Admiral James T. Kirk sat alone at the bar, sipping slowly from the glass of amber liquid. He finished the drink and set the glass on the highly polished, mahogany bar, contemplating going home. He thought of the empty apartment, and instead ordered another drink. He was reaching for the glass when a sober feminine voice interrupting the televid sportscaster's play-by-play report caught his attention. He turned to face the holoscreen, then swiveled all the way around on his barstool to concentrate on the special news bulletin.
"This is Caren Hollis reporting from Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco," the thirtyish blonde said, "where word has just been received of a horrendous tragedy in the vicinity of the Orion Barrier. According to our reports, an Orion space liner carrying more than six hundred innocent civilians was brutally attacked and destroyed by a Federation Starfleet warship. A spokesman from the office of Commanding Admiral Heihachiro Nogura released the following statement."
The holoscreen split, leaving Hollis's image in the upper right corner, while the face of one of Nogura's aides hovered in the main portion of the screen. "...tragic accident," the aide said. "The United Federation of Planets regrets this unfortunate loss of life, and Starfleet will immediately dispatch an investigative team to the scene to determine both the cause and what action is appropriate in the aftermath of the tragedy. Appropriate disciplinary measures will be implemented immediately if any Starfleet officer is found to be at fault in this matter. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of those who lost their lives."
"The spokesman refused to comment further on the massacre, and no additional information is available at this time." Hollis's image again filled the screen. "We will interrupt our programming again as soon as we have more details to report on this senseless tragedy. This is Caren Hollis, Intergalactic News Service reporting."
"I knew I'd find you here."
Kirk swiveled around on his bar stool again to greet Commodore Harrold Morrow. "What do you know of this, Harry?" Kirk demanded.
"Little more than you just saw--except that the old man wants to see you in his office...yesterday."
"Let's go." Kirk tossed some credits on the bar and followed Morrow out of the door. When Admiral Nogura sent for you, you didn't keep him waiting...even if you were James T. Kirk. And after the Serenidad tragedy, especially if you were James T. Kirk.
"Go on in, sirs," Nogura's aide told Kirk and Morrow when they arrived at the admiral's outer office. With barely a nod to the aide, they approached the doorway to the inner office and passed through as quickly as the doors slid open. A grim-faced Nogura looked up at them from his desk.
"Sit down," he ordered, and they did so. "We have a real problem with this one," the commanding admiral began.
"What happened?" Kirk asked.
"Details are sketchy, but apparently the Nelson opened fire on an Orion vessel that was crossing the Barrier."
"Not much unusual about that," Morrow commented.
Nogura's expression became even more grim. "No, except that this vessel was a civilian space liner, with more than six hundred passengers on board."
"Casualties?" Kirk asked.
"Complete. No survivors."
"Damn," Kirk said in a low voice.
"Doubled," Morrow added.
"There's more," Nogura informed them, and Kirk had a sudden sinking feeling. "The director of the Barrier Alliance Consortium has appointed himself spokesman for the Orioni Worldlords. He is claiming the attack was unprovoked and intentional. He's demanding financial restitution, a public apology from the Federation, and extradition of the Nelson's commander and his officers to stand trial for murder and terrorism."
"Dave Bailey's no murderer." Kirk's tones were clipped.
Nogura eyed him carefully. "It's been a long time since he served on the Enterprise."
"The years he spent with the Alcyones have taught him a lot about tolerance and patience," Kirk countered stiffly. "He's as much diplomat as Starfleet officer now. He'd never attack another ship without a damned good reason."
"Easy, Jim," Nogura said. "I'm not accusing him of anything...not yet. But we can't ignore the director's charges. We have to investigate this...and be very thorough and careful about it."
"Who's conducting the investigation?" Kirk knew he should have kept his mouth shut the moment the words were spoken.
"Me? What are you--" Kirk started to object.
"Hold on, Jim," Nogura interrupted. "Like I said, we have to be both careful and thorough about this, and I need somebody who understands both our position and the extenuating circumstances that a line commander faces. There's no one better equipped to head up the investigative team."
"I won't let him be a scapegoat." Kirk spoke stiffly, remembering a time not too much earlier when he, too, had faced an official investigation. While all formal charges had been dropped and he had ostensibly been cleared of any criminal activity in the Serenidad incident, Starfleet Command had still bumped him upstairs to this desk job at Starfleet Headquarters. Of course, if Kirk handled this investigation himself, he could ensure that Dave Bailey was treated fairly...
Nogura watched Kirk carefully, reading the play of emotions over his face. When he felt certain Kirk had considered all the angles, he spoke again. "You can't whitewash it either, Jim. Be fair, but thorough."
Kirk nodded. "Who else'll be on the--"
He was interrupted by the sound of the intercom on Nogura's desk. The admiral hit the button. "I told you not to disturb us," he said levelly, but the other two men in his office knew the aide would react as strongly as if another man had roared at him.
"Yes, sir, I know," the aide answered. "But there's another one here with a holocam unit, demanding to see you."
Nogura rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and sighed. "All right, send them in."
"Another what?" Morrow asked.
"Another damned reporter," Nogura answered. "This is the fourth in the past hour."
Caren Hollis entered Nogura's office, followed by an antigrav-equipped, automated holovid camera that was already recording the proceedings.
"Ms. Hollis." Nogura rose to his feet, then gestured toward the two men seated in front of his desk. "Do you know Commodore Morrow and Admiral Kirk?"
Hollis barely glanced at Morrow, but gave Kirk a longer, measuring look. "Only by reputation." She turned to Nogura. "Admiral Nogura..." She abandoned the pleasantries and launched into her interview. "Can you confirm for our viewers that it was the Nelson that attacked the Orion liner?"
"I can confirm nothing at this time, Ms. Hollis," Nogura answered patiently. "The Orion liner was destroyed, and there are Starfleet vessels in the vicinity. Until our investigation is completed, however, I can tell you nothing more than that."
"And who is conducting the investigation?"
Kirk's lips thinned. He hadn't yet accepted the assignment. Even though he knew he wouldn't really be given an option, he certainly wasn't ready to have the news broadcast throughout the galaxy.
Hollis turned to him, a friendly smile on her face. Too friendly, Kirk thought.
"Ah, yes," Hollis commented, "the hero of the Battle of Serenidad."
Kirk narrowed his gaze, not certain he liked this woman. With an effort, he refrained from reacting to the obvious barb.
"And exactly how do you plan on conducting this investigation, Admiral Kirk?" Hollis continued pleasantly.
Kirk gritted his teeth, then relaxed and smiled back at her, determined to be just as charming as she. "Considering I just received the assignment, I'm afraid I haven't enough information yet to answer your questions except to say that the investigation will be conducted in the field, so to speak, at the scene of the incident. Also, all available information will be carefully scrutinized in our quest for a conclusive answer as to the cause of this unfortunate tragedy. Otherwise, I'll comment only after all of the facts are in. I have no intention of speculating on what might have happened until I know what did happen." Kirk smiled again, satisfied that he had successfully deflected her questions. Then he caught the look in her brown eyes and wasn't so sure.
Hollis turned back to Nogura. "Who will be assisting Admiral Kirk in the investigation?"
"He has yet to assemble his entire team," Nogura answered blandly. "We'll release the names as soon as the assignments have been confirmed."
"And who will represent the public interest in this matter?" Hollis asked.
"I beg your pardon?" Kirk asked, blinking in surprise at the question.
"The public interest...you know, the people's right to know." She faced Kirk squarely, ignoring the other men in the room. "Or do you intend to cloak this entire investigation in such secrecy that the people never know what really happened?" Like at Serenidad was the unspoken end to her query, but her smile and pleasant tone of voice didn't match the accusation.
Kirk wondered if he was the only one aware of her hostility. "Now listen--" he began, but Nogura interrupted.
"Ms. Hollis," the commanding admiral said politely. "You may be assured that the public's interest will be fully protected. Now, if you'll excuse us, we must continue our briefing."
"Why not allow our viewers to witness that briefing?" Hollis was really stretching the point.
The holovid zoomed in for a close-up of Nogura, who glanced at it, then turned back to face Hollis. "Your viewers will be fully informed at the appropriate time," he said, his voice still even, but an edge beginning to be evident. "If you'll wait in my outer office for a short while, I'm sure you'll be satisfied with the next statement I release..." He glanced at his desk-top chronometer. "...in approximately forty-five minutes."
Hollis stood up. "All right, Admiral. Forty-five minutes it is." With a brief nod to Kirk and Morrow, she left the room.
"Whew!" Morrow said when she was gone. "She may be beautiful, but I don't think I'd want her around for very long."
"Don't worry, Harry," Nogura said cryptically, "You won't have to be dealing with her."
Kirk glared at Nogura. "I hope that doesn't mean what I think it does."
"Sorry, Jim." Nogura shook his head slowly. "I hate to do this to you, but I don't have any real choice. I can't keep putting these people off. They'll never believe the investigation is honest and complete unless they witness it first-hand. And if they don't believe it, they'll see to it that the public doesn't either. And if the public doesn't believe it, they'll go clamoring to the Federation Council demanding all of our heads." He shook his head again.
"So?" Kirk asked grimly.
"So...you pick your own team for this investigation. There'll be five in all, including you, and you'll take a warp sled shuttle to the scene. You can choose three people to accompany you."
"And the other?" Kirk had to ask, knowing he wouldn't like the answer.
"What?" Morrow demanded, standing suddenly. Kirk remained in his chair, watching Nogura with little expression on his face.
"Sit down, Harry," the commanding admiral ordered. "You heard me. Hollis is the fifth member of the team, representing, as she so eloquently put it, the public's interest."
"Will she be broadcasting from the Barrier?" was Kirk's only question.
"No." Nogura was decisive about that, and Kirk relaxed a bit. "That will be our one stipulation. She can be privy to everything you learn--except, of course, for classified codes and materials relating to other Starfleet missions. But she can only release the information to the public after you have reported back to me and I have forwarded that report, along with my recommendation for action, to the Federation Council. She'll be fully informed, but I won't allow her to interfere in your investigation."
"She'll interfere," Kirk pronounced, "simply by being there."
"We'll minimize the interference then. Sorry, Jim," Nogura repeated the earlier apology. "I hate to do this to you, but I really don't have a choice. This one's too touchy."
"Right," Kirk acknowledged, then shifted gears. "About the crew..."
Admiral James T. Kirk sat silently in his seat, watching as the pilot and navigator steered the warp sled shuttle away from space dock. Two of them had served under his command on the Enterprise--and served well. The third had built a reputation for cool, logical competence--whatever her assigned duties. Lieutenant Ras had plotted their course to the Orion Barrier, and Lieutenant Commander T'Sidra had proceeded to ease them out of the Sol system under impulse power. Kirk fidgeted in his seat. He didn't like being just a passenger on this trip, but that was the situation. Kirk commanded the mission, but T'Sidra commanded the Solzenheitzen. Kirk looked away from the Vulcan woman's back and focused his eyes on the third person he had chosen for his crew. Lieutenant Gabler was the second best engineer Kirk knew, and a man he trusted implicitly...almost as much as he did Scotty. After all, Montgomery Scott had trained him. Five years as Third Engineering Officer on the Enterprise, followed by two and a half years helping refit her engines had earned him the position of Assistant Chief Engineer, not to mention Scott's complete confidence...and that of Kirk, as well. Since Scotty was unavailable for the mission, his top assistant was the next best choice.
Kirk shifted his attention back to the navigator. He had chosen the Andorian as much for his previous assignment as for his navigation skills. Ras had served the Enterprise in Life Sciences, both during Kirk's original five-year mission as captain, and on the tragically aborted second mission. After Serenidad, Ras had chosen to switch to navigation. A year's experince on a scout ship more than qualified him for the navigational duties on the Solzenheitzen, but any rated navigator could have done that. For the investigation, Kirk needed a life sciences specialist. Luckily, Ras was qualified in both fields. Cross-training of that kind would be a valuable tool in this investigation since the team was so small.
Kirk turned and faced the Vulcan pilot again, once more considering the importance of cross-training. T'Sidra didn't quite have Spock's talents with computers, but her rating wasn't much lower than his, and her skills at the helm were just as impressive. She had earned a medal and her own command of this shuttle in a skirmish with the Romulans when she had maneuvered the U.S.S. Saratoga safely out of a situation so tight her captain said he knew of no other helmsman who could have managed it. Kirk knew of one, but, like Spock and Scott, Sulu was unavailable for this assignment. Settling for someone of T'Sidra's calibre was easy. Besides, Kirk always felt better having a Vulcan on the team.
"How long will it take us to get there?"
Kirk sighed at the question that came from behind him. He had tried to ignore the final member of the team, but he wasn't really surprised to hear from her. Somehow, he knew Caren Hollis wasn't used to being ignored, and wouldn't accept it now.
