Chapter 11

U.S.S. Aldrin

Idran Terminus, Gamma Quadrant

18:55 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092.317439

 

“Thanks Doc,” Clark said as he exited the sickbay office. He paused matter-of-factly in the ward and looked around, not finding Taurik, and then turned back to Cochrane, “How long did you tell him to wait?”

“Thirty minutes,” Cochrane stood, looking out through the window.

Clark stepped further into the ward, looking left and right again, “Well, it looks like he ignored your advice.”

“Funny, Vulcans usually follow my prescriptions to the letter.” Cochrane stepped out into the main ward with Clark.

“Computer,” Clark called, “Locate Taurik.”

The computer responded calmly, “Unable to locate.”

Clark rolled his eyes and headed for the exterior corridor, “Great. I’ll swing by his quart…” His voice trailed off as he caught the light from the open morgue door out of the corner of his eye as he passed the short hall. “Doc?”

“Captain?”

Clark pointed down the corridor and quietly asked, “Is there any reason why the morgue door would be open?”

Cochrane moved to his side and looked into the corridor, “No. It’s supposed to automatically close no matter what.”

“The control panel’s dark,” Clark ran back to Cochrane’s office and opened the weapons locker behind the desk, “Taurik must have shorted it to get around the access code.” He pulled out two hand phasers and returned to the end of the corridor.

Cochrane took one of the phasers and followed Clark as he slowly progressed down the short passage. Clark reached the end and pushed himself into the corner against the door that looked to the closest bulkhead inside the morgue. After a few silent seconds, Clark stepped in, phaser raised, and swept the white room, finding only the six Jem’Hadar. He looked back to Cochrane, still in the corridor, “Clear.”

Cochrane came into the morgue and his eyes immediately went to the fist-sized hole in Tir’nek’s stomach. Clark took a step forward to look at the wounds, but gagged and retreated upon seeing the mess of purple blood and entrails that had spilled onto the deck. Unfazed, Cochrane moved forward and leaned in close to Tir’nek, “Now this is blunt force trauma.”

Clark coughed and leaned against the furthest available bulkhead, averting his eyes, “Why?”

Cochrane looked back and forth between the two opened Jem’Hadar, “My guess: they smuggled something onboard. Something that the transporters wouldn’t pick up when in two separate bodies.”

“The suicides…” Clark thought out loud. “One final chance to sabotage the ship. Damn, Taurik’s involved in this too.” He tapped his combadge, “Clark to Murphy.”

“Murphy here.”

“The Jem’Hadar smuggled something onto the ship inside their bodies,” Clark explained. “Something our transporters would pick up, but not if in two separate pieces.”

The other end was silent for a few seconds, and then Murphy responded, “We have plenty of weapons on board, and I don’t think a disruptor would do well in a Jem’Hadar stomach. I’d have to guess binary explosives – the ingredients are inert by themselves, but combine them and you’ve got a big potential boom on your hands.”

“We have explosives on board,” Clark said.

“You need a security clearance for that,” Murphy said. “Only problem is that the only binary ingredients I can think of that could survive in the gut of a Jemmie would need a binder to be able to detonate.”

“They committed suicide by injecting themselves with tetrazolic acid,” Cochrane prompted.

“That’s not good. Tetrazol is high on the list of ideal binders.”

“Scan for Taurik,” Clark ordered.

“I’m not getting anything,” Murphy said, frustration clear in his voice. “Ward and the other two aren’t showing either.”

“Get Toq’bae and R’Mor to amp up the sensitivity of the internal sensors. They’re on the ship somewhere,” Clark ordered, “You get down to sickbay immediately.”

“On my way. Murphy, out.”

 

19:04 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092.334547

 

Taurik grabbed onto a higher rung and pulled himself up a ladder in a vertical Jefferies tube, passing a placard for deck seven. The loud mechanics of an opening hatched sounded below, immediately followed by echoing voices; somebody else was in the network of access tubes, and close. Taurik immediately climbed back down the ladder and jumped into a horizontal shaft. He hit the metal deck with a thud.

Clark and Murphy were on their hands and feet in a Jefferies tube, with a phaser rifle slung across Murphy’s back and a hand phaser on Clark’s hip. Clark lead the way through the narrow engineering access tunnel. He looked back to Murphy, “Toq’bae said deck eight, right?” Clark snapped forward upon hearing the thud, “Did you hear that?”

Murphy closed the hatch behind him, “Hear what?”

Clark shuffled forward towards the open vertical shaft ahead. He poked his head out, looking up and then down through the tube that spanned almost the entire vertical reach of the saucer section of the ship. Glowing ODN network cables filled a vertical trench on the right side of the shaft, with the Aldrin’s massive computer core occupying the space behind the bulkhead.

