Dorado Chasm – USS McNair Foray #1

Chapter One

Passengers from Paradise

Forward screens revealed the green jewel of Marcala only moments after the McNair dropped out of warp, as the ship soared in toward orbit. On the bridge the command crew regarded the planet together in momentary silence.

“Standard hailing frequency,” requested Captain Seay.

“Already on line, Captain,” replied Lieutenant Leach.

Seay glanced around at her from his command seat and nodded approvingly. “Rigel Three Control, this is Captain Seay of the Starship McNair, requesting clearance for orbit.” After a moment, the starfield on the forward screen flickered and revealed the head and shoulders of a pleasant, smiling, dark-haired woman. She wore a Starfleet Lieutenant Commander’s uniform.

“Welcome to the Rigel system, Captain. You are cleared for orbit. The Commodore has asked me to notify him when you arrive. If’ you’ll stand by, I’ll try to connect you.”

“Commodore Trussell?” the Captain asked, though he knew the local Starfleet command structure had not changed recently. He permitted himself a barely perceptible sigh. Trussell had always been bobbing along ahead of him in the ranks like an iceberg, threatening a collision with potentially disastrous results, ever since the incident with the fellow’s sister during Academy days. Seay wondered idly if Trussell would still think of that old grudge as the first thing to cross his mind when they beheld each other anew this time.

The Commodore was not in uniform when he came onscreen. He wore tan knee-length breeches, shoes with buckles on them, white stockings that reached to his knees, a shirt with large flared sleeves, and a three-cornered hat on his head. Apparently he had been up to some obscure activity in a holodeck. The duty officer had not overstated the case. Their arrival had been marked for instant response.

“Seay! Glad to see you got here on time. Listen, before you take on that shipment for the Altair system, I have a special run for you to make. This needs looking after immediately, and I haven’t got another starship coming in here for several days. You can be back in plenty of time.”

“What is it, Commodore? What can we do?”

“I’ve got a couple of important persons who need passage to Dorado. One of them is a special Federation agent with priority orders. He came in yesterday from Earth and has been making my life miserable trying to get out of here again.”

“It would have to be a priority assignment,” remarked Commander Hubble to Jo Leach quietly, “to get me to skip out of here so fast.” Jo knowingly nodded her assent. Marcala’s lush, high-oxygen forests and beautiful sand beaches made it one of the most desirable planetfalls in the sector, not to mention its resort areas constructed in the most attractive spots. In fact, a number of the crew had been hoping for shore leave on Marcala.

Captain Seay ignored their conversation. “We stand ready to beam up any passengers,” he said to the visage on the screen. “I also have one case of infectious Denebian typhus quarantined in sick bay, and request permission to beam the patient down to your hospital facilities.”

“Of course, Ray. Of course. And I’d like to invite you and your officers to beam down and have dinner with me when you get back, while the colonists and other freight for Altair are being loaded.”

“Thank you, Commodore. We’d be delighted. Who else do we have coming on board besides the special agent?”

“Only one, Ray. A daughter from one of the Lineages, going to Dorado for her wedding. She’s a Montgolfier.”

Captain Seay recognized the name, of course. One of the names on the nameplates around the Federation Council table, one of the ruling families of the United Federation of Planets. A lineage wedding commanded just about as high a priority as a special agent. He would have to think carefully about quarters.

“She will have a chaperone, of course?”

“Of course. He’s from one of the Celestine orders.”

Seay wondered idly which of the branches of the religion it would be. The Commodore apparently took his silence as the end of questions and answers. “Expect your passengers in about half an hour, then,” the older man concluded with a nod of satisfaction. “Trussell out.” The starfield reappeared, set with the green jewel of the planet in the foreground.

“Okay, people, anything else we need to beam aboard before we take on our visitors? Mister Key, lay in a course for Dorado and file it with the local folks.”

“Aye, Captain,” assented George Key from his seat at the forward right console. He began to bring up references and enter new instructions for the vessel.

“Mister Ward, you’re with me. Let’s go down to the transporter room and see what the Commodore is sending us. Mister Hubble, you have the con. Call Doctor Munib and have him come to the transporter room, as well.”

“As ordered, Captain,” said Hugh Hubble. He crossed from the side of the bridge to the command chair and settled himself in it as Seay and Jerry Ward walked side by side through the turbolift door and it hissed closed behind them.

When the new passengers eventually materialized on the transporter pads, deep down inside the ship, they found themselves facing Captain Seay, flanked by Doctor Munib on his right and First Officer Ward on his left.

The lineage bride lived up to what one would expect. She stood as tall as any of the men. Her slender, finely chiseled features could only come from generations of marriages arranged according to the most precise calculations of physical and mental advantage. Her expression might have been slightly disinterested tolerance, perhaps tinged with a trace of amusement. Behind her stood an even taller, even thinner figure clad in the brown cowled robe of a Celestine order. Seay saw by the color of his neck chain that he was a Focian. No trouble there.

On the other hand, the second passenger certainly was not what Captain Seay had been expecting. A Federation special agent conjured up in his mind images of an imposing figure, trim yet robust, youthful yet serious, efficient, a man of few words. Something along the lines of the legends about the early astronauts from Earth. Instead he found himself looking at a rather elderly little gentleman with tufts of white hair in some disorder atop his head, a bushy little white mustache, and wearing a somewhat rumpled colonist outfit. The dark gray tunic had seen better days, though all the buttons were in place. It was buttoned right up to the plain ring collar. The matching pants were a little too short even for his short legs, so that his ankles peeped out above the tops of his ship’s slippers.

Protocol demanded that they greet the bride first.

“Welcome to the McNair, Lady Montgolfier,” Seay said correctly. “Allow me to introduce my first officer, Commander Ward.” Jerry Ward bowed. “And this is my chief medical officer, Doctor Munib.” Munib, in his turn, also bowed.

She waited for the monk to advance to her side, coiled her hand around the arm of his robe, and stepped down to greet them.

“Thank you, Captain. We appreciate your help in getting me to Dorado for my marriage.”

“May I have Mister Ward show you to your cabin? Mister Ward, show Lady Montgolfier to admiralty cabin two.”

Jerry Ward nodded wordlessly to the Captain. Seay had reminded him in the turbolift of the complexities of protocol that arose whenever members of Council lineages crossed one’s path. Fortunately, such encounters were rare in the vastness of interstellar space. Most lineages with the power to hold a Council seat also maintained private fleets of their own ships. With a second, slightly awkward and unaccustomed bow, he led the way out of the transporter room. The lineage bride followed on the arm of her chaperone.

“Now then,” said Seay, turning back to their remaining guest, “you must be the special Federation agent the Commodore mentioned. I’m afraid he gave me no details. I don’t even know your name.”

Without any trace of hesitation, the man’s features were transformed by an expression of such disarming and sincere warmth that both Munib and Seay found themselves smiling back.

“Gentlemen, my name is Ulysses Gauss,” he said, in a quiet but firm voice. Keith Munib thought he detected a slight Vulcan accent. He looked at the fellow thoughtfully. The doctor was intrigued to feel himself smiling spontaneously at someone within seconds of encountering him. The Captain had asked him to be present to give what aid he could in discerning both the character and the mission of this mysterious passenger. Did this disarming manner have something to do with his abilities as a special agent? There might be a simple explanation for their reactions.

“You’re not Betazoid, are you?” he asked aloud. Gauss’ eyebrows rose in amusement. He laughed out loud.

“No, Doctor. Not a betazoid. Just another wretched human. But the only people who don’t ask me that question seem to be betazoids themselves. The Commodore told you nothing of my mission, then?”

“Nothing at all. We’ve only just arrived,” observed Seay. “I could suggest a pleasant little conversation in the forward observation lounge, if you’d care to fill in any of the blanks.”

“Delighted! And when will we be leaving for Dorado?”

In response, the Captain tapped his communicator pin.

“Seay to bridge. Course laid in for Delta Pavonis system, Mister Hubble?”

“All as ordered, Captain,” replied the disembodied voice of the operations officer from the bridge above. “We are cleared for departure. The patient has been transported down to the surface.”

“Warp away, Mister Hubble; warp away.”

“Warp away it is, sir.”

They felt the thrum of power build up in the ship through the soles of their feet, the only discernible evidence that they were powering up for the jump out of orbit. Seay led the others out of the transporter room, heading for the observation lounge.

“Let’s go and have a little talk,” he suggested, as the door hissed shut behind him.

 

 

Chapter Two

Unexpected Guests

Captain Seay sat thoughtfully behind the desk in his ready room. Across from him, the ship’s counselor of the McNair leaned forward in her chair.

“I sensed excitement and anxiety from Lady Montgolfier. Clearly she places great store in composure and self-control, but the effort required to keep calm came off her so strongly, it was almost like a taste in the air. Only Vulcans radiate more rigid energy.”

“That fits with my more superficial observation, Jennifer,” he confirmed. “I must say, she doesn’t look much like anybody I ever met at age nineteen.”

“Well, she’s one of the Council lineages. Careful breeding pays off, eh, Captain?”

“After a dozen generations, it would seem to.”

A whistle burst from the console on his desk. “Captain to the bridge, please,” a voice requested. “Dropping out of warp for Dorado in four minutes.”

Ray Seay tapped the console. “Thank you, Mister Hubble. I’ll be right out.”

He got to his feet as Jennifer Kelley did the same.

“And thank you, Counselor. It’s reassuring to know my basic assessment matches your own.”

“She’s just what she seems, Captain. A young girl on her way to get married. It’s the high point in her life, considering all the constraints that she’s lived with up to this point, and all the new ones waiting for her afterward.”

“I must say,” Ray commented, as they passed out through the automatic doors into the bridge, “I certainly wouldn’t want to spend my life in a strait jacket like that. Their families’ advisors will be telling them exactly what day she should get pregnant! Not very romantic, that.”

“No, sir,” Jennifer replied, suppressing a smile successfully. She did not normally think of the stoic captain as particularly romantic in his outlook on life. Passionate about his missions, about his ship and crew, yes. But romantic?

As Captain Seay stepped down onto the floor of the bridge, a small object two hand-spans long and one in width darted from beneath the helmsman’s nearby seat, running on a large number of spindly, articulated legs, and wrapped itself around his left ankle with an audible slap.

Covered with mottled pale blue and white fur, it might have been mistaken for a massage mitt or a slipper, except for the eye stalks waving above one end. Seay stopped and looked down at his ankle.

“Ensign Key!” he barked. “What is this creature doing on my bridge!? I thought I gave you strict orders to keep it in your cabin!”

George looked around at his captain’s leg, sudden realization and dismay spreading across his features. “I’m sorry, Captain! He must have hooked onto the back of my pants leg or something when I was coming on duty. I’ll get him out of here at once.” He twisted around quickly, bent low to bring his face closer to the furry offender, and declared urgently, “Trif! Trif, you get off the Captain right now, and get back over here!”

Nothing happened for a second or two.

“Trif!” he repeated even more urgently. “Do you want to go back in the box again?”

The threat seemed highly effective. Almost instantly, the object flopped off the Captain’s leg, skittered back to George and flung itself against his chest with a faint whistling cry.

“That’s better.” He straightened up, and after a barely perceptible hesitation, glanced up at the Captain. “Shall I get him off the bridge now, sir?”

“Oh, never mind, Ensign. If it stays there with you, you can finish your watch and then take it back to your cabin. We’re coming up on impulse, and I want everyone at their stations.”

“At station it is, sir,” George said, relief audible in his voice, and turned about crisply to resume his duties. When he thought no one was looking, he discreetly reached up and patted the patch of fur attached to the chest of his uniform. “Now you just sit still!” he whispered.

“But see that it doesn’t happen again, Ensign! I won’t have triffids on my bridge!”

“No, sir,” he replied, without looking around.

Counselor Kelley took her seat, as Hugh Hubble rose from the command chair to make room for the Captain. As Seay sat down, the turbolift hissed open and Jerry Ward strode onto the bridge.

“Just in time, Mister Ward,” Seay approved. From the engineering station beside the turbolift, Chief Engineer Thorne nodded at the first officer.

“Impulse in seven seconds,” Thorne announced. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.”

“Ahead half impulse,” Seay ordered. “Mr. Key, lay in a trajectory to transporter orbit. I want a channel to the surface.”

“Coming through now, sir,” responded Jo Leach obligingly, as ever half a step ahead of the order.

“On screen.”

The stern visage that greeted them matched the scenery behind him. The dark-haired man stood looking at them from what must have been a tower perched on the lip of the Dorado rift. Through a band of windows behind him they could see the barren, rocky wastes of the planet surface off to the right, but to the left there was only an emptiness, a yawning lack of ground with a long ridge of white cloud hanging low in the sky above it. The cloud tapered away into the distance, almost arrow-straight, lit from beneath by the ruddy light of a sunset.

Except that, of course, here on Dorado it never actually set. Reacting to the tidal forces generated by the nearby sun, the enormous rift had opened directly along the terminator of the planet, splitting down even into the mantle of the world, creating a chasm unparalleled on other planets in Federation space. In its depths, heated by the same tidal forces that locked the planet in its orbit with one face forever scorched by the sun’s glare and the other face forever frozen in night, the condensed water from the planet’s atmosphere had collected into an ocean that now sustained a thriving terrestrial marine ecosystem. Without the water and oxygen settled in the rift, the colony on Dorado could not have existed. They existed, in fact, down inside the rift and only ventured out under the greatest duress.

The man’s habitually stern features made a valiant effort to twist themselves into a cordial smile of greeting, but the attempt was not very successful.

“Welcome to Dorado, McNair. This is a pleasant surprise; we were not expecting a starship. What brings you?”

“We’ve brought you a passenger. I understand you’re waiting for a wedding,” Seay replied.

The man’s expression transformed in an instant, then. An actual smile appeared.

