“–did everything in my ability. Despite every effort to resuscitate her, Priya Susarla is dead,” reported Doctor Pimpinellifolia.
Captain Taes felt dizzy. Standing there in the dimly lit morgue felt oddly absurd, provoking a momentary out-of-body sensation for Taes. Her chief science officer was dead. In fact, another chief science officer was gone. The last one, Lieutenant Commander Holmgren, was as good as dead until medical science took another leap to revive him. Even more than that realisation, because Doctor Nelli’s vocoder communicated everything in a monotone sing-song, there were none of the emotional touchstones Taes would expect from a doctor’s bedside manner. Rather, the words sounded like Taes was watching a children’s program in a language she didn’t fully understand. Without fully thinking about it, the Deltan reached out and grabbed Commander Elbon Jakkelb’s arm to brace herself. Despite their argument in the corridor moments earlier, Elbon shuffled closer to Taes, offering whatever strength he had left to offer.
Gently, Nelli lowered one of their vines to touch a control contact on the bulkhead. The mortuary tray, carrying Priya Susarla’s corpse, slowly retracted inside the stasis cabinet. Once inside, a panel slid into place to seal the body in, and the stasis field activated. After Dvorak had lost contact with Kellin Rayco and the away team in Refinery 04H on Kunhri III, Nelli had only managed to beam up Susarla’s body from the refinery’s hydroponic garden. Evidently, no one had been as concerned with smashing or grabbing her combadge.
The only hitch in Nelli’s sing-song was a slight stutter when they said, “Cause of death was by poison. I examined the contents of her stomach, which contained undigested zucchini–“
Impatiently, Taes interrupted to ask, “Was it our negligence?” Not knowing that answer was eating away at Taes and her poise. She supposed Elbon could criticize her later for not stepping into this discussion from a strategic lens, or for not centering Susarla, but Taes literally could not wait for that answer for another moment longer. “Did we mishandle the flora we brought aboard from Starbase 23? Improper storage aboard Dvorak, or when we transported them to the refineries…?”
Allowing for the interruption, Nelli patiently replied, “No, captain. There were traces of felodesine in Susarla’s blood, and in the vegetable matter in her stomach, both. Felodesine is a synthetic chemical compound, alien to nature.”
Physically recoiling, Elbon cursed, “Prophets…” He shook his head at Taes, a sneer of disgust marring his face. “Felodesine comes standard-issue with a Romulan Star Navy uniform. They use it in suicide chips,” Elbon said. Lowering his voice to a conflicted murmur, Elbon remarked, “Quick, at least…”
Taking a step to the side, Taes took on a stance like she was about to run or to fight. She channelled her anxious energy into the problem. Work the problem; worry about what to tell Susarla’s family later. “Our biofilters… should have detected felodesine when we beamed the plants into the hydroponic gardens,” Taes said in all certainty.
Taes couldn’t be sure if it was an intentional choice, but she watched Nelli cross the morgue to reach for an LCARS panel as far away from the stasis chamber as they could go. Nelli tapped at the panel with a couple of vines to display a series of transporter logs. “Indeed, captain,” Nelli said, “The biofilters would have alarmed at any chemical compound similar to felodesine. It was not present in any of the supplies Dvorak beamed to Kunhri Three.”
While Taes examined the logs, she folded her arms over her abdomen. Unable to hide her disquiet, Taes said, “Suz was eating the plants as part of her lessons. Someone must have tampered with the garden after we beamed them down?”
Elbon raised an eyebrow at that. “That’s not the only option,” Elbon said, sounding awfully certain. Taes blinked at Elbon’s matter-of-fact tenor. “The contamination of the vegetable matter could have happened in Susarla’s stomach. The poison could have been administered in the water they drank or by force.”
Nelli said, “No, I cannot believe the Remans would harm their own young.” Judging from that statement, Taes wondered if Nelli had found the assertive setting on her vocoder.
Elbon was quick to add, “The Romulans would. …Perhaps Star Navy captains who were waiting on shipments from Kunhri?” His gaze drifted for a couple of heartbeats, Taes noticed. It wasn’t long before his attention returned to Taes and Nelli. Elbon said, “It’s a tactic as old as the mountains. The Federation used to ship supplies to their colonies that ended up on the Cardassian side of the demilitarized zone. The cardies would intercept the supplies to destroy or taint them – to sour each colony’s relationship with the Federation.”
