Location: Deck 6, main sickbay, USS Republic (Luna Class)
“The lone survivor of the Fearless attack is Second Engineer's Mate First Class Selook of Vulcan. According to the patient, he was ordered to engineering to facilitate a manual warp core overload so that any sensitive data in the ship's computer core would not fall into the wrong hands. It is my considered medical opinion that Selook passed out from shock and blood loss before he could carry out his orders. The patient is suffering from acute PTSD with cycles of rage and depression. Return to active duty is questionable.”
With a pearlescent shimmering of aqua blue from the overhead water tunnel dowsing the main sickbay in a scintillating light, the chief medical officer's alcove softened the hum of the surrounding equipment as Doctor Leon Cromwell completed his log entry. Haggard from weeks of extended duty investigating the attack on the USS Fearless, the blonde lieutenant commander sighed in contemplation before adding his concluding remarks.
“Note regarding medical fitness of the crew,” he resumed. “While it's the recognizance of the psychology department to report on the mental health and well being of the ship's compliment, I am nonetheless concerned about the actions taken by the captain under Starfleet orders during this most recent mission. Political tensions within the Federation regarding non-human races is at an all-time high. The hunter-killer mission that the Republic was forced to complete resulted in a significant number deaths of non-human individuals who would have otherwise been alive and in our custody by now. As a result, race relations aboard this vessel have been strained, and I grow concerned that the captain appears indifferent to this conundrum.”
Quietly, the Republic's Mark XXIII emergency medical hologram, which was programmed to project a holographic reproduction of the image of Doctor Katherine Pulaski of Starfleet Medical, slipped in behind Leon while he dictated his log entry. The chief medical officer regarded her arrival silently before turning back to the computer console.
“Regardless, the sickbay staff performed admirably during this most recent mission, and maintained a professional demeanor in the face of strained emotions and a grueling duty schedule. Commendations will be recommended for medical technicians Meekwil and Rhundar, and a special achievement award for the holographic doctor will be submitted to the captain for approval. End log.”
As he punched closed the log entry on the computer, thus forcing a compliant warble, Leon turned back to the EMH with a question.
“How's our guest?”
“Resting, for now,” she replied. “The emotional trauma he's going through is affecting his higher brain functions. The Vulcan cerebrum has a way of physically regressing back to a more primitive neurochemistry when exposed to strong emotions from the basal ganglia for extended periods. I recommend we keep him sedated as much as possible until we can get him to better treatment facilities.”
“What's Tolkath's opinion of his prognosis?”
“Well, the counselor did what he could, but since he's only quarter Vulcan, his mind meld was limited to only taking the edge off the stronger emotional outbursts. What Mister Soolek really needs now is an extended rest at a Vulcan rehabilitation center. They can do much more for him there than we can.”
Leon nodded his head in agreement. “I'll let the XO know about the situation in my daily report, and see if he can get the captain to make a course adjustment to transfer your patient.”
After months of following Leon's standing order to learn the behavior subtleties of organic beings, the Pulaski hologram expanded her programming to read into the unspoken situation going on behind the scenes of any given situation. She took note that Leon was going to Republic's executive officer instead of the captain directly.
“She's still not talking to you?” the EMH responded, being witness to the steady increase in strained relations between Doctor Cromwell and Captain Roth-Dorian.
“Actually, this time it's me,” Leon stated flatly. “Her expression when she shot those escape pods to bits…” His expression hardened. “It's almost like she was taking her anger out on them.”
“Anger about what?”
“You name it,” he resigned. “The mission. Starfleet. The Remnant attacks. Kostya. It could be anything.”
“Hawk ta Cromwell,” his combadge beckoned.
Leon broke the conversation to respond. “Cromwell, go ahead.”
“Doc, could ya come ta my quarters when ya get th' chance? I gotta few things I need ta go over.”
“On my way.”
