Location: R/V Nautilus, Pacific Ocean, Earth
When visitors think of Earth, most images that come to mind are the towering mountains of the Himalayas, or the dense jungle canopy of the Amazon, or the shiny streamlined metropoles of any one of the densely human-populated areas. Few will ever comprehend the extent of vast stretches of blue saline water reaching from one horizon to the other. Even fewer will seek to immerse themselves in such an environment, let alone spend the day hovering just above its undulating waves and frothy white caps.
The Nautilus was a twenty year-old Cousteau-class hover platform, containing the standard suite of wet labs and sensor arrays commonplace on most terrestrial research vessels. With four Mark XII anti-gravity propulsion pods, the ship could traverse both land and sea with minimal resistance, able to overcome inclines of up to twenty degrees, as well as smoothly coast along flat plains of both sand and water with little expended energy from its redundant set of twin nuclear batteries. Carrying a total compliment of 26, the Nautilus was commanded by a civilian bridge crew of five, three of which were currently engaged in a minor argument: A young sensor technician, an older field archaeologist, and the vessel's skipper who wore a dark blue naval sweater and an old-fashioned maritime commander's cap.
“I think we're all forgetting the goal of this expedition,” reminded the skipper while remaining seated in the elevated command chair. He addressed the other two with casual strokes of his jet-black beard. “The Smithsonian is looking for as many Republic artifacts possible for their new east coast exhibit.”
“Agreed,” replied the balding, gray-haired archaeologist with crossed arms. He was standing immediately behind the young man who was seated at a wall-mounted sensor console, turning his head away from the skipper and back to the technician. “The key word being 'artifact'. Not sunken trash from the twenty-first century garbage patch.”
“EVERY human-made item we pick off the ocean floor is a potential artifact,” the technician exclaimed, stating his case. “Those are your EXACT words when we started this project!”
“Yes, but the last thing we need to catalog is yet another one of your green, fused-silica drinking vessels!” the older man retorted. “I think it's been made abundantly clear that information-age humans coveted high-altitude alpine condensate in their daily diets.”
“Doctor Feinstein is correct,” the bearded naval skipper continued from the command seat, admonishing the younger sensor technician. “Over 43,000 pieces of wreckage from Republic have already been collected from a 60,000 square kilometer debris field on the seafloor. There's only so much the labs back in Virginia can handle in a month.”
“Will you two listen for a moment?” the technician pleaded to both of them, spinning around in his seat while removing his headset. “What I'm picking up isn't just another carbonated beverage bottle. This item is emitting a low-yield electronic resonance too small to be picked up by satellite sensor nets or stratospheric overflights. Only by being RIGHT HERE above its current position on the ocean bed can we barely detect it. If we move on to another search grid, it's possible we won't ever get another chance to locate this item before the power source decays away. It'll become just another piece of buried junk on the ocean floor, assuming it's ever discovered again.”
The balding archeologist and the ship captain looked at each other in contemplation.
“Fine, bring it aboard,” the skipper finally relented.
Fifteen minutes later, the skipper and Doctor Feinstein gathered in the below-deck wetlab, where they joined an archaeological lab technician who was using a water sprayer within a transparent glovebox to clean off mud from a fist-sized device newly-acquired from the seabed below. The three watched intently as layers of ocean sediment liquefied away to reveal a metal casing with a Starfleet insignia machined into its surface.
“I'm not familiar with the full inventory of Starfleet engineering parts,” the skipper commented tot he archeologist. “What is it?
“It's a starship EMH backup module,” the doctor replied with recognition. “Only ships with an established emergency medical holographic doctor aboard would have one of these installed. It has to be from Republic.”
“It's been heavily damaged,” observed the skipper, noting the pock-marks and carbonized blistering encrusting the surface. “The explosion must have wrecked havoc on the optotronics inside.”
Pressing several buttons on a nearby console, the lab tech completed a brief internal scan and provided additional information.
“38% of the memory nodes are still intact. Not enough to fully re-integrate the EMH program, but enough that it may contain some important holographic logs.”
“Hold on,” the older archeologist remarked with a quizzical expression while further analyzing the technician's console. “The scan of the casing's micro-tag doesn't have Republic's signature.”
