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Cat & Mouse - Part II by Travis Anderson

The Spy, the Rebel, the Daredevil, the Fighter, the Lightbulb, the Muscle, the Fixer, the
Rock, the Brain, and one ship shared by all. The tale continues...

Chapter Eight

The following day, at 0830 ship board time, the Obsidian reached the Keloris system. The solar system consisted of 14 lifeless planets orbiting a binary primary. There, the Syndicate's forces had gathered. Just out of curiosity, Riker had his Tactical Chief, Jaycee Miller, run a scan on the ships as they entered the system.

"Lord Almighty, this reads like a who's who of Starfleet's Most Wanted," Miller whistled, "Heads up; we're being hailed by the Shatterstar."

"Put it on the main screen," Riker instructed.

Shar appeared. The wiry Andorian still possessed his aura of lethality. Shar offered a half smile.

"Greetings Captain Riker. May I inquire as to where Commander Macen is?" Shar asked.

"He's indisposed. Which means you're stuck with me," Riker retorted.

Shar's smile became one of appreciation, "Very well, Captain. I can transmit our deployment plans. I shall be leading the strike force that will cover your entry into Mityr's periphery. Those plans are laid out and should be relatively simple to follow."

Riker felt a pang of pique, "Shouldn't I have been consulted?"

"No," Shar said flatly, "You're being informed now. Make no mistake about this Captain. This is a Syndicate operation. You are here for your investigative team's expertise in penetrating the Citadel. You and your ship are being excluded from the fighting. Point in fact; we are taking great pains to protect you. So a little gratitude and considerably less attitude would be appreciated."

While that certainly ruffled Riker's feathers, he could honestly see Shar's point. The Obsidian crew, and especially her captain, wasn't used to engaging on coordinated efforts. They primarily acted on their own authority. Even during the Argyn crisis, the Obsidian acted independently throughout.

The Syndicate was the primary mover and shaker in this event. They would be the ones engaging the Conglomerate's forces. They would be engaging the Citadel's defenses in order for the Corsair to slip into the planet's atmosphere and make its landing near the edge of town. The Syndicate would also be providing escorts to assist the Obsidian as it stayed on station at the Lagrangian point and waited to extract its deployed runabout.

"I see your point," Riker finally allowed, "Please transmit the tactical plans. My officers and I will review them and I'll get back to you if I have any questions."

Shar finally wore a ghost of a genuine smile, "You're an intelligent man, Captain. I doubt you'll have any questions. The plan is straightforward and presented in plain and simple language."

Knowing the general educational requirements to get into the Syndicate's services, namely none, Riker was forced to dryly reply, "I'm sure they are."

Shar recognized that Riker knew the reasoning behind the clarification and his smile became more and more apparent, "I knew you'd understand. The data squirt will piggyback this transmission as I converse with Commander Macen."

"I told you..." Riker began but Shar cut him off.

"We both know you're just being territorial, Captain. I need to discuss the ground assault with Macen. As I understand your chain of command, that has nothing to do with you," the Andorian elaborated.

"No, it doesn't," Riker gruffly agreed.

"Then, to be blunt, why am I still speaking with you?" Shar asked mildly. Still the hidden barb was felt.

Riker turned to Miller, "Please transfer Mister Shar to Commander Macen's comm unit."

"Stand by," Miller interjected and then to Shar's delight, he was transferred.

"Hello Shar," Macen said to the holographic image in the center of the briefing room.

"Why do I sense we are not alone?" Shar bemusedly asked.

"My entire staff is present as well. I'll be sharing whatever we say with them anyway do it just made sense to cut out the middleman," Macen remarked.

"I see your point. Besides, even if I didn't you wouldn't alter your approach," Shar drolly realized.

"See? Our working relationship is already off on the right foot," Macen quipped.

"We'll truly see," Shar obliquely commented, "Have you decided on a plan for your approach?"

"Yup," Macen confirmed it and then he described the plan.

"Ambitious but very risky," Shar opined.

Macen's reply was very wry, "We stand a better chance this time then we did the last. Last time we didn't have the element of surprise. They knew we were coming and where we were coming from. This time they won't know where we are coming from."

"Unless one of the guards sounds the alarm," Shar dryly countered.

"We won't let that happen," Macen assured him.

"Are you bringing the Romulan with you?" Shar asked.

"The Romulan has a name," Macen replied icily.

Shar barely refrained from an eye roll, "Yes, of course. Will Commander P'ris be joining you?"

"She's a member of the team so of course she'll be joining us," Macen coldly replied.

"She'll betray you," Shar declared, "If not now then eventually."

P'ris bristled and Macen gave him a chilly glare, "We'll just have to see. Won't we?"

"Would you care to make a wager?" Shar mirthfully asked.

Macen fell silent and Shar gave him a knowing look, "I thought not."

"When are we setting out?" Macen abruptly changed the subject.

"Tomorrow at your 0645," Shar answered and then he flashed a sinister smile, "This system is negligible so we should remain undetected. We are still expecting five more ships to arrive before the deadline. Of course, if they're late we'll proceed without them and take it out of their hides later."

Macen knew he meant that in the most literal sense, "When we first laid out the basics of the plan during the contract negotiations you said the Obsidian would get a three ship escort. Have you decided which three that will be?"

"The Crapgame, the Longshot, and my flagship the Shatterstar," Shar answered, "And with your update I have decided that our three ships will provide a distraction for your insertion."

"What kind of distraction?" Macen inquired.

"We shall temporarily engage the Citadel's defenses so that their concentration is on us rather than you," Shar explained.

"That may not be necessary," Macen hedged.

"Not to disparage Hannah Grace's flying abilities but it is virtually impossible to evade three phaser emplacements while all three are locked onto you," Shar said emphatically.

Grace was miffed but she wisely kept her counsel to herself. Macen merely nodded, "We accept your generous offer. May I ask what inspired it?"

"Leera ordered me to give you anything just so it increases your chances of success," Shar admitted.

"Remind me to thank her," Macen said.

"Just be successful. That will be thanks enough," Shar reiterated. The Andorian looked away as a subordinate's torso appeared in the image. Shar nodded several times and then the torso disappeared.

"I will leave you until tomorrow morning," Shar signed off and his image faded. As if timed, the door chime sounded. Macen released it and Danan stepped in. She wore a mischievous grin.

"Tom would like you to attend the briefing with the ship's senior staff," she announced.

"All of us?" Macen asked with a cheery gleam in his eyes.

"Just you, stupid," she smarted off.

"I suppose he thought I'd respond better to a pretty face than his ugly mug?" Macen inquired.

Danan smiled, "Basically."

"Alas, he knows me too well," Macen theatrically caved in.

"Stow it and follow me," she commanded imperiously.

"Guess what guys, you're dismissed," Macen said jovially as he followed Danan out of the room.

Radil and Daggit proceeded to the Security Office to discuss ship's security with her deputy, Gerrit Gren. The possibility of someone overwhelming the shields and boarding the ship was very real. She wanted to drill the squad in the cargo bays. The holoemitters there would serve to create recreations of the ship's corridors as Radil and Daggit threw different scenarios at them.

Grace and McMasters headed for the shuttlebay to run a final set of diagnostics on the Corsair. McMasters had retooled the runabout so performance wouldn't be an issue. After leaving the Maquis he'd owned his own performance upgrade shop. He'd been amongst the most popular engineers for refits and retooling of performance shuttles and runabouts. The Corsair now ranked among his greatest creations. Grace looked forward to the challenge of the insertion.

That left Rockford and P'ris headed for the Team Room to enjoy some coffee and discuss P'ris' role in the upcoming strike. Rockford understood P'ris' dilemma. As a Private Investigator, Rockford had no real place in an assault. However, she now had access to Annika Ryst's memories and Ryst had been an Angosian Augment and well versed in the arts of combat. That mean Rockford had the ability to draw on those skills. But it was a choice and quite frankly she wasn't certain it was one she wanted to make.

So to, P'ris had been trained in combat tactics by the Tal Shiar. She rivaled Radil in combat proficiency. She'd fought beside Macen and Danan on the mission that introduced them. Of course, she'd also led the Romulan forces that engaged in a firefight with the SID team and the Vulcan Starfleet archeologists on Harbinger. It had been Donatra who'd commanded the Valdore as it engaged the Obsidian. P'ris had thought that she and Donatra were natural allies. It still saddened her to discover the lie in that assumption.

Macen and Rockford had developed a strategy to deal with the varying skill levels of the assorted teammates. Of the ten SID agents aboard, only seven were currently descending to the surface of Mityr. Riker, Danan, and Tessa were staying behind. Tessa for obvious reasons and the same held true with Riker but Rockford couldn't imagine a reason why the Trill stellar cartographer couldn't come down as well.

Rockford said as much and P'ris smiled, "Lisea Danan is a truly formidable warrior."

Rockford wore an indulgent smile, "She may have been 13 years ago but she's pretty much stayed in her labs or manned the Science station on the bridge for the last 4 years. Things may have changed. My own personal opinion is that she's lost her taste for it."

"Hmm...we shall see." P'ris mused.

"Look, Rab and Jenrya are going to lead the charge. Brin is going to be right behind them with Hannah trailing him. Eric comes next and then you and I play rearguard," Rockford divulged.

P'ris made a face, "I do not appreciate being left behind. I can comport myself as a soldier should, as Macen well knows."

Rockford wore a wry expression, "P'ris, we have the rearguard because of our skills. Brin needs a strong reserve that can repel any opposition that comes up on our rear."

That seemed to pacify the Romulan, "Very well then."

She swirled the contents of her mug, "This is excellent by the way. What is it?"

"A vanilla caramel latte," Rockford said proudly, "I've got Brin hooked on them now too."

"Truly, it could happen. This is quite addictive. A veritable riot of flavors," P'ris enthused.

"Wait until you try Kahlua," Rockford assured her.

P'ris handed her mug over, "I am done. Can I try this beverage now?"

Rockford's answering smile was warm, "Follow me. I'll show you how to use the drinks replicator."

"It would be most appreciated," P'ris confessed.

The ship's staff broke up. Forger, Miller, Parva, the OPS Chief Edwin Zimbalist, the Bridge Engineering Officer Christino ard'Vret or "Chris", and Riker headed back to replace their relief officers. Danan lagged behind with Macen.

His curiosity was piqued by her lingering presence, "Something on your mind, Lees?"

"I think I should go with the ground team," she suddenly blurted.

If that startled him, he hid it well; "Any particular reason why?"

"You usually try to have an even number of people so they can partner up. Right now you have no partner," she explained.

"I won't argue but you haven't been there before. Also, there's the matter of the fact you haven't deployed with the team for a while or even practiced with us," Macen tried to let her down gently.

"Dammit Brin!" she snapped, "You, of all people, know I can handle myself. And as for the 'not being there before' bullcrap, neither have P'ris, Eric, Hannah, or Celeste for that matter," she argued.

"Celeste may not have been there personally but Annika Ryst was and she has all of Annika's memories now. You, of all people, should be able to appreciate that fact," Macen rebutted.

"I do," Danan growled, "But that doesn't negate the fact that she lacks direct experience."

"Okay, I won't argue that," Macen relented, "Why is this so important to you? And what does Tom say? He's usually all for you staying behind."

"He saw my point which you should have by now too," she accused.

"Lees, you haven't made your bloody point yet," he said, frustration lacing his words.

"My point is that you usually try to run a two by two cover formation and with seven people you can't do that. If I come I can cover you and you can, in turn, cover me," Danan reasoned, "And I'm coming whether you like it or not."

Macen grinned, "Okay, you can come."

"Why thank you," Danan replied drolly, "It's so nice of you to finally cave in."

"Oh come on, you had to have known my answer was always a 'yes'," Macen chuckled.

"And how was I supposed know this?" Danan asked sardonically.

Macen's grin turned droll, "It's not like we don't know each other."

"Oh, don't even go there," Danan warned, "First you left me for T'Kir and now you're with Celeste."

"May I remind you that after the war, and before the SID existed, we gave it another chance. You left," Macen accused.

"I left because you wanted to be with T'Kir," Danan snapped, "And don't even bring up the fact that she died and then came back again. She may not be your wife anymore but you'd already moved on and settled down with Celeste."

"Just like you'd moved on and settled down with Tom," Macen bit back.

Danan stared him and down and he evenly met her gaze. Finally they both broke into hysterical laughter. Danan laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Pools Brin, we haven't done that in forever," she gasped between snickers.

"Hey, you want to be my formation partner. It just comes with the territory," he smiled.

"So, when's the practice drill begin?" she inquired.

"In two hours. Rab and Jenrya are putting the security force through their paces right now," Macen informed her.

"Will they be up for it?" she wondered.

"Sure. They'll be tired of playing judge, jury, and executioner and will want to get their hands dirty. Or at least as dirty as Cargo Bay 2 and the holographic environment generators can make it," Macen assured her.

"Okay," she smiled back at him, "I'll see you in a couple."

"Say 'hi' to Tom for me and snog him while you're at it," Macen requested.

"Oh, I plan on doing a lot more than that after we're off duty," she assured him, "Later."

She exited the briefing room and after a moment he queried the computer as to Rockford's location. After that he also exited the room and headed for the Team Room. He entered to find Rockford and P'ris in a conspiratorial pose. Somehow he knew that it bode ill for him.

"Ladies," he said as a greeting as he passed by and went to the drinks replicator. Ordering a vanilla caramel latte, he proceeded to the table occupied by the Romulan and the detective, "Am I interrupting?"

"Actually, you are," Rockford replied jovially.

He started to move away and she grabbed his leg, "Sit down you dunce."

He eased himself into the chair next to Rockford and she grinned, "Ah, you obeyed. You must be my love slave."

"Is there another?" he teased.

"Not yet, but I'm thinking of holding auditions again. Of course, you could always audition first and prove to me why I shouldn't interview any other candidates," her smile was brilliant.

Macen reached over and took hold of the back of her neck and drew her in for a kiss. P'ris was a little embarrassed by the passion behind it. Macen eventually released her and Rockford was practically giddy.

"The auditions are off but you are going to service me tonight," she declared.

"Gladly," he promised.

"Hah, you won't think so when we tackle tomorrow on no sleep," Rockford warned him.

Macen leaned in towards her again and she canted her head and started towards him when P'ris cleared her throat, "I do believe I should be going now."

The couple both grinned. Rockford waved her back towards her seat, "No, stay. We'll behave. I promise."

"I won't." Macen quipped.

Rockford elbowed him in the gut, "Yes, he will."

"Oh, really?" Macen queried her, "And why is that?"

"Because..." she leaned in and whispered in his ear. P'ris couldn't quite catch it, even with her enhanced Vulcanoid hearing but Macen immediately blushed.

"Okay," he blurted, "I promise to behave."

"This is certainly a change," P'ris commented with some surprise.

"You have to hold the right leverage," Rockford explained.

"And do you?" P'ris inquired.

Rockford smiled triumphantly, "I hold all the leverage."

"Good to know," P'ris commented.

Rockford turned to Macen and changed the subject, "Do you know she'd never had a triple mint mocha before"

"What a tragedy," Macen wise cracked.

"Stow it, buster. Or what you're hoping for won't happen," Rockford warned.

"Yes, mother," Macen said contritely.

"Honey, you'd better not have done that with your mother," Rockford teased.

"I can't win," Macen good naturedly teased P'ris.

"It appears not," P'ris remarked, "If I may be so bold, your reactions to Detective Rockford..." She saw Rockford's glare, "to Celeste are quiet different than your previous ones to T'Kir."

