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Nani Ti'Fiano took some solace in the fact that the crew had been largely unmolested. They had been given quarters on Starbase Three Seventy-Five. Each had been called in for their interpretation of events. She knew that Jovi and Cordiou had been detained the longest so far, and she fully expected her own interrogation to last far longer.
"I heard that the Eighth Fleet took out a Cardassian staging ground in the Panora system," her escort said glibly. He watched Ti'Fiano's face for reaction. "They captured several warships."
Ti'Fiano ignored his attempts to unnerve her and reflected on the Armstrong. It orbited the starbase, but only engineering and repair teams were allowed onboard and even they were under close observation. The Kaneda's assault had crippled the ship, utterly destroying the shield generators and piercing the hull. Six of her crew had been murdered.
"Good thing we caught the Cardies when we did," the security officer continued. "Next thing you know they'll be trying to breed their own spoonhead Jem'Hadar."
"Lieutenant," Ti'Fiano said curtly, "permission to continue denied."
The turbolift doors opened and the guard led Ti'Fiano down a short hall. He keyed open the door at the hall's end and motioned her inside. "Admiral Fahoma, presenting Commander Ti'Fiano," he said as if he sincerely doubted that she would be a commander much longer.
The woman behind the desk glanced up and said simply, "Leave us." Ti'Fiano watched the guard retreat, then stood at attention before the admiral's desk.
"You can sit," Fahoma said. Ti'Fiano bent to perch on one of the utilitarian chairs facing the desk, still staring at a point beyond Fahoma's head. A faint smile ghosted the admiral's face and she leaned across the desk. "Hello, Nani."
Ti'Fiano nodded. "Admiral." Fahoma let out an exasperated sigh and Ti'Fiano shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "...sister."
"I was hoping for 'Langley,' but 'sister' is a start, I suppose." Fahoma circled the table and sat next to Ti'Fiano, taking her hand. "How are you, Nani? I haven't heard from you since before the Dominion War."
"Though you have been keeping up on me," Nani said. "I assume that my transfer to the Armstrong was not a coincidence."
Langley blushed. "I try to look out for my little sister."
"A misguided effort, though...well-intentioned." Ti'Fiano sighed and asked, "How is Vijay? And Kenneth?"
"Vijay is well. He's been working long days at the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards, rebuilding the fleet and helping to dig out the parts of San Francisco that the engineers haven't been able to get to yet," Langley said with a faint smile. "Kenny's living with him on Mars. He's finished school for the year, so he's started running around the house like a mad child."
Ti'Fiano nodded severely, her milder attitude fading. "Ad--Langley. What is to become of my ship?"
Fahoma flinched at the chill in Ti'Fiano's voice. "Armstrong is to be repaired, then returned to Cardassian space under your command to continue the search for the Cardassian militants. You'll be paired with the Himalaya, as they've just returned from their analysis of the Budapest debris." She watched her sister carefully. "You're surprised."
"I expected court-martial for myself and for the rest of the bridge crew," said Ti'Fiano bluntly. "You tell me that there are no consequences for our actions against the Kaneda in the Loval system?"
"Not...for you," Fahoma said. "Your captain. Rebecca Gangies. She will remain here in the brig awaiting her court-martial."
Ti'Fiano shook her head. "That is unacceptable."
"You don't have a say here, Nani," Fahoma said. "Admiral Tolwyn needs someone to hold responsible for the attack of one Federation starship against another and Gangies stepped right in to it. She is the captain and the actions of her ship and her crew are her responsibility."
"The admiral is wrong," Ti'Fiano said. "Langley...this combat, this unofficial war is wrong. I believe that Starfleet is lashing out from blind prejudice and hatred."
Fahoma's surprise showed through her eyes. "Little sister...Starfleet is made up of citizens of the Federation. We've all moved past anything as petty as...racism."
"Oh?" Ti'Fiano asked, reaching out to pick up a picture off the desk. She glanced at it, then turned it to Fahoma. It showed Fahoma and several other admirals at a social mixer, each smiling and holding their drinks up in silent salute. All of them were human. "I'd never have guessed."
