Author's note

"Trust" is the preliminary title for a story that is only half-written right now (February 11, 2006). I hope to have it finished no later than mid-March 2006 - but I make no promises, as this story started to get more and more complex while I wrote it and (once again, as with "Survivors") I may have managed to write myself into a corner that's hard to get out of.  As this is a work in progress (for now) there may be some small changes to the story as I develop it further, but all of them will be clearly marked, and announced here.

 

TRUST

 

Part One

All of Trill looked overcast and dreary to Trevon Betar. He knew well that the gray clouds lay only over the capitol of his homeworld and didn’t envelop the whole planet, but looking up at the indistinct haze he couldn’t help the thought, try as he might.

It was just another one of the rainy evenings the weather control net occasionally visited on the city – and in four lifetimes Betar had come to appreciate them. After an evening like this the sun always seemed to shine all the brighter when it rose the next morning. But today the thought of a coming sunrise was far from his mind.

Three days ago he had authorized a redeployment of a few ships, to free the Valkyrie for what he had believed was a worthwhile task. Now he had to suffer the consequences. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’

And yet there was nothing he could do now, except...

Trevon Betar lowered himself into his office desk reluctantly and activated his LCARS terminal. It took him a little while to recall the correct code sequence and he typed it into his terminal slowly and carefully, one key at a time. The only message he sent were six short words. “The old place. One hour. Urgent.” He pondered the once-again black screen for a few seconds, then glanced at the window. A drizzle had set in, hitting the windowpane with the occasional splotch that he knew was just a foreboding of the heavy rain that would set in well before the hour was over.

When Trevon Betar returned from the small bathroom attached to his office he was decked out in black slacks, a blue gray sweater and a light coat in the same shade.  As he left the office through the back door he left his com-badge behind on his office desk.

When the sun rose again he would be a Starfleet admiral again, but not tonight.

* * * * *

He had changed from cab to subway to cab, walked a mile in the pouring rain – and increasingly considered what had seemed like a sensible precaution as, most likely unfounded, paranoia. The feeling grew with every splotch of rainwater dropping like an avalanche from the branches it accumulated on until it was ready to assault Trevon Betar’s uncovered head once more.

He had forgotten how much the ancient pavilion had fallen into disrepair since the city council had decided to let the small park return to its natural state – a tribute to the forces of nature they had called it. Betar was ready to loudly curse the council – and every other politician – when he finally noticed the shadow falling on the ground next to his own.

“Thanks for coming.”

“You are getting old, my friend. I thought you’d never notice me,” a youthful female voice replied from behind him without a trace of amusement.

Trevon Betar bit his tongue and swallowed the reply he wanted to blurt out. He was here on business. “You still owe me a favor.”

“That was a long time ago.” After a moment of silence: “What is it you want?”

“I fear I have a mole in my organization, a Cardassian agent to be more precise. I am not sure if I can trust anyone in my office or the local Starfleet security detachment, so you will have to find that mole for me.”

As the silence stretched into eternity Betar raised his head and stared up into the clouds visible through the cracks in the old wooden roof, for the moment oblivious of the rain splashing into his face. With his eyes he saw rain and clouds, but in his mind’s eye he saw a cloud of ships and disruptor blasts raining down. Just keeping his voice level tired him out more than he was willing to admit to himself, much less to his old friend. “Well?”

“All right. Not because I owe you, and certainly not for old times sake, but I like the challenge.” Betar could almost imagine hearing a chuckle that never came. “But once this is over you will be the one owing me.”

“I know. Can’t be helped.” He shrugged.

For the first time the cold young voice betrayed a hint of emotion. “You are really serious about this, are you?”

“Yes.” Betar ran a hand through his soaking hair and tried to shake the wetness from it with little success. “I don’t care how much I owe you. But I care about what becomes of this world. And if there is a Cardassian spy on my team, he probably knows more about our defenses than I expect even you to know. I am not asking you for this favor to help me out. I could call in some outside investigators. But that would only scare away the spy. If we do it right we could use this to our advantage, use it to keep Trill safe.” Betar almost turned his head but at the last moment forced his gaze down to his feet. “Isn’t that what we both always wanted – keep Trill safe for all of our people?”

A minute ticked by filled only with the sound of the pouring rain splashing down on the decaying wood and leaves, then another.

“Very well. I will help you. But whatever becomes of this, you still owe me now.”

“Fair enough.”

Betar waited a few seconds for a reply, before he finally decided he had nothing to lose by turning around and venturing a swift glance. All he gained was a brief glimpse at a straight slim body, shoulders squared, moving off into night’s darkness.

But he had seen more than enough already and averted his eyes. Too much did the trim silhouette remind him of a time a hundred years ago when he had been the spry young woman, and his old friend had been the man nearing the end of a lifetime, looking for a way to make the most of what little time he had left.

 

Part Two

 

Milani Kel stole a quick glance at the small counter in a corner of one of her many display screens. The download of Starfleet personnel records was still not complete, so she went back to her work. Hunting for Betar’s spy would be an intriguing challenge, but it would have to wait a little longer.

