks, and arrogant bastard that he was, he would return to Orion, believing the case against him to be equally dead as he, and allow the authorities to finally apprehend him.

Nat couldn't help but pray that when the time came, he was allowed to personally inform Faro of his status amongst the living. The look on Faro's face would be something he could cherish on cold winter nights when he was old and gray. Something that, until recently, he wasn't sure he would ever even have the chance to do. That was, presuming that Bashir, Yezbeck, and likely now Cromwell as well, could all find a way to repair the damage caused by the toxin that had been the true source of his death. The 'cure' that the dynamic duo had developed was mostly a stop-gap measure, they had told him. While it took the teeth out of the monster, it didn't render it helpless. The toxin was still active on some level within his cells, keeping damage it had caused from being repaired by even the most advanced techniques.

He was alive, though, so he was hardly in a position to complain. Both doctor's claimed to be sure that, with enough time, they would be able to eliminate the last traces of the toxin and reverse the cellular damage that had left him feeling as weak and pained as someone four-times his age. How much of that was them trying to give Hawk hope, and how much of it was medical fact, Hawk didn't want to contemplate at the moment. The assortment of medications and treatments prescribed had already begun to stave off the symptoms and side-effects, which meant that he would begin to feel physically improved within the next few days. Psychologically was another story, though. Though he did not truly understand everything that he had experienced, he had truly gone where no man had gone before - and come back. What that meant for him long-term, he wasn't sure.

Somehow sensing her before he had any reason to know she was present, Nat turned his head towards the door a second before it divided to admit Leah Warner. She had been on his mind constantly, and yet, he had been unable to contact her since the revelation of his status among the living an hour earlier due to his own uncertainty of how to broach the topic of being alive. Their relationship was an enigma to him; their first encounter had been hostile and sarcastic, but the conflict had eased into an uncertain flirtation, and just as quickly, a deep emotional connection that he had never truly experienced with anyone else before. They had both changed through each other, and for the first time in his life, Nathan Hawk knew what it was to truly love someone else without pain being entwined with that love.

For the longest time, they said nothing to each other as they stared at one another in the fairly desolate recovery ward. He could tell she had been upset, and as much as her pain pained him in turn, a part of him relished the reality that he did mean something to her.

“Did you know?” she finally asked him, her voice hushed and her emotions guarded. Though the question was vague, he knew exactly what she was asking.

“No,” he replied with all honesty, “I knew the Cap'n had some sorta plan. Never knew I'd end up dead.”

For a long moment, she simply looked at him, uncertainly. When she finally spoke, it wasn't what he had expected her to say. “I don't think I can do this.”

Confused, Nat furrowed his brow as he asked, “Do what?”

“This,” she said, gesturing from him to herself rapidly, “us,” she clarified, “whatever this is between the two of us. I don't know if I can do it.” she admitted with regret. “Christ, Nathan, you're a walking target. They'll never stop coming after you.” she stated. Shaking her head from side-to-side, she continued, “I can't be with someone that I could loose at any moment. It's one thing to take risks, to be in a career that demands putting your life on the line; I know about that first hand. You… you're something else. Every two-bit thug and hired assassin from here to Rigel 7 would stop at very little to kill you just to collect the bounty on your head. As brave as it is for you to have put yourself at risk like you've done, as much as I admire it… it's too much.” she lamented.

For a long moment, Nat said nothing, as he simply absorbed what Lead had admitted to him. He wanted to be angry, or hurt, or upset; but he had been so through much in just the past few days… he was numb. Not to emotion, certainly not to pain, but to rage and shock. The absence of rage from within himself startled him for a moment. His rage had driven him for so long, in situations he would not have survived without it. The hand-to-hand battle with his unwitting pawn assassin, Evok, on Sigma Omicron V was a prime example.

“Ya know,” he started, pausing to inhale a deep breath, “yer prolly right.” he finally managed, no trace of sarcasm in his voice. “I hate ta use the word, but, logically, ya make a valid argument. A relationship with me s'not a smart thing fer mucha anybody, I'd say. I bring danger ta anybody n'everybody 'round me. Ma shipmates can vouch fer that. Much as I…” hesitating for a moment, Hawk tried to find the appropriate word, ”…much as I care fer ya, I don't want ya ta someday look back on bein' with me as somethin' that only brought ya pain n'grief cause some low-life finally hit the bulls-eye.” he told her.

Nothing else needed to be said.

In an instant, she at his bedside; her lips pressed against his as tears trickled from her eyes.

“I thought I'd lost you,” she choked out, as they switched to an embrace.

“Never,” he whispered into her ear, “you'll never loose me.” he told her, his own words choked.

Pulling back, she looked into his eyes with sadness as she said, “You can't promise that.”

With every ounce of bravado he had, he offered one of his devil-may-care grins as he replied, “I just came back from the dead, babe. If I've gotta do it again n'again ta be with ya, then so be it.”

Despite her tears, she laughed. A sound that made Nathan Hawk feel truly alive again for the first time.

Location: USS Republic, Brig

It had been a few hours since Zoë had locked up the impostor. She finally had her moved from the Brig to the Interrogation room. She was going to get her answers if it was the last thing that she did before she finished up her time here aboard the Republic. She had been placed on the ship to protect it and its crew and yet she failed. She allowed the assassination of Lieutenant Hawk. She even had allowed two impostors and two assassins to live aboard the ship now for the last few weeks without detecting them. They were definitely good at what they did in order to slip by her. That just meant that she had to get better at her job and care less about those around her. She would need to become cold and calculating like them. From afar, Zoë had her arms crossed in front of her chest observing the prisoner disdainfully.

Not only did she hate the woman that sat in front of her, she also blamed herself for allowing all this to happen – especially on her watch. It was not fair to watch everyone suffer the way that they did so that, WHOMEVER that `Operative' worked for; they could achieve mastery in a web of deceit and lies.

The Vulcan that sat in front of her seemed to be looking to the distance, her mind not on the present. Apparently she had been well versed in surviving interrogation techniques. Pain twinges could be seen across her face from time to time as she shifted slightly in her place.

'Serves her right,' Beauvais thought to herself. 'She took the law into her own hands'. Now there would have no one to prosecute but her.

Zoë smiled inwardly. It was her turn now to be the one in control. Finally after watching for a few more minutes, she decided that it was time to take action. `Enough of this sitting around and waiting crap', she said silently.

She entered the interrogation room, with all eyes watching. She had to be careful with how she handled herself. Zoë locked eyes with the Vulcan woman and sat down across from her, setting her hands out in front of her with a small PADD that she could jot down some notes as need be. The room was stark and cold. Metal on all sides, including the reflective table and two chairs that were in there. It was enough that shadows hid from the bouncing light throughout the room.

“Do you know why you are here?”

“Yes. I am under arrest for murder.”

“State your name and your rank.”

The Vulcan woman just raised an eyebrow. “Arria, Daughter of Morverik. Commander, Office of Special Intelligence.”

'Special Intelligence', she thought. 'What in Blazes is that?' She composed her face, determined not to give anything away.

“Why are you here?”

“My orders assigned me here. I was to watch over Lieutenant Hawk for the the information that he held. However, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

“Aren't Intelligence Officers supposed to conceal or misdirect information?” Zoë asked her sternly.

“My orders permit me to explain. To a point,” Arria calmly replied. She brought her elbows to the tabletop, almost making a point to let her sythium manacles tap the metallic tabletop. “There are, however, things I will not divulge.”

In point of fact, Zoë knew, the woman in front of her was a Vulcan, and conventional wisdom said, without fail, that a Vulcan could not be compelled by any known means, to talk if they did not wish to. She decided to stick with the soft approach. “Why did you kill that woman?”


Frustration started to boil beneath her skin, but Zoë took a deep breath. “Do you always follow orders?”

“Are not all Starfleet Officers supposed to?”

“There are no records of an Arria, Daughter of Morverik. Actually,” Zoë explained, “that's not true. The record states that she is deceased,” Zoë declared after getting confirmation from the security officer on the other side of the partition.

“That is because I was murdered as Lieutenant Hawk was. However, at that time in my life, we did not have the technology to revive me. We do now.” She said, matter-of-factly. “My true record is classified and you need special dispensation from Temporal Investigations in order to access it. If you had the clearance to read it.”

Zoë was stunned for a moment. Did a Vulcan just insult her? The Security Chief was pretty sure that was impossible on a molecular level; far too emotional for a Vulcan. Nonetheless, now it was Zoë's turn to dole out how much she knew. “So you are a time traveler?”

Arria breathed normally. “I am not at liberty to discuss that matter. I am here for the murder of a woman who was herself the murderer of Lieutenant Hawk. Anything further is not a topic for discussion.”

“There's nothing to discuss.” Zoë said simply. “I know exactly what you are. Well, besides sloppy.”

There was no emotion on the Vulcan's face, nor did Zoë expect any, but she did FEEL better. “See, the thing about energy…ANY energy… is that it leaves traces. Even when it's from the 33rd century.”

The Vulcan's eyebrow arched slightly before the mask of calm returned to the `Operative's' face.

'Gotcha! Zoë shouted inwardly. “Oh…you, didn't know that Republic's had contact with time travelers? Well, that's a shame.”

'Yep,' Zoë thought, 'this is gonna be one of those days when I love my job!' She tilted her head, shifting her focus to the Operative's eyes.

“Anyway, like I said, everyone leaves clues. It was just a matter of knowing what to look for. That, and the fact that I'm as stubborn as a Capellan Powercat, so trust me when I tell you that we wouldn't be having this conversation if I didn't already have a pretty good idea of not only what you were, but what you might TELL me you were.”

“This is a charade then?” The Vulcan asked. “Fascinating. My superiors would approve.”

“As will mine.”

Zoë then left the briefing room running through the list of answers she'd give the command officers on Republic. She left the room, heading down the corridor to meet with Commander Carter.

Chapter 32: Resolutions & ReservationsTop

fter his intense conversation with Doctor Yezbeck, Leon left the sickbay with the same “get out of my way” march through the corridor he gave when he left it the previous morning when Hawk died on the diagnostic bed. Those unlucky enough to be in the hallway when the doctor passed had to divert towards the wall to avoid being bulldozed. Fortunately, when he arrived at the turbolift, the doors parted quickly enough so that he did not crash through them. Spinning around, Leon shouted his destination.


The silence in the turbolift was only interrupted by the hum of the maglift engine as the cab slipped through the conveyor system on it's way to the destination. Leon had almost hoped there would have been someone in the car so he could grumble at them, but his anger subsided as he found it rather silly to fume when he was the only audience. As his pulse slowed and blood pressure returned to normal, he stared to regain his composure when an electronic whisper sounded over the hum of the lift.

“You were a little hard on Saal,” Shannon commented.

Leon closed his eyes in recognition of the voice. “I suppose I should start getting used to that,” he replied calmly, referring to Doctor Harris' holographic entrance.

“Don't think I was eavesdropping in your office,” she remarked. “The whole sickbay heard you dress him down.”

With a sigh, Leon admitted his temperamental outburst. “I know, but I couldn't let it slide. Not this time. I'm happy that Hawk is alive, but . . . all this secrecy surrounding his death . . . I *hate* mysteries . . .”

“I know,” Shannon consoled him.

Leon's frown returned with an appearance of confusion as he suddenly realized something. “Wait a minute,” he puzzled over Shannon's appearance. “The Mark 19's holomatrix can't be used in a turbolift,” he finally observed. “I reviewed the design specs after I took over the CMO position last year, and the holographic projection system can only be used in specific areas of the ship.”

“There a difference between the *Republic's* holomatrix and *Saratoga's* holomatrix,” Shannon explained. “The Republic system is newer, and is only installed within specific compartments of the ship that are vital to maintain operations, like engineering and the bridge. They're task-specific holo-projectors, linked together within their own computer network routed through sickbay. It's the Starfleet standard that's used on other ships with similar sickbay facilities. The Saratoga system, on the other hand, is older, and runs parallel with the ship's communication system, reaching every nook and cranny of Republic.”

“On the saucer section,” Leon corrected her presumptively. “The newer stardrive section only has the Republic holo-projectors, right?”

“Actually, no,” Shannon stated. “The old Saratoga system was originally meant to double as a holographic communications system. Very similar to what's in the Defiant-class vessels, but more extensive so as to reach the rest of the ship. It was meant to be modular, upgradable, and compatible with standard intercom components. When the new stardrive was connected, all that the ship's main computer had to do was upgrade the software in the com-panels and the old holomatrix had access.”

“You mean everywhere there's an intercom panel, the Sara's intra-ship holomatrix is tied in?” For a brief moment, Leon forgot about his anger about Nat's fake death, and his mind focused again on the puzzle of Shannon's unique predicament.

“Yes,” she replied. “It utilizes the optical A/V circuits of the computer screen and control panel. If it can be tied in to the main computer, my program has access, and I can project myself into that area.”

“So,” Leon speculated, “if the Mark 19 was given access to Saratoga's holomatrix, could it also project itself into the same areas of the ship as you?”

“I don't think so. His software is encoded to prevent cross-platform programming conflicts. Although it makes him less prone to diagnostic errors, he's not very flexible. However, my program is much more dynamic, and can readily utilize different types of computer systems and holographic hardware.”

“This is going to take some getting used to,” Leon grumbled.

“You'll get used to it,” Shannon smiled. “By the way . . . thanks.”

“For what?”

“For accepting me for who I am.”

“Hmph,” snorted Leon, rolling his eyes. “I've had more than my fair share of computers telling me how to run my sickbay. At least I can actually *reason* with one of them for a change.” It was clear he was honored by Shannon's vote of confidence, and his curmudgeonly-laced attitude was obviously overplayed to amuse her.

As the doors to the turbolift parted, Doctors Cromwell and Harris entered the main bridge and headed to the captain's ready room.

“Here we go,” Leon sighed, pressing the entry buzzer.

As the doors parted, Leon and Shannon saw John Carter standing in front of the captain's desk, arms folded, and his face bearing an expression of consternation. Captain Roth, however, seemed much more relaxed; her elbows propped up on the desk, and clasped hands supporting her chin. Wearing an amused grin, the captain greeted the newcomers.

“Well, speak of the devil.”

“I'll wait out here,” Shannon commented before turning away from the door. “Let me know when the conversation turns to . . . other matters.”

Leon nodded before turning back to the captain. “. . . devil?” he questioned while walking into the ready room.

“It's an old Earth expression,” Roth replied. “It means we've been talking about you.”

“Yes, well, it seems old Earth expressions are common here on Republic,” Leon commented with a touch of sarcasm. “In fact, Nat Hawk just used several of them himself when we talked a moment ago in sickbay. While I still don't know exactly what his words meant, knowing Nat, they were probably meant to be vulgar or insulting. Considering that he shouldn't have been talking at all, I'm inclined to use a few of them myself about now.”

Leon took up a similar pose as John in front of the captain's desk; arms folded, and with a “what-have-you-got-to-say-for-yourself” expression on his face.

“I see Doctor Bashir wasted no time in informing you of our little secret when I told him it was safe to do so.”

“Perhaps you'd rather have him be your chief medical officer, instead?”

“Leon . . .” Carter interrupted him with a cautionary tone.

“It's okay, commander,” Roth interjected. “If I were in his position, I'd be angry too.”

“I don't see anything to be angry about,” Leon replied, shrugging his shoulders, and his sarcasm rising from suggestive to outright obvious. “I only had a close colleague die on my operating table. Then, along with the rest of the crew, I was simply tricked into a faux funeral while my medical staff went behind my back and used questionable medical practices to bring a dead person back to life. That's all. I don't see a problem with it.” Leon turned to John. “Do you?”

John smirked slightly. “Well, I don't know that I'm in a position to throw stones just now, Doc.”

Leon huffed in frustration. “Oh,” he paused. “That? That's nothing,” he offered with a casual wave.

Roth's attention shifted between the two officers. “I hate it when I feel like I'm missing something,” she muttered.

“Well,” Leon shot back, hiding MOST of his anger, “I don't imagine THAT'S pleasant at all!”

Roth leaned back in her chair. “Here's a proposal gentlemen,” she offered. “Let's just assume that there are reasons for everything that's going on here,” she leveled her gaze at Carter, “Whatever that might be,” she looked back at Cromwell, “and I will promise not to be insulted when you feel the need to tell me how insulting and 'damned unprofessional' I might have been.”

“Works for me, Captain,” Carter offered.

“Wait!? Leon cried, shooting an 'are you crazy' glance to John. “That's it? You're just going to sit down and say 'Ok' to all this? I should think you'd be furious!”

Carter nodded. “Oh, I'm not happy Doc,” he explained, “but the woman does know how to make her case. You should at least listen to her.”

Leon took a seat at the desk-side sofa as he let out a series of sub-audible grumbles. Across the table, Roth nodded. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“Now, let me say from the start that I am genuinely sorry that I had to keep this plan from the two of you,” Leon bowed up as if he were about to comment, but Roth met his gaze with the briefest pause and a raised eyebrow. The doctor received the non-verbal message, and chose to remain silent.

“It would be too easy to say that there are things neither of you needed to know,” she explained. “None the less, that is the truth, and while I will apologize for needing to do it, you should both know that, given the same options, there is nothing I would do differently.”

Leon could feel gorge rising in his gut, and couldn't hold his temper any longer. “Then what the hell am I doing here?” he blurted before he realized what he had just said. “I guess you just run your damned Shadow Cabinet and let me know when I?m allowed to treat your paper cuts!”

Next to the Doctor, Republic's XO, tilted his head, glaring at his friend, careful to let the right amount of “command voice” give weight to his words. “Leon,” he said firmly. “Listen. To. Her.”

It was not a request.

“I've explained to Commander Carter that my deception in his case specifically was crucial,” continued the captain. “And I believe he understands why I decided to proceed as I did. I also feel that it was crucial to this plan's success that you, Doctor Cromwell had to be lied to.”

Leon's eyebrow arched in surprise. “Well, this should be good!” he muttered.

“Plausible deniability, doctor.” Roth said simply. “Let's say for a moment that my plan to 'kill' Lieutenant Hawk had ended differently; that he could not be saved, or that the assassin were either not ferreted out, or took someone else with him. In that case, 'Fleet would be crying bloody murder for a scapegoat. A duty that not only I, but Doctors Bashir and Yezbeck would have been able to perform, leaving Mister Carter and yourself in position to not only keep the remaining crew safe, but also take care of whatever loose ends might have cropped up.”

Resting on Roth's shoulder, Smoke “bleeked”. “Yes,” Roth nodded with a smile, “that includes you, Stinker.”

