Location: Office of the Chief of Starfleet Operations, Starfleet Headquarters, Earth
Timeframe: Stardate 58095.2 (Four years ago – shortly after the death of Ensign Kuga)
A wood-lathed door with an oval, Starfleet-emblazoned window remained shut at the front of the circular office, which boated a beige carpet with a blue Federation emblem stretched across the room from wall-to-all. Along the perimeters walnut bookshelves lined the chamber, containing volumes of antique literature, and between casings were more ornate features such as a full-sized display of 15th century Germanic plate armor, a display pedestal showcasing an Excelsior-class starship model, as well as a free-standing Westminster grandfather clock and varnished wood globe of Renaissance-era Earth. At the rear of the room, large picturesque windows overlooking San Francisco Bay provided a spectacular backdrop to the metallic, semi-circular desk situated in front of them.
The man sitting behind the desk was none other than Vice Admiral Vladimir Kristoff Kostya. His pepper-gray hair and etched stresslines in his face accentuated his glowering, angry appearance while he dressed down his friend and subordinate across an open subspace channel; that being Commodore Joshua McCain of Gamma Serpentis base in the Gamma Quadrant. He was in the midsts of covering up their latest blunder, that being the loss of an ultra-secret advanced droneship known as “Dragon”, and piloted by a synthetically-grown humanoid who briefly served as a Starfleet Ensign aboard the Galaxy-Class Starship Republic. Ensign Naruko Kuga was dead, and both Kostya and McCain were scrambling to ensure that she and her now-disintegrated high-tech vessel remained classified and out of the normal Starfleet intelligence briefs.
“They don't know anything about the project. I'll stake my reputation on it.”
“Your reputation, Josh,” Kostya interjected through intense, squinted eyes. “Doesn't mean very much right now.” After a deep breath to calm himself, the admiral continued. “You're to report back to the Gamma Serpentis system at once – and this time, dismantle the entire project. If any shred of evidence is traced back to either you or me, we might as well turn ourselves in to the Federation Council.”
“What about Republic?”
“You leave Republic to me. Follow my orders, and don't screw up this time. If you weren't my friend, I'd have you demoted all the way back to crewman first class. Kostya out.”
Admiral Kostya closed the channel, and proceeded to slowly swivel his chair back and forth while he stared at the blank screen. His eyes betrayed a wandering mind and a longing soul, and as the back-and-forth motion of the chair subsided, he dialed a security code into the lower right drawer of his executive desk. A soft pneumatic hiss registered the opening of the compartment, and after pushing aside a few cherished trinkets and classified security tapes, he produced a deactivated PADD device. With a press of his thumbprint, the admiral brought title screen to life:
USS SARATOGA INCIDENT FILE BRIEF
INTERDICTION ORDER #1224
TOP SECRET - FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
Settling back into his chair, Kostya sighed. “I won't let them take you from me again, my darling,” he whispered. Sifting through several pages on the PADD, he stopped to read one page in detail, as if relishing a nostalgic memory:
EXPERIMENTAL HOLOGRID PROJECT
RESURGENT MEMORY PROGRAMMING
EMH/COMPUTER INTERFACE ANOMALY REPORT
Location: Cargo Bay 34, Space Station Deep Space Nine, Bajor Sector
Timeframe: Stardate 62056.8 (present day)
As the aging doors to the cargo deck groaned open, the Cardassian-themed storage bay gave way to engineering control consoles and multi-faceted workstations that fueled a number of expertly-placed holo-projectors aimed at the central staging area, clearly demarcating a transition away from a warehousing role and into that of an advanced engineering testing lab. At the center of the control console emplacements, an aging bald man in a lab coat turned to see two Starfleet individuals entering his experimental work area: Both were of lieutenant commander rank and sported gold piping on their cuffs, thus denoting their positions in the operations/engineering branches. However, beyond that, the two were of starkly different demeanor, with one being a short youthful Ferengi, while the other was a tall, slender human with black hair peppered with streaks of gray.
The doors ground closed once again as Nog and the taller stranger approached Doctor Zimmerman, and the Ferengi – who was espousing a barely-containable air of enthusiasm and eagerness – introduced the newcomer.
