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Genesis - Part I 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 1

2381 Three years later

The Blackbird-class scout, Solstice, dove into the planetary atmosphere. The advantage the Solstice had in this situation is that she was designed for atmospheric operations. The earlier Blackbirds had been strictly extra-atmospheric operations platforms. The Solstice was also the first new hull construction of the class in thirty years. A lot of design options had developed in that amount of time.

Corbal V's atmosphere held a high ion charge. Upon atmospheric entry, the Solstice lost her primary sensors. The more heavily shielded auxiliaries engaged but the price of being more heavily shielded was that they were less sensitive, which reads as less effective. The ship's main viewer transformed into a miasma of static before shifting to a straight camera shot angled straight ahead from the "nose" of the ship's saucer section.

"Grace," Tom Riker called as he rose from the command chair. A sudden, and unexpected, bout of turbulence almost threw Riker back into his seat, "What the holy hell are you playing at Hannah?"

"It's not me, honest." the young woman at the helm replied, "The ion density in the atmosphere is higher than we expected. It's playing hob with our sensors and the electrostatic discharges are creating turbulence. That's just the way it is. I suggest you sit down and ride it out quietly with the rest of us, sir!"

Slightly stunned, Riker sat down. He idly wondered what had ever happened to the meek, mild, and slightly timid woman that had been the crew's pilot for the last six years. And therein lay the answer. Grace had spent the last six years serving with, and living beside, the crew of the Solstice. Although the ships had changed a few times over this period, the crew had largely remained intact. They'd become an ersatz family of sorts, certainly more than a collection of lost souls with nowhere else to go.

"Hannah, what's going on?" Brin Macen asked as he and T'Kir stepped out of the turbolift.

"I'm on it, Captain. Take a seat and relax." Grace grated.

Macen's eyebrows rose. He glanced over towards T'Kir and nudged his head in the direction of T'Kir's Ops station, situated right beside Grace's Helm. T'Kir warmly smiled, an unsettling sight on any Vulcan other than T'Kir, and she went off and manned her station.

"'Lo Hannah." T'Kir greeted her jovially, "'S'up?"

Grace gritted her teeth in anger for a moment, then unclenched her jaw with a sigh, "The aerial guides are misaligned and the manoeuvring thrusters are wonky, and have been for a month. I'm flying a ship with the glide potential of a brick virtually blind and with unreliable flight controls. I honestly don't know if I can pull it off this time."

An exceptionally powerful telepath even amongst other known telepathic races, T'Kir could sense the anguish that Grace's admission cost her. T'Kir stabbed the intercom button and keyed it to Engineering.

"Parva, haul your ass up to the bridge now!"

Riker cast a pained expression Macen's way. Macen wore a bemused grin and shrugged. The chain of command aboard the Solstice was fairly loose. There was only one cardinal rule: Macen was the ship's captain.

Long before Macen and T'Kir had become engaged, they'd served alongside one another in the Maquis. T'Kir had been subordinate to Macen then as well. He'd become well acquainted with her tendency to circumvent authority early on. Although this trait was far from tamed, he'd curtailed her attempts to usurp his command

Riker, dealing from the position of Executive Officer, felt that any challenge to his authority belittled his position. After three years, he'd curbed his knee-jerk hostile reaction to T'Kir's antics, especially after seeing that they had the tacit support of the Ship's captain. Riker contented himself with nonverbal protests to T'Kir's various actions. At first to his ire, and now to his ongoing surprise, T'Kir's unsolicited deeds were more often than not the exact solution needed for whatever problem she was attempting to tackle.

It doesn't hurt that she's a telepath. Riker thought to himself, In fact, she's probably reading me right now.

"How could I not, Tom." T'Kir replied over her shoulder, "You're thinking hard enough to give me a headache."

Oh, Christ! Riker thought miserably.

Macen clapped him on the shoulder as he passed by, "Relax Tom. She's merely playing with you."

"What happens when she stops playing?""

"First, your nose bleeds, then your vision darkens and it feels like your skull explodes as a massive haemorrhage engulfs your brain."

"Sorry I asked." Riker muttered.

"Never ask unless you're ready for the answer." Macen counselled.

"And should I be afraid to ask how you know this?" Riker tentatively inquired.

Macen's grin was wicked, "Probably."

"Thanks for the warning." Riker replied.

Macen was still grinning as he passed Rab Daggit and his Tactical station to take a seat at his Information Systems station. The bridge Science station had been removed and all function rerouted to Astrometrics. In its place was a custom designed station that overlapped the various sensor displays and communication feeds. The InfoSys also contained the library computer.

InfoSys was located behind Tactical. The Solstice's bridge generally followed the layout of the Galaxy-class Battle Bridge. The Ops and Helm stations sat directly in front of the main viewer. Centred behind them sat the Command chair and its displays. Behind Command, on an elevated deck, lay the Tactical board. Tactical was the solitary standing station on the bridge. InfoSys was built into the rear bulkhead.

The turbolift opened to the "left" of the bridge, when facing the viewer. At the rear of the bridge was another door. This door led to the main briefing room. The briefing room was designed for six officers, the normal complement aboard a Blackbird-class scout. This design element made for some interesting adaptations when briefing all nine members of the Solstice's crew.

The Solstice herself appeared to be a sleek, streamlined hybrid between the Ambassador and Excelsior-class ships. One major difference was her overall length of 104 metres versus those of 526 metres and 467 metres respectively. She'd been designed for a crew complement of twenty-two officers and crewmen. The original Blackbird-class ships had been scoutships and border patrol vessels. They'd been replaced by the Sabre-class.

The Solstice had been built from the keel up as a multi-role covert operations platform. Starfleet's Special Projects Yard had constructed her for Outbound Ventures, Inc. At the time, Outbound Ventures was primarily a front for a group of irregulars contracted with Starfleet Intelligence's Special Investigations Division. Over time, accepting contracts between SID assignments, Outbound Ventures garnered quite a reputation amongst the security "consulting" firms.

Three years ago, when one influential Starfleet admiral persuaded enough of his peers, the SID was forbidden the use of irregulars. All freelance contracted employees were discharged. Macen and his crew decided to make a go of it working full time for Outbound Ventures. Macen hired on one new captain and equipped her with a ship. He also recruited five of the irregulars to join the corporation. The Solstice was now the flagship of a seven vessel "fleet".

The crew had adapted to their new role with surprising equanimity. On average, their assignments were far more leisurely than they had been with Starfleet. Then there were the rare cases that imperilled every member of the crew. It also worked on the individual level. The average criminal they confronted was an idiot. The odd malevolent geniuses arose just to prove that criminals, too, could escape the law of averages.

The crew's contract this time around wasn't overtly difficult but there were potential complications. The situation on Corbal was simple enough. Corbal was a mining outpost. Although there was a regular rotation for sending miners offworld to their families, Corbal itself boasted quite and impressive entertainment industry. The Ferengi and the Bolians had struggled over most of the franchise rights. Even the Bajorans maintained a presence on Corbal.

In order to accommodate the miners' needs and desires, the various mining cartels distributed the bulk of their employees' wages amongst the families but a portion was set aside for the miners themselves. Given the profitability of the mines and the nature of the profit sharing agreements between most of the miners and the owners, that accounted for a great deal of latinum.

The problem presented itself in the form of a band of raiders that had held up the last three payroll shipments. It was unknown whether these pirates represented a lone effort or an exercise of a larger, malignant will. Macen and his crew were ostensibly here to deliver the payroll. In truth, they were here to safeguard the latinum, apprehend the raiders, and if possible, recover the stolen cash. But first, they had to land in one piece.

The turbolift doors opened and disgorged a lone passenger. A green-skinned woman sallied forth and headed straight for T'Kir. Blonde bangs and strips framing her emerald face highlighted her raven hair. Her name was Parva, and since the departure of Hal Dracas, she'd been the Solstice's Chief Engineer.

"What in the seven hells do you mean to talk to me like that?" Parva hotly demanded of T'Kir.

"What the hell d'you mean by not calibrating the thrusters? Grace is having difficulty." T'Kir informed the incensed engineer, "She doesn't know if she can land this frinxing albatross."

The turbolift doors had opened again during this exchange, revealing an auburn haired Bajoran woman, "Are we gonna crash? I don't want to crash."

Riker pinched his nose and closed his eyes, "We aren't going to crash, Radil. Are we, Hannah?"

"I have no frinxing clue." Grace replied with a tinge of panic.

T'Kir and Parva engaged in a shouting match while Radil fretted and Grace crumbled before their eyes. Riker was about to shout out instructions for everyone to shut up and calm down when a piercing whistle sounded across the bridge. Macen stood beside Rab Daggit, the only composed crewman on the bridge. It was hard to rattle the former commando.

Cursed with a singular inability to whistle, Macen relied upon a mechanical whistle to get his point across in situations such as this. He returned it to its pocket in his utility belt and surveyed the bridge with a slow steady gaze.

"Anyone that doesn't have an active duty station on the bridge, clear off. Now." Macen said in calm, measured tones, "T'Kir, see what you can do about improving sensor performance. Tom, contact the local equivalent of traffic control. See if they can help guide us in."

Macen strode over to the Helm station and knelt beside it, "Hannah, don't panic. You're doing fine. You've gotten us through worse in the past. You'll get us through this as well. I have faith in you. Have a little more in yourself."

Grace looked at Macen with tears welling up in her eyes, "Thank you, Captain." She sniffled and wiped her eyes, "I can do this." she said with a little more conviction. "I'm going to do this." she vowed, "By God, I'm going to pull this off."

"That's the spirit." Macen said and squeezed her shoulder as he rose.

"Thanks." Riker whispered as he passed by.

Macen paused and broke into a lopsided grin, "All in the job description. Look it up."

Riker chuckled, "And where would I find that?"

"In the library computer under 'lost in the woods'." Macen laughed and returned to the InfoSys station.