Leon waved his hand in front of his face. “Now, hold on,” he said, keeping his voice in check. “Don't make this into some twisted, noble act. You deliberately kept me out of the loop, and just a few days ago, you told all of us that secrets would get us killed!”

Roth felt the sting of her own words forced back at her. Leon was exactly right. After what had come to be called the “Ensign Kuga Debacle”, most of Republic's crew had had their fill of secret projects, black-box tech and the words “need to know”. Roth pushed the distaste away with a grim shake of her head.

“Poor timing on my part Doctor,” she explained, “But at least this way, the crew can hate me, and not all of us.”

Leon still wasn't buying it, and he let his displeasure show. “That's kind of you, Captain, but?”

“But, it's not enough, Doctor?” she shot back. “All right, how's this.” Roth leaned forward. “I just told Carter, and I might as well tell you . . . I know damned well that I'm only a visitor on this ship.”


“Commander Carter has kept this ship together through thick and thin, and you, Doctor, are his conscience. If either of you had lied to the crew, that would be the end of this ship as we know it. But starship captains lie all the time. We have to. And so do you.”

“Ex-CUSE me, Captain?” Leon again blurted out in consternation.

“You've never told a dying man he was fine, just to ease his passing?” she asked frankly, more quietly this time. “Told a grieving mother or son that you'd do everything you could, even though nothing could be done? As I said Doctor, I?m not asking you to like it, nor do I expect you to. I'll even accept that you can't fully trust me anymore, but my reasons were well founded, and your staff did their jobs beyond all expectation.” Roth straightened up and exhaled, letting out a heavy sigh. “From a certain point of view, you should be proud.”

“A certain point of view?”

“It's been my experience Doctor that, despite whatever Fleet might want the Middies to believe, serving out here is very rarely black and white. At any rate, I'm sure I'll answer to my maker when She reads from my book.”

“Well, I've never been a Middie, and I've been dealing with shades of gray each time I've had to deal with Starfleet,” the doctor replied. “Lord knows why I've actually decided to take the bridge officers test, but if I had to guess, it's out of obligation and trust.”

Again, Roth arched her eyebrow.

“That's right,” Leon emphasized. “Trust. I'm fully aware that there are forces in Fleet that are steering the entire Federation towards a black hole, and during my short stay on Earth last year, I was apprised of them by a distant relative.”

Carter frowned, and looked towards his friend. “You never mentioned to me anything about that.”

“Ignorance is bliss, John,” Leon added. “Anyway, trust is a big issue with me ever since I reported on board, and since you were introduced to us by our mutual friend, Admiral Kostya, I've had my eye on you. I'll admit that I was impressed with how you handled the incident with the Tholians, and my respect for you blossomed when you made that speech after the Kuga-Jenkins fiasco. But now . . .” He shook his head. “I just don't know . . . you turned my staff against me . . . made me think that a friend died on my operating table . . . let the whole damned ship think he was dead. It sounds like something Kostya would do.”

Roth's look of interest slowly faded to stoicism when Leon mentioned Kostya's name, and her reaction to the doctor's last few words caused her face to contort into a cold, penetrating scowl. As the captain slowly leaned forward, the atmosphere in the ready room turned frosty enough for Smoke to scramble off her shoulder and seek refuge on the nearby bookshelf.

“You're out of line, doctor.”

Leon had found her sore spot, and he knew it. He got up from the couch to face her with a similar posture by placing his hands on her desk. He was determined to get to the bottom of the ultimate question on his mind. With his voice rising, Leon put his cards on the table. “Are you, or are you not, still working for Kostya?”

“Is that what you think?” the captain returned.

“Sit down, doctor . . .” Carter interjected, but Leon reacted as if he didn't hear him.

“Yes,” Leon said coolly. “That's what I think . . .”

“I said SIT DOWN!”

Slowly, Leon retreated back to the couch, maintaining his glare at Captain Roth.

“As captain,” Roth started after a pause, “I could have simply told you to do exactly as I say on all these past mission, and thrown you in the brig had you disobeyed my orders. THAT is the sign of Kostya, doctor . . . blind obedience. The fear of god. I don't believe I've ever . . . EVER . . . tried to control your thoughts and feelings. Point in fact, I've tolerated your emotional behavior. I've even supported it, though it may have been borderline insubordinate.”

“I don't act insubordinate unless I have a good reason,” he retorted. “And you still haven't answered my question.”

“No,” Roth said, her scowl becoming less pronounced. “I don't work for Kostya. Not anymore. I fell out with him the moment I refused to abandon the Republic while we were fighting the Tholians.”

“What?” Leon exclaimed. John smirked with an 'I-told-you-so' grin at the doctor's reaction to the news.

“During the fight with the Tholians, I received an eyes-only emergency communication from Kostya in my ready room. He ordered me to evacuate the crew to the saucer section, separate the ship, and report back to the Alpha Quadrant with the stardrive.”

The shock in Doctor Cromwell's eyes was genuine. “I don't believe it!”

“Neither did I,” Roth replied. “At first, I thought he was joking. But considering he chose to use the security frequency to hide any recording, he probably thought he had backed me into a corner and that I would be forced to follow his orders.”

“That's lunacy!” the medical officer exclaimed. “That man is reprehensible! He couldn't honestly expect anyone with any integrity to follow those orders!” Leon paused as he suddenly realized what he had said, and how he had contradicted himself regarding his attitude towards the captain.

Roth's smile returned, and John's never faded as he enjoyed the moment where his friend stumbled over his own words.

“Trust me, doc. She's on our side,” John finally said as a bewildered Leon struggled between the incredulity of Kostya's orders and the realization of just how bad a black eye Roth had given the admiral. As he allowed the doctor to digest the new information, Carter took a seat in the chair next to the captain's desk.

“I'm sorry, captain,” Leon finally offered.

“Apology accepted.”

“I suppose Kostya's not too happy with you . . .”

“Put simply, he's out for blood,” she said ominously. “Hence our reassignment to DS9 and out of the main Starfleet operational command structure. We're out of his reach . . . for now.”

“That's why we've been assigned out here for so long . . .” Leon added as facts came together.

“And why I chose to take action now with regard Hawk. We're essentially cut off from the media cycle.” Roth sat back and relaxed a bit, feeling that the turbulent part of the conversation had passed. “And in addition, we're cut off from 'Fleet, at least, if we want to be.”

Carter leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “So, we what? Map a few star clusters? Lick our wounds?”

Roth nodded. “And take stock.” She glanced at both her officers. “We've got a new status quo aboard.”

“Indeed we do,” Cromwell said wryly. Carter huffed in equal parts preparation and frustration.

“Something ELSE I need to know, Commander?” Roth asked, pointedly.

Carter let his head hang for a beat, then looked up at his commanding officer. “No time like the present.” He admitted. “I was hoping this would be a non-issue,” he said, in the closest thing John Carter ever got to contrite, “but seeing as how we're clearing the air. There's something you should know about Doctor . . . about Shannon.”

Roth raised an eyebrow. “Well, I certainly don't object to the relationship, XO,” Roth offered. “Doctor Harris is no longer a bridge officer, and she falls squarely under Doctor Cromwell's chain of command. So . . .” Roth stopped short, as her mind considered why Carter might have brought up the issue. “She's . . . not . . . I certainly hope you're not leaving?”

Carter chuckled. “No, nothing like that,” he said. “She's uh . . . Shannon's . . .”

A wash of photons, and the accompanying whine of a hologram field made the air in Roth's Ready Room crackle for an instant as Doctor Shannon Harris materialized in front of Republic's Captain.

“I'm an experimental ship-wide interactive hologram, Captain.”

Resting on the bookshelf behind Roth's chair, Smoke bleeked in surprise.

Roth's expression was completely deadpan, but whether that was by choice or out of disbelief, no one could say. “Apparently so,” she commented, looking over Shannon with a careful eye, as if inspecting her for something out of place. The idea that one of her officers was a computer-generated non-corporeal life form did not appear to faze the captain in the least bit, much to the surprise of John and Leon.

Finally, Roth turned her attention to Carter. “How long have you known?”

“For sure?” he pondered, “Just after the dust-up with the Tholians. There were odd things before that, but that was when I knew for sure.”

Roth leaned forward, placing her hands flat on the desk. “And you didn't think it necessary to inform me that one of my officers was not real?”

Harris crossed her arms in front of her. “I think that Voyager's Doctor and Commander Data would . . . well, would have disagreed with you Captain.” Harris said. “My program is completely separate from the ship's computer, though we do have some hardware systems in common. However,” she said somewhat coldly. “My conclusions, actions and . . . feelings,” she said, with a click glance toward Carter, “Are completely my own.”

Roth looked at the redheaded hologram sidelong. “A . . . poor choice of words on my part, Doctor.” Roth offered. “As it happens, I've read most of the papers regarding holographic sentience. I used to be a scientist if you recall. For what it's worth, I agree, at least in principle, with classifying you as an independent, sentient life-form, but how you function on board this ship does introduce some . . . complications.”

“Go on,” Shannon said with a nod. It was clear that she was determined to have the captain focus on her and not the other two gentlemen, as if to underline her argument for equal treatment.

“Provided that Doctor Cromwell has no objections to your continuing to serve in your present capacity?”

Leon stopped for a moment. “I have none, Captain. Though, with Doctor Harris' permission I would like to disable the EMH, so that there will be no further conflicts with the sickbay holo-grid. Ideally, I'd like to have Doctor Harris now function as the ship's EMH in addition to her normal duties.”

“Makes sense to me,” Harris offered, surprised, but not quite bothered at the turn of events.

“Then the only other thing I'm going to insist upon is that you no longer hide your status from the rest of the crew. I'm not saying you have to make an announcement, or wear an 'H' on you forehead,” Roth explained. “But you must no longer actively deceive the men and women you serve with.”

“I can do that, Captain.” Shannon said simply. “But what if some of the crew have reservations about me being their physician?”

“If they wear a Starfleet uniform, then tell them to come talk to me directly,” the captain said with a touch of deviousness in her voice. “If they're a civilian crewmember, tell them they have their choice of physicians in sickbay, but remind them that you have the full confidence of the captain to independently practice medicine on my ship.” Roth regarded Carter for a long second. “Are you all right with all of this, Carter?”

Again, Carter chuckled. “Well, I'm sure I'll get no end of grief from Hawk,” John admitted, “but if it comes down to it, I'll just remind him that he had to get his life saved by a girl. That ought to buy me some time. Uh . . . no offense, ladies.”

“None taken,” Roth offered with an amused grin.

“We can talk about this later, John,” Harris said with a smile.

Roth clapped her hands against the surface of the desk. “Crisis averted for now, then?”

“I suppose,” Cromwell offered grudgingly.

“I'll wait five minutes, Captain,” Carter said. “Something's bound to change.”

Roth's face turned in a scowl. “No doubt. I'll be scheduling a briefing regarding our next assignment, after I've had a chance to debrief Lieutenant Hawk. See you all at 1400, Wednesday.”

“Aye Captain.” Came the chorused response as the three officers shuffled out of the captain's office.

On the bridge, Leon and Shannon turned towards the turbolift while John started in the direction of the command pit when he paused. “Oh, and Leon,” he beckoned to his friend, “don't think any of this changes your exam date.”

“Are you kidding?” the doctor froze in the open turbolift door, shooting John a wide-eyed, incredulous look. “That's in two days! With everything that's happened, I think I've earned myself a postponement!”

“Not a bit of it, doc,” John shook his head. “If you're not ready by now, you'll never be. Recent events have only emphasized how much we need another qualified bridge officer that the captain and I can hand duties off to. That test is the only thing standing in the way.”

“You know better than anyone else what I've been through! Can't you make an exception?”

“I don't play favorites,” John said, continuing his walk into the command pit where he relieved Lieutenant Merrick at the center seat. “You have forty-eight hours. Ready or not.”

Without another word, Leon walked sulkily into the turbolift where Doctor Harris was waiting patiently.

“Need help studying, commander?” she asked him teasingly, more for the reaction than for anything else.

“Don't YOU start!” he grumbled, just as the doors slid shut.

Location: Armory watch desk, deck 5, USS Republic

There were a lot of misconceptions about the Tactical Branch of Starfleet. The first was that they were all trigger-happy adrenaline junkies, or thickheaded robots that just wanted to blow things up. In reality, since the merging of the starship combat role of the helmsman and the planet-side responsibilities of the old “Security” branch were folded into `Fleet's Tactical Branch, the job had become many different things.

First and foremost, like almost everyone else on a starship, a Tactical Officer was a problem-solver, and just now, John Carter had a big, Vulcan-looking problem in his brig. Republic's Martian XO folded his arms across his chest, and tilted his head down toward the deck plates. “Zoë,” he asked Republic's Tactical head, “are you telling me that…” he waved a hand toward the young Vulcan crewman who was still stewing in the brig, where Zoë had only just left her “She isn't who we thought she was…AGAIN?”

“No, Sir. She claims to be Arria, Daughter of Morverik, deceased years ago.”

Carter shook his head in disbelief. “So, whom DOES she work for? If she's not Starfleet Intelligence, or if they aren't admitting it, then what?”

“She claims to be from the Office of Special Intelligence, which would explain why she has two facades. If this Arria was the real person, they would have the ability to falsify her record.”

“Well, I guess that makes some sense. But I've never even HEARD of this, O-S-I” Carter admitted. “What I want to know is who she REALLY is, and more importantly, how the Hell did you put this all together? Black Shirts aren't the types to leave clues lying around.

“I, uh…looked under the right rocks?” Zoë asked sarcastically. “It really was basic stuff. Checking through some old logs, figuring out WHO knew what I didn't, and… well, not settling for not knowing. The real break came when the quantum signature of the weapon she used wasn't quite right.”

“You thought to check the QUANTUM signature?” Carter asked. “Why?”

“Well,” Zoë explained. “I know my weapons, and what she was using was neither a phaser, disruptor, or compressor rifle. It was CLOSE to a phaser, but was ACTUALLY kind of a mix of all three. There was just something about it that didn't smell right, so dug a little more.”

Carter smiled in admiration of the young officer. While he was many things, John liked to think that chief among them was honest, and if he looked at himself honestly, he had to admit that detective work was not his strong suit. `Nope,' he said silently to himself as Zoë explained the heretofore-unknown facts behind Nat Hawk's shadowy benefactor, `there is NO WAY I would have figured that out.'

“Surprisingly, she divulged most of the information about the case, her assignment here, and her orders, but the specific orders or who assigned her I have not been able to retrieve from her, nor is she divulging.

She stated that she was assigned here to watch over Lieutenant Hawk for the information that he held. She stated that her orders also gave her a clause to eliminate any threat to him, past or present that may attack.”

“Past or…?” Carter's voice trailed off.

“She's a time-traveler, or at least has access to some wicked 33rd Century tech, though I haven't pegged which era she's actually from. Since her records have doubtless been falsified AT LEAST twice, we'd probably have to get Doctor Cromwell to do a cellular analysis.” Zoë let a mischievous twinkle flash in her eyes. It'd be ok with me if it hurt…a little.”

Again, Carter took a deep breath, rubbing the back of his neck, more out of habit than to soothe away any tension. “Ok, then. What do you recommend we do now? Captain wants us to remain in the black for the time being, but I don't want this `Operative' on my ship.”

“She is Vulcan. Technically she can't lie. However, with her being from 'Special Intelligence', she could tell us anything that she's allowed to. I might be able to do something with that.

She was a good officer at one point, at least, if the original record is accurate. I would say, see if I can get more information out of her. Brig suits until we get home. I'm just afraid that when we get home, if she is truly SI, she'll be scooped up and out of here before we can blink our eyes.”

Zoë smiled again, indicating that she was absolutely looking forward to another `chat' with her new favorite guest. “At the moment though, we have an 'intelligence' officer that may prove to be beneficial in some sense.”

Carter nodded. “Ok, I'll take that to the Captain. In the meantime, keep an eye on our, who-ever-she-is, and make sure we keep her in lock-down. I want her at minimum contact. The last thing ANY of us need is another Kuga incident.”

“Yes, Sir. I will personally see to the arrangements.”

Carter turned on a heel as he headed for the door. “Oh, before I forget,” he looked back over his shoulder. “Good work on this, Zoë. Really good work.”

“Thank you, Sir.” He walked out of there and she left as well to make the necessary arrangements for the 'quarantine' of their guest.

Chapter 33: After the Midnight HourTop

Location: Recovery ward, main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic
Shiptime: 03:25 hours

The last time sickbay's gamma shift saw any excitement was during the incident with the Tholians several weeks ago. About a dozen serious injuries, mostly from explosive decompression, required overnight stays in the recovery ward, and so, the late-night medical crew tended to the wounded as diligently as they would at any other time during the day. However, pending unusual circumstances, gamma shift was normally quiet to the point of boring. The staff was rotated on a monthly basis, so every member of the medical crew had their chance at gamma shift, and in truth, it was a chance for the staff to unwind and relax a bit, as Doctor Cromwell had a standing order that stated: “Unless the situation dictates otherwise, the gamma shift supervisor may, at their discretion, excuse all subordinates to their liberty for on-call duty after 0300, retaining at least one nurse and one non-commissioned medical technician for the remainder of the shift.”

On this particular night, the gamma shift had only a single patient tucked away in the recovery ward, and so the tending shift supervisor, Doctor Fernmoore, excused all but Ensign Watson and CPO3 Teague for the rest of the night. The sole patient, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, was banished to the to 13-bed recovery facility with Nurse Watson tending the nurse's station, watching Nat like a vulture from behind the transparent-aluminum partition separating the corner nook from the rest of the room. By the time 0300 rolled around, the atmosphere in sickbay became much more relaxed, as Teague was sent to rotate bed linen in the trauma center, and Watson had taken to watching Nat on an off-and-on basis, tending to other matters such as checking the pharmacy stock, or readying the medical lab for a minor scientific experiment scheduled for the next day.

For his part, Nat was restless, as being cooped-up in a sterile environment for *any* length of time was not his cup of tea. While feigning sleep, and hoping that the tending nurse wouldn't look close enough to the monitors to see he had not entered REM, Nat carefully waited for Ensign Watson to leave one last time before sitting up in bed and pivoting himself into a sitting position. After one last glance at the empty nurse's station, he slipped his feet into a pair of slippers at the foot of the bed, and proceeded to stand up while donning his patient's robe.

