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Collaborators - 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

Inside the Commanding Officer's office offset from Ops within the Immense-class variant Deep Space Nine, Captain Ro Laren stared at her Tactical and Strategic Affairs Office, Dalin Zivan Slaine, in utter disbelief, "What happened?"

Slaine repeated herself, "Cardassia Prime and Bajor are each reporting assassination attempts on the Castellan, the Royal Monarch, and the First Minister."

The part of Ro's mind that wasn't numbed registered that Slaine put her people's rulers first despite being stationed on a Starfleet starbase in the Bajoran Sector, "Was anyone injured?"

Ro, after being AWOL from Starfleet to join the Maquis, had enlisted in the Bajoran Militia prior to Bajor's admission to the Federation. She'd served as DS9's Chief of Security through her transition back to being a Starfleet officer until Captain Kira Nerys had stepped down to join a monastery.

Ro had been promoted to Lt. Commander even before Commander Elias Vaughn ascended from being station Executive Officer to CO. He'd asked Ro to be his XO. Vaughn had retired two years later bumping Ro one rank as she assumed command. Another two years in as station commander, Ro was rapidly promoted to captain just before the Argyn destroyed the original Nor-class station.

Ro had transferred her command to a base on Bajor while the debris of the old station was swept away. And she remained on Bajor, overseeing both the defense of the Wormhole and the sector along with the construction of the second Deep Space Nine. That project had brought Master Chief Miles O'Brien back from Cardassia Prime where his wife Keiko had resumed her replanting effort after Maret had been deposed and the Legislative Assembly restored and Rekena Garan was elected Castellan and Katreen Dervin was inaugurated as the constitutional monarch of the Cardassian Union.

"Castellan Garan was shaken but unharmed. Several members of her security detail were killed in action as well as three legislators. Queen Katreen was also relatively unharmed but the bulk of her on-duty security staff was killed in action. First Minister Astris Beru was severely injured and is undergoing medical treatment even now. Her entire detail was lost.

"How did the Castellan and Queen Katreen escape harm so easily?" Ro wondered.

"Legislative Security, since Gul Ocett took command, has the Castellan wearing a force field belt between engagements," Slaine explained, "Gul Mariska has the Queen doing the same. Their belts overloaded in the plasma blasts but they provided enough protection it seems. It's a pity your Starfleet abandoned their own version of them."

"And Astris?" Ro ignored the criticism.

"First Minister Astris wasn't primarily caught in the bomb blast wave so much as injured by shrapnel," Slaine described the event, "Her prognosis is good however."

"And Kara Gena?" Ro had to ask.

"Astris has been joined by her wife," Slaine said matter-of-factly. Unlike Ro, Slaine had no direct connection with Astris and Kara.

"Does Garan have…anyone?" Ro wondered. Queen Katreen still had her father, Feist, and was the darling of the Cardassian social set. But it seemed she was too progressive for most Cardassian males.

"Castellan Garan is nearing the end of her birthing years. Since she has foregone marriage in lieu of her career, she has been ostracized by her family," Slaine said stiffly, "It is a fate most women face in politics, the military, and law enforcement."

"Zivan…I never realized," Ro felt a wave of empathy for Slaine. Ro knew all too well the demands of duty over relationship since her paramour, Alfonso Reyes, commanded Deep Space Three. They barely managed to spend two months spread out together out of a year. Which was a surprisingly high percentage considering they were both starbase commanders on opposite sides of the Federation.

"No need to apologize, Captain," Slaine assured her, "Cardassian familial mores were never properly introduced to the Bajoran people because of the male officers' predilection to take on captive ‘comfort' women as sexual slaves. Home and hearth were the realms for family and procreation."

Ro knew Tora Ziyal had been one of the hybrid children born from Cardassian and Bajoran parents and been one of the few that had eventually been embraced by her father. Unfortunately, her father had been Skrain Dukat. And she had died at the hands of one of his lieutenants. Which had broken Dukat's mind.

"Couldn't you reverse that trend and take on a foreign lover?" Ro inquired, "And possibly even settle down with them later?"

"It's…been done," Slaine allowed, "But the stigma is even greater than that towards infertility or of forsaking a traditional marriage."

"But you've thought of it," Ro surmised, "I can tell."

Slaine cleared her throat, "Gul Mariska's staff detected the bomb before Queen Katreen reached it. The blast only killed the officers attempting to disarm it. It seems to have been a secondary protocol to prevent tampering."

"Lyoti Mariska really made gul?" Ro was surprised considering Mariska's career track followed Ro's own for offshoots and unexpected vectors.

"Yes, Mariska commands the Royal Guard just as Gul Ocett commands the Legislative Guard," Slaine said proudly.

"And you thought women were underrepresented on Cardassia," Ro cajoled Slaine over a previous conversation.

"Things are changing," Slaine grudgingly admitted.

"So maybe there's hope for old maids, as the humans would put it," Ro teased her.

"Terrans are so strange," Slaine sighed.

"They have their merits at times," Ro chuckled.

Her comm/comp made a tinkling sound and Ro responded to it, "Yes?"

Colonel Cenn Deska, her Bajoran Militia Liaison Officer and Station XO's image appeared, "There's a Priority One message from Starfleet flagged for your eyes only."

"Probably because of the mess," Ro assessed, "I'll take it here, Colonel."

"Very we'll," Cenn said crisply.

"I'm sorry, Zivan. You'll have to step out," Ro apologized.

"No need, Captain. I understand," Slaine assured her.

Ro knew her role in events was about to be dictated. She made a private wager with herself regarding which admiral would be assigning her duties. She wasn't even remotely close to being right.

"Admiral Jellico," Ro said as smoothly as she could, "How can I help Starfleet's only Fleet Admiral?"

"Don't be flippant, Captain. Your whole damn region is a festering boil waiting to explode," Edward Jellico snapped at her.

"I can easily send support teams to the Royal Guard, Legislative Security, and Bajoran Militia," Ro promised him, "We can have boots on the ground in all places within six hours."

"You haven't been told, have you?" Jellico realized.

"Told what?" Ro was curious.

"Bombs detonated in Paris and San Francisco as well. The targets were key members of the Federation Council and Starfleet Command," Jellico informed her.

"Losses?" Ro tried not reeling.

"Federation Security took a serious hit. Three out of four targeted Council members were killed. The fourth could go either way despite the best Starfleet Medical can do. No flag officers were killed at Starfleet but a dozen junior officers and aides were killed by the blasts.""

Ro asked the pertinent question, "Are there any suspects?"

"In every case, a single word was attributed to the bombing via subspace radio. That singular word was: collaborator."

"Collaborating with whom?" Ro was surprised.

"If you haven't realized, all three sides of this are now cooperating after decades of hostility. Each target was a key player in securing our current alliances," Jellico pointed out.

"And who does that alliance threaten?" Ro asked.

"We have plenty of questions and precious few leads, Captain. The blood feuds between the Cardassians and the other sides combined with the terminology indicate it could easily be ex-Starfleet officers with a grudge, Militia officers, ex-Resistance, Ex-Maquis, or on the Cardassian end it could be New Order adherents or old guard Obsidian Order agents. Hell, it could even be Typhon Pact radicals. We can't rule anyone out just yet," Jellico shared.

"Yet you're coming to me despite my Resistance and Maquis pasts," Ro sought clarification.

"You know how they think," Jellico stated, "And your loyalty is proven. Unless you want to give me cause to reconsider."

"So where am I allowed to begin?" Ro asked.

"You'll handle the Bajoran end of the stick," Jellico informed her, "But Cardassia will be getting help as well. Director Forger will be sending agents in there."

"Forger?" Ro was startled, "I thought Starfleet dismantled the Special Investigative Division over the Turkana IV incursion. The Typhon Pact demanded retribution and the SID was laid out on the altar."

"There are appearances and then there's truth. The SID was gutted from Starfleet and reconfigured as a civilian agency. A decidedly low key and displaced far from the centers of power agency," Jellico explained, "Forger and the agency are based off of Barrinor."

"Home of Outbound Ventures," Ro smirked.

"Yes, Forger still has the authority to contract freelancers. So Macen and his people are all eligible for SID assignments despite what the Typhon Pact may wish," Jellico had fought Macen long and hard before finally realizing it was better to Have Brin Macen as an ally, "In fact Captain, I'd expect a call from Director Forger."

Her screen reverted back to the UFP symbol. And then the computer tinkled again and informed her she had an incoming message. Ro knew it was Amanda Forger without answering.

But she did answer, "Hello, Admiral."

Forger smiled, "I'm no longer an Admiral, Ro. I'm not even Starfleet anymore."

"Like Admiral Jellico explained a moment ago, there's appearances and then there's truth. I take it you're running the same setup Elijah Waters did back in my Maquis days?"

"Elijah was a good man," Forger reminisced.

"A fact I'm all too aware of," Ro admitted, "Just as I'm all too aware of Brin's quasi-legal status during his time with the Maquis and after the war."

"Well, the SID's status is still legal. We're just wholly civilian now. But we retain close working ties with Starfleet, Federation Security, the FBI, and allied forces," Forger assured Ro.

"I just bet," Ro chuckled, "Any particular reason for the call?"

"You're spearheading the Bajoran and Cardassian investigations," Forger reminded Ro, "I was wondering if you had a wish list I could help you with?"

"I could use your help," Ro confessed.

"Any agent in particular?" now Forger smirked.

"You know who and which team," Ro said dryly.

Forger smiled as she nodded, "I do. And it just so happens they're available."

At Serenity Station, the Nova-class surveyor, Obsidian, was making final preparation for departure from the Cardassian built Nor-class station. Macen and Celeste Rockford were taking a final meeting at the airlock. Captain Tom Riker, the station CO, and Lisea Danan, his wife and XO, were finalizing contingency plans with the other couple.

"I've made arrangements with Kathy to free up the Fury. That should bolster the Indomitable's capabilities should we lose contact with either the SID or the station," Macen informed them.

Riker nodded. The Indomitable was an Emden-class escort and the station's permanently assigned support-defender. The Fury was another Outbound Ventures vessel. She was a Blackbird-class scout that shared her pedigree with Macen's own commands of the Odyssey and Solstice. As CEO of Outbound Ventures, Kathy Tyrol would have forced her schedulers to rearrange all the available work and who was assigned to it to free up the Fury and her crew. Riker operated at his own discretion.

The Obsidian detached from Upper Pylon 3 and maneuvered through the open space between the three arching pylons. Heading out of the system at three-quarters impulse, the ship waited until clearing the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt before jumping into subspace at Warp 5. Cruising along, she set course for Deep Space Nine. They were only two sectors away from the Bajoran Sector so the trip would be over quickly.

Rockford made her report based on what her investigative team had gathered. She met with her husband in his Ready Room off from the ship's bridge, "I can tell this one bothers you. Crazies are never fun to deal with."

"How's your group coping with it?" Macen deflected the comment.

"They largely wonder why we're involved. If we're being sent into Cardassia, it's foreign territory and therefore Starfleet's job," Rockford hated to report.

"The Cardassians won't let Starfleet cross the border on this one," Macen sighed, "We're going because none of the traditional agencies can work the case. But thanks to our past association with Katreen Dervin and rescuing Rekena Garan's government, they're willing to give us some leeway."

"Hey, I'm a true believer. But we took a major hit at Turkana IV thanks to Section 31 setting us up for failure. If Amanda Forger hadn't fallen on her sword, we'd all be in prison on some Typhon Pact world," Rockford reminded him.

"And Amanda wouldn't have been able to relocate and transition the SID into a entirely civilian entity without the aid of Gemini Trayce and Simona Dalca," Macen agreed, "What little Starfleet presence lingered within the agency before resigned and requested their Starfleet commissions be reactivated. So Amanda is spending as much time recruiting as administrating. Without Gemini and Simona handling the daily chores, the agency wouldn't even be able to operate."

"Rab and Parva tell stories of when you really did resign from the SID. It sounds like the next three years were hard…and boring," Rockford shared.

"That ended when I met you when you crashed my honeymoon and tried to kill me," Macen gave her a rueful smile, "Starfleet acquiesced to my terms afterwards and we were brought back into the fold. Even if you hadn't joined up yet."

"That was Annika Ryst. Completely different personality and you know it," Rockford chided him, "And besides, I eventually killed your Vulcan girlfriend for real."

"T'Kir had a name. Bertram Sindis did the actual killing. You just put a mockery wearing her face and name out of its misery and mine," Macen reminded her.

"It was a mercy kill," Rockford huffed, "I couldn't stand the thought of her stalking us for the rest of our lives. And I liked the way you put that."

"Want me to say it again?" Macen asked.

"I didn't like it that much," Rockford teased him, "But you could give the troops a pep talk. They always appreciate that."

"Join me on the bridge?" Macen asked.

"Lead the way, kind sir," Rockford insisted.

Afterwards, various SID team members mingled with Obsidian crewmen and officers in the Team Room. The recreational area was one part Ten Forward and one measure Quark's Bar. Macen had actually hired Quark to design and oversee the layout of the area. Quark still railed against the fact everything, including gaming, was free. The Federation's gift economy still baffled and sickened him on general principle.

Elsewhere a cafeteria ran twenty-four hours a day serving both prepared hot and cold dishes alongside replicated fare for those too choosy to indulge in the day's menu. Macen had hired away a chef from Starbase Three to plan the daily meals. When docked at Serenity, the Chef had a share in a joint venture restaurant.

Seated at the table next to a holographic fireplace replete with space heater to project heat, Adrianna Forte, Shade, and Lee Kang of Rockford Investigations sat together. The trio had been personally recruited by Rockford from her various agencies to take part in the SID's continual assignments.

Forte was the youngest and most inexperienced, but the teenager from Miri was considered to be one of the brightest minds in the Federation. Shade had left the Fabrini hone ship Yonada to seek her fortunes in the wider Alpha Quadrant. Lee had once been a Chief Inspector in Chung Kua's police forces. He'd been ousted for refusing bribes and trying to investigate the guilty.

Shade was grumbling, "Macen's holding out on us and Rockford is complicit in it."

"Leaders and employers often reserve the dissemination of the facts to their own private purview," Lee replied, "It establishes a certain measure of control."

"It's dangerous," Shade retorted, "If you'd bother to remember, I'm Fabrini. My society knows better than most the cost of secrets and forgotten pasts. We thought our damn colony ship was an actual planet. And we never bothered to preserve the knowledge of how to steer the frinxing ship."

"The Yonada is hardly unique in that fact," Lee countered, "Nor are the Fabrini the first to concoct fantastic tales of their history…or their present."

""Look at the story they told about President Bacco," Forte pointed out, "So even the highest echelons of the Federation aren't immune."

"And it's always done in the name of the ‘greater good'," Lee reminded them.

"Society isn't best served by lies," Shade said angrily as she stared across the room.

Forte followed Shade's gaze. It rested squarely on Angelique Kerber, Bailey Smith, and Tracy Ebert. That puzzled the teen.

"What's wrong with them?" Forte asked.

"I don't know who Kerber and Smith really are but they're hardly Terran," Shade pointed out, "Even backwards colonists would be more aware of general cultural norms amongst humans."

"So why are we glaring at Tracy?" Forte wondered.

"She knows their secret and she isn't sharing," Shade accused, "And her legal past is incredibly murky."

"I agree," Lee conceded, "I tried digging into her background through the usual channels. It was like running into a proverbial bureaucratic wall."

"Someone's covering all of their tracks," Shade surmised again, "And they're highly placed or influential."

"But what do they have to hide?" Forte stubbornly asked.

"They're staring again," Smith quietly observed to Kerber and Ebert.

Kerber was instantly angry despite knowing the other trio had good reason to be suspicious. Angelique Kerber was a fiction. Her real name was Anara and she'd been born into a Troglyte clan on Ardana IV. And she'd been sentenced to death for her "crimes" against the floating city—state of Stratos that controlled the planet and especially the Troglyte slaves that worked the myriad mines for their overseers.

Bailey Smith was just as fictitious. She was Maarta, a highly ranked idealistic citizen of Stratos born into wealth and prestige that saw the travesty of her comforts provided at the expense and lives of the Troglytes. So she'd joined the Troglyte Underground and resisted against Stratos' rulers. And for this, she'd also received a death sentence.

Tracy Ebert was Macen's original pilot during his days with the Maquis aboard the Blackbird-class scout christened the Odyssey. Ebert and the crew had earned the Maquis much needed operating capital and even more precious intelligence on Cardassian movements as "freelance information brokers" and smugglers. It wasn't until after the Jem'Hadar had effectively annihilated the Maquis that Ebert learned her captain had actually been a double agent trying to steer Ro Laren into complying with Starfleet's agenda for her.

Macen had brokered an amnesty deal for the Odyssey's crew as he and Lisea Danan returned to Starfleet as the Dominion War began. Ebert was adrift afterwards, spending fifteen years in largely illegal activities just seeking a sense of purpose and refusing to comply with the rules of a Federation that had sought to arrest or kill her during her time with the Maquis. And that did nothing to broach the issue of them abandoning her home world to the Cardassians' debauchery or her family's lives and their livelihood as the Cardassians seized possession of their freighter and killed most aboard to secure their claim.

It was Ebert that took action, "Stay here."

As Ebert stormed across the way, Kerber and Smith took comfort in the fact that while Macen had strongly advised they avoid confrontations, no one had said the same to Ebert.

"What the hell is your collective problem?" Ebert snapped the investigators, "Every time Angelique. Bailey or I are in a room, you state, glare, and whisper. It's like you think we're criminals."

"Who's to say you aren't?" Shade riposted.

"The Special Investigations Division started as a Starfleet operation. Even though we were contractors, we had to meet Starfleet Security clearance requirements. Do you think they'd let us work for Starfleet if we really were criminals?" Ebert challenged that supposition.

"They let Macen and Ro rejoin Starfleet and they were terrorists," Lee asserted, "In fact, most of the Bajoran Militia officers that joined Starfleet were former terrorists."

"You're really ready to call Admiral Kira Nerys a terrorist?" Ebert was incredulous.

"Let's just say there's a definitive double standard regarding Bajorans," Lee argued.

Several Bajorans in the room were getting agitated. Ebert tried one last shot at reasoning with Lee and Shade, "I would be very careful about bandying about unsupported allegations."

"Or what?" Shade snorted.

"Or some accident could happen on a mission," Kerber said as she came alongside Ebert, "Or even in a corridor."

"Is that a threat?" Shade eagerly asked.

"Is it?" Smith asked in return as she came alongside Ebert's other side, ""Why don't we ask for public opinion?"

"Um…you might want to tone it down," Forte hesitantly advised her coworkers.

"You want a piece of me?" Shade got to her feet.

"I think the whole room wants a piece of you," Kerber smirked.

Shade looked around. Every off duty crewman was on their feet and surrounding where Shade had been lounging with Lee and Forte. She wondered what the hell had turned everyone against them.

Lee rose, "Look, we're entitled to our opinions. This doesn't concern any of you. It's a private matter."

"Think you're too good for us?" a crewman demanded to know.

"Do you really think your private prejudices will keep you from bleeding?" another yelled.

"That's enough!" Rockford yelled as she entered the room, "Everyone back to your seats."

She came to confront her employees, "To our offices. Now!"

"Thank you," Ebert said with relief.

"Don't thank me at all," Rockford went to exit and the trio turned to find Macen standing there and he wasn't happy.

"Follow me," he ordered.

Rockford paused long enough to say to her husband, "I'll take of my end. Do the same with yours."