Within a few minutes, the interference clouding the sensors largely faded. Parva began co-ordinating with Grace and made some significant adjustments to the thruster settings. Grace was then able to stabilise the descent. There were still bumps along the way, but nothing perilous or alarming.

They proceeded to the primary mining camp. The landing strip was seven kilometres outside of the compound. They would bring the payroll in to town and hand it over to the paymaster. In order to do this, they'd have to divide the crew into two groups.

The Solstice's crew was primarily divided into two groups: the Investigative team and the Ship's Crew. The Investigative team had four permanent members, Brin Macen, T'Kir, Rab Daggit, and Radil Jenrya. Riker was the only fixture on the ship's complement. Hannah Grace and Parva were occasionally called in to an investigation but it was rare. The ship's Klingon medic and Trill scientific expert were also called in to solve esoteric riddles.

This time, the usual four team members were proceeding into town. The others were on hot stand-by in case of an intervention by the raiders' ship. If things went as expected, both teams would have their work cut out for them today.

Macen's team would be utilising a Work Drone to deliver the two cargo containers holding the latinum. The Work Drone's were a terrestrial variant of the Work Bee. The Drone was slightly longer than the Bee and possessed magnetic repulsorlifts as its primary powertrain. The Solstice's Drone was also a convertible model. Since local conditions were sunny and warm, as would be expected of a high desert terrain in the middle of its summer season, the team opted to keep the top down and enjoy the suns.

Daggit and Radil already had the Drone prepped and ready by the time Macen, T'Kir, and Riker reached the shuttlebay they'd be using to launch the Drone.

"We'll be ready to move the moment these pirates make a move." Riker assured Macen.

"Didn't expect anything less." Macen confessed, "Take care of the crew, Tom."

Riker grinned confidently, "I always do. You all take care as well."

"And miss all the action and excitement?" T'Kir interjected.

Riker shook his head and Macen pulled T'Kir over to the Drone and pointed. She boarded with a shrug and nestled in behind the flight controls. Macen sat beside her. Daggit and Radil had the rear seat. Somehow, the seating arrangements seemed preordained.

Grace manned the shuttlebay's flight control "centre". Riker joined her and observed as she manipulated the tractor controls and elevated the Type 18 shuttle into the air. As the Equinox hovered there, T'Kir manoeuvred the Drone into place over the drop doors.

"Mule's in place and ready to commence." T'Kir said into her earpiece/microphone receiver/transmitter.

"Roger that Mule." Grace said, all poise and precision now that she'd conquered her earlier doubts, "Standby for 'Go' in three...two...one...Go!"

The drop doors swung open and the Drone fell out of the bay, plummeting towards the ground. T'Kir kicked up the repulsorlifts and brought the work sled to a controlled hover a few metres off the ground.

"Let's get busy." Macen instructed and T'Kir toggled the throttle and sped the Mule off towards the mining camp.

The arrivals of the Solstice and subsequently, the Mule, caused quite a stir in Latinum Central, the largest mining camp on Corbal. Out in front of the Paymaster's office stood Franjean Rool, the mine's general manager, Aldous Drinkwater, the Paymaster, and two local security guards. They stood out in front of the watering troughs for the pack animals the miners sometimes employed.

Off duty miners loitered about, seeking free entertainment. Free was the operative word these days since no one had been paid for three weeks. The mining companies had swiftly provided food replicators, clothing, and other sundry items. They refused, however, to pay for their workers' cavorting with professional "entertainers".

Rool, for one, was surprised at the appearance and numbers of his "supposed" expert security team. He'd expected a small army, not a mere armed contingent comprised of two people. Not that these two didn't appear dangerous.

Brin Macen hopped out of the Mule's passenger compartment. He wore black cargo pants and boots. His leather utility belt possessed a holster that descended to his mid-thigh. Macen topped off his ensemble with a charcoal grey tee shirt and black sensor glasses. Sensor glasses acted as both sunglasses and vision enhancers.

Macen himself was 1.83 metres tall and of medium build. Four years of daily workouts with the physically imposing Daggit had honed Macen's physique to the best shape of his extended life. Macen was an El-Aurian and had lived for over four hundred and thirty years. He possessed reddish-gold hair and wore a moustache and goatee. His eyes were a light blue that reflected the colour of whatever he wore.

If Macen's mien unsettled Rool, the causes behind it would have terrified him. Like all of the El-Aurians dwelling in the Alpha Quadrant, Macen was a survivor of the Borg assimilation of his homeworld. This event was followed by many trials that cost both lives and the refugees' ships. When they entered the Alpha Quadrant there were only a few hundred survivors left. These hundreds encountered the Nexus and nothing was the same.

"Rescued" by the Enterprise-B, a handful of El-Aurians were ripped from paradise and harshly returned to "reality". Macen recovered from the shock of these events by enlisting in Starfleet. His goal was to prevent such incidents from occurring in the Alpha Quadrant.

Macen's Starfleet career began sedately enough until he had an encounter as a junior officer with the Orion Syndicate. Macen ran a sting operation that resulted in the capture and arrests of dozens of Syndicate operatives. This garnered the attention of Starfleet Intelligence.

Macen began at Starfleet Intelligence as an analyst. His accuracy and clear, poignant delivery earned him praise and gained him more official notice. When the Federation first encountered the Cardassians, Macen was sent on a fact finding mission. The mission was a near disaster; the ship and crew Macen had travelled with were engaged and almost destroyed. Fortunately, the captain was canny and outmanoeuvred the Cardassians. Macen's insights into the Cardassian mentality were Starfleet's first in-depth glimpse into the mind of a potential enemy.

Macen served on the front lines of the Cardassian border throughout the length of the Border Wars. This association gave Macen a strong affinity for the local colonists as well as an excellent network of reliable sources. These assets came into play when Macen was assigned to infiltrate the Maquis in the newly created Demilitarised Zone between the Cardassian Union and the Federation. The Maquis were a band of self-proclaimed freedom fighters labelled as terrorists by the respective governments involved with the DMZ.

Macen had a surprise in store for Starfleet. He didn't intend to betray the Maquis by spying on them neither did he intend to betray Starfleet by abandoning his duty. Working alongside Ro Laren, Macen proceeded to submit reports on the noblest aspects of the Maquis while utilising his security clearance to access information that allowed Ro's cell to evade capture. Meanwhile, Macen assembled an intelligence gathering unit that was the rival of anything Starfleet could have fielded.

This was where Macen met T'Kir. Ro had foisted her off on him, unwilling to cope with the young Vulcan's increasing mental instability. It was a good move as it turned out. Surprisingly, she was one of the quadrant's premier hackers.

The rebellion continued unabated until the Jem'Hadar arrived. The Dominion bred troops reinforced the Cardassians and together they set out to eliminate the Maquis. Ro's cell was one of the few to escape the slaughter. Macen surrendered his ship and his crew to the Federation authorities with the promise of fair hearings and commuted sentences for all. Macen, on the other hand, returned to Starfleet's fold.

Throughout the Dominion War, Macen served as the Intelligence officer for a commando unit. This is where he met Daggit. Their unit served behind enemy lines for over 98% of their missions. Macen earned the respect of the commandoes by accompanying them to the battlefield and fighting alongside them when they allowed it.

The war's conclusion found Macen between assignments. This condition swiftly ended when he was called upon to investigate rumours of a gulag containing political dissidents from the Federation. Macen was reunited with Lisea Danan and T'Kir from his old Maquis intelligence unit and given a prototype ship and a brand new crew. Kort and Grace ranked amongst the crew. The mission proved the existence of the gulag and steps were taken to shut it down forever.

Because of this mission, the SID was born. Macen was allowed to assemble a new crew that included Daggit, Kort, and Grace, and introduced Hal Dracas, for his old Maquis ship. The crew set sail to investigate the disappearance of a starship near Andergani territory. Pirates proved to be the culpable party. Only these pirates proved to be renegade Starfleet officers.

Macen's ship was destroyed and his chief engineer was taken captive. The surviving members of Macen's crew were recovered intact and he deployed several investigative teams to track these pirates down. Once found, Macen led a squadron of Defiant-class ships in to deal with the pirates.

Afterwards, Macen was charged with an illegal use of lethal force. The Board of Inquiry offered Macen a deal: take a reduction in rank and retirement or face a court martial. Admiral Drake, the Director of the SID, assured Macen that retirement into the Starfleet Reserves would not affect his status as an agent. It would, in fact, enhance it.

As irregulars, Macen and his people possessed a degree of flexibility and deniability that was denied them as official operatives. Under this status, the team handled scores of assignments in the three years they had before being terminated. Business had been brisk from the outset of Outbound Ventures diversifying their contracts. The team had faced many challenges but none like those in the SID days.

It was that lack of imminent crisis that Macen found the hardest to deal with. Although diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, decades of daily, life threatening situations had left Macen a bit of a thrill seeker. He'd often place himself in danger even though it wasn't absolutely necessary. This tendency, combined with the PTSD, made him prone to be more reactive than always required. Macen reacted to threats, real or perceived, and reacted in a violent manner when he did.

Under Starfleet regulations, Macen should have been remanded for psychotherapy years before. His talents, however, were required for the various wars and tasks he was assigned to, so he remained untreated. As far as Macen was concerned, there was no reason for treatment as of yet. He was functional and could still contribute to the success of a mission. That was good enough for him.

Macen coped with the loss of his status as an intelligence agent for Starfleet by focusing on the good things in his life. T'Kir ranked first and foremost amongst those. They'd been associated with each other for twelve years. Two of those years had been solely by vidcomm but they'd retained some measure of communication at least. They'd been dating for five years and engaged for three. Their wedding date was almost upon them and Macen was anxiously looking forward to that day.

Macen moved forward to the four men and one woman awaiting them as T'Kir set the Mule, and the cargo, down. She released the clamps after the cargo was squarely on the ground. She vaulted out of the Mule and Rool and Drinkwater had to each suppress gasps.