Kel had always believed that the key to anything was knowledge, that no puzzle could go unsolved if attacked with the necessary amount of information. And with the vast resources of the Federation, information was easy to come by. 

Milani had always been a prodigy when it came to computers. She had always known just the right questions to ask, had always understood how the machine would react to a certain request. 

While paired only by luck and circumstances, together they made a formidable team when it came to tackling any problem a computer might solve. That had landed Milani Kel her current job as chief analyst for Trill’s external intelligence agency. 

And it provided her with the perfect opportunity to keep her mind occupied and her thoughts away from Betar. And yet, despite her best efforts, she couldn’t make as much of the opportunity as she had hoped for. Even after a hundred years the memory of Sila Betar tore up Kel’s emotions like a sword plunged deep into her heart.

‘I thought you were over her?’

‘I am. But coming face to face with the past is never easy, you know that.’

‘Yes, I know. I learned that from you. And it’s a lesson I could well have done without.’

‘Life is like that. Things happen in ways we never intended, and we have to live with the consequences.’

‘Tell me something I don’t know, Kel, like if you’ve finally gotten over her yet?’

It wasn’t a dialogue in any way the word was ever intended to describe. It wasn’t even an exchange between Milani and Kel – they where far too intertwined now, to be considered separate people. But at times Milani Kel found comfort in putting her thoughts into unspoken words. Somehow it made it easier to come up with the right questions, and – at times – even answering them. But Betar was a question she would never be able to answer, not with what little information her own thoughts and memories could provide.

A flashing light in the far corner of her peripheral vision drew Milani from her fruitless musings. The computer had finished processing the data Betar had made available to her. Her fingers started to dance over the keyboard with the energy of a hungry wolf jumping his prey. 

Carefully wording the questions she now asked had taken the better of two days, but every minute had been worth it. Soon the computer would have weeded out the obvious choices and narrowed the list down to something worthy of her attention. 

But that would take a little while longer and she had a job to do. So Milani Kel went back to her work and tried once again to figure out why Starfleet – Betar – had requested every Oberth-class ship in the sector be sent to Trill, and why the largest maintenance yard in orbit over her homeworld was suddenly seeing so much activity. Betar flatly refused to offer any explanation to the government, citing security reasons. While the government was willing to trust Starfleet, it was unwilling to be left in the dark.

Lists of materials delivered to the spacedock began to scroll across her screen and she started to cross-reference them with the known capabilities of both the spacedock and the Oberth-class starship.

“Neat,” she murmured after a few minutes. “It might even work.”

Kell called up another display and stared at it intently. Still a while before the computer would have narrowed down the choices.

Betar’s plan had a chance to work, she decided. But only if the Cardassians didn’t learn about it. Seeing to it that they didn’t was her task now. 

*****

They ran into each other just outside the Council building, right after Betar had – once again – refused to answer the questions Trill’s government had asked of the Starfleet admiral.

They had even called his loyalty to his homeworld into question, not in so many words, but it had been obvious that the government he had been loyal to for lifetimes was no longer willing to completely trust him.

And with that thought still fresh on his mind Betar quite literally ran into Milani Kell. She dropped her half eaten sandwich as she steadied herself against a wall. Before any of them could say a word a small wheeled robot had shot forth from its hiding place in the wall of the building and scooped up the rest of Kell’s lunch. 

Betar’s eyes were still following the little machine when Milani Kell spoke up. “I think you owe me both lunch and an apology, Admiral.”

“Hmph. Not my fault you don’t watch your step – or eat your lunch on the move.” After they both allowed some time for the frown to vanish from his face, Betar added: “But I apologize. I should have minded my own step. And if you have some time right now I’ll buy you a new sandwich.”

Kell just nodded and led him away from the building, towards the park surrounding the government block. A lot of people were going to and fro, enjoying the warm cloudless day, many of them government employees who used their noon break for a little walk or to get some non-replicated food from one of the many vendors who did a thriving business at the park’s edge. Kell acquired another sandwich and Betar reluctantly pressed his thumb against the small credit terminal.

They sat on a bench in the shadow of a low wide tree and both listened a moment to the rustling of the silvery leaves almost touching their heads. “An interesting plan you have for those old Oberth ships.”

“So you figured that one out. Congratulations.” It was hard to say if Betar’s voice contained more sarcasm or frustration, and Kell wasn’t in the mood to wonder about it. “So they grilled me about it for an hour just for the fun of it?”

“Not really, I haven’t told them yet.”

“You... haven’t told them? Why?”

Milani Kell shook her head slightly. “We both know how fractured the Council is on the question of how best to deal with a possible Cardassian invasion, or how much Trill should rely on Starfleet.”

“Oh yes, I know that very well. Those fools debate everything endlessly and in the end they decide on nothing.”

Kell took her time to let Betar fume and grumble, before she realized she was caught up in the memory of Sila Betar’s fire more than paying attention to the admiral’s equally fiery misgivings about politicians in general and the Trill Council in particular.

