They are the self-appointed protectors of the Federation. Amoral, shrouded in secrecy, answerable to no one, Section 31 is the mysterious covert operations division of Starfleet, a rogue shadow group commited to safeguarding the Federation at any cost.
Mere days after the startling events of AVATAR, Dr. Julian Bashir faces his darkest nightmare when Section 31 compels him to undertake amission to stop one of their own. But this renegade is no ordinary agent. Like Bashir, Dr. Ethan Locken is genetically enhanced, a human superior in body and mind. But Locken dreams of remaking the galaxy in his own image -- and creating a new human empire based on the example of the infamous Khan Noonien Singh.
And as he begins to understand the terrifying truth about his opposite number, Bashir will learn more about himself than he ever wanted.
NO STOPPING THEM.
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Something was almost ready to come out of warp. Something very big.
It was tripping all of Deep Space 9's proximity alarms, lighting up the sensor board in ways Ensign Thirishar ch'Thane had never seen before. If the readings were accurate -- and he was certain they were -- a subspace displacement of almost unheard-of proportions was heading directly for the station and playing havoc with the long-range sensor arrays. Shar found himself struggling with his console, fighting back his mounting frustration as each klaxon he muted was quickly replaced by another.
The sudden pins-and-needles sensation in his antennae alerted him to the fact that Commander Vaughn was standing just behind him. Shar tried not to look flustered; the commander had a casual manner about him much of the time, but Vaughn was always an intimidating presence. Most Andorians cultivated a polite, soft-spoken demeanor, even -- some might say especially -- when they were about to slip daggers between each other's ribs, but Shar was still adapting to Vaughn's habit of shifting back and forth between easygoing civility and Starfleet formality.
"Cardassian control interfaces take some getting used to, don't they?" he asked gently, sipping the noisome beverage Shar had learned was called "twig tea."
"Yes, sir," Shar admitted, thoroughly embarrassed. After six weeks as DS9's science officer, he thought he'd finally mastered the idiosyncrasies of his own console. To have the station's new first officer witness his sudden ineptitude was mortifying.
As if sensing his thoughts, Vaughn leaned over for a better view of the readings. "Relax, Ensign," he said. "Given the circumstances, it's no wonder the arrays are going haywire. Stay with it."
Shar let out a breath and concentrated. As he moved his long fingers over the board again, the klaxons finally began to diminish. When the last of them was silenced, Vaughn patted him on the shoulder. "Good. Whenever operating alien technology, I find it's usually helpful to keep in mind the psychology of the people who created it. In this case, extremely detail-oriented, meticulous, and thorough. Redundancies in the system are a given."
"I'll remember that, sir," Shar said.
"Something coming in?" Shar looked up to see Colonel Kira standing in the open doors of the station commander's office, her voice echoing loudly in the otherwise quiet operations center.
Returning to his position at the central ops table, Vaughn set up an interface with Shar's sensor board. "Certainly looks that way. Something quite large, coming in at low warp."
"Nog?" Kira asked, coming down the stairs to join Vaughn.
"It had better be," the commander said. "If it isn't, we're going to become a multi-gigaton smear of debris across the Denorios Belt."
Kira ignored Vaughn's commentary as she studied the tabletop display. "But no hail?" The question was directed at Shar.
"No, sir," Shar replied, "but we anticipated this. Something this big coming out of warp, when you consider the disruption to subspace, it's to be expected..." But Colonel Kira wasn't listening anymore. She was watching the track of blips on the table.
"Does it look to you like he's giving himself enough room to brake?" Kira asked Vaughn.
"It depends on how much momentum it had when Nog took it into warp," Vaughn said. "Let him do his job, Colonel. He seemed to know what he was doing. The kid is smart. And he has style to burn."
"Style," Kira repeated. "Nog?" She seemed to be having trouble forming an association between the two words.
"Sure," Vaughn said. "His little scheme. His solution for...all this." Vaughn waved his hand around the dimmer-than-usual operations center. Many of DS9's nonessential systems had been shut off during the ongoing state of emergency. Ever since the colonel had been forced to jettison the station's fusion core, DS9 had been running on a complex network of Starfleet emergency generators. The measure had bought them time, allowing the station to continue functioning, albeit at nearly a third of its normal power consumption. But after two weeks of running at full capacity, the system was showing the strain. In the last few days alone, entire sections of the station had been evacuated and powered down so as not to further overtax the generator network. In fact, with the exception of the scheduled aid convoys to Cardassia Prime and the three Allied ships patrolling space near the wormhole, DS9 was currently turning away all traffic.
