He had been located, and they were walking toward him. Synnove Natale’s heart was heavy, as she had come to like and respect him despite his increasingly bad attitude.
She and the three men with her stopped outside the office door, and with a sigh she reached over and keyed it open. Dilik Zram was seated at his desk working on the computer, and looked up as the doors parted to reveal the dark orange Orion, flanked by Jordan Kelley, Andon Vehl, and the mysterious Alok, who had been assigned by Tattok to act as Intelligence liaison for the station.
Zram sat back casually. “Hey there, Captain. What’s with the entourage?”
Natale said only, “Mr. Alok.”
The tall, blond-haired man stepped forward and placed a device on the desk. Switching it on, he stepped back and nodded at Natale. Next she said, “Mr. Vehl.”
The Trill stepped forward and produced a PADD, which he thumbed on and laid on the desk. Zram leaned forward and watched the video clip it was playing, his countenance showing first surprise, and then resignation. When the video was done, he pushed the PADD away and looked up at his visitors.
“I suppose Kelley has the restraints?” he quipped.
“No, Master Chief, I do not,” Kelley replied simply.
“Then why are you here? You supposed to help these two wrestle me under control if I get out of hand?”
“Would you rather I’d brought Kirek?” Natale shot back. At the look on his face, she continued. “I didn’t think so. You’re not under arrest, Dilik—at least, not yet.”
“Ain’t that a breach of protocol or something?” Zram said. “If you’re not arresting me—yet—then why are you here?”
“Because I want to know one thing, Chief,” the captain said. “I want to know why. Why did you do this?”
Zram sat back again, crossing his arms over his chest. “To prove a point. Though I have to admit to being curious as to how you got the video when I took out that camera.”
“I should think it’s fairly obvious, Mr. Zram,” Vehl spoke up. “There was more than one camera. Oh, there wasn’t when you encountered me installing the one you damaged. But our conversation inspired me, and I installed a second camera with an independent power source. If you watch the video again, I’m sure you’ll notice that the angle differs from that of the one you saw me install.”
“How creative of you,” the Bolian replied. “So what now?”
“I have other questions for you, Chief,” Natale said, at last taking a seat in one of the two visitors’ chairs. “You said you did it to prove a point. What point are you trying to prove? And how many other ‘points’ have you made?”
“I hit that and a few other cameras, that’s it,” Zram replied. “And the point was to prove that there is no point to our being here! There’s been a saboteur on this station since day one, and no one’s caught that sneaky bastard yet. And really, why the frack are we even here? The sabotage is proof that we’re clearly not wanted. Plus, who the hell cares if the Cardies are starving and dying—look what they did to us during the war! Look at what they’ve been doing to us for years! We’ve lost starships and starbases, fellow officers, friends, family members…”
He’d stood as he spoke, waving his hands emphatically to punctuate his words, though on the last, when he spoke of losing family, his voice broke. Zram closed his eyes and took a number of deep breaths.
Before he could speak again, Natale rose and came around the desk. She placed a hand on his arm, her expression and voice full of sympathy even as she scolded him. “Dilik, no one is saying that what the Cardassians have done is being forgotten. I doubt its being forgiven, even if they were manipulated by vipers—they invited the Dominion into their nest, and are now reaping the results of what they themselves have sown. But those were the actions of their military, men who’d overstepped their bounds and thrown off the yoke of their government’s control because they craved power that wasn’t theirs to take.
“And you are not the only man who has lost someone precious, someone who cannot be replaced—we have all lost someone dear to us. But you cannot let your anger cloud your judgment, to justify condemning millions of innocent civilians, men and women and children who have never raised a hand against us, who are starving and sick and homeless. These are people who have been left to fend for themselves because those in power were too blind to see that if they don’t help them, there won’t be anyone left to govern.”
She paused, took a breath, and continued. “I don’t like this situation anymore than you do. I’m not fond of the idea of stretching what resources we have even thinner to help the same people who were trying to take all that away from us. But I do understand that this is an opportunity for the Federation to show an enemy that we don’t have to be enemies. The Cardassians aren’t likely to ever be invited to apply for Federation membership, but if we can make them see that we are willing to at least be friends, then that’s one more on our side the next time someone like the Dominion comes along and tries to run roughshod over us.”
