Confused, Perplexed, Bewildered, Lloyd Burton could not see how he and his siblings could go any further with their current enigma. Madison had arrived only four hours ago on Mars, since then she had introduced them to Commander Hanson and together the two women had described in detail what they knew. Lloyd was unsure if any of it helped. He hated not being able to see the bigger picture where all the dots were connected. They had to find another clue, another lead, something else that would take them to the next step in finding out what their father had been up to. They were now in too deep with this and he refused to believe that it was for nothing.
“I think I’ve got something.” Seth said. His voice held a mixed sense of hope and surprise.
The group were currently sitting in their father’s former apartment. After Hanson had scanned it for any listening equipment, she had set up a few other devices including her sound scrambler to prevent anyone else from listening in to their conversations or recording what they were doing. It was getting late into the evening and the sun was setting over the red Martian horizon. Lloyd had considered the scenery to be impressive but was not as grand as the view of the sunsetting over Portsmouth harbour.
“What is it Seth?” Roman asked from where he sat next to Lloyd on one of the sofas.
Seth, who had been sitting at the oval-shaped dining table with a number of tablets surrounding it, got up from his chair and walked over to where everyone was sitting. He passed the tablet to Roman. “After you got access to dad’s personal database, I looked at his logged schedule while here on Mars. On a few occasions dad will book himself on the same tour.”
“A tour?” Madison repeated. “What sort of tour and where?”
Seth quickly answered, “A shuttle tour of Utopia Planitia and it appears to be the same one he books on.”
“Either dad had a weird fetish about the lower Martian plateau or there’s something more going on there that we don’t know.” Roman remarked.
“Well, we need to find out what.” Lloyd suggested. “At the moment it appears to be our only other lead we could follow.”
Madison sighed, “Or it’s another dead-end.”
“It’s worth looking into.” Alexa stated. “We should follow your father’s footsteps as best as we can.”
Lloyd stood up; he was now determined they were not going to give up on this investigation. “Let’s do it. Seth book us tickets to the tour that dad took regularly, in the meantime Roman and Alexa why don’t you look into this tour company. See if there’s anything that could cause any alarm bells to ring?”
Madison held up her hands, “Hang on Lloyd,” she spoke. “We don’t know if it’s the right route to take with all of this.”
“Can you see any other lead?” Lloyd countered back with.
Silence filled the room, giving Lloyd his answer. He looked at Madison one more time. Both of them were capable Starfleet captains, until now neither of them had pulled rank or attempted to establish themselves the leader in the situation they were in. Wondering if they were about to fall out over all of this, Lloyd was about to speak, but was stopped by his sister.
“I just don’t want us wasting time.” Madison spoke. Her words were enough to indicate she was happy to follow her younger brother’s lead on this.
Alexa cleared her throat at this point, “If it helps my background check on them won’t take too long. I can use various contacts to find out if they are legit or something else.”
“Are we hoping for the latter?” Roman remarked sarcastically at everyone.
“In a good way, yes.” answered Alexa. “If it’s a solid lead then we may find out more information, or at the least try and work out why your father often went on the tour.”
No one spoke, if this was a hopeless direction then they would have taken it together.
The port was swarming with an assortment of people who were travelling to and away from the colony. Mostly they were human with an odd collection of aliens that included Denobulans, Rigellians and a couple of Andorians.
Approaching the gate that housed the tour company, the group found themselves a small line of passengers who were all providing boarding passes. Seth had led the group and handed their passes over to the attendant on the door. The moment their security checks had been verified they were heading down the walkway towards the shuttle. Alexa’s checks on the tour company had brought up something that worried them. It was a subsidiary of Trentuno Galactica, the same cooperation that Hanson had been investigating for some time now. Even with this information they had decided to book themselves on to the tour and reserved the same row of chairs that their father would always sit in. Again, this had been another mystery that Seth had discovered. They knew their father liked keeping to the same old routine, even so this was almost like he was leading breadcrumbs for them…or was someone else?