“Oh, splendid!” he cried. He bent forward to do something on his control console. “You are cleared for orbit, and I will alert the local lineage council. I presume you mean you are carrying Lady Montgolfier?” He paused long enough to see Ray nod in confirmation. “Your arrival is quite unexpected, but certainly most welcome. I only hope we can get the proper welcoming officials to the spaceport on time.”

“The spaceport?” Ray inquired. “We could just beam her down to anyplace convenient to your council, or officials or whatever.”

“Ah,” the man replied, realizing he had left something out. “You must not be aware of the local lineage security measures. No lineage members may use transporter technology here on Dorado. The council ruled against it some time ago, to prevent illegal scanning or other interference with transporter beams. Genetic codes could be read from people in transit, and counterfeited, as you must be aware.”

Recognition dawned on the Captain. In an age when the awesome power of lineage groups spanning multiple star systems rested on confirmed genetic identities of lineage members, and when technology to counterfeit and mimic everything from retinal scans to brain wave emissions had been tested and exploited by the ever-present dishonest characters loitering about on the fringes of society, the closer one came to the pinnacles of lineage power, the more carefully people guarded their fingernail clippings, the sweat of their brows, the exclusivity of their circle of contacts. Ray had heard before of bans on transporters, but it seemed more like paranoia than reasonable security to him. Surely there would be easier ways to spy out the genetic secrets of a powerful lineage figure than hijacking transporter signals. Still, it seemed that a shuttlecraft would be in order.

“Alert the shuttle bay that we’ll be needing transportation for Lady Montgolfier and her escort,” he directed Commander Hubble. Hugh nodded and turned to the ship’s operational console to deliver the message. Ray turned back to the forward screen.

“We understand. Our passenger will come down by shuttle to your spaceport as soon as we take up orbit.”

“Excellent, Captain. Thank you. If all goes well, Lord Isar will be there in person to greet his future bride.”

McNair out,” Ray responded, and the screen went blank.

Several hours later, Jerry Ward materialized in the central hall of the Dorado spaceport, along with Doctor Munib and four people in security uniforms; three men and one woman. They all wore dress decorations. Even their boots had been shined. Two tall, white-haired guards carrying archaic ceremonial staffs topped by slender red pennants spotted them and walked toward them.

“From the McNair, I presume?” one of them asked.

“First Officer Ward, at your service,” Jerry acknowledged.

“Katons Orsonne and Gantrell at yours,” the guard replied. “You are welcome to join us at the number-one landing zone for the welcoming ceremony. Will your Captain be attending?”

“He’s on the shuttle with Lady Montgolfier.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. If you would like to follow us?” The guards led the landing party across the ornate stonework of the vast spaceport lobby floor. There were a lot of travelers crossing the space hurriedly in every direction, coming and going on their many journeys, but somehow everyone managed to give the unusual party a wide berth as they made their way to an elaborate archway at one end of the hall and passed through it into a smaller, richly-appointed passage leading to one of the landing zones. They stepped onto the slidewalk and then moved to the faster inner lanes, the party getting strung out many meters apart by the differential speed of the successive belts. On the final track, their speed was so great even without walking that they could feel the wind slightly ruffling their hair. Still, the landing zone itself lay at such a distance from the main terminal that it took several long minutes of rushing through the passage before they all began to shift out again across the slower belts toward the right-hand wall. At the entrance to the circular landing zone building, a security checkpoint had been set up and everyone had to check all their weapons, except of course for the ceremonial staffs.

They had not beamed down any too early, Jerry saw. As they reassembled on the far side of the security checkpoint, he looked up through the observation dome of the small round building, and saw the shuttlecraft Saluda come sailing down out of the sky directly toward them.

A considerable party already had assembled in the hall, and at the center of the other people, clearly distinguishable from them both by personal appearance and the dark purple suit he wore, stood the man who obviously had to be Lord Isar, the prospective groom. Again Jerry was struck by the effect of generations of scientific match-making by lineage advisors, economists and geneticists. The fellow actually radiated power and authority, even at a distance. To the manner born, he thought to himself. Not like the rest of us mongrels rattling around in space. But he kept these thoughts to himself.

“All right, people,” he instructed his landing party, “Let’s make this look good. Can’t let a lot of colonials show up a Starfleet crew, now can we?” But he smiled as he said it, and they knew he wasn’t worried about their performance. The crew of the McNair gave place to no one when it came to ritual precision, even if they weren’t particularly fond of it in everyday life. Two crisp lines of three formed on him where he stood. As he turned to approach the local dignitaries, the six of them moved smoothly as one. Even the sounds of their boots merged into a cadence of single impacts.

Eventually, after waiting for the shuttle to land and then waiting some more for various formalities that must have been going on at the entrance to the landing zone, Captain Seay appeared in the entrance into the building. He glanced with satisfaction at the formation of his landing party, and then at the crowd of gathered Dorado officials, his eyes settling at last on Lord Isar. The two of them gave barely perceptible nods of acknowledgement at seeing each other, and then Seay turned around to look behind him. The robed figure of the monk escorting Lady Montgolfier appeared in the doorway behind him, but instead of entering the building, the monk hurriedly whispered something in the Captain’s ear. Seay’s expression turned to one of surprise and consternation. With barely a backward glance, he disappeared in company with the monk back behind the entrance door.

A ripple of murmured conversation swept very discreetly through the assembled crowd, but skipped over the landing party, who only exchanged puzzled sidelong glances.

Time dragged on disconcertingly. Still no one emerged through the doorway. Then at last a new figure entered the building, this time another one of the guards with another one of the staffs, this one also bearing a pennant at the top. He simply motioned to the guards who had escorted the landing party, and to several others as well, who immediately converged on the doorway and all promptly disappeared beyond it. The volume of the murmurs increased slightly. Doctor Munib’s eyebrows arched as he directed a questioning glance at Jerry Ward, but the First Officer only shrugged and said nothing. His feet were starting to hurt. He disliked standing on hard stone floors for long periods of time. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. For a big, powerful man like Ward, the slightly heavier-than-normal gravity of Dorado gradually exerted an unpleasant cumulative effect.

Then everything began to happen very quickly. The guards reappeared, and in their midst walked a distinctly unhappy and puzzled Captain Seay, quite obviously under some kind of arrest.

All the landing party members looked directly at Jerry Ward. He frowned and shook his head almost imperceptibly. He didn’t have to say anything. The landing party remained rooted where they stood. Then Ulysses Gauss stepped through the door, alone and free, and walked quickly toward Lord Isar. They held a brief whispered conversation, at which the Lord’s visage clouded over with obvious anger, and a moment later he turned and swept out of the building with the rest of the local dignitaries trailing after him as fast as they could decently follow. Almost as an anti-climax, finally the Focian monk came into the landing zone, also alone, and the landing party waited in vain to see Lady Montgolfier behind him.

“Wait here,” Jerry said under his breath, and then broke away from the others and walked as calmly as he could toward the Federation special agent, who now stood alone where he had been talking with Lord Isar. The guards and Captain Seay had already disappeared down the passage on the slidewalk, and most of the dignitaries were rapidly dwindling in the distance as he reached Gauss. “What in blazes is going on, Gauss?” he demanded.

“Most unfortunate,” the little man replied, obviously upset. “Most puzzling, too, I must say. Lady Montgolfier has been placed in medical quarantine at the customs station back there, and will not be allowed to come out onto the planet. She has tested positive for shisemi virus.”

Jerry Ward stood as if turned to stone for an instant–but only for an instant.

“That absurd!” he exclaimed. “She beamed aboard our ship just before we set course for this system, and our standard transporter scans would have set off every alarm known to man if she had been carrying shisemi!”

“Indeed, First Officer Ward, I quite agree. In part this is why it has taken so long for us to get to this point. Dorado customs was in communication with your ship, and received transcripts of the transporter scans from her arrival on the McNair. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that they won’t allow transporters here for people like Lady Montgolfier, but it was your ship’s transporter that led to your own captain’s arrest?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Well, your transporter scans confirmed what you have just said. There was no trace of shisemi virus in her transporter scan when she arrived on your ship. Yet here in Dorado customs she has tested positive for the virus. Therefore Captain Seay has been arrested for allowing the contamination of a lineage marriage candidate on his ship. There is no other logical possibility.”

“And the penalty?” Jerry asked, with a sinking feeling.

“Death, of course,” Ulysses Gauss replied without hesitation. “Particularly here on a strict lineage world like Dorado. I’m afraid there’s no question about that.”

“When? How long does he have/”

“Well, there must be a formal hearing, and then sentencing, and so on. I’d say a couple of days. But you know that days here on Dorado are some hours shorter than standard Earth days.”

It sounded very final, and very serious. Jerry Ward thanked the little man and slowly made his way back to his landing party. Some fancy footwork was called for this time, and no mistake. They all looked at him eagerly, but he gave them no details or explanations while they were still standing on alien ground, far from the security of their ship in orbit high overhead. He only reached up and tapped his communicator pin on his chest.

“We’ll be coming back up in the shuttle, Mister Thorne,” he declared. “There’s been some unexpected trouble down here. Please meet me in the shuttle bay. We need to talk transporters.”

“I’ll see you there,” Andre Thorne’s voice confirmed.

“Let’s go get our weapons back,” he instructed the others. “And then let’s get back up to the ship as quickly as we can. We don’t seem to have much time to waste.”

The six of them hurried back toward the security checkpoint to reclaim their things before boarding the shuttle.


Chapter Three

Stalling for Time

First Officer Jerry Ward rarely said more than necessary. Getting an entire sentence out of him could be considered a good day’s work. At least that was the standing joke among the command staff of the McNair. Chief Engineer Thorne reflected, however, that suddenly he seemed to have accomplished an entire month’s work on those terms. Ward hadn’t stopped talking since he reached Engineering.

“…and they’re your transporters, Chief, so I expect you to figure it out,” the First Officer concluded, staring down at him earnestly. “I’ve got to find some way to buy the Captain some time, but I need answers!”

“If there was something wrong with our scans when we brought her on board, I’ll find it, sir,” Andrew Thorne assured him. “But maybe they’re right! Maybe she did pick up that virus right here on the ship.”

“I took her from the transporter to the admiralty cabin myself,” Ward retorted, “and she never touched another person the whole way. Same drill on the way out, too. She never even talked to anybody but me, the doctor, the Captain, Counselor Kelley, and that monk of hers.”

“What about the monk, then?”

“We’re working on that, don’t worry!”

“Or what about the shuttle? Maybe she got it on the Saluda. Shuttles go a lot of strange places. Should we be going over that thing with a fine-toothed comb as well?”

“Absolutely. Get a team down to the shuttle bay at once. If you think of anything else, take care of it yourself, and let me know at the first sign of any answers.”

It was a mark of just how preoccupied and worried Jerry Ward had become that he turned on his heel and hurried out of Engineering without waiting for the chief engineer’s reply, a frown creasing his features. The sudden burden of command had swallowed him whole. Standing by himself in the turbolift on the way to the bridge, Jerry was struck by how alone a person could feel, even sealed inside a starship with a thousand other souls like sardines in a can. Not that most people would have any familiarity with sardines in a can, he reflected with a smile.

It was the smile that the people on the bridge saw as he emerged in their midst moments later, and the sight reassured everyone else even if it did nothing for the new commanding officer.

“Counselor, I’m sending a team down to the planet to talk to Lord Isar and whoever else may be in charge down there. We have to find a way to delay their legal proceedings against the Captain, until we can figure out what’s happened here. I want you to lead it.”

Jennifer Kelley rose immediately from her seat beside the empty captain’s chair.

“You want me to leave now?” she asked.

“I’ll get what information I can from here,” Ward replied, “but go ahead and get started now. Call me from the transporter before you beam down, and I’ll have a site and some names for you to start with. Take a couple of people with you.”

Jennifer nodded. “I’ll take Ensign Key,” she decided, gesturing to the helmsman. “He won’t be doing much while we’re locked here in orbit.”

“I’d like to go along too,” suggested the ship’s Ferengi quartermaster, Oodee. Ward and Kelley both turned in surprise to look at the slightly shriveled, aging alien. In response to their surprise, he explained, “Dorado colony may be just a big crack in the planet to you, but the name of the place means gold! How could I resist?” He grinned slyly. “Besides, I owe the Captain a lot of favors, and I want to do my part.”

“Very well,” Jennifer said. “George and Oodee, you’re with me.” The two of them followed her briskly into the turbolift, and with a hiss the doors closed behind them.

“Ensign Takai, you have the con,” Ward directed. “I’ll be in the captain’s ready room, talking to the planet. Maintain standard orbit.”

“Standard orbit it is, sir.”

Jerry Ward disappeared in his turn into the ready room, to pave the way for Jennifer’s explorations. The quiet, virtually deserted bridge gave no hint of the crisis gripping the McNair.

On the planet below, the landing party materialized some time later in the shadow of a huge overhanging slab of rock. Cliffs soared above and behind them, reaching for the clouds overhead. The land sloped away almost as steeply below, down into the enormous Dorado chasm. It was George Key’s first visit to Dorado. The sight took his breath away. He had been to the Grand Canyon on Earth, had looked across seventeen miles of nothing to the far rim, marveling at the impact of not seeing anything where you had expected to see firm ground. But the Dorado chasm dwarfed that experience.

For one thing, the rip in the crust followed the terminator between day and night, fully a third of the way around Dorado–the final venting of the gravitational forces that had tidally locked the planet to its sun. That made the chasm about ten times longer than the entire Grand Canyon. Even without the haze hanging in the air, it would have been impossible to see the west rim more than a hundred miles in the distance, roasting hot and dry at the top edge but dropping down into perpetual shadow and then darkness and ice in the depths. Only where the sun’s rays streamed across the chasm and touched the eastern slopes on which they stood was there a tolerable “daylight zone” where planets, people and other terrestrial life could find a niche and flourish.