As Leon stood up, he exhaled in annoyance, straightening the waistband of his uniform jacket. As much as he had come to despise the captain during this mission, having to report to Republic's youngest lieutenant commander as the ship's executive officer was no respite. In fact, had he and Nat Hawk not already been friends, Leon would likely have come to despise him too. As it was, the year they had spent together as colleagues aboard the Galaxy-class Republic served to ensure the two remained comrades despite the increasing frequency of their disagreements.
Turning to face the medical hologram, the doctor raised an eyebrow. “If I'm not back to finish my shift this evening, just assume I gave up and checked myself into the brig.”
For her part, the EMH was still trying to discern whether Leon was being sarcastic. As she watched the doctor exit the sickbay, she fell back on her expanded programming, mulling over the past several months of observing Doctor Cromwell's behavior. After a few seconds, she came to the conclusion that not only was she being served another helping of Leon's cynicism, but was yet again being handed command of the sickbay facilities for the remainder of the night shift.
Location: Deck 2, Executive Officer's Quarters, USS Republic (Luna Class)
Nat stood at the minibar of his expanded senior officer's quarters, staring sternly at the bottle of Kentucky bourbon in front of him. He had poured two glasses of the elixir in anticipation of Leon's arrival, decidedly staging the meeting he was about to have. While shared past experiences on other ships and planets with his friend would normally have drawn a smile with a devil-may-care grin, this particular gathering was about to take on a more serious tone, forcing him to curb his southern hospitality.
As the door chime rang, Nat called out “come in, Leon.”
“Is this another house call?” asked Doctor Cromwell as he strolled through the opening doors. “Or am I being reprimanded again for ignoring the captain?”
As the doors slid closed again behind Leon, Nat might have chuckled at the greeting, but on this evening, he was not in a joking mood. With a sigh, he collected both glasses and turned to face the doctor with a deadpan expression.
“Ya know, it's kinda hard bein' the go-between fer you two” he remarked, handing the blonde physician a small goblet of bourbon. “I'd sure think ya'd be grateful once 'n a while.”
“Since she and I don't seem to be on speaking terms anymore, I can't see any other way to talk to her now than to go through you.” The doctor accepted the glass, and took a healthy sip. “She's really gone off the deep end. Surely you know that what she did to those Hirogeon escape pods was wrong?”
“Leon, we've beatn' THAT horse ta death! You 'n I were both against the order, but Fleet backed HER, not us.”
“That's it?” huffed Leon, spreading his arms apart to accentuate the irony. “Lieutenant 'Death Wish' Hawk just gives up when headquarters makes the wrong choice?” He knew he might stoke tensions at the memory of his roguish life as a fighter pilot back during the Dominion War, but he was willing to take the risk to help make Nat see reason.
“Yer crossin' a thin line, doc,” Nat warned. “Jus' cause she made a call I didn't like doesn't mean we can mutiny on her. We've got three hundred n' fifty crew on this Luna Class bucket. Most'v em alien, an if they step outta line, they ain't gotta globfly's spit n'hell of ever gettin' their careers back. Shit, Leon! What'dya think Kostya'll feed ta th' press when he gets whiff of a starship gone rogue? You gotta back-up plan fer all these non-human officers'n crew who'll probly lose their Federation citizenship?”
“Listen to yourself!” Leon spat back. “You sound like bureaucrat! Is this the same Nat Hawk who stole a runabout with me against captain's orders and spent ten weeks in a post-nuclear hell to do what was right?”
“Hold it right there, Leon,” Nat sternly held his ground. “This ain't Ashaaria, and this ain't about some cyber-plague. Goin' against Roth-Dorian means goin' against Fleet 'n the whole Federation government. I don't knowa bout you, but I ain't ready fer a fight I know I'll lose five seconds out of the startn' gate. Besides, donch'ya already got yer own 'lil mutiny goin' on under my nose?”
“What do you mean?” Leon asked.
Nat sighed in exasperation, forcefully slamming his half-empty glass down on the table. Closing his eyes to think, he searched for how to frame his next sentence. Finally, he glanced upward to meet Leon's confused gaze, revealing the reason he called the doctor in for this private meeting.
“Ya think I wouldnt've noticed a face like ol' Vic on the crew roster?”
