Episode One: True North
Five years ago...
High above the Earth, a war raged in the heavens. Mighty ships battled each other, their commanders issuing orders designed to achieve but one goal: victory. As one ship after another was disabled or destroyed, another took its place, and fought with redoubled vigor, ready to avenge her fallen comrade.
The fate of the galaxy hung suspended in the fray. Battle lines had been drawn two years ago, and every skermish had been leading to this final engagement. And though much blood had been spilled on both sides, an independent observer would be hard pressed to tell the combatants from one another, because, while one would expect this catastrophic combat to be the result of an invasion by a foreign power, it was not.
These enemies today had once been brothers-in-arms, a fleet torn asunder by one man's mad dream. The pain of betrayal and the memory of every life lost tore at the soldiers' hearts. It ate away at their souls, leaving only the blackness of remorse and despair in its place. Emotions felt keener by none, save the first officer of a ship on the "patriot" side, the U.S.S. Christopher Pike.
How the ship's namesake would have been horrified at this bloody scene, at how a vision of peace and unity had been corrupted, destroyed. Captain Pike had lived a life dedicated to the preservation of that peace, and Commander Timothy Sinclair was grateful that Pike had not lived to see this day.
The ship shuddered again as torpedoes struck the weakening shields. "Tactical, report!" called Sinclair.
"Shields down to seventy-nine percent, hull integrity is holding."
"Weapons," said Captain Brady Thornton, "charge quantum torpedoes, full spread on my command."
Inwardly, Tim felt a mixture of relief and worry. The Pike had taken beating after beating for the last five minutes, waiting for the Captain to order return fire. It wasn't that he was eager to fire on fellow officers, but this had to end. If the war went on any longer, the Federation would never recover. As it was now, laborious restoration would have to be made.
The Captain got the go-ahead for the torpedoes. "Fire!"
Six balls of energy flew from the Pike's launchers, impacting the enemy ship. The Akira-class vessel's shields flashed, sputtered, and flickered out.
"Direct hit," shouted the Tactical officer. "They're shields are down."
"Target their weapons and engine systems," said Thornton. "I want them dead in the water."
The Pike lashed out with a barrage of phasers and photons, and soon the enemy was disabled. But no one took the slightest pride in that accomplishment. Two years ago, they would have been fighting alongside the people they just killed.
"Communications," called Thornton, "hail them, offer medical assistance."
Before the order could be carried out, proximity alarms started blaring. Sinclair checked his console, confirming what he saw on the viewscreen. "Sir, I’ve got three hostile ships coming in. They're firing!"
And that they did. The Christopher Pike lurched under the multiple torpedo impacts. The Tactical console erupted in a shower of sparks, and sent the Lieutenant flying into the rear bulkhead.
Sinclair jumped up and ran to take the fallen officer's place, while Thornton checked for a pulse. At Tim's questioning look, the Captain just shook his head. "He's gone."
Now was not the time for grief, and Sinclair focused his attention on the console in front of him. "Sir, shields are down to twenty percent, and main phaser banks are offline. Impulse engines are gone too. The hostiles are preparing to fire."
Thornton tapped his communicator. "All hands brace for impact!"
But the impact never came. It was as if someone had hit the cosmic pause button. Then, the silence was broken by a beep from the communications console. "Sir," said Sinclair, "I've got an incoming hail from the Enterprise."
Thornton nodded. "On screen."
The view changed from the hostile vessels to the bridge of the Sovereign-class flagship. "Attention all vessels, this is Captain Picard. Cease fire. I repeat, cease fire. Moments ago, Captain Sisko and an away team from the Defiant beamed to the Lakota, and found Admiral Leyton and most of his crew dead..."
Tim's eyes widened, and even Captain Thornton couldn't keep the surprise off his face. Picard continued, "Those of you who do not believe this, scan the Lakota, or beam over yourselves. But Leyton is dead. Let the horror he began die with him. This can end here. Let there be no more bloodshed." With that, the transmission ended.
"Captain," called the officer at the helm, "The Enterprise has dropped shields and powered down her weapons."
For a long moment, Thornton sat, staring at the screen. Tim knew exactly what was going through his mind: Is it really over? Can this really end here?
Before the Captain could say anything, there was another hail. "It's from the Lysander," said Tim.
When Thornton didn't respond, Sinclair put it on screen anyway. The viewer shifted again, and the face of Admiral Edward Jellico, one of Leyton's staunchest supporters, appeared. "Ships of the fleet, it's true. I have just returned from the Lakota. Admiral Leyton is dead, killed by his own hand. And I for one see no need to continue on this bloody course." Once again, the signal ended, and the screen switched back to a space view.
Brady still hadn't said a word. Tim was almost ready to call Sickbay when the Captain finally spoke. "Picard's set the example here, gentlemen. Drop shields, go to condition green."
With that done, there was only one question left: What now?
* * * * *
Hours later, that question still hadn't been fully answered. But things were happening in such a flurry that it wouldn't take long to figure out.
Tim was on one of the shuttles headed for Spacedock. From there he planned to beam to Colorado and find his family. When the war broke out, he'd been on his way to meet them while he was on leave. For the past two years, his wife and sons had been trapped on Earth, living under Leyton's iron grip, and he hadn't been able to do anything thing about it. It had been months since anyone had gotten word from their families on Earth, and Tim was worried out of his mind.
Arriving at Spacedock, he reported to the personnel officer, expecting to be waved through quickly. Instead, he was told that he was urgently needed in Sickbay. His heart sank. No, he thought, this can't be happening.
But as he entered the station's medical facility, he knew it to be true. He couldn't see her, but his mind was flooded with her pain. He cried out.
One of the nurses ran to help him, and he sank into a chair in the waiting area. "What happened?" he asked, voice racked with distress.
The nurse seemed to debate whether or not it would be in his best interest to know the truth, but apparently she decided it was. "Before the cease fire order came through, the resistance attacked Starfleet headquarters. Your wife was in that group. Leyton had the building rigged with a paralithium device. We found her at the edge of the rubble. She's been lucky to make it this far."
"What are her chances?"
Before the nurse could answer, the doors to the surgical ward opened, and a doctor walked over to them. "Commander Sinclair?"
He stood feebly. "How is she?"
"I'm sorry, Commander. There's nothing we could do."
Tim didn't scream, didn't cry, didn't even try to deny it. He only nodded. "Can I see her?"
The doctor led him into the operating room, where the instruments had been put away, and a sheet had been draped over the body on the bed. Tim walked to the bedside, and pulled the sheet away. Jean's once beautiful face was scarred now, and blood stained her cheeks and matted her hair.
He reached down, took her hand in his, and kissed it. "I'm sorry." He pulled the sheet up again, and looked at the doctor. "Where are my sons?"
"At your home in Colorado. They're uninjured."
Tim nodded once again and silently walked out the door.
* * * * *
Spacedock was in turmoil. With Starfleet Headquarters in ruins, the orbital station's upper levels had been commandeered as a temporary operations center while the Admiralty tried to sort things out.
The station's conference room had been turned into an "office" for Vice-Admiral Alynna Nechayev, and nine other admirals were gathered there with her. "...I just don't see where we have any other choice at present," Nechayev concluded, looking at the others for comment.
"Alynna," began Admiral Coleman, "I understand your point of view, but I really don't think it's necessary to suspend the exploration programs for such an extended length of time. And your thoughts on limiting diplomatic involvement..."
Nechayev held up her hand. "Mark, I know it seems drastic, but what choice do we have? If we spread ourselves to thin, we'll wind up in the same mess all over again. We need to get our own house in order before we start policing the galaxy."
"So we just turn our backs on everyone else? Look at what's happened to the Klingons. To Cardassia. Do we just let it continue?"
Nechayev's eyes flashed. "I say again, what choice do we have?"
Before Coleman could respond, Admiral Paris interjected. "I say we put it to a vote."
Nechayev considered this for a moment, and then nodded slowly. The vote was over quickly, only two others siding with Admiral Coleman.
"Well, Mark," Nechayev said, "it seems you lost."
Little did any of them realize how much.
* * * * *
By 0800 the next day, Sinclair had made his choice. He strode down the corridor, his expression neutral as the doors parted before him. He entered the office and was greeted by the warm smile he now dreaded.
"Tim! Hello!" shouted Admiral Robert Smith, shaking Sinclair's hand in a firm grip.
Tim's reserved tone immediately set Smith on guard. He motioned to a chair. Tim declined, but Smith sat anyway. "What can I do for you, Commander? I was under the impression that you were on leave."
"I am, sir. But I felt the need to bring this to your attention as soon as possible." Tim reached across and handed Smith a PADD.
The admiral scanned the document, and sat it down a moment later. He should have expected this. "You're sure you want to do this?"
"But why, Tim? I heard about Jean. I'm sorry. I know you've been through a lot. But we all have." He paused, looking for a reaction. When none was forthcoming, he continued. "Why don't you take a few weeks? Think about this. We'll talk again when you come back from leave."
"With all due respect, sir, I have thought about it. I need to put my life back in order, spend time with my sons."
