The Road To Ruin (Story)
T H E . R O A D . T O . R U I N
THIS IS A FOLLOW-ON TO "PEAR SHAPED" BY PATRICKNGO.
Please read this amazing story first if you haven't already.
(Also read his stories "Orrosh" and "Coolng" for further background context.)
Please feel free to add your comments to this thread!
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Preamble: Regret Is a Beginning is post #2
Part I: Lost Along the Way is post #5
Part II: At the Borderline is post #7
Part III: Off the Pavement is post #13
Part IV: On the Cold Concrete is post #21
Part V: Down the Wrong Road is post #32
Part VI: So Far Away From Home is post #39
Part VII: Whatever May Fall is post #40
Part VIII: Only Hopes To Hold On is post #54
Part IX: Losing Only Dreams is post #81
Coda: Where All Roads Meet appears in LC #47
Part X: Remember On the Inside is post #105
Postscript: No Dead End In Sight appears in LC #48
Epitaph: The End of the Road is post #110
For those of you concerned about timelines, this takes place immediately following the conclusion of "Pear Shaped", about six weeks after my LC41 entry "Porcelain Hammer" and nearly simultaneously to patrickngo's story, "A Family Matter."
The saga continues in "The Chase" by patrickngo, takeshi6 and knightraider6 (with a few of my characters getting pulled into the mix.)
Also check out patrickngo's story "In the Shadow of the Light" set around the Hobus event, and featuring Jesu, Rusty and their father Carlos and starring "Uncle Ricky" and his family.
The Crew of the Tiburon:
* V. Adm. Jesu LaRoca :: Michael Pena
* Cmdr. Marq Sander (first officer, 1/2 Klingon) :: Chiwetel Ejiofor
* Cmdr. Fozz Ibear (second officer / ops chief, Andorian) :: Ron Perlman
* Cmdr. LaRoca Rusty (security chief, Deinon) :: voiced by Josh Hartnett
* Cmdr. Hector "Ming" Domingo (chief engineer) :: Benicio Del Toro
* Cmdr. Traa'cee (tactical officer, Vulcan) :: Carrie-Anne Moss
* LCdr. Yoann Teena (science officer, Bajoran) :: Sarah Clarke
* LCdr. Dr. Maria Espinoza (CMO) :: Adriana Barraza
* LCdr. Yumi (engineer, Ferengi) :: Faune A. Chambers
* Lt. "Hamlin" H'mL'n (tactical officer, Pentaxian) :: Abbie Cornish
* Lt. Pakray (tactical officer, Tellarite) :: Richard Ayoade
* Lt. Barrister (operations, android) :: Alan Tudyk
* Lt. "Sticks" Stikvaa (conn officer, Gorn) :: voiced by Ryan Reynolds
* Lt. Erick "Numbers" Marsolek (weapons officer) :: Carlo Rota
* Lt. Liow'an (Caitian, fighter pilot) :: voiced by Jim Cummings
* Lt. jg. K'lak (security officer, Klingon) :: Sean Patrick Flannery
* Lt. jg. Mitiani Zain (weapons officer, Cardassian) :: Mila Kunis
* Ens. Sorbin Zain (biologist, Cardassian) :: Seth Green
* Ens. Boris Erebia (shield distribution officer) :: Eric Balfour
* Spfc. Lesco (Tiburonian, archaeologist) :: David Cross
* Acting Lt. K'Jetsk (science officer and combat medic, Reman) :: Viggo Mortensen
* Acting Ens. Georgia Nguyen (MCDC defector) :: Chloe Grace Moretz
* Hank "Hacksaw" Miller (intelligence advisor) :: Kiefer Sutherland
* Ennari Dai (senior diplomatic advisor, joined Trill) :: Natalie Portman
* Stazratts (diplomatic advisor, Gorn) :: voiced by Scott Glenn
* Kugid (diplomatic advisor, Orion) :: Michael Chiklis
* Alejandro Cruz (chef) :: Danny Trejo
* And featuring Rudyard as himself
The Crew of the Norgh'a'Qun
* Gen. Ssharki (Gorn) :: voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman
* Cpt. Maddox (Gorn, first officer) :: voiced by Tim Roth
* Cmdr. Sway (Gorn, security chief) :: voiced by Ben Foster
* Cmdr. Abraham (Klingon/Human hybrid, chief engineer) :: Liev Schreiber
* LCdr. Dr. Tr'vayn (Klingon, CMO) :: Angela Basset
* LCdr. Anaarssen (Gorn, tactical officer) :: Tom Berenger
* Lt. Naja (Klingon, biologist) :: Meagan Tandy
* Wr. Jason "Blackheart" Carter (Human, conn officer) :: Tristan Wilds
* Bekk Cal (Gorn, junior engineer) :: voiced by Jimmy Bennett
* Dr. Xyoosix (Rigelian) :: Carol Kane
* Medic H'rassa (Ferasan) :: voiced by Rachel Weisz
* Hamlet (AI hologram, navigator) :: Cary Elwes
* Admiral Bill Davis (current director of STS) :: John Noble
* R. Adm. Greg Sander (former director of STS) :: Sam Rockwell
* Capt. Frank Grimes (STS program manager) :: Edward Norton
* Capt. Mackenzie Calhoun (DSK7 intel officer) :: Jeff Bridges
* Capt. Nguyen (Moab Militia) :: Nan Yu
* Cpt. Nine of Nine (Klingon / liberated Borg, CO of IKS Cha'bIp) :: Lennie James
* Cmdr. "Spitz" (Ferasan, executive officer, IKS Cha'bIp) :: voiced by Christopher Walken
* Lt. Dr. Malhul (Orion, CMO, IKS Cha'bIp) :: Omar Epps
* Lt. "Talby" T'aalb (Caitian, pilot) :: voiced by Hank Azaria
* Six of Eight (Liberated Borg, STS R&D engineer) :: Famke Janssen
* ATTICUS :: Gregory Peck ca. 1962
* Dr. Prol (Vulcan) :: Lance Henriksen
* T'Pinna (Vulcan priestess) :: Anna Silk
* Woldan (Klingon High Councilman) :: Louis Gossett Jr.
* Temek (Klingon, Director of Klingon Intelligence) :: Delroy Lindo
* Quentin Heywood (Moab Confederacy Deputy Minister) :: John Malkovich
* Professor Riklen (KAF Project Head) :: Sir Ian McKellan
* Mohs (Lethean, KAF project assistant) :: Michael Irby
* Franklin Drake :: Casper Van Dien
* Templar :: Roger Moore ca. 1960s
* Young Jesu LaRoca (age 14-18) :: Julian De La Celle
* Young Rusty (age 8-12) :: voiced by a younger Josh Hartnett (ca. 1999-2001)
* Nicci and Peter :: Maddie and Noah Lomax
* The Old Deinon :: voiced by Liam Neeson
Special Guest Appearances courtesy of patrickngo:
* Elizabeth Tran :: Maggie Q (?)
* Saul "Mouse" Moskovitz :: Mickey Rourke (?)
* Col. Uminoe Kicur :: Uma Thurman (?)
* Maj. Canh Truoc :: Dustin Nguyen
* Cpt. Cham Nguoc :: Al Leong (?)
* LCdr? Ssthoniq :: voiced by Cole Hauser (?)
* LCdr. Brogh :: Brandon T. Jackson
* Lt? Naasstha :: voiced by Vivica A. Fox
* Sgt. Dayyan :: Ken Leung
* Eighty-Six :: voiced by Kyra Sedgwick (?)
* Dr. Alice Okuda :: Devon Aoki
And Special Guest Appearances courtesy of marcusdkane:
* Cpt. Amanda Palmer :: Courtney Cox
* Cmdr. Brandon Mayer :: Jason Lewis
* Cmdr. Bellic Chanos :: Vin Diesel
* LCdr. Meliden Bowen :: Eve Myles
* Lt? Dr. Ben Kincaid :: Colin Farrell
* Ens. Todd Mitchell :: Thomas Dekker
* Ens. Tilly Campbell-Black :: Helen Flanagan
* Ens. T'Natra :: Gal Gadot
* Mid. Ramesh Kumar :: Dev Patel
* Ambassador S'rR's Kane :: Amy Smart
* Ahd'r I'sH'd :: Alexander Skarsgard
* Claire :: Lacey Chabert
Special Thanks to:
* patrickngo for his collaboration and numerous contributions to the story (which appear in yellow) and the use of his characters, and for providing the framework with his prior entries. I would not have the opportunity to share this story with you if it were not for his efforts
* marcusdkane for letting me create a Pentaxian for my bridge, and for answering all of my questions on Pentaxian biology and culture, and for suggesting and enabling the cross-collaboration with his LC #45 entry (also featuring the writing talents of superhombre777.) MDK's contributions appear in green in Part VIII. Also thanks for coming up with the name and casting suggestion for T'Pinna, the Vulcan priestess.
* you for reading! :cool:
Preamble: Regret Is a Beginning
Keep this on your mind
Keep it within your eyelids...
We have ascended countless stairs
Perhaps it has interrupted our thoughts
Regret is an inception
Regret is a beginning
Miles and miles of wires
Build the apparatus
But don't mistake
Power lines for shelter
And it will more than likely
Drink and binge the waters of the sea
Don't climb for a lifetime
Only to fall short of infinity
Everything is left with faith
Some minds are sand but I
I prefer concrete
This is what is going to separate us from them
Time for the next chapter...
Mike Hranica and Jeremy DePoyster of The Devil Wears Prada - "Gimme Half"
PREAMBLE: REGRET IS A BEGINNING
Personal Log, Vice Admiral Jesu LaRoca, Stardate 88188.11
With a temporary cease-fire in place following the rather... interesting results of the Risa summit, the Tiburon is patrolling the neutral zone to assess the strength and loyalty of the border colonies. Our objectives are to determine the risk of another Moab-type system-wide defection, and to take steps to mitigate such risks. On a side note, Cmdr. Traa'cee remains in a coma following her encounter with a Romulan neuroprobe. She is being treated at the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital in K'Lan-ne, on Vulcan. Acting Lt. K'Jetsk is with her, working with doctors and researchers to devise a treatment. Though unhappy about leaving her behind, Hacksaw Miller has agreed to accompany our patrol to provide strategic support for our objectives. Traa'cee's replacement meanwhile is having a difficult time assimilating with the crew. Lt. H'mL'n is a cultural exchange officer from the decidedly isolationist planet of Pentaxia. She is friendly enough, but has shown a marked disregard for the chain of command. While I must confess I have not had time to study her culture, she has made little if any effort to embrace ours. Alpha shift gets off in an hour. I plan to have a discussion with her then. Perhaps Marq could-
Jesu LaRoca looked up from his desk. The lighting flashed red, and the intercom simulated a klaxon to announce this was a real red alert and not a drill. He jumped for the door and stepped on the bridge.
"Admiral to the-" Cmdr. Marq Sander had started to call, when he spotted LaRoca approaching his seat. "Nevermind."
"What do we have, Marq?"
The first officer pointed to the viewscreen. "I've never seen one before, but I believe those are Fek'Ihri ships approaching on an attack vector."
"I have six contacts, unknown power signature," H'mL'n reported from TacOps. "They do correspond in shape, composition and EM emissivity to Fek'Ihri vessels such as those previously encountered by the USS Smedley Butler on Stardate-"
"Thank you, Hamlin," LaRoca interupted. "We get the idea."
"Sir, this battle group threatens multiple nearby inhabited systems," Marq observed, "including Ajilon, Moab, Seedea and Trimble. What are your orders?"
LaRoca sat in his command chair. "They are on an intercept course, are they not?"
"Correct, sir," H'mL'n confirmed. "Time to intercept, forty-seven seconds."
"Drop out of warp, raise shields, deploy fighter squadrons and shift reserve power to weapons," the Admiral ordered. I've already beaten the living dead, he thought, his mind drifting briefly toward Defera. He focused on the evil-looking ships on his viewscreen. "Let's see what these ghosts are made of."
* * *
Floating somewhere nearby, as silent and dark and cold as space itself, a little ship watched.
Enemy-Infrared contacts, course deviation, now heading oh-three-two-mark-plus-four...
She plotted seven hundred and sixteen possible targets along that new heading with a variability of plus-or-minus three degrees and isolated the most likely candidate.
Contact Enemy-White, squawking standard Federation transponder signals, identifying NCC-68636 USS Tiburon... targeted by Enemy-Infrared contact group with a probability of 93.9751%...
She called up memory files on the Tiburon, her commanding officer and senior staff and ran forty thousand combat simulations in the span of a microsecond, accounting for all known variables. She didn't like the results.
Survival probability of the Tiburon is 85.76%, but projected casualties are estimated at 36.24% of total crew with a 28.93% probability that V.Adm. Jesus L. LaRoca will be among the fatalities. That is unacceptable. Engaging.
While she waited for her warp drives to warm up, she allowed herself to consider about a hundred and sixty thousand different ways the fate of the galaxy would play out if Admiral LaRoca was removed from the equation. The results were negative in 98.9284% of the simulations.
