32 Carrion Flower
“We're alongside the Endurance now, sir.”
“Nothing as of yet, Admiral.”
JAG Commander Trelliq Pel rose from the command center and moved to her First Officer's seat. On the viewscreen, the Resolute
's two Defiant-class escorts rendezvoused with the Excelsior Endurance
on the periphery of the turbulent spatial region in sector zero four-seventy, better known as the Badlands.
She watched Admiral Leth Korett Valxaen enter from his ready room and scan the busy crew on the bridge. He nodded once to his Bolian first officer and noted the viewer.
“Open a channel.”
The Captain of the Endurance
stood; a rugged middle-aged Earther attended by a Vulcan officer in an engineering jumpsuit.
“Admiral Valxaen. Long time no see.”
“How's the fishing, Geordon?”
“You should see what I hooked a month ago, Leth. A Rynalian soarfish four point two meters long. On a line rated for Begran spikeback half its size. Scanned him before he threw himself back; nearly took my cruiser with him. I'll send you the molecular pattern for the best steak you ever ate in your life.”
The Admiral turned to Trelliq and grinned. There went her dinner plans. Not that she minded – Trelliq treasured these little moments when he powered down his phaser banks to his first officer – and only his first officer – on the bridge. “That's the best news I've heard all day. Now Lrenior, there's a planet for fishing. I'll send you the deepwater bioscans. The one good thing if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the Altratian Corridor. So what have you got, Geordon? Any fish stories here?”
“If only, Admiral. Looks like we've found a live one this time. Endurance has been investigating reports of piracy in this region. Several indicated evidence of an unspecified number of attacking ships described as Nausicaan fighters. Destroyed an independent colony freighter four days ago, the Coeur Noir
. This morning we found debris that may confirm the reports here on the periphery of the Badlands.”
“If it rains disruptor fire. Leth you know my first officer Commander Tijo.” Captain Mack turned to his Vulcan officer.
The imperturbed Vulcan engineer spoke. “Admiral. From traces of control conduit deuterium and hull duranium, stoichiometric analysis suggests that a battle took place here within the past seventy-six hours. Our shuttle Tresta Maru
located and beamed aboard a piece of triaxially-stressed tritanium core casing, molecularly-bonded with quadraxial layers of a ceramic-polymer composite. The casing matches the atomic structure of the type used by Nausicaan raiders.”
If Admiral Valxaen reacted, Trelliq couldn't spot it. “Question is, where's the rest of the ship – or ships?” he asked. “And just who is out there raiding Nausicaan raiders?”
“Unknown, Admiral. The evidence is insufficient to narrow speculation.”
“Whoever it was,” Captain Mack said, “must have finished one hell of a fight.”
An alarm sounded at the Ops station.
“Sir I've located another fragment,” said the human science officer. “A hundred seventy-five thousand kilometers in from our present location.”
“Take us in,” Admiral Valxaen sat in the command chair, antennae perched on cautious alert. “Retrieve the fragment for analysis, Commander Pel.”
Trelliq noted the small, shadowy form on the viewer, obscured by the brilliance of the storms. She performed some calculations on her console, and said, “Helm, take us through the gravimetric event perimeter bearing two seven four mark three one nine, on a return pass forty thousand kilometers from the fragment. Shields up – and cover your aft.”
The helmsman input the data. “Maximum transporter range, aye Commander. Aft secure, Sir.”
“After which we can determine the extent of any threat before committing further into the region, sir?”
“That's one way to do it, Commander. Helm, one-eighth impulse.”
The Sovereign starship Resolute
fired its impulse engines and crossed the anomalous gravimetric threshold into the Badlands. Trelliq's breath quieted as she watched the fragment drift in a slow spin on their approach; studied its battle-scorched edges and charred markings in the glaring light of the violent plasma strata. She ignored the dread in the pit of her stomach, gave the order, and watched the fragment demolecularize in a transporter energy matrix.
“Sir, we've got the fragment,” said the human science officer. “Preliminary scans indicate a duranium-tritanium composite.”
“Federation hull plating,” said Valxaen. “Engineering officer, cross-reference the fragment composite with any Federation ships reported missing or who have delayed reporting in.”
“Sir?” Commander Reginald Barclay turned from the engineering station. “That...that's the composite hull plating of several classes of ship. Analyzing now, sir.” He probed the data, cycling through registry schematics of starships, runabouts and shuttles. “Molecular pattern-analysis confirms it, sir.” He turned to the Admiral. “It's...an Intrepid.”
Admiral Valxaen's eyes narrowed. “Are you a pessimist, Mister Barclay?”
“What? No sir. Not really, sir. I try to consider myself more of a realist.”
