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Chapter Two

Erhlich Tarlazzi manned a console in front of the warp core monitoring the stability of the flow of matter and antimatter. Shinar sh’Aqba, meanwhile, sat at a nearby situation console browsing an assignment padd. She seemed emotionally withdrawn and disinterested in everything that was happening around her. She handed a Tellarite male ensign the assignment padd with her approval while she massaged the right side of her neck, something that appeared to be just a stress related muscle strain.

“We’ve fixed that problem with the antimatter regulators,” Tarlazzi eagerly reported. “We’re ready to engage the warp drive on a few test runs.”

“Proceed,” sh’Aqba replied, rolling her head while continuing to gently rub her neck as if all these repairs and maintenance schedules were just something to have over and done with.

The warp core quickly hummed to life with matter and anti-matter flowing through it. But before anyone could gather significant data on warp field stability, the core shut down again.

“What now?” sh’Aqba huffed. She leaned over her console to double-check the matter and antimatter calibrations. Almost as if she was never in an indifferent mood just a few minutes earlier, she trudged over to Tarlazzi’s console, nearly nudging him aside.

“It could be either a dilithium circuit burnout,” Tarlazzi replied, “or one of the flow regulators. We’ll need to send maintenance teams to get a closer look.”

“Fine,” sh’Aqba huffed, feeling more pain on her neck. Nursing the presently unseen wound, she muttered, “Take care of it. I need to get to phaser maintenance.”

“Cruz, Larkin,” Tarlazzi called to two engineers. “get a look at the flow regulators on Deck Nineteen. I’ll join you shortly.” After seeing them off, he slowly approached sh’Aqba, who was on her way to the main entrance with a tool kit in tow. “Lieutenant sh’Aqba, is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Mister Tarlazzi,” she insisted, setting down the toolkit while continuing to look away from Erhlich. “I had a wonderful two weeks on Risa. Now I’m glad to be back at work.”

“Okay,” Tarlazzi replied as if he didn’t buy her claim that nothing was bothering her, “but you haven’t been doing your job with the same level of enthusiasm.”

“Which one of us is the superior officer?” sh’Aqba rhetorically asked, resisting the urge to use more forceful language with him.

“We have the same rank.”

Sh’Aqba sighed, not at all amused by his usual witticisms when a conversation became heated. “I have seniority by about five years,” she replied with a disarming angry stare. “And I would thank you to stay out of my business.” And with that, she whisked up the toolkit and stormed out of the room.

###

Mandel Morrison sat in the command chair on the bridge of the Lambda Paz observing repairs and taking reports from various bridge officers and maintenance technicians. He signed off on a weapon calibration request and handed a padd to a male Benzite ensign while he observed Sara Carson walk from the helm to the starboard mission ops station.

His attention to her was then diverted when Lieutenant Willis Huckaby handed him a padd containing a new power calibration subroutine. He signed the padd and gave it back to Huckaby. His eyebrows perked up when Sara headed towards him with a padd in hand. Mandel silently studied the padd, while Sara looked around the bridge trying to avoid any kind of conversation.

The silence became more and more awkward, even if Sara wanted to say as little words as possible with her former romantic partner. And Mandel wanted to broach the subject of Sara’s newest partner. He was playing out two different scenarios in his mind--one where she was willing to share a few details and one where she quickly dodged the subject. With each passing second, Mandel was anticipating the latter.

"I didn't know you swung from that side," he matter-of-factly stated.

Sara shook her head in disgust, once again reminded that Mandel had gotten a perverse pleasure about her romantic affiliation with a woman. "Why do people still use that metaphor when baseball died out over two hundred years ago?” she wondered aloud. “I didn't either. But there's something about Becca.... I sort of envy her ability to not be so uptight."

Mandel smiled, reminded that she found those qualities in him rather endearing. That elicited Sara to shake her head in realization of whom she was talking to. "Why is this any of your business?" she asked rhetorically.

"It's not," Morrison replied. "It's just that if I had known then..."

Sara groaned and snatched the padd from Mandel’s hand and walked back to the helm. That was all she could do to keep from slugging him square in his left jaw.

###

A team of doctors was gathered in one of the research labs on the Semmelweis. Aurellan Markalis and David Geiger were among the Starfleet doctors present in the lab when Commander Ziminske presented a set of sample pathogens. Several civilian doctors were also present, dressed in light blue surgical scrubs. Three of the civilian doctors were xenopathology specialists wearing white medical smocks bearing the logo of Starfleet Medical, while the others were interns and residents seeking to further their professional development.

“A Special Ops strike team on Betazed stumbled on a biogenic weapons lab,” Ziminske explained, indicating capsules of the collected virus samples on a display screen. “These viruses are still in the experimental stages. But for all we know, they are still being developed in other locations behind enemy lines.”

“It’s quite a serendipitous intelligence find,” Aurellan remarked flatly. “So I guess the assignment is to develop a cure.

“Not to put any pressure,” Ziminske retorted. “Needless to say, developing cures and vaccines for Dominion bioweapons is no easy task. But you all have the resolve and determination to seek a solution to this difficult puzzle. I wish you all luck. And god speed.” She then exited the lab, leaving Markalis and Geiger to delegate the tasks for this difficult assignment.

