After their very nearly disastrous run-in with the Krellonian border patrol, Michael was more than a little wary about their meeting with the government official once his ship had arrived in the Piqus system some fourteen hours after Eagle’s arrival to the seventh planet.
The concern as it turned out had been unfounded since Councilman Yorlo was nothing like the belligerent Krellonians they had encountered at the border. Physically he was not nearly as impressive, where the border agents had been tall and muscular, Yorlo was short and squat, perhaps even a bit bulky not unlike many other government officials and politicians Michael had met over the years and who spent the majority of their time behind a desk. He wore his long, silvery hair in a similar style as Lif Culsten, tied together at the back of his head.
For his relatively small size, he seemed to have quite a bit of energy, or perhaps it was anxiety, since he had refused the chair Michael had offered him in the observation lounge and instead remained on his feet and kept pacing back and forth between the tall windows which currently offered an orbital view of Piqus VII.
Michael, along with Star and Katanga followed the seemingly agitated councilman with their eyes from their chairs. Michael had decided against inviting Culsten to this meeting since the helmsman had not been able to offer much assistance in their last meeting with his kinsmen.
"After hearing your version of events, the reports I have read from our border patrol are beginning to make a disturbingly amount of sense. I simply cannot believe they acted so obtusely after I had given such specific instructions about your arrival. This is very disappointing and I guarantee that this will not be the end of this matter."
“We’re just glad that your message reached them when it did,” said Michael, since having learned that it had been Yorlo who had managed to get the border patrol to stand down in the nick of time and before the entire situation could have turned into a bloody conflict.
“I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if it hadn’t. The political fallout alone, from a border skirmish with a Federation starship within our own territory, could have been catastrophic,” he said.
“Thankfully it didn’t come to that,” said Star.
Michael nodded. “You can rest assured that we would have pursued any possible avenue to avoid an open conflict.”
Yorlo stopped and glanced at the starship captain. “That is a very enlightened attitude, Captain, I commend you for it. I suppose it is true what they say about the Federation. Or at least those few rumors you hear behind closed doors. The truth of the matter is my government takes great pains to keep itself isolated, as you have no doubt seen with your own eyes. And information coming into the Star Alliance is strictly controlled. You will find that many of my fellow kinsmen believe in the inherent superiority of our people and our institutions and do not prescribe to anything that could even remotely challenge those perceptions.”
“I take it that is the reason we have been sitting on our hands for the last fourteen hours instead of being allowed to help with the medical crisis unfolding planetside?” said Katanga, never one afraid to mince words or cut right to the heart of the matter. Once again he ignored the sharp look he received from Tazla Star for his brusqueness.
Yorlo too took a moment consider the veteran doctor before he spoke. Then he began to nod slowly. “You can ascribe that to long-winded bureaucracy and good old fashioned xenophobia as well, yes,” he said and then finally took a seat at the table. “I wish I could have arrived here sooner to deal with the situation but that simply wasn’t possible.”
“We fully understand, Councilman,” said Star, once again letting Katanga know, with a quick sidelong glance, that diplomatic tact was a virtue she expected from all the officers under her command, no matter if they were ensigns right out of the Academy or grumpy old veterans who were going on their seventh decade in Starfleet. “What matters now is that you are here and you can hopefully speed up the process going forward.”
“I’ll certainly do whatever I can.”
Michael took over. “Perhaps you could start by filling us in as to what has happened on Piqus and why you have asked for our assistance. We have not been given much information so far.”
“Of course,” he said but apparently was not able to remain in his chair as he quickly jumped back onto his feet, indicating towards the planet behind him. “The first thing you must understand is that there is significant resistance to your being here. Not just from some of my colleagues in the Central Council who believe that any contact with outsiders is tantamount to a betrayal of Kellonina core values, but also from Piqus VII. The local chief administrator, a woman called Chella, has strongly protested Federation assistance.”
“I take it she was overruled,” said Michael.
“By a slim majority,” Yorlo said, nodding slowly. “And only after it became obvious that our own medical community would not find an answer to the epidemic currently sweeping across the planet perhaps before its already too late.”
“Let’s talk about this epidemic,” said Katanga, still not entirely able to keep his tone as polite as perhaps Star would have liked.
The councilman reached for a case he had brought with him and he had deposited on the chair next to his. He opened the slim case and retrieved a data padd not too different from those used within Starfleet. He activated a few commands and then handed it over Katanga across the table. "This contains everything we have learned so far. Hopefully, you will be able to understand the medical jargon. It is, I'm afraid to say, not my field of expertise." He regarded Michael next. "What we do know is that we believe that this is an artificially created disease."