T'Kir only stood in at 1.72 metres but she was imposing nonetheless, particularly to people only used to seeing Romulans and Rigellians express emotions, not Vulcans. What most sentients accomplished with a glare, T'Kir nailed with a smile. And she was beaming manically now.

Her attire was also startling for those used to typical Vulcans. Gone were the robes or tunic and trousers. T'Kir was bedecked in black leather pants and boots, her utility belt/holster rig, and a blood red tank top. Over this she wore a black leather duster.

T'Kir's features were exquisite. She possessed a heart-shaped face dominated by high cheekbones and bee-stung lips. Her vivid, crystalline blue eyes and her slightly upturned nose balanced her face. Added to this was her delicately pointed ears and her over the shoulder, wind-tossed raven hair.

If the mining officials thought she looked wild now, they should have met her twelve, or even six years before. T'Kir had been born and raised on the planet Shial. Situated near the Cardassian border, the planet was populated with Vulcan dissidents and Romulan defectors. It was the world where Vulcans went to express their feelings. It had been turned over to the Cardassians upon the finalisation of the DMZ borders.

The Cardassians wasted no time in launching an assault on the colony. They spared no one. The only survivors were those that were off-world at the time. T'Kir fell into this category. She was away at school when she received word of the massacre. She arranged transport and returned to the devastated colony.

T'Kir's entire family was dead. Her Vulcan kin disavowed her because of her emotionalism. She learned of the Maquis and she joined up. She was recruited into the cell on Ronara Prime, the same cell Ro Laren would eventually lead.

The trauma of her family's annihilation did more than set T'Kir on an unexpected path; it unleashed her latent telepathic potential. T'Kir went beyond the touch telepathy common amongst Vulcans. She became a true "reader", able to detect and decipher thoughts at a distance. The problem was that she had no training in how to block the thoughts she was receiving. The constant mental pressure began to manifest itself in erratic behaviour. Her very sanity was questioned.

Only T'Kir's skills with cybernetic systems and computer networks kept her from being cast out of the Maquis. As it was, Ro banished her to Macen's keeping. T'Kir found herself unable to read Macen's mind. He swiftly became her anchor to the world. Although Macen was involved with Lisea Danan at that time, he saw great potential in T'Kir and he was attracted to her.

T'Kir happily served beside Macen until the Dominion joined with the Cardassians and the hunt was on. The intense pressure of scores of her comrades-in-arms dying truly unhinged T'Kir. When Macen announced his intention to surrender to the Federation, T'Kir stabbed him with her stepfather's honour blade. She was sedated and restrained until she could be transferred to the USS Vulcan's Forge.

T'Kir was transported by a medical courier to Earth where she was admitted to the Andes Psychiatric Institute, a high security facility for treating the criminally insane. Despite the war, Macen kept tabs on T'Kir and her treatment. When the war was over and he needed and Operations officer for the gulag mission, he broke T'Kir out of the Institute. During the mission, he gave her an herbal remedy he'd found recommended in ancient Vulcan texts he'd studied when he had spare moments during the war and Maquis rebellion.

The herbal remedy dampened T'Kir's telepathic abilities to a point where she could control them. Her behaviour and affect gradually improved as the residual build-up of the herb increased. She'd progressed from a daily dose to a weekly dose with no signs of digression in sight.

During the Andergani operation, T'Kir confronted her feelings towards Macen and came to the realisation that with Danan now out of the way, she'd wait however long it took to snag Macen. Danan, herself, recommended that very course of action. Fortunately, it didn't take Macen long to come to a similar decision regarding his long stifled feelings. They'd been together ever since.

They'd become inseparable, in fact. Even when they were physically apart, they were connected through a permanent telepathic rapport. No one begrudged them their unnatural unity. It calmed them both. Macen was more stable and T'Kir was less capricious.

T'Kir was nearly vibrating in anticipation of the wedding. She'd been planning it for a year now and it was set to occur in a matter of days. She almost wished the raiders would show so she could shoot something and feel better from the release of adrenalin.

"So, now what?" T'Kir asked Macen.

"That all depends on these fine gentlemen." Macen replied, "I assume one of you is Rool and the other is Drinkwater?"

"I'm Franjean Rool." the shorter and squatter of the pair replied and clutched "his" lapels, "And as you may have noticed, I come from an androgynous species."

"And I'm Drinkwater." he, at least, held out his hand.

Macen accepted Drinkwater's proffered hand and shook it firmly, "Here's your payroll, gentlebeings. Our trip in was smooth." T'Kir snorted at that but Macen ignored her and continued unabated, "Perhaps your pirates will disappoint us all and stay home today."

Screams and the sound of badly tuned repulsorlifts erupted further down the street. The rolling sounds rapidly approached Macen and T'Kir's position.

Chagrined, Macen amended his last statement, "Or perhaps they'll join us after all." He turned to offer instructions to the mine officials and their security contingent. He was only partially surprised to find that they'd disappeared.

He looked over at T'Kir and rolled his eyes, "Well, I suppose we're on our own."

"When haven't we been?" she inquired.

Too true, he thought. The levibike riders had ridden up to their position and set their bikes into hover mode. One particularly nasty looking individual sat out in front of the others. His multi-scarred faced broke into a broken toothed leer.

"You must be the new 'security specialists'."

Macen looked around then faced the pirate, "I guess we must be it. I suppose you must be the leader of this motley crew?"

The pirate cackled, "That I am, son. They may not look like much but they do in a pinch."

"You'd better hope so." Macen said flatly.

The pirate captain shifted in his seat and shook his head, "You got more balls than brains, boy. I don't where you came from or what they taught you there, but your 'rithmetic skills need some polishin'. I got nine to your two. I figure that gives me what you might call a 'tactical advantage'."

"And here I assumed it would get you a hole in your head." Macen retorted in that same flat tone. The pirate chieftain looked puzzled for a moment then a particle beam pulse bolt caught him in the side of the head. He fell off his levibike, a burn mark seared into his temple.

Macen's right hand tore his phaser out of its holster and he gunned down the closest raider. T'Kir already had her phaser pistol in her left hand and had levelled the first corsair to react to the opening firefight. Macen lunged forward and caught T'Kir. They dove behind the Mule as disruptor fire rained down on their last position.

Another pulse blast rained down from on high and dropped another pirate. Then another. A third rider gunned his engine and tried to leave town. Rab Daggit rose from his prone position on the rooftops overhead and steadied himself on one knee. He switched his pulse rifle from single fire to rapid fire. He pulled the trigger and released a volley of phaser fire into the fleeing pirate. The three remaining criminals spread out and began shooting at anything that moved.

"Investigators, this is Inspector One. Remember, we need at least one alive." Macen said into his earpiece mike.

"Roger that." Daggit replied, "Inspector One, this is Inspector Two. I have no shots. I am repositioning now."

"Roger, Inspector Two, happy hunting. Inspector Three, ready for some action?"

"About damn time." Radil's voice growled back.

"Careful Jenrya. They're twitchy." Macen advised.

"Good."

Radil exited the tavern that she'd entered through the rear entrance. She carried a portable phaser cannon. It was a long barrelled Type III phaser bank. It possessed a butterfly handle with trigger and a foregrip to balance and elevate or plunge the cannon. It was mounted on a hinged belt and supported by straps running across the chest and over both shoulders. Two power cells were worn on the back, one active and the other a reserve. Radil wore sensor glasses to sight the cannon. Its sights appeared as a targeting brace in her vision.

One of the pirates saw Radil striding up the sidewalk lugging the cannon and he swiftly turned to engage her. Radil fired twice. The second shot proved unnecessary since the first caught him in the chest and knocked him flat. The second shot just served to alert his closest companion as it destroyed a section of the wall it struck. This raider saw Radil coming and ran out into the street. T'Kir saw him and shot him.

"I said wound one!" Macen snarled and rose from his position behind the Mule. The last surviving pirate saw this and began to take aim at Macen. T'Kir opened her mouth to cry out in protest but never got a sound out.

Macen shot the levibike the pirate was hiding behind. The shower of sparks near his face startled him and he leapt clear of the bike. Macen shot him in the leg and he went down. Macen walked over to the downed pirate and kicked his weapon away from him.

"Was that really so difficult?" Macen asked mildly as Radil and T'Kir walked and ran up to his position. T'Kir punched him in the shoulder.

"What?!" he protested.

"You insufferable ass!" T'Kir yelled, "We're getting married in four days. Four frinxing days! And now you decide to have a death wish?"

"I wasn't in any real danger..." Macen gauged the anger behind her stare and amended his statement, "All right, I was in danger, but it was an acceptable risk."

"Brin, I'm as much of a risk taker as you, riskier maybe. But for Elements sake, don't get killed on the eve of my wedding. Except in very rare cases, Vulcans and Romulans marry once. I'd like to get my once."

Macen looked contrite, "I'm sorry. I should've realised."

"Yes." T'Kir agreed with a grin, "You should've."

He shook his head and broke into a wry grin. Radil interrupted his next thought, "There a round, little man headed for us."

"Try 'person'. Man is an inappropriate label." Macen warned.

"What the hell does that mean?" Radil demanded. T'Kir whispered into her ear and Radil's expression became one of surprise, "Then how do they...?"

T'Kir shrugged.

"Prophets help us," Radil muttered, "now I've heard of everything."

A pulse blast sailed by and everyone spun around to face the new threat. Instead, they faced Daggit as he strolled up the street towards them.

"Somebody better start minding the prisoner." he advised. The others all looked and saw their prisoner sitting before a slagged disruptor, blowing on his fingers.

"Good save, Rab." Macen congratulated the former commando.

"Captain Macen!" Rool called out and trotted over, "Congratulations! You've broken these pirates' backs."

"I hardly think so." Macen replied, "In fact, I think the fun has just begun." Macen held up a finger to silence Rool and began speaking to Riker over the comm channel, "Tom, have you been monitoring?"

"Yes, we have." Riker affirmed, "We can confirm that T'Kir's right, you are insufferable at times and that you were right, the pirates have a ship. She just passed overhead and is making to break orbit. We're heading up now to pursue them."

