The sense of fear and panic nagged at Malcolm's consciousness. To their credit, the doctors, nurses and volunteers concentrated on the steady stream of patients coming into the emergency rooms. He was impressed at their courage under fire; the Altarrans could teach Starfleet crews a thing or two about functioning under battle conditions. But now that the situation was more under control, Malcolm could sense the Altarrans' concern, just under the surface.
“Re'sharu Reed?” rasped a violet-skinned nurse from the doorway. “We have a wave of new casualties from the Power Transformer Station. Six Altarrans, all from the Technology Guild.”
He pushed his misgivings aside and got to his feet. “Thank you, Nurse Lrada. I'll be right there.”
The emergency room was in chaos. Malcolm looked up at Lieutenant Liz Cutler, who was on triage duty, and Kov, who was headed for the scrub room. The Vulcan Healer's hazel eyes showed no pain or hesitation, and Malcolm thought, He must have his mental shields up at full strength. He has to.
“Doctor, over here,” called Liz. “This man's got multiple first and second degree burns. His co-worker told me he was in front of a console when the power surge blew it up.”
“Get me some anti-burn and a broad-spectrum antibiotic, Liz.” Malcolm quickly assessed the man's burns. Most of them were on his hands and face, as if he'd tried to shield his face at the last minute. The Altarran's mouth moved in a soft whisper.
“Daana je, daana bui'laku.”
“It's all right, lad,” Malcolm said in a low tone. He doubted the Altarran could understand him at all, but he had to try anyway. “We're going to take care of you. It's all right.”
The three purple eyes fluttered as the man clung to consciousness. Nurse Lrada accepted the medications from Liz and quickly administered them through a hypospray. She sprayed a grayish-green concoction onto the victim's skin. It formed a protective coating right before Malcolm's eyes, sealing it from infection.
“Thank you, Lrada.” He frowned at a large bruise on the right side of the man's head. That wasn't there a minute ago. Where did that come from? He examined the dark plum patch with gentle fingers; although he wasn't familiar with Altarran physiology, he knew a serious problem when he saw one. Two puncture marks appeared on the man's temple, swollen and scabbed.
“What is that?” Lrada echoed.
She passed a medical scanner over the wound in question and whistled low at the results. Malcolm narrowed his eyes at the screen. The swelling originated from deep within the cranium, from a knot of blood vessels. A fine network of nerves radiated from it, and those nerves were pulsing with agony. They were dissolving before Malcolm's eyes, one by one.
“I've never seen anything like this,” Lrada whispered. “It is as if his nervous system is disintegrating. I must summon an Altarran Healer, Re'charu Reed.”
“Go. I'll monitor from here.” Malcolm scowled at the rapid dissolution of the man's brain. There was nothing he could do, even if there was time enough. If he didn't know better, he would have said the Altarran had regularly taken neurostimulants, but there were no other physical signs to prove that.
The Altarran's eyes shot wide open. He grabbed Malcolm's free arm and jerked him closer. His mouth moved again, and this time, Malcolm heard him clearly.
“Daana je, Ta'mur Shakaku!” The Altarran's body jerked once, then was still. His rigid hand spasmed, then fell away from Malcolm's arm. The screen flared once with chaotic neural activity, then went dark.
Malcolm shivered and thought, Blown dark, like a candle in the night. He looked up as Lrada returned with a Healer in tow. The Healer spared one glance at the medical scanner, then quickly examined the body. Finally, he shook his head and said some quiet words to Lrada. With a sorrowful nod at Malcolm, the Healer withdrew.
“I am sorry, Re'sharu Reed. The Healer said there was nothing that either of us could have done for him,” Lrada whispered. “It was already too late.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. “It's always traumatic to lose a patient, but we must focus on those whom we can save, Nurse Lrada.”
She took a deep breath and regained control of her emotions. “Yes, Re'sharu.”
Two orderlies approached the bed and efficiently removed the body and stripped the sheets. Another Healer called for Lrada's help and Malcolm deposited the now-useless herbal compress into the trash bin. He glanced around him, then slipped the medical scanner into the pocket of his doctor's coat. He wanted to review the strange readings when he had the time. It was a medical mystery, and those kind of puzzles piqued his interest.