A defeated Leon dropped his gaze towards the floor in realization that the ruse was up. The doctor had hoped that he would be able to remain the sole individual aboard Republic who knew that Victor Virtus was secretly serving as a lower enlisted plasma technician on this most recent cruise into deep space. Unfortunately, as it was now apparent that someone else had put the pieces of the puzzle together, he now knew that the days remaining for Vic's cover were numbered.
“Yer supposed ta do post-departure crew physicals on EVERYONE,” Nat complained. “Missin' one fer this 'Crewman Cronus' fella is like puttin' makeup on a Targ! It sticks out in yer reports like a shuttlecraft landing in sickbay! What'n hell am I supposed ta do about this? Fleet Intel has a Federation-wide all-points out fer him! Virtus can't stay hidden on Republic! Why'n the hell is he here fer, anyway?”
Leon bit his upper lip in consternation. He never thought he would have found himself at the receiving end of an invective directed at him by Nat Hawk. Once the junior officer helmsmen of the Galaxy-class Republic, the pilot-turned-command officer switched from being a subordinate to becoming Leon's supervisor on the new Luna-class Republic in the span of less than two years. While the two remained friends, it was a difficult relationship to maintain with the flipped professional roles.
“Do you even KNOW why intel wants Vic for questioning?” Leon burst out angrily.
“Course I do! But how long d'ya think the captn'll stay in the dark 'bout this?” Nat continued. “Now that this Hirogen mess is all wrapped up, she won't be distracted. She'll do a crew review b'fore too long, see Vic's purty lil' babyface, then we'll all look like a bunch'a turkeys roostin' in a hen house!”
“For God's sake, Nat! It's VIRTUS!” the doctor pleaded. “He rescued you on Cestus Three when the Gorns were raining down plasma bolts from orbit! If it weren't for him, you wouldn't be standing here now! If he's incognito on Republic, you can be damned sure it's for a good reason.”
The truth was that Leon knew the reason, but the details of Vic's goal to further research the disappearance of John Carter over a year ago were so convoluted and vague, it forced the physician to fall back on blind trust that the former Republic chief engineer knew what he was doing. What was needed now was time. Time to warn Vic that his cover was about to be blown, and maybe find a resolution before the captain brings the hammer down. The only question remaining was whether Nat Hawk would be willing to provide that time.
“I'll make a deal with ya,” the XO replied to Leon's relief. “Go down ta engineerin' and talk to 'em. Get 'em ta see that he can't keep us in th' dark forever. Maybe we can sneak 'em off this bucket, maybe we can't. But I sure as hell can't play hide an' seek with a wanted man under Roth-Dorian's nose an' expect everyone ta come out smellin' like roses.”
Nodding in agreement, Leon set down his empty glass and was about to leave when he paused with the hope to glean additional reconciliations from his friend.
“You won't say anything to the captain, will you?”
“Pfft,” Nat dismissed the idea. “I've kept 'er off yer back this long. A few more days ain't gonna matter none. Just make sure ya figure out what ol' Vic has up his sleeve before his little shindig gives up the farm, will ya?”
“I will. Thanks, Nat.”
“Back at'cha, Leon.”
Location: Deck 16, Secondary Plasma Maintenance Junction, USS Republic (Luna Class)
The keel of Republic formed the foundation of this deep-space exploration vessel, housing some of the most vital functions that allowed her to be propelled at warp speed to the most distant regions of the galactic frontier. Penning-trap style bottles stored millions of carefully measured aliquots of deuterium and antideuterium, separated by nano-scale Gaussian beams invoked by a steady balance of rotating electromagnetic fields. The physics-intensive action produced a steady hum that reverberated throughout the lower decks, which provided a clear recognition that one had truly entered the bowels of Republic. This, in addition to the lack of any blue scintillating light from the aqua-tunnel corridor network for the aquatic crew members, only served to accentuate the transition from the upper habitation decks to the truly mechanized portion of the starship. It was here that Doctor Leon Cromwell found himself wandering in search of his fugitive friend, who was last known to be disguised as a junior enlisted member of Republic's engineering staff.
