It only took Rhory a five-minute walk from his house to the local transporter station in suburban Toronto. Thanks to his priority clearance he was able to just leap onto an available platform and then, moments later, materialize in a very similar station at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco.
But his daily commute was not yet over.
He greeted the technician behind the controls and then darted out of the room, picking up a steady pace through the corridors of the main building. The turbolift he entered was one very few people beside him knew about and even fewer used regularly. It only moved once the computer had been satisfied with his authorization codes.
The lift took him deep underneath the academy grounds.
There he found another transporter, except for this one was entirely automated; no operator greeted him here. He activated an automated sequence before positioning himself on the platform and then was quickly whizzed away again.
He re-materialized for only a split-second in a non-distinct transporter room he knew was located somewhere on Starbase One, the massive space dock facility in Earth’s orbit.
Then another beam grabbed hold of him and he felt his atoms being dissolved and shot through the ether yet again.
When he finally arrived at his destination, he was greeted by a stunning vista and perhaps not one would have come to expect from a building which predominately housed people dealing in secrets. In fact, there where no dark corner or deep underground lairs to be found here. At least none he was aware of. Instead the structure had been built to take full advantage of its usually bright and sunny surroundings and he found himself, as always, admiring the wide open African steppe which stretched on for miles under a seemingly endless blue sky.
He took a couple of second to take it all in before turning around to face yet another transporter ensign. “Morning, Blondie.”
The young woman returned the smile sweetly. “Morning, Egghead.”
“All my molecules still accounted for?”
She looked down at her panel and her face turned into a concerned frown. “Gee, I don’t know, looks like we may have lost some of those famous brain cells of yours on the way over,” she said and looked up, offering an apologetic shrug.
He stepped down the platform, tapping his head. “Don’t worry, I’ve been told I’ve got more than enough stored up there already,” he said, falling into an easy routine they had long since perfected.
“Glad to hear it. I know how valuable they are.”
He frowned at that one. “Right,” he said. “I see you later, Maggs,” he said and headed out of the transporter room. Secretly he couldn’t help worry at least a little bit about all those transporter beams taking him apart and pulling him back together on a daily basis. Intellectually he understood that it was the safest form of travel known to man but that couldn’t quite dispel the irrational fears that perhaps someday, not every part of him would come through. Most people went through the transporter perhaps a couple of times a day; thanks to his other job however, he had to follow a rather intricate transportation routine.
He banned those thoughts out of his head, aware that he needed his focus somewhere else and moments later stepped into the large conference room where the rest of his team were already assembled.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he said and casually dropped himself into one of the chairs around the table; the one with the best view out of the large windows and unto the landscape belonging to the nation state once known as Tanzania.
“Oh, that’s quite alright,” said Lieutenant Mankins with a voice dripping with sarcasm. “I believe there is a special protocol for the resident wunderkind, so, you know, whenever you can join us is fine.”
“Lay off him, Bruce,” said Sade Williams who was just finishing getting a raktajino
out of the replicator. At twenty-eight, Williams was the most senior member of their group and the dark-skinned woman with delicate braids was the only one in the room to wear civilian attire as she was not a member of Starfleet. “You’re just mad you’re not the wunderkind anymore.”
Terik raised an eyebrow. The Vulcan was just a couple of years older than Rhory and a fellow cadet. “I was not aware you had been part of this program for such a long period of time.”
Bruce glared at the Terik. “And you’re supposed to be one of the smart ones,” he said. “That’s how this thing works, didn’t you know? They get you when you’re just a promising first-year cadet unlucky enough to have answered the right questions on your aptitude test and then lure you in with all kinds of crazy promises of fame and fortune. Then they spit you back out once they’ve sucked you dry.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” said Sade as she took a seat next to him. “We all agreed to this and went in with our eyes wide open. And considering that you’ve been here for over five years, you’re clearly holding out for yet another promotion.”
Mankins considered Williams carefully. “Yeah, it’s a great deal,” he said with little enthusiasm but then became more suspicious. “Which begs the question what you’re getting out of this. It’s not like there are any promotions in your future.”
She smiled. “We all serve in our own way.”
Rhory clapped his hands together, eager to get to work. “Hell of a strike that thing this morning, wasn’t it? We were right on target and the facility was exactly where we said it would be. Got ourselves all three ships as well.”
“Woo—hoo for the good guys,” said Mankins.
“The intelligence was compelling,” added the Vulcan.
The doors to the room opened to allow a bearded, middle-aged man to enter the room. He held a padd in one hand and was taking a large bite out of a Granny Smith with the other. Like Williams he wore civilian clothes, including a prominent tweed jacket. Unlike her however, everyone here knew he was Starfleet through and through. “Good morning, children. I trust you had a good night and are in eager spirits today.”
“Just peachy,” said Mankins.
“First of all, let me congratulate you all on a successful operation carried out earlier today based on the intelligence put together in this very room. Nyx is extremely pleased with your efforts.”
