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Lt. Commander
Join Date: Dec 2012
Posts: 106
# 16
04-11-2013, 02:47 PM
Azera Xi: Dead Drop

Captain's Log, Stardate 90901.63 - The Roanoke has received a priority one distress call from Starbase 343 and should reach the system within a few hours. The automated message indicates that an unknown enemy has seized control of the station, and further attempts to contact the base have failed. Starfleet is responding with all available ships in the sector, but the nearest vessel is several days away. The transmission makes reference to a discovery that, should it fall into the wrong hands, might jeopardize the Federation's war efforts; according to the briefing Starfleet Intelligence sent us ahead of the mission, that may be an understatement.

"It's called the Orb of Space," Azera explained as she swiveled her chair away from the display panel on the wall to turn back toward the spacious observation lounge and the senior officers gathered around the conference table. The paused image flickered silently behind her shoulder, displaying the familiarly crystalline hour-glass shape of a Bajoran Orb within the open doors of its bejeweled ark along with an overlayed stream of technical data.

"Three weeks ago," she leaned forward as she continued, "the Federation science vessel Polaris discovered the Orb during a routine patrol of the Zenik System. After initial scans showed unusual and potentially dangerous readings even for an Orb, they brought it to Starbase 343, where it's been in quarantine and undergoing more extensive tests ever since."

"Captain," Dr Umliz interrupted, the Bajoran medical officer's brow furrowed in thought, "why wasn't the Bajoran government informed about this? The discovery of a new Orb is one of incalculable significance. Was Starfleet intending to keep it for themselves?"

"I wish I could say," Azera Xi shook her head sympathetically, "what I do know is that Starfleet Intelligence claimed jurisdiction over the research and classified all of it top secret almost as soon as the Orb reached the station. Our engineering team's been reviewing the findings sent to us just a little while ago, and... well, Nyzoph should probably take it from here."

"Yes sir," the Andorian engineer nodded to the young woman at the head of the table, and he tapped a few flashing buttons built into the polished surface to bring up another display filled with rolling columns of numbers, "the orb emits a continuous stream of verteron particles that loop around it like a magnetic field, forming a kind of dormant verteron node like the ones in the Bajoran wormhole. The science team found that specific subspace pulses could activate the Orb and instantly transport its users across interstellar distances, like an Iconian gateway."

"What's the range," Corspa asked, leaning closer beside him to study the readings.

"They were just about to start testing that," he shrugged a little to the first officer before glancing up to the captain as well, "but the equations suggest its only limit is the particle horizon. It could reach anywhere in the observable universe with the right sequence."

"That's incredible," Auslaz whispered to herself, and then she took a breath before speaking louder, "but I thought there were only nine Orbs. Is this one of them?"

"Ten," the ship's doctor gently corrected her, "counting the Orb of the Emissary found during the Dominion War. This isn't one of the Orbs known to Bajor, but it's been speculated since then that there could be other Orbs whose existence has been forgotten. But Captain, you said it's called the Orb of Space, so I take it the ark container had Bajoran inscriptions."

"According to the report," she nodded, "though in a very ancient script."

"I see," Kwam replied with a thoughtfully worried frown.

"So anyone who gets their hands on it," Angel spoke up, the handsome security chief resting his chin on one fist as he stared up at the image on the wall, "could instantly transport themselves anywhere in the galaxy. The Klingons, the Orion Syndicate, the True Way Alliance, even the Dominion itself would all love to get their hands on something like that."

"We haven't detected any ships around the station," Azera answered with a small frown, "but that could just mean they're using cloaking devices. Whoever's responsible for this attack, we have to assume that they're trying to steal the Orb of Space. We'll arrive at the station in less than an hour: I want battle stations ready in case we have to fight our way through."

"Aye captain," each of the officers replied in turn, and with a parting nod from Azera they each began to rise from the table and make their way back to the bridge.

