Quicksand, Part III

Quicksand

Part III

“Do you know me?” Sivath asked. He folded his hands behind his back; it was his habit, a practiced affectation intended to make him seem more Vulcan.

The caged Ferengi nodded, giving him a smile full of sharp teeth. “I know you, Nuhir Iuruth Solos. We serve the same masters.”

She knew Sivath’s true name. He hadn’t heard it spoken aloud in forty years. How strange it sounded to his ears now. “The Tal Shiar,” he said, seeing no point in pretending not to know what she was talking about.

“Not any longer, my boy. You know as well as anyone that Romulan politics are fraught.” She crossed her arms, regarding him critically. “Or perhaps you don’t. You were so young when you left. In the images I was given to help identify you, you could not have been out of your teens.”

The carefully-buried memories this dredged up pained Sivath. The years of study and tests and gene therapy, the fear and the pain, all to shape him into an agent who could pass for Vulcan. He didn’t want these feelings churning within him, not now and especially not later when he next had to face Nim. “Who holds your leash now?” Sivath redirected, his voice thick.

“Granted, you’ve aged better than I have,” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “I was quite a stunner in my heyday, you know. Had more than a few important DaiMons wrapped around my finger.” She sighed wistfully. “Lots of things change, my boy, but much more stays the same. The empire burned, and now we have two successor states fighting over the ashes. The Republic happens to have inherited certain classified archives which, it just so happens, included records about you and me. I was reactivated almost a year ago. They’ve been trying to get in touch with you for months, I understand, but you haven’t been answering their hails.”

A quake hit the ship. Sivath braced himself against the wall. Over the groan of flexing starship, Sivath said, “I destroyed the transceiver.”

“Yes, I know. It’s why they sent me. You didn’t think they would just let you go that easily, did you?”

Sivath had no answer for her.

“The chains went slack a long time ago.” The woman turned her back on Sivath and took a few steps toward the back wall of her cell. “But they never fell away, Nuhir.”

“I am called Sivath now,” he said. He had decided he didn’t like hearing his old name.

“And you’ve done well for yourself. Climbed all the way up to Starfleet Commander,” she said, taking a seat on bunk. “Was that your idea, or theirs?”

To avoid answering her question, Sivath asked, “What should I call you?”

“Hehx is the name I gave your security chief when I came aboard this vessel,” she said. “It’s a name as good as any.”

“Hehx, I have no intention of submitting to the will of any Romulan political faction, Tal Shiar or otherwise. I put that life behind me. I am my own man now.”

“A man in uniform. You follow the orders of this ship’s captain and the directives of Starfleet. Are these new chains more comfortable than the old?”

Sivath didn’t answer. The truth of it was that he had enrolled at Starfleet Academy on instructions from his Tal Shiar handlers, but what business of hers was that?

“Nevertheless, my boy, I’m here to inform you that you are being called to serve your homeland. I’m afraid it’s not a request.”

“Suppose I refuse,” Sivath said.

Another tremor struck. It was ever so slightly milder than the last one. Sivath still had to grab for the wall to steady himself.

“Then you had better be prepared to kill me,” Hehx said calmly. “I’m not about to rot in in some Starfleet prison for the rest of my golden years. I’ll strike a deal: my freedom for the identity of the traitor in their midst.”

Sivath’s jaw clenched. In all his years in Federation space, he had never once had to use violence to protect his secrets. Could he kill now, if Hehx left him no choice?

The brig’s door opened. Nim came storming through in a fury, her eyes hard as diamonds and locked on Sivath. “What the hell is this?” she demanded. The security guard trailed after her, his expression apologetic. He clearly didn’t want to be in the middle of a fight between superior officers.

Sivath blanked his mind. He thought of the wind, of the beach, of the stars. He did not dare look at Hehx for fear of what ideas she might provoke. To Nim, he said, “I was discussing the matter of the sabotaged shuttle with the prisoner, Lieutenant. Is there a problem?”

“You’re goddamn right there is,” Nim said. “I’m the chief of security here. I handle the interrogations.”

