Historical Note: This adventure takes place in 2374 immediately after the events of "The Double Edge" and shortly after the fall of Betazed. Chapter 1 ------Part 1------ The city is a ruined, broken wasteland. The skeletal remains of Earth’s 20th century skyscrapers stand like latticework against a red sky. Rubble and mountains of decomposing bodies choke what had once been frenzied arteries of traffic and commerce. As for current life, what remains of it on this world is strictly non sentient. The creatures that roam this decaying planet are scavenges---rodents, cockroaches and the occasional wild dog. They all scurry through the landscape in a vain attempt to keep starvation at bay. Around them, a cocktail of deadly pathogens swirl in the air. Radiation poisons all else. Even the ground beneath their feet radiates death. What’s left alive won’t be for much longer. Soon, any creature with less than six legs will suffer an agonizing demise. Eventually, the noxious atmosphere will make a causality of the entire ecosystem. Not even vegetation will remain. Earth is set to become an enigma for alien archeologists who will one day quibble endlessly about what type of culture had occupied this once lush wilderness. One thing that can’t be argued is that Earth has no future. Whatever potential had once existed has been snuffed out by events that can only be speculated about by future historians. Impossibly, across this forlorn graveyard, a man walks. He stumbles over the charred ruins; shambling forward, step after step as though driven on by an unseen taskmaster. He pants and coughs, struggling with air that is still heavy with smoke from the vast firestorms that had consumed the globe. He retches at the smell of a million corpses. At some point, he hears metal clinking on metal. He looks up to see a gray, tattered cloth flapping against a pole. The fastening on the tether is tapping the pole with each gust of wind. He figures it was a flag of some sort but he can no longer tell what it represented. He moves off, compelled to continue a journey that has no destination. Behind him, the flagpole continues to clatter for attention as if hoping to summon the vanished people it once represented. The man moves on and nearly trips over the prone legs of yet another corpse. Looking down, he sees this one is a shriveled mummy sitting with its back against a wall. The thing used to be a woman. Her long red hair is intact and gathered behind her head like a pillow, but her face is shrink-wrapped around her skull. The flesh is a mosaic of black and purple, the result of weather and decay. Her head is thrown back to stare at the sky through black sockets. Her mouth is what disturbs him the most. The jaws are stretched wide as though frozen in an eternal death-scream. His attention travels downward to find that her withered arms are cradling a bundle of cloth that holds a collection of thin bones. Only then, does he become aware of the overturned baby stroller by her side. The wind picks up, producing a shrill, warbling cry as it snakes through the rubble. The cadaver’s hair flutters up in response like a redbird spreading its wings. Staring at the gaping mouth, he feels uncomfortably that it is her cry of anguish that he is now hearing, not the elements. Somewhere, in the backwaters of his unconscious, a phantom memory stirs. Faintly, he can hear the high-pitched crooning of young girls, chanting with scorn: First comes love, then come marriage, then here comes Rhonda with a BA-by carriage! Their mocking laughter dies away until it joins the wind. His eyes slide back to the broken stroller and he shivers violently. Ragnarok, he thinks to himself before moving on. At length his wanderings bring him to the remains of a communal structure characteristic of this period in history. This building, this “apartment building” strikes him as familiar. It’s little wonder. After all, he had lived here as a kid, with his father. In fact, he can see his childhood self now, sitting on a bench in the building's courtyard with his skateboard, eating his favorite candy: “Hot Tamales”, if memory serves. The kid doesn’t look so good. The box of candy he’s devouring will likely be his last. "Hi," he says to his boyhood self. The boy looks up at him with disdain. Then he goes back to sticking his fingers in the box of Hot Tamales, scooping out several of the red treasures and popping them in his mouth. "I don't wanna talk." The boy says around his mouthful of candy. The man looks around at the crumbling building. "You shouldn’t live here anymore. It’s not safe. You should come with me. I have a starship." "It’s too late." the boy counters bitterly. “There won’t be any starships, now. There won’t be nuthin’.” "Well, don't you want to grow up?" The kid is jaded, more than he should be for someone of his years. “What'd you do this for, anyway?" He slurs through his candy. "You wrecked everything." What an odd charge to make, the man thinks. After all, it was the boy who had caused this disaster, not he. "You’re mistaken," the man objects. "I didn’t do this." The boy throws his box of candy across the courtyard, apparently disgusted by the response. He then leaps off the bench, slapping his skateboard down on the cracked and buckled pavement, preparing to role away. But the man catches his arm and spins him around. Up close, it’s very apparent just how sick the kid is. Malignant tumors riddle his forearm, making him look like he had been splattered with mud or hot tar. Bald spots pepper his scalp from radiation poisoning, creating gaps in his mop of dark blond hair. Now the boy has started to weep. But these aren’t tears of sorrow or even fear. It’s rage that drives this child. "You should have left me!" he sobs angrily. His blue eyes bore up at the man, accusing and trenchant. "I don't think you---" "I was happy the WAY I WAS!" The boy yells. The man searches for a way to comfort the boy but he’s too confused to offer a response. It’s a shame, because he would like nothing better than to fix this whole mess. Abruptly, the kid stops crying and of all things, begins to whistle. It’s a jarring, persistent whistle, and it’s not very musical or pleasant. Two notes, one high, one low. The kid keeps whistling the same two notes over and over again. And why the hell does it sound so familiar? ____ The boson’s whistle piped once again over the speakers, trailed by