Location: Guest Quarters, Space Station Deep Space Nine, Bajor Sector
Timeframe: Stardate 61923.1, 0230 hours, Present Day, USS Republic universe
It had been a long day.
It had been a long year, for that matter. Though December was only just starting, it felt as if it had already been a long, cold, hard winter. As soon as Vic came out of warp and requested a docking pad at Deep Space Nine, it completed a six-month quest that began back on Luna Colony during lunch with Leon at the Wooden Tankard.
Unfortunately, Starfleet knew exactly where Vic was as soon as he dropped to impulse. Setting the Captain's Skiff to autopilot before beaming into the Lower Docking Ring was a risky move, but it ensured he would have enough time to engage Captain Kira before all hell broke loose. A simple backdoor algorithm to the station's personnel tracking grid allowed him to precisely note that she was leaving the replimat on the Promenade enroute to Ops, and standard gait analysis for her height and stride gave him exactly four minutes and thirty-two seconds from beaming to make his way to meeting her halfway near the Temple of the Prophets. He hadn't anticipated how quickly he would be pounced upon by security, nor how fervent they would be to arrest him. It took the rest of the evening for the adrenaline to wear off after the skiff was impounded and having been granted a respite through his asylum request.
Still, sleep was elusive.
It wasn't because of the legal mess he was in. All that was highly defensible in a fair court of law, should one ever materialize. No, it was the star charts Vic had been pouring over since twenty-two hundred hours. Bleary-eyed and filled with one too many cups of Raktajino, the engineer-turned-political refugee was on the verge of a breakthrough.
Up until a few days ago, he only knew that John's shuttle – now nearly two years overdue – had emerged in the Delta Quadrant beyond the Scutum Centaurus arm of the Milky Way, somewhere between the middle Perseus arm and Outer arm almost sixty thousand light years away. Tonight, thanks to the terra-quads of data he collected during his recent “tour” aboard the Republic, he was able to narrow the location to just downspin of the Messier 53 globular cluster. In the past half hour alone, he was able to isolate the third, most recent sensor contact of a trans-galactic inter-dimensional shifting signature he had first postulated was the source of his friend's disappearance. This allowed a final trajectory to be calculated, putting John's likely emergence in an area of space near Messier 53, just between three different star systems about twelve light years apart.
The stars were much too far apart to be a trinary system. The furthest one was a Class-K2I supergiant on the Hertzsprung-Russell scale, with a gravity well too large and unstable to allow the formation of a termination point for a trans-dimensional portal. Another was at the other end of the H-R spectrum: a variable white dwarf surrounded by what long-distance spectral analyzers indicated were enormous asteroidal debris fields millions of kilometers thick. Due to the flotsam, it was highly unlikely that any technologically advanced civilization would have stayed intact long enough to evolve to the point of developing computers let alone inter-dimensional shifting technology. Truth be told, it was that Class-G8V main sequence star standing alone and by itself between the two other systems that raised flags. Seven planets… a stable coronal output for at least 3 billion years… and a Goldilocks Zone that screamed “look here” for any self-respecting galactic explorer.
“Gotcha!” Vic whispered to himself, a smile of relief creeping across his face. He had found John. However, just as easily did the Eureka moment come than did it evaporate at the sounding of a voice behind him.
“Cosmic thoughts?” it calmly beckoned.
Vic knew the voice. It was a near perfect facsimile of his own, and one he was all too familiar with.
“You can't keep doing this,” he explained over his shoulder, refusing to turn around and face the source of the spoken words.
“We both know that I have little control over it,” the other Vic from the Royal Confederation of Planets replied, stepping out of the shadows. “Unless you've been able to locate the chroniton anomaly in your reality, this is going to keep happening.”
“I told you before,” Vic prime explained with annoyance, finally spinning around in the chair to lock eyes with his doppelganger. “I don't KNOW the source. YOU know better than I do how to stop it,” he admonished.
“It's in YOUR reality,” the HMS Vic returned with an equal amount of annoyance. “And YOU'RE the one who caused this. You shouldn't have welcomed John back to your reality so easily four years ago. You left unanswered questions in the field to rot. YOU did this. NOT me.”
“John did it on his own,” the USS Republic Vic replied with a rising temper, absolving himself of blame. “HE kept the PADD, and HE'S the one who punched Daniels in the face when he got back. He didn't know what he was doing, so stop pointing fingers!”