As Leon rounded a corner in the dim light, a muffled shoveling echoed off the cramped walls, and further down the maintenance junction, he spied the shadow of man working a two-handed magnetic de-scaler. With shoulder heaves followed by an orchestrated thrust of his elbows, the man expertly wielded the de-scaler like an axe handle, scraping out metallic tailings from a section of spent plasma conduit that was split lengthwise along the longitudinal access seam. As Leon approached, the man paused in mid-stroke, studying the approaching physician. Slowly, he placed the de-scaler down and leaned the handle against the wall. Dusting off his hands, the man stepped forward, allowing a beam of light to splash across his face, and revealing the clean-shaven, smiling face of Victor Xavier Virtus. The combination of his military-style crew cut and kaki-colored, multi-pocketed engineer's jumpsuit was not quite enough to hide the distinctive sageness and scholarly demeanor of the middle-aged honor graduate from the Malthus Scientific Academy.
“Leon, Leon, Leon,” Vic playfully chided. “I thought we agreed to stay away from one another to keep Ensign Scuttlebutt at bay?” As he walked up to the doctor, his smile widened as he patted him on the shoulder. “Still, it's good to see you. What brings you this far down the ladder?”
For his part, the doctor was equally agreeable to see Victor, as it had literally been months since the two had been face-to-face at Luna colony. Despite being on the same vessel, if the former chief engineer was to stay hidden so he could gather more data on John Carter's disappearance, it was better that the two acted as if they didn't know one another.
“Unfortunately, I've just come from a rather terse discussion with Nat Hawk,” Leon admitted soberly. “Did you know that your cover on Republic is about to be blown?”
The answer hit the doctor like a photon torpedo.
“Of course I do,” agreed Vic matter-of-factly. “I was actually expecting it much sooner than this.”
Needless to say, Leon was taken by surprise. He had forgotten how many steps ahead of the game that Vic tends to be in situations like this. It had not occurred to him until now that the former Republic chief engineer would have easily anticipated the unveiling of his true identity, and likely had contingency plans to accommodate it. What they were were anyone's guess, and Leon was not about to ask for the simple reason of plausible deniability.
“My hope was that we would be far into our mission before I was discovered,” Vic continued his explanation. “Thus forcing Captain Roth-Dorian to keep me onboard until the mission allowed her to redirect to the nearest starbase. Since we've made it approximately 221 light years from Earth, I'd say that's a near-miracle that my disguise lasted this long. I hadn't anticipated how distracted the USS Fearless investigation would be for everyone.”
Leon pursed his lips in self-deprecation, humbled that his supposedly ground-shattering news was a trifle in the mind of the affected party. Shaking his head in an “I-should-have-known” fashion, he took on a more objective tone. “This would be a lot easier if you weren't on the watch-list in the first place,” he commented. “Why does Fleet Intel want you for questioning, anyway?”
As before, Vic had a simple answer. “Two words, doctor: Hellsgate Station.”
Leon thought for moment, scratching his sideburn. “Starbase 666?” he finally recalled. “Isn't that where you and John served during the Dominion War?”
“Yes. Aboard the USS Freedom Star commanded by Captain Redding. We were part of Task Force One, a collection of starships tasked with special operational directives in the Federation frontier regions. TF-1 was based at Hellsgate Station, which was commanded by a then-commodore who's none other that our current Fleet Admiral, Fakunaku Katio.”
“I take it you and Kaito didn't see eye-to-eye?”
“Without question,” Vic replied, with Leon noting the merest glint of vexation in the engineer's face. “Kaito did some very illegal tampering with Task Force One starships. While he's managed to scrub clean any official records of what he did at Starbase 666, there's still a few of us around that know the truth.”
“Why do I get the feeling there are more skeletons in this closet that you're not telling me?”