The perpetual heating created an equally perpetual updraft all along the eastern slopes, carrying the moist, oxygen-rich air of the chasm up where it condensed into clouds and then drifted westward, raining as they went, until they reached the western downdraft that completed the planet’s only climate cycle. Outside the chasm, a dry, dusty meteor-pocked orb stared blankly off into space, devoid of any other crustal deformities or much of anything else of any interest to anyone in the galaxy. Once you’ve seen the chasm, you’ve seen all there is to see on Dorado. George had heard that over and over again, but only now realized that just seeing the chasm would take a lot longer than he had imagined. Perhaps a lifetime to see it all. Forests crowded distant shelving plateaus, and he could even see roads snaking along the edges of the chasm at several levels, until the landscape melted into the darker twilight in the depths below them. There was no way to see the bottom in the darkness down there, but he knew from study, and from the salt tang in the air, that a vast ocean filled the hidden depths. He blinked once or twice in wonder, and turned to the others.

Oodee the Ferengi had been watching his gaping first sight of the chasm, and grinned tolerantly at him.

“It always does that the first time you see it,” he advised.

“Let’s get to work,” Jennifer suggested. “I don’t really know how we’re supposed to slow down the wheels of justice, or whatever they call them here, but we’ve got to do something. Commander Ward said we might want to start with the legal authorities.”

“If you don’t mind,” Oodee requested, “I have an allergy to legal authorities. I’ve been to Dorado a time or two before, though, and an idea occurred to me as we were waiting in the transporter room to beam down here. Would you mind if I made a few inquiries on my own?”

Everyone on the McNair had become used to the idea that a Ferengi might have different ways of solving problems than the standard Starfleet solutions, and more than once this had turned out very much to the advantage of the ship and its crew. Jennifer knew this as well as anyone else.

“Suit yourself, Oodee,” she agreed. “George and I will probably be in this building for quite a while, but check in with us by communicator every hour, okay?”

Oodee merely grinned in acknowledgement. He turned and hurried away along the sidewalk that had been carved along the base of the rock face behind them, heading down the gentle side slope toward a tangle of tall, irregularly-shaped buildings below them. They looked to George like nothing so much as a row of somebody’s bad teeth when seen from above, though there were windows in them, and plenty of people bustling about everywhere. He and the ship’s counselor turned instead toward the vast brick edifice that blotted out their view of the rest of the chasm to the south, and started up the curved incline that led to the main entrance to Dorado’s Government Center complex. It looked like another thankless landing party, he reflected. Why do they call them parties? A whole day of bureaucrats, dead ahead.

On the bridge of the McNair, science officer Wood scowled in exasperation.

“Sensors reveal nothing at all?” he asked.

“Not a thing, Robert,” came Andrew Thorne’s voice from the communications panel before him. “We’ve practically taken the shuttlecraft apart piece by piece. There’s not a single particle of shisemi virus anywhere on board. Not on this ship, not on the shuttle. And nothing to say there ever was.”

“But she didn’t come on board with it, and nobody on board has it.”

“That’s right,” confirmed Doctor Munib, who stood beside him. “I even have a scan I took from that monk fellow with her, and he was also clean as the driven snow.”

The reference to snow was lost on Thorne, whose home world had not featured any of that substance, but he ignored it.

“Could she have been contaminated after she got to the planet surface?” he asked.

“The Captain said not,” replied Robert Wood, shaking his head. “He was with her right up to the customs check, and she never had any contact with anybody. It must be transmitted directly. It’s not airborne or anything like that.”

Andrew Thorne snorted. “That’s the euphemism of the day,” he commented. Of course, shisemi virus was only communicated in body fluids, requiring contact of a particularly intimate sort to spread the infection. This was what made the situation so acutely embarrassing for the McNair. “You say sensors show no possible means of contamination. Not even a transporter?”

“A transporter?”

“I know these lineage types can’t transport around here on Dorado,” Thorne explained, “but somebody could always transport the virus into them anyway, couldn’t they?”

“Possible,” countered Lieutenant Wood, “except our review covered all sensor scans, including any transporter activity incoming or outgoing. There was no incoming transporter activity from the planet the whole time Lady Montgolfier was on board.”

“What about on the shuttle?” Andrew asked again.

“You mean transport the virus into her while she was on the shuttle?”

“Exactly.”

There was a pause in the conversation. Munib and Wood looked at each other inquiringly. Finally Doctor Munib’s eyebrows lifted in recognition of the possibility, and he nodded his head. “It could be,” he admitted.

“I’ll go have a look at the shuttle’s sensor logs myself,” Wood agreed, and strode away quickly.

“Interesting idea, Andrew,” Keith Munib declared.

“Thanks, Keith. Let me know what you turn up.”

Ensign Comeau joined her superior officer in the transporter bay, having received his summons as he rode the turbolift through the ship.

“Okay, Donna,” Wood directed. “I want you to get into the shuttle computer and reload all the sensor records from the flight down to the planet earlier. I’m going to settle in here at the monitoring station in the back and go through everything again.”

“What are we looking for?”

“Possibly, any sign of incoming transporter activity during the flight. It would have been directed at that seat over there.” He indicated the seat where Lady Montgolfier had spent the trip down to her current disgrace and imprisonment.

In fact, it took them only a few minutes to find exactly what Andrew Thorne had suggested. The Saluda’s sensor records contained the clear signature of a incoming transporter beam focused directly on the seat where the lineage bride had been riding. The transmission had lasted one-third of a second, plenty of time to transmit something as small as a virus infestation.

A little further calculation revealed that this had happened at exactly the same moment that the McNair’s own transporters had been activated to transport Commander Ward and his landing party down to the spaceport, effectively masking it from detection by the ship.

“A nasty little piece of work,” Jerry Ward decided on the bridge shortly afterward, as Munib, Thorne and Wood gathered around him to discuss it. “Where did it come from? Have you been able to determine the sending point?

“We’re working on that now,” Wood replied. “It takes a while because we have to integrate the transporter signal sensors with the geo-sensors that give location. It would have been a lot easier if we were looking for a place that we had beamed something dowon, instead.”

“Top priority on that, Mister Wood,” Jerry ordered. “I want that location.”

“Sir,” interrupted Jo Leach from the communications console behind him, “I have an incoming signal from the planet.”

“On screen,” said Ward. The forward screen illuminated with a giant close-up of Jennifer’s face. She was laughing.

“Care to share the joke, Counselor?” Ward asked.

“We’ve got your delay for you, sir!” she answered, still laughing. “You tell them,” she continued, looking to her left. The Ferengi quartermaster stepped into the view beside her.

“I’m afraid the court will meet as scheduled and condemn the Captain to death in about three hours from now,” Oodee said, deliberately stringing them along.

“This is supposed to be good news, Oodee,” said Ward.

“Well, it seems they were in the process of appointing a new executioner, since they haven’t needed one for a while, and this whole business sort of caught them by surprise.”

“And…?”

“And it just so happens I have an old friend or two in the Ministry of Justice,” Oodee continued with a grin, “who actually owe me a pretty large amount of latinum, and so it seems that they’ve appointed a new executioner.”

“I still haven’t heard any good news.”

“The new executioner is himself scheduled to be executed. In fact, he’s the next one on the list. He’s been on death row here for about five years, waiting for a new executioner to be appointed, but there was no rush because his crime was a financial one. They have their priorities completely backward on this planet. On Ferengenal he would have been the first to go.”

The whole bridge crew smiled as they recognized the truth of this statement.

“Anyway,” Oodee finished, “according to the laws of this planet, the new executioner can’t execute anybody else until he executes himself first. He hasn’t shown any enthusiasm for that so far. In fact, he’s called in a lot of lawyers to tell him about the legal and ethical objections to capital punishment. We might be on the verge of some legal reforms down here.” The sly smile had become a rather forthright grin, at least for a Ferengi.

“You traded a latinum debt for something as selfless as that? To save the Captain’s life?” Jerry Ward asked, impressed in spite of his general opinion of Ferengi motives.

Oodee looked even more shocked. “What are you saying, Commander? I would never put Starfleet ahead of profit! No, they did this just for me as a favor. Plus, they all thought it was a great joke. You should have heard them laughing as they signed the orders! I gather Lord Isar isn’t very popular here. He’s not a native of Dorado, you know. His lineage companies control the finances of the planet, but he’s originally from Earth.”

“Well, thank you just the same, quartermaster,” Jerry acknowledged. “I think the landing party can beam up again with a job well done. We may get out of this yet!”

 

 

Chapter Four

Danger in the Dungeon

The featureless plasteel door of Captain Seay’s high security cell hissed open slowly, as befitted such a thick, heavy partition. The Captain looked up from the floor, where he had been staring blankly, and saw two figures silhouetted against the bright corridor lights behind them. One hulking figure had become familiar to him. The guard’s name was something Ray couldn’t pronounce, but he wasn’t a bad fellow. The other shape he identified despite the glare as Ulysses Gauss, the Federation special agent.

Gauss stepped into the cell immediately, motioning for Seay not to bother to get up. Instead the old man came and sat beside him on the metal frame suspended by two diagonal chains from the cell wall. The guard discreetly stepped out of the line of sight and stood somewhere in the corridor outside.

“I trust you are in no distress?” Gauss asked.

“Apart from being cut off from my command, no,” Seay answered. “But I have full confidence in my First Officer.”

“You know you are sentenced to death?”

“So I gather.”

“Well, you may not have heard that we have a new executioner,” Gauss smiled. Ray thought the smile in rather bad taste, but said nothing. “And as a result,” Gauss continued, “your execution appears to have been stalled for the time being.”

“By the appointment of an executioner?” Ray asked incredulously.

“Seems he’s sentenced to death himself,” Gauss chuckled. “Ahead of you, in fact. So as long as he keeps himself alive, he can’t get to you. He’s issued a statement that he will be studying the laws pertaining to capital punishment, to prepare himself for his duties. Nobody seems to know when these studies of his might be completed. So you can relax for the moment, Captain.”

Ray found himself relaxing at these improbable words.

“What about my ship?” he asked.

“Your people are nosing about,” Gauss replied. “Your First Officer won’t tell me much about what he’s up to, however. I think he half-suspects I had something to do with your arrest, or maybe even with the contamination of your passenger. Federation politics or something, you know. I can’t say I blame him, since I came on board at about the same time as Lady Montgolfier. But it would make it a lot easier for me to help him, and you, if he would trust me and tell me what he’s up to.”

Ray made no immediate reply to this. Much the same suspicions already had occurred to him, and he could well understand Commander Ward’s wish for independent action. But what that action might be he could not guess. He simply looked at Gauss politely and waited for the fellow to continue.

“I see you have some reservations about me, yourself,” the agent continued at last. “Well, I can’t blame you, either. Actually, I can’t tell you why I am here on Dorado, but I can tell you my mission was assigned to me long before this incident occurred. I’m here on a much larger investigation. And since I have a lot of work to do on that score, I won’t take up any more of your time here. Just thought you’d like to know about the executioner.” He smiled once more, then rose from the cot. Ray got up and escorted him to the door.

“I do appreciate it, Agent Gauss. It relieves my mind considerably to know I may live a few more days, and I’m sure my crew can handle the matter. Your visit was most thoughtful.”

“Standard procedure, you know,” Ulysses Gauss informed him. They nodded to each other, and the guard, who had returned to the doorway, hit the hall panel. The heavy slab hissed shut between their faces, isolating Seay inside the cell once more.

In the main engineering cabin of the McNair, chief engineer Thorne turned to Ensign Comeau from science section.

“You’re sure these are the coordinates, Donna?”

“Absolutely, sir,” she replied. “We’ve adjusted for velocity and course of the shuttle, rotation of the planet, and pinpointed time of transmission from the shuttle’s onboard chronometer. The angle of penetration of the narrow-beam transporter signal was recorded exactly. We have the point of origin to within one meter horizontal and two meters vertical.”

“So you not only know the building, but the floor inside it.”

“In fact, we know the room it came from, sir.”

“And?”

“It came from this isolated settlement on the frozen side of the rift-sea.”

“Frozen side?” Andrew Thorne knew every conduit and circuit on the McNair, but he remained a little hazy on planetary cartography, particularly when it was a planet on which he had never yet set foot.

“The Dorado chasm is a single massive tectonic rift in the planetary crust,” she explained. “The temperature difference between the cold dark side of the planet and the burnt-over day side created rotating wind currents that gradually deposited the planet’s original water at the bottom of the chasm, and any water added from comets and other sources has collected there as well. It’s a whole ocean down there, and only on the upper east slope, where incident sunlight penetrates, is there a life zone. On the west slope there are sheer cliffs of ice and rock. Virtually no colonists would choose to live over there. But that’s where the transporter signal came from, the one that penetrated the shuttle and infected Lady Montgolfier with shisemi virus.”

“What information do you have about this settlement, other than that it’s a god-forsaken spot?”

“Our preliminary link with the planetary records indicates it began as a meteorologic station about a century ago, or a little less. The satellite system in place now made it obsolete a generation ago or more, however. According to official records it has been abandoned for nearly twenty years. Auxiliary power only, minimal system operation. It’s supposed to be shut down, too dark and cold for anybody to be living there.”

“It would have a transporter, though, of course. So somebody may have just dropped in over there long enough to use it. Any problem if we send a security team down there to have a look around? I don’t want to suggest it to Commander Ward if it would get us in trouble.”

“No problem that I know of, sir,” she replied. “There are no restrictions listed for the site.”

Andrew Thorne tapped his communicator pin with his hand. “Thorne to bridge,” he said. When the voice of Jerry Ward answered, he relayed all the information Donna Comeau had laid out for him, and suggested, “…if you send down an away team, I’d like Ensign Comeau along to have a look at the equipment at that site. She may be able to determine if there has been any shisemi virus at the sending site. That would really clinch it for getting the Captain out of his dungeon down there.”

