(( Day 4: Morning ))
(( Intelligence Office, Deck 2: USS ATHENA ))
::Lan was reviewing the latest reports, with various degrees of satisfaction. The deployment of the sensor buoys had progressed nicely, but their newly-acquired Gamma Owls had so far failed to find Basai's tracks, nor his kidnappers'. He looked up from his work when he heard the door to the Intel suites activating. Curious... all of his team members were here, and the Captain usually called before coming down. Maybe the Queensguard? He hoped it wouldn't be z'Tholia, he wasn't in a mood for arguments or apologies today.::
::A few seconds later, Hawkins walked inside his office with a smile.::
::Hawkins didn't know what procedures he'd be going through in Intelligence for Executive Officer clearance. It was probably the department he knew the least about. He stepped in and found Riel. He offered him a smile.::
Hawkins: Good morning, Lieutenant.
::Lan got up from his chair to welcome his guest.::
Riel: Good morning to you, Commander. And allow me the congratulate you on your recent promotion, by the way. To what do we owe the pleasure?
Hawkins: The Captain ordered me to report here for an Alpha-Two clearance briefing. I'm to be assigned a... command authorization code as well.
Riel: Aaah, yes. Can't have our XO kept in the dark, of course. Can you spare a few minutes right now, or do you want us to schedule an appointment?
Hawkins: I'm ready whenever you are.
Riel: Good. The sooner, the better. In that case, allow me to inform my team... :: He activated the comm terminal in his desk :: =/\= Riel here, I'll be giving an Alpha-Two VIP briefing in the Dark Room for the next few minutes. =/\= .. and I'll gladly give you the ten credits tour. This way please.
::Hawkins nodded, wondering what a "Dark Room" was. He hadn't heard anything about it, but he didn't know much about the intelligence department as it was. Hawkins followed him into a meeting room that looked unremarkable, and saw Lan pluck his badge off of his uniform and drop it into a box. Hawkins glanced from the Box to Lan's face.::
Hawkins: Problem with your badge?
:: Lan closed the door of the office behind them and they walked the short distance to the Dark Room. As soon as they were inside twhat looked like every other meeting room in the ship, complete with a replicator and an oval table, Lan put down his commbadge and placed it in a box by the door. ::
Riel: Please leave your commbadge and electronic devices here, Commander. This room will be perfectly isolated from the rest of the ship for the duration of the briefing, and you wouldn't want the scrambler to mess with your gear.
Hawkins: I see. ::He swiped his off his uniform and laid it in the box.::
:: Lan punched a button, and the door closed. He walked to the safe embedded in the opposite wall, and placed his hand in a small cavity besides it. He winced slightly as the door opened, retrieved a PADD from the inside and closed it again. ::
::Hawkins watched Lan open a secured wall container and produce a PADD. It was clear to Hawkins that Lan was a cautious and careful officer, which was necessary in his department perhaps more than most.::
Riel: I really wish they could upgrade it to a DNA lock that doesn't involve a needle. Oh, well. Take a seat, please. I assume that you are aware of the official pretense for our presence in the Gamma Quadrant?
Hawkins: The standard mission, of course. What do you mean by pretense?
Riel: :: With a smile :: Wouldn't have phrased it better myself. To boldly go, and so on. Now, on a much less official side, we are hunting artifacts left behind by the ancient and now extinct civilization known as the Yeltans.
:: His fingers danced on the PADD, and the holo-display embedded in the table came to life. A piece of stone covered in Yeltan scripts hovered silently before their eyes. ::
::Hawkins watched the hologram spring up with a chiseled stone. It rotated in slow, lazy circles. The characters were foreign to him. He turned to look at the intelligence officer.::
Hawkins: Yeltans? I've never come across them.
Riel: I wouldn’t be surprised. Their very existence is classified, and the crew of the Athena only heard of their name on a need-to-know basis. Same goes for our main contenders in the race for Yeltan artifacts, the Sentinels. Short for :: a quick look at his PADD, as the symbol of the cult replaced the Yeltan artifact :: Sentinels of the Black. A doomsday cult that routs for the eradication of sentient life in the galaxy, so that it could start with a clean slate. Charming people.
::Hawkins pursed his lips into a thin line.::
Hawkins: So there must be some information contained in the artifacts that would allow these Sentinels to further their agenda. What's the connection, and how much do we know about the artifacts and the Sentinels progress in finding them?
