Timeframe: Present day (Prime timeline), Stardate 61902.7 (old Earth date: November 26, 2384), 1737 hours shiptime
Location: Main engineering, Deck 13, USS Republic (Luna Class), NCC-81371, docked at Space Station Deep Space Four
Vehns didn't join Starfleet to be an engineer. As a Tellarite, he enlisted into the service as means to gain the skills necessary to become an officer on a mining ship near his home planet. He didn't intend to to stay long, as his family and friends were off making huge profits in the ore trade, and his Starfleet experience would have ensured him a lucrative position in the industry. However, the Dominion War changed all that. When his homeworld was attacked, and a number of his comrades perished in the ensuing conflict, Vehns became incensed, and while not a violent person, a need for payback transcended his previous life plans, so he remained in the service.
As the Dominion War came to a close, he considered leaving Starfleet, as the attitudes of his mostly human colleagues slowly became insular and intolerant of his species-specific mannerisms and traits. Argument was a sport on Tellar. In the absence of differing opinions, simple insult would do to maintain civil conversation. But the human ego was too fragile, and as the ranks of the fleet swelled with new human recruits following the Remnant attacks, the collegial atmosphere began to turn sour. While his loyalty to the few friends he still had in the fleet kept him in uniform, they too were becoming far and few between, and he longed for the comforts of home. As for his current assignment, the Republic was often too cold, and while a warm mud bath could be had in his quarters, it wasn't the same.
As he stood at his engineering station, monitoring the Republic's refueling status now that it was back at a starbase berth, one of his closest colleagues and confidants strolled into main engineering.
“You putrid pile of manure,” Pakita greeted him boisterously, causing his nostrils to flare in satisfaction. At least there was ONE human who knew how to engage in civil conversation. “Didn't I tell you that computers were only for people with brains?”
For his part, Vehns replied, “then why would vomitus officers like yourself be trying to work one?” His insult hit Pakita straight on, stirring her telltale smirk and indicating she was amused enough to proceed with a discussion. From Vehns's point of view, cultural procedure for civil conversation had been met, and her respect for him shone through.
“You called me down here for a reason,” Pakita replied, softening her tone into a more straightforward dialog. “What's up?”
“I was going through the deuterium reloading checklist, but had a problem with the skiff refueling procedure,” the Tellarite explained. “The Captain's skiff was used during the recent Hirogen operation, but due to the ship's alert status at the time, priority did not go to refueling it when it re-docked with Republic. Now that we're back at a starbase, the ship's A.I. began pumping deuterium into the skiff's fuel tanks, but the pressure transducers didn't read back the expected pressure increase.”
“What's the refueling status now?”
“On hold,” he explained. “After about a hundred liters, I had to turn it off. External sensors didn't register a fuel leak, so I have no idea where all that deuterium went. There's no offset in mass on the Captain's skiff.”
“Well, that's strange,” she reviewed his status board, spying the blinking red “FUEL STATUS: HOLD” indicator. “There should be SOME sort of notable change in tank pressure. Did you run a diagnostic?”
“Yes. All systems are running perfectly. It's just that the computer onboard the Captain's skiff isn't providing the expected feedback.”
“A deuterium tank,” the engineer's voice trailed off. “A deuterium tank…”
Somewhere in Pakita's mind, an alarm bell was ringing. Something about building a fake signal generator into a backup engineering computer core of a Galaxy class starship so that the bridge wouldn't know that their controls were disconnected from the ship's main thruster manifold.
“The Chief?” she whispered to herself questioningly, recalling the mysterious “HOLA COMPRADES” message she received that morning, followed by a rambling nonsensical round of verbose gibberish by an astonished Doctor Cromwell afterwards, who quickly absconded from her presence towards an unknown destination aboard ship.
“Computer, location of Crewman Cronus,” Pakita tapped her combadge while fitting all the pieces of the mystery together in her mind.
“Crewman Cronus is not aboard the Republic.”
The reply caused a heightened level of surprise between the two engineers.
“He could have left via the main gangway or the transporters,” Vehns commented.