“You shouldn’t think too badly of them. None of them has ever faced the prospect of a hostile species invading Trill, despite how old some of them are. You were trained to face a situation like that, but how should the Councilors have learned to deal with it?”

Betar leaned forward and rested his crossed arms on his legs, while his frown relaxed into a heavy sigh. “Point taken. And even if they had different experiences, I guess not every lesson offered always leads to a lesson learned.”

Milani Kell reached for her untouched sandwich and carefully unwrapped it. “Let’s leave the past out of this for now, please.”

Trevon was ready to shoot back a sharp denial, but then noticed the look in Milani’s eyes for the first time. Just sitting there and talking to him had to be as hard for her as it was for him – or so he took what he saw. “All right. So why didn’t you tell them?”

“Because any lengthy debate about it in the Council is bound to become public knowledge sooner or later. Then Starfleet would take notice and order an investigation into how the Council learned of your plans.”

“That’s likely, and if it started there would be nothing I could do to stop it.” He leaned back and ran his eyes along the footpath towards the city center. Somewhere there in the distance, hidden behind the trees, was the sprawling Starfleet complex that had been his home for the last eight years. “I guess that could scare our spy away, drive him underground before we ever get a chance to catch him.”

“Oh, so now he is our spy?” At the last moment Milani tried to catch some of the sarcasm dripping from her lips with a wink, but Betar ignored both.

He turned on the bench, his face without expression. When he pointed at his com-badge a ray of light filtered through the trees and gently played around the golden and silver metal. “This is our matter – a Starfleet matter. Believe me, if I had any choice I would never have involved you in this, but I don’t have that luxury. If everything works out we will double the number of weapons platforms around Trill in a matter of weeks. But if it fails we will be back to Starfleet resource shortages and endless Council debates, leaving the door wide open for a Cardassian invasion. 

“Of all the choices I don’t have you are still the best available to me.”

“Very flattering, old man,” Kell replied as flatly as Betar had been. ‘But I was the one who asked him to leave the past out of this.’ 

She threw her half-eaten sandwich into a trash-recycler with the precision of the professional handball player she had once been, and rose. “You know our chances are slim at best. Just the two of us hunting for a spy who could have been operating in Starfleet for years?”

“Yes.” Trevon Betar was lost in his memories for a moment. He had followed Kell’s sports career all the while he had been a maintenance supervisor for Trill’s planetary transporter network. Every tenth day, when the games were on, he had made the time and... ‘Enough of this, you fool!’

“Yes, I know that two people are hardly enough for it, but together we have the experience of nine lifetimes. That’s something no Cardassian infiltrator can match.”

“If it is a Cardassian.”

Admiral Betar looked up, his face a study in incredulity. “You can’t be serious! One of our own, bought or coerced by the Cardassians?”

“I am not saying anything. Just keeping an open mind.” Milani Kell leaned over the bench, to brush away some crumbs from her sandwich, as she whispered in Betar’s ear: “But right now I put the probability of the spy being someone who has daily contact with you at something between 68 and 71 percent.”

 

Part Three

 

Akar Adovale was a spy. He wasn’t happy about it, but necessity had dictated his decisions. 

He knew he was alone in the small maintenance space, but still he looked over his shoulder, to assure himself no one else was around. It was a habit he had developed over the last ten months, but at this late hour he was alone – as he had always been when he went about his clandestine work.

‘Fools,’ he thought as he inserted the isolinear rod into the com terminal. Fools they all were, for not seeing the truth as clearly as he did. Almost 20 years as a communications specialist had allowed Master Chief Adovale a unique insight into every aspect of Starfleet communications technology – and now he made full use of that knowledge. Creating a backdoor in the encryption protocols had taken him months, but all his hard work had paid of. 

The message he hid in the next routine transmission to the local Merchant Marine command would go completely unnoticed, of that he was certain. It was no more than a routine update on ion storm activity, civilian traffic patterns, and other innocent information – information that was only lightly encrypted and easy to intercept, once it was forwarded to the Merchant Marine ships operating in this sector. What became of it after that he didn’t care for. He had done his job and that was all he needed to know.

Akar Adovale called up one of the Starfleet records he was never meant to see and ensured himself that his actions had not been recorded in any of the monitoring routines that he had spend weeks to circumvent. No, no trace of his actions remained in the computer at Trill’s Starfleet headquarters.

He withdrew the isolinear chip from the LCARS terminal and placed it in the recycling tray of the maintenance workshop. As he watched the shimmering lights of the recycler tear the chip into its molecules and beaming them to the raw matter storage of the replicator network he wondered, not for the first time, if disposing of it that way was such a good idea. 

The replicator trace was stored for only a few days, but until it had been purged every molecule, every electric charge would remain in the computer. It was a failsafe built into the system to retrieve any item accidentally placed into the recycler, but one day it could work against him.

‘No, you fool. There is nothing to be afraid of. No one suspects you, and no one ever will.’ And even if that wasn’t true, Chief Adovale had little choice. He couldn’t hide the chip forever and taking it out of the building would be too much of a risk. The guards only searched leaving personal infrequently, but it was still a risk not worth taking. 