:: Lan gave Hawkins a smile and a nod of approval. Apparently their new XO was a perceptive one. ::
Riel: An excellent question. The information I just summarized has been shared amongst the senior staff. Now, we’re about to enter strictly code-black territory.
Hawkins: Code-black. Go on?
Riel: Commander, my clearance level is Beta-Two. In other words, the Captain has asked me to brif you on something even I shouldn't theoretically know. Communicating any of this information outside of this room is strictly forbidden, barring a direct order from the Captain. And… I apologize in advance, Frank.
:: The file on display bore the markings ‘Top Secret - Code Black’, ‘Level 5 Clearance required with Need to Know authorization.’ In other terms, none of them was supposed to see this. Lan had to fight the urge to close his eyes, for he had already seen the images and information that came next, and they still came back to haunt him in his sleep sometimes. ::
::Hawkins saw the file with its ominous flag. He looked from it to Riel, wondering what could be so important as to require such secrecy. Riel's obvious discomfort at discussing the material made Hawkins uneasy.::
Riel: Lieutenant Commander Hawkins, meet the Hunger. They’re currently trapped behind an energy barrier at the edge of our galaxy. When they break through - when, not if -, they will treat us as an all-you-can eat buffet. I won't mince words: we are not, not by a very long shot, ready to face them, and the Sentinels are trying to let them in.
::Hawkins jaw hung slack at an angle with his lips parted. It took him a moment to get his mouth working. He studied the file on Riel's PADD, sliding a finger over it to scroll through the scant information. His finger trembled as he read more of the speculations, analyses, and directives.::
Riel: Out there, Starfleet explores the galaxy, meets new civilizations, forges new alliances, seeks new knowledge. Gathers strength in knowledge and numbers. Our job here is to stall the Apocalypse long enough for the galaxy to be ready for it.
Hawkins: You've got to be kidding. We're just one ship. Well three, technically. It brings so many questions to mind. Why don't we have more ships out here? Starfleet should have every available vessel searching for these artifacts, and a task force looking for the Sentinels.
:: Hawkins had gone a shade paler, and a fine sheen of perspiration made his hairline glimmer. Lan replied in a soft, pained voice, trying to quell the Human’s budding panic before it overcame his own mental barriers. ::
Riel: Commander, you didn’t know of this menace until a fistful of seconds ago. How do you know we’re the only ships with a similar mission?
Hawkins: The whole time we've been out here, wasting precious time on these... installations and minor affairs. We have a slipstream drive, we should be spending every second we have on this. What about the Dryary? They have a right to know.
:: Ah. A hint of revolt there. The fight-or-flee switch leaned towards “fight”. It was something Lan could work with. He put a touch of bitter sarcasm in his voice. ::
Riel: Barely a minute in the know, and you’re already contemplating a breach of confidentiality? That’s a new record.
Hawkins: I'll abide by the protocols, but I don't agree with them. Keeping it secret seems like a mistake. I don't see how anyone benefits from keeping it under wraps.
::Good. That was the spirit. A sad little smile came to play on Lan's face.::
::Hawkins noticed a strange melancholy smile form on Riel's face. He wondered what it was like working in his field, knowing all manner of terrible secrets and probably unable to tell his closest friends about them.::
Riel: A perfectly respectable opinion. But allow me to give you a few pieces of information to help you with the bigger picture.
Hawkins: All right, what's the big picture? Because the only picture I'm looking at is a galaxy headed straight for oblivion. All my friends, my family--they have no idea what's coming. Even if we can delay them, it doesn't look hopeful for anyone.
::Hawkins took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt bands of muscle tighten around his stomach. He felt queasy and wondered if he was in danger of puking as he tasted the tang of acid at the back of his throat. He swallowed it down.::
Riel: We could be chasing blindly after rumors of Yeltan artifacts or Sentinels sightings in an unknown Quadrant, that’s true. Instead, we are establishing a base of operation, and ingratiating ourselves with a local power. One with access to centuries worth of information on this quadrant, allies, a network of informants... :: He looked directly into Hawkins' eyes:: Believe me, we’re not losing time here, Commander. We’re investing it.
