<Interlude: Officer's Conference Room, USS Enterprise; NCC-1701-E, In orbit around Halkan Prime, Present Day>
“No, I don't think YOU understand.” The raised voice was coming from Commander Martin Madden who, after a decidedly rocky beginning, was finally feeling at ease in his posting as the Enterprise's current executive officer. Will Riker had left big shoes to fill, both literally, and figuratively.
He had in fact left a pair of duty boots behind in his quarters following the Enterprise's deployment to Romulan space during what was now called 'The Shinzon Massacre'. For his part, Madden didn't know whether Riker had meant it as a joke or not, but knew how the tall Alaskan's presence would linger on the ship, long after he was gone.
Now, a full three years into his assignment, Madden enjoyed the respect of the crew, and more importantly, the confidence of his Captain. There was however, a member of the Command Staff whom Madden didn't care for…probably because the posting was mandated rather than asked for, but the seismic events of 'The Stand' had changed Starfleet, and the Federation, forever. For better or worse, Madden was now locking horns with his Diplomatic Officer, a rather stubborn caitian Lieutenant Commander named Rr'lew.
“Madden, clam down, will you?” the caitian offered. “I wasn't implying…”
“The HELL you weren't!” Madden's voice exploded as he slammed his palm on the conference table. The noise was surprisingly loud, and roused the third occupant of the room out of whatever contemplative exercise had caused the conversation to escalate so quickly.
“Mr. Rr'lew is correct, Commander,” came the smooth baritone of Jean-Luc Picard. “He didn't imply anything. He stated it outright.” Picard paused to rub his left temple, then looked at his diplomatic officer directly. “I will not, under any circumstances, take what these people are not willing to trade for. No exceptions.”
“Captain, that dilithium is vital to Starfleet operations.”
“Indeed it is.” Picard agreed with a nod. “Which is why we were sent to secure a new treaty with the Halkans, and I will stay here for as long as negotiations may take.”
“What you're suggesting,” Madden interjected, “Is…”
Picard stood up, “Unacceptable.” He said, with unmistakable resolve. “Taking the dilithium from these people at gunpoint is nothing more than theft, and certainly NOT covered under my orders.”
“Captain,” Rr'lew said with a sly smile, as he backed away from the conference table. “Those orders come from the President of the Unite…”
“I know PRECISELY from whom those orders come, Sir.” Picard retorted. “But I will fulfill them as I see fit. If President Kostya wants to invade a friendly planet, he'll have to do it himself.” Picard then turned to face his First Officer. “Commander Madden, please convey my apologies to the Halkan trade representative, and tell him that I will meet with him personally, at his earliest convenience.” He turned away from the other two officers, to face the view ports. “You're dismissed.”
Madden nodded. “Captain.”
“I have a report to file.” Rr'lew said simply. Then he left the conference room.
For a few moments, the room was quiet. Then the internal comm chirped. Picard keyed in the circuit and spoke. “Picard, Bridge. Go ahead.”
= /\= “Apologies for the interruption, Sir. You have an eyes only dispatch.”
Picard's eyes narrowed as he considered the many ways in which this ONLY meant bad news.”Is it from the Halkans?” He asked. “Or Starfleet?”
“Neither, Sir. It's from Romulus.”
<Planet Garsol, Delta Quadrant. Approx. 12 months ago.>
“What do you mean 'he's not moving'?” Dadjinn asked as she wiped the sweat from her brow. She'd just finished her morning stretches (any other sane individual would have called them kata, since the blue-skinned woman insisted on exercising with her scimitar before she went about the day's killing of avians.)
“Just what I said,” Bah-Ki confirmed. “He's not moving. Just…sitting there.”
The desert fighter rolled her eyes. “Then he's even more useless than he was before.” She said angrily. “Tell me you at least found his weapon?”
Bah-Ki shook his head. “No idea where it is. I followed him for the first few weeks he was here. He must have hidden it, but I have no idea where it is.”
“You searched that…thing he crashed in?”
“As much as I could,” the boy confirmed, “but if there's anything valuable in there, I'll be damned to the Seven Hells if I know what it is. We managed to get what was left of it to Zharon's workshop.”
Dadjinn grunted in frustration. “Leave him staked for the fliers to find then!” She yelled. “I'm tired of looking after an idiot.”
“Zharon thinks he holds the key to…”
“Zharon's a delusional mad man! Let him worry about his pet. If you can't find a way to turn the stranger into the killing machine he was when he fell, then I have other things to do.”