“Ah, it appears that we have identified the worst of the damage,” Phlox said, as he addressed the tight knot of Altarran technicians. “I can monitor from here while you begin the patches. Once we have these junctions cleared and the bypasses in place, we can attempt to restore power to critical areas.”
“Thank you, Su'charu,” whispered one of the techs. “Your sharp eyes can alert us to any problems that may occur in the process.”
Phlox nodded, but his smile held little humor. “Go on, young ones. I will make sure we do what we need to do.”
The small group dispersed into their teams and ventured into the maze of circuitry that crisscrossed the access tunnels. Phlox concentrated on the readouts from the main panel and ignored the shadow that hovered behind him and to the right of him.
“Lieutenant Trace, if you could watch this monitor and inform me of any change?”
Lieutenant Bryan Trace nodded and went over to Phlox's side. The Security man-turned-temporary-engineer positioned himself so that Phlox was in his sights at all times. “Yes, Commander.”
The Chief of Technology inclined his head as Phlox glanced sideways at him. “Forgive my initial reaction to your presence, Su'charu. I was concerned about the security of our technology.”
Phlox saw Trace's questioning expression, and only shook his head with a smile. Trace turned back to his 'work' as Phlox replied, “My people understand the need for discretion, as well as speed. I have discussed your concerns with Captain Sato. She understands the gravity of the situation.”
“Thank you. Most Humans do not understand why we simply do not hand over our protocols and hardware. They believe they are entitled to know information that are simply beyond their comprehension.”
Trace coughed slightly, and Nanuch glanced at him. “Forgive me, Su'charu Trace. I meant no disrespect.”
“That's all right, sir. I can understand why you might see us that way, but not all of us are like that.”
Phlox clucked his tongue as Nanuch flushed a deep plum purple. “You underestimate them, Nanuch, both in their intentions and their intelligence.”
“But you have served with them for less than six of your months.”
Phlox chuckled a little as he tapped buttons. “Denobulans tend to keep an open mind about other people. I have worked with others, whom could be described as 'difficult'. Yet the experiences have helped me understand why they think they way they do.”
There was a slight pause as Nanuch adjusted a dial. “Indeed? My people simply make sure that our visitors follow our strictures and our procedures, for their safety as well as ours. As long as both sides do that, we have nothing to fear.”
“The status quo is maintained.”
“The normal state of things.”
“Yes.” Nanuch glanced at him with new respect. “You do understand.”
“In a way. On my world, certain rules are absolute, and others are merely guidelines that govern behavior. Those absolute ones do not change, like the penalties for criminal actions. The guidelines are just that...guidance in making the right decisions.” Phlox shrugged casually. “It seems to work for my people, but different worlds have different ways of going about things.”
Nanuch inclined his head, the Altarran equivalent of a shrug. “I have never been anywhere but here. This is home. Do all your people travel the stars?”
“No. My family is all on Denobula; most of them do not care for space travel for long periods of time. I am somewhat unusual. There are twelve billion Denobulans on a single continent, Nanuch, so space is at a premium. Yet we all get along, more or less.”
“Twelve billion on a single continent?” Nanuch gaped at him, then looked over at Trace, who seemed to be equally surprised. “That is unheard of! Do your people not control the numbers of young and old? What about the issues of food, water, climate...?”
“We've learned to adapt; some of our customs sound incomprehensible to Humans, even those as open-minded as the members of my crew. Yet Captain Sato tries to make sense of them, even if she doesn't fully understand them. Lieutenant Commander Archer is another one.”
Nanuch gurgled in agreement. “The De'nahru? Yes, he is patient and kind. The database from your ship says his elder is an engineer and a designer...why did the De'nahru not follow his father? Wouldn't that be tragic for his family?”
Phlox shook his head and filed that away in his memory. He saw that Trace had come to the same conclusion; the Security man's face was impassive, but his eyes warned Phlox of the danger.
Aloud, he said, “There are some families that prize their sons following their father's professions. From what I understand, Lieutenant Commander Archer could have become an engineer, like his father, but he discovered his talents lay elsewhere and followed that instead. His father might have been disappointed at first, but I believe that the two are still rather close.”
