Once the runabout had cleared the challenging Moebius Cluster, it didn’t take them long to reach Piqus VII. After their incident with the Outlander vessel, Tazla had feared that another private chat with their Krellonian pilot had been called for, considering how the destruction of the freighter had affected him, to the point that he had immediately left the cockpit afterward.
Thankfully, Culsten’s absence had only been a short one and he had returned after just a few minutes to retake the helm and no further words were exchanged regarding the episode.
Tazla couldn’t deny that she felt awful herself for the Outlanders who had lost their lives on that ship or the fact that they had played a significant role in their fate. After all, if that freighter had not detected them, it would not have altered course and thereby come to the attention of the Krellonian border forces.
Tazla had long since given up on retrospectively pondering hypotheticals, especially when she needed to keep her focus on a mission. Only once it came to an end, successfully or otherwise, did she allow herself to replay every scenario to consider any alternatives which could have led to a better outcome in the end.
For now, she was too preoccupied with what their sensors were telling her about their destination as the runabout entered the same star system which they had barely escaped just a few days earlier—albeit in a different universe.
“There’s a lot more traffic in this system than what we’ve seen on our side,” she said as she looked over the sensor data which showed her quite a few Krellonian ships, mostly small escorts and large freighters in and around the planet’s orbit. She turned to look at Culsten. “Could be a problem for us.”
He shook his head. “We should be fine as long as we keep out of visual range of any other ships and they don’t carry out any high-resolution scans. I’m not detecting any major orbital installations so we might be able to just slip into the atmosphere.”
The situation made her recall the last time she had needed to get off that planet without raising any suspicions. Something that she and Elijah Katanga had managed quite successfully.
“If this place is anything like ours, we should be able to use the electromagnetic interference around Piqus’ northern pole to mask our approach,” Culsten said.
Tazla regarded him with a surprised look, wondering for just a moment if he was able to read her mind since that had been exactly how she had accomplished this feat previously. Then it dawned on her how he knew. “You and Garla circumvented the planetary quarantine on Piqus to leave the surface.”
It was the same method Garla and her people had used to smuggle personnel from the surface to her clandestine asteroid bases to manufacture the Omega molecule for the subspace aliens. And it had been those residual thruster traces she and Katanga had followed to find out about those bases.
“You knew about it as well?”
“Yes,” she said, but remained vague on the subject, seeing that she wasn’t exactly at liberty to discuss the full details of her discovery. “More importantly, Garla is well aware of this little trick. May have even come up with it in the first place. And there is no way she wouldn’t have realized that this is a very different place to the Piqus she knows once she arrived here. I wouldn’t be surprised if she used a less conspicuous approach as well.”
“That would make sense. But where would she have gone? I can’t imagine that she’d go straight for the capital in a Federation shuttlecraft.”
“I know where I’d go.”
They both seemed to have had the same thought. “As good a place to start as anywhere, I guess,” he said as he began his approach, making sure to mask his true destination until they were near enough to the northern pole to be undetectable by sensors.
Their collective hunch turned out to be right on the money when they found the exact same quarry which had functioned as the temporary site of the field hospital in their universe precisely where they had expected it, down to the wide, narrow and deep ravine running all the way across the length of it. And this quarry, too, had apparently long since been abandoned.
There was no sign of the hospital they had evacuated in a hurry and then destroyed before leaving Piqus VII on their side of course, however, they did find some Starfleet property.
“It’s the shuttle,” Culsten said as they descended towards the bottom of the quarry. Tazla had spotted it as well, easily visible even from a distance and in the dusky, mid-evening light. It was parked right in the open, its back ramp closed and with no apparent activity nearby.
She pointed at a spot about a hundred meters from the parked shuttle where a cluttering of empty buildings and rusted equipment would provide the larger runabout with some cover. “Take us down there.”
Culsten nodded and initiated the landing procedure.
In the meantime, Tazla gathered the rest of the team consisting of the three SMT operators: Sensy, Ivory, and Violet
“We may be required to operate within populated areas,” she said as she gathered a small case in the back compartment of the runabout. “Lif shouldn’t have any problems blending in but it won’t be as easy for the rest of us. The intelligence obtained from Captain Donners suggests that this version of the Krellonian Star Alliance is just as xenophobic as the one we’ve dealt with in our universe, if not more so.”
Sensy nodded. “Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve carried out infiltration work. What do you suggest we do about disguises? We don’t have access to a surgeon for physical alterations.”