“Doctor Zimmerman,” he began proudly. “I'd like to you meet Doctor Victor Xavier Virtus of the Starfleet Inspectors General office… Forensic Astrogation Division.”
“Virtus?” the cantankerous holographic specialist greeted Vic questioningly and raised an eyebrow. He put his PADD down and accepted Vic's hand handshake. “It's good to put a face to a name.”
“Oh?” Vic returned. “Have you read some of my work?”
“Some,” Zimmerman confirmed. “I remember first hearing your name when I was up at Oxford. Aren't you supposed to be some sort of expert in quantum space-time phenomena?”
“Given the interesting times in which we live, I doubt anyone that calls themselves an expert in a field anymore. But I've had some theoretical and some … practical … experience in the subject.”
“Well, it seems myself and your young entourage here stumbled upon a holographic mystery that's right up your alley.”
“I do enjoy a good mystery in two, three, or n-dimensions.”
“Mister Nog here tells me that you served aboard the Galaxy Class Starship Republic before her destruction. Is that correct?”
The thin engineer-turned-scientist puffed out his chest almost imperceptibly to agree, “I had the distinct honor to serve with many of the best and brightest as her Chief Engineer.”
“Chief engineer?” the doctor's curmudgeonly eyes lit up with interest. “Is that so?” Turning to the Ferengi lieutenant commander with a slight air of indignance, he offered the young man a rare compliment. “You weren't embellishing things, were you?”
“I told you!” the buoyant officer in operations gold remarked with a smile of giddiness. “He's the ONE!”
“I make no claims at being the ONE, regardless of what the ONE many have been, is currently being, or may become. But I am happy to help other explorers on a path of scientific discovery.”
“I dare say that you most definitely can help us, Doctor Virtus,” Zimmerman affirmed. “My current research project in holography has led me to an artifact from your past assignment that's left me… shall we say, perplexed?”
“Have you ever heard of the Republic incorporating components from the Starship Saratoga?”
Vic blinked in amusement and started to smirk, “I can safely say that I was aware of some components believed to have been installed on the Saratoga eventually finding their way onto the Republic. Despite the best efforts of Supply and Logistics, some database errors are bound to occur. Some evening I'll tell you the story of Ric's Entangled Chips. There was a brilliant materials engineer on our shakedown cruise, Lt. Leonetti. He had a pair of isolinear chips that bore matching serial numbers, and under all forms of testing were apparently identical on the quantum level. But a tale for another time. Yes, there were components and whole systems that were either diverted from the Saratoga to the Republic, or tested on the Saratoga and later installed on the Republic.” Vic accepted a PADD that Nog handed him and skimmed through the synopsis of the most recent experiment.
“That explains many things,” continued Zimmerman. “Could you elaborate on whether the Republic had any special holographic equipment on board? Possibly anything related to the Emergency Medical Hologram?”
“Extensive advanced EMH prototyping was performed prior to and during the service of the Republic. I was aware of some of the modifications, but our Chief Medical Officer was the person who signed off on most of the add-ons, including the ability for the EMH and related holographic programs to access emitters throughout the majority of the ship. The system was experimental, and had a few quirks, but came in handy on a number of tense occasions.”
“Interesting. That explains why there was an abnormally large memory core built into the EMH backup module.”
Vic froze for a moment and looked up from the PADD, “The back-up module? Why would the EMH backup need additional storage? And how did you get it?”
