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Pike was the last one in. As he entered the briefing room, the others all stood.
“As you were,” the captain said, and took a seat at the head of the table. “Thank you for coming. Number One?”
He nodded toward his second-in-command, seated to his right; she leaned forward.
“We’ve recovered part of the station log,” she said. “A small portion—about a minute’s worth—from the day of the attack. The images are heavily compressed; artifacts abound, both auditory and visual. The audio, in fact, disappears entirely less than halfway through the recording. But even so—”
“Hang on.” Commander Tuval leaned forward. “Part of the station log? Where did that come from?”
A fair question, Pike thought, considering that the base itself—Starbase 18, the Federation’s farthest outpost in this sector of the galaxy—was pretty much space junk at this point. A fact Tuval knew better than anyone else in the room. Two days ago, the commander— Enterprise ’s security chief—had almost died exploring its remains. The skin on the right side of his face was still pink, and he had half-healed burns over most of the right side of his body. His lungs were functioning at sixty percent capacity; according to Dr. Boyce, they’d never reach a hundred percent again. All in all, though, Tuval was lucky.
The other three members of the landing party were dead.
“You can thank our science officer,” Pike said, nodding toward Spock, who sat to the captain’s right, at the far end of the table. There were seven of them in the room; Chief Engineer Pitcairn, Commander Tuval, and Communications Specialist Garrison on one side of the table, Number One, Boyce, and Spock on the other. “He can explain it to you.”
Pike gestured to the Vulcan to go ahead.
“Starfleet’s communications infrastructure in this sector is a patchwork affair,” Spock said. “You are no doubt aware of this, Commander.”
“Of course. The trouble we’ve had getting through to Starfleet Command …”
“This is because some of the subspace amplifiers in this region date back to the early years of exploration; to link these early models with current Starfleet equipment requires the use of multiple communications protocols as well as additional processing modules. It occurred to me that stored within some of those processing modules—”
“You talking about the RECs, Mr. Spock?” That from Chief Engineer Pitcairn.
“The REC-twos, Chief.”
“Model twos. Not sure I remember those.” Pitcairn frowned—or maybe it was a small smile. On the chief’s craggy features, it was hard for Pike to tell the difference.
Three months into his five-year mission with the crew, the captain was still learning their little personality traits. And quirks. And likes and dislikes and how they got along with one another. Which members of which department worked well together and which were like oil and water. In that regard, he’d expected to have some problems with Spock. There were a lot of people who still held a grudge against the Vulcans for the way they’d treated humanity in those early, post–First Contact years. Holding back key technologies, refusing Earthers an equal voice among the quadrant’s space-faring races. Most of that seemed to be in the past now, but occasionally, a bit of that xenophobia still popped up. Pike had prepared himself to have to deal with some of that among his crew; he’d suspected he might have a problem with Pitcairn in that regard. Glenn was old-line Starfleet, senior member of the crew, and the longest-serving non-flag officer in the fleet. But the chief and Spock got along like gangbusters.
Would that the rest of his crew mixed half that well.
“The model twos were identical to the original RECs,” Spock continued. “Except that they were housed in significantly larger storage frames to allow for a wide range of potential expansion requirements.”
Pitcairn was still frowning. “Well … they couldn’t be completely identical, then, could they? Larger mass, they’d need a larger stabilization unit to make sure they didn’t drift off position. Am I right?”
Spock considered the point. “You may be correct, Chief. I only glanced at the construction specifications briefly. I cannot recall the exact increase in mass of the REC-two relative to the original. Perhaps later we can—”
“They might’ve changed the composition of the beacon, too,” Pitcairn said. “They did that a lot, back in those days. Experimented with different materials. I knew a guy who actually worked at Bozeman—”
“Chief. Mr. Spock.” Pike leaned forward. Get those two talking about old Fleet technology, they’d be there for hours. And they didn’t have hours. “Let’s stay on track.”
