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Decisions by Travis Anderson

Chapter One

Tom Riker strode purposefully through the corridors of his assigned starship. The NCC-26632 USS Gandhi was an Ambassador-class vessel. No longer state of the art but a valued workhorse amongst the fleet. Riker pondered that fact. The Enterprise-B had been amongst the first of its class constructed. That alone made these ships legendary.

Sure, Will Riker might serve aboard Starfleet's flagship, the freshly painted Galaxy-class Enterprise-D but Tom Riker had his steadfast Gandhi. Of course, the comparisons there weren't as invigorating. Will was the Executive Officer while Tom was just the Alpha watch OPS Officer. But still, that made him the primary OPS officer aboard this ship. He'd certainly proven his ability with Starfleet systems while marooned on Nervala.

Riker was headed for Downtime Central. The lounge served the Gandhi much the same way Ten Forward served the Enterprise. It was a social place. A meeting ground for officers and enlisted, where rank held no privileges. As such the ship's captain, Aryn Moneii, was rarely seen here. The XO, Commander Megan Halifax, was a frequent customer though.

Word was out on Riker. His rather unusual circumstances had become public knowledge thanks to a certain Ensign Mayweather. What had seemed to be leading to a mutually beneficial evening had ended with her spreading his story across the ship. Now everyone looked at him and a slightly different perspective shone in their eyes. Some even stared at him openly as though he were some exotic lifeform.

Riker responded by closing down his social loophole. He'd prove himself through his work. He'd been alone for eight years, what was another eighteen months aboard the Gandhi? At that time he could request a transfer. Although…word was that Lt. Commander Beenak was transferring off of the Gandhi which meant the position of Second Officer would be opening up. Riker was busting his hump trying to prove he was an ideal candidate.

As Riker approached the doors leading to Downtime Central, someone unexpectedly called out his name. He looked to see who it was and he saw Ensign Annalise Vallis jogging towards him. Like him, Vallis was a new transfer to the ship. She'd arrived just a few weeks after he had. She was brought aboard as the Alpha watch CONN officer. She and Riker sat by each for at least eight hours a day and he suddenly realized he hadn't spoke n more than a few words to her throughout that time.

Despite himself, Riker unyielded his most infectious smile, "Going my way, Ensign?"

She responded in kind, "Why yes I am, Lieutenant."

'It's just Tom while we're in here," Riker informed her.

"In that case, I'm Annalise," Vallis replied.

"That's not a common name," Riker commented.

"That's why I chose it," Vallis remarked, "Who wants to settle for being average?"

Now his grin was genuine, "Truer words have never been spoken. Join me?"

"That was my intention," she shared with a laugh.

They found an empty table and Riker took her order and went to the bar. He came back and she sipped at her drink as though testing it. Suddenly she broke out into a decadent smile.

"Mmm…that's nice. Did you know that synthahol is unknown on my world?" Vallis asked.

Riker was becoming more and more intrigued, "No, I thought you were human. Was I wrong?"

"No," she chuckled, "I'm human enough…through unconventional means. I figured you would know that by now."

Riker was embarrassed, "I'm sorry; I really don't know much about you."

"I thought Elizabeth saw to it that everyone knew about me, Vallis said ruefully.

"Elizabeth…?" Riker prompted her.

"Mayweather," Vallis sighed.

"Ah, I know her as well," Riker admitted.

"I know. That's why I'm here," Vallis admitted.

Riker's face clouded over and he began to excuse himself. She desperately clutched at his arm, "Please! It's not what you think!"

Her raw desperation touched his heart. It was a plea born of complete and utter loneliness. He'd spent years in that cesspool so he recognized the symptoms. He sat back down.

"Then what is it?" he asked almost afraid of the answer.

"I'm from Mariposa," she said as though that explained everything. Seeing no recognition in his yes, she ventured on; "The colony was established by the survivors from a Twenty-Second Century colony ship. There were only five. Three men and two women."

"A colony like that wouldn't be genetically viable unless…" Riker's voice trailed off.

Her smile was a cautious one, "I see you get it. They established a society made up of clones. Of which I am merely a single Vallis."

"But even then, genetic degradation would set in," Riker assumed.

Vallis sighed, "And it did. I'm the last generation of Vallises. The very last."

"But you can't let that happen," Riker insisted, "There has to be a way."

"There was. Mariposa had a sister colony in another system. The settlers lived upon Bringloid V. Solar flares destroyed their world so they came to ours and we began propagating through fluid transfers," the last was said with such disgust that Riker had to laugh. She became indignant, "What?"

"Have you ever tried a…fluid transfer?" Riker wondered.

"No," she hesitantly admitted, "But most humans seemed obsessed with them."

"Don't knock it until you've tried it," Riker advised, "A maxim for everyday life."

"Okay," she reluctantly agreed.

"So what's with the sudden urge to reach out to me?" Riker asked.

"I thought we could relate because of…you know," she said lamely.

Riker started to leave again and she pleaded, "Come on, being alone amongst nine hundred crewmen gets lonely. I've seen you. You feel it too.

Riker hesitated so she pressed on, "I just thought we'd share some common ground since everyone thinks we're both…"

"Freaks?" he offered.

She reluctantly nodded, "Yes. Freaks."

He sat back down and she let out a long, weary sigh; "I understand. Believe me I do. Try standing out and making a life for yourself that's completely your own when you surrounded by a planet full of other women that are also you."

"Well, I guess I should be grateful there are only two of me," he allowed.

"As I understand it, there's no original Riker. You're both share a common history until the duplication eight years ago," Vallis shared.

Riker gave her a wry look, "You seem to know my history fairly well."

"I was understandably curious," Vallis remarked, "So why does the other Riker get to wear your full name and you lag behind him in rank. Your common actions on Nervala's surface garnered him his promotion to Lt. Commander. You were the same person during those moments. Why hasn't Starfleet promoted you accordingly as well?"

"Because Starfleet would rather pretend I don't exist," Riker suddenly blurted, "They left me behind to die but I survived and that's an embarrassment on their record. Eight years of my life were spent in a hellhole while everyone thought I didn't exist. When I was discovered and my existence came to light, it was a grand case of 'sweep it under the rug'. The other Riker…"

"Your 'brother' so to speak," Vallis offered.

Riker smirked, "'Brother' is a lot nicer term than I usually use."

"But it'll do for now," Vallis urged, "So go on."

"Anyway, my brother got the career I wanted and abandoned the woman I dreamt of," Riker revealed.

"Why did he do that?" Vallis was curious.

"Because he's an idiot," Riker said sharply, "I spent every day and night holding on so I could reunite with her and when I finally did, he'd destroyed everything. Including my chance to be with her."

"But you did get to see her again?" Vallis inquired.

"Yes, but when I left the Enterprise to report here she stayed aboard. I wasn't worth transferring for," Riker's bitterness was palpable, "I dreamt of that moment, and when it finally happened, it passed by like it had never occurred at all."

"So what's your dream now?" Vallis wondered.

"Excuse me?" Riker wasn't quite certain how to take her question.

"What's your dream now?" she repeated, "You lived out the dream where you reunite with the woman. It didn't turn out the way you expected and now you have an opportunity to decide on a new dream."

"I want to make a name for myself," he said with conviction, "I don't want to live in Will Riker's shadow anymore. I want people t remember that Tom Riker existed and he made a difference."

"I can drink to that," Vallis said merrily.

Riker's comm badge suddenly sounded and he tapped it, "Riker here."

"Moneii to Riker," came the captain's distinctive voice, "Please report to the bridge. And bring Ensign Vallis with you."

"Aye, Captain," Riker replied as the circuit closed. He tossed back his drink and looked to Vallis, "Well Annalise, it seems we're back on duty."

She had a twinkle in her eye, "Yes, it does Lieutenant."

They reported to the bridge and relieved the Beta watch officers in their places. Captain Moneii and Commander Halifax were in their seats. The Beta watch officers milled about at auxiliary stations and secondary posts to take the place of the senior officers when required.

Lt. Shwren ann'Deri was crisp and poised at Tactical. Riker suspected the Andorian had never left her post. Wren was a fast tracker in the making. She had ambitions beyond being the Chief Tactical Officer and Head of Security. Riker didn't know her very well but he liked what he knew.

On the viewer, a transport was fading in and out of sight. It had dropped out of warp and there were signs of some damage to the secondary hull. Apparently Wren had already engaged in some target practice.

"Status?" Moneii asked in Wren's general direction.

"The torpedo strike collapsed the unknown's shields and disabled her warp drive. She's still running on impulse and is apparently trying to cloak. Energy signatures obtained between attempts indicate they have a Class Four Klingon cloaking device," Wren reported smoothly.

Moneii glanced towards Halifax, "I bet the Klingon Defense Force would be interested in learning about this."

Halifax nodded and then asked, "Ship's ID?"

"Her transponder has been silenced but she is a Lovell-class transport. Unlike a standard freighter, she's armed with Type-6 phasers and enhanced shields," Wren summarized, "Barring any undetected enhancements of course."

"Captain, I'm detecting something," Riker interjected.

"What is it?" Moneii asked she seemed instantly curious.

"The ship's warp drive is down, correct?" he asked. He saw Wren bristle slightly before he added, "I'm still registering three subspace fields."

"Could I see those readings?" Wren asked.

"They're on your board…now," he informed her.

Wren was silent for several seconds before Moneii inquired, "Is there something wrong, Lieutenant?"

"I could be wrong but these look like they could be traces from isolytic weapons," Wren sad at least.

"What?" Halifax was out of her chair even as she spoke. She moved to Riker's station and leaned over his shoulder, "Damn. She's right."

"Lt. ann'Deri, hail the vessel again. Order them to heave to and prepare to be boarded," the captain ordered.

Wren did as instructed and she frowned, "They're still ignoring us, ma'am."

"Lock phasers and disable their impulse drive," Moneii instructed.

"Phaser lock is inoperative because of the cloak. I'll have to target her manually," Wren admitted.

"Best guess then," Moneii replied.

Particle beams lanced out from the phaser array and struck the fleeing transport. The impulse drive went down in with a shower of explosions. Next, the Andorian was able to utilize the targeting sensors because the cloak went down. She bracketed the navigational sensors and insured that the ship wasn't going anywhere. She was deaf, blind, and crippled.

"Transport is disabled," Wren confirmed.

"Repeat our broadcast of an imminent boarding action," Moneii commanded.

"Yes, ma'am," Wren replied enthusiastically. She paused for a moment and then announced, "I'm getting an audio channel. They're standing down and surrendering."

Moneii turned to Halifax, "Megan, take Wren and secure that ship." She turned in Riker's direction, "Mr. Riker, ready to sift through some data?"

Riker grinned, "Love to, ma'am."

In that case, join Commander Halifax's boarding party," Moneii ordered, "Lt. ann'Deri, assemble a Security detail and join the Commander in the transporter room."

Wren's head bobbed in acknowledgement, "Yes, ma'am."

"Then let's get to it," Moneii urged.

"Find anything?" Wren asked Riker after they'd boarded the transport. Upon accessing the encrypted computer files, Riker had discovered the ship was registered as the NDT-54312 SS Precarious. Her Federation registration indicated that the transport had been built 2328, just four years before the Gandhi had been commissioned. The computer core had been purged on at least three separate occasions. Unfortunately, someone skilled in the use of Starfleet's reconstruction software could rebuild the data trail. Riker was one of those.

"I can't find any record of their buyer but they do have a trail leading to Hadon II. That seems to be where they were meeting the prospective buyer," Riker stated, "And get ready for the worst news. They've made identical runs three times before this."

"So we're potentially talking about twelve warheads," Wren surmised.

"You've confirmed that they're isolytic weapons?" Riker asked.

"Yes," Wren grimly confirmed it, "The origin point is still a mystery though. Everything I've studied about isolytics is related to the Romulans or the Gorn. This stuff is on par engineering wise but it's distinctly unique."

"So we have a trail but we don't know where it leads beyond a single world," Riker mused, "The records show that the crew was trying to beat a deadline because the buyer is about to accept delivery. How would you like to stop that?"

Wren blinked in surprise and then asked, "What are you suggesting?"

"Let's head back to the Gandhi and I'll bounce a few ideas off of you," Riker suggested.

Wren wore a sly smile, "Okay, sounds good."

Riker and Wren appeared before Moneii in her Ready Room. Riker was outlining his basic premise, "In order to capture, or at least deter, the end user from acquiring the other isolytic devices we need to approach undercover. We repair the Precarious and head there. Before we set out, we deactivate the warheads now in our possession and place trackers upon them. When they're offloaded from the ship, we follow them to where they're all being stored. "

Riker was trying to gauge how Moneii was receiving this but she was a tough sell, "The Gandhi would be lying low at the edge of the system and would come flying in when we signal and we capture the weapons smugglers and we make them give up the buyers. At this point we either hand off the shore of capturing the buyers or we do it ourselves. Whatever Command decides."

"I'm glad you finally decided to include Starfleet Command into this little scenario," Moneii dryly remarked. She turned to Wren, "Your opinion, Lieutenant?"