Then she exited. Kerber, Smith, and Ebert collectively sighed as they followed Macen out of the Team Room. Only Ebert had seen Macen in this type of mood before. Kerber and Smith had no idea of what was in store for them.

Inside the Investigative Offices, Rockford confronted her troops, "Can you possibly explain to me why you were antagonizing teammates and generally pissing off the entire crew?"

"How could you even say that?" Shade wondered, "You weren't even present."

"The entire ship heard your exchange," Rockford snapped, "The intercom was open and broadcasting every word. That fact isn't the real problem. The problem lies in what you said. If you have such a difficulty working with Macen and your fellow teammates, I can easily replace you."

"I'm sure Lee and Shade were just caught up in the moment," Forte tried to defend them.

"Nice try, Arianna. But the heat of the moment is generally when we really reveal ourselves," Rockford suggested.

"Are Kerber, Smith, and Ebert even really teammates?" Lee inquired sharply.

"They are because the captain decided they are," Rockford snapped back at him, "And I don't recall him asking for your opinion. Ever."

"You know their secrets," Shade accused.

"What secrets?" Rockford asked wearily.

"Who they really are and where they really came from," Lee added.

"That's matters of public record," Rockford retorted, "Trying looking it up."

"Are you telling us to drop it?" Shade wanted to know.

"Would make a difference if I did?" Rockford already knew the answer to her question, "I just advise you to be prepared for whatever answers you think you find."

Rockford left at that point. Lee turned to Shade, "I want to bring Tony into this. He has contacts we don't."

Shade nodded her approval. Tony Burrows was a former Starfleet Special Operations Command officer and a student of the legendary Elias Vaughn. Vaughn had purportedly been Macen's instructor in conducting covert operations.

She turned to Forte, "Are you in or out, Arianna?"

"I'll admit I'm curious about what you've said. I'll stay just to be your conscience if nothing else," Forte offered.

"Good enough," Lee said, "You're the only one of us as capable at computers and digital archiving as Kerber and Smith. We'll need that. We need to examine their public records and determine where they originate from."

"That could take time," Forte warned.

"We have it," Shade promised her.

In the SID team's private, dedicated briefing room, Kerber protested, "They treat us like we're hiding something from them."

"You are hiding something from them," Macen reminded all of them, "If Tessa hadn't activated the intercom, public opinion wouldn't have swayed your way and things could have gotten rough."

"We can handle ourselves," Smith promised.

"But you're not supposed to be able to," Macen reminded her of her own forged cover story; "You two are convicted and condemned fugitives. If Starfleet or any other law enforcement body discovers who you really are, they will demand I surrender you."

"Just give us a warning and a head start," Kerber requested, "We'll take care of ourselves."

"It doesn't need to come to that," Macen advised her, "Just don't pick fights with professional investigators who are already suspicious."

"You didn't say," Smith pointed out.

"Say what? Macen was curious.

"If you would hand us over," Smith stated.

"No," Macen finally told them, "I wouldn't hand Talera P'ris over and I'll do the same for you. But my options are even more limited in your cases."

"It wasn't fair of them," Ebert protested.

"How much ‘fair' have you experienced in your life?" Macen asked her.

"Why did we become Maquis? What was it you said about it?" Ebert thrust back at him.

"To make the unfair fair again," he sighed.

"That's what this is all about," Kerber insisted.

"Find a less provocative way of doing it," Macen urged, "Your lives are in their hands, on the field and off. And consider this, I told then-Admiral Forger you were accused of civil unrest and disobedience. She doesn't know the full truth of the matter. If you're exposed, the SID's credibility takes a severe hit just after being totally discredited as a Starfleet division."

"You gave her the IDs I doctored up," Kerber finally realized.

"Amanda knows better than to dig too deeply when I ask her not to," Macen told them, "All three of you are riding that particular bandwagon. I can grant you all a home and sanctuary as long as you don't actively prevent me from doing so. I just need a degree of cooperation."

"Do you think Rockford can call of her dogs?" Smith asked.

"No, and trying to will only make them work at uncovering the truth that much harder," Macen warned them.

"We shouldn't have left Ardana," Kerber complained.

"You did the right thing," Ebert insisted, "When Captain Sisko went balls to the wall to capture Michael Eddington; he surrendered himself to spare us. The officials on Stratos would have killed hundreds if not thousands to get at you two."

"But we didn't surrender," Smith pointed out, "We ran away."

"And Stratos is a Federation ally governed by archaic laws," Macen reminded the pair, "Eddington would have been left alive in Federation custody. You'd simply be martyrs. This way, you will return and fight again. I promise you. If you can just keep from getting yourselves arrested in the meantime."

"Thank you, Captain. Are we free to go?" Smith asked. Kerber still looked irked.

"Of course," Macen assured them, "Just think about it."

Ebert stayed behind and Macen asked, "Something on your mind, Tracy?"

"Would you really let them return to Ardana?" she asked.

"I don't hold anyone to my side involuntarily. If they eventually decide to take their fight back home, I'll even deliver them. But if they continue to agree that their fight can be fought on a broader canvass, then I hope they'll serve beside me," Macen promised her.

"I knew they could count on you," Ebert beamed.

"And I knew they could count on you, which is why I shared their history with you," Macen revealed, "I can't be everywhere all the time."

Ebert realized he was discussing his triad of responsibilities: the SID, Outbound Ventures, and the Obsidian crew. She got a wistful look, "It's nice to belong to something again. Or at least something worthwhile."

"Or at least something that doesn't involve smuggling contraband or piracy," Macen said, "Or at least not all the time."

Ebert suddenly knew Macen had finally checked into her past between meetings, "Too true."

"You still have a few hours before you're needed on the bridge. Try and enjoy them," Macen recommended.

"Aye, Captain," she threw him a mock salute and exited the room.

Macen knew Ceryx was at the helm. The Tyrokian only required an hour of sleep a day so he manned most of the flight time. Aglaia was their Platonian recruit who seconded Ebert at the helm when Ceryx was off duty.

He also knew Shannon Forger was more of a traditional starship captain than he was. He agonized over his crew but he had little love for the ship itself. It was a pretty tool with bells and whistles. But in the end, he'd never understood his idol's worship of the Enterprise. James T. Kirk had figuratively married his command. Macen preferred flesh and blood.

Burrows joined the investigative team in Lee's quarters, "I agree something is wrong with them. They certainly aren't what they present themselves to be. Kerber hasn't revealed herself but Smith is an expert sniper. Ebert was obviously a Maquis. But what did she do after the Maquis were crushed until Macen tracked her down again? There's a story there. One for each of them."

"But do we really want to know it?" Forte felt compelled to ask.

"Doesn't matter," Shade assured her, "It's never stopped us from finding out before."

Macen and Rockford were the first to disembark from the Obsidian upon reaching Deep Space Nine and docking. Ro met them and conversed with them en route to the station's working areas. Forger had devised a standing watch rotation and let everyone else enjoy shore leave.

The SID team members were also on leave but also on standby in case they were needed at a mission briefing. The final errant member of the team would be arriving within the hour. The Freehold had been in orbit over Cardassian Prime so Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd had been in the system during the assassination attempts. Macen wanted Mudd's professional insights.

Rockford reported to the Rockford Investigations Agency office aboard DS9. Burrows was joining Forte, Lee, and Shade in overtime work. Rockford stifled a groan as she asked the office manager for an overview of cases since her last check in. Fortunately the books were fairly straightforward and the agency's investigators were competent. So Rockford departed without disturbing her wayward employees plus guest. It would get ugly soon enough.

"She knows," Forte assessed as Rockford left.

"She isn't stupid," Shade grumbled, "She wouldn't have been successful enough to open a string of detective agencies across the Federation if she were."

"But she isn't preventing us from our endeavor either," Lee pointed out.

"Either she wants us to succeed or she feels we can't," Burrows suggested.

"Or she knows we'll be compromised by what we find out," Forte recalled Rockford's warning.

"Let's just get back to work," Shade requested.

The Freehold docked and Mudd departed her ship and spotted Macen and Rockford waiting for her, "Oh Lord, I should've known."

"Be nice, Harri," Macen advised, "Celeste and I slip a lot of latinum your way."

"And thanks to that cock up on Turkana IV, which you thankfully left me out of, I've got law enforcement crawling up my luscious ass again," Mudd complained, "And you got your own agency dissolved and your boss resigned in disgrace."

"Appearances aren't everything," Macen counseled.

"Oh. My. God. The SID is still up and running?" Mudd exclaimed the question.

"It's a civilian agency. A little known or recognized agency that isn't officially in existence," Rockford explained.

"Hot damn!" Mudd was gleeful, "Now you're talking. Clandestine agencies have latinum to burn."

"But some agency agendas are self sufficient," Macen reminded her, "Before I founded Outbound Ventures a Starfleet admiral named Elijah Waters came out of retirement to create a business that routed Maquis operatives on legitimate cargo runs in order to place them in areas for strategic strikes. He also funneled arms shipments into the DMZ using his Starfleet contacts to ascertain where border patrol vessels would be in their assigned zones."

"I like it," Mudd enthused, "Whatever happened to him?"

"He resigned before Eddington took control of the Maquis. Elijah saw the radicalization of the movement and their abandonment of only striking military and political targets," Macen told her, "Afterwards he died under mysterious circumstances. Starfleet never caught his killers and neither did I."

"Damn. Hate it when that happens," Mudd remarked. For her it was sincere empathy.

"After Elijah left, his assistants tried to manage but Starfleet became suspicious of why Elijah would be killed. And soon after the Cardassians swept into the Demilitarized Zone while Starfleet let it happen. The Jem'Hadar subsequently slaughtered most of the Maquis after that," Macen said emotionlessly.

"So you worked with this admiral?" Mudd asked.

"Before the Maquis and during. Shortly after Elijah quit, I had to break cover to escort the Chrysalis Child and her family to safety. My cover with both the Cardassian Guard and Starfleet was irrevocably shattered and my mission profiles drastically changed afterwards," Macen described the events.

"Still, it never hurts to have royalty owe you one," Mudd opined.

"Harri, do you have any idea of why we called you here?" Rockford wondered.

"No, but my bank account thanks you in advance," Mudd flippantly quipped.

"We understand you were on Cardassia when the assassinations occurred," Rockford told her.

"I wasn't anywhere near them and I don't know anything," Mudd said defensively.

"How would you like to return to Cardassia Prime?" Macen asked.

Mudd groaned, "I barely got out the last time. They rounded up every foreigner on the planet and interrogated everyone," Mudd shared.

"Obviously somebody got through their scrutiny," Rockford suggested, "Someone domestic worked with some off world to carry the attempts out."

"Why don't we go to Bajor instead?" Mudd whined.

"Ro has Bajor covered," Macen let her down easy, "But we've been asked to step in on Castellan Garan and Queen Katreen's behalf."

"The Cardassian News Service reported that Maquis and Bajoran extremists took credit for the blast," Mudd informed them.

"And Cardassian extremists were blamed for the explosions on Bajor and Earth," Rockford told her.

"Earth?" Mudd scowled.

"Someone bombed members of the Federation Council as well as Starfleet Command," Macen explained.

"Starfleet's no great loss, apologies to your bruised feeling s and all, but even the Council got hit?" Mudd was appalled.

"Why Harri, you sound like a concerned citizen," Rockford teased.

"You two are such bad influences on me," Mudd grumbled, "Why don't you believe the Cardassian reports?"

"The Maquis were briefly revived but they evaporated when Aric Tulley died," Macen tried to explain, "And while the Circle has seen a resurgence in Bajoran politics, Jaro Essa is too well known to risk his reputation on trying to blow up targets on Cardassia. The Cardassian Embassy on Bajor would be a likelier target. Even the Kohn Ma have reconciled with the Council of Ministers' rapprochement with Cardassia."

"But what about the Federation settlers in what used to be the DMZ?" Mudd persisted.

"Too obvious," Rockford ruled it out, "Castellan Ghemor granted them autonomy within the Cardassian Union. Even Gul Maret left that brushfire alone."

"Who's left?" Mudd demanded to know.

"Come with us to the briefing that we're about to go to and get the official scoop yourself," Macen taunted her with.

"No wonder my father and brother learned to hate you," Mudd groused.

"I have my moments," Macen grinned.

"So why aren't you already at the meeting catching up before it starts?" Mudd wondered.

‘I read all the briefs before the Obsidian ever docked at the station," Macen revealed.

Mudd looked over at Rockford, who shrugged, "He's like that."

The senior officer's briefing room was filling up fast. Ro brought in a group of her own staff. They included Slaine, Chief O'Brien, Lt. Commander Nog, Doctor Julian Bashir, Colonel Cenn, and Lt. Commander Jefferson Blackmer. Bashir was still suspended from active duty per the terms of his court martial but he was serving as a civilian consultant to the medical staff. As such he was the de facto Chief Medical Officer in fact if not name.

Macen and Rockford brought in Mudd and Ebert. Tessa, the Obsidian's EMH was tied in through a comm channel. The emergency medical monitor displayed Tessa's features too everyone.

"Captain Ro, I'm detecting another holographic matrix listening in on this session," Tessa reported.

Ro nodded at Blackmer. Blackmer called one of his deputy officers back at the Security Office. They began sealing off access to the room outside of Tessa's connection.

"Now hold on, Pallie," Vic Fontaine's voice came over the speakers, "Despite what the doll face might be thinkin', I ain't here to bust up your shindig."

"Doll face?" Tessa was seriously irked.

"Vic, we've had this discussion," Bashir sighed.

"Yeah, but ya never brought a lady friend light bulb before," Fontaine protested.

"I'm certain we can arrange for Tessa to visit your holosuite sometime after the meeting concludes," Bashir cajoled Fontaine.

"Sounds swell. Hey Lady Doc, insert yourself into my program sometime and I'll show ya around period Las Vegas," Fontaine offered Tessa.

"Um…okay. What's ‘Las Vegas'," Tessa wondered.

"Yer killin' me, sweetheart," Fontaine protested, "Just come and see the floor show. It'll be aces."

"Goodbye, Vic," Ro said tersely.

Everyone looked at Bashir as the channel closed, "Don't look at me!"

"Isn't Vic's programmer your friend Felix?" Ro asked.

"Well…yes," Bashir sheepishly admitted.

"Then I'll look at you any damn way I want to," Ro huffed.

"At least Quark had the presence of mind to save Vic's holoprogram among a few select others when the old station was destroyed," Bashir sniffed.

"Yes, we're all too aware of Quark's Vulcan Love Slave series collection," Ro said disdainfully.

"Not every program owned by Quark is a sexually based fantasy," Bashir argued.

"No, but he does largely cater to the brothel on demand crowd," Blackmer grated.

"If Quark has allowed any program to run long enough to achieve artificial intelligence then he's responsible for operating a sex slave operation," Tessa was fraught with concern.

"Damn, why didn't I ever think about that?" Blackmer asked gleefully.

"Probably because holographic rights are in their infancy within the Federation," Tessa protested.

"I doubt Quark lets the programs run for more than a few hours at any allotted time," Rockford reassured Tessa.

Ro's comm badge sounded. She grimaced, "The Legislative Assembly was supposed to send a representative investigator and they're late. Hopefully this is telling me of their arrival."

Ro answered, "Go ahead."

"You wanted to know when a Cardassian ship requested docking. A Lakat-class ship is here. Should I clear them?" the officer asked.

"Lt. Dren, I specifically ordered that a Cardassian flagged vessel reporting on Legislative business be immediately cleared and its representative sent to join me. Did I not?" Ro said icily.

"Yessir!" Dren worriedly complied.

"Sometimes there's a reason an officer stayed with the Militia rather than integrate into Starfleet," Ro sighed.

"There was sixty years of bad blood between our peoples," Slaine confided, "It's a generational sickness. It'll take new generations to cure it completely."

"I don't think I can wait that long," Ro sighed, "We're on a break until the representative gets here."

After a short interlude where Starfleet's staff and the SID members were either reacquainted or newly introduced, a junior officer brought the Cardassian investigator to the briefing room. Rockford was delighted to discover she knew her, "Ziva!"

Slaine was startled by the outburst as Rockford rushed across the room to warmly embrace Ziva Delain. Slaine had no idea that Delain had worked under Rockford in the SID while she was still a semi-independent agent. The Legislative Assembly was quick to boast their chief investigator came from a highly successful background. They just neglected to elaborate on that same background.

"Ziva, I had no idea you'd be here," Rockford gushed.

"I didn't either until after some fools set bombs off all over Cardassia Prime," Delain admitted, "Afterwards all hell broke loose amongst the ranks."

"Your government hasn't been very forthcoming," Rockford reminded Delain.

"There's a reason for that but I suspect you probably know most of the particulars by now anyway," Delain said ruefully.

"Actually the only semi-official word we've received was from Harri Mudd," Rockford nodded her way.

"Macen always has surrounded himself with Mudds were Cardassian interest are concerned," Delain said regretfully.

"I'll introduce you," Rockford offered.

"We're already acquainted," Delain said sourly.

"Oh," Rockford realized Delain had probably sat in on Mudd's interrogations.

"Raktejino?" Macen handed Mudd her favorite coffee beverage.

Mudd looked startled. Macen smiled, "Like I said on Safehold, you're part of the extended family now. Whether you want to be or not."

"Definitely sounds like my kind of family," Mudd said wryly.

"Maybe we can change that," Macen commented. Noting Blackmer's sudden interest in Mudd…and Ebert…Macen swore, "Grozzit."

"Hey! You know Mac," Mudd realized.

"And just how do you know Calhoun?" Macen wondered. He hadn't been aware of any associations between Starfleet Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and Harri Mudd. But only Calhoun's trusted associates called him "Mac".

"Oh. My. God. You're that Brin Macen. He always said you'd have a mental warp core breach if you knew the connection between Pops and I and then Mac and I. He just never mentioned anything about you recruiting me," Mudd laughed.

"Mac always thinks he knows everything," Macen said about his longtime rival.

"And you don't?" Mudd snorted.

"You should hear how he recruited Celeste," Ebert stated as she and Ro broke up their private reverie to join them.

"It seems your Chief of Security is listening to Celeste's investigative team," Macen told Ro.

"And I hear your running roughshod over a house divided," Ro retorted.

"Trouble in paradise?" Mudd smirked.

"Maybe I should reconvene the meeting now," Ro suggested.

"Let Celeste and Ziva work their magic with Blackmer and Slaine for five minutes before continuing," Macen suggested.

"Well, we should all know about rebellions," Ro sighed.

"That we do," Macen concurred casting a sidelong glance at Ebert. It was still strange to see her as an adult woman and not the awkward teenager he'd recruited so long ago.

"Are we talking a particular insurrection here or a general uprising?" Mudd quipped, "Or does everything boil down to your Ardanan fugitives?"

Everyone in the small group stared at her. Mudd shrugged, "I sometimes sideline as a bounty hunter, remember? Your duo are hot commodities that Stratos officials are willing to pay a lot for."

"Tempted, Harri?" Macen softly asked.

"Of course but I'm not going to screw the pooch here," Mudd promised, "Besides, I owe Bailey Smith or whatever she's calling herself today my life and I intend to repay her. And I happen to like her and Angelique Kerber as people. I don't turn friends in to the authorities unless they've already betrayed me first."

"And that's a good thing," Ebert ventured, "Right?"

"It's as good as you're going to get," Ro clarified, "But anyways, I'm calling the briefing to order now."