"Well, she's a different person," Macen said.

"Indeed. Any comments, Celeste?" P'ris wondered.

"Brin started out as T'Kir's mentor. That teacher-student dynamic never went away. It was also pretty damned creepy if you ask me," Rockford opined.

"You two definitely share a different dynamic than that," P'ris observed.

Rockford beamed, "That's because I met Brin as an equal. We're partners in every sense of the word. I'm not his student and he sure as hell isn't my teacher. I'm not some broken, half insane girl in need of rescuing. If you want to be perfectly frank, I helped rescue him."

P'ris looked to Macen, "Truly?"

"I may not have recovered from T'Kir's death if it weren't for Celeste helping and sharing my burden," Macen admitted, "She helped me get over the grief and then she shared her life with me. I'll never be able to fully repay her but I can try by reciprocating the love she showed me."

"I never would have thought it," P'ris breathed.

"Well, the team and the crew of the Obsidian watched it as it happened," Rockford shared, "But the rest of the galaxy seems to have been caught flat footed."

P'ris made to reply but Macen's comm badge chirped and he tapped, Macen here."

"You wanted to know when the security team was done drilling." Radil asked.

"Yeah, it's time P'ris was issued her tactical equipment," Macen decided.

"You sure you want to do this?" Radil queried him.

"She can here you, Jenrya," Macen warned her.

"So what?" Radil retorted, "I've exchanged pot shots with her. She's a big girl. She can handle it. Now, you're certain you want to give her a tactical kit?"

"Positive," Macen assured her.

"Fine," Radil sighed in resignation, "Bring her down to the office and we'll issue her gear."

"Thank you," Macen offered.

"Don't thank me. Just make sure she doesn't shoot us all in the back," Radil complained.

"Why Jenrya, you are aware that P'ris will be rearguard on this op?" Macen teased.

Don't remind me," she groused, "I'll be in the office in 10 minutes. You'll bring her by, right?"

"Of course," Macen heard the disconnect as Radil cut the comm circuit.

Turning to P'ris, he grinned and said; "You've a date with Security."

"Whatever for?" she was slightly alarmed.

"We're issuing you your phaser, power packs, and a couple of photon grenades to go along with the rest of your equipment," Macen revealed.

"You are serious about my going to the surface with you," she realized.

"Never more so," he assured her, "Now, we have 9 minutes to finish our drinks and get to Security. I have a feeling that Jenrya's going to a little extra fussy and we need to be ready to drill in an hour and a half.

"You know what I love most about you?" Rockford asked him.

"My charming wit and personality?" he asked hopefully.

"You wish," she snorted, "No, I truly appreciate your enormous talent for understatement."

"Regarding Radil?" he asked.

She smiled ruefully, "You betcha. She's going to throw up so much interference we'll be lucky to get the damn phaser issued in this century."

Macen knew she was right and she could see in his eyes that she was right, "We do what we have to do."

"Yeah, but it doesn't mean we'll enjoy it," she warned.

 

Chapter Nine

At precisely 0645 PST as reckoned on Earth, the Syndicate force moved out and crossed the Midorin Sector to enter the solar system containing Mityr. The Conglomeration's early warning buoys had already alerted the Citadel of the Syndicate's approach and reinforcements were en route.

It was vital that the Syndicate's ships penetrate the few navigable routes through the debris field encapsulating the system before the Conglomerate's forces could seal off both ends of the field. Resulting in a trap that would force them into a bottleneck. Then the Conglomeration could rain disruptor fire and torpedoes down upon them.

The Syndicate ships emerged from the debris field to scathing disruptor fire. These first ships struggled but were quickly reinforced as their mates emerged. Soon two dozen raiders, Q-ships, and corsairs were in the outer system. The Conglomerate forces were quickly overwhelmed. As was expected, the Orions took no prisoners.

The Shatterstar signaled the Obsidian and the Federation surveyor transited the debris field as well. The Longshot and the Crapgame formed a wedge in front of the starship and joined their ersatz flagship in leading the designated non-combatant to Mityr.

At the Lagrangian point the Obsidian held station while the three Syndicate vessels moved ahead and engaged the Citadel from orbit. The Obsidian's shuttlebay doors opened and the Corsair raced out. The runabout first headed straight for Mityr and then plunged headlong into the atmosphere.

"Watch it, Hannah," Daggit called out from the weapons console, "They're trying to draw a bead on us."

"That's why we brought the damn Orions. So they could be target practice," she said between gritted teeth.

Although the Citadel's gunners were unsuccessful in shooting down the Corsair, they were forcing Grace to make a lot of evasive maneuvers.

"I thought these frinxers were supposed to be concentrating on the Syndicate ships," she complained.

"They are," Macen informed her from OPS, "We just happen to be in their line of sight. They're laying down a sweeping salvo and hoping to hit us as well by accident."

"Great," Grace grimly replied, "Hold on. It's time for something different."

Grace pitched the runabout into a series of evasive jukes and turns. They moved far enough away that the disruptors didn't follow them while the disruptors were engaged with the ships in high orbit. Despite all of this, alarms sounded on Grace's panels. She checked the sensors.

"Rab!" she yelled, "We have atmospheric fighters in bound. Take 'em out."

If Daggit were amused that Grace, and not the Team Commander, was issuing the orders, he never let on. He destroyed the first fighter as soon as it was in range. He downed another as they committed to a strafing run and passed by the runabout.

"Our shields took a pounding. They may have diddly for shielding but their disruptors pack a punch," Daggit reported.

"Well?" Grace demanded, "Use the chase armament and down them already."

"I'm on it," he growled.

Two more fighters went down, which only left two more. Grace held straight and true, "I've made us a fat, juicy target. So don't let me down."

He didn't. Grace whooped a victory cry. Macen activated an ECM package. The Citadel's network of ground based sensors went down. While the sensor techs tried to "burn" through the scrambling field, the Corsair would set down at the edge of town. It was important no one see their landing. As it was the runabout would be dangerously close to the Citadel's back door. If the Conglomeration dispatched a roving foot patrol rather than rely upon sensors, the team could be made and this would be a wasted trip.

However, Macen's Law of Lazy Criminals prevailed and the Corsair settled down onto the ground without incident or alarm. The team filed out one at a time. They quickly formed up into groups of two. Daggit and Radil took the lead. Macen and Danan followed. Grace and McMasters trailed them and Rockford and P'ris brought up the rear, just as planned.

Radil reached the door first. It was housed in an entrance that emerged out of the hillside that the Citadel was built upon. Daggit moved to the other side of the door. If anyone unexpected emerged they'd find a very lethal surprise waiting for them.

Macen and Danan come up and stood behind Daggit. Grace and McMasters moved behind Radil. Rockford and P'ris also slipped behind Radil. McMasters moved into the doorway.

"If I get killed, I'm coming back to haunt you," he warned Macen.

Daggit pressed in closer so that his rifle was trained right on the door. McMasters played with the actuation panel. After several false starts, and a curse or two, it chimed and the door slid open. Daggit for several heartbeats and then glided silently into the Citadel. Radil followed him.

Macen waited for 10 seconds and then proceeded after them. Danan was on his heels. McMasters gathered up Grace and they went in as well. P'ris preceded Rockford but both women entered without incident. Rockford closed the door behind her.

They wound through a few turns and then Daggit held up a hand curled in to fist. Everyone halted. He pulled back and conferred with Radil by whispering into her ear. She nodded and activated the targeting sensor on her portable phaser cannon. She moved to the edge of the corridor and Daggit braced his rifle to his shoulder and did a silent count with his free hand.

Having counted to the allotted three, Daggit's hand returned lightning fast to the foregrip of his phaser rifle. He swung around the corner. He moved in a wide arc to allow Radil to take the inside corner. She dropped the barrel of her cannon and took aim.

Radil's first shot blew open the chest of the Galvanite manning the desk. Daggit's Bajoran phaser rifle wasn't as potent but it still gauged a flaming hole into the head of the Elasian to Daggit's left. A third, an Iotian from the look of it, ran sideways across the length of the security station. He fired wildly, so wildly in fact, that he didn't hit anyone. Radil's shot took him down.

A Capellan drew a wicked looking Gorn disruptor. Daggit shot him in the chest. The Capellan staggered backwards but his hand, and the disruptor, kept climbing. Daggit placed his next shot between the Capelin's eyes. He fell back with a roar. Daggit surged forward and saw that the Capellan was still alive but badly burned and blinded. The Angosian Augment respected his foe enough to finish him off with a knife across the throat.

Daggit rose off of one knee and saw that Radil had also moved forward. Macen and Danan had taken their place at the corner. Daggit announced the "All clear" and everyone moved to the station. McMasters took a seat behind the controls after pushing the Galvanite's corpse out of the way.

"You certainly don't waste any time, big boy," McMasters quipped.

"Just shut down the internal sensors," Daggit tersely commanded and moved off further down the corridor. Radil accompanied him.

McMasters turned to Danan, "Want to give me a hand?"

"Just as long as you remember I'm spoken for and so are you," Danan replied.

"Hey, I'm cured. Shannon's taught me what a real woman is," McMasters declared.

Knowing Forger's background, Danan had to hear this, "And that is?"

"A real woman has a dick," McMasters said proudly.

"That is so wrong on so many levels," Danan quipped.

"What?" McMasters asked defensively, "I thought you'd be happy to learn I'm finally over."

"Oh, I am. I'm even thrilled for Shannon. I'm happy for you too but I'm thrilled Shannon has finally found her man," Danan remarked and then she crossly asked him, "She has found her man, right?"

"Oh yeah, I've totally sworn off vaginas," McMasters announced.

"I'm so...happy for you," Danan drolly remarked, "Now, can we focus?"

"Sure, sure," McMasters assured her and went to work.

They achieved success within minutes. Of course, that was largely due to P'ris' intervening. McMasters ran into a firewall early on and it even stumped Danan. P'ris asked to see it and quickly overrode the lockout. Marveled, Danan inquired as to how the Romulan had done it so fast.

P'ris smiled sweetly and said, "Trade secrets."

Danan was on the verge of protesting when Macen cut in, "Lees, we're on a schedule. Remember?"

Danan bit down her angry retort and deactivated all of the Citadel's internal sensors. Of course, that would only last as long as someone didn't notice that the internal network was down. At that point, the team would be well and truly screwed. The goal was to be at the command center by then.

McMasters also disabled the internal alarms, "We should be free from interference for a while until these nasty buggers figure out the alarms are down. Until then, they can hit the panic button all they want because no one will hear them."

"All right then, let's move out and rejoin Rab and Jenrya," Macen instructed.

The team swiftly moved into action.

"The Outbound Ventures team is on the ground," Shar's flag captain, one Theraquaid est'Deri, reported. Going by the simplified "Quaid", the Andorian thaan was actually Rhiann's very distant kinsman. She would have been mortified to learn that a relative was serving the Orion Syndicate especially now that Andoria had seceded from the Federation.

Rhiann and Chris had only been allowed to continue with Outbound Ventures because it was a private company that the Andorian Empire might wish to hire in the future. Of course, they're being aboard the Obsidian, and its numerous Starfleet contracts, granted the Empire a nearsighted glimpse into Starfleet operations and politics. Also, should Starfleet launch a covert mission against Andoria, the odds that it would be Macen's team were very high.

"Excellent, Captain. Order the diversionary force to pull out of range of their ground based cannons. I think we've taken enough damage for now," Shar ordered.

Quaid passed on the order and the three Syndicate ships began to withdraw. The Shatterstar's shields had nearly collapsed and some of the primary systems were down and they were running on auxiliaries. The Longshot was in similar condition but both ships used their impulse drivers to push them out of orbit and some distance away. The Crapgame wasn't so lucky.

Her shields were one strike away from collapsing. All of her primary systems were down. She was running on auxiliary power and her warp core had been shut down. The impulse reactor was running hot and was on the verge of scramming to prevent a spike. While her siblings utilized their impulse engines, the Crapgame had been reduced to maneuvering thrusters.

The Citadel focused all three disruptor banks on the desperately fleeing craft and they fired simultaneously. The ship's shields collapsed within the first 2 seconds of the strike. The disruptors split the Crapgame into three separate sections and the antimatter pods lost containment. The resultant explosion created a shockwave that even the Obsidian felt. The Shatterstar and the Longshot barely survived. As it was, their shields buckled and they were reduced to secondary systems.

Daggit called a halt. The group had stealthily made it past several foot patrols, neutralizing one, and had made it to the power plant. After approaching the command center and seeing it guarded by two dozen sentries, the basic plan had been amended.

Now they were going to take over the power plant and shut down the warp core and the backup fusion reactor. That would still presumably leave a battery powered reserve to maintain the lighting and the HVAC systems. Daggit and Radil would take charge of the defense of the power plant. McMasters and Grace would support them.

Presumably every guard in the facility would descend upon them. Grace's abilities should prove invaluable should they get overwhelmed. She estimated she could hold out long enough for the other unit to reach the control center.

Macen, Danan, P'ris, and Rockford would skirt past the incoming guards and would proceed directly to the control center. Presumably the bulk of the guards would be gone by then. Another assumption was that those in the center wouldn't be able to seal themselves into the command bunker. It was a gamble to be sure but it was the only play they had that gave them a chance to prevent the doors from being locked.

Daggit surged into the reactor room. Radil planted herself at the doorpost and laid down suppressive fire. Daggit picked off armed engineers while in the move. McMasters fired a few shots off but all he accomplished was getting some workers to duck and cover. Grace was far more methodical. Her enhanced hand/eye coordination played into the situation.

Macen and Danan pushed forward. Danan wielded a Bajoran phaser rifle while Macen only carried his Bajoran Militia issue phaser pistol. They picked off the brave souls who'd survived Daggit's onslaught and wanted to still fight. Several engineers had attempted to sound the alarm only to discover that it wasn't functioning. They invariably got shot. After the first three or four deaths, they stopped trying.

Two switched tactics and one manned the computer while the other fired at the SID team. Macen and Danan were forced to seek cover. They found it behind the warp core. Incredibly the shooter continued firing at them despite the danger of a core breach.

Three more engineers joined in and gunned down Daggit. Radil leveled a barrage at them. Two were immediately cut down. The original shooter and the computer specialist were the initial victims. Grace lent her support while Radil destroyed the computer terminal. Grace's efforts yielded results as another worker died. The last decided to lay down arms.

"All right, we've secured this area. Come out with your hands up and you will be spared," Radil announced.

Grace, McMasters, P'ris, and Rockford moved forward to herd the embattled plant workers to a neutral corner. Radil covered them for her position. Macen and Danan checked on Daggit.

His eyes were open and he was starting to rise. Macen halted him, "Hold it, Rab. How do you feel?"

"Stupid. I let them catch me off guard. I must be getting old," he said with self loathing and disgust.

"You're only humanoid," Macen reminded him, "And I'm sure Parva will let you know when you're getting old."

Daggit gave him a wry look, "She already does. All the time."

Macen chuckled and he looked to Danan, who'd been waving a tricorder over him. It wasn't a medical tricorder but it could determine if there'd been tissue damage. She nodded.

"Okay, you can get up now," Macen informed him as he rose to his own feet.

"Yeah, but now I don't want to," Daggit climbed to his feet and winced, "Damn, I forgot how much that hurts."

"Just be glad for your augmentation," Macen counseled, "That burst would have killed your average sentient."