Nanuch wrung his hands briefly, then placed them back on the console. “Now that is rather incomprehensible to me. I was selected to be a Data Technician when I was young and I can not imagine being anything else.”
“That is how your people do things. Mine is rather different, as well as Lieutenant Commander Archer's. Different ways of life. Different rules. It is not my place to dictate what is best for you or your fellows.”
The Altarran visibly relaxed his shoulders as he adjusted another dial. “I cannot begin to say how much I appreciate your saying that, Su'charu Phlox. Most of those who come to Altarra say we are in the wrong and try to change it. That is why we must protect ourselves. As you say, we go by...different rules.”
“If there is any change, it is not my place to dictate it, either. It must come from elsewhere.” Phlox tapped his board again as it lit green. “Ah, there we are. It looks like all the energy conduits are holding together for now. If they can withstand the power flow from the main reactors, then that is one step closer to restoring full power.”
Nanuch activated the comm link. “All technicians report back to the main control room. We will begin reactivating the reactors in five jendarui. Please acknowledge.” After all the techs did so, he closed the link. “We should run through the safety protocols, just to be certain. If we do have a problem, then we can shut down the power.”
“A very good idea, Nanuch. Lieutenant Trace, I require your assistance...do you have the checklist?”
“Yes, sir, I do.” He handed Phlox a PADD. “All the safety protocols are here, and here. As long as we follow procedure, we shouldn't have a problem, but the minute something goes wrong, we should note it so we can refer to it later.”
Phlox ran a finger down the checklist, scrolling down the screen and tapping out confirmations. He opened a second window and typed several characters in Denobulan. He pretended to match the characters to the items on the list and highlighted the pertinent parts of his message. Ship's security compromised; priority one to the captain. Warn her. Then he tapped several buttons and sent the message on a coded frequency.
“I make it a point to double-check my work,” Phlox answered. “Just in case. You can ask Lieutenant Trace.”
Nanuch glanced at Trace, who only nodded and confirmed, “It's what makes him a good engineer, sir.”
Phlox's communicator went off. "Excuse me. That is probably the Captain wanting a status report. Continue to monitor, Lieutenant Trace. I'll be back shortly."
He walked to an isolated corner of the room and flipped his communicator open. "This is Commander Phlox."
"This is Lieutenant Commander Tucker. How're you guys doin'?"
Phlox lowered his tone. “Charles, I'm at Power Transformer Six,” Phlox replied. “According to the records from the secondary records, the power surge originated at two points. This is one of them; Transformer Nine is the other.”
“Aren't Six and Nine on opposite ends of the capital city from each other?”
“Indeed. If what Lieutenant Trace and I are seeing is correct, the energy was built-up over a certain period of time before the failsafes collapsed and the energy flooded the Altarran computer network. There are multiple protocols in place to prevent such a build-up from happening in the first place. Even if it happened, there should have been some sort of early warning system.”
There was a pause, then Trip asked, “So it's definitely sabotage. All the safety programs and the warning systems failing at the same time?”
“The odds of that happening at the same time are small,” Phlox agreed. “The Technological Upkeep Guild has sent a copy of those records to Constable Virax and to Consul S'Kal. We are now trying to restore power city-wide. I will keep you updated.”
"One other thing, Charles, did you receive the coded message I just sent to Enterprise?"
Another pause, then Trip answered, "Just got it, Phlox. The Cap'n already knows about it and she's workin' on it."
Phlox sighed in relief. "Thank you, Charles. As I said, I will keep you updated. Phlox, out.”
The Chief of Technology raised his head as he returned to the main console. "Was that your captain?"
"It was Lieutenant Commander Tucker, asking for a status report."
"Has the Su'charu found the people responsible for this crisis?" Nanuch's tone was angry, but Phlox heard something else under the anger. Fear. What was he afraid of?
Phlox glanced at Trace, who nodded again. "Not yet, but if we restore power to Lieutenant Commander Tucker's location, he can proceed with his investigation at all speed."
Nanuch buzzed in agreement. "Of course."