Mankins rolled his eyes. “And of course when Nyx is happy, we’re happy.”
“Is she coming to see us herself?” asked Rhory.
“Not today, sport.”
“Don’t hold you breath,” said Mankins. “Nyx doesn’t preoccupy herself with such lowly analysts such as us.”
“Not true,” said the man in the tweed jacket as he walked towards the head of the table. “In fact Nyx is very much aware of your efforts and the great work this particular team has made over the last few weeks.”
“Here’s what I don’t understand,” said the youngest member of the team. “Nyx. Is that supposed to be a person or a group or what?”
“It’s the goddess of night and mystery,” said Tweed Jacket with a bemused smile. “She works in shadows and obscurity.”
Mankins shook his head. “Oh, give it a rest, will you.”
Rhory still looked confused.
Sade took pity on the young man. “Nobody really knows. The word is that it’s either a code name for the director or for the executive council. Hell, for all we know, it may be President Norah Satie herself. It’s a lot of secret mambo-jumbo. Honestly you get used to it after while.”
Rhory shrugged. “Fine with me,” he said and then looked back towards their handler. “So what does all-powerful Nyx demand from us today, master?”
He grinned and activated his padd. It immediately caused the windows to turn opaque and into a large, continuous display.
Everyone in the room turned to look.
Besides a lot of data, it also prominently displayed the faces of three Talarian men just passed middle age. Judging by the insignias on their uniforms, they were all high-ranking military figures. The image of the man at the center dwarfed the other two. A prominent playing card face was displayed underneath the man’s image.
“The Jack of Clubs,” said Sade in semi-awe.
The liaison stood again and walked over to the screen. “Fleet Colonel Envek, the very man you have identified as one of the principle architects behind the incursion into Federation space.”
Rhory immediately set up straighter. “We’re going after the Jack of Clubs? I’ve been saying that for days. We’ve had solid intel on his travel itinerary for a good while now. “
“Nyx agrees. She has reviewed your latest report and she believes that if we strike quickly, we’ll be able to take him out along with two of his closest advisors while they are inspecting a military facility on Perlus IX which is within our operational range.”
“Let’s do it,” said Rhory.
“You know the procedure,” the liaison said. “Let’s go through the motions. Mister Mankins?”
The junior lieutenant brought up a report on his padd, quickly reviewing the content. “We’ve gone through it three times already. Both HUM and SIG-INT are aligned on this one, placing our target at Perlus IX for the next couple of days,” he said and looked up. “I say it’s a go.”
The man in the tweed jacket nodded and looked at Williams.
“We’ve got four independent sources placing him there,” she said. “One more than we need for confirmation. I agree it’s a solid target.”
The Vulcan was next. “My analysis shows a 96.43 percent chance that Jack of Clubs will be at the target location.”
The liaison looked at Rhory last who nodded eagerly. “With him out of the picture, the Talarians will lose one of their chief strategists for this war. And every piece of intel we have tells us he’s there. Let’s hit it.”
Tweed Jacket looked at his padd. “You’d be happy to know that VIRGIN agrees with your findings as well and also recommends a go mission.”
“The big computer brain agrees,” said Bruce Mankins with a shrug. “Almost makes you wonder what they need us for.”
The handler headed for the doors. “Because without personalities like yours Mister Mankins, this would be a dull job indeed.”
Rhory stood. “When will it happen?”
Tweed Jacket stopped before reaching the doors and turned to face the cadet. “That’s need to know, kid and unfortunately that part of the job you don’t need to know about. But considering the tight window, if Nyx agrees with your findings, I’d expect something to happen very soon,” he said. “Now, I think there are some classes you need to go attend.” And with that the man left quickly, no doubt to pass on the team’s recommendations to his superiors.
“This is dumb,” said Rhory as he took his seat again. “Why can’t we be told these things?”
“Because we’re just the brains,” said Sade. “We analyze the data until our eyes fall out and then make our recommendations to the people who make the decisions. That’s all. Everything else is up to Nyx and the big brass at Command. And those types don’t like to share.”
Mankins leaned back in his chair. “Welcome to Starfleet Intelligence, Cadet.”
* * *
When Rhory came down into the kitchen for breakfast, he could see his parents already glued to the news reports playing out on the screen.
“Good morning, folks,” he said but received no reply, their faces blank and focused on the newsfeed. “What’s the good word today?”
His father shook his head but didn’t say anything. He did however raise the volume of the report.
“As far as we can tell, the strike carried out by the unmanned vessels was executed with pinpoint accuracy and so far there is no evidence to suggest that this was not their intended target.”
Intrigued, Rhory stepped closer. It sounded as if Starfleet had indeed agreed with their recommendation and carried out the strike. On the screen he could see footage of what he immediately recognized as the Perlus star system with it’s distinct, crimson and yellow binary stars. Footage taken from long-range sensors focused in on the ninth planet.