He turned of the computer, killed the lights, made sure the door was looked behind him. Everything was as it should be. 

When he left the building and boarded the underground train that would take him to his home, no one was the wiser to what he had done. 

*****

Milani Kell ran the numbers again. Still 69 percent probability that the spy was someone on Betar’s staff, or someone very close to it. But that made it anything but a certainty, especially given her still limited information.

Perhaps someone had just hacked his way into the Starfleet network and extracted all that information without ever being noticed. It seemed unlikely, but...

She spent the next hour setting up several programs to probe the defenses of Starfleet’s computer network. A pinprick here, another there. The software she used was pretty standard and it was a rushed job, far from the attention any Cardassian spy would pay it, but it would still give her a feeling for how good the security of the local Starfleet Command was. Perhaps that would give her a better idea if there was any chance the spy could be an outsider. 

But two problems remained that she had not come close to solve. How did the spy – if he was an insider – get his information to the Cardassians, and what would she tell the Council.

So far she had been able to hold back her report, convince the Council and her immediate superiors she needed more time to puzzle out what Starfleet and Betar had in mind for those old Oberth ships. But sooner or later she would have to present them with some answer to their more and more frequent questions. 

Telling them the truth was out of the question, but coming up with a believable cover story required a knowledge of Starfleet operations that went beyond her own skills. She eyed her computer screens briefly, wondering if she should  just present her second most likely theory to the Council. 

That Starfleet was converting those ships to unmanned sensor platforms to be distributed along the border sounded plausible and wouldn’t create the debates she hoped to avoid. But converting old ships to a task a couple of probes could do just as well was unlikely – and someone would come to the same conclusion sooner or later. 

Perhaps she needed some help. Contacting Betar again was risky, but there was little choice. If anyone could come up with a believable cover story it was the old man. ‘If only he had always been an old man.’

Milani Kell reclined in her chair and rested her head against her folded hands. The machinery around her was whirring like clockwork, trying to present her with all the answers she needed, while she pondered questions she had never wanted to ask.

*****

The apartment felt empty without his wife waiting for him to return from another day of endless hours spent at work. Even now, almost two years after Sula had passed away, Akar Adovale half expected her to step from the living room into the hallway any second and ask him how his day had been.

‘What would she say if she knew I have become a spy?’ He tore off his uniform jacket and threw it into a corner. Sula would probably listen patiently, just the way she always had when he talked about his work, before embracing him and simply asking him to stop being a spy.

Akar fixed himself a drink from the replicator and downed it in one gulp. ‘Ah, sweet Sula, always my better half.’

His eyes wanted to cry, his lips wanted to smile at the memory of his late wife. What he did was get another drink and step out on the balcony.

The shiny lights of Trill’s capitol city stretched around him as far as the eye could see; gentle towers and gleaming domes filling the night. It was a lovely sight, one he had fallen in love with almost as fast as he had fallen for Sula. The woman he had married, her homeworld he had adopted as his own. Promotions had been slow after he had decided to stay on Trill, no matter what he did. There were only so many openings for a higher-ranked job in the local Starfleet headquarters, but Akar Adovale had never cared about rank and privilege – not after meeting Sula.

And now she was gone, but Trill was still his home. He sipped his drink and turned his eyes to the sky. 

The twinkling of the stars was almost drowned out by the lights of the big city, but he could still make out a few of them. So distant, so peaceful. And yet from those gentle points of light destruction would one day come to Trill. 

Trill had vast mineral resources that had gone untapped for centuries, all in a quest to preserve as much of the natural beauty of the planet as possible. But the Cardassians cared little for beauty. What they cared for where resources to feed their war machine. And Starfleet was in no position to stop them, that Akar was very certain about.

Conquest was inevitable and he knew what the Cardassians had done to Bajor during their occupation. All he could do was make the task a little easier for the Cardassians, so a little less blood would have to be spilled.

In his mind Sula whispered ‘I understand’ and Akar Adovale allowed a tear to run down his cheek. Perhaps the Cardassians would even spare him, so he could keep the memory alive a little while longer.

*****

Mark Davis was a spy and he enjoyed his work. 

Gathering information without anyone noticing it, reading people’s intentions before they became aware of them themselves – it was as much a challenge as any first contact with an alien species, and a good challenge was what Davis had hoped to find when he had joined Starfleet.

Now he had his hands full with perhaps the biggest challenge of his professional career and for the first time he wondered if he was in over his head. 

Those Trill were hard to read he thought, as he sipped his soda and ran his eyes across the people going to and fro in front of the Starfleet building. He knew most of them were unjoined, just people like everyone else. But those who were joined had anything from one to eight or nine lifetimes worth of experience to draw on. That made their actions difficult to predict and gave them an advantage he lacked. And having no way to separate joined from unjoined Trill without a background check didn’t make his work any easier.

Mark Davis shifted his tall lean body around a little to make himself more comfortable on the bench, as he let his mind drift towards the choices he could have made. If he had stayed in Starfleet he would be a commander by now, with the right career choices perhaps a captain, commanding his own ship or starbase. 