“Regardless, the crossover started where you were. You alone were the proverbial adult in the room. No one else had nearly the temporal awareness that you did at the time. You knew that John Carter had been prancing back and forth around the cosmos, poking holes in the spacetime continuum everywhere he went, and you never even bothered to CHECK!”
Vic prime seethed with vehemence. “We've been over this! We can't be sticking our noses into in each others' realities! It will disrupt quantum timelines and draw unwanted attention from you-know-who!”
“My timeline is already disrupted!” interrupted an equally resolute HMS Vic. He was about to shout another invective, but took a moment so they both could get their anger under control. Thinking briefly, he chose to change the subject.
“We have a solution to get your friends back to your universe,” he explained. “I'll do my best to fix what you broke to the best of my ability. But YOU have to locate the anomalous object so that we can end this.”
“You know what my priorities are right now,” Vic prime said dismissively. “Getting John back is all that matters. Once that's done, we can focus on fixing your timeline.”
The HMS Vic glared at his USS Republic universe counterpart. His tone was that of a poker player who held all the cards, and it was clear that he had a mission that precluded helping him get the HMS universe back on track. While knowing this infuriated him, he also knew that he was already well on the way to fixing the problem himself thanks to others from the USS Republic universe who were more willing to assist.
“If there's anything more you want me to pass along to Forrest and Yezbeck before I send them on their way, I'm listening.”
“Fine,” the USS Republic Vic stood up. “You can tell them where John is in the Delta Quadrant.” He threw the PADD he had been working on at the chest of his extra-dimensional twin. After catching it before it hit the floor, the HMS Vic slowly scanned the information, then retrieved his tricorder to record the data.
“There's an activity lull in the Borg transwarp nexus,” Vic prime explained, walking over to the viewport to take in the star-speckled vista of the space outside. “I hypothesize that there's another trans-dimensional battle going on somewhere in the galaxy, so that may be why they're distracted. If Forrest and Yezbeck are quick enough, they might be able to get in and out without being noticed.”
“What if they get caught by the Borg?”
“It's dangerous but worth the risk,” Vic prime explained. “It's nothing they can't handle. I've analyzed the data that Janeway brought back from the Borg Transwarp Hub. If they're as small and fast as you say, then they're good enough to get in and out before the Borg notice them. John's life is on the line, and that alone is good enough reason for any of us to take on the Borg.”
HMS Vic completed his recording of the PADD and placed it back on the workdesk.
“The Borg are the least of their worries,” he explained, snapping shut his tricorder and stowing it back on his belt. “Aren't you worried about them being caught by you-know-who rather than the Borg?” The man took note that his hand had become translucent, twisting his palm upwards a few times before leisurely returning his arms back behind his back.
“Again… small and fast,” Vic prime turned to look at his rival as he slowly faded away back to his own quantum spacetime.
“Noted,” echoed the voice of the fading HMS Vic. “Shall we toast their success the next time we meet?”
“I don't WANT to meet you again,” the USS Republic Vic firmly declared, his dislike bleeding through like a sieve. “Spacetime exists so that we shouldn't even be meeting at ALL.”
“I'll do my best,” returned the HMS Republic Vic, with the barest hint of self-justified pretentiousness. “But whether we meet again? THAT'S up to YOU…”
As he finally faded away out of existence, Vic slammed his fist down onto the rugged Cardassian-style control console.
“Prig!” he exclaimed.
Location: Surgical Suite 5, Main Sickbay, Galaxy Class USS Republic (NCC-76241)
Timeframe: 4 years ago, during the Kreltan conflict in the Delphi Sector
John Carter's head twitched in response to a surge of energy from the cordical stimulators, but there was no other bodily response as the medical monitors maintained a steady redline.
“Again!” ordered Leon, but as the static zap registered with no further movement of John's head, it was clear that the attempt to revive the commander was futile. Saal allowed his boss a few more tries, but couldn't let it go on forever.
“Leon, it's done,” Doctor Yezbeck reminded him with a soft grasp of the shoulder. Behind him, he could hear Shannon Harris sobbing as John Carter's life appeared at and end. However, to the surprise and shock of everyone gathered in the surgical suite, the commander of the Republic wasn't quite ready to turn in the towel. Shannon's anguish ended with a surprised yelp, causing Saal to look back towards Leon's dead patient, whose eyes were firmly open as he sucked in a last breath.
Leon held John's head in his hands, shouting at him to hang on. “John! John, can you hear me?”
