<Office of the Chief of Starfleet Operations. San Francisco, Pan American Zone, Sol III.>
Kaito Fakunaku knew exactly who he was. What's more, he was perfectly aware of what his fellow flag officers and the bureaucrats at Starfleet Headquarters thought of him. Ensign Scuttlebutt had long ago told him that, as far as the rest of the Starfleet brass were concerned, he was conniving, opportunistic, uninteresting at parties, and not terribly good at jokes. By and large, that was all accurate. One of the things that was not true about Fakunaku's reputation however, was that he was incompetent. That was a fiction that Kaito had worked hard to construct, because it meant that people who didn't have to, didn't bother to take him seriously, or that he could easily feign ignorance, or shift blame when it suited him. Truth be told, with a president like Vladimir Kostya in office, that particular avenue was not only believable, but indeed likely, and that was how Kaito liked it. Moving quietly up the ranks, knowing who to befriend, who do distance himself from, and when to keep his head down, meant that Kaito Fakunaku could use Starfleet's cultural bias; that all of it's officers were equally qualified… even those who hadn't show particular distinction… to rise to positions which afforded him enormous power, and quite a bit of autonomy.
As Chief of Starfleet Operations, for example, he could, at any time, allocate a change of resources and logistical support on a whim. While re-tasking fleets or task forces took the authorization of other flag officers, including himself, he could also, at least on paper, re-assign any number of individual officers on his word alone. Practically speaking, this was never actually done, because it was akin to admission that the CSO had no regard for the officers under him. Usually, if an officer were causing a problem, the issue would be handled quietly in-house, by whomever the next command authority was; a starship or station's CO in the case of junior officers, and a vice admiral, or fleet admiral in the case of flag ranks. It was all but unheard of for the Chief of Starfleet Operations to cut orders directly for a single command or officer. On this occasion however, with this particular officer, Kaito Fakunaku, who normally preferred not to be noticed, was looking forward to making a tiny bit of Starfleet history.
“Computer.” Fakunaku called out.
The building's AI chirped in reply.
“Open a coded subspace channel to the U.S.S. Enterprise. NCC-1701-E. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Commanding.”
* * *
<Planet Garsol, somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant. Present Day.>
Galaxy class starships are enormous, so it said something powerful about John Carter's state of mind that he didn't even see the shadow of the large ship that loomed over the red soil of Garsol, to say nothing of the actual vessel itself, until he was nearly at the edge of what had become the chief settlement's border. As he brought his eyes forward, pulling himself out of a tight left bank, he saw the vast shadow that the Starfleet vessel cast. Instinctively, he looked up and gasped when he saw the hull of a starship that was far lower in the atmosphere than it had any right to be. Almost instantly he smiled. “All RIGHT, Vic!” He said aloud against the wind, though no one would hear it. Then, he felt troubled, and his mind began to race as he reflexively completed a few more maneuvers. He'd sent the message in a vain hope of making contact with the Beta Quadrant, where he'd been declared 'Missing: Presumed Dead' nearly two years ago. In truth, it never occurred to John Carter that the message would actually get to his 'comprades', no matter how much they may have been looking for him. He'd long since given up hope of rescue, and resigned himself to life among the people of Garsol who saw him as a literal Godsend. Now, however, he realized that the life he'd finally managed to put behind him had come calling with a vengeance. “Grozit.” He cursed under his breath.
Carter pulled up short and flexed his fingers to instruct his Jerry-rigged flying harness to reduce power to the pulsing, polarized gravity plates that were keeping him aloft. With practiced ease, he soon settled onto the red soil of Garsol. Instinctively, he checked the type 2 phaser (circa 2285) at his belt, and pulled the clasp on his uniform overcoat open, revealing the command department white panel underneath. Carter grunted momentarily as the power cell in his harness powered off and he felt the weight of the contraption against his body. He took a few heavier steps toward the crowd of newcomers, shielding his eyes against the rays of Garsol's first sun, which was nearing it's zenith. He could make out the colors and patterns of Starfleet uniforms, but not the people who wore them. Even from this distance however, it was clear that the uniforms were out of date, though not as much as his own. Carter made his way to Dadjinn and put his hand comfortably on the warrior's shoulder. She seemed to relax, though she only lowered her weapon slightly.
“It seems your Starfleet has found you, Warlord.” Dadjinn offered.
“Warlord?” Saul Yezbeck asked quizzically.
Doug Forrest took half a step closer, extending a hand. “Good to see you in one piece, Carter.” He offered sincerely.
The Martian exile nodded. “And you…I guess.” He said bemusedly. “Though, I'll be honest, you're not the rescue party I expected.” He looked past Forrest and nodded to Yezbeck. “Looking good, Saul.”
“Not half as good as yourself, XO.” Saul said. Then he shook his head. “Sorry, force of habit.”
