Welcome to the next exciting installment of Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I. If you’ve ever wondered what Star Trek would be like as a modern, Tom Clancy-esque techno-thriller, you’ve come to the right place. Just in case you’ve missed the previous installments, you can find them here:
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Prologue
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 1
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 2
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 3
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 4
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 5
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 6
Ursad Korla’ren (Office of the Security Minister)
Bezzeret Home World
Deanna Troi closed her eyes. The part of her mind that held degrees in psychology and xenosociology had counseled the other part—the one that didn’t entirely trust the technology—but with only limited success. As much as she tried, Troi couldn’t change the fact that secretly, she didn’t like the transporter. Of course, she had never actually admitted it to anyone. After all, curing other people of their phobias was a big part of her job aboard ship—so she simply allowed herself to slip into darkness and let the infernal contraption to do its work.
It was over in the space of seconds, materialization asserting itself like some narcotic. Opening her eyes, however, Troi found the reality that assembled around her more like a fevered dream. For a moment she thought that the transporter beam still had her, and that the shimmering forms of the black-clad figures that closed in were merely an illusion. They seemed to phase in and out of physical space, darting in and out of Troi’s vision so quickly that it was impossible to follow them. It was only when one of them slipped in beside her, and she felt the cold hardness of his presence, that she understood all to well that they were real.
Troi froze, not daring to move. The one closest circled around her, cocking its head to the side as if curious, its stare penetrating her—even though the thing had no face. None of them did. The mask that covered their features was smooth and opaque, utterly featureless—except for the reflection of her own face that Troi saw there. It was easy to imagine herself drowning in that dark pool, giving herself over without resistance. Such was the power radiating from that countenance. And such was its evil.
The voice came from another part of the transporter room. At hearing it, the black ghost moved away from Troi and joined the others—only they weren’t ghosts anymore. Clearly they were the Ponsak Captain Picard had told her about, though no description could have prepared her for the experience of meeting one. Instinctively, she reached out to them with her empathic senses, trying to connect her impressions of them with something tangible—but she could sense nothing but her own fear in them.
Another Bezzeret came forward, walking up to the transporter pad. Troi immediately blinked out of her fugue, seizing upon his arrival like a lifeline. Exotic as the Bezzeret was, with his pale orange skin and dazzling multicolored eyes, he was a living, breathing creature—not the manifestations of death that guarded this place.
“Yes,” she stammered. “Thank you for receiving me.”
“You are here as the prisoner’s advocate.”
“Yes,” Troi said again. This time, she had regained herself enough sound professional. “I’m Deanna Troi, acting as legal counsel for the accused. And you are…?”
“The administrator of this security section,” the Bezzeret snapped, revealing no more. “As we have no provisions for telepaths in this facility, your access will be strictly limited while you are here. I will be your sole point of contact. Should you attempt communication, verbal or otherwise, with any other Bezzeret national, you will immediately be removed and barred from entering again. Is that understood?”
“Of course,” Troi said. “I understand your concerns and your need for privacy.”
“Be that as it may,” the administrator said, motioning toward the Ponsak, “these troops are here to ensure that you follow my rules to the letter. If you don’t, they will know—and they will deal with the situation accordingly. Is that understood?”
The way he finished his instructions, always with the same phrase, sounded like a mantra. A mental trick, Troi decided: He’s trying to block me. Not that it mattered. The Bezzeret’s officious demeanor told her everything. He knew nothing beyond his immediate orders.
“I’m a quick study,” she assured him. “Shall we go?”
The Bezzeret led her out into a stark corridor, lit by a series of lumipanels that gave the place an air of sterility—not exactly the dungeon hell she had envisioned, but frightening enough in its own way. More disturbing was the sheer emptiness that surrounded her. Normally a prison would be teeming with intense emotions, assaulting her in a crossfire of anger, loneliness, desperation, lust; but here she felt nothing, as if she had walked into a tomb. That was when Troi noticed the fine metallic mesh that covered each of the cell doors—a shield coating meant to trap bioelectric impulses. She had seen the same thing back home on Betazed, in the deprivation chambers used to quarantine telepaths who couldn’t tune out the thoughts of others—except that here, the Bezzeret had a more nefarious purpose.
Total, abject isolation.
Troi shivered at the brutality of it.
Her reluctant guide stopped near the end of the block, punching a security code into a panel next to one of the cells. Locking clamps disengaged with a loud clang, allowing the door to slide open—along with a floodgate of suffering, the likes of which Troi had never felt before. Wave after wave of anguish washed over her, making her stagger backward before she could stop herself, all of it radiating like frozen heat from the black hole beyond that opening.
The Bezzeret, meanwhile, hovered before her. A towering presence draped in cerements, he looked like a reaper ushering Troi to the afterlife.
“You have ten minutes,” he said, and left her.