"Nani," Fahoma began.
Ti'Fiano stood. "Thank you, Admiral. I believe that I should see to it that my ship and crew are prepared for departure." She left silently and Fahoma watched her go.
"That went better than I expected," she sighed.
Starbases, Kyle Jovi had heard, were colossal things, capable of housing thousands of people with space to spare. They were technological wonders that made even the magnificence of starships pale in comparison. They were the pinnacle of Starfleet.
Starbase Three Seventy-Five reminded Kyle a lot of the Armstrong: it was cramped.
The starbase that had been the headquarters of the allied effort against the Dominion was a small thing. There was no promenade, no Trill bistro. Much like the Armstrong, there were confined corridors and bare bulkheads. Jovi shouldered past another crewman and keyed open the quarters that he had been assigned.
The room was dark and Hovin was curled up on his bed. Jovi flicked on his computer and quieted the audio. "Computer," he whispered, "search the Federation comm net for messages directed to Kyle Jovi, Armstrong. Display them." The screen blinked for a moment, then the seal of the Federation appeared. It was quickly replaced by a face that Jovi had both anticipated and dreaded.
"Kyle," Professor Craig Jovi scowled, "news of the Armstrong's...engagement...has reached the newsnets here on Earth." Kyle sat heavily on his bed and listened hopelessly. "It occurred to me that as Armstrong's helm and tactical officer you must have fired on Federation citizens." The older Jovi's voice dropped dangerously. "'Disappointment' does not encompass what I feel for you right now."
The image disappeared and Jovi flopped over on his side. "Some things just don't change, I guess," he muttered.
"Breakers seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty are showing clear," Jamie Cordiou said, reading off the engineering padd forced next to her face by the confines of the Jefferies tube. "Total power loss to resistance: zero point zero, zero, zero...ah, forget it. Three to the negative eighth power percent. Good." She elbowed her way back into the open of main engineering where Korma recorded her findings in the main status display.
Korma nodded sharply. "As soon as we get the new shield generators installed, we'll be back in business."
Jamie leaned against the bulkhead. "Such as we can without the resources of an actual shipyard," she agreed, tapping the pins that held her hair in place and eyeing the foreign engineers examining her warp core.
Korma followed her gaze. "It's like they don't trust us to make repairs," he said.
"Or just that they don't trust us," Jamie snapped. "If the fleet didn't need all of the help it could get in tracking down the Cardassian terrorists, Armstrong wouldn't be going anywhere for a very, very long time."
One of the foreigners approached. "Excuse me, Lieutenant," he said. "We've completed our checks and certify that the Armstrong is ready for departure."
"So glad you agree," Jamie said, making dismissive gestures towards the door. "Shoo."
The foreign engineers filed out, but the man who had spoken paused by the door. "Just...try to make sure that your captain remembers who the bad guys are, all right?"
Jamie smiled sweetly and waved to the men as they left. "Aaron?" she muttered through clenched teeth. "Remember that one night, when I fell out of bed and hit my head?"
Korma blushed faintly. "Yes?"
"Remember all of those really, really bad words I used?" she continued.
Jamie pulled out her hair pins and tapped them against her thigh. "I'm thinking them all over again."
Federation detention cells always struck Ti'Fiano as odd. They were utterly inescapable, having been equipped with forcefields, transport inhibitors, and reinforced wall-plating, yet, at the same time, they went to great pains to disguise all of that. The walls were as blank and emotionless as Rebecca Gangies appeared to be.
"The bunk is a bit short," she said dully, "but it's okay as long as I curl when I sleep."
The bed mattered little to Ti'Fiano. "Armstrong is set to ship out tomorrow with the normal crew. We've been paired with the Himalaya to continue searching." Her eyes followed the spot of black and blue that marred Gangies' brown skin.
"I'm surprised they're allowing you back in space," Gangies said. She paced in front of the invisible force field that separated them.