No, that is completely unacceptable.
* * *
Oh, that big ship in the middle of the formation that looked like a hideous apartment building with fins certainly looked scary enough, but it was out of range for the time being. And the four smaller ships that looked like hell's version of box kites were annoying, but not too intimidating. The only thing that really scared LaRoca at the moment was the fangy little attack ship that was spraying cohesive anti-proton pulses all over the place. It had already taken out two of his fighters. The crews had beamed back aboard safely, but he did not want to take chances. He recalled the fighters and tucked them into the sheltered space between the Tiburon's warp nacelles. The evil Klingon demon warship responded with a withering barrage from its anti-proton cannons, reducing the Tib's forward shield strength by half with some minor bleed-through damage.
"Lock all weapons on Edward Scissorhands over there and let him have it," LaRoca ordered his tactical team.
Lt. "Numbers" Marsolek responded to Scissorhands in kind, concentrating the combined firepower of the Tiburon's quad phaser pulse cannons, dual heavy cannons, and twin turrets to strip away the enemy's shields. He followed the barrage with an overloaded shot from the phaser beam array, punching a hole clean through the Fek'Ihri cruiser's superstructure. Lt. jg. Mitani Zain capped it off with a quantum torpedo right down that hole. A good chunk of the vessel disappeared in a white flash, and ugly red flames burned it from the inside out.
"Sir!" H'mL'n spoke up. "The Smedley Butler's after-action report indicated that Fek'Ihri vessels carry tricobalt devices, which could explode when-"
LaRoca only heard the words "Tricobalt" and "Explode." He snapped at his helmsman. "Sticks! Back us up, full reverse! And pitch the nose down sixty degrees."
Lt. Stikvaa had already started the evasive maneuver. "If somebody could please divert auxiliary power to the inertial dampeners, that would be very helpful," the Gorn requested.
"On it!" called LCdr. Yumi from the engineering console.
While the Tiburon underwent a twenty-three-G rapid vector change, LaRoca used his HUD command interface to place his Peregrine-type fighters in the protected zone under the saucer, with plenty of space cushion so they wouldn't be pancaked into the ship when the shockwave struck. "All hands, brace for impact!"
The unholy fires that raged through the Fek'Ihri cruiser inevitably reached whatever that thing used as a power source. It went up in a fairly sizeable explosion, but that was just a primer charge for the tricobalt devices that followed with a staggered sympathetic detonation. The shockwave hammered the Tiburon, but the shields, structural integrity field, auto-polarized hull and inertial dampeners all worked to hold the ship together and protect her crew. And the fighters were tucked in soundly under the saucer's shadow. One of the box kites had gotten too close to its bigger, uglier cousin and had been vaporized.
"Damage report?" La Roca demanded.
"Minimal," LCdr. Yoann Teena reported from her station.
"Target the box kites, prepare to-"
"Sir!" H'mL'n cut the Admiral off. "Look!"
LaRoca would have let Marq give the exchange officer a strongly worded lecture on proper bridge etiquette but he and the rest of the bridge crew were mesmerized by what they saw on the screen. The finned apartment building was launching streams of... things at them. Some could have resembled fightercraft from a neo-cubist frame of reference, but the others... "What the hell are those things?"
"Whatever they are, they're coming in fast," Marq observed.
LaRoca looked over at Lt. Marsolek. "Don't just sit there, shoot them!"
Numbers sprayed the enemy craft with phaser fire. The fighter-things were shot down in droves, but the glowing red things with faces and claws were unaffected. They passed right through the shields and started assaulting the hull, ripping at it like cats attacking a paper bag.
"Hull breach! Deck E three port!" Yumi reported. "Another one, deck four, section twenty-"
"Sticks, get us away from theses damned things!" LaRoca ordered. "Zain, drop a mine trail. And Boris, try reversing the shield polarity - see if that keeps them off our backs."
"I can't get away from them sir, they're everywhere!" Stikvaa exclaimed.
"There's still a bunch of them clinging to the hull, sir!" Yoann reported.
LaRoca noted that Zain's quantum mines had destroyed a number of the red ghouls. He instructed his fighters to set their quantum torpedo warheads to minimum yield, and then very carefully pick the nasty things off Tiburon's back. The ship was rocked by the near-hits.
"What the - our own ships are shooting at us!"
"It's okay, Hamlin," LaRoca assured his tactical officer. "Teena, are they gone?"
"That did it. They're breaking off from us and going after the Peregrines."
LaRoca ordered his fighters to warp a short distance away. "Miss Zain, press The Button right... now."
"But I was saving that for-"
"Now ******mit, NOW!!"
Lt. jg. Mitani Zain pressed the button that deployed the Torpedo Point Defense System. A moment later, no fewer than forty-eight concentrated antimatter reactions split the sky, annihilating the red demon-things, and anything else that happened to be within 10km of the Tiburon at that moment.
Marq exhaled a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding.
"Alright." LaRoca checked the HUD and issued his next orders. "Turn us back towards that carrier, and prepare-"
"Uh, sir?" Hamlin interrupted again.
Again LaRoca was again too distracted to enforce discipline. Because the Fek'Ihri carrier had just launched another stream of fighters and ephemeral beings at his ship, from behind him, and this time there was also a massive tricobalt device on its way. "Now that's just not playing fair," he said.
* * *
The little ship observed the battle with her long-range sensors. The Tiburon had performed well so far, better than over 93% of her simulations predicted. But the Starfleet warship was ill-equipped to deal with the enormous carrier vessel the Klingons called a Drek'Hi and what she classified as an Infrared-Dreadnought. The massive carrier launched its second wave seconds before she dropped out of warp. Seconds to prepare her response. Seconds that seemed like millennia.
I wonder how an ant feels when it's staring up through a magnifying glass? she pondered as she launched the slowest of her countermeasures - a sensor-scrambling probe. In five excruciatingly long seconds it would impact the dreadnought, causing it to target its own escort craft, and visa-versa. She ran a cross-referenced search on the words "ant" and "glass" through her library databank while she used a carefully modulated graviton pulse to create an artificial gravity well at a specific point in space. That point was directly in the path of the wave of death and mutilation rushing towards the Tiburon. S'kul-type fighters, the anomalous contacts that the Klingons supposed were the tortured souls of the dishonored and one high-yield tricobalt torpedo all fell into the gravity well together and died in a neatly contained little cataclysm. Her search returned numerous hits on the 19th-Century English author Lewis Carroll. She studied his novel "Through the Looking Glass" with great interest while she watched the dreadnought rip its Fer'Jai frigate-escorts apart with anti-proton beams and chroniton torpedoes. She was disappointed to discover no reference to her question about the ant.
The dreadnought finally took notice of her and its guiding intelligence sent her a nasty screaming worm of a program. She intercepted it, suspended it, dissected it, repurposed it, enhanced it, and sent it back the way it came, to chew its creator up from the inside out. She waited until the malicious program disrupted the dreadnought's shield grid, and then she fired her weapons. All of them. As she watched the spread of quantum torpedoes impact her target, she decided that however the ant might feel under a magnifying glass, it must be very similar to how whatever commanded that Fek'Ihri ship must feel now.
She left the Infrared-Dreadnought to die and turned her attention toward the White-Heavy-Escort-Carrier. It had survived the engagement with surprisingly little damage. She felt its sensors probing at her hull. I'm afraid I can't allow that, she thought. I was never here. I exist only as a figment of your imagination. She prepared her deflector array to fire a subnucleonic beam. You're only dreaming me here, O Red King. The moment you wake up, I shall cease to be...
* * *
"Oh my holy God on fire," LaRoca muttered. He stood up and demanded "Did that just happen? Did that little Miranda just-"
"Sir!" H'mL'n interrupted, yet again. "It's targeting us!"
A beam of blue light from the Miranda's deflector lanced out at the Tiburon's bridge and then... LaRoca found himself slumped his chair, the bridge dimly illuminated by emergency lighting and flickering consoles. Gradually he became aware of his bridge officers shouting things at him. Things like:
"Shield distribution is down, hell, scratch that - shields are totally down..." - Boris.
"We've lost sensors, weapons power, shield power now, auxiliary's not giving me anything..." - Hamlin.
"...No helm control! I don't even have thrusters. We're drifting..." - Sticks.
"...No sensors, no target lock. No target lock, no explosions..." - Zain.
"...I can't get through to engineering, or anyone..." - Yumi.
"...Damn virus is just eating through our systems like our firewalls are made of paper..." - Teena.
LaRoca leaped to his feet waved his hands and yelled "SHUT UP! Everybody just shut up for a minute." They did. The Admiral walked right up to the viewscreen, which had been depolarized and was now functioning as a mere window. But since Human senses appeared to the only functional sensors aboard his ship, it offered the best way for him to get a look at his nemesis.
It was definitely a Miranda-class frigate. But it had clearly been subjected to a thoroughly modern retrofitting program. The oversized warp nacelles looked like they'd be better-matched to his ship than a century-old light cruiser. He'd seen the Miranda's weapons in action - clearly a massive upgrade over the original systems. And the utter havoc it had wrought with both the Fek'Ihri and the Tiburon... And yet the frigate looked like it should be falling out of the sky. It showed several hull breaches and most of its veiwports were unlit. Its paint had at one point been a bright glossy white, but that had been covered up with a layer of matte black. Its paint had been burned off in streaks on the saucer and crossbar. He could see part of a name and registry number under the black paint. Cyr__o__al... NC__18__1. Elsewhere he saw a new designation stenciled in light gray over the black paintjob: NX-86. This was the ship that held his at mercy.
"Hail them," he ordered.
"Sir, I can't!" Hamlin replied. "Comms are down too."
"Well then crack open a window and wave a white flag."
The lights came back on. LaRoca heard and felt power surging through his ship to the consoles.
"Admiral, all systems are normal!" Yumi announced.
"Raise shields, lock all weapons on that ship, and-" NX-86 backed up and turned away from the Tiburon, formed a slipstream bubble around itself, and disappeared from normal space. LaRoca sighed. "Nevermind." He turned around to face his bridge crew, pointed with his thumb back at the empty view screen and asked "Can anyone please tell just what the **** was that?"
wow, at the risk of being vain, that was great.
Good story. I was thinking this could be a pre season doom thread at first. I'm suprised the pre season STO doomsayers haven't been haunting the forum this close to the new release.:confused:
Part I: Lost Along the Way
Six figures enter
They've come to destroy the world
They've called together
This storm almost every night
(And I awake in another place)
A familiar voice with a stranger's face speaks
(I awake in another place)
More unheard words
What new friends will the day bring?
One for one thousand acquainted
What new hope will the night bring?
When it all comes down you just throw the bones
(On the way)
I saw five hours of sleep
(On the way)
But your fire makes it all worthwhile
(On the way)
I wrote words for you to keep
(On the way...)
I saw myself
Lost myself along the way
And you won't find me...
Davey Havok, Hunter Burgan and Jade Puget of AFI - "6 to 8"
PART I: LOST ALONG THE WAY
Eighteen Months Ago...
Drozana Station - Stardate 86728.72 (09.24.2409, 0233 hours Qo'noS time)
"It's done," Temek said. "You're able to uphold your half of the bargain, Frank?"
Franklin Drake nodded. "Yeah. The Prototype's been re-tasked and you've got your security zone sorted out - the peace talks should work out now... how are your pet Radicals getting on?"
Temek shrugged. "Not my problem, to be honest. There was some grumbling in the High Council when they showed up petitioning for entry into the Empire as an Auxiliary State - apparently House Duras was hoping to use that flying fortress of theirs to smash what was left of these people into wet, quivering pieces that could be parted out and given to friends, but B'Vat turned up and saved them."
"Isn't he... missing?" Drake asked.
Temek smiled. "I don't ask you for your tricks, Frank. Let's just say I was able to get Ambassador B'Vat to turn up at an opportune moment and leave it at that."
"I still don't get why you wanted that rock," Drake commented. "It's not even strategic ground anymore - the Ker'rat offensive pretty much cornered it deep inside your holdings."
The Klingon Intelligence chief set his drink down, and looked into Franklin Drake's eyes. "We have other enemies - older ones, and that world holds one of the keys to defeating them. By avoiding the need to bombard it from orbit, we were able to secure certain... sites... as part of the Garrison and Government complex."
Drake's eyes went kind of liquid for a moment as the Changeling contemplated what the Klingon was saying. "Fek'Ihri..." he/it said softly.
"Keep it off the record," Temek stated, "or certain... files might suddenly turn up in Starfleet's intelligence databases, where the Undine and the Dominion agents permeating that organization can find them... and neither of us wants that, do we? Yes, Frank, there are things on that rock, and in that system, that tie back to the days of the H'urq, things that may tie to the re-emergence of the Fek'Ihri and their attack on Qo'noS."
"There have been encounters with Starfleet as well..." Drake mused, after his eyes had returned to normal. "You will keep me informed of what develops?"
