CHAPTER EIGHT

Within moments, the bright, spacious transporter room on the Enterprise sparkled out of existence to be replaced by the dim and stifling one that Bairnson presumed was on the Romulan Warbird. Sure enough, a silvery/grey clad Romulan woman with close-cropped dark hair, pointed ears, and upswept eyebrows stood at what Bairnson believed to be the transporter console, taking a few last-minute readings from the console before turning her head to her left and nodding.

Bairnson followed her gaze to the two burly security guards standing by what he presumed to be the entranceway, which at the moment was closed off by a thick, and heavy-looking metallic door. One of the men wordlessly stepped up to the transporter platform, producing a small device from inside his belt. Before Bairnson could inquire about it, the guard roughly grasped the back of Bairnson's neck, holding it steady while he forcibly pressed the device against it.

Bairnson stifled an agonized grunt as the Romulan kept pressure on the device and his neck for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the brute yanked the device away from Bairnson's neck and released his grip.

After taking a moment to recover his bearings, Bairnson noticed the Romulan guard staring intently at the device. His expression barely changed as the device produced a steady stream of clicks, processing whatever data it was analyzing. Bairnson deduced that it must be some sort of DNA tester. Finally, the device gave a satisfied digital beep, indicating that the analysis was complete. Bairnson couldn't tell if the results pleased or disappointed the guard because his expression remained as stony as ever.

The Romulan guard nodded to his cohort, who stepped up to join him on the transporter platform. The pair flanked Bairnson, each grabbing one of his arms, forcing him to move in the same the direction as they were. The heavy door to the transporter room parted with a heavy industrial hiss as the trio approached, revealing the dimly lit corridor beyond it.

As the guards compelled Bairnson to pass from the transporter room into the corridor, he overheard the transporter operator reporting to the bridge over the console's built-in communicator. "Identity is confirmed, Commander."

"Excellent," came the response from the bridge. "We will immediately set course for…"

And that was all Bairnson heard as the transporter room's heavy door closed behind him. He could only wonder what fate was in store for him as his handlers marched him down the corridor, their firm grip never wavering the entire way.


Bairnson figured that he would be placed in the Romulan version of the brig. In fact, his cell really wasn't all that different from the ones in the brigs of the Federation starships on which he had served. Confined and sparse, its only furnishings were a slab bed built into one cell wall, sporting the thinnest of mattresses. The bed served as the only place a person could sit on that wasn't either the floor or the tiny commode on the far end of the cell.

Brigs weren't supposed to be comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, but even Bairnson realized that the ones on Federation ships were like a room on a resort world like Risa compared to this hole. The only sound that one could hear in the place was the dull electronic drone of the force field in the cell's entranceway, which prevented any prisoner from attempting to escape.

Bairnson stared out of his cell at the lone Romulan guard standing vigil at the far end of the brig, near the entranceway. When the two guards had brought Bairnson into the brig—shoved, actually—he noticed that none of the four cells in the room were occupied.

He was the lone prisoner. He found that oddly flattering. But, now—gods know how long ago that had been—he was becoming a bit restless. And punchy.

"Hey!" he called out to the guard. "Can you hear that?"

The guard stood idly by, not acknowledging the query.

"I think your force field projector has a loose connector or something."

The guard did not move.

"It's just awfully noisy, don't you think?" Bairnson asked. The guard remained rooted to his spot.

"Any chance you can get someone down here to fix it?"

The guard's stony visage remained stony.

"Or, heck! If you bring me some tools, I can probably take care of it myself," Bairnson smiled. It'd at least give me something to do while I'm in here.

Movement! The guard raised a finger to his face and rubbed beneath his prominent nose before returning his arm to its original position at his side.

"Want to hear a joke?" Bairnson called out again. Still, the Romulan did not move a muscle. Bairnson wasn't even sure his eyes ever blinked.

"I promise you'll like this one!" The Romulan remained as still and silent as a stone statue.