"Captain," Dr Umliz's voice rang hesitantly over her shoulder, and Azera jumped a little from her chair, smiling shyly at the sight of the Bajoran doctor as the last of the bridge crew slipped through the hissing doors to leave the two of them alone in the lounge.

"Yes, Doctor," she tilted her head a little curiously as she stood up to face him.

"I didn't want to say anything in front of the others," he answered quietly, "but this may be more serious than we've been told. If I could have five minutes of your time..."

Azera wasn't sure she really had five minutes to spare given the circumstances, or that sickbay couldn't use those five minutes to better prepare itself for any casualties. Then again, she'd never seen such a look of suspicion and dread in Kwam's eyes before.

"Sure," she replied a little tremulously, "go ahead."

* * *

The shimmering glow of the transporter beam faded away to leave the away team engulfed in billowing white mist. The arched bulkheads and side corridors seemed to loom and sway around them through the unnatural fog, the winding passageway within Starbase 343 as murky and humid as a jungle trail. The group gathered closer, squinting through the rolling mists and choking down the strangely electric scent of the air, and then Auslaz spoke up.

"It's the environmental controls," the science officer's voice rose above the beeping readout of her tricorder, "humidity and ozone are both extremely elevated, and most of the other gases are ionized. Sensors are having a hard time cutting through all the interference."

"Any survivors," Azera asked as she looked left and right through the swirling gloom.

"I'm picking up over a hundred life signs five decks below us," the young Trill nodded as she waved the handheld device around the walls and floor, "along with multiple casualties scattered throughout the rest of the starbase. The station's on minimal power and the docking clamps are locked, so it looks like they've barricaded themselves in the sublevels."

"Can we reach them?"

"Not right now," she shook her head with a frown, "turbolifts are inoperative. Most of the primary systems are offline, and I'm getting some kind of interference from the command center on Deck 1, like there's a dampening field. We'll need to restore power before we can..."

Something clanged through the corridor behind them, something large, heavy and metallic that shook the floorplates beneath each thudding footstep. The team instantly twisted around with its phasers aimed into the roiling white fog, Corspa and Angel stepping slightly ahead of both the captain and the blue-clad science officer shaking her head in confusion.

"Scans aren't showing anything," Auslaz tried to explain as she tapped buttons on her tricorder, waving it back in the direction of the shuddering footsteps and then banging it against her knee to no avail, "there's a lot of interference, but there should still be something!"

"Whatever it is," Corspa tersely replied, raising her weapon higher, "it's big..."

Azera listened to the approaching footsteps, focusing intently to separate each thud from the echoes it sent through the fog and down the length of the hall. One two-three... four five-six. She tapped a finger against her left palm in time with the oddly familiar rhythm of those footsteps even as she kept her phaser raised, listening to the slow-quick, one-two tempo.

Then she caught a glimpse of the large arachnid shadow through the fog, six glittering metal legs lifting and carrying its upright, oblong shape across the floor as the sea-green beams of its search lights swept through the haze. It looked like a robot, a spider-legged machine scanning the hallway with each mechanical footstep, but anyone in Starfleet would recognize that clicking cadence, and the powered exosuit that encased its living crystalline pilot.

"It's a Tholian," Azera muttered, and then she spoke louder as it suddenly stopped and began to swivel its glowing visor toward them, "everyone, take cover!"

The away team leapt aside into two halves as they ducked down opposite sides of an adjoining corridor, Angel and Azera peeking around the left corner at the intruder as Corspa and Auslaz braced themselves behind the right edge of the intersection. A sizzling radiation beam sliced through the empty corridor as they crouched lower, and then a stream of orange phaser beams swept back through the hallway, bathing the white fog in a fiery red glow as they danced around the stalking, armored alien. The hissing beams vanished after a moment and the creature suddenly stopped, uttering the shrill clicking sounds of its native language. Then it began to skitter forward again, flooding the misty corridor with a hissing purple beam.