Suppressing another sigh, Kirk swiveled around in his chair, and faced the newswoman who had set up her equipment in the port seat in the fourth and final row. It's a shame, Kirk thought, eying her smoldering blonde beauty, that she's so determined to be a nuisance. Dismissing the thought, he concentrated on answering her question. "About three days."
"Seventy-eight point four six hours," T'Sidra corrected from the pilot's seat. The corner of Kirk's mouth twitched slightly in response, but he quelled the urge to grin. He knew Hollis wouldn't understand the joke, and he was unwilling to explain it to her.
"So, what do we do in the meantime?" Hollis demanded.
Kirk choked back the answer that begged to be spoken. "We review the reports filed by the Nelson, along with other available information concerning the Orion Barrier Alliance."
"Is that all?"
"That's about it." Kirk gave her his most charming smile. Nogura had ordered him to be nice to her...even if it killed him. "...except for getting as much sleep as we can while we can. There won't be much time for it when we get there."
Hollis glanced around the shuttle's main compartment. "Sleep? Exactly where are we supposed to do this sleeping?"
Kirk's smile broadened involuntarily. "Right behind you." He nodded at the bulkhead to the rear of the vessel's passenger seats.
Tiny lines appeared between Hollis's brows as she narrowed her eyes in confusion. "I don't understand."
Kirk stood and walked to the bulkhead. He pressed a button, and a narrow bunk swung down into place. It had a thin, hard-looking mattress with a built-in lump of a pillow and a wide strap fastened across the middle, at approximately waist level.
"There?" Hollis was incredulous. "I'm supposed to sleep there?"
"We all sleep there, or over there." Kirk nodded at the opposite bulkhead. "We take turns."
"But..." Hollis allowed the protest to die. "What about food?"
Kirk gestured to a partial partition behind the starboard bunk. "That's the galley. Rations are in the freezer, and we have a microwave unit to defrost and heat them."
"And the other...amenities?"
Kirk tapped on the partition that enclosed a compartment behind the port bunk. "Sonic shower," he explained. "Behind that's the head."
"All the comforts of home," Hollis muttered.
"Everything we need," Kirk countered, still smiling as he returned to his seat.
"I can tell this is going to be a pretty boring trip."
Kirk's smile died. "Yes, well, make the best of it, Ms. Hollis. You may welcome boredom by the time this is all over."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means," Kirk answered through stiff lips, "that this mission is more than the game you seem to think it is. It's more than just a story. Out here things aren't as simple as they might seem when you're back there on Earth, standing safely in front of a holovid camera once the action is all over. Out here, we have to make decisions that mean the difference between life and death. Out here,battle is more than a word or an excuse for a story that might earn you a couple of more points on the ratings scales. Tragedy isn't a matter of statistics, but refers to real people who have grieving families and friends. Out here, heroism isn't something you talk about or think about or even put a name to...it's simply a matter of getting your job done, the best way you can, with as little loss of life as possible and as little damage as you can manage. Out here--"
"I get your drift, Admiral." There was a wry twist to Hollis's mouth. "Didn't like that gallant hero label, huh?"
Kirk pressed his lips tightly together, then opened them. "No, I didn't."
"I just give credit where it's due."
Kirk laughed, a short, sharp bark that was without humor. "Credit had nothing to do with it. It was all a matter of a good story."
She shrugged elegant shoulders. "We all have to do our jobs."
"Yes, but not all of us do them for the right reasons."
Hollis's eyes narrowed. "You don't think keeping the public informed is important?" she asked. "You don't think people have the right to know the truth? You don't believe in the centuries-old concept of freedom of the press?"
"I believe in it," Kirk answered levelly, his gaze holding hers steadily. "Do you?"
Hollis leaned forward to answer his question, then clamped her mouth shut and leaned back in her seat again, forcing herself to relax. She wasn't going to rise to his bait again. "Of course," she said finally, smiling as pleasantly as he had when their conversation began.
Kirk stared back at her for another moment, then decided to drop the issue. Without further comment, he turned back to face the front of the shuttle.
"Prepare for warp drive," T'Sidra warned her passengers as they left the Sol system behind them. The view on the screen shimmered, and the specks of light suddenly elongated into multi-hued streaks as the warp engines engaged.
Kirk swiveled his seat toward the bulkhead, and reached to press a button. The small computer screen embedded in the wall moved forward. When it stopped, he arranged it in a comfortable reading position.
"Computer," he ordered.
"Display subspace transmission, U.S.S. Nelson to U.S.S. Paul Revere, Stardate 7821.6." After only a brief pause, Commander David Bailey's face appeared on the screen.
The Nelson's captain appeared haggard and confused. He kept looking back and forth between the viewscreen and something on the desk, as though he were constantly double-checking his facts.
"It just doesn't make sense," Bailey complained to the Paul Revere's Andorian captain. "According to our sensors, that was a heavily armed Orion trader, and the energy readings indicated they were powering up their weapons in preparation for an attack. Hell! We only fired a warning shot. It should have bounced right off their shields. I never would have fired on them at all if I'd realized..."
"Easy, Dave," the unseen Thelin responded. "I believe you. I just don't understand how--"
"Because there weren't any shields!" Bailey exclaimed. "Despite what our sensors showed at the time I gave that order, they didn't have even the weakest of shields in place by the time we fired. After refusing to answer all of our attempts to contact them, they chose the exact moment when we began firing to drop the damned shields. Our phasers hit dead center on their engines." He rubbed a hand across his eyes, then looked back up again, his gaze seeming to meet Kirk's. "If we hadn't had our own shields up..." He shook his head, then added in a harsh whisper, "we'd have been destroyed, too."
Bailey's gaze dropped again, and he sat silently for a few moments. The Andorian captain was silent, too, as though he not only understood the gravity of the situation, but shared Bailey's grief. Then Bailey raised his eyes and resumed speaking, his voice flat, almost dead, as though he understood that even this informal report would make its way into the formal investigation that was bound to follow such an incident. "I have no explanation as to what occurred," he said. "I can give none. Everything our instruments told us was obviously wrong, but I have no means to account for it. As for the civilians who were ki--" His voice broke, and he swallowed convulsively, then continued, "As for those killed, I can only express my profound regrets and sorrow. Dear God!" he choked. "I wish I could do more. Bailey out."
The computer screen went blank, and Kirk stared at it for several minutes before he became aware of someone standing next to his left shoulder. He swiveled his chair around to face a blatantly curious Hollis. "What do you want?" he demanded.
"What were you doing?" she responded in kind.
"Reviewing a report."
"What report?" she probed.
"Commander Bailey's initial subspace transmission on the incident."
"Oh. What's in it?"
"I'm supposed to have access to all information pertinent to this incident." Hollis smiled at him smugly.
"You'll have access," Kirk responded with a grim expression, "when I'm ready to give it to you."
"No." Kirk stood to face her, only a few inches separating them. "Let's get something straight right now, Ms. Hollis. You're on this team because I wasn't given a choice. My orders are to make all pertinent information available to you so that you may file your news reports. But--" He pointed his right index finger at her. "You can't file any reports until after Admiral Nogura has reviewed our findings and made his recommendations to the Federation Council. And that means you don't need to know everything now."
"I might as well have stayed on Earth then." Hollis glared at Kirk, barely resisting the urge to stomp her foot.
"My feelings exactly," he muttered and started to turn away from her.
"Don't you turn your back on me!" she shouted at him, then lowered her voice to continue, "You're not going to get away with this, Kirk. Nogura promised me full access, and that's what I intend to have--or, alternatively, your head...on a silver platter." She smiled at him with false sweetness.
"Better women than you have attempted that." Kirk smiled back at her, just as falsely. "I don't advise trying too hard."
"And just why not?" she challenged.
Kirk took her chin in his hand and stared pointedly into her eyes. "Be careful," he warned in a dangerously soft voice, "or you just may get what you're wishing for."
Her mouth widened into a genuine smile. "Is that a threat, Admiral...or a promise?" she purred.
"Both," he shot back at her, then released her chin and turned to take his place at the computer screen again, pausing only to toss over his shoulder. "I said this is classified, Ms. Hollis. Return to your seat. You'll see it soon enough."
"Soon enough for what?" Hollis grumbled, but she followed his orders, reasoning that now wasn't the time to push him further. She'd choose her battles carefully, so that she could win the war.
With that thought, Hollis took her seat and adjusted it so she could make use of the adjacent computer. With a smug glance back at Kirk, she punched in the code she had been given and requested Commander Dave Bailey's log entries from the day of the tragedy.
The single word "Restricted" flashed on the screen.
Hollis pressed her lips together, and requested another report. She got the same response.
Fifteen minutes later, the journalist was fuming. All of her requests for information had been denied. She looked over her shoulder at Kirk, who was deeply engrossed in yet another screen full of information. Switching her own unit off, Hollis cautiously stood up and silently crossed the shuttle to stand behind Kirk's left shoulder again. Before she could focus on the screen, however, he switched it off and swiveled his chair around, forcing her to step hurriedly back.
"I told you," he said levelly. "This information is classified at this time."
"Right!" Hollis stomped back to her seat, settled in, and punched one last request into the computer. This time she got results.
"Library tape Number Six Five Nine Three, Subsection B Four: Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium," flashed across the screen. Hollis leaned back. The computer might be denying her information on the current situation, but it couldn't lock her out of the library records. If nothing else, she'd know everything there was to know about the Orions and their blasted Barrier Alliance Consortium long before they reached the Nelson.
She just hoped that wasn't all she would know.
Kirk switched his own computer screen off and swung back around in his chair to face the Solzenheitzen's viewscreen. He felt tired himself, as though he had been in command of the Nelson. He sympathized with Bailey, knowing how difficult it was to bear the burden of command at such times.
He sympathized with the Nelson's commander for other, more personal reasons, too. Bailey had been a young, slightly green lieutenant when Kirk had taken command of the Enterprise. Just how green hadn't been evident until their encounter with the Fesarius when the young navigator had cracked under the pressure of Balok's death threat. Despite what Spock had seen as a deplorable tendency toward over-emotionalism, however, Kirk had seen the promise of a potentially outstanding Starfleet officer. Bailey had lived up to that promise, too, first in jumping at the chance Kirk gave him to volunteer for special diplomatic duty with Balok's people and later in a distinguished career as first officer and then commander of the Nelson. Kirk couldn't believe that the man whose career he had watched so carefully over the years would have attacked an unarmed civilian vessel unprovoked.
If what Bailey had told Thelin was true, he hadn't. He had acted in good faith, and couldn't be blamed for the tragedy. But what he had said made no sense. What Kirk needed to see was the Nelson's and the Revere's computer log excerpts, and the recovered log from the Orion vessel. For those, he'd have to wait until he arrived at the Nelson. He just wished they'd hurry up and get there. The waiting during transit was the most difficult part of the mission.
Kirk glanced across the aisle at the woman who seemed engrossed in a library tape concerning the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium. He amended his earlier thought. The waiting wasn't the most difficult part of this mission; putting up with Caren Hollis was.
The tall, hooded figure, clad entirely in black, stood at the room's only window, staring through the grimy pane at the equally grimy streets of this sordid little world whose only true attraction lay in its location well within Orion territory. On Xantharus, he was protected against those who might attempt to capture him and surrender him to Federation authorities, or any of the many others who held either personal or public grudges against him. Not that he was afraid of either the Federation or the bounty hunters, but it was much easier to conduct business without having to deal with such petty annoyances. It was enough that he had to keep an eye on the less than honest creatures who did business here, not to mention the various beings within this room; he didn't need to add to their number.
As he continued to watch the scene outside, a skulking figure darted out of a dark alley to capture and drag another figure back into the shadows for a certainly unsavory purpose. He seemed unaware of the debate raging behind him, his attention apparently focused on the scene outside. But the director of the Barrier Alliance Consortium knew every word that was yelled, screamed, shrieked, or otherwise spoken by the handful of Worldlords who had gathered for this conference in Gracchos. The director allowed the conversation to continue a while longer, until finally the voices began to lower in volume. When he finally turned away from the window, the Catullan was leaning forward across the table, one pale fist lying flat against the dark wood as he emphasized his position. The Avian had already withdrawn from the fray, and sat calmly preening his feathers. The Catullan ran out of arguments, and a pale, yellow-green, freckled Orion took over.
"My second mate was aboard that ship," Tolcus complained, "along with three of my offspring. The Federation must pay for this travesty. They--"
"They will pay." The three words were softly spoken in a deep voice that cut instantly through Tolcus's monologue. All eyes turned to face the masked figure as he left the window and returned to the table, seating himself in the huge chair at its end.
The Worldlords waited silently for the director to continue, but they waited in vain. Finally, the Catullan spoke again. "What if they refuse your demands?"
"No matter." He turned to Tolcus. "Yours were not the only offspring on that ship." Although they couldn't see it, the Worldlords knew his mouth had spread in an evil grin behind his mask. The Acadian Star was a new ship recently launched by the Avians. A luxury space liner of unmatched elegance, it attracted the wealthy and decadent of many worlds, including those within the Alliance and a number from without. "There were Tellarite and Andorian names on the manifest."
