THE BRIAR PATCH

By Dinah

Author's note: Once again I apologize for taking so long to complete this chapter. I had intended to include more in this chapter, but it started to get a little long and we've gone through several changes of season since I posted, so I decided that this was as good a place as any to bring this chapter to an end.

My sincere thanks to everyone for the reviews. I also want to thank Blacknblue and Alelou for being marvelous betas. I couldn't fix all the flaws they brought to my attention, but they made me think carefully about where I wanted this story to go.

CHAPTER 22: ADMIRAL GARDNER

"Okay, where do we stand?" Gardner said as he strode into Warsaw's situation room, Commander Trip Tucker following closely on his heels.

Admiral Osamu Tamura looked up from the 3-D holographic display which hovered over the larger circular table in the center of the room. "Enterprise is closing on Columbia." He looked over his right shoulder and called, "Lieutenant Carlton, time to intercept."

A tall, sandy-haired, sloped-shouldered man, one of three other Starfleet officers in the room, sang out, "Sixteen minutes and forty seconds at present speed, sir."

As Tamura instructed Tucker to give Lieutenant Carlton a hand, Admiral Gardner took a quick look around. Most of what went on in this room was a mystery to him. Over the years, Tamura had customized it to meet his needs and wants. At any given time, all four walls could be used to display maps, figures, lists, profiles, photos or audio and video feeds from a surprising number of points in the quadrant. This was in addition to half a dozen holographic work stations which could spring to life at a moment's notice and move rapidly to any part of the room. Quite frankly all the flashing, beeping, scrolling and swirling gave Gardner a headache, but it provided Tamura with what he needed and that was all that was important.

"What delayed you?" Tamura said. "I was concerned that you'd miss General Casey's grand entrance."

Gardner snorted. "Yeah, right. There was another problem that required my attention. Admiral Davis contacted me again. Her continued histrionics were only making a bad situation worse. I had no choice but to relieve her of command."

"Have you given any thought to her replacement? If ever Starfleet Security needed a firm hand, it's now."

"I have a call into Captain Astrid Sorenson."

"Sorenson?" Tamura crossed his arms and stared at Gardner. "Are you sure she's a wise choice? She's junior to a number of other candidates; Admiral Collier, for example, has far more experience."

"Astrid's been bending my ear for years about the sorry state of Starfleet Security. This will give her a chance to show what she can do. Trust me, she's relentless, she's loyal and she's up for promotion next month. I'll just hurry the process along. If anyone can whip Security into shape, she can."

Tamura nodded. "All right. I trust your judgment."

"Good," Gardner said. "We need to focus our attention on more important things. I just wish the United Earth Council hadn't picked such a lousy time to question General Casey."

"Yes, it is inconvenient, but we need to get this situation resolved," Tamura replied.

Lowering his voice so they wouldn't be overheard, Gardner said, "We should be at that hearing, not flying around Vulcan. The whole future of Starfleet is at stake."

"Admiral Leonard can handle things in our absence. He's been fully briefed."

"But if your suspicions are correct?"

"I've issued the necessary warnings. The future must now rest in other hands."

"I don't know." Gardner shook his head skeptically. Not for the first time he wondered what was going on behind Tamura's dark brown almond-shaped eyes. The man sure as hell didn't look like much, but Gardner had learned long ago not to judge people by appearances. Tamura was smart, with a mind that soaked up details like a dried-out sponge. Over the years he'd built a first-rate intelligence network that stretched across a sizeable portion of the Alpha Quadrant. And no one could argue with his success rate. He was damn good at his job. Gardner could only hope that Tamura hadn't lost his touch. "We're playing a dangerous game."

"You should know by now that I don't play games."

"I know you're on top of the situation, but I just hate leaving so much to chance. It wouldn't take much for this to backfire on us."

"I have every confidence that . . . "

"It's show time," one of Tamura's intelligence officers called. "Here comes General Casey."

The viewscreen on the back wall immediately sprang to life, revealing a large jam-packed room agleam with three huge crystal chandeliers. The hearing was being held at the United Earth Center, the new government complex located in the heart of Paris. The buildings, housing both the executive and legislative branches, had been completed less than six months ago.

Before the commentator had a chance to set the stage, the cameras quickly shifted to the outside hallway where a half a dozen men were engaged in a scuffle at the large double doors leading to the United Earth Council Chamber. With military precision, armed MACOs quickly overwhelmed the members of the Government Security Force guarding the entrance to the chamber and swung open the doors.

