Chapter 31

San Francisco, California

Earth, Sol System, Sector 001

09:53 Hours, February 14th, 2380

Stardate 57121.344711


Ross quietly looked out through the tinted right side window of the hovercraft as it passed through the streets of San Francisco. The vehicle slipped through a residential neighborhood of centuries-old Victorian-style rowhouses, one of many large swathes of the city that had resisted the hyper urbanization that had produced towering skyscrapers that lined the northeastern waterfront. He sat in the back with Clark; they had left Starfleet Medical several minutes earlier, where the Admiral had checked in on President Ak’telKi’s recovery.

“She’ll be fine,” Clark said, attempting to comfort the Admiral. He knew the two had grown close since he’d taken the post of Starfleet Liaison a few years earlier. The President’s recovery was progressing quickly; the doctors said she’d be out in a few more days, though Clark was surprised it was going to be that long given how actively engaged she was in governing the Federation from her hospital room. They’d bumped into the Klingon ambassador in the hallway on the way in, and as they left a few minutes later they’d found the ministers of commerce and agriculture waiting outside along with a pair of Federation Council members.

Ross nodded absently, “I know.” The hovercraft banked as it slipped out of the residential neighborhood and onto the expressway that passed along the northern edge of the Starfleet Academy campus in The Presidio. He looked to Clark, “Security finished a second scan and phaser sweep of the Danbury rubble. Still nothing.”

Clark sighed, “Russell’s in the wind.”

“So it would seem,” Ross replied. “And, as usual, the Founder leader’s not talking. She’s barely said a word since we took her into custody.” The hovercraft banked to the right as the expressway took it out onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The dark orange suspension cables and pedestrians on the eastern side whipped past as they crossed over the opening of the bay. “You remember the rules from the public affairs office?”

“No changelings, no friendly fire, no twenty-fifth century weapons; everything’s just peachy,” Clark said, shaking his head side-to-side. He shifted to the side so he could look out through the glass door by Ross. Ahead and to the right, sitting at the back of the small Horseshoe Bay, was Starfleet Headquarters, with work crews already clearly visible repairing the damage dealt by Russell’s explosion.

The hovercraft slowed and banked off the first exit, gliding down the hill towards the main entrance to Starfleet Headquarters, a set of five stairs – one for each of the five founding members of the United Federation of Planets – some twenty meters across. The stairs led up to an open concrete plaza in front of the vertical glass façade of the public-facing Starfleet Headquarters building. A row of one hundred eighty poles flying flags of all different shapes for each of the Federation’s members crossed the middle of the plaza.

Clark swallowed hard as they made the sweeping approach; a gaggle of dozens of reporters at the base of the stairs was waiting for them, along with around two hundred additional Starfleet officers and civilians waiting on the steps. Starfleet’s public affairs office had worked actively to control the story surrounding the Aldrin and explosion in Starfleet Command since it had broken a few days prior, putting Clark in front of the media was the final step in their plan to steer the direction of reporting.

Ross chuckled and reached over to place a comforting hand on Clark’s shoulder, “It’ll be fine, Captain. Just stick with the script.” As the hovercraft slowed to a stop, the crowd turned to watch.

“This is ridiculous,” Clark said, watching the reporters jostle for positions while a handful of junior Starfleet officers tried to keep them back from the vehicle. Several spherical camera pods floated about a meter over their heads, their cameras focused down on the hovercraft’s door.

Ross laughed, “Captain, you’re going to have to get used to this. It only gets worse from here.”

“Great,” Clark moaned as Ross swiped his hand across the glass. The door responded a moment later by sliding silently to the rear, allowing Ross to confidently step out onto the sidewalk. A few of the reporters called for his attention, some presumptively asking questions in vain as the admiral ignored them. The rest were focused on the open doorway in the side of the hovercraft, waiting for Clark to exit.

Ross turned around, “Captain?” He couldn’t help but be amused by Clark’s stance, crouched halfway to the door, as if he was frozen in fear by the near silence of the assembled press. Clark reluctantly moved forward, stepping out and awkwardly straightening his uniform top. He was instantly assaulted with a mass of questions, so many he struggled to make out complete queries. The floating camera pods moved in closer and a dozen individual spotlights and dozens more camera flashes overwhelmed his eyes. The crowd of onlookers on either side of the press broke into applause, with a handful of cheers peppered in.

Clark resisted the urge to dive back into the hovercraft, in spite of his best judgment of the bright and loud crowd in front of him. He held up a hand to block the spotlight from a particularly bright camera pod that floated less than a meter away. Looking across the crowd, he couldn’t find an opening to get to the podium at the top of the stairs where three bemused public affairs officers stood.

Ross stepped back to Clark’s side and leaned it towards his ear to speak over the onslaught of questions from the reporters, “Are you okay?”

“How are we supposed to get up there?” Clark asked, gesturing towards the podium.

