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Countdown - Part IV 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 Nineteen

"Ops," Riker had made his decision, "hail that warship."

The Ops rating did as he was told. A few minutes later the rating transferred the call to Riker's station. The screen of the shared Command data console displayed a middle aged Bajoran male.

"This is Hav Resan, commander of the Truncuator; identify yourself and your intentions." The Bajoran said.

Riker drew himself up, "My name is Thomas Riker. I'm the 1st Officer of the Federation surveyor Obsidian. My intentions are peaceful. I'm merely here to conduct a survey of your world."

"We have no need of such a survey." Hav scoffed.

"The survey would be utilised by the member worlds of the Federation." Riker politely explained, "It would enable them to tailor trade and diplomatic missions to your tastes."

"Let me confer with my government." Hav said and terminated the comm circuit.

He doesn't trust me and he doesn't need to. Riker thought, I just need to slip into orbit.

Several minutes passed and then the Ops officer called out, "Sir? There's an incoming message from the planet."

"Is there now?" Riker was intrigued. His request had obviously been bumped up to someone in charge. "Put it on the main viewer." Riker ordered.

The image that appeared amazed Riker. After spending a year in a Cardassian labour camp, he'd thought that all things Cardassian were intrinsically ugly. After almost a decade of freedom his tastes had softened somewhat but he still had difficulty finding the people themselves attractive. The woman that appeared before him now was breathtakingly striking and Riker immediately found himself drawn to her.

His reaction showed and the beauty smiled, "Hello Mr. Riker. I am unsure of your shipboard rank so you will have to excuse my generic greeting. I am Proconsul Illa Garane. I am the duly appointed leader of the cooperative society of Chandilla. What, may I ask, brings you to our fair world?"

"Greetings Proconsul." Riker rose and straightened out his jumpsuit, "My shipboard rank is Commander. I am the 1st Officer of the Federation starship Obsidian. My ship is a private contractor interested in surveying your world for the Federation."

"How did you ever find us?" Garane enquired.

"You're holding our Captain." Riker bluntly replied, "We simply followed you in an effort to retrieve him."

"And how do you intend to retrieve him?" Garane asked without missing a beat, "Our scans indicate that your ship is hardly a combat vessel."

"No, ma'am." Riker agreed, "The Obsidian is a surveyor. She's designed for investigation not combat."

"And who would your captain be?" Garane asked warmly, "If we are ostensibly holding him it is only fitting that I be made aware of our unexpected guest."

"His name is Brin Macen." Garane blanched and Riker pressed on, "I see you know the name."

Garane forced herself to recover, "He is known to me as are you. Your company's advertising does little to credit your resourcefulness. I must ask again, how do you intend to retrieve your good captain?"

"I thought I'd ask." Riker admitted.

Laughter bubbled forth from Garane, "Such courtesy is rare. What do you say about meeting me and discussing the matter?"

"Very well." Riker nodded, "Can we assume orbit?"

"But of course." Garane said sweetly, "I'll signal the Truncuator to follow you. If your sister ship should miraculously reappears, your ship will be destroyed. Understood?"

Riker struggled to restrain his temper. In the end, he managed to remain cordial, "Seems fair enough."

Garane's smile brightened, "My compliments, Commander. A lesser being would have tried to prevaricate. You merely absorbed your losses and moved on. Excellent!"

"I'll need landing coordinates." Riker announced.

"Landing coordinates?" Garane repeated with some confusion.

"Our transporter has malfunctioned." Riker lied, "We must use auxiliary craft to reach the surface."

"Ah," Garane warily said, not quite believing him, "I see."

"I'm glad." Riker oozed charm.

"Very well." Garane said breezily, "The landing site's coordinates will be transmitted over this carrier signal after I sign off."

"It's much appreciated." Riker said truthfully, "I'll see you in a few minutes."

"Until then." Garane bowed her head and the screen reverted back to its view of the Truncuator. The Cardassian ship had already inserted itself into standard orbit over the planet. The Obsidian mirrored her movements and came to rest on the opposite side of the globe. The Truncuator quickly moved up behind the Obsidian.

During the insertion manoeuvre Riker had paged Shannon Forger. Forger now stepped out of the lift looking bright and refreshed. She had an annoying knack of always looking bright and perky. Riker wondered what her secret was.

"Don't I ever catch you off-guard, XO?" Riker had to ask.

"All the time." Forger happily admitted, "The trick is to roll with the punches."

"Somehow I suspect that there's more to it but I'll let it drop for now." Riker joked.

A flicker of concern flashed across Forger's face but she swiftly recovered, "I take it you're off to play with the natives?"

Riker nodded, "Duty calls. Don't let the ship get blown up while I'm gone."

"I won't make any promises." Forger laughed, "Now get."

Riker entered the lift and requested Deck 4. As the doors closed and the lift moved, Riker found himself vaguely disquieted. Something nagged at his hindbrain. Forger had unsettled him and he wanted to know why.

It's something to look into when this mission is done and we have a moment's peace. Riker promised himself.

The lift doors opened and Riker strolled down the corridor until he reached the shuttlebay. He checked in with the Bay Chief. The bay was still pressurised so Riker entered it. Ro was pacing outside of the Corsair.

"There's no need for a send off." Ro smirked, "Just give us our damn flight clearance."

"There's a change of plans." Riker informed her, "I'm coming along."

Ro shook her head, "You're not cleared for dirtside action, Tom. I can't be responsible for your safety."

"It's only a reconnaissance, Ro." Riker pointed out, "The risk is minimal. Besides, I have a personal, scheduled meeting with the planetary leader."

Ro shook her head and her face twisted into a wry expression, "You had to stack the odds in your favour didn't you? You're more like your twin then you let on."

Riker held up his hands, "No need to get insulting."

"Yeah, I bet that's an insult." Ro caustically remarked.

"How about we call a truce?" Riker suggested, "You're cleared to depart as soon as I get aboard."

Ro rolled her eyes, "Climb aboard Commander."

Riker boarded the runabout. He wondered how turbulent Ro's relationship with his brother had been. She seemed to be out to needle him every second. He wanted to like her but she had her defences up and she was keeping him at a distance. He didn't know what to do.

Ro looked around the Corsair's cramped cockpit. Grace manned the helm. T'Kir sat at Ops. Danan was calibrating the Science station. Dracas sat at the Engineering station running system's diagnostics. Daggit stood at the Tactical station.

"We're getting our departure clearance." Ro announced as she shut the main hatch behind her.

"The bridge has transferred our landing coordinates." Grace announced.

"Take us down as soon as we clear the hangar doors." Ro ordered, "In the meantime, Commander Riker and I will be joining Radil and Kort in the crew compartment."

The flight crew all looked back to stare at Riker. Feeling self conscious, he managed to respond with a wave. Grace and T'Kir exchanged an amused glance before returning their focus to their instruments. Danan gave him a friendly smile. Only Dracas looked concerned.

Riker knew Dracas considered him to be a kindred spirit. Their origins by artificial means gave them a common ground not to be found with any other member of the team or the crew. They had had several in depth discussions on their experiences with intolerance and misunderstanding. Riker had grown to like Dracas and thought of him as a friend.

I've never told him I feel that way. Riker mused, Perhaps I should correct that oversight.

Riker put that item on his growing agenda of things to do when the mission was accomplished. Ro ushered him to the runabout's rear compartment. Kort and Radil were engaged in a jovial conversation. From what Riker overheard before they silenced their exchange upon his arrival, they were exchanging humorous anecdotes. Riker was heartened to see them so relaxed around each other after their recent romantic falling out.

"Please carry on." Riker urged while he took a seat at an available chair situated around the centrally located table, "No need to stop on our account."

"Actually," Radil broke into a wicked grin, "we were hoping to get some juicy stories about Macen and T'Kir back in the day."

Ro smiled, "We should have time for one or two stories before we land."

"Don't leave us in suspense woman." Kort demanded, "Talk."

"Well," Ro began, "Shortly after Lisea called it off with Brin, he and T'Kir became even closer than before. Rumour had it that they were sleeping together. Of course, no one could catch them doing anything so the rumour took on a life of its own. The fact that T'Kir was sleeping with half of my cell didn't dissuade anyone from talking."

Ro continued, "It became such a matter of speculation that Aric Tulley installed spycams in their quarters. All that was ever shown was harmless camaraderie but the whispers remained. To make matters worse, Lisea was adamantly silent regarding her reasons for breaking it off. Their relationship was so unusual that we soon took it for granted that something was going on no matter what the evidence showed."

"Eventually we referred to Brin as T'Kir's boyfriend. She was pleased to no end by this and Brin was silent on the subject." Ro revealed, "To this day I don't know what was going on and they won't tell me. I think they enjoyed the game as much as we did."

"Yeah," Radil ruefully said, "they still enjoy playing head games."

"During a mission to free hostages that a Cardassian paramilitary group had taken I asked Brin what was between him and T'Kir." Ro confessed.

"What did he say?" Radil wondered.

Ro chuckled, "All he'd say was that it was complicated."

"So what happened on the mission?" Riker was intrigued.

"Well," Ro grinned, "I have to start at the beginning. Our cell had just struck a nearby shipyard and when we got back..."

"You have permission to depart." Bay Chief Fircrij said over the comm.

"Roger that." Grace replied, "We're beginning our launch. Corsair out."

"Here we go." Grace announced with a manic grin. Since the bay's gravity plating was still on, Grace activated the runabout's antigravs. The ship floated above the decks and waited as the bay depressurised. Once that task was completed the bay doors opened.

Grace brought the impulse engines to life and exited the bay at one quarter of maximum thrust. The view beyond the shuttlebay was breathtaking. The stars were a constant pinprick in the distance.

To the right of the ship lay the orb of Chandilla. The seas were a light green and the landmasses were differing shades of dark green and brown. Snow capped mountain ranges were visible. The atmosphere glowed from refracted light.

The only thing marring the view was the Truncuator hanging five thousand metres distant from the Obsidian. The ship's purpose was clear to all concerned. It was there to threaten the Federation ship and force obedience from the Corsair's crew.

Whether or not the Truncuator was a modern vessel or not was a moot point. She was a warship. Once again the Obsidian found herself overpowered and outmatched. The surveyor's hope lay in the masked presence of the Defiant. As had been agreed upon, Vaughn was laying low. The communications blackout would only be broken when the Obsidian cried out for help.

The active EM emissions from the Cardassian ship indicated that she knew about the Defiant. The Coorwin had alerted her cousin as to the number of the approaching Federation ships but perhaps not about their full capabilities. The Defiant's cloaking abilities would probably still come as a surprise but there was no guarantee of that.

Sitting on the bridge of the Obsidian, Forger found herself hating Riker's plan. She'd hated it when she'd been briefed on it. As a career Tactical Officer, she found the part of decoy to be galling. She wanted to be the one springing the trap not the one relying upon the other ship.

Her senses alert and sharp, Forger fidgeted in her seat. The stimulants that she'd taken were coursing through her veins. Her brain raced and her heart pounded. Forger had first started taking stimulants over a year ago. The problems with it were the crash that followed the usage and the ever increasing doses required to achieve the same effect.

Forger constantly recited the addict's mantra to herself: I can stop whenever I want to. The problem was that she didn't want to. The high was worth the risks in her opinion. She saw things sharper and clearer than ever before. Her energy level was the highest it had ever been. Her aggressive tendencies were heightened but still manageable, at least for now. Her ego was beginning to run unchecked.

Riker's jest had startled her. She feared that her secret had been exposed. She'd already fumbled the XO's job once before and she was pushing herself to insure that she proved herself ready this time. So far, she'd passed every hurdle. No one suspected anything or so she hoped.

The price of maintaining her addiction was proving costly. She'd received several entreaties from her sister to communicate with her. Forger didn't dare. Amanda Drake was far too perceptive not to notice that something was amiss.

Forger and Drake had lost their mother to a rare, incurable illness but their father was still alive. Forger had cut off ties with him as well. He'd recently retired from being a project manager at the Antares Shipyards and settled down to a life of leisurely travel. He'd planned a trip to Barrinor to visit his youngest child but she had constantly shuffled the dates in order to stave off the impending visit. Like Drake, Nigel Forger knew his daughter too well not to notice her illicit activities.

Forger had obtained her drugs by writing a new subroutine into the EMH's program that was activated by a verbal command. The subroutine bypassed the EMH's memory logs and therefore Tessa literally wouldn't remember Forger's visit or the prescription issued.

Tessa had been inspired by the Voyager's Doctor's quest to achieve sentience and Forger hated to undermine the doctor's progress by manipulating her software. It seemed to undermine everything that Tessa was trying to accomplish. Despite her ill feelings at blatantly using Tessa, Forger continued her quest to acquire stimulants at any cost.

Sitting and stewing on the bridge, she waited impatiently as the seconds rolled slowly by. The Ops rating seemed to sense her impatience and gave a minute by minute update of the Corsair's flight. Forger didn't have the heart to tell him he was more annoying than the silence but enough was enough.

"They've reached what appears to be the central city and..."

