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"You did what?"
Fabian Stevens squirmed where he stood. You know, Dom could stare down a Denebian slime devil, and then she'd probably shoot the thing and eat it for lunch. I guess that would make me dinner, then. Let's see, a good Chianti would probably be best for my heart. Maybe a zinfandel to accompany the brain? Wonder if Poynter's still got any of that tequila left? Or would that give a whole new meaning to "drunk with power"?
As Domenica Corsi's glare landed on him with all of the force and intensity of a phaser set to kill, Stevens wasn't quite certain whether those were going to be his last thoughts. He really hoped they wouldn't be. But the look on her face was definitely something he knew meant Bad Things would happen, and soon. He was still amazed that for someone who'd been laughing and joking with the others just a few moments before, she could go from zero to bitch in under a second.
After months of dating the woman, it shouldn't have surprised him, but it did.
Fortunately for the entire da Vinci crew -- at least, those who weren't still needed to actually run the Sabre-class vessel -- Captain David Gold chose that moment to step into the fray. The ship's small mess hall was confining enough. Destroying the furniture probably wouldn't have gone over well in Stevens's annual review. "Not afraid of a little zero-G, are you, Corsi?" Gold asked, perhaps enjoying needling his security chief just a little too much.
Stevens tried as hard as he could not to laugh. Oh, sure, it had been the captain's and Commander Gomez's idea to throw the party for Corsi's long-overdue promotion to full commander. But the hiding place for her new rank pip -- floating in space outside the da Vinci -- had been his idea, and his alone.
The fact that the captain and first officer had thought it a brilliant notion just added to how much Fabian Stevens loved his superior officers' sense of the perverse.
Domenica's gaze hardened, and one eyebrow twitched. "Of course not, sir." One corner of her lip turned up, and she added, "Care to join me, Fabe?"
Aw, crap. I should have known she'd do this. Fabian Stevens, you are a Class A, Grade One idiot.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, trying not to appear nervous while he thought his way out of this mess. He hated zero-G, and Dom knew it. The whole ordeal with the Ardanan parasite had just made it ten times worse. The simple task of putting the thing on the outside of the ship had been enough to send him to sickbay for vertigo. While he'd done zero-G work before and only been mildly queasy, having the entire universe spinning around him -- in all three spatial dimensions, no less -- was something that had never happened to him before Ardana. Sarjenka had said that vertigo could hit out of nowhere, spinning, nausea.... Stevens had to put a hand on his stomach as a physical reminder that he wasn't really out there again. Not as though zero-G work would happen anytime soon, anyway. Conlon had damn near restricted him from any kind of EVA after he'd thrown up in the suit.
That sparked an idea that just might get him out of this mess. "Well, I could. However, I happen to know that Nancy just took all but one of the suits out of commission for routine inspection."
The look on her face suggested only one thing: Conlon had just gone on Corsi's List as a willing co-conspirator. Stevens would have to apologize to Nancy like he'd never done before.
That, of course, was entirely predicated on whether or not he survived the next hour.
That was when Corsi did something that he didn't expect at all. "Computer, scan the ship's exterior for signs of gold."
"One instance found. A cylindrical item one centimeter in diameter and approximately one-half centimeter in height."
A deliciously evil smile of victory spread across Corsi's lips. "Computer, transport that item to this location, please."
The shimmer of a transporter beam formed on the mess hall table. Slowly, Corsi's new rank pip coalesced into being.
Gomez stared at the table and laughed. "Yeah, Corsi, you've been around engineers too long."
The mess hall doors slid aside, allowing Bart Faulwell to finally make his way into the party. Fabian had been wondering why the ship's resident linguist and cryptographer hadn't made it to the party yet. The U.S.S. Elgin had just dropped him off from Earth that morning. Stevens couldn't help but notice the pallor that even extended behind his roommate's slowly regrowing facial hair. There was a haunted look to his eyes, one that Fabian knew meant something nasty had happened back on Earth, something he might want to be forgetting at that moment. Seeing his cue, Fabian put on his best party smile and walked over. "Oh great bearded translator of all languages arcane and otherwise! You're just in time for the execution!"
Faulwell gave him a look that blatantly questioned Stevens's sanity. "What execution?"
"Of the cake," Gold said from somewhere behind Stevens, the old man's tone suggesting Fabian's joke might not have been a good idea. "Good to have you back, Faulwell," the captain continued. "Everything go okay back on Earth?"
Bart nodded, offering no further information.
"Well," Stevens said, pointing back toward the table, "have a piece of cake. There's a bowl of double-whipped I'danian spice pudding there. And over there is a platter of Delvan fluff pastries."
Bart cringed. "I hope Sarjenka's got sickbay stocked with antacids. And speaking of stomach acid, where's Tev?"
Stevens gave a snort of derision. Much as Tev was making an effort to get along better with everyone, Stevens still wasn't a fan of having the big furry oaf in a social gathering, not one that he was throwing, at least. "He's not on board. Remember those bombings on Andor a couple of weeks ago?"