“Exactly,” said Boyce, who looked annoyed. And impatient. An improvement over his mood earlier that morning, at least. “Captain, I would appreciate it if we could hurry things along. Dr. Tambor is still in regen, you know. A critical stage of it, in fact. And I want—”
“I know,” Pike interrupted. “You want to be there. We’ll wrap this up as quickly as we can.”
The doctor nodded, stone-faced, just as angry as he’d been before, when Pike had pulled Tuval out of regen therapy. “He’s got another day to go,” Boyce had said. “You risk permanently compromising his lung function; you risk all sorts of complications. Why do it? He’s not going to be much good in a fight. I won’t certify him for any sort of exploratory mission, either.” Pike understood his doctor’s warnings but didn’t feel he had a choice at the moment. He needed Tuval’s experience right now; therapy had to wait.
If Conn was alive, it would be a different matter. But Conn was dead, and Tuval’s new second was a kid, and he was not going to trust a kid’s judgment in these matters.
“To answer your question, Commander,” Spock said. “Standard Starfleet protocol automates mirroring of all base logs at Starfleet Archives via subspace transmission. For Starbase Eighteen, this mirroring takes place via the amplifier designated Echo one-one-nine, one of the old REC-two amplifiers. It occurred to me that those messages might have needed processing within the unit before being passed along. A corollary of that assumption was that portions of the messages might remain as fragmentary information within—”
“Oh. Automated backup,” Tuval interrupted. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Spock frowned. “I believe I just did.”
Chief Pitcairn laughed. He was the only one.
“What?” he said. “That’s funny.”
Maybe it was. But Pike didn’t have time for humor right now.
“All right. Now that we all understand how we got this information”—the captain looked around the table and got a series of nods in response—“let’s take a look at it.”
Number One leaned forward and waved a hand over one of the table sensors. The briefing room lights dimmed. The wall opposite Pike doubled as a monitor screen; it filled now with video static. The speakers hissed an audio version of the same. Then both cleared, and the screen came to life.
Pike and his officers were looking at the interior of Starbase 18’s flight tower, a circular room with floor-to-ceiling windows. A man in a Starfleet uniform stood with his back to them.
“… response yet?” the man asked. There were two women seated at an instrument console directly in front of him. The one on the left was shaking her head.
“Nothing, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Sensor images continue to fluctuate, Commodore.” That came from a voice offscreen. “Considerable ghosting—unable to tell if we’re looking at one or two ships here.”
“That’s a big help.” The commodore—the man who’d spoken first—turned toward the camera, glaring, angry, giving Pike and the others their first head-on look at him.
Commodore Rafael Higueras. He’d taught self-defense at the Academy in Pike’s first year. One of the service’s most decorated officers. How—why—he’d ended up in command of a starbase, much less a backwater of a starbase like this one, was a puzzle to Pike. Not one he was going to expend a lot of time or energy trying to solve at this point, however.
“You ran diagnostics?” Higueras asked.
“Yes, sir. Everything checks out fine,” the offscreen voice said.
“So tell me what we’re looking at,” Higueras said. “What type of ship?”
“Again, difficult to say. Sensors are having trouble—”
“Best guess,” Higueras snapped.
“Closest match is a Klingon vessel, sir. Warbird-class.”
At the briefing-room table, Pitcairn cursed under his breath. Tuval shifted in his seat and swore out loud.
“We have data to go with this audio?” the commander asked.
“No,” Spock said. “However …”
“Let’s watch the vid now, please,” Pike said. “Commentary later.”
On the screen, Higueras had turned around again and was now standing with his back to the camera, staring out the tower window. Pike couldn’t see his face, but he felt as if the man was squinting off into the distance. As if he could see what the instruments couldn’t by virtue of sheer willpower.
Give it up, Rafe, Pike urged him silently. Don’t worry about exactly what’s out there, just activate your shields. Get a distress signal out. Now. Don’t wait. Because if you wait—
But of course, Higueras did precisely that. Waited. Three full seconds. Same as he had the first time Pike viewed the vid.