Carter nodded, then rested his hands on his hips and looked back at Forrest. “How did you find me?” He asked, though he already suspected the answer.
Forrest half-smiled. “Dr. Virtus is very persistent.”
Carter chuckled, but still had a worried expression, as he looked back at his favorite Black Shirt. “He is that.” Carter said. “But, he's not here.”
“No, he's not.” Forrest confirmed. “Last I heard, he was…waiting for PERSCOM to realize where he ACTUALLY was, but I'll confess that right now, even I don't know where to find him.”
“Then it must be bad.” Carter frowned.
“It's worse.” Forrest said with a grim nod.
Carter shielded his eyes from the sun again and looked skyward for the moment. “It's about to get hotter than Vulcan out here.” He said as he and Dadjinn turned toward the shelters that were not far off. “We should get inside.” He called back to Forrest over his shoulder. “I've…got questions.”
“I thought you might.” Forrest nodded. Then, the landing party fell in step behind him, each exchanging their own puzzled looks.
* * *
<Cestus III, 78 hours after the beginning of Operation: Righteous Endeavor>
Another lance of pure solar energy cut through the last of the operational Gorn capital ships which had so far mounted a pitiful defense against the human 'invaders'. The hulk of a Balaur class battleship now hung in two pieces, with the edges on either side of the beam unleashed by Apollo still glowing in the cold of space. On the bridge of the U.S.S Republic, Nat Hawk held his tongue as he wondered how many Gorn, Ferasan, or Nausican crew members on the enemy vessel, caught off guard by the speed and ferocity of Apollo's assault, had just perished because of sudden exposure to hard vacuum. His captain, however did not.
“Good Lord.” Kim Roth whispered. “What the hell is that?” She wondered as she leaned forward in her chair. To her left, in a chair that once would have been reserved for the ship's counselor, Chase Meridian gave a satisfied nod.
“That, Captain, is the future.” The diplomatic officer said. “That's our security.”
'It's murder.' Nat Hawk thought to himself. 'Those poor bastards didn't have a chance, and they didn't even know it.'
If Kim Roth shared her First Officer's misgivings, she didn't show it. She tilted her head toward Attos Ragnar, Republic's Tactical Officer who was just behind her, on the raised rear of the bridge. “Ragnar, keep an eye on the away team.” She said. “This is all for nothing if they can't keep the Gorn from going scorched earth on us.”
The Luna class was originally conceived as a mid-range science and exploration vessel, despite officially being classified as a destroyer, due to it's size. The small, but powerful ships had the most advanced sensor and telemetry processing systems in all of Starfleet. In the exploration role, this made them ideal for collecting massive amounts of data quickly, or finding even the most minute traces of cosmic phenomena. On a more practical level, these astoundingly capable sensor systems, and the officers that were trained to use them so well, made for outstanding command and control, and early warning platforms. It was for this reason that, at the outbreak of hostilities with the Gorn, the ships of Starfleet had been assigned to several small task forces. Each task force had at least one flagship of the Sovriegn, Galaxy, or new Odyssey class, one of either the Nova or Luna classes, to act in the manner described, and two escort vessels of Sao Paulo or Akira class, to provide much needed firepower against the heavily resistant hulls of Gorn ships. Interestingly, the inclusion of at least ONE Akira class ship was mandated by OPSCOMM for the duration of hostilities. The truth behind that decision lay in the fact that the Apollo system had been specifically designed for deployment with an Akira class vessel. Each of those escorts was in turn captained by an officer explicitly chosen by Kaito Fakunaku, and approved by President Kostya, for their willingness to use the weapon as ordered, as well as for their loyalty to the president himself.
Attos Ragnar, Republic's Angosian Tactical Officer, was well suited to his roll of overwatch for Republic's away team. Just like the mission planners, he too knew the power of the Luna class's sensors, and he was counting on it to keep the people in his charge alive.
He studied the sensor data which told him that the strike team inserted 24 hours ago were all healthy, and making progress toward the main fusion plant of the Cestus III colony. The brief they'd gotten was solid, and Ragnar knew from past experience that the mission on the ground was necessary. After all, the Gorn had a history of sabotaging infrastructure, and even using bio-genic weapons in an effort to deny their enemy any victory at all. The prevailing mindset of the Gorn seemed to be that, if they couldn't have Cestus III, then the Federation couldn't either.
To prevent this, Ragnar had assembled a nine person squad to make sure that Gorn troops on the surface didn't sabotage Cestus III's source of power. The strike team consisted of eight Starfleet Marines, and one officer who was judged to have 'local expertise'. That man was Dr. Leon Cromwell.
