Star Trek – Farragut : The Dogs Of War

Star Trek – Farragut

The Dogs Of War

written by Christopher Dalton

Based on Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry

and

Starship Farragut created by John Broughton

Copyright(C)2016 by CBS/Paramount Pictures Corporation

All Rights Reserved

 

This story is merely for fun and not for profit. No copyright infringement is intended.

This story is merely for fun and not for profit. No copyright infringement is intended. Originally this was to be made as an episode of the Farragut Films fan series. Due to some ‘artistic differences’ and other behind the scenes issues, it was never filmed.

 

Historian’s Note:

The events in this episode take place between those depicted in the episodes “The Price Of Anything” and “Conspiracy Of Innocence.” The reader may wish to consult those episodes for reference.

.

“War makes strange bedfellows.”

– Helen Thomas

“And Caesar’s spirit ranging for revenge, with Ate by his side, come hot from hell,

shall in these confines, with a Monarch’s voice, cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war,

that this foul deed, shall smell above the earth, with carrion men, groaning for burial.”

– Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Act III, Scene 1

“Dogs of war and men of hate

With no cause, we don’t discriminate

Discovery is to be disowned

Our currency is flesh and bone

Hell opened up and put on sale

Gather ’round and haggle

For hard cash, we will lie and deceive

Even our masters don’t know the webs we weave

One world, it’s a battleground

One world, and we will smash it down

One world … One world

Invisible transfers, long distance calls

Hollow laughter in marble halls

Steps have been taken, a silent uproar

Has unleashed the dogs of war

You can’t stop what has begun

Signed, sealed, they deliver oblivion

We all have a dark side, to say the least

And dealing in death is the nature of the beast

One world, it’s a battleground

One world, and we will smash it down

One world … One world

(One world)

(One world)

The dogs of war don’t negotiate

The dogs of war won’t capitulate

They will take and you will give

And you must die so that they may live

You can knock at any door

But wherever you go, you know they’ve been there before

Well winners can lose and things can get strained

But whatever you change, you know the dogs remain

One world, it’s a battleground

One world, and we will smash it down

One world … One world.”

– The Dogs Of War

“Pink Floyd – A Momentary Lapse Of Reason”

 

Federation Farming Colony

Sironos IV

2268 AD

A podium had been erected in the right corner of the bulbous dome shaped chapel with a small spotlight, the crest of the United Federation Of Planets affixed to its front. Sunlight streamed through the colored glass, giving off colors of red, blue, and green across the plush and clean carpet.

Beside it was a coffin that gleamed in the light. A Federation flag was draped over most of it so the ends seemed to twinkle. Above the coffin, on a huge wall-mounted screen, was Dr. Gene Carter’s current service photo. The features were stern, the eyes slightly blurred because they had moved. He had clearly been uncomfortable having the picture taken. Row after row of chairs were being filled with crew, most of whom had served with Captain John T. Carter over the years. Carter’s eyes drifted over the assembled bodies, and he was pleased by his ability to name the vast majority of them. They were good people, and he took justified pride in their actions.

Carter mused silently over the events that took his father’s life. It was something that he did not want to think about.

The front row was for the senior officers with Commander Robert Tacket, Lieutenant Commander Michele Smithfield, and the others all seated. Others entered the room followed by the farming colony’s Chancellor, one Ralph Maddox and all seemed uncertain of as to where they should sit. Carter beckoned them over, gesturing to chairs up front. They had more than earned her place with the others.

Finally, after another minute or two, the happy glow on his face was gone, replaced with the mask of the mourning son. From what the captain gathered, they were just beginning to speak once more when the tragedy occurred. No doubt this severely complicated how Jack now saw his father. He tugged his dress uniform jacket tight across the chest and then strode to the podium. All eyes turned to him, ready to begin the memorial. Both Tacket and Smithfield knew about the now dead Doctor Gene Carter from their one meeting and from other colleagues to understand that he wouldn’t have appreciated a long, ceremonious event.

As a result, his son provided a streamlined service. He spoke about the man’s accomplishments, a slightly longer version than Kyle’s service record, keeping personal observations to a minimum. Periodically, Carter glanced at Gene’s image on the screen and frequently turned his attention to the crew in attendance, stone-faced and solemn.

Carter paused, letting his final words sink in. “As most of you know, my father and I didn’t always get along. That wasn’t always the case. My father worked hard in the years after he and my mother separated. He was juggling his difficult career with the Federation along with trying to find a cure for the fatal affliction that he suffered from. I probably made it unnecessarily hard on my father those first few years. What I didn’t come to appreciate until he was gone was that he was also teaching me that other lives were important. I became self-sufficient, able to accept responsibility for myself and my surroundings. He was gone by then, doing the Federation’s work. As you heard from his record, Gene Carter threw himself into the middle of a life or death situation. At the time, I was too resentful feeling abandoned to understand that not only did I respect him, but so did others. And he couldn’t be in two places at once. He had devoted his life to helping others who were unable to help themselves, and when he saw the job was done, only then did he return full-time to the stars.”

It took me a long time to understand all that and appreciate his contributions. Truth to tell, it wasn’t until these last few days that I really understood his dedication. Or fully understood that the bond between father and son…was unbroken. The Federation owes Gene Carter a debt of gratitude it can never fully repay. And I owe my father my life, and I intend to take that life and honor his memory with continued service to our goals of peace, military defense, and exploration. He wasn’t easy to talk with or easy to live with, that’s for sure. But we feel his absence more keenly as a result of those precious few years we did have.”

Good-bye, Dad.” John looked down at the coffin, concluding the service, and then returned to his chair.

Once it was over, people rose as one, acknowledged the coffin, and then turned to file out. Tacket and Smithfield knew most would seek Carter out in the coming days to offer their personal condolences. Already, the communications buffers were filling with notes to Carter from member worlds and planets. Michele had told him there were notes from people Carter barely knew to those who served alongside, from Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise to his former commanding officer Captain Preston Wilcox of the U.S.S. Potemkin to his mother, who was unable to attend due to a minor medical crisis. Even Admiral Wainwright and the Farragut’s former security chief, Lieutenant Commander Henry Prescott, III offered their condolences.

He hadn’t read a single one yet, but he would.

Finally, Carter, Tacket, and Michele were left in the room. The captain knew the farming colonists would be by soon to remove the coffin and ready the room for other subsequent services.

Gene Carter would be buried on the world that he endeavored to save. Next to the Nektos plant that would help cure those afflicted with the fatal virus known as Fraydox Syndrome. It was a sign of respect to the scientist as well as his son.

That was nice, Jack,” Tacket said.

Just like my father,” Carter admitted. “straight and to the point.”

Carter took one last glance at the coffin. “I’ll be ready to return to duty tomorrow.”

If you’re certain you’re ready,” Tacket spoke. “We’ll be departing orbit in twelve hours, and we’ll have plenty of time before our next assignment comes through.”

I’ll be fine, RT,” Carter reassured him.

As Carter exited the building, Tacket made a mental note to contact one of his siblings at the New Denver Colony.

Something he had not done for some time.

****

The doors slid open, and Carter was once more back on his ship and in his cabin. Normally he never paid attention, but right now it felt empty. He was alone and it didn’t sit right with him. Tacket had told him of the people who wanted to offer their personal comments both in person and by command he would no doubt need to be alone after all that, but not now. Now he sat in his cabin and felt uneasy. He had just ended one part of his life by saying good-bye to his father, minutes after beginning a new part of it. As he transitioned from one feeling to the next, he knew he would remain happy and dedicated to his work.

Unfastening his dress jacket, he took a deep breath, letting his chest expand, enjoying the feeling of freedom.

Letting the jacket hang open, he sat on the corner of his bed and just breathed. His thoughts were interrupted by the chirrup of the comm system. He rose and walked to his desk, moved aside several padds he had been trying to focus on earlier, and activated it.

It was another condolence message. It also reminded him of the letter he had to send to the late Ensign Laurel Anderson’s family.

Being too emotionally tired to read it over, he switched off the screen and sat back to let his jacket fall open.

He put his head in his hands and sat for a long while.

**************

U.S.S. Farragut

NCC-1647

2268 AD

One Month Later….

The ominous, charcoal gray hull of the Constitution class warship U.S.S. Farragut cut through deep space on the leisurely push of impulse power. The light of distant stars gleamed off of the mirrored, gold-hued alloy of her nav-deflector dish. Intense spotlights shone proudly on her name and registry number, NCC-1647, scrawled blatantly on her dorsal primary hull in black outlined silver lettering. The black and silver colored laurel leaf cradle and Earth seal of the United Federation Of Planets was lit along her secondary hull and warp nacelles. She was one of the premier vessels of the Federation Starfleet, a large Battlecruiser. Sleek and powerful, she was the embodiment of exploration and military defense itself. While there were even newer and more destructive starships being designed by Federation Engineers, some even already in service, none could match the sheer perfection of her design, at least that’s what anyone who had served on them would tell others.

The Constitution-class Federation Starships were definitely the most advanced in their line. The saucer-shaped primary hull, the cigar-shaped engineering hull section with its mirrored gold-hued alloyed deflector disk, and the two sizzling white anti-matter nacelles with crackling red anti-matter activity in the front(like two cigarettes from an old detective movie)lancing out in the back made them look like pure white gull-winged angels(they usually gave off a wash of proclamation white)and untarnished shipwright’s models. Grayish-pearly etched hull plates and all. Their softly blinking lights were un- muted Christmas red and green, and their forward and aft lights a bright blue. The lights were blinking gently and the soft glow of her silver hull reflected the light from the sun, nearby.

Named for famous Naval Admiral in Earth’s Eighteenth Century, she was a magnificent ship.

One that, along with her crew, had seen and endured quite a bit in the last year.

Some of which were unpleasant and fatal.

****

In John T. Carter’s nightmare, the explosion and the impact produced a powerful shock wave that slammed full force against the bridge.

In an instant, the shield protecting the bridge crumbled, and the shock wave went through the entire area.

All about, people were thrown from their positions, some sent crashing into the consoles, others hurled clear across the bridge module.

Towards the center, Robert Tacket was tossed off the upper center of the bridge and hurled under the navigation console on the next level. The executive and science officer sustained a bruise to his right hand and a few shattered bones.

Alissa Monetti was thrown backward as sparks erupted from her console and the entire bridge system shorted out.

Not far from where Tacket had been standing, Carter had grabbed on to the railing separating the upper level from the lower one and came through the first blast unhurt.

But then came the second blast.

The second explosion roared with such intensity, that in an instant, portions of the ceiling bulkhead began to give way.

Before anyone had time to react, a large section of the bulkhead suddenly crashed down on to the center of the bridge.

Right where Tacket had tried to hastily shield himself.

The bridge was in a state of shambles as two more consoles erupted in a shower of sparks. It took a while before anyone who’d been relatively unhurt by the explosions felt safe enough to move about.

Carter pushed aside some debris and made his way to the center seat of the bridge. He froze in horror when he saw the prone form of Tacket, unmoving on the floor, a column of debris lying on top of him.

With anguish, he reached the first and science officer and opened his eyes. They were clearly dilated.

The Captain looked up and saw that a concerned Smithfield had also arrived on the lower level and was also bent over Tacket’s unconscious form.

Another explosion erupted, and in the background Carter could hear the panicked voice of Smithfield shouting, “Open up all fire suppression valves and flood every compartment! Flood every section and compartment!”

John Thomas Carter, captain of the U.S.S. Farragut, leaned against the rail in shock, “How could I have been so wrong!? How could I have been so wrong!?”

Before the young captain could do anymore, there was another massive explosion from just behind him. Some shrapnel from the exploding Bonaventure-class Federation Starship had just slammed into the Farragut‘s bridge.

A column of fire belched across the bridge and Carter could hear the horrible sounds of crewmen screaming as the flames engulfed some of them. John slowly turned around to look at the scene of carnage before him, when another piece of shrapnel crashed into the bridge again.

The Farragut’s bridge was now exposed to the vacuum of space and there was a loud roar as the pressure escaped from the ship.

The force was so tremendous that it even blew John Carter completely off the higher level of the bridge and away from the science station completely….

….and suddenly, Carter could see the burning Farragut still moving forward slightly.

And then, an instant later, one of the twelve Constitution-class Federation starships that, had at first, proudly survived more than one five year mission in its time of service, exploded in a giant fireball.

The U.S.S. Farragut disintergrated into debris and the bodies of its crew, human and alien, shattered in the airless abyss of space, itself.

For what seemed like an eternity, but what was only a matter of a few minutes, there was a silence of stunned horror as the fireball dissipated, to be replaced by the sight of nothingness where the Farragut had once been….

John Thomas ‘Jack’ Carter suddenly found himself walking outside on the sand of some unknown planet, wearing his black leather boots. Physically, he looked sick and starving, with his body wasting away, his teeth rotting, and his command gold uniform and black pants hanging in filthy tatters over his pasty flesh.

He looked up at the blue sky and puffy white clouds above. Then he looked ahead and saw something quite out of place.

Suddenly appearing before him, he saw a judge in a bright red cape standing in front of twelve people dressed in black.

A judge that bore a strong resemblance to now ex-Commodore Richard Broughton.

Richard Broughton was on track for advancement to the Admiralty until an incident involving Jack Carter ended any further chance for promotion. Although details of the incident remained a mystery to some, he had clearly fallen out of favor with Starfleet Command; relegated to duties and other various responsibilities well below those that would normally correspond to anyone holding the rank of commodore. Broughton continued to hold a significant grudge against Carter; having vowed to do whatever it took to ruin the career of the captain of the Farragut.

All of that resentment because Carter had discovered an illegal shipment of alcohol, that had been sanctioned by Broughton, himself.

If the real Broughton could see me now, Jack thought, resentfully and mentally exhausted. He would be satisfied that he got his wish!

“You know the charge!” the judge shouted at Carter.

“I’m innocent,” Carter responded in return. “I didn’t kill my crew! I’m not responsible for what had happened!”

“That is quite true!” the judge bellowed. “But your real crime has nothing to do with the death of your crew!”

Carter stopped in his tracks. “Well, then! What is it?”

“Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit!” the judge pointed an accusing finger. “I accuse you of incompetence!”

Carter looked down at the sand before him. A forlorn expression on his bearded features.

“Guilty,” he said, softly.

“The penalty for which is death.”

“Guilty…guilty….guilty…”

Carter acknowledged the verdict sadly and began walking away.

A starship captain was required to be responsible for the actions and conduct of the crew under his command.

And like Ron Tracey, he had failed them.

As he walked away, the scene shifted to that of him riding in a hovercar in some city. He was cheered on by a band and crowds waving the flag of the United Federation Of Planets. Crowds consisting of humans, Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, Edoans, Caitains, Rigellians, and other member species of the Federation.

And suddenly, the scene stopped with a freeze frame-like motion.

Carter then found himself in a yard of some type. He looked and saw both Robert Tacket and Michelle Smithfield, alive and waiting for him. John immediately began running down the tree-lined path in silent slow motion towards his two close friends. A narrow street lined with some gothic, ornate, and rustic architecture. From the points crests of the buildings above, down to the cobblestone streets below.

It all seemed like he was in Hondarribia, Spain on Earth. Or Marseilles, France in the 1930’s.

By the time he approached them, he stopped and stared at them in ghastly shock and horror.

Both Robert and Michelle had pale skin and black-rimmed eyes.

Tacket’s throat and his right knee had been slit. The right side of Michelle’s forehead had been blasted by the sharp impact of an ancient rifle’s bullet.

They were not alive, and it was he who was dead.

“You’re dead,” Carter spoke in slow, garbled speech.

The image of Tacket and Smithfield, let alone his surroundings, were replaced by a white realm.

And that realm was soon gone and replaced by the following images and surroundings that unfolded before Carter. Some of places that were shoddy, dilapidated, filthy, shoddy, smoke-filled, pot-holed, and industrially outskirted. Others that reminded him of the greenery of Virginia, itself.

It was enough to snap John Carter awake, as he rose up quickly, almost sick at the grisly memory that was slowly fading from his mind.

The memory dimmed and faded into the darkened pits of his subconciousness.

Carter looked over at the rectangular viewport a short distance away from his bed and cast an idle glance out at the stars. He then leaned forward to bring his face closer to the transparent aluminum, and looked out upon the Milky Way and the naked universe.

Billions upon billions of suns blazed before his eyes. For nearly eight hours his eyes had been closed. They had adapted to almost absolute darkness. Now he gazed in awe upon the unblinking heavens. The universe seethed with light. He knew he looked upon more than lights in the eternal vastness of space. His gaze swept the cold, eternal light of gleaming stars, the great wheeling galaxies light years away, smudges of glowing nebulae, and the uncountable billions upon billions of suns.

His practiced eyes separated the glints of red, the soft pulses of yellow, the gleam of blue and white, and blazing heart of colorless stellar fires.

He then looked over at a bluish-green crystal statue that rested on the dresser near his bed. And a leather bound book entitled The Bells Of Thon. A book about two mythological figures named Bennu and Aiwaz, who fought for control over a world. Both were reminders of his visit to the planet Aurica and its moon Eldebran. One of two planets located near Tau Ceti where nations, politics, war, and disease were no part of the structure of the planet’s society, and evil-almost totally eradicated.

The second planet – Quadris – was a world that had been devastated in a conflict between two nations that once inhabited that world. The D’Hai and the Olan.

Aurica was an exquisitely perfect world of rich forests and seas, of elegant cities, and perfect human society, where the magical laws of harmony with the world were completely achieved. This was not merely a bland, dream-like state of contentment, but a highly practical way of life. The Auricians were brilliant in all fields, in architecture, the arts, scientific knowledge, as well as being completely unified in their religious, magical life. And this perfection had endured for ages.


Once, Carter and his friends Jason Preminger, Ward Frazier, and Rachel Helphin – fellow Starfleet Officers – had visited the great forest of Donyx, an immense wilderness on the edge of the largest city of the planet’s Elvine continent. The heritage of the humanoid inhabitants in that region of Aurica was both cultural and metaphysical. The wisdom of natural abilities bringing them in harmonious accord with their environment and the living beings around them. Some of the inhabitants lived with animals and birds, actually learning traits of the beast such as biological defenses and more efficient sensory uses. In turn, the creatures of the forest learned to communicate with humanoid beings and developed certain human traits such as reasoning and wit.


On Aurica, music had become far more than pure entertainment. It had become a super science. The elders of that world had long known that the processes of creation and construction were all dependent upon the vibrational power of tone. To them, music was a sacred science and sound is the building blocks of all physical manifestation. To the Auricians, the future development of their race must be toward a harmony of the galaxies, and the new music born out of their mastery of sonics had become a tremendous factor in lifting the consciousness of man into a true perception of the need for that

universal harmony. It was in that spirit that many were left as seedlings on other planets, their knowledge of energies and the power of music and tone to be used as a catalyst to lift primitive life forms on other planets to a higher level of attainment.

It had been a wonderful visit. Almost as wonderful as when he visited the Kentucky-Virginia border on Earth in his youth.

After a moment, he lied back down in his bed, staring up at the ceiling.

A lot had happened to Carter and his crew in the past several months that made him re-evaluate a few issues.

One in particular involved the transporting of the nektos plant to the Federation farming colony on Sironos IV. A rare plant that could not be cloned, and would not grow and propagate unless in a very specific environment. The only one left in the galaxy and the only alleged to be the key to the cure to

Freydox Syndrome.

An affliction that his now dead father, Dr. Gene Carter, had suffered from. Someone who was allegedly absent during his son’s earlier life.

You should have seen me at my high school track meets! he had accused his father. It took you twenty years just to reconnect! Why didn’t you turn to Mom for help?

She would have poured everything in to me and my work, he had told his son.

All of this happened, when the Farragut had run afoul of a Romulan Bird Of Prey on a failed tactical maneuver. And had fatally encountered a cloaked Romulan supersoldier that had run amok on the surface of a nearby planet in the Caecilia Prime system. A planet, in a system with one red giant star, within the Romulan Neutral Zone, where the Romulan starship’s cook had met a tragic demise. As did Ensign Laurel Anderson.

Even after Doctor Carter revealed his condition to his son, Jack had foolishly maintained his distance and standoffishness. He had come across as a petulant child holding a grudge.

And it cost him greatly.

The only family members that had remained close to him were his cousin Joann and her two sisters, Angela and Johanna, and all three were now dead. Angela was killed aboard the U.S.S. Constellation when a giant robot ship killed Commodore Matthew Decker, his crew, and then destroyed his ship. Ironically Joann, who was stationed on the U.S.S. Excalibur, was killed along with the rest of the ship’s complement during what were supposed to be simulated war games against the U.S.S. Enterprise and the M-5 computer. Her sister Johanna was the victim of a virus carried aboard the U.S.S. Exeter from the planet Omega IV. Surprisingly, Carter’s other distant relative was also the Exeter’s Chief Medical Officer. He too, suffered the same fate as Johanna.

He missed them and often felt totally alone without there presence.

Jack Carter always dreamed of space. Since his childhood, thoughts of exploration and discovery had filled his imagination. He was accepted to Starfleet Academy a full year before finishing Secondary school, and graduated six months early, near the top of his class. He volunteered for his first assignment to be along the Klingon border in a scout ship, knowing the dangers associated with such a posting.

The young, ambitious officer had seen more combat, and been involved in more “First Contact” situations than most officers twice his age. With each new promotion, he had moved from ship to ship optimizing his opportunities for experience and recognition. His unorthodox methods had earned him the opportunity to become the second youngest person to sit in the Captain’s chair, as part of a new Starfleet program to expand the fleet (which meant they would need more qualified Captains). Unfortunately, his methods also had left him with little time for family and friends, despite being known for his “amorous” ways with women.

Despite his cavalier attitude, he understood the rigors of command. To best temper his judgment, he had surrounded himself with his longtime best confidants and closest friends: Commander Robert ‘RT’ Tacket and Lieutenant Commander Michelle ‘Mike’ Smithfield. Jack served with RT for several tours of duty on other ships, and met Mike during his last tour of duty on the U.S.S. Potemkin. RT and Mike had also become fast friends. When they were all off duty, they could be seen talking or playing cards either in the Captain’s quarters or in the Recreation Lounge.

Most of the crew was aware of the close relationship between these officers.

Jack hand-picked his friends to serve on his first command, but Starfleet positioned other key officers in place despite his protests including an equally ambitious Communications Officer, a young and space-inexperienced doctor, and promoting a security officer from Captain Emilio Alvarez’ command to be Jack’s Chief of Security(who would later transfer to the Enterprise). He did not know those other officers well, and was leery of their qualifications and experience.