The captain had to console himself with the thought that those three seconds would probably, in the end, have made no difference whatsoever. The firepower that had been directed at the starbase …
Higueras and his people were doomed any way you looked at it.
“Let’s play it safe,” the commodore said. “Activate defense systems. Put all ships on yellow alert. And get me—”
The base’s comm sounded.
“This is Dr. Corzine. Report, please.”
“Speak of the devil.” Higueras managed a smile. He leaned over the communications officer and punched a button on the console. “Andreas, we were just about to—”
There was a sudden burst of static, and then the vid went silent, though on the screen, Higueras continued talking in the same easy, relaxed manner.
“We are currently endeavoring to recover audio from this portion of the recording,” Spock said. “The odds of doing so, however, are not good.”
Higueras suddenly straightened up, a look of alarm on his face.
The console in front of him began flashing a single line of text, white against the black screen:
WEAPONS FIRE DETECTED
Higueras turned and strode directly toward the camera, barking out orders as he came. For a second, his face filled the screen.
Then it went to black. The room lights returned to full-level illumination.
Pitcairn was the first to speak. “Sonofabitch. So it was them after all. Never mind what Kritos said, the damn Klingons …” The chief looked up at Pike. “What are we gonna do, Captain?”
“What are we going to do?” Pike glanced toward the porthole at the far end of the room, a two-meter-square window with a view of space and, as luck would have it, 55 Hamilton, the asteroid Enterprise was currently orbiting. A geosynchronous orbit a few hundred klicks up kept them in position over a little patch of black that marred the otherwise uniformly gray surface.
Until a few days ago, close-up scans of that little patch would have revealed a rainbow of colors, not just black but the green of hydroponic gardens, the blue of an artificial lake, the golds of rich farmland, the gleaming silver of a half-dozen multistory buildings, which taken together had made up Starbase 18. It had been home to eighty-seven people—civilians, Starfleet personnel, and their families. All of whom were now so much space dust.
“We’re going to wait to see what Starfleet has to say, Chief. They have a copy of that recording as well. I expect to hear word from them shortly. In the meantime, I want us prepared for all eventualities. Mr. Garrison.”
“Let’s make sure that we don’t experience any of those intermittent difficulties contacting Starfleet for the next few days.”
“Yes, sir. A suggestion—if we can transit the galactic plane, get the ship above the interference sources—”
Pike shook his head. “We hold position here for the moment, Specialist.”
“Mr. Tuval, Chief Pitcairn, you’ll make sure the ship and your people are at full combat readiness.”
“Sir.” Both men nodded.
“Mr. Spock is assembling a report on Klingon weapons developments. You might want to review it with him—sooner rather than later.”
“Aye, Captain,” Pitcairn said.
“You’re talking about the cloaking device?” Tuval asked.
“I’m talking about a lot of things,” Pike said. “Cloaking device included.”
“And I suppose I get sickbay prepared to be a triage facility,” Boyce said.
“We will want to prepare for that possibility,” Pike said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“But if it does,” Boyce said quietly, “I could work up some sort of Klingon-specific pathogen, give those murdering bastards a little taste of their own medicine.”
At those words, the room fell silent.
“Pun intended, of course,” Boyce added.
Pike shook his head. “Not funny, Doctor. Not funny at all.”
“And expressly prohibited under Gorengar,” Spock added. “Treaty Section Three, Paragraph Four. ‘The use of biological/biochemical agents in any deliberate form or fashion shall result in—’ ”
“He’s kidding, Spock,” Pitcairn said.
“Gorengar. You think the Klingons are paying attention to Gorengar?” Boyce looked around the table. “Any of you think that? Or—”
“That’s enough,” Pike snapped, slapping the table with the palm of his hand, so hard that half the people in the room started.
Boyce wasn’t one of them.
The doctor glared at him; Pike glared right back.