She retrieved a small case, placed it on a table and opened its lid. Inside were several small, disk-shaped devices. “As it so happens, I too have previous experience with clandestine work. And I’ve kept a few souvenirs which I think may come in handy here,” she added with a little smirk. She slightly pulled on the collar of the inconspicuous civilian shirt she now wore in lieu of her uniform and placed the coin-sized device at the left base of her neck.
She felt a slight tingling sensation emanate from the device and spreading upwards to cover all of her head as if she had just donned a wooly mask. Judging by the look on the faces of the four operators, the device had worked as expected.
“Neat trick,” said Violet.
“Holo-masks. Basically, holographic camouflage,” she said and then turned the case towards the others. “I’ve already programmed these with a Krellonian biological makeup from the data we had available.”
The SMT members each took a device and then followed her example and attached them to their necks, making sure they hid them underneath their own civilian outfits.
Within moments Sensy’s full red beard was gone, as were his ears on his otherwise bald head. Ivory retained her rich dark skin but the Vulcan’s tapered ears vanished. Violet’s bright hair turned white.
A soft bump indicated that the runabout had landed and shortly after Culsten entered the compartment and immediately froze as she and the others turned to face him.
“What do you think?” she said with a grin.
“I’d like to know who the hell you people are and what you’ve done with the away team.”
“Do you believe it’ll work?”
He stepped a bit closer to her and she allowed him to regard her from all angles, slightly turning her head both ways. “It certainly took care of your Trill spots and those funny looking appendages you call ears.”
She glared at him.
Culsten shrugged. “Hey, they all look odd to me.”
“Will it be enough to pass as Krellonians?” she said.
He continued to look her over, and the others as well. “Well, none of you would win a beauty contest on Krellon but I think it should be fine. Red hair is not as common among my people and dark skin is rare among Piqus natives but neither is so unusual that it should make you stand out.”
“Excellent,” said Tazla and then regarded the operators again. “There are some limitations to these devices. Chief among them is that they’ll only last for about eight hours before requiring a recharge. Which means we’re on the clock. Let’s find Garla, bring her back here and return to Eagle as quickly as we can.”
“No arguments here,” said Sensy with a nod.
The five away team members, all armed with hand phasers hidden under their outfits disembarked the runabout and then, under Tazla’s instructions, crossed the ravine, which was much trickier to navigate here, since instead of a solid bridge, the only thing connecting both sides was nothing more than a treacherous looking plank.
Once having crossed the narrow board single file, the team carefully approached the nearby shuttle from the rear.
Sensy and Ivory took on position to the right of the ramp while Tazla, Culsten, and Violet stood to the left. All of them raised their weapons as Culsten entered an override code into the small manual release panel.
The hatch blew open with a small explosion and fell to the ground. Before it had even had a chance to settle, the SMT operators jumped into the shuttle with their phasers at the ready.
“Clear,” Sensy called out.
Tazla stepped in after them as did Culsten.
The small interior space of the shuttle was empty.
“I guess that would have been too easy,” said Culsten.
She indicated towards the main console in the front cockpit and the Krellonian quickly took a seat and began to check the onboard computer. “According to the flight log, the shuttle landed here six hours ago.”
“Any indication where she may have gone?” Tazla asked.
He went back to work and after a moment he began to nod. “The transporter was used shortly after landing,” he said and then looked up. “I have the coordinates. It’s the capital city. I think it’s a small alleyway near the center of town.”
“Makes sense that she would pick an out of place location since she wouldn’t know what she’ll find,” said Sensy.
Tazla nodded and then looked back at Culsten. “Let’s go after her.”
He activated the right controls. “Ready to energize in five seconds,” he said and quickly jumped back up to join the others who took position in a tight outward-facing circle.
Since the shuttle transporter was not powerful enough to beam them all at once, the away team materialized in the alley in pairs with Tazla the last person to make the journey. Once she had fully rematerialized she found that the operators had already secured the area. Thankfully, Garla had chosen her entry point carefully, the alley was devoid of people.
Tazla zipped up her jacket a little tighter, feeling the cold chill of Piqus VII which was only getting worse the later the hour.
Culsten had a tricorder out. “We’re definitely near the center of the city. About four hundred meters from what was the Eye building in our universe and Garla’s headquarters here. I could try to scan for her but I’m not sure if it won’t trigger any alarms.”
“Let’s try to avoid any active scans for now. I’d rather not take the chance of them being discovered. We’ll make our way towards the Eye building and see what we can determine from there.”
“Ivory, take point,” Sensy instructed the Vulcan.
The team set out towards the end of the alley and found themselves at the edge of a much busier street.
