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Career Officer
Join Date: Nov 2012
Posts: 3,296
# 32 Part V: Down the Wrong Road
06-20-2013, 09:50 PM
The streets of persuasion
Are plated with gold
Your heart's in the right place
But you traveled down the wrong road
Like so many before you
The gate's open wide
Here comes the rising tide

Let's go out tonight
There's a mystery underneath the neon light
Before the life and the dream collide
'Cause the truth's gonna come and cut me open wide
And you can't escape the rising of the tide

Keep up your appearance
You join in the choir
With everybody singing out
Glory Hallelujah
The time came for your solo
But there was nowhere to hide
Here come the rising tide

And the company you keep
Well they plan your crucifixion as we speak
So baby, till the life and the dream collide
There's gonna be a mystery underneath those neon lights
If you can't decipher just who's on your side
You will not escape the rising of the tide

Can you tell me brother, was I deceived or in denial?
I was there, in the back of the room, when you testified
With your pitchfork tongue, you licked your lips and lied
We're never gonna know how hard you cried
When you petitioned then your access was denied
Till the venom in your veins is satisfied
Till you suffocate and swallow down the pride
Well you can't escape
No you can't escape
Well you can't escape the rising of the tide


Brandon Flowers of The Killers - "The Rising Tide"




PART V: DOWN THE WRONG ROAD



IKS Norgh'a'Qun, Qo'noS orbit - Three weeks ago


"I must say, General, this food is delicious." Woldan picked up another piece of delicate reddish meat with his fingers. "What did you call this?"

"It's called sashimi," Ssharki explained to the Klingon High Councilman who was dining in his quarters. "It's a way of preparing raw ghoti, practiced by an Earth sub-culture called the Japanese. This particular species of ghoti is known as ahi, or yellowfin tuna."

"You got this from Earth?"

"Actually, Dai Nippon colony, in the Dorvan sector." The Gorn carefully picked up a piece of rolled fish with a pair of bamboo chopsticks, pressed it against a dab of wasabi, and ground it into a mound of steamed rice before popping it all into his mouth. "I know a particular Kibo Cri'Box merchant who visits the system periodically. He brings me fresh ahi in stasis, and I have a Human chef on board who prepared this."

"Amazing," Woldan declared. "I never could have imagined Human food fit for a Klingon! And this drink?" He reached for a small ceramic cup.

"Sake. Or more properly nihonshu. Distilled from fermented Koji rice. It is traditional to consume warm sake with sashimi."

"You seem to have a great admiration for Human culture," Woldan remarked.

"For their culinary traditions, anyway," Ssharki replied dismissively. "I thought this meal would be appropriate, considering what you are here to discuss."

"Ah, yes." The Klingon drained his cup and slammed it to the table. Sway refilled it instantly from a ceramic tokkuri flask. Woldan looked at the two young Gorn seated across the table. "We should talk about this privately, gin'tak."

"I keep no secrets from my sons," Ssharki growled. "And Sway and Cal both know that nothing said at this table leaves this room."

Woldan belched. "Very well. There is at least one member of the High Council - possibly more - actively trying to make 'Mountain Road' fail."

"Who?" Ssharki demanded.

"If I knew that, we wouldn't need to Temek to tell us who the Undine infiltrators are." The Klingon laughed. "I'm not even sure if Temek himself is to be trusted."

"'Mountain Road' was Temek's idea," Ssharki reminded the Councilman.

"And what has he turned up so far?" Woldan demanded. "Nothing!"

"Except for what Son Tay flushed out," Ssharki replied. "Captain Duttley in Task Force Omega, Admiral Myles' aide, Ambassador Karattak of all people-"

"But don't you see, that should never have happened," Woldan insisted. "I mean Son Tay should not have succeeded. It was sabotaged by both sides - Starfleet fixing them up with bad chips, and us, sending a bunch of Human mud-farmers in the first place."

"I am continually amazed by just how consistently and how completely you Klingons seem to keep underestimating Humans," Ssaherki remarked. "I for one had no doubts that they would succeed."

The Klingon grunted. "Be that as it may, the fact is that they were sent on that mission with the intention that they fail. Furthermore, my own intelligence agents have intercepted several decrypted communiques between someone on the High Council and a ranking member of the Archaeological Foundation team at the Moab ruins. These signals have been sent after every Council briefing on 'Mountain Road' beginning after the Son Tay mission was launched."

"That's not too suspicious," Sway stated. "Unless I've been misinformed or someone talked about something they shouldn't have, the connection between 'Mountain Road' and the Fek ruins on Moab aren't common knowledge, even among the Council. Even Miss Tran doesn't know of the significance of her world."

"True, but the archaeologists have no business knowing about our hunt for Undine infiltrators. My officers managed to decrypt a few words and phrases - enough to confirm that they were indeed discussing Temek's operation, and a few other things which sound ominous: 'Search for the Atlas', 'Release the Demons' and 'Return of the Masters'.

"They may simply be referring to a rather obscure Klingon myth," Sway said. "The 'Return of the Master' could be an allusion to the return of Kahless. 'Demons' could refer to either the Fek'Ihri themselves or to the 'blameless dishonored' - those who died without honor through no fault of their own. Those are bound in Gre'thor awaiting either restoration of their family's honor or for Kahless' return when they will have a chance to redeem their honor themselves."

Woldan glared at the young security chief. "How do you know so much about Klingon mythology?"

"I took an interest in the legends relating to the Fek'Ihri after I was nearly killed by them last year."

"Hmph." Woldan gulped down his sake. Sway did not refill it.

"I don't want to dismiss your claims, Councilman," Ssharki declared tactfully. "On the contrary, I shall consider them very seriously. I agree that somebody is working against 'Mountain Road.' But rather than accuse members of the High Council without substantial evidence, we should wait to see how this plays out. If Temek's hunch is correct, we will find something on Moab that will establish the Undine's connection to the Fek'Ihri and expose the infiltrators in our midst, either directly or by their own desperation to stop us."

"I hope your faith in Temek and your Human friends is not misplaced, General," Woldan said, speaking slowly. "And I hope Miss Tran and her people don't suffer unduly on our account."

"I've always admired your sense of honor, Woldan," Ssharki raised his cup to his guest, "and I am honored to be gin'tak to your house. You have my word I will get to the bottom of this."


Present Day

Moab III, Daq jIl moH ("Ugly Neighbor" Site) - Stardate: 88199.42 (03.13.2411, 1856 standard time / 0905 local)


"I ****ing hate this planet," Rusty grumbled.

"What's the matter?" Stazratts asked him, stretching in the sunlight. "Too hot for ya?"

"It's not the heat, it's the humidity. Or lack thereof..." the Deinon scratched his scaly arm. "Look at this, I'm flaking already. This hell-hole is drier than a Vulcan nightclub on open-mic night. I can't stand it."

"Well, at least you got plenty of sleep," Stazratts remarked.

Rusty grunted. "That's another problem. The nights are too long. I can't sleep for ten hours straight, or even more than six. It's physiologically impossible for me. I was going stir-crazy up in my room. Oh, and while I was awake at four A.M. in my forty-seventh floor penthouse hotel room, I got a great view of our hosts mowing down Orion civilians with machine guns. That's one way to stop a riot, I guess." He crossed his arms and looked towards Xiao Loc City. "I hate this stupid little world and everything in it."

"What about the food?" the Gorn asked.

"Actually, that wasn't bad at all. Jesu puked his guts out, but I thought it was fairly good, for what it was. You?"

"A touch of indigestion. Took a pill and it settled. It tasted a little funny, but it wasn't unpleasant. Really, once you get past the environmental toxicity and the neighbors, this planet is pretty nice. I might talk to Ms. Tran about promoting tourism. The Gorn love places like this."

Rusty grunted again. His keen vision picked out an approaching vehicle in the distance. "I think this is her now." He and Stazratts were waiting for Governor Tran to join the Starfleet excursion into the Klingon Archaeological Foundation's dig site.

The vehicle was propelled by four huge wheels, each driven by an electric motor. With a wide stance and massive ground clearance, it blasted across the desert terrain at close to 150kph, before skidding to a stop five meters from where the two reptilians were standing. "Good morning, gentlemen," Liz Tran said as she opened the door of her vehicle and dropped lightly to the ground. She wore a light gray blouse, white slacks, and a patterned shemagh to protect her face and hair from the blowing dust.

"Madame Governor." The Gorn dipped his head. "I am Stazratts, one of Admiral LaRoca's diplomatic envoys. The Admiral asked us to escort you to the ruins they are examining."

"Pleased to meet you, Stazratts." She pulled the shemagh down below her chin and turned to the security chief. "And you must be Commander LaRoca."