"I've got an idea," Angel whispered to Azera as he adjusted his handheld phaser's settings and glanced out into the main hallway again at the striding creature. Then, before she could say a word of protest, the security chief flung himself into the open passageway, rolling across the floor into a crouching aim at the Tholian and firing off three quick phaser blasts before it could adjust its aim. Each of the shots flashed through the robotic carapace, the exosuit flickering like static around the energy beams before turning solid again, and he dived behind the opposite corner as it raised two silver-clad arms to fire its own indigo beam at him.

"That was crazy," Auslaz hissed under her breath as he clambered upright beside her and Corspa, and she smacked her tricorder across his arm, "you could have gotten killed!"

"Sorry," he rubbed his arm and frowned a little, "but it should have worked. Those shots didn't even bounce off a shield, they just went right through the thing like it's not there."

"Wait a second," Auslaz suddenly jolted upright in realization, even as Corspa and Azera continued to fire their phasers down the hall, "hang on, let me check something..."

The science officer aimed her tricorder again, her fingers racing across the controls to scan the hallway with a new range of settings, and she gave a satisfied nod as the device flashed a readout of both the armored alien and several energy sources surrounding it.

"It's not real," she showed her tricorder's readings to Angel and Corspa, and then she called out across the misty corridor, "Captain, the Tholian's a hologram! Somebody must have sabotaged the security holoprojectors to simulate an attack. The changes to the environmental controls are just to obscure the readings so we wouldn't recognize it at first."

"Can you shut it off," Azera shouted over the hiss of another radiation beam.

"I think I can," Corspa called back as she holstered her phaser and unclipped a small spherical device from her belt, "I'll adjust a photonic grenade to target the hallway projectors instead of the hologram. That should at least give us some breathing room."

The Andorian tactical officer finished arming the grenade and lifted her arm to throw it around the corner - and then she turned around with a sharp cry at the sight of a transporter beam glowing across the hallway, leaving only a ghostly afterimage of the captain.

* * *

Azera Xi twisted wildly around as the beam faded away, a luminous blue void gradually coalescing around her into a large steel-gray chamber. A raised octagonal ring of wall-mounted consoles stretched around her on every side, lined by a thin metal handrail that almost gave her a feeling of being trapped, caged within the sunken core of the empty room. Command consoles surrounded her, turbolifts lining the bulkheads... the operations center, she realized...

...and the searing pain of a phaser beam stabbed across the back of her shoulders.

Her legs wobbled beneath her and suddenly crumpled forward, knocking her backward and slamming her head across the floor. She groaned and tried to lift herself back to her feet, and her legs lay still and lifeless below her waist. The young captain looked around with a growing panic, trying to bend her arms and sit upright, only for her arms to remain as limply unmoving as if she'd been asleep. She fought to swallow the fearful whimper rising to her throat and tried to fling her whole body sideways, and felt just her head rolling sideways against her shoulders as the rest of her body lay motionless, paralyzed from the neck down.

"Your spinal cord's been overloaded by a calibrated phaser pulse," Azera heard a familiar voice somewhere overhead, and she struggled to lift her head up from the metal floor to see him, "the effect will wear off in an hour or so, but by then it'll be too late. And I'm afraid your telekinesis won't be of much use either: this room's been equipped with a suppression field."

The lingering pain of the phaser blast began to give way to a dull throbbing heat spreading across the small of her back as her dark eyes rolled and fixed on the crewcut blonde man standing above her, his featureless black leather uniform, the jagged scar running down his right cheek and the humorless scowl that met her own wordless glare. He holstered his weapon without another word as he began to pace the room, then he spoke again.

"Captain Azera Xi," Franklin Drake gave her the slightest formal nod, "we finally get to meet in person. I just wish it could have been under better circumstances."

"And I wish it'd never been at all," she snarled, "what are you up to, Drake?"

"Yes, I do get that a lot," the Section 31 agent smiled faintly at her defiance, "you know, we really don't give Federation phasers enough credit. Such versatile devices..."

It occurred to her that he seemed to be stalling, either buying time or just reluctant to answer her question. She tried to clench her frozen hands as she spoke again.