"Harrumph," Daggit grunted. He moved forward and took charge of the prisoners. He draped his rifle across his chest with his hand on the pistol grip. He knew, and they knew as well, that it could be brought to bear within a heartbeat's span of time.

Radil came to stand beside him. She had the barrel of the phaser cannon elevated so that it didn't seem as threatening. McMasters was examining the equipment. Grace stood beside Rockford and P'ris. The two older women were vigilant but not overly concerned.

McMasters consulted with Daggit and the Angosian spoke, in turn, to the workers, "Who here works with the warp core and the impulse reactor?"

"Why?" a sullen Benzite asked.

"Because you're going to shut them down," Daggit informed him.

"Screw you!" a Deveronian shouted.

Radil shot him. His body was flung three meters back and his chest smoked as he lay twitching out his final death throes. She smiled coldly.

"Anyone else gonna get lippy?" she asked.

Daggit turned to McMasters, "Can you do it alone?"

"It'll take twice as long," the engineer warned.

"Fine," Daggit decided. He raised his rifle and spoke to Radil, "Take them out."

A few minutes later, all of the Conglomerate personnel were dead. McMasters had successfully shut down the warp core. Securing the antimatter containment system, he mounted a microcharge to the injector relays and blew them. The core wouldn't be operational again any time this week.

Next he scrammed the fusion reactor. He set a charge on the control panels and shuffled backwards until he was behind Grace.

"Okay, Sweetheart. Show me what you got," he cajoled her.

Grace stretched out her hand and green energy began to waft off of it. A green wall composed of pure energy formed between the SID team and the reactor. For the newest members of the team, it was chilling.

"Elements!" P'ris gasped, "What else is she capable of?"

"Damn!" McMasters exclaimed, "You go, honey!"

"Do you mind?" Grace asked, "This takes a lot of concentration. If you take too long I'll end up with a splitting headache."

"Right," McMasters triggered the bomb. The entire front portion of the reactor hub shattered. The emergency lights came on but all the rest of the systems went down. McMasters couldn't refrain from commenting, "Boo wah! Can I rock and ruin or what?"

"Careful, there's not enough room in here for your rapidly swelling balls," Grace said facetiously.

McMasters grinned, "You think that's bad? My girlfriend has a bigger dick than I do."

He noticed everyone was looking at him with some amusement. His smile grew, "I'm not kidding. Shannon's seriously hung."

"We'll take your word for it," Macen intervened to get his mind back on the mission, "Are you ready for the next step?"

"As I'll ever be," McMasters promised.

Macen turned to Daggit, "Keep them busy for as long as you can. When we have Gaston we'll came back and relieve you."

"Take your time," Daggit said breezily.

Macen gathered up Danan, Rockford, and P'ris and exited the power station. Daggit directed Radil into position. She was situated at one door facing the door at the opposite end. Daggit mirrored her position. He would defend the door she stood beside and she would defend his position. Grace and McMasters went up on the balcony and prepared for a crossfire.

 

Chapter Ten

"Long range sensors indicate that the Citadel has lost all power," Quaid reported to Shar, "Should we send someone to the surface to relieve Macen's force?"

A thin smile spread across Shar's face, "We'd simply be in the way. Concentrate our efforts on making repairs. We'll transport to the surface soon enough."

Quaid tipped his head in acknowledgement and went back to gathering status reports. Shar had considered contacting Riker in order to relay a message to Macen. He'd held back because Macen's plan was as audacious as it was dangerous. Having a comm badge unexpectedly sound off at the wrong time could get people killed.

There were times when the Syndicate would have preferred that outcome but that was no longer true. At least as long as Leera controlled the organization. There were those in the Syndicate that saw Leera's move to detach it from dealings with the Typhon Pact as treacherous. Shar wasn't one of them.

The Syndicate was a criminal organization not an intelligence organ of the Typhon Pact. The occasional contract killing shouldn't be beyond them but sludge work spying on the Federation and its allies? What was worse, they'd recently played empire builder for the Typhon Pact. Felkor III wouldn't be under the Pact's umbrella if the Syndicate hadn't laid the groundwork.

Leera had suspended three other similar operations. The Typhon Pact had reacted immediately. They'd surged into the systems and "negotiated" while a Pact flotilla patrolled the individual systems. Despite the Typhon Pact representatives' lack of threats, the power of the alliance was demonstrated and usually swayed the intended client nation.

All Shar knew was that by backing away from the alliance, the Syndicate was getting back into what it did best. Unfortunately for Macen's minions, that placed them squarely at odds with the Syndicate. Outbound Ventures usually combated the Syndicate's, or other freelancer's, misdeeds.

Macen and his SID team, however, only squared off with the Syndicate under extreme circumstance. Oh, the Syndicate knew of the existence of the elusive Special Investigations Division of Starfleet. They knew it was a collection of civilian operatives disguised as private security agents and private investigators. While the Syndicate had compiled a list of suspected SID agents, they knew nothing about the Starfleet end of things. They would have been amazed to learn that Starfleet's SID unit comprised of Admiral Amanda Forger, Ambril Delori, and a host of Starfleet Intelligence analysts.

Shar overheard Quaid as he cajoled the crew into moving faster. Conglomerate forces were undoubtedly on their way and the Shatterstar and the Longshot were virtually helpless. Swallowing his pride, he commed Riker.

Riker nodded at Shar's image, "Understood. We'll move into position and cover you while you affect repairs."

The image switched back to a view of Mityr hanging in space before them and Riker spoke to Rhiann, "Move us towards the Syndicate ships. Position us close enough to cover them but leave distance for maneuvering room."

The Andorian zhen smiled at him and turned to lay in the course. She felt a swell of pride at having the chance to prove that not all Andorians were criminals. She knew Chris had felt the same way since embarking on this mission.

Shervarhia ann'Deri and Christino ard'Vret had been grateful to continue service with Outbound Ventures. They still served Imperial interests by reporting on the Obsidian's movements and they served a larger role in securing the peace of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Both Andorians had been members of Starfleet before they were recruited to the Obsidian crew. Rhiann had been an enlisted shuttle pilot and Chris had been an enlisted Engineering rating. They both felt a newfound need to prove themselves and so they would.

Riker noticed that Forger was fidgety. She had her side panel active and she was reviewing sensor readings, not only of the solar system but of the planet below. Riker smiled because he'd been watching the same readings. He activated the center panel between them and called up the sensor data.

"Shannon," he said softly. She looked over to him, "why don't we use the center panel since we're both looking at the same readings."

She flushed and switched her panel's readout to monitoring the tactical grid, "Sorry. It's just...while I've worried about the team before it's never been..."

"Personal?" he asked.

She broke into a grateful smile, "Exactly. Even when I was in Starfleet I never had a lover on an away mission. Frankly I never had enough lovers to worry about."

She growing wistful she said, "Plenty of one night stands. Seems everyone's got a fetish to indulge."

For the first time, Riker appraised Forger as a woman. She was quite attractive and completely passable. He'd never suspected her true origins. She had long blonde hair that reached below her breasts. Of course, she wore it in a tail while on duty. Then again, McMasters' influence could be seen in her roots. Forger was naturally a brown eyed brunette. Her center part was now considerable darker than the rest of her flaxen hair. And the fact that her roots were several inches long spoke of how besotted she'd been.

"Captain?" she asked with some concern, "Are you okay? You seem...lost."

Riker smiled, "Sorry. Thinking of a personnel matter."

Forger frowned, "That's usually my department. Anything I should know?"

"I'll let you know if you need to do anything," Riker said enigmatically.

Forger frowned, "Um, okay?"

"C'mon, let's get back to worrying," Riker returned his focus to the center panel. Forger was a little reluctant. Her Captain was being reluctant to share with her something that was in her purview. That meant it either dealt with the SID team or her. She really dreaded the thought of it revolving around her.

She suddenly noticed that Riker wore an amused, if curious, expression. She had to ask, "What?"

He dropped his voice to a whisper, "You really don't have to tell me but when you and Eric have sex...do you ever...well, do you ever mount him?"

Forger felt scandalized and it showed on her face and he was immediately embarrassed, "Look, I'm sorry I asked."

She motioned for him to lean closer again since he'd pulled away, "No, it's just a common misconception."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, that because I have a penis means I want to use it. I don't," she insisted. Seeing his dubious expression she insisted, "No, it's true! I swear."

"But how can you...?" he faltered.

"Captain, I'm a bottom. I'm strictly a bottom. I won't play top for anyone. Eric understands this. Besides, he's top enough for both of us," she shared as if divulging a naughty secret, "Although, I have to admit that Eric has insisted on giving me blowjobs and I'm going crazy over them."

"Ahem...thank you for...erm, sharing," Riker replied uncomfortably.

Forger laughed, "Oh Captain, you should see your face!"

Forger's ongoing hilarity drew attention and Riker redirected them, "We're in the middle of a mission, people. Mind your stations."

Riker shot Forger an irritated glare. She patted his arm consolingly, "It's all right, Captain. I am not going to ever ask you to suck my dick."

His respondent look of distaste sent her into another riotous grip of laughter. Riker thought about just giving up and retreating into his Ready Room until the bad guys showed up.

Macen motioned for a halt. He peered around the corner and ducked back around. The command center was still be guarded by at least six armed figures. Macen scooted aside so Danan could discreetly scan the entrance with her tricorder. She closed it and stepped back to join the others.

"The power to the control room is completely cut. That includes the power actuators to the bunker doors. But there are still seven guards," she warned.

"Celeste and I will cross the corridor and make for the opposite corner," Macen suggested. They were at the cusp of a four way interchange so his plan was feasible, "Lees, you and P'ris will lay down cover fire. And don't forget to try and bring some of the bad guys down while you at it."

"No, I thought I'd skip that part," she dryly retorted.

"Sorry," Macen offered, "I've just gotten used to you staying behind."

Danan planted her fists on her hips and got into his face, "Don't you dare go there!"

"Uh...Lees?" Macen was trying to find a way to quiet her down.

"I've been your back up for 18 years now! You wouldn't be alive if it weren't for me. And yes, you need to thank me for not killing you for hanging out with that little Vulcan trollop when you were supposed to be romancing me!" her voice kept climbing in volume and intensity.

"Um...Lees?" Macen tried to distract her to what was occurring around them.

"What?!" she yelled.

"Lover's quarrel?" a gruff voice asked.

Danan turned to see five of the guards facing them with their weapons drawn. Macen muttered, "Never mind."

Danan's face burned as much from anger as shame. She swung and fired into the lead guard point blank in his very broad chest. The rest of the guards were momentarily startled but they were quickly recovering.

Danan cut another one down. Macen had his weapon pulled free from its holster and he put a phaser burst into the forehead of a Troglyte. Rockford aimed and fired off two shots, both of which were invariably lethal. P'ris caught the last one as she tried to run away.

Danan spin around the corner and fired two shots into the remaining guard. Macen and Rockford surged forward and entered the command center. P'ris stayed behind with Danan.

"Well played," P'ris congratulated her, "I see my faith in your skills has been amply rewarded. You have lost none of your fire. Come; let us join Commander Macen and Detective Rockford."

"Right behind you," Danan weakly promised. Truth be told, she felt quite ill. She hadn't gotten this sick from a firefight since her first couple of engagements with the Maquis. It was true; she'd lost her taste for it. Macen had known and tried to warn her but she'd insisted.

She slogged her way to the command center's entrance, the smell of burnt flesh assailing her nostrils, and her gag reflex finally overwhelmed her. She bent over and wretched all over the doorpost, still out of sight of those in the bunker. P'ris took pity on her and helped hold her ponytail out of the way.

Danan tried to protest but her stomach heaved again. P'ris watched over her, holding her hair, "Shhh...it is the adrenalin. You shall recover shortly. I shall stand by you until then."

Danan was grateful but the mission was underway. She rose and wiped her mouth. Now if she could just get rid of the wretched taste.

"How's Brin doing?" she asked.

"He and Detective Rockford seem quite...competent," P'ris remarked.

"You sound disappointed," Dana observed.

"Of course not!" P'ris said a little too defensively.

"Mmm hmm," Danan said knowingly, "You two have always enjoyed a tumultuous relationship. Lots of splash and drama and now T'Kir's dead and you're stranded in the Federation," Danan summarized, "Sound about right?"

P'ris looked defeated and more than a little hunted, "Does he know?"

"P'ris, he's a low level empath. If you stand too close he'll know everything about how you feel," Danan warned her.

P'ris' cheeks flushed emerald, "Elements!"

"Don't worry, he's too polite to say anything unless it poses a problem for the group," Danan reassured her, "Does it?"

"No!" P'ris quickly blurted, "But Celeste? How will it affect our relationship?"

Danan detected something there too, "Just what kind of relationship do you want?"

P'ris looked like she'd been slapped and she stammered, "I...I don't mean to..."

"Get in between her and Brin?" Danan mused, "Or perhaps you want to be between them and share them at the same time?"

P'ris was practically green, "I'd never...!"

Danan gave her the stink eye, "Don't lie to me. I remember your little relationship with D'ionn and Vetrick. But then again, it never seemed that you'd had them at the same time."

Seeing P'ris squirm she smiled, "Or maybe you did. Anyway, Celeste is well aware of all of this and she's letting it slide. Brin knows as well and he's doing the same. Just leave it alone and let the urges pass."

"But perhaps..." P'ris began to argue.

Danan held up a hand, "Just stop. If you have to argue it into existence then it probably won't work anyway."

P'ris' shoulders sagged in defeat, "Of course you are right."

"Yet part of you still doesn't believe that," Danan watched a fire ignite in P'ris' eyes, "This too shall pass."

P'ris seemed to be more composed so Danan suggested that they enter the command center. They entered in to find Rockford covering the tech workers. Five lay dead at their stations. The rest were completely pacified.

Macen was approaching an office area with his phaser drawn and held in a two handed grip towards the open door. He slipped into the office to discover Gaston desperately trying to activate the trapdoor underneath the desk. Macen gave him a cold smile.

"You'll find the escape pod is as deactivated as everything else," Macen could see Gaston's doubts, "Y'see, Sindis used that route to elude me once before so I had my team's engineer specifically shut it down, backup power or no backup power."

Gaston bared his fangs. Like all Lantillians he was a vampire. Unlike the vampires of Earth lore, Gaston was definitely alive. Like a vampire bat, he sustained himself off of non-sentient creatures. And like vampire bats, he drank red blooded hemoglobin. Vulcanoids, Andorians, Benzites, and Bolians were off of the menu.

"Save it," Macen said sourly, "I've faced the Night Coven. You just aren't that impressive afterwards."

Gaston began to hiss and Macen wryly added, "You can walk out of here on your own or I can stun you and we can drag you out of here."

Macen cut him down. The Lantillian fell before him. He turned around and went to the door. Seeing that Danan and P'ris had joined Rockford, he called out to them.

"Hey Lees! Bring P'ris with you and get in here," he instructed.

Danan and P'ris exchanged a rueful glance and then proceeded into the office. Danan noted Gaston's prone form, "Is he dead?"

"He's of no use to our principals dead," Macen gruffly informed her, "P'ris, use your transponder to mark Gaston here and order a recall to the Corsair."

Danan looked at him, "Why not have me do it?"

"Because Lantillians don't ingest copper based blood. They're purists when it comes to iron based derivatives," Macen reminded her.

Her mouth formed a perfect "O" and her eyes went wide, "I forgot about that."

P'ris knelt next to Gaston and placed a transponder on Gaston's still, yet breathing, body; "I am ready."

"Your comm badge is tied into the Corsair's systems. Just request the ship, by name, to transport you," Macen told her.