“What?” the skipper inquired. “You mean it's from a different starship other than Republic?”
“How can that be? What ship is it from if not Republic?”
“Cross-listing the microtag now through Starfleet vessel registries,” offered the lab tech in response to the ensuing discussion. “We'll have the answer in a few seconds.”
“It can't be possible,” remarked the doctor to the ship's captain. “No other ship with an EMH backup module has ever been destroyed in Earth airspace other than Republic.”
“Is it a fraud?” postulated the captain. “Did someone plant it?”
“If it is, it would have to be an expertly fabricated fraud,” the technician responded, pointing to a computer readout above. “According to quantum dating, the module was built at roughly the same time as the Republic's hull.”
“Also,” the doctor added while consulting the overhead micrograph analyzer. “The carbon-scoring is congruent to the exact moment when Republic and the ore freighter collided over the ocean three years ago. This tells us that it has to be from one of the two ships. Since the ore freighter was of Orion design, and carried no Starfleet equipment that we know of, this module most likely came from Republic.”
After a moment of silence, the computer console beside the lab tech warbled a positive chirp, indicating it had dutifully finished it's previously-requested task.
“Cross-listing complete,” the technician returned to the database readout. “The microtag on the module reads USS Saratoga.”
With a momentary flash of dubiousness, the aged archeologist consulted his handheld PADD. “That ship was lost with all hands near the Cardassian border almost a decade ago,” he exclaimed. “What's a piece of it doing back here on Earth?”
“Maybe Republic had it in her cargo hold?” the lab assistant suggested, causing the older scientist to shake his head.
“No, there's no equipment from the Saratoga listed in the last transmitted cargo manifest from Republic before she went into drydock for the final time. It may be possible that the ore freighter had it onboard, or one of the crew kept it in their personal effects.”
“Either way,” resigned the lab tech as she started the drying cycle on the newly-cleaned, mud-liberated EMH backup module. “It looks like we have a mystery on our hands.”
“Okay,” relented the captain, shaking his head. “Log it as a possible Republic artifact needing further analysis, and crate it for transport back to the main laboratory annex. Let's wrap up today's operation. I want to get back to port.”
Location: ICS Galavant, Bajor sector, 10 kilometers inbound to Deep Space Nine
It was a sight that both the former Doug Forrest and Saal Yezbeck had witnessed numerous times before, but so much time had passed, that neither of them were prepared for the flood of emotion that washed over them when coming out of warp. As the stretched, warp-contorted starlines rebounded to the normal, star-sparkled backdrop of space, the solitary monolith of the multi-spired circular space station known as Deep Space Nine slowly grew closer as the shuttle reduced speed to half impulse.
“This is Deep Space Nine approach control. We have you on our sensors now,” the subspace radio crackled to life in the cramped, dimly-lit cockpit. “Please identify.”
Doug Forrest was no longer an active profile in the Federation citizenry database, as the former Republic intelligence agent had long ago been cut loose as an active agent from Starfleet Intel. Some said that Forrest had slipped up by becoming a member of the infamous Republic crew in the first place, while others saw it as means for Intel to cut their losses in the face of a changing political environment within the Federation. However, deep down inside, the former agent - now posing as John Thelonius “Theo” Carter; a commandeered identity based on a fallen comrade - felt he knew who the perpetrator of his burned career in Starfleet was: None other than the Federation president himself. Former Admiral Vladimir Kristoff Kostya.
Reaching over to reply to DS9 flight control, “Theo” used the subspace radio for the first time in over a year. “Interstellar Cargo Shuttle Galavant requesting docking and layover prior to Gamma Quadrant transit.”
There was some concern that his voice print might not match his new profile in the citizenry database, as he had received only passive assurances from his former boss in the Intel community that it would be cleared for regular use. This was recompense for agreeing to an informal, unsanctioned, and totally-off-the-books operation to retrieve an ill-gotten piece of classified Starfleet equipment from a rogue Intel base in the Gamma Quadrant.
