Imperium in Imperio
The USS Valentine was on route to Drozana Station, having departed Yorktown Station after the funeral proceedings were finished.
Commander Low stepped off a turbolift, walked down the corridor and entered the conference room near the bridge. She made her way across the unlit room to the end of the conference table and commanded:
The lights came on and revealed Captain White, who had been sitting there all along, almost completely immersed in the data padd he was reading. In front of him on the table a number of additional padds were lying scattered about along with a steaming cup of tea.
Low, slightly startled, shrieked as soon as she spotted him.
“I am sorry, Sir. I didn’t know you were here already. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“No worries, Heather.”
Captain White looked up from his padd, then threw it on the pile with the others. He ran both hands over his face and eyes, exhausted.
“Looks like you have been here all night. What are you doing?”, she asked him.
“I am just trying to grasp all this intelligence and evidence they presented about this Phoenix kid.”
Low nodded, she smelled his tea.
“Earl Grey blend, isn’t it?”, she asked. White nodded.
“You do know who also loved to drink Earl Grey tea, Captain?”
“Yes, Ambassador Picard, during his days as starship captain. As a matter of fact, I picked it up from him, you know”, White revealed.
He was smiling now, suddenly reminiscing about a past event.
“But you have never served under him, as far as I know, Sir”, Low inquired, baiting him to tell his anecdote.
“No, but I met him once, well, sort-of, back at the Academy. It was shortly after he had resigned his post as captain of the Enterprise and I had just finished my exams for the flag officer course and they brought him in to give a speech at the graduation ceremony. I remember my entire class being awestruck, I mean we all were Lieutenants and had been on assignments, served on starships and all that, but this was Picard! We just felt like first-year cadets again. I will never forget his last sentence: ‘A good cup of Earl Grey won’t hurt a good captain’, the next day in the mess hall everyone had a cup of this stuff for breakfast.”
Captain White laughed, wiping a tear from his left eye.
Commander Low smiled and sat down next to him. White’s laugh faded and his face darkened.
“Back then, everything was so much easier, it seems, all the things that have changed, our relations with the Klingons, the Romulans, all those damn hostile incursions we just had, all those lives that have been lost and now? Now we are in pursuit of some intelligence operative gone rogue, blowing up his admiral in her own shuttle.”
He got up from his chair and walked to the bridge, leaving Commander Low alone in the conference room.
The ship approached Drozana Station, a former starbase at the edge of Federation space, close to Klingon territory. Long abandoned by Starfleet it was now run by a gang of Ferengi, their continued business efforts making the place appear only slightly derelict: a diffuse crossbreed of casino, night club and arms dealership, filled with every pirate, smuggler and cutthroat between Vulcan and Qo’noS.
The hideous face of a Ferengi appeared on the bridge’s main screen, Drozana’s automatic greeting message:
“Welcome to Drozana Station, we hope you’ll enjoy your visit, this week there is a fifty-percent discount on all Dabo games for our registered customers, register now and secure your exclusive VIP-access at our trade fair next week and don’t miss our new holo...”
“Cut transmission”, Captain White barked.
“Away team, report to transporter room 3.”
He walked towards the nearest turbolift, Low closely behind him. Another officer took a seat at the captain’s chair. White addressed him:
“Lieutenant, keep your eyes on those sensors, I don’t want any uninvited guests or any other surprises.”
“Aye sir”, the officer replied.
In the transporter room, White and Low were joined by Jefferson, Mettus and Jones, as well as three of Jefferson’s men, all in civilian attire.
“Alright everyone, remember, nobody is going to tell us anything thinking we are Starfleet officers, stick to your cover story and your designated search areas, phasers on stun”, Jefferson instructed the others and then motioned the transporter chief to commence transport.
The away team materialized on the transporter padd of Drozana Station and was greeted by a group of Orion women in salacious clothing.
“Welcome to Drozana…”
“Can I get you a free drink?”
“Do you wanna come with me and have some private time?”, the Orions eagerly swarmed the group which quickly dispersed, walking off in groups of two.
The away team members spend hours searching the station for any clues, talking to vendors, bartenders, dancers, secretly scanning the environments, mapping their findings, but getting nowhere.
The Captain and Commander Low quickly met in the middle of the dancefloor.
“Anything?”, Captain White yelled over the music in her ear. She simply shook her head. He continued to walk towards a bar area, the room was crowded and loud. Suddenly an Orion waitress passing him made a clumsy movement, spilling a drink over his jacket.
“Oh dear, I am so sorry, love.”
She hectically started to wipe the liquid from the shiny leather patch on his shoulder.