"One Admiral Fahoma is in charge of both this starbase and the coordination of Cardassian aid. As such, we fell into her jurisdiction. She appears...sympathetic." Ti'Fiano shrugged. "Also, Starfleet is getting more and more determined to find those responsible for the attack. They require all available vessels to continue the search."
"Do they have any more leads?" Gangies asked, perching on the end of her bunk.
"Nothing conclusive," Ti'Fiano scowled. "Twelve Cardassian military vessels have been impounded or destroyed. Over four hundred Cardassian civilians have been imprisoned for questioning. None have provided any sort of leads."
Gangies leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. "How many Cardassians have been killed in the past two weeks?"
"Including the Kaneda's attack, thirty-five hundred." Ti'Fiano paused. "Although that is a...conservative estimate."
Gangies opened her eyes and turned to face her first officer. "Nani, listen to me. Work with the task force. Find who's responsible as quickly as possible." Ti'Fiano began to object, but Gangies stopped her with a gesture. "End this...before anyone else is killed."
Jovi watched Starbase Three Seventy-Five recede into the darkness of space. "We shouldn't be leaving her there," he said softly.
In the command chair, Ti'Fiano stirred. "Captain Gangies' orders were quite explicit."
"I don't care what she ordered," Jamie scowled from the engineering station, fretting with her hair pins. "Most of the time she can't keep her own priorities straight."
"She ought to be orchestrating a jail break?" Jovi asked caustically, turning from the viewscreen.
Jamie blinked. "Yes. Exactly."
"Commander," Kalb interrupted, "the Himalaya has matched speed and course to the Vesuvi system. Captain ch'Shain wishes to speak to you face-to-face and asks when that would be possible."
"Immediately. Have him led to the captain's ready room--" Ti'Fiano paused for a moment. "To the situation room."
She summoned Lukan to take command and strode into the situation room. The doors slid shut behind her and she approached the head of the table carefully. Slowly, she seated herself and turned to watch the stars.
Twenty minutes later, Acots motioned three figures into the room and Ti'Fiano finally moved.
"Commander Ti'Fiano," Captain ch'Shain whispered. "It pleases me to see you again, though not under such circumstances."
Ti'Fiano stood and bowed slightly to the Andorian. "Welcome to the Armstrong."
Ch'Shain nodded, motioning to the other officer. "I introduce Commander Z. J. Waterson, my tactical officer."
"A pleasure," Ti'Fiano said blankly. "Please, sit. I assume that you are here to insure that Armstrong will not have any further...incidents?"
"Actually, no," ch'Shain said. "I shall allow Commander Waterson to explain."
The Andorian sat, but Waterson remained standing and cleared his throat. "After the Budapest was destroyed, we were called in to see if Dominion weapons technology was used."
"I read the overview of your report," Ti'Fiano said. "You found no trace of phased polaron weapons."
Waterson glanced at his captain and blew out air from his cheeks. "That's true. Instead, we found extensive damage from Cardassian spiral-wave disruptors throughout the debris. But we also found trace signatures of Starfleet quantum torpedoes."
"Torpedoes which could have been carried in the Budapest's own ordinance payload," Ti'Fiano said.
"Yes," replied Waterson, "but the traces we found weren't on any of the interior hull pieces: they were on the outer hull. The weapons didn't detonate with the destruction of the ship."
"Why was this not reported to the Admiral?" Ti'Fiano asked.
"It was," Waterson said. "We were told that our information was 'inconclusive.'"
Ti'Fiano shifted uncomfortably. "It is possible that the Cardassian militants captured these weapons and chose to use them."
"Possible, but not at all likely," Waterson countered. "I don't think that the Cardassians could have just slipped some away, especially with the war so recent." Ti'Fiano said nothing and Waterson pressed on. "Only a Federation starship could carry quantum torpedoes. Quantum torpedoes were used in the destruction of the Budapest, Commander." He leaned forward, his eyes wide and honest. "The Budapest was destroyed by a Starfleet vessel."
The doors to the situation room opened and Ti'Fiano stalked out onto the bridge. "Summon Korma and Pojman," she snapped. "Cordiou and Jovi, join me in the ready room, now." She turned back to ch'Shain and Waterson. "We will apprise you once we learn anything new," she said and unceremoniously ushered them out.
