“Enter”, Captain White said in response to the doorbell chime. Commander Low came in.
“Heather, is there anything to report?”, White asked her.
“No, Captain. I just wanted to check on you.”
“Check on me? I’m fine. You sound like a doctor, Commander. You care for a transfer?”
Low smiled and shook her head.
“I mean, how are you holding up? I heard some of the FIA people didn’t take it very well, down there.”
White reflected this thought a little before he answered solicitously:
“It was not a pretty sight. There was almost nothing left of the settlement.”
He paused for a while then he said:
“I can’t help but think if they had to suffer, I mean, if it was painful, or maybe very quick of a death… -
Let’s talk about something else. How’s Commander Soman doing?”
“He’s coming along, Sir. I send him to all the major departments, so he can get to know key personnel and procedures. Doing fine so far”, Commander Low responded.
“Good. What is that you are carrying?”, White inquired, referring to an object Low was holding behind her back. Low produced a thick old book and held it out:
“Oh, right, I wanted to return this. Thanks for the loan, it was a good read.”
“You’re welcome. Please put it on the shelf over there”, the Captain told her while pointing with his finger towards an overladen little board on the wall.
“If you liked it, I got plenty more, as you can see, Heather.”
“Thanks, Captain, maybe another time, when it’s quiet again.”
White got on his feet and began to walk around his desk.
“Sure. Well, I am going to pay a visit to our guests. You have the bridge.”
Captain White arrived in the spacious conference room which the FIA investigation team had occupied. It had been turned into a mobile command post and laboratory. Dozens of computer workstations had been set up, along with large viewscreens and communications equipment. Numerous analysts and technicians were manning them, working with trained efficiency. Director Thalen was supervising his team with the mannerisms of an old school sports coach. Attorney General Chetra Haff was standing next to him, watching.
White approached Thalen and asked:
“Director Thalen, how are we doing?”
Thalen, not facing him, reviewed a report on a data padd, while he responded:
“Slowly, Captain, but steadily. The Attorney General was very persuasive and convinced the Khefkan authorities to hand over all of their research and scans of the attack site. We also received data from their planetary defence grid. Your ship’s sensors are doing the rest. We are just finishing up compiling a three-dimensional reconstruction of the colony and its surroundings, before and after the attack.”
“Anything from the defense grid?”, the Captain inquired.
“Their system is not of the latest technology. Not like ours. The orbital satellites responded only after the firing was detected, but then it was already too late.”
“So this confirms Starfleet Command’s suspicion that the Patronage has access to cloaked ships?”, White reasoned.
“Yes. It’s the only possibility, Captain. Any other approach by an unauthorized vessel would have been detected. They were on higher alert than usual due to the conference at the embassy”, FIA Director Thalen confirmed.
“Starfleet Command also wishes us to positively identify the victims to the best of our abilities. Council and President would like to confirm the death toll of foreign citizens to their respective homeworlds”, White added.
“Yes, of course. I should point out though that, with the intensity of destruction, something we saw first hand, this is not going to yield definitive evidence anymore. We might have to rely on the Khefkan’s transporter archives from before the attack”, the FIA Director stated.
Thalen walked over to one of the analysts and grabbed him by the shoulder, getting his attention.
“Are we ready to display the simulation?”, Thalen asked.
“Good. Let’s have it.”
The young man pressed a series of keys. A huge holographic projection now appeared in front of them, showing the colony, the embassy complex within, every building and tree as well as the topography of the nearby landscape, the basin and hills, like a digitized miniature.
The simulation began to play and a slow-motion reproduction of the massive explosion flattened the whole area, preceded by a quick bolt of light, symbolizing the single precision strike from orbit, coming in at a high ankle. Even though only a hypothetical computer reproduction based on sensor data, it still looked scary. The simulation began to run in a loop, over and over again. Captain White gulped at the sight.
Thalen walked over to White again and began to address him:
“Captain, I hope you don’t mind, but I promised the Khefkans some help in return for their cooperation. The Prefect requested us to assist them in predictions on the fallout. They provided us with the weather data for the region, wind patterns, precipitation and such. I have one of my men working on it already. This way we can give them recommendations regarding further evacuations.”
“Of course, Director. Whatever we can do to help. The ship is at your disposal.”
A few hours later
“Mr Soman, please have a seat”, White said, greeting his newly appointed Second Officer in one of the conference rooms for a one-to-one conversation.
The Suliban officer shook his hand and both men sat down.
“Regrettably I haven’t found the time to talk to you earlier.”