“An excellent idea, Andrew,” Ward replied. “I’ll get together a team right away. I’ll send one of the people from the last team, who has already been on the surface once. Key, I think. And a couple of security men. Have Ensign Comeau meet them in the transporter room right away. Ward out.”

“You heard the commander,” Thorne grinned at Donna. “Better get moving!” She nodded her assent, scooped up a tricorder and a couple of other pieces of monitoring equipment, and disappeared into the turbolift without a backward glance.

When she and George Key and the two security men materialized inside the darkened interior of the abandoned weather station a short time later, she saw with satisfaction that her information had been correct. The place was cold and silent and dark, the air stale and unmoving. There would be plenty of oxygen, but they would have to find lights and heat and a ventilation system if they were going to stay around long. Ensign Key appeared to be looking around at the floor around his feet.

“Lose something, George?” she asked.

“Yes,” Key replied. “I mean no, not now. Not here. But last time I beamed down, I think I may have lost something. My triffid. I couldn’t find him on the ship anywhere. The computer can’t pick him up on scan, but I’m afraid I may have carried him down to the planet by accident earlier today, and lost him. He likes the transporter for some reason. I thought if he were still on the ship, he would sense I was going to the transporter, and I’d find him around my leg or something now. But he doesn’t seem to be here. I hope I haven’t lost him for good!”

“Well, we can’t worry about that now. You look for the life support, okay? I’ll try to find the transporter here, and look for virus traces.”

“You’ve got it,” George replied. The security men had already fanned out to inspect the perimeter of the room and adjoining passages. Donna turned away toward a likely-looking set of consoles against one wall.

In his cell on the opposite side of the Dorado chasm, Captain Seay lay motionless on his back, staring absently at the parallel slits of the ventilation system in the ceiling. Suddenly he heard a small pop, as might be made by a large soap bubble. It seemed to come from the floor beside his bunk. Curious, he swung himself up to a sitting position, his feet descending to the floor. At once, he heard a familiar smacking sound and felt something attach itself securely around his ankle.

When he leaned forward to look down, he saw the blue and white fur of Ensign Key’s pet hugging itself against his leg. He gave it a wry look.

But how had the thing gotten into his cell? Had it somehow crept in while the door was open? Had it perhaps been riding secretly on Ulysses Gauss when he visited? He reached down and gently tried to pry it loose from his ankle, but it would not be budged. When he pulled harder, it made a small squealing noise but refused to release its grip. He couldn’t even find a seam in the thing to begin prying it off. It was doing no harm, anyway.

He realized that in his tense solitude, he found its presence to be oddly reassuring. Any friend in a time of need? This qualified as a time of need, and the thing obviously considered him a friend. He resigned himself to the living ankle bracelet and sank back on the cot once more. He brought his hands up behind his head, interlacing his fingers, and resumed his inspection of the ventilator slits high above. The furry creature emitted a low hum of contentment from the foot end of the cot.

Almost before he had fully composed himself upon the cot again, however, he had to blink his eyes rapidly. Were they playing tricks on him? He seemed to see spots or streaks in the air between himself and the ceiling! Suddenly he could see more clearly that it was no optical failure on his part. Long, wispy white threads were emerging from the ventilator slits and drifting straight down toward him, twirling and gliding in the air like smoke from a fire, except that they fell rather than rising on a fire’s updraft.

“What the…!?” he said aloud, lifting himself up so he was leaning on his elbows, staring up at the falling strands. But even as the words escaped his lips, Ray suddenly recognized approaching doom. To find Ophiuchi cloudworms in a prison cell on Dorado was like finding a supernova in you bathroom, but the evidence of his own eyes could not be denied. Despite their name, he knew these were not worms at all, not even living creatures, but strands of protoparticles, neither matter nor antimatter. They would drift and curl down through him as easily as through the air, and through the cot and through the floor, and eventually settle in the planet’s core far below, but in passing through his body they would set up such an electrochemical storm that every flicker of life would be extinguished in every cell of his body. There wouldn’t be a mark on his corpse anywhere. A medical examiner might suspect the cause, but with the proof coiling about in the molten interior of the planet, no evidence would be forthcoming. At the rate the strands were falling, he had no chance to roll out of the way. The first ones were already less than a meter from his chest.

A shrill whistle from his ankle caused his eye to jerk in that direction, in time to see the furry creature, now unwrapped from his leg, fling itself with many stalk-like legs straight toward his face. It arched upward in a graceful curve, twisting and rolling in the air as it came, but slowed suddenly in mid-course by some acrobatic trick and unexpectedly caught the first threads on its exposed underbelly. Rather than drifting inexorably and lethally through it, they seemed to be absorbed into the little creature, who gave a low, keening whine of satisfaction as it bounced off his stomach sideways in time to catch a few more of the strands, then wriggled toward his face for others, and finally sprang to within a few inches of his chin and neatly caught the final few strands that would have penetrated directly through his heart, lungs and other vital organs. Then it righted itself and stood on all its legs, squarely on his chest, looking at him with five or six of its eyestalks. All the blue and white fur seemed to have developed a strong electrostatic charge, for it stood up along the creature’s back like metal spikes. The thing had saved his life! Where had Ensign Key gotten hold of this thing, anyway? And what was it doing in his cell? Though he savored these questions for a few moments, Ray rather quickly decided to put them out of his mind. Better not to look a gift horse in the mouth, he thought.

“Nice little fella, aren’t you?” he asked aloud. He decided not to try to pet it at the moment, given the state of that fur. “What did Ensign Key say your name was, anyway? Trif, wasn’t it?”

The walking oven mitt gave a wriggle of pleasure and whistled at him.

“Okay, Trif. If that’s your name. I thank you for saving my life just now, whether you know what you’re doing or not. You’re welcome to ride around on my ankle as much as you like.”

He couldn’t be sure whether the creature understood what he was saying or not, and a little reflection suggested that it had probably just been having lunch when it absorbed the cloudworms, so he couldn’t assume any sort of altruistic motives. At any rate, the creature turned as if it had understood his words, and returned to his ankle where it resumed its wraparound post. Ray could only shake his head with a smile, and lay back down on the cot. Who would believe this even if he told them?

 

 

Chapter Five

The Mysterious Monk

Brian Hart smoothed out two remaining wrinkles from the fabric of his uniform tunic. He swallowed a last nervous swallow and pressed the entry chime on the First Officer’s cabin. The door hissed open immediately, and Commander Ward’s voice boomed out, “Come in, Hart!”

Brian stepped into the room, acutely aware that Ward was not only as big as ever, but now in command of the McNair.

“At ease, Hart,” Jerry Ward advised him. “I’ve got an assignment for you. I want you to take two other security people and beam down to the planet in civilian clothing. Take your communicator pins, but keep them out of sight.”

“Yes, sir,” Brian acknowledged, waiting and wondering about the details.

“Did you see that Focian monk that was accompanying the lineage princess we carried to this system?”

“Yes, sir. He came up to the forward observation lounge for a while during the voyage here. The lady was sleeping, he said, and he wanted to sit and relax a bit.”

“Very good. You’d recognize him, then? Even if he weren’t in his brown robe and all?”

“I think so, sir. Yes, I know I would. I sat right at the next table. I even heard him talking to the orderly who brought his drink.”

“His name, according to the ship’s manifest, is Kroy Kahan. I had Lieutenant Wood look him up in Federation archives. He grew up in the colony on Alpha Cygnus nine, and his family sent him into the orders at the usual age, around fourteen. I guess they couldn’t manage a proper match for him. Anyway, here’s the important bit. He comes from a very important lineage, as these monks often do. Kahan is a name to reckon with, even on Earth itself. They’re a Federation Council family, just like the Montgolfier bunch. I had no idea we were hauling so much important weight around the quadrant on this trip!” He grinned at Brian, and the nervous Ensign relaxed a bit. “In fact,” Ward continued, “Oodee confided to me an hour ago that there is something of a feud between his lineage and hers. Something to do with mining rights on Mars, I gather. It occurs to me that this Focian monk may have something to do with messing up her marriage, and I want you to find him down there, track him without him knowing it, and see what you can sniff out. Can you do it?”

“Of course we can, sir!” Brian declared. Commander Ward nodded approvingly. Almost the moment that the doors closed behind Ensign Hart, however, the screen on his desk chimed for his attention. This command stuff could get to be a real headache, he reflected.

“Ward here,” he responded, reaching out to punch the activation key. The face of Ulysses Gauss appeared before him.

“Commander Ward,” he began, without polite preamble, “I’m afraid I have some extremely disturbing news for you.”

“Oh?”

“As you know, I have been performing my duties as a Federation diplomat, in addition to my specific assignment here. I’ve been visiting your Captain regularly in the planetary prison beneath the government center.”

“And I appreciate your good offices in this awkward situation,” Ward replied.

“Well, I’ve just left him after another visit, and he told me that an attempt was made on his life.”

Ward sat straight up in his chair, suddenly on full alert. “What!?” he cried.

“A number of cloudworms apparently were released somewhere in the government center above his cell, and fell through his cell, right toward his bed while he was lying on it. He thinks they must have been monitoring him and released them while he was lying there. It would have worked, except for the presence of a small creature in his cell with him.”

This went quite a distance over Ward’s head, but the basic point was clear enough. “They tried to kill him,” he repeated, “while he was in their prison. That’s what you’re saying.”

“I see no other conclusion,” Gauss admitted. “The protoparticle chains had to come from the building above, and that’s the government center itself.”

“Thanks, agent Gauss. I’ll get back to you. Right now I have a planet to talk to.” He killed the image with one stroke, and called Ensign Leach on the bridge. “Jo,” he ordered, “I want a direct channel to the planetary governor, and I want it five minutes ago.” Not even Jo Leach could manage five minutes ago, but within thirty seconds her voice responded in the affirmative even as the screen before him flickered to life again. The planetary governor turned out to be none other than Lord Isar himself.

“Yes, Commander?” he said. The words were clipped short, the tone a trifle impatient. Arrogant so-and-so, thought Ward. We’ll see about that.

“Lord Isar, as acting commander of the McNair, it is my duty to inform you that Federation special agent Gauss has informed me that an attempt has been made on the life of Captain Seay while he is in your custody. I therefore ask that you transfer him to our ship, where I will hold him in custody here pending the outcome of legal proceedings on the planet. You have my word we will continue to respect planetary and Federation law, and we will not leave orbit until this case is settled.”

“That is out of the question, Commander,” the aristocrat responded flatly, instantly. He continued to stare out of the screen at Ward with a level, confrontational gaze.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand, Lord,” Jerry continued just a smoothly, a secret smile well hidden within. “Starfleet regulations do not permit me to leave a member of my crew in a life-threatening situation when I can do something about it. I would be negligent in my duty if I left Captain Seay in a place where his life is in danger.”

“I believe the relevant point is whether you can do something about it,” smiled the aristocrat.

“Indeed, Lord. I have twenty-five security men in full space armor, equipped with heavy assault weapons, standing by in the transporter room. At my command they will beam down to your office, place you under arrest for causing and allowing the attempt on Captain Seay’s life, and remove him from his cell by force if needed.” He returned the gaze for several seconds. Although it was a bluff and he did not have the assault team standing by, he knew he could get one together quickly enough if it came to that. Accustomed to bullying inexperienced local colony officials, the aristocrat realized he had met his match. His finely-chiseled features tensed with anger, his lips turning white and thin as he forced one of the nastiest false smiles Jerry Ward could remember seeing in a long time.

“Very well, Commander, You shall have your precious Captain back. First you allow my own bride-to-be to be contaminated with a filthy virus, and now you threaten me with your Starfleet thugs. I will not stoop to your crude level, but mark my words! When this affair is settled, you and your captain will pay for this insult! You have no idea what kind of influence my family has in the Federation Council, and therefore with Starfleet Command. You should begin thinking about how you will like commanding an ore hauler on the fringe of human space.”

“Your threats are recorded in our ship’s log,” replied Jerry, with a genuine smile of his own. “And of course, you realize it is a crime to threaten political retribution for a Starfleet officer carrying out his duty according to regulations. I’ll expect the Captain to be beamed up within the hour. My communications officer will be standing by.” He cut the connection and leaned back in his chair. His pulse was pounding in his temples and his throat was dry. He felt terrific. A real chance to put a bigwig in his place! Moments like that made all the drudgery of drifting between the stars worthwhile.

When Captain Seay did materialize on the transporter pad about an hour later, Jerry saw the small blue-and-white patch of fur perched on his right shoulder. He raised an inquiring eyebrow as Seay stepped down to the deck.

“Nice work, Commander! I’ve rarely seen a lineage official so angry, though. Isar certainly has a temper! But I guess I’d be pretty upset to have my wedding scratched, and then be embarrassed by a breach of my own security like that. Oh, I see you’ve noticed my little friend! This is the reason I’m still alive, Mister Ward! Say hello to Trif.”

Jerry declined to say hello to the small creature, and instead spent the time it took them to travel to the bridge in the turbolift explaining what had been happening during Seay’s absence. The doors hissed open and they stepped together onto the bridge.

“Sounds like you’ve got it all under control,” Ray remarked. “I want you to remain in command for now, Jerry. Consider me under house arrest or something. I’ll just sit in the back row and watch. Of course, if you want my advice I’ll be glad to give it. You know me. But you’re in charge of this show. We have to stick by the rules, now that you’ve used them to pry me out of there.”

“Message coming in on the narrow-band coded channel,” Jo Leach interrupted them. “It’s Ensign Hart and his team, I think.”

They got no visual image, only the sound of Brian’s voice over a slight background fuzz of static. “Hart to McNair,” he said in a quiet voice. “We have located the Focian monk. He’s on board a small ship crossing the rift sea, heading for the western side of the chasm. I’ve sent one of our team to rent a skimmer, and we’re going to fly across and be on the other side when the boat arrives. Could this be something to do with the weather station where the virus was transported from?”