Sivath saw Hehx rise from her bunk again in his peripheral vision. He turned his head a bit further away. “Come on then, hit him,” she said encouragingly. “I’ve got 15 bars of latinum on the little scrappy one. What do you think, junior?” The security officer tried unsuccessfully to sink through the floor.

“Let’s speak in the hallway,” Nim said to Sivath. The words seemed like a suggestion, but the tone did not. To the guard, she said, “Nobody but me enters or leaves this room. You got that? Not the first officer, not the captain, not Admiral Goddamn Quinn. Got it?”

Sivath stepped out into the corridor. His heart rate was elevated; he employed an old meditation technique to calm down. He had nearly managed it when he was jarred by another tremor.

Nim emerged from the brig after him. “Hi,” she said after the door closed behind her.

“Hello,” Sivath returned the greeting.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“I am well, Lieutenant.”

“Super. So can you tell me what the hell you’re up to?” Nim’s eyes excavated Sivath.

“Lieutenant, is it necessary that I remind you that you are speaking to a superior officer?”

“It isn’t necessary, Commander, but you’re welcome to it if it will make you feel bigger. In return I’ll remind you that you’ve read my service history, so you know that the reason I’m serving as security chief on some survey tug even less likely to see real action than my grandfather is that I don’t give a damn what your rank is. I will not allow you to interfere with my ability to do my job.”

“You’ve made your point, Lieutenant,” Sivath warned.

“No, I don’t think I have,” Nim persisted. “I’ve had a weird feeling about you since I came aboard, but until now I didn’t know quite what to make of it. You’re cagey and slippery, always guarding your thoughts around me. And it wasn’t until I saw you and her in the same room that I realized what you remind me most of is somebody with training at frustrating telepaths.”

“We’re finished here,” Sivath said, and started to leave.

Nim got in his face. “Something’s going on here,” she said. “I don’t know what yet, but I will figure it out. My advice to you, Commander, is that you come find me when you’re ready to talk about it. Because if I have to puzzle it out on my own, I’m taking the finished picture right to the captain.”

Sivath said, “You are in my way.”

Nim’s eyes drilled into him for just a moment longer. Then she stepped aside.

Sivath stalked off, only keeping a lid on the storm brewing in his chest by force of will.

=/\=

Not knowing what to do or where to go, Sivath ended up at Loh’at’s door. He needed to let off some steam. She answered the door chime in her blue shirtsleeves. “Looked for you at your quarters,” she said by way of greeting.

“I was elsewhere,” Sivath said.

“And now you’re here.”

“May I enter?” Sivath asked, perhaps a bit impatiently.

She stepped aside to admit him. “I asked the ship’s computer to locate you. Said you were down in the brig.”

“You asked the computer?” he repeated, stifling amusement. He unzipped and shrugged off his jacket. A quake hit the ship, but either the magnitude was weakening or Sivath was getting used to it. He kept his balance without bracing on anything.

Loh’at seemed similarly adapted; she barely acknowledged the tremor. “I wanted to know if you were in her quarters instead,” Loh’at teased. “Can I get you something?” She padded, barefoot, toward the replicator.

“Bloodwine. And I presume you mean Lieutenant Nim.”

“You’re all she wanted to talk about over drinks. Computer, two goblets of bloodwine, warm.” She slipped out of her trousers as the drinks materialized. “I half expected her to hunt you down after she left the lounge.”

Sivath paused halfway through undoing the fasteners on his shirt. “She did, actually. But her intentions were less amorous than you imagine.” Sivath resumed his unfastening and tried to sound nonchalant with his next question. “She wanted to discuss me?”

Loh’at returned and handed him a goblet, stepping close enough to slip her hand into his open shirt and palm the fabric of his undershirt. “For somebody you’re so sure has no interest in you, she certainly was curious about what a Vulcan is like in bed.” Loh’at cackled smugly.

Sivath nearly choked on his wine. The warm liquid burned his gullet.

“Don’t worry,” Loh’at reassured him. “I gave you a good review.”

Sivath’s mind was racing, trying to figure out what Loh’at might have said, what Nim might have concluded from it. He was suddenly, horrifically aware of how unguarded he let himself be with Loh’at. He croaked, “What else . . . did she want to know?”