Seated next to Theo in the cockpit, his friend and retired surgeon from Republic, Saal Yezbeck, remained silent thus sharing the concern. His formerly jet-black hair had grayed to a more salt-and-pepper shade, with a five-o'clock shadow accentuating a more rugged look than the full beard he possessed when serving on Republic. His loyalty to Theo was earned over the decades through initial Intel training, numerous missions together of a life-and-death nature, and even passive assistance after the doctor broke ranks from the Intel branch to join Starfleet Medical years ago. Reunited briefly on Republic prior to Saal's retirement, the two parted ways again until meeting up recently on Risa, where he chose to postpone retirement and join Theo on this most recent clandestine mission.
“Welcome to Deep Space Nine, Galavant,” came the response over the radio, much to the relief of the two shuttle occupants. “How long do you expect your layover to be?”
In a more relaxed tone, Theo replied, “approximately two days.”
“Acknowledged Galavant. Please utilize Landing Pad D at coordinates 341 mark 287. Report to the dockmaster as soon as your vessel is secure.”
“Thank you. Galavant out.”
A few minutes later, the dilapidated, charcoal-colored Type-8 shuttle maneuvered towards the designated co-ordinates. It's green luminescent nacelles glowed with yellowish-orange Bussard scoops, settling upon the landing pad before powering down just as the platform lowered itself into the main habitation ring. Moments later, the main doors closed above, and the landing bay pressurized with an “all clear” warble sounding over the speakers to indicate the atmosphere had returned to habitable levels. With personnel emerging from nearby airlock doors, one Starfleet-uniformed individual with a PADD walked up to the Galavant's planetfall hatch, and patiently awaited the newcomers.
As Theo and Saal emerged from the shuttle, both looked about across the bay to take note of their new surroundings as they stepped down off the dormant shuttle nacelle, and strode forth to meet the uniformed dockmaster.
“John Theoloneous Carter, Starfleet retired,” the dockmaster read from the PADD containing their flight manifest. Looking up from the PADD, he maintained his demeanor, yet addressed the former Doug Forrest with slightly less formality. “How long have you been an independent merchant, Mister Carter?”
“Just Theo, please,” he requested, casually slipping into his new alter ego. “About two years. I miss Starfleet, but I enjoy this change of pace, as I still get to meet interesting people and visit other planets about as much.”
Returning to his PADD, the dockmaster read a few more lines before looking back up to continue the conversation with the former intel agent. “Ops reported that your layover will be two days. Will you and your companion be billeting aboard your shuttle? Or will you be requesting station accommodations?”
He looked at Saal briefly before receiving a nod from the retired doctor. “Station accommodations will be fine.”
As before, the dockmaster returned to the PADD, and punched a few buttons. “We have an open guest suite on level six, section fifteen. Room 327-A. Enjoy your stay on Deep Space Nine. Please observe all station laws and regulations, and visit the Constable's office if you have any questions about them.”
As the dockmaster walked away, Saal looked towards Theo. “What's the plan?” he asked. “I'm assuming our little stay over here is to look for some sort of contact, or load up on supplies?”
“Are you kidding?” Theo replied. “I've been denied basic citizen services for over two years thanks to Doug Forrest being cut from my lifeline. We're going to go get a drink…”
It took nearly no time at all for Theo and Saal to find Quark's Bar, Grill, Embassy, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade. Much expanded since the 2370s, the official Ferengi embassy of the Bajor sector was brimming with customers. Unfortunately, the extra business was not in any of the entertainment areas, but in the embassy administration office itself, as indicated by the long line of mostly non-human Federation citizens applying for passage into the Ferengi Alliance. With the bar itself nearly empty, and the Dabo tables barely receiving any patronage at all, only the customs window was feverishly working to review passport visas and identification scans from the long queue of aliens weaving their way out the door and down the corridor towards the Promenade.
Theo and Saal walked past the irregular column, passing families and packs of numerous races of the Federation, including Tellarites, Bynars, Deltans, Caitians, Benzites, Andorians, Hortas, and even a few Vulcans. Noted was the absence of any humans. Gawking, they followed the line past the thronged embassy window, and strolled into the sparsely-populated bar area. Choosing from the many empty seats, the duo selected two stools near the rear of the chamber, attracting the attention of an older, grouchy-eyed Ferengi bartender.
“What's THAT all about?” Saal exclaimed to Theo. “You'd think there was some sort of mass deportation underway or something.”