Ross laughed loudly and walked towards the steps, forcing the mass of reporters to step back and form a pathway as he moved. Clark quickly followed behind, doing his best to ignore the multiple questions and calls of his name as he passed through. Ross walked up the steps to the podium, immediately grabbing the outstretched hand of a tan-haired female Caitian commander. Clark followed, smiling as he clasped her hand and spoke loud enough that she could hear him over the crowd, “Commander M’Rha, it’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Captain,” she replied in a silky voice typical of Caitians.

Clark smiled at Ross, “The Commander was one of my instructors at the Academy; Diplomacy 201.” He looked back to M’Rha, “You’re in public affairs now?”

“Starfleet Spokesman,” she said, slapping his shoulder. “And you’re a starship captain?”

Clark laughed, “For now!” He looked over his shoulder at the clapping crowd, and then back to M’Rha, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

She shook her head, “No, David, I have not.” She slapped his shoulder and walked back to the podium. M’Rha held up both her hands, attempting to quiet the press, “Please, please…” The chatter died down and she said into the microphone, “Alright, alright, calm down people. We know why you’re here, so I’ll stop wasting your time.” She pointed a hand over to Clark, “Captain of the U.S.S. Aldrin, Captain David Clark.”

M’Rha stepped away from the podium, making way for Clark. He walked up, pulled a small PADD from his pants pocket, and set it on the podium. A cluster of small black microphones sat at the top edge of the podium, ready to broadcast his words. The camera pods hovered nearby, quietly filming as the press roared back into action, throwing a dozen questions at once at Clark.

Clark took a deep breath and said, “I have a statement to read, and then I will take your questions.” The reporters didn’t quiet down, continuing to press him with questions. Clark rolled his eyes and let his annoyance show, “Will you be quiet for just one minute?” He held up the PADD, “Statement first, then your questions. That’s not hard.”

The reporters quickly went quiet, though a ripple of laughter rolled through crowd of onlookers.

Clark smirked, “Thank you.” He set the PADD back down and began to read, “On Stardate 57091, the U.S.S. Aldrin under my command traveled into the Gamma Quadrant via the Bajoran Wormhole. A dissident sect of the Dominion–” Clark broke from the script and looked up to add, “Apparently displeased with the outcome the war–” he looked back down to the PADD, “–captured the Aldrin and its crew. The crew of the Aldrin escaped their confinement on Stardate 57100 and secured the vessel with the assistance of the legitimate Dominion forces. Though the leaders of the dissident sect were killed in the operation, it is believed their goal was to reignite hostilities between the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant. Two hundred twenty six officers from the U.S.S. Aldrin were killed or declared missing in action as a result of this operation. Our hearts go out to their loved ones at this time.” He took a slow breath and then looked back up to the crowd, “I’ll take your questions at this time.”

The reporters burst out all at once, their overlapping questions indecipherable to Clark. He pointed at an aging Human man at the front of the pack; the reporters all died down so he could ask his question. The man introduced himself, “Dwight Bern, Federation News Service. Captain, Starfleet Command has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the circumstances under which the Aldrin was captured. How was the Dominion able to take the ship?”

Clark nodded and answered, “Thank you for the question, Mr. Bern. The Aldrin’s systems were taken offline by a Dominion computer virus; they were able to take the ship without firing a shot.”

The reporters immediately threw a barrage of questions at Clark, prompting him to point to a Bolian woman to the side. She asked, “You said a Dominion computer virus? Are other ships in the fleet vulnerable to such hacking?”

“I’m not certain,” Clark said. “It would depend on the nature of the vulnerability, though I doubt that every ship in the fleet is susceptible to infection.” Realizing the less-than-reassuring tone of his answer, he added, “Starfleet is analyzing the virus and will ensure that any exploits revealed by it are patched. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this is more than an isolated incident.” He swallowed hard, desperately wanting to tell the truth about the Aldrin’s capture.

Clark anticipated the surge of questions from the mass of reporters and quickly pointed to a Vulcan man in the center, who calmly asked, “You stated that you believe the goal of this supposed dissident sect of the Dominion was to reignite hostilities with the Alpha Quadrant. How were their goals better served by capturing the Aldrin versus destroying it?”

“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Clark said, biding for more time as he rushed to form an answer.

The Vulcan rephrased, “If their goal was to resume the war with the Federation and other Alpha Quadrant powers, how was it more advantageous for them to commit the resources to capturing the Aldrin and its crew intact instead of destroying it outright?”

“First off,” Clark leaned onto the podium, “The crew was not intact. We lost two hundred twenty six fine men and women. Second, the Aldrin is the newest ship in the fleet. It is outfitted with the latest technologies; the Dominion would want to get their hands on it to analyze what we’ve developed in the last five years for weaknesses. That’s why.”