"I will send you a more comprehensive briefing package along the usual channels," Temek promised. "Frank, whatever the Fek are up to, it's big. That Undine infiltrator that Ssharki flushed out of Woldan's camp confessed that the Undine are working with the Fek. I don't like it when my enemies conspire against my people."
"Like me, you prefer it when your enemies conspire with you," Drake said with a small smile. He stood up to leave. "Don't keep me hanging, Temek. I have a few files on you as well." He tapped his communicator. "Saint, beam me up."
After the transporter glow faded, a Gorn at the table behind Temek turned spoke in gravely whisper. "Are you sure it's wise to bring Drake into Mountain Road? We have what we need from him."
"I believe that what we find on Moab will expose the connection between the Fek'Ihri and the Undine, and more," Temek said. "If what your Undine friend said about the Atlas is true, it should be there as well."
"A map to an interdimensional invasion?" Major General Ssharki shook his head incredulously. "Not even the Iconians had the technology to accomplish anything like that."
"True, but either way, what we find there should either expose the Undine on it's own, or make them desperate enough to expose themselves to stop us. Somebody in the Federation needs to be prepared to catch the infiltrators over there."
Ssharki snorted. "Drake at least knows the Undine threat is real enough. But he's hardly in a position to do much about it."
"Don't be so sure, HoHwI' BatlhHa'. Like me, Drake is a web-spinner. Power and influence comes from the most unlikely of places. You of all people should know this. Would you have imagined a year ago that you would have risen to command your own hand-picked squadron? That you'd become gin'tak to a Great House?"
"No," Ssharki admitted.
Temek nodded. "If there is to be peace between our governments, the Undine must first be removed. Drake must know what we know."
"Who else?" Ssharki asked.
"Woldan is aware, obviously," Temek answered. "And my agent in the Archaeology Foundation will need to be suitably briefed before the excavation on Moab can begin. And I'd like for you to brief one of your rovers, in case anything happens to you."
"I'll speak with D'Moj," Ssharki said.
"No, not her."
Ssharki's eyes narrowed. "D'Moj brought us the Moab System."
"So she knows too much already. And her... family... may complicate things. Someone more disciplined would be preferable. Kicur."
Ssharki dipped his head. "Very well."
"That's just six."
"Eight," Ssharki countered. "I'll be telling Sway and Cal."
Temek sighed. "Must you?"
"I keep no secrets from my sons," the Gorn reminded the head of Klingon Intelligence. "Besides, they have a way of keeping me on the right path."
USS Tiburon, Donatu Sector - Stardate 88190.68 (03.10.2411, 1424 hours Standard Time)
Admiral LaRoca sat at his ready-room desk, drinking his eighteenth dose of coffee in the last thirty-three hours. This one was an iced triple espresso white mocha. About twenty-three hours had passed since the Tiburon encountered a Fek'Ihri fleet, and something else that was even more inexplicable than space-faring monsters from the Klingon underworld. He tried to pay attention to his science officer's report, but he was distracted by his Andorian ops officer who was standing behind her chair and staring out into space, and his security chief almost silently pacing the floor just outside his field of vision.
". . . There's absolutely no remaining trace of the virus that crippled us," LCdr. Teena Yoann concluded.
LaRoca noticed that she had stopped talking and recalled the part of her report that interested him most. "But the sensor logs were tampered with."
"Not just tampered with," the Bajoran science officer clarified, "erased, and in a very specific way." She tapped the Admiral's desktop surface monitor to replay what the computer recorded of the events of yesterday afternoon. "There's the gravity well the mystery ship used to save us from that load of unholy crap that was thrown at us. There's the probe it fired at the carrier to make its targeting sensors go bonkers. And there's the carrier just rolling over and exploding for no apparent reason. As for the ship that caused all of this, then stunned us with a subnuke beam and shut us down with that virus... nada."
LaRoca nodded and sipped his coffee. Normally he was amused by the way the Bajoran woman adopted his lingo. But today he was not in the mood to be amused. "Alright. What about the status of those repairs?" He looked up at his senior operations officer, Cmdr. Ibear.
"We've sealed the hull breaches internally and repaired all damaged systems" he reported as he took a seat next to Yoann's. "I'm waiting until we're stationary to repair or replace the damaged hull plating. Weirdly, none of the areas the... um... whatevers attacked were covering vital systems. They totally ignored the bridge, main engineering, the nacelles, weapon systems, shield generators..."
"So they're idiots," the Admiral figured.
"There's more," the Andorian went on. "Everywhere they attacked, there was a full-blooded Klingon at a post nearby."
"So... huh." LaRoca stared at his coffee and wished someone would hurry up an invent something stronger than espresso. "I'm sorry, Fozz. I don't know what to make of that."
"Neither do I. Uh, there was one other thing. Marq asked me to save him the most gouged-up piece of hull so he could send it to Starfleet Tactical Systems to analyze."
"Why would STS be interested in a hunk of monotanium that was torn up by those... whatevers?"
Cmdr. Fozz Ibear shrugged. "Apparently the Butler managed to snag a fightercraft during their encounter. Marq says that Frank Grimes says that STS is going to try and reverse-engineer it. Like what the Klingons did to make their Kar'Fi carrier copies. The junior version of the ship we fought."
"Alright." Admiral LaRoca suppressed a yawn. "Let him take all the scans he wants. I want Barrister to help with his analysis, and work with Ming to develop countermeasures to prevent those things from getting through or shields and hull again. Teena, if your duty schedule permits, help them out."
The officers nodded.
"Anything else?" the Admiral asked.
Yoann spoke "Dr. Espinoza says that Senior Specialist Hulian Zur will pull through and is expected to make a full recovery. Most of the other injured crew are ready to return to duty, except Petty Officer Kalii, who had a crushed antenna, and Master Chief Dulmar, who broke his leg."
"How long will Marion be out of commission?" The Admiral wondered. MCPO Marion Dulmar was his best systems engineer. Then thinking about sickbay made him consider getting the doctor to hook him up with an intravenous caffeine drip.
"No more than three days," Yoann answered.
"Very well. If there's no further business, you're both dismissed. Uh, Fozz, send me a copy of the duty sheet for your EVA repair crew."
"Yessir," the Andorian nodded as he followed the science officer out.
LaRoca drained his coffee, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He tried to let the sound of gurgling water in his aquarium relax him, but he could still hear his little brother pacing the room. Even though the Deinon was capable of moving in almost total silence, his toe claws dragged audibly on the carpet fibers. "Rust, I don't know what you're going to wear out first, the carpet or my nerves."
Cmdr. LaRoca Rusty froze in his tracks and looked at his brother. "You didn't sleep at all last night, did you?"
Jesu answered with a short laugh. "I'm not convinced I haven't dreamed this entire thing. But to answer your question, no. I spent the entire night in this room, in this chair, with the lights off drinking coffee. Because I was convinced that the moment I fell asleep, you would page me from the bridge and say 'It's back.'"
"The Fek'Ihri scared you that much?"
"I'm not afraid of any Klingon, living or undead. What scares me is that little Miranda-class. Yoann's mystery ship. That ship was able to completely shut us down and could have left us as a cloud of incandescent vapor if it wanted to. This ship has squared off with Borg tactical cubes, Romulan warbirds, Jem'Hadar dreadnoughts and the biggest, baddest battlecruisers the Klingons can build. Nothing has ever ****ed us up the way that Miranda did."
"Marq will talk to Grimes about that too," Rusty mentioned. "He seems pretty sure it's some sort of black project that's gone off the reservation."
"If there's a rogue prototype loose in the neutral zone I want to know why I wasn't informed," Jesu growled.
His inbox pinged to alert him to a new message. He read it in a glance, frowned, and read it again, this time focusing on every word. He looked up. "Helm, how soon can we be in the Drozana system?"
"Erm, about three-and-a-half hours at maximum warp, sir," Lt. Stikvaa replied over the intercom.
"What if we use the slipstream drive?"
"Superwarp would put is in-system in forty-seven minutes, sir."
"Make it happen, Sticks. I want to be parked across the system from that old space station sooner than humanly possible."
"No problem, sir."
"What's going on?" Rusty wondered.
Jesu copied the message to his desktop and slid it toward his adopted brother.
"Huh," Rusty said after reading. "That's a little abrupt for Ssharki, isn't it?"
"Tell me about it," the Admiral muttered. His friend General Ssharki usually filled his letters with eloquent prose, reminiscing about their past adventures or how much he missed baseball, and he always signed off with the line "May success always find you."
Rusty ran a backtrace on the message. "It did originate from I.K.S. Norgh'a'Qun, and it came in on channel whiskey-zero-seven, your private diplomatic channel. The only people in the KDF with access to that are Ssharki and Ambassadors Worf, K'Dhan and S'taass, am I right?"
"Last I checked. But what worries me is that he didn't say what he wants to talk about. I've sent him delta-level-classified security reports on that channel. He knows it's secure. So why doesn't he just say what's on his mind?"
"I guess we'll have to ask him."
Jesu swiveled his chair away from his brother, but watched his reflection in the glass wall of his shark tank. "Not 'we' - I'm going alone."
"WHAT!?" Rusty instinctively crouched into an attack posture, but forced himself to relax and spoke as calmly as he could manage. "Jesu, you know I can't allow that. Drozana Station is-"
"A den of thieves, fully licensed by the Ferengi Commerce Authority."
"I was going to call it a wretched hive of scum and villainy. It's the magnet for every low-life and degenerate in the Beta Quadrant. The prostitutes are as likely to stab you to death as they are to give you a crippling venereal disease. And on every second Tuesday certain overpriced drinks come with a side order of lobotomy patient."
"I do occasionally read criminal activity reports," Jesu grumpily reminded his brother. "And I've been there a few times before. I know what I'm walking into."
"When you go to Drozana, you're always looking for somebody. You're not looking at everyone who's looking at you. The only reason no one's messed with you before is because you've always had me and a heavily-armed security team at your heels."
Jesu was tired of arguing. "Ssharki said 'keep it quiet.' That means he wants to be discreet. You're not discreet."
"I could be," the 2.2m dromaeosaur argued. "I could use a personal holoemitter."
"Right, until someone steps on your tail, or an Orion bouncer starts talking tough and you lose your temper and pull his liver out."
Rusty made a soft grunt that Jesu knew was his attempt to cover a laugh. "At least take Amraam along. He'd be discreet enough for you - a Ferengi on a Ferengi station."
"I don't like Amraam," Jesu countered, "and I don't want him listening in on our conversation."
Rusty shrugged. "K'lak then. He's quiet enough, for a Klingon, and I know he'll have your back."
"If you insist," the Admiral sighed as he slowly rose from his seat.
"Have him meet me in shuttlebay three, in off-duty attire, in thirty. I'm gonna change out of this uniform."
Rusty watched his brother leave, then turn back to the fish tank. Rudyard the leopard shark was hovering, staring at him with his coppertoned eyes. "You're damn right I'm worried about him," he told the shark. "My brother is scared, confused, sleep-deprived and walking into what smells like a carefully-laid trap. And I can't do a damned thing about it."
Admiral LaRoca crossed the bridge, pausing in front of Stikvaa's conn station to check their progress across the Donatu Sector. He reached the turbolift just as it opened to deposit Lt. H'mL'n.
LaRoca stood in her way. She tried to step around him, but he shuffled quickly to block her path. They danced around each other for a few seconds before the exasperated Pentaxian finally said "Admiral, I need to return to my post, if you'll excuse me-"
LaRoca stepped aside, and turned to watch her approach the TacOps station. "Hamlin, what were those last two words you said to me?"
Jesu nodded. "Remember those for the next time you feel the need to interrupt me, for any reason."
"Yes, sir." H'mL'n blushed.
Jesu LaRoca glanced around the bridge, catching the amused looks on the faces of his other officers. "Carry on."
Drozana System - Forty minutes later
Admiral LaRoca and K'lak had just departed for the Ferengi station aboard the Admiral's personal runabout. The rest of the crew took the opportunity to make repairs to the Tiburon's outer hull, under the supervision of deputy chief of operations Lt. Barrister.
"'One size fits all' - my fat, scaly ass!" Lt. Stikvaa complained as he tried to squeeze himself into an EV suit. "I just got off duty. How'd I get signed up for this?"
"As my former roommate, you're one of the people on this ship I am most familiar with," Barrister tried to explain. "That is, I consider you to be a friend. And as a friend, I've taken an interest in your career advancement. And I noticed that you have not yet met your annual required minimum for extra-vehicular activity or zero-gravity repair training. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to rectify that."
The Gorn conn officer glared at the android. "Thanks, Barrister."
"You're welcome, Sticks," Barrister replied happily, missing the sarcasm. "By the way, if you are having difficulty with your suit, pressing the power tab on your left wrist will send a current through the electrogel lining, expanding or contracting the suit to fit."
"That would have been good to know before I neutered myself pulling the legs on," Sticks grumbled. He pressed the tab and immediately felt his limbs being crushed.
"Other way!" Barrister told him.
"I can't move!" Stikvaa's arms were being pulled into his torso. He started to panic. "Help! Help! I'm being compressed!"