"How many Starfleet engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?" queried Bairnson. His companion said nothing.

"Five. One to screw it in, and four to say, 'I could have done that! And I could have done it better!'"

Was it Bairnson's imagination or did one side of his minder's lips briefly curl upward in a half smile? And did his dark eyes give off the tiniest of twinkles before resuming their empty expression?

And here I thought they didn't have a sense of humor, Bairnson mused. He stepped back over to the bed in his cell and sat down.

"Hey, when's chow time around here?" he called again out to the guard. No response.

For a moment, he pondered what to do next before ultimately laying down on the nearly nonexistent mattress. As there was no headrest to speak of, Bairnson quickly doffed his maroon jacket and fashioned it into a makeshift pillow before placing it underneath his head. Like the mattress, it wasn't ideal. But under the circumstances, it would do just fine.

Bairnson began thinking about the course of events that had brought him to this place. Waking up on the Enterprise-D and meeting the various members of her crew. Discovering that anyone he had once known was either dead, missing, or wanted nothing to do with him. Even his minder mostly seemed to ignore him.

It was a complete 180 from how he'd felt not so long before, when it seemed he had finally found an ally who would help him unravel the mystery of his past. Picard had been prepared to sacrifice his career—indeed, his life—to make it so. Would he and his crew continue on that Arthurian quest? Or would they obey Starfleet's orders and abandon it?

Bairnson could only guess.

If it was the latter, then he could find solace that Laren wouldn't needlessly suffer any more because of him. She deserved some peace and happiness in her life. Even if it was without him. He prayed that she would.

The pneumatic hiss of the brig's entranceway door opening pulled Bairnson out of his reverie. The unmoving guard finally stepped aside as the striking Romulan commander Sela stepped into the brig. With a nod, she dismissed the guard. And as the entranceway door closed behind him, Sela slowly and purposefully strode toward Bairnson's cell.

A slight smile curled her lips as each step she took brought her closer. "I had to see it with my own eyes," she said with a hint of relish. "'The Butcher of Dräkmar.'"

She took a moment to look Bairnson from foot to head, her expression one of revulsion. "You don't look so frightening to me."

"I'm sorry…" Bairnson said with obvious confusion. "What did you just call me?"

Sela stepped in closer, he eyes narrowing. "Does the name offend you, Captain? It's fitting given the sheer magnitude of your crimes."

"And… what 'crimes' would those be, exactly?"

Bairnson's eyes widened when Sela said the words.

Murder. 100,000 counts.

Bairnson hadn't expected to laugh at the accusation, he couldn't help himself. The charge was just that absurd. He quickly noticed Sela regarding with him curiosity and suppressed any more forthcoming guffaws. After taking a deep calming breath, he said, "You're not serious?

Sela stared back him stone-faced.

Bairnson's own expression grew more concerned. "O… kay, you… are serious."

He paced away from Sela as far as the length of his cell would allow, gathering his thoughts. After a moment, he turned back to her. "How exactly did you work that charge out?" he asked.

"Your actions at the battle of Epsilon Dräkmar were the catalyst for the deaths of 100,000 Romulans."

"That's insane!"

"It is a chaotic universe, Captain," intoned Sela.

Oh great, thought Bairnson. She's philosophical to boot!

"Eighty years ago," Sela continued. "Your Federation and Romulus agreed that, if you were ever to resurface, Romulus had sole jurisdiction over what to do with you."

In other words, for all intents and purposes, the Federation had abandoned him. Bairnson was now a man without a country; worse, without a world. Not only that, but it seemed as if that world had literally thrown him to the wolves.

It was like an unexpected, powerful punch to the gut. Bairnson's knees buckled. He slowly turned away from Sela and took labored steps toward the bed. He placed one hand on the nearly nonexistent mattress for support as he lowered himself to a seated position, his eyes lowered to gaze at the pattern-less floor of his cell.

