Steele walked lethargically out of the turbolift and out onto her bridge. Malek was not in the command chair but Kiley was. She was a little grateful for it; she wouldn’t have to hide her short fuse in front of her.
Kiley was shorter than her by at least ten centimeters and had short, light brown hair and dark, chocolate brown eyes. She looked human from afar but one look at the Zaldan’s hands revealed the webbing between her fingers and the fact that she was anything but human.
Kiley stood from the command chair as Steele entered. She locked eyes with her Second Officer and could tell immediately that there had been some tension on the bridge. Zaldans were horrible at hiding their tempers and of course, she realized, they never tried. “Captain.” she grunted.
“Where’s Malek?” Steele replied with a slight growl, not attempting to hide her exhaustion.
“In the ready room with Lieutenant Commander Xad sir.” She replied coldly and Steele could tell that she must have looked awful because Kiley’s face contorted with shock and distress. “Captain, are you…?”
Steele snarled. “It’s none of your concern Kiley.”
Kiley nodded her head sharply. “Of course not Captain.”
Steele moved directly to her office. The doors opened and her ears were filled with the sounds of Malek’s deep voice raised in a bark towards her Chief of Engineering, a tall, pale blue Bolian male. “Is that clear Commander?!”
Xad’s eyes were wide with fury and he spun to look at Steele as she moved into the office, stupefied by the tone of Malek’s voice. Xad’s grimace deepened when he looked upon her and Steele began to realize she must have looked worse to others than she had to herself. Her exhaustion overtook her. “Is what clear Commander?!” She barked. She noticed a strange lock of the eyes between the two men and she stepped forward aggressively. “I asked…is what clear Commander? What the hell is going on here?!”
Malek’s antennae drooped slightly and he looked upon Steele, anger still evident in his indigo face. “I was just reminding the good Engineer of his duties Captain.” He grunted, “And how sometimes he needs to follow orders without knowing the reasons behind them…”
Steele turned her attention to Xad. She had known him longer. He had served under her as the Assistant Chief of Engineering on the Yeager. He had never questioned orders before and now she knew she was missing pieces of the puzzle. “Lieutenant Commander?”
Xad’s pale blue face brightened with his anger, he turned to look at Malek again whose eyes appeared to be glaring at him with warning. “I’m sorry Commander Malek, but I refuse to follow your orders. The Captain must know.”
Malek shoved his fist down on the desk and openly growled at the Engineer.
Steele moved in quickly. “Orders? Orders to keep something from me?” she turned on her First Officer. “What did you order him not to tell me Commander?!”
Malek shook his head in fury. “Captain. I merely wanted to get real answers before I placed more burden…”
“What?!” she howled. “What do you want me to know Xad?”
“That someone has been transmitting messages via our deflection grid Captain. I just haven’t been able to isolate the origination point.”
Steele had been expecting something unusual, but this? This took any remaining semblance of foundation out from underneath her and she felt herself completely and utterly dumbstruck. She grabbed the back of a chair for support.
“Dammit Xad!” Malek bellowed.
“I don’t care Commander! I may not know what our mission is, but I’ll be damned if you or anyone else forces me into silence from the Captain. She’s still in command of this vessel and deserves to know everything and if you desire to have me thrown into the brig for disobeying that order, then so be it!”
Steele felt the fury begin to build and she let it fly without even attempting to hold it back. “ENOUGH!”
She spun on Malek. “I don’t want you to move a muscle, is that understood Commander?! I want to speak to you…alone!” She then turned on Xad, “What do you mean someone’s been sending messages? To who? What did they say?!”
Xad shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know Captain.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? How...when?” she stuttered.
“Captain…” Malek led, “Lieutenant Commander Xad noticed a differential in our deflection grid output three days ago and I have asked him to follow up on his findings, hoping he could identify…”
“Three days ago!?” she cried. “And I’m just now finding out about this?!”
Malek shut his mouth and turned his back on her, walking towards the windows of the ready room.
Steele let the realization wash over her. She recognized the look of pain in his eyes and Xad’s determined and angry stare at him. “Oh my God…Malek! You thought it was me!” She whispered. “You thought I was the one!”