With that, the fighter sheathed her weapon, and stormed past Bah-Ki, into the larger cave system. After she was gone, Bah-Ki followed, making his way through well-worn paths, until he came to the place where John Carter had been 'just sitting',
It was a nice enough space. Tall enough to stand upright in, large enough to sleep at least four people with enough room to feel comfortable, and there was a colony of phosphorescent moss on the ceiling that bathed the space in a pale green glow. John Carter was sitting, legs crossed under him, with his eyes closed when Bah-Ki entered.
“Good Morning, Stranger.” Bah-Ki said out of habit and politeness, knowing full well that the visitor didn't understand a thing he was saying.
“Is it?” John Carter asked, in broken, but understandable Garsolan.
Bah-Ki stood, dumbstruck, his mouth wide open. “All this time…” The youth said as he walked closer to John, who was now standing up. “You've…No. Not all the time.”
Carter shook his head. “I've been…listening. To you, to the woman.”
“Yeah,” Carter said with a nod. “The angry one with the sword. I've listened to you, to her, to everyone.”
“For four weeks? Who listens and doesn't do anything for FOUR WEEKS?”
“Well, I wouldn't say I didn't do ANYTHING. I finally got caught up on sleep, I don't think I'm ever leaving this planet…”
Bah-Ki held up his hands. “No, wait. Stop right there. Who are you?” He asked. More questions quickly followed. “ Where did you come from? You said a word, when we first found you…Starfleet. What's Starfleet? What weapon did you use to fight all those fliers? Are you a soldier?”
John began to shake his head half-way through the list. He'd picked up the basics of the Garsolan language, but the words were becoming jumbled, and he was having trouble keeping things straight.
“Wait, wait…stop…no.” John stammered. “Slow…er…one at a time ok?” He asked. “My name is John Carter.” The Martian explained.
Bah-Ki began to smile, then laughed out loud.
“Why are you laughing?” John asked.
“Nothing. I'll tell you later. Please…” Bah-Ki stepped back.
“I am…was…a leader in Starfleet. It's a peace-keep…” His voice trailed off as he suddenly wondered what Starfleet was like after the election. “Oh, God…” he wondered aloud, “I don't even know if he won or not.”
Bah-Ki looked at the stranger for a moment. “I'm sorry… what was that?”
The boy's question brought John back to the present. He shook his head slowly. “It's an army in space.” He said. “Between planets I mean.”
“I KNEW it!” The boy said brightly. You ARE A soldier! Dadjinn was right!” Bah-Ki looked wildly around the cavern and then down the passage leading to the upper tunnels, and eventually to the surface. “She'll be insufferable,” he commented. “But she has to know!”
The boy took off at a shot, with Carter struggling to chase after him. “It's not that simple.” Carter said. “And, last time I saw her, she threatened to turn me into rations!” He called after the boy and then quickly followed.
<Interlude: USS Antietam NCC-620917, Triangle Sector Patrol, Present Day>
The tight confines of Antietam's bridge were bathed in the tell-tale glow of red alert. This had the rather unnerving effect of turning her Andorian Captain's normally dusky blue skin a rather menacing shade of purple. Just now, Captain Ney'Tell Shran was enjoying the look on her enemies' faces as she engaged the viewer. “Shall we discuss again how 'out of my league' I am, Captain?”
Shran asked the question to Bodek Dern, owner/operator of she C/V Merlin's Bounty, a private cargo vessel registered out of Sherman's Planet. Dern had calculated that convincing an over-eager Andorian that he had nothing of value would be easy, no matter what she believed. He had also banked on the fact that a Starfleet Captain would never fire on a neutral trading vessel. Apparently, he was now wrong on both counts.
“Please.” Dern said through the hazy smoke of his bridge. “I told you, we don't have the data you're looking for. I'm just a trader captain. The ship is unarmed, just…”
Whether Shran had simply run out of patience, or was now just enjoying the fight, was hard to tell, but the predatory grin on the Andorian's face would have told anyone who saw it that the time for mercy had passed. “Captain Dern.” She said firmly. “You have two minutes to get your crew to any escape pods you might have left, and if I may?”
There was a long pause before Shran spoke again. “The next time a lovely lady such as myself offers you a deal, I suggest you take it.” There was a brief pause before the Captain spoke again. “Tactical. One shot. Half-power. Alert the landing party that they'll have to suit up after all.”
Then the channel went dead.