In the ready room, she directed Jovi and Cordiou to sit, then spoke. "I want to know the exact location and activities of every Starfleet ship in Cardassian space for the week surrounding the destruction of the Budapest. Neither of you may leave until you have compiled the information and noted any abnormalities." With that she left. The door seemed to click behind her.
"What the f--"
"Don't bother," Kyle interrupted. "I suspect that whatever we're going to find is going to be important."
Much later the door chime rang and Patrick Hovin entered the ready room. He carried a tray of food. "Hello," he said quietly. "Ensign Pojman asked that I bring this. She thought you would be hungry."
"How thoughtful," Jamie said dryly.
"Thanks, Hovin," Kyle said. Hovin placed the food on the desk and turned to leave, but Kyle stopped him. "Would you like to eat with us?"
"I-I wouldn't want to interrupt," Hovin said.
Jamie reclined in Gangies' chair. "I wouldn't mind."
Hovin sat carefully next to Kyle. "I'll just read my paper."
"What is it?" Kyle asked as his attention returned to his own padd.
"A paper on the unique properties of neutrinos in the Bajoran wormhole, written by Lieutenant Moll Enor," Hovin replied absently.
Jamie snorted. "Sounds like a snooze."
"Really? Moll?" Kyle asked. "I hadn't realized that she was publishing."
Hovin began to answer, but Jamie's caustic reply cut him off. "Maybe you two should start a correspondence," she said. "I mean, you seem to have the same taste in women."
"Oh?" Kyle asked.
Jamie nodded enthusiastically. "Yep, and you're gonna need her help after that last screw-up." She deepened her voice theatrically. "'I had the biggest crush on Jayme...' She couldn't hear the 'y,' Kyle. Little Alyse took one look at me and her heart stopped."
Jovi groaned. "Oh...oh, hell."
Hovin glanced up and gestured vaguely between Kyle and Jamie. "You two aren't in a...in a relationship?"
Jamie snorted and Kyle groaned again. "Oh, hell."
"Did you know she keeps breath mints in here?"
Kyle looked up at Jamie and scowled. "Jamie, for the love of... Stop rooting through Rebecca's desk."
"A guitar pick?" Jamie wondered aloud, holding it up to the light.
"This is impossible!" Kyle cried out, dropping his padd to the floor. "I've checked the sensor and the communication logs of one hundred and seventeen starships in the Eighth Fleet as well as those of the Odyssey, Tetsuo, and Marco-Polo, plus nearly two hundred civilian Federation relief craft." He gestured helplessly to Jamie. "There's not a ship out of place!"
Jamie sighed and resisted the urge to heft the kadahla crystal mounted on the desk. "So, Ti'Fiano will never let us out. There are worse places to live." Kyle stood and began pacing, and Jamie circled the desk to stop him. "Kyle. You're exhausted. Take a seat, have a rest already." She glanced around the room. "Here," she continued, handing him a padd. "Hovin left his paper. That'll put you to sleep."
She settled down on the floor and began reviewing the ship positions again. She had just begun to finger her hair pins when Kyle's yelp of surprise made her almost stab herself with them.
"That's it," Kyle whispered.
"It can't be that good," Jamie said, rubbing her scalp.
"No, look." He held the padd up to her view. "This paper went out from Deep Space Nine to a lot of people, including Hovin, a Lieutenant Commander Soleta on the Excalibur, Lieutenant Commander Liberdom on the Pathfinder, Lenara Kahn on Trill, and Lieutenant Commander Matse Di'uia of the starship Al-Batani. But it says here that the transmission wasn't actually received by the Al-Batani."
Jamie shrugged. "So? It wouldn't be the first time a ship's comm array went down."
"Bring up the Al-Batani's comm records," Kyle said. Jamie did and he snatched the padd from her. "Look at that. All of their routine out-going messages were sent."
"Maybe their receiver was damaged," Jamie said slowly.