“We have now obtained confirmation that the facility on Perlus IX, which again, appears to have been the target of the attack, has been completely destroyed. FNS has also received numerous reports from witnesses on the ground.”
Rhory felt pride swelling in his chest at hearing the news. He had no doubt that their analysis had been correct. The Jack of Clubs and his cadre had been in that facility when it had been hit.
“What we have learned from intercepted Talarian communications is that a high-level military officer was visiting the facility for an inspection during the time of the attack, giving further credence to the theory that this facility was intentionally targeted by Starfleet.”
He smirked at that. Fleet Colonel Envek was dead and with him gone, the Talarians had to seriously rethink their war effort against the Federation. Their reports had clearly indicated that the man and his advisors had been the main instigators of the incursion, overseeing much of it personally. While the Talarian government and military did not rely on one single general, it was still a major strategic blow. And now that their enemy knew that Starfleet had no scruples to go after their military command structure, none of their generals were safe and that had to be a real motivation for the Talarians to rethink this war.
Rhory was not a violent man. He certainly didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that men had been killed partly due to his analysis but he had long since understood that these kind of sacrifices were necessary for the greater good. Envek’s death could mean the end of the war and potentially save hundreds, if not thousands of lives on either side.
“They went after the generals,” he said. “Good. It shouldn’t be just the foot soldiers who die in a war.”
His father turned to face him and he actually had tears in his eyes which was not something he had seen many times before. “Oh, Rhory, it’s … it’s awful.”
“Come on, dad. I agree war is a nasty business but they had this coming.”
He looked at his mother, the hardened Starfleet captain who commanded an entire wing in their star system’s defense force, knowing that she was more likely to appreciate the tactical significance of this strike. “Mom?”
But she didn’t turn away. Her eyes were steely and her face almost a blank mask, as if she wasn’t sure how to process a shock she hadn’t expected.
Rhory didn’t understand their reaction and looked back towards the screen.
“Talarian sources have now confirmed what our initial reports have already suggested and that the target was indeed a military school for mostly prepubescent boys. Such institutions, we have since learned, are quite common in Talarian society. And we understand that the school was fully staffed at the time of the assault.”
“What?” Rhory couldn’t believe his ears.
“We are now getting live footage from the scene.”
And it was chaos. The images were not being recorded with the kind of sophisticated technology one would usually expect from a Federation news report. These were shaky images of a ruined building, burning or smoldering rubble and emergency crews fighting the flames and desperately looking for survivors. The few that could be seen were clearly nothing more than kids. Ten, fifteen year old boys, many severely injured and regardless of the tough warrior ethos the Talarians were trying to impart on their young future soldiers, most of the children were openly sobbing from the pain and shock.
There were scores of men and women searching the remains of the building, parents, most likely, many unable to hold back their own tears, some mothers were pressing the lifeless bodies of their children against their chests.
“No, that … that can’t be,” he said.
“The Talarian government has just issued a statement advising that there were six-hundred people at the school when the attack took place, including over four-hundred children. Their estimates are that between two and three hundred have been killed. We are unable to verify these numbers at present but we will seek to work with sources on the ground and other news organizations to provide a more accurate number. While it would be premature to accept any of the Talarian figures, as their government has a well known reputation to distort details for propaganda purposes, we can verify from our own sources that the images you are seeing now are indeed accurate.”
“Damnit, damnit all to hell,” said Vincent Owens who had transition from shock to sadness and now pure anger. “This … this is exactly what I was so worried about. Now we’re going after children. What have we become?”
“We don’t have all the details yet,” said Kerra but sounded unconvinced of her own words as her eyes stayed glued to the screen.
“What more do you need?” he said, fuming now. “This is what we are now. This is who you are working for,” he continued and when his Starfleet wife was unwilling to make eye contact, he turned to look at his visibly stunned son. “This is what your so called smart people are responsible for.”
Kerra jumped to her feet. “Alright, that’s enough. Leave him out of this, it has nothing to do with him,” she said with fire in her voice. “He’s just a first-year cadet, studying at the Academy.”
He nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he said and glanced at Rhory, “I’m sorry, son. But this,” he added and pointed at the screen. “This is just too much to accept.”
Rhory felt as if he had been struck by a phaser set on full power and his body was being disintegrated at an excruciatingly slow pace even while he was unable to take his eyes off that footage playing out on the screen, of the dead and dying children hundreds of light-years away.
He didn’t even hear his parents anymore, didn’t see them having turned to him and watching his pale face with concern. Even the voice of the reporter was no longer registering in his head.
All he heard was a single sentence over and over again. I’m responsible for this. I’m responsible for this. I’m responsible for this. This is my doing.
He felt his stomach churning violently and ran for the washroom to empty its contents.
“Son, are you alright?” his father asked with increasing concern.
When he came out, Rhory looked impossibly paler than he had before.
“I have to go,” he said and practically ran out of the house and towards the transporter station.
* * *