Entering the shuttle, which was as long as some of the ferries that Lloyd would watch depart from Portsmouth on their way to French coast or to the Isle of Wight, the small group of Starfleet officers (still in their civilian attire) took their seats and waited to see where this next step took them. Welcoming them on board, the flight attendants had gone out of their way to run through the normal procedures in case of an emergency – indicating where the gas masks and lifeboats were. Following on from this the pilot’s voice, a female one, had welcomed her passengers on board and soon the craft left the port. The tour guide, who also came over the intercom, began talking once the shuttle had begun its ascent into the lower Martian atmosphere. On either side of the cabin were long windows, giving the passengers access to seeing the amazing, breath-taking sight of the lower Martian plateau also known as Vastitas Borealis. The vast lowlands included Utopia Planitia and covered most of the northern hemisphere. Knowing why his father would enjoy this tour because of this, Lloyd had started to ponder why his father had taken it in such an excessive amount. His thought process was broken when he caught something in the corner of his eye. Just across from them in two rows ahead sat a man that had gotten up and moved forward towards the area that contained a small bar. Lloyd took a double take on him as he looked familiar. It was obvious his poker face wasn’t showing as Roman, who was sitting opposite to him, picked up on his brother’s distraction.
“Lloyd, everything okay?” He asked.
Rising from his chair, Lloyd answered. “Just give me a moment.” He started to follow the man’s footsteps and approach the tall figure who was leaning against the bar with his back to Lloyd.
Slowly and carefully, Lloyd made his way over. Every fibre and gut instinct in his body was telling him he knew the man, but his identity was impossible as a result of this his stomach was making him feel sick (alongside this the odd shudder from the shuttle hitting turbulence wasn’t helping). Taking a deep breath in to calm his nerves, Lloyd spoke up. “Excuse me.”
Turning around was a face Lloyd had never thought he would see again. Startled, shocked, confused, the Starfleet captain had an expression on him that was quickly removed as the colour in his face went and was replaced by a sheet of whiteness. “Alec,” He whispered.
Standing before him was Alec Rossi, the man who was meant to be Challenger’s original science officer and second officer. Rossi had died in a shuttle accident over the English Channel almost ten months ago. It was the same accident that had elevated Lloyd into the captain’s chair. Rossi looked different, instead of having his thick head of black hair he had short cropped blonde hair. His green eyes were now blue, he had a scar above and through the middle of his left eyebrow. He even looked thinner than before. The man cleared his throat, he held a glass of clear liquid – which Lloyd knew wasn’t water. “Hello Lloyd.” He spoke.
“What the hell is going on?” Lloyd asked in an almost angry whisper. “You’re dead.”
“Alec Rossi is, officially.” Rossi replied before taking a sip from his drink.
Wincing at the man before him, Lloyd still couldn’t work out what he meant by that statement. He didn’t get a chance to ask as the rest of his ensemble soon arrived behind him asking what was going on.
“You’re Alec Rossi.” Hanson remarked looking at the man in front of Captain Burton “But, but…” She stuttered, “You’re dead, I even led the investigation into your accident.”
Everyone else was still puzzled by the man before them.
Rossi put his drink down on the bar and took in a single inward gulp. “Well, this is very awkward, however I’m not supposed to be talking to you.” He looked at the captain.
“Tough, because you’re going to explain to me why the hell the man who was meant to be Challenger’s science officer and whose funeral I attended is standing before me on the shuttle tour I’m on to investigate my father’s death.” Lloyd spat out in an angry manner.
The tension in the compartment rose by Lloyd’s outburst, his group all becoming more aware of what was going on and the other passengers who were in earshot all were looking at them.
Raising his hands in a hopeless attempt to calm the situation, Rossi continued his defence. “I know you’ve probably got a million questions, but I cannot answer them.”
“Why not?” Madison quickly shot back. Lloyd could sense the same annoyance he had in his sister as well his other siblings now.
It was at this point that the female bartender had moved around and was now holding up a Starfleet issue phase pistol as were four others, including a passenger and the flight attendants. All of them aimed at Lloyd and his group.
“Who are you?” Alexa asked. The Starfleet investigator was looking at everyone in the room, attempting to figure out what was going on and who these people were.