Jack had never been a by-the-book officer, and tried to take on too many tasks by himself. He had been known to work himself to exhaustion, and wasn’t very accepting of criticism or advice from others; those were traits he would need to adjust if he was going to maintain his position as Captain.

After what happened on both Proteus IX-B and Proteus IV, he wondered if he was still going to maintain such a position and rank.

****

The mind is an amazing thing, decided Michele Smithfield, especially the way it can shut out grief, learn to cope, and go on with the obligations of life.


Now it seemed so unfair to have suffered all these years without someone special at her side, when his mere presence brought such bliss. She could almost forget the dark cloud that hung over the
Farragut and her shipmates.

Even though the damage has been done to the Farragut and her crew.

Michele was a technically savvy Engineering officer who loved to tinker with the ship and was continually improving its efficiency(she secretly considered the vessel to be her “baby!”)“Mike” as she was called by her colleagues(Missy by her family), had high aptitudes for mathematics, mechanical engineering and warp propulsion.

Though she was very serious about her work, the losses she had experienced had given her strength of spirit and belief in a greater meaning in life. She was a yoga master, had a tremendous love of music and art, and wanted to learn to play the piano someday when she had the time. She had a dry sense of humor and a touch of sarcasm especially when under pressure.

The daughter of Liam Norman Smithfield(a Professor of Theological Science at Oxford University)and Margaret Frances McAllister-Smithfield(her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was only twelve), she had one sibling(an older sister who had three children)and two nephews and a niece. The children were, as she believed would be the nearest thing to motherhood she would ever experience.

Smithfield was married briefly in her mid twenties, but her husband, Ian, was killed in an incident by the Klingons.

She got along well with men and seldom got into power struggles with male officers; however Jack Carter had a special knack for pushing her go-nuts button on occasion. Still her respect for him; and loyalty to him was profound as long as he stayed out of her engine room.

She also wished that Starfleet Command had stayed out of the Farragut’s business during the aftermath of the Proteus IV disaster.

“Seven more?”

Robert James Tacket (R.T. to his friends), first and science officer of the Starship Farragut, bolted out of his seat, his eyes wide. Across the table sat Michele Renata Smithfield, the ship’s chief engineer. Her green eyes normally showed great empathy for the plight of others, but now they just looked tired

and frustrated.

Tacket’s hand rubbed his chin, stroking the freshly shaved skin that had been subjected to the use of his razor recently. The slightly overweight, brown-haired(yet graying), blue-eyed, older man ran a hand over the small bald spot behind his head. The wise senior member of the Captain’s staff was a highly

proficient Science Officer. Captain Carter and RT had served together on numerous missions where Carter used to report to Tacket. Carter selected Robert as his First and Science Officer when he was given command of the Farragut. The oldest male of four children, he was fascinated by all sciences and believed that a harmonious relationship existed between science and the spiritual realm (metaphysics).

However, in the back of the Captain’s wisest friend’s and confidant’s mind, the harmonous relationship that existed between Starfleet Command and the crew of the Farragut was anything but that.

As a matter of fact, it was currently turbulent and disrupted.

With a shake of his head, he looked at the datapad she had pushed his way. He already knew what it said, but still, to see seven more requests for transfer rankled. Rudy Solaris from engineering, Richard Lee from environmental sciences, Julia Gustaves from communications, relief helmsman Diego Rodriguez, P. Ellis from engineering, John Phillips from ship’s services, and relief navigator Kelly Bogle — all solid career officers, and certainly not the type Tacket ever expected to see request a transfer off the Farragut.

Especially where Kelly Bogle was concerned.

Bogle a Starfleet officer who served on the U.S.S. Farragut in the mid-to-late 2260s. Bogle stood three inches taller than John Thomas Carter and had a straight backed posture that made him look like the tallest man in the room. He had light brown hair that was never out of place. His straight back posture and consistent hair were an indication that Kelly Bogle followed the rules and regulations of the ship by the book.

Kelly Bogle had a few other traits. He could match John Carter drink for drink in any officers lounge in the Federation. And play poker with equal skill. He also loved to spin tall tales and did not believe in comraderie that one Captain James Tiberius Kirk believed in. Bogle worked with sheer determination, rigid discipline and a quest for perfection.

Obviously, due to the events that unfolded on Proteus IV, Bogle could no longer find perfection on the Farragut.

“They want to be on the best starship in the fleet…” Smithfield began, her voice soft and understanding.

“Which we are,” he said emphatically.

“Which we are, yes,” she echoed. “But the Farragut’s prestige has been damaged, its crew’s reputation tarnished. These seven want to avoid having their own careers derailed.”

A tarnishing that also prevented John Carter’s promotion to admiral and Tacket’s transfer to the U.S.S. Constitution as that ship’s new captain. Let alone a tarnishing that made the U.S.S. Exeter’s chief of security and communications officer revoke their request for temporary reassignment, while the Exeter had been in the nearest Federation spacedock for a four week systems upgrade.

It was entirely frustrating and degrading.

“Phillips was up for promotion, too,” Tacket said, sounding deflated. He was past being angry, but the hurt was still there, and he allowed it to creep into his voice. Around Smithfield he could be himself, slipping off the professional mask he wore among the crew.

“How many is that now?”

The red headed chief engineer shook her head sadly. “Eighteen in the last three months.” The transfer requests had begun trickling in right after the violent encounter with the old Bonaventure-class starship U.S.S. Polaris and its mercenary crew, led by one Vinz Mingola. An encounter that had led to the theft of some Federation property from the New Oklahoma City Spaceport on Proteus IX-B, the destruction of the U.S.S. Ajax, and a huge disaster thereafter that affected conditions on a third of Proteus IV’s surface. A disaster that annihilated the Holmes Educational Facility and cost the lives of several of the Farragut’s crewmembers. Jody Bollinger, Jameson Bray, Scut Johnston, Richard Welsh, John Devon, Jacob Marshall, Jerrold Friedman, J.C. Engle, Melissa Conway, and Casey Lloyd Cox were the unfortunate and ill-fated victims of that tragedy’s explosive, brutal, and violent aftermath.

The thought of Bollinger and Bray made Tacket recall that Bollinger and Bray had been romatically involved at one point. Only for that relationship to sour due to personal circumstances, and leading Bollinger to having an affair with one Thomas Schroeder.

The entire crew of the Farragut was aware that Captain John T. Carter had tried everything in his power to stop Mingola, despite the disaster that unfolded on the Federation Colony. Mingola had managed to escape, but was later found and killed(along with the rest of his crew)by Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The Enterprise had uncovered an operation that involved former Commodore Richard Broughton, Section 31, Mingola and his crew, and the recent destruction of Elba II. An operation that would have nearly inaugerated a war between the United Federation Of Planets, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan Star Empire.

Thankfully, that operation had been thwarted. Mingola and his crew perished when he had set the Polaris to self-destruct. Broughton had been placed under arrest for his involvement. And some illegal weapons experimentation had been brought to light before the hierarchy at Starfleet Command. Plus evidence of Mingola’s involvement with The Orion Syndicate. A crime organization created by the Orions and one of the most notorious in the Alpha Quadrant, the Syndicate was described as an active trading network, that functioned as a plutocratic republic, lead by Orion merchant lords. Its trade stretched beyond Orion space and beyond the limits of space explored by the Federation.

Other evidence pointed to Mingola’s involvement with a certain arms dealer by the name of Bok Lazloff. One whose reputation was also well known. Especially where he had helped supply weapons to a group of mercenaries, led by one Oro Drexel, who specialized in political assassinations. A league that had held a code of honor when dealing with those who were responsible for the death of one of their own members.

In a way, justice had been served for the fatalities of the New Lawrenceburg, New Covington, New Adeplhi, New Silver Springs, and the New St. Mary’s colonies that were along the outer fringes of Federation territory. Five colonies that were also obliterated by Mingola and his mercenary crew. Mingola was trying to carve out his own territory and impose his will. Yet, he was not destined to be some ruler because of various reasons. A cold-blooded opportunist, Mingola saw the Cold War between the Federation and the Klingons, and the political issues with the Romulans as an advantage to fulfill his own visions of power, glory, and control. Driven by his insatiable lusts, he executed his plans – and his enemies – with the same flint-edged coldness. His only weaknesses were inflexibility, ego, personal spite, and petty vendettas.

What galled Tacket the most was the notion that despite everything Jack Carter had done for Starfleet, Command tallied up only the black marks, never really bothering to weigh them against the successful missions.

To some of the admirals, Carter was increasingly a liability — an inconvenient reminder of the ideals they too had sworn to uphold.

Admiral R.H. Simmons was one of those admirals. He had been quite outspoken in his opinion regarding both Carter and Tacket concerning the disasterous outcome of the Proteus disaster. Even going so far as to state on record that both Carter and Tacket were ‘officially dogmeat’ as far as he was concerned.


Even his assistant, the now dead Commander Michael Dalton, had gone so far as to describe the
Farragut and her crew as a ‘gated community of the damned run by those with segregationist tendencies and high school-clique mentalities’.

And now this. Banishment to the hinterlands was Carter’s only reward for steadfast courage and integrity. No wonder people wanted off the ship. Tacket had privately hoped that the crew would remain intact, thumbing their collective noses at the faulty reasoning of their superiors, but with hundreds of people aboard the starship, unanimity was virtually impossible.

He had to take comfort in the knowledge that those closest to Carter remained unfailing in their loyalty.

“How quickly do they want off? Is it worth my time talking to them?” Tacket asked.

“You might have a chance with Phillips, since this will delay her chances at promotion. You just need to assess which is more important to her: Advancement on a tainted ship or a fresh start.”

“We’re not tainted,” he said with some heat.

“To us that’s true,” she agreed. “But not to everyone.”

Tacket held the padd, his thumb rubbing against the smooth, black metallic side. He pondered the choice, trying to imagine the thoughts in the younger woman’s head. It occurred to him he didn’t know Phillips all that well, just that she was petite and had an outsized laugh. Of course, he couldn’t possibly know each crewman equally well, but he was having trouble coming up with details on this crewman, only that she was due for promotion within the year.

He quickly accessed her service record. Scanning her accomplishments, he was reminded why she had been placed on the recommendation list. She had helped write new programming for enhanced long-range sensors in addition to coming up with new safety systems to protect the core during red alert situations. Her initiative and wide-ranging talents had caught everyone’s eye. The reviews were quite good, which Tacket had come to expect from the entire crew under his watch.

“She’s worth a shot,” he mused.

“Oh?” Tacket immediately detected the playful tone in Smithfield’s voice.

“Well, she is single and kind of cute,” he continued, rising to her challenge.

“And that’s enough for you?” Smithfield teased. “That laugh of hers is a bit much, isn’t it?”

“Well, it might get annoying in a closed space,” Tacket admitted, leaning closer to her. She leaned back against him, and her touch warmed him a bit.

“Annoying? Deafening is more like it,” she said.

“You could sway me away from her,” he offered, his hand reaching out for hers. She took it, and their fingers intertwined.

“I thought we were past the beginning,” she said, the flirtatious tone suddenly gone. Her eyes glittered bright.

“Oh we are,” he said softly. “We haven’t been at the beginning since I first met you at Bednar’s Place.”

Tacket thought back to that memory for a brief moment and then returned his attention to the issue at hand. “I will speak with Phillips and try to convince her to stay. But for the sake of my ears, I’ll talk to her in the recreation center.”

Smithfield gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze. Tacket returned his attention to the padd and frowned as he scrolled down to the next set of names. He then studied them intently, his eyes narrowing.

Finally, Smithfield asked what else was wrong.

“We’ve been assigned more crew,” he said in a flat, disapproving tone.

“They do that, you know,” she said.

“When has Starfleet ever had to assign us crew? In all these years, people used to compete for assignments. And now we’re getting castoffs. Look at the first officer’s note on York’s file.”

He pushed the padd toward her, and she quickly thumbed to the transporter technician’s file. She read a few lines, and her frown began to match Tacket’s. The padd fell to the tabletop with a loud clatter, and she looked across to her friend. “Two disciplinary reports in a year, and all they can say is he has a difficult time following protocol. There’s more to it than that.”

“And we get him.”

“I’d like to say they sent him here because they knew we could turn him around, and maybe a year ago that would have been true.”

“But today,” Tacket continued, annoyed, “we get him because Captain Nelson doesn’t want the headache.”

“We can still work to make him better than he is. We can still do good work,” Smithfield said emphatically.

“Sure, we can work with him. You and Galway won’t put up with York’s attitude, so he’ll either do it our way or he won’t be on any starship in the future. The point is, we can’t afford to become the prime dumping ground for Starfleet’s entire population of malcontents.”

“And we haven’t,” Smithfield insisted. “Most of them will still go to the Excalibur.”

The thought of that sister Constitution-class starship reminded Smithfield of her captain’s recent involvement in some illegal operation concerning standard issued Starfleet footwear. Something that earned Captain Thomas Nelson a reprimand on his record.

She rose and moved to the food processor for a fresh cup of green citrus tea. After all her years on the Farragut, she had finally developed a taste for certain blends.

“Anyway, not everyone coming to us is a troublemaker,” she stated. “Some have genuine problems.”

“Problems will do that to some people,” Tacket noted, concerned but unsurprised by the summation.

She returned to her seat, blowing across the top of the steaming mug.

“We’re all stretched so thin in terms of personnel, material…well, everything.”

“Someone in particular you’re concerned about?” he asked softly, hearing genuine curiosity in his own voice. “What’s the issue?”

“We met only once,” Smithfield admitted. “But my impression is that she took this posting to run away from the memories. She does her job well, from all indications, but she isn’t making connections with the rest of the crew.”

“And you’re worried.”

“And I’m worried. I intend to spend some time with her while we’re not going anywhere.” Immediately she regretted the words, he could see from the expression that flitted across her face. He hadn’t become a successful cardplayer without learning how to read others. Still, he winced at the notion that he was still serving aboard a technological marvel that was merely updating stellar cartography charts.

“We’ll finish this tomorrow,” he said shortly.

He strode out of Smithfield’s office and immediately quickened his pace to keep up with the hustle caused by the approaching shift change. The first officer never ceased to marvel at how busy the Farragut…could be even when there was no meaningful mission to perform. The starship was truly a small town filled with every type of inhabitant. Its people might be caught up in their own lives and careers, but they still served their captain. They were never less than professional, and even though there were grumblings about the galactic politics in play, they were in this together.

Well, mostly, he considered, remembering he had just approved the departure of two crew members from this town. And he was still uncertain if he could, by some miracle, convince the third to remain.

****

Chief Wayne Galway finished scanning codes for a supply requisition, looked over the figures on the screen, and hit the submit button. Despite the size of the universe, he noted, there was some comfort in knowing the starbases and supply depots all worked from a common framework of various parts and corresponding numbers.

Galway was an easygoing man who knew his job and did it well. He had little use for the strict rigidity of Officers, and often found humor in watching Junior Officers who did not “know the ropes” break character from grimly hustling about in their daily routines and interactions. He had been in Starfleet all of his adult life. The first few years of his career were spent serving on security details aboard various Saladin Class Starships. It was during his off duty hours that he developed an aptitude for electromechanical systems while assisting his shipmates in the Engineering Department. He applied for a “Basic Engineering” course for Enlisted Personnel at Starfleet Academy, and was accepted.

During his time at the academy, he met and befriended a young female Midshipman named Michele Smithfield.

Upon graduation, he was temporarily assigned to Starbase Seven and eventually transfered to the Constitution Class Starship, U.S.S. Defiant (NCC-1764), where he and Smithfield served together for several years in a highly successful working relationship.

After completing his tour on the Defiant, he was transferred to the U.S.S. Potemkin(NCC-1657)where he met Commander Jack Carter and Commander Robert Tacket.

When Smithfield was posted as the Chief Engineer of the Starship Farragut under Carter, she requested Galway as one of her leading technicians. Carter and Tacket, both knowing Galway and his abilities, agreed with Smithfield’s request.

And at the moment, Galway’s talents were seriously needed the most in the issue at hand.

Normally, the starship could count on receiving the supplies from a nearby supply ship along its patrol route since they were not critically required. At least, not yet. He surveyed the staff arriving and handing off assignments. Like the engines that thrummed beneath his feet, Galway took pride in how well his staff operated as a team. When he was assigned to the Farragut, he had seen to it that his people learned how to perform several functions and could work together both when things were calm and during a crisis. Being transporter chief will teach you a few tricks. As a result, whenever the Farragut had trouble, his crew knew what to do without panic. In fact, after the mission to Diotama III, he was asked to lecture at a symposium on crisis management.

While he expected the room to be filled with fellow engineers and transporter chiefs, there were as many captains and first officers in attendance. The Farragut had been in operation for over ten years, and it had been through some tough battles, so it didn’t surprise the bald transporter chief that certain critical systems had worn out ahead of specs and needed early replacement. As one of the twelve Constitution class starships of the fleet, the Farragut had covered more space and suffered more wear and tear than the average ship. Its missions were more important, more dangerous…until recently. These last few months had weighed on the veteran officers, the ones used to running from assignment to assignment, coming to live as much on coffee and adrenaline as on well-balanced meals.

The stultifying routine was harder still on the some of the newer crew. They had graduated from the Academy with their heads filled with stories of glory and action, and then they arrive and…patrol. Galway had been in space long enough to understand why things were the way they were, but no one expected him — or the others — to like it.

“Here are the inventory reports you requested.” Seska answered. Now a lieutenant, the Vulcan had served in Starfleet for nearly a decade, including an earlier stint aboard the Potemkin, and Galway was glad to have him on board. He was gifted in propulsion theory and seemed always to find ways to coax more power from the impulse engines. Galway took the padd and the figures confirmed his suspicions.

Nodding thanks to his assistant chief, Galway returned to his station, ready to call the main regional quartermaster rather than send another request.

And decide on a course of action that he had been thinking about since the disaster at Proteus IV.

****

The bridge’s colors were like that of the other twelve Constitution-class starships. Simple, primary, tantalizing, and efficient.

Appointed in black here and there, the glossy black consoles were rimmed in a single line of red, and the lights and switches were clear and attractive. On the viewing trunks, the squarish monitors with their beautiful pictures of near-space, the bright cherry red bridge rail in contrast to the blue-gray aisle and bulkheads, the soft lighting, and the bright colors of the crew uniforms all seemed to be in a mythical embrace. The bridge smelled fresh, clean, and ready. The maintenance crew had just come through at the change of watch. The carpet and floor was refreshed, the usual dusty residue and shavings of the general activity had been whisked away, and the interiors of all of the computer access trunks had been scored.

The bridge of the starship Farragut looked brand new and ready to handle anything.

Watching his officers leave and arrive, John Carter sat in the command chair and fought the impulse to fidget.

Normally the spiky brown haired, brown eyed, wiry young captain walked freely about on the bridge, but recently he had started forcing himself to spend longer periods of time in the chair as a visible symbol that he was not cowed by the indignities heaped on his crew — and himself — by Command.

Instead, he would be seen by all who had business on the bridge and wouldn’t let his frustration show.

But he was frustrated, and he disliked the gnawing feeling. Starfleet Command had as much as admitted that the Farragut would not take on any high-profile assignments until tensions throughout the Federation cooled and the incident at Proteus IV faded from memory. Never before had his career been so affected by public opinion, but during the strenuous rebuilding efforts in the wake of the disaster, Command needed to make sure support remained strong while the Federation struggled to clear up the mess.

And right now, support was lacking for both him and the Farragut.

A student of history, Carter knew full well how quickly a cheering crowd could turn into riotous rabble. Before that could happen, Starfleet Command had effectively banished the Farragut, sending it off on errands that smaller and less prestigious vessels usually handled. He was afraid their next assignment would be to provide escort for an S.C.E. ship on a routine repair mission.

Gripping the armrests of his chair a bit more tightly, Carter mentally replayed the incidents with the Polaris once more. He went through each of his command decisions and projected what would have happened had he done things differently.

As always, the imagined results were disastrous, even more disastrous than they turned out to be in reality. At least he had saved his crew and tried to prevent a situation from turning into worse one. But there were still prices to pay, more tangible ones beyond the bruises on Carter’s ego. Aside from Carter being passed over for promotion to commodore, Tacket lost the opprotunity to be in command of the U.S.S. Constitution.

Even Lieutenant Commander Paul Cutty and Lieutenant B’Fuselek of the U.S.S. Exeter had their orders for a temporary reassignment to the Farragut revoked by Starfleet Command. Both the African-American security chief and Andorian communications officer decided to stay with the Exeter until her upgrades on certain systems were completed. A Stage Four upgrade that took 5.6 weeks longer than both anticipated and scheduled.

And Admiral Simmons’ remarks about Carter’s integrity, and that of Tacket’s, still rankled him with resentment.

Even Commodore Alec Peterson’s statements only added insult to injury. Along with the reports of the Polaris being tracked for two months. And it making its way along the Alpha Quadrant, raiding outposts for valuables, supplies, and taking lives. The fifty-nine workers at the New Lawrenceberg Colony. Followed by the families at the New Covington colony. Then later the one hundred twenty-seven men, women, and children at the New Silver Springs science lab. Leading to the New Washington and New Indian Head colonies near the periphery of Federation territory.

Even though the Polaris was destroyed and her crew killed after a conflict with Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise, it still did little to ease Jack Carter’s troubled spirits. Especially the thought of Commodore Richard Broughton being charged and implicated in an attempt to inaugerate a war with both the Klingons and the Romulans. All in an act of revenge for the death of his wife.

It was no wonder that he had a bad dream about his father’s recent passing. Even the funeral had been an unpleasant experience.

But now…

Carter’s dark thoughts were abruptly banished by a chime coming from the right arm of his chair.

A beeping light indicated a communication from Starfleet Command, so by the time Lieutenant Alissa Moretti announced a message was coming in, Carter was already out of his chair. He crossed the bridge and stood next to the helm, his short pace increasing with only one step.

“On the screen please, Lieutenant,” he ordered.

The half-African, half-Italian immediately complied by tapping in Carter’s order into her console. Moretti, currently on her first assignment, enjoyed being in space. She was an explorer at heart and somewhat of a free-spirit (opened to new ideas and experiences). She was the ideal Communications Officer, having excelled in the Intergalactic Communications Diplomacy Course taught at Starfleet Academy. She graduated at the top of her class. She was extremely efficient, and her looks belied her intelligence. Because of this, First Officer Commander Tacket had hand picked her for the crew.