Malek turned his icy blue eyes to her once more. “I’m still not so sure it’s not Captain.”
Steele felt a cold stab in her heart. The seam in Xad’s blue face deepened in tone as his anger built. Steele tried to keep the anguish from rising in her throat, her exhaustion from overtaking her ability to think. “How could you? How could you even think it was me?”
“Come on Captain,” Malek spit, “You’ve been anything but yourself since you returned from the Enterprise! You haven’t slept. Your stress levels are off the charts. You don’t talk to anyone and you’ve been keeping to yourself in your quarters and acting anything but normal!”
Steele thought about it briefly but her rage and mistrust refused to let her think it was all so easy. “How do I know it’s not you Malek?”
Malek’s eyes flew wide with disbelief and rage. “Are you kidding me?! How dare you think I would breach the confidence of this mission Captain…”
“SHUT UP! Both of you!” roared Xad. Steele and Malek, stunned by Xad’s outburst turned to look at him, both of them ready to physically attack the other. “Look at you! Just look at you! You’re both ready to kill each other! I don’t know what the hell this mission’s about but when it’s got the two command officers at each other’s throats I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and let it interfere! Neither of you are responsible for the messages, that’s something I’m damned sure of!” He howled.
Steele stood there, astonished by Xad’s words. “What?”
“It couldn’t have been. Not you and not Commander Malek. I’ve double checked.”
“I don’t understand…” Malek’s voice dropped in ferocity.
“Look. When I informed Commander Malek of the differential, I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I kissed it off to an intermittent calibration error that might have been present since commissioning, but Commander Malek asked me to follow up on it, stating that the mission’s objective was too great to risk jeopardizing it. It was then I put two and two together and realized how important the mission was. We’re escorting the Enterprise. How often does that occur? Never! I’ve never heard of it!” Xad grunted, “The crew’s not stupid! We know she’s carrying something pretty big if she’s got two Cats alongside her!
“When I determined that the deflection grid hadn’t been modified and that it was instead sending out encrypted subspace messages – even I didn’t know who to trust or why! I took it upon myself to try to determine the source of the messages on the Panther. I looked at the timing of the messages compared to what you both were doing! I looked for someone, somewhere on this ship who could have sent the messages and from what station they could have done such a thing! Neither of you sent them! But what’s more amazing is that I can’t find where anyone on board this entire ship has been sending them!”
Xad’s raised voice reverberated through the room. “No offense Captain, but Commander Malek has been right about one thing and that’s how strange you’ve been acting since you re-boarded the Panther! Even Doctor H’rim has mentioned his concern for your ability to handle whatever pressure you’ve been under. We both served under you long enough on the Yeager to know that you haven’t been anything like yourself! You’ve been closed, secretive and nonsocial. Even during the worst of times on the Yeager, you were never like this! Look at you! You look horrible!” He turned on Malek, “Malek doesn’t know you like we do Captain! You can’t blame him for thinking what he did, but we don’t know him all that well either, which is why I informed Kiley of what was going on. She was the one who kept an eye on Commander Malek for me. She’s the one who helped me realize that he wasn’t capable of sending the messages either!”
Steele slid slowly into the chair in front of her desk, moving her head slowly into her hands, rubbing her head, trying to avoid the oncoming headache. “Then where Xad? Where could they be coming from?”
“Not here sir. There’s no way they came from this ship.”
Malek closed his eyes. “Could someone from the Enterprise or Jaguar be piggy-backing on us?”
Xad nodded. “Yes sir. I think it’s the only explanation.” he cleared his throat. “Now, I understand that you two may be under orders to keep the nature of this mission from us…but if there’s any way…”
“We need to brief them Malek.” Steele grunted.
Malek’s eyes widened. “But Captain…”
“I said we need to bring them in Malek! I want the entire senior staff informed of everything now! If what Xad says is true the mission has been compromised! We need to regroup. Xad, is it possible that someone from either the Enterprise or the Jaguar would know about the presence of these messages being emitted from this ship?”