"I happen to like the plan," Wren admitted, "It gives us a chance to tie off a lot of loose ends that we're currently sitting on."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. You're dismissed," Moneii said.

Wren exchanged a worried glance with Riker as she stepped out. Moneii steepled her fingers and coolly regarded him, "Let me tell you something, Mr. Riker. I don't like showboating isolationist amongst my crew. You are not better than the rest of my crew."

"Permission to speak freely?" Riker requested.

Moneii considered it before granting his request. He decided to be honest, "I've tried to acquaint myself with the crew. However, my unique circumstances seem to have established an opinion of me."

"And that opinion is?" Moneii inquired.

"To be blunt, that I'm some kind of sideshow freak or an anomaly that might prove infectious," he described his experience.

"Then change their minds," Moneii urged.

"What do you think I'm trying to do?" Riker vented his exasperation all of a sudden. If Moneii were taken by surprise, she didn't let it show.

"I know what you've been trying to do, Mr. Riker," Moneii said coldly, "You're trying to play the pity card. You were abandoned for eight years. So? There are worse fates. You could still be there after all. So buck up and act like a senior officer for God's sake."

Riker weighed his response carefully, "Would you have taken my suggestion seriously if it had come from Wren?"

Moneii stopped moving. For a second she was a living still life. When she recovered she ruefully admitted, "Yes, I would have. She is a trusted member of this crew and I consider her opinions very highly."

"How am I supposed to earn similar trust if I'm never given the chance?" Riker asked simply.

Moneii pondered that. Finally she weighed in, "I'll run this over with Starfleet Command. If they decide it's appropriate, then we'll do it. In any case, it all depends on how fast Lt. Commander Borien can get this captured transport running. We'll have to put a prize crew aboard anyway to take to the nearest inhabited planet and arrange for its transfer into more appropriate hands."

Riker smiled but Moneii warned him off from celebrating, "I haven't approved anything yet. After I talk to sector command, I'll make a decision and not before. Am I making myself clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Riker said enthusiastically, "May I report to the Precarious and assist Commander Borien's teams?"

Moneii sighed, "I have feeling you'd go even if I said 'no'. So in the interest of not writing you up, I'll simply say 'yes'."

Riker rose, "You won't regret this, ma'am."

"I already do, Mr. Riker," she admitted. He left and she paged Admiral Ross. She'd present this fiasco of an idea whether she agreed with it or not. Because like Wren had said, it did tie off a bundle full of loose ends that they were currently trying to deal with right now.

 

Chapter Two

"Well, Lieutenant, we can have your transport's warp and impulse drives up in four hours," Lt. Commander Orca Borien, the Gandhi's Chief Engineer informed him. "Give us another two hours and we can every system up and running."

"What about the cloak?" Riker inquired.

Borien wore a sly smile, "You know cloaking technology is illegal in the Federation."

Riker gave him a wry smirk, "Commander, what about this ship is legal?"

Borien nodded, "Good point. I'll see what I can do. Between the warp core going down and the fusion reactor scramming, the cloak's endured a lot of surges. It may not be operable."

"I'll take what I can get," Riker assured him.

Four hours later, Moneii assembled Commander Halifax, Wren, and Riker. She wore a very dour expression, "It seems Admiral Ross likes your idea, Mr. Riker. Therefore, under orders, I am authorizing this mission proposal."

She nodded towards Halifax, "Commander Halifax will personally lead the mission. Mr. Riker, since this fiasco was your idea, you're tasked with being her deputy. Lt. ann'Deri, you will assemble a security team and prepare to go undercover."

Moneii steepled her fingers again. Gazing over them she gave them a flinty look, "We need a CONN officer and an engineer. Any suggestions?"

"I recommend Ensign Vallis," Riker blurted out before Halifax could speak.

Moneii gave Halifax a glance. The Commander gave an almost imperceptible nod. Moneii put her clasped hands on her desk, "Very well. Ensign Vallis it is. You have some planning to do so you are all dismissed."

"Meet in briefing room two in forty-five minutes," Halifax instructed Wren. She turned to Riker, "You. Follow me."

They exited the Ready Room and went straight for the turbolift. Halifax maintained a composed silence. Riker sensed she was merely presenting a pretense. They headed into her office. Upon entering, the door sealed and Halifax whirled on him.

"Why Vallis? What aren't you telling us?" she asked sharply.

"Ensign Vallis is not only a qualified helmsman but she holds several PhD equivalents. The majority of those are in engineering. She had her choice between engineering and flight ops and she chose the CONN but she's fully qualified for either position," Riker shared.

"You seem to know quite a bit about Ensign Vallis," Halifax observed. "That doesn't fit your usual MO."

"She recently shared her story with me," Riker admitted. "That made me think of her when this mission first occurred to me. I looked up her personnel file and found she was qualified for the task."

"And that's your only interest?" Halifax was dubious.

"Yes, it is," Riker strongly asserted.

"Somehow I doubt that," Halifax commented. "But she is an excellent recommendation so I backed your play back there. Don't expect a freebie next time."

Halifax stared him down, "And for the record, I am in command of this mission. Is that fully understood?"

"Duly noted," Riker assured her.

"You're dismissed," Halifax gruffly informed him. "See you in the briefing room in thirty-five minutes."

"Aye, ma'am," Riker said and departed.

Halifax was left wondering where all of this would lead to.

Halifax spent her time before the planning session pouring over Vallis' records. The clone had completed Starfleet Academy in just two years instead of the usual four. She'd challenged every academic course and passed them all so she didn't have to attend classes. She'd concentrated on command track courses and flight operation training. Riker had been right. She was imminently qualified to both pilot the Precarious and to disarm the isolytic weapons if they found any.

Halifax had her doubts regarding that. It seemed too coincidental that they found the transport in the first place and even more so that Riker was able to retrieve the data he recovered. But then again, the average criminal was a rather stupid creature. It might be possible after all. Admiral Ross certainly felt it was.

Halifax received word from Borien that his people had disabled the isolytics. The ship would be fully prepped in an hour. The planning session was done and Halifax had sent everyone to their quarters to change into civilian garb.

Halifax presented the plan to Moneii. The captain's mien was grave, "Do you think this plan has merit?"

"I think it can work," Halifax admitted, "Wren and Riker put together a solid proposal. I just don't know if we need to undertake this mission."

"How so?" Moneii asked.

"Just how stupid are we supposed to believe these people were? What kind of gun runner leaves all of the evidence on their computer core?" Halifax expressed her doubts.

"They did try to erase the data. At least three times if Riker's report is accurate," Moneii replied mirthfully.

"Do you really think the transport crew was that incompetent?" Halifax inquired. She knew her captain had spoken with the Precarious' skipper.

Moneii chuckled humorlessly, "Let's just say our good smuggler captain wasn't exactly chosen for his genius."

Moneii's comm badge chirped and she tapped, "Moneii here."

"We finished ahead of schedule, Captain," Borien reported, "I'm ready to hand over the ship to Commander Halifax at her leisure. It'll take a minute to transfer the command codes. Lt. Riker will be able to do that easily enough. The trackers are imbedded inside the isolytics rather than in the cargo pods. We don't know if they'll stay in the pods once they reach Hadon II so I thought would be an appropriate precaution. The subspace signature of the weapons themselves should mask the constant output of the tracker."

"Will the weapons' warp cores interfere with the trackers' signals?" Moneii warned to know.

"Not according to our tests. A standard tricorder should be able to detect and follow the signals," Borien explained.

"I understand," Moneii assured him and cut the connection. Focusing on Halifax she smiled ruefully, "It seems you're a 'go'."

"So it seems," Halifax deadpanned. "You'll escort us to the system?"

"And then we'll hang back with the outer planets," Moneii reassured her. "Yell and we'll come running."

"Good enough. I'll round up my little lambs then," Halifax exited and Moneii silently wished her well.

Riker and Vallis joined Halifax, Wren and the two security men in the armory to be issued Type I "cricket" phasers. They'd collected their tricorders and their non-descript comm badges before stopping here last. Everyone stowed their gear and then reported to the transporter room.

They materialized in the Precarious' transporter room. Riker quietly checked himself. He didn't feel duplicated again but then again, he hadn't the first time either. Vallis gave him a sympathetic smile as if she knew his unspoken fear.

Borien was waiting for them, "Ah Riker, good. You can begin transferring command codes as soon as Commander Halifax is ready to input her necessary information."

They went to the bridge. Various engineers were packing up and transferring back to the Gandhi. Riker established a subspace computer link with the starship. He downloaded the staff's command code data. Turning to Halifax, he said, "Ready when you are, Commander."

Halifax recited her verbal code and transferred the command codes to herself. Riker used his codes to establish himself as second in command. Vallis and Wren also coded in. The two security crewmen were included as ship's crew but given no real authority.

"Wren, hail the Gandhi and tell them we'll setting out in ten minutes at…?" Halifax looked to Borien.

"You have Warp One through Four available. But I'd keep it under Three to be safe," he shared.

"Inform then we'll be proceeding at Warp Two," Halifax ordered. She regarded Borien, "Thanks, Orca. For everything."

"Not a problem. It was a challenge," Borien replied.

"A challenge?" that certainly surprised her, "Come on, there has to be at least a thousand of these transports in service. The Lovell- and Antares-class transports are the most popular in space faring history."

"But most of them don't have cloaking devices," Borien's eyes twinkled, "Please express my regrets to Lt. Riker that I wasn't able to get it working again."

"Oh, I'll be sure to do that," Halifax said coldly.

Borien detected the sour note and excused himself. Halifax eyed Riker's back. He was seated at the OPS station as he should be, busied in tasks to get the engines up and running. She wouldn't interrupt him just yet.

Beside him sat Vallis at CONN. Halifax peered over her shoulder and saw that she was checking the navigation chart. She pulled up the data on Hadon II itself.

"What can you tell me about our destination, Ensign?" Halifax suddenly asked.

"Hadon II supports a Federation colony and is a Class-P world orbiting a Class-M star," Vallis read off. As every Starfleet officer or NCO knew, that meant a glaciated world orbiting a red star. The "two" designator indicated the planet was the second world in and orbital track around the star labeled Hadon. To qualify as Class-P Hadon II had to have more than 80% water ice. Which meant the bulk of the colony was centered around the relatively temperate equator.

"Hadon was colonized in the late 22nd Century shortly after the foundation of the United Federation of Planets," Vallis continued her reading, "It's a transportation hub."

"Run that by me again?" Halifax requested.

"It's a transfer center," Wren put in, "Cargoes are exchanged at Hadon. The bulk of the surface construction is massive warehouses designed for the sole purpose of dropping off a cargo and picking up another."

"Why not run the cargo all the way in yourself?" Halifax wondered.

"What if it's a cargo you don't want to be caught carrying?" Wren wryly suggested.

Halifax had to admit that isolytic weapons certainly qualified on that score, "Okay, I see your point. Riker, how long until we can get underway?"

"Engines read 'green' and are ready to be coaxed into action," Riker answered.

"Just how much coaxing will they need?" Halifax sought clarification.

"I suggest not engaging the warp drive until after we've achieved three quarters impulse for five minutes and then shift into warp and repeat the procedure before accelerating to Warp Two," he explained.

"Got that, Vallis?" Halifax wondered.

"Aye, ma'am!" Vallis enthused.

"ETA for Hadon?" Halifax inquired.

"Six hours at recommended speed," Vallis shared.

Halifax thought of one last thing, "Mr. Riker, about the crew manifest?"

"I'm already working on modifying it to our needs, Commander," Riker assured her.

Smart ass, Halifax thought sourly.

While they were underway, Halifax moved about the cramped cockpit that served as a bridge and moved to where Wren was sitting. She had some data pulled up on her display and was smirking.

"Reading something good?" Halifax asked. She noted the two security crewmen were making like a hole in the back of cockpit.

"This crew manifest," Wren began to explain, "it's genius."

Halifax had rather been hoping that Wren wouldn't pull it up. Riker had indeed outdone himself. He'd incorporated their Starfleet careers, with embellished criminal activities to support their resigning or being cashiered, and placed them aboard the transport together. Supposedly Halifax had acquired the ship from the previous captain as he went on the run from Starfleet Intelligence.

Halifax and her crew were listed as having participated in a mutiny aboard the USS Riviera a few years ago during the Border Wars. It was a real event and an unfortunately publically documented one. It made Mutiny on the Bounty pale in comparison. Having ostensibly served a six year sentence in the stockade on Jaros II, they were now out on parole and making their way as a freighter captain and crew.

The Precarious was a ship for hire and the Transplanet Shipping had hired it for this run. Which was true enough. The firm was legally documented within the Federation. On Izar to be precise but the headquarters in New Seattle proved to be empty. The USS Exeter had found a fictional front office handled messaging and correspondences for the corporate shell but no logistical work was handled there nor were any records to be found. The Precarious had made stops at Izar, Ferenginar, Oralliius, and Bajor. The ship had steadfastly avoided Deep Space Nine and had skirted Starbase 310 alongside the Demilitarized Zone. Now she was headed for Hadon II near Starbase 129. The thing was, Hadon was still near the DMZ but it was also near the end of the zone and skirted close to the Cardassian border.