“Computer,” Pakita beckoned again to the omnipresent computer. “Did Crewman Cronus exit the Republic on foot, by shuttlecraft, or by transporter?”
The two engineers shared silent glances before Pakita make a third request for information.
“Computer, where and when was the last recorded location of Crewman Cronus?”
“At zero eight fifty eight hours, Crewman Cronus was located at deck ten, forward.”
“The Captain's skiff,” Vehns concluded.
“Eight hours ago,” Pakita added. “Come on,” she hastily told Vehns while grabbing a tricorder. “Let's go check out our refueling anomaly…”
As the two quickly left main engineering, a tall male Grazerite in an enlisted engineer's jumpsuit stepped out from within a nearby alcove, obviously having overheard the entire conversation between Pakita and Vehns. It was Engineer's Third Mate Elohsa, who carefully looked in the direction where the two other engineers departed towards. Waiting a moment to ensure they were not doubling-back on their path, Elohsa tapped his combadge.
“Unit five to Meridian,” he said quietly.
For her part, Lieutenant Commander Chase Meridian was the Republic's political officer; a new shipboard position created by Starfleet directive a year ago for all capital vessels. Republic was not her first assignment choice, especially since John Carter was no longer around for her to torment. His compatriots were less than enthusiastic at her appointment, as their disdain for her bled through at every command staff meeting. Nevertheless, she had a job to do, whether or not she agreed with the current direction that Starfleet was headed given the present political climate.
“What is it?” she replied with a touch of annoyance, not wanting to be bothered on her off duty hours. Normally, she would be off the clock and wouldn't even have answered, but since Elohsa was addressing himself as “unit five”, it meant that he had something important to report.
“You asked me to tell you when there's been some unusual activity, sir.”
“…So?” came the forceful reply.
“There's been some unusual activity, sir.”
The pause after his superfluous reply was actually a moment where Meridian sighed in vehemence at his vacuous response. She had only a half dozen covert investigators aboard Republic reporting to her, capable of being her eyes and ears amongst the crew's activities. However, she didn't like this particular officer, primarily because she perceived him as slow and dull-witted. Unfortunately, like the others, she needed him, and relegated herself to the occasional abusive remark instead of simply requesting a replacement from HQ.
“You really are an idiot, you know that?” she insultingly quipped.
In reality, “idiot” in Elohsa's native language was actually an adjective that described a male patriarch who bore an unusually large number of offspring. The closest Terran translation would have been “fertile”, and was a compliment for those who valued having a large family. Elohsa had no such aspirations, but knew the true meaning and intent of Meridian's words, neutralizing any positive overtone. Fortunately for him, he was not easily insulted, and simply brushed off the admonishment with a neutral reply.
“Thank you, sir.”
“What did you discover?”
“I'm fairly certain that Assistant Chief Engineer Pakita has learned the whereabouts of Commander Virtus aboard the Republic…”
Location: Captain's Skiff docking lounge, Deck 10, Forward, USS Republic (Luna Class)
Unlike Elohsa, Meridian was not an idiot. She knew full well that Virtus had been aboard ship all throughout the mission to hunt down the Hirogen pirates. However, her orders from Fleet Intel at the time were to simply observe passively, and only intervene when she deemed the ship or the Federation in danger. She hadn't been required to inform Captain Roth-Dorian about her knowledge of Virtus posing as Crewman Cronus. Besides, Fleet Intel saw it important to make sure that they knew where the renegade Malthusian was at all times, with the understanding that as soon as the green light was given, she would immediately hold Virtus for questioning by the Presidential Commission on Unpatriotic Activities. Informing Roth-Dorian might have invoked a Draconian response such as incarceration at a starbase, possibly putting him out of Meridian's reach. Keeping the captain in the dark about Virtus was for the good of Starfleet and the Federation.