The starfield on the viewscreen was replaced by a blue background with the UFP symbol. The blue field with the UFP symbol was quickly replaced by the visage of Admiral Jack Sheehan, a grey-haired officer Carter could barely remember. Quickly, he mentally sifted through the organizational chart and recalled that he was with Starfleet Intelligence.

“Captain Carter,” Sheehan said by way of greeting.

“Admiral Sheehan, good to see you,” Carter said, a professional smile playing on his face.

“Are you familiar with Rator III?”

“Yes, sir,” Carter responded, unfazed by the lack of pleasantries. “It’s a few parsecs from our position. It’s an inhabited planet that is along the Romulan side of the Neutral Zone.” That was all he recalled, and that only because it was mentioned on one of the newsfeeds he had read during the recent downtime between missions.

“Well, something has happened on that planet, and it’s partially our fault,” Sheehan said, his expression grim. His bushy, gray-streaked eyebrows looked like storm clouds over his blue eyes. “Even if that partial fault is over a century old.”

“I’m not certain I follow, sir,” Carter stated, puzzled by Sheehan’s last descriptive statement.

“I’m afraid it has to do with the relics of the Earth-Romulan Conflict of a century past, Captain,” Sheehan stated clearly. “And needless to say, the Romulans are also involved.”

“I understand,” Carter replied, although not liking what he was hearing. “What exactly is our assignment?”

“Normally, I’d prefer not to discuss it over subspace channels,” Sheehan stated. “However, given the nature of the circumstances, the issue is moot.”

Carter frowned as the admiral elaborated on the nature of the mission. It was important, to be sure, but it would be personally trying as well, for one member of his crew in particular.

“You do realize the position this puts me and Commander Tacket in,” Carter said, when he finally could get a word in.

“I’m not worried about you and Tacket. Both of your issues have been considered,” was all Sheehan would say.

Knowing it would be unwise to press the point, Carter changed the subject. “This is a higher profile mission than the last few,” he noted. “Are we being unleashed?”

Sheehan paused before replying. “Actually, this is a dangerous mission. We’re going to look bad regardless of how it turns out. Just how bad we look is in your hands. You’re to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Saratoga in sector one six zero seven, immediately. The Saratoga will be carrying someone from Starfleet Intelligence. He’ll brief you when he arrives. “

“Very well, Admiral,” Carter replied neutrally. “We’ll lay in a course immediately.”

“Starfleet out,” was the only reply, and the screen shifted back to the image of the starfield ahead.

The forty-one year old starship captain moved past the helm to the railing. He began to stare out the viewing screen at the infinite number of stars that filled his line of vision.

Carter stood there for a moment and let everything sink in. He returned to the captain’s chair and then tapped the comm button on the right armrest.

“Carter to Tacket.”

Instantly, the Farragut’s second in command replied.“Tacket, here.”

“RT, I’ve just received our latest mission packet. Please prepare to give the senior staff a presentation in thirty minutes.”

“Acknowledged.”

That accomplished, the captain once again focused on what was ahead.

This was not a conversation he was looking forward to, but one that he wanted to handle in private, before the rest of the crew learned of the new mission.

Sitting back in the center seat, Carter tried to figure how much time had elapsed since he last longed for a new mission. Certainly less than thirty minutes, and he was reminded once more that one needed to be careful about what one wished for.

****

Sheehan left his office and took the turbolift to the floor housing a private room.

Only admirals and commodores were given access to the space, filled with antique furniture salvaged from around the globe. The gleaming wood and brass always had a faint smell of polish, and voices were muted by the plush carpet found nowhere else in the headquarters building. It was a refuge away from staff, from cadets, even from captains light-years away.

The room was capable of holding only two dozen people at most, and usually had less than half that at any one time. However, it was a much desired refuge, and during the worst of times, it was where admirals and commodores could be found collecting their thoughts or just grabbing a quick nap whenever the time permitted.

He entered the sanctuary and moved with practiced ease past three other admirals seated in a large semicircle. He went straight to a sideboard, where he poured a generous amount of amber liquid into a cut crystal glass and then swirled it around three times. Traditional Scotch, there was nothing like it, as his father always used to say. He took one small sip, let it rest in his mouth for a full ten seconds, and then swallowed. The ritual complete, he turned to face the others, who were debating some point of legislation that had just been passed by the Federation Council.

Sheehan lowered himself into a comfortable wing chair and sipped in silence. The others — Admirals Komack, Fitzpatrick, and Fitzgerald — continued their discussion, with mere nods of their heads in acknowledgment of Upton’s presence.

Finally, Commodore Laura Grey, a raven-haired and beautiful sixty-year old woman responsible for technological development, asked Sheehan, “How was the mission received?”

“Carter’s a career man. He knows better than to complain.”

“It’s a pretty risky assignment. I wouldn’t want it,” Fitzpatrick admitted.

Sheehan smiled coldly at him. “That’s about what he deserves right now.”

“So, if he didn’t complain, what did he say?” asked Grey, the one with perhaps the most forceful personality.”What do you think? He brought up his and Tacket’s issues.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” said Fitzgerald. “With the situation having escalated, there are questions we need answered.”

He took another small sip of the aged Scotch and enjoyed feeling it travel down to his stomach. “There may be a flock questions that some don’t want to be answered. All the more reason why Starfleet Intelligence is sending one of their field operatives.”

“I’ll say this much,” Komack added, “there’s little love lost between Steven Chadwick and those two. They’ve barely spoken over the years, from what I understand.”

“But I do know Chadwick is a capable officer,” Fitzpatrick added. “Despite his negative opinions of Jack Carter and Robert Tacket.”

“And vice versa. But that is of little consequence, it seems,” Komack noted. “However, personal conflicts aside, Chadwick has proven to be a capable man. I do not fully understand why he has refused command.”

“Never had any interest, or didn’t want something less prestigious,” Grey guessed.

“Well, maybe this mission will force his hand,” Sheehan said. He ignored Grey’s look and admired the light reflecting off the crystal glass in his hand.

“If you feel that strongly, Jack, should the Farragut be the one for this mission?”

“Laura, I know you’ve taken Carter’s side in this,” Sheehan said, “but trust me, any officer who has been through what he has, needs to be watched. But yes, he’s closest, and he’s come through for us repeatedly on these political fiascos. He just needs to know we’re watching closely to make sure he doesn’t get himself into trouble. Again.”

Sheehan stifled the urge to roll his eyes at the disapproving glares that greeted his comments. Was he the only one there who could face the truth?

“All command officers get thoroughly evaluated,” Grey said. “Those found underperforming get reassigned.

“Et tu, Laura? Sheehan thought with disgust. “Oh for Christ’s sake, the man is reckless. Look how he mishandled the Proteus IV disaster.”

“Actually,” Grey interrupted, “he’s always put the Federation first. We might disagree with how he has handled his assignments — I certainly have – but in the end, he and his crew uphold our ideals. Better than most.”

“Good as Carter has been in the past,” Sheehan said unhappily, “right now we have to face the fact that he’s a liability. Member worlds have raised concerns with the Council, and it’s damaged our ability to function. At the first sign of trouble, we need to act decisively. I already have both the Enterprise and the Lexington on stand by, just in case.”

“After the Lexington’s last mission,” Fitzpatrick pointed out. “I doubt that Robert Wesley is anxious for another mission to the neutral zone. Especially since he is planning on retiring from service.”

Sheehan shrugged. “Maybe so, but we still need to be prepared.”

“With or without all the facts,” Grey noted archly.

“We let the facts speak for themselves,” Sheehan replied.

“Yet, you let him keep the Farragut,” Komack said, his voice deepening. “You kept his senior crew intact, and you’ve given him this diplomatic assignment. If the Council has concerns, why give him this? Especially with Steven Chadwick in the mix?”

“Stubborn and pigheaded is what Chadwick can be at times,” Sheehan said. “Nevertheless, a man of such virtue should be the one to rein Carter and Tacket in. It’s also a chance to see if Carter has learned anything these last few months.”

He purposely ignored the frown that marred Grey’s features.

**************

The Miranda-class starship U.S.S. Saratoga came along the Farragut’s port side, as both ship’s arrived at the rendezvous point. The Miranda-class was composed of a single primary hull, consisting of a saucer that was similar to that of the Constitution-class; however, the bridge module, positioned on top in the center, was shaped differently than the Constitution-class module.

Mounted on the underside of the primary hull were two nacelle pylons connected to the warp nacelles. Although the nacelles were visually identical to the nacelles used on Constitution-class, the tops of the nacelles were mounted to the pylons. On the Constitution-class, the pylons were mounted to the bottom of the nacelles.

Design features of the primary hull included a docking port located on the forward section of the ship; the aft section included two shuttlebays, separated by the vessel’s impulse engines. These shuttlebays were visually numbered; “1” being on the rear-port side, and “2” on the rear-starboard side.

The predominant Miranda-class design included a superstructure(or “roll bar”)immediately above the primary hull, as a dorsal extension of the ventral nacelle pylons. This superstructure was equipped with torpedo launchers and phaser banks.

While it did not look as powerful as a Constitution-class starship, it still looked as if it could handle a few situations entirely on its own.

****

Carter, Tacket, and Smithfield entered the transporter room, while Galway was manning the transporter console. After tapping a few switches, the smooth, bald transporter chief nodded at the three senior officers.

“The Saratoga signals that they are ready to transport our passenger over,” Galway spoke, dryly. “Commodore Ross sends his regards.”

Carter remembered the seasoned Starfleet officer. Glen Van Ross had seen more than his share of both exploration and battle. He admitted that command often weighed heavily upon him. The Commodore cared deeply for the people under his command and expected the best from each of them. Carter recalled that Ross had a passion for Blues music and rum. His guitar, Rosiland, was a very prized possession. His friendship with his current first officer dated back to their earlier Academy days. For both men, their friendship gave them an outlet to express what could not be shared with those under their command.

“Very well, Chief,” Carter responded. “Energize.”

As Galway complied with carter’s orders, Carter shook his head in frustration at the situation that had been dropped in his and ship’s collective laps.

“Starfleet is letting us out of the doghouse,” Tacket reflected. “And they send us on a secret mission. I’d like to know what this is all about.”

“That makes two of us,” Carter concured. “I don’t like the secrecy, either. But apparently Admiral Sheehan feels that we’re the only ship in the area to handle this assignment.”

“It sounds like Starfleet is putting us on probation,” Smithfield observed.

“It’s a probation that I can live without,” Carter confessed, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “All because of Vinz Mingola and what he did, that stain he put on us and the Farragut won’t ever get removed.”

“We’re stuck with it, Jack,” Robert stated, unhappily. “It would be great if Admiral Wainwright could convince the upper echelons differently.”

Carter knew that the bearded admiral was on their side, regarding the matter of their involvement in the Proteus IX-B disaster. Even though Wainwright coming to their defense and speaking on their behalf helped, it still was not enough to resolve matters.

Galway pulled the energizers back. His fingers, holding on to the slides.

As the transporter pads in the chamber energized, the familiar re-materialization process immediately went into effect. A tall young man with squared broad shoulders formed on the pad. A young man with rugged, coldly, and broodingly handsome features and wavy brown hair. Clad in a solid black uniform with a sunflower emblem on the right front breast, the hazel eyed young man had an aura about him of someone who was less than thrilled to be on the Farragut, and in the company of the Farragut’s three senior officers.

It did not take long for either Carter and Tacket to recognize the forty-two year old young man.

“Well,” Carter said, somewhat surprised and unhappy all at once. “I always wondered what munitions depot you would appear out of.”

“It’s been a long time, John-boy,” the young man said in a monotone voice. One that clearly indicated that he was just as surprised and unhappy to see Carter and Tacket. The young man also looked over at the Farragut’s second in command. “And how are you, Tackey? Still serving under John-boy, I presume?”

Smithfield looked over at her two close friends. “John-boy? Tackey?”

“Those are the nicknames that he branded Jack and I,” Tacket explained, who was equally not as happy to see the new arrival, either. “It goes back to the tour of duty that we had served on the Potemkin.”

“There were some good times,” the young man countered. “And some not so good. I’m amazed that you two wound up here.”

Before Tacket could say anything in return, Carter jumped in immediately to prevent the unpleasantness from escalating. “Mike, this is Commander Steven R. Chadwick. Commander Chadwick, this is my Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Commander Michele Smithfield.”

Chadwick nodded respectfully at Smithfield. “Ma’am.”

“Commander Chadwick is the former security chief of the U.S.S. Potemkin,” Carter continued. “He would go on to serve in Starfleet Intelligence after he was promoted. A master of covert operations, communications, and very bad relations. If the Alpha Quadrant were not so turbulent at times, he would no longer be serving on active duty.”

Chadwick grunted a little at Carter’s sarcastic remark, indicating that he was not entirely concerned with that unauthorized release of personal information.

“If the Alpha Quadrant were not so turbulent, John-boy,” Chadwick retorted with equal force. “You and Tackey, here, would be commanding either a freighter or a garbage scow. Chances are the latter. I’m surprised that after that disaster on Proteus IX-B, that did not happen.”

Michele Smithfield could tell that there was a lot of tension in the transporter room. Tension that anyone could cut with a phaser or an old fashioned cutting knife. There definitely was not any lost love between Carter, Tacket, and Chadwick. There was definitely a deep and mutual dislike that the three Starfleet Officers had. One that certainly had a proverbial stain of bad blood.

Neither Carter or Tacket were surprised that word had gotten around about the Farragut and her reputation being bismirched and ostracized. They certainly did not like it and they certainly did like the idea of their new visitor, regardless of their history, ‘rubbing it in’ so to speak.

“So what exactly brings you out here, Commander?” the title coming from Carter indicated that it was less than respectful. “Admiral Sheehan described some of the details.”

“If you’ll assemble your senior officers in one of your briefing rooms, Captain,” Chadwick’s tone was equally frosty. “You will have everything explained to you.”

Despite the mutual dislike Carter and Tacket had for Chadwick, both knew that the young man would explain everything and not hold anything back. Be it classified information or his own personal thoughts. In some ways, both grudgingly admired the young man for his direct and often blunt straightforwardness. A personality trait that Steven Chadwick was well known for. Chadwick did not ‘beat around the bush’ when it came to certain issues. He spoke his mind and he did not care about the consequences. Even if he were at risk of a general court-martial or close to insubordination.

It was that trait that made him an excellent security officer in the eyes of Captain Preston Wilcox(the captain of the Potemkin). Including the fact that Chadwick did not suffer fools gladly or lightly. As both Carter and Tacket recalled of the young man, he had the personality of someone that was either

loved or hated. There was no middle ground. It was the same in Chadwick’s viewpoint of others. If he liked someone, he would let them know. If he did not like someone, he would let them know. And he would not be a hypocrite about it.

This is going to be an interesting mission, Carter thought in a reluctant frame of mind. Aloud he said, “Very well.”

Carter walked over to the transporter console and tapped a button. “Carter to bridge.”

“Moretti, here,” came the communications officer’s response.

“Have the senior staff report to the briefing room in five minutes,” Carter ordered.

“Aye, sir,” she responded.

Carter tapped the button and indicated the door with his left arm outstretched. “As soon as the briefing room session is completed, I’ll have guest quarters prepared for you on Deck Six.’

Chadwick nodded. “I see you remember how I like to get to cases immediately. Lead the way, Captain.”

Another trait that Chadwick could be admired for, was his respect for the chain of command. Even though he did not like the person or thought that the person did not deserve the rank and privleges of said title, he still respected the rank that the person carried.

It was something that Chadwick often had a hard time struggling with when he had differences with those that he disdained immensely.

Carter immediately exited the transporter room, followed by Chadwick, and then Tacket and Smithfield.

Smithfield looked over at Tacket, who had an unpleasant expression on his features.

Tacket noticed Smithfield’s quizzical stare.

“It’s a long story,” Tacket said, in a grim tone of voice.

And it was a story that Smithfield could tell that he was not relishing in or looking forward to speaking about.

****

Dr. Christine Holley was a gifted surgeon who earned her reputation as a brusque, but incredibly efficient field medic before being posted to the Farragut. This was her first assignment on a Constitution class starship. Her work had earned her the position of Chief Medical Officer. She was most certainly up to the challenge, though she considered herself a doctor first and an officer second.

And like the rest of the crew, the auburn haired ship’s surgeon had been frustrated by the recent events that had all but tarnished and bismirched the Farragut’s reputation and her crew.

Recent events that had her thinking about some alternatives and other possibilities.

She looked over at both Helmsman Allen Baker and Ensign Roy Morris, who were seated at the triangular briefing room table. Both of the young men had also seen better days. If anything, they looked as if they had wanted to take a fully charged phaser bank to the people responsible for putting the Farragut and her crew in such a bad light.

“Any idea what this is all about?” Baker wondered.

Holley shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is that something has gone wrong on one of the Federation Colonies.”

“From the looks of it,” Morris speculated. “I’d say it was something really major.”

Morris was born in Burlington, Vermont and had been raised in Winter Park, Florida since he was five years old. He had been fascinated with starships ever since he gazed up at the stars as a young boy.

A third generation Starfleet officer, Roy Adam Morris knew early on in his life that he wanted to make history among the stars. He was so determined that he earned his shuttle pilot’s license at the age of fourteen. He continued the journey through Winter Park High’s Starfleet JROTC Program. It was during this time that Morris discovered the two loves in his life: 20th Century Earth History and Space Exploration. He excelled in Starfleet JROTC; becoming the main school’s Battalion Commander and Flight Leader of the Wildcat Squadron.

After graduating as salutatorian, Morris entered Starfleet Academy. During his academy years, he studied Federation and Earth History, as well as Starship Operations. Morris joined the Academy Flight Team as a freshman, becoming the youngest in his family to do so. After graduation, Morris served as a shuttle pilot aboard U.S.S. Lexington (NCC-1709).

His father, Commodore Gerald Scott Morris, was the Vice Commander of Starbase 20. His mother, Leah Amanda D’arbanville-Morris, was Professor of Earth History at the University of Florida. Roy was the eldest of three siblings. His younger brother, Charles, was a member of the Winter Park High’s Starfleet JROTC and younger sister, Amy, was a nurse onboard the U.S.S. Potemkin.

The years Crewman Allen Baker spent learning about starships had fueled his desire to join Starfleet. His love of science and engineering showed in his excellent academic record through his high school years, even though he was sometimes considered a discipline problem there. However, his skill with a phaser and his physical abilities earned him his first assignment aboard the U.S.S. Farragut, in security. Baker was more than willing to take such an assignment, if only to get a chance to show what he can do. Both Captain Carter and Commander Tacket had taken note of Baker’s recent accomplishments and intend to see that he got that chance.

The doors to the briefing room slid open and Carter entered, along with Chadwick, Tacket, and Smithfield in tow. Baker, Morris, and Holley stood up at attention, but Carter immediately motioned them to stay seated.

“As you were,” Carter ordered, taking a seat at the head of the table. Tacket and Smithfield followed suit. “This is Commander Steven Chadwick of Starfleet Intelligence. He is here to brief us on the details of the mission that we have been assigned to. Mr. Chadwick.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Chadwick replied, in a neutral tone. “To get to the heart of the matter, specifically, the Romulans have been conducting some very suspicious activity along the neutral zone. Activity that began almost after your mission near Cecilia Prime some time past.”

A painful memory for John Carter as far as he was concerned. Something that Tacket and Smithfield shared in.

Chadwick tapped a button on the table and the image of a binary star system appeared on the table’s tri-screen monitor.

“As you know, the Rator system is a binary one,” Chadwick began. “Rator A is a K class star with a magnitude of +3, which is ten times brighter than Sol. Rator B is a K class star. Rator III is the third planet in the Rator system. This planet is located along the Romulan side of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Basically, the survival of the planet’s entire population is dependent on the Farragut’s course of action on this mission.”

“One where we can risk neither miscalculation nor error,” Carter interjected.

“Precisely,” snapped Chadwick. “As you may recall from the Federation’s history, the Earth-Romulan conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels. Starships that allowed no quarter and no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship visual communication. And as a result of that war, there are still some remnants of it still in existence. Basically, the aforementioned weapons. Old style nuclear warheads that have been leftover from the conflict.”

Chadwick tapped another switch and the image of the red giant known as Cecilia Prime was immediately displayed. As was the planet where John Carter’s father had met his death, along with the Romulan cook and the Romulan super soldier that had ran amok.

“Starfleet Intelligence read your reports on the incident concerning the confrontation with the Romulan Bird Of Prey,” Chadwick continued the discussion. “Especially the details involving the deaths of Dr. Carter, Ensign Anderson, and the issues regarding the cure for Fraydox Syndrome. Judging from the unpleasant exchange between Commander Tacket and the Romulan Commander, it seems there was more of a reason why she demanded that the Farragut leave that solar system.”

“What reason is that?” Carter demanded.

“As it turns out,” Chadwick continued. “That planet orbiting Caecilia Prime housed a weapons facility left over from the Earth-Romulan Conflict a century past. All information regarding the facility, its location, and its primary function were deemed classified and top secret by Starfleet Command. Starfleet Intelligence, as well as Starfleet Security immediately looked into the location of such a weapons site. As a result, the head of both Starfleet Intelligence and Starfleet Security ordered the immediate retrieval and seizure of those ancient weapons. Plus any additional left over technology that was deemed vital.”

“And the Romulans have obviously obtained the knowledge of those weapons and their location?” Tacket inquired.

“More or less,” Chadwick answered. “During your mission at Proteus IX-B, the Romulans had implemented an immediate search of the surrounding systems within their side of the neutral zone. Later, they somehow detected locations of abandoned weapons on our side of the neutral zone. As a result, several of those nuclear weapons have been stolen out of their weapon silos. And if that were not enough, there have been reliable intelligence reports stating that some of these obtained weapons have been making an appearance on the black market. Weapons that even certain independent mercenaries or other factions would gladly like to get their hands on.”

“I thought those weapons were put out of commission after the conflict ended,” Smithfield spoke, finding what was described as unbelievable.

“There had been some discussion of that,” Chadwick explained further. “However, at the time, those in the early days of Starfleet were not going to take an unnecessary risk, should hostilities erupt again. As a result, the facilities and the weapons were not entirely dismantled. And now, apparently, the entire Romulan Star Empire wants to shift the balance of power in their favor by obtaining these left over weapons of mass destruction.”

The Farragut staff sat in silence, mentally taking in all of the information that had been made available and brought to their attention. And it was a lot of background history to take in.