Rossi sighed, “Again I cannot divulge such information,” He responded in his thick Italian accent. “What I can say is the work we do defends the interests of Earth and her allies.”
“That doesn’t make any sense still.” Lloyd said, still annoyed at their current situation. “Are you to tell me that you faked your own death, even allowed Caspar to think you’re dead?”
He winced at Lloyd’s words. The mention of Challenger’s original chief engineer and the man that Rossi was romantically involved with before his death appeared to be a stinger for the former science officer. “I’m sorry for what I put you and others through Lloyd,” He paused — obviously not wanting to mention the man he had loved. “However, there isn’t anything I can do about it now.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough Alec.” Lloyd said, “So what are you and your goons going to do with us?” He gestured towards the others that still surrounded them with their phase pistols.
“All I can say is sorry is gonna have to be enough Lloyd, because that’s all I have.” Rossi answered before motioning with his head to the others to open fire.
The group didn’t have time to react as they were hit with multiple crimson red blasts from all angles. Collapsing to the floor almost instantly, Lloyd glimpsed one more time at the man he thought he once knew and wondered what hand he had in his father’s death. Mentally he vowed he would get his revenge before his head hit the floor with a mighty thud.
Tuesday, January 7th, 2155
Challenger NX-03, San Francisco Orbital Shipyards, Earth orbit
“But you’ve gotta admit the ending wasn’t expected!”
Chuckles soon followed Captain Karim’s response as she entered the lift, followed by her first and second officers. They had just spent an evening with the rest of the crew and the construction teams in Challenger’s brand-new recreation room viewing the latest Captain Proton film. Turning to face them as Burton tapped the button to head towards E deck, Karim continued to speak. “You’ve got to agree that you were not expecting all of them to disintegrate into dust after Doctor Chaotica had detonated the eternity bomb!”
Burton just rolled his eyes at his new captain. “Ma’am you’ve gotta admit how absurd these plot lines are!”
Laughing at her first officer’s remarks, Karim raised her hands in defence. “But that’s the great thing about The Adventures of Captain Proton – it’s not meant to be realistic. It’s how mid-twentieth century America saw the future. As I child read every book of the series and since they’ve been making films of them, I have loved every single one.”
“I don’t know about you two, but I am still traumatised by Buster Kincaid’s death scene. I thought the sidekick was never meant to die?” Rossi remarked. “The way he cried, begged and then screamed in Proton’s arms as he dissolved into a million pieces was very melodramatic.”
“And that’s the point of this third instalment in the series, Proton is left alone in the galaxy to face off against Chaotica. A true rivalry, much like the old western films. It’s just the two of them left. Who will win the final battle?” Karim questioned with a sense of glee in her voice. “As my mother said, the third one is always the best and this film is the best one.”
“If memory serves me right, isn’t the next chapter meant to be called the ‘Bride of Chaotica’?” Burton asked. “So how is the evil doctor meant to get married if he killed everyone except him and Proton?”
Laughing more, Karim answered. “That’s called spoilers Number One! We’ll just have to wait and find out!” At that point the lift had reached its destination and the captain led them out and towards the mess hall. “Also just be aware they’re not completely following the series word for word in the films. There are a lot of creative differences between them.”
Entering the mess hall, the three most senior officers headed straight to the captain’s mess where they were met by Lieutenant Commander Caspar Slater, the ship’s chief engineer. Slater smiled at the group and as they were all off duty, he approached Rossi, planting a kiss on his cheek. Normally if they had been on duty and in uniform then Karim would have not appreciated the display of affection between her chief science officer and engineer, but she knew that she was building a community on Challenger and needed to let people form relationships with each other. She had hoped for a friendly, family feel to the ship and hadn’t expected it to be closer than that especially between members of her senior staff. Nevertheless, both Slater and Rossi had joined her already in a relationship with each other. She couldn’t do anything about it.
“Guten Abend!” Slater said in his German accent after he kissed Rossi. “How was the film?”
“You may need to console Alec,” Burton said with a smirk, “He can’t get over the death of Buster Kincaid.”