But instead he was stuck on Trill, watching the local Starfleet building form a distance. It had certainly been the right choice. To Mark Davis the Federation was far more than exploration and first contacts. To him it was all about the people – people like the ones milling about in front of his eyes right now, even if he never really saw one of them, and they never really saw him. 

To everyone around the plaza he was just another tourist, a visitor taking a brief moment to look at the wide cupolas and sprawling buildings of the local Starfleet headquarter – and that was as it should be.

It had been hard to believe that anyone working in the building he now kept under close scrutiny was a spy working for the Cardassians, but Mark Davis was not one who questioned his orders, however hard to believe he found them. 

And still... an admiral meeting with a member of Trill’s external intelligence agency in the middle of the night... something was afoot and he would get to the bottom of it.

But Admiral Betar would stay in his office for a few more hours, so there was little to gain here, Davis decided. He dug into the bag resting by his side and drew forth a padd, very much like the ones handed out to every tourist who came to Trill. He called up a map, located on it the building where Milani Kell worked, then called up the bars and restaurants close to it. 

Even without her previous lives she was an interesting mark he decided, as he studied the choices she might make. Nothing too fancy, nothing too common or crowded. One by one Mark Davis eliminated possible locations from his map, narrowing down the choices, until he had only a few options left. Kell would reveal the right choice to him as soon as she set a foot outside her office.

He would follow her for a few days, perhaps make personal contact after he had learned a little more about her, but that remained to be seen.

But if she contacted Admiral Betar again he would be there. Right now Mark Davis saw only two possible explanations. If both of them were in cahoots with the Cardassians they wouldn’t be so much longer, and if they were working to uncover the spy he had been sent to apprehend he would be there when it happened

‘Good things come to those who wait,’ he thought as he took another sip of his soda and flashed a grin at the Starfleet building. 

 

Part Four

 

Admiral Betar lowered himself into his chair at the head of the huge conference table and ran his eyes around the cavernous room. He frequently used this conference room next door to his office, but never got tired of studying all the details. The real wood wainscoting, the original paintings of ancient and modern starships, the luxurious cream and brown carpet that made every step feel like walking on clouds – it looked like a relic from a bygone age.

The room didn’t quite fit Trevon Betar’s taste, but it was what his predecessor had left behind, and Uram Akos had been both a friend and a mentor. If keeping this room as it was helped preserve that memory, Betar was all in favor of it.

The admiral tore his eyes from the room and nodded a “thank you” to his yeoman, as she filled his cup with fresh-brewed coffee – the real non-replicated thing, Betar noted with satisfaction. He had long ago given up asking himself how the young human got her hands on such an exquisite blend of coffee - better to just accept it and not jinx it by wondering too much.

As the yeoman retreated, Betar let a sip of coffee roll around his tongue and savored the gentle bitterness of the hot beverage. A less gentle bitterness filled his thoughts as he looked at the three officers sitting next to him. 

Ketron Dekar. Andorian, commander, Betar’s XO. Dekar had briefly served under Betar ten years ago and had become his executive officer a little over two years ago. He was the one who turned the Admiral’s orders into reality, saw to it that every command was followed smoothly. He did not always know why Betar gave an order, but he knew more about what was going through Betar’s mind than anyone else on Trill.

Shulush Bovos. Tellarite. A commander like Dekar. As chief of staff it was his job to keep everything running smoothly, ensure that Dekar had the resources and manpower to turn Betar’s orders into something that worked. Dekar relayed the orders, but Bovos saw to it that they could be carried out. With his knowledge of what was needed when and where, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to figure out what it was needed for – even when the admiral wanted to keep that a secret.

Amanda Morrison, captain of the USS Adventerous, the Ambassador-class ship that served as the flagship of the local Starfleet forces. She was a wily old fox, ever ready to pit her wits against any Cardassian or Romulan and fully expecting to come out on top. Being stuck with a static post, as she was now, would not sit well with her, cramp her energy and dull her determination and inborn drive. Would she play both sides against the middle, so she got the opportunity to shine that had been denied her for years at a post that was forced her to be more of an administrator than an explorer?

Was one them a spy? Perhaps one of their trusted staff members? Someone close to their families?

The list of questions was endless and Trevon Betar had no answers.

*****

After the briefing had ended Betar ran out Captain Morrison and Commander Bovos, then refilled his coffee cup from the thermos sitting right in front of him. “All right, Ketron. Now that we got the daily business out of the way, let me have a piece of your mind on the Oberth project.”

“Permission to speak freely, Sir?”

“That’s why I asked for a piece of your mind, not a status report.”

“In that case…” Ketron Dekar’s antennae moved frantically, almost twisting into a knot. “Sorry to say it, Admiral, but I don’t think we can use remote-control only. Just one solid hit on the control station or our com system and we will lose control of all of them. That’s an unacceptable risk.”

“How about decentralized command and control for every ship, or at least groups of them?”

“Too much of a coordination problem, if you ask me.”

“I am asking you, and I am asking you for alternatives.”