Malek’s face began to pale and Steele knew he hadn’t considered this. “Not only is it possible Captain, it’s likely.”
“Then we’re on the outside.” she said succinctly. “They think we’re traitors.”
Malek licked his lips and connected his eyes with sadness and guilt. “I’ll call senior staff to the briefing room sir.”
Steele nodded weakly. “Thank you Malek. Xad – I want you to try to…”
“I’m already on it Captain. We’ll find out who sent them…don’t worry.”
Steele chuckled sarcastically. “Xad, Malek…I need to apologize for my actions of late…”
“Captain, I’m sorry about…” Malek offered.
“No. I put you into a very strange position. Xad’s right, I haven’t been myself. I don’t blame you for thinking the way you did. You put the mission first Malek. You did the right thing.” She said starkly as she stood from her chair. “Now let’s see if we can find a way out of this mess…together.”
Malek nodded with a smile and exited the ready room, followed closely by Xad. Steele sat at her desk and placed her head in her hands. She had so little emotion left. She had so little energy to deal with it all.
A single tear dropped to her desk.
She stared at it coldly for a long time.
If I ever find her…If I ever hear her voice…I will. I will kill her.
Thomas looked to Kaest is pure disbelief and growing anger, “You’re lying.” he whispered harshly.
Kaest’s eyes filled with moisture and he turned to assure his back was to the two guards who stood ready at the door of the morgue. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, “No. I swear it.” He whispered.
Thomas raised himself on a bent elbow and glared into the Bajoran’s eyes. “It’s not possible. You’re trying to trick me.”
“Please…you must help.” Kaest begged. “Just follow along when the time is right. Your presence on this ship is too great a gift. You have been sent by the Prophets. I know it. It was meant to be.”
“No.” Thomas whispered once more. “The Prophets do not exist.”
Kaest’s eyes softened with understanding. “You may not believe so but that is no matter. Please tell me you will do this.”
Thomas wouldn’t look him in the eye. “What if I refuse?”
“Then more will die.”
Thomas’ eyes shot wide. “What do you mean by that?”
“Look. You want her dead and so do I. I can give you the means to accomplish that goal. The fact that you ended up on this ship is just a fortunate happenstance. I had to use this opportunity and so should you!”
Thomas swallowed hard and felt the physician place a small device in his hands. “When the time comes Thomas please don’t fail me. I will meet you. You will not be alone.”
The doors to the morgue opened and Thomas took the device and discretely shoved it under his waist on the bed. Kaest smiled gently and turned to see Data entering the room. There was no doubt that the android suspected something as his eyes were drawn to the two of them immediately upon his entrance. Kaest briefly looked to his patient once more, closing his tricorder. “You are doing better by the minute.” he said loudly enough for the rest to hear. “I will return shortly.”
Thomas’ eyes connected with Kaest’s once more and rested there – stone cold and immobile. Kaest placed his hand on Thomas’ arm and squeezed it fervently. He turned, acknowledged Data and left the morgue.
Data approached Thomas directly. “Are you well Thomas?”
Thomas swallowed hard; filled with confusion and doubt he nodded his head weakly. “I’m fine Commander. Just tired.”
Data observed him shortly, nodded his head once and turned to walk towards the tables on the other side of the bay. “Then I will leave you to your rest.”
Thomas closed his eyes but his heart was beating so quickly he knew he would never sleep. The bulge of the small device sat like a stone just under his ribs. Could it be true? Can he help me find her? Can he help me kill her? If so…I must use it. I will never get another chance like this. Once I’m returned to Earth I’ll never be placed in a position to harm her!
What if he’s lying? What if he’s trying to trick me? What if he’s working for her, not against her? I would be led right back to the spider’s web.
Thomas shifted himself over the device at his back.
But sometimes the only way to kill a spider is to hunt her where she feeds.
Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract
VIP Quarters of Gul Nekrit
Gul Nekrit smiled cautiously as she read her tablet. Gul Minet eyed her carefully. Her smile could mean many things and he was not about to assume one way or the other. Nekrit set the tablet on the desk and looked to her counterpart from Central Command, Gul Cacet, who stood near her at the desk. “Good news Nekrit?” He asked, giving Minet a moment’s relief from feeling he would have to ask himself.