“Please Sir, don’t tell my boss about this, he will punish me.”
She fixed his gaze with her dark eyes, bewitching him heavily.
“Here”, she pulled a latinum strip from her cleavage and placed it in his hand.
“It’s on the house, play some Dabo and maybe it’s your lucky day. Bye.”
With this she turned on her heels and was gone, leaving Captain White dumbfounded and still dripping.
He examined the tiny piece of latinum and turned his face towards the Dabo table with a look of ‘The heck with it!’.
The Dabo table, always a major attraction at these sorts of places was crowded with players and spectators, a number of Dabo girls were cheering, inciting the players next to them to place higher bets, meanwhile flirting, touching their arms, fondling their heads, an ageless scam. White had to elbow his way to the edge of the table and tried to get the attention of the Dabo girl serving as croupier.
“Excuse me, Miss, hello? Yes, I am looking for someone.”
“Tell you what, Mister, you play a round at my table and I answer one of your questions”, the woman replied.
He handed her the latinum strip and placed a bet, other players did the same. Out of his sight, the croupier girl pushed a button under the table. The Dabo wheel aligned and all the gizmos started to flash. The croupier girl yelled ‘DABO!’, the Dabo girls cheered and while jumping up and down they surrounded the Captain, declaring him the winner. The other players were much less excited. The Dabo girls besieged White.
“Buy me a drink, sailor?”, one girl asked him.
“No, buy me a drink first, I brought you luck!”, another girl demanded.
Captain White started to collect his winnings, slipping latinum pieces to the girls to silence them and holding another one to the croupier girl.
“Alright, cowboy, what do you wanna know?”
“I am looking for a man, human male, early 30s, lean. Have you seen someone like that in the past three days here?”, the Captain wanted to know.
“Hmm, there are a lot of men coming through this place, I might have seen him, but I might not”, the croupier girl said.
Annoyed White slipped her another piece of latinum.
“You know what, I am not the best person to talk to about that, you should try your luck with the Orion waitress.”
“Thanks”, he answered and walked off towards the bar once more.
The Orion waitress he had encountered earlier grabbed his arm from behind, handing him a drink from her tray.
“See, I told you it was your lucky day”, she said with a wink.
“Listen, Miss. I am looking for a man, human male, early 30s, lean?”
“Oh?! And I could have sworn I was exactly your type.”
She caressed his chin with her index finger. White politely moved her hand away from his face.
“Please, it’s important, I have business dealings with him”, he continued.
“Oh, business, huh? You sound just like a Ferengi, but you don’t have their ears”, she told him coaxingly.
She caressed his left ear with her index finger. White politely moved her hand away again.
“I think I have seen someone resembling him a few days ago, he boarded a cargo ship heading for Klingon space.”
“So much I already know”, he responded with frustration.
“Oh love, you are way to much concerned with your work - here - try this”,
she pulled an isolinear chip from under her skirt and handed it to White with a wide smile.
“Our newest holosuite program, very relaxing, just what you need right now, try it out, I promise you, afterwards you will feel like a newborn, risen like a phoenix.”
The Captain looked at her wide-eyed, she nodded conspiratively, he then gave her a look indicating that he understood.
Unseen from the other members of the away team who were still conducting their search, Captain White made his way to Drozana’s holosuites. Before stepping into the room he looked over his shoulder, checking that nobody saw him.
He placed the isolinear chip in a suitable socket at the user terminal, the computer rumbled for a few seconds before stating:
“Program complete, commence when ready.”
“Start the program”, White said.
