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The Farside Mission - Part III by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter 12

"Belay that order!" Arinea shouted as she came up from behind Weisz.

With her were two of her black garbed guards and Tom Riker. The guards were sans their customary batons. Today they wielded the latest model of Type II phasers.

"Stay out of this Madame Director, this is my jurisdiction." Weisz growled.

"This is still my base and you are still my guest, Commodore." Arinea coldly informed him, "If I want their lives spared, then they shall be so."

"You're making a mistake." Weisz warned.

Arinea's predatory smile met her eyes, "Watch and see."

She motioned her guards forward. They escorted Riker to the railing and aimed their phasers at his head. The SID team below recognised Tom immediately.

T'Kir approached Macen, "What's going on?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing." Macen confessed, "All I know is that all my extra senses are screaming."

"That makes sense." T'Kir responded, "Weisz is engaged with some woman that he distrusts but I can't get a bead on her. She's as mercurial to my telepathy as either you or Hannah."

"You mean her?" Macen nodded towards the platinum haired beauty descending the closest flight of stairs. Macen's blood ran cold as he recognised her, "Fates, no! It isn't possible."

"What isn't possible?" T'Kir inquired but Macen had grown silent.

T'Kir studied the approaching woman. She moved with a fluid grace. T'Kir started when she noticed the tattoo stretching across the length of the woman's arm. At its heart was the same mysterious sigil that Macen bore on his back. It had been obvious from Macen's reaction that he knew this enigmatic stranger. The woman's playful smile revealed that she also knew him.

"Hello Brin." her earthy voice purred, "Miss me?"

Macen stood there in silence and Arinea shook her head, "You'd think that after all this time, I'd at least rate a 'hello'."

"Back off sister." T'Kir snapped, "Just who the hell are you and what right d'you have t'demand anything from him?"

Arinea sized up T'Kir then returned her focus on Macen, "I see your taste in outspoken women remains consistent."

"Hey, lady, I'm the one who was talking to you." T'Kir growled.

"So you are." Arinea sighed then drew herself up, "My name is Arinea. Arinea Macen. You may have heard of me. You see, Sweetie, I'm his wife."

"His what?" T'Kir sputtered, "But you're dead."

Arinea shrugged, "Sorry to disappoint."

"What the hell are you doing here, Ari? Macen suddenly growled.

"Ah, he speaks." Arinea clapped her hands, "Progress at last."

Macen's right hand flashed out and he took hold of her throat. As he applied pressure, several Special Forces gunmen shifted positions for a better shot. Arinea gave him a lazy smile and pointed over her shoulder. Her guards had Riker by the hair and had jammed a phaser under his jaw. The implication was clear.

With a snort of disgust, Macen released his grip. Arinea rubbed her offended larynx while wearing a serpentine smile, "Them's the breaks, Snookums."

Macen's right hand hovered over the butt of his phaser pistol but Arinea wagged a finger at him, "We have more important matters to deal with than your bouts of adolescent rage."

"Such as?"

"Aren't you the teeniest bit curious as to how I survived?"

"Well, you obviously severed our empathic bond rather than getting assimilated by the Borg like I thought." Macen described, "Why, by the way?"

"I thought you were about to die." Arinea replied, "Why would I want to share in that experience?"

"Loyalty is obviously a topic we never discussed much." Macen muttered.

Arinea waved his protests aside, "I managed to convince a long range shuttle pilot to jump me out of the system. I made it to one of the outer colonies and boarded a freighter bound for the Gamma Quadrant. I managed to skirt Dominion territory and arrived in the vicinity of the Gamma side of the Bajoran wormhole when he it was rediscovered."

"I hopped a transport to the Alpha Quadrant and resumed work as a biologist when I was contacted by Section 31. They'd perused my immigration statements and ascertained the breadth of my experience. They decided they could use my expertise. I advanced through the technical ranks until I was appointed Director of this facility after the war."

Arinea cocked her head to one side and a playful smile played across her features, "I read the file on you. It was quite impressive how you helped organise the evacuation of El-Auria's outer colonies. Too bad you couldn't get more people on board your half-dozen ships."

Macen's jaw clenched but the only other manifestation of his rage was the glint in his eyes. There was a glacial chill to them that frightened T'Kir. He was a man teetering on the edge of homicide. He could have easily done it right then and there without the slightest qualm. It was a facet of Macen's personality she'd seen hints of over the years but she'd never seen it so dangerously close to being irrevocably unleashed.

"Of course, after your arduous journey across the Delta and Beta Quadrants, you finally reach the Alpha Quadrant and your personal promised land: the Federation. You booked every remaining refugee into those two freighters. You even signed on as the 2nd Officer of the Lakul in order to facilitate relations between the crew and the refugees."

Her smile turned malicious, "But along came the Nexus and almost everyone died. Poor you. But hey, you found your new home in the rescue attempt. Off you went and joined Starfleet despite everybody else's apprehensions. You ended up getting banished from the drastically reduced El-Aurian community and sent packing with your new friends at Starfleet. You always were too stubborn for your own good."

"Are we going to recite my personal history chapter and verse or are you going to get to the frinxing point sometime this decade?" Macen interrupted.

Arinea's eyes danced with delight, "The point is this: if you wish to see your comrades remain unharmed, you will accompany me."

"To where?" T'Kir blurted.

"To wherever I deem necessary." Arinea rejoined, after a moment, she smiled beatifically and stroked T'Kir's cheek. T'Kir angrily pulled away and Arinea's tinkling laughter was that of a demented child's, "You needn't worry, Honeybunch. The breaking of the empathic bond is tantamount to divorce amongst our people. When I severed my bonds with Macen, I also ended all our mortal ties. I've taken my share of lovers since, as I suspect he has as well. He'll still be yours when I'm through with him." she paused and then smiled maliciously, "Unless you have cause to doubt his virtue."

"Take him." T'Kir replied coldly, "I hope he carves your heart out, bitch."

"One never knows." Arinea's mercurial smile returned.

Macen ordered his troops to stand down. As of this moment, an uneasy cease-fire existed between the SID forces and the allied troops arrayed against them. Macen telepathically conveyed a final set of orders before following Arinea up the flight of stairs to the upper deck. From there, she led him to her office.

They went alone, unescorted by her guards who were left behind to mind Tom Riker. Macen also retained his pistol. He'd passed his two stun grenades to Daggit before separating from the team.

Macen followed Arinea into her office. He admired its bare simplicity. It reflected the teachings of their youth. Arinea proceeded straight for her desk.

She depressed a control on her desk and the door behind Macen closed. He could hear the locks cycle. What remained to be seen was whether that was to keep him in or to keep others out. She then activated her desk monitor and inserted an isolinear datarod into the transmission receptacle.

With that finished, she moved out from behind the desk. Macen took his first real moment to study her. She wore a coy smile unlike any he'd ever seen from her in the past. It bespoke of danger and instability. Her mercurial mood swings were becoming increasingly unstable. She was toying with him by bringing him here and he was wondering what her game truly was.

Superficially, she looked about the same as the last time he'd seen her, except that she was sadder. She'd added to her Seeker's sigil. The thorns were an added touch. He wondered what else was new about her.

"Slip of latinum for your thoughts." Arinea stopped next to a wall display containing two swords.

"Save your money." Macen advised, "You wouldn't like them."

"Be nice." Arinea tsked.

"You could have let me know you were alive." Macen accused.

"Actually, I only learned of your survival a few days ago myself." Arinea revealed, "Mr. Riker can be quite informative when properly persuaded."

"I'm certain your cohorts at Section 31 also had a few things to say about me."

Arinea dipped her head, "True. Mostly the 31 analysts concluded that you were a colossal pain in the ass. I found that easy enough to believe."

"Happy to oblige." Macen took a half bow.

"You would feel that way." Arinea said in disgust, "Can't you grasp how important 31's work is for the Federation?"

"Can you?" Macen rebutted, "Or is all of this here just a massive ego trip?"

Anger clouded Arinea's features but she quickly recovered her composure, "Do you still consider yourself a Seeker After Truth?"

"Do you?"

Arinea wagged a finger at him, "Ah, ah, no fair answering a question with another question."

"I do." Macen answered after a moment's deliberation, "But I consider myself a Seeker after the Seekers of old, before the Reformation."

"Yes, a warrior-scholar." Arinea mulled the concept over in her mind, "It would fit your new role as a soldier-spy."

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it." Macen acknowledged, "Personally, I just focused on taking the whole Seeker concept back to its initial roots."

"In much the same way, one could say I have also held true to the precepts of our former vocation." Arinea stated, "I have striven to seek knowledge, defend the helpless and assist those in need."

"I'm not sure the Elders would agree with your interpretation." Macen replied dryly.

"Just as they accepted your interpretation of our calling?" Arinea pointedly asked, "They did cast you out from the fellowship of the Seekers. There aren't many of us left, you'd think they'd want to keep every surviving member within the fold."

All the discussion regarding the Seekers After Truth caused Macen to reflect upon the venerable brotherhood's origins for a moment. This brotherhood began as a scholarly conclave of soldiers. It was akin to Earth's military orders of the Roman Catholic Church. This contemplative society evolved over time to become an elite cadre that was one part scientific explorers and the other part specialised police force.

The Reformation caused the El-Aurians to lay down arms. The Seekers followed suit. Their part-time warriors became strict contemplatives and humanitarians. The Seekers had led the evacuation of El-Auria and her colonies during the Borg invasion. It was during the long trek to the Alpha Quadrant that Macen opted to pursue the ancient pathway of the Seekers.

Macen still bore the symbol of the Seekers on his flesh to denote his allegiance. It was obvious that Arinea did as well. She flaunted it openly enough with her open sleeve design top. It was also equally obvious that she'd drastically altered her marking.

The original design was a circular cord encircling a knotwork pattern. Arinea's added vines accentuated the base pattern without obscuring it. The intertwined nature of the design had been intended to illustrate the interconnected pathways of all things. An analogous philosophy had been espoused by the ancient Celts and their artwork had found similar artistic expression.

"I see you've modified the sigil." Macen observed, "Impressive. Were the thorns your idea?"

Arinea nodded, "They denote the condition of my heart."

Although Macen knew the comment was meant to evoke pity, he felt none. Arinea had made her choices. It was a shame that she'd suffered for them but didn't everyone?

"Why am I here, Ari?" Macen asked at long last.

Arinea's head canted to one side and she wore a pitying smile, "To see the end of all things."

What the frinx? he thought, "I give. What's that mean?"

A chime from Arinea's desk sounded and her smile blossomed into a manic blaze, "The bell sounds."

"Ari, what the hell is going on?" Macen asked, patience at an end.

"I've released my foot soldiers. They are going to deal with your friends and the meddlesome Special Forces personnel." she explained.

"How many 31 guards do you have posted here?"

Arinea regarded him as though he were a slow child, "I haven't dispatched any more 31 personnel. They are safely tucked away in their quarters. No, Dear Heart, I've released the incubating Jem'Hadar from their birthing chambers."

Macen stared at her in disbelief, "Are you insane?"

"Why?" she asked, coyly chewing on the end of her forefinger, "Are trying to suggest something?"

Macen scowled, "No, but I think you are."

"These Jem'Hadar have been bred to be more...open to suggestion. Their incubation indoctrination programs have also been altered. They now revere me in place of the Founders. I have an isolinear datarod that countermands my orders to apprehend your associates. If you want to play it, you merely need to accomplish one simple thing."

"And what would that be, beat you at a game of cribbage?"

Arinea laughed in delight, "No, my love, you must accept my chalirain and defeat me in a test of steel."

"The 'blood challenge'?" Macen repeated in surprise, "Ari, no one's fought a chalirain in fifty thousand years."

Arinea shrugged, "There's a first time for everything."

"I won't do it."

"You will if you want to save your teammates...and your little trollop." Arinea sneered, "Those Jem'Hadar are instructed to kill everyone they meet."

"Fine." Macen snarled, "Give me the sword."

"Remember, I'm better with a blade than you." Arinea taunted as she removed a sword and scabbard from the wall. She tossed it to Macen. She then pulled its mate off the wall and pulled it in order to inspect the blade. Macen did likewise.

"These are Earth blades." Macen observed, "Japanese if I'm not mistaken."

Arinea nodded, "They are katana. The swords of the Vulcan master S'harien most closely resembled our native sabrien but no artisan continues in the tradition of the ancient smiths. The martial traditions of the Japanese continue as meditative practices, not unlike our training with the Seekers, and blades are available at a price."

Macen tested the weight and balance of the single edged weapon. It was like an extension of his arm. That was going to be necessary. For Arinea hadn't lied, she'd always been better with a sword.

"Ready?" Arinea asked, assuming a guard position.

"Whenever." Macen said and readied himself for her attack. He did not wait long.

In the incubation room, the last of the Jem'Hadar had emerged from the birthing chambers and had dressed. Next came their individual tubes of the white. The first wave was already in the adjacent armoury gearing up for the conflict ahead. Arinea's orders were constantly replaying over monitors mounted on every wall in both the birthing chamber and the armoury.

The first signs of trouble were the cry of upraised voices and the approaching clatter of booted feet on the facility's catwalks. Daggit dove down the tunnel to see what was happening in the adjacent chamber. By the time he arrived at the end of the passageway, cyan plasma pulses were being unleashed by Jem'Hadar storming the position. The Special Forces personnel were doing their best to fend off the attacking horde but they were about to be overwhelmed by the kamikaze-like attacks of the Jem'Hadar.

Daggit used the lull in hostilities in the other room to reload his grenade launcher. Its five-round magazine tube was now fully loaded. Daggit racked the slide, took aim, and fired. The resultant explosion threw several Jem'Hadar to the ground and momentarily stemmed their advance. Daggit fired again. As his second round detonated, Radil joined him.

"We have to hold this room." Daggit ordered as Radil opened fire, "This is our escape route. We can't afford to get bottled up in there." He jerked his thumb towards the equipment room. "Can you manage while I get the others moving?"

"Watch me." Radil snarled as she cut a swathe through an advancing pocket of Jem'Hadar.

"Good girl." Daggit replied and went back down the tunnel.

The scene in the equipment room was one of sheer chaos. The Special Forces troops were being overrun while the SID team on the "ground" level tried to provide cover fire for their retreat down the stairs. Weisz had bravely, or foolishly, set himself up to be among the last to withdraw.