Theo shrugged as the bartender piped in.
“Where have you been, hoo-man?” the gruff Ferengi asked. “Haven't you heard that your government is pushing legislation that all but expels non-hoo-mans from Federation borders who have the slightest legal infraction?” he explained with amusement. “Since we Ferengi were first to offer amnesty and guest worker exemptions, applications to the Alliance have skyrocketed.” Pointing towards the line of people outside the bar, he continued. “This has been going on for months. It ebbed a little when Quark raised the visa application fee, but picked up again quickly thanks to your president's increasing rhetoric.” With a smile and a twinkle, the bartender learned closer and added, “it's been VERY profitable!”
With surprise and exasperation, Theo looked back towards the line, then back to the bartender, and then to Saal. “Has the galaxy lost it's mind?”
“If it has,” the bartender answered. “Best to rake in all the latinum you can before things get worse. What'll be?”
“I think I'll take a tall Kiriliona,” Theo asked shaking his head in disbelief.
“Chiraltan tea for me,” Saal added.
“You got it,” replied the Ferengi as he started pulling out the private stock. “That'll be four slips of latinum.”
With a look of sudden revelation, Theo quickly checked the pockets on his black jumpsuit in search of the few Farian coins he had in his possession before leaving Risa. As the search grew more frantic, the bartender relented.
“No problem,” he said with muted annoyance. “We still take Federation credit vouchers. If you'll just scan here…”
Producing a small PADD, the bartender pushed it towards Theo, and expectantly awaited the former intel agent's thumbprint. In truth, the device scanned much more than the simple surface pattern of his fifth digit. Point in fact, it also matched the nuclear resonance of his DNA, as well as the numerous biorhythms of his metabolism to include neural feedbacks from his nervous system. While a twinge of concern reverberated in his stomach, it occurred to Theo that his new identity had already proven itself through voiceprint crosslisting, which allowed Ops to match him as the owner of the Galavant's transponder signal. Since no law enforcement flag was triggered, and he was allowed to dock without incident, there was no reason to believe that the rest of his profile wouldn't clear through the Federation credit exchange. To his relief, the thumbprint was accepted.
While Theo and Saal enjoyed their drinks, the PADD transaction activated a long-dormant sub-routine in the Ferengi stock exchange, awakening a minuscule program that immediately sent a report to its designer about the time, stardate, and location of the purchase just made by the former Doug Forrest.
Location: Personal yacht “Aerosprite”, Somewhere in Romulan space
The Aerosprite was a small private craft, roughly the size of a Danube-class runabout, but hewn from the alloys and workmanship that only a sophisticated Reman engineer could accomplish. Like nearly all Romulan vessels, the yacht's pearlescent green hull was accentuated by sweeping feather-like iconography seemingly carved into the dorsal and ventral surfaces. No matter the size of the craft, Romulans still coveted spaceship designs reminiscent of avian raptors. This craft was no different.
Once owned by a deposed naval officer named Tomaleth, the vessel changed hands over two years ago to his apprentice, Veln, who was the sole survivor of the calamity that killed the ship's former owner… and his beloved mentor. Like Tomaleth, Veln also shared his masters' penchant for blackmail. As the son an over-ambitious Senator, the youthful Romulan bore the scars of both a father that died at the hands of senate scandal, and a teacher who over-played his hand by kidnapping a close colleague of his most hated human enemy.
Now wielding the full capacity of the inheritance of both his father and Tomaleth, Veln had enough money and resources to hire a new crew for the Aerosprite, and the services of an occasional mercenary vessel to continue his master's hunt for the most hated human in the universe: John Theoloneous Carter.
It took his mentor's death for Veln to realize his anger towards John Carter. As a hand-selected apprentice, the young post-adolescent would have died for Tomaleth if given the chance. However, Tomaleth's capture of Sean McTaggart two and a half years ago was a risky gambit to even the score with Carter, and robbed Veln of the chance for that ultimate sacrifice. He would have to settle for vengeance instead.
Of course, capture and holding-hostage a Federation citizen was tantamount to a declaration of war with the Romulan government. Nevertheless, Veln knew from his mentors' teachings that it was an effective method to lure one's prey to the bargaining table; just within reach of a raptor's grasp. Only one must be quick to perform the snatch, and be selective of the bait in which to set the trap.