She complied and winked out of existence. Danan waited and then commed P'ris, "Do you have him secured?"

"Yes, he is in the brig," P'ris confirmed it.

"Computer, one to transport," Danan commanded. She disappeared in a halo of energy.

Macen returned to Rockford. They ordered the techs to stand away from their consoles and then they lobbed a few photon grenades towards the equipment banks. Having destroyed the command consoles, they went back to the power station to aid Daggit's force.

The Conglomerate troops quickly realized that the enemy was on the opposite side of the room no matter which door they tried to breach through. They grouped up and began coming in clusters. Those that made it past Radil or Daggit's initial bursts were stymied by Grace or McMasters. The assault teams were getting further and further into the room though and Daggit and Radil were being forcing them to spend more time dodging then shooting.

Radil was the one to notice that people stopped coming through her target area. Instead they were turning around and moving away from the reactor room. Daggit kept firing away at the door she stood next to. Breaking discipline, she swiveled to her right and opened fire on the Conglomerate troops at point blank range. Her phaser beams cut through the bodies in the front and struck down those behind.

Daggit saw the change in the status quo and motioned for McMasters and Grace to lend their fire to Radil. Grace repositioned nearer to McMasters in order to maximize her field of fire. Radil stepped off to one side to allow the combined phaser streams of her partners by and to get more protection while her cannon worked the crowd.

Meanwhile, Daggit began targeting the Conglomerates that had abandoned him. He saw the reason why. Macen and Rockford were at the other end of the corridor laying down a volley of fire. While Macen was good, Rockford's precision was inhuman. He knew the feeling. Within a couple of more minutes, the corridor was swept clean.

Daggit ejected his spent powerpack and slapped a fresh one in. He returned to the power plant and called for a retreat. He laid down cover fire while Radil moved steadily backwards while laying down her own barrage.

Grace and McMasters descended from the upper balcony and exited the reactor room. Radil went next and Daggit followed her. The Bajoran and the Angosian set up at the doorway and kept the pressure on the Conglomerates.

Grace and McMasters transported first. They would begin prepping the ship for launch. Macen and Rockford followed. Finally, Daggit and Radil transported away from there. As soon as the last two were aboard, Grace fired the antigravs and lifted the Corsair off of the ground. Engaging thrusters she began a slow climb.

When the Corsair reached an altitude that Grace could safely fire the impulse engines, without threat of frying a civilian, she did so. The Corsair reached for the sky and swiftly broke orbit. She halted the runabout off of the port bow of the Shatterstar.

Daggit manhandled Gaston out of the brig and onto the transporter pads, "Hold still."

Gaston was woozy but he had the presence of mind to display a ghastly smile where all of his fangs were played to their best advantage. The transporter effect caught him and he disincorporated. He reappeared aboard the Shatterstar and Shar was more than welcome to take control of him.

Shar hailed the Corsair. Macen displayed it on his screen, "'Lo Shar."

The Andorian was smiling, "Well played, Commander. Well played."

"Is our part done here?" Macen inquired.

"Yes, you and yours are free to go. Thank you, it was a pleasure doing business with you. Perhaps we'll do it again some time," Shar said magnanimously.

"I rather doubt it," Macen retorted, "Just make sure Leera knows our contract was fulfilled. I expect the terms of payment to be upheld."

"Of course. I already sent a message confirming the operation's success. The subspace relays in and around the debris field will have carried it to her," Shar assured him.

"That's all I can ask. I'd say 'good luck' but I'm not sure I actually feel that way," Macen confided.

Shar chuckled, "Of course. I understand all too well. Farewell."

The Corsair docked within the Obsidian and the surveyor began making its way to the lane through the debris field. Macen arrived on the bridge and asked Tom to step aside for a moment.

"Could you leave some probes in our wake?" Macen wondered.

"I could, but why?" Riker wanted to know.

"Call it a hunch," Macen shared.

"Is this your usual brand of 'hunch'?" Riker wondered.

"Yup," Macen revealed.

"I knew this milk run was going to end," Riker kvetched.

"Tom? The probes?" Macen prompted him.

Riker began issuing orders and the crew instantly began to follow them. They left a sensor buoy near the entrance into the travel lane. Another at the close of the lane. And yet another beyond the Kuiper Belt. Macen returned to the Infosys Center to monitor the sensor feeds from there.

Shortly after the Obsidian cleared the Kuiper Belt and launched forward at a leisurely Warp 6, the interior probe picked something up. Jarulski, the scientist manning the Science station in Danan's absence, suddenly spoke up, "Captain! Several unidentified vessels are clearing the other travel lane."

"Jaycee, see if you can match the ship classes and see who they are," Riker ordered.

Forger tapped into the sensor feeds and after a moment she grimaced, "Oh hell. Those are Iridian Enforcer ships.

"You're sure?" Riker needed to know.

"Positive. I did a work up on Iridian vessels as soon as we got our orders. There was a remote chance the Enforcers would show up so I wanted to be prepared," Forger shared.

"Bless you," Riker gushed. He tapped his panel, activating the comm; "Riker to Macen. Do you see them?"

"Yup. A half dozen Iridian frigates, another half dozen destroyers. The light and heavy cruisers are starting to make their way through. If they follow SOP, the dreadnoughts will be the last to push into the conflict," Macen stated.

"Seems Shannon wasn't the only one doing her homework," Riker opined.

"Tell her to take notes. Starfleet Command would love to get their hands on them. No Starfleet starship has ever survived an Iridian fleet maneuver," Macen divulged.

"Then how do we have ID's on the ships?" Riker asked.

"Remote sensors, just like the ones we're using. If we're lucky they'll be too busy securing the system after destroying the Syndicate ships and our probes to chase us," Macen said direly.

"You give a man a lot of hope," Riker grumped.

"Hey, I'm not Captain anymore. Optimism is your job now," Macen cajoled him.

"Head's up everyone, I want all of this preserved for posterity. We've had a buffer between the Federation and the Iridians for ten years now. That buffer just got a little smaller and Starfleet is going to need everything we can give them in case the Iridians decide to remove the buffer altogether," Riker gave his obligatory speech.

When it was done, everyone focused on their instruments while Rhiann pushed them to maximum warp. There was no reason to tempt fate by staying any closer than they had to.

 

Chapter Eleven

The following three weeks were ones of dismay. The Enforcers had butchered Shar's forces wholesale, even going so far as to destroy the Shatterstar with Gaston still aboard. Their apparent contempt for his weakness extending to the termination of his life. They destroyed the Obsidian's sensor probes but did not pursue the Federation ship.

Before they were destroyed, the probes indicated that the Enforcers were moving in a vast amount of military hardware. The reasons for that became obvious as the Enforcer ships spent the next few weeks overtaking all of the unclaimed systems surrounding Conglomerate space. They reached the borders with the Federation, the Breen Confederacy, and the Romulan Star Empire and halted their advance.

Starfleet's exploratory vessels had been expelled from the newly conquered territories but commercial traffic remained unhindered. The Iridians sent diplomatic envoys to the Khitomer Accords and Typhon Pact nations. The Typhon Pact nations, particularly the Breen and the Romulans, were especially skittish of the advancing Iridian forces.

Like their opposite numbers in the Typhon Pact, the Federation drew a line in the sand regarding Iridian advancement. The Iridians found this amusing. It was clear to everyone that the Enforcers would resume their march when they'd reinforced and consolidated their hold on their latest acquisitions. The Cold War between the Khitomer Accords states and the Typhon Pact nations now extended itself to the Iridian Enforcers holdings.

The territory controlled by the Iridian Enforcers had been discovered after the Dominion War. The Enforcers themselves had first been encountered 10 years ago. The 3 years prior to that encounter had found a single Starfleet starship exploring relatively unknown space. No Federation presence had ever entered that territory and remote imagery and long range scans had revealed very little.

The Galaxy-class USS Andreas Vesalius had been turned away by an Enforcer flotilla. The instructions to the crew, and the Federation, were clear: do not enter our space again. Trading vessels had found the way open to them and they conducted discreet scouting missions for Starfleet.

What the merchants discovered was that the Iridians were not the masterminds behind the Territories. The Iridians were a highly militant people. They specialized in policing and territorial control. They were as remorseless as the Jem'Hadar, as cunning as the Romulans and as relentless as the Tzenkethi. Because of their gray skin, the Iridians were known as the "Ghost People". A side note of the cultural observations recalled that Iridian males uniformly had stark white hair and the females consistently had jet black hair. No exceptions to this trend had ever been noted. Because of these evolutionary adaptation transsexuals were unheard of in their culture. It was unknown how many sexual orientations that they enjoyed.

What was known is that they had a compulsory breeding program to constantly replenish their ranks. Both men and women could carry children to term thanks to some creative genetic engineering. The males had to deliver via cesarean. Both males and females were compelled to bear at least one child during their lifespan.

Once the Iridians had reached out for the stars in the service of their mysterious masters, they abandoned such pursuits as farming, medicine, and scientific endeavors. They had client races for that sort of thing. All non-Iridians were 3rd class citizens, even on their own home planets. The Iridians feared cultural contamination so even their subject workers aboard their warships and in their bases and space stations were carefully monitored. The tech class of Iridian workers were also monitored. Considered suspect because of their non-combat roles, the techs were the 2nd class citizens within the Territories.

The typical Iridian was a soldier, born and bred. Raised in communal crèches they learned military science literally from birth. A series of tests throughout childhood established which candidates would be enlisted and which would be trained as officers. Both received compulsory basic training courses.

Officers and enlisted were specially selected to serve in the Enforcer fleet as ratings and junior officers and they were culled from the combat regiments. Promotion through the ranks generally occurred slowly unless there was attrition from combat losses and the candidates displayed abnormal ability. It was the goal of every Enforcer to die in service to the Fleet.

Even units stationed on planets were part of the Fleet. An attribute shared by the Enforcers and Starfleet. While Starfleet also has law enforcement and military duties, that's where the resemblance ended. The Enforcers were solely designed for the acquisition, command, control, and consolidation of territory. They were hired by stellar nations to "invade" their systems and pacify them. Those client nations then supported the Enforcers in their goals to quell all resistance...all in the name of the local ruler.

The true masters of the Enforcers had never been seen. As reclusive as the Founders, it was theorized that the "Masters" had genetically bred the Iridians from a lesser species into the virtually unkillable one that now existed.

It basically took beheading to kill an Iridian. Their natural regenerative abilities shrugged off phaser and disruptor shots. Loss of a limb or two would place the body in a coma for a few weeks while the lost members were regrown. Artificial aids were unnecessary but their application could speed the process into one that lasted mere hours instead of weeks.

Conformity was a huge influencing factor in Iridian society. The desire to belong to a squad, a unit, or a crew was another. Those that rebelled from the mandated norms faced disciplinary action, exile, or execution. Those that expressed the belief that other cultures or races were equal to the Iridians themselves were castigated and declared "contaminated". Contaminated Iridians were subject to execution. Those that fled were hunted down and their demise was then drawn out in a public spectacle. The pursuit being broadcast across the Iridian InfoNet.

Federation listening posts had tapped into the InfoNet and that was where they'd learned the most about the Iridians. Like the Romulan CommNet, it contained classified and public areas. Federation sociologists and anthropologists had studied Iridian society through the public areas. Starfleet Intelligence had accessed the classified areas on occasion but they were quickly discovered and blocked from accessing the Net from those terminals. SI would purge their computers of all foreign scripts and begin again but it was only a matter of time before they were stymied again.

Starfleet Admiral Amanda Forger, Director of the Starfleet Special Investigations Division, sat across the briefing room table from Macen, Rockford, Riker, and her own sister. Her aide, Lt. Commander Ambril Delori, was there to support the admiral. Ambril was nearing the terminal phase of her career. She was going to reach the rank of Commander but she would probably never rise above that grade.

The Bajoran would be eligible to run an entire administrative department in BuPers, SOCOMM, or SI but because of her elite security clearance and familiarity with the SID she would not be transferred unless she specifically requested one. Forger knew that the younger woman was weighing her options carefully and had promised to get back to her after they'd concluded this trip.

Forger had announced her impending visit and strict instructions for the team to refrain from any contracts that could interfere with the mission proposal that the admiral would present. Thanks to the vagaries at Starfleet Command and Forger's immediate superior, Admiral Alynna Nechayev, wanting her to consult on the Enforcer debacle, Forger's visit had taken almost three weeks to commence.

If she knew Macen and his team, and she did far better than any of them would have liked to acknowledge, she knew that sitting still while political events on a galactic scale were occurring in their backyard had to have been murder. As much as she hated to be throwing them into the thick of things, that's exactly what she was here to do.

"How many of you have kept abreast of what's been going on in Enforcer territory and in turn their actions regarding the known sovereign stellar nations in and around the Federation?" Forger asked.

Everyone but Macen said that they'd kept up with the news through civilian news services but Macen remained strangely silent so Forger called him out, "Brin?"

"I've been following Starfleet Intelligence's ongoing feeds. Other than the material taken from the InfoNet, there isn't a lot to go on. The border patrol vessels assigned to the region have found their sensors jammed at every turn," Macen recalled.

"The Iridians don't want us seeing what they're up to," Forger griped, "The Klingons and the Romulans used to pull the same BS."

"Only now the Klingons are our allies and the Romulans are employing a transphasic cloak and once again, we can't detect them," Macen summarized.

Forger's eyes narrowed, "There are times when I really hate you."

Macen held his hands up in surrender, "Hey, don't shoot the messenger."

Because of the light tone of the banter, no one was taking it very seriously. It was Forger's younger sister, Shannon, that redirected the conversation, "It seems you came a long way to ask us more than that, Amanda"

Forger felt a swell of pride over her sister. Shannon had overcome many things in her life. Gender identity conflicts, drug addiction, and frustration within Starfleet's ranks until she branched out into Outbound Ventures, and of course, finding a potential Long Term Relationship. A LTR had eluded Shannon throughout her time in Starfleet and even up until recently in Outbound Ventures employ.

"Precisely," the elder Forger agreed. She turned to Ambril, "You have the files uploaded into their display system?"

"Of course," Ambril replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eye.

"Call up the files," Forger instructed.

Ambril's hands flitted across the surface of the briefing room table. Its interface display put up the files and images she'd loaded. She arranged the folders and then parsed duplicates out to each location where a participant sat.

"If you'll take note of the cartographical map, you'll see that the Enforcers have absorbed more than thirty sectors. That completely ate up the buffer zones between the UFP and the Enforcer Territories. The Romulan Star Empire and the Breen Confederacy are also in the same straits," Forger began with. The rest of the room studied their star maps.

It was true that the Enforcers had devoured huge swathes of territory in short order and it seemed the territorial ambitions were voracious. They'd already sent angry messengers to the mentioned parties and demanded that border systems be ceded to them. President Bacco and the Federation Council were resisting. The Breen leadership was also refusing to reply. Meanwhile, Empress Donatra had dispatched Proconsul Sela to the space station Typhon I to discuss matters with representatives of the other founding Pact members.

The station was a central hub with six spiral arms. Each arm was habituated by staff members from an individual member state. Each arm also maintained environments suited to each species, or in the Breens' case, each individual species. The central hub's environmental controls were kept in a neutral middle ground where the members could meet. While it was slightly cold for Gorn and Romulans, the Tzenkethi and Kinshaya found it hospitable. The Tholians and the Breen always wore their environmental suits. The Tholians because no one else could survive in their Class Y planetary environment and the Breen because their cultural imperative to disguise which native species they belonged to.