After taking a moment or two to catch his breath, Bairnson raised his head once more to look out the entranceway of his cell. Sela still stood there, but something was now different about her. She had her head slightly cocked to her left shoulder and her brow furrowed with bemusement.

"Curious," she said flatly. "You seem… troubled by this."

"Yeah, well…" croaked Bairnson. "It's not every day that you find out your Federation has turned on you."

Another silent moment passed as Bairnson gathered his thoughts. "I presume we're on our way to Romulus?"

Sela nodded.

"Where I'll be… what? Tried?"

"Executed," said Sela definitively. "Publicly."

Bairnson snickered. "Of course." How could it go any other way? A wry smile wormed its way across his face.

Sela stepped closer to Bairnson's cell. "You find this amusing?"

"Would you prefer to see me crying? On my knees, begging for mercy?" Bairnson shook his head. "I've already lost everything that ever mattered to me. What you're going to do sure as hell won't make things any worse."

Sela stood silently for a moment, seemingly pondering what to do next. Finally, she said, "You are a most peculiar man, Captain."

"Well, I guess that's a step up from being a mass murderer," said Bairnson with bitter irony.

"Is it not customary among your people to confess your sins before journeying to the afterlife?"

"What 'sins'?!" Bairnson seethed, rising from his bunk. He stepped toward Sela until they were just about nose-to-nose. Only the force field prevented them from reaching through the threshold and choking each other. "I have no idea what you're even talking about. And even if I did, the last person I'd confess anything to would be some albino freak!"

"I am not albino," spat Sela.

"Yeah? Well, I'm not a murderer!" Bairnson retorted with no small level of consternation. "Hey, ho; what do you know? We have something in common after all!"

Sela quickly reached down to her right hip and drew her disruptor from its holster. Within seconds, it was pointed directly at Bairnson's forehead. "You do realize that we already have your DNA on file; don't you, Captain? There's no need to take you all the way to Romulus. I could simply execute you right here. Right now!"

Perhaps it was the heightened adrenaline coursing through Bairnson's body, but at that moment, it was like someone flipped a switch in his brain. She was right. They didn't need him alive. Sela could have killed him the moment she stepped through the threshold into the brig. And yet, here he stood verbally sparring with the uncharacteristically blonde Romulan commander. At that moment, he felt more like what he presumed was his "old self."

His rage disappeared and an insatiable curiosity took its place. He gently and evenly asked the question that was currently on his mind, "Then… why haven't you?"

Sela's narrowed eyes immediately opened to their fullest and her furrowed brow softened to a more neutral expression. At that moment, Bairnson realized what had been going on since the moment she entered the brig. She had been using psychological interrogation techniques to get him to reveal some piece of information that she was convinced he knew. But, when none of her approaches had worked to her satisfaction, she ultimately resorted to the last move she had left in her arsenal: The threat of violence.

But Bairnson knew that move all too well. And he knew where it always originated: Out of desperation. And that finally gave him the upper hand. He couldn't lose it now.

"What do you know, Sela?" he asked her gently, using her given name instead of her rank in the hope of putting her at ease.

With frustration, Sela holstered her disruptor. "Clearly, more than you do." She turned away from Bairnson's cell and stood silently. A wordless moment passed between the two.

Finally, Bairnson offered, "Penny for your thoughts?"

Sela turned to face Bairnson again, a look of confusion across her pale complexion.

"It's an old expression," explained Bairnson. "It means, do you care to share what's on your mind?"

"Romulans do not mind-meld," said Sela flatly.

If the circumstances were different, Bairnson would have probably laughed at her remark. But he kept his amusement to himself. She probably didn't even see the humor in her statement. Or did she?

"Well," he began again, "judging by our conversation, your mouth certainly has no issue forming words."

Sela turned back around and stared at Bairnson. It took a second, but then he saw it: The same slight twinkle that he had seen his original guard's eyes when he told him that horrible joke. He was getting through to Sela!

"What happened on Epsilon Dräkmar, Sela?" he asked.