 

Chapter Two

"The First Minister of Bajor was basically unharmed. Her guard detail, however, was butchered by the plasma bombs. They died of their burns and other shrapnel related injuries. Astris Beru herself received minor burns, a concussion from the blast wave, and three life threatening shrapnel wounds. I can now safely report she's out of surgery and her odds of a complete recovery increase percentage points every hour she recuperates in," Ro detailed, "Astris is guardedly expected to fully recover and serve out the remainder of her last term in office. In the meantime, until she resumes her duties, the Second Minister has taken control over the Council of Ministers as required by law."

"Perhaps that was the point of the whole exercise," Bashir ventured.

Ro chalked it up to his tenure with Section 31. Sarina Douglas had been duplicitous enough to recruit Bashir while also serving in Starfleet Intelligence before signing on with DS9 to operate as the Deputy Chief of Security. A role she played to perfection.

"Bajor may have been a hot spot of radicalization once upon a time, Doctor. But Federation membership has cooled the political passions somewhat," Cenn counsel Bashir, "Rhys Deska comes from a populist background firmly grounded in the mainstream of the political arena. The Militia firmly vetted him before his approval in his appointment as Second Minister."

"Yet this man also brought Jaro Essa and the Circle back into mainstream politics," Bashir argued.

"It's better to have Jaro and his adherents in the light rather than literally skulking in caves," Cenn retorted.

"Julian, Astris vouched for Rhys when she nominated him for the post of Second Minister. She trusts him and what he brings to the table," Ro promised him.

"She also trusted Kara Gena," Rockford reminded everyone, "And she ended up kidnapped and held hostage because of it."

"And Kara later rescued her from that same situation and married Astris," Macen pointed out.

"Not every story has a lovebird ending," Rockford hated to thrust into everyone's face.

"Castellan Garan and Queen Katreen's security details also suffered near total losses but the officials themselves were protected by the force field belt designs Starfleet abandoned over a century ago for safety reasons. Cardassian biology differs enough to offer greater degree of protection as well as the adaptations made by our scientists," Delain made her initial report, "And our security forces caught the actual bombers."

"You already found them?" Ro was astonished.

"They were all humans," Delain told everyone, "But Federation law enforcement and census bureaus can't find a record of any of them. Starfleet Intelligence has offered the ‘lost colony' thesis. But despite what we do know, what we don't yet know looms even larger. Who enabled foreigners to get into secure areas? What domestic agendas were best served by eliminating the rulers of my world?"

"But none of the bombers were Bajoran?" Cenn asked.

"No, despite the claims of responsibility," Delain told him, "But even if this was a foreign action, it had native boots on the ground."

"There was a third arm of this recreated triangle of hostility," Macen saw Ro imperceptibly nod, "Starfleet also engaged Cardassian forces for the better part of forty years before the Dominion War broke out. Splintered out of that conflict came the Maquis. But the former DMZ is wholly Cardassian territory and the settlers there supposedly embrace that fact peacefully. But bombs went off at the Federation Council chambers and Starfleet command. Cardassians have claimed responsibility for those actions.""

If it were even possible, Delain and Slaine grew even grayer. Slaine pointed out the obvious, "All of the Federation refugee settlers into the former DMZ as a result of the Borg and Argyn incursions pledged oaths of nonviolence if not outright loyalty to the Legislative Assembly. The last Maquis insurgency was neutralized by the SID."

"But someone may be stirring up hostilities again, Dalin Slaine," Macen suggested, "There aren't many of the old guard settlers left but the newcomers are still passionate, and displaced, people. Cardassian territory may not have proven to be the panacea they sought."

"Why would our territory be a panacea?" Delain wondered.

"The Borg didn't strike out at the Cardassian Union," Ro reminded her, "And the Argyn barely hit the outer fringes after destroying the old Deep Space Nine."

"The DMZ may be a potential festering hotspot but they lack interstellar transports. And Galor- and Lakat-class heavy and light cruisers still patrol that border despite the alliance with the Federation," Cenn reported.

"And the plasma bombs used by the assassins weren't a Maquis specialty. Rather they had Bajoran design elements and power signatures," Delain hated to bring up.

"What if we're going about this all wrong?" Rockford suddenly asked, "What if these aren't separate but loosely allied groups? What if they're an integrally united group on several fronts employing several regional players?"

"It could fit," Ro allowed, "But we're awfully long on theory and short on actual answers. I've been tasked with aiding the investigation on Bajor. That leaves Cardassia and its territories to you SID people."

"We need two teams," Macen decided, "One on Cardassia and one in the former DMZ as a process of elimination."

"And I'm guessing you'll take the border regions as befitting your hallowed status as a regional hero," Rockford teased, "Harri, up for giving me and mine a ride to Cardassia Prime?"

Mudd looked pained, "I've come this far."

"Ziva, you're welcome to ride with us. I'd love for my team to pick your brain," Rockford offered hopefully.

"I'd heard you replaced me with three new people," Delain chuckled, "Of course I'll come with you. I can even provide an official military escort."

Mudd groaned before asking, "So what do I do while Rockford asks everyone annoying questions they've already answered once or twice before?"

"I think you can make yourself useful," Macen heavily intoned.

"Right," she deadpanned.

"Now if we can just hammer out a goals and ‘to-do' list," Ro recommended.

The teams were allocated. Macen would take the Obsidian the former Demilitarized Zone between the Federation and Cardassia and investigate the political temperament of the inhabitants of several major colonies as well as their technical capacity to wage a guerilla campaign as the Maquis had before them. Rab Daggit, Parva, Burrows, Smith, Kerber, Tessa, and Ebert would remain with him.

Mudd would ferry Rockford along with Lee, Shade, and Forte as they transported Delain back to Cardassia Prime. Upon arrival, they would then work under Delain's guidance and authority. Mudd would presumably be cut loose until called upon to deliver the team elsewhere.

Ro was taking the Rio Grande to Bajor. Lt. Commander Prynn Tenmei was her pilot and team second. The remainder of the team were all Bajoran nationals. Lt. Kris Sera and Sgt. Halep Sidra were their Militia liaisons. Senior Chief Petty Officer Gimp Jalon was the highest ranked Starfleet noncom in the group. Petty Officer Tal Celes was their Sensor Tech and Crewman Kilt Ronir was their designated Starfleet Security officer.

Cenn would take command of Deep Space Nine in Ro's absence while preserving the myth Ro was delegating all responsibility towards the investigation to junior officers operating from DS9 itself. Slaine would serve as Cenn's temporary XO. In Tenmei's absence, Slaine would also command the Defiant should it get called upon to deploy.

The Alliance of Turkana IV had been brought up as potential culprits on the human side of things. Turkana IV being the proverbial "lost colony". And if the Alliance were found to be involved, it only made greater sense that their newfound political masters in the Typhon Pact would be supporting them either covertly or overtly. In any case, at any location being investigated, a Typhon Pact intervention was presumably theoretically possible no matter how improbable.

Tenmei landed the Rio Grande at the shuttle port in Jalandra City. Militia intel indicated there was a brewing dissident group in Hedrikspool Province. So they hired a local aero shuttle to fly them there. From the provincial capital, transportation to the outlying smaller cities and rural villages could be obtained. Tenmei was the only alien amongst the group.

The team's cover was as teachers on sabbatical. Tenmei was their guest and a student of Bajoran history and culture. The two Militia officers attached to Ro's detail were seconded to Blackmer's command under Colonel Cenn's authority. But surprisingly, Blackmer didn't include them in his joint chain of command.

Every member of Ro's outing had solid experience except Tenmei and Celes. Tenmei's father was the legendary Elias Vaughn but her primary specialty was as a pilot. She'd recently earned her rating as a command officer for the Defiant. Boots on the ground undercover excursions were out of her usual assignment experience.

Celes had transformed from an awkward and clumsy sensor tech aboard the Voyager during its fateful seven years in the Delta Quadrant into a confident and poised noncommissioned officer. Ro didn't doubt Celes' technical skills. But having grown up in the Bajoran refugee camps, Celes hadn't spent much time before or after Voyager's return on her ancestral home world.

The entire team wore Militia issue concealable phasers. They were worn in myriad ways. Shoulder holsters, hip holsters, small of the back holsters, and ankle holsters. Ro additionally carried a Type I "Cricket" phaser which was a model Starfleet had discontinued early on in Ro's career but she'd carried throughout her tenure with the Maquis.

The local Militia Constabulary office sent Ro and her squad on their way. A village bordering between Hedrikspool and the Hill Province was their destination. The Hill Province was infamous as a quagmire of guerilla battles during the Cardassian Occupation. Ro fully realized local lore and legends could breed a spirit of rebellion amongst the younger set growing up amidst the tales of the glory days.

The Freehold easily sailed through Cardassian space with little interference thanks to its military escort. The dal in command of the light cruiser had objected to Delain riding aboard the freighter during its voyage back to Cardassia Prime. Delain had quickly shot any and every argument down with her writ of authorization originating from the Castellan and a vote of the entire Legislative Assembly.

Mudd gave Rockford a rueful look as she dropped the ship back out of subspace, "Tell your friend I want a copy of her credentials. Three guls tried to override our escorting dal's right to escort and throw us into a search and seizure. You pal Delain's authority got us through. And that can't have been easy because I haven't seen the Cardies this jumpy since Maret first seized power from Ghemor on the eve of Katreen's inauguration. Back then they thought the whole quadrant was going to invade."

"Well, the Powers-That-Be happily disappointed them," Rockford commented.

"But they might not be so paranoid this time," Mudd cautiously alerted her frequent employer.

"What have you heard?" Rockford knew full well the value of Mudd's criminal contacts and associations.

"Shop talk heard across spaceport taverns mostly," Mudd shared, "Powerful people are paying top latinum for gunrunners and mercs to conduct covert runs to Cardassia, Bajor, and Earth."

"Harri, why didn't you bring this up at the confab back at the station?" Rockford scolded her.

"Look, I don't work for Starfleet. And as much as I appreciate your hubby, I don't work for him either. I work for you. So I'll share what I already know and what I can learn with you," Mudd revealed her position.

"What are they smuggling?" Rockford decided to move on.

"A talkative but rather boring Tellarite captain was boasting of his bringing 23rd Century era Klingon disruptors in Cardassian space," Mudd related to her, "And humanoid cargo. That's as far as he got before Cardassian Information Bureau agents swept him up and took me as well. What I learned during my CIB interrogation was that the Orion Syndicate is getting involved as well."

Rockford groaned, "Not more Orions."

Mudd knew the Orion named Gomer that ruled the Syndicate from Safehold had a grudge against everyone in Macen's periphery, "Don't shoot the messenger and all that."

"You know I'm telling Brin everything we've discussed, right?" Rockford had to wonder.

"I had to tell you. Who you tell afterwards is your business," Mudd replied.

Rockford suspected Mudd was looking out for her. Annika Ryst had a thousand bars of latinum price on her head. Ryst no longer existed but Rockford carried her memories. Mudd sometimes freelanced as a bounty hunter so she had to know about the bounty.

Rockford felt a sense of gratitude towards Mudd's protectiveness. Of course, she might also be cursing the woman's name if Mudd got too obtrusive. It was a wait and see kind of thing.

The flight from Bajor to Cardassia Prime only took several hours. A portion of which had made Bajor an attractive prize to the resource starved Cardassians. The Bajoran built Antares-class Type 2 freighter's cockpit was designed to generally only accommodate Mudd and grant all of her ship's controls at her fingertips.

Rockford and the others squeezed into the access way as best as they could so they could observe the ship's approach into the Cardassian system. Rockford and Delain manned the only two other seats in the cockpit while Lee, Forte, and Shade fought over space along the rear bulkhead.

"When did your people build a Nor-class station inside your own solar system?" Rockford tried to puzzle it out.

"Amok Nor was built when the labor camps on Cardassia IV and Cardassia VII were shut down and fully developed mining efforts began. Since the Nor class stations were developed for resource extraction and refinement, it was only natural to build one here," Delain explained, "The station also acts as a clearing house for traffic approaching Cardassia Prime."

"We've been put in a docking queue," Mudd complained, "Something regarding cargo inspections. I tried explaining to them we're running empty but the red tapes are coming."

"Let me clear that up," Delain contacted the station commander and several curt exchanges followed. Afterward, the Freehold was granted an immediate berth at the outer docking ring. Their military escort broke off at that point and returned to its usual patrol route.

Despite forgoing the customary cargo inspections, the station personnel did verify everyone's IDs and reviewed their work orders granting them access to Cardassia Prime. Delain knew the extra scrutiny was the station CO's revenge for Delain bullying him earlier. But they still made the hourly shuttle to Cardassia Prime.

After arriving at the Legislative Headquarters, Rockford began making requests, "We need to review all of the interviews you, the Constabulary, the CIB, Gul Ocett's staff, and Gul Mariska conducted."

"The results have been summarized," Delain reminded her.

"Don't get sloppy now, Ziva," Rockford chided her, "Memory is fluid. The actual transcripts may reveal clues or hints the original interviewers missed."

"There's a potential problem," Delain confessed, "Ocett and Mariska answer to the High Command and the High Command have instituted an information lockdown. They're only allowing Castellan Garan direct access to all data and files compiled on this matter."

"Then I need access to Ocett and Mariska themselves," Rockford insisted, "And I need fifteen minutes alone with a secure comp/comm unit."

"I can provide you with my own comm," Delain promised as she led the group to her offices, "I'll set my staff to gathering all the information you've asked for and contact the guls. My office is in there."

Delain unlocked the unit, "I hope your mysterious helper can get you the access you require."

"So do I," Rockford confessed.

The Obsidian bypassed the Valo system and went straight to Solossus III. Macen still recalled when it was populated entirely by naturally genetic females and fully transitioned transgender women. Just prior to Captain Sisko's utilizing trilithium to poison the atmosphere, the colonists had countered the Cardassians rape gangs by bringing in partially transitioned transwoman who happened to be transbians. A rash of resultant pregnancies had curtailed the Cardassians' amorous attentions. After Sisko violated every oath to Starfleet and the Federation he'd ever sworn by unleashing a weapon of mass destruction, the colonists had finally been liberated from sexual slavery and relocated to Quatal Prime, where the Maquis had used chemical warfare to poison the planet to Cardassians. After the Dominion War ended, the surviving women relocated again to a developing world in the Taurus Reach.

Macen found a thriving Cardassian colony on Solossus and that the trilithium contamination still made the planet hostile to humanity. So obviously the Cardassians hadn't been targeted and humans hadn't tried resettling the poisoned world.

Their next survey took them to Quatal Prime where the effects of the Maquis' own biogenic weapon were still running rampant. The Cardassian had actively courted Federation colonists to repopulate Quatal Prime. From Kerber's data taps, it seemed the settlers were quite content with their colony and their lives on it. So it seemed Quatal wasn't a festering pot of discontent.

The Volon system had been the birthplace of the Maquis. Volon III had been the early headquarters for the Maquis Council. Volon II had also supported an active Maquis cell.

Volon III had initially been chosen as the central location for the informal Colonial Congress and it was there that Commander Calvin Hudson had been assigned as Starfleet's Colonial Liaison. It was also where he'd come face to face with the Cardassians' depravations and the settlers' plight. So he'd gathered like minded settlers and the Maquis had been born.

The original Volon III settlers had been hardy stock and very,very proudly stubborn. Upon their release from Dominion labor camps they'd travelled right back to the colony. They'd endured Cardassian support, indifference, and now abstinence.

The colony's population had swelled after the annihilating Borg invasion and the subsequent Argyn invasion of 2386. The later Iridian Enforcer border war had also relocated settlers in what became a new DMZ. Many of those displaced souls had ended up in the remains of the first Federation DMZ.

The original survivors from the first protracted wave of colonization held a deep seated distrust of anything remotely related to Cardassians. Much like Kirk's generation had to deal with Klingons after 2393. But the subsequent migrations diversified the population in ways that the original colonial founders could have only dreamt of.

Kerber fed Macen data feeds from the colonial archives and news feeds. There was fertile ground for anti-Cardassian sentiments. All it would take to produce a crop was a persuasive enough voice or chorus of voices. And Volon III had reclaimed its position as the governmental seat of colonial affairs within the Autonomous Region. Not even the Bajoran settlements in the Valo system or the highly developed colonial restoration on Ronara Prime could rival it.

Macen beamed down to the surface of the leading city amongst seven total. Parva, Daggit, and Burrows accompanied him. Kerber and Smith stayed on the records trying to deduce the historical shifts that had led the colonists to their as-of-yet unknown position. Ebert was on standby to fly the surveyor's Danube-class support craft in a rescue attempt.

Macen chose to summon Ebert sans runabout. She was startled by the crowd noises beyond the alleyway she'd materialized in, "Captain?"

"There's been a bit of a population boom," Macen wore a rueful smile, "Sorry I didn't warn you ahead of time but I didn't want to bias your observations."

"My observations?" Ebert was surprised.

"You're the only other member of the crew that had been to the original settlement," Macen explained, "You'll see things the others can't and I'll miss."

"This is why you started working with Celeste, isn't it?" she asked.

"Largely," Macen admitted.

They stepped out into a graveled street and Ebert swallowed, "Um…is everyone here armed?"

"There seems to be a cultural throwback to Terran history. Something romantically called the ‘American Wild West'," Macen informed her, "Trust me, the pioneering west wasn't romantic and it certainly wasn't this sanitary or well armed."

"I don't think half these people know which end of a phaser is the beam emitter," Ebert watched youths bragging up their weaponry to one another.

"It's an obvious affectation for most. Almost a badge of honor," Macen agreed, "But there are others that are professional fighters among them."

"Gunfighters?" Ebert couldn't believe it.

"Hired guns. More akin to guerilla fighters that seem to specialize in urban environments," Macen remarked.

"Could they be Maquis?" Ebert wondered.

"Tracy, the Jem'Hadar slaughtered anyone associated with the Maquis. The only survivors were those that fled fast enough or fought their way out," Macen reminded her of those dark days.

"You got us all back and went back into the DMZ to get Ro out," Ebert shuddered, "We all assumed you'd died."

"If T'Kir would've been a better aim with the knife she stabbed me with, I would have," Macen confessed, "She did a three year stretch in a mental institution afterwards."

"Yet you broke her out and eventually married her," Ebert smirked.

"Good times," Macen refused to acknowledge the mockery of T'Kir that had enlisted with Section 31 after her death and resurrection.

"Where did all these people come from?" Ebert asked.

"You really didn't read the mission brief, did you?" Macen groaned.

"I'm a pilot. I fly things. I don't get dirty on the ground," Ebert hotly protested.

A group of trained killers strolled past studying them closely. Ebert swallowed, "Are those Alliance tattoos?"

"Yup," Macen confirmed it, "It seems the Typhon Pact's involvement may be more of a reality then we wanted to believe at first.""

"So where are Rab, Parva, and Tony?" she inquired.

"Taking in the local color," Macen diplomatically answered.

"Hitting the saloons," Ebert translated in a knowing voice.

Shouts of alarm were raised and the crowd began pushing towards the source of the sound. The tatted toughs surged through the wave of bodies. Macen sighed.

"Us?" Ebert already knew without even asking.

"Most definitely us," Macen said wearily.

Things had been going smoothly in Myg's Saloon until Parva walked in. The fact that she was with two men didn't matter. They other fact that she obviously felt tied to only one of them also didn't matter. Because a group of rather inebriated men, despite the early hour, decided to find out of Orion sex slaves were as creative and imaginative as their legendary stamina could allow. They surrounded her position at the bar and began hurling out offers for sexual favors. Eventually they pooled their monies in an attempt to garner a collective round of blowjobs.

"Boys, I suggest you go sleep it off," Parva chided them.

"Not until you frinx our frinxing brains out," the most insulted local snarled.