SI had learned through contacts in the Imperial Senate that Sela had been ordered to ask the Pact members to assist them in the advent of an invasion. The Breen envoy was there to do the same. Expecting these requests, Sela and the Breen rep, Ansar, spoke first. Afterwards, the others debated the best course of action. They were bound to by their mutual defense treaty that underlined the Typhon Pact itself.

What had been decided was to send allied fleets to the Breen and Romulan borders with the Enforcers with the Imperial Senate and the Breen Domo in charge. Domo Brekk was the designated leader of the Confederacy. Despite his elevated position, no Breen knew his species or his planet of origin. Such things were status quo in the Confederacy in order to prevent discrimination between the assorted species. Even the electronic modulation applied to their voices prevented individual Breen from identifying the native language or dialect of another Breen.

Forger relayed most that to the Obsidian CO and XO as well as the SID team's Commander and Deputy. She then moved to the next item of business. All 5 serving Tenochtitlan-class research ships had been put into Enforcer territory. Of course, they'd all been reflagged as having been decommissioned by Starfleet and were now ostensibly operated by a shell company created by Starfleet Intelligence.

"What's a Tenochtitlan-survey ship?" Rockford had to ask.

Macen fielded the question, "That class came after the Newton-class, or to put it in better terms, they came after ships like the Copernicus."

"So these new ships replaced the Copernicus?" Rockford sought greater clarification.

"More like supplemented them. The Newtons didn't get decommissioned until the Nova-class began rolling out of the shipyards," Macen explained.

"And the Obsidian is a Nova-class ship," Rockford stated rather than asked.

"Exactly, Macen smiled.

"If I can interrupt you love birds, I have a briefing to finish," Forger remarked.

"Carry on, my dear Admiral. Carry on," Macen said.

"The problem in our deployment came when the 5 ships went missing," Forger divulged, "You'll find profiles on each vessel and their crews. The ships are the Zimbabwe, the Troy, the Carthage, the Persepolis, and the Karakorum. The ships were scattered across the newly acquired territory when they, and their 116 crewmen, suddenly vanished."

"Is there anything, or anyone, aboard that could possibly provoke the Enforcers?" Macen asked.

Forger sat perfectly still, unwilling to budge. Macen gave her a stern glare, "What's the secret, Amanda?"

"Each starship has 2 squads of SOCOMM personnel. The entire SOCOMM operation was being coordinated from the Troy by Commander Stan Guthrie," Forger relented.

"Stan Guthrie as in Joachim's Stan Guthrie?" Macen wondered.

"The very same," Forger confirmed it.

"Let me see if I heard you correctly," Riker interjected, "You put Special Operations forces on undercover ships posing as civilians?"

"Those are the essential facts," Forger stiffly replied.

"And what were they supposed to do?" Riker wanted to know.

Forger said nothing so her sister intervened, "They would most likely be tasked with sabotaging key defense installation sites."

"And why would they need to do this?" Riker asked, already dreading the answer he knew was coming.

"In order to facilitate a Starfleet entrance into the system," the younger Forger delivered the expected news.

Riker stared at Admiral Forger in shock and horror, "Haven't Federation forces lost enough lives and materiel over the last 4 years?"

"Of course we have!" Forger snapped. She took a deep breath and visibly quashed her anger, "It is felt by some in Starfleet that a preemptive strike might convince the Enforcers to hold the territorial line.

"And who thought of that idiocy?" Rockford snorted.

"The who is unimportant. All that matters is that it is felt at the highest levels," Forger confided, "Including a near majority in the Council of 5."

Macen and Rockford exchanged a rueful look and said in stereo, "Jellico."

While Forger was heartened to see they knew where the true blame lay, it was also disheartening to see Rockford sharing in Macen's antipathy for the Starfleet Commander-in-Chief, "As I said, The Powers That Be have the ear of the President and they are wearing her down."

"I can't say I'm Nanietta Bacco's biggest fan, but why would she go along with such a scheme? Starfleet is now at 40% of its strength from four years ago and that's with re-commissioning fifty year old cruisers and crewing them with hordes of enlisted personnel and a handful of officers," Macen summarized, "To be frank, we may have numbers but the quality is long gone and may never return."

"Starfleet would be committing newest ships to the offensive while leaving the older ships behind as an internal defense force," Forger revealed.

"In case they hand you your ass and invade," Riker sniped.

Forger had the grace to merely sigh, "Essentially."

"What classes of ships are available for an incursion?" Forger's sister asked, "I thought the fleet was returning newer ships to exploration duties."

"That's true," Forger confirmed, "The entire series of Luna-class ships are exploring the Beta Quadrant. The entire run of Vespa-class ships are in the Gamma Quadrant. The surviving Galaxy- and Sovereign-class ships are beyond the Cardassian borders reaching into the heart of the Alpha Quadrant."

Forger called up a file and it boasted pictures of ships and their particulars, "That leaves us with the bulk of the Akira-, Centaur-, Challenger-, Cheyenne-, Freedom-, Intrepid-, Yeager-, Saber-, Steamrunner-, Nebula-, and Norway-classes to throw at the Enforcers. Of course, particular units would remain behind for special missions."

"I take it the Defiant, the Intrepid, the Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Hood would be among those," Macen surmised.

Forger was pleased, "Precisely. We would also retain every Defiant-class ship for any counterassault we would have to make. And this also excludes Voyager's mission to the Delta Quadrant and all of her escorts."

"I suppose you want us to discover the fate of the missing ships and their crews and to affect a rescue of the same," Macen finally brought everything back to the topic at hand.

Forger nodded, "Precisely."

"You do know that may prove impossible," Macen warned, "While the Enforcers may not have had time to construct proper military facilities they will have had to suborn the native facilities on every world they conquered. We have no access to military compounds in those territories and we have no means by which to penetrate them."

"You'll think of something," Forger countered. Seeing Macen's pained expression she added, "We don't actually expect you to get them out but we do want to know what happened to them. If we can keep Starfleet from invading, we stand a good chance of extracting them through diplomatic channels."

"You seem awfully confident of that outcome," Macen observed.

"Bob and Picard have concluded talks with the Andorians. The Andorians now understand our reasoning for withholding the Taurus Reach meta-genome data with them. They still don't agree with it but they say they understand," Forger shared, "Of course, keeping the trade routes open went a long way towards pacifying them."

Forger seemed to rouse herself, "Anyway, the point being, the Intrepid is en route to Mityr. They should be arriving at the same time you reach Atrocitus."

"Atrocitus?" Riker repeated, "You do realize that the planet was given that name for a reason?"

Forger was amused, "Brin survived on Corvat for a few days. He can withstand Atrocitus for a couple of days."

"I take it one of the ships went missing there," Macen surmised.

"Yes, the Troy arrived and was never heard from again," Forger divulged.

"And who's to say the same won't happen to us?" Riker demanded to know.

"Because there are profound differences between your mission and theirs," Forger argued, "The first is that they pretended to be civilians and you truly are civilians."

"You hope they'll know that," Riker protested.

"Captain, we're tapping their InfoNet. It's logical to assume they've been tapping our DataNet as well. Don't you think?" Forger reversed the question, "Since they have access to the DataNet, it's also logical they have information on Outbound Ventures."

"They'd at least know that Sindis hired Solarian Security Systems to kill us because he saw us as a threat," Macen remarked.

"That does little to reassure me," Riker dryly quipped.

"Take heart Captain, what the Iridians suspect they can never prove," Forger assured him.

"How can you be so certain?" he inquired.

"Because they'll probably board you as part of a border inspection," Forger related to him, "The Enforcers have instituted all petitioners to cross the border to submit to inspections."

"Looking for Starfleet personnel and equipment," Riker said sourly.

"Precisely," Forger said cheerily.

"With all due respect, Admiral, our damn ship is Starfleet equipment," Riker growled.

"Nonsense," Forger pooh pahhed his argument, "The Obsidian was a civilian build of the ship type. She was never registered in Starfleet and she never served in Starfleet. She's only been the property of one entity and that is Outbound Ventures."

"Oh, I feel so much better," Riker dryly groused.

"We'll take the job," Macen suddenly decided.

"What?!" Riker yelped.

Macen ignored him, "When do we get underway?"

"It would be best if you could leave tomorrow. The Intrepid can slow her approach to allow you to reach the border as she does," Forger instructed.

Forger looked around and saw no further questions in anyone's eyes. Riker was miffed but Macen could handle that. Forger turned to Shannon, "Ready to show me the sights?"

The younger Forger patted her Captain on the shoulder as she left, "First stop, my quarters so I can get changed."

"But you look good in a uniform," Forger complained.

Shannon laughed, "So do you but we're going dancing at Quark's so we need to look better than 'good'."

The sisters' comments could be heard as they exited. Rockford kissed Macen on the cheek and she whispered, "More to come later. Just leave Tom alive."

He gave her a wry smirk and she exited as well. Riker studied the El-Aurian for several seconds before blurting, "'We're taking the contract'? Just like that?"

"It was an easy call," Macen replied, "If you weren't bogged down by being Captain, you'd see that. As my 1st Officer you would have been leading the charge. Responsibility has been good for you, Tom. You've grown and matured into it but it's also dulled some of your considerations. The crew won't be in anymore danger here than going into Mityr 3 weeks ago."

Riker wanted to argue. Macen could see that but the human was also wrestling with what Macen had said and it was a losing fight.

"Damn you, you're right," Riker complained, "The Tom Riker that stole the Defiant and tore across Cardassian space looking for a secret shipyard wouldn't have blinked twice. The Tom Riker that captained the Eclipse for you wouldn't have either. Even as XO aboard the Solstice and then the Obsidian I wouldn't have thought twice about it."

He looked pained as he went on, "But after my stint as CO of the George Kelly I've been more cautious. My time aboard the Indomitable was spent trying to keep my crew out of danger. When I returned to the Obsidian as Captain, I did the same only worse. It was no wonder Celeste hated me. I wouldn't let the SID team under her do anything."

"There's an important difference between now and then and that's me," Macen offered.

"That sounds kind of arrogant," Riker feebly joked.

"But it's the truth. Celeste relied upon your approval to accept a contract. I don't and I won't," Macen explained, "The side effect of our arrangement is that where our team goes, your ship goes as well."

"It's still weird to hear you refer to her as my ship," Riker admitted.

"Well, she is in every sense of the word," Macen assured him and then he dropped the bomb, "However, if you can't maintain the support role to the SID team, we'll drop you. The Solstice is sitting in a hangar waiting for a crew. Hannah can fly her. Eric can man Engineering. Radil has the Tactical systems. Rab would probably stay with you because of Parva but the rest of the stations would be covered between Celeste, P'ris, and I."

"You're serious," Riker suddenly realized with a cold chill running down his spine.

"Deadly serious," Macen confirmed for him.

Riker suddenly started backpedalling, "There's no cause for that. I just didn't like that I wasn't consulted. We've taken to discussing contracts. It just rubbed me wrong that we didn't confer this time. The ship and crew are there for you, Brin. So is her captain. 100%."

"I just needed to be sure," Macen soothed Riker's feathers, "I won't always have the luxury of having time to consult with you. Amanda wanted an answer and she wanted one now."

"Okay, I'll learn to cope," Riker promised.

Macen eyed him skeptically and Riker became insistent, "This never would have been an issue if you hadn't spoiled me since you got back."

Macen wore a lopsided grin, "Good to know."

"So, you want to tell Bryce the bad news and start alerting everyone that we're deploying tomorrow?" Riker wondered.

"No, Captain. I think you can handle it," Macen's grin grew more mirthful.

"I hate you," Riker jested.

"I know and you know what? I can live with that," Macen said as he exited the briefing room.

Riker mulled over what had been discussed and then headed for the Obsidian Captain's station-side office. There, Bryce Fanning waited for the outcome of the meeting. Totally unsurprised by the outcome, she began the recall process.

 

Chapter Twelve

The following morning at 0800, the Obsidian departed Serenity Station. The boarding had begun boarding had begun at 0500 and concluded 2 hours later. The time spent between 0700 and 0800 was merely prep for the casting off.

The new station administrator bade them well as they exited the system. Admiral Forger also wished them well from her state room aboard the Springfield-class USS Chekov-A. The Chekov was running light, eschewing the optional mission pod carried by so many of her sisters. The ship's entire purpose in life right now was to ferry Admiral Forger and her staff about. Since the party consisted merely of two women, it wasn't an onerous chore.

From Serenity, the Chekov was headed to Cardassia Prime to confer with Castellan Rekena Garan and her Intelligence Bureau Chairman. The Chairman, one Resk Corant, was a former Military Intelligence Officer. He'd reached the rank of gul within the Cardassian Militia, a rarity in and of itself. When the Unionist government fell and the coalition of the Monarchists and the Democrats was ushered back into power, the revived Obsidian Order was once again dismantled. Many said that the Order had not gone gently into the night as the disillusioned Militia savagely crushed it.

The military, despite its dreams of recreating a supposed utopian controlled by the High Command, had realized from the lowest echelons to the highest that it couldn't actually provide stability for the Cardassian people. For the first time in Cardassia's hallowed history, the Militia voluntarily surrendered power to the civilian government and handed Gul Maret over the Provisional Government.

The installment of Katreen Dervin to the ancient throne of Cardassia and as Head of State created such a shift in perception in gender roles that Rekena Garan was able to be elected Castellan. For the first time in eons the Cardassians had two women in power over them, one royal and one elected official. It hearkened back to the days before the High Command and the Obsidian Order.

Still, the Bureau under Corant was a far cry from the Obsidian Order. Garan was proving herself a valuable ally to the UFP and she and Dervin honestly wanted the Constitutional Monarchy to work. The Federation President's request that Garan guide the Cardassian Union into signing the Khitomer Accords treaties had only been propelled even further and faster by Dervin. While Garan had come into womanhood during the Dominion War, Dervin had spent the war residing in the Federation. She knew her people couldn't remain isolationists forever. And as far as the role of conqueror went, how many worlds could they conquer before they in turn were toppled by their subject nations?

The Cardassians had finally returned to pre-war levels of their population and military machine. One entire Militia Order, the 9th, was dedicated to a joint Khitomer Accords fleet. The Klingons had dispatched their Vor'keth Fleet as well. The Federation's 9th Fleet had been incorporated into the combined task force. Even the Ferengi Alliance had sent a Horde of 12 Marauders. The Ferengi had recently wrapped up their territorial dispute with the Breen through a realignment of mutual borders in a deal brokered by Grand Nagus Rom and Domo Brekk.

This allied task force patrolled the border between the Federation and the Enforcer Territories. Although no longer touching the Enforcer's borders thanks to the treaty with the Breen Confederacy, the Ferengi would surely be caught in the crosshairs if an invasion began. Despite critics that accused the Ferengi of barely contributing to the task force, there were those like Nechayev and Forger that knew of how the Ferengi's merchant fleet was entering the Enforcer Territories and surveying them for the Task Force and the allied intelligence organs. Starfleet's Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander, Admiral Leonard James Akaar and Fleet Admiral Jellico knew the truth and valued the Ferengi's participation.

The Ferengi merchant captains had provided details on the changes wrought on Enforcer controlled territories in exchange for compensation. Financial rewards were the most attractive enticement to the Ferengi merchants so they received what they sought. Deals were made, new markets opened, and bounties were paid.

