“Armsman? Armsman, can you hear me?”
“I can hear you. Don't shout so loud,” he muttered irritably. He struggled to rise, but a pair of hands pushed him back down. “Where am I? Where's Commander Phlox?”
“Please, Armsman, be calm, and I will tell you what has happened.” The Altarran wore Healer greens that clashed with his deep plum skin tone. “What do you remember?”
Trace frowned and searched his memory. “I was with the Commander; we were taking readings as we restored the power--” Anything after that was a blank. “That's all.”
“I am Resident Pa'nras. You are in the hospital, in the Outworlders' Wing. The Su'charu and you were both in double-checking the repairs within the power conduits when there was an unexpected surge. Both of you were injured.”
Trace frowned at Pan'ras's explanation. “Wait. Is Commander Phlox okay?”
“Yes, he is recovering in a room down the hall from here. There was some sort of sparkling beam that delivered you here, and we were told that your health was of the highest priority.” Pan'ras chirped and touched a thin finger to the cut on Trace's face. “I am afraid that you've re-opened this. Allow me to heal it, and I will continue my story.”
Trace nodded and lay back. He scrutinized Pan'ras's tone of voice and body language, but the resident seemed convinced of the truth. Pan'ras doesn't really know what actually happened. He's just telling me what they've told him.
“...and apparently the power surge disabled our communications relay. The Su'charu was not happy---”
“No, he wouldn't be. If you could get me to Commander Phlox--”
“I'd be much obliged, after I ascertain your health. You must submit to my ministrations, or I will not allow you to leave.”
Trace's mouth dropped in complete surprise. “What?”
“Forgive me, but your doctor has warned me that you and your superior officer are 'the bloody worst patients he has ever seen'.” Pan'ras stumbled over the unfamiliar words, but he flattened his mouth in a grin. “Two of my brothers are Armsmen and I can honestly say I agree with Re'sharu Reed. Armsmen make horrible patients.”
Trace sputtered angrily, but Pan'ras's face remained unmoved. “Fine,” he spat. “Do your ministrations, but when you're done, I'm reporting to my superior officers.”
The resident buzzed with amusement as he readied a hypospray. The lights sparkled on his eyes and threw his features in shadow. “Now, hold still, Armsman. This will not hurt at all.”
Malcolm leaned forward and rubbed his temples. Yes, he was exhausted, but at least his patients were well on the road to recovery. The nine Technological Upkeep Guild members were grouped together at a room at the end of the ward. Six of the nine were in induced comas; the other three were still unconscious, but alive. He was unable to speak to any of them, but at least he confirmed that they were at the hospital.
He'd reported as much to Trip before the Altarran communications array went down. Bloody timing. Malcolm suspected it was another instance of sabotage, like the power surge that had wiped the Main Archive's computers. Now he couldn't contact Enterprise or the other members of the Away Team still on Altarra.
Malcolm touched buttons on his PADD and split the screen to compare two Altarran brain scans, side by side. On the left was from the unfortunate man from Transformer Six; the right was from a recently deceased victim from the Main Archive disaster. Both scans revealed similar nerve degradation and swelling on the brain.
What's causing this? Neither man has anything in common, save the fact that they're both Altarran. Is it some sort of degenerative disease, and if so, why did no one pick up such obvious symptoms?
“Re'sharu Reed! Come quickly! There has been another accident at Transformer Six; Su'charu Phlox and Trace are injured!”
Malcolm cursed and struggled to his feet. He quickly stuffed his PADD in his doctor's coat pocket and hurried to the emergency ward. Phlox lay unconscious on a gurney, but Lieutenant Trace was semi-conscious, his body shivering in convulsions. Malcolm immediately began taking readings and barking orders to the nurses and orderlies.
“Lieutenant Trace! Bryan! It's Doctor Reed! Can you hear me, lad?” Trace's neural readings were off the scale; Malcolm had the sinking feeling that unless something was done, he would die of neural shock. “What happened?”
Another power surge,” gasped an Armsman, “the same one that knocked out communications. Su'charu Tucker and Constable Virax are already on the scene.”