“Give it time, Commander. The less you'll be wrong, and the rarer pleasure when you are.” He stood and approached the viewscreen, searching the colossal arcing plasma filaments of the turbulent space. “Commander Pel, exactly how many Maquis were serving aboard – the Voyager
Trelliq tapped her computer.
“Twenty-three, sir,” Barclay interrupted. “That – that is, surviving of the original crew, sir. Of a current crew complement of one hundred sixty seven. You...don't...think -”
“No, Mister Barclay, I'm not about to accuse desertion based on a Nausicaan reactor core fragment and a piece of Federation hull plating.” He took three PADDs from an attending lieutenant, and scanned them quickly; he rejected two and kept the third. “But neither are we going to ignore whatever is lurking in there – until we've neutralized
that threat. Whatever flag it flies under.”
Trelliq looked up from her sensor readout and leaned in. “Sir, on the snowball's chance in hell Voyager has fallen under Maquis control, she may not be alone in the Badlands. She may just as well have the Perseus with her, and who knows how many other ships – Maquis or otherwise – amassing for a reason worth killing for. Whoever it is, there may be a force marshaling in there.”
Admiral Valxaen leaned closer. “I need answers, Commander. I want to know what to expect before committing a single ship to a possible trap. There's a predator in that wild and I want it in Resolute's targeting scanner. This is your turf. Any ideas on how to find a wolf?”
First Officer Pel stood, took a few steps to think, and shook her head to herself. “Yes, Admiral.” Her reservations weren't lost on the Admiral, who narrowed his eyes and awaited her response. “With your permission, Sir.”
Admiral Valxaen retracted his antennae and gestured with an open hand.
“Helm, set course for Bajor,” she ordered.
“Yes sir;” she turned from the Admiral to the plasma storms. “To find a wolf – free a wolf.”
Trelliq navigated as the pilot guided the shuttle Cervantes
through the orbital checkpoint. All orbital traffic over Bajor faced visual inspection from a phalanx of ships representing an ad hoc
coalition of authorities: Bajoran Militia, Federation Starfleet, and – Cardassian Central Command. Their assistance is most reassuring,
She watched the influx of traffic over Bajor, as well as diaspora of departing alien ships, which reminded her of rats leaving a burning building. DS9 had been stacked to the pylons with ships of numerous makes. Experience told her to be wary of others; and the civil cracks appearing even in Starfleet. Some captains of the fleet had privately expressed being at odds with orders and even each other; putting into port for “emergency repairs” when ordered to the defense of Cardassian interests; and some “escorting” Cardassian ships through shipping lanes “for their own protection”. According to the scuttlebutt at DS9, the Cardies continued to extend diplomatic ties with Bajor and the Federation; making their presence felt in the sector; but for the Maquis, only making their position as Arbiter even more suspect.
In response, the Maquis – she'd heard from the short, leering Ferengi bartender – were buying
. He would not say what, but seemed to regret his inability to profit. “Not my usual trade,” he'd said. With a little feminine coaxing, the Ferengi revealed he had lately been serving the “wrong kind of customers – the sober”, he'd said to her companion Commander Tijo. After the Vulcan moved off, and she requested an unopened bottle of Andorian whiskey, and two boiling shots of something called Malon Core Recyclant to toast, the Ferengi revealed to her that his new customers were interested only in “short term, volatile markets”. Not that she believed rumors; and believed the Ferengi even less. Still, she trusted one thing about that bartender: his disappointment in a missed opportunity for profit. Trelliq would feel a lot better knowing exactly what was in the Badlands, turning ships into debris. If the bartender knew – he wasn't talking. For any price.
And that worried her even more.
“Here comes our two-thirds chance to crash and burn,” Trelliq told her pilot, one sleepless-looking Commander Reginald Barclay. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, reminding her of an actor about to enter the stage.
The comscreen activated. “State your registry and purpose, please,” said the Cardassian glinn on screen, barely looking up.
Trelliq breathed an alm to the Prophets, and retreated to the back to change into “costume” for a performance of her own.
Barclay opened the channel. “Federation shuttlecraft Cervantes, of the starship Resolute,” he replied. “Transporting a Bajoran naturalized citizen on behalf of the...Dhakur Committee for Refuge.”
“Um, which frequency are you....”
The glinn's hooded eyes raised. “Surprise me.”
Reg sent the data. “Transmitting.”
“Proceed with transport at these coordinates.” The glinn took full notice of the Commander. “Do not deviate from your course without checkpoint authorization. Consider this your only
warning.” The screen cut.
“Wouldn't think of it,” Reg said to himself.