“I should also point out that Rator III is also within striking range of several Federation outposts,” the young man pointed out. “At least thirteen colonies with minimal defenses in that sector of the neutral zone, alone. Nice, ripe targets for either a Romulan starship or a weapons facility to practice on.”

Tacket recalled how formidable and hostile the female Romulan Commander was. And it was an encounter that he had not forgotten. Especially, since both the Farragut and the Romulan vessel had sustained some serious damage.

“Judging by your report, Commander,” Chadwick said to Tacket. “You shouldn’t have towed that Romulan vessel out of the red giant’s corona and left it in orbit around that planet. You should have let the solar winds dispose of it.”

“I did what was morally right, Commander!” Tacket retorted, not appreciating the accusational tone that Chadwick had given. “And under Starfleet Regulations! I was also obliged to initiate rescue operations concerning the location of Captain Carter and his father.”

Carter raised his hand up to cease any escalating hostilities. “What exactly is the objective of our mission? Are we to locate and recover any of these weapons from these respective sites?”

“It is more than just that,” Chadwick confessed. “We’re to stop the Romulans from collecting and stockpiling these weapons. And here is another reason as to why the success of this mission is vital.”

Chadwick tapped another switch and the tri-screen viewer showed a computer generated image of the neutral zone. One that highlighted both Cecilia Prime and the Rator system.

“After the Federation Council had learned that Starfleet originally placed nuclear weapons on some of the Federation Outposts, aimed at several Romulan facilities a century past, they had learned recently from Starfleet Intelligence that the Romulan Praetor had proposed the idea of placing nuclear missiles on Rator III to deter any future invasion attempts,” Chadwick elaborated further. “During a session between the Praetor and the Romulan Senate, a secret agreement was reached and construction of several weapons facility sites began in an unpopulated area in Rator Three’s northern hemisphere.”

“So Rator III and its entire population is caught in the middle of this issue,” Smithfield determined. “Do the inhabitants of the planet know of the Romulans’ activities?”

“At the moment, they are unaware of what the Romulans are doing,” Chadwick replied. “But, they are beginning to suspect something. If they do uncover the truth, there could be an even bigger situation. To use an old twentieth century colloqualism, it could turn into a ‘dangerous game of chicken’.”

Chadwick tapped the final switch in the small row and the images on the tri-screen went blank.

“The Romulan preparations were noticed by Starfleet Intelligence, which tasked a Federation Starship with scanning the suspected area on Rator III, securing clear sensor evidence of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles on the surface,” Chadwick elaborated further. “The entire Federation Council has been considering a military blockade, calling the neutral zone “quarantined” for legal and other reasons. The Federation Council announced that it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered into the hands of the Romulan Empire, while demanding the dismantlement and return of Starfleet weapons to the Federation.”

“So on that note,” Chadwick concluded. “The Farragut is to locate and neutralize the Romulan Bird Of Prey that has been involved in the stealing and stockpiling of the ancient weapons. This Bird Of Prey has also been moving the weapons from Caecilia Prime to Rator III. Hopefully, such a tactic will send a strong message to the Romulans.”

“Or ignite another war between the Federation and the Romulans,” Smithfield noted. “Was this uninhabited location on Rator III ever inhabited at one point?”

“At one point it was,” Chadwick explained, tapping a button on the table. “And it is of the opinion of Starfleet Intelligence that the weapons are being placed in one of these structures, until the Romulans have completed construction of their weapons site installations.”

The tri-viewer screen came on again, and the following images were shown on all three small screens.

At first, it looked like a very old space port. One that Carter assumed was built upon craggy islands on some clear blue and sea-green ocean, surrounded by sheer cliff walls. Ones with landscapes that were profoundly disturbing and colors so dramatically dark. The subtle obscurity of the place almost seemed like a former quarry for volcanic rock.

Several rows of warehouses and storage facilities lined a dilapidated docking and landing area. Beyond, they could make out squarish structures that indicated a small residential community, while behind that, towering above the entire community was a large structure that Carter and Tacket immediately recognized as similar to a prison facility.

In an instant, Jack realized what purpose the buildings had served long ago when it had been an active part of the Colonial Frontier. A penal colony. The prisoners performed labor in this distant outpost so far from its home planet, and the results of their labor would be transported to the warehouses and docks for loading onto freighters surviving outposts throughout this system.

The very sight also made Carter recall some historical information from his memory.

Information concerning a form of justice involving the exile of undesirables and unwanted criminals to some barren wasteland in the eighteenth century.

Transportation to penal colonies began in 1614 when British convicts were sent to Virginia as an alternative to the death sentence. By 1790 the range of crimes had expanded and Australia’s Botany Bay replaced the newly independent Americas as the primary destination. Convicts worked as laborers for the government or private citizens. By 1850, penal philosophy favored prisons, and transportation was seen as an incitement to crime due to the booming economies of the colonies. In the twentieth century, the Soviet government in Russia sent millions of ordinary criminals, members of ethnic groups and political dissidents to brutal Siberian gulags (forced labor camps).

Devil’s Island (Île du Diable, off French Guiana, South America), the infamous French prison which housed political prisoners as well as the other criminals from 1852 to 1946, came to mind. The harsh conditions and disease ensured that few prisoners lived out their full sentence, and very few escaped. The harsh conditions became notorious after the Dreyfus affair in 1895. The prison was only formally closed years later in 1952.

As Carter recalled, it was a very effective form of criminal justice and punishment.

Indentured penal servitude. Serving as prisoners and then as colonists in a time period equal to that of their original and former sentence.

Decaying architectural structures consisting of ruined buildings with roofless cells and overgrown courtyards of a horrible and violent place of exile, which symbolized the futility of an entire escapade, was a sight to behold. The tragedy of anyone caught up in the empty colonial machine—became both obvious and crushing. It was as if no one had ever escaped from anything, because there was nothing there in the first place; some place left with empty and impotent buildings, dissolved in shafts of light.

The architecture of such incarceration, where the cells had bars instead of roofs, allowing prisoners to be watched from above by roving guards. A hell which meant that the cell could be “screened”(that is, its only source of light could be blocked for six months at a time), where prisoners were reduced to eating roaches and centipedes in the darkness. A place of confinement where the prisoners received their rations through a small hole near the floor, which popped open everyday at the sound of a whistle(there was no speaking allowed in the facility). A place of exile helpfully painted with the word SILENCE in black letters on the outside walls. A solitary wasteland where the prisoners had to lean forward and stick their heads through holes in the cell door for things like hair cuts and lice treatments—but also for occasional interrogations by the warden and his guards.

The Farragut’s senior officers determined that the section of the penal colony was an abandoned town square. Four decaying structures lined each side of a dirt road, suggesting that even at its prime, it had never reached a state of true development.

The largest structure on the left side of the street, like the backside of the buildings lining the town square, was just as dilapidated.

The warehouse complex, the small dwellings, and the massive doorway that Carter realized was close to the entrance to the main prison complex.

A disused penal colony, Carter noted in silence. A place once used for unwanted criminals and exiled undesirables. A wasteland for those to live their life sentences on.

“Back in the early twentieth century,” Chadwick recalled. “The United States Of America forced an embargo on the Japanese, concerning the latter nation’s involvement in their war with Indo-China. That embargo of the importing and exporting of raw materials led to the Japanese launching a surprise attack on the American Naval Facility in the Hawaiian Islands. Pearl Harbor suffered great casualties and major damage. Five years after that, the America Forces developed and dropped two nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that, the rest was history, concerning the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

“And now it looks as if we are about to fight to prevent a fight,” Carter stated, not happy about the situation. “You do realize what this really comes down to? Millions and millions of lives hanging on what my ship does next? Or fails to do?”

“I realize the situation does have its share of consequences,” Chadwick stated in a stony tone of voice. “Consequences that are dire for both sides. But the head of Starfleet Security is of the opinion that this situation represents a clear and present danger to the safety and security of various Federation colonies and facilities along the neutral zone. One that could permanently compromise our defense of that sector.”

“The question still remains is this,” Morris spoke. “After our last encounter with the Romulans, they almost did us in. We got very lucky by using that tactical maneuver with Caecilia Prime’s red giant. With those ancient weapons added to the equation, can we engage them with a reasonable possibility of victory?”

“Jim Kirk and the Enterprise crew managed to stop a Romulan Bird Of Prey some years past,” Carter recalled. “The odds are about the same. Despite the different set of circumstances that we are now faced with.”

“What about the weapons that are already stored on Rator Three’s surface?” Smithfield inquired. “What is to be done concerning them?”

“Starfleet Command has a weapons inspection team on stand by,” Chadwick answered. “They are currently at Federation Outpost Five, awaiting orders. Once the Romulan starship has been neutralized, they, along with an armed contingent of Federation Marines for protection, will be brought in to extract and recover the weapons. If necessary, destroy the weapons and the installation. In no way do those objectives interfere with the Prime Directive.”

The silence in the briefing room indicated that they were taking in the information they had just been told. And how shocked they were by what was on the line.

“What you do not know and must be told is that my command orders on this subject are precise and inviolable,” Carter began. “Unless it is absolutely necessary, no act of provocation Will be considered sufficient reason to violate the zone. We may defend ourselves, But if necessary to avoid galactic war, this vessel and her crew will be considered expendable. Dismissed.”

As everyone began to leave, Carter looked over at Chadwick. “Mister Chadwick, a moment if you please.”

Chadwick remained standing up while Holley, Baker, and Morris exited the briefing room. Carter, Tacket, and Smithfield waited until it was only the three of them and Chadwick, himself.

After a moment of awkward silence, Chadwick broke it.

“Is there something else that you wanted to discuss, Captain?” Chadwick inquired, his tone indicating that he would rather be someplace else.

“Just this,” Carter got to the point. “What is the real purpose of this mission?”

“You heard what I had to say about it,” Chadwick responded, rather annoyed. “I thought the orders were quite clear and specific.”

“I can read between the lines of those orders,” Carter stated. “And I know there is something else to this mission. I doubt if it has something to do with Starfleet letting us out of the doghouse or the neutralization of a possible Romulan threat.”

“I don’t know about the former,” Chadwick replied. “Even though I do know about the circumstances that led you and the Farragut to wind up in the position of persona non grata. But, I believe that you and Tackey over here know that I’ve always been brutally honest and revealing what the true nature of any mission is. To stop the Romulans from gaining the tactical upper hand with those weapons.”

“Some people change,” Tacket retorted, unamused.

“Maybe for some,” Chadwick did a slow burn. “But when it comes to my duty as a Starfleet Officer, that will not change. Be it my professional and personal ethics! Captain Wilcox always encouraged me to speak my mind. Even if my opinions differed from others. You two should know that by now. Especially after what happened not far from this region some two years past.”

Smithfield noticed the looks on Carter’s and Tacket’s features. Obviously, the young man had struck a nerve with the not so subtle reference that he had just given. And the reference was obviously one involving Carter and Tacket when they had served on the U.S.S. Potemkin as part of Captain Preston Wilcox’s senior staff.

“Being ordered to be a part of this mission was not my idea,” Chadwick continued.

“Nor ours,” Tacket stated.

“Nevertheless, we will all be serving together for this mission’s duration,” Carter stated. “And we do have concerns about its delicate nature.”

“Your concerns have been duly noted, Captain,” Chadwick’s sullen expression did not change. “You and Tackey know the routine as well as I do. You don’t have to worry about me. We’re stuck with each other. So let’s just get this over with as quickly as possible and we can go our own separate ways. Now, if you will excuse me.”

Chadwick turned on his heel and walked out of the briefing room before Carter or anyone else could say anything.

As the doors closed behind the Starfleet Intelligence Officer, there was another moment of painful silence. One that registered all three being taken aback by Chadwick’s surly gruffness.

“Dismissed,” Carter said, a bit ruffled by the unprofessional outburst made by Chadwick.

“What did he mean by what happened near this sector,” Smithfield wondered, her curiosity piqued.

“It’s a long story,” Tacket stated, with a trace of disgust in his gravel-like voice. `

“There was an incident that happened in the Testaf system two years past,” Carter explained. “The Potemkin was the closest Federation starship in the sector to help resolve that issue. And it was an issue that escalated into a near global disaster.”

“I think I’ve heard about that disaster,” Smithfield recalled. “Weren’t forty people killed?”

“Forty two,” Tacket corrected. “Including two of my Academy friends and a small group of newly graduated Starfleet Cadets.”

“My, God,” Smithfield said, a bit shocked.

“If that were not bad enough,” Carter recalled. “Some families and children were also killed. Including three of Chadwick’s officers.”

“Is that the reason why he doesn’t like you two?” Smithfield inquired.

“More or less,” Tacket admitted.

“I think it is more than just utter dislike,” Carter confessed. “It’s utter resentment he has for me and RT.”

“What happened exactly?” Smithfield inquired. “Bob had mentioned that it was a long story.”

“It was right after the Potemkin had transported life saving pharmacuticals to an infected planet,” Carter recalled. “The agricultural colony on Delta 5 Omega where the colonists had fallen under a basic viral form of fatigue known as a ‘mind diffusion’.

“I remember hearing about that incident,” Smithfield recalled. “Captain Wilcox had mentioned that it was the most physically demanding mission that he and the crew of the Potemkin had ever endured.”

“Captain Wilcox wasn’t joking in that last description,” Carter smiled a little, at the memory of his mentor. “That mission took its toll on me and RT as well. We were just thankful to get those life saving pharmacuticals to the colony’s administration before real trouble had set in.”

“Luckily,” Tacket stated. “There wasn’t any huge loss of life. What happened on the Potemkin’s next assignment made what happened previously look pale in the comparison of things.”

“What do you mean?” Smithfield asked.

“It was on the planet Testaf IV,” Carter explained. “A colony planet near the Neutral Zone. The landing party, including the captain, had beamed down to investigate a string of puzzling accidents that had plagued the colony’s power plant. The Administrator had been of the opinion that they were not accidents, but sabotage. Starfleet was unwilling to overlook any possibility so near the Neutral Zone, and sent the Potemkin to investigate.”

“What the investigation probe uncovered had been shocking,” Tacket recalled, frowning at the memory and the unpleasantness that followed in its aftermath. “And it confirmed a certain possibility.”

“Sabotage,” Smithfield deducted.

“Precisely,” Tacket stated. “And the strange thing about that incident was that the saboteurs were, in a way, justifiable in their actions.”

“Really?” Smithfield said, a bit surprised by that revelation.

“What it basically came down to was an issue that concerned the urban potential of land outside of the colony’s main metro complex,” Carter explained. “There was a dispute over whether or not the land should be cultivated for the farming of crops, or the construction of satellite facilities for those who lived outside of the main colony facility. Ultimately, that led to two factions fighting over what should be done. Before the situation escalated into a violent confrontation.”

“An environmental movement that escalated into something violent,” Tacket corrected. “Not just those who were environmentalists, but also those who had experience in the fields of conservation. The dispute led to a Beta Nine toxic spill, the annihilation of that planet’s rain forests, and the establishment of that planet’s equatorial chain of oxygen regeneration plants.”

“I remember studying the technical schematics of the ARS system,” Smithfield recalled. “The system was used on various planets that suffered ecological and environmental problems. The ARS system was only a supplement to the normal generation of breathable oxygen by a planet’s ecosystems. Factually speaking, the loss of one station would have no discernable impact on civilian lives.”

“Apparently, that’s the information that the saboteurs had to go on,” Carter recalled. “That equipment was also targeted and damaged by the saboteurs. It turns out that the saboteurs were an environmental terrorist group that felt that no more open land should be developed by the colony’s administration. They knew that taking out four of the ten air exchange plants would result in the fatal impact on the colonists lives.”

“So as a countermeasure,” Tacket recalled. “Captain Wilcox was ordered by Starfleet Command to send in Federation troops to resolve the crisis on the planet. A Prime Team known as the ‘Patriots’.”

A Prime Team was an elite group of five to ten personnel trained for a variety of roles. They had the full capabilities of a crew unit, of a boarding party, of a commando squad, of a heavy weapons squad, of a hostage rescue team, of a scientific research unit, and of a diplomatic negotiation team. Almost every Federation starship, as well as diplomatic transports usually had Prime Teams on board as part of their normal crew, with heavy cruisers having those on occasion only.

“The terrorists had seized control of a defense satellite weapons systems,” Carter explained further. “And were using its weaponry to obliterate the oxygen exchange plants. The Prime Team had managed to neutralize the satellite and later eliminate various members of the eco-terroist faction. Unfortunately, some members of the Prime Team were killed. Two were friends of Chadwick’s.”

“And obviously you and RT are a painful reminder of that mission,” Smithfield determined.

“It’s more than that,” Tacket groused, in a bitter tone. “He blames me and Jack partially for the deaths of some of those officers.”

“I’ll say this much,” Smithfield observed. “Your former shipmate reminds me of a domesticated wolf. There’s something wild about him that can never really be domesticated. He’s slightly dangerous, untrusting, and he has a certain look in his eye. He’s like a wolf I once saw when I was in New Mexico, and it was just incredible to watch him walk around that cage. They may not be looking directly at you, but they can sense everything that’s going on around them. There is no trust there.”

“That’s the way I see him, too,” Carter offered. “And that is why he has been successful at his duties. And why he has stayed alive all this time.”

“In some ways,” Tacket shook his head. “That incident almost mirrors some other social and political issues that caused some disruptions in Earth’s late twentieth century. At a time where it was considered an era of confusion.”

“That era certainly gave new meaning to cultural shock,” Carter stated. “A war-weary segment of the population gave in to mass public displays of absolute insanity in the name of peace and brotherhood. Just one of the many wild pendulum swings from one extreme to the other that our history is replete with, unfortunately. It’s not something any human with any intelligence is likely to brag about.”

“But that was three centuries past, Jack,” Smithfield reminded him. “There is no such primitive thinking like that in the twenty-third century.”

“Maybe,” Carter said, not quite convinced. “But its aftershocks have endured and lessened over the past three hundred years.”

****

Carter, Tacket, and Smithfield emerged from the turbolift to take the conn from Lieutenant Tia Logan, when Commander George Foster looked up from the science station’s sensor hood.

The older, coldly handsome gray-haired man in science blue diverted his attention from the sensor hood’s blue-white data readout to another display on one of the two small squarish monitors above. Tacket was soon standing behind him, while Smithfield seated herself at the engineering console.

“I’m detecting an unsual energy signature from the Dessica system,” Foster reported.

“What sort of energy signature?” Carter leaned forward in his chair, after immediately setting down in it.

Foster glanced up from his readout at the science station, then gazed over at both Carter and Tacket. “Thermonuclear.”

The lift doors opened to admit Chadwick onto the main bridge. Within seconds, he was standing next to Smithfield and the others at the science station.

Carter listened along with Smithfield as Robert Tacket made his report. On the console screen above was the readout of a star chart pinpointing a sun and its planets.

“Foster reported that it was very faint,” Tacket explained. “But I’ve isolated it to the second planet in the Dessica system.”

“What do we know about the planet?” Carter asked.

Tacket depressed a couple of computer keys and row of data information began to scrow down slowly on the screen’s right side.

“Dessica II was discovered and settled by Romulans in the year 1650 AD,” Tacket explained. “Their colonists found the terrain difficult and natural resources to be scarce. A further problem developed when contact was made with the aggressive Wawu civilization, a native humanoid species with a pre-industrial culture. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Romulans had abandoned their settlement.”

Tacket tapped another button, and some fresh information appeared on the squarish monitor.

“Following the Earth-Romulan War’s conclusion at the Treaty of Algeron, Dessica II was placed on the Federation side of the Romulan Neutral Zone,” Tacket continued. “Although the Federation never made any attempt to settle the world or chart its system.”

Tacket depressed another computer key and read off the next set of data information.

“This system, also known as Vindemiatrix or Epsilon Virginius,” Tacket elaborated furthur. “is a single star system. The primary is a Class G star with a magnitude of +3, which is ten times the brightness of Sol.”

Carter studied the image with intense scrutiny. A thought formed in in the back of his mind.

“It would seem that the Romulans have returned to reclaim their property,” Carter observed.

“Maybe,” Tacket explained. “We’ll have to get closer for a more detailed scan.”

“The Dessica system is in alignment between Caecilia Prime and the Rator system,” Chadwick stated. “It is not hard to theorize that the Romulans may have a weapons facility on the surface, similar to the one they are trying to establish on Rator Three.”

Carter’s forehead wrinkled. “Looks like the Romulans are trying to put all of their eggs in one basket.”

“And that basket being Rator Three,” Tacket concluded, studying the star chart. “Diverting to the Dessica system does take us awfully close to the Romulan Neutral Zone.”

Carter followed his second-in-command’s gaze. “The system is still well on our side of the neutral zone,” He glanced over at Smithfield and then at Chadwick. The diversion to Dessica Two would take some minimal time. “Beyond the orbit of its outer planet is the edge of Federation space.”

“And the beginning of Romulan territory,” Chadwick added, dryly.

“It’s the first lead that we have had,” Carter said, finally. “It’s worth a look.”

“My thoughts exactly,” concurred Tacket.

Carter addressed the helm and navigation officers at once. “Mister Morris, set course for the Dessica system. Miss Logan, ahead warp five.”

“Course plotted and laid in, sir,” Morris responded.

“Aye, sir,” the lovely brunette responded. “Warp Five.”

“Engage,” Carter ordered.

Meanwhile, at the science station, Carter, Tacket, Smithfield, and Chadwick continued to study the display.

“Well, what do you think?” Carter asked, softly. “The Romulans have made a stop over?”

The three Starfleet Officers looked over at Chadwick, who was mentally sifting through the latest information.

Chadwick frowned and did not reply. He continued to gaze curiously at the readout on the squarish monitor, as if by looking at it long enough, he would uncover the mystery.

**************

The bridge’s main viewscreen showed Dessica Two, a mottle of white, green, and blue as it lazily orbited its sun. In the distance, a portion of space flickered and sparkled with a violent magnetic ion storm. Carter watched the tableau before him and wondered why the Romulans would return to reclaim this planet and what its strategic importance was. He dismissed any speculations that he silently formulated and focused on the matter at hand.

From the science console, Tacket called out. “Sensors detect nine distinct energy signatures, spread out over a few kilometers on the surface.”

Carter tried to imagine six old style nuclear weapons all together at once and succeeded. “What else do we know about the population?”

“Isolated pockets of humanoids,” Tacket replied from his station. “It appears that they are below the level of a prewarp civilization at an early stage of industrial development.”