"This isn't good," Gardner muttered, as two MACOs stationed themselves on either side of the doorway. At least no shots had been fired; that was something. Gunfire near a room packed with very important people would have been his worst nightmare come true.

The two MACOs snapped to attention, their weapons held diagonally across their chests, as General Casey stepped forward into the doorway. He paused for a moment, as though waiting for a fanfare, then stepped over the threshold.

From across the room, Tucker let out a low whistle. "I've only seen a MACOs dress uniform once or twice in my life, but I sure don't remember there being that much gold braid."

"Your memories are accurate," Tamura said, with a trace of disapproval in his voice.

"George looks like some damned Turkish pasha," Gardner exclaimed. He could hardly believe that the person he was watching enter the United Earth Council Chamber was the same man who'd been his friend for so many years. This man, wearing a custom-made uniform aglitter with his full complement of medals, was heavily guarded on all sides by MACOs. As he and his contingent of bodyguards moved slowly toward the witness table, he looked around the room as though the furor his presence created was only what was due to an officer of his caliber. He stopped for a moment as he approached Admiral Daniel Leonard, but after making eye contact, he moved on as though the Starfleet officer was of little importance. As soon as he reached the witness table and took a seat, the MACOs, weapons at the ready, quickly fanned out to take up positions around the room.

"That's interesting," Tamura murmured as they watched another man walk over to the table and take a seat next to Casey.

"That's Julian Esterle, isn't it?" Gardner said.

"Yes, it is. The Peace Forever Movement and the MACOs. Well, well. That explains a great deal."

Prime Minister Juan Francisco de la Peña, a grim looking, dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, sat at the head of a huge U-shaped table made of dark green marble with ornately curved bronze legs. Gardner was familiar with the other sixteen ministers seated around the table and knew a number of them personally, including General Amobi Danjuma, the head of the Joint Forces Command on de la Peña's right, Maria Aurelia Carvalho, the Minister of Defense, on his left, and Nathan Samuels, Minister of Interstellar Relations, next to her. Gardner knew that, on the whole, they were all good people. Starfleet's future could certainly be in far worse hands.

A bell rang, signaling the start of the session and slowly the voices around the room stilled. As soon as the room was quiet, De la Peña folded his hands and placed them on the table in front of him. "There is no place for weapons in this council chamber, General Casey. You will order your people to wait outside."

"I think not," Casey said with a smile that did not extend to his eyes. "They are here for the protection of all of us. There are alien elements everywhere that do not wish Earth well."

"I assure you, General . . ."

"No, Prime Minister. If you want my participation today, you will allow them to stay. I go nowhere without the support of my troops."

"But armed force is contrary to every . . ." Before de la Peña could continue General Danjuma leaned over and, placing a hand on the prime minister's arm, whispered urgently in his ear.

As the two men whispered back and forth, the camera panned slowly around the room. Suddenly Tucker stiffened. "Son of a bitch," he snapped and pointed toward the screen. "Can you zoom in on that MACO over on the far right?"

"Lieutenant Temiz." Tamura raised his right index finger and pointed to the screen. An enlarged picture immediately appeared in a box in the lower right corner. "What do you see, Commander?"

"No, not that one." Tucker motioned with his hand. "Far right . . . back." He pointed. "Yeah, him." He took a few steps closer to the screen.

"Do you know that man?" Tamura asked.

Tucker tilted his head from side to side then pointed again at the screen. "That's the bastard who almost got me court-martialed for treason."

"Who?" Gardner said, as he and Tamura exchanged a questioning glance.

"Corporal Ryan. The bastard who planted the evidence against me on Enterprise."

Tamura looked more closely at the man. "Are you sure?"

Tucker nodded his head. "He's had some work done, but I'd lay odds that's the same guy."

"I don't mean to question your eyesight," Gardner said, "but maybe you need to take another look. That man is clearly a captain, not a corporal."

"So he got a promotion!"

Tamura held up his hand. "If there is any chance Commander Tucker is correct, we cannot simply ignore it. There is still an outstanding warrant for the arrest of Corporal Ryan." He turned his head toward the work station to his right. "Lieutenant Temiz, assign someone to follow up on this immediately."

"Aye, sir." Temiz, a pretty young woman with deep blue eyes, freckles sprinkled over her cheeks and brunette hair piled attractively on top of her head, was all business. "Our operatives in Paris are awaiting instructions."

"Good. I'll expect a report by 2200."

"And if I'm right?" Tucker asked.