Vic confirmed by nodding his head. “With Captain Redding serving a life sentence at Jaros Two, Katio was probably hoping that he could quietly slip into retirement over the next few years. JAG submitted Redding's testimony at his court martial as a delusional attempt to explain the USS Freedom Star's unauthorized alien modifications and subsequent destruction as being the fault of Katio. With most of the crew still interned on Romulus, no one could back his claim at the time, and he was sentenced to prison before the ship's compliment started trickling back to Federation space through prisoner swaps. By then, Task Force One's entire incursion into Romulan space had been classified at the highest levels, and no one was allowed to speak of it without going to prison themselves.”
“But why now?,” Leon questioned with skepticism. “Why after all these years is he hunting you down?”
“Deductive reasoning tells me that he's protecting someone. At the time of the incident, Commodore Katio was taking orders from Rear Admiral Teagarden. Of course, Teagarden wasn't making decisions by himself. Since he died during Task Force One's final mission, only one person was left in the chain-of-command at Starfleet Headquarters that knew what was going on at Hellsgate Station.”
“Who was that?”
“Teagarden's boss,” Vic said unblinkingly. “Vice Admiral Vladimir Kristoff Kostya.”
“Oh great,” Leon rolled his eyes as a chill went up his spine. The realization how far up the chain-of-command the plague of corruption had infiltrated Starfleet was a heavy weight to bear.
Undoubtedly, this weight was on Victor Virtus's mind too, and for a much longer duration, yet he hid any hint of being disturbed by the realization. “Therefore,” he continued his straightforward dialog. “Logically, it seems that Kostya's rise to the presidency forced him to pull in a few favors, such as installing Kaito as fleet admiral. That means cleaning up loose ends that could expose Kostya for what he really is.”
“Well, what's to be done about it?” Leon asked. “You can't hide here forever.”
“No I can't,” Vic shook his head. “But my main priority here is to find John and get him back. What happens politically in Starfleet or the Federation is of little concern to me at the moment.”
“How can you say that?” exclaimed the doctor. “Xenophobia against non-humans is being dished out within the Federation by the freighter-load! The known galaxy is falling apart and you're going to do NOTHING?”
“Don't worry, Leon,” Vic smiled. “Especially not about things that you have no control over. It only wastes your energy. Besides, I have news that might have you forget about all that.”
“Oh really?” Leon crossed his arms, leaning up against a bulkhead. “Do tell.” He could tell by the twinkle in his friend's eye that he was up to something interesting, but the doctor also knew by experience that Vic's lead-up was going to invoke a mostly one-sided, painfully-technical discussion.
“The Republic and her Luna-Class sisters have the most sophisticated long-range baryon interferometers in the fleet, which can compensate for tachyon condensation under low level ionization frequencies. This means that I've been able to use the stellar cartography lab during gamma shift on my off duty time to perform hyper-accurate surveys of distant background variances in the fabric of normal spacetime.”
Closing his eyes, Leon released a sigh of exasperation. “In English, Vic.”
Vic stopped short, realizing he would have to use reductive reasoning to explain his findings to Leon. Taking a deep breath, he went into further detail.
“The baryon interferometers on Republic are used to detect faint nuclear vibrations in particles of dust and gas at the subatomic scale at distances of up to ten parsecs. Personally, I call them 'micro-ripples' in normal spacetime to delineate them from folded-space anomalies that occur only artificially, such as in the much larger transwarp conduits produced by the Borg. Nevertheless, these nuclear vibrations — or micro-ripples — occur naturally throughout the universe, with increasing frequency near phenomena such as pulsars and black holes.”
Leon was lost as ever, betrayed by the bewildered expression in his eyes.
“Don't you see?” Vic continued, hoping Leon would catch on. “Without tachyon condensation interference, I'm able to use Republic's lateral tachyon sensor array and cross-link it to the dorsal and ventral Baryon interferometers, expanding their range by tenfold! I've been able to map and record micro-ripples in a twenty-five light year radius around Republic as we've been traveling through the quadrant over the past several weeks!”
“But WHY?” blurted out the doctor, rubbing his temples in annoyance. “Why does this MATTER?”