* * *
<U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E. Aldebaran Sector, Near the Klingon Neutral Zone>
Just like people, Starships, or rather, the complex system that made each starship unique, performed differently under stress. One of the things that Jean-Luc Picard prided himself on was the idea that his people keep their heads in a crisis. Some of his fellow captains disagreed, preferring instead to let the pressure of a life and death situation 'bring out the best' in their people. Picard, however, disagreed. To his way of thinking, stress elevated emotion, which in turn led to rash decisions. This could then make a bad situation worse. Having lived through what he considered to be more than his fair share those same life and death situations, Jean-Luc Picard had long since concluded that, if he could keep emotional responses to a minimum, then the odds of survival increased. Because of this, despite the fact that the Federation was now officially at war with the Gorn Hegemony, life on the Enterprise seemed much like it would be on any other day. The one exception to this is that Picard held a twice daily 'War Briefing' with his staff. One briefing occurred at the change over from Gamma to Alpha shift, the second from Alpha to Beta shift. It was at the end of the second war briefing of the day when the comm system in the Enterprise briefing room chirped, indicating a priority communique to the captain.
Hearing the comm chirp, Commander Martin Madden, Enterprise's XO turned toward his captain, but Picard waved the younger officer off. Additionally, Picard tilted his head in the direction of the ship's Diplomatic Officer. The implication was clear; keep an eye Rr'lew at all costs.
A few seconds later, Picard was alone in the ready room. He paused for a moment, straightened his uniform tunic, and opened the comm channel. Picard forced a smile when he was greeted by the serpentine smile of Kaito Fakunaku. “Hello, Jean-Luc.” The admiral oozed.
“Admiral.” Picard nodded. “What can I do for you?”
On the screen, Fakunaku leaned forward to facilitate the illusion of proximity. “Jean-Luc, I've just cut you new orders, and I felt I owed you the courtesy of a call.”
The Frenchman remained poised as he spoke. “We are at war, Admiral.” Picard said smoothly. “I assure you that the Enterprise is ever at your service.”
Fakunaku smiled. “I'm counting on that, Jean-Luc.” He said. “But these orders are for you.” He explained. “Enterprise will be re-deployed shortly, though…I don't think this war will last too long.”
Picard nodded grimly. “I share that hope of course, admiral, but I'm afraid I'm at something of a loss. My place is on the Enterprise, and…”
Fakunaku held up a hand to silence the seasoned starship commander. “The Chief's of Staff disagree, Captain.” He said smoothly. “It is their belief, and I must add that, as head of Starfleet Operations, I concur, that your extensive…experience…could best serve the war effort in a more…administrative capacity.” The admiral said. “Effective immediately, you will be reassigned to Logistical Support Command where you will be posted as Lower Rear Admiral in charge of Interior Supply.”
Picard felt his pulse jump and his face flush, but fell back on those afore mentioned years of experience to hide it from a man who, he was now certain, was drumming him out of Starfleet. Picard's spine stiffened as he leveled his gaze at a man he genuinely disliked. “Admiral, I must object! This is hardly the…” He began in protest when Fakunaku raised his hand.
“I understand, Jean-Luc.” He smiled, though the look bore no empathy. “It's a hard adjustment, I know, and, of course, you have EVERY right to refuse the assignment.” The admiral explained. “However, should you do so, then I'm afraid I will have to ask for your resignation.” Fakunaku waited for a beat and continued. “Otherwise, please transfer command to your First Officer and make best speed to Starbase 39-Sierra. Enterprise will be attached to a task force, if needed, from there.”
Picard had stopped listening. Instead, he found his mind lingering on several conversations. The first was one he'd had with Guinan only a few weeks ago. 'It's time.' He heard her say again. Then he caught another fleeting memory; from a time and place that didn't actually exist. He heard the voice of a fellow starship captain, at least as legendary as himself, say: 'You can still make a difference.' Finally, he heard his brother Robert, a man he often disliked, but also genuinely loved, because his brother knew him so very well. 'You have been terribly hard on yourself.' Robert's voice said.
Picard felt his temper cool as he considered the surprising options he'd just been given. He took a deep breath and looked the Head of Operations squarely in the eye. “Of course, you're right Admiral.” The Enterprise commander said. “I've sworn an oath to do my duty. If Starfleet wants me to serve, then I shall do so in whatever way I may…for as long as I am able.” Then he gave Fakunaku a half grin. To the casual observer it might look like simple ascent to a demand, but to those who knew Jean-Luc Picard well, it meant something decidedly different. “I give you my word, Admiral.” He said simply. “I shall fulfill my duty. Now and always.”
On the other end of the channel, Kaito blinked. It took every bit of self control he had (which wasn't much) not to stammer. He was almost crushingly disappointed that Picard hadn't gotten prideful and puffed up with bluster, so that Fakunaku could fire the pain-in-the-ass on the spot! Still, the admiral thought inwardly, he'd taken Picard off the board, and that would make the president's long-term goals all the easier to reach. “Thank You, Captian Picard.” Kaito managed to smile. “I appreciate your…sense of duty.”