The end result was that Starfleet wanted hands on intelligence gathering and so the Tenochtitlan-class survey ships had been sent in with SOCOMM support. And that had ended in potential disaster. Besides ascertaining the fate of the Starfleet crewmen one other instigator had pushed Starfleet Command into mobilizing the SID. The Enforcers were requesting permission to transit the Bajoran Wormhole and enter the Gamma Quadrant.

Ro Laren, the crew of the Defiant, and the surviving elements of the 7th Fleet stationed in the Bajor Sector had been placed on high alert. The Federation Council had authorized the Diplomatic Corps to allow civilian ships through but the Enforcers were adamant about deploying military assets to the Gamma Quadrant.

Forger had privately approached Macen and asked him to look into Enforcer's deployment plans. Macen had refused. Forger had physically recoiled as though she were slapped.

Macen took her to the side of the Promenade's space, "Look Amanda, we're already trying to pull off the impossible. How do you want us to go about getting the intel? Seriously? Do you want us to approach the closest Enforcer cruiser and politely inquire as to whether or not they intended to invade the Federation in order to gain access to the wormhole?" His eyes had bored into hers, "We'll keep an eye on fleet movements but in that regard we won't be any more effective than the Ferengi and the other merchant ships you've managed to recruit."

Now they were underway and Riker had agreed to discreetly monitor Enforcer fleet movements. Active sensors, beyond those required for navigation, would tip their hand. Fortunately the Obsidian's passive arrays' capabilities exceeded that of the active sensors of most freighters. The ship and her crew would be well aware of anything occurring in their vicinity.

The SID team gathered in their dedicated briefing room. Riker and Danan were excluded. Macen and Riker had hashed out an outline for an operations plan. Rockford had contributed as had Danan, who provided the requirements for the most effective scans of the region.

Macen and Rockford explained to the team that their role was ill defined and largely open to interpretation. Daggit was suited to such a role as was Radil. They both had survived worse in the past under more nebulous terms. Macen had been there for some of Daggit's adventures when the Angosian served in a commando unit behind Dominion lines. They'd often had a vague mandate to destroy a particular target while leaving the details up to Ro, Macen, and Daggit.

Radil was also nonchalant about the terms of their operation. As a mercenary she'd served in many units that chose to frequently "wing it". It was just part of the job, best avoided if one could but dealt with when it happened. McMasters was somewhat used to it from his days with the Maquis but those assaults that he'd participated in had been planned out. This time there was no plan and it discomfited him.

Grace was the one at a loss. As a pilot, she generally had a clearly delineated target. What you couldn't attack you evaded. Now she had no clear enemy or recourse of what to do should an enemy present itself. To say she was unhappy was an infinitesimal assessment of a major problem.

"What are our ROE's?" Daggit asked. It made sense to start with the Rules of Engagement since that determined what courses of action could be taken when.

"Unknown," Macen hated to confide, "The universal basics apply: fire if fired upon and some such."

"Unless they're Argyn," Rockford teased.

It had been Rockford's discovery that the Argyn's litmus test for civilized behavior was sacrificing one's life when attacked. Of course, she'd also pointed out to them that they didn't follow their own rule. They'd brusquely brushed that concern aside and halted hostilities against the Federation based upon her willingness to sacrifice her life in the stead of trillions of lives. As a result, a generational, genocidal war had been averted.

"Yes, we mustn't forget them," Macen dryly remarked, "Back to business though, we know from the merchant fleet assets that individuals, including alien visitors, can bear arms. We just don't know how the Iridian ground units would react to weapons being used."

"In fact, the point is we know nothing about them. Starfleet Intelligence has been engaged in a cyber war with them for a decade now. The only Iridian, and ex-Enforcer, to leave their territory and enter Federation space was Bertram Sindis. I'm sure we all have the fondest memories of him."

Sindis had personally killed Gantz and Joachim Dracas when they'd been members of the team. Even more personally to Macen, Sindis had killed T'Kir while she'd been his wife. Macen looked to Rockford.

"Annika Ryst was a close ally of his for several weeks. You share her memories now. Did she know anything useful?" Macen asked.

Rockford shifted uncomfortably. Ryst had been the base template for the various personalities that had shard Ryst's body, including Rockford. They were all gone now and she had all of the collected memories, which meant her life was now a coherent whole, but those memories were filled with bitterness, hatred, and pain.

"In the end, you probably knew Sindis better than Annika did," she shared.

"That's what I was afraid of," Macen said sourly, "Sindis had been a sector commander in the Enforcers. We have to assume he was a typical representation of an Enforcer officer. If that's the case, we're in trouble."

There was a general murmur of assent to that proclamation. Grace asked the obvious, "Say we end up in a firefight. How will that affect the Obsidian?"

"We have to assume that the Iridian authorities will call in the closest cruiser and have them attempt to deal with her," Macen responded.

"What kind of odds would she have at that point?" McMasters asked.

"Enforcer ships are graduated in class from destroyer, to frigate, to light cruiser, next follows the heavy cruiser, and finally there's the dreadnought." Macen explained, "A destroyer, which is the least of their ships, outruns and outguns the Obsidian. They can bring twice as much firepower to bear. It just gets exponentially worse from there."

He delivered the death knell, "Their heavy cruisers are contemporary with Galaxy-, Nebula-, and Sovereign-class starships. The Vesta- and Luna-classes should also prove a match but there is no Federation contemporary for the dreadnoughts."

"What about a Dominion battleship?" Daggit quietly asked.

"That's the closest known match," Macen replied.

"What about the Typhon Pact?" Grace wondered, "Do you think the Enforcers will actually invade Breen and Romulan territory?"

"I think it's a good possibility," Macen answered. Seeing the worry in the eyes of his teammates he elaborated, "Sindis usually opted to pursue the most unexpected and audacious plan available. The only limiting factor in the Enforcers' ambitions is manpower but they've had 3 weeks to reinforce and consolidate their forward positions."

"They couldn't position that much hardware without anyone noticing, could they?" McMasters had to ask.

"Eric, we literally have no idea of how large the Enforcer Territories are or how much manpower and equipment they can bring to bear," Macen explained, "Worse case scenario is that they not only have the resources available but that they also have them staged to go at a moment's notice. As far as anyone spotting them, they're jamming the entire frontier so long range scans are useless and we have no observation arrays anywhere near here."

"There may be a way to obtain that data," P'ris broke her silence. Macen gave her a quizzical glance and she squirmed in her seat, "As Starfleet is aware of, but cannot conclusively prove, the Star Empire has perfected a transphasic cloak. This cloak enables us to not only proceed undetected within a shroud of a 'perfect' cloak but it also enables the equipped vessel to phase through solid matter." P'ris took a deep breath and committed herself to the plunge, "The Tal Shiar has undoubtedly deployed assets into Enforcer territory utilizing these cloaks and has likely acquired the information you seek." All eyes rested on her as the room filled with a pregnant pause. She cleared her throat, "It is likely I could still access the appropriate databases to determine if they have this intelligence."

"I take it all back," McMasters quipped, "I love you."

P'ris' cheeks flushed emerald and she leaned to Rockford to make an inquiry. Rockford rested a hand on her shoulder and assured her, "It's okay. He's spoken for."

"You are certain?" P'ris whispered.

"I am," Rockford reassured her, "Because if he screws with Shannon, I'll kill him."

P'ris noted the conviction behind that statement. From what she knew of Rockford and Forger, it seemed that Forger would be a natural friend to Rockford. The transsexual woman was considered something of an aberration amongst human society and the Angosian had been completely rejected by her native culture.

P'ris found it ludicrous that humans readily accepted post op transgender women and men but reviled non op transsexuals. Humans embraced homo-, bi-, and heterosexual individuals. They accepted polysexual beings but they couldn't accept a transsexual which was to their own lasting shame.

Macen decided to break the surface tension, "How long would it take you to do this?"

"I would need a comp/comm in the Infosys Center and a buffered comm line connection," P'ris stated.

"But there are no direct connections," Macen countered.

"Come now Commander, you and I both know that the diplomatic relays are open and that both sides' intelligence organs piggyback on them to access the others' infonets," P'ris replied.

"Maybe...maybe not," Macen furtively replied.

P'ris rolled her eyes, "Oh please! You are no longer Starfleet and I am a teammate. We can be honest amongst ourselves."

"Now you finally concede that I'm no longer a member of Starfleet?" Macen asked out of exasperation.

"Yes. You are something infinitely worse: a freelancer," P'ris smiled victoriously. Macen didn't reply and at long last she knew she finally had him. She exulted in her victory but she decided not to press her luck by gloating. Instead she offered a reassurance, "I cannot condemn you for I am one of your agents now and am also a freelance operative."

Macen was just relieved to have her thinking of herself as a member of the team. He knew that would be her greatest hurdle in her new situation. Romulan elitism had no place amongst his SID team. Especially since she was well and truly an outcast from Romulan society now.

"That still doesn't answer how long it would take," he said dryly.

P'ris' smile was a sly one, "I will require one hour."

"Then we'll reconvene in two," Macen decided.

Macen led the way to the Infosys Center next door. Rockford followed as did P'ris. Grace tagged along out of morbid curiosity. Each took a seat at their dedicated desks. A chime sounded and McMasters and Radil entered in for much the same reasons Grace was present. Fortunately, folding chairs were available and they set themselves up next to Grace's desk.

Macen had a wall to himself and Rockford occupied the closest desk to his. P'ris possessed the desk nest to hers. P'ris began by adding this caveat.

"I do not mind if Commander Macen and Detective Rockford observe my work but I cannot share the secrets of the Tal Shiar to just anyone, friend or not," she warned.

The other three team members grumbled as they departed and Rockford grinned at the Romulan, "You sure told them."

"Be advised Detective, if you were not the Deputy Mission Commander you would not be staying either," P'ris merrily revealed.

"Then it's a good thing I am," Rockford cheerfully replied.

"P'ris, I'll walk you through isolating your comm band and firewalling it from the main core," Macen intervened.

"Humph!" Rockford indignantly snorted, "We're just having too much fun for a fuddy duddy like you."

"You wish," he flippantly replied, "Ready P'ris?"

"As ever," P'ris delightedly stated.

P'ris easily piggybacked the diplomatic channels leading to the new Romulan capitol planet. Ch'Rhihann was one of the oldest Imperial colonies. It had several highly developed industries as well as a close proximity to the Alhean worlds. The Alhean cluster supported six agricultural worlds where most of the Romulans' food and medicinals derived from. Of course, the trade between the Star Empire and its Typhon Pact allies had greatly expanded the Romulans' palate and pharmaceutical options.

P'ris inquiry was routed through the Romulan CommNet into the Tal Shiar's databases. From there she navigated through the agency's taps into the Imperial Fleet's networks. Sensor scans along the border shared with the newly established Enforcer territory had all been jammed alongside the Breen's and the Federation's. The Typhon Pact had brought visual telescopes to bear and had detected extensive traffic behind the borders. Of course, phased Warbirds had also crossed the border unseen and undetected.

One effect of the Enforcers' grab of over two dozen sectors, comprised of over 300 M-class worlds and their hosts' star systems, had been to divide the Typhon Pact in half. The Breen and Tzenkethi sat on the Alpha Quadrant side of the Federation while the Romulans, the Kinshaya, Gorn, and the Tholians sat in the Beta Quadrant side. The Pact fleet units had to transit Federation space in order to reach one another.

Of course, the Tzenkethi were virtually isolated by the surrounding Cardassian Union and the Federation. On the other side of the Tzenkethi Coalition was the Andergani Oligarchy who barely tolerated their more advanced neighbors. Only a mutual loathing of the Khitomer Accords nations, and a healthy dose of fear, kept the Andergani from striking out at the Coalition.

Fortunately for the Pact, the Romulans had shared their cloaking technology. Of course, the Romulans had shared the previous generation of tech. The Star Empire reserved its transphasic cloaks for itself and its forces. This show of antagonism had almost sundered the Typhon Pact. Fortunately for the Romulans, their greater size and military capacity was proven to be necessary to the Pact's success.

"It seems the Pact has observed significant movement across the border," P'ris described as she transmitted the imagery to Macen and Rockford's terminals, "The observation platforms had detected the gathering of sizeable fleet assets. They are staged and appear ready to strike."

"We have to transmit this data to Starfleet Intelligence," Macen suggested.

"As long as the means used to collect it are omitted, I shall be satisfied," P'ris agreed.

Macen packaged and encrypted the intel and sent it off to Starfleet Command. Starfleet Intelligence had left San Francisco and moved into the nearly deserted Special Investigations Division HQ in Reading, England. Admirals and Forger shared one floor of the building while the staffers and analysts filled the rest of the building.

Forger was headed to Cardassia but Nechayev should be manning the fort. He was confident that Nechayev would swiftly brief both Akaar and Jellico. Undoubtedly the rest of the Council of 5 would also be updated meaning Forger, Edward Noyce, and Bob Johnson would also be apprised. How that would affect Johnson and Picard's negotiations with the Iridians was anyone's guess.

How it would affect their mission was also a variable that was now thrust into play. If the Enforcers intended to strike out at the Khitomer Accords fleet and the Federation in general, what would they do with civilian traffic within their borders? Also, would they make a push to the Bajoran wormhole and if so, would they transit into the Gamma Quadrant? Yet another question was why did they deem it so important to reach the Gamma Quadrant?

The Dominion had closed its borders 13 years ago with the conclusion of the war against the Allied forces. Sensor buoys deposited all across the Dominion's established border had detected Jem'Hadar ships on patrol but none had ever crossed the border. So too, ships attempting to cross the border had been turned back, sometimes by force.

No contact had been made since Odo had traveled back to Bajor in 2376 to celebrate its admission to the Federation. He'd said his final farewells to then Colonel Kira Nerys and returned to the Dominion after warning the Federation that the borders were closed and guarded. No one knew what had become of the "solids" that were subjects of the Founders or of the Founders themselves. If the Enforcers managed to penetrate as far as the Bajoran system and make it through the wormhole, how would the Dominion react and whom would they blame?

 

Chapter Thirteen

P'ris' intel data made the rounds through the upper echelons of Starfleet Command within mere hours of its reception. Despite the heavy usage of subspace transceiver buoys and boosters, the message still took 8 hours to reach Earth from the Obsidian's position near the border. Once on Earth it went from Nechayev's desk to a secure briefing room in Starfleet Command HQ in San Francisco.

Jellico, Akaar, and Noyce were the live participants of the briefing. Forger and Johnson attended by holographic remote. That test bed technology had been largely abandoned in the fleet for anything less than a meeting of flag officers. It was deemed too distracting for anything other than a briefing session in peaceful circumstances.

Forger had been called out of a session with Corant and Garan by Ambril. She had to transport back to the Chekov to use the single, retrofitted holodeck aboard. It recreated the Earth based room and its occupants even as holoemitters on Earth recreated her visage for the participants there. Bob Johnson did the same from the Intrepid.

Nechayev rose and nodded to the participants, live and holographic; "Six hours ago we received intel from a credible source detailing the Romulan efforts to pass through the Enforcers' lines and acquire hard data on the Enforcers'' movements. This was accomplished by a network of optical telescopes and Romulan ships of the line utilizing their transphasic cloaks to literally pass through Enforcer border patrols."

She let the weight of that revelation sink in before continuing, "That's right folks. Our fears have become a reality. The Typhon Pact wanted to level the playing field with our quantum slipstream drives, well they have."

"Have the Romulans distributed this cloak amongst all of the Pact member nations?" Jellico wanted to know.

