Imperium in Imperio
With a hastily patched up USS Rabin in tow, the USS Valentine reached the vicinity of an inhabited planet, its surface appearing white and blue from an entirely arctic climate. In low orbit an antique little spacedock slowly drifted into view.
In Commodore Shelk’s ready room he and Captain White were leaning over a large flat computer display, studying their target.
“If the coordinates are correct, whatever we are looking for is some fifty meters underground”, the Commodore explained.
“Looks like it’s in the outskirts of this settlement. We must get there somehow without arising too much suspicion”, White added.
“Yes, I know, Jeff, spies could be everywhere…”, the Andorian remarks with sanguineness.
“Look, I got it all figured out. I convinced Starfleet Command that it will be quicker to have my ship repaired here than waiting for a tug. Your ship will stay on station as well, so it can assist in the continuing repairs and provide protection when needed since we are outside of Federation territory. My crew will be granted extended shore leave for the time being, so there will be plenty of Starfleet personnel on the surface for any spy to worry about. I suggest to grant your crew the same and given the local climate I recommend for them to go skiing”, Shelk told his old friend.
“I can see that you have thought of everything, Ghee. What would I do without you?”
“Exactly!”, the Commodore grinned.
“By the way, be prepared to hand over one crate of Arcturian fizz which you, I trust, are still carrying around somewhere. Those engineers on the spacedock will only accept payment in beverages”, the Andorian closed.
On the planet’s surface, which was frozen over and windswept, a large settlement sat in the middle of an endless desert of snow, immense and grotesque formations of ice flanked insular mountains barely visible on the horizon. The settlement was a disorderly cluster of small wooden shacks, huts and houses, stretching any sense of privacy, urban planning and the laws of physics, they were built next to, on top of, or almost into one another, with innumerous chimneys busily puffing smoke from the old-fashioned home fires. Shelk and White wandered through the narrow alleys of the settlement, wearing heavy duty winter fatigues, doing their best to make it look like an innocuous stroll of two off-duty officers. Other crew members were nearby, as well as a surprising number of natives, crowding the tight spaces between buildings, braving the subzero temperatures. A number of small booths were manned by street vendors, loudly yelling and touting, trying to sell all sorts of clothing made from unfortunate individuals of the furred local fauna, while others offered their fleshy haunches roasted on long skewers.
“How far is it?”, Captain White asked.
“Should be down one block this way and then to the right”, Shelk replied after covertly looking at the tricorder in his coat pocket.
“Hey, are you sure you don’t want to try this guy’s grog? Local delicacy! I heard that, if served at the right temperature, it will keep you warm and happy the whole night”, the Commodore exclaimed while indicating a nearby vendor who gestured for his set of shot glasses with steaming murky liquids in them.
“Come on, this isn’t a field trip at the Academy”, White responded annoyed and began dragging Shelk away.
They rounded a corner into a more deserted alley and found themselves in a dead end.
Shelk glanced at his tricorder once again before saying:
“Looks like nobody’s home”, pointing at an abandoned and nailed up shop.
Captain White stared for a moment at the old-fashioned padlock sealing the door, then turned right and left, making sure nobody was watching them, before pulling out a small hand phaser and blasting the lock into pieces. He kicked the door in and went inside, followed by Shelk, who closed the door behind them.
“Just like the old days. This reminds me of the time when Phil, you and me broke into the superintendent’s quarters and rearranged the entertainment controls”, Shelk reminisced.
“That bugle didn’t let him sleep for three nights in a row”, White chuckled.
“He had it coming”, Shelk confirmed before taking out a flashlight. The Captain did the same and they started looking for clues in the room which was empty except for a few swivel chairs and cabinets.
“I think this used to be some sort of barbershop”, White stated. They made their way into the backroom.
“Uh-huh. But if you’re correct, why would they even put a physical installation anywhere? I mean, it eventually results in this - someone stumbling over it”, Shelk stated.
Captain White’s tricorder made a quick chime after he had panned it over one wall.
“There seems to be some sort of shaft behind this wall”, he indicated, upon which both started feeling around the wall for a hidden switch. After a short search Shelk announced:
“I found something!”, uncovering an old panel.
“I think this is a control unit for an elevator, but it also locks the door”, he added.
“Can you open it?”, the Captain asked while Shelk pulled out his own tricorder and tried accessing the panel.
“The technology is fairly old, with a little bit of tweaking it just might…”, he stated before the small piece of technology made a slight hiss, unlocking the door.
Both men pushed hard to open the old intractable doors, revealing a dark shaft, no elevator car to be seen, just a dark hole plunging into nothingness.
Commodore Shelk pulled out a flare, lit it and threw it down, its purple flame lighting up the latticed walls of the shaft as it descended.
“You go first, Jeff”, Shelk smiled.
It was an arduous climb down the darkened chute and both men were exhausted when they arrived at the bottom, now standing on top of the elevator car, which was still sitting in place, the flare’s flame ebbing away nearby. After probing with his boot a few times, Captain White found a roof hatch, pried it open and both climbed through into the cabin which gave access to the adjacent room.