The hologrid partially dissolved and created a figure resembling the man White had met at the Admiral’s funeral. The hologram started to talk to him:
“Greetings, Captain. My name is Jesse Phoenix, I am glad that you made it here. Right now you may wonder why I do not very much look like the mugshot that you have been presented during your investigation, well, let’s just say in my profession it is useful to be flexible in one’s own appearance. What I am about to tell you is extremely sensitive information, the people concerned would not hesitate to kill to keep it a secret, so I urge you not to directly reveal anything about it to anyone. Admiral Pita’s death was not an accident, as you well know, it was an assassination to silence her. My involvement is an attempt to silence me. The Admiral and I have rattled the wrong cages and trusted the wrong people, she paid with her life and I have become a fugitive. Normally I would already be dead just like her, but Starfleet Intelligence had spent a lot of effort to train me in surviving exactly those scenarios. So far, my skills have enabled me to elude my pursuers and I am not talking about your ship, Captain. The people that are after me, is Section 31. You may have heard about them, although they officially do not exist, but they are very real, the events of the past days are their handiwork. They have been around since the dawn of the Federation, operating with no oversight or accountability whatsoever. This organization has its core within Starfleet Intelligence, but they have successfully infiltrated most of the Federation’s institutions, they have people in the fleets, the Council, cadets at the Academy, even among foreign powers throughout the Quadrant, nobody really knows how many. Their goal is to protect the Federation and its interests at all costs. They are, by any definition, our equivalent to the Tal’Shiar or the Obsidian Order, except that their efforts have never been concerned that much with their own people, unlike their counterparts. But recently this has changed, ever since William Jefferson became their head. His operations turned out to be much less subtle, driven more by paranoia than actual threats. When Admiral Pita tried to expose him, she signed her own death warrant. My own is still due. I will keep trying to find out more about their structure and who their members are, but it will not be an easy thing to do while also staying one step ahead of their hitmen. This is where you come into play. I have chosen you, because I think you are an outstanding officer with genuine beliefs, no lip service, your loyalty lies deep with the Federation’s most basic principles. I also know that you are a man who does not like coincidences, if I am right, this whole investigation did not feel right to you even before we met at the funeral. You are sitting at the core of the official investigation against me, commanding the ship in pursuit, it will be less suspicious, if you ask critical and unpleasant questions. Go through the investigation files, cross-check the evidence, there will be loopholes. What I ask of you, Captain, is not easy and very dangerous, so by all means feel free to ignore my request and assist Admiral Jefferson in bringing me in, but then things will go south, I am sure. Keep an open mind, stay safe and most importantly: Don’t trust anyone.”
The away team gathered again at the transporter padd.
“What did you find?”, Jefferson asked around with a low voice.
“He was definitely here and left with a Klingon vessel”,
Gracie Jones summed up her findings. White nodded.
“A witness said basically the same to me”, he added, while hiding the small isolinear chip in his hand.
“Let’s get back to the ship”, Jefferson suggested.
The USS Valentine was traveling at high warp through Klingon space.
Captain White was sitting at the desk in his ready room with a hint of nervousness. The door chimed.
“Yes, come in.”
Commander Low entered the ready room and threw the isolinear chip on White’s desk, slightly upset.
“What do you think?”, he asked her.
“It’s downright nonsense, I mean, you know, like apple sauce.”
She was making wild gestures while continuing her tirade.
“This bastard blows up a Starfleet admiral, and not just any admiral, but his commanding officer who has been his benefactor for years and now he has the audacity of blaming it all on some shady organization that supposedly operates within the Federation. And you, you are thinking of believing him, don’t you, Captain?”
Captain White looked away.
“I am not sure, Heather. I don’t know what to believe.”
“Why would he target you with this deception attempt in the first place? How did he know that you would get the chip at Drozana?”, Commander Low asked him.
“He must have made arrangements, so that it would end up with me. He contacted me already at the funeral, was suddenly standing next to me at the bar. He seemed to know exactly who I was and why I was there.”
“So what? You read the files yourself, Captain. He is a former intelligence operative and one of the best they had. These guys are experts in planning ahead or even on the run, he has every skill necessary to plot this whole thing, including our participation, he could have deduced the Valentine would be chosen for the pursuit and information from your Starfleet dossier would enable him to assume a character profile, one that told him Captain Jeff White is the kind of guy that might listen to him. And here you are, spreading doubts”, Commander Low said.
White countered her:
“This is not the first time that I have heard about this Section 31 group. What Phoenix said corresponds pretty much with the rumours that I have heard over the years.”
“Yeah, rumours! And a lunatic terrorist who exploits them to manipulate you!”, she was almost yelling,
but then calmed herself with a deep breath and sat down at the desk. She now spoke with a tranquil and cordial voice.
“The evidence against Phoenix is overwhelming, his motive is very plausible. Probably he has been in the business for too long, has carried out too many assignments, sometimes people can’t take that pressure and sometimes they snap. He must have thought killing Admiral Pita would relieve his own pain, as if her murder would make him come to terms with the things he had done and avenge an unwelcome transfer, one that was nothing short of a demotion. And there is a young girl who lost her mother because of this. He got to you, Jeffrey, alright, so be it, until now there is no harm done and we have contained his deception. And I promise I won’t name you as a security risk to Director Jefferson.”
She gave him a weak smile.
“It is unwise to leave the scene now, your supervision is still required”, a voice said to Jefferson, who was once more sitting in his office.
“I don’t have a choice. Starfleet Command has summoned me to an urgent meeting at headquarters. The Crazy Horse will pick me up in a few hours”, he replied.