Zram stared at her for a long moment, saying nothing. He glanced at the other three men in the room, then looked down at the small, blinking cylinder that Alok had placed on the desk.
“What is that?” he asked, waving a hand at it.
“An electromagnetic pulse emitter,” Alok answered. “It’s specifically designed to render audio and visual sensors within the determined radius temporarily inoperative. It also works on bugs planted by people like myself—not that I’ve done that.”
The Bolian security chief looked at Natale. “Why did you bring that?” he asked her.
“Because we’re just here to talk to you, and I wanted to ensure that this was a private conversation. Mr. Alok has many tricks up his sleeve from his years as a freelance operative.”
Zram looked over at the not entirely Human man whose slightly pointed ears were evidence of mixed parentage, although technically, Alok didn’t have any parents—he was a clone. The man from whom he had been copied was three-quarters Human with a Romulan grandmother.
“I would say I’m going to be keeping an eye on you, but I’m not entirely certain how long I’ll still be working here,” he said finally, then sighed. “I hit the cameras because I wanted to prove that installing them was pointless. No matter what measures we take against this saboteur, he’s always one step ahead of us.”
“That’s because he worked here once upon a time,” Alok said. “My recent mission in the heart of Cardassian space led me to discover that the True Way planted someone within the party of Cardassians who were assigned to this crew. I’d have brought the matter to the attention of Admiral Tattok or Captain Natale sooner, but things got…complicated. As it is, the person they assigned was once an officer here on this station.”
“Well that’s just flippin’ great news,” Zram muttered.
“Indeed,” agreed Kelley. “He’s been one step ahead of us because he knows this station better than we do.”
“And it means that not only are the remnants of the Maquis taking advantage of the situation in Union space, but their True Way brethren as well. Opposite sides of the same coin, they are,” added Vehl.
Natale had to grin. “Now you’re sounding like Admiral Tattok, Lieutenant,” she said.
Vehl grinned. “I’ve known the admiral for a while now. Not well, mind you, but having been a member of Captain Kaav’s SCIS team since I got out of the academy, I’ve had chance to encounter him a couple of times before. He’s quite a character.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Natale quipped with a laugh.
Zram cleared his throat. “Captain… I’m sorry,” he said, hoping she saw how sincere he was. “No matter what I think of those damn spoon-heads, my actions are inexcusable. I am prepared to face a court martial.”
Natale shook her head. “If I really thought throwing you in front of a review board or straight into a court martial was the way to handle this, I wouldn’t have brought Alok’s little toy to the party, and Commander Kelley would have had a pair of restraints—or we’d have just marched you straight back to one of the holding cells. The truth of the matter is, though, that Starfleet is seriously undermanned and I can’t afford to lose even one person. I need you, Dilik, but I also need to know that I can trust you.”
He turned to face her fully, drawing himself up to his full height and looking her straight in the eye. “It won’t happen again, Captain. You have my word.”
“I really hope you mean that, Chief,” she said. “And as much as I’d like to let this go as soon as Alok turns off the jammer, I’m afraid I can’t. You get to keep working here and you get to keep your job as head of security, but I am placing a formal reprimand into your permanent file. You’re on probation until further notice.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m also ordering you to report to Counselor Roijiana so you can start dealing with your anger toward the Cardassians,” Natale added.
Zram blinked. “Captain, I know I’ve got no right making requests, and I ain’t saying I won’t see a shrink, but I’d really prefer to see someone else.”
“I should have known you would say that,” Natale said with a sigh. “Your problem with her is something else we’re going to have to talk about. But that’s a conversation for another day. I’ll concede on this one point—you don’t have to speak to Roijiana, but you are going to speak to someone, and you will see him or her regularly until I hear that progress has been made. Understood?”
The Bolian nodded again. “Yes, ma’am.”
She turned to the others. “Now that the ‘unpleasant business’ part of our meeting has been concluded, I want ideas on how to catch the saboteur and put a stop to him once and for all.”
“Seems to me like Lt. Vehl’s already got a plan for that,” Alok said mildly.
Vehl looked at him. “I do?”
The other man nodded. “You caught Zram, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Vehl replied, “and I thought I had caught the saboteur until you came along and proved otherwise. Apparently my investigation is not concluded after all.”