"Yeah, it was all over the Federation News Service. The Shran memorial, the Wall of Heroes, you name it. If it was a location worth hitting, sounded like they hit it. Last I heard, the real surprise had been why they hit Therin Park, but, man did they raze everything they hit to the ground. Still haven't caught the terrorists who claim to have done it." Faulwell paused, his eyes widening. "Wait a second, Tev wasn't there, was he?"
"We aren't that lucky," Fabian said with a shake of his head. "Turns out a friend of his from the Academy was in Therin Park, though. He was too close to one of the bombs when it went off. The Elgin escorted him to the funeral on Andor after they dropped you off."
"Wow, I've got to admit, that's a surprise."
"What," Stevens said, "that Therin Park was one of the places that got bombed? Everyone's surprised by that, you just said so yourself."
Faulwell shook his head. "No, that Tev actually had a friend at the Academy. Learn something new every day."
A smile crept across Stevens's face, slowly, carefully, not unlike the smile of someone plotting a rather cunning plan. "And we're waiting for the right moment to break the news that Corsi now outranks him. That reaction alone should be worth its weight in gold-pressed latinum." With a wink, all of the joviality returned as he added, "Go. Get some cake before it disappears. It's Tarvokian pound cake, so you know it's going to go fast."
Before the party could really get going, however, Stevens heard Tony Shabalala's voice over the comm. "Bridge to Abramowitz. Incoming message for you. It's recorded, but it's flagged as priority."
Even two meters away, he could hear Carol groan. "Who's it from?"
"Icaria Prime. Name attached is Inana Skanda."
The "what the hell?" expression on Abramowitz's face as she heard that was all Stevens needed to see. "Carol," he said, "go. Take it. We'll be here when you're done."
Now that he was somewhat certain that Dom wasn't going to kill him for that stunt with the rank pip -- well, as sure as anyone could be with her -- he felt confident in making that statement.
"Hi, Carol. It's Inana. Long time no see, huh? I know I'm probably the last person you expected to hear from, but I don't know where else to go. Gabe, he..."
When the blonde in the message paused, frantically wringing her hands as she looked around where she sat, Carol Abramowitz stared at the computer screen, almost willing the recording to continue. She might as well get on with it. Whatever Inana wanted, it was probably already beyond the point where Carol -- or anyone, for that matter -- could possibly help. Inana Skanda was nothing if not a master of procrastination. How a layabout like her had even gotten an advanced degree -- let alone gotten her claws into the likes of Gabriel Collins -- was still something that mystified Carol.
Even after their brief flirtation had resulted in nothing more than friendship, Carol had always pegged Gabriel for someone too smart to fall for the first pretty blonde who crossed his path. She'd even tried to warn him about getting involved with Inana. What was that old phrase her grandmother had used once about a woman who was only out to get a man's money? "Credit-digger"? Carol could even remember the rather expensive -- and, in some instances, downright criminal to the olfactory sense -- perfumes that Inana used to brag about having been imported from places in the Romulan Empire. Still, Carol drew some comfort from the fact that Gabriel continued doing well, as that was all that really mattered in her mind. Last time she had heard his name, it had been in the announcement of his tenure at Cambridge.
"Something's not right with this dig. Gabe is getting obsessed with finding something the natives called the Krialta. I don't know what it is, Carol. He won't even tell me. You've known him as long as I have, maybe longer. Have you ever known him to get so obsessed with something that he ignores his wife?"
"What the -- ? Computer," Carol said, "pause playback. Inquiry. Federation Archaeological Council Database. Gabriel Michael Collins, Professor of Archaeology, Cambridge University, Earth. Biographical data. Date of marriage to Inana Skanda."
She didn't have to wait long. "Stardate 53185.6."
"How have they been married for over a year, and nobody even invited me to the wedding?" she asked, shaking her head.
"Please clarify inquiry."
"No, computer, that wasn't an inquiry. Resume playback."
"He's been talking about the Krialta night and day ever since we found this ancient temple here. At least, I think it's a temple, anyway. I've been combing through his notes, and the best I can tell is that he thinks this Krialta is some kind of weapon. I can't find out anything more than that. Whenever I ask him, he just mumbles something about power. And lots of it.
"Things are getting weird. I don't know what it is, but none of our computers are working right. Hopefully, this message will send. Gabe's recordings are getting corrupted. Since you work with -- "
Gomez's voice over the comm cut through Inana's verbal meanderings. "Senior staff report to the observation lounge. Gomez out."
"Just as she finally wanders over to the point. Computer, pause playback. Hold message."
When Carol arrived in the observation lounge, she had just enough time to take her usual seat beside Bart Faulwell before Captain Gold spoke. "Folks, we've got a weird one here," he said. "Care to bring them up to speed, Gomez?"
Gomez leaned forward, her dark brow furrowing. "An archaeological expedition out on Icaria Prime has reported some really strange things happening. Nothing came up on their initial scans of the planet, but now their computer systems are crashing, portable drives are erasing themselves, tricorders are getting readings that violate the laws of physics, and that's just the beginning. A three-person contingent from the Enterprise is on-site, since the dig is close to Lethean territory. Also, apparently Captain Picard wanted to see the dig personally. The message Starfleet Command received, however, was from Lieutenant Commander Data."