Before long, Nat found himself wandering past the empty ward supervisor's desk, and into the surgical ward hallway. The lighting throughout sickbay was at one-third illumination, as if signaling to anyone not on duty that they should be back in their quarters and in bed. As he shuffled into the main ward, Nat spied a slightly brighter illumination coming from the surgeon-on-duty desk around the corner. He froze, worried that Fernmoore might have already been informed by Nurse Watson that Nat was up and about, but as a minute passed, he heard nothing stirring in the office area, and his curiosity got the better of him. Peeking around the corner, Nat suddenly realized that the surgeon desk was empty, and the light was coming from beneath the door to Doctor Cromwell's office, forcing a wry smile to form on his face. Before he knew what he was doing, Nat had walked up to the CMO's door, causing it to slide open.

“Well I know why I can't sleep,” Hawk said from the doorway, drawing Leon's attention away from his monitor, “what's yer excuse?”

“What are you doing up?” Leon exclaimed with a mix of irritation and genuine concern. “You're supposed to be in bed!”

“Yeah, well, death does funny things ta ya. Insomnia, apparently, is one've 'um.” Hawk replied, as he allowed Cromwell to guide him to one of the chairs across from his desk. He didn't like accepting help for such a simple thing as making his way across a room; he downright loathed the fact that he actually needed said help. As he allowed himself to breath, he contemplated the scuttle-butt he had heard from Jess concerning how his death and resurrection and everything related to it had stirred the proverbial pot aboard ship. Never having been shy to ask the uncomfortable questions in the past, he didn't hesitate now. “So ya still pissed off?” he asked his friend. “Word around town is you've got a bone ta pick with a couple of folks.”

“Yes,” Leon admitted with a touch of regret. “Well, there are certain boundaries both in medicine and Starfleet protocol that were crossed lately, and as much as I'm happy to see that the results turned out positively . . .” he pointed back at Nat. “Namely you coming back from the dead . . . in my opinion, the ends cannot justify the means. So . . .” Leon looked a touch embarrassed, but his grouchy demeanor partially cloaked it. “I felt it necessary to rough a few people up. The captain included.”

Considering Leon's words for a moment, he became stuck on one item in particular. “Ya know, that's what SI, 'Fleet, just 'bout anybody doin' somethin' they can't really justify uses ta do so. 'The ends justify the means' cliché. Every once'n'awhile, I could go along with it, could understand it. Never liked it, but… I could wrap my thick head 'round it. Bet you have, too. Accepted that 'the ends justify the means' once 'er twice. How we handled things at Cestus III. How we stopped Kostya n'people like him time'n'again; violatin' orders, but doin' it cause it was the right thing, even if not by-the-book. We've all gotta make choices; choices that somewhere down the line, somebody else who ain't in that situation s'gonna judge. In a way, I s'pose that's what yer doin' here. Judgin' what the Cap'n and Bashir and Yezbeck did when ya ain't in that situation; when yer not faced with that choice yerself. Only thing is, the only way ya can really judge somethin' like that, after-the-fact, is by the true ends. The end results. Problem is, we ain't seen them end results yet, Leon.” Hawk said, pausing to really look at his friend for a moment. “Me bein' alive, the assasin bein' dead… that ain't the end. The real end is Faro. The real end is the Syndicate. Takin' down the worst organized criminal organization in the known universe. Puttin' a stop ta all the death, n'pain, n'bloodshed, that they cause. Now if crossin' a couple ethical boundaries we might not otherwise cross does that… stops murder, slavery, theft, torture… stops some other 10-year-old kid from loosin' his whole family… who the hell are we ta say those ends ain't been justified?”

Leon considered Nat's words for a moment. “God knows I've had my fill of shady characters hiding behind the rules, but while I understand that the rules have to be bent on occasion, the person who is doing the bending must realize that they're doing so at their own risk, and that they can no longer hide behind the words 'I was just following orders'. Rules were meant for people to follow them, otherwise they're just words. If people under my supervision bent the rules - especially medical ones - I can't let them get by without some sort of reprimand, no matter the outcome. If I did overlook them, everyone in here would soon start thinking that they can get away with almost anything while I'm in charge of them; that somehow, the rules would no longer apply to them anymore. Pretty soon, I'd find more and more rule violations, making my job harder because I'd have to keep track of each one in order to pick and choose which ones to reprimand. Eventually, someone will bend the rules just because they *could* get away with it, and before you know it, a patient will die for no good reason.”

“Ain't ya ever heard the old phrase 'rules were meant ta be broken'?” Hawk retorted. “Hell, sometimes, the only way outta a problem is ta break a couple rules. Look at Jim Kirk. Hell, half a his career he broke more rules n'ya can shake a warp core at n'they built statues of the man.”

“And if my memory of Federation history serves me, he also paid dearly several times for breaking the rules. My point is that if you're going to even *bend* the rules - for whatever reason - fine. But don't expect everyone to like it, and don't expect to get away with it. When it comes to Starfleet rules, I'm a bit more understanding about rule-bending, and that's probably why I was able to forgive the captain for lying to the rest of us. But when it comes to medical ethics, I'm much less tolerant, and that's why Saal is on my bad side right now. As for Bashir,” Leon thought for a moment before shrugging his shoulders. “He's just as much a pain in the rear-end as you,” he smiled jokingly. “Only his profession isn't helm control - it's medical, and there's a certain extra standard that he needs to be held accountable to, from my point of view. That, plus the fact that he and I have a major personality conflict, makes the climate between us rather contemptible at the moment.”

“Considerin' Bashir put his life on hold ta come in here n'order ta take yer ass outta bein' put in the same spot as the Cap'n, havin' ta lie ta everybody, I'd think ya'd be a little more forgivin' of the man.” Hawk challenged. “Ya don't see eye-ta-eye with him, that's yer business. Ya find him a might irritating, well, so do I. Ya could show a little understandin' though, even if ya don't like who he is 'er what he did - cause he did it ta keep you from havin' ta fight yer inner demons and havin' ta make the choice ta let me live 'er die.” Hawk stated, bluntly. “As fer Saal, I think ya need ta take a step back b'fore ya throw the book at him, an ask yerself why yer really pissed at him. Cause from where I'm sittin', it's seems a helluva lot more personal than professional.”

Leon frowned and crossed his arms while leaning back in his chair. “Yeah,” mumbled in stern thought. “It's personal . . . Personal in that I trusted Saal about as much as either you or John, and he let me down.”

“Don't ya get it?” Hawk asked, “Nothin' ya could've done would've saved me, Leon. I was dead. Cold, hard, stone dead. Roth knew it'd happen eventually, n'she prepared fer it. You wanna put a reprimand in Saal's file fer the sake of appearances, alright, fine. Ya gotta do somethin' as CMO ta tell yer people ta watch their P's and Q's, I get that. But ya gotta forgive him, and I don't mean professionally, I mean personally, cause seems ta me that's what's really stuck in yer craw. Yer friend, not yer subordinate, lied ta ya. Betrayed ya. But it ain't like that at all. He did what he had ta do ta save my life. He did what I sure as frinx hope you woulda done in his shoes. Because sometimes the cause is right, is important enough, ta do the things nobody wants ta do.”

“Oh hell, Nat!” Leon stood up abruptly. “I'm not going to put a damned thing in Saal's personnel file! He and I have been through too much together for me to go and do something that!” He began pacing the room in a minor huff. “But I HAD to do something! Too many people have kept too many damned secrets aboard this ship, and I wasn't expecting HIM to be one of them! He could have trusted me with what he knew, and not worked with Bashir and the Captain to keep me out of the loop! Tell me . . . go ahead and TELL me . . . that you wouldn't be just as angry if Miss Warner were on that table instead of you?”

The scenario Leon proposed did give Nat pause, and for the first time in a while, he felt a glimmer of that old rage buried deep within himself. He was not, by nature, a trusting individual; he had rarely trusted anyone so much as he did a handful of people here, aboard Republic. So the idea of any one of them breaking that hard-formed bond of trust…

“Ya, I'd be pretty pissed off.” Hawk admitted.

“Exactly!” Leon replied emphatically, realizing that Nat was starting to see his point. But the fact remained that he was still upset at Saal, and Leon couldn't see a way out of it at the moment. “I'm not saying that I won't ever be able to forgive him,” he finally admitted. “But it's going to take some time to build that trust back up again. And I'm not ready yet.”

“There's just one thing, Leon,” Hawk replied, “end of the day, Saal did what he did fer the right reasons. He did what he did ta save a life. The only reason he didn't bring ya in loop on it, the reason he broke yer trust, was fer the same reason Roth did; same reason Bashir's aboard. Ta keep yer sorry ass outta it. Not ta go b'hind yer back. Somethin' that, once I got over bein' angry s'hell, I'd come ta realize maybe made 'em a better friend than I'd known b'fore.”

Leon sat back in his chair and looked at the recovering helmsman in thought. “Maybe,” he mused. “But you and I are only human. And whether or not the Captain and Bashir felt it was for the best, Saal should have seen ahead of all this and warned the Captain of the repercussions of lying to the entire crew.” Pausing, he tapped his chin lightly with an index finger before grimacing and waving his hand as if excusing the thought. “Hell, I don't know. For all I know, Saal *did* warn her. But I guess that's why Roth has the four pips on her collar – because she's the one who has to make those kinds of decisions. For what it's worth, Nat, I agree that it was the right decision, and I'm glad that you're alive and still with us. I just think there could have been a better ways to do this without playing everybody's heartstrings like they were toy banjos.”

The two sat in silence for almost a minute, staring blankly into thin air, as if coming to grips with their own human frailties. Nat, with his hard-fought struggle to return to the realm of the living, and Leon, unable to come to grips with the emotional toll of the methods to achieve the miracle. Whether either of them knew it or not, the real struggle was yet to come.

“So…” Hawk said, letting the word hang between them for a moment, “When can I get the frinx outta here? N'more important, when the frinx am I gonna feel less like I got hit by a shuttle?”

“Boy!” Leon exclaimed with an amused grin. “You sure are fickle! First, its 'I'll just barge in your office and talk your ear off', and then it's 'when will you let me go so I can go back to duty?'”

“No offense, but if heaven n'hell exist, than bein' stuck in sickbay s'my own personal purgatory. Ya've got all this fancy medicine, how 'bout puttin' some of it ta use?” Hawk inquired.

“Well, it's not that simple,” Leon explained, the professional tone returning to his voice. “Your body has undergone a tremendous shock, compliments of the nanoprobes. While they've found it easy to jump-start your cells, they're finding that the real trick is to keep them from necrotizing all over again. The pain you're feeling is coming from the probes as they renaturate the integral membrane proteins of your brain's nerve bundles after they forget that they're alive and try to die on you. Once the probes have settled that little argument, and your body starts to act like a living organism again - not like a corpse that's being artificially reanimated - we can safely call the ball game a win for Nat Hawk. However, it helps if you save your energy for the good guys by staying in *bed*.”

Nat simply blinked at Leon for a few seconds, a deadpan expression blanketing his features. “Maybe it's the death talkin' here, but… I didn't understand more 'an two words ya just said.” Hawk stated, before letting out a sigh. ”'Sides which, I just had a pretty big 'nap' as is - the almost ferever kind.“

“If you can't sleep, we can give you a somnetic inducer. But until I'm confident that the nanoprobes have the upper hand in keeping your cells alive, I want you in sickbay where we have a better chance of reviving you if your body decides to fight back against them.”

“We're on a starship, flyin' around the Gamma Quadrant. If I keel over I'm only a transport away. What's it matter if I'm here 'er in my quarters? Least in my quarters, I might get ta have some fun in bed.” Hawk said with a broad grin, as he wiggled his eyebrows, alluding to his idea of 'fun'.

“I'll tell you what,” Leon reasoned with him. “Your vitals are stable this evening. If they're stable tomorrow night, and we find that the headache has subsided, we'll put you on bed-rest and you can go back to your quarters under medical monitoring. At the end of the week, if you've got the energy, we'll give you a full physical and put you back on duty. LIGHT duty,” the doctor emphasized. “That means no bridge watch, and no flying any shuttlecraft.”

“Well yer just a fun-suckin' vampire, ain't ya? Only things I like ta do when I'm on duty n'ya put the ole kai-bosh on 'em. Figures.” Hawk replied. Shaking his index finger warily, he continued, “It's stuff like this that makes people not like doctor's, ya know.” he joked. “So what 'bout long term?”

“That will all depend on how the nanoprobes interact with your metabolism over the long haul,” Leon warned. “There are very few active duty Starfleet officers with Borg nanoprobes swimming around in their veins. Even after five years of intense study by Fleet Medical, they're still found to be occasionally erratic. Sometimes, they'll die off by themselves after realizing that their job is done. Other times, they'll latch onto your body and form a symbiosis. Who knows? What matters is if they decide to work *for* Nat Hawk, and not *against* him. Only time will tell.”

“Great, the 'wait n'see' approach. Yeah, cause that's got a great track record!” Nat lamented.

At about that time, the door to the office slid open to reveal an irate Nurse Watson.

“THERE you are!” she scolded Nat like a mother hen. “What are you doing out of bed? And why are you bothering Doctor Cromwell?”

“Lil' Lady, I just came back from the great beyond. So I figure that gives me license ta take a big ole risk n'wander inta 'nother ward a sickbay.” Hawk retorted, restraining himself from making the archaic Nurse Ratchet joke he had floating around the back of his mind.

For the first time since before the funeral, Leon allowed an extremely amused smile to spread across his face. His friend's predicament was an entertaining spectacle, and while he gave pause to consider letting him stew for a while in his self-brewed transgression, he decided to let him off the hook.

“It's okay, Martha,” Leon waved his hand. “I was giving the lieutenant an update on his condition.”

“At zero-three-thirty hours?!” she replied with incredulity.

“Um,” he paused with embarrassment. “I extended my office hours?”

The questioning tone in the doctor's voice suggested an ulterior motive, but the ensign, while perhaps in a position to scold a patient, wasn't ready to confront her medical supervisor with the same vigor. She simply raised an eyebrow at Leon while motioning for Nat to leave the office.

“Keep yer shirt on!” Hawk said to the impatient nurse. He realized only after he had said such that, once upon a time, he would have followed up on that with 'on second thought, take it off', but such no longer felt… right. Which gave him some pause. “Ya know, somebody once said… 'there's a time and a place for a philosophical discussion; oh-two-hundred hours isn't one of them'…” Nat said, trailing off, not quite saying what he was intending to.

“No problem,” Leon replied to Nat with a touch of appreciation. “And thanks for giving me something to think about.”

“Well, don't stay up all night thinkin' 'bout it. Get some sleep. Ya look like hell.” Hawk said, his tone vague as to how serious he was. The last thing Leon heard as his office doors shut behind Hawk and Nurse Watson were the grumbled complaints of Republic's helmsman concerning sickbay food.

It had been less than a day since the crew of the Republic had learned of his resurrection. Less than a day since those he cared for had learned they had mourned prematurely. Less than a day spent awake and aware in the confines of Sickbay. Yet when it came to spending any amount of time confined to Sickbay, less than a day could easily feel like more than a year. At least, as far as the risen Lieutenant Nat Hawk was concerned. Tired as he was, weak as he was, ill as he felt, he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of the ship's medical facilities. It was almost enough to drive him back to the drink. So when he first spotted Chief Engineer Vance Devloch enter Sickbay, he had felt a momentary sense of reprieve. It turned out to only be momentary, indeed.

“You son of a bitch.” Devloch spat as he approached the bio-bed where Hawk lay.

“Well howdy back at ya.” Hawk replied, meekly but with enough sarcasm to sound like himself even though he felt like a walking corpse.

“Pretty lively for a dead fellow don't ya think?” Said Vance in a voice that practically dripped with sarcasm and resentment. “you do realize that coming back spoiled an incredibly Beautiful Brandy Bender. I hope your happy.”

“Next time I'll stay dead a might longer then, just ta give ya an excuse ta get smashed.” Hawk replied, pushing himself up to a sitting-like position with considerable effort. The fact that the medical monitors beeped in disagreement with his movement wasn't lost on him.

“As if I need an excuse,” quipped Vance, pulling a flask out of his non-regulation jacket and enjoying a sip of whatever questionable liquid it might contain. “you know, there ARE easier ways to meet the good looking nurses around here I'm sure. You know, part of me wants to knock you on your ass, but it seems you're kind of stuck there for a while anyway.” Vance offered the flask over to Nat.

Hawk eyed the flask for the briefest of moments before turning his gaze to Devloch, refusing the offered beverage. “I ain't desperate enough fer a date ta get filleted like a fish, thanks. Got maself a long-term dance partner, matter a fact. Unlike yerself, who only seems ta keep the company a that flask 'n his own warp core - an I don't mean the big one down 'n engineerin' if ya get ma drift.” Hawk shot back, weary of Devloch's tone and attitude. Then again, maybe it was just his general weariness getting the better of him?

“It's water, actually. I said I WAS on a bender, not that I was continuing the 'mission'. And my Warp Core is fine, both of them thanks for asking. Both are performing above Specs. So what? You think I can lose possibly the last “Wingman” I might ever have, learn he was never actually dead except in a technical sense, and what? I'm supposed to take this all in stride and not be upset? Hell! Damnit Nat, I'm a pilot not a monk.” At this point Vance was starting to build up a good head of steam. “Ah hell, What was I supposed to think?”

Hawk didn't have a response for him.

“So, how was being dead?” Asked Vance calmly.

As quickly as Devloch had pissed him off, so to had he come down off his high-horse. “Well, I tell ya what. Was more 'an just in a 'technical sense' a things.” he admitted, a thousand-yard stare taking over his features. “It's hard ta make sense outta everythin'… life, death, life again. Ya know, I once read somewhere after Cap'n Spock got re-animated by that whole Genesis planet mumbo-jumbo, he was asked tha same question. Ya know, 'what was it like ta be dead?' an the answer he gave never quite made much sense ta me. Just said he couldn't explain it without a common frame a reference. Now, though, I kinda get what he meant. Ya really gotta… die b'fore ya can explain it 'er talk 'bout it in any detail. Cause it just ain't somethin' the mind can make a lotta sense outta otherwise, ya know?” he rambled. Seeing the look on Devloch's face, he could tell the other man didn't quite follow. “So'd ya get any sympathy sex? Ya know, loosin' yer new best pal n'what not.” he asked, quirking his eyebrows and grinning in that trademark Nat Hawk manner.

“That never even occurred to me. Maybe I WAS a little quick to jump into the bottle in this, one, specific case. Hell, I'm not fooling anyone, haven't been for a while. I'm charging towards drunkard at a remarkable rate. I probably ought to do something about that…” with a Sigh, Vance pulled out his other Flask. “Definitely need to do something about that. So what's next? Anyone have any thoughts on who's responsible for… How was it? Oh yes, you getting 'filleted like a fish'. I hope someone tries to do that to me. Should be an interesting experience for all parties.”