"Good luck and happy hunting." Macen replied then turned to Rool as the Solstice lifted off in the distance, "There are still pirates making to break orbit. My ship and crew have lifted off to deal with them."

"Don't they need you?" Rool sputtered.

"They'll manage." Macen assured him, "My XO is a better ship driver than I am."

"But...?"

Macen patted Rool's shoulder, "Come now. We're about to find out the magic question: are these independent operators or are they aligned with a larger syndicate?"

T'Kir cracked her knuckles and knelt beside the man, "Don't worry, this is going to hurt...a lot."

The pirate began to scream.

 

Chapter 2

The Solstice clawed her way into the sky. She was at full impulse and steadily increasing speed as she threaded her way through the ion cloud created turbulence. She was also cloaked. Since she was not a Starfleet vessel, she was not treaty bound to abstain from cloaking technology.

"Cloak stable and holding." Riker reported from Tactical. With both Daggit and Radil off the ship, there were few free hands left aboard qualified to man the station. Riker was pulling double duty and commanding from Tactical.

The turbolift doors opened and Kort and Lisea Danan stepped out onto the bridge. Kort's eyes surveyed the bridge and went wide when he saw Riker manning Tactical.

"Commander, let me do that for you." Kort suggested.

Since Macen was the captain of the ship and Riker was his exec, it had been suggested, by Riker himself, that he be referred to by the title of "commander". In reality, he essentially commanded the shipboard operations aspects of the crew. Macen handled strategy and the Investigative team. Riker had no interest in the investigative side of the crew's charter and his strategic skills were constantly being honed.

His entire life had progressed since he'd joined Macen's crew, whether they are with the SID or not. Riker had been "born" during a transporter accident that created two William Thomas Rikers. One was safely transported back aboard the USS Potemkin and the other rematerialised on the surface of Nervala IV. Tom was that other. Stranded on Nervala for eight years, Riker managed to survive despite the harsh conditions.

Rescued by the USS Enterprise-D, Riker found himself reunited with his twin and plunged into a soul searching exploration of his true self. Convinced he should remain in Starfleet, despite Starfleet's acceptance of his twin as the "original" Will Riker, Riker adopted the name of Thomas William Riker and transferred to the USS Gandhi. Riker managed to stay aboard the Gandhi for a year before he tendered his resignation to Starfleet and enlisted in the Maquis.

Although involved in some minor raids after his recruitment, his penultimate contribution in the service of the Maquis was Riker's theft of the USS Defiant. Riker took her out and plunged deep into Cardassian territory. Pursuing forces followed her to a supposedly deserted system and discovered an entire shipyard operated by the Cardassian intelligence apparatus, in contrivance with Cardassian law.

Riker was arrested and tried by the Cardassians. His verdict and sentence set well in advance of the trial, Riker was sent to a labour camp. Riker toiled in the camp for two years before being liberated during a Romulan raid on the camp. Riker then became embroiled in a Romulan plot involving his twin. When all was said and done, he was his own man again and he struck out for the frontier.

When Macen found Riker, he was running his own charter shuttle service. Macen explained to Riker the nature of his enterprise and Riker eagerly joined up. Recruited as the captain of the Outbound Ventures' raider, Eclipse, Riker shared a joint command of the crew drawn along similar lines as what existed today. An entire ship's complement purely dedicated to the functioning of the Eclipse was also hired on.

The destruction of the Eclipse and the deaths of the secondary crew plunged Riker into the hands of Section 31. Subjected to a captivity that lasted nearly a year, Riker underwent a battery of tests to determine how to replicate the accident that "created" him in the first place. Escaping from his cell, Riker dispatched an SOS to Starfleet. Macen received word of this message and immediately set forth on a rescue mission.

Now that Riker was back in the fold, the command structure was altered to accommodate the fact that only the original SID team members were aboard. Riker was the Executive Officer and Macen was the Captain. At first, this had been a bitter pill to swallow, especially in the face of Macen offering an independent command to Riker's lover, Jamie Kirk.

Riker and Kirk's relationship was a little rocky when it rekindled after their extended absences. In the end though, their mutual attraction and interests brought them back together. Over the last two years their relationship had blossomed to the point that Riker was considering making it a permanent arrangement. Riker had finally put the spectre of Deanna Troi behind him and moved on with his life.

His immediate problem now was Kort. Riker drew himself up to his full, imposing height of 1.93 metres. Although Riker was approaching his fifties, he was still physically fit and stayed that way with Daggit's assistance. The Angosian had also taught Riker some particularly nasty moves.

Like his twin, Riker wore a neatly trimmed beard only Tom wore it fuller in the face, not bordering next to the jaw line like Will Riker. His blue eyes often sparkled with puckish humour. His dark hair was becoming peppered with grey, as was his beard. Federation medical science had removed the scars Riker had received at the hands of the Cardassians but the memories still remained when he looked in the mirror.

Focus on the problem at hand, Riker chided himself, Kort's the issue you need to deal with.

"Kort, the Tactical station is being adequately manned." Riker informed the Klingon doctor, "Thank you for your offer, but no."

"But Commander...!" Kort began to protest.

"Kort!" Riker snapped, "You're the ship's medic, not her weapon's officer."

Kort growled low in his throat. A savage glint lit his eyes and his hand hovered near his phaser.

"Don't even think about it." Grace warned, aiming her company issue Bajoran phaser in a two-handed grip.

Kort stared at her while Danan stepped clear of the potential shooting, "If you are focused on me, who's flying the ship?"

"The computer can handle it for a moment." Grace replied in a flinty voice, "That's all it'll take for me to cut you down."

Kort's eyes flicked to Riker. The XO also had his phaser drawn and aimed at Kort's general direction. Danan was pressed against the bulkhead and even her hand was now resting on her phaser's pistol grip. So much for taking a hostage, Kort mentally grumbled.

Kort's gun hand relaxed with a disgusted sigh from the disgruntled Klingon, "All right. I apologise."

Riker studied the volatile physician. Kort had always been the crew's most unstable member. Even taking into account Macen and T'Kir, Kort outweighed them because his instability was entirely voluntary. In the basest of terms, Kort was a falling down, drink 'till you drop alcoholic.

Thus far, he'd managed to balance his duties and his passion for drink. In fact, he'd managed to curb the need for liquor while he'd been involved with Radil. That relationship had recently ended, and ended badly. The fact that Radil now seemed drawn towards Daggit's company while Kort was drawn towards a bottle hadn't helped.

Daggit's entire life had been a series of disappointments. Selected for medical studies rather than training as a warrior, Kort felt belittled. Excelling at the Klingon martial arts and proficient with the martial weapons, Kort established his place aboard every Klingon cruiser he served with through ritual combat. Although classified as a "Combat Medic", Kort was held in reserve, facing fire only to retrieve the wounded and treat them.

Kort grew so distinguished that he caught the eye of the Klingon Chancellor, Gowron. Gowron recruited Kort to be a medic in the Imperial Residence. In reality he was placed in charge of the Chancellor's Kennel. The shame of this posting drove Kort to heavy drinking. One eve, when he'd been summoned to treat Gowron's prized targ, Kort was so drunk that he botched the operation and killed the beast.

In a fit of pique, Gowron permanently banished Kort from the Empire. He no longer existed to any Klingon. Kort ambled about the Federation until he was found and contacted by Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev, the Director of Starfleet Intelligence. She offered Kort an opportunity to contribute to the stability of the crumbling Federation-Klingon Alliance. A believer in the longstanding treaty between the two stellar powers, Kort accepted Nechayev's offer.

It was in her employ that he was assigned to the prototype USS Odyssey. Kort was immediately impressed with Brin Macen and agreed to follow him on his further adventures when the gulag mission ended. His battle with alcoholism became fiercer as the years, and the missions, wore on. Radil entered his life just when it appeared he was about to lose that fight. She'd staved off that final descent into the abyss. Now that she was gone, not even his sense of duty was keeping him from teetering on the brink.

Although Kort wasn't very imposing, topping out at 1.78 metres and tending towards the wiry side, his skills at unarmed combat were spectacular despite these visual disadvantages. Of the crew, only Daggit and T'Kir could successfully challenge him. The true scope of Parva's abilities was still unknown. With the Orion engineer at her post, that left the resultant standoff on the bridge. Life would remain pleasant so long as everyone remained out of Kort's reach but if anyone strayed into his grasp...the price could be horrific. This, however, was a potential gunfight and Kort's skill with a pistol was adequate at best.

"I have to start flying the ship in a minute and a half." Grace advised, "You have that long to decide on your next play. If you haven't decided by then, I'll simply shoot you and get on with my business."

Kort's gaze darted back and forth between Grace and Riker. Just seconds before Grace's deadline, Kort relaxed and his hand released the pistol grip of the surplus Militia phaser in his holster. He released a disgusted sigh and bellowed, "You may return to flying. I have been neutered like a craven tamed targ."

"Then you won't mind if I ask you to remove your phaser, place it on the deck and kick it over to Danan." Riker directed.

Kort defiantly glared at Riker for several seconds and then gingerly reached down and removed his phaser from its holster in thumb and forefinger grip. He tossed the weapon to Danan. She then kicked it further away to the Ops station and slowly backed away in that direction. Only after she'd arrived did she pick up the pistol.

"Now what do I do with this?" Danan hissed to Grace as she sat down at the neighbouring Ops console.

"Give it to me." Grace insisted, "Not to be rude but I'm stronger, faster, and better trained than you are. He's far less likely to get it from me than anyone else on this bridge."

Danan wanted argue but had to concede the point. Grace was the most capable human she'd ever met...only she wasn't human, not in the strictest sense. Grace's ancestors were Kelvans. Born in the Andromeda galaxy, Grace's forbearers had travelled to the Milky Way to explore the galaxy and their race's chances of survival.

Upon passing through the energy barrier that surrounds the Milky Way, the Kelvans found themselves dying. They sought out the first native lifeforms they could find and emulated them. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, they encountered a group of human settlers. The Kelvans, conditioned by centuries of conquest and bred for war, did not simply replicate themselves into human beings. They improved on the human genome.