Carol tried not to groan. Of course Picard would be involved. Just what they needed, a Starfleet captain playing archaeologist.
"They've got Data," Stevens said, "what do they need us for? What about the Enterprise?" Carol couldn't help but notice that he sounded as though he was taking the disruption to his party as a personal affront.
Gomez shot him a silencing look. "I was getting to that. They need a more specialized engineering team than the Enterprise carries. Data's been studying these anomalies for the past two weeks. The only connection he's been able to make so far is that they might be related to some artifacts the dig team found in a remote area of the planet shortly before the problems began, but he can't get any readings that would back that up."
"The kicker is their situation's getting worse," Gold added. "If nobody can trust their own equipment, then the odds are pretty good that their investigation isn't going to turn up anything at all. I'm not sure we can even trust Data to not be affected by this."
"And that's not all," Gomez said. "Sarjenka, according to the report, there's something else that will require your attention. Five people on the dig are reporting sensory and auditory hallucinations. They're also reporting severe migraines, including Captain Picard. Do you think they could be related?"
Sarjenka rubbed a long, red finger against the bridge of her nose. "It's not impossible. There could be something in the atmosphere that's a new migraine trigger for humans. I haven't read his history yet, but just from what we learned at the Academy of what he's done? His brain chemistry could have changed just enough over the years for a migraine trigger to take hold. There are too many variables for me to even speculate on right now without examining the patient."
Gomez smiled, and Carol noticed quite a bit of pride in that look. "I've sent the reports Data filed to sickbay for you to go over, as well as the medical histories of everyone on the dig that we could get."
Carol glanced over at the Dreman -- who seemed ridiculously young at that moment -- and gave her a half-smile. "First mission as CMO and you're stuck with the Federation Living Legends. Trial by fire, huh?"
After Nancy Conlon had mentioned Sarjenka's trouble feeling as though she'd fit in there, Carol had made every attempt she could to alleviate that problem. But Carol was an anthropologist, not a psychologist. She could only do so much.
So far, though, her attempts seemed to be helping.
Sarjenka returned the half-smile, but there was a tinge of nervousness in her eyes that even Abramowitz couldn't miss, although the Dreman tried to hide it. "Fortunately," she said, glancing in the captain's direction, "I've been through worse."
Gomez said, "The Enterprise is stuck in the middle of a relief mission to Sahu in the Delta Eridani system, and can't be pulled away from it right now to assist. Knowing Commander Riker, he may show up anyway. Don't expect it, though. This is all on us. Domenica, your friend Christine Vale is with Captain Picard and Data. But the Enterprise didn't anticipate needing any more personnel on-site than that. You'll need to put together a security team. There were reports of looting of the dig site by natives. Nothing's shown up on the black market yet, so there aren't any solid leads to work with, but if anyone can find them..."
Corsi nodded, "Understood. I'll take Vinx down -- he could use the field experience."
"Bart, how's your Grethar?" Gomez leaned forward, her gaze locking on Abramowitz and Faulwell. "According to Data's report, the dig team thinks this site was Gretharan, but the translation matrix they've got isn't quite holding up. You'll both be working with the dig team to figure out what they've found so far and whether or not any of it's related to the problem."
Gretharans? Damn, there's a name I haven't heard since school. Carol's brow furrowed. "Gretharans weren't that advanced when the Letheans wiped them out three centuries ago. Data really thinks this is related to their tech?"
"Data isn't sure what to think. But we need to make sure this goes off without the Letheans getting too involved."
"You're not kidding." Turning toward Faulwell, Carol said in an oft-practiced deadpan, "An anthropologist and a linguist walk into a dig..."
Bart chuckled, and then said, "I'll get my references together to bring down. Though, if they knew it was Gretharan going in, I'm sure they've probably got all the same texts."
"Maybe they just need another set of eyes. You know how that goes." Turning back to Gomez, Carol said, "Commander, is this the dig being led by Gabriel Collins?"
The surprised look on Gomez's face told Carol everything she needed to know.
"Then I know two people on the team. Gabe Collins is an old friend and was a classmate of mine, as is his wife. I got a message from her today saying Gabe was looking for something called a Krialta. I haven't had a chance to cross-reference the Federation Archaeological Council's database yet, but it may be related to this."
Gold propped his elbows on the armrests of his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his lips. "Why would she have contacted you on this?"
"She knows I'm assigned to the da Vinci, sir. I'll bet she thought that with my connections, I might be able to get them help. She probably didn't anticipate Data contacting headquarters. Wouldn't be out of character for what I remember of her, I'm afraid. Thinking past the end of her nose requires too much work."
Gold's lips pursed as he apparently mulled over the new information. Finally, he said, "We'll be there in two days. You'll all have the reports that Data filed. If you can find anything at all that might shine a little light on what we're dealing with here, let Gomez know immediately. Dismissed, everyone."
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