Daggit stood at the end of the tunnel and yelled at T'Kir, "T'Kir!"

"What?" She shouted back in exasperation.

"We need to withdraw." Daggit bellowed, "We can't afford to get caught in here."

"Did you just figure that out by yourself?" T'Kir snapped, "In case you hadn't noticed, we're working at getting out of here. I just thought a little help would come in handy."

Daggit reminded himself to never underestimate T'Kir's tactical abilities. Although she'd never been schooled by an orthodox military academy, she'd survived hard won lessons as part of the Maquis. Serving alongside Macen, she'd learned the arts of tradecraft. Although she'd never be a regular foot soldier, she was a superb covert operations operative.

Daggit stepped out into the middle of the equipment room and took aim at the overhead tunnel entrances. He fired once...twice...and a third time. Weisz's men used the disarrayed halt in the Jem'Hadar's advance to extract the last of their forces from the veranda level. Having completed his task, Daggit began purposefully striding back to the tunnel.

He removed grenades from the bandolier he wore and inserting them in the launcher's magazine tube. He pumped the slide and then inserted a final grenade. At this point, he'd reached the tunnel's entrance and halted. Weisz's troops were already pushing their way through and making their escape through the interconnecting chamber. Weisz moved up alongside Daggit and stopped.

"Thank you for that." Weisz humbled himself, "You didn't have to do that."

Daggit gave him a stony stare, and then broke his silence, "My guess is that we stand a far better chance of surviving this disaster by working together than by going our separate ways. Since I'm assuming we share a mutual goal of preserving the life of Ms. Abrams, I suggest you accept our offer of aid and begin co-ordinating with my team."

"What about your team leader?" Weisz asked.

"He'll outlive us all." Daggit replied, "Literally. I wouldn't be surprised if he meets us on our way out of this base."

"You're suggesting a complete withdrawal?"

Daggit nodded, "It seems the surest option for securing Ms. Abrams safety."

Weisz pondered his choices for a moment then nodded, "Agreed."

"Now that that's settled, let's get to it before the Jem'Hadar flank us." Daggit stepped out from underneath the veranda and fired a grenade into the support structure of the railing junction that led to the stairs. He fired again and it buckled entirely. He repeated the process on the other side despite the enemy's best efforts to kill him. Having secured their rear, Daggit entered the tunnel and began reloading his launcher.

Daggit Moved up alongside Radil, who was laying down suppressive fire for the withdrawing Special Forces and SID personnel. Even with the heavy counter-fire against the Jem'Hadar, there were casualties. Corpses lay strewn about the floor. A handful of Special Forces troops were gathered near the entrance to the adjoining tunnel out of this chamber.

Daggit fired off all six of his grenades and then began to jog towards the tunnel entrance. Radil backed her way to the same location, firing continuously all the while. They made their way through the tunnel as the Special Forces soldiers followed them.

"We need something stronger than these stun grenades." Daggit growled as the rush of booted feet and the cries of the rearmost defenders were heard.

"Help me swap out the power packs on this damned cannon." Radil instructed.

"You haven't even used half of your power yet." Daggit protested.

"Just do it!" Radil angrily insisted.

Within moments, the power packs were exchanged. Daggit held up the partially used battery, "Now what?"

"Place that at the entrance of the tunnel and then run like hell." Radil informed him then as an afterthought added, "And you might want to clear this room."

Daggit didn't like the sound of that, especially since he'd grasped the essentials of her plan. Radil stood poised near a large cargo container while angling herself a clear shot on the powerpack. The three surviving Special Forces troops cleared the tunnel and began running flat out for the next tunnel entrance. Daggit hugged the tunnel wall in order to make room for the fleeing soldiers.

The emerging Jem'Hadar began firing at the retreating combatants. One was cut down. His comrades abandoned him. Radil yelled for them to stand clear and she opened fire. Although she slowed the Jem'Hadar advance, she was unable to stem it.

"The last of the Special Forces personnel are through!" Daggit shouted and sought cover.

Radil shifted her aim. She fired several volleys at the powerpack, tracing her fire in. When it connected, the pack erupted with a thunderous explosion. A torrent of unleashed energy swirled in a miasma that tore down the tunnel and out the other side. The cargo bay was also engulfed.

The energy abated and Daggit came out from behind his sheltering outcropping. He cautiously entered the cargo bay. He peered through the remaining tendrils of smoke. Radil was nowhere to be seen. Neither, for that matter, was the body of the young Special Forces woman.

"Radil?" he called out but received no reply. His heart quickened, "Jenrya?"

Silence loomed.

 

Chapter 13

"Heads up!" Grace called out, "The McLachlan is warming up her impulse manifolds."

"They're also receiving a series a series of coded messages from the surface." Kirk grumbled, "I can't make heads or tails out of them."

"Have you tried running them through T'Kir's decryption protocols?" Grace inquired.

"Yes." Kirk snapped irritably, "I've tried the damn protocols. This code is something they've never encountered. The computer's chewing on it and will get back to me later."

"Ooookay." Grace replied, "So where does that leave us? The minute those impulse engines come on-line we'll be blown. We can't risk backing off from the landing site for fear of losing communications due to the planet's atmospheric ionisation."

Kirk stared mutely at Grace for a moment and Grace held up her hands, "Hey, you're in charge. I'm just the helm jockey no one trusts any more."

Kirk frowned at Grace's self pity but let it slide for now. It only took her a span of mere seconds to weigh her options and decide on a course of action, "Prepare to drop cloak. Transfer all weapons to my monitors."

"We're gonna attack?"

"Yes." came Kirk's cold as ice reply.

Grace shrugged, "Cool."

"T'Kir has definitely infected your vocabulary." Kirk observed.

"Too bad, so sad." Grace grinned rebelliously.

And her attitude as well, Kirk thought glumly as she activated the intercom to Engineering, "Chief?"

"Yes?"

"Are ready to go into combat?"

She could almost hear the silent sigh that preceded his reply, "It's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it with just a skeleton crew."

"So advised, Chief." Kirk assured him, "Hopefully it'll be a fairly one-sided confrontation. Please stand by."

This time he did sigh, "Aye, aye."

"All weapons at your command." Grace reported.

Kirk swivelled the monitors to either side of the command chair in front of her. She now had a standard sized LCARS bridge operations console in front of her. She surveyed her controls. The passive tactical sensors were continuously feeding her data. On a subsidiary display, she pulled up the specs on a Miranda-class ship. She began targeting phasers and torpedoes accordingly.

There was a chance their targeting sensors would alert an especially sharp sensor operator aboard the McLachlan. Without the Solstice's active sensors activated the only indicator of the opposition's being alerted would be their raising of their shields. The Sollie would still be invisible to the enemy ship's sensors, at least until they engaged their impulse engines. After that, they'd have a full on fight on their hands.

Despite the fact that the Miranda-class was an even older starship design than the Blackbird, it was a larger hull replete with more armament and shielding. A first strike was critical for success. Kirk was uncertain if they could prevail if the element of surprise was lost.

"All right people, let's do this!" Kirk sounded far more confident than she felt, "Grace, drop the cloak."

"Jenrya, can you hear me?" Daggit called. For the first time since the war ended, Daggit was grateful for the psychological conditioning the scientists on Angosia had subjected him to. He was unable to panic while locked in his "combat mode". That alone was keeping him calm.

Despite his earlier musings to Hannah Grace earlier, Daggit was still smitten with Radil. Her developing relationship with Kort notwithstanding, Daggit was still hopelessly taken with the Bajoran woman and had been since their very first meeting. He knew of course that any chance that he had with her was lost when she first took notice of Kort. Radil was a woman who needed a cause and Kort was as great a cause as any other.

Daggit wished them every trace of luck they could get with their fledgling relationship. In his experience, romances predicated on the redemption of one of the partners usually imploded. He understood her attraction though. Kort came from a warrior culture, a natural draw for someone born and weaned amidst the Bajoran Resistance.

Kort's other attributes, a tragic story of wrongful exile and his addiction to alcohol, added to his allure. The Resistance had won their war, her days as a mercenary were over, her adherence to the mission of the SID was tenuous at best. Radil had been adrift in the ideological currents of life. Kort provided a hands on goal, and presumably great sex as well, Daggit mentally grated while reflecting on how she had glowed just before setting out on this mission. Life just isn't fair, Daggit groused.

Daggit knew that he would eventually come to terms with this latest romantic development. His visceral attraction to Radil would always remain but it would be tamed to a vestigial affection. Now, if he could just find the cursed woman!

A coughing to his left drew his attention. He slung his grenade launcher and drew his pistol. As he drew closer to the source of the sound, the hazy smoke filling the chamber dissipated slightly. He caught his first glimpse of Radil.

She was alive and sitting squarely on her arse with her hands behind her, propping herself up. She was situated behind several large cargo containers. Daggit rushed to her side and began examining her for injuries. Her nose was bloody but she had sustained no further harm that could be detected by a cursory physical exam.

Radil stared blankly straight ahead. It was as though she'd been stunned or traumatised somehow. While Daggit probed her with his fingers, he gently spoke to her, repeating her name several times.

She blinked suddenly and hoarsely whispered, "Kort."

With that said, she grabbed Daggit's head and drew him in for a rough, but passionate, kiss. He responded hungrily in kind. As his mind slowly registered her last words, duty took over and he pulled free from her needy grasp.

"Jenrya!" Daggit shook her by the shoulders, "It's me, Rab."

Radil blinked several more times then her eyes widened in embarrassed horror, "Oh Prophets..."

"Water under the bridge...or whatever that stupid human expression is." Daggit waved her concerns aside, "It never happened, so no worries, eh?"

Radil smiled warmly and Daggit's heart broke as she cupped his cheek with her hand, "You're a good man and a better friend, Rab Daggit."

Phaser bursts broke moment. Kort came rushing up to their position. Danan followed swiftly on his heels. She switched her rifle to pulse mode and unleashed a volley of shots towards the Jem'Hadar entering the chamber.

"Hurry up dammit!" Danan shouted at the others, "They're trying for another massed charge again."

"Get me to my feet." Radil instructed.

Daggit and Kort each took her underneath an armpit and hoisted her upright. Radil swayed a bit but managed to stay upright. Daggit unslung his launcher and moved to Danan's position, took aim and fired. The Jem'Hadar gathered at the tunnel entrance were killed, buying the SID team time to withdraw. They staggered their extraction in a two by two cover formation. On the way out, Daggit eyed a gravsled alongside a cargo container.

"Kort, cover me." Daggit requested, "I've got an idea."

Daggit ran to the gravsled and activated it. He ran its forward tongue under the cargo container and triggered the lift function of the sled. He then began to back the container towards the exit tunnel's entrance. Radil, Danan and Kort all moved into the tunnel, firing furiously at every Jem'Hadar to emerge into the chamber.

The trio ceased fire as Daggit swung the container into the entrance and set it in place in front of the tunnel's mouth. Daggit ran the sled into the next chamber then returned and cut off his comrades' retreat, "Give your stun grenades."

"What?" Danan asked, slightly confused.

"Your grenades, give them to me." Daggit ordered, "All of them."

Collecting them all, he distributed them along the tunnel's walls, "Someone go collect T'Kir's as well."

Danan opted to go while Kort inquired as to Daggit's reasoning, "Isn't this futile? We need to slay the enemy, not merely stun them."

Daggit finished setting the grenades for a sequenced detonation, "This will kill them. Enough particle energy amassed in a tight enough concentration is invariably lethal. It also won't hurt that I'll be lobbing a photon grenade in here to trigger the detonation. The resultant explosion will kill every living thing in this tunnel as well as provide a backlash discharge that will fry anything in its way."

"Clever." Radil said in admiration, "I have to hand it to you, you're a ruthless bastard. We could have used a few of you Angosian augments in the Resistance."

Danan ran back before the swelling in Daggit's throat could subside, "Here's T'Kir's grenades. We have a problem though."

"What now?" Daggit sighed as he placed and set the grenades.

"Tom Riker's making trouble." Danan warned, "He's claiming he's in command in Macen's absence. T'Kir's holding him in check for now but it's a situation Commodore Weisz is sure to take advantage of. To top it off, T'Kir's swiftly running out of patience and Riker's liable to spend the rest of his life thinking he's a six-year old girl."

"I really don't need this." Daggit grumbled, "C'mon, let's go before the Jem'Hadar manage to move that container."

"Commodore, this is where we need to make a stand." T'Kir insisted, "It's only accessible from two points, but they're easily covered. The equipment and workstations in this area provide natural cover. There are rock outcroppings that also provide shelter. It's a natural stronghold. All you have to do is deploy your forces and bring the President's daughter here."

"And why would I do that?" Weisz wanted to know.

"Because," irritation began to creep into T'Kir's voice, "Your forces are currently divided and you need every body you've got. You can be more easily assured of her safety if she's here..."

"In a firefight?" Riker asked.

T'Kir's answering glare shot daggers, "Yes, in a firefight. She'll have her own contingent of guards. I'm willing to bet she'll be the safest one in the room."

"I disagree." Riker said, "With Commander Macen missing in action, I'm in command. I say we continue our gradual withdrawal and pick up the President's daughter along the way."

"You sit your ass down and shut up or so help me when I'm through with you you'll be a diaper wearing, drooling glob of flesh!" T'Kir snarled, "Brin will be rejoining us and we're going to give him the opportunity to catch up."

Daggit chose that moment to arrive, "I hear we have a problem."

Riker shrugged, "There's no problems here, except a failure to recognise my authority."

Daggit shook his head, "There've been no failures, except for your refusal to acknowledge that you have no authority in this situation."

"I may have been gone for awhile but I'm still the ship's captain of this crew." Riker countered, "Macen's absent, that leaves me in command."

"No." Daggit forcefully poked the taller man in the chest, "That leaves you in command of our scoutship. You're ship's crew, not part of the investigative team. I'm the executive officer of the investigative team. The team's Mission Commander and Investigative Team Leader is currently not present. Under these circumstances, that leaves me in charge."

Riker appeared to be nonplussed. He hesitated for a moment, then with a chagrined grin, stuck out his hand, "As long as we both agree that the situation would be reversed aboard ship."

It was Daggit's turn to grin as he accepted Tom's grip, "Agreed. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a war to prosecute."