"Tim, you're up for promotion. The Alexandria needs a captain, and you're at the top of the list. Please, rethink this."
Sinclair's expression made it clear that he didn't want to debate the issue any further. "Admiral, I'll go to the CIC if I have to."
"Then that's what you'll have to do. As your superior, I'm not going to let a fine officer go without a good reason. And as your friend, I can't let you make the biggest mistake of your life."
Tim stiffened. "Am I dismissed, sir?"
Smith could only nod. Sinclair turned on his heel and strode out of the office.
* * * * *
In the end, Sinclair's resignation was accepted by Admiral Decker, who was himself resigning.
And so, it was a week later that Tim found himself on Titan, at dusk. He stood on the hillside where he'd played as a boy in the enclave, staring at Saturn's rings for hours. He let the sensations around him pass through with his thoughts. Jean, Ben, Steve, Jeff and Tyler, Mary. The face of everyone he'd ever cared for was reflected in the rings, like the summer clouds in the Colorado sky. But now they brought no comfort, no happiness. Only regret.
As twilight turned to night, his eyes turned to the stars. He'd been to every one that he could see, and countless others. As a child, it was all he'd wanted. But now, he didn't care if he ever saw them again.
His wristchrono beeped softly. Reality intruded on his solitude. He had a second chance now, to make things right for his sons. To be there when they needed him. He started the long walk back to the transport center. And though he tried to leave the past behind, its shadow loomed in the clouds ahead.
January 10, 2379
"Gentlemen, the C-in-C."
The announcement echoed as the officers gathered around the conference table rose to their feet and stood at attention. The action was more tradition that strict protocol, but no one could think of doing less in the presence of Fleet Admiral James Cannon.
Even though, Cannon was in his seventies, he still possessed the sharp mind and keen instincts that had made him one of the finest starship captains of the twenty-fourth century. He was of average height and build, but he projected an aura of command and authority that would be the envy of the most imposing of figures. For all his years, he was as jovial and animated as when he was thirty. It was perhaps that, and his genuine affection and concern for his friends and subordinates alike, which had earned him the most respect of any Commander-in-Chief since Pavel Chekov.
"Be seated," he said, surveying the crowd. All of the Joint Chiefs were there, as well as other highly placed flag officers and a few selected captains. "I'm sure you are all aware of the situation in the Demilitarized Zone. Since the War, it has become a sort of melting pot for refugees from Cardassia, the Klingon Empire, and nearly every other interstellar power. Chaos reigns, piracy is the rule of law. Until now the situation has been contained, but the problem is coming to a head. And if it does, neighboring systems and empires will suffer.
"I've just come from a meeting with President Decker, the Chief of Fleet Operations, and the Director of Starfleet Intelligence. Information has come to light, showing that certain parties are moving behind the scenes in the DMZ. If we allow this to continue, these outside parties will consolidate power and be in a position to move on Bajor, Cardassia, or any of the non-aligned worlds. We cannot allow this." Cannon paused, looked for reaction, and saw a question on the lips of Admiral Weber. "Yes, Frank?"
"Jim, are we talking about a change in Federation foreign policy?"
Cannon nodded. "That's right. Rescinding the Federation's isolationism is something that President Decker has wanted since he took office. Some of you may not agree with that attitude, but I for one am tired of watching millions die while we serve our own self-interest."
"But will the Council approve the change? They can't undo the past five years overnight."
"The situation in the DMZ is so grave that President Decker believes they will, especially if Fleet Command supports him."
Admiral Jonathan Hofmann spoke up. "So what exactly are we going to do about the situation in the Zone?"
Nodding again, Cannon stood. "For that, I'll turn the floor over to the man responsible for our strategy."
As the C-in-C sat down, all eyes were on Admiral Kevin Thornton, Chief of Starfleet Operations, as he rose and stood behind the podium. "The first stage in this project is reconnaissance. We'll send a ship in to gauge the situation, establish a presence, and put out feelers. That ship is--" He pressed a button on the podium's control pad and a holographic image appeared over the table. "--The U.S.S. Pendragon. She's the first in her class, ready to be commissioned."
The hologram rotated slowly, depicting the starship as she sat in drydock at Utopia Planetia Fleet Yards. "The commissioning ceremony is scheduled for later today," continued Thornton. "That will be followed by a quick shakedown cruise around the sector. Over the next few days, her crew will come aboard, and the captain will receive his orders."
"And just who is the captain?" asked Weber.
Thornton paused for a moment, and glanced at Cannon. The C-in-C smiled and said, "Let's just say we have a candidate."
* * * * *
Traveling at twenty kilometers per minute, the terrain below the air tram went by in a dizzying blur. And so, even though he'd spent over thirty minutes in transit, it wasn't until the craft landed that Admiral Mark Coleman got his first look at the beautiful landscape that surrounded him. It was worth the wait.
The shuttle had touched down in what had long ago been a cattle pasture. The rolling, snow-covered hills and valleys went on for miles. Pine trees dotted the landscape. The scene was bordered on the east by the majestic Rocky Mountains, their white peaks swallowed every few moments by a passing cloud as it lazily moved on its course. Forty miles to the north was the Montana border, and not far to the south lay the Yampa River.
Turning to the west, Mark saw a small group of buildings a few hundred meters off. From the looks of it, there was a ranch house, a stable and a barn. Smoke rose from the house's chimney, curling upwards, eventually vanishing to meld with the clouds. Pulling his coat tight around him, Mark told the pilot to wait for his signal, and trudged off toward the house.
It was an ancient structure, built in the late eighteen-hundreds. It projected an aura of melancholy nostalgia, evoking images of exhausted cowboys returning to the comforts of home after days on the range. The scent that drifted from the chimney bespoke countless nights spent by an old pot-bellied stove, drinking black coffee and telling stories, laughing and crying. Though for all its weathered appearance, the house was far from a derelict. Well kept, the imprint of centuries spent in caring restoration could be clearly felt. Its rugged charm beckoned him on.
By the time Mark had reached the veranda, the ankle-deep snow had soaked through his pants. An involuntary shiver ran through him each time the wind blew. He stamped his feet on the old-fashioned doormat and knocked. No answer came, so he waited a moment and tried again. Silence.
Before he could knock again, he heard a loud nay in the distance. Turning, he saw a horse and rider at full gallop, billows of snow kicked up in their wake. As they approached, he recognized the horseman and waved. The rider gave no acknowledgement.
When they were within a hundred yards, they slowed to a trot. Mark waved again. The rider just continued on around the house. Mark followed. Rounding the corner, he saw the man dismount and take his mare into the stables. He exited again, and stared at Coleman for a long moment, as if trying to decide if he was worthy of notice.
Apparently the decision was affirmative, because the man walked up to the Admiral, and nodded gruffly.
Mark held out his hand. "It's good to see you, Tim."
Timothy Sinclair just stood and stared at the Admiral's hand. After a moment, he turned and walked toward the house. Over his shoulder he said, "You look like you could use some coffee."
Mark, flustered by the unorthodox greeting, merely nodded. He turned and followed the other man in through the back door. The kitchen was much like he'd imagined it -- rustic and antiquated. The only modern convenience he could see was a replicator.
But Sinclair didn't get the coffee from the replicator. Instead, he walked to the ancient stove that dominated one corner (pot-bellied, just as Mark had envisioned it earlier), and poured two mugs of the brew from the pot that rested on top. He motioned for Mark to sit at the table, and did the same.
"Where are Jeff and Tyler?" the Admiral asked.
"They're on a field trip to Vulcan," Tim said. "Won't be back for a week." Cutting to the chase, he added, "So, what brings you to these parts?"
As if you didn't know, Mark mused. "I just thought I'd stop in and see an old friend."
Sinclair chuckled ruefully. "I've never known the Director of Starfleet Intelligence to do anything on a whim." He paused, and for a moment Mark thought that he was going to do a mind probe. But it was hardly necessary. "You want me back, don't you?"
Coleman nodded. Even if Tim hadn't been empathic, hiding things from him would still have been impossible. "That's right. If you accept, it'll mean a captaincy. Your own command."
"You know why. Decker and Cannon have finally gotten the Council to listen. They're ready to reject Nechayev's policy." He waited for a response, but saw that Tim wanted a better explanation. "The situation in the DMZ is ready to boil over. It's in the Council's best interest to prevent that. And once we take that step, we can take the next, and the next. It'll take time, but we can undo the damage."
"You still haven't answered my question."
Mark sighed. "Alright. We're sending a ship into the Zone. A kind of olive branch. She needs a captain who has seen what the last five years have done, but hasn't been a part of it. And we trust you. But we need an answer soon. Nechayev still has enough clout with the Council to put her own man in the center seat. If that happens, nothing will change. We need you."
Tim sat back and sipped his coffee. After a while, he rose and paced the room, stopping when he was across from Mark again. "Okay, say I believe you. Give me one good reason why I should stick my neck out for the Federation again."
"Because you can make a difference."
