“What the actual hell?” Blake blurted out as she stormed into the Captain’s Mess, empty aside Mac trying to shovel some breakfast into himself while quickly reviewing a padd. She’d had time to strip out of her EV suit, but little more, hair matted to her head, a sheen of sweat on her skin from the self-contained environment. “Seriously, what’s going on?” she continued as she stomped across the empty cabin, straight up the table Mac had chosen to have his breakfast at.
“Morning to you too,” he got out after politely clearing his mouth, even setting the padd down to give his not-girlfriend and the ship’s second-ranking medical officer the attention she actually deserved in a situation like this. “I take it this is about the recall back to the ship?”
“We’re still cataloguing down there,” she said, jabbing a finger towards the windows and the arc of the planet below just visible. “And I’m still not certain we’ve found everyone.”
“I know,” he offered in the best conciliatory manner he could, then indicated the seat opposite him, even pushing the plate with a piece of toast on it towards the chair. “But Atlantis has suddenly found itself between a rock and a hard place and I didn’t want to risk trying to beam everyone up from the surface during a firefight.”
“What?” Blake asked, what little anger she had carried washing away pretty quickly. She considered the toast, then took the offer to sit, even the toast, before reaching over and picking up Mac’s glass of orange juice, drinking half the glass in quick order before turning on the toast.
“Tholians sitting about three light-seconds off our aft demanding we surrender the Paperweight to them in six hours and a Breen heavy cruiser, maybe a battleship of some kind for all we know, that’ll be here in just over six hours and which is demanding we flee the system now and leave everyone on the surface.” He shuffled the scrambled eggs on his plate around a bit, then loaded up a fork, and fed himself.
“So, get us all off the planet while the Breen can’t tell so you’re free to engage in cowboy diplomacy with little worries when they arrive?” Blake challenged around the piece of toast that she was chewing on.
“Uh,” Mac said, not giving a solid answer, though changing his mind on that when Blake’s gaze fell on him. “More like getting everyone off the surface because I have a bad idea that’ll upset everyone and I can’t anyone on the ground if it comes to it.”
Blake stopped, set her toast down and just looked at him. “Blow up the Aitu,” she stated flatly.
“As I said, bad idea.”
“Desecration of a gravesite,” she said. “You can’t be seriously considering the idea.”
“The Breen would do worse. At least I trust the Tholians to just take the Paperweight and run. But the Breen will turn that site upside down twice over trying to find anything and end up with a bunch of dead bodies that I seriously don’t want them to have. I’ve heard horror stories from the Dominion War and I don’t want to,” Mac stopped when Blake raised her hands in concession to his point.
“I get it, I get it. They’re mysterious bad guys with a grudge and we can’t let them have a thing.” Her tone however conveyed her anger at his idea. “Professionally,” she paused for a brief moment, “I have to protest this course of action. We can still recover bodies instead of leaving them on site.”
“In under five hours?” Mac asked.
“No, I’d need a few days to be truly happy.”
“If I can solve this without blowing anything up, we’ll stay here and commit to a full recovery.” But Mac knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not with two different groups demanding they quit the field, one with a reason, the other just because they could demand it.
“Which means you’re already committed to the idea,” Blake accused him, then slowly stood. She reclaimed her toast and even reached over for Mac’s juice, but he caught her wrist gently.
“I’m pissed at Commander MacIntyre, don’t make me mad at Charles too,” she said, twisting her wrist from his grip and taking the juice, for just a sip, before sitting it down. “Just…don’t give me any more work today if you can avoid it.”
“I’ll do my best.” He held her gaze, offering her a wan smile. “No promises though.”
“Guess that’s the best I can ask for from a red shirt.”
After she left, he returned to his breakfast, reactivating the padd and picking up his reading. Two mouthfuls and he was on his feet, padd in hand, straight for the replicator to get more juice. He’d gotten so far as to order the drink before anyone in the corridor outside would have heard a shouted expletive and had to take evasive as Mac barrelled out and straight for the nearest turbolift.
The orange juice was still in the replicator.
“I’ve got it,” he said by way of announcing himself to the bridge as he went straight for the mission space at the back. Adelinde was quick to join him, and so too were Gabrielle Camargo, Samantha Michaels and Rrr’mmm’bal’rrr, whose heavy footsteps could be felt through the deck plating as they descended the few steps.
“Got it?” Adelinde asked, handing over the keys to Mac, who gave them a quick shake and then pocketed them.
“What did the Tholians call the Paperweight?” he asked, pointing at Camargo.
“Uh,” Gabrielle blanked for a moment, clearly not ready for a pop quiz. “Component of the Great Destroyer I think?” she asked, looking to Adelinde, who nodded, being the only one of the entire gathering of officers that had been on the bridge at the time.
“Excellent, you’re all caught up,” Mac said with a smile, then turned to the large viewscreen in the back. “Computer, bring up the last flight path for the USS Aitu.” Dutifully the electronic minion at the heart of every starship complied and the screen filled with a star chart, the holographic panel doing its best to give a three-dimensional feeling as it rendered star charts with a view looking down on the galactic plane.
It looked almost like one could reach into the display, at least until one got right up close when the hazard hashing would appear to prevent such embarrassments.