"You don't have to give a blow by blow." Forger sighed, "They'll land soon and we'll be stuck waiting anyway."

"Yes, ma'am." The Ops rating said sheepishly.

Forger's dopamine fuelled confidence bordered on the reckless. She thought about coming about and engaging the Cardassian escort. The impetus to act was nearly overwhelming. However, she knew that would endanger the Away Team so she refrained.

This is going to be a loooong day. She thought miserably as she settled in to wait despite wanting to scream.

"Look!" Drake Parsons pointed out the massive window, "It's a Federation runabout!"

The Federation's planetary leaders crowded at the window to see the miniature starship land in the central courtyard of the Tower. A cheer arose. Gant Delane calmly called them back to their tables.

"We need to finish our debate." Delane reminded them, "The pro side was presenting their case. We need to allow them to finish."

Those favouring the Chandillan proposal were a highly vocal minority. They endorsed adopting the changes advocated by the Chandillans even if it meant leaving the Chandillans out of the equation. This approach was gaining support amongst the delegates. Only the most conservative still campaigned for an outright rejection of the idea.

The recommendation favoured amongst the assembled civil leaders was an advisory review board appointed by the planetary governments themselves. This would grant the individual states rights nearly equal to the constituent rights of the citizens. This board would have no legislative authority only a duty to consult with the Federation Council regarding the planetary leaderships' perspective regarding proposed laws.

The bureaucratic organs of the Federation would also be overseen by this body. Since the various bureaucracies often acted as a law unto themselves, this would introduce an element of control over the agencies supported by the Federation. Seeing as how this authority was currently limited to the Federal Committee, this proposal met with nearly universal approval. Once again the hardcore conservative elements rejected the idea.

Debate ensued after the favourable position was presented. Next the conservatives presented their reasons for rejecting the notion altogether. Their argument that the central government had functioned unchanged for over two hundred year was met with protests that the recent coup had shown the vulnerabilities and opportunities for abuse inherent in the existing system.

After the debate died down, Delane called for a vote of whether or not to lobby for the creation of the proposed advisory committee. The majority voted for the idea with overwhelming support. Even some of the conservatives changed their minds.

Next came a vote on whether or not to allow the Chandillans to fill that role. A unanimous vote said ‘No'. With the die cast, Delane called an end to the forum. The various captives broke into small circles and enjoyed snacks obtained from the multiple replicators lining the walls. All spoke of the promise of rescue at the hands of the lone runabout that had appeared.

The lone runabout in question had landed. T'Kir had given Danan Kara's description of the Tower of Cooperation and the hostages' location within it. As the occupants of the runabout filed out, Danan was left behind to use the sensors to verify Kara's information.

Riker recognised the regal Cardassian woman that waited for them under the globe held aloft by the massive statues. With her were several guards of both pure blood and mixed origins. Seeing as how the statues depicted the unity of Cardassians and Bajorans, the hybrids came as no surprise. The fact that they held positions of authority bespoke of this society's overcoming the racial prejudices that lingered after the occupation of Bajor.

Riker confidently strode towards Garane. The rest of the SID team followed. The guards tensed upon seeing that their visitors wore sidearms. Ro wore the same blue utility jumpsuit that Riker and Grace wore. She also wore the Outbound Ventures' surplus Bajoran phaser strapped to her right leg. It was a weapon she had become familiar with during her tenure with the Militia.

Garane smiled genially as Riker reached her, "I am surprised that you come armed, Commander."

"Company policy." Riker replied by way of explanation, "No ship's officer may enter a potentially hazardous area without being armed."

"Or without company it appears." Garane said dryly.

"My ship's officers." Riker said and turned towards the assemblage, "May I present Ro Laren, the ship's Security Officer. Next, may I present Hannah Grace, the Flight Control Officer. This is T'Kir, the Ops Specialist. Behind her is Rab Daggit our Special Operations Specialist. Next to him is Radil Jenrya, the Tactical Specialist. Our esteemed Doctor rounds out the cast."

Amused, Garane asked, "Does the good Doctor have a name?"

Kort bowed at the waist, "I am Kort."

"You come as a breath of fresh air, Kort." Garane said happily, "Our dealings with Klingons have shown them to be short on courtesy. You belie that image."

"I am happy to, Madam." Kort said to Garane's delight.

"You must accompany me to my office." Garane announced, "We can discuss matters there."

"What matters do we have besides the disposition of our captain?" Riker asked.

"Why," Garane replied, "the disposition of our other guests from the Federation. That is why you are here after all."

Riker clenched his jaw and followed in Garane's wake as she strode off towards the entrance of the Tower.

 

Chapter Twenty

Riker whistled as he stepped out into Garane's expansive office. The sun was setting and the sky was a brilliant inferno of red, orange, purple, and yellow fire. Riker approached the glass partition separating the office from the outside and took in the view. Ro and T'Kir came to stand beside him.

"Impressive." Ro opined.

"The wonder of the view never ceases to amaze me." Garane said as she sat atop of her desk.

"Why was it necessary to leave our friends behind on the ground floor with your guards?" T'Kir question was an accusation.

"Isn't it enough that I came with you unarmed and without protection while you wield all of the weapons?" Garane smirked.

"No," T'Kir retorted, "it isn't."

Riker stepped between the two women, "She doesn't mean any insult."

T'Kir's "Yes, I do." was in stereo with Garane's "Of course she does."

T'Kir glared at Garane and the Cardassian laughed, "She seems to be more disturbed by this situation than either of you. Why is this?"

Riker opened his mouth but T'Kir spoke first, "Brin Macen is my husband, you bitch, and I want him back."

Garane grew sombre, "That certainly changes things."

"So?" T'Kir planted her fists on her hips, "Are you gonna release him?"

Garane grew pensive for a moment and then shook her head, "No. No, I'm not."

"Why not?" T'Kir started forward but Ro restrained her.

"Let it go for now." Ro advised.

"Why won't you release Macen?" Riker demanded to know.

"I was holding on to Captain Macen to ascertain how much Starfleet knew about my world." Garane explained, "Your presence indicates that they could know everything. I gave my word that our various guests would not be used as hostages. However, Captain Macen is a prisoner, not a guest. I have no qualms about using him as a hostage."

"You bitch!" T'Kir shouted.

"You've already used that pejorative once before." Garane turned cold, "It was inappropriate before and I hardly qualify now. If you care for the Captain as much as you seem to you'll have no difficulty with obeying my stipulations."

"What are your terms?" Riker asked.

"Earlier you engaged one of our ships with the assistance of a second starship." Garane began, "That ship did not accompany you into our home system. Where is it?"

"I don't know." Riker replied somewhat truthfully.

"You don't know or you're unwilling to tell me?" Garane asked.

"Both." Riker answered.

"You're being very foolish, Commander." Garane warned, "I only need to receive word of how our proposal has been ratified and then I can release our guests to you. After you depart, a scoutship will rendezvous with you and bring you your captain. It is all very simple."

"And if we force the matter?" Riker enquired.

"Then I will be forced to execute Captain Macen. That is distasteful and barbaric but you will leave me little choice." Garane sadly replied.

"It seems I have no choice but to comply." Riker acquiesced.

"What?" T'Kir erupted.

"Read into the situation, T'Kir." Riker urged, "You'll see I'm right."

T'Kir hesitated and then her eyes went wide with surprise, "Oh! I see."

"I thought you would." Riker said with satisfaction.

"Can we go now?" T'Kir wanted to know.

"I'll personally escort you to your ship." Garane offered.

"Thank you." Riker bowed his head slightly.

The assorted Federation leaders were still pressed up against the window. Their minders seemed to find all of this rather amusing. Korista Schrieber managed to squeeze in next to Drake Parsons.

"What's going on?" she managed to ask despite the crush of bodies pressing her against the window.

Parsons shook his head, "I don't know. They landed, got out of their runabout and traipsed off into the Tower. I haven't seen any movement since then."

"Maybe that's a good thing." Schrieber suggested hopefully.

"I doubt it." Parsons said bitterly, "Those things only hold two dozen people. We have thirty-eight ‘delegates' here. It'd take two runabouts to carry us all."

"Can't they use the mother ship's transporters?" Schrieber asked.

"If they could use the transporters they would have done so by now." Parsons' bitterness grew more intense, "They must have a transport inhibitor field in place around the building."

"How do you know so much about Starfleet?" Schrieber wondered.

Parsons broke into a thin smile, "Starfleet Academy, class of '47."

"You were in Starfleet?" Schrieber couldn't hide her shock.

"For ten years." Parsons revealed.

"Why did you leave?" Schrieber shook her head, "No, more to the point, why haven't you used your experience in any of your campaigns?"

"Vote for the drop out junior officer?" Parsons cynically laughed, "I'd rather get my votes due to my ideology. It seems to have worked so far."

Schrieber grinned, "I'll admit it, I'm impressed."

"Thanks." Parsons said.

"Do you think you'd like to..." Schrieber trailed off as Parsons grew more intent staring out of the window. A furore grew amongst the crowd.

"They're leaving!" someone angrily shouted.

"But what about us?" another plaintively asked.

"Settle down." Delane's raised voice cut through the chatter, "Starfleet is negotiating for our release. Give them time to reach an accommodation."

The disgruntled crowd dispersed. Parsons and Schrieber joined Kirov and Wynter. Delane was ambushed by Grozik. Their discussion quickly heated up.

"I hope Astris is all right." Kirov wished to his companions.

"I'm sure she's simply with that amazon girlfriend of hers." Wynter casually dismissed his worries.

"She would have been here for the debate then." Kirov insisted, "The Proconsul was livid when she came in here last. It may have concerned Astris."

"It definitely concerned Captain Macen." Schrieber pointed out, "We haven't seen him since he was marched out of here."

"Something's going on but how can find out what it is?" Parsons asked, "They won't tell us anything."

"I hate to admit," Wynter sighed, "but I'm actually looking forward to Garane's return. At least we'll find out something then."

Murmurs of agreement met these words. The group huddled together and waited for the inevitable news. They could only pray that it was positive.

"We'll be deploying our scout craft in order to monitor you more closely." Garane informed Riker as the rest of the team boarded the runabout.

"That'll be fine." Riker replied with a smile, "We'll await word of when we can begin boarding the planetary leaders."

"Of course." Garane nodded, "Your path is going to be a difficult one today.

May the Prophets watch over you."

Riker couldn't say why but her concern touched him. He decided that it was her sincerity that swayed him.

"May they be with you as well." He said.

"They are." She said brightly.

"Commander," Ro called out from the hatch, "we need to leave."

"Coming." Riker shouted back over his shoulder. Turning to Garane, he said, "I'm really sorry things have turned out this way."

"So am I." Garane admitted, "But hurry. Your Security Officer appears to be ready to drag you into the craft."

Riker grinned and headed towards the runabout. He sealed the hatch behind him as he boarded the ship. Ro looked fit to chew neutronuim.

"Did you have a nice visit?" she asked with syrupy sweetness, "Maybe you'd like to stay?"

"She doesn't seem to be a bad sort." Riker opined.

"They never do." Ro snorted and headed aft.

"Have you always been this cynical?" Riker wondered.

Ro stopped and turned to face him, "Yes, I have been."

Ro turned around and stormed off into the crew compartment. Riker rubbed the back of his head and muttered, "Explains a lot."

The Corsair docked inside of the Obsidian and powered down. The flight back had been uneventful. They had, however, seen nearly two dozen scoutships in orbit around the Obsidian when they approached. Called back to the cockpit, Riker had merely rubbed his chin and said, "Now life will get interesting."

Once the docking bay was repressurised, the Corsair's computer allowed the ship's hatch to open. Riker held an impromptu planning session in the shuttle bay.

"What did you find out, Lees?" he immediately asked.

"The information T'Kir gleaned from Kara Gena is accurate. I read the lifesigns of just over three dozen aliens, or at least non-Bajorans or Cardassians, clustered in one area. "

"So we can beam out the leaders en masse using the cargo transporter?" Riker asked with growing excitement.

"Yes." Danan nodded, "But I couldn't get a lock on Brin. We'll have to physically search for him using our tricorders to pick up his lifesigns."

"Ro," Riker turned to the Bajoran, "plan for an incursion. I want you to invade the tower and find Brin."

"Not a problem." Ro said, "I've already got a plan. I just need the team to suit up."

"All you can have is T'Kir, Grace, Danan and Daggit." Riker countered, "I need the rest here aboard the Obsidian."

"Wait a minute!" Ro and Radil said in unison. They blinked at each other in surprise and then Radil nodded for Ro to proceed.

"What's with giving me half the team?" Ro demanded.

"You only need half." Riker informed her, "It's a rescue op not an assault."

"It might turn into one." Ro growled.

"Think of this as a Maquis mission." Riker grinned, "Minimal support and resources."

"You're all heart." Ro snipped.

"How come I'm staying?" Radil wanted to know.

"When we beam up the Federation citizens, we may beam up some Chandillans as well. I want your Security team to be ready to deal with them." Riker answered.

"Abby can handle it." Radil protested.

"I need you to do it." Riker insisted, "Ro can handle the extraction without you."