As Veln paced the small, dark chamber that served as the interrogation room, he held aloft an odd-looking device of Breen origin. Designed to cause the neurons in the brain to resonate an enormous wave of pain when placed against the skin, the young Romulan wielded the device casually, as if it were a PADD or a communicator.
“My dear, dear, captain,” Veln continued a conversation first started hours ago. “Do I have to remind you again that no one knows you're here? As far as Starfleet is concerned, you've been dead for nine years.”
“That't not true, Ted,” another voice beckoned. Off in the corner of the room, a Starfleet lieutenant junior-grade in operations gold stood against the wall with her arms crossed. Her long hair was a fiery red, and her wide eyes shimmered with an emerald green. “He's baiting you.”
Veln paid no attention to the woman, and stood at the far end of the table, waiting for the man in the chair at the opposite end to rouse.
Enervated, the shaggy-bearded human sat up in the metal chair. His long brown hair was unkept, and matted with sweat. He was chained and unclothed, as Veln preferred it that way, and it could be seen that the man's body was a shell of its former self. Malnourished and feeble, his bones moved underneath his pasty white skin, with little muscle or fat insulating them from the outer integument.
“However,” Veln kept up his dialog. “As evidenced by your existence here, men declared dead by Starfleet have a way of showing up in the strangest places. So, do you care to tell me more about John Carter? Or will you continue to pretend that you don't know him?”
“Be patient, Ted. We're getting out of here,” the scarlett-haired woman assured the feeble captain. Walking up to the table, she leaned over to whisper in his ear, adding, “Don't give in to him.”
“Carter?” he managed to ask Veln in a wavering voice. “How do you know Carter?”
As with numerous times before, Veln got impatient with the prisoner towards the end of the daily interrogations. Some days, he was more tender with the human, other days, more abusive, but one thing remained constant: each session concluded with a few minutes of agitation and torment.
“Theodore Stryker…” Veln reminded him firmly of who he was. “Captain of the destroyed USS Saratoga, husband to Lieutenant Shannon Harris… You still know nothing of John Carter even though your wife is intimately familiar with him as well?”
Though the anger welled within the captain, Shannon's soothing took on a stronger tone as she shot daggers at the Romulan boy. “That's not true, Ted. He's lying. I never met this John Carter, and I wouldn't do anything to disrespect our marriage.”
“What about Chris?” Stryker shouted weakly into the shadows beside him. “Why didn't you respect it then??”
Although tears welled in his eyes, Stryker didn't dare speak the full name of his commanding officer, Vice Admiral Kostya, opting instead to use a shorthand of his middle name, Kristoff. As far as Stryker knew, the Dominion War was still raging, and he was a prisoner of war. The Saratoga was the apex of his career; a Galaxy-class starship at his disposal, fighting on the front lines of a conflict to save the Federation. While he hated Kostya with all his might for sleeping with his wife, he would not reveal his association with the Starfleet admiral to Veln, as the Romulan boy would certainly use the information against him.
As for Veln, he frowned in dissatisfaction. It was the dozenth time Stryker had uttered the name “Chris”, even though it appeared nowhere on his Starfleet profile. No friends, no family, and no close coworkers went by that name. Yet somehow, the name ran a sharp knife deep into his soul.
“WHO is Chris?” demanded Veln, but the delusional captain was losing his lucidity yet again. As his eyes glazed over, he looked towards the ceiling vacuously as his thoughts stumbled backwards in time nine years earlier.
The Saratoga was the last moment he could recall as a free man, possibly even a respected man by some of his crew. He should have gone down with the ship. It would have been a honorable death. Instead, he chose an alternate path.
In the waning hours of Saratoga's pending destruction at the hands of the Cardassians, the discovery of his wife's cheating shook him to his core. In a last desperate attempt to save the ship, he took a gamble and risked his life to de-activate an experimental device known as the Ninhursag generator. It was building up energy for a single discharge event, and Stryker knew that as soon as the pulse capacitor was charged, it would project streams of proto-matter through the vessel's shield grid, destroying everything within a one light year radius.