Tolcus grinned back at him, his own 'grief' briefly forgotten. "So, even if they refuse to meet your price, their losses would be staggering."
"Perhaps the entire Federation would collapse," suggested the Avian.
"Perhaps." The director paused a moment, fondling the curved dagger sheathed at his waist as his steely eyes studied each of the Worldlords seated at the table. "You will return to your worlds now."
"And do what?" the Catullan demanded.
Without further comment, the various Worldlords rose to their feet and started from the room. "Not you." The director stopped a dark green Orion who had remained silent throughout the exchange. Already halfway to his feet, the man sat back down and waited while the others left, The director stood and walked to a heavy cabinet against the wall behind him to pour a drink.
As the door closed behind the other Worldlords, the man at the table became aware of his own body odor as he began to perspire. The director hadn't said a word since ordering him to remain, and the suspense--and his own conscience--were becoming unbearable. The urge to turn around and face the director was overwhelming, but he quelled it and continued to wait...and sweat some more.
The silence stretched out; the room's only sound was the tinkling of ice in the director's glass. Rodok stared straight ahead, searching his mind for a reasonable explanation for his detainment. Surely the director hadn't discovered his operative. If he had, the man would never have been allowed to report to him. The director's practice of disposing of his enemies without a word was too well-known. And his operative had reported to him just an hour before this meeting had begun. What else could it be?
Rodok's ruminations were interrupted when a pale, white hand extended out from a black sleeve to hover above the table in front of him. Clenched in a fist as though holding something, its skin was so nearly transluscent that the green veins showed clearly through. The director opened his hand and slowly allowed a heavy-linked chain to slowly slip through his fingers and pool on the table. The hand turned over to display an octaganol disk minted from the same gray metal.
As he recognized the unique disk that had been worn by his operative and noted the not-yet-dried blood on it, Rodok swallowed convulsively. The scent of fear intensified in the room; Rodok could almost taste it. "I--" he began. It was the last word he spoke as the director dropped the metal disk on the table and grabbed his man by the hair to jerk his head roughly back. Before Rodok could act, or even think, a long, curved blade was at his throat, slicing through the skin. Bright, green blood spurted out from the wound, splashing over Rodok's chest, his hands, the table, chain, and disk.
The director released Rodok's hair, turned, and moved quickly toward the door without a glance backward, even when his victim's head struck the table with a hard thump. He paused only long enough to take a pristine white napkin from a table, wipe his blade clean, and drop the cloth to the floor. Then he strode out of the door, replacing his dagger in its sheath.
"...kind of commander is Bailey?" The low-pitched voice drew Kirk's attention the moment he awoke, but he remained still in the bunk a few moments longer, listening while Hollis attempted to draw Gabler out.
"I do not know the commander," Gabler answered carefully. "He had already left the Enterprise before I joined the crew."
"But why did he leave?" Hollis asked casually. "I thought Starfleet officers practically killed to get assigned to that ship. Why would anyone want to leave?"
Gabler shrugged. "I'm not sure, exactly. I never heard the entire story, but it was said that he took a special diplomatic assignment."
"Diplomatic assignment? Where?"
Kirk had heard enough. There were aspects about Dave Bailey's career that were still classified. He felt certain that Gabler wouldn't reveal anything damaging, even assuming he knew anything, but Kirk wasn't about to take any chances. He released the restraining belt that held him in place on the narrow bunk, then sat up, swinging his legs over the side. Hollis turned around at the sound of his movement, ending her conversation with Gabler abruptly. Kirk eyed her coldly, but could see no signs of guilt on her smooth countenance. He shrugged mentally, telling himself she probably felt no guilt; as far as she was concerned, she was just doing her job.
Without a word, Kirk slid off the bunk and made his way aft to the head, then the sonic shower. When he emerged a few minutes later, he felt refreshed, but hungry. Heading for the galley, he rummaged among the various quick-frozen meals in the freezer compartment. He chose a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and biscuits, and popped it into the microwave cooker. In a minute, the meal was ready and he returned to his seat to enjoy it with only a brief mental acknowledgment of the scolding he knew McCoy would give him for his choice of sustenance.
After a few bites, Kirk looked up to find Hollis watching him. He finished chewing the food in his mouth, swallowed, then grinned at her. "Good morning."
"Hmmmph!" Hollis returned. "Feels more like evening to me. I think I'll take a nap."
Kirk waved his fork magnanimously at the vacant bunk. "It's all yours," he offered, then returned his attention to his meal.
Hollis stared at him for a moment longer, then, without comment, headed for the bunk. Kirk finished his meal, then discarded the container in a recycling unit and returned to his seat, pausing briefly to assure himself that Hollis was, indeed, asleep. He watched the viewscreen impassively for a few minutes, then switched to the seat across the aisle that had been vacated by Gabler when the engineer took over navigation to allow Ras time to rest.
Kirk leaned forward. "How long did she question you?" he asked in a voice pitched low enough that it was unlikely to disturb Hollis.
"Only a few minutes," Gabler answered. "I didn't tell her anything, sir." He flashed a nervous smile. "She sure is a pushy bitch. Oh...she tried to make her questions seem careless, almost unimportant, but I knew they weren't. I didn't tell her anything she shouldn't know."
Kirk patted the other man's shoulder in an attempt to calm the flustered lieutenant's nerves. "I know you wouldn't. I just wondered how far she would try to push you. She doesn't know you like I do."
Gabler stiffened his shoulders in reaction to the admiral's praise and twisted in his seat to face Kirk. "She didn't ask me much. I don't think it really occurred to her until just before you woke up. Before that, she just kept searching the computer for whatever she could find." His lean, brown face split in a wide grin. "She didn't find much there either."
Kirk returned the grin. "I know. T'Sidra made sure she wouldn't."
The Vulcan woman turned toward them at the sound of her name. There was a twinkle in her eye that reminded Kirk of Spock, but like his friend, this woman kept her face impassive, her expression bland. Only someone who knew Vulcans well would recognize the humor in her eyes. It had been there when he asked her to restrict Hollis computer access before they began the journey, and its presence had reassured him that she was an excellent choice for this team. Remembering their conversation at that time, he winked at her now and caught a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth, quickly suppressed.
Ras passed between them at that moment to reclaim his navigator's seat. Gabler moved to one of the aft seats, where he immediately began reviewing some material on the computer screen. Kirk turned to look at him, then returned his attention to T'Sidra.
"Would you like to take a break now, Commander?" he asked her.
"That is unnecessary, Admiral," T'Sidra replied. "I am not fatigued."
"I dare say you're not," Kirk responded dryly. "But you will be, long before this mission is over if you don't take advantage of the opportunity to rest while you have it." He paused, then smiled entreatingly at her. "I think I can manage to steer your ship for you while you catch a few winks."
T'Sidra looked at him for a moment, her gaze unblinking, then flipped a switch on her control board, released her safety belt, and stood up. "I am sure you will do an adequate job, sir," she replied, still unsmiling, but with that twinkle back in her eyes.
Kirk took the pilot's seat and studied the controls. He had reviewed them before the mission began and found nothing with which he wasn't already familiar. Still, he decided to leave the automatic pilot on for now. He would just keep an eye on things. He turned to Ras. "What's our ETA?"
"Another twenty-three and a half hours, sir," the Andorian lisped.
Kirk glanced behind him to where the two women were sleeping. T'Sidra lay flat on her back in one bunk, eyes closed, no signs of life evident at all as she had already slowed her metabolism to the level normal for a sleeping Vulcan. On the other bunk, Hollis was curled on her side, cheek resting on one palm while the other was clenched in a fist in front of her. Damn! he thought. The woman doesn't even relax in sleep. I wonder what it would take to get her to let that guard down. Dismissing the thought, he turned back to face the viewscreen. He hoped the reporter would sleep as long as possible. The less time Caren Hollis was awake, the less damage she could do.
T'Sidra was back in the pilot's seat, with Ras at navigation when the Solzenhietzen's sensors began to detect a vessel ahead. At the report from T'Sidra, Kirk switched off his computer terminal and turned to face the viewscreen ahead. He and the other Starfleet officers sat silently watching as the first of three destroyers assigned to this area began to appear on the screen. The only sound in the shuttle was that of Caren Hollis's voice as she calmly recorded a report of the situation.
"We have reached the Orion Barrier." she said. Kirk smothered a grin at her comment, as though the 'barrier' was some physical thing, in an exact location that could be pinpointed on a map. He shrugged. It didn't matter. For all intents and purposes, Hollis was right. They had reached the barrier when they made contact with the U.S.S. Paul Revere, a scout ship that was one of several vessels assigned to patrol the area and prevent Orion pirates from smuggling contraband cargo into, out of, or through Federation space.
Hollis's report continued. "There are no signs of Orion vessels in the area, however, just a single Federation warship, gliding through space with armament ready to stop any vessel that dares to challenge this border between Federation domain and neutral territory."
Kirk frowned. Damn! he thought. Why the hell is that woman always so intent on making Starfleet and the entire Federation look like the bad guys? Hollis was always acting as though the Orions were nothing but ordinary businessmen dealing in some legally obtained, relatively innocuous cargo. Didn't she know they took most of their cargo by force? Didn't she know people died as a result of those acquisitions? Didn't she know that, likely as not, the cargo itself was people? No, he thought. Not Caren Hollis. To her, we're the aggressors, and they're the innocent victims. Damn!
"Soon," Hollis was still recording her report, "we'll reach the Nelson, the Federation warship responsible for the inexcusably malevolent attack on an innocent civilian space liner, the warship responsible for the deaths of six hundred innocent lives..." Her voice dropped to a softer tone, breaking occasionally as though she, too, grieved for those deaths. "...lives that included not only Orions, but, according to our latest reports, Federation citizens as well. Andorians were aboard the Star of Acadia, as were Tellarites, and perhaps others. We can only hope that we'll find some answers out here, some explanation as to why those six hundred souls were lost. It won't compensate their families for the loss, but perhaps they'll find a certain measure of comfort and peace once those responsible for the deaths are punished." The last words were spoken barely above a whisper, and Hollis allowed her voice to trail off into a dramatic pause at the end. After a moment, she spoke again, this time in her usual, authoritative reporter's voice. "This is Caren Hollis reporting from the Orion Barrier."
She swiveled in her chair to find Kirk staring at her, a cold, closed expression on his face. "Admiral?"
But Kirk refused to answer. Instead, he rose to his feet and stalked back to the tiny galley where he quickly obtained a hot mug of coffee. Leaning against the bulkhead, he sipped at the fragrant brew while keeping his eyes trained on the viewscreen in front of the shuttle. By remaining where he was, he could keep Hollis out of his line of vision, and for just a few minutes pretend she wasn't on the Solzenheitzen. For a few minutes, but no longer. Hollis stepped into the aisle between the passenger seats and took the chair Kirk had vacated a moment earlier. She leaned forward to ask T'Sidra something.
Kirk couldn't hear their conversation, but he frowned as the Vulcan calmly answered the other woman's question. He took another sip of the coffee as he continued to stare at Hollis. After a moment, he poured what remained of his coffee into the disposal and placed the cup in the cleaning unit. He strode forward quickly until he stood over Hollis. She looked up at him inquiringly.
"I believe you're in my seat," he bit out through stiff lips.
Hollis smiled at him sweetly. "Why, I believe I am, Admiral. Thank you so much for the loan." Her smile died. "...however brief." Hollis stood up and ducked around Kirk, who refused to move out of her way. Once she had returned to her own seat, he sat down and activated the computer terminal at his side without a glance in her direction. Hollis frowned, her eyes boring into a point midway between his shoulder blades.
Then she shrugged. They would rendezvous with the Nelson soon and get off this God-awful shuttle with its incredibly cramped quarters. A cabin, and a little privacy, would do wonders for her disposition...that and some answers to her questions. Like it or not, James T. Kirk was going to have to stop brushing her off. She'd get some answers, and soon...one way or another.
A second vessel came into view, a Saladin II-class destroyer. Kirk made out the numbers painted on the sleek ship's hull...NCC-546. It was the Nelson. Of course, he had known that as soon as they had made radio contact some minutes earlier, but he still had a feeling of relief when he was able to visually identify the vessel, with its single warp engine.
Ras was talking with the Nelson's communications officer, while T'Sidra cleanly and efficiently detached the Solzenheitzen from its warp drive and maneuvered it to dock with the Nelson. Kirk grinned involuntarily. There were none of the flashy moves he remembered another warp sled pilot making, not for T'Sidra.
A moment later, and the docking was completed, the hatch opening to permit the Solzenheitzencrew and passengers to disembark onto the Nelson. The shuttle would remain docked, with its warp drive held in place by tractors for the duration of this mission.
Kirk stepped through the hatch and grinned at the man who greeted him. He raised his hand in a salute. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"
"Permission granted, Admiral," Dave Bailey replied, answering the salute while attempting, but failing to match the smile from his one-time commanding officer. Bailey was tense, and obviously worried, but he seemed to relax a little with Kirk's arrival. "It's good to see you again, sir."