"No," came Nechayev's succinct answer. Seeing that more reassurance was needed she elaborated, "The Romulans are reserving the transphasic cloak for themselves and relegating the traditional cloaks to the other Pact members."

"How are the other members of the Pact responding to this development?" Johnson asked, wondering if it was time to apply diplomatic pressure to sway the castigated members out of the Pact.

"Since the Romulan Imperial Fleet comprises a literal 50% of the Pact forces, the others are taking it with a grain of salt. Those most willing to accommodate this new reality are the Breen," Nechayev explained, "The Confederacy and the Star Empire seem to be cooperating on a number of initiatives."

"And the name of your source?" Akaar asked.

"That's 'Eyes Only" information," Nechayev replied stiffly.

"Alynna, we comprise the height of Starfleet's command echelon. It only gets higher in the President's office," Akaar said with a touch of menace. For all of his years off of Cappella IV, he was still a product of its warrior culture.

"It's obvious who the source is," Jellico sneered, "It's Macen's pet Romulan."

"Edward!" Nechayev snapped, "I personally debriefed Commander P'ris. I can freely attest to the fact that she is not anyone's pet anything."

"Amanda," Akaar intervened as the C-in-C fumed and Nechayev shot him glares, "you've had recent contact with P'ris. What is your assessment?"

"She's honestly committed to Macen's team," Forger reported, "Whereas she wouldn't be with an official Starfleet team."

"As I understand it, the woman considers herself to be a true Romulan patriot," Noyce spoke up, "So why is it she's been endorsed to work within Macen's SID team?"

"P'ris received my approval to work with Macen's team for several reasons," Forger bit back, "The first being that she is an ideal candidate because she considers herself a patriot. She defected in order to preserve the peace between the Typhon Pact and the Khitomer Accords nations. She sees favored relations between the two entities as the best course for her people. Because of that alone, she'd get my approval."

"Secondly, Macen is an independent operator and is free to choose whoever he wants to be on his team. Need I remind you that this very fact of life has given many of us heartburn on occasion?" Forger inquired, "Now I could abstain from handing Macen any contracts while P'ris is in his employ but we tried that before. Twice. The first time when we terminated his employment we came crawling back after three years had passed. This last time, which lasted a year, nearly crippled my division."

"Since when is Starfleet about a single man or team?" Noyce chomped on that one.

"Tell that to Captain Dax and the crew of the Aventine, or Calhoun and the crew of the Excalibur, or how about Chakotay and the crew of the Voyager," Forger fought back, "Do I even dare mention Captain Ro and the Defiant crew or Riker and the crew aboard the Titan?"

Noyce flushed as his temper rose, "Those are highly trained individuals who work for the benefit of the Federation and the service."

"And Macen isn't highly trained?" Forger said mockingly, "He had an 80 year career in Starfleet Intelligence as both an analyst and a field operative."

"He also faced a court martial and was tossed out of Starfleet," Noyce snapped.

"He retired," Forger clarified.

"And let's not mention him getting convicted of murder," Noyce said nastily.

"A conviction which was overturned," Forger growled.

"We are you defending him?" Noyce yelled, "He's a menace that makes your entire division look bad!"

"Because if it wasn't for him and his team we would still be facing the Omicron or the Argyn. If not for them we wouldn't have ties with the Nova Romans, the Iotians, the Ekosians and the Zeons," Forger said passionately, "Without them, Bertram Sindis would be in charge of this invasion and we all remember what a ruthless bastard he was, don't we?"

Knowing that the entire Council of 5 had sweated Sindis' control of the Meirkus Conglomeration and the Orion Syndicate she smiled in predatory triumph as she went for Noyce's jugular, "Macen's team has faced greater than average threats and overcome them time after time. We need him."

Forger switched tactics, "If you recall, the SID was created as Starfleet's answer to Section 31. Macen and Section 31 have an informal truce. They stay out of each others' way. We need that freedom. S31 has stayed quiet since the Cell 51 affair but they haven't gone away."

Forger let her statement settle in, "Section 31 undoubtedly already has operatives across the border and it's conceivable that they'll cooperate with Macen."

"What makes you think so?" Jellico stepped in.

"Because I informed Bill Ross of the mission," Forger replied.

That little bombshell silenced everyone, even Jellico. Akaar found his voice before anyone else did, "And why did you do that?"

"For three basic reasons," Forger began to explain, "First, no restrictions were put on who could or could not know of Macen's mission. Two, Ross has a high enough security clearance for me to apprise him. After all, he was the field commander of the Allied offensive during the Dominion War. Third and most importantly, Ross has cooperated with Section 31 on at least 4 documented occasions. It is likely that he will inform his contacts of this mission and they in turn will inform their field operatives."

"You informed Ross precisely because he'll hand the information out?" Jellico choked, "I think it may be time to review the SID Director."

Forger was decidedly unfazed by the threat, "Do what you have to do. I did what was best for my agency and my agents."

"They aren't your anything," Noyce rattled off, "The SID is a Starfleet agency and therefore those are Starfleet's agents."

"Oh, get stuffed, Ed," Forger fired back, "My agency exists entirely to give Starfleet a backdoor to working on things. A backdoor that it completely deniable and can be disavowed in a heartbeat. After all, do we really want it known to anyone that we're inserting agents into Enforcer territory?"

Silence descended once again as Forger pressed on, "President Bacco personally ordered Starfleet to sit on its hands while the diplomats barter for the lives of the Starfleet crews that have been presumably captured. The SID can act precisely because our agents aren't Starfleet regulars. They're independent contractors with the liberty to move around the President's prohibition."

"Frinxing mercenaries are what they are," Noyce darkly grumbled.

"Ed, may I remind you that you've supported the SID and its mission on many occasions," Johnson appealed to Noyce as his former protégé.

Noyce was well aware of Johnson's former role and how he'd mentored him but it was plainly obvious that his pupil had grown into a flag officer on his own, "You're actually behind this."

Johnson nodded, "I don't expect negotiations with the Iridians to go well. They're as one sided as the Kelvans and we can all recall how far our entreaties to that particular group have gone."

Negotiations with the Kelvans had stalled mostly because the extragalactic colonists wanted an entirely one sided relationship. They would take and the Federation would give. However, with all of the newly arrived settlers undergoing the same adaptations to human form that Rojan and his band had undergone 120 years ago, they were understandably unnerved and frightfully worried that they would lose their cultural identity. To have such descendents of the original scouting party such as Hannah Grace only reinforced their fears.

"It's bad enough dealing with histrionics of the Typhon Pact. We really don't need this right now," Jellico grumbled.

"Actually, the Typhon Pact is making overtures towards the Khitomer Accords allies. The Enforcers have them scared after their losses to the Argyn. They know they can't afford a two front war. Empress Donatra has sent representatives to the Diplomatic Corps and they're willing to talk about a non-aggression pact while the Enforcers rattle their sabers," Johnson added.

"Yet we know they're pushing the Gorn towards a conflict with us," Nechayev snorted.

"And Donatra knows that we know," Johnson chuckled, "It's just another chess move to her. We're a known variable and one that the Star Empire has allied itself with in the past. The Enforcers are just the boogeyman that can drive them into our camp."

"How earnest are the Romulans?" Jellico interest has been piqued.

"Ambassador Picard's contacts in the Service say the entire Typhon Pact is being represented by the Romulan envoys. They're running scared. They know an invasion is imminent. They want us out of the way while they potentially fight for their lives," Johnson elaborated.

"Smart, but why did they come to this conclusion?" Akaar asked, "At least, why now?"

"Theories abound but given Alynna's data, I'd say they know the Ferengi have made serious inroads with the Iridians and since the Ferengi are our allies..." Johnson left the though dangling.

"Hot damn!" Jellico exclaimed, "They think we'll strike a bargain with the Enforcers."

"That's the leading consensus," Johnson shared, "They want to secure their backdoor and prevent a flanking maneuver from the Khitomer nations should we reach an accord with the Iridians."

"Why hasn't the Pact approached the Iridians?" Akaar asked.

Johnson's answering smile was rueful, "They probably have, just as we have, and been rebuffed just as we have."

"Besides, there's a cultural conflict between the Romulans and the Iridians," Nechayev sagely pointed out. All eyes turned to her so she expanded on her theme, "They both think they're God's gift to the universe. There's only room for one top dog in their cultural biases."

"But what about the rumored 'masters' of the Enforcers?" Jellico asked.

Nechayev shrugged, "Who's to say they aren't just more Iridians with fancy titles?"

"Damn," Jellico grunted, "We really need to open a dialogue with the Iridian leadership."

"That is the mission Jean-Luc and I are on," Johnson dryly reminded him.

"Yes, I know," Jellico irritably replied, "It just needs to succeed. If for no other reason than to null and void Macen's reasons for being in Enforcer territory."

"You really think the Iridians will hand back the Starfleet crews that they've presumably captured?" Nechayev sought clarification.

"If they want to be our friends they will," Jellico sniffed.

"I think that's an unlikely outcome," Johnson interjected.

Jellico was irked, "And why is that, Bob?"

"We may not know much about the Enforcers but we do know that they are so named because they impose a very strict set of laws, rules, and regulations upon their subject nations. Our crews violated every tenet that they adhere to. They'll want to make an example out of them in order to insure that we don't repeat ourselves," Johnson explained.

"Well, it's your job to make certain they don't. They either hand over our people or they face definite consequences," Jellico declared.

"And what do you suppose I threaten them with? All out war? Because you know that's completely off the table," Johnson reminded Jellico of President Bacco's prohibition against instigating a fight with the Enforcers. The mission of the undercover science vessels was dicey enough already. Fortunately for Starfleet Command, the injunction was put into place after the Starfleet vessels went missing.

Jellico suddenly turned his attention to Forger, "Can Macen pull this off without plunging us into war?"

"That remains to be seen," Forger hedged her options, "If the Enforcers have our people, they're not going to give them up easily."

"That's a 'no'," Jellico groused.

"Not necessarily," Nechayev spoke up. Seeing she had everyone's attention again, she began to divulge, "The Enforcers know about Macen. Sindis respected him. Hell, he was scared of him. Recently uncovered evidence supports the theory that Sindis was behind Solarian Security Systems attack upon Outbound Ventures, not the Omicron, Ezexial."

"Sindis went out of his way to attack Amanda. He framed Macen for his murder. He unleashed the Lantillian Night Coven on Serenity Station. He personally faced down Macen at the end and killed his wife. These were all deeply personal acts. It takes a particular kind of hate to continually strike out with that kind of intensity," Nechayev continued, "Macen interfered with Sindis' plans in Cardassia, on Magna Roma, with Ekos and Zeon, and with Bolshevik. All during this time, Sindis was plotting an invasion into the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. He obviously felt that Outbound Ventures, and Brin Macen in particular, were impediments to his plans."

"For all of these reasons it was the best decision we could make to assign the rescue operation to Macen," Nechayev concluded.

"If all of this is true, then they'll see him coming a kilometer away," Jellico argued.

"Not true," Forger leapt into the fray, "Macen is well known for stretching the boundaries of his contracts beyond the breaking point. That adds to our plausible deniability. He's a rogue operator mounting a mission on his own. Starfleet is absolved of any and all responsibility. With Starfleet cleared, that eliminates any culpability that the Federation might face. If the crews are being held, Macen will make a play for them. Whether or not he succeeds is beside the point."

Jellico's mouth worked a silent protest but Forger pushed her way past it, "The point is: Starfleet isn't involved. We can even volunteer to punish Macen on the Enforcer's behalf."

"What if they want his head on a plate?" Jellico asked sharply.

Forger's holographic image echoed her real life frown, "Then we have a few decisions to make."

Two days later the Obsidian crossed the imaginary line that denoted the border with the Enforcers. Marker buoys had been placed and they commed the starship as it passed. They transmitted a list of regulations applicable to all Enforcer controlled areas. The ship set course for Atrocitus. 15 light years into Enforcer space, they were intercepted by an Enforcer light cruiser.

The Enforcers had them heave to and they were boarded. The inspection party came away satisfied and the team leader promised to advise Atrocitus Local Control of their impending arrival. Riker and Forger made their way back to the bridge from the transporter room.

"Awfully skittish, weren't they?" Forger smirked.

"Brin thinks we have a rep amongst the Enforcers because of Sindis," Riker explained.

The doors of the lift swooshed open and they headed for their seats in the middle of the bridge. Forger plopped down while Riker was a little more dignified as he retook his seat.

"Hell, I'm glad that they're goosy around us. Maybe that means they won't start a shooting match," she expressed her fervent desire.

Riker gave her a wry look, "You should know better than that."

"Hey! It could happen, she huffed.

"Keep dreaming, sister," Riker shifted his attention to Rhiann, "Resume course and speed, Rhiann."

The zhen played with her console and the ship's impulse drivers began to thrum as the ship accelerated. After progressing to .5c, she activated the warp drive and translated them into subspace. Pushing to a cruising speed of Warp 6, she trimmed out and held that speed. At that speed and on their current vector they would reach their destination in 7 hours. Plenty of time for everyone's nerves to get a little frayed.

"Holy crap," Forger breathed as she took in the sight displayed by the viewer. All 5 Tenochtitlan-class survey ships were in orbit over Atrocitus. Watching over them were two frigates and a heavy cruiser. Any one of which easily overpowered the Obsidian.

"Well, at least we hit pay dirt," Forger weakly offered.

Riker hit his comm panel, "Brin, are you seeing this?"

"Affirmative," Macen's voice came back, "We're in the briefing room. Why don't you stop by?"

"On my way," Riker acknowledged. Turning to Forger he grinned, "Don't get us shot at while I'm gone."

"Not a problem. I'm just gonna sit here and bury my head in the sand and pretend they're not here," she promised.

"Good girl," Riker said and started to walk towards the lift.

"Woof," she retorted.

Riker flashed a confident smile as the lift doors closed. Once they'd shut his smile swiftly faded. He was left wondering just how the hell they were supposed to pull this one off?

 

Chapter Fourteen

Atrocitus was a barren world, in many ways even more desolate than Corvat. Of course Corvat had been "dropped" into a star so there was no longer any basis for comparison. Atrocitus was composed of one massive land mass. That land mass was differentiated into several different types of desert.

The primary difference between Corvat and Atrocitus is that the latter did not possess any water on the surface. It existed in deep aquifers but there was absolutely none on the surface of the planet. The oxygen contained in the atmosphere had once been generated and replenished by lush vegetation fed by abundant water sources but then the stars composing the binary pair that dominated the solar system shifted. Arrhenius A shrank into being a white dwarf and Arrhenius B expanded from a G-Class yellow star into an M-class red giant. With one ultra bright main sequence star and a cooler supergiant, the orbital tracks of the captured planets had all shifted.

The ancient cataclysm had devastated the ecosphere on Atrocitus but it had also exposed vast deposits of dilithium. These deposits made the planet strategically valuable because of the importance of dilithium in controlling matter/antimatter annihilations. The vast energies unleashed by such annihilations were channeled and tapped through focusing them through dilithium crystals.

Atrocitus had been colonized by the Pewtree. This avian species had physically evolved away from biological flight even as they discovered powered flight and then spaceflight. They were largely humanoid with feathers instead of hair, raptor-like eyes, and a vestigial beak-like nose that extended over their upper "lips".

The Pewtree had established a mining colony on Atrocitus some 150 years ago since their homeworld of Petraw was within 20 light years of the eventual colony. Having erected massive atmosphere processors and established a colony on the world, they defended their planetary interests several times from independent raiders and agents of the nearby Kalawnee. The Kalawnee had developed a sustainable space faring fleet well after the Pewtree, some 175 years later, and discovered that they were technologically behind most of their neighbors.

