Upon returning to the Challenger Tom headed straight for Bentley’s quarters and searched the chest of drawers. Sure enough he found the data module given to him following Prime Minister Larell’s death. Upon connecting it to a non networked computer terminal, they discovered it contained a database that was heavily encrypted using some particularly sophisticated Romulan encryption methods. It also contained a message recorded by Gret Larell.
“Matthias, if this data module has been passed to you then I am dead, probably murdered. In the past few months, I’ve come to believe that there is a conspiracy to remove me from office by whatever means necessary. Since the appearance of the Romulan Commander, I’ve become more certain of it. This data module contains a copy of Penn Renos’ personal database. I believe it will contain proof that he has been conspiring with Oreth. It’s protected by a kind of encryption that neither I nor our greatest computer scientists have seen before. I hope that your Starfleet friends will have more luck in cracking it.” The image of Gret Larell disappeared.
Tom turned to Lieutenant Commander Zarbrun. “Can you crack it?”
“Not easily.” She replied, her fingers already dancing across the holographic LCARS interface. Occasionally she would reach up and tap something on the display or swipe something to remove it. “I’ll need to pull in a few people who have more experience with cryptography than I do.”
Over Zarbrun’s shoulder, the captain watched as she worked. “Bring in whoever you need. This is a top priority.” He folded his arms. “Any idea how long this may take?”
“Hours at least.” Zarbun’s eyes didn’t leave the display. “Maybe days.”
They didn’t have days. Matt was scheduled to be executed at 1800 hours the next day. If Zarbrun wasn’t able to access the data on the module and prove that Renos was behind the murder of Prime Minister Larell then he would have to send a team in to recover Bentley. “You have until fifteen hundred hours tomorrow.”
“Understood, sir.” Zarbrun tapped her commbadge as the captain walked away and began calling in several crypto specialists.
Zarbrun’s team worked through the night and by morning there was reason to be optimistic that they would be able to access the data module before the start of Doctor Bentley’s trial, if it could be called that. Meanwhile, Lieutenant zh’Charia had been tasked with planning an extraction mission to recover Bentley and spent the hours since running drills on the holodeck with her selected team.
In his ready room, Captain Forrester paced back and forth. Despite commanding one of the largest, most powerful starships in Starfleet, Tom felt powerless. Even 4 years after switching from security to the command track, he struggled with the waiting.
He stopped in his tracks when the comm chirped and the voice of the XO filled the room. “Captain to the bridge.”
Tom strode onto the bridge to find the XO studying a computer display at the science station. He quickly crossed the bridge. “What d’you have?”
“News has leaked out that acting Prime Minister Renos is planning to sign a treaty with the Romulans at eighteen hundred hours tonight.” Bennett reported as she watched the bank of news broadcasts coming in from the planet. “Protests have begun popping up all over the planet.”
They watched the footage silently. A few of the protests remained peaceful but more and more were becoming violent. Tom could feel Lieutenant zh’Charia approach and study the displays. “The situation is deteriorating rapidly.”
“Is your extraction team ready?” Tom didn’t take his eyes off the new feeds.
The Andorian nodded. “We’re ready.” Because of the transport inhibitor being used around the prison where Matt was being held, their plan involved taking a shuttle, piloted by Mitchell, landing on the roof of the prison and extracting him that way.
“Then get it done.” Forrester ordered. zh’Charia turned on her heel and started towards the turbolift, with Mitchell relinquishing the helm to da Costa and jogging to catch up with zh’Charia.
“We’ve cleared the shuttlebay.” AJ announced as he brought the shuttle around on a course that would take it around the aft of the port nacelle and towards the planet. “We’ll be entering the atmosphere in a few minutes.”
In the aft section, Lieutenant zh’Charia went through the instructions with her team again. AJ only kept half an ear on what she was saying while monitoring the shuttle’s controls. His job was simple; land the shuttle on the roof and wait for the team to return. A pair of security officers would guard the shuttle while the others recovered Matt Bentley.