Breathing hard, Troi remained still in those first few moments alone. She knew the Ponsak remained close: the residual crackle of her fear told her as much, even as she tried to separate it from the storm of emotions coming from inside the cell. Steeling herself, she allowed the walls of detachment to descend over her mind, silently repeating her own mantra until she finally felt safe enough to proceed.
Troi then entered the cell. And the door slammed shut behind her.
Sensors detected her presence, releasing a torrid glare that rained down on Troi from a bank of overhead lights. They illuminated a small space, barren of furniture expect for a small table and a chair designed to accommodate humans—though comfort was another matter entirely. Troi had seen Klingon interrogation rooms that appeared more welcoming. Apparently, Captain Picard had convinced the prime minister to pull out all the stops.
Just ahead of that was the soft blue, almost transparent glow of a force field.
“Hello?” she asked uncertainly, stepping forward. The lights that glared at her only reached as far as the force field, bleeding off into an ominous blackness beyond. Troi let down her defenses a little, taking in more of the emotions she had detected from outside, this time forming a more complete impression of their origin. More than anything, she tasted an acrid resentment—all of it driven inward, the telltale signature of self-loathing. Already, she could tell that the man in the dark blamed himself for everything.
From the other side of the force field, a dim light slowly emerged. Sprawled there on a bare bunk was a man dressed in prisoner’s garb, propped up against the wall and staring off into nowhere. A shock of hair fell across his forehead, partially concealing features that would have been handsome if not so haggard. Troi could see no outward signs of trauma—until the prisoner turned his eyes toward her, and the fullness of his experiences came at her like phaser fire.
She had to close her mind off again to keep from being overwhelmed.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Troi shrugged. “It seems I’m your attorney.”
He almost smiled.
“That settles it,” he said. “I must be crazy.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she replied. “Deanna Troi—ship’s counselor, USS Enterprise.”
The prisoner frowned. “I thought you were a lawyer.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“That they are,” the prisoner said, getting up from his bunk. He shuffled over to the edge of the force field, getting as close to Troi as he could without shocking himself—a positive sign, in her view. That he still craved human contact meant that the Bezzeret hadn’t completely broken him. “Jeffrey Dalton, at your service.”
Troi walked up to him, hovering only centimeters away.
“Nice to meet you, Doctor Dalton.”
“I’d shake your hand, but you know—rules of the house.”
Troi smiled. “We’re learning about those.”
“My hosts told me the Federation was sending a party,” Dalton said, releasing a long breath. “I didn’t believe them. They have a way of propping you up just to shoot you down. After a while, I stopped listening.”
“Disinformation is a common tactic used on political prisoners,” Troi told him, trying to sound reassuring. “It’s designed to keep you off balance—to break down your resistance to their questions.”
“Guess the mind probe must’ve been on the fritz. That, or they were just having a bit of fun with me.”
“Did they harm you in any way?”
“In here?” Dalton asked, an trace of irony in his voice. “Aside from the solitary confinement, it’s all been pretty civilized—except for that guy who let you in. Between you and me, he’s something of an asshole.”
Troi smiled again. “I gathered as much.”
“He must’ve been really happy to see you,” Dalton drew out, observing her closely. “You’re Betazoid, right?”
“You’re very perceptive.”
“Not really.” Dalton circled back to his bunk and sat down. “Starfleet once contracted me to do a study on the deployment of counselors on extended deep space missions. I thought you folks would be a natural fit, given your abilities.”
“So I have you to thank for my job,” Troi said, retreating to her own table and chair. “Both of them.”
“We’ll see if you feel the same way when this is all over.” Tucking his hands behind his head, he leaned back and studied her some more. “So what do you think, counselor? Am I the spy the Bezzeret say I am?”
“That’s not my primary concern right now.”
“Of course it is. Otherwise your captain wouldn’t have sent me a telepath.”
“Empath,” Troi corrected him. “I’m only able to sense a person’s emotional state, not their actual thoughts.”
“Still have to give the man credit. Getting the likes of you into enemy territory—that took some serious brass.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that along.”
“You do that.” There was a long, awkward pause. “So what’s the verdict?”
“I can see that you’re in a great deal of pain,” Troi said, without any hint pretense, turning Dalton’s direct manner back on him. “You’re also going to great lengths not to show it.”
“Call it a guilty conscience.”
Troi’s eyes narrowed.
“That’s not the same as being guilty.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” he sighed. “The Bezzeret have their story and they’re sticking to it—and if I had to guess, the Federation wouldn’t mind if this whole thing just went away.”
“If that were true, I wouldn’t be here.”
Dalton sized her up one final time.
“No,” he decided, “I guess not.”
“Then trust me.”
For a moment, the bravado Dalton used as his last defense cracked—and Troi caught a glimpse of what she had sensed outside, the kind of hurt that would drive any man to self destruct. Dalton had simply accepted that fate as his penance, for all his sins both real and imagined. But something changed in him—a subtle metamorphosis, right before Troi’s eyes, driven by the faintest glimmer of hope. He wanted to talk to her now.