As Carter expelled his last breath, he whispered his final words to his friend.
“Leon… I need to go… But… I’ll be back.”
Saal was dumbfounded by the commander's words. A dying man claiming he would come back from the grave seemed most unlikely coming from a man like John Carter.
“John! Don’t do this to me!” Doctor Cromwell fell into a panicked craze, pleading for John to stay with them. “Don’t give up!”
“No… Don't YOU give up,” John whispered again. “Don't give up on ME… I'll be back.”
A shiver went up Saal's spine, as if a ghost had manifested within the commander's body, stating his future intensions from the afterlife. His bio-readouts had stayed a steady red on the synaptic monitor, yet the “dead” man was talking to his friend from beyond the grave. It was otherworldly to say the least, haunting and macabre to be sure.
That was the last time Saal had seen the body of John Carter from the USS Republic universe. According to Leon Cromwell, it later phased out of existence when less than a moment later, John inexplicably reappeared alive and well in the surgical suite, fading back into existence as if he were jumping into the room from a non-existent door. Leon had tried to explain this to Saal days later, but he was not understanding of it, and the official medical log his boss had made on the incident omitted the finer points. All Doctor Yezbeck knew at the time was that John Carter was alive again, and Captain Bombay had been relieved of duty, putting Republic back on course to its next mission. That's all that mattered back then. There was no way for the chief surgeon of the Republic – nor anyone else – to have known that the body of John Carter walking around the ship from there on out was not of their quantum reality.
Location: Commissary, Joint Base Jarok, Galorndon Core, Reman Neutral Zone
Timeframe: Present Day, HMS Republic universe
“Shadow?” Theo's voice roused him from his day trance. “Saal? You okay?”
The doctor broke away from his reminiscing, looking up at his compatriot who had come to sit with him at the dining table. Sporting a tray with a Kafarian fruit salad, the man formerly known as Doug Forrest sat down and took a sip of the root beer he had ordered along with the salad at the wall-mounted food replicator. Looking down at his plate of half-eaten potato pancakes, Saal realized his flashback robbed his dinner of the needed warmth to make them fully palatable, and instead, chose to work on his cup of Raktajino.
“Yeah, I'm fine,” he admitted sourly after a moment. “I'm just thinking back to the timeframe we're suppose to travel back to tomorrow morning. I'm trying to remember as much detail as I can so that we get it right during this operation.”
“I wouldn't put too much thought into it,” Theo/Doug said between bites of his salad. “Virtus and Y'lair have the mission plan down to such detail that if we have to deviate from it, we might as well start over.”
“We have the option to come back?” Saal replied in surprise, swallowing his last sip.
“No, I mean we might as well start OVER,” he elucidated. “As in: figure out how we're going to live out the rest of our lives in a quantum reality we have no idea exists yet.”
“Oh,” the doctor returned to his drink for a second sip. “As long as it's not the mirror universe. Bashir told me too many nightmares about that place.”
“He's been there?” Theo inquired, drawing a nod from Saal as he swallowed his second sip of Raktajino.
“We had lots of time to talk about it when we were stranded in the Ashaar Nebula in the Gamma Quadrant. He said people are NOT what they seem in that place,” he expounded. “You always had to be watching your back.”
The former Intel agent chewed his salad in silence while taking a moment to think.
“I wonder how Y'lair and Carter got out of that place unscathed?”
“Y'lair was born and bred in that universe,” explained the doctor. “He must've known how to get along without too much trouble before Carter and his split personality found him.”
“Which begs the question,” Theo said with perplexity. “Why is he so willing to go back?”
“Good point,” Saal frowned in inquisitiveness after a moment. “Bashir said that if someone wasn't begging them to go back with them to OUR quantum reality, that they had something else going on in the mirror universe that had them wanting to stay.”
The two sat eating in silence, mulling over the thought. As former intelligence operatives, it was commonplace for them to deconstruct the motivations and mannerisms of others in order to attain a better picture of the unspoken thoughts and motivations of both allies and adversaries alike. In practice during field operations, it proved invaluable for providing insight into their missions. Apparently, old habits die hard.
“Family,” Theo finally concluded with confidence after deciphering the enigma. “He's got someone back there. I can see it in his eyes when I look at him.”
Giving the conclusion one more brief review in his own mind, Saal nodded his head in agreement.
“Yes, that's it,” he surmised as well. “Which explains his eagerness to return.”