AJ watched as the temperature on the shuttle’s nose began to rise as she hit the atmosphere. A soft pink/orange glow could be seen through the viewports. It only lasted for a minute or two and the heat from atmospheric entry quickly dissipated. “We’re two minutes out.” AJ told them, the message also being relayed to the Challenger on an open commlink. He could hear the clicks of the team checking their equipment once more; tricorders, phaser rifles, type-II phasers.
“Understood, Commander.” The security chief replied.
It still staggered him that Tom had waited as long as he had to order this mission. Had AJ been in his position, he would’ve given the order to prepare an extraction mission as soon as Matt had been arrested and busted him out soon after. Hell, he probably wouldn’t have allowed them to arrest Matt in the first place.
His heart thundered in his chest as the roof of the prison came into view. This was it. They’d be on the roof in less than thirty seconds. He consulted his sensors before casting his eyes over the LZ, making sure it was safe to put down. Once he was satisfied that it was, he brought the shuttle down gently and opened the aft hatch. zh’Charia’s team was already on their feet and before the hatch connected with the roof, they were moving out.
“Planetwide communications are being jammed.” Bennett announced as her fingers furiously worked the science console.
The news feeds had cut out and communicating with the extraction team was now impossible. “See if you can cut through the jamming.” He knew the chances of that were nigh on impossible but they had to try all the same
“Zarbrun to Forrester. Captain, we’ve cracked the data module’s encryption.” The voice of the chief ops officer came through the comm, giving Tom a rare piece of good news.
His hand moved instinctively to his commbadge. “I’m on my way.”
A few minutes later he entered the computer lab. “What’ve you got?”
“A lot.” Zarbrun replied as she pulled up a number of different windows on her display. “The data module contains a copy of acting Prime Minister Renos’ personal database. There are communication logs between Renos and Commander Oreth and his personal logs.”
Tom folded his arms and studied the data in front of him. “It looks like Renos recorded one personal log a day without fail but in recent days he’s missed a few or recorded multiple logs in the one day.”
“The transcripts for the past few days make for very interesting reading.” Zarbun tapped at the console and a window opened with the transcript for a log made shortly after Gret Larell’s death. It described the guilt at being part of the effort to murder him. How he’d relented and told Oreth that he didn’t want to go through with it but that Oreth had threatened to murder his wife if Renos didn’t follow through with the plan
It was hard to believe that Renos was stupid enough to keep a record of any of this, even with the heavy duty Romulan encryption. “I guess he’s never heard of confessing your sins to a personal log and then deleting the damn thing once you’re done.”
“It’s a good thing too.” Zarbrun pointed out. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have proof that Doctor Bentley is innocent.”
Tom couldn’t contain the snot that escaped. “Lot of good it does us if we have no way of providing this information to the relevant authorities. Besides, it’s all moot anyway. The extraction team is on the surface as we speak.”
“The shuttle is on the move.” Commander Bennett’s announcement as Tom emerged from the turbolift should have been reason to celebrate but without communications, they had no way of knowing if it was airborne because the mission was a success or not.
He settled into the command chair and immediately began tapping mindlessly on the armrest while his right leg began bouncing nervously. It was an old nervous habit that he’d been able to train himself out of in the months following his promotion to Executive Officer but every once in a while it caught him off guard and in his worry about Matt, his guard was definitely down. He didn’t even notice he was doing it until Commander Kailir reached out and placed a gentle hand on his thigh. His eyes met hers and she gave him a pointed look. Appropriately chastened, he brought his leg under control
“…to Challenger. We’ve secured the package and are enroute. ETA is five minutes.”
The sound of AJ’s voice confirming they had Matt onboard and were on the way home caused a wave of relief to wash over him. He didn’t have much chance to enjoy the moment because the ops officer on duty spoke up. “Sir, the acting Prime Minister is hailing us and the Romulans.”
“Let’s see what he has to say for himself.” Tom muttered. “Onscreen.”
The face of Commander Oreth appeared on the right of the screen while he was expecting to find Penn Renos on the left but instead it was the face of Minister Hutek.
“Where is acting Prime Minister Renos?” Oreth’s tone made the question sound more like a demand.