The pulse of the station had slowed to a sluggish thud since Kira had ejected its great heart into space. The explosion, according to the Bajoran news feeds, had been visible across most of the planet's nightside, appearing like a new star just as the westernmost cities were slipping into evening and those easternmost were turning off their lights for the night. Young children had run outdoors thinking it was fireworks for a holiday while their grandparents, recalling the arrival of the Cardassian occupation fleet, had fought to keep them inside.
Shar was both intrigued and somewhat perplexed by the behavior of some of his crewmates as conditions aboard the station deteriorated. The more the place began to feel like a frontier outpost, the happier some of the old hands seemed to be. Dr. Bashir was practically giddy about it sometimes. Shar had begun to form the opinion that these people were in serious need of some leave time, a lot of leave time. This is what happens, he told himself, when you associate with prophets, ghosts, and demons.
Shar's attention swam back to the conversation between the commander and the colonel. "I admit I've been skeptical about this all along," Kira was saying. "But I hate to discourage Nog's initiative..."
"...and you didn't have any better ideas," Vaughn finished for her.
"Something like that," Kira said. Shar wondered if she minded that the commander finished sentences for her. Then again, he decided, the colonel seemed like the sort who would finish sentences for her commanding officer. He hadn't yet been asked to sit in on a briefing between Kira and her Bajoran superiors. Now, that would be interesting, he decided.
So far, there hadn't been any discussion about what would happen if Nog's plan didn't work, but Shar could not find it in himself to be too optimistic about DS9's future. The Cardassian station was thirty years old, and despite all the reengineering that Starfleet had put into it, it had taken quite a beating in recent years. Perhaps it would be a mercy to send the station spinning into Bajor's sun and start over fresh. In such a scenario, considering the strategic importance of the wormhole, it seemed likely that Starfleet would insist on constructing a new starbase, a project that would certainly cause controversy and discord among the Allies, unless Bajor's latest petition for Federation membership were put on a fast track. The Federation was war-weary and its resources were stretched thin. The Council would bend a polite ear to listen to all sides, but when it was done, they would send in the Starfleet Corps of Engineers no matter what anyone said. Shar knew how politics worked. Better, in fact, than he really wanted to know.
"Anything on the short-range sensors, Ensign?" Kira asked.
Shar blinked, then said, "I was told that the short-range array was to be taken offline until further notice. Sir." Shar attempted to project a mental image of Commander Vaughn issuing the order. He knew that Bajorans were no more psionic than most Andorians, but he thought it was worth the attempt.
Vaughn, apparently, had better than average psionic abilities for a human, because he picked up Shar's distress call. "I gave the order, Colonel," he said. "The patrol ships are more than capable of covering our front yard."
"I don't remember authorizing that," Kira said, and Shar felt himself singed by the heat of the glare she focused on Vaughn. He fought the urge to scratch his left antenna.
"You didn't," Vaughn said agreeably. "I decided to shut them down yesterday." He took a sip of tea. "You were busy dealing with the Cardassian liaison at the time. I didn't want to bother you with it. It was an easy choice: short-range sensors or lights."
Shar watched as the colonel held her first officer's gaze for a moment. He knew that Commander Vaughn's job had once been hers. Not long ago, it had been her responsibility to know everything that happened on the station. Shar had heard that she went through a similar period of adjustment with Vaughn's predecessor, Tiris Jast, and wondered how much Kira still blamed herself for Jast's tragic demise...and how much that misplaced guilt played on her natural impulse to micromanage the running of the station. Shar knew enough people with command responsibilities to know that one of the worst things about being promoted was coming to grips with the idea that you had to trust someone else to make some of the decisions.
Kira, it seemed, was still making that adjustment. Her apparent frustration didn't evaporate, but it did recede significantly. "Right," she said. "Lights. Good call, Commander."
Shar felt his own tension diminish just in time to hear Lieutenant Bowers report from tactical that he was receiving warning flashes from all three patrol ships, each going to heightened alert status as the monstrous subspace displacement closed on the Bajoran system. Shar shot a questioning glance toward Kira, and waited for her nod before bringing the short range sensors back online.
