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Countdown - Part II by Travis Anderson

The Spy, The Rebel, The Doppelganger, The Traitor, The Soldier, The Exile, The Tinkerer,
The Mercenary, The Stray, and one ship shared by all. The tale has merely begun...

Chapter Seven

Kort hesitated for several minutes. He knew Galloway would be sleeping but he also knew he'd made a commitment to see her again soon. He felt obligated to explain to her that he would be away for an unknown length of time. Taking a deep breath, he commed the Inn's front desk.

The clerk transferred him to Galloway's room. His screen showed a flashing Bajoran crest while the terminal tried to rouse Galloway. If it didn't succeed soon, he would have to content himself with leaving a message.

Galloway's bleary features appeared on screen, "Kort? Is that you?"

"Yes, Hayley, it's me. I apologise for waking you." Kort said sorrowfully.

"What time is it?" Galloway was still reeling.

"It's very early." Kort informed her.

"Why did you call?" she wondered, "Couldn't it have waited until morning?"

"No, it couldn't." Kort explained, "My ship is departing tonight. I will be away for a time. I wanted to let you know that I will be late for our next meeting."

Galloway was alert now, "Why? What's wrong?"

"Much is amiss." Kort said evasively, "Do not fear. We will set it right."

"This is about that investigation you started earlier isn't it?" Galloway frowned, "Something horrible has happened."

"Not yet." Kort assured her, "But it may soon."

"I guess all that's left to say is that my hopes go with you and I look forward to your return." Galloway said earnestly.

"So do I." Kort promised, "I won't say farewell."

"Neither will I." Galloway replied with a smile.

"Kort out." with that, he killed the transmission. Feeling relieved and terribly disappointed at the same time, Kort began to doff his armour. He'd worn it since the middle of last ship's night and it was beginning to chafe.

What kind of Klingon am I becoming? I am growing soft. Kort thought in disgust. My heart is filled with hope again, he realised, Perhaps my meeting Hayley Galloway was fortuitous.

With that pleasant thought in his mind, he performed his nightly rituals and proceeded to retire for the night.

Daggit was in the gym. He hated leaving Parva behind but knew he had to get used to it now. It had been a long time since he'd had someone waiting for him to return to. That had been a small element of their relationship when she'd still been on the team but this was different. Parva was no longer the independent woman she'd once been. Now she honestly needed him in more than a figurative sense.

He beat the punching bag with all the force he could muster. Since Daggit was in superb physical condition, he had a lot of power at his command. The rest of the people in the gym were staying clear of him, well aware that something was driving him. After thirty minutes with the bag, Daggit stepped back and decided to do some weight training.

I can't die. he thought for the first time in fifteen years. He had too much at stake now to expire. This new attitude of his would take some time to adjust to. He wondered how his psychological conditioning would accommodate it, if it would accommodate it at all.

Forty-five minutes later, Daggit left the gym and headed for his quarters. It would a cold and lonely night for him. The first of many yet to come.

Delaney answered his comm and he eagerly smiled, "Hannah! It's great to see you. I didn't expect to see you again so soon. The computer said it was in the wee hours of the morning in Sinherra."

"It is." Grace informed him, "I'm aboard the Obsidian. We've got a break in the case and we're off to pursue it."

"Yeah." Delaney looked concerned, "Admiral Johnson briefed the senior staff as to the situation. He also informed us that your SID team was leading the investigation. We're on stand-by to assist."

"It seems everyone is." Grace chuckled, and then seeing Delaney's confusion, she explained, "Commander Vaughn and the Defiant are waiting to back us up when we make a move."

Delaney's smile returned, "Vaughn's a good tactician and the Defiant's a tough ship. You're in good hands."

"You looked awfully glad to see me." Grace commented, "Even with what I said before?"

Delaney rubbed the back of his head, "I wanted to talk to you about that."

Uh oh, Grace thought, Here we go.

"I don't want to be with anyone else." Delaney said firmly, "I think we have a shot at something special and I want to pursue it. Sure, we could just stay friends and we might end up that way but for now I want something more."

Grace lit up, "How much more?"

"As much as you're willing to give. Who knows where that will lead us?"

"So you still want to go sailing?" Grace asked.

"Yes." Delaney enthusiastically nodded, "The Caribbean is very romantic."

"We could use that." Grace sighed, "Nine months apart is beginning to feel like a long time."

"I know." Delaney grinned, "It surprised me too."

"Any way we can cut down on the absences?" Grace hoped.

"Not that I can see." Delaney glumly answered, "One of us would have to give up our ‘extended' family and I don't see either of us doing that yet."

"We could both leave and start over." Grace suggested.

"Why don't we wait and see how things go before we make any permanent plans." Delaney counselled.

Grace bit her lip before answering, "You're right. Just getting swept away by the possibilities."

"Wait until we're alone on Emily's boat." Delaney grinned, "I'll show you swept away then."

"Don't make promises you can't keep." Grace warned.

"Don't worry. I'll fulfil this one." Delaney promised, "I've had a couple of months to envision our reunion. I have plans."

"Good." Grace's smile was beatific, "I like a man that takes charge."

"I'm not known for being passive." Delaney's grin grew.

"So I've noticed." Grace smile became impish, "I did, however, evade capture at our first meeting."

"I figured that trick of yours out." Delaney revealed, "I'd like to see you repeat that manoeuvre on me."

"Oh really?" Grace's eyebrow's rose, "Is this a challenge?"

Delaney had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, "You'll have to meet up with me to find out."

Grace laughed, "It's a date."

"Good." Delaney sounded very resound.

"I'm I keeping you awake?" Grace suddenly asked.

Delaney grinned, "No more than you."

Grace bit her lower lip, "I'd better go. I have a full day tomorrow."

Delaney reluctantly nodded, "So do I. I'll comm you as soon as I hear the case is closed."

Still sad, Grace brightened somewhat, "Gives me something to look forward to."

"Until then." Delaney said and signed off.

Grace moved over to the bed and sat down on its edge. Her mind whirled. Delaney wanted to be with her. He was serious and he was committed.

All of this was new to Grace. She wished T'Kir were still up. She could use some relational advice right about now. She wasn't trying to leap ahead and start drawing conclusions and making plans but the temptation was nearly overwhelming.

She could plan her reunion with Delaney and she started envisioning meeting up with him again. The thoughts brought a smile to her face. She felt very warm and contented. I don't know what these feelings are, Grace thought to herself, but I like them.

Grace stood. Moving towards the bathroom, she began removing her clothes. She pulled a tank top out of a dresser drawer and slid it on after she'd shucked her bra. Padding into the bathroom, she brushed her teeth and washed her face. She let her hair out of the banana clip that held it and she brushed it out.

Finally, she returned to the bed and slid under the covers. Still wearing a smile on her face she ordered the lights off. Her thoughts and dreams were filled with memories of Ian Delaney.

Radil and Collins were walking down the corridor and Radil stopped, "Here's my quarters, "Good night, Abby."

Collins shifted from foot to foot, looking distinctly nervous. Never having seen her Deputy nervous before, Radil asked why she seemed unsettled. Collins responded by stepping forward, throwing her arms around Radil's neck and kissing her.

Radil pushed Collins back by the waist, "Abby, I'm flattered. I really am but I think I've given you the wrong impression. I'm a one man woman."

Collins sighed, "I knew better. I just have a bad habit of falling for my superiors."

"You had an affair with your last superior officer?" Radil asked.

Collins glumly nodded.

"What was she like?" Radil wondered.

"He was a lot like you." Collins explained, "He was very decisive and honestly cared for his junior officers. He was promoted and posted elsewhere halfway across the quadrant. I volunteered to be placed aboard the Obsidian and the rest is history."

"I'm sorry I can't be more to you but I am your friend." Radil insisted.

"I really need to get over my little hang up with superior officers." Collins wore a wry smile, "You really are beautiful though. It was easy to fall for you. Sure you don't want to try one night with me?"

"Been there, done that." Radil revealed, "Wasn't my thing. I just felt awkward and confused. I'll stick with men."

"Too bad." Collins grinned, "We could be great together."

"I'll tell you what," Radil offered, "we'll revisit this conversation again in a year and see how we both feel by then."

Collins was still disappointed but she agreed to Radil's proposal, "I'll take whatever you can give."

"Good night Abby." Radil warmly smiled.

"Good night, Jenrya. See you tomorrow." Collins waved and strode away.

Good kid. Radil thought as Collins left. She entered her quarters and prepared for bed.

"Hello?" Riker called into the lab as he stood in the open doorway, "Lees?"

"In here." Danan called out from behind the screen separating her office from the rest of the astrometrics lab.

"Still at it?" Riker enquired.

"Almost done." Danan proudly replied.

"How would you like a total body massage when you're done?" Riker asked.

"Have you been talking to Brin?" Danan asked. Seeing Riker's confusion, she waved the question away, "Never mind, Tom. It sounds lovely. I'll be with you in a few."

"Take your time." Riker picked up her tray and dishes, "I'll just take care of these. Call me when you're ready."

"I'll come to your quarters if that's all right." Danan informed him.

Riker happily smiled, "Sounds perfect." With that said, he departed.

Danan smiled and shook her head.

He's persistent. I'll give him that. The attentions nice though and I'm finding myself drawn to him more and more. Things could get interesting in the near future. she thought.

Shrugging, she returned her focus to her treatise.

Dracas showered after returning from the gym. He'd seen Daggit in there but the other man seemed possessed by some demon or another. Dracas had allowed him to exercise in peace while he worked out his personal issues.

Hal Dracas had used the gym just enough to keep his wiry frame lean. He'd never been overly concerned with developing his physique. Dracas was a trained combatant. His body was literally a weapon.

Dracas felt very akin to Daggit. They'd both been bred as soldiers, one from "birth" and the other from the rebirth of augmentation. Joachim knew Hal Dracas had been Daggit's closest friend and therefore he kept a distance out of respect for the dead. Dracas was used to uncomfortable relationships owing to Nova Roman society and he didn't want a repeat of that experience.

The SID team and the crew of the Obsidian as a whole had warmly embraced Dracas and his origins didn't seem to bother anyone. The only awkwardness stemmed from his filling his progenitor's shoes. Even that had become a rare occurrence as he'd worked beside the ship's engineers during the Obsidian's reconstruction. The SPYards had welcomed him with open arms. They'd been fascinated with his tales of "alien" technology.

Roman stoicism prevented Dracas from mentioning to anyone how lonely he was. His duty was clear though. Emperor Alaric had assigned him to observing life in the Federation and to the crew of the Obsidian. Macen's word was sacrosanct. He could not shirk his duty to his Emperor or Alaric's chosen representative.

Kiv Rever had presented him with a fascinating opportunity. Learning about his progenitor from those closest to him had been Dracas' goal since he'd arrived aboard the Outbound Venture's surveyor. Now he was being granted an opportunity to glean information from the most important person in the elder Dracas' life.

Dracas secretly wanted to form a friendship with Rever. He wanted desperately to reach out to someone and Rever had been close to Hal Dracas so there was a chance he could extend the hand of fellowship to Joachim as well. Based on outward appearances, Hal had chosen well. Rever was a very attractive man. Dracas had been instantly attracted to him but he stifled that response because pursuing the boyfriend of your "father" was downright morbid.

Dracas shed his clothes and slid under the bed covers. He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling. He wondered what he would dream about tonight. With a sigh, he knew that it would be the same vision that he dreamt of every night. Home.

The comm panel bleeped and then bleeped again. Macen groaned and rolled over. His feet hit the floor and he reached down and picked up his boxer shorts. He pulled them up as he rose. T'Kir put her head under the pillow with an exasperated huff. Macen smiled and went over to the comm set.

Upon activation, it showed Amanda Drake's grim visage, "Brin. Have I caught you at a bad time?"

T'Kir rose to a seated position and wrapped the covers around her. Drake saw this in the background and gasped, "Omigod. I didn't realise..."

Macen turned around, saw what Drake had seen and started to laugh, "You're fine, Amanda. If you'd called a couple of hours ago, it would have been...inopportune."

"Inopportune?" Drake's mouth quirked into a grin, "I'll have to remember that one."

"I hate to be rude, but you do have a reason for calling don't you?" Macen stifled a yawn.

"We also had an SID team on Bolshevik when this occurred." Drake informed him, "Their line of inquiry has led to the same place yours has. Of course, it took giving them your line of reasoning for a few of the details to come to light but the pattern's the same."

"And this means what?" Macen wondered.

"I've issued a warrant for Pytor Boromov." Drake announced, "Local law enforcement will now cooperate with you."

"Macen's eyebrow quirked, "What made you change your mind?"

"You were convincing but the corroboration solidifies your conclusions." Drake elaborated, "We need Boromov to talk and we need it now."

"We'll be in the Magna system in twenty-two hours." Macen revealed, "Do you have anyone closer?"

"There are no starships closer." Drake replied, "I already checked. You're our best bet for success."

"Lucky me." Macen grumped.

"You know you love it when the fate of the Federation hangs on your shoulders." Drake said with an evil chuckle.