He laughed. "That's it? Ha! I 'made a difference' for twenty years. What did it get me? An empty house, a dead wife, and two sons who never knew their father before they turned twelve. Well, I've made a difference on that last count, and I'm not about to leave them now."
"Provision can be made for them, Tim. They can come with you."
"You think I'd want them on the front lines?"
"We're not at war, Tim."
"Maybe not in the same way, but what you're talking about sure sounds like a war zone to me."
"Tim, something can be worked out. They can stay on Bajor or --"
Sinclair cut him off, pacing again. "I have a life with my family. I can't give that up. Not for the galaxy, not for the Federation, not for you. You can find another poster boy."
Mark could see he wasn't getting through. "What about for the future? Jeff and Tyler are going into the Fleet, right?"
Tim nodded slowly, knowing where this was headed. "I've tried to discourage them, but..."
"They're as headstrong as you are. You won't be able to stop them. But you can decide what kind of Fleet they go into. You have to."
Sinclair slammed his fist on the table. "Find someone else, blast it! Find someone else."
The Admiral had one last trump card to play. He'd hoped it wouldn't come to this. "Is that what Jean would want?"
Tim looked as if he'd been slapped. "That's not fair, Mark."
"Maybe it's not, but I don't have a choice. I need you, and if the only thing holding you back is your self-pity than to blazes with it! I don't know about you, but I'm sure Jean wouldn't want you to turn your back on this. Not when you can save so many lives."
Sinclair walked to the window, and stared at the clouds for a long time. It seemed like hours before he spoke again, but it could only have been seconds. "No. She wouldn't."
Mark nodded and rose. "The shakedown cruise is in an hour. I'm supposed to make an inspection tour. Come back with me, Tim."
With a heavy sigh, Sinclair turned and nodded. "I suppose I could at least do that."
* * * * *
Tim and Mark beamed from the tram to Spacedock, and from there boarded a travel pod headed for the Pendragon's dock. Once aboard the pod, the Admiral handed Tim a PADD.
"It's the specs. Take a look."
Sinclair scrolled through the data, absorbing the technical details of the starship's construction. Glancing out the viewport, he saw Earth rotate below, Australia slowly passing by. He looked ahead, and saw the pylons of the drydock. They formed a gray, duranium latticework, through which he could only catch brief glimpses of the ship. In spite of himself, he strained to see. It was futile until the pod swung around and entered the dock from the front.
What Tim saw then took his breath away.
The Pendragon gleamed a silvery white above the dusty red surface of Mars. Majestic in her beauty, she was clearly an outgrowth of the Sovereign-class design. Beautiful in the way a finely crafted sword was beautiful. Her twin warp nacelles swept away from the secondary hull gracefully, as an eagle in flight. Rising from the hull, between the nacelles and slightly lower, stood a sensor/weapons pod. The pod was modular and could be replaced for mission-specific functions. The primary hull was saucer-shaped as those of nearly all Starfleet ships. But whereas most new classes which entered service over the last decade featured an integrated primary/secondary hull design, this one was attached by means of a short "neck", similar to the older Galaxy-class. That feature, and the arch of the nacelles, conjured up an image out the ancient myths from which the ship partially drew her name. In drydock, she looked like nothing other than a caged dragon ready to burst from its prison and soar.
Mark saw the expression on his friend's face and smiled. "She's something, isn't she?"
They completed their pass around the ship, then swung around and backed into the docking port. The doors parted, and the two men stepped into the shuttlebay. Inside, this part of Pendragon, at least, was the same as any other vessel. Crewmen milled about here and there, some carrying cargo containers, some checking inventories. They stood at attention as the Admiral passed, but he waved them off and moved into the corridor.
Leaving the shuttlebay behind, they boarded a turbolift. "Bridge," said Coleman.
The lift shot upwards. Ten seconds later it came to a stop, and the doors hissed open. As Coleman stepped out, someone called, "Admiral on the Bridge!"
Again the officers paused in their tasks and stood at attention. With the utmost formality, the Admiral nodded and replied, "At ease."
Tim, meanwhile, was still standing in the turbolift.
Mark turned. "Well, come on."
Sinclair stepped onto the bridge and followed Coleman to the command arena. Next to the captain's chair stood a Bajoran of about Tim's age and build, wearing Commander's pips on his collar.
Coleman smiled as Tim approached. "Timothy Sinclair, meet Commander Russell Twining. He's the Pendragon's first officer."
Tim shook the Commander's hand, slightly puzzled. "Twining? As in Admiral Paul Twining?"
"Yes, sir. He's my father."
That's when it clicked. Paul Twining had been in command of the Beachmont, Tim's training vessel while he at the Academy. Since Tim was a year older and had joined the Academy a year earlier than most, Twining's youngest son had been two years behind him, and so they'd never met.
Tim smiled. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Commander."
"And you, sir. I've heard some stories about you."
"From your father?"
Twining nodded. "And Josh Hofmann," he added.
Tim was again surprised. "You served with Josh?"
"For quite a number years, yes. And I suppose I haven't gotten rid --"
Twining was cut off by a call from the ensign at tactical. "Commander, the dockmaster reports that we are cleared for departure."
The Bajoran nodded, and looked at Coleman. "At the Admiral's order?"
"Yes, by all means, Commander."
Russ turned to Sinclair. "Unless you would care to, sir?"
Tim shook his head. "I'm not back in the Fleet yet. I'm just along for the ride."
"Very well, then." Twining shared a brief glance with Coleman, but did not take the center seat. Standing beside the chair, he turned to face the helm. "CONN, release docking clamps. Clear all moorings." He waited for the acknowledgement, and then said, "Ahead one-quarter impulse."
The image on the viewscreen began to move as the Pendragon's impulse engines propelled her forward. In moments, they were past the drydock, surrounded only by the star-studded curtain of space.
"We are free and clear to navigate," reported the helmsman.
Russ nodded, and looked at the two men standing next to him. Sinclair was lost in the moment. Coleman winked and hid a small smile. "Helm, engage preset course Alpha-One. Warp seven."
As the stars on the viewscreen coalesced into shining streaks of light, the Pendragon surged into warp space. Mark saw the look of unabashed excitement on Tim's face, and smiled. They had their captain.
Standing by the turbolift doors, Admiral Coleman glanced around the bridge. Sinclair was next to the command chair, engaged in conversation with Commander Twining. The two of them were laughing so hard, they could only be talking about Josh Hofmann.
The Admiral went over to the communications console, and told the ensign there to open a channel to Starfleet Headquarters. "I'll take it in the conference room," he said.
When he emerged ten minutes later, Sinclair and Twining were still laughing. Tim turned as he heard Coleman approach, wiping tears from his eyes, and stifling more laughter.
Mark smiled. "You two having fun?" Both men nodded. "Good." He glanced at the viewscreen. "What's our status, Commander?"
"On course for Vulcan, Admiral. We'll arrive in three hours."
"Excellent." Mark turned to Sinclair. "That's just about enough time for a tour. You interested?"
Sinclair nodded again. "Definitely." Once they were in the turbolift, Tim smiled and said, "That's a good XO out there."
"I thought you two would hit it off."
"Any more surprises on the crew manifest?"
Mark looked at him, poker-faced, but with a glint in his eye. "That would be telling, wouldn't it?"
* * * * *
Somewhere in the jungle, a tekari bird took flight with a screech. The sound echoed loudly in the ears of the two men who slowly made their way through the brush. A small rodent scampered across the ground in front of them, causing one to look down and see that his companion was about to make a mistake.
"Rice! Look out for that --"
"-- tree snare..."
Ensign Michael Neumann's warning had come two seconds too late. He could barely suppress a fit of laughter at the sight of his partner dangling by one leg, arms flailing as he hung five meters overhead.
Ensign Andrew Rice, for his part, didn't find the situation amusing in the least. "Get me down from here!"
"Keep it quiet!" Neumann hissed. "This is a stealth mission, remember?"
Rice rolled his eyes. "Just get me down!"
Neumann nodded, and sat his phaser rifle and tricorder on the ground. He circled his comrade, examining the snare. It didn't look booby trapped -- just an old-fashioned tree snare. He unholstered his hand phaser, set it for level eight, took aim, and fired at the cord just above Andrew's leg.
The ensign dropped the sixteen-plus feet to the ground with a yelp. "Couldn't you have thought of something a little less painful?" he moaned.
"Sorry." But even as Michael moved to help his friend up, the sound of charging energy filled the air. Both men looked around, reaching for their weapons.
They were surrounded by a two full squads of Jem'Hadar soldiers. The gray-skinned warriors each held a disruptor rifle and their leathery faces were contorted into grimaces that said they would show no mercy. The Jem'Hadar First raised his rifle, taking aim at Neumann, ready to deliver the kill shot at any time. "Lay down your weapons, or die."
The ensigns' response was to take aim themselves. "You'd kill us anyway," said Neumann.
The First nodded. "Yes, we would."
But before he or his soldiers could fire, a roaring cry echoed through the jungle, and a spread of phaser beams shot out of the brush. Three Jem'Hadar went down before they even knew what was happening.
