CAPTAIN BLACKTHORN HAD BEEN with Admiral Jamison, Head of Security, and was late. Or so she felt, as she walked briskly up the avenue towards the last fountain and the gap in the shrubbery that led to a cool oasis of calm. Alice-land she now called it.
It was difficult not to be irritated and not for the obvious reasons. Something was amiss, and she couldn’t put her finger on it, yet. Jamison had paged her last night to arrange an early morning meeting, one, which, in the end, had taken, up most of the morning and had gone, quite frankly, nowhere.
Someone, maybe Jamison, had not wanted her to be in chambers this morning. Again. Why? As she made her way up the avenue, Helena checked her pace. It quickened. A large ‘Parks & Gardens’ truck had appeared from above to float effortlessly down and land with a pneumatic hiss on the flagged walkway, right by the gap in the hedge. A lone figure tumbled out of the driver’s seat and began unloading equipment. The man was oblivious to her approach.
A frown furrowed her brow, unaware of the steely glint that took up residence in her eyes. Her attention was fixed squarely on the man. Questions tumbled over in her mind, but the first to make it to her lips was about the bee charmer.
“Have you seen a small blond-haired woman waiting hereabouts?” She asked, her tone edged in flint. Something was amiss.
With a startled look the man blinked, regained his composure, then stood lamely by the small caterpillar digger he’d just unloaded.
“Huh?” He glanced about him as if seeing the place for the first time. “Well, no. I’ve only just got here to be exact, Captain.” He blinked again seeing just whom it was he was addressing.
“I received orders to come down here and fill in the hole.” He added by way of some explanation for his presence.
At her piercing gaze the man moved from one foot to another, he felt the desperate need to explain himself further.
“Bio was down here at the crack of dawn removing god alone knows what—” He began but didn’t finish.
Bio, was Biohazard.
What he hell had they exterminated?
Blackthorn brushed passed the man and stepped through the gap. The sight that greeted her made the knot in the pit of her stomach twist tighter. She clamped down on her jaw and felt the customary twitch in her cheek. With two more strides she stood by a mound of freshly dug earth, and stared down into the open wound where once a dead tree-stump had stood.
In a moment of pure anger she balled her hands into fists at her sides. If she could have hit someone, she would have.
Was this the sight that had greeted her bee charmer?
“Damn.” The single word escaped through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry Captain.”
Helena whirled on her heels to confront the man, who now stood apologetically to one side. He took a side step from her gaze as it reduced him in height. He surveyed the hole, but without comprehension. He decided that if he stood real still, and didn’t breathe, he wouldn’t be struck by lightning. He was all too aware of the raging thunder that stood a few feet from him. Then it was gone, and he let out a long low audible sigh. He had survived.
* * *
The chamber was a bustle of activity as everyone took up his or her places. Helena sat at the table next to her second in command, Louise Marin. A look was flashed at her in query. Helena ignored it, glancing over Marin’s shoulder to where Captains Bryce and Hamilton sat. They all exchanged nods. Helena giving Bryce a significant look, which he acknowledged with a thin-lipped, tight smile. Her two Captains were ready then. Ready for anything. But what? She had no clue.
Marin fidgeted in her chair. A hand furtively touched at the left sleeve of her jacket to check a tiny ceramic needle-dart gun. It was primed and ready. She ducked her head and risked a brief glance at her Captain, who feigned a far away look.
People still milled behind them waiting to be seated, as the Sergeant-at-Arms accompanied by the Board, consisting of three Admirals, including Cairns, to their chairs on a raised dais. It was the ancient frame of Koenig that rose and, taking up the gavel, called the session to order.
It hadn’t gone amiss by everyone present that this particular afternoon’s session was going to be ‘The One’. The room was appropriately packed to capacity. And those who couldn’t gain entry by deed of rank or necessity, were watching the proceedings over secure-net vid-screens elsewhere.
A rustle of whispers went round the room before silence descended and the Court Clark stood to call out the details of the proceedings. His voice wavered for a second then steadied in its delivery. He then boomed out.
“The Board calls on Captain Cassandra Jones.”
Helena moved and was on the point of rising when her mind registered the name the clerk had called out, was in fact, not her own. There was a flurry of activity as whispers took up the background chorus.