"By what?" Kyle demanded. "And if it were, they would have noted it in their outgoings, so that they could have all of their incoming transmissions re-sent. They didn't."
Jamie shrugged. "So what, Kyle?"
"Think about it," Kyle said. "When a starship receives a transmission, the sender gets back a confirmation receipt that includes the time and the location that the transmission was received." He glanced down at Hovin's padd. "And Moll's paper went out four hours before the Budapest was destroyed."
Jamie pursed her lips thoughtfully. "That really makes me want to know where they were."
"Yeah," Kyle agreed, "and I think Ti'Fiano that would like to know that, too."
"U.S.S. Al-Batani, NCC-42995, Excelsior class." Ti'Fiano motioned to the display behind her. "Originally built as a type-two Excelsior. It has been refit twice, first in 2370 to accommodate the Federation's ecologically-sound warp drive and again in early 2373 with improved weapons capability in anticipation of the Dominion War." Deftly, Ti'Fiano altered the diagram to show the details of the weapons systems. "It received upgrades similar to those test-bedded on the U.S.S. Lakota: upgraded shielding, more and heavier phaser banks, ablative armor and, of course"--Ti'Fiano paused significantly--"quantum torpedoes."
The air in the Himalaya's conference room crackled dangerously as Ti'Fiano finished her assessment. On one side of the table sat Jovi, Cordiou, and Aujia. Opposite them was the Himalaya's command staff. Captain ch'Shain cleared his throat. "You presume to attack the Al-Batani?" the Andorian asked.
"We can take them," Jovi snapped. "That tub is nearly eighty years old. I don't care how many refits they make, Armstrong and Himalaya are newer, faster ships."
Waterson shook his head. "I wouldn't be sure of that. About three years ago the Lakota engaged the Defiant in the Sol system and did some fairly severe damage." He glanced about. "Defiant is much tougher than either of our ships."
"Kyle, I've seen the specs of the newest refit Excelsiors," Jamie said. "If they tag us with even one of those quantum torpedoes, we're going to be looking at a serious hull breach. Like, a large portion of the ship will be missing."
"I can stay out of their torpedo arcs," Kyle said confidently. "Armstrong's got the manverability."
"The Himalaya doesn't," Lieutenant Falsetti, Himalaya's helm officer, interrupted. "The losses we would take would be heinous."
"Question," Lieutenant Commander Tympan, ch'Shain's first officer, said before Jovi could respond. "Why?"
"Why what?" Jovi asked defensively.
"Why would the crew of the Al-Batani destroy the Budapest? Why would they kill two hundred and fifty of their fellow officers?" Tympan gestured emptily. "That's the part of this that I...just don't get."
The officers looked to each other uncomfortably. The silence stretched until Ti'Fiano cleared her throat. Behind her was a personnel file. The picture in the upper right corner was of a smiling woman. "Captain Julianne Libart," she began. "Born on Davlos in 2334. Graduated the Academy in 2356. In early 2364 she married her crewmate Onari Na'kres'a and eight months later requested a transfer to Dorvan, near Cardassian space, to begin a family. She reactivated and fought in the first Cardassian conflict until 2366. Dorvan fell into the region established as the demilitarized zone after the conflict. Libart then accepted promotion to captain and command of the Al-Batani."
Ti'Fiano paused for breath and continued slower, more quietly. "When the Dominion War broke out, the Al-Batani was summoned to join the Eighth Fleet." Ti'Fiano paused again. "As an opening move in the war, the Dominion attacked and conquered almost all of the Federation's colonies in the former demilitarized zone. Starfleet's efforts to evacuate the colonies were often too late. Libart's son Daniel and her brother were killed by the Jem'Hadar on Dorvan. Two years later, Na'kres'a was killed when the Cortez was destroyed while on patrol over Anacreon."
"Jesus," Jovi muttered.
"So...," Aujia pondered. "She's just gone around the bend? Maybe she thought that the captain of the Budapest was somehow responsible for her not being able to get to Dorvan."
"I think it's more complicated than that," ch'Shain whispered.