"Then we must find a way to capture Corporal Ryan and make him talk," Tamura said thoughtfully. "He appears to be well placed in the command structure. Yes. He could provide a great many answers." Tamura flicked a finger at the main viewscreen. "They've just sworn in Casey. I suggest we concentrate on what he has to say."

Gardner turned his attention, once again, to the hearing; the prime minister was already speaking.

". . . clearly unacceptable, we cannot delay the investigation into the unprecedented attack on Starfleet Command by its sister agency, the Military Assault Command Operations. General Casey, did you order the attack on Starfleet?"

"Yes, sir."

"That is a very serious admission, General. You must have known that there would be casualties."

"I knew there would be some collateral damage, yes, sir, but if I had not ordered the strike, the loss of life would have been far greater."

De la Peña cast his eyes around the table, but there was only confusion and skepticism on the faces of his ministers. "Explain."

"Information came into my possession that Starfleet had entered into a secret agreement with the Vulcans."

There was an immediate outcry from ministers and spectators alike. Some people started to crowd around the witness table, shouting out words of support or blatant disbelief, but they were quickly driven back by the MACOs, who sometimes appeared to use more force than was absolutely necessary. Amid the commotion, de la Peña jumped to his feet, calling for order.

As the hubbub continued, Gardner kept his eyes fixed on Casey. Given the smug look on the general's face, things were going pretty much as he'd planned. It was obvious even to a blind man that he was setting himself up as the great savior of Earth and humankind. With Julian Esterle seated next to him, he must have already amassed a considerable power base. And with Starfleet out of the picture, there wasn't much to stand in his way. But why now? Why try to destabilize the government? It didn't make any sense. It certainly didn't seem to fit the personality of the man Gardner had known for so many years. Casey had always been a loyal, businesslike officer, who tended to keep a low profile. Why the sudden change?

As soon as order was restored, de la Peña said, "That sort of vague statement is unacceptable. Who was your source, General?"

"With all due respect, to name the person involved would be the same as signing his death warrant. I will not do that."

"Then your story remains unsubstantiated. Why should we put any credence in the word of some mystery man who may or may not exist?"

Casey's jaw clenched. "I'm under oath and I'm telling you he exists."

"General, you must understand that . . ."

"You're missing the bigger picture here," Casey said, clearly working to keep a firm handle on his temper. "We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged into another interstellar conflict. Many of our people still haven't recovered from the Xindi attack. Starfleet is a luxury Earth can no longer afford."

"But there are proper channels civilized people use to resolve differences of opinion," Minister Carvalho said. A thin, sophisticated woman, the minister had large dark brown eyes which were at the moment spitting fire at the general. "Why did you feel it was necessary to resort to violence? There can be no excuse for a surprise attack on Starfleet. Brother fighting brother. It is unconscionable."

Casey smiled. "I'm afraid, Minister, that is antiquated thinking. Violence often produces the most significant results in the shortest period of time. Efficiency, destabilization of an opponent, conservation of resources – these are things I'm sure you can understand."

"If you had concerns about the safety of Earth, General, why couldn't you come to a member of this Council?" de la Peña asked. "We would have listened."

Casey gave his head a weary shake as though he being forced to explain simple things to very simple people. "Because Starfleet functions as an autonomous organization, answerable to no one."

"That statement is incorrect," General Danjuma snapped.

"Oh really." Casey waved one hand in the air. "Starfleet is out there among the stars, meeting countless alien species, any of which could prove to be a threat to Earth. Do you know what Starfleet is doing, Minister? I don't."

"Of course." Danjuma squared his shoulders. Almost seven feet tall with dark brown skin and a razor-sharp mind, the general was a formidable figure. Gardner knew he wouldn't be easily cowed by Casey. "Starfleet provides us with regular reports. We debrief, when necessary. We question. We hold them accountable for their actions, just as we do the MACOs."

"And they tell you only what they want you to know." Casey's eyes moved around the council table. "They tell you only what they think you want to hear."

"When Enterprise returned from the Delphic Expanse, Captain Archer and his officers were thoroughly debriefed. Yes, some unsavory things did occur, but under the circumstances, we agreed that they were necessary."

"I'm sure you think the United Earth government was thoroughly debriefed, General, but I can assure you they were not." Casey leaned forward, a coiled snake waiting to strike. "For example, did Starfleet tell you that Captain Archer ordered his chief medical officer to create a symbiot and then kill it in order to plant alien tissue into the brain of one of his officers?"