Considering the late evening hour, Tazla had expected to find the streets of the city to be quiet with little foot and vehicle traffic. While she hadn’t truly had a chance to visit the capital of Piqus VII in their universe thanks to Chief Administrator Chella’s zealous ban of offworlders, except for the Culsten’s rescue mission which had not exactly afforded her much time for sightseeing, she had assumed that a relatively small and inconsequential colony at the outer fringes of the Krellonian Star Alliance did not boast a lively night scene.
This may have been true for their universe but it was certainly not the case here.
The street they had stepped onto after leaving the alley was easily fifty meters wide from sidewalk to sidewalk. It was also heavily lit by evenly arranged streetlights that had more in common with floodlights than lampposts.
The street was divided near its center by a tall mesh fence which kept both sides separated and appeared near impossible to scale. Foot traffic was heavy, especially on their side of the fence, with entire groups of people, often clustered together by the dozens, walking very orderly one way on the near side and the opposite direction on the other.
The only vehicles Tazla could see where beyond the fence, along with more foot traffic, also traveling in both directions but not quite in the same regimented fashion.
Speakers positioned on the fence were droning out a monotone voice listing instructions and schedules in a seemingly never-ending fashion. Also difficult to miss where the many banners attached to the streetlights, the fence and the buildings on each side of the street, all of which displaying a stylized yellow rose on a black background.
“I have to admit, I haven’t seen much of the planet last time we were here, but is it just me or does this place have a very different vibe to it,” said Sensy after the away team had spent a couple of moments taking in their surroundings.
“This is different, all right,” said Tazla. “And something tells me not for the better.”
Culsten seemed to agree. “And I thought our Piqus was bad. This looks like a scene right out of my nightmares.”
“We’re just here to find Garla and bring her back. The less time we spend on this planet the better. Let’s just keep a low profile and get the job done,” she said.
“That could be difficult,” said Violet.
She wasn’t entirely sure why the SMT operative felt that way until she began to notice the looks of the groups of people passing them by. None of them stopped altogether, but their eyes certainly seemed to convey a sense of surprise as if they knew that she and her team didn’t belong here. For a moment she wondered if their holographic camouflage had failed.
“We’re on the wrong side of the fence,” said Culsten quietly.
That’s when it hit her as well. The groups that were trotting up and down the street on their side where all Outlanders. And not just that, they were all divided by race. A party of mostly green and brown-hued Reptilians had just walked past them and a few meters behind them, a group of imposing, bear-like Ursine followed them. Heading the other direction and closer to the fence she could see a pack of twenty or so Lupines, staying close together and walking at an equal pace, ahead of a group of slender humanoids and more Reptilians and Ursine, all keeping their distance from each other. The only Krellonians she could spot were on the other side of that fence, and judging by those chrome-colored uniforms, most of them were soldiers or guards.
“So much for staying inconspicuous,” she said.
“Let’s get back the way we came,” Culsten said and was already beginning to turn.
“Too late,” said Sensy. “We’ve got the attention of the authorities.”
Tazla could see it as well. A gate within the fence had opened to allow four armed soldiers to step through and make their way across the street. The marching Outlanders stopped or parted quickly to allow the guards to pass. “Hold fast,” she said. “We start running now and this mission is over.”
“I guess we’re about to find out how good those holo-masks are,” said Sensy.
She nodded. “Nothing like a good field test.”
It wasn’t going to be a very successful test, Tazla quickly realized. The four soldiers raised their weapons and began to slow their approach as they took aim, apparently expecting trouble.
“Everybody, relax,” she whispered. “Perhaps we can talk our way out of this. If not, I’ll give a signal. Be ready to act fast.” She sincerely hoped that talking was going to work since she had already spotted more guards beyond the fence starting to take an interest. Even if they somehow managed to overpower the first four soldiers, there was no way they would be able to slip away unnoticed.
“What are you doing over here,” the tall lead guard barked as he approached, his rifle pointed squarely at Tazla’s chest. “You are not authorized to be across the wall.”
She raised her hands defensively. “We understand, of course. We’re new to Piqus and we got lost.”
“Where are you from?”
Tazla moved her head slightly to her side, hoping that Culsten standing
behind her would give her something to work with.
“Loktar Colony,” he whispered to her.
She repeated this to the approaching guards.
“You’re a long way from Loktar Colony,” he said and then stopped alongside his comrades about five meters in front of them. The Outlander groups simply moved out of their way without ever stopping, like a river that had been temporarily diverted.
She nodded. “Yes, we are. And we’re not that used to this system you have here. Perhaps you could escort us back to the right side of the fence.”
He shot her a skeptical look. “Work lanes work differently in Loktar Colony?”