“Because during my time at the Inspector General's Forensic Astrogation department, I was able to use the antiquated sublight scanners to not only uncover where John's shuttle disappeared, but also record the faint nuclear vibrations of every particle of matter within a light year of where it happened. Through reanalysis of that same data using Republic's tachyon sensor algorithms, I've learned that approximately ten micro-ripples occurred in normal spacetime at nearly the same time of John's disappearance.”
“But, you just said these were natural phenomena! They could have been caused by some nearby quasar or gamma ray burst!”
“Yes, but I also said that natural micro-ripples appear similar to artificial folded-space anomalies when you are unable to account for tachyon condensation.”
Leon's expression collapsed into an agonized furrow of stupefaction at his inability to comprehend Vic's technobabble. Nevertheless, Vic pressed on.
“Most sensors would filter out these phenomena as background variances, especially since they're so small. However, thanks to Republic and her cutting-edge sensor technology, I can delineate between NATURAL and ARTIFICIAL micro-ripples using the Elway Theorem! Furthermore, the ten synchronized micro-ripples I discovered in the Forensic Astrogation data occurred in a DIRECT LINE between John's shuttle and the Delta Quadrant! While I can't yet zero in on the exact location, I've been able to detect one other series of similar micro-ripples occurring in a direct linear vector to the same region in the Delta Quadrant over the past few months! In that instance, I cross-referenced the Starfleet navigational database and found that a Federation sensor buoy had inexplicably disappeared at the SAME TIME! EXACTLY like John's shuttle! Therefore, my hypothesis is that someone in the Delta Quadrant is intermittently using folded-space technology to instantaneously transport matter from ACROSS THE GALAXY!”
Slowly, the last few words began to coalesce in Leon's brain, realizing what his friend was trying to say.
“Are you telling me that someone TRANSPORTED John and his shuttle to the Delta Quadrant?” He didn't have a problem with the hypothesis, as the plight of the USS Voyager being catapulted to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker array in the 2370s was a well known happenstance. However, even that phenomena would have been easily detected by other nearby sensor buoys and starships had it occurred in deep space rather than the Badlands near Cardassia.
“Strictly speaking, it's called inter-dimensional shifting,” Vic answered. “And it's virtually undetectable by standard sensors. But the technology was abandoned a century ago as a means to transport anything of value due to the damage it inflicts upon macromolecules. Furthermore, I've never known it to be used on anything as large as a shuttle before, to say nothing about the distance. The Elway Theorem established a theoretical upper limit of no more than a few thousand kilometers. Whoever is doing this must be accessing technology that hasn't even been invented yet in the Federation, let alone conceived of. Scientifically, this is an incredible find.”
“But how plausible is it? Do you think you can explain this to the captain?”
“Please, Leon. I'm having a difficult enough time explaining this to you. Most other scientists would find this ludicrous. I'd be spending years trying to get this sort of data published, then another decade of debating it on the Federation Science Committee before anyone would find merit in the findings. Furthermore, since the investigation into John's disappearance was officially closed, it's more likely my work would be dismissed as wishful thinking. Put simply, I'm on my own here to get John back.”
“HOW are WE going to get John back?” Leon emphasized, reminding Vic that he wasn't alone in the quest even if the doctor was uneducated as to the specific details. “If he's in the Delta Quadrant, we don't exactly have a transwarp Borg cube at our disposal to bring him back.”
“That's the part I'm still working on,” the Malthusian engineer admitted. “What I need is one more attempt by our Delta Quadrant kidnapper to use their inter-dimensional shifting device here in the Alpha Quadrant. I have Republic's computer automatically scanning for spacetime micro-ripples occurring at the same time and in the same linear direction of the last two anomalies. When that happens, I might be able to triangulate a location in the Delta Quadrant. Of course, I won't be able to stop it, but I'll have enough data to know where it came from.”
“So, until then, we've got to figure out a way to keep you from being thrown in the brig,” Leon said dejectedly.