Radil looked over at Ro. Ro patted her on the shoulder, "I've done more with less. Don't worry, we'll get him back."

Radil muttered some Bajoran obscenity under breath and stalked off. Kort looked at Riker and shrugged. As the Klingon walked away, Dracas confronted Riker.

"I cannot abandon the Captain in his time of need." Dracas declared.

"Macen needs you in Engineering far more than he needs you on the planet's surface." Riker assured him.

"I will not abandon..." Dracas began to repeat himself.

"Joachim," T'Kir interrupted, "listen to me. I've seen what Ro has in mind. It'll be okay. It doesn't need any more bodies to work. We'll be fine."

Dracas wavered, "Are you certain?"

"Of course I am." T'Kir boasted.

"In that case," Dracas addressed Riker, "I'll be at my post."

As Dracas disappeared Ro turned to T'Kir, "A bit prickly, isn't he?"

T'Kir shrugged, "He just has an overdeveloped sense of duty. You two should get on famously."

"I don't..." Ro started to protest but her objection died in her throat. She knew T'Kir probably knew her thoughts better than she did herself. She decided to change the subject, "All right. Let's get to the Armoury and gear up."

"What am I going to do during this ‘extraction'?" Grace asked.

"I need you to ram a building." Ro replied.

"Oh. Okay." Grace said nonchalantly, "I'm good at that."

"Knowing Brin's style, I thought you would be." Ro chuckled.

"I'll leave you to it then." Riker said and started to walk away. As he reached the door he tapped his comm badge, "Telrik? Report to the cargo bay."

Garane entered the common room and all of the myriad conversations died. Smirking, she went to the head of the room. Once she was there, she motioned for her Federation ‘guests' to take their seats.

"You've undoubtedly seen our new arrivals." Garane began as everyone settled down, "They are here to take you home."

There was spontaneous applause. Garane tried to stifle the crowd's enthusiasm, "Before you go, I must ask what your decision regarding my people's proposal was?"

All eyes turned towards Delane. He rose and tugged at his tunic. Clasping two of three of his hands behind his back, he spoke.

"While we agree with your proposal on its base merits we have made some modifications to the idea." Delane explained, "The advisory committee will be appointed by the planetary governments. It will represent their interests."

"It will not, however, be comprised of representatives of Chandilla." Delane firmly asserted, "The representatives shall be natives of the United Federation of Planets. Now, if you want to apply for UFP membership, the appropriate bodies will examine your application and process it accordingly."

Garane stared, open mouthed, at Delane. After a moment, she began to recover. Her eyes blazed and her mouth twisted in a sneer.

"You fools! You've seen what we can offer you and yet you still reject us." Garane hotly declared, "We offer our hand in friendship and you..."

"Kidnapping someone and holding them against their will does not comprise ‘offering your hand in friendship'!" Grozik shouted. The crowd rallied behind Grozik.

Incensed, Garane moved into the midst of the assembled "delegates", "We can help you! We've accomplished things you've only dreamt of."

"Then Madam," Delane calmly replied, "I suggest you ally yourselves with our august collaboration or join it yourselves."

"This isn't over!" Garane vowed, "You'll still see reason."

Delane went to speak but found himself in the grip of an annular confinement beam. The room faded and reformed into a cargo bay. A burly Tellarite stood behind a transporter console. Flanking him were a dozen armed officers wearing Starfleet issued ablative armour.

The Chandillan minders went for the stunners on their belts and the Obsidian's Security detachment stunned them without a moment's hesitation. Radil approached Garane.

"Remember me?" the Bajoran wore a ruthless smile.

"Indeed I do." Garane held out her wrists so Radil could place binders on them, "You've made a foolish mistake. Your captain will die."

"No." Delane stepped up to her, "You've made the mistake. Threats and coercion never accomplish your long term goals."

"So what's to happen to me?" Garane asked Radil.

"Consider it a prisoner exc

hange." Radil said with satisfaction, "We'll trade you for Macen."

"My people will never bow to your demands." Garane promised her.

"Now you know where we stand." Delane gestured towards the assembled planetary leaders picking themselves off of the floor.

"Come on." Radil pulled Garane forward by her arm, "You can say ‘hi' to your friend in our brig."

"What friend?" Garane asked in bewilderment.

"You'll see." Radil smirked as she led Garane out of the bay.

"They're aboard, Commander." Telrik reported.

"Thanks Telrik." Riker offered the Transporter Chief. Turning to the ship's Deltan yeoman, he began issuing instructions, "Kalista, begin showing our guests to empty quarters. We should have enough empty rooms to house them all."

"Yes sir." Kalista said with a bright smile, "I'll have them eating out of my hand."

Riker grinned, "I suspect that you will. Carry on."

As Kalista left, he noticed that Forger was shaking her head at Tactical, "What's wrong, Shannon?"

"It's those damned pheromones." Forger complained, "It just isn't natural."

"Actually it is." Riker's grin grew, "That's the problem."

"Whatever." Forger grumped, "Just give me something to shoot."

"Signal the Defiant and raise the shields." Riker ordered, "There'll be all the shooting you can stand in a minute."

"Looking forward to it." Forger growled.

Hav Resan was bored. The Federation ship, aside from launching an auxiliary craft, had done nothing. Even the auxiliary craft had been recovered without incident.

"Sir," the Communications Officer spoke up, "the Federation ship just transmitted a subspace comm pulse."

"Where was it directed?" Resan asked for protocol's sake.

"At us." The Comm Officer reported.

"Us?" Resan was slightly intrigued, "Could you decipher the message?"

"It was one word." The Comm Officer said, "and before you ask, the word was ‘Now'."

"Now?" Resan repeated. Idly turning to the Sensor Officer, he asked, "Scan, do you have anything?"

"No. I...wait! There's an energy surge off of our aft quarter."

"Raise shields!" Resan shouted, "Red alert!"

The Defiant finished decloaking and fired upon the Truncuator's engines. The point blank blast was devastating. The older Cardassian ship lost main and auxiliary power. They were down to their batteries and that was enough to keep their life support systems running. The Defiant moved off and headed into the cloud of scoutships firing upon the Obsidian.

"The Defiant has crippled the Truncuator and is moving in to support us." Forger reported as she targeted her next victim.

"Is our aft quarter secure?" Riker asked.

"For now." Forger answered.

"On my signal, drop the rear deflector shield." Riker ordered.

"It's your funeral." Forger muttered.

"Riker to Shuttle Bay."

"Shuttle Bay here."

"Is the Corsair ready for launch?"

"The bay's depressurised and the Corsair's on stand by."

Riker grinned, "Drop the rear shield."

"The aft shield is down." Forger reported.

"Tell them to launch, Chief." Riker happily said.

Two minutes of silence rolled by and then, "They're away."

"Raise the shield!" Riker ordered.

"Not a moment too soon." Forger reported, "Two Chandillan scouts were flanking us."

"Teach them the error of their ways." Riker suggested.

Forger's grin turned feral, "I'm on it."

"Happy hunting and good luck." He softly said to the spirits of the runabout's crew.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

The Corsair vaulted out of the Obsidian's shuttle bay. Exiting at full impulse, Grace barely had time to get the ship's nose "up" before she collided with the Truncuator. Although Grace smoothly sailed the Corsair over the Truncuator's lifeless husk, she also garnered the attention of a Chandillan scoutship.

"Two items of note," Danan reported from the Science station, "First, that Cardassian ship is only powerless. She's still holding air and there's lifeforms aplenty to be found there."

"What's the second item?" Ro asked from Engineering.

"We're being pursued." Danan grimly answered.

"They're shooting at us!" Grace exclaimed. Her eyes narrowed and her jaw was set, "That really pisses me off."

Grace threw the runabout into a corkscrew roll. The Chandillan scout compensated for decreased accuracy by increasing the volume of fire. Grace levelled out and executed a "Crazy Ivan". The ship came around 180 degrees and Grace went on the offensive.

With Daggit standing at the ready at the Tactical console, Grace was relieved of any duty but flying the runabout. The inertial dampners, already strained by the Crazy Ivan, nearly failed as Grace twisted and looped around the Chandillan craft. Phaser strike after phaser strike barraged the scout with little successful return fire to accompany the damage being inflicted on the larger Chandillan vessel.

"Remember," Ro advised, "we don't have the ordnance rack attached so we only have two microtorpedoes."

"Which is why I've been saving them." Daggit replied as he effortlessly kept the targeting sensors locked on despite Grace's gyrations, "The only reason you deem it fit to remind me is that your command experience is limited to leading those lacking professional training."

Although it had been delivered in a toneless inflection, Ro still felt the verbal slap. She had helped Macen plan missions for the Angosian commando unit he'd been assigned to during the Dominion War. Macen had been the unit's Intelligence Officer and Ro had been their scout.

Truth be told, Daggit and the other Angosians had always creeped Ro out. Their very

lack of passion during combat made them inhuman. They felt no fear, acknowledged no pain, and stopped for nothing until the mission was done. Even Vulcans weren't that relentless.

The worst part, in Ro's opinion, was that they were utterly merciless. Even the Jem'Hadar would give quarter unless specifically ordered not to. The Angosians fought until there was no one left to fight. She'd had nightmares after the war revolving around the commandos being pitted against a civilian population.

Ro had had nightmares since she was a child on Bajor. The brutal death of her father had haunted her for decades. Her continual need to find a father figure seemed to have ended with Elias Vaughn. He watched out for her without being intrusive. He was a true mentor, not an ersatz father. Given how turbulent his relationship with his own daughter had been, Ro was grateful that she didn't see him in the same way she had viewed Picard and Macius.

Picard still protected her career from afar and she knew he'd express an almost paternal affection for her if asked by a close associate. Vaughn had revealed pieces of just such a conversation between Picard and himself. Ro had long feared that she'd permanently scarred her relationship with Picard by the way she'd forsaken Starfleet and joined the Maquis. His gentle persuasion had convinced her to rejoin Starfleet when elements of the Bajoran Militia were integrated into Starfleet.

That day had been beautiful...and traumatic. Faced with her past, fully laid out and in her face, she'd been forced to make the most difficult decision of her life. She'd chosen the challenge of finally working with Starfleet rather than playing a role in the Ro Laren show. She'd dived in headfirst and hadn't come up for air yet.

Her performance reviews of the past few years indicated that both Vaughn and Kira were appreciative of her efforts and her diligence. Seeing as how she'd started out as a Flight Control Officer and then trained with Starfleet's Advanced Tactical Training course's instructors before becoming branded as a terrorist, she wasn't certain that Starfleet had a niche for her to fill. DS9's Security Office had provided the perfect environment for her to flourish in.

Ro could easily step back and take a view of her few remaining friends. Macen and T'Kir remained steadfast constants. Bashir had talked her into participating with him on several of his holographic adventures. Ezri Dax had become the closest thing to a friend that she had. Of all of the people on the station, Quark was the closest.

The Ferengi's constant romantic overtures despite her steadfast insistence that they simply remain friends resonated with Ro. So much so that she had given him a few opportunities to reverse a few business decisions before she had to arrest him for them. It was a game they played well.

Despite having the occasional lover over the years, Ro had formed no permanent attachments to any individual. She was at an age where she was beginning to think differently about that. Loneliness had finally wormed its way into her heart and she wanted a change. Now she was faced with the daunting task of learning how to include someone into her life.

Faced with his own death, Aric Tulley had composed a confessional tome for Ro. In it he expressed his longstanding love for her. He knew that his decision to reconstitute the Maquis and reshape their operational strategies would forever separate them but it was a choice he had made. She had dedicated her life to the cause and so would he, he declared.

Ro had cried after watching his letter. That was a release she had denied herself since she was a child. Years of heartache poured themselves out in the course of the next several hours. Reaching out, she contacted Ezri Dax and had the former counsellor guide her through the experience. It was a true moment of growth for Ro and it had created a bond with Dax that had just recently started to take some interesting turns. Kira had voiced the opinion that the two women were fast becoming the next Bashir and O'Brien. Having known the Chief during her time on the Enterprise, Ro considered it to be a compliment.

The smell of ozone from overloaded circuitry brought Ro back to the present moment, "What was that?"

"Shields are taking a beating." T'Kir called out as she left the Ops station. She ran back into the crew compartment and began ripping deckplates up out of their housings. She manipulated some connection or another and put the plates back into place.

"Try it now!" T'Kir shouted.

"That did it." Daggit yelled back.

T'Kir scrambled back through the cockpit and jumped into her seat, "Now I'm going to show these frinxers some manners."

Ro scornfully laughed, "Now there's a topic you know nothing about."

T'Kir stuck out her tongue and went back to work at her station. She furiously tapped at the Ops controls until she was rewarded with a long series of beeps and boops. Wearing a satisfied smile she leaned back in her chair and rested her head in her cradled hands. The runabout shook as the shields fended off another blast.

"Well?" Grace impatiently demanded.

"Wait for it." T'Kir counselled.

"They've stopped firing." Danan suddenly reported, "In fact, their entire power grid seems to be malfunctioning. Wait...their fusion reactor just spiked and their warp core just cycled down. The fusion reactor is scramming. They're descending on manoeuvring thrusters only."