Daggit turned to Weisz, "If I could have a moment of your time, Commodore?"

Weisz chuckled, "Certainly, if you have your internal affairs straightened out now."

Daggit kept his focus on Weisz even as Riker bristled, "There should be no further issues of note."

"Then what's on your mind?" Weisz said as Daggit led him away.

Riker looked to T'Kir, "So now what?"

"Now we hold as long as we can in order to give Brin an opportunity to rejoin us," T'Kir said somewhat fiercely, "and to redouble the First Daughter's protection by having her security detail join us at this location. Centralising and consolidating our forces only strengthens our position and increases our odds of survival."

Riker rubbed the back of his head and whistled, "I thought you'd merely been a Maquis terrorist. I never realised you were a close quarters combat specialist."

T'Kir snorted, "I was one and the same. It was impossible not to be considering the type of war we were waging."

"Point taken." Riker conceded, "But I feel naked in all of this. I'm the only one in this room that's unarmed. Even those two Section 31 goons that had been guarding me have weapons."

T'Kir reached behind her back and unclipped a pouch from her utility belt. She handed it to Riker. Upon examination, he discovered that it possessed a Type I phaser and two power packs.

"Be judicious with your fire control." T'Kir advised, "Those are the only two spare power packs for a phaser that size."

Riker nodded solemnly as hew clipped the pouch/holster to his belt, "I'll keep that in mind. So what happens next?"

"Next we do whatever Daggit tells us to do and we wait for hostilities to resume." T'Kir replied with a shrug, "After that, we just concentrate on staying alive as long as possible."

Riker managed a jaunty grin, "And here I thought you'd ask for something difficult."

Aboard the McLachlan, Shran was called over the tactical station.

"Problems Lieutenant?" The Andorian asked.

"I'm reading a large concentration of neutrinos towards our aft quarter." Lt. Becky Yeoh reported, "In fact, there's a energy disruption emerging there now. Oh God, It's another ship decloaking!"

"Raise shields!" Shran shouted and headed for the command chair, "Lock phasers! All ahead full!"

Shran needn't have bothered with his instructions to Yeoh. As soon as she'd recognised the nature of the threat facing the Miranda-class cruiser, her fingers had flown into action, bringing the venerable ship's defensive systems on-line. Like all of the Special Forces personnel, Yeoh was cross-trained in both starship operations and dirtside combat. Unlike the bulk of her compatriots, her primary specialty involved ship's systems, hence her presence aboard the McLachlan.

The McLachlan's shield generators began generating an electrostatic field that formed a "bubble" around the ship. Unfortunately, it was far too little too late. The first of the Solstice's torpedoes and phaser blasts ripped through the building energy barrier and slammed into the McLachlan's nearly unprotected hull. The aft shield generators had been among the first primary targets.

Becky Yeoh fought down a surge of panic as her rear shield utterly collapsed. Her aft torpedo launcher had also been compromised. Assessing how badly they'd been damaged, Yeoh noticed that the attacking scoutship had locked a tractor beam onto the larger cruiser. She also swiped its IFF transponder for the first time since their engagement had begun.

Yeoh shook her head at what the last two revelations indicated. The IFF transponder revealed the ship's ID as that of the NDR-745117 SS Solstice. The ship's registration was out of Barrinor. Barrinor had been settled by Federation citizens under their own initiative and independent of the Federation's Office of Colonial Affairs. The settlers were renowned for their independent spirit.

The other vital piece of information imbedded in the computer's database was that the ship was owned and operated by one Brin Macen operating under the auspices of Outbound Ventures, Inc. Outbound Ventures, in turn, was a contracted agent of Starfleet Intelligence's Special Investigations Division. It was entirely likely that this was a sanctioned attack. Utilising one covert attack force to neutralise another was standard operation procedure.

This reverie occurred over the span of mere seconds but they proved vital in proving to be Yeoh's undoing. Too late, she realised what the Solstice had done. The scoutship's tractor beam was not intended to hinder the McLachlan's movements. Rather, it was in place to tether the two ships together. As the cruiser completed its "flip" in space, the Solstice would mirror its movements, firmly affixed to the McLachlan's vulnerable aft quarter.

"Oh shit." Yeoh whispered as the Solstice resumed her attack.

The deckplates shuddered as the privateer's second salvo, then the third arrived. Upon the fourth, lights, monitors and consoles across the bridge went out. Yeoh heard Shran violently swear. The acting CO came out of the command chair and headed for her position. The shadows played havoc with his features, accentuating the fierce rage he felt.

"I don't care how you accomplish it, Lieutenant," the Andorian hissed, "but target these cretins and destroy them!"

"Yessir." Yeoh responded, "I'll get them yet."

Shran could taste Yeoh's frustration. The poor, beleaguered Tactical Officer was struggling to cope with the highly unorthodox tactics of the Solstice. As a Special Forces officer, Yeoh was used to the unusual but this was beyond her experience. This accursed scoutship is a thing possessed, Yeoh thought dismally as she called to Engineering to inquire as to battle damage and the availability of power.

"We've lost primary and auxiliary power." the acting chief engineer reported, "We're down to just the batteries. My damage repair teams report they could get the secondary aft phaser bank operational in less than an hour. However, we will require at least two hours to restore auxiliary power."

Yeoh mentally cursed, "We'll have to make the best of it, Chief. Carry on."

Now, she mused, if we can just hold out until the repairs are completed.

"What now?" Grace asked.

"Maintain the tractor lock." Kirk responded, "This way, if they move, we move with them."

"Are you done shooting?"

"For now." Kirk replied, "Sensors indicate that they've lost main power. That could mean they've also lost auxiliary power or they could just be lying doggo while they repair various weapons systems."

"Gotcha." Grace said, "So basically we're going to float here and do nothing while we wait to see what their next move will be."

Kirk nodded with a grin, "That's about it."

"I think I'm starting to get the hang of this strategy thing." Grace declared with a triumphant bob of her head.

Kirk shook her head but kept her mouth shut. Essentially, Grace was correct. She was beginning to grasp the Essential Stratagems for Starship Combat Operations (the down and dirty edition). Just as Kirk had spent the last few weeks studying for the Academy Entrance Examination and Equivalency Test, Grace had begun to seek greater insights into the reasoning behind the orders given her and her teammates.

It also meant she was questioning those selfsame orders more, "But shouldn't we continue pounding them?"

"We were ordered to engage only if threatened." Kirk reminded her younger charge, "We've done that. Now its time to sit back and give our opponent a chance to recover."

"But..."

"No more protests." Kirk declared, "The decision's made. Now learn to live with it."

"Yes, ma'am." Grace replied with waning enthusiasm.

Bosses preserve us, Kirk mentally sighed.

 

Chapter 14

Macen ducked under the blade that arced over his head. He made a right handed slashing sweep with his own sword. Arinea continued the motioned of her attack and pirouetted away from Macen. She lithely curved her body to avoid his attack. Macen kicked off from his kneeling position and spun backwards, bringing his sword into a two-handed guard position when he halted.

Arinea ended her motion with one leg extended behind her to balance her weight. Her other leg was positioned directly beneath her, the knee slightly bent. She held her sword in an inverse, single-handed, overhead position. Arinea wore a demented smile.

"I must admit, I'm impressed." she confessed, "In the 'good' old days, I'd have skewered you by now."

"I'm not the man you used to know." Macen replied, his voice devoid of humour, or any other emotion, "The Borg changed everything. Your 'death' changed everything."

Arinea tossed her hair back over her shoulder, "And has the truth set you free?"

"In a sense." Macen admitted, "if not, the last twenty minutes have been a helluva revelation."

"Good." Arinea tittered and she leapt forward in a spinning attack.

"Get ready!" Daggit shouted to his teammates and the various Special Forces troops holding the line, "They're coming."

Daggit nestled the rifle butt of his grenade launcher in his shoulder. Radil stood alongside him, making minute adjustments to her cannon. Kort and Danan crouched behind their barricades across the central pathway that bisected the cavern. The SID team would fill a critical role in the skirmish to come.

The Jem'Hadar came surging into the cavern. Radil, Kort and Danan each laid suppressive fire into the advancing horde but it failed to stem the tide. Daggit rose from his crouch, took careful aim, and fired a grenade into the tunnel. A single detonation followed, seconded by another, then another.

"Get down!" Daggit shouted and dove for cover.

The sequential explosions in the tunnel built the detonation's total force geometrically. The tunnel itself harnessed and channelled the torrent of force. When it had been sufficiently fed, it launched forth into the two adjacent caverns. The Jem'Hadar in its path were instantly reduced to bone and ash. In the cavern occupied by the SID and Special Forces teams, the energy wave traversed the cave and travelled down the adjoining tunnel.

In the opposite cavern, where the connecting tunnel wasn't in line with the projecting tunnel, the energy was reflected off the cavern walls. These reflections were cast about the cavern's interior. Dozens of the surviving Jem'Hadar were killed in this secondary attack. The angry howls of the vengeful remnant echoed down the tunnel into the other cavern.

"Now you've done it." Radil playfully accused, "Now they're good and pissed."

Still locked into his "Combat" mode, Daggit could not join her in her merriment, "It had to be done. Now they'll be uncoordinated and reckless."

"Now they'll be reckless?"

"The Jem'Hadar do not quail at death as we do. They were created and designed for a single purpose: to mete out death for their masters, or die trying. That death is met with absolute resolve, knowing that they are fulfilling their duty."

"Thanks for cheering me up." Radil groused.

"You should know by now that at moments like these, I'm incapable of 'cheering' anyone up." although his demeanour was calm, his eyes bespoke of a pain beyond reckoning. It was an intriguing facet to Rab Daggit she'd never seen before.

Daggit always presented the strongest parts of himself to the outer world. This glimpse of the man's inner workings presented a new realm of complexities that could take a lifetime to explore. It annoyed her that he'd chosen now to reveal his true self to her. She'd always known of his attraction for her and now, inconveniently, she was filled with an unbridled passion of her own.

The thought of pursuing Daggit was not repellent. Point of fact, she'd considered it many times but saw no need on his part for her. Added to this was what she and Kort had engaged in last night. For Klingons, the sex acts carried different ritualistic meanings dependant upon what specific activities were employed and in what order. According to Klingon traditions, she and Kort were now betrothed.

The Bajoran faith held that a mutual declaration of intent was all that was required to form a bond. A simple ceremony performed by a vedek would seal the union. Dissolution of the bond was accomplished as it began, through a mutual declaration of intent.

Right now, she wished like hell she knew what the Klingon equivalent to divorce required. She had a sinking feeling that she'd need to know sometime in the future. Shaking off such pessimistic thoughts, Radil focused on what she and Kort had together. They had a common purpose and some similar interests. Both had a profound respect for the traditions of their people.

And then there's the sex, Radil remembered, her cheeks warming, Totally without abandon or reservation. There's a rarity.

She spoke to Daggit even as she mustered her resolve to see what the future with Kort would bring. Who knew, perhaps he'd be the one to call things off, or better yet, they'd be perfectly happy.

"Sorry. I spoke without thinking."

Daggit racked a round into the launcher's chamber. His eyes still shone with the agony he felt. Radil suddenly realised that he anguished over every life that he took, and he was exacting quite the toll today. The pschoengineers on Angosia had done their work well. Only those that knew what to look for would see the signs of his suffering.

"They'll be coming." Daggit replied tersely, "We need to be ready."

Radil and Daggit exchanged places so that she could avail herself of the corner of their barricade. Kort sat across from her. Their eyes met and she could see the anticipation and pride in them. She decided then that was the essential difference between Kort and Daggit. Daggit took no joy from killing but did it efficiently and ruthlessly so long as his foes threatened him or his charges. Kort relished combat and would just as soon mount the heads of the Jem'Hadar on his mantle.

Amidst their bouts of lovemaking, Kort had revealed his past to Radil. Sent to the Imperial Academy for testing and determining his future role in the Imperial Defence Forces, the highly intelligent and literate Kort scored far too highly on the tests. He was removed from the Warrior tract and relegated to the Sciences track. His scores indicated an aptitude for the biological sciences and anatomy. His career as a doctor had begun.

Kort compensated, overcompensated really, for his disappointing career placement by pushing himself to excel at martial arts and the bat'leth. His violent rage manifested itself in a ruthlessness that quailed his opponents. Kort established his ranking amongst the warriors at every new posting by challenging the dominant fighters to duels of honour.

His rage was all consuming, leading to his battle with alcohol. It took gallons of alcohol to overcome the heightened metabolism of an average Klingon. It took a concentrated effort for a Klingon to become inebriated yet Kort managed time and again. He succeeded to the point that he preferred intoxication to sobriety. It was these attitudes that Radil was pledging to combat.

The bellowing roar of the Jem'Hadar became a torrent of sound as bodies swarmed into the "kill" zone set aside at the mouth of the tunnel. The SID team and the Special Forces squads operated in unison, cutting swathes through the charging hordes. The second rank of defenders was elevated in order to grant them a clear field of fire past the first rank. The combat was so fierce that powerpacks were being drained within a few minutes.

Just as swiftly as the assault had begun, it ended. Starfleet personnel throughout the room began exchanging spent powerpacks for fresh ones in case of a renewed assault. Daggit loaded the last of his grenades into the launcher's magazine and chambered a round. Radil shrugged out of her cannon's harness.

"Well that's just about spent." she remarked.

"Any juice left to the power cell?" Daggit inquired.

"A few shots left. Why? You want it?"

Daggit nodded, "It'll make a good booby trap that'll take out a half a dozen or so Jem'Hadar."

"Take it, its yours." Radil said, detaching the power cell and handing it to Daggit, "Any tactic that eliminates those ghouls gets my endorsement."

Daggit hurled the power cell out into the middle of their corpse ridden kill zone, "That should do it. Now we just need to blow it up when it's surrounded by Jem'Hadar."

"So is this what it was like during the war?"

Daggit shrugged, "For some. I was in an Angosian commando unit. We specialised in behind the lines raids. They generally involved intensive close quarters combat similar to this."

"Well, you're doing one helluva job getting us through this." Radil said softly, "I just thought you should know."

"I appreciate the sentiment but when I'm like this..." he shrugged again, "not a lot gets through."

Radil nodded, "I think I'm truly beginning to understand."