“Trust me, it ain't somethin' ya wanna try fer yerself. As ta the who 'n why… it's a lil complicated. Classified complicated. Not that I give a rats ass 'bout rules and regs on that sorta thing, mind ya. Just means, all I can tell ya is it's the reason we're under a comm-black-out, n' it's got ta do with the Orion Syndicate. So… yeah, dun stand next ta me if we're ever in a parade 'er somethin'.” Hawk said.

“The Orion syndicate? Why'd you have to go and piss them off? As to trying it myself, I'm paranoid, something to do with being a prisoner of war and of course there's some additional professional training I've amused myself with in between benders.” Said Vance as he produced a pair of knives and twirled them around between his fingers. Then quickly thrusting the knife into his side against his jacket in an apparent attempt at self injury. “The jacket's heavily armored against damage, and I've always got at least a knife or two. They do tend to come in handy in a large variety of situations. Not really enough for me to deal with a true professional, but it would really surprise the hell out of someone.”

“Damn man, would ya put those away? Yer thicker n' a mule sometimes, I swear.” Hawk replied. “Knives ain't exactly ma favorite things in the 'verse these days, ya know?” shaking his head, Nat remarked, “It's a wonder they let ya handle anti-matter.”

“They let me play with anti-matter and nobody told me? What am I doing talking with you when I have such fun toys to play with?” The knives disappeared “Ya know, if I had some serious enemies I'd probably consider taking some reasonable precautions. Just a thought. So, what are you going to do next? I'd think that coming back from the dead would be a tough act to follow.” Vance said.

“Why d'ya think they had a plan ta bring me back from the dead in the first place?” Hawk asked rhetorically. “No such thing as one-hundred-percent secure.” he said. “As fer a second act, that's up ta the boys in black back in the A-Q. If things come t'gether right, me bein' dead'll bring the big fish we're after outta hidin' an then the real fun starts.” Hawk explained, ending with a grin.

“I think your definition of fun, and my definition of fun may be just a little too close to comfort. I think I'm going to take some more time out for additional combat training I've got a strange feeling that things could get… Interesting… in the near future.” Vance stated finally. “Cue ominous music.”

“Meh, ya worry to much. I been cheatin' death longer n' ya could imagine.” Hawk replied.

A few days later, something was still bothering Lieutenant Nathan Hawk.

Despite all the twenty-fourth century medical technology Leon Cromwell could throw at him, he was still unable to sleep but for an hour or two. He had even tested a handful of homeopathic remedies suggested by his friends and colleagues to no avail. Sleep simply alluded Nathan Hawk in the wake of all that had happened to him recently. Even their resident head-shrinker had suggested a number of psychological causes for his insomnia. In classic Hawk fashion though, Nat had dodged the Counselor's attempts to aid him. As much as he had changed since coming aboard Republic, some things would always stay the same.

Thankfully, he was finally 'home' for all intents and purposes. Not only because he was back in his own private quarters, but because those quarters had become less private. Lying next to him in bed, the first person he had permitted himself to love in as long as he remembered, slept soundly as he watched. He didn't know where their relationship would take him, and the possibility of loosing her as he had everyone else in his life hung over him always. Yet some part of him, something stronger than the rage that had driven him for so long, refused to let that risk from making the decisions any longer.

As he lay in the darkness, he couldn't help but think of his time between worlds. How he remembered such didn't make any sense. He had been dead, his brain has ceased to function; so how could he form the chemicals bonds that where the physical form of memories? He had never been the strongest scientist, and by no means had he ever been much of a philosopher, so the question nagged at him all the more. So many questions, so many doubts, so many fears, all seemed to be choking him from within.

And yet…

While he had ebbed between life and death, trying to grasp the concept of existence between worlds, a lone voice reached out to him from the darkness. Not any god, nor any demon; none of the things he might have expected from the myths and legends passed down through time. Just a voice, and while it claimed it could have been anyone, as in in challenge to his sarcastic quip and his own disbelief, the voice had chosen to manifest itself as James Tiberius Kirk. Nat, like almost everyone, had revered the Starfleet hero of century's past as a child, and come to respect him as an officer. There were so many questions that he wanted to ask the man. When he tried though, they were evaded with a simple 'you already know the answers.'

He hated that. He preferred the 'simple question equals a simple answer' formula. It seemed though that nobody with a knowledge of the universe beyond his own would ever follow it. Not even 'Kirk'. Though he knew it was likely not Kirk, the questions he had always wanted to ask had kept coming to him. Instead, he had wasted the moment. A moment he doubted he would have again until he died again; and remained so. At which point… what did it matter anyway?

He needed answers in the here and now; ones that he could not get lying in bed.

With a barely audible moan from the sleeping Leah, Nat slipped out of bed and walked into the main living area of his quarters. Taking a seat at the desk, he pivoted the desk-mounted computer console towards himself, and quietly spoke to it.

“Computer, call up all available holographic programs about the historical figure, James Kirk.”

As his eyes scrolled across the list, nothing seemed to fit the situation. Training scenarios, historical re-enactments, even an encoded adult program. Nothing that would tell him anything more than a history text. He was ready to give up when the final entry on the list caught his eye. The title sounded like a quote to him, but he couldn't place it: “Turn Death Into a Fighting Chance To Live…”

Calling the program up on one of the vacant holodecks, Nat couldn't help but wonder what he would find as he left his quarters.

Chapter 34: Recriminations & MechinationsTop

The evening following Nat Hawk's late night stroll through sickbay, Leon fulfilled his side of the promise and released the helmsman to his quarters under bed-rest. There was a question or two from other members from the senior staff on whether it was too early, but a promise is a promise, and there was no medical reason why the lieutenant needed to stay in sickbay. Of course, from Leon's point of view, it was a bit more personal, as he had spent the entire previous evening awake in his office, following through with an all-night cram session in preparation for the bridge officer's test. The doctor was exhausted. As soon as he secured Nat with a medical monitor, Leon went straight to bed himself.

The morning of the bridge test started of like any other day. He awoke at 0700 hours, showered, ate, and by 0900, he was strolling into holodeck one where Commander Carter was waiting for him. With barely a “good morning, let's get started,” Leon found himself in the command seat of the Republic, on patrol along the Romulan Neutral Zone, just as the borders between outposts 6 and 7 were breached by three Warbirds. Leon's diplomatic efforts to stave off combat lasted only a short time, as he failed to heed their demands for surrender.

Amazingly, Leon managed to survive the ensuing combat, destroying the first Warbird in a fierce volley of combined phaser and torpedo fire. The return torrent of firepower was almost as devastating, knocking out the Republic's weapon systems and warp drive. However, by skillfully allocating power to the shields that faced his enemy, Leon was able to muster enough energy to utilize the ship's tractor beam to drag the second Warbird into the path of the third while it was targeting Republic with photon torpedoes.

Although the second Romulan was destroyed by the combination of friendly fire and structural stress brought on by the sudden release of the tractor beam while the ships were locked in a impulse-speed tug-of-war (a little trick John had taught him during his course of starship tactics), the third Warbird had received only moderate damage by the subsequent explosion. As Republic received a barrage of deadly disruptor fire from the third Romulan vessel, it was only by way of ejecting the antimatter pods that Leon was able to keep the ship from turning into a burning field of space debris. Nevertheless, Republic was crippled, and Leon's enemy was about to pull the trigger one last time if it were not for a little medical trickery.

While there may be up to 20,000 sensory hair cells in the cochlea of a normal human, Romulans, being of Vulcan decent, have over 50,000. In addition, the frequency range of their hearing is between approximately 40 to 60,000 hertz, while humans can only hear sounds within the frequencies of 20 Hz and 20,000 hertz. This lower range may seem inferior when looking strictly at the numbers, but it has the advantage in that species with a higher range (such as Romulans) are often forced to adjust their com system to an elevated gain when communicating with humans to hear the full range of vocalizations.

Subspace communication systems between known space-faring races (whether friendly or not) are pre-programmed for what is ubiquitously known as a “handshake”: A digital piggyback signal transmitted in parallel to the main audio/visual subspace uplink, and which sends parametric information for processing, translating, and displaying the communication properly on the opposite end. This signal must be transmitted unencrypted from *both* ends in order to establish a clear, two-way conversation. In addition, basic starship etiquette dictated that each end transmit their correct “handshake” to ensure a properly calibrated signal for the opposite end. While most ship captains would follow standard hailing protocols, Leon did not feel bound by this etiquette. So, when he opened hailing frequencies to transmit a surrender offer, he purposely set the transmitter to a static-laced output of between 15 and 30 hertz, and at a gain of only 10 decibels. At the same time, Leon also programmed the transmitter's “handshake” to indicate that the only way for the receiving end to properly parse the audio portion of the communiqué was to turn up their own gain. Since the Romulans already knew that the Republic was crippled, they paid little attention to the mundanely obscure piggyback signal.

As a matter of simple physics, the power in a sound wave is proportional to the square of the pressure. Therefore, an increase from 10 to 150 decibels is roughly equivalent to a 10 million-fold increase in sound pressure. At maximum volume, the Romulan audio speakers are capable of broadcasting at 160 decibels; a purposeful design to ensure that remote areas of the ship can hear any important announcements during an emergency. Such a sound level is capable of permanently damaging the human eardrum, and higher than the normal threshold of pain for Romulans should they be standing anywhere near the speaker system.

After listening for a few seconds to an extremely distorted audio transmission, both the Warbird's bridge crew and their communications computer were straining to listen to a quiet, muffled surrender message from the Republic. At about that time, Leon changed the transmission from the whisper-like garble to a full-power, ear-piercing 50,000 hertz oscillating signal, causing the entire Romulan bridge to be paralyzed for about 30 seconds.

It was long enough.

The last of Leon's assets on the Republic included emergency backup power, thruster control, and three fully-pressurized shuttlebays. Opening the outer doors of the latter asset caused enough explosive decompression to hurl the Republic towards the remaining Warbird. The momentum was slightly above the Republic's center of gravity, causing it to slip underneath as is passed the enemy vessel by a clearance of no more than 500 meters. Leon set the five dorsally-located emergency fusion generators to overload, and ordered them to be jettisoned as they flew past. By programming the computer to polarize the containment fields on the generators' casings, they became magnetized, and like gravitic mines, latched themselves to the unshielded aft section of the Romulan vessel as they reached critical mass.

Leon had almost expected cheering when the five well-placed thermonuclear explosions eliminated the remaining attacker, but the holographic bridge crew remained at their stations in silence. Confused, the doctor looked around the bridge: The simulation had not ended. In fact, as he took note of the smashed bridge stations and virtual pockets of fire and smoke throughout the room, the gravity of their situation sank in: They were dead in space.

Apparently, space combat was only an introduction to the bridge officers' exam . . . survival would be the real test.

To save on precious life support power, Leon took the logical step of evacuating the remaining bridge crew to auxiliary control on deck 8. There, he consulted his holographic senior officers, who just happened to mimic his real-life colleagues. The dimly lit ready room of the battle bridge was cramped, and each officer bore the sign of stress and fatigue. Their uniforms were torn and singed, and a few even bore some injuries signified by dried patches of blood in their skin.

As they sat around the small compartment, Leon took note of who all he had left on his staff: Victor Virtus was the most senior, as the computer was kind enough (or perhaps, cruel enough) to reproduce a close friend as the ship's chief engineer. Next was a forlorn Nat Hawk, his condition a bit counter to the real Nat's personality, but perhaps understandable in the current situation as there was no helm control left to the ship. Chief Rainier was also present with his damage control expertise, as was Shannon Harris in charge of medical. Absent was the Operations Officer (a holographic Lieutenant Sullivan died on the main bridge after the first attack) and the Tactical Officer (Doug Forrest had briefly made an appearance, but was incapacitated during the second volley of weapons fire). Also absent was the Science Officer, as the computer failed to produce one for the test (Leon assumed it was intentional to force him to use his own science knowledge). Finally, for obvious reasons, Carter and Roth were not part of the simulation's programming.

“Everything below deck ten in the stardrive section is completely inaccessible due to damage,” explained Virtus, answering Leon's question about the ship's current status. “We've also sealed off the forward and mid sections of decks seven through eleven of the saucer. Aft sections are habitable, but decks one through six, as well as decks twelve on down, are nothing but a jumble of twisted bulkheads open to space. Looks like you got us off the bridge just before the main dorsal plasma conduit gave way.”

“Survivors?” Leon asked soberly.

“Five hundred and twelve,” the holographic Vic answered straightforwardly, his emotionless business-like manner effectively reproducing the real-life Virtus. “Three hundred and sixty two injured, two hundred and forty seven critically.”

“Status of the wounded?” Leon turned to Shannon. His concern for the injured was an automatic response congruent to his personality, and he had almost wished the real Shannon had somehow inserted herself into the program. However, as the answer came forth, it was clear that it was a facsimile, and that John had ensured that one of Leon's closest medical colleague could not bias the outcome of the test.

“Well, sickbay is obviously gone, and the stardrive section infirmary is inaccessible. We've managed to get most of them to holodeck six, but the EMH is offline, and we're working with mainly first aid kits. The most critical patients are being treated as best we can, and we've set up holodeck five as a triage center.”

“Warning: Life support failure in 10 minutes”

The ominous computer warning accentuated the seriousness of the situation. “Do we have an evacuation option?” Leon asked the group.

“Not really,” Chief Rainier spoke up. “We're cutoff from most of the lifeboats, and there would be no way to evacuate the wounded.”


“Don'tcha r'member?” Nat spoke next. “Ya blew most'vem outta the landing bays!”

“Saucer Sep?”

“Not an option,” Virtus replied. “Most of the habitable areas are in the saucer section, and what battery power we have left is in the stardrive. We'd be disconnecting our only power source keeping us alive.”

“Well that does it,” Leon concluded with determination. “We have to find another source of power to maintain life support.” The doctor ran through a mental list of all the historical situations that were similar to this one. “What about a solar sail?” he finally asked, remembering the USS Yorktown during the Whalesong crisis from 90 years ago. “Do we have enough materials to build one of those?”

“Yes,” Victor finally said after some thought. “But it would take at least a day to build.”

“Warning: Life support failure in 9 minutes”

“Have you pulled the plug on absolutely everything?” Leon asked Virtus frantically.

“Yes,” Vic replied. “We're running on minimal life support as it is. I've even shut the lights off in all the habitable areas except for holodecks five and six for the sickbay staff. They're working with wristlights and console lanterns. There's nothing more we can shutoff to save power.”

As the minutes ticked down, Leon went from frantic to panicked, checking off every possible way to conserve energy for life support. One idea had everyone capable of wearing a survival suit to do so in order to extend battery life. Although that would have bought them two hours, it unfortunately would have taken them 20 minutes to get everyone in suits, which is more time than they had left.

“Warning: Life support failure in 5 minutes”

Leon's final idea was to take every handheld device, from phasers to tricorders, and attempt to use the power packs to recharge the ship's batteries. By the time Vic finished explaining how long that would take compared to how little effect it would have on their energy reserves, there was less than a minute left.

“Doesn't anybody have a damned clue on what to do?” Leon finally shouted at an unreceptive audience. While he knew the program could not give advice, and that the holographic representations of his colleagues were programmed only to follow orders and respond to practical questions, he could not help a moment of vanity as it appeared his test was ending in failure.

“Warning: Life support failure in 30 seconds”

Wide-eyed with trepidation, Leon looked into the blank faces of his colleagues for any sign of hope or optimism. He found none.

“Computer, halt simulation,” came a new voice. The pulsating red lights of the wall-mounted alert tracers paused, as did the small, inconsequential body movements of the senior staff. From outside the holographic walls, John Carter stepped into the small compartment to face his friend.

“Sorry, Leon.”

“You're kidding, right?” Leon looked up to John with incredulity.

“I told you it was going to be tough,” he replied sympathetically. “That it was going to test every fiber of your psychological profile.”

“This is crazy!” the doctor exclaimed. “Are you telling me that the past nine months of holo-courses and end-of-chapter exams were for THIS?”

John simply rolled his eyes and began walking towards the door. “Computer, end program,” he beckoned, and the cramped battle bridge ready room disappeared to reveal the spacious, black-walled hologrid.

“What about warp physics?” Leon exclaimed while getting up from his chair. “What about EPS theory? What about Federation history?”

“What about them?” John replied, walking into the corridor beyond with Leon in tow.

“How do they apply in there?” the doctor pointed back to the closing holodeck door behind them.

“Well, you obviously used some of them to great effect,” he commented, continuing down the corridor without looking back.

“Some of them,” Leon admitted, still angry and annoyed. “But what good did it do me? I still failed!”

“Not everyone is cut out to be a bridge officer, Leon.”

The duo walked past several officers who moved to the side to make room for them in the hallway. It was minor spectacle. Enough to embarrass John, but not the doctor, who obviously was too irate to care. The passing crewmembers said nothing as they went by.

“That was ridiculous!” the CMO responded. “There was no way to win in there!”

At that, John Carter stopped dead in his tracks. He turned slowly to look at his friend with such annoyance that it gave Leon pause. “Did you keep trying that holographic simulation program I gave you access to?” he retorted.

“The Kobyashi Maru?” replied Leon. “That was ridiculous too! I kept getting blown up!”

John hung his head in despair. “You still don't get it, do you?”

“Get what?” Leon exclaimed. “What was there to 'get'?”

“Do you think commanding a starship is all about combat?” John argued, his voice rising.

“Well? What was I supposed to think? That program is nothing *but* combat.”

John shook his head and leaned up against the wall with one arm, clenching and unclenching his fist in frustration.

“Leon, you're a scientist as well a doctor. Did you do any research into the Kobyashi Maru scenario? Do you know what the test was for?”

It suddenly occurred to the CMO that he was taking John's gift of the antiquated holodeck program for granted. Apparently, his friend meant for him to study it in detail, and not run it with the superficial attitude of a novelty present. In fact, Leon was rather surprised that John was so heavily biased towards the tactical scenario, suggesting there was a larger message that he failed to absorb. It caused him to stumble through the inquiry.

“Well . . . uh . . . I guessed it was for tactical starship training . . .”

John stared incredulously at the doctor before responding. “No. It's not. The Kobyashi Maru is a test of character. And since you never finished it, I can only guess that you have NONE.”

