Timeframe: Present Day
White-capped waves crashed along the rocky shoreline of the remote beach at high tide. Out to sea, the bay was absent of activity save that of a few hovering seabirds occasionally diving into the water for a minnow or piece of edible flotsam. On shore, the ocean breeze put into motion palm trees and palmettos in the foreground, and the canopy of a tropical forest ebbed and flowed in the wind, set back behind sand dunes covered in Marram Grass and rotting seaweed. Where the land meets the sea, only boulders and craggy outcroppings could hold up against the power of the tidal surf. There, climbing atop the boulders, a lone individual clumsily found his footing on the irregular terrain, progressing towards an unknown destination.
The human was a middle-aged man with curly black hair and a five-o'clock shadow. In the bright sunlight, his eyes were squinted nearly shut as he clambered over the rocky debris. His loose knit shirt was emblazoned with the clashing colors and pictograms of a tropical motif, while his battleship gray cargo shorts and hiking boots bottomed out his attire. As he stopped atop one boulder, he looked off into the distance from his perch, inspecting the terrain.
Up ahead, another human of slightly younger age was progressing along the top of the boulders in a much more graceful manner. With well-groomed hair and a clean-shaven face, he sported a white lower-cut, v-neck style shirt; much more smooth and stylish than his companion's. Pausing every now and then to let his friend catch up, the operative formerly named Doug Forrest surveyed his surroundings while taking a sip of water from a canteen before continuing.
The two men walked the long, stretch of wilderness coast for what seemed like hours until they reached a point where it narrowed to a towering precipice. Jagged, crumbling boulders formed the base of an eroding rock cliff, where ocean waves lapped against one side.
“Come on, Saal,” the younger one beckoned to his older companion, who was clearly fatigued. “It's not much further!”
Leading the way to an open cave lingering in the shallow waves of a tidal pool, he led Saal into a network of tunnels carved by the power of the tides working their way inland from the coast. As they progressed inland, the daylight became dimmer and dimmer the further they wandered from the cave opening. By the sixth turn through the meandering passages, Saal's voiced reverberated off the walls in consternation.
“A person could get lost in here, you know,” he commented.
“That was the point,” the equally-reverberating reply came from his companion. “I needed a place to hide when I arrived.”
They came to a wide opening in the cave where a splash of sunlight from directly overhead highlighted the flat, rock-strewn ground below. They had entered a wide, vertical lava tube, cleared of overhead rock from below through centuries of erosion due to the daily tide ebbing and flowing over the years.
In the center of the chamber, one lone shuttlecraft sat bathing in the single column of light. The model was vaguely Starfleet design, once an uprated Type-8 diplomatic shuttlecraft, but had been severely altered and modified beyond its original specifications. Instead of cream and off-white colored tones, the surface was mostly flat black with occasional shades of dark gray. Gone was any sign of a hull registry, and the exterior was littered with phaser burns, metal fatigue, and pock marks, along with numerous wispy scars from countless heating and cooling cycles from plasma storms and atmospheric re-entry cycles. Adorning the surface of the vessel were numerous hand-sized pressurized hull-patches normally intended for temporary fixes on low-budget ore freighters, except that each were welded solid to the hull in a more permanent fashion. It was clear that the shuttle had long ago gone rogue, and no longer served in any self-respecting space fleet.
As the two men stopped at the side opening to the chamber, Saal gawked at the contraption in front of them.
“You've been living in THIS thing?” he exclaimed of the small spaceship that was once a proud member of the clean, well-maintained auxiliary fleet from the now-destroyed Galaxy Class USS Republic. “I though you would have found your way to some seaside loft rental by now.”
“Well, without a proper Federation citizen I.D., I've had a hard time finding my own bed to sleep in that didn't have a warp nacelle attached to it.”
“I guess now that you've got 'Theo' Carter as your cover, you'll be able to get your own habitat module on Mars someday…”
The man formerly known as Doug Forrest looked at Saal with a sour expression. As much as John Theoloneus Carter had caused him headaches when he was alive, there was something that just didn't sit well to have the deceased officer's DNA masked onto his own just to dodge security officials. While Doug Forrest may have been a burned and unusable I.D., walking around with a dead man's identity instead felt as if he was treading into the realm of grave robbing. Pretending to be Carter's twin brother Theo - who didn't really exist but which genetic scanners couldn't tell the difference - didn't really rob John of anything, but it still felt as though John's ghost would be regularly haunting him for the duration.