In the darkness of space, one phaser bolt flew from Antietam's forward bank, slamming into the unshielded hull of Merlin's Bounty. The phaser shot found it's mark, frying the primary life support matrix, and burning a hole through the target's hull. The shot didn't destroy Merlin's Bounty outright, but it did lead to the loss of pressure and heating throughout the ship.
Two minutes after the shot was fired, the freighter’s crew were dead. It was a simple matter for Antietam's tactical team to beam over and extract the target data from the computer core of Merlin's Bounty. The crew didn't know what the data was for, but their Captain did. “Mission accomplished.” She said simply. Inwardly, she knew it was her job to do whatever she had to, to keep the Federation safe. And every so often, there were days like today, when she really did enjoy her job.
<Planet Garsol, Delta Quadrant. Approximately 7 months ago.>
John Carter squinted to shield his eyes from the hot wind whipping across his new-found home. It still stung his face, but not as much as it had when he first arrived. Not having access to a decent beard-suppressor had helped, as did the thin gauze which Bah-Ki had given him to cover his mouth and nose on the days when the dust storms which circled the planet's surface came through the canyons where he now lived with the determined natives. The dust storms were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it meant that the canyons were safe and everyone could relax. The fliers wouldn't attack during the storms. Rather, they would ride the cyclonic currents in the storm system in what John could only assume passed for … play, but that was a reminder of how truly dangerous his enemy was The thought the fliers were capable of amusement was disturbing. Everything John had seen of Garsol's airborne predators told him that they were viscous, and brutal, and seemingly without any sort of direction. They would descend on anything they saw as prey, attacking it as a pack. They would harass and herd, like any other hunters on a thousand different worlds, eventually tiring out their prey, and then swooping in for the kill in a gory symphony of gnashing teeth, gleaming claws, horrid screams, and blood that seemed to turn the sands red. And yet there were days when they would wheel and dip around each other, daring to see how close they could get. Like chipperhawks during mating season.”Sprock me,” Carter said to himself. “How messed up are those things?”
Carter's Starfleet training had told him to remember that this situation could be the result of many things. It could be that the fliers had a culture he didn't understand yet. One that, at one point, it would have been his duty to document and understand. It could also be, John knew, that this was somehow the natural order of things in this corner of the universe. That the Garsolan civilization was destined to fall. That her people simply existed to feed another species. John had seen that before. It was the same on almost every planet in the universe. Two choices: Predator, or prey. Normally, that was the sort of things that 'enlightened beings' excepted. That it was just 'The way things were.' Every creature had to eat something to survive of course. But that truth was a lot harder to accept when your food had a name. And, it was different when you were AWARE that you were on the menu.
For that reason, among a few others that John was beginning to realize, he'd agreed to help advise the natives with their fight against the fliers and in a few months, they'd racked up quite a body-count. Between his tactical experience, Dadjinn's righteous anger, and Zharon's talent for subterfuge, the cliff-dwellers had made real progress against the invaders, but John knew it wasn't enough. The fliers were simply too many, and unless something radical was done, these people would die, and John Carter would die with them.
Carter heard a scrabbling sound behind him and whirled to his left, drawing the sword that Dadjinn had reluctantly given him once Bah-Ki had convinced her that Carter wouldn't kill himself with it. John had always fancied pole-arms when it came to fighting, or a straight-up bare-knuckle scrap, but neither of those was practical at the time and place John was now, so he'd had to learn quickly. As John turned, he saw Bah-Ki moving low and quick to join him on the promontory. “You're making too much damned noise!” Carter hissed.
Bah-Ki dismissed Carter with a wave. “Carter,” he chided, “The fliers don't have ears. They key on movement. Everyone knows that.”
“Yeah… everyone knows that.” John smiled back. “Then keep it down,” he added. “You're making me nervous.”
“Still nervous before a fight, eh Warlord?”
Carter looked back with a sour face. “I told you not to call me that.” He said. “I'm not a Commander anymore. Not an officer, not even a pilot. I'm just John.”
Again, Bah-Ki chuckled. “Well, I'm not calling you that!”
“And how come none of you will tell me what that means?”
“Because,” Bah-Ki explained. “All appearances to the contrary, we are a civilized people. Or rather we were, and gods willing, will be so again.”
“Fine.” Carter relented. “But one of these days…”
“You could always ask Dadjinn.” The boy offered.
“Pass.” John said. “I'm still not convinced she won't kill me on a whim.”
The observer shook his head. “No worries there, War… Carter.” He corrected himself. “You're useful to her. And besides… I think she likes you.”