“Researchers on Earth stumbled upon an EMH backup module that was forensically confirmed to have come from the Galaxy Class Republic when it exploded above the Pacific Ocean. However it was micro-tagged to have come from the Galaxy Class USS Saratoga, not Republic. It was heavily damaged, but I was able to determine that several dozen different holographic programs were contained within. I wasn't able to re-integrate any of them until I rescanned the master image sequence of the EMH from the original template, that being Doctor Bashir here at Deep Space Nine. Once I did that, I managed to partially recover about a half-dozen of the programs…”
The doctor of holography flipped several switches on the control console next to him, causing seven photonic programs that he had previously re-integrated to wash into existence on the cargo bay floor before them. They each stood motionless with blank expressions, awaiting direct verbal commands as part of their basic program. All but one wore the current-issue Starfleet uniform of a black jacket-tunic with gray ribbed shoulders over a departmental-colored undershirt sporting rank pips on the collar. It was the seventh and youngest-looking hologram that wore a much older-style uniform: a maroon wrap-around tunic with a black belt and gold buckle in the shape of an encircled Starfleet delta, as well as a single shoulder strap emblazoned with a crimson background signifying an academy cadet of ensign rank. However, it wasn't this latter hologram that drew Victor Virtus's attention: It was the one standing beside it that cause his eyes to widen with surprise. It was that of a young female lieutenant in operations gold, boasting a familiar set of green eyes and red hair bore, and invoking a startling representation of another hologram he knew very well from over three years ago.
“Shannon…” Vic whispered in recognition.
“Their programs were only partially re-constituted,” explained Doctor Zimmerman. “Their interface subroutines are from the standard programming template with conversational occlusion buffers engaged. The EMH module was so damaged that their original personalities and self-awareness algorithms couldn't be re-constituted. They can only provide back-and-forth verbal interaction, unfortunately. You won't find them to be the 'life-of-the-party', so to speak.”
Vic absently set the PADD on the edge of the console and moved closer to the blank-faced stare of a friend he'd thought long-lost.
“Like I said, conversational occlusion buffers were left engaged. Unless you address them directly and succinctly, you'll be dismissed as background chatter. Doctor Bashir found that a direct, forceful greeting activates them. Try asking a strongly-worded question.”
“Lieutenant Harris!” he tersely addressed. “State your current assignment!”
With that, the automaton of Shannon came to life in a most uncharacteristically deadpan manner. “My current assignment is Task Force One, remote reconnaissance aboard the USS Saratoga.”
“Task Force One…” whispered Vic to himself, not caring if he was overheard. The assignment signifier stirred deep-seated emotions and memories from what seemed a lifetime ago. Hellsgate Station… Captain Redding… Commodore Kaito… Vic knew that Starbase 666 contained numerous engineering oddities, and that the station's entire compliment of vessels – colloquially known as Task Force One – had various “upgrades” instituted to each ship, usually against the will of their assorted vessels' chief engineers. However, he had no idea that the Galaxy Class ship he served on four years ago had any link to that past life, which had reduced him in rank and forced him to reside in the brig for many days, missing out on Task Force One's final mission in Romulan space.
Nog noted the expression of revelation washing over Vic's face. After their conversation in Quark's the evening before, the station's Chief of Operations was able to confirm that the seasoned Starfleet engineer was indeed the older manifestation of that young Starfleet lieutenant in science blues that he had cohabitated with in the brig of Hellsgate Station those many years ago.
“NOW you see why I've brought you here, doctor,” whispered Nog to a bemused Victor Virtus.
As for Vic, he gave no response. He only stared at the stoic and unmoving holographic representation of a younger version of Shannon Harris, inexplicably wearing a uniform departmental color other than medical blue, and sporting pips on her collar that bore the subordinate rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade. It was clear this was not the Shannon Harris he knew as a friend and colleague from his Galaxy-class engineering days.
“And if you liked THAT,” Nog iterated, taking note of Vic's deep-seated interest. “You'll LOVE this.” Turning to the immobile hologram of the young Starfleet ensign standing next to Shannon, he addressed the facsimile in what had become the standard squalling tone for initiating intercourse.
“Name! Rank!” Nog shouted at it. As with Doctor Bashir a day earlier, the automaton gave the same unemotional and succinct response.
“Vladamir Kostya… cadet… commander, USS Republic…”
Vic took a step back in an almost visceral reaction. His eyes widened with trepidation as he recognized the icy blue eyes of a megalomaniac hiding behind the youthful holographic doppelganger of the current president of the United Federation of Planets. The man who destroyed his career… the man at the center of Starfleet corruption at its highest level… the man who has brought the Federation to war once again…
“Task Force One command override Seven-Two-Alpha!” Vic shouted forcefully, causing both Nog and Doctor Zee to flinch in surprise. “Voice authorization: Virtus-Freedom-Star-Omega-One-Three!”