It was the proximity to the border than had alarmed Starfleet Command, Halifax decided. But the war between the Cardassian Union and the Federation had ended but that peace was still rather recent and very fragile. Still, she couldn't imagine anyone in the Cardassians' Central Command being stupid enough to buy isolytics when they could produce them locally.

The hours had dragged by and finally Vallis announced, "We've reached the Hadon system and the Gandhi is dropping back."

Halifax turned to Wren, "Inform the Gandhi we appreciated the escort and we'll contact them as soon as we learn anything."

Wren looked rather grateful to be doing something so she got straight to it. Halifax knew how she felt. This was worse than conducting border patrols.

Riker had struck up a conversation with Vallis to pass the time. Or rather, he continued their earlier conversation. Inevitably she brought up the dream woman that had kept his hopes alive for eight years.

Riker looked downcast as he answered, "Deanna was the most perfect woman I'd ever met."

"Was?" Vallis sought clarification.

"She was aboard the Enterprise when they found me. When he found me," Riker stipulated.

"The venomous 'he' being your 'brother'? Vallis wondered.

"Yes," Riker grated, "He's First Officer."

"So are you," Vallis said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Oh, yes. This is absolutely my dream posting," he smarted off.

"Look at it this way: at least you're here with me," she commented, "Now what happened with Deanna?"

"My brother hadn't stayed in the relationship. He sacrificed it for his career. They're friends now but I can see a glimmer of regret in both their eyes," Riker commented.

"Why do I get the feeling you took advantage of that?" she asked.

"Hey, he blew it not me. I would've made that date on Risa that he skipped out on. So I explained that to Deanna and we…" he trailed off.

"Transferred fluids," Vallis chimed in.

Riker felt slightly embarrassed by the frankness of this conversation, "Yes. Captain Picard searched for an opening suitable to my talents and the OPS job aboard the Gandhi was open and it was close by supporting a terraforming project so they dropped me off."

"The end of said project is where I came in," Vallis said brightly, "So why didn't Deanna follow you if she were happy trading fluids?"

Riker felt unnerved, "She had a life and a career aboard the Enterprise. So like he stood her up eight years ago, she declined to come with me."

Vallis didn't seem to know how to respond to this. A beep from her console alerted her to the fact they were nearing the Hadon system. She dropped the transport out of warp at the edge of the system and Riker nodded his confirmation that the Gandhi had to. She made her report to Halifax and prepared to actually do something.

Riker contacted the system's traffic control center. He earned an approach path and an atmospheric insertion. They were landing the Precarious on the ground in order to deploy the entire away team. Otherwise they'd have to leave a skeleton crew of at least one aboard.

They would also lose sight of the weapons however temporarily. Halifax considered this an unacceptable risk. Riker had queried her as to what they would do if they did end up separated.

"That's not an option, mister," Halifax had sternly retorted.

The Precarious bucked and shook as it navigated the planet's atmosphere. Although built like a wedge, the surfaces of the ship were still far from forming a delta wing. It was rather like crafting a paper airplane with its wings clipped short. The Precarious lived up to its name as it tried to do nothing better than nosedive straight into the ground below.

"Mr. Riker!" Halifax suddenly blurted, "Adjust the shields. It's getting too hot in here."

"Shields are at maximum, Commander," he replied through gritted teeth, "I've adjusted the environmental controls to their maximum outputs. This is as good as it's going to get."

He half expected to tell him that was 'unacceptable" but she refrained. He kept the ship from cooking while Vallis did her best to keep them from crashing. As they neared the spaceport, Vallis slowed their descent even more. This alleviated the friction and the interior began to cool off. He had to admit he and Vallis made a good team.

"Now if the landing struts haven't melted," Vallis muttered.

Riker grinned, "The antigravs have cycled and are back to full strength. You should be able to set us down just like a feather."

"Here's hoping," Vallis said as she committed to the final landing sequence.

The ship sat down on its landing skids. There was an audible groan that reverberated through the hull and Vallis winced. Riker's OPS board went insane.

"We're showing systems failures all across the ship," he announced, "Antigravs just overloaded and the RCS thrusters are now inoperative."

He turned to face Halifax, "Seems we landed just in time."

Halifax snorted, "Lucky for you the plan was always to abandon this derelict here."

Wren had been watching the monitor feeds towards the cargo hatches, "Commander, a crew is here to offload us."

Halifax grew reflective, "Maybe we're making progress after all."

The primary hatch opened and Halifax stepped out. The work crew was composed of a dozen bodies from a dozen different worlds. A half dozen races were represented.

"Where's Captain Stovix?" a rough hewn human, built from pure muscle and possessing absolutely no neck, inquired.

"Stovix opted to retire seconds before a Starfleet Security team blew open his door. He sold me the Precarious beforehand and this contract came with the ship," Halifax gave the cover story.

"No one told us," Muscleman replied.

"Now you're being told," Halifax said, "You have your cargo. Hand over my latinum and we'll all go our separate ways."

"Not so fast," Muscleman warned. "Hand over your crew and cargo manifests. I'll check with my superiors and then we'll see if we do business."

"Mr. Riker," she snapped and held her hand over her shoulder. Riker handed her a padd which she then thrust into Muscleman's face, "There are my manifests. Satisfied?

"Think you're pretty smart, don't you?" he asked threateningly, "My bosses don't like smart women."

"They must be awfully lonely then," she retorted.

"Fine. We'll be taking your cargo now," he announced.

She stopped him with a hand pushing back at his brawny chest, "Not so fast yourself. No payment. No cargo."

"I told you, I have to run your credentials. Once the bona fides are double checked then you'll get your payment," Muscleman grated.

"And that's when you'll get your cargo," Halifax insisted.

Muscleman stared her down but Halifax never flinched. His eyes shifted to Riker's. They were just as resolute. Wren's looked predatory and the two men at her shoulders were coolly gathering for a fight. The only one who looked slightly intimidated was the small brunette. They'd be trouble.

"All right," he conceded, "We'll contact you later and we'll make the exchange then."

"So where do we meet?" Halifax asked.

"There's a pub called the Grimshaw. We'll meet there," Muscleman informed her.

"How will we find it?" she wondered.

He smirked, "It's the most famous establishment on Hadon. You won't be able to miss it."

They packed up and left. Halifax turned to the away team, "Everyone got their coats on?"

Everyone but Wren nodded. Halifax resisted rolling her eyes and turned to the Security men instead, "You two stay here and mind the store just in case they try anything."

Halifax turned to Riker, "It seems our lives are rather in your hand at this moment."

"Don't worry," Wren advised, "Like I said, those credentials were genius."

Riker grinned and Halifax gave Wren a pained look, "Then it looks like we go pub crawling.

 

Chapter Three

As the away team wandered the colony's snow laden streets, Wren seemed enchanted. Riker also seemed in his element while Halifax and Vallis were decidedly cold. Wren nudged Riker with her elbow playfully.

"So why aren't you pretending you're dying like our two lady friends?" she asked, "I know why I'm not. This is like being back on Andoria but what's your deal?"

"I grew up in Alaska," Riker said if that explained everything.

Wren looked confused, "I've never heard of that planet."

Riker grinned, "It's not a planet. It's place on Earth. It's part of what used to be the United States of America."

"And it's like this?" Wren wondered.

"The winters are actually colder than this," he assured her.

She smiled wistfully, "I wish I could have visited it. We spent all our time on Earth in San Francisco except for survival courses in the Sahara Desert and Antarctica. Antarctica wasn't bad. The penguins were rather cute. But the Sahara? Worst place imaginable."

"I'll have to take you some time," Riker offered.

"Why Mr. Riker, are you flirting with me?" she teased.

"Maybe," he teased back.

"You are aware that Andorians come in four sexes, of which I am only one?" she asked.

"But you are female?" Riker asked, wondering if he'd been under the wrong impression.

"Yes, but maybe I'm not the right type of female for you," she answered enigmatically.

"We'd have to see," Riker suggested.

"There it is!" Vallis suddenly blurted as she pointed at a hanging sign over a doorway.

"Thank God," Halifax muttered.

They approached the establishment and Wren went in first, followed by Riker. Halifax and Vallis followed after a moment's peace. There hadn't been any trouble as their teammates entered so they ventured onward.

It was a roomy establishment contrary to its impression from the outside. There were thirty to forty people in it. They were a varied lot. Races from across the quadrant were represented. They all shared one attribute though, they were happy to be in from the cold.

Wren seemed to be the only put out by the roaring fireplace. She turned to Halifax, "I'll find us a table."

While Riker, Vallis, and Halifax milled about, a patron approached Vallis and offered to buy her a drink. Riker intercepted him and shooed him away. Vallis seemed both appreciative and insulted all the same.

"Where would the harm be in it?" she asked.

He gave her a wry look, "He just wanted a fluid transfer."

Wren overheard this as she approached and she snickered. Halifax looked lost. Lost and miffed that she hadn't received similar attention yet.

Wren led them to the table she'd scouted. Halifax settled in and asked Vallis what this "fluid transfer" business was about. So Vallis explained her origins and her views on natural reproduction.

"We should all be so enlightened," Halifax murmured. Seeing Wren's imploring look, she stipulated; "Yes, you can order drinks but make them synthales. We need to be focused."

"Don't worry, Commander. You're focused enough for all of us," Wren jibed as she went to the bar. If the Andorian noticed Halifax's responding glare, she ignored it.

Halifax thought about Vallis' revelation. It explained her camaraderie with Riker. Since they shared similar origins, she saw him as non-threatening. However, Halifax wasn't as certain that Riker didn't have intentions of his own.

Wren returned with a tray bearing four glasses slopping over with synthale. Halifax had to comment, "Lord Almighty, Wren do you think you got enough in each glass?"

Wren grinned, "Blame the bartender. He likes Andorians."

"Which sex?" Halifax retorted.

Wren's smile blossomed, "All of them."

"Adventurous," Halifax muttered as she took a sip of her drink.

Wren quietly studied the crowd while the other engaged in conversation. Riker and Vallis tried to draw Halifax out but she was abnormally reserved. Riker couldn't tell if it was personal or not. Halifax was usually quite warm with her subordinates but he and Vallis seemed to rub her the wrong way. Him especially. He wondered if she was even aware of that fact.

"Commander," Wren said softly, "we're not alone here."

"Really, Wren?" Halifax lipped off, "I hadn't noticed the crowd in here."

"We're being watched," Wren said nonchalantly, "And don't start looking around. A group in the corner has been observing us since we came in."

"Maybe we're a sideshow?" Riker asked. He certainly felt on display.

"No, they're professionals," Wren opined, "They're not Starfleet caliber but they are seasoned and they know the basics of tradecraft. It actually took me a couple of minutes to spot them."

"Who are they?" Halifax inquired a little more sharply than she'd intended, "Are they associated with the loading crew?"

"No." Wren decided, "They're a lot more subtle than that. Particularly a women with violet hair."

"A Boslic?" Riker asked.

Wren took a drink before answering, "I don't know her species. I'd guess she's human and altered her hair color."

"Unusual choice for someone trying to lay low," Riker commented.

'Or maybe she's trying to hide in plain sight, like us," Halifax rebutted.

"No, she's the expert among them," Wren commented, "and she knows that we know it too."

"What do you want to do about it?" Riker pointedly asked Halifax.

"We're not jumping into an impulsive confrontation, Lieutenant," Halifax warned, "So don't even go there."

"They're moving," Wren announced.

Riker watched as the men and women sauntered past and headed for the exit. The woman with the violet hair was even younger than Vallis but she moved with an air of certainty and purpose that startled Riker. An older woman, closer to his own age, shared that affect. She was subtly directing the others. Her eyes locked on his for a moment and something passed between them. He wasn't certain what it was but there was a definite unspoken exchange. It was like he was a book and she'd read him cover to cover.

"What the hell was that, Lt. Riker?" Halifax hissed.

"Excuse me?" he asked irritably.

"What was that look?" Halifax demanded to know.

"I have no idea," Riker confessed. He could tell Halifax was less than satisfied with that answer but it was the best he could come up with.

They settled in to an uncomfortable silence. An hour passed slowly and finally, Muscleman entered into the Grimshaw. He spotted them and headed over to their table.

"Your story checked out," he said without preamble, "We need you to unlock your cargo bay. Your boys aboard have been…uncooperative."

"Then I'll need to give them a raise," Halifax quipped, "One thing though, my crew needs to oversee the unloading."

"Why?" Muscleman asked.

"Do you know what we're hauling?" she sharply inquired.

"What do you think?" he retorted.

'I think you're as ignorant as you are thick. The cargo is volatile and we know how to disarm it. You want to do that on your own? Fine. Have at it," Halifax said dismissively.

Muscleman had given in so they all went to the Precarious' landing site. The Starfleet team oversaw the offloading onto antigrav pallet hailed about by a vehicle resembling a Work Bee. Halifax made to follow the Bee but Muscleman stopped her.

"No, you're staying here. We've got it now," he thrust a padd her way, "Imprint the transfer authorization and the latinum will be yours."