Hutek cocked an eyebrow at the Romulan’s tone. “In the face of violent protests, Penn Renos has fled the capital. The line of succession clearly states that the job falls to me now. I have already made a statement to the public that, despite Penn’s intentions, we will not be entering into a treaty with the Romulans.”
“We had a deal.” Oreth snarled.
The new acting Prime Minister was clearly not prepared to entertain Oreth’s crap. “You had a deal with Renos, who has run from the people he claims to represent like the coward he is. I will not be signing any treaty with the Romulan Star Empire. Nor, Captain Forrester, will we be entering into any agreements with the Federation.”
“Of course, Prime Minister.” Tom bowed his head slightly. “I hope that someday we’ll be able to establish full diplomatic relations but it’s clear that Darox isn’t ready for that yet.”
Oreth sneered. “And what of the murderer? I noticed you sent a shuttle down to the prison not too long ago. Is he to escape justice, Prime Minister?”
“Doctor Bentley didn’t murder Prime Minister Larell.” Tom shot back calmly. “Before his death he arranged to have a data storage module passed to us. It contained a copy of Penn Renos’ personal database used some pretty sophisticated Romulan encryption techniq-”
Oreth cut across him. “Federation lies.”
“We’re transmitting a copy of the database to you both now so you can confirm the authenticity of the data for yourselves.” He motioned to the tactical officer to transfer the data. “The database contained communication logs between Renos and Oreth and the personal logs of Renos. They prove that he conspired with Commander Oreth to assassinate the late Prime Minister.”
Oreth’s face turned an interesting shade of grey/green. “FEDERATION LIES! HOW DARE-”
“We will examine the information you’re providing us but since we have no way to force you to return Doctor Bentley to us, there isn’t much we can do. I must ask both of you to leave this system immediately.”
The Romulan’s face was quickly returning to its usual grey pallor. “And if I refuse?”
“Then the Challenger will escort you.” Tom quickly jumped in before the Prime Minister had a chance to react.
He could see the anger flash in Oreth’s eyes. “Was that a threat?”
“Not at all.” Tom smiled sweetly. “Just an offer to help you find your way out of the system.”
Oreth glanced off screen and nodded to someone. Behind him, Lieutenant zh’Charia announced, “Captain, the D7 is powering it’s weapons.”
“Really?” Tom was certain the amused look on his face would do nothing to extinguish Oreth’s anger. “Your ancient D7 and that creaky old Klingon bird of prey you have hiding somewhere out there are no match for the Challenger and you know it. That said, I would love you to give me an excuse to demonstrate. Please.”
The two men glared at one another through the viewscreen, apparently oblivious to anything else around them. Oreth finally broke the silence. “Until we meet again, Captain.” He looked off screen again and nodded at someone else. The commlink with the D7 went dead, leaving just Hutek and Tom.
“Thank you, Captain. I’m sorry it’s come to this.” Hutek gave a sad smile.
It wasn’t how he envisioned this mission going but the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. “As am I, Prime Minister. I wish you luck.”
Matt sealed his case and looked up, meeting Tom’s gaze. “I know you are, Tom. I guess we just weren’t meant to be.”
The Challenger was minutes from establishing orbit over New Bajor. It had been two days since they’d left the Darox system and the two men had spent many hours talking and come to the conclusion that while they cared for each other, they didn’t think that would work out. Truth be told, Matt had been willing to forgive Tom for his recent behaviour and start over but a long distance relationship was not something that Tom was willing to consider.
Matt lifted the case and they walked in companionable silence. Upon reaching the transporter room, Tom dismissed the transporter operator. “I guess this is it, then.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Matt replied. There was a moment of awkwardness before Matt stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Tom. In response, Tom buried his face in the crook of Matt’s neck and inhaled deeply, drinking in the other man’s scent one last time. “Don’t get yourself killed out here.” Matt whispered.
Tom chuckled softly into Matt’s neck. “I’ll do my best for you.”
“That’s all I can ask.” Matt was the first to pull away. “I should probably beam over to Opaka Outpost.”
The captain moved around the transporter console. “Safe journey home.”