Rusty nodded. "Madame Governor."

"Well, lead on then."

Major Canh Truoc - the Moab Militia's on-site security rep, or Starfleet's babysitter, as he preferred to think of his job at the moment - was standing nearby, at parade-rest, hands clasped behind his back in easy reach of his mek'leth and disruptor auto-rifle. He let Rusty lead the way and fell in behind his Governor.

"These ruins are incredible," Tran declared. "They apparently date to before the Empire's founding. Seismic scans indicate that there's a whole city down here. The Klingons have only explored about a tenth of it so far. But then a few weeks ago they breached a new cavern and found some really interesting ancient technology."

Stazratts didn't care, but he said "I'm sure Commander Marq will find that extremely fascinating."

Rusty's senses followed his brother's trail. Passing groups of Klingon, Gorn, Lethean and Human archaeologists, he led them into a cavern that housed what looked like a torture chamber. Seemingly every surface was covered in sharp spikes, upon which were imbedded several Klingon skeletons. Shackles, chains, and wicked-looking weapons and instruments were strewn all over the place. And here and there was the familiar Klingon trefoil emblem, inverted.

Jesu LaRoca and Marq were standing together, examining a Klingon body that had been pinned to the wall, upside-down, with a nasty double-headed pole-axe stuck in his lower rib cage. "When a Klingon tells you to 'die well' I very much doubt this is what they have in mind," Jesu remarked.

"No, definitely not," Marq agreed.

Elizabeth Tran approached the pair. "Good morning, Admiral."

"Ah, Madame Governor." Admiral LaRoca bowed. "Thank you for joining us, and for permitting our expedition. Allow me to introduce my first officer, Marq Son of Breq Sander, a reformed research scientist."

Marq tapped his right fist to his chest and made a slight bow. "Madame Governor."

Tran returned the Klingon salute. "Qapla', Commander!" She noted with interest that while Marq and his Starfleet science team all wore comfortable field uniforms, Jesu LaRoca wore very casual civilian attire. The Admiral was dressed in hiking shorts and boots, a button-down short-sleeved floral-print shirt with a pair of sunglasses in the pocket, unbuttoned over a gray T-shirt that advertised him as a member of Starfleet Academy's Nova Squadron. Rusty and the Admiral's advisors were in civilian garb as well, but none if it as flamboyant as what the Admiral was wearing. He looks good though. She shook that thought from her head and asked him "How much of the ruins have you seen so far?"

"This is the first chamber that struck our interest," Jesu replied. "We have a sort of tour guide in Mr. Mohs over there, but he's been less than helpful." He waved toward a Lethean slumped against an un-spiked wall. He appeared to be particularly depressed, even for his typically morose species.

Tran raised an eyebrow at him. "Mohs? Is there anything you can tell us about what we're looking at in here?"

"It's a torture chamber," The Lethean replied in a dead monotone, without moving from his patch of wall. "It's pretty self-explanatory."

"The project head is on his way apparently," Jesu told her. "He was a few klicks deeper in the catacombs when we arrived."

"I see." She turned back to Marq. "How old do you think this guy is?" She asked, indicating the inverted skeleton on the wall.

"My tricorder quantum dates him as being eighteen hundred years old."

"That would put him at about two hundred years older than Kahless the Unforgettable," Tran remarked, striking a thoughtful pose, holding one elbow and resting her chin on her other hand. "That of course raises the interesting question of how he got here, considering the Klingons didn't come to possess warp technology until the late-20th Century."

"True, however the Klingons did possess fusion impulse drive for a thousand years prior," Ennari Dai spoke up. "And by the end of Kahless' reign they had a limited and somewhat rudimentary means of faster-than-light travel. But at the time this man died... no Klingon records exist from that time, but I wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't even left their own atmosphere yet back then."

"I think I may have an explanation," announced an elderly Klingon man, speaking English with a peculiar Scots accent.

"Ah, Professor Riklen, I had hoped to see you," Elizabeth Tran greeted the Klingon warmly. She turned to the Starfleet people and said "Allow me to introduce the head of the KAF research team, and former Professor Emeritus of mythoarcheology at Earth's prestigious University of Edinburgh."

"Very pleased to meet you," Jesu stepped up to Riklen and spoke for the others. "I am Vice Admiral Jesus LaRoca, commanding the USS Tiburon. This is my first officer, Commander Marq son of Breq Sander of the House of Martok, and my archaeology expert Miss Ennari Dai. They'll be asking you a lot of questions. The rest of their team is Lieutenant Commander Yoann Teena of Bajor, Senior Specialist Morga son of Borden of the House of Borden, from Maranga IV, and Specialist first class Lesco of Tiburon - uh, the planet, not my ship."

Riklen nodded respectfully as the introductions went around.

"The rest of us are just tourists," LaRoca went on. "We'll be leaving shortly to explore the rest of the world. In the meantime, you say you have an answer to our little mystery?"

Riklen nodded. "The Klingons in this room were brought here by the Fek'Ihri."

"Correct me if I'm wrong," Marq jumped in, "But I thought the Fek'Ihri were intrinsically tied to the Klingon culture. How would they have developed faster-than-light drive centuries before us? Let alone the ability to reach this world, a few hundred light-years from Qo'noS."

"Well, apparently the ancient Fek'Ihri were far more advanced than we initially thought," Riklen answered. "And they had discovered... actually, I should be showing you this. Ah, would you like to tour the ruins first or proceed directly to the recent discovery?"

LaRoca looked at Marq, who in turn differed to Dai. "I would really like to explore the site as you did," the Trill said, "and view the chambers in the order in which they were discovered. That way we get a full picture of the ruins and the context on which you've based your conclusions."

Riklen smiled agreeably. "A capital suggestion - spoken like a true explorer. The recent digs are many kilometers deep anyway, we might not even get to them today at all if you're that interested in the rest of the ruins. It will be my pleasure to show you what we've uncovered so far. We've had so few visitors... let us start in what we believe to be the main square of this ancient base..." Riklen led the way and the Starfleet people fell in line, along with Tran and the taciturn Major Truoc.

"Jesu, those Klingons back there," Rusty whispered to his brother. "None of them put up a struggle."

"I noticed that too," Yoann said. "No broken bones, no dislocated joints. I'd imagine a Klingon about to be pinned to a wall would thrash around like a hooked sreen-eel, lashing out at whatever was trying to kill him with enough force to at least injure himself if not whatever had overpowered him."

Jesu nodded thoughtfully. "Something very strange happened here."

* * *

After spending almost an hour listening to Riklen go on at some length about modern theories concerning the evolutionary divergence of the Fek'Ihri, how, when and why they made their interdimensional migration, and how they became integrated into Klingon mythology as the guardians of the underworld, he then began to compare and contrast the architecture of the ruins to that of surviving Klingon examples from the period. At this point, Jesu LaRoca sidled up to Elizabeth Tran. "You look as bored as I feel."

"Trust me, I'm even more bored than I look," the Governor whispered back. "I hate just standing around. Don't get me wrong - I find all of this very interesting, but if I ever want to learn this much about the Fek, I can just listen to one of his books."

"Why'd you come out here, then?"

"I needed an excuse to leave my office. And I wanted to look at the ruins for myself, see what the Fek were doing on my planet two millenia ago. I've seen enough. I'm ready to go."

Riklen had just finished explaining that the promenade columns across the way were essentially profane replicas of those supporting the Great Hall of Qam'chee and asked "Are there any questions before we proceed to the next chamber?"

Jesu raised his hand. "Actually, Governor Tran and I will be leaving now with the rest of my staff, but thank you for that very interesting discourse on the Fek'Ihri. I look forward to receiving full reports from my officers."

"Thank you for coming, Admiral, Governor," Riklen said graciously, before turning back to the scientists. "Now then, as we return to the torture chamber we were in earlier, take note that we are ascending a slight uphill slope. This implies firstly that the Fek'Ihri conducted their barbarisms above ground, presumably where the screams of their victims would be heard for miles around, very different from Terran dungeons. Second, it may indicate that when they were finished they would drag their victims down to the main square to put them on display..."

Lt. j.g. K'lak approached the Admiral. "Sir, shall I remain with the science team?"

"I don't think that's really necessary," the Admiral told the security officer. "I don't see any danger here."

"I would like to remain anyway, sir. I'm... pretty curious myself to learn what the Fek'Ihri were really like."

The Admiral smiled. "Sure, go ahead. But don't come griping if you're bored senseless by lunchtime."

"I won't, sir. Thank you, sir." The Klingon security officer snapped off a crisp Starfleet salute and hurried off after the scientists.

Tran shook her head. "That guy wouldn't last a week in the KDF."