Radil paused then asked, "Do you get lonely?"

"Not when I'm fighting."

"No. At 'normal' times."

"Sometimes." he admitted.

"You never partake of female company. Do you prefer men?"

"No. Women suit me just fine. One at a time preferably."

"Then why don't you..?"

"It will take a special woman to love me. My conditioning will require exceptional patience from whoever decides to be with me. I've been down the path to romance with women unable to cope with what's been done to me. I am choosing to be a little more circumspect in my choices now."

Radil nodded, "Fair enough. Have you considered selecting from amongst your teammates?"

"It's crossed my mind." Daggit warily admitted.

"Have you considered Hannah Grace?"

"Hannah's a child." Daggit rebutted, "She's half my age. Let her cosy up to a strapping young thing of her own."

"She wants you." Radil pointed out.

"Its good to want." Daggit mused, "Hunger shapes the soul."

Radil shook her head, "I offered you a ready made out."

"And I'll pass, thank you." Daggit replied, "There'll come a day when the woman I want will finally be ready to embrace me."

"So you have cast your eye on someone. Who is she?"

"You've heard my philosophy on wanting things. How do you suppose I'll respond to this question?"

Radil blew him a raspberry.

Daggit shook his head, "You've been around T'Kir for too long."

Macen threw Arinea back, "This is finished."

She wore a hungry look as she shook her head, "This hasn't even begun. I admit you've improved since the 'good old days'. I've actually been forced into trying."

"Then maybe I should stop holding back." Macen replied and he saw hesitation in Arinea's eyes for the first time since their mad dance had begun.

"Now this I'd like to see." she clucked her tongue and shook her head, "Face facts. This match of ours is to the death. Winner take all."

"Why?" Macen asked grimly.

Arinea threw her arms in the air, "Because its poetic! We were married. We cared for one another. Now we can prove our love and ultimate fidelity by ushering the other one into the afterlife. Our kind has always existed slightly out of phase with this space/time continuum. Haven't you ever wondered what lays behind this plane of existence?"

"I try to deal with one reality at a time."

"How dull." Arinea frowned, "You used to be far more imaginative."

"The reality I dwell in is fairly grim." Macen remarked, "It requires all of my energies to contend with this realm of existence."

"Enough talk." Arinea drew her sword up into a ready stance, "I'm bored. Let's dance."

Macen assumed a guard position, "You do realise you're insane?"

Arinea released a tinkling laugh, "You're a fine one to talk. I accessed Section 31's records on you. Your last Starfleet psych evaluation was so butchered that you were classified as 'unfit for duty'. It took the direct intervention of a Vice Admiral to salvage your career."

"You may be an independent operative now, but those emotional scars remain. In fact I'm willing to bet that all it will require is for me to push the right button and you'd cut me down without a second thought, a trigger like your little girlfriend. She's dead y'know. Even if the Jem'Hadar leave her alive, I'll insure that her last few moments on this mortal coil are the most excruciating she's ever endured."

Macen's visage darkened while Arinea broke into a bright smile that radiated pure madness, "Her only chance is for you to kill me."

Although Macen remained loose, he was coiled and poised to strike, "Come on then. Do your worst."

With a cry born of utter despair, Arinea lunged.

Weisz sidled up next to Daggit, "I have an idea."

Daggit nodded, "Let's hear it."

"We deploy our ready reserve that's guarding the secondary entrance into this chamber. The First Daughter's guard detail can cover that position. In the interim the ready reserve can reconnoitre the adjoining chamber."

"It's a suicide mission."

"It'll be an all volunteer force." Weisz assured him, "We can't reliably plan our next move without an estimate of how many more Jem'Hadar there are in that chamber waiting to burst in here."

"Sounds reasonable." Daggit replied, "Who do you have in mind to lead this recon?"

"I will." Weisz said with steely determination.

"Good luck." was Daggit's simple reply.

As Weisz departed, Radil edged closer, "Those people are going to die."

"We're all going to die, Jenrya." Daggit pointed out, "This way, Weisz and his volunteers get to choose how they meet their end. In the process, they may just gather invaluable information and get it back to us."

Radil gave him a pitying look, "You really are a soulless bastard in a fight, aren't you?"

Daggit shrugged, "I've tried to warn you all. Macen knew. He was there with us during the war. What set him apart from our previous intelligence officer was that Macen accepted us for who and what we are. For that, I can never repay him."

"You're worried about him?"

"As much as I'm capable of." Daggit answered, "I'll kill that blonde bimbo if anything happens to him."

"I wouldn't worry." Radil advised, "Macen's a survivor. I'd feel sorry for the 'bimbo' instead."

Daggit almost smiled, "I'll take that under advisement."

A sudden rustling ended their conversation. Weisz came jogging by with the entire ready reserve. They set up snipers positions at the mouth of the tunnel before the rest of the force proceeded into the tunnel.

"You think this is a mistake?"

Radil pursed her lips, "I think it'll just launch the next bloodbath."

"That's an inevitability."

"They ceased fighting in order to re-evaluate their position. We could have used these considerations to move our forces further down the tunnels."

"Maybe." Daggit conceded, "But I want to give Captain Macen an opportunity to rejoin us."

"Even at the expense of our lives?"

"He'd do the same for you, or me." Daggit said with low menace in his voice, "I won't abandon him."

"Look, I appreciate Macen's efforts on my behalf. He didn't have to give me a job after you accidentally snatched me and got me in hot water with the Orion Syndicate, but he did." Radil opined, "All I'm saying is you need to weigh the costs versus the reward. How many lives do we need to lose before you give up on him?"

Daggit gave her a cold glare, "That remains to be seen."

"Okay." she held up her hands in surrender, "Just don't let all of us die."

We'll withdraw as soon as our position is untenable. My damned psychological conditioning will insure that. Daggit thought but remained silent. Radil didn't need to know everything about his mangled psyche.

Arinea's blow came from overhead. Macen blocked it with his blade turned crossways. She stepped back then lunged forward and swung a blow from the shoulder. Macen had dropped his blade into a vertical "guard" position. He put his weight into the locked blades and threw her back.

Arinea spun backwards to her left. She brought her sword up for a slicing blow. Macen stepped forward and spun on his heel. As his own spin continued, his own blade arced through the air and sliced across Arinea's throat. His spin stopped and he deflected her uncompleted blow.

Arinea clutched at her ruptured throat and dropped her sword. Her knees buckled and her vision swam. Macen knelt beside her and she vainly tried to speak. He placed two fingers on her blood drained lips.

"Don't speak. Just let go. It'll be more peaceful that way." he advised.

Arinea shuddered and then collapsed to the floor. Macen pressed his hand against her forehead.

"Seek the passageway to the beyond." he urged as he closed his eyes.

The world shifted. Arinea's office was gone, replaced by lush green fields. Arinea stood before him, resplendent in a white gown. The madness was gone from her eyes. Instead they were filled with joyous wonder.

"Its so beautiful!" she exclaimed.

"This is only the beginning of your journey." Macen solemnly told her.

"What? Why?" Arinea asked and turned to grasp the presence of the wall that stretched out behind her.

"What's that?" she asked in trepidation.

"That's your first destination." Macen explained and he pointed at the gate that beckoned for her.

"How do you know? What if it's a trick?" she shrank back.

"I've stood here many times. Death was common even among the survivors of the Borg's assimilation of our world." Macen gently explained, "That is where you need to be. It is the gateway to what lays beyond."

"What does lay beyond?" Arinea whispered.

Macen shrugged, "I don't know. It has never been my time to find out so it's still a mystery to me."

"I don't know. I tried to kill you. This could all be a trick."

"If I wanted to harm you, I wouldn't have come here." Macen assured her, "If you don't proceed you'll soon fade into a type of limbo. You'll be trapped between levels of existence, unable to interact with any but the damned."

"How..?"

"I've seen it." Macen replied grimly.

"Why are you helping me?" Arinea asked with some confusion.

"This is for when we were young and in love. Our marriage wasn't perfect but it was ours." Macen divulged, "What you did during the Borg invasion, or since, doesn't change that. I'm here to honour those memories."

Arinea forced back a tear, "I don't know what to say."

"Don't speak." Macen ordered, "Just get through that gate before its too late."

Arinea hesitated, and then she kissed Macen. That done, she proceeded to the gate and tentatively reached out to it. Arinea mustered up her courage and pushed at the door. It swung wide open. She gasped and then with a last look back, passed through the entrance to the wall.

Macen refocused his attention to "this" reality. Once again, he was in Arinea's office. Her corpse lay before him. Her blood lay drying on the floor.

Macen picked up his sword and rose. He moved past the husk that had once contained Arinea Sceptre's essence and bent to retrieve that sword as well. He strode to the desk and laid the two swords on it. He picked up the isolinear chip that lay atop the desk and inserted it into the computer's receptacle. Activating the base's communication system, he accessed the contents of the disk. An image came on the desktop viewer and Macen stood by to witness what was recorded.

Weisz peered through shadows into the cavern beyond. The Jem'Hadar had posted sentries in the tunnel as well as at the mouth of their entrance. The Special Forces unit had quietly eliminated the tunnel guards. The forces positioned at the tunnel's mouth, however, were proving far more difficult.

"We can't take them out, sir." Lt. Gott whispered, "We'd draw too much attention."

Weisz idly wondered if the Bolian was familiar enough with Earth languages to realise the Terran meaning of his name, "Point taken, Mr. Gott. Have the sensor team break out their tricorders and begin taking readings."

"Aye, aye sir." with that, Gott was gone. He filtered his way down the entire formation, passing the orders from on high.

From his position, Weisz could just barely see into the cavern. Dozens of Jem'Hadar were milling about. One core group was huddled together, locked in a heated discussion. All were surprised when a large holographic image appeared.

The image dwarfed all those that surrounded it. Weisz recognised the image. It was Arinea. From the demented look in the image's eye, Weisz knew he wasn't going to like whatever this hologram had to say.

"Loyal soldiers," Arinea's voice rang out, "Gather to me and receive my final words. If you are listening to this then I am dead. Those you hunt are responsible. Kill them. Leave no survivors. Burn the corpses and..."

The transmission ended abruptly and Weisz wondered if Macen had somehow managed to intervene.

Back in Arinea's office, Macen dropped the isolinear chip in the waste receptacle. He'd expected treachery from Arinea so there was no great surprise at her final act. He retrieved the scabbards for the two swords and adjusted their belts. Slinging the swords over his back, he adjusted the belt clips so that the blades would stay in place and be readily accessible.

He withdrew his pistol from its holster and approached the door. He activated the manual release and the door slid open. Stepping through, he found a Jem'Hadar sentry to either side. Macen bent his elbow and fired at the manufactured soldier to his left. The particle blast caught the Jem'Hadar full in the chest and he went down. Macen turned to face the other sentry only to find him bringing his rifle to bear. Macen lifted his gun hand, placing the pistol at the Jem'Hadar's throat, and fired.

Hang on, Macen thoughtcast to T'Kir over their telepathic rapport, I'm coming!

 

Chapter 15

"Some hologram, huh?" Radil spat.

"Nothing I didn't expect." Daggit confided, "The only question now is how the Jem'Hadar will react."

T'Kir came and knelt beside Daggit, "Brin's alive and he's trying to rendezvous with us."

"How do you know that?" Radil asked contemptuously.

"I share a telepathic bond with him." T'Kir replied icily, "He contacted me and let me know he was safe and he was on his way."

Radil opened her mouth to reply but she was cut off by the sound of plasma bolts. Phaser pulses followed in their wake. Daggit turned to T'Kir.

"Resume your position on the second tier. We'll be needing you."

"Gotcha." with that, T'Kir was off.

"Here go again." Radil groused, "At least we know how they'll react."

"Be of good cheer and remember one thing." Daggit advised.

"What's that?" Radil asked dryly.

"Kill every motherless son of a test tube that crosses your sights." Daggit said with conviction.

Kirk rose from the command chair and stretched, "You might as well take a break, Hannah. They're not going anywhere. I'll watch your station for you."

Grace hesitated, the rose with a wan smile. She headed to the restroom and relieved herself. Afterwards she washed her hands and face. Feeling refreshed, she exited and headed for the replicators.

"Want a drink and a snack?" she asked Kirk.

"That'd be great." Kirk flashed her a brilliant smile, "I've programmed the computer to alert us if the McLachlan starts to restore power. Its amazing what these systems can do."

Grace returned her smile, "That'd be T'Kir. We really don't know half of what the computer is capable of. T'Kir's restricted the truly interesting subsystems. They respond to her alone."

"Captain Macen allows this?" Kirk asked with some suspicion.

"The Captain trusts her." Grace asserted, "And remember, its not as if he isn't sleeping with her."

"Romances confuse command prerogatives." Kirk insisted.

Grace shook her head, "I'm not going to criticise the Captain's judgement. Our arrangements work for this crew. That's all that counts."

"I still don't like it." Kirk grumbled.

"You're free to leave." Grace pointed out, "The Captain's not the only skipper looking for experienced spacers. Just like Outbound Ventures isn't the only firm looking for command officers. I'm sure you'd get an excellent recommendation for your time spent here."

Kirk rustled but subsided in the end, "I just wonder what's going to happen in the end."

"Of this mission?"

Kirk nodded, "I was brought aboard to replace Tom, only Tom's still alive. Where does that leave me?"

"You'll have a place." Grace fervently assured her, "The Captain has made a home for all of us. He brought in T'Kir, then Radil. He accepted me after my secrets were revealed. He'll make a place for you too."

"I'd like to think so." Kirk admitted, "Tom spoke of Macen's loyalty and generosity."

"We're more than crew, we're family." Grace confessed, "That wasn't easy to achieve. The Captain is the lynchpin of that family. You've been brought into the fold. You'll be taken care of. Look what he's doing for Tom."

Kirk nodded. Grace had a point. Macen could have easily written off Riker's recovery as a traditional Starfleet matter. Instead, he was down on the surface risking his own life to liberate the man she might very well love.

"Thanks Hannah." Kirk brightened, "That's helped."

Grace's lips twisted into a wry expression, "I'm glad I can help someone."

"Personal problems?" Kirk arched an eyebrow.

Grace nodded and Kirk motioned for her to approach, "Give."

"I can't."