"You do realize that doubling a curse negates it altogether?" Parva ventured then sighed, "Let's just say it'd be the shortest frinx in recorded history. I probably wouldn't even get my bra off."

The man went for his sidearm. Daggit shot him at close range on stun. Unfortunately for the local, stun can kill at that range especially when aimed at a humanoid's head, "Anyone else want to solicit my wife's favors?"

And the tavern erupted into violence.

The fight spilled out into the street. Daggit and Parva kept their weapons holstered or otherwise discreetly hidden. Burrows went for the katana on his back after he got bored. Then the cavalry arrived.

"Alliance," Daggit grimaced.

"They really can't be sporting for a rematch after what already happened last time?" Parva refused to believe it.

"Easy, Tig. There's still law and order on this planet," a Tellarite wearing a high browed, wide brimmed hat and wearing a brass star had his thumbs on his holster.

The SID trio just stared at the sight of a Tellarite cowboy. Daggit shook his head, "What is it with these people? First that Andorian rancher and now this."

"Don't insult the nice sheriff," Parva whispered, "He's staving off a gunfight."

"But what do they call him?" Burrows had to wonder, "Wyatt Burp?"

Parva was insulted on principle's sake. Daggit actually snickered. She cuffed him upside the head.

Macen and Ebert pushed their way through the milling spectators, "They're with me."

"Macen?" The sheriff was stunned, "Brin Macen? And little Tracy Ebert?"

"I'm not so little anymore, Staf," Ebert pointed out the obvious.

"A-yup. Yore all growed up," Staf agreed.

"Who are these outsiders?" the man named Tig asked.

"Yore one ta talk," Staf argued, a Tellarite's first defense, "These here are Maquis heroes."

"Maquis heroes wouldn't have staged a raid on Turkana IV and killed dozens of my people," Tig snarled.

"This one would," Macen calmly replied.

A woman pushed her way through the crowd as well and sharply whistled at Tig. Summoning him like a dog, she led the Alliance forces away. Everyone bore full sleeve tattoos on arms and legs as well varying sized ink on their backs. Her dragon consumed her back so Macen assumed that was her obvious badge of office since she was clearly in charge of the others.

"Let's go back ta my office and get caught up," Staf suggested.

"In a second," Macen turned to the others, "You three head back to the ship. I have a feeling we're going to get really busy in short order."

"I have no doubts," Parva chuckled as Daggit contacted Telrik for a beam out.

Inside the Sheriff's office, Staf offered everyone chairs, "Sorry we're not build fer comfort since we spend most of our watches walkin' the beat."

"How many deputies do you have?" Macen asked.

"Two, but now we gots ourselves a ‘volunteer' vigilante force. I've had ta break up over a dozen lynch mobs since those Alliance types arrived," Staf grumbled.

"Sounds like the last days of the Maquis all over again," Macen said ruefully.

"Ya, but shore 'nuff you an' Ro Laren knew enough ta stay outta Eddington's schemes. If he hanted used biogenic weapons in the first place maybe the Dominion wouldna have cracked so many skulls," Staf theorized.

"But we'll never know, will we?" Ebert said darkly.

"I kint believe ya are still tagether after all these long years," Staf was amazed.

"Actually we just recently reunited," Ebert shared, "The Captain needed help and I couldn't refuse him."

"Any of the rest of the ol' bunch wit ya?" Staf wondered.

"T'Kir and Lees were with me. Lees married Tom Riker and they oversee a space station I own," Macen revealed.

"Own?" Staf sputtered, "What the hell have ya been doin' all these years?"

"Security, mostly for Starfleet," Macen divulged.

"An' T'Kir?" Staf probed.

"We married but she was killed by Bertram Sindis," Macen said sadly.

"Ya went against Sindis?" Staf exclaimed, "An' ya lived?"

"My team is the best," Macen said proudly.

"The last time ya were in these here parts there was a merc that wanted yer head awfully bad. Annika Ryst was her name. Whatever happened wit that?" Staf asked.

"He married her," Ebert delighted in sharing.

"Damn, man! Ya got a death wish or whut?" Staf couldn't help but ask.

"Let's just say we put our differences aside and she became a whole new woman," Macen said obliquely.

"She'd have ta," Staf muttered.

"Anyway, the Orion Syndicate is only one of our problems. Gomer wants our heads for our part in disrupting her plans for killing Tavera. It happened anyway but she's still disgruntled," Macen told him, "Now my clients contracted me to look into disturbances inside the Autonomous Region."

"Clients?" Staf was curious.

"Castellan Garan and Queen Katreen," Macen freely admitted.

"Don't say those names too loudly in these parts. An' don't tell no one else ya are workin' fer them," Staf urged.

"Who was the woman with the oversized dragon tattoo on her back?" Macen inquired.

"She's trouble. She's the Alliance…" Staf began.

"Leader. I got that. But who is she?" Macen asked again.

"Name's Enzi Mayar. Tough bitch if there ever was one," Staf grumbled.

"Language," Ebert scolded him.

"I've heard ya pop of a few choice ones yerself, girly. So's don't be lecturin' me none," Staf protested.

"What she doing here, Staf?" Macen pointedly asked, "Her and her little army?"

"I…don't know," Staf miserably replied.

"You never were a good liar," Macen tapped the comm badge affixed to his belt; "Telrik, beam Tracy and I back aboard ship."

"Sure, sure Cap'n," Telrik cheerfully replied.

"Never thought I'd hear a friendly fellow Tellarite," Staf muttered to himself.

Mayar strode into his office after the SID pair dematerialized, "What do they want, Staf? And don't bother lying. You're terrible at it and I don't want to strain what's left of your brain."

"I don't know nuthin' 'bout nuthin'. But Macen…" Staf paused.

"I fully know who they all are," Mayar assured him, "Just answer the question."

"He said they're workin' fer Garan and Katreen Dervin," Staf crumbled.

"Then I'd best alert our fellow workers in orbit," Mayar exited as forcefully as she'd entered.

Staf suddenly realized what the Terran's legendary Judas Iscariot must have felt like afterwards.

Inside the Legislative Assembly Headquarters, the various Legislators maintained their working offices. Gul Ocett maintained a bunker and several armories for her Legislative Guardsmen. They ferried the myriad lawmakers to the Assembly Hall and back again. Most conspicuously, Castellan Garan kept her offices inside the headquarters building.

Here, Delain's Legislative Special Investigations offices could be found. The unit was made up of Delain and two handpicked assistants. Delain had managed to set up a conference call between Guls Ocett and Mariska with Rockford. Forte sat unseen where she continued to amaze Delain having just learned the Cardassian language, in its verbal and written forms, over the course of the last thirty minutes.

Lee and Shade had reported in with Rockford after covering their bases with Delain's staff. They regretted to inform their boss Mudd had slipped the leash while everyone was occupied. Rockford merely grinned.

"Keep an eye on her. Don't interfere but keep tabs on her and start sending me hourly reports after you leave," she instructed.

"What if she engages in an illegal activity?" Lee asked.

"Kang, she's a career criminal. Of course she'll probably do something illegal. We're on Cardassia. If you feel she's out of control, alert some constables," Rockford was a little short tempered, "Now get going before she totally ditches you."

Mudd had almost gotten tired of waiting for her unsuspecting backup. She was about to pack up and move on when Lee and Shade emerged from the building. Mudd snorted derisively. She'd known it was too much to ask for Rockford to send Forte. The kid was inexperienced but at least she saw every side of an issue.

Lee and Shade doggedly picked up her trail. Mudd had to confess Lee wasn't half bad at tracking people. But the moment arrived and she simply vanished from sight.

"Where did she go?" Shade blinked in surprise.

"I don't know," Lee gasped.

"How do you lose a platinum haired, leather clad, Caucasian human in a sea of Cardassian pedestrians?" Shade ridiculed him, "Do you always have performance issues where women are concerned?"

Inside the nearby Port Authority offices, Mudd watched Shade verbally eviscerate Lee. The offices were one of the few places aliens could go unnoticed on Cardassia. Her ultimate destination was another.

Lee and Shade frantically began searching. Mudd left them to it. As long as they contacted the Constabulary on time, everything would go according to plan.

Ro's team travelled deep through the heart of Hedrikspool Province away from the coastal city of Jalandra before cutting north. By heading towards the Hill Province, they were plunging deeper into the heart of former Resistance territory. Only the Kendra Province could rally as much support as these to threaten the government. These three provinces displayed their own brand of patriotism.

Hedrikspool, like Hill and Kendra Provinces, had shunned the original Provisional Government but they had rallied behind Shakaar's upstart rebellion and later campaign for First Minister. They had stood firm against Kai Winn's ambitions to secure Shakaar the elected post.

When Shakaar died while inspecting the Valo system, he'd done so celebrating the system's return from Cardassia to Bajor. Shakaar had just secured Bajor's entrance into the United Federation of Planets and the Cardassians didn't want to appear obstructionists to their benefactors.

The political vacuum was then filled by Second Minister Trey Marven. He'd been a compromise candidate who enjoyed massive support in the urban centers Shakaar had never swayed into endorsing him. Astris Beru had won a landslide against Trey when his appointed term was over. Astris had ridden the crest of overwhelming popularity since, winning term after term.

But now the former Starfleet officer had announced her intention to step down after her latest term expired. Astris and her wife had plans in the NGO sector they wanted to explore. So they could still serve the Bajoran population and that of her colonies without the massive pressures of public office.

Astris had made it a mainstay to improve the conditions on the Bajoran colonies and help address the concerns of the colonial populations. So she and Kara would pursue those goals as private citizens. And the two women could finally settle down as they neared their middle aged years to start and raise a family. A goal both the former Bajoran refugee, Astris, and the eugenically bred Kara had fervently desired for over a decade.

As Ro's team parked their air car and strolled through Rentatha village, Sgt. Halep stopped Ro and nodded towards an outdoor café, "Captain, those two women at the edge of the café patio."

"What about them, Sergeant?" Ro inquired.

"One's Militia," Halep explained, "She's a Major with the Special Forces. The other is a former Militia engineer. Now she's an ex-convict."

"Convicted of what?" Ro wondered where this was headed.

"Murder, Ma'am. And the attempted murder of Vedek Bareil," Halep told her.

"Sergeant, that incident happened twenty years ago. She could easily have been released on her own recognizance by now," Ro reminded Halep.

"Yes, Captain. But Lt. Neela never confessed to Kai Winn instructing her to do it but everyone eventually realized the truth. Neela even got an early release thanks to Winn's influence and she went to work for the Vedek Assembly," Halep informed Ro.

"Doing what?" Ro asked.

"No one knows and the vedeks aren't talking. Certainly no one in Kai Winnow's camp," Halep stated, "Scuttlebutt had Neela as a special operative for Winn. After Winn's heresy was found out, Neela disappeared from the Vedek Assembly but word filtered down that she was now an operative for General Krim. Seeing her here with Major Anara seems to prove that."

"Or they could merely be old friends enjoying a meal together," Ro countered.

"Or you could ask them and find out for yourself," Halep prompted her.

"Clever, Sergeant," Ro chuckled, "Have the squad wait here."

"Here she comes," Anara quietly murmured to Neela.

Neela was still completely casual about this development, "It makes sense that Starfleet and the Militia would want an official presence on the ground."

"They'll just get in our way," Anara said irritably.

"Fifteen years ago you wouldn't have been so quick to dismiss them," Neela chided her friend, "Ro is a living legend amongst the Resistance, Starfleet and the Maquis. She could prove to be very useful. She's also famously unorthodox so she may let us run our investigation unimpeded."

"You really think so?" Anara asked dryly.

"No," Neela sighed, "But whatever happens because of it will be the will of the Prophets."

Neela and Anara had been members of the same Resistance cell. When their original cell was decimated by a Cardassian hunter-killer unit, they escaped to Hedrikspool with two sub-impulse raiders. Joining the local cell, they taught their newfound comrades how to fly the raiders while Anara and Neela serviced them as the cell's engineers.

One memorable adventure shortly before the Cardassian withdrawal had them liberating religious leaders from a Cardassian prison. Those leaders included Vedek Winn, one of Neela's heroes in the faith. After the Cardassian abandoned Bajor, Anara and Neela had been recruited by the reinstituted Militia because of their familiarity with, and expertise in, Cardassian equipment.

Anara was sent to Terok Nor to serve as the Deputy Chief of Operations under Chief Miles O'Brien as Starfleet took over administrative duties and renamed the station Deep Space Nine. Anara was reassigned after the "Pup" incident and Neela took over her role on the station.

Neela's own time aboard the station was the stuff of infamy. Anara had volunteered for the Special Forces, prompting her transfer. While Neela was convicted and sentenced to prison, Anara knew her friend's unspoken secret. Winn Adami had persuaded Neela to eliminate Winn's rival for the Kaiship. But Neela would have rotted behind prison walls before revealing that confidence.

Winn convinced the Militia to order Neela's release after the True Faith had attempted to kill Shakaar. Winn wanted an agent no one could trace back to her or the Militia to eliminate the members of the True Faith. General Krim agreed on principle but tacked Anara onto the mission.

And so a partnership was reborn. Anara represented Krim's Militia interests. Neela represented Kai Winn's. After Winn's death and fall in public opinion, Neela was brought in by Krim to continue to serve Bajor under his auspices.

In order to preserve the fiction that they were renegades, Anara and Neela had stolen one of Bajor's few warp capable Karemma designed assault ships. Appropriately named the Ark of the Prophets, the ship was still classified by the Militia as stolen property. But no one in the Militia dared attempt to reclaim the vessel.

Over the last sixteen years, Anara and Neela had served their planet at home and abroad. The Ark of the Prophets was flagged as a Bajoran vessel under Federation registry. But its military origins were obvious to any that scanned the ship.

Now, Krim had assigned the pair to tracking down those that had orchestrated the plot to kill Astris. His orders were as specific as they were far reaching. They were to apprehend every member of the conspiracy that they could find and offer proof of their complicity.

"Why Captain Ro, so nice of you to join us here today," Neela said warmly as Ro reached their table.

"You know who I am?" Ro was a little surprised.

"You're only one of the most famous Bajorans to ever serve in Starfleet;" Anara said wryly, "Only Admiral Kira is slightly more infamous. Your time in the Resistance isn't as revered as Kira's but your efforts in the Maquis more than made up for that in public opinion. And you and Kira have both been Bajoran commanders of Deep Space Nine and defended Bajor from her enemies."

"I think you're overstating it a bit," Ro squirmed.

"Nonsense, Captain. While your stealing one of Valo II's only warp capable shuttles to run off and join Starfleet originally didn't settle well with many people, what you've accomplished since being released from the stockade on Jaros II has," Neela pointed out, "So who else would Admiral Jellico dispatch to Bajor to resolve the current assassination quandary?"

"How about we take a little walk to the local constabulary?" Ro grated.

"Captain, you're no longer DS9's Chief of Security," Anara reminded Ro, "You need to see the broader picture here."

"I'm sure you'd love to enlighten me as to what that picture entails," Ro dryly quipped.

"Do you know what's at stake here?" Anara asked.

"Do you?" Ro retorted.

"In less than ten minutes, representatives of the organization that equipped domestic agents to implement the assassination attempt will be here to try and recruit us," Neela told her, "Since First Minister Astris was diverted at the last minute to the stairwells within the Ministerial Building by a last minute work order on the turbolifts, which proved to be a fake request since both lifts were in proper working order, we have to assume the bombers knew that the lifts were actively scanned every five minutes and their weapons would have been detected. And we have to assume that said bombers also knew the route Astris would be diverted to and that the stairwells, considered archaic by most inside the building, were only sensor swept daily and in the morning before working hours began."

"So it was an inside job," Ro realized.

"Which you already suspected or you wouldn't be here without the Militia's knowledge," Neela pointed out.

Ro was getting irritated by Neela's ability to get into her head, "So you're saying you two are investigating this case as well."

"She can be taught," Anara grunted.

"Get under cover, Captain. And take Lt. Commander Tenmei with you. Terrans don't frequent Rentatha," Neela advised Ro.

The pair was actually impressed by the way Ro managed to get her squad out of sight in such short order. Anara admitted she was impressed, "I guess now we know why she was an effective Maquis commander."

"One of their few," Neela observed, "Our contacts are here."

"How can you be so certain?" Anara hadn't looked around for fear of seeming anxious.

"How many other Terrans are in the village today besides Commander Tenmei?" Neela asked with just a trace of irony.

Neither Bajoran had ever dealt with Alliance forces so they had little clue as to what the plethora of tattoos littering their bodies represented. But they were loose fitting vests to bare their chests and arms along with mesh pants designed to flaunt their leg art. The vests also rode low in between their shoulders to display a hint of their rank tattoos located there. Despite Anara and Neela's ignorance, the Hex brothers were mid-level operatives for the Alliance commander.

"You're Neela and Anara?" the elder Hex asked.

"We could be," Anara replied, "It all depends on who is asking."

"See ya," the elder Hex started to lead his brother away.

"Militia Command changed all of the mainframe access codes yesterday," Anara spoke up just loud enough for the humans to overhear, "You'd have worthless access codes if you had any at all. However, new ones can be obtained…if the cause is worth it."

"A Ferengi would ask for latinum," the older Hex replied.

"I'm Bajoran," Anara shrugged, "Causes are my latinum."

"Do you have the code ciphers with you?" the younger Hex spoke at last.

"Do I look stupid? Murders can still be very public on this planet," Anara retorted, "Meet us at our ship and I'll hand a copy of the updated data to you."

"Where's your elusive ship?" the younger Hex asked his second question.

"Jalandra," Anara answered.

"The name of the ship?" the older brother wanted to know.

"The Ark of the Prophets," Anara supplied him with the necessary information.

"Does she ever speak," the younger sibling gestured towards Neela.

"Yes, and when she does you'd best listen as though your life depends on it. Because it probably will at that moment," Anara advised them both.

""Is that a threat?" the Hexes asked.

"Experience," Anara replied.

"We'll be there in two hours," the elder Hex decided, "Be there or we will find you and your life will depend upon what she says."

The Terrans departed but the duo knew they were still observing them. Neela silently slid the padd she'd been writing down instruction on under her legs. When she rose, she left the padd behind and slid the seat under the table. They didn't even stay to observe that the waiter didn't spot the abandoned device as Neela had intended.

Ro waited until the Terrans revealed themselves again and left the village before intercepting the padd before guests could be seated at the targeted table. And she found Neela had written a comprehensive report concerning the pair's next move and objective. And where to meet them so they could observe the Hexes' movements after the next appearance.

Over Volon III, the Obsidian hung over the planet in a geosynchronous orbit. Forger had summoned Macen to the bride while he had Ebert running a flight check on the Corsair. Forger greeted Macen as he came alongside Forger's seat on the bridge.

"Angelique and Bailey have detected an unknown carrier wave type projected from the surface to an orbital location. However, our sensors don't detect anything," Forger complained.

"Jaycee or Edwin, any energy distortions capable of warping electromagnetic energy?" Macen asked.

"You mean like a cloaking device," Miller responded.

"I've set up a tachyon pulse routed through the auxiliary deflector," Zimbalist announced.

"Fire when ready, Mr. Zimbalist," Macen was going to enjoy this.

The pulse was emitted and a Breen privateer cruiser flashed into life in a wave of distorted light. Macen pretended to be surprised, "Oh my, how did that get here?"

"I wouldn't have ever spotted that carrier wave signal," Zimbalist unhappily reported.

"That's why our friendly team makes the big bucks," Macen replied, "Have they hailed us yet."

Tell tales all over Zimbalist's station began to flash, "Yes, and very unhappily so."