Of course, such haunting would have been entirely the fault of Saal, who forced the new identity onto him during a surprise security sweep at an outdoor eatery at the nearby Hanotis Harbor settlement here on Risa. In a rash moment to protect his friend from arrest, the DNA-masking procedure that Saal performed was literally under-the-table and on a whim, just before they were each subjected to a genetic scan.
“Sorry about that,” Saal apologized.
For his part, “Theo” seemed to accept the gesture of regret. “Come on,” he changed the subject. “If we're going to get out of the thermosphere without being caught, we've got to take advantage of tonight's auroral event.”
As the two made their way across the cavern to the shuttle, the former intel agent spied the usual accouterments he set up in the shadows to alert him to unauthorized intrusions: A tachyon-based sensor web made from old Vulcan tricorders installed into the cavern walls, supplemented by a Risian holo-projector he repaired after absconding with it from a pleasure-palace hotel under renovation, and which he reconfigured to place a containment field around any unauthorized lifeform coming to within 20 meters of the shuttle. Finally, his Cardassian-based wrist communicator had a direct uplink to the shuttle's sentry computer and would let him know the minute anyone but himself or his guests had entered the vessel without his say-so.
All was well. Each security measure was still in place and operating properly.
Confident that the shuttle and its hangar were as he had left them days ago, Theo walked up the egress ramp and pressed his hand print to the door latching mechanism. As the planetfall hatch slid open, he strolled inside with Saal following right behind.
He then paused with a quizzical expression. Something about the interior atmosphere of the shuttlecraft wasn't right. Normally, he was used to coming home to stale air inside the vessel that needed a few minutes to recycle before becoming refreshed again. However, as he walked into the side hatch and into the foyer, he was struck by how fresh the air was, and laced with the slightest scent of… braised beef?
Sitting casually in the shuttlecraft galley area and wearing a rank-less, white Starfleet officer's dress uniform was a mysterious man with silver-gray hair and bushy eyebrows. While one hand rested on the galley table holding a napkin, the other was wielding an eating utensil. His aged face bore a calm, stoic expression as he sat over a plate of half-eaten fried steak, and was obviously sitting in wait of the two men for some amount of time.
“Hello, Dragon…” he addressed Theo in a low, gravelly voice while quietly chewing his food.
Theo's hand involuntarily flinched, expecting to find it's way to a phaser-one hidden in his hip pocket. The voice was very familiar, as it beckoned back to his days as Doug Forrest. Turning to spy his old boss dining in the galley, a flurry of emotions raced through his mind. The first question on the tip of his tongue was “how did you get in here?” However, Theo suppressed it as he spotted a slimline bracelet around the man's wrist, which contained a tiny pulsating blue light that bore the unmistakable feature of a personal, Intel-issue multiphasic biodampening generator. “I should have thought of that,” the former spy thought in hindsight.
After looking him over carefully, Theo found the words to greet the man by simply remarking, “it's been a while…”
“Almost two years,” the elder replied. Gesturing to the food in front of him, he continued. “I hope you don't mind. I haven't eaten since my transport from Tau Ceti dropped me off, and I built up an appetite climbing down that lava tube.”
“How did you find me?”
“Did you think that when John Carter's active DNA scan suddenly re-appeared on the Intel grid that I wouldn't know where it came from?” Gesturing towards Saal, he continued. “With Shadow here supposedly in retirement, how else could a random population increase of plus-one occur on Risa with no variance in immigration/emigration visas?” Wagging his finger in an almost scolding manner, he emphasized his point before backing off. “I knew what you were up to… but it'll be our little secret.” He finished the meal by placing the fork down on his empty plate, all before allowing a soft belch to register in his chest. “Damn, that was a good steak…”
The hair standing on the back of Theo's neck relaxed in realization that his old boss may simply be wanting to talk rather than serve him an arrest warrant. Still, an uneasy feeling persisted in the suspicion that Federation security officials were loitering nearby, waiting for the signal to swoop in for the capture.
“You're going to have a hard time putting the handcuffs on me while stuffing your gullet,” Theo remarked.
Wiping his lips with the napkin, the elderly man worked to put him at ease.
“Relax. It's just me,” he confirmed. “If I wanted you in irons, we wouldn't be having this little chat. At least not without a containment field between us.”