Loh’at’s free hand untucked his undershirt and began to work at his belt. “Oh, you know. The kinds of things you ask about when you’re working up to the good stuff. Where’s he from? Why’s he such a weird Vulcan? I told her not to hold it against you. You can’t help that you were raised by circus Ferengi or whatever.”

Sivath put out a hand to stop her from tugging inarticulately at his belt buckle further. “You told her about my family?” he asked, leaning away slightly.

A subtle shift behind Loh’at’s eyes told Sivath that she knew she’d stepped over a line. But it was not Loh’at’s way to step back. “Yeah, so?” she said. She took a large sip from her goblet.

“I told you about my parents in confidence. I confided in you during an intimate moment.” Another tremor, too mild to be appropriately dramatic.

“Well excuse me, Commander. I didn’t know that your Ferengi lineage was a secret.” She tried to lean in again, seeking to rekindle the mood. “Are you the scion of a fallen dynasty, smuggled off to Federation space to escape the curvy knives of your noble bloodline’s ancient rivals?”

She took his cup from him and set both aside on a table. Closing the distance between them, she slipped his shirt over his shoulders. Sivath’s mind was awhirl. He needed a moment to process all this but he couldn’t think with her lips brushing his neck.

“If you want me to keep your secrets, you only have to tell me what’s a secret. You don’t tell me anything about yourself. If I hadn’t seen that gold statue I wouldn’t have known anything at all about your parents.” Her teeth grazed his jawline. “I only mentioned your parents to Vera in the course of telling that story about the creepy bust staring at us in bed, anyway.”

Sivath planted his hands against Loh’at’s shoulders and pushed her gently but firmly away from him. “You told her about the bust of the Blessed Exchequer,” he said. It wasn’t quite a question; if anything, it was a plea to explain how he’d misunderstood what he’d just heard.

Loh’at’s crossed her arms. A shift of her hips transitioned her entire posture from evil temptress to I-guess-we’re-having-a-Serious-Talk-now. “Yeah, I did, Sivath. Was that top secret too?” She grabbed her goblet back up from the table, taking another drink.

Sivath shrugged his shirt back up over his shoulders and rubbed his face with his hands. He felt a headache coming on. “I cannot . . . begin . . . to describe what bad timing this was.”

“You’re telling me,” she said ruefully. “Listen, back there on the bridge I blew it in front of the captain. It’s my job to be the encyclopedia on weird space crap and we had to have our asses pulled out of the fire by the first officer. I don’t particularly need a lecture on how else I’ve disappointed you today. The door’s that way if you want it. Maybe when the timing’s right you can make me a list of everything about you that I’m not supposed to talk about to other people and I can take it out and reference it on days when my memory isn’t working so great, how about that?”

The floor shook, but Sivath barely noticed.

He knew now that this whole affair had been a mistake. He had become complacent, let himself relax too much, let his guard down. How much had Nim put together already? How long until she found the pieces she was still missing? He couldn’t afford the liability of this liaison any longer. It might already have cost him everything he had.

Sivath refastened his shirt with trembling fingers. “That will not be necessary. You are correct,” he said, “it is unfair of me to expect you to protect my privacy. That is my responsibility.” He stooped to pick up his jacket and slotted his arms hastily. “I do not think we should see each other socially anymore.”

“Yeah,” Loh’at said. She had her arms crossed in front of her, eyes regarding him over her upheld goblet. “Think we’re on the same page there, buddy.”

=/\=

The warp core room was quiet. With Heisesnberg running exclusively off battery power, there was nothing for an engineer to do there. The core spanned four decks, ringed by catwalks and balconies, usually a buzzing hive of activity. Sivath couldn’t remember ever before having the room to himself.

He stood on one of the upper catwalks, leaning his elbows on the railing, looking down through the gloom. He listened to the hiss of warp plasma circulating through the ducts, unable to reach the core reaction chamber. He was pondering how he would get away with killing the elderly Ferengi woman in the brig, if it came to that. He hadn’t decided to do it yet. He hadn’t even come to a conclusion about whether he could. But the question of how was easier to answer than either of those.