“That's better for us. It makes him motivated to see the plan through.”
“Love,” Saal mused as he leaned back in his chair. “It's amazing what we'll go through when we're in love with someone.”
Location: Infirmary, Joint Base Jarok, Galorndon Core
Leon carefully scanned his patient in the biobed. It was the third such scan he had made in the past five minutes, ensuring that all cardio-pulmonary signatures were normal – or what accounts for normal under borderline malnutrition metabolisms. Captain Stryker still had some “meat to put on his bones” as Nat Hawk's vernacular would have expounded back aboard Republic if he had been there. However, that didn't explain what appeared to be the inklings of a heart attack in the command center an hour ago. While his electrolytes had returned to normal, his pulse was still slightly elevated, as was his blood pressure and galvanic skin response. The appearance of Republic's assistant CMO had apparently caused a shock to his system that was a bit too much for his body to tolerate considering the current shape he was in. While Shannon hadn't fully explained the reasoning behind the captain's reaction to her, she had an equally intense emotional response that indicated there was more going on here than anyone else realized.
The sandy-haired doctor closed his tricorder with a brief sigh before taking one last look at the medical monitor on the wall.
“You're okay now, captain, but maybe I shouldn't have taken you out of sickbay so quickly. I'd like you to stay here for at least the next 24 hours. Just as a precaution.”
“Thank you, doctor,” the captain managed to say. It was a meager response, bereft of energy and motivation. As his emotionally enervated patient continued to stare at the ceiling, Shannon's hovering presence several feet away explained his laconic demeanor.
Leon walked away from the biobed, and consoled an outwardly distraught Doctor Harris who was staring at his patient as if watching a tortured animal writhe in pain.
“You sure you want to deal with this right now?” he asked her quietly with concern. “You've both been through a lot.”
She held a knuckle to her lips while she nodded the affirmative, not taking her eyes off the emaciated man in the biobed. Leon raised his eyebrows in dubiousness, but did not want to pry into her personal affairs, so he simply walked away to give her and the captain some privacy.
As she approached the biobed, Shannon maintained her fraught expression, not sure how to greet her former fiancé. She wanted to say something, but only stared at him while a tear formed and slid down her left cheek. For his part, the man in the biobed turned his eyes away from the ceiling and fell onto her, his own expression remaining unchanged: Reserved, but with agony brimming just beneath the surface.
“I've dreamt of you each night for over ten years,” the frail captain finally whispered.
Shannon's tears kept flowing. “When reports of what happened to Saratoga reached headquarters… I had to request a leave of absence. I couldn't treat anymore patients… I fell apart.”
“I know what happened on Saratoga,” he managed to admit, though the hoarseness in his voice betrayed how difficult it was to form the words. His chin started to stammer. “I know about you and Chris.”
“Who's Chris?” she asked, wiping her cheeks.
“You don't have to do that,” he replied painfully. “The tracking grid doesn't lie. I know what you two did in the turbolift before we launched.”
A frown formed in the young scarlet-haired doctor's forehead, clearly confused at his words.
“Ted, I don't know what you're talking about. Chris who?”
With a heavy sigh, Ted rolled his eyes in disgust, the emotional pain in his chest welling forth, forcing tears of his own.
“I can't believe it!” he whimpered in agony. “How… how could you! He was my commanding officer!”
“Ted…” Shannon shook her head in bewilderment. “Vice Admiral Toddman was your commanding officer in the Galaxy Wing… His name isn't Chris!”
The scraggly-bearded captain turned his head to face her with distressed eyes.
“Are you honestly telling me you and Admiral Kostya weren't involved with one another??”
The shock and insult of his insinuation were enough to pull Shannon out of her forlornness, staring at him with a mix of consternation and perplexity.
Location: Transporter Room, Joint Base Jarok, Galorndon Core, Reman Neutral Zone
Timeframe: The Following Day, HMS Republic universe
The base's transporter room was about the same size as one found aboard a Federation starship: Six personnel pads situated equidistantly around a large circular cargo pad about a meter in diameter, all on an elevated platform set into the wall, directly opposite the control console. Six people were gathered together in the staging area at the foot of the transport platform, going over last minute details of the upcoming mission. Shannon Harris and Captain Stryker were arm-in-arm, conversing with Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter, while Admiral Shelby, Victor Virtus, and Saal Yezbeck listened in.
