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Catalyst - Part I 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 One

The Outbound Ventures formation detached from Serenity Station and made their way towards Tellarite administered joint colonies with Andoria. Station CO, Tom Riker, gave them a personal send off.

The squadron, representing the bulk of the nascent Outbound Ventures privateer fleet, was composed of one Shogun-class light cruiser, the SS Spearhead; the Lancelot-class cruiser, the SS Guinevere; the Sirius-class cruiser, the SS Dog Star; the Andor-class transport, the SS Lug Nut; and the Newton-class sciences ship, the SS Copernicus. Attached to the squadron was the Blackbird-class scout, SS Solstice. Although transiting with her siblings, the Solstice had an independent task from the rest of the force.

Outbound Ventures had received a contract to reinforce the three colonies jointly governed by Tellar and the Andorian Empire. The Empire had recently seceded from the Federation it had helped found and immediately began agitating the Andorians living on the colonies. The two sides had agreed that these colonies' daily administration should be provided by the Tellarites in a side deal during the creation of the United Federation of Planets.

The problem seemed to be that the Andorian government considered those treaty terms abrogated along with their ties to the Federation. Civil unrest, sparked by Andorians advocating a handover to the Empire, had exploded across the three worlds. To add calamity to the rising tensions, nearly two-thirds of the populations were comprised of Andorians. The mixed species police forces were simply outnumbered.

Adding to recent tensions, the Andorians had begun a series of deep space exercises in the vicinity. The Andorian colonists had requested an intervention, stating they were being persecuted along racial lines. How the planetary majorities were being persecuted by the minority was a question the Andorians didn't seem interested in answering.

In the meantime, the Andorian Empire had moved several starships to the region. These were older Starfleet vessels that had been handed over to the Andorians when they parted ways. There was one Ambassador-class cruiser heading up the border unit. No one knew what it had been redesignated when it was reflagged.

In addition to the heavy cruiser, six Miranda-class and six Soyuz-class cruisers were on hand. It was this very force that Outbound Ventures had been hired to reassure. The Spearhead was a contemporary of the Soyuz-class cruisers. All the other ships, except the Solstice, had been built before the Ambassador-class starship. The base line Miranda-class cruisers were older than any of the Outbound Ventures ships but had been upgraded to classify as contemporaries.

The Solstice was a fairly recent hull construction despite the Blackbird-class being built between the years 2318-2328. The Special Projects Yards had custom built the Solstice to her owner's specifications, and that owner also happened to be her captain. The SPYards had become involved owing to the captain's being an employee of the Starfleet Special Investigations Division.

An offshoot of Starfleet Intelligence, the SID also employed civilian agents in the form of licensed privateers and private investigators. Unlike Starfleet Intelligence, the SID solely employed civilian irregulars. That arrangement had come to be as a direct result of employing this particular captain and his investigative team.

Brin Macen had been an analyst for Starfleet Intelligence for decades. As an El-Aurian, those decades passed as a few years for him. He'd subsequently been cross trained as a field operative and sent to the front lines of the Border Wars with the Cardassians. After the "peace" was signed, and the Demilitarized Zone with the Cardassian Union was formed, Macen was sent to infiltrate the Maquis.

The problem for Admiral Alynna Nechayev was that Macen wholeheartedly believed in the Maquis cause. She provided a way for him to return to the Starfleet fold and after the Dominion crushed the Maquis, Macen signed up to fight the new foe.

Paired with his old Maquis commander, Ro Laren, they set out with a squad if Angosian Augments and toured space behind enemy lines. So far behind enemy lines that they were frequently cut off. It was like serving with the Maquis only with official support and superior firepower.

The war had come to a close and Macen was returning to Starfleet Intelligence when Nechayev gave him a new assignment in the field: he was to take command of the prototype Hydra-class starship, USS Odyssey, and investigate reports of Federation citizens being detained in foreign prisons. This brought Macen into official contact with Section 31 for the first time.

Macen had acquired his first Blackbird-class scout from a seemingly abandoned ship depot. Further investigation led Macen to believe that the depot was being run by a shadowy organization that wished to remain anonymous. After liberating the political prisoners from the self styled "Gulag" Macen found evidence linking the now shut down depot and the prison.

Of course, it turned out that Macen's crew had not one but two S31 operatives planted within it. The first, Julia D'Arte, was taken into custody but she was "lost" in the bureaucratic shuffle of multiple prison exchanges. Hannah Grace, on the other hand, resigned from Section 31 in order to remain with the team of her own accord. Of course, she would generate problems of her own.

Macen and S31 had reached an accord of détente that day. They stayed out of each others' business until the Cell 51 coup. At that time they had even worked together. Now it seemed those days were over.

Macen peered about the cramped bridge. The Blackbird-class had pioneered the design concept for the Galaxy-class' Battle Bridge. Macen sat dead center of the bridge. Before him lay the CONN and OPS stations.

Talera P'ris manned OPS and the aforementioned Hannah Grace sat at the helm. Despite appearances, Grace wasn't human. She was a Kelvan and like the rest of those extragalactic refugees, her biology was adapted to a near perfect rendition of the human genome since her native species couldn't survive in the Milky Way in their natural form. Grace was actually second generation so had grown up "human". Her parents, Drea and Raynar, had learned to cope with their adopted humanity while Grace took it for granted.

P'ris was a Romulan. A former Commander in the Tal Shiar, P'ris was now a wanted fugitive. She handed over plans for pushing the Gorn Hegemony into war with the Federation and had been branded a traitor for it. Ironically, since she'd been named a "Hero of the Empire" by Empress Donatra some months before, for P'ris' role in recovering from the Hobus disaster.

Macen knew that Rab Daggit manned Tactical from the raised dias behind him. The Angosian commando had first served with him during the Dominion War. After a brief misunderstanding between them during Daggit's service aboard the Enterprise-E, the Augment had volunteered to serve in the newly formed Special Investigations Division's premier team. He'd been a welcome addition since.

There were two other stations on the dais. Once was the Engineering console, which rarely saw use. The other was an Information Systems station embedded into the rear wall. The Infosys station was generally manned by Macen's fiancée, Celeste Rockford, but today she was missing.

Macen knew Rockford was tucked away in his office which was attached to their shared quarters. He and Rockford shared a rather turbulent history. She was also Angosian. She was a unique brand of Augment classified as an Infiltrator. She'd literally created new and independent personalities in order to access enemy units and kill them all. Celeste Rockford had been such a personality.

You see, Rockford had been born Annika Ryst on Angosia. She'd created the Rockford persona in order to operate inside of the Federation. Rockford was a private investigator. One of the best. Macen had convinced her to join the SID team by purchasing her detective agency.

The fact that they were a couple, and destined to be married, surprised most folks. Ryst had tried to kill Macen on three separate occasions. Although it wasn't the Ryst template that fell in love with him. It was the Rockford persona. Fortunately a little gift from a species called the Argyn had eliminated all of the personalities save Rockford. The memories of the myriad personas merged with her rather fragmented recollections and for the first time, she was whole.

But there was another distraction on the bridge today. Radil Jenrya sat by on the upper dais and was sneezing her head off. Macen had thought it was would pass but that had been two hours ago. If she hadn't been Bajoran, he'd have simply dismissed as needing an ailment needing a second of their EMH's attention. However, she was Bajoran so this could have deeper implications.

Radil continued to snuffle and sneeze and Macen decided he'd had enough. He approached Radil and asked her into the briefing room behind the bridge. She sullenly complied.

Macen escorted Radil all the way to Sickbay because he wasn't certain she'd actually arrive there if he didn't shepherd her. He also stayed in Sickbay, off to the side, while Tessa examined her. Tessa, despite being an Emergency Medical Hologram, had become quite a little personality. Macen knew Tessa was on intimate terms with Radil. So much so that they'd been lovers on occasion.

So Macen watched Tessa deliver the initial news after just one scan. She laid Radil down on the biobed and conducted a deeper scan. Macen saw strands of DNA holographically displayed above the bed. Tessa isolated the DNA and then ran a comparison with the crew's records.

Macen had already deduced that Radil was indeed pregnant. Now came the question of fatherhood. It seemed her husband Kort wasn't the baby's father. A records check of the crew would be utterly useless if he were. Tessa had replaced Kort as the Chief Medical Officer for the crew and the investigative team as he now served in that capacity aboard Serenity Station.

Adding to the unusual circumstances was the fact that Kort and Radil enjoyed an open marriage. She was openly bisexual and Kort had decided, in a most un-Klingon decision, to allow her sexual polyamorous relations with women. He would be her sole male partner.

And it had seemed to work for the over the last few years. That is...until now. But Macen couldn't remember a single overture between Radil and any of the men aboard. He was really stumbling over it when the answer hit him. There was one clear candidate and she was the best of all worlds to a woman like Radil.

Tessa approached him, "Captain, I have to report that Radil is pregnant."

"I got that," he admitted, "Just like I figured out that Shannon is the father...mother...whatever the hell we call her."

Tessa suddenly grinned, "Very good, Captain. This must be the reason why we keep surviving."

Macen gave her a wry look, "Please contact Shannon and get her in here. She needs to know she's about to be a parent."

"On it," Tessa promised.

This is going to be very interesting, Macen mused.

Forger arrived with Eric McMasters in tow. Macen mentally groaned at this development. Tessa cast a nervous glance at Macen. He nodded towards Forger and Tessa rallied herself.

McMasters looked as nervous as Forger as she nervously asked, "What's wrong?"

Radil suddenly broke into a sneezing fit from a nearby biobed. Tessa grimaced, "You could say that's the problem."

"What?" Forger was confused.

"Is she pregnant?" McMasters asked.

Forger looked at him incredulously as Tessa answered, "Yes, she is."

"But what does that have to do with me?" Forger's voice suddenly had a desperate quality to it.

"It's your child, Shannon," Tessa bluntly informed her.

Forger fainted.

Forger awoke on a biobed to find Tessa watching her. Tessa turned her head, "She's awake now."

Macen and Radil came to Forger's side. Radil looked as nervous as Forger felt. Macen looked rather pained.

"Where's Eric?" Forger tentatively asked.

"He stormed out of here the moment after you fainted," Macen informed her, "And Rhiann just called me. He's moving his things out of your quarters into an empty cabin."

Forger's face fell, "I see."

"Can I ask how this happened?" Macen wondered.

"The usual, Captain," Radil smirked, "Or have you forgotten Shannon is packing and fully loaded?"

"I think we're all well aware of that fact," Macen retorted, "But unlike you, Shannon isn't bisexual. So how did you two get together?"

"It was only once," Forger blurted, "I'd never been with a woman before."

"Once is all it takes," Tessa said sagely.

"Thanks for telling me," Forger muttered.

"That still doesn't answer the question," Macen reminded the ladies.

Radil heaved a theatrical sigh, "All right, Kort was at a medical conference on Bajor."

"That was two months ago or so," Mace recalled.

"Right," Radil confirmed that fact, "Anyway, I knew Eric was on Barrinor so I looked Shannon up. We had a few drinks."

"We had a lot of drinks," Forger amended for her.

"Anyway, we went back to my quarters and things just happened," Radil revealed.

"Gawd," Forger moaned.

"It wasn't that bad," Radil reminded her, "The fact that I was your first made it all quite charming."

"For you maybe!" Forger snapped.

"Shannon, you bear some responsibility in this as well," Macen stated, "Seduction only happens if you let it. On some level, you wanted to have sex with Jenrya."

Forger wanted to protest but she had to acknowledge there was a ring of truth to his words, "Now what?"

"Now you two discuss matters with your husbands and significant others," Macen urged.

"That covers a few people," Radil groaned. Seeing everyone staring at her, Radil protested, "I'm in a polyamorous relationship. Kort knows it. Ask him about Hayley Galloway some time and why he goes to Bajor every other week.

Despite his longstanding suspicions being confirmed as reality, Macen took no comfort in that fact; "Jenrya, in five months you're giving birth. That's going to change your life. Shannon, you're this baby's father, mother, whatever adjective we're applying to you."

"I should have undergone Sexual Reassignment Surgery," Forger grumbled, "Then this wouldn't have happened."

"Maybe the pregnancy wouldn't have," Radil said mirthfully, "I still think you would have fallen into bed with me."

Forger looked ill at that thought. Macen redirected Radil's focus, "Jenrya, you're on restricted duty from now on."

"What?" she exploded.

"You're restricted to shipboard duties," Macen clarified, "And you're off the Investigative Team until after you give birth."

"But that's not fair!" Radil thundered.

"It's a natural consequence!" Macen snapped back, "I let T'Kir stay on active duty and it cost us the life of our child. Do you really want a repeat of that experience? Because I'll tell you it can break you."

Radil recognized the raw agony in Macen's voice for what it was. Her CO didn't discuss his innermost turmoil very often. His admission now only stemmed from his very real concerns. She subsided somewhat.

"Okay, we'll play it your way. But only until I give birth," Radil responded.

Macen didn't like the sound of that but he opted to let it go, "Okay, now that that's settled, are you both ready to return to your regular duties?"

"Sure," Radil said cheerfully, "Tessa gave me an antihistamine. I should be good, for what? Six hours?"

"At least," Tessa nodded.

"And you!" Radil wheeled on Forger, "Don't start bemoaning the fact you've never undergone SRS. You are non-op because you enjoy being non-op. It's part of who you are. So go back to enjoying it. Eric will too eventually."

Radil sported a wicked grin, "And if he won't, I certainly will."

Radil strode out of Sickbay on that note. Forger wearily looked to Macen, "Mind if I report to duty? I really don't want to interrupt Eric until he's cooled off."

Macen glanced over at Tessa. She wore a bemused expression, "There's nothing physically wrong with her."

Macen looked back at Forger, "I'll see you on the bridge."

"Yessir," Forger pushed herself off of the biobed and headed out of Sickbay herself.

Tessa gave Macen the once over, "Any particular reason you're hanging around, Captain?"

"How's the baby?" Macen asked.

"Fine," Tessa assured him, "Human and Bajoran DNA are as compatible as Cardassian and Bajoran DNA. Or human and Vulcan. The baby is strong and viable. Why?"

"Shannon's in sexual transition. That makes for an interesting hormonal load," Macen replied.

"Hormones don't affect DNA. Shannon's hormonal glands have been genetically altered to feminine output standards but her DNA sill reads her as male. Hence the viability of her penis and its potential yield."

"Actualized yield this time," Macen said a tad wearily.

"Something bothering you?" Tessa had a hunch but she couldn't do anything f Macen didn't admit it.

"I've been expecting child bearing to rear its head again. Just didn't expect it from this particular quarter, or pairing," Macen confessed, "But my decision stands."

"And if it were Celeste?" Tessa probed.

"Same story," Macen stated firmly, "T'Kir and I made our mistake. It cost a life. That won't happen again."

"But random accidents happen, Captain," Tessa reminded him.

Macen had a strange gleam in his eye as he responded, "A fact I know all too well."

Tessa pondered what to say next when Macen's comm badge sounded off. He tapped it, "Macen here."

"Captain Haggit is reporting movement along the border," Forger informed him, "Captain Pryce is moving the Spearhead, the Guinevere, and the Dog Star in to intercept."

"Are they Andorian units?" Macen inquired.

"Yessir, they appear to be the party we've been expecting," Forger replied.

"Move to intercept and broadcast hailing frequencies," Macen ordered, "I'm on my way."

 

Chapter Two

Macen arrived on the bridge to find Forger sitting in the center seat. On the viewscreen, a tactical display had been pulled up at Forger's behest. It registered all of the Outbound Ventures starships stationed in their respective solar systems. Only the Lug Nut was mobile, escorting convoys out of colonial jurisdiction. The science ship, Copernicus, was at the extreme edge of the colonial area, monitoring the region.

The Andorian Imperial Fleet had dispatched half of their recommissioned Starfleet assets to the colonies. Outbound Ventures had no authority to prevent the Andorian squadron from entering the territory. Outbound Ventures had been hired for a twofold purpose. One was to deal with the growing threat of piracy in local space. The second was reminding the Andorians they were under observation.

"Squadron Commander Shereva ard'Frost is standing by to speak with you," Daggit informed Macen.

"Is the Commander a he or a she?" Macen inquired.

"She's a shen," Daggit replied, referring to one of the two feminine Andorian genders, "She prefers to be called 'Shere'."

"Got it," Macen stepped up onto the rear dais and headed for the briefing room. He looked over to Rockford, "Coming?"

Rockford flashed a bemused grin, "What? Are you asking me? The love of your life? The investigator taking point on the piracy issue?"

Her grin was a Cheshire variant in its smugness, "Why would you possibly want my input?"

Macen wore a wry expression, "I did warn you that you'd have long, boring days if you didn't train for a starship operations duty?"

"Hah!" Rockford scoffed, "Like that's going to happen. Being in space isn't natural."

"Yet you, in all of your guises, got to your jobs through interstellar travel," Macen reminded her.

Rockford sighed, "I know. It's a burden."

"Um...shouldn't you be talking to the cranky Andorian lady?" Forger asked from the center seat.

"Thank you, Shannon," he motioned for Rockford to enter the briefing room ahead of him, "After you, milady."

Rockford smirked and waited for the door to swoosh open. Once inside, Macen took his usual seat. Rockford opted for a seat slightly separated from his. They both tabbed the releases on the table and clamshell monitors lifted up. The LCARS interface allowed them to thumbprint access into the ship's main computer/comm network.

Shere's face appeared in their monitor's, "Which of you is Macen?"

"I'm Brin Macen," he informed her.

"I understand that this...'Outbound Ventures' mercenary outfit is yours," Shere accused.

"I am the owner of the Outbound Ventures Corporate entity but that corporate entity is not a mercenary organization," Macen replied smoothly, "Outbound Ventures is an investigative and security company. We were hired by the colonial administration to investigate an escalating matter in these systems."