Marin now stared sideways at her Captain not even bothering to conceal her thoughts, while both Bryce and Hamilton shifted in their seats with a chanced glance toward her. In fact, nearly every person in the room was staring to her.
Helena was focused straight ahead.
Everyone in the room knew the name, just as surely as they knew that of Fleet Captain Helena Blackthorn. Reputations were built on deeds and Cassandra Jones’ reputation was as formidable, in her own right, as that of the three Captains that now sat in Chambers contemplating their future in Starfleet.
Of course, up until now, Helena had never had occasion to meet the woman they called simply The Voice, the head of Security’s Internal Affairs Bureau. They hadn’t even met socially. The woman was a complete mystery.
Blackthorn felt her mind move several gears, and then promptly stall as she saw the diminutive figure of Jones appear in the centre of the room. Something sharp stabbed her straight through the heart.
The knot in her stomach forced bile up the back of her throat, so that she coughed into a clenched fist. The sound and the action brought glances from about her, but the only person she focused her attention on was her namesake.
Her Bee Charmer.
The woman seemed strangely out of place in her heavy dress uniform. A small figure caught momentarily in the crossfire of gazes. Who, she noted, stood quite alone and unprotected.
The face before her said nothing. Held no hint of what was about to take place. Helena searched the blue-eyed gaze that held her own for a moment, before the professional IAB Jones turned away. Helena couldn’t be sure in that fraction of a moment, as she was fighting with too many mixed emotions, but she was almost certain the eyes had said something that the face couldn’t.
Was she reading too much in to one look? Trust me it said. But how? Helena wanted to ask. Instead she let her eyes bore two neat little holes into the exposed back of the woman whose voice now took control of the room.
The voice bore no trace of the soft-honeyed tones used to good effect on her of late. In fact, although pitched low making the listener concentrate, it had a quality that lulled the senses. For the first time Helena appreciated why the woman was called the Voice. On this occasion she didn’t allow the voice to lull her, convinced that she would need her wits about her. Every one of them.
As she always did, Helena moved into a quiet place in her mind to go over every detail, but kept coming back to one thing: Why had Jamison taken her out of the loop? Sure in the knowledge, as little pieces began to fall into place, that Jamison had done this deliberately.
For her own protection? Why?
What other subterfuge was percolating just beneath the surface of this sham?
While part of her mind trawled past nuances, Helena listened intently to Cassandra, and, looking at the face of Cairns, saw this was not what the Admiral had been hoping to hear. Cassandra continued on with her litany. There was a tinge of growing alarm seeping into the lined features of Cairns’ face, while her eyes betrayed a look of pure malice.
This was not what she had planned for, let alone expected. Helena concluded.
She felt herself tense, ready to leap. Something imperceptibly had changed in the aura of the tension building in the room. Without shifting her gaze from Cairns’ face, she let her periphery vision alert her to the smallest movement from those upfront. Admiral Koenig was oblivious, sat on Cairns’ right, as was Rear Admiral Kassamali.
Both the Admirals out of the loop then. But the Sergeant-at-Arms and his two deputies had changed stance. They too were aware of some palpable shift.
Who had signalled them? Jamison? Probably. Could she risk a glance to the side to see where the woman was? Sure that she was somewhere just out of sight. But Helena kept her attention focused on Cairns sure this was where the danger lay.
As Jones continued with her expose, it was with a sudden moment of revelation that Helena realised, Jones and Jamison were, in fact, after Cairns.
Marin, sensing the tiniest fractional change in her Captain’s posture and mood, braced herself for action. She too knew something was about to happen. But what happened next, happened fast.
Helena surprised even herself, responding in quick time to the speed with which Cairns rose to her feet.
A number of legal and illegally concealed weapons emerged as four hissing shots crisscrossed the air to the accompanied smell of burning ozone and flesh. Someone hit the ground just behind Helena’s right shoulder, having been hit by a needle-beam that had been way too close for comfort. She heard another body make contact with the floor to one side, but she was already over the table hitting the other Captain Jones off her feet.
They skidded a few feet across the floor and, within a heartbeat, were surrounded on all sides by a group of six, facing outward, all with their favoured weapons drawn and ready to fire.