“Doctor,” he said, keeping his voice perfectly steady. “You will prepare sickbay to serve as a potential triage center. You will also choose a secondary triage location and prepare that as well. And you will remember, as I hope you all will remember—”
His eyes went around the room, gazing at each of his officers in turn.
“—that we have proof of nothing yet. We are gathering information. We are not at war, people. Is that understood?”
There were nods all around the table, from everyone, including the doctor. He sat quietly, with his hands steepled on the table in front of him, a smile tugging at the edges of his lips. A totally false smile, Pike knew. Put on, the same way the doctor’s anger was really a put-on as well, a cover for what he was really feeling this morning, the same thing he’d been feeling every day for the past week, since they’d first heard the news about Starbase 18. Pain. Heartache. A misery so deep that Pike was willing to forgive him almost anything at this point. The key word there being almost.
“Good. Dismissed.” Everyone stood then, and started heading for the door.
“No, Doctor,” he said to Boyce. “Not you.”
You can lower those, I think,” Pike said to the three security guards who were staring at him, open-mouthed, their phasers still pointed at Kritos, who was regarding them with an expression halfway between amusement and anger.
“Captain Pike,” one of them said. McLaughlin, that was the man’s name. The other two were Mears and Staton. It was all coming back to him now—slowly. Very slowly indeed. He felt as if he’d been away forever.
“Captain Pike.” He nodded. “That’s me.” He took a deep breath and allowed himself a small, tight smile. A week inside the cramped confines of Kritos’s shuttle, a week smelling his own sweat and worse …
He wanted a shower. He wanted food—honest-to-God, human food. If he had to eat gagh one more time . . .
The doors to the shuttlebay slid open again, and Number One walked through, followed a heartbeat later by Spock, Lieutenant Tyler, and … Dmitri?
Number One was smiling. He’d rarely seen that expression on her. Spock was smiling, too. That Pike had never seen before.
“Sir! How …” Number One stopped a few meters away, looked at the shuttle, at Kritos, and then back at him. She took another step forward. Pike thought for a second that she was going to hug him.
“Long story,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it. It’s good to see you, sir.”
“Good to see you, too,” Pike said, looking around the shuttlebay, catching as many eyes as he could. “Good to see everyone. To be back home.”
Spock, he saw, was no longer smiling. Dmitri, though …
Vlasidovich stepped forward, shaking his head. “Ah. I am surprised, and yet … I am not surprised. Christopher Pike cheats death one more time.”
“No cheating involved. Just a lot of luck.” The two men shook hands.
“And you bring us a prize,” Vlasidovich said, gesturing toward the Klingon shuttle. “Black Snow. Tell me how you did this.”
“I didn’t.” He was about to turn and motion Kritos forward to explain, when, over Dmitri’s shoulder, he saw Chief Pitcairn coming toward him.
The man was crying. He stepped past Dmitri, and before Pike could do anything about it, grabbed him in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground. And held him there.
“Chief,” Pike said after a few seconds. “You can put me down now.”
“Yeah. I could.” Pitcairn sniffed.
But he didn’t. Not right away, at least.
“Damn it, Captain,” the man said. “You keep pulling stunts like this, I’m going to lose the rest of my hair.”
“I think you’re gonna do that anyway,” Pike said.
“What do we do with the prisoner, sir?”
Pike turned and saw Ben Tuval’s second, Hardin—only, of course, she wasn’t second anymore; she was security chief now—standing next to Kritos. She had not lowered her phaser.
Kritos’s expression had moved beyond annoyance, was verging on anger now. One thing Pike knew, after having spent the last week with him: you did not want to get him angry.
“I said at ease, Lieutenant.” Pike sharpened his tone, speaking directly to Hardin. “He’s not our prisoner.”
“He’s an alien hostile, in a systems-critical area of the ship,” Hardin said, and added, “Sir. Regulations clearly state—”
Pike felt his own temper giving way just a little. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Not Glenn. Dmitri.
“Lower your weapon, please, Lieutenant. We have on our side numbers—yes? Ten to one, I believe. No. Eleven to one.”
