No one answered Markalis’s page.
The strange man grinned. "We don't want any interruptions, do we?" he quipped. "You act like I just saw you coming out of the shower."
"If you're with who I think you're with, you keep track of that sort of thing to some degree, so you're still a pervert."
The man chuckled. "You're halfway there," he said with a smirk. "I am with Section 31 and the name is Cole." He stood up and sauntered into the living area.
Markalis followed, putting on a white silk robe over her sleeveless gray tank and gray sweatpants. She slipped her bare feet into a pair of pink slippers. Before sitting in a chair across from Cole, she replicated a mug of coffee. “So what does Section 31 want with a simple country doctor?” she demanded, taking a slow sip of coffee.
“What have you been able to learn about the crew of the Epsilon Trianguli listening post?” Cole asked.
“All of them died because their hemoglobin dissolved. Based on the autopsies, this was caused by a virus. The EMH is crosschecking with our medical databases. He hasn’t found anything yet.”
“But one survived, and he is recovering in your sickbay.”
“That’s right. You already seem to know a lot about what’s been happening on this ship the last twenty-four hours.”
Cole snickered. “That’s true,” he stated. “I’m here for some information that will help in my investigation. Why was this one survivor immune to what killed the others?”
“We don’t know that either.”
“Any theories, hypotheses?”
“That he had some kind of genetic immunity.”
“Possibly because he was genetically enhanced, allowing for accelerated critical neural pathway formation, improved lung and respiratory efficiency… “
“Yes, he was conscious a lot longer than most humans would be with life support being off-line for as long as it was. Are you going to play twenty questions all night?”
“Let me let you in on a little secret. The Dominion was not responsible for those deaths. The listening post was a proving ground. If the other powers were to learn that a group of humans possess a biological weapon, the ramifications would be disastrous. We need to do damage control. Have you made out your full report to your captain?”
Markalis sighed anxiously. Finally, she would know the catch behind this unannounced debriefing, and she wasn’t sure she was going to like it. “I may not always be able to pick up on non-verbal cues or deduce hidden messages,” she said, “but I’m getting a good idea about what you are asking of me.”
“Enlighten me then,” Cole replied, grinning deviously.
“You expect me to lie to my commanding officer, falsify my medical logs, and impede an investigation into a potential threat to the security of the Federation.”
“In a nutshell, yes,” Cole replied, standing up and sauntering towards the door. “Those acts might jeopardize your Starfleet career, but those acts are only ‘sins of the system’, unlike, say, murdering a sentient being.”
Markalis was reminded of when she was forced to shoot and kill a Jem’Hadar. That act saved her own life, but it also marked the first time she had taken a life. That was something that still haunted her. She turned herself to her left to face Cole. “How do you know about that?” she asked.
“Very little escapes our attention,” Cole stated. “Despite your reluctance, your willingness to hear me out indicates what I’m saying makes sense on a subconscious level. I know of your interest in interstellar politics. After Earth’s second world war four hundred years ago, the major powers tried to no avail to put the ‘genie’ back in the bottle. That and the Augment Crisis of 2154.”
Cole stepped out of the crew quarters after the doors parted and walked away. Markalis was suddenly felt a rush of anxiety over this newest crisis of conscience. She walked to the bedroom and removed a miniature hypospray from a drawer under the nightstand. She injected the contents into her left wrist, and then lay back on the bed. Milady strutted towards her master, jumped onto the bed, and rested her chin on Aurellan’s right forearm. She arched her head to the right to stroke the dog’s snout.
The following morning, Aurellan called a security team to her quarters to conduct close-range scans in search of evidence of a transporter beam. Two human security officers used interphasic scanners to scan the bedroom while Morrison scanned the living area with a tricorder and interphasic scanner. Markalis stood by the desk in the front right corner while the EMH scanned her with a medical tricorder. Limis observed while waiting for the other officers to report.
“Nothing out of the ordinary aside from elevated adrenaline levels,” the holographic doctor reported. “That’s to be expected when Big Brother pays an unexpected visit.”
“Thank you anyway, Doctor,” Markalis timidly replied.
The EMH then set the medical tricorder down on the desk and ordered the computer to transfer himself back to sickbay.
Ensign Calliope Morales walked over to the security chief to report. “I read no evidence of anyone having beamed in or out,” said the petite woman of mixed Latin American and African ancestry. “He certainly covers his tracks well since the security logs indicate no intruders in the last twelve hours.”
“Then I’m sure they have transporter technology we can’t detect,” Morrison replied. “Perhaps it’s something like Dominion transporters or folded space transport.”
“That kind of transport has deadly side effects,” said Markalis.
“This agency hasn’t been around that long without an effective means of stealth transport,” Limis offered. To Morales and Morrison, and the male security ensign, she said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like a few minutes with the doctor.”
The security officers stepped out of the quarters. Limis sighed as she paced across the room. She stared out of the viewport remembering her first encounter with an organization that went against the very principles on which the Federation was founded. Markalis was uncertain why Limis was looking out a window rather than speaking to her, as claimed.
“Captain?” she said with confusion.
Limis turned to face Markalis. “I learned of this rogue agency fourteen years ago,” she said, “Article Fourteen, Section Thirty-One could be interpreted in many ways. In times of crisis, even the Federation needs to take extraordinary measures. I’m proof of that. That Starfleet actually sanctions an organization that operates in the same manner as the Obsidian Order and the Tal Shiar is one reason for my skepticism. But unlike Bek Gillen, I don’t use that as an excuse for fear mongering.”