More than that, he needed to.
“Are you a spy?” Troi asked.
Dalton’s lower jaw trembled. He had to clear his throat before he could speak.
“I’m an archaeologist,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever been.”
The words struck Troi like an epiphany. If Dalton was a liar, then he was the best she had ever seen.
“Tell me what happened.”
He took several breaths. Troi sensed a deep conflict within, as he prepared to relive something that he tried desperately to keep buried. “I’ve theorized for years that certain cultures in this part of the galaxy developed on an accelerated curve,” Dalton spoke. “If you study the evolutionary patterns of intelligent civilizations, you can see where some of them appeared almost out of nowhere—stone age to space flight in less than a thousand years. Crazy stuff, I know. The Academy didn’t care much for my research either, but they thought it was harmless enough—at least at first.”
“What changed their minds?”
“I got a lead on some relics,” Dalton said. “Strictly backchannel—and not entirely legal. The guy who sold them to me said that he found them on Berengerius III, out at some abandoned dig site. I requested funding to go check it out. The Academy refused.”
“What did you do?”
“I’ve never been one to take no for an answer,” Dalton told her—though none too proudly. “So I burned most of my savings, got a few student volunteers together and went out there anyway. We found the dig site, just like my smuggler friend said—but by the time we got there, the entire place had been torn down.”
“Yeah,” Dalton said, off her reaction. “I thought it might have been a con job too—until we found parts from an extrication tool in the rubble, probably left behind by the cleanup crew. I ran an analysis on the components. They were Starfleet issue.”
Troi suddenly felt weak, and sank back into her chair.
“You’re absolutely certain?” she asked.
“Positive. The Academy must’ve tipped them off that we were coming.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I didn’t know at the time,” he admitted, “but it only went downhill after we got back. The board of trustees immediately terminated my grant. Claimed I was taking improper advantage of my students—and on that account, they were right.” His eyes grew distant at the memory of them. “They were just kids. I had no business asking them to help me like that.”
“You obviously inspired them,” Troi offered. “They wouldn’t have followed you otherwise.”
“They didn’t know what they were getting into,” Dalton said, a man at the tail end of a spiral. “None of us did—but we kept following the trail anyway. We raised enough money to buy some equipment and rent a shuttle, spending months going from planet to planet chasing down pieces of the puzzle. But somebody always got there before we did.” From there he trailed into a deathly silence, drawing his knees up to his chest as if fending off a chill. “We caught a break on Plauktau VII. While we were having a drink in a bar there, some local joeboys let it slip that a few merc types had come through a couple days ahead of us. You don’t see a lot of freelancers in a place like that, so I’m thinking they must be part of the cleanup crew. I asked one of the locals if they’d heard anything about where these guys were headed next. Turns out they were stuck—a blown warp coil grounded their ship, and they couldn’t get parts in for another week.”
Troi watched as his face grew even more grave, listened as his words veered into even darker places.
“Jennifer managed to hack their navigational computer,” Dalton continued. “She found a plotted route to the Castis system, which we uploaded to our own ship. I figured we could beat them at their own game—find out what they were hiding, before they had a chance to erase it again.” He shook his head. “I was wrong.”
Troi felt herself tremble. “They were waiting for you.”
“Something was. Deep inside the caverns, like they had been buried there. No sound, no trace. . .we had no idea they were even there—until they started killing everyone.” He squeezed his eyes shut, and when they opened again Dalton was a complete blank—as if remembering had consumed the last tattered remnants of his soul. “They were the same as those troops you saw outside.”
Troi heard herself whisper “Ponsak…”
“Why would they attack you?”
“Because of what we found down there.”
Troi leaned in toward him, desperate to hear more.
“It had to be over 50,000 years old,” he said. “Unbelievable technology, still functioning after all that time. I can’t even guess at its purpose—but the markings we found on it were unmistakable.” He paused for a long, frightening moment. “The language was a variant of Bezzeret.”
The revelation struck Troi like a hard slap, followed by a dawn of even harder logic. Of course, she thought, her mind racing as it put all the clues together. The Modern Dogma…
Troi blinked out of her trance.
“It makes perfect sense,” she said, seizing on Dalton’s claim. “The entire Bezzeret culture is built upon a concept called Ursad Ton’cha’lee—an absolute belief that the present is a state of perfection. To that end, they have almost entirely ignored the past, even criminalizing the study of their own history. A discovery such as yours, with all its implications, has the potential to undermine that belief—perhaps even destroy it.”
Dalton turned away from her, stunned.
“Think about it,” Troi pressed. “Their entire civilization is fanatically ethnocentric. To suddenly discover that they may be descended from another, more advanced civilization—it would shatter the very concept of their place in the universe.”
“Not the gods they thought they were,” Dalton muttered, his head sinking. “Those bastards. Slaughtering innocents to protect their big, mystical lie.”