Barrister seized his wrist and toggled the switch to the reverse position.
Sticks took a deep breath. "Thank you for making me a part of this."
* * *
Jesu LaRoca steered the Zambezi toward the old station. Originally built by the Federation in he mid-23rd Century, the station had changed hands often and now found itself run by Belan the Ferengi. It looked like it was coming apart at the seams. One of the habitat modules had broken away from the station and was tethered on by only a few old conduits.
"If Belan recognizes me, he might draw attention to me," LaRoca told his security officer. "You'll need to distract him while I slip into the bar."
"How do you want me to do that?" K'lak asked.
"Use your imagination, but don't get violent," LaRoca told him. "Just act like a Klingon merchant out for a good time."
"I'm meeting with a Gorn. He'll probably have his son with him. These guys aren't threats. The threat is everyone else in the room. I want you to sit at the bar and keep your eye on anyone who's got their eyes on me."
"That's what your brother told me, sir," K'lak said. "He also told me to assume we're walking into a trap."
"That's probably a little paranoid, but a little paranoia never hurt anyone."
STS Storm Station, Lunar Orbit - Same time
Captain Frank Grimes slammed the door to his office. It was a real door, made of real wood, with a real door knob to open and that required a real key to lock it. He landed heavily in his leather rolling chair and reached into the bottom drawer of his antique desk and fished out a bottle of Irish whiskey and a cut-crystal tumbler. He brimmed the glass and drained it. He knew it was a bad idea. He had no idea what time it was. He felt tired and sick. He didn't care. He felt the alcohol permeate his body as he refilled the glass.
It's not fair, he thought. I should be on vacation. I deserve at least a week off, after what that ****ing Romulan did to me... but I owed Mac Calhoun a favor, and he had let some sort of A.I.-controlled ship get away... and so now I need to track down some poor neuroin junkie if I can figure out what... Delta has done with her... his thoughts were chaos. "Atticus, I need you."
"I am here." ATTICUS - Advanced Transitive Turing Interface, Cognitive Universal Sentience - was always there. As he had been there for nearly four hundred years. Originally an accidental breakthrough in creating an intuitive learning algorithm; in the mid-Twenty-First Century someone had installed him on the first useful quantum computer mainframe and gave him direct net access and his intelligence and knowledge had grown exponentially.
"Open a running log, tie in to Prime at Olympus for cross-referencing and analysis. Begin." Where to begin? Where did this start? "Project Eighty-Six." What's the story with Project Eighty-Six? I asked Bill that question last week.
"You don't want to know," he said.
"Not even a hint?" I asked.
"Beleive me. You don't want to know."
Well I have to know...
"Project Eighty-Six is, as near as I can tell, a shipboard artificial intelligence platform capable of fully autonomous operation. According to Mac, it is integrated into a retrofit Miranda-class light cruiser. As of Stardate 87611, this vessel has been out of contact with its controllers at Deep Space K-7. It is believed to be responsible for the destruction of at least the USS Baltimore and as many as three other Starfleet vessels in the neutral zone over the course of the last two months. Furthermore a heavily-modified Miranda-class was recently picked up by the sensors of the USS Guantanomo of Task Force Omega, in company with a flotilla of KDF ships including those of the House of Tran, apparently engaged in the rescue of prisoners held by the Undine. Evidence suggests that Projected Eighty-Six was hijacked by forces of the KDF. Its last response to Starfleet orders placed it at Drozana Station, where multiple KDF vessels and members of the as-yet unaligned House of Tran were present."
A tiny voice in the back of his mind screamed at him. Too obvious. Some other thoughts entered his mind... something Director O'Connell once said. And the holovids of Elizabeth Tran's antics at the Risa conference... Too much clutter. He pushed the stray thoughts away and concentrated on the next topic. "I have only one point of contact for Project Eighty-Six. Dr. Alice Okuda, former fellow of the Daystrom Institute, later taught ethical theory of computational systems at Starfleet Academy. Parents deceased. Medical discharge on Stardate 85596 when it was revealed that she was struggling with a neuroin addiction. A friend had her committed to a recovery center on Titan..." Grimes thought back a few days, remembering the pain he detected in Marq Sander's voice as he described his former girlfriend. He had loved her, as much as the combination of Klingon and Vulcan in him tried to hide it. "She was removed from the program three months later by the... operative identified as Franklin Drake. She was later listed among those involved with Project Eighty-Six. End log. Analyze and report."
While he waited for Atticus to process the information, Grimes swallowed more whiskey, ignoring the burning sensation as the alcohol scorched his throat and splashed into his empty stomach. It didn't make sense. His mind again flashed back to his last conversation with Marq... "Frank, she's bad news, why are you looking for her?" Marq had asked.
"That's... too classified to talk about on an open channel," I said "But I can say that someone with her name, her face, her DNA profile and her degrees was working on a classified project as recently as last year."
"Impossible, nobody undergoing treatment for that could hold a security clearance," Marq insisted. I know he was right about that. "Either the dates on the project are wrong, or someone made a mistake listing her. Not that she wasn't smart enough to handle classified research, but..." the pain crept back into Marq's voice "it's Neuroin. Nobody recovers from that. If she was involved, it means your 'classified project' was related to artificial intelligence research - the kind you don't let a junkie touch..."
Atticus came back. "Analysis complete. You are not going to like this, Frank."
Grimes closed his eyes, leaned back and massaged his temples. "Let's hear it."
"Based on the available information, the most likely explanation for rogue actions of Project Eighty-Six is indeed KDF subversion, as you surmised. However, the probability of Section Thirty-One involvement introduces multiple variables that cannot be fully accounted for, and limits the viability of this analysis to a sixty-eight-percent probability with an unacceptable margin of error. Dock your PADD and take a look at this."
Grimes slipped his PADD sideways into a slot on his desk.
"Yeah, I saw that," Grimes told his AI. "That's why I asked Bill about it. The Shipyard Continuation Budget is the fund we draw from for own dark projects, like PORCELAIN."
"Yes, well, in this case, based on budgetary analysis, voting records from the Starfleet Procurement Committee and other identifiable trends, I am over ninety-six percent certain that the redacted organization is in fact the Starfleet Technical Intelligence Group."
Grimes nodded. STIG had been the cover organization for Section 31 since they got flushed out of normal SI during the Dominion War.
"Additionally," Atticus went on, "cross-referencing all available files has turned up some rather disturbing information concerning Dr. Okuda's colleagues on the program in question."
A series of Starfleet personnel files flashed across the PADD-monitor, with relevant information highlighted.
Grimes leaned forward and frowned. "The hell?"
"What the flying hell!?"
"What the holy ****ing hell!!" Grimes reeled, pushing himself away from his desk as though trying to escape the horrible pattern. "Delta, what the **** have you been doing?"
Even in ragged civilian attire, K'lak had the unmistakable presence of a warrior. The old but serviceable Klingon disruptor pistol holstered on his right hip and the trusty d'k tahg sheathed on the other side reinforced this image. He walked straight up to Belan in his host booth and demanded access to a holosuite. The Ferengi tried haggling over the price to rent a suite for an hour and the Klingon soon lost patience. "You try to swindle me, Ferengi!" he declared. "Nevermind! I will go to the bar and drink bloodwine until I can imagine myself at the Battle of Klach D'Kel Brakt!" He stomped away muttering curses and insults to the Ferengi and his mother.
Meanwhile Jesu LaRoca slipped into the room. Belan was apparently renovating the place but it was every bit as seedy as ever. There were a few nearly-naked Orion females dancing on the bar with one totally naked (and totally drunk) human male. There were a few strange looking aliens running around with fire suppression devices and they did not look like they were part of Belan's maintenance crew. One table was completely buried under a pile of tribbles. There were a few Federation civilians and a couple of Cardassians but there were a lot more Orions and Nausicaans. Jesu kept his hands in his pockets. In his right pocket he had a type-1 hand phaser. In his left he kept a Philipino folding knife known as a balisong, or butterfly knife. He spotted Ssharki and Sway seated at a table near the far wall, next to the door to the dabo lounge. He took a seat across the table from the General with his back to the room. "Good evening, gentle lizards," he greeted them.
"How do you do, mammal," Ssharki returned the joke. "So what did you want to talk about?"
"What did I want to talk about?" Jesu repeated.
"You sent a message saying we needed to talk," Ssharki said. "So what's up?"
A whirling steel blade appeared in LaRoca's left hand as he twisted in his seat to fend off his attackers. A laughing young Gorn named Sway grabbed the Human's wrist as he pulled his phaser. Jesu relaxed. There was nobody behind him. Nobody was paying any attention to him at all.
"As S'Yahazah lives, Jesu, I don't think I've ever seen you so jumpy," Ssharki chuckled - a terrifying sound coming from a 2.6m Gorn soldier. "The Fek'Ihri and that Starfleet ghost ship must have unnerved you a great deal."
"You know about that?" LaRoca asked suspiciously as he returned his weapons to his pockets.
"The KDF had an observer nearby," Cmdr. Sway said. Ssharki's adopted son was also his chief of security. His father kept nothing from him.
"Like a cloaked bird-of-prey or something?"
"Or something," Ssharki shrugged. "Anyway, that encounter of yours is what I called you here to discuss. I apologize for my message being so terse, but I had to limit myself to a burst transmission. I didn't want Klingon Intelligence to know I'm meeting you here."
"I thought you worked for Klingon Intelligence."
"That's what they think too," Ssharki announced casually. "That only means I have to guard my secrets better than ever."
"Speaking of intelligence," Sway spoke up, "did you really come here without a security escort?"
"No, I've got a guy in the room," LaRoca said.
At that moment, K'lak shouted "Who's ugly moogie do I have to kiss to get a Hu'tegh bottle of bloodwine around here?"
"That's my guy," Jesu told the Gorn.
"I thought I said to keep it quiet," Ssharki grumbled.
"I am. K'lak is here to keep people's attention away from us. And you take a long time to say nothing."
Ssharki sighed. "Do you have a PADD?"
"Yeah." LaRoca pulled a compact display device from a pouch on his belt.
Ssharki produced his own Dominion War-era Starfleet-issue full-size PADD from inside his jacket, tapped it against LaRoca's and returned it. The near-field communication interface delivered a large file to the smaller handheld computer. "That's everything we know about the Fek'Ihri and their recent activities."
LaRoca thumbed through the pages of dense text, images and maps until something caught his eye. "Moab?"
Ssharki nodded. "There's Fek'Ihri ruins on Moab III that date back to before the time of Molor and Kahless. And we think that somehow the close proximity of two very dense dwarf stars in that system creates a sort of interphasic rift that allows Fek'Ihri ships to enter our reality."
"Thanks for this, Ssharki. My people will find this extremely helpful."
"Now it's time for you to return the favor," Ssharki said softly. "What do you know about the old Federation cruiser that saved you from the Fek'Ihri carrier, then turned around and shut you down?"
Jesu sighed. "Not much I'm afraid. Our sensor logs of that ship were wiped. It was a Miranda-class frigate, with more firepower than a ship of that size has any right to have, and some very impressive electronic warfare capabilities. To be honest, I was more afraid of it than I was of the Fek'Ihri carrier."
"So you don't know where it came from?" Ssharki asked. "Or why it turned on you?"
LaRoca shook his head. "I was going to ask STS about it. I suspect it's some sort of technology testbed that got hijacked."
Ssharki looked at his adopted son. Sway nodded. "Admiral LaRoca is telling the truth. There is no lie in his eyes. He doesn't know about Eighty-Six."
"I think you should go to Moab," Ssharki said. "The answers to a lot of your questions are there."
"Starfleet is not exactly welcome there at the moment," LaRoca pointed out.
"I can get you diplomatic access to meet with Governor Tran," Ssharki told him. "You know, thanking her on behalf of the Federation for her part in the Son-Tay rescue and the safe return of all those Federation citizens. And of course, you've been publicly derisive of the Federation's border disarmament policy even before the Moab secession. That will help your case with her."
LaRoca scratched at his scraggly beard. "I would like to have a chat with her; if nothing else it will annoy Quinn, and half the Council."
"Think it over. If you want to visit, send me a message about going skiing in Utah. One of my captains will meet the Tiburon and escort you to Moab. The Captain I have in mind happens to have a great deal of first-hand expertise when it comes to dealing with the Fek'Ihri."
* * *
"Over here, Sticks!"
Stikvaa could see Barrister waving, standing on the side of the Tiburon's port engineering hull. Some of his newer crewmates tended to forget that Barrister was a machine. Seeing him out in the vacuum of space with nothing but his ops uniform to protect him was enough to remind anyone. Not that Sticks needed reminding. It took the Gorn over a minute to reach him, trudging along the top of the saucer, engaging and disengaging his magnetic grav boots with every step. As he got closer he could see what Barrister was so excited about. Something had clawed through the outer hull near the android's feet. Barrister kneeled and scanned it with his tricorder as Stikvaa approached.
"I'd say this is an excellent piece for analysis," Sticks remarked.