While Vic was positive about the whole situation despite the odds, he could tell that the strain of the past few months was wearing on his friend. Leon Cromwell was an able physician with an exemplary mettle and a self-correcting temper to match. Yet, his resigned expression was revealing that the doctor was on the verge of hopelessness, whether the result of strained relations with the captain, or the political turmoil descending upon the Federation in the wake of the Remnant attacks.
“Here,” Vic offered in a chipper voice. “I've got something that will cheer you up.”
Vic pulled a small fabric parcel from the top right pocket of his engineer's jumpsuit. It was a round black velvet swatch with a single elastic ribbon stitched to it by the ends on opposite sides. Leon recognized it right away as an eyepatch, and based on the conversation they were having, immediately knew the owner before Vic verbally identified it.
“John's eyepatch,” the former Republic engineer stated. “I think he would want you to have it. Especially now.”
Leon carefully accepted the unique piece of face apparel. “He wore this before I gave him his artificial eye,” he reminisced. “After the Republic Eight trial. That was almost three years ago.”
“He gave it to me before he was reassigned to the Fleet Museum,” explained Vic.
“John said that it didn't belong to him anymore,” Vic stated cryptically. “That it belonged to another man, a long time ago.”
“The Remnant attacks changed us all,” the doctor reminded himself while studying the gift. “But it was especially hard on John. He lost two close friends when the Galaxy Republic was destroyed. Captain Kirk and Shannon.”
“They were our friends too.”
“Yes, they were.” Leon missed having Shannon in sickbay, as she often soothed the disagreements between John and Leon. While he hadn't the same type of reverence for the self-aware holographic Captain Kirk that John had programmed in his youth, the doctor still felt as if he owed the photonic representation of the historical figure a debt of gratitude for sage advice doled out during his bridge officers course.
“We won't lose John,” Vic stated with determination. Reaching out, he grabbed Leon's should in camaraderie to emphasize his final point. “I promise.”
Location: Deck 2, Chief Medical Officer's Quarters, USS Republic (Luna Class)
It was the end of another very long shift. Three intense discussions about intraship subterfuge, Federation conspiracies, and trans-galactic teleportation were more than enough to exhaust the mind of Leon Cromwell. He sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes free of fatigue while pursuing a course to the lavatory. As the doors whispered shut behind him, he pressed open the washbasin lid, which rolled back into the wall to reveal a sink full of cool, clean water. Scooping up a handful of cleansing liquid, he washed his face clean of sweat and grime from his earlier walk through the plasma tunnels of the ship.
Looking into the mirror while his face air-dried, the doctor mulled over the topics of conversation he just had with Victor Virtus, the latter being the revelation behind John Carter's disappearance. Even though the rest of the galaxy had declared the former executive officer of the Galaxy-class Republic deceased , Vic's explanation gave hope that their comrade from Mars was still alive and kicking, despite it being over a year since his departure. Remembering the gift that Vic had just bestowed upon him, Leon pulled John's eyepatch out of his pocket, and stared at while a mischievous smile began to creep across his face.
He couldn't help himself. Slipping the eyepatch over his head, he slid the fabric over his right eye and looked into the bathroom mirror to appraise his new personal motif.
“Arr!” the doctor playfully spoke in pirate-speak to his reflection in the mirror. “Avast ye scallywags! I'd be the Dreaded Captain Cyclops of the Devonshire!”
Satisfactorily amused, Leon chuckled to himself before removing the eyepatch, placing it on the vanity counter. He considered it for a moment before turning away with a smile, but stopped short before the door. A slight sense of vertigo overcame the doctor, forcing him to hold onto a towel rack and shake his head before the feeling subsided.
It only lasted for a moment. Although he was confused at the onset, once Leon was confident that he had regained his balance, he was about to exit the bathroom when he took note of the towel hanging on the rack beside him. While the embroidered design on the cloth was the usual fleet logo with the construction code of NCC-81371, the prefix to the ship name was altered in a most unusual way.
It read “HMS Republic.”
