In the conference room adjacent to their office Station Chief Gracie Jones and her Deputy Mettus were briefing their team on their assignments. The audience consisted of several intelligence analysts in uniform as well as field agents, dressed as civilians, some of them were members of non-Federation races - clearly hired external operatives.
“...our main focus will be the four nearest sectors along the Klingon border. The analysis team will receive data feeds from the USS Vanguard which is already conducting intel gathering in that area. The field agents will need to work a little magic with their contacts”, Mettus explained.
“The unofficial ones. Mettus is going for a different lead. And I will take care of the official Klingon liaison, a delegation from Klingon intel will be traveling here and arrive in a few days, along with some local diplomatic corps, including the Counsel.”
At that moment the intercom whistled. Jones answered the incoming call:
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Hey, Chief, you should switch on the news channel. Have you guys seen this?”, an officer asked her.
“We are kind of busy right now”, Jones scoffed.
“Trust me, Jones, you will want to see this.”
Gracie Jones gave a look to one of her subordinates who then pressed a few keys on her console, bringing up the news channel on the main viewscreen of the conference room.
The channel played Gumo’s video footage. His rhetoric once again accompanied the pictures of the abominable crime.
Jones and Mettus moved to stand directly in front of the screen, pale-faced. As professional intelligence officers they were familiar with it, obviously. But they realized the impact of the publication now taking place.
Meanwhile at the Starfleet’s underground Situation Room, most of the attendees from earlier have been assembled again.
Gumo’s footage was playing as well, a female reporter voice was giving explanations off screen:
“Our office received this video less than an hour ago. We advise our viewers that the following content may be disturbing.”
Director Jefferson explained the developments:
“Gumo must have released the video to the public to force our hand. Now we have no chance of investigating with discretion and the public might not be happy with the security measures, either because they are considered too strict or too weak.”
The President had his face averted from the screen, his face gave away his immense agitation.
The reporter continued:
“Crowds have gathered at public places and in front of Earth’s Starfleet and other Federation facilities, holding rallies, protesting the apparent inactivity of our security agencies. There are reports of similar events happening on Andoria, Tellar Prime and Bajor. The Federation Council and the President’s Office have not yet commented on the footage.”
The President signalled to mute the news transmission. He got up and paced around for a while, thinking. He finally began to address the other officials sitting at the conference table.
“We can not let these events derail our course. The investigation must not be sidelined. The Council and my office can handle the public reaction for now.”
He turned towards the admirals.
“Gentlemen, please send a team to the site of the attack at your earliest convenience. I would like the FIA and Attorney General’s office to send people as well in a joint effort.”
One of the President’s aides approached him from behind and whispered something in his ear. President Okeg nodded his agreement and then continued giving his orders:
“In regard to the unclear jurisdiction and diplomatic intricacies, I think it would be best if the on-site investigation at Khefka is under the command of someone with less political ties. Do you have someone in mind for that?”
Admiral Quinn called up the current fleet deployments on his desktop display. Jefferson leaned over and both men scanned the list of names with their eyes.
“Mr President, I believe Captain Jeffrey White, CO of the USS Valentine would be well suited for the task at hand”,
Quinn announced. Jefferson’s eyes shot up with mild shock.
“The Valentine is currently at Starbase 234 awaiting orders, they could be at the Khefkan system within four days.”
Captain White’s file was displayed on the large viewscreen.
“I remember him from the investigation in the Pita murder. He appeared to be a level-headed man.”
The President looked at Admiral Quinn for further approval.
“Absolutely, Sir. I have known White for many years. He is an old hand and an accomplished diplomat.”
“I agree, Sir. He was instrumental in our pursuit of Jesse Phoenix”, Jefferson added.
“Very well then”, President Okeg announced.
“Excuse me, Sir. But I think we should still have some kind of back-up for his ship. One starship alone would be a liability”, General H’Roren commented.