“Are you sure you won't change your mind?” Theo asked Captain Stryker, who was looking much better from the morning before. “You don't belong here any more than we do.”
For his part, the captain appeared a renewed man. A trimmed beard and 24 hours of continued nutrient re-sustanance in the infirmary shone through with a brightened complexion and renewed vigor. With his arm still around Shannon, the smiling former commander of the Saratoga shook his head. “No. It's better this way. As far as the records are concerned, I'm already dead in your reality, and so is Shannon. At least here, I'll be where I want to be…” Turning to Shannon briefly with a adoring look that was reciprocated, he added, “… and with WHO I want to be… not at the beckon call of 'President' Kosyta…”
“Good plan,” Theo smiled.
“What about you, Virtus?” Saal asked the Malthusian engineer. “You're the one who hates quantum reality crossovers. You okay with this?”
“As much as I dislike having people from different quantum realities walking around in foreign spacetime continuums,” admitted Vic. “The fact that the body of OUR John Carter has been traipsing around YOUR reality for four years doesn't seem to have affected things much over there. Yes, I think we can make room for Captain Stryker here. Besides, your captive Romulan centurion doesn't seem to want to go back with you either. Something about duty – or 'mnhei'sahe' as he called it – to never show his face in the empire again due to his dishonor at losing his charge to an enemy. If your mission today is a success, then it will have been worth the trade and we can unravel this entire mess we're in.
“Not to put the pressure on you,” Shelby piped up. “But there's a lot riding on this mission. Keeping Captain Stryker and your Romulan prisoner here won't change things in the here an now. But, if it's one less thing you have to worry about on your way backwards and forwards in quantum spacetime, then I'm perfectly fine with it.”
“Now remember,” warned Vic. “There should be NOTHING of inorganic substance from this quantum reality with you when you leave this universe. Tissue, flesh, food, and drink are all fine. But, if you left anything else behind… ANYTHING bigger than a single strand of synthetic fiber from your clothes… it has the potential to become a chroniton magnet. I don't want to be seeing you two again if we can avoid it.”
“Don't worry,” Saal responded. “As long as you took care of our Romulan guest's clothes and gear, we didn't bring much else with us other than our ship and what we have on us now.”
“Good,” Vic nodded. “I'll hold you to that.”
At that moment, the doors to the transporter room opened, and in walked the mirror-universe John Carter and Y'lair. Giving everyone a nod, the two silently looked towards the former USS Republic Intel officer expectantly.
“I guess we're ready,” Theo announced, leading the way up the steps to the transporter pad, followed by Saal, John, and Y'lair in short order.
“Good luck, Capti… Commander Forrest…” Shelby offered, taking up position at the control console. For his part, Theo turned back around to face her once he was on the transport pad. His expression was a look of wistfulness, yet tinged with an air of shared purpose.
“We'll get it done, admiral,” he replied. “I promise.”
“That's good enough for me,” Shelby replied with a smile. The twinge in her eye saw a faint remnant of her deceased husband, and if there was enough of him in Theo Carter, then she was at peace seeing him depart for parts unknown for the last time.
“I almost forgot,” Vic said, spying an article in Doctor Yezbeck's hand. “Mind if I borrow that for a moment?” he asked, pointing to Saal's personal PADD.
“Umm…” the retired surgeon replied with perplexity as the ersatz HMS Republic commander relieved him of his personal data device while standing on the transporter pad. “Sure…” He was about to protest, but then realized that he could do little to stop Vic even if he wanted to. “As long as you leave the medical files alone,” he added hastily as the Malthusian walked away. “They're confidential.”
“Don't worry,” Vic responded assuredly while he approached and accessed a nearby wall-mounted computer console across the room. “I'm just adding a few extra files to your directory. I'm not after your universe-shattering medical secrets.”
Standing next to Saal on the transporter pad, Theo turned to the doctor with a baffled expression. “Medical secrets?”
The red-handed Saal was about to respond when Vic returned, handing the PADD back to him.
“What did you add?” the retired surgeon inquired.
“Your new mission when you get back to your own quantum reality,” he iterated. “After you return yourselves to normal size, I've provided you the exact location of John Carter – YOUR John Carter – along with information about how to get to where he is. He's in the Delta Quadrant, and you'll need to do some negotiation with the Borg to get to him. Good luck.”
In unison, Theo and Saal had a single, monosyllabic response before Shelby activated the transporter.
(to be continued)
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