With another enraged cry, Lieutenant Anthony Strube flew from the jungle cover, firing his rifle. At the same time, from the other side of the clearing, more beams shot out as Lieutenant Justin Shive fired a barrage of his own. In the confusion, Neumann and Rice did a duck-and-roll and came up firing.
It was over in less that twenty seconds, and all sixteen Jem'Hadar lay dead on the ground. Not one of them had gotten a shot off.
Strube touched his combadge. "Team Alpha to Drake. Requesting status report."
Instead of the Drake's communications officer, it was the voice of the computer that replied: "Mission Aborted."
The four men looked at each other, and then at the bodies. Anthony kicked the ground, just as it began to dissolve into nothingness. In seconds, their weapons vanished, followed by the Jem'Hadar corpses, and finally the jungle itself. Everything was gone, replaced by four silver-and-blue grid-pattern walls. The holodeck doors parted, and the four officers filed out and stood at attention.
Before them stood their CO and he was not happy. Lieutenant Commander Joshua Gorman eyed his men, letting his gaze linger on each one. The scowl on his face seemed carved in stone, even when he spoke. "You failed in your mission. And if that had been a real scenario, you would all be dead. I don't like loosing men. And I don't like my people disobeying their orders."
Gorman paced back and forth in front of his four team members, slowly rubbing the scar on his cheek. "Your mission," he said to Strube, "was to prevent the Jem'Hadar from testing their polaric device at all costs." He turned to Shive. "You knew there was a time limit." Next he spoke to Neumann. "You knew that each of your team mates was expendable." And to Rice: "And you knew that there would be dangers not detailed in the briefing.
"You're SEALs. You never leave a man behind. But when millions of lives are at stake, the mission comes before your life, and the lives of your team. And because you forgot that, the Jem'Hadar base commander triggered the ignition sequence at 0720, and by 0730 the entire planet was destroyed in a subspace shockwave. Within minutes, the shockwave destroyed the rest of the system. Including the Drake and the forty million colonists on the outer planet.
"And because their device worked, the Dominion would have used it again, and again, causing death on a cosmic scale. And all because you went back for one team mate, instead of completing the mission."
Gorman held his sour expression for a long moment, communicating his displeasure perfectly. But when he felt his men were sufficiently chastised, his face softened into a grin. "On the other hand, you managed to take out two squads of Jem'Hadar at 4 to 1 odds in a captive situation. I'm impressed." He pointed at the door. "Now get your gear stowed. We'll run another scenario at 1300."
As the four officers filed out of the staging area, Gorman's combadge chirped. "Smith to Gorman," came the voice.
"We've just received new orders from Command. For your eyes only."
"Meet me in my office. Gorman out."
As he boarded the turbolift, Josh had a sneaking suspicion what his team's new orders were.
* * * * *
There was always a great deal of work to be done on a shakedown cruise, and the corridors of the Pendragon were bustling with activity as crewmen hurried to carry out their assignments. And with only half the crew onboard, everyone felt the weight of extra duties. Those that weren't on duty were most likely sleeping.
So while one would normally expect the Pendragon's Ten-Forward Lounge to be filled with off-duty crewmen at any given time, it was understandably deserted when Sinclair and Admiral Coleman walked in.
They ordered coffee from the replicator and walked to a table by the expansive viewports. Outside, the stars streamed by in the cosmic light show that was warp space.
As they sat, Mark gestured around him and asked, "So, what do you think?"
Tim smiled. "She's a beautiful ship." In truth, she was much more than that. For two hours, Coleman had led him on a tour from bow to stern and back again. It only served to cement the first impression he'd had of her at Spacedock. Powerful, yet graceful. Regal. Magnificent. But also familiar. Every starship was subtly unique, and after twenty years of living on them, an observant person could identify the minute differences that served as each designer's fingerprint, every engineer's signature. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he knew he recognized this signature.
Coleman must have seen the puzzlement on Sinclair's face. "What is it?"
The younger man turned his gaze from the stars, and gestured around him. "Who designed this ship?"
Coleman smiled. "I wondered if you'd notice. It was Jon Hofmann. He started development about six months after the war. She'd still be in testing stages now, if he hadn't pushed the construction along after..." Mark let his voice trail off, immediately sorry he'd started on that line.
But Tim finished the sentence for him, voice neutral, eyes distant. "...After Steve went MIA."
Mark nodded slowly. "Yeah." He took another sip of his coffee. "When they broke up the Eagles, decommissioned the Scandalon...Jon drove himself to finish the Pendragon. It seemed to be his way of coping."
Sinclair looked out into space again. "Why does life always do that to us, Mark?"
To the Admiral, something seemed to be wrong with the environmental systems. "Do what?"
"Leave us something to cope with?"
"What was it Steve used to say? About how it's good for us to be afflicted, so we can grow."
Sinclair laughed. A hollow sound. "Jean used to say things like that, too. They were a lot alike."
"That they were." Mark leaned forward, emphasizing his words. "And neither one of them would want you to turn away from this."
Tim laughed ruefully, and shook his head. Cold fury burned in his eyes. "You never give up, do you?"
"Not when so much is at stake."
Something in the Coleman's tone put Tim on guard. "There's more to this than just trouble in the DMZ, isn't there? What's the real reason you want me for this assignment?"
Suddenly, the intercom blared with Commander Twining's voice, cutting off the Admiral's reply. "Attention crew, we are on final approach and will dock at Vulcan Space Central in ten minutes. Once all crewmembers embarking from this location are aboard, we will get underway for our next stop. Twining out."
Mark seemed to listen to the announcement with undue attention, but met Tim's stare after a moment. "It's just as I said, we trust you. You've got the right perspective."
Before Sinclair could protest again, the Admiral stood and walked toward the doors. They parted, but, almost as an afterthought, he turned and said, "You might want to go planetside for a while. I think there are a couple people you should see."
And with that he turned and walked out, leaving Tim alone with his questions.
* * * * *
The whine faded, and six people resolved into being on the transport pads. Four men and two women, they all wore engineering gold. All but one made their way out of the room, headed for their quarters or duty station.
The remaining engineer was a Vulcan male, slightly shorter than average for his race, but with the characteristic black hair, pointed ears, and deadpan expression. As he stepped from the platform, his hand came up in the Vulcan salute. "Greetings, Commander," he said to the Bajoran officer who awaited him.
Twining bowed his head slightly and returned the salute. "And to you, Lieutenant Svek. Welcome aboard." Russ motioned to the door. "You personal effects have already been sent to your quarters. I assume you'd want to see Main Engineering?"
Svek nodded, mildly surprised and certainly gratified at the First Officer's bluntness. Far too often, non-Vulcans engaged in verbal frivolity. To find one who did not was refreshing. But of course, none of these thoughts were displayed on Svek's face. His only reaction was, "Certainly, Commander."
They walked out the doors, and Russ led the engineer toward a turbolift. "We'll be picking up your Assistant Chief toward the end of the shakedown," he said as the lift began the eighteen-deck descent. "But two-thirds of your staff is onboard already."
Soon, the lift stopped, and the doors parted. They stepped out into the controlled chaos that was Main Engineering. As the towering warp core thrummed in the background, technicians scurried back and forth, performing tests on the engines, or the plasma conduits, or the inertial dampers, or any number of systems that might have a few kinks to work out.
"I think you can find you're way around from here," said Twining. "I'd better be getting back to the bridge." With a nod from the engineer, he re-entered the turbolift, and was gone.
Svek stood by the master systems display, taking in the activity around him, silently watching his new crew as they dealt with their tasks. It was all perfectly normal.
Until an alarm started blaring. The Chief Engineer glanced at the monitor behind him. For one brief moment, shock flickered across his face, before it was replaced by stoic control. "There's an imbalance in the intermix chamber!" he called over the noise. "Computer, disengage antimatter injectors."
"Unable to comply," came the metallic response.
An Andorian crewman suddenly popped up at the Vulcan's side. "The injectors are fused open, sir."
Svek's reply was cut off by the sudden hiss of escaping coolant. The white cloud billowed out from the side of the warp core, and the alarms blared louder. It was the beginning of a warp core breach. He grabbed the ensign by the shoulder, and pulled him along toward the manual controls. "We must shut down the injectors. If we do not, we will have to eject the warp core." When he saw the ensign's face, he added, "What is your name, Crewman?" Even a small touch of familiarity might calm him down.
"Very well, Crewman Hu’usma’an." Svek pointed to the jeffries tube by the portside flow regulators. "We have three minutes until the core breaches. Go."
As Husemann moved into the access port, Svek entered the starboard tube. He crawled toward the control panel, even as the coolant gas began to fill the tube. He reached the console, and tried to close the injectors. The ensign had been right, they were fused in place. But how could that happen?
Coughing, he tapped his combadge. "Hu’usma’an shut down the flux chillers first."
"Acknowledged." Svek could hear the strain in the young man's voice.
But within a few seconds, it started to work. The plasma flow began to ebb, slowly at first, but soon it had dissipated enough for Svek to siphon the excess antimatter back into the containment pods. The injectors, however, were still jammed. And with them out of commission, the Pendragon wasn't going anywhere.