He could easily arrange a power outage on deck six. The backup batteries stored in the brig would be trickier; they weren’t connected to any other systems, specifically because the Starfleet engineers who’d designed the ship didn’t want a power surge releasing prisoners from the brig. Sivath supposed he might be able to overheat the batteries if he tampered with EPS conduit 644, given that the wall between them wasn’t too thick. It was a bit of a brute force solution, but it was something.

All that did for him was get him through the force field though. He still had to go through the security guard, and he was not prepared to kill a fellow Starfleet officer to save his own skin. If only his Tal Shiar instructors had bothered to teach him the nerve pinch technique; that would be useful to have now.

A phaser set to stun would work, but of course the weapon discharge would trip alarms. And even if he wasted no time in murdering Hehx, he still had to dispose of the body somehow. He’d probably be caught by Nim before he could even drag it out to the corridor.

Sivath groaned and rubbed his temples. His headache was only getting worse. He gazed down through the dim emergency lighting and wondered if he could be certain that a fall to the warp core room floor would kill him. Not that he was ready to seriously consider suicide as an escape; it would just have been nice to know that there was one course of action open to him without any uncertainty.

Supposing he could somehow disable the brig’s power, somehow disable the guard, and somehow get Hehx, whether dead or alive, out of the brig before security converged, he still needed a way to get rid of her. He either needed a way to dispose of a body without leaving a trace, or he needed a way to get her off the ship. Setting aside for the moment the problem of moving a dead body around the interior of the ship, he figured that the disposal was actually the easier problem to solve. The primary power transfer conduits which connected the warp core to the nacelles were big enough to fit a small body within, and the energized warp plasma they conveyed would make very short work of any organic matter in its way. He’d have to stash the corpse in one of those conduits before Heisenberg’s warp core was powered up again, of course . . .

“Something here?” called a voice from below. Sivath had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed anyone enter, but now he could spot Dayr down there in the dark, moving from console to console, needlessly checking that all systems were stable.

“Commander Sivath,” he called down from his perch. “Do not let me interrupt.”

A pause. “Coming up,” Dayr announced. A minute later the chief engineer ascended the last ladder and stepped out onto the catwalk. “Brooding in darkness? Very conventional. Always appreciate Commander’s unconventional qualities.”

Sivath felt an unexpected chuckle form in his chest, which he only barely suppressed. “Thank you, Dayr. That means . . . more than you know.”

“Now cryptic platitudes. Very bad trend. This is quarrel with Loh’at?”

“What?” Sivath balked. “How could you–?”

“Been in lounge, buying drinks for engineers,” Dayr explained. “Called team building, yes? Saw Loh’at drink with Vera Nim, leave, later come back and drink alone. Very serious. And here is Commander, also very serious. Simple diagnostic.”

Sivath couldn’t fault the chief engineer’s reasoning, but it did bother him that everyone on the ship seemed to know his private business. He said, “We did, indeed, quarrel. But the matter is resolved. Your concern is noted and even appreciated, but unwarranted. I am fine.”

Dayr gave him a lingering look of pity before turning his attention to the warp core. “Come up here to think sometimes. Don’t like quiet though. Engines should purr.”

“Soon they will again,” Sivath said. “It would be logical to appreciate the calm while it lasts.”

“Logical, yes,” Dayr repeated. “Logical arguments, well phrased. Needed these before, but human language difficult.”

“Whom did you need to persuade?” Sivath asked.

“Captain Bao. Needed permission to modify shuttle for graviton ellipse traversal. Skeptical, dismissive, denied.”

Sivath’s brow knit. “You wanted permission to modify the Ferengi shuttle . . . ?”

“Not Ferengi, Starfleet. When Voyager encountered graviton ellipse, seized opportunity, configured shuttle to penetrate anomaly safely. Wondrous discoveries within. Captured treasures, lost relics.”

Now Sivath remembered the story. The ship that first encountered this type of anomaly and lived to tell the tale had sent a shuttle in utilizing principles similar to those keeping Heisenberg from being drawn back into the gravity well. Of course Dayr would want to trick out one of the ship’s shuttles and see what wreckage was floating in the eye of the storm. Normally, anything that fell into the ellipse was lost for good . . .