"You're after the Orb, aren't you?" she hissed up at him, "who needs double agents and deep cover when you can send assassins right into the Klingon chancellor's bedroom?"

"That would be a great advantage to Section 31," he agreed, and he turned around from the communication panel he'd been studying to face her again, "unfortunately for us, there's really no such thing as an Orb of Space. That was just the bait. The prize is you, Captain."

"But the reports came from Starfleet Intelligence," she murmured to herself, and then her eyes narrowed with realization, "because you're the one who sent them to us. And you staged the attack on Starbase 343. These people have been hurt, some of them killed... why!?"

"To make the trap more convincing," Drake shrugged, "it's unfortunate, but everyone here swore their lives to protect the Federation, and their deaths won't be in vain. We won't squander the opportunity your presence here has given us, the way the rest of Starfleet did."

"My presence," Azera Xi shook her head weakly, then she gave an exasperated groan as she glared back up at the rogue officer, "of course. You mean Species 1's presence."

"Admiral Kane was clever," Captain Drake continued as he paced around the paralyzed girl with the predatory calm of a tiger, "he knew enough about Starfleet Intelligence to guess at the lines of communication available to Section 31, so he hid his report about you in plain sight, right under our noses. But the moment you found out who you really are, it was only a matter of time before we read the right reports and found out too. And while Starfleet's more sanctimonious elements may have been content to let you run around the quadrant playing captain, we have much better uses for you, and the insights you can offer us about the Borg."

"Well, I guess there's no choice but to tell you everything," she rolled her eyes and answered him with sarcastic resignation, pausing for dramatic effect before she continued, "it all began when I was 4 years old and built the very first Borg drone. But since I hadn't learned how to read yet, I mixed up the on and off switch and they've been out of control ever since."

The black-clad operative just looked over at her with a wryly amused smile before continuing to slowly circle the command room, his arms crossed behind his back.

"The real answer's probably locked up somewhere in your unconscious, but honestly, we're not interested in what you might know about their origins. We don't care where the Borg came from, we only care about ending them. The Borg are a plague that's been infecting this galaxy for thousands of years. Every time someone discovers a cure, they mutate, they 'adapt' and keep spreading. But with you, we finally have a sample of the original strain."

He paused for a moment, glancing down at Azera to see what she had to say. She met his curious look with a silently smoldering fury, and so he resumed his explanation.

"Every piece of cybernetic technology they use," he said, "was designed for your species. When their nanoprobes rewrite someone's DNA, they become more like you. Your physiology is the mold for every Borg drone that's been assimilated since, a blueprint for their biological core. And now that we have that blueprint, we can begin to devise a real weapon against them. Something that attacks their fundamental nature, that their nanoprobes can't adapt to overcome. A neurolytic pathogen written with your DNA could kill every last one of them."

"You self-righteous bastard," she spat at him.

"A ship is on its way right now to take you to one of our secret facilities," he replied as calmly as if he'd been remarking on the weather lately, as though he hadn't heard her insult at all, "I'll already be gone by the time it arrives. To be honest, I was tempted to just stun you and leave you here for them. But I respect you too much to do that without facing you myself and explaining the reason for your sacrifice. And let me be clear, it will be a terrible sacrifice."

She gathered her breath for another retort, but he'd already started speaking again.

"You'll die," he explained tonelessly, "and then you'll be revived, again and again while our researchers hone and test the pathogen to make sure your immune system can't possibly adapt to it. Then they'll infect you with the Borg's nanoprobes and start the process over again to test their reaction to it as well. The only solace I can offer is that once we've learned everything we need to know, it'll finally end, and your death will save thousands of worlds. And if you truly care about saving the Federation, you'll want to do what's right, no matter the cost."

"And if you truly cared about the Federation," her body twitched with suppressed rage as she shouted at him, "you wouldn't be standing here betraying everything it's stood for!"

"Spoken like a true idealist," he answered curtly, "we'll just have to agree to disagree..."