"And why would I tell you?" said Sela coyly. "Isn't the story well documented in the Federation archives?"

Bairnson inclined his head slightly, with a wry half-smile. "Any record of the incident seems to have…" He made a gesture with his hands that resembled a firework bursting in the air.

"Typical…" Sela huffed. "We soldiers do all the dirty work only to have it wiped away with the stroke of a politician's stylus!"

Then Bairnson remembered part of the story that Mirgant had told him. "The Dräkmarian plague," he said. "Did your people have something to do with it?"

Sela's nod confirmed Bairnson's suspicions.

She revealed to him how at that time, a new Praetor had assumed power on Romulus. She was young, ambitious, and eager to prove that she was worthy of the mantle she had won. One of her first acts was the establishment of listening posts throughout the Alpha Quadrant. Her greatest ambition, however, was to establish at least one such post beyond the Neutral Zone, deep in Federation space.

Dräkmar IV offered the perfect opportunity.

Although the Dräkmarians had established relations with the Federation, the alliance was still somewhat tenuous and contentious. By approaching the Dräkmarians with her proposal, the Praetor had hoped to shift the balance of power back in favor of Romulus. But, if the Dräkmarians had reservations about the Federation, they held nothing but contempt for the Romulans. And despite the strength of her vaunted military, the Praetor realized that engaging in combat with the fierce Dräkmarian warriors would only lead to defeat.

"That's when she devised the plague," said Sela. "She had our top geneticists work feverishly day and night to create it. And when it was ready, we would secretly unleash it upon Dräkmar IV."

"How?" wondered Bairnson.

"We have our ways," said Sela slyly. Bairnson decided not to press her any further on the subject. He was lucky to have gotten that much information. He then asked her what happened next.

Sela told him that that was the second part of the Praetor's plan: To magnanimously offer the Dräkmarians the cure for the disease – because, of course, it just so happened to be similar in many ways to a global pandemic that had once decimated Romulus. The Dräkmarians, for their part, would be so grateful for the Romulans' help, that they would willingly allow the Praetor to establish her listening outpost on one of Dräkmar IV's moons.

Bairnson had to admit that—while diabolical—the plan sounded nearly perfect. But, if Bairnson had learned anything from his nearly forty years of life, it was that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

"But there… was no cure," Bairnson conjectured. "Was there?"

"Oh, no," said Sela to Bairnson's astonishment. "That part of the story was true. A pandemic had once decimated Romulus and a vaccine existed…" Her voice trailed off and her expression changed back to one of disgust. "But that's when hubris and politics got in the way…"

Sela told Bairnson about a small—but vocal—contingent within the Romulan senate that had become extremely popular with the people at the time. This small cadre of senators secretly convinced the Praetor that it would be far simpler—and much less costly to the Empire—to simply let the plague do its dirty work and wipe out the Dräkmarians altogether. Then, the Romulans could swoop in and claim the Epsilon Dräkmar system as Romulan territory without ever firing a shot.

That was when the Dräkmarians reached out to the Federation for help. Within weeks, Federation geneticists working closely with the Dräkmarians developed their own version of the vaccine. When it was tested and ready to administer, Starfleet dispatched the Federation's flagship—the Enterprise-B—to escort a Dräkmarian aid ship back to Dräkmar IV as both its protector and as a symbol of cooperation between the two cultures.

Well, of course, upon hearing this, the Praetor and her allies in the Senate determined that it couldn't be permitted to happen. So, she dispatched her own top-secret flagship to engage the small convoy.

"And, as you might know," concluded Sela. "They were successful. Naturally, there were casualties on both sides of the conflict, but… we ultimately prevailed. The Romulan Star Empire humiliated the mighty Federation by destroying its flagship."

Something in the way Sela said that last sentence made Bairnson realize that she was parroting the "party line" with bitter irony. "If you had any Romulan ale, I'd drink a toast to your success," scoffed Bairnson.