"Believe it or not, Amanda, I never set out to become a hero." Macen admitted.

"And that's why Maquis survivors the quadrant over idolise you, T'Kir and Lisea?" Drake enquired.

Macen squirmed, "That was different."

Drake shook her head and smiled, "You're doing the same things now, Brin. You've just added a legal gloss to it but the actions are essentially the same."

"Then why do you keep me around?" Macen was feeling defensive.

"Because it's your destiny to save the Federation from itself." Drake declared.

"Isn't that a bit grandiose?" Macen retorted.

"Maybe." Drake allowed, "It's also true. You think outside the box. You see things the way they were viewed a hundred years ago. We don't teach people to think in such twisted, convoluted ways any more. The Federation, and Starfleet, need people like you to ensure that we don't succumb to our own presuppositions."

"I'm not a saviour, Amanda." Macen argued.

"No." Drake conceded, "Nor do I want you to get a messianic complex. You're an instrument and a valuable one at that."

"Tell that to the Council of Five and Edward Jellico in particular." Macen grated.

"You'll have to excuse Eddie." Drake chastised Macen, "He's a product of his generation. He's very rigid and committed to law and order. Your methods tend to violate regulations and that goes against his grain."

"Too bad for him." Macen commented.

"And you claim to have an open mind." Drake reprimanded him.

"Is this conversation going somewhere?" Macen groaned.

"Just be careful." Drake urged, "I have a bad feeling about this case."

"Getting superstitious?" Macen wondered.

"Intuition has saved my life more than once." Drake divulged, "My guts are screaming ‘watch out' right now."

"So are mine." Macen admitted, "That's why I pressed to get Boromov. I'm not certain what will happen if he can't provide the information we want or steer us towards someone who can."

"We'll cross that threshold if and when it happens." Drake said resolutely.

"You're right." Macen conceded. Yawning, he asked, "Is there anything else?"

Drake smiled, "I'll let you go now."

"Thanks." Macen wearily smiled and terminated the conversation.

He returned to the bed. T'Kir was too tired to glare but her unhappiness was manifest, "Can we expect any more calls?"

"Not tonight." Macen assured her.

"Good." T'Kir huffed and flopped onto her back, "I'm going to be dead until morning. Say whatever you need to say now."

Macen grinned and leaned over to kiss her on the lips, "I love you."

T'Kir brightened, "I love you too."

"Good night." Macen said and removed his shorts. He slid under the covers and turned on his side. T'Kir rolled over and nestled her back into him. He placed an arm around her waist and they both slowly drifted off to contented sleep.

Drake leaned back in her chair and stared at the view screen. Although reassured by Macen's caution in this case, she was still unsettled. Macen tended to draw high profile cases and earn equally high profile criticism. That is, Drake amended, as high profile as the shadowy world of Starfleet Intelligence gets.

Macen's cavalier attitude towards regulations and protocol were widely known and barely tolerated. What disturbed her was his recent behaviour. Nine months ago, when Outbound Ventures itself had been a target, Macen had skirted the borders of legality. Two suspects were currently defending themselves in court on the basis that the information and confessions they'd provided were derived at by the use of torture.

Whether the charge was true or not was immaterial. The simple fact that it was conceivably true bothered Drake. She tended to give Macen a blank cheque. That policy could very well be misguided. She had to revisit each case and review Macen's use of force in each one.

His track record was one of nearly unparalleled success for her department. Only one or two other SID teams had achieved as much in so short a time. Drake went to the replicator and got herself a cup of tea. Tea was soothing and might help her out of her inner turmoil.

Macen was an independent creature. It was what made him the investigator he was and also the pain in the ass that he could become. Drake hated the thought of trying to curtail him. He'd resigned on more than one occasion over previous efforts to do just that.

Drake didn't like any of her choices as she sipped her tea. The allegations of torture had to be investigated. She also knew Macen would be resistant to any such probe. It was a matter she had to carefully broach.

With one final sigh she sat her teacup down and started reviewing the files of potential investigators. She wanted to keep it an internal matter. If Internal Affairs got a hold of this it could easily escalate into an ugly scenario. It was far better to assign one of her agents that had come up through IA and assign him or her to the case and let them determine the facts impartially.

Drake ran through a list of names and one file stood out. Lt. Commander Michelle Prentiss stood out. She'd come to the Division during Macen's three-year absence and had never met him or any member of his team. Now all that was left was to determine if she'd been influenced by his cult of personality here at SID HQ.

Feeling better, Drake asked Ambril to request Prentiss' presence. She wanted the Lt. Commander's take on the case before she was assigned to it. Her reaction to the testimony given thus far would be revealing. Drake felt a little guilty about summoning an investigator to ride herd over Macen but she knew the law demanded it. And Macen was sworn, even as a privateer, to uphold the law.

Kara watched Astris on the monitor and frowned. Am I doing the right thing? she wondered, I'm handing over the woman I love to the Order. I know they mean her no harm but what if that changes? Could I live with myself?

Kara shook her head and realised, No. I couldn't. Whatever happened over the course of the next week, she had to find a way to protect Astris. Nothing else mattered.

Her devotion to the Cause had never wavered before. She still felt it was her people's destiny to rise to greatness amongst the Federation's many stars but she wouldn't see that rise being built upon Astris' corpse. Nothing was worth that. She'd defy the Proconsul herself if that's what was required.

Resolve hardening, Kara's attention returned to Astris. Her heart broke as her partner paced like a caged animal. She knew she should turn back now but if she did she would either face imprisonment or permanent separation from Astris. Neither fate was acceptable.

Kara settled back in her seat and willed herself to press on. She would first perform her duty and then protect Astris. That would have to be the way of things. She had no other choice. She hadn't had a choice since she'd left the homeworld fifteen years before in fulfilment of the Plan. Now it was time for fruition and it would be sweet indeed.

 

Chapter Eight

The deckplates had finally stopped shuddering and Astris looked at her wrist chrono. She'd been aboard this ship for nearly twenty hours. Wherever they'd gone to, it wasn't right next to Bajor. They probably weren't even inside the damned Bajoran sector. She rose from her seated position on the bed, straightened out her spine, and squared her shoulders.

The door crankily slid open and Kara stood facing her. Kara's face was etched with concern. Her eyes seemed on the verge of tears. Tears, yes, but they were also resolved. Astris' faint hope that Kara would change her mind faded to a dull regret.

"Are you ready to transport to the surface?" Kara asked regretfully.

"Of course I'm not ready." Astris snorted, "What do you plan to do about that?"

Kara stepped aside and snapped her fingers. Jared and Kelv appeared, poised and ready. Astris didn't want to press her luck with the two renegade Militia constables. With a shrug and a sigh she stepped forward.

Astris resignedly shuffled forward. The two constables were pressed up against each other in the doorframe. Astris suddenly surged forward. She drove her knee up into Kelv's groin. With her foot planted on the deck she thrust the palm of her hand into Jared's nose. As Kelv folded into the quarters Astris had occupied, Jared fell backwards. He hit his head on the bulkhead as he fell to the deck.

Astris leapt over Jared's dazed form and found herself staring down the barrel of a phaser. Kara stood leaned up against the bulkhead, seemingly for support, and tears glistened in her eyes. Astris detected a slight tremble in Kara's lower lip that no one else would have recognised.

"Don't." Kara implored, "This is already difficult enough. I'll protect you, I swear. Nothing will happen to you."

"Save it for the rubes, sister, I'm not buying." Astris snarled.

Kara mouthed the words and Astris impatiently spoke again, "It's an old human expression. The gist of it is that you'll have to shoot me because I don't believe your lies any more."

Kara looked grief stricken, "I'm so sorry."

Kara's gun wavered and Astris had a wavering hope blossom within her, "Gena?"

Kara's grip firmed up and she depressed the trigger. Yellow energy erupted from the barrel and struck Astris squarely in the chest. She crumpled onto Jared's legs. The Militia sergeant vainly tried to get out from underneath the Bajoran 1st Minister's prone form.

"You know," Jared glanced up at Kara, "for a moment there, I didn't think you'd be able to do it."

Kara's voice caught as her grief closed her throat, "F...for a moment I wasn't...wasn't able to."

Jared realised that his leader was on the verge of an emotional breakdown, "Kelv! Give me a hand."

The larger Bajoran groaned from inside of the secure quarters and Jared grew angry, "Damn it Kelv! I need your help and I need it now!"

There was a scraping sound as Kelv gathered himself up. He lurched to his feet and staggered out into the corridor. A viscous smile crossed his face when he saw Astris' prone form. He drew back his foot and Kara's husky voice called him off.

"I shot her, Kelv. It'll only be an afterthought to shoot you."

Kelv hesitated. Kara was clearly unhinged. For all he knew, she'd thumbed up the phaser's power setting. His foot returned to the deck and she lowered the phaser.

A lopsided smile lifted the corner of Kara's mouth as a demented gleam filled her eyes, "Pick her up and help Jared carry her to the transporter."

Kelv hesitated and Kara snapped the phaser up, aimed at him, "Now isn't the time for hesitation, Corporal, nor is it the time for mishandling your cargo. If she is roughly treated, it'll come out of your hide."

Getting underneath her, Kelv scooped Astris up into his arms. He rose to his feet, muttered a curse, and began to follow Kara as she led the way to the transporter room. Jared followed, nursing his throbbing head. So far, this day had not gone according to plan. Kara's growing instability concerned him.

Shift change came, finding Macen and T'Kir in his Ready Room. The door chimed and Macen instructed the computer to open it. Riker stepped in and smiled.

"Hard at it?" he asked jovially.

"We've planned our approach strategy." Macen replied, "It should be fairly simple."

Riker took a seat and crossed his legs, "If memory serves, Boromov eluded you once before."

Macen was chagrined, "An oversight on our part. We didn't know that he was allied with Cell 51. Hell, we didn't even know Cell 51 existed at that time."

"He won't pull that frinxing transporter trick again." T'Kir confidently declared, "We've called the Magnan authorities and arranged for an inhibitor net to be cast over Boromov's residence."

"Good thinking." Riker stroked his beard, "Are you going to brief Daggit and Radil before we reach Magna VII?"

"No." Macen firmly declared, "They're not attached to the landing party."

Riker lurched forward, "You're at least taking Dracas or Kort aren't you?"

Macen shook his head, "Nope."

"What about Hannah or Lees?" Riker pleaded.

"This collar is ours buster." T'Kir said resolutely, "No flatfoot or teammate is bagging him but us."

Riker scratched his head, "I think I know what you said."

"If you think we're going on this bust alone, you'd be right." Macen clarified. His determination was resolute.

"My God Brin." Riker exclaimed in desperation, "Starfleet requires that the CO of the ship beam down with an armed escort."

Macen grew perturbed, "How many times do I have to explain that we're not in Starfleet. This ship gets run the way I want it to. If I want to beam down to a planet without an escort that's my prerogative."

Riker sagged back into his seat in defeat, "All right. Just to let you know, we'll be arriving in the Magna system in eight hours."

"Perfect." Macen grinned, "Enough time to get a bite and some sleep."

"Sure." Riker bitterly commented, "Eat, drink and be merry for in eight hours we die."

Macen frowned in frustration, "Have a little faith, Tom. T'Kir and I have overcome tougher challenges than this."

"And they started off simply too." Riker groused.

Macen rose and came around the desk. Patting Riker on the shoulder, he grinned encouragingly, "C'mon and get some dinner. Chef supposedly whipped up another culinary masterpiece."

"We'll see." Riker grumped as he rose to his feet.

"For Fates' sake, Tom, cheer up." Macen chastised him, "It's not the end of the universe as we know it."

"I'll reserve judgement on that." Riker retorted.

"Get over it, Tom." T'Kir insisted, "We'll be fine."

They left the room with Macen and T'Kir engaged in some playful banter. Riker remained sullen. They boarded the lift and exited when it arrived at the deck hosting the Team Room. The food exceeded every expectation. Even Riker started to smile by meal's end.

Macen donned his SOBs and T'Kir clothed herself in her favourite garb. She was decked out in her duster, matching leather pants and mid-calf combat boots. A red zipper front blouse finished off the ensemble. Both wore their holster/utility belts.

Having checked all the gear in their belts pouches, they exited their quarters and headed for the main Transporter Room. Standing outside the door of the transporter Daggit and Radil stood geared for a small war. Macen shook his head as he approached. T'Kir grew incensed.

"We're coming." Daggit announced.

"Frinx you, Rab!" T'Kir hotly declared.

Daggit bristled and went silent. Radil explained, "Riker told us what you were planning. There are too many things that can go wrong. Boromov's no dummy. He's bound to have his exits covered."

"Are you suggesting that T'Kir and I can't bring in one man?" Macen asked coldly.

"No." Radil faltered, "But he did escape the last time the two of you tried to arrest him."

"This time he doesn't have Cell 51 to rescue him." Macen replied angrily.

"A technicality." Radil shrugged.

"A huge difference." Macen determined, "Boromov is reduced to his own resources. The Magnan authorities are backing us up. Case closed."

