Part of USS Atlantis: What Price for Peace and Bravo Fleet: The Lost Fleet

What Price for Peace – 13

USS Atlantis; Handl Dryf
March 2401
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“Captain Sayil to see you, ma’am,” Stirling announced from the door to the bridge, stepping aside for their guest after being waved to continue.

“Captain Theodoras,” Sadiq Sayil practically bellowed as he entered, Stirling in his wake before the door closed. “A pleasure to finally meet you in person.”

The man is a mountain!

No, Rrr is a mountain. He’s a hill.

It’s not fat, it’s power!

Shut up Quote-Tikva.

Standing, with a smile on her face, Tikva offered a hand for a shake before waving her visitor to a seat. “And you as well Captain Sayil. I must say, I wasn’t expecting to actually run into another Federation starship while we were here, but with the collection of rogues out there, I’m glad I have someone at my back.”

“It is quite the collection out there, isn’t it? Administrator Dryf has apparently hired every mercenary for ten lightyears. I wouldn’t have thought a couple of Romulan warbirds and a Klingon cruiser would warrant that sort of response. But maybe he saw your ship and thought he’d prefer enough muscle to keep everyone in line?” The smile on Sayil’s face looked naturally easy, the smile lines on his face testament to that being the case. As he sat the chair groaned just slightly.

“I have to say,” he continued, looking around her ready room, “I do miss the late seventies and early eighties décor. It’s so much warmer and more welcoming than the bare metal and gloss look of the newer ships in the fleet. Papakura might be a beautiful ship, but its interior design is not to my taste.”

She caught the barest sense of nostalgia coming off the man as his eyes took in her ready room. Then curiosity at a series of trinkets she’d started collecting. From what she could recall of the documents she’d read about Changelings, faking emotions was difficult for them, but not impossible. It was an acting skill and one which had to be closely monitored, provocations to make mistakes were required if she wanted to catch one out.

“You didn’t come all this way just to admire Atlantis’ choice of carpets, Captain Sayil.” That got his attention, curiosity blending roughly into suspicion. “And shore-leave at Handl Dryf is, while interesting, entertaining even, perhaps not the cup of tea of most Starfleet personnel.”

He stared at her, then downright glared at Stirling when the yeoman set a cup of tea, unrequested, in front of him, another in front of his own captain as well. Then his attention slid back to Tikva, eyes squinting for a moment. “Ah hell, I’m not cut out for this cloak-and-dagger bullshit,” he admitted, relaxing some. “If this is some sort of trap, know I’ve taken precautions.”

“Pardon?” she asked, reaching for the cup of tea and taking note of Stirling making himself as unobtrusive as he could without leaving. The standing light over by her couch made more of an impact on the room than he did at the moment.

“Starfleet Command, specifically Commodore Wren in Operations, tasked me to investigate why the Atlantis is out of position. Your operational area Captain is on the far side of Tzenkethi and Breen territory. And while Fourth Fleet is for some reason running around the Deneb Sector, you’re sitting here at a Ferengi trade station.” Gone was the smile, the fatherly tone of voice. Well, not entirely. It was now the inquisitorial fatherly voice – the one that was politely asking for an explanation before moving to demands.

“We’re under orders,” she answered, not clarifying that statement.

“Just following orders is a poor defence, Captain.” He crossed his arms as he stared at her. “What are you doing here?”

“What do you know about what is really going on in the Deneb Sector?” she asked.

“A Breen border skirmish, nothing more. I’ve been reading my daily analysis from Command.” His emotions betrayed the confidence in his voice. He was curious about what she was going to say but also had doubts when he mentioned those same reports.

“Read the Ferengi news while you’ve been here? Market analysis? Interviews with refugees?” She leaned forward over her desk slightly. “Command is hiding the truth for some reason. Fourth Fleet command isn’t buying it and is responding.”

“Tall claim,” Sayil responded. “What proof do you have?”

She chuckled, then produced a padd, sliding it across her desk. Then opened a drawer and produced a single vial, now far more secure than a field test tube. The golden-brown blob inside sloshed slowly, sticking to the sides as it was rolled across the table. Sayil caught it purely by reaction, stopping it from falling off the table, then nearly fumbling it when he took stock of the contents.

“Let me tell you what I know,” she said, watching the large man set the captive piece of Changeling down on her desk. “Because frankly, I don’t even trust what I’m hearing entirely from my own chain of command.”

 


 

“Think I got something,” Rosa Mackeson, Silver Two, announced while checking her tricorder.

The service corridors of Handl Dryf were once again where Silver Team found themselves, minus one member currently pulling a cushy assignment. Gold and Bronze Teams had even been deployed to scour the station surreptitiously, avoiding station security and any uncomfortable questions that might bring. They all had one goal in mind with their search as well – find and capture or eliminate the changeling.

And their only advantage in that regard had been a confluence of factors – a faint residual energy charge left by a combination of two slightly different phaser technologies and a captured sample of their prey that had revealed the charge while under scrutiny.