“You may be right. White and his ship will be our tracker dog. General, I authorize you to take a small task force and have them stand-by on our side of the border, so you can intervene, should the Captain encounter any difficulties.”
Everyone murmured their approval and the President dismissed them.
In open space, just off the outer border of Federation territory, en route to Khefka IV, the USS Valentine was holding position to rendezvous with General H’Roren’s taskforce.
In his ready room Captain White awaited the arrival.
“Bridge to Captain”, Commander Low called over the intercom.
“Yes, Commander?”, White responded.
“Sir, the Crazy Horse is hailing us, they will rendezvous with us in a few minutes.”
“Acknowledged. I will meet our guests at transporter room two.”
“Understood. Low out.”
Captain White entered the transporter room. A young officer worked at the main transporter console and gave a nod to the Captain.
“Whenever you are ready, Ensign.”
A few seconds later, a large group of people materialized on the transporter pad.
“I am Captain Jeffrey White, welcome aboard the USS Valentine”, the Captain announced.
FIA Director Thalen stepped off the platform to greet him along with his aides. Attorney General Chetra Haff followed him closely. The group then slowly dispersed out of the transporter room, escorted by duty officers who accompanied them to their quarters.
Captain White was about to leave as well, when another transport cycle completed and a single Starfleet officer appeared on the transporter pad. He was a young Suliban male, squat-statured, the thick, dappled skin on his hairless head dazzled with a golden luster. He intently eyed Captain White while approaching him. The man stood at attention and handed White a data padd.
“Lieutenant Commander Brom Soman, reporting as ordered, Sir.”
White was puzzled and began to study the information on the device in his hands.
“Starfleet Command... authorization Epsilon-Four-One- Two-Gamma... Stardate... well, it’s all in there. Commander, you must excuse my confusion, but I was not informed about any additional transfer of personnel to my ship.”
White kept reading.
“Posting as Second Officer?!”
“Yes, Sir”, Soman responded.
“I realize these are extraordinary times, but I never thought Starfleet Command would exercise authority on postings inside a ship’s command structure over the discretion of its captain.”
“I am afraid we all have our orders, Sir”, Soman coldly replied. White had hoped for a better answer.
“Very well, follow me”, White told him and they left for the next turbolift.
Back on the Valentine’s bridge Captain White found the image of General H’Roren displayed on the viewscreen.
“General, good to see you - thanks for the delivery, everyone is accounted for”, the Captain said.
“Acknowledged, Valentine. I will be holding position right here along with the Crazy Horse. The USS Sutherland and the Archangel are close by. We can reach the Khefka system in a matter of hours, should any situation arise”, the General stated.
“Let’s hope for the best. We will be on our way then.”
“Good luck, Captain. H’Roren out.”
The viewscreen went blank and the Captain walked over to his chair, while giving orders:
“Helm, set a course for Khefka IV, warp 8 and engage.”
Commander Low curiously looked over to Soman, who was still standing by the turbolift door. White noticed her gaze.
“Heather, this is Lieutenant Commander Soman, he has just been transferred and will be our new Second Officer.”
Commander Low lowered her voice and leaned over to White.
“I wasn’t aware that we take on any more people.”
The Captain, in an even lower voice, answered her:
“Neither was I. The situation is difficult enough, as it is. I can’t think of a reason why Command would send us this guy now. Give him a tour of the ship later and brief him in our procedures. For now I want him out of my way.”
“Understood”, the Commander answered.
In his Starfleet Headquarters office Director Jefferson sat with his aide conferring about the latest intelligence reports about the Khefka IV Attack.
“Alright, I will brief the Security Council later today on the updates. What is the status of the onsite investigation?”, he inquired.
“USS Valentine should reach Khefka IV in a few hours, Sir”, his aide replied.
“Thank you, that will be all for now.”
The officer nodded, gathered his files and left the office.
Jefferson turned with his chair towards the large windows overlooking San Francisco Bay. He stared out for a while, then he ordered:
“Computer, establish secure channel Beta-Tau-Four-Seven.”
