They “rematerialized” in a holographic representation of a hillside outside Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, Earth, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer afternoon. Immediately Nikhila noticed the crowd below, chanting agitatedly at the behest of the speaker on a makeshift podium.
She looked at Barclay. “Is this some kind of holonovel?”
“Would that it were, Commander. This is a visual record of – yesterday.”
Outside Starfleet Command, officers stood at parade rest in regular intervals. Although she had studied the protocol for public protest, Nikhila had never actually witnessed one, at least on Earth. While the officer contingent remained unarmed, in dress uniform, affirming an official ceremonial presence, she couldn't help but feel a disquieted sense of responsibility by the demonstration of discord in her own hometown. “What happened?”
Barclay handed her a pair of binoculars. “Look closer.”
She took them. “There are a lot of arguments down there.”
“That's right. People protesting for the same reason but for cross purposes. The first group is agitating for a stronger Starfleet presence in Bajor Sector to counter the rising threats against peace, be it Cardassian, Maquis or – anyone, really. Others are demonstrating on behalf of the Maquis and other residents of the former DMZ. They say the Federation presence there is what caused the conflict in the first place, and is only adding to the unrest created by Bajor's new Reaffirmation of Allegiance Charter. The announcement by the Bajoran Ministry naming the Cardassians as neutral arbiters between Bajor and the Maquis Colony Coalition only added to rising tempers, and it all went to hell two days ago. And it's only getting worse.”
Nikhila increased her magnification and scanned the crowd more closely. She couldn't tell who was arguing for which side.
“I thought the Maquis issues were dead and buried.”
Barclay watched consternatedly. “That's exactly the problem.”
“I still don't see what would have compelled them into action like this.”
“We're – getting to that,” he replied. “Computer, two to transport.”
Protests and demonstrations flared in every city they visited. Then Barclay took them on a holographic tour of the Maquis Colony Coalition and other planets around the DMZ:
Each site, more heated than the last.
– Council Seat of Dhakur Province – a street in flames, a crowd in chaos.
Nikhila took Barclay's arm. “I've seen enough.”
He regarded her sadly. “No, you haven't.”
They transported to the bridge of a Federation ship – the expansive, regal command center of a Sovereign class starship. In the command chair, Rear Admiral Leth Valxaen sat erect in a gold-piped duty uniform. The bridge bustled under his watchful command. Tensions were elevated.
The crew watched the viewer intently. Nikhila glanced at the communications station. She instantly recognized the intensely active visual pattern of task indicators - of nearly a fleet of Federation starships.
“There she is,” said the helmsman.
“Magnify,” ordered Admiral Valxaen, Andorian antennae at the alert.
On screen, a Maquis Peregrine fighter dropped out of warp and angled towards a Cardassian freighter. The Peregrine launched a trio of photon torpedoes.
“Sir, the torpedoes do not appear to be targeted for impact with the freighter.” The tall Bolian woman sat in command at the Admiral's right hand. “It's a warning volley across the bow, Admiral.”
“Open a channel to the Maquis,” ordered the Admiral.
“They're not responding, sir,” said the com officer.
“I don't give a damn
. Open their channels for
The com officer responded, sending a powerful subspace burst, and Nikhila noted the com controls with professional approval. The Admiral continued: “Maquis vessel! Withdraw from your pursuit immediately. This region now falls under the protection of the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet. If you make any further aggressive moves against that ship, in warning or otherwise, you will
be fired upon.”
“We're arriving now, sir,” said the helmsman.
“Attack pattern beta three one.”
The starship Resolute
dropped out of warp and rolled towards the Peregrine.
The Maquis ship arced for another pass at the freighter; the Admiral gave a silent command to his tac officer, who armed the ship's weapons systems.
“Attention crew of the Maquis vessel,” Admiral Valxaen intoned, his voice graveling and firm, “The Resolute
is targeting your engines and engineering deck. I suggest you reinforce your shields and evacuate those areas immediately. After which we will be happy to provide tractor assistance. That is, if there's anything remaining of your ship. Good luck. Tactical officer, fire torpedoes.”
The tactical officer interrupted “Maquis ship is moving off, sir.”
The admiral watched the viewer. “I gave you an order, Lieutenant.”
“Sir? Yes sir.” The tactical officer fired.
The bridge crew watched in tense silence as a pulsing volley of photon torpedoes approached the Maquis ship. The ship increased speed and changed vectors, but the torpedoes compensated and continued their pursuit. The Maquis fighter pitched drastically and the torpedoes homed in on its drive section.
Admiral Valxaen watched intently to the final seconds.
He waved them off. “Abort arming sequence.”
As the torpedoes winked out against the Peregrine's shields, the Maquis ship warped away. The Bolian officer regarded the Admiral. “That was a dangerous ploy, Admiral.”
“Ploy, was it. Just a little singed hull plating, Commander Pel.” He rose. “Helm, bring the Resolute
back to the fleet. I'll be in my ready room.”
The com officer interrupted. “Admiral? The captain of the Cardassian ship wishes to thank you directly.”
The Admiral didn't hesitate. “Handle it, Pel,” he said as the door closed behind him.
Nikhila turned to Barclay. “Are you sure this isn't a holonovel?”
Barclay shook his head. “Are you ready for the next bit?”
He sighed with a nod and tapped his communicator.
They rematerialized on a stately balcony overlooking a crowd of people in the frigid air of winter. Beside them, several Bajoran ministers discussed something fervently while one prepared to address the restless crowd below.
“This is how it all began,” Barclay said.
“Where are we?”
“Ashalla, Bajor. The Tellarite Trade Commission building - and temporary office of - the Federation Embassy to Bajor.” He looked to the far side of the square. “And being broadcast across the Federation.”