“An intriguing idea, Ensign,” Ward replied. “By all means, fly your team over and be ready for that ship when it arrives. But stay out of sight! We don’t want that monk noticing you, and besides that, I’ve gotten on the bad side of the planetary authorities here, and I’d hate for them to get wind of the fact that I’ve got a spy team running around their territory!”

“I understand, sir. We’ll be discreet, I promise.”

Jerry Ward smiled again. “I know you will, Ensign. McNair out.”

Even as the communication ended, a sudden shrill whistle erupted from the creature on the Captain’s shoulder, so piercing that Seay cringed away from it in pain. It had spotted George Key seated at the helmsman’s post down at the forward end of the bridge, and flung itself halfway across the room at one jump, scampering the rest of the way on its spindly legs. George heard the whistle and turned just in time to receive the creature like a projectile directly against his chest. He straightened back in delighted surprise.

“Trif! You’re back!” He looked up at the Captain. “Why, thank you, sir! You’ve found him for me! I thought for sure I’d lost him down on the planet.”

“I think you did, Ensign. I think you did. And I’m very glad it happened, too. Your little friend saved my life down there.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” George replied, not quite knowing what else to say to this.

“I’ll tell you about it later,” Seay said. “Right now I have something else I need to tell Commander Ward. Commander, can I see you privately in the ready room?” The two of them crossed to the side of the bridge together, and only when the door had closed behind them and they were alone inside did he continue. “Jerry, I heard something else down there on the planet, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.”

“Well, I’m your man. Go ahead and tell me about it.”

“I was walking along behind Lord Isar and my guard and another prison official who had come to haul me out of the shielded area to the building’s transporter. Lord Isar was giving that poor official the devil. Taking out his frustrations on this man, I’m afraid. He’s not used to being pushed around like this.”

“So I gathered.”

“Anyway, he was chewing out this poor underling, telling him how he didn’t have time to sit around and wait for people when he had things to do, and complaining that the guy had been five or ten minutes late meeting him at the prison command station to come and get me out. The guy tried to defend himself by explaining why he was late, and he told Lord Isar that he had made a mistake and gone to the wrong section of the prison, because he misunderstood who was being released, and he thought it was the other Starfleet officer who was being let out.”

“Another Starfleet officer!? In the planetary prison?”

“That’s what he said, Jerry. I just pretended I didn’t hear a thing. You should have seen Isar then. He looked at me right away, to see if I noticed the remark, but I don’t think he suspects I heard it. They were several paces ahead of the guard and me. He was so angry he went pale in the face. I thought he was going to have a fit or something and fall right down on the floor. He hardly said another word the whole way out of the place.”

Jerry Ward just looked at the Captain. Another Starfleet officer in the same prison? It might have nothing to do with them at all, and he didn’t feel like risking further deterioration of his relations with the planetary authorities right at the moment by demanding to know all about it, but plainly it was their duty to find out what they could. At length he nodded, and silently led the way back out onto the bridge.

“Ensign Leach,” he directed, “I want you to comb through all the Starfleet records you can get hold of. I want to know what other Starfleet officer might be locked up in that prison down there, and why.” Jo Leach nodded her understanding, and without a word turned away toward her communications panel to track down the information. Jerry felt as though the situation was getting just a little more complicated than he was able to comprehend. As the result of years of experience, he realized this probably meant it was time for dinner. “Come on, Captain,” he suggested. “Let’s go and get something to eat. I don’t suppose prison food was much to impress you.”

Ray Seay laughed. “An excellent idea, Commander. I see the ship is in good hands!”

 

 

Chapter Six

Tears in the Dark

Brian Hart kept his voice low as he spoke urgently inside one cupped hand, talking to his communicator pin. He stood with his back to the featureless alley wall of a warehouse. “Hart to Woodward,” he said. “Keep that skimmer out of sight. He just got off the boat. I’ll trail him from here. You two stand by, and I’ll call for pickup if I need it.”

“Standing by,” came the soft reply at once, and nothing more. Brian nodded approval at the efficiency of his security team. Then he cautiously turned to peek around the side of the building again. The street beyond the alley sloped down and ended at a short, businesslike metal dock protruding into the gently lapping waters of the rift sea. Down here at sea level it was always the dark of night, but his lightweight night vision goggles rendered the scene perfectly. A motorized launch about ten meters long had tied up at the dock several minutes before. He could hear its hull thunking repeatedly against the bumpers on the side of the dock, bobbing on the slight chop of the sea. Only three people had disembarked from it, but this was enough to stimulate the robot port warden to come rolling out of its small blockhouse near the dock and go rattling out along the corrugated metal toward the new arrivals. Brian could hear its tinny voice inquiring what services they might need upon their arrival in Comora, the name of the small port facility here on the western edge of the sea. He couldn’t make out the responses, but apparently nobody wanted anything the robot was equipped to provide, as it suddenly turned around again and came rolling back toward its storage station.

The three passengers also walked off the dock and up the street toward where Brian stood in the darkness. As they came nearer, he began to hear conversation.

“Well, better you than me, brother Kroy,” a man’s voice said. “The sooner I get done with this job the better I’ll like it. I’m not a night shift guy.”

“I sympathize,” responded the monk, who Brian could now recognize by the outline of his robe and cowl in the darkened street. “Pilgrimage, however, knows no day or night.”

The third person proved to be a woman, who now laughed. “What a very Celestine thing to say,” she commented. “This sure is a strange place for a pilgrimage, though, isn’t it?”

“All places are strange in their own way. A pilgrimage, perhaps, makes them less strange.”

“Very deep,” the man replied. The woman laughed again. “This is where we part company, I guess,” he continued. “The automated terminal we have to check is down here to the right. Good luck, brother Kroy!”

Brian breathed silent thanks that he was on the left side of the street, for the other two passengers now turned into the very alley where he stood, except that they turned the other way on the far side of the street. Apparently they were some kind of maintenance team, coming over to look in on the port facilities. Lathrup had used the skimmer communications gear to probe planetary archives during their flight across perpetual darkness of the rift sea, and had informed him and Woodward that Comora actually had a small automated dilithium mining operation working away very near the seashore.

His monk, however, continued straight up the street and in fact quickened his pace as soon as his companions had turned aside. Brian waited a moment, then slipped out of his concealment and cautiously followed in his wake.

In contrast to the inky darkness of Comora’s streets, the bridge of the McNair was flooded with light. It was the middle of the day watch. Captain Seay entered the bridge. Jerry Ward rose from the command chair, flanked by Jennifer Kelley on his left. Chief engineer Thorne stood at his console by the turbolift door. Ensign Leach was doing something complicated to her comm panel.

“It’s a good thing this is a Federation world,” Jerry Ward observed, “or we’d be in deep trouble with the Prime Directive right now. Captain, I think it’s time you took command again. We’ve kept up this charade long enough.”

“You may be right, Commander. I’m not actually under Starfleet arrest, after all. Are we ready with that creature? I can’t think of any other way to find out what’s going on in that blasted prison down there. It’s all shielded from sensors and transporters. You’re sure this thing likes Starfleet people, right, Mister Key?”

George Key half-turned around in the helmsman’s seat, looking at the others. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “I think it’s really the uniform he likes. The straight lines and color contrasts. It’s like a magnet to him.”

“I still can’t quite get used to that business about self-transporting.”

“Me either, sir. If Lieutenant Wood hadn’t proved it, I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but it explains a lot of things about Trif I never understood before.”

“So he must have transported himself into my cell down there, before. Right through the walls and everything! A handy skill to have, for a little critter like that. Now let’s just hope if there really is another Starfleet officer in that prison, they haven’t taken away his uniform, and your Trif can find him. That spy-eye hooked to him might do some good.”

“I’ve got the visual from the monitor now, sir,” advised Andrew Thorne.

“On screen,” ordered Ray. The main viewer lit with the image of a corridor viewed from floor level. The walls moved past slowly, demonstrating to the watching crew that Trif apparently was skittering along the floor on his multitude of legs.

“If everything is shielded, how can we see this?” asked George.

“Subspace transmitter,” Andrew explained patiently. “They can’t shield against that. Subspace is no good for scanning, but it can sure carry the signal if you get a scanner inside!” He grinned at the effectiveness of the infiltration he had devised. Suddenly, however, the screen went blank white for an instant, and then they found themselves peering into a faintly illuminated cell interior. It seemed identical to the one where Captain Seay had been held, right down to a Starfleet officer lying listlessly on the cot.

“It paid off! He transported himself again!” Ray exulted. “And there’s our man! Jo, give me a hailing channel through that thing on Ensign Key’s critter.”

“Channel open,” Jo replied.

“This is Captain Ray Seay of the Starship McNair,” he said a little more quietly, not wanting to cause a commotion in the cell. Still, the jump executed by the unknown officer was pretty impressive. Jerry Ward reflected he had rarely seen anyone jump vertically up from a bed while lying flat on his back, but this fellow managed something like it, and suddenly stood looking around his cell.

“Where are you?” the fellow asked. “How are you communicating? This prison is completely shielded! Are you in orbit?”

“Affirmative on being in orbit,” Ray answered. “If you look down at the floor, you’ll see a little animal that apparently can transport itself over short distances without any transporter. We’ve just discovered this talent in time to use it to find you. May I ask your identity?”

“Fleet Captain Ron Fell,” the prisoner replied. “I’ve been in this blasted hole for so long I’ve lost track of time.”

“Are you charged with some crime, Fleet Captain?”

“The only crime I committed was to run afoul of Lord Isar here.”

“I see,” replied Ray, glancing at Jerry Ward. Jerry nodded and pursed his lips in understanding. Anybody that had ended up on the bad side of the local aristocrat was okay with him. “What exactly is Lord Isar’s problem, anyway?” Ray continued.

“I’m not sure,” Fell replied, crouching down to look more closely at his new companion in the cell. On the bridge they were treated to an extreme close-up of the Fleet Captain’s face. Ray thought briefly about how good it would look for them to rescue a Fleet Captain from unjust confinement. Starfleet commendations would likely be forthcoming if this mission could be concluded right.

“All I know,” Fell added, as he reached down to stroke Trif’s fur, “is that I had been in Dorado for about four days on an official inspection tour of the Starfleet supply depot about fifty kilometers up north along the side of the rift. One day I came back down here to the capital to see Lord Isar about getting some local labor to help re-install the long-range subspace antenna. It had been destroyed in a storm here. I was just sitting in his outer office, waiting for him to come in that morning, because I’m an early riser and I got to his office about the same time as his secretary, but he wasn’t in yet. Or at least, she said he wasn’t in yet. And she had been in his inner office, too, so I figured she must know what she was talking about. Anyway, a little after I got there, here he comes strolling out of his office after all, and his secretary looked very startled, and so did he, especially when he saw me sitting there too. And he said fine, the maintenance team would be assigned to go out and help set up the antenna, but less than an hour after I left his office, the planetary militia just grabbed me off the street and zipped me up here, and here I’ve been ever since! I still can’t figure out what it’s all about, and I’ve been kept completely incommunicado the whole time. How in the world did you find me, anyway?”

“Just Starfleet luck,” Ray told him. “Fleet Captain, I’m not exactly sure what we can do about getting you out of there at the moment, until we find out more about what’s going on here, but it’s getting plainer and plainer that there is something going on. I have no clue what it is yet, but as soon as we find out, I’ll let you know what we can do for you. Can you be a little patient?”

Ron Fell laughed good-naturedly. “Do what you can, Captain Seay. You know where to find me.”

McNair out,” Ray responded, and Jo Leach cut the subspace signal.

At just about that moment, down on the frigid, darkened western slope of the rift, Brian Hart again talked with his security team in their skimmer. He was a bit out of breath from climbing the steep, rocky paths in the dark, and trying at the same time to stay out of sight of brother Kroy ahead of him. They must have climbed hundreds of meters through the frozen twilight terrain.

“Okay, guys, he’s gone into the building. This is the place our people were before, right?”

“The old weather station,” affirmed Woodward. “What’s he doing here?”

“It’s a cinch he’s not on any pilgrimage, anyway,” observed Brian. “I’m going to follow him inside. Lathrup, I want you to come forward and wait right at the entrance to the place. Woodward, you stay in the skimmer and on the comm, right?”

“On the comm it is,” said Woodward.

“On my way,” added Lathrup. Brian nodded again to himself, and followed the monk into the huge darkened interior of the weather station. He stepped carefully and quietly in the dusty hallways, although here, higher up on the slope of the rift, there was at least a little twilight around them to assist with navigation. Brian came around a last corner in the corridors and found himself in the central gallery of the weather station, just where the McNair landing party had beamed down to investigate on the previous day. Not that day or night had any meaning in this stationary place. He was surprised to see brother Kroy sitting not far away, his back to the hallway where Brian stood, his head in his hands and a tricorder blinking on the floor at his side.

“Oh, Fergana, Fergana!” he moaned to himself, rocking gently to and fro where sat miserably in the semi-darkness. “It really is them! How could they do this to you? I swear by my love they won’t get away with this.” He sniffed loudly, wiped at his eyes, and started to get to his feet. “I’ll make them pay,” he added. He picked up the tricorder, glanced at it, then glanced at it again. Suddenly he whirled toward Brian. “Who’s there?!” he cried.

“Brian Hart, from the Starship McNair, brother Kroy,” he answered directly. Then more quietly, he spoke to his team. “You guys get in here as fast as you can. We’re out in the open.”

“The McNair? What are you doing here?” Brian could almost hear the wheels spinning in brother Kroy’s head. “Did you follow me here? You’re the ones who caused all this trouble in the first place! Special agent Gauss told me all about how the virus was transported right into your shuttle, and you never even noticed a thing. What kind of Starfleet security is that? You’ve destroyed my beloved Fergana’s whole life.”

