- II -
The turbolift doors opened and Elijah Katanga joined Tazla Star already inside. They exchanged quick looks but didn’t speak to each other while the doctor took position to her left.
“Deck four,” he said and the computer acknowledged with a chirp before the lift sped away again. “So, imagine my surprise when I came into sickbay this morning and unbeknownst to me, my patient had already left before she’d been cleared for duty,” he said but kept his eyes trained forward.
“Yeah? Well, last I checked I was the one with the fancy medical degrees so the diagnosis should really rest with me,” he said and then turned to look at her but finding that she was unwilling to make eye contact. “And I can tell you straight, without the smallest doubt in my mind, you are anything but fine.”
“You said it yourself,” she said, still not glancing the veteran physician’s way. “The radiation exposure caused a lot less damage to my system than expected and you were able repair the vast majority of it. You’ve dealt with all the symptoms.”
“What concerns me is why you suffered so few ill-effects while you were exposed to enough radiation to kill a Plygorian mammoth.”
She shot him a little smirk. “Must be because I am a lot tougher than you ever gave me credit for.”
“Computer, halt lift.”
Another chirp and they stopped in their tracks.
Katanga turned to face her. “That is not it, Taz.”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I almost die saving this ship including your backside and instead of words of thanks or encouragement, I am treated with suspicion? I expected something like this from Nora, maybe even from the captain but from one of my oldest friends?”
“You have my eternal thanks for heroically sacrificing your own safety to try and save all our collective butts, you know that,” he said. “But do me a favor and don’t use indignant anger to deflect from the real issue here.”
“Which is what precisely?”
“The fact that you knew you would survive it. That you knew your life wasn’t in danger.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “If they hadn’t beamed me out of there when—“
He waved her off. “Yes, yes of course. You could have died of radiation poisoning. That doesn’t change the fact that by all accounts you should have succumbed to its effects five to ten minutes before they got you out. But you didn’t. Not because you are some kind of tough guy. Not because you’re a Trill. But because your system has been altered by a substances that has no business being inside of you in the first place. It saved your life and you knew it would. And nobody else knows about it, do they?”
Star was speechless.
“Jesus, Taz, what do you think would happen once somebody took a closer look? You may have been able to fool your routine physicals but once something serious happened, and we know in this line of work that could be any day of the week, somebody was bound to find out.”
She took a deep breath and turned towards the bulkhead. “Who else knows?”
“Just me. I haven’t made any notes in my log yet. Which according to the regs I helped write, by the way, is gross misconduct and reason enough¬—“
“What are you planning to do?”
“That’s a question I should be asking you?”
She whipped around. “What can I do? I come out with this and not only do I prove all those skeptics right about me, it’ll be the end of my career. And this time for good. There won’t be any third chances for me.”
“But you can’t go on like this. The harm you’re doing to your body is bad enough but you might be endangering the people under your command by being addicted to a substance which alters your mental state.”
“I’ve been alright handling it so far.”
“No, Taz, you have not. And this cannot go on.”
They stared at each other for a moment perhaps to determine who would back down first. It turned out to be Star when she nodded slowly. “Alright,” she said. “But allow me to do this on my terms, alright? I finally managed to establish a little bit of trust with the captain and I don’t want to throw all of it away. Let me finish this mission and then I find a way to end all this gracefully.”
He looked into her bright green eyes. “This is a terrible idea.”
“Please,” she said and placed a hand on his shoulder. “If our friendship means anything to you, let me do this one thing.”
He uttered another sigh but his facial features didn’t relax. “I don’t like this one bit but I’ll give you a few more days. Then we will have to address this one way or the other.”
“Thanks, Eli, I really mean it.”
“Don’t make me regret this.”
* * *
A few moments later Tazla Star entered the captain’s ready room, trying hard to put her conversation with the doctor behind her. At least for now.
“Commander, shouldn’t you still be in sickbay?”
“Made a miraculous recovery according to our good doctor,” she said, comforting herself with the fact that it was half a lie only.
Owens didn’t buy it and offered a skeptical look.
“I stole away.”
He nodded. “Well, as a man who isn’t particularly fond of lying on a bio-bed doing nothing, I can sympathize and won’t tell on you.”
“I appreciate that.”
Owens walked to the replicator and ordered a tonic water for himself and his guest, before placing each on the desk and offering Star a seat.
She took a sip of the beverage. “I never thought I’d develop a taste for it,” she said.
“It grows on you.”
She nodded and placed the glass back on the desk.
“Now, mind telling me what compelled you to crawl into a radiated Jeffries tube, risking your own life in such a manner?”
“I always thought that’s Command 101. Take the initiative when you can even if means to risk your own neck to save those of the crew.”
“Actually, Command 101 is to asses a situation, identify the most capable person for the job and then order that person to carry out the task even if it risks their neck.”
She smiled. “I supposed I’ve always had a more hands-on approach to those things.”