"The Budapest was attacked with Cardassian weapons, presumably installed on the Al-Batani," Waterson said, "but Budapest fought back. Maybe they got close to causing some damage that would have been a little hard to explain away."
"So Libart hit the Budapest with quantum torpedoes," Jovi concluded.
"Why not just hit them with the quantum torpedoes in the first place?" Tympan demanded. "What did they gain by using weaker weapons?"
Ti'Fiano cleared her throat again and the room fell silent. "They have gained exactly what they intended to," she said with cold malice. "Not simply the destruction of the Budapest, but the destruction in such a way that the Cardassians were blamed for the attack." She brought up an image of the Budapest debris on the screen behind her. "At the cost of the lives of two hundred and fifty Starfleet officers, Captain Libart has provoked a renewal of conflict between the Federation and what little remains of the Cardassian Union. To satisfy her own lust for vengeance, she has blackened the name of Starfleet. We will stop her."
"Which brings me back to my original question," ch'Shain said. "What do you intend to do?"
Ti'Fiano smiled. "I'm going to beam over and ask her to stand down and allow her ship to be taken back to Starbase Three Seventy-Five by security teams from Himalaya and Armstrong. I'm sure that she won't object."
The soft angles of the Al-Batani's bridge had always appealed to something primal in Julianne Libart. The style of the consoles, some eighty years out-of-date, had always seemed delightfully anachronistic.
Libart watched the viewscreen carefully as the two starships approached, red glowing from their nacelles and reflecting off their dark hulls. Where her ship had curves, theirs had sharp angles, threatening to cut any who wandered too near. Libart made sure that the angles of her ship remained hidden.
"The Armstrong signals that they're ready to transport," Mardac said. He breathed in a puff of methane from his breather. "Julianne, I don't think this is a good idea."
Libart nodded thoughtfully. "You're right, of course," she told the Benzite, "but look at that ship, the Armstrong. Two weeks ago, they attacked the Kaneda. If they get too close, we will destroy them and claim self-defense." She glanced to the young human at the ops station, ignoring the fearful look in her eyes. "Ensign, tell Commander Ti'Fiano that she's welcome anytime."
A single pillar of glittering light formed at the center of the bridge. After the effect had faded, Libart stood and extended her hand to the white-haired woman who had appeared.
"Hello," the woman said with a smile. "I am Nani Ti'Fiano."
"Delighted to meet you," Libart said. "Is this visit business or pleasure?"
Ti'Fiano laughed lightly. "Oh, a little of both, I expect. Business first, though." Her head tilted to the side. "Did you order the destruction of the Budapest?"
Libart's pleasant smile faded and the temperature of the bridge seemed to drop. "Yes."
"Thank you for your honesty," Ti'Fiano said sincerely. "You are under arrest. You will return with me to the Armstrong and your ship and crew will be taken into custody."
Shaking her head, Libart turned and seated herself in her command chair. "I'm sorry, Commander, but I can't allow that." She motioned to the tactical station. "Lieutenant, target the drive and communications systems of both the Armstrong and Himalaya, then destroy them." She addressed the ops ensign. "Summon a security team to escort the commander to the brig."
The ensign's quaking fingers reached for the call button and Ti'Fiano acted. She grabbed the ensign's head and slammed it against her panel until blood and enamel flew. The helmsman next to her gasped and leapt from his chair to try to tackle Ti'Fiano. Without glancing at him, Ti'Fiano grasped his wrist and broke it, then pivoted and threw him across her body into the science officer, crushing both of them against the bulkhead.
Two ensigns rushed across the bridge to stand between Ti'Fiano and Libart. Ti'Fiano speared her hand into the first one's mouth, then jerked sharply down to dislocate his jaw. She plucked off his communicator and tossed him at the second ensign's feet, tripping her to the ground. She took a moment to stomp on the ensign's head before dodging a phaser blast fired by the tactical officer. She hit the ground, rolled, and launched the communicator as she came up. It hit the tactical officer's temple with a wet thud and he dropped.