Drake's words slurred away into a confused stammer for a moment and he shook his head with a groan, lifting one hand to his forehead and glancing around the flashing consoles and steel gray bulkheads around him. Then he slowly smiled, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before opening them again to look down at the intensely staring girl.

"You're trying to get into my mind," he smirked, "well played, but it won't do you any good. We do have ways of protecting our thoughts against telepathic intrusion."

"Good," Azera muttered as she narrowed her gaze, "that'll make it easier."

"What are you talking about," he asked warily. Her voice had been perfectly calm, all the fear and anger he'd grown accustomed to vanishing entirely - and as he felt her mind twisting smoothly through his thoughts again, his muscles clenched with the panicked fury of a tiger that's just now realizing it's been looking at the bars of a cage from the wrong side.

"It's not your mind," the pink-haired captain replied, "that I'm interested in."

And with those words, Drake's legs instantly gave out beneath him, sending the operative tumbling forward across the polished floor. His nose smashed open beneath the weight of a head suddenly as limp and heavy as a bowling ball, and the arms he'd tried to fling down to catch himself dangled like wooden planks from his shoulders, as utterly detached from his being as if they'd been amputated. His pained cry gave way to a choked gurgle as the blood from his broken nose snorted back up into his windpipe, and his eyes widened for an instant with the cold dread of suffocating facedown on the floor, his arms and legs useless to roll him the few inches it'd take to save his life. Then a boot kicked him hard across the side, flipping him onto his back and leaving him gasping the air with relief even as his spleen ached from the blow.

"What did you do," he choked up at the calm young woman standing above him in her dark command uniform, "how can you be... you don't even have a working spine!"

"No," Azera shrugged, then she smiled again, "good thing yours is working so well."

"You," the black-suited operative hissed, all the panic building through his paralyzed body distilled through his wide brown eyes, "you're attacking my brain stem..."

"Oh, just enough to borrow the motor pathways," she answered as she lifted her right hand to casually wiggle her fingers and study the back of her hand. She flexed her palm to make a fist and then reached both her arms over her head, languidly arching her back before turning to pace around the room in precisely the opposite circle he'd traced while talking to her.

"Of course," Azera Xi continued with a sardonically regretful frown, "since your brain's busy moving my body around, the rest of your body's just out of luck for the moment."

"Telepathic neural targeting," Drake grunted from the floor, "that's a Lethean technique."

"I dabble," she shrugged with cheerful modesty, and then she turned away at the sound of a small beeping alarm from one of the communication panels behind her. She raised her palm toward the paralyzed operative as she listened intently, then hopped lightly over the railing and darted up to the station console for a closer look at the readings flashing across it.

"This must be the ship you mentioned," she called back over her shoulder, "so I guess you were expecting to be gone by now. Well, I suppose we should answer them."

Azera pressed a few buttons and an open audio channel chimed through the room.

"Unknown vessel," the young woman sternly called out toward the ceiling, "this is Captain Azera Xi of the Federation starship Roanoke. Identify yourself immediately."

"I don't know if this ship even has a name," the familiar Andorian accent of her chief engineer replied through the channel, "but it's Commander Nyzoph, Captain."

She sighed a little with relief and glanced down to relish the way Drake had closed his eyes with frustration and leaned his head back against the floor before she continued.

"Hi Nyzoph," she grinned broadly, "I'm glad to hear your voice - otherwise this was going to be a really awkward conversation. So what kind of ship did they try to send?"

"An unregistered Orion frigate," he answered, "I'm not sure which is more dangerous, the disrupter cannons or this antique warp core. They did have a cloaking device, but since you'd already guessed that part, we had a tachyon grid waiting for them. We've seized the ship and locked its crew in the cargo hold. Syndicate pirates, from the look of things."

"Understood," she nodded, "have you heard from the away team?"

"Yes sir," his voice chirped through the console, "they've disabled the holoprojectors, shut down the dampening fields and transported the injured to sickbay. Four dead, fifteen wounded, with minimal damage to the station itself. Corspa was about thirty seconds away from having Lieutenant Onplav beam you back - she'll be glad to hear things are going smoothly."