Smithfield looked up from the engineering station on Carter’s left, shaking her head. “Captain, I don’t recommend using the transporters. That ion storm doesn’t look very neighborly. it could head in this direction without any warning.”

“What type of magnetic storm is it?” Carter rose from the center seat.

“Standard ion type, sir,” Tacket looked up from the sensor hood. “Quite violent and unpredictable.”

Carter stood next to the navigation console and studied the screen, observing the image before him.

“It looks as if we are going to have to do this the old fashioned way,” he noted. “RT, Mike, Chadwick, you’re with me. Mrs. Logan, you have the con.”

“Aye, sir,” Logan replied, taking over at the center seat.

The two officers began to follow their captain toward the turbolift, followed by their visitor.

****

The shuttlecraft Hartford landed smoothly on the planet’s rugged surface, kicking up some dust and dirt in the process. The small cloud faded away as quickly as it formed, once the large shuttle landed in the center of a valley. A valley on a rocky, hilly, and arid planet with sparse forestation and desert terrain, carpeted by dry grass, brush land, and dead plains.

The shuttle doors slid open to reveal a desert landscape: muted in grays, bleached in sandy soil, boulders, and sparse vegetation beneath a ruthless sun. In the distance were clay-colored mountains and canyons that were obscured from time to time by dark, roiling heat waves. As to how much distance, it was impossible for Carter to judge; he knew deserts to be deceptive in that manner. He breathed in. The air was hot, scented with the herbaceous smell of dried brush. The desert stretched out for miles with no sign of life , and no sound except for the whine of the dry wind.

It was almost like being in a furnace. Without clouds, without a speck of moisture in the air, the sun’s nourishing rays shone down with especial ferocity.

Each rock and dip of the planet’ surface reminded Carter of what happened on Caceilia Prime and the tragic death of his father.

Tacket’s focus on the tricorder’s readings became intense. He continued to monitor the data information that it was receiving until he finally broke the pregnant silence among them. “Over that rise, Jack…about one kilometer.”

Carter brushed fast-gathering beads of sweat from his brow and moved about slowly, scanning the rocks and flat, baked ground for signs of any structure or technology left over from that century old conflict. Whatever was here could scarcely be the work of the inhabitants. Robert and Mike followed suit, moving slowly off in different directions. Chadwick surveyed the area before going off in another direction.

“Any signs of life?” Carter inquired.

Tacket glanced down at his tricorder again.

“Negative,” Tacket reported. “However, there seems to be a structure about a half a kilometer ahead.”

The Farragut away team walked across the desert soil and arrived at an alabaster white geodesic dome structure that was connected to a box-like building. A huge complex with a large dome gleaming like a gem.

It was a facility that Carter and the others were quite familiar with.

A launch facility, also known as a missile silo. was an underground vertical cylindrical structure for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The structures typically had the missile some distance below grade, protected by a large “blast door” on top. They were usually connected, either physically or electronically, to a missile launch control center.

It reminded Carter of the missile complex in Montana, where famed scientist Zefram Cochrane made his first warp flight in the Phoenix.

Dr. Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, built the warp ship inside a missile complex in Bozeman, Montana. The ship was initially a United States Air Force nuclear missile with a titanium casing. The titanium had taken six months for Cochrane’s assistant Lily Sloane to scrounge enough to build the four-meter cockpit of the Phoenix. Dr. Cochrane was the pilot, and Lily Sloane was one of the co-pilots.

On April 5th, 2063 AD, around 11 am, the Phoenix was launched. First-stage shutdown and separation were performed in orbit. The nacelles were extended, the warp core and plasma injectors were brought on-line, and the nacelles were charged. It took several seconds to accelerate to critical velocity. Light speed was then achieved by the craft. The second stage of the craft had chemical engines.

The first flight of the Phoenix attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan ship, the T’Plana-Hath, causing the Vulcans to decide to make First Contact.

Since then, First Contact Day was celebrated annually to commemorate the First Contact between Humans and Vulcans.

Carter had visited the Phoenix’s permanent home some years before. It was at the Smithsonian Museum Institute in the New Washington DC(District Of Columbia)complex.

However, the blast door was opened and the underground vertical cylindrical structure that was the missile silo was devoid of any weapon of mass destruction.

“Looks like the Romulans were here,” Carter noted, staring into the abyss of the underground chamber.

Carter ran his tricorder over the opening and examined the data information recorded. “It certainly corresponds with the sensor readings detected from the Farragut, earlier. There were missiles stored in this facility before we arrived. The energy signature matches the readings I’ve just indicated.”

“Which means that the Romulans could still be in the vicinity,” Carter pulled out his communicator and flipped the grill open. “Carter to Farragut.

“Farragut, Logan here,” came the helmswoman’s voice.

“Lieutenant, have the sensors detected anything out of the ordinary since we established orbit?”

“Negative, sir,” Logan replied. “Just only the energy signature detected earlier.”

“Any sign of other vessels within the system?”

“Negative,” the lovely, olive skinned woman responded. “Sensors haven’t detected any ship within the system or outside of it. If there were any, they have long since departed.”

Carter looked over at Chadwick, who had been silent the entire time. The Section 31 agent was obviously taking a mental inventory of the situation, forming his own speculations, and ultimate conclusions. Carter always found Chadwick’s silence to be a bit infuriating and disturbing. It was a trait that Jack had not been entirely accustomed to, in the time that they had served together on the Potemkin. By all accounts from his former shipmates on Preston Wilcox’s ship, Chadwick could be a very quiet and introspective collaborator, often standing and listening to Wilcox’s orders and not saying a word until he was called upon. It was often said that someone could tell that the ‘wheels were turning inside his head’.

Aside from Chadwick’s straightforward nature, he also had a notoriously reserved trait about him. But when asked for his opinion, he did not hold back and people often listened.

And sometimes the answers were not to their liking.

“Very well,” Carter replied, not taking his eyes off of Chadwick. The Starfleet Intelligence Officer suddenly noticed Carter looking at him. Chadwick then returned the favor by staring back at him, squinting his eyes in an unfriendly manner. “We’re at the sight of one of the energy signature. Do the sensors detect any other structures similar to where we are now?”

“Affirmative,” Logan’s voice came through the communications channel. “There are approximately eight other structures. Each one is emitting the same type of thermonuclear energy signature.”

“Acknowledged,” Carter spoke, uneasy but satisfied at the current release of information. “We’ll be returning to the ship shortly. Carter, out.”

Closing the grill and placing his communicator back on his velcro belt, he looked over at Tacket, who was running the scanner data through his tricorder’s analyzer. Then he returned his attention to Chadwick, who was still looking into the vast and empty missile silo. He pointed his tricorder in the direction of the silo and initiated a couple of adjustments.

Looking at the data results on the tricorder’s small screen, he tapped another button and frowned.

Goddamn it to hell, I knew it! Chadwick thought cynically. This really makes the situation more problematic!

Carter and Tacket noticed the sour expression on Chadwick’s broodingly handsome features. Both the captain and his second in command could tell that there was something else newly discovered. Something that instinctively told Carter and Tacket that something new and unexpected had developed.

Something really bad.

“Is there something that you would like to share with us, Commander?” Carter inquired, with a trace of impatience in his voice.

Chadwick frowned and returned an icy stare at Carter. “Yes,” he said ominously. “And it is something that the rest of your senior staff should know about.”

He rose up and began walking back toward the shuttle.

Carter looked over at Tacket and Smithfield, a bit bewildered and exasperated by the response that Chadwick had given. Carter frowned and rushed over to Chadwick’s side. The Starfleet Intelligence Officer was reviewing the fresh batch of data.

“Well?” Carter demanded. “What is it?”

“Something that has unbalanced the scales, John-boy,” Chadwick stated directly. “and right now, the odds are not looking in our favor!”

“Explain!”

Chadwick, who was as equally exasperated as Carter, looked at the Farragut’s captain straight in the eye. And the serious nature in Chadwick’s eyes almost shocked Carter. A very cold, hard, and sobering look.

“As soon as I finish cogitating and collating this current information,” Chadwick began, coldly. “Believe me, you will know. Right now, time is of the essence! I suggest we return to the Farragut, immediately!”

Chadwick continued on ahead to the shuttle as Tacket and Smithfield caught up with Carter.

“What the hell was that all about?” Tacket wondered.

“I think Chadwick has stumbled across something totally unexpected,” Carter deducted. “And it has got him scared.”

Watching Chadwick’s retreating form, Tacket shook his head. “I’ve never known Chadwick to be scared before.”

“He was always good at concealing his fear about something,” Carter recalled. “And by the look in his eyes, I could see it.”

“What do you think he has come across?” Smithfield wondered.

Watching Chadwick step inside the shuttlecraft, Carter let out a frustrating breath.

“We’re about to find out,” Jack predicted, warily. “And I have a hunch that it is not going to be pleasant.”

**************

Immediately after the Hartford passed through the Farragut’s clamshell-like bay doors and landed on the bay’s smooth, cold surface, the bay doors closed and the area was immediately repressurized. Carter then immediately called the bridge and ordered Logan to have the Farragut proceed onward to the next sector of the Romulan Neutral Zone.

While the Farragut was en route toward the next parsec, Carter assembled all of his senior officers at the large conference table in the briefing room. The lights were lowered in deference to earth’s night. Despite that, the lights could not dispel the sense of heaviness that permeated the room.

The tense silence in the briefing room summed up what the entire senior staff was collectively thinking.

The Farragut was going into battle – a battle that neither she and the Romulan Bird of Prey could technologically win.

At the moment, Steven Chadwick was briefing the officers on the very situation that would likely prove to be both their doom and the crew of the Bird of Prey. A disquieting prospect that Chadwick also did not relish, considering the fact that he would probably be killed with two people that he deeply disliked. Something that was no longer a secret among the senior staff and crew.

Chadwick didn’t care if that information was made available and public to the crew of the Farragut. He was more concerned with the current objectives of the mission and the neutralization of the threat to it.

To him, worrying about things he had no control over was a waste of time, resources, and mental stability.

“Based on the current information that my tricorder scans obtained,” Chadwick confessed. “It confirms a suspicion that both my superiors and I have had for some time, concerning those primitive atomic weapons.”

Chadwick tapped a button on the briefing room table and the image of a starchart displaying the computerized images of Cacelia Prime, the Dessica system, and Rator Three.

“And judging by her pattern,” Chadwick deducted. “And recent events – past and present – it would seem that this Romulan Commander is hell bent on carrying out her mission objectives. Those warheads left over from the Earth-Romulan Conflict are cobalt encased. But what is really encased within the warheads is something far more serious.”

The Section 31 agent tapped another button, displaying the schematic formula of an isotope.

“The isotope injected into the warheads,” Carter stated, flatly.

“Precisely,” Chadwick admitted. “Cobalt thorium G has a radioactive half-life of a century. If you take fifty of those ancient weapons that are in the one hundred megaton range and jacket them with cobalt thorium G, they would produce a doomsday shroud when detonated. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which would encircle an entire planet for a century. Ecosystems and all would be annihilated entirely.”

Carter’s lips thinned slightly, grasping the implications involved. Including their disasterous outcomes. “Stockpiling those weapons on Rator Three and being in the strategic position that they are in,” he shook his head in disgust. “Destroy any Federation facilities and the Romulans invade.”

“Precisely,” Chadwick concurred.

A grim beat of silence passed within the briefing room. Many scenarios and possibilities were silently formulated in the senior officers individual minds.

And they all led to an equation that was both destructive and fatal.

Chadwick broke the silence when he directed his attention toward Tacket. One that clearly conveyed both a silent and icy accusation.

“Looks like your Romulan adversary is willing to risk intergalactic war, Tackey,” Chadwick replied in an adamant tone. “All in the name of some personal vengeance. You really did a fine job in pissing her off something fierce!”

Tacket directly scowled at Chadwick in frustration. Before he could say anything, Carter broke in to prevent a personal conflict from escalating any further.

“Accusations are moot at this point,” Carter stated sharply. “We’re to head to the Rator system in sector one-zero-four-five to intercept the Romulan bird of prey. After that, it will be a toe to toe slugging match.”

“Colloquially expressed,” Tacket nodded. “But very accurate.”

“Too accurate for my liking,” Jack Carter paused to somberly study each of his officers in turn. “She can’t be allowed to use any of those weapons. Let alone deliver them to that weapons bunker. All other concerns are secondary. Do you understand?”

From the grim expressions around the table, it was both razor sharp and crystal clear as glass. Each one – even Chadwick – understood completely.

The Farragut – and her entire crew aboard her – were expendable.

Tacket spoke for all of the senior staff. “Yes, sir.”

Carter stood up and pressed the comm button. “All hands…Battle stations!”

****

Remarkably similar in design to the contemporaneous Federation starships, the Romulan Bird-of-Prey was designed with a sole primary hull configuration.

Grey in color, with its namesake bird design painted on the hull, the Bird-of-Prey was essentially a saucer with parallel warp nacelles mounted port and starboard of the main body. The aft of the ship was designed with a raised “fin.”

Although incapable of matching the Federation’s Constitution-class starship one-on-one, the ship still featured several technological advances that were previously unattainable to Federation science: the first practical invisibility screen, and the massively powerful plasma torpedo. This class of starship had a single forward torpedo launcher. It also carried a number of nuclear weapons. With these combined abilities, the Bird-of-Prey was able to strike its enemies at will, practically undetected and unchallenged.

The main bridge was a rather spherical and small command center, providing access to four computer terminals facing each other in a centrally located console. These terminals maintained the vessel’s course control, tactical and cloaking systems. No seating was provided for any of the officers. The bridge had direct access to a corridor in the aft and a viewscreen in the forward section.

And the computerized image displayed on the viewscreen was something that had the Romulan Commander’s full attention.

She brushed back a cascade of dark hair from a delicately pointed ear, and smiled tightly. She could pursue her quarry at a safe distance now.

Her Romulan calling-name was S’Dera. She was a full commander in the Romulan fleet, and she had been assigned as military commander to the recovery of the old style-nuclear warheads left over the century old conflict. She had absolute authority to do what she was doing; it was her play and her play alone. If she was successful….

The commander smiled. It would be quite a feather in her cap were she successful. It would make up for a lot of things.

Her career had never fully recovered from the encounter with the starship Farragut, and the death of the Romulan servant at the hands of the Romulan super-soldier. While it was true that she had eventually been reinstated and had not lost any ground, it was also true that she had not progressed either. She most certainly would have made admiral by now if Fate had dealt her a different hand.

Now she was trying to shuffle the cards herself.

The Tal Shiar, a branch of Romulan Intelligence, had closely followed the Farragut’s mission since the confrontation at Caecelia Prime, and S’Dera had been extremely interested in the official dossiers of her crew. Specifically, the Farragut’s senior officers. Commander Robert Tacket being at the top of that list of interest. Fortunately, one of the members of her family served in the upper echelons of Romulan Intelligence, and was able to provide that portion of intelligence information.

And those portions of information formed into an interesting picture.

She saw the entire crew of the Farragut as having committed crimes. Crimes not just against her personally, but also against the Romulan Empire. She viewed the issues leading to one final and inevitable outcome.

The entire crew of the Farragut needing to be punished for what they had done.

It wasn’t the first time that she had dealt with a Federation Starship before. The first time had been near the Gamma Hydra system, near the Federation side of the Neutral Zone. The U.S.S. Enterprise had somehow violated the zone, and as a result, was surrounded and attacked by several Romulan vessels. Her ship being one of those Bird-Of-Prey class-vessels. The Enterprise had managed to escape when her captain had transmitted a Code Two signal, indicating that he and his crew would impliment the Corbomite self-destruct sequence. Like her fellow commanders, S’Dera had been fooled by that tactic, and the end result led the Enterprise to escape.

The second time she confronted a Federation Starship, was when the U.S.S. Enterprise had violated Romulan space. Her Bird-Of-Prey, along with two other newer Romulan battlecrusiers(ships of the Klingon Empire’s D-7 design), had surrounded the ship. And like the last time, the Enterprise and her crew escaped from their clutches. Especially after stealing a cloaking device from one of the D-7 vessels.

The incident had been all part of a plan by the Federation to obtain the cloaking device and learn all of its technological secrets.

Perhaps those two incidents had been the reason for her reactions to the Farragut and her crew’s actions.

S’Dera had given her life in service to the Empire–most of the female Romulans were very militarily driven(it was a commitment they had to do in order to have risen in the ranks of the Romulan military). None of the other female officers seemed to have had much in the way of a personal life–they had dedicated it to the service of the Empire.

She tried to assure herself that she was doing this solely for the good of the Empire, but deep down she realized that her own emotions were also involved.

No man and his crew before or since had stirred her emotions and brought forth a violent fury the way John Carter, Robert Tacket, and his crew had.

Before she encountered the Farragut, she simply wanted to serve the best that she could. Now, she saw it as her duty to punish the Farragut’s crew.

She was an extremely formidable individual. She could tell herself without conceit that she had simply never met a crew who was truly her equals. Until she met the crew of the Farragut. She thought back to the lone, brief encounter they had experienced when her ship had confronted the Farragut.

Although both the Vulcan and Romulan races sprang from a common forebear, her people had never ascribed to the Vulcan theory of rigid and total suppression of emotion. To her, it seemed that the Romulans had always had a healthier outlook on the subject. It was true that they exercised emotional control. But the Romulan race had always accepted the fact that they did indeed possess emotions, and here was how they differed from the stonily stoic Vulcans. Vulcans deluded themselves into believing that they had no emotions. In so doing, they condemned themselves to a life of inner warfare, and being constantly on guard against an outburst of the feelings that weren’t there in the first place. Her people were spared this turmoil. It was no shame for a Romulan to express emotion…within reason, of course.

S’Dera was a strong military leader who was highly intelligent, focused, and extremely loyal to the Romulan Star Empire. However, her quest for revenge had pushed her over the edge. While not pushed to the brink of insanity, she was a little too focused on vengeance. Too focused so that everything else about the current mission came second.

No matter what the outcome or the consequences, if it came to risking intergalactic war, she would see it as unfortunate but necessary “collateral damage”.

To her own way of thinking, the end would justify the means.

The philosophies of the Romulan Star Empire and the United Federation Of Planets were radically divergent. Both ascribed to their respective philosophies; owed their allegiances and loyalties to their separate military forces.

And that in turn would lead to further conflict between the two government factions in the Alpha Quadrant.

The three-helmeted Romulan Soldiers manned the four sensor terminals at the bridge’s central console, while the Centurion stood nearby.

“The Federation Starship has left orbit around Dessica Two, Commander,” one of the soldiers replied.

“Have they detected us?” she demanded.

The blue-white readout reflected off of the soldier’s narrow, foxy face. “Negative, Commander. But they seem to be on a parallel course with ours. They may not be aware of our presence.”

“Perhaps,” the commander determined. “Have you identified the starship?”

“Yes, Commander,” the soldier replied. “It is just as you expected. It is the Federation Starship Farragut.

S’Dera smiled, satisfied at the specific revelation of tactical information. “Excellent. Continue monitoring their activities. I want to be ready when the time comes to reveal our presence. Is the cloaking device still on-line?”

The sensor operator consulted his small board. “Cloaking device system is on-line and functioning within normal parameters.”

S’Dera nodded and continued studying the computerized image of the Farragut on the viewscreen.

While studying the readout on the viewscreen, the Romulan Centurion arrived on the bridge, accompanied by a member of the Tal Shiar.

“They’re following us,” S’Dera confessed, still observing the viewscreen.

“I’m amazed that they haven’t attacked,” the Centurion confessed.

“No doubt they are studying us,” S’Dera smirked. “Something that I would expect from the likes of Commander Tacket and his shipmates.”

“It isn’t just Commander Tacket that we are dealing with,” the Centurion reminded her.

S’Dera nodded. “I’m well aware that Tacket is only the Farragut‘s first and science officer. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Captain John Carter reacts in combat.”

The Centurion stared at the viewscreen for a brief moment. “Don’t underestimate the Farragut‘s real leader, Commander. We may know of Tacket’s capabilities, but we haven’t truly experienced those of Captain Carter’s. He may prove to be a formidable adversary.”

S’Dera gloated. “I should hope so. It will be a joy to face him and the rest of his crew in battle.”

The Tal Shair officer watched the image of the Farragut following them. “No doubt they will flee when the odds will be against them,” he crowed proudly, his eyes glittering impulsively.

The Centurion looked over at the young Romulan with a cautionary glance. “Take care, Jovius. We underestimated Tacket and the Farragut’s crew before.”

“We won’t underestimate them again, Centurion,” Jovius said, curtly. “Regardless of who is in charge of the Federation starship.”

S’Dera silently studied the Farragut and its movements. She then looked over at Jovius with a scornful look. “Centurion is correct, Jovius. But you are, as well. Be wise and see where the danger lies.”

Jovius nodded and bowed curtly. He turned on his polished booted heel and exited the bridge.

S’Dera had always viewed the Tal Shiar as a necessary evil. She realized the work they did served the Empire as well, but she didn’t always agree with the individuals in it.

The cold pride and impulsiveness that Jovius often demonstrated was as close to an example of the latter.

She and her crew had seen many campaigns together and served for a very long period. The reason she had been successful as a ship’s commander in the Romulan starfleet was that she was very firm but fair(in terms of Romulan fairness, that is)with her crew. And they were glad to work with and follow her.

S’Dera returned her attention to the viewscreen, with the Centurion observing both with semi-concerned scrutiny.

****

Captain’s Log, Stardate: 5021.3 –

The Farragut is en route to sector one-zero-four-five of the neutral zone. Despite the situations that have plagued the Farragut as of late, the crew has responded with the dedication and devotion that I have come to expect of them. And like other military commanders on various historical battlefields, I

wait for the inevitable dawn.

It had been a long night aboard the Farragut, and it was yet to be over.

Carter had wandered his ship like a restless spirit, offering aid where it was needed, encouragement where there was anxiety. In one corrdior, he had spoken with a fresh-faced young ensign who was recently out of the Academy. He had stopped and spoken to her, inquired about her assignment, and complimented her on her handling of it. He also reminded her of the other officers working as hard as she was: the security chief in charge of tactical; Commander Tacket and Lieutenant Commander Smithfield analyzing every shred of information on the Bird Of Prey and the old style nuclear weapons that were currently in the Romulans’ possession. And all over the starship, everyone was preparing for the inevitable confrontation.

We have the best ship and the best crew in Starfleet, Carter had told the ensign. And we are prepared for anything.

He did not finish his thought aloud: Anything, despite what the Farragut has endured and been stained with in the past few weeks.