In a fashion reminiscent of the genetic engineering projects of the late 20th century, the Kelvans "purified" the genetic stew that now comprised them. Grace was an example of a physically "perfect" human. Paired with an intellectual prowess that could stagger a Vulcan, her various attributed contributed to her close ties with T'Kir and Daggit. In T'Kir's case, it also had a lot to do with similar levels of emotional maturity.

Grace had just reached the cusp of turning thirty. Her brown eyes were rich and lively. Her golden hair was worn short, just reaching her jawline. She wore it pulled back by a hairband or a clip.

Danan had to consider her own looks in comparison. Like most Trills, she bore the brown spots that indicated the majority of her species. Like a select few, Lisea carried an invertebrate symbiont in a pouch in her stomach. She and the Danan symbiont shared a dual consciousness. This was largely through her ability to access the memories of all of Danan's previous hosts.

Lisea had confronted the effect the symbiont, and its warehouse of memories, had upon her. The host prior to Lisea had been a career Starfleet Intelligence officer. Her influence had prompted Lisea to enlist and undergo the Officer's Candidate School after completing her third doctorate in astrophysics. This host had also been a factor when it came to a certain Brin Macen.

Macen was hitching a ride aboard the survey ship Danan served aboard as it travelled out near the Cardassian border. Danan's prior host had known Macen, had worked alongside him for decades in fact, all without ever revealing to him that she'd fallen in love with him. Lisea, fresh from a heartbreak after receiving the Danan symbiont, fell hard and fast.

It was only after Lisea Danan volunteered to work for Starfleet Intelligence as an analyst and later as Macen's partner in an infiltration of the Maquis that she discovered for herself that her motives weren't what she'd thought they were. Separated over the course of the Dominion War, Danan had time to sort some things out for herself.

Reunited with Macen for the gulag mission, Danan finally confronted her confused feelings regarding Macen. She left the SID and joined the Daystrom Institute. She stayed with them until the hostage situation on Magna Roma caused her to be reunited with Macen and the others. She rejoined the crew found herself once again attracted to Macen, only this time he wasn't available. He'd chosen T'Kir over her, and always had.

What wasn't there to like? She changed her hair colour from chestnut brown to blonde. Her sea green eyes were vivacious and sparkled with life. Her lips were full and her nose pert. Any man would be lucky to have her. So, where were they?

It doesn't matter anyway, Danan sighed, It's been so long, I wouldn't know what to do with anything that didn't operate on batteries.

"Heads up people," Grace's voice snapped everyone out of their various reveries, "we're free of the ionic interference."

"Run a full sensor sweep." Riker ordered, "I want those bastards found."

"Won't we run the risk of being detected?" Danan asked.

"They'll know they've been scanned, but not by whom or from where." Riker grinned, "It will enable us to pinpoint their exact position and have added bonus of scaring the ever-loving crap out of them."

"They might bolt." Grace warned.

Riker cracked his knuckles, "I'm in the mood for a good race today."

Back on Corbal, T'Kir finished her psychic probe of the prisoner. He'd stopped screaming and was just muttering gibberish now. She and Macen conferred for several minutes then Macen approached Rool.

"Your worst fears have just been confirmed." Macen informed the mine owner, "They're not independent. They belong to the Orion Syndicate. Not just the Syndicate but also the portion of it controlled by Adrya Jeklan. Adrya is a particularly nasty individual. You see, he's a survivor of both the Bajoran camps and Resistance. He's been captured and interrogated by the Cardassians on several occasions, and in the process mastered many, if not all, of their techniques."

"As the fighting ground on and the Cardassians prepared to withdraw, the Resistance dispatched dozens of volunteers to serve as mercenaries to raise capital funds for the movement back home. Adrya found himself in the employ of a very receptive Orion Syndicate." Radil bristled as Macen continued his story, "As time passed, Adrya continually received promotions within the organisation until he reached the level of Regional Manager, where he is today. He controls the movements and activities of the Syndicate stretching across from DS9 to DS3. In short, he is a violent man with an evil imagination that will be seeking revenge. You need to prepare."

"We'll hire you!" Rool caught hold of Macen's shirt and held it in a death grip, "We'll pay whatever you ask."

"That's very generous, gentleperson. Rool." Macen pried the diminutive alien's hands of him, "But you'll have to contact our office and negotiate a contract."

"But I...I mean 'we'll' want you. After your fine performance here today, the other mine owners and myself will insist that you handle the matter personally."

"That's very flattering but you're not seeing the big picture here." Macen informed him, "You've contracted with Outbound Ventures, the corporation, not a specific ship or crew. Assignments are handed out according to availability and captain's preference."

Macen gave Rool a pitying look, "While I would love to be able to assist you, my crew and I are already booked over the next several weeks. I'm sorry but our firm can provide you with a competent captain and crew to deal with this situation."

"Wonderful." Rool grumbled, "So what's so important that it warrants your attention next?"

"My wedding." Macen answered, "And then some leave time for the crew while my bride and I honeymoon."

"Congratulations." Rool mumbled miserably.

Macen decided not to rub it in with a "thank you", instead he asked Radil, "Anyone here you recognise?"

Radil, who'd been of those Bajoran Resistance fighters loaned out as mercenaries, shook her head, "No one I recognise from my time with the Syndicate."

"Good." Macen replied, "That means our surviving friend here can't identify you."

Radil frowned at that thought. She began to turn and take aim at the prisoner being carried away by the local "security" forces.

"Jenrya." Macen warned.

Radil's mouth puckered and she relaxed with a heavy sigh. She'd lived with an Orion death mark for five years now. Ever since Daggit had inadvertently "kidnapped" her from a Syndicate stronghold, the organisation had put a bounty on her head. For a time, she hid by having her distinctive nasal ridges removed to appear human. When the crew became truly independent operators, Radil had opted to undergo surgery again and have her face restored to its natural configuration. Ever since that time, every encounter with the Syndicate had been fraught with danger.

Radil herself, although striking, was not a typical eye-catcher. Her years of living under the Cardassian yoke had taught her to hide and blend into the background. Despite being fairly tall for a Bajoran woman, measuring in at 1.78 metres, her close-cropped auburn hair was what most people noted about her and left it at that. Even her distinctively Bajoran nasal ridges and earring were commonplace enough now to avoid scrutiny.

Daggit, on the other hand, drew attention by merely breathing. He stood at a towering 1.93 metres and possessed the musculature of a professional weightlifter. Daggit was an Angosian. He'd been among those poor volunteers that volunteered for the super-soldier program during his planet's war with nearby Tarsus.

The psychological and physiological conditioning the Angosian scientists had done to him performed better than expected. When threatened or seeking to achieve an objective, Daggit was a ruthless killing machine. Unlike a machine though, the only "off" switch for Daggit was the extermination of his perceived foes. It made the man want to weep but he was denied even that comfort during these "exercises".

Everything about Daggit was chiselled, from his rippling pectorals to his features. His sandy hair was peppered with grey, a testament to both his years and his experiences. The lines on his careworn face bespoke of pains unspoken. Daggit was a man of instant action while in combat but in moments of peace, he appreciated the beauty of a tranquil moment.

Daggit quietly approached Macen, "I'll talk with her."

Macen nodded his consent. Rab had always been protective of Radil. The truth be told, he'd been smitten with her since the day they met. Over the years, they'd developed a bond but over the last six months, ever since Radil and Kort had separated...

A jolt from his empathic senses surprised him. He was glad he kept his shields up normally. If even a low level empathy like himself was startled by the consuming passions underlying the exchanges of these two, then what must it be like for someone like T'Kir?

Glad you could spare me a thought, T'Kir thoughtcast before adding from his side, "For some great super spy, you've been awfully slow on the uptake with these two."

Macen looked wounded, "I'll have you know I have been busy putting our little business together. Now that its finally running itself and all the people are in place, I can relax and put my focus elsewhere."

"Does this mean you're gonna frinx my brains out tonight?" T'Kir asked, wearing a playfully coy smile.

"Fates, woman!" Macen shook his head, "D'you ever think of anything else?"

T'Kir shrugged, "Sure, but sex is more fun. So, are you up for it?"

"You'll note that I haven't said 'no' yet."

"Good!" T'Kir exclaimed, "I have a hot date for tonight!"

Macen gave her a wry look, "You'll also note I haven't said 'yes' yet either. The day's note over and a lot of shuk can still happen."

"I hate it when you point out the facts." T'Kir pouted.

"They're headed out of the system but they haven't gone to warp yet." Danan reported.

"They're probably still trying to contact their raiding party." Riker commented, "I'm intercepting a slew of messages across the subspace bandwidths."

"Have you tried intercepting them?" Kort asked derisively.

"Yes." Riker replied with strained patience, "They're encrypted. I've sent them to Ops for decryption but Danan is busy. Is there anything else on your mind?"

Kort opened his mouth to speak but Riker cut him off, "I didn't think so. Why don't you wait this one out in Sickbay? We'll call you if something happens and you're needed."

Kort bristled but stifled any obvious retorts. With one last vindictive glance around the bridge, he proceeded to the turbolift and disappeared when its doors closed. Danan shook her head sadly.

"You know he'll be headed for the drink replicator in the lounge." Danan commented.

"One crisis at a time." Riker counselled, "Hannah, place us in their six. I want a clear shot at their aft quarter."

"You got it." Grace replied and got busy. Under her direction, the Solstice surged forward in space. It took twenty-three tension filled minutes for the scoutship to slip in behind the pirates' raider.

The raider was a converted freighter. Its captain had installed disruptor banks and additional shield generators at the expense of hold space. It was a relatively small hull, thus accommodating its atmospheric capabilities. It had an unusual design, implementing a larger rectangular box-like shape interconnected to a smaller "head" by a cylindrical "throat". The larger cargo module possessed "feet" in the form of four landing pads and two warp nacelles stretched out from the hull like wings.