"And what matter is that, Captain?" Shere sounded amused, "Because my squadron and I have been patrolling these regions off and on for three weeks now and nothing has occured in that time."

"And you patrol for a two day increment before returning to the Empire," Macen reminded, "And you always leave in time to miss the increasing number of pirate attacks."

"I've heard rumors of these pirates from the Tellarite usurpers who presently govern the colonies," Shere retorted, "But they have no evidence of any attacks."

"That's because the pirates solely attack Tellarite ships. And they leave no witnesses alive to tell any tales," Macen reported, "At least until now. Our corporate force beat off a pirate attack just yesterday."

"And that is why I am here, Captain Macen," Shere informed him, "It has been reported you and your so-called 'security' force attacked and damaged Andorian flagged vessels yesterday."

"None of the vessels we engaged were flagged or registered to any sovereign stellar nation," Macen shared.

"The Emperor has requested your presence on Andoria," Shere stated, "You can present your evidence, such as it is, to the Ministry of Internal Security."

"I thought the Ministry's jurisdiction lay within Imperial borders," Macen said.

"These are Andorian colonies and they will be wholly owned and administered by the Empire once again," Shere announced.

"That isn't official yet," Macen rebutted her statement.

"It will be," Shere grated.

Macen decided not to argue the point. The political situation surrounding the contested colonies was outside of his purview. The fact the Andorian Empire might be strong arming the Tellarites with murderous raids on their shipping was.

"I see," Macen allowed, "And what will your squadron be doing while I'm reporting to the Ministry?"

"We will stay on station and dispel and rumors of alleged pirates," Shere divulged, "The Arclight will escort you to, and through, Imperial space."

"Let me know when they're ready and we'll be underway," Macen offered.

"They are ready now, Captain," Shere said icily, "They will contact you and you can indeed get out of the way."

The screen went dark and Rockford whistled, "That was a loaded statement."

"Wasn't it though," Macen mused.

Julian Bashir and Sarina Douglas travelled together to Andoria in a Mosquito-class runabout. Far larger than the minuscule starship-like Danube-class, it shared it antecedent's modular construction. It was mission adaptable and could carry sixty people.

Although still employed by Starfleet, the Mosquitoes had been largely sidelined for anything other than bulk transfers of personnel. But the design had been opened up to the civilian market and now Mosquito-class runabouts largely dominated that field.

Douglas and Bashir's runabout, the SS Gnat, was ostensibly an Andorian Ministry of Internal Security vessel. Douglas and Bashir weren't traveling as Lt. Commander Douglas and Commander Bashir of Starfleet. Instead they were disguised as Andorians.

Blue skin pigment and snow white hair was merely the beginning. Prosthetic antennas also kept the illusion alive. Bashir was posing as Surgeon Specialist Zend and Douglas as Security Specialist Vreti. The covers were close enough to reality so that they could pull them off.

They had a meeting scheduled with Arthrakend ast'Dirg, also known as Emperor Thrak of the Imperial Territories. The meeting had been arranged by one Drenthor cy'Byst. Thor was Emperor Thrak's Imperial Security Advisor. All of the Empire security and intelligence organs answered to Thor. And he, in turn, ostensibly answered to Thrak.

Only, Thor had been given the secret of Section 31's existence upon taking office. And he saw an opportunity to be had in cooperating with that clandestine agency. The Andorian Empire's relationship with the Tholian Assembly had grown quite amicable. And through the Tholians, the Andorians were making peaceable headway into the rest of the Typhon Pact nations.

The Empire was even being considered for client state status within the Pact with a fast tracked advancement to member nation to follow. These facts garnered Section 31's heightened awareness of Andorians movements and politics. Thor actually made the first approach.

He offered S31 unrestricted access to the Typhon Pact in exchange for the Imperial Crown. Such a trade off was the usual price of Section 31's covert power plays. But then Thor had made one additional request. He wanted the joint colonies with Tellar to fall completely under Imperial sway.

Thus, Section 31 had devised the "pirate issue" whereby the colonists could call in the Andorian fleet for assistance and protection. Added to this effort was the civil unrest where the Andorian majority agitated for a separation from Tellar and cried out for Andorian military intervention to protect them from the "violent" minority. The fact that the only actual violent acts had been perpetrated by the "oppressed" majority did little to silence their clamoring.

Thor's insistence on clandestine ties with the Federation also flew in the face of Thrak's insistence on nominal "neutrality" that leaned in favor of the Typhon Pact. The Andorians' four sexes were in a biological crisis as fewer and fewer quads were able to successfully reproduce. The population was decreasing at an ever growing rate.

The Tholian Assembly bordered the Taurus Reach where Starfleet's Vanguard mission had once led the exploration and discovery of the so-called Meta-Genome. Created by the mysterious precursor race, the Shedai, the meta-genome was an artificially created gene that, for all intents and purposes, was perfect. Elements of the genome had gone into the Genesis Device.

Starfleet had withheld the existence of the genome from the Andorians, which had prompted their exit from the Federation, on the basis that the UFP was committed to the "genocide" of the Andorian race. They had learned of it through a Tholian diplomat that promised access to the genome in exchange for the Andorian Empire's withdrawal from the Federation.

Thrak fully endorsed this policy and was committed to the restoration of his people's ability to freely reproduce at any cost. Thor saw things differently. He understood Starfleet's rationale, especially after the Genesis Planet disaster.

But in practical applications, Thor insisted Andoria could remain truly neutral. Agreements with both Section 31 and the Typhon Pact could be honored and benefit Andoria. Because in the end, the Andorian Empire didn't need the Federation or the Typhon Pact.

While it was true the Empire would never be more than a second tier power, it would be a second tier power that those ranked in the first tier would come crawling to. And the Andorian Empire stood poised to exploit that reality. All it needed was the proper ruler with the vision to do so. That's where Douglas and Bashir's mission came in.

Since the Gnat's landing grant was provided by the Ministry of Internal Security, Douglas had no difficulty setting down on Andoria's surface. She opted for a public spaceport rather than the Ministry's landing center. Their ID certifications had been supplied by the Ministry as well. This meant they would have easy access to the palace and to Thor's offices.

The mission Bashir had agreed to was an attempt to persuade Thrak to return the Andorian Empire to the bosom of the Federation. Barring a successful result, the next option was to persuade Thrak to abdicate in favor of Thor. However, Douglas' assignment was to assassinate Thrak and place the blame on the segment of the Andorian population that wanted to rejoin the UFP. She wondered how he'd react when the truth came out. She also found she was committed to doing her duty no matter what the personal cost would be.

Once Thrak was out of the way, Thor would sweep into power and have the fleet units poised near the joint colonies to sweep in and assume control. S31 agents were already in place to be dispatched to Tholia and beyond inside of the Typhon Pact nations. The only difficult part of the equation was removing Douglas and Bashir from the Imperial Guard's custody.

Thor couldn't intervene or he'd seem culpable. So it was up to Douglas and Bashir to make their own escape. Again, Douglas wondered if Bashir was up for it.

Douglas and Bashir's disguises withstood the Imperial Guard's scrutiny. They proceeded to Thor's offices. He ushered them into his inner sanctuary.

"I'm very pleased to see you both," Thor admitted, "I've been discussing our defensive posture with Emperor Thrak. I'm afraid he s reluctant to take steps to secure our borders."

"Perhaps the data we've collected will persuade him," Douglas said for Bashir's sake.

"What kind of data?" Thor was interested in how far the Section 31 dupes would play this out.

Douglas recited facts, figures, polls, and a summation of the public's consensus on current events. Thor looked surprised so Douglas reassured him, "This is what professional intelligence agents do."

Thor nodded. The S31 Special Agent in Charge named L'Haan was in command of this operation and had advised him that Douglas was among her best operatives. Bashir was considered a liability. Thor had been asked to throw him under the wheels of Andorian justice. An assassin wouldn't receive much mercy, particularly one that had been involved with the murder of the Emperor. L'Haan's only concern was the variable of just how attached Douglas had grown to Bashir.

Thor ushered them out of his office suite and led the down the corridors of official power towards the work space of Emperor Thrak. Along the way, Bashir whispered to Douglas, "Sarina, you're not a professional intelligence agent anymore. You're a security officer now. The Deputy Chief of Security for Deep Space Nine to be precise."

Douglas gave him a pitying look, "I am whatever I need to be in order to accomplish my mission."

"But our mission is to persuade Thrak to shift his government back to the Federation's bosom," Bashir argued, "You and this Thor make it sound as though we're here to depose the emperor."

"We're here to promote the Federation's interests," Douglas said in a clipped tone, "By whatever means present themselves. Now be quiet. We're coming into Imperial Guard territory again."

Douglas could see that Bashir was profoundly disappointed with her answer. He was in for a severe paradigm shift in just a few moments. Hopefully he'd be able to keep up with her. If not...

Thor led the disguised Douglas and Bashir past the outer security cordon. This then led past an aide's office which was conjoined to the Chief of Staff's. They were all ushered into Emperor Thrak's presence.

Douglas studied the situation. Thor stood off of her right shoulder. Bashir was directly behind her. Beside him was an Imperial Guardsman. Seated behind a desk before her was Thrak himself. Discreetly posted to either side were two other Imperial Guardsmen.

Thor knew enough to keep his damn head down. She was hoping beyond hope Julian could keep the third one off of her back when she went into motion. Which would be...now!

Douglas rushed at the guardsmen to the emperor's right. Two things happened simultaneously. The first was that the guardsman on Thrak's left went for his phaser. The second was that the guardsman behind her was intercepted by Bashir as he came to her defense.

If she hadn't been so preoccupied she might have smiled at Bashir's reflexive loyalty. As it was, she jammed her Andorian foe's right wrist up against the wall. She then drove a knee into his stomach, well below the ablative armor he wore. Then, twisting his gun hand around so that it faced his companion, she stepped behind him.

The other guard tried to get a shot off. Her guardsman's ablative armor peeled off a few layers as the phaser shot disrupted it. Douglas now knew the other guard wasn't playing. Well, neither was she.

She inverted her captive's wrist and twisted the phaser out of his grip. She reached around his neck with her left arm and grabbed hold of his jaw. Anchoring him with her knee, she twisted and snapped his neck.

As the corpse was unceremoniously dropped, the other guardsman stared at her in disbelief. She shot him in the face in order to avoid his own error with the ablative armor. She heard a yelp and realized that Bashir was now pinned against a wall with a phaser aimed at his face.

Douglas sheared off the Andorian's antennas. He screamed and went down on his knees convulsively grasping at where his sensory organs had been. Bashir immediately tired to assist the wounded man. He was roughly shoved away.

"I suppose this is your doing, Thor," Thrak accused.

Thor smiled, "You know me far too well."

Thor nodded at Douglas and she delivered the death knell blow. She then sat her phaser on the ground, knelt some distance from it and clasped her hands behind her head.

Bashir was still struggling to assist the uncooperative patient when the Imperial Guard burst into the scene. They roughly manhandled Douglas but they beat Bashir with stun batons since he wasn't cooperating. Douglas winced a few times and wondered when the noble hearted Bashir would finally accept that his medical expertise wasn't wanted.

The Council of Ministers convened while Douglas and Bashir landed in a secure detention facility. Douglas activated the reversal process of her disguise. Her blue "skin" evaporated in a puff of dust. The prosthetic antennas became a disrupter that shorted out the force field.

Finding Bashir barely conscious, she deactivated the cell's force field and roused him. Repeating her performance, he joined her as she set forth for the guard station. The guards questioned them and requested Starfleet records on the pair.

Sarina Douglas came back as Paige O'Malley. Julian Bashir was now Khalid Rashid. Douglas spun a story that they were transported in as two Andorians made their escape. The pair were released from custody and taken to the streets outside ban escort.

Douglas leads Bashir to mass transit rail system. Across town, they utilize a public transporter station to beam across Andoria so they can enter a safe house. It was there that Bashir confronted Douglas with his growing list of questions.

Thor was widely proclaimed as the newest emperor even as Douglas and Bashir reached the safe house. The house's Andorian neighbors watched with fear and trepidation as Douglas and Bashir reached the loft Section 31 had acquired over a century ago.

Douglas immediately turned on the comp/comm and watched the news. The proclamation of Thor's ascent to power made her smile. She began to realize that Bashir was watching her very closely. She turned to discover he was livid.

"This is what our mission was truly about?" he fumed, "We weren't sent to persuade the emperor to engage in rapprochement with the Federation. Rather, we were here to usher him out of office and secure the post for Advisor Thor."

"Emperor Thor to you now," Douglas quipped.

"This isn't funny!" Bashir shouted, "You just assassinated a head of state!"

"Technically we did," Douglas pointed out.

"My god, what's happened to you?" Bashir desperately wanted to know.

"Nothing," Douglas said nonchalantly, "I'm the same Sarina Douglas that helped you penetrate the Breen Confederacy and later came to Deep Space Nine to be by your side."

"You're still in bed with Section 31," Bashir accused.

"You knew that already," Douglas huffed.

"No, I mean you aren't undercover in order to dismantle the organization. You really are an operative," Bashir sadly realized.

"You might call me a true believer," Douglas asserted, "Julian, there's a place for you within the agency. All you have to do is claim it."

"You know I can't," Bashir snapped.

"And you must realize I can't allow you to be loose knowing what you know and what you've witnessed," Douglas warned him, "I'd prefer you accompany me willingly. If not I will secure you and take you off this world by force."

"Why not eliminate me?" Bashir wondered.

Douglas looked pained, "My orders actually cover that contingency. Technically that's my primary option. But I don't want to follow those orders."

Bashir brightened slightly. Douglas killed his mood, "But I will if I have to."

"Don't stop on my account," Bashir said bitterly.

"I don't want to precisely because I love you, you idiot!" Douglas snapped.

"How can you love me and not care for a single thing I represent?" Bashir inquired.

"Because you can move beyond," Douglas shared, "Now are you coming with me? Because if you aren't, I will subdue you and leave you for the Andorians after I tip them off that you're in here. And Imperial Security isn't going to play nice the second time around. The Andorian legal system will throw you under the metaphorical bus. So what's it going to be?"

"It seems I have little choice, doesn't it?" Bashir scowled.

"Life is full of choice, Julian. But most of them are bad," Douglas replied.

"So what happens now?" Bashir queried her.

"Now we revert back to being ourselves," Douglas shared.

"Isn't that a tad risky?" Bashir was slightly alarmed by that plan.

"It's riskier to keep our fake IDs active," Douglas explained, "They'll only hold up to a cursory examination. Our Starfleet records will stand up to scrutiny."

"And how are you going to accomplish this?" Bashir was incredulous.

Douglas grinned, "With one simple command."

 

Chapter Three

The Solstice slipped into orbit over Andoria. The Soyuz-class cruiser escorting them slid in behind them and locked phasers on the ship. Daggit was incensed but Macen talked him down.

"No worries, Rab," Macen cajoled him, "You'll be on the surface soon enough."

"Easy for you to say," Forger grumped, "You won't be the one with a loaded phaser aimed at you."

"Don't forget the photons, Shannon," Rockford called from the rear of the dais whose railing Forger was leaned up against.

"Sure, take his side," Forger bemoaned.

"Impending parenthood is making you grumpy," Rockford accused.

Forger's head slumped forward, "Okay, can the Andorians just put me out of my misery now?"

"C'mon Celeste, let's leave and put poor Shannon out of her misery," Macen turned to OPS, "You too, Talera."

"Truly?" P'ris was surprised, "I thought I was remaining aboard for the initial meeting."

"I want your impressions of how things go and the Andorians are courting your people," Macen reminded her, "A little goodwill will go a long way."

P'ris smirked as she rose, "Very shrewd, Commander."

Macen almost took the bait and reminded he wasn't in Starfleet anymore so his former rank was negligible. His shipboard rank was 'captain' and as master of the vessel he should be properly addressed as such. But he also knew she already knew that. It was her private running joke to needle him with, just as it had been virtually from the beginning of their professional relationship.

"Just be sure you're armed," Macen advised.

"Of that, you can be assured," P'ris replied.

"Are we leaving yet?" Rockford sing-songed from the open lift.

"Just collecting our resident Romulan, milady," Macen retorted.

"So shoo her along already," Rockford urged, "I want to get my feet on some solid ground."

"Yes, dear," Macen sighed.

"Oh, hell no! You're not starting that crap. We're not even married yet," Rockford challenged him as the lift doors shut.

P'ris informed the computer they wanted to proceed to Deck Three while Macen replied to Rockford, "We will be in two months if the Andorians don't summarily execute us."

"You think Ro's tip on Bashir and Douglas' mission is accurate?" Rockford sought clarification.

"Laren is rarely wrong about these things," Macen assured Rockford, "If you recall, after she left the Maquis, she joined the Bajoran Militia and became DS9's Chief of Security. She kept that post when the bulk of the Militia merged with Starfleet. And she stayed at it until she became XO."

"How could I forget?" Rockford teased, "You keep reminding me."

"The point is, Laren is very, very good at her job," Macen declared.

"So I heard," Rockford suddenly admitted, "Which is why I never operated inside of the Bajor Sector, either as Annika Ryst or any other personality."

Macen was intrigued by Rockford's sudden confession, "Yet you repeatedly tried to kill me."

"Hey, I was paid to and it was personal," Rockford informed him.

"Pardon my interruption," P'ris interjected, "But I am growing weary of holding the lift doors open."

"Sorry," Rockford said sheepishly as she and Macen exited.

They reached the transporter room and found Telrik eager to do his duty, "I already have the coordinates the Ministry for Internal Security sent us. They've already called to ask when you were coming down. Twice."

"They're awfully eager," Macen mused, "That's a lot of attention for a situation a sector away."

