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Old April 1 2013, 12:19 AM   #46
Rear Admiral
Re: Dark Territory: Shadow Puppets (Revised)

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Hey guys,

Thanks so much for your continued support. It's been hard keeping this story going so I'm glad that you still are interested in continuing to read it.

Author's Note: When this story is ready for final posting, I will rename the first part "Calculation". This second part is subtitled "Escalation".

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USS Rushmore
Captain’s Quarters

Captain Dylan North was happy to shrug off his confining jacket. The gold embroidered white jacket fell to the group as he stretched his shoulders and loudly exhaled. His paunch poked out, seemingly as happy to be as unconfined by the cloth has he had been by the social gathering.

He really wanted to go to bed, to sleep off the effects of the pinot, but the blinking light on his desktop console grabbed his attention.

Dylan knew that if it had been urgent, a message from Starfleet Command, then he would’ve been personally alerted. Walking towards his desk, he knew it the communique of was of the personal variety, but that made it no less urgent he figured.

Plopping down in his chair, he opened his laptop and activated it. The golden laurels and blue background blinked away to reveal a recorded message from his wife. Dylan didn’t even play it back, he just sent a transmission.

It took five, somewhat tense minutes, before his wife came online. Dylan’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. Amelia looked the same as when they had met at a terraforming conference twenty years ago. At that time he had been a young science officer aboard the T’Plana and Amelia had been finishing her doctorate at the Tri-Planetary Academy.

Dylan had been taken by the statuesque, freckled redhead even before she took the podium to discuss reclamation efforts on Triannon, a planet still suffering from the aftermath of a religious war some two centuries earlier.

He had made sure to congratulate her after her presentation and their brief interaction had turned into lunch the next day, dinner the night after that, and on down the line marriage for some twenty years.

It hadn’t been easy, but both of them shared a love of horticulture and neither had sought to impede the career ambitions of the other, until recently. “Dylan,” Amelia said, the smile on her face not quite reaching her pale blue eyes. “Are you well?”

He dipped his head, “Yes, and you?” He asked, feeling suddenly awkward. He never could’ve imagined that relations would become so poor between them that he wouldn’t know what to say. There was a time they spent hours talking about nothing, and then nights deep in discussion and debate about everything from Martian aboriculture to the thematic underpinnings of The Dream of the Fire.

At one time Dylan had dreamed of nothing more than spending days laid out beside her, continuing these discussions, as they worked together as roving horticulturists for the Daystrom Institute.

But the war had come, and everything had changed. “I haven’t heard from you in a few weeks, I…was concerned,” Amelia said. Dylan grimaced. He recalled a time when neither would ever let such a length occur without communicating with the other.

Dylan had finally decided to leave Starfleet than join a far-flung mission aboard the USS Aries.

His only regret had been he wished he had left the service sooner, because war with the Klingons came shortly thereafter. Dylan had been able to resist the call to return to the fleet at first. He had acceded to Amelia’s wishes, but once the conflagration with the Dominion had broken out and Starfleet was in desperate need of competent personnel, North had no choice but to return.

Surprisingly, Amelia had not resisted. She had understood how grave the threat the Dominion posed to the Alpha Quadrant. Dylan’s promises to leave Starfleet again once the conflict was over had certainly assuaged some of her concerns as well.

He hadn’t known what he was getting into, how badly the Klingon War had depleted the ranks. Dylan was promoted shortly after his return to an executive officer’s rank and placed aboard the Rushmore.

He had really tried, or so he told himself, to leave Starfleet behind after the Dominion had surrendered, but he found he couldn’t. Due to the Rushmore’s wartime reputation, the Federation Council and Starfleet Command sought to use it politically in their attempt to keep Benzar from seceding.

The ship was given upgrades ahead of more worthy candidates and it was stocked with a full complement of officers that might have been more prudent to spread to other ships with a dearth of them. Dylan had served with many on the Rushmore through some of the darkest time of his, or their lives, and he felt an obligation to them, to continue shepherding them through the political minefields now.

He hated to admit but he felt this obligation trumped his duty to his spouse. And it pained him that she knew it. And because of that, there was very little to say. Yet Dylan tried anyway, “I saw you left a message.”

“You didn’t check it?” Amelia asked, her expression slightly incredulous, her tone a bit suspicious.

“You know I like to go directly to the source,” he tried to joke, but Amelia’s lips remained in a straight line. After the joke died, they feel into an uncomfortable silence.

Eventually Amelia said, “I was concerned about you, about them sending you back to that…place.” His wife’s face twisted into disgust. Her mild distaste for Starfleet had metastasized into open loathing. Unfortunately she had even fallen in with a fringe subset that believed that Starfleet exploration was partly to blame for the Dominion war.

“Federation imperialism” was the cry from that crowd. It was one, of many things, Dylan didn’t talk with her about anymore.