“Faith is a powerful thing, Dr. Dalton. So is the temptation to misuse it.”
His despair instantly sublimated into rage. When he turned toward her again, Troi saw a vengeful intent carved into his hardened features.
“I can’t let them get away with this.”
“We won’t,” she told him. “But we need to proceed carefully.”
“I don’t know if we have that option. The Bezzeret killed every last one of my students—and then they did their damnedest to kill me. Now that they’ve concocted this whole espionage story, they’re not just going to let me walk out of here. They mean to execute me, counselor.”
Troi couldn’t deny that—and from what little she had been able to glean from the Bezzeret justice system, she knew that the trial wouldn’t last long either. Darelian had already whetted her people’s appetite for blood. She meant to give them what they wanted.
“You’re right,” she decided. “We need to move quickly—but we also need to make effective use of what we have.”
“No offense, but that ain’t a whole hell of a lot.”
“We have the truth—and as Captain Picard pointed out, we have the prime minister’s fear of you, Dr. Dalton. That may give us all the leverage we need.”
“We can threaten to expose her.”
Dalton chuckled grimly.
“That’s a tall order, counselor,” he said. “One, I’m the most hated man on this planet right now. Nobody’s going to believe a word I say. Two, the Federation is already hip-deep in this coverup. They’ll never allow it.”
Troi took in a deep breath.
“Then we’ll just have to find a way around them.”
Dalton’s eyes narrowed.
“Your captain would do that?”
“Captain Picard will do what’s right,” Troi said—just as the heavy metal door behind her unlocked once again. She stood, trying to assure him with a confident nod—though she was uncertain if her face conveyed the same resolve.
“Your time is up,” the administrator announced.
Troi pursed her lips into one more smile, then started to walk out.
“Deanna—” Dalton began.
When she looked back, he was standing right next to the force field. Troi returned to him, in spite of the indignation she sensed from the administrator, edging up to the high-energy barrier so closely that she felt the electricity tingle against her skin.
“Those kids,” he intoned, “don’t let them be forgotten.”
Troi fought back her own tears.
“You can tell the universe their story,” she said, “when you get out of here.”
“Yeah,” Dalton replied, much like a man who didn’t expect to see her again. Even so, he put his hand up to the barrier that separated them. Troi did the same, and if not for the sliver of distance between them, the two would have touched.
Picard straightened his uniform jacket, not out of his usual prim habit but rather out of necessity. He was a mess, at least by his own exacting standards—courtesy of one Beverly Crusher, who had banished the captain to his quarters with strict orders to get some rest. Picard had gone there with every intention of disobeying those orders, but the sight of his rack had proved too enticing. Before he knew it, a promise to close his eyes for just a few moments stretched into a full two hours—and God only knew how much longer he would have slept had Commander Riker not summoned him to the bridge.
Wrinkled and grumbling, Picard dashed for the nearest turbolift. Two minutes later, the doors swished open on Deck One. “Captain on the bridge,” the officer of the watch announced, while Riker left the center seat and headed back toward the tactical station. There, Lieutenant Worf had already punched up a display of the ship’s communication subsystem.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” the XO said as he flanked Picard, “but I thought you would want to see this for yourself.”
“What is it?” Picard asked.
“An unexplained anomaly,” the Klingon chief of security replied, pointing toward a series of automated log entries on his panel. He highlighted one of them, revealing a complex numeric pattern. “I was updating the communication logs during your last exchange with Fleet Command when a routine defensive scan revealed this.”
The captain frowned. “Is that some kind of malicious program?”
“Buried in a stealth carrier,” Worf affirmed. “Its headers carry the same signature as a low-grade virus, which is why the computer quarantined it—but curiously, it contains none of the executable code.”
“That seems like a rather ham-handed method of attack.”
“We thought the same thing,” Riker said, “until we got a look at the actual payload.” He nodded at Worf, who punched a few more buttons and released the file into a sandbox—a place where he could open the contents while isolating them from the wider system. What stood out most, though, was the file name. It flashed in red, taunting with its blatancy:
“Will wonders never cease,” the captain whispered.
Riker and Worf exchanged a curious glance.
“You know what this is about?” the XO asked.
Picard released a deliberate breath, folding his arms in front of his chest. Outwardly, he revealed nothing—but inside, his heart was racing. Of all the contingencies that could have occurred, this was the last one he had expected. That it was happening now couldn’t be a coincidence either.
“Have either of you viewed the file?” he asked abruptly.
“No,” Riker said slowly, still trying to feel him out. “It requires authentication to open—yours I would assume.”
“Very well,” Picard said. “Patch it to my ready room. I’ll have a look at it there.” He quickly turned to leave, but then felt a subtle tug on his sleeve—Riker, trying not to be obvious about pulling him back.
“Somebody hid that file so it wouldn’t be conspicuous,” the XO said, like he was leveling an accusation, “but did it in such a way that we’d be sure to find it. Don’t you find that the least bit strange?”