"Maybe Bashir and Douglas already got here and have carried out their mission," Rockford theorized.

"I'd hate for that to be true," Macen sadly conceded, "Especially for Bashir."

"Excuse my asking, but what are you talking about?" P'ris wondered.

"Telrik, step out into the corridor. I'll let you know when you can return," Macen ordered.

Telrik looked downtrodden but he obeyed. Once the Tellarite was away, Macen began to explain, "My Friend, Captain Ro informed me that a mysterious Vulcan acquired transfer orders for Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas and Doctor Julian Bashir from her command at Deep Space Nine to being attached to a secretive mission inside the Andorian Empire."

"Very well, but why dismiss our transporter chief? Can the matter not be discussed before him?" P'ris inquired.

"Outbound Ventures current contract was obtained through Telrik's recommendation. He doesn't know that situation is our secondary objective," Macen shared.

"I must confess that neither was I," P'ris admitted.

"I've kept the 'need to know' list down to just Celeste and I until now," Macen revealed.

"I am honored to now be included," P'ris said and then she thought it over, "At least I think I am."

"Where things get dicey is that Ro suspected Bashir and Douglas were actually recruited by a Section 31 operative," Macen stated.

P'ris not only knew of Section 31, she'd been an asset of theirs at one time, "I believe I see the dilemma."

"Ro was able to acquire information, the Fates alone know how, that Douglas and Bashir were traveling into the Andorian Empire to kill the emperor and set up a new, more malleable ruler," Macen divulged at last.

"And Celeste is suggesting that said event has already occurred," P'ris surmised.

"That's what we're afraid of anyway," Macen admitted.

"Very well," P'ris suddenly became very authoritative, as befitted a former Commander in the Tal Shiar, "I shall retrieve Chief Telrik and we can get underway."

Macen cast an amused look Rockford's way as P'ris exited the room. She smirked, "Yes, ma'am."

The trio was greeted by an armed contingent of Internal Security officers. The Chief Inspector in charge, one Irakasend dir'Frist, nodded his greetings to the Outbound Ventures crew, "I am pleased you have arrived, Captain Macen. We have a situation you may be able to shed some light on."

"If not, I'm certain either of my specialists can," Macen assured him.

"I am well aware of Ms. Rockford's capabilities. She has aided our department in the past," Irak shared.

Macen gave Rockford a bemused quizzical look. She grinned as she nonchalantly shrugged, "What can I say? I'm universally loved."

"May I ask who your other companion may be?" Irak inquired, "I wasn't aware of any Romulans serving with Starfleet licensed security firms."

"Talera P'ris, may I introduce..." Macen looked over to Irak with the loaded sentence hanging.

"Chief Inspector Irak," the Andorian readily replied.

"Well Chief Inspector, P'ris is a former Commander in the Tal Shiar," Macen casualty dropped that bomb.

"Starfleet licensed her?" Irak was dubious.

"I didn't give them much choice," Macen chuckled.

Irak instantly knew there were volumes written behind how Macen got P'ris sanctioned, "Very well. Perhaps the Commander will have insights into the current situation as well."

"Pardon me, but 'Commander' is a former rank that I held whilst serving the Star Empire. Now I am a simple specialist," P'ris interjected.

"Yes, of course," Irak bobbed his head while his antenna nervously twitched, "My mistake. If you would all follow me?"

They followed and were led into a situation room. Andorian security officers crowded around various screens. They all seemed to be watching street scenes.

"What exactly is the nature of your problem?" Macen inquired, "Because it looks as though you have ea planetary manhunt underway."

"Very perceptive, Captain," Irak confirmed the hypothesis, "The emperor was assassinated and we are searching for his killers."

Macen cringed, "Two Andorians, one male and one female?"

Irak's jaw dropped open. He quickly recovered though, "Precisely. How did you know? We have an information blackout in effect. Even our own populace is unaware of the situation."

"I take it you apprehended the assassins at some point?" Macen furthered his questioning.

"Yes," Irak was utterly fascinated by this change of circumstances.

"And they disappeared but two humans were found in their place?" Macen continued.

Irak was suddenly slack jawed again, "Precisely."

"And you ran their identities through the Federation databases you're still tied to and they registered as harmless nonentities?" Macen asked yet another pointed question.

"Yes," Irak was practically beside himself with curiosity now, "How do you know all of this?"

"This was our real reason for coming to Andoria," Macen revealed, "We'd hoped to avert this tragedy. Do you still have their identity files on record?"

"Yes, of course," Irak hurried to his desk and motioned for the Outbound Ventures' crew to follow him.

On his monitor, pictures of Sarina Douglas and Julian Bashir leapt out at the Federation investigators. Macen grimaced, "Those are your assassins."

"Paige O'Malley and Khalid Rashid are trained assassins?" Irak sought clarification.

"No but Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas of Starfleet Security could easily kill your emperor. Doctor Julian Bashir is only present at Douglas' insistence. They happen to be lovers," Macen explained.

"Starfleet arranged for the murder of our emperor?" Irak couldn't believe it.

"No," Macen replied, "Do you recall the Cell 51 crisis that occurred before Andoria seceded from the Federation?"

"Of course, that was less than ten years ago," Irak responded.

"Cell 51 was an offshoot branch of a Federation agency known as Section 31. They went rogue and Section 31 assisted in their eventual capture," Macen revealed, "Since then, Section 31 has returned to the shadows. Unfortunately, once there they went back to interfering in foreign governments and playing power broker games."

"And these two officers belong to Section 31?" Irak asked.

"Douglas is a definite 'yes' to that question," Macen replied, "Bashir is a 'maybe'. It all depends on how far Douglas has swayed him. What we do know is Section 31 has been courting Bashir since the Dominion War was raging."

"This is very disturbing news," Irak admitted.

"I'm afraid it gets even more disturbing," Macen confided, "Both Douglas and Bashir are genetically enhanced."

"I was led to believe that Starfleet didn't allow genetically enhanced individuals to serve because they were emotionally unstable," Irak countered.

"Starfleet made two exceptions to that rule because both Bashir and Douglas are stable," Macen shared.

"I wouldn't call anyone who would assassinate a head of state 'stable'," Irak argued.

"You could kill someone in the line of duty," Macen responded, "Douglas would see this as her duty to the Federation. As such she's capable of anything."

"But this Bashir wouldn't see it as the same?" Irak posed the lingering question.

"The answer to that particular riddle needs to be unearthed," Macen stated.

The Imperial government finally acknowledged that Emperor Thrak had indeed been killed. Newly installed and crowned Emperor Thor swore there would be vengeance for the act. He railed against foreign perpetrators organizing the event and setting its wheels in motion. He alluded, but did not outright state, that the assassination was a direct result of the territorial dispute with the Tellarites. Still the cries for a direct engagement against the Tellarites clamored forth.

Irak chose to accept Macen's offer to assist in capturing Douglas and Bashir. The rest of the SID team was transported to the Ministry's headquarters. Irak even went so far as to authorize P'ris, Rockford, and Macen's use of data terminals. Grace and McMasters joined the dozens of Andorians peering at view screens trying to catch a glimpse of the fugitive humans.

Daggit stood beside Macen and began to speak in a low voice, "So are we here to extract Commanders Bashir and Douglas?"

"No Rab, we're not," Macen let him down easy.

"But...!" Daggit's voice rose.

"Captain Macen's decision is the correct one," P'ris suddenly interjected. Daggit looked nonplussed at the interruption while Macen smirked. Romulan hearing was every bit as keen as Vulcan hearing it seemed.

"Despite being in Starfleet, our targets are wanted fugitives from justice. They are so because they willfully and wantonly killed three Andorians. One of which happened to be the Emperor. The lone survivor has been maimed. Do not expect the Andorians to release either Doctor Bashir or Sarina Douglas into our custody. Not now or ever," P'ris advised.

"But Federation citizens are innocent until proven guilty," Rockford suddenly piped up.

"Are we in the Federation?" P'ris posed the essential question, "I think not. The Andorian Empire's severance from the Federation is complete in its entirety. That includes the fundamental laws."

"So they'll both be locked away for the rest of their lives?" Daggit was appalled.

"Mr. Daggit, they shall be lucky to escape being summarily executed upon their capture," P'ris shared.

"You sound as though you approve," Daggit accused.

"I understand without approving," P'ris corrected him; "The Romulan mindset is fairly similar. Justice is swift in the Star Empire. But it is also frequently misguided and misdirected."

"Seeing as how that's entirely beside the point, we have to ask what purpose is served by the assassination," Macen redirected the conversation, "Secondly; we have to deduce what potential gains does Section 31 earn by sacrificing Douglas and Bashir?"

"Well, they're lovers so they may be a matched set," Rockford offered.

"I believe it goes deeper than that," P'ris ventured, "From what you have told me since our arrival, Sarina Douglas is a valued and valuable operative. Julian Bashir, though, has been a recruiting target. It is likely that Douglas was assigned to be Bashir's lover in an effort to seduce him into being a Section 31 operative."

"But you get the feeling that hasn't happened," Macen surmised.

"Bashir is most likely a liability to Section 31 at this stage of things," P'ris theorized, "Douglas is making herself one by not choosing to abandon Bashir."

"So the honey trap worked in reverse," Macen mused.

"God, I am so happy I don't live in you two's little world," Rockford groaned.

"Yes, you do. You just pretend otherwise," Macen rebutted her statement.

"Sure, dump reality all over me," Rockford retorted.

"This is all fine conjecture but where can they be found?" Daggit wondered.

"They've temporarily gone to ground," Macen replied, "Probably to switch identities."

"But who would they become?" P'ris wanted to know, "That is the question before us."

"If I were them, I'd fall back on reality," Macen mused, "Rab, tell the Chief Inspector to widen his search to include Starfleet officers, Commander Bashir and Lt. Commander Douglas."

"On it!" Daggit said enthusiastically.

Macen turned back to Rockford and P'ris, "Now we have to come up with Thor's motive for becoming emperor."

"You do not believe it is simply a grab for power?" P'ris was surprised.

"No, the rule is follow the commodities," Rockford answered for Macen, "Political power is certainly to be had here so it's a powerful motivator. I'd give Thor that if all that was involved was gaining access to the Typhon Pact and acting as the bridge between the Pact and the Federation. The sticking point is the colonies."

"Exactly," Macen agreed, "Why does the Andorian Empire, after two hundred years of peaceful coexistence with the Tellarites being the administrators of their joint colonies suddenly want sole control?"

P'ris frowned, "I confess, I have no idea."

"Neither do I but we're going to find out," Rockford turned back to her computer, "Keep the security goons offa me while I dig around."

Twenty minutes later, Rockford leaned back in her chair, "I think we have the newly appointed emperor by the balls."

"How so?" P'ris asked.

"Thor isn't just a politician; he's also a very diversified businessman. He has the controlling interest in most of Andoria's mining and shipping companies. So if the Andorians take the lead in the mining colonies, he stands to receive a huge pay out," Rockford described the unfolding scenario.

She let them digest that and then added, "Thor also has majority holdings in most of the starship construction yards. Those yards receive the bulk of their duranium from the colonies. If he cuts out the middleman, Thor stands to increase profitability yet again."

Rockford gave Macen a wry look, "And as Emperor, he can throw as much business his own way as the Imperial budget can withstand."

"I do not believe the Internal Security officers would tolerate us disparaging their newly appointed ruler," P'ris opined, "Chief Inspector Irak in particular seems the type to incarcerate us for the mere implication."

"What we need is an Andorian law enforcement official we can trust," Macen mulled.

"We have one," Rockford suddenly insisted.

All eyes turned to her and she grinned, "Inspector Aradshin wy'Gist is a friend. He's also as dependable as hell."

"Celeste, you just volunteered to inform Irak that we need your friend as a liaison," Macen instructed.

Rockford's grin turned victorious, "C'mon, admit it. Moments like these are why you love me."

"These aren't the only moments," Macen said with implied meaning.

"Ooh, I hear the sounds of future hanky panky in the air," Rockford said with delight.

"No promises," Macen deflated her expectations, "Now scoot."

P'ris watched Macen watch Rockford's departure. After a moment, she commented, "You two do seem very well suited for each other. She is a far cry from T'Kir and perhaps that is the attraction."

"No, the attraction is that we complement one another," Macen corrected her thinking, "Differently than T'Kir and I but it's there nonetheless."

"I do believe she understands you better than T'Kir did," P'ris suggested, "She knows the monster you keep inside and she embraces you both for it and despite of it. She carries equally potent forces inside of her. You have both seen far too much adversity in your lives yet you have both thrived. T'Kir was an eternally a wounded spirit. She could not function without you which is completely unlike Celeste Rockford."

"Very insightful, Talera," Macen commented, "I take it you're no longer going to try and come between Celeste and I?"

P'ris' cheeks suddenly became flushed with a creamy jade hue, "I...I never..."

Macen gave her a wry look, "I know the truth. I always have. You did well not to pursue your little agenda. Sizing up one's competition can frequently change your opinion of the contest ahead."

P'ris suddenly looked very rueful, "It seems I underestimated more of the players than just Ms. Rockford."

"You can call her 'Celeste'," Macen dryly prodded her.

"Very well," P'ris reluctantly conceded.

"You too look rather cozy," Rockford said as she rejoined the pair, "Should I be worried?"

P'ris' flush deepened. Rockford looked abashed, "Talera, I'm sorry! I was only joking."

"Did you contact your Inspector?" Macen changed the topic in order to give P'ris a moment to recover.

"No, but Irak did. Arad will be here shortly. In the meantime, Internal Security is going to canvass the hotels and see who they shake out," Rockford shared.

"Am I imagining it or are the monitors focusing on public transportation hubs now?" Macen inquired.

"Sure enough," Rockford confirmed it.

"Surely our targets will anticipate such an effort?" P'ris managed to ask.

"They will but they may just brazen it out," Macen hypothesized, "After all, no one would expect it."

 

Chapter Four

Inspector Aradshin wy'Gist arrived at the Ministry of Internal Security headquarters ten minutes later. The Inspector had been coordinating a search for Bashir and Douglas, now that their real identities were known, across Andoria's third largest city on the other side of the planet. As disgruntled as he may have been at being pulled off the search, the Inspector was delighted to see Rockford once again.

"Celeste! It has been far too long," wy'Gist proclaimed as he hugged Rockford. The physical expression of affection was a rarity amongst Andorians towards aliens.

"It's good to see you again, Arad," Rockford admitted. She motioned Macen closer, "This is Brin Macen. He's my employer and my fiancé."

Arad's eyes widened, "Fiancé? Someone has finally laid claim to your heart? And here I'd hoped it would be me."

Rockford recognized his teasing tone for what it was, "Sorry Arad, you were too slow. A girl can't wait around forever."

"But to be sleeping with the boss?" Arad wouldn't let it go just yet, "Positively shocking."

"Well, we still haven't established who's boss just yet," Rockford grinned, "He bought my detective agency but we view ourselves as partners rather than employer/employee."

"So I take it I'm here at your request?" Arad inquired.

"That's correct, Arad," Rockford confirmed it, "Our agency is assisting in locating and capturing Commander Bashir and Lt. Commander Douglas."

"But you said your fiancé bought your agency. What agency are you operating under now?" Arad sought clarification.

Rockford gave him a rueful look, "It would've been easier if Superintendent Irak had briefed you on this."

She turned to Macen, "You mind jumping in now?"

Macen smiled, "Just waiting for the go ahead."

"Well, it's given already you poop," Rockford cajoled him.

"The Rockford Agency is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Outbound Ventures, Inc." Macen supplied the answer Arad sought.

"I have heard of Outbound Ventures," Arad admitted, "Until recent days it was spoken of very favorably."

"I can imagine how that's changed," Macen wryly admitted, "Recent events seem to have pitted my agency against the interests of the current administration."

"Indeed, but then again there are a few that question the current Emperor's political appetites," Arad slyly put in and then he changed the conversation's course, "Tell me, is this a Starfleet investigation?"

"Not as such," Macen admitted, "The Tellarite government hired Outbound Ventures to investigate the growing piracy problem surrounding the joint colonies."

"Which our newly crowned leader decries as a falsehood," Arad said with a disgusted air, "The pirates are, in reality, hapless Imperial citizens who are mere sightseers to the region."

"Well, there's truth and then there's truth," Macen shared.

"Indeed," Arad agreed, "So which version of the truth brings you to Andoria?"

"Starfleet," Macen confessed with an amused grin.

"Bt you just said..." Arad began.

Macen held up a hand to ward off the protest, "I'm doing a favor for a favorite client. Perhaps you've heard of Starfleet's Special Investigation Division?

"I've heard the usual public affairs statements and the general rumors regarding it," Arad shared, "Why would the SID be interested in our affairs?"

"They're interested in Bashir and Douglas' affairs," Macen revealed, "Their CO is a personal friend of mine. She referred the matter to me and I, in turn, informed the SID."

"Informed them of what?" Arad knew they were nearing the heart of the matter now.

"Bashir and Douglas were recruited for this assassination," Macen divulged, "By Section 31."

"Tread carefully," Arad warned, "Even in these halls it is not safe to discuss S31."

"All the more reason to discuss it then," Macen insisted, "My crew and I had a truce with Section 31 up until the Cell 51 crisis. Afterwards, they violated that truce and now we find ourselves pitted against them once again."

"Arad, you're holding out on us," Rockford ventured, "What gives?"

Arad grimaced, "I'm sorry, Celeste. I've been involved with a series of investigations were well placed officials have either disappeared or suddenly died of 'natural' causes. These officials shared one commonality. They all opposed the Empire's expansionist agenda."

"You make it sound as though the Empire plans to expand beyond retaking the joint colonies," Rockford realized.

"Plans are in motion that while Starfleet is distracted, the Empire will move to seize nearby star system. And continue to do so until we control the sector," Arad confessed.