John sheathed his sword, and looked to the eastern horizon were a cloud of fliers was swarming, preparing for the day's hunt. “Hmph”. He grumbled. “Just tell me we're ready.”
“We are. Just waiting for Dadjinn to… what did you call it?”
“Pull the trigger?”
A moment later, she did.
<Interlude: U.S.S. Kip's Bay NCC-368214, Romulan Neutral Zone, Present Day>
Efrosians were known to have poor eyesight. As with most humanoids, there was anecdotal deviance to support the fact that a being's other senses might sharpen to compensate. This seemed to be the case with Nar-farally, Communications Specialist on board the Defiant class Kip's Bay. An older vessel, but still more than capable, the small, efficient ship had been specially re-fitted to act as a recon ship. That was the polite designation. Nar-farally knew what she was, and knew what her ship was for. She was a spy, and truth be told, she was a damned good one. The young lieutenant’s ears were said to be so sensitive that she could often identify encrypted signals by sound alone, before the ship's software had a chance to verify her findings, and more often than not she was right. Right now though, even she wasn't sure what she was hearing.
“Say again Lieutenant?” The question came from Alton Toomes, newly promoted Captain of Kip's Bay, proud son of Europa (by way of Calgary on Earth) and self-confessed “Hawk”. He took up a position standing behind Nar-farally and his brow wrinkled as he tried to make sense of the display. He was having no luck.
“Just what I said sir.” Nar-farally repeated. “It's coming together in pieces, but it's the same all across the planet. “They're not doing anything.”
Toomes shook his head and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “You mean they're hiding… waiting for something ?”
“Can't speak to that Sir,” the Communications Specialist said, but the're not hiding. “They're… just… there.”
“What's the military doing, any deployments? The Tal Shiar?” He leaned in closer, as if looking at the data would help. It didn't. “This might turn into a bloodbath quickly.”
Again, Nar-farally shook her head. “I don't think so, Sir.” She confirmed. “They're not marching, no rioting… not even speaking.” She explained. “They're just standing.”
Captain Toomes let out a frustrated sigh. “What the hell makes half a Romulus observe a moment of silence?” he asked out loud.
Across the bridge from Toomes, his Diplomatic Officer spoke up; a slight, pale man who came off as obsequious, no matter what he said or did, named DuPage. But charismatic or not his observations were often insightful. “If I may Captain…” He interjected sheepishly. “I don't believe it's a what. I think it's a who.”
<Windward Canyon Infirmary, Planet Garsol, Delta Quadrant. Approximately 6 months ago. >
The yelling of panicked fighters mingled with the moans and screams of the dying as Dadjinn wiped some flier's blood off her sword. She gave the elegant blade a practiced flick, then rolled it around her wrist to refresh her grip. A moment later, Zharon came down the corridor and stumbled into the makeshift clinic. “I… I think I'm it.” He stammered.
“Bah-ki?” the warrior woman asked.
Zharon nodded. “He's collapsing the enterance.” The scientist confirmed as his breathing began to slow. “He wanted to wait for Carter but…”
“Carter's dead!” She shot back. “I watched one of those wretched things pick him up and claw out his eyes!” She cursed as she spit on the ground. “So much for your damned prophecy!”
For a moment, Zharon thought he would protest. Perhaps try to explain how the story of the Warlord would explain this away. Some wrinkle of wording, or point of understanding that Dadjinn missed. Unfortunately, she was right. He'd been in the battle; rare for Zharon though that was. Everything about this operation had felt bad, but he, along with the rest of the resistance cell was flush with the thought of victory, and the idea, especially now that Carter was more actively assisting them, that they could win virtually any engagement with the monsters.
Unfortunately, today, that seemed not to be the case. From the start, the fliers had been more organized than the Garsolan's expected. They fought as a unit, rather than the savage beasts the fighters were used to. The Garsolan's had followed the plan to a fault. They hung snares and laid traps, but the fliers worked around most of them. The resulting fight was harder and more brutal than any had been in weeks, but sooner than anyone had expected, the seemingly endless number of fliers were on them.
The Garsolan's fought well and hard, cutting their losses as they fled to the safety of their rocky home. In the process, too many hand died. Carter, who had agreed to stay behind in this fight, as he had for all the others, broke rank to assist with the retreat. For a time, it worked. He fought harder than he had in years. Truth be told, he was glad to have a cause to get behind again.