"I'd imagine so," Macen murmured.

"Raise shields and arm phasers and photons," Macen instructed, "Let's see how they respond."

"No change in aspect other than mirroring our own actions," Miller reported.

"So our Breen captain is a cool customer," Macen observed, "He felt properly threatened enough to mirror our move but he isn't instigating a fight."

"Maybe the fact the Cardassians closed their borders to Typhon Pact traffic has something to do with it?" Forger felt a headache coming on.

"Why does a Breen civilian ship have a Romulan cloaking device?" Zimbalist asked, "I thought the Romulan Navy only shared military technology with military forces within the Typhon pact."

"But privateers are quasi-military," Macen reminded him of their own status, "So the legal fiction can be preserved while still being able to claim this ship and crew have gone rogue."

"Uh…Captain?" Zimbalist flushed, "They're hailing again but I don't think you want me patching it through just yet."

"I'll take your word for it," Macen grinned at Forger, "Let me know when they're done venting their collective spleens or whatever organ they have that suffices."

"They have to know they're presence is a provocation," Forger reminded Macen, "Whether the Typhon Pact declares them rogue operatives or not."

"They obviously don't want an incident or they would have fired on us already," Macen thought aloud.

"They've already got one;" Forger said grimly, "The question is why they are even here to begin with?"

"And that's exactly what they're going to evade answering," Macen predicted.

Ocett found the time to personally report to Delain's offices. Ocett ran the daily affairs of the Legislative Guard from a bunker underneath the sprawling complex. Inspector Moran Kemplan also joined them from the Planetary Constabulary. Kemplan was the youngest female officer to reach the rank of Inspector in the history of the Constabulary. She'd reached proper marital age five years ago and had successively turned down numerous suitors in her quest to achieve a landmark record. She wasn't one to suffer fools gladly so when she saw Delain deferring to Rockford, she took notice.

Mariska was the last to arrive for the face to face. She'd initially balked at leaving her principle charge when the need for a meeting to coordinate planetary efforts to catch the assassins was required. Mariska looked relieved and worried all at the same time.

"I'm sorry I'm late. Katreen is all a-flutter with this latest attempt on her life. Honestly, you'd think she'd be used to it by now," Mariska shared as she found a seat.

"Where is she now?" Rockford asked.

"With the Castellan," Ocett answered for Mariska, "They're giving a joint address to the Legislative Assembly that's being broadcast across the planet. The usual ‘we will not bow to terrorists' motif that plays well to a shaky populace."

"And why are you here?" Kemplan asked Rockford.

"Celeste Rockford has a shared history in defending Cardassia and protecting its queen," Mariska said proudly.

"We've also shared my husband," Rockford said mirthfully.

Kemplan gave Mariska a pained look. Mariska shrugged, "It was before they married."

"It was a helluva engagement present," Rockford smirked.

"I believe your bedding Elias Vaughn qualified as such for Brin as well," Mariska retorted.

"Touché," Rockford nodded respectfully Mariska's way, "But I see Brin's been talking."

"I felt guilty over bedding him just months before you two began to prepare to wed," Mariska admitted, "Knowing you'd dallied about as well eased my discomfort somewhat."

"No guilt necessary," Rockford promised her, "Brin and I weren't an item yet and you two had both hit rough patches. You took comfort in each other's company. I won't say it was ‘expected' because he was a former Maquis and you being a Cardassian Guard officer."

"You slept with a Maquis?" Kemplan looked faint.

"Not every one of our people was his target," Mariska informed her.

"Obviously you were one," Kemplan muttered.

"Do I need to separate you two?" Rockford teased.

"She's young and knows everything," Mariska sighed.

"At least I'm not so old and passed by every man long enough to sleep with an enemy," Kemplan shot back.

"Do you have any idea of who Brin Macen is?" Ocett asked quietly.

"Macen?" Kemplan paused.

"'Fraid so," Rockford enjoyed the moment.

Macen and his team were infamous amongst Cardassia's security organs so Kemplan began to tread lightly, "And you're his wife?"

"Uh huh," Rockford was truly relishing Kemplan's about face.

"And you were his lover?" Kemplan asked Mariska with a note of awe in her voice.

"All too briefly," Mariska admitted.

"Name dropper," Rockford accused.

"Had to be done," Mariska sighed.

"I thought I…" Kemplan quickly shut up.

"You thought you were the only Cardassian woman to take an alien lover," Rockford supplied for her.

Kemplan's gray cheeks darkened as she blushed. Rockford drove the point home further, "Let me guess…he, I'm pretty sure it's a he, is a Starfleet officer and most likely Terran."

Kemplan looked panicky, "I never told anyone."

"You seem the type," Rockford shared, "He also left Cardassia. Probably after you secretly married."

The blush returned to Kemplan's cheeks, "He was redeployed to Deep Space Four. I've submitted my application for detached duty from the Constabulary and been approved with the Federation Security Service. I'm being station on DS4."

"Cozy," Forte opined reminding everyone she was still in the room.

"How did you manage to secure this last investigation if you're leaving Cardassian space?" Ocett inquired sharply.

"Because I've been investigating a singular movement with the means and motives to undertake an assassination attempt. And no one at the Constabulary took me seriously until now," Kemplan revealed, "So I have one last chance to prove my theories and leave victorious or resign in disgrace and be the scapegoat for why no one has captured the assassins."

Ocett was fast tracked to become the Cardassian Guard's very first female Legate. So she understood the bureaucratic pressure Kemplan was operating under. And the fervent desire of her superiors for her to fail and exonerate themselves.

Silence loomed for a moment before Delain spoke up, "Castellan Garan has placed me as the lead investigator. But I can't be effective if you all don't cooperate with me and give me your very best. As a show of such cooperating, Detective Rockford has a list of requests that I require be met."

"We need to funnel all investigative reports through this office no matter where they originate from," Rockford began.

"The CIB will fight us," Mariska predicted.

"I'll them bombard from orbit if they do," Ocett promised.

"Celeste?" Forte spoke up again.

"Yes, Arianna?" Rockford asked.

"We need the raw sensor data and the raw interrogation footage as well," Forte requested.

"Some of the footage can be a little…raw," Kemplan warned, "Most humans can't tolerate the sight of it."

"Fortunately I'm not human," Forte said with steel in her voice.

Kemplan looked at Rockford. Rockford shrugged, "I'm not human either."

"The implant scar on your temple," Kemplan noticed at long last, "Angosian?"

"Yup," Rockford confirmed it, "Inspector, can you contact your people and have them return mine to these offices?"

"How will they recognize them?" Kemplan wondered.

"They're a human and a Fabrini who looks human. And they'll be pissed off and getting into all sorts of trouble by now," Rockford explained.

"Problem?" Mariska inquired.

"Just an element within our larger team that hasn't learned there are still boundaries within the scope of an investigation," Rockford explained, "They're currently engaged in an object lesson."

Mudd discreetly slipped into Bellek's Hostelry. The hostel itself did fair business in the evening but the attached pub was a going concern throughout the entire day and evening. Mudd also had to amend her earlier self assertion. She was as discreet as anyone with her rather noticeable appearance could. Mudd drew stares even amongst her fellow humans.

And the bulk of the crowd filling Bellek's Pub was hardly Terran. She recognized half a dozen of the freighter captains nursing their collective wounds after the Cardassian inquiries. A few even owed her latinum. She decided to let that go for now. They were in enough pain already.

Another half dozen she knew by reputation alone. And then there was the very small crowd she was on intimate terms with. A crowd so small it numbered one individual.

Gleed At'tk'tk'tk was an Insectoid Xindi that her grandparents, Harry Fenton Mudd II and Alyssa Money Sovereign, had gotten out of the Delphic Expanse and into a business of his own exporting Xindi and Suliban tech to outer races. Gleed despised the Federation and its allies but had escaped their notice until now.

Mudd had examined the ship registry of who was docked at Amok Nor. Spotting Gleed's faithful ship, she'd instantly known who had managed to smuggle off worlders onto Cardassia Prime. Gleed was a lifelong friend so she was going to give one single chance to help her.

"Mudd!" Gleed happily chirped. He rose and did a ritual greeting she only recognized through long acquaintance.

Gleed reset his universal translator to a version of a whisper before reseating himself, "What are you doing here, Harriet Fedora Mudd?"

"It's just ‘Harri' these days," Mudd told him, "I was in the system when the bombs went off. I'd never left their new station so they knew I didn't have anything to do with it. So they didn't get physical during my interrogation. But I know you played a part. Tell me who hired you and I won't turn you in. You can get away clean and never come back to Cardassian space."

"You wouldn't," Gleed almost pleaded.

"Gleed, I've purchased my moon in the Arcanus sector. Now I'm terraforming. I can afford because I'm on retainer with a noted detective agency. They're investigating these bombings. Because I know you I'll do you the favor of letting you walk away clean. But I need to know who hired you before I can do it," Mudd apprised him.

"I can't!" Gleed protested.

"Then have fun getting fitted for prostheses after the Cardies pull your arms and legs off," Mudd warned him, "Because they will make you talk and they've only shut down two labor camps while opening a dozen new ones."

"I brought in six Terrans," Gleed finally caved in to her demand, "Another ship took them back."

"From where and to where?" Mudd asked.

"Valo III," Gleed reverberated a sigh.

"Who hired you?" Mudd asked.

"A middleman," Gleed sullenly answered, "He approached me at Starbase 375. I was hired to pick up the cargo and drop it off here. My part is done. But there are others. On this world and off of it."

"Thank you, Gleed. Like I said, I knew you were guilty and the Cardies undoubtedly suspect it. I can buy you your freedom with the information you gave me," Mudd promised.

The doors burst open and Lee and Shade led a procession of constables inside. Mudd glowered, "Or maybe not."

"What the hell was that?" Mudd yelled at Rockford as the constable deactivated the force field to the detention cell Mudd occupied, "We had a deal."

"We still do," Rockford assured her, "Your friend Gleed has already been released after thwarting every attempt by Inspector Kemplan to extract a confession out of him. In a fit of pique, Traffic Control has cleared an immediate departure window for him and his entire crew."

"Thank you," Mudd sighed, "Gleed is a family friend that goes back to my grandparents."

"I'd already known your familial background was waaay off the beaten track for mortals born in the Federation," Rockford chuckled, "That and Brin has worked with and against your father and the disaster you call a brother for decades."

"The apple of Pops' eye," Mudd sighed.

"It's a cock and balls club kinda thing," Rockford let her know, "They share the genetic heritage of having penises and therefore they're in love with themselves with a little left over for each other."

"You sound intimately familiar with this warped ideology," Mudd ventured.

"When Angosia first went to war with Tarsus only male volunteers were allowed to serve in the military. As the war ground on, female volunteers began to be accepted as well. Finally it was down to universal conscription regardless of gender inside of certain age brackets. I was young enough to be allowed to volunteer for Augmentation. And the rest is history," Rockford said with the barest hint of regret.

"So why was Annika Ryst qualified when there were only a dozen women ever accepted into that program?" Mudd had done her own digging.

"Because Annika was just so good at kicking ass and taking names," Rockford said ruefully.

"Aren't you glad you inherited some of her traits along with her memories?" Mudd grinned.

"Except I've realized sideways and sneaky can be just as effective most of the time," Rockford replied.

"Word's to live by," Mudd concurred, "I always thought half your brain was better than Lee and Shade's put together."

"They have their uses," Rockford demurred.

"Like having asses to warm my boots with after they're shoved far, far and away up them," Mudd promised.

"They're idealists," Rockford warned her off, "And they're just now discovering the Federation's utopia didn't stamp out criminal activity. It just shoved it into the periphery. At least most of the time."

"Do you and Macen sit around making this stuff up?" Mudd asked.

"He makes sense though. The golden heart of the Federation can't allow criminal activities or civil unrest so rather than crush it; it simply transplants it outside of its own borders. When the borders overtake the criminals, a massive effort is made again to shove them further out again," Rockford explained, "Starfleet is the tool for the transplanting. But Starfleet can't sully itself by infiltrating the criminal world for any length of time so that's why agencies like the SID and Section 31 prosper and thrive."

"I don't know, this Council of Five Macen talks about seems pretty underhanded," Mudd remarked, "Who took Forger's place?"

"Kira Nerys," Rockford sighed, "They emotionally blackmailed Kira and promoted her to the admiralty. Bill Ross rejoined as well. Edward Noyce and Alynna Nechayev are present but planning their retirements so they're looking for successors. Leonard James Akaar is the undisputed dead of the council and Edward Jellico's heir apparent."

"I thought Kira retired after leaving DS9," Mudd ventured.

"She did," Rockford confirmed it, "She even took vows as a prylar."

"A what?" Mudd was confused.

"A Bajoran monk," Rockford explained, "But Jellico invoked a little used emergency reactivation clause and drafted Kira back into service. They threw flag rank at her and forced her to serve. Seeing she didn't have a legal out, Kira buckled down and accepted her new jobs. But I rather doubt she's happy about any of it."

"It takes all kinds," Mudd whistled.

"It does indeed," Rockford concurred, "Would you like out of that cell now?"

 

Chapter Three

The Breen captain's helmeted head bobbed up and done while an electronic vacuuming static sound garbled forth. No one could understand him because the Breen had modified their universal translator matrix again and purposefully withheld the cipher key from non-Typhon Pact nations.

"Please tell me you're getting something out of this?" Macen implored Zimbalist.

"Uh…sorry, Captain. The Linguicode translator hasn't been updated with…whatever they using," Zimbalist apologized.

Macen's comm badge chirped so he tapped it in resignation. Smith's voice could now be heard, "Captain, it's Bailey. I've been monitoring the transmissions and cobbled together a rough translation matrix. It's still pretty crude but as I gather more conversation I can refine it a bit."

"Patch it in," Macen ordered.

"Shouldn't we beta test this program?" Zimbalist asked.

"Edwin, the nice Breen can understand everything we're saying and are enjoying a good laugh at our expense. I think getting to the point where we can begin a meaningful dialogue could avert a larger war," Macen patiently explained, "Or do you have a problem with that approach."

"Nossir!" Zimbalist quickly quipped.

"Then activate the translation patch and open the channel again," Macen instructed.

Forger gave Macen an apologetic look while Zimbalist performed the necessary updating, "You're on."

"You were saying?" Macen asked the Breen.

"Why target ship?" the helmet bobbed up an adown confident there would be no reply.

"Because you violated Cardassian space under a Romulan cloaking field," Macen answered, "Given your government was informed Cardassian borders were closed to Breen, and all Typhon Pact, traffic this is tantamount to an invasion."

The Breen jerked so hard he almost fell out of his seat, "Invasion is not! Informed are we of Maquis Confederacy independent is. Support we do."

"The Maquis Confederacy is a dream that died once at the Dominion's hands and a second time at mine," Macen replied, "Your so-called ‘support' isn't needed."

"Not says local leadership. Supply must aid we will. Not you interfere," the Breen declared and cut the channel.

"I really can't believe he'd be that stubborn," Macen groaned.

"They're locking disruptors on us," Miller reported.

Everyone tensed and then Forger asked, "Are they firing?"

"No," Miller was confused, "Should I maintain phaser locks?"

"Let's not play their little game," Macen told her and turned to Forger, "Drop the aft shields when the Corsair requests launch clearance and then reraise the shields. I think we're being pinned into place in order to wait for reinforcements."

"So you're going to the planet?" Forger was skeptical.

"Something or someone down there has the answers we need," Macen told her, "I'm going to find them or it and beat them silly until they tell me what I want to know."

"Please bring them back to the ship so I can help," Forger begged.

"I'm not making any promises," Macen warned her and started to head for the turbolift, "Have Rab. Parva, and Tony meet me in the shuttlebay."

"What do we do while we're waiting to get locked into a crossfire?" Forger grumped.

"As soon as we're away. Break orbit and maneuver into a better tactical position. Strategically, look for position that nets you a clean exit," Macen told her, "I doubt we'll have time to dock when we all leave the system."

"Great," Forger complained as the lift whisked Macen away.

He went to the Data Center to confer with Kerber and Smith, "How's the translation matrix coming?"

"I need more language samples," Smith complained.

"Angelique?" Macen asked.

"I've tapped into intership communications aboard the Breen vessel," Kerber answered, "But they're not saying much. It seems they're just holding and waiting."

"Can you slip something in unnoticed too knock out their weapons?" Macen asked her.

"Probably if Bailey helps," Kerber and Smith never broke cover even in private.

"Consider it your top priority," Macen stated, "I'm taking a team to the surface. I'm betting after we get there, all hell is going to break loose."

"Usually does when you're involved," Angelique grinned.

Macen contacted Tessa, "Have you heard?"

"Shannon told me to prep Sickbay in case the worst should happen. But she wouldn't answer me about when doesn't it?" Tessa inquired.

"Tessa, you've been working on your humor routines. I think that was a joke," Macen told her.

"But it wasn't funny," she complained.

"You're right. It wasn't," Macen told her as he made his way aft to the shuttlebay.

"I'll just get Sickbay ready," Tessa sighed.

"Thank you," he signed off.

Everyone took stations inside the runabout. Parva gave Macen a rueful look, "They're going to shoot at us, aren't they?"

"Not necessarily," Macen countered.

"Captain, they always shoot at us when we arrive," Daggit retorted.

"They didn't shoot earlier," Macen reminded them all.

"No, they threw punches. That's ever so much better," Burrows joined in.

"Tony, these three have been to hell and back with me. I'll cut you some slack because of Elias but don't push too far too fast," Macen advised him.

On the surface of Volon III, a crowd was gathering around the shuttle port. Which was evidence enough that the Breen had tipped off Enzi Mayar and her forces. In turn, the locals had tipped off Staf and his two deputies he'd called on duty. Staf had known Macen wouldn't simply walk away.

He met up with Mayar, "Hold on, Enzi. These here folk ain't done nuthin' to rile yer mob up."

"They know about the Breen in orbit," Mayar said coldly, "And rather than break and run, they sent people here. Why is that? What can they hope to learn?"

"I ain't gonna let you simply lynch them," Staf protested.

"I know Tellarites live to argue but you've already lost this," Mayar warned him, "But just to keep you in check, you'll be going back to your little office and await my signal before you exit. If you step outside before that time, my people will kill you just as soon as look at you."

"This ain't yer world, Enzi," Staf tried one last time.

"It is now," Mayar told him with a cruel smile.

The runabout had landed and the milling Alliance vigilante surrounded the diminutive starship. They waited ten minutes before Mayar's lieutenant finally asked the pertinent question, "Shouldn't they have exited by now?"

"Tricorder!" Mayar barked, "Scan for transporter traces."

"Definitely," a foot soldier with a tricorder answered.

"Damn!" Mayar snarled, "Leave a guard around their ship. Everyone else back to town. Break into groups and search the entire city."

In the woods beyond the shuttle port, Daggit was behind cover with Parva, "They're reacting the way Macen said they would."

"They're pack hunters," Burrows said from behind a neighboring tree, "They can't operate independently."

"Seeing how they were raised on Turkana IV, it's little wonder," Daggit mentioned.

"I'll guard the Corsair. You two go apply a little pressure and get the main pack off of Macen and Ebert," Parva instructed.

"I don't know," Daggit hedged.

"Rab, I'm not helpless anymore. In fact, I'm better than I ever was. Just go. I'll be fine," Parva argued with him.

As Daggit and Burrows skirted the town, Burrows chuckled, "That's one woman I wouldn't cross."

"Only one?" Daggit was almost insulted.