Never again would anyone hassle Amber for her test tubes, that was for sure.

The energy charge wouldn’t last, but while it did the Hazard Teams had a scent and follow it they would.

“Let me see,” Brek stated, looking over her shoulder to confirm the readings. “That is indeed what we’re looking for,” he said after a moment.

They were being very careful not to say what they were looking for out loud, just in case the walls were literally listening. Let the Changeling wonder how it was being tracked. Let them think Starfleet had developed some sort of new technology. Let them worry and be fearful for once.

With a tap on her tricorder, the readings forwarded to Mitchell and Amber, to the other Hazard Teams as well, and then she was walking again, Brek at her side with his weapon ready. It wasn’t a precise reading, the charge was more a nebulous thing they were following, but it was enough.

“It’s moving,” she announced and took off in a run, stopping only at intersections to consult the tricorder, figure out which direction to head in, and then keep going. “Air ducts are cheating!” she shouted to no one in particular.

“It is only logical for it to use all means of escape that it can,” Brek replied, running alongside her and barely showing signs of physical exertion. No heavy breathing, no sweating, just running at the same speed she was. Orions might have been more muscular than humans, and better suited for physical exertion, but Vulcans had one more step up than Orions did. It wasn’t, she decided, fair.

The service tunnels were an echo chamber, she could hear other running footsteps somewhere, couldn’t quite place them, but had to ignore them. Had to focus on not running into anything and checking her tricorder at each junction to keep up the chase. “Dammit, we’re close!” she shouted again.

As she stopped, whipping out her tricorder, she held up her other hand, balled into a fist. Brek stopped at her silent command, waiting for a direction. But instead, she smiled, then turned to her Vulcan colleague and held the tricorder for him to read. All she got was a nod from him as a finger hit a toggle on his rifle. She stepped back and as she did so a fan of phaser fire swept over the room. Not enough to even stun a person, but seriously piss them off, but records showed it was just enough, at the right frequencies to upset a Changeling.

A barrel in the junction way, bright purple and looking like it had been abandoned for some time, twitched just slightly. She barely had a chance to notice it before it expanded explosively, bounding in her direction. Tendrils whipped out to, as thick as her thighs, smashing both her and Brek into opposite walls as the Changeling shot between them and down the way they just had.

“Fuck!” she shouted, gathering herself and getting to her feet. “That is getting real old, real quick.”

“I am not impressed either,” Brek answered. The closest she’d ever heard him to being angry. The world never ceases to amaze.

Consulting the tricorder, they shot off on its trail once more. “Silver Two here, we’ve engaged,” she shouted after tapping her commbadge. There was no response, no need for one. It was just to tell Mitchell and Amber to hurry the hell up. And to let the other teams know to start converging as quickly as they could.

It was Brek who signalled to stop this time. Her tricorder confirmed they were close, but not specifics. But Brek was paying attention to something else and signalled for her to look around the corner. A quick peak and she ducked back around and looked at the Vulcan with confusion, attempting to mirror the eyebrow raise she’d seen him do plenty of times.

“Intelligence failure,” he whispered, adjusted the settings on his rifle once more, then stood and stepped out into view of the person he’d seen.

“Three, report.”

 


 

“Not coming with us?” Amber asked as Stirling Fightmaster arrived in Transporter Room 2, in uniform and unarmed.

“Captain has need of her yeoman,” Mitchell answered, giving Stirling a brief nod. “Showing off for another captain.”

“I have been told it is what I am good for,” Stirling replied with no emotion.

“By W’a’le’ki?” Rosa teased as she finished checking over her gear.

“No, she’d have said ‘good at’, not ‘good for’,” Amber clarified. That broke Stirling’s usually stoic mask, a slight blush coming to his face.

“I came to say good hunting,” Stirling said. “And to give you this.” He held up a hand and produced a mobile holoemitter, of a similar sort to what the team had used the other day for disguises. “Assuming either our Changeling is more mobile than we think, or still has some sort of information-gathering structure aboard the station, I figured some misdirection might be in hand.”

“What have you got Lieutenant?” Mitchell said, stepping down off the pad to accept the emitter, but stopped when Stirling actually smiled and turned slightly to hold the emitter to his side and turn it on.

What came to life was a holographic recreation of Stirling Fightmaster, dressed in rough-wearing civilian garb, looking like any other tourist aboard Handl Dryf. It said nothing, and barely seemed to be moving, but it was, just enough to avoid being a static projection.

“Oh gods,” Rosa muttered. “Now there’s two of them.”

“But which one is the real one?” Amber joked. “They’re both so…Stirling.”

They stopped when Mitchell glared at them, then turned back to Stirling, the real one that is. “Your thinking Lieutenant?”

“Beam over with fake me, be seen, make some noise about splitting up, then when you’re reasonably sure you’re not being watched, deactivate and pocket. If eyes and ears are watching and relaying information, then you’ve just told the changeling that there’s a singleton running around.”

“Which if they wish to get close to us, they may impersonate,” Mitchell finished off the plan. “Sneaky.”