“Putting at least a skeleton crew on each ship seems like our best alternative.” The Andorian stopped his constant motion and rested his elbows on the table. “And since we are talking about ships that will be in orbit around Trill most of the time, we won’t even have to assign crews on a permanent basis. We could just beam them up when the need arises.”

“Yes, but we may not be able to beam them out so quickly, once the shooting starts. I won’t risk any more people on this than I have to, considering that  a computer might do the job just as well.”

“I am telling you it won’t. And the Oberth has more than enough escape pods to get five or six people to safety, even in a real emergency. We won’t need more people than that on each ship to make it work, and we can still install a backup remote control.”

As the conversation progressed Betar started to jot down a few notes on a padd, but not many. Commander Dekar had thought it all out well enough, and all his ideas seemed sound. And the Andorian didn’t just point out the weak spots in Betar’s plan, he offered alternatives that might remedy the problems. Was that what a Cardassian agent would do, Betar asked himself.

‘And how the hell should I know that?’

*****

Right after the door had closed behind her Milani threw her jacket into a corner and tore the shoes from her feet. “Computer, lights, quarter strength.” She raced for her favorite chair in the loft and fell down on it with a heavy sigh. 

“Computer, access work mainframe, usual passcode, authorization: whatever.”

“Accessing,” the computer replied, and Milani Kell sank deeper into the comfort of the plush chair. As the letters started to scroll about her computer screen she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and slowly forced her eyelids to rise again.

When she did, she noticed the dark silhouette in the far corner of the room. “Lights!”

“Argh!” Trevon Betar’s hand snapped up to shield his eyes from the sudden glare.

“Betar, what are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

Betar blinked to force the light away from his eyes, but found averting his gaze much more helpful. “Type twelve maglock, pretty standard security. Easy to get in here. You should have those locks changed.”

“That answers only one of my questions! What do you want?”

Admiral Betar leaned forward and folded his hands between his knees, his shoulder sagging. “We ran into a problem with one of the Oberths. Could be just a coincidence, but I don’t believe it. We lost some good people out there today, Kell, and I want to know who’s responsible – I need to know.”

*****

“Captain, we’ve got another Oberth coming in, the USS Kopernik,” the tactical officer reported. “The Avenger will have to hand her over to our care in nine hours, before resuming her patrol.”

“Thank you.” Amanda Morrison swiveled her chair around and fixed her eyes on the Adventerous’s XO. “Send out fighter squadron two, to escort the Kopernik the rest of the way.”

Her XO rubbed his chin and studied the tactical plot carefully. “Aye, Ma’am. I think they could reach the Kopernik just in time for the hand off. But shouldn’t we take care of this ourselves? Admiral Betar...”

“Admiral Betar ordered me to protect the ships heading for Trill,” Captain Morrison cut him of. “How I do it is up to me.” 

“You are aware that squadron two is understaffed, Ma’am? Right now they are down to six ships, with two currently undergoing repairs and maintenance.”

Morrison’s anger showed only for a split second, before it was replaced by a dry, humorless expression that tried to pass itself of as a smile and failed miserably. “I know. But Lieutenant Oswald is an experienced officer, and if anything goes wrong either we, or the Avenger, will be in range to lend assistance. I know playing devil’s advocate is in your job description, but my decision stands.”

“Yes Ma’am. Tactical, put me through to Lieutenant Oswald. He’s got a job to do.”

*****

Kopernik, this is Lieutenant FitzOswald of the 129th fighter squadron. We are here to escort you the rest of the way to Trill. Continue on your present speed and heading.”

After the captain of the Kopernik had acknowledged, Oswald FitzOswald exchanged a few pleasantries with the CO of the USS Avenger, before he ordered his squadron to split into pairs and assume a standard escort formation.

“Haven’t seen one of those Lancer-class escorts in a while,” his sensor officer remarked from the starboard seat.

“Then better take a good look,” Lieutenant Oswald advised. “Not too many of them around.” He diverted a little of his attention to the sensor display that showed the swiftly departing ship – a low, circular primary hull, short stubby warp nacelles jutting up from a small engineering hull just enough to clear the main hull. ‘A fine, compact ship,’ he thought. ‘Maneuverable as hell and pretty fast. Wouldn’t mind piloting one of those some day.’

He opened the squadron-only close-range com channel. “Okay, boys and girls, the Kopernik is now our charge. We are pretty close to Trill, so we should be reasonably safe, but keep your eyes on the sensors. I do not want any surprises happening on my watch.”

Oswald made a minuscule adjustment to his fighter’s course and checked the position of his wingman, before he activated the autopilot. “You keep watch, and wake me at the first sign of anything unusual.”

“Can do, boss,” Petty Officer Nikulas replied rhetorically. A sideways glance confirmed what he already knew – Oswald was fast asleep. How the heavy-set man could find any sleep in a seat that always seemed too small to hold his broad-shouldered frame escaped Nikulas, but he had other things to worry about.

He slightly adjusted the gain on his sensor display and listened to the subspace static that would be his only companion for the next three hours. 