Leon's jaw dropped open in confusion as a deep furrow forced his expression into a frown. Either the computer had made a very strange mistake in fabricating the towel, or someone was playing an unusual practical joke on him. Shaking his head, the doctor pushed aside his perplexity of the incident, more concerned with the dizzy spell he had just experienced. With his medical training kicking in, he exited the lavatory in search of his medical tricorder.
The doctor stopped dead immediately outside the room. Gawking, Leon slowly scanned his living quarters as he took note of its extreme disrepair. Electrical conduits in the ceiling were contorted and blown open, while the glass coffee table had been smashed and swept into the corner, and the sofa was half-burned and pushed off into the side in a heap of metal and foam. With condition-red tracer lights pulsating silently on the walls pock-marked with shrapnel and soot, his work desk had been rendered a smoldering heap with consoles flickering on and off in a random fashion. Outside the viewport, the scene was completely unlike the warp-streched starlines he had just witnessed a moment ago, as the ship appeared to be at station-keeping inside the luminous pink vapors of a class-two nebula.
“Leon,” Victor Virtus calmly addressed him while walking into the living space of the doctor's quarters from the adjoining corridor outside. “I've gone over the surviving crew manifest, and we might have an option for a mass funeral at a nearby class-M planet when we eventually get out of the nebula.” He was focused on a PADD, yet wore a haggard, unkept appearance. His uniform jacket was haphazardly unzipped, was mottled with small burn marks and rips, yet now bore his correct rank of lieutenant commander rather than crewman first class incognito. Most notably, Vic's fu-manchu goatee that he once wore several months ago replaced the clean-shaven chin Leon had just recently witnessed less than an hour ago down in engineering.
Looking up from the PADD, Vic was expecting a reply. However, taking note of Leon's otherworldly daze, as well as his clean-cut appearance contrasting with the state of disrepair around him, the engineer could tell that his medical comrade was not himself.
“You were there…” Vic concluded with comprehension rising in his voice. He slowly lowered the PADD to his side while remaining transfixed on the doctor. “You're from the YOO-ESS-ESS Republic…”
Confused and speechless, Leon couldn't find the words with which to reply. So flummoxed and disturbed at his friend's sudden altered appearance, as well as the altered appearance of his surroundings, he could only shake his head in bewilderment as Vic zeroed in on him.
“What did you SEE?” Dropping the PADD on the debris-strewn floor, Vic stepped forward and forcefully grabbed Leon's shoulders, his voice rising in desperation. “You were on YOO-ESS-ESS Republic! What did you SEE?” he shouted. “Is the Royal Confederation of Planets still intact? Is Her Majesty's Fleet still viable? How far did the Xenoborg rebellion get? Did it reach Earth?”
Vic's hammering only served to further confuse the doctor.
“What about John?” a distraught Vic beckoned, his eyes fraught with anxiety. “Is he still with the Romulans? Is he still trying to open the singularity to the galactic core?” Looking into Leon's visibly shocked eyes, Vic became fervid at the doctor's stymieing bafflement. “ANSWER ME!” he demanded.
Frightened, Leon pulled free of Vic's grasp and quickly stumbled backward into the head once again, the doors whispering closed in front of him. He stood there for almost half a minute, unbelieving of the spectacle he just witnessed, expecting that Vic would soon force his way through the door in his current state of desperation.
Everything remained quiet.
As he caught his breath again, the hair on the back of Leon's neck stood up as he took note of the towel rack once more.
The embroidery now read “USS Republic.”
Cautiously, he stepped out of the bathroom, looking in both directions, and noting his quarters had returned to normal. Everything was in order, and the starlines outside the viewport indicated the ship was smoothly proceeding on course to its intended destination at low warp seed.
There was no sign of Vic.
“Computer,” Leon called out to the omniscient presence of the ship's mainframe. “Location of Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus?”
“There is no Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus aboard the Republic.”
“Location of Crewman Cronus?”
“Crewman First Class Cronus is on deck sixteen, section twelve.”
Leon was unsure of his next move, but sleep was now furthest from his mind.
LTCR Leon Cromwell, MD, PhD
Chief Medical Officer
USS Republic, NCC-81371