"Bailey Smith is another," Burrows recognized Daggit's surprise, "On Safehold; the crooks laid a trap for me, Mudd, and Ebert. Smith turned their ambush into a slaughter. Even when they reinforced after picking out her blind, she took them out one by one until they were all dead."

"Where does a linguist learn to do that?" Daggit wondered.

"And it wasn't the mark of simulated battles. Smith could gauge her opponent's real time reactions. Holograms can come close but they're not unpredictable like sentients. But that unstable element didn't even slow her down," Burrows informed him.

"Look, friend. Macen vouched for them. They obviously have a story they aren't sharing," Daggit told him.

"Maybe they won't have a choice but to share," Burrows replied.

"I'd let it go," Daggit warned him, "Sometimes secrets are best left buried for a reason."

"Never," Burrows asserted.

"Every member of our team has secrets they don't want shared. Even you, Lee, Shade, and young Forte. I have a bad feeling if you out Smith and Kerber they'll reciprocate in kind," Daggit counseled him further, "Just weigh that before you decide."

Mayar shoved Staf into his own station house at phaser point. Macen clubbed her wrist as she entered and she dropped the phaser. Drawing a knife, she grazed his ribs while he smashed an elbow into her nose. A knee followed into her gut and she stumbled back. Ebert stunned her with her own phaser.

"You're hurt!" she exclaimed.

"Shrev, take a look at that," Staf instructed his Andorian deputy, "Owens, give me a hand with Enzi."

While Staf and his human deputy slapped binder on Mayar's wrists and drug her to a holding cell, Shrev got Macen to remove his shirt and began applying first aid. The Andorian wore a rueful smile.

"Sorry but we haven't ever been restocked with dermal regenerators. There will be a scar but I have managed to staunch the blood flow with the suture gun," all in all Macen wasn't surprised by Shrev's announcement or even by his presence. A small but dedicated portion of Andorian society left the Andorian Empire when it seceded from the Federation and joined the Typhon pact. Most resettled inside the Federation but some diehards felt the Empire had enough justifiable grievances to condone leaving the Federation even if they didn't want to live inside a Typhon Pact nation. Sentients like that ended up on colonies like Volon III. Non-Federation with enough traces of the Federation to make it seem homey.

"Tracy, you're staring," Macen chuckled.

"I just…I've seen you without a shirt before but you were never this…" Ebert trailed off.

"I've finally been motivated to get into the best shape I could," Macen shrugged and was scolded by Shrev to hold still.

"I just…never realized," Ebert babbled.

Macen knew Ebert had always had a slight crush on him. It had always been well managed and never interfered in their working relationship before. He also knew though that she'd always considered him to be an old man given his four hundred and forty odd years. Apparently that had just changed.

But Macen was finally feeling the ravages of time. Tolian Soran had purportedly described time as a predator. Since his massive exposure to theta radiation, the life prolonging treatments administered to him three hundred years ago had faded. Now only one other El-Aurian known to be alive still enjoyed their protection. And he doubted Guinan would willingly expose herself to theta radiation just to quicken her eventual demise.

"The Alliance ain't just settin' up here boyo," Staf regretted to inform Macen, "They're spreadin' out across the Cardassian client worlds an' the Bajoran colonies. They've got agents on a hundred planets."

"But Volon III was chosen because it's the unofficial capital of the Autonomous Region," Macen surmised, "And if they're on every Bajoran colony, that includes Valo II and Valo III."

Staf heaved a heavy sigh, "Yer too right."

"They're manufacturing crises too large for the Cardassian Guard to deal with and too entrenched for Starfleet to be effective. The Council of Ministers would be forced to rely on the Militia and they'd be compromised by sympathizing with the insurgents," Macen postulated.

"Would they though?" Ebert wondered while Macen put his shirt back on and she was less flustered.

"The Bajorans almost always root for the underdog," Macen reminded her, "It's why they unofficially supported the Maquis."

"But even if they created a civil war, how could they hope to win without calling in outside forces?" Ebert struggled to grasp the implications.

"They won't have. It'll be a civil war all right but it'll be a war of ideologies and conscience. People will choose sides because they feel their side is absolutely in the right," Macen described what was to come, "It's what we tried to create and failed."

"Hearts and minds," Ebert grasped it immediately.

"They're not after the governments but the hearts and minds of the people themselves. Once that's accomplished, the governments will be changed," Macen elaborated.

"Enzi bragged 'bout how they hit Earth as well," Staf fretted.

"That's being looked into," Macen reassured him, "By someone I'd hate to have after me."

Commander Michelle Prentiss had a minimal staff. She'd trolled Starfleet Internal Affairs and then selected her top candidates out of the various volunteers. She now had two dedicated cryptanalysts and their sole purpose in life was to monitor the transmissions coming from and to Starfleet Command.

Of course, they heavily relied upon computer filtering and key word triggers. What she'd discovered about the bombings on Earth was, that after you peeled away the kneejerk reactions, the political fallout stretched back to Nanietta Bacco's time as UFP President. Now Prentiss had been asked by the sitting President to clean Starfleet's house.

Amanda Forger had been instrumental in recommending her to the President. The Directors of the Federation Security Service and the Federation Bureau of Investigation had quickly ratified her nomination. So now Prentiss and her two assistants sat in a secluded, forgotten portion of Starfleet's waiting to be renovated old buildings with taps into anyone she wanted to tap.

Her lists of potentially complicit admirals included but weren't limited to Fleet Admiral Jellico and the entire Council of Five. And Prentiss' mandate stretched across the quadrant and beyond. That morning Prentiss had been clearing Admiral Elizabeth Paula Shelby. Shelby was the CO of Starbase Bravo in Sector 441G and the wife of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun.

Prentiss had doubted Shelby would be involved in a conspiracy but Calhoun was highly unorthodox for a starship commander. He'd gained prestige to go with his notoriety when he took the Galaxy-class Excalibur-A and led a large portion of Starfleet's defense against the invading Borg cubes. His unexpected tactics had proven useful against the monolithic Borg. They could adapt but not quite quick enough.

Nechayev predicted that they'd pass Prentiss' scrutiny. The wily admiral had deduced what Prentiss was up to when the Internal Affairs officer was called away for Temporary Detached Duty with the President's offices. She'd also been the first one Prentiss had exonerated.

Nechayev was now covering Prentiss' tracks when she grew to be too obvious. Such as with Captain Katrina Mueller. Mueller was Sector 441G's other starship commander. She was CO of Shelby's former command, the Galaxy-class Trident. She'd also been both Shelby and Calhoun's XO at sequential times. Both women had been sexually involved with Calhoun, without the others' knowledge, at the same time. It made Prentiss' teeth ache. But at least everyone had worked it all out like professional adults.

Mueller was cut from similar cloth as Calhoun. She'd never accept promotion beyond her current rank. She'd never even be offered promotion to flag rank. But she'd remain being one of the most effective officers in Starfleet. Which was promotion enough for her.

It had been a grueling couple of days but Prentiss had narrowed her list to twelve primary suspects. Fortunately the list excluded Akaar, Kira, and Noyce amongst a hundred other admirals. Unfortunately, she couldn't tie off Jellico and Ross just yet among ten others including Starfleet's Chief of Operations and her own superior in Internal Affairs.

Prentiss knew her investigation could possibly devastate morale. In light of the heavy losses against the Borg, Argyn, and Iridians Starfleet was still reeling. Entire worlds had been devastated and surviving populations relocated throughout the conflicts. Bacco's forced resignation and subsequent murder hadn't eased the pressures facing Starfleet and the Federation's security organs.

Most of the fleet's captains now commanded formerly mothballed starships. And most were COs thanks to battlefield promotions later ratified by the Bureau of Personnel. BuPers had logged no fewer than three hundred field commotions. And that was just starship commanders. The Academy was minting officers from their second year in the school. Enlisted ranks were being promoted to ensigns and lieutenants at an unprecedented rate since the Earth-Romulan War. And crewmen were making petty officer in record time just as petty officers were striding forward to become chiefs at a soaring rate.

But there had also been great successes come out of the internal need for growth. The Vesta—class of starship had been successfully developed with quantum slipstream drives. Names after the twelve hills of Rome, the starships included the Aventine and the Vespa.

Quantum slipstream drives had been retrofitted to the Voyager and eleven other older starships. Admiral Kathryn Janeway led the Full Circle Fleet which was returning Janeway and Voyager to the Delta Quadrant to explore the quadrant to a greater degree the lone starship hadn't been able to while stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Captain Chakotay was her flag captain. Both of them and every skipper in the fleet had been already cleared by Prentiss' team.

The Full Circle Fleet had two guides. The first was the newly minted Lt. Commander Annika Hansen, the former 7 of 9. And Irina, a pilot Janeway and the others had met during their voyage home. Irina had dried to destabilize an entire region. Having served a brief prison sentence, Irina had found herself cast out by her own people when she was released. Adrift, she'd made it to the Beta Quadrant and Deep Space Four before the Full Circle Fleet cast off.

Motivated to find a new home for herself somewhere near her own home planet, Irina agreed to help navigate the fleet through the Delta Quadrant's hazards between DS4 and the extent of Irina's exploration knowledge. But the fleet's secondary objective was to find any trace of the Caelier since they had inexplicably birthed the Borg Queen. Having liberated the drones from the Collective, the Caelier had then vanished leaving no trace of themselves except for the rare former drones such as the former Seven who'd rejected the Caelier Gestalt and were left behind spread across the Milky Way Galaxy. A galaxy the Caelier might not even occupy anymore.

What Prentiss had discovered so far concerning the twelve potential suspects was that Jellico had thrown his weight behind occluding Section 31's effort to destabilize the Cardassian Union and restore Gul Maret to power. He'd utilized the other eleven departmental commanders in obscuring that effort from the remainder of Starfleet. Fleet deployments had even been altered in order to pull Starfleet border patrols away from Cardassian territory.

The undertaking had been thwarted because Captain Ro had learned of the swelling uprising within Cardassian society and alerted Admirals Nechayev and Forger. Forger had been the lynchpin in securing Castellan Garan's future and that of Queen Dervin. It seemed little wonder to Prentiss that when the time came, Jellico hadn't allowed Forger to fall on her sword so much as he threw her down on it.

And records showed Jellico had vociferously protested the transfer of the SID from Starfleet's mothballing effort to civilian control and oversight. To add salt to the festering wound, the President had mandated Starfleet cooperate with the SID as though it were still sanctioned by the fleet.

And Jellico faced the greatest threats in the history of Starfleet. The cold war with the Klingons was nothing compared to the dangers posed by the Iridian Enforcers and the Typhon Pact. The Iridians were completely unknown and seemingly unknowable since they had sealed their boarders to the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. But the Typhon Pact represented nearly every hostile power the Federation danced with.

But the pact was truly a coalition of powers. Where the Khitomer Accords united the Federation, Klingon Empire, Ferengi Alliance, Cardassian Union, and Talarian Republic into a cohesive whole unofficially led by the UFP, the Typhon Pact had no real center of gravity. And the Romulans, Breen, and Gorn seemed to be struggling for internal supremacy. The Tzenkethi looked down at their allies in abject horror over their seeming chaotic behaviors. The Holy Order of Kinshaya and the Tholian Assembly were extremists united by their xenophobic and religious intolerance. The Andergani Oligarchy was a collection of thugs and opportunists. It seemed the Iotian Federation had recently been inducted into the pact as a junior member like the Andergani. And the Andorian Empire was a founding member of the Federation and its secession had been a nearly mortal blow to the Federation's public confidence.

So Jellico seemed hell bent to guarantee a veneer of safety to the Federation's public at large. But just how far would he go to do so? That was the question Prentiss was afraid to ask but she knew she must.

Anara and Neela waited inside the Karemma designed Ark of the Prophets at the Jalandra City shuttle port. Their assault ship was almost too large to qualify for a landing at the port and would otherwise have been diverted to Dahkur Province to land at either Tamalna or Jo'kala. And since the province was on the other side of Bajor, it wouldn't have been prudent to land elsewhere.

Although, some were waiting better than others as Anara paced in the small cabin within the ship, "Argh! It's so inconsiderate when assassins and terrorists are late for clandestine meetings."

"These two didn't do it," Neela assessed, "But they put the bombs in the hands of the guilty and showed them how to place them for maximum effect. You saw the debris. Those were home built plasma grenades."

"Speaking from experience?" Anara resorted to the old tease.

"Which we share," Neela replied.

"Change of topic," Anara warned Neela, "You've never expressed an opinion towards Kai Winnow."

"Kai Nostra dying in office was rather…abrupt," Neela commented.

"He had been kai for twelve years," Anara reminded her.

"And he had been in perfect health without a sign of heart defects," Neela remarked, "And it was odd that the Vedek Assembly would allow one specific doctor to examine the body before the burial rites began."

"But it was ruled to be a death from natural causes," Anara started to feel uneasy.

"Yet no one was allowed to corroborate that verdict. The Constabulary wasn't even allowed to examine the death scene as is standard in these cases regardless of cause," Neela pointed out.

"But what do you think of Winnow herself?" Anara inquired.

"I think she's very capable," Neela said as if pronouncing a judgment.

"Of just what specifically?" Anara felt butterflies gathering in her stomach.

"Of anything she puts her mind to," Neela said with an ominous intonation.

"They say Winnow was one of Winn Adami's brightest acolytes," Anara replied.

"And look how Winn turned out;" Neela snorted at the mention of her former hero's name, "She ended up being a pah-wraith cultist."

"No one would ever suspect the kai of the Prophets to be a pah-wraith cultist," Anara sagely pointed out.

"Winn had a singular vision. She wanted to establish a theocracy over Bajor with herself as the Prophets' regent," Neela revealed, "Winnow was a disciple of that goal. But in order to accomplish sweeping into power, the First Minister would have to be removed between elections and the Second Minister would have to be convinced to step down."

"You think Winnow is behind all of this," Anara belatedly realized, "Why haven't you said anything until now?"

"One doesn't simply point fingers at a sitting kai and accuse them of plotting to murder the planetary official and overthrow the existing government. It's…rude," Neela said defensively.

"That's probably what people thought about Winn when she became secretive and…rather odd," Anara tried to be gentle but a sense of urgency was driving her now.

"We'd need to go above General Krim's pay grade if we're to investigate the kai of Bajor," Neela sighed.

"That means…" Anara comprehended it all at once.

"Astris Beru. And if our investigation comes to light without amassing evidence to justify criminal charges, Astris will be accused of endorsing a witch hunt and she'll be swept out of office and Winnow will likely maneuver her way into it," Neela informed her working partner, "So really, there's no pressure."

"We have to," Anara was almost feverish.

"Consider this first; whether we succeed or fail to charge Winnow with crimes against the state, we will be the first to unseat a kai in five thousand years. Success or failure will dictate we have to leave Bajor and her colonies for the rest of our lives," Neela warned her friend.

Anara looked like she'd been slapped. Reality often had that effect. But her resolve hardened once again.

"We can't abandon this because it will happen if we just walk away," Anara told Neela, "And Winnow won't just let us sit idly by. She'll have to try and eliminate us. So we do it out of a sense of self preservation if for no other reason."

"All right," Neela nodded her concession to the proposition, "I'll fly us back to Jo'kala. We need to meet with Astris and Krim. The Alliance Terrans can be left to Ro's mercies."

"Agreed," Anara stated.

Outside the shuttle port's fences, the Hex brothers witnessed the Ark of the Prophets' departure. Dran Hex, the older sibling, made his terse comment, "They're leaving and they still have the codes."

"Maybe it's for the best," Ken Hex responded to the gripe.

"Maybe, but we still need to find a way to shut down the planet's Traffic Control system long enough for us to bring a ship in close enough to decloak and transport our bombing accomplice and get her out of the solar system," Dran Hex complained.

"I'll collect her while you arrange alternative means of transportation to Valo III," Ken Hex suggested, "It's the mad kai's plan. Make her hand over a ship."

"Sometimes you actually make sense," Dran Hex admitted.

"You'll make my head swell," Ken Hex said dryly, "We'll rendezvous at the Vedek Assembly temple?"

"Sounds good," Dran Hex agreed to the proposal, "Good luck, brother."

"You too," Ken replied as they broke up and went separate ways.

Despite the brothers' caution, they never spotted Ro's team observing them observe the Militia agents.

Further afield, Ro's team watched through macrobinoculars as the Hex brothers split up. Ro knew she needed to make critical decisions fast, "Tenmei, take Chief Gimp and Crewman Kilt and follow the Terran heading back into town. Celes and I will pursue the other one. Lt. Kris, you and Sgt. Halep beat down the Constabulary's doors and get us back up. You'll be able to track us on the Militia net by our comm badges."

Tenmei reluctantly agreed and led her force after Ken Hex's trail. Ro and Celes quick marched in pursuit of Dran Hex. He led them to a public comp/comm café. Ro scheduled time on an unused terminal. She had eyes on Hex from her position. He was engrossed in a conversation and seemed to be irritated by delays at varying intervals.

"Try and get a data tap on that terminal," Ro murmured softly to Celes.

"Already on it," Celes whispered back.

Ro contacted Militia Headquarters and routed her call through the Militia's priority system until she reached General Krim. Krim had gone from the Special Forces Commander to the Militia's Commandant. He did not look happy to see Ro staring at him across the screen.

"Captain," he grimly acknowledged her.

"I need to know about Major Anara and Neela," Ro decided to forgo the usual pleasantries, and protocols, "Do they work for you?"

"Anara and Neela are my best covert agents. They've served the Militia for fourteen years now. Neela originally worked for Winn Adami as her personal troubleshooter. But she generally worked alongside Anara. They came up together in the Resistance in one cell that was butchered and another that endured until the Occupation ended," Krim explained, "In fact, the two just broadened the scope of our investigation in an unexpected and potentially terrifying way."

"How can we help?" Ro inquired.

"Trust me, Captain. Starfleet wants to avoid this particular mess," Krim promised.

"Why?" Ro persisted.

Krim realized nothing short of the truth would dissuade Ro's efforts, "Major Anara and Investigator Neela have provided information incriminating Kai Winnow."

It hit Ro like a literal punch, "I see."

"I don't think you do. If we were to take the Kai into custody, millions of faithful adherents would demand her release. And probably storm whatever facility we locked her in," Krim grimaced.

"Then hold her at Deep Space Nine," Ro offered, "We can secure the station well enough to prevent mass rioting."

"Can you really?" Krim doubted it.

"General, I can dictate who and what comprises the population of my space station," Ro assured him.

"Can you guarantee the loyalties of your Militia exchange officers?" Krim brought it home.

"If I have to," Ro pledged.

"I'll bet back to you," Krim signed off.

"Captain, he's leaving," Celes pointed out.

"Grab that terminal. I want to know who he was talking to," Ro ordered, "I'll deal with the owner."

But it didn't take Ro long to wish she'd tackled the computer and left Celes to deal with the irascible café manager.

What Tenmei's team quickly discovered was the Ken Hex was headed for public transportation. All it took was for Chief Gimp to flash his operational orders to retrieve Hex's destination from the controls. Tenmei set the team on his trail once again.

When they arrived, they found Ken Hex reuniting with his brother Dran. Gimp questioned the transporter station manager to ascertain how Dran Hex had reached Dakhur Province before them. The manager merely shrugged and maintained that the elder Hex had been waiting at the station for several minutes before the other Terran joined him.

Tenmei marched on despite Ro's absence. First they visited a housing block. A uniformed Militia office rejoined their party. She looked very unhappy and nervous. The slightest sound caused her to flinch and prepare to bolt.