“You needn’t concern yourself with that, commander,” Picard shot back. “I will attend to this matter personally. Rest assured, it will be handled.”
“Then why can’t you talk about it?”
Picard wanted to tell him, but couldn’t. That was the agreement he had made, the bargain he had struck—sealed with the blood of both the innocent and the guilty.
And believe me, Will, you don’t want to know.
“Just let me know when Counselor Troi returns,” he ordered, and left without saying another word.
Picard sat down behind his desk and turned the computer screen toward his field of vision. As instructed, Worf had routed the mystery file to his personal subnet, where it hovered in virtual space and awaited his command to open it. He then entered a key sequence on the input interface, the display responding with a simple text message:
ACCESS TERMINAL CONFIRMED
STATE NAME FOR FINAL CONFIRMATION OF SECURITY PROTOCOL
With food shortages coming, it’s a smart move to order organic, cooked, freeze-dried chicken for long-term storage from Prepper Organics.
“Picard, Jean-Luc,” he stated. “Captain, USS Enterprise.”
A moment later the text disappeared, and from the pixels formed a countenance that was all too familiar, yet disconcerting at the same time. It had been over four years, but Picard remembered as if it were yesterday: the potent eyes, that gray pallor—and that distinctive crease that went down the middle of the face.
“My respects, Captain,” Rixx began formally. His voice carried no hint of emotion, positive or negative—just an underlying intensity that Picard recalled from his last conversation with the Bolian. “I must advise you that, as per our understanding, no one else knows of this communication—not even my senior staff. I truly believe that it is only because of this fact that I have not yet been silenced, and that you should at all times exercise the same discretion. Your very life, and the lives of your entire crew, may depend upon it.”
Rixx allowed his warning to set in for a moment before he continued: “Do you remember what I said to you when last we met?”
May it please the gods that our paths shall never again cross. It was an old Bolian saying, for friends who part in adversity—a solemn wish to ward off bad luck. Picard had never forgotten it.
“Regrettably, that prayer goes unanswered,” Rixx intoned darkly. “And again there are forces at work—powerful forces—that operate in shadows and seek to move us in terrible directions. You know of what I speak, Picard, and that I do not make such charges lightly. What we face now is every bit as dangerous as the conspiracy you and I once fought together—but far more insidious. For that reason, just as Walker Keel sought me out, I now ask your help in defending our Starfleet from those who would undermine it.”
Picard listened intently.
“I know of your orders regarding the Bezzeret crisis,” Rixx said. “But the information provided to you by Fleet Command is far from complete. It was my ship that intercepted Jeffrey Dalton’s shuttle—and I can assure you that the Bezzeret had no intention of capturing him. They meant to destroy him, and would have done the same to us had we not been within scanning range of a nearby star base.”
Picard’s jaw clenched. This was even worse than he had imagined.
“We recovered Dalton’s shuttle,” Rixx went on. “Starfleet personnel came aboard to supervise its towing back to base—but the shuttle was destroyed en route by what appeared to be a tractor beam malfunction. I don’t believe this was an accident. Prior to rigging, I inspected that ship personally. There was nothing on board that could have caused the explosion that destroyed her—which leaves sabotage as the only possibility. I must assume this was done to prevent us from finding out where the shuttle had been—and since Fleet staffers were the only ones who had access after I left, they must also be the ones who scuttled her.”
Rixx paused again, in his silence a latent desperation. “Dalton is now the last surviving piece of evidence,” he said. “His death in short order is inevitable, unless you can find some way to prevent it. I understand that this will not be easy. The Bezzeret, aided by some of our own people, have already shown how far they are willing to go to stop Dalton from talking. Consequently, you can expect no help from Fleet Command—nor any other ship, nor any other captain. There is only you and me, Picard. We cannot trust anyone else.”
Picard thought of Carlton Morrow, of how much control he really had over the situation back home. If any of what Rixx had said was true, he lamented the answer.
“That is the code by which I have lived since our last encounter,” the Bolian finished. “I take no solace in condemning anyone to share that fate, least of all you—but there is a cancer once again, and it is left to us to fight it. Just know that I stand ready to assist you. I will wait on your response.”
Rixx gave him a single nod. “Peace, my friend.”
Then the screen went black.
Picard stared into its shiny surface a moment longer, taking stock of his own stern reflection there. Meanwhile, an uneasy quiet infused itself below the low thrum of Enterprise’s pulse, drawing him back into a reality he didn’t want to face.
“Dammit, Carl,” he muttered. “How could you let this happen?”
Of course, it was easy for Picard to ask that question. Out here in the field, things were more black and white. The decisions you made were yours and yours alone—but Morrow worked in the world of politics, where the lines became blurred and a friend one day could be an enemy the next. Even so, Picard doubted that Morrow fully knew what he was dealing with. The captain’s first instinct was to inform him—until Rixx’s warning echoed in his memory, leaving no room for compromise.