*****

In the few seconds his mind was stuck between waking and sleeping, Oswald FitzOswald wondered what sounded more shrill, the frantic “wake up, Sir” of his copilot, or the buzz of the alarm siren.

Once fully awake, his mind banished the thought as he reached out without looking and shut down the alarm, while his eyes danced across the cockpit displays. “Status?”

“We have an unidentified ship heading our way at warp eight. Contact in two minutes. Sensor readings are inconclusive, but it’s not one of ours, that’s for sure.”

Lieutenant Oswald activated a repeater display and immediately saw what Nikulas had meant by inconclusive. All he saw on the screen was a fuzzy haze, surrounded by readouts that scrolled across the screen wildly, jumping between different readings faster than his own, now pounding, heartbeat.

“Unknown ship, this is Lieutenant Oswald, Starfleet fighter squadron one two nine. Drop under warp and identify yourself.” The pilot didn’t even wait for the green light to spring to life on the com panel. He knew the computer would relay his message on all available frequencies. It was a small computer, but as sophisticated as any modern piece of Starfleet hardware. And without need for much scientific capability or a huge database, most of its resources could be devoted to take off the shoulders of the two man crew tasks that would be handled by real crewmembers on a larger ship.

“Squadron, this is Oswald. Activate all weapons and get ready to break formation.

Kopernik, assume unknown is hostile. Change course to zero three zero, best speed. We got you covered.

“Nikulas, time to visual?”

“Thirty seconds."

The Kopernik moved off and Lieutenant Oswald disengaged the autopilot. He turned his ship on the same vector his charge had taken, but accelerating to warp nine, the Oberth-class surveyor was slow but steady moving ahead and away from the fighter squadron.

“Contact Trill Command, notify them of our situation.”

He didn’t listen to the confirmation of his copilot, his mind already occupied with dozens of scenarios racing through his head. Staying with his charge gave him a little more time to think, while keeping his squadron between the possible hunter and its most likely prey. But once that ship broke through the fighters’ line of defense, it would be all that closer to the Kopernik, before Oswald might have a chance to take another pass at it.

All he knew for certain was that, however inconclusive the sensor readings were, they all agreed on one thing – the ship fast catching up on him from astern was at least the size of a light cruiser. And if he couldn’t force that ship out off warp...

“Bogey is accelerating to warp nine. Time to visual ten seconds. Contact in forty.”

 

Part Five

 

Fighters – or light attack craft, as official Starfleet parlance called them – were a leftover from a bygone age, the founding years of the Federation, when capital ships able to cross the warp barrier and carry any significant load of weapons had to be so huge that they became sitting ducks for any more maneuverable ship, once they had dropped under warp. 

Since then capital ships had become more and more agile, but the fighters had managed to keep their usefulness, as miniaturization had allowed them to carry ever stronger weapons into a fight. That leveled the playing field once again – but only in a sub-light engagement. 

During warp flight deflector shields were useless, as they would have interfered with any ship’s warp field. And no ship was very maneuverable during warp flight, which robbed the fighters of their most significant advantage.

In a system defense role against light attack ships, even light frigates or cruisers, fighters could shine and display their best qualities. But caught at warp, an hour or two from reinforcements, all they could hope for was some luck and the devil-may-care attitude that had given the 129th squadron its nickname during the last Tholian war – the Deneva Devils.

All that crossed Lieutenant Oswald’s mind in a half second, as he analyzed his options, which were precious few. 

And with sixty-four people on the Kopernik and twelve people in his squadron, the uninviting options boiled down to the most depressing choice.

“Com, all frequencies... Unknown ship, break off your pursuit or we will assume your intentions to be hostile. This is your last warning. Stand down or we will stand you down.”

“We have visual,” PO Nikulas reported.

“Show me.”

The forward cockpit window lit up with a heads-up display that showed a ship type Oswald had never seen - but he still recognized the configuration.

Three high-tech boomerangs studded with windows and weapon ports, held together by a latticework of thin secondary hulls. The green glow of warp engines here and there was sprinkled across the ship in seemingly random places. 

“Breen.”

*****

“Breen?” Milani Kell’s eyes widened until Betar feared they might pop right out off the young woman’s face.

“Yes. We think they used some kind of sensor-reflective hull to sneak into the shadow of a comet and lay their waiting for an opportunity to strike. It’s unusual for the Cardassians to use mercenaries like the Breen, but they’ve been using an economy of force strategy along the border for several months now.”

Milani leaned back in her seat, closed her eyes again. “Makes some sense,” she muttered. “But I can see only two reasons for them to hire someone who could sneak up on us like that. Either they wanted someone who could spy on us, or they wanted someone to strike at – what do you call it in the military  – a target of opportunity?”

I wouldn’t call it that,” Betar snorted. 

After a deep breath he regained some of his composure. “But you have a point, perhaps more than you realize. The Breen went straight for the Kopernik – the Oberth we were bringing in. If they had been sent to spy on us they wouldn’t have revealed their presence like that. But if they had been sent to strike at any ship passing close by, they would still need attack coordinates.” 