"That makes two of us," Azera smiled softly, "Azera out."

"So you knew all along," Drake growled from the middle of the room as the captain tapped the communication panel again and turned back around to face him, "how?"

"Well, since you were nice enough to tell me your plan," she smirked, "I guess I can return the favor. All those science details your report gave about the Orb of Space were very impressive, they had our engineering staff completely fooled. But you really shouldn't have tried to pass a story about a fake Orb onto a ship whose doctor used to be a Vedek.

"Azera Xi to the Roanoke sickbay," she tapped her golden combadge.

"Dr Umliz here," the ship's Bajoran doctor answered through the audio link.

"Doctor, if you have a moment, Mr Drake is curious to hear how you knew that the Orb of Space was a fake, that the mission was probably a trap to lure us to Starbase 343."

"Oh that won't take long," he replied amiably, speaking loud enough for the glowering intelligence officer to hear him as well, "you see, the ancient Bajoran language incorporates many of the concepts of what humans would call 'relativity theory.' More specifically, it describes both space and time with a single word. So the Orb of Space translated into its original name would really be the Orb of Time - and as you know, we've already found the Orb of Time."

"And there you have it," Azera beamed, "any other questions?"

Franklin Drake seemed to have stopped listening entirely now, his eyes fixed blankly on the ceiling as he lay motionless on the floor. Then his body suddenly twitched in a spasming flurry of movements from his head and neck, and he looked wildly around at the room in renewed panic until his bewildered stare caught and held fast to the salmon-haired woman.

"Captain Azera Xi," he stammered hesitantly, "what... what happened?"

"What do you mean," she asked suspiciously.

"I don't think we've met before," he tried to move again, his head bouncing against the metal floor as the rest of his body lay frozen, "but you're the captain who saved Vega Colony from the Borg, aren't you? My name is Franklin Drake. I don't... why can't I move? The last thing I remember is that I was on an assignment in the Bolarus Sector... a Romulan ship decloaked... and everything else is a blur. How did I get here, Captain? What's going on?"

Azera stared intently down at the confused operative, her own doubts starting to grow as she watched his eyes darting around the room with bewildered fear. He looked up at her with plaintive confusion, shaking his head once more... and then his eyebrow twitched.

"Oh you're good," she rolled her violet eyes and turned contemptuously away as she tapped her combadge again, "I think I've heard enough, but have fun telling our security officers how the evil Romulans made you do it. Captain Azera Xi to the Roanoke."

"Yes Captain," Luverala's abashed voice piped through her communicator.

"Will you beam Mr Drake directly to the brig?"

"Aye sir."

A wavering chime hummed through the air as the shimmering blue light of the transporter beam caught Drake's immobile form, and she sighed and shook her head a little as she watched him fading away into the empty air. Then she spoke through the open channel again.

"Is he behind a force field?"

"Yes sir," the Betazoid engineer, and the ranking officer on the sparse bridge while the away team worked on the station, replied, "security just confirmed his arrival."

"Understood," she nodded, and she finally let herself relax, giving a heavy sigh of relief as her mind slipped loose from the cold black web of his chemically encrypted engrams - and her sigh gave way to a startled squeak as she suddenly tumbled backward and slammed across the floor again, the leaden weight of her paralyzed limbs an oddly familiar sensation now.

"Luverala," she nervously asked the empty air, "are you still there?"

"I'm here," his voice rang through the combadge.

"Oh good," she replied quickly, "could you also beam me straight to sickbay?"

"Locking on now," his voice quickened with alarm, "are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she sheepishly muttered, "I think I'll just lie here and catch my breath..."

The azure glow of a transporter beam swept around Azera, and a moment later the operations center and its steel-ringed array of consoles stood silent and empty.