an apologetic voice. "Captain, are you there?" Jason Aubrey struggled up from his bed with the effort of one climbing from a bog of quicksand. "Captain, here. Go ahead." He croaked. "I'm sorry to wake you, sir. But you wanted to be notified when we reached Gorn space. We're approaching the border now. ETA 45 minutes." "Have Lt. Commander Adol report to the bridge.” He ordered thickly. “I'll be there shortly." "Aye sir. Bridge out." Aubrey eased out of his bunk on aching limbs and stumbled into the lavatory. Minutes later he ordered a cup of extra strong Risian coffee from the replicator. Sitting at his desk, his mind running on four hours of sleep and a bizarre dream, he went on autopilot. Without thinking, he turned on his terminal screen to check the daily tactical updates from Starfleet Command concerning the war effort. With no regard for his wishes, reality slapped him hard across the face. The last communiqué was still on the screen. He had forgot to clear it before going to bed. It blinked back to life, the message glaring at him accusingly, much as the child had in his dream. It read: To: Aubrey, Captain Jason Daniel / Commanding Officer / USS Intrepid NCC-38957 From: Composite Warfare Commander / Task Force Tango Stardate: 51724.5 Message Classification: Priority One - Scramble Regarding: Detachment for Cause Body: By order of Vice-Admiral Edward Jellico, Composite Warfare Commander, Task Force Tango and in accordance with Starfleet Command regulations you are hereby relieved of any and all command responsibilities for the Federation Starship Intrepid, NCC-38957, effective stardate 51724.5. You are ordered to immediately relinquish full command and control of above mentioned vessel to your first officer, or the next ranking senior officer/crewmember as necessitated by availability or circumstance, at which time you will surrender yourself into that officer/crewmember’s custody. You are further notified that a compulsory investigation will be conducted at a date to be determined, but not greater than 30 days from receipt of this transmission, due to the severity of charges brought forth by Vice-Admiral Edward Jellico, CWC / TF-Tango on Stardate 51721.3. Said charges brought against you relate to violations of Starfleet General Order 115, Section B, Articles 11 and 12 as they pertain to insubordination, refusal to follow tactical directives during wartime operations and Starfleet Regulation A, section 1b; conduct unbecoming, resulting in an overall lack of confidence regarding execution of your command billet. In accordance with Starfleet Command Judicial processes, if above charges and/ or the subsequent finding by the Special Review Board warrant a Special or General court-martial, or any form of legal action that requires due process under Starfleet proceedings, you have the right to select counsel from within the Starfleet Legal network or you may option an appropriately vetted private attorney of your choice. Said orders for Detachment of Cause stated herein are considered official and conclusive upon receipt of this transmission by your vessel's subspace array. End transmission He deleted the message, knowing it wasn't really gone, but automatically archived in the ship's memory core upon arrival. All priority one messages from Command were. He stared at the vacant screen for several minutes, feeling nothing. Eventually, Aubrey got up and moved quickly enough to make time for a sonic shower, before shaving and getting dressed. After coffee, he settled for his breakfast of choice since the war began; a blended drink made from raw fruits and plants. When time allowed, he used real produce from the ship’s hydroponics garden on deck nineteen---what the crew had dubbed “Sherwood Forest”---for his power meals. But lately he’d been settling for the replicated approximate. For dessert, he swallowed two pain pills to quell his body’s aches. The Inth had roughed him up pretty well when that giant claw took hold of his waist. Along with the large bruises, he’d also managed to wrench his back during the ensuing struggle to break free. Or maybe I’m just not bouncing back like I used to, he thought. He had to admit, the years were starting to get away from him and the war had kept him out of the gym lately… Before leaving, he dared another look in the mirror. His oval face and dark blonde hair were being upstaged at the moment by two rings of puffy, bloodshot eyes and a pasty complexion. Fatigued and tense, he seemed more a man pushing sixty, rather than forty. The dream was still clinging to him. He supposed the apocalyptic themes weren’t out of place, considering the Federation was facing double jeopardy at the moment. With the fall of Betazed, the Allies were looking at an inexorable slide towards defeat. Now, the Inth had returned and might very well destroy all advanced life in the galaxy, the Dominion included. And he had lost command of his ship. Let’s not forget that. Even if Civilization was saved from the Inth and even if the war was won, there would be that loss. If that’s the only price, then it was a bargain. He told himself firmly. But in the meantime, who could blame him if his thoughts had spiraled into darkness? These were dark times, after all. He’d get no argument from a psychologist. Yet, he couldn’t rid himself of the chill that was plaguing his mind. His sensible analysis not withstanding, something was arguing that the dream had nothing whatsoever to do with the war or the Inth. Aubrey had almost made it out the door when something from his peripheral vision drew him back. Turning, he was stunned to find a new picture on his cabin wall. He knew it had to be nothing more than a trick of the shadows, so he approached it with deliberate steps, expecting the image to evaporate on closer inspection. It didn’t. If anything, the picture became more distinct as he drew near. The illustration showcased a man running towards the foreground, his image blurred slightly to symbolize great speed. Action scenes of people fighting one another in hand to hand combat populated the background, including someone that looked like a tall ape. It seemed a throw back to centuries-old movie posters, advertisements for a two-dimensional kind of spectator entertainment. The title read "The Six Million Dollar Man". What did that mean? He closed his eyes, and then opened them. To his great relief, a blank wall greeted him.