***

Throughout the next day, the doctors ran various examinations of the virus samples without taking meal breaks. Every once in a while, someone dropped by with appetizers and beverages. The first phase involved assessing the genetic structure of the viruses compared to notes already gathered on the virus. Further examination involved infecting the blood samples to learn how the antibodies responded.

Markalis and Geiger concentrated on tests of retroviral agents, subjecting the virus samples to various forms of radiation, interferon refinement, and anti-viral nucleoside analogues. Early in the evening, when a human crewman delivered mugs of coffee, Aurellan dropped her head down on the edge of the table in frustration at having gotten nowhere.

***

“Even for a Dominion bioweapon,” Geiger remarked while peering through a microscope, “this virus has one of the most complex genetic structures.

“Almost as if the virus itself has its own immune system.” Aurellan retorted while studying a sample through another microscope.

“Now that would be a strange notion,” Geiger chuckled as he applied a refined anti-viral agent into a petri dish.

“Maybe not,” Aurellan mused, looking up from her microscope. “Think about it,” she continued, pacing back and forth in front of her microscope station. “This is a virus that can adapt to almost anything used to try to kill it. And I mean faster than any known virus with trans-sequential amino acid properties or any other characteristics that allow a virus to evade natural immune responses and conventional anti-viral agents.

She felt an internal sense of triumph, but kept it to herself knowing this was nothing more than an unproven hypothesis. She still wanted to curse Ziminske for her subtle method of steering her in the right direction. Ziminske had conceived of a method of combating artificially mutated bacteria that caused normally treatable diseases. Aurellan wasn’t sure if Ziminske hadn’t purposely withheld improved treatments until Aurellan had conceived of them. Ziminske never specifically confirmed or denied that belief, not that Aurellan ever suggested it directly. Ziminske had claimed to be helping her think outside the box in terms developing these kinds of antigens. But hopefully, even a Section 31 doctor would have the sense to distribute the medicines once they were developed.

“But what you’re talking about isn’t possible in single-celled organisms,” Doctor Pral, a male Denobulan intern chimed in.

“Based on our understanding of disease causing pathogens,” Aurellan replied. “Even if initial attempts to destroy a virus are unsuccessful, we can still learn about its unique properties and develop a way to at least slow it down with enzyme inhibitors. Let’s run through every agent we’ve tried so far. This time, we’ll more closely scrutinize processes involved in this virus’s survival.”

“We’ve already been at this for twelve hours,” said Nora Reed, a human female intern. “And you want us to start over?”

“I might be on to something,” Aurellan excitedly stated. “We need to find out if my hypothesis is correct.”

Nora rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in disbelief, but that didn’t seem to matter to Aurellan, who began manically gathering up the padds where she had made notes.

***

The research on this virus continued throughout the night. Some of the interns and residents were anxious to turn in, but Aurellan kept them working almost as if any sense of empathy was switched off.

“I’ll be damned,” she remarked while studying a sample. This thing also contains neurotropic properties, allowing some of it to bypass the immune system.” But then seeing that no one seemed interested, she said nothing else and turned back to her microscope.

***

“These particles are indeed similar in protein structure to antibodies,” Geiger remarked while analyzing computer readouts.

“That’s a start,” Aurellan replied while reminding herself not to get too excited. “Now we need to beat this thing at its own game.”

The time was 0307, and some of the interns had keeled over and fallen asleep. Others had gone over Aurellan’s head and were allowed to get a few hours of sleep. However, the veteran doctors and medical researchers, plus a few of the interns still awake, were still going strong, determined to solve this challenging puzzle. Ziminske had allowed them to continue, including Aurellan Markalis.

***

Less than an hour later, Aurellan snapped her fingers in triumph. “Radodine, lidestolinine, asporanine, adenine,” she gasped. “That's it!”

While she and other doctors began synthesizing antigens based on those chemicals, a passing researcher accidentally dropped one of the blood samples. That caught Aurellan’s attention when she heard the vial housing dark blue Bolian blood break on the floor.

“Put that vial in the disposal unit,” she calmly instructed the nervous human male.

With a quick glance at the blood that fell on the floor, Aurellan thought something seemed odd about this tiny drop of blood. Kneeling down, she could tell that this substance seemed thicker than blood. “I want to get a sample of this before we sterilize,” she told a technician towering over her.

Geiger curiously walked over to the table where Aurellan was taking preliminary scans of the blood sample in a petri dish. Her expression was one of increased confusion as she consulted the readings appearing on the medical tricorder while holding a hand sensor to the dish. “I’m reading foreign chemicals in this blood sample,” she remarked, “as if to dilute it, but not so much that we wouldn’t be able use sample viruses and counter-agents on it. How strange. Get me a few more vials.”

“Another hunch?” Geiger asked.

“We’re scientists, Geiger. The word you mean to use is hypothesis.”

“Pardon me,” Geiger sarcastically scoffed.

All kinds of thoughts were racing through Aurellan’s mind as she examined additional blood samples. Perhaps Section 31 set up this “project” as a cover for more sinister activities. But then the question was why 31 would resort to misleading Aurellan after she had learned of one of their experiments in biological warfare.

“This isn’t humanoid blood,” she soon concluded. “It’s Changeling protoplasm.”



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