"But I…" Halifax ceased her protest when she saw that two of the loading crew were staying behind and now brandished disruptors

Muscleman followed her line of sight and chuckled, "My boys will leave as soon as we deliver the cargo. You'll stay here. After all, we wouldn't want to have to buy it twice."

Suddenly she understood. Their cover hadn't been blown. Muscleman, or more likely his employers, had taken her crew for what they seemed: unrepentant opportunists. They weren't allowed to follow the cargo for fear that they would steal it back and try to sell it again, this time to the highest bidder.

Halifax returned to the ship. The Starfleet personnel headed inside and sealed the cargo ramp. Wren immediately pulled out a tricorder and tracked the signal from the isolytics. Tapping into the local navigation satellite, she overlapped a city map against the movements of the weapons. Suddenly they disappeared.

"What the hell?" Halifax yelped.

"Damn," Riker frowned, "They must have entered a shielded area."

"So what do you suggest?" Halifax grated.

"We can follow the trail on foot and see about accessing the storage facility. Once we've confirmed or denied the existence of the other weapons, we can exit and signal the Gandhi. When we're reinforced, we can apprehend the bosses of this little enterprise and get the buyer's identity out if them," Riker suggested.

Halifax hated to admit it but she was impressed. It was a good idea. She looked to Wren. The Andorian was grinning ear to ear.

"Sounds good, Commander," she opined.

"We'll all go this time," Halifax decided.

Crewman Hosters and Crewman Westerly looked excited to finally leave the ship. Ten minutes later they were wishing they were back aboard. Vallis was downright miserable and Halifax was trying to pit on a brave front. The invulnerability of the commanding officer and all that. Wren was in her element and Riker felt bad for the others. Besides growing up in Alaska, he had eight years of wretched weather on Nervala to acclimate him.

They reached the massive warehouse where the trackers had gone offline. Footprints in the snow led a trail to the loading docks. Halifax asked Wren to scout the area out. Seeing her crewmen were convulsively shivering, she asked Riker to help her out.

The rounded the first corner to find nothing but a smooth wall facing them on one side. They rounded it and found four people guarding a door. They backtracked and Wren pointed out a secondary set of tracks that went to the wall and stopped. She pulled out her tricorder.

She smiled slyly, "That's what I thought. A hidden door."

"Can you get any scans of the interior?" Riker inquired.

"No, the shielding must be too thick even close up," she replied.

"You know, I think I can spring the door," he offered.

Her grin only grew, "I'll get the others."

They arrived to find Riker engaged with his tricorder. Halifax studied the footprints that led to a seamless wall, "There's nothing here."

"It's a hologram," Riker informed her as a tapped a control. The hologram faded revealing a pressure door. Beside the door was a control panel. Riker studied it for several seconds and then began to utilize his tricorder again.

Accessing the door's control circuit through a subspace connection, he instructed the door to open. It slid aside with an audible hiss. Halifax began to surge forward but Wren caught her.

"Crewmen Hosters and Westerly, front and center," Wren ordered. The security men entered in and Halifax followed them. They'd entered only to discover the warehouse was vacant. There wasn't a single cargo pod to be found.

A particle beam cut through the air and burned a hole in Hosters' chest. Westerly began backing out, interposing himself between the unseen shooter and Halifax. A second beam cut him down and Halifax barely made it through the door before a third shot zipped through the empty space where she'd been.

Riker sealed the door and encrypted the activation cycle. Potential assailants rounded the nearby corner. They were the same follows who had guarded the main door. They waved their weapons around and ordered the away team to stand still.

Wren pulled her phaser out of her waistband and volleyed off a couple of shots. Deciding to opt for the better part of valor, the guards disappeared around the corner. Wren looked to Halifax.

"What now?" she asked.

"Now we get out of here and try to regroup," Halifax ordered.

They team sprinted down the street, turned a corner, came around another and then ducked into an occluded alley. It didn't take long for a search party to make its way past. One straggler barely jogged by and Wren nabbed him.

Using a choke hold she kept the human from crying out. When Riker gave the all clear signal, she released the man's neck. He threw a punch which she deftly blocked. She locked his wrist and slapped him into an arm bar. The man made high pitched squeal.

"Shut up!" Wren ordered, "Or this will get painful."

He started yelling for help so she pushed him down and drove her knee into his face. Blood trickled out of his nose and he began gagging. Halifax stepped closer and Wren backed her off with a glare.

"Pardon my saying so, Commander, but you may not want to be present for this," Wren advised.

"At ease, Lieutenant!" Halifax snapped, "Release that prisoner."

Wren reluctantly let go and Halifax began her interrogation, "How many are there?"

"Go screw yourself," the man snapped.

Wren punched him in the face. Halifax shot her warning and the tried again, "You're antagonizing my Security Chief. You know how Andorians are. They don't like to be antagonized. Things that are legal in the treatment of prisoners on their world are highly illegal on others. Should we pretend this is Andoria?"

Wren loomed ever closer. Riker was keeping lookout while Vallis was making herself one with the shadows. The man decided to play up to Halifax for no other reason than to avoid Wren.

"We've got men all over the colony. They will find you," he boasted.

"How many sensors do they have?" Wren cut in sharply.

"What?" the man was confused by the question.

"How many tricorders or other portable sensors do they have?" Halifax said with forced patience.

"None," he smirked, "They don't need them. We have people surrounding your ship. If anyone's aboard and they come looking for you, boom! If you go there, same story."

"If you don't have sensors, then how will they try and track us?" Halifax needed to know.

The man was insufferably pleased with himself now, "They got subspace detection gear. You call out to your ship or another one in orbit or further out in the system, and we got you."

Halifax frowned. Their lives had just gotten harder. She turned to Riker.

"Anyone out there?" she inquired.

"The streets are completely empty. The locals must know enough to stay indoors," he replied.

"What do we do with this vole," Wren asked with contempt lacing her every word.

"We tie him up and leave behind," Halifax recommended, "They'll find him eventually."

Halifax got a worried look on her face, "We can tie him up, can't we?"

"Sure," Wren said grimly, "Tom, I need some of those zip ties you're carrying."

Riker handed over a handful and returned to his post. Wren ripped off the lower section of her blouse. Halifax was amused.

"Isn't it a little cold to go mid-riff?" she asked.

Wren ignored her and approached the prisoner. He began to try and swat her away. She punched his increasingly pulpy nose again. He doubled over in pain and she yanked his arms behind him and bound his wrists. Next she kicked his legs out from underneath and bound his ankles as well. She tied off the wrists to the ankles, effectively hog tying him. She finished off by using the scrap from her shirt to gag him.

She stood up and wiped her hands off, "That should do it."

"You're a dangerous woman, Shwren ann'Deri," Halifax realized.

"I just want to live another day," the Andorian admitted.

"We still clear?" Halifax asked Riker.

"Crystal," he said.

Halifax retrieved Vallis and they ventured out into the streets. It took several hours but they happened upon a boarding house. The proprietor had two rooms available so Halifax rented them. Now came the hard part: who would sleep with whom?

"Put Riker with Vallis," Wren suggested as though she could read her commander's mind.

"But what if…?" Halifax began t argue.

"It'll do them both a world of good," Wren asserted, "Besides, you heard of how she thinks of 'fluid transfers'. Where's the harm?"

Despite her better judgment she opted to go with Wren's recommendation. As Halifax delivered the news, Wren stood behind her and winked at Riker. He wasn't quite sure how to take that gesture.

First they gathered in Halifax and Wren's shared room. Halifax was pacing, "Just who the hell are these people?"

"I'd guess they're Orion Syndicate," Wren ventured.

"What makes you say that?" Riker wondered.

"Their small arms are of Orion manufacture," Wren explained.

"That doesn't mean much," Halifax was loathe to admit, "Orions will sell to anybody. Just like the Ferengi."

"So what do we do?" Vallis wondered. They were all surprised that she'd spoken. She'd fallen into silence since they left the Grimshaw.

"I say I go pick up meals for everyone in the tavern below," Riker offered, "Any requests?"

"Whatever they're serving," Halifax ordered. Wren looked ready to argue and Halifax stressed, "We don't want to draw attention to ourselves."

"Like we haven't already," Wren muttered.

Halifax gave her a pained look and then shooed Riker, "Just go. We'll take whatever you get."

Riker wandered down the hallway to the stairs and wound his way to the bottom floor. Crossing the threshold he passed by the front desk and entered into the attached tavern. When he stepped up to the bar, a rather bemused bartender eyed him.

"What'll ya have, honey?" she asked with a slightly suggestive vibe.

"Do you have a menu?" he asked.

She pointed to a chalkboard, "Everything is listed right there. Should I give you a moment?"

"Please," he smiled.

She returned the smile, "Good. When I get back we can discuss what's not on the menu."

He watched her go down the line to another customer trying to reach across the taps and refill his drink. Riker chuckled as she slapped the man's hand. His flailing hand groped her breast and he smiled giddily. Up until her right cross knocked him over.

"Careful Starfleet," a feminine voice advised, "The local health codes aren't up to your usual standards. You might catch something. That meal ticket has been served up to plenty of customers."

He turned around to find the woman who'd eyed him at Grimshaw's, "Forget your posse?"

"Oh, they're around but I figured it would just be the two of us so we could have a little chat," she said with a confident smile.

"How do you figure that I'm Starfleet?" he wanted to know.

"It's pathetically obvious who you and your herd of women really are," she ventured, "You and the little Swiss Miss read like an open book. The Andorian's pretty sly but she's a little too alert. As for your CO, she's got an unstable warp core rammed up her backside."

"What is it you want?" he inquired while trying not to agree about Halifax.

Her smile grew appreciative, "Very smart. Most would have asked who I was first."

"I'm assuming by the way you watched us in the pub, and took off before trouble started, that you'd rather not tell me your name," Riker surmised.

"As I said, smart," he could tell she was enjoying herself.

"So that just leaves two options," Riker stated.

"And they are?" she asked innocently.

"You're here to help or you're here to hand me over to the wolves," he said.

"Well, I'm not much on handing over anyone to wolves so I guess I have to help," she said.

"So who are your friends?" he repeated.

"Oh, I don't think you're ready for that particular answer. Let's just say that for now I'm on Starfleet's side," she suggested.

"Compared to normal?" he wondered.

She grinned, "Like I said, I don't think you're ready for the complete truth."

"Then what truth am I ready for?" he returned the grin.

"You want the buyer for the isolytics. I happen to know who that is. Well, we know," she amended at the end.

Riker was stunned and it showed. She laughed, "Are you wondering why it's so obvious or are wondering whether or not you should try and drag me off to your friends upstairs?"

"A little bit of both," he admitted.

"If you want to know where my friends are, lay one finger on me and you'll find out," she advised, "As for why I want to help, I happen to know why the buyer wants them and where they'll be used."

'Let's just imagine for a second that I'm buying into this," Riker said, "Who's the buyer?"

"The Cardassian Central Command," she asserted.

"But why?" Riker was flummoxed, "The Cardassians can just build their own. Why do they need to import them?"

"Because if they build them, the warp signatures will be unmistakably Cardassian. They need plausible deniability. They need to be able to say the detonations were malfunctions from a local player who shopped off world," she explained.

"And who is the local player?" Riker inquired. She just eyed him and he grimaced, "I'm not ready for that answer. Yeah, I got it."

"Look, you don't have much time. The Cardassians are coming," she reiterated.

"This planet is in Federation territory," Riker protested.

The woman snorted, "When has that ever stopped the Cardies? Look, they don't care about borders because everything belongs to them or at least it should."

This was spoken with such vehemence that Riker was momentarily taken aback, "Okay, let's just say I have a starship nearby that can intercept them."

"The Gandhi," she inserted the name.

He was becoming seriously unnerved, "Why don't you just deal with the problem yourself if you're so high and mighty?"

She looked sad, "Because we're not. This time around we're just well informed. And besides, this is a Starfleet-type problem and we're definitely not Starfleet."

"Then how can you help?" he wondered.

She slid a padd across the tabletop his way, "This outlines everything. Do with it what you will."

She started to move away and he called after her, "How will I find you to thank you?"

She smiled over her shoulder at him, "I'll be keeping an eye on you. If the time is right, I'll collect my thanks. And just so you know, my name's Kalinda."

She strolled away and he looked at the padd and began perusing its contents, "Targets in the DMZ?" He looked at where "Kalinda" had been. This game was getting bigger all the time.

 

Chapter Four

"She said what?" Halifax exploded after Riker had returned with their meals and explained what had transpired.

"She said the Cardassians were the buyers," Riker repeated…again.

Wren was curiously studying the padd. She'd taken scans of it as soon as Riker returned. She'd told Halifax she'd run down the woman's ID as soon as they returned to the Gandhi. Halifax had darkly muttered they might need to apprehend the stranger before then.

"There's a map of the colony on here," Riker pointed out, trying to retrieve the padd from Wren's clutches. She was having none of it and perused the data display herself.

"He's right," she announced.

"They're listed as potential locations for storing the warheads." he shared.

Wren looked at Halifax, "He's right again."

"Should we trust this mystery woman?" Halifax wondered aloud, soliciting input.