"But Andoria shares the sector with Vulcan," Macen reminded Arad.

Arad nodded, "As I understand it, that has already been taken into account."

"And that is a blatant act of war," Rockford accused.

"Yes, it is," Arad said clinically, "But that is the purview of the Emperor. Our entire system is designed to indulge him and cover his tracks if he has committed any acts of malfeasance."

"Then we have a problem," Macen grimly concluded.

Douglas and Bashir reached the maglev train terminal in the heart of the Imperial capitol. Douglas immediately proceeded to a public comm booth while Bashir kept a wary eye out for law enforcement officers. Douglas used her padd to input L'Haan's secure comm panel. The padd also contained an invasive tapeworm program that scrubbed the comm link address out of the terminal's memory.

"I see you are still free to maneuver," L'Haan dryly observed.

"We need to know where to rendezvous with our contact," Douglas informed her.

"No contact will be meeting you. In thirty minutes an extraction attempt will be made at these coordinates," L'Haan transferred the data to Douglas' padd, "If you are not present for the transporter targeting sensors to acquire you, you will be abandoned to your fate. If you make it off Andoria, you know where to proceed."

Douglas nodded, "Understood."

"Another thing Agent Douglas," L'Haan spoke before Douglas could sever the connection, "It has been deemed that Dr. Bashir is now a liability. Throw him to the Ministry of Internal Security so that the Imperial Guard can have their way with him. It will distract your pursuers and terminate a loose end."

"I don't..." Douglas began to protest.

L'Haan interrupted, "Sarina, Internal Security knows your actual identities. Your cover at Deep Space Nine has been broken. Even if Bashir were to make it off Andoria, we would give him up to Starfleet for a court martial."

"But..." Douglas feebly began.

"You have your orders, Sarina," L'Haan said coldly and with logical precision, "Section 31 requires your services. Bashir was always just an option. That option no longer serves the agency's needs."

"Understood," Douglas said grimly.

"Get underway then," L'Haan instructed.

Douglas closed down the connection and wanted to cry out in frustration.

"Our Starfleet officers have been sighted at the maglev terminal," Arad informed Macen and Rockford after conferring with a subordinate.

"Which city?" Rockford asked.

"This one," Arad said, "I've already alerted local assets. The transporter awaits us."

"Let me gather my team," Macen said.

The SID team split into three units upon reaching the train station. Each group was accompanied by an Internal Security officer. Arad stuck with Macen and Rockford.

Local officers established a perimeter around the station grounds. Arad had ordered the trains to be held until officers searched them. Manpower was still being mobilized and assembled. As the streets around the station platforms were surrounded by law enforcement officials, Douglas and Bashir become acutely aware of the manhunt descending upon them.

They exited their train and started making for an exit out of the busy yard. Rockford spotted the pair as they attempted to flee. Arad escorted Macen and Rockford as they began to pursue the Starfleet pair.

"It's them!" Douglas shouted, pointing at her pursuers, "It's the Emperor's assassins! Get them!"

The crowd began to move in on Macen and Rockford but Arad shouted them down, "These people are assisting Internal Security in apprehending the real assassins. Those were the people that tricked you into blocking us. Now get out of the way!"

The confused crowd wondered why an Internal Security officer was with imperial assassins. But they heeded his words and slowly parted so the trio could get a glimpse of where Douglas and Bashir had gone. But Macen, Rockford, and Arad were dismayed to discover the Starfleet fugitives were long gone.

Douglas and Bashir hurried across the courtyard and straight into Daggit and McMasters. The Andorian Internal Security officer with them held back and called in reinforcements while Daggit and McMasters chose their opponents. It was obvious from Douglas' stance that Sarina was the fighter between them. So Daggit faced off with her.

But Bashir had a few tricks up his sleeve. While McMasters tried to take hold of him, Bashir pressed a hypospray against the engineer's neck. It injected with a hiss and McMasters slowly sank to the ground. His Andorian counterpart shot Bashir.

Douglas snapped off a round kick that connected with Daggit's jaw. Despite being warned she was genetically enhanced it hadn't occurred to him that would place Douglas in Hannah Grace's caliber. She was marginally faster than he was and he took several blows before he responded with a backhand that nearly tore Douglas' head off.

She stepped back and revealed a Type I "Cricket" phaser she'd been holding in reserve. Nearly depleting its powerpack into Daggit, he went down but wasn't quite out. A shouted warning alerted her to the Internal Security officer. She whipped around killed him.

Checking on Bashir, she ascertained he was still alive. Despite her misgivings it seemed L'Haan's instructions were going to be carried out. She rose to her feet and cried to gather help for the slain officer. She slipped away in the resultant confusion.

P'ris and Grace had the fortune, or misfortune, of intercepting Douglas as she fled the scene. Their Internal Security escort was tending to her compatriot while the perimeter forces descended on the platform. P'ris drew her Bajoran made phaser and held it on Douglas.

Even with reflexes three times faster than a human's, P'ris was taken by surprise when Douglas deftly disarmed her by inverting her wrist and wresting the phaser free. P'ris tried to close the distance in order to limit the use of her stolen phaser. Douglas responded by applying a Vulcan nerve pinch. P'ris' eyes went wide with alarm as she realized what was occurring.

"Nice," Grace applauded, "But that won't work against me."

Douglas knew the Kelvan wasn't lying. The epitome of human genetics at this stage of evolution, Grace was more than a physical match for Douglas. And then there were the Kelvan's mysterious energy/matter manipulation abilities. Grace had been stripped of her Attuner device that supposedly controlled her native abilities. But the abilities were inborn. Who was to say Grace hadn't found a way to harness them?

"Maybe you're right," Douglas slid the phaser's powerpack free. Then she accessed the emitter array. Slapping the powerpack back into its receptacle she pulled the phaser's trigger.

"This phaser is now building up to an overload detonation," Douglas informed Grace, "Do what you need to do."

She dropped the phaser onto P'ris' fallen form and then sprinted away. Grace cursed Douglas as she lifted the phaser off of P'ris. Encasing the phaser in a green energy matrix, she held on to it until it exploded.

Winded, Grace rocked back onto her heels as Macen, Rockford, and Arad approached. Macen rested a hand on her shoulder to steady her, "Easy, Hannah. That couldn't have been easy. But you did good work. You just saved dozens of lives."

"But I lost our fugitive," Grace complained.

"We have Bashir," Macen informed her, "So Sarina may come after him."

Grace shook her head, "S31 doctrine is to abandon fallen agents in the field. She's gone and gone for good."

"Please do not underestimate my people's resolve or resources," Arad requested, "She has slain our former emperor. No stone shall be untouched in our quest to avenge him."

"Good luck with that," Grace said without much conviction.

Macen knew she spoke from experience. At one time she'd been the secondary Section 31 mole amongst his team. Macen turned to see Rockford using her tricorder from her utility belt.

"There's a transporter trace reminiscent of the one Captain Data employs," she shared.

"And how would you know about that?" Macen wondered.

"I have my ways," she smirked, "If I gave away all my secrets you wouldn't need me on the team anymore."

"Never happen," Macen promised, "You'll always be needed."

Rockford smiled, "You make my heart go pitter patter with the way you say that. But for all intents and purposes, Sarina Douglas is long gone. The range on one of those personal transporters isn't great but it's well beyond out little cordon. I think it's time to tell Arad to start breaking down doors."

"And they will too," Macen commented.

"It's no longer our world or our way," Rockford reminded him, "Let them do their jobs their way in peace."

Arad approached, "I have begun outward sweeps stemming from this location. Commander Douglas will be found. I promise you that."

"Could I speak with your prisoner after you have him remanded into custody?" Macen inquired.

"It is irregular but I shall see what I can arrange," Arad agreed.

"Then I guess we return to your headquarters and await another sighting," Macen realized.

"Too true," Arad said sadly, "I shall be most vexed if Commander Douglas gains her freedom."

Macen and Rockford exchanged a look that agreed with Arad's sentiment.

Bashir was placed in a holding cell while he was guarded by a team of Internal Security officers. The Imperial Guard was already howling to get their hands on him. So far, Irak hadn't caved in. Arad bolstered his position and eventually Emperor Thor intervened and gave Internal Security primacy on the case. The SID team met this news with skepticism.

Meanwhile, Macen got a report from Jonathan Pryce regarding the Outbound Ventures deployment. The Andorian naval units had sabered rattled enough to keep the three starships on the border. During this period of time, the Lug Nut and its convoy were attacked.

The pirates were beaten off with minimal property losses but when the Outbound Ventures ships made to pursue, the Andorians intervened. Citing that they were protecting their own citizens from "unprovoked Tellarite aggression".

But the Lug Nut had taken concrete scans of the pirate ships. They were uniformly of Andorian origin, wielded Type VIII phaser, and possessed micro-photon torpedo racks. It seemed the Andorians' operation was beginning to unravel because of the security firm's presence.

Macen instructed Pryce to forward all of the evidence on to the closest Starfleet Starbase and hope for a swift reply and even swifter action. Arad held his tongue while Macen relayed these instructions. When Macen had closed the circuit, Arad approached him.

Macen and Arad met Bashir in an interrogation room. Behind the holograms and force fields, Rockford, P'ris, and Grace observed alongside Superintendent Irak and two Inspectors. Irak and the others knew from experience that Rockford was a skilled investigator. P'ris, as a commanding agent of the Tal Shiar, was also undoubtedly skill at interrogation techniques. Grace, however, was a veritable unknown.

But Grace had a long standing flirtatious relationship with Julian Bashir before she'd met Ian Delaney. Grace had loathed letting Bashir down when she and Delaney grew serious about one another and eventually married. He'd been invited to the wedding but hadn't attended.

Bashir had spoken of Sarina Douglas before. So he knew the Doctor pined away for her. He had stronger feelings for Douglas than he ever had for Captain Ezri Dax. Which was saying something. Bashir, though gregarious and charming, had led an isolated existence. So it was easy to see how Douglas had managed to dupe him.

The observers all settled down as Macen and Arad sat across a table from Bashir. Macen noted with grim amusement that Bashir was shackled. Given Douglas' performance against the SID investigators and Internal Security's officers, they weren't taking any chances with their only apprehended assassin.

"I wasn't aware Federation civilians still operated on Andoria," Bashir spoke first.

"Nor was I aware that Starfleet officers conducted covert operations on my world," Arad countered.

"Apparently it wasn't a Starfleet operation," Bashir said grimly, "So let's not blame the wrong people here."

"Then who are the right people?" Arad wondered.

"Emperor Thor. He gave Sarina access to Thrak so that she could kill the emperor and pave Thor's way to the throne," Bashir stated, "Now, I've given you what you want. Why is Captain Macen here?"

Macen knew Bashir was gauging his captor's intentions towards him, "My company has a license to operate within the Andorian Empire, Doctor. A fact that I think you are aware off since your CO and I are close friends."

"Yes, Captain Ro has always spoken highly of you. Ever since I met her after the Dominion War when she came aboard the old Deep Space Nine, she has valued her friendship with you. She has also respected your skills as an investigator and a...shall we say, universal troubleshooter?" Bashir recounted.

"I know Sarina Douglas duped you into this mission on Section 31's behalf," Macen shared, "The visual log from the Emperor's chamber places the blame on Lt. Commander Douglas. It also casts a few implications on Emperor Thor's actions."

"I can persuade our prosecutors to shy away from the death penalty and seek long term imprisonment for your part in this fiasco, Doctor," Arad revealed, "In exchange for leniency, you will testify as to Emperor Thor's complicit guilt in arranging Thrak's murder."

"How lenient is lenient?" Bashir inquired.

"Pardon me?" Arad scoffed, "Are you daring to bargain with me? You will receive no less than life in prison and call it good. While you did not pull the trigger, you also did not stop your lover from doing so. That makes you a willing accessory to a premeditated murder. My people don't look kindly upon such things."

"I did not come to Andoria to rot in jail," Bashir argued.

"No, you came to kill an emperor so his replacement could be seated on the throne," Macen said coldly, "You don't have a bargaining position here. Take the deal and you'll have the rest of your life to wonder why Sarina abandoned you to Andorian justice."

"I don't think she has," Bashir rebutted Macen's statement, "Not yet, anyway."

Arad rose, "Enjoy your fantasy world, Doctor. May it comfort you when you are executed."

Macen left the room with Arad and Bashir was herded back to his holding cell by a team of four Internal Security officers. Arad stopped when he reached the observation room. Irak noted his Inspector's antennas were twitching in an alarmed fashion.

"Something's wrong, isn't it?" Irak asked.

"Bashir is too confident of his eventual release," Arad ventured, "I suggest that it is within the realm of possibility he will either receive an Imperial pardon or be transferred into Starfleet's custody."

"What can we do?" Irak wondered plaintively, "The Emperor's word is law."

"But who made Thor emperor?" Macen gently inquired.

Every turned on him, "If Thor can be made emperor, it goes to figure he can be unmade as well."

All the Andorians stared at one another in mute horror save Arad, "The Council of Ministers selects the Emperor from among their own ranks."

"And how do you suppose they'd respond to your video log?" Macen had to ask.

"They would probably remove Thor from office," Arad admitted, "But it is unprecedented."

"Not quite," a young inspector with a padd looked up from her reading, "It has a precedent."

Now every eye was on her. Irak broke the expectant silence, "Tell as Jarra. What precedent are you referring to?"

If Jarra was intimidated by the scrutiny, it didn't show, "The One Hundred and Fortieth Conclave of Ministers removed the sitting emperor. He was replaced by the only Empress Andoria has ever enjoyed."

Irak noted the smugness in Jarra's voice, "There was a reason why we only had one Empress, Inspector Jarra."

"It is because the male sexes are afraid of the female genders on our world," Jarra asserted.

"This is dangerously close to being a political discussion," Irak warned, "And Contravention Order Four prohibits political discussion in the law enforcement workplace. Particularly sentiments that could be considered radical."

"Radical would be bringing up the fact we've lost forty percent of our fertile couplings," Jarra countered, "We're losing twelve percent of our population to old age and other causes every year but our birth rate is only five percent."

"You are dismissed, Inspector Jarra!" Irak thundered.

Jarra shot him an impassive glare and marched out of the room. Irak sighed, "The younger officers are all closet radicals these days. They fault the Federation for not rendering what they deem as sufficient aid and agitate for greater cooperation with the Typhon Pact."

"Sir, I'm taking our evidence to the Council of Ministers," Arad announced, "I would appreciate it of you accompanied me. If not I will require that you at least alert them that they need to convene."

"I'll come with you," Irak assured him, "I've always wanted to make history."

The Superintendent turned to Macen, "If you and your crew would stand by. I received word that one of your crewmen transported to the surface. She has important matters to discuss with you. We'll bring her to headquarters for your convenience before you leave."

"Are you certain you don't want us to stay on?" Macen inquired.

"Thank you but no," Irak said firmly, "We have our culprit and I have a feeling you have other places to be to complicate matters."

That statement confirmed what Macen already had suspected. Irak had monitored his conversation with Captain Pryce. Irak simply wanted a potential thorn in the Imperial side gone.

"Thank you for the privilege of working with you all," Macen said graciously. A data clerk stepped up to escort the team to the transporter room. The sight of Rhiann awaiting them told him his fears were being realized.

"I'm sorry to see you go, Rhiann," Macen confided with her, "You've always been one of the most dependable members of the crew throughout its various ships and guises."

Rhiann looked miserable, "I wish I could stay on. I really do. But when someone forces you to choose between friends and your planet, the choice becomes an easier one."

"No one faults you, Rhiann. Good luck," Macen pressed his palm against hers, "You'll go far."

She wore a shy smile, "I've already been posted to an Andorian starship. I'm the chief helmsman and the Second Officer."

"Congrats, kiddo," Grace hugged her fellow pilot, "Take care of yourself."

"You too," Rhiann's eyes threatened to brim over with tears, "And you're only a year older than me."

"A year can mean a lot," Grace winked.

Everyone said their goodbyes before mounting the transporter platform. Telrik was contacted and the transports synched. Next, the SID team appeared aboard the Solstice.

Everyone scattered while Macen contacted Forger, "Make way for the disputed colonies, Shannon. By the way, who's manning the helm?"

"Radil, and she still can't stop sneezing, so we don't want her there if we're to see combat," Forger advised.

"It'll be a few days before we see combat again," Macen promised.

"Okay, we're headed out," Forger replied, "By the way, I don't know what you all were up to but the Andorian's have a new emperor."

"Anyone we know?" Rockford suddenly chime din.

"A Minister Shan accepted the post," Forger revealed, "The former minister of Military Affairs to be precise."

"Great. A headache in the making," Rockford complained.

"Isn't it though," Forger mused, "Now if you'll excuse me, my baby mama is coming unglued."

Rockford smirked at Macen, "Well, Shannon is certainly taking to fatherhood...motherhood...we have got to figure out these descriptors!"

"How about over dinner?" Macen asked.

"Know anyplace special?" Rockford grinned.

"There's a little cafe right down the corridor," Macen joined in the illusion, "Has great ambience and friendly staff and customers."

"You're on!" Rockford enthused.

 

Chapter Five

Macen received word that the disputed colonies would hold a public referendum to decide the fate of who held administrative jurisdiction over the three worlds. Given the vast numerical superiority of Andorians over other species, the outcome seemed a given. But stranger things than a reversal of the expected had happened before in Macen's extended lifetime. He'd made a career out of such occurrences.

The Solstice had nearly reached the Vega Beta A system when the Copernicus had picked them up on long range sensors and alerted Macen to the fact that a convoy escorted by the Lug Nut was currently under attack. The Dog Star was moving to assist while the Spearhead and the Guinevere were staying on station.