Looking around with their flashlights, they caught sight of several dozen workstations, computer terminals, a large celestial map in the middle of the room, everything covered with a mixture of decades old dust and rime. Shelk wiped clean one of the consoles, tapped a few times, before it came to life.
“Let there be light!”, the Andorian triumphantly declared before pushing another button that switched on the ceiling lights which began to illuminate the chamber.
Shelk now tried to access the files on the main computer, while Captain White wandered around, shining his light here and there, looking for anything that could give him a clue.
After a while the Commodore called him over.
“Jeff, something isn’t right here, I mean look at this! The technology must be almost half a century old and from the layout of this place and the type of computer encryption, I would say this was a Starfleet Intelligence station, long-distance data transmission or whatever. And nobody has been here for a long time. If your Mr Phoenix is right about Section 31, why would those coordinates bring us here? I mean this surely is not their headquarters, if they even have something like that!”
“No, I suppose they operate within the realms of Starfleet and other Federation agencies by having their people everywhere in key positions”, White responded.
“Hidden in plain sight!”, Shelk confirmed.
“But surely there must be a reason for him sending you here, there must be something beyond the mere existence of this underground bunker?”
“What about the computer files, can you retrieve anything from there?”, White asked.
“Encoded. The only thing I can readily access is the last duty roster - however I don’t understand why all this stuff is still here in the first place. Even if it was just an Intelligence base, they ought to dismantle or destroy all the hardware before leaving, right?”, Commodore Shelk suggested.
“Over there is a cup with frozen coffee and some personal belongings on the floor. Maybe they had to leave in a hurry and could not return to retrieve anything”, White remarked.
“Then we should not stay around much longer ourselves, Jeff.”
Shelk now pulled up a list of personnel most recently stationed at the outpost and showed it to his colleague.
“Any familiar names?”, he asked White.
The Captain began to read, then he stopped and froze.
“Familiar? Oh, yes!”, he said before motioning Shelk to download the data.
At the next instant, a tremor rocked the entire chamber.
“What was that?”, the Captain wanted to know while looking around nervously.
“Ah, a reason to leave in a hurry maybe?!”, the Commodore suggested, while beginning to type more quickly on the console.
Another tremor shook the place, more powerful than the last, throwing up dust from the rock walls.
Captain White tapped his communicator.
“White to Valentine, we need an emergency beam-out - Valentine, respond?!”, he yelled.
Shelk also tried to reach his ship, to no avail.
Yet another seismic shock. A huge one.
“We must be too deep underground.”
“This whole place might cave in, is there another way out?”, the Commodore said while looking around.
“No, just the elevator shaft, but we never make it back up there in time, if the tremors keep increasing like that!”, White shouted over the loud noises of crumbling rock around them.
“Get started on the elevator, it’s the only way!”, Shelk said.
Captain White frantically began to push buttons on the control panel inside the elevator car.
Meanwhile the tremors had become a fully grown earthquake, the rupturing rock beneath the floor began to form huge cracks, pushing up sections and making others sink. A huge piece of rock detached from the ceiling and crushed a workstation right next to Shelk, who finalized his data download.
“Whatever you’re doing, do it fast!”, he screamed.
The Captain meanwhile used his tricorder to bypass the control circuits, he adjusted the signal and then gained control of the elevator car.
“I got it, come on!”, he shouted, motioning Shelk to come to him; the Andorian started to run, barely moving out of the way of a large chunk of rock which buried the console he had just been working on. Both got into the elevator car and the doors closed, the cabin began to rise slowly. There was no time for them to catch their breath, the earth and rocks around them shook violently, the uncanny sounds of crumbling rocks and twisting metal in the shaft below, the massive tremors that almost threw them off their feet a few times. All the damage done to the shaft made the elevator car suddenly stop dead in its tracks. White and Shelk looked at each other for a fraction of a second, then pushed and pulled with all their strength to open the doors, but they would not move more than a few centimetres, barely enough to squeeze through. The car had almost made it back to the street level. White pushed from behind while Shelk tediously wiggled his body through the gap. The moment he got through, the framework around the cabin began to give away, making it slide down a bit in the shaft. White now reached through the gap, trying to exit, Shelk pulled from the outside. The tremors continued. The shaft began to collapse in itself. The elevator slid down even more, the opening for the Captain to get out was becoming smaller. One more violent shock, one more jerk of the cabin and the Captain would be trapped - or torn in two. Both men pushed and pulled. The car would fall any second now. With a final concerted effort Shelk pulled White through the gap between the doors, which now quickly closed before the whole elevator shaft, its supporting lattice, the car and tons of rocks collapsed with a tremendously raucous roar into a seemingly bottomless chasm, the remains of the chute spat out a huge cloud of dispersed dust.
Both men were lying on their backs, gasping for air before breaking into laughter, absurd, tension draining.
“Hey, are you alright?”, Commodore Shelk asked.
“Yes, but I am getting too old for this”, White exclaimed between coughs.
Shelk got up and helped his old friend on his feet before dusting off his dirty coat.
“I got the data, now let’s get out of here, before we raise any more suspicion.”
“Alright, but now I wouldn’t mind stopping by at this grog vendor”, Captain White mentioned.