Danan stared at the back of T'Kir's head, gaping in disbelief, "They've been neutralised."

"Told ya." T'Kir smugly retorted.

"What did you do," Ro wondered, "and what took you so damn long to do it?"

"Well, I reversed the EPS conduits so that the warp core and impulse reactors were being back fed their own power output and ," T'Kir let the sentence hang in midair, "I had to wait until inspiration struck."

"Inspiration?" Ro asked in an irritated tone.

"I can do nothing until the muse strikes." T'Kir grinned.

"I'm going to strike your backside the next time you wait that long." Ro growled.

"Ruffian." T'Kir huffed.

"Grace, how long until we reach their central metropolis?" Ro asked.

"We've already passed it." Grace replied, "It'll be faster to do another complete orbit than to turn around."

"Do it." Ro ordered.

"And Commander, call me Hannah." Grace smiled.

Ro returned the smile despite herself. Macen had a good crew. It was a pleasure to be working with them. Maybe I should get off the station more often. she mused.

It was a tempting thought. Officially, her duties usually kept her bound to the station but she'd managed to venture forth now and then. Her subordinates were capable enough, as long as she prepped them she should be able to get away more often. That was the point of having subordinates.

Since the station oversaw the Bajoran sector, that extended her authority throughout the sector. There were several troubling cases that needed some hands on experience. Ro resolved to personally address those cases upon her return. She suddenly felt freer than she had for several years.

Ro studied T'Kir and wondered how the troubled Vulcan was really doing. T'Kir had achieved self improvement miracles over the last ten years but how permanent were they? Would all of her efforts be undone by the crisis of having Macen bound and apparently tortured? No one could answer these questions but T'Kir and, except for a few flippant remarks, she wasn't talking.

T'Kir double and triple checked her instruments. Nothing had changed over the last ten seconds. She took a deep breath and checked again. She knew Grace hadn't meant to overshoot the city but the waiting was the worst part.

She was surprised about how composed she felt. Macen was still unconscious and there was nothing she could do to rouse him. She burned bright with love and hope and she transmitted as much of that as she could through their rapport. She didn't know if it could help but Macen's efforts had aided her while she'd been tortured at the hands of Adrya Jeklan.

Of course, Adrya had only tortured her body. Macen's mind had been assaulted. There might very well be permanent damage. It could be Parva's case all over again.

Cool it chickie! T'Kir admonished herself as her anxiety rose. Stay focused and get him back. Deal with the aftershocks as they come.

Regulating her breathing, T'Kir ran yet another ship wide diagnostic. A few burnouts registered and she rerouted systems to compensate. The inertial dampner was wonky and threatening to crap out at any second. She engaged the secondary but knew it was a stopgap measure since it wasn't designed to compensate for Grace's hard driving manoeuvres.

She could cut the artificial gravity and that would ease the dampner's load. The problem was that everyone would have to strap in. That meant losing Daggit at Tactical. He'd have to retreat to the crew compartment. Plus, everyone would have to deal with the varying g-forces, something that was nearly unheard of in the modern Starfleet.

Ro, Danan, and T'Kir had experienced craft without inertial dampners. It guaranteed a physically exhausting ride but it was also wildly exciting. Grace and Daggit were the variables. Grace had trained in dampnerless craft at the Academy but that had been nearly ten years ago. She'd been spoilt ever since. Daggit was a complete unknown.

In the end, T'Kir merely hoped that the secondary would be sufficient to bolster the primary dampner. The real question now was how long it would take to traverse this accursed mudball. T'Kir's thoughts were a miasma of violent curses in dozens of languages. They were the vilest of the vile and all were appropriate to the situation.

T'Kir suddenly felt a flicker of consciousness from Macen. Elated and panicked at the same time, T'Kir spoke, "Hurry up! Brin's waking up. We have to get there now!"

"Hold on." Grace tried to assuage her friend's concerns, "Our ETA is ten minutes. We'll be there in time for whatever."

Barely mollified, T'Kir reached out with her mind, Brin! Can you hear me?

Macen's eyes fluttered and suddenly T'Kir's cry rocketed through his brain.

"Gah!" he cried out and then clenched his eyes and jaw shut, Don't shout. Please! My head is killing me.

He was suddenly awash in her love and concern, Are you all right? Is there any permanent damage?

Not that I know of. Take a look for yourself. Macen opened himself up for her mental probing. He felt every corner of his mind being examined and searched.

After a moment, he felt a wave of relief cascading from her, Whew! You seem fine.

Macen tapped into her recent memories, You're awfully close.

We'll be there in ten minutes. T'Kir assured him, Just hang on.

I'm not going anywhere. Macen thought wryly, But I have to go. The natives are stirring.

I love you! T'Kir fervently thoughtcast.

I never doubted it. Macen replied, See you in a few.

"What was that?" Makra asked upon hearing Macen's outcry.

"He's awake." Nelos stood up from the couch she'd been sitting on. Pulling her phaser free from her belt, she proceeded into the bedroom. Makra followed.

Macen was struggling to rise. Makra hurried over and helped pull him into a sitting position. She stuffed pillows behind his back so that he could sit comfortably. Nelos watched this with disgust.

"Isn't this cosy?" she sneered, "For Prophets' sake Nura, he's the enemy."

Makra glared at Nelos and snapped, "We've already tortured him. Aren't you satisfied?"

Nelos fell silent and Makra tended to Macen, "Can I get you anything?"

"Tea." Macen croaked.

Makra expectantly stared at Nelos, "Oopla tea with oos milk and two helpings of sachri."

Nelos looked indignant at first but then she threw her hands in the air and holstered her phaser. She stormed off to the replicator. She angrily yelled back, "What was that order?"

Makra repeated the order and Nelos growled the instructions to the replicator. She returned with the steaming mug and thrust it out towards Macen. He gratefully accepted it and took a cautious sip.

Nodding his thanks, he said, "I'm grateful."

"Stow it." Nelos irritably snapped, "I'd just as soon kill you myself."

Makra stood, "The Proconsul must be informed that he's awake."

She activated her comm and paged Garane. There was no reply. She left a message with the Proconsul's private answering service and then thought twice.

"Computer, state the location of Proconsul Illa Garane." She queried.

"Proconsul Illa Garane is in orbit above Chandilla." The computer's masculine voice replied.

"What?" Makra cried out. The computer repeated its determination.

Nelos pulled her phaser free and excitedly aimed it at Macen, "Ask him! He knows!"

Makra expectantly looked at Macen. Macen shrugged, "She's aboard my ship."

"How?" Makra stumbled over her words, "When?"

"I don't know exactly. Fairly recently." Macen supplied.

"How do you know?" Makra asked in wonder.

"I'm an El-Aurian." Was Macen's simple answer.

As Makra pondered that, Nelos thumbed up the power setting of her phaser, "Let's kill him."

"That's your solution for everything you sociopathic halfwit." Makra angrily shouted, "We can trade him for the Proconsul."

"Oh." That brought Nelos up short, "I never thought of that."

"I didn't think so." Makra said sadly. Her disappointment was palpable. Nelos grew silent.

Finally, she dared to speak, "What do we do then?"

"We need to open a channel to his ship and end this nightmare." Makra replied.

"But our plans..." Nelos weakly protested, "The New Order..."

"It's a failure." Makra rested her hand on Nelos' shoulder, "All of it has been a waste. We have to move forward and save what we can."

Makra looked to Macen and then back to Nelos, "Will you be safe to watch him?"

"I won't fail you." Nelos vowed.

Makra still had lingering doubts but she hid them from Nelos. "Of course you won't." she said encouragingly and left the bedroom.

As Makra used the comm terminal in the suite's office, Nelos studied Macen. Her estimation of his worth had grown immeasurably. She was suddenly concerned for his health.

"Can I get you anything?" she found herself asking, "Are you hungry?"

Macen mulled it over, "I am feeling a bit peckish. Could I have a serving of hasperat?"

Nelos hesitated. She still didn't trust Macen's condition. He could very well be lying in wait for her when she returned. Weighing the visible evidence against her fears, she opted to take the risk and left the room.

As she neared the replicator located in the main room she overheard Makra speaking to someone on the comm unit in the residence's office. Her CO was growing irritated as she stared at the viewer. Nelos angled for a better view. Staring back at Makra was a white haired and bearded human.

"I'm afraid I can't allow you to have communications access with your Proconsul." Vaughn calmly informed Makra, "She is not aboard my vessel and I do not trust her to avoid ordering you to some act of desperation."

"That is not her way." Makra insisted, "I'm willing to let you speak with Captain Macen."

"We'll get to that when the appropriate time arrives." Vaughn assured her.

"Why can't we..." Makra was interrupted by the entire Tower shaking as though it had been struck by a ballistic object.

Makra was infuriated, "Damn you! We were negotiating in good faith."

"We'll see." Vaughn said coolly and signed off.

Nelos recovered her wits and sprinted towards the bedroom as the sound of a transporter effect permeated the flat. Makra spared one last angry glance at the viewer and then followed Nelos' headlong charge.

"Heads up." Danan called out, "They've scrambled atmospheric craft. They're pretty similar to Bajoran sub-impulse raiders."

"Rab, slave the weapons to my board and go find a seat and strap in." Grace began to outline, "The rest of you strap in as well. T'Kir, redirect the power from nonessential systems to the shields and the structural integrity field."

"How're you planning on dealing with the raiders?" Ro wondered.

"I'm flying straight through them. Determination laced every one of Grace's words.

Hearing the resolve in her voice, Ro cinched her crash harness tighter.

"We're receiving a signal from the surface." The Ops rating reported, "They're asking to speak with the commander of the attacking force."

Riker looked over to Forger and shared a conspiratorial smile, "Signal Commander Vaughn and inform him that we're just the hired help. This is his show."

The Ops rating sighed and relayed the message.

The Corsair shuddered. Grace wore a thin, grim smile, "Now we're having fun."

"Y'do know that we're almost to the bloody tower?" T'Kir asked.

"So?" Grace replied.

"Y'ever think about slowing down?" T'Kir wondered.

"Nah." Grace grinned, "We'll be fine."

"Y'sure?" T'Kir enquired more urgently.

"Relax." Grace wore a beatific smile, "The penthouse of the tower is enclosed in glass not transparent aluminium. We'll go through it without scratching the paint on the hull."

"Y'sure?" T'Kir repeated.

Grace wore a bashful smile and hunkered her head down between her raised shoulders, "Mostly."

"Don't go adorable on me, just fly the damn ship." T'Kir returned her focus to the forward view. The tower was a mere five kilometres away...and the runabout was on a suicide course for it. "Holy shuk!" T'Kir yelled as the Corsair closed the distance.

Grace had fired the braking thrusters and thrown the main impulse thrusters into reverse upon reaching the five kilometre mark. The runabout careened into Garane's office at a speed of barely 100 kph. The warp nacelles scraped across the floor as the enclosure shattered. Glass rained down atop the runabout. As predicted, the ship suffered no damage although the paint was scratched.

The crew quickly shed their crash harnesses. Danan redirected her sensor array and began sweeping the lower floors. Daggit strode into the cockpit wielding a phaser rifle and a pump action grenade launcher strapped to his leg.

"I found him!" Danan suddenly exclaimed in excitement.

"How?" T'Kir inquired, "You said you couldn't detect his life signs earlier."

"I couldn't." Danan confirmed, "But he shows up like a beacon now."

"Lock those coordinates into the transporter." Ro ordered, "Daggit, secure this level. T'Kir, you're with me."

T'Kir eagerly followed Ro to the transporter pads. Ro looked to Danan and said, "Energise."

Nelos reached the bedroom to find two raven haired women standing at the foot of the bed. One, a Bajoran, had her shoulder length hair combed back, away from her face. The Vulcan, Nelos presumed she was a Vulcan because of the lack of the vestigial brow ridge common to most Romulans, wore her hair pulled back into a loose tail. Both had their phasers drawn and at the ready.

Nelos came to a halt and her hand hovered over her own phaser's grip. The Vulcan, if that's what she was, smiled, "Give me a reason."

Nelos' hand darted towards her phaser and T'Kir shot her. Nelos crumpled and fell to the floor as Makra arrived. She crouched and checked Nelos' vitals. Relieved that she was still alive, she rose to her full height.

"I've got her." Ro said, "Check on Brin."

T'Kir sat beside Macen's still form. She fearfully reached out and gently shook his shoulder. His eyes fluttered and he came to. He looked embarrassed.

"Sorry." He said bashfully, "I fell asleep."

T'Kir showered him with kisses. She finally stopped and gasped for air, "I'll forgive you...this time."

"Lucky me." Macen weakly grinned.

Ro kept her focus on Makra but asked, "Are you going to live?"

"Looks that way." Macen managed to laugh.

"Good." Her attention to Makra never wavered, "Now for you. Lift that phaser out of its holster with two fingers."

Makra complied and Ro tensed up, "Easy."

Makra threw the offending weapon across the room, "Satisfied?"

"Barely." Ro replied.