“I understand, Captain White. I’m not sure if I would have had the time either. Commanders Low and Aq’Numi are keeping me very busy. The ladies are dragging me all over the ship, they have me crawl through Jefferies tubes and assist with maintenance whenever they can”, Soman stated with pretended annoyance.
“They just want you to get acquainted with the ship.”
“I know, Captain. Of course I appreciate the opportunity to learn. This is really quite a ship, you have here.”
“Yes, she’s a beauty”, the Captain enthused.
White reached over to a tea set which had been standing next to them on the conference table and poured himself a cup. Soman observed him very closely.
“Please forgive me, you care for a cup as well, Mr Soman?”
“Thanks, but no. I’m not much of an enthusiast in regards to hot drinks.”
“Too bad. At my age, I wouldn’t make it until lunchtime without my Earl Grey.”
The Captain continued:
“You know, when this mission is completed I really want to find out who arranged your posting here. As I told you when you first came aboard, making such a posting over the head of the ship’s commanding officer is unusual. It has never happened to me before in all my years as starship captain. Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me. From what I have read and what my senior officers have been telling me, you seem like an exemplary officer.”
“Captain, I did not request this posting either, I guess someone must have recommended me. But, well, we all have our orders, don’t we”, Lt.Commander Soman suggested.
“Hmm, sounds like someone well above both our paygrades thought it was a good idea to send you here”, Captain White said with a smirk.
Brom Soman nodded in agreement and added:
“However, I promise you, I will do my best to fulfill my duty here.”
“I’m sure you will.”
White now took his data padd from the table and looked at the display.
“I’d like to get over some of your previous postings. There are some remarks in your file, I have questions about…”
“Of course, Captain, go ahead”, Soman responded.
At the end of the day Captain White groggily entered his quarters and sank into a lounge chair, burying his face into his hands. He sat there for a few minutes, the urge to sleep began to show. Then suddenly his communicator sprang to life, he struck it with his hand, switching it on, and got up from his position.
“Low here, Sir.”
“Yes, Commander, go ahead.”
“Sorry to bother you this late, but we got word from the surface. The Khefkans found a survivor from the attack. A Vulcan woman who lived in the colony. She is in intensive care now. But they notified us, in case we would want to question her.”
White contemplated the thought of how anyone could possibly have survived that attack for a moment, not answering.
“Captain?”, Low asked over the intercom.
“Yes, I am here. Please inform Director Thalen and his staff about this new development. I suggest we are going down there tomorrow and have a word with the victim and also thank the Khefkan authorities for notifying us.”
“Understood Sir. Good night. Commander Low out”, she responded.
During the conversation White had been wandering around, having come to a halt at his personal working desk. He now stared down at a number of data padds scattered across the table and finally picked one of them up. He switched on the device and his eyes went over the details being displayed on the tiny screen. He visibly wrestled with himself in his mind, then he came to a conclusion. He took a seat at the desk and activated the computer terminal.
“Computer, establish a secure channel to Commodore Shelk onboard the USS Rabin, current location: Mutara Sector.”
The computer interface rumbled for a few seconds, then the computer voice replied:
“Unable to comply. Secure communications require code-word clearance.”
White frowned in incredulous frustration.
“What? Try again, authorization White-Alpha-Nine-Seven- Two-Three.”
After compiling again the computer stated:
“Long-term communications are offline.”
“What the…?”, White exclaimed.
“Captain to Engineering.”
“Yes, Captain?”, Chief Engineer Aq’Numi answered his call.
“Commander, are we having trouble with our communications array? I can’t open a channel from my quarters.”
“Argh, sorry about that, Sir. We have been getting similar reports in the past two hours”, the woman replied over comms.
“How serious is it?”, White inquired.
“Minor malfunction, Captain. We already checked the antennas. Long range communication itself is not impaired, we can reach Command and other vessels from the bridge. It seems as if only personal terminals are affected. Probably just a malfunction in the connectors. I was going to look into this and brief you tomorrow, since I am just coming off a double-shift. But I can check now, if you prefer, Sir.”
“No, that’s alright, Commander. First thing in the morning then. Good night.”
“Understood, Sir, thank you and Good night.”