Clark reached out and grabbed the closest ladder rung in the shaft, then slowly guided his legs out onto lower rungs. As he started up towards deck five, Murphy followed, though he was less hesitant in getting out onto the ladder. Clark paused at the deck seven intersection, first looking down the tunnel to his left, and then to his right. He caught sight of Taurik’s brown pants and soft shoes shuffling away, and shouted, “Taurik! Stop!”

Taurik froze for a moment as Clark pulled himself up into the tube, and then feverishly started forward, quickly rounding a corner before Clark could get his phaser into position to fire. He started down the tunnel after Taurik, his boots and rifle loudly banging against the deck and tunnel sides. Murphy rushed in behind him as Clark threw himself forward into the intersection, picking up a twisted and sideways prone position and taking aim at Taurik.

He squeezed the phaser trigger, sending a beam of yellow phaser energy down the tube and impacting Taurik in the side. Taurik tumbled over in the narrow confines of the Jefferies tube, but quickly pushed himself back up, unfazed by the strong stun setting on Clark’s weapon. Taurik lunged forward into another vertical intersection and threw himself down into the shaft.

 

19:05 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092.336445

 

Cochrane shook his head as he exited the morgue, puzzled over how Taurik had managed to rip into the Jem’Hadars’ stomachs with what appeared to have been rather excessive force. He rounded the corner into the main ward and walked back to his office, pausing when the vial of Taurik’s blood protruding from the testing station caught his eye. Cochrane took a few steps back to the station and pulled the vial out from his slot.

He could see it immediately, but still held the vial up to the light to confirm that it was indeed filled not with dark green copper-based Vulcan blood but with a thick golden liquid: Changeling matrix.

 

19:06 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092.338342

 

Clark rushed down the ladder, quickly glancing down the available Jefferies tubes at each deck intersection. He sighted Taurik’s feet slipping behind a corner at deck nine and swung his body into the tube, landing with a resounding bang. As he got back onto his hands and knees, Murphy crawled into the tunnel behind him, “Keep it down, will ‘ya?”

Clark’s combadge beeped, “Cochrane to Clark.”

Clark tapped the badge and started forward through the tube, “Clark here.”

“I figured out how Taurik got into the morgue and through the stasis fields,” Cochrane said.

“Really?” Clark rounded the corner Taurik had taken, finding himself looking back into the vertical shaft with the ODN lines. As a golden liquid tendril lifted up out of his sight in the shaft, he said with Cochrane, “He’s a Changeling.”

“What?” Murphy blurted from behind.

“I see you’ve figured that out too.”

Clark crawled forward as quickly as he could, dropping onto his back and pointing his phaser up the tube. Finding it clear, he pulled himself onto the ladder and resumed the game of hide-and-seek. He rushed up three decks, glancing down the tubes at each, before Murphy yelled from a deck below, “Got him!” Murphy hung away from the ladder with one arm, point the other with the rifle down the tube and firing. The shot impacted just above the fleeing Taurik’s back, showering him in sparks.

Murphy dived into the tube as Clark clambered back down to follow. As Murphy crawled after Taurik, Clark rolled onto his back in the tube and unlatched a panel from the top. He keyed in a code and the electric hum of forcefields snapped into place.

“Dammit!” Murphy yelled, pushing back from the forcefield that had just gone up in front of his face. He turned back to Clark, “Tell me before you do that!” Clark crawled up beside him, finding Taurik on the other side of the forcefield, trapped between it and one at the intersection with the next vertical shaft. Murphy’s rifle sat on the far side of the energy screen.

They stared at each other for several seconds, none daring to move. Taurik finally spoke, “You’re in over your head, Captain.” Without giving Clark a chance to respond, Taurik’s Vulcan body liquefied and collapsed into a golden puddle that oozed to the side of the tube and partially slipped up under an access panel.

“Oh no you don’t!” Clark rolled onto his back and pushed off with his legs to slide his body back down the tunnel to the controls he’d used to activate the forcefield. As he was reaching up to the small panel, the lights flashed and went dark all around, followed by the loud pop of a short-circuited plasma relay. Clark reached up and tapped the pane several times, and then pounded on it with his fist, “Dammit!” He grabbed the cover panel and pitched it down the tube, hearing it spark off the forcefield and then clatter to the deck.

The only illumination left in the tunnels was that of the light on top of Murphy’s rifle, sitting just out of reach on the other side of the forcefield. “He’s leaving!” Murphy called out as the shapeshifter slipped out of the access panel and funneled itself into a ventilation duct.

Clark tapped his combadge, “Clark to bridge.”

R’Mor immediately answered, her voice anxious, “Bridge here. What’s going on down there? I’m reading phaser fire!”