Macen acknowledged the alert and informed Captain Marta Haggit that the Solstice was moving to intercept as well. As the Solstice dropped out of warp on the convoy's position, it was easy to recognize who the raiders were. As Captain Pryce had reported, their ships were all of Andorian design. In fact, they could be classified as four frigate analogues.

But apparently, they thought discretion was the better part of valor. As soon as the Solstice arrived and the Andorians' two-to-one advantage faded, they withdrew. Macen ordered a pursuit.

He received word from Captain Haggit that the Andorian fleet units in the area had moved into the system to challenge the Outbound Ventures group. Squadron Commander Shere was demanding that Outbound Ventures stand down or she would order her units to engage the Outbound Ventures ships.

Macen hailed Shere. The Andorian's stern visage appeared on his main viewer, "Captain Macen you will abort your pursuit of Imperial citizens or your forces will be destroyed."

"And how do you explain these Andorian citizens firing on an unarmed convoy?" Macen inquired.

"Blatant lies from your so-called "captain" of the appropriately named Andor-class transport. The Tellarite scum you provocatively placed in command fired upon those ships as they harmlessly sailed by," Shere railed off.

"Keep telling yourself that," Macen replied, "Maybe it'll help you sleep better at night. In the meantime, I'm pursuing those fugitives. You can try and stop me, or you can attack my employees and thereby be attacking Federation citizens in defense of other Federation citizens and planets, or you can sit down and shut up."

Shere's mouth worked in silent outrage. She terminated the comm link. Macen couldn't say he was sorry for it.

"Rab, warn Jonathan Pryce we may have just entered a shooting match," Macen instructed.

"On it!" Daggit replied.

"P'ris, where are our runaways running to?" Macen inquired.

"They are headed for the border between Vulcan and Imperial space," she coolly replied.

Macen had a sneaking suspicion of where they were ultimately headed, "They wouldn't."

Macen rose from his seat, "Hannah, I'll be in the briefing room talking to Starfleet. Let me know when we arrive at P'Jem."

"Isn't P'Jem a Vulcan world?" Grace inquired.

"Somehow I don't think it is anymore," Macen shared as he exited the bridge.

Daggit glanced back at Rockford. She held up her hands in surrender, "Don't blame me. You know how he gets."

And they all did.

Bashir whiled away the hours in his cell. He still clung to the hope, or was it dread, that Douglas would liberate him. He watched with some surprise when a small canister materialized outside of his cell. The Andorian guards all began choking and then they slowly collapsed one by one.

A transporter effect brought Douglas into being. She wore a filter mask and held a second one in her hand. Deactivating the holding cell's force field, she quickly entered and thrust the mask at Bashir.

"Put this on, Julian," Douglas insisted.

Despite himself, Bashir obeyed, "Sarina, how did you manage...?"

"We don't have time for that now," Douglas replied as he handed him an isolinear tag. It was then that he noticed that she had one affixed to her tunic. She tapped her comm badge, "Gadfly, two to beam up."

Bashir felt the familiar sensation of a Federation built transporter convert his body into energy and then rematerialize it aboard a starship. Douglas stripped off her mask and headed for the cockpit.

Bashir looked about. He was in a small craft. Bigger than the Danube-class runabouts he was so familiar with but built along similar lines. He moved forward through the craft and got a sense that this ship was at least twice the size of the runabouts he was used to.

As he joined Douglas in the cockpit he saw that she was breaking orbit from around Andoria. She grinned at him, "No need to worry. We have a cloaking device shielding us from sensors."

"I thought Starfleet vessels were outlawed from having cloaking devices," Bashir stated.

"Yet the Defiant has employed one since 2371," Douglas smirked, "Funny thing that."

"The Romulans made a onetime exception," Bashir reminded her, "I doubt this craft was covered by that agreement."

"Well there are Starfleet vessels and then there are Section 31 vessels," Douglas replied, "Totally different animals. And just so you know, this is a Mosquito-class runabout. They predated the Danube-class by ten years."

"But it, as you say, is operated by Section 31," Bashir said with some disdain, "Why did you liberate me, Sarina? Was it to join you in Section 31?"

Douglas sighed, "Yes, it was to join me. My orders were to leave you to the Andorians. I opted to go against my orders. My handler is put out at the moment. But she's Vulcan so she'll barely let it show."

Douglas turned to face Bashir, "Look Julian, I'll drop you off anywhere you want to go. I'll return you to Deep Space Nine if that's what you really want. But think about this, you're wanted for murder on Andoria. Starfleet will hand you over in a hot second to appease the Andorian Empire in an effort to coax them back into the fold."

Douglas let him digest the full impact of her words, "Or you can come with me."

"To join Section 31, you mean." Bashir countered.

"Where else do you have to go?" Douglas asked, "The other factor is we'd still be together. Otherwise, we'll probably never see each other again."

Douglas could see that Bashir was struggling with the decision, "Please Julian, come with me."

He slowly nodded, "All right. I'll do it. For you."

Douglas wore a grateful smile, "It may not be the most patriotic motive but it means a lot to me."

Bashir gave her a loving smile, "Thank you, Sarina. I was beginning to believe you really had abandoned me."

"I'd never do that to you, Julian," Douglas promised, "No matter what anyone ever ordered me to do."

"And I'll always do what's best for you, Sarina," Bashir vowed.

"All right," Douglas happily shifted topics, "We're almost at the system's warp boundary. Now we can proceed to a forward area."

"And where is that?" Bashir wondered.

Douglas gave him a smile, "Izar."

Bashir was a little startled by that revelation and Douglas laughed, "You'll find we're everywhere, Julian."

And that was what Bashir was afraid of.

P'ris let a few Romulan expletives fly. The universal translator absolutely refused to render them in the listeners' native tongues so they all knew that P'ris' explosive tirade had to be particularly vile. Macen was rather amused to see the normally unflappable Romulan come totally undone.

"Problems?" he asked with some mirth.

"Yes!" P'ris snapped, "If you want me to keep tracking these...people...then we need to close in on them. We are too far out for the sensors to accurately track their warp trails."

"It stands to reason if we can't see them, they can't see us," Grace chimed in.

"You would say that," P'ris accused, "It is your navigating that is the source of the problem."

Macen swiveled his chair to face Daggit, "Can you handle the sensors for a minute, Rab?"

"If the main sensors are having difficulties, the targeting sensors will be a no go," Daggit replied.

"Then man OPS for a minute," Macen chided Daggit.

For one of the brief moments in the years Macen had known Daggit, the Angosian suddenly looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Macen sighed, "All right. Celeste?"

"Oh, hell no!" Rockford retorted from the Information Systems station.

"I can do it," Grace said wearily.

"Thank you Hannah," Macen said gratefully, "Talera, please join me in the briefing room."

"I am quite content to continue my endeavors," P'ris reluctantly said.

"This isn't a request," Macen warned her.

P'ris rose and followed Macen to the briefing room door. It shooshed open and he motioned for her to enter before him. With a resigned air, she did as he bade.

"Commander, I can explain," P'ris began.

Macen held up a hand to stop her in mid-explanation, "What's the real problem here?"

P'ris blinked in surprise, "Pardon me?"

"The sensors are a peripheral issue," Macen spoke, "I want to know what the real issue is. Something has been bothering you since we left Andoria. It began when we captured Doctor Bashir to be precise."

P'ris struggled with what she was about to reveal, "I...knew Sarina Douglas."

That piqued Macen's interest, "Really?"

"She arrived on Sinera after the destruction of Romulus," P'ris stated.

Macen was always fascinated by the fact P'ris always referred to the destruction of Romulus while always omitting the fact Remus was destroyed by the Hobus incident, "Go on."

"She delivered instructions from Section 31 to me," P'ris shared, "She tried to persuade me to assassinate Donatra and Sela. Donatra had just assumed the long abandoned throne of the Romulan Empire by declaring herself Empress and Sela had secured the Proconsul's position. Sarina Douglas approached me with the notion to kill the pair and for me to assume the Praetorship."

"Why am I suspecting there's more to this?" Macen asked, "Because you obviously didn't go through with the plan."

"Her method of persuasion was quite...intoxicating," P'ris divulged.

"She tried to seduce you," Macen guessed where this was heading.

"It was pure animal sex," P'ris divulged, "It was a calculated move intended to entice me into following her instructions by promising there would be more to come if I obeyed Section 31's instructions."

"And you're thinking Bashir was swayed in the same manner," Macen surmised.

"It would fit Sarina Douglas' past actions," P'ris stated.

"I see," Macen considered hr revelation, "Just out of curiosity, why did you sleep with her?"

P'ris wore an embarrassed expression, "I had not had a partner of either sex for quite some time. And self fulfillment only goes so far."

Macen found her candor to be refreshing, "All right. I won't tell anyone if you won't."

"Not even Celeste?" P'ris asked.

"No, although she might feel relieved to know you have other interests outside of seducing your captain," Macen gently teased P'ris.

P'ris' cheeks had a slight jade shading once again, "Thank you. I shall try not to intentionally seduce you. But, it is said that those that share a secret shall share much more than that eventually."

"We'll have to wait and see, won't we?" Macen replied, "Now, let's get back to tracking down our pirate friends."

"Of course," P'ris allowed and she returned to the bridge.

The doors slid open again to reveal an amused Rockford, "So, did she put the moves on you?"

"No, quite the opposite in fact," Macen revealed.

Rockford looked pleased, "Has she really given up?"

"I think so," Macen confided, "Her statements just corroborated her earlier ones."

"It's about time," Rockford huffed, "I was beginning to think you were leading her on."

Macen was a little amused and a little startled by that remark, "Me?"

"Well, she was being awfully damn persistent and I certainly wasn't giving her any space," Rockford declared.

"I didn't think I was," Macen said.

"Who knows?" Rockford allowed, "Romulans are heard headed, stubborn mules and horny as hell. Maybe she just had to get her fantasy world out of her system."

"What would you know about horny Romulans?" Macen asked with some amusement.

"Oh no, I'm not sharing all of my secrets," Rockford grinned, "A little mystery is a good thing."

"I'll take your word for it," Macen quipped.

"Yes, you will," Rockford insisted.

Macen's comm badge chirped and he tapped it, "Macen here."

"We've reached the appropriate system," Daggit spoke, "And our friends have entered P'Jem's orbit like you predicted."

"I hate always being right," Macen ignored Rockford's scoffing snort at that comment, "Have Hannah insert us into a standard orbit and alert the beta watch that they're going on duty."

"So we're going to the surface?" Daggit inquired.

"Of course we are," Macen replied, "Macen out."

"And I assume we're visiting a certain monastery," Rockford guessed.

Macen smiled, "Like I said, of course we are."

Rockford sighed, "Figures."

Before transporting down, Macen contacted the Vulcan monastery on P'Jem. A public relations officer spoke to Macen and assured him his presence would be welcomed. Afterwards, the SID team gathered in the briefing room with him. Radil joined them but was sullen because she knew she was being excluded from the away team once again.

"The question before us is why would Andorian raiders flee to a Vulcan colony?" Macen posed the obvious conundrum.

"Because they aren't Andorians," Rockford ventured. P'ris nodded her support.

"I happen to agree with you," Macen voiced his support, "Given Section 31's involvement I don't believe this is purely an Andorian effort."

"So it's a trap," Daggit surmised.

"Probably," Macen concurred, "But then again, they didn't know for certain that they were being followed. The rules were that Squadron Commander Shere would prevent us from pursuing them. The other factor here is the simple fact the Andorians are looking to expand their sphere of influence over the entire sector. Whether by force or proxy, their goal is to expand their empire over a one quarter section of the Federation Home Sectors."

"But the Federation will resist," Grace countered.

"Not if they're distracted by a greater threat," Macen reminded her, "Possibly a threat we've already been alerted to."

P'ris immediately grasped his meaning, "The Gorn initiative."

"Right," Macen applauded her quick thinking, "If the Gorn Hegemony were to be attacked by supposed Starfleet assets then the Gorn would respond in kind. The Romulan Star Empire and the Tholian Assembly would be obliged to respond with them. Seeing as how the Tholians are spearheading cordial relations with the Andorian Empire it is more than likely the Typhon Pact would push into Federation space only to be aided by Andoria and push into the heart of the Federation itself."

"Don't forget the Breen or the Tzenkethi," Daggit warned, "Fighting a war on two fronts would be even more difficult than engaging on one alone."

"What about the Kinshaya?" McMasters asked.

Everyone looked at him and he grew defensive, "What? They're part of the Pact."

"A likely outcome is the Holy Order of the Kinshaya would engage their traditional Klingon foes. With the Klingon Empire already on the defensive, even Chancellor Martok would be hard pressed to marshal forces to the Federation's side," P'ris shared, "The same is true for the Breen Confederacy and the Ferengi Alliance and then again with the Tzenkethi Coalition and the Cardassian Union. With all of the Federation's allies distracted, the Star Empire would lead the Gorn and the Tholians towards victory."

"You seem awfully certain your fellow Romulans would take the lead," Radil pointed out.

P'ris wore a thin smile, "Trust me, they already have."

The team departed the bridge while Macen had Forger step into the briefing room, "This may get rough, Shannon. I'd expect you'll come under heavy fire before this is done."

She replied with a wan smile, "Have any other encouraging words?"

"Eric will be off the ship for a while?" Macen ventured.

"I thought he'd have forgiven me and moved back in by now," Forger sighed.

"I'll make a point of reminding Eric he isn't perfect either," Macen tried to console her, "After all, he had a ménage a trois with two Deltans while he was dating Lees."

Forger's jaw dropped, "And he survived?"

"Apparently, despite coming from a 'sexually immature species', Eric was considered rather enlightened," Macen smirked, "He told Lisea he'd merely been drunk and it didn't mean anything."

"That little hypocrite!" Forger fumed, "He told me 'we don't do anything while we're drunk that we didn't want to do while we're sober'."

"You should listen," Macen's smirk grew wider, "He's the voice of experience."

"I'll bust his balls," Forger vowed, "That's what I'll do,"

"Or you may accept that he's only human and therefore very flawed," Macen suggested.

"I'll forgive him after I castrate him," Forger was still angry.

"Don't damage anything you might want to use later," Macen advised.

Forger stopped to think about it, "You're right. But I can still hobble him. I don't need his damn ankles."

Macen fought the urge to sigh, "Do what seems best. I'm off now."

"Suit yourself," Forger growled, her mind obviously still on McMasters.

Macen stopped by Sickbay on his way to the transporter room. Tessa, as always, was delighted to have company, "Now what's the matter with you? The room's internal sensors say there's nothing obviously wrong with you."

"I want you to keep an eye out on Shannon," Macen requested, "This thing between her and Eric is eating at her and I think I just stoked the flames. She might fall back into addictive behaviors."

"Got it," Tessa nodded, "I can feel for her. I know what it's like to be different. And thanks to Galen 3, I had a penis for a while too."

"Whatever happened to that?" Macen wondered, "Did Galen 3 decide that type of sex wasn't his thing?"

"No," Tessa said thoughtfully, "But there was a sudden surge in competition for my affections from both the men and women of the Obsidian. Galen 3 thought that my having a penis had become counterproductive."

Macen could just imagine his chief scientist banging his fists against the computer terminal swearing at Tessa's holoprogram while she attended to another "patient". He smiled at Tessa, "Well, at least you tried one on."

"But I think I'm responsible for Radil getting pregnant by Shannon," Tessa said unhappily.

"Let me guess, Jenrya was your most frequent 'patient' in need," Macen surmised.

Tessa bobbed her head up and down, "Yes, she needed nightly therapy sessions."

Macen gave her a rueful look, "Y'know Tessa, it really isn't polite to discuss these matters. Doctor/patient confidentiality and all that."

"But you're the captain," Tessa said innocently.

"It didn't affect her performance," Macen countered.

"Yes, it did. It greatly enhanced it," Tessa boasted.

Macen looked pained, "Her performance as a member of this crew."

Tessa thought about it, "I'm sure I could make an argument for that too."

"The point is, I don't need to know. I don't want to know. Have I ever asked you which members of the crew you've been having sex with?" Macen wanted to know.

"No," Tessa frowned but then she brightened, "But you really should."

"No, thank you," Macen pointed at the door, "I'll be leaving now. Just watch over Shannon. Don't sleep with her unless she asks you too."

"She might now," Tessa brightened, "She's had sex with Radil. Maybe she'll break down and finally sleep with me."

"Whatever," Macen grimaced, "Just don't tell me about it."

Macen exited Sickbay before Tessa could comment again.

 

Chapter Six

The SID transported down to the ancient Vulcan monastery. Two Vulcan monks were beside the public affairs official. She looked as impassive in person as on a viewscreen. If the sight of an armed contingent alarmed her, it certainly didn't show.

"Captain Macen, I presume?" the affairs officer inquired.

"That's correct," Macen wondered why she couldn't recall his name from the conversation they'd shared less than thirty minutes ago.

"I am Public Affairs Officer T'Lana," she told him...again, "We were told to expect you and your party."

"Told by whom?" Macen inquired.

"By our other visitors, of course," T'Lana was so matter of fact about it it was hard to determine what her opinion of those guests were.

"May we visit the monastery?" Macen asked.

"Of course. Follow me," T'Lana began to lead the way. As the team followed her, she began a description of the monastery's history, "As you may or may not know the monastery was founded several thousand years ago as a direct result of Vulcan developing spaceflight. A large colonial effort began afterwards. When Surak's Reformation occurred, the monastery shifted from a religious institution to one devoted to the supreme pursuit of logic in all its forms."

T'Lana grew a little stern, "The monks have all take vows of silence so please do not pose any questions directly to them. I speak for them."

"It seems you've chosen an ascetic life as well," Rockford ventured.

"Women are excluded from the vocation. It has been feared that a comingling of the sexes would foster distractions from the purer pursuit of logic," T'Lana explained.

"Must make for a rough pon farr or two though," Rockford needled the guide.