Ti'Fiano stood and turned slowly to Mardac and Libart. "You are under arrest," she repeated to Libart, then lashed out. She ripped Mardac's methane breather from his chest, then drew back and punched him in the stomach, the crack of vertebra slightly muffled. "And you will come with me." Gagging on blue blood, Mardac sagged to the floor and Ti'Fiano backhanded Libart so that she might follow.
She tapped her commbadge and spoke. "Ti'Fiano to Himalaya. Bridge is secured. Begin transporting boarding parties and a medical trauma team to the bridge."
Figures appeared all over the bridge. Narsec dispersed her nurses to the wounded and Aujia directed his officers to take over the command consoles. He surveyed the carnage and muttered, "My God."
Ti'Fiano spared him a sanguine glance. "God's not with us." She tapped her commbadge again. "Ti'Fiano to Armstrong. I have the package. Energize."
It had taken little more than a half-an-hour to assume control of the Al-Batani; the crew had largely surrendered without conflict. Waterson's teams had found the ship's true command staff and several others heavily sedated in a cargo bay. Cordiou had uncovered modifications to the outer hull that looked like supports for a weapons emplacement and power conduits leading up to it that had been altered to match Cardassian power specifications.
Now, two hours later the three ships raced to Starbase Three Seventy-Five. Ti'Fiano allowed herself some small satisfaction. Captain ch'Shain had reported to Admiral Tolwyn of the Eighth Fleet and the "investigation" had been put on hold until the Al-Batani's role in the Budapest's destruction was clarified.
She had completed the objectives given to her by Captain Gangies.
The doors to the brig parted before her. The room was darkened for ship's night, but Ti'Fiano had no difficulty picking out Libart in her cell. The women regarded each other for a few minutes, then Ti'Fiano spoke.
Libart traced the hard edges of her bunk for a bit before answering. "Because as long as there are Cardassians alive, they will try to destroy our families." She leaned forward. "I figured it out. That's why they hate us: because we have families and love and they're jealous of us for it."
Ti'Fiano felt her jaw tense. "Your grief has turned into insanity."
The commander left and Julianne went back to tracing the lines on the bunk. Like the Armstrong, its angles were harsh and rigid. Like the future she saw: sharp lines of courts and penal colonies for the rest of her life.
Libart saw something else. She saw the rounded curves of an alternative.
The lights, already dim, blacked out completely. The hum of the forcefield died. Julianne stood and the doors leading to the corridor opened again.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," the figure responded.
She asked, "Are you here to end this?"
The hands that stretched around her throat were curved flesh over rigid bone. They bore down on her and she felt the hard lines of her life bend away into nothing.
The mess hall was filled with happy, partying, inebriated officers.
"We won!" Alyse cried, draping herself across Kyle and Jamie. "Th' good guys save th' day!"
"That's it," Jamie said. "No more daiquiris for you. Ever."
Alyse looked panicked for a moment, but quickly forgot. "We're gettin' Cap'n Ga--Cap'n Gan--the lady back now, right?"
Kyle nodded and Alyse settled herself on him. "Now that the Fleet knows who really destroyed the Budapest, they've got a new focus. I almost feel bad for the Al-Batani's crew."
"I do feel bad, after what Ti'Fiano did to them," Jamie said, shaking her head. "Some of bridge crew are still unconscious in sickbay."
"But they're alive," Kyle noted.
"Kyle," Alyse said, tugging on his sleeve, "where's Jacob? He oughta be here, havin' fun."
"I'll go get him," Jamie said. "I need to go drag Kuni out here, anyway." She left before Alyse could slur a thank-you, pushing her way through the crowd. Jamie broke into the hallway and turned toward the crew quarters.
When she saw someone who looked like Kalb duck into the deserted transporter room, Jamie tried to remember how many glasses she had drunk and failed. She shrugged and decided that bringing back a hallucination of Kalb would be about as good as the real thing.
"Hey! Kalb!" she said, entering the cramped room. Kalb was poised over the control panel, entering coordinates. "You going somewhere? Come on, Pojman's smashed and she misses your company." She glanced at the panel and frowned. "Hey, you really are going somewhere. Kalb, what's going on?"