In a corner of his lavish Paris office, on a marble-tiled floor, in the midst of a staggering collection of preserved furniture, exquisitely carved tables, handcrafted drawers, everything expertly gilded, veneered, brocaded, embroidered with intarsia and marquetry, the walls with burl wood paneling and stucco ornaments, he himself sitting in an armchair upholstered with damask, next to the large windows which were flanked by finely woven drapery, overlooking the center of Paris, this most magnificent Human metropolis with its modern glassed high-rises and the Eiffel Tower, the steel lace beaming its metallic smile upon the Belle Epoque palaces beneath it, the Federation President turned his head quickly to a side door through which his personal secretary entered.
“Sir, the Head of Starfleet Intelligence is here to see you, he says it’s urgent.”
“Very well, show him in”, the President uttered.
Director Jefferson came into the office with resolute strides, accompanied by more Starfleet brass. President Okeg tensed. One of the officers put a small suitcase on the nearest table and opened it, revealing a portable computer with a large viewscreen.
“Sir, this came in less than an hour ago”, Jefferson stated while switching on the viewscreen which started to play a recording. The President watched until a loud thunking sound signalled the end of the tape, the President reacted with devastation to the accompanying pictures.
“And there is more…”, Jefferson warned.
Back on board his vessel Captain White stepped out of the turbolift and entered the bridge. Commander Low went to meet him.
“I am afraid we have to cut short the shore leave, Sir. Starfleet Command priority message just came through, we are to converge on the nearest starbase immediately. Similar orders have been issued to most of the fleet.”
“What happened? Another attack?”, Captain White inquired with a worried face. Commander Low nodded commiseratively.
The USS Valentine was racing back to Federation space. On the bridge Captain White was in his chair, his First Officer Commander Low right beside him.
“Sir, the transmission will commence in a few seconds”, she told White who in turn replied:
“Understood. Transmit it throughout the ship.”
On the large viewscreen on the bridge President Okeg appeared, telegenic, though his wrinkled reptilian skin was more sallow, his eyes more alert, his mouth more indehiscent than they used to be. On this day he felt the burden of his office.
Today, our fellow citizens, as well as people from multiple other worlds of the galaxy became victims of a despicable and cowardly attack when an alien craft fired on the Federation colony on Khefka IV, along with its embassy which was hosting a diplomatic conference at the time. It was a gathering of people from many different worlds, who came together to negotiate peace treaties, trade relations, submitting bids for joining the Federation, people who had found gracious hosts in our Federation citizens on this faraway planet. This was not merely an attack on those people’s lives, but also our way of life, our virtues and our beliefs were the targets. The victims were in their homes or in their offices, their shops, at their posts: secretaries, merchants, diplomats, colonists, farmers, security personnel, Starfleet officers, mothers and fathers, children, friends and neighbors. More than a thousand lives were suddenly ended by an evil act of terror. The pictures of orbital bombardment, fires burning, structures collapsing, they have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our union into chaos and retreat. But they will fail.”
The bridge crew of the USS Valentine looked intently at the screen. All over the ship crew members watched the speech on other view screens in mess halls or at their work stations, their expressions ranged from sorrow and concern to anger and determination.
“Our peoples have been called today to defend a great idea. These attacks can shake the foundations of buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of our integrity. They can shatter steel, but they cannot dent our resolve. The Federation was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the galaxy, a shelter for liberty and reason, an ambassador for peace and understanding. No one will keep that light from shining, no one will destroy that palladium, no one will hinder our mission.”
In their office on Starbase 56, Gracie Jones and Mettus had tuned in as well, their subordinates had stopped their activities, joining them to watch with saturnine mood.
“We know now that this act was but the culmination of a series of incursions upon our safety and security. The preceding weeks saw one of our most distinguished officers being assassinated, another attempt was made on the very ship I was travelling on, only prevented last-minute by our loyal allies. Immediately following the latest attack, and with unanimous support from the members of the Federation Council, I implemented a number of contingency plans. These plans call for the increase of security at all Federation installations throughout our territory as well as embassies abroad. We will take every precaution to protect our citizens from further attacks, everywhere in the galaxy.”
In the presidential office, a recording unit was trained on the President while he addressed the peoples of the Federation, behind it, out of view from the camera, dozens of onlookers had assembled, government officials, Council members, Federation dignitaries and potentates, Starfleet officers, in the back was Director Jefferson, his arms folded, observing coldly.
“The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts. I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and security communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
On a square on the Klingon homeworld the speech was also being broadcast, a large crowd had gathered to view it.
“I thank the leaders of our neighboring worlds who have joined me in strongly condemning these attacks and who have called to offer their condolences and assistance. The United Federation of Planets and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security, and we shall stand together to win the war that was declared on us.
Today, I ask you to join me in prayer and mourning for all those who grieve and for those who are not with us anymore. Tomorrow, I ask you to unite in our resolve for justice, peace and vigilance. The upcoming months may ask much from many of you in order to prevail over our enemies, to defend freedom and all that is good and just. Thank you. Good bye.”
TO BE CONTINUED...