No degree of preparation could make the Farragut invulnerable to the inevitable collateral damage and loss of life that was certain to follow. Preventing the monstrous fate that awaited them all was something that was virtually non-existent in moments of violent conflict.

Like two stubborn bulls at opposite ends of a forest, Carter silently reflected. both know they will have to come into conflict. There’s a time when you want to call a Romulan’s bluff and there’s a time when you don’t. One does not always have the luxury. You’ve got to choose your time and place with them,

wherever possible. Well, I did, and the consequences could result in an entire planet’s destruction!

Carter left the young ensign, the terror faded somewhat from her eyes. He himself was less hopeful; he continued to haunt the ship’s pristine corridors, looking to be useful, mulling over how to resolve the situation without running the risk of igniting an intergalactic war.

The captain made his way to sickbay.

As the doors closed behind him, he stood and watched Dr. Holley and her team hard at work, positioning antigravity gurneys, readying surgical supplies – preparing for the carnage to come. All of this because of an arsenal of weapons used in a senseless war a century past.

He quickly squelched the mental image of a sickbay filled with the injured and the dying, and looked on as a medical officer handed Holley a medical scanner.

She took it matter of factly, then looked over a dataslate that was on a worktable next to her. She looked over its contents, glanced up, and caught the sight of the captain. She moved toward him, handing over the datapad to a passing medical technician, like she normally did during every duty shift.

The sight was troubling. “Zefram Cochrane once quoted the following after his successful flight in the Phoenix. ‘To seek out new life forms and new civilizations….'” Carter recited the famous scientist’s words quietly when she arrived at his side. “And when Charles Darwin set out on the H.M.S. Beagle, he didn’t bring a single musket.”

Holley’s tone was gentle. “Times were different then.”

“And look how far we have come,” Carter said, bitterly. Shaking his head in frustration at the entire situation, he then spoke with genuine concern. “Let me know if you require anything.”

She nodded, as he moved to exit. As she watched Carter depart, a look of sadness crossed her features. After thinking long and hard about certain issues that were heavily influenced by the Proteus IX-B disaster, she had finally come to a decision. One that was also shared by Chief Galway.

They were going to request a transfer off of the Farragut and move on in their respective career fields.

****

Carter made his way to engineering, where Tacket was working at a monitor displaying cartographic projections of various star systems. In the background, the warp core hummed quietly, a sound that could be soothing at various intervals.

“What is our current position?” Carter asked.

Tacket complied with his captain’s request by tapping a button. The small monitor’s image shifted and immediately displayed the current sector, with a blip indicating the Farragut.

Carter took note. “How long until we reach the Rator system?”

“At our current velocity, we will arrive at the system in approximately forty-five minutes,” Robert pressed another button. The image changed again to reveal the aforementioned system was located, and the indicated position of one of the Federation outposts alongside the neutral zone.

Carter gazed at the sight for a moment, then noticed his best friend leaning back in his chair, exhaling a small sigh.

“Is Chadwick grating on your nerves?” Jack inquired in a sympathetic tone.

“More or less,” Tacket stated, a trace of sourness in his voice. “He really does have a very bad habit of rubbing something bad in.”

Carter gave a sympathetic smile. He was just as frustrated at the former Potemkin security chief as Tacket was. Both had been frustrated at the past and current events that the Farragut and her crew had been put through. Especially at the sources that caused those chain of events.

“You did what you felt was right,” Carter reminded him. “If you hadn’t left her immobilized in orbit, I would have been among the fatalities on that planet.”

“It still doesn’t ease my mind,” Tacket confessed. “Too many things have happened since then. What happened with your father. Vinz Mingola and Proteus IX-B. And now that Romulan and Chadwick’s involvement in this mission. How in the hell did it come down to this?”

Carter shrugged. “As the people used to say on early twenty-first century Earth, it can be attributed to either Murphy’s Law or ‘bad karma’.”

“What is really frustrating about all of this,” Tacket said, exasperated. “Is the fact that some are transferring off the ship to put some distance between them and the Farragut. And the replacements coming on board are disciplinary cases.”

“We’re stuck with it, RT,” Carter noted, unhappy at the circumstances. “And what worries me the most is the recovery of those century-old weapons. I don’t like the idea behind it. And I certainly don’t like the idea of Section 31 being behind the planning of this mission. God knows what in the hell they would do with those weapons, once they take ownership of them.”

“The main question is this. What possible use could they be to them?” Tacket wondered, in disgust.

Thermonuclear devices have been outdated and obsolete since the end of the Earth-Romulan Conflict, one hundred years past.”

“I don’t know,” Carter admitted. “I do know that the reason is twisted and its purpose is dark. If nothing else, it’s just another round in the ‘cloak and dagger’ chess game. Giving the Federation an advantage.”

“Or leverage,” Tacket observed. “It all boils down to who has the bigger stick. All in the name of preserving democracy.”

“I just don’t like the mentality of the people who are holding that stick,” Carter confessed. “Let alone those who claim to be practicing it, when they are bending the hell out of it for their own twisted and perverted reasons.”

Carter sighed and shook his head, trying to get his thoughts focused. He too was just as frustrated and exasperated by the chain of events.

“Do you remember in Professor Prescott’s history class at the Academy where he covered the subject of war in general?” he asked Tacket. “He mentioned what Von Clausewitz once stated. That ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’.”

Tacket smiled sadly at the memory of the late history instructor. A memory that made him think about the Farragut’s former security chief.

“I remember. But, I think, Jack, what he was actually trying to say was a little more complicated,” Tacket pointed out. “The purpose of war is to serve a political end but the true nature of war is to serve itself.”

“In other words, the soldier most likely to win the war,” Carter translated. “is the one most willing to part company with the politicians and ignore everything except the destruction of the enemy. Von Clausewitz’s philosophy must have been drilled constantly at Section 31.”

“I know Chadwick seems to abide by that principle philosophy,” Tacket shook his head in disgust. “I just think that in any world, the true enemy can’t be destroyed.”

“Who exactly is the real enemy?” Carter asked himself.

“In my opinion, Jack,” Tacket reflected. “In any world, the true enemy is war itself. And we’re just the tools to be misused for such egotistical and ideological madness. The Romulans, the Klingons, and us.”

All of those issues and their basis in fact were matters that troubled John T. Carter. Before he could silently ponder on those issues any further, the com-line whistled.

“Bridge to Captain Carter,” came Tia Logan’s voice.

Carter tapped the switch next to the small viewing monitor. “Carter, here.”

“Captain, the motion sensors are detecting something in our sector,” Logan replied, her filtered voice over the speaker a bit troubled. “Judging by its original course, it was skirting along the outer edge of the Dessica system, on the side of Romulan territory. And now it is on the same course to Rator Three as we are. It’s almost as if it is paralleling us.”

Carter and Tacket exchanged a look that immediately indicated that they were thinking the same thing.

Jack frowned and turned his attention back to the speaker. Remembering Tacket’s report on his encounter with the female Romulan Commander, a sense of ominiousness troubled the Federation starship captain.

“Is it a ship?” Carter demanded.

“Yes, sir,” Logan replied. “But it doesn’t seem to be one of ours.”

A troubled look crossed Tacket’s features. One that Carter immediately identified.

“It’s her,” Tacket stated, flatly. “Obviously to fulfill her thirst for vengeance!”

“We’re on our way,” Carter replied immediately.

Both the captain and the first officer exited Engineering and immediately headed for the nearest turbolift.

**************

With Tacket following, Carter emerged on fast legs from the turbolift as the Farragut proceeded toward its destination. He went directly to the command chair, while Tacket approached the science station.

“Our speed is now maximum, sir,” Logan reported.

“Ship’s position is eight minutes from the neutral zone at this velocity, sir.” Morris stated.

Carter looked over at Smithfield, who immediately exited the turbolift and assumed her duties at the engineering station.

“I’ve talked to engineering, sir,” she said. “We’ll get more speed out of her.”

“At first it appeared to be a sensor ghost,” Logan reported. “but I’ve run checks on all the instrumentation. All the equipment is functioning perfectly.”

Carter stared at the sensor readout on the helm and then at the viewscreen as the stars streaked by. “It certainly isn’t a hydrogen cloud reflection. Or one of the unique properties of an Oort Cloud causing an echo like this.”

Tacket looked into the sensor hood at his console. “None in this area,” he confirmed. “Nothing that would account for it. It is appearing intermittently.”

Morris consulted his navigation board. “We did have a momentary fix on the object enough to establish it is a starship,” he reported. “It’s certainly not a reflection from a natural or ionized phenomenon.”

“What is it’s current distance and heading?” Carter demanded.

“Distant bearing, sir, is mark seven three point five,” Morris reported. “And it is moving in a rather leisurely maneuver.”

“She is precisely matching our subwarp speed and on a parallel course,” Logan noted, peering into the helm’s sensor hood on her left. “Wait a minute…”

Carter noticed Logan staring into the sensor intensely. A look of alarm on her lovely features.

“What is it?”

“Captain, the Romulan starship has changed course!” Logan reported, tension filling her voice. “It is coming about and heading toward us!”

Logan’s response clearly indicated to Carter and the bridge personnel one thing and one thing only. That the Farragut’s pursuit was the gauntlet thrown and the Romulan Commander’s response was an acceptance of the challenge.

“Mr. Morris,” Carter ordered. “prepare a full phaser spread, zero elevation. All banks on my mark. Scan for shield impacts and stand by photon torpedoes.”

“Aye, sir,” Morris called.

A blast impacted the Farragut’s forward shields.

That was followed by another blast and the ship reeled again.

“Return fire!” Carter ordered.

Morris complied and pressed the firing button.

The Farragut’s entire bank of photon torpedoes streaked into space; for an instant, the Romulan Bird Of Prey’s ship was twice illuminated as two of her shields took a direct hit. The result of that impact led to a section of the Bird-Of-Prey’s hull flickering into view.

Then it appeared in its entirety.

“She’s losing her cloak!” Morris shouted.

Immediately after, photon torpedoes followed…but passed harmlessly through a void where the Romulan ship had once been there.

“The ship’s cloak has been damaged, sir,” Logan reported, consulting the helm’s sensor hood. “No sign of any power generation emitting from it.”

She looked at the helm’s instrumentation and then returned her attention to the helm’s sensor hood. “She’s coming about again!”

The next photon torpedo could be seen blazing toward their direction on the main viewscreen.

The Farragut lurched and the bridge reeled. Carter held on, bowing his head as a console nearby the engineering station exploded, raining smoke and debris.

The turbolift doors slid open to allow Chadwick onto the bridge. The Starfleet Intelligence Officer made his way toward Carter as the ship shuddered from another disruptor impact. The result of the impact almost made the young man lose his balance. It amazed him that the hull above had not been shorn in two.

Over the screaming of the red alert klaxons, Logan called. “They’re coming around, again!”

“Lock phasers and return fire!” Carter ordered.”All weapons!”

On the main viewscreen , the Bird of Prey’s shields flashed as they absorbed the impact of the starship’s phaser blast. The next salvo of photon torpedoes blazed toward the Romulan vessel and impacted on its hull.

“Damage to the Romulan vessel’s port nacelle,” Tacket reported, looking up from the sensor hood. “It looks as if she has suffered some major damage.”

****

The impact of the Farragut’s phaser weaponry had caused some severe damage to some of the Bird-Of-Prey’s interior systems.

A deep roar vibrated in S’Dera’s eardrums, in her jaw, in her very bones. Blinded by the searing blindness, she went flying backwards into the bridge’s central console. She struck other objects: hard surfaces, whether the bulkhead or the console, she could not say; and a softer, more yielding object – a body.

For a second, she could not orient herself, could feel nothing but pain. And then she forced her eyes open and tried to push herself to a standing position.

Her first effort failed-apparently her wrist had been broken, but she used one elbow and the opposite hand to finally sit up.

Visibility was limited by smoke and darkness; she drew in a breath and coughed at the unnatural stench of consoles and circuitry afire. But she could see well enough to discover that she had been thrown against the central bridge console. A further scan revealed the body of the Centurion, lying only an arm’s reach from her; she reached forth, gave the Centurion’s elbow a gentle shake, then recoiled when the older man’s head lolled toward her at an unnatural angle, revealing open, lifeless eyes and the left side of his face bloodied and burned.

Carefully, wincing at ribs either brusied or broken, S’Dera rolled onto her knees and caught hold of the edge of the central console. After a time, she managed to pull herself onto unsteady feet.

“Report status,” she ordered sternly.

The Romulan Sensor Officer managed to get to his feet to consult the status information of the vessel.

As the ship jolted again, S’Dera watched the disruptor fire with satisfaction. She smiled, intoxicated with triumph on the Bird-Of-Prey’s bridge.

“Commander, our cloak has been damaged!” the Romulan sensor officer yelled. “Including our port nacelle!”

Remembering how she had damaged the Farragut’s port nacelle during their last battle at Caeceilia Prime, S’Dera determined it was Tacket’s way of evening the score in that specific matter.

“Do we still have weapons capability?” she demanded.

“Affirmative,” the sensor officer immediately replied.

“Target their weapons systems and shields,” she told her weapons officer. “I want the Farragut annihilated.”

On the viewscreen, dazzling blasts seared from beneath the Romulan Bird Of Prey and made their way precisely to the target of the Constitution-class Federation starship.

Jovius looked into one of the four sensor hoods of the central console and then nodded at the weapons officer.

The weapons officer depressed the firing button.

S’Dera smiled faintly, and spoke to someone who could not hear her, but nonetheless knew exactly what she was saying.

“Burn, Farragut! Burn! You’re finished Tacket! You, your captain, and your shipmates!”

She began punching commands directly into the control panel of the sensor console. “Attack pattern Theta.”

The Romulan female watched as a small, malevolent smile formed on her lips as the Bird Of Prey ran straight over the Farragut, firing down on her at close range. The impact of the Romulan starship’s primary weapons impacted in bright lights off of the Farragut’s shields.

“Commander, I know now why you were honored with leadership!” Jovius crowed impulsively. “Our mission is all we hoped! The Praetor will be pleased!”

S’Dera gloated coldly.

“May the Praetor have his wish then!” she smirked malevolently. “Death!”

****

Carter stared tensely at the viewscreen as the Bird-Of-Prey responded to the last attack. The Romulan starship sailed directly at the Farragut’s bow – perilously close. It’s damaged port nacelle leaving a sparkling, fiery trail of spewing, ionized plasma gas.

He saw the brilliant glow of photon torpedoes filling the entire viewscreen like a blazing supernova, and opened his mouth to demand evasive maneuvers.

It was too late.

The bridge shook violently under the attack, almost as if the Federation starship had collided with a sun; Carter could scarcely remain in his chair, could scarcely hear Tacket’s reporting in full voice.

“We are losing dorsal shields,” Tacket followed with more dismal infromation. “We have almost exhausted our compliment of photon torpedoes. Phaser banks are down ten percent.”

“Target all phasers in a concentrated attack,” Carter ordered.

The Farragut powered forward into battle.

“Full axis rotation to port!” Carter commanded. “Fire all phasers!”

The Farragut rolled onto the side, firing at the mercurial ship that the captain knew was becoming a major and infuriating annoyance. Only a few shots struck, illuminating and damaging the Bird Of Prey’s underside fleetingly.

Carter watched the viewscreen as a blinding barrage of phaser and disruptor fire was exchanged between his ship and the Romulan Bird Of Prey. The blasts illuminating in brief bursts.

He turned to Morris. “Triangulate fire on any shield impacts.”

“Aye, sir.”

The captain grasped the arms of his chair as the Federation starship rocked from a blast – this one stronger than those caused by disruptor fire.

A photon torpedo, Carter decided, even as Tacket reported:

“Minimal damage to the Bird Of Prey,” Tacket reported. “However, aft shields are down to forty percent!”

“Defensive pattern Epsilon,” Carter told the helm. “Keep those shields on line.”

“Trying, sir,” Logan replied, straining to control the helm.

The Farragut had taken a pair of bad hits, but her full-powered phasers were literally shredding the Romulan Bird Of Prey at close range.

Carter clutched the arms of his chair, steeling himself for a triple barrage of disruptor fire that would swiftly disable his ship – but the deck remained blessedly stable beneath him.

“Auxilary power to the forward shields!” Carter told the helm.

“The Romulan vessel has sustained extreme damage, Captain. We’ve sustained major damage, but not nearly as incapacitated.”

Within seconds, the Farragut and the Romulan Bird Of Prey were locked in deadly combat, each exchanging the awesome forces of their weaponry.

A famous physician once said that the seeds of aggression lied deep in the subconscious mind, Chadwick thought. And that aggressive behavior was nothing more than an acting out of those subconscious thoughts. The ability to find a well of hidden strength at a moment of crisis. Looks like this Romulan Commander is showing signs of those intense symptoms!

He watched the main viewscreen as the battle unfolded before them.

“It’s a goddamned Coliseum!” Chadwick groused in hostility.

Carter overheard the young man’s remark and stared at him in puzzlement.

“What are you talking about?” Jack demanded.

“What the Romulan Neutral Zone has just become!” Chadwick explained, a bit annoyed at Carter’s demand for an explanation. “A goddamned Coliseum! An arena where the opponents come out here and gear themselves to hit or kill another living being as hard as they possibly can. And people come there to cheer them on. All out aggression. Except that when the whistle is blown, the opponents turn it off just like that!” he snapped his fingers in disgust. “It all comes down to anger and control in the same moment! We all have it in us, to varying levels. When we need to be furious, or tough or aggressive, we somehow reach into our subconscious and come up with just the right amount and then hopefully shut the rest of it off. But if we don’t, if we cross over that line, isn’t that what abnormally aggressive behavior if not what war is really all about? We go to bring up just that one bucket full of anger, and suddenly you can’t seem to stop right then and there!”

Carter eyed the mysterious man suspiciously. “I didn’t realize that psychology and philosophy were your specialties.”

The bridge shook again from another disruptor impact, and Chadwick managed to steady himself by grabbing the right armrest.

“Try reading more books, John-boy,” he deadpanned, staring coldly at Carter for a moment. “You’ll be enlightened!”

The ship lurched hard to port, slamming Chadwick against the arm of Carter’s chair. He held on, managing to turn his head toward the screen, where the bright glow of the most recent blast was fading. Another brilliantly shining photon torpedo emerged from the Romulan vessel and stroked relentlessly toward the hull of the Farragut.

Carter barely had time to brace himself, before the next one hit – with thunderous force that when it ended, he felt amazed that the ship was still intact and her crew alive.

Logan clutched her console and held on as the ship rolled.

Carter looked at the viewcsreen, flustered and exasperated.

“Target their primary reactor,” Carter ordered. “With any luck, their warp core should detonate!”

“At least their goddamn Praetor won’t get his dirty, filthy hands on those primitive weapons!” Chadwick snorted. “Or his rotten Tal Shiar!”

Carter looked at the broodingly, handsome, well-read young man again in surprise and suspicion. For some time, he tried to fathom the enigmatic young man that had been both a fellow Starfleet Officer and opponent. Whatever motives Chadwick had, he was always wore his emotions on his sleeve. His brutal honesty, and straightforwardness, and flint-edged coldness always confirmed how truthful he was and where he stood on various matters.

Chadwick despised a lot of issues and matters in life. He had no time for situations dealing with lying, dishonesty, and other negative traits that clashed against what he believed in. Especially in matters concerning Starfleet bureaucracy In some ways, he would have fit the profile of a Zen Warrior with a moral code. The type of reluctant, grim individualist of classic literature who accepted the mantle only when he knew it was inevitable. He knew there could not be two bull mooses in the same part of the forest. Ultimately, they and the Romulans had to come into conflict. Chadwick was the type of man who picked the time, and in a sense he did just that.

The Farragut pitched under a fresh attack, after firing her forward phasers.

****

S’Dera watched with insufferable delight as the torpedoes found their target, scarring the gleaming metal of the Farragut’s hull.

She laughed softly in pure enjoyment. “Target their bridge. Full disruptors!”

She watched as the Farragut continued its relentless firing, all while performing an intricate fast-moving ballet as the ship swept pass the ship in an apparently random pattern.

A random pattern that had unexpectedly overtaken S’Dera and her ship.

There was no time for her to issue an order; merely to stare, stunned, at the viewscreen, which showed a pack of photon torpedoes streaking toward them – then to share a final gaze of stunned defeat with her crew.

The bridge shuddered beneath the blow which came so fast and hard that S’Dera could not keep her balance, but fell, clawing for purchase, to the deck. All around her, consoles exploded into flame, bodies flew, her crew screamed; and then a rumble began, deep in the ship’s belly.

One that grew until the deck beneath her trembled, until the very teeth in her skull chattered.

“Ship status!” she demanded.

No reply came. Gingerly, she made her way across the dark, smoke-filled bridge, lit only by the sparks that occasionally sputtered from damaged equipment.

The once elegant bridge was nothing now but a mass of twisted metal and darkened, sputtering consoles.

The Farragut had imposed serious structural damage to her ship, as she had them.

S’Dera knew her vessel well: and though the viewscreen had gone dark, she sensed that the Bird-Of-Prey was no longer moving, but floating helplessly in the vastness of space. The hum of the warp engines had ceased altogether.

On her way to the central console, she literally stumbled over the bodies of her helm officer, the sensor officer, and the navigation officer. Surprise made her cry out: but when she gathered herself, her upper body lying across the sensor officer, her lower across the helm officer, she rolled to one side and

checked each other officer for signs of life.

Even Jovius was sprawled over the pillow-like armrest of the couch near the central console. He laid there, badly burned and unmoving.

There were none; she, S’Dera, was the only one alive on her bridge. Aghast and disbelieving, she pressed a slightly trembling hand to her forehead and then frowned at the bloodied palm that came away.

The rumbling continued to rise in both pitch level and volume.

She knew by instinct that the warp core had begun to implode, and that there was no chance of survival. She and the ship and everyone on it would be reduced to atomized particles and dust.

The Romulan Commander immediately stumbled over to a section of the central console and quickly tapped a small sequence of buttons. Followed by the activation of a subspace frequency channel, and another function.

One involving the placement of an object in one of the Bird-Of-Prey’s still functional disposal tubes.

“Warhead armed,” came a bland computer voice. “Proximity fuse activated.”

To prevent herself, her personnel, and technology from falling into the hands of the Federation, she would have activated the nuclear warheads for self-destruction. A decision that she would have included her crew, if not her command staff on. And only because she had valued them.