“Unable to comply,” the Shannon Harris hologram mysteriously acknowledged in an atypically expressionless manner, reminiscent of a standard Starfleet computer interface terminal. “Level two information nodes not available.”
“What are you doing?” Zimmerman inquired, more out of curiosity than disdain at having his holography work tampered with. Truth be told, Victor Virtus had just managed to make more progress in their investigation than they had been able to accomplish since discovering the holographic programs a day ago.
“Task Force One senior officers had limited command override access to the fleet's computer subroutines,” Vic explained. “I hypothesized that my former commander from the Freedom Star, Captain Redding, didn't deactivate my clearance after I was jailed in the station's brig. It appears that I was correct.”
“Then you know the origins of these holograms?” the doctor of holography asked, hoping that Vic could further unlock the mystery before them.
“Not exactly,” the sage Malthusian responded with a scratch of his cheek where his 'fu manchu' mustache was starting to grow back. “With the exception of the Junior Lieutenant and Cadet Kostya here, I don't recognize these others. They were never aboard the Republic that I knew of. However, these two that I DO recognize are out-of-place… the lieutenant bears a striking resemblance to our EMH, Lieutenant Commander Shannon Harris, while the cadet is obviously a much younger version of… our president.” Vic still had trouble attaching the esteemed title to the man whom he so despised.
“Well Doctor Virtus,” Nog exclaimed. “You seemed to have done the trick to unlocking a layer of security. Can you do any more with your clearance?”
“Command inquiry!” Vic raised his voice to the Shannon-facsimile. “What will allow access to level two information nodes?” As before, it responded in a deadpan, to-the-point demeanor.
“An established uplink with the Starfleet communications network.”
A moment of silence passed where each engineer considered the ramifications of such an uplink to programs that had not been active for several years.
“Dare we offer it an uplink?” Nog asked dubiously.
“I've reviewed the programming of each of these holograms,” Zimmerman commented. “I haven't found anything that seems nefarious. Since the holographic interface is a standard Starfleet template, safety protocols can't be overridden without my authorization code.”
“The question should be whether we connect them to the communications array at all,” Nog retorted, his security training kicking in. “There's no telling what these programs may do.”
Vic shared the young Ferengi's trepidation, but it was tempered by his personal curiosity into resolving the mystery before them. He weighed the repercussions: (1) Considering that Hellsgate Station had long-since been decommissioned, the computer mainframe that the holograms could potentially link to was absent on the Starfleet communications network. (2) Task Force One's tactical database had been erased ages ago when the fleet was disbanded following the failed illegal incursion into Romulan space. (3) Admiral Teagarden was dead in the wake of said incident, and so was his maleficent agenda along with any subsequent override protocols. (4) Despite the full weight of Starfleet Intelligence backing the gag-order to Task Force One's surviving crew, Vic hadn't joined them on their final mission due to his incarceration following his kerfuffle with then-Commodore Kaito over forced modifications to the Freedom Star's engineering specifications. Therefore, he potentially still had control over any possible intelligence fragments that may exist within the holographic programs in front of them, IF he was able to further whittle-away the layers of security access. In this instance, the benefits outweighed the risks.
“Establish the subspace uplink,” directed Vic with determination. “Let's get to the bottom of this.”
“I'm putting a firewall program in place,” Nog held firm with his apprehension and distrust of the Kostya hologram. Without consulting the others, he invoked his authority and Operations Chief to protect the station's computer by dialing commands into the access keyboard nearest him. “If anything goes wrong, I want to be able to pull the plug on the comm system.”
Victor Virtus nodded silently in agreement. Once the link to the communication array was complete, he dictated another command to the hologram.
“Re-validate previous directive!” he bellowed to overcome the conversational occlusion buffers of the Shannon-facsimile. “Access level two information nodes! Task Force One command override Seven-Two-Alpha, voice authorization: Virtus-Freedom-Star-Omega-One-Three!”