Hardin frowned but did as she was told. Obeyed Vlasidovich, not him. It was Pike’s turn to frown now. Two captains—strike that, two commodores; Dmitri had the extra insignia bars on his shirt, just as he did—one starship. Pike hadn’t thought that would be a problem, but now …
Dmitri took two steps forward and stopped directly in front of Kritos.
“I know of you. You are captain of Hexar, yes? Kritos?”
“Yes,” Kritos growled. “And you are captain of Excalibur. Vlasidovich. Yes?”
The two glared at each other.
“You—” Vlasidovich began.
“You—” Kritos said at the same instant.
Pike could see a round of name calling and general bad feeling was about to begin, so he stepped between the two of them.
“I have an idea,” he said. “How about we get something to eat?”
They had a lot to talk about, obviously. Everyone wanted to know how he’d survived, how he’d ended up with Kritos. Pike had to fill them in on that and more, what he knew now about the Orions and what he suspected. He needed Kritos to do the same. Then there was the matter of Starbase 18, what had really been going on there and who was behind the attack. Chief Pitcairn wanted to talk to him, too, in private. He was pretty insistent about it; Pike had a hard time putting him off. He wondered what was up with that; it wasn’t like Glenn to try to take advantage of their friendship that way.
The point was, there was an awful lot to discuss, among an awful lot of people, and they might as well eat while they were doing all that talking. The problem was, Kritos didn’t want to leave the shuttlebay. Didn’t want to let the cloaking device out of his sight. Not even after Pike promised—and had Dmitri promise—that no one would go aboard the little ship to examine it in his absence, much less remove it from the craft.
“You I trust,” Kritos said. “These petaQ …” He glared at Hardin and Vlasidovich. And everyone else in the shuttlebay, for that matter.
Spock stepped forward. “It would be simple enough to bring food to you, sir. From the crew’s mess.”
“The crew’s mess. Good idea.” Pike smiled. “How about one of Carpenter’s steaks? A big one.” He spread his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
“Steak?” Kritos bared his teeth. “This is a kind of meat?”
“Good. I will have steak, too, then.”
Pike ordered his medium rare; Kritos wanted his raw. Yang, who’d shown up to give Pike a quick physical and whose presence reminded the captain of Boyce, of Magellan and the crew members he’d lost, tried to talk to the Klingon about the health risks associated with consuming raw animal flesh. Kritos listened with growing annoyance. Pike was about to send Yang away to do something productive when he caught sight of Chief Pitcairn, standing in one corner of the bay and motioning to him frantically. Spock and Number One were standing alongside him.
“Be right back,” Pike said to Kritos and Yang. The captain walked hurriedly over to his senior officers. “Well?”
They all started talking at once.
“There’s a bug—”
“There’s a building—”
Pike held up a hand. “One at a time. Number One?”
“I have to go first,” Pitcairn said.
“You’ll get your turn.”
“No. I have to go first.”
Pike frowned. He’d known Glenn Pitcairn for fifteen years, had never known him to behave this way.
“One minute, Chief,” Pike said, putting a little steel into his voice.
“The ship’s computer is bugged,” Pitcairn said.
“The ship’s computer is bugged.”
Pike shook his head in disbelief. “That’s not possible.”
“Nor is it true,” Spock said.
Pitcairn turned and glared at the Vulcan. “Now, hold on a minute, Mr. Spock.”
Spock shook his head. “Forgive me, Chief. I just had a moment to work with the system and detected no trace of the feedback circuit you mentioned earlier.”
“Feedback circuit?” Pike asked.
“Someone was spying on us,” Pitcairn said. “On everything happening aboard the ship. That circuit was there, Mr. Spock.”
“Perhaps so,” Spock replied. “No longer.”
The chief looked upset.
Number One nodded sympathetically. “I believe you, Chief,” she said.
“Is that what you wanted to tell me?” Pike asked Spock.