Sivath knew how to get rid of Hehx.

=/\=

In the end it came down to a very simple decision. Sivath could agonize over the problems before him until his last hours of freedom waned, or he could get to work.

He started with the modifications to the Ferengi shuttle. The specifications were well documented in Voyager’s logs but the work still took the better part of three hours. Sivath was desperately aware that if the anomaly collapsed before he finished, he really was finished. While his hands did the mechanical work, his mind started putting together his plan for the other half of this gambit: breaking Hehx out of the brig.

He could short out the electrical grid and melt the backup battery with an EPS overload, but the guard was a problem. There was no way to get the drop on him if Sivath had to force the unpowered door open by hand, and he couldn’t go short the grid after dealing with the guard because the phaser fire would sound the alarm. The solution came to him as he was scavenging parts from the shuttle’s replicator. The brig cells had replicators too, but the controls were at the security station; it was an arrangement designed to solve the age old problem of passing food to prisoners without opening a door to their escape. This one, it so happened, was the key to Sivath’s escape plan. He could tap into the computer network from practically anywhere in the ship and take control of those cell replicators. With the safeguards bypassed, he could replicate anything he wanted, including a phaser.

There was still one big problem with all this. Between the grid short, the EPS overload and the mysteriously generous replicator, it would be obvious that this had been an inside job. Nim would have him walking the plank right out an airlock by the end of the day. Sivath needed a smokescreen for all this skullduggery.

By the time he’d finished his work in the shuttlebay, he thought he had an answer to that question too. Returning to his quarters, he went to his closet and pulled down the box labelled “Mementos”. Rummaging through it, he found the hardcase containing memory chips from the two-year tour of the fringes he’d taken with his “adopted” parents upon infiltrating Federation space. Ripping out the cushioned lining, he inspected the set of small, delicate tools secured against the roof of the case. There were two hypos, one loaded with a truth serum and another with a lethal toxin; in fact both were lethal, but one made the victim talk first. There was a pack of small, disposable recording devices. And there were two crystal data chips, colored blue and green. The blue one was a codebreaker program which represented the bleeding edge of 2370s Romulan cryptographic technology. The green one was a particularly nasty computer virus of roughly the same vintage.

Sivath selected the green chip. Security software had come a long way in forty years, so he couldn’t count on it doing much for him. He hoped it would be enough.

=/\=

An hour later, a phaser materialized on the replicator pad in brig cell three. It was a regulation type one model, locked in its stun setting. The guard at the security station heard the replicator’s hum and thought its timing strange, so he rose to investigate. Then the lights went out throughout deck six. The security guard, suddenly plunged into darkness, wished he’d reported the faint smell of burning plastic in the air to engineering.

“Just stay put, ma’am,” he called out to the prisoner, reaching for the phaser on his own hip. “I’m sure the problem will be addressed momen–”

The orange glow of a nadion particle beam lit up the room, briefly. The guard collapsed into a heap. A moment later, Hehx nearly tripped over the body as she groped her way along the wall in the darkness. Feeling around blindly, she located the guard’s phaser and checked its power setting. This one was not restricted, so she turned it up to full disintegration. She pocketed the replicated phaser and kept the bulkier type two model in hand.

A soft hiss issued from the door; its manual release had been pulled. Grunting and rustling as someone bodily forced the door open. Hehx crouched, taking cover beside the security station, and took aim. She could almost make out the silhouette of the interloper against the texturally distinct darkness of the open doorway.

Sivath’s voice whispered, “Hehx?” She took the shot.

The beam struck the door frame; Sivath, illuminated momentarily by the beam’s glow, hit the floor and rolled. He had the advantage of good low-light vision, so he was able to slip around behind Hehx and wrench the weapon from her hand. Hehx landed an unexpected kick to the back of Sivath’s knee, causing it to buckle, and swatted the phaser from his hand. The weapon went clattering away into the darkness. Hehx withdrew the smaller replicated phaser from her pocket and shoved it in Sivath’s face, her knee planted firmly on his chest. “I’ve heard a point-blank shot to the head with one of these can still scramble a man’s brains,” she warned.