"You're trusting local law enforcement?" Daggit asked in disbelief.

"Yes." Macen grated, "We are. As I already said, case closed. Now I'm giving you a direct order: Go back to bed."

"At least have us stand-by in case something goes wrong." Daggit argued.

Macen thought about it and then nodded, "All right. You're the ready reserve. Satisfied?"

"Barely." Radil sourly grunted.

"If you'll excuse us," T'Kir huffed, "we have a date with Boromov."

Shoulders slumping, Radil and Daggit stepped aside to let the pair pass. As the Transporter Room doors slid shut, Daggit turned on Radil.

"Why are we letting them go?" he railed.

"If you hadn't noticed, they're determined to get into trouble." Radil calmly answered, "There's only one way to deal with such determination: we go around it."

Daggit grew suspicious, "What do you mean?"

"We beam down to the surface and stay close by so that we can provide instant back-up when called." Radil explained.

A sly grin spread across Daggit's rough hewn features, "I like it."

"We have to go to the surface." Radil elaborated, "Macen's arranged for transport inhibitors to be set up around Boromov's penthouse. The only way to respond is by already being there."

"Think they've beamed down yet?" Daggit wondered.

"Of course." Radil brightly smiled, "Shall we be on our way?"

"After you." Daggit ushered her on.

Macen and T'Kir materialised on the roof of Boromov's building. He owned the entire tower that housed an exclusive list of native and alien celebrities. Boromov reserved the penthouse for himself. He and the other residents shared the roof, which served as the landing point for their antigrav aircars.

A police aircar was parked in the open landing pad in the middle of the roof. The residents' parking slots circled the open space. Most of the cars were present but a few slots were currently empty. A Magnan police officer left the cruiser and approached Macen and T'Kir.

The grey skinned Magnan woman possessed jet-black hair and like most Magnans was very petite. Her eyes were turquoise, her nose was flattened and her lips were razor thin. Her face was angular, her chin coming almost to a point. Her uniform was black with gold piping. It vaguely reminded Macen of the "Horatio Hornblower" uniforms that were in Starfleet vogue when he'd joined the service.

The officer wore a Type II phaser slung loosely on her hip. Her casual manner with it indicated either an easy familiarity with the weapon...or a criminal ignorance of the necessary kinesics required for a quick response. Magna VII had been a member of the Federation for over a century now. A highly peaceable planet to begin with, it was likely the need for such devices had evaporated long ago.

"Greetings." The Magnan officer held up a fist, "I welcome you to Magna VII. I am Lieutenant Helrice. I am pleased that we can be of assistance today."

Macen bowed at the waist but kept his eyes locked on Helrice's, "It is my honour to serve with you on this urgent matter. Your aid will assist us in dealing with the brewing crisis facing the Federation."

Concern radiated from Helrice's face, "I have witnessed the reports of the leaders' kidnappings. Thankfully the culprits did not strike here."

"I think that was planned." Macen shared, "Chances are that it was a ruse to allay suspicions towards our suspect."

Helrice frowned, "Mr. Boromov has been a model citizen since his arrival on Magna VII. I find it difficult to believe that he is connected to these criminals."

"Boromov has been associated with various terrorists and revolutionary factions for years." Macen informed Helrice, "The Federation Council was well aware of his past when they granted him a conditional pardon. If he has violated the terms of that pardon then he will be tried for all of his crimes."

Helrice pursed her lips, "I see. We are ready to begin at your command."

"Are the transport inhibitors in place?" Macen enquired.

"Yes." Helrice nodded once, "We placed them at all four corners of the roof. The field extends down several metres. It should block a site to site transport from his penthouse."

"Excellent." Macen was pleased. His expression grew more uneasy and he gestured at Helrice's sidearm, "Have you ever used that thing?"

Helrice smiled, "I practice with it on a weekly basis."

"That's not the same as having fired at a living being. Have you ever faced that scenario? Have any of your officers?" Macen expanded the question.

Helrice grew pensive, "No. It has not been necessary for nearly a century now."

"That's what I was afraid of." Macen frowned, "Have your people maintain peripheral positions. We'll handle Boromov."

"Have you ever fired on another sentient?" Helrice demanded to know.

T'Kir gave her a feral smile and brushed back the folds of her coat so that its length was held back by her holster, "What d'you think? That these were for show?"

"It...it is unconscionable to harm another being." Helrice was stunned.

"Sometimes it's a necessity." Macen firmly replied.

"Not on Magna VII it is not!" Helrice hotly insisted and then sniffed, "And here I thought you were agents of the Federation."

Macen met her eyes and fiercely gazed into them, "We are. Sometimes the preservation of collective security requires force. That requirement extends to agents willing to accomplish the mission regardless of personal cost."

Helrice shook her head sadly, "I cannot fathom a mission worthy of the sacrifice of personal integrity."

"Let's pray that you never do, Lieutenant." Macen said with due sincerity.

Helrice shifted uncomfortably, "The turbolift has been secured to your commands. The Police override will grant you access to the penthouse."

Macen nodded, "Thank you. Inform your people that we're beginning the operation."

Helrice escorted them to the lift, "I want you to know that any use of force will be thoroughly investigated by my staff."

"Fair 'nuff." T'Kir remarked as she took hold of Macen's arm and drug him into the lift, "If you'll excuse us, we have a suspect to question."

After the lift doors closed Macen gave T'Kir a quizzical glance and she shrugged, "She's gonna launch a probe no matter what we do."

Macen sighed, "It'll be Amanda's problem not ours."

T'Kir grinned, "Too bad."

Macen activated the lift; "You might want to give her a break once in awhile."

T'Kir lifted her chin, "I will as soon as you do."

Macen grimaced, "Touché."

The lift doors opened and both Macen and T'Kir had their hands hovering over their phasers. Macen carefully stepped out. His eyes searched the room, evaluating potential threats. T'Kir cautiously followed.

"This guy knows how to live." she stopped and whistled as her eyes drank in the opulence of the sitting room. She shook her head, "And here I've been thinking that his quarters in the Royale were nice. This blows them away."

Still alert and poised for instant action, Macen had to admit that T'Kir was right. The room was spectacular. The walls were made of brushed steel. The floors were made up of real wood planks. The Fates alone knew how he'd acquired the lumber for that.

The sofa and chairs were made of black leather. The coffee table was composed of a rich dark wood. Rich tapestries and rare paintings were displayed. Macen approached a painting and examined it carefully.

"These are real." he observed, "They're not holographic representations."

"Of course they're not." Boromov said as he confidently entered the room, "Holograms are vulgar."

Boromov's confidence wavered as he recognised Macen and T'Kir, "What do you want? My pardon has not been rescinded. I've done nothing wrong."

Macen's hands went to his hips and he frowned, "I'd like to believe you but the mere fact that the first thing you did was protest your innocence makes me suspicious. We just want to ask you a few questions. If you answer them you'll be granted immunity from any potential prosecutions your confession may lead to."

Boromov smiled and shook his head, "Very generous but there is a problem. You see, I am innocent."

A smirk grew across Macen's face, "Once again I don't believe you."

Boromov's hands flew out of his pockets. In one, he gripped a Type I phaser. He fired as soon as his arm was level. He swept the room in an arc.

Macen dove behind the couch. T'Kir dropped to one knee behind a chair. Her phaser cleared the holster as she crouched. The particle beam fired over their positions, striking the wall containing the lift access.

The sound of retreating footsteps filled the room as T'Kir came around the side of the chair. Macen sprang up from behind the couch, his phaser gripped in both hands. Boromov had vacated the sitting room. Macen and T'Kir cautiously moved into the living room/library. There was still no sign of the arms supplier. There were two doorways exiting the living room.

One led to a hallway. Doors leading to various bedrooms were plainly visible. T'Kir pulled her tricorder out and took a reading.

"Nothin'." she reported. Turning, she scanned the opposite direction, "I'm picking up a lifesign."

Macen approached the doorway with his phaser held in both hands. He stood at an angle as he aimed at the revealed kitchen space. Pots and pans hung from a space above an island located near the sink, stove and cryo unit. It was the area of an anachronistic enthusiast in the age of replicated food, an indulgence of the prosperous.

Holding his phaser out in front of him, Macen leaned into the kitchen space. His eyes and gun hand swept the dining area. No one was visible. At the opposite end of the space was a set of doors leading to the walk-in pantry. One of the French doors was open.

T'Kir still held her tricorder aloft. Holding the device in her right hand, she used her forefinger to point at the pantry. Macen urged her forward with a cutting motion with his hand. They both stepped out from behind the island, each to their own side.

Boromov suddenly appeared in the pantry's entrance. He hurriedly fired his phaser at the pursuing couple. The beam went between them and struck a pan, producing sparks. Boromov ducked back behind the other door. Macen and T'Kir fired at the closed door.

Splinters erupted from the assaulted door. Macen rushed forward and stopped at the edge of the open doorway. He was poised to shoot Boromov only the Russian wasn't there. T'Kir sprinted and met Macen. She leaned in and took a look.

"He's gone." she observed.

"Really?" Macen remarked sarcastically, "I hadn't noticed."

"Did ya notice the door located in that recessed portion of the pantry?" she asked as she took a sensor reading.

"Yup." Macen nodded once, "He must have gone through there."

"Brilliant deduction." T'Kir quipped, "You must have been an Intelligence Officer once upon a time."

Macen grimaced but remained silent as T'Kir reported her findings, "That door and whatever's behind it is shielded. I can't get a reading."

Macen stepped forward and depressed the button that opened the door. Nothing happened. Macen frowned.

"It's locked. How long would it take you to crack the security code?"

T'Kir shrugged, "Depends on how complex the encryption protocol is."

Macen's scowl deepened, "We don't have time to waste." He pulled a shaped charge from his belt. It resembled an old fashioned padlock. Devised by Dracas, it was a miniature matter/antimatter bomb. Macen adhered the bomb to the side of the door. He rotated the dial face of the bomb, setting the timer.

Macen and T'Kir vacated the pantry and ran behind the island and ducked behind it. The bomb went off and the French doors flew across the kitchen. Macen and T'Kir rose and looked through the dust. Beyond the ruined door was a stairway leading to the roof.

"C'mon!" Macen barked and ran through the exposed doorway and up the stairwell. T'Kir was on his heels as he reached an open hatch. The hatch was located on the far side of the rooftop. An empty car slot lay next to it.

Macen ran towards the Police cruiser situated in the centre of the rooftop landing area. Helrice and a deputy huddled behind its fender. Macen and T'Kir covered the distance between the hatch and the cruiser.

"What does his car look like?" Macen demanded.

"He...he shot at us." Helrice was in shock and babbling. Macen turned to her subordinate, who was much calmer and coherent.

"What kind of car is he driving?" Macen grabbed hold of the patrolman's shoulders.

"A navy blue BMW." the shaken officer answered, "He went east."

"Thank you." Macen replied, "Get the Lieutenant clear of the car. We'll bring it back later."

"What?" the befuddled officer asked.

Macen got in on the passenger side of the car. T'Kir was already in the driver's seat. She activated the car's antigravs and the car bounced upward. The Magnan Police officers scrambled away. T'Kir activated the traditional yellow and green pursuit lights.

"Which way?" T'Kir asked.

"East." Macen supplied, "My guess is that he's in the traffic lane closest to the tower's top."

"We'll find out." T'Kir vowed and gunned the throttle. The car leapt off the rooftop and she guided it into the nearby flow of traffic. She pushed the car to its top speed and she ploughed through traffic. The law abiding Magnans dutifully pulled over and came to a rest. T'Kir raced past them.

Up ahead, a blue BMW sped up in an effort to outpace the approaching cruiser. As fast as the BMW was, the Police Special was faster. T'Kir wore a feral smile.

"I think we've found him."

Macen activated the car's forward phaser array. He locked the phasers on target and fired. A particle beam struck the BMW in the boot. Macen readjusted his targeting range and the next shot hit the car's lower edge. The rear antigrav generator began trailing smoke.

Boromov suddenly dove the car straight down. T'Kir followed. Boromov flew into the lower lane of traffic, dodging left, right, up and down as he careened around the traffic. T'Kir calculated the odds and dove straight through milling crowd of startled drivers. Boromov began to trim out and came to cruise at ten metres off the ground. T'Kir swooped in behind him.

"He's using the crowd below as a shield." Macen growled, "He's thinking I won't fire."

"Will you?" T'Kir wondered.

"Damn right I will." Macen resumed his barrage.

The rear generator gave out and the rear of the car dipped down. The back bumper sparked as it was dragged across the ground. Boromov gave up and parked the car. He got out and began to run on foot while T'Kir brought the cruiser to a rest. Macen and T'Kir jumped out of the Police car and gave chase.

Macen came to a halt and yelled, "Freeze!"

The Magnan pedestrians dove for cover and Macen fired, shooting Boromov in the back. The fleeing suspect fell forward and scraped along the ground as his forward momentum was expended. Macen and T'Kir ran to his side.

Boromov was still conscious and was already regaining the use of his limbs. Macen quickly disarmed him before he could use the phaser again. T'Kir rolled Boromov over onto his back. His face bled from the scraped suffered during his fall.