The engineers made their way out of the tubes, and went to examine the now-dormant antimatter injectors. Hu’usma’an motioned for two other crewmen, Caar and Jeh’cy, to follow. By the time they had caught up with Svek, the Chief had pulled out a tricorder and was already halfway inside an access port, up to his pointed ears in conduits and isolinear chips. After a few moments, he crawled out of the hole, and let the three men have a look.
What they saw defied all logic. While the circuitry surrounding the injectors was in good condition, the injector coils themselves had been scorched by the overflow of antimatter. Ordinarily, the injectors would shut themselves off, preventing exactly that kind of problem. But, not in this case. That was because there was a fracture in one of the coils, only a few microns wide, but enough to let a slow leak develop in the antimatter flow. It was that leak, as pressure built up, which had caused the injector to freeze.
"That can't be right," said Caar, his Tellarite features pulled into a puzzled frown. "A fracture like that can't happen on its own."
Svek raised an eyebrow. "Precisely."
Jeh’cy scratched his transparent cranium. "So what does that mean?" asked the Galamite.
"It means we have been sabotaged."
"Jeff, would you take a look at this!" shouted Tyler Stephen Sinclair. He didn't bother to contain the enthusiasm in his voice.
However, his brother, Jeffrey Paul Sinclair, could barely disguise his boredom. They had been on Vulcan for the past two days, and as far as Jeff was concerned, that time had been wasted. Just over a year from now, both boys would be in the Academy. And while the pre-Academy work they were doing would earn them academic credit, and give them "practical experience," Jeff couldn't see the practicality in studying Vulcan ruins. It just seemed to be more of the same kind of "practical experience" they had gotten on all those month-long archaeological excursions with their father. What about tactical scenarios? Starfleet history? Phaser operations? Jeff could see the practicality in all that. But this?
Tyler, on the other hand, seemed to soak it all up. In fact, at that very moment, he was snapping holographs of the ancient irrigation system from every conceivable angle. "This is amazing," he exuded. "These aqueducts are one of Vulcan's oldest structures. From before the Time of Awakening. To be that old and still in use..."
Jeff tuned his brother out, while he droned on about how ShariKhar, the capital city, had built up around the aqueducts, and still used them for irrigation, taking water from the springs thirty kilometers to the south. Yakety-shmakety. Blah. Blah. Blah.
The sixteen year-old turned his attention to the sky, regretting for the thousandth time that he'd left his sunglasses back at the shuttle. The heat was intense, as always, and the shade was almost nonexistent. Jeff sighed, hoping against hope that Tyler would get tired of the relics and they could both go back.
But his hopes were dashed as Tyler grabbed his arm and pulled him around. They were both standing with their backs to the aqueducts. The holo-camera was on its tripod, and flashed the shot at Tyler's signal.
"Alright, alright," said Jeff. "You've got your precious holos. Can we go back to the city now?"
"Not yet. There's an old temple near the Forge. I want --"
"The Forge!" Jeff shouted. "You want to go onto the bloody Forge?! The heat alone will fry us. Not to mention le-matyas, and the fact that we're low on water!"
Tyler shrugged. "Come on, Jeff. It'll be fascinating!"
"We've been out here all day. The only thing that would fascinate me now is some water, cool air, and a plate of food. At this point, I'd even settle for plomeek soup."
Finally, Tyler caved in. "Alright, I'll give you a break. But tomorrow, we go to the Repository at Gol. Deal?"
Jeff sighed. "Deal."
They hiked back to the shuttle in silence. It was two kilometers away, and by the time they'd reached it, both young men were definitely ready for some refreshment. Tyler was about to open the hatch, when Jeff put a hand on his arm.
"Hold on. Something's not right."
"What d' you mean?" asked his brother.
Just as they'd reached the shuttle, Jeff's limited Betazoid senses kicked in. There was someone in the shuttle. Tyler wasn't as strong as Jeff was, and so couldn't feel it. Cautiously, Jeff punched the access command, and the hatch slid open.
"Hey, guys!" came the voice from inside.
Immediately, both boys forgot their arguments and rushed in the door. "Dad!" they shouted.
Tim Sinclair stood by the replicator, holding a tray of Teckburgers and water bottles. "I figured you guys would be hungry. Come and get it." He sat the tray on the table.
Jeff and Tyler ran to the table and drank the water greedily. The Teckburgers came next. Between gulps and bites, Tyler turned to his father. "We thought you were back in Colorado."
"Something came up," Tim replied.
"What kind of something?" Jeff asked, suddenly suspicious.
"To put it bluntly, Mark Coleman has asked me to rejoin the Fleet."
Tyler had just taken a swig of water, which now came out in a violent spray. "What?" he gasped.
"I told them I'd talk to you about it."
Jeff and Tyler looked at each other, silently communicating through the bond that they shared as twins, wrestling with the emotions their father's announcement had stirred up within them. After a while, they seemed to reach a consensus.
Before either one could speak, though, Tim's combadge chirped. "Twining to Sinclair."
"We've got a situation up here. You should return as soon as possible."
"Understood." He closed the channel, and looked at his sons. "I'm sorry, guys. I'll see you back to the city. Then I've got to get up there."
As Tim took the helm, Jeff sat in the co-pilot's seat, and Tyler sat at the communications console. The shuttle lifted off, and soon the desert was a blur below them as they sped off to ShariKhar.
"So what do you think?" Tim asked his sons.
The boys were silent, still thinking it over. Neither of them had any special desire to see their father return to active duty, but at the same time, they saw what his solitary life in Colorado had done to him. Slowly, he was dying inside. A man like him needed to be living life, not hiding from it. And here was a chance for him to start living it again.
"I'm not going to accept without your approval."
He's looking for excuses, Jeff thought. We're going to be gone in a year anyway. He doesn't have to worry about us.
By the time they'd landed, the twins had gone over the situation several times. Their father was looking for an excuse to stay away, to keeping hiding. And they weren't going to give it to him.
As Sinclair stood on the transporter pad, Jeff smiled and said, "Go for it, Dad." Tyler nodded and gave him a thumbs up.
Twining signaled they were ready for transport, and Sinclair smiled at each of his sons. "See you soon."
* * * * *
Twining and Coleman were waiting in the Ready Room when he arrived. Also at the table was a Vulcan Lieutenant whom Sinclair guessed was the new Chief Engineer, Svek. Tim glanced at the Admiral. "What's the problem?"
"The Lieutenant seems to have uncovered a...complication."
"We have been sabotaged," said Svek.
The tension was so thick you could slice it with a stray molecule. Sinclair studied the Vulcan intently. He was used to making snap character judgments, and decided that if Svek said the ship had been sabotaged, it certainly had. "How?"
Svek went on to painstakingly outline the nature of the sabotage as only a Vulcan can. When he had finished, the other three men looked at each other, considering the ramifications.
"The injectors must have been sabotaged before we left Spacedock," said Twining. "It would have taken at least that long for the pressure to build. Whoever did it's probably long gone."
Sinclair shook his head. "No. This was something that could easily have been fixed. If I were the saboteur, I would have stuck around, and if this didn't work, I'd try again."
"Logical," concluded Svek.
"Who has the kind of knowledge to do this to the injectors?" asked Coleman.
"It is a simple procedure," replied Svek. "Anyone with basic engineering skills could have done it. The difficulty lies only in finding a time when no one else would be present in that area."
Twining nodded. "I'll check the surveillance logs and see who's been in there. The next question is who would want to sabotage us?"
"Who wouldn't?" said Tim. "Nechayev, someone leftover from Leyton's followers, the Orions. I can think of a dozen more groups who'd stand to lose a lot if Admiral Cannon's plan succeeds."
"I don't think Nechayev would go so far as to sabotage us," said Coleman. "But we should still be open to the possibility." He turned to Svek. "How long will repairs take?"
"Not more than an hour. If we had been away from port when this occurred, the delay would have been much longer." "Alright, then," said Twining. "Admiral, if you'll contact Starfleet and inform them of our situation?" Coleman nodded, and Russ stood. "I'll put security on alert. Other than that I see no option but to continue as planned."
"Until this happens again," Sinclair said.
"Let's hope it doesn't."
* * * * *
Coleman left the Ready Room and headed for his quarters. If the saboteur was still on board...well, it just wouldn't do. And if Nechayev was behind it... No. Nechayev would do everything she could to exert power on the Council, but going so far as to sabotage the Pendragon? She couldn't do that. However misguided she may be, in her own way she was a patriot. The Romulans? Perhaps, but unlikely. It was too early in the game for them to get worried.
Arriving at his quarters, Coleman went to his comm unit and placed a priority call to Command. If there were more delays, Enterprise and Chesapeake would have to take over the ceremony. And if they failed to catch the saboteur, there goes the restoration. And if Sinclair refused the captaincy, Coleman's own plans would come to naught.
No, the Pendragon must not fail. Not when they were so close.
* * * * *
"Alright, move out!"