We cannot trust anyone else.
All at once, Picard understood the wisdom of it. As much as he believed in Morrow, he simply couldn’t take the risk—nor could he afford to burn the one useful ally he had left. Besides, if things went the way Picard thought they would, it was far better for Morrow if he didn’t know.
“Computer,” he spoke tersely. “Remove all traces of current program from memory.”
“The most recent file has already been deleted.”
Picard raised an eyebrow. Not taking any chances, are you Rixx?
“Recreate protocols to send a reply to the file,” he said. “Encode contents with my personal cipher, authorization KILO-NOVEMBER-ECHO-two-seven-seven-six-five.”
“Working,” the computer replied. “Authorization verified.”
“Attach file to our next telemetry dump.” With all the data squeezed into that routine transmission, a single message would barely register—except to Rixx, who would be listening for it. “Prepare to record.”
The tiny screen engaged again, its camera focusing on Picard’s worn face. Behind that visage, though, a determination still shone through. It belonged to a man who was tired of playing on defense. It was well past time for a change.
Time for a new plan.
Ursad Korla’ren (Office of the Security Minister)
Bezzeret Home World
Troi paced alone, across the confines of an empty waiting room. The space was huge compared to the tiny cell where Dalton languished, but still felt oppressive with its brushed metal columns and fluorescent overhead lights—along with its heavy door, locked from the outside. The administrator had left her there, after escorting her from the prison wing, telling her that someone would attend to her shortly. As the minutes stretched across the better part of an hour, though, Troi began to wonder how long that would be. Doubtlessly, the Bezzeret would be viewing the footage of her meeting with Dalton—Troi had no illusions that their conversation had been private, even though that was his right under the law—but the longer it took, the more apprehensive she became. By the time she finally heard someone at the door, she was almost ready to make a run for it.
In walked another Bezzeret, one she didn’t recognize—at least not directly. He was more like someone she might have seen in passing
as she moved through the corridors of this place, a single face among many. Except that she had seen no one except Dalton and the administrator—the Bezzeret had carefully arranged it, isolating Troi from anyone that might betray their secrets. This one, however, greeted her with genuine warmth, which was probably why he seemed so familiar. It was the first kindred emotion she had sensed from anyone since beaming down.
“Hello,” he said, extending his hand in a very human gesture—and using a very human dialect. “My name is Maurian, the prime minister’s first secretary. I’ll be escorting you to the transport site.”
“Thank you,” she replied cautiously, although it was difficult to resist his manner. “Deanna Troi.”
“Yes, I know. Word gets around quickly when we have a guest. You’ll have to forgive all the precautions, counselor. We’re not accustomed to visitors.”
“You don’t say,” Troi told him, motioning toward the Ponsak she noticed hovering just outside the open door. It still frightened her that she sensed nothing from them, the empathic equivalent of a blank stare. “Will he be coming with us as well?”
Maurian glanced at the Ponsak, who remained motionless, then back at her—almost sheepish, if she read his expression accurately. “It’s protocol,” he sighed. “Even native Bezzeret who don’t have the necessary clearance are shadowed by them.”
“Does that mean he’s here for you, or for me?”
“Maybe a bit of both,” he said wryly. With that, he dismissed the Ponsak with a single nod of his head. The creature disappeared with uncanny speed, as if melting into the ether. “He probably had better things to do, in any case. Just promise you’ll be on your best behavior while I’m around.”
“Of course,” Troi replied in the same vein, and followed Maurian out into the corridor.
“I’m sorry for the wait,” he told her as they walked side by side. “Transporter activity is heavily restricted, and there are only certain windows when beaming is allowed.”
“Apology accepted. I only wish that I could have had more time with Dr. Dalton.”
“That is unfortunate,” Maurian agreed—cautiously, as if trying to feel her out. “You must understand, though—even this concession comes at great risk to the prime minister. There are others who urged a much harder stance.”
“Was that your advice?”
“She didn’t ask for my opinion.”
“And if she had?”
Maurian regarded her curiously—again guarded, as if wondering how much he should say. “I would have told her to serve the best interests of our people,” he replied. “Wherever that may lead.”
“Spoken like a practical person,” Troi observed. “There may be hope for us yet.”
“If we can get past the politics. It seems like both sides have reached a point where neither one can back down.”
“That’s not my concern,” she said flatly, much to Maurian’s surprise. “Where I come from, the rights of the individual matter most—and right now, there’s a man sitting in one of your cells accused of a crime he didn’t commit.”
“So he says.”
“If he was lying, I would have known.”
“Because you’re Betazoid?”
Troi stopped, ready to confront him—but Maurian wasn’t accusatory. If anything, he seemed genuinely curious about her.
“You know,” she said, “you’re the first Bezzeret who hasn’t treated me like I have the plague. Why aren’t you afraid?”
“The prime minister sent me,” he said with a shrug. “I can’t very well refuse her orders, can I?”