“It seems that you have someone who is sabotaging more than just energy conduits and circuits,” Malcolm said through gritted teeth. He looked up at Nurse Lrada, who rushed over with a series of hyposprays. “Halve that dosage, Nurse Lrada. Human physiology isn't the same as Altarran.”
She nodded, made the adjustments and quickly gave Trace the series of injections. To Malcolm's relief, the readings began to stabilize...until Lrada came to the last hypospray. Suddenly, Trace's body arched as if she'd shocked him and he started convulsing again.
“That last one, it's a neurotransmitter, isn't it?”
“Yes, it's djada'rel, a balancer. It shouldn't affect him this way--”
Malcolm's eyes narrowed at the readings, then his face paled as he realized what the problem was. He grabbed a Starfleet-issue hypospray, dialed in a medication and injected Trace with it. Again, the readings tapered off and stabilized, and he blew out a breath of mixed frustration and relief.
“I thought I told you to halve that dosage!”
Lrada recoiled at his angry words and wrung her hands. “I did as you asked, Re'sharu. I cut the amount of the neurotransmitter in half. It shouldn't have affected him like that--”
He tapped the readings on the screen and jabbed his finger at the line in question. “His system's already saturated with it! If we'd known, we wouldn't have given him the extra dose! Who gave him the initial dose without my knowledge or approval?”
No one in the emergency ward said a word; even the Armsman who had accompanied Trace to the hospital. Malcolm focused his glare at him, then at the Head Healer. “Find out,” he ordered coldly.
“Y-yes, Re'sharu,” stammered the Head Healer, then he fled with the Armsman at his heels.
Malcolm put a hand on Lrada's shoulder and said, “Watch over Su'charu Trace. I need to see to Commander Phlox.”
She shook like a leaf and whispered, “You still trust me with him, even when I nearly--”
“It was an honest mistake, Lrada. I should've paid more attention.” He pitched his voice low and added, “Don't let anyone, Healer or otherwise, touch him without my expressed consent. Am I clear?”
She bowed her head and replied, “I live to serve, Re'sharu.”
Malcolm checked the Denobulan, but there didn't seem to be any obvious damage, neural or otherwise. He frowned at how Phlox's condition was so different from Trace's. If both men had been knocked out by the same surge, they should have had similar injuries, even accounting for Phlox's different physiology.
A cold chill went down Malcolm's spine. It hadn't been a power surge that rendered both men unconscious. It had been something else.
He started in surprise. Phlox's voice was barely above a whisper, but he heard it all the same. Phlox usually made it a point to address others by rank or formal name. He'd never called Tucker 'Trip', only 'Charles', and addressed Malcolm solely as 'Doctor Reed'.
“I'm here, Phlox.”
“They...tamper with...memories. Device...for erasure. Only for...those who oppose them.”
Malcolm fought to hide his appalled shock and horror. “Did they--”
“Yes. It...not work...Denobulan brain not compati--” Phlox's eyelids drooped further. “Warn her. Warn Cap--”
“I will, Phlox. Somehow or the other, I will. Rest now. I'll get you and Bryan out of here.”
“Thank...you.” Phlox closed his eyes and relaxed. Malcolm glanced as the bioreadings slowed drastically, almost to non-existence. He'd heard of the Denobulan hibernation cycle, but had never seen it in action, until now.
“Is he dead, Re'sharu?” one of the Healers asked.
Malcolm closed his eyes and said quietly, “I must inform the captain. Denobulan custom demands I inform his next of kin within eight hours of his...departure, or misfortune will follow. His people have strict rules on this matter and I must obey them.”
“The communications array--”
Malcolm's temper nearly snapped. “Then find a way to get me a com link! You claim to honor the honesty and integrity of your people. That includes respect for the dead, if not the living. Prove to me how you deal with the cold truth!”
Silence fell upon the emergency ward, then one of the Healers sighed, “Yes, Re'sharu.”
“I will personally monitor them until I can take them both to Enterprise.” Malcolm took a deep breath. “And someone alert Lieutenant Commanders Archer and Tucker. If I don't hear from either of them, there will be hell to pay, believe me. I won't tolerate any more excuses.”
There were murmured acknowledgments all around him, then the medical teams went back to work. No one dared raised their voice around Malcolm; he felt a twinge of guilt, but now that he knew what the Altarrans hid from others, his disgust quickly overcame that guilt.