The next morning Captain White and Commander Low were attending a morning conference with the investigation team. Director Thalen and a few selected members of his staff were present, along with Attorney General Haff. A small delegation of Starfleet brass, among them Admiral Jefferson watched the proceedings via subspace video feed. Thalen was presenting the latest findings while the holographic recreation of the attack was playing over their heads:
“As you can all see, we finalized our computer simulation. Due to the limited amount of data in terms of close range scans, we had to rely on the scans performed by the ship’s sensors, as well as the Khefkan’s overflights. This gave us more raw data on the damage than we expected. Thus, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to determine the precise point of impact of the projectile. However, the blast as well as the fire damage are consistent with the effects of a medium-yield plasma weapon: antimatter explosion in a small reflective casing creates x-rays, they thermalize a carrier into ultra-hot plasma which then travels along in front of the blast wave, burning everything that the blast will not destroy. The analysis of the trace elements suggests with very high likelihood a starship-mounted torpedo of Reman design, most certainly fired from orbit. This data corresponds with some of the preliminary intelligence reports, as well as the clues from the video message by Gumo’s group.”
“Excuse me, Director Thalen”, White interrupted him.
“You just said your findings correspond with ‘some’ of our intelligence. So, what doesn’t add up then?”
“Right. I was getting there. There are a few things that we haven’t found a satisfying conclusion for yet. The main problem is the issue of the weapon’s delivery. Admiral Jefferson, I believe you are more qualified to answer, do you mind?”
“Of course. The latest reports from both Starfleet as well as Klingon Intelligence doesn’t support the possibility that the group has access to vessels capable of firing large Reman plasma torpedoes, even though their video message displayed the weapons prominently. They are relying mostly on smaller raider-type ships of Gorn and Nausicaan design. They are fast and agile, have decent disruptor weapons, but shouldn’t be equipped to fire large Reman torpedos.”
“But it has been determined that they are in possession of cloaking technology, which I believe had been unknown until now as well?!”, White inquired.
“Yes, correct, Captain. But we are talking about major retrofitting here. If they can get their hands on a cloak in the first place, it becomes fairly easy installing it on a ship. A heavy duty torpedo launcher on the other hand, it seems too complicated and beyond their skills”, Jefferson declared.
“I concur, Sir. I used to be a weapon system engineer earlier in my career and can confirm that converting a small raider for something like this would be a tall order”, Commander Low interrupted.
“And the ships they do possess are perfectly capable of performing a devastating attack already, especially if they can sneak up so close to the planet under cloak. The only good reason for usage of a heavy plasma torpedo would be that the resulting fallout makes the entire area uninhabitable, so that the Federation can not set up another colony on that same spot any time soon. This seems to fit well into their agenda. But regarding the plasma torpedoes, I must point out that we can’t rule out the Patronage might have gotten their hands on larger more suitable ships for the task, without our intelligence knowing about it”, Jefferson closed.
“Thank you, Admiral. We are also struggling with an explanation for the distribution of the blast wave and the resulting destruction. There is a substantial crater in the area where the colony used to be. That, at first, would suggest a detonation very close to the surface, when a greater effect can normally be reached with an airburst-like explosion. In fact, the most recent attack on the Klingon outpost was carried out like that. Also, the epicenter of the crater does not line up with the position of the embassy building, which we believe was the primary target. This is a bit unusual, but probably unimportant. In the end, the weapon annihilates everything within several kilometers, no matter at which altitude and where exactly it detonates.”
“Very well. Thank you all so far. I am going to notify the President and the rest of the Security Council soon. Is there anything else as of this moment?”, Jefferson asked.
White addressed him:
“Yesterday the Khefkans found a survivor of the colony, we are going to transport down to the surface and pay her a visit right after this meeting. If she is well enough to answer some questions, maybe we can fill in the missing gaps.”
“Good luck. Tomorrow, same time then. Jefferson out.”
On Khefka IV
The double doors slid open and the small group of investigators walked into the intensive care ward of the Khefkan hospital. The authorities had requested a small group, thus only Captain White, Director Thalen and one if his aides had transported down. The female ward physician was leading them through the ward, which was almost deserted, sterile and clean, polished tile, white walls and glass.
“She is in a critical condition. We aren’t sure if she is going to make it”, the doctor told them, walking ahead of the group.
“How come she was only found now?”, Thalen wanted to know.
“A survey team outside of the area of immediate destruction came across her on a routine patrol. She was hanging in a tree, jammed between the branches. The blast must have thrown her far away, probably several hundred meters. Most species would have died on impact, not to mention the explosion itself. But she is Vulcan, they are extremely resilient.”
They rounded a corner and arrived at the intensive care ward. A glass wall separated them from the room where the victim was being treated. Captain White and the others looked through the window, ashen, the nightmarish sight in front of them took away their breaths. They kept watching on, with a look of agony and immeasurable pity. Thalen’s aide began to consult a data padd.