The Altarran technicians returned to the control room. Phlox did a brief head count to make sure they were all present, then said formally, “We are all present, Chief Nanuch. The power junctures are stabilized; we are ready for reactivation.”
“Very well, Su'charu Phlox, Su'charu Trace. Stand by.”
Phlox watched as the power flowed from the control room and through the junctures, like water through a sluice, its direction and intensity manipulated through Nanuch's board. Fascinating, how they're able to have such pinpoint accuracy in directing the power flow. A pity that they're so reluctant to share technology...this would have impact in warp engine mechanics.
“All the patches are holding,” one of the techs reported.
“Diverting power to sector zero-one-zero-A at an eighth intensity.”
Phlox frowned a little. Zero-one-zero-A? That's the Main Archive. I would have thought they'd provide power to more critical areas, like transportation and hospitals. Then he remembered Jon Archer's description of the Main Archive as a cathedral to knowledge, and the center of Altarran society.
“Patches still holding.”
“Raising to a quarter intensity....now a half.”
“Still no change in pathway integrity.”
A red light blinked on Phlox's board; Trace was the first to see it. “Commander---”
“I see it. Structural integrity in juncture zero-one-one just went critical. I suggest lowering the intensity back to half-strength.”
One of the techs gave Nanuch a questioning look, and he nodded agreement. The light faded from the control board. “Power flow stabilized at one-half intensity, Su'charu Phlox. It should be enough for the Archive to initialize their main computer.”
“And if we remedy that problem in juncture zero-one-one, it should be able to handle one hundred percent flow, even if we divert any extra power to other areas of the capital city.”
“Yes, it should. Perhaps we should double-check the patches leading to those other junctures before we divert power to the hospitals. If there are any similar problems, I'd much rather correct them now than later. An overload near the hospital could harm innocent bystanders.”
Phlox opened his mouth, then closed it again. Nanuch did have a legitimate concern, but they needed to provide power to the hospital. Captain Sato had told him about the darkened surgical bays and hand-operated equipment. He suppressed a shudder at such conditions; even Malcolm Reed could only do so much there.
“Very well, but quickly. We cannot afford to make a mistake, but we cannot afford to keep the wounded and dying from receiving proper medical care.”
Nanuch nodded at his team and they all scrambled to obey. Phlox kept an eye on the steady flow of power to the Main Archive. The more he gazed at it, the more his suspicions grew.
What is there that the Altarrans so wish to protect, even at the cost of their own people's lives? Yes, their lives depend on that particular network, but I think there is more than just that. Information is power, and those who control that information are the fortunate ones.
And those who wish to know will find ways to access it. What if the attacks were just a diversion for something else?
“Commander? We just lost outgoing communications to the Main Archive,” Trace said, with a hint of alarm. “The links just went down.”
“What?” Phlox frowned as he saw the whole bank of consoles shut down. “That shouldn't happen---”
“Behind you, sir---!”
Trace's warning was cut off in mid-sentence as one of the techs jabbed a Altarran hypospray into his shoulder. Phlox heard Trace's body hit the floor, but his own vision was starting to dim. Just as he lost consciousness, he heard Nanuch murmur, “My apologies, Su'charu. You've seen too much.”
“Su'charu? Can you hear me?”
The voice sounded familiar, but Phlox couldn't place it. He cracked his eyes open and immediately closed them again. The bright lime-colored light burned his eyes and his wrist throbbed with pain. Someone had used a bone regenerator on it, but it felt sore. Denobulan bones were different from Altarran ones and he definitely felt the difference.
“Please, please wake up!”
He tried again, but the dull ache behind his eyes nearly made him sick.
“Su'charu, we need you. I cannot do this alone!”
His sense of priority overrode his need for sleep. Slowly, he struggled up to a sitting position. Gentle hands helped him lean back against a stone wall, away from the bright green light. A painful sting jolted him out of his pain; minutes later, his head began to clear. Several other Altarrans surrounded him, all with wide, frightened eyes.
“What happened? Where are we? Where is Lieutenant Trace?”