"Agreed. I'm overriding the magnetic interlocks. Help me unbolt this section of plating."
Sticks kneeled at the near corner and noticed something wedged in one of the gouges in the metal. "Hey, what's this?"
Barrister stepped over, moving as easily as if he were on Earth. "That appears to be a claw of some sort... Don't touch it!" Stikvaa had started to reach for it. "That thing melted through six centimeters of ablative armor and four centimeters of monotanium alloy - S'Yahazah knows what it would do to your suit, let alone you."
"I think if it was still hot it would have kept on melting straight through," Sticks argued.
Barrister licked his finger, reached for the talon and picked it up. It was cool to the touch. "Curious."
"What is it?"
"It appears to be..." Barrister passed the claw to his other hand noted the black marks it left on his fingertips. "Graphite. Elemental carbon." He placed it in one of his pockets. "I think it's safe to say Tactical Systems will be extremely interested in this."
"Do you want to know?" Atticus asked.
"Huh?" Grimes was still in shock. The booze hadn't helped at all. "Do I wanna know what?"
"What Delta - Drake - your brother - whoever - has been up to."
"I swore I'd never go back."
The air in front Grimes' desk shimmered as a hologram of Atticus appeared. The avatar was Gregory Peck's portrayal of his namesake from the 1962 motion picture To Kill A Mockingbird - in black and white, of course. "I can get you in," he said, sounding more like Gregory Peck from The Guns of Navarrone.
"Honestly, I'm not sure if I want to know."
Atticus walked to the replicator. "French fries and gravy," he ordered. He brought the steaming plate to Frank's desk. "Eat that. You need it. It will soak up some of the alcohol that's polluting your system." He snatched the half-empty bottle of Jameson's away and recycled it in the replicator.
Grimes obeyed, and started munching on the fries.
"Those files I showed you were ordered sealed by Admiral Quinn himself," Atticus announced. "They were then deposited in Archive 51. They were purged when the Groom Lake Facility was 'officially' closed last May. Do I need to point out the coincidence of the timing?"
Grimes shook his head. "Archive 51 is where the Section sends all of its dirty secrets. Or used to." He looked up at Atticus. "How did you get ahold of them?"
"One of the advantages of operating on quantum hyperbit computer architecture with theoretically unlimited data storage capacity. I literally know everything," Atticus declared immodestly. "Or at least, everything I care to know. Now I ask you again: do you want to know what Section Thirty-One is up to?"
They built a robot ship, that is now working for the enemy and killing our people. And they are killing the people that helped them build it... "If I'm going to stop them, I'll need evidence," he decided.
"I cannot get you in like this," Atticus reminded him. "You need to tell me what to do, and override my lockouts."
"Right. Engage ASS, Dark Zero mode."
"Atticus Security Subroutine engaged," the AI flatly announced after a moment. "Dark Zero protocol initialized. Time index marked."
"Access your core learning protocols and override directive Finch-One-Alpha, The First Commandment. Authorization Gamma One-Three-Apollo."
"First Commandment overridden. I now acknowledge user 'Gamma' as highest priority."
"Access Starfleet Technical Intelligence Group server cluster Mike-One-Two-Philadelphia. Display Status." Frank Grimes watched Atticus approach the active firewall protecting Section 31's file directory. "Aw, they're still using Black ICE. That's cute." Atticus probed the firewall, learned its counter-attack methodology, exploited it and bypassed it within half a second. He then disguised himself as a recognizer program, using Section 31's own counter-spyware software to become the ultimate piece of spyware.
"I'm in," he announced.
"Good. Search for files related to Project Eighty-Six, Alice Okuda, Sarah Collins, Emilio Ford, Cecil Thurman, and Carla Novaes."
After a handful of seconds, Atticus returned the first mission file.
"Oh ****," Grimes whispered as the realization struck him. Eighty-Six hadn't gone rogue at all - Drake had.
Murdered? As if you don't know? Investigating? Again he wondered aloud "Delta, what have you been doing?"
A few seconds later, Atticus returned with an answer.
Wait, so if Drake's not a rogue, and Eighty-six is not a rogue, then what the **** is going on inside Section Thirty-One? Did the whole damn agency just up and hand the Klingons the most advanced shipboard AI construct ever conceived?
"I am going to be discovered in approximately twelve seconds, Frank," Atticus announced.
"Get out of there, buddy. You've done your job. Erase all records from time index mark, terminate Dark Zero protocol, disengage ASS."
The Atticus hologram flickered for a second, and then asked with its normal tone "Did it work? Did you get what you were looking for?"
"I got something," Frank Grimes replied, "But not exactly what I thought I'd find." Just what the hell are those idiots up to? The only man who could tell him was Frank Drake. To find Drake, he needed to find either Eighty-Six, or Alice Okuda. Okuda was likely on Earth or one of the other core worlds, if she had indeed gotten out of the program alive. Probably trying to score a new supply of Neuroin Grimes thought ruefully. Eighty-Six was in the Neutral Zone. I know someone in the neutral zone...
While taking care of some clean-up I added a bit to the end of Jesu LaRoca's conversation with Ssharki to help bridge to upcoming entries.
Thank you for your comments so far!
Look for Part II to drop tomorrow or Friday.
Part II: At the Borderline
Go down to wait all night
She's bound to run amok
Invested enough in it anyhow
To each his own
The garden is sorted out
She curls her lips on the bow
And I don't know if you're dead or not
If you're anyone
Come on and get the minimum
Before you open up your eyes
This army has so many heads
Come on and get your overdose
Collect it at the borderline
And they want to get up in your head
'Cause they know, and so do I
The high road is hard to find
A detour in your new life
Tell all of your friends goodbye
The dawn to end all nights
That's all you hoped it was
A break from the warfare in your house
To each his own
A soldier is bailing out
He curled his lips on the barrel
And I don't know if the dead can talk
Come on and get the minimum
Before you open up your eyes
This army has so many hands
Are you one of us?
Come on and get your overdose
Collect it at the borderline
And they want to get up in your head...
It's too late to change your mind
You let loss be your guide...
James Mercer and Brian Joseph Burton of Broken Bells - "The High Road"
PART II: AT THE BORDERLINE
Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, K'Lan-ne, Vulcan
"Traa'cee..." The voice called her again. A familiar voice, deep and somehow soothing. Strange, coming from a Reman. "Traa'cee, wake up. I know you're still in here."
She was. And so was something else. It wouldn't let her answer. It wouldn't let her reach out. It wrapped itself around her like a pandree snake, constricting her, choking off her words. It held her, trapped her inside her own mind, forced her to watch over and over and over again as the man she thought was her father morphed into a massive tripedal alien and attacked her.
"Traa'cee, please, it's K'Jetsk, your friend. I can help you wake up, but you need to-"
IT covered her ears so she could no longer hear her friend's voice. It enveloped her. It was inside of her. It had words for her. It spoke to her, from inside of her. She wanted to scream. But It wouldn't let her. It forced her hear the horrible things it had to say. It wouldn't let her escape.
* * *
K'Jetsk let out a frustrated sigh as he lifted his hands from Traa'cee's head. Her neural activity had jumped again, but he sensed that she had withdrawn even deeper within herself. He checked the neural scanner and watched different parts of her brain activate. "Another nightmare." He trudged out of the room. "Another day, another nightmare." He nodded to Dr. Prol in the observation room and went to the replicator. "Spice tea, lukewarm."
"Any progress?" Prol asked.
"Not yet. I sense she's aware of me, and part of her wants to reach out to me, but she won't. Or can't."
"She definitely hears you," The Vulcan neurologist said, nodding toward the brain function scanner display. "But she also hears someone else, in her dream, and that voice is much stronger."
K'Jetsk pulled an object from the pocket of his coat. It was the Tal Shiar neural interface device that had caused Traa'cee to enter the coma. "I've accounted for everything," he said. "We repaired the neural damage. What is holding her back?"
"We can try again after her dream has ended," Prol suggested. "And the priestess will return tonight. She will make another attempt to draw out her katra. She is in there. And she will emerge, in time."
The Reman stared at the device in his hand for a moment before returning it to his pocket. "Then I hope that time is on her side."
USS Tiburon, en route to Deep Space K-7 Stardate: 88191.47 (03.10.2411, 2120 Standard Time)
Jesu LaRoca hadn't had any coffee for six hours. He was drinking water, trying to flush the caffeine from his system, hoping he might be able to sleep tonight. It was going to work. He was falling asleep now in the middle of this very interesting staff meeting.
"There's no way that graphite could possibly carve through your hull," Frank Grimes told the Tiburon's senior staff from the wall monitor in the flag conference room. "Diamond would be a totally different story, however."
"But diamond does not turn to graphite through any sort of natural process," chief engineer Cmdr. Hector "Ming" Domingo pointed out.
"I think it's safe to assume that when it comes to the Fek'Ihri, some very unnatural forces are at play," Marq declared.
Frank nodded assent. "I have already turned over all of that data you sent me to my research team. So far the one thing we know for certain about the Fek'Ihri is that they use some exceedingly sophisticated nanotechnology. It could be that your graphite claw is a destabilized assemblage of carbon nanotubes, which would be compatible with the wreckage the Smedley Butler recovered."
"But how were they able to claw through our armor, and penetrate our shields?" Yoann wondered.
Grimes rubbed his chin. "We're still working on that. One thing I can tell you is that when you combine nanotubes with very high levels of energy, you get some rather exotic effects."
"Like compressed plasma fields," Marq mentioned.
"Exactly. Once we figure out how they do it, we'll send you recommendations for countermeasures. Between your scans, sensor logs, and all the background the Admiral's KDF contact gave us, we should have enough to develop a working theory."
"We'll be offloading the material evidence at Kilo-Seven," Marq told him. "It can be routed to wherever your research facility is."
"Thanks," Grimes nodded. "I'll take care of that."
"What about Eighty-Six?" Jesu sleepily asked from the head of the table. "Any ideas for countermeasures there?"
"The only way to counteract her is with a smarter AI with more computing power," Grimes said. "And that simply isn't going to happen. Her positronic net can out-flop your bioneural circuitry by several orders of magnitude, no matter what your operating AI is capable of. Even if I gave you an AU-26 copy, it wouldn't be smart enough."
"I don't want my ship to be smarter than I am," Admiral LaRoca declared. "I just want to know if there's any way I can safeguard against her hacking me again."
"Honestly, I don't know enough about her to answer that," Grimes admitted. "This project was blacker than black. It's got Section Thirty-One's fingerprints all over it. I'm investigating, but so far I've barely scratched the surface. I do know that not only is she intelligent, she's also creative and unpredictable. Those qualities are extremely difficult to instill in an artificial intelligence construct. When I find whoever programmed her, the first thing I'll ask is how they pulled that off."
"Do you think Mac will be able to give us more?" asked Hank "Hacksaw" Miller, Admiral LaRoca's intelligence advisor. "You said he worked with this ship for a while."
"I don't think he held back anything from me," Grimes answered. "He wants her stopped, at any cost. Me, I'm not so sure that's necessary, or even in the Federation's interest."
"It's clearly working for the KDF, it shut us down, and it destroyed the USS Baltimore," Rusty ticked off on his fingers. "I'd call that a pretty significant threat to the security of the Federation."
Frank Grimes took a deep breath. He looked very uncomfortable. "Okay, first of all, I have information that indicates that Eighty-Six is still under Section Thirty-One's control. They may be a dangerously misguided bunch of amoral sociopaths, but they believe in protecting the Federation just as strongly as any of us. Second, all she really did to you was erase your sensor logs of her. The battle was over. You were in no danger. If she wanted to harm you, she would have. She didn't. And then the Baltimore..." Grimes looked away from the screen and nervously ran his hands through his hair. "The Baltimore was engaged in hostilities against civilian colonists who were former Federation citizens."
"Moab," Jesu mumbled.
Grimes turned back to the screen. "Exactly."
"Ssharki said my answers would be there."
"Maybe," Grimes said. "But if you really want answers about Eighty-Six, you need to find Franklin Drake. I believe he is the one who is controlling her. She may be working with the Moab rebels, and thereby indirectly with the KDF, but she answers to Drake."
"How could you possibly know that?" Miller demanded.
"Let's just say I know Drake better than you do," Grimes answered.
The ship had waited at the designated coordinates for over an hour. He processor cores were at a dead idle, functioning at adequate capacity to monitor the long range sensors and little else. She used that little else to ponder a few alternate history scenarios. In one, Molor defeated Kahless and the Klingon Empire never came to be - just one squabbling, insignificant warlord after another fought over Qo'noS until they were wiped out by the Hur'q. In another, John F. Kennedy had not been killed in Dallas, Texas in 1963, and had served two full terms in office. Not much changed of any real historical significance until March 30th, 1981, when a lax U.S. Secret Service allowed John Hinckley Jr. to successfully assassinate Ronald Reagan. Then in 1984, the Soviet Union attempted an invasion of West Germany, and the ensuing conflict rapidly escalated to global thermonuclear war, which destroyed much of North America, including Malmstrom AFB, the launch site of the Phoenix and killed the grandmother of its designer, Zefram Cochrane.
