The tension in Eagle’s observation lounge felt surprisingly high even before the meeting had commenced. Michael thought he had felt it the moment he had stepped into the conference room and the voices of his senior officers had quieted down quickly.
DeMara Deen had hardly made eye contact with him as he stepped up to his seat at the head of the table and So’Dan Leva seemed to be staring off into empty space. Doctor Katanga was clearly in a fouler mood than usual and was taking pains to avoid looking at Tazla Star which in itself was odd since he knew that the two most recent additions to his crew had been close friends for a long time and had rekindled that friendship since they had reunited on Eagle.
Commander Xylion also appeared more preoccupied with his own thoughts than he had come to expect from the usually most steadfast member of his crew.
But perhaps most concerning considering the nature of their upcoming mission was the fact that Lif Culsten appeared oddly quiet and uninterested in the ongoing proceedings, having chosen a seat at the far end of the table and not next to Louise Hopkins where he would have normally expected him, usually at the center of any ongoing conversations while liberally cracking jokes. The young chief engineer didn’t appear greatly concerned that the Krellonian had chosen not to sit next to her.
The only person who made a rather relaxed impression on him was his Bajoran security chief, the very same person who more often than not was predominately concerned with potential risks to the ship and her crew.
He haphazardly pondered for just a brief moment if he should have asked the ship’s counselor to attend today’s briefing session as he took his chair. He couldn’t help but feel that she would have given him a rather worrisome report about the current mental state of his senior officers.
"Thank you all for coming," he said. "I appreciate that the crew might be somewhat puzzled by our unexpected and sudden change of mission and the lack of further details, especially considering all the work and preparation we have put into our mission to the Pleiades. Not to mention the excitement of the prospect of engaging in a long-term exploratory mission of this nature. First of all, let me assure you all that the Pleiades is not going anywhere and that we are still scheduled to be the first Starfleet vessel to venture deep into that corner of space. It's just that something else has come up which we will need to deal with first as a matter of urgency."
Katanga nodded impatiently. "A medical emergency. Naturally, that must take priority. But I have to seriously question the sanity of whoever made the decision to keep the details of such a crucial assignment under wraps. The sooner I get the full scope of the situation on the ground, the quicker I can prepare for whatever we are dealing with."
Star shot the African doctor a sharp look to communicate her annoyance with his choice of words which Katanga chose to ignore entirely. And while Michael was not always pleased with his chief medical officer’s bluntness, he could certainly sympathize with his point. Because of the complexities of the situation they had been thrust into he had not been able to give Katanga more than a very basic heads-up on what their upcoming mission entailed, clearly much to the physician’s chagrin.
He acknowledged his outburst with a tilt of his head before addressing the entire group. “I understand your frustration, Doctor, and I appreciate all your patience in this matter over the last few days.”
But Star was not satisfied with glossing over Katanga's inappropriate behavior. "But at the end of the day, we are Starfleet officers expected to follow orders. We may not always get explanations, and we may not always like the ones we do get, but that doesn't change the fact that we will follow those orders to the best of our abilities regardless. I want you all to keep this in mind over the next few days."
Of course, he didn't disagree with anything his first officer had said, but considering the awkward position he now found himself in—he and Star both, really—perhaps he may not have chosen such strong language with the rest of the crew.
And Katanga, predictably, didn’t respond well to it. “Orders are all well and good,” he said, gracing Star with only a very brief glance before focusing back on the captain. “But if lives hang in the balance, my priorities are clear. And always will be.”
Michael picked up before Star could respond. Usually, he depended on the Trill to be the buffer between Katanga's brusque and sometimes downright cantankerous ways and his own more diplomatic and subtle command style. Today he felt that if he let Star continue to run interference, she would actually make matters worse. "Nobody is suggesting that we prioritize one over the other, Doctor," he said and saw that it helped calm him down somewhat, even if he continued to disregard Star's poisonous glare directed his way.
“What’s the mission, sir? Can you share any more details?”
He nodded at Nora, hiding his surprise that it was his fiery security chief who was attempting to cool down the meeting and bring it back on track. “Yes. The Federation has been approached by the Krellonian government and has formally requested medical assistance following the outbreak of what appears to be an unidentified viral disease on their colony world of Piqus VII.”
“What do we know about this disease?” Katanga asked immediately.
“Next to nothing, so far. The Krellonians have not shared any details about the nature of this epidemic. All we know is that their own medical community is puzzled by the situation and currently has no answers to combat whatever this is.”
“It must be pretty serious if they have come to us,” said Leva. “I don’t believe the Krellonians have ever asked the Federation for assistance with anything.”
“Certainly not within recent memory, no,” said Star.
“Have we tried to reach out to their leaders or their medical community?” said Katanga who was clearly already thinking about the best ways to handle the relief efforts. Hardly a surprise considering that he had co-founded Starfleet Medical’s interstellar relief agency a few decades earlier and had led that program for years before joining Eagle. The other co-founder had been Tazla Star’s former host.
Michael shook his head. “We haven’t even been given a point of contact as of yet. We are hoping to receive a full situation brief once we arrive at Piqus.”
Katanga nodded slowly. “That’s far from ideal but not at all unusual. Especially for a xenophobic government which is not used to working with other members of the interstellar community. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see quite a bit of resistance to our presence once we get there. I’ve seen that kind of thing before. Even if the central government may have agreed to seek outside assistance, it is more than likely that the local population and maybe even local leaders will object to our presence. Sometimes fiercely so.”