They obtained ground transportation and headed off towards the Vedek Assembly Temple. Kilt hailed a roving taxi and to the driver's sheer delight, Tenmei ordered him to follow the other car. They were all startled to discover the end destination really was the Temple.

Playing tourist, Tenmei played it up that Gimp and Kilt were instructing her in the articles of the Bajoran faith. The Hexes escorted their newfound ally? Friend? Prisoner? There were so many options to choose from and the poor woman looked like she was already condemned.

A prylar met them and escorted them to another monk who was servicing a shuttle craft. It wasn't warp capable so Tenmei had to assume they were headed out either to DS9 or a rendezvous with a starship. But any ship inside the solar system would register on the station's sensors.

"Why is a prylar getting into a shuttle with humans? Humans we suspect of trying to kill the First Minister?" Gimp could hardly believe it.

"That officer has to be an accomplice," Kilt pointed out, "Those shoulder patches indicate she's part of the Ministerial Guard."

"This just gets better and better," Tenmei grumbled.

"I don't believe it," Celes murmured.

"What do you have?" Ro almost pounced on the younger woman.

"He called the Vedek Assembly Temple and eventually spoke directly with Kai Winnow," Celes was still stunned by the discovery.

Ro had been braced for it by Krim. Ro was about to contact Krim when her comm badge began to chirp. Storming outside, Ro answered whoever it was.

Kemplan had reviewed the movements of Gleed's crew and cargo. They'd brought in a bio containment unit ostensibly for cattle from the Autonomous Region. Cardassians had developed quite a taste for beef.

Ocett's investigators had found a short list of staffers and aides with access to Garan's itinerary, which had been altered just fifteen minutes before she was led into the path of the bomb. Only the suspected staffers had access to the changed route.

Everyone was being rounded up for questioning. Mariska's people mirrored Ocett's efforts and unearthed a similar list of questionable aides. Lee and Shade had been tasked with discovery any commonalities and links between the two lists. Delain oversaw their efforts while Rockford took Forte with her as Mudd began to track down which freighter or other type of ship had smuggled Alliance Terrans off Cardassia.

It all came down to available berths and the number required to transport the entire group along with the intended destination. For humans to stay obscured in Cardassian space they had to travel amongst other humans…or a population with large numbers of Terrans. Which led back to the Autonomous Region. Since Macen hadn't checked in with Rockford since departing for that same Autonomous Region, she believed he was on to something.

Rockford contacted Deep Space Nine and delivered the vessel registrations of potential carriers ferrying Alliance personnel to Bajor. It was the longer shot of the two but still a playable one. Kemplan volunteered to commandeer a Cardassian Guard warship to escort the Freehold into the potentially hazardous Autonomous Region. Mudd was less than happy to discover she'd "volunteered" to go.

The Legate Board assigned Kemplan the Lakat-class Girskit under the command of one Dal Dusket. Dusket was eager to make a name for himself to finally secure his elevation to gul and command of a Galor-class heavy cruiser. Mudd was seriously irritated by the man just by viewing his image.

"If he so much as twitches in my direction I'll lob a torpedo up his ass," Mudd promised.

"You don't have torpedoes, remember?" Rockford chided her.

"Must be my imagination then," Mudd discontentedly muttered.

Kemplan found herself staring alternately at Mudd and Forte. Rockford smiled, "Problem?"

"Do many humans have these colors of hair?" Kemplan asked quietly.

Mudd's snow white hair troubled her but not as much as Forte's fuchsia colored locks. Rockford smiled, "It's an affectation for both of them. Their eyebrows reveal their true hair colors."

"It's still odd to me that sentients grow hair on their brow ridges," Kemplan confessed.

"It takes all kinds," Rockford promised.

"Are we sure about our destination?" Mudd called back towards them.

"Pretty sure. The suspect freighter was bound for the Valo system. It's held by the Bajorans again. Valo II has a stable if struggling colony under Keev Falor's leadership. Valo III is a little more restless though," Rockford explained, "Valo I has a primary moon with underground caverns with an oxygen atmosphere that the Resistance used to use as a base. Our Alliance friends could stash a lot of ordinance in those caverns. And both populated planets are likely recruiting grounds."

"So we're just slipping into orbit and beaming down?" Mudd was skeptical, "I hate to break this to you but I'm not very suicidal."

"The Cardassian left us a gift," Rockford told her, "Valo VI houses a surveillance installation the Obsidian Order constructed and later abandoned during the Dominion War."

"Isn't Macen already in the area?" Mudd wondered.

"Brin hasn't checked in since we split up. That probably means he's knee deep in trouble already," Rockford sighed.

"Makes me wonder why the hell I let myself get into this," Mudd muttered,

"I say that every morning when I wake up," Rockford confessed.

 

Chapter Four

Daggit and Burrows fought a retreat after ambushing Mayar's forces. Her lieutenant, Tig, led the pursuit. Seeing a way to capitalize on the confusion they were sowing, Daggit steered Burrows to the thermal tap pipelines. The colony derived the bulk of its power from taps inside volcanic fields. Solar power made up most of the rest. A monorail took them out of the capital city and out towards the awaiting fields.

Volon III possessed seven major urban centers. All of them relied upon the thermal taps to function. Daggit laid out his plans to sabotage the monorail first and then the power processing plant. Burrows pointed out the viability of the secondary option.

"I saw Cardassian fusion cells that had been hooked up into vital services buildings," he described.

Daggit knew fusion cell batteries were long lived reactors that couldn't be replenished. When the fusion reaction ran out of fuel it had to be recycled by the manufacturer in order to fuel it again. They were cheap and plentiful. Probably two requirements in the Autonomous Region.

The monorail took twenty minutes to arrive at the power plant. Daggit destroyed the rail car with a photon grenade. Then he and Burrows began their assault on the power plant while trying not to harm any of the colonial workers.

Parva began sniping at the Alliance troops surrounding the Corsair. After she'd successfully killed them one by one, she boarded the runabout. Checking in with the computer she found Daggit had recorded a message for her outlining his plan. Cursing, Parva fired up the runabout's systems and prepped for launch.

"You can't possibly hold me for any length of time," Mayar boasted from inside a detention cell. Her wrists were still bound despite the force field between her and Macen.

"Maybe you're right," he drew his sidearm and stunned Owens, "Then again, now you're just on your own."

Shrev was rattled as Macen instructed him, "Strip off his weapons and comm gear. Restrain him and lock him in another cell."

"You idiot!" Mayar snarled, "If I don't walk out of here unharmed my people will slowly kill every one of you. And they're quite imaginative."

"I'm sure they are," Macen turned to Shrev, "Is he secured?"

"You don't think he can escape, do you?" the Andorian asked.

"I think he was paid to be Mayar's insurance. If her forces enter and find him incarcerated and her missing, they'll rake out their wrath on him," Macen explained.

Shrev swallowed. Macen's comm badge began to sound off, "Watch her."

Stepping out of the detention center, he found Staf setting up the building's deflector screens and auto phasers. Macen tapped his badge, "Go."

"I took the Corsair and am headed for the volcanic plateau they use for a power source," Parva informed him.

"I take it Rab and Tony are there," Macen guessed.

"My idiot husband wants to blow the thermal tap processor up," Parva grunted.

"That's actually pretty brilliant," Macen chuckled, "I have a feeling we'll need the distraction."

"Then I'll make certain they do it right and avoid killing themselves in the process," Parva pledged.

"You're the expert," Macen grinned despite the fact she couldn't see that.

Macen caught up with Staf, "Two questions. First is, can you run these off of an alternative power supply?"

"A-yup, got 'em hooked up ta fusion batteries," Staf answered, "Why?"

"Because the power to the entire colony is going to be cut soon and very soon," Macen told him, "And is there a hidden way out of here?"

"Yah, a trapdoor leads ta a secret tunnel carved out durin' the Border Wars," Staf informed him.

"Does Owens know about it?" Macen wanted to know.

"No, neither does Shrev," Staf assured him, "Why?"

Macen told him about Owens' negotiable loyalties.

With Delain's guidance, Lee and Shade found the common denominators between all of the suspected staff members. All of them were female and all of them had ties to a political action group founded from the ashes of the old Cardassian Underground. The so-called Feminist Underground agitated for social change and cultural equality. But in the months prior to the attacks, the leadership had become increasingly strident and even began advocating violent means of enacting change.

"Inspector Kemplan seems to have been investigating these people," Delain realized, "But the Cardassian Information Bureau blocked her at every turn. Essentially it was a fight over jurisdiction. I wonder how the CIB will feel learning she may have been right all along?"

"She's compiled a list of upper echelon members," Shade pointed out.

Lil Allon was the head and heart of the movement. She was an idealist that had somehow managed to survive under the Central Command's rule, thrived under Ghemor, vanished under Maret, and returned to Cardassia's largest university with the advent of Garan's election. It seemed Allon had great hopes for her cause when Garan first entered office but now she was jaded by the crushing of her elevated hopes and dreams.

Drean Forlat was a professional revolutionary that had once been one of Allon's prized pupils. She'd struggled against the Central Command and then the Dominion. She'd also disappeared during Maret's New Order. The pattern was emerging and the investigative trio realized Allon, Forlat, and others like them had been placed in labor camps. Camps where women regardless of species were often reduced to sexual playthings in between grueling and life threatening work details.

Brell Armar was the public face of the Feminist Underground. She was a career publicist and now served as the movement's spokeswoman and minister of propaganda. Everyone on Cardassia knew her face so she was considered untouchable by the CIB and the Planetary Constabulary. Kemplan disagreed.

Aven Marak was a tentative identification. Marak worked as an "exotic entertainer" at the prestigious officer's club that legates and jaguls frequented in between policy making and strategy sessions. A few flag officers had reported waking up at home with no memory of how they got there. Traces of a homeopathic truth agent had been detected in blood samples taken from them. They only common link was that they'd hired Marak for private "shows" the day of or before their mysteriously waking up in their own beds and not hers. And the officials all swore they hadn't been overly inebriated. Something the blood samples somewhat corroborated. Marak had no obvious sties with Allon or the Underground but her access to highly placed officers made her an ideal mole.

"It seems the Inspector suspected the Feminist Underground of being capable and motivated to conduct an attack like these ones," Delain assessed.

"I resent the name," Shade grumbled.

"Coming from a matriarchal society you should," Delain agreed, "But this is a highly stratified patriarchal society where women have been marginalized for millennia. Garan's election was nothing short of a miracle and it set her up to fail in a lot of eyes."

"Which explains the Castellan's fervent desire to bring the perpetrators to justice. Her credibility over her ability to defend even herself much less Cardassia is at stake," Lee realized, "So how do we approach this ‘Underground'?"

"Kemplan mentioned Professor Allon to me before she left with Rockford," Delain confessed, "I have an appointment with her at her home in an hour. Shade will accompany me. You will oversee the squad of Constabulary officers that will be standing by several blocks over."

"Will it just be Allon?" Shade wondered.

"No, Armar will be with her. We have Marak under observation and Forlat has gone missing. A tad too coincidentally for my taste," Delain revealed.

"Rockford said you liked to take risks," Lee shared, "I can see that now."

"I think we'll get along," Shade surmised.

"Good. Because I'd hate to have to arrest you both and pack you off back to Serenity Station for interfering in my investigation," Delain warned them.

Lee and Shade both blinked in surprise as they each realized Delain was in deadly earnest.

The Ark of the Prophets made contact with one of the multiple docking ports at DS9. Anara and Neela were met at the airlock by Lt. Commander Blackmer. Two Starfleet Security crewmen accompanied him.

"Major," Blackmer nodded at Anara.

"I think you're forgetting someone," Anara retorted.

"Easy," Neela murmured.

"I don't care what title she supposedly holds," Blackmer bitterly said, "The former Lieutenant Neela killed a Starfleet engineer, bombed a school, and tried to assassinate a religious official from a faith she professed to be guided by and motivated to defend. Did I leave anything out?"

"Those are the facts," Neela said calmly.

Her serenity only aggravated Blackmer more, "You pull any attempt at your former glorious activities and I'll have you beamed out to space and list it as a technical malfunction. Am I understood?"

"You're uncomfortable holding a Vedek Assembly prylar, a Militia Ministerial Guard who happens to be General Krim's daughter, and two Alliance strangers," Neela deduced.

Anara knew Neela tended to pull wild deductions out of thin air. But this one was hardly secretive. Blackmer struggled to retain his composure.

"I have no legal basis to detain them on," Blackmer grated.

"Then I guess it's best it's at the Militia's request," Neela said brightly.

Anara could see that argument persuaded Blackmer to finally let them onto the station. Neela professed to walk with the Prophets. And Anara had seen evidence to support the truth behind that statement. But she still found it hard to believe.

"Commander, you had the Celestial Servant intercepted by runabouts and tractor beamed to your docking ring. We're here to interrogate the suspects on behalf of the Bajoran government," Anara informed him.

"And Captain Ro personally vouched for you two or I wouldn't allow you in my security office other than to occupy a cell in the detention wing," Blackmer divulged.

"Then we should thank Captain Ro," Neela stated very simply.

Blackmer's comm badge began to sound off. He instructed the two Security officers to watch over Anara and Neela with the implication being they weren't to leave the spot they currently stood on. Blackmer returned even more irritated than before.

"Your kai is applying political pressure to obtain the release of her prylar pilot, your AWOL Ministerial Guard, and the two Alliance foot soldiers that have been spotted all over Bajor," Blackmer explained.

"I'm surprised the Council of Ministers hasn't already caved into her demands," Anara admitted.

"And it seems we don't have much time," Neela reminded them all, "We need to obtain one confession and then you can justify holding them."

"And why would one of them choose to do that?" Blackmer asked.

"Haven't you heard? It's good for the soul," Neela said cryptically.

Ro decided to sit in the interrogation room while Anara and Neela conducted their interviews. Celes manned the sensor suite to record every fact of the meeting. Blackmer sat in with her and two of his officers stood by to intervene if necessary.

Despite their civilian clothing the Bajoran duo had yielded an astonishing amount of personal weaponry when asked to surrender it. Blackmer had been stunned despite his decades in Starfleet Security. Ro barely hid her mirth over it. Blackmer had lived in a different universe than the members of the Resistance and the Maquis.

Neela had hesitated in the outer office as though expecting someone. And then Chief O'Brien had found her at last. And his expression told everyone it wasn't a happy reunion.

"I thought I was hearing things. Because I thought you couldn't be stupid enough to step foot on any space station in this solar system," O'Brien angrily declared.

"Orders," Neela shrugged, "I would have preferred sparing you this confrontation but the Prophets thought otherwise."

"Why you?" O'Brien wanted to know.

"Because I'm the only one that can elicit what we need," Neela told him modestly.

"You?" O'Brien spat.

"I'm not the same confused girl that came to Terok Nor all of those years ago. You have a new station and I have a new purpose," Neela stated.

"You left prison to work for Winn and somehow you survived her fallout," O'Brien had done some research, "I don't figure it."

"Neither did Winn. That was one of her many mistakes," Neela shared, "The Prophets wanted to talk to her but she refused to listen to anything but her own ambitions."

"And you ‘talk' to the Prophets now?" O'Brien was skeptical, "Sorry to tell you but you're no Captain Sisko or Admiral Kira."

"I can't hope to compare to such admirable servants of the Prophets. But if I'm faithful and true to their cause, maybe I can undo some of the wrongs I committed while aboard Terok Nor," Neela expressed hopefully, "And prove I'm a loyal servant as well."

"I can't believe they ever let you out," O'Brien grumbled.

"Chief, every action I've taken since leaving prison has been to amend my wrongs. I can't ever justify what I did. But the Prophets can shape me and mold me into a usable vessel. And afterwards I can act on their behalf as they will and not myself alone," Neela pledged.

"Tell me another one," O'Brien scoffed and stomped off.

Neela sighed and reported to the interrogation room.

Krim Firma, the General's daughter, sat across from Anara and Neela. Ro occupied a seat in the corner. She'd assured Krim she was merely there to assure her safety.

"You're wasting your time," Krim declared, "A Resistance cell would have had me begging too tell everything I knew by now but Bajor's become weak."

"We served in the Hedrikspool Resistance cell. We've seen many changes since the Cardies left. Some good and others not so much," Anara assured Krim.

"Don't try to appeal to my politics. My views are hardly a secret," Krim boasted, "Even my toady of a father knows my positions."

"Yes, he does. But although you belittle him now you've made a life trading on his name and reputation. Ever since your school days you've been slower, weaker, and a little less brighter than your age mates. And when you joined the Militia you threw your name around to be excused for incompetence. In the end though, it took trading sexual favors to secure your place in the Ministerial Guard," Neela informed her.

Krim's eyes almost popped out of her head. So did Anara and Ro's. Those details weren't in any official file. And the pertinent facts weren't known by anyone outside of the perpetrators themselves.

Neela continued, "You projected an air of strength to hide your weaknesses. You adopted a political stance hostile to Bajor's inclusion into the Federation. When Jaro Essa reformed the Circle as a political party, you were among its first volunteers. You chose to join the Ministerial Guard to maneuver yourself into Astris Beru's detail. There you concocted grandiose ideas about killing the First Minister. And then the Alliance Terrans contacted you after being referred to you by Jaro. And he'd been chosen for the task by Kai Winnow."

"Shut up!" Krim screamed as she kicked her chair back and moved away from the table.

"Just tell me if I'm right. If you do, you can make amends for what you've done," Neela told her, "But I'll know if you're lying just like I know every other secret you've ever had."

Krim stared at her in abject horror before breaking into sobs, "It's true. All of it, Prophets damn you! How did you find it all out?"

"Because I walk with the Prophets," Neela said as though it was simplicity itself, "And you can start to as well after this."

"How?" Krim pleaded, "Tell me how? The kai wants everyone one in the government killed so she can rule Bajor in the name of your same filthy Prophets."

"So we'll have to stop her," Neela stated, "I know vedeks that are faithful to the Prophets and not the kai. I'll send a few to you."

Ro dismissed the prisoner and Krim was returned to her cell. She stepped out of the interrogation room and found Celes, "Tell me you got every word of that."

"I did," Celes looked amazed, "And all of Krim's biometrics prove she told the truth."

Ro returned to the room where Neela still sat while Anara paced, "How did you do that?"

"The Prophets blessed us with what we needed," Neela explained as if to a wayward child.

"The Prophets?" Ro didn't understand it.

"She does this all the time," Anara freely admitted.

"Do you think the wormhole aliens will ‘bless' you again?" Ro inquired.

Neela smiled, "The Prophets love you, Ro Laren. Even if you look down upon them."

"Just answer the damn question," Ro snapped.

"It isn't an exact science," Neela warned her, "They move in mysterious ways and provide at one moment and withhold on another. It's not about the need we classify as being greater but the need they classify as the greatest."

"I'm dragging the prylar in here. You can talk theology with him," Ro warned her.

"Captain, the Prophets may require an act of faith," Neela advised Ro.

"You're dripping faith out your ears," Ro countered.

"It wouldn't be any action on my part," Neela cautioned her.

Kemplan led a platoon from the Girskit into Valo VI. The secured the outer docking hatch since Mudd refused to transport over from the Freehold. She wanted her ship available for escape in case of an emergency.

A gil led Rockford, Forte, and Mudd to the heart of the surveillance station. From Valo VI, the Obsidian Order had managed to observe the Valo system, half of the DMZ, and nearly to Bajor. They'd been fully aware of Resistance activities coming to and from Valo II and III. There even logs recording Ro's departure from Valo II and setting course for the Federation. Also included were records of Orta's sorties from Valo I's moon.