Chaos erupted around the room as various individuals and groups responded. Bryce and Hamilton were likewise encircled by various crew members. While Koenig and Kassamali, faces tinged white, sat stoically either side of a now disarmed Cairns. The two men-at-arms, weapons also drawn, stood either side of the suddenly disgraced Admiral as their Sergeant bent to pick up the fallen ceramic needle-beam weapon.
Catching her breath and hauling Jones to her feet, Helena took a moment to survey the room and unfolding drama. Jamison had appeared and, in a deep booming voice, called the room to order. Her right-hand man, the wiry framed aptly named weasel, Warshawski, had in a matter of moments sealed and secured the room. His people moving into action like a precision pieces of machinery. Jamison stepped up to Cairns, but Helena missed what was said as her attention was drawn suddenly elsewhere.
The slight figure of Jones slumped against her for support. The head buried itself in her shoulder, so that Helena had to suppress a sigh as she hugged the woman to her, before moving her to arm length. Her crew moved to stand at ease, but none the less alert.
“You look like shit.” Helena heard herself say as she looked down on an ashen face. Which told her Cassandra had been well aware of the risk she had taken, standing out in the middle of the room, calmly destroying the career of a once respected Admiral.
“Thanks for the ego boost, Starfleet.” The smile was a pale shadow. Helena frowned, still holding the woman by both arms. She searched the tired and drawn face, looking for answers.
“Yes, I know… I know that at this moment in time you’d like to break my neck, but—” The voice trailed off. It had lost some of its timbre.
“Some answers would be nice.” Helena caught Marin’s inquiring look and arched brow. The woman turned away with a smile. Cassandra stood limply with her arms held tightly about her waist. Her face pained. Helena frowned, feeling sure she was missing something. The woman made another attempt to reassure her with a smile, but failed dismally.
“I hate to be a bother, but could we leave all the recriminations and the accusations for the big bust up later. I think I’d like to—” The sentence was never finished. Helena caught Jones as she passed out.
A voice roared out a single word. “Medic!” Helena bent to bring them to the floor, and saw the reason for Cassandra’s sudden collapse. The lower right-hand side of her jacket, previously hidden by an arm, sustained a small but neat hole from out which a dark sticky substance oozed.
“There’s no need to shout.” An all too familiar voice spoke calmly just above where Helena now crouched. One of the six bodyguards came to kneel beside her; it was her CMO, Commander Rachael Taylor. Helena nodded a quick response to the doctor, and moved to one side to cradle Cassandra’s head.
Taylor went to work, as Helena fretted. Someone appeared with a med-kit and began assisting the CMO. Helena shifted her position to sit cross-legged allowing her to place Cassandra’s head in her lap. She brushed gently at the woman’s hair unaware of the soft, quirky smile her CMO gave her. She was far more concerned with what was happening now Taylor had Cassandra’s jacket and shirt open. And watched with concern as the CMO dressed the woman’s wound.
Helena felt a lump constrict her throat. It was never easy seeing a crew member injured, much less someone you felt something for. She looked away. As she looked up she caught sight of the sculptured ebony features of Jamison heading her way. She took a moment to glance around the now emptying room. Everyone beyond the balustrade had been cleared from the chamber. Of Cairns, there was no sign.
Jamison bent down on one knee, her face wore a tight look of concern.
“Damn fool. I told her she’d have to duck.”
Helena felt a wave of anger rise in her. But with a quick look, Jamison cut off any remark she’d been about to say. A hand strayed to her shoulder.
“We had to leave you out of the loop. You’re reputation had to remain… intact… unblemished by what we had to do here, today.” The Admiral rose carefully to her feet and, with a parting look, Helena knew this was all she was going to get by way of an explanation, at least for this moment.
“Damn stupid all the same.” Helena muttered looking down at the injured Cassandra, as something squeezed at her heart tightly.
“Sorry Captain.” Taylor spoke softly, “we need to move her now.”
With a curt nod, Helena, noting the two medics and the medivac cart for the first time, let go of Cassandra and watched as she was whisked away. The ache in her chest threatening to suffocate her.
TO BE CONTINUED …