The Solstice slipped in behind the fleeing pirate ship and decelerated. The raider was fast for a civilian craft but was no match for the military grade engines the Blackbird-class scout was equipped with. She held position there for a moment while Riker locked his weapons onto their targets. Then the moment of truth had arrived.

"Standby to decloak." Riker announced, "Decloaking now. Firing at will!"

Two photon torpedoes burst forth from the "nose" of the Solstice's saucer section. These struck the impulse engines of the raider. The pirate's shields deflected some of the cataclysmic fire being rained down upon them but not enough and with the second torpedo volley that followed the first, the shields collapsed. Phaser fire lanced out from the scoutship's weapons arrays and cut through the raider's hull.

The pirate ship began to slow as her engines died. She lost main power and most of her running lights went dead. She'd got off one wild shot off at the Solstice that Grace had evaded. Now she ballistic ally drifted and awaited her fate.

"Please stop." a female voice pleaded over the comm, "We can't take any more."

"This Commander Thomas Riker of the SS Solstice to any all pirate forces aboard," Riker replied, "Surrender or be destroyed."

"We surrender." the woman confirmed, "Take what you want but let us live."

"We'll take you in tow." Riker pronounced, "You'll be handed over to the authorities on Corbal. You're fate will rest in their hands."

"Nooooo." the woman whimpered.

"That's your choice." Riker said harshly, "Take or leave it right here."

"Fine." The woman snapped, "We're leaving it!"

"Commander!" Danan exclaimed, "They've re-ignited their warp core. Their intermix chambers destroyed. The reaction's going to run wild and..."

The viewer displayed the final fate of the raider as it detonated. The Solstice's shields briefly wavered as the force of the explosion washed over them. In the end, they held, as did the lives of the crew. The pirates' last act of vengeance had failed.

"Hannah, set course for Corbal." Riker said in a muted tone, "Let's pick up the rest of the crew and get out of this system."

"Yes sir." Grace replied numbly. What had been a victorious moment had been snatched away from them. Although prepared to defend themselves, the Solstice crew had never sought the destruction of the pirates. The goal had been to apprehend them so they could stand trial...not this. It had been a sobering day and its effects would be felt for some time to come.

 

Chapter 3

The Solstice came to rest on Corbal V's arid, sun baked soil. The landing thrusters kicked up a dust storm as the scoutship settled down. The Mule waited in the distance while the dust settled down.

As the dirt settled, T'Kir guided the Work Drone to the underside of the portside shuttlebay. The hangar doors opened and T'Kir redirected the repulsorlifts thrust to vertical ascension. The Mule slowly, but steadily, rose to the awaiting shuttlebay and slipped inside of it. Grace closed the shuttlebay doors and T'Kir throttled down and redirected part of her thrust for forward motion.

T'Kir yanked the Mule's control yoke hard to starboard and turned the Work Drone sideways in the rear of the shuttlebay. Grace manipulated the tractor beam controls and lowered the diminutive shuttle stored in the bay. There was only a metre of clearance between the shuttle and the parked Mule. It was just enough clearance to manoeuvre between the vehicles and to get the Mule off of the hangar space's retracting doors.

Although repressurisation of the bay was not required, the air was cycled through the atmospheric scrubbers to ensure that no contaminates had been brought aboard from the exposure of opening the bay doors inside the planet's biosphere. Macen and the others had been subjected to a broad spectrum of inoculations before embarking on their mission. If they came down with any ailments, they would be outside the medicinal knowledge of the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

The mining consortium that had hired Outbound Ventures had provided a full medical profile of the planet and its inhabitants. If the team contracted anything, the consortium would be liable for their care and treatment. It was all part of the standard arrangement Outbound Ventures entered into with any client. Such arrangements were designed to protect both parties entering into the contract.

The double airlock doors connecting the shuttlebay with the deck's main corridor cycled and opened. Tom Riker stood in the corridor, awaiting the returning team. Riker was taciturn and withdrawn. Combined with the apparent lack of prisoners, Macen assumed the worst.

"I take it there are no prisoners to speak of." Macen said as he joined Riker in the passageway. The two began walking down the corridor towards the turbolift. T'Kir remained behind to speak with Grace. Daggit and Radil proceeded straight for the armoury.

As the turbolift doors closed behind them, Riker sighed, "I tried. I really tried. They just didn't want to be taken alive. They were more intent on trying to take us out with them then on options for survival."

Macen offered Riker a humourless smile, "Not surprising considering who their boss is."

"And that would be?"

"Adrya Jeklan." Macen replied.

"You say that as though I should know the name." Riker retorted.

"It's a name you should pay attention to." Macen advised, "He was prominently mentioned in several of the sector criminal reports I gave you that Ro passed on to me. The Orion Syndicate operates under its own code of conduct. Adrya Jeklan goes one step further and operates under his own set of mores apart from the Syndicate's. If you violate that set of business 'ethics', Adrya transforms himself from benefactor to merciless persecutor."

"Sounds like a cheery individual." Riker commented dryly.

"Adrya is manically cheerful until he's crossed. Then he becomes death incarnate." Macen warned, "And it won't be a quick death. It will last days, weeks even if he can arrange it. It will strip away every notion you had about pain. You'll discover things about yourself and what you can endure under his tutelage."

The turbolift doors opened and the pair exited. They proceeded down the length of Deck 2 until they reached Macen's office. It was adjacent to his and T'Kir's quarters. The layout and design had been adapted from the Executive Officer's office on the Intrepid-class starships.

Macen took a seat behind the desk and Riker sat down in the chair across from the Captain's desk. Macen leaned forward and folded his hands together, "Anything else interesting happen?"

Riker looked pained, "Now that you mention it, we need to find help for Kort. He..."

When Riker had concluded, it was Macen's turn to look pained, "I guess its finally time for an intervention. When we get back to Barrinor, we'll book Kort into a rehab facility."

Riker whistled and shook his head, "He won't like it."

"If he wants to remain a member of this crew, then he'll comply." Macen said firmly, "He can either sober up or be cut loose."

"Some might see that as being a tad harsh." Riker pointed out.

"Let them." Macen retorted angrily, "I'm not going to risk the crews' lives by handing them over to a drunk. If he can't control himself, we'll control him. If that fails, then he's gone."

"Okay." Riker nodded, "As XO, its my responsibility to oversee personnel matters. I'll head up to the briefing room and take care of this one."

"Thanks Tom." Macen said with a genuine smile, "If Kort gives you any trouble, send him to me."

"No problem." Riker chuckled.

"So, have you picked a date for my wedding yet?" T'Kir asked as she and Grace exited the shuttlebay control booth. Grace stopped outside the shuttlebay, lingering in the corridor.

"I'm still debating between Willem Davidson and Thoren Jasik." Grace admitted.

"Hannah!" T'Kir snapped, "You're honestly thinking about bringing 'Wild Dog' Davidson to my nuptials?"

"Only the Maquis referred to him as 'Wild Dog". On Captain Kirk's ship he goes by 'Will'." Grace informed her.

"I don't care if he goes by 'Xena, Warrior Princess', he's not coming to my wedding." T'Kir shouted.

"And why not?" Grace shouted back.

"Because if you must know, we had a 'thing'." T'Kir confessed through clenched teeth.

"What kind of 'thing'?" Grace demanded.

"A one night stand kind of 'thing'." T'Kir replied, then upon assessing Grace's dubious glare, amended her admission to include, "All right, so it was more of a four night 'thing'."

"And you did this because...?"

"Brin was unavailable." T'Kir stressed, "And second, although he's well seasoned with age, Wild Dog was still frinxing hot ten years ago!"

"So," Grace looked thoughtful, "you either don't want me to bring him along because you still secretly carry a torch for this guy, and you're afraid you'll say 'I don't' instead of 'I do", or there's a deeper, more sinister reason you'd rather he not be there."

"Can't I just admit to the 'more sinister' part and leave it at that?" T'Kir pleaded.

"No, you can't" Grace decreed, "Now give."

"All right." T'Kir sighed, "Just remember though, everything I'm about to tell you is a result of when I couldn't control my psi abilities."

"Go on." Grace began to growl.

"I had a tendency to place a psychic 'hook' in the minds of my sexual partners." T'Kir explained, "It was hardly even intentional. It was just a side effect of the close proximity and the intimacy, both physical and mental, that I shared with my momentary partner. It usually took a bedmate a few days to stop 'seeing stars' in my wake."

"So?" Grace asked, "It's been close to ten years since Wild Dog was in the Maquis. It has to have been at least that long since he slept with you."

"Ah," T'Kir held up a warning finger, "you're forgetting the 'hook'."

"All right." Grace did growl this time, "What's the damned hook?"

"The hook is a telepathically implanted post-hypnotic suggestion." T'Kir revealed, "It has a tendency to leave my...er...'victims' highly susceptible to any and all demands I might make."

"So you're saying my boyfriend is some kind of Vulcan love slave?" Grace cried out, "Maker! It's like some crappy Ferengi pornographic holoprogram."

"He's not my frinxing love slave!" T'Kir shouted back, gripping Grace by the shoulders, "I'm not even sure of the long term effects of my telepathy. For Elements' sake, he could be over it by now! It's been long enough."

Grace composed herself, "You're right, T'Kir. I overreacted."

"Glad we both think so." T'Kir said with a puckered mouth and a frown.

"I should get to the bridge." Grace insisted suddenly, "We'll be taking off soon."

"I'll see you there in a few." T'Kir assured her.

"Yah." Grace replied without enthusiasm, "I'll see you then."

Seven Hells, T'Kir thought bitterly, Now I've gone and frinxed up my relationship with my best friend.

"...and then she walked off and got into the turbolift and left me standing there." T'Kir complained.

"Do you really blame her?" Macen asked, leaning back in his office chair, "That was quite the bombshell you levelled her with."

"I told you the same thing and you're doing fine." T'Kir grumped. She was curled up, cat-like on the small couch in the office's corner. She propped her head up on her hand and suggested, "What if you had a talk with her?"