The reply hit Leon squarely in the gut. It was an insult, and it came from one of his best friends. In addition, it wasn't a fun-loving insult over drinks. It was a very sober and very direct insult meant to harshly jog Leon's personal assumptions. It succeeded.

“What the hell do you want from me?” Leon whispered, still feeling the pain of John's stinging remark.

“I want you to start seeing the universe for the way it really is,” John directed. “It's not black and white, nor good and bad. There's no 'winning' anything when lives hang in the balance.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You have twenty-four hours to figure it out.”

With that, John turned around and proceeded to walk away from his friend.

“Are you saying that you're giving me another chance?” Leon called after him.

Without turning around, John continued down the hallway and offered his final say in the matter. “Twenty-four hours, doc. If you're not ready to finish the test by zero nine-hundred tomorrow, then you'll no longer be a bridge officer candidate . . .”

Leon stood speechless, watching as John disappeared beyond the gradual, lateral curvature of the passageway. His emotion had swung from nervous, to jubilant, to panicked, to frustrated, to hurt, all before finally settling on dazed. The doctor was a mind-melding Vulcan's nightmare by the time John had departed, and as a queasy sensation filled his stomach, a quiet chuckle caught his attention.

The next recessed cove along the corridor wall was that of holodeck two, and the chuckle was coming from Nat Hawk. The lieutenant was in his night robe, and stepped out from within the closed doorway vestibule to lean his shoulder against the wall by the control panel. He was apparently quite amused about John and Leon squabbling through the corridor like a married couple.

“Boy!” Leon exclaimed, his telltale furrow forming yet again on his forehead. “You just can't follow an order, can you?”

“Nope, not unless I like 'em,” Nat shook his head, still smiling. “But c'mon, what'd ya expect? I been cooped-up like a monkey n'the zoo fer a week. I needed ta stretch ma legs.”

Even though Nat had violated Leon's medical curfew, from a doctor's perspective, he had to admit that the Republic's helmsman was looking much better, even though it had only been a day since he left sickbay. There was color back in his cheeks, and his attitude seemed less withdrawn and more relaxed; as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“I don't recall ever writing a prescription for an early morning romp with Orion slave women,” Leon commented.

Nat seemed to consider something for a moment, then finally shrugged and shook his head. “Naw,” he replied, “believe it 'er not, I've always been a one-gal-at-a-time kinda guy. Whether she's flesh 'er photons.”

“Well you must have been doing something healthy to bring that smug grin back to your face,” he prodded him. “I can only assume it was some sort of mix of physical exertion and pleasure. Both of which you're NOT supposed to be doing, I might add.”

“Strike two, Doc,” Nat admitted proudly. “Matter a fact, I was doin' a lil bit a . . . I guess ya could call it research.”

“You?” Leon's expression turned to surprise. “Researching?” He folded his arms to emphasize that we was willing to listen to Nat's explanation. “This ought to be good. Well, what was it?”

“Well after that lil lovers quarrel b'tween John-boy n'you, I think ya might wanna try it out fer yerself.” Hawk suggested. “Somethin' tells me it'd do ya a might a good on yer test.”

“You think that whatever 'research' program you may be running will solve *my* career problems?”

“Never know til ya try,” Hawk teased, “Somethin' tells me this program might just help ya 'turn death inta a fightin' chance ta live' . . . so ta speak.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” the doctor's curmudgeon-like tone resurfacing.

“Just . . . try it. Trust me.” Nat said.

“Why would I be interested in running a program that *you* designed? Last time I joined you in any other pursuit other than drinking, I found myself dangling from a hopper on a rope over a lava pit.”

Nat couldn't help but smile as he stepped past Leon, making his way down the corridor as Carter had done a few minutes before. “If it helps ease yer mind, I didn't design the program; John-boy did. Just take it from somebody who passed that bridge exam; run the program.”

With a smile that never ceased, Nat shuffled on down the corridor out of sight, leaving the confused Leon standing alone outside of holodeck two. With little choice left, Leon raised an eyebrow before entering the chamber.

Location: Outer ring corridor, deck 10, USS Republic

John Carter walked briskly, trying to shake the feeling that he'd just punched a friend in the gut. Behind him, moving to a bouncing trot to keep up, Shannon Harris raised her voice. “John! Don't you DARE walk away from me.”

Carter quickly spun on a heel, a little surprised at the yell that almost came out of his mouth. He took a deep breath to try and collect himself, then looked at Shannon again. “I'm sorry,” he said genuinely. “I'm just so damned…”

“Frustrated?” Shannon interjected.

“Yeah, that,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “I'm really surprised at Leon. I mean, I gave him EVERY break I could and he's been… I don't know… ignoring this.”

Shannon regarded Republic's XO for a long moment. Then she shifted her weight to the other hip. “Have you considered that he doesn't really WANT to take that test?”

John gave the red headed pediatrician a dismissive wave. “Come on,” he said simply, “No one's twisting his arm. Besides, you know as well as I do that Leon is exactly the kind of man that `Fleet needs. Especially now.”

Shannon shook her head. “I'm not arguing that, John…”

“Then what ARE you arguing?” he shot back.

Shannon folded her arms in front of her and gave Carter a stern look. “Let me finish, COMMANDER.” She let just a hint of venom leak into the last word. “I completely agree that Fleet needs Leon. I'm just not sure that Leon needs `Fleet.”

Carter shook his head again. “What are you talking about,” he waved his hands for emphasis. “He ABSOLUTELY belongs here.”

“I agree, John,” Harris said smoothly. “He belongs on this ship, with this crew, but needing us and needing `Fleet is not the same thing. Besides,” she continued with a wry smile on her face, “you're not the easiest man in the world to say `no' to.”

John tilted his head sideways for a long moment. “You really think I pushed him too hard to take the test?”

“Honestly? No, I don't,” she offered, “Just like the rest of us, Leon needs a good kick in the backside sometimes, but there's something to be said for the fact that he's particularly hesitant to take THAT PARTICULAR test. Maybe it has something to do with the combat. I don't know, but the whole idea sends his system into a highly agitated state.”

John shook his head again. “I told him, the test isn't about combat. Truth be told it's not even REALLY about the `No-win scenario'. It's about the fact that one day, ship commander or not, he might have to order someone to die in order to save the ship, and he needs to be okay with that.”

“You think he can't? He's a doctor John. He deals with life and death nearly every day.”

John stepped closer and put his hands on Shannon's shoulders. “I know, but it's not the same thing. When Leon has to LET someone die, it's because there is literally no alternative. There's a world of difference between being force to let someone die and asking them to.”

Shannon stepped closer, letting John fold her into a hug. “I never really thought of it that way,” she said quietly.

“I know,” John said in a whisper. “What matters is if Leon can think of it that way or not.”

Chapter 35: Longings for the T'KumbraTop

Location: Unknown

The smell of burned wiring permeated the shuttle as sparks jettisoned out of the panels of the ship. Jaren Tolkath was navigating the ship while Reittan assisted feverishly rerouting power to the engines and the shields.

Jaren's son began to perspire at the anticipation of another hit. He had to maintain their shields.

Jaren looked over at his son's control panels and noticed they had just lost the starboard shields. Reittan's fingers rabidly flew across the instruments racing for control of the power grid within the vessel. Father Tolkath said nothing but kept his stoic Vulcan demeanor.

Jaren returned to his controls maneuvering through some of the most difficult piloting he had ever done.

As to where the two battle ships had come from was a mystery, but that was moot at this point. They needed to get out and to the nearest star base before the shuttle was destroyed.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Reittan caught his mother looking serene and calm; she reeked of fear as did his grandmother and the ten other dignitaries aboard.

His attention snapped back to what he was doing as the panels flickered and the ship jerked; another shot had hit the aft shields. More sparks showered Reittan, and suddenly all power within the ship died.

Darkness enveloped them for a fraction of a second, until emergency power brought life support back online. As the lights reappeared, Reittan saw his Grandmother laying on the floor unconscious, a trickle of blood running down her face.

Rage engulfed Reittan, anger and a strong sense of primal self preservation began to build within him like a warp core breach. The emotion erupted; all fell into darkness.

Reittan suddenly woke up, sitting straight up with a jerk. His robe was drenched in perspiration. He looked around his quarters and grounded himself in the present moment; not in the past, anything but the past. He hadn't been sleeping well recently being effected by the recent commotion and emotional upheaval aboard the ship. He had arranged his schedule to get some sleep, but only found nightmares.

He closed his eyes and began focusing on the feelings of his shipmates. He targeted some very strong feelings of anger, they were emanating from Doctor Cromwell.

Leon had been a little edgy since the Hawk incident. Since a large amount of conversation surrounded Lt. Hawk, the Counselor began calling the phenomenon “Hawk talk.” Leon would bristle and get angry when Hawk talk occurred around him, but Tolkath could sense hurt too; a sense of betrayal. Upon learning the Counselor had known about the condition of Nat, his interactions with the Lieutenant Commander had cooled. But, the doctor had somewhat forgiven the Counselor, when he learned he had been ordered to stay silent. Reittan wasn't sure if the forgiveness had been genuine, or if Leon had larger fish to fry.

Since Leon had the most intense feelings aboard the ship, besides the two crew members who were enjoying each other in the extracurricular activities of a relationship, Tolkath would have to credit this last dream to him. The Counselor's conscience wasn't so easily persuaded by this explanation. After all, it was Reittan's fault he hadn't meditated and closed his mind off to what was happening around him; leaving his dreams completely unguarded.

Suddenly, the intercom came to life overhead.

“Counselor, please report to your office!”

The sound of panic in the secretary's voice alerted Reittan that this was not at test . . .

Location: Deck nine just outside the Counselor's quarters, USS Republic

After the assault on the Counselor during the whole Hawk debacle, Tolkath had engineering install what could only be described as a “silent alarm” in the Psychology department. It was activated by strategically-placed hidden triggers that could be reached easily from anywhere around the department offices. Upon activation, the computer would instantly and clandestinely scan the room it was activated in, check the bio-rhythms of all the occupants, and verify that the alarm had been activated by an authorized individual. Unless the computer determined that Reittan himself was in trouble, the system was programmed to contact him instead of security. The reason for this system was that if one of the staff psychologists were in distress while in a counseling session with a patient, it would give Reittan himself a chance to intervene and diffuse the situation before security arrived. While ship security was good at physically restraining an emotionally-distressed patient, it could sometimes do more harm than good, especially if Reittan had a better, more psychologically-sound alternative.

It was this alarm system that had alerted the Counselor and summoned him to the psychology department one deck above his personal quarters. Although the secretary's voice was calm enough so as to not alarm anyone who might have been with the Lieutenant Commander, the computer had alerted the Counselor that things had gone awry in the Psychology department. Reittan hurried through the deserted corridor to the turbolifts. Upon arrival, and after waiting for what seemed like an eternity to the Counselor, the doors hissed open, and Tolkath quickly stepped in.

“Deck eight,” Reittan barked. Luckily, the Counselor was the only occupant in the turbo-lift. “Computer, report on program RT-3 beta.”

“Voice authorization confirmed” the computer replied. “Lieutenant Reisan, is currently in the main office with a male approximately 167 centimeters tall and 90 kilograms. Both occupant's vital signs and body temperatures are heightened.”

“Position of the occupants?”

“The male is one meter directly inside the door and Lieutenant Reisan is behind her desk.”

The turbo-lift came to a stop and the doors hissed open. The Lieutenant Commander nearly tripped over himself trying to quickly, yet casually so as to not to draw attention to himself, get to the department. The Counselor thought to himself, “It's times like these I miss the T'Kumbra; much less drama.”

The seemingly unending deserted corridor finally gave way to the main psychology department. Then Tolkath composed himself, and walked nonchalantly towards the doors as though he were just passing through, as difficult as it was not to just burst into the room. The counselor could hear the heated discussion emanating from the room. He paused just outside of the sensors surrounding the doors, so he could eavesdrop and not go inside being unprepared.

“YOU WILL NOT TREAT ME THAT WAY!” Lieutenant Reisan shouted at the unknown guest.

Lieutenant Reisan was a short, blue eyed, brunette. Ordinarily she was mild manner, and Reittan had yet to hear her raise her voice. Many times he wondered if she were part Vulcan with her cool demeanor, but her records showed her to be human. Because of her elevated voice, the Counselor waited no longer and entered the room.

Something was terribly wrong.

Upon entering the dimly lit room, the first thing Reittan noticed was how frazzled the Lieutenant looked. It appeared that someone had tried to remove her uniform by force. It was evident that Reisan had used the silent alarm because she rightly wanted someone to witness the attack for credibility in any testimony, which would unavoidably happen through an inquiry and investigation.

The psychology department had been painted in neutral colors to help the ambiance necessary for the therapeutic process. The bulkhead in which Tolkath's fellow counselor was pinned against was painted a pale blue color. However, in this predicament, the pale blue looked terribly foreboding.

As Lieutenant Reisan's eyes focused on Tolkath, they filled sudden calm; a sense of safety painted her expression. The perpetrator suddenly grabbed the Lieutenant's uniform, as if to finish ripping it off when suddenly, assailant noticed the change in her expression and swung around to find the Counselor standing behind him. Fury filled the Counselor as he recognized the face of the lieutenant's attacker: Talloc Morganth.

“Why, if it isn't Rei-Rei the Crazy Guy…”

The taunting stung Reittan, but not as quite much now as it had during his childhood. However, it opened old wounds the counselor thought had healed. Reittan tapped his combadge and said calmly.

“Security to the Psychology department.”

“On our way, counselor…”

“Oh, come on Rei-Rei you aren't going to . . .” Morganth taunted the counselor in front of his colleague.

The silence that met Talloc was filled with anger, and enhanced by fear of the consequences that waited for him. The rage boiled over and he threw a right hook at the Counselor. Reittan instinctively grabbed the fist accelerating towards his face, and the strength of his Vulcan heritage caught Talloc completely off-guard.

“Well, well, well, Reitty-Rei, grew up.”

Lieutenant Reisan watched Talloc futilely grappling for control . Suddenly, the struggle stopped and the conversation turned telepathic. The intensity and the hatred that Morganth looked at the Counselor made Reisan glad she wasn't a telepath.

It was then that the doors opened announcing the arrival of Security.

“Gentlemen, place this man in the brig!”

The red that had filled Talloc's face from his anger suddenly drained until he was a slight green. His eyes melted into pleading orbs towards the counselor. Reittan turned and looked once more towards Morganth. The Counselor then turned the ex-assailant over to the security guards.

“Save your pleas for your hearing, then you can say them out loud,” the Lieutenant Commander mocked Talloc.

With that, the Counselor turned his attention to the Lieutenant who was in shock. She rested her body weight and head against the bulk head and started to slide down into a fetal position. Reittan rushed over and caught her while she was halfway to the floor.

“I'll take it from here,” Reittan said as calmly as possible. “Just get him to the brig.”

The security officers nodded and began leading their prisoner out of the room to his cell.

Reisan began shaking uncontrollably. “He was in my head,” was all she could say as she rocked back and forth. The words made Reittan sick.

“We are going to take you to sickbay,” Reittan said as he tried to comfort her. “Can you walk?”

She stared off into space still shaking, but her legs supported her as he placed her weight on them. Reittan walked all the way to sickbay with her, many times carrying her weight whenever her legs became shaky due to shock.

Location: Captains ready room, USS Republic

Lieutenant Commander Tolkath looked at his Captain with anticipation in his eyes. Though he could have clearly read her thoughts on the matter, he did as he always had and respected her privacy, though her emotions emanated much caution.

“This is highly unusual Counselor. Why is it that you want to look into the matter?” Kimberly Roth was sitting in her chair behind her desk; opposite the standing Counselor. Smoke was in her lap and had been resting lazily until the Lieutenant Commander had entered the room. He blinked and looked intently at the new visitor. Roth unconsciously stroked her pet as the Republic's Counselor continued.

“Captain,” he addressed his superior, “he is a good family friend. I also may be one of the few who could reach him, should his condition continue to deteriorate.” The Counselor had been confused, to say the least, with his encounter with Talloc Morganth. Although they had been rivals as children, Talloc and Reittan had made amends years earlier; he now considered him nearly a brother. It made no sense to Tolkath, something was terribly wrong.

“Explain.” Roth pressed.

“There was a man on Earth named Sigmund Freud who could explain this scenario best. Freud postulated that there were three main spheres of the psyche: the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego. The Id is all about impulse and selfish desires, the Super Ego is all about rules and morals; constraint. The Ego is the bartering system between the Id and the Super Ego.”

“Yes, I am aware of Mister Freud.”

“To put it best, Morganth's Super Ego has become incapacitated, leaving him now acting impulsively. The Ego's intact, but without the other force to balance it out . . .”

”. . . he's running off pure instinct.“ The Captain finished his thought. “I see. But, why would you be one of the few who could face him?”

“Because I have the training. People with my . . . sensitivity to telepathic energy are trained to block it out or deal with it, or they go insane.” With the last statement Reittan's eyes reflected intense pain as he broke eye contact with the Captain; his gaze fell to the floor haunted by ghosts of his past.

Kimberly had once heard of those who were overly sensitive to psioinic energy. Many were doomed to self-exile, and others would be driven insane by the maelstrom of energy.

“Counselor, I am concerned with one thing. I heard about the exchange between you and Mister Morganth, the verbal exchange seemed quite heated.”

His most recent interactions with his old friend had not gone the way that Reittan had wished they had. “It is part of the reason I wanted to do this.” Tolkath said repentantly. “I am ashamed of how I behaved and I need to find the truth.”

Kimberly Roth looked over the blue uniformed counselor. It didn't take an empath to know that his remorse was sincere. Smoke cocked his head and bleaked. “Yes, I agree with you Smoke. Counselor, I have talked it over with Lieutenant Beauvais. She is currently occupied with other concerns, but will look over your report, as will I. Is there anything you feel you may need?”

What excitement had filled the eyes of the Counselor quickly drained and he looked as if he were being asked to sacrifice his friend on a prehistoric altar. “Yes, one other. I will need someone on the medical team to assist me. I am going to do a complete psycho-socio-bio report. But, my concerns are about the individual assisting me. Should he or she become angry while I am there due to telepathic side-effects of me working with Talloc, well . . . we know what Betaziods are capable of thanks to the Dominion War.”

“Do you think Mister Morganth is capable of being hostile or violent?”

“I am not sure. This is the first time I have encountered a condition where the Super-Ego became this incapacitated, but if my hypothesis is correct, yes, he is completely impulsive…” Then Tolkath's voice trailed off as if he was talking to himself, “and there are no force fields we know of that psionic energy can't penetrate.”