“Alok’s got a point,” Kelley put in. “You caught Zram because you went back and you put up another camera. You gave it an independent power source so that if the obvious one was attacked, it wouldn’t be affected.”
“I see what you’re saying,” added Zram. “You think we should put up more of those battery operated cameras.”
Alok and Kelley exchanged a glance, then both men nodded. “Precisely, Master Chief,” the Intel man said. “I think if we put them up in key points, places the saboteur has been known to target more than once, we might just be able to catch him.”
“Your source didn’t give you anything else on this guy?”
Alok shook his head. “Unfortunately, we could only confirm that the True Way had sent someone in undercover who had worked here before. There was nothing else on him—no physical description, no work history after they abandoned Empok Nor. Nothing.”
“This sounds like as good a plan as any,” Natale spoke up, “except I see one little snag in the pantyhose.”
All four men looked at her. “The what?” Alok asked.
“Pantyhose are a ladies’ underclothing garment made from a material called nylon,” the Orion answered. “Women hate to get snags in them because it ruins them.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Kelley said. “The captain is saying that she sees a flaw in the plan.”
“You’re afraid that the cracker behind this will see the cameras and just do to them what he does to the others.” Zram said to Natale.
Natale nodded. “Qapla’! Someone gets it.”
“You’re forgetting one thing, Captain—I didn’t see the second camera,” the chief pointed out. “Vehl here hid that one pretty damn good. If we can hide the others just as well in the places that are hit most often, then we’ll catch him for sure.”
Captain Natale contemplated that for a moment, then nodded slowly. “We’ll have to study the areas he tends to do physical damage in for the best places to hide the cameras, but that sounds like a plan. After all, what else have we got to lose? Something has to be done to stop this jerk before he goes too far and someone gets hurt.”
Dalin Skrail Pavet turned to his companion, the lovely and robust Glinn Tyma Matta, as they passed by the Security office. He’d seen the captain and four of the other Starfleet officers gathered in there, and they seemed to be having quite the deep discussion.
“What do you want to bet that they’re in there trying to devise a plan to get rid of us?” he said.
Pavet had stopped walking just beyond the office, though Matta could still see inside the glass door. “Who cares?” she replied. “Certainly whatever they try won’t work—the new Detapa Council may be as weak as the first, but they did one thing right in sending us here.”
“Are you joking?” Pavet said. He scoffed harshly. “Matta, my dear, surely you do not mean you are pleased to be working with these Starfleet voles?”
“Of course I’m not saying that!” she sneered. “I’d rather work with actual voles than Starfleet. But sending us here to work with them means we can keep an eye on them. By our being here, they won’t be able to get away with any trickery.”
Pavet considered that a moment. “You do have a point, I suppose. But look at that,” he said, gesturing toward the office. “What could they possibly be talking about in there? And why the devil is that damn Bolian still here? He accused Dal Kirek of shooting him when he was innocent! Accused him of aiding in the escape of that Maquis kraet-worm, Cen—as if Eton Kirek would do such a thing!”
Matta nodded. “The Dal is a great man, and it is pitiful that he received no justice for the accusation, even if they did find out what really happened. If we were in charge of the station—”
“That’s just it!” the dalin interrupted her. “We should be in charge—this is a Cardassian space station! It galls me to no end that the Detapa Council invited Starfleet in to establish it as a base instead of allowing our people to do it on their own. Kirek would be a Gul and in command of this outpost were it not for those idiots!”
Other officers, both Cardassian and Starfleet, who were passing through the mostly deserted Promenade turned their heads at his raised voice. Pavet glared at them all, his expression conveying a clear message: Mind your own business.
“I agree with you, Dalin, but unless you know of a way we can throw Starfleet off the station, I don’t see how we can make that happen,” Matta told him, keeping her voice low so that the others would not overhear.
“Oh, don’t worry, my dear,” he said, caressing the much younger woman’s cheek, for he thought her lovely and hoped to take her to his bed one night. “I have a feeling our friend the saboteur is going to be helping us do just that. After all, the fact that they have not caught him in all this time is proof of their incompetence.”
Matta, whom Pavet did not realize loathed him and saw him only as a means to advance her own career, did her best not to recoil from his touch. “Certainly there is that, but neither have we caught him,” she said, keeping her voice neutral. “His daring is admirable, to be sure, but what if he gets bold enough to cause someone an injury and it so happens to be one of our people? What if it is Kirek?”