“Because... using active sensors would give away their carefully hidden position! They needed someone on the outside to tell them where and when to strike.”

“Not bad for someone not trained in these things.” Betar made it sound like a simple statement of facts, before he rose and started to rummage through the closest cupboard, leaving Kell to her own thoughts for the moment.

“Ah, knew you would keep it close by. Still part of the old Kell in you.” He reached for the bottle and poured two drinks. After taking a hearty sip from one glass he placed the other on the coffee table in front of Milani Kell. “Yes, they needed someone to provide them with coordinates for their attack, but damn if I know who it was.”

*****

“Squadron, scrambled.” The computer obediently responded and Oswald FitzOswald gave his orders.

“Pattern Delta-Four, staggered approach. Two salvoes, rapid, then swing around his starboard. Devil Two you are with me. Devil Three, when we turn around you move in. If he drops under warp, same plan, only Three and Four nail him from the dorsal, while we come in from above. Wingmen, stay with your section leaders.”

Before he had finished his orders, Oswald’s fighter had already half completed its turn and three seconds later raced straight down the throat of the enemy ship. Oswald and Nikulas closed the helmets of their flight suits.

“Target locked.” Nikulas sounded calm, far more calm then Oswald felt, but his feelings had little influence on what he did. Years of training had taken over and his hands worked the controls fast and determined. 

Attack Pattern Delta-Four was a simple plan – fly straight at your opponent and fire whatever you got. It allowed no room for evasive maneuvers, but could deliver a devastating punch in the first round of the fight. ‘And if that doesn’t work...’ Lieutenant Oswald didn’t finish the thought. His target was in range.

“Fire!”

A salvo of twelve micro torpedoes streaked from Devil One and Two - followed less than a second later by another one of equal size, fired from the launchers of Devil Three and Four. 

The forward profile of the Breen ship presented only a minimal target area to the Starfleet fighters, but enough torpedoes found their mark to do their damage. But the Breen had their own torpedoes and they made full use of them.

Oswald’s Devil One took a glancing hit that was enough to knock out life support and half its secondary systems.

Devil Three vanished in a ball of flame, and what little debris the explosion left was torn into atoms by the sudden transition under warp. All that remained of the ship and its two-man crew were a few sub-atomic particles spreading through the void of space.

The first exchange had taken less than four seconds.

*****

Milani turned her head to look over her shoulder, out the window at the stars almost invisible against the bright night sky above the city. Somewhere out there – only a few hours ago – men had fought and died. Kell had seen death, felt it take hold of the bodies she had shared, but to die out there in the void, all alone... 

“What happened?” Milani heard herself ask.

“We lost three fighters with all hands. Lieutenant Oswald and his copilot,... a Petty Officer Nikulas, had to abandon their ship, but Oswald didn’t make it.”

Milani Kell turned from her musings and raised an eyebrow in Betar’s direction.

“The ship was badly damaged,” the admiral explained. “The emergency transporter has several levels of redundancy, but it can only take so much punishment.” His shoulders rose by half a centimeter, before they sagged again. “The transporter never got a clear lock on Oswald. 

“We lost three ships and seven good people out there today, Kell! The Breen are on the run, and the Kopernik is safe, but this must never happen again. I want those ships... we need those ships. And I do not want to lose one more officer to get them.”

“I know, but are these ships really that important? I know what you have in mind for them, but will it make that big a difference?”

*****

“I doubt any of this will make a big difference,” Admiral Avanessian had voiced his doubts in much the same words three weeks ago.

“Sorry, Admiral,” Betar had replied, “but I think it will make much more of a difference than you realize.”

He shook his head sadly, a gesture aimed not at the Chief of Fleet Operations visible on his display, but far more at the inadequacies of the world at large. “We both know the Cardassians will cross the border in full force sooner or later. They tried it with their Argolis operation, and they will try it again – and Trill is their most logical target.

“The best I can hope for are maybe thirty ships and two or three squadrons of attack craft. But for a prize like Trill the Cardassians are bound to send a full order, maybe more. We will be facing odds of two-to-one, maybe three-to-one. With some backing that wouldn’t be as bad as it sounds, but – and pardon my frankness – Trill’s defense grid is a joke and a bad one at that.”

“That bad?”

“Even worse.” Betar leaned back in his chair and briefly let his eyes wander to the windows and the city beyond. “The Council is still undecided if upgrading the defense grid will consume more resources than it’s worth or not. Then there are those who think any move to bolster our defenses will only provoke the Cardassians to strike all the harder and faster. And that is only the tip of the political iceberg.”

Arkady Avanessian stroked his gray-shot beard for a few seconds, his eyes narrowed in deep thought. “And every defensive measure on, or in orbit of, Trill is left to the Council decision alone, by the same treaties that grant every Federation member full sovereignty over their own territory.”

“And that, Admiral Avanessian, is why I need those ships. They are Starfleet property, and I can do with them what I like – even in orbit of Trill. The Council may not like it, but they have signed a mutual defense pact with the Federation, and they can’t stop me from upholding our side of the bargain.”

 

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