As a seasoned intelligence operative, Tazla understood that she was treading on incredibly thin ice. Not only did she know next to nothing about the place she had claimed to be from, but she also had no information at all about how this Krellonian society operated other than what she had observed over the last few minutes. The longer she kept up the charade, the greater the chance for her to slip up and their deception to be exposed.
“Things are a little different there,” she said.
Judging by his scowl, the man was not buying it.
“Look at them, their obviously not from around here,” said another soldier, a woman nearly as tall as the lead guard wearing a chrome helmet with a dark visor covering much of her face. “Lokar is on the other side of the Alliance, who knows how they deal with Outties over there.”
The tall soldier turned to scowl at her, clearly not appreciating her input.
“Nortu, it’s nearly end of shift,” she said, not backing down. “I am not pulling extra duty again tonight. Let’s wrap this up.”
He turned back to glance at Tazla and the others, taking a moment to study their faces. “All right, let’s go,” he said, pointing towards the gate. “But I catch any of you on the wrong side again and you’ll be spending the rest of your time here in a cell. I don’t care where you’re from.”
Tazla nodded. “Fair enough. We promise to be more careful,” she said and then, following his prompting, began to walk towards the fence. The rest of the team followed closely behind with the four guards taking up the rear.
She was tempted to slow down as she approached a group of Ursine Outlanders crossing her path, not wishing to be trampled on by those large bear-like Outlanders, but recalling the confidence the guards had shown earlier when traversing the street, she decided to keep her pace. And true enough, the Ursines, most of them easily a head taller than her, parted for the away team and their armed escort just as they had done before.
They reached the other side of the fence after passing the gate and Tazla found this side much more in line with her expectations of what a street should look like, with sparse foot traffic and the occasional vehicle speeding down the road. Noticeably, however, was the lack of anyone not Krellonian.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Tazla said, aiming a grateful look at the lead guard and then indicating for the rest of the team to follow her down the road to put some distance them.
“What is your business on Piqus?” she heard the guard ask behind her.
“Just trading, really,” she said, looking at him over her shoulder but not stopping.
“What are you trading?”
“Nortu, let it go, will you?” the woman said.
He shook his head. “I want to know why somebody would come all the way out here from Lokar Colony for a trade mission. What’s Lokar got that we don’t?”
“Other than a tolerable climate, you mean?” his colleague joked.
Tazla had no choice but to stop and face them again. “Nothing exciting, I assure you. Mostly foodstuffs and equipment.”
He took a step closer to her and while his weapon was no longer trained on her, she could see him gripping it a little tighter. “Foodstuffs, huh?” he said with a little laugh. “I have to say you don’t strike me as a food merchant. Or any kind of merchant for that matter.”
Tazla knew she had overreached. It had been some time since she had operated as a clandestine agent and like with any skill that goes unused for some time, it begins to deteriorate.
But this time the woman was not able to appease him and he continued to shake his head. “No, I’m not going to be blamed for letting possible insurgents slip by us,” he said and focused on Tazla again, slowly raising his weapon. “If you are who you say you are, you will have transit papers.”
Tazla began to tense. There seemed to be no way out of this now but to fight.
The lead guard whipped around with annoyance etched into his features. “What?”
The other guard simply nodded towards the away team but not at Tazla or any of the others, she realized, but directly at Culsten.
When the lead guard turned back around, recognition seemed to dawn in his eyes. “My apologies, I had not realized that these people are with you,” he said, sounding a great deal less confident of himself all of a sudden.
Culsten just stared back at him without speaking and Tazla realized she had to do something before the situation became awkward and possibly worse. “Yes, he is a close friend of ours. In fact, we are here at his expressed invitation.”
Lif finally began to nod. “Is there a problem with that, Justicar?”
“No, of course not. That is perfectly fine if you are able to vouch for these people.”
“Do you still require to see our papers?” Tazla said, suppressing the urge to smirk at the suddenly very contrite look on the man’s face.
“I don’t think there is any need for that,” he said quickly. “I know that you and Instigator Garla are scheduled to hold a speech at Central Plaza shortly and I do not wish to delay you any longer.” He offered what Tazla recognized as the traditional Krellonian salute with his palms pressed together and then quickly turned and left with the rest of his cadre.
“That was close,” said Violet once they were out of earshot and then glanced at Culsten. “And I guess you’re a big deal over here.”
“Somehow that does not fill me with excitement,” he said.
“It may have just saved us all,” said Tazla. “Plus, now we know where we might find who we’re looking for? You know how to get to Central Plaza?”
Culsten nodded. “I believe I do,” he said and turned to lead the way. “But I’m dreading what we may find there.”