None of these records had ever been shared with the Cardassian Guard. The Central Command didn't even learn about the station's existence until after the Dominion War when the CIB took over the role of intelligence gathering agency for the Cardassian Union. The CIB had agreed with the Cardassian Guard that Valo VI was no longer needed.

The Girskit began moving deeper into the system while Kemplan and Rockford tried to activate the surveillance equipment. Fort easily accomplished the task, "Celeste, Valo II doesn't have any Terrans on it but Valo III is crawling with them. And the system suddenly just became crowded."

"What do you mean?" Rockford wondered.

"Six ships just decloaked all around the inner solar system," Forte explained.

Forte activated the tactical display. Seven civilian ships converged on the Lakat-class light cruiser. They were all of Typhon Pact national origins and they were armed. But they were still civilian vessels so their armaments created as many weaknesses as they created strengths.

There was one representing every senior member of the Typhon Pact. So they were Romulan, Breen, Kinshayan, Tholian, Gorn, Tzenkethi, and Andorian. Junior members such as the Andergani and the Iotians didn't appear to be present just yet. Rockford guessed the reports of the Romulans withholding cloaking technology from junior partners until they'd proven themselves to the seniors were proving to be correct.

"We're not going anywhere anytime soon," Mudd promised them as she entered the center.

The Girskit wasted its opportunity to escape in a futile attack against superior forces. The Cardassian cruiser did manage to damage the Gorn, Andorian, and Kinshayan vessels. But sensors showed it was merely repairable damage sustained by the propulsions systems. But in the meantime, it trimmed the remaining forces down to four vessels. Four vessels that were now bearing down on Valo VI.

"They're going to breach this station," Rockford warned everyone, "But we can wear them down."

"Why?" Mudd asked.

"I got a message off to DS9," Rockford shared, "So they know we're here and if I don't check in in ten minutes they'll know we encountered a problem."

"Seven of them to be precise," Forte piped up.

"This station is carved into the living rock. We go deep enough into it and they'll have to shatter the planetoid to get to us by any other means than a frontal assault," Rockford elaborated.

"Celeste?" Forte suddenly sounded as young as she was, "I've never been a soldier before."

"Neither have I," Kemplan agreed.

"Arianna, you spent centuries fighting for your very survival until the Enterprise came and provided all of you children with the cure to the viral weapon that decimated your world. Under tutelage from Federation services, you studied and fought to leave Miri. So don't ever tell me you aren't a fighter," Rockford chided her.

Rockford turned to Kemplan, "Moran, I really don't know you. But I have to imagine that as a constable on Cardassia, you've faced situations comparable to this one."

"If they blow up my ship, we'll be stuck here. And I'll be pissed," Mudd warned everyone.

"Then we'll just keep them too busy to do that," Rockford grinned.

Parva flew straight up the thermal tap pipeline. Tig's forces had scrambled together a half dozen ground vehicles. All older model Federation designs from the 23rd Century and Cardassian scout cars dating back to the early days of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. She sat the runabout down to discover Daggit and Burrows had stunned all of the workers and were in the process of dragging them out of the building. But not too gently.

"These Alliance idiots are driving ground cars to get here. They can't fit more than six in car so that gives them thirty-six gunmen," Parva informed them.

""I'd better start packing explosives out of the armory aboard the Corsair," Burrows volunteered.

"Boys, if you'll allow the genius to work," Parva blocked both their paths, "I can destroy this facility without using a single explosive."

Daggit gave a quizzical look and she sighed "And before they get here."

Staf and Shrev each had one of Mayar's arms. She still wore binders but a gag ball had been strapped into her mouth. Staf explained it was contraband confiscated from a sexual predator that enjoyed a little bondage and sadomasochism with children. Ebert was their lookout.

"They've arrived," she called out.

"Activate the shields and switch on the motion sensors for the auto phasers," Macen instructed, "Staf, you get the trapdoor open."

The phasers immediately began laying down suppressive fire. But after recovering from the initial barrage, the Alliance forces began returning fire. And they attempted to flank the building only to discover the auto guns were mounted on every side.

Soon, the return barrage began to systematically pound away at one all at a time. Macen smirked, "They're cleverer than I thought. They're testing the fields to see of one is weaker. If they find one then they'll concentrate all their fire on it."

Mayar's eyes blazed with hatred. Staf returned from his office, "We're ready ta go."

The trapdoor revealed a ladder joining the upper floor with a subterranean tunnel. Shrev went first followed by Staf. Macen simply shoved Mayar into the hole. The two local lawmen helped her back to her feet. Ebert was next and Macen closed the hatch and sealed it up behind him.

The hatch possessed a seam slightly over a micrometer in width. The Alliance would find it but it would take then even more time. Time the escapees could be using to get out of town so the Corsair could employ its transporter to beam them up to the ship. Afterwards things would get dicier.

Macen and Ebert followed the tunnel but there was the sound of a scuffle ahead. Macen drew his phaser. They came upon Mayar trying to release her binders and holding Staf's phaser. Somehow she'd duped the sheriff and his deputy into dropping their guard and she'd broken their necks. Which doing so while wearing binders was rather impressive.

Macen dropped her with a stun blast, "Help me get her up."

Macen did a fireman's carry and Ebert released the outside hatch to reveal they'd travelled several blocks and emerged inside a blind alley. Macen tagged Mayar with an isolinear chip after laying her out on the pavement.

"Do you think they'll come for us before we're discovered?" Ebert sounded surprisingly sanguine about the possibility.

"Probably," Macen replied.

"We're taking her with us, aren't we?" Ebert inquired.

"Yes, the Cardassians can use her to find out how and why the Typhon Pact is playing taxi for these people," Macen stated.

"Really? The Spoonheads?" Ebert was appalled.

Macen just gave her a baleful look. She shrugged, "Sorry. You can take the girl out of the Maquis but not the Maquis out of the girl."

"Someone special said that to you once upon a time," Macen realized.

"Damn, I hate that you have empathic talents," Ebert grumped, "But Angelique and Bailey remind me of the validity of that saying every day. Bailey thinks we're born to fulfill a destiny. Angelique thinks everything is just random chance."

"Bailey is a very wise woman. Trust her instincts," Macen instructed.

Macen's comm badge began to interrupt so he tapped it and Parva spoke through the channel, "I'm reading one of our emergency isolinear tags. That you?"

"A prisoner actually. Beam her up first and have someone lock her up in our custom made brig module," Macen said cheerfully.

Every light in town went dark. Macen chuckled, "And that would be you."

The sounds of the auto phasers still firing back at the handheld phaser fire displayed that the fusion battery was still operating at peak efficiency. Parva hailed him again "Looks like a warzone near your position."

"Ascend out of sight and beam us up," Macen ordered.

Mayar vanished in a swirl of energy. After several moments, the annular confinement beam grabbed Macen and Ebert before they were dissolved and converted into energy before being reclaimed and reconstituted into matter. Ebert burst off of the pad and jumped into the pilot seat.

"No offense," she apologized to Parva.

"Hey, I prefer it this way," Parva confessed.

"Break orbit," Macen instructed.

The Corsair slipped free of Volon III's gravity well to see the Obsidian repositioned and being surrounded by three Typhon Pact vessels.

"Why can't I ever be wrong about these things?" Macen grumbled.

Prylar Adven Kerub sat across from Neela and Anara. Ro was riveted by the contest of wills currently underway. Adven utterly despised Neela and wouldn't hide it.

"Heretic!" he literally spat at her.

"For believing the Prophets are more important than the kai?" Neela gracefully asked, "Or that their will is paramount in relation to a kai's?"

"The kai speaks for the Prophets. Her word is their express will," Adven argued.

"If only that were true," Neela sighed, "But we both know it isn't."

"Winn Adami, your mistress, was an abomination," Adven sneered, "Even the pah-wraiths rejected her in the end."

"So the theory goes but we'll never know because there were no actual witnesses. Even the Emissary came after Dukat assumed the role of Emissary of the Pah-Wraiths," Neela replied.

"You dare accuse my kai of heresy?" Adven lunged over the table at her.

Neela smashed his face down into it and yanked his arm into an arm bar, "You're not pleading your case very well. And you should know not to ever underestimate the breadth of knowledge possessed by a fellow theologian."

"You can let him go now," Ro softly informed her, "Prylar, if you'll retake your seat?"

"You can stop expecting Corporal Hansa and Private Stass to liberate you all. They've been confined to quarters under armed guard," Neela revealed what she'd asked of Blackmer.

"How…?" Adven clamped his mouth shut before he could incriminate himself further.

"I know the type," Neela told him simply, "Just as I know Winnow Sudra's."

"You know nothing," Adven snapped, "Kai Winnow is going to lead us to glory after ridding the planet of the heretics and apostates in political office. When she assumes authority over Bajor it will be as though the gods themselves walk amongst us."

"But the First Minister and the Council are in power now," Neela baited him further.

"The Kai's reach is infinite. She speaks for the Prophets. Don't you think she can persuade the faithful to kill the apostate bitch in office?" Adven went too far finally but he had to prove he was right, "She selected Jaro to find her a dupe but that miserable failure lived up to her past and failed again. Next time Astris Beru won't be facing a pretender. She'll be facing a chosen instrument of the Prophets."

"I've been a chosen instrument. It doesn't guarantee success," Neela warned him, "You can have him returned to his cell, Captain."

"You'll all burn forever in the Fire Caves where you belong," Adven screamed as he was taken away.

"You could have pressed him for details," Ro pointed out.

"That man wants to die a martyr," Neela confided, "And Kai Winnow is coming here to spin damage control."

Ro's comm badge chimed. She stepped out to take the message. She came back into the room wearing an incredulous look.

"How did you know Winnow was coming here?" Ro urgently need to know.

"Not to go all Vulcan, but it was the next logical move," Neela replied, "And I need to meet with her alone in her quarters."

"She'll never confess to an attempted murder much less a plot to overthrow the government," Ro predicted.

"You'd be amazed of what people will do or say out of pride," Neela advised her.

"She'd sooner kill you," Anara warned her friend.

"Then you'll have her on my murder at least," Neela said serenely.

"You'd die just to convict Kai Winnow?" Ro didn't want to believe it.

"I'd die to defend my Prophets, my people, and their faith," Neela clarified.

Ro glanced over at Anara again, "Is she being serious?"

"Utterly," Anara dourly confirmed.

"The kai and her security detail aren't subject to our weapons searches or bans. Even if you're alone with Winnow, she might be armed," Ro warned Neela.

"Which is why Celes' sensor scans have to be pinpoint accurate to prove I haven't committed a single hostile action before Winnow draws a weapon on me or orders my demise," Neela explained, "Even the kai can't explain away killing someone without any provocation."

"You two do this a lot?" Ro asked Anara after Neela excused herself to speak with Celes.

"Not quite this but you get the general gist of it," Anara sighed.

"Your file says you've know her a long time. There's nothing on Neela past her Militia service and subsequent trial and imprisonment," Ro shared.

"Neela is something of an...embarrassment to the government. She's too effective and too willing to serve to discard but they don't want to admit to employing a convict either," Anara explained, "I met Neela when she joined our original Resistance cell. She was mechanically inclined so she was seconded to me because I was assigned as the cell's engineer and pretended to be one in fact. I think it pretty straightforward lines along plainly logical steps. Neela's mind is curved. She thinks in terms of transwarp corridors while the rest of us are still stuck at conventional warp. And she's always been devoutly religious."

"Her weakness as well as her strength," Ro had read the court transcripts but Neela had never rolled on Kai Winn. A fact Winn had plainly rewarded her for later on.

"Neela's right, you know. We can't afford to allow Winnow to spin this as an abortive assassination attempt," Anara sighed, "Neela has a lot of personal stake going into this. We'd rescued Winn Adami from a Cardassian camp and they forged a tight bond. A bond Winn exploited. When Winn was exposed as a heretic, Neela almost committed suicide as a penance for her part in Winn's evils. But something changed. She became stronger and even more assured of herself and her place in the universe. I think the Prophets might actually speak to her."

"That's crazy, you know that right?" Ro wondered.

"Neela said her true home was no longer Bajor but the Celestial Temple. She's just waiting for the Prophets to call her home," Anara recalled, "Maybe this is her way of heeding that call."

"Bajoran history is filled with prophecies delivered by men and women who heard the call of the Prophets," Anara reminded Ro, "Many of the prophecies only began to become understood after the Prophets chose a Terran to be the Emissary. And Kira Nerys left Starfleet after heeding the prophets' call to thwart and interdimensional threat led by her Cardassian doppelganger, Iliana Ghemor, and the Kira known as the Intendment. So who isn't to say they haven't chosen Neela to be one of the voices as well?"

"When your part in this comes to light, religious extremists are going to make it impossible for you to stay on any Bajoran world," Ro said direly, "You have to be aware of that."

"I am just as surely as Neela does," Anara conceded, "But we can't let Winnow succeed."

"I know someone who might be able to help. At the very least she can offer you a role to play after this," Ro informed Anara, "You realize even as a Starfleet captain I can't access your Militia case files, Major."

"There isn't much to read, I'm afraid," Anara demurred.

"When you two first paired back up, you stole a Karemma designed warp capable assault ship," Ro reminded her.

"The Ark of the Prophets," Anara smiled, "We still have her."

"Despite the fact the Militia only recently began acquiring warp ships again," Ro clarified, "Yet Krim transferred ownership of the assault ship to you today. Quite a gift when Bajor only has seven warp capable vessels besides the one you ostensibly stole."

"A fact you're all too aware of because a few years later you yourself were a Militia officer utilizing the two remaining warp ships that Bajor had left before the new acquisitions began," Anara understood, "Neela and I also comprehend the value of the gift Krim has bequeathed us as well."

Ro reconsidered her previous idea. Anara was ghost in Militia files. Neela was a veritable black hole. Which made them perfect for the SID. She'd be calling Amanda Forger as soon as she finished up preparations for Kai Winnow's arrival.

Delain was as good as her word. Lee was ensconced in a troop transport utilized by a Constabulary Special Tactics Team and Shade drove up to Allon's doorstep with the Cardassian special investigator. Allon lived in an academic enclave. And it soon became apparent that despite the cultural prestige of the teaching profession, the instructors themselves were poorly paid. On Earth, it would have been called a ghetto at one period in time.

Armar was the one that allowed the detective duo into Allon's home. She'd once been a press agent for the Legislative Assembly but had fallen out of favor when her own personal politics radicalized. She was no longer officially employed and instead drew a "salary" from the donations from the Feminist Underground supporters. But Armar couldn't afford both shelter and food so Allon had taken her in.

"Investigator Delain, you come highly recommended. But I'm surprised a Terran would be accompanying you," Allon stated as they were introduced to her.

"Shade isn't Terran. She's Fabrini and can offer insights into your political stances," Delain explained.

"A highly evolved culture if there ever was one, or so I'm told," Allon's hesitance became warmth.

"I suppose the superiority of our society depends greatly on which side of the gender divide you're born into," Shade replied.

"I…suppose that's true," Allon faltered, "Please, sit and be comfortable. I expect this interview will take some time."

"Professor, I highly respect your views and your ambitions but evidence has come to light that your movement has radically altered its methodologies recently," Delain began right off.

"What are you implying?" Allon wondered.

"Official policy statements regarding the Underground's methods have remained unaltered. But private statements indicate a shift in policy into destabilizing both the government and society in order to forcibly affect change," Delain told her.

"And who would say such a thing?" Armar asked.

"A general sampling of your adherents," Delain explained, "Members of the press corps polled them and we polled the reporters. Also, a small band of your political supporters attempted to bomb the Rakaran Recreation Center. They proudly proclaimed their sensibilities while being held in custody."

Allon sighed, "Would it be possible for me to speak with these poor misguided souls?"

Delain swore a thin, humorless smile, "Not really. An armed assault team broke them out of the Rakaran detention center."

"Well, I suppose those allegations are unsupported then," Armar insisted.

"What do you think?" Allon asked Shade.

"I think you're all full of pretty sound bites. But in the end you want to level your own society even more effectively and thoroughly than even the Dominion managed to do," Shade answered evenly, "You're the edge to a fiery blade that's called the Typhon Pact."

Even Delain looked gobsmacked. Allon eventually chuckled, "Have no fears, Investigator. Your foreign associate is quite right and so are you. The Underground has changed its operational policy and we're receiving training and material support from members of the Typhon Pact nations in order to do so. And since you've undoubtedly triggered your panic alarm, I think it's time we all vanished."

A Dominion transporter whisked them away before the Cardassian tactical team could breach Allon and Armar's dwelling place. Lee didn't appear as worried as the Cardassian team leader, "Shade has a duotronic transponder chip implanted in her neck. Whoever took them will undoubtedly be looking for isolinear grade tech. Something a century old may escape their notice."

"And if it doesn't?" the team leader inquired.

"Then we scan the planet for a Fabrini life sign. I doubt there are many on Cardassia Prime," Lee offered.

"I have the Freehold locked down. It'll take a military styled invasion to breach her hull," Mudd declared, "Hopefully it won't come down to that."

"Arianna reactivate the transport inhibitors so the Typhon Pact forces will be forced to enter through three separate airlocks. Kemplan dispatched the Cardassian troops in three squads to greet our invaders," Rockford told her, "We also got a sensor sweep of the Volon system. The Obsidian is being triangulated by three Typhon pact ships. All civilian models like those inside this system."

"So whoever is directing these hired privateers to accomplish what a military force would start a war by accomplishing the same results," Mudd ventured.

"So, Deep Space Nine has a patrol deployed led by the Defiant," Rockford had Forte highlight a section of the display, "And it's comprised of the starship and two Bajoran assault ships. The other three Starfleet ships assigned to the region are deployed across the rest of the Bajoran Sector and beyond the Badlands and to either side of the Rolor Nebula to defend Dreon and Free Haven."

"I never thought my life would depend upon Bajorans," Kemplan admitted.

"The times they are a-changin'," Forte softly sang the refrain.

"Tracy, buzz the closest privateer and then head out of the system," Macen instructed.

"But the Obsidian," she protested.

"Will be able to break free if the Typhon Pact ship follows us," he explained, "And given who we have aboard, I think that/s a certainty."

"That's actually brilliant," Parva admitted, "Given the ship classes they all aren't rated much beyond Warp 5. And I've modified the Corsair to the limits her frame will allow to be able to push to Warp 6.3."

"Here goes," Ebert expertly performed her task.

"And two ships are breaking off," Macen reported, "give them five minutes to comfortably acquire us and then head to the sixth planet. It's a super gas giant and it's orbited by a Class –P moon. Slingshot around the gas giant and between the moon's orbit. Our pursuers are Gorn and Tzenkethi. The Gorn are brute force thinkers but the Tzenkethi think in terms of elaborate traps. The Tzenkethi will actually run interference for us to get away."

"And the Obsidian?" Ebert asked.

"Will get away inside the window we open up with the slingshot," Parva grinned, "But the Breen will volley fire at her."

"Negligible compared to what three ships could do against her," Macen replied.

"It's always semantics," Parva sighed but she knew he was right.

Macen's plan worked by the numbers despite the Tzenkethi and Gorn trying to intercept the surveyor and instead pursued the Obsidian out of the Volon system even as the Corsair made her escape largely unnoticed. Deeper inside the Cardassian Dorvan Sector, the Corsair caught up with the Obsidian and docked with her.

Then Macen contacted Delain only to find her unavailable. So he reported the privateers' presence in the Autonomous Region and the Alliance efforts to ignite a revolution. Then he learned of the uprisings across the client worlds. He contacted Ro to discover the broader implications of the Cardassian revolts.

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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