Gorman's call echoed throughout the shuttlebay, and the members of his team filed past him into the waiting ship. As they went by, he made eye contact with each one, letting them know that he was with them. Andrew Rice went by, followed by Michael Neumann. Then came the team's pilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Zac Coleman. Finally, the team's new XO, Lieutenant Shawn Smith, walked by, his eyes filled with the weight of the responsibility that this assignment had given him.
When they had all entered, Josh turned to the remaining members of his team. Those who would be left behind. His old XO, Lieutenant Anthony Strube; Lieutenants Junior Grade Justin Shive and Emily Sleeman; and the two trainees, Midshipmen Ryan Dicker and Bryan Shive.
"I know you're raring to go on this assignment," he said. "But Fleet Command feels that having the entire team in the DMZ would be a waste of manpower. And I agree. Besides," he turned to the three lieutenants, "you're the best instructors in the SEAL program. Who else would make sure our pups grow up right?"
Gorman paused for a moment, and then looked at Strube. The dark-haired lieutenant was a head shorter and stocky whereas Gorman was tall and trim. Strube was built like an old-style football player, and had the attitude to match. One of the best fighters in the Fleet, let alone the SEALs. "Anthony, we've had our disagreements in the past, but you've been the best first officer I could have asked for. And now, you'll be the best CO that Starfleet could ask for." To the others, he said, "But don't let him get a swelled head about it."
The Commander walked up the ramp to the shuttle, then turned and saluted his men. "Take care, SEALs. Semper Fi."
* * * * *
Ship's Log, Stardate 56029.2
Commander Russell Twining, reporting. We are about to get underway to our next stop, and while we are continuing with the shakedown as planned, the threat of more sabotage has cast a shadow over our mission. I can only pray that this one incident will be the end of it.
* * * * *
The Pendragon burst into warp, leaving the relative safety of Vulcan behind. In the emptiness of space, so many things could go wrong. After all it was a dangerous universe. Wormholes, quantum singularities, cosmic strings, the odd quasar. So many challenges, so many problems...so many possibilities.
The saboteur glanced at the PADD in his hand, checking the list he'd made. With less than a full crew aboard, it was such an easy matter to "gum up the works," as it were. The injector malfunction had just been a test, and the saboteur had many hours left to plan the ship's destruction. It would be so easy to just sit back and relax for a while.
But no, getting lazy would lead to mistakes. And the saboteur would not allow himself to make a mistake. The Pendragon's mission must fail, or the consequences would be severe. Sinclair and Coleman could present obstacles, but they would be easily overcome. At the moment, they were too busy with their own agendas to worry about anything else.
And then there was the interloping Vulcan, Svek. His presence would complicate matters, but there were ways around him. Still, he was an annoyance. If the malfunction had occurred only an hour before, the engineer wouldn't have been on board yet, and the saboteur's mission would be complete.
The chronoalarm chimed. 0500 hours. The shift in engineering would change any minute. For a few moments, confusion would reign. And in confusion, victory could be gained.
The saboteur made his decision and left his hiding place. By 0515, everything was ready. It was only a matter of time. And when the hour came, the saboteur would slay the dragon.
"Approaching rendezvous coordinates," said the helmsman.
"Slow to impulse," Twining ordered.
It had been three hours since they'd left Vulcan, and the saboteur hadn't shown his hand yet. Twining's search of the visual logs had proved fruitless. The surveillance system had been offline for a full day prior to the Pendragon's departure from spacedock. Nothing more could be learned until he struck again.
Twining only hoped that it wouldn't be right now.
"The Ares is hailing us," said the ensign at tactical. "They're ready for transport."
Russ nodded. "Acknowledge them. Let's get this over with."
The Commander stared at the ship on the viewscreen, as if he could see the transporter beams that lanced back and forth between the two vessels. Hopefully, the crew and cargo transfers would go off without a hitch. A large portion of the ship's medical and science departments, and almost half of the Pendragon's security complement were beaming over from the Ares, including the chief. And, Russ knew from personal experience, as soon as he was aboard, the saboteur wouldn't stand a chance.
The first wave of transports was complete in ten minutes. The second wave started a few minutes later, and everything seemed to be going fine. Russ just wished he could hurry things up. If he was right, the chief wouldn't be beaming over until the last wave. That meant at least a wait of anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.
Suddenly, Russ felt a presence by his side. Turning, he saw it was Admiral Coleman. The older man's eyes were fixed on the viewscreen just as Twining's had been. "The wait's getting to me, too," he said.
Not for the first time, Twining wondered at the Admiral's talent for reading people like a book. That was what had made him so good at what he did. "Where's Cap...I mean, Mister Sinclair?"
"Down in Engineering. Helping to double check some of the systems at risk."
Russ was glad he wasn't the only one jumping at shadows. "So what did Starfleet say?"
Coleman's eyes didn't waver from the screen. "I spoke with Admiral Cannon. He's concerned, but thinks we should continue as planned." He paused, and looked at Russ directly. "But if the saboteur does strike again, the Admiral has left discretionary authority in your hands...or the captain's."
Hopefully, it would be in the Captain's hands soon. Every time Coleman saw Sinclair, he looked more and more willing to take command. But he just hadn't reached that point yet. Mark was confident he would, though, and soon. Tim had a wanderlust that wouldn't let him stay still for long. The War had dulled it for five years, but it was ready to make a comeback. Mark and Russ had nudged him as far as they could. It was up to his sense of honor and duty now.
The Commander and the Admiral waited the rest of the time in silence. Everything went smoothly, and for a while, the trouble seemed lightyears away. But as time wore on, a feeling of dread began to gnaw at Twining. Small at first, but growing. To ease his mind, as well as stave off the onset of boredom, Russ rose from his chair and paced the bridge, checking consoles as he went. Everything seemed normal. But the feeling was still there.
He stopped at the Engineering substation, and called up a review of all transporter activity. The same information he knew was playing on the ops console, under the watchful eye of the lieutenant stationed there. All eight personnel transporters were in use, and twelve of the twenty-two cargo units. Two of the transporters in Cargo Bay 3 were on diagnostic cycles. Perfectly normal. But the gnawing got worse. Next, he checked the power distribution chart. Each of the transporters was drawing the right amount of energy. Russ was about to chalk it up to simple anxiety, when something caught his eye.
The transporters in Cargo Bay 3 were drawing the same amount of power as the others. If they were really undergoing a diagnostic, the energy flowing through the circuits would be minimal.
He slapped his combadge. "Twining to Svek."
"Svek here," came the reply.
"Are you doing anything unusual with the transporters in Cargo Bay 3?"
"Negative. Those units are offline."
"No, they're not. Check your instruments."
A pause. Then, "I am at a loss to explain this, Commander. Those units are --"
Twining never heard the rest of Svek's reply, as a cacophony of alarms began to clamor for attention, and the bridge was bathed in the blood-hued glow of red alert.
"Report!" he shouted over the din.
The lieutenant at ops looked stunned. "Cascade failure in the energizing coils, sir!"
"Which ones?" asked Coleman, now at Twining's side.
"All of them."
The lieutenant gulped. "Yes, sir. I don't know what happened. One minute everything's fine, the next --”
Twining cut him off. "Was anyone beaming when the coils went down?"
"Y-yes, sir. Four people were beaming in at Transporter Room 6. And there was some cargo coming in at Bay 2."
Twining and Coleman were in the turbolift before the lieutenant had finished his report.
* * * * *
The alarms had died by the time they had reached the transporter room. Russ just hoped that the poor souls who'd been caught in the matter stream hadn't done the same. As the doors parted, Svek and Sinclair came running in from another turbolift, joined by a brunette woman in a medical uniform.
The crewman behind the transport console was frantically trying to get the system back online. When he spoke, his words came out in a rush of fear and anxiety. "I'm sorry, sirs, they were beaming over, and then the alarms, it was too late, I couldn't shut it off..."
Russ laid a hand on his shoulder and gently pulled him away from the console. "It's not your fault."
Svek rushed to take the crewman's place. When he saw the display, for a split second, shock filtered across his face, before being buried beneath the Vulcan control. "This is most illogical," he said, looking at the status reports.
Before he could do anything, the red alert lights vanished, and the hum of materialization began.
They all looked on as one by one, the four people who'd been caught in the matter stream appeared on the transporter pads. It would have been better for all if they'd just been vaporized. Not a scrap of flesh could be seen on any of the bodies. All that had materialized were their skeletons.
The young crewman turned green, doubled over, and retched.
The other five fought down bouts of nausea as well. The woman doctor helped the crewman out of the room as the other four men broke into action.
Mark hit his combadge. "Bridge, this is Admiral Coleman. Suspend all use of transporters, and get me in touch with the Ares." He walked into the alcove to use the viewscreen.
Russ grabbed a tricorder and moved to scan the remains. Sinclair and Svek began working frantically on the console, trying to determine what had happened.
A few moments later, the doctor walked back into the room, and aimed her own tricorder at the bodies. "An interesting start to my first day on the job."
Russ grunted. "Believe me, I wish we could have put out a better welcome wagon, Doctor...?"