"Okay," Macen sighed heavily, "first off, I already suspected what effects intimacy with you had upon the unsuspecting. Second, Hannah needs to deal with this on her own. Let her cope and then approach her. You're a telepath. You'll know when the time is right."

"You know Hannah's as hard for me to read as you are, without the benefit of our rapport, of course."

"Then you'll have to do it like the average humanoid." Macen counselled, "Make a guess."

"That sucks."

"Yup."

Daggit and Radil finished putting the last of the partially spent powercells on the chargers. Radil had sought out Macen and T'Kir and retrieved the powerpacks from their sidearms. T'Kir had seemed distracted, but then again, when didn't she? The only time Radil had seen T'Kir totally focused was in the middle of a fight or when she was immersed in a challenge on the computer.

It had always been a mystery to Radil how Macen could put up with T'Kir's antics. Then again, she supposed, I guess love makes one blind. I'm a case in point. First I fell for a wreck like Kort and now I'm attracted to Rab Daggit. "Attracted", hell, I'm smitten with the man. In fact, I'm knee deep in smit.

Radil knew Daggit had been attracted to her since the day they'd met. She didn't know why she just didn't discuss her feelings with him. She tasted the lie behind that belief even as she rehashed it in her mind. She was ashamed that she hadn't come to this conclusion earlier. She'd faced a choice between Daggit and Kort three years ago and she'd chosen the Klingon. She feared her earlier decision would haunt her and Daggit would repay her in kind if given the opportunity.

I know he wouldn't, Radil assured herself, but they do call certain fears "irrational" for a reason.

"I guess we're all done here." Daggit's deep baritone cut through her reflections. Feeling rather adrift, Radil asked, "We are?"

Daggit responded with a puzzled look, "We've returned everything to its place and placed all the cells on their chargers. I'd say we're done, wouldn't you?"

"I...I don't know." Radil struggled to find her words, "We could always discuss...us."

Wariness crept into his tone and features, "I know there's a 'you' and I know all about 'me', but I don't know anything about an 'us'."

"I know." she hesitantly replied, "But there could be. I know you've thought about it. So have I. In fact, it's the main reason I ended my relationship with Kort. It wasn't going anywhere. He couldn't stop drinking and I couldn't stop thinking about you."

"You've hidden it awfully well." Daggit commented.

"You're my working partner." Radil explained, "I can't jeopardise that. We rely on each other in life or death situations. I couldn't risk having a distraction or a disagreement between us."

"So why are you telling me this now?" the wariness had returned to Daggit's voice and eyes.

"Quite frankly, I have to know if 'we' can ever happen, or I'll go insane." Radil admitted, "With the Captain and T'Kir's wedding coming up and all of us getting some leave time, it's a perfect time to think about unresolved issues. I know you carried a torch for me for three years until I joined up with Kort. That was my mistake."

"In short," Radil summarized, "all I'm asking of you is word on whether or not we stand a chance of getting together."

"Is there a deadline?" he asked stiffly.

Quietly, Radil answered, "Sooner is always better." she offered up a wan smile, "But I'm not expecting anything until our leave is over."

Daggit nodded, "I'll have an answer by then. He started to walk away but stopped, "I'd like to say 'yes', but a lot has happened over the last three years. To be honest, I'd given up any hopes of this moment ever happening. Now that it has, I honestly don't know what I'll decide. I just thought you should know."

With that said, he exited the armoury. Radil sniffled and fought back tears. She'd never been so emotionally wrung out before. Just three more weeks, she consoled herself, in three weeks I'll know the answer to my prayers and I can move on with my life, one way or the other. That's all I can ask of the Prophets. Feeling bolstered, she wiped the moisture from her eyes and followed in Daggit's wake.

"T'Kir, please report to the bridge." Riker's voice requested over the office's intercom.

"Frinx!" T'Kir snapped, "Why does that jackass want me on the bridge every time we take off?"

"It is standard procedure." Macen gently reminded her, "If something were to go wrong with the main computer or the operational systems, you're the best qualified to deal with the situation."

"So, in other words," T'Kir grumped, "I shouldn't have been so good at my job as to make m'self invaluable."

Macen's grin bordered on being a smirk, "Something like that."

"All right! I'll go." T'Kir conceded, "But if I have to make an appearance, you'd better come with."

Macen rose from behind the desk, "I was thinking about observing the take-off anyway."

"Anything to avoid after action reports for the agency and the client?" T'Kir cocked an eyebrow at him.

Macen sighed, "Tom may want the Captain's title and responsibilities but he should be grateful I've given him the rewarding part, the actual commanding the ship, without all the paperwork that goes with it."

"You poor dear." T'Kir cooed.

"Oh, shut up."

T'Kir laughed and led the way out of his office.

On the bridge, Riker sat in the command chair, centred amidst the hubbub of the bridge. Grace was running her pre-flight checks. Daggit was inspecting the weapons systems and running targeting diagnostics. T'Kir and Macen exited the turbolift and immediately set to work. T'Kir sat down at Ops and Macen took his customary position at InfoSys.

"T'Kir, are all external hatches closed and sealed?" Riker asked.

"Hatches are closed." T'Kir confirmed, "We have green telltales on all seals."

"Excellent." Riker commended, "Please activate all running lights and our ID transponder."

"You got it."

Riker winced. He'd wanted to enforce a greater degree of formality and protocol throughout the ship but Macen had disagreed. Although just over half the crew had a Starfleet background, the remainder did not. Macen saw no reason to impose Starfleet style regulations on individuals that had never desired to enlist in Starfleet. More to the point, they weren't a Starfleet vessel so why couldn't they be more relaxed? Riker deferred of course. Macen was his superior officer, and ultimately, his employer.

"Very well. Hannah, engage the bow thrusters and take us up." Riker ordered.

"Bow thrusters, aye." Grace replied. Riker practically glowed with paternalistic pride. The ship shuddered and for a moment felt as though she were listing. The inertial dampeners were dialled practically to zero for atmospheric operation, as was the artificial gravity.

"Sorry 'bout that." Grace called out, "We've reached a height of 300 metres. We've been cleared by local traffic control to engage impulse engines."

"Engage." Riker directed.

Grace brought the two powerful plasma drivers to life and the ship surged forward. She also utilised the bow and manoeuvring thrusters to gain altitude as she went forward. They sped away in the opposite direction from the mining camp. Grace gently guided the Solstice over the rising peaks of a mountain range. She then went vertical. The artificial gravity and the inertial dampener came to life at her command just moments before she nosed the starship upwards. Moments later they broke out of the atmosphere and its accompanying ionic interference.

Riker activated the intercom to Engineering, "Parva, prepare to inject the nacelles with warp plasma."

"Ready when you are." Parva replied.

Of all the crew, Riker reflected, Parva was the most mysterious. Of course, she'd only been with the team the last three years, ever since Hal Dracas had gone away on sabbatical. The statuesque Orion was a rarity. An escaped slave who'd learned a trade and learned it well enough to earn Dracas' own recommendation. She rarely spoke of her past and even then only in the most oblique of terms. Dracas knew her story but the taciturn Troglyte had withheld it before leaving.

"Inject plasma at will." Riker commanded.

There was a pause on Parva's end, and then, "Plasma injected and stable. Warp speed available at your command."

"Roger that, standby for warp speed." Riker responded, "Hannah, plot a least time course to Barrinor and execute at warp 6."

"Aye, sir" Grace crisply replied.

"Did you hear that Parva?" Riker inquired.

"I'm ready and rarin'." the emerald engineer sounded back.

Riker chuckled, "Glad to hear it. Hannah?"

"Executing...now." the starfield on the viewer became a miasma of colour then stabilised into a field of passing, starlit streaks.

Although settled by colonists from across the Federation, Barrinor was an independent world. A planetary plebiscite taken before the Dominion War had announced the planet's intentions of pursuing an independent existence. The Federation, preoccupied with the Dominion's intentions, easily let the colony slip from its grasp. Barrinor spent most of the war untouched by the Dominion forces. It wasn't until a Breen scouting party entered the sector that Barrinor and its neighbouring settlements entered the fray.

The repulsed Breen shifted focus and concentrated on Cardassian space and the massed forces gathered at Deep Space 9. Barrinor and its confederates were spared any more conflict. When Macen approached the government on Barrinor with headquartering Outbound Ventures on their planet, they leapt at the chance. Barrinor itself became a client of Outbound Ventures, placing a reasonable retainer in the firm's coffers in exchange for accepting the occasional, discreet assignment.

Outbound Ventures' expansion had greatly benefited Barrinor. More traffic came to the spaceport, more outside venture capital was being injected into the economy, and the local shipyards and moorage collected greater fees. Since Barrinor still relied upon a currency driven economy, all of these developments were vital for expansion and development.

Given the prestige given to Macen by the government, business, and security officials, it was only natural that they were treating his upcoming marriage to T'Kir as a celebrity event. Macen had managed to restrict the guest list to merely those invited by the bride and groom, but that list had doubled in size due to the public's curiosity. Newsfeed cameras were also going to be on hand. It was an idea that infuriated Macen but delighted T'Kir. In the end, he relented for her sake.

Two days before the wedding, T'Kir found out about a problem with the wedding gown: it was missing! T'Kir had chosen a dressmaker on Bajor for the tailoring. The seamstress boasted she could sew any pattern or design at half the cost of her nearest competitor. Desiring to support "local" talent, and Bajor was in the neighbouring sector, T'Kir hired the woman and designed a customised dress that blended Vulcan and Romulan elements.

Upon receiving word that the dress was missing, T'Kir contacted Ro Laren. T'Kir's former Maquis cell commander was now a Starfleet Security officer. Ro was an invited guest to the wedding and an important one since she also had a role to play in it.

"Ro, you've got to find it." T'Kir insisted.

"Find what?" a confused Ro asked.

"My frinxing wedding gown, that's what!" T'Kir demanded.