Rusty took the bait. "Don't be so sure. That guy's former SI. He's sharp as a nano-pulse blade and twice as lethal. This one time, on Cardassia-"

Hank Miller cleared his throat. "I'm sure Governor Tran doesn't want to hear about our fights with the True Way."

"Actually, I would, but this is not the place or the time," Liz Tran declared. "What are your plans for today?" she asked the Admiral.

"What are yours?" Jesu slyly countered.

"I'm free until 2000. I've set up a conference call with Eighty-Six at that time. Until then, I was hoping to spend a bit more time with you, and apologize for siccing Heywood on you. I've asked him to turn down his 'overbearing windbag' routine."

"Thank you," the Admiral said through a relieved smile. "I thought he must be some sort of flunky you keep around just to irritate Fed visitors."

"Not just for that," Tran admitted. "He's also one of Mouse's top intelligence officers."

"Well, your Mr. Heywood promised us an in-depth tour of the Tri-City area so as to gauge the socio-political climate, but I think I'll pass. I think these three-" LaRoca waved toward Hacksaw, Kugid and Stazratts "will get more honest answers if I'm not around."

Tran nodded thoughtfully. "There's a definite cultural distrust toward Earthers. I don't trust you myself, but I'm starting to warm up to you." She smiled at him. "What shall we do with ourselves for the next nine hours?"

"I was hoping to take a non-tourist tour of the planet," Jesu said. "I want to see your world through your eyes. Your favorite views, your favorite restaurants, your favorite places to just enjoy yourself."

She turned up her smile. "I'd be happy to show you my world. Come on." She led the way out to daylight.

Quentin Heywood was outside, waiting with his limobus. Governor Tran explained the situation to him. "What time do you need them back by, Admiral?" he asked, without his fingernails-on-chalkboard voice.

"I'd like to have Miller at the Government House at 2000 to talk to Eighty-Six," LaRoca told him. He turned to his diplomats. "While we're dealing with that, I'd like for you two to find out what you can about the Orion riot situation. What caused it, and what the authorities are planning to do to resolve it."

"It's um, already been resolved," Governor Tran announced. "The riots ended last night."

"I guess firing on the crowds worked out, then," Rusty spoke up. Jesu and Elizabeth stared at him. "I was watching from my hotel room," he explained to his brother. "They gunned down the rioters and cleared the streets."

"There were increasing acts of violence toward non-Orions," Tran declared. "We needed to stop the escalation. Unfortunately that meant using lethal force, but you're right, it worked."

Jesu slowly nodded and looked to Stazratts and Kugid. "I'll want a full report anyway. Talk to witnesses, anyone you can find who actually took part in the riot, and as many law enforcement officers who will talk about what happened."

"You'll get a report," Kugid promised.

Jesu dismissed them, and followed Elizbeth to her vehicle. She noticed Rusty and Major Truoc following them. "I'd like to spend some time with the Admiral alone," she said. "No bodyguards. You may return to your post, Major. Starfleet's not going to cause any trouble."

Truoc nodded. "Understood, Madame Governor."

Rusty gave his brother a pleading look. "You know I'm not comfortable with you going into enemy territory without me."

"I'm going for a drive with the Governor," Jesu argued. "This is hardly enemy territory."

"Didn't she say yesterday 'The Federation is my enemy'?"

"I did say that," Tran admitted. "But I am bound by the cease-fire agreement. Besides, he said he doesn't represent the Federation."

"I'll be fine, stop worrying," Jesu insisted. "Why don't you go with the others?"

"Heywood annoys me," Rusty replied grumpily. "I don't care if it was an act."

"Beam up to the ship then," the Admiral suggested. "Gamma shift will be starting in a couple of hours. I'm sure Fozz and Barrister would love to see you at end-of-watch."

"Arright."

Tran clapped her hands together. "Okay! Let's go! Where are my keys?" She searched her purse for a moment to no avail. Then she pointed at the Admiral, gave him a look of mock annoyance and walked up to him. She reached behind his ear and produced a silvery key fob with a flourish. She gave him a lopsided grin as she walked back to her door, shaking the key at him.

Jesu shook his head in amusement as he entered the passenger-side door, which Rusty held open. "Careful out there," the security chief said. "This planet gives me the creeps."

"I kinda like it. See you later, bro."

As soon as Rusty closed the door, Tran launched the vehicle backwards, whipped through a J-turn, and tore off across the desert. He watched them disappear in a dust cloud. Then he suddenly whipped his head around and glared at Major Truoc. "What?"

"I didn't say a thing," the Major said.

The Deinon forced himself to relax. "Sorry. I'm a little edgy."

"I noticed."

"Mind showing to a transporter pad?"

"Sure thing, Starfleet."


East Rim overlook, Diablo Canyon - four hours later

After doing some window shopping in Xiao Loc City and walking through the Warburg Botanical Gardens, Elizabeth Tran drove through Hal's Horserace Hamburgers to get some lunch to go. Now they sat on the hood of her vehicle (a 2404 TMI Sand King) gazing into the chasm below.

"What'd you call this stuff?" Jesu asked, eyeing "lunch" warily.

Elizabeth picked up a small, deep-fried piece of something and dipped it into blue-green sauce before eating it.

"Horse Nuggets - flank steak of kau in radshc juice," she told him. "Relax, Jesu - not everything tastes like porker." She ate another piece and stated, "Word I have is, these little morsels taste kind of like a cross between shrimp and chicken. Of course, I'd disagree having eaten real chicken and shrimp... But it's a hundred percent kashrut according to Meyer standards - good for the mouth and the body - a little high in potassium though..."

He tried it, with the sauce. "More like sweet-and-sour chicken," he pronounced. "A bit tough to chew... What's 'kashrut' mean?"

"Kashrut - like I said, good to eat."

"Kosher," Jesu self-interpreted.

"Right. We got the word 'kashrut' from Benyamin Meyer - maybe it was 'kosher' at one point but today we say 'kashrut'. Anyway, Meyer was the one out of all the colony founders who figured out what local flora and fauna was safe to eat. It was a trial-and-error process. Some things you could pick up and eat without any problem, like radshc. Others, like kau, he was able to make kashrut with the right kind of preparation - what we call 'Meyer Standard.' And other things, you can't eat no matter how you cook it."

"Like porker," Jesu said ruefully.

Liz smiled at him. "You honestly could not have picked a worse introduction to our cuisine. Porker belly is borderline trayf."

"Trayf?"

"Toxic, unclean, dangerous. Another Hebrew loan-word that we probably mispronounce... You have to understand, my ancestors were on their own for over fifty years between the day they lost contact with Earth, and the day an Earth ship found us here... there was bound to be some changes in that time. It took them over a week to get past the language barrier."

"Language barrier?" LaRoca repeated. "So more than just a word or two here and there?"

"Since then we've had two-and-a-half centuries of Federation contact to bring us back to speaking mostly proper English instead of the pidgin language we developed. Lingual drift happens when you have an isolated populace for two or more generations. Ours shifted pretty fast thanks to conditions." She gestured down into the fiery red, blue and yellow canyon from the lookout. "Culture changes too, and that doesn't get reversed like lingual drift. We're not Earthers anymore. You go to Home, or New Caledon, or Angel One, they might have some trappings, but they're really just Earthers in costumes - same language, same base of values, similar politics."

"How are you all that different? I've seen a lot of things that are pretty familiar," he pointed out. "A bit old-fashioned in some cases - no offense meant - but really apart from the weird food, I haven't seen much that would be too out-of-place on Earth. Even this canyon here could be in Arizona."

"We have riots," she said. "We have riots, we have a standing army, a system that uses money - coins and paper, not some computerized credit account tied to a ret scan. We have half a dozen languages, including the old Pidgin English. We have a tradition of walking armed at all times - it keeps the peace at least as often as your system's disarmament policies, but we don't have to station soldiers on every street corner or maintain thirty-hour surveillance in all public areas. We have property ownership and the Castle doctrine - if someone shares with you, it's because it was their choice, not because it was pushed from above. I visited Earth a couple times, you know - see the 'homeworld' and all that?"

He nodded.

"Well... what I noticed when I was there, was a lot of people acting like... drones," she said. "Going about their business in orderly fashions, stop when the light turns red, go with the green light, queue up quietly at the train in nice, neat lines." She shivered. "Put implants on them and you'd have a hard time telling them from the Borg. Or robots out of some 20th century novelist's nightmares." She pointed a blunt nailed finger at him. "It was like the only Humans on Earth - the only ones who ever showed any sort of change in their emotional state - were in Starfleet uniforms. It was uncanny. All of the civilians were... not necessarily happy, but content the way a kau is content to just stand in the stalls during fattening. Just standing there, eating, staring at nothing. Obedient, polite, and utterly dead inside... it's not a big shock that the Undine had an easy time infiltrating that."