She stared out coldly at the viewscreen and at the Farragut.

“At least I will take you all with me!” she spat in fury.

In the glorious instant before the Bird-Of-Prey detonated in an eruption of fire, incinerating her, her dead crew, the warheads, and her starship into ash, S’Dera felt a deep frustration at having come so close to victory and fulfilling her vengeance. And a huge amount of hatred at John T. Carter, Robert Tacket, and the entire crew of the Starship Farragut.

**************

The entire bridge personnel watched the damaged Romulan Bird-Of-Prey careen helplessly in space, then glided, powerless and dark, to a stop.

While Carter was still entering commands into the right armrest console of the center seat, Moretti reported. “Captain, we’re being hailed.”

Carter glanced over at Tacket, both silently sharing what they already knew. Both looked at the viewscreen.

“On the screen please, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, sir,” Moretti replied, making the necessary adjustments.

Tacket stood up and rested his hands on the red bridge rail. Judging by his body language, Carter and Chadwick could tell that Tacket was not looking forward to the conversation.

A conversation that was inevitable from the start of the mission.

The image on the Farragut bridge’s main viewscreen shifted and showed a dark and dismaying sight: Commander S’Dera, leaning heavily against the central bridge console, her dark hair tousled, her face partially smudged with blood an soot. Rivulets of dark emerald blood streaked her brow and her left cheek.

Behind her lay smoke-enshrouded ruins: the unmanned console was a mangled mess of metal sparks; the bridge was in darkness except for the faint red glow of emergency lighting.

Even so, Carter could make out the silhouette of dead bodies strewn across the deck. An image of the Farragut bridge and its crew in similar circumstances flashed in his mind. He repressed it firmly.

“What is she trying to do?” Chadwick wondered aloud.

Carter’s tone was grim, he understood the reasons for the subspace communication. For it was one the darkest pit of his soul and the reaches of his mind would desire before confronting an enemy in a fatal combat situation. “She wants to look us in the eye.”

She was in the one situation no starship captain ever wanted to face: survival, where one’s crew is entirely killed.

S’Dera spoke, her voice much fainter in tone, with the slight hitching of breath that indicated shattered ribs. “Captain Carter I presume?”

Carter nodded solemly. “You’re information is correct. This is Captain Carter.”

S’Dera looked over in the direction where Tacket stood. A look of hatred crossed her features. One bubbling internally and threatening to burst outward. If she had been on the bridge of the Farragut, she would have taken the opportunity and lunged at Tacket’s throat with the intention to violently strangle the first officer and brutally crush his windpipe.

“Commander Robert Tacket,” she spat the name out in pure anger. Almost like a bad, bitter taste in her mouth that was making her uncomfortable.

She turned her eyes back toward Carter. A look that gave new meaning to the old phrase ‘staring at one with daggers’.

“Like your second in command,” S’Dera growled in hot anger. “You have been a worthy adversary! You and your entire crew!”

“Captain, your ship is compromised,” Carter stated. “Too compromised to survive without assistance. We are willing to provide that assistance by transporting you and any survivors aboard.”

“That is not the Romulan Way, Captain,” S’Dera said, a bit weary, yet managing to retain her fury. “I would rather suffer…rather die in the line of duty than accept assistance from the likes of you.”

She reached over and twisted three knobs on the central console.

The image shifted once more and returned to that of the starfield ahead, and the heavily damaged Romulan Bird-Of-Prey drifting powerless in the void.

Then came a flicker of light that expanded from the center of the Romulan starship, dazzling in all of its white-hot force.

Carter shielded his eyes against the blinding, brilliant flash on the viewscreen as the Bird-Of-Prey dissolved into spinning shrapnel and disintegrating debris. A fiery explosion accompanied by bright red and whirling white-hot shrapnel that quickly dimmed in the airless of void of space.

Various chunks and bits of twisted and flaming metal struck the Farragut’s bow with violent force.

The Farragut recoiled as pieces of the destroyed Romulan starship slammed into its forward hull.

“Forward shields are down to ten percent,” Logan called over the noise.

“Bring us about!” Carter ordered the helm officer.

The explosion happened so quickly that Carter had not had the time to determine whether the Romulan Commander and her crew may have evacuated the ship in any escape pods. Somehow, in the back of his mind, he doubted that such a possibility existed. Given the mentality of Romulan soldiers in general, such a possibility did not exist.

The captain kept a hand on the arm of his chair as the Federation starshiparced about, and many of the minute scraps of glittering metal shards that had been the Romulan-Bird-Of-Prey had been reduced to a faintly glowing field of debris and ruins against the darkness of space. Ruins consisting of metal molds, plaster form, and other bits of sufficient mass.

It was then that Carter noticed that one of the pieces of debris was in the form of one metal-cased object.

The sight of which raised a mental red flag and warning signals.

“Helm, hard over!” Carter shouted. “Navigation, fire phasers!”

“Phasers, firing!” Morris responded immediately.

Another salvo of phasers streaked out and impacted the foreign object.

What followed was an immense explosion, whose shock waves impacted against the Farragut’s shielded hull. The aftershocks resulted in everyone on the bridge being thrown across it.

And the Farragut hanged crooked and motionless in the depths of space.

****

“Bridge to Sickbay,” Carter tapped the switch on his chair’s right armrest.

“Sickbay, Holley here,” came Holley’s filtered voice.

“How many casualties do we have?”

“Twenty eight so far, sir,” Holley reported, a trace of frustration in her voice. “Mainly radiation burns from the ship’s outer areas. It could have been much, much worse.”

Carter nodded and blew out an exasperated breath. “Understood. Thank you, Doctor.”

The main lights on the bridge snapped back on, and the main bridge staff resumed their duties. Those that were injured were being assisted off of the bridge and into the turbolift.

Carter looked over at Tacket, who was conducting a diagnostic of the ship’s systems. Including the status function on the science station’s console.

“Report, Mister Tacket?”

Tacket shook his head at the readout and tapped another button. His analysis was completed in a matter of seconds.

“It was a thermonuclear device of some type, sir,” he reported. “Obviously one of those they had planned on taking to Rator Three. Luckily our phasers detonated it less than one hundred meters away from the ship.”

“It could have also been one of the other old style warheads that they use for self-destruction,” Chadwick pointed out, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Apparently, she decided to use it on us in the hopes of destroying us.”

“Meaning if she was going down,” Carter said, disgruntled. “She was going to take us with her.”

“I’ll say this much,” Chadwick observed, rubbing his eyes to clear them. “She was quite determined to kill us all.”

“She nearly succeeded!” Tacket said, angrily.

“Ship damage?” Carter inquired, trying to help Tacket focus on something else.

“Mainly overloads and circuit burnouts,” Tacket reported. “We got lucky!”

Carter tapped a button on the right armrest. “Weapons status?”

“We’ve only the forward phaser room, Captain,” Galway’s voice came through the ship’s intercom. “Fully operational with the standby personnel available.”

“Very well,” Carter flicked the switch, and leaned forward.

He was tired. Physically and mentally of the entire mission and the parties responsible for it.

Tacket finished running the station’s diagnostic scan and walked over to Carter’s side. Chadwick moved out of the way and leaned up against the bridge rail, stretching his arms. Some minor pops and snaps were heard as the tension was relieved.

“We have engine power now, Jack,” Tacket reported. “If you’d like to move off and make repairs.”

“Good idea,” Carter nodded his acknowledgment “I doubt if there are any more Romulan vessels in the area, but I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Especially with the current state that the Farragut is in,” Tacket concurred. “As far as I am concerned, this mission has been completed.”

“At least your part of it,” Chadwick broke into the discussion between the two best friends. “The Starfleet Weapons Inspection Teams will handle the rest. I can go ahead and notify Starfleet Intelligence to initiate recovery operations.”

“What will happen to the weapons after that?” Carter wondered. “Assuming if they don’t have to be destroyed.”

“That I don’t know,” Chadwick answered. “And even if I did have any knowledge of such plans, that information is confidential. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t have any authorization to disclose such information.”

“Unless your superiors gave you that authorization,” Tacket admonished, disliking the recent turn of events.

Chadwick exhaled an exasperated breath and stared icily at Tacket. “If you have a point to make, Tackey, go ahead and speak it!”

Before, Tacket could respond, Moretti broke into the heated discussion. Her hand holding the earpiece in her left ear.

“Captain,” she said. “I’m receiving some unknown signal. It just started transmitting sometime before the Romulan Bird-Of-Prey was destroyed!”

“What type of signal?” Carter inquired.

Moretti tapped a couple of buttons and adjusted the directional beam. “It appears to be in some form of code,” she explained, tapping it through another system. “I’m running it through the universal translator, now.”

The dark-skinned officer tapped another series of switches and listened in on the signal with the most scrutiny. “It’s certainly a coded signal,” she replied. “I put the recorder and the directional locator on it immediately. It indicates the source bearing twenty nine, mark five.”

Carter looked over at Morris, who was immediately consulting the directional information on his console board. “It’s on a direct line with Rator Three. The specific area is where the weapons bunker is located.”

Carter looked over at Moretti. “Switch recorder to Mister Tacket’s station for decode, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, sir.”

A look of dread crossed Chadwick’s features. One that both Carter and Tacket immediately noticed.

“Damn!” Chadwick cursed. “If the Romulan Commander had managed to send out a signal before she scuttled her ship, that can mean only one of three major possibilities! Either she called in for a fleet of reinforcements or transmitted a self-destruct order. Or she…”

Carter and Tacket immediately caught on to the last unspoken possibility. One that was both unfathomable and dreadful to imagine.

“Oh, my God!” Tacket said, equally shocked. “They would really…”

“I wouldn’t put it past the Romulans to have such a contingency plan, RT!” Carter stated, immediately catching on.

He looked over at Logan and Morris. “Logan, lay in a course for Rator Three. All possible speed!”

“Aye, sir!” the female helm officer complied.

Carter looked over at Tacket and then thumbed the intercom. “Mike, how much warp power can you give us?”

“I’ve got enough to give you warp five, Jack,” Smithfield’s voice came over the intercom. “But, I wouldn’t recommend pushing past that limit until all of the repairs are completed.”

“That’s good enough!” Carter responded. “Warp Five, Miss Logan.”

“Aye, sir!” Logan programmed the captain’s order into the helm’s computer.

“Course computed and on the screen!” Morris announced.

“Engage!”

As the Farragut’s warp drive surged into that level, Carter looked over at Chadwick with a concerned look.

“How long until the warheads’ main computer initiates the launch sequence?”

Chadwick quickly recalled the information from his memory. Another interesting trait he had was his semi-photographic memory. If he remembered something that was vital, he would retain the knowledge. If he didn’t remember anything that he deemed was unimportant, he would have discarded the knowledge.

“If I remember correctly from the briefing sessions,” Chadwick recalled. “The unlock codes will be activated immediately after the signal has been received by the warheads’ main computer receivers. Once that is done, the launch sequence will be initiated immediately after. Altogether, the estimated time required comes down to approximately thirty minutes!”

Carter returned his attention to Morris. “Mister Morris, what is our estimated time of arrival at the Rator system?”

“Given our current rate of speed,” Morris calculated. “We should be there in approximately less than half an hour.”

“How less?”

“We’ll be cutting it close by three minutes, sir,” Morris replied.

Carter tapped the intercom again. “Mike, give me all the power that you can! We’ve just been handed a major deadline!”

“Will do,” Smithfield replied. “Repairs are almost completed. I can give you warp six, but no more.”

“Understood,” Carter replied. “Pull all the safeties if you have to. We’re on countdown! Bridge out.”

“Is there anyway an abort signal can be sent?” Carter demanded.

Chadwick shook his head. “Negative. Once the computers receive the coded orders, they are committed to launch. Our only chance now is to initiate a self-destruct order. And that is a slim chance at best!”

The Starfleet Intelligence officer stared at the viewscreen, as the stars streaked by.

“I’m afraid, gentlemen,” Chadwick reflected. “That the sins of that past war have come back to haunt us in the present. What was sown then, is about to be reaped in the hear and now!”

Carter and Tacket felt a sick sensation in their respective souls. As did the rest of the bridge crew.

It was something that they could certainly all live without.

**************

The red alert klaxon sounded two seconds after the Farragut came out of warp drive.

The viewscreen showed the terrible truth in full magnification. The dayside of Rator III glittered with the brilliant flares of fusion fireballs. Dozens. Hundreds. More sparkling into hellish life with each second.

“We’re now in violation of the neutral zone treaty, sir,” Morris announced, from the navigation console.

“Understood,” Carter replied. “All shields to maximum power. Phasers and photon torpedoes, stand by.”

“Aye, sir,” Logan responded at the helm. “Shields on. Phasers and photon torpedoes armed and ready.”

Jack leaned forward in the center seat and watched the maelstrom on the planet unfold before them.

“Damn!” he said, furiously. He whirled to Moretti. “What happened?”

Moretti looked desperate, after monitoring the comm channels. “Apparently, that signal that the Romulan starship transmitted was the activation of the missiles launch code sequence!”

“Meaning that if the Romulans can’t have this planet as a strategic location,” Tacket determined, his tone clearly indicating his disgust and hostility at the entire issue. “Then no one can! And an innocent world gets sacrificed in the process!”

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse!” Chadwick said dryly, standing at Carter’s right.

Carter frowned and looked over at Chadwick, whose grim expression was now a mixture of shock and outrage.

In the midst of mortal danger, Carter thought, only Chadwick could maintain a dry sense of humor.

“A last, desperate attempt at covering up their covert activities,” Chadwick noted, with resignation. “Destroy the evidence and their tails are covered! A brilliant chess move on their end! No chance at all of any Starfleet weapons inspection teams uncovering any trace of destructive weapons!”

“There is not going to be a trace of anything left unless we do something!” Carter shouted, frustrated by the helplessness of the situation unfolding before them.

“Well, unless you have something in mind, John-boy,” Chadwick shouted in return, forsaking any respect and courtesy. “Now is the goddamn time!”

Every bridge officer turned and looked over at the heated and explosive exchange between their captain and the intelligence agent. For a brief moment, they wondered if there was going to be a physical exchange of blows between the two.

Fortunately, a fast decision made by Carter prevented such a possibility.

John turned his attention back to the viewscreen. “Logan! Take us into geosynchronous orbit! Full impulse!”

Even as the brunette helm officer acknowledged the order, the image of Rator Three swelled on the viewscreen. The starship was in geostationary orbit in seconds, poised over the terminator.

“Evaluation, Mister Morris?”

The African-American officer’s hands trembled over the navigation console, as he studied the sensor readout. “It’s insane, Captain! All of the weapons from the Romulan weapons bunker have been launched at the capital city and various other strategic locations. Defense installations. Industrial complexes. Every location that is inhabited. From those locations, those old weapons are going to blanket a third of the planet’s surface!”

Chadwick looked over the navigator’s shoulder at the readout. “More like the entire surface. The detonation of those armed with Cobalt Thorium G will annihilate the entire surface in one huge radioactive shroud! The planet’s surface will suffer from more than just being rendered sterile! It will be exposed to something equivalent to the seething fury of a thousand exploding suns!”

The turbolift doors burst open again. Smithfield rushed onto the bridge after adjusting her uniform. Her mouth opened as she saw what was on the screen, but she said nothing.

She let her emotions affect her reasoning,” Chadwick complained. “Maybe we were both too clever!”

“What do you mean?” Smithfield broke the tense silence.

“The Romulan Commander activated the launch codes for those weapons,” Carter said, urgently. “Every one of those weapons is being launched!”

“That is senseless!” Smithfield said, shocked and infuriated.

“So is Romulan treachery,” Chadwick noted. “And this is a clear sign of it! I wouldn’t be surprised if they had found a way to disarm the colony’s automated alert systems! Nevertheless, without any information or communications logs, there is no way we can be certain of such sabotage.”

Carter turned to his bridge crew. “We’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’re going to bring those missiles down.”

“Jack, it is going to be tricky,” Tacket said, clearly shaken by the destruction spreading across the screen. “Chances are that we may not be able to neutralize every missile.”

“I know that the chances are not in our favor,” Carter confessed, thrusting out his left arm to point at the viewscreen. “But we can’t let the Romulans get away with this act of treachery. The situation is clear, and this is something beyond Rator Three’s government control. The Romulans caused this and we are justified in stopping it. Stopping it hard.”

Carter looked at each of his bridge crew in turn. The finally at Chadwick.

The Starleet Intelligence Officer returned his stare, knowing what Carter was silently implying at.

Chadwick looked over at at Tacket. “Call up the schematics on those warheads! There might be a chance of activating their self destruct codes!”

Logan brought the ship about. “Moving in on main missile flights.”

“Processing targeting data, now,” Tacket started making the adjustments on his console board.

Logan looked up from the helm in horror at what she saw. “My God!”

Chadwick was more forthright. “God has nothing to do with this insanity, ma’am! Those ignorant Romulan fools did!”

Suddenly, Carter was reminded of a past mission on the U.S.S. Potemkin. A mission where a certain planet was almost annihilated in the inferno of a global thermonuclear war. Captain Wilcox had taken a huge risk in stopping the planet and its inhabitants from obliterating each other. Short of violating Starfleet’s Prime Directive. Thankfully, given the circumstances, the crew of the Potemkin was successful in that prevention without nearly violating what was set forth in General Order One.

The only difference in the current situation involved Romulan interference and the annihilation of a planet alongside the Romulan end of the neutral zone. A situation that was becoming out of control and impossible to contain.

“Sir, all radio frequencies are jammed!” Moretti jabbed at her console in frustration. “Nothing can get through! Not even our own frequencies!”

“Can you broadcast on subspace and phase down to standard frequencies once you are past the jamming boundary?” Carter asked.

“I think so,” Moretti replied. “Mr. Tacket, I’ll need your assistance.”

“I’m beginning the proper sensor alignment, now,” Tacket reported. “I’ve also got the schematics on the old style warheads on-line.”

Carter stared at the screen, willing the miniature suns that grew silently on it to disappear. On the planet’s nightside, the arc of atmosphere already glowed red from the firestorms that had erupted.

Morris began to set his weapons systems. “I’ve got a target-acquisition return signal! Standing by to fire!”

“Most of the missiles have left the planet’s atmosphere,” Tacket reported, consulting the blue-white data readout from the sensor hood. “And are now entering the ionosphere!”

Chadwick studied the schematic on one of the squarish monitors above the science station.

“Try those self destruct codes, now!” he spoke to Moretti, who was immediately carrying out the order.

On the viewscreen, some of the missiles began to detonate in huge blossoms of red-orange to white hot light. Enough to cause various shock waves that impacted on the Farragut‘s hull. The ripple-like effects also knocked some of he bridge crew off of their feet or out of their seats.

“Why are they not all detonating?” Carter demanded.

“Subspace frequencies are also being jammed!” Moretti reported.

“How? What’s causing it? The jamming was in the electromagnetic spectrum!”

“Apparently, the electromagnetic pulse effect from the warhead detonations are interfering with subspace communications,” Tacket looked up from the sensor hood. “The effect of all the fusion explosions are causing some serious disturbances!”

Thankfully, due to the shield technology that was used on all Federation Starships, an EMP effect would not harm a starship’s vital systems. But the same could not be said for the effect concerning the interference of systems in other areas.

“Sir, the targeting modes are not working. I can’t get a lock on to any of the warheads!”

Carter was out of his chair, going to Logan’s station. Like everyone else, he knew those specific signals traveled over subspace. Logan kept trying to reset her weapons systems, over and over. Carter looked over at the readout as well.

“Damn!” he cursed in frustration. “Even the sensors are useless!”

Then an idea came to mind as more of the warheads began to detonate. The planet looked as if its core had exploded and was bursting through its shell.

“RT, What if we went in closer? Boosted power to all subspace systems and punched through the interference.”

“It could work,” Tacket decided. “But it will be risky.”

“Jim Kirk once said that risk is our business,” Carter recalled. “Logan, take us in past the jamming layer. Stand by to initiate full emergency power on the impulse engines.”

Logan hesitated for an instant. “Sir, that will take us through the ionosphere and into the atmosphere proper!”

“It won’t be the first time or the last,” Carter said, his fists clenched. “Take us in.”

“Aye, sir,” Logan replied, programming Carter’s order into the helm computer.

The Farragut fell for the planet.

Within seconds, the rough buffeting of atmospheric flight shook the bridge.

“Logan, try those phasers again.”

The wine of the phaser capacitors echoed through the bridge.

“They’re working!’ Logan cried trimuphantly. “Limited range but they’re working!”

“Moretti, try the self-destruct signals again!” Carter ordered. “Fire all phasers!”

“Yes, sir. Getting some response, sir.”

Moretti’s hands danced across the communications panel, tapping various computer keys.

Logan depressed the firing sequence and targeted several of the warheads.

Several more missiles detonated in a fiery blossom, causing more rippling shock waves that impacted hard on the Farragut‘s shield protected hull. Other warheads bursted in thermonuclear fire after being impacted by a volley of phaser energy.

Then Morris screamed and flew from his chair as his navigation board erupted in sparks and flame. Chadwick ran to him, cursing a few profane words in the process.

“Subspace feedback through phaser targeting system!” Tacket said.

After helping Morris up, Chadwick rushed over to the emergency locker and broke out an oxygen eater. Depressing the trigger, the Starfleet Intelligence Officer sprayed the fire extinguisher onto the sparking and sputtering console in order to help the automatic damage-control systems. Logan stayed at her post, her command gold uniform was blackened with soot, breathing smoke.

The Farragut bucked wildly.

“Shock waves from multiple explosions,” she said, hands moving feverishly over the controls. “It’s making things a bit sluggish!”

Moretti gasped and pulled her earpiece from her left ear.

“Subspace feedback on all comm channels!” Tacket yelped. “Jack, we’ve done all that we can do! We’ve got to get out of the planet’s gravity well!”

The odds were definitely not in their favor. Carter hated to lose, but there was no other alternative available. Even though the mission objective had been completed, the paramount issue that was now at hand was the safety of the Farragut and its crew.

“Logan, get us out of here!” Carter ordered. “Full impulse!”

“Aye, sir!” Logan immediately replied.

Pushing hard on the impulse controls, Logan made every effort to push the large Constitution-class Federation Starship out of the planet’s gravity well.

The viewscreen flared brilliant white until the visual compensators cut in. The ship shuddered as if it had smashed into solid rock. Moretti fell from her chair. Tacket slammed over the railing. Smithfield cried out. And all Carter could hear was every bridge alarm screaming in betrayal.