Owens was not in the mood to reciprocate it. “What you did was commendable but I’m not convinced you were the right person for the job, Commander. You’re no engineer. You don’t know nearly as much about those systems than somebody like Lieutenant Hopkins,” he said and leaned forward. “My concern is that you decided to do this in order to prove something.”
She nodded. “Maybe you’re right.”
He glanced at her sharply.
“Sir,” she said and adjusted in her seat. “I will always do what is best for this ship and crew. And when I see such an opportunity, I will take the initiative instead of letting somebody else come to harm. That’s who I am.”
“What if you had gotten yourself in a situation that you could not have handled?”
“I was confident enough of my knowledge of this ship and the systems involved that I knew it wouldn’t come to that,” she said and leaned forward herself. “Sir, if I’d had any doubt that I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t have gone. I promise you that. I’m not trying to prove myself at the expense of this crew. On the contrary.”
Owens nodded, apparently satisfied with that response for now and then leaned back into his chair again. “Well, Commander, you did it. You saved the ship and I am immensely grateful.”
“Frankly, sir, I don’t require your gratitude. I just need your trust. And your understanding that there are no lengths I won’t go to in order to serve you and your ship,” she said and not a little cognizant of the irony of her case following the conversation she just had with Katanga. Here she was, trying to convince Owens that she needed to be trusted while she kept her biggest secret well hidden.
“You have it. As long as you refrain from any more solo heroics.”
She couldn’t help but smirk. She wasn’t entirely sure if he was being all that honest himself at that moment. Only time would tell but for now it was good enough.
“Now that we’ve covered this, any ideas yet who or what nearly caused my starship to blow into little pieces? Is your saboteur behind this?”
“The bad news is that like the other recent cases, this too was no accident. There are simply too many fail-safes in place to avoid this. In fact, from what I can tell this crisis was caused because one of those fail-safes was reprogrammed. And only a very few people on board would have been able to do this.”
Owens nodded, following her logic. “By which I take it the good news is that this greatly reduces the number of possible suspects.”
“There is only one person on this ship who could have caused the emergency shut-off valve to behave in the way it did.”
The captain aimed her a quizzical look.
“Lieutenant Louise Hopkins.”
That look turned into one of astonishment. “You suggest Lieutenant Hopkins is the spy?”
Star shook her head. “No. I can’t see her having any motive to harm the ship and crew. Besides if the crisis had not been averted she would have died along with everyone else on Eagle
“I don’t believe for one second that Hopkins could be an enemy agent but if there really is one on board this ship, this would have clearly been a suicide mission.”
She nodded. “Yes but it doesn’t make any sense. None of the previous attempts to interfere with the systems on board would have caused the ship to be completely destroyed. Why would a saboteur resolve to such drastic actions now?”
“Because he or she is becoming more desperate,” said Owens.
“That was my first thought,” she said. “Or perhaps we are not dealing with a saboteur at all.”
The captain looked puzzled. “It was your theory, Commander. You said you discovered subspace noise which could have been secret messages.”
She was painfully aware that she had indeed made such a claim and that her theory had in fact turned out to be absolutely correct. Jinsu Gedar had been the spy and both Louise Hopkins and Lif Culsten had known about it but instead of reporting him, had made a deal with him in which he would agree to leave Starfleet following this mission. Considering the new found trust Owens claimed to have put in her, she knew she should have told him exactly what she had learned and thereby likely ending both Hopkins’ and Culsten’s Starfleet careers. But nothing was ever that easy. Nothing was ever quite black and white. Something that she had come to realize once again just a few minutes earlier when she had practically begged Katanga to keep her secret a little while longer. She was under no illusions that that conversation had probably been very similar to the one Gedar had had with Hopkins and Culsten after they had found out the truth about him.
“Or it could have been nothing more than random subspace noise,” she said. “There is no way to know for sure.” At least that much was technically true.
He looked skeptical and she couldn’t blame her for it. After all she had been quite insistent on the accuracy of her theory only to dismiss it now. “Alright, so let’s say there isn’t a saboteur on this ship. How do you explain all these events?”
She presented him with a padd which he took and looked over. “I can’t. Not yet. But I’ve put together a list of what could be considered unusual events over the last few days and what I’ve found is that the vast majority of them started once we entered the nebula.”
He nodded as he read the report. “The sudden manifold failure almost leading to a warp core breach, the overload in the EPS control room, Culsten hijacking the ship. Wait a minute,” he said and looked up. “You’ve listed my lost night on here?”
She nodded. “From what I can tell, that particular event started it all. And in every cases the person in question claimed to be unable to remember doing what they did. Including you.”
Owens considered that for a moment. “I’ve never though of that.”
“Sir, I think something else may be going on here. With your permission I would like Doctor Katanga to examine you as well as all the others involved in these events to see if we can find a connection.”
“I’m never the first to volunteer for a medical exam,” he said with a little smile and stood. “In this case I’ll make an exception.”