::Hawkins ran the palm of his hand over the sweaty back of his neck and paced across the room, shaking his head. He turned at the end to face Riel again, swallowing a few times more. He didn't feel well at all.::
Riel: And as for broader disclosure of the Hunger’s existence... :: He shrugged, going for brutal honesty. :: Actually, I’m partially in agreement with you, in that I would like to be able to share this intel within the senior staff at least, so that everyone could have the necessary information to operate at their best. But I would oppose spreading it further.
Hawkins: On principle or because of regulations?
:: Lan shook his head, and his voice started to take a metallic edge. ::
::Hawkins frowned as Riel shook his head. Listening to him was like walking down a corridor of logical twists and turns. On top of feeling queasy, the byzantine labyrinth of the conversation fractured his thoughts along different paths.::
Riel: How do you think the Sentinels came to be, Commander? Some people learnt of the Hunger, and seeing that we’re fighting a nigh-desperate battle here, they chose to fight for the winning side. Such people exist. In every group we haven’t vetted ourselves beforehand, we are likely to find some of their kind. And on the other hand of the spectrum, you’ll find the well-intentioned extremists.
:: A quick dance of his fingers on the surface of the PADD, and the display changed to show another dossier, with a stylized dagger on the front page. ::
Riel: Heard of Sicarius? Terrorist organization? They’re technically on our side in this. Except they have decided to strengthen the galaxy against the Hunger by any means necessary. If it means culling the ones they consider ‘weak’, so be it. If it means conducting unethical experiments, or causing massive collateral damage, they will. To give you an order of magnitude, their last attempt at developing an anti-Hunger weapon ended up causing the Prometheus Incident.
Hawkins: Isn't it better in the long run to release it anyway? You might have a few more groups like this pop up, but how many people could be helping the cause? I think that equation is balanced in our favor, if you think about it from that perspective.
Riel: That being said, if you want to petition the Captain for the diffusion of this information among the senior staff, I certainly won't oppose you.
::Hawkins nodded slowly, the nausea settling a bit as he breathed more. He took a seat at the table all the same.::
Hawkins: I'll consider it, if you help me draft a proposal. Writing isn't one of my strong suits.
::Lan nodded gravely.::
Riel: Gladly. It will be a good opportunity to give you a refresher on dissemination limiters and the rest of the Intel lingo. But maybe this can wait until another time? I'm afraid building an Intel network in the Gamma Quadrant essentially from scratch is a rather time-consuming endeavour.
Hawkins: Let's get these authorization codes done and I can let you get on with your work. I'll be honest, this has really shaken me up. I'm not going to be able to think about much else today, and I've got a full morning. I'd much rather go to ten-forward and get a few drinks in my system.
:: With a sympathetic smile, Lan put the PADD back into place and closed the safe before deactivating the Dark Room protocol. He remembered the day when this information had been released to the whole Intel department, due to an accident that was still under investigation. To say that this had shaken them to the core was more than an understatement. Sometimes, he wondered how Iael managed to keep the terrible truth a secret from his wife. ::
Riel: It won't take long. I'll just need a voice and DNA sample for the higher-level code, and you can be on your way. As for the need for a few drinks... :: he sighed :: I know where you come from.
:: Except he couldn't hold even synthehol for the life of him, and couldn't afford spilling out the truth in a bout of tipsy honesty. So... coffee. ::
:: He motioned towards the door, and picked his commbadge back on the way. ::
Hawkins: We'll have to toss back a few when we're off duty sometime.
Hawkins: We'll have to toss back a few when we're off duty sometime.
:: Lan let out a chuckle and patted Hawkins lightly on the back in a sympathetic fashion. ::
Riel: It would be a pleasure if we manage it. But from my observation of your predecessors, First Officer Hawkins? There doesn't seem to be much 'off' to you duty.
:: He closed the door behind them, trying to lighten the mood of the Human officer by making small talk on theur way to his office. Selene still had to tell Hawkins about the other secrets - the ones that he had excluded from the briefing. Time travel, alternate universes, Selene herself... Hawkins deserved all the jokes and friendship he could get. His wild trip into the rabbit hole had just started. ::
Respectfully Submitted by,
Lieutenant Lan Riel
Writer ID: G239107LR0
F. J. HAWKINS
Lt. Cmdr., Starfleet
USS ATHENA, NCC-97780
Fleet ID: A239312FH0