"You should be glad that Brin regards you as a potential friend," T'Kir's eyes lased holes through Makra's skull, "otherwise I'd kill you."

Makra tasted the sincerity in those words and remained silent. T'Kir rose from Macen's side, "Your friend may not be so lucky."

T'Kir," Macen shifted and put his feet on the floor, "We need to set an example."

"It'll be an example." T'Kir growled.

"It's unnecessary and wasteful." Macen gathered his strength, "Her fate should be left to the Chandillans."

"And of they do nothing?" T'Kir wanted to know.

"That's their mistake to make not ours." Macen said and rose to his feet. T'Kir leapt to his side and caught him as he started to fall. He responded with a grateful smile and then straightened himself out and stood on his own. T'Kir hovered nearby to respond within seconds.

"Call off your fighters outside." Ro demanded, "If we don't make it back to our ship you won't see your Proconsul again until after you hammer out an extradition treaty with the Federation."

"You're not taking me prisoner?" Makra asked in confusion.

"We don't want the prisoners we already have." Ro informed her, "Contact Commander Vaughn. He'll arrange the safe return of your Proconsul and the others that were beamed aboard if we make it back in one piece."

"I'll call off the Militia." Makra promised, "Just return our leader to us."

"Natch." T'Kir remarked and tapped her comm badge, "T'Kir to Danan."

"Go ahead."

"Three to beam up, this location." T'Kir instructed. A moment later they dissolved into a shimmer of energy. Makra watched the display. After the Federation personnel were gone, she returned to the office space. Activating the comm console, she contacted Militia Command. Outlining the Proconsul's predicament, she ordered the fighters off. The Militia commander hurried to obey.

Makra had much to think about. Macen had argued for clemency and tolerance even after being tortured. He defended her planet's sovereignty despite its current vulnerability. She wasn't certain that she would have been as magnanimous in return. Surely the Federation had more to offer than originally supposed. Perhaps an alliance based upon mutual respect would be better than a union born out of authoritarianism.

Maybe. She reiterated to herself. Rising from the desk, she sought out a medkit with whish to rouse Nelos. Maybe she could convince her younger associate of the necessary change of plans. Or maybe not. Makra thought ruefully as she remembered Nelos' inherent stubbornness.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Macen, Ro and T'Kir rematerialised inside of the Corsair. Macen wavered and T'Kir braced him. Danan came out of her seat,

"Brin?" she said with alarm, "My God! What's wrong?"

Ro pushed past the Trill. Reaching the flight controls, she leaned over to speak with Grace as Danan assisted T'Kir in getting Macen to the crew compartment.

"Where's Daggit?"

Grace nudged her chin towards the main hatch, "He's outside. He's already repulsed a security team."

Ro tapped her comm badge, "Ro to Daggit."

"Daggit here." came the terse reply.

"Climb aboard soldier." Ro wore a wry grin, "We're evacuating."

"Roger. Out."

Ro wore a disgruntled expression as she spoke, "Chatty isn't he?"

"You get used to it." Grace replied as she took her systems off stand-by.

"No thanks." Ro said as she stood behind Grace, "I wonder how they're doing with Brin?"

"Why don't you check on him?" Grace suggested, "Nothings going to happen here until Rab gets back inside."

"I think I will." Ro offered a grateful smile as she proceeded aft.

Ro found Danan standing by as T'Kir attempted to fasten Macen's crash harness. Macen slapped her hand.

"I can do it." He determinedly declared. To emphasise his point he secured the straps himself in short order.

"Never let them see you down and out." Ro laughed, "A commanding officer's holy mantra."

"Exactly!" Macen excitedly pointed at Ro, "Tell them!"

T'Kir bent over and kissed Macen's cheek, "I love ya anyway you stubborn jackass."

"What I don't get is why I couldn't detect your biometrics the first time we came down and yet we were suddenly able to spot you this time `round."

"Dimensional dissonance." Macen supplied.

"Say what?" Danan retorted.

"Exactly." Ro agreed, "What she said."

"Their machine almost literally tore my mind apart." Macen explained, "As a result, my footing in this reality became tenuous. I literally "faded" in and out of this existence."

"And yet your body never disappeared." Ro pointed out, "Or at least your captors weren't aware of it."

"This body is a shell." Macen replied, "It is the vessel that holds the true essence. It is that essence that leaves this plane when the body expires."

"So, you're touting life after death?" Ro asked.

Macen shook his head, "I'm touting the existence of other planes of reality. El-Aurians have access to these realms. I don't know about other species. Sorry."

T'Kir grinned, "Don't forget, I went to the Nexus with you after we died. There's gotta be hope for us lesser species as well."

"Yeah," Macen grinned back, "that was rather unexpected."

Ro's comm badge chirped and she tapped it. Grace's voice came through, "I hate to be a joy stealer but Rab's aboard and we need to go."

The female trio left Macen and passed Daggit as he was trying to leave the Corsair's armoury. Daggit found a seat by Macen and strapped himself in. The women retook their previous stations and Grace activated the antigravs.

The runabout rose into the air just as three new security officers exited the lift. Grace backed the ship out of the framework that used to house the glass enclosure. Bringing the Corsair about, she engaged the thrusters and started to climb. The local militia's fighters paced the miniature starship but did not fire. Grace engaged the engines and climbed out of the atmosphere.

"We're leaving atmo." Grace announced.

"What a mess." T'Kir opined, looking at the scattered ships and debris in orbit above Chandilla. Standing vigil over the carcasses were the Obsidian and the Defiant. Both ships' tractor beams were busy pulling crippled ships into higher orbits.

Grace whistled, "They didn't mess around."

"They had no reason to." Ro said clinically, "Even though the Chandillan ships had inferior weaponry their sheer numbers made them a threat."

Grace hailed the Obsidian's Bay Chief and started the ball rolling for a landing procedure. Twenty minutes later they were safely inside the shuttlebay and it was repressurising. When the telltales lit up, indicating that there was a breathable atmosphere outside, Grace popped the main hatch. The outer doors to the bay opened and Kort pushed his way in trailed by a medical team.

Grace was the first to exit the runabout. She waved her hands in front of Kort, "Whoa big boy. The Captain's been through hell but he's coming out on his own feet. Got it?"

Kort muttered something in Klingon that Grace suspected that highly educated doctors weren't supposed to know. Daggit came out next. Ro followed after him. Danan preceded T'Kir and T'Kir helped steady Macen as he stepped down.

Kort was on the verge of having a fit, "Captain!"

"At ease, Kort." Macen said as he stood still to catch his breath.

"You're hurt." Kort belaboured the obvious.

"Tell him somethin' he doesn't know." T'Kir wisecracked.

"You need to come to Sickbay." Kort insisted.

Macen nodded, "And I will, after I've had a shower, a change of clothes and a meal."

"It can't wait." Kort grew more insistent, "I can relieve you of duty and compel you to come to Sickbay."

"Relieve me of what duty?" Macen laughed, "Riker's in charge, not me."

"This is intolerable!" the Klingon bellowed, "I am the CMO of this ship. I must be respected."

"Kort," Macen was far more conciliatory, "Do you really want me to go to Sickbay first?"

"Yes." All of Kort's frustration was focused into one word.

Macen shrugged, "Fine. I'll come."

Kort motioned for his assistants to deploy the stretcher. Macen waved his hands, "I'll come but it'll be on foot."

Knowing when to concede, Kort deflated a little, "That will be fine. After you, Captain."

"Thank you." Macen grinned and then departed with an entourage in his wake.

Radil depressed the door chime again and waited. The door slid aside and Astris was revealed standing in the threshold in Starfleet regulation undergarments. Radil smirked and Astris grew irritated.

"What do you want?" she demanded.

"I have a surprise for you." Radil stepped aside to reveal Kara and another Security officer. Kara's wrists were restrained and she looked subdued but Astris' heart leapt with joy.

"Why are you releasing her?" Astris had to know.

"I'm not." Radil said, "The brig is full of people that would like to see her dead. All of the spare quarters are occupied and I need somewhere to put her. I didn't think you'd mind sharing your bed."

"Of course not." Astris immediately blurted and then she stopped for a second, "How is this going to work?"

"I've already set the security levels on your replicator." Radil explained, "There'll be a guard posted outside of your door twenty-four hours a day. You'll be free to move about but she's confined to quarters."

Astris was about to protest but Radil cut her off, "She's already agreed to follow the rules. She'll be left in your custody. Can you handle that?"

Astris' eyes narrowed at the challenge, "Of course I can."

Radil unlocked Kara's wrists and hung the binders on her belt, "Then she's all yours."

Kara rubbed her wrists and then almost toppled over as Astris rushed into her arms. Kara lit up. Her radiant smile warmed the corridor. Astris leaned back and looked up at Kara.

"What does she mean people want to kill you?" Astris asked.

"Garane is aboard as well as Jern Gelt and other orderlies." Kara wore a sad smile, "They have not taken my recent actions very well."

"Ladies," Radil interrupted, "if you'd be so kind as to enter your quarters?"

"Of course." Astris said and she ushered Kara in and stepped in behind her, "Will there be anything else?"

"Owens here will be on duty for the next shift." Radil introduced the strapping farm boy turned security agent, "Let him know if you need anything."

"We will." Astris promised, "Good night."

The door closed and Radil grinned, "I think they're about to have pleasant dreams."

Owens chuckled, "I think you've called it, Chief."

"I'll have a field chair, a basket of sandwiches, and a thermos of coffee brought up." Radil promised, "Need anything else?"

"Just a little company now and again." Owens said plaintively.

"I'll put you down as a stop on tonight's patrol route." Radil chuckled.

"Thanks." Owens pulled a padd out of his pocket and went to work writing something. Radil smiled and strode off. She still had a few stops to make and she was looking forward to them. Or at least most of them. Radil ruefully admitted to herself.

"Are we done yet?" Macen enquired as he twisted his legs off of the biobed and assumed a seated position. An exasperated Tessa gave Kort an imploring look. Kort moved back to Macen's position. He pulled Macen's legs back onto the table and then pushed his torso back down to a prone position.

"Kort," Macen tried to reassure his doctor, "I'm fine."

"I'll be the judge of that." Kort growled.

Macen rolled his eyes and relaxed for a moment. He was swiftly regaining his strength and it would soon be more difficult to keep him here. Kort studied some readings at the biobed's head and then picked up a medical tricorder and reviewed its last scan.

Frowning, Kort finally grumbled, "I can't find anything wrong with you."

"Good." Macen said joyously and started to rise from the bed, "Then I can leave."

Kort placed his hand in Macen's chest and stopped his CO from moving, "I may not know what happened to you but I know something occurred. You're staying until I can fathom what that was."

Macen moved Kort's hand away, "Kort, you don't have the equipment to pick up on what happened to me. The Federation science doesn't exist which could account for my recent malady. El-Aurian science could but it's fairly nonexistent now. Cut your losses and let me go to my quarters."

Kort and Tessa exchanged glances. Finally, Kort heaved a heavy sigh, "You're discharged but no heavy exertions for at least twenty-four hours."

"There goes my fun." T'Kir pouted from across the room.

"We'll make do." Macen winked, "I promise."

T'Kir clapped her hands, "Ohhh, I like those kinds of promises. It inspires creativity."

At that moment, the Sickbay doors opened and Radil barged in, "If you think this was bad, just wait until the next time you two go gallivanting around without Rab and I. Me chief of security. You trouble magnet. You no go running off without me no more."

The first was delivered with a lot of finger wagging. The end was punctuated with a pat on the head. Macen looked amused, contrite, but amused.

"Okay," he relented, "you win. Next time we'll stick together if it's your recommendation to do so."

"What?" a stunned Radil asked, "Who are you and what the hell did you do with my boss?"

"Seriously," Macen pressed on, "T'Kir and I acted foolishly."

"Speak for yourself buster." T'Kir quipped.

"We recklessly ignored your advice and it was proven to be a painful mistake." Macen shot T'Kir a So there! Look. She blew him a raspberry. Radil looked confused and uncertain.

"This is weird." She lamented.

Macen shrugged, "Near death experiences tend to make me a little more cautious."

"You never just agree." Radil weakly protested, "They toyed with your brain or something."

"Truer words have never been spoken." Macen replied.

The Sickbay doors opened again and this time Ro and Danan strode in.

"Is he going to live?" Ro asked.

"Yes, but I don't know why." Kort unhappily answered, "He won't tell me what they did to him."

Ro wore a sly grin, "They tried to use a mind scanner didn't they?"

Macen nodded and Ro continued, "And it didn't work, did it?"

Macen nodded and Ro victoriously turned to Danan, "That's ten strips of latinum you owe me."

"Damn." Danan muttered and then she turned on Macen, "Couldn't you have lied?"

Macen shook his head, "If I'd known about the wager I might have thrown it toward you. As it was, candour was the only option."

Danan rolled her eyes, "You're a spy Brin. Lying is what you do."

"Only when absolutely necessary." Macen said primly.

"Then tell her about our sealed orders from Starfleet when we infiltrated the Maquis." Danan challenged.

"That's classified." Macen said in a low voice.