Without further ceremony, the channel went dark and Picard was once again looking at his reflection on a blank display. “I shall make sure that you do, Admiral.” In a voice of cold steel.
* * *
<Deep Space Nine: Quark's Bar. 1135 local time>
Victor Virtus was running out of patience. Still, in the interest of not attracting attention, he sipped his root beer and defiantly refused to drum his fingers on the tabletop. Virtus was agonizingly aware of the passage of only four minutes when he heard someone behind them clear their throat. The Malthusian scientist/engineer turned to his left and cocked an eyebrow at the ferengi in operations gold who was looking at him admiringly. “May I help you, Lieutenant Commander…”
“Nog?” He repeated. “No thank you. Never touch the stuff.” Virtus answered and turned on his stool.
Nog scowled and tapped Virtus on the shoulder. In response, Victor turned again. “Yes?” He asked.
“Nog is my name, Sir.” the young officer said. “That is, if you're…him?”
Virtus purposefully stroked his mustache. “Him?” He asked quizzically.
“Him.” Nog repeated.
For a moment, Virtus' countenance lightened as he saw Nog's unbridled enthusiasm. “Well, Mr…”
“Yes,” Victor nodded. “What if I don't want to talk about… 'Him'?”
“By 'Him', do you mean YOU?” Nog asked.
“At this point, I hope not.” Virtus replied.
Undeterred, Nog pressed on. “You're Victor Virtus.”
Vic sipped his drink. “Is that 'Him'?”
“No, that's you.” Nog said, the beginning of a toothy grin crossing his face. “I doubt you'd remember, but I met you once.” Nog said. “I was coming back from field exercises on the Potemkin. We were transferring through Hellsgate Station and you and I were in the brig together for a brief time after you…”
“After I punched the station commander in the nose. Yes.” Victor raised his drink in salute and sipped a bit more.
Nog nodded excitedly and extended his hand. “I just wanted to say Thank You, Sir.” Nog said. “He deserved it. The man was an ass.”
Virtus nodded. “He was that.” The Malthusian agreed.
Then, Nog leaned in close and spoke in a lower tone. “Whatever you're here for, I'd like to help.” Nog said. “I'm Chief of Operations here now and, well, whatever I can do for you, it would be an honor.”
Virtus took the young officer's hand. “Be careful, Mr. Nog.” Virtus said. “You may get your wish sooner than either of us would like.”
Nog pulled up and stool, and the officers began trading war stories, comparing theories, and sharing many a root beer.
<Planet Garsol, Somewhere in the Delta Quadrant. Just after first sunset.>
“You can't just LET him GO!” Zharon protested as he walked with Bah-Ki out of the windward cavern passage, and into the cooling orange light of planetary dusk.
“Do you really want to try and stop him, Zharon?” The former zealot asked.
The scientist stopped short and briefly pondered just how hard getting in John Carter's way would actually be. “It's just that…he's done so much for us.” The older man said.
“Yes,” Bah-ki agreed as he waited for his elder to catch up. “And we should be grateful, but he doesn't BELONG here.” The youth explained. “You yourself told me, and I DO honestly believe, that the gods brought Carter here for a very specific, divine purpose. True?”
Zharon nodded as the pair walked out into the open air. “Obviously.” He said.
“And that purpose has been fulfilled.” Bah-Ki argued. “How is it any less plausible then, that…through a means none of us could have possibly predicted, it's time for him to leave?” He said simply. “Dadjinn's willing to let him go, and if anyone could actually MAKE him stay, it would be her.”
The pair walked on and crested a ridge where they saw Carter, Dadjinn and the warlord's strange companions. The visitors were clustered around one another, standing in a rough semi-circle, with Carter and Dadjinn standing apart from the others.
“you know, I'm actually terrible at this.” Carter said shyly to the warrior he'd grown so close to over nearly two years.
“Yes.” Dadjinn smiled. “It's nice to know there's something you don't do well.” She said. “I'm rather enjoying it.”
Carter paused, hefted the small pack that carried the sum total of his belongings, including the miraculously insane flying harness, and he hefted it onto his shoulder. Then, he took Dadjinn's hands in his. “Dadjin.” He paused. Then, after a long while he looked at her a bit sideways and managed a soft smile. “I…” He began.
It was simple, direct, and all that had to pass between them. A short while later, Carter moved to stand closer to his comrades. The one called Forrest said something that none of the assembled Garsolans could make out. Then, almost as suddenly as he'd appeared, John Carter, the Warlord from Mars, vanished in a bright wash of charged particles.
Life on Garsol would go on. Generations would be born and die. Hearts broken, songs sung… lives lived. Through it all, the story was told of the man who fell from the sky and saved them all. And the people of Garsol were grateful.
CMDR. John T. Carter Former XO, U.S.S. Republic Currently enroute to the Beta Quadrant