"It's the best lead that we have," Wren shared, "And like I said, I have her biometric data and genetic samples to use to track her down later."

Halifax turned to Riker, "Can we trust this woman?"

"She isn't hiding much. There was a note of desperation in her voice and in her eyes as she described the Cardassians getting these weapons," Riker stated, "If she's right about their targets and their motives, I could see why she'd be afraid. The targets are all populated areas."

Halifax had noted that as well, "Ensign, do you have anything to contribute?"

"I say we take her at her word," Vallis spoke up.

"And why is that?" Halifax was intrigued.

"The woman, Kalinda, took a risk. It was a calculated one to be sure but she stepped out to approach us when it would have been safer to stay out of it and try and deal with the problem alone, like Tom suggested," Vallis opined.

Halifax stumbled over Vallis calling Riker "Tom", "Are you certain that's your only motive?"

"Yes," Vallis asserted with some confusion, "Why wouldn't it be?"

"The four sites are clustered into two groupings," Riker observed, "We could split up and scout out those locations."

Halifax looked to Wren who nodded. She accepted the recommendation and ran with it, "We'll split into two teams of two."

"I suggest Lt. Riker escort Ensign Vallis," Wren suddenly put in.

Halifax stifled a groan. It was obvious that Wren liked Riker and was trying to play matchmaker. Their pairing up in the other room should have satisfied that impulse.

"The Ensign needs someone of your experience to assist her," Halifax insisted of Wren.

The Security Chief wisely backed down, "Yes, ma'am."

"Riker, if we find the weapons depot, can you get us inside of it?" Halifax inquired.

He grinned confidently, "I sure can."

She turned to Wren, "Could you do the same?"

"Probably, but I'm not on par with Tom," Wren admitted with some chagrin.

Again with the "Tom", Halifax thought sourly. She knew she should be happy since one of her reservations about him was that he'd isolated himself from the rest of the crew. He was stretching out now and yet she was uneasy.

"Then after we've examined the four sites, we'll regroup at the primary site, assuming there's only one, and scout it out," Halifax ordered.

"What about the Gandhi?" Riker asked, "Captain Moneii needs to know that the Cardassians could be arriving soon."

Halifax nodded. It was a good point. She nodded to Wren. The Andorian peeked through the closed curtains.

Halifax tapped her comm badge. The signal linked her badge to the Precarious' subspace transmitter and it activated. Transmitting into space, it bounced a signal through the system's subspace relay network. She requested a connection with Moneii and was grateful when the captain replied.

"Commander, are you and the away team all right? We've been growing concerned," Moneii spoke.

"Captain, the buyers are presumably Cardassian. Repeat the buyers are Cardassian. They'll be in-system within the next twenty-four hours. Our signals are being monitored and tracked. Halifax out," she terminated the connection.

"That was quick," Riker commended her.

Halifax turned to Wren, "Anything?"

"There's movement at the end of the street. About a dozen toughs with some kind of lupine creatures," Wren described what she saw, "They're waving a radial around. They seem to have lost the signal."

"Won't they just come here?" Vallis nervously asked.

"There are three flophouses on this block," Halifax reminded her, "That's why we chose this street."

"They're moving off," Wren said to everyone's relief, "Night's fallen and they don't seem too happy to be out in it. I guess searching three boarding houses versus holing up in a tavern has a clear winner."

"All right, we'll hole up here for the night," Halifax allowed.

"I guess that's my cue to leave," Riker chuckled. As he excused himself Halifax took Vallis aside.

"Be careful, Ensign. Remember Starfleet's code of conduct at all times, Halifax urged.

Vallis left with a rather puzzled look on her face. Meanwhile, Wren was trying to choke down laughter. Halifax snapped at her.

"This is all your fault, you know!" she accused.

Wren held up her hands in surrender, "Let nature take its course, Megan. If anything untoward happens, maybe it's best to leave it alone."

"And if they end up hating each other?" Halifax wanted to know, "That'll make for some long watches.

"Sort of like you and Boerhoven?" Wren asked pointedly.

"Yes," Halifax loathed admitting it, "I dipped into my chain of command and it cost me and the ship."

"I hate to bring it up, Megan, but Karl was being transferred regardless if you two shagged or not. He got promoted. Don't begrudge him his promotion," Wren advised.

"Why do you like him?" Halifax blurted.

"Who?" Wren asked, "Tom or Karl?"

"Riker," Halifax grated.

"He's got promise. He's bright, enthusiastic, charismatic, and he's making the best of a situation even after Starfleet gave him the shaft," Wren explained.

"He told you that?" Halifax scented blood in the water.

"No, Elizabeth Mayweather did," Wren clarified.

"Oh, there's a fount of unbridled truth," Halifax quipped.

Wren grinned, "She actually got most of her facts straight in this one. Her interpretations leave a lot to be desired but she got the basics down this time."

"So tell me what you really think of him," Halifax invited her.

So Wren shared…

In their room, Riker and Vallis sat down. He took a chair that occupied an old fashioned writing desk and straddled it. He turned it so that he could face Vallis, who sat at the edge of her bed. He noticed she seemed off. Not noticeably nervous but she was distracted by something.

"Penny for your thoughts," Riker offered.

"A what?" Vallis suddenly came back into focus.

"A penny," he smiled, "On Earth, in Anglo-American countries, it was a form of currency. Sort of like strips of latinum today."

"So it was worth a lot?" she wondered.

He shook his head and chuckled, "No, it was next to worthless."

She smiled, "Not much of a bribe then."

"All kidding aside, what's on your mind?" he asked.

"You, actually," she admitted.

"Should I be flattered or worried?" he inquired.

"Earlier you said you grew up somewhere on Earth called Alaska. Tell me about it," she requested.

He spoke to her of frigid winters. Travelling by snowshoe and skimobile. They used air transports to get most places because wheeled and tracked vehicles bogged down in the snow, ice, and mud. Then he described the grand vistas and the seemingly endless forests. He moved to the summers and the copious waterways and lakes.

"It was probably considered pretty rugged to most people on Earth but it was home. Our house had its own fusion reactor so we were set for power. My dad was away a lot so I was always prowling about, getting into mischief," he opted to disclose as well.

"I don't have any memories like that," she said wistfully.

"What's your planet like then?" Riker wondered.

She smiled warmly, "It's a lot like what you described only a lot less snow. What I meant is, I didn't have a childhood. I emerged from the lab force grown to a relative age of eighteen years with my education imprinted into me. I already had a job lined up and all I had to do was pick a name and accept both."

"Of course they kept me pretty close to the lab for the first six months. They had to determine if I was genetically viable. The cloning stock had degraded so much most Vallises weren't viable anymore. Everyone was afraid because they saw the collapse of our culture looming over us," she brightened suddenly, "And that's when the Enterprise came. Captain Picard had rescued the other colony founded by the SS Mariposa and brought its inhabitants to us. By combining the Bringloidi into our society we staved off extinction."

"And rediscovered fluid transfers," he smirked.

"Yes, there was that too. Every woman needed to take four to six husbands. Frankly I didn't know what to do with one so I left on the next transport that came by," Vallis revealed.

She hesitated before plunging on, "I actually met your 'brother' while he toured our colony. He spoke some pleasantries at me and went on his way. The team sent down to fact find us were the first naturally born humans I'd ever met. I have to admit I didn't know what to make of them."

"But the little I learned about Starfleet captivated me." Vallis confessed, "To have the opportunity to move from world to world and see indescribable diversity? That sounded like a dream come true."

And she smiled slyly, "And I have to confess, I thought your brother was beautiful."

Riker smiled, "Most men prefer to be called 'handsome'."

"Whatever," she said dismissively, "I found both of you to be beautiful."

"You think I'm beautiful?" he asked, wondering where this conversation was suddenly leading. He felt a slippery slope sliding out from underneath.

"Yes," she asserted defiantly, "I don't care if you want to be called 'handsome'. I think you're beautiful."

"Thank you," he replied, "Why the sudden 'true confessions'?"

"Tell me about fluid transfers," she suddenly demanded.

"Well, I'll try to explain everything as best as I can," he began.

Vallis waved him off, "No, I understand the mechanics. My education implants took care of that. I want to know about the experience."

Riker shook his head, "I don't think I can."

"Really?" she asked imploringly.

"I'd have to show you and you could make up your own mind," he suggested.

"Okay," she said blithely, "How do we do that?"

He rose from the chair came to stand before her, "We start with the basics."

"How?" she asked as he coaxed her off of the bed.

He leaned down and kissed her. She tentatively responded but she looked rather downcast when he pulled away, "Was that it?"

"Try opening your mouth," he suggested with a grin and leaned back down. Their mouths met and suddenly Vallis came alive. After a few seconds she gripped him and tried to pull him in as though she were about to absorb him into herself.

Riker smiled as he pulled back, "That's better. What do you think?"

"I like that," she confessed, "I'm not to sure about the other parts but I definitely want to do that again."

"It's called a kiss," Riker explained.

"Would you kiss me again?" Vallis requested.

"Of course," he readily complied. When he pulled away this time he whispered into her ear, "So, do you still like it?"

"Are all fluid transfers like this?" she asked in a husky voice.

"They get even better," he promised.

"Well, I guess you're going to have to show me," she coyly suggested. He leaned back so he could see her face. She winked at him, "After all, how else will I decide if I like them or not?"

Riker grinned and began showing her everything he knew about fluid transfers.

The next morning he stepped outside of their room to get some coffee. Wren was out there to, watching him with some amusement.

"So, how was your evening?" she asked despite her eyes revealing that she already knew the answer.

Riker instantly knew that she knew what had happened between he and Vallis. She'd turned out to be a bit of a screamer and he had no idea how thin or thick the walls were. Still, he opted to bluff his way out.

"It was pleasant," he downplayed the events of the evening, which had gone on for hours.

"Oh, it sounded much more impressive than 'pleasant'," Wren chuckled, "One might even call it 'momentous'."

Riker hung his head and Wren decided to share one last zing, "You friend has some lung power."

"Are you done?" Riker groaned.

"I just have one word of advice; make certain you both know where you stand this morning. If I'm guessing correctly, it was her first time and you may have completely different intentions at this point. Don't let things hang in limbo because that'll ruin whatever friendship you've already forged with the lady," Wren advised.

Riker eyed her in a new light, "When did you become so wise?"

Wren laughed, "I'm Andorian. It takes four of us to come together and make a baby. That's a huge balancing act. Not just of time and schedules but of egos and intentions."

"And have you made a baby?" Riker wondered.

"Yes," Wren confided, "But I'm not the birther so I didn't have to carry anything to term. But I played my part and I helped conceive a child."

"Boy or a girl?" Riker asked, "Or do your people even qualify to those standards?"

"We had a boy, or at least a member of one of the two male sexes that Andorians have. Andorians also come in two female sexes. Or at least that's as close to human biology that I can frame it," she explained.

"Does Halifax know?" Riker came back to the original topic, "About Annalise and I?"

Wren looked downcast, "Yes, and she's chewing deuterium."

Riker sighed, "Thanks for the warning. Want anything for breakfast?"

Wren smiled again, "I was about to head down myself so I'll join you. I'll keep Megan busy while you hash things over with Annalise."

Riker returned to his shared room with a coffee and scone for Vallis.

"Here you go," he said cheerfully, "They didn't have much in the way of selection but this should cover the basic carb requirements."

"Thanks," she met his cheerfulness with her own. She munched on her scone for moment before mentioning, Thank you for last night. I had no idea. I can't wait to try this out with Mark, or Alfonso, or Darien."

Riker almost choked on his coffee, "Really?"

"Yeah, they've all offered to show me about fluid transfers but I'm glad it was you that did it. I trust you. I feel comfortable with you in ways that I don't with the other guys."

"But you want to sleep with them?" Riker was reeling.

"No, I want to exchange fluids with them," she corrected him, "I don't think sleep will factor into it. Not if last night was any indicator."

Riker was thrilled that he didn't have to explain about recreational sex. She seemed to have mastered that concept with her first outing. But still, it sort of hurt his feelings that she didn't want to pursue him further.

There was a knock on the door and Riker opened it. Wren was standing outside wearing a wry expression, "Commander Halifax wants to see you now."

"Understood, will you wait here with Annalise?" he requested.

"Certainly," Wren assured him.

That having been said, Riker marched off to his doom.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Halifax shouted at him.

Riker didn't even flinch, "My actions were warranted."

"How can you say that?" Halifax growled.

"She specifically asked me to engage in sexual activities with her," Riker decided bald faced honesty was the best approach here.

"What does she know?" Halifax retorted, "She's a sexual infant. Until last night, she'd never even had intercourse."

"That may be true but she wanted to know what it was like and I was honored to be her first," Riker declared.

"I'm about two seconds away from writing you up for conduct unbecoming," Halifax warned. She moved away to the other side of the room and then turned, "What are you intentions now?"

"I was just speaking to Ensign Vallis about that when you sent for me," Riker admitted.

"And?" Halifax queried him, "And weigh your answer carefully, mister."

"Ensign Vallis gave me a list of fellow officers that she'd like to exchange fluids with," he announced.

Halifax's jaw dropped, "She did?"