"Calm down." Ro ordered, "Tell me what's happened."

T'Kir did and Ro nodded, "I'll start my leave a day earlier and travel to Bajor, all right?"

T'Kir nodded, "Thanks Laren."

The comm screen returned to the UFP symbol and Ro shook her head, "What a mess."

The shuttle landed at the main concourse of the spaceport. T'Kir fidgeted as she waited for Ro to exit the craft. A dozen or so passengers exited and then no one. Macen squeezed T'Kir's shoulders to settle her down. Suddenly, Ro appeared and she carried a garment bag.

"Never say I wasn't there for you." she grinned. T'Kir embraced the Bajoran woman and squeezed. Ro exhaled as the air was pushed from her crushed ribs and lungs. Macen intervened.

"Break it up." he urged, "She can't breathe. T'Kir, we need her for the ceremony tomorrow."

A chagrined T'Kir let go and Ro grinned again, "A little excited are you?"

T'Kir fervently nodded and Ro laughed with delight, "Good. Take care of my boy here."

"'Boy'?" Macen repeated scornfully, "Who was your superior officer and got you into Advanced Tactical Training?"

"All in the past." Ro waved his objections aside, "Ever since we were in the Maquis, you've been my 'boy', just as she was my 'girl'. Now, you're together and about to take the plunge. I never thought it would happen but I'm happy it did. I'm here to support you both and I'm honoured to be part of this ceremony."

"Thanks Laren." Macen replied with a thick voice, "That means a lot coming from you."

"It's the least I can do after all you two gave for me." Ro replied.

"Just keep thinking that tomorrow when this finally happens." T'Kir instructed.

"I'll keep that in mind." Ro murmured.

"Keep the faith, Laren." Macen suggested, "This event has been planned for down to the last minute detail."

"Great." Ro groused, "More to get frinxed up."

"I see your optimistic spirit remains untouched." Macen smirked.

"Laugh it up." Ro remarked, "But mark my words, something bad will happen tomorrow."

"Only your attitude." T'Kir retorted.

"Just wait." Ro warned, "You'll see I'm right. No event can ever be perfect."

"No." Macen conceded, "But we plan on being pretty close."

"Good luck." Ro rejoined.

"Fine." Macen sighed, "C'mon, let's get out of here. We have the guest room all made up for you, the replicator's fully programmed, and the cryo is fully stocked."

"Sounds good." Ro admitted, "Anything with a bed involved sounds better."

Macen smiled, "Then we've just the place for you."

 

Chapter 4

The day of the wedding had arrived. The rehearsal had gone smoothly the night before and all seemed to be prepared for. The decorations were immaculate and the seating was all arranged. The caterers and servers were prepared and awaiting their cues.

The ceremony was taking place outside in Founder's Park on Barrinor. Macen and T'Kir originally sought permission to marry on Ronara Prime. The Cardassian government, although a moderate, democratically elected regime, would not allow foreign nationals, particularly former Maquis rebels, to hold a memorial much less a wedding. Over the years, Barrinor had become a second home. Now with this event, they would inaugurate it as their home. It took a special, difficult to obtain, permit to host an event here. Their presence bespoke of the government's regard for them.

The guest list reflected the variety of their associations. Starfleet admirals, former Maquis guerrillas, Barrinoran dignitaries, and Outbound Ventures employees all ranked amongst the attendees. The admirals attended solely on Macen's good graces. The last three years had softened his anger towards the two flag officers in question.

Admirals Alynna Nechayev and Amanda Drake had braved an uncertain reception in order to attend. Nechayev was the current Director of Starfleet Intelligence and a decades long associate of Macen. Drake commanded the SID and consequently Macen and his crew during their tenure with that organisation. They had collaborated on the manipulation that led to the irregulars' dismissal from the SID.

Drake and Nechayev's actions stemmed from a fervent desire to recover the kidnapped President's daughter. The dismissal of Macen and the other captains and crews had come as a shock to the two bureaucratically beleaguered admirals. Drake had spent the last three years trying to rebuild her agency. She'd lost the core of her undercover corps and it hurt her operational capabilities.

They'd both been surprised to receive invitations. Macen had only maintained limited communication in the ensuing years and this could be interpreted as the first step in a reconciliation. It was a step neither could afford to let slip by.

Various Outbound Ventures crewmen assumed the role of ushers and escorted the arriving dignitaries to their assigned seats. Macen's crew had front row seating. Kort was conspicuously absent from the assembled group. He'd sullenly accepted his admission to the treatment centre only after Macen threatened to personally escort him there at gunpoint.

Riker sat with Jamie Kirk. The former Iotian Starfleet captain had become one of the most skilled commanders in the Outbound Ventures "fleet". Their romance had blossomed after their reunion three years ago. Speculation was already flying on how long it would take the star-crossed couple to emulate Macen and T'Kir.

Daggit, Danan, and Radil sat together. Danan sat between Daggit and Radil. It was a turn of events both the Angosian and the Bajoran were grateful for. Too much still lay unspoken between them.

Grace sat with her date, Willem "Wild Dog" Davidson. Her original inclination to bring Thoren Jasik but she had to know how Wild Dog would react to T'Kir. Gah! she thought, Now she has me calling him "Wild Dog". I know its probably wrong of me to have brought him and I'm probably sick for doing so, but I have to know how he'll react. Call me sick if you will but that's the Maker's honest truth.

The various captains of the Outbound Ventures ship and their escorts occupied the following row. Drake and Nechayev, along with assorted Barrinoran officials occupied the third. The Outbound Ventures crewmen who weren't ushering took up the remainder of the seating. Notable Barrinoran citizens occupied the opposing bank of chairs. Police officers, Navy and Militia officers, business leaders and public servants comprised this group.

The ceremony itself was a blend of Vulcan, Romulan, and El-Aurian traditions. The officiator was a grizzled old vedek that had ministered to the Maquis. Vedek Alifro Sarin had no illusions regarding aliens upholding Bajoran beliefs so he'd been more than happy to develop this hybridised ceremony alongside Macen and T'Kir. The Vulcan priestess brought in for the opening blessing had been far more reluctant.

The colours for the ceremony were a deep forest green and black. The music spanned the quadrant. The vows were intimate, composed by the couple themselves.

Vedek Alifro and Priestess T'Sharra stepped out onto the raised dais the podium was erected on. The holocameras came to life and began panning crowd and the two spiritual leaders. At least the paparazzi had enough respect to remain discreetly out of sight and to speak in hushed, reverential tones. The crowd rustled with anticipation. They were stilled by Macen's emergence from behind the black silk screened, green flower festooned trellises that created the illusion of walls to either side of the dais.

Macen wore his Starfleet dress uniform. It seemed an odd choice to some but protocol allowed it since Macen was still an officer in the active reserves. For Macen, it was a dig aimed squarely at Admirals Drake and Nechayev reminding them that although he was no longer a member of the SID, he was still around and a force to be reckoned with. T'Kir approved of Macen's antics on grounds of general mischief and because she like the look of the uniform. Blacks pants and boots coupled with a white and grey jacket suited her.

Macen stood patiently and waited all alone. El-Aurian tradition demanded that the groom present himself as a viable partner and mate. Both the Romulans and Vulcans echoed this sentiment. This aspect of the ceremony had been the easiest compromise to reach.

The bridal tent was located just outside of the trellis walls. T'Kir was there being attended to by Parva. The Orion was an expert with make-up and hair, as befitted a former sex slave. Ro Laren was also there. Ro was assuming the role of the bride's matron and would first escort her down the aisle and then stand beside her as proscribed in the Romulan marital tradition.

As if on cue, T'Kir appeared at the end of the aisle. Ro stood proud and erect beside her. Ro wore her Starfleet dress uniform for the occasion. It was identical to Macen's only with Lieutenant's insignia rather than that of a full Commander.

T'Kir was bedecked in the silken creation she'd co-designed with her dressmaker. T'Kir had opted for a Japanese kimono since it reflected aspects of both the Vulcan and Romulan wedding robes. Her kimono was in the Ikebana tradition. It possessed black trim and a black belt on an emerald green base. She wore black silk pants and a mandarin collared tunic underneath.

Ro escorted her down the aisle. The Bajoran bent her arm at the elbow and provided a level platform for T'Kir's hand to rest. They came to Macen's position in front of the podium and Ro stepped aside. Macen smiled at T'Kir and she beamed in reply.

As they stood there, facing one another, T'Sharra approached the podium. Macen and T'Kir stepped onto the dais, one to either side of T'Sharra. The Vulcan priestess reached out and placed her fingers on the nerve clusters in each of their faces and temples. T'Sharra closed her eyes and began the mind meld. Macen had to make a concentrated effort to lower his natural psionic defences and allow the cleric access to his mind.

"The bond between these two is strong." T'Sharra pronounced, breaking the stillness that had grown up around the assembled crowd, "Their commitment is true. The marriage is approved of and may proceed."

With that said, T'Sharra withdrew and Macen and T'Kir retook their positions before the podium. Vedek Alifro approached the podium and gazed intently at the crowd, "Before we begin, I must ask, does anyone object to this union?"

"Yes!" Wild Dog shouted and leapt to his feet, "She's mine I tell you!"

"What are you doing?" Grace hissed, tugging at his trouser leg, "Sit down!"

"No," another voice rang out, "she's mine!"

"She's mine!" a third voice plaintively called out.

"Oh shuk!" T'Kir fumed.

Macen was snickering, which didn't help her mood, "All of you, sit down and shut up! I'm marrying this man and there's nothing you can do about it. You lost me ten years ago. Deal with it!"

T'Kir turned to Alifro, "You can proceed now."

Alifro paused. The various men were returning to their seats, much to the consternation of their escorts. Seeing that the crowd had settled down, or at least would wait until they were out of the public eye to provoke hostilities, Alifro decided to proceed.

"Friends and comrades, brothers and sisters, honoured guests," Alifro's resonant baritone rang out, "we are gathered her today to witness the consecration of this union. We need not question whether or not