"The monks are adequately accommodated when their time comes," T'Lana stated.

Rockford nudged Macen with her elbow, "Now we know where she's getting some from."

Macen rolled her eyes but T'Lana had her first flash of an emotional response. She was irked, "Yes, I meet the needs of the monks. It is a high calling."

"And if you were getting paid for it, you'd be a prostitute," Rockford countered, "But you're not. You're a volunteer. Or are you? You could be a 'comfort woman' in the Cardassian tradition."

Rockford waited a half second and then took one final shot across T'Lana's bow, "Tell me, do the monk's break their vow of silence in the heat of passion?"

T'Lana stopped dead in her tracks, "It has always been a mistake to bring outsiders to our sanctuary. I can now see why."

Rockford acted perplexed, "Was it something I said?"

T'Lana's face was impassive but her eyes burned. Macen could sense that there was more to this irritation than Rockford's simple comments. This ran far deeper.

"If we could continue the tour?" Macen verbally nudged T'Lana.

"Of course," she inclined her head and resumed her course.

When they entered the heart of the semi-domed facility, they found dozens of robed monks bowing before little altars. T'Lana made a sweeping gesture, "Here the monks contemplate and explore all the facets of a logical existence."

"Or they pine away for the next seven years to be over," Rockford quipped.

Most of the team was rather startled at Rockford's behavior. Macen and P'ris took in stride though. They knew the art of distraction was a valuable interrogatory tool. The more T'Lana was upset, and the longer her discomfort endured, the more likely she was to give away where the "other guests" currently were.

"May we have a look around?" Macen asked.

"So long as you do not disturb the monks in their meditations," T'Lana allowed.

Rockford hung by the Vulcan woman's side while the SID team explored the space, "I got to hand it to you. It's a pretty sweet set up you have going here. Unlimited sex with as many partners as you can handle, at least by Vulcan standards. I guess you consider monogamy highly overrated."

"My contribution is merely logical," T'Lana tried to keep calm.

"Sure, I bet there's a whole grand tradition of comfort women on P'Jem," Rockford accepted that idea, "But why is there only you?"

"Traditionally there are three," T'Lana shared despite herself. She was carefully watching the others and Rockford was merely background noise at this point, "The other two women are...indisposed."

"Yeah, unexpected pregnancies can be a bitch," Rockford chuckled.

"And what would you know about it?" T'Lana asked a little more sharply now.

"What makes you think I don't?" Rockford probed. T'Lana might have been losing control little by little but she was growing more and more intent on watching Macen and the others.

"You are an Angosian Augment. An Infiltrator to be precise. You are nothing but a living killing machine," T'Lana coldly proclaimed, "However, your multiple personalities have been fused by the Argyn and you are no longer plagued by the disparity of multiple lives. Which was probably a greater comfort to you than the medal you received from President Bacco for diffusing the Argyn crisis."

Rockford peered at T'Lana very closely. Almost everything she had just said was classified by the President's office or Starfleet. Which meant the little slut was well connected. Very well connected.

T'Lana's mouth flew open and her hand came up but she maintained her silence and lowered her hand as Grace veered off from the back wall at the last second. The next thing T'Lana knew, she had Rockford's phaser aimed at her head. Rockford clucked her tongue.

"That's the price of a thin skin," Rockford said. Then she called to Macen, "The back wall is hiding something."

"That's where the old Vulcan observation base could be accessed from. That was supposedly sealed off," Macen shared.

"I'd double check if I were you," Rockford urged.

"P'ris?" Macen made the request.

The Romulan scanned the wall with a tricorder from her belt. She studied the read outs for several minutes while everyone grew edgy. Even the monks were paying attention at this point.

"This wall is a hologram. The photon imagers refresh the construct every 3.8 seconds. A dampening field obstructs scans beyond this point," P'ris announced.

"Rab, the wall is yours," Macen informed his tactical expert.

Daggit unslung his pump action photon grenade launcher from his back. Checking the feed, he racked the pump to chamber a round. Shouldering the weapon, he fired.

Antimatter conflicted with the photons and force fields of the hologram. The ambient air was annihilated by the released antimatter and a deafening explosion occurred. A massive hole was revealed as the hologram ceased to exist. However, a ceiling mounted phaser array was also revealed and it opened fire.

Daggit was immediately struck in the chest by a phaser burst. Rockford sprinted forward while shooting at the array. Each of her shots struck it but it seemed to be armored. It could only target single individuals. Macen ordered everyone to scatter while Rockford grabbed hold of Daggit's tactical harness and dragged him out of range.

The rest of the team opened fire on the array from under cover. Macen turned to Grace, who was crouched beside him behind a monk's altar, "Mind lending a hand?"

Grace grimaced, "I've been meaning to talk to you about that. My abilities seem to be fading."

Macen wore a pained look, "Now is not a good time for that reveal."

Grace shrugged, "It is what it is."

Macen nodded, "So be it. Celeste, what's the word on Rab?"

"The word is now I'm angry," Daggit said as he rose to his feet. Daggit had somehow managed to hang on to his grenade launched despite being in a stupor. He pumped the slide and shouldered the launcher once again. Firing a photon grenade, essentially a scaled down microtorpedo, he destroyed the array while it was distracted by the other SID team members shooting back at it.

"Boo-yah!" Daggit exclaimed as the array blew up.

Macen and the others rose out of their places of shelter. He nodded at Rockford who grabbed T'Lana. Rockford brought the Vulcan forward at gunpoint.

"Now, Ms. Public Affairs Officer, you will take point and lead us to the observation center," Macen decided.

"You are making a mistake here. One you will always regret," T'Lana warned.

"Why don't we see about that after I make the mistake?" Macen replied.

T'Lana stoically proceeded into the chasm that served as a stairwell to the lower chamber.

What appeared to be security teams rushed up the stairs at the descending SID team. The sight of T'Lana leading the Outbound Ventures contractors made the security units hesitate. They were quickly stunned.

But as they were forced into unconsciousness, transporters took hold of the bodies and spirited them away. Rockford pointed out to Macen that the guards were wearing Starfleet style biosensors on their belts. When they passed out, it triggered an automatic transport.

Macen was intrigued by the choice of the biosensors. Starfleet's experimentation with them lasted between 2271-2275. After that time, Starfleet changed its uniforms and abandoned the biosensors since several incidents had proven the biosensor signals could be used to track down Starfleet personnel.

The next glut of security personnel stunned T'Lana to get her out of the way. She too vanished. As the wave was dealt with, and subsequently vanished, Macen tapped his comm badge.

"Shannon, are there any life signs aboard the Andorian raiders?" he asked.

"Actually, every one of them just self destructed as if on cue," Forger replied.

"Start scanning for an unaccounted for ship or surface base," Macen instructed.

"If it's still unaccounted for, it means we can't already see it," Forger protested.

"Shannon," Macen scolded her.

"Okay, okay! We're on it," Forger promised.

When the SID team reached the Observation Center only one lone Vulcan woman was still present. She was unusual in that she wore her hair loose and shoulder length. Macen recognized her from the visual log Ro had sent him of Bashir and Douglas' "recruitment".

"Commander L'Haan," Macen warily acknowledged her presence.

"We may dispense with the pretences," L'Haan advised, "I am no more a Starfleet Commander than you are not one."

P'ris snickered slightly at that. Macen asked the obvious question, "Then how are you properly addressed?"

"I am a Senior Agent within Section 31," L'Haan answered easily, "But I suspect you already knew that. Agent Douglas has been rather loose lipped with Doctor Bashir, and Doctor Bashir, in turn has been an overflowing fount of knowledge to Captain Ro Laren. Something may have to be done about that."

"Are threatening my friend?" Macen inquired.

"Do I need to?" L'Haan turned the question around.

"Go ahead," Macen urged, "She'll bury your agents."

"Perhaps," L'Haan allowed, "But Captain Ro is vulnerable in other areas. She has the new Deep Space Nine to watch over. And of course, there is Captain Alfonso Reyes. She is quite fond of him."

"You really have no idea of who you're dealing with, do you?" Macen mused, "She will make it her life's mission to hunt you down and feed you your heart."

"It has been tried," L'Haan countered, "Many times."

"Not by Ro," Macen warned her.

"Why are you opposing us, Commander?" L'Haan queried him, "We were once allies against Cell 51. A greater threat to the Federation has arisen in the form of the Typhon Pact. Unlike the Dominion or the Borg, the Typhon Pact knows us to an intimate degree neither previous foe could boast about."

L'Haan carefully studied him, "You are a Starfleet Intelligence Officer. You should welcome and embrace new opportunities to place agents within the Pact."

"Let me put this as simply as I can," Macen began to explain; "The Andorian Empire is no longer part of the Federation. They are a foreign power. There's this little thing called the Prime Directive. We don't interfere in foreign affairs unless asked to. Also, I'm no longer with Starfleet. I'm Captain of the Solstice. This 'Commander' business has got to stop."

"Perhaps," L'Haan considered his words, "I may have missed the memo outlining those facts. Or perhaps they are the fiction. Regardless of the truth, I advise you to beware of Commander P'ris."

"And why is that?" Macen asked with some amusement.

"She began her career as an Inquisitor. She imprisoned her own people for violating the official Orthodoxy. Later, as she rose in the chain of command, she returned in her own superiors for violations of the same. She then suborned the very fringe elements she'd been pursuing throughout this time," L'Haan elaborated, "Made a Commander; she brought these fringe elements to colonies outside of the Star Empire. She conveniently transferred to another post just before the colonists were annihilated by forces under Sela's command."

L'Haan placed her piercing gaze on P'ris, "Commander P'ris then became Chairman Koval's right hand. She was poised to replace him when Shinzon's coup occurred. Commander P'ris was then sidelined by Praetor Tal'Aura when she placed Sela as Chairman of the Tal Shiar. Commander P'ris then approached Section 31 and offered to act as an agent of influence within the Star Empire."

"Following the Hobus disaster, Commander P'ris rose in acclaim and popularity for her tireless efforts aiding the remaining Romulan worlds consolidate power and authority," L'Haan related, "However, when Donatra seized the opportunity to elevate herself to the rank of Empress, she also promoted Sela to the position of Proconsul. Expecting to be named Praetor, Commander P'ris was once again disappointed as her own allegiances were being investigated by Sela's agents in the Tal Shiar."

"So now we come to her 'defection'," L'Haan began to wrap up her thought, "Commander P'ris 'happened' to discover a plot to pit the Gorn Hegemony against Federation forces. She shared these concerns with us but we investigated her claims and found they lacked corroboration. With the Tal Shiar moving against her, she abandoned the Star Empire and approached you, Commander Macen. It seems you have been swayed by her fables. Allow us to do you a favor and deal with her for you."

"Do I even need to tell you to go to hell?" Macen wondered.

"Pity," L'Haan said thoughtfully, "This decision will cost you."

She touched her biosensor and a transporter beam carried her away. Macen spun on his heels, "Everyone out! Now!"

The team mounted the stairs and Macen ordered them to scurry the monks along. They made it outside of the monastery as explosions echoed from the underground chambers beneath the complex. The dome shattered and collapsed in on itself. The monks gazed upon the scene with a sense of serenity that seemed absurdly out of place.

"Thank you, Commander," P'ris confided with Macen.

"For believing you?" Macen asked.

P'ris nodded, "Precisely. We have never been enemies per se but neither were we friends until recently."

"But we were allies on more than one occasion," Macen informed her, "I tend to believe in my ally's veracity."

"Brin, what about Shannon and the others?" Rockford asked.

"I think they'll be rather busy right now," Macen shared.

"If anything happens to Parva, I'll rip that 'L'Haan's' intestines out with a fork," Daggit growled.

Aboard the Solstice things were rapidly escalating. From Tactical, Jaycee Miller yelled out, "Starship decloaking aft of us. Unknown configuration."

"Shields up!" Forger ordered, "Edwin, get us a make on that ship."

Edwin Zimbalist plied his trade at the OPS station. Beside him, Radil instructed the CONN to break orbit. Forger had to grin.

"Thanks for reading my mind, Jenrya." Forger acknowledged Radil's efforts. She swiveled to face Miller, "Jaycee, what's the story on our troublemaker?"

"It appears to be a Bird-of-Prey built at a Federation shipyard," Miller reported.

Forger wondered if Miller was using too much peroxide in her hair and it had leaked to her brain. Then again, Forger practiced the same treatments so who was she to point fingers?

"Have you run it through the database?" Forger asked, "And have you armed the weapons?"

"Done it," Miller responded, "And I have the computer sifting through Jane's right now."

"Hello!" Miller suddenly exclaimed, "They're locking weapons now."

"Arm the aft torpedo launcher and prepare to fire," Forger instructed.

"Any chance I can take a preemptive shot?" Miller asked hopefully.

"Not in this lifetime," Forger disappointed her.

"They're firing!" Miller warned.

"Return fire," Forger ordered, "Radil bring us about so we can employ our phasers as well as our torpedo launchers. I've got a feeling our chase armament is outclassed."

"Holy crap!" Miller shouted, "Hold on to something!"

Explosions ripped through the small scoutship. Plasma conduits overloaded and station consoles shorted out. Forger was stunned.

"What the hell did they hit us with?" she enquired.

Miller looked quite put out, "A massive quantum torpedo volley combined with twin phase arrays working overtime. And they seemed to have slipped an invasive virus past Edwin. Our defensive systems are toast."

"Same goes for the whole ship," Zimbalist sullenly put in.

Forger activated a comm link to Engineering, "Parva, what's your status?"

"I scrammed the warp core," the Orion informed her acting captain, "The impulse reactor is wonky. Expect it to overload in thirty minutes or less."

"Got it," Forger said wearily, "I'm ordering everyone to abandon ship. So clear Engineering."

"Here we go again," Parva uttered before closing the line.

"She has a point," Miller grumped.

"Don't argue with me, Jaycee," Forger warned, "I'm surprised they haven't blown us to hell already."

"Okay, I'm going," Miller collected Zimbalist and headed for the escape pods.

"Shannon, Gilan and I have collected Telrik and Galen 3" Parva informed the XO, "We're boarding a pod now."

"Safe travels," Forger wished her. Forger suddenly looked alarmed, "Damn!"

Radil turned away from the pod she was prepping for the pair, "What?"

"What about Tessa?" Forger wondered.

"Didn't Galen 3 grab her isolinear rod?" Radil wanted to know.

"Do you really think Parva gave him a chance?" Forger countered.

"All right," Radil said grimly, "I'm coming with you."

"You should go," Forger urged.

"I'm not letting my baby grow up without its other mother," Radil declared.

Forger rolled her eyes, "I doubt the turbolift is operational."

"Then we'd best start climbing," Radil calmly replied.

Tessa was frantically beside herself when Forger and Radil entered. She gratefully clung to Forger, "I thought everyone had left me to die."

"Never," Forger promised her, "I need you to perform my SRS so I can finish my transition."

"Anything!" Tessa exclaimed, "Just take me with you!"

"Deactivate your program, Honey. And then I can pull your program rod," Forger gently instructed.

Tessa did so and Forger and Radil scrambled to an available escape pod. Radil paused before entering ahead of Forger, "I know you're not bi, and you're definitely not a lesbian, but if you ever come around to realizing you are, I'd be happy to run away with you."

"Are you implying what I think you are?" Forger inquired, "What about Kort?"

"He's got Hayley Galloway. He's already seeing her on the side when he travels to Bajor anyway. It'd just be a nudge to push him onward and upward," Radil revealed, "Just think about it, okay? And reconsider your wanting to undergo SRS if you accept my idea. I happen to love your penis."

"Um...okay?" Forger was rather flustered, "Can we go now?"

"Of course," Radil said brightly.

At that moment, Forger realized her life had only just begun to fall apart.

 

Chapter Seven

The crew of the Solstice sadly bore witness to the death of their scoutship and watched the wreckage follow them into P'Jem's atmosphere and burn up behind them. The escape pods landed hundreds of kilometers away from the monastery.

It took almost an hour to gather all of the survivors from the three escape pods. Galen 3 was eternally grateful that Tessa's program rod had been salvaged. He gushed his thanks over and over to Forger. In turn, she encrusted him with Tessa's safety.

Finally, Forger used an escape pod's comm system to signal Macen. To her surprise, he replied with a visual signal, "It's okay, Shannon. I'm in the Public Affairs office. The officer here won't require it any longer since she left the planet."

"We lost the Solstice," Forger gamely informed him, "We were attacked by some kind of Federation built Bird-of-Prey that decloaked behind us. It hit with everything imaginable. We pretty much didn't stand a chance."

"I don't doubt it," Macen assured her, "What you're referring to sounds like a Starfleet Ramses-class escort. It's not surprising you didn't recognize it. They've been built in limited numbers so far and Starfleet isn't advertising the fact that they've even been designed much less constructed."

"So what's next?" Forger inquired, "Do we start wearing robes and begin chanting?"

Macen grinned, "Actually the monks here have all taken vows of silence. Which makes dealing with them rather...easy. I've alerted your sister of our predicament."

"You expected the Solstice to get destroyed?" Forger didn't know whether to be amazed or dismayed.

"Senior Agent L'Haan was far too confident in her agents' ability to inflict harm upon us not to expect Section 31 to have some major firepower in the area," Macen explained, "It was nothing personal."

"Well, I hope Amanda arranges some transport off of this rock soon," Forger admitted, "There's not a lot in our area except some rocks."

"Yes, well Section 31 destroyed the monastery here as well," Macen informed her, "So fifty monks are now crammed into three women's living quarters."

"I bet the ladies appreciate that," Forger said wryly.

"The women are all off planet so their quarters were up for grabs," Macen shared, "At least we don't have to stay and watch them squabble over space."

"Thank god," Forger breathed.

"Shouldn't we though," Macen mused.