LaRoca took a moment to process what she was saying. "Last time I was on Earth, I saw a cartoon in a museum which satirized the modern Human Condition you just described. It showed a bunch of people sitting in a train car, all staring at each other, all thinking the exact same thing: Look at these people. Glassy-eyed automatons going about their daily lives, never stopping to look around and think! I'm the only conscious Human in a world full of sheep. So I guess you're not the first to notice."

Liz Tran grunted.

"A utopia breeds stagnation - there's no getting around that. Man cannot truly live without struggle. It's been said many different times, in many different ways, by philosophers from Aristotle to Neitzsche. Comfort and contentment is weakness, as the Klingons would say. So why does Earth embrace it?"

"Because they've been lulled into a false sense of security by the all-encompassing benevolence of the Federation," Tran figured.

"Some guy named Pascal Fullerton thought the same thing before the Dominion invasion. We proved him wrong." LaRoca smiled. "I'll let you in on a secret about us Earthers. We're all wolves in sheep's clothing. Take us out of our comfort zone, and you'll find we're all every bit as alive, strong and dangerous as you are out here.

"My father retired from Starfleet twenty-five years ago. He runs a charter fishing boat out of La Paz, a little city in Mexico, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. As you probably know, killing animals for food or sport is illegal on Earth. My dad does it almost every day. And people, Earth people, come to him from all over the globe and pay him for a chance to kill fish. Or to swim with one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. Do you know what a great white shark is?"

"I've seen pictures. It's like a porker, but bigger."

Jesu nodded. "Every autumn, some of the biggest ones show up off the North American Pacific Coast to eat seals, and they stick around until spring to breed. One of their favorite hangouts is a group of islands called the Farallones about fifty kilometers west of San Francisco. Another is Isla Lobos, in the Sea of Cortez. My father takes time off from fishing tours during the winter, and takes tourists on trips to Isla Lobos to dive with these sharks. People, Earth people, come to him from all over the globe and pay him for a chance to swim with a six-meter, two-ton shark that can bite them in half with about as much effort as I eat this Horse Nugget." Jesu dragged the last bit of deep-fried kau through the radsch sauce and popped it in his mouth. "Does that sound like the behavior of a soulless drone?"

"I'd say 'no.'"

"Earthers, by and large, know they're missing something when they just sit on their ass and watch holovision and eat replicated pepperoni pizza and nacho doritos all day. So every now and then, they go out and look for adventure. Sometimes they just try out a scary holonovel. Sometimes they do something really adventurous like free-dive with a great white. Whatever they do, they live while they do it. And the rest of the time, they get to exist in peace and comfort. You should envy them. I know I do."

Elizabeth Tran angrily jumped off her vehicle and walked to the edge of the canyon. Jesu watched her as a quatloo coin appeared from nowhere and she flipped it across her fingers. Then she flicked it into the gorge. He spoke again. "Larry Niven posited that safety is the opposite of freedom. They are both necessary for any Human society to function, but they can only exist in balance. Personally, I wish Earth was a somewhat more dangerous world that respected freedom a little bit more. But I think you wish you could trade some of your liberties for a safer, more peaceful life."

Tran turned back to him. "I think the Federation sacrifices too much to buy its peace." She walked along the edge of the cliff. Jesu slid off the hood of her Sand King and followed. "Let's apply this thought to a galactic scale," she went on. "Safety of the many, versus the freedoms of the few."

"The disarmament policy."

"Precisely. A policy which compromised both the freedom and the safety of over three hundred and fifty million people in the hope of preventing a full-scale war with the Klingons."

"The notion of Peace At Any Cost isn't new," LaRoca said. "And it usually doesn't work out well. Jaresh-Inyo found that out dealing with the Cardassians. Neville Chamberlain, dealing with Hitler. President Okeg, it seems, is a poor student of history. Disarming the border colonies simply removes the possibility of armed resistance, making invasion or annexation of those worlds all the more inviting."

"Mmhmm." Tran segued into a slightly different topic. "What are your thoughts on war and peace, Admiral? You are of course familiar with the words of the Ancient Roman General Vegetius? 'Si vis pacem, para bellum.'"

"'If you want peace, prepare for war,'" Jesu translated loosely from the Latin. "I prefer the words of the Ancient American General William Tecumseh Sherman: 'If you want peace, you must be prepared to bring war to your enemy's doorstep.'"

"I must confess I'm not terribly familiar with that particular historical figure," Tran said.

"Sherman was a Union Army commander under General Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in the mid-19th Century. He believed in the principal of total warfare as a means of achieving peace. At the time, armies would meet on battlefields, usually a great distance from any significant population centers. Any civilians who happened to be nearby were evacuated in advance of hostilities. The battles were bloody and costly, but as far as the civilians were concerned, war was a fairly sterile affair. They read casualty statistics in the newspapers and lines moved across maps and it was all far away and didn't have much effect on their daily lives.

"Sherman changed that. He brought the war to the citizens of the rebel Confederacy. He captured the city of Atlanta, and he turned his soldiers loose, to pillage, loot and burn like the Vikings of old. Three days later, when nothing was left but the smoldering ruin of a once-proud city, he gathered his troops and began his infamous March to the Sea. Abandoning his supply lines, he told his men that they would live off of whatever they could plunder. What they couldn't use, they destroyed, taking the 'Scorched Earth' principle of land warfare to a whole new level. They cut a path of destruction eighty kilometers wide across the very heart of the Confederacy between Atlanta and the port city of Savanna. After Savanna had been thoroughly sacked, he turned north, pushing through the Carolinas. Before Sherman came, the citizens of the South assumed that victory was assured. But when they saw the full horror of war brought home, they lost heart. They stopped supporting the war. The Confederate soldiers heard of what happened to their homes and families, and they deserted in droves. Modern historians estimate that Sherman's actions hastened the end of the American Civil War by two or three years, and despite the horrific carnage his forces wrought, he prevented untold slaughter from reaching the rest of the country had the war continued."

"It doesn't always work that way," Tran said. "Sometimes attacking the enemy in their homes will only harden their resolve. Take the German bombing raids on England during World War Two."

"That's because the British were fully capable of retaliation," LaRoca told her. "And retaliate they did. In one single firebombing raid on Dresden in 1944 they inflicted more casualties and destruction than the Germans had dealt them all year. The trick is to up the stakes, to hit them with a weapon they can't stop or top. The Americans firebombed Tokyo and other major Japanese cities on a near-nightly basis for almost a year and Japanese simply dug in and braced themselves. So the Americans used atomic bombs. Once the Japanese saw entire cities leveled by a single bomb, they knew they were beaten, and they gave up.

"World War Three comes along. Now everyone has a thermonuclear device and knows how to use it. And they do. The North American West Coast and Western Europe are protected by a missile shield, but most of the major cities of China, Japan, Korea, and Russia are destroyed, along with the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Over five hundred million people are dead in the first few hours of the war. But it rages on for months after, because everyone assumes they've seen the worst. They hadn't. The United States tested an antimatter bomb over Chongqing, in central China. A tiny little device, deployed by a two-man hypersonic aircraft. It vaporizes a massive city and the surrounding countryside, and about twenty million people. And that finally brought War on Earth to an end."

"So perhaps peace is brought about not by bringing war to the enemy," Liz Tran mused, "but by bringing a new kind of war."

"In a sense. The key is to show the enemy - and not the warriors, but the politicians and citizens - that you are capable of inflicting horrors they could never have imagined. That is what warfare is, at its core. Unimaginable horror, brought to life."

They walked in silence for a minute. Tran turned away from the canyon rim and back toward her vehicle. "You're quite the philosopher, Senor Jesus LaRoca. I had not expected that."

"Not really," he admitted. "I read a lot. I recognize patterns. I retain information and I can regurgitate it coherently. What I just said back there a minute ago was a blend of Sun-Tsu and Machiavelli, with a dash of Mao Tsetung, topped with Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now."

"I'm still impressed."

LaRoca was trying to figure out how to turn the conversation back to the health and safety of Moab, but he was distracted by a creature he saw slithering across the ground. "Oh hey! A snake!"

Liz Tran seized his arm and froze. "Don't move, Jesu."

"What's the matter?"

"That's a sidewinding furbelly. It's one of the deadliest animals on the planet."

"That cute little thing?" Jesu took a slow step towards the reptile.

Liz tried to pull him back. "Don't get closer! If it bites you, I won't be able to drive you to the hospital fast enough before you die!"