“Still, we have been unsuccessful in our attempts to neutralize Mr Phoenix and we both know what his strategy will be in the current situation. What if he already has made contact with someone?”
“There are solutions to this”, Jefferson answered.
“I think we should send the Fixer after Mr Phoenix.”
Jefferson looked up and after a beat he nodded.
“...which would place him right here”,
Gracie Jones drew a yellow circle with a marker around a tiny spot on a massive computerized star chart. She was presenting the newest intelligence on the hunt for Jesse Phoenix. In the conference room with her was all the senior personnel we have seen before investigating the Admiral’s murder: her deputy Mettus, Captain Jeff White and his First Officer Commander Heather Low from the Valentine, as well as another high ranking security officer, bald, but tough looking. Director Jefferson was joining them via subspace livestream on a large monitor behind the table. Jones continued her briefing.
“It is called Hitora, a Class L moon orbiting a gas giant, approximately twenty lightyears from Qo’noS. There is a Klingon colony in the northern hemisphere with a few million settlers. At the moment we strongly suspect that Phoenix has fled to a compound on the outskirts of one of the settlements.”
“Intel used it as a safehouse and observation spot during the last war against the Klingons. We know that he had frequented the place during his time as an active operative and it has been abandoned for years, it would be an ideal hiding spot”, Jefferson remarked.
“But not ideal enough, we were able to trace the Klingon transport that he traveled on from Drozana and know that they dropped off a passenger there a few days ago. Long-range scanning from one of our regional assets shows the place to be occupied by a human male”, Jones explained further.
“Then it is time to strike, before he relocates again”, Director Jefferson stated. Everyone except Captain White nodded to show their approval. White raised his voice, he was afraid to pose his question:
“What exactly do you mean by ‘strike’, Sir?”
“We will be sending an assault team from OMEGA SQUADRON and apprehend him on the spot, Captain. I suspect you are concerned that lethal force might be used, but the men have very strict rules of engagement. We want Phoenix alive, so we can bring him to justice”, Jefferson assured with confidence.
“But surely we can’t raid a place that is within the jurisdiction of a foreign power, can we?”, Commander Low wanted to know.
“I asked Command to relay our findings to the High Council, along with a request to allow us to intervene. Phoenix is a dangerous criminal and terrorist, it’s likely that the Klingons will leap over their own shadow and allow us to proceed instead of sending their own warriors. Commander Pierce, do you want to add anything?”,
Jefferson now addressed the security officer, the OMEGA commander, who, until now has been observing the proceedings silently.
“My team will rendezvous with the Valentine in three days at Hitora, a smaller reconnaissance detachment will be in place even sooner. As soon as we are greenlit, we are ready to move.”
Flaky clouds, churned up by dusty winds, obscured an early morning sky, which was heavily saturated in sepia, a few golden streaks of sunlight were shimmering through gaps in the cloud cover near the horizon, the soil below was nothing but rusty gravel, meager and alkaline, every now and then overgrown by scrubs and dead-looking leafless trees. On a gentle slope sat a two-story house in the middle of a small walled compound, like all Klingon-style buildings it was a mix between a pagoda and a blockhouse bunker. In some distance other small houses were scattered throughout the hills. It was shortly after sunrise.
The entire scenery was fed through long-range, high-resolution video sensors from surveillance posts hidden in the vicinity to an improvised command center on board the USS Valentine, which was in geosynchronous orbit, her own sensors delivering a bird’s eye view of the compound and its surroundings, similar to a live satellite image. The investigation team was glued to the large wall monitors displaying the different video feeds, people were tense, nobody said a word, except the OMEGA commander who was calmly supervising the operation, explaining the proceedings and issuing orders to his teams.
“Kestrel-One, Kestrel-Two, engage the woofers on my mark - three...two...one...mark. Echo Team, Whiskey Team, start your approach, ETA four mike.”
“What are they doing now, Commander?”, Captain White inquired.
“The observation posts flood the area with heavy-duty sensor scramblers, so he won’t detect our assault teams with a tricorder. They also disrupt any signals that he might use to set off explosives or any sort of self-contained booby trap.”
“Do you really think that he has mined the whole area?”
“Irrelevant. These measures are standard operating procedure, Sir. But to answer your question: given the fact that Phoenix is a seasoned intelligence operative with the experience and access to use any sort of technical gadget to his advantage, I would say that we can not be careful enough, the well-being of my men is paramount”, the OMEGA leader declared.
“If this is so dangerous, why can’t you beam him out of there?”, Low wanted to know.