He also realized something else...he, Phlox and Bryan Trace were still in danger. News of his angry rant could reach the wrong ears and the authorities might well haul him away to have his memories erased.
“Bollocks,” he muttered under his breath.
“Re'sharu Reed?” Lrada whispered. “May I say something?”
“Of course, Lrada. Forgive me--”
She buzzed in mixed dread and admiration. “No, you had reason for your anger. I just wanted to say...you should have been an Armsman.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “If my life had been different...I probably could have been.”
Too neat of a package. Jon read an undercurrent of nervousness among everyone present. They all knew the penalty for failing their Consul. S'Kal ruled with an iron glove and no one dared naysay him. Yet he was eager for a treaty with Earth; he kept referring to a new era of peace and prosperity between their people.
As Malcolm would say, not bloody likely. The Earth Council might have second doubts after they find out what's been going on here--
A movement out of the corner of his eye was the only thing that alerted him...and the only thing that saved his life. He turned in that direction, just in time to hear a bullet whiz past his right ear, narrowly missing him. Jon automatically threw himself on the ground as Armsmen and Constables returned fire. He managed to raise his head enough to see Consul S'Kal limp on the ground, a neat bullet hole right above his center eye.
“De'nahrru Archer!” An Armsman had crawled to Jon's side. “This way!”
The two of them kept low, ducking lasers and stray bullets, finally reaching the remains of a stone wall. Jon leaned against it, breathing heavily in exertion. “Thanks, Armsman--”
“K'yin, De'nahrru.” He ducked as a piece of concrete shattered directly above his head and rained shards on both of them. “It appears we are pinned down.”
“Who's shooting at us?”
K'yin pressed his lips together in frustration. “I believe the same ones who orchestrated the power surges, De'nahrru.”
Jon cautiously looked around the corner of the wall and saw a line of Altarrans all dressed in various colors and styles. The clash of brilliant hues stunned him for a minute; he was used to seeing them segregated according to Altarran custom. According to S'Kal, there hadn't been armed conflict on the planet for hundreds of years.
Until now. But why?
“Our own people are shooting at us!” K'yin snarled. “This can not happen!”
“It's happening. Looks like some of you got together and joined forces,” Jon replied. Civil war. We're now stuck in the middle of an Altarran civil war. It was one of Jon's worst nightmares as a diplomat. This wasn't the first time he'd been stuck in this kind of situation. A year ago, he and Soval had been trapped in the Uvenagan Consulate for nearly a month when diplomatic talks had broken down.
And now Enterprise was caught in one.
A stray laser came within inches of Jon's cheek and he flinched. “We've got to get out of here!”
K'yin nodded and checked the ammunition in his weapon. “I will cover your escape, De'nahrru. Find your people and get them to safety. This is not your battle to fight; it is ours.” He blinked once, slowly. “Forgive us, De'nahrru, and may your journey be fruitful.”
Jon reached over and clapped the Armsman on the shoulder. “The heart is steadfast,” he murmured back. “Take care, my friend.”
K'yin nearly smiled. “And tell your captain that if we are lucky, we may meet again someday.”
“I will.” Jon smiled sadly, then nodded that he was ready. K'yin began shooting at the enemy as Jon broke cover, seeking refuge away from the line of fire. He heard the telltale sound of overstrained brakes and looked up in time to see an Altarran hovercar careen around the corner. A Constable was at the wheel, and beside him in the front seat was Trip Tucker.
“Dammit, Jon, get in!” Trip yelled. The Constable slowed down just enough for Jon to leap into the back seat. Trip snapped his head at the driver, “Go, Virax, step on it!”
“Thanks,” Jon gasped. “Always could trust you to arrange a getaway car.”
Trip's smile was without humor. “Don't thank me yet. Fighting's broken out in the capital city. I think the tension's been brewing for some time and it's all gone to hell in a handbasket.”
“Consul S'Kal's dead. One of the Altarrans shot him. He wasn't even expecting it at all.” Jon glanced at the Constable. “What's going on?”
“It appears there was much that was kept from our knowledge,” Virax replied angrily. “Secrets that were hidden from the rest of our people, until a small group brought them to light. Our apologies, De'nahrru, that we have dragged your own people into our affairs.”