The hull metal shrieked and the Farragut twisted as another flight of missiles detonated against her shields. Tacket pulled himself back to his feet. Chadwick sat beside Logan, trying desperately to bring any of Morris’ navigation controls back on line.

“We’re almost clear of the atmosphere!” Logan cried out.

Another shock wave was emitted from another nuclear detonation.

The resulting impact against the Farragut’s hull resulted in the viewscreen going black. The bridge lights cutting out. And the gravity temporarily failing, causing utter darkness to overwhelm the entire bridge. Carter’s hands gripped the sides of his chair. His feet hooked under the center seat to hold him in place. Someone flew through the air beside him. Equipment consoles flared and sparked.

Space around the Federation starship was illuminated by a supernova-like glare as the warhead exploded. The Farragut‘s shields flared and coruscated fighting off and deflecting the deadly release of energy.

Suddenly, on the bridge of the Farragut, the science console console shorted out altogether. Tacket leaped to his feet, then screamed in agony as a lethal arc of current across his hands seared through his body, ‘freezing’ him to the board.

“RT!!” Carter shouted as he instinctively jumped forward. He knocked Tacket clear with a body block, but absorbed a blast of the energy himself. Both were flung backwards over the railing and into the back of the navigation console’s chair. The impact sent Chadwick flying into the rail and riccocheting onto the cold, hard floor of the bridge deck, next to Carter and Tacket.

Even Morris was not spared from the aftershocks of the impact, as he was thrown forward in front of the helm and navigation console.

The bridge of the Farragut was a charred husk, a sparking shell resounding with the groans of the wounded. Thick, acrid smoke shrouded the overhead and the main viewscreen alternated between dull blackness and bursts of static.

Smithfield pushed herself from the floor of the bridge. She did it at a lean because the gravity field was out of alignment, placing the floor on a relative five-degree angle. Once the gravity field suddenly returned into alignment, the angle was straightened. Smoke filled the air as she heard moans from some of the injured bridge personnel. Half the station displays were out. The other half flickered with gibberish. Only a few battery lights were working, making the entire bridge area dark and murky.

Finally, the emergency lights came on.

Moretti was already on the intercom. “Doctor Holley to the bridge! Medical emergency!”

Smithfield bent over Tacket. Gruesomely, the body was sizzling. Thankfully, he was still alive.

The Chief Engineer moved to Carter. The captain’s face was chalk-white, and he was not breathing. She opened her mouth in alarm and turned back to Moretti, about to ask where the medical team was.

Suddenly, Holley and two technicians bolted from a turbolift.

Smithfield immediately attended to other matters, now that Holley had arrived. He walked over to the communications station. “Moretti, please raise Main Engineering.” Her voice was tight, nearly betraying the true depth of her feelings.

Moretti stared at her. She had seen this in Smithfield before when both Carter’s and Tacket’s lives were in jeopardy. She swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”

Holley ignored them all, working feverishly over Carter and Tacket. She injected the captain and the first officer with a dose of cordrazine, a well-known strong stimulant, and watched for any signs of life. She was relieved when both Carter’s and Tacket’s bodies shuddered and started breathing again, even though unsteadily. She ran a Feinberger diagnostic scanner over both men. “Still in deep shock. Tommy, call for a stretcher,” she instructed the orderly.

Holley began to attend to Chadwick, who brushed her off with a slight, polite movement of his right hand. “I’m okay, ma’am.”

She then attended to Morris, who managed to get up on his own. She ran a tricorder over his hands and then applied a hypospray to his left arm. “That should dull the pain. But, I still want to conduct a physical, just in case.”

Morris nodded. “You won’t get any argument out of me, doctor.”

As Smthfield motioned Morris toward the turbolift, Moretti wandered over to the doctor. “Will they be all right?” she asked anxiously.

Holley did not answer; she was too busy trying to stabilize her patient. She administered a shot of tri-ox compound. “Tommy, where the hell is that damned stretcher?” she snapped.

At Moretti’s station, Smithfield was listening to the report from Main Engineering, but kept a sharp eye on the chief medical officer. “We’re in good shape, ma’am. We lost a couple of auxiliary panels in Engineering, one in BioSciences–and, of course, the science console.”

“How quickly can repairs be effected?”

“It should not take long,” Galway’s weary voice filtered through the intercom. “We sustained heavy damage to isolated areas of three decks in the engineering hull. Sixteen are dead, but the ship is functional.”

“Very well,” Smithfield responded. “Bridge out.”

Smithfield noted two more med techs arriving, with a stretchers for Carter and Tacket. “Contact Starfleet Command; report what has happened, and that in view of the injuries that the captain and first officer have suffered from, I am temporarily assuming command of the Farragut.

“Yes, ma’am.” Moretti turned back to her station as Smithfield strode purposefully to her friends being assisted onto the stretchers.

Holley stood up, her face shining with sweat. She saw Smithfield’s concerned look. “They’re both stable now. They received one hell of a jolt from that open circuit; it momentarily stopped their heart and respiration. There doesn’t appear to be any neural damage from the shock, but I’ll know better after they come around.”

Smithfield nodded. She watched silently as Carter and Tacket were gently eased onto their respective stretchers. Both were pale but, Michele noted, breathing normally. As Holley and the med techs left for Sickbay, Smithfield sat down in the center seat.

Holley looked over at Moretti. Both silently exchanged the same thoughts that they were having. Holley sadly smiled and entered the turbolift.

As the turbolift doors closed, several bridge officers breathed sighs of relief that Smithfield shared.

“How are we on impulse power?” she asked Logan.

The lovely brunette did a quick diagnostic of the ship’s systems. “We’re fine. The explosion somehow managed to push us out of the planet’s orbit.” She did another consultation of the ship’s systems. “Some of the transitor circuits have been fused. But the ship is still maneuverable.”

“Lay in a course for Starbase Twelve. Moretti, maintain Yellow Alert until further notice.”

Smithfield was lost in thought; something bothered her about this episode. The Romulans made no attempt to conceal their intentions; they had even broadcast them. They had sent a Bird Of Prey, choosing the less powerful and more outdated of their vessels. And finally, after their plans failed, they decide to obliterate the evidence that would expose their acts. It would pose for an interesting report to Starfleet Command.

She looked over at Chadwick, who vacated the seat for the relief navigator. Chadwick looked her in the eye and said nothing. Yet, she could tell that the Section 31 agent was physically and mentally exhausted. Shock and anger drained all expression from his face.

The silent expression on his chiseled face clearly reflected what he was thinking.

Get me the hell out of here! Chadwick thought, wearily.

Aloud, he said. “I wish I could have met the individuals that masterminded this operation,” he said, with a minor trace of respect. “They played the game brilliantly. And yet we both lost. It cost us both.”

The Romulans played the game well, but the Federation played it better. Unfortunately, it did not lead to the outcome known as checkmate.

Smithfield also noticed how Chadwick was not gloating or swaggering at having beaten the genius opponents. Instead, he was composed and there was a trace of a grudgingly respect evident on his face. A clear sense of respect for the opponent and for the game. The Romulan Commander executed the checkmate perfectly, but he still felt disgust over the consequences of that.

It was more than just a mission to him. It was personal.

Suddenly, the old phrase ‘there but for the grace of God goes he’ entered his mind. He realized that if the roles had been reversed, the outcome could have been the same.

Without saying another word, the young man stepped into the vacant turbolift. The doors shutting behind him.

Smithfield watched the receeding planet of Rator III on the viewscreen. A third of the planet was on fire, dying in the heat of a thousand killing suns. Already more than half of the planet was enshrouded by charcoal black and iron-gray clouds. Soon, the planet would be rendered inhospitable and devoid of life for a century.

The mere thought of it was too horrendous to contemplate. There was nothing more that they could do. They stopped the Romulans. But the Romulans had the final word.

A final word in the form of a planet that was now burning in the vastness of space, from a purifying set of thermonuclear detonations.

Unnoticed, Moretti, sitting at the communications console, buried her face in her hands. Like Holley, she could no longer stand by while the Farragut and her crew were thrown pell-mell into more dangerous situations. She sighed wearily as she reached a difficult decision.

Like Holley, Baker, and Galway, she was going to leave the Farragut.

**************

Captain’s Personal Log, Stardate: 5115.1-

The Farragut has been a somber ship since our combative encounter with the rogue Romulan Bird of Prey attack/scout vessel. It has been a day since the Farragut had successfully pushed them back towards the Romulan Neutral Zone, only to have the Romulan Commander initiate a self-destruct rather than surrender. Since then, we held memorial services for the men and women who died on this mission. I had to break the tragic news to various families of those who had died in the line of duty. Soon, we will be making a very necessary stopover at Starbase 15 for repairs and a much needed few days of R-and-R. After that, we will be assigned a much less taxing medical supply run to some of the colony planets situated in the outermost Sectors of the United Federation of Planets. We anticipate nothing unexpected or dangerous, however, I have learned early on, as a starship captain, to expect the unexpected.

Hopefully, for better or for worse, this recent mission will help redeem the Farragut’s reputation, aswell as her crew.

I’ve been alarmed to learn that my Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Christine Holley, along with Transporter Chief Wayne Galway, Lieutenant Alissa Moretti, and Crewman Allen Baker are leaving the ship. All four have requested transfers to new duty assignments for personal reasons. No doubt, their transfers have something to do with the aftermath of the Proteus IX-B catastrophe, and recent events. They will be leaving before we rendezvous with the U.S.S. Excalibur for our next assignment.

Despite my best efforts, as well as Commander Tacket’s, to convince them otherwise, all four are unanimous in their decision to disembark for new duty assignments, elsewhere. Starfleet Command has already assigned replacements to fill in those vacant positions.

Commander Chadwick has already filed his report on the mission and its unfortunate aftermath with the upper echelon personnel at Starfleet Intelligence. He has since departed the Farragut to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Hood.

Personally, I am glad that Chadwick has departed. While Commander Tacket and I are certain that the feeling is mutual from Chadwick’s end, both of us hope to never see Steven Chadwick ever again. Let alone be burdened with another assignment from Starfleet Intelligence that has been sanctioned by Section 31.

Carter pressed a button to stop the recording of his log entry. Sitting back on the bed in the Farragut’s wide, pastel-colored sick bay, he reflected on the events that had transpired. Right up to the final confrontation with the Romulan Commander. Events that he was now disclosing in a subspace communication with Admiral R.H. Simmons, whose image appeared on the small sickbay monitor screen near his bed.

A debriefing that he was not enjoying at all.

On his right, Tacket was resting comfortably on another bed. Holley had been in earlier to check their vital signs. Thankfully, the electrical shock had not inflicted any permanent damage to their respective systems.

After completing his disposition of the events involving the mission, he waited until the admiral broke the tension-filled silence.

Simmons eyebrows rose and finally spoke.

Captain, I understand from your reports that the situation has been neutralized.”

That’s right, Admiral,” Carter said.

Am I to understand that this all stemmed from incomplete work at Starfleet Intelligence?”

That is one way to look at it, but I wouldn’t,” Carter argued. “What happened here was tragic and not something you would find on a routine mission.”

I told you this would be a lousy mission,” Simmons said, still looking dissatisfied.

And it was. It took a higher toll on my crew than expected.”

So I see. Thirty of your crew seriously injured. And an entire planet obliterated at the hands of the Romulans.”

More like at the hands of the Romulan Tal Shiar.”

You suspect they had a hand in the detonation of those old-style nuclear warheads?”

Yes, Admiral. When it was clear that the Romulan Commander had initiated the launch sequence, it was not hard to put two and two together. The end result speaks for itself.”

Simmons made a coughing noise, which Carter couldn’t interpret as a positive or negative assessment. Perhaps the admiral didn’t know, either.

The destruction of those weapons are loss to our future planning,” Simmons said, changing the subject. “To prevent such weapons from being used ever again in the wrong hands. The Romulans made a choice, and sacrificed a planet and its race, just to prevent the Federation from obtaining ownership of them. In a tragic sort of way, they completed the mission for us. And, in a grudgingly respectful way it says a lot about the Tal Shiar’s character.”

“It was there way of saying detente,” Carter theorized. “They don’t have the weapons. We don’t have the weapons. The balance of power is still on an even scale for both sides.”

It will complicate some of the brewing political problems elsewhere.”

Is there anything we can do to help?”

No,” Simmons said bluntly.

Finally, Carter reached his boiling point and decided to vent his fury.

Admiral, with all due respect. We’ve taken the assignments, and paid our dues. I would like to think this ship and its crew deserve better. We’re scrambling for proper supplies and support, and our morale has been shaken.”

At least you didn’t let the threat escape intact, for a change,” Simmons said, bluntly.

Carter recognized he was going to get nowhere with the admiral. “Sir, the offhand way in which you’re talking about my crew’s sacrifices diminishes their contribution. Ever since the disaster on the Proteus Colonies, we’ve all been suspect. And time and again, my people have risen to the challenge and have excelled. They have exhibited superb competence, and my senior staff has kept them working toward our common goals. Even though we failed in preventing a world from being destroying, we still were successful in neutralizing a threat. Some people were injured along the way, people who believed in the mission. They, if not I, deserve your respect and consideration. It’s time for us to return to more strategically vital missions.”

Simmons just stared at Carter, eyes smoldering. He was either going to give in or succeed where Broughton had failed, busting Carter out of the service.

Rather than prolong the argument and incur the man’s temper, the captain wisely thought it was time to back off.

****

An hour after arriving at Starbase 15, Carter exited the turbolift and began walking toward the transporter room. As he walked, he felt a mix of unease from his conversation with Admiral Simmons and a task that he was not looking forward to at all.

Taking a deep breath, Carter moved forward and saw the red orange doors part at his approach. There were five people waiting for him inside the transporter room. Aside from the transporter technician on duty(who was standing behind the control console), the other four gathered on the round, slightly elevated transporter pad platform. The last time that Carter dealt with situation very similar to this, was when the Farragut’s former chief of security, Lieutenant Commander Henry Francis ‘Hank’ Prescott, III had transferred to the U.S.S. Enterprise. And that was only because of a situation that could have led to life or death consequences for the Farragut and her crew. A situation that led to a difference of opinion between Tacket and Prescott.

Now, he felt that history was repeating itself, once again. Despite the different set of circumstances.

Christine Holley had been speaking with Wayne Galway, while Allen Baker had been consulting his wrist chronometer. Alissa Moretti was standing on the pad, in a silent, somber, and reflective train of thought.

“Captain,” said Baker, as Carter approached the transporter chambers’ platform.

“Baker,” the captain replied. Carter then glanced at the others. “Doctor,” he said. “Chief. Lieutenant.”

“I guess this is it,” said the communications officer, somberly.

The captain smiled – first at Moretti, and then at the others as well. “I guess it is,” he replied, a bit sadly. “But before you all go, I want to thank you all for the good work that you have done. For this ship and its crew. Those who you will be leaving behind will always be in your debt.”

Moretti smiled back at him. “It is kind of you to say so, sir.”

“I’d be remise if I said anything else,” Carter told her.

“Captain,” the transporter technician announced. “Starbase Operations report that they are ready to receive the personnel.”

The captain nodded to show that he had heard. “Thank you once again,” he told the four on the transporter pad. “I wish you all the best.”

Carter then glanced at the transporter technician and said, “Energize.”

A moment later, the air around Baker, Galway, Holley, and Moretti began to shimmer with an iridescent light. Then they, and the light, faded to nothingness as their molecules were absorbed into the transporter’s pattern buffer and sent streaming down to the Starbase along an annular containment beam.

John T. Carter sighed and wondered if he would ever see them again. At the rate the Federation was growing and expanding, it seemed unlikely.

But then again, one never knew what the future would hold.

****

Starfleet Intelligence Command

San Francisco, California – Earth

United Federation Of Planets

2268 AD

Vice Admiral Thane Ravashol sat in his office reviewing reports from Starfleet Intelligence. He began each morning, well before the sun rose, with these reports. The old-aged Rigellian absorbed and digested huge amounts of information far faster than most of the people who served the Federation president. The door to his office opened and Admiral Simmons entered, blinking a few times, clearly trying to be alert. Ravashol preferred meetings with Starfleet officers at times of his own choosing, keeping things on his own terms.

What have you learned from the Farragut’s reports?” Ravashol asked, without even looking at the admiral.

Since he wasn’t offered a chair, Simmons remained upright, a scowl permanently etched onto his features. The admiral outlined the intelligence branch’s confirmation, and that of Section 31, that the century old nuclear devices were no longer a threat.

Ravashol nodded once and picked up a padd. He thumbed it to life and read something from it before speaking.

We need to place this information into a top-secret storage facility. It should be placed under retina scan access only, limited to you and myself.”

Yes, sir,” Simmons said, and looked as if he was about to ask a question.

Admiral, even though we averted another war, others are ready to flare up at any moment. We’re far from safe and secure. Starfleet is prepared. If I need soldiers in a short time, we can initiate a newer form of defense and use it on any threat to the Federation at a moments notice. I can give you an even more powerful weapon of mass destruction. That was the original goal during the Earth-Romulan War when the problem first came to light. We solved it, but too late.“

“Maybe so,” Simmons stated. “But there will be another war. There always is.”

****

U.S.S. Farragut

NCC-1647

The card game in Carter’s quarters definitely helped ease the minds of Carter, Tacket, and Smithfield.

If nothing else, it helped the three best and close friends forget about the recent chain of events.

Especially in light of the officers having transfered off of the Farragut to start new duties and new lives elsewhere.

On the table before them was a partially depleted deck of playing cards. On top of which the U.S.S. Farragut’s chief engineer had placed a blue poker chip.

Maybe in time the blemish on the Farragut will fade, Carter reflected. And the bismirched reputation branded on us will be forgotten.

He was glad that both he and Tacket had been discharged from Sickbay. Neither one having suffered too serious an injury. But the memory of that electrical shock and the events that led to that would remain in both of their respective memories for a long time to come.

Carter mentally recalled dossiers of the replacements for Galway, Baker, Holley, and Moretti. He was looking forward to meeting the first three once they came on board. Which would happen in about two days. Lieutenant Samuel Stahler, a stocky man with a shaved head and goatee had taken over Moretti’s duties at the communications console.

Smithfield had recently recruited Galway’s replacement. From Montreal, Canada, Senior Chief Specialist Yvette Dupree was a thirty-year enlisted veteran of Starfleet and a new addition to the engineering team. This would be her second tour aboard the U.S.S. Farragut. In 2257 AD, she had served aboard the starship as an engineer under Captain Garrovick, when two hundred of her crewmates were killed in an encounter with the Tycho IV cloud creature. A skilled transporter technician with a knack for recovering landing parties in difficult circumstances, she was coming home to her old ship to fill the vacancy on the engineering command staff. Obviously, she was secretly nervous about returning, and confronting old memories.

The Farragut’s new security chief, one Gary Weston, had an older sister, two living parents, and was a divorced father of three grown children. His oldest son now serving in the military, and may one day follow in his footsteps with Starfleet. Weston had retired from military service, and then decided to pursue another military career with Starfleet. Retirement life lacked the challenges he obviously craved, and left him too much time to dwell on his failed marriage. After serving on several other vessels, Weston considered the Farragut to be the ship of his future. Crew members on the ship would no doubt respect his military background as much as the compassion he showed towards each of his crew members.

A strong willed, yet respectful officer(in some ways like his predecessor, Henry Prescott, III, the freedom to roam the galaxy without the distractions of family would allow Weston to focus on his missions, as well as the friends he would along the way.

Dr. Brooke Durham he did not know that well. In time he would learn more about her and her skills.

Holding five cards of his own, Carter shook his head, trying to clear his troubled mind. After the current hand’s opening round of betting and drawing of cards from Smithfield, who had volunteered to be the dealer for the evening’s session, Tacket had with no hesitation bet a few of the blue chips stacked before him on the table – the equivalent of twenty Federation credits – and Smithfield had matched the wager. The chips had no real monetary value, which was due to the standing policy aboard ship concerning the prohibition of actual gambling.

“I seem to have left Admiral Simmons with a few things to consider,” Carter said, reaching for his own stack of chips ans selecting a few.

That earned the Carter a curious stare from both Tacket and Smithfield, and he met them both evenly since he had no idea how the last conversation with the admiral would affect their future. He needed to remain positive, if not for his own spirits then for the Farragut’s crew.

“Like what?” Tacket inquired, holding five cards of his own. He retrieved a quarter of the cards from his stack and put them on the pile.

With a quick movement, Smithfield took four chips of her own and then added them to the center pile.

“About how the political intrigues at Starfleet Command concerning us have gone on long enough,” Carter stated.

He wondered briefly what reaction this would bring from Admiral Simmons. Well, they had discussed what a mess of a mission this was likely to be, and now the prophetic words rang true.

Tacket looked over his cards and placed them facedown on the table. “Fold.”

“Well, in time we’ll all get back to our own familiar routine again,” Smithfield stated. “The chain of events will be a forgotten memory, and seem like it never happened.”

“Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was,” Carter experienced. “We won’t have that feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

“What do you mean, Jack?”

“That even in the twenty-third century,” Carter reflected. “There is no end to misery and destruction. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us. As much as it is a part of the Romulans and the Klingons.”

Extending his arm, Carter laid his cards face up on the table. Three kings-diamonds, clubs, and hearts-were complemented by two nines-spades and clubs.

“Full house, kings full of nines.”

“I’m afraid that I got you beat, Jack,” Smithfield said, spreading her own cards on the table. The cards revealing an ace of spades along with four tens.

Tacket’s immediate reaction was to release a hearty laugh, which was accompanied by Smithfield’s bright smile.

Even Carter could not resist chuckling. “Remind me to teach you both the fine art of Texas Hold’em.”

Changing the subject, Tacket looked over at the food processor. “Anybody up for a drink?”

“After all we’ve been through the past month,” Carter stated. “I’d say we are all entitled to one.”

“I know just the one,” Smithfield recommended. “Lemonade with gin.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tacket concurred.

Tacket suddenly got up from his chair and started moving toward the food processor that was directly to the left of Carter’s chair. After ordering up the alcohol laced fruit juice, his gaze was suddenly focused on the porthole window. He soon found himself looking out into space.

Carter noticed his best friend staring out into the void and then found himself getting up and going over to where Robert was.

Smithfield also got up from her chair and joined them. The three of them were all gazing out at the stars with a transfixed sense of awe and wonder.

It was a long time before anyone in the room found the strength to say anything else, as Carter, Tacket, and Smithfield absently returned their gaze to the stars outside…..and the things that lay beyond.

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