She thought Starfleet was being both manipulative and unnecessarily cruel sending Rushmore back into the abattoir they had barely escaped from. On that account at least, Dylan couldn’t completely disagree. But he also understood the value of having the heroic little ship return to the site of its famous stand, a reminder to the Benzite populace of how much the Federation sacrificed to save them, even if they failed in the attempt.

“I’m okay,” he said, not wanting to get into another row about Starfleet, “The tribute for the fallen was respectful, and even most of the Romulans were agreeable,” he said, thinking briefly of Volok, and then smiling at the memory of Velen checking him. “I’m surprised to say that.”

“I’ve worked with Romulans before,” Amelia said, nodding as she seemed to plumb her own memory. “They are sentient beings like we are, and they died fighting the Dominion like so many of our people did; all of this talk of Romulan subterfuge and hostility is nothing more than propaganda,” she surmised. Dylan grimaced again.

If only she knew, he thought, but wisely kept his mouth shut. “Once this mission is over, Command has ordered Rushmore to Starbase 373 to undergo repairs. I’ll have three weeks of free time.”

“I left the house in good condition,” she said, “But I can’t break away from Cardassia.”

“Cardassia?” He asked, surprised, and worried. “What are you doing there?”

“I’m certain I mentioned that the University of Culat had requested my services,” Amelia said, now defensive.

“Yeah, you said they had offered, not that you had taken the job,” Dylan replied, his stomach starting to knot up. “You know how dangerous the situation there is, with the militants.”

“Which Starfleet claims to have gotten a handle on,” Amelia shot back, “At least the Cardassian Security Forces have, which are just as reliable or more so on telling the truth about the issue.”

“Don’t start this again,” Dylan grated, “Especially to distract me.”

“Distract you?” Amelia raised both ginger eyebrows, “Distract you from what?”

“You just up and going to Cardassia, a damn war zone!” He couldn’t stop himself from shouting.

“Aren’t you in a war zone?”

“No,” he groused, “and even if I was, I’m in a Starfleet frigate.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Amelia said, “My hosts have been very hospitable and I have not felt threatened once since my arrival.”

“Damn it Amelia, it only takes one time,” he said.

“I’m surprised by your reaction,” Amelia replied.

“Are you serious?” Dylan fumed. Amelia said nothing, but nodded in the affirmative. “How could you not think I would be concerned about my wife working on a war ravaged, teetering planet?”

“Just as oblivious as you have been to my concerns about your safety,” Amelia pointed out.

Dylan resisted the urge to sigh. “You didn’t object to me returning to the service,” he replied, with a well-worn line of argument.

“No,” she shook her head, “I didn’t, but now the war is over and still you are aboard that ship.”

“This crew needs me,” he replied, almost pleading.

“I needed you,” she said, and her past tense usage pierced his heart.

“What are you saying?” He asked, reaching out to stroke the screen where her cheek would be.

“I don’t know,” she looked down and away, her voice cut off by her tears.

“Listen, we can patch this up,” Dylan begged, “We can make this right, like it used to be, okay?”

Amelia looked back up at him, water trails marring her beautiful face. “Dylan, you were always a dreamer. I had thought Starfleet had ground that out of you, but you can still surprise me,” for the first time today her smile suffused her being. “It’s not going to work, but I love you for trying.”

“It will work,” he said, “I’ll make it work. I’ll go wherever you are. I mean, three weeks on Cardassia Prime sound lovely.” Amelia chuckled, “And don’t tell me you couldn’t use me.”

His wife pursed her thin lips. “Well, we are shorthanded on turf management specialist,” she admitted. Dylan held open his arms and hunched his shoulders, a gesture of invitation.

“I’m your man then.”

“We’ll see,” Amelia wasn’t quite convinced.

“I’ll make a believer out of you yet.”

“We’ll see,” his wife repeated, but at least the suspicion was no longer in her voice. She looked off screen as if in response to a summons. When she looked at him again, she said, “I’ve got to go.”

“Anything serious?” He asked, troubled.

“No,” she shook her head, her smile widening. “Just some of the professors enjoying our success in transplanting Chezkenite grapes to Cardassian climes. They make for some very potent wine.”

Dylan winced, touching his forehead. He could feel the headache slowly forming within his cranium. “Don’t remind me.”

“I hope you didn’t go overboard,” Amelia said, “You know you’re not much of a drinker.”

“I had to be a good participant,” he smiled, “but I kept it to a minimum.”

“I hope so,” she said, not quite convinced.

“Honest,” he said, “You know how I can be, and I certainly didn’t want to cause any intergalactic incidents.”

“I suppose so,” she laughed, and Dylan knew he was going to replay this conversation and listen again to that sound for a long time afterward. “I’ve seriously, really got to go this time.”

“I understand,” he sighed.

“Take care out there,” she said, a shadow creeping across her face.

“You too,” he touched her cheek again. His hand reminded on the cooling screen minutes after his wife was gone. There was a possibility to salvage their marriage after all, he realized.

The door chime aroused him from his joyful reverie. “Enter,” he said, still not quite in the moment.

“We need to talk,” Chief Engineer Drake stormed into the room. “About us.”
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