Despite all it's difficulties, and the impending doom of a Vladimir Kostya presidency, Carter missed Starfleet. He missed being a part of something greater than himself. Something in which, on any given day, the right decision from anyone, be they a seasoned ship's commander, or an Ensign who was in the right place at the right time, could save a single life… or change the course of the universe. John might not be playing for stakes that big, but now, he knew that smaller stakes were more important. It wasn't the universe, or a ship full of crew, or even a squad of Marines. It was the man to his left, and the woman to his right, and that made the choice all the easier.
It has John's job to guard the back way. Make sure that anyone who could make it to the rock could. Now though, with dozens of fliers descending upon them, Carter did the only thing he could think of. He was buying his friends time. As he stood on the clifftop, John looked down. He could see Dadjinn and Bah-ki leading perhaps a dozen fighters back to the canyons, farther down the way, he could make out Zharon… waiting by the concealed entrance, ready to pull the deadfall and close the way in. “Right.” Carter said grimly to himself. “They're covered… almost.” In fluid motion, he pulled his sword and waited, timing his jump off the cliff, to land squarely on the incoming hoard of fliers.
Now, as the remaining fighters counted their dead, and Zharon saw to the wounded, Dadjinn took stock of what she had left. She was loathe to admit it, she was going to miss Carter's council. He was stuborn, and uncooperative, and often unreasonable, but his grasp of tactics was better than hers. More efficient, subtle, but in some cases, chillingly effective. She'd never say as much out loud, but he was an asset she needed, and without him, the fight would be harder.
Dadjinn made her way down the winding corridor to see Bah-Ki, with a man who should be dead on his shoulder. “No one could have survived that.” She cursed.
With what passed for a smile on his lips, John Carter looked up, wincing in pain. “Yeah…” he whispered softly. “I get that a lot.” Carter was scared and bleeding, limping badly, and where he he should have had two eyes looking back, there was only one.
Bah-ki grunted as Carter's weight shifted. “I… know I should have pulled the rocks sooner,” he admitted, “but I…”
“It's all right.” Carter said as he looked to the man who saved his life.
“I'm glad you're alive. Both of you, but…”
“Yeah.” Carter nodded. “We're going to have to hit them a lot harder.”
<Captain's Quarters, U.S.S. Enterprise N.C.C. 1701-E. Present Day>
“I appreciate your agreeing to speak to me Captain, especially considering the lateness of the hour.” Picard said. There was a dark weight to his voice. Something that all captains to only experienced first hand, but also knew when they heard it in one of their own.
“Not at all Captain,” answered the soft alto on the other end of the subspace channel. The voice belonged to Saavik of Vulcan, currently serving as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Allegiance. “Think nothing of it. I am however wondering what was so important that it warranted a personal call and not an official dispatch?”
“Forgive me, Captain.” Picard continued. “I have grim news, and I wanted you to hear it from… well… from family.”
“Savvik's eyebrow arched in classic Vulcan fashion. “Excuse me, Captain?”
Picard's head dropped and deep furrows formed in his brow. “This is not common knowledge Captain,” Picard said, “but a few years before his death, I had the honor or meeting Ambassador Sarek, here, on the Enterprise.”
Saavik kept silent, but nodded in understanding.
“During his last diplomatic mission, there was some… difficulty, and the Ambassador and I… engaged in a lengthy mind-meld.”
“Fascinating.” Savvik commented.
“Even to this day, Captain.” he agreed. “You recall the aborted Romulan invasion of Vulcan?”
“The ill-conceived venture of Commander Sela if I recall?”
“Indeed,” Picard said with a nod. “At the close of that affair, I offered Ambassador Spock the chance to share what there was was of Sarek within me. “As such…” Picard's voice wavered a bit. “I am… aware… of your singular relationship with Spock.”
Saavik nodded smoothly. “I understand Captain, and I appreciate your discretion, but you needn't be so concerned about my vanity.”
“No, Captain,” Picard went on, emotion now more obvious in his voice. “I want you to understand my history, so that you fully comprehend what I have to say. “It is my… unfortunate duty to inform you that… my son… Ambassador Spock is dead.”
There was a long moment of silence on the channel before Savvik spoke. “I am grateful that such…” the captain pause to wipe a single tear from her cheek, “unfortunate news came from… a friend.” Again, there was a long pause. “Now… if you will excuse me, Captain.”
A moment later, the channel closed, leaving the display dark. In the screen, Picard could see his own dim reflection. “Live Long, and Prosper.”
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