Kalb smiled, then hit her. His first blow slammed her against the wall. Her hair pins snapped and hair slick with blood tumbled into her face. She raised her fists in defense, but Kalb muscled past them and struck her again and again. Jamie felt her face pulled from the floor and through bloody eyes she saw Kalb, his face a mask of rage.
"They're Cardassians. You've seen what they do. And you aid them. You protect them. No one even knows what's right and wrong anymore."
Her head hit the floor and she heard the soft chiming of the transporter. Then she didn't hear very much at all.
Rebecca Gangies had given up pacing around her cell. She had given up lying on the too-short bunk. She had given up missing her Jim Morrison poster. Now she simply sat on her bunk and waited for her fate to be decided.
She did hope they'd tell her about it.
Gangies had tried to talk to the guards posted outside her cell. They had steadfastly ignored her for two weeks running and she was honestly impressed. She had started imagining lives and personalities for the guards, since they seemed so bereft themselves. It kept her entertained.
"Oh, mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law," Rebecca sang softly to herself. "Hangman's comin' down from the gallows and I don't have very long."
Outside, both guards stiffened to attention. Surprised, Gangies tried to see whoever had entered the room, but failed.
"I'd like to speak to the prisoner alone, gentlemen," a male voice said. "Would you be so kind as to excuse us?"
"Of course, Captain," one of the guards said. Gangies heard the guards' footsteps recede, then: "We'll be right outside if you need us."
The doors shut, but the man didn't come into view. "You must not want to talk to me that badly," Gangies ventured.
"Just savoring the moment," the man said. "The reversal of roles. After all, Captain--I'm sorry, you have no rank at the moment. Well. Regardless, the last time we spoke, I was in a holding cell while you were out here." The man stepped in front of the brig's door and Rebecca felt herself go cold.
"Aikart," she hissed.
"Ironic, isn't it?" Aikart's worn face creased into a smile. Absentmindedly, he smoothed the wrinkles from his command-red uniform.
"Guards!" Gangies bellowed.
Aikart chuckled to himself. "Oh, I doubt they'll pay any attention to you. You're a prisoner. Stuck in a cell. So...vulnerable." Gangies slammed her palms against the forcefield that separated them and felt the dangerous energy course over her skin. "Not that I would take advantage of that. I've come to tell you that you've won. You and your valiant crew."
Rebecca stepped back. "Oh, really?"
"Yes. Your Commander Ti'Fiano discovered that the Budapest was, in fact, destroyed by a Federation ship. As we speak, Armstrong is on its way here with evidence to exonerate you."
"Why?" Rebecca demanded, aghast.
Aikart chuckled to himself. "I'd imagine because they'd like to see you freed."
"No! No, Aikart," Gangies yelled. "Why...why destroy the Budapest? There were no Cardassians on that ship. You murdered Federation citizens!"
"Sacrifices, I'm afraid," Aikart said dryly, "had to be made."
"To what end?" Gangies demanded desperately. "What could you possibly have gained..." Aikart watched with a small grin as horrified realization spread across her face. "You wanted exactly what happened: you wanted Starfleet to mobilize against Cardassian civilians, you wanted everyone to think that the Cardassians were responsible for the attack, you wanted everyone to agree with you, to think that you were right! How many people have to die so that you can be right?"
Aikart shrugged. "Not people. Cardassians."
Gangies sat heavily on the bunk and rested her face in her hands. "Aikart," she said, drained, "listen to me. On Earth, as recently as six hundred years ago, people with my skin coloration were kidnapped and forced into slavery. The individuals who thought themselves masters considered my race much the same way that you consider the Cardassians: they thought that we were stupid, or weak, or simply inferior. Look at me now, Aikart! Do I seem inferior to you?"
For a very long moment, Aikart seemed to consider her words. Then: "I've never been to Earth. And you are in a cell." With that, he turned and left Rebecca to her own simmering thoughts.
|Last modified: 10 Apr 2012