Brian saw plainly that Kroy was more than a bodyguard. Apparently he was also in love with Lady Montgolfier, though the absurdity of such a match must be obvious to him. As her bodyguard he would be with her only until she was married off to Lord Isar, and then he’d be sent packing. But at least this new twist caused Brian’s suspicion of the monk to evaporate. He hardly would have infected his beloved Fergana with the virus, or join in a plot to do it, if he wanted her for himself. Or would he? If I can’t have her, nobody can? Something like that? Brian felt confused.

“What did you mean when you said ‘they’ had really done it?” he asked, changing the subject. “Who are they? Maybe we can help you yet, maybe help Lady Montgolfier, too.” He was gratified to see that brother Kroy appeared to think this over very seriously before he replied.

“Maybe you can, at that,” he said at last. “I certainly can’t do much about it myself. As to what I meant, that’s very simple. Even this simple hand tricorder told me everything I needed to know. All I had to do was know what to look for.”

“And what were you looking for?”

“Shisemi virus, for one thing. And there’s a trace or two of dead cells still on the transporter pads over there, so this is for certain where they did it from. And also I netted out the ambient air in this room. No ventilators working here for a very long time, I’d say. I got the residue from the people who were in here, and I know where they came from.”

“How do you know that? We had a team down here, too. Maybe you’re picking up traces from them?”

“That’s what I meant by knowing what to look for. We have to call special agent Gauss right away. You see, I’m working with him as well as guarding Lady Montgolfier. And his suspicions have turned out to be well-founded. These traces I’ve identified are smoke residue from the incense pipes of Celestine monks. Monks from the Dorado Focian monastery. I can’t do anything about that place myself, and I suspect neither can agent Gauss. So it looks like a little help from you McNairs may just turn out to be exactly what we need right now.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

A Narrow Escape

The door to the Captain’s ready room hissed open. Ray Seay looked up in time to see Ulysses Gauss bustle into the room. The portly special agent’s unruly white hair matched his rumpled colonist’s suit, but Seay was beginning to understand why he always looked like an unmade bed. He kept so busy at his job that he never had time for personal grooming. Gauss literally had been on the run since the moment he beamed down to Dorado almost three days earlier.

“Good of you to come up, special agent,” Ray thanked him. “I really do need to have this first-hand from you before I can commit my ship and crew to something like you’ve been talking about with my away team people.”

“Of course, Captain,” Gauss replied, plopping into a seat with just the slightest trace of exhaustion. “I’m prepared to lay my cards on the table for you, but I’ll expect the same in return.”

“Fair enough.”

“You’ve probably noticed that the prominent Federation people here on Dorado are highly sensitive about genetic spying,” he began. Ray nodded as he recalled the paranoiac nonsense about nobody using transporters. “This is for a good reason, Captain. For some time, Federation intelligence has been on the track of genetic counterfeiters. They obtain illegal gene scans from powerful lineages in the Federation, and use the information to gain access to financial accounts, secure industrial areas, and other places where valuable resources can be found. They have been stealing people’s identities in order to steal a lot of other things.”

“Stealing identities?”

“If you have a gene scan of someone, you can replicate a false retinal scan and play it into a retinal scanner. It would be just as if the person were standing there with his or her own eye looking into the device. They can create skin tabs that not only look like the fingertips of someone else, including the whorled patterns of fingerprints, but actually are the fingertips of someone else. They can even produce computer simulations of vocal chords of a person at any age, and use that information to generate authentic voice recordings that actually are the voice of that person, saying whatever they want said. These are not faked copies. If you have the actual genetic codes, you can recreate the actual voices and eye-scans and all the rest, exactly duplicating the actual person.”

“They’d be able to go through anybody’s security like a knife through butter,” Seat observed thoughtfully. “even Starfleet security is based on that kind of individual scanning. Voiceprints. Retinal scans. Just what you’re talking about. No wonder Lord Isar is worried about this.”

“Why would they want to tip their hand by transporting shisemi into Lady Montgolfier, though? I just can’t figure that out,” Gauss admitted. “It was a foolish thing to do, because it alerted everyone that they’re still here, still active. They must have been desperate to go to such lengths. Now her bodyguard, brother Kroy, has made the connection. I had my suspicions about the Focian order some time ago, based on things I’ve seen in other systems, and that’s why I took care to see that she would have a Focian bodyguard who was also one of my field operatives. He has positively linked the Focian chapter here on Dorado to the transporter site where the shisemi was transmitted up into your shuttle. Into your passenger.”

“Why should the Focian order be involved in this? They have so much to lose. Celestine orders are the honest brokers in all the political intrigue of the lineages, and if it weren’t for the safety valve of the orders, all those elite children who can’t be properly matched up to somebody would have no careers! And the orders make a fortune by keeping neutral records, and brokering arranged marriages that keep the families around the Federation council table from degenerating into a lot of feuding cats!”

“You’re absolutely right, Captain. It can’t be the whole Focian order. There must be something very wrong in the chapter compound here on Dorado. But since we can deduce that, we must be ready for some very dangerous characters down there. I’m afraid this is where I pull out my special agent’s authority to requisition help from available Starfleet resources in the vicinity.”

“Meaning me.”

“Meaning the McNair, yes. You’ll have to trust me now. I’m going to insist on a surprise attack on the Focian compound.”\

“As to that, special agent Gauss, you won’t need to pull rank here. I’m convinced already of the need for this strike. I’ll put my first officer in command of the team. I have an excellent security detail on the ship. We’ve got a couple of new enhanced operatives for special missions like this. Now we’ll have a chance to see just how good they are.” He paused, leaned forward and spoke into the console on his desk.

“First Officer Ward, report to my ready room immediately. Ensign Hart, report to special services. Activate two of our enhanced operatives for a special mission. Commander Ward will be in touch with you about the departure time and the mission. Seay out.”

He turned back to Gauss. “So I’m cooperating with you. Now, what can you tell me about this Starfleet officer in the prison down there? Why are they holding Fleet Captain Fell incommunicado like this?”

Gauss shrugged his shoulders. “Again, Captain, I confess I’m mystified. I can see no reason to hold him. From what you’ve told me, you’re in contact with him already. Neither you nor he can understand why he is being held. It appears to involve Lord Isar.”

“Well, we’ll sort that out later,” Ray decided, as the door opened again to admit Jerry Ward. “Come in, Commander. I have a job for you to do. I think you’re going to like this.”

Down in the Dorado chasm, one member of the McNair crew still roamed at large. With natural Ferengi suspicion, Oodee assumed he was being followed by at least one local agent and possibly more. His beady eyes darted about the crowded, narrow street, taking in the denizens of this rather seedy district of the capital and its equally seedy architecture. No telling who the agents might be. Possibly watching him on public monitors, rather than using actual agents. He took a deep breath and stepped suddenly through a nearby doorway so low that even he had to duck slightly to get under the beam.

Inside, smoke from a number of different ignited substances swirled in the air, singed his nostrils and made his eyes water for a moment. As he blinked away the tears and adjusted to the semi-darkness, he recognized the tinny music blaring from the speakers at the bar against the back wall. It was an old Ferengi love ballad, about a young lad who met a beautiful girl, cheated her father of every ounce of latinum the fellow possessed, and therefore won her heart the admiration of the whole town. They were married and lived happily ever after. She raised his numerous progeny. He cruised the galaxy sending home rafts of wealth for all his relatives to boast about. Oodee smiled wistfully at the sentimental old tune.

Then he spotted another of his kindred behind the bar. This Ferengi was not personally known to him, but that was understandable. The fellow was much younger, perhaps old Kordo’s son or nephew. He ambled over to the bar.

“May your profits increase,” the youngster greeted him correctly. Oodee suppressed a smile of approval. Good manners in a young Ferengi this far from home. It bespoke a strong family, a good rich father who ruled with a firm hand.

“Thank you, young one,” he replied in his best haughty voice, assuming an arrogant posture by reflex. “May your father never be cheated.” The youth ducked his head slightly to acknowledge the ritual response. “Is Kordo your father?” Oodee asked. Again a nod. “Is he here, by chance?” Yet again, an affirmative response. “Excellent! Please tell him that Oodee is here from the Federation starship, and would like to speak with him.”

The lad’s eyes widened. Clearly impressed, he looked up and down the bar once to be sure no customer had been overlooked, then vanished through a curtain of heavy metallic fabric hung across an opening in the back wall. It took a few moments, but soon one of the fattest Ferengi he had ever seen pushed through the curtain and approached, rubbing his hands on a towel and beaming.

“Oodee! Back again, are you? I trust you found satisfaction with your meeting the other day! I had word about the ministry meeting. I can’t tell you how we laughed over the new executioner last night at the Rotary meeting. Seeing old Isar take one on the nose like that did us all a world of good, and no mistake.”

“Lord Isar is not well liked, I take it?”

“Since that Federation bigwig showed up here on Dorado, Oodee, we local merchants have seen our profits falling every year. It’s getting so you can’t make an honest fortune anymore. Or even a dishonest one. He has connections with Starfleet, with the big conglomerates on Earth, with all the big Vulcan banks, too. Live long and prosper! Ha! They prosper, all right! But I haven’t prospered since he got here. He and his pals swimming around the galaxy have cut out all the choice bits for themselves. He’s got the dilithium mine, even if it is a small one, and the comet harvesters out on the edge of the system. I’m down to working retail again, Oodee! It’s a humiliation, that’s what it is. Nothing like what happened to the Focians, but it’s been bad enough for me.”

“What happened to them?”

“Why, it was their dilithium mine,” Kordo replied. “He hit the planet like a meteorite, and the Focians were at ground zero. He brought in an edict from the Federation Council. Only firms under contract to Starfleet could hold rights to dilithium mines. Of course being a religious order, they have no contracts with Starfleet. And he happened to be a major stockholder in a company that did have such a contract, so the planetary court ruled they had to sell to him. You can imagine the price he got.” Oodee nodded. “But don’t worry about them,” Kordo continued. “Businesses come and go, but the orders go on forever. They can just afford to wait for him to get bored and wander off somewhere else, or at least wait for him to die off and try to leave it to an heir. They get to certify heirs, you know.”

“So if Lord Isar has no heir the Focians would stand a better chance of getting their mine back again?”

“That would be a safe guess, Oodee. Why do you ask?”

“A shisemi infection prevents heirs pretty well, I’d say. I came here to tell you that there’s definitely something going on here on Dorado. Lord Isar may have pull with Starfleet. But he’s got problems with them now, or he will have soon. There may be a chance for you to make some major gains if you’re ready for it when it comes. And of course, I would expect to make some gains myself, if only indirectly. As quartermaster of a Starfleet ship I can’t get involved personally. You know what I mean.”

“If I were to know the right time, I certainly know a few steps I could take,” Kordo said earnestly, staring hard into Oodee’s eyes. “And you know I would be grateful for your advice.” They nodded significantly. “What sort of trouble?”

“The Focians may have had something to do with the contamination of his bride-to-be. It’s all beginning to make sense.”

“If you say so. As for me, I’m just going to get into position in case you’re right about trouble for Isar. That would be welcome news indeed. This calls for a drink. Bewt!” he shouted, turning back to the curtain again. “Bewt! Bring out a bottle of Romulan ale!” His son emerged after a moment, carrying the blue flask in one hand and a pair of glasses in the other.

On the bridge of the McNair, Captain Seay sat in his command chair talking quietly with Counselor Kelley. Suddenly her husband Bill, the ship’s tactical officer, interrupted them.

“Captain, there’s something going on down on the planet! Sensors indicate a massive buildup in the capacitors of the spaceport.”

Seay and Jennifer both turned to look back at him at his post above and behind them. “Just a moment,” he continued, listening to a voice in his ear. “Sir, they have long-range disruptors at the spaceport, and they’re powering them up. It looks like they’re getting ready to fire!”

“At what, Lieutenant? Any target in orbit besides us?”

“None, sir.”

“Red alert!” Ray commanded. “Shields up! Transporter room, is the strike team away?”

“Negative, Captain,” a voice replied from the arm of his chair. “They’re right here ready to go.”

“Stand by, transporter room. We’ve raised shields. You’re out of action for the moment. Have the strike team stand down but stay close by.”

“Standing down it is, sir.”

“Lieutenant Leach, I want a channel down to the planet.”

“On screen,” Jo obliged him, having anticipated the command as usual. Ray took her foresight for granted and didn’t even glance at her. An officer of the local planetary militia appeared on the main viewer.

“Yes, McNair?”

“Why are you powering up disruptors? Is there danger we should be aware of?” Ray asked, trying to avoid a confrontation.

“We are acting under direct orders of Lord Isar,” the officer informed him. “Be assured, McNair, we have no intention of firing on you. We see you have raised shields, but we have no reason to fire at you.”

“Glad to hear it,” Ray said. “I repeat, what’s your target?”

“I have not been instructed to reveal our operations.”

“By Orion’s Belt!” Ray exclaimed. “This is the captain of a Starfleet ship you’re talking to, sir! We’ll see about your instructions and your target! McNair out!” He gestured for Jo to cut the channel.

As soon as the screen went blank, he barked out another order. “Get me Isar at once!”

The Federation aristocrat looked as cool as a summer evening, however, when he came on the screen. “Yes, Captain?” he asked casually.

“You’re powering up disruptors at the spaceport,” Seay accused immediately. “I want to know your target, Lord Isar!”

“This is planetary business, and none of yours.”

“Don’t you hand me that, your lordship. I’ve got a ship in orbit above those disruptor batteries. While my shields are proof against a first strike from anything that flies in space, we’re hardly a match for ground-based installations. Any time somebody powers up disruptors within range of my ship, that’s Starfleet business, whatever business it may be of yours down there on the planet. I demand to know your target.”