Roth paused for a moment thinking of her crew's safety. The answer became evident. “Counselor, I suggest you use Doctor Harris on your team. I will arrange for you to escort Mister Morganth to Sickbay.”

Tolkath looked up at the Captain one eyebrow raised. “I haven't met Doctor Harris as of yet.” Reittan had silently labeled her, 'the ghost doctor', as he was the one officer he hadn't been able to due an annual psych eval on.

“You are dismissed.”

“Thank you, sir.” The Counselor turned and began his journey through the bridge to the turbolift. As he approached the doors they gave way with a hiss, and the sounds from the bridge entered the previously quiet room.

Location: Main corridor, deck 10, USS Republic

Reittan Tolkath was lost shaken from his thoughts as the turbo-lift he was in came to a halt, signaling the arrival of another passenger Republic's Counselor hardly noticed the red-headed Pediatrician enter the turbo lift. The doors closed behind her as she announced “Biology Lab.”

The voice startled the Tolkath as he sensed no emotion from the Doctor with him in the turbo-lift. He looked up to find the source of the voice only to be greeted by Doctor Harris.

“Hello, Counselor,” she began.

Reittan paused, staring at the hologram standing before him, “Uh, hello Doctor Harris,” he said absently. Tolkath's mind was racing trying to figure out why she showed no life force to him.

“Is something bothering you, Counselor?” Shannon Harris offered. “I was an acting Counselor for a little while. I know how tough the job can be.”

Tolkath looked at her in astonishment. He looked at the obviously human form before him. Doctor Shannon Harris looked all too real, but as the empathic officer regarded her, for Tolkath, it was like looking at a well-animated puppet. His eyes told him she was there. He could even feel a bit of air being displaced by her presence, perhaps even some heat, but the parts of his brain that read emotion and thought in other beings, which would be impossible to ignore at this distance, told him that the space around him was empty.

Tolkath took another long look at Doctor Harris, fixing his gaze on her eyes. “Forgive me, Doctor…” he said with an air of skepticism, “but, what exactly are you?”

Shannon looked on, dumb-founded. “Excuse me?”

“Again, I'm sorry to be so blunt, but, to my empathic senses…” Tolkath paused, taking a moment to try and focus on the other mind in the car that SHOULD have been there, but wasn't. “You're… not here.”

Shannon dropped her head with a soft chuckle. “Heh… I must be getting sloppy.”

“Come again?” The Counselor asked.

“I'm an inter-active, autonomous hologram, Counselor.”

At one moment, Doctor Harris' answer seemed absurd, but at the same time, it answered more than a few questions. Like all Starfleet personnel, Reittan had spent more than a few hours in a holodeck. Sometimes it was for training or for casework. Other times it was purely personal. In all those times, he'd never been off-put by interaction with a hologram, the way he was now, but upon coming to that realization, it occurred to him that, while on the holodeck, he knew not to EXPECT any telepathic or emotional resonance. Logically then, it's absence would likely have gone unnoticed. Here however the expectation of at least getting a passive sense of Shannon Harris made the absence of that sensation all the more obvious. “Fascinating”. He offered.

“You are a holographic projection?” Reittan asked awkwardly, and then continued, “Why haven't we met until now?”

“Until recently, I kept the nature of my existence a secret. But the captain has now given me permission to let the rest of the crew know… if they ask.”

“Oh, I see,” the Counselor responded; still taken off guard. “It was kept secret… because you were worried that others may be discriminative towards you?”

“Yes, that was part of it.” Shannon replied.

“How have people responded as they…” The Counselor paused mid- thought, and jumped back to the reason they were headed to the Brig. “Would you mind if we carried this conversation later? I would be interested in learning more about your situation.”

Shannon was slightly shocked by how the Lieutenant Commander was responding to the news, but attributed it to his line of duty. “I wouldn't mind, she answered.

The Doctor and the Counselor had some things in common. The both knew more than people were willing to admit, or that they would try to hide. Yet, they respected others privacy; they both stayed as much as they could out of people's personal lives.

Shannon looked at the level read-out, near the lift car's door. “You're headed to the brig?” Shannon asked.

“Yes,” Tolkath answered. “An unusual case, actually.”

“Does this ship have any other kind?”

With a chuckle, the Counselor continued. “I suppose not.” For a moment, the empath paused. “Actually, you might be of some use. Assuming I can take you away from whatever you're up to at the moment?”

Shannon tilted her head and raised her left eyebrow. “You've got my attention Tolkath.” She answered. “My bio-cultures can wait. What's your case?”

“A friend of mine, actually. A man I've known for years. Morganth is his name. He's a civilian contractor, at least according to his computer file, but I must confess I had no idea he was on board, and less of a clue why he assaulted one of my colleagues.”

“Lieutenant Xera Reisan.” Shannon confirmed. “Teague checked her out. She's resting comfortably… Unless there's been some sort of change?”

“How did you…?”

Shannon tapped her temple with a smile. “One advantage of being a hologram. I'm literally PART of the computer. I can access anything it knows, with a little effort.”

“Well then, I am glad you are here, and that you are immune to our psionic capabilities. We may need that,” the Counselor said.

“Do you have any idea what is happening to your friend?” Shannon asked.

“Regrettably, no. That is why I need you to do a complete medical work-up on him.”

Shannon nodded. She saw the pain in the Counselor's eyes.

The turbo lift halted and the door opened to the corridor leading to the brig. The two walked in silence and the doors opened with a soft hiss, opening the way to the cells. As soon as the duty officers saw Tolkath and Doctor Harris enter the room, the gold-clad security men opened the heavy servo-locked doors that lead to the brig's interior.

Once inside, effectively isolated from the rest of the ship, the two stopped, taking stock of their surroundings.

From inside the brig's only occupied cell, Morganth noticed Reittan and telepathically shouted, 'YOU DID THIS TO ME!'

Reittan suddenly felt the barrage of psionic energy crashing down on his body. His body shook and started to collapse for a brief moment under the weight of the attack. Shannon noticed the Counselor weaken and steadied him by putting her arm around him. It took a moment for Tolkath to recover and put his training in to play. Though he could feel the pressure of the attack, the pain had subsided.

“Thank you,” he said to Shannon as his strength returned and he stood upright.

“No worries,” Shannon answered in her familiar Australian accent.

Morganth looked at Reittan with pure hate emanating from him. “If you don't release me, I will hurt your friend.”

Reittan half-smiled and suddenly the weight no longer was there. The Lieutenant Commander had learned his lesson from entering the room unprepared. He leaned on Harris a moment longer, mustered his concentration, and focused his defenses into place.

Morganth stared at Shannon ferociously.

“You can't hurt her. She's immune to psionic energy.”

Morganth shouted in frustration. 'Fine,' he answered silently. 'If I can't hurt her, I'll find someone else,' he threatened telepathically. “This is an awfully crowded ship.” He added the last rejoinder aloud… apparently for the female officer's benefit.

In the Brig's foyer, one of the duty officers doubled over and collapsed in pain. His partner acted quickly to sound the security alert.

“I don't even need to see anyone anymore. Face it Rei-Rei. I'm better than you.”

Reacting to the security alert, Shannon Harris shifted her concentration to the web of information constantly flowing to and from the ship's computer. She slipped in between bio-neural impulses and accessed the combadge network.

“Petty Officer Rolands. Alpha Centauran.” She said matter of factly. “He's having some sort of aneurism, I think!”

Reittan warned Morganth calmly, “Stop… or I will stop you.”

The prisoner laughed outloud and exclaimed audibly. “How are you going to do that, Rei-Rei the crazy guy?”

Reittan produced a hypospray. Hyposprays had been used before to incapacitate, but where the Counselor had obtained it, Shannon didn't know. She assumed it was a psychiatric drug authorized for the psychology department.

As Tolkath walked slowly towards the force field, he began to feel the weight of the onslaught again. “Good,” he said to his attacker, “focus on me… I can handle it.”

When Reittan began to take on the attack, Rolands regained his composure. Reittan used his medical override code to lower the force field, then to raise it after he had entered the cell.

Shannon looked on, puzzled by the Counselor's actions. She could only assume that the Counselor's hypo-spray contained a powerful sedative. Something to end Morganth's psionic rampage.

As he entered, Reittan's one time friend intensified the attack. With hypo-spray in hand, the Counselor inched towards his current attacker. Morganth lunged at the Counselor, but Tolkath was quicker. Mid-lunge the Counselor pressed the hypospray to Morganth's neck and the hiss of it sounded in the room.

Shannon was puzzled when the assailant did not lose consciousness. The prisoner suddenly went pale and looked bewildered.

“What have you done to me?” he asked in horror as he sank to the floor.

Reittan looked down at the empty container in his hand and all he could do was apologize. Turning back, he again used his code to lower the security field, exit the cell, and look back at his one-time-friend as the bluish field snapped back into place.

Doctor Harris looked at the Counselor. She had seen the look before on doctors who had just informed their patient's family that their loved one was going to die. She didn't understand what was happening. The once angry, violent prisoner was beginning to weep.

For Morganth, the once buzzing world surrounding him had gone deafeningly silent. He felt empty loneliness in a way that had only been nightmares during his youth.

“We can take him to sickbay now,” Reittan stated hollowly, “He won't be a problem to anyone else for the moment.”

“We're not taking him anywhere NEAR any other patients until you tell me what was in that hypo-spray.”

Reittan took a deep breath and answered the Pediatrician. “It's a compound that inhibits the production of Psilosynine, the main neurotransmitter in psionic energy.” He continued, “This specific one will continue to work indefinitely until the 'antidote' is applied. It comes as a heavy price though. We only have a short time before the effects of the drug, the silence, can have a profound psychological effect.”

“Isn't there something else that could have been used? Perhaps you could have made him unconscious?” Shannon inquired.

“No, I have thought this through. I need him to answer questions. Hopefully the bio-scans will show something.”

“Won't the inhibitor affect the brain scan?”

Reittan involuntarily twitched at the word “inhibitor”, explaining how exactly the bio-scans would show nothing out of the ordinary.

Shannon noted the unusual authority in his voice that a seasoned expert would display. It was as strange to her, as it was the rest of the crew, to see someone who looked Vulcan expressing emotion. Especially pride.

Reittan was remorseful as the pair made their way to sickbay. At one point he tried to put his arm around the prisoner's shoulders consolingly, only to have the prisoner jerk away. Tolkath understood the prisoner's anger and resentment, but it was for his, Morganth's, and the crew's safety that the intervention had been taken.

Location: Sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic

Upon reaching sickbay, Reittan walked to the side as Shannon took the prisoner to the medical bed. She could see pure fear in his eyes; so child-like.

Now in Sickbay, Shannon felt back in her element. She looked to the duty station and found the somewhat confused face of Saal Yezbeck.

“Hey Shannon. Counselor,” he welcomed the new arrivals. “Why do I get the feeling this has something to do with the security alert a minute ago?”

“Can't get anything past you Saal.” Shannon smiled. “I'll need a hand with a full neural scan.” She turned to face Tolkath. “If you would, Counselor?”

“This man is… or rather, WAS a dangerous psionic. I've administered an inhibitor to block his powers, so there is no danger, but I need to know what caused his illness.”

“Illness?” Saal asked as he readied the diagnostic probes that would adhere to Morganth's temples. “How do you mean?”

“He's had some sort of psychotic breakdown,” Tolkath explained, “but I would like to know the reason why. He was… He is, a friend of mine.”

Saal nodded solemnly. “Right. Let's get you a look then.”

In moments, Saal had refined the scans of the bio-bed to Morganth's brain. The scan, repeated on a large diagnostic board mounted on the room's near wall. The picture showed not only several views of the patient's physical health, but also showed the areas of his brain that were currently active. Saal visibly winced as the scan showed the `dead area of Morganth's frontal lobe, rendered dormant by Tolkath's hypo-spray.

“Now… let's see if we can tell what's…” Saal's voice trailed off.

Next to the diagnostic bed, Tolkath looked at Shannon. “So, what's it like?” he asked simply.

“Sorry?” Shannon asked.

“You're a singular being onboard Republic, Doctor.” He explained. “And if rumors are true, you and Commander Carter are… involved?” Shannon smiled at the thought of John, then looked back at Tolkath. “You want to have this conversation now?” she asked. “Shouldn't I make an appointment or something?”

“Do you think you need an appointment?”


“Why not?”

“Stop that!” Shannon chided. “Stop answering questions with questions. It's… unnerving.”

“It makes you anxious? Really?” Tolkath thought outloud. “I'm sorry. It's just that usually when I ask a question like that I already have a pretty good idea of the answer. This really is interesting.”

“Fair enough,” Shannon offered. She crossed her arms in front of her and paused in thought. “I suppose it's like being inside a novel, except… if I really want to, I can be anywhere on the ship. I don't have to follow just one plot. That is… if I don't want to.”

“And, Commander Carter? I assume he knows?” Tolkath asked.

“Damned right he does,” Harris answered defensively. “He was the first one to figure it out after I did.”

“Wait…” Tolkath looked shocked. “You didn't know what you were? Really? For how long?”

Shannon shook her head. “Not a clue. I remember waking up in my quarters when Republic was in dry dock after her first re-commissioning. Then, for the next year or so, I just thought I was one of the crew. I was born in Australia. I survived the Borg attack on Earth. I joined Starfleet just after the Dominion War.”

“You did? Or Shannon Harris did?” Tolkath questioned.

“What?” Shannon was again confused.

“Your background,” Tolkath continued, his voice filled with warmth and curiosity. “Is your history purely fictional? Or were you modeled on a… and forgive me for this, 'real' Shannon Harris?”

For a moment, Republic's pediatrician stood. Unsure of what the answer really was.

“Eureka!” Saal Yezbeck shouted. “I think I found it.” There were a few short beeps from the console Saal was bent over, then the display they were all looking at shifted to show a multi-colored cross-section of Morganth's frontal lobe. “Look closely. Right here at the pre-frontal cortex.” The image enlarged and intensified, showing the area of the patient's brain in fine detail.

“It looks… smaller, dimmer.” Tolkath offered.

“Exactly.” Saal confirmed. “I ran a full spectro-chemical analysis, and your friend's cortisone levels are off the charts, in a highly localized area.”

“He's allergic to something?” Shannon asked. “Or is this some kind of viral reaction?”

Saal shook his head looking at the scan, then at Morganth's bewildered expression. “My money's on option one. If this were viral, some other parts of his physiology would be either agitated or suppressed. Since they're not…” Saal folded his arms across his chest, stroking his beard with one hand in a contemplative manner. “I'd be looking for some sort of agent or irritant that he might have been exposed to.”

Saal turned to look at Tolkath directly, but the Counselor was already out the door, bolting down the corridor.

Location: Talloc Morganth’s assigned guest quarters, USS Republic

Reittan entered his friend’s quarters cautiously; the lights were dimmer in the room than in the corridor. As his eyes adjusted to the darker environment, he scanned the room and noticed the quarters were in complete disarray; furniture was turned over and clothing was strewn across the room leaving the abode in utter chaos.

Reittan spied a PADD walked over to the tablet shaped object that had been left in the mess. With a couple of quick taps to the PADD it came to life then flickered and faded, then came to life again.

Counselor Tolkath began scanning the PADD with interest. With his access code over-ride he was able to access Morganth's personal entries since the day the Republic had left Deep Space Nine abruptly to five days ago when they had suddenly ceased. Looking over the information, he gathered up the PADD, and righted an overturned table. Reaching for a stool that lay nearby, the Counselor placed the tablet shaped object on the table top. Tolkath had learned that even the smallest detail could lead to the correct answer to the current conundrum, so he began reading the journal entries from the beginning.

Morganth's voice filled Tolkath's mind, “Day one aboard the USS Republic. I am not sure why I have been detained aboard this vessel; it was a very abrupt emergency departure. The day started out very nicely, the Tolkath's were gracious enough to allow me to come aboard the ship with them to see Reittan. It will be good to see him again. However, on our way to the Counseling Center, I gazed on one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her eyes, the way she carried herself made me feel like a boy back in Betazed when I had the crush on Jemma in the second grade.”

Reittan looked up and laughed in spite of himself; Morganth had been definitely love struck with her.

Morganth's log continued. “I lost track of time because we were having a pleasant conversation, then everything erupted. I didn't have time to get off the ship. I can only hope Reittan's family will inform my family about what has happened, because we have been put on radio silence. . .” Morganth's voice continued onward, but that information had answered why Tolkath's friend was aboard the ship; to see him.

Morganth's log continued onward with daily events, and meetings with the Lieutenant Xera Reisan, and his infatuation with her. Their voyage had also allowed him sometime, while the Lieutenant was on duty, to engage in his favorite past time; botany.

Reittan remembered that Talloc was always, even as a child, engrossed with some type of plant and with his talent had resurrected much vegetation. Everyone thought that he would become a great botanist, but that dream took second to his current occupation.

Reittan glanced around the chaotic room and saw Morganth's latest creation laying on the floor; Talloc often manipulated plant DNA and its subatomic structure to create new plant varieties. Through his doctoring of the plant's sub cellular makeup he was able to create many wonderful new classifications of plants that had the ability to propagate themselves; many types of these “engineered” plants lost the ability to reproduce with their inception. On Betazed, many people frowned on the genetic manipulation of plants, in favor of holistic or “natural” varieties.

Tolkath reached out and grabbed the plant's container. He then attempted to steady the plant with his opposite hand only to be pricked by one of the magnificent purple thorns. Reittan jerked back his hand instinctively, but maintained his grip on the pot-like structure with the other. Tolkath placed the plant down and examined the wound. A purple thorn protruded from the wound, after removing the thorn, a drop of blood formed over the puncture wound and Reittan absent-mindedly stuck the wounded finger in his mouth.

Tolkath decided he had seen enough for today and was going to take the PADD back to his office to re-process the journal logs, when he noticed that he was starting to get a headache. Instinctively he thought of ignoring the pain, but his gut reaction that had served him very well in the past, suggested that he go to sickbay. Tolkath didn't recall how he got there, but the thorn lay in the palm of his hand as the Counselor entered sickbay.

Doctor Harris was the first to meet him. Her demeanor changed from pleasant to a worried expression on her face. “Counselor?” She already knew part of the answer to the question she was going to ask, as the Counselor's biorhythms were abnormal.

“I have a slight headache,” Reittan began, but then concluded. “It's getting worse, but strangely euphoric.”

Then Tolkath started noticing that his ability to think logically was beginning to get greatly inhibited. With one last push of thought, the answer became evident.

The thorn.

As the realization dawned on him, he quickly thrusted the thorn towards Doctor Harris, then blacked out.