"But not like this, right, Dave?" Kirk asked gently as he reached out to shake hands with the commander.
Bailey sighed and accepted the handshake, taking comfort from the firm clasp. "No, sir, not like this."
Ignoring the others who followed him from the Solzenheitzen, Kirk placed his left hand on Bailey's shoulder and began to lead him away from the docking position. "We have to talk..."
"Admiral?" a voice called from behind them.
Kirk stopped, closed his eyes, and took three deep breaths. Then he opened his eyes again and glanced briefly at Bailey. "My albatross..." he mumbled, and turned around.
"Yes, Ms. Hollis?" His voice was honeyed, as though he had nothing better to do than cater to her whims.
"I believe I'm supposed to sit in on any discussions you and Commander Bailey have."
"Official discussions," Kirk clarified. "This is personal."
"Personal?" Her voice implied something not too savory.
"Yes, personal," Kirk replied stiffly. "Commander Bailey once served aboard my ship. We have news of mutual friends to catch up on."
Hollis's eyes narrowed at the comment. "I've been meaning to ask you about that. Are you actually admitting you and the commander, the man you were sent to investigate, are friends?"
"Not friends exactly," Bailey answered. "He was the captain; I was just--"
"Friends," Kirk stated firmly.
"And Admiral Nogura was aware of this, er, relationship?"
"And still assigned you to head up this investigation?" She was incredulous.
"Yes." He refused to elaborate.
"Doesn't it seem a bit unorthodox?" Hollis probed.
Hollis pressed her lips tightly together, holding on to her temper with a visible effort. "It just seems to me that such an investigation should be conducted by someone who would be unbiased, someone who--"
Kirk left Bailey's side and stalked across the deck to face Hollis. "I've had just about enough of this from you." He spoke softly, but with an edge to his voice. "This investigation will be conducted properly, completely in accordance with Starfleet protocol and with no, absolutely no bias as to its outcome. I may hope to find Commander Bailey innocent of any wrongdoing, but my report will contain the facts as they are revealed. If he's innocent, then I'll be pleased to report it. If not," he sighed, "I won't be happy, but I'll still report it. And you," he pointed his right index finger at her, "will stop insinuating that I'm just here to whitewash this entire incident."
Hollis grinned wickedly. "Am I getting under your skin, Admiral?"
"You," he declared, "are as annoying as a space station filled with Klingons and tribbles...and not nearly as pleasant." Without another word, he pivoted and rejoined Bailey. "Let's get out of here," he muttered beneath his breath.
"Who's the woman?" Bailey asked as they stepped into the turbolift.
Bailey whistled. "Intergalactic News Service?"
Bailey shook his head. "I guess I should have recognized her, but I wasn't expecting her. What's she doing here?"
"Representing the public's right to know the truth."
"Don't take it so hard, Dave." Kirk's gaze caught and held that of the younger man. "It's like I told her. I'm here to find out the truth in this matter. And if you did nothing wrong--which I, for one, am certain you didn't--then you'll be cleared, and even Ms. Hollis will have to report that fact."
"But what if I'm not?" Bailey asked softly.
Kirk's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything.
"Innocent," Bailey explained.
"Let's have that talk."
Kirk leaned back in the chair and sipped from the glass Bailey had handed him. He set the glass down on the table at his elbow and sighed. "This is good, Dave. Private stock?"
"Purely legal," the commander answered warily.
Kirk nodded absently, and the conversation lagged. After a moment, Kirk asked, "Dave...what happened?"
"I...oh, damn, sir, I don't really know. Our sensors were telling us it was another damned pirate ship. The configuration was virtually the same, and there were no scheduled legal crossings of the border for another forty-eight hours. They're shields were up. It was routine, strictly routine...fire a warning shot that would bounce off their shields and send them racing back into their own territory. Hell! We've done it a thousand times before. There was no reason to think this one would be any different."
"But it was."
"Yes," Bailey whispered. "God, yes!" He looked at Kirk. "Just as we fired, they dropped their shields...just dropped them! No reason, no explanation. They were up one second, and down the next. Then..." His voice broke, and he continued in a harsh whisper, "we hit the engines, and they just...exploded." He slammed his hand down on the table next to his chair. "The whole God-damned ship blew up!"
"Dave--" Kirk started.
"It blew up!" Bailey interrupted. "All those people...oh, God, Jim--" His voice broke again, and he buried his face in his right hand.
Kirk sat silently, giving Bailey time to pull himself together. When the commander looked back up, his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "All those poor people. Why?" he rasped. "Why did it happen?"
Kirk took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know, Dave, but that's why I'm here. We'll do everything we can to find the answers for you."
"You believe me, don't you?" Bailey beseeched.
"Officially," Kirk replied, "I don't yet have an opinion."
Bailey stood up and crossed the room to his desk, where he fumbled with a few items that sat on the top. "Admiral..." he began. "What do you think? Really?"
Kirk took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't think anything, Dave, except that I know you're a good man, and I don't believe for a minute that you'd ever do anything intentionally to harm a single individual, much less six hundred people. As for the specifics...I'll just have to wait until I see those log reports; yours and those from the Star of Acadia."
"They're both sealed."
"Good. That's in accordance with regulations. I'll have to open them myself, with my team in attendance." He frowned. "Dave..."
"That includes Hollis, doesn't it?"
Kirk nodded. "I hand-picked this team, except for her. The press was all over Nogura...especially her. It was the only way he could keep them more or less under control until the investigation's finished."
Kirk nodded. "Under control. She witnesses every bit of evidence we uncover, as we uncover it. Strictly classified material is off limits. The clincher is, she can't release a damned thing until Nogura himself gives her permission, and that'll come only after he's reviewed our report and forwarded it to the council."
Bailey let out a sigh of relief. "I don't imagine she likes that very much."
Kirk grinned. "She doesn't like it at all, but she doesn't have much choice in the matter. She wants this story, and she wants it bad, so she accepted the terms."
"And abides by them?" It was obvious Bailey didn't believe that, not for a minute.
"More or less; she has no choice," Kirk repeated. "She tries to get around them every chance she gets. She even sneaks up behind me to try to read my computer screen over my shoulder, but so far I've managed to block her."
"Now I understand why you two don't get along."
"Right." Kirk stood and stretched. "It's getting late. I think I'll turn in and get some rest before we unseal those logs tomorrow. It'll be good to sleep in a real bed for a change, instead of those narrow ledges on the shuttle."
"It won't be as luxurious as you're used to," Bailey apologized.
"Anything's better than what I've had to get by with for the past three days."
Bailey laughed. "Well, at least they're fairly comfortable...for one."
"That's all that's necessary."
Kirk stepped into the cabin assigned to him for the duration of his stay aboard the Nelson. As a destroyer rather than a heavy cruiser, the Nelson's guest accommodations were, as Bailey had said, a little less luxurious than those aboard the Enterprise had been. But they would do. Though narrower than he had become used to, the bunk was at least wide enough to allow him to turn over while sleeping, which would be a nice change after the Solzenheitzen.
Kirk yawned, stretched again, and reached to unfasten his uniform jacket, then stopped when the door chimed. He frowned, wondering who might want him at this hour, then shrugged. "Come," he called, refastening his jacket.
The door slid open, and Caren Hollis entered. She strode across the room to stand immediately in front of him, her body language radiating anger and defiance.
Kirk frowned. "What do you want?"
"I want you to stop playing games with me."
"Yes. I'm supposed to observe everything that happens in this investigation. You know that's what Nogura said."
"That's right, and you will...just as soon as the investigation begins, tomorrow morning."
"And what do you call your three-hour conference with Commander Bailey tonight?"
"A conversation between old friends."
"Old friends who are trying to cover up murder?" she taunted.
Kirk just stared at her a moment, as Hollis glared back at him in defiance. Then something seemed to snap, and he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her closer until they faced each other, practically nose to nose. "You bitch," he ground out between clenched teeth.
"Bastard," she whispered back, and then his mouth closed over hers in a bruising kiss. Hollis stood motionless for a moment, then her lips moved beneath his and parted when his tongue touched them, demanding entrance. Kirk had intended nothing more than a punishing kiss, but the taste and scent of her, the feel of her in his arms, intoxicated him, and his tongue plunged into the warm, wet recesses of her mouth. His arms slid around her body, straining her to him. As the soft fullness of her breasts crushed against his chest, he felt the heat of desire curl deep within his belly and settle in his groin with an ache that demanded release.
Then he remembered what she was trying to do to Bailey and his crew. He broke the kiss and tried to push her away, but Hollis wouldn't allow it. Her arms slid around his neck, drawing his head back down to hers.
"Oh, no you don't," she purred. "You're not backing out now." Her lips nibbled along his mouth, tongue flicking against his own, tightly pressed lips. She kissed him, a light peck, then withdrew an inch or two and grinned up at him.
His hands slid down her back to cup her rounded buttocks and press her crotch against his until she could feel his hardness. She pushed back against his restraining arms and slid one hand down from his neck, across his torso and beyond the waistband of his pants. He gasped, and she laughed throatily, her laughter dying as he once more covered her mouth with his. He lifted her by the buttocks, and she instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist. It was a movement intended to maintain her balance, but the sensations it sent through both their bodies had their senses reeling. As he carried her across the cramped quarters, she clung to him and rubbed her body against his sensuously. He reached the bunk and dropped her unceremoniously onto the hard mattress.
He yanked his uniform jacket off, then pulled the shirt over his head, suddenly thankful for the heavy workout program than had been part of his therapy to recover from his Serinidad injuries. As he sat on the edge of the bed to remove his boots, Hollis sat up and began undressing as well. A moment later, and he was settling himself on top of her naked body.
Long moments later, she was pushing at his shoulders. "You need to lose a few pounds," Hollis suggested.
"I did," Kirk protested, trying to postpone the moment when he'd have to move muscles that had turned liquid with his release, and had not yet recovered their strength.
"Try five more," she advised.
"Now you sound like Bones," he accused, but gave her a grin and managed to roll over on the narrow bunk until he was on his back, her smaller body resting atop his. "Better?" he asked.
She grinned back. "Much." She straddled his torso. "About my story..."
"Later," he growled.
She gasped. "Much later." And it was.
Caren Hollis, complete with holocam in tow, was the last to enter the conference room the next morning. Kirk glanced at her briefly, then away, immediately adopting a formal manner befitting the occasion.
"Display computer log excerpt, Stardate 7821.1," he ordered. The computer went through a series of clearance displays, then blackened briefly. What they saw next brought Kirk to the edge of his chair, leaning forward as though to get a better look.
The bridge of the Nelson appeared on the screen, its officers calmly carrying out their duties.
"Analysis, Mister Thiel," Commander Dave Bailey said to his science officer. "Can you determine yet what that ship is?"
"Not yet, sir," the Andorian answered. "All shields are up, and we're still too far away for our sensors to penetrate them."
"Lieutenant," he turned to the communications station. "Any response yet to your communications attempts?"
"No, sir," the blonde responded. "They're receiving, but they either can't or won't respond."
Bailey faced the main viewer again, chewing on his bottom lip as he tried to come up with a reasonable hypothesis as to what was happening.
"Sir!" Thiel caught Bailey's attention. "I'm getting more detailed readings now." The Andorian paused briefly, studying his instruments. "It's an Orion vessel, and by its configuration and signals, I'd say most likely a trader." He stressed the last word.
"Armed?" Bailey demanded.
"Heavily, sir, and they're increasing power to the phasers." Thiel looked away from his instruments.
"Aye," Bailey thought only a few seconds, then turned to his weapons officer. "Lieutenant Rav," he ordered the Tellarite. "Fire phaser one, thirty percent power."
"The engine nacelles, Lieutenant."
"Sir?" Thiel seemed concerned by the order.
"Their shields are still intact, aren't they, Lieutenant?" Bailey questioned calmly.
"Yes, sir," the Andorian replied.
"Then, our phasers will bounce off them harmlessly at that power level." The commander grinned. "We're just firing the usual warning shot, Lieutenant," he explained. "I just want them to know how accurate we can be, given sufficient provocation. Give them a taste of what they can expect if they choose to engage us in battle."
"Aye, sir!" The Andorian turned back to his screen. "Sir!" he shouted, but it was too late.
The Nelson's phasers fired point blank at the trader's engines just seconds after the vessel's shields lowered. While the Starfleet crew stared in horror, the Orion ship exploded in a fiery blast that would strike the Nelson's shields full force. Fortunately for the Nelson's crew, the shields held.
The Orion vessel's crew wasn't so lucky. When the blast of the explosion cleared, there was nothing left of the trader but debris--lots of debris.
"Analysis, Mister Thiel," Bailey ordered wearily.
The Andorian studied his instruments, then turned to Bailey with an expression of horror in his eyes.
"What is it?" Bailey demanded.
"The organic debris would indicate the presence of many living creatures on board."