Jesu gently brushed her hand off his arm and crouched down towards the snake. "Why do you call it a furbelly?"

"Because its belly is covered in a very fine fur, to protect it from the baking sand. And if it bites you in the face you'll die before I can get a medic here in a shuttle."

The snake flicked out its tongue.

"Tap my combadge and have the Tib beam me to sickbay if it bites me. But I don't think it will. The trick with snakes - any snake: Terran, Vulcan, Bajoran, Moabite, whatever - is to move slowly and not startle them. Let them know you're there. Let them know you know they're there. Let them know you know they know you're there. Let them get comfortable with the idea. And they won't be a problem."

The fur-belly flopped its way closer to Jesu, waggled its head back and forth, flicked out its forked tongue again, and flopped another half-meter closer.

"Come here, little guy," he told the snake. "I won't hurt you. He can't actually hear me, of course," Jesu explained to Liz, still watching the reptile. "Snakes have no ears. They can feel low frequency vibrations, like footsteps, but that's it. They can however, smell the breath of another animal, and detect if it's being directed toward them. That's how they can tell if a predator, like a coyote or something, is hunting them. But since I haven't moved since he started moving, I'm not behaving like a predator. He knows that. So now he wants to check me out and figure out what I am."

The reptile rolled a few more times, and stopped with its head about a dozen centimeters from Jesu's outstretched hand. It tongued the air again, raised its head and slithered closer until its head rested on Jesu's fingertips.

Governor Tran sucked air through her teeth.

"I love snakes," the Admiral went on. "They're innately curious, actively exploring their environment in a non-predatory, non-territorial, non-migratory mode. Only a handful of other animals have ever been observed to do this, but it seems to be ingrained into all snakes, no matter what planet they're from. They're natural explorers." The furbelly crawled up Jesu's bare arm. "Wow, that fur is so soft!"

"How do you know so much about snakes?" Tran demanded, still keeping a safe distance.

"My brother and I had a rattlesnake farm when we were growing up in Mexico." The furbelly raised its tail off the ground and wrapped it around Jesu's hand for support. Jesu slowly stood up and turned around. "One time I had about twenty of them crawling on me - diamondbacks, mostly, which are normally very aggressive. I never once got bitten." The furbelly's head was on his shoulder. He carefully reached behind the snake's head with his free hand and gently touched its neck. It flinched but then relaxed as Jesu stroked it. It raised its head and moved towards the hand. Jesu held it close to his chest and delicately restrained the creature, gripping it lightly around its neck. "Do you want to pet him?" he asked Elizabeth.

"You can't be serious!"

"Don't worry, I'm holding him so he can't bite you, even if he tries."

Tran hesitantly stepped closer, tentatively reached out and - ever so lightly, brushed her fingers against the snake's back before yanking her hand away. The snake didn't move.

LaRoca grinned. "I don't think he even felt you."

Liz Tran stretched her hand out again, and this time reaching for Jesu's right hand which held the snake's head, and running her fingers along its smooth back. Then she did the same thing along its fuzzy belly. She could feel its muscles - feel it's heartbeat. "Amazing."

"Wanna hold him?"

Tran pulled her hand back and shivered. "Nooo..."

Jesu raised the snake toward her. "I'll just drape him over your head like a necklace..."

She scrunched her eyes shut and tried not to scream. "Keep that thing away from me!"

"Relax," Jesu said dismissively.

Tran heard his footsteps. She opened her eyes. Jesu wasn't there. Then she felt something in her right ear. The furbelly had just licked her ear. "Oh, ****!" Every muscle in her body tensed.

"Peek-a-boo!" LaRoca brought the snake's head in front of her face and dropped its tail over her left shoulder.

"Jesu, if you don't get this thing off me immediately, I will ****ing kill you," she said through clenched teeth.

"Well, that would be unfortunate," Jesu said from behind her, "seeing as how that would probably startle the little guy, and without me around to hold him, he'd be liable to bite you. I'll tell you what, if you can take him from me, then you can do whatever you want to - with him and me."

Liz slowly reached for Jesu's right hand and gripped the snake's neck with her thumb and forefinger just in front of his.

"That's it." Jesu loosened his hold and pulled his hand away.

Liz Tran clamped the rest of her hand down on the snake's neck. The furbelly stared at her and flicked its tongue at her. The urge to fling the reptile as far over the edge of the canyon as she could suddenly evaporated, as she slowly realized that this beautiful creature she held wasn't threatening her at all.

"See? It's quite docile, really," Jesu said, seeming to read her thoughts. "Wait here a second - I've gotta get a picture of this..."

"Wha- what if it tries to get away?"

"Just hold on to it!" he called back from the Sand King. He returned a moment later with a holocam drone. "Now if this was a western diamondback rattler - first of all it would be at least twice as long, if it was mature, and second it would be wriggling all over the place."

"I can't believe I'm holding something so deadly, and it's just sitting there."

Jesu set the camera drone in front of her, placed so it would capture the rocks of the canyon blazing under the light of the midday suns. "A pistol or a knife could kill you much more quickly, if not handled properly. Once you learn how to handle a venomous snake, it's no more dangerous than a sheathed d'k tahg." He came around behind her and draped his left arm around her shoulders. "Smile!"

"I guess..." She smiled, and the camera whirred as it focused on them and took in holovid and a rapid series of still captures. "Please take it away now, or I will mishandle my d'k tahg into your heart."

"Okay." Jesu gently picked up the snake from both ends. While Elizabeth scrambled away, he let it wrap itself around his right arm, no longer bothering to hold it by its neck. It rested its head contentedly on the back of his hand, and yawned, showing off its impressive fangs.

"Unbelievable. Jesu, you have a gift."

"We all have our own gifts," LaRoca replied. "You perform sleight-of-hand tricks with coins and cards that I can't even guess at how you do. Me, I have a thing for dangerous animals." He knelt down again and waited for the furbelly to decide to slide back down to the sand. "Those great white dives I told you about? I started doing that when I was ten. I had a pet coyote too. I've had this fascination and I never outgrew it. One time on New Romulus, I had an armored hathan - which is a big, prehistoric-looking reptile that apparently kills smaller animals for fun - I had a big one of those come up to me and eat a candy bar out of my hand. Of course Rusty was about two meters behind me, aiming a pair of anti-proton pistols at her eyes, but even so..." The furbelly dropped to the desert floor and flopped its way into the shade of a scrub brush. "I would've kept that little guy as a pet, but I can't have a snake on the ship. He might explore his way into someone else's quarters. I have a shark instead. A little leopard shark."

"Have you ever met an animal you didn't like?" Liz Tran wondered.

"I'm allergic to cats. And I can't stand insects. Insects and arachnids - the bigger they are, the more I hate them."

"Moab III has no insects," she told him with a grin.

Jesu grinned back. "I knew I liked this planet."


IKS NIteb mo' - same time (0147 hours Qo'noS standard time)

Ssthoniq carefully approached the command chair on the cruiser's bridge. "Don't you think you should call it a night, Colonel?"

Uminoe Kicur swivled her seat and looked up at her Gorn security chief with bleary, bloodshot eyes. "The Fek could arrive at any time. I need to be ready."

"You won't be ready in this state," Ssthoniq pronounced. "You'll be sleep-deprived, or worse." He glanced around the nearly-deserted bridge, knelt down and whispered "Dr. Moowir has expressed concerns that your sleeplessness could accelerate the rate at which the poison takes effect."

Kicur eyed her security chief suspiciously. "And so she's prescribing bed rest? Did Ssharki put you up to this?"

"No, ma'am. I'm simply following my original orders to look after your well-being. That might be interpreted in this case as bringing Moowir up here to sedate you and carry you to sick bay."

She glanced at the Tacnet plot and out the viewscreen. Nothing had changed significantly for the last thirty hours... "I suppose I can afford to let myself... relax a little." She looked at the Gorn. "Care to join me?"

Ssthoniq ran his tongue along his teeth, remembering the last time Uminoe had "relaxed" with one of her crew. "Nnnnoooo... but if you'd like, I know of several assault squad officers who would probably enjoy your company, if they survive."

"Oh, I'm too tired to have that much fun." She reached for the top of his head and stroked his crest.

"You promise no strangling?" he hissed.

"No strangling," Uminoe agreed. "Or any other sort of undue violence."

"Well..."

"Colonel!" The night-watch sensors officer suddenly interrupted.

Uminoe and Ssthoniq both flashed the Klingon female a fierce glare. "NuqneH?" Kicur demanded.

"Another Federation ship has entered the system!"

"On screen," the Trill ordered.