The Kalawnee conquered a pre-warp industrial world in the solar system next to the Arrhenius system. Subsequently they tried invading Atrocitus on many occasions. They even attacked Petraw directly. They were repulsed at every turn.

Despite coming from a predatory species, the Pewtree were relatively even tempered. They actively sought rapprochement with the Kalawnee but the aggressors would have none of it. As such, the Pewtree welcomed the Enforcers and the end of the conflict. The large scale contracts that the Iridians offered for shipments of dilithium had helped persuade the Pewtree to embrace the Enforcer takeover.

This became evident as Macen and the investigative team monitored Pewtree social media and news channels as they approached Pewtree space. The Pewtree Navy now served as a Home Fleet for Petraw and its solar system. As the Obsidian sailed through Petraw's defense grid, Riker explained to the authorities concerned that he was headed to Atrocitus to broker a deal between the mining concerns and Outbound Ventures. Which was true up to a point.

Macen had roped in one of Outbound Ventures' logistics staffers stationed aboard Serenity and brought them along. The poor chap was an Unjoined Trill and he'd proven that he didn't have the stomach for space travel. Kalista and Tessa watched over him, much to Galen 3's chagrin in Tessa's case. It took the chap nearly 6 months to adjust to life on Serenity. Kort had begun to use his name as a swear word before that happened.

The poor manager's name was Rek Nuble. He'd entertained notions of joining Starfleet in his youth. He'd always imagined a career as an administrative officer or a project manager. He was crushed when an inner system shuttle ride had destroyed those dreams. Still he was determined to go out to space. He'd been with a minor firm on Trellius IX until he answered a recruiting inquiry from Outbound Ventures.

He travelled to Barrinor and sat out the next few years at corporate HQ. When Serenity began construction, Nuble immediately volunteered to be its logistics and supply officer. As a rising star within his department with no prospects until someone else retired, he was gratefully granted the position by Kathy Tyrol. He, in turn, gratefully accepted it.

It was Nuble's job to keep the station supplied with any and every part it could conceivably need, including those used in starship repair. Kort ran his supply demands through Nuble. The supply officers aboard the Outbound Ventures also ran all of their requests by and through him. He'd never been happier.

There was one ship though, that ran its supply requests through the secretive engineers that ran Repair Bay 3. Where an ore processor would usually be located on a Nor-class station, Serenity boasted an industrial replicator. 3 pylon intersections meant 3 industrial replicators. Repair Bays 1 and 2 serviced commercial traffic for a fee and the Outbound Ventures fleet while Bay 3 mysteriously sat out most of the time and only serviced the Obsidian. It had been the 3 engineers of Bay 3 that supported the USS Burnett's repairs as the Cheyenne-class starship was tended to after its valiant defense of the station.

No one aboard the station knew who the mysterious engineers ultimately served. They weren't listed amongst the station's personnel. Their familiarity with Starfleet ship designs and construction suggested that they were really Starfleet engineers. But if that were so, why did they exclusively service the Obsidian?

Nuble had double checked the personnel records. Captain Riker and his crew were employees. Even Brin Macen and his special team were employees. Despite having heard rumors to the effect, Nuble was quite startled to discover Macen owned Outbound Ventures. Nuble had always assumed somebody owned the company; whether a person or an entity, but he'd never suspected that the owner of the corporation routinely threw himself into harm's way.

Nuble knew better than most what kind of punishment the Outbound Ventures crew typically endured. His replenishment requests were always high on parts, for both ships and bodies. He'd looked into the corporate charter and really found out what the corporation did. He'd sent a comm message to Tyrol and thanked her one last time for placing him in a position where he could actively support and help such brave men and women. Imagine his surprise when Macen had approached him with a request for his personal assistance. That's when he'd been shanghaied.

Now Nuble was hiding in plain sight in the Team Room. He cringed as Riker called for him. He reluctantly tapped his visitor's comm badge.

"Nuble here," he hoped his voice didn't shake.

"We've arrived," Riker informed him, "You'll be joining me in the transporter room in 10 minutes and we'll beam down to the surface. The trade commission for the colony is awaiting us."

"I'll be there, Captain," he glumly replied.

Kalista was having a hard time controlling her snickering. He knew all about her pheromones and their arousing tendencies and he didn't care. He wanted to grab the back of her head by her hair, only she didn't have any hair, and force himself upon her. She interrupted his lustful thoughts with a laugh and a knowing smile.

"Come along, Lover Boy, you have to go dirtside," she pulled him out of his seat.

"'Dirtside'?" he repeated.

She bequeathed a warm smile onto him, "That's merchant fleet talk for a planet."

"But this isn't a merchant ship," he protested.

Her laugh tinkled through the air, "It is now."

Nuble guessed that was true enough so he subsided his qualms and reported to the transporter room. Once there, Riker gave him an encouraging word. Still finding his courage flagging, Nuble was utterly shocked when Kalista talked Telrik into waiting for a moment. She strode up to Nuble, drew in for kiss, and almost sucked his tongue out.

"Bear up a little while longer and all your dreams may come true," she winked and returned to the transporter console. She nodded at Telrik and smiled; "Now you can beam them down."

Telrik eyed Kalista after the transporter effect had faded, "I thought you'd agreed not to take advantage of wayward souls like his."

Kalista's eyes challenged him, "I agreed not to have sex with any member of the crew. Rek isn't crew. That makes him fair game."

"You could always go to Tessa. She'd be more than happy to oblige," Telrik argued.

"Tessa's a woman and I'm not into women even if they are suitably equipped," Kalista argued back, "That leaves me picking up the strays that come along."

Telrik chuckled, "Poor baby. We'll make port soon enough and you'll have your pick of freighter crewmen."

Kalista's eyes danced with delight, "Yum!"

She headed for the door, "Later, Telrik."

Telrik fished a padd out of his pocket and sat down in the chair in the corner of the room. He'd downloaded the FNS headlines and the local news of Tellar. It seemed the Andorians were rattling the saber and demanding the handover of some two dozen colony worlds. They were situated on the frontier between Andorian and Tellarite space.

While Andoria was a member of the Federation that territory had remained open and was managed by the Federation's Office of Colonial Affairs. Only now that the Andorian Empire had seceded from the Federation, they were laying claim to all of the frontier worlds around them. The Federation ambassador to Andoria explicitly stated that the Federation would defend those worlds and protect the Federation's sovereignty.

The problem was, Starfleet was too busy engaging the Typhon Pact at the mutual borders to worry about the Andorians' ambitions. To aggravate matters, the Andorians had several decommissioned Starfleet starships in their inventory while Tellar only had a civil defense force that guarded the core system. The Andorians knew that and were sallying into solar systems claimed by the Tellarites. They were provoking the Federation and everyone knew it. With Starfleet too busy to enforce the border, the Andorians felt free, and were free, to invade Federation space. It was only a matter of time before they finally asserted their claims.

Telrik had a thought. If Starfleet was too busy, what was to stop Tellar's government from hiring Outbound Ventures to enforce the peace? The Lug Nut was even commanded by a fellow Tellarite. If the Lug Nut were joined by the Spearhead, the Guinevere, the Dog Star, and the Copernicus what chance did the Andorians stand? Especially if he could talk Commander Macen into joining in. He could virtually guarantee that Captain Riker would be all for. Rhiann and Chris might take issue with the assignment but that was a bridge to be crossed when they'd actually arrived there.

Telrik activated the comm panel and asked for a connection to Tellar. The Pewtree had kindly offered the use of their subspace communication buoys...for a fee of course. Telrik had rarely been as happy as when he established a link with a bored looking communications officer. The argument between them was as obligatory as it was enjoyable. He was transferred to the offices of the Civil Defense Minister and only had to hold for two hours. Finally, he spoke to an attaché. He in turn immediately relayed the message to the minister and then Telrik was making his proposal to him personally.

"Ye gods, this place sucks," McMasters said as soon as they'd landed and exited the Corsair. There was a general murmur of consent. Even Daggit agreed. Macen held an impromptu conference.

"Yes, this place is a literal hellhole but we're here for the duration," he announced.

Groans met that response and he smiled, "Now for everyone's assignments. Rab, you and Hannah will scout the south side of the settlement. Jenrya, you and Eric will take the east. That means Lees and P'ris will take the west."

He turned to Celeste and wore a goofy grin, "I guess that means we'll go north."

"Oh, my heart goes pitter patter already," Celeste went into a mock swoon.

Macen shook his head but all concerned could see he was delighted, "Okay, post regular reports in 30 minute intervals. Rab, you'll start in 20 minutes. Jenrya, you'll take 30 on the dot, Lees, that gives you and P'ris 40 whole minutes to get into trouble before you need to check in."

"Like we need that long," Danan teased.

Macen acted pained, "Don't I know it."

Danan stuck her tongue out at him. It was totally a T'Kir thing. Seeing his wife's former rival mimicking her warmed Macen's heart, "Okay, keep a low profile or at least as low a profile as we can."

There was a general chuckle at that. There were only two Federation flagged freighters in orbit. That meant they were likely to stand out like a sore thumb. Of course there were also the Starfleet crews and the SOCOMM personnel but that was another story. But it just so happened that was the only story they were interested in.

The group split up and headed in their respective directions. Daggit and Grace scouted the southern portion of the enclave. Daggit drew stares from Pewtree and aliens alike. Instead of his standard uniform he wore a surplus khaki Starfleet Field Duty Uniform circa 2280-2340. Grace wore the standard uniform and was already wishing that she hadn't. The black body of the jumpsuit absorbed a lot of heat.

Grace only wore her utility belt/holster but Daggit wore a tactical vest, a similar belt, and had a grenade launcher holstered on his right leg while a Militia issue Bajoran phaser was on his left leg. A standard Militia issue rifle was strapped to his chest and he held its pistol grip with one hand while the other hand was kept free to grasp the fore grip of the phaser rifle if it was swung out and brought to bear.

Grace had her tricorder out and was casually, or as casually as someone with a hand scanner could, taking sensor readings of the surrounding areas. This seemed to draw the attention of the Enforcers stationed on the planet far more readily than the weapons they bore. The typical Pewtree was armed as well. Decades of enduring unexpected assaults from the Kalawnee had inured them into bearing arms when not busy at the mines.

The local constabulary was completely in bed with the Enforcers patrolling the streets. The pair made it six blocks before they were stopped. As earlier signs had indicated, it was the tricorder that garnered officialdom's attention. Grace folded the scanner and returned it to its pouch on her belt. The Pewtree were satisfied with that but the Enforcer patrol leader had a few questions.

"What ship are you from?" he asked. The SID teammates' universal translators handled the language conversion.

"The Obsidian," Daggit answered, "She's in orbit."

The sergeant checked a data slate, "She's a designated science ship is she not? What science is there to be found in an inhabited system?"

"Our ship is carrying an official from our parent company. He's here to negotiate a bulk purchase of dilithium," Daggit replied.

"Yet this requires you to come to the surface and parade about armed?" the sergeant inquired.

"The locals are armed. It seemed the prudent thing to do," Daggit answered.

The sergeant's cobalt blue eyes narrowed, "Yet he transported down to the surface by means of your matter/energy conversion methods and you traveled by means of a support craft. A support craft that is not usually carried by your class of ship. How can you explain this?"

"Our group is tasked with surveying the local environs to see how they would rate for shore leave facilities. Since we don't know how long that could take, or if local lodgings are available, we came in our runabout which can lodge up to 8 people at a time," Daggit supplied the cover story, "It also has medical facilities and food replicators in case the local facilities are incompatible with our varied species' biologies."

The sergeant asked them to wait a moment. After using a comm band to contact his superiors he came back, "All right, your story checked out. Have a pleasant stay and remain out of trouble."

Daggit and Grace began to move on when the sergeant stopped them, "Just out of curiosity, if others from your ship were approved for shore leave, would they also use the support craft for housing and transportation?"

"That's part of the runabout's mission," Daggit stretched the truth.

"I see," the sergeant seemed satisfied at long last, "Carry on."

All of the teams were stopped and questioned this way. The fact that their stories all matched did wonders for the Enforcers. Those in command of this world had been alerted about Macen and his teammates. The Enforcer ship crews in orbit were on a higher state of alert because of the Obsidian's presence. The SID team on the ground was being highly monitored and they knew it.

Danan called Macen moments after her last scheduled check-in, "Brin, we've found something."

"I'm locking in on your coordinates," Macen instructed. Part of the negotiations that he had with the Enforcer authorities allowed them to synch their comm badges with both a padd and the Corsair's computer. The Corsair in turn was tied into the Obsidian's computer and the surveyor was providing navsat style coverage.

The padds were acceptable to the Enforcers after it was demonstrated that they were similar to Iridian data slates. However, use of the Corsair's transporter was prohibited. Now that it had been established that the runabout was the "official" means of transporting traffic to and from the ship, the Obsidian's transporters were relegated to "official" use only. Essentially, only Riker and Nuble could use the transporter at this point.

The team expected such developments. The Enforcers wanted to corral them into as tight a sphere as possible. With the orbiting ship's transporter under watch, and the Obsidian itself under an unofficial siege, it was considered safer to limit the visitors to the runabout. The runabout could ostensibly be impounded, though they were all waiting to see the Enforcers go head to head with T'Kir's security protocols.

Macen looked to Rockford, who nodded her understanding. Consulting Macen's padd they traversed the enclave. They eventually reached Danan's location. She, P'ris, McMasters, and Radil were sitting under an awning drinking cold beverages. Macen looked at Rockford and they shared a moment of chagrin.

They approached the others. Rockford broke the silence, "Any recommendations on the local beverages?"

"The sun tea is fabulous," P'ris smiled widely.

"You wouldn't believe it but they have fruit flavored sparkling waters," Danan clued Macen into a favorite of his. She smirked, "They even have lemonade."

He grinned, "I'd say the Ferengi have been here."

"Good bet," Radil snorted.

"Any sign of Rab and Hannah?" Rockford asked.

"Not yet," Danan informed her, "But they were the last group that I contacted. Give them time."

"Indeed," P'ris urged, "Order a drink. The Elements know you could use one after spending the last hour under these suns."

Rockford flashed Macen a smile, "Lady has a point. What are you having?"

"I'll start with lemonade," Macen replied.

"You'll start?" she teased.

"Something tells me we're going to spending some time here," Macen revealed.

"Smart man," Danan replied, "We have a clear view of the local constabulary's cellblock from here."

Macen smile became a knowing one, "And you think that some of our lost little lambs are incarcerated in there."

"No, Commander," P'ris said gravely, "We know they're in there."

Macen looked to Rockford, "Celeste, why don't we get our drinks and then come back and find out what's going on."

"Who cares about drinks?" she retorted.

"We do, more importantly, you do," he stressed, "You were the one bringing up how nice it would be to get something to drink when Lees called."

Rockford let loose an exasperated sigh, "All right. But nothing had better happen in the meantime."

"The only thing that should happen is Rab and Hannah's arrival," he consoled her, "Besides; we'd probably wait for them anyway so that the information won't have to be endlessly repeated."

Rockford looked to Danan and the Trill smiled, "Like I said, smart man."

"Let's get our drinks, dear," Rockford urged, "The sooner we can sit down, the happier I'll be."

Macen gave her a warm smile, "And who was spoiling for a fight a minute ago?"

She rolled her eyes, "Oh, shut up already."

 


Proceed to Part III

 

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