It’s more than that, Troi thought, just from his expression. You’re different somehow.
Maurian, however, didn’t give her the chance to sort it out. Conspicuously, his eyes darted over his own shoulder—pointing Troi toward a security camera that followed their every move.
What is it that you need to tell me?
“It’s right over here,” he said abruptly, ushering her a few rooms down. There, he tussled with a key and unlocked the door, making a show out of prodding her inside—the better for his masters to see him doing his intended job. He then handed Troi her comm badge pin, slowly enough for her to suspect some kind of hidden meaning in the gesture. Maurian, however, maintained that same assured calm—something he had obviously honed to perfection. “You’ve been cleared to signal your ship. Transport must commence within sixty seconds.”
Troi took the badge from him as he stepped back. She affixed it to her uniform, tapping it to open a channel, then turned back on him with an intensely curious stare.
“Troi to Enterprise,” she said. “One to beam up.”
The ship acknowledged, while Maurian returned her stare with one of his own.
“Tell the prime minister that I don’t intend to let this go,” Troi said. “I won’t sacrifice Dalton to her agenda.”
“I’m sure she already knows.”
“Then I look forward to picking up where we left off.”
And as Troi dissolved into the virtual light of the transporter beam, she could see plainly that Maurian had exactly the same thing in mind.
Miles O’Brien noted with only passing interest the figure appearing out of thin air on the transport pad, being far more concerned with the readings that poured from the console at his fingertips. Even with a routine operation such as this, there were still a thousand variables—any one of which could result in a botched transport, and that was a bit of nastiness he had no desire to witness firsthand. And so with his customary precision, O’Brien kept his attention focused and took nothing for granted, checking each item off his mental list as it appeared on the display in front of him.
Everything appeared nominal, and with satisfaction O’Brien initiated the last phase of the process. Releasing energy from a buffer tank beneath the pad, he engaged a containment field that collected the billions of atoms that sublimated out of the transporter beam—the very elements of Deanna Troi, just now beginning to reassemble themselves into the pattern stored by the console’s computer. Theoretically, that pattern should have been exactly the same as when Troi had left the ship.
Only now, if what O’Brien was seeing was true, something had changed.
“Transporter room to bridge,” he said.
Riker’s voice answered. “Go ahead, chief.”
“Commander, I was in the middle of beaming Counselor Troi back from planet surface when the bio-filter detected something.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“No, sir,” O’Brien said, scanning the contaminant. “It has the characteristics of a virus, but looks to be completely inert. I thought Doctor Crusher might want to have a look at it before I beamed it into oblivion.”
“All right,” Riker replied. “Secure the biologic for transport to Sickbay. Also have Counselor Troi report there for a full examination. Hopefully this won’t prevent us from sending anybody else down.”
“Consider it done, commander.”
“Thanks, chief. Bridge out.”
The idea of exotic diseases being brought back from some alien planet was one that had always scared the hell out of O’Brien. Romulan Warbirds bearing down with full disruptors at least made for a straight-up fight, not like some microscopic invader that carved you up from the inside. He didn’t care if the damned thing was classified safe. Taking no chances, he plucked the wee beastie out of the slipstream and deposited it into a holding buffer. When his panel informed him that it was safely contained, he brought Troi shimmering back into existence.
“Welcome aboard, counselor,” he said, with obvious relief. “Good to have you back.”
Troi must have sensed his agitation. “Is everything all right?”
O’Brien explained what had happened. “Sickbay’s waiting for you, XO’s orders. Just a precaution, though.”
“Of course,” she said, descending from the transporter pad. “And please tell the captain where I am as well. I need to speak with him as soon as possible.”
“Is it really as bad as all that?”
Troi stopped just short of the door and looked back at him.
“You know how the rumor mill works on this ship,” O’Brien said with a shrug. “People like to tell stories.”
The counselor smiled good-naturedly. “Don’t believe everything you hear, chief,” was all she would say, before bolting into the corridor and finally out of sight.
Left alone, O’Brien released a tired breath.
“Too many bloody secrets,” he grumbled, before punching the intercom. “Transporter room to Sickbay. Your patient is on the way.”
“Is that what this is all about?”
Picard heard himself asking the question, but still had a hard time accepting that such a thing was even possible. Counselor Troi, however, confirmed it as she sat up from the examination bed. Will Riker, who stood by her on the other side, helped her with the familiar touch of an friend, also paying rapt attention to her story.
“It is consistent with what we know of Bezzeret culture,” Troi explained. “And given their obvious penchant for secrecy and security, it actually makes a lot of sense.”
“You’re certain that Dalton was telling the truth?”
“Without a doubt,” the counselor assured him. “The pain and grief he felt at the loss of his people was almost too great to bear. It’s only his desire to see justice done that keeps him going. Without that, he might have taken his own life by now.”
Picard shook his head in disgust. That Darelian had moralized at him like she did, knowing full well the innocent blood on her hands, enraged him all the more.