“Yes,” she said calmly. “This couldn’t be going better.” Nekrit leaned back in her chair with and fingered the edge of the desk playfully. “If we continue to get lucky, we may never have to engage them.”
“What?” Minet couldn’t help himself. He had been preparing himself and his crew for battle with three formidable Federation ships, the thought that they would still be able to reach their mission objectives and not have to fire a single shot? It was too hard for him to believe. “How?” he asked.
Nekrit turned her stark grey eyes to him. “I will need to use one of your sturdier shuttles Gul. I’m sure you can arrange that?”
Minet was beginning to fume. Facts were being withheld from him once more and it unsettled him. However, he knew that questioning either of his superiors would lead him nowhere but to death. He stifled his anger once more. “Of course.”
“In the meantime, please change your course heading and move towards the Cluster. I want you and the other ships to find a way to hide from Starfleet sensors for as long as possible while I’m away. Hopefully I will return without delay with our problem.”
Cacet’s eyebrow lifted slightly. “You want to go alone? I would feel much more comfortable if you took a small contingent with you at the very least.”
Nekrit smirked. “While I appreciate your concern Cacet, I don’t believe this will take long at all…but, I’m no fool either. I will take a small team along with me.”
Cacet nodded his head with satisfaction. “Good. Where in the Cluster are you headed?”
Nekrit shook her head, “A minor planet about four light years from the Tovuhn system called Nisiam.”
Minet grimaced. “Nisiam? I know of it. Gul, I am concerned. If something happens to you there I’m afraid we will not have much of a chance to rescue you quickly, the gravimetric shear that surrounds that area will impede this vessel’s response time and will likely make it impossible altogether.”
“I am aware of that, but that same gravimetric shear will impede Starfleet’s larger vessels as well and I want you to keep the larger ships from entering into the cluster. A shuttle from the Starfleet battle ship called the Jaguar will meeting me.”
“Why not just have the shuttle come directly to us?”
Nekrit smiled and Minet shuddered. “Because as hard as it is to believe Minet, I would like to accomplish this mission without having to engage any Starfleet vessel, and I am sure you can understand why. Starfleet would have no reason to fire upon us if we do not provoke them. So having a Starfleet shuttle enter one of our ships would not be wise. However, they would not be able to stop me from returning to my ship.”
This was something Minet could easily comprehend. A major portion of the Argolis Cluster was still considered to be outside of Federation territory, including the Tovuhn system and several smaller systems closer to the Cardassian Demilitarized Zone. It was still arguably considered neutral territory. Starfleet would not fire upon them unless provoked and if they could avoid firing on Starfleet vessel, all the better. Firing upon a Starfleet vessel now could rupture any potential political gains Central Command had earned back with the Cardassian public. Minet stood from the chair opposing Nekrit. “I will make the necessary preparations for your shuttle.”
“Good.” said Nekrit. “I want to leave within the hour.”
“As you wish.” Minet departed the room.
Nekrit looked up to Cacet and he grimaced. “I still would rather you take a larger contingent. I don’t trust this. He’s still Bajoran and no matter how much you may think you have him under your thumb, he will always be Bajoran.”
Nekrit nodded softly. “Too true Cacet. However, you will be in a position to determine if the shuttle contains too many.”
“I would still feel better if we would just fire upon them the moment they exit that battle ship.”
Nekrit looked over her graceful hands once more. “Yes Cacet, I know. However this is one time when firepower is not in our best interest. If we fired upon a weaker shuttle…”
Cacet pursed his lips tightly. “Yes. We would be asking for war.”
"And don't forget Cacet, the Enterprise's First Officer is an exact duplicate. Right down to their DNA and their memories until seven years ago. I'm still not convinced they haven't switched them to protect our target and have fooled our good doctor. If we just blasted that shuttle out of space, we wouldn't know if we got the right one until they reached Earth. I cannot risk it. I'll know if he's the right one immediately and then I will kill him."