"Ensign Vallis is a grown woman with much more emotional maturity than she's been assumed to have, ma'am," Riker said smartly.

"Don't get attitude with me," Halifax warned him, "You've got an attitude, mister. And I intend to drum it out of you."

"Maybe the Commander is wasting her time," Riker riposted.

"Just what is eating at you, Riker?" Halifax finally asked. He'd been surprised no one had dared to up until now, "Was it that you were stranded for eight years? Because if it is, boo hoo. Starfleet did what they could and pulled you out of there as soon as they humanly could. That's the hand fate dealt you so suck it up and deal with it."

"I knew Starfleet couldn't reach me for eight years," for the first time, anger laced Riker's voice, "I spent every day trying to survive and hold on for that magic day. I don't know if this is ever happened to you, but when I was rescued I found an exact copy of myself leading the party."

His jaw set and he spoke again, "I wasn't happy with that fact but I dealt with it and moved on. To the Gandhi to be precise. Am I happy? Define happiness. I'm alive and I'm free of Nervala. However, one important consideration was overlooked. Commander Will Riker received his initial promotion to Lt. Commander based upon his gallantry on Nervala IV. There was only one Riker when those events occurred, which means I participated in them too. However, the recovered Will Riker received the promotion and when I was recovered I was overlooked."

"Should I be singing a maudlin tune?" Halifax asked acerbically. "Let me tell you, mister. You're actions have been considered. To the point that you were a candidate for Second Officer. As you know Lt. Commander Boerhoven has been promoted and made First Officer of the Potemkin, a ship I'm certain you clearly remember. That means his position is open."

"And I was a candidate?" Riker said with resignation.

"You might be still," Halifax declared, "But you have the rest of this mission to prove you're not what I currently think you are."

"May I ask what that is?" Riker inquired.

Halifax's eyes narrowed, "I believe you are a complete egoist who is a threat to both his crewmates and the service. Plain enough?"

"Perfectly clear," Riker said. Halifax appreciated the maturity and professionalism he exhibited while receiving that news.

"Now get Wren and Vallis in here so they can stop leaning against the wall to listen in," Halifax instructed.

 

Chapter Five

Wren and Vallis went to the closest of their two targets. What they found was two warehouses occupying the same general city block. From what they'd observed so far, a single warehouse generally dominated a block.

Wren looked bemused, "So, left or right?"

"Let's start with left and move to right," Vallis suggested.

Wren pursed her lips, "How human."

"Excuse me?" Vallis yelped.

"Humans. You're so devoted to Federation Standard script and reading from left to right it colors your perceptions," Wren observed.

"Then let's start with the one on the right," Vallis reversed her position.

"And change our plans?" Wren teased, "Heavens forefend."

Vallis thought she was starting to appreciate the Andorian's sense of humor. She certainly had to thank Wren for her sense of propriety. If not for Wren, she would never have exchanged fluids with Tom. And what a world of discovery that had been!

Wren got them into the first storage facility. There were stacks and stacks of cargo pods but they scanned as being empty. Then in a corner of the warehouse they came upon several rows of neatly stacked pods separated from the rest. Wren used her tricorder and the readings were blank.

"There are shielded carriers," she announced.

Before the Andorian could stop her, Vallis approached the nearest pods. A couple lay slightly apart from their double stacked brethren. She activated the release and the hatch opened. Her mouth dropped open.

"Oh my!" she breathed.

Wren was obligated to take a look. Inside the pod were racks of small arms and power packs. There were enough rifles to equip half of her security force in this pod alone. She turned to the pod next to it. It had a completely different configuration. In fact, it looked like a photon torpedo rack.

Wren opened the pod and her worst suspicions were confirmed. Four Mark VII photons were suspended in cargo harnesses. The Mark VII had been the latest in vogue Starfleet weapons back in the late Twenty-Third Century but they were still highly potent even by today's standards and they were highly illegal for use by anyone outside of Starfleet or planetary militias.

"Well, while this is certainly a surprise, this isn't what we're looking for," Wren said ruefully.

"But who are they meant for?" Vallis asked.

Wren plucked up a padd and began perusing its contents. It listed dozens of cargo pods all similarly stocked. But there was no buyer listed. Hell, there wasn't even a supplier.

"I don't know," Wren admitted, "Mark this location on the padd and let's check out the neighboring warehouse."

A clattering noise had them both whirling about and drawing their weapons. The problem with a Type I phaser was that while it was concealable, its diminutive power pack couldn't support a sustained firefight.

They heard voices and Wren began backing Vallis out towards the closest exit. They slipped behind some pods to do get to the door and they heard voices raised as the latecomers discovered the opened pods. The Starfleet officers slipped out and briskly headed for the neighboring warehouse.

Wren jimmied the door and they entered the second facility. Vallis stopped Wren.

"Shouldn't we do something about those rifles and torpedoes?" she asked.

"We will," Wren assured her, "As soon as the Gandhi returns and I have some support, I'll tear this colony apart looking for the sellers and the buyers. In the meantime though, we have the isolytics to worry about. The Cardassians cannot be allowed to acquire them." And then Wren shrugged, "Besides, how do we know the buyer isn't legit?"

"If you were legitimate, would you be shopping here?" Vallis argued.

Wren winced, "Okay, so that theory is a little weak."

Vallis looked around, "This place is empty."

Wren shared a wry grin, "I had noticed that. I'm just giving our neighbors time to cool off."

"Where did the isolytic weapons come from?" Vallis suddenly asked.

"What do you mean?" Wren wondered.

"Who built them?" Vallis clarified, "If it is the Orion Syndicate, I've never heard of them running isolytics before. Do you think they're a domestic product?"

"If they are, they altered the warp signature enough to mask their trademark subspace signature," Wren shared what Borien's investigation had yielded.

"So it isn't the Orions," Vallis guessed.

"No, that just might mean they didn't build them," Wren corrected her, "Although that still doesn't narrow down who the manufacturer could be."

"I'm just surprised that Commander Borien wasn't able to get those answers from our captured bombs," Vallis admitted.

"You mean the same bombs we're currently missing?" Wren asked dryly.

"Umm…yeah," Vallis conceded.

"Don't worry, whether Commander Halifax and Riker find them first or we do, we will find them," Wren assured her.

"This isn't the place, Commander," Riker reported as he closed down his tricorder, "There aren't any isolytics in this housing quad. The mere fact that I can scan the interior is pretty indicative that it isn't the site."

"Scan it again," Halifax ordered anyway.

Riker gave her an askance glance but he didn't protest. He just activated his tricorder and walked around the city block dominating housing unit. As he disappeared around the corner, Halifax cursed the cold.

Freshly fallen snow covered the streets and sidewalks. A cold wind had kicked up since dawn and frankly, Halifax was chilly. Of course, she mused, if I were walking around the building a few times I probably wouldn't be half as cold.

This was Riker's fourth circuit around the quad. Each time, he had produced the same results. She'd accepted them after the second go around but now she was merely teaching the bastard a lesson. He needed to learn respect and she was going to have to smack him around until he learned some, then so be it. Hell, if she had to physically beat it into him, she would.

Halifax shook herself. Where had that come from? She knew she hadn't felt this strongly before Riker and Vallis' tryst last night. Was she so shaken up over Boerhoven that she was just having a knee jerk reaction to any of her subordinates engaging in intimate relations?

No! She defiantly declared to herself. She wasn't overreacting. Riker was a potential disciplinary problem and she was going to quash said problem even before it arose.

She saw him returning and he wore the same resigned expression that he had since completing his second circuit. This time, like every other, he thrust the tricorder out towards her, "Care to oversee the results, ma'am?"

"I trust your ability, Lt. Riker," she said haughtily.

His eyes called her out with a well placed, Bullshit! Aloud, he reported the very same thing he had three times before. Halifax was tempted to send him forth again just for the look in his eyes. Yet, he wasn't being disrespectful. His analysis was actually right on target. Should she punish him merely for being right about her? Yes! A distant corner of her mind railed.

"Let's move on to the second site," Halifax ordered.

She could feel the relief eking off of Riker but his face was an impassive mask. Halifax was pleased despite herself. Perhaps he could be broken and taught after all. She had her doubts though. He had eight years of isolation to contend with. Years of utter self reliance where the chain of command did not exist. Riker's chief problem was a self sufficiency.

Then you add the complex he had over being duplicated. He just couldn't accept that he was the duplicate. Commander Riker deserved the life he'd earned while Lt. Riker shouldn't even exist so he should simply be grateful to be alive and accept whatever scraps Starfleet doled out.

Halifax suddenly stopped mid-stride at that thought. She wondered where it had come from. Riker had overshot her and was coming back. He looked concerned.

'Problems?" he inquired.

His obvious concern over her well being made her cheeks burn. Fortunately the wind and the cold covered that fact up. She shook her head.

"Nothing," she asserted. She could see he didn't quite believe her so she decided to flex her authoritative muscles, "Let's get moving."

Riker complied and they went further down the street. Turning at a cross street they proceeded down several blocks worth of residential units. They finally came to a large, gated off manor house. Riker stopped and gave it an appraising look.

Halifax couldn't quite believe it, "This is it?"

He double-checked his padd, "Yup, this is it."

Halifax was having a hard enough time believing such a structure even existed on Hadon II. It bespoke of wealth. A degree of wealth that was utterly lacking throughout the rest of the colony.

The house stood at least three stories tall and had dormered windows on a steepled roof. There were only a few lights shining on the bottom floor. Heavy curtains kept the interior out of sight yet a halo of light indicated there were occupants.

"Sensor readings?" Halifax found her voice.

"It's shielded," Riker said as though that were condemnation enough.

"There could be a reasonable explanation for that," she was strangely hesitant all of a sudden.

"Commander, the only reason to shield a structure from sensors is to hide what's inside," Riker said with obvious eagerness.

"And privacy is a right that is guaranteed in the Federation. Or have you forgotten that?" Halifax snapped.

"No ma'am," he said forcefully, "But I happen to think the Commander agrees with me. She may just be afraid to authorize an incursion."

Halifax set her jaw defiantly but he had her. After a moment of quelling her anger, she tried a new tactic; "We'll pull back to that deli that we ran into two blocks back and spend some time observing the premises. We can note any traffic and capture imagery of anyone that goes in or out."

"What about Wren and Vallis?" Riker inquired, somewhat mollified by the idea.

"I'll spare a couple of minutes to get a sitrep and direct them here if they haven't found a better target." Halifax informed him.

"Okay, sounds like a good idea," Riker conceded.

"I'm so happy you approve, Lieutenant," Halifax dryly replied.

They got coffee and sandwiches from the proprietor of the deli and sat outside. Personally, Halifax thought that any customers that typically enjoyed the outside seating had to be crazy. If her duty didn't compel her to, she certainly wouldn't. Then again I could just leave Riker out here by himself, she mused. Dismissing the idea, she contacted Wren.

Wren reported that the two assigned warehouses were clean. There was a third, though, that might have an illegal cargo. Halifax asked for details.

"We're being tracked, remember?" Wren said, "Give us your coordinates and we'll join you."

Halifax relayed the coordinates and she and Riker refilled their coffees while Wren and Vallis trudged across town. They eventually arrived, chagrined to be excluded out of a meal.

Halifax ordered them to grab some coffee and sandwiches. The ladies gratefully obeyed. Later, after they wolfed down the food and refilled their cups, Wren asked if Halifax and Riker had spotted anyone.

"No," Halifax admitted, "Whoever is in there is content to stay holed up."

"I don't blame them," Vallis shivered.

Wren suddenly grinned as she went for another bagel sandwich and coffee, "Who would have ever thought we'd run across a kosher deli on a planet like this?"

When she returned with a full plate and an even fuller cup, she wondered; "You can't scan the building?"

"They have complete sensor shrouds in place," Riker explained.

"But they don't have any active sensor sweeps in place either?" she asked between mouthfuls.

"You're on to something." Halifax realized.

"They're using something other than standard sensors to insure their security. Whatever it is, we may be able to spoof and get to the door before they realize we're there," Wren thought aloud, "Get me to the location and I'll be able to spot what they're using."

They eventually moved out and brought Wren and Vallis to the entrance of the manor house. Wren immediately spotted the infrared eyes and the motion sensors. She chuckled.

"This is so Twentieth Century it isn't even funny," she opined.

"What about visual monitors?" Halifax asked.

Wren looked around and spotted the orbs under the eaves, "Commander, we're blown."

"Then prepare to breach," Halifax ordered.

"Ma'am?" Ensign Orwatt at OPS spoke, "Sensors mark a Cardassian Galor-class cruiser entering the Hadon system."

"Is she running ID?" Moneii was curious as to whether the Cardassian commander had silenced their transponder or was just brazen enough to leave it on.

"It's up and running," Orwatt answered, "She marked as the Grimpett."

"Helm, plot an intercept course," Moneii ordered. She tapped a control on her armrest, "All hands, yellow alert."

"They've detected us…and they're hailing," Orwatt reported.

"Maintain intercept but put their transmission on the main viewer." Moneii was almost startled to see that her potential foe was Gul Ocett. Malyn Ocett was one of a handful of Cardassian women to reach the rank of gul. Rumor had it, when she'd commanded a system cutter, she'd been the one to discover and recognize the potential worth of the lifeform later known as Odo.