"I just spilled my guts to you." Kirk said dryly, "The least you can do is reciprocate. If you insist, I'll make it an order."

Grace started to laugh, "I don't think that's a legal order."

"We're not part of Starfleet are we?" Kirk asked in an imperious tone, "The rules are what we make of them. Since I'm the ranking authority aboard this ship, my whim is law. Under these circumstances, I command you to share your heartbreak with me."

This time, Grace did laugh, "Okay. It all began when we were assigned to investigate the disappearance of a starship. A ruggedly handsome officer transferred aboard as our new Tactical officer. That officer's name was Rab Daggit."

"And you instantly fell in love with him." Kirk ventured.

"It was at least a healthy dose of lust." Grace admitted, "Now, I've got the worst case of being smitten that's ever been recorded."

Kirk smiled, "Somehow I doubt that."

Grace sighed forlornly, "Its all pointless anyway. He views me as a friend and confidant. I don't want to risk that relationship by divulging my feelings."

"Plus you've had enough with rejection and altered perceptions to last you a lifetime over the past few months."

Grace's mouth screwed itself up in a sour expression, "Exactly."

"Well, Little Sister, you're in a fix." Kirk observed, "You have to make a decision and it's going to be a hard one. This stagnation is smothering you. Either press forward or give up, there's no other way."

Grace released a heavy sigh, "I know. I've known all along. It's just been too painful a prospect. I hate getting rejected before I've even had a chance to fight."

"What makes you so convinced you'd be rejected?"

"You don't know how this man feels about Radil. She's all he can think about."

"Rather like you." Kirk observed dryly.

"Yes, like me." Grace grated, "It's always been the great irony of the situation. We're too much alike. We're both perfect specimens of the humanoid genotype. We both excel at warfare but find no pleasure in it. We both feel indebted to Captain Macen for taking us on and would give our lives for this crew. And we're both obsessed with out of reach people."

"Sounds like its destiny." Kirk opined.

Grace shook her head, "No. There are too many obstacles. I should just end this obsession now."

"Its your call." Kirk responded, "Just reconsider for a moment before you finalise your decision."

"All ready done." Grace said firmly, "My decision remains the same."

"Okay then," Kirk replied, "let's get those snacks you mentioned."

Grace smiled, grateful to be off the topic of her personal life. She was thankful for Kirk's interest in her. The acting 1st Officer's comments and insights had forced Grace to revisit her romantic dilemma and that visit had been productive. She'd finally faced the damage her indecision was causing her. That in turn had forced a corrective response.

Despite her sadness over the loss of her fantasy, Grace felt liberated. She readily accepted Kirk's reminder that they avail themselves of this opportunity to indulge in some nourishment and refreshments. Grace returned to her station and ate her sandwiches and drank her tea. The silence that hovered over the bridge was a comfort.

Macen turned the bend at another cross-channel tunnel. He'd availed himself of the public access files in Arinea's computers. These included maps of this facility. He'd superimposed security telemetry over the map to reveal which tunnels and chambers contained Jem'Hadar and which contained his crew and the Special Forces troops.

Macen thought he'd found a route that would lead him to the Starfleet chamber without encountering any Jem'Hadar. Now he was testing that theory. Like most of his theories, the test of it was a life or death affair. It was how he'd lived for nearly eighty years and he was well used to it by now.

Commodore Weisz was engaged in a running withdrawal. His people were putting up a good fight but they were getting slaughtered. They'd accomplished their goal. They'd discovered that there were only sixty-three Jem'Hadar left. That almost outnumbered the Special Forces and their allies by two to one but it was a definable, defeatable, number.

"Gott, we need to get back to the lines and report what we've found." Weisz ordered, "You report to Daggit. I'll slow these bastards down as long as I can."

"Sir!" Gott protested, "You'll die."

"I have no intention of throwing my life away. If the Jem'Hadar get it, it will be at great cost. Now go!"

Gott favoured Weisz with one last look and then he beat a hasty retreat out of the tunnel even as Weisz pressed forward towards the heart of the fighting. Having reached the "front", he began issuing orders.

"Remember your training people. We do this in a staggered formation. You are Starfleet Special Forces. You represent a long tradition of honour and excellence. If you live up to this tradition you will make it out of this tunnel alive."

Weisz shouldered his pulse rifle, "Now, who's with me?"

With a collected shout, the rearguard surged forward to relieve the besieged fighters engaging the Jem'Hadar. Their appearance, and firepower, drove the Dominion designed soldiers back. Weisz used this time to reposition his weary troops further down the tunnel, where they set new firing positions. Weisz's group, meanwhile, made a slow but steady retreat, moving from one covered position to another.

The respite swiftly ended with a renewed surge of Jem'Hadar into the tunnel. Weisz and his people opened fire and began to cut the enraged enemy down. The Special Forces team withdrew by dividing their forces in half. One half would hold and fight while the other proceeded further down the tunnel.

Each loss was staggering considering that Weisz had only begun with a handful of officers. He was grimly aware of the attrition rate and how he may not have any forces by the time he passed the second firing position. In the end, it was a close margin. He had two people left alive out of six when crossed into the second team's lines of fire.

Weisz held back and joined up with the second as the survivors of his original team staggered back towards the makeshift "fortifications" he and Daggit had cobbled together. Daggit had proven himself a masterful tactician. Weisz trusted him to get the men and women under their respective commands out.

Weisz had few illusions regarding his odds of survival. In retrospect, he wasn't entirely certain his death wasn't deserved. His gambit of kidnapping the President's daughter had been ill conceived and ultimately futile. His alliance with Section 31 had proven corruptive and ultimately fatal. Those mistakes had to be amended.

"Gather up, people." Weisz shouted, "Let's make these monsters pay for every centimetre!"

His order was met with a collective cry of, "Special Forces!"

Gott emerged from the tunnel and immediately sprinted for Daggit. Crouching down beside the Angosian, Gott began to explain what had transpired thus far.

"Before this action began, Commodore Weisz determined that we were facing sixty-three enemy Jem'Hadar. When the 'order' came urging the Jem'Hadar to massacre us, the Commodore opted to retreat in such a fashion as to cause the enemy to expend the maximum amount of effort at the greatest cost for the least amount of gain."

"In other words, Weisz has embarked upon a holding action." Daggit clarified.

Gott numbly nodded, "That about sums it up."

"Then we'll have to simply be ready to capitalise on the Commodore's sacrifice." Daggit said with steely undertones.

Yet another of Weisz's team was cut down before his eyes. That left him and Krenn. Weisz decided he couldn't bear it to see that young woman die. He'd lost too many people already. As they backed out of the tunnel, supporting fire from the two snipers posted at the tunnel's mouth came pouring in.

The snipers began firing and Daggit turned and called out, "Positions!"

Stirs and rustles surrounded him as the assembled forces under his care readied their weapons and prepared themselves for the inevitable onslaught. Dedicated and experienced veterans all, none had quavered in the face of the enemy. The SID had performed above and beyond Daggit's expectations. He, alone, had previously faced the Jem'Hadar and he'd harboured some doubts as to his crewmates' abilities to cope with this challenge.

Radil, as expected, was his anchor. Her skills proving the match to the worst the Jem'Hadar could throw at the united forces. T'Kir's contributions also met expectations. She'd spent four years of her life engaged in guerrilla warfare. This battle presented nothing new to her.

Kort and Danan were actually proving to be the weak links of the unit. Kort possessed the necessary fervour but lacked the experience to amplify his contribution. Danan lacked the motivation. She found the battle reprehensible and tended to hesitate too long before claiming the life of her would be killer. It was a habit that would ultimately prove fatal.

Daggit took aim with his pistol as two figures emerged from the tunnel. They were both wounded and bloody. Not all of the blood was theirs. The first to emerge was a woman that Daggit barely recognised as one of Weisz's troops. Weisz himself followed on her heels.

They staggered towards the barricades. The two snipers, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of plasma fire directed at them, abandoned their posts and began a steady retreat towards the barricades. Plasma fire immediately cut down one of the withdrawing sharpshooters. Weisz and Krenn began to pick up speed as they reoriented themselves to the surrounding cavern.

As the first Jem'Hadar appeared at the entrance of the tunnel, phaser pulses rained down to meet them. The Special Forces sharpshooter kept himself between the enemy and his teammates. Just as Krenn made it to the first tier of barricades, the sharpshooter was killed by a flurry of plasma fire. Daggit quickly holstered his pistol and snatched up his grenade launcher.

Weisz was at the threshold of the barricades when Daggit fired off the first grenade. He instantly racked the pump and chambered his last round. This projectile joined its sibling in the tunnel's entrance. Explosive energy erupted from the grenades, lashing out at the bottled up Jem'Hadar.

Distantly, Daggit heard a cry as he swung his grenade launcher back to its place along the barricade "wall". He tore his phaser out of its holster faster than the average humanoid eye could track and fired. His first shot felled a Jem'Hadar soldier that just happened to be standing in the way of his true target. His follow up struck the powercell.

The Federation forces all had time to observe the particle beam lance the cell and knew to duck. The resultant explosion created an energy wave that decimated the tank bred troops in the cavern. Those venturing past the dead in the tunnel were slain as well. Silence followed.

Daggit turned to Radil only to find her cradling Weisz's head in her lap, "He took a plasma burst in the back. It caught his lungs. He isn't going to make it."

Weisz motioned for Daggit to kneel closer. "Get them home." he rasped.

Daggit was about to reply when the older man shuddered and blood bubbled out of his mouth, "He's done then."

"That's awfully cold." Radil accused.

Daggit graced her with a cold look, "Do we really need to revisit our earlier conversation?"

Radil blanched, "Sorry." For the first time she tasted fear from being around Daggit. She found the danger exciting, "Won't happen again."

"Yes, it will." Daggit replied sourly, "It always happens again. People get fooled and they expect me to act like your typical humanoid."

Radil deemed unnecessary to reply, especially since he was right. It would happen again. At least it would until she came to terms with Daggit's condition. What am I thinking? What about my commitment to Kort? I have to at least give that a try. she thought in bewilderment.

Radil opened her mouth to speak but the words never came out. It was just as well, she decided later, she'd had no idea what she'd been about to say. The source of her distraction caught everyone's attention.

The lock to the secondary door to the cavern suddenly exploded and the door slid swung open. Two Jem'Hadar ran inside the cavern, but they were focused on something behind them. The guard detail protecting both the First Daughter and the auxiliary entrance took aim.

It was unnecessary. The two Jem'Hadar were struck down from a scything phaser beam from the tunnel leading to the entrance. Next, Macen appeared in the doorway and ducked into the cavern. Blistering plasma bolts sizzled against the tunnel walls.

Macen pressed himself up against the rock face alongside the open door. Several Jem'Hadar crowded into the doorway, hungry for revenge for Macen's harassment. The Special Forces detail curt them down. Macen kicked the corpses back across the threshold and then swung the door shut. He adjusted the setting on his pistol and welded the door to the frame.

Seeing the assembled Special Forces guards milling about at the bottom of the stairs that led to the cavern floor, Macen holstered his phaser and vaulted over the stairway rail. He landed at the end of the second tier. Both T'Kir and Daggit were already in motion, one at a run and the other moving briskly. Macen had arrived.

T'Kir leapt into his arms, "'Bout time you got here!"

Macen squeezed her tight then released her and took a step back, "I see Rab's taken good care of you."

"And I see you've picked up souvenirs." she retorted, pointing at the swords strapped to his back.

Macen looked over his shoulder at the two handles, "Courtesy of Arinea."

"Didn't she object?"

Macen shook his head, "Not about that...or anything else."

T'Kir frowned, "That sounds rather ominous."

Drop it, he telepathically suggested.

Okay, okay, she relented. Macen's mood on the topic was dark.

"A dramatic entrance as always, sir." Daggit said as he came up alongside the pair.

"I always aim for a crowd pleaser." Macen deadpanned, then grew more serious, "How are our people?"

"Good, all things considering. Tom Riker appears to be in excellent health. Enough, anyway for him to try and usurp my command." Daggit mused, "The rest have held up far better than I expected."

"That had to hurt."

Daggit's face contorted into a wry expression, "You'll never know how much."

Macen understood Daggit's discomfort all too well. A greater portion of Daggit's ability to lead stemmed from his ability to make accurate projections of the responses of both his enemies and his crewmates. If he was unable to provide reliable analyses, then his effectiveness was severely limited. For Daggit, that was a fate worse than damnation.

Macen understood this mentality all too well. It was this mode of thought that had driven him into Starfleet. With his world effectively destroyed and his people assimilated, Macen had to facew the possibility of his own obsolescence. Starfleet, for a while, became the focus of his life. The SID, and his "fall from grace", had opened another world for Macen and he found he rather preferred it.

But now it was time to relate to that former world on its own terms, "I need to speak to Commodore Weisz. Where is he?"

"He's dead." Daggit answered without flinching.

"Frinx!" Macen swore, "Well, bring me his second."

"I believe he's aboard the McLachlan." Daggit explained.

"Bring me someone." Macen replied tartly, "Find the next senior officer and haul his or her ass over here."

Daggit nodded briskly, "Yes sir!"

"You're in a mood." T'Kir observed.

"I'll explain later but now really isn't the time." Macen informed her, "D'you still have that reactor wired?"

"Just give the word."

"In a minute." he warned, "First, I want you to deactivate the safety interlocks on the flow regulators. A nice steady, and unstoppable, build-up to detonation in thirty minutes would be nice."

"What if we can't escape these tunnels and beam aboard our respective ships in time?"

"Then we reach the great beyond together." Macen explained, "I've stood at its gates dozens of times. Maybe today is when I finally step through the portal."

"Frinx that!" T'Kir growled, "I don't know what happened to you in that woman's office but whatever it was it was a load of shuk. We are not going to die today. Not now, nor if I have my way, ever."

Initially, Macen angrily glared at her. Eventually, his demeanour changed to defiance. Then, having spent the force of his rage, he subsided and reflected on her words again. When concluded his musings, he nodded to her and gave her a wry grin.

"Agreed. No more talk of death."

Or thoughts, she warned in his mind.

"Or thoughts." he conceded, "But you do need to get started on those programming changes to the reactor. The Jem'Hadar are going to attack again. The only variable is when."

"You make this sound so fun."