"Let me guess," Ro interjected, "You were to assist the Maquis in destabilising Cardassian interests in the Zone. This would entail sabotaging key Cardassian projects and destroying strategically important bases all while redirecting patrol ships off the border."

"Yeah." Danan blinked in surprise, "How did you know?"

Ro shrugged, "One of Alynna Nechayev's favourite gambits. You should've seen my sealed orders."

There was a moment of silence and then Danan returned her focus to the wager, "What are you going to do with ten strips of latinum? Bajor has joined the Federation's cashless economy."

Ro grinned, "But Quark hasn't. I can get a few good meals and some drinks out of those winnings."

Danan gave up. Looking up towards the ceiling, she conceded, "Fine. I'll arrange a funds transfer."

Ro's grin blossomed into a smile, "I'll give you my account number when you're ready."

"Can I get out of here?" Macen lamented.

Kort sighed and his shoulders sagged, "Since I can find nothing wrong with you except for fatigue, you may go. Rest for at least the next twelve hours."

Macen slid off of the biobed, "I will."

The Sickbay doors opened, revealing Riker and Vaughn. Vaughn warmly smiled upon seeing Macen, "I knew they couldn't keep you down."

Macen grinned, "It's good to see you too, Elias."

Vaughn came to stand before Macen. T'Kir slid in close to her husband and leaned into him as his arm came around her waist. Vaughn's smile broadened.

"Reminds me of the good old days." Vaughn chuckled, "Only I was the married man and you were the widower."

Macen shook his head, "It turns out I wasn't a widower after all. Arinea was still alive."

"Was?" Vaughn pointedly asked.

"I'll tell you the story over snacks and coffee." Macen offered. Turning to Riker, Macen asked, "Tom, are you free?"

"I am now." Riker laughed, "I've turned over the reins to our resident bundle of boundless energy."

"Shannon is a wonder, isn't she?" Macen remarked, "She certainly has blossomed over the last two years."

"And I'll thank whatever deity that's responsible." Riker grinned, "She's indispensable."

"I think you guys push her too hard." T'Kir opined, "She hardly ever sleeps. How does she do it?"

"I don't know." Riker admitted, "I'm just grateful for it."

"Officer Forger needs to come in for her quarterly physical." Tessa announced, "If one of you could order her to Sickbay..."

Kort cleared his throat, "Tessa, that physical was completed three months ago. You performed it yourself."

Tessa was perplexed, "I did? I don't remember."

Kort shrugged, "It happens to everyone."

"Not to me." Tessa asserted, "The computer has allocated me a terraquad of professional memory space. That doesn't include my personal memory buffer."

"I'll run a review of your systems once we're back in our home port." T'Kir promised.

"Thank you." This alleviated Tessa's fears.

The doors opened once more and Grace stepped into the room. "Whoa!" she exclaimed, "Quite the crowd. I haven't seen Sickbay this crowded since Parva got hurt."

"We're headed to the Team Room." T'Kir informed her, "Wanna come?"

"That was my next stop." Grace laughed, "I'm starving."

"Then let's go." Macen ordered and the milling crowd made their way out of Sickbay. Left behind, Kort cast a worried eye over Tessa. The EMH had been developing as an individual at a remarkable rate. He was worried that somehow her program had been corrupted and that she would have to be taken back to her default settings. That would be an eternal shame. Kort shook his head and, handing over the Sickbay to Tessa, left.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Vaughn set his mug down. It was his third cup of coffee. Although Vaughn portrayed a façade of youthful exuberance, his age wrought fatigue was showing to those that knew him. Macen knew T'Kir had picked up on it. Ro was emanating quiet concern as well.

Vaughn noted his friends' subtle reactions and kept his own counsel. Frowning, he changed the topic from tales of previous exploits to the more immediate past, "I've been receiving calls from someone named Makra. She says you made a deal to exchange Brin for Proconsul Garane. Is this true?"

Ro nodded, "That's the gist of it. We have no authority to hold any Chandillans. We aren't at war with them and we've no extradition treaties in place."

Vaughn turned to Riker, "But you're planning on holding Kara Gena?"

Riker shifted in his seat, "Kara surrendered to us as a Federation citizen. She's a legally naturalised citizen of Bajor. Besides, I don't think she'd get a warm homecoming on Chandilla. We could grant her asylum and sort out the legal standings later."

"Agreed." Vaughn lifted his mug and took another swallow of coffee, "You're getting pretty adept at this Tom. Are you sure you don't want your own command?"

Macen neutrally observed Riker as Tom fielded the question, "Outbound Ventures' commands are fairly routine. I'd miss the excitement of working with the SID."

Vaughn chuckled as he turned to Macen, "Man loves his headaches."

There were a table full of rueful smiles at that observation. Vaughn's comm badge sounded and he put his mug down with a sigh.

"Vaughn here." came the weary reply.

"It's Captain Makra again." Dax reported.

Vaughn closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, "Right on schedule. Patch her through, Lieutenant."

"Commander?" came Makra's hesitant query a moment later.

"I'm here, Captain." Vaughn was all poise and authority, "How can I assist you?"

"When will you be releasing the Proconsul and her staff?"

Macen flashed Vaughn five fingers three times. Vaughn nodded, "Will fifteen minutes be good for you?"

"That would be excellent." Makra's happiness radiated over the circuit.

"We'll transport them to their original coordinates." Vaughn informed her.

"I'll be awaiting them. Makra out."

Macen rose, "I'll just have enough time to change clothes and greet Proconsul Garane."

Vaughn's eyebrows rose, "Now this should be an interesting conversation."

"You're welcome to observe it." Macen offered, "That way Amanda can't accuse me of trying to start an interstellar incident after this is over."

Vaughn released a merry chuckle, "I'm afraid she won't see me as an impartial witness."

"She respects your professional judgement, Elias." Macen countered, "We both know that."

Vaughn held up his hands, "I surrender already. I'll see you in the brig in ten minutes."

"Tom," Macen faced Riker, "will you alert Jenrya to the prisoner release?"

"Be happy to," Riker grinned, "but I'm not leaving here until I get a full meal."

"Fair enough." Macen conceded, "I'll be in my quarters taking a shower if anyone needs me during the next ten minutes."

"No problem." Riker magnanimously allowed.

"This should be interesting." Ro opined, "I think I'll tag along as well."

"It's just a shower, Laren." T'Kir teased.

Ro lifted her eyes imploringly to the ceiling, "Give me strength."

Macen rose and tugged at T'Kir's arm, "Come along dear. I'm afraid poor Laren has been harassed enough."

"But I was just starting to have fun." T'Kir whined.

"Behave and I'll let you shower with me." Macen offered.

"I won't behave then but I will now." T'Kir declared, "Hurry up, buster."

After the couple left, Ro wore a bemused grin, "I stand corrected. The shower could be interesting too."

"I don't want to know." Riker retorted.

Ro's grin turned wicked. With an evil gleam in her eye, she said, "I owe you the story of what happened when your twin and I lost our memories. We had no idea who we were or what our relationship was, even though we'd just had an argument right before the scan wave robbed us of our past."

Riker looked dubious and Ro proceeded with impish glee, "Anyway, we were assessing the crew's situation and things started to get interesting..."

"Hey!" Macen jumped as T'Kir pinched his bare arse.

"Gotcha!" T'Kir giggled with delight.

Macen stepped out of the shower cubicle and went to their shared closet. He pulled an olive Henley off of its hanger. He draped the shirt on the bed. Next, he went to his dresser and pulled out a pair of boxers and a pair of socks. A pair of pants emerged out of the lowest drawer.

T'Kir bounded out of the shower, "Don't get dressed. I'm feeling frisky."

"Sorry." Macen was rueful, "I have a date with Garane, and to be honest, I'm still wiped out."

"What I have in mind won't require you to move...much." T'Kir said with impish glee.

Having received a telepathic image of what she was asking for, Macen smiled, "All right. I can go along with that."

"Just don't talk too much." T'Kir warned, "I don't want you wearing yourself out."

Knowing that she was concerned with a singular muscle, he shook his head and got dressed. Once he was clothed, he proceeded to the safe in the wall. Having been scanned and his biometrics approved, he opened the unit and removed his spare holster. Strapping it on, he turned to the phaser sitting within the safe's confines.

Macen lifted the pistol and hefted its weight. Seeing that its balance was right, he sighted the opposite wall. T'Kir paused and proudly smiled.

"Rab and Joachim specifically chose that phaser for you." She revealed, "Joachim added upgraded targeting sensors and an enhanced gyroscope."

Macen visually inspected the weapon one last time then slid into place in its holster.

"Gonna name this one?" T'Kir asked with a bemused expression.

"I don't think so." Macen replied, "It was kind of childish."

"I thought it was cute." T'Kir countered.

"Great." Macen muttered, "Are you almost done?"

T'Kir finished pulling on her boots and fastening them closed. She rose and removed her gunbelt from the bed and strapped it on.

"Ready." She said perkily.

"Let's roll." Macen said and headed for the door. He paused at the door and let T'Kir catch up. She reached, took hold of his neck, and kissed him on the cheek.

Macen smiled, "That was sweet. Rather sedate for you, but sweet."

T'Kir held her forefinger under her chin and adopted a sugary smile. Coquettishly, she said, "I'm taking sweet out for a test drive."

"Just be yourself." Macen implored, "That's all I ask."

"Hey buddy, I'm naturally sweet." T'Kir declared.

"I bow before your infinite wisdom." Macen grinned, "Can we go now?"

"Lead on, kind sir." T'Kir said with aplomb and a twirl of her hand, "Lead on."

Macen entered the brig only to find Ro, Vaughn, Radil and Collins already there. Garane stood just behind the force screen and looked irritated. Her eyes widened and her features softened when she recognised Macen. Her haughty expression swiftly returned.

"Am I to be kept here for your amusement, Captain?" Garane enquired.

"Are you asking if you'll be tortured?" Macen calmly asked.

Doubt clouded Garane's eyes and Macen chose to alleviate her concerns, "You're being returned to your people, Proconsul. You may have chosen a course which may have constitutes an act of war but the Federation is declining the invitation to engage in hostilities."

"It appears they already have." Garane countered, "How else can you explain the presence of Starfleet in our solar system and the destruction of our navy?"

"If Starfleet had really declared war on you, you wouldn't be in a position to argue semantics." Macen advised her, "The Federation is releasing you. However, there is a certain matter between us. Since I'm only a contract employee of Starfleet, I can pursue my grievance as a private citizen. You're a prisoner on my ship. As previously stated, Starfleet has released all interest in you but you're still a prisoner aboard my ship."

Macen coldly stared into Garane's eyes, "Do you want to learn the price of your freedom?"

Garane hesitated and then nodded, "Yes. Yes, I do."

"You'll dismantle your mind scanner and destroy any and all records of how to build one." Macen stated, "That's the condition of your release."

Garane was dumbfounded, "That's it?"

"One condition." Macen stressed the point.

"And if I don't comply?" Garane cocked her head to one side.

"I'll be back someday." Macen promised, "If that machine is still intact when I get here, I'll implement General Order 24."

"And that is?" Garane wondered.

"A directive to destroy a world." Macen answered.

"That's heinous!" Garane gasped.

"So's that machine." Macen said tightly, "Get rid of it."

Garane stepped back. She studied Macen, reappraising him. Having gauged whether or not he would carry out his threat, she nodded.

"Very well." She relented, "It will be destroyed."

Macen deactivated the forcefield. Turning to Radil, he said, "Let them all out Radil. Escort them to the transporter and have Telrik return them to the site where he acquired them."

"You got it." Radil nodded to Collins. Collins deactivated the remaining two forcefields. The two Security officers kept their hands on their pistols as they ushered the Chandillans out of the room. The rest of the available gamma shift security detail was waiting for them in the corridor. The Chandillans moved along quietly.

Vaughn turned to Macen, "I think she bought your bluff."

Macen's eyes were cold and his expression ruthless as he asked, "Who was bluffing?"

"Brin," Vaughn's voice had a hint of desperation in it, "you can't be serious. The last time GO 24 was invoked was during the Vanguard mission. No one has dared use it since."

"Then it's a good thing I won't have to, isn't it?" Macen nonchalantly asked. That being said, he departed. T'Kir left on his heels. Vaughn and Ro exchanged nervous glances.

"My God," Vaughn breathed, "what have we created?"

"There's a dangerous side to him struggling to get out." Ro observed, "I don't want to be in his way if it ever gets loose."

Vaughn was unsettled, "Unfortunately, I know who they'd call in to stop him. We'd have to contain him or kill him."

"I've had a few sleepless nights worrying about that possibility." Ro admitted.

"I think it's time I had an overdue chat with Nechayev and Drake." Vaughn decided.

"Good luck with that." Ro grimaced, "What I'm most afraid of is that our best hope of keeping him safe and sane rests with T'Kir."

"It can't be that bad." Vaughn said, "She's a bit eccentric and..."

"And every marble she has is rolling around loose in her head." Ro finished for him, "Her telepathy may be more controlled now but she still suffered a lot of psychic trauma during her time with the Maquis. That kind of mental scarring just doesn't go away because you can suddenly keep the voices in the night at bay."