He found himself wishing he'd kept them off as he looked at the readings, cursing softly in his native tongue when he saw that the disruption to subspace had intensified markedly. The colonel didn't seem to notice his outburst, more concerned with instructing Bowers to activate the main viewscreen, but Commander Vaughn shot him a warning glance that indicated he might know some Andorii.
The viewscreen came online and Shar tried to divide his attention between the image on it and his console. Space split open with a rapidly dissolving warp field. Time seemed to slow down as the aperture continued to expand, stretching so wide that for a moment, in spite of everything he knew to the contrary about what was unfolding, Shar wondered if DS9 would be pulled inside.
Instead, something emerged. Led by a single runabout, nine assorted Federation starships moving in carefully calculated formation dropped out of warp as one, the bright blue cones of their tractor beams strategically distributed over the tremendous mass of their shared burden. How anyone had talked nine starship captains -- not to mention their chief engineers -- into even attempting such a thing, Shar couldn't guess. He didn't need to imagine the complex level of calibration and coordination that the operation required, or who was behind it; Nog had transmitted his revised plan before it had been implemented, and everyone but Commander Vaughn had pretty much decided that he was out of his mind. The computer models, not to mention Deep Space 9's increasing desperation, had finally convinced Kira that they had nothing to lose, and Shar privately began to suspect that the colonel shared Vaughn's apparent taste for audacity.
Shar saw the warning signs in the data stream flowing across the board, then looked back up at the viewscreen, expecting to see warp nacelles blowing out, warp cores ejecting, and clouds of white-hot plasma venting...but instead he saw something else:
He looked at the colonel. She was smiling -- no, grinning -- then whooping with triumph as she madly pounded the command station, unleashing the elation of a woman who, he knew, despite everything else she had experienced in her life, never took the miraculous for granted.
Shar looked up at the screen again. It was still there.
Empok Nor, Deep Space 9's long-abandoned twin.
"Colonel, we're receiving a hail from the Rio Grande," Bowers announced.
"It's about time," Kira said, unable to get the smile off her face. "On screen, Lieutenant."
Bowers replaced the exterior scene with the image of Nog at the controls of the runabout. He looked, Shar thought, as though he hadn't slept in days. "Lieutenant Nog reporting in, Colonel."
"Nog, I -- " Kira started, then faltered and shook her head, words failing her. Finally she took a breath and tried again. "You realize this is going to ruin my view of the wormhole, don't you?"
Nog almost cracked a smile. "Not for long, Colonel," he assured her. "Once we transfer Empok Nor's lower core to Deep Space 9, we can tow what's left of the station someplace nearby and park it there for the next time we need spare parts."
"How did the station hold up?" Vaughn asked.
"Even better than the simulations projected, Commander," Nog said. "Some minor structural damage to two of the lower pylons, but for a ten-day low-warp journey across three light-years...not bad. It's like Chief O'Brien used to say about Deep Space 9: The Cardassians built this place to last."
"You look tired, Nog," Kira said.
Nog shrugged his shoulders, seeming to resist the urge to rub the large black circles under his eyes. "I'm fine, Colonel. Slept three hours last night. I'll be able to start work on the fusion-core transfer just as soon as we've stabilized our orbit."
"No, I don't think so," Vaughn said. "See that Empok Nor is stable, but I want you asleep in your quarters when you're finished." Nog began to protest, but stopped when he saw the tilt of Vaughn's head. "Don't force me to make it an order, Nog."
Nog sagged, then seemed to almost smile gratefully. "Yes, Commander. Thank you, sir. Colonel...I want you to know the SCE really came through. This wouldn't have happened without them, or the ships in the convoy."
Kira smiled. "I'll be sure to note that in my report, Nog."
"I also assured the convoy captains you'd be able to arrange shore leave for their crews on Bajor," Nog said, suddenly looking a little worried. "And any maintenance the ships might need..."
If Nog expected the colonel to be put out, he was disappointed. "Don't worry, Lieutenant," Kira said, still smiling. "I'll take care of it. And Nog?"
Nog's face split into a grin. "Thank you, Colonel," he said, and signed off.
Vaughn settled back into a chair and sipped his tea. He looked, Shar thought, as satisfied as he would be if he had just finished pulling the station all the way from the Trivas system himself. "I told you the kid had style."
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures
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