Gardner scrubbed a hand over his eyes and groaned as the hearing descended into chaos. Judging by the reactions of many of the ministers, they were hearing this for the first time. But that was only to be expected. At the time of the debriefings, it was decided that this information would only be revealed on a need-to-know basis, and most of the people around this table didn't need to know. The people of Earth didn't need to know. But they sure as hell knew now and they weren't happy. It should have been obvious from the start that they couldn't keep a lid on this whole symbiot mess. He started to say something to Tamura, but the admiral motioned him off.

"Commander, are you all right?" Tamura asked quietly. He reached out a hand to steady the young man.

Only then did Gardner realize that Tucker looked as though he'd been poleaxed.

"Commander?" Gardner cursed himself inwardly. How could he have forgotten that the man most affected by this whole business was standing right next to him?

Tucker took a shuddering breath. "If he names me, I'll never be able to go back to Earth, will I?"

"I won't lie to you," Tamura said. "It will be difficult . . . but not impossible."

"They'll think I'm some sort of alien freak!"

"Maybe it won't be as bad as you imagine," Gardner said, as Prime Minister de la Peña tried to bring the hearing to order once again. "Casey's behaving like a horse's hind end. There are a lot of people who won't be fooled."

Even as he tried to offer some comfort to Tucker, Gardner couldn't help but admit to himself that deep down he'd wondered about the commander. Tucker appeared to be . . . normal, but how could he be? The symbiot that provided brain tissue for Tucker may have looked like a clone, but it sure as hell started out as some sort of alien life form. And what about Tucker's relationship with the Vulcan, T'Pol? What kind of influence did she have over him? Could she eventually force him to go against his own people? Gardner realized that at this point he didn't have any recourse but to trust Tucker. But if the day came when Tucker no longer appeared to have the best interests of Starfleet and Earth at the top of his agenda, well . . . maybe he'd have to think again.

General Danjuma was on his feet and fighting mad. "General Casey, your comments are inappropriate. This has nothing to do with your attack on Starfleet." The Prime Minister reached over and tugged on the general's arm until he took his seat again.

"Don't be naïve!" Casey snapped. "Is it any wonder that Commander Charles Tucker resorted to treason? He is now part alien."

"Well, that tears it," Trip said in a strangled voice. On his face was a look of utter despair. "If I ever get my hands on that filthy, scum-sucking bastard, I'll . . ."

"Commander Tucker has been cleared of the charges against him," Danjuma said matter-of-factly. "Whatever . . . methods were used to keep him alive are no longer relevant."

"Cleared by whom?" Casey fired back. "By Starfleet? They aren't interested in the truth."

"The evidence Starfleet presented was quite convincing. If I remember correctly, General Casey, one of your own men was implicated in framing Commander Tucker. I don't suppose you would care to comment on that?"

"Those charges are completely unfounded. As I said before, Starfleet has absolutely no respect for the truth."

"You seem to have a great passion for the truth, General," Minister Carvalho said. "But the truth is that you ordered your men to attack Starfleet. You admit that quite freely. Perhaps you can explain to us how your attack differs from that of John Frederick Paxton and Terre Prime. Both would seem to me the most blatant forms of terrorism."

Casey drew himself up until his back was as rigid as a bar of duranium. "I will not have my name linked with that man. He was a traitor. I am a patriot."

"But how can you justify . . ."

"I will not allow Starfleet or any other organization to destroy Earth, as we know it. The MACOs have been charged with the defense of Earth, and I take that charge very seriously. In order to fight against an organization as powerful as Starfleet – an organization which, I will remind you, seems hell-bent on involving us in a catastrophic interstellar war – surprise was our only option. Our purpose was twofold: to focus Starfleet's attention back on Earth and to provide a forum so that people could be made aware of the terrible threat Starfleet poses."

"You sacrificed people's lives for publicity?" Finance Minister Anton Eperjesi said incredulously.

Before Casey could respond, Nathan Samuels said, "Earlier you mentioned an agreement between Starfleet and the Vulcans? Could you be more specific, General? What type of agreement? What are the provisions? Are any other parties involved?"

Casey nodded and seemed to relax slightly.

"Admiral," Lieutenant Carlton said, "Captain Archer reports that Enterprise is closing on Columbia. They will reach the intercept point in two minutes."

"Understood," Tamura said, both eyes fixed firmly on the viewscreen.

"In exchange for some modest technological advances," Casey said, "Starfleet has promised to support the Vulcans in their ongoing quest to make war on the Andorians. Such a misguided war would only be a disaster for our people."