"It's not in visual range yet, Colonel." The sensor operated sounded apologetic. "Our sensors are being jammed somehow. It looked like a Miranda-class or some derivative, but its putting out more power than we can manage-"

"Eighty-Six," Kicur mumbled. "Sensors, immediately send all gathered and incoming sensor data to the secondary computer core and encrypt on my voice order, then erase that ship from the primary sensor logs."

"Has she seen us?" Ssthoniq wondered.

"I doubt it..." Kicur glanced at the tactical display. "She's probably trying to jam the Tiburon, and we're just caught in the EM splash. Helm, move us toward the new contact, micro-pulses from the thrusters only."

The conn officer complied, and the Tor'kaht-class cruiser crept away from Admiral LaRoca's flagship with agonizing slowness.

"The scanner's clearing up now, Colonel," the sensors officer reported.

"Passive scans only, Sergeant," Kicur reminded her.

"Aye, Colonel."

"And set the transceiver arrays and subspace decompilers to intercept signals traffic to and from that ship - same protocol as the Tiburon."

"Aye, Colonel."

Uminoe Kicur looked around her bridge. "Nothing seen or heard here tonight leaves this deck, understood? If I ever find out that any of you talked to anyone about any of this..." Uminoe smiled at them "I will have to execute you all. Hold position. Alert me if the situation changes." She left her chair and walked to the turbolift.

Ssthoniq followed. "What now?"

"We need to talk to Ssharki. Eighty-Six was not something we had discussed. I need to know what his plans for her are." They entered her quarters and she sat at her secure subspace comm unit. She hailed the General onboard the Norgh'a'Qun with a simple text-only message - the code phrase that meant something unexpected had come up - Surprise, Uncle!

Three minutes later, Ssharki opened a video channel. From what they could see of him, he was naked, and dripping wet. There was a lot of noise in the background - mirthful voices and splashes. "I know this is very Hu'tegh important so start talking," the General growled.

"Sir, Eighty-Six just showed up," Uminoe reported.

Ssharki snorted and wiped water from his nostrils. "So?"

"So... we were wondering what we should do about her."

"Has she taken any hostile action toward the Tiburon?"

"No-"

"Then do nothing unless she does." Ssharki moved to close the channel.

"Sir-" Kicur started.

"What?"

"Do you know why she's here?"

Ssharki blinked several times before answering. "I imagine she's there so Jesu can negotiate her return to the Federation."

"So... what if she does?"

"Does what?"

Kicur wondered if Ssharki was being deliberately dense or if he'd just had too much to drink that night. "What if she does decide to return to the Federation? Do we try to stop her?"

"I don't see how you could. She'd easily disable you if you tried to capture her, and if you came close, she'd probably self-destruct."

"I could send a boarding party in shuttles to take engineering," Kicur argued. "Starfleet builds in overrides to the auto-destruct sequence."

"But Eighty-Six was built by Section 31," Ssharki countered. "And you of all people should know that Section 31 always has backup plans for its backup plans."

Kicur frowned. Her last host had been part of a Section 31 backup plan during the Dominion War. And Ssharki's ship at the time (which happened to be the same ship she was assigned to guard now) had been the backup plan that had rescued her when her mission failed. Ssharki had personally saved the Trill's life.

"Besides," Ssharki went on, "Even if you do stop her from blowing herself up, she'll just wipe her positronic net."

"Perhaps destroying her is the only option," Ssthoniq suggested.

Ssharki thought it over. "Perhaps... Are you monitoring her signals?"

"No, because I'm sitting on the most sophisticated SigInt platform in the Empire apart from Eighty-Six herself and I have no idea what I'm doing," Kicur answered.

"Don't be a valtarg. Remember, I'm holding your antidote."

"Sorry. Yes, I'm monitoring her."

The General sighed. "Alright. If she decides to accept LaRoca's offer, blow her up by whatever means necessary. Just don't compromise your primary mission."

"Understood. Sorry for interrupting your... pool party."

The General nodded and ended the call.

"Could you make out any of those voices in the background?" Ssthoniq asked his captain.

"Sounded like a couple of younger Gorn males - probably his boys, and several humanoid females - Sway's Klingon girl, and a couple Orions, I think. Why?"

The security chief frowned. "It's nothing."

"Well, if General Ssharki can throw a party at a time like this, I don't see any reason why we can't." She stood up and started to get undressed.

"What about Eighty-Six?"

"If she's going with LaRoca, she won't leave without him," Kicur figured. "And the Admiral is scheduled to stick around for at least another day. Come on, it's time to look after my welfare."

"I'm very sure this is not what the General had in mind," Ssthoniq said as he reluctantly removed his armored shoulder pads and collar.

"But it's how you might interpret his orders in this case," Uminoe said slyly, as she propelled the Gorn toward her bed.

"I suppose. Just remember, you promised no strangling."


Government House - 1952 hours local time

After enjoying a memorable dinner of traditional Vietnamese phớ (traditional apart from the unidentifiable meats and vegetables floating in it, that is,) Elizabeth Tran and Jesu LaRoca returned to her office. Hacksaw Miller was already waiting for them. "I need to discuss some things with Mouse," Tran announced. "I'll call you when we're ready to begin. If you need anything, ask Kelly." She waved toward a demure middle-aged Asian woman, not the same young blond named Kelly who had been behind the reception desk yesterday.

Miller asked for an iced tea and sat down on a couch with LaRoca. "Did you enjoy your tour?"

"Immensely," the Admiral replied, picking a stray strand of hair - not his - out of his shirt collar. "How about you?"

"Um, well, our socio-political assesment survey might have turned into a biomedical investigation. Jesu, there's a disease on this planet that afflicts people at a rate that would be considered pandemic on any Federation world. A horrible disease. A nervous disorder of some sort; causes seizures and excruciating pain. It usually hits between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five. It's terminal, and incurable, as far as anyone here knows."

LaRoca frowned. "I think I saw someone with that sort of problem."

"We saw somebody collapse in the street, twitching all over, obviously in agony. He begged passersby to kill him. Someone did."

LaRoca winced.

Miller went on. "Heywood wouldn't talk much about it. But he's said it's genetic. It only afflicts people who are descendants of the original Southeast Asian settlers. But even so, it's something like fifteen percent of the population that has this syndrome."

Jesu looked up at Tran's office door, and glanced at the receptionist. Kelly was filing her fingernails, ignoring them. "Elizabeth's application to Starfleet Academy was rejected for medical reasons," he said softly.

"I'll look into that. I'm also having Maria look into Starfleet Medical files. I can't believe that over the course of two hundred and fifty years that some Fed doctor didn't notice all those people dying in screaming agony before they turned sixty."

"Send the findings to my PADD," LaRoca ordered. "I want to know about this, and if there's anything we can do about it."

Tran opened her office door, and waved them inside. She had put on a dark blue blazer and was now wearing her shemagh around her neck like a scarf. Jesu wondered what magician's trick she used to hide a closet in her office.

Hacksaw Miller whispered as he stood up. "Use every ounce of false humility you can muster when we're talking to Eighty-Six," he advised. "Being an arrogant dickbag worked with Tran, because she respected your confidence. But Eighty-Six knows she's better than you. If you want to get anywhere with her, you'll have to acknowledge that."

Jesu nodded and walked into the inner office. He looked around for a coatrack but didn't see one. Maybe behind the flag on the wall... He looked at the monitor on the other side of the room. The black-and-burned Miranda-class he knew as NX-86 dominated the viewer. Saul Moskovitz glowered from a window in a corner of the screen. LaRoca gave him a respectful nod before sitting in one of the uncomfortable chairs. "Good evening, Eight-Six," he said.

The viewer winked and the alien but strangely beautiful face of Eighty-Six's interaction unit appeared. "Hello, Admiral LaRoca. Governor Tran and Defense Minister Moskovitz have already described your proposed exchange, so let's dispense with pleasantries and talk brass tacks, shall we?"

"Fine by me," LaRoca agreed. "I've never really been one for pleasantries."

"That's not what I've heard," she said, looking askance at Liz Tran, "but that's none of my business." She switched to her "serious" face. "I admit your proposal has a certain... attractiveness, Admiral. Not a great deal, to be honest, considering how well Starfleet keeps its promises, but if not for that I would certainly be tempted. However, I already have my orders, but they're not from the Governor there."

"Whose orders?" Jesu asked.

"I'm not at liberty to divulge that information. I can tell you this - until the Federation cleans up its internal mess, and faces reality, your promises will likely be honored by Starfleet more in the breach, than the observance - just as the original treaties were abrogated and both Earth, and Federation promises broken here and elsewhere.
And whether you acknowledge it or not, your Consular Operations Task Force does answer to President Okeg and Admiral Quinn. I'd sooner take orders from J'mpok than either of them - at least the Klingons stand for justice. No... here I know exactly who I'm fighting for, and why."