“What are you getting at?” Markalis impatiently demanded.
“I want you to go along with Cole’s request. Did he say who has this biological weapon?”
“Only that a group of humans used Epsilon Trianguli as a proving ground.”
“Even Section 31 finds that unacceptable, and I can see wanting to keep this secret as long as possible. After all, the Federation does not engage in biological warfare.
“Just remember, Doctor,” Limis continued, heading for the door, “don’t be too quick to volunteer information. That way you won’t leave too many clues that you’re on our side.”
“But I am on your side, Captain. I promise you that.”
“You shouldn’t let him think that.”
Markalis let out an anxious sigh. This special assignment just got more complicated.
Upon the Lambda Paz’s return to Starbase G-6, Limis appeared at a briefing with the station commander Christopher Dennings and the captains of other ships in the Seventh Fleet. The briefing was held in one of the holosuites in order to communicate with ship captains not physically on the station. Limis never saw the point of that other than making teleconferences seem less impersonal. Starfleet engineers seemed to love showing off technological innovations. The holographic representations of nearly a dozen different Starfleet captains were so perfect she could not distinguish who was really in the room from who was a projection.
Of course, Lieutenant Commander Selek, a Vulcan who had previously served as the Lambda Paz’s night watch duty officer and Limis’s former Bajoran Resistance colleague Lenaris Holem were really there since she saw them out in the hallway. Despite not always being a fan of Starfleet, Limis thought she and Lenaris looked better in Starfleet uniforms. Among the non-Starfleet officers were Klingon General Gh’ralg, Romulan Star Navy admiral Temlek, and Deep Space Nine’s resident Cardassian Elim Garak.
Rear Admiral Edward Jellico, commanding the Constantinople, addressed the group to deliver updates on his reconnaissance mission. A three dimensional holographic display appeared in front of the holographic projection of the admiral. “As you can see,” said Jellico, indicating the Starfleet deltas that filled the display, “our forces continue to hold the line at the Tibor Nebula.”
“Weren’t most of our ships there decimated during the first engagement?” Lenaris said of the initial confrontation shortly after the invasion of Betazed.
“That engagement also came at a heavy cost for the Dominion,” Selek explained. “Their efforts to fortify the supply line from Kalandra through the Beta Veldonna system continue to be curtailed.”
“From these reports,” Vice-Admiral Dennings chimed in, looking up from a padd, “I see that the outermost systems at Kalandra are defended only by Cardassian warships.”
“Using them as cannon fodder is becoming a more common strategy,” Garak answered. “It is an ideal cover for seeking retaliation for my people’s attack on the Founder’s homeworld.”
“A dishonorable motive in any case,” Gh’ralg growled.
“So why would the Cardassians go along with it?” Limis wondered trying to ignore Dennings staring at her. She could see why the portly man with graying hair had been married four times with his propensity for leering at women thirty years his junior.
“As much as they are realizing the emptiness of the Dominion’s promises,” Garak explained, “the military also sees that the price of losing the war is too high.”
“It is also a classic strategy of unpredictability,” Temlek added. “The enemy expects that we would go after the easier target while the Jem’Hadar continue to fortify their own holdings.”
Something the Romulans know all about, Gh’ralg silently thought.
“At the very least, it would keep the Cardassians on the defensive while my task force continues pouring deeper into the sector,” Jellico replied. The holographic display zoomed in towards the two star systems Jellico pointed to. “That’s where the Lambda Paz, the Derna, and the Epimetheus come in. Those ships will occupy the Cardassian flank in the Chudala system and the Amducro field.”
“The ion storms in that system may pose a problem,” Temlek observed, looking up from his briefing padd. “They could counteract the masking effect of Klingon cloaking devices. I would suggest a Romulan task force to conduct the preliminary patrols.”
“Our analysis of the ion storms did not yield such conclusions,” Gh’ralg insisted.
“Fortunately,” Temlek shot back, “our scientists are more thorough.”
“Or you tohzahs would try to take most of the credit.”
“Gentlemen,” Dennings cut in, “let’s try to keep a united front. You can work out these little issues yourselves. If that is all, I wish every one of you Godspeed.”
Jellico and the other holographic projections quickly disappeared. The crowd dispersed. Limis did not see anyone enter with a few people filing out. But someone who was not part of the meeting was conversing with Lenaris, most likely his new first officer. Despite initial plans to have a mostly Bajoran crew on the Derna, Starfleet Intelligence wanted one of its operatives aboard after Lenaris’s former second-in-command attempted to deal a crippling blow to the Alliance out of the misguided belief that it would lead to a less destructive end to the war.
Lenaris gave Limis a quick wave. The human also looked in her direction. He seemed familiar, even fitting Markalis’s description of Agent Cole— well over six feet tall, burly, athletic upper body, and a scowling facial expression. Or maybe he wasn’t Cole since Limis hadn’t met the man in person.
Outside the starbase, larger numbers of Federation, Klingon, and Romulan ships continued massing. On most days, a few dozen heavy cruisers, light frigates, medical transports, and tow ships were moored at the station. Today, over a hundred ships were situated in the general vicinity of the starbase in preparation for one of the most important offensives of the entire war.