The Vulcan quickly responded, “To what technologies are you referring? The Aldrin is an Akira-class starship, a design that is several years old and saw extensive action during the war. The Dominion should be quite familiar with its capabilities.”

Clark blinked several times before answering, “There have been numerous developments in recent years that have improved our offensive and defensive capabilities, as well as enhancements to our warp drive, communications, and computer systems. I can’t comment specifically on what they may have been hoping to exploit, but I can assure you we have been working closely with representatives from the proper Dominion leadership to ensure that any sensitive data has been recovered.” M’Rha nodded slowly in approval.

The reporters again launched into questions, and the word ‘Russell’ caught is attention. He pointed to a young Human woman at the back of the crowd, “You had a question, Ma’am?”

“Padma Kapoor, Times of India,” she said. “Is there any connection between this Dominion plot, your return to Earth, and the near simultaneous explosion here at Starfleet HQ that killed your commanding admiral and put the President in the hospital?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Clark said with false matter-of-factness. “The accident that took the lives of Admiral Russell, Lieutenant Commander Benza, and Lieutenant Gahn was a tragedy. We mourn their loss as we mourn the loss of those aboard the Aldrin. Every indication is that the explosion at the Danbury Offices was an accidental power juncture overload. Nothing more.”

“I don’t know about you, Captain” Kapoor said, “But I have a hard time believing it’s a coincidence.”

Clark rolled his eyes, “Next question.” He pointed a hand at a Coridanite woman waving her arm.

She quickly said, “I have two questions, Captain.”

“I’m not sure I can handle two questions,” Clark interjected, eliciting a bit of laughter from the crowd.

The Coridanite woman continued, “First, why did the Aldrin travel almost the entire way to Earth after returning from the Gamma Quadrant instead of contacting Starfleet Command? Second, do you care to comment on the rumors of the Fifth Fleet and the U.S.S. Columbia engaging the Aldrin while en route to Earth?”

Clark looked over to Ross and M’Rha with an amused look on his face, and then turned back to the reporters, “Okay, two answers. We feared the virus infecting the Aldrin might also have compromised elements of Starfleet’s infrastructure or might be relaying our communications to the rogue Dominion sect. So we headed directly for Earth under radio silence to avoid giving any inadvertent, uh, warnings to any remaining hostiles that we were onto their plan. As for the rumors about the Aldrin being engaged by Starfleet vessels, that’s complete horseshit. I believe the Fifth Fleet was engaged in training exercises around Trill and we passed by the system on our way to Earth; I can see how somebody with only partial knowledge of the tactical situation could come to such a nonsensical conclusion.”

The Coridanite pressed on, “What about the reports of Dominion vessels recovered in that area and transported to Utopia Planitia for analysis?”

“First I’ve heard of that,” Clark said with false matter-of-factness. “Look, I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m not going to validate these insane conspiracy theories. Two hundred twenty six people died on the Aldrin. You need to stop trying to find something more sinister at work here – is it not bad enough that a group of war-crazed madmen half a galaxy away almost pushed us back into war?”

That comment sent the media into a tizzy, with the questions coming so densely that Clark instinctively stepped back slightly from the podium. He looked over to M’Rha, who tapped her wrist, giving Clark a signal to wrap things up, so he stepped back up to the podium, “Last question.” The reporters continued their interrogative barrage, prompting Clark to lean in and snap at the microphones, “Shut up!”

The reporters instantly went quiet. Clark stood back up and took a deep breath, then said, “I have time for one more question. Make it count; hands up.” Close to two-thirds of the press raised a hand into the air. Clark smirked and pointed at a Bajoran man in the center, “You, Bajoran State Media?”

The Bajoran nodded, “Yes; I’m Jaram Rhok, Earth Correspondent. You brought up war; is the Federation planning any sort of retaliatory attacks against the Dominion over this incident?”

“No,” Clark said flatly. “The parties involved in this plot were either killed or apprehended and are now in Dominion custody; I have no doubt they will be dealt with most strongly. The war’s been over for nearly five years, nobody wants to see it started again. I, along with everybody else in the quadrant, lost people I cared about in the war. We won the peace, and believe me we will do whatever it takes to ensure we keep it.”

M’Rha stepped up next to him and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. Clark stepped back from the podium and she moved in, speaking to the microphones, “Thank you, Captain. That concludes this press conference. If you have any further questions, please direct them to the Starfleet Public Affairs Directorate.”

She stepped away from the podium as the reporters launched into a new volley of questions, joining Clark and Ross a few meters to the rear. M’Rha smiled, “Excellent job handling the jackals, Captain.”

Clark returned the grin, “Thanks.”

Her smile quickly disappeared, “Though, I could have done without you telling them to shut up and calling a rumor complete horseshit; even if it is.”

Ross laughed and started towards the glass doors, “Come on, Captain, we’ve got another meeting.” As Clark walked away from the podium, a wave of applause rippled through the crowd, drawing a perplexed expression to his face.