However, Meridian also knew there were others on Republic who would have rushed to Virtus's aid were he to be discovered. At least three sympathizers were among the crew; likely more. Further, the known three were of high enough rank to interfere by enabling any escape plan that Virtus might hatch: The First Officer, Chief Medical Officer, and Assistant Chief Engineer. Once Meridian learned that Pakita was on her way down to the docking level en route to the Captain's skiff, it was clear that Virtus was about to escape. The gig was up, and she had standing orders to bring him in should there be any hint of him fleeing Republic.
As she and the two other security guards she hastily conscripted turned a corner on the forward-most deck of the saucer section docking level, they found Pakita and her Tellarite assistant with open tricorders around a containment field that sealed the entrance ramp to the Captain's Skiff.
“…Vehns, there's one more test I'd like to perform…” Pakita said to her cohort before noticing Meridian's presence.
“Shut these off,” Meridian ordered sternly, pointing at the multi-layered field generation console. “Shut these all off.”
Pakita was taken aback, and didn't know what to say at first. Looking between Meridian and the guards, it was obvious they meant to board the Captain's skiff, but she and Vehns had yet to determine where the rogue deuterium had been pumped to by the ship's refueling subsystem.
“I'm warning you,” Pakita finally replied, trying to communicate that Meridian's order was a dangerous one. “Shutting off these fields would be extremely hazardous.”
“I'll tell you what's hazardous,” quipped Meridian. “You're facing a Starfleet court martial for at least a half a dozen chain-of-command violations. Now you either shut off these fields, or we shut them off for you.”
“Try to understand,” Pakita pleaded. “This is a high-pressure safety containment field! Simply turning it off could be like igniting a photon grenade on the deck!”
“Don't patronize me!” Meridian shouted back seethingly, convinced more than ever that Virtus was hiding in the Captain's skiff and that Pakita was trying to protect him. She felt it in her bones that at this very moment, Virtus was charging up the engines for an expedited getaway. “I'm not GROTESQUELY stupid! Like the captain you've duped!”
Soberly, Pakita tried to explain in the clearest terms possible. “If you shut these fields down, WE are not going to be held responsible for whatever happens.”
“On the contrary,” Meridian argued, certain that Pakita's warnings were a ruse. “YOU'RE the ones going to be held responsible.” Turning to the guard, she barked her initial order in reiteration. “Shut them off NOW.”
It was clear that Pakita and Vehns had no further say in the matter. As the two backed away from the containment field, Pakita motioned with her hands to her Tellarite companion, mouthing the words “boom” as they slowly made their way back to the entrance to the room.
One of the security guards walked up to the pulsating field, and dialed the nearby controls that turned off the power. The panel responded with a negative warble while the guard attempted to ascertain why the field failed to drop. Had the guard been an engineering officer or technician, he would have known that it was a failsafe to prevent sudden implosions into the main cabin from an area of high pressure. Unfortunately, he was only a security guard, and did not make that connection.
Instead, his second attempt involved reducing power to the field in controlled manner over ten seconds, with which the computer obediently complied. Since Pakita's logon was still active within the computer console, it had no reason to believe that the guard didn't know what he was doing.
In seconds, a high-pitched whine was followed by successive shimmies that increased exponentially in force, causing the lights to flicker and a hissing sound to emanate and become more pronounced from the dimming field perimeter. Realizing that he had followed Meridian's orders to his detriment, the guard's final words for the moment were “oh shit” before the pressure behind the door burst through the weakened field.
From her point of view, the last thing that Meridian saw was an enormous, gooey, amoebic white mess careening towards her, and Pakita's voice reverberating off the walls further down the deck screaming, “ABANDON THE SECTION!”
Location: “Tavern on the Green” dinner theater, Space Station Deep Space Four
It had been an exhausting past ten weeks chasing the Hirogen pirates through Federation space, and Captain Kimberly Roth-Dorian was in much need of a break. Following the completion of their mission, she was delighted to see they were headed towards Deep Space Four, and messaged her husband, Tom Dorian, to meet her there when the Republic docked. Tom anted up the invite to meet at the station's dinner theater, which was a reproduction of the famous “Tavern on the Green” restaurant back on Earth, but with an added stage for theatrical performances. Finding a pleasing formal dress to match the occasion, Kim opted to forgo her uniform for the civilian attire, donning her favorite earrings, and met Tom for dinner on what would be their first date night in months.