"Gul Ocett, this is an honor," Moneii offered.

Ocett broke into a wry smile, "I see my reputation precedes me."

"Yes, and do does your propensity to wander about," Moneii fired the first verbal salvo, "Tell me, what business do you have in Federation space?"

"My crew and I are on a surveying mission and we were suffering some equipment failures. We sought out Hadon II as a source for replacements," Ocett said smoothly.

"I wasn't aware that the Central Command undertook such missions. From all reports, you leave that sort of thing to civilians," Moneii countered.

"Times change," Ocett replied, "We enjoy a peace now. Idle hands make for mischief."

"True enough," Moneii agreed, "I'll tell you what. We'll escort back to the border and we'll supply whatever equipment you need."

"Cardassian and Federation technologies are incompatible," Ocett said flatly.

"We're learned wonders at Deep Space Nine," Moneii stated, "It seems we have more in common than was commonly perceived."

"I rather doubt that," Ocett said disdainfully.

"Ideas like that led to our last war," Moneii chastised her, "In fact, your very presence here is provocative. Misunderstandings frequently lead to hostilities. Unless of course, that is actually your intent?"

"What do you mean, Captain?" Ocett was finally openly hostile.

"The border was firmly established by our recent treaty. You're way out of bounds unless of course you'd like to show us your navigation logs and demonstrate how you got lost," Moneii offered yet another alternative.

"We are not lost," Ocett grated at this slight upon her competence, "We are here for equipment."

"And I've offered to give you some. My engineers will work with your people tailoring it to your needs," Moneii explained, "But you can throw any intentions that you have for reaching Hadon II out of your mind. We will escort you back to the border, by force, if necessary."

"And what would happen to your precious peace then?" Ocett scoffed.

Moneii was truly disappointed, "It's your peace too, Gul Ocett. I'll give you thirty minutes to decide."

"To decide what?" Ocett was still stubbornly trying to bluff her way through to Hadon.

"If you haven't reversed course and started back for the Cardassian border in thirty minutes, I will disable your vessel and board her," Moneii revealed. Seeing Ocett's eyes bulge, she elaborated, "You are in foreign territory in violation of the terms of our mutual peace treaty. Now know would you react if I crossed the border?"

Moneii terminated the transmission. Boerhoven turned to her, "Was that the wisest move? Shouldn't we have forced her to turn back now?"

"If we were to, she'd fight," Moneii read the situation, "However, if she has time to think about it she'll have time to wonder about how much of her mission we are fully aware of. She'll report back to the Central Command and they, in turn, will order her to cut her losses and withdraw."

"And if they decide to reinforce her instead?" Boerhoven wondered.

"Then we have trouble," Moneii admitted, "Make no mistake about it, Commander. If Ocett doesn't reverse course in thirty minutes time, I will engage her."

"Here's hoping it doesn't come to that," he said.

Moneii agreed with him inwardly. Her thoughts drifted towards her away team. They'd only received one transmission in the last twenty hours. Were they still all right? She supposed she'd find out soon enough, one way or another.

 

Chapter Six

Wren rushed up to the door. It was an old fashioned hinged affair. It looked heavy since it had an outer layer of armor. Halifax drew to the left side and aimed her phaser at the doorway. Wren used her own weapon to shoot the deadbolt lock. Turning the knob, she pushed the door slightly ajar.

She did a five count and then reared back and kicked the door open, right into the face of an Acamarian waiting on the other side. Wren shoved him aside and went for the Klingon that lurked behind him. The Klingon posed a greater threat than the Acamarian who was still struggling to clear his eyes as they watered from the abuse his nose had just taken.

The Klingon readied himself as Wren approached. He wasn't wearing House armor. Rather, he was garbed in a utilitarian jumpsuit.

Wren slammed the palm of her hand into his nose. The Klingon staggered back and Wren pressed her momentary advantage. She placed a sidekick into his solar plexus and he convulsively blew out the air in his lungs.

A remote part of Wren's mind analyzed her foe. He had a moderate amount of skill. Enough to have been a conscript with the Klingon Defense Force. But he lacked armor and any sign of Imperial insignia, which made him a dishonored renegade of some kind.

She tried a round kick to his ribs but the Klingon blocked the blow. Wren trued a follow through punch but he blocked that as well. He surprised her by using the same hand to throw a jab into her mouth. Her lip split and dark indigo blood began trickling down her powder blue face. Knowing that she didn't have a moment to waste, she forewent wiping the blood off.

Instead of continuing her frontal assault, Wren dove into a slide tackle and took the Klingon's legs out with a scissor kick. The Klingon went down but he caught himself with his hands. She used her left arm to swipe his hands out from underneath him. As he collided face first with the floor, she continued her motion and brought her left up above his head and smashed his face back into the floor just as he lifted his head.

She scrambled to her feet as he got to his hands and knees. Reeling back her leg, she kicked him in the ribs for all she was worth. She repeated the move three more times. She heard bones breaking but she didn't relent. His head was merely hanging when she focused all of her energy to a shot on his face. His head snapped back and then fell to the ground as his body collapsed in a heap. Wren straddled his chest and began to pound his face.

Riker had been dealing with bruised Acamarian during this time. The Acamarian threw a punch and Riker blocked it. His own punch connected. The Acamarian stumbled back. Riker threw a body blow. The Acamarian dropped his defenses so Riker jabbed his face. The defenses came up so Riker followed up with another body shot. The defenses came down but this time they hung heavily. Riker placed a right cross to maximum effect.

Riker shoved the Acamarian to the floor and zip tied his hands behind his back. A screech outside announced the arrival of a wheeled transport. A Nallorite led a ragtag group of armed gunmen through the gates. They were headed for the front door and Halifax wheeled into motion.

"Riker! You and Vallis will find and decommission any weapons that may be stored here. Wren and I will hold them off for as long as we can," Halifax ordered.

Riker hesitated and Halifax got in his face, "Go!"

He grabbed Vallis and the hurried down the hallway. Wren took up position behind the armored door.

"Now this should be fun," she said dryly.

"Do you really think the isolytic weapons are here?" Halifax suddenly asked.

Wren wore a whimsical expression, "If not, then we owe these people a helluva apology."

Halifax had just enough time to consider that before the first particle beam sizzled through the air. She ordered Wren to return fire and they held the newcomers at the gate.

Riker flipped open his tricorder and it immediately detected subspace radiation. Vallis looked at the displays, "Found anything?"

"Yes, just further down," he answered.

They reached a set of double doors and opened them to reveal what would have once been a ballroom. Now it was filled with cargo pods. The Precarious had brought three pods with it which brought the total present here to twelve.

She gave him a horrified look, "How will we…?"

Riker grinned, "We'll just have to work that much faster."

Vallis began to wonder if he'd lost his mind while he spent those eight years all alone.

"I'm glad you opted to see reason, Gul Ocett," Moneii said as she gazed upon the Cardassian woman's features captured on her desktop display.

"Thank Central Command," Ocett replied drolly, "They saw the peace treaty as being more important than my mission."

Moneii noted that Ocett left out exactly what her mission was. Whether it be the official "survey" mission or the suspected collection of the isolytic weapons, it remained unsaid. Moneii wasn't about to openly accuse Ocett in the name of the same peace that Cardassian had just alluded to.

"You will be sending us your course and intended speed?" Moneii was careful to present it as a request rather than a demand.

Ocett wore a thin smile, "My officers have already alerted your bridge crew. After all, we wouldn't want to lose our minders."

Moneii offered a grim smile in return, "Just consider us your map in case you get lost again and can't manage to find the border on your own."

"And I suppose you'll be staying on station inside of the Hadon system for a time just to insure that I don't return," Ocett ventured.

"Wouldn't you" Moneii replied evenly.

"Of course," Ocett allowed, "But you can't stay here indefinitely. What if an emergency occurs elsewhere and demands your attention?"

"Then I would suggest that no traces of such an event lead to you," Moneii warned.

"Of course," Ocett said silkily. "I have alerted your crew as to intention to depart in five of your minutes. Perhaps we'll speak further during our journey?"

"Perhaps," Moneii allowed, "Until then…"

The Starfleet captain terminated the transmission and headed out of her Ready Room to the bridge, "Mr. Boerhoven, stand by to make way."

"Yes, ma'am," he said as he vacated the captain's chair.

"Be ready for an 'unexpected' emergency to arise," Moneii advised.

"You think the Cardassians are going to try and pull us away?" Boerhoven asked.

"They're certainly going to try," Moneii chuckled, "But Starfleet Command is putting all border patrol vessels on alert. If the Cardassians so much as sneeze wrong, they'll have a ring of starships around them."

Boerhoven chuckled, "It would serve them right."

Moneii arched an eyebrow, "Do I detect a note of vindictiveness?"

"Did you ever serve on the line during the Border Wars?" Boerhoven inquired.

"No, but I did see action against the Tzenkethi," she said ruefully.

"There are certain similarities between their brands of xenophobia but where the Tzenkethi want to establish genetic control and domination of every form of life by turning everything into themselves, the Cardassians want to conquer everyone and place themselves as demigods over every other culture," Boerhoven related to her.

"I think that's a gross oversimplification," Moneii chided him.

"Maybe, but it's a hard won opinion," Boerhoven protested.

"I'd keep opinions like that to yourself in your new posting," Moneii advised, "Ship's XO's can't be seen having such racist views. You're lucky I think you'll outgrow this absurd opinion or I'd report you to Captain Remick and you might find yourself XO of a ferry tug instead."

"Duly noted," he said defiantly. Opting to change the subject, he asked; "Any word from Megan and her team?"

Moneii gave him a curious look, "I thought you and Commander Halifax were on the outs. I expedited your transfer and promotion because of that fact."

Boerhoven looked pained, "I don't have anything against Megan. At least not professionally. There were some personal issues that couldn't be resolved but I didn't allow them to interfere with my duties."

"That's what she said about herself too," Moneii mused, "Regardless of how you two thought you were performing, the truth is that you were both affecting performance of the bridge crew. Even moving you to Beta watch didn't help. So, I foisted you off onto someone else's lap."

Boerhoven hesitated and then plunged ahead, "So you're saying you don't think I'm ready to be XO yet?"

Moneii's eyes bored into his, "Mister, if you think I'd jeopardize another command just to alleviate a minor problem with my own, you have another thing coming."

"Understood, ma'am," Boerhoven said briskly. "So I take that to mean that there has been no word."

Moneii sighed, "No. Not a peep."

"Hold your fire!" a voice called out from the gate, "I'd like to parlay."

Wren looked to Halifax, who nodded; "Advance and be recognized. And know this, if you make one misstep I will blow your damn head off."

The Nallorite stepped forward and straightened his tie. He was dressed in an Iotian suit, circa 2266. He even had a fedora canted on his brow. The grey pinstripe of his suit made his ebon skin stand out even more. As he approached, his ivory teeth seemed to practically shine in contrast to the obsidian-like face.

He reached the porch and Halifax spoke to him, "That's close enough."

"If you'll give me a moment of your time, perhaps we can make an accommodation," he said, "Captain Halifax, my name is Mercel. I am the local representative for the concern that has a vested interest in the items stored within this structure."

"First off, it's Commander Halifax of Starfleet. Second of all, are you perchance referring to the isolytic warheads inside the house?" Halifax retorted.

His pearlescent teeth shone again, "It seems you know more about our merchandise than I do."

"Yeah right," Halifax snorted, "Do your employers happen to go by the title the 'Orion Syndicate'?"

He chuckled, "My employers prefer their anonymity."

'I just bet they do," Halifax quipped. "Are they aware that dealing in weapons of mass destruction can earn them life without parole on a penal colony?"

"Commander, let's be reasonable," Mercel pleaded, "I can assure you that these items will never be used against the Federation."

"How can you promise that?" Halifax wondered.

"It was a condition of the sale," Mercel revealed. "Now, we have already received an advance up front. I've been authorized to release a portion of those funds to you and your crew if you just walk away. Think about it, you get a ship of your own. And not just a scut freighter. Why there might even be opportunities for a ship's captain like yourself in our organization of you choose wisely."

"I'll pass," Halifax decided.

"I'd suggest you reconsider," Mercel suddenly urged. There was a hint of menace in his voice now, "The alternative is to face down my people and we vastly outnumber you. Even if you survive the first incursion by these hapless fellows, I have more readily available. We won't take prisoners and we won't stop until every last one of you is dead or dying."

"Why don't you just wander back to your safe place behind your gunmen and go to hell?" Halifax wondered.

Mercel shrugged his shoulders, "Have it your way."

As the Nallorite trudged back to the gate Wren turned to Halifax, "Are you sure that was the wisest move?"

"You can't seriously be tempted by his offer?" Halifax was aghast.

"No, but playing along may have bought us some time and reinforcements," Wren explained, "My power pack is nearly drained and I can't imagine yours is any better off."

Halifax checked her power indicator, "Damn."

"I'll back your play but I need to know what it is," Wren assured her.