The Supplicant Scribe for the Dhakur Committee for Refuge beamed into a side street off a major plaza, in Jator, the council seat of Nėhrun district, and drew her hooded cloak low. Protesters gathered under the stone-carved arcades and ancient architecture of the plaza in the breaking cold of the southern hemisphere spring. The crowd nearly filled the plaza with cordoned factions agitating and shouting at each other, and at the makeshift podia which had cropped up in several areas.
She tried to identify the various factions, but found only a few she could name: the Maquis Colony Coalition, the Bajoran Citizen's Action Group, various religious groups, civil rights groups, anti-terrorism protests, and a very notable presence of very calm, very rigid, very armed, Bajoran Militia soldiers.
As Trelliq pushed her way through the throng she heard impassioned Bajorans and non-Bajorans alike proselytizing over their crowds. She processed what she could of their harangues. The Cardassian presence in orbital checkpoints exacerbated deep hatred from one popular agitator. This presence only fueled ill will following amendments to the Reaffirmation of Allegiance Charter; such as the formalizing of Cardassian reparations through the Bajoran process, which continued to incite the Maquis.
Trelliq learned that the Bajoran Citizen's Action Group and Maquis Colony Coalition had begun a contest of logjamming the Council of Ministers and protesting the Vedek Assembly. Their conflicts reflected inversely on various worlds in the sector; some public demonstrations turning violent. Public figures were being castigated and cast as agents on both sides. A security fleet of Federation ships patrolling the Sector did little to assuage any sense of distress. Let alone rumors of vessels washing up destroyed in the Badlands. Hardline institutional politicos could be seen on visual playbacks, drumming up Bajoran jingoism; like the familiar Minister Toleth Asuan, fast gaining favor as the next Kai, Trelliq observed, on a platform of stabilizing political power and prior experience challenging the Cardassian Occupational government; as well as a laissez-faire attitude towards Maquis Colony autonomy.
Another less-than-tranquil religious leader demonstrated the current Kai's extensive training in Prophecy and the ancient Tomes; Kai Lhiran Shayel had been installed as a symbol of Bajor's reconnection with its cultural identity, and simpler values in troubled times. A simplicity, the speaker noted, that was meant to symbolize peace, but now appeared inadequate to engage the increasing public discord. Look upon the fellow who stands beside you now
, he urged; look upon the BCAG and the MCC. Look upon those of us present; and those of us absent forever more. Can ancient platitudes answer our demands?
Trelliq hesitated; he seemed to look right at her. We will seek our own interpretations
, he added, and challenge the strictures of the Vedek Assembly through the secular mechanisms available to every Bajoran's right. Like our right to public assembly – yes! And our right – to the vote of No Confidence!
Trelliq clasped her hood and pushed her way through the throng. From what she gathered, the disappearances of Voyager
had ratcheted the tension; but the destruction of the Federation embassy and kidnapping of the Federation representative – that unfortunate legal counselor Rima Toloruk – had ignited the civic groups and private citizenry into full-blown crisis mode. To many, Voyager
, half-crewed by Maquis, had become a platform for terrorist infiltration
into the Federation, for purposes only now becoming apparent. It seemed everyone she saw had an opinion on who was behind the terror – and just as so, it seemed that at least someone in every faction was ready to take credit for the acts.
She could just hear what Aoki would have to say about such theories: her childhood guardian, a psychologist, would call them conspiratorial self-fulfilling prophecies; the exemplification of hindsight and confirmation biases, projection, and fear. The Perseus
, a powerful new ship with technology that could “attack the vitality of the Bajoran wormhole and the sector” as Counselor Toloruk had put it, was derided with enmity and anger. Whatever her loyalties, with Admiral Kathryn Janeway's direct involvement in their disappearance, not a few were agitating that Janeway herself was the mastermind behind a coming “Federation incursion”, which increasingly more people referred to as ”a Federation War.”
Other factions that did not think of Janeway as a double agent of Federation incursion touted her as a Starfleet dissident and Maquis hero. For still others, she remained a loyal officer (for good or ill), and a victim of radicalism. Here on Bajor, the doubts that Trelliq's fellow Starfleet officers only whispered were being blasted through megaphones and over interplanetary com frequencies. Janeway's service record had become the subject of many very public, very heated debates throughout the entire Federation. Her continued disappearance only fanned the flames of speculation. Trelliq hesitated to think what would happen if the hull fragment in the Badlands had been discovered by a civilian ship. Perhaps – such discovery was only a matter of time.
Trelliq drew her cloak against the searing heat of the crowd – of people questioning the Federation, and Bajor's position in it. She looked back at the turbulent plaza, cordoned off like lines in the sand.