Kirek, on the other hand, Matta liked very much. He was much more handsome and charismatic than a fat old leech like Pavet.
Pavet chuckled. “Rumor has it that the saboteur is actually planning such an accident, but one that will enrage the Dal, not harm him.”
The object of his misplaced affection frowned. “How do you know this? I have not heard any such rumor.”
Her companion smiled, and stepping to her side, he put his arm around her shoulders and started to walk again. “My dear, come along, and I shall tell you what I have heard.”
Matta, having no choice but to go, went along silently, listening to every word.
The next day, the saboteur watched, waiting for the trap he had set to be triggered. His target was right where she was supposed to be, talking to the human doctor who had been put in charge of the medical facility.
Any moment now, he thought, feeling rather proud of himself. It really was too easy. Because the station was not fully occupied—in truth, they had a minimal crew—the security patrols on this level were few and far between. It had been easy to sneak into the infirmary last night to peel up a deck plate and install a pressure switch, which when stepped on would then shoot over 150,000 volts of electricity through his intended victim.
It wouldn’t kill her—not that he hadn’t considered that. After all, her father would be so blinded by rage were she to die that he would exact vengeance without mercy on as many Starfleet officers as he could get his hands on before eventually being subdued. Family meant everything to a Cardassian, and Karejah was Eton Kirek’s only daughter. His only child. When he’d brought her onboard his ship during the war to be a medic, he’d made it quite clear that should any harm come to her, the one responsible would be punished with a swift execution. Thus, the men under his command had kept a close eye on her.
No, the shock would not kill Karejah, but her thrashing about as she was electrocuted into unconsciousness would make for quite a spectacle. Her father would be outraged, and he would raise such a commotion about it, not only here on the station but back home on Cardassia, that even the pitiful new Detapa Council would have no choice but to demand Starfleet’s withdrawal. Afterward, motions would be made to expel all non-Cardassians from Union-held worlds, and then the Cardassian Union would be their own again. They could rebuild it from the ground up, from the inside out, and they would do it without the charity of lesser beings.
That was the True Way.
Any moment now, he told himself again. Karejah moved away from the doctor, a smile on her face. She stepped over to her work station—
This is it!
—and nothing happened. She simply sat down in her chair and got to work.
He told himself not to panic. Perhaps she had not stepped on the exact spot—she needed to do that to set off the pressure switch and the voltage. She would rise again soon, certainly, and she would trigger it then.
Appearing to be busy while he waited for his trap to be sprung had been easy—he’d simply made sure that a set of electrical conduits within visual range of the open doors of the medical bay were “malfunctioning.” He would offer to fix them, as he had some engineering expertise. He wanted to be on hand when the chaos began, and this really was the perfect spot.
Karejah would get up again, and she would step on the right spot—she just had to. It was her workstation, the one she usually sat at whenever she did data entry—he’d made sure of it by observing her for several days. And while it would please him to no end for one of the Starfleet crewmembers to trigger the trap, it had to be Karejah. No one else would have the desired effect he was looking for.
Ah, there she goes, he noted. Karejah had stood, and was turning away from the console. She stepped sideways with her left foot, and this time he was absolutely certain she had stepped on the plate covering the pressure switch.
“No,” he growled softly. Something must have gone wrong. Maybe I didn’t connect one of the wires right…
“Something the matter, Skrail?”
It was all Skrail Pavet could do not to jump out of his skin as he turned around to find Eton Kirek standing behind him. The expression on the dal’s face was one of mild curiosity.
“N-no, sir,” Pavet replied, praying to the Great One that Kirek didn’t notice his stammer. “Just frustrated, is all. Damned wiring.”
Kirek glanced at the open panel by which he stood. “You mean that wiring?” he said, nodding toward the circuitry in the wall.
“Or this wiring?”
Pavet looked over and saw that Kirek was holding up the pressure switch he had installed under the floor in the medical quarters. He had just enough time for panic to flood his system before the dal’s other hand—fist, actually—connected with his nose, shattering the cartilage therein.