"We hold as long as we can and then we fight hand to hand with any of those idiots that make it inside," Halifax ordered, "We need to give Riker and Vallis time to disarm the isolytics."

"Aye, ma'am," Wren said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Which wasn't a lot and frankly, Halifax couldn't blame her.

"I can't do it!" Vallis declared as she pulled back away from the second isolytic warhead, "We don't have enough time!"

Riker put his hands on her shoulders as he sat beside her. She turned to face him and he could see the raw panic in her eyes. He had to stabilize the situation. Fast!

"Look, you wanted your individuality so you left the only home you'd ever known and entered a wider galaxy. That galaxy was filled with more diversity that you even could have dreamt of but you adapted. You entered Starfleet had wanted to graduate the Academy in two years and you did it," Riker reassured her, "You just have to want this that badly."

She stared into his eyes and saw the confidence he had in her and she settled down. She swallowed hard and nodded, "Okay. I can do this."

"I know you can," he insisted, "Just pick up your tools and start again."

"This would go faster if I had some help," she admitted, "You have a tool pouch as well, right?"

They both wore tool belts with a basic assortment of equipment. He smirked, "You know I am."

"Then pay attention," she guided him through a disarmament and the watched as he did one on his own. She smiled, "You're a quick study. You'll do fine."

"How about I race you?" he suggested, "Three were already disarmed. That leave nine and you've disconnected two and I managed one. That leaves six between us. First one done buys the other one a drink at Grimshaws."

Intrigued, she smiled; "You're on."

Filled with newfound determination they both went to work.

Halifax fired and then pressed the actuation stud and nothing happened. She shook her phaser and turned to Wren, "Dammit! I'm out."

Wren jostled hers as well, "Looks like I am too."

"We'd best set up our ambush points. These idiots will be on us in a few minutes," Halifax suggested.

They retreated down the hallway. Wren tested a door on the right and it opened. It seemed to be a multimedia room of some kind. She left the door wide open and pressed up against the wall on the other side of the doorway.

Halifax went a little further so they'd be staggered and tried a door. It opened into a den with an old fashioned library filled with aged books. She thought there must have been a fortune in manuscripts in there.

Shouts announced the arrival of the gunmen. Neither Wren nor Halifax had ever gotten a good look at how many they'd stunned. The whole criminal gang could be ambulatory and coming through the front door for all they knew.

Heavy footfalls sounded throughout the hall as the gunmen approached. They heard doors opening and the footfalls seemed to decrease as doors opened. Wren guessed there were three of them as they began to pass by her doorway.

A Talarian entered the room she occupied and called for the lights. Wren launched herself at him as the lights came up. She inverted the wrist of his gun hand and he cried out in pain. A pair of footfalls came back to the doorway.

Wren stayed close to the Talarian as she pulled his disruptor out of his hand. Unfortunately for her, he still had enough presence of mind to knock the pistol from her hands. She was simply aware of the fact the other gunman was missing from the doorway. Ascertaining that he wasn't in the room with her, she grabbed hold of the Talarians's arms and swept his legs out from underneath him.

Wren clamped an arm bar on the Talarian and pushed him down face first into the floor. She wrapped her free arm around his throat and choked off his airway. Knowing it took longer for a Talarian to succumb to such a move, she maintained the hold for ninety seconds and he slipped away into unconsciousness. Afterwards, she bound his wrists behind his back with one of her last zip ties. Retrieving the disruptor, she went to check on Halifax.

While Wren engaged the Talarian, Halifax came out of the den at a dead run and shoulder checked the Bajoran who'd been trying to enter. Halifax was almost surprised to discover the Bajoran was female. So far this had been a "men's only" club of crooks.

Seeing that another Bajoran stood in front of Wren's hidey hole, she twisted the woman in front of her as the man targeted her. Particle beams struck the Bajoran woman in the back. Halifax was horrified to see the life die out of the Bajoran's eyes yet she was also grateful that it wasn't her.

She threw the body at the gunman and dove into the den. The other Bajoran uttered several oaths that Halifax assumed were curses in his native tongue. He ran to the den's doorway and unleashes dozens of shots into. The smell of burnt leather and parchment filled the air. Fires started on the bookshelves and the fire retardant system activated.

As a hazy mist filled the space, the Bajoran called for the lights. Halifax chose that moment to make her move. She came into the Bajoran and kneed him in the groin. He went down with a gurgle and she picked up his abandoned disruptor and shot him in each arm and leg. She thought that would keep him busy and out of the way.

Halifax went to the doorway. Leaning against the frame furthest away from the front door, she spotted Wren down the hall. She'd been tucked into a move opposite of Halifax's, trying to peer into the den. Halifax gave her a thumbs up. Wren flashed the same gesture.

Wren looked at her weapon's power indicator. It read that there a third of a charge left. Apparently the Talarian was a tad trigger happy. She flashed Halifax three fingers.

Halifax checked her charge. She was only half empty. She returned five fingers to Wren. The Andorian nodded. She jerked her thumb towards the manor's entrance and then gave Halifax a five count. The commander knew she meant there were five foes that had cleared their rooms and were now approaching them.

Wren help up three fingers and nodded towards her hand. Halifax nodded her agreement. They'd go on her three count. Halifax counted off slowly and then she and Wren opened fire on the gunmen cloistered in the hallway.

 

Chapter Seven

Vallis suddenly let a curse fly out of her mouth. For coming from a nonsexual culture, he was surprised that she essentially demanded that he exchange fluids with her again. He finished disabling his device, the last of his allotted weapons, and moved to her side.

"What is it?"He asked jovially.

"This bastard just armed itself," she said with trepidation in her voice.

"What?" he blurted, "How?"

"If I knew that, it wouldn't have happened," she grated. "I think I rushed it too much. You'd gotten ahead of me and I was trying to beat you."

He noted that she was laying the blame at his feet. She was simply stating a fact. He gently placed a hand on her back.

"Okay, I'm done now so let's see if we can diffuse this sucker together," he offered. "I faced worse hazards then this for eight years on Nervala IV. Every day was a new adventure as I brushed death by as some piece of equipment or the other failed or overloaded. If it wasn't that then the elements and the atmosphere were trying to kill me. What can one bomb do?"

She gave him a grateful smile, "Okay. We can do this. But, just so you know, this thing could eat our flesh if it discharges."

"I'll never miss it," he jested.

"We need to stop the matter-antimatter annihilation. I'll focus on the injectors and you work on removing the deuterium and antideuterium pods," she decided.

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed enthusiastically.

Riker focused in on his assigned task. The deuterium pod was easy to seal and disengage. The antimatter pod's seal was damaged though. He couldn't shut down with the antideuterium and being unable to do so and the deuterium pod disconnected, the intermix ratio was destabilizing and heading for a warp core breach.

He stripped the deuterium pod's seal. Deuterium was basically energized hydrogen so venting it into the atmosphere wouldn't create any lasting harm. Using components from that seal he rebuilt the damaged antimatter seal. He managed to seal off the pod and remove it.

Unfortunately, the intermix ration had gone wildly out of control. There was too much antimatter and the warp core was dangerously unstable. Vallis was struggling to regain control but at this point, destruction was a foregone conclusion.

"It's going to blow," Riker forced her to realize, "We need to try and get to a safe distance."

She shook her head, "We'll never make it on foot. What we need to do is vent the warp core."

"Say what?" Riker suddenly had an insane idea if she'd said what he thought he had heard.

"We need to vent the core," she repeated.

"Can you unlock the magnetic seal around the injectors?" he suddenly asked.

"Yeah, but then the energy will leak through the injector," she protested.

"Through the injector, through the roof, and out into space," Riker finished her thought.

"Thereby venting the core!" she grinned, "Not a problem. Hang on!"

She released the magnetic interlocks and scrambled away as a stream of energy burst forth like a volcanic eruption. It blew through the roof and expended itself out into space. Fortunately, air traffic was virtually unknown on Hadon II. The primary risk had been the orbital parking traffic. As it happened, several freighters were close to the expulsion but they weren't directly hit by it.

Riker shielded Vallis body with his own as fragments from the roof rained down. The whole manor house was shaken by the blast. The structure began to collapse within itself. The suspected Syndicate goons fled the scene. Halifax and Wren sought cover as best they could as they bolted outside.

"I hope Riker and Vallis survived that," Wren wished.

"Of all the idiotic things…" Halifax was livid.

"Commander, I don't think now is the time," Wren advised, "Our first concerns are to secure the remaining weapons and conduct a search and rescue for our crewmates…assuming they're still alive."

"Riker had better be alive," Halifax declared, "I want the satisfaction of presenting that sonuvabitch to a review board."

Wren cast her a disparaging look then pulled out her tricorder and started into the wreckage of the house.

Several hours later the Gandhi returned to find the away team shaken but otherwise unharmed. Borien led an engineering team to the surface and was delighted to discover that all of the remaining isolytic weapons had already been disabled. He was also of the opinion that Riker and Vallis' actions saved the lives of everyone on the planet. Halifax wasn't as forgiving.

As the engineers began transporting the weapons to the starship, Wren gathered a security team and tore the colony apart looking for the suspects. She also headed back to the arms cache she and Vallis had stumbled upon. Not surprisingly, the pods were all missing. Tricorders picked up traces of a transporter effect.

Returning to the ship, Wren informed the captain of what had transpired. Any of the two dozen transports in orbit could have moved those pods. Or it could even have been transports that departed while the Gandhi was out of the system. She requested permission to conduct a search and seizure of every ship in orbit. Moneii quietly turned her down.

Moneii was most interested in hearing Halifax's after action report. The XO was disturbed as she admitted, "We were successful despite ourselves."

"I'm afraid I'll need clarification on that," Moneii stated.

"It wasn't bad enough that the plan was reckless to begin with but Ensign Vallis nearly detonated an isolytic device on the surface," Halifax explained, "As it was she was damn lucky no ships were parked in orbit over weapon."

"I thought Lt. Riker's improvisation was admirable given the circumstances," Moneii opined.

Halifax snorted derisively, "If it hadn't been for Riker, we wouldn't have been there to begin with."

"And the isolytic warheads might very well be in Cardassian hands now," Moneii rebutted her statement.

"We could have blocked Ocett without resorting to a ground mission," Halifax argued, "It was wasteful and irresponsible."

"And you place the blame squarely at Lt. Riker's feet?" Moneii asked.

"Yes," Halifax said in a surly tone.

"So I take it your withdrawing your recommendation to make him Second Officer?" Moneii asked.

"Yes, and not only that, I'm about to go put such a black mark on his record he'll never see Lt. Commander," Halifax declared her intent.

"I may not be able to sign off on his fitness report if you do," Moneii warned.

"I understand," Halifax assured her.

Riker was down at the Grimshaw. He'd received his dressing down by Halifax and notification that his planned promotion had been negated. He took another drink of his whiskey. It was the real thing and he was savoring every drop. He still wasn't certain why he'd been allowed shore leave but permission had come straight from the captain so he didn't waste time arguing.

"I'll buy the next round," Kalinda offered as she came to sit beside him.

"I was wondering if I'd see you again," Riker admitted, "I'd assumed you'd have taken off by now. Guns and all.

Kalinda smiled, "I just wanted to check in on you first. Besides, I have no idea of what you're talking about. I just stopped by for a drink on my way home."

"And where is home?" Riker wondered.

"Ronara Prime," she answered. "Ever heard of it?"

"It's in the Demilitarized Zone. That's about all I know," he fessed up.

"It used to be a nice place to live," Kalinda sighed. "Someday it will be again."

"Why are you really here?" Riker just came out and asked.

"I appreciate what you did with the isolytic burst. That kind of quick thinking is appreciated in certain parts even if Starfleet is too stupid to recognize brilliance in action," she declared.

"And just who would the people be in these parts?" he inquired.

Kalinda shared a sly smile with him, "You'll figure it out when you need to."

She slid off her stool and left as suddenly as she'd arrived. Twenty minutes later, Wren came storming into the tavern with four security officers. She spotted Riker and went to his side.

"The woman who contacted you earlier about the Cardassian connection, has she been here?" Wren wanted to know.

"Haven't seen her," Riker lied despite not quite knowing why he was doing so.

"Well, if you see her alert me or one of my officers," Wren instructed.

"What's this about?" Riker asked.

"She's a Maquis," Wren explained.

"And what's a 'Maquis'?" he followed up his first question.

Wren had an exasperated look on her face, "Don't you follow the news? They're terrorists that run around the Demilitarized Zone killing anything and everything Cardassian. They're wanted by both Starfleet and the Central Command.

"Too bad I haven't seen her then," Riker said smoothly.

"For some reason I don't entirely believe you right now," Wren admitted, "But scuttlebutt has it you have your own problems right now so I'll let it go."

Riker saluted her with his glass and she and her team left.

Later, in his quarters aboard the Gandhi, Riker began a records search concerning the Maquis. What he found intrigued him. They were rebels fighting a perceived injustice. He found he could relate to that.

He pondered Kalinda's parting words. He wasn't ready to leave Starfleet just yet. But if he were, he could think of worse fates than helping freedom fighters win back their homes. It was definitely something to think about.

 

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