“You think this was done on purpose?” Michael said. “By whom?”
Yorlo uttered a sigh. "There are certain elements within our society who feel that they are treated unfairly and are known to resort to violence. This would mark the first time they have shown such a level of commitment and planning but the fact that only a specific segment of the population is affected supports our theory that a terrorist organization is behind this."
Katanga it seemed, had already stopped listening, instead he was entirely focused on the content of the padd Yorlo had passed to him, intently studying its contents, his frown only deepening the more he read.
“Doctor, what can you tell from that data?” Michael said after having taken note of the Katanga’s intense study of the padd.
“Not nearly enough,” he said and continued reading without so much as glancing up once, almost as if the people around him had suddenly ceased to be.
“Eli?” Star prompted gently but with a slight edge in her tone. “Anything you can share with us?”
He still refused to make eye contact. “I will need some time to study this.”
“Initial impression then, if you please, Doctor,” Michael said, trying hard not to let his impatience surface. He understood that in a medical crisis such as this, he couldn’t have asked for a better medical professional, with more experience or knowledge in his field. He also understood that this level of competence oftentimes came with eccentricity. He was willing to put up with it if it would get results. To a degree.
“At first blush, this looks like a retrovirus which attacks the host's immune system to a degree that it is unable to fight off any kind of infections or diseases and will eventually lead to the patient's death.”
Michael nodded. While he couldn't claim to be a medical expert, far from it, he possessed a basic understanding of how retroviruses worked and of medical conditions affecting the immune system. “Those kinds of conditions, don't they usually take years to fully develop? It sounds to me that this epidemic has already caused a number of fatalities in a very short time.”
“Yes,” Yorlo said quickly. “The latest reports from Piqus indicate that three hundred people have died from this illness in less than a week.”
Katanga put down the padd. “I will need more to go on than this. I need to see blood work and full body scans. I need tissue samples of healthy and infected patients. I need to know the exact stages of this condition. In short, I need to do a full medical examination on patients who have contracted this disease. We’ve already made all the required preparations and could start transferring patients within the hour.”
Yorlo looked skeptical.
“Councilman,” Katanga said sternly. “The longer we hesitate on this, the longer it will take before we get to the bottom of this epidemic and the more people will lose their lives, possibly needlessly. If there is even the slightest chance to stop this epidemic from spreading, we need to act now. Too much time has already been wasted.”
"Of course, I understand this," he said. "But it will be nearly impossible for me to convince Chella to allow Krellonians to be transported to an off-world vessel. She simply won't agree to it and in those matters, even the Central Council will likely not be able to overrule her. Certainly not in the kind of time frames we need."
“If we can’t bring patients up here, maybe we can get Doctor Katanga to the patients,” said Star.
“As long as I can start examinations, I don’t care if I have to do it in a broom closet.”
“A supervised visit to the surface may be something that could be arranged,” Yorlo said. “I will attempt to make this happen as soon as I return to my ship.” He glanced at Michael. “However, before that, I must ask a favor of you, Captain.”
He gave him a short nod to proceed.
“I would very much like to speak to my nephew.” Before Michael could ask, Yorlo continued. “I believe he serves as an officer on your ship.”
It hadn't been very long ago, just a few weeks, since Lif Culsten had last seen his uncle. It had been during a most awkward family gathering at his grandparents' residence on the Krellon homeworld which Louise and he and visited during their shore leave much to his displeasure.
Now Yorlo had shown up at his doorstep and after a moment of surprise of finding him standing outside his quarters, escorted there by Tazla Star, Lif had invited him inside.
“So this is how Starfleet officers live?” he said as he inspected his quarters which despite his relative youth and low rank, were decently sized thanks to his position on the senior staff. “Quite impressive compared to the cramped conditions of an Alliance Navy ship. And yet quite a step down from what you were used to at home, no?”
Lif watched his uncle silently as he toured his quarters, paying close attention to most everything he could see, the standard, Starfleet-issue furniture, the decorations, including framed pictures of him and his friends from his Academy days and even his choice of Earth-based houseplants. Yorlo, he noticed, still had that same high energy he'd displayed when Lif had been a child and when he and his aunt had visited him in his grandparents' home on regular occasions.
He stopped his brief survey and glanced back towards the owner of the quarters. "If it were not for the photographs, it would be difficult to guess that the person who lives here is a Krellonian," he said and if he tried to keep his tone free of judgment, he was not entirely successful. "No scrolls of the Infallible Creator's Blessing, no representations of the Yellow Rose, not a single piece of art from within the Alliance."