"Do what you want." Boromov coughed, "I won't talk."

"We don't need you to talk." Macen wore a cruel smile, "My wife can rip the information from you without your permission. Surely you've heard of her abilities?"

Fear permeated Boromov's eyes, "I'll take the deal."

"The deal was nullified by your fleeing." Macen coldly informed him, "Now you'll get credit for cooperating."

Boromov seemed on the edge of arguing but his anger quickly dissipated, "I'll right but you have to protect me. They'll kill me once they find out."

"No, they won't." Macen assured him, "I guarantee it."

"All right." Boromov sighed, "I'll tell you what I know, but first..."

 

Chapter Nine

The transporter beam released as Astris, Kara, Jared and Kelv rematerialised. Astris' eyes went wide. They'd arrived in a huge, central courtyard. Two massive statues stood side by side. They each held an individual planetary sphere and jointly held a central planet, which was enlarged for effect. The statues were of a Bajoran and a Cardassian working in concert.

"When were these erected?" Astris asked Kara.

Kara followed her gaze, studied the statues and then gave a noncommittal shrug, "Probably forty or fifty years ago. It was before I was born."

Astris started to hold up a hand to point at the monuments and she stammered, "B...b...but that's im...impossible!"

Kara met her eyes levelly, "More is possible than you will ever know. Soon you will learn some of what has been accomplished here."

Astris stared at her in transfixed wonder. Was Kara a collaborator? Could anyone collaborate with a fallen regime? Could she still serve an Occupation that had ended thirteen years ago? Astris' mind was whirling as she was led into the tower whose entrance the statues guarded.

"Do not fear, Beru." Kara said soothingly, "The Proconsul awaits you. She only wish to plead her case. No harm will come to you or the others."

"What others?" Astris was suddenly alarmed. Narrowing her eyes, she pressed Kara, "What ‘others', Gena?"

Kara seemed uncertain and then her resolve shored up; "You'll find out soon enough. Now, let's go into the Tower of Cooperation."

"What if I refuse?" Astris folded her arms across her chest.

"Kelv," Kara sighed, "throw her over your shoulder and carry her."

Kelv grinned. Starting forward, he reached out for Astris. Astris stepped back and held her hands out in front of her.

"All right!" she angrily exclaimed, "You called my bluff. I'll go peacefully."

"That would be a first." Kara murmured.

"What was that crack?" Astris demanded to know.

"Oh, nothing." Kara replied demurely.

"Better not be." Astris growled, "Remember, only one of us here isn't guilty of betrayal."

"I'm certain that you'll be reminding us of that well into the evening." Kara remarked, "You'll soon have other pressing matters weighing on your mind."

"Enough of the theatrics." Astris snapped, "Tell me why I'm here!"

Kara only offered a wan smile, "Let's continue with the theatrics for a time."

"Whatever you want." Astris huffed and began striding towards the Tower's front entrance.

"Look," Boromov said as he gingerly sat up, "I'll tell you what you want to know as long as we go somewhere more comfortable. I don't know about you but I could use a raktajino."

Macen exchanged a look with T'Kir. She shrugged and Macen let out a breath, "All right. We passed a café while chasing you. We can stop there."

Macen rose and Boromov held up a hand for assistance. Seeing the cold stares Macen and T'Kir were giving him, he sighed and hauled himself up onto his feet. Macen kept a firm grip on Boromov's arm as he escorted Boromov through the milling crowd of Magnan spectators and down the sidewalk to the café. Boromov sighed again as a result of his treatment.

"You can dispense with the theatrics." he said wearily, "I'm through running. Like you suggested, at this point my only hope lies in cooperation."

"We'll see." Macen replied sceptically.

They sat at a table and a waitress hurried over. They ordered their drinks and the waiter happily bustled off. Within five minutes the waiter returned with the drinks and a menu. T'Kir thanked her and informed the young woman that they would require some time.

Macen sipped his coffee and set it down. Fixing a hard stare on Boromov he said, "Time to talk."

"If you found me then I guess you know that the New Order is an interstellar concern." Boromov began.

"Tell us somethin' we don't already know, chump." T'Kir smartly remarked.

Boromov winced but continued, "Is it safe to assume that you know that the Order is threatening the Federation Council in addition to the spree of abductions?"

"It is." Macen tersely informed him, "The question is how will they strike?"

Boromov took a long pull on his coffee. Setting the mug down he looked Macen directly in the eye, "They already have."

Macen's visage grew cold. His eyes were filled with murderous intent and his voice dropped to a whisper, "How?"

"They've planted a biogenic device inside of the Council chambers." Boromov found himself quailing in the face of Macen's fury, "I don't know where they've placed it but I do know that if Starfleet Security begins a search it will be detonated."

"You certainly know how to pick your friends." T'Kir snidely commented.

"I didn't know they were going to plant any bombs." Boromov protested.

"I seem to recall you using that argument about your relationship with Cell 51." Macen pointed out.

Boromov seemed glum, "I'm not very choosy am I? I just get swept away with the romance of revolution and go along with murderers."

Sensing Boromov's genuine remorse, Macen softened somewhat; "What kind of biogenic device is it? Maybe that will help us find it."

"I don't know." Boromov was on the verge of tears, "I was barely able to obtain the information I have."

"He's telling the truth." T'Kir assessed with no small amount of frustration.

Macen pursed his lips and frowned, "That's what I was afraid of. Still, Starfleet has to be informed of what he does know."

Brushing a stray lock behind her ear, T'Kir nodded; "That should probably wait, don'cha think? Our comm badges aren't secured and they may have left someone behind to watch him."

"Would you please stop referring to me as if I wasn't here?" Boromov fretted, "Beam us up to your ship. I can't be taken by the New Order forces. They'll kill me."

"They wouldn't be the only ones that want to." Macen remarked and then seeing Boromov's distress, he chuckled darkly, "Never fear, Pytor, Starfleet wants you alive. We don't get paid if we bring in your corpse."

"Cold comfort that." Boromov muttered. He stared out of the café's glass front and froze. "Protect me!" he pleaded in a whisper.

Macen turned in his seat at the bistro style table. Standing outside of the café were three burly Bajoran men. They were studying the scene inside the café. Macen turned to T'Kir.

She shrugged, "I dunno what they want. They've each got enough mental discipline to rival Hannah."

Macen's eyes went vacant and then they sharpened to razor-like clarity, "Get down!"

Macen and T'Kir drug Boromov to the floor as the glass front exploded inward. The Bajorans stepped up into the café through the hole they'd created. They each brandished Romulan disruptors.

Macen and T'Kir leapt to their feet and shot two of the approaching Bajorans. They each staggered but remained conscious. Macen thumbed his weapon's power setting. Grabbing Boromov's collar and dragging the terrified arms supplier towards the rear of the restaurant, Macen fired again with his phaser set on lethal force. His shot pegged the closest Bajoran in the chest as he was training his weapon on Boromov. The Bajoran crumpled and collapsed.

Another Bajoran leapt at T'Kir. He took hold of her left hand, angling her phaser away from him. She drove her right elbow into his nose. It spewed blood but his grip remained firm. She drove her knee into his groin and he released her wrist with an explosive exhale. She took hold of his head and drove her knee into his face. He went down and remained still.

The third Bajoran had her dead to rights. With his weapon levelled at her chest he began to squeeze the firing stud. A particle beam lanced out and struck him from behind. Daggit and Radil cautiously entered the wrecked café.

"Is everyone all right?" Daggit asked.

"How did you get here?" Macen asked incredulously.

"We followed you down." Radil said proudly, "We were too late for the fight in the flat and we made it to the roof in time for you to commandeer the Police cruiser. We commandeered the next cruiser that came along and followed your car's locator beacon."

Macen grinned, "Well, I'm glad you disobeyed the spirit of my last orders. You saved T'Kir's life."

T'Kir curtsied, "Thank you, Noble Sir."

"What about me?" Radil indignantly demanded.

"I'll give you whatever you want if you get me out of here." Boromov declared.

Radil brightened, "Tempting."

"May I remind you that you're no longer a mercenary?" Macen prodded Radil.

"What do you call what we do now?" Radil fired back, "We're private investigators. That makes us guns for hire."

"Look, if there's a conflict of interest," Boromov offered, "I'll hire you."

Radil looked intrigued but Macen was adamant, "We have an employer for this case. That employer wants you alive so we'll keep you alive."

"Brin," T'Kir spoke, "there are more minds like these fellows' gathering outside."

"Quick!" Macen took hold of Boromov's arm and began guiding him, "Out the back!"

They scrambled towards the rear of the restaurant. Ducking inside the kitchen, they left angry cooks and waiters in their wake. Reaching the delivery door, Macen kicked it open. T'Kir yelled out a warning as Macen stepped through the open pathway.

A grey fist smashed into Macen jaw and a Cardassian caught his flailing form. A hypo was applied and Macen went limp in his arms. The attacker reached out for Boromov and the would-be revolutionary shrieked.

T'Kir intercepted the grasping hand. She twisted the Cardassian's arm and punched his stomach. A muscular female Cardassian yelled at T'Kir, ordering her to release her companion. Two more Cardassians and three Bajorans, mixed male and female, menacingly approached.

Daggit and Radil had their phasers drawn as they exited the café's rear entrance. The assembled assailants responded by pulling their own weapons free. T'Kir tapped her comm badge. As she did so, the Cardassian holding Macen pulled the El-Aurian's comm badge off of his belt and tossed it away.

T'Kir frowned but rapidly spoke anyway, "Telrik, four to beam up now!"

The SID team and Boromov shimmered out of existence. The mixed Cardassian/Bajoran forces signalled their ship and beamed away taking Macen with them. The Bajorans in the café and the street beyond were also retrieved.

"Stow him somewhere!" T'Kir snarled as she stepped off the transporter pad. Daggit followed in her wake. Telrik gave a surprised blink and stared at Radil as she placed a hand on Boromov's neck and squeezed.

"Not so fast." Radil growled, "You're not going anywhere."

Boromov winced as her grip tightened, "I assure you, I won't resist."

Radil pressed her phaser into Boromov's back, "You won't mind then if I take precautions."

"Suit...yiiih!" Boromov sucked in his breath as she twisted the phaser's emitter against his spine, "Suit yourself. I'm eager to be placed in protective custody."

"Move it then." Radil prodded him forward and Boromov stepped off of the pads. He walked through the doors T'Kir had charged through just a moment before. Out in the corridor, he stopped and twisted around.

"Where to?"

Radil wore a thin smile. She took hold of his arm and began leading him towards the lift. She still had her phaser drawn and aimed at her "guest". They entered the lift when it came and Radil softened somewhat.

"Until I get clarification on your status, I'm placing you in the brig." Radil explained.

"Astutely logical." Boromov conceded, "I'm yours to do with as you like."

Radil genuinely smiled, "If only all my prisoners were as cooperative."

"I'm willing to wager that most of your prisoners aren't relying upon you to keep them alive." Boromov opined.

Radil nodded, "That is a major difference."

Boromov sighed, "Can your people protect me?"

Radil stopped him and met his gaze fiercely, "We've survived the Nova Romans, the Omicron, the Romulans, the Iotians, the Orion Syndicate, Solarian Security Systems and one particular Kelvan. I think we can handle this New Order of yours."

Boromov shook his head, "You've never encountered anything like them. They appear to be merely humanoid but they're so much more."

"So are we." Radil proudly asserted.

"I can only hope."

T'Kir emerged onto the bridge and headed straight for Riker. Riker was up early and sitting in on Shannon Forger's shift. As T'Kir called Riker's name, he rose, knowing that something was wrong.

"Where's the Captain?" Riker immediately asked.

"They have him." T'Kir fumed.

"Who's ‘they'?" Riker wondered.

"The frinxing New Order." T'Kir nearly spat, "They have him and we have Boromov."

"Almost a fair trade." Riker weakly chuckled.

"This isn't a damn joke, Tom." T'Kir snapped.

Riker grew serious, "I know its not."

T'Kir pinched her nose and closed her eyes, "I'm sorry. This just needs to be fixed."

Riker put a comforting hand on her shoulder, "It will be, T'Kir. I promise."

"Commander, a scoutship is breaking orbit." The Ops Officer reported.

"Can we determine its origin?" Forger asked before Riker could respond.

"Negative XO." The Ops Officer reported, "It's an unknown configuration."

"It's them!" T'Kir insisted, "We need to intercept them."

"Is that assessment based upon telepathic information?" Riker asked.

"Of course not." T'Kir protested, "They're running."

"Sir, they're proceeding at full impulse in violation of local traffic control." The Ops Officer continued, "Their warp engines are coming on line."

That clinched it for Riker. Turning to the helm, he began issuing orders, "Rhiann, set in a pursuit course. Tactical, prepare a tractor beam."

Riker sat down in the command chair and glanced up towards T'Kir, "I'll feel awfully damn silly if this is just a pair of hotrodding kids."

"They've made the jump to warp." Rhiann announced from the helm.

"Are we clear of any other traffic?" Riker quickly asked.