Pavet was lifted off of his feet by the force of the blow despite having nearly fifty pounds on Kirek. He flew backward and landed with a crash on the deck, and had not the time to think even one coherent thought before the enraged father (well, he’d accomplished that at least) was atop him, using both fists to strike alternating blows to his face.
Pavet was quite bloody and broken by the time the station’s Terellian chief engineer was able to haul Kirek off of him.
“Let me go! I will kill him!” screamed Kirek.
Grafydd kept all four arms wrapped around him. He was strong enough to hold onto the struggling Cardassian, but Kirek was putting up a good fight.
“That’s not what we agreed to, Kirek,” Captain Natale said as she approached. “How is he, Doctor?”
Before Margherita Garcia could answer, Kirek hollered, “Who cares how he is?! He will be dead when I get through with him!”
Natale turned to them. “Grafydd, better get him out of here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the engineer replied, nearly hauling Kirek off his feet as he led him away.
“We’d better keep guards on Pavet,” Dilik Zram commented as he watched Grafydd march Kirek toward the security office. “After what just happened, I got no doubt Kirek will kill him given the chance.”
The captain nodded. “Agreed. I knew Kirek loved Karejah, as I know how important family is to Cardassians—one of the very few things we all have in common with them. But I had no idea he’d be so consumed with rage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so angry, and Karejah’s life wasn’t even in danger.”
Zram scoffed. “Imagine what would have happened had Pavet’s intent been to kill her,” he said.
Natale looked down at the bloody mess that had been Skrail Pavet’s face, which Dr. Garcia and another of the medical assistants—Karejah had gone after Grafydd and her father—were attempting to stabilize so he could be carried over to the infirmary. “I don’t have to imagine, Chief. Pavet would already be dead.”
“Mr. Alok and I have gone over everything we found in Skrail Pavet’s quarters, Captain,” Andon Vehl said later that morning.
Natale sat back in her chair, looking at two of the four men standing in her office. Alok and Vehl were across the desk from her, Zram was behind and to her left, and Kirek—who’d only been calmed by the presence of his alive and unharmed daughter—was behind and to her right. “What did you discover?” she asked.
“As my contact on Cardassia Prime already confirmed, he was a member of True Way,” Alok said. “His mission here was to create just enough problems to make Starfleet look incompetent in the eyes of the Detapa Council. True Way believes that the Cardassians don’t need our help and that they can rebuild on their own. Cardassians don’t need allies in the form of weaker, inferior institutions like the Federation.”
“Weaker and inferior my ass,” Dilik Zram muttered.
“Chief,” Natale said over her shoulder, then looked back at Alok and Vehl. “Although I’m certain I already know the answer, why does True Way want us to look incompetent? So that the Cardassians will kick us off the station?”
Vehl nodded. “That is correct,” he said, then cast a glance at Kirek. “True Way also believes that the Detapa Council was foolish and incompetent themselves for inviting us here in the first place. Pavet’s journal entries indicate that he was hoping the failure of this first truly joint venture would prove that Cardassians and Starfleet—and the Federation by proxy—could never work in harmony together, and that the Council would be so embarrassed by the project’s collapse as to make them weak enough for takeover by the remnants of the Cardassian Central Command.”
“What I don’t get,” Zram spoke up again, “is why Pavet suddenly went from initiating simple systems malfunctions and minor structural damage to felonious assault. Usually these things escalate in stages.”
“His superiors in True Way didn’t think he was doing enough,” Alok replied. “They thought he was taking too long to complete his objective, and they ordered him to step up the pace. He thought he needed to do something drastic, something big that would create chaos and catch everyone’s attention for sure.”
“According to my informant,” Kirek spoke up for the first time, “Pavet believed that were Karejah to be injured by the so-called saboteur, I would be so enraged as to blindly kill anyone near her, and that I would tear my way through every Starfleet officer in sight until I could be subdued. I am not ashamed to say that he was not far from the mark.”
“Indeed, Mr. Kirek,” said Natale as she turned her head to look at him. “Dr. Garcia told me that you nearly killed him. A few more blows and you’d have caved his entire face in.”
“No one harms my daughter, or even threatens to do so,” the Cardassian said fiercely. “Pavet is lucky that Starfleet is operating this facility, otherwise he would be dead already. The Great One has favored him one last time in that he is not facing Cardassian justice.”