Chances were good that the Saratoga would be destroyed too.
It was a chance the captain wasn't willing to take.
After a double-betrayal by his chief engineer, who went against his orders to mothball the device months prior, the disloyal officer activated it behind his back, taking an innocent cadet hostage to shield himself from retribution. While the captain did everything he could to negotiate a non-violent end to the standoff, he ultimately failed. Phaser fire ensued, and while the threat posed by the rogue engineer was eliminated, in the process, so to was the hostage. It was afterwards that the captain discovered that his chief engineer locked out the control mechanism to the Ninhursag generator, and fused the power feed to the shield relays. There was nothing the captain could do.
It was then that his insanity began.
As if killing his chief engineer — as well as the young cadet held hostage in the man's arms — weren't enough, multiple images of his cheating wife seemingly appeared out of no where. They glowed in an otherworldly light, and served to further detach his sense of reality from the world around him. Was it a dream? Was he dead? All of them were beckoning for him to leave the ship. Why? What was waiting on the other side? A final kiss from his adulterous wife led him to do her bidding.
“Ted,” Shannon soothed again, causing the captain to look back down from the ceiling and into her beautiful green eyes, pulling him back to the present. “Don't focus on him, focus on me. When we get back to Earth, I've got it all planned out. There's this wonderful apartment in San Fransisco, with a little fireplace, and…”
“ENOUGH!” shouted Veln, interrupting the hallucination. “TELL ME who Chris is!”
The Saratoga captain chuckled at the absurdity of a Romulan child like Veln holding him hostage. If it weren't for the young man's finger being firmly fixed to the trigger of the Breen torture device, it was almost laughable that he could inflict such pain on a Starfleet-trained captain. In his mind, Stryker should be teaching Veln how to play ball rather than negotiating with him in a torture chamber. Chuckling to himself, Stryker played with the idea of Veln in a little-league uniform.
“When we re-enlist, I'll teach him baseball…” the captain told his wife off to his side with a weakened smile. However, the image of Shannon was less than amused.
“Ted, I don't want to stay here,” she protested, her voice fading away in his mind. “It's time for us to go back home to the plans we made before the war…” Her words echoed distantly as the hallucination subsided. However, Captain Stryker knew she'd be back. She always came back.
“Baseball?” Veln immediately quipped, unseeing of Stryker's illusions.
“An Earth sport,” he mumbled meekly. “Something that can teach you advanced competitive theory.”
In a blast of fuming rage, Veln lost his temper at the suggestion that this interrogation was a mere competition. He thrust the Breen torture device forcefully against Stryker's upper left shoulder. Immediately, the captain's body convulsed, causing a torturous scream to emanate from his throat. Again and again the Romulan boy thrust device into the former skipper of the Saratoga, each time causing him to animate with pain. Soon, Veln's temper subsided, and as he gazed at the red and purple splotches on his prisoner's bare chest, he realized today's interrogation was now over. Lifting the man's head to make sure he was still alive, he let it drop back down in frustration.
“Gah!” Veln hissed, frowning disapprovingly at the now unconscious form of Captain Stryker, slumped forward in the chair. Re-holstering the torture device, the doors parted as Veln marched out of the room.
In the hallway outside, the guard by the interrogation room door came to attention and gave the young boy a chest salute as he emerged from the room. However, Veln, in his angered state, payed the guard no mind, and stomped right past him en route to his quarters as the doors slid shut again.
As Veln made his way through the cramped corridor, we walked passed the door to the flight deck just as it slid open. From within, a uniformed officer stepped out to greet him. With the same chest salute that the guard gave Veln earlier, this individual addressed him in an upbeat tone.
“My lord, we've received a signal!” he informed the boy. “The Trojan Horse we planted in the Ferenginar stock exchange was activated five minutes ago. John Carter is alive and well, and currently on layover aboard the Bajoran space station!
“I knew it!” the young Romulan exclaimed, slamming his fist into the nearby wall in celebration. “John Carter thought he could hide from me by faking his own death. Now his failure comes to climax!”
“Your orders, sir?”
Return to the flight deck,” Veln commanded. “Engage cloaking device, set course for the Bajor sector, and proceed at maximum warp!”
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