"Your expertise in these matters will no doubt be invaluable, Doctor," Michael said with a little smile.
“The key will be to insist as much as possible to be allowed to help and to frame every argument with an emphasis on the wellbeing of their own populace,” he said.
Michael wasn't quite sure if he liked all of that but for now decided to bow to Katanga's admittedly vast experience in that field. "The situation will also offer us an opportunity to attempt improving our relations with the Krellonian people and officials," he said and then quickly raised a hand to try and cut off Katanga before he could protests. "Not, of course, at the cost of trying to provide whatever help they require," he said quickly. "But as I probably won't have to remind anyone in the room, the Dominion War has left us in a severely weakened state that will take years, if not decades to fully recover from. Since the Krellonian Star Alliance remained entirely neutral in that conflict, it would certainly not hurt if this mission could lead to the first step of an eventual alliance." He considered Lif Culsten closely while speaking, having taken painful note that he had yet to speak at all on the subject, and still remained entirely disengaged, avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room. "Lif, since we are talking about your people, perhaps you could share some insights into the matter."
The young helmsman turned to look at the captain but didn’t speak right away. “I wish I could, sir. To be honest, I haven’t been in touch with my people much ever since I left for the Academy. I’m probably not the best source of information on what is happening within the Star Alliance.”
“And yet you probably know much more than anyone else here. Even Starfleet Intelligence has only very scant details about the Krelloninan people,” said Star.
The silver-haired, earless lieutenant glanced towards Katanga briefly. “The Doctor is right, my people tend to be xenophobic. I’m very surprised that they’ve even reached out to Federation at all. I would not expect any kind of appetite from leaders for anything more than very specific and targeted assistance. It might even be nothing more than sharing of information.”
Michael and Star exchanged a concerned look, both, of course, thinking about the wider implications of what Culsten's theory would mean.
“Lou, didn’t you and Lif only just go visit Krellon a few weeks ago?” said Nora Laas. “What was your impression?”
The chief engineer seemed noticeably uncomfortable answering that question and looked towards Culsten for support. When he didn’t offer any, she spoke up. “It was quite an experience. Overall, I thought they are a very friendly people. There were some exceptions, of course, but that’s always the case. We did have a few—well, troubles, while we were there.”
"What kind of troubles?" Star asked, beating Michael to asking the same questions by just a heartbeat.
Hopkins sought out Culsten once more and this time he did pick up the ball. “This is a turbulent time for my people. There has been a growing dissatisfaction among the populace with how the government conducts certain internal affairs.”
“How is this dissatisfaction manifesting itself?” asked Nora Laas, now fully in security officer mode again.
Culsten took a moment to answer the question. "When we were on the homeworld there were growing signs of civil unrest."
“We got caught up in a rather violent riot just as we were about to leave,” said Hopkins when Culsten didn’t elaborate further. “For a short while there, I wasn’t sure if we were even going to get out of there in one piece.”
Star looked at both his officers with concern since this was clearly the first time she had heard about any of this. It wasn't, of course, regulation for Starfleet officers to share what happened to them while they were on shore leave, but as a former intelligence operative, Michael could see how she would have liked to have been briefed about these kinds of developments. As, no doubt, would have Starfleet. Michael had a suspicion that there was more to the story his two young officers had shared, especially considering Culsten's obvious reluctance to speak on the subject.
Michael looked over at Deen who had been uncharacteristically quiet so far.
“We were practically at the other end of the galaxy when this request must have come in,” she continued. “We were just days from a mission to take us even further away from Krellon space and we had to make use of the warp sled just to get us all the way out here in the first place. I can’t help but wonder if all of this is because of Lif.”
Culsten looked up and Michael could tell that he had been asking himself that very same question. "That's our best guess," Michael said and turned his eyes on the helmsman who now found himself at the center of attention.
Star prompted him when nobody else would. “Lieutenant. Do you know somebody within the Krellonian government who may have been responsible for requesting us specifically?”
“I am not sure.”
Hopkins clearly had an opinion and almost sounded somewhat exasperated when Culsten refused to speak further on this point. “Lif, half your family works for the government. It could be your grandparents or that aunt of yours we met.”
“I suppose that is possible.”
An awkward silence fell over the room.
Michael tugged on his uniform jacket, trying to hide his frustration over his officer’s lack of cooperation. “We’ll be reaching Krellon space within five hours and Piqus shortly after that,” he said and glanced at Katanga. “Doctor, I expect you will make whatever preparations you can given the lack of details we have at hand. I suggest you brush up on your Krellonian physiology.”
He nodded sharply “Of course,” he said and then to Culsten. “Lieutenant, I will need you to report to sickbay as soon as possible. As unappealing as it may sound to you, I will require your assistance as a living specimen.”
It wasn’t hard to tell from his facial expression that it sounded extremely unappealing to him indeed. But he nodded nevertheless. “Of course, Doctor.”
“Very well,” Michael said. “That’s all for now. Dismissed.”
Everyone in the room save for him and Star left their chairs and streamed towards the two exits until the captain and the first officer were left alone in the observation lounge.
He looked towards the Trill. “This won’t be easy, will it?”
Her scowling facial expression was answer enough.