Nodding a slow agreement with Elbon’s supposition, Taes added, “The Star Navy benefits most if our food systems fail. If the Remans go any more weeks without food, they may look to the navy more favourably should they come with holds full of fresh viinerine.”
Reaching the natural conclusion, Elbon said, “And our tenuous friendship with the Remans falls through.”
Emphasizing her point with her hands, Taes said, “They’d have few options but to ask the Romulans for aid after a point…”
“Felodesine is an open secret and it’s old. It’s unsubtle,” Elbon said slowly, his face shadowed in new pools of doubt as he thought out loud. “Either the Romulans didn’t care who caught them poisoning the Remans, or there’s a third party who want to point the Remans’ distrust at the Romulans and the Federation. …Could be pirates? Klingons or Orions could get their hands on felodesine.”
“Confidentially, the other captains in our task group have shared… suspicions of a cloaked presence in the system,” Taes said, amid a nod, “since even before they started construction on the tachyon detection grid.”
Staring at Taes intently, Elbon sounded chilled when he said, “If a vessel observe the entire construction, they might know every gap. They could have been shadowing us in orbit, monitoring our progress or your negotiations with Kecene.”
“We don’t have the crew to investigate this sufficiently,” Taes said in pained humility. “I need to be in conference with J’mek and Kecene and I… I can’t withdraw the scientific investigation into farming locations. If anything, they’re going to need a larger security presence. I never planned for staffing a criminal investigation into galactic espionage…”
Elbon asked, “What are you going to do, captain?”
“Captain’s Log, Supplemental,
“It’s so much worse than I feared.
“I won’t deny the hubris in my mission. My senior staff have surely mentioned it in their logs too. In my goals for sustainable agriculture on Kunhri Three, I wanted nothing less than a self-reliant system that could feed the entire population for the foreseeable future. Food security for decades, if not a century, until Kunhri enhanced their plasma distribution network enough to sufficiently power a replicator in every home. My vision for the future of Kunhri kept me up at night. I… expected I would overwork the crew. I would owe them extended shore leave after this. I expected to… fall short. Maybe we would only farm a solution to feed two-thirds of the population, and the rest would rely on smaller shipments from Psi Velorum.
“I ignored the obvious. I never saw a snake in the garden. I believe the produce in at least one of our hydroponic gardens has been laced with a fatal synthetic compound called felodesine. My chief science officer and four Reman youths have been killed after eating from the garden. My chief security officer and an away team have been arrested by the Reman’s provisional government for their deaths.
“I’ve considered every suspicion from Captains sh’Elas, Ryder, Thevius, and Tarken that there is probably a Romulan presence in the Kunhri system. They may be Star Navy loyalists looking to take Kunhri back or Tal Shiar forces eyeing Kunhri for the first time. I understand all is not what it seems among the populace of Kunhri. The provisional government is too new, too fragmentary. They may not have noticed Romulan opponents, or possibly even Orion Syndicate, hiding among them. I can’t let this derail my mission. We’re narrowing down locations and crops to begin farming operations. I can teach the Remans to fish, but my science ship isn’t equipped to hunt Romulan spies or Orion organized criminals. That’s why Dvorak came to Kunhri with a task group. I need help finding out who poisoned my chief science officer and preventing it from ever happening again.”
The lights were out in Taes’ personal quarters. Sitting at her desk, she could see by ambient illumination from the stars, the reflective glow of Kunhri III, and the various computer panels around the compartment. Having recorded her captain’s log, she loosened the flap of her uniform jacket and let it hang. Taes closed her eyes and took a deep breath, slouching back in her chair. “Computer,” Taes said, “please flag my captain’s log for the other captains in the Kunhri task group.”
Once the computer chirped its acknowledgement of the order, Taes took another breath and moved to get up from her chair, but she paused to reconsider. Staring into the middle distance, Taes rubbed the back of her neck, and eventually, she muttered to herself, “…Go on.”
Dropping her face into her hands, Taes requested the computer open a subspace channel to Captain Ryder aboard the USS Neptune. Taes didn’t raise her head when the Starfleet emblem appeared on her desktop interface, nor when the rugged mug of Michael Ryder appeared on the screen. Taes just said, “Michael, I need help.”
“Are you okay?” Captain Ryder asked, full of compassion. “What do you need?”