"Canapp," the woman said. "Christina Canapp."
"Russ Twining," replied the Commander. "How's your other patient?"
Canapp shrugged. "He's still a little green around the gills, but other than that, he's fine." She brushed a stray wisp of hair out of her face, and looked her readings. "Now these poor devils, that's another story. Their skin, musculature, and internal organs were ripped away at the cellular level." She closed her tricorder, and looked Russ in the eyes. "They died instantly."
A moment of silence followed, and then Russ turned to Svek. "What caused this?"
"I will be unable to supply a full answer until my analysis of the damage is complete."
"Then get to it, Lieutenant."
While Svek and Twining were going over the transporter, Sinclair moved into the alcove and looked at Coleman. "What did the Ares say?"
"They got what we didn't."
Tim closed his eyes and gave up a silent prayer that no more would die. If this was the extent that the Federation's enemies were willing to go... Rage welled within him, and soon, he'd give the saboteur a good dose of it.
* * * * *
With the transporters offline, all traffic between the Ares and the Pendragon was conducted by shuttle. Each shuttlebay now carried an extra complement of security officers -- consisting of those just transferred from the Ares -- just in case the saboteur decided to jump ship.
Twining and Sinclair stood in Shuttlebay One, watching as the first shuttle from the Ares made its approach. It had been three hours since the...incident, and Svek was still pouring over the transporter systems. Until his report was complete there was very little anyone could do.
The shuttle glided through the atmospheric forcefield, and touched down on the pad. The hatch opened, and an assortment of new crewmembers filed out. Some of them gave the security guards wary looks, but most just shuffled through the large doors and out into the corridor. Russ caught the eye of one of the last ones out of the shuttle.
The tall, dark-haired Lieutenant walked over to where Sinclair and the Commander were standing. He snapped off a crisp salute and stood at attention. "Lieutenant Benjamin Riniker requesting permission to come aboard, Sir."
"Granted," said Twining with a smile. "It's good to see you, Ben."
"You too, Russ." The Lieutenant shook Twining's hand, and then looked at Sinclair. "It's been a long time, Tim."
"Twelve years, Ben."
Sinclair could scarcely believe that it had been that long. Twelve years ago, he had been Chief of Security on the Challenger, and Riniker had been his Assistant Chief. While not being close friends, they'd had a good working relationship, and Tim was sure that Riniker had earned the position of Chief Security Officer a thousand times over since then. Twining shared that opinion. Riniker had been Chief on the Damascus during the war, when Russ was Operations Officer. But Ben's being here was just one more coincidence that gnawed at Tim. Had Coleman handpicked the entire crew himself?
"So," Riniker said, "I've heard about the trouble. You want any help nailing this guy?"
"Ben," said Russ, "I thought you'd never ask..."
* * * * *
Even with two more officers, the conference room still seemed a little empty as Twining sat at the head of the table, Coleman to his right, then Svek, Canapp, and Riniker. Sinclair stood in a far corner, gazing at the stars while he listened to the others.
"I have examined the transporters in Cargo Bay 3," Svek was saying. "The saboteur overrode the emergency protocols and used the cargo transporters to generate a second annular confinement beam within the pattern buffers in Transporter Room 6. This resulted in an imbalance in the primary energizing coils, which overloaded the molecular imaging scanners. Ordinarily, that would have automatically aborted transport, but with the emergency protocols offline, it continued. You've seen the result."
"Who could have pulled this off?" asked Coleman.
"The level of expertise required is far greater than that of the last attempt. Excluding those in this room, only a handful of individuals onboard have the necessary abilities."
"Any of the transporter operators, several engineers."
"So we're looking for someone who knows their way around a transporter, and has enough skill with computers to fool the internal sensors."
"There is more," said Svek. "In addition to the...situation in Transporter Room 6, several pieces of engineering equipment were damaged in transport to Cargo Bay 2. They are leaking high levels of theta radiation, and I've ordered that section, as well as Cargo Bay 3, sealed."
"Is there any danger of the radiation spreading?" asked Doctor Canapp.
"Negative. It is confined to those two compartments."
"So, what's next?" asked Twining. "Wait for him to strike again?"
"I'll have guards posted in vital areas," said Riniker.
Sinclair hadn't spoken since the meeting began, and now his voice commanded the others' attention. All heads turned to look at him. He walked away from the viewport and moved to the table, facing Coleman and Twining. And when he spoke, it was with a decisiveness that he hadn't felt in years.
"This saboteur, whoever he is, must be getting desperate by now. He's tried to...discourage us twice, and failed. We're nearing the end of the shakedown, and I'll bet he's running out of time."
"What's your point?" asked Coleman.
"I say we give him a target." The others looked at each other. "Now, hold on. I'm not suggesting we let him plant a bomb on the warp core. Besides, that's not his goal."
Canapp shook her head, puzzled. "It's not?"
"No. He doesn't want to destroy the Pendragon. The transporter accident didn't threaten the ship itself." He turned to Svek. "What would have happened if you hadn't been here to shut down the injectors?"
"The warp core would have breached."
"But the ejection system was online, wasn't it?"
"It was. If the injectors had triggered a breach, the computer would have initiated the ejection sequence. The core would have detonated in space."
Twining nodded, now following Sinclair's line of thought. "It would have left us dead in the water, but intact. So, what does he want?"
"To keep us from completing the mission. To cause enough problems that Cannon will order us back to spacedock. But so far, he's failed. He's desperate. If we give him a target, we can trap him."
"He may not want to destroy the ship, but he's shown us he's not afraid to kill. Now, listen, here's the plan..."
It had now been over five hours since the tragedy in Transporter Room 6, and the crew transfer had been completed without further incident. On the viewscreen, Twining and Sinclair watched as the Ares slipped into warp, speeding away to its next assignment.
"We'll be getting underway ourselves soon," Russ said. "I just --"
His words were cut off by the voice from his communicator. "Svek to Twining."
"I am in Cargo Bay 3. I believe there's something in the transporter logs you should see."
Twining and Sinclair exchanged a glance. "We're on our way," said Russ.
* * * * *
They were met at the Cargo Bay entrance by Svek and Admiral Coleman. The Engineer handed radsuits to each of them, identical to the one he wore. "The radiation levels are still quite high," he explained.
The three men grudgingly tugged the radsuits on, pulling the helmets in place. Though not as bulky as their counterparts of the last century, the anti-exposure suits still restricted movement to a degree. But the men were grateful for the protection as they entered the Bay, and the suits' contamination indicators maxed out. Svek led them to the transporter area, and punched up information on one of the consoles.
"This unit," he said, "was the one used to trigger the malfunction. The other transporter was protected from the --"
He was cut off by a phaser bolt as it impacted on the console, raining sparks and scorched plasteel fragments all around them.
As they dove for cover, Sinclair caught a glimpse of a radsuit-and-helmet-clad figure ducking behind a stack of cargo containers. "Well, we got him to show himself. Let's just hope he doesn't disappear again."
A groan from behind caused him to turn. Coleman's suit was ruptured, a jagged piece of shrapnel logged in the leg.
"We must get him to Sickbay soon," said Svek. "Anything more than five minutes of exposure will kill him."
"Can we beam him to Sickbay?"
The Vulcan shook his head. "Transporters will not function in this level of radiation."
Just peachy, thought Sinclair.
The saboteur shot off another volley, and Sinclair barely avoided it. The stench of ozone burned its way into his nostrils, even through the protection of the radsuit. Then a thought struck him. "Svek, can phasers operate in here?"
"No," the Vulcan said. "Theta radiation would render any conventional particle weapon useless."
More beams impacted around them. "Guess he's using an unconventional one," Tim said.
The barrage ended, and Sinclair stuck his head out. The saboteur had moved. Tim turned and looked at Coleman. The Admiral's face was beet-red, and beginning to blister. He turned to Svek. "The Commander and I will draw fire. You get him out of here. On three. One...two...three!"
Sinclair jumped up and skirted around the edge of the cargo containers, diving for the next stack of crates as another energy beam shot out. Twining broke right and ducked behind an antigrav unit. They continued the dash-and-cover until Svek made it out with the Admiral.
At the same time, Riniker and a squad of security guards burst into the bay. Each was wearing a radsuit, and carrying a phaser rifle, regardless of the fact that the weapons wouldn't work in here.
Staring down the barrels of a dozen phaser rifles, operational or not, was enough to make the saboteur nervous. He fired a few shots blindly, and ducked behind a stand of storage containers. A moment later, Sinclair heard the sound of an access hatch opening.
He bolted after the saboteur, shouting to Russ, "He's in the jeffries tubes! Track him!"
Sinclair found the open wall panel, and saw the retreating form of the saboteur disappear around a corner. Bloody, he thought. He looked at the phaser at his side, knew that it would be useless to defend him. And as if the jeffries tube wasn't cramped enough, his radsuit would further restrict his movement. But at the same time, it'd make it difficult for the saboteur to turn and fire.
Swallowing his trepidation, he crawled through the portal, and followed his quarry into the darkness.
