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The first thing Lieutenant Commander Domenica Corsi did when the mess hall doors opened was drop to the deck on one knee.
The second thing she did was draw her phaser.
Before she could figure out exactly what had flown through the doors at eye level, it changed shape, morphing until a winged yellow ball about the size of her head floated in the air before her, complete with a strange, almost cartoonlike smiling face on its surface. The idea of Dominion incursion crossed her mind, but she quickly dismissed it.
It wasn't their style.
Why do I have a feeling Fabe's got something to do with this?
"Sorry, Dom," Fabian Stevens's contrite voice said from behind her. "It kind of got away from me there."
I like him, but I swear I'm going to have to kill him.
She holstered her phaser. "Kind of?" Brushing back a strand of blond hair, she turned on him, fully prepared to read him the riot act for losing a dangerous device on her ship. He, of all people, should have known better.
She stopped cold at the sight of an elaborate contraption sitting on top of his head. Black goggles rested on his forehead, with red, yellow, and blue leads running back to oddly shaped earpieces. Tiny red lights at the edges of the goggles' faceplate suggested that the device was still working. The only thing missing was a laser, but she was sure he probably had one in there somewhere. To her, it looked more like a truly unfortunate attempt at a Borg disguise than anything else. Corsi gestured at the contraption. "What is on your head?"
A Cheshire-cat smile spread across Fabian Stevens's face, and a mischievous glint she knew all too well lit his brown eyes.
Why do I suddenly get the feeling I'm going to regret asking that?
"A little idea I had," he said, gesturing with gloves that were covered in the same red, yellow, and blue leads. "I was reading over some of the reports from Project Voyager. Do you know they've got a mobile emitter for their EMH? Then I remembered this report about an experimental control interface that Commander La Forge tried out a few years ago. It plugged right into the implants for this VISOR unit that the commander used to have. Ended up acting almost like an old-fashioned virtual reality unit, but this actually allowed him to control an experimental probe. He was able to guide it through the upper levels of a gas giant with this interface and directly interpret the data. Okay, yeah, the research was abandoned when the war broke out, but it's still a useful concept. Of course, I had to completely redesign it to work on someone that had no sensory implants, but it occurred to me that if we could combine those two ideas, we'd have -- "
"Something with some very interesting possible uses," Corsi interjected. Her mind began to work over the various potential options, and liked what it saw.
Stevens nodded, his voice taking on that tone that she had long since learned to associate with engineers when they were on a roll. "Took me a while to figure out how the mobile emitter worked, and I'm still not sure I managed to get everything. I mean, come on, reverse-engineering technology from the future? I love a challenge, but according to their reports, this thing's got twenty-ninth-century technology built into it, and Voyager's engineer has a very weird way of keeping her notes. It wasn't easy, but I finally figured it out. Adding antigrav circuitry would make it too bulky to be practical. Wait a minute." The look in his eyes told her he'd had an idea. He walked back into the mess hall, placing the headset goggles on the table beside him and taking off a pair of gloves as he sat and began working on a padd. Surprisingly, his short dark hair wasn't mussed from the headgear. Neat trick.
"Fabe? Why aren't you working on this in the hololab?"
"Had to eat sometime," he said with a shrug, as though there were any other answer.
She turned back toward the flying yellow ball, which was still staring at her with that inane, childlike grin. The idea certainly had a lot of potential, she couldn't deny that. A mobile hologram that they could control from the bridge of the da Vinci -- that could look like anything or anyone -- was nothing short of tactical genius. Holograms as distractions were easy, child's play, even, but a hologram that could take an active offensive stance was something else.
Then there were the intelligence-gathering possibilities. The old saying "If I could only be a fly on the wall for that meeting" would take on a whole new meaning. It would almost be like having a Dominion shape-shifter working on their side. Starfleet Intelligence would probably love to get their hands on something like this.
"Can this thing project something that can carry a weapon, too?"
The only answer Corsi got was the chirp of her combadge. "Commander Corsi?" She'd never heard fear in quite that manner; it filled Ken Caitano's voice.
"Caitano? What is it?"
A rock began to form in the pit of her stomach. Caitano was third-generation Starfleet, with commendations for valor during the Dominion War. It had only been two days ago that he'd saved the ship during the fight with the Silgov. The idea that something had struck him with that level of fear didn't set well. "Computer, location of Crewperson Caitano."
"Crewperson Caitano is in his quarters."
Unable to dismiss the sense of urgency that was crawling up her spine, she hit her combadge, "Corsi to Hawkins. Something's wrong. Meet me at Caitano and Deverick's quarters."
Closing that connection, she then said, "Corsi to Poynter, emergency site-to-site transport. Deck four, section nine."
She materialized a few meters down the corridor from the room, taking off at a sprint toward the door. When she got there, she buzzed the door. There was no answer.
"Computer, security override. Priority one. Access code Corsi Gamma Three Two Two."
The door slid aside to reveal a brightly lit room. "Caitano?" she called.
She heard the turbolift doors slide open down the hall. Vance Hawkins, Lauoc Soan, and Rennan Konya walked toward her, concern in Hawkins's dark features.
"No answer at the door," she said. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
Hand on her phaser, Corsi followed Hawkins through the door and into the quarters' small sitting room. Caitano and Deverick had somehow managed to luck into one of the two-room quarters that had been added during the ship's refit, so it wasn't until she reached the bedroom that she saw it. Caitano lay facedown on the floor, a trail of dark blood working its way from his left ear down the side of his face. She reached down and checked his neck for a pulse.
Her fingertips registered one very faint beat.
She hit her combadge hard enough that it was sure to leave a bruise. "Corsi to sickbay, incoming wounded. Medical emergency. Poynter, beam Caitano directly to sickbay and then don't let anyone use it without letting me know." She'd have to get permission to lock the transporters down, but that would do for the moment. "Konya, go down there, too. If he so much as breathes a word, I want to know about it. Use the security channel."