Already tapped into the computer's sensor system, Shannon had previously had called for assistance for the ailing Counselor, and had him placed on a biobed. Medical bay suddenly came to life with medical personnel surrounding the bed where Reittan lay.

The sensors displayed what Doctor Harris had feared: cortisone levels elevated and were continuing on to reach toxic levels.

“I need a hypospray of corticotropin! Stat!” Shannon commanded in her Australian accent to the attending nurse. A hypospray appeared and Shannon quickly calculated the necessary dosage. Pressing the hypospray to the Counselor's neck, it hissed and the battle over Tolkath's cortisone levels began. “Make sure to watch the amount of copper-levels in his blood . . . he is part Vulcan after all. It should give us another indicator as to what is happening.”

Regulating the cortisol levels was just buying time while the deeper roots to the problem could be solved. Shannon gave orders to the frequency and dosage of the hypospray to be administered, then left with the brilliant purple thorn in her hand.

Shannon stared at the thorn, studying it using all of the sensors available in Medical Bay. She then cross-referenced all material available to her aboard the Republic and in the Starfleet database; a pattern emerged.

Leon looked at Doctor Harris, fascinated by the implications of this purple thorn's 'magic'. “It's comparable to an allergic reaction of the brain?”

“Exactly. Instead of a histamine reaction, it's cortisol. The counselor is doing fine now and has returned to his quarters, despite his protests to remain with his friend. The only reason we can think of that Talloc has had as much damage to his brain as he did is because of his constant contact with the plant; which has been put under quarantine.”

Leon scratched his chin as he listened to Doctor Harris' report.

“Doctor Ryda has begun repair on the myelin sheathing in Mister Morganth's brain. There has been a lot of damage, but the process looks promising. He'll be out of surgery within an hour.”

Morganth was alone with Reittan in his section of sickbay. Tolkath looked at his friend pitifully.

“I don't look that bad, do I?” Talloc verbally asked, half-smiling while laying in his bed. Morganth's pre-frontal cortex still lay hauntingly black on the bio-screen above him. The Lieutenant Commander couldn't take his eyes off of the darkened image.

Morganth had been in a medically induced coma for the past few days while the effects of the surgery were being studied. He had been awake only fifteen minutes when his Counselor-friend had arrived. (Reittan would have been the moment he was awakened, except one of the officers with a histrionic personality had hindered his progress.) All of the bio scans and cognitive functioning batteries appeared normal; only some problems with short term memory.

“Reittan,” Morganth began with a new-found empathy for his friend, “Was it like this every time for you? Deafeningly silent? Empty? A holographic program? Icily still?”

Reittan looked at Talloc and nodded in affirmation. “But it beat the madness . . . I guess.” The emotional scars of years past flickered in the Counselor's eyes briefly, then were gone.

Doctor Harris came to Morganth's bedside and pulled out a hypospray from her pocket. It was the final neurological stimulant that needed to be applied in order to restore his telepathic abilities following the surgery.

“Are you ready?” she asked Morganth Talloc.

“Very.” came his reply.

Shannon pressed the hypospray to his neck. With a hiss, a warm blanket of noise and life entered Talloc's mind. Morganth looked at his Doctor and a puzzled look appeared on his face.

“Uh Reittan,. . . I'm not sure that stuff is working right. . .”

Reittan looked at his friend in confusion for a moment, but as he realized that he and Morganth were the only two full telepaths on the ship, he smiled in amusement.

“Morganth,” the counselor motioned towards Shannon. “Meet Doctor Harris. Republic's sentient, autonomous, and fully-commissioned holographic physician.”

Chapter 36: A Fighting Chance to LiveTop

Location: Holodeck two, deck 10, USS Republic

Leon walked through the doors into a well-furnished, albeit dimly lit room that appeared to be a comfortable living space. The ivory-colored carpet matched the off-white walls, and as he perused the various accouterments, took note of the hanging décor that sported objects from Earth's renaissance and colonial eras such as flintlock pistols, spring-wound clocks, and models of old, wooden sailing vessels. A shelving unit just inside the foyer was a tall, wide diamond-shaped unit of brass and glass, and exhibited several items of antiquity. To Leon's right, two empty cushioned lounge chairs faced a marble fireplace on the opposite wall, separated only by a small end table. To his left, a huge, panoramic window presented an unparalleled view of the evening San Francisco skyline. Leon watched in the distance as a lighted external elevator slowly rose to the top floor of a building that was easily 200 stories tall.

Quietly, a man came strolling into the room from the direction of the fireplace. At first, he did not pay attention to Leon, as he seemed engrossed in a quaint, leather-bound. The individual wasn't very tall, and in fact, was about the same height as Leon. Although he was wide around the waist, he wasn't stout, and carried his extra weight well. With a mop of curly brown and gray hair, his face was clean-shaven, and he wore a pair of ancient rectangular spectacles that accentuated the wrinkles around his eyes.

“Aren't you a little old for a cadet?” the hologram finally noticed Leon. He asked the question matter-of-factly, peering past the cover of his book, and over the top brim of his gold-framed glasses. The image was that of a Starfleet officer in the old maroon, wrap-around tunic of yesteryear, complete with the black trousers and boots standard with most uniforms. While the right shoulder strap bore the rank insignia of captain, the breast flap was partially open to reveal a buff-white liner; a telltale sign that the officer was off duty. Judging from the ribbed turtleneck collar, Leon guessed the uniform was from the late 23rd century era.

“Excuse me?” Leon asked the holographic captain with confusion.

With pursed lips, the officer closed his book, and seemed slightly annoyed at Leon's arrival. Yet, he also acted as if the doctor's presence was completely normal; as if he were expecting it. “I assume that you're another one of Carter's promising fourth-years with 'potential'?” Without waiting for an answer, the captain placed the closed book on the edge of a coffee table and proceeded to stroll across the room towards the wall adjacent to the window. There, he reached into a small wooden cabinet set atop a shelf.

“One thing I like about the way he programmed my apartment is the randomness of the liquor cabinet,” he commented. “Let's see . . .” Fumbling inside the storage compartment, the man produced a long-necked bottle with a slight curve to its muzzle. Inspecting the liquid within, the aged officer smiled with amusement and looked back to Leon. “Saurian Brandy!” he announced while collecting a pair of crystal drinking vessels from the shelf below. “It beats the Klingon blood wine that was here when that fellow in the bathrobe stopped by recently.” Filling the two glasses with a dark green liquid, the man put away the flask and offered one of the drinks to Leon.

The doctor accepted. Sniffing the glass before sipping, the aroma was rich and distilled, and although it had a slightly bitter overtone (Leon's tongue could always taste the chemical artifacts from the ship's food synthesizer), the concoction went down smooth, and warmed his stomach.

“Not bad for a computer,” remarked the Starfleet captain, enjoying his own glass. “Every now and then, it gets it right.”

As the two stood in the center of the posh den, Leon couldn't help but ask the evident question. “Who are you?”

“James T. Kirk,” the hologram replied expectantly. “Former captain of the Enterprise-A.”

Leon squinted at the hologram with both puzzlement and surprise. THIS was Kirk? The legend of the alpha quadrant? The most prominent of starship commanders that had been so idolized in every Starfleet historical text?

Recognizing Leon's confused expression, the captain pursed his lips again, not in annoyance this time, but more with resignation to the obvious. “I'm not what you expected, am I?”

“Um,” Leon wasn't sure whether to admit as such, as there was hesitation on his part to insult a renowned historical figure. “Not really,” he finally admitted. In fact, this hologram looked nothing like the images he had seen in the media. Not only had Leon assumed Kirk to be taller, but also leaner, younger-looking, and much more robust. The computerized facsimile before him was none of these, and seemed to lack the energy and charismatic appeal highlighted elsewhere. It was hard to imagine that this hologram imbued Kirk's legendary persona in what appeared to be a typical, stodgy Starfleet officer.

Kirk huffed with irony. “That's roughly what Nat Hawk said to me. Do you know how many self-aware Jim Kirk holographic programs exist out there?” the captain asked.

“Not a clue.”

“Over forty-five thousand,” he responded with emphasis. “Most are montages of my early career. Back when I was supposedly bold and endearing,” he swept his hand through the air while holding his glass steady in the other hand. His words came forth not with proud grace, but with lackluster appeal and a touch of sarcasm. “Only a fraction actually show how it really was before I died,” he looked upwards, pointing around the room. “No dramatic battles, no dashing adventures . . . just this.” Kirk sighed, observing his apartment with tired eyes. “Alone, and as a friend once pointed out, slowing turning into one of these antiques I so cherish.”

Taking a sip from his drink, Kirk casually began walking towards the two empty chairs by the fireplace. “Well, go ahead. Ask.”

“Ask what?”

“What every cadet that John Carter sends here asks, of course,” he motioned for the Doctor to have a seat in one of the recliners.

“I don't understand,” Leon commented while watching Kirk flop into his own cushioned seat. Realizing that the captain could have cared less whether he stood or sat, the Republic's CMO decided to sit down in the adjoining chair on the other side of the end table. He looked uncomfortable, but it was more a matter of his state of mind rather than the quality of the furniture.

“You've been running the Kobyashi Maru scenario, correct?”

“Um, yes.” The doctor paused with slight embarrassment, not wanting to reveal that it had actually been several weeks since he last tried the program.

“And you've just completed your fifth try, which ended in failure?”

“Why do you ask?” he replied to the question, nervously taking a sip from his cup. In fact, he had not run the Kobyashi Maru more than three times since John had given it to him, each session ending in a catastrophic explosion. With frustration, Leon had given up on the computer program, and never gave it another thought.

“Because,” Kirk explained. “Any cadet who runs through the Kobyashi Maru scenario five or more times is obviously having difficulty with the concept of the test.”

Leon froze at the statement. He suddenly realized why John was so angry with him. Up until their discussion in the corridor a few minutes ago, it was John's impression that Leon had already encountered the Jim Kirk program via the Kobyashi Maru. The fact that the holographic Kirk thought the same thing led Leon to realize that John had suspected this shortfall, and may have been the reason he gave him a second chance at the bridge officer's test just now. The question then came to mind why Nat Hawk had been running this program is anyone's guess, but it certainly explained why he looked so much more relaxed afterwards, and why he suggested that Leon give it a try.

Leon swallowed a sip of brandy very slowly, hoping to draw attention away from his shortfall about the Kobyashi Maru, and choosing to answer Kirk with information that John Carter had already offered him. “I've been told that it's a test of character.”

Kirk's look of annoyance returned, and he almost looked insulted for a moment. “As the senior officer here, I believe that's *my* line,” he scolded.

Leon clearly looked much more uncomfortable at his response.

Kirk ignored it. “Do you know why Carter programmed me?”

“For entertainment purposes, I assume.”

“Entertainment?” he echoed incredulously. “My good man, do you have any idea how long Carter and I have known each other?”


“Eleven years. He first programmed me from my Starfleet personnel file when he was a freshman at the academy. By the time he graduated, he had logged almost 200 hours with me, studying at that table right over there.” Kirk pointed to a small desk in the corner of the room.

Leon suddenly realized why John was so ready to accept Shannon as a real person: His academy mentor was a hologram.

“After the academy, he took my program with him to every posting and ship that had a holodeck. Every time he needed someone to bounce ideas off of, or mull over difficult decisions, he'd be in here. Some assignments had him consulting me almost every night. Especially after being aboard the Devonshire . . . did he ever talk to you about the Devonshire?”

Leon shook his head. “There are lots of things about his life that John Carter doesn't tell me.”

“Eventually, his visits tapered off to where months went by before he would drop by again,” Kirk continued musing. “Then one day, he became an instructor at the academy. My role soon became that of a mentor to whatever student he felt needed to meet me. Finally, he linked my program with the Kobyashi Maru scenario, automatically activating it when a user replayed the scenario five times.”

Again, Leon felt embarrassed by the realization that he failed to follow John's advice and run the Kobyashi Maru as often as he could. “When was the last time you saw him?” he chose to change the subject.

“Who? Carter?” Kirk asked, as Leon's question brought the hologram's mind back to present day. “Well, since Mister Hawk stopped by to see me last night, the last time my program was activated was several months ago. Carter came in here asking about how I dealt with the Gorns on Cestus Three. He didn't elaborate on why he wanted to know, though.”

“Well?” Leon replied, previously unaware that Kirk possessed a link to his homeworld's history. “How did you deal with them?”

Kirk waved his hand. “Never mind that,” he dismissed. “Ask Carter if you're so interested about that. What we need to be discussing at the moment is how you did on the Kobyashi Maru.”

Leon sulkily leaned back into his chair.

“I realize that you must not be too happy with your performance, and let me tell you, I've never met a cadet that hasn't.”

“And why is that?” Leon mumbled, more detached than ever. Listening to the rambling thoughts of an old man - even a legendary one - wasn't his idea of a fun or interesting time in the holodeck.

“Because,” Kirk explained. “The test wasn't designed to see if you could win the combat, it was designed to see if you could handle the rigors of command. How you tackle a no-win scenario tells a lot about how a cadet will react in a similar real-life situation.”

“I'm *not* a cadet!” Leon blurted out before he realized it. The animosity of being treated as a young student instead of a seasoned adult was eating at Leon, but as soon as he protested, he suddenly wished he hadn't. Kirk's eyes were uncomfortably fixed on the doctor after the outburst, and as the hologram scrutinized him over the brim of his glasses, Leon sunk back into the upholstered padding of the chair in embarrassment.

“So then, why are you still here?” Kirk finally asked.

“Because a year ago, some damned Starfleet admiral pulled me out of my civilian career to make me an officer! That's why!”

“Seems I've had this conversation before,” he commented sourly just as he took another sip from his glass. “So . . . you took the test - perhaps several times - and discovered that you were unable to resolve the situation.”

“You could say that,” the doctor replied, still looking rather uncomfortable to admit his shortcomings.

“And you're not happy with your performance?” Kirk continued his line of questioning while taking a seat in the other chair parallel to Leon's. The orange dancing light from the fire reflected off his spectacles.

“Something like that,” Leon admitted, taking another swig from his drink.

“And why not?”

Leon was taken slightly by surprise. “Why do you think?” he blurted out again. “The ship kept getting destroyed, no matter what I did. As a starship commander, I'm really pathetic.”

Kirk looked towards Leon with a blank stare. If he was displeased at the doctor's tone, he did not show it. “What is it that you do on board the Republic again?”

“I'm a doctor.”

“Ah,” the captain replied, turning back to the fire with an expression of comprehension. “I've known several doctors throughout my time in Starfleet. Not many of them would have cut it in the captain's chair.”

“Now you see my problem.”

At that, Kirk looked back at him with the same blank stare, hiding whatever emotion he had behind his renowned poker face. “Problem?” he asked emphatically. “You think that NOT being in the captain's seat is a problem? Have you ANY idea of the responsibility involved in commanding a starship?”

“Of course I do!”

“No, I don't think you do,” Kirk returned to watching the lit fireplace. “The doctors that I knew wouldn't have made good captains because they didn't WANT to be captains. Their command over a starship extended from being able to tell the captain what they thought on a moments notice. Always adding their emotional opinion unimpeded by the chain-of-command, and often insubordinate in their attitude.”

“Are you saying I'm too insubordinate to command a starship?”

“What I'm saying,” he emphasized. “Is that a doctor can get away with speaking their mind, often without consequences, because more often than not, they're looking out for the welfare of the crew. Good starship captains realize that. In the heat of battle, they often lose touch with the fact that their crewmembers are human beings with limitations, especially if they're focused on thinking tactically. The ship's doctor reminds them to stop what they're doing for a moment, and to think how their next command might affect the crew.”

“How does that affect whether or not a doctor can command a starship?”

“Simple. It has to do with their point of view.”

“I don't understand.”

“If a doctor spends most of their time thinking about only the crew, then they lose touch with what's happening outside the ship.”

“Or with it,” Leon whispered in thought, the gears beginning to turn in his head.

“Absolutely,” Kirk answered. “I remember this one time when my entire crew was infected with a behavior-altering virus that caused anyone infected to act as if they were intoxicated. One infected officer had actually locked himself in engineering and shut down the ship's engines while we were attempting to maintain orbit around a planet with an unstable core. If I had lost my objectivity and continued to chase down and reprimand every crewman that had misbehaved, my chief engineer and I wouldn't have been able to regain control of the ship. Our orbit would have decayed, and everyone would have died.”

“Well, that's easy for the immortal Captain Kirk,” Leon exclaimed. “Your entire career was about how you escaped from the jaws of death, and turned situations around to give them a more favorable outcome.”

“You're wrong. I didn't turn them around. Not without paying for it. Usually, I had to sacrifice something in order to get the outcome I wanted. And maybe that's my point: You *have* to sacrifice something.” Kirk emphasized the last four words of the sentence by nodding his head in rhythm to the words. “And it can't be just anything either,” he added. “It has to be something of extreme significance. *That* was what the Kobyashi Maru program taught me. Only I learned it's lesson later in life; decades afterward in fact. When I originally took the test, I sacrificed my integrity to beat the no win scenario. I cheated. I was the only cadet to actually have *won* because I reprogrammed the computer. I missed the entire purpose of the test . . . at first. But the truth was that I paid for it later in life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most of the time it wasn't *me* making the sacrifice,” Kirk explained. “Sure, I may have orchestrated the outcome, but each time I turned a situation around and was supposedly victorious, someone else paid for it, even though I didn't know it at the time. Later on, the sacrifices became more personal. Decker . . . Spock . . . my ship . . . even my own son. Each of them had paid for my victories. It wasn't until after the Khitomer Conference when I read the casualty lists for the Enterprise and the Excelsior that I realized how many had died before we could turn the situation around. After that, I came to understand that the no-win scenario truly could not be beaten. If I cheated death, someone else had to die. *That* was the order of things . . . *That* was the lesson of the Kobyashi Maru.”

Although Kirk hadn't realized it, Leon had stopped drinking. His half-empty glass was sitting in his folded hands as he stared into the fire, hanging on every word that Kirk spoke. Leon finally found the magic and appeal of this particular holographic program, and why Nat found it so important for him to run it. With a look of comprehension on his face, the doctor abruptly set his glass down on the table next to him, and got up from the chair.

“Was it something I said?” Kirk asked with surprise, glancing towards Leon as he marched towards the door.

“Yes,” Leon explained. “But don't worry, it was all helpful.”

“Glad I could do something for you,” the hologram replied, turning back towards the fireplace before adding one last sentence over his shoulder. “Do me a favor and tell Carter to stop by more than once a year, will you?”