His desktop monitor extended from a notch in the desk surface.
“Channel open. Callee not responding”, the computer voice explained.
“Start recording a video message”, Jefferson responded and the computer chimed affirmatively.
“I expect regular reports from you on the progress.”
Jefferson’s image was being displayed on another small desktop monitor, similar to the one in his office. Someone was watching the message, a person wearing a Starfleet uniform.
“At first, I wanted to protest White’s assignment to Khefka IV, but I realized this is a good opportunity to sideline him without much effort. It would be agreeable if Captain White would focus on the embassy bombing in the long run. If there are any hints that he intends to pursue the Phoenix issue any longer, I fear we must deal with it. We can not afford another mistake. You know what you have to do. Jefferson out.”
The screen went blank and the person switched off the monitor, got up and walked out of the room into a corridor, fairly busy, Starfleet officers walking by. The person passed a wall with a brass dedication plaque which read: USS Valentine.
Lieutenant Commander Soman stepped through the turbolift doors into the bridge of the Valentine and took his seat next to Commander Low, who was intently watching the viewscreen. The helm officer announced:
“Reaching standard orbit around Khefka IV, Commander.”
Heather Low pressed a button on her armrest and began to call for the Captain:
“Captain White, please come to the bridge.”
“Acknowledged, Commander. Be right there with you.”
In his ready room Captain White turned his attention back to the small screen in front of him.
“Excuse the interruption. Where were we?”
“Never mind, Captain”, Gracie Jones responded,
“I was about to say that I sent Mettus to Antares. He thinks he can find out more about this.”
“I don’t know how to thank you. I really appreciate your continued help in this matter”, the Captain thanked her.
“Don’t mention it, your curiosity was piqued, as was mine. But I have to work on our main assignment now first. How about your Academy friend?”, Jones wanted to know.
“I am afraid the Commodore is a little more devoted to his orders than to his curiosity.”
“Understandable. Don’t hold too much of a grudge against him. Speak to you soon. Jones out.”
When the Captain arrived on the Valentine bridge Commander Low reported him:
“We are in standard orbit, Sir.”
“Very well. I am going down there myself. You have the bridge, Commander. Please inform our guests of our arrival and have them meet me in sickbay for the inoculations right away. We will transport as soon as the Khefkan authorities signal the coordinates.”
“Aye, Captain”, Low replied.
The large group materialized in the main hall of the administration building of the Prefecture, which the embassy and the Federation colony belonged to. Captain White was accompanied by FIA Director Thalen, Attorney General Chetra Haff, their aides and a small crew complement from the USS Valentine.
A small delegation of the native Khefkans had gathered to meet them. They were a people of short stature, with ice-blue skin and bushy, tufted pointy ears, wearing long robes. After a short mutual introduction Thalen turned to the Prefect and requested:
“We would like to examine the attack site now.”
“This might be a little difficult”, the Prefect stated with a worried face.
Sitting in the command chair on the bridge, Commander Low conversed with Captain White.
“I have everything beamed down within minutes, Sir. Our own readings confirm the Khefkan’s claim. I will keep a constant transporter lock on each of you as well.”
“Thank you, Heather”, White replied over comms.
“Oh and there’s one more thing, Captain. Command just increased the alert status. There has been a second attack.”
“Oh no, what happened? Where?”, the Captain asked.
“Apparently the Klingons didn’t want to wait a few days until it was their turn, according to Gumo’s threat. They ambushed a small vessel which they believed belonged to the Patronage. Gumo immediately returned the favor and attacked a Klingon outpost near our border. Lethal, but not of the scale as down where you are headed. The Klingons claim that Gumo’s ships are equipped with cloaking technology.”
“That doesn’t make things easier. Rearrange the sensors to increase our chances for detecting cloaked ships. I don’t want any more surprises”, White instructed.
“Understood, Valentine out.”