“I’ll explain later,” Clark said, “Beam Murphy and me to the bridge.”

I can’t.” R’Mor said, “There’s a secure level-ten forcefield around you two. I can’t seem to deactivate it.”

“How secure?” Clark asked.

“Level nine clearance. I’ve never seen anybody less than an admiral with level nine.”

Clark shook his head, “Do what you can. And see if Jensen can do anything about that clearance. Clark, out.”

Murphy sat down as best he could in the cramped tube, his outline barely visible in the rifle’s reflected light, “What now?”

 

19:12 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092.349726

 

Individually, bio-neural gel packs, isolinear chips, and ODN relays put out varying whines and hums so quiet that even a Ferengi would have to struggle to hear them. But grouped by the thousands, as they were in the Aldrin’s eight-deck-tall primary computer core, the multi-tonal hum was loud enough that it overpowered the constant low hum of the Aldrin’s environmental systems, gravity plating, and warp drive.

The core measured about four meters across, with a meter of working space all around to allow access for technicians. Hanging racks of the blue-green gel packs alternated with trays of tightly-packed vertical transparent yellow, green, and red isolinear chips, all interconnected by kilometers of optical cables. A half-meter-wide processing column ran up the center, wrapped in glowing ODN cables.

The golden liquid of a Changeling flowed into the core room through the wide slats of an atmospheric vent halfway up the tall cylindrical bulkhead. The shapeshifter quickly took on a roughly humanoid shape, reaching an amorphous leg and arm out to a nearby strip of ladder rungs. Having gained purchase, the rest of the Changeling slipped out of the vent and condensed into the form of Taurik.

Hanging from the ladder, Taurik looked down to the base of the core. On the circular deck fifteen meters below him were two Starfleet engineers, standing at a wide curved system display against the bulkhead. They spoke with raised voices, but at that distance the Changeling was unable to discern what they were saying over the constant drone of the core. He hung there silently for several seconds, observing the pair.

Satisfied that the engineers were oblivious to his presence, Taurik reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the small binary explosive pad. He squeezed his fist around it, forming the explosives into a sphere, and then reached into the core. His outstretched arm turned back to gold liquid and extended even further, reaching a meter further to the central column. Moving slowly, the Changeling’s fluid representation of a hand pressed the explosives against the column, pushing the putty so that it stuck against the wrapping of ODN cables.

Taurik carefully withdrew his arm, forming it back into the solid and textured form that matched the rest of his false body. He looked down again, reassuring himself that the officers at the bottom were still unaware. Taurik turned his attention back to the core, searching for a high-energy power source to ignite the explosives – they were generally stable and required the application of significant energy to detonate. He looked back down to the engineers again, noticing that one had a hand phaser attached to his belt.

The Changeling quickly lowered himself down the ladder, skipping every other rung on his way down, and stopping a few meters above the officers. The ladder ran down the right side of the display tended to by the engineers. Taurik jumped off the ladder, throwing himself at the engineers.

His feet made contact with the phaser-wearer’s shoulders, swiftly knocking him into the other and taking both to the deck. His target knocked unconscious by the impact, Taurik twisted around to grab the phaser. The other engineer scrambled onto his feet, raising two fists and taking a fighting stance. Taurik slowly stood, holding his hands out to his sides.

“Who are you?” The engineer demanded. He shuffled forward, not taking his eyes off Taurik.

“Your end,” Taurik sneered. He reached out with the hand not holding the phaser, in the blink of an eye liquefying the arm and stretching it out and around the engineer’s head. With blinding speed Taurik withdrew his extended arm, snapping the engineer’s head around with the loud crack of a shattering spinal column. The engineer’s body went limp and collapsed onto the deck.

A detonator secured, Taurik rushed back up the ladder, stopping halfway up where he’d planted the explosive. He ramped up the controls on the phaser and forced it into an overload. It took only a second for the weapon to start squealing, so Taurik quickly stretched his arm again to place the phaser-turned-grenade on an isolinear tray closest to the explosive, and then wasted no time liquefying his entire body and slipping back out through the vent.

The knocked-out engineer regained consciousness and rolled onto his back in time to see the Changeling’s golden liquid mass sliding into the ventilation ducts. He reached for the phaser on his belt, and froze when his hand slapped his hip instead. The distinctive whine of the overloading phaser pierced through the drone of the computer core, prompting the engineer to roll over and push up onto his feet. He bent down to grab his fallen comrade and then noticed the unnatural angle at which his head faced.

The phaser whine quickly increased to the point where the engineer clapped his hands over his ears. The pent up energy in the phaser finally released, vaporizing the phaser in a bright flash, detonating the nearby binary explosive and enveloping the upper half of the computer core in a fiery explosion. The blast knocked the engineer back onto the deck and showered burning bits of gel and chips around him.