Douglas received an update from L'Haan. The forward base on P'Jem had had to be abandoned. Her staff was now aboard the Sentinel had headed for Izar as well. L'Haan understood Bashir was with Douglas. The Vulcan wanted to know why.

"Julian has agreed to join Section 31 in its mission to defend the Federation," Douglas enthused, "He's finally seen the agency's necessity."

"Indeed?"L'Haan remarked, "I suppose we shall see if the good doctor has truly seen the light or if this is some self serving fiction."

"Julian wouldn't lie to me," Douglas insisted.

"I do not believe the Doctor would," L'Haan clarified, "But have you correctly interpreted all of his statements?"

"Of course I have," Douglas retorted.

"I suppose time will bear that statement out," L'Haan supposed.

"Yes, it will," Douglas coldly replied.

"Hurry to Izar," L'Haan urged, "I look forward to greeting Doctor Bashir."

That mollified Douglas somewhat, "And Julian is looking forward to seeing you again."

"Is he really?" L'Haan wondered before severing the connection.

Douglas began to wonder what Bashir was doing in the rear of the runabout.

While Douglas was managing the cockpit, and conversing with L'Haan, Bashir was in the rear compartments holding a conversation of his own. Knowing full well that any transmission made from the Gadfly's comm array would leave a record, Bashir had chose to utilize the emergency beacon in the runabout's escape pod. His chosen participant was Captain Ro.

Bashir began by explaining to Ro how Section 31 was involved in the assassination of the Andorian Emperor. Her reply did little to encourage him, "Doctor, you do realize you're still culpable under Federation and Andorian laws?"

Bashir knew this would be a sticking point with Ro. She'd been Deep Space Nine's Chief of Security before graduating into the Executive Officer's slot and then her final segue into commanding both the old, and now the new, stations. However, Ro's time with both the Bajoran Resistance and the Maquis gave her a certain leniency regarding particular motivations.

"Captain, I can assure you I had no idea that Sarina had been sent to kill Emperor Thrak," Bashir said somewhat desperately, "I was told we were there to persuade Thrak to stand down on the territorial claims against the Tellarites."

Ro frowned, "It seems your actions, whether intentional or not, settled that issue already."

"How so?" Bashir was understandably behind in the news.

"The colonies held a referendum today. The votes were tallied by computer and an overwhelming majority voted to throw in with the Andorian government. The Tellarite officials were startled to discover that the Andorians had already dispatched a transition team several days ago," Ro explained.

"But that was before the assassination," Bashir was stunned.

"We're dealing with Section 31, remember?" Ro replied, "From everything you and Brin have told me, that involves wheels within wheels. I wouldn't be surprised if you were included in this mission solely to serve as a scapegoat to distract the Andorian public."

"But Sarina defied those orders and rescued me," Bashir asserted.

"Don't sing her praises just yet, Julian," Ro counseled, "She's still a killer and you're a fugitive wanted for being an accessory to murder. That's a lovely gift to hand to your lover."

"Sarina is just a bit confused," Bashir protested, "I can bring her out of Section 31."

"Do you really think so?" Ro asked acerbically, "Because I don't."

'How can you say that?" Bashir asked pleadingly.

"I can say that as her CO and as an expert in illegal causes," Ro answered sharply, "Sarina chose to abandon the norms of law and government when she joined Section 31. She sees them as a hindrance. She's above them now. The ends are more important than the means. She's justified every action with a sanctimonious sense of superiority. She can act with impunity because she knows she is in the right, no matter what anyone else says."

Bashir fell silent for several seconds, "Was that how it was for you?"

"Pretty much," Ro admitted, "And I didn't come anywhere near as extreme as most of the Maquis. We won't go into my Resistance days. Suffice it to say I discovered I had limits then as well. The basic point here is she's utterly convinced she's in the right. And I doubt even you can persuade her otherwise."

"But I have to try," Bashir stated simply.

"Okay, I'll give you that," Ro allowed, "Where are you headed?"

"Izar," Bashir informed her, "I'll give you the exact location after I arrive."

"All right," Ro agreed, "Now you'd better cut this short. Sarina is probably already getting suspicious."

"Of me?" Bashir was wounded.

"Especially of you," Ro advised him, "Ro out."

Bashir secured the emergency beacon and then quickly ordered two meals from the replicator. When he came to the cockpit he could tell Ro had been correct about Douglas' suspicions. She smiled gratefully as he handed over a tray.

"My favorite," she grinned, "How thoughtful. I was beginning to think you'd sleep your life away."

"And miss the chance to keep you company?" Bashir said with as much charm as he could muster, "Heavens forefend."

They ate in companionable silence. After Douglas finished she waited for Bashir to be done, "Since you were kind enough to bring dinner, I'll recycle the plates and trays."

"If you insist," Bashir graciously allowed.

"Oh, I do," Douglas said playfully.

When she reached the rear cabins, she recycled the dinnerware. She then used one of the comp/comms to visit the comm logs. Only seeing her conversation with L'Haan listed, Douglas breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she's only been imagining Bashir's discomfort and nervousness. Whatever the case may be, she still had to keep an eye on him until he'd fully committed to Section 31. That would only be a few days away. She just had to be watchful, and patient, until then.

Less than twenty-four hours later, the USS Krechet arrived at P'Jem. The Eagle-class cruiser had been returning from Klingon space when diverted to the Vulcan world. She'd been conducting joint exercises with the Klingon Defense Force alongside two dozen other Starfleet vessels. The Solstice crew was quickly beamed aboard while an engineering detail was sent down to the planet.

The ship's captain explained to Macen the Krechet would be returning to P'Jem after delivering Macen and his crewmates to Spacedock. Admiral Amanda Forger had cut the orders and the Starfleet Commander-in-Chief, Edward Jellico, had countersigned them. So the Krechet basically existed to get Macen's crew to Earth in record time.

Having traversed the distance at the Krechet's rated maximum warp speed, they arrived in Earth orbit in just a few hours. The crew was beamed over to Spacedock in eight person groups. Only requiring two transfers, they were all surprised to find Admiral Forger greeting them.

The elder Forger had once been paralyzed from the waist down by her now ex-husband. A radical surgery employing a neural pathway shunt on her spinal cord, performed by the Doctor of Voyager fame and Tessa as well, had enabled Forger to learn how to walk again.

Admiral Forger still utilized braces similar to Parva's, and it looked as though she always would. But she was no longer confined to a hover chair. So she was eternally grateful to her surgeons and Parva for designing the shunt in first place under the Doctor and Tessa's watchful eyes.

Admiral Forger's most enthusiastic reunion was with her younger sister. She practically squealed with delight, "Shannon!"

They fiercely embraced and then the Admiral recomposed her generally dignified air, "Captain Macen, I have something to show you."

Admiral Forger led Macen and his crew to an observation window near an umbilical link to a ship. Outside the window lay a Nova-class surveyor. Forger knew Macen had a fondness for them that exceeded his great love for the Blackbird-class.

"Pretty ship," he sighed.

"She's yours," Admiral Forger informed him.

He gave her a surprised looked and she modestly shrugged, "I was going to try and get you to retire the Solstice anyway."

She handed him a padd, "Here's all the pertinent details."

Macen overlooked some of the data on the screen," She's registered as the Obsidian?"

"The NDR 74315-1 SS Obsidian, to be precise," Admiral Forger explained, "Civilian registries don't employ alphanumerics to designate a continuance of registry numbers on a new vessel. The latest Enterprise may have an "E" in its name but as a civilian contractor you don't get that privelage."

"I don't know what to say," Macen was flabbergasted.

"Just go activate your command codes and get underway for Deep Space Nine," Forger told him, "Your friend, Captain Ro, has some new information you need to hear."

"Do we have a new contract?" Macen wondered.

"Let's board the Obsidian and we can talk," Admiral Forger suggested.

Admiral Forger and Macen settled in his new Ready Room after he'd transferred the ship's command codes into his name, biosignature, and voice print. Shannon Forger did the same as the Executive Officer. Every other crew members' voice prints and biosignatures were already on file. It would be up to the younger Forger to assign who held what position aboard the starship. Shannon Forger immediately went to her office, even before checking out her assigned quarters, and began designated personnel roles.

"So," Macen grinned like a Cheshire, "Tell me what interesting modifications the SPYards have made to my ship."

"Other than augmenting your shielding and adding ablative plating to the hull, none," Admiral Forger replied. She saw Macen surprised disappointment, "Oh, they also enhanced your sensor platforms."

"Really?" Macen was expecting it to be a joke.

"Really, Brin," Admiral Forger assured him, "The SPYards engineering staff looked at your needs and your profile. They felt this was the perfect solution to status as an independent contractor. An independent contractor that wouldn't have access to advanced Starfleet technology."

Macen took it in. He was coping, obviously disappointed, but coping, "I can see how the SPYards personnel could draw that conclusion."

"Brin, before Alynna demoted you back to 'Commander', and sent you to infiltrate the Maquis, you were briefly assigned as a Nova-class CO," Forger reminded him, "That was a nuts and bolts, plain Jane version of a surveyor as well."

"I only commanded the Eclipse for three weeks," Macen dourly reminded her.

"But it must have made an impact because you later named one of your SID ships after her," Forger probed his reaction, "And just how did you lose another ship?"

"You read my report?" Macen inquired.

"Of course," Forger reassured him.

"Then you know I wasn't aboard the Solstice when she was destroyed," Macen stated, "Shannon had the center seat. Her report beside Jaycee Miller's is fascinating reading."

"Section 31 has Ramses-class ships," Forger bitterly remarked, "It figures. We don't have enough of them in the fleet but Section 31 is probably producing them with cookie cutters."

"Amanda, we also have a bigger picture issue," Macen divulged, "L'Haan tried to get me to turn over P'ris to her."

"I would have done it in a heartbeat," Forger confided.

"That's why I'm not you," Macen quipped. Seeing her startled reaction, he began to explain; "L'Haan was trying to convince me that P'ris' statements and data regarding the so-called 'Gorn Initiative' were false."

"They very well may be," Forger reminded him, "We haven't corroborated that data yet."

"I don't think you'll be able to," Macen guessed, "The plan required Federation starships attacking the Gorn home world. But why did it list them as 'Federation starships' and not as 'Starfleet' assets?"

"I don't know but we're reviewing every command level officer and their crews right now," Forger shared, "We have been since P'ris delivered her information."

"I think that's a waste of time," Macen informed her, "L'Haan's insistence on eliminating P'ris, and the presence of a Ramses-class starship in Section 31's possession, leads me to believe Section 31 will attack the Gorn."

"Hence leading to a war between the Khitomer Accords powers and the Typhon Pact," Forger recalled Macen's report in its entirety, "And would allow the Andorian Empire to seize at least one Sector."

"They want to expand at least from Sector 006 which they control now to claiming at least Sector 005, which Vulcan controls, and probably Sector 007," Macen explained.

"Which the Tellarites are in authority over," Forger realized.

"It's no great leap of the imagination to foresee the Andorian Empire reaching out into Sector 001 as well," Macen warned.

"I can't believe the Andorians would attack Earth or her space," Forger denied the possibility.

"The Breen did it," Macen recalled that fateful day, "And they're a lot further out."

Forger looked crestfallen, "I'll bump your reports to Starfleet Intelligence. I'll attach a 'Priority One' classification so Alynna will get it right away."

Admiral Alynna Nechayev was not only Amanda Forger's mentor but she's always been a minder to Brin Macen and Mackenzie Calhoun since she'd achieved the rank of "Captain" and beyond. She'd sheltered and protected Macen and Calhoun on several occasions when no one else would touch them. Of course, Macen could still remember Nechayev as a junior officer, new to Starfleet Intelligence, and he'd tried to steer her in the right directions. After so many decades of camaraderie, Nechayev tended to think of Macen as a member of her family.

"Brin, I have to ask," Forger began, "Is Tom Riker coming aboard? Because that really mucks up your command structure."

Macen chuckled, "Tom is CO over Serenity Station. That's where he can do the most good. Shannon is proving to be the perfect First Officer. She risked her own life and safety to pull Tessa off of the Solstice after everyone had abandoned ship."

Macen wore a wry expression, "Everyone but Radil, that is."

"There are several factors to Radil's pregnancy I don't believe quite yet," Forger admitted beginning to tick off fingers, "First off, I have difficulty believe Shannon would ever have sex with a woman. She's just not the type and has never had the inclination."

She ticked off a second finger, "I also have difficulty believing Shannon would cavort with anyone already married to someone else. Despite my caveat regarding the first objection, if she ever slept with a woman, it would be a single woman."

"Third, what the hell kind of game is Radil playing at?" Forger demanded to know.

"At its inception, Kort and Radil chose a so-called 'open' marriage. Kort tended to let Radil sleep with any woman she chose while he stoically sat by," Macen shared, "Eventually, Kort took up a polyamorous relationship with Doctor Hayley Galloway. Radil, despite her best intentions, is burning with jealousy. I think she laid a trap for Shannon and intentionally got pregnant."

"I'll kill her," Forger growled. Seeing Macen's bemused expression she held up a hand, "I'll wait until she delivers the baby and then I'll kill her."

"So what's next?" Macen asked.

"I already told you, you report to Deep Space Nine," Forger huffed.

"I have some mild staffing shortages now that we're aboard this ship," Macen reminded Forger.

"Ro has some thoughts regarding that issue and Chris Pike has been selecting candidates for your new crew for several weeks now," Forger revealed.

"Interesting," Macen dryly commented.

The door chimed and Macen bade it to open. Radil stood revealed. She'd obviously just finished another sneezing fit given how she was sniffling.

"I'll leave you to it then," Forger said. As she exited, she shot Radil a death glare.

Radil heaved a sigh, "I'll be leaving the team."

"I kind of expected that," Macen admitted, "What are your plans?"

"I'll stay aboard Serenity. Gerrit Gren has offered to make me his Chief Deputy. I've already accepted," Radil confessed.

"And you're not pushing Tom to make you the Chief of Security because of the baby," Macen surmised.

Radil guiltily nodded, "It looks like I'll be a single mother after all."

"I can't say I'm surprised," Macen divulged, "But I can say I'm sorry."

"Well, I'm surprised," Radil lamented.

"You pushed every button Kort had," Macen said, "You knew how this was going to go. It was a make or break decision when you seduced Shannon. I'm not quit certain how you guaranteed your pregnancy but I can make a few educated guesses. Suffice it say, you wanted to hurt Kort and you did. Now you have to live with that choice."

"Damn you!" Radil snarled and she stormed out of the Ready Room.

A few minutes later Rockford appeared, "What's wrong with Jenrya? She practically ran over me at the turbolift."

"I splashed her with a dose of the truth," Macen shared, "She didn't appreciate it."

"About how she seduced Shannon for her own purposes or how she used artificial means to inseminate herself?" Rockford wondered as she took a seat.

"I alluded to them both," Macen informed her, "The make it or break it section came when she began bemoaning the fact Kort is leaving her. I pointed out that was the choice she made."

"Ah, the ol' 'suck it up and deal with it' approach," Rockford grinned, "Gotcha. No wonder she's pissed."

"Oh, and she permanently left the team," Macen announced.

"Your choice or hers?" Rockford wanted to know.

"Hers," Macen revealed, "And that came before she mentioned Kort was kicking her out."

"Well, it certainly would have come up after you verbally slapped her," Rockford mused.

"So, how are our quarters?" Macen shifted topics to lighter fare.

"Do I even have to tell you how spacious the Captain's Quarters are on this tub compared to the Solstice?" Rockford grinned, "I'd swear they're even roomier than the old Obsidian."

"We'll have to acquire a Galaxy-class starship someday," Macen said thoughtfully, "Then you'll see comfort."

"And just where would you get one of those?" Rockford dryly asked.

"Ben Sisko is thinking of selling off the USS Robinson on the Ferengi market. Quark's trying to broker the deal," Macen shared.

"Does Starfleet know about this?" Rockford asked, "And isn't Sisko exploring deep space right now?"

"No and yes," Macen grinned, "But Quark felt that the best kind of starship to sell was one deployed on a long range exploration mission."

"Quark would," Rockford ruefully conceded.

"Should we check on the others and see if they're settled in yet?" Macen asked.

Rockford wore a knowing smirk, "You just want to take this ship on a test drive."

"Yup," Macen cheerfully agreed.

She casually threw a hand aside, "Who am I to stop you? After all, you're the Captain."

"You say that like it's bad thing," Macen remarked.

"That's because it could be," Rockford commented, "I may not be a telepath like T'Kir was but I know you. Warts and all."

"Yet you stick around," Macen observed.

"Yeah," Rockford ruefully replied, "I must be as nuts as you."

"You will pay for that remark," Macen warned her, "Not now but later."

"In the bedroom?" Rockford was intrigued.

"Where else?" Macen retorted.

"Something to look forward to," Rockford happily declared, "I always enjoy paying my debts to you. You usually reciprocate in the nicest of ways."

"Nice?" Macen scoffed, "That's like the kiss of death."

"Nice is good," Rockford insisted, gazing deeply into his eyes, "Nice is very good."

She suddenly looked impish, "And so is enthusiasm."

"No worries there," Macen quipped.

"Okay," Rockford got decisive, "Either ravish me now or inspect the ship."

"Would you hate me if I chose the ship?" Macen eagerly inquired.

"You already have," Rockford sighed, "But I'll forgive you. Just reciprocate like mad, at least three or four times, and I'll be placated."

"Love you!" Macen darted from around his desk and exited the Ready Room.

Rockford took a moment to study the Ready Room. Addressing the ship, she remarked, "I hate you already."

 

Chapter Eight

Douglas landed the Gadfly on a landing tarmac shared by two separate, and expansive, training facilities. The larger of the two was Starfleet's Advanced Tactical Training Center. Bashir had almost gone numb after learning this from Douglas. The smaller, and more discreet, facility was used by Section 31 to train operatives for field work. The two centers shared many of the same instructors.