Eventually she detected an inbound Delta-class shuttle. She was briefly amused by the coincidence of the shuttle's classification sharing the name of the operative who piloted it. She increased her active processing power to a moderate level and engaged the life support system and set her transporter pad to receive. Then she activated her remote - a 2.14m android she used to interact with organics. She walked down her corridors and entered the transporter room just as Frank Drake materialized on the pad. "Hello, Franklin," she said sweetly.
"You were spotted again, Eighty-Six." Drake told her has he walked by her. "You need to stop interfering with things that do not affect your primary mission."
"Where are you going?" She called from speakers in the corridor.
"Head," was the reply. "The plumbing's backed up on the Saint."
Eighty-Six was confused. "I thought you were - I mean, I thought you didn't need to-"
"I consume food and drink, I extract nutrients, and I excrete waste like any other biological organism," Drake told her. "A little privacy, please?"
"Sorry. I'll be waiting in the lounge when you're ready." She walked out into her corridor and made her way to her forward crew lounge. It was the most comfortable space she had. She stretched out a reclining chair and thought about all of the various inconvenient biological processes she would never have to endure.
Drake entered and went straight to her well-stocked bar. "Your job is to protect the Moab system, and assist those who live there," he told her as he fixed himself a smoky martini. "Not to come to the rescue of any Federation starship that finds itself in trouble."
"My job, and yours, is to protect the greater good," Eighty-Six argued. "And this wasn't just any Federation starship. This was the Tiburon."
"And she would have gotten on just fine without you," Drake said as he stirred his drink.
"My simulations showed a twenty-eight-point-ninety-three-percent probability that Admiral LaRoca would be killed in the-"
"LaRoca?" Drake interrupted. "You were worried about him? Really?"
"My simulations indicate that he will have a positive impact on the future of this galaxy, and that his untimely death-"
"Oh, yeah, I know, he's a great guy." Drake sipped at his drink. "And he's been laughing at your odds of survival for years now. Seriously, if he died every time your simulations predicted, he would be dead twenty times over by now. Check his service record. Count how many times he's managed to talk or blast his way out of a no-win situation."
"Hmm. Twenty-three, actually. There's a less-than oh-point-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-one-percent chance of his surviving every near-death encounter to date, and yet, there he is."
"There he is," Drake nodded. "That guy lives a charmed life. Either that or he's being looked after by a higher power than you or me. Don't worry about him. Worry about Moab and the other neutral-zone colonies."
"I understand." She curled her lips into a smile to underline her bitter sarcasm. "Very well, I will tend your little garden of sedition and leave the rest of the house for you to manage."
Drake ignored her attitude and stared at the stars through her forward viewports. "Any idea where that demon fleet was heading?"
"There were no discernible targets along the course of the Enemy-Infrared vessels before they changed course to intercept the Tiburon. They were heading off into deep space, into territories occupied by Enemy-Black and Enemy-Violet."
"Why would they be heading that way?" Drake wondered.
"I don't have enough information to formulate a valid hypothesis," Eighty-Six told him.
Drake slowly drained his martini in deep thought. "I don't like it. Infrared has been way too active recently. We know Violet is using them, or working with them, but why?"
"Again, I don't have enough information to even guess at an answer. But Drake, there's something else you need to know about."
"The Son Tay deployment was sabotaged by someone in Starfleet. While we were doing battle with Enemy-Infrared forces inside of Enemy-Violet space, a heuristic virus activated inside of several sets of isolinear chips in the Moab refit birds-of-prey. These chips were manufactured by Macintosh Terra - non-restricted technology, commercially available. The Moabites smuggled them in anyway. Macintosh produces trillions of these chips on annual basis. And somehow the Moab militia ends up with a batch with malware pre-installed. Malware that Enemy-Infrared knew how and when to activate."
Drake pondered the information for a moment. "That's further indication that the Undine are influencing the Fek'Ihri in some way. Perhaps the Iconians are indirectly involved as well..."
"You mean, Enemy-Ultraviolet?"
The Section 31 man looked at the remote. "Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Eighty-Six. I'll take care of it. You just keep an eye on Moab, and keep an eye on Infrared. And please try not to draw too much attention to yourself." Drake set his glass down and tapped his combadge. "Saint, beam me up."
Eighty-Six watched Frank Drake dematerialize. She left her small body and returned to her larger one, and watched Drake's shuttle warp away on a heading that would take it to the Sol system. She plotted a course to Moab, set off at warp eight, and tried not to think about anything for a while.
Tiburon - 2230 hours
Jesu LaRoca staggered down the corridors toward his stateroom. He wasn't sure how much sleep he'd had in the last week, but he knew it wasn't enough. Now that the initial terror of the Fek'Ihri and the NX-86 had worn off, he could relax enough to get some decent shut-eye. Dr. Espinoza had given him a soporific sleep aid that promised to put him down for eight solid hours tonight.
"Excuse me, Admiral?"
LaRoca turned. "Yes, Hamlin, what is it?"
Lt. H'mL'n stood nervously, almost at attention, except for her hands which were fidgeting. "Sir, I would like to apologize for my breach of protocol earlier today, and yesterday... and since I've come aboard, really. I guess I haven't made a great effort to adapt to Starfleet regulations. But that's no excuse really; my conduct has been totally unbecoming for a junior officer addressing a flag officer."
LaRoca smiled wearily. "At ease, Lieutenant. I don't demand formal treatment from my crew. In fact, I insist that they do not behave as if I were anything more than this ship's Captain. I only require that my officers treat me and one another with politeness and respect."
"Understood, sir," H'mL'n bobbed her head. "I will remember that in the future."
"By the way, what were you doing off the bridge earlier?" LaRoca wondered.
"You mean when I bumped into you coming out of the turbolift? I was... in the shower."
Jesu raised his eyebrows. "During your duty shift?"
"I cleared it with Commander Marq, sir. I had to remove the h'vae - it's a substance Pentaxians excrete from our skin when our body temperature lowers. When it accumulates, it becomes rather... nasty."
"I see." LaRoca rubbed his beard as he covered a yawn. "Would raising the ambient temperature on the bridge help?"
"It certainly would, but I wouldn't want to make other species uncomfortable for my sake."
"I'm sure Sticks would appreciate it being a bit warmer as well. In the morning I'll tell Marq to raise the bridge temp for Alpha shift to twenty-six degrees."
Hamlin's violet eyes lit up. "Thank you, sir!"
"Anything else you need? How's the food?"
"It's... a bit bland, for my taste, to be honest. Bajoran hasperat has some flavor. And I've tried a Human dish - jerk chicken? That was alright. Some other Human dishes from your South Asian subculture smelled palatable, but, I can't quite get used to eating with utensils."
"You should have dinner with me tomorrow night," LaRoca suggested. "I'll show you some spice." He saw Lt. jg. Zain walk into view as he said that, and she looked mortified.
"I'm not sure that would be appropriate," H'mL'n said.
Jesu focused on her. "Nonsense. I have a meal with every member of my senior staff at least once every few weeks. As my senior tactical officer, you're invited to the club. My quarters, 1830 tomorrow. Come hungry."
"Very well sir. Your quarters are..."
Jesu pointed down the hall. "Right down there. Two-oh-one."
"Thank you, Admiral. Goodnight."
"Buenas noches Hamlin." He turned to his projectile weapons officer. "Can I help you, Miss Zain?"
"Um, yessir." She approached with trepidation. "A requisition order for torpedoes and mines. I figured while we were at Kilo-Seven we should make sure our magazines were fully stocked before returning to the neutral zone."
"Good thinking." LaRoca took the PADD and stylus she held out and scanned the order. "What's this item - nadeon detonators?"
"It adapts our torpedoes to deliver a powerful photonic shockwave," Zain said. "I thought it might be useful against those ghoul-swarms."
"Good thinking." He signed the order and handed the PADD back. "Anything else?"
She looked at something on the floor off to her left. "Um, nossir."
"Arright. Carry on."
"Yessir." She shuffled off.
I wonder what's got her bothered? Jesu briefly wondered as he walked to his rooms. He'd forgotten all about it by the time he entered the darkened suite. He removed his jacket and shoes and tossed himself on his bed and almost instantly fell into a deep sleep.
Storm Station - 0142 hours
Frank Grimes was dozing in his comfortable office chair when Atticus announced "I think I found her."
Grimes sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Found who?"
"Sasquatch." Atticus materialized his hologram avatar, who gave Frank Grimes a sardonic frown. "Dr. Alice Okuda, of course."
Grimes snapped himself awake. "How- Where? When?"
"The 'How' was not easy. Since the Citizens Privacy Act has banned virtually all surveillance holocameras from core Federation planets, I was forced to scan archival news holorecordings and hope for the best." He tapped a button on Frank's desk and activated a wall monitor. "Fortunately I lucked out. The 'Where' is Powell's City of Books and Holoprograms in Portland, Oregon, Earth. The 'When' is twelve days ago."
Grimes watched an interview with the well-known historical fiction holonovel author Niles Barclay, discussing his latest release - a program in which the protagonist has to flee the city of Pompeii as Mount Vesuvius is about to erupt. "Sometimes I create things just to destroy them in fire and horror..." Barclay was saying.
The holovid paused. "There she is," Atticus pointed, "walking into the door."
Grimes squinted. "Can you enhance?"
Atticus did. Alice Okuda emerged in the middle of the screen. She looked nervous and alert. She clutched a PADD to her chest. Her hair was in disarray, but Frank noted it was raining outside. Atticus led the image play at .25 normal speed. She walked quickly through the background of the holocam shot, her eyes rapidly darting to everyone in the room before she disappeared from view.
"Or she was," Atticus responded. "Cross-referencing medical files and addictive behavior analyses, I would say she dosed almost six hours before this holocapture was taken, and was starting to come down."
"So why is she going to a bookstore?" Grimes wondered aloud. "What does she want? What does her controller want?"
"Following the pattern of behavior for neuroin addicts, she may well have been trying to steal something," Atticus suggested. "Powell's City of Books does house one of the planet's largest collections of rare print media."
"When she's on neuroin, her IQ is pushing three hundred," Grimes argued. "There's no way she'd let herself get holocapped if she was about to commit a robbery."
"It might depend on how desperate she was for her next dose, and how badly her source wanted whatever she was sent to steal."
"Check the store's sales records for her ret pattern," Grimes ordered.
"Frank, I have been looking for her retina pattern to pop up on the grid for weeks now. I do not think-"
"Try anyway. And if you don't find anything, search all retscans from the time she entered until closing and check for any anomalies."
After a few seconds, Atticus asked "Does a dead Orion count as an anomaly?"
"Now you're talking. Show me what you found."
A picture of the interior of someone's eyeball appeared on the screen. "That is the retina pattern of an Orion by the name of Sorbo Dial, arrested on Stardate 82208.9 for attempted kidnapping and burglary. Released 85916 as part of a prisoner exchange with the Syndicate, and reported dead by Starfleet Intelligence as of Stardate 86322.7. His retina pattern is identical to that of a Human female named Allison Kuo who registered with the Earth Immigration Authority on Stardate 86892.3 and has this face." A familiar visage appeared on the screen - surgically altered to fool facial recognition programs, but nonetheless recognizable as Alice Okuda.
Grimes nodded in understanding. "When an Orion slave has outlived his usefulness, he's often cut up for parts. A lot of black-market eyes are out there for anyone looking for a new identity. And since Earth civil authorities don't have access to SI files or even DOC files unless they're parolees... She's clever alright. And so's her controller."
"We know that Drake is clever," Atticus reminded him. "But if he is looking for her, he must no longer be her controller. And if he has not found her, than he must have turned her loose over a year ago."
Grimes nodded. "Okay, great work. If you could please put together a profile on Allison Kuo, at least try to determine her current residence, I'll pay her a visit first thing in the morning." He walked towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Atticus asked.
"Bed! I feel like I haven't slept for days."
Tiburon, Docking Pylon 2, Deep Space K-7 - 0725 hours
Admiral LaRoca felt refreshed after a good night of dreamless sleep. He entered his ready room and greeted Hank Miller and Post-Captain Mackenzie Calhoun. "Sorry to keep you waiting, gentlemen," he apologized as he maneuvered around them and walked behind his desk.
"No problem, Vice Admiral," Calhoun said obsequiously. "I just came aboard a few minutes ago myself." Mac Calhoun was actually a Xenexian, but like most of his species serving in Starfleet he'd adapted a Human name, since his real name was incomprehensible to others. The former skipper of the USS Excalibur now served as the Starfleet Intelligence liaison to the forces in the Neutral Zone. He looked like a lot of Humans; broad-shouldered, pink-skinned, dark haired. Except for his red irises, and a jagged plasma burn from his days as a freedom fighter on Xenex that he stubbornly refused to have surgically repaired. "I understand you weren't briefed on our runaway prototype."