Laura Poynter was nothing if not prompt. Before Corsi could finish talking, the shimmer of the transporter formed around Caitano's body and he disappeared, leaving behind a tiny patch of blood-soaked carpet. The Betazoid Konya was already out the door.
"Lauoc, set up in the corridor. Not even Captain Gold gets in here without my permission, understood?"
"Yes, sir," the diminutive Bajoran replied.
While Hawkins worked on getting a set of holographic pictures of the scene, she walked back to the archway and stood between the bedroom and the small sitting room. What she needed at that moment was a single visual sweep.
The layout of the place was typical of the general redesign for two-person crew quarters that the ship had received after its near-destruction at Galvan VI -- sure, she'd seen smaller apartments on Earth, but this was still more livable than some of the ships Corsi had been on in her day. The bedroom had two beds that had been fixed into opposite corners from the archway. Caitano's was to her right, against the room's exterior wall. Deverick's bed sat in much the same position, but against the interior wall. Each bed had an accompanying nightstand, and a narrow shelf for personal effects ran down the length of both the interior and exterior walls. The shelf near Deverick's bed held two small starship models. In what space he had between the shelf and the room's window, Caitano had placed scattered pictures, a couple of padds, knickknacks, and something else. "Is that what I think it is?" she asked, pointing toward the shelf.
Hawkins followed her finger, getting an image of the shelf while he was at it. Both black eyebrows raised. "Looks like a bar of gold-pressed latinum," he said. "Wonder how he got that?"
"He has a weird fascination for the Ferengi markets," Corsi said. "Wong was talking to him about it the other day in the mess hall. One of his stocks probably did well. What I wonder is what the hell he thinks putting it on display like that is going to get him."
"Maybe we should ask Deverick?"
Corsi made a mental note to do just that while she inspected the rest of the shelf's contents. She recognized the friendly eyes, long face, and aquiline nose of Caitano's father in three framed pictures that were perched near the head of the bed. One looked like a snapshot from the younger man's graduation. His father's arm was wrapped around his shoulder, and both generations looked as though it were the happiest day of their lives. An older woman with features similar to, but more robust than, the younger Caitano's -- Corsi automatically presumed she was his mother, although she'd only ever met the professor and his son -- was on his other side. She hoped Dr. Lense could work one of her miracles and keep Caitano alive. She didn't like the idea of having to inform his parents.
Forcing her attention back to where the body had fallen, something struck her as odd. "How'd he call for help?"
She turned toward Hawkins. "He called me for help. Something scared him."
Corsi shook her head and gestured toward the overturned glass about ten centimeters from where Caitano's head had been. "Do you see any sign of a struggle? The glass isn't even broken." She ran her tricorder over it. "And according to these readings, all that was in it was water."
Her immediate suspicion was that he might have stumbled and fallen on something, but when she looked around the foot of the bed, there was nothing that could have served as such an impediment. No slippers of any sort were in the room. When they checked the closets near the bathroom, they found that his shoes were arranged in an orderly manner on the floor. The sheet and blanket were folded back on the bed in a nice, almost too-neat manner. Two other padds sat on the bed, apparently put aside when he'd gotten up to get the glass of water. She couldn't see anything that he might have tripped over. She even knelt down and checked under the bed. It, too, was empty. He couldn't have tripped over his own two feet, could he? It still doesn't explain what scared him like that.
"What do you think, boss?" Hawkins asked from the other room.
Corsi shook her head as she stood. "It looks like he was reading, got up to get a glass of water, and then collapsed when he came back to bed. I don't think he was close enough to the table to hit his head." She leaned down, taking a closer look at the bed stand. Running her tricorder over it just to be sure, she said, "I don't see blood or signs of impact. If it wasn't a fall, what was it? What scared him?"
Could he have had an aneurysm? Could an aneurysm actually bleed out through the ear like that? Something's not right here.
Corsi stood and pulled out her tricorder. "Have Konya pull all the footage from the security cameras in this area. I'm going to need your help pulling a DNA trace off of everything."
Hawkins nodded. "Got it."
She tapped her combadge, not wanting to give the news she was about to give, and wishing she had more to explain it than instinct. Protocols were protocols, however. "Computer, access security channel one. Security to the bridge."
Commander Sonya Gomez, the da Vinci's first officer and head of the S.C.E. contingent stationed on the ship, responded. "Yes, Commander?"
"I'd like to put a lockdown on the transporters, Commander."
She could hear the confusion in Gomez's voice. "Why?"
"Caitano has been taken to sickbay. I have reason to believe he might have been attacked."
"Attacked? What makes you say that?"
Corsi's lips pursed. "I don't see anything that makes me think it was a suicide attempt, and there are no signs of an accident. He called me for help. Unless the doctor tells me a medical condition could have done this, I don't see any another option."
After a long pause, Gomez said, "Transporters are disabled. Any suspects?"
"None yet, but we're really just getting started down here."
"I'll let the captain know. Any word on recovery?"
Before she could open her mouth to say that she didn't know, Hawkins stuck his head through the bedroom archway. His dark skin had an ashen tone, and dread was in his eyes. "Dr. Lense just said he was DOA. She's starting the autopsy now."
Corsi's head fell forward. She swallowed hard, trying to force the emotion out of her voice. "Yes, Commander. I was just informed that he was dead on arrival."
After a long pause, Gomez said, "I'm sorry, Domenica."
Corsi's voice hardened. "I'm going to start an empirical reconstruction, Commander. Until I see evidence to convince me it isn't, we're treating this as a homicide." Copyright © 2005 by CBS Studios, Inc. All rights reserved.