“System L-374, heading for Rigel.” Mac reached out for L-374, then spread his fingers, the display zooming in on the system. An infobox bloomed into life, detailing the complete and utter lack of anything interesting in the system. Two planets, one with a surface temperature comparable to Mercury, the other in the habitable zone, if not for the poisonous and acidic atmosphere, a combination of excessive sulphur and ammonia. And a handy little tag advising that the system was listed as a navigational hazard.
“What if I told you that this system once had four planets in it?” Mac asked, turning on everyone.
“Sir,” Samantha was the first to speak up, looking a little impatient at his impromptu showmanship. “Could we skip the guessing game?”
“Wait just a second,” Gabrielle spoke up, even going so far as to step closer to the viewscreen. She then zoomed the map out a touch and selected another star system, this one without any planets, then another, then another. Then she drew a straight line between all of them ending at Rigel. “I’ve read about this,” she said, stepping back. “You think the Paperweight is a piece of the planet killer?”
“The planet killer? Ancient cone-shaped planet-eating monstrosity? Wasn’t that destroyed by USS Constellation?” Rrr asked.
“Disabled, not destroyed,” Mac corrected Rrr with a smile, earning a head nod from the Gaen. “And Enterprise helped, but the loss of Constellation is what sealed the deal. The SCE then arrived on site and spent years and years salvaging everything they could, including any internals. Still pouring over the loot I’d wager.”
“So, the Paperweight is surplus?” Adelinde asked. “We could surrender it to the Tholians?”
“We could, but I’m not entirely keen on that idea,” Mac replied. “But at least now we know what it is we’re looking at in the context of history.”
“So where do we go from here?” Rrr asked. “We either surrender it to the Tholians, who still need to lift the artefact, destroy the artefact, or simply leave and let the Tholians and Breen fight it out.” They shrugged; a thinking gesture Mac had surmised a while ago. “I am inclined not to let the Breen have anything from the wreckage, if just out of spite towards the Breen.”
“I’m with Rrr on this one sir,” Samantha spoke up. “The Breen are directly antagonistic towards the Federation. The Tholians are at least…Tholian?”
“Mysterious, not directly combative, prone to fits of xenophobia and cooperation in equal measures throughout history?” Adelinde asked.
“Yeah,” Samantha answered the clarification.
“Whatever happens, more Breen will be on their way. That makes me far less inclined to leave any bodies on the surface. Who knows what the Breen could concoct with access to those remains.” Mac rolled his shoulders and straightened his back. “Rrr, get me a channel to the Tholian commander. I think it’s time we struck a deal.”
It only took two minutes before the face of Commander Kaltene filled the viewscreen once more. Knowing what was coming, the computer adjusted the colours properly from the start. “I am Commander Charles MacIntyre, first officer of the USS Atlantis and her commanding officer at this time.”
“We are aware of who you are Commander,” the synthesized voice replied. “Where is Captain Theodoras?”
“She’s not on board,” he answered, more precise in detail than Adelinde’s earlier statement of being unavailable. “I trust that won’t be an issue?”
“It is what it is,” Kaltene answered. “What do you want Commander?”
“I have a proposal to make. We know you’re after the artefact held within the hold of the USS Aitu. The component of the Great Destroyer I believe is how you described it?” He waited, a slight nod of the Tholian’s head enough to continue. “We know the Great Destroyer is what we call the planet killer, which was taken out by Starfleet over a hundred years ago.”
“You accomplished what we could not,” Kaltene supplied. “We can not allow you to have this component despite your achievements of the past. It is dangerous and should be safeguarded, if not destroyed.”
“There’s also the bodies of the crew of the Aitu that, with the Breen now interested in this site, I’m wanting to remove.”
“Humanoid bodies do not interest us,” Kaltene answered. “You are free to remove them as you wish. And attempt to remove the component will be stopped.”
Mac smiled, that answer giving him some hope his idea had a chance of success. “How about a proposal then Commander? You need time to remove the artefact and more time to get away from here safely and beyond Breen border sensors so you can return home with your prize intact. I need time to ensure we recover all the bodies we can of the Aitu’s crew and then ensure there is nothing left for follow-up Breen investigations to find. I suggest we work together to convince our Breen colleagues, when they arrive, to leave us to our work.”
“You would let us take the component?” Kaltene asked, the translator catching something in her tone and giving the translation that questioning intonation. “So long as we watch over you while you recover your dead?”
“It’s that or I fire a full spread of quantum torpedoes at the artefact and keep firing until I crack it open and blow it up so no one gets anything they want.” Playing his ultimatum had been part of his thinking from the start. Offer an equitable solution, then one even he wasn’t entirely sold on but willing to do, in hopes the former would be chosen.
“Either offer would work for the Assembly,” Kaltene said after a moment. “But my superiors would prefer I return with the component.” They paused a moment, turning to face something off-screen and the total lack of noise was all Mac needed to know the channel was muted on their end. “In the interest of interstellar relations, we will assist Starfleet in the recovery of your dead in exchange for the component.”
“That’s appreciated, Commander. Now then, how do you propose we deal with the Breen when they arrive?”