Rhiann double checked her sensors, "We're free and clear to navigate."

"Go to warp speed." Riker ordered, "I want them caught."

"Warp speed, aye." The Andorian helmswoman replied and shifted the ship into subspace.

The Obsidian surged forward and began to overtake the smaller craft. The mysterious scoutship responded by accelerating. Rhiann checked her sensors before reporting the velocity change.

"Sir, they're moving past warp 9."

Riker blinked but kept his composure, "Take us to maximum warp. I want to overtake them."

Rhiann pushed the surveyor to its maximum speed of warp 9.71. The scout boosted its speed yet again.

Rhiann shook her head, "They're making warp 9.75 now."

"Match speed." Riker commanded, "We may not be able to overtake them but at least we can pace them."

Rhiann hesitated but inputted the speed adjustment. The scout reacted again.

"Commander, they're making warp 9.8 and accelerating!" Rhiann excitedly reported.

Riker tapped the intercom, "Riker to Dracas."

"Dracas here."

"Can we make warp 9.8?"

Dracas humourlessly chuckled, "Commander, we can't maintain 9.75. The warp core's intermix ratio is becoming unstable. If we don't reduce speed in the next ten minutes we may have a core breach."

"Damn." Riker said calmly, "Helm, reduce speed to warp 9."

"We can't give up!" T'Kir exclaimed.

"We're not giving up." Riker assured her, "We're merely regrouping before the laws of physics make us explode."

"Bring Boromov up here." T'Kir demanded, "That worm has to know where they're headed. He supplied their guns. He had to deliver them somewhere."

"Good idea." Riker tapped the intercom, "Riker to Radil."

"Radil here."

"Chief, we have a situation. Can you bring Boromov to the bridge? We have a few questions for him."

"Be there in a few."

Riker measured T'Kir's reaction, "Good enough?"

T'Kir planted her fists on her hips, "It's a start."

Gathered in Macen's Ready Room, T'Kir and Riker confronted Boromov. Radil guarded the door. Boromov uncomfortably shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"How can I help you?" Boromov spread his hands wide.

"Where is the New Order headquartered?" Riker enquired.

"I don't know." Boromov replied.

"You're lying." T'Kir coldly proclaimed.

Boromov sagged, "They'll kill me."

"From what I understand, they're already trying to do that." Riker countered.

"Give me a padd." Boromov requested, "I'll lay out the coordinates."

T'Kir brusquely handed him a padd. Boromov searched his memory and then began inputting the data. Handing the padd back to Riker, he added an explanation.

"The beginning reference point for the coordinates is Bajor."

"Why is that?" Riker wondered.

"It's the largest nearby starport." Boromov answered.

Riker looked towards T'Kir, "This means we can still pick up the Defiant en route."

"Good." T'Kir folded her arms across her chest, "I want to have plenty of firepower when we confront these bastards."

Riker grinned, "The Defiant should give us quite the edge." He turned to Radil, "Find Mr. Boromov suitable guest quarters and assign a twenty-four hour watch to him."

Radil nodded, "You've got it." She took hold of Boromov's arm and led him out of the Ready Room.

Riker studied T'Kir for a moment, "Are you going to be all right?"

She absent-mindedly nodded, "I'll be fine."

"I need to get these coordinates to Rhiann and change course for Bajor."

"I'll be fine, Tom." T'Kir assured him, "Really."

Riker looked far from convinced but he exited the chamber without further comment.

T'Kir dropped down behind Macen's desk. She studied the various objects strewn across its surface. There were half a dozen padds containing various papers and theatre reports that Macen had queued up to read. T'Kir sighed and activated the computer terminal.

For a dozen years now, Macen had been the anchor of her life. Suddenly finding herself bereft of him made her feel as though she were adrift. It was all she could manage to rein in the emotional maelstrom she was enduring. She couldn't surrender to the chaos. The New Order would win if she folded.

Gritting her teeth, she instructed the computer to activate a subspace link with Admiral Drake's office. Moments later, Ambril Delori's face filled the screen.

"Captain?" Ambril looked confused at being hailed by Macen's computer but having T'Kir's features staring back at her.

"Captain Macen won't be joining us." T'Kir answered the unspoken question with all of the control that she could muster, "He's been captured by operatives of the New Order."

Ambril's mouth formed an "O", "I'll alert Admiral Drake."

"You do that." T'Kir said sarcastically.

The screen shifted to the official logo of the SID. Several moments passed by and then the logo was replaced by Drake's concerned visage.

"T'Kir." Drake said as a greeting, "Where is Brin?"

"Somewhere between here and a place called Chandilla." T'Kir replied.

"Is he alive?" Drake inquired, knowing Macen and T'Kir's telepathic rapport could provide better answers than any sensor readings up to this point.

"As far as I can tell." T'Kir supplied, "I still sense him but with the way El-Aurians inhabit several realities at once that could mean anything."

"We'll hope for the best." Drake wore a humourless smile, "How are you holding up?"

"Honestly?" Drake nodded and T'Kir confessed, "Barely. I feel like I'm going to fly apart by the seams any minute now."

"That's to be expected." Drake assured her, "If you don't think you can maintain, let Kort know immediately."

T'Kir sketched off a salute, "Yes, ma'am."

Drake chuckled, "You can't be that far gone. You're still a smart ass."

"It's the little things that are worth living for." T'Kir quipped.

"Keep up the good spirits." Drake urged, "That's an order. It'll get you through until you can get Brin back."

T'Kir nodded, fighting back the urge to break into tears; "You've got a deal."

"I take it the location of this Chandilla came from Boromov?" Drake asked.

T'Kir sighed, "Have I got a story for you. First, there's the Federation Council chambers..."

 

Chapter Ten

Astris squinted as the lift doors opened. They had reached the uppermost floor of the tower. The upper spire was a glass encased pavilion. The sky itself was in full glory overhead. It seemed as though you could easily touch a cloud from this vantage point.

Astris noted that Jared and Kelv were dumbstruck as well. They'd obviously never been here before as well, she noted. Kara took it in stride. The wondrous sight was apparently old hat to her.

There was a central office space located in the centre of the cathedral-like area. A high backed chair was swivelled away from the lift and faced the view beyond. Kara silently urged everyone on. Jared and Kelv recomposed themselves and pushed Astris forward. Astris ripped her arms free of her captors' grasp and glared at both of them. Kara unsuccessfully tried to suppress a smile.

Astris composed herself and walked beside Kara as she strode towards the desk. Once there, Kara adopted a submissive mien. Speaking reverently, she called out to the back of the chair.

"Proconsul Garane? The Bajoran 1st Minister is here."

The chair turned and faced the petitioners. With the light streaming in from behind the throne-like chair it was difficult to make out the features of its occupant. Adding to this optical difficulty was the fact the Proconsul also wore a hooded cloak and the hood further obscured the wearer's features. The Proconsul rose and Astris took in the sight of the robes the elusive figure wore.

They were brown and grey. They draped a well developed physique. A female physique if Astris were any judge of these things. The Proconsul had a regal bearing, standing as though she were entitled to the galaxy itself. She threw back the hood and Astris' world fell apart.

Illa Garane was a Cardassian. More than that, she was the epitome of thousands of Cardassian poems. She was the idealised Cardassian female, full of charisma and allure.

Even after more than a decade of peace with Cardassia, the sight of Bajorans serving a Cardassian filled Astris with revulsion. Garane took all of this in in an instant and graced her with a reassuring smile that radiated benevolence.

"It seems as though you've been caught up in a historical reproduction, eh Minister?"

Astris recoiled, "Are you the Prefect here?"

Garane laughed, "I'm no Cardassian overseer, Minister. This is a place built on cooperation not exploitation."

"They said the same thing about Terok Nor." Astris rebutted.

Garane smiled benevolently, "Yes, I'm sure they did. Chandilla is different. When the scouts for the High Command found this colony, they found a microcosm of Bajor itself. Those with vision saw this planet as a template for how Bajorans and Cardassians could be united in a common cause."

"And what would that cause be?" Astris enquired.

"Nothing less than perfection itself." Garane answered with a bright gleam in her eye.

Astris laughed, "You've gone from the typical Cardassian delusions of godhood to delusions of Borghood."

Garane shook her head, "Not quite. The Borg seek perfection through the synthesis of the organic and inorganic. We seek it through the perfection of the genome itself."

"You're genetically enhanced?" Astris' eyes widened.

"Engineered if you prefer." Garane bowed.

Astris turned towards Kara and saw her in an entirely different light. She stared at Kara while her widened eyes scrutinised every sculpted feature on her partner's face. Garane chuckled.

"Dear Kara was bred for her beauty and intelligence. It's little wonder that you found yourself attracted to her."

"The 1st Minister was meant to fall in love with her." Astris deduced, "Except that Gena and I became involved before I was elected Minister. How fortunate for you that I secured the top job."

Garane shrugged, "It does not matter. Kara would have dazzled whoever was elected to the post. Look at the upside. You have no reason to doubt the sincerity of her affections for you."

"I wonder." Astris mused.

Kara looked wounded and Garane shook her head, "You are troubling Kara. Are her actions and revealed identity really so reprehensible to you?"

"I can forgive a lot." Astris admitted, "Her actions will declare her true feelings."

Garane's smile turned benevolent again, "Soon, I will be explaining our motives behind your abduction. Kara will show you to your quarters and there you will get a chance to mingle with your fellow planetary leaders."

Astris started, "You've kidnapped more people?"

"Of course." Garane's smile remained fixed, "Our plans encompass the entire Federation, not just one sector."

"The Federation will never bow to your plans." Astris hotly declared.

"But perhaps they will welcome us with open arms." Garane said sagely.

That dumbfounded Astris and she lapsed into silence. Her time in Starfleet had prepared her to quietly gather information when she was uncertain. It was a practice that had served her well in Bajoran politics. She needed to study her enemy before striking.

Garane shook her head and clucked her tongue, "Really Minister, or should I call you Commander?"

"Call me what you will." Astris replied with a shrug.

"You are assessing the situation like a Starfleet officer." Garane frowned, "Step back and review the situation as the 1st Minister of Bajor. Listen to our proposals and then tell us if we were truly wrong for bringing you here."

Astris bit back her first reply. After a visible struggle she shrugged and threw her hands in the air.

"All right." she conceded, "I'll play it your way for now."

"I'm pleased that you're willing to see reason." Garane thought about it and then amended her statement, "For now at least."

Astris grinned and Garane sighed, "You are going to prove difficult, I fear." Garane turned to Kara, "Escort our guest to her accommodations. The crèche dormitories have been redesigned to accommodate offworlders."

"Prisoners, you mean." Astris piped up.

Garane's smile held a feral edge, "If you prefer."

Jared and Kelv began to move towards Astris and Garane waved them off, "Kara can perform this task alone. Our internal security network will keep track of them."

Both Kelv and Jared bristled. Kara spoke, soothing their concerns, "Sergeant, Corporal, listen to me. Garane is a friend to Bajor. The previous Proconsul was a Bajoran man named Bertran Val. This society truly is the result of Bajorans and Cardassians cooperating. Even if you cannot bring yourself to trust her, trust in me. You know our goals and aspirations coincide. Have faith in me as I have in Proconsul Garane and Bajor will embark on a path that will secure her future forever."

The two renegade Militia officers subsided and Kara escorted Astris to the lift. Garane resumed her seat and pressed a button located in a console on her desk.

Smiling, she spoke, "This is Proconsul Garane. Please have two guides sent to my office. I have two gentlemen in need of quarters, clothes, a meal, and a tour of our fair capital."

"Yes, Proconsul." a male voice responded, "Two volunteers are now on their way up."

"Excellent." Garane replied happily and disconnected the circuit. Clapping her hands together, she addressed the two discomfited Bajorans, "In a moment two volunteers selected to show you the graces of our capital city will be here. Anything you want is yours."

"Anything?" Jared asked sceptically.

"Anything." Garane assured them, "You are heroes to the New Order and we wish to show our appreciation."

The lift doors opened and two statuesque Bajoran women exited. The Militia Constables were still wary but the sight of two beautiful women beckoning for them to follow calmed their anxiety somewhat. With a final exhortation from Garane, the pair exchanged shrugs and glances and dutifully followed their guides into the lift. After the doors slid shut, Garane let loose of a mirthless chuckle.

"Males." she scoffed, "Travel the galaxy across and they're still universally driven around by their mishveks."

Amused by her own observation, Garane returned to her meditations. Astris had been even frailer than expected. She was considered exceptional by the Bajorans yet she had been so...plain. If what Garane suspected were true then the genetically un-enhanced desperately needed the guidance and strength of will that Chandilla could provide to the Alpha quadrant.

The weakness of the rest of the quadrant had first been explored by Chandillan scouts a beginning two decades ago. At that time, Chandilla's geneticists were employing genetically tailored cloning techniques to augment the eugenics program and the foetal manipulations to DNA being performed. Getting in contact with the surgical underground, the Chandillans offered to surgically resequence a foetus' DNA in exchange for a sample of the altered DNA. The usual middlemen handled the transactions and garnered the profits.