"Many? How many?"
"I can't say for certain, but...I'd estimate several hundred."
"Several...hundred..." Bailey leaned his face into his right hand, his elbow propped on the chair arm. After a moment, he raised his head again. "Search for the computer log," he ordered. "We have to find out what that ship was...and who was on board."
"Aye, sir." Thiel's voice sounded as tired as Bailey's.
The room remained completely quiet for several minutes after the log excerpt ended; not even Hollis was inclined to break the silence. Then Kirk cleared his throat. "All right," he said, "let's see the Acadia's tape."
Bailey's chief of security brought the sealed container that held the Orion vessel's log to the admiral. Kirk took it and stared at it a moment without moving. He broke the seal and removed the small disk, handing it to the security officer, who, in turn, took it to T'Sidra. The Vulcan slid the disk into the slot, and a new scene appeared on the viewscreen. This time, it was the bridge of the Orion vessel they saw.
Twenty minutes later the screen went dark again. Kirk remained in his chair, still leaning forward a bit while absently rubbing his chin. The room was quiet, as though no one dared speak before the admiral. Then a female voice broke the silence.
"I don't understand," Hollis complained. "The two tapes completely contradict each other. Yours--" she pinned Bailey with a glance-- "indicated the Acadia was poweering up weapons, refused to answer your hails, and dropped shields at the last minute, leaving themselves vulnerable to attack and destruction."
"That's right," Bailey confirmed, his tone respectful but with a hard edge to it. "That's exactly the way it happened."
"But theirs," Hollis continued as though the Nelson's commander hadn't spoken, gesturing at the now-blank screen. "showed them attempting to answer your hail while you simply ignored them. There was no order either to power up weapons or drop shields--and no indication any such action was taken, order or no order."
"Succinctly put," Kirk responded, drawing only a glare from the newswoman for his efforts.
Hollis turned back to Bailey. "Obviously, one of these tapes is a fake."
Silence enveloped the room again, and once more Hollis broke it, turning to Kirk with a smug expression. "Care to speculate on which one, Admiral?"
Kirk held temper in check, but only with a distinct effort. ...nine, ten. Only after he had completed the mental count did he risk a reply. "Ms. Hollis," he said. "It is very possible your theory is correct. Computer logs can be falsified. However, no one is going to jump to conclusions in this investigation. T'Sidra?" He turned to the Vulcan. "Check those tapes out--both of them. I want to know if there's anything...anything at all that's not exactly as it should be. I don't care how minor, how insignificant, or even whether it has anything at all to do with what happened. If it's not exactly as it should be, I want to know about it."
T'Sidra nodded her acknowledgement, collected the tapes, and started out of the room.
"You're not going to just let her take them, are you?" Hollis protested.
"What?" The challenge caught Kirk by surprise for a few seconds until its meaning registered, then his tightly reined temper flared. "Are you crazy?" he asked incredulously. "She's a Vulcan. She--" He stopped in mid-sentence as another thought occurred to him, and slowly the corners of his mouth began to turn upward. He stopped himself before he was truly smiling, though, and managed to paste a serious, slightly harried expression back on his face. "Maybe you're right," he conceded. "She has to take the tapes to the computer lab to analyze them, but I should assign an observer to accompany her. No one person, no matter how trustworthy, should have sole custody of evidence this sensitive." He turned to Bailey. "Perhaps you could assign a security offi--"
"Not one of his men!" Hollis objected.
"No," Kirk agreed reluctantly. "That could be interpreted as letting the fox guard the hen house, couldn't it?" Thanks, Bones, he added mentally.
"Fox? Henhouse? What the hell are you talking about?" Hollis demanded.
Kirk shrugged. "Nothing really, just an old Terran metaphor. You Centaurians are so Human, I sometimes forget that you don't share all of our cultural heritage." He shrugged again. "It's not important anyway." He began to worry his lip as he considered the situation. "Now, who's the best person available to keep an eye on T'Sidra?"
"What about me?" Hollis volunteered.
"You?" Kirk chuckled. "What do you know about computer tapes?"
"I know enough to know when something's being erased or altered."
Kirk stared at her, considering. Then he nodded. "All right. I suppose that would work. At least I know you wouldn't go along with any attempt to sabotage evidence."
"You're damned right I wouldn't." Hollis joined T'Sidra, who had remained silent through the entire conversation, her face a smooth mask that concealed any reaction she might have to what had amounted to a question of her honesty. Hollis brushed passed her and stepped through the doorway. T'Sidra followed her, pausing just long enough to toss Kirk a bland expression that was marred solely by a single lifted eyebrow.
As soon as the door slid closed behind the two women, Kirk allowed the grin he had been suppressing to surface. Bailey stared at him in confusion a minute, then grinned back, still a little uncertain, but unable to resist his former captain's obvious good humor.
"That should keep her busy," Gabler interjected, and Kirk began to laugh out loud, Gabler joining in. Bailey's gaze shifted back and forth between the two men before his eyes widened in sudden comprehension. Then he, too, began to laugh.
Kirk strode briskly into the cargo bay, but he stopped just inside the doors to allow his gaze to slowly sweep across the huge compartment. "My God," he whispered, surveying the bits and pieces of metallic debris that were spread out on the deck. The Nelson's crew had retrieved what they could of the Acadia's remains and stored it here for the investigation team to inspect. Gabler and Ras were crouched down next to one piece that measured approximately a meter long by half a meter wide, but only a few centimeters in depth. Ras held a tricorder, carefully waving the sensor over the debris while examining the readouts on the instrument. Gabler shook his head, then looked up at Kirk's approach. The engineer stood up, brushing the palms of his hands against his pants legs, and allowing his frustration to show clearly on his lean, brown face."
"Any luck, gentlemen?" Kirk asked, although Gabler's expression had already given him his answer, even before he voiced the question.
"No, sir," Gabler answered in disgust. "This is nothing..." He waved his right arm in a sweeping gesture that encompassed the entire room. "...but a pile of junk." He gave a nervous laugh. "Oh, we can tell you what the components of each piece are, how much radioactivity it was subjected to, and how much residual radioactivity it has retained. But all that tells us is that the Acadia blew up when it's matter-antimatter core failed after the phaser burst hit the engine nacelles." He paused to shake his head again slowly. "And we already knew that. But there's nothing in all this..." Gabler glanced at the debris again. "...to tell us why the Acadia's shields dropped or whythe two ships were unable to communicate with each other--if, in fact, they were."
Kirk crouched next to the piece of debris Ras was still examining. He reached out to run his right index finger over the scarred metal surface as though its very touch might give him an answer. He shook his head, then stood up to face Gabler again. "You're right," he said. "The answer won't be found here...if we ever find it. Maybe it's in those tapes. They can't both be accurate. Let's just hope T'Sidra can find something that will tell us which one was subjected to falsification or tampering." He glanced across the cargo bay once more and shook his head again. "You two carry on here. Even if you're unlikely to find anything, we have to examine every bit of evidence we have." He brushed his hands together as though something from the debris he had touched might have clung to his skin. "I'm going to talk to Bailey again. Something is very wrong here. Something doesn't quite fit, but I'm damned if I can figure out what it is."
Without further conversation, Kirk turned on his heels and left the room.
Kirk entered the computer lab to find T'Sidra working diligently at a console, apparently running the main computer through a series of diagnostic tests. Hollis sat to one side, elbow propped on the table top and chin resting in hand. She looked distinctly bored and uncaring. As the doors opened, she looked up at Kirk and frowned.
"This is a waste of time," the newswoman declared.
Kirk met her gaze briefly, then, without acknowledging her comment, turned to the Vulcan. "Have you found anything?"
"No, sir," T'Sidra replied. "Both logs appear to be accurate representations of what happened as seen from the bridges of the two ships. They are in perfect sync, timewise, and I can find no evidence that either tape has been altered in any manner."
"I see." Kirk rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"In addition, I have checked the Nelson's main computer for any anomalies which might indicate an error not detectable from the log extract itself."
"And did you find anything there?"
"No, sir. Nothing." She paused. "I even checked out the games programming. Everything operates exactly as it should."
"Then it's your conclusion that the Nelson was not responsible for the tragedy?"
"That is correct. The incident happened exactly as shown on the Nelson log extract."
Kirk sighed in relief. "That's good enough for me. Thank you, T'Sidra." He started to leave the room.
"Now just a minute." Hollis stopped him. "Just because she can't find anything wrong doesn't mean it isn't there. Computer logs can be altered or falsified. You..." she glared at Kirk. "...know that as well as I do. Wasn't there a court-mar--"
"If you'd check your facts, Ms. Hollis," Kirk said through stiff lips, "you'd know the court-martial you're referring to ended with the discovery that the log had been falsified by reprogramming the Enterprisecomputer."
"Which..." the admiral continued, ignoring her interruption, "was revealed when Spock discovered errors in the operation of existing programs."
"Which programs?" Hollis asked suspicously.
Kirk grinned. "That's right. Chess." He glanced at the Vulcan. "And I'm sure that's why Commander T'Sidra checked the Nelson's gaming programs." T'Sidra nodded, and Kirk continued his explanation. "If anyone had tampered with the Nelson's computer programming to alter the log excerpts, then something would have shown up somewhere. They wouldn't have thought of everything, and an error would inevitably occur somewhere in an unrelated program they missed correlating."
Hollis lifted both hands, then dropped them at her sides. "I don't believe it." She shook her head. "I just don't believe it. You're going to clear Bailey and his crew on evidence this flimsy. Simply because you can't prove how he might have altered the tapes, you're going to assume that he didn't do it."
Kirk's grin faded. "I believe the Federation still operates on the principal that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. As far as I'm concerned, Dave Bailey and his crew are innocent, and I'm sure Starfleet Command will agree with me."
"Well, Starfleet Command may agree with you, but I doubt if my viewers will." Hollis bunched her hands into fists at her waist. "That 'innocent until proven guilty' principle works both ways. If you're clearing Bailey, then that assumes that the Orions are to be blamed for the incident. And you have no more evidence to convict them than you do Bailey."
"No evidence to convict, but we're not convicting anyone," Kirk countered. "All we're trying to do is determine whether anyone on board the Nelson did anything to cause this tragedy. We've proven they didn't. If you want to point the finger of guilt at the Orions, go ahead. I'm not blaming anyone. It's possible an Orion is responsible, but without their computer to check their log extracts against, we can't prove it either way. Unfortunately, we'll just have to attribute it to causes unknown, and whoever's responsible--dead or alive--will get away with it."
"Causes unknown," Hollis sneered, "a convenient term that says absolutely nothing. We'll see what my viewers think about this mess. Your Starfleet Command might accept your findings, but they'll be the only ones. The public won't be so philosophical about letting whoever's responsible get off scot-free."
Kirk glared at her and took a step in her direction, pointing at her with his right index finger. "I'm not particularly philosophical about it myself," he said, taking another step. "But I don't have much choice. I have sufficient evidence to clear Bailey and his crew, but not enough to file charges against anyone else. Hell." He ran his hand through his hair. "I don't even know who I could take action against, and I doubt if we ever will."
Hollis glared back. "So you're just going to let it drop? You're not going to do anything else?" She shook her head. "Somehow, I don't think my viewers are going to accept that."
They stared at each other a few more minutes, then Kirk stepped to the intercom on the wall, slapping at the button with unnecessary force. "Kirk to Bailey," he snapped.
"Set course for Xantharus," the admiral said, then paused before adding. "We've done everything we could here. Xantharus was the Acadia's last port of call. Maybe we can learn something there."
"Yes, sir. Xantharus it is. We can be there in--" there was a brief pause as the Nelson's commander checked with his navigator-- "approximately thirty-six hours."
"Good. Kirk ou--" Kirk glanced at Hollis, then spoke again, a hard edge to his voice. "Dave, the computer and log check out. You and your crew are clear in my book, and I'm reporting that to Nogura. We just have a few more details to check out in order to satisfy 'the public.'"
"Got it," Bailey responded, his voice more relaxed than Kirk had heard it since his arrival at the Nelson. "Xantharus. Thirty-six hours. Bailey out."
"Wasn't that a bit premature?" Hollis demanded when the connection had been broken.
"I don't think so." Kirk ran a hand through his hair. "Look, Hollis, let's be frank with each other. I don't expect to learn anything on Xantharus that we don't already know. I'm only going there to satisfy you that we've done everything we could to get to the bottom of this. We'll question anyone we can locate who had contact with the Acadia or its crew, but don't build your hopes up that we're going to get any definitive answers. Even if anyone does know something, they're not likely to tell us."
"And just why not?"
"Because talking to us is tantamount to signing their own death warrants, and although Orions are known for suicide gestures, they're not about to sacrifice themselves to please us."
"Oh, come on, Kirk. That's ridiculous." She shook her head in disbelief. "Suicide? I've never heard anything so preposterous in my entire life."