Lord Isar thought about this for a moment. Then he smiled. Like a crocodile, Ray thought to himself.

“Very well, Captain. I suppose you need the security of knowing. I’m going to blast the Focian compound off the face of this planet. It seems they are implicated in the contamination of my betrothed.”

“You can’t just blast them without any kind of trial! That’s illegal!” Seay said, shocked at this admission.

“Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t However, this really is planetary business, as you can see. Starfleet is not a planetary police force. You do not enforce laws here, only out there in space. If I break a law or two, so be it. I’m willing to face the legal consequences, to go to prison myself if I have to. I will, however, be avenged for the destruction of my marriage, so carefully arranged for years now, and for the resulting destruction of my ability to make a contribution to the continuance of my lineage. You have no authority to interfere with this, Captain Seay. You have meddled in my life quite enough for one visit.”

“He’s right about that,” declared a voice behind Ray’s shoulder. Seay whirled to see the unimpressive figure of Ulysses Gauss standing just behind him. He hadn’t heard the special agent come onto the bridge.

“However,” Gauss continued, “I’m afraid I do have the authority to interfere with this, Lord Isar. You know I am a Federation special agent. I already presented my credentials to you yesterday. In the name of the Federation Council I order that the disruptor batteries at the spaceport stand down and return to standby power at once. You will not fire on the Focian compound, Lord. Is that clear?”

The little man’s voice had somehow acquired a hard iron edge, a note of certainty and power that even the aristocrat clown on the planet recognized almost instinctively. Isar’s menacing posture on the viewing screen deflated suddenly as he realized he had been thwarted yet again. Seay saw revealed there a more pathetic figure behind the bluster and arrogance. He saw the pampered, vulnerable youth that Lord Isar must have been long ago, unsure of his own power, surrounded and protected by relatives and wealth. With never an opportunity to prove himself independently, always leaning on lineage support like a crutch, he must have gotten his way without gaining the feeling of accomplishment that would otherwise have come with victories. It had made him a bully, and at the same time left him a coward. Ray felt a sudden pity for the man. Isar obviously shared this sentiment. The self-pity came welling to the surface.

“This is absolutely insufferable!” he exclaimed bitterly. “First you bunglers let my precious bride be infected with that hideous virus, and then your Starfleet thugs threaten violence to gain release of your criminal captain. Now when I try to avenge myself on the people who have wrecked my life, you won’t even let me have my honor! Have you nothing to do but torment me?”

“If the Focians are mixed up somehow in the infection of Lady Montgolfier,” Gauss replied calmly, “they will be brought to justice. They will not be slaughtered like animals, by you or anyone else, for honor or any other illegitimate purpose. This is still Federation space, Lord Isar.”

“Go to blazes, Gauss!” cried the aristocrat in a fit of fury. The screen went dead. Gauss and Ray Seay looked at each other for a long moment.

“Good timing, agent Gauss,” Ray finally observed. “I believe he really might have done it. He’s used to having things pretty much his own way, isn’t he?”

“So would you be too, in his position, Captain.”

“I’m just as glad not to be in his position, then. I prefer my universe to have a mind of its own.” He winked at the little white-haired man. “Stand down from Red Alert,” he continued. “Transporter room, reassemble the strike team and beam them down as ordered.”

“Aye, sir,” came the reply. Ray stood up.

“Now we’ll get to the bottom of this,” he declared.

 

 

Chapter Eight

Storming the Gates

As always, it seemed like dusk when the strike team materialized on the eastern slopes of the Dorado chasm. Either dusk or dawn, Jerry Ward reflected. You can’t really tell them apart anyway without a clock. And on Dorado it was always both. And neither. Still he couldn’t help a reflex feeling that they had to hurry or it would soon get dark, knowing all the time that they could take centuries and the light would remain just as it was. Few clouds overhead meant he could see stars twinkling against the deep blue of the sky. The cliffs of the upper canyon walls cut off the stellar panorama above them on one side, but empty air fell away gradually to the left, down into gathering darkness. A road ran along the side of the canyon below them at quite a distance, perhaps three or four kilometers. A few vehicles trundled along it, headlamp beams picking out the curves.

They had materialized in a small clearing inside a stretch of deciduous forest of elms, maples and several other kinds of trees he couldn’t name offhand. Sunlight played among their upper branches, which explained why they stood just here, stretching up to catch the light. No trees grew further down the slope, though vegetation of smaller, hardier types extended down toward the road. He glanced around, noting that this men had already established a security perimeter around the edge of the clearing.

“Okay,” he spoke quietly into his comm badge. “All quiet, and advance to the north edge of the woods.” Silently, the McNairs advanced like shadows through the grove, until they stood behind the protection of the last trunks. They looked out across a broad, cultivated field toward the walls of a large compound facing them. There obviously would be no crossing that space in broad daylight, and only astronomical time would bring an end to the daylight.

“Send in the enhanced units,” Jerry ordered.

“Units away,” responded two voices in his ear a moment later. The entire strike force watched as two animals trundled out from the trees and went scrabbling away across the field toward the wall. They had pointed, whiskered snouts, sleek and pudgy furry bodies, and long, naked tails like huge rats.

“What are they, sir?” asked a trooper down the line.

“Bionic possums,” Jerry replied quietly. “Are they on line?”

“On line aye, sir,” came twin replies. Jerry responded by flipping down a pair of goggles that had been resting up against the brim of his helmet. The scene of the field remained just visible through them, faint behind the reverse-twist lighting that came from the lenses themselves, transmitting the view from the retinal cameras installed inside one of the possums. He found himself gazing up through the creature’s eyes from near ground level. Several meters away, a monk in brown robe identical to that worn by brother Kroy on the ship slouched against the outer wall. At just about that moment he noticed the possum.

“Hey!” he cried, his voice audible to every member of the team through the bionic possum’s microphone pickups. “There’s a creature running around out here! I’ve never seen one of these before. Come have a look!” Within minutes, four or five other brothers emerged through the heavy gates and crowded around.

“See?” asked the original sentry. “He’s not afraid of us at all! Must not have much experience with people, is all I can say. Let’s try to get him to come inside. Maybe we can get him to eat something.”

“Look! There’s another one down there. Maybe they’re mates or something. If one comes in, maybe the other will follow.”

“It’s worth a try. I’m so bored I’ll try anything. Wait a minute and I’ll go get some pango fruit, and see if he likes it. That could be the lure.”

Of course, it took no effort at all for the small but growing crowd of monks to coax the two creatures into the compound using juicy hunks of fruit as bait. Once inside, the eye-mounted cameras revealed that seemingly every monk in sight was attracted to the possums. Scan the walls as they might, Jerry and the two possum operators could see no sign of remaining sentries at the walls.

“The Trojan possums,” he remarked to himself with satisfaction. “All right, team. Stand by for transport inside the compound. McNair, do you read me?”

McNair standing by, Commander,” Andrew Thorne’s voice announced. “We have your assault coordinates ready. Transporter locked onto all strike team members.”

“Reconnaissance complete,” Jerry replied. “Beam us in!”

At once, all the members of the strike team shimmered and vanished from the forest, reappearing at the intersections of a grid that covered the entire compound area systematically, weapons at the ready. Of course, live sentries at the wall were not the only possible surveillance. Sensor alarms began hooting from every corner of the compound as soon as the transporter signals were detected. A few monks rushed out of the corner guardhouses, carrying actual weapons, but each of them found themselves facing at least two McNairs with phaser rifles.

Only at the rear of the compound, where Ensign Hart materialized next to a doorway in a low, bunker-like building, was there any effective resistance. Before he could turn to look in the doorway, two figures in brown robes leaped from the shadows and tackled him to the ground. His rifle clattered away across the cobblestones of the courtyard as they pinned him down.

“Hart!” he shouted. “Abort!”

In response, the entire group including Hart and both his attackers shimmered and disappeared as they were transported back into the McNair to face a waiting security team with phasers trained on the struggling group.

Two more of the strike team rushed to take his place at the door of the bunker.

“This must be a command center,” one of them said urgently. “It’s the only place the sentries stayed on alert. Commander, I think we’ve got something.”

“Strike team, converge on Morris and Delaney,” Jerry Ward ordered when he heard this. “You two with the possums, keep those monks in the center courtyard under guard.” At his command, the rest of the team began to converge carefully on the low bunker-like structure.

In the transporter room of the McNair, security chief Kelley tapped his communicator pin with satisfaction.

“Kelley to Seay,” he requested. “Captain, we’ve secured two prisoners here. All seems to be under control with the assault. No casualties reported yet.”

“Let’s keep it that way, Lieutenant,” Seay’s voice replied. “We can’t have a lot of monks getting shot, no matter what they’ve been up to. And I certainly don’t want any McNairs as casualties!”

On the bridge, Ray turned back to the main viewscreen. They all watched the live feed from the possum cameras, tensely observing the rounding up of the few remaining monks by the members of the strike team detailed to secure the prisoners. Neither of the possums was in visual range of the bunker, however, so they could only imagine what was happening there.

Suddenly helmsman Key sat up very straight in his chair.

“Captain!” he cried. “I read a subspace disturbance ahead of us, about a third of the way around the planet. Wait! Something is coming in. Sir, it’s a Romulan warbird decloaking! They haven’t raised their shields, but weapons are powering up!”

“Red alert!” Ray responded instantly, for the second time that morning. “Shields up. Full power to forward phaser banks. What in blazes are they doing here? This is halfway across the quadrant from the neutral zone! We’re days of flight at maximum warp from Romulan space.”

“They’re heading this way, Captain.”

“I see that, Ensign. Still no shields?”

“No, sir. No shields up.”

“What signal do you suppose they are trying to send by that? Do they expect me to lower my shields as well? They’d better think again if they do.”

“Perhaps they need to use their transporter, sir,” suggested Counselor Kelley, seated beside him.

Ray nodded. “You may be right. They may be preparing an assault team of their own to beam down to the planet. Ensign Leach, I want a hailing frequency to that Romulan ship.”

“On screen, Captain.”

The ascetic features of a Romulan commander in his quilted uniform gazed levelly at them from the forward viewscreen. “This is Commander Tomahok of the Kerpak,” he announced. “McNair, we have no hostile intent. We have not raised our shields. We are on a diplomatic mission.”

“Cloaked for a diplomatic mission?” Ray asked, his voice dripping with skepticism.

At that moment a signal beeped from the command console on the arm of his chair. “Ward here,” Jerry’s voice announced. “Captain, I’ve just beamed up with a prisoner.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Sir, my prisoner is a Romulan. We found him down in the Focian compound. The rest of my team is still down there; it seems the Focian monks were all surgically disguised Romulan agents. About a dozen of them in all. This might be big, sir.”

“I’d guess you were right, Commander. We’ve got the captain of a warbird onscreen right now.” Seay turned back to his new adversary.

“I begin to understand your mission, Commander,” he continued. “But I’m afraid we have captured your agents, and we seem to have their leader on our ship.”

“Their shields have just gone up, sir,” George Key said.

“Small wonder,” Ray replied. “No jobs for their transporter room at the moment. Commander, I think we need a little more explanation from you.”

Instead of an explanation, however, the screen went blank. The Romulan ship had cut off communications.

 

 

Chapter Nine

Prisoner Exchange

“Sir, they are routing power to their weapons systems,” Bill Kelley announced. His voice cracked slightly as he said “power,” betraying the tension on the bridge.

“Stand by photon torpedoes,” Ray said quietly. “Full power to forward shields. They may be the intruders here, but I’m not going to fire the first shot. They have to play the bad guys the whole way.”

Suddenly the viewscreen flickered back to life. The Romulan Commander glared at them.

“You have thirty seconds to transport your troops out of the compound on the planet surface,” he declared sharply. “we are going to fire on the compound.”

“Destroying the evidence,” muttered Bill Kelley, “but we can’t stop them. We can shield ourselves, but not a whole planet.”

“Seay to transporter room,” Ray cut in. “Beam up all personnel in the compound and do it now! Drop shields, Mister Kelley.”

“Beam up it is, sir.”

“And tell me as soon as they’re aboard.”

“Aye, sir.”

“This is Captain Seay,” he said to the face on the screen. “You realize there will be serious repercussions from your actions. This is a clear violation of the terms of the Treaty of Algernon.”

“I must do what I must do, Captain. I will not attack your vessel.”

Ray thought hard and fast. Should he fire on the warbird if they attacked the planet? Assuming he got all his crew away, Ward’s report would seem to indicate that all the monks left in the compound were in fact surgically altered Romulan agents. No Federation citizens would actually be harmed by the attack. And they had one prisoner already for interrogation, apparently the leader of the secret detachment. He didn’t reply to the Romulan’s assurances, only stared at him, neither of them blinking.

“Strike team on board, sir,” reported the transporter room. In the same breath, as if he had been waiting for this signal, the Romulan commander uttered a single harsh syllable.

“Warbird firing on the planet, sir,” Kelley declared. The forward screens switched to a view of the warbird, and indeed, phaser fire could be seen stabbing down from the ship through the atmosphere of the planet. The effects far below were too distant to be discerned visually, but Lieutenant Kelley was monitoring it all. “Direct hit on the Focian monastery,” he added. “More direct hits. The compound has been destroyed completely.”

“Incoming message from Dorado, Captain,” Jo Leach announced. The image on the screen shifted again, this time showing the face of an even more enraged Lord Isar.

“Those Romulan savages are blasting my planet and you’re doing nothing about it, Seay!” he fairly screamed into their faces. Rather than becoming flushed with anger, his face had paled to a ghostly shade of white just as Jerry Ward had observed in the spaceport several days earlier. “With friends like Starfleet, who needs enemies? Can’t you do anything right? Must every action and inaction of yours cause me pain and suffering, Captain?”