* * *

Captain's Log, Stardate 90902.17 - Franklin Drake's currently enjoying the hospitality of our ship's brig, along with the Orion mercenaries he hired, and we're on our way to Earth Spacedock to remand them to Federation custody. While the frigate crew's willing to cooperate, they have little information other than their anonymous client's coordinates to a remote dropoff point that's light years away from any star system or known base. Drake continues to insist that he's the victim of a Romulan brainwashing scheme, and unfortunately I've found Starfleet Command to be less skeptical of his claim than the situation seems to warrant.

"You have to be kidding me," Azera scowled into the small raised viewscreen on her ready room desk, and then she tapped a button to switch the image on it to the larger black panel across the surface of her desk before she flopped into her cushioned chair. Admiral Quinn's stately, gray-haired face seemed to stare up through the desk and, after blinking up at the soft white glow of the overhead lights for a moment, she leaned back down toward him.

"His medical scans show signs of neural trauma consistent with a Tal Shiar mind probe," the admiral frowned, "and he did pass an autonomic response analysis."

"He's probably had that 'neural trauma' ready and waiting for years," Azera Xi's voice rose with exasperation, "and passing an ARA scan just proves he's a sociopath..."

"Captain," Admiral Quinn interrupted her, and his voice dropped a little, "frankly, I agree with you completely. This isn't the first time Drake's name has come across my desk, and I only wish I could say this time will be the last. He has a powerful ally somewhere in the highest ranks of the Federation, and whoever it is, they want to keep him in Starfleet Intelligence."

"Even if Starfleet Command buys this story," she stood up from her chair to lean over the glowing panel of her desk, "he's been compromised by his own admission! How can he possibly keep a classified intelligence post after claiming he's been a brainwashed spy?"

"He'd have to be medically cleared first," the admiral replied, and he spoke again after a thoughtful frown, "people like Drake, the ones who introduce themselves as Section 31 agents and dress in black uniforms, they're just flunkies, overgrown cadet boys living out their spy holonovel fantasies. The real heads of Section 31 are smart enough to stay in the shadows and let them do all the talking. For all his bluster, Drake is a puppet, nothing more.

"I don't know why they're pulling the strings to keep him at his post. Maybe they think he's still valuable somehow, or maybe he's a loose end they'd rather cut personally. He might even have some kind of leverage over the rest of Section 31 that's forcing their hand. But whatever their reasons, he's undoubtedly lost any position of authority he had with them."

"We don't know that," she insisted, "and he'll still be giving orders and coordinating intelligence just like he was before. What if he tries something like this again?"

"We'll be watching him," Admiral Quinn reassured her, "I've been chasing Section 31 for a long time now, and one thing I've learned is that they never return to the scene of the crime: to do so would risk exposing themselves. Section 31 isn't a secret Starfleet organization, Captain, it's a rogue network of Starfleet criminals. The only way they can avoid capture is by operating in total secrecy, and they lost that advantage by making an open move against you. They had one chance to capture you, and Franklin Drake blew it. They can't afford to try again."

"I'd feel a lot more confident about that with him in a detention facility."

"So would I," Quinn nodded sympathetically.

"So Drake gets away with everything he did by claiming the Tal Shiar put him up to it," Azera Xi snarled under her breath, and then her voice began to grow softer as she continued thinking aloud, "and that he... can't remember anything that happened..."

"Captain?"

"Excuse me, Admiral. I just have to write an addendum to my report, that's all."

"Azera Xi," Quinn frowned with concern, "I understand your frustration, but the official story isn't going to change. The people protecting Drake will make sure of that."

"Oh no," she smiled mysteriously as she sat back down, "I wouldn't think of challenging the official story. I just think it could use a few more twists and turns, that's all."

"Captain," the admiral began, then he sighed and smiled ruefully, "just be careful, okay?"

"Yes sir," she nodded to him, and, as soon as the call ended and the display panel on her desk went dark again, she lit it back up with a few more taps of her fingers across the polished surface and began to quickly type one last entry on her post mission report.

* * *

"Captain," Franklin Drake said earnestly as he rose from the plain bunk bed on the far side of the spacedock brig to stand before the seemingly empty doorway and the glowing white force field projectors lining it, "whatever I might have said before, I want to take this opportunity to apologize now and assure you that I have the utmost respect for you. I don't know why the conditioning snapped when it did, but I'm glad to be free from it and myself again."