Macen ejected the spent powerpack from his phaser pistol. He removed a fresh powercell from his belt and rammed it home. He flashed a feral grin that was far more familiar than anything else since his reunion with the main group.

"Isn't meant to be fun, sweetheart, but at least it stays interesting."

T'Kir beamed, confident that whatever had shaken Macen had passed. Daggit chose this moment to arrive with Lt. Gott.

"Captain, this is Lt. Gott. He is the senior surviving officer of the Special Forces expedition to this facility."

"Well," Gott hedged, "Commander Shran is the ranking officer, but he's aboard the ship."

"Do you or do you not represent the highest ranking officer alive on the planet?" Macen demanded.

"Lt. Colms and I have the same time in grade..." Gott hesitated when he saw the murderous glare in Macen's eye, "Yessir! I represent the senior most Special Forces official on the planet."

"Then tell your men to prepare to move the First Daughter and to ignite the lamps on their rifles." Macen ordered, "In ten minutes, there will be a power failure that will kill the lights. Thirty minutes after that, the main reactor will detonate. That leaves us twenty minutes to clear these tunnels and beam off of this miserable rock. Any questions?"

Gott swallowed hard and shook his head. Macen graced him with a grim smile, "Hurry along then. Time's wasting."

 

Chapter 16

The general alarm sounded across the bridge. Kirk threw her plate and mug back into the replicators. She bounded back to the command chair and hurled herself into it. The chair rocked from the impact but stayed upright, allowing her to access her sensor monitor.

"They must be motivated." Kirk said with obvious admiration, "There's only seven lifesigns aboard that ship yet they've already tried to restart the impulse reactor."

"They're the enemy," Grace protested, "how can you admire them?"

Kirk shrugged, "How can I not? They're in a piss poor tactical situation yet they refuse to give in. That kind of resolve demands respect."

"My people would call it stupidity." Grace revealed.

"Mine would build a monument to the memory of the brave souls aboard for their decision to continue on against overwhelming odds." Kirk shared, "That, I'm finding, is the wonder of the universe. There's more cultures and creeds than can be counted yet there's room for them all."

Grace silently pondered Kirk's words for a moment before asking, "So how are we going to respond to their efforts to reinitialise their reactor?"

"I'm going to lock phasers on the reactor and blow it and the engineers working on it straight to hell." Kirk replied matter of factly.

Grace was suddenly aware of the fact Kirk hailed from Iotia and not the Federation. Kirk could cold bloodedly discuss and plan the casual annihilation of another ship's crew without even blinking an eye. A similar mentality fostered in the Federation would be institutionalised. For Kirk, it was simply a matter of doing business the Iotian way.

Besides, it wasn't as though Grace's people didn't have their own well deserved reputation for ruthlessness. Of course, her time spent in the Federation had moderated her personal views but her duties to her people could still require her to act with brutal efficiency. If her kind were not so devoutly atheistic, she would have prayed daily and fervently that she'd never be called upon to betray her shipmates. Choosing between one's friends and one's kin wasn't really a choice was it?

Although, Grace mused, the settlers en route to the Milky Way aren't my "family". They're representatives of my native culture. Will that distinction weigh into my considerations?

Grace had no answers but that didn't surprise her. She'd grown used to living with confusion and accepted the fact that she would embrace this particular befuddlement until, or if, he people called. Of course, it also depended on what instructions they had for her. It made her head want to pop.

Screw it, she mentally groaned, no more thinking. From now, I'm just doing my duty to my obligations and letting them sort themselves out.

"Ready?" Macen asked.

T'Kir nodded and put her finger over the activation stud on the tricorder. Macen looked around and gave the word, "Lights out...now!"

The cavern went black except for the glow of the sighting lamps on the Special Forces' pulse rifles. The SID team went for their utility belts and removed their sensor glasses. Macen and T'Kir took point and entered the "exit" tunnel. The Special Forces unit divided into two-person pairings followed suit.

The practice of pairing was momentarily halted when the First Daughter and her guard detail entered the tunnel. Kort and Danan followed on the heels of the guard detail while Daggit and Radil assumed their normal position with the rearguard. No sooner had the last Special Forces officer disappeared into the tunnel then the Jem'Hadar arrived in force.

It was an expeditionary party, solely intended to root out the enemy. They were blind in the stygian darkness but their other senses were alert and probing for trouble. There were six of them, and they were hunting for blood. It was time to give them some.

Daggit and Radil ever so quietly positioned themselves behind the barricades closest to the tunnel entrance. They each took careful aim with their phaser pistols and took a breath and held it. Radil slowly released her breath even as Daggit whispered, "Now."

They fired once, then twice, each round of fire killing a Jem'Hadar. The remaining two returned fire. A dozen more Jem'Hadar rushed out of the opposing tunnel's entrance and added their weight of fire to that of the survivors'. An inadvertent shot from one of the more enthusiastic Jem'Hadar killed one of the original scouts. Still, their response was based upon where Daggit and Radil had been when they revealed themselves.

During the counter-response, Daggit and Radil crawled to the tunnel's entrance. They rose and took one last look at the scene they were leaving behind. The barricades had been broken apart and sections of it randomly placed throughout the cavern. For an enemy reduced to feeling his way along with his extremities, it was a cruel trap. Both wore sadistic smiles as they stepped into the tunnel's maw.

This tunnel curved its way through the mountain, which is how the Jem'Hadar missed the lamps of the departing Special Forces commandoes. Daggit and Radil carefully walked until they were certain they were out of hearing range of the still firing Dominion bred enforcers. Afterwards, they jogged down the tunnel, their sensor glasses granting near perfect visual acuity. As they rounded the tunnel's curve, they could hear fighting up ahead.

Phaser fire lanced out from the Solstice's weapons array. The ship's Type X phasers sliced through the stricken McLachlan's hull. The Impulse reactor suffered a direct hit, causing a containment failure. The resultant explosion killed the entire repair party, including Commander Shran. It also opened the impulse control room to space. The McLachlan was now dead in the proverbial water, life support lasting only as long as the batteries.

Becky Yeoh activated a broad band emergency hail, "We surrender! For God's sake, we surrender all ready!"

Kirk heard Yeoh's words and she smiled thinly. Her sensors indicated only two lifesigns were left aboard the McLachlan and both of these were located on the bridge. That voice sounded way too young and scared to be a senior officer so maybe we've bagged the major bad guys and are down to collecting the small fry, Kirk thought with satisfaction. She activated her intercom connection with Engineering.

"Hullo Chief. You got a minute?"

"That depends." he answered gruffly, "Are you done trying to shoot everything in the sector?"

"Maybe, maybe not." Kirk replied a tad stiffly, "Either way, its none of your concern. Just be prepared for both eventualities."

Dracas began cursing under his breath. Kirk heard a few colourful metaphors that made even made her upbringing on one of the meaner streets of New Chicago seem to pale by comparison.

"Chief," she said curtly, "I need you to go to the transporter and stand by for a set of co-ordinates."

"Anything else. Your Highness?"

"Yes." Kirk sighed. This is so petty. "After you've transported over the two prisoners we've taken, escort them to the brig."

"The brig?" Dracas blustered, "I'm an engineer, not a warden!"

"You need to drop them off and activate the forcefield." Kirk insisted, "Grace is busy at the helm and I'm monitoring the rest of the stations. That makes you expendable since Engineering doesn't require constant supervision."

"Only because I do watch it constantly." Dracas insisted.

"That very well may be true," Kirk allowed, "but at this particular juncture, your presence is not vital during a non-combat scenario."

Dracas swore violently and Kirk waited his breathing to regulate itself. Patience paid off, "All right. I'm on my way."

"Thank you, Chief." with that said and done, Kirk hailed the McLachlan, "To command of the Sarah McLachlan, I accept your surrender and am prepared to begin transporting survivors aboard my ship."

The viewscreen shifted from its view of the crippled Miranda-class cruiser's aft portion to that of a young human woman. She was no more than twenty-four Earth years old and descended from what Kirk recognised from her studies of Earth as Chinese stock. Kirk had never met a person of Asian descent and was intrigued by the subtle differences in the features of the Indo-European stock. Truth be told, she found Becky Yeoh to be quite attractive. If I were a man, I'd be a drooling idiot right now.

"Lieutenant Rebecca Yeoh, Ship's Specialist (Tactical) and acting XO. I currently command a ship's company of two, myself and Master Chief Rejule." Becky relayed with infinite sadness.

If Yeoh had sought pity, she found none. "You will stand down and prepare to be beamed aboard my ship where you will be taken as prisoners to stand trial for kidnapping and grand theft."

"Stand down what?" Yeoh replied with a tad too much hysteria in her voice, "Our entire ship has been destroyed."

"Disarm yourselves of all sidearms. Our transporter's safety protocols would deactivate your phasers, but this'll spare you a strip search.

Yeoh opened her mouth to protest such an indignity, but snapped it shut again, "We'll be unarmed."

Kirk welcomed the resignation in Yeoh's voice. It reminded her of fleecing itinerant freighters out of protection money to travel through the Iotian Starfleet's "protection zone". She'd thought that thrill to be long gone but she was beginning to realise that it could be found out here as well.

"Keep this channel open and gather together." Kirk monitored the gathering of the two surviving Special Forces personnel and updated her previous sensor reading when they met around the command chair. "Chief, here's the co-ordinates."

Macen and T'Kir had run headlong into a squad of Jem'Hadar. Fortunately, T'Kir's telepathy alerted them before they were exposed to the Jem'Hadar's plasma rifles. Unfortunately, these Jem'Hadar had found hand torches. By the time Gott and his men arrived, the Jem'Hadar troops were down and the SID pair was inserting powercells into their weapons.

"Holy shuk," Gott exclaimed, "but the two of you are dangerous."

"Naaaah," T'Kir said dismissively, her head slightly canted to the left, "There were only six of them. You should see us when we get warmed up."

Weisz had shared a few of the more "interesting" details from Section 31's files on Macen and his crew. Arinea had shared the documents in response to Tom Riker's assertions that Macen would come and liberate him and Arinea's corresponding unease with that thought. Gott had listened to the stories Weisz told and dismissed them as hyperbole. What he was seeing today, however, was proving he'd been wrong.

"This was only an advance unit." Macen said in resignation, "There are more in the cavern ahead. They were obviously trying to flank us by dividing their forces, deploying them down the other tunnel system, and catching us in the rear."

Gott nodded, "So it would appear."

"And now we have to charge headlong into a forewarned enemy." Macen finished explaining, "Our opposition had to have heard those shots."

Gott considered the situation for a moment and then did what Weisz would have done, "Sir, if you were stand guard over the First Daughter and assure her evacuation, then my people and I would gladly run interference."

Macen studied him, "It's suicide, you know. The reactors rigged to blow in..?"

"Twelve minutes, thirteen seconds." T'Kir supplied.

"She'll never make it past these troops without an armed contingent clearing the path to the entrance tunnel and holding the enemy back once the tunnel's been reached." Gott argued, "It has to be done. Commodore Weisz asked us to volunteer for this mission. We did and in the process created this mess. Now we can fix it."

Macen remained silent for a moment. It wasn't as though he disagreed with Gott; he was just simply tired of the bloodshed and sacrifices. Fates, he thought, I'm tired of the unending bloodshed. In the end, pragmatism won the day.

"Very well, Lieutenant. You and your people will lead the breakout assault. May the Fates have mercy on you."

"They're safely tucked away in the holding cells." Dracas' voice announced over the intercom.

"Good work Chief," Kirk replied merrily, "and thank you."

Dracas grunted and signed off.

"Well, isn't he a merry old soul?" Kirk wore a sour expression.

"The Chief's had a hard life and he's probably testing you out. Hr does have twice your experience." Grace suggested.

"We got along great as long as I was his helper."

"My point exactly. Dracas barely gave the Captain a chance to prove himself. Why should he be any easier on you?" Grace pointed out.

Kirk rubbed the tip of her nose, "I suppose he shouldn't. Oh, frinx it, I know he shouldn't but it just makes the transition harder, y'know?"

Grace bit her lower lip. She could tell Kirk the reason behind Dracas' fašade of surliness but T'Kir had shared that titbit in confidence. Grace was a wellspring of secrets. She wasn't in the habit of divulging them, especially when it meant betraying her friend.

Hypocrite! she savagely thought, You'd betray everyone aboard at the behest of your people but you won't share one insignificant confidence for fear of injuring a trust.

Grace returned her attention to her board. Hopefully the Caption and the extraction team would be calling soon. All this waiting led to too much interaction and pondering. If she even remotely had a soul, then this was what was bad for it.

The Special Forces troops paid a heavy price as they charged into the blazing guns of the Jem'Hadar. Half their number fell before they eliminated the last engineered soldier. Less than half a dozen Special Forces personnel survived to lead the way to the laboratory chamber. The initial resistance they met there was lighter but still cost Gott five members of his platoon.

Gott turned to Macen, "You're clear, sir. Get the young lady safely home."

Macen shook his hand, "You'll be remembered."

Gott broke into a lopsided grin, "Honourably I hope."

Macen's grin matched Gott's, "I'll see what I can arrange."

Gott nodded and sobered, "Then that's all I can ask. Good luck, sir."

"To you too." Macen turned and motioned for the SID team to proceed down the entrance tunnel. Huddled between them, confused and cold in a mere nightgown, was the President daughter.

When asked what to call her, the self-possessed young lady had replied, "Skye." When it was pointed out that that wasn't her name, she merely shrugged and replied, "You asked what I wanted to be called. I prefer 'Skye' to my birth name."

Macen shrugged, "All right. Skye it is."

"Who are you?" Skye asked, "You aren't one of these Special Forces wankers."

"We're a private firm with an interest in liberating you."

Skye rolled her eyes, "The Federation is a cashless society. They won't be offering a reward."

"I'm not after a reward. Normally, I'd be here at the behest of Starfleet Intelligence's Special Investigative Division."

"You said you'd 'normally be here at Starfleet's request'. If they didn't send you, who did?"

"It's a private venture." Macen explained, "They were holding one of my crew." Riker tossed off a grin and mock salute, "It just so happened you were here as well, so we got a two-for-one deal."

"Oh." Skye looked and sounded crestfallen.

"Don't feel bad." Riker counselled, "According to my crewmates, your father dispatched entire fleets to look for you. I was written off as being expendable. If they hadn't come looking for me, I'd have died here."