“None of your citizens are in the target area, to the best of our information, Lord Isar,” Ray began, but suddenly everyone on the bridge was shocked to see the image of the Federation aristocrat shimmer on the screen in front of them. Even Isar himself cried out in alarm, his eyes suddenly growing wider with fear instead of anger. And then he was gone.

“I thought they didn’t allow transporting for guys like him,” mused George Key from the helmsman’s seat.

“It didn’t look like it was done with his blessing, Ensign,” Captain Seay replied. As if to confirm this judgment, Jo Leach announced that the Romulan Commander was on the line again. Tomahok reappeared, looking rather smug.

“Commander Tomahok, I presume you had something to do with Lord Isar disappearing from his communication center just now,” Ray speculated.

“Indeed, Captain. I see you grasp the situation intuitively.” Tomahok nodded his compliments to Ray. “I have transported the Lord to a holding area on my ship.” He reached forward and pressed something on his control console, and the McNair bridge crew found themselves looking into a small detention cell. Lord Isar stood with his back to them, staring around confusedly. They could see he was shouting, but there was no sound. Then the image switched back to Tomahok. “I suggest an exchange of prisoners, Captain. We will beam Lord Isar to you if you will beam your prisoner to us.”

“Who goes first?” Ray asked.

“The honor of Starfleet captains is good with me.” Tomahok answered at once. “We will transport Lord Isar first, if you simply give me your word as a Starfleet officer that you will respond as agreed. Then we will cloak and be gone from this system. Permanently, I might add.”

Ray refrained from saying that the word of Romulan invaders who had just obliterated a dozen of their own people in cold blood carried less weight with him. It might be true, but it was not useful or diplomatic at the moment. He thought fast again.

“You may keep your prisoner,” he said. “We will keep ours. In fact, we have more than one. It seems like a fair exchange to me.” Behind him, Jerry Ward had come onto the bridge with the Romulan prisoners in tow, in time to hear this exchange. He grinned broadly. Leaving Isar in the Romulan ship sounded like a useful outcome all around to him. Still, the annoying fellow was a powerful Federation citizen.

“Well played, Captain. I believe you call it poker. We have another game, but the game is quite similar.Very well, I shall raise the stakes. If you refuse to exchange prisoners, I will beam Lord Isar over to a point just outside your ship, rather than inside it. From here it’s a long way down, but the atmosphere will slow his fall. It will be a very hot descent for him.”

Ray had been afraid of something like that. He knew Isar had no intrinsic value to the Romulans, except as an exchange chip. No exchange, no reason to hold onto him. He doubted that the Commander was bluffing. He had already uncloaked his ship deep inside Federation space, had already destroyed many of his own people, and clearly was prepared to go to any lengths to conceal whatever it was they had been doing. The ship must have been cloaked in orbit for a long time already, perhaps as a base of operations.

Jerry Ward suddenly spoke up from where he stood by the turbolift doors.

“Go ahead and exchange them, Captain.”

Ray looked around sharply at him. Little changed in their expressions, but their mutual familiarity communicated what Seay needed to know.

“Take the Romulan prisoners to the transporter room, Commander Ward,” he directed. “When Lord Isar is safely aboard, beam them over to the Romulan ship.”

“Transporter room it is, sir,” Jerry agreed, still feeling a twinge of reluctance at rescuing Lord Isar, even from certain death. He couldn’t help feeling the planet would be better off without the peevish aristocrat. But a life is a life, after all. He pushed the Romulans ahead of him into the turbolift.

“A wise decision, Captain Seay,” Tomahok said. “You have avoided all harm to Federation citizens today. All the damage from this incident has been to the Romulan side.”

Ray thought at once about Lady Montgolfier and her hideous viral infection, in all probability the work of the dead Romulan spies so recently vaporized on the planet surface.

“You will find that the damage from this incident may become quite a bit greater than it looks to you at the moment,” he finally responded. “I expect you to get out of this system and out of Federation space. Starfleet headquarters has already been notified of your incursion. You may expect serious protests.”

“No doubt, Captain. No doubt.” Tomahok in fact did not look very happy. His expression was about what one would expect to find on the driver of a manure cart, not a starship. He was in command of a mission that had gone completely sour on him, and he was lucky to be escaping in one piece. If it had been Klingons, Ray thought idly to himself, they would have self-destructed out of sheer embarrassment over such a fiasco.

“Lord Isar is aboard, Captain,” came the report from the transporter. “Initiating transport of the Romulan prisoners.” A moment later, Tomahok bent to one side to hear a whispered report from an aide, then turned back to the screen.

“We have our men back,” he reported. “I salute your honor as an officer, Captain. We will be going now. Our shields remain down.” His face vanished from the screen. On the forward scan, they all saw the warbird shimmer slightly and then vanish, as the cloaking mechanism went into action. They could only assume that he was headed home.

“Seay to Ward,” Ray called. “Commander, please bring Lord Isar to my cabin. I have a number of questions for him.”

“One of my questions is already answered,” Jerry Ward replied over the intercom. “Captain, I know why he didn’t want any transporter activity for lineage folks now. We’ve done a routine scan of him when he was beamed aboard.”

“Yes?”

“And Lord Isar is an altered Romulan, too, sir. He’s not human at all. He must have been held responsible for this mess, so they’ve left him behind instead of their troops. They must have switched him for the real one some time ago. I wonder if the real one ever came to Dorado?”

“We’ll find that out shortly, Commander. Have Doctor Munib join you in my cabin. Have him bring any equipment he might need for our little interview. Seay out.” Before he left the bridge, he turned to Hugh Hubble who still manned the operations seat. “Commander Hubble, you have the con. I have some work to do, and I’d better be quick about it. And Lieutenant Leach, will you please ask them down there on that wretched planet if they will release Fleet Captain Fell from their local jail? He’s been in there long enough, I think. I doubt that orders from a Romulan will be sufficient grounds to hold him any longer.”

 

 

Chapter Ten

A Web Untangled

Ray Seay stood expectantly in front of the transporter pads.

“Energize,” he directed. The familiar transporter cycle echoed through the room. Fleet Captain Fell materialized before him.

“Am I ever glad to see a Starfleet uniform again!” Ron Fell exclaimed.

“What would you like first, sir?” Ray asked. “A hot shower? Some Starship-quality food? A turn on the holodeck?”

“Some answers would suit me best, Captain. The rest of that stuff can come in its own time.”

“Let’s get on up to the forward observation lounge, then,” Ray suggested. Ron nodded his agreement, and they left the transporter room together. A short time later, seated with a spectacular view of the planet before them visible through the forward observation ports, Ray tried to decide where to start.

“First of all, we think we know why you were detained. This fake Lord Isar knew that you saw him coming out of a supposedly empty office that morning, remember? You told me about it. He had a private transporter set up in there. He had just used it to return from a visit to the Focian monastery. He was afraid you would guess that he must have used a transporter to get into that room, and then you would begin to wonder about his policy of not allowing transporters.”

“Which was because he didn’t want any scans being done on himself?”

“Right. That would have revealed that he was a fraud.”

“And they tried to kill you in the same prison?”

“Yes, that was Lord Isar himself. Or at least the imitation planted by the Romulans. Apparently once they had done their horrible work on Lady Montgolfier, he started getting panicky. He didn’t want me getting out of jail to cause problems, so he released the cloudworms right in his own office, six floors above my cell. He must have stopped thinking carefully altogether by that time.”

“But what were they doing here on Dorado at all?”

“It wasn’t for the dilithium anyway,” Ray observed. “Their warbirds are powered by a quantum singularity. They don’t even use the stuff in their drives. We think they were using this as a training base, as a place to bring in surgically altered agents, and then infiltrate them from here into other Focian chapters throughout Federation space. The Celestine orders are everywhere. But they’ve been alerted, and will be cleaning their own house. If other agents are on the loose, they won’t be for long, now that we’ve dug up the nest here.”

“So I should have figured this out sitting in jail,” Ron speculated. “I mean, I had the clues he was so worried about. What about the real Lord Isar? Have you found him?”

“Not a trace. We believe now that he never even came to Dorado. This imposter has been here for several years. Just about the first thing he did when he got here was ban transporters for Council lineage members, and that was almost three years ago.”

An orderly brought a tray, containing their drinks and a plate of condiments. Ron Fell greedily sampled a few of these. “Mmmm,” he sighed. “You should see what they were feeding me down there. And what about this Federation special agent you were telling me about?”

“Ulysses Gauss. Well, he was chasing what he thought was a conspiracy in the Focian order, but it was the wrong conspiracy. He wasn’t looking for Romulans. He told me he’s staying here on Dorado, though. He thinks there’s something else going on here with counterfeiting genetic scans. The one I feel sorry for is Lady Montgolfier. She was such a pleasant young woman. A completely innocent victim in all this.”

“What a shame,” agreed Ron. “But since Isar was actually a Romulan, he couldn’t very well go through with the wedding and marry her, could he?”

“Impossible. A lineage marriage like that, they have to do all sorts of tests and scans. The amount of scientific calibration involved in lineage breeding is enough to put you off sex altogether. It’s a mystery to me how they can manage to get excited enough to keep their lineages going, the way the scientists are timing and measuring and calculating everything. Once they found out that the ‘natural’ way of making babies is the only way to avoid all those disgusting side effects they got from the early DNA experiments, the more important your family, the more pathetic you sex life. Thank goodness I come from a mediocre family,” Ray laughed.

“Amen to that,” Ron agreed. “A sailor’s life for me! By the way, you can make ice cream in your replicators, can’t you?”

“Sure can,” Ray assured him with a grin.

At a nearby table, Jo Leach saw the Captain’s grin. “It’s very nice not to be in a crisis every five minutes,” she declared. “This has been a pretty hectic visit so far. Maybe things will slow down a bit now, eh?”

Jerry Ward nodded hopefully. “That would suit me,” he observed. “I’ve had enough beaming around the planet for a while. I did enjoy the attack on that monastery, though. Always wanted to attack a monastery, you know?”

“Why?” Jo laughed. Hugh Hubble came up to their table, carrying another round of Romulan ale on a tray for them all.

“I don’t know, just a general sort of urge,” Jerry replied.

“It’s funny,” commented Jo, “but that Lord Isar wanted to attack the monastery too. Why would he want to attack his own people? And didn’t he steal the dilithium mine from them when he first got here? Was that the fake Lord or the real one?”

“Fake, I think, on all counts,” Jerry said. “The squabble over the dilithium mine was just to make sure everybody thought Lord Isar and the Focians were enemies. That way nobody would ever suspect he was working hand in hand with them. But there at the end, I think he knew we were going in and that we’d find out all about the Romulan connection, so he thought he might be able to destroy the whole place before we could capture it. Same idea that Tomahok on the Romulan ship had, actually. When it doubt, blow it all up.”

“Why did you tell the Captain to trade away our prisoners?” Hugh asked him.

“We found their data archive in the raid,” Jerry explained. “They didn’t have time to destroy it. We didn’t even need to interrogate this fake aristocrat much. We already knew more than he did about the network of Romulan agents they had scattered out through the Focian order. They’ll all be rounded up in no time. There was nothing much left to learn from the prisoner. I carried up the archive data cells when I transported up here with that pointy-eared rascal. I kind of hated to get Isar back, but it helped a little that he was a fake after all.”

“Think they’ll ever find the real one?”

“Once his family starts looking, they’ll find him if he’s still in Federation space. You can’t hide much from one of the Council lineages, not if they really start looking. I hope they’re never looking for me, unless they’ve got a reward to give me.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Hugh announced. They all three raised their glasses in a toast.

On a grassy slope down inside the Dorado chasm, Ensign Key watched his spindly-legged pet cavort about in the lush ground cover. He turned to look at his Ferengi companion.

“I still don’t get it, Oodee,” he admitted. “Now, how is it that you ended up owning all this here?” He gestured around them at the beautiful meadow, at the cliffs behind it, at the delicate ribbon of waterfall tumbling down from so high above that they couldn’t see the top. A little brook bubbled through the meadow nearby and then flung itself off another ledge below them and disappeared into the chasm below.

On the shelving space where they stood, sunlight washed over a grove of trees at the far end of the meadow. Behind them a comfortable cabin made of real logs perched where it had the best view of the breathtaking panorama to the west. It looked like just about sunset, George thought to himself, or maybe sunrise, not that it mattered which.

“Very simple,” Oodee explained. “When the Romulan imposter was exposed, pretending to be Lord Isar, all the contracts he had made over the past three years immediately became null and void. A good friend of mine here in the capital just happened to hear about it in time to buy up the comet harvesting operation out at the edge of this system, and for a very good price, I might add.”

George thought he could see the glitter as from diamonds and gold reflected in the little aging Ferengi’s sharp eyes.

“Just happened to hear about it, huh?”

“Yes, and a good thing, too,” Oodee affirmed. He glanced at George for a moment, then continued. “My friend also just happened to hear about some Federation inquiries into a business he had been running up to then, and decided to get out of that business entirely. So this new investment came along at just the right time.”

“What was that other business he had before?”

“Oh, nothing important.” Oodee dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand. “Something to do with genetics. Nothing. Forget I ever mentioned it.” He cast another quick look at the Ensign.

“That still doesn’t’ tell me about you or this place.”

“Well, as a Starfleet quartermaster I can’t go around directly speculating in local business ventures. Conflict of interest, and all those other silly Starfleet regulations. Really a nuisance for anybody with a head for business, you know? But my friend here was so happy about his good fortune, he gave me this place as a present. I’m going to call it Rancho Dorado. What do you think?”

“I think it’s great! A person could really relax here. Fresh air, clean water, trees, a great view, what more could you want?”

“Oh, boys!” cried a voice from the door of the cabin. Even at that distance, George could see two wonderfully attractive ladies waving at them from the doorway. He glanced back at the Ferengi.

“What, indeed?” asked Oodee, with a wink.

 

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