The Chandillan engineers gathered the sampled DNA and forced grew clones. These subjects became breeding stock for the eugenics programs. The original Bajoran and Cardassian population became littered with humans, Andorians, Bolians, Vulcans, dozens of other races and even a few Klingon DNA samples. The Chandillan society was rife with commingled racial and ethnic lines. Racial prejudices were unknown to the Chandillans. The founders of the genetics program had seen to that.

The various planetary leaders were being brought to Chandilla to directly appeal to their sensibilities. Their voices would be irreplaceable in fostering an amicable acceptance of the Chandillan proposals. The Federation Council would likely prove difficult and that is why their fail safe option had been put in place. Garane truly hoped she wouldn't be forced to "chastise" the Council.

Garane had just received word that the Federation, Terran, Lunar and Martian Presidents had been successfully taken by the beta team assigned to the abduction at Camp Ares on Mars. Admiral Edward Noyce's security measures had been damned effective. The first Chandillan squad and Starfleet Security agents had been captured. The Chandillans had committed suicide en masse rather than be interrogated. This had been accomplished through the use of an implant located at the base of the skull.

Starfleet had expected a single wave of kidnappings. In actuality, there had been two. The second was put into effect after Security moles had assumed the protective details of the secondary targets. Noyce had prevented the first attempt on the collected Presidents by cooperating with Admirals Alynna Nechayev and Amanda Drake of Starfleet Intelligence and mixing SI Operations personnel in with the primary protective detail. Fortunately, there had been two units committed to such an important target.

Starfleet Intelligence had been far too quick to determine that there were moles within Starfleet. They had also been too perceptive regarding Pytor Boromov. Boromov had eluded capture but the apparent leader of the Operations squad dispatched to retrieve him had been captured. Garane looked forward to his interrogation. She needed to know how many of the New Order's plans had been compromised. The Order's mental probes would rip the truth from the Intelligence Officer even if he resisted

Wearing a grim, satisfied smile, Garane leaned back in her chair and stared out at the magnificent view stretched out before her.

Kara led Astris through a large room filled with tables and chairs. Large viewers were mounted in the walls and a replimat was located in one wall. The opposite wall was composed entirely of transparent aluminium, floor to ceiling. Astris stopped to take it all in.

"So this is a ‘crèche'?" Astris wondered.

"It is part of it." Kara answered, "There are several crèches, each to a floor of the tower. This is the instruction room. It also served as the cafeteria."

"People honestly sent their children here?" Astris asked.

"Beru," Kara said tenderly, "for decades children were born and raised in this tower. There are no such things as ‘parents' on Chandilla. There are only instructors and minders."

"You've never known a parent?" Astris asked in shock, "You were raised in this tower?"

Kara shook her head, "By the time I was born, crèches had been built all across this world. I was raised in one several hundred kilometres away."

"That's..." Astris struggled for words, "inhuman!"

"All those times you talked to me about Treliop II with its wide open fields and your parents at your side, I recollected a tower like this. Smaller, of course, but with the same basic design." Kara explained.

"How can you build a society like this?" Astris demanded.

"When a crèche resident reaches adolescences, they are assigned to a mentor. That mentor guides them into being the component of society that they will become." Kara struggled to make the system understood, "The children inherit the roles vacated by their elders."

"What about education?" Astris enquired, "How do you all become super geniuses?"

"We leave the crèche with the equivalent of several advanced degrees." Kara dutifully explained.

"If you're all so advanced, who does the menial work?" Astris' fists were firmly planted on her hips.

"Clones do most of the mundane labour." Kara said, "They also provide breeding stock."

"And you consider that ethical?" Astris folded her arms across her chest and wore an indignant expression.

"It's worked for nearly sixty years." Kara shrugged.

Astris sadly shook her head, "I really don't know you at all, do I?"

Kara was stricken, "You know the real me, Beru. The rest is all superficial."

"Clones are people!" Astris insisted, "As the Legal Minister of Bajor, you've fought for this principle. Now you're betraying a core value that made you what you are...were."

Astris' amendment caused visible pain to flash across Kara's features. Breathing heavily, she asked, "How can you say that?"

"I can say that because the Kara Gena I fell in love with understood that equal rights were for all sentients not just those it was convenient to give protection under the law to." Astris explained in a harsh tone.

Kara staggered back into a wall and fought to control her emotions. Astris' face softened and she reached out for Kara. As she took hold of her partner's arm, another Chandillan strode into the room. He was half Bajoran and half Cardassian.

"Step away from her." He sternly ordered, "Don't you think you've caused enough damage for now?"

Astris was annoyed, "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm Jern Gelt." the Chandillan huffed, "And you must be the august Astris Beru."

"So is that a Cardassian name or a Bajoran one?" Astris bemusedly asked.

"It's both." Gelt revealed, "But my given name is Jern."

"And you're interrupting our conversation because...?"

"I do so because I care about Kara." Gelt fumed, "We were crèche mates together. She's special and she must be protected from an inferior's influence."

"She didn't find me so ‘inferior' when she shared my bed." Astris threw the dart seeing if it would strike Gelt's heart. It did.

Infuriated, Gelt pointed at a nearby doorway, "Down the hall with you! You can choose whichever room you like."

Astris shrugged. Brushing her lips across Kara's, she whispered, "I'll see you later." Having done so, she sauntered down the corridor and turned at the first door she came to. She pressed the call button next to the door and it slid open. She cast her gaze down the hallway and saw a bristling Gelt staring at her. She blew him a kiss and stepped into her new "quarters".

Gelt watched her door for several minutes and then turned to Kara, "Are you all right?"

Kara numbly nodded, "I'll be fine."

Gelt's concerned continued unabated, "Are you certain? I could...persuade her not to upset you."

Kara's eyes focused and she slapped Gelt across the face, "You touch her and you'll answer to me."

Gelt ruefully rubbed his cheek, "I only meant...she's only an inferior for Prophets' sake!"

"Astris Beru is a remarkable woman in all senses of the word." Kara growled, "I've failed her not the reverse."

"What would the Proconsul say if she heard such sentiments?" Gelt agonised.

"I'm not sure I give a damn." Kara pushed herself away from the wall she'd been using for support. Gelt's proximity blocked her, "Please move Jern. I have other duties to perform."

"Just don't forget where your loyalties lie." Gelt warned.

Kara responded with a wan smile and a hollow laugh, "How can I? I've destroyed everything else that mattered to me."

Gelt worried as Kara left. Despite her inability to reciprocate Gelt's physical desires, she'd always had a certain affection for him. It had been Kara that noted his affinity for working with children. That notation had earned him a place amongst the orderlies that watched out over the crèches. He'd risen through the ranks to earn a place minding the expected offworlders.

More than a place, Gelt thought proudly, I'm in charge of their care.

Astris Beru worried Gelt. Her ability to cloud Kara's thoughts and cause her to doubt the glory of the cause could well prove to be the Bajoran's undoing. Gelt drew himself up. No one would hurt Kara while he had something to say about it. A cruel smile crept across his face as he planned his next "intervention".

 

Chapter Eleven

Macen sat behind the forcefield cutting his cell off from the rest of the laughably referred to "brig". The single celled space was just large enough to accommodate a desk and a chair. The desk had a viewscreen mounted atop it and his bored looking jailor was engaged in some type of game. Macen had already surveyed the cell, much to his captor's amusement, looking for any exploitable weakness.

Macen's jaw throbbed. It had been broken and dislocated by the blow that had rendered him unconscious. The hypo applied to him had merely kept him under longer than the assault would have. A medic had reset and regenerated his jawbone. That eased the pain but it still hurt and there was no sign of an analgesic coming his way.

Sitting on the bunk located in his cell, Macen tried to engage his jailor in conversation, "Hello there. Can you tell me how long I'll be detained here?"

The guard looked up from her screen, gave him a sullen stare and returned her line of sight to her game. Macen's eyebrows rose. Pursing his lips, he began planning his next verbal assault.

"Y'know, when they were engineering your particular genetic stew, they could have spared a moment to blend in some courtesy."

The guard rose so fast her chair was toppled over. The door leading to the miniscule brig slid open and a Cardassian woman strode in. No, Macen corrected himself, a half Bajoran, half Cardassian woman just strode in here. Quite an attractive woman if Macen were any judge of these sorts of things. The last mix of these cultures that Macen had encountered had been Captain Ilisa Kendil. The pirate had aided the SID team capture a smuggling ring.

Kendil had been a blonde but this newcomer had black hair with red highlights. Macen rose as she studied him. She looked over at her fuming subordinate, Macen knew she was a subordinate because of her emotional reaction to the taller woman's presence, and chuckled.

"At ease, Jari." the older woman said, "Take a break. I can watch over our guest for a time."

The Bajoran left with a final dark glare at Macen and the mysterious woman laughed, "I do believe you've managed to upset poor Jari."

Macen returned the woman's scrutiny, "I should warn you, her full name is Nelos Jari. I would recommend you use her family name since she is quite possessive of her given name."

"And you are?" Macen warily asked.

The woman smiled, "I am Makra Nura. Captain Makra Neryn."

"I'm assuming that's a Bajoran name as well given your..." Macen fiddled with his right ear.

Makra's hand went up and she gently fingered her traditional earring, "Yes. I'm a child of the Prophets."

Macen canted his head to one side, "Isn't that unusual for someone like you?"

Makra laughed, "You mean for a half-breed?"

"I guess so." Macen was embarrassed.

"Don't feel badly." Makra consoled him, "It's a common misperception."

Macen frowned, "I've dealt with someone with a similar racial background. Her experiences and attitude obviously differed from yours."

Makra saddened, "Unfortunately, not everyone comes from as benevolent a place as where we are headed."

"And where would that be?" Macen curiously enquired.

Makra wore a coy smile, "There is no harm in telling you. No one in your Federation has heard of our world."

"In that case, what is the name of your world?" Macen prompted her.

"Chandilla." Makra smiled upon seeing Macen's blank expression, "As I predicted, you have never heard of it."

Macen rubbed the back of his head. He broke into a rueful grin. Wincing, he rubbed his jaw. Makra grew concerned.

"Do you require medical attention?"

Macen shook his head, "I've been treated. A painkiller would be nice though."

Makra nodded, "I'll send our medic in."

"I'd be grateful." Macen admitted, "I have to tell you, you're not what I expected from a captor."

"Because I'm a half breed?" Makra grinned mischievously.

Macen started to grin again but the pain in his jaw stopped him and he decided to merely persevere in speaking, "No. You were there to kill Boromov. I'd expect you to be far more cross with someone who prevented you from accomplishing that goal."

Makra was aghast, "Who told you we were there to kill Boromov?"

"He did." Macen asserted.

"We were there to find Boromov, ascertain his status and prevent his capture by Starfleet." Makra explained.

Macen could sense the veracity of her emotions, "I believe you but Boromov claimed you would kill him to keep him silent."

"We have no desire to inflict harm." Makra insisted, "We are trying to help your Federation."

"By detonating a biogenic device in the Council chambers?" Macen rebutted her statement.

Makra scolded him with a glance, "That device contains a strain of the Cardassian whillix virus. It is completely harmless despite it being very annoying for three days."

"Then what's its purpose?" Macen was intrigued. So far, Makra was telling the truth.

"The bomb is meant to demonstrate how thoroughly we've penetrated Federation security." Makra explained, "It is little more than a lark."

"Or a reprimand." Macen quoted remembering Kara's statement.

Makra brightened, "Exactly!"

"Thank you." Macen said, "That clarifies things."

"Talking seems to aggravate your wounds." Makra frowned, "Would you like our medic to come before answering a few routine questions?"

"Captured a lot of prisoners have you?" Macen attempted to joke. Seeing that his woeful attempt at humour had failed, Macen waved the thought away, "Never mind. I'll gratefully see the medic now."

Makra nodded and stepped over to the security desk. While she summoned the medic, Macen sat on the bunk and tried to telepathically contact T'Kir. He was having difficulty reaching her and that worried him.

The door to Macen and T'Kir's quarters slid shut and Kort found Riker waiting for him.

"How is she?" Riker enquired.

"Sleeping." Kort answered, "I had to administer twice the normal dosage to put her under. I don't think she should greet the morning alone."

"Hannah's going to stay with her and Lees is a comm call away." Riker assured him.

Kort grunted, "That should do. She'll probably sleep for six or seven hours but there will be hell to pay when she wakes up."

Riker wore a rueful grin, "Being knocked out by the CMO while trying to seize control of the ship is bound to ruin anybody's day."

"She tried to commit mutiny." Kort frowned, "Doesn't that bother you?"

Riker shook his head, "No. What we had was a conflict of authority. Technically, T'Kir is my employer and can fire me at will. She's also an officer of this ship and therefore under my command. She tried to assert the employer card and I relied upon the chain of command. Fortunately, no one backed T'Kir's position."

Riker offered a weak smile, "Of course, I'd feel a whole lot worse about the situation if the crew had backed her instead of me."

Kort bristled, "They would have to pay for their dishonour."