Meanwhile the USS Rabin was plowing through the Mutara Sector at full impulse. Remnants of blue dust were pushed away by its hull. The other two vessels in Commodore Ghee Shelk’s taskforce, the Saratoga and the Bennington were flying parallel courses, each ten light years away. All three ships on patrol duty.
In his quarters Commodore Shelk was standing next to a bookshelf and reached for a small device. He switched it on and it began to display miniature holographic figures of him and Jeff White, both much younger, laughing, striking poses. He gave it a weak smile. He looked down at his hand, which revealed a tiny metallic rod, an isolinear chip sticking out from one end. He held it in front of his face for a moment, then put it away in a drawer in the wall and whispered:
“Another time, my friend.”
“Bridge to Commodore Shelk”, a female voice called over the intercom.
“Sir, we are getting the first scanning results from the other ships. I have a summary of our own long range scans ready for your review as well.”
“Thank you, transfer it down here to my work station, I’ll have a look”, Commodore Shelk instructed.
On Khefka IV
A large group of figures in EV suits was making its way through a meadow, small clusters of temperate trees dotted the landscape. Captain White and his delegation were led to the attack site by the Khefkan Prefect and his men.
Attorney General Chetra Haff was walking next to Captain White.
“I don’t quite understand why wearing these clumsy suits is so imperative, Captain. They told us beforehand that there was a danger of radiation poisoning. But I thought that was why we got the inoculations.”
“It appears that the situation is more severe than we initially thought, Ma’am”, White responded.
The Prefect now went ahead and climbed a small slope directly in front of them. When he reached the crest he turned around and signalled the others to follow. As they reached the top he told them:
“We have arrived. This is as far as we can go.”
“My god!”, Captain White exclaimed, his face in horror.
As everyone looked around they started to grasp the unspeakable amount of devastation the attack had caused.
In front of them lay a deep basin, its outer rim, where they were standing on right now had obviously contained any further expansion of the immense blast wave. But inside the basin the destruction was almost total. A huge dust cloud was hanging over the entire area, blocking out the sun, forming a local nuclear winter. The moonscape-like soil was covered in black ash, the charred remains of trees, most of them blasted away by the shockwave from their original place, small plasma fires with greenish flames blazing here and there, the remnants of the colony, once a thriving and busy settlement, it has become a hellish tundra, its buildings shattered and collapsed, turned into smoldering piles, metal beams melted and pervertedly warped and: people, the leftovers of their disintegrated corpses were carbonized in grotesque shapes. Gusts of wind were soughing, swirling up drifts of dust and ash, keening, carrying the accusing death cries of fifteen hundred souls.
The group watched on in silence. Captain White began to press a few buttons on the left gauntlet of his suit, a built-in tricorder.
“The radiation levels are off the scale. The fallout is immense. Have you been able to send people any closer?”, he asked while turning to the Prefect.
“Yes, the first responders even went in unprotected, when we didn’t yet know the cause for the explosion. They began to show signs of radiation poisoning almost immediately. Most of them died soon after. Even a second wave equipped with protective suits like these developed symptoms. We had to seal off the entire area. We have employed automated units instead, flying overhead, performing scans, looking for possible survivors, but in vain so far.”
He indicated a number of tiny shuttle-like vessels circling in the distance.
“We would like to examine your scans and talk to your people, if possible”, Thalen tentatively asked.
“Yes, of course. I make the necessary arrangements. Anything that will help you find those responsible.”
The Prefect averted his eyes from the desolate sight in disgust and walked away a few steps before turning around again.
“My government decided not to recover the bodies of our own victims for burial elsewhere. With the permission of the Federation we would like to turn this place into a cemetery and a memorial for the deceased, as soon as it is reasonable in regard to the investigation. My government will also condone and support any kind of punitive action on the perpetrators the Federation feels necessary to perform.”
His face had turned grim with these last words. Then he started to walk off, followed by his men. Another gust of wind raised a cloud of dust which quickly obscured them.