Skye met his icy blue eyes with her violet ones. They shone with a glimmer of hope, however faint it was, "Thank you."

"Heads up people!" T'Kir called out, "We have three minutes left."

"Better run!" Macen suggested.

Skye proved a better sprinter than she appeared. The entire team exited the tunnel with just under two minutes to spare.

"Chief, beam us up right now!" Macen fervently requested.

"I only have six pads. Two of you will have to remain behind and be taken up in a second wave."

Macen replied with, "I'll stay behind."

"Then I'm staying too." T'Kir growled, "You're not getting rid of me that easily."

The seconds slowly ticked by and seemed to drag on forever as Dracas reset the transporter.

"Uh, Chief, we're really in a hurry." Macen informed him.

"Don't rush a master at work." Dracas scolded and activated the transporter beam. Macen and T'Kir stood by and watched their crewmates and Skye dissolve into an energy matrix. Macen turned to T'Kir.

"Any chance that we're going to survive this?"

She screwed up her face.

"Our odds are that bad, huh?"

"We'd have a better chance at achieving immaculate conception."

"So there's still hope."

T'Kir broke into a wry grin and shook her head, "You'll never surrender, will you? You'll go down fighting."

"Pretty much." Macen conceded.

"We have seventeen seconds left." T'Kir checked her padd, "Give the blast about three seconds to navigate the tunnels to here and you've given us twenty seconds remaining. Any last words?"

"Yeah." Macen grinned as he began to shimmer, "Feel that?"

Macen and T'Kir materialised in the Solstice's transporter room. Dracas was monitoring his sensors, "Cut it a little close didn't we?"

Macen gave him a manic grin, "Always, Chief."

"Ready for a new problem?"

Macen's eyes grew flinty, "What?"

"Word is Riker's causing problems on the bridge. He, Kirk, and Danan are all arguing over who's in command and what to do next."

"I'm on it." Macen growled and left with T'Kir in his wake.

"For the last time," Riker almost shouted, "I'm the Captain. Macen and T'Kir are aboard so break orbit and plot a least time course for home."

Grace sat unflinchingly as Kirk rallied behind her, "In the absence of Captain Macen, Acting XO Danan here is in charge. Until Macen reinstates you, you have no authority on this bridge."

Riker gave her a wounded look, as if he'd been betrayed. She was sorry his feelings were hurt but protocol was protocol. Riker hadn't been part of the chain of command for almost a year now; he couldn't simply jump into the centre seat now and expect to take command. Someone needed to quell his ambitions, and if need be, she was the woman for the job.

The turbolift doors opened and Macen came onto the bridge like a force of nature, "Let's get one thing straight, I'm the Captain. This is my ship and my command."

In turn, Macen met the eye of each of the disputing parties to affirm they'd received the message. Tom Riker obviously had, and was upset by it.

"Tom, join me in the briefing room." Macen suggested and waited for Riker to comply.

Riker shrugged and stormed past Macen, headed for the briefing room door. Macen turned to Grace, "Execute withdrawal route Delta-9."

To Danan he said, "You stand relieved of your duties as 1st Officer."

"Thank the Pools." she murmured and headed for the turbolift.

Finally, he faced Kirk, "Well done, Jamie. You're now the ship's acting 2nd Officer."

"2nd, sir?" she asked, disappointment lacing her voice.

"Don't worry." he assured her, "I have great plans for you. I'll tell you about them later but first I have to douse Tom's ruffled feathers."

Macen entered the briefing room to find Riker leaned up against the bulkhead, fuming.

"Damn it Macen, I was hired on to this crew to be this ship's captain."

"No, Tom. You weren't" Macen rebutted, "You were hired on as the Eclipse's captain. This is the Solstice. She's a whole other animal."

"So?" Riker couldn't fathom Macen's point.

"Your contract would've been renegotiated to rectify certain...deficiencies with our previous agreement."

"What sort of deficiencies?" Riker roared.

"When someone wishes to speak to this ship's captain or see someone representing this ship and crew," Macen explained, "That person is me. Even under our previous arrangement, that was true. The only difference is that our previous arrangement belittled you in the eyes of stationmasters and other ship's captains."

Macen stared Riker down, "By you agreeing to be my Exec, you avoid the confusion of murky titles and you get to run the daily affairs of the ship. I'll primarily be on the bridge as an advisor. I only require the title and the ultimate authority."

Macen held out his hand, "Can you live with that?"

Riker hesitated, his mind weighing and juggling. Finally, he broke into a wry grin, "Just don't call me 'Number One'."

"Deal." With that, they shook hands. They exited the briefing room and Macen made Riker's decision public. Kirk still looked unhappy but Macen knew his plans for her would make up for this perceived slight.

"Brin!" T'Kir grabbed his attention, "We have multiple inbound bogeys."

"Talk to me. What've you got?"

"Six ships, all banging away with their active sensor arrays. They don't care who knows they're around." T'Kir reported.

Macen had the sensor feed duplicated on his monitor, "I make it out to be six Federation starships. Four Cheyenne-class scouts and two Challenger-class cruisers."

"They certainly got here fast." commented Grace.

"They were already on patrol near DS9 and they all possess four warp nacelles." Macen instructed, "That means they can sustain maximum warp almost indefinitely by alternating nacelle pair usage."

"I take it these were the ships you contacted when we entered the system." T'Kir remarked dryly.

Macen nodded, "They were the primaries assigned to these sectors. I also transmitted a signal to the communications relay posts located in the Bajor sector and at Starbase 375."

"I'm getting positive IDs from their transponders. They're definitely Starfleet." T'Kir announced.

"Attention SS Solstice, heave to and prepare to be boarded. You will not be warned again." a terse voice rang out over the bridge speakers.

"Rude like Starfleet too." T'Kir muttered darkly.

"Grace, cut engines and hold our position. Rab, hail these idiots. I want to know who I'm dealing with." Macen snapped off the orders.

"He's definitely gotten the hang of command while I was gone." Riker whispered to Kirk.

"He made do." Kirk replied, "We all did."

He met her gaze, "All these months, I've wondered about what could have become of us."

A trace of a smile began to light up her features, "There's still time to find out."

"Its not too late?"

Kirk shook her head, "Why do you think I'm here, besides the fact I was exiled from Iotia? I was looking for you to see if the promise a few days held could grow into something more."

"I know I certainly..."

"Hold that thought." she requested, "I want to hear this."

The image on the main viewer had shifted from that of six decelerating starships to one of a middle aged Starfleet captain. A captain, who by the look of things, would not brook any interference with her mission.

"This is Captain Luna Longoria, of the starship Razorcat. Surrender your vessel at once, or be destroyed."

Macen gave her his best ingratiating smile while he privately tried not to laugh at her name, "Captain Longoria, this measures are unnecessary. We're the vessel that sent out the alert on this system. We currently have Skye aboard. She's safe and sound."

Kirk whispered just loudly enough for Macen to hear before he continued, "We have two prisoners to transfer to your custody."

Longoria eyed Macen suspiciously, "I see by your ship's ID that she's the Solstice. That would make you Captain Macen?"

"Yes, it would." Macen warily replied, sensing trouble brewing.

"Then I am under orders to place a prize crew aboard your vessel." Longoria said with a hint of a smile, "You and your officers will be confined to quarters during the transit to Sector 001."

"Where we will facew a board of inquiry regarding our actions here." Macen finished for her, "The orders undoubtedly originated in Edward Jellico's offices. But who counter-signed it?"

"Vice Admiral Nechayev."

Macen felt gut punched. Nechayev had always been his friend and later on, mentor and sponsor within Starfleet Intelligence. This move on her part was a betrayal even deeper than that committed by Arinea. T'Kir sensed his anguish and intervened on his behalf.

"Tom, do something."

Riker stepped forward and conferred with Macen, "Sir, you to take a stand. A fight would be suicide, and it would get our passengers killed."

"I notice you didn't mention anything about us." Macen broke into a half-hearted grin.

"Us?" Riker said with mock seriousness, "If any of us had wanted to stay alive, we wouldn't have signed on."

"I'll keep that in mind, XO." Macen said with a wry half smile. Refocusing his attention on the viewer, Macen laid his terms out, "I'll accept most of your conditions if you meet some of mine."

"You're dictating terms to me?" Longoria asked in disbelief.

"Yup." Macen confirmed, "And you'll meet them if you want this deal to go down smoothly."

Longoria hesitated then relented, "Let me hear your demands."

"My people aren't to be treated as prisoners. We haven't been arrested. The board will determine if criminal misconduct occurred and if judicial action is required." Macen explained, "We want free access to the crew's lounge and exercise room."

Longoria began to colour but remained silent as Macen continued, "Also, beam over Skye's Presidential Guard detail. She's staying aboard." Macen's hand waved away Longoria's apoplectic reply, "She's insurance that you just won't 'eliminate' the thorn in the good admiral's side once the First Daughter is no longer aboard."

"It's a sick, sad little world you live in." Longoria accused then threw her hands up, "All right, I agree. My people will start coming aboard in fifteen minutes. I'm coming over as well. I want a debriefing on how the mission to liberate...Skye went as well."

"Well, this going to be fun." Grace voiced.

"What do you think, Captain?" Riker inquired.

Macen's gaze swept the bridge area, " I think we're in trouble."

 

Chapter 17

Brin Macen stood before the Council of Five, feeling railroaded. Whatever a railroad is, he miserably thought, Maybe it was similar to a maglev train. It was fascinating how expressions lingered on in language even when the referenced object had long since faded into obscurity. Fascinating at any moment except this one, Macen thought as he listened to Jellico drone on about how Macen had, in a single-handed coup, nearly caused Skye's death. Of course, Jellico also had too large a bug up his butt to use Skye's preferred nickname.

"...and furthermore Commander Macen..." Jellico ranted.

"That's Captain Macen." Macen interrupted, "I am the owner, operator and commanding officer of the SS Solstice. By Spacing Guild guidelines, that makes me a 'Captain'."

"Your proper Starfleet rank is that of Commander. You shall therefore be addressed as such." Jellico blustered.

"I'm not even in Starfleet, you idiot. I could demand to be referred to as 'Admiral' and you'd politely have to comply."

Drake and Nechayev winced as Jellico's eyes narrowed to slits, "No...you're no longer part of Starfleet, are you? And that is the true problem isn't it?"

"Thank you...Captain Macen. The Council will deliberate and then make its decision known to you." Bill Ross spoke up, "Since you're restricted from leaving the planet, I suggest you await word of our decisions in Admiral Drake's offices."

As soon as the doors closed behind Macen, fierce debates broke out. Admirals Ross and Marrine tried to moderate their fellow officers, to no avail. The various issues that lay before them were marched out, one by one, and given a new hearing. In the end, the bickering only ceased when Ross and Marrine called for a vote. Once again the balance lay in the swing vote, only this time that vote swung the other way.

Macen and the other contract agents were out. The SID would have to learn how to rely upon a homogenous Starfleet force. Now came the hardest part of the process: telling the various CO's and crews that their loyal services were no longer required. To top it off, Drake would have to start the process with most productive, but least predictable, contractor.

Nechayev accompanied Drake back to the junior officer's office. Macen sat in Ambril Delori's office, awaiting entrance to Drake's workspace. Drake sat Macen down and offered the usual refreshments. After the social niceties had been observed, Drake informed Macen of the Council's decision.

"What d'you mean 'I'm fired'?" Macen inquired in a voice that could chill a comet.

"All the freelance contractors are being let go of, Brin." Nechayev intervened, "In a way, this is a direct result of your actions as an independent operative. Jellico used one example after another of your supposed 'excesses'."

"What a load of..."

"We know." Drake assured him, "God knows I wish that this had gone the other way. As a small matter of compensation, all of 'you' contract captains and ships get to retain their letters of marque."

Macen could sense Drake's inner turmoil as she continued, "You've built Outbound Ventures into more than just a cover. Why not make a go of it as a 'security consultant' full time?"

"I guess I'm going to have to." Macen replied sourly.

"Brin," Nechayev spoke, "Starfleet Intelligence is still open to hiring freelancers."

"And your point is?"

"The rules are looser and the jobs are riskier but I could arrange for an assignment here and there."

"I wouldn't want to be a bother." Macen said in a snarky tone.

"It wouldn't be a bother." Nechayev replied levelly, "I'd be gaining a great asset."

"No, thank you." Macen decided, "We'll make it on our own."

"Brin?" Nechayev asked in surprise.

"You shouldn't have counter-signed the detention order, Alynna." Macen's voice was devoid of emotion.

Oh Hell, she thought worriedly, "Brin, I had to do it. If I'd refused, it would have seemed as though Amanda or I had ordered you to proceed with the rescue attempt."

"You did the next best thing." Macen's growled, "You knew the moment you mentioned Tom Riker's name that I'd be committed to a rescue mission."

"In the end, the choice was still yours." Drake argued, "Neither Admiral Nechayev or I..."

"Spare me the usual bullshit." Macen warned in a menacing tone, "I've been steeped in plausible deniability and its permutations for eighty years. For Fates' sake, let's once call an apple an apple."

Nechayev folded her hands in her lap and levelly met Macen's burning gaze, "You're right. We did use you."

"Alynna!" Drake protested.

Nechayev held up a hand to restrain her, "Although the SID had been granted the primary responsibility in locating Ms...Skye, we felt uncertain of even our odds of success without the involvement of you and your crew. When you refused to accept the assignment, we fell back on our contingency plan: Tom Riker's resurrection. With you acting as an independent 'cowboy' we could pursue more traditional routes of investigation while primarily relying upon you to find...Skye."

"Well, I did and you threw the entire book at me," Macen's eyes glinted, "and you still couldn't make anything stick. The Board of Inquiry exonerated us of any wrongdoing."

Nechayev shook her head sadly, "That outcome was predetermined before it began. One can't crucify the President's new darlings. Your real trial was before the Council of Five. You lost that battle. We all did."

Silence lingered for a moment before Drake spoke, "Brin, if there's ever anything we can do..."

Macen nodded, "It's appreciated but I'm fairly certain we can manage on our own."

"We've managed to secure you your usual fee for the job. At the President's insistence, it's been tripled."

A wry grin spread across Macen's features, "At least someone values a job well done."