“Weren't we just...?” she followed his gaze, and gasped. Across the square, Nikhila saw a devasted ruin where the Federation Embassy once stood.
While the Bajoran ministers made their speeches, Barclay motioned to a side table. “The bomb went off after the kidnapping of a Federation delegate. Nobody really knows who was responsible, but there's no shortage of speculation on the matter,” he said dejectedly.
“Who was kidnapped?”
“The Strategic Advisor to the Federation Office of Legal Counsel. Rima Toloruk. He was here working with the Interstellar Justiciary of the Bajoran High Magistrate, investigating the attempted Perseus bombing, and making inroads against the Maquis. But if it was the Maquis who kidnapped him and set the bomb, they're saying nothing. No one has come forward or is making any demands yet.”
The crowd responded to the speeches with furious chanting and constant interruption. The Ministers' voices strained against the din.
Shouts of support mixed with almost violent disdain from the crowd, in the address from a firebrand Bajoran Starfleet Captain. When she presented the burnt casing of the bomb, recovered from the site of the explosion, it only exacerbated the crowd's emotional upheaval.
“The Maquis feel like the Federation is allying with Bajor and Cardassia against them. Trying to politically dominate the sector, in order to open their planets for exploitation of natural resources, and possible colonization.”
“What, them? Or me? Maybe we're all getting paranoid lately. Since the Bajor Council passed both the Reaffirmation Charter and the Arbitration Treaty with Cardassia Prime – and something about Cardassian reparations for the Occupation - the Maquis feel pressed on every side. They've started to mobilize. Since this bombing, acts of terror have occurred on Bajor, Cardassia, in the DMZ, and – Earth. Problem is, it could be any one of us, or even all of us.”
Nikhila shouted to Barclay. “What about this first bomb? Was anyone killed?”
Barclay continued. “No one was killed, because a warning had come in shortly after the kidnapping. It was intended as a political statement, not an act of murder.”
Nikhila shook her head. “That's no political statement, that's a psychological cry for help. Or worse, a political stunt.”
“Guess what kind of energy signature the bomb had.”
“I'm afraid to.”
He covered his hands in the holographic cold. “Trellium fusion. Same as the Perseus attempted bombing.”
“That doesn't necessarily mean the incidents were related.”
“No. It actually complicates things.” The Barclay hologram shivered, blew into his hands and continued. “Between the attempted bombing of Perseus, and its disappearance with Voyager, tensions against the Maquis and Cardassia are rising everywhere. They're responding in kind. Starfleet is amassing a fleet to move into emergency control of Bajor Sector. As you can see, half the Sector, and indeed half the Federation is calling it an imperialistic aggression. The Cardassian attempts at negotiating Bajor's Reaffirmation of Allegiance Charter with the Maquis only made things worse. Everyone is blaming everyone else for this bombing, and there's a lot of ship movement. And that's not all.”
“Uh huh,” he nodded. “Romulans.”
“Long range security scans indicate Romulan fleet and supply movements. They've even communicated with Starfleet Command about offering assistance in the interest of 'trial joint humanitarian operations'. Romulan ships are positioning themselves for what they say is defense across the entire range of the Neutral Zone. They smell blood.”
“Jackals.” Nikhila quieted, and looked at the body of Ministers, each having spoken her and his peace. The crowd, however, did not look like it would disperse any time soon. “What do you think, Mr Barclay?”
“M – m – m – me? Why would it matter what I thought?”
“It matters. To me. And to Starfleet.”
He scanned the crowd. “This terror attack could instigate a war between Bajor, the Maquis, Cardassia, and the Federation. It's already generating civic protests across the whole Federation, with the Romulans ready to take advantage of the situation. Most of the public suspects the Maquis for this attack, as a resistance to the Reaffirmation Charter and all the rest of the external pressures. The Maquis of course, accuse Cardassia, and resent Bajor and the Federation, and are arming in self-protection. They will do what they do best. Fight for survival.”
After a moment of silence, he said: “B'Elanna Torres.”
“What?” she replied.
“She could set all this to right. She's in the middle of it all. Because she can prove who set that first bomb on the Perseus, and also, if the Maquis are telling the truth by denying it. With Toloruk's kidnapping Starfleet is starting to put real pressure on the Maquis. We all need her to prove it. She's the lynchpin of this whole situation! And she's...near death. That's why Commander Barclay sent this message. He didn't believe Perseus was under Maquis influence. If it had been it wouldn't have pursued Voyager. And that's the other flashpoint. Voyager. Considering Voyager's crew makeup of Maquis, a lot of people are accusing members of the Voyager crew. So Barclay told me to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“We need you. We need Perseus.”
As the speeches wound down, the crowd continued their fevered pitch. The Ministers broke and left the balcony. “Oh good, let's go inside,” Barclay said. “I could use a cocoa.”
“Just a minute, Reg. Computer, reinitialize Ashalla program from the beginning and playback in fast advance mode, visual only.”
The environment reset. The holograms began to advance rapidly through their paces.
“What...what are you doing?” Barclay asked her.
Nikhila faced the body of Ministers. The playback scanned through their speeches at increased speed. She studied an elder Minister wearing a bejeweled earring of Council Permanence. She watched his face intently through the entire playback.
When the playback stopped, she said, “He's lying.”
“Look at his eyes.”
Barclay leaned into the Minister's face. “I don't see anything.”
“That's exactly it, Commander. During the speech every delegate here glanced at the bomb device at least five times. This Minister? Not once.”
“What does that mean?”
Nikhila thoughtfully tapped her phase decompiler against her palm. “He's seen it before.”
“My dear Commander,” the Barclay hologram smiled, “you have just earned a cocoa.”
She smiled and waved her phase decompiler. “Lead the way, Reginald.”