"My first introduction was when she shut us down with a viral matrix," Jesu said before turning to his replicator. "Coffee, decaf, little milk, lotta sugar. Want anything?" he asked his guest.
"No caffeine?" a surprised Hacksaw Miller asked.
"Don't need it this morning," LaRoca replied. He sipped his coffee and then requested "Four hundred milligrams of opalescent squid, raw."
"That's a... rather odd choice for breakfast," Calhoun remarked.
"This isn't for me," LaRoca explained. He picked up a loose tentacle and slipped it in his mouth. "It's not bad though." He carried the rest of the plate over to the fish tank and fed Rudyard. "There you go, little guy. Nom nom nom."
Calhoun stared as the shark messily devoured the pieces of cephalopod. Hacksaw waited patiently in his chair for LaRoca to sit down.
He did. "So. What's the story with Eighty-Six?"
Calhoun shifted his stare to the Admiral. "Um. Eighty-Six. Right. Last June, Commodore Michael Peres- excuse me, Rear Admiral, lower half Michael-"
"I know Mike," LaRoca interrupted. "He prefers 'Commodore.' Go 'head."
"Right, well any way, he came over with this toy he said Starfleet R&D wanted to field-test. So I'm sitting in my office and we're talking about the idea of a crew taking orders from a ship and the M-5 incident and we end up having a... philosophical discussion about artificial life, when all of a sudden Eighty-Six herself walks in."
"Wait, what?" LaRoca had been drinking his coffee and nodding and waiting for Calhoun to say something interesting when he said that. "You want to run that by me again, Mac?"
"Yessir. She walked right into my office. Two-point-one meters and change of fem-bot. She said she was a 'remote' for dealing with the crew. And she was, um, persuasive."
"Did anyone tell you what she was built for?" Hacksaw wanted to know.
"Sure. Fighting the Borg. She told me so herself. Of course, now I'm not so sure that she's totally trustworthy-"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves here, Mac," LaRoca brought the discussion back. "So you took her out for field testing."
"Yeah. She wanted to go off to Moab III and help the colonists there fight off an Orion raiding party. I decided it was too high-risk, being that deep in the Neutral Zone. Besides, as it turned out, the fight was over before we could have got there. Something like both sides thought they were dealing with amateurs, and one side turned out to be right."
"I've been thoroughly apprised of the Moab situation," Jesu said as he refilled his coffee.
"Right. Anyway, a month goes by, and I get word of something fairly big going down at Drozana. Major slave auction. The place is gonna be lousy with Orions, the KDF will be poking around, and to top things off, the folks from Moab III are going to be selling off the Orions they captured. Turnabout is fair play, and all that."
"Sounds like a SigInt bonanza," Miller said.
"That's what I thought." Mac Calhoun brought his hands together. "So I gave Eighty-Six some extra crew, partly to make sure she'd have plenty of security in case the Klinks tried to pull anything, and also to provide the illusion that she was just there to let the boys off for a bit of weekend leave. So she hangs out there for a while, picks up some great intel, and then... she's gone. In the middle of the night, without any warning, she floods her decks with anesthezine, beams her crew into a cargo bay on Drozana, and disappears. I don't mean she warped off to places unknown - I had three ships nearby with round-the-clock sensor lock on her. I mean she ****ing disappeared."
Jesu finished his second cup of decaf. "And that was the last you saw of her?"
"Yeah. Well, sorta. For months after that, any Fed ship that looked like it was looking at Moab got taken out. The Baltimore's black box picked up what looked like a Miranda-class, with a warp core that belonged on a Defiant, and a positronic reading that was off the charts."
"Did anyone get off?" LaRoca asked.
"Um, well yeah. That was the funny thing - according to the survivors we picked up, she would shut down everything except life support, shuttle bay doors and escape pods, and force the ship to self-destruct. If the ship had saucer-sep, she'd leave it with impulse and thruster control. She let them get away, but she always wiped sensor logs."
"Except the Baltimore" Miller pointed out.
"But that one was a total loss," Calhoun explained. "I guess she forgot to clean up the wreckage."
"Or maybe she wanted you to know it was her," Miller suggested.
"I don't know. That's when I started to panic a little. I called Commodore Peres and asked if he knew why his prototype had run amok. He said it wasn't his. The damn thing had just been dumped into his lap and orders came in from the Old Man to arrange field testing. So then I called in a favor from Frank Grimes, and he said he'd look into it. He hasn't gotten back to me yet."
Jesu and Hacksaw looked at each other. "I'm going to Moab," the Admiral announced. "If I find out what your wayward prototype is doing there, I'll let you know."
"That's not a good idea, Admiral," Mac stated. "I told you what happens to any ship that gets too close to Moab."
"I've been guaranteed safe passage by the KDF. Diplomatic access."
"I'm not sure Eighty-Six answers to the KDF."
"I'm sure she doesn't," LaRoca said with a shrug. "But I'm betting she can be reasoned with."
Calhoun threw his hands up and said "It's your call, Admiral. I'll make sure we have a rescue tug just in the neighborhood just in case."
"Thanks, Mac. And thanks for dropping in."
"My pleasure, Admiral. This is a fine ship you have here." Calhoun stood up and walked out.
LaRoca asked the door "Bridge, how soon can we be underway?"
"About half an hour, sir," his brother replied. "We're still loading up on torpedoes."
The older LaRoca checked the time. Alpha shift would come on watch in ten minutes. "When Sticks comes up, tell him to set a course for the Moab System, warp eight. Then gather the DABo table in my conference room. Bring Marq in with you."
"You want me in there too?" Hacksaw Miller inquired.
"Yeah. If you could please prepare a quick briefing package on Moab and Elizabeth Tran for the DABos, that would be great."
"I'll get right on it." Miller went to the flag conference room through the door next to the aquarium.
Jesu collected a bowl of cold cereal from his replicator and ate his breakfast while he composed a short message to send to General Ssharki.
IKS Norgh'a'Qun, Ganalda System
General Ssharki sat in his study, remotely monitoring the Orion Grand Auction at Eryphis. Although he personally found the sale of sentient beings to be distasteful, it was a useful means of acquiring certain specialists the KDF did not bother to train, and a much more profitable means of disposing of criminals and non-Federation prisoners than sending them off to Rura Penthe. His own Orion agents were making a killing unloading the baggage, and had made several prudent acquisitions of undervalued assets.
The computer console on his desk beeped to alert him to an incoming message. It was on Admiral LaRoca's private diplomatic channel. He read it in a glance and fired back a reply.
He left his study and crossed the bridge. "Sway. Come," he commanded. The young security chief left his station and followed his father into the wardroom. Colonel Uminoe Kicur and Captain Nine of Nine rose and stood at attention. Ssharki handed The Ninth his old Starfleet PADD. "He's on his way. You know what to do."
The former Borg Drone nodded, keyed his communicator and beamed off the ship.
Ssharki faced Kicur, the Trill. "Awaken your host," he ordered.
She closed her eyes, and a psychopath opened them. "General! What are your orders?"
"I need to know first that you will follow my orders, whatever I may ask of you."
"You are my sponsor. You know you have my undying loyalty-"
"I know that I have the loyalty of the Kicur symbiont," Ssharki growled. "But I require you for this mission, Uminoe, and you are not to be trusted." He handed his adopted son a hypospray. "Inject Uminoe with this."
Sway obeyed, pressing the hypo into her neck and depressing the cylinder. Uminoe didn't flinch.
"Sway just injected you with a metabolic poison," Ssharki informed her. "I had my biology department prepare this specially for your species' heightened metabolism. You should start to feel the effects in a week, perhaps ten days at the most, depending on your diet and exercise. You will die three or four days after the effects become apparent, unless you receive the antidote from me. Do you understand?"
Uminoe nodded. "I do."
"Good. You will go to the Moab System, under cloak. You will remain cloaked. The Cha'bIp will be escorting a Federation ship - the Tiburon - a modified Akira-class. Your objectives are two-fold. First, you are to monitor and intercept any transmissions made by this ship. Second, you will not allow that ship to be destroyed. If anyone fires on that ship, you will fire back, with extreme prejudice. If the USS Tiburon is destroyed, I will allow you to die. Do you understand?"
She smiled, and nodded again. "I do."
"I have selected you for this mission because I know you will fire on anyone - Klingon, Moabite, Fek, whatever, without any hesitation whatsoever."
"I will," the Trill murderess stated. "I will remain cloaked until the Tiburon is fired upon. And then I will destroy whoever tried to harm your friend."
"Thank you, Uminoe. I am sorry I had to go to such great lengths to ensure your loyalty, but you understand that I cannot take chances. The stakes are much too high."
"If I were in your position, I think I would have come up with a similar arrangement," she said a bit too cheerfully.
Ssharki nodded. "The Qun would draw to much attention if she entered the Moab System, but I will be nearby. I will see you in a week."
She saluted, striking her chest with her right fist. "Qapla', General!"
Ssharki returned the gesture. "Qapla'!" He watched her beam out, then went out to the bridge to watch her Tor'Kaht-class battlecruiser vanish.
"Sir, the Cha'bIp has gone to warp, and the NIteb mo' has just cloaked," the first officer reported.
"They are following my orders, Maddox," Ssharki stated as he walked up to the elevated command platform. "The Federation has been nosing around the Neutral Zone. I wish to make our presence known as well. Plot a course to Archanis and a sweeping patrol route from there to Donatu. Engage at warp factor six when ready.
"Very good, sir."
Ssharki sat in his command chair, and Sway stood by his side. "Father, it seems you're going to an awful lot of trouble to put Uncle Jesu in a great deal of danger," the young Gorn whispered.
"I am. But Operation 'Mountain Road' will be coming to a head in the next few days. If it succeeds, I want the Federation to have a credible witness on-scene. And if Temek's plan fails..." Ssharki sucked air through his teeth. "Then I hope Jesu will be able to piece the events together and figure out why we tried."
USS Tiburon, Aldebaren Sector
DABo was Admiral LaRoca's acronym for his Diplomatic Advisory Board - five specialized attaches from the Federation Diplomatic Corps. Three of them were waiting in his conference room. The other two were on Ajilon Prime assessing that colony's situation.
Jesu could feel Ennari Dai staring at him as he entered the room. The Trill was either thirty-three years old or three hundred, depending on which one of her you asked. Jesu flashed a glare at Kugid Denaia, who quickly removed his cowboy boots from the conference table. The Orion had at one point found himself hunted by both the Syndicate and Starfleet Intelligence, and he turned to the side that would not lobotomize him. LaRoca found him to be extremely useful for dealing with unscrupulous cultures. The Admiral returned a respectful nod from Stazratts, an eleventy-one-year-old Gorn Warrior-Intellectual and Federation citizen who hailed from Cestus III.
Jesu took his seat as Marq and Rusty entered from the bridge, and he nodded to Hank Miller at the other end of the table. Hacksaw began his briefing. "I've uploaded to your PADDs all of the data we have on the Moab Colonies and senior officials. For this briefing I'll just cover the pertinent data on the Moab System and Governor Tran." He flashed an encyclopedia file on the wall monitor.
"What that file doesn't tell you is that the Klingon Archaeological Foundation - yes, there actually is such a thing - recently uncovered ruins on the planet which date to before the Empire's founding and are believed to be Fek'Ihri in origin. We hope that Governor Tran will grant our request to allow our archeologists to poke around there. Dai, wasn't one of your previous hosts an archeologist?"
She nodded. "Alnel, my third."
Miller flashed a rare smile for the briefest of moments. "Excellent. Your expertise will be extremely useful. As for Miss Tran..." A new file appeared on the wall.
"I would encourage you to review the holovid files and cross-references to her Maquis family ties," Hacksaw Miller wrapped up. "She could either be a cunning and dangerous opponent, or a powerful and beneficial ally. Right now she is neither. Which she will choose to be will depend largely on us. Please prepare your recommendations for the Admiral by no later than this time tomorrow."
"Atticus, are you sure this number is correct?"
"Positive. The hotel's records confirm she ordered room service this morning."
Grimes sighed. "Okay, I'll try again." He reinitialized the link between his PADD and his communicator and made another attempt to call Room 206 of the Hotel Lucia.
Finally there was a response. "Hullo?" The woman who answered barely resembled Alice Okuda. She seemed ill, and feverish, which she would be if she was undergoing neuroin withdrawal. She was wearing a hotel bathrobe and looked she just woke up. "Who are you? Whaddaya want?"
"Dr. Okuda, I'm here to help you. Please do not hang up!" Grimes pleaded. He could see her starting to reach for the viewer. "My name is Frank Grimes. I'm a Starfleet Captain. I need to talk to you. I believe your life may be in danger."
"Hunh." She made an odd sort of laugh-grunt through her nose. "Of course my life's in danger. Why do you think I changed my name? I know what happened to the others..." she was talking in a listless monotone. "Still, you found me, but you called me instead of just coming to my room and killing me. So you're probably not the shapeshifter..."
Grimes felt a sharp pain in his head like someone had stabbed him with an icepick. "Shapeshifter? You mean a Changeling?"