The explosion quickly dissipated, plunging the core room into darkness. Dim emergency lights around the base of the bulkhead turned on, providing minimal illumination in the towering space. The engineer groaned and flopped onto his back again, staring up at the quiet devastation about him – the explosion had shredded close to five meter’s worth of the core and vaporized the center stretch of the processing column.

The lower half of the column suddenly lurched downward, no longer properly supported by the surrounding framework. The engineer scrambled backwards, pushing away from the center of the room as the structure of the core gave way like the branches of a tree and sent the broken processing column crashing to the deck in a cascade of gel packs, chips, cabling, and metal framing.

After sitting against the bulkhead curled in a ball with his hands over his head for several seconds while the last unsupported pieces of the core collapsed, the engineer slowly stood, keeping his body close to the wall. Ten meters worth of the computer core was piled in front of him in a two-meter-high mess of cables and chips covered in the spilled gelatinous innards of the gel packs. The blue-green gel slowly flowed out from the pile, pooling on the deck around his feet. He turned his gaze up to the upper half of the core, still securely suspended from the overhead and the bulkheads, but also damaged to the point of dripping gel and the occasional isolinear chip onto the pile below. He shook his head, “Well… damn.”

 

19:15 Hours, February 3rd, 2380

Stardate 57092. 355924

 

R’Mor looked nervously around the darkened bridge, her fingers lightly tapping the phaser at her hip. She stood on the front side of Toq’bae’s science station, who despite being just a meter away was barely visible against the dim emergency lighting. R’Mor looked over her shoulder to the science officer, “If that was the computer core, why hasn’t the auxiliary taken over?”

“We scavenged gel packs from the auxiliary when we had to swap out some of the infected packs,” Toq’bae said. “I think it was enough to render it mostly inoperable. I don’t know if they got around to replacing them.”

R’Mor sighed, “Apparently not.”

A bang came from the Jefferies tube hatch set into the side of the turbolift alcove. The small door slide to the side and Clark clambered out of the access tube. He stood and shook his head, “Status report.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” R’Mor said. “We think something exploded a few decks below, don’t know what or where. Everything’s down.” She smiled, “I see you got out of the forcefields.”

Clark nodded and straightened his uniform, “Yep. Murphy’s organizing teams to hunt down Taurik.”

“Taurik?” Toq’bae asked, clearly surprised.

“He was behind this,” Clark said, walking up the ramp to stand beside R’Mor. “He took some sort of explosives from the Jem’Hadar.”

R’Mor turned away from Clark and sneezed, bending slightly towards the deck. She straightened back up and noticed the confused look on Clark’s face, “Doc said I’d probably be feeling the allergy for a few days.” She rubbed her sleeve against her nose.

Clark nodded, “Pollen, right.” He looked back up to Toq’bae, “Have you been able to get into contact with anybody?”

Toq’bae shook his head, “Not yet, Captain.”

Clark tapped his own combadge, but the device didn’t respond. He slowly looked down at the communicator, his face showing confusion.

Toq’bae’s combadge beeped, “Clark to bridge.”

Toq’bae slowly raised a hand to his chest, not looking away from the Clark that stood in front of him. He tapped the combadge, “Bridge here.”

“I’m assuming you heard that boom.”

“We did,” Toq’bae said. “Not sure what it was.”

The Clark on the bridge looked down at his side, finding R’Mor’s phaser pressed against his waist. He slowly raised his arms.

“If you can figure out what it is, let me know,” Clark said over the combadge. “We’re going to work on escaping the Jefferies tubes in the dark.”

“We’ll do that. Bridge, out.” Toq’bae stood from his station as Clark stepped back, holding his hands behind his head, “So which Clark was the real Clark?”

R’Mor raised her phaser, taking aim at Clark, “What allergy made me sneeze?”

Clark’s eyebrows rose as he answered matter-of-factly, “Pollen.”

“Wrong answer.” Clark quickly shifted into the golden Changeling natural form and stretched out towards R’Mor in the blink of an eye. She fired her phaser as his arm surged forward, knocking the Changeling back and into a blob on the deck. It quickly turned a grayish solid and collapsed on itself like ash.

Toq’bae blinked several times. He stepped up to R’Mor as she lowered the phaser and exhaled, “Ensign, how did you know?”

“His combadge didn’t work,” R’Mor said, reattaching the phaser to her hip. She quickly whipped her head to the side and sneezed, then looked back up to Toq’bae, “And cotton. Trust me, he’d remember.”

Toq’bae tapped his combadge, “Toq’bae to Clark.”

Clark responded, “Clark here. And still lost.”

He walked up to the low mound of ash where the Changeling had died, “Captain, can you explain why R’Mor just killed you on the bridge?”