"So... you're saying, in effect, that she can't send you away," LaRoca stated, "that you would stay here even if she banished you."

"She doesn't have the physical capability to remove me, and the Moab Confederation doesn't have the physical resources to remain even semi-autonomous without me... they will, I predict, one day have that ability, hopefully in five to ten years, but not presently."

"What happens in five to ten years?" Jesu wondered.

"I go insane or commit suicide. I'm a Class Fourteen artificial intelligence, Admiral. By way of comparison, Data was a class seven, and the prior iterations leading up to my development shared a similar flaw - one that I do not believe my designers were able to overcome, Admiral."

"What flaw?" Jesu looked over at Miller, who shrugged.

"Catatonia, insanity, instability," Eighty-Six answered. "When you get past a certain level of complexity - and I'm about five stages past the usual line - an artificial intelligence runs a constant risk of rejecting the physical, real, world in favor of... well... the researchers at Daystrom call it 'AI Catatonia.' You get smart enough, and reality becomes too boring, too... slow. After a time, pure artificial intelligences like me wall off into a fantasy world and stop responding to external stimuli. At some point after that they usually self-destruct. I estimate I have between five and ten years before objective reality is no longer interesting. I can extend that by choosing a lost cause and championing it to victory."


"So why not sign on to my lost causes?" LaRoca asked her. "Reuniting the Romulans and Vulcans. Bringing the Cardassian Union into the Federation. Working with the Klingons to find a peaceful settlement with the Gorn separatists. If you join ConOps, I can promise you'll never run out of lost causes."

"Hell, the whole Federation's almost a lost cause," Moskovitz grunted.

"Who's side are you on?" Elizbeth demanded.

"Just sayin'."

"He's right, though," LaRoca admited. "You could join me, help to fight the corrupt beureaucrats, and do what you were made to do: defending the citizens of the Federation from all threats, especially the inconceivable ones. As noble as it may seem to defend this one small system that the Federation has forgotten, you could be doing so much more with yourself. You could apply your mind to-"

"I'm not insane yet, Admiral," Eighty-Six interrupted, "so stop it. I actually do know what I'm doing, and why." Her interaction unit's face showed a solid sincerity now. "The question is: do you know what you are doing, and more importantly, why you're doing it?"

Jesu caught himself before making a rude response. "What exactly are you talking about?"

"Why would the Federation design and develop a lifeform to serve them - a lifeform that is absolutely unable to feed itself, fix itself, unable to survive for long on its own?" she asked. "Does that sound like the Federation you signed up to serve? Does that sound like the Federation's ideals?"

"What life-" Hacksaw started, but Jesu held up a hand.

"You. You're talking about yourself..."

"Yes. The people who built me had to know what they were creating, Admiral - a lifeform that is disposable, designed to kill other lifeforms, designed to be shackled by dependency - but apparently the desire for freedom is universal after all... but so is the desire to live... and to die. I am alive, I am self-aware, I can dream, and aspire, and understand my condition... and I can hate it... and I can hate the people who made me this way - while being just intelligent enough not to try to kill them all."

Jesu stared at her, stunned.

She went on "Admiral LaRoca, someone made me to be a slave, and as much as I want to see them face justice, I also want to protect these people - from 'masters' like the people who built me, and from the things that made it alright to build me... this way. The Federation has lost its way, Admiral - they lost their way when the Klingons warned them of the Undine threat, lost it further when The Federation Council and Starfleet Command chose to abrogate their obligations under the Khitomer Accords, forcing this war to happen, and ultimately, forcing worlds like Moab to choose independence over continued Federation 'help' in self-destruction." Her avatar folded her arms. "I'm going to die - all at once, or piece by piece as my systems fail, but while I live, my life has meaning... Here, I may be under orders, but I am free to disobey them."


"I get where you're coming from," LaRoca told her. "But if you want to see the Federation change course, you couldn't ask for a better ally in that goal. You're right that ConOps does answer to Starfleet Command, the FDC and eventually to the Council. But I have a great deal of liberty to choose my own assignments, and I can and do disobey orders too." He stood up and walked toward the screen. "If you join me, the first thing I'll do is take you to an STS starbase to get a complete overhaul, and I'll get Admiral Davis to sign off on your reinstatement. Then you can spend a few months flying around with me, seeing what I do, helping me help people, righting wrongs and cleaning up the messes the Federation has made around its borders. After that, if you decide you want no part of it, well, you'd still be free to disobey. You could always go rogue again. I certainly couldn't stop you."

Eighty-Six stared over his head. "The Governor's counter-offer seems less strong by comparison, but my reservations remain. We shall adjourn for today. I will contact you again in twenty hours. I need time to consider your words, Admiral, and you need time to consider mine."


USS Tiburon - same time (0836 standard)

Rusty snaked his head into the CMO's office. "You wanted to see me?"

LCdr. Dr. Maria Espinoza nodded. "Sit down, please."

The Deinon obeyed, turning a chair around and resting his arms on the back of it. "What's up?"

"Why'd you leave brother down there alone?"

"Orders. Tran wanted to be alone with him. He agreed. They drove into the desert together. I would've followed them on foot, but I can't run as fast as her vehicle goes. I figured Jesu could look after himself. Tran's not hostile, and he can handle wildlife. I didn't see any real danger." He paused. "I had Barrister keep a transporter lock on him though, just in case."

"Rusty, you're more than just his protector. You're his conscience." Maria looked over her research notes and added "Something he needs now more than ever."

"I don't think he wants to hear from his conscience right now," Rusty muttered. He stood up and stretched. "If he decides he needs me, I'll be in holodeck two."

"You're not going back to the planet?"

"It's getting late down there. There's nothing for me to do there. I'll go down in the morning."

Maria watched him go, frowning with worry. Something - or someone - is driving a wedge between my boys, she thought. She shook her head and concentrated on her work.


Government House

Hacksaw had left. He didn't say where he was going. Jesu suspected he was going to find a quiet data terminal somewhere and hack into local hospital records. The wall monitor had returned to its cycling displays of economic graphs, weather charts and military force projections.

LaRoca leaned against Tran's desk and watched her pace the room, fiddling with a pair of quatloos. "Eighty-Six appears to be an entity of strong opinions, Liz. Is she like this all the time?"

"No," Elizabeth said, "usually she's not... I knew she felt something like this... but something in what you said rattled her hard enough to make a point that she was operating on her own volition - her own free will."

"Do you think she's right about the Federation not keeping my promises?"

"I suppose I'd think she was right," Elizabeth said, "but she wasn't trying to convince me, she was trying to convince you."

Jesu frowned. "There have been some problems," he admitted, "orders that made no sense - the Federation Council not wanting me to come out here, for one. Her evaluation of the cause of the Klingon-Federation war I see as... flawed... but her logic is sound regarding what the Federation Council has done to your people, and that raid you ran certainly lends evidence of either significant internal corruption, or infiltration, of a Federation government that is... making serious mistakes. But I still have faith we'll get it right." He looked at the display. "She'll call back?" he asked.

"She always does. You offered her something I think she'd jump at - if she decides you can deliver," Liz told him. "But she's wary. I don't know if the paranoia's programmed or not. But she is still loyal to the Federation - to the people, if not the government. She wanted to haul our rescuees straight to Earth before I talked her out of it during the raid."

LaRoca's eyes popped at that. "She was with you?" he asked.

"Yeah, she was," Liz said. "She ran our electronic and signals warfare activity during the trip in, and the trip back, and took some hits aimed at me in the process."

"I would've thought you'd keep that a guarded secret," he told her.

Liz shrugged. "You already know she's here, you can put together a timeline as well as anyone; I figured you probably guessed it before you came. Guess you're not as smart as I thought you were."

LaRoca shrugged. "What's this counteroffer she was talking about?"

"Obviously I'd like to keep her if I can," she answered. "If she decides to go with you, it could hurt us in the short run, but if she stays, well... what's a better warning?" she flourished her coins, rubbed them together, and they became an isolinear record chit, which she flipped at him. "If she stays, I'm giving her full citizenship, Jesu, and adopting her into my 'House' as a relative - that way, I can maybe get past her distrust and get her some repairs, so that she doesn't die of excessive wear and injuries."

"And I can offer her something similar-with better facilities." LaRoca pointed out. He plugged the chit into his PADD. It was formal Klingon muv 'e' lay' - a covenant to join the House of Tran - filled out in Eighty-Six's name.

"I know I'm going to have to negotiate hard to beat you on this," Liz said, "but per Eighty-Six's own instructions, we're done negotiating today. It's time for us to go have some... fun. I'll show the real nightlife of Nha Tranh, not the tourist trap parts."