“Lousy timin',” Trip groused. “Malcolm's at the hospital, but I haven't heard from him since the communications cut out, and Phlox and Trace haven't checked in, either. I'm bettin' that 'small group' not only crippled the Main Archive, but also wrecked the comm array. There's no way to get word to Enterprise that we're in trouble.”
“Head for the hospital. If we can find Malcolm, maybe we can start searching for Phlox and Bryan too.”
Trip's communicator went off. The sound was so unexpected that he gaped for a full three seconds before he snatched it up and flipped it open. “Tucker!”
“It's good to hear your voice, Trip,” said Hoshi Sato. “They've managed to restore some of the array, and it sounds like violence has broken out. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, and Jon's with me. We're headin' to the hospital to find Malcolm. I haven't heard from Phlox or Trace at all--”
Hoshi's voice faded for a few moments, but returned. “--got in touch with Malcolm. Phlox and Bryan's at the hospital, both injured. I'll let Malcolm know you're coming. Once you two arrive there, we're beaming the five of you out.”
Jon raised his voice so she could hear him. “Hoshi, Consul S'Kal's been killed. I don't know who's taken charge of his government--”
“Someone named P'lanarra's been broadcasting on the Altarran array since it came back on-line. She's warned off all incoming ships to avoid Altarran airspace and threatened to shoot down anyone who tries to approach. ” Hoshi sounded grim. “Any Away Team from Enterprise included; they refused to even consider letting Travis and Kov go down to find you.”
“Now we know why,” Jon said grimly. “They knew what was about to happen and didn't want any more of our crew involved.”
“Admiral Forrest has ordered us to withdraw as soon as we retrieve you. There will be no trade talks.”
“Withdraw?!” Trip repeated.
“It is prudent, Armsman,” Virax broke in, his tone eerily calm. “This is not your affair. We must take care of our own before we can extend our hand to others.”
Jon reluctantly nodded in agreement. “You heard the captain. We can't afford to get involved with their civil war, Trip.”'
“So we're just gonna pack up and leave?” Trip shook his head. “Dammit.”
“It is too dangerous, Armsman. Perhaps sometime in the future, you'll be able to return here and find our people hide no more secrets, that we are open with the truth.” Virax pressed his lips together in a smile. “I, for one, will look forward to that day.”
Trip sighed and glanced at Jon. “Me too. By the way, who's P'lanarra?”
It was Virax's turn to sigh. “A woman who used to carve memory boxes in the Marketplace and make me smile.” He looked up at the building ahead. “We are here.”
They screeched to a halt in front of the hospital, where casualties were already pouring into the emergency ward. The three of them fought past the wave of people to find Malcolm in the center of the action, shouting instructions to the Healers and nurses. He looked up at their approach and nodded curtly at them.
“We gotta go, Malcolm,” Trip said. “I'm sorry.”
Malcolm glanced around at the controlled chaos around them, his gray-blue eyes filled with pain. A tiny Altarran nurse tugged at his arm. “Go, Re'sharu Reed, go with your people. We will manage and survive here.”
“Take care of them, Lrada. I just wish--”
She smiled. “You are a true Healer, an honor to your profession. I will remember what you've done for me. Perhaps we will meet again someday.”
“Until we meet again, Lrada.” He squeezed her hand, then let it go before re-focusing his attention on Trip and Jon. “Phlox and Bryan are both in the same room at the end of the hall. Come on.”
“I will make sure no one interferes,” Virax said. “Go, Armsman, and give your Commander Mayweather my regards.”
“I will. Watch yourself, Virax.”
Jon's eyes widened as he saw both Phlox and Lieutenant Trace on gurneys. Trip put a hand on his second-in-command's shoulder. At his expression, Malcolm said, “I'll explain what happened later. Suffice to say that he will recover, but slowly.”
Trip nodded stiffly. “All right. Let's get out of here.”
Jon flipped his communicator open and said, “Archer to Enterprise. Have a med team standing by in the Transporter Room. Five to beam up.”
“Acknowledged,” came the voice of Transporter Chief Raymer. “Transporting.”
The last thing Jon saw before his surroundings vanished was Constable Virax's nod of farewell.