“Communications network access confirmed,” the monotone voice of Shannon Harris replied. What occurred next was a curious set of verbal acknowledgements interspersed with the warbles and trills of a computer processing a complex series of algorithms. “Task Force One command access recognized… Uplink to Starfleet mainframe established… Code green detected… Interdiction Order one-two-two-four override engaged… Transferring command functions to contingency protocol NX-one-two-point-one-one-beta. Commencing emergency command holo-program upload…”
Without warning, the holographic image of Shannon Harris ceased it's verbose techno-babble and vanished in a wisp of photonic energy. A moment of shock and confusion befell the group of engineers. Before they were able to comprehend what had just happened, another hologram had vanished, that of Vladamir Kostya. Following that, the three engineers sprang into a flurry of remediation activities.
“Pull the plug!” ordered Vic.
Nog worked feverishly to comply, but a frown of frustration broke out across his face as he received a number of negative warbles from the engineering control console.
“The firewall has been bypassed!” he announced, his voice rising in anxiety. “The data streams have instituted a protocol-lock on the communications feed! I can't break into the flow of comm traffic to close the channel!”
“The programs are transferring themselves in individually-encoded data packets!” informed Doctor Zimmerman, who was monitoring the holographic projection console. “Wait until the current packet has completed transmitting, then try again! I'll boost your signal through the holomatrix!”
As the Ferengi engineer and doctor of holography worked in tandem to prevent another photonic disappearance, Vic watched on as two more holograms disappeared, all before the intercom came to life.
“Ops to Cargo Bay Thirty-Four!”
Captain Kira Nerys's voice was full of consternation as she harshly beckoned the trio.
“What the hell is going on down there? Your experiment just commandeered the station's main subspace transceiver! It's sending out a huge optical data stream over the communications network!”
“Override!” shouted a panicked Nog to the elder Zimmerman as another hologram disappeared in a wash of photons. “Where's the override??”
“I didn't design my console for a subspace uplink!” the doctor exclaimed angrily. “You need to switch data protocols and re-configure the holo matrix in parallel for reverse signal termination!”
Vic tensely watched the two men attempt emergency measures before turning back to watch a fifth holo-program disappear into the open subspace channel. While normally a patient man, the lieutenant commander's threshold for when to intervene had been exceeded, and chose to make his own attempt at curtailing the quickly-worsening situation while there were still interactive holograms left in the projection buffer.
“Emergency override!” he bellowed over the chaos. “Voice authorization: Virtus-Freedom-Star-Seven-One-Two!”
As suddenly as the chaos had manifested, the situation reversed itself. All control panels fell silent as Vic's interdiction forced the holo-programs to pause and consider his order, giving Nog enough room to deactivate the subspace uplink and Doctor Zimmerman to effectively reset the holo-buffers. Quiet descended upon the room as the three frantic engineers were left to stare at two remaining idle holograms: One of a white-haired Vulcan lieutenant commander in medical blue, and the other a red-haired freckle-faced teenager in a current-issue academy cadet jumpsuit.
“Commander,” Doctor Zimmerman finally said to Vic carefully. “What exactly just happened?”
Vic held up a finger to briefly hold the question in the air, as he addressed the looming presence of the Captain, with the rapid-fire confidence of an officer that has clearly had to smooth things over with superiors in the past.
“Apologies Captain. This is Victor Fifteen; that was my fault. Doctor Zimmerman asked me to assist with his research and I let a complex database query get away from me. I take full responsibility and have remanded myself into the custody of Lieutenant Commander Nog, who will have a full briefing in your hands in…” Victor stared pointedly at Nog, held up two fingers with one hand and a zero with the other.
“…Twenty minutes, Captain!”
There was a pregnant pause before she responded.
The time-conscious engineer picked up the discarded PADD, leaned a hip on the console and took a long, calming breath. “In answer to your question Doctor, I'm going to state something I rarely have the need nor opportunity to say: I have NO idea…”
LTCR Victor Xavier Virtus
Special Investigator at Large
Starfleet Inspectors General
Forensic Astrogation Division