Jordan Kelley rang the chime then, and Natale bade him enter. He stepped around Alok and laid a PADD on the desk. “Showed Pavet the video recording from Medbay. We’re lucky he hit that place more than once, otherwise we’d have had no legitimate reason to install a camera in there.”
“And the dal’s informant would be in danger,” Alok put in. “In fact, should he get the chance, he may contact some of his friends in True Way to come and have him or her taken out, whether he believes this person betrayed him or not. He won’t want to take the chance of being wrong.”
“And I don’t want to take the chance of another prisoner escape,” Natale added, turning to Zram. “He’s to have no access to communications equipment, and I want guards on him at all times. No one is to speak to him, not even with a security officer present. When it comes time to transport him to a penal facility, you’re to have twice as many guards on him as escort, and the designated runabout will have a security detail examine it prior to transfer.”
Her chief of security nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
She looked one more time at Alok and Vehl. “Did you turn up anything in your search of his quarters to indicate that Pavet was not working alone? I don’t want to call this saboteur business closed unless we’re absolutely sure Pavet was the only one.”
Both the Trill and the hybrid shook their heads in the negative. “No, Captain. Everything we found indicated this was a solo mission,” said Vehl.
“Doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of the True Way, though,” Alok cautioned. “Or the Maquis, for that matter.”
“’Constant vigilance,’ Admiral Tattok told me last time he was here,” Natale said with some amusement. “Looks like he was definitely right about that. We go on about our lives, gentlemen, but we keep our eyes peeled and stay on our guard.”
Zram chuckled. “Sounds like same ol’, same ol’ to me,” he said.
“Speaking of which, it’s time to get back to it,” the captain said. “I, for one, will be happy to go a full day without one single report of a systems malfunction. I’m looking forward to this station being fully operational. Dismissed—except for you, Mr. Vehl, I’d like to speak to you a moment.”
Vehl nodded and waited while the others slowly filed out of the office. When the door closed behind them, Natale sat back in her chair and looked up at him. “Despite the misleading conclusion you came to regarding Chief Zram, I think you performed your job very well.”
The Trill’s expression shifted to one of chagrin. “I wish I had performed it better, Captain. I was wrong to declare my investigation concluded based on the evidence provided by one recording. I should have installed more than one back-up camera the first time around—we might have caught Pavet sooner.”
“You weren’t the only one to be a little stunned by Zram’s actions,” Natale replied. Then she keyed on her desktop monitor and brought up a file she had been reading before the meeting. “Captain Kaav has had nothing but positive things to say about you, Lieutenant, and I’m satisfied with your performance. How do you feel about the experience?”
“It was a very interesting challenge,” Vehl replied, “to have to build a case from almost nothing. But I suppose my first solo case since the war wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s been a help in flexing my investigating muscles, for sure. Part of me still feels a little out of balance, given what I did during the war.”
The Orion nodded. “Yes, according to your service record, you served as a tactical advisor on the Ireland for the last fifteen months of the war, gaining yourself some valuable command experience. Do you miss it?”
Vehl smiled a little. “Actually, I kind of do miss it. Don’t get me wrong—I still enjoy the challenge of being an investigator, but commanding away missions, taking a watch here and there…”
“Was exciting?” she prompted.
The lieutenant nodded.
“Well, what if you had the opportunity to do both?” Natale queried lightly.
“What do you mean, Captain?”
She sat forward. “I need a new OiC for Beta Shift, as Lt. Milner has decided to transfer to an outpost on Betazed to be closer to her husband. You could take her place as watch officer, and exercise your investigation muscles as our SCIS Officer-on-Site whenever the need arises.”
Vehl grinned instantly. “That sounds great, ma’am, and I do thank you, but you’d have to request my transfer from Captain Kaav.
Natale grinned wryly. “I’ve already spoken to Kaav. Needing an SCIS officer on the station is perhaps the only thing we’ve agreed on in the entirety of our acquaintance. He told me that I was wise to ask for you, as you’re damn good at what you do.”
Vehl laughed then. “Coming from a Tellarite—and Captain Kaav especially—that’s a compliment, ma’am,” he told her.
“I have no doubt,” she said with a smile, switching off the computer again and standing, then coming around the desk. “Ready to get to work, Lieutenant?”
He nodded solemnly, then smiled. “As ready as ever, Captain.”