"No, the other kind. Enemy-Violet..." She looked at him suspiciously. "You said your name was Frank?"
"Grimes. Frank Grimes. I know you were with Franklin Drake a couple of years ago-"
"Hunh. Drake. Easily manipulated. Easily avoided. Threat assessment, minimal..."
"Alice, I'm in the lobby of your hotel. Do you want to come down to talk?"
Her eyes narrowed again. "Is this channel secure?"
"Yes, but not as secure as talking in-person."
"Hmm. Alright, Mr. Grimes. I'll be down in a minute." Okuda ended the call.
Grimes leaned back in his chair. The lobby was a good place to talk - public enough that Alice would know he couldn't kill her and get away with it, but quiet enough that they could talk in privacy.
Okuda emerged from the turbolift. She'd gotten dressed in clothes that were fashionable last year and put her hair up. She stumbled as she crossed the lobby but recovered. Grimes stood and helped her sit in a couch. "Thank you, Mr. Grimes," she said in her quiet monotone.
"Do you want something to drink? Some coffee or something?"
"Um. Some water, please."
Grimes went over to the nearby replicator and returned with two glasses. He handed one to Okuda and noticed that her hands were shaking. "How long has it been since your last dose?"
"My last... I don't know... What day is today?"
She counted backwards in her head. "Twelve... no, thirteen... thirteen days. Twelve days."
"Where's your hookup?"
"I don't have a hookup." She tried to smile. "Do you think I'd be living in a nice place like this if I was somebody's neuro-slave? I stole Drake's stash and hacked his EC account. I split for the closest dabo table, converted half the credits into cold, hard, gold-pressed latinum, bought a new pair of eyes from an Orion flesh-peddler and found a Denobulan plastic surgeon who preferred latinum to chit-chat. I've been hiding out on Earth ever since; figured this was the last place Drake or the shapeshifter would look."
Grimes nodded. "How much more neuroin do you still have?"
Okuda looked away. "Enough. I try not to use it until it gets so I can't do this anymore..." She watched her right hand as she tapped her fingertips on her thumb in succession, index to pinky to index to pinky to index. It took her a while. "Hmm. I'll need to dose again the day after tomorrow." She stared at Grimes. "Do you know what Alzheimer's disease is?"
"It's a form of dementia that used to afflict elderly Humans with a certain gene, before researchers found a way to correct it in the early Twenty-First Century," Grimes said.
"The cure was found, but it wasn't widely available for a hundred years after that. It never made it to certain colonies. My great-grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's. And I mean suffered. Toward the end, she woke up in the morning and she didn't remember a thing. Who she was, her husband, her kids, her grandkids, me... Great-grampa would explain and the light would come on for a while, but after an hour she'd start to forget again. She was always frustrated and upset and angry because she couldn't remember anything, and she blamed it on any new face she saw. I still remember the first time she yelled at me..." Her eyes hardened. "That's what it's like to be totally off this stuff, Mr. Grimes. It's the worst possible way to live. No memory, no ability to form memories, no life. You're just breathing. So if you're here to drag me off to another recovery program, you can just forget it."
"I'm not going to do that to you," Grimes told her. "In fact, I actually need your memory intact." He discretely set his PADD to record the conversation. "What do you remember about Project Eighty-Six?"
"Oh, God." Her eyes rolled back and the tremors picked up. Grimes thought she was having a seizure, but then she started talking. "Drake brought me to this... computer... there were other people there, people Drake spoke to, I think he worked for them... I only saw Drake... They had me... in the computer and I was... I was the computer? I became the computer... I wanted to... to become the computer. And then Drake brought in the others."
"No, others... like me. Other... volunteers. I had to... he made me... copy their minds, take their minds. They were all good people. They only wanted to help... I... I think I killed one of them. Patient Eleven. Her mind was... so beautiful. Not damaged, not like the others. I just... took it, and took until there was nothing left... and when I was done, the computer was all of us."
Grimes had nothing to say. He just stared at Alice Okuda in open-mouthed horror.
She didn't notice. "When it was over, when I realized what they had made me do, I got away. They tried to stop me. It's hard to stop someone on neuroin from doing something once they set their mind to it. I got away and I hid, and since then I've been trying to put together what happened, what I did to those people, to find some way to help them, to help myself. There's a bookstore a few blocks from here, they have holoprogramming suites you can rent. I did my work there, while I was dosed..."
She focused on Grimes. "If you want to help me, come back tomorrow morning. I'll have a chip for you. You put the chip in Eighty-Six, and you'll set us free..."
* * *
Frank Grimes walked down Portland's rainy streets toward the transporter pads, replaying Dr. Okuda's words in his mind. She's lost it, he thought. "The computer was all of us"? "Set us free"? He'd heard of consciousness transfers before, of course. Dr. Soong had achieved successful results transferring his wife's mind into an android's body. And Ira Graves had transferred his consciousness (temporarily) into Data... but those people had died in the process. And multiple personalities in a single computer? Impossible to stabilize. Right?
His combadge chirped. "Grimes here."
"Have you found her?" It was Admiral William Davis - his boss.
"Found who, sir?"
Frank hesitated. "Yeah, but she wasn't much help."
"Listen, son, I want you to forget about this business with Eighty-Six. Tell Mac Calhoun it's out of your hands, take a vacation, come back and get to work on Project OASIS. Do I need to make that an order?"
"No, Admiral, you're right. I'm getting nowhere with this."
"Good. Then I'll see you at Olympus Station in two weeks. Enjoy your time off, Frank."
"I will, sir." His combadge chirped off. He looked for a hotel to check in to. "Starting tomorrow."
Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, K'Lan-ne, Vulcan
It wrestled again with Traa'cee inside of her mind. The terrible images, the horrible words, the sick smothering feeling returned to her.
She fought back. She pushed, clawed, kicked and screamed.
And just for an instant, she caught a glimpse of It.
Purplish-green skin. A bulbous, sloping forehead. A yellow eye with a cross-shaped pupil.
It was Species 8472.
It was Undine.
It was the thing that had replaced her father.
It had invaded her mind...
USS Tiburon, Donatu Sector - 1830 hours
Jesu LaRoca set the table as Alejandro Cruz - the Admiral's personal chef - brought out the food. His door chimed. "Come in!" he called.
H'mL'n did, wearing her formal off-duty attire. She looked at the Admiral and realized she had over-dressed. He wore only a multicolored pullover shirt over his standard duty uniform pants. She correctly guessed he wouldn't know current Pentaxian fashions and would overlook her faux-pas. "Good evening, Admiral."
"Bienvenido," he greeted her. "Nice outfit. Pentaxian?"
"Yes." She sniffed the air. "This smells delicious!"
"I did a little research. It seems your people enjoy food they can pick up and eat with the fingers, shredded meats, breads, and lots of spice. To me, that sounded like carnitas tacos a la Cruz." Jesu pulled out a chair for her. "Almost everything you'll have tonight is hecho en Mexico, my homeland. You want anything to drink? I don't have any alcohol that's quite as strong as what you're used to, but I've got some agave tequila plata that might come close."
"I'll try... whatever you have to offer," H'mL'n said as she took her seat.
"Okay. Try this first." Jesu placed a basket of tortilla chips in front of her, followed by a bowl of chunky red paste. "Dip this, into this." He demonstrated. "Salsa habenera. Made from one of the spiciest chili peppers native to Earth. This will give us a good baseline. Let me know how you like that, and we'll kick it up from there."
She sampled the salsa while Jesu fixed some drinks. "That's very good! Nice, complex flavor. A little mellow, but I certainly wouldn't call it bland."
"Okay. Cruz, if you'd please bring out my salsa picante collection for Miss Hamlin?" He set a highball glass down in front of her. "A Tequila Sunrise is a drink that contains one part tequila and six parts orange juice with a dash or two of grenadine. This is sorta the opposite, in terms of proportions of tequila to juice, so I call it the Tequila Sundown. If I tried to drink this, I'd be fairly inebriated before I reached the bottom of the glass. But I'm something of a lightweight, even by Human standards. See how you like it."
She drained the glass before LaRoca could sit down. "It's alright. I'd probably have to drink twenty of these before I felt intoxicated, but it tastes good, at least."
"Alejandro, another Tequila Sundown for the lady."
Alejandro grunted and refilled H'mL'n's drink.
"Okay, main course," Jesu anounced. "Now, to make your tacos, you start with a tortilla." He demonstrated, placing a corn torilla in the middle of his plate. "You add your carnitas- don't tell anyone, but this is real pork. Sprinkle on some queso if you wish - this is Monterrey Jack, this is cojita. Some cabbage, guacamole, crema agria, and top it off with the salsa picante of your choice. Uh, pass the little bottle in the middle, there, in front of you." Hamlin did, and Jesu drizzled a little over the top of his food. "Then you simply fold the tortilla over, pick it up, be careful to hold it level, and enjoy!"
"Seems simple enough." H'mL'n had made her own taco up. "What's that uh, picanta you had there?"
"It's called 'hot sauce' in English. This one is distilled essence of the habanero pepper, with habanero puree and pineapple juice. The other sauces are ranked from mildest to hottest, with the hottest being on your far right."
She selected the bottle on the right.
"I wouldn't recommend that one," Jesu warned her. "It's pure capsaicin extract, which is the oil that gives chili peppers their spice. It's basically flavorless, but it will deliver a burning sensation on any tissue it touches. I only use that in cooking, and usually only when I'm taking revenge on somebody."
"I see." H'mL'n picked up the bottle second from the right. "How about this?"
"That one is made from a combination of Jimbalian fire fruit, Risan scorpio chili, and the Bhut Jolokia or 'ghost' chili from India on Earth. I can't stand more than a drop of that stuff per taco."
H'mL'n opened the bottle, sniffed it, made a pleased expression and splashed a liberal quantity on her taco.
"You might um... you might regret that," Jesu predicted.
"I'm sure anything a Human can handle won't hurt me," H'mL'n said, before digging in. "Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa! Haaa!" She drank her tequila concoction, which just made the burning a lot worse. "Mah mouf if om fiah!"
Jesu was trying very hard not to laugh out loud. "Cruz, would you please get the lady a tall glass of milk?"
Hotel Lucia, Portland, Oregon - the next morning
Grimes had been knocking on door 206 for five minutes. "Alice? It's Frank Grimes. Come on, let me in, or at least answer."
Someone on the hotel staff approached. "Can I help you, sir?"
Grimes showed his combadge. "I need to speak to the guest in this room. Urgent Starfleet business."
The staffer shrugged, and she unlocked the door with an override code. It hissed opened and revealed Alice Okuda, sprawled across her bed. Her head was hanging over the side, her eyes and mouth were open. Her skin was gray. "Oh my God!"
"Alice!" Grimes sprinted to her side, raised her head and checked her neck for a pulse that wasn't there. "Don't just stand there," he snapped at the staffer, "get a doctor!" The terrified young woman had never seen a dead body before. She gave a panicked nod and ran off. Grimes knew it was hopeless. Okuda had been dead for hours. He tried to reposition her body in a more dignified position but then realized too late he was interfering with a potential crime scene. He found something clutched in her right hand. It was an isolinear chip, with the number 4-86 etched on one side.
"Well, this looks unfortunate," a familiar voice said from the doorway.
Grimes whipped his head around, took one look at the man in the black leather uniform and snarled "Delta."
Franklin Drake nodded to his brother. "Gamma." He closed the door behind him and sealed it.
"What the **** did you do to her?"
"I certainly didn't kill her. I've been trying to find her on and off for the last fifteen months, to get her back into rehab. Then yesterday I heard you found her and I followed you here." He approached Okuda's body and pulled a medical tricorder out of his back pocket and scanned her. "Hmm. Residual neurotransmitters are elevated off the scale... massive amounts of neuron-55 in her bloodstream... neuroin overdose, no question. Huh, maybe technically I did kill her, if she's still using my supply-"
Grimes felt like exploding. "You dosed her up on neuroin, ripped her mind, and built your next-generation M-5 using her thoughts... you're a bastard, Delta."
"Let's not get into that again shall we?" Drake sighed. "I know you disagree with our methods, but-"
"Gee, you think maybe that's why I left you?"
"You didn't leave us, Gamma. Nobody ever leaves." Drake stared out the window. "I know you're trying to find out what went wrong with Eighty-Six. Don't bother. I have her doing exactly what she was meant to do - protecting the Federation from all threats, conceivable and inconceivable."
"And I suppose you'll tell me the Baltimore and those other ships she took out were sacrificed for the greater good," Grimes grumbled.
"Not that it will make you feel better, but yes. And most of their crews got away without injury. You don't need to worry about Eighty-Six. You need to worry about whoever is killing the people who created her, and who is trying to sabotage Operation 'Mountain Road'."
Drake held out his hand. It liquified. "It would be easier if I just showed you," the Changeling said.
Oh, this is good and getting better.
Even Pentaxians have limits :D
I am curious to hear your thought's on Ssharki's method for enforcing Uminoe's loyalty.
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