Riker smiled, "I'm glad they didn't have to. The crew recognised T'Kir's instability and chose rationality. Let's leave it at that."

‘Yes." Kort sombrely nodded, "But Dracas and I would have dealt with them."

Riker grimaced, "As much as I appreciate the support, don't you think beheading half the crew would go against your duties as a physician?"

Kort straightened his back and came to attention, "Not in a matter of honour."

Riker shook his head and wore a wry grin, "And just who would you have heal all those wounds you'd inflicted?"

"Tessa could do it." Kort insisted.

Riker was nonplussed for a moment and then he recalled that the EMH had selected the name for herself with the aid of Parva. Tessa's program was virtually left on 24 hours a day now. Like the crew of the Voyager, the Obsidian's complement was discovering the foibles of leaving an EMH program to its own devices. The results bode ill for the future of holoprogramming.

If holograms were to achieve protected status as sentients then every holoprogram written would have to be left running for eternity. Characters would not be allowed to be killed or subjected in any way. The current fantasy world of the holodeck would give way to an idealised vision of the present. Millions of holograms would have to be reprogrammed with the capacity to accept their responsibilities as Federation citizens. It would be a logistical nightmare.

Riker put a hand to Kort's shoulder, "You're a faithful comrade, Kort. I just prefer being happy that your latent homicidal tendencies weren't called upon today."

Kort's chest heaved and he sighed, "But it would have been glorious."

"Tomorrow will be as well." Riker assured him.

Kort shrugged, "As you say."

Riker put his arm around Kort's shoulders, "Let me buy you a raktajino."

"No one buys anything aboard ship." Kort grumbled.

"Then it will be my first command as acting captain."

Kort brightened, "That is an honour."

Riker chuckled, "Exactly."

Grace came scurrying down the corridor. She was dressed in sweat shorts and a tank top. She had a duffle slung over her shoulder and she carried a tray filled with food.

"You're certainly geared up." Riker mused.

"Since I'll probably be here for a few days, I thought I'd get prepared." Grace replied.

"You have an emergency medical pass into the room." Kort revealed, "It is attached to your authorisation code."

"Let's see," Grace faced the door, "Computer, emergency medical override authorisation Grace Gamma S31 Kelva."

The door slid open and Grace looked over her shoulder with a sheepish grin, "They say to use code words you'll remember."

Riker pushed her lower back into T'Kir's quarters, "Just go!"

Grace laughed as the door slid shut. Riker was still smiling when he turned to Kort, "Shall we get that drink now?"

"Lead on, Commander."

Dracas leaned up against the railing surrounding the warp core and yawned. He was immediately ashamed of this display of weakness before his subordinates. A chuckling Gilan did little to relieve his shame. Gilan sensed his discomfort and tampered his amusement.

"Everyone gets tired, Chief." Gilan handed him a cup of coffee, "The former Chief Dracas and Parva each worked themselves to exhaustion down here. I was hoping you'd avoid their fate."

Gilan noted Dracas' intense scrutiny and broke into a wan smile, "Not trying to be a critic but I have this watch. You should get some sleep and get ready for tomorrow. We'll be back in the Bajoran system tomorrow and then we and the Defiant will track down Captain Macen's abductors and..."

"Strip the flesh from their bones." Dracas supplied and took a sip of his coffee.

"I was going to say, ‘apprehend the kidnappers', but we can try it your way." Gilan remarked with a grin.

Dracas sniffed his cup of coffee and then looked upon at Gilan with inquisitive eyes, "This is excellent. What is it?"

"Turkish coffee." Gilan grinned, "Or Byzantine as it would be called on Magna Roma."

"It is excellent." Dracas took another swallow and grinned, "I'll have to bring this home."

"I'll have to set up an import/export company when you do." Gilan joked.

Dracas took another drink and then stared at Gilan, "You have extended me every courtesy since I arrived. You forfeited this position in favour of me and you continue to bestow kindnesses upon me. You have gone far beyond what is expected of a subordinate. Why is this?"

Gilan blushed. He rubbed the back of his neck and sought the words, "How do I tell you that I think you're cute? Your sense of wonder and eagerness to greet every day make you adorable. I know nothing will ever become of ‘us'. Except for when you hang around past the end of your shift, I never see you. However, I can at least look out for you while you're taking care of the rest of us."

Dracas blinked in stunned silence. He'd never imagined that Gilan had feelings for him. That was absolutely forbidden in a chain of command...or was it? His chain of command had changed and so had all the rules.

"I'm flattered." Dracas confessed.

Gilan looked uncomfortable, "Please don't take this as a come on. I've just started seeing Richards from Security and I don't want him to get jealous over something as harmless as this."

Dracas bowed his head, "Of course."

"Whew." Gilan breathed, "I knew I could count on you, Chief."

"You'd better check on the magnetic seals around the antideuterium tanks. Commanders Riker and Forger are going to maintain the highest speeds we can sustain for the foreseeable future. I'd hate to die because someone forgot to reinforce a seal."

Gilan grinned, "On it!"

As Gilan bounded away, Dracas felt his spirits sink. He had to get out of Engineering before despair settled on him. Gilan's revelation was both reassuring and devastating at the same time. It served to remind Dracas of just how alone he was. Macen had once counselled Dracas that it was a rather large galaxy. Dracas felt surrounded by the void that encompassed stars and planets right now.

Radil and Collins shared a table in the Team Room. Their conversation, like so many others, revolved around T'Kir's abortive attempt to commandeer the vessel.

"Girl's got mishveks, I'll give her that." Collins said with a grin.

Radil shook her head, "No, she's insane. Certifiable."

"Aww," Collins protested, "she's not that bad."

"Trust me, Abby." Radil countered, "You don't know her like I do. They had her in an asylum for a reason."

"I heard that rumour." Collins rested her cheek on her fist.

"It's no damn rumour." Radil bristled, "It's the frinxing truth."

"You're cute when you're agitated." Collins grinned.

"So nice of you to notice." Radil flashed her a wicked grin, "No one else around here does."

"I aim to please." Collins' smile widened, "Literally."

"So I've gathered." Radil chuckled.

"All joking aside," Collins maintained her pose, "what about Kort? You two were going hot and heavy for a couple of years."

"We were good for a time and then we weren't." Radil shrugged, "It was time to move on."

Collins lifted her glass, "To greener fields."

Radil clinked Collins' glass with her own, "May they prove fertile."

"Have you ever thought about having children?" Collins asked as Radil downed a slug of her drink.

The beverage came spewing out of Radil's mouth. She wiped her mouth and stared at Collins with a wide eyed gaze, "Prophets! Where did that come from?"

Collins shrugged, "I dunno. I've thought about it. I've always assumed I'd have to give up my career in order to have kids. I just wondered what you thought about it."

Radil still looked stunned. She squirmed in her seat and tried to gather her thoughts, "I suppose you'd have to give up this madcap life. It isn't exactly safe is it? Even Macen's life isn't as charmed as we thought it was."

"I hope we can rescue the Captain." Collins sighed, "It wouldn't be the same without him. I don't think I could stay aboard."

"I know I couldn't." Radil admitted, "I originally signed on for the money and to get away from the Orion Syndicate but I've stayed because of Macen."

"Did you ever find him attractive?" Collins wondered.

"Macen?" Radil reflected fro a moment, "No. Besides the fact that he's not my type, he had T'Kir at his side practically from the moment I met him. Even before they were an official couple they were always together."

"There had to be someone." Collins prodded.

Radil sighed, "I did have an infatuation with Rab Daggit."

"Daggit?" Collins straightened up, "What happened?"

"Fate." Radil said in resignation, "Although we each pined away for the other at different times we never got together. When I finally reciprocated his feelings, he'd found Parva and that was, as they say, that."

"I know the feeling." Collins said dryly.

Radil wore a wry expression, "I did say we'd revisit the topic."

"Which is a soft soaped ‘no'." Collins grumbled.

"No," Radil corrected her, "That's a definite ‘maybe' while I sort out my feelings on the matter."

"Just don't take too long." Collins warned, "I'm still young and fun. I'll be swept off my feet any day now."

Radil laughed, "I've been duly notified."

"Good." Collins bobbed her head decisively, "Now, do you want to catch a movie at my ‘place'?"

"Sounds good." Radil agreed.

Danan watched as Radil and Collins departed. She was glad that the reclusive Radil was reaching out and forging a new friendship. There was something behind Collins' wistful looks though and if eight lifetimes of experience had anything to say about it then Radil was in for some interesting times ahead. Danan smiled and took another look at the chrono on the wall.

Tom's late, she mentally grumped and then blinked, My, aren't we getting possessive?

Danan had to ruefully admit that her feelings towards Tom Riker were deepening. She still wouldn't label what she felt as love but it was definitely a fond affection. Her lifetimes of experience allowed her to remain a little more objective when it came to these things. Despite her experience, her objectivity had largely failed her when it came to Macen. Fortunately it had come back into play at the end of the relationship.

Riker entered the room with Kort on his heels and Danan's heart skipped a beat. Down girl. Danan scolded herself, He's just a man. Danan waved at Riker then shook her head as he turned away. I've got to be careful. she cautioned herself, I don't want to retread paths already taken. As Riker and Kort gathered up their meals Danan recomposed herself and was the essence of charm and grace as they joined her.

Grace was stretched out across the couch in T'Kir's quarters. She'd already recorded a letter for Delaney and transmitted it. Now she was engrossing herself in the novel she'd brought. She was reading an actual hardbound edition of the book. Lt. Commander Elizabeth Cogley, JAG Corps, had introduced her to books and she'd become a fan. Cogley had said that books, like the law, ran in her family.

Grace had never understood that quote until she's noted the bookshelf in Macen and T'Kir's quarters. Macen had explained that shortly after arriving in the Alpha Quadrant he'd been legally counselled by a Samuel T. Cogley, Attorney at Law. Cogley had introduced Macen to the bound page and he'd loved it. He now haunted antique stores searching for novels and historical texts to add to his collection. T'Kir had attested to this in the longsuffering manner that only a loved one could project.

As time passed, Grace marked her place and laid her book down. She stretched out across the sofa and nestled herself into the sofa. She had a blanket at the ready but doubted that she'd use it. What T'Kir found to be cool was pleasantly warm to humans.

Grace almost laughed at that observation. Although born in a human body with physical and emotional sensations, she'd never considered herself remotely human until recently. Her decision to immerse herself in a self imposed exile had thrust her humanity to the forefront of her consideration. Her burgeoning relationship with Ian Delaney only reflected these changes within her.

Rojan, Kalinda, Drea and the other original Kelvan scouts had had over a century to adjust to their new bodies and all the baggage they entailed. Their children and grandchildren had been born with all of these "limitations". The obstacles facing them had been daunting. With no experience to guide them, they crafted a new society.

Parvac and his followers represented a new crop of refugees. They too had to adjust themselves to their newfound reality. Grace could only hope that they would do so without reverting to the warlike ways that had driven them from the Andromeda Galaxy. That path would lead to the eventual annihilation of her race as the denizens of the Alpha Quadrant gathered together to stand against her people's plans for conquest.

Grace had just started to drift off when she heard a whimpering sound coming from the bedroom. She rose and cautiously approached the doorway lading to the bedroom. T'Kir writhed on the bed and called out Macen's name. Grace bit her lower lip and proceeded to the side of the bed.

Gently lowering herself, she lay on the bed and took hold of T'Kir. Wrapping her arms around her friend she gently began speaking to T'Kir in gentle tones, "Shh. Hush now, sweetie. Brin's not here. We're going to find him though and then you two will be together again."

"Brin?" T'Kir asked from her slumber, "I can hear you but I can't respond."

Grace stroked T'Kir's head, "It'll be okay. I promise."

This continued over the course of the next thirty minutes but it eased after that. T'Kir still suffered a fitful sleep and Grace found herself awake more often than not but they made it through the night. In the morning T'Kir was surprised to find Grace sharing the bed with her. Grace explained the situation and T'Kir broke down and finally shed the tears she'd been holding back.

Afterwards, T'Kir was the model of self control and strength. Grace was amazed at the change.

"Wow." Grace blurted, "I'd never have thought you were the same woman who was sobbing in my arms this morning."

"Times change." T'Kir said as she rammed her phaser pistol into its holster, "Now I'm gonna find the people responsible for taking my husband and I'm gonna make them pay."

"You're sure revenge is the best way to go on this?" Grace wondered.

"Works for me." T'Kir retorted and strode out of her quarters.

Grace stood back and watched as T'Kir left. She felt lousy for doing what she was about to do but she tapped her comm badge anyway.

"Grace to Riker." Grace said as calmly as she could, "We have a situation."

 

Chapter Twelve

Macen awoke with a start. Looking around at his surroundings, he realised where he was...and who was missing. As he thought about T'Kir he remembered his inability to contact her earlier and he immediately grew concerned. He stretched out with his extrasensory abilities and tried once again to reach her.

"What d'you want?" T'Kir growled as she stared at her breakfast.

"I need to know what your plans are." Riker said from across the table.