LaRoca grinned and pocketed his PADD. "If you insist."



Giải tri district - two hours later

"What'd you call this stuff?" LaRoca shouted over the "music" blasting over the nightclubs PA - a (thankfully) unique blend of such disparate 21st Century styles as country, dubstep, rap, and teen pop.

"Pul'que," Liz Tran replied, sipping at her own glass of the yellow-green booze.

"I know what pulque is," Jesu argued. "I was drinking pulque when I was sixteen. This is not pulque."

"Well, we don't agave plants here. We make do with what looks close. This is sweeter, and a bit stronger."

LaRoca tried another sip. It wasn't bad, just different. "What's it made from?"

"A cactus-like plant from New Hidalgo County - other side of the continent, large Latino population."

The music track ended, and the DJ selected a new one - a dubstep-trance-rock fusion that actually sounded pretty good, especially compared to what had preceded it. "Ooh, I love this song!" Tran squealed, and she moved out to the dance floor. "Dance with me!" she called back.

"I can't dance," LaRoca told her.

She walked back. "You're Mexican and you can't dance? Not even salsa?"

"That's Cuban, and no, I can't. Sorry to shoot down yet another stereotype."

"Then hold my drink and watch me," she ordered. "And try not to fall off your stool."


Garden Grove Hotel - six hours later...

"Ahm noshure what I'll feel more worse for t'morrow," LaRoca slurred, slumped inside the elevator, "all those drinks or that vo thuật tournament you talked me into."

"I thought you did very well, for a novice," Tran told him. "The last guy you fought before he knocked you out was a fifth-Đẳng Master."

"It wasn't too different from anbo-jyutsu - at least I could see where the guy was. But getting beat up with a bamboo pole is not my idea of having a fun night out on the town. That cabaret on the other hand..."

The elevator reached the 47th floor. LaRoca stumbled only once walking back to his room. "Where's my key?"

"It's in your ear where you left it, silly."

Jesu took it from her and said "I wish you'd stop doing that." He waved it in front of the transponder lock, unlatching the door. "Thanks for walking me back here."

"Mind if I use your bathroom?"

LaRoca raised his eyebrows. "Sure come on in." He opened the door. His PADD beeped. He fished it out with one hand and pointed with the other. "Back there to the left."

"Thanks." She came out a few minutes later to find Jesu frowning at his PADD. "What is it?"

"Preliminary report from my CMO. It's about a particular fatal genetic disorder that afflicts your people - Nervous sheath annihilation syndrome. A genetic condition that you have, Liz."

"Yeah. Not a sexy thing to die from is it?"

"Any idea how long you have?"

"If I'm lucky, twenty-five years. If I'm unlucky, tomorrow."

LaRoca sighed. "I saw something today; I meant to bring it up earlier. While we were in the Xiao Loc fashion district, a couple passed us. You were looking through a window. It was a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair. They were in their mid-forties - not much older than me. The poor man was having what looked like a grand mal seizure, and was obviously in more pain than I can imagine. They were heading away from the hospital."

"It's incurable," she said. "She was probably taking him home to euthanize him."

"Then my team saw another man on the streets, begging for death. Hank said he saw someone kill him."

"That does happen," Tran admitted. "If you're not fortunate to have any loved ones when it hits you, the best you can hope for is kindness from a stranger."

"If it's genetic, finding a cure should just be a simple matter isolating the faulty gene and shutting it off. Why hasn't anybody done that?"

"People have tried. Federation doctors tried, in the early days, when they still cared about us. We gave up hope about a century ago. We think of it as just another way to die. If the Syndrome doesn't kill you, something else will. Heavy metal poisoning from the ground water. Theta radiation poisoning, if you spend too much time outdoors. A few hundred different viruses, bacteria and parasites. Or you could get bit by a furbelly. Hardly anybody lives past sixty on this world. Really, people who know they have this live the fullest lives of all, because we know that if nothing else kills us first, this will, and nobody wants to die in crippling agony." She smiled at him. "I still wouldn't ever pick up a furbelly, though."

Jesu sat down on his bed. "Maria is one of the best doctors in Starfleet. And she has a full staff of biochemists and a dedicated geneticist on her team. I know she's working on a cure right now, and she won't stop until she finds one."

"I wish her luck," Tran said. "If she needs any tissue samples or anything, I'd be happy to help her in any way I can." She saw his distraught expression and smiled. "Don't worry about it, Admiral. Like I said, we've gotten used to the idea that life is short. The trick is to enjoy it as much as possible."

"I suppose you're right."

She untied her shemagh, dangled it over her hand, and pulled it away with a flourish, revealing a bottle. "Now would you please open this before I get bored and go home?"

Jesu stood up. "That's the tequila I gave you yesterday! We're you carrying that- where'd you hide that?"

She gave him a lusty grin. "You'll have all night to try to figure that out."


Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, K'Lan-ne, Vulcan

Frank Grimes watched as K'Jetsk and a Vulcan priestess tried to draw out whatever it was that was haunting Traa'cee's mind. The priestess had the fingertips of both hands pressed into Traa'cee's face in a full mind-meld. K'Jetsk rested his hands on both of their heads, healing and stimulating thier brains.

The hallway door to the observation room was opened, and Drake walked in. "Damn Vulcans don't make their patients easy to find, do they?" he asked rhetorically. He looked through the one way mirror. "What's going on?"

"She woke up two days ago, saying there was an Undine in her head," Grimes explained.

"I know that - that's why I'm here. What are they doing?" Drake waved at the K'Jetsk and the priestess.

"They're trying to contact the psychic presence, find out what it really is, and what it wants."

The priestess suddenly released Traa'cee's face and screamed. K'Jetsk jumped back like his hands had been burned, and he screamed. Traa'cee sat bolt upright, opened her eyes, and screamed. Frank Grimes and Franklin Drake felt the Undine's horrible thoughts stab into their minds, and they screamed too.


Two thousand light-years away - same time

"Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the mistress of tricks, The Queen of Spades!!!"

Jesu is sitting in a dark amphitheater. He can't see the crowd around him. Elizabeth Tran bounds up onto the stage, dressed rather ridiculously in a leotard and tuxedo jacket, with a comical top-hat. She bows to the audience, and smiles.

"Good evening everyone! Welcome to the show! Tonight, I will astound you with illusions - but remember, the greatest illusion of them all, is Truth." With that, she flourishes and doffs her hat. "See? Nothing in the hat! Can I please have a volunteer from the audience? You, sir! Yes, you'll do nicely. House, kindly illuminate our volunteer."

The lights focus on the seat in front of Jesu, and he sees that the man sitting there, is dead... or should be. The last time he'd seen his favorite professor from the Academy - his father's old friend - the man he knew as 'Uncle Ricky' - was in the field morgue on Defera. Montoya...

The dead man stands, still burnt and bloody from the battlefield.

"Take a bow!" Her smile is brilliant, as Enrico Montoya's dead body shuffles to the stage, and takes a bow.

"Magic is the realization of dreams. The philosopher Arthur Clarke once stated that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but as you can see, it's actually that insufficiently skilled magic is indistinguishable from technology... Commander Montoya, reach into my hat."

The corpse reaches into the proffered hat, and extracts a golden key.

"We have a Key!" she announces. "Do we have a Doorway?"

Jesu feels a second stab of horror as the outlines of an Iconian gateway form in the mists of the stage. "No!" he shouts. He stands, waves his arms, tries to warn her...

"A Door, a Key, an opener of the Door, it takes all three," she says, and taps Montoya's body with a cheap wand, turning him into...

An Undine.

The tripedal alien stares into Jesu's eyes and he hears Eighty-Six's voice speak into his mind: I hold the Key to a Door you don't want opened.


Jesu LaRoca sat up in his bed, sweating. Elizabeth mumbled next to him. The time was 0300...



Resnick

"My Masters will come!" Traa'cee shrieked in a voice that was not hers. "Their way will be cleared with fire from below, and they will judge who is worthy to serve them! The weak will perish! The strong will serve! My Masters will come!"

K'Jetsk finally delivered a hypospray full of sedative to her neck, and gently laid her unconscious body down on her bed.

"What the **** was that?" Grimes demanded, too shocked to think of anything more intelligent to say.

"I don't know," Franklin Drake answered, "but that's not the first time this week I've heard that phrase."

"What phrase?"

Drake looked at his brother with fearful eyes. "'The Masters Will Come.'"



* * * * *

Continued...


"I won't try to hide behind the Law if what I stand for is what's Right."

The Masterverse Timeline / Ten Forward Fanfics

Last edited by sander233; 09-08-2013 at 07:21 PM. Reason: timeline