“Some of us were taken to this place. I don't know where we are,” a female Altarran replied as she wrung her hands in terror. Phlox recognized her as one of the Technicians. “My name is Bhuda. I do not know what happened to your friend, if he was put in a different room or th'rahralan.”
“Wait, what? Th'rahralan?” Phlox rubbed his temples with the fingers of his good left hand. “That doesn't sound like a good thing---”
“It is not.” That statement came from a young Altarran who looked barely older than the Technology Upgrade Technicians. “Their memories are purged, Su'charu---”
A cold wave of fear washed over Phlox. “Purged? How? And why?”
The iron door of their cell swung open and three Altarrans strode in without a word. They grabbed the young man under the arms and dragged him outside. He screamed something in Altarran that Phlox's UT didn't catch, just before the door thudded shut once more. The group of Altarrans simply stood frozen in a protective huddle, too terrified to make a sound.
“May the Gods have mercy on his soul,” Bhuda whispered. “He will be reconditioned, Su'charu, with no memory of what has transpired before then. They give him a new purpose and he will fulfill it.”
Phlox's headache pounded in his skull, but he fought past it to make sense of the words. “Wouldn't the memories return, eventually? What happens then?”
“Sometimes they do, and the process repeats itself. The Altarran brain is hardy; it can withstand multiple erasures,” replied a man about Phlox's age. At Phlox's questioning look, he introduced himself. “Doctor Harum Rh'vass of the Altarran Medical Collegium.”
Bhuda's mouth puckered up with sympathy. “I suppose you are here because of the visit of the Human doctor?”
“Actually, no,” he demurred with a quick incline of his head at Phlox. “I have never seen or met your doctor, Su'charu. In fact, I am at a loss to understand why I have been taken. I have never strayed beyond the Teachings before.”
Another Technician named Shakai snorted in derision. “New visitors, new ideas, Doctor.”
“New ideas,” murmured Phlox. “The information from our ship is in a separate database, with limited access. The officials assured Captain Sato that the ones who need it most will have access to it.”
Shakai gurgled in black humor, sounding like a drowning man in a pool of syrup.“I will assume that no one outside the High Consul and his select advisers will even know that database exists.”
Phlox nodded, “I would agree with that. Once my captain finds out we are missing, she won't rest until she finds us. I wonder how the Consul will explain our disappearance to her. Captain Sato isn't one who is easily fooled.”
“True,” agreed Shakai, “but the High Consul's advisers are skilled at removing all traces of deceit, and reshaping the situation to fit their interests. And that,” he swiveled his head to glare at Harum, “--that is what they tell the people. That is what you put in the Archives, Su'charu. You aid and abet their lies.”
Harum's face paled to a sheer lavender hue. “No. I refuse to be a party to their deception! I have been a physician since---”
Shakai's triple eyes blinked rapidly as he gurgled again. “Since when? Can you remember when you first set foot in the Hospital? When you attempted your first surgery? When you stored your first reports?”
He bristled at the whistling taunt. “Of course I remember,” he huffed. “Eighteen larjii past, and I recall every detail of that first surgery. Would you like a full recollection, Shakai?”
Phlox raised his hands and interrupted their bickering. “This isn't getting us anywhere. We need to find a way out of here. Then we can deal with the Consul and his advisers.”
“The Su'charu is wise,” chirped Ratka, an Altarran woman who sat next to the door. “I am sure this was all a misunderstanding. Once we explain the situation, they will release us.”
Shakai made another noise of irritation and said, “Haven't you been listening? We know too much! They cannot afford to let us free now, not without reconditioning us! Then we will forget everything we have learned here!”
Phlox was inclined to agree with Shakai in this instance. He frowned as another problem occurred to him. “Doctor, have they ever tried to erase a non-Altarran's memories? Any of the traders that do business on your planet?”
Harum flattened his lips against pale gums and blinked once. After a moment, he answered, “No, not that I recall. There is no telling what the reconditioning would do to your kind, Su'charu, for it is a uniquely Altarran procedure.”
“Do you think they would reveal that to the normal Healers?” Shakai groused.
The door swung once more on its hinges and three different Altarran guards came in. The lead man gazed around until he saw Phlox. “You,” he rumbled. “You, the doctor, and this one. Come with us.”