"No need to apologize," Azera answered coldly from the other side of the force field, and she took a silent breath, glancing back and forth between the pair of red-clothed security guards standing at attention before she continued in a softer, more compassionate tone, "I'm sure you've heard about my report, about the plan you described and what you intended to do."

"It's horrible," he shook his head grimly, "I can't believe even the Tal Shiar would stoop to that kind of vivisection. I hope... I just hope I can earn back your trust someday."

"I hope so too," she said softly, "I guess you've also heard that, under the conditioning's influence, you claimed to be a member of Section 31 and that you were acting in the Federation's best interest. That you've been claiming to represent Section 31 for months now."

"That's the worst part of it," Drake made a scowling face and looked away, "that the Romulans would use me to turn Starfleet against itself, to sow that kind of distrust..."

"Yes," Azera nodded sympathetically, and she waited for him to look back up at her before quietly continuing, "well, there's something else I didn't mention at first. I've already reported it to Starfleet Command and they've begun an investigation, but I respect you too much to just leave it to them without facing you myself and explaining the situation."

If he recognized her choice of words, he didn't give any hint of it; he met her calm gaze with a mixture of curiosity, forlorn guilt and all the admiration he'd professed for her.

"You see," she continued, "the Section 31 cover they must have implanted you with slipped for a moment at the end. You actually talked about being a Romulan spy."

"What," he asked, and she only caught the subtly hissing undercurrent of surprise in his voice because she'd been waiting for it. She glanced shyly down, allowing him to regain his composure and assume a look of startled innocence before she spoke again.

"I don't know if you were gloating or desperate," she quietly explained, "or maybe the programming simply went awry, but you said that restoring Franklin Drake would never work, because you were never Franklin Drake at all. You said this entire personality is just a construct that the Tal Shiar created, and so long as it exists, you'll always be loyal to them."

"That's absurd," he snapped with an outrage he caught only a second too late.

"But sir," Azera said gently, never letting the sympathetic lilt of her voice drop, "if you don't remember what happened on Starbase 343, how can you be sure?"

Drake clenched his fists, his eyelids twitching as he stared intently through the force field at the slight pink-haired girl standing calmly before him. And then he finally spoke.

"Of course," he said quietly, "we can't be too careful, can we?"

"I was worried at first," Azera continued with an appropriately thoughtful frown, "about the impact bringing this information to light could have on your career. But I know that, as someone who truly loves the Federation, you'd want me to do what's right, no matter the cost."

"I appreciate your candor," Drake answered through tightly gritted teeth.

"Don't worry," she smiled reassuringly, "I'm sure once Starfleet Intelligence finishes digging through your history, interviewing everyone you've met, investigating every friend you've ever made and all the other details of your life, we'll uncover the real Franklin Drake."

"I can't wait to meet him," he muttered dryly, and then he glanced up with a look that, for all the smoldering anger it held, also harbored a disturbingly genuine gleam of admiration, "it's a shame you became a science officer. You'd have fit in well at Starfleet Intelligence."

"Coming from you, Mr Drake, that means," Azera flashed him a warm smile that only heightened her icy glare, "well, I think you already know how much that means to me."

Azera turned away from the glowering operative and, with a parting nod to each of the security officers, began to walk back down the dimly lit corridor toward the turbolifts that led up into the bright open lobbies of Earth Spacedock. Then she twired around again, walking backwards as she cheerfully shouted down the hall at the brig's glowing doorway.

"Good luck, Captain Drake! Remember, stand tall - don't ever buckle under!"

She turned back around to board the turbolift and finally gave up on trying to conceal her grin as the doors slid shut, leaving Drake digging his nails into his palms and pacing furiously around the holding cell as the light from the turbolift gave way to shadows again.

Last edited by sparklysoldier; 04-17-2013 at 07:27 PM.