"Brin, I'm so sorry." Nechayev practically gushed, "For everything."

"So am I." Macen confessed, rose and left the room.

"I've never seen you get so emotional before." Drake confessed.

"I've been friends with that man for almost half a century," Nechayev said huskily, "and I've betrayed him for operational security concerns. What kind of monster does that make me?"

"The kind that accomplishes the mission." Drake argued.

"True. But in the end, where does that leave me? Am I blessed or am I damned?"

Drake had no answers for those questions.

"...and that's the situation." Macen finished relaying the tale of his meeting with Admirals Drake and Nechayev.

"So what happens next?" Dracas asked.

"Quite frankly, I'm taking Amanda Drake's suggestion and I'm running with it. I'd already been thinking of expanding Outbound Venture's operations. Now is the perfect opportunity to do that."

"How?" Riker asked.

"Drake's firing more than a dozen freelance contractors. I'm certain we can recruit some of these disaffected crews to work alongside us." Macen explained and then moved over to where Kirk was sitting in the Solstice's briefing room, "In addition, I'd like to introduce the newest Outbound Ventures commander, Captain Jamie Kirk."

Kirk glanced over towards Riker, whose jaw opened and closed at this announcement, "Me, sir? But what would I command?"

Macen grinned, "Before we set out on our little rescue mission, I put in a bid on a decommissioned Newton-class surveyor. All the other captains I plan on contacting have their own ships. This one doesn't have a captain and I think you'd be perfect for the job."

Riker was visibly shaken but he remained silent as Macen continued, "The choice now facing each and every one of you is whether or not you'll remain part of this crew. I would love to have all of you stay but if any, or all, of you choose this moment to start a new life separate from Outbound Ventures and this ship, I'll understand and support your decision."

"I won't be soliciting your choice until we reach Barrinor. Until then, you're all dismissed." Macen said then added, "Tom, can I talk with you?"

Riker stiffened but remained behind as the others departed. Macen took his usual seat at the head of the table, "You're upset that I've a command to Jamie while I'm saddling you with the onerous title of 'Executive Officer'."

Riker started to deny it but in the end he merely shrugged. Macen smiled, "Good move. It's never smart to lie to a telepath or an empathy, no matter how weak their abilities are."

"I just can't understand why you did it!" Riker finally burst forth, "I have twice the experience she has."

"With the crew, yes." Macen agreed, "But in overall experience, she actually edges you out. That's all beside the point. I respect Jamie but I don't feel comfortable with her as my 1st Officer. I need the best and you're it. The Solstice will be the Outbound Venture's flagship and will be receiving the most challenging assignments as a consequence. As my XO, you'll be in effective command. Which do you prefer, a title your ambitions despise or convoy duty?"

Riker considered the matter for a minute then replied, "As long as I get my own command someday."

Macen nodded, "It'll happen sooner than you expect."

"Then I'm staying." Riker announced, "And that is my final decision regarding the subject.

They shook hands and then Riker exited the room to begin preparations for departure. A moment later, the door chime sounded.

"C'mon in, T'Kir."

The door slid open and T'Kir wore a bemused expression, "How'd y'know? I dampened our rapport enough to 'disguise' myself."

"Because I know you, m'love." Macen grinned, "You're the only one, barring Tom Riker, who'd have enough wherewithal to knock on that door in light of the news I just delivered."

"Yeah," T'Kir said proudly, "I am gutsy."

"Rab referred to you as 'plucky'."

T'Kir scowled, "I prefer 'gutsy'."

She moved to his position and lowered herself to straddling him, "So, how long are you gonna be holed up in here?"

"Is that why they sent you?" Macen said, referring to the crew.

"That among other things." T'Kir confessed, "I was worried about you. Nechayev's betrayal of trust has hit you harder than battling your wife..."

"Ex-wife." Macen asserted.

"Ex-wife to the death. That makes a very powerful statement."

"I really don't see how deep of an impact..."

"Brin," T'Kir scolded, "I generally can't read thoughts you don't want to share with me, but today I 'heard' you turn down Nechayev's job offer."

Macen grimaced, "It was a bogus offer."

"She was trying to make amends." T'Kir pointed out, "Just like you were trying to punish her by turning the offer down."

"Where is this leading us?" Macen asked, a tad testily.

"Just seeing where your head is." she explained, "Are you serious about going solo or is this simply a matter of revenge? Because if you're not completely committed to building up Outbound Ventures, Inc. it will fail."

Macen's eyes met hers and held them tightly, "I'm committed T'Kir, as committed as I've ever been to anything in my life."

"You're sure?" there was hope in her voice.

He nodded, "I know you've looked forward to this moment for a long time. It just hit me a little sooner than I expected. We'll make it work, you and I.

"Us?" she asked with some confusion.

"I plan on incorporating you as my corporate partner."

"That's so...romantic." T'Kir's disappointment was evident.

"This has nothing to do with our relationship." Macen informed her, "This has to do with trust. I trust you to carry on what I've started in case anything should happen to me."

"Y'do realise that I'll probably die right beside you." T'Kir retorted dryly.

Macen grinned, "There's always the freak chance that you won't."

"Yeah, like that'll happen." she rolled her eyes, "If it does turn out that way, I'll just as soon take a phaser to my head and depress the firing stud."

Macen roughly took hold of her arms, "Don't ever say that! If one of us survives the other, it's our duty to each other to carry on, living out the hopes that we had for each other."

"Ease up, will ya?" she saw the intensity in his eyes and lolled her head to one side, "Okay already. I'll try...but no promises."

Macen let go, "As long as you try."

"Why're you so bloody intense about this?"

"Because I want to share my life with you, not my death." Macen shared.

"You want t'share your life with me?" T'Kir asked, her throat constricting with emotion.

Macen nodded, his previous intensity remained but none of his manic fervour, "I want to give you the best the galaxy has to offer. I want to see sights undreamt of with you. I want to share the passing of days and of years with you. I want to grow old at your side. Most of all, I want to share every facet of myself with you and explore the depths of you in return."

"Are," T'Kir choked, "are you asking me to marry you?"

Macen considered the thought for a moment, then firmly nodded, "I guess I am. Wait, there's no guessing, I am. Is this too sudden? D'you need time to think about it?"

T'Kir shook her head so fast it looked as though it would fly off, "No. I have an answer. Always best to shoot from your hip, eh?"

Macen waited but no reply was forthcoming. Finally, he prompted her, "I don't want to rush you, especially since your expression is so frozen I could refrigerate nitrogen with it, but could you answer my question."

T'Kir's face was still a stoic mask when she next spoke, "And you said you were prepared to give me time."

"T'Kir," Macen reprimanded, "I'm feeling a little more emotionally exposed than I normally feel comfortable with, but I stuck it all out on the line as part of my sharing all facets. Considering that, and the fact you said you had a response, could you tell me what it is?"

"I'm thinking." she replied diffidently.

"T'Kir!" his tone was almost pleading.

"Considering your pains...and a thousand other things," T'Kir broke into a radiant smile that made her glow, "I say 'Yes'!"

Macen drew her in closer and they embraced in a long, passion filled kiss.

"D'you want to lock the door and do it on the table?" T'Kir teased.

"You're hopeless." he laughed.

"Hey, we survived a fight." she protested, "I'm ready to get it on."

"Control yourself, and you'll get a surprise later."

"As good as this one?"

"'Good' is such a relative term."

"Yum!" T'Kir exclaimed gleefully

The trip to Barrinor was accomplished without incident. The crew, with the exception of Danan, reacted joyfully to Macen and T'Kir's news. The couple had decided to compromise between the Vulcan custom of a seven-year courtship and the El-Aurian tendency towards engagements of a year or less. They'd settled on a three period to get their mutual affairs in order.

After arriving on Barrinor, Macen set about contacting the other displaced captains recently discharged from the SID's service. Five agreed to join Outbound Ventures as contracted owner-operators. The rest went their separate ways.

During this time, the decommissioned Newton-class hull arrived. Macen took T'Kir, Dracas, and Kirk aboard her to inspect her. After two days, they'd compiled a wish list of upgrades and modifications. Macen obtained several quotes from various shipyards. Now it was simply a matter of assembling a skeleton crew to pilot the ship to the yards. Kirk was given a ship's expense account and a budget and sent out to the various guilds, and Macen's Maquis contacts, to recruit a ship's complement.

As this occurred, the crew used their final days to decide their fate. To no great surprise, all stayed. All except one. Chief Hal Dracas tendered a leave of absence and announced his intention to take an extended sabbatical. No one protested but there was a general sense of disappointment and for some, a little envy.

Macen met with Dracas as the engineer was preparing to depart. He'd agreed to loan Dracas the Waverider-class shuttle they'd captured off of the Slipstream. The meeting was at Dracas' request and Macen didn't know what to expect. He did, however, have strong suspicions.

Dracas stuffed his last shirt into his duffel, "Hello Captain. Right on time, I see."

"Never saw much point in being late." Macen shrugged.

"Neither have I." Dracas waved Macen towards a chair. Dracas took the adjoining chair and swivelled it to face Macen, "Probably why we've got on over the last two years."

"That, and one or two other reasons." Macen wore a half smile.

Dracas sighed and leaned forward, "Thank you for keeping my secret. T'Kir says you know about my preferences."

Macen nodded, "It's been obvious for some time now."

"May I ask how?"

"It was when we were in the gladiatorial pits on Magna Roma." Macen revealed, "You were a little too clever in pointing out that you hadn't slept with any of the women the Romans sent your way. Put that together with the fact you'd always seemed slightly smitten with Rab."

Dracas buried his face in his hands, "Gods, no! He doesn't know does he?"

Macen shook his head, "Doesn't have a clue, doesn't want one, and wouldn't care if he had one. You've been careful to conceal your sexual tastes. You've met dates far away from the types of establishments preferred by your crewmates. You've spent an enormous amount of time and effort to conceal what is an integral part of yourself."

"D'you think you'll be condemned for your choices in lovers?" Macen asked, "Take hope from T'Kir and I's example. I broke her out of an insane asylum in order to recruit her for my crew. Shortly thereafter, I started dating her. Now we're getting married. Does that sound 'normal'?"

Dracas shook his head.

"That's the part T'Kir and I can't understand, Hal. No one will condemn you if you reveal the 'real' you."

"That's what Lees said."

"She can, on occasion, be a very wise woman." Macen's lopsided grin returned, "You should heed her advice."

Dracas let out a deep sigh, "Maybe when I get back. Right now I just need to find a place to find myself and reflect."

"You want to reflect?" Macen asked, "I have just the place for you."

"Where is it?" Dracas perked up.

"I legally can't tell you, but I can program into your navigation computer." Macen grinned impishly, "Its amazing what they leave out of laws. Anyway, it's a little planet located in a cosmic hotspot known as the Briar Patch. Located near its heart is a quaint little world settled by a people known as the Baku. I visited the world about fifty years ago. The locals have mastered the art of serenity."

"Now, I could use that." Dracas wistfully sighed.

"They're a little reclusive but mention my name and say I sent you and they should embrace you."

"Will they remember you?"

Macen's smile radiated mischief in its purest form, "They have long memories. Trust me, they'll remember me. And there's a side benefit."

"What's that?" Dracas asked dubiously.

"You'll feel like you've peeled away years of your life just for visiting."

Dracas wasn't sure how to respond to that statement so he ignored it, "Well, I should be off, sir."

"I'll see you off and program those co-ordinates while I'm at it."

Dracas smiled, "Thank you."

Macen sat on the towel laid out behind him. Barrinor's beaches were majestic and with a planetary population still under 1,000,000, it was still possible to find a nice private stretch of glistening sand. Nearby Macen's position were volcanic rocks and tide pools.

Macen adjusted his sunglasses, low tech versions of the crew's sensor glasses, and resumed meditating to the rhythm of the crashing surf. Macen wore a hooded sweatshirt and loose natural fibre pants. The legs of the pants were rolled up to accommodate his surf faring ventures. A pair of Roman sandals sat by his feet.

Dracas was gone, the ship and crew were cut off from Starfleet and its steady, fat, juicy contracts. He still had access to Starfleet owing to his status as a reserve officer. But he wasn't at the forefront of the action anymore. Although he had the emotional scars to show it, he'd spent eighty years on the front lines. He wasn't certain he knew any other life at this point.

"Brin," T'Kir reprimanded and rose from lying on her stomach by propping herself up on her elbows, "you're brooding again."

Macen protested, "I'm reflecting a bit, but I'm not brooding."

T'Kir sighed, "Never lie to a telepath, Brin. I'm catching those surface thoughts through our rapport. We're here to relax. Knock it off."

"How about exploring those rock formations and seeing the tide pools?" he suggested hopefully, Anything but these damned waves.

"All right." T'Kir pushed herself up onto her knees. She retrieved her sun wrap from her shoulder bag and tied it around her waist. She wore her hair loose for a change and the ocean breezes tossed it about her head. She abstained from wearing eyewear since genetics had blessed her with natural "sunglasses" in the form of a second, transparent eyelid.

Macen put on his sandals and they were off. As they explored the rock formations, Macen held out a steadying arm from T'Kir and remarked, "I'm surprised how smoothly you seem to be adapting to all of the changes."

She shrugged, "I wanted for some of them. I hoped and waited for one of them." she smiled coyly at that, "As for the rest, at the risk of sounding mushy, I'll get by as long as I'm with you."

"No pressure that." Macen retorted glibly.

She laughed lightly, "It shouldn't be. Just you being you makes me feel more secure. Nothing else is required."

"T'Kir," Macen protested, "Honey, I'm a mess."

She laughed, "And I'm not? Who's the one that was in the nuthouse and is heavily medicated?"

"I know, but..."

T'Kir placed her forefinger on his lips, "Shhhh. All I know is this: we're good for one another. Good enough in fact that we should make it a permanent arrangement."

Macen noticed she'd guided them back to their beach blanket, "Hey! We never saw the tide pools."

T'Kir unstrapped her sandals and kicked them off. Next she removed her wrap and set it aside. Finally, she peeled out of her swimsuit and stood naked before him.

"You have a choice: visit the tide pools or make love to me. Simple?'

Macen pulled off his sweatshirt, "Simplest decision I've ever made."

 

The series continues...

 

- The End -

 

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Last modified: 02 Jan 2014 
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