“Then why are you here?” a deeply suspicious Theo replied. For Saal's part, he was content on remaining silent for the moment, turning to double-check the perimeter sensor grid on the cockpit flight panel every now and then.
“Do you remember the Delta X initiative?” the man answered Theo's question with a question.
“The fighter designs from the Delta Flyer upgrade project?” he recalled after a moment. “Yeah. Intel mothballed those plans after the Dominion war.”
“They did,” the elder blackshirt confirmed, dropping the napkin onto the empty galley plate. “A disagreement within the Starfleet Corps of Engineers about a new fighter design based on the Voyager's Delta Flyer didn't get off the ground, so to speak. Instead, they went with a new Peregrine fighter design and stopped work on the Delta X, but not before creating a prototype.”
“They built a prototype?” Theo asked skeptically.
“It was originally built at Hellsgate Station,” explained the elder while nodding his head. “Just after Task Force One disbanded following Admiral Teagarden's death. Kostya pulled a number of projects out of there before JAG could start their investigation.”
The operation he referred to was a nefarious and illegal reverse-engineering operation using dubiously-acquired alien artifacts housed at Starbase 666, also known as “Hellsgate Station”. Under the direction of one Rear Admiral Teagarden, and implemented by then-Commodore Fakunake Katio (now the Fleet Admiral of Starfleet), an entire starship task force was covertly used as a testbed for newly-developed hardware built from stolen alien technology. Task Force One, as it was called at the time, became a fleet of starships with countless unauthorized modifications, and which performed clandestine operations for Starfleet Intelligence. Orders for their various missions were issued through Teagarden by none other than Vice Admiral Kostya himself; today, the current president of the United Federation of Planets. Apparently, Task Force One was one of many instruments at Kostya's disposal back then, with yet another resurfacing in the revelation of the Delta-X prototype.
“Where did it end up?” Theo asked his former intel supervisor, still surprised that such an advanced piece of technology made it off the drawing board without the support of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers.
The old man hesitated to answer for a moment, as if he knew the response from Theo would be harsh. Briefly holding a knuckle to his chin, he relaxed his arm and let it drop gently to the galley table before providing the regret-filled reply.
“Gamma Serpentis,” the answer expelled from his lips at a level just above a whisper.
Theo stared at him intently while serving the expected, pointed reply.
“You blew it.”
The man's expression collapsed into a defeated grimace while Saal piped in.
“Gamma Serpentis? Isn't that the…”
“Home base of The Organization,” the elder finished the sentence. “Yes.”
“The Organization” was an offspring of the illegal technology-retrofitting operation from Starbase 666. After the scheme was nearly exposed by a Federation incursion into Romulan space, then Vice Admiral Kostya stepped in to perform a clean-up effort at Hellsgate Station, pinning the fault of the botched assault on lower-ranking captains who were court-martialed and imprisoned. With Admiral Teagarden killed during the incident, Kostya directed a close friend named Joshua McCain to quickly pack-up the unlawful operation at Hellsgate, and escape through the Bajoran Wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. There, Commodore McCain set-up shop again in the Gamma Serpentis system, under the Fleet Intel moniker of “The Organization”. McCain began collecting an even larger hotbed of alien technology fueled by the influx of new artifacts easily stolen in a newly-opened frontier region of the galaxy.
This new revelation let Theo in on the reason why his old boss had sought him out. During his days as Doug Forrest/Dragon, Theo was one of only a small handful of agents who had successfully infiltrated The Organization, which had long grown independent of the standard Starfleet command structure, instead becoming a pariah no longer controlled by Alpha Quadrant bureaucrats. It was clear by the old man's demeanor that he was yet again enlisting Theo's help in order to capture the Delta X prototype.
“You're unbelievable!” exclaimed Theo with incredulity, scolding his former boss. “You throw me to the wolves, and now you want me to go on some fool's errand to the Gamma Quadrant? Before the Remnant attacks, you were threatening to throw me into prison as a foreign spy!” Turning to his friend, Theo began exiting the spacecraft “C'mon Saal! Let's get out of here! This guy's a clown!”
Then the elder man said something that stopped Theo dead in his tracks.
“You were right about the Pantheon, Dragon.”
“…What did you say?” the former intel agent replied after a moment of silent astonishment. Stunned, he turned back around to face his former boss with a look of stupefaction.