“It’s all so unnecessary,” he lamented. “To commit murder and risk a planetary alliance, all in the name of some superstition—it seems unthinkable in this day and age.”
“You’re speaking from your own experience,” Troi reminded him. “It’s easy for us to judge others on that basis—but lest we forget, human history is filled with conflicts fought for the very same reasons. The Crusades, the Holocaust, twenty-first century Islamic terrorism—all of these atrocities were committed in the name of some dogmatic belief. The Bezzeret are merely acting on a similar precept.”
“Darelian doesn’t see this as murder at all,” Picard concluded. “She sees this as the preservation of her world.”
“And she’ll do whatever it takes to protect that world.”
The captain pondered these developments for a moment.
“Is the prime minister aware of what Dalton told you?”
“We have to assume as much,” Troi answered. “I was under constant surveillance.”
“Yet not a word from her on the subject,” Picard mused. “Unusual, to say the least.”
“She probably figures the Federation will back her up,” Riker suggested. “If what Dalton said is true, they’ll find an excuse to make this go away. It wouldn’t surprise me if Darelian was on the horn with them right now.”
“Which leaves us with something of a stalemate,” Picard said, shaking his head. “Still you have to wonder—why such a fear of their own history? Belief systems don’t just spring up for no reason. What could have possibly happened so long ago, that they would go to such lengths to keep it secret?”
“I don’t know, captain,” Troi said. “But I am sure of one thing—Jeffrey Dalton is marked for death. They’ll kill him the first chance they get.”
And Fleet Command will be only to happy to let them, Picard added silently, thinking about the message from Rixx. He tried to maintain an outward calm, guessing that Troi must have sensed his agitation. Soon enough, Picard knew, he would have to reveal the larger truth to his senior staff. For now, though, it was better to keep them in the dark.
While I can still protect them.
Beverly Crusher walked in before Troi could raise any questions, fixing Picard with a sour look when she saw him. “So much for following doctor’s orders,” she observed, noting his condition. “No offense, captain, but you’ve looked better.”
“I appreciate your concern,” he replied drily. “Have you completed your tests?”
“It wasn’t that hard,” Beverly said, leading all of them over to a nearby display screen. She initiated a graphic that showed what appeared to be a complex series of proteins—at least as far as Picard could tell. Beverly adjusted the image, rotating it in three dimensions, while the computer identified and catalogued the various components of the chain. “At first glance, I thought it was an indigenous Bezzeret virus. Most of those have been catalogued by Starfleet Medical, but a search didn’t turn up any definitive hits. There was, however, enough of a match for me to construct an analogous reference based on known amino acid sequences.”
She then augmented the chain, zooming in on an individual DNA strand. “What you’re seeing isn’t a life form at all,” Beverly explained, “only a series of proteins linked together in a very basic and repeating pattern.”
“So it’s a virus,” Riker said.
“More like a protovirus,” Beverly countered. “This one isn’t even geared to reproduce, having been contained in a neutral sheath—which is why I found only a single instance in Counselor Troi’s entire body. Apparently, someone wanted to be sure that only one of these things got through.”
“Someone?” Troi asked.
Beverly nodded. “The sheath was an artificial construct, I was sure. So I cross-referenced the amino sequence with known biomanufacturing applications, and even came up with a name: Codoprotien. Sound familiar?”
“It’s a medium,” Riker answered, “used for biological information transfer.”
“The same,” Beverly said, looking at Troi. “The base pairs actually contain data that can be decoded with the proper encryption key. Whoever planted this strand in your bloodstream probably knew it would be detected by the transporter when you beamed back aboard.”
Picard frowned. “Someone was sending us a message.”
“So it would seem.”
“Can you read it?” Riker asked anxiously.
“Mister Worf was kind enough to wash it through his computer,” the doctor replied, changing the display again. The DNA strand moved aside, and in its place appeared a simple series of numbers extracted from the bonds that held the molecule together:
60’15’22 118’52’12 2300
Picard and Riker stepped in closer to the display. The captain studied the numbers, not knowing precisely where they referenced—but recognizing the format. Anyone who had ever navigated a ship would have known in an instant.
“Transporter room,” Picard snapped, after tapping his comm badge. “Chief O’Brien, respond.”
“O’Brien here, Captain.”
“Take down the following coordinates.” He then recited what he saw on the display. “Locate on the surface of the Bezzeret home world.”
“Give me a moment sir.” The speaker was clear enough for them to hear O’Brien calling the information from his console. “Captain, the first two number series point to an area just outside of the capital city, inside what’s marked as a restricted zone. The last one is a standard way of specifying time for transport—in this case, 2300 hours.”
Riker blinked in surprise, and looked at his captain. Picard, meanwhile, slowly turned his eyes toward Troi. If she had been confused before, she was all but certain now—her explanation comprised of a single word.
We Often Feel Like David Taking on Giants
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