"That man has a very vivid imagination," Gardner muttered.

"But . . . you offer us no proof," Minister Eperjesi said. The plump, rosy-cheeked man in a navy blue three-piece suit tapped a finger on the table in front of him. "Where is your proof?"

"You may think Starfleet is all-powerful," Danjuma said, "but they cannot make war without the support of the United Earth government. They do not have the resources. This whole thing sounds like a tissue of lies invented by one man to justify his desire for power."

Instantly, every MACO in the room leveled his weapon at Danjuma. There seemed to be no question that they would have fired if Casey hadn't waved them off.

"Be careful what you say, General. My men take offense easily."

"Your men took an oath to support and defend the government and people of United Earth."

"As did I." Casey puffed out his chest with pride. To Gardner, the gesture only made the general look like an overdressed turkey. "I take my oath to the people of Earth very seriously."

With a look of skepticism on her face, Minister Carvalho leaned forward and said, "Mr. Esterle, you're sitting at the same table with General Casey. Do you believe all this?"

"The Peace Forever Movement supports General Casey," Esterle replied without hesitation. With his shoulder-length blonde hair, deep purple suit and open-collar shirt, the young man presented quite a contrast to the spit and polish general. "We share the same aims, the same values."

"General Casey, Mr. Esterle. . ." – Minister Carvalho looked intently at each man in turn – ". . . do you advocate the overthrow of the lawful government of United Earth, if it does not conform to these same aims and values?"

"Enterprise has made contact, but Columbia is not responding to hails," Lieutenant Carlton stated, but was largely ignored. The information registered with Gardner, but it wasn't enough to draw his attention away from the viewscreen as everyone waited with bated breath for the two men to respond.

Casey and Esterle sat side by side, motionless, as a hush settled over the council chamber. Neither man looked at the other. Finally, Esterle cleared his throat and opened his arms in a conciliatory gesture. "I assure you, Minister, that I am only interested in securing peace for the people of Earth."

"And like General Casey, do you believe the only way to secure peace is through acts of violence?" General Danjuma asked.

"No, of course not," Esterle said, earning him a venomous glare from Casey. "There are any number of ways to achieve our ends."

"Do they include the overthrow of the government?"

Esterle folded his hands on the table in front of him. He looked surprisingly calm for a man who was under such intense scrutiny. "No, sir," he replied, in a clear, firm voice.

"General Casey, you have not yet responded to my question," Minister Carvalho said sharply. "Today you brought armed men into this council chamber. You have also made it clear that you believe violence is a desirable means of achieving your goals. So I ask you again, do you advocate the overthrow of the lawful government of United Earth?"

Even at this great distance, Gardner could practically hear Casey's teeth grinding together.

"What is your answer, General?" Carvalho prodded. She motioned to the other members of the council. "Do not forget that we, too, have pledged to protect the people of Earth."

Casey slammed his fist on the table. "Bullshit! You and Starfleet are in this together!" Esterle put a hand on the general's arm, apparently trying to caution him, but Casey roughly brushed it aside and pointed a rigid finger in Carvalho's direction. "You will not be satisfied until the human race has been driven to brink of extinction. I refuse to let that happen! I will take whatever steps are necessary to keep Earth safe!"

Once again Prime Minister de la Peña was on his feet, calling for order, as the room erupted into shouts and catcalls. Head held high, General Casey restlessly looked around the room, seeming to draw energy from the chaos surrounding him. As the camera drew in for a closer look, Gardner could see that a sheen of sweat covered the general's face. He looked, for all the world, like a man who was about to achieve his life's ambition.

General Danjuma jumped up, joining the prime minister in trying to quiet the crowd. Fortunately, with Danjuma's imposing height and de la Peña's natural air of authority, it wasn't long before order was restored. After straightening his suit coat and taking a deep breath, De la Peña motioned for the general to take his seat, but Danjuma shook his head and resolutely remained standing by the prime minister's side.

"The United Earth Council wants peace," de la Peña began in a voice choked with anger, "but not at any price. Before this Council condemns Starfleet, it requires proof, not some vague accusations. We will not accept blindly in the face of blatant intimidation. We will not condone violence when other avenues for the redress of grievances are open and available to all. General Casey, we have given you every opportunity to explain your actions and all you offer us is defiance. I can see no other course but to call for your immediate arrest on the charge of treason."

"Sir!" Carlton exclaimed, immediately drawing the attention of everyone in Warsaw's situation room. "Enterprise reports that Columbia has opened fire!"

To be continued