On this evening, Tom and Kim were seated near the stage, where a Naussican opera was being performed. By tradition, this type of opera was acted out in short vignettes of about one to three-minute intervals at sporadic moments throughout the evening. The audience withheld both applause and acclaim at the end of each vignette, as it was – by Naussican culture – considered an insult until the entire evening's story had concluded. This particular opera story was one of a drawn-out mating ritual performed between two lovers, not unlike the Romeo and Juliet plays of Earth, except with more serious and malevolent overtones. A scene was just concluding where the hero of the story defeated a previous suitor to his mate by simply staring him down with a guttural howl, forcing the competitor to the ground without throwing a single punch. As the story goes, the hero subdued his adversary through a mystical process meant to possess one's soul through metaphysical means. As the defeated suitor screamed his way to the floor, the scene ended, and the audience resumed eating before the next vignette was to play out following the next meal course.
“Anyway, it was SO funny!” Kim returned to the conversation that she and Tom were having before the most recent vignette played out. “I looked it up, and Nat actually followed the docking regulation to the LETTER!”
“You've got to be kidding,” her husband replied, not fully believing the news. “Nat actually obeyed EVERY part of the regulation? He didn't leave ANYTHING out?”
“Not one thing!” she reiterated. “I'm telling you, Nat has made tremendous progress since his cavalier days. This tour of duty on Republic has really tempered him, and he's showing his leadership skills. I'm really impressed.”
“Then I take it you'll be submitting a positive officer efficiency report this month for him?” Tom asked, clearly proud at the strides his former client turned protege had made in the past year.
“We'll see,” Kim smiled with a twinkle in her eye. She saw the approving look in her husband's expression, and knew he would be happy to hear how Nat was getting along with the new ship.
At that moment, a blond Starfleet ensign in command red came into the restaurant, and stopped near the entrance while searching the crowd for a particular face. Kim recognized the officer as Ensign Brooke from the Republic, and waved her hand to catch her attention. Quickly, Brooke strode up to the captain and whispered in her ear.
Her look collapsing into a serious, almost unbelieving expression, she stared at Brooke for a moment before repeating the last words whispered to her, as if not sure that she fully understood them.
“A MARSHMALLOW emergency??”
Location: Captain's Ready Room, Deck 1, USS Republic (Luna Class), NCC-81371
Timeframe: Two hours later
It was a ruined evening. In bad temperament, Captain Roth-Dorian re-donned her uniform after following up on the reports of what happened with the Captain's Skiff and Virtus's hasty departure with a piece of Starfleet equipment. Secrets were being kept by her subordinate officers. Again. Only this time, Carter had nothing to do with it. Was it a curse? A plague? What had she started by putting back together this crew of wayward, disorderly officers? It was time to get at the truth again, and like separating barnacles from the hull of a wooden seafaring ship, she would have to keep chipping away until it comes out clean again.
Lined up in cadet-review formation, four of her officers were standing at attention while being dressed down by their captain: Leon Cromwell, Maria Pakita, Vehns, and Nat Hawk.
“How did he do it?” she barked, pacing back and forth in front of the line of officers. “How did Virtus get a hold of the skiff without ANYONE knowing?” Stopping in front of Leon, she faced him head on. “Well, doctor? How?”
Leon blinked with surprise, shrugging his shoulders. “I don't know, sir.” He was no engineer, and wasn't sure what she expected of him with the question.
Kim still disliked the new regulation that required all subordinate officers to address their superior as “sir” regardless of gender. She still preferred “ma'am”, but was no longer afforded that option. It seemed to exacerbate her mood, along with Leon's obvious cluelessness that he knew nothing of Virtus's getaway plan.
“I. Don't. Know. Sir…” came the mocking reply as she slowly moved on to Pakita.
“It could have been worse, sir,” Pakita piped in nervously. “If we hadn't caught the skiff refueling procedure in mid-operation, the explosion could have been ten times the size it was.”