Two agents had met Bashir and Douglas at the field. They then drove the couple to meet L'Haan in a skimmer. Outside of the training camps a small bunker-like set of buildings lay in the woods surrounding the camps. Inside, L'Haan awaited them.

"Excellent work, Agent Douglas," L'Haan greeted her protégé. Nodding at Bashir, "It seems you have finally come into the fold, Doctor. Or have you?"

"Sarina's goals are now my own," Bashir assured L'Haan.

"Excellent," L'Haan seemed to accept his assurances at face value, "Then you will not object to undertaking an assignment."

"It seems I already have previously," Bashir retorted.

"Quite," L'Haan conceded, "This will be a tad more difficult."

"Than killing a sitting emperor in his own palace?" Bashir scoffed, "I don't see how."

"These targets knows who you are, Doctor," L'Haan replied calmly, "The targets also know of our existence. They shall be wary of you."

"What, or who, is the target?" Douglas inquired before Bashir could really get himself into trouble.

"Outbound Ventures has become a problem as of late," L'Haan stated, "You will board the Sentinel and proceed to their Serenity Station. Once there, you will destroy the station and any Outbound Ventures ships foolish enough to try and defend it."

"I see," Douglas said quietly.

Bashir wasn't as receptive, "Those are civilians."

"Those civilians cost us our forward base on P'Jem," L'Haan informed him, "They must be dealt with before they cost us more."

"And how do we neutralize a space station and her peripheral escorts?" Douglas inquired.

"Disable the docking clamps' release mechanism," L'Haan instructed, "Then disable the escape pod launchers. The runabouts docked there must also be neutralized. Once these steps have been taken, it shall be simplicity itself to overload the reactor core."

"Why do so many innocents have to die?" Bashir pointedly inquired.

"Commander Macen broke our truce," L'Haan said gravel, "Now he will learn doing so comes with a steep price."

Bashir opened his mouth but L'Haan spoke over him, "Once Serenity has been destroyed you will intercept the newly christened Obsidian and destroy it as well."

"And what type of vessel is this 'Obsidian'?" Bashir wondered.

"A Nova-class surveyor," L'Haan replied matter-of-factly.

"How does one ambush a roving sensor platform?" Bashir had task.

"Our Ramses-class Sentinel is more than a Klingon inspired platform. It is also proof that we have solved the longstanding riddle of how the Klingon Defense Force was able to develop a Bird-of-Prey that could fire while cloaked. That is how you will ambush Macen's ship."

"I see," Bashir admitted gravely.

Later that evening, as the night began to fall on Izar's largest continent, the western peninsula began to be touched by darkness. New Seattle was built beside a natural feature reminiscent of Earth's Puget Sound. The surrounding forest and mountains were also reminiscent of the Olympic and Cascade ranges surrounding the Sound. So New Seattle had been the colonists' first choice of names for their capitol.

Starfleet's Advanced Tactical Training Center had been built in a valley adjacent to New Seattle. Section 31 had cleared out timber to establish their training center. The bunkers were camouflaged by sensor baffling netting and the verdant growth of the forest they were sunk into.

Bashir had begun his trek to the landing tarmac over an hour ago and he'd finally reached the Gadfly. Boarding the runabout, he immediately went to the escape pod and repeated his earlier effort with the comm array. Knowing he didn't have time to risk a visual communication with Ro, he sent a written transcript of planned events. He quickly exited the ship and began his trek home.

Nearby, from a place of concealment, Douglas watched him go. L'Haan had alerted her to Bashir's "stroll" and Douglas had dutifully followed him. Discreetly of course. She wanted Bashir to carry out whatever covert action he intended to complete.

After Bashir had withdrawn from the Gadfly, Douglas boarded the craft. Once again, the runabout's comm logs were nearly a blank. But that didn't mean that Bashir hadn't contacted anyone. She knew Bashir was quite clever.

After a moment's thought, she cursed herself for overlooking the escape pod and its emergency beacon. Accessing it, she quickly found the records of Bashir's communiqués with Ro. Reviewing the text of the last, her heart fell.

"Oh Julian, what have you done?" Douglas whispered.

Meeting with L'Haan, Douglas described the damage that had been done. L'Haan took the news rather placidly, "It is to be expected. The answer is simple. You deal with the Obsidian before diverting to Serenity Station. Once aboard the station you will disable the good Doctor and leave him to his fate when the station destroys itself."

Douglas looked stricken, for that was how she felt, but she gamely nodded her acceptance of the proposal; "That's how we'll play it then."

"Excellent," L'Haan stifled the urge to smile.

Ro read over her message and bumped the matter up to Starfleet Intelligence. It came as no surprise when Admiral Nechayev addressed her concerns directly, "Captain Ro, the supposed Section 31 timetable is to strike after the Obsidian departs from Deep Space Nine and is underway to her home port of Serenity Station. I want you to deploy the Defiant before the Obsidian disembarks from Deep Space Nine and proceed to Barrinor to deal with the threat.""

"But the Obsidian isn't due here until tomorrow," Ro reminded Nechayev, "We could leave now and intercept Section 31's ship before there is a crisis."

Nechayev's opinion of Ro cooled considerably at that moment, "The Obsidian's best speed is Warp 8.3, and even then, only for twelve hours. The Defiant easily exceeds that threshold and Barrinor is in the neighboring sector so you should easily outpace Captain Macen. I want you to standby while he transits the Bajor and Barrinor sectors."

"How long should we wait for trouble to begin?" Ro inquired.

"No more than two days after Macen and his crew arrive in the system," Nechayev instructed, "That should give Section 31 enough time to rethink their strategy."

"And you really think that's going happen?" Ro asked skeptically.

"Stranger events have occurred, Captain," Nechayev counseled Ro, "And it doesn't matter what I think. These orders stem from Admiral Akaar's office."

Ro knew Leonard James Akaar was the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander. Technically he outranked Nechayev in the order of command. But not in rank or discreet responsibilities. Nechayev also sat on the secretive Council of Five with Akaar and as such equaled him in many respects. Jellico was grooming the Cappellan to replace him as Commander-in-Chief here shortly.

"All right," Ro accepted things at face value despite personally knowing Nechayev's devious ways, "Brin and his crew will be here tomorrow. I'll brief him when he arrives."

"Excellent," Nechayev wore a thin smile, "It should be nostalgic for you two to be working together again."

"Trust me, it happens often enough for us not to have time enough to miss it," Ro quipped.

"I'm sure," Nechayev retorted.

Ro could have smacked Nechayev at that point, "It'll be taken care, Admiral. I'm on it."

"I'm sure you are," Ro wasn't certain what Nechayev was intimating at but she already knew she didn't appreciate it.

The Obsidian arrived after Beta Watch had relieved the bulk of Deep Space Nine's senior staff. Ro received a page from her exec, who was also the Bajoran liaison. Colonel Cenn Descka informed Ro that Macen was at Pylon Four, Dock Six. Ro's Chief of Security, Jefferson Blackmer, had taken a mixed team of Starfleet and Bajoran Militia officers to process the Outbound Ventures crew's entry into the station. Mainly, they had to add the team's side arms into the computer so they would be exempt from the dampening field that neutralized proscribed weapons.

Ro waited outside the crossover that joined Pylon Four to the station core. She grinned when she saw Macen, "You look as young as ever, you bastard."

"And you look more beautiful than ever," Macen replied with a smile, "You've aged into a gracefully elegant woman, Laren."

Ro looked to Rockford, "Does he spin this BS for you too?"

"I think it's in his job description," Rockford chuckled.

"So how's Elias?" Ro inquired of Rockford.

Rockford grinned at the gentle dig. While Commander Elias Vaughn had been XO of the old, Cardassian built Deep Space Nine, Rockford and he had enjoyed a brief but memorable love affair, "He's doing well. Semi-retirement suits him. But you could asked Prynn that and you probably have. Regularly."

Lt. Commander Prynn Tenmei was Vaughn's daughter. She was also the Defiant's XO and CONN/OPS Officer. Ro smirked.

"You really must be half the detective they say you are," Ro retorted.

"And you're an overprotective friend," Rockford informed Ro, "My days of trying to kill Brin are long gone."

"Just keep it that way, Okay?" Ro urged.

"Alynna sent me a rather cryptic message saying I had to talk to you," Macen told Ro, "And Amanda practically shoved me all the way here since you seem to have a solution to some of my current staffing problems."

"We'll discuss Nechayev's mystery in my office," Ro informed Macen, "As for staffing, follow me."

The trio went to Quark's bar/embassy. Ro maneuvered them through the crowded place. Over twenty-eight hundred souls called Deep Space Nine home at any given time. And a great many of them congregated at Quark's. Quark himself ushered them to a table.

"So, how is my franchise on Serenity Station doing?" Quark asked with eager interest.

"Business is booming," Macen looked around, "Not quite this booming but busy nonetheless. But you already knew that."

"I just wanted to hear to from a satisfied customer. I have to uphold the reputation of the brand," Quark said proudly. And then he looked worried, "You are a satisfied customer, aren't you?"

"Very," Macen admitted.

"Would you like to thumbprint a statement to that effect?" Quark suddenly held out a padd.

"Wouldn't I have to author a testimonial first?" Macen wondered.

"No need. I've already taken care of the details," Quark assured him.

"Leave it with me and I'll see about it," Macen insisted.

"But..." Quark protested.

"Leave it," Macen instructed rather sternly.

"Of course, you have things to discuss," Quark allowed, "I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Does he ever give up?" Rockford asked.

"He wouldn't be Quark if he did," Ro assured her.

"Now, personnel problem," Macen reminded Quark.

"Wait just a minute," Ro deflected the question, "They should be here any minute now."

"Who?" Macen wondered.

Two Cardassian women entered Quark's as if on cue. One wore a Cardassian Guard armored uniform. The other was in a utilitarian business suit. They gazed around the room. When their gaze caught Ro she waved them down.

The pair joined Macen and Rockford. Ro made the introductions, "Captain Macen and Detective Rockford meet Dalin Zivan Slaine and Detective Ziva Delain."

"Detective?" Rockford's curiosity was piqued.

"Indeed," Delain seemed pleased as well, "It seems it's a small quadrant tonight."

"Dalin Slaine is my Tactical Officer. She's also the station's Second Officer," Ro said proudly.

"Laren has mentioned you, Dalin Slaine," Macen admitted, "She's understandably impressed by you."

"You are very kind, Captain Macen," Slaine demurred, "Captain Ro always speaks highly of you."

"Can the mutual appreciation society," Rockford flippantly ordered, "What's important is why Detective Delain is here on Deep Space Nine."

Delain decided she liked Rockford's impertinent attitude, "I came to be here because of a mutual acquaintance of Captain Macen's."

"Really?" Macen perked up, "Who?"

"Lyoti Mariska, of course," Delain said brightly.

Rockford wore a Cheshire grin, "You remember her. She's an ex-girlfriend."

Ro suddenly cast an appraising look Macen's way, "Something you want to tell me?"

"Maybe later," Macen murmured.

"I seem to recall you discovered her 'third spoon'," Rockford gibed.

The two Cardassian laughed over that. Delain was especially amused, "Lyoti sings your praises, Captain."

"I'm sure she did more than sing on a few occasions," Rockford quipped.

"Yes, she did," Delain said authoritatively.

"So, you've deftly avoided the question," Macen reminded Delain.

"Brilliant change of subject," Delain grinned, "I was, until recently, a constable on Rikhellan V. It's subject world with a sizeable Cardassian population. We have our own cities while the natives dwell in theirs. I was investigating a case that involved the Unionist officials before they lost power in the election cycle that made Rekena Garan castellan. I lost my position under the former regime. Afterwards I went private with my business partner who was a former member of the Cardassian Information Bureau. We were on a sensitive case that ended up with her death and my expulsion from the Union."

"I sought out Mariska and she steered me to Deep Space Nine. She felt I could learn about Federation laws and legal practices before going into business for myself once again," Delain explained.

"Maybe we could give you a job," Rockford suggested.

"Really?" Delain looked eager.

"I have my own agency," Rockford informed her, "I could easily hire you. Are you interested?"

"Of course I am!" Delain exclaimed, "I'd love to work for you!"

"My agency has an office aboard this station. Let's go there and talk," Rockford suggested.

"You mean you're that Rockford?" Delain was startled.

"None other," Rockford smiled, "Coming with me?"

Delain almost toppled her chair she rose so fast. The ladies left. Ro turned to Slaine.

"Zivan, would you mind getting Wyn for me?" Ro asked.

Slaine wore a knowing smirk, "Finally found someone to pawn her off on, eh?"

"You're not helping my sales pitch," Ro complained.

Slaine shrugged, "Give him the hard luck speech. How can he resist?"

"Shoo!" Ro hissed.

"So who's the hard luck case?" Macen mirthfully inquired.

Ro sighed, "Her name is Wyn Mesa. Until recently she was a member of the Bajoran Militia. She was their single most capable pilot."

"Was?" Macen prompted her to continue.

"Wyn is highly competitive. She and a few other pilots were hot-dogging around Bajor's moons. Accidents happened and she was the sole survivor. And even then, she barely survived. The Militia dismissed her and she ended up on the station looking for work as a shuttle pilot. But of course, with her record, no one will touch her," Ro related the facts.

"Yet you want me to take her on?" Macen asked.

"Come on, Brin! You let Hannah Grace pilot every ship you've owned," Ro accused.

"Calm down," Macen suggested, "I'll talk to her. It just so happens with Rhiann leaving the crew I'm in need of a pilot."

"You won't regret this," Ro promised.

"Laren, I haven't said 'yes' yet," Macen reminded her, "I said I'd talk to her. Nothing more or less."

"You'll love her. You'll see," Ro assured him.

"Yes, we will," Macen muttered.

Macen swiftly discovered that Wyn was as spirited as advertised. She was a bubbling fount of confidence and enthusiasm. She was definitely a risk taker. An important aspect in a pilot. The question remained though, had she learned her limitations?

"You seem to have doubts about me," Wyn commented at last.

"You have to understand why," Macen countered, "By all reports you're good at what you do. But you're also headstrong, cocky, and reckless to a fault. That got your wingmen killed and almost claimed your life as well. Now I'm left wondering what that taught you. If it taught you anything."

Wyn's face contorted as a surge of anger threatened to overwhelm her. But she managed to temper her rushing emotions. Which was a positive sign for Macen.

"I made dreadful mistake when I led those pilots to their deaths," Wyn said, "And yes, I said I led them. I was the senior pilot and I was also considered the best among them. They wouldn't have engaged in any of the maneuvers that got them killed if I hadn't issued the challenge and led them into it. Those deaths haunt me every day and night. Especially at night. Do you have any idea of what it's like to be tormented by five boryhas every waking and sleeping moment?"

Macen was familiar with the Bajoran version of ghosts, "I've been visited by my fair share."

Wyn could hear the conviction in Macen's voice and nodded, "I believe you. So, to basically answer your question, I've learned my limits. I've also learned when not to throw lives away uselessly."

"But you are willing to throw them away usefully," Macen mused.

"Every Bajoran knows the value of dying for a cause," Wyn sad forcefully, "I just had to learn which causes are worth it. Is yours?"

Macen appreciated the pointed question, "I can't discuss the details of my contracts with Starfleet or other entities openly but I think you'd fit in with Outbound Ventures' mission. In fact, I think you'd excel at being a member of my crew."

"Captain Ro said your group was some kind of trouble shooters," Wyn expressed her interpretation of Ro's earlier comments.

Ro winced, "That's not exactly what I said."

Macen chuckled, "No worries, Laren. You're off the hook. All right Mesa, I'll tell you this much. Outbound Ventures is a security and investigative agency. My crew and investigative team are frequently contracted by Starfleet, other governmental bodies, and private individuals to resolve delicate situations. Most of which can never be discussed with anyone lacking certain credentials or clearances."

"So you're spies," Wyn guessed.

"Not exactly," Macen replied.

"Commandoes?" Wyn ventured again.

"Not quite," Macen shot her down again.

"Mercenaries then," Wyn was growing frustrated.

Macen ruefully said, "Why don't you wait until we have a private moment and I'll fill you in as best I can without giving away anything classified."

"Okay, when do we do that?" Wyn forcefully asked.

Macen looked to Ro. Ro smiled, "I'll let you use the staff briefing room."

"Any time in the near future?" Macen wondered.

"Now?" Ro groaned.

"I think Mesa's internal warp core will breach if we don't go now." Macen opined.

"Damn straight," Wyn concurred.

Ro sighed, "Let me settle the bill with Quark and we'll go."

Macen rose from the table and motioned for Wyn to follow, "Come on then. This could take a few minutes."

"What's Captain Ro see in that Ferengi anyway?" Wyn asked as they proceeded out of the bar/embassy.

"It may be a Bajoran thing," Macen quipped.

"I don't see how," Wyn bristled.

"The First Lady of the Ferengi Alliance is a Bajoran," Macen reminded Wyn.

"Oh yeah, Leeta," Wyn recalled.

"The truth is, Ro sees Quark as a challenge and he loves a challenge. Plus he's the truest friend she has on the station. That was true even when Commander Vaughn was aboard and Ro was the Chief of Security."

"Have they ever...?" Wyn fumbled over the question.

"Have they ever been intimate?" the unfinished question amused Macen.

Wyn nodded and Macen smirked, "I don't know. She's involved with Captain Reyes now but I think Quark may still carry a torch for her. Whatever is between them, I leave it to them. That's where it belongs."

"You're the strangest human I've ever met," Wyn proclaimed.

"That maybe because I'm not human," Macen replied.

He enjoyed watching Wyn's eyes bulge.

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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