“No,” Spock said. “I wished to inform you that your logs have been confiscated by Admiral Noguchi.”
Pike nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me.”
“It does not?” Spock looked surprised; so did Number One.
“No.” Not given what he’d told Noguchi earlier about Kritos and Hexar. And speaking of Kritos …
He turned and saw Yang—skin several shades paler than it had been earlier—backing away from the Klingon.
He also saw Dmitri—who had been talking to Hardin and her security team—walking straight toward him.
“I cannot help but overhear,” Vlasidovich said, looking just as angry as Kritos had earlier, “that computer aboard Enterprise is bugged? Is this true?”
“Yes,” Pitcairn said.
“No,” Spock said.
“Why was I not informed of this?”
Pike’s officers were silent.
A slow, strained smile broke out on Dmitri’s face. After four years at Starfleet Academy together, two of them as roommates, Pike had become an expert at reading the wide variety of his friend’s smiles. This one was the “I’m so angry I do not trust myself to talk” kind.
“It doesn’t sound like something anyone was sure of, Dmitri,” Pike said, trying to smooth things over. “Now, Number One, what was it you wanted to tell me?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “You’ll recall before you left for the Orion ship, I had drawn your attention to a structure on the surface of Fifty-five-Hamilton—”
“You’re talking about Building Eight,” Pike said.
Number One blinked. “Yes.”
“Kronos,” Pike said. “You found out about it.”
She looked at him, then over at Spock. “Yes,” she said.
“Kronos?” Dmitri frowned. “What is this Kronos?”
“What we were investigating on the planet’s surface, Captain,” Number One said.
“Another thing you do not tell me about. Is there perhaps more?” Dmitri, Pike could see, was on the verge of blowing up again. That wouldn’t do. “Some other bit of information you might see fit to share with your commanding officer, although perhaps you think that since Captain Pike is back—”
“Not for long,” Pike interrupted.
Everyone turned to him.
“Sir?” Number One asked.
“I’m not staying. Captain Kritos and I still have work to do.” He gestured over his shoulder at Black Snow.
“Work?” Dmitri frowned. “What kind of work?”
“Not work at all. Pleasure.” Kritos bared his teeth. “Vengeance.”
“You are going back to the Orion ship,” Dmitri said.
“Back to Karkon’s Wing ?” Chief Pitcairn asked. “Why?”
“As I said, there is blood to spill.” Kritos glared at Spock. “Green blood.”
“I must point out that Orion blood is red, Captain Kritos,” Spock said.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Pitcairn said. “Why are you going back to the Orion ship?”
“Because they’re the ones who attacked Starbase Eighteen,” Pike said.
“The Orions?” Pitcairn looked doubtful. “Sir, are you forgetting that recording from the command tower—Commodore Higueras, the two Klingon warbirds …”
Kritos growled again.
“Make as much noise as you want,” Pitcairn snapped. “The facts are—”
“Not facts,” Pike said.
“Sir?” Pitcairn asked.
“Those sensor readings—they weren’t real. They were images created by the Orion vessel.”
“Ah.” Spock nodded. “That would explain—”
“The Orions created sensor images sophisticated enough to fool our instruments?” Pitcairn asked. “How?”
“I don’t know. Which is why we’re going back,” Pike said.
Kritos cleared his throat. A reminder.
“Sorry. One of the reasons we’re going back,” Pike clarified.
“And the other?” Dmitri asked.
Pike sensed Kritos tense behind him. “This is private,” the Klingon said.
“You’re going to have to tell them about it at some point.”
The Klingon growled.
At that instant, the shuttlebay doors opened, and Yeoman Colt entered, carrying a tray full of food. Pike saw the steaks—smelled the steaks—and smiled.
“Yeoman,” he said, stepping forward out of the crowd. “Over here.”
Colt saw him, and her eyes went wide as saucers.
Nobody had told her, Pike realized.
“Captain Pike,” she said, and her mouth dropped open.
Then she dropped the tray. Then she fainted.
© 2010 David Stern