“We do not have time for this!” Sivath hissed. “They will be here any second. I am here to help, but you need to trust me!”

Hehx considered this for only a moment before backing off and giving him room to rise. “Why didn’t you say so before? Let’s get the hell out of here.”

=/\=

Sivath led Hehx through the maze of Jeffries tubes, heading upward and aftward. If they could reach the shuttlebay undetected, Hehx’s shuttle was waiting. Hehx was lagging behind. The swipes she’d taken at him back in the brig had given him the impression of a Ferengi who was surprisingly spry for her age, but it was clear now that speed was not one of her strengths.

“We need to hurry,” Sivath insisted. “It won’t take Nim long to guess where we’re headed.”

“Don’t give me sass, boy, I’m still holding the phaser.” Hehx wheezed and hobbled along after him.

Red alert lighting flashed on and off above. Then it would stop for several minutes and start again. Sivath was relieved to know that the virus was having some effect; he didn’t need it to accomplish anything, just create enough confusion to obfuscate his trail. He felt a little guilty for the bad day ops was having, but it couldn’t be helped.

They reached a ladder. Sivath looked up the shaft. Two levels up was a long way to climb if Hehx was having trouble on a level surface. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that this was easy; he just had to keep in mind that the alternative to success was prison or death, and the way forward was clear.

He looked Hehx over, estimating that she couldn’t be much more than fifty kilos. “Climb on my back,” he said. “I can carry you.”

Hehx looked doubtfully at him, then looked up the ladder for a long moment. “Yeah, alright,” she relented.

They ascended as quickly as Sivath could manage in a chokehold. “Can’t . . . breathe,” he gasped somewhere around the 22nd rung.

“Better hurry then,” Hehx suggested. “If you pass out, you’ll probably fall to your death.”

Sivath made it to deck four, barely. Dragging himself and his passenger up over the lip of the ladder shaft, he dumped his cargo to one side and rolled the other way, sucking in great lungfuls of oxygen. He rolled again to his hands and knees, pulling himself into a crawlspace. Almost there now.

“When we reach your shuttle,” Sivath panted, “you need to depart immediately. You will have no trouble finding the spatial anomaly I described. Head straight for it and Heisenberg will be unable to pursue.”

“If you’re lying about these shield modifications you say you made . . .” Hehx warned.

“Then you will die,” Sivath said. “You need to trust me.”

“Don’t pretend your life wouldn’t be easier with me out of the way.”

Sivath reached the end of the crawlspace. A keypad code released the locks on the access panel, which he pushed aside. “For a time, perhaps,” he grunted as he hauled himself out. “But your death wouldn’t make your masters forget me.” He offered Hehx a hand to assist her egress.

Hehx gave him an appraising look as she straightened up creakily. “So maybe you can be reasoned with after all.”

They were standing in the cavernous space of the shuttlebay. Sivath breathed a sigh of relief. They’d made it.

Then he heard the tone of the turbolift’s arrival.

“Damn,” he said. The door didn’t open; he had welded them shut before leaving for the brig. But the pounding and shouting from the other side indicated that the security forces seeking entry were very displeased with this discovery and intent on gaining entry one way or another. “Time to go,” he told Hehx.

“Wait,” Hehx said. She trudged up the ramp to her shuttle, disappearing within. Sivath glanced nervously at the turbolift door; already he could see the surface starting to turn a rosy color as phasers tuned to their heat setting worked to melt their way through. He stepped over to one of the computer interface panels set into the walls, which was alternately flashing up random records and rebooting. Sivath used a passcode, long ago burned into his memory by brutal training, to halt the virus’s anarchic behavior for a moment and call up several specific, restricted files from the computer core. He didn’t do anything with them; the evidence that they’d been accessed at all would be enough. He let the virus resume its mischief.

Sivath jogged up the ramp after Hehx, calling, “It’s now or never!” He nearly ran into Hehx coming back from the living area. She pressed something into his palm. He looked down to find himself holding a metal cylinder, about ten centimeters long and two in diameter. He wondered where this one had been stashed.

“We’ll be in touch,” Hehx said. She patted him on the cheek. “You’re a good boy. Stay out of trouble.”

Continued in Part IV

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