“Only get one chance and I figure they won’t fall for it again, but worth a try.” Stirling gave his holographic doppelganger a pat on the shoulder and suddenly it started to move more. “If you see me on Handl Dryf, fire away.”

 


 

“Four, excellent,” the Fake-Stirling answered. It had taken its emotional queues from the hologram that had been seen. Which wasn’t far from Stirling most of the time. “It’s in here somewhere, but I’ve lost my tricorder.” Then it stopped and glared at Brek. “Where’s Two?”

“Here,” Rosa spoke up, coming around the corner and panting for breath. A bit of a show for sure, but not far from the truth. “Damn, this thing is fast.” She checked her tricorder and nodded. “It’s in here somewhere all right.”

“Can I see?” Fake-Stirling asked, stepping past Brek and towards her, a hand outstretched. “Hand me your tricorder, catch your breath. Four and I can find it.”

“Already have,” Brek announced and the Changeling turned on him. She had to give the creature credit for acting, concern on its face for a moment.

“Whoa! Hey now, what’s going on?” it asked, both hands held up towards Brek, showing it was unarmed.

“Surrender now, come peacefully, or we will have to take –“

The face of Stirling Fightmaster contorted in rage as those outheld arms started to stretch, sleeves giving way to golden-brown protoplasm as they extended towards Brek, the hands growing to monstrous proportions ready to engulf him. It hadn’t forgotten Rosa either, tendrils issuing forth from the back, whipping out at her.

But none of them made contact. They instead recoiled in shock and pain, the room filled with a screeching noise as Brek depressed the firing stud on his rifle exactly once. The bolt of orange energy slammed into Fake-Stirling’s chest and hissed and crackled as it slowly started to grow.

“No!” the changeling screamed, losing its masquerade, and dropping to the floor in a puddle. Its hue shifted from golden-brown to sickly green, black along its most extreme edges. “You’ll never defeat us,” it whined, voice edged with pain. “The Great Link will seek revenge. Your kind are –“

It was interrupted by Brek firing a second shot into it, the mass quickly consumed, turning black before losing cohesion and just becoming a pile of ash on the floor.

“I apologise,” Brek offered to the pile of ash, but clearly speaking to Rosa. It was illogical to be speaking to a dead thing after all. “The first shot should have killed it. Ideally painlessly.” He lowered the weapon and looked at Rosa. “It would seem, while masters of disguise, they are not all-knowing entities.”

“Call it in,” she said to Brek, then stepped past him, tricorder still in hand. “Nice shooting by the way.”

“It was not particularly challenging. The chase was far more of a test of our skill.”

“It was a compliment Four, just accept it.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied. “Thank you.”

 


 

“This makes no sense,” Captain Sadiq Sayil said, continuing to read the information he’d been presented with. “I have to assume either Starfleet Command is lying, or the local Ferengi news feeds are lying.”

“Which is easier to pull off? Someone in Command brushing this under the rug, or doctoring what is going out? Or no less than a hundred and fifty Ferengi news stations all telling roughly the same story with the intent to deceive you?” Tikva could sense the concern, mixed with anger coming off the man right now.

“If I hadn’t just been watching live feeds, I’d have considered both equal possibilities.” He waved the padd for emphasis. “You could have doctored all of this as well.”

“But?”

“But you haven’t. Couldn’t. Not with live streams. Someone in the Alliance would have found profit enough to tell a different story. It’s just to –“

“Consistent?” she offered.

“Yes.” He set the padd down. “And there’s the fact that Commodore Wren said I was to report back directly to him. No one else, just him.” Sayil sighed. “As I said, I hate this cloak-and-dagger bullshit.”

“Tell me about it,” she answered and got a slight chuckle out of the man. “But while I’m not sure I can trust my orders entirely; they do make a certain amount of sense. Get here to meet with representatives that were asked to be present and then convince them of the threat. To bring a united front to the Deneb Sector and make whoever is attacking the Federation rethink their options.”

“My wife is going to kill me,” Sayil admitted out loud before he sat up straight. She could sense the return of the man’s confidence. The determination to do what was right. “How can the Papakura help you, Captain Theodoras?”

She smiled, genuinely smiled. She’d been concerned and worried about being watched but had turned it around, at least she hoped so in the long run. But she couldn’t taste any deception from the man across her.

“Watching our back would be nice. Little worried someone is going to put a knife in us soon.”

“Then they’ll need two,” he confirmed. “And be ready for a fight too.”

Comments

  • Goddamn that's a good gambit! Fake-Stirling to lure out a Changeling! I love the ingenuity of the Atlantis gang, and Silver Team are a pack of absolute rock stars. Another victory for your non-linear storytelling, too; you set up the frustration and sense of the Hazard Team being outwitted and outflanked, only to deftly reveal when they had the upper hand. I'm also enjoying Tikva and Sayil, partly because yay, victory for trust and communication instead of everything being grim cloak and dagger?

    June 16, 2023