“No problem,” Leon replied over the grinding sound of the opening holodeck doors. “And thanks.”

“Just doing my job,” Kirk replied nonchalantly as he leaned over to reclaim his leather-bound book from the coffee table.

Chapter 37: InterludesTop

Location: Somewhere in the Delta Quadrant

Fierce wind whipped across the rocky plains of the primitive looking settlement as a cloaked figure glanced into a fiercely burning binary sky. “Damn.” The cloaked figure hissed at the bright blue star just rising over the jagged mountain peaks in the distant. “Blue moon's blood,” he whispered. Then he ducked into the shadows of a rough hewn cut-out in the side of a small rock hill.

Hidden from view, the figure rapped twice quickly, then once again after a longer pause. After a moment, the rock face he was pressed against pushed in and then slid away with a heavy, low, grind. Stepping quickly into the revealed opening, the cloaked stranger wound his way down a spiraling path deep into the bedrock of the planet. The flickering light of torches lit his way, but the figure slowed his pace, still firmly aware that he could still slip and break his neck.

Stepping gingerly down the path, he wound his way to the bottom, where a cavern opened up. As he stepped in, he bowed his head, six other assembled figures turned with surprise to look at him. Each of the beings in the cave were humanoid, save for the large pupil-less eyes, and the ranges of blue skin that were now visible in the dim light.

Three males and three females were already present; each wearing little more than silken wraps serving as loin clothes. The females wore similar coverings on their chests, though, considering the diaphanous nature of the fabric, these additional coverings were clearly ceremonial. Small pieces of metal and polished stones also served as ornaments and symbols of station; worn both on the body and worked into the hair, which all assembled persons tended to wear long.

Like other natives of desert worlds, the blue-skinned inhabitants of this planet also had ears that crested into graceful points, lending a truly alien appearance to their otherwise familiar builds.

At the head of the cavern, an older male looked across the assembled crowd. “Now that we're all here…” he said with a scowl, directed at the late-comer. “My friends”, he stretched out his arms, as if embracing the crowd. “For years now we have lived under dangerous skies. Our enemy lives in the air, and has forced us to scurry like vermin into caves and hiding places. We have tried to appease, tried to negotiate,” he turned his attention to a female in the crowd who, unlike her fellows was armed with a scimitar style weapon worn low on her hip. “Some of us have even tried to fight.”

The older speaker turned his attention to a large, covered object behind him that was draped in the darkness of the cave. “Our faith in the Mother and Father who watch over our world has finally been rewarded. I have devised a means to communicate DIRECTLY with our gods, and, using the finest science my and many other brains could muster, I am confident that our deliverance is at had.”

“Rubbish!” the armed woman spoke up. “How many times, Zharon? How many times have you promised that your science and your faith would save us? Eight? Ten? Twenty?” She looked to the other men and women assembled and continued. “Keep your science, and your gods! I'll rid this world of the invaders by myself if I have to, so long as I can pick up a sword!”

“Dadjinn has a point,” the late-comer agreed. “I believe in the gods as much as all of us do, but is it right, or even feasible to think that we should need to go through such outlandish lengths. Perhaps they do not hear us because they no longer wish to.”

Zharon fumed, his eyes blazing. “NO!” he yelled, then turned to light a torch, which revealed the large construct behind him. It was an enormous metal and glass box filled with pulsing lights, roiling gasses and a dancing conglomeration of dots that seemed barely contained in a fragile-looking glass bulb.

“I know that the last attempts were…less than ideal,” he explained. “But I have tapped into the molten core of the planet itself, solving the power problem from before. I simply know that the Theta Project will work.”

“Like your Alpha and Beta projects, and all the rest?” The armed woman remained unconvinced. “Throw the switch then, if you're so sure!”

Zharon did so, and in the half second of perfect silence, he waited, relieved when the cave was soon filled with the cacophonous noise of whirring machinery and building energy.

Amid the clatter, the gathered beings stepped back as the machine began to glow. Then, with far less fanfare than it had started, the contraption stopped and seemed lifeless. For long moments, Zharon regarded the machine. Finally, after checking, tightening and tapping all manner of things, he simply let his shoulders drop. “Another failure…” he whispered. “But, how? The science is right.” He looked back at the crowd, pleading. “Please friends,” he asked. I know it works. I just…”

“No, Zharon,” the sword-wielder interrupted. You've wasted enough precious time and resources on this…” she indicated to the mechanical mass behind the crest-fallen man, “this, Zealot's folly!”

Before Zharon could respond there was a frightful shriek and the sound of scraping stone. “It's worse than that!” the late-comer spat as he looked to the sword wielder. “They've found us!”

Location: Crew quarters, USS Apex

“Computer, begin recording.”


“Hello Leon. I hope everything is going well in your thorax of the woods. S.C.A.R. is making great strides in identifying and cataloging nanoscopic sub-spacial tears. Unfortunately, they are great strides in the wrong direction if one were to inquire as to my ever so humble opinion. We have the technology to repair anything up to nineteen millionths of a meter across, but instead of fixing several hundred thousand such holes 'Fleet has decided to study them for an indeterminate amount of time to see if they can be quickly closed or expanded remotely.”

“I don't believe you ever met my number three guy on the Defiant II, Rick Leonetti. The best field weapons engineer with which I've had the pleasure to work. He once theorized a warp capable probe, similar to a quantum torpedo, that's only function was to catalyze a catastrophic subspace breach within maneuvering range of an enemy. Given the right location and proper timing, the probe would be an elegant and effective weapon against the Romulans.”

“Thus I find myself once again distrusting my orders and wondering if I am yet again designing weapons of war instead of quietly tending to my required research.”

Victor looked around the tiny room and his eyes fixed on a small bronze and black colored old-timey photograph of himself, Leon, Victor and Shannon, dressed in the style of the western herd drovers of the late 19th century. The costumes were outlandish and gaudy, Shannon's most of all, consisting of an enormous skirt with concentric metal rings sewn in. Top hats came back into style for a handful of years in the mid 2300s so that was acceptable, but the cloth short coats and leather long coats had been a multi-hour flirtation with uncontrollable laughter. Even the weapons of the time were reproduced and seated in a holster low on the hip. Vic chuckled at the memory of two hours stuck in a malfunctioning holodeck 'Western', not because of a software problem, nor because of a hardware problem, but because of a human problem. Someone had been repairing the wiring behind the holodeck controls' console and accidentally vibration welded the doors shut. Thus the only options were sit down and wait or continue on with the original plan. As “Saloon Girls” went, Dr. Harris made a fine soiled dove.

“If you have some time, shoot me a message. Our survey will be done in about a month, and then a short 126 hours until we get back to Spacedock. Any idea where you folks will be going next?”

“Have a good day Leon. Tell John I said hello.”

“End recording” beep

Chapter 38: Caduceus of CommandTop

Leon's return to the holodeck the morning after his conversation with Captain Kirk was nearly identical to his first encounter with the bridge officer's exam the previous morning. John Carter greeted him, and the test began just as it did before. Although Leon attempted to avoid combat yet again, the outcome remained the nearly the same, and with only minor variances to his original solution. Before Leon knew it, he found himself and the simulated Republic crew in the exact same critical situation: the ship dead in space, and only five hundred and twelve of the crew left alive with life support power fading quickly.

This time, however, the doctor did not run down the usual list of remedies. He knew all the dead-end options now, and to try to go over them again with minor tweaks would be wasting time. There was only one way to face this crisis, and it wasn't with the humane diagnostic dogma of a trained physician.

“Vic,” Leon asked the engineer with trepidation. “How long would the batteries last if you had only two hundred personnel to keep alive under life support minimums instead of five hundred?”

Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus was a smart man. Although the officers around the table didn't pick up on the inquiry right away, Vic did. And he had already extrapolated it to its logical conclusion. With no more than a blink, he answered the question stoically. “About six hours.”

“Is that enough to deploy that solar sail we talked about?”

“If everyone pitched in . . . yes. But, it would be tight.”

“Warning: Life support failure in 10 minutes”

The clock was ticking, and Leon knew it. How the next few moments unfolded would decide whether he passed or failed the bridge officers exam. Taking to heart Kirk's lessons from last night, he chose to take a risk and set a new course to try and resolve the situation. Only this time, he had to learn how to throw his medical training out the window, and force himself to perform tasks completely contrary to who he was as a person.

Reaching for the ship-wide intercom, the electronic boatswain whistle sounded throughout the smashed vessel, beckoning the attention of anyone still left alive onboard.

“Attention crew: this is the captain. As you already know, our situation is dire. We have sustained numerous casualties, most of the ship is destroyed, and that which is left is near collapse. Life support power is quickly fading, and our only option to stabilize it will not work with the number of people still left alive onboard.”

He paused momentarily, struggling to find the fortitude for his upcoming sentences.

“I understand that what I am about to say will disturb many people, but I am asking . . . I'm pleading . . . for volunteers, both healthy and injured, to . . .” he paused for a second, bracing at the words as they came forth from his lips. “. . . sacrifice their lives in order to preserve life support power.

Disbelief welled in the eyes of the holographic senior officers around him. A few dropped their jaws, and all but Chief Rainier showed signs of controlled panic as Leon continued his announcement.

“Euthanasia procedures will be painless, quick, and under my strict medical control. I alone will be the one held responsible. Know that your selfless decision will be in the spirit of allowing others to continue living, and you have my personal promise that your memory will not be forgotten.”

He looked around the table at the shocked faces of his officers. He returned a stoic glance to each of them, offering the merest glimmer of regret in his eyes before noticing the chronometer on the panel screen in front of him.

“We have very little time left,” Leon continued. “So I ask those willing to report to holodeck six in the next three minutes. On arrival, you have one minute to write a last message to loved ones. Captain out.”

No one spoke.

Minutes ticked by in silence as the holographic officers struggled with the realization that Doctor Cromwell had just asked members of the crew to submit to medically assisted suicide. For his part, Leon knew it was only a simulation, but the guilt and stress behind his decision was real. As the clock approached the three-minute mark, he turned to the ship's COB.

“Chief, how many people have gathered in holodeck six?”

“Eighty seven,” he returned ominously.

“It's not enough, is it?” Shannon asked to no response.

“Vic,” Leon continued giving orders. “Gather the people you need to begin construction on the solar sail. Chief, order any non-essential Starfleet crew to holodeck six. Begin with the lowest ranking, and work your way up the roster. Allow them to spend no more than a minute to record a last message to their loved ones.”

“Aye aye, sir,” the chief complied, and began typing commands into a nearby computer console. With a glazed expression, the holographic representation of Victor Virtus slowly stood up from his chair and walked out the door to commence expedited sail-building activities. Vic was gone for no more than 30 seconds when Nat Hawk began to stir, standing up from the table with a wild-eyed expression that caused Doctor Cromwell concern.

“Mister Hawk,” Leon addressed the helmsmen with as much authority as he could muster. “I didn't excuse you.”

“Ya wanted volunteers, din'cha?” the native southerner returned with a rasp to his voice. He looked around the room as if it was the last time he was going to see it. “I've got nuthin left ta do onboard.”

“You're a senior officer,” Leon said calmly. “You're not a non-essential crewmember. Sit down.”

“Yer crazy!” Nat bellowed while running a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “Yer jus' gonna kill us all off, one by one! Aren't cha? Well, here I am! Jus beggin ta get spaced Captn! You jus give the word!”

“You're dismissed, lieutenant,” Leon ordered with a deadpan face. “Report to Commander Virtus to assist in building the solar sail.”

“Warning: Life support failure in 5 minutes”

The alert seemed to bring the holographic Hawk back to his senses. He locked stares with Leon momentarily before relaxing his eyes, then swallowed coarsely while reluctantly nodding his head. As he turned to face the door, Nat peered over his shoulder one last time as if he had something more to say, but words seemed to fail the helmsman, and his eyes dropped to the floor before exiting the ready room.

As Hawk left, Leon turned back to Brad Rainier. “Chief, how many people have gathered in holodeck six?”

“Two hundred and sixty two,” the senior noncom reported. “Still not enough.”

“Christ, John,” he whispered to himself. “You're gonna make me do it, aren't you?”

Strangely, Starfleet had contingency plans for exactly the kind of situation that the doctor was currently enduring. Attrition procedures in LOD (life or death) emergencies dictated volunteers first, then non-essential Starfleet personnel beginning with the lowest rank. This was the only instance where, in the military-style rank-and-file system of Starfleet, that a lieutenant commander could be considered less important than a crewman first-class, should the latter be of a vital occupation onboard the ship. Unfortunately, the contingency stopped there, making Leon's next order the most difficult.

“Shannon, how many critically injured patients do we have that possess less than a 50% chance of surviving until we're rescued?”

“No . . .” she whispered incredulously. “You can't . . .”

“We have to.”

“I won't participate!” Shannon stammered.

“I understand,” Leon replied calmly. “You're relieved.”

Shannon stood up and shuffled backwards a few steps while turning a pair of fiery eyes towards Leon with an angry mix of horror and revulsion. “You're a doctor!” she gasped.

“I'm also the captain.”

“As medical officer, I can relieve YOU!” she screamed defiantly.

“To do so, you would need grounds that I am medically unfit to command,” Leon explained, knowing full well of the medical protocols needed to relieve a starship commander from his post. “That would require evidence that my behavior has somehow changed erratically, or that I have been physically injured enough to affect my mental faculties. Since I am uninjured, and my recent decisions have followed Starfleet protocols, my current line of thinking is simply an attempt to extrapolate the protocols to our current situation. Therefore, there is no basis for a medical declaration of unfitness for command.”

“You won't get away with this!” the Shannon facsimile seethed.

“I repeat: You are relived, doctor.”

With an expression that ripped through his soul, Leon witnessed what could have been described only as emotional evisceration emanating from Shannon. As she stormed out of the ready room, her penetrating scowl driving home the point that the only feelings she had left for Leon was burning hate.

A quiet pause ensued after the doors slid shut. Leon scanned the small ready room, and realized that only himself and Chief Rainier were left.

“Warning: Life support failure in 3 minutes”

“Better see to getting those casualties moved to the holodeck yourself, chief. Take only the most extreme cases, and no more than what we need to reduce our compliment to two hundred personnel.”

“Aye, sir,” Brad Rainier agreed as he somberly stood up and excused himself from the room. As the most militarized man on the bridge crew, Leon knew that the Chief of the Boat was the one soul he could count on to follow his orders to the letter. That was the design of Starfleet's non-commissioned officer corps. Experience plus a disciplined subordinate disposition was a formula for getting the job done. Saving him for the most vital and yet most displeasing task imaginable was the only way Leon knew it would be completed correctly. Unfortunately, it was just him left in the ready room now.

A minute went by.

Two minutes went by.

“Warning: Life support failure in 60 seconds”

Leon stared at the internal sensor feed as it indicated exactly three hundred and twelve souls gathered in holodeck six. Reviewing the roster, his heart sank as the bio-readouts from their combadges displayed their names on Leon's screen. He knew all of them. Every one of them was a soul he had, at one time or another, worked with onboard the ship. Depach Narundi . . . Hayden Kroeger . . . Christopher Teague. Tears welled in Leon's eyes as he saw Susan Hayworth's name alongside Saal Yezbeck, and he hissed “damn it!” when he read Nat Hawk's name, realizing the helmsman had yet again disobeyed orders. Finally, the last blinking light gave him pause: Bradford Rainier. The chief had entered the holodeck, but wasn't leaving.

“Warning: Life support failure in 45 seconds”

There was no time left.

Using the computer console, Leon charged the Anesthizine gas cylinders in the holodeck walls to 200 parts per million. It was nearly three times the concentration to put humans into a deep sleep, and in doing so, would cause a calming, euphoric effect in it's victims. He felt it was humane enough to ensure a comatose slumber before the next phase.

The doctor pushed a few more buttons to release Neurozine gas into the holodeck. It was a convenient way to anesthetize Romulans, but for other humanoids, it induced a neuromuscular transmission blockage causing every muscle in the body to relax and fall limp . . . every single muscle. That included the lungs, it included the heart.

“Warning: Life support failure in 30 seconds”

Leon's finger hovered over the blinking red button that read “ATMOSPHERE PURGE”. He knew that if he used all of his medical knowledge and skill, he could still save the 300-plus souls lying dormant in holodeck six. There was still time to revive them, bring them back to consciousness, and allow the whole crew to die a dignified death together. But ever since last night, the title of John Carter's holodeck program echoed in his head:

“Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Leon now knew what those words meant. His finger fell upon the console, and the blinking red light turned to a solid green.

The deed was done.

The program ended, and the empty battle-bridge ready room shimmered with an effervescent light before fading away into non-existence.

“Congratulations, commander,” John's voice echoed off the ebony, yellow-lined walls. He approached Leon with both approval and concern on his face. “Looks like you you've got what it takes after all.”

Leon said nothing. He simply sat there, staring into space, unable to find absolution.

“Look, I know this was hard on you, but you did it. When the time came to stop thinking like a doctor, you did it.”

“Go to hell,” Leon whispered without looking at his friend.

“I suppose I deserved that,” John replied, his anger regarding the incomplete Kobyashi Maru test melting away. “I've been hard on you, and I'm sorry,” he consoled. “I won't throw you into uniform and make you do bridge watch right away. You've been through a lot recently, so take some time off. Say, the rest of the week?”

Leon remained silent, acting like John wasn't even present.

“You know,” John added. “There *is* a reason I didn't program the counselor into the bridge test.”

The doctor finally looked John in the eye, but still said nothing.

“He's got a full schedule these days, but I'm sure Commander Tolkath will make time for the chief medical officer. Only promise me you'll take it easy until Monday, okay?”

Leon's silence persisted. In light of that, John felt there wasn't much left to say. He knew deep inside that they both would eventually get over what happened here today, whether it be at the poker table, over drinks at the Hill, or perusing the promenade on Deep Space Nine. It was only a matter of time.

Taking the doctor's silence as affirmation of his advice to take a short holiday, the Republic's XO walked away, leaving him by himself. As the grinding noise of the holodeck doors subsided, Leon remained motionless, coming to grips with knowing that had the simulation been real, he would have just sent 300-plus people - some of them critically injured patients - straight to their deaths.

Leon stayed seated on the empty holodeck for over 30 minutes, his chair the only remnant left of the holographic program that brought him to his moral breaking point. He sat staring into space, with the same blank 1000-mile stare he had on his face when Nat Hawk had died on his operating table a week ago.

archives/walking_wounded.txt · Last modified: 2021/01/11 01:35 by site_admin