Vaughn sobered, "I see your point. So what do we do?"

Ro shrugged, "I suggest you pray if you believe in a higher power. Other than that, we keep our eyes open and hope for the best."

"Not much of a plan." Vaughn muttered.

"The best that we have, Commander." Ro said fatalistically.

Vaughn sighed, "I'd better get back to the Defiant. Coming?"

Ro shook her head, "I rode in with the Obsidian crew. I'll ride back the same way."

"Suit yourself." Vaughn offered a wan smile, "Keep an eye on our friend."

"I will." Ro promised, "See you back on DS9."

"It's a date." Vaughn grinned and winked.

Ro gaped as Vaughn left. Standing alone, she tried to reconcile what had just happened with her usual perception of Elias Vaughn. Vaughn had always been friendly...friendly but professional. He'd never been playful before.

Ro knew she'd just graduated to an elite cadre. Vaughn had chosen her to be a friend. She felt deeply honoured and touched. Ro had never seen herself as being special but she was held in high regard by some of the greatest heroes in the Federation. Shaking her head she promised herself that she would prove herself worthy of Vaughn's unspoken compliment.

Macen called Kalista and had the Deltan gather the assembled planetary leaders in the Team Room. Despite being designed to seat half of the Obsidian's crew at a time, it still fell woefully short of accommodating the over three dozen guests. Over a dozen passengers were left standing.

Macen called everyone to order, "As you may or may not recall I'm Brin Macen. I'm the captain of the Obsidian, the ship you are now on. With me is Commander Elias Vaughn. The Commander is the senior Starfleet officer in this area."

"Why isn't anyone aboard except for him in Starfleet uniform?" Grozik called out, "Is this a Starfleet ship or isn't it?"

"No." Macen answered, "This isn't a Starfleet vessel. The Obsidian is chartered to Outbound Ventures, Inc. She's contracted by Starfleet for particular tasks. My kidnapping precipitated her joining in the rescue effort. I'm sorry if this disillusions any of you but Starfleet wouldn't normally hire a vessel to participate in what is the duty of its regular forces."

Gant Delane remained silent. The Federation President knew of Macen's ultimate loyalties and of their covert nature. His silence insured that Macen and his team would continue to have the latitude that their role required.

"Now for Commander Vaughn." Macen motioned for Vaughn to step forward. For Vaughn, the moment was rife with embarrassment. Secluded in the shadows for the bulk of his career, the limelight of being DS9's XO still threatened to overwhelm him at times.

Vaughn greeted the rescued "delegates" and informed them that any of them that wanted to ride back to Deep Space 9 in the Defiant were welcome to. No one leapt at the offer. Their cabins were quite comfortable, if somewhat less luxurious then most of them were accustomed to.

Vaughn ended his speech and stepped aside. Macen invited the assembly to sample the offerings of the Obsidian's resident chef. Nearly half declined and retired to their quarters. The remainder settled down for a sumptuous meal. Knowing that she was on display, the chef had outdone herself.

Macen and Vaughn excused themselves and moved to Macen's Ready Room. T'Kir, of course, tagged along. Ro, having changed out of her tactical armour, met them on the bridge. Exchanging greetings and introductions with Forger, they retired to the Captain's office area.

T'Kir curled up on the couch while Vaughn and Ro occupied the two chairs arrayed before Macen's desk. Macen took drink orders from everyone. After the niceties were observed, Macen enquired as to why Vaughn had wanted to meet.

"I'll be transporting back over to the Defiant in a few moments." Vaughn explained, "I just wanted to coordinate our schedules and routes."

"Have Ezri contact Shannon and let them wrangle it out." Macen replied and leaned back. Peering at Vaughn over his mug, he asked, "What's really on your mind, Elias?"

"Are you certain that you don't want to be an official member of Starfleet Intelligence?" Vaughn held up his hand, "Hear me out. By being part of Starfleet, you have guidelines and boundaries outlining your course. You don't have those safeguards and I think that they might prove to be useful."

"This is about GO 24, isn't it?" Macen asked.

"Among other things." Vaughn confessed, "You've always thought outside the box but over the years you've become a maverick."

"Are you saying that you don't trust me any more?" Macen softly enquired.

"I still trust you, Brin." Vaughn replied, "But I have my doubts as to your reliability and stability."

"That's honest enough." Macen sat his mug down, "Have you shared these concerns with Alynna and Amanda?"

"Not yet." Vaughn admitted.

"Better hurry." Macen urged, "I wouldn't want you to feel guilty about holding your peace if something were to happen."

Vaughn hesitated and Macen smiled, "This isn't a cry for help, Elias. I just want you to follow your conscience."

Vaughn nodded, "It's appreciated." Vaughn drained his glass and set it down on Macen's desk, "If you don't mind, I'll find my own way down to the transporter room."

"Suit yourself." Macen replied. Vaughn departed and Macen turned to Ro.

"So, you looked ready to start a small war on my behalf." He grinned.

"Just about." Ro admitted, "The real credit for your rescue goes to Tom Riker."

"Really?" Macen was happily intrigued, "Tell me more."

"Well, it all started on DS9." Ro began, "The Captain had called a meeting and..."

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Before Macen and T'Kir retired for the evening, a signal from Garane's offices was relayed to the comm centre in their quarters. T'Kir brushed out her hair after releasing it from the tail it had been arranged in. Macen fielded the call.

"Hello Proconsul." Macen said formally, "Your timing is impeccable. Our ships are breaking orbit and I was about to retire for the evening."

"I wanted you to know," Garane said without preamble, "I have ordered the complete destruction of our mind scanner. The stipulations you laid out are being implemented. You have no reason to return."

"I'll let Starfleet double check that if you don't mind." Macen returned.

"Yes," Garane wore a thin smile, "Commander Vaughn said that the Starfleet would send a diplomatic envoy. Informal contact has provoked a failure. We shall see if formal relations prove to be more fruitful."

"We can only hope." Macen commented.

One of Garane's eye ridges rose, "You would still wish for successful exchanges between our cultures?"

"Of course." Macen readily replied, "I think we have a lot to teach each other."

"We shall see." Garane said without much optimism, "I still feel that we have much to share with you but I can see little of value within the Federation."

"Time and exposure can change many things." Macen opined, "We'll see where you stand in another decade or two."

"Indeed we shall." Garane said with an enigmatic smile. The transmission ended a second later. The gist of the conversation troubled Macen. He decided to recommend to the Council of Five that Ambassador Wid Terrel personally handle the impending negotiations.

The Chandillans were ripe for the famed "Johnson touch". If anyone could get the Chandillans honestly talking and willing to engage in cultural exchanges it was Robert Tavar Johnson. Unfortunately, Johnson was not available. Terrel was the next best thing.

Macen looked at the time and decided to forgo sending that particular recommendation until tomorrow morning. He'd decided to sleep in since he on medically prescribed light duty for the next nine hours. T'Kir had shamelessly volunteered to stay by his side and act as his nurse.

"Are you coming to bed or what?" T'Kir called out from the bedroom.

"On my way." Macen said as he entered the room, "I just need to change and brush my teeth."

"Hurry up." T'Kir urged, "I promise you you won't need clothes tonight."

"I did promise you that I'd administer a little personalised attention didn't I?" Macen grinned.

"Damn skippy you did." T'Kir retorted. She pulled the covers off to reveal her nude form, "I'm ready and waiting."

"I'll be there in just a sec." Macen assured her, "I promise."

Moments later, Macen emerged from the san and shucked his clothing, "Ready?"

T'Kir grinned, "Am I ever."

"Thank you, my dear." Delane said to Kalista, "I know your shift must have ended already. It is kind of you to deliver these padds for me."

Kalista bestowed a radiant smile upon him, "I rarely have that much to do and besides, if you don't go out of your way for the President, who will you strive to help?"

"I'll deliver this last one personally." Delane said, "You did say that she was in 224?"

"Yes." Kalista said brightly and pointed down the corridor, "Right down there."

Delane bowed his head, "Thank you."

Kalista happily bustled off and Delane proceeded down the corridor. Coming to the appropriate door, he nodded to the young guard standing watch and depressed the door chime. The door slid aside and Astris was revealed still in her underwear. She reddened as she gestured for Delane to enter.

"There's no need to stand on ceremony with me." Delane said reassuringly, "If you'd like to grab a robe, I'll wait."

"No," Astris composed herself, "come in. I'll only be a moment."

Delane entered and took a moment to acknowledge Kara's presence. The Bajoran woman was seated on the couch cradling a steaming cup of tea. She looked uncomfortable.

"If you need privacy I could go into the bedroom and wait." She offered.

Delane held up a hand, "No need. What I have to say concerns both of you."

Astris forewent the robe and sat down beside Kara. The couple clasped hands. Delane handed Astris the padd he had brought. She accepted it with her free hand and at first looked at it with some confusion and then, as dawning realisation gripped her, she scrutinised every word. When she had finished, she handed the device to Kara.

Kara looked puzzled as she studied the document displayed by the padd. When she had finished, she held it close to her chest.

"I don't understand." Kara admitted.

"It's a whitewash." Astris snorted, "They're covering everything up."

"Please understand," Delane urged, "the citizenry cannot be allowed to know how easily we were all kidnapped. The populace is nervous enough already in the wake of Cell 51's coup. My Cabinet, and the Federal Committee of the Council, have debated this at considerable length and we feel that the Federation is best served by burying this. The Select Commission on Security has already classified these events as a state secret."

Delane was pained as he spoke, "You cannot discuss this matter with anyone who was not involved."

"Where does that leave me?" Kara asked, "I surrendered myself so that I could face Federation justice. What happens now? A secret trial?"

"You are honestly repentant about your actions and complicity in this affair?" Delane inquired.

"Of course." Kara pleaded her case, "If I wasn't, I would have left Beru on Chandilla and would never have sought Starfleet's assistance."

"Then I issue a preemptive pardon on your behalf." Delane produced yet another padd from the folds of his tunic, "You are excused for any crimes you may have committed. You will, of course, be expected to resign from your post as Legal Minister for personal reasons."

Kara gave the pardon a cursory examination and looked up, "I'm free?"

Delane smiled, "Consider yourself to be in the 1st Minister's custody."

Kara and Astris exchanged joyful looks and then they embraced. Delane beamed. Rising, he straightened out his tunic.

"I'll be leaving you now." He announced.

"No," Astris insisted, "stay! Help us celebrate."

"May I invite a few friends?" Delane asked.

"Invite whomever you please." Astris replied, "In fact, I'm going to invite Vladimir Kirov."

"Amongst my guests shall be Captain Macen and his charming wife." Delane warned.

"Good." Kara spoke, "I like him. He helped me see reason."

"And me as well." Astris admitted, "Invite him. In fact, I insist that you invite him."

"Very well." Delane stepped to the door and stepped out. Looking around, he smiled, "I see my message to the Captain arrived safely. Your guard has already been posted elsewhere."

"I also suggest that we use the area they call the Team Room." Delane offered, "It has larger accommodations than your humble quarters and there are refreshments on demand."

"Good thinking." Astris acknowledged, "Gena and I will get dressed and join you there."

"It will be a pleasure." Delane bowed and then shambled off.

Astris took Kara's hands and pulled her off of the couch, "C'mon m'dear. We have to make you presentable for the party."

Drake Parsons was there, as well as Korista Schrieber and Amelia Wynter. Kirov came at Astris' behest. Hirjin Jant was present as well Fer Mandar of Bolia. Macen and T'Kir showed up fashionably late and conspicuously armed.

T'Kir wore the crew's khaki desert uniform pants with a black cable knit sweater. Macen wore a pair of olive green SOBs. Delane chuckled as he approached Macen.

"I haven't seen that uniform for forty years." Delane confided.

"Of all the uniforms I've worn, the ‘Horatio Hornblower' era and the class-B's of the late '60's and early '70's were my favourites." Macen divulged.

"Yes," Delane nodded, "I've heard as much from veteran Starfleet officers. Most of those still serving approve of the current uniform as well."

Macen grinned, "It is, as long as you skip a few layers."

Delane laughed. T'Kir chose that moment to interject a question, "Have we missed the happy couple?"

"No." Delane smiled conspiratorially, "There was a problem with Kara's wardrobe. It is being addressed as we speak."

T'Kir wore a sly grin, "Meaning she's putting on a whole new outfit while we wait."

"Exactly." Delane chortled.

The room's doors opened once more and Kara and Astris stepped in to applause. Kara reddened but Astris curtsied. The waiting crowd milled about the honourees and wished them well and asked about their future. Astris excused herself and she proceeded to the kitchen. A moment later, she emerged with a bottle of Riker's prised vintage champagne. She replicated a crystal flute and tapped it with a spoon to garner everyone's attention.

"This isn't how I planned this, and to be honest, I'd seriously doubted this day would come over the last few days." Everyone waited in rapt silence as Astris approached. The crowd parted and allowed her direct access to Kara. Astris took Kara's hands in her own.