“I said you were right,” the man uncomfortably emphasized, as if he had never admitted a mistake to his subordinate before in his life. “Blacklisting the Pantheon was red-herring by Kostya. It was a move to discredit Fleet Intel, and to put the final nail in our coffin. He used it as an excuse to dismiss the previous leadership and reorganize the whole intelligence command structure.”
“The Pantheon”, to which the elderly man referred, was a small collection of disparate Starfleet officers with a loose affiliation with the so-called “dove movement”: a quasi-alliance of like-minded individuals who believe in upholding and affirming the true reason of why Starfleet exists: peaceful exploration. The doves, while few and far between in the ranks of the fleet, are known for their penchant for giving peace a chance before resorting to conflict. This is in contrast to the hawk movement, which is the current majority in Starfleet command ranks, an arrangement carefully honed over the past several months by President Kostya himself.
“What happened?” Theo shook off the shock of his boss showing contrition. “Who's in charge of Intel now?”
“Only a month after he became president, Kostya rearranged the Startfleet leadership so that a new position within the C-in-C staff was created. It's called the Office of Population Security. Nearly every intelligence asset Starfleet has was folded into the new office, opening an additional position in the senior admiralty.”
“We know THEM…” commented Saal, referring to the run-in with the security officials at Hanotis Harbor.
“Who was appointed to lead it?” demanded Theo, ignoring Saal's interjection.
Both Theo and Saal gawked as yet another bombshell was released.
“What?” the former surgeon exclaimed.
“Leyton?” Theo similarly asked with bewilderment. “He faked evidence of a Founder presence on Earth before the Dominion War! All to depose the president AND take personal control of the Federation! He's supposed to be in PRISON!”
“Not anymore,” came the sober response. “Kostya pardoned him and reinstated his commission before promoting him to full admiral. With the exception of Janeway, Kostya now has a Neocratic Federalist sympathizer in every office within the Startfleet C-in-C leadership, including the C-in-C himself with Fakunake Kaito. The hawks are now in charge, and they're gearing up for something big. Real big. That's why I want you to get the Delta-X from the Organization as soon as possible. We need to have assets in place before the hawks make their move.”
The words the elder Intel supervisor spoke were so far-fetched, it was hard for Theo and Saal to swallow. The obvious question beckoned: Had their old boss turned to the side of the doves? Theo had to find out through some well-faked melodrama.
“Look!” he shouted suddenly, throwing his arms up into the air. “We don't work for you anymore! I'm not interested in what the hawks or doves or anyone else in fleet need or want! What *I* want is my lifeline back, and I want the person who cut it to be caught and prosecuted!”
“Do you really think that's going to happen?” the man returned, unshaken by the outburst.
“I KNOW that Kostya was the one who ordered my lifeline cut! And that means HE'S the man responsible for allowing the Remnant attacks to succeed!”
“How do you figure?”
“If you recall, just after my escape from Farius Prime, I tried to report to YOU — of all people — that the Remnant attack fleet was headed towards Federation space. You ignored my warnings, all because my lifeline was cut. We could have stopped the Remnant attacks from happening if you hadn't been so narrow!”
“What did you expect me to do?” the man finally exclaimed with emotion rising. “Burst into Admiral Paris's office and say that a burned agent communicating from a mob-run planet wants to divert fleet resources to intercept some ore freighters? Intel was already skating on thin ice from BOTH the Cestus Three incident AND the Sigma Omicron debacle! Or have you forgotten that it was your friends on Republic that blew our cover… BOTH times?”
“We wouldn't have blown your cover if you hadn't been doing some DAMNED illegal things!” Saal jumped into the fray indignantly.
“Oh really?” the old man shifted daggers towards the former Republic doctor. “THIS coming from a man who violated medical ethics and turned your helmsman into a walking zombie using Borg nanoprobes? Don't try to take the high ground, Shadow! You've been just as crooked as anyone else in Fleet Intel!”
Saal lunged forward as if he was going to hit the man, but Theo held him back. It was obvious that his attempt to get his old boss to reveal his intentions had worked, but the collateral damage was spilling over to the retired doctor.
“ALRIGHT!” he finally yelled to stop the physical posturing. “Just STOP it! We've ALL got some skeletons in our closets!” As Saal stood down, Theo turned back sharply to the elderly man. “What I want to know is WHAT you're going to give me in return for going on this escapade to the Gamma Quadrant?”
“Look, here's the deal,” the elderly man calmed down, his frank disposition returning. “You bring back the Delta X. In turn, I'll divert resources to figuring out what happened to your lifeline.”