Phlox was hauled to his feet, along with Harum and Shakai. He caught Bhuda's look of dread as the three of them were marched out at laserpoint, and then the door slammed shut behind them.
It was a short walk to a second room, this one filled with blinding green glare. Phlox squinted as he tried to make out the shadows all around him. The Altarran sunlight made his headache return with a vengeance. He concentrated on not being sick in the middle of the room.
“Drape the windows. He cannot see what is about to pass. We need him to.”
Mercifully, the light faded as heavy material was dragged across the floor and spread over the windows. Phlox blinked away tears as his vision returned. He found himself sitting in a comfortable padded chair against the wall farthest from the door. Harum stood at his left, and a guard on his right. Two others strapped Shakai into a reclined platform.
Shakai gazed at Phlox and his lips moved in a silent word: Remember. Then the platform was swung horizontally and Phlox lost sight of his grim expression. A Militiaman adjusted a helmet-like device on Shakai's head with a strange reverence.
“He will not be harmed,” said the Militiaman in a gentle tone. “It is not his fault that he has been led astray. We will restore him to the innocence of his youth.”
Phlox struggled to rise out of his chair, but the guard put a hand on his shoulder and firmly pushed him back. A soft cherry-red glow rose from the platform, expanding upward to the ceiling and outward to the walls. The other Altarrans murmured something under their breaths, perhaps a prayer or a blessing, all but Harum, who looked on with fascinated horror.
A hush fell over the assembled group, but there was no need for silence, for the machine made no sound. The eerie calm went on and on for several minutes. Phlox wanted to rush forward and rip off Shakai's restraints, but his body refused to move. Finally, the glow faded and left the room in darkness once more.
The Militiaman gestured for Harum to step forward. “Doctor, will you please confirm that he is alive and unharmed?”
Harum padded to the side of the platform and touched a series of buttons. His tone betrayed surprise and relief. “I cannot believe this. According to these readings---”
“---he is simply in a deep sleep, with no visible trauma to his brain or his body. The ko'laz'hai receptors are elevated, but not dangerously so, and if he suffered from any bacterial or viral infections, they have completely disappeared. Remarkable.”
“So you see, we do not beat or torture ones who simply do not know any better,” said the Militiaman. “We must treat them with utmost respect and health. The Altarran brain will heal on its own accord.” He inclined his head at Harum. “Will you please assist us in transferring him to a recovery room?”
“Of course.” Harum helped the guards unstrap Shakai and carry him to a waiting gurney. Phlox caught a glimpse of Shakai's face; the bitter lines around his mouth had vanished, and the three eyes were closed in peaceful slumber. Phlox wasn't sure if he liked this new version better.
“Doctor, we need you to monitor his progress. When he wakes, please make sure he has plenty to eat and drink. We will update his information in the Archives, and once he is recovered, escort him to his new living area.”
“I will make sure he will have the best of care.” Harum accompanied the gurney out of the room and was gone from Phlox's sight.
The Militiaman turned to address Phlox again. “No Outworlder has ever seen the process in action, Su'charu, and told his or her countrymen about it. We gently plant suggestions to cushion the trauma of the process and other information to ease their transition.”
“Transition?” Phlox repeated in disbelief. “You're tampering with their minds, their memories! What if there are side effects that happen later, long after they leave your world? Or if they recall what you did to them? Altarran brains are obviously much different from other species---”
“Structurally, yes, different, but the functions are basically the same. We have not heard of any ill effects among the traders...very important to Altarra's future.” The Militiaman adjusted the settings on the platform. “You see, Su'charu, you have seen our technology and how we use it, and we cannot afford for you to tell your captain and others.”
Phlox tried to rise again; this time it took two Guardsmen to force him back into his chair. “You think that erasing my memory will protect your transgression for long? Even if I tell them nothing's wrong, there are other ways to find out the truth.”
The Militiaman looked up from the platform's controls. “Yes, there are other ways, if one really knows where to look. Consider this an example of...preventative measures to safeguard our secrets.” He nodded at the Guardsmen, who jerked Phlox back onto his feet. “Bring him. The Su'charu will no longer become a threat to us."