“I haven’t had a chance to unpack,” he said lamely.
Yorlo offered a grin, fully aware clearly of Lif’s tendencies to attempt to distance himself from his own culture. Something that had been obvious even in his adolescent years and just before he had left for the Federation. “And how is your charming, young friend. Louise, was it? I took quite a liking to her.”
“You don’t live together?”
“She has her own quarters.”
“Right,” he said and acknowledged his disinterest in discussing his personal matters with him.
“Can I offer you something? A beverage perhaps?” he said, almost as an afterthought.
Yorlo shook his head. “Perhaps some other time. I have much to do after I leave here today.”
“You want to tell me why you are here?”
“It’s about your aunt.”
His eyes grew a little wider. “Garla?”
“She is up to something and I don’t know what it is. I need you to find out.”
Lif couldn’t believe his ears. “You have arranged for a Federation starship, half a galaxy away, to come all the way out here and into Alliance space, breaking who knows how many local taboos, just so you could get me to spy on your wife for you?”
“Of course not,” Yorlo quickly shot back. “In case you hadn’t heard, there is a medical emergency on Piqus VII and hundreds of people are dead or dying. That is a fact. A planet-wide quarantine is in effect and Alliance doctors are not even close to finding a cure. All those things are true and whether the local administrators or my opponents in the Council like it or not, we will need Starfleet’s help to try and defeat this pandemic.”
Lif nodded slowly. “And how does Garla fit into all that?”
He uttered a heavy sigh and walked up to one of the windows but when he realized that it was impossible to see the planet from this angle, he turned back to his nephew. “That is what I don’t know and why I need you. She has been diverting resources to this backwater system for years now, and never more than in the last few months. Her status as a Sentinel has allowed her to operate with almost complete autonomy and she has practically refused to answer any questions the Central Council has demanded regarding her operations.”
“You mean your questions.”
His expression hardened. “They are one and the same.”
“I find it difficult to believe that you don’t have your own resources in place to deal with this other than involving me and Eagle.”
Yorlo waved him off. "Of course I do. There are a number of requests which have been formally submitted to the Eye for full disclosure of any operations taking place in this system. And while you may have forgotten much about our people, I trust you remember the agonizingly slow process of our bureaucracy. It will take weeks for those requests to be actioned. Perhaps months. When this latest crisis unfolded and I realized that we needed foreign assistance, I knew how to address both problems."
The elder Krellonian gave his younger kinsmen a puzzled look, clearly not understanding the reference.
“I still don’t understand what you expect me to do about this.”
“Garla is on Piqus VII, that much I know. I will look into giving you and your doctor permission to visit the surface. In fact, getting authorization for you should be much easier. Once there I want you to seek her out and talk to her. You know she still adores you, has done so ever since you were a child. When the two of us still lived together, she spoke of you often and I also know that she spoke to you privately when you last saw her. No doubt to convince you to work with her.”
“You want me to spy on my aunt? A Sentinel of the Eye, a spymaster,” he said, sounding just as disbelieving as he felt. “She’s going to see right through me the moment I step through her doors.”
But he shook his head. “Garla might be very good at what she does but she has one important weakness. She is very sentimental and she cares about family. I know she’ll open up to you. And whatever it is that she is up to here, I’m convinced it is bad news for the Alliance. You haven’t been here but trust me when I tell you that her political views have become increasingly extremist over the years. It is the reason we drifted apart as much as we did. I fear somebody will have to stop her.”
He quickly shook his head. “That’s not going to be me.”
"Maybe not. But you can help find out what it is she is doing and how she plans to do it. I am not asking for me, Liftu. I'm asking for your mother and father. For your younger brother and everyone else whose lives will be affected, perhaps even destroyed by what she's up to. You may have turned your back on your people, but can you really live with turning them down in the hour of their greatest need? Can you live with knowing that you could have stopped it all before it even started, if only you had taken action? I implore you, Lif, to help your people and your family to survive this latest crisis before it is too late."
“You turned him down?” Tazla Star said with palpable surprise evident in her voice as she considered the Krellonian sitting in one of the two guest chairs facing Captain Owens’ desk in his ready room. Still standing by the wall, she shot a baffled look at the captain sitting in his chair.
“May I ask why?” said Michael who shared his first officer’s surprise after Culsten had briefed them both on his meeting with his uncle which had concluded just minutes earlier in his quarters.