“We found her file in the colony’s log. Her name is Tikal, born on Vulcan in 2275, used to be a microbiologist for the Vulcan Science Academy, retired to Khefka IV eight years ago. She lived on the outer edge of the settlement.”
“Maybe she was just far enough from the explosion to survive it by a hair”, Thalen suggested.
White did not respond and began to make his way into the room, the rest of the group followed.
Tikal was laying on a raised bench, surrounded by a medical forcefield that kept her body in a sterile environment and insulated the rest of the room from the radiation her contaminated body was emitting. Several monitors were displaying her weak vital functions, life support equipment had been plugged in on various parts of her body. Tissue regenerators were working in an almost futile attempt to restore her body surface. Her torso and lower body were covered with a blanket. A missing feature under the latter indicated that her left leg had been amputated below the knee. The lower half of her left arm had been removed as well, leaving a bloody stump. Only her head, arms and shoulders were visible, some parts of them burned beyond recognition, others had many small charred flakes of skin peeling off, exposing the flesh below, on other places the tissue had been burned away down to the bone. All her hair was missing, the notoriously pointed ears were gone, leaving only the small holes of the ear canals remaining. Her eyelids had been burned away, her eyeballs were a whitish pulp, half molten and scarred.
“We would like to question her, if that is alright?”, Thalen asked the physician hesitantly. The doctor sighed and answered:
“She’s awake, but very weak. So please be brief. Excuse me.”
She left the room.
“Ma’am, can you hear me?”, Thalen said to her.
The Vulcan reacted with a slight flinching and a stertorous breathing. She began to turn her head towards them.
“I am Director Thalen, Federal Investigation Agency, this is Captain White of the Starfleet vessel Valentine. Can we ask you a few questions?”
The woman responded with a weak nod.
“What can you tell us about the attack?”
She stiffened. There was no answer. She turned her face away, as if looking at a very distant point. Thalen, though sympathetic, grew slightly impatient.
“The bombardment, did you see it happen?”, Thalen asked.
No answer. Growing frustration. White stepped forward now.
“What were you doing when it happened?”, the Captain asked.
“The crops. I was tending my crops”, Tikal replied slurrily and barely audible.
“The tubers, they require much attention before the harvest”, she continued.
The others looked at each other, not quite understanding, it wasn’t much, but at least she was talking.
“So you were in your kitchen garden. Then what happened?” the Captain wanted to know.
“I was kneeling in the dirt, I looked up in the sky and there was lightning.”
Thalen’s aide began minuting her statement now. Tikal’s language became more difficult to understand. She was fighting the urge to cry, her breaths became more displeic.
“There was light everywhere. The others were ablaze. They looked like they were screaming, but everything was silent. They writhed and crooked and then…”.
The Vulcan suddenly became silent, she began hyperventilating, her body was convulsing, finally she collapsed. At the same moment Captain White became dizzy, an intense pain shooting through his head. Seconds later the physician and two nurses stormed in, assessing the situation quickly.
“She is going into shock!”, the doctor noted.
She now shouted her instructions.
“Set the neural stimulator to four-hundred!”, she told the first nurse.
“Get me 10 CCs of demptopam!”, she said to the other.
While they were hurriedly working to prevent the woman from dying, the doctor finally addressed the team:
“You have to leave, now. The interview is over!”
The three-men team left the room. Outside Thalen grabbed Captain White by the arm.
“Hey, are you alright?”
White, still holding his forehead, replied:
“Yeah, it’s not that bad. I don’t know what happened.”
“Let’s get back to the ship, Captain. I don’t think there is much we can still do here. You should get yourself checked by your doctor anyway”, Thalen said.
Back aboard his ship the Captain arrived in his ready room. While walking around the desk to his chair he stopped at the replicator for a cup of tea, but then he noticed a blinking light on the surface of his desk, notifying him of a message received. He immediately sat down in his chair and pushed a button which made the built-in monitor fold up.
He started the message. It was from Station Chief Gracie Jones:
“Greetings Captain. I have a meeting with Klingon Intel later today about the Patronage. Maybe they have something of interest. Also, Mettus is on his way back to Starbase 56. He is going to brief us, when he arrives. I hope you are free for a video conference then. Jones out.”
Captain White contemplated the suggestion for a few seconds before he got up and approached the replicator unit at the wall.
“One cup of Earl Grey tea”, he ordered casually.
The computer voice interface gave a quick affirmative chime, but then the maschine suddenly began to whine and roar, a sick noise was building up. White, sensing something was wrong, was just about to back off, when the wall erupted and exploded in his face. Everything went black.