“It doesn't matter,” Roth-Dorian admonished. “Meridian could have suffocated in that white sucrose soup. Virtus put fellow crewmates in jeopardy, and that alone should be enough to bring charges against him. Besides, he was operating on MY ship under an assumed identity, and EACH of you are responsible for not bringing that to my attention!” She stopped again in front of Leon. “Just how long did you think you could get away with hiding him from me, doctor?”
Leon was like a deer caught in the headlights. “Sir… There's been so much cloak and dagger…” he offered. “For all I knew, he was under YOUR orders. Maybe even FLEET orders. Either way, he was undercover, with intention to stay undercover for as long as he felt necessary. Why would I interfere with that?”
“Because he put Meridian's life at risk!” she barked again. “If I had known about him, I could have dealt with this before it got out of hand!”
“Look, captain,” Leon dismissed the notion. “Meridian only got a spoiled uniform and a bad hair day. Walking around with a buzz cut for a few weeks won't hurt her any. Her hair will grow back soon enough, and no one else got seriously injured.”
“Besides,” Nat backed up his fellow officers. “If it weren't fer the marshmallow stuff, the whole deck coulda decompressed. As it was, it gummed up the hole an' kept the atmosphere inside. If Meridian hadn't gotten in Pakita's way, nuthin woulda happened. She'd a fixed it, an' we'd be no worse fer th' wear. Still wouldn'ta changed how Virtus got off the ship. If ya want ta blame someone, blame me. I knew about Virtus too. I jus' wanted ta give the man a chance to explain himself b'fore talkin' to ya.”
Kim looked at the four officers standing at attention in front of her. It was clear that they had little to do with Virtus's escape, and that technically, there wasn't much she could charge them with. Plausible deniability is an effective plea, especially since the operation to root-out Hawk's onboard assassin many years ago was actually her idea. Nevertheless, she felt some kind of reprimand was needed to instill within them that SHE was still in charge of the ship, not them.
“Very well. You're all confined to quarters until further notice,” she admonished. “Shore leave for each of you is hereby cancelled. Dismissed.”
As she saw it, if she couldn't get any rest and relaxation while in drydock, neither should they.
As the officers filed out of the room one by one, Nat was the last one, and Kim motioned for him to hold back. As he stood facing the closed door in front of him, he remained unmoving as the captain walked up and spoke into his ear.
“I'm very disappointed in you, Nat,” she scolded quietly. “I expected better than this from you.”
“Cap'n…” he responded without looking her in the eye. “You 'n I know that Virtus saved this crew a half a dozen times over. He ain't no criminal. JAG ain't said what he's bein' charged fer. Ain't that jus' a little bit fishy to ya?”
“It doesn't matter what we think, Nat,” Kim said, softening her tone. “In Starfleet's eyes, we let a man wanted for questioning escape under our watch. Fleet Admiral Kaito isn't going to let this one slip under the table.”
“Admiral Fuka-knuckle Kate-o can go suck it!” Nat spat. “Virtus is innocent. The man ain't done no wrong, and he's only runnin' because Fleet's makin' em run! He doesn't belong in front'a that sorry-ass commission, an if we gave 'em half-a-chance, he mighta expose Kostya fer what he really is.”
“You don't know that,” Kim's tone hardened again. “As for the president, he IS the president whether we like it or not, and you'd better get used to it, mister.”
“Is that all, sir?” he asked with disdain, still not looking her in the eye.
Kim was hurt. She had many hopes for this young man before her, carefully tutoring him on his way up through the command ranks. While they had their differences in the past, they had patched most of it up, and this business with Virtus was tearing open old wounds again. From her point of view, it wasn't fair to her, as it only served to alienate her from the rest of the crew. That was one thing she would not tolerate.
“Don't disappoint me again, Nat,” she said with an air of finality, hissing her last word to him. “DisMISSED…”
LTCR Leon Cromwell, MD, PhD
Chief Medical Officer
USS Republic, NCC-81371