"Well, you've heard it now, lady. You cross the director, and you die. It's that simple, and all of his henchmen know it. None of them are about to offer us a bit of help. If you want my theory as to what happened, I'll tell you. Someone on board the Acadia was responsible. They sent out false signals to confuse our sensors, blocked communications between the two ships, and then dropped the shields at the crucial moment. It's the only answer that makes an iota of sense. But we'll never prove it, because no one will ever admit it...if anyone other than the director is still alive who knows anything about it."
"You're crazy! No one would do that. Why, it would be suicide!"
"Exactly." Without another word, Kirk left the room.
Kirk strained against the exercise machine, taxing his muscles to the greatest extent possible without harming himself. Although the doctors had declared him recovered from his Serenidad injuries a year ago, he hadn't yet satisfied himself that he was back at his peak physical condition, so he continued the daily work-outs that had been a part of his prescribed therapy, extending them until he was managing them at almost twice the scheduled level. Only then was he finally satisfied, and now, he was determined to maintain the conditioning he had achieved.
Finishing the latest round of exercises, Kirk rested back against the machine and looked up to see Bailey enter the gym and approach him with a grin on his face. "Looking good, Jim," the commander commented.
Kirk grinned back and patted his flat stomach. "For the first time in years, Bones tells me I'm at my optimum weight." He frowned briefly, and muttered disgustedly, half under his breath, "Five pounds."
"What's that?" Bailey asked, and Kirk grinned again.
"Nothing, just an idle thought." He sat up and swung his right leg over the bench of the exercise machine, reaching for a nearby towel to wipe away the perspiration his exertion had generated. "How much longer?" he asked, his voice muffled by the towel.
"Another six hours. Jim?" Bailey spoke as though he intended to ask a question, then he stopped before continuing. As the silence lengthened, Kirk removed the towel from his face, looping it around the back of his neck as he peered at the younger man.
"What is it, Dave?"
"Hollis." Bailey paused again a few seconds, then continued. "She's planning on beaming down to Gracchos with you, and she's been mouthing off to one of my crewmen about how you'll probably screw things up by asking all the wrong questions. She says you've already made up your mind as to what happened, and you'll just go in with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and scare off anyone who might otherwise have been willing to talk."
Kirk sighed. "That woman is definitely more trouble than she's worth."
"She says," Bailey continued, "that people might be more willing to talk to her more openly if you weren't around."
Kirk considered. "She could be right," he conceded, then glared at Bailey sternly when the commander failed to suppress a grin. "And don't you dare tell her I said that."
"Jim?" Bailey asked, "what if she tries to go off on her own? She's liable to get into a lot of trouble if she runs around Gracchos on her own. As much as we'd both like her out of our hair on this one, I wouldn't wish on even her the kind of trouble to be found on Xantharus--and I'm sure you wouldn't either."
Kirk sighed. "Maybe she won't try anything."
"Do we dare take a chance?"
"No." Kirk shook his head. "Let me think. I'll come up with something."
"Lieutenant." Kirk strode briskly into the Nelson's main engineering room where Gabler was deep in conversation with the ship's chief engineer.
"Yes, sir!" the lieutenant responded briskly, and Kirk grinned in genuine amusement at the man's military demeanor.
"At ease," the admiral said, and suppressed another grin when Gabler automatically fell into the official stance indicated by those words. "Relax," Kirk told him, and Gabler finally did. "I need your help, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir. Anything you want."
"I need a transponder, something that can be attached to the body and remain invisible rather than being inserted beneath the skin."
"Attached, sir? But why? The epidermal version works quite well."
"Yes, it does, but it's not very practical when you don't want the person wearing it to know it's there."
"Never mind, Lieutenant. Just get me that transponder, and get it quickly."
Kirk paused outside the closed door and reached into his pocket to finger the tiny, transparent device. Leaving it safely out of sight, he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and pressed the button next to the door. A moment later, the door slid open and Caren Hollis stood on the threshhold. She frowned at him.
"And to what do I owe this honor?"
Kirk smiled at her placatingly. "Commander Bailey tells me you want to do some snooping around Gracchos on your own."
Hollis stiffened. "And if I do? You're not going to try to stop me, are you?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure it's a good idea. It could be dangerous. You might get hurt."
"Dangerous!" she scoffed. "Why would anyone want to harm me?"
Kirk shrugged again. "If you asked the wrong questions of the wrong people..."
"That's ridiculous." She glared at him in defiance. "I'm going to Gracchos, Kirk, and that's final. I don't care whether you like it or not."
Kirk chewed on his lower lip a few seconds, then reached out to brush a stray lock of hair back from Hollis's face. "You can go, but stay with the rest of us...please. It's just that I'm concerned about you," he added softly in response to her frown. "I wouldn't want to see you get hurt."
"Hurt?" she echoed, eyes narrowing in skepticism. "Why would you worry about me?"
Kirk shrugged. "I don't know. It's just...humor me?" He smiled gently.
"Not on your life," she countered, fighting the urge to shiver as his fingers trailed down the column of her throat to caress her shoulder and the pulse that beat beneath his thumb.
"Why not?" he asked, stepping further into the cabin so the doors could slide closed behind him. "I'm easily entertained."
One corner of her mouth turned upward wryly. "I'm well aware of that, Admiral. Simple minds have simple needs." Hollis started to turn away from him, then stopped when his left hand closed over her waist, pulling her nearer to him. "Kirk..."
"Hmmmmmm." He bent his head toward hers.
"Not on your life," he softly echoed her earlier comment and covered her mouth with his. After a long minute, he lifted his head to smile at her seductively. "We have several hours left before we reach Xantharus. Why don't we make good use of them?"
Her eyes searched his for a moment, then she shrugged and took his hand, leading him toward the bed.
Kirk turned over in the bed and reached for his uniform pants on the floor. Careful to avoid disturbing the woman at his side, he removed an unseen object from the pocket. Then he turned back to the woman and ran the fingers of one hand caressingly down her arm. "Caren?"
"I have to go."
She turned over to face him, opening her eyes just enough to peer at him through lowered lashes. "Now?" she whispered.
She reached out her left hand to caress his cheek, sliding easily into his arms. "What's your hurry?"
He gathered her close, trailing his fingers down her back to rest at the base of her spine. His fingers moved in lazy circles over her skin and pressed lightly against her back to urge her even closer as her lips nibbled at his chin. He fought the urge to succomb to her charms, and wasn't completely successful. "We'll be at Xantharus in an hour," he whispered as he bent to nibble at her lips again.
"An hour!" Hollis pushed away from him and sat up in the bed, heedless of the sheet that fell away to reveal her bare breasts. "Damn you!" she accused. "You tried to trick me...to seduce me so you could keep me here while you do the questioning yourself."
Kirk grinned at her, eyes wide with feigned innocence while he eagerly drank in the vision of her nudity. "Hardly. I may be good, but I'm not that good. I couldn't keep you entertained here and be down there questioning Orions at the same time."
Hollis glared at him, fighting the flush of warm color she could feel climbing her chest to flood her cheeks. Desperately, but unsuccessfully, she sought an appropriate retort. She knew instinctively that he had tricked her somehow, but she couldn't figure out how. She couldn't fault the logic of his comments, or see another way in which he might be outwitting her. When no suitable response occurred, she merely ordered him from her quarters and reached for her clothes to dress.
Hollis looked around her as they made their way carefully through the dirty, dingy streets of Gracchos. She was following Kirk and Gabler, her ever-present automatic holocam hovering just behind her, recording everything she saw and some things she missed. Gracchos wasn't a very savory place to visit, but then good stories were seldom found in the nicer cities on nicer planets, and the holocam was certainly capturing plenty of local 'color' to spice up this story. Hollis noted, filed away, then forgot the sight of a dirty, unshaven thug relieving a passer-by of his valuables. The huge Xantharus slave market merited a slightly longer glance, but it too was quickly forgotten for the time being. That, after all, was another story, one she might pursue on another occasion, but which she didn't have time for at the moment.
Glancing at the men who walked in front of her, Hollis wondered where Kirk was headed. She twisted her mouth wryly when they arrived at the elaborate headquarters for the firm that owned the Star of Acadia. A short while later, she found herself seated in the oddest office she had ever seen. While the chairs she and the others had been offered were perfectly normal from a humanoid point of view, the creature on the other side of the desk rested atop a perch, his clawed feet clasped around the wooden dowel. His wings were folded across his chest, while a second set of clawed appendages extended from beneath the feathers to tap absently against the desk top.
The outer wall was constructed of some kind of transparent material--probably aluminum, Hollis surmised--which allowed those inside a clear view of the blue sky and wispy clouds that constantly floated past the high-rise building. The remaining walls were decorated with murals that differed from the actual view only in the pattern of the clouds. Only by looking downward through the window-wall could Hollis see any signs of humanoid habitation on this curious world within the territory claimed by the Worldlords of Orioni, and the Barrier Alliance Consortium which they dominated.
"So," the Avian executive clicked in a staccato rhythm, "you want to know about the Star of Acadia." He paused to peer at them from round, pink, lidless, and lashless eyes. "What is it you want to know?"
"Anything you can tell us," Kirk responded. "Right now, all we have are the computer logs from the two ships, and they don't really tell us much. We need something more, something tangible that'll prove something one way or another. I'm hoping we'll find it here on Xantharus."
"And what could you find here?" the Avian asked.
Kirk swept his arms wide in uncertainty. "I'm not sure. I just hope there's something. If we could just talk with anyone who might have had direct contact with any of the crew on that ship...their families perhaps?"
The ornithoid nodded his head, the motion fluttering his headfeathers. Kirk leaned forward expectantly, then settled back in his chair again when he realized that, for this species, a nod was a negative gesture. "To be honest, I know of no one who might have this information you seek. However, perhaps my personnel director could be of assistance."
Kirk smiled at him. "I would appreciate any help you could give us."
Hollis just shook her head slowly.
Hours later, Hollis was beginning to think they were being given the run-around. They had met with no fewer than a dozen officials, none of whom seemed willing to provide them with concrete information of their own, or to put them in touch with anyone who could. Still convinced she was likely to have more luck on her own, she slowed her steps as Kirk and Gabler, deep in conversation, strode down the long hallway toward an exit. Hollis reached a corner and darted around it to make her way down another corridor.
As Hollis continued down the hallway, wondering what to do next, she passed a door, then stopped and backtracked to stare at it thoughtfully. The official who occupied that office had acted differently from the others they had interviewed that afternoon. Everyone else had seemed condescending, avoiding straight answers in a manner that indicated they considered her a nuisance and nothing more. But the firm's Director of Engineering, a light-skinned Orion named Torvok, had been distinctly nervous. Not only had he avoided straightanswers, in several cases he had refused to answer their questions at all. Hollis bit her bottom lip thoughtfully, then walked briskly to the door and pressed the button requesting access. The doors slid open, and she entered the office, followed by her trusty holocam, to find the Orion turned away from the doorway. He was seated before his comm unit, deep in conversation with another of his species and apparently unaware of her entrance.
"We'll take care of it," the darker-skinned Orion on the comm console's display screen said evenly. "And don't worry, Torvok. There's nothing for them to find out. There are only three people alive who know what happened. Neither of us is going to talk, and you know damned well the director won't, so stop worrying."
"I don't know, Galvon," Torvok responded, swiveling his chair around so he was facing more toward the doorway. "I have a bad feeling about this entire thing. If the Federation pigs find out about the false messages, scrambled communications, and the shields...if they find out we caused the destruction of that sh--" He caught sight of Hollis and stood up abruptly. "Damn! The Federation bitch is here! She heard me!"
Hollis didn't stick around long enough to hear anything more. Ducking quickly back through the doorway, she dashed down the corridor, closely pursued by her holocam and the Orion. When she reached the end of the hallway, Hollis slammed her hand against the button to summon the lift, then darted through an open doorway to her right and down the stairs. While hurrying as fast as she could, she listened to the Orion pursuing her, and felt the first stirrings of relief when she realized she was pulling away from him. Maybe she'd find Kirk and the others before the Orions found her. She rounded another corner in the stairwell and skidded to a halt, glancing back over her shoulder at the holocam that was still hovering behind her. There was still a chance she wouldn't escape. Grabbing the holocam, she pressed the eject button and yanked out the tape that contained the overheard conversation between Torvok and Galvon. With her pursuer's footsteps coming nearer again, she glanced around quickly, then tossed the tape into a large trashbin on the stairway landing.
She started running again, only to stop suddenly when two burly, bright-green Orions broke through the doorway at the next level and blocked her escape route. Hollis glanced back over her shoulder to realize Torvok was already past the doorway of the level above her. Trapped! She came to a stumbling halt on the stairway, then straightened her back and glared at the men in front of her. "Allow me to pass," she ordered haughtily.
The Orions just laughed at her, causing her spine to stiffen even more. Heart pounding in unacknowledged fear, Hollis took determined steps forward as though to pass between the men blocking her way through will power alone. She almost made it, her brazenness seeming to have caught the men by surprise. Then, two beefy hands with the strength of vises grabbed both her arms, twisting them behind her back.