* * * * *
Sinclair slowly made his way forward, following the sound of the saboteur's progress. He cautiously approached a junction, and stopped for a moment, listening. Nothing.
He turned to the left, and saw something white in the tube -- a discarded radsuit. Tim checked his own rad-meter. It was still redline, registering high levels of contamination. Very shortly, the saboteur would feel the onset of radiation poisoning.
Suddenly, Twining's voice blared in his headset. "Tim, we've got him on thermal sensors. He's most likely headed for Shuttlebay 2."
Shuttlebay 2? Tim thought. The Main Shuttlebay was only a deck above. Shuttlebay 2 was a good six decks down. "No," Sinclair said, staring at the rad-meter. "He doesn't want to get away."
"Then what? You said he didn't want to destroy the ship."
"Things are different now. He can't get away. And he has to make sure we fail. He knows we've got security in Engineering and the shuttlebays. He won't go there. Are there any potential targets on the way to Shuttlebay 2?"
"Not much. Stellar cartography, crew quarters, the holodecks..." Twining paused for a moment, and Sinclair could feel the hairs prick up on the back of his neck. "The impulse generators," breathed the Commander. "I'll have security there in two minutes."
"What's the quickest way there?"
With Twining's guidance, Sinclair moved through the jeffries tubes as quickly as he could, and prayed he wouldn't be too late.
* * * * *
Riniker and his team ran through the corridors, now awash in the pulsating glow of red alert. Adrenaline pumped through their veins. They hadn't even been onboard for six hours yet, and already a life-threatening crisis had erupted. Well, that's one way to get your feet wet, the Chief mused, but at the same time, it annoyed him. He had been looking forward to a nice, relaxing shakedown. Oh, well.
They reached the doors leading to the Impulse Engineering section. Riniker drew his phaser. The other guards trained their rifles on the doors, as he pressed the access control. The doors parted with a hiss, and the security officers quickly moved inside.
The room was illuminated only by the flashing red alert lights, the systems displays, and the blue-white glow of the fusion reactor. Standing by one of the control terminals was the saboteur, sans radsuit and helmet. His back was turned to the door, and he was so focused on the console that he didn't seem to notice the guards’ intrusion.
"Step away from the console!" shouted Riniker. If the saboteur even heard him, he gave no indication. The Security Chief wasn't one to repeat an order. He set his phaser for maximum stun, and fired.
Before the beam reached its target, it was stopped by the crackling blockade of a forcefield.
"Computer," barked the Lieutenant, "lower the forcefield. Authorization Riniker-Two-Nine-Gamma-Kilo."
"Unable to comply," responded the computer.
Riniker grimaced. That's not what I wanted to hear.
Suddenly, the reactor started to hum louder, climbing toward fever pitch. "Warning," said the computer. "Reactor overload in progress."
* * * * *
Alarms blared through Main Engineering, and Svek found himself fighting a losing battle. The starboard impulse fusion reactor was building to overload. He tried shutting the reactor down, but the saboteur had cut off computer access, and there wasn't enough time to circumvent the compromised protocols. Svek tried cutting off the deuterium flow, but again, the saboteur was in command of those systems. He thought of triggering an overload in the primary EPS manifold, but while that would knock out the saboteur's control of the computer, it would destroy the entire bio-neural relay system.
Svek tried everything. And when all that failed, he kept trying. For even though he knew the situation was out of his hands, accepting defeat would be illogical.
* * * * *
Sinclair finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it was the blinding glow of an overloading fusion reactor. Concealed in the jeffries tube, he saw the forcefield snap into place, blocking Riniker's line of fire. He checked his own phaser. The gage spiked and flickered intermittently -- the radiation had fried the circuitry.
Breathless moments passed while Sinclair weighed his options. None seemed to promise much chance of success, but he had to do something.
Suddenly, the saboteur turned in Sinclair's direction, and Tim got his first good look at the man who was trying to kill them all. A human, or at least very close to it. Features that had probably been handsome were now ravaged and distorted by the effects of radiation poisoning. Boils had formed on his face and forehead, and his brown hair was falling out in odd clumps. His eyes were glassy and distant, his scarred hands shook as he worked at the console.
Tim shuddered inwardly. This man was so desperate to complete his mission, he didn't care if he died in the process. And he looked like he was doing just that.
The saboteur suddenly doubled over in a fit of coughing. Blackened blood spewed from his mouth, and his weapon slipped from his grasp.
Sinclair saw his chance and took it. He bolted from the tube in a flash, and knocked the weapon out of the saboteur's reach. He plowed into the other man, sending him reeling back. The saboteur just collapsed on the deck.
The whine of the reactor was deafening now. Tim turned and reached for the controls. But suddenly his legs came out from under him as the saboteur slammed into his ankles. They grappled with each other, the saboteur clawing at Tim's face. The wound stung, a field of scarlet blurred his vision. His head pounded, and the rush of blood filled his ears. Getting one hand free, Tim struck out, and felt the satisfying crunch of bone beneath his fist.
In his weakened state, the blow was enough to stun the saboteur. He fell motionless, this time for good.
Sinclair got to his feet, and stumbled over to the control console. In a daze, he entered in the proper commands. Still he heard the booming of the reactor, and the computer counting down to destruction. Why wasn't it working? He could feel the ship shuddering around him. Why wasn't it working?
It was only when he felt a hand on his shoulder that reality intruded upon his notice. Through blurry eyes, he saw Riniker's face, and realized that the sound he heard was only the throbbing of his own head, and the shuddering was his legs as they wobbled from the strain. It had worked. The reactor was powering down, and the alert lights switched from crimson to amber.
"Let's get you to Sickbay," the Security Chief said.
"No," Tim rasped. He wriggled out of Riniker's grasp and limped over to where the saboteur lay. He could see the shallow, uneven rise and fall of the man's chest. He was still alive, but wouldn't be for long.
Sinclair knelt down and stared into his enemy's pale eyes. "Why?"
The saboteur's voice was barely a whisper. "For the future..." Then, a small smile crept across his tortured face. He managed to raise his hand just enough to motion Sinclair closer.
Tim leaned forward, his ear over the man's mouth. He wasn't sure what he expected to hear, but what the saboteur said next certainly wasn't it:
"He would have been proud of you."
The man chuckled softly, but it came out as a gurgle. "The Eagle...we have him." And just like that, it was over.
But for Sinclair...it was just beginning.
* * * * *
Sinclair's time in Sickbay was brief. Doctor Canapp had treated him for second-degree radiation poisoning, and run a dermal regenerator over the wounds on his face. In a half-hour, he was feeling like a new man. Or rather, like his old self again. He excused himself from the Doctor's ministrations, and walked over to Admiral Coleman's biobed.
Mark saw him approach, and smiled. "It looks like we're out of the woods, huh?"
"Yeah. Riniker's still checking on the saboteur's ID, but we should know soon."
The Admiral nodded. "I suppose after all this you're ready to go back to Colorado, right?"
"Well, actually, I'd been meaning to talk to you about that..."
* * * * *
Twining stared at the viewscreen. For once, the unmoving starfield annoyed him. It had been over an hour since the crisis had passed and he longed to get underway. For the first thirty minutes after the saboteur's demise, he'd been content to relax. But eventually, the adrenaline that had built up over the last twenty-four hours began to boil over. He needed a release, and nothing would satisfy him until the Pendragon was in motion again.
He glanced at the chronometer and sighed. He began to drum his fingers on the armrest.
"Svek to Twining."
It was so sudden, that Russ practically leapt from the command chair. He hit his combadge, a little more forcefully than would have been comfortable, and said, "Well?"
"I have finished my diagnostics. All engines are back online. Warp speed at your discretion."
Twining barely bit down the "Finally!" that almost escaped his lips. Instead, he settled for am emphatic, "Thank you, Lieutenant." He turned toward the CONN. "Helmsman, set a course for --"
The turbolift doors hissed open. "Captain on the bridge!"
Russ was about to reprimand the ensign who'd called out when the words impacted on his consciousness. The Commander turned toward the turbolift.
There he stood. Four new gold pips glistened on the burgundy collar of his black-and-gray uniform. He looked as if he'd been born to it. Command personified. The Captain.
"Commander Twining," he said, "I relieve you."
Russ smiled. "I stand relieved." With pleasure!
"Duty officer, make a note in the ship's log. By order of Starfleet Command, I, Captain Timothy J. Sinclair, take command of the U.S.S. Pendragon, as of now, eighteen-hundred hours."
And that was that. No fanfare, no banners, no applause. Just protocol and a note in the ship's log.
Sinclair stepped down into the command arena, and Twining moved to the side to give him room. He ran his hand across the back of the Captain's chair. His chair. For years he'd avoided this, but now it felt right. He sat. Yes, it felt right.
"Helm," he said, "set course for Bajor. Warp Nine." The helmsman confirmed his order, and Sinclair smiled. "Engage."
The Pendragon shot into warp, on course for its destiny. And Sinclair was sure, somewhere down the road, his destiny waited for him. He had found his True North, and he would follow it...where no one has gone before.
The Great Adventure Is Just Beginning...