“I’m not the only one who may need to see a counsellor!” Rossi threw back as they entered the small dining compartment. “Lloyd needs help in dealing with his lack of creativity and imagination. He can’t understand why films are allowed to be unrealistic and absurd.”
Slater sniggered as they all sat down around the table. “Maybe having a counsellor on board wouldn’t be a bad idea?” He asked rhetorically.
Burton looked at Karim, they both smiled at the notion. It had been a topic they had discussed only the day before with Doctor Moralez, who was adamant that Starfleet should consider it if they wanted their crews to endure years of deep space exploration. However, she had concluded that it would probably take another century or two before Starfleet had put the idea into action.
“Talking about good doctors needed, where is Calista?” Karim wondered, looking at Slater hoping that he knew where she was. The five of them, the most senior members of Challenger’s crew, had become close knit in the past fortnight since Burton had joined them. They met every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It had become a routine which had allowed them to catch up with the latest developments for the ship and to get to know one another more before their official launch.
“She was creating the inventory list for all of the supplies that Starfleet Medical had sent up today.” Slater said.
“Wow, she must be happy.” Burton stated. “She had been waiting for that delivery since I arrived.”
Karim chortled at her first officer. “Number One, I can tell you now that Calista is only a happy doctor if she has all of the medicine and tools around her. Along with that it all has to be put away in a certain way or she won’t sleep properly.”
The group laughed further at the doctor’s expense which quickly stopped as the doors to the room opened and the subject of their conversation entered. “Sounds like you are having a ball in here.” Moralez said as she walked in and took her normal seat near to the captain.
“And from what I hear Calista, you’ve had a ball today as well?” Karim replied as she looked at her friend. The two of them had served together on their previous assignment and Moralez was eager to join Karim when she was given Challenger.
Throwing her hands up in surrender, Moralez nodded in acknowledgement. “What can I say except you know me too well Rani!” She smiled further at her friend.
“So, captain, any news when the next additions to our family will join us?” Rossi asked, quickly changing the subject.
Karim nodded. “Our new communications and protocol officer will be joining us tomorrow and it will be a couple of weeks before we get our pilot and MACO commander.”
“MACOs?” Moralez repeated. “Are they truly needed?”
Karim looked at her first officer for help and the answer. “Number One, would you like to answer that?”
Burton had noticed since joining the Challenger crew a slight sense of tension between him and Moralez. It was more from her than him, he had linked it to the idea that since he had arrived that he and Karim had quickly bonded and were gaining an excellent rapport and relationship with one another. He had wondered if there was some jealousy over the amount of time they were spending together and wondered if the good doctor wanted to spend more time with her old friend. He had even heard her scoff and mutter under her breath a few times when Karim started to refer to him as Number One. An affectionate naval term that captains sometimes used to refer to the first officer. One that Karim had picked off from her previous commanding officer when she was their first officer and was called it often.
“The reports from Enterprise and Columbia would advise that having a MACO presence on board is more beneficial.” Burton stated.
Leaning forward to grab a glass of water in front of her, Moralez spoke up before taking a sip. “It just seems that since the Xindi crisis all Starfleet ships and outposts that have had MACOs assigned to them. I thought we were meant to be explorers, not soldiers?”
“Well, let’s hope we don’t need to depend on them too much.” Karim said. “And I’ve spoken to our new major, she seems to be a bit of a maverick who comes with a wealth of experience and skills. She’s not just your normal foot soldier.”
“Let’s hope she shares the captain’s science fiction passion, if not she’s doomed like Buster Kincaid!” Rossi mocked, allowing for everyone to move on to their next topic of discussion as stewards arrived in the room with their dinners in hand.
Wednesday, October 2nd, 2155
Vastitas Borealis, Mars
Darkness covered her eyes and her hands were tightly restrained by what felt like a standard set of Starfleet handcuffs. The coldness of the metal against her skin sent a slight shiver up and down her arms. Alexa Hanson had undergone training and had been kidnapped on more than once occasion as part of her line of work, nonetheless this would be her first one off-world. When she had accepted the job offer to join Starfleet, she had imagined her working closely with analysts, assistant directors and occasionally an admiral or two at Starfleet Command Headquarters. She had enjoyed the minor amount of teaching she had undertaken too, but she had never considered the notion that one day she would be active and back in the trenches dealing with an important matter again. Everything she had experienced since meeting Captain Burton (the older one) a few days ago seemed to be joining the dots for her. She was starting to put pieces together of a puzzle, a puzzle she had been asked to look in almost two years ago by the Starfleet Commander-in-Chief. Hoping that she was about to receive the final pieces, Hanson pondered if she would ever get the opportunity to find that concrete evidence Fleet Admiral Hathaway trusted with her to find.
However, her current predicament in having a blindfold bagged over her face and her hands being handcuffed behind her prevented her from doing anything more. Remaining still for a moment she concluded that she was lying on the floor, the slight coldness going through her body indicated that she was in a man-made structure — one that was still on Mars. She knew this as she hadn’t noticed a change in the gravity pull compared to Earth’s. If she had been on an Earth ship, or even in a Starfleet base then the artificial gravity plating is set at Earth standard. Outside of the blacked head bag she could hear mumbling nearby. Voices that she recognised. Again, she remained still to see if she could work out who it was. One female voice and two distinct male voices. The Burtons. She could hear Madison, Seth and Roman but no Lloyd. Either he was still in the same room with them and unconscious still or was missing. Slowly she moved her head and tried to sit up. Within a few seconds of her movement she sensed other movement around her and soon the dark mask that covered her head was pulled off her.
Blinking more than twice, Alexa was pleased to see the friendly face of Captain Madison Burton. She too had her hands cuffed and was holding on to the bag that she had just removed from Hanson.
“Thank you ma’am.” She said to her superior officer.
Madison pulled a face at Hanson formally addressing her. “No more ma’am Alexa – while we’re out of uniform and off duty just plain Madison.”
“Understood.” Hanson replied with and looked over to see that her deduction of who was in the room with her was correct. Seth and Roman were both conscious and were attempting to wake their older brother up as they too took off his black hood. It was obvious whoever Rossi worked for didn’t want them to see anything originally, but now they were all waking up she had pondered what their captors would do if they saw them without their masks on. “Where are we?” She asked the group.
Madison shook her head as she looked around the room. “My guess is some installation underground. We’ve heard a lot of noise that sounds like drilling and this room appears to be a spare storage bay.”
“He isn’t waking.” Roman said concerned over to his older sister.
Madison sighed as she looked over at Lloyd’s body. “The stun setting that hit him must have been more powerful than ours.”
“We need to get ourselves out of here and contact Starfleet Command Headquarters.” Seth stated.
“Easily said than done little bro.” Madison remarked as she analysed the entire room with her eyes. It appeared she was trying to find something to use for their own advantage, yet there was nothing that would do. She looked back at Alexa, pushed a strain of dishevelled hair out of her face (her hands still restrained together). “Alexa, you said you knew about Rossi before his thugs took us out. What did you mean? Wasn’t his death one that you investigated?”
Hanson nodded in response. “Yes, Admiral Hathaway had overridden Admiral Black’s orders on who would be the investigating officer on Rossi’s death.”
“Who is Rossi? Lloyd mentioned something about being his original science officer?” Seth enquired with a confused expression. “Did he and Lloyd serve together?”
Alexa pushed herself up straight against the metal wall. “Lieutenant Commander Alec Rossi was meant to be Challenger’s science officer and second officer; however, he was involved in a shuttle accident before its launch involving him and Captain Karim. They both died.”
“So how come he isn’t dead?” Roman threw out, stating the obvious.
“Of that I am unsure of. As I told your sister beforehand, I investigated their deaths. Their shuttlepod was hit by another craft when they were leaving London on their way back to Challenger. Captain Karim reported that Rossi was killed on impact and that she was attempting a water landing with the pod. She was unsuccessful and her shuttlepod exploded moments after it crashed into English Channel. Debris was later found by the Royal Navy. There wasn’t much left, and we concluded that there was no way she could have survived the explosion. Search and rescue missions were undertaken but her body and his were never found.” Alexa finished talking as Lloyd started to come around.
“He’s alive!” Seth said in an excited tone.
Lloyd appeared groggy as he blinked several times to take in his surroundings. “I’m not going to ask where we are.” He mumbled.
Roman chuckled. “I wouldn’t bother, but we’re trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together.”
Sitting up, almost reflecting the same posture that Hanson was in, Lloyd spoke. “How far have we got with this?”
“I think Alexa has all of the missing pieces for us.” Madison said.
The rest of the Burton siblings looked at her. “There’s still a few more missing, but I think I’m seeing part of the bigger picture.” She revealed. “The other reason I was put on the investigation for your father was because of two facts. Number one being the fact that it involved this Trentuno Galactica and number two that it took place from the same port that killed Captain Karim and Commander Rossi.”
“Saint Pancreas/King’s Cross station.” Madison offered.
Alexa nodded. “As I said to you when we first met Madison, there are too many incidents happening in similar manners.”
“That’s why Admiral Hathaway went to you Lloyd.” Roman expressed. “She wanted you to make the connection.”
Alexa nodded, “I believe you’re right. She wanted us to get together for this, but there was no way we were ever going to get to it without one another.”
Seth spoke up, “So does Admiral Hathaway know that Rossi isn’t dead?”
Hanson shrugged, “She and the limited number of others who I’ve spoken to about this don’t appear to.”
“So, what now?” Lloyd asked. It was the question they were all thinking.
Madison now leant against the same wall that Alexa was up against. “There’s still too many unanswered questions, but my gut is telling me we are close.”
Roman nodded, “I agree so we need to get ourselves out of here.” He looked at his younger brother. “Seth, take off my left boot will you.” He instructed.
“Eww, no!” Seth complained.
Rolling his eyes at his brother’s response he then looked at his other brother. Lloyd shook his head in disbelief that he would do it and soon took off Roman’s boot before passing it over to its owner.
“What are you doing Roman?” Madison questioned.
Struggling to put his hand inside of the boot, Roman eventually pulled out the sole before banging the rest of the boot on the floor to reveal a gadget falling out.
Surprised at what appeared, Lloyd spoke up. “A micro-spanner? Is that meant to be your lock pick?”
Roman nodded with confidence, “I had a feeling it may be handy to have.” He picked up the small tool, activated it against his electromagnetic restraints and they soon dropped off. Working quickly, he did the same to Lloyd’s and the rest of them. Soon the group all stood up and approached the door.
“What if there’s guards outside?” Madison questioned.
Alexa stepped forward and banged on the door. She paused and there wasn’t a response. She did it again and got the same result. “Well if they’re not going to respond to that, then us getting this door open will.”
Roman had already pulled off the door’s switch opener and was trying to hot-wire its circuits. Eventually his engineering skills gave them the indicator they needed to escape. The door hissed open with both Lloyd and Alexa either side ready to fight whoever, if there was anyone there, that was on guard. Luckily there was no-one.
“So far, so good.” Lloyd commented.
They now found themselves in a long L-shaped corridor. On the opposite side to them were stretched out windows that showed an impressive view of a Martian cavern. The corridor itself was empty and appeared very dull with limited lighting and everything being a different shade of grey and silver. It almost felt like they were on a Starfleet ship. In the distance was a constant hum, the sound of a power reactor. Leading the group forward, Alexa took steps towards the window to look at their surroundings. As she was joined by the others, they were surprised by what they saw looking down. Before them appeared to be a row of starships in various stages of being almost near to their completion. They were of a Starfleet design, most of them being a variation of the NCC-class (better known as the Daedalus-class). The cavern itself was enormous and work crews all appeared to be working in and around the crafts dotted in parallel lines.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” A feminine voice said to the right of the group.
Instantly they all looked over, it was Lloyd and Alexa who had the most shocked expression of all. Standing before them, flanked by a small armed group was the woman that Lloyd once considered would become a mentor and close friend, while Alexa had considered her dead. Captain Rani Karim stood with arms crossed her chest and a proud smile sweeping her expression.