"What's your hurry?" a gutteral voice rasped in her right ear, its grating sound and accompanying fetid breath causing her to recoil instinctively.
Clamping down on the fear and nausea that rose in her throat, Hollis spoke through clenched teeth. "I was separated from my friends. I'm look--"
The Orions laughed again. "You won't find them," the one holding her said. "You're going to meet a certain friend of ours."
"Not..." Torvok queried.
"No. He has not yet been informed. Galvon will handle this matter. Carry on with your own business, and do not be concerned. Everything is under control."
"If you're sure?"
"I am very sure." He twisted Hollis's right arm even further behind her back, the resultant pain screaming through every muscle and sinew to rob her of all consciousness.
When Caren Hollis regained consciousness, she found herself sprawled on the desert sand that held the lingering heat of the day although the moons were already climbing in the velvet sky. A ring of Orions circled her, and she had the unsettling feeling that several of them were virtually licking their chops at the prospect of her shapely female form. At least two of the men seemed completely indifferent to her gender, but that unsettled her even more. Slowly, carefully, she shifted into a more dignified position, lifting herself into a seated posture, her long legs curled beneath her. Resisting the instinct to examine each of her captors, she deliberately looked up at the muscular, green man who stood immediately in front of her. Lips pressed tightly together, she glared coldly at him, her face an expressionless mask that revealed her anger and hatred only in the icy fire of her eyes.
The moonlit desert was silent, with only the slow, even breathing of her captors and the silken whisper of wind over sand breaking the lonely quiet of their isolated location. A single, unseen creature cried out mournfully and was answered in kind. The cries died out slowly, echoes dissolving into the inky darkness to leave behind a silence that seemed heavier, and more ominous than before.
The quiet was broken once again, this time by a harsh, grating laughter that climbed up Hollis's spine and back down again. She shivered in spite of herself, then stiffened as she stared into the ebony eyes of the laughing man, refusing to cower before him. His laughter died as abruptly as it had begun, the smirking grin on his face quickly replaced by a scowl. With no warning, his leather-encased right hand shot out and slashed backhanded across her face. "Bitch!" he spat at her. "Nosy Human bitch."
The force of the blow brought tears to her eyes, but Hollis forced them back with a few rapid blinks, and squared her shoulders. The Orion clenched his teeth when she failed to show either pain or fear. He turned away from her briefly, then back again.
"What were you doing in that office?" he demanded.
Hollis shrugged. "Looking for information about the Acadian disaster."
He glowered at her a minute, then-- "And you heard?"
"Enough." There was no point in denying it. The big green man in front of her knew what she had heard, and any attempt to hide her knowledge was likely only to anger him more.
His big hand lashed out again, even harder this time. The force of his blow caused her ears to ring and her vision to waver. Hollis swayed on rubbery legs, then stiffened her knees and glared defiantly at the Orion again. He gave a short, sharp bark of laughter.
"Brave," he said, but there was no hint of respect in his voice. "For a woman." There was no mistaking the contempt in those words. "A useless trait. No matter. You won't be brave for long." He raised his hand to hit her again.
"Where the hell is she?" Kirk barked at the technician as he paced the Nelson's transporter room.
The technician shook his head slowly. "I don't know, sir. I can't find her."
"Why the hell not? She's wearing the transponder. I put it on her myself. You should be able to locate it anywhere on Xantharus."
The technician glanced at his commander questioningly, then shook his head again when Dave Bailey failed to comment. "I know, sir. But I can't find it. Maybe the Orions found it and destroyed it." One glance at Kirk's thunderous expression sent his attention scurrying back to Bailey and the controls again as he made another sweep of the planet, fumbling with the sensor controls in a desperate search for something, anything to report to the admiral. "Sir!"
Kirk stepped forward eagerly. "You found her!"
"Yes, sir, I...no..." The technician slammed one hand against the console, then began working the controls again. "I had her for a second, then I lost her again," he explained. There's some kind of magnetic interference. I can't get a lock on the transponder, but," he pointed at a sector of the diagram depicted on the screen. "it's there somewhere, in the desert."
"The desert," Kirk repeated, then turned to Bailey. "Get me a security team...now! A dozen of your best men, in desert night gear..." He started from the room, en route to get his own equipment, then paused in the doorway. "Better include a medic," he ordered grimly. "We don't know what we'll find."
"Right," Bailey replied unnecessarily. Kirk was already gone.
Kirk and the Nelson security team materialied on the surface of Xantharus a short distance from the location where the Orions held Hollis captive. A sand dune gave them cover, and the opportunity for surprise. Kirk split the security team into three groups, sending two of them in flanking movements to his left and right. The third group he kept with him.
"Stay low, behind the dunes," he ordered in low tones, aware of how far sound could carry across the barren desert. "It looks like surprise will be our best tactic. As soon as we've all had time to get in place and to survey the situation, I'll contact you. Unless we see something that changes the situation, we'll move in together, all at once."
The men nodded their agreement, then moved swiftly across the sand.
Hollis was on her knees in front of the Orion, hands braced on her thighs, head bowed in an effort to hide the pain she couldn't completely suppress. She wasn't to be allowed that luxury, however. The Orion grabbed a handful of her once-shining, now sweat-and-dirt-encrusted golden hair and yanked backward, forcing her to look up at him.
"Answer me!" he demanded. "Who else knows what you do?"
"No one," she whispered in a voice harsh with pain. "No one else knows."
An evil grin spread across Galvon's face. That was what he had needed to know. If no one else knew what had happened aboard the Star of Acadia, then this bitch's death would be the end of it. He glanced at the men who accompanied him. He had been very careful in his questioning. The bitch knew what he was asking, but his men didn't, not exactly. Some of them, the less stupid ones, realized it had something to do with the Acadia tragedy. But none of them knew exactlywhat he was asking. They couldn't know. Too many people knew already. The director had entrusted the engineer Torvok with the task of finding and instructing an Acadian crewman with the delicate task of transmitting the false signals to the Federation ship, blocking any real communication between the two vessels, and then dropping the Orion liner's shields at the exact moment necessary to bring about the desired results.
Galvon himself had entered the plot at Torvok's request. The cowardly bureaucrat was unable to decide which crewman to pick for the assignment, so he had called on the director's own top agent of death for the job. Galvon knew everything there was to know about anyone in the Consortium that might be used to the director's advantage...and he used that knowledge, whenever it was needed.
For example, he had known that the Star of Acadia's second communications officer was the nephew of a man who had been peripherally involved in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the director's power more than two decades ago. A young man, with little power but great promise, the traitor had been allowed to live, the only conspirator who had. Newly mated, with an infant son and an aged father to care for, the idiot had assumed Galvon had been moved by his pitiful pleas for mercy.
But Galvon had no more taste for mercy than did his employer. If anything, less, since he was concerned not only with his own opinions and decisions, but with the necessity of justifying his actions to the director. No, it wasn't mercy that had caused the assassin to allow the sniveling coward to live. It was foresight, pure and simple. He had realized, even then, that someday such a man would be useful to the director, and, therefore, to him.
All it had required was to inform the Acadia's second communications officer of what his uncle had done all those years ago; a few hints as to how the man could still be called to account, forfeiting not only his own life, but those of his sons and brothers and their sons as well. An entire family would be wiped out, its name disgraced for all time. It hadn't taken the Acadia crewman more than a few seconds to decide that the sacrifice of his own life was a small price to pay for the survival of his entire family, especially once he learned he would die anyway, whatever his decision. A quick, glorious death aboard the Acadia was preferable to a lingering death at the hands of Galvon the Assassin, the second most feared man in the Consortium. What did it matter if an entire shipload of people died with him. They weren't relatives. It was his own family that mattered.
Galvon hadn't even needed to tell his pawn why he was committing suicide and taking six hundred innocent creatures with him. The director had ordered it, and Galvon had relayed the order. That was enough.
The only problem was Torvok. The engineer was the weak link in the chain, always had been. Galvon lifted his head haughtily. The director should have contacted him directly in the first place. It wasn't necessary for Torvok to have been involved. Even then, it was possible for Galvon to salvage the situation. He could have disposed of the Federation snoops simply enough. It would have taken little effort to outwit the Humans and send them on their way, perhaps still a little suspicious, but with no evidence to support their suspicions. But, Torvok had to panic and start running his mouth, without even bothering to lock his office first. And then this bitch...
He grinned again and raised his hand once more.
Kirk waited for the other security teams to maneuver around the Orions, then motioned his own team to follow him as he trudged up the dune in front of him. The admiral threw himself flat on the sand as soon as he was high enough to see over the crest. A cluster of Orions stood in a circle below him. In the middle, the biggest of the group towered above a smaller, slighter figure on its knees. Kirk caught a flash of the blond hair and felt his stomach contract. No matter how much of a nuisance she was, Hollis didn't deserve what the director's chief assassin would do to her, not even what he had probably already done. Kirk glared down at the Orion, his mind swiftly considering all of the possibilities and discarding most of them as soon as the thoughts surfaced. He had recognized Galvon instantly, the second-most dangerous man in the Consortium, the man who, next to the director himself, Federation authorities would most like to call to account for more deaths than they could count. Right then, Kirk could count six hundred...and one, if he didn't act quickly.
He decided his original assessment of the situation had been right, and quickly signaled to the Nelson men to close in on their targets.
The sudden attack caught the Orions by surprise. Although armed, none of them actually had phasers in hand, and only one attempted to get his out quickly enough to fire at the Starfleet officers. His shot went wide, missing Kirk by several centimeters. Before he could get off another shot, or anyone else could fire, a lieutenant to Kirk's left had heavily stunned him, leaving the would-be killer unconscious on the ground.
"I don't recommend anyone else try that," Kirk said grimly as he advanced toward the man and woman in the center of the Orion circle, phaser in hand, pointed directly at Galvon's chest. "And I don't recommend doing that either," the admiral added with a nod at the assassin's still raised hand.
Galvon lowered his hand slowly, but deliberately, as though he were doing so by his own choice rather than under orders from the Human. Suddenly, he laughed. "You Humans value your whores too much." His tone was taunting, deliberately insulting. "They're only good for what lies between their legs, and one is as good as another."
"She's a person," Kirk ground out between clenched teeth. "She doesn't deserve the kind of treatment you and your kind give women. No one does."
"And what do you propose to do about it?" Galvon continued to taunt, secure in his knowledge that this Starfleet officer wasn't about to kill him in cold blood. "Murder me?"
"No," Kirk answered in a low, icy voice. "Just this--" His fist shot out before Galvon had time to brace himself. Kirk's hand connected with the Orion's jaw and sent the bigger man sprawling on the desert floor. Kirk then turned to Hollis and took her by the right arm to lift her to her feet. She caught at his arm with her left hand, accepting his assistance gratefully, and then suddenly a voice cried out, "Watch it!"
Kirk reacted instantly, thrusting Hollis back to the ground and covering her body with his. He heard the sickening whine of phaser fire pass above his head, this time even closer than the earlier blast had been. He turned his head just in time to see Galvon engulfed in the energy surge that had passed harmlessly above the Humans. The blast instantly drained the life from the Orion's body, then sent him into oblivion.
Kirk lay back on the bed in his quarters, staring up at the ceiling. He had left Hollis in Sickbay, where the Nelson's chief medical officer was treating her bruises and abrasions. Fortunately, her injuries had been minor, nothing more serious than some strained muscles and scraped skin, along with the expected emotional trauma. It was strange to see Caren Hollis anything less than coolly in control. Things could have been much worse, and probably would have been if Kirk and the Nelson security team hadn't arrived when they did.
It was a damned foolish stunt she had pulled, but he had expected it. "Damn," he muttered, admitting to himself that he had even half-encouraged it, refraining from any real effort to prevent her from going off on her own once they had beamed down to Xantharus. It didn't make it any better that she had made the choice herself. He had known what she intended, and had allowed her to do it. If she had been seriously injured, or even killed, he would have been responsible, doubly so for the way he had maneuvered her...used her.
Kirk sat up on the side of the bed, glancing around the room as he tried to decide what he should do next. A good night's sleep was what he needed, what they all needed before they detached the Solzenheitzen from the Nelson and started the long journey back to Earth. But as tired as he was, he wasn't ready to sleep. He'd work on his report for Nogura, except he couldn't do a proper job until he'd had time to question Hollis in detail. That probably wouldn't come until they were back on the Solzenheitzen. After what she'd been through, partially through his fault, he at least owed her that much recuperation time, before he started grilling her about the Orions, what had happened, and what she had learned about the Star of Acadia.
Kirk arched his back, stretching aching muscles. Maybe a workout and a swim would get some of the kinks out and relax him enough so he could sleep. He stood up and started for the door, then stopped abruptly when the chime sounded. He stared at it, puzzled, a moment, then called, "Come." The door slid open, and Caren Hollis burst through.
"We have to go back," she demanded without preamble.
Kirk blinked in reaction. "Back? Back where?"