"You've proven, in a single moment and with a single decision, that you love me beyond measure. I can only hope I can do the same. Kara Gena will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"

Tears of radiant joy streamed down Kara's face, "Of course I will, silly."

They kissed and the crowd cheered. Everyone moved to the replicator and started producing flutes. The champagne was uncorked and it freely flowed into glasses.

Kara wiped her and beamed, "I must look a mess."

T'Kir returned from the replicator with a small case, "I think this will help patch things up."

Kara opened it to reveal a fully equipped selection of make up. She rewarded T'Kir with a radiant smile, "You're a life saver."

"The head is over there." T'Kir pointed out the door.

Kara excused herself and Astris turned to T'Kir, "Thank you for that. I'd overlooked that factor."

"Should've seen me after this lug proposed to me." T'Kir jerked a thumb in Macen's direction, "I wasn't fit to look at for the rest of the day."

"You two seem to provide invaluable services through small touches." Astris observed.

"We just nudge people in the way that they already want to go." Macen replied.

"She has been in there awhile." Delane pointed out.

Astris wore a wry expression, "She may be a veritable super woman but she's a ninny when it comes to cosmetics. I'll be back."

Astris departed and joined Kara in the restroom. Wynter and Kirov made their way to the remaining trio. Each held two flutes.

"Where did the lovebirds go?" Wynter asked.

"They're in the head getting' girly." T'Kir remarked.

"Well," Kirov happily smiled, "more for me."

He drained one flute and started on the second. Wynter shook her head, "Vlad, you are such a hedonist."

"No," Kirov shook his head, "Schrieber is the hedonist. I'm merely a sensualist."

Wynter scowled, "Whatever you are, you're a philanthropic misogynist."

"Hardly true." Kirov huffed, "I love my wife and all of my mistresses. They are all cared for. If it were legal on my world I would marry them all. Since it isn't, we all accommodate one another."

"Stow it." Wynter huffed, "They're out and coming this way."

Kirov bowed before them, "My dear ones, you are both absolutely radiant."

Wynter handed Kara her flute of champagne, "We had one for you as well, Beru. Vlad drank it."

"Let me get you another." Kirov offered, "I could use a refill myself."

"Thank you, kind sir." Astris bantered.

"Drake Parsons seems to have wormed his way into Kori's good graces." Astris observed.

Wynter turned. Across the room, Schrieber and Parsons were huddled in a corner. Jant and Mandar were walking away from the serving area with plates heaped with food. They took seats and toasted one another.

"Everyone seems cosy enough." Wynter allowed.

"So," Astris gave Wynter a conspiratorial look, "what exactly is it between you and Vlad?"

Wynter coloured, "We had a dalliance years ago before I knew about his wife...or his plethora of mistresses."

"You still haven't forgiven him for withholding that information, have you?" Kara asked.

"I guess not." Wynter admitted in a quiet voice.

Kirov returned and offered a fresh flute to Astris, "Here you are, my ravishing beauty."

"You three aren't drinking." Kara turned to Macen, T'Kir and Delane, "Why?"

"While I share in your happiness it is best if I do not imbibe." Delane said, "Champagne has an unnerving effect upon my kind. You've never seen such a sight as an Edosian trying to coordinate three limbs while intoxicated."

"I'm sorry." Astris felt horrible, "I didn't mean..."

Delane waved her concerns aside, "I shall avail myself of some nectar. That will sate my thirst."

Kara turned to Macen and T'Kir, "And you two?"

"Pretty much the same story as the President." Macen replied, "You don't want to see us after a few drinks."

"You really don't want t'be `round me after I've downed a few." T'Kir wryly grinned.

"You have to have something." Astris pleaded.

T'Kir looked into Macen's eyes, "Can ya get me some of that carbonated apple cider?"

Macen took her hand and kissed it, "But of course."

Macen followed Delane's trail. Wynter wore a rueful smile, "I'm jealous."

Kara wrapped an arm around Astris' waist, "I'm not."

"I daresay that would be a good thing." Kirov chuckled.

"So," T'Kir's eyebrow quirked up and she wore a mischievous grin, "what's the private celebration gonna be like?"

There was a lot of blushing and Wynter gave her a reproving glare. T'Kir hunched her shoulders and raised her hands in supplication, "What?"

Late in the next morning Macen and T'Kir grabbed a quiet breakfast. Several of the planetary leaders were gathered around Delane. The President was fielding questions. The cooks revealed that the Edosian had been there for several hours and had been in discussions with a constantly rotating band of civil officials. Macen and T'Kir exchanged a knowing glance. They knew what was being discussed even if the cooks didn't. That would change when Macen made his ship wide announcement prohibiting the crew from discussing their concluded mission with anyone.

Macen had ordered the bridge to block any and all transmissions from the crew's quarters. He was waiting to see what fallout would result from that. Having finished breakfast, Macen and T'Kir went to the bridge. The flack began as soon as they exited the turbolift.

"Hey!" Grace said sharply, "I was talking to Ian last night and my comm went dead!"

Riker turned to face Macen, "I was talking to Will and Deanna and the same thing happened to me."

"Put me on ship wide with the active duty officers." Macen ordered the Ops rating. A moment later, Macen was addressing the crew through their comm badges, "Attention everyone. This is the Captain. By order of the Office of the President of the Federation the mission we have just completed is classified as classified top secret for national security. You are not, I repeat not, to discuss this case with anyone that wasn't involved in it."

Macen made a cutting motion across his chest with his hand and the rating nodded as he complied with the unspoken order. Riker had a quizzical look on his face.

"What about the Gammas?"

"They got the word last night after I did." Macen explained.

"So there was a coverage gap." Riker said.

"Not much of one." Macen replied, "It took that long for Delane to declare everything a secret. Whatever went out before that is a problem for Federation Security."

"So," Riker rubbed his chin, "are you going to lift the comm blackout?"

"No." Macen said with a grin, "Let's let things sink in for a while first."

"Bastard." this came from Grace.

"Go look after your wayward friend." Macen said to T'Kir. T'Kir and Grace immediately fell into whispers. Conspiratorial glances were thrown back in the direction of Macen and Riker.

"There will be no stopping them now." Riker groaned.

"What are you doing after your shift ends?" Macen enquired.

"Why?" Riker asked with suspicion.

"The rescued dignitaries are throwing a party this evening." Macen smirked, "Your attendance is required."

"I never say ‘no' to a party." Riker grinned.

"I didn't think you'd say no." Macen started to move away. Over his shoulder he said, "I'll be in my Ready Room if I'm needed."

"Say ‘hi' to Admiral Drake for me." Riker called out.

"Am I that predictable?" Macen asked.

Riker wore a smug smile, "I won the bet. Kort thought you'd violate prescribed orders and report in last night."

Macen wore a rueful smile, "I had to attend a party last night otherwise I might have."

"I didn't see the party coming." Riker admitted, "Otherwise I would have made a bet about that as well."

"You need a hobby." Macen remarked.

"I have one." Riker unrepentantly grinned, "I'm getting rich off of your actions."

"Oi vey." Macen kvetched and he went into his Ready Room.

Ambril Delori answered Macen's hail. She looked quite pleased with herself. Macen wondered why and then he noticed the extra pip on her collar marking her as a newly minted Lt. Commander.

"Congratulations, Commander." Macen sincerely offered.

Ambril beamed, "Thank you. The Admiral's going to be free in an hour. Would you like her to call you then?"

"That would be perfect." Macen warmly smiled, "Thank you."

Ambril signed off with a chipper smile. Probably grateful that I didn't give her a hard time, Macen mused. He started in on writing his incident report for the SID. Time slipped away and Macen's comm terminal began to chirp. He accepted the incoming transmission and was greeted by the image of Amanda Drake.

"What's wrong with you?" Drake asked without preamble.

"Hello to you to, Amanda." Macen smirked, "Who says anything's wrong?"

"Ambril says your being polite and courteous. I know something's wrong." Drake said.

"Can't someone just be nice without an ulterior motive?" Macen asked.

"Not you." Drake sighed, "What's going on?"

"I'm just basking in the reflected glory of my passengers." Macen quipped.

"Oh Lord." Drake grimaced, "How have you screwed up interstellar policy?"

"I haven't." Macen protested.

"Domestic policy then?" Drake inquired.

"Have a little faith, Amanda." Macen replied, "I'm behaving."

"Well, will miracles never cease?" Drake said in wonder, "I guess there's a first time for everything."

"Including your sense of humour." Macen said drolly.

"That's more like the Macen I know." Drake grinned, "I knew you'd come back."

"By popular request, I assure you." Macen remarked.

"Now that the pleasantries have been exchanged," Drake shifted the tone, "How are your esteemed passengers faring?"

"One couple got engaged and tonight there's a party on Tom's behalf." Macen answered.

Drake blinked, "Did you just say...?"

"A semi-long story." Macen smiled, "I'll tell you the details later in my written report."

"This should be good." Drake grinned.

"It is." Macen concurred.

"The word I'm getting from the President's office is that you made the SID look good." Drake happily reported, "The Secretary of Defence and the Interstellar Security Advisor are speaking to the CinC even now. Alynna's going to get the dirt and update me later."

"Ah, gossip. The life's blood of Starfleet." Macen quipped.

"All too true." Drake laughed.

"Anyway," Macen shifted the focus back to the topic on hand, "we'll reach DS9 tomorrow evening. Have transports standing by to whisk everyone away."

"I'll hand it over to Ed Noyce." Drake promised, "He'd love to arrange everything."

"Good." Macen said emphatically.

"And what about you?" Drake was intrigued.

"Well," Macen said wryly, "We've been paying for empty rooms on Bajor. I'd like to use them before we ship out. The crew could use shore leave so we'll put in at the station and go from there."

"Sounds good." Drake said with a pleased smile, "I'll call you again in a few days and see about your next assignment."

"Don't make it too soon." Macen wheedled.

"I won't." Drake chuckled, "See you later."

"Later, 'Manda." Macen said a second before Drake terminated the transmission.

Macen finished up his after action report over the next two hours. Afterwards, he relieved Riker so that the 1st Officer could fill in what happened during Macen's absence. Riker trudged off with a weary sigh. T'Kir plopped down in the XO's seat beside Macen.

"Hiya Cutie!" she happily bubbled.

"You're mighty perky." Macen observed.

"Hannah needs a vacation." T'Kir insisted.

"I take it Ian Delaney finally received permission to go on leave." Macen replied.

"Yup." T'Kir's head bobbed, "Love is in the air."

"Who am I to deny a hormonal rush like this?" Macen dryly enquired.

"I knew you'd see it my way." T'Kir kissed Macen on the cheek, "I'll tell Hannah she can catch a shuttle when we visit the station."

"What about her room in Sinherra?" Macen asked.

"I'll move her stuff out of it and Radil can have it. It'll keep her from sneaking off the station to visit the city." T'Kir winked and hurried off to the helm console.

Who's really in charge of this ship? Macen wondered.

They arrived at DS9 without internal or external incident. The Defiant docked in her usual berth. The Obsidian took Lower Pylon 3.

The party for Riker had been a rousing success. A few of the civil leaders drank themselves under the table but their behaviour had been moderate enough. Delane had personally thanked Riker for his planning of their rescue.

Riker soaked up the accolades until Danan quietly offered to personally reward him. He'd hurriedly excused himself and followed her out of the room. For Macen it was further proof that the women were really running the ship. He had no problem with female authority but he would have liked to have been informed that he'd relinquished command.

The crew received shore leave. The stay was set at five days. Half of the crew made travel plans to Bajor and the rest got quarters on the station. Radil happily took Grace's place. Dracas relented and agreed to come to the planet with the others. Kort said that Dracas could share his room if no others were available. Grace bounced onto the shuttle bound for Earth. Delaney and the Intrepid were already there waiting.

The planetary leaders were shown to shuttles bound for waiting starships. Each starship had sent their XO's and their finest Security details. Macen, Riker and Vaughn stood in the Promenade and said goodbye to the various representatives. When that was finished Macen turned to Vaughn.

"Are you sure you won't join us down there?" Macen asked Vaughn, "Laren is."

Vaughn grinned, "I can't. Kira is shipping the Defiant out to quell a problem arising in the Gamma Quadrant."

"I'll leave you to get what rest you can." Macen squeezed his elderly friend's arm. Vaughn briskly strode off and Riker shook his head.

"If I should be half that spry at his age." Riker said wistfully.

"Lees says you're doing a good job at staying in shape." Macen grinned, "Something about 'lots of endurance' I believe."

"Hey!" Riker indignantly protested.

"Get used to it Tom." T'Kir giggled, "We're one big happy family. We have no secrets."

"Is it too late to find another family?" Riker plaintively asked.

"Yah, it is." T'Kir took Riker's arm and started leading towards the shuttle, "But look on the bright side: Lees is waiting for you."

Riker grinned, "I guess it can't be all bad then."

"Nope. Not as long as we watch out for each other." T'Kir let go of Riker's arm and he came up beside Danan. Macen stepped up behind T'Kir and wrapped his arms around her.

"'Course," T'Kir beamed, "This works too."

 

The saga will continue...

 

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