The helmsman considered the question for a moment, or much more likely, his answer. “It’s just not something I feel very comfortable about, sir. You have to understand, Garla and I, we were very close when I was growing up. For a time, while my mother had fallen ill, she was practically my ersatz parent. I don’t like the idea of spying on her for Yorlo.”
“What if he’s right and whatever it is she’s doing could pose a serious danger to the Krellonian people?” asked Star.
“I find that hard to believe,” he said and shook his head. “Garla has always been a patriot first and foremost and a traditionalist second. I don’t doubt that she is up to something, that much was obvious when she last spoke to me on the homeworld but I cannot believe she intends to harm the Star Alliance or her own people.”
“That’s when she tried to recruit you?” said Michael who recalled that he had mentioned this previously.
“It wasn’t what you would call a hard sell,” he quickly clarified. “She felt she was doing important work. She seemed passionate about it and believed that I could be a true asset to her in achieving her goals. But she didn’t offer many details and it would have involved me leaving Eagleand Starfleet. Coming back to Krellon. That’s not something I’m prepared to do.”
Michael simply stared at him for a moment as he experienced a rather painful déjà vu. After all, what the young Krellonian had described was almost the exact same situation he had found himself in just a few weeks earlier, when his father had made his case to him—entirely unexpectedly—to leave Eaglebehind and join him to work on a project which he had believed to be of the uttermost importance to the Federation. And just like Garla had apparently done when trying to convince his nephew, his father had refused to share the true nature of that project. And just like Culsten, Michael had turned him down.
Star, apparently sensing that Michael was drawing parallels to his own experiences, continued. “I think you should reconsider, Lieutenant. Whatever it is that your aunt is working on, it clearly has your uncle greatly worried. If there is a chance that this could develop into some sort of threat to Krellon or even beyond, it would be better to know about it early instead of risking having to face a possible crisis unprepared.”
Culsten added a heavy sigh. “To be entirely honest with you, Commander, I have my reasons to doubt Yorlo’s motivations in this matter.”
“How so?” asked Michael.
Culsten made eye contact with the captain. “Garla and Yorlo have been separated for quite some time and there is a lot of personal animosity between the two of them. Animosity that goes beyond differences in philosophies and political convictions.”
“You think it’s personal?”
Culsten nodded. “I’m convinced that it is.”
Michael had heard enough for now. "Very well, Lif. Thanks for coming up here and telling us about this." He said this even though it had been Star who had to prompt Culsten to give them both a recap of his conversation with his uncle.
“Of course,” he said and stood. “Sir,” he said respectfully and gave Star a brief nod as well before he left the ready room.
Star turned to the captain as soon as the doors had closed behind the helmsman. “So that was interesting.”
Michael leaned back in his chair. "The timing of all this is certainly suspicious. We've got a possible alien invasion attempt in the sector, potentially aided by people within the Krellonian Star Alliance. The outbreak of a mysterious illness on a populated Krellonian colony within the same sector, and a suspicious Krellonian intelligent agent operating on that very same planet to unknown ends which have her own people concerned enough to break a century-old isolationist policy and inviting us here."
The Trill took the chair Culsten had only recently vacated. "When I was a child I was very fond of an Earth game called Connect the Dots," she said. "I have a growing suspicion that all these dots might fit together somehow."
“Just one problem. That game you speak off, it only works if you know how the dots connect to each other. So far we have no idea.”
Star leaned closer. “Culsten’s attitude towards all this is rather disappointing. I was hoping he’d be more cooperative in helping us solve this puzzle.”
“In his defense, he doesn’t yet know that there is a puzzle to be solved.”
“Still,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “He has not exactly been helpful so far when it comes to dealing with his own people.”
“It isn’t difficult to tell that he doesn’t like being back here. He turned his back on Krellon a long time ago and I have to assume for good reason.”
“He is also a Starfleet officer. We could order him to meet with his aunt.”
This time it was Michael who shook his head. “How can I give that order when I can't even trust the very same people who have put us on this course to begin with? I won't force him to face a family he doesn't wish to deal with. Not unless I know for sure that it is crucial he does so. For now, we'll focus our efforts on learning more about this epidemic and help where we can. That might buy us enough goodwill with Krellonian leaders to learn more about any possible connections with the subspace aliens and their plans.”
Star seemingly knew enough about Michael's own family issues to know not push him on this point and eventually nodded. “It would help if we could get access to the planet. And ideally, before Elijah hijacks a shuttle out of pure frustration and makes a run for the surface on his own.”