“Our sensors show that he has employed transport inhibitors all over the place, but we can’t locate them precisely enough in order to neutralize them. You can purchase this stuff everywhere under-the-counter these days, but there is still no effective way to beat it.”
On the surface a dozen figures appeared from their cover behind bushes and slowly walked towards the compound, weapons trained. On the opposite side of the house, five-hundred meters away, the same thing happened. The men moved smoothly, sometimes one group stopped and kneeled down, covering another group, then they switched roles, slowly and unnoticed they were making their way towards their objective. They were clad in state-of-the-art combat suits, equipped with a cluster of ultra-light ablative panels, portable force fields, transparent helmets with high-tech targeting devices on their faces, gauntled-mounted phasers, highly modified pulse rifles of different types, belts full of explosive charges, grenades, breaching equipment: OMEGA SQUADRON, a branch of Starfleet Security, the Federation’s 25th Century counterterrorism unit.
Upon reaching the compound’s walls, they split up and hunkered down on both sides of their entry points, the frontal gate and a marked spot on the backside wall. Breachers prepared explosive charges, while the others secured in all directions. They made hand signs, signalled their readiness for the entry.
With the rising sun in their back two assault shuttles bolted towards the compound, flying in close formation, not more than ten meters from the ground, closing in at breakneck speed. The moment they thundered over the area, almost shearing off the roof tiles, the assault teams used the distraction to trigger their charges - BOOM!!! The front gate was blown off the hinges, a man-sized hole was blasted out of the back wall. The assault teams filed into the inner yard quickly and surrounded the house, more entries were prepared by the breachers, while other operatives had their rifles trained on the windows and the second floor balcony. The assault shuttles had made a hard turn and were back over the compound, one was hovering low over the flat roof, another team jumped down from its cargo hold, the second shuttle was flying higher in small circles, marksmen covered their comrades from the opened hatches. On a sign from the commander some men fired stun grenades through the windows, they exploded with a deafening bang, knocking all potential occupants inside the house off their feet. Simultaneously the team breached the ground-level doors and moved inside, the team on the roof climbed down on the balcony and assaulted the second floor. Loud shouting could be heard:
“Freeze!”, ”Get down on the floor!”, ”I wanna see your hands!”
In the Valentine’s command center, the investigation team was on tenterhooks.
“Echo Zero-One to Valentine, the compound is secure, Tango is in custody, no casualties, no injuries”, the ground commander cabled. The OMEGA commander replied:
“Understood. Disengage the objective, prepare Tango for interrogation and be ready to rally at Lima Zulu in ten mike, Valentine out.”
Gracie Jones got up from her seat and motioned Mettus to follow her.
“We have to take care of securing the evidence”, she addressed the others.
“I am coming with you”, White exclaimed and jumped to his feet to follow them.
Jones, Mettus, White and two security officers materialized just outside the compound. The assault shuttles had landed nearby.
Upon gazing on the house and its surroundings one security officer scoffed:
“Nice shack, but this place sure isn’t Risa.”
“To a Klingon, it is, Ensign”, Jones replied.
At the front gate they were greeted by the ground commander who advised them on the situation. OMEGA operatives slowly surged out of the yard towards the landing zone, taking off helmets, bumping fists, congratulating each other.
“Visual confirmation, Sir. He is inside, secured to a chair, still a little dazed from the stun though.”
“Did he resist you in any way?”, White wanted to know.
“No, Sir. He was unarmed and slightly disoriented, I guess he actually slept when the assault began”, the ground commander said.
“Did your men secure any evidence that you need to turn over to us?”, Gracie Jones asked.
“No, Ma’am. The place was picket clean, aside from the sparse furniture”, the commander answered.
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” White turned to the others.
“Let’s go inside and then bring him back on the ship.”
They had walked a few steps when White’s communicator came to life:
“Captain, get out of there, now!”, Commander Low shouted over the comm. White tapped his communicator.
“Say again, Valentine.”
“Get out, someone is shooting at you from space!”
They all looked up.
“Oh my god”, Jones gasped.
A bright whistling light followed by a long blazing tail shot through the clouds right for the compound.
The OMEGAs yelled at each other to take cover, some dove behind the shuttles, the Valentine’s away team sprinted outside and barely made it through the front gate, when a tremendous explosion levelled the house behind them, the blast pushed everyone to the ground, face-first.
The whole area was one big cloud of dust and smoke. After a few moments everyone was getting up again. Jones was holding her injured arm, groaning in pain, Mettus helped a security officer to his feet, White raised his head from the dirt, coughed, and turned around to face the smoldering pile of rubble that used to be the house. Jesse Phoenix, who was left inside, was very dead.