“Not good enough. I want Kostya to pay for what he did to me.”
“Heads will roll,” the man promised, as if it were already in the plan. “Maybe not quite in the direction you want, but you'll have your satisfaction. That much, I can promise. The only caveat is that if we happen to find this link to Kostya you speak of, you've GOT to promise me that you'll wait for MY cue to act on it.”
“YOUR cue? Why?”
“Because that's part of the deal.”
It was time to cut to the chase. Theo looked over his old boss searching for any hint of deception, but finding none. As good as his instincts were at detecting hidden motives, a lingering question came forth from his pursed lips.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
Locking stares, the old man laid his cards on the table. “Let's just say the Pantheon turned out to be more insightful than I was led to believe… Pluto…” With a slow-growing smile, he had tossed the former Doug Forrest a compliment by using his old Task Force One codename. With one simple flattering remark, the intelligence supervisor managed to rekindle an allegiance with his previous subordinate. The game was afoot.
Looking into the eyes of his former supervisor, Theo's instincts told him that his motives were genuine.
“I suppose breaking back into McCain's workshop of horrors shouldn't be too difficult,” Theo reasoned after a moment. “I did it to stop a second Dominion War two years ago, I can do it again for an overgrown shuttlepod with a quantum torpedo launcher.”
“It won't be as easy as you think this time around,” the white-uniformed man explained, referring to Doug Forrest's previous exploits to free a biosynthetic lifeform from the commodore's maniacal control. “McCain's gone. He's dead. Our partners in the new Obsidian Order managed to track him to a small fleet of modified Hirogen gunboats outbound from Gamma Serpentis eight months ago. The battle was pretty fierce, but the Cardies eventually won. The Organization was rendered leaderless for a time, but we haven't enough intel to know who took his place. All we know is that the base at Gamma Serpentis has undergone some major upgrades in its defense and cloaking network, and now that they have their hands on the Delta X, their firepower has greatly increased.”
“Why doesn't Starfleet just mobilize an attack force and go after The Organization? Why do you need me?”
“Are you kidding?” the old man snorted. “Neither Kostya nor Kaito would ever directly attack The Organization. First, that would expose the chain of illegal events that led to its formation, making it possible to track it back to Hellsgate Station. All it would take is a single dove in the attack fleet to leak what happened to the press, complicating Kostya's presidency. Secondly, all those nifty toys that The Organization has locked up could escape the attack and end up somewhere else, possibly in the hands of any number of foreign empires that would use it against Starfleet. That would be even worse for the president.”
Theo bristled at the thought of “Kostya” and “president” being mentioned together in a single sentence, as if the former admiral had actually earned the title with honor instead of through a deceptive public relations campaign.
“And what about you?” Theo called over his shoulder to an uncertain Saal. “How comfortable are YOU in retirement?”
“Not nearly enough, apparently,” the former Republic surgeon replied, casually leaning up against a bulkhead. “If Kostya's gearing up for a big party, most of us retired pawns will be called back into action before too long. To tell you the truth, a reserve call-up isn't my cup of tea. No. I'd rather have some control over what happens here, and not wait until the inevitable comes knocking on my door.”
“Then it's settled,” the old man closed the deal. Standing up, he dutifully placed the used dinner tray into the shuttle's food replicator alcove and activated the recycle mode. In a wash of photons, the tray was dematerialized back into the bowels of the life support system. “I'll make sure your flight path is cleared into and out of Federation territory. I'll be on blue channel if you need me.”
“What about my cover?” Theo asked as the old man shuffled past him towards the door.
“Don't worry. I'll make sure 'Theo' stays clean on the Population Security net through Fleet Intel. You just make sure that you both come back alive from this. As much as you make my life hell, I don't want you lose you to some handful of Starfleet renegades in the Gamma Quadrant.”
As the mysterious figure exited down the egress ramp en route towards the darkness of the surrounding cavern, Theo called out through the planetfall hatch. “When this is over, I get to be Doug Forrest again, right?”
“We'll see,” came the fading reply from the shadows. “You may just find that you like being 'Theo' Carter before too long…”
With a sigh, Theo looked once more into the darkness, wondering what new trouble he had just gotten Saal and himself into. Again.
Pressing the button that closed the shuttle's hatch, he beckoned back to his friend in the cockpit. “Shadow, fire up the converters…”
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