"Back to Xantharus...to Gracchos. Come on; we don't have any time to waste." She grabbed his hand and tried to pull him toward the door. Kirk took two steps, then stopped, refusing to budge further. Digging his heels in, he grabbed her arm with his other hand.
"Hold on," he said. "What the hell are you talking about? Why do we have to go back to Gracchos."
Hollis dropped one of his hands and shrugged off the other. "We have to get the tape," she explained in impatient exasperation. "Let's go before somebody else finds it...or, worse, throws it away by mistake."
Kirk frowned. "What tape are you talking about, Caren?"
"The one I hid. The one that has that Orion admitting they destroyed the Star of Acadia."
"What? They admitted it...and you have it on tape?"
"Yes. At least I did, before they snatched me." She grinned at him from behind her already fading bruises. "They destroyed my holocam, but I managed to get the tape out and hidden before they caught me."
Kirk's eyes narrowed. "Where is it?"
"I told you. On Xantharus...in Gracchos."
"No." He shook his head slowly, as though explaining something to a very young child...or a simpleton. "Where exactly is it?"
She grabbed his hand again. "Come on, and I'll show you."
Kirk dug his heels in once more. "No. You'll tell me first."
"No, Caren, you're not going back down there."
"And just why not?"
"Because..." He took her shoulders between his hands, carefully examining the face that had been battered by Galvon. It didn't look nearly as bad as it had, but she still had to be hurting. Even the most advanced Starfleet medical treatments didn't eliminate all the effects of a beating so quickly. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and continued his response to her question. "Because I won't let you go back into danger like that again."
"Danger? I'm in no danger now. Galvon's..." She couldn't quite hide the shudder that swept through her slender frame. "...dead."
"That's right, but he's not the director's only assassin. It's too dangerous, Caren. I never should have allowed you to go off by yourself in the first place, but I won't make that mistake again. Tell me where the tape is, and I'll send someone down to get it for you. There's no need for you to go yourself."
Hollis glared at him a moment, then gave in, her shoulders slumping in exhaustion and residual pain now that the effects of the adrenalin on which she had been running began to fade. She sank into a chair and looked up at Kirk. "In the Acadia headquarters building...the stairwell between the third and fourth floors. There's a trash bin...and, Kirk, you'd better hurry. If someone else shows up to empty that bin..."
Kirk hurried. He slapped the intercom button and reported Hollis's news to Bailey, who promised to send someone back to Xantharus right away to retrieve the important tape. When he'd shut off the intercom, Kirk turned back to Hollis. They eyed each other warily, while the silence stretched between them.
Finally, Hollis spoke. "You were right."
Kirk lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.
"About what happened...with the Acadia." She paused to give Kirk an opportunity to respond, but he remained silent, waiting. Hollis sighed. "Like I said, it was the Orions. They did it." When Kirk still didn't comment, she lost patience. "Damn it, Kirk! I'm trying to apologize. Bailey wasn't to blame, and I was wrong to try to pin it on him." She stood up and stomped toward the door.
"You're apologizing to the wrong man," Kirk said, his voice stopping her in mid-stride.
"What?" she demanded.
"You heard me."
"You expect me to apologize to him?"
Kirk shrugged. "It would be a nice gesture. After all, you only tried to destroy his career...if not his life."
Hollis glared at him. "I was just trying to find the truth."
This time Kirk sighed. "Right. The truth." He crossed the room to a cabinet and poured himself a drink. At a gesture, Hollis nodded, and he poured a second one and handed it to her. She took the drink and sat back down in the chair, while he sank onto the edge of the bed. "It all comes back to that, doesn't it?" Kirk said. "The truth, or at least your definition of it."
"The truth is the truth."
"What exactly is on that tape?"
"I told you. They did it; Torvok, the engineering chief, said so when he was talking to Galvon on the comm unit."
Kirk glanced at the ceiling in silent supplication, then looked back at her. "Exactly what did they do?"
Hollis slumped in her chair. "What you thought. They transmitted false messages to the Nelson, blocked actual communications, and then dropped the shields when Bailey ordered his men to fire the warning shot." She paused a moment, then continued. "I don't have a name as to who did the actual deeds, but Galvon was involved, and Torvok, as well as the director himself."
"And you've got that on tape? All of it?"
"I told you..."
"Aren't you satisfied with my proof?" Hollis asked. "Isn't enough to convince you? Won't it settle this whole matter?"
Kirk relaxed and allowed a slow grin to spread across his face. "It's enough for me. Is it for you?"
Hollis stared at him a moment, then grinned back. "You bastard," she whispered. "You set me up for that one."
"Guilty," he admitted.
"And speaking of set-ups..." A set expression on her face, Hollis stood up and walked over to the bed. Stopping in front of Kirk, she reached her closed hand out to him. "I believe this belongs to you."
"What's that?" he asked, eying her hand distrustfully.
Hollis turned her hand over slowly, deliberately, and opened her fist. A small, flat, transparent disk sat in the center of her palm. Kirk reddened. "You had no right," she told him levelly.
"Maybe not, but it helped save your life."
"If it was so damned helpful, why didn't you just beam me out of there? Before that bastard started using me for sparring practice?"
He grinned sheepishly. "They had you in an area of magnetic interference. We couldn't get a good enough lock on it to bring you up in one piece."
"So you came after me?"
"It took you long enough."
"But not too long. Caren..." He reached a hand out to her, then allowed it to drop while his voice trailed off. They sat silently a moment, watching each other warily. Then both spoke at once.
They broke off and fell silent again. Then Kirk stood up and took Hollis's shoulders between his hands, pulling her to her feet. "I'm sorry, Caren. I shouldn't have let you walk into danger like that."
"Do you think you could have stopped me?"
"If I had tried, yes. But it was more helpful to the investigation to let you go. I thought the transponder would enable me to pull you out again before you got into too much trouble. I was wrong about that, and I'm sorry."
"You used me," she said levelly, her gaze holding his, and all contriteness disappeared from both his face and voice.
"No more than you did me," he countered.
She grinned. "You're right. Jim?"
"All things considered, I think we made a pretty good team."
Both eyebrows shot up, his eyes widening. "Us?"
"Um-hmm. Us. We found the answer, didn't we?"
"Yes," Kirk acknowledged the truth of that statement while carefully refraining from reacting further to the one that had preceded it. Despite the anger he was still controlling with an effort, his thumbs began to caress the points of her shoulders.
"And we both came out of it alive?"
"Barely." His gaze had dropped to the pulse that was beating at the base of her throat.
"And then there's the sex..."
His head shot up at that. "Huh?"
"The sex," she repeated slowly, placing her hands flat against his chest while his arms slid around her back. "It was good...both times."
His mouth widened slowly. "Yes."
"And we don't return to the Solzenheitzen until tomorrow..."
"No." His mouth descended until it hovered just above hers.
"So why don't we make good use of what time we have left here?"
"Best idea you've had since..."
"Do either of you have any idea what she's going to say?" Harry Morrow asked the two men who sat with him in the Commanding Admiral's Office of Starfleet Headquarters.
"The truth," Jim Kirk answered, his tone indicating that Caren Hollis's report was likely to be anything but. "At least, her version of it."
"And what's that?" Morrow asked.
Kirk shrugged. "Who knows? I've given up trying to figure that woman out."
"Did she really give you that hard of a time, Jim?" Admiral Nogura asked.
Kirk felt the blood rush to his face and suppressed it with an effort. "Sometimes," he replied when he was in control. "She's thorough, determined, uncompromising, and she proved her courage when the Orions captured her. There's a lot to admire there. But she can also be a damned nuisance. She's a manipulator, plain and simple, willing to use anybody in any way to get her story, and anyone who gets in her way be damned."
"Did she use you?" Nogura asked quietly.
Again, Kirk fought back the inclination to blush. "She tried."
Morrow chuckled. "I wish I could have seen that."
Kirk glared at him and opened his mouth to speak only to be drowned out by the suddenly increased volume of the holovid screen that had been flickering in the background. All three men faced the screen, waiting impatiently to learn exactly how Caren Hollis would report the Acadia investigation.
They didn't have to wait long. The opening credits of the news special told them instantly the tone Hollis had taken in her report. A starfield filled the screen, flickering stars on a black field, with music building slowly in the background. When the music reached a crescendo, a sudden flash of red blotted out much of the starfield, and bold, black letters appeared in front of it. "HOLOCAUST IN DEEP SPACE" the legend read. The lettering seemed to recede on the screen, the words slowly moving away from the viewer and, consequently, reducing in size until they were barely readable. Then, they winked out to be replaced by three more words, the lettering slightly smaller, a little more sedate this time, but no less bold, "Caren Hollis reporting."
Those words, too, receded and winked out, to be replaced by a series of opening credits slowly scrolling across the screen. The entire garish sequence faded from view, and a woman appeared on the screen, sitting behind a business-like desk.
"Good evening. This is Caren Hollis reporting," she said, speaking in low, well-modulated tones. "For the next hour, you are going to be presented with a report on one of the most senseless tragedies of our time; a tragedy devised from the greed and hunger for power of one man, a deranged criminal willing to send six hundred innocent beings to their deaths for no more reason than to discredit the most powerful alliance in our galaxy, the United Federation of Planets, and Starfleet, the military arm of that alliance.
"You'll learn how this one man--a mysterious being known only as the director of the Orion Barrier Alliance Consortium--managed to outwit one of Starfleet's finest and use him as the tool for the destruction of the passengers and crew of the Star of Acadia space liner.
"You'll see how Starfleet reacted to charges of murder and conspiracy by sending an investigative team headed by that gallant hero of Serenidad, Admiral James T. Kirk, to discover the truth of the Acadia tragedy.
"You'll learn how personal loyalties threatened that investigation, and how this reporter's unwavering determination to solve the mystery despite serious personal risk finally uncovered the ugly truth.
"Finally, you'll see how the evil perpetrator of this dastardly crime was willing to stop at nothing to cover up his actions, not kidnapping, not murder." Hollis leaned forward, toward the camera, as though confiding a personal secret to her audience of billions. "I must confess to you that I wouldn't be sitting here now, reporting this disaster to you if it weren't for the selfless heroism of the gallant Admiral Kirk. Whatever his shortcomings as an investigator, one certainly cannot fault him for his courage. The rescue he mounted, while somewhat messy, was certainly successful. Unfortunately, it cost us the life of perhaps the one man who might have given us irrefutable proof of the actions that led up to the attack on the Star of Acadia. Without the testimony of Galvon--" a holoview of a huge, muscular green man appeared on the screen-- "the man known as the 'agent of death' within the Consortium, we'll probably never see the director stand trial for his crimes. However," Hollis leaned forward confidingly, "we'll show you what evidence we do have, and leave it to you to make up your own mind. I'm sure, once informed, you'll reach the same conclusions I have, conclusions which, I might add, both Admiral Kirk and Commanding Admiral Heihachiro Nogura have endorsed.
"First, let's begin at the beginning, with the tragedy itself. You're about to see, for the very first time, taped footage of the actual destruction of the Star of Acadia, footage excerpted from the computer logs of the U.S.S. Nelson."
"Damn!" Morrow said and glanced at Kirk, who sat staring grimly at the screen as the news report continued to unfold before his eyes. He didn't say a word until it was all over and Caren Hollis had signed off.
Finally, Nogura deactivated the screen and turned to Kirk with a sympathetic expression on his face. "I'm sorry, Jim. I knew she'd be difficult, but...was she always that combative?"
Kirk shrugged. "At least it's over," he answered, tight-lipped.
"Not completely," the commanding admiral countered. "Ms. Hollis has requested a follow-up interview with you."
"Are you ordering me to comply?"
Nogura sighed. "No."
"Come on, Jim," Morrow teased. "Don't tell me you wouldn't like to spend a little time alone with her. She's beautiful."
"Beautiful and deadly," Kirk responded, a dangerous look in his eyes. "I'd as soon spend time alone with a mugato."
Morrow laughed. "That could be arranged."
The director's fist slammed down on the controls that deactivated the screen in his office on Xantharus. "Bitch!" he growled, then pressed another control on his console. The face of his personal assistant appeared on the smaller, desktop comm screen.
"Get me..." he paused briefly, considering the various operatives he still had available for a mission of this kind, now that his most trusted agent was dead. "Haldar," he decided, glancing back up at the large, holovid screen where the touch of a button brought Caren Hollis's face back on display. He switched off the comm unit and stared at the face whose lips moved silently since he hadn't activated the audio controls for the screen.
The director watched the silent screen for nearly twenty minutes, turning away from it only when the buzzer at his door sounded. A soft command opened the door to admit a heavily armed, light-skinned Orion. The man advanced to a point in front of the director, stopping and waiting patiently for the man in black to acknowledge him.
Finally, the vidcast ended, and the director pressed a button that froze the image of the blonde on screen. Nodding in its direction, he spoke for the first time since Haldar's arrival. "I have a job for you."
"Just one...bring me her head."
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