"I'm not gonna try and take over the ship if that's what you mean." T'Kir testily replied.

"That's a start." Riker conceded, "What about your intentions towards Brin's kidnappers?"

T'Kir's eyes blazed and she wore a feral smile, "You don't wanna know."

"That's what I was afraid of." Riker grumped, "Look, there won't be any vigilantism while I'm in command."

"So step down." T'Kir retorted.

Riker frowned and he hotly replied, "We've had this discussion. You lost."

T'Kir?

T'Kir was shocked, "Brin?"

Riker looked over his shoulders. Gazing at T'Kir with his hand hovering over his comm badge, he asked, "T'Kir? Are you all right? I can call..."

"Shh!" T'Kir cut him off, "I'm getting a telepathic message from Brin."

Exhaling in relief, Riker's hand dropped to the table. T'Kir refocused.

Brin? Are you all right?

For now. Macen informed her, I think we have these people all wrong.

How so? T'Kir frowned.

They weren't trying to kill Boromov, Macen revealed, and the biogenic weapon is filled with a harmless flu virus not a toxin.

I suppose they told you this. T'Kir said sceptically.

Matter of fact, they did. It's hard to fool my empathic sense.

T'Kir had to grudgingly concede that point, So why the terror tactics?

They have something to say and for some reason felt they had to resort to extreme measures to be heard. Macen hypothesised, It probably has to do with the fact that this is a bioengineered society.

"You're sure?

Yup. Macen affirmed, All of these people are superior examples of their respective species. It's like being surrounded by a multiracial band of Kelvans.

Oh joy. T'Kir grumped, Just what the galaxy needs.

They seem harmless enough though. Macen commented.

Brin, T'Kir grew exasperated, they kidnapped you!

Macen mentally shrugged, A trifle.

Pretty big damned trifle if you ask me!

So how are you holding up? T'Kir could feel his concern.

I tried to commandeer the ship so I could change course and come after you.

Macen laughed, You're sweet.

It isn't funny, buster. T'Kir irritably thought.

Look, I'm fine, at least for now. Macen reassured her, The captain of the ship wants me delivered unharmed and intact.

What about after you reach Chandilla?

So Boromov knew about Chandilla? Macen thought wryly, Saves me from trying to guess where I'm headed.

How can you be so calm? T'Kir wanted to scream.

Because it's your turn to rescue me and I know you won't let me down. Macen confidently replied.

So you say. T'Kir smartly remarked, Personally, I'm not so sure.

You will. Macen assured her, Trust me.

I do.

Then I'll see you soon. Macen replied, I'll keep in touch. It may be a while though. This is really draining me and the ship's captain has just arrived. Looks like she wants to talk to me. See ya.

I love you! T'Kir thoughtcast.

I love you too. Bye.

T'Kir could sense the mounting strain on Macen's mind. He wasn't a natural telepath so he had to put in extra effort to open a mental dialogue with her. Distance added to the strain. She was relieved to have heard from him...and saddened all the same.

"He's gone." She whispered.

"Is he all right?" Riker looked poised to come over the table.

"He's fine." T'Kir took a deep breathe and relaxed, "He's fine for now. He doesn't know what they have in store for him but they want to deliver him to Chandilla in one piece."

"Did he say anything about their overall plans?" Riker wondered.

"I need to talk to Amanda." T'Kir's eyes sharpened and she rose from the table.

"I'll come along." Riker rose as well, "I need to hear what Brin told you."

"Fine." T'Kir relented without a struggle, "Tag along."

"It's a little late for that news." Drake fumed, "Our teams found the bloody bomb this morning and it bloody well detonated while they were trying to defuse it. Now half my SID teams and the SCE's demolitions squad are down with the flu."

"Sorry." T'Kir remarked, "I was knocked out so I couldn't get the message until a few minutes ago."

"Brin really feels these people are essentially peaceful?" Drake asked in disbelief.

"That's the gist of it." T'Kir confirmed.

"Tell that to the kidnapping victims or their families." Drake snapped, "The Federation President is their hostage for God's sake."

"I don't know what t'tell ya, Amanda." T'Kir retorted, "I'm going to take him at his word."

Drake pondered the situation for a moment and then sighed, "His information is only as good as his captor's. What they don't know they can't tell."

"Safe bet." T'Kir wondered where Drake was going with this.

"If only we'd taken prisoners in the Presidential raid." Drake grew agitated again, "Then we could find out what was going on."

"They'd only tell you what they'd been told to tell you." T'Kir primly pointed out.

Drake hung her head, "You can be irritating. Do you know that?"

T'Kir's smile blossomed, "It's a gift."

"All right." Drake leaned back in her chair, "Here are your orders: rendezvous with the Defiant and proceed to this Chandilla at best possible speed. Extract the prisoners as best you can by any means necessary and return to Federation space. Will you tell Riker that?"

"No need." T'Kir beamed, "He's here with me."

"Good." Drake firmly said, "Best news I've heard today. I'd hate to think you were showboating this little endeavour all by yourself."

T'Kir's cheeks coloured emerald but she remained silent. Drake filled in the silence.

"I have to inform Admiral Nechayev of Brin's ‘report'. She and Noyce are spearheading the investigation into the kidnappings."

"Tell 'em ‘good luck' for me." T'Kir said dryly.

Drake sighed, "Clear this channel, T'Kir. I have work to do."

T'Kir saluted, "Aye, aye."

The viewer winked out and T'Kir looked at a rather bemused Riker, "That's how you talk to admirals!"

Riker held up his hands in surrender, "I never said a word."

"It's what you were thinking that aggravates me." T'Kir warned.

"Natch." Riker grinned and rose, "I think I'm going to give the watch over to Hannah for a while. Want to finish breakfast?"

"Of course!" T'Kir bounced up.

"Let's go then." Riker ushered her on.

Makra stood before Macen's cell and smiled, "Good news! The Proconsul of Chandilla wants to personally meet you when we arrive."

Macen frowned at Makra's enthusiasm and his lips twisted into a wry smile, "I suppose this is considered an honour."

"Of course!" Makra eagerly confirmed, "The Proconsul is both the Chief of State and the Head of the Genetics Council. Her every decision affects us all."

"I'm touched." Macen remarked dryly, "Truly."

"You will change your mind." Makra assured him, "As a token of her goodwill the Proconsul has ordered you released from this cell. You have been assigned quarters. Nelos will escort you to them."

"What about my utility belt?" Macen enquired.

A sly smile spread across Makra's face, "And your phaser along with it? The Proconsul is releasing you not rearming you."

"What about access to the ship?" Macen asked.

"Nelos will be your escort." Makra explained, "She will take you to the areas you have been cleared to go to."

"So I'm under house arrest." Macen commented.

"Essentially true." Makra conceded, "You will find your quarters, though rugged, far more comfortable than this cell."

"That wouldn't take much." Macen admitted.

"As long as you realise that this is a conditional release then you'll be fine." Makra stressed, "If you threaten my crew or our mission again, you'll spend the rest of the trip in here."

"Understood." Macen nodded and then asked, "How long is the rest of our trip?"

"We should be arriving in another day and half." Makra reported, "And take heed, the Chandillan day is twenty-eight hours long."

Macen remained impassive, "So noted."

Makra turned to Nelos, "Drop the forcefield, Jari."

Nelos struggled with the order and then finally relented. The electrostatic barrier isolating Macen from the rest of the chamber flickered out of existence. Macen grinned.

"Where can I shower, clean my teeth, and have a change of clothes?"

Makra chuckled, "Jari will show you around. Good day."

Makra spun on her heel and left. Macen was left gazing at a frowning Nelos.

"I suppose you don't approve?" Macen queried Nelos.

"You're the enemy." Nelos was fairly nonchalant, "You gunned down my comrades. I won't forget that."

"They happened to be attacking me and my wife at the time." Macen replied, "Or does that even factor into your mental equation?"

"No, it doesn't." Nelos coldly admitted, "You shouldn't have resisted. We were there to protect Boromov. You interfered. Now you're paying the price."

"That particular price seems open to discussion though." Macen observed.

Nelos snorted, "Just be grateful they haven't asked for my opinion."

"I am." Macen confided, "Trust me on that."

"I trust you as far as I can throw you." Nelos said mockingly, "I'm going to watch you every second."

"Prepare to be bored." Macen warned.

"We'll see." came Nelos' sardonic reply.

Astris stood, leaned up against the wall of the common area, and watched the other "guests" being brought to the dormitory. The majority of those taken were predominantly human. With greater rights and full membership into the Federation recently granted to self sufficient colonies, humanity had gained an even larger foothold in Federation politics. The change had prompted several worlds to encourage aggressive colonisation.

Among those to arrive were Vladimir Kirov, the Premier of Bolshevik, and Arlos Gannet, the President of Alpha Centauri. Hirjin Jant, the Governor of Risa, was also present. Whispered conferences between the gathering delegates brought word of a rumour that Gant Delane, Amelia Wynter, Drake Parsons, and Korista Schrieber, the Presidents of the Federation, Earth, Luna, and Mars respectively, had been captured and were in transit as well.

Astris seriously pondered the rumours. Delane was an Edosian. Even if the Chandillans had managed to circumvent Starfleet Security, the President still possessed three arms and legs as well as a native love of grappling sports. She found it hard to believe that he would be easily taken.

Astris took the opportunity of reflection to berate herself once more. She had been armed and ready to resist until she'd been gulled by the sight of Kara. With her present, Astris had been taken in hand like a lovesick schoolgirl. Astris vowed, for the uncountable time, that she would not be so easily manipulated again.

Kirov was pacing and finally came to rest beside Astris. Giving her a sidelong glance, he spoke, "I understand you were the first to arrive."

"Yes." Astris confirmed.

"Did the tsarina reveal anything to you or are were you left in mystery like the rest of us?" Kirov enquired.

"All I know is that we're gathered together for some presentation or another." Astris honestly replied.

"I saw your Legal Minister with this Proconsul Garane." Kirov spat, "I understand that you and she used to be quite intimate."

Astris turned to face Kirov, eyebrow arched, "Is that a problem?"

"Not at all." Kirov chuckled, "I was betrayed by my mistress as well. I was merely wondering if we could use your affiliation towards our benefit."

Astris thought back to yesterday evening when Jern Gelt had taken upon himself to "chastise" her over her "hostile" attitude towards Kara during their meal together. Gelt's backhand had nearly torn Astris' head off. In turn, Kara nearly broke the man in half. Astris had taken a small amount of comfort in the fact that Kara still cared.

"I'm not certain." Astris haltingly said, "Kara has expressed a profound...interest in my well being. That might be used."

"It's a thought." Kirov agreed, "Now if we only had a better inkling how to exploit your dear Kara's affections."

"I may have an idea..." Astris began and froze in mid-sentence as Gelt strolled into the room to join his fellow orderlies.

He graced her with a venomous look and then conferred with the deputy that had led in his place while he was the infirmary. Kirov noted the exchange and leaned in close to Astris.

"Problems?"

"He only wants to kill me." Astris whispered back.

"At last." Kirov whispered back, "A truly honest individual. This may work to our favour."

"Besides seeing me dead, I don't see how." Astris dryly retorted.

"I take it you and this Cossack have already exchanged pleasantries?"

Astris nodded and Kirov continued, "I am also willing to bet that your beloved Kara came to your aid. All we need do now is convince her that your life is in peril..."

"Won't take much." Astris muttered.

"And she whisks you away to safety." Kirov sagely explained, "A safety only available outside these walls."

Astris nodded in understanding, "A free roaming saboteur."

"At the very least." Kirov smiled, "Shall we consider you more of a well placed spy?"

Astris nodded, "I'll set the ball rolling as soon as Kara arrives."

"I do believe the dear lady is arriving as we speak." Kirov jerked his chin in the direction of the entrance. Kara stood silhouetted in the doorway. To Astris she appeared sad and lonely but these were signs visible only to those that knew the inner Kara. Astris gritted her teeth and said farewell to Kirov.

"I'm going in."

Kirov almost imperceptibly nodded, "Good luck."

Astris made way across the chamber for Kara. Kara saw this and noticeably brightened. Along the way, Kara collided with Gelt.

"Kara, I need to talk to...oof!"

Gelt threw her back and wheeled on to her position, "Watch where you are going you stupid cow!"

Gelt froze as a steely grip tightened around his neck, "It was an accident, Jern. I see that Beru is not safe here in your custody. She is coming with me."

Jelt twisted his neck to face Kara, "She's a threat."

"Only to your romantic illusions." Kara sneered. She released Gelt's throat and he rubbed it while she assisted Astris.

"Are you all right?" Kara whispered as she took hold of Astris' hands and helped hoist her to her feet.

"I've been better." Astris ruefully admitted and then thought to herself, Damn brute can definitely hit like a charging bull.

"I've arranged for you to have separate quarters." Kara informed Astris, "I'll help you gather your things and then I'll show you to your rooms."

Astris exchanged a meaningful glance with Kirov. It conveyed a multitude of pent up emotions. Triumph was foremost but there was also a distinct tinge of guilt.

 


Proceed to Part III

 

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