"Many toasts were poured in the days and months that followed," admitted Sela. "Epsilon Dräkmar was ours. And work began almost immediately on the new outpost…"

Her tone suddenly became more melancholic. "But that's when the first victims succumbed to the plague."

"Victims?" Bairnson asked. "You mean… Romulans?"

Sela nodded. It turned out that the genetically engineered plague mutated in Dräkmar IV's atmosphere, becoming far stronger and more virulent than it was originally believed to be. It also appeared that Romulan and Dräkmarian physiology was more alike than either race would care to admit. The plague raged throughout the Epsilon Dräkmar system, killing anything that contracted it within days.

"But… you had a vaccine," said Bairnson. "So did the Federation…"

"The Federation's supply of vaccine was lost when that Dräkmarian aid ship was destroyed," said Sela. "And as for ours…" Sela's voice lowered to nearly a whisper when she explained how the Praetor had ordered all existing stores of the vaccine to be destroyed when news of her flagship's victory over the Enterprise-B reached her.

Bairnson sat down on the bed again. "My gods…" he muttered.

That explained why Starfleet had classified Dräkmar IV under General Order Seven. And why there were no records of the incident to be found on any Federation database. The Federation Council must have been so chagrinned by the loss of the Enterprise-B, that they decided to just wipe the entire incident from their records! As if it never even happened. Just as the Romulan Senate had apparently done.

"Sela," Bairnson said contritely. "I am so sorry. If there was any way I could change what happened, believe me, I would."

"I honestly don't know what to believe anymore," said Sela softly. "Take you, for instance."

The remark befuddled Bairnson. He briefly glanced up and down his own body. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, we have your DNA. We ran it several times to confirm your identity."

Bairnson's brow furrowed. "But…?"

"But how can you be him?" she asked pointedly. "How can you be Jack Bairnson? It is not logical. You should be close to 120 years old by now..."

Realization dawned on Bairnson. "Ahh. That would be the wormhole."

"What wormhole?"

"Well, that's what Mirgant called it, anyway. But it wasn't like any wormhole I've ever encountered before."

"Explain."

Bairnson quickly summarized his encounter with the strange phenomenon that Mirgant had told him about. How it must have frozen his damaged shuttlecraft's onboard systems and left him in a state of suspended animation until he was awoken in the 24th century by the crew of the Enterprise-D.

"And how long did they say your shuttle was… frozen?" wondered Sela.

Bairnson had to think. "I never heard a specific number. But it sounded like it had only been a few days…"

That's when Bairnson heard Sela mutter the word T'Lajia. Even though he'd taken a basic course in alien linguistics at Starfleet Academy, that was not one of the Romulan words he remembered hearing. He asked Sela what it meant.

Her reply was to draw her disruptor from its holster and point it directly at Bairnson once again. Instinctively, he stepped back from his cell's threshold, even though the force field would prevent any disruptor fire from reaching him. Sela quickly removed that barrier by reaching over and pressing the panel beside the cell's threshold, which disengaged the force field and allowed her to pass into the cell.

Bairnson slowly backed away from Sela until the wall halted his progress. Sela continued to approach him, the look on her face betraying no inward emotion. Bairnson raised his hands in surrender.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

"Someone must pay for what happened at Epsilon Dräkmar, Captain," said Sela calmly.

"But… you know I didn't do whatever they told you I've done!"

"As I said before, Captain," countered Sela. "There is no reason to take you to Romulus. We have your DNA. I can execute you right here. Right now."

"Look," said Bairnson, his voice quavering with nervousness. "I apologize for calling you an albino, all right? That was uncalled for, and I deeply regret it…"

For a moment, Bairnson thought he saw Sela's eyes break her gaze on him to glance up to her right. Was she surreptitiously signaling him? He quickly glanced up and noticed that there was indeed a surveillance camera staring down into the cell at him.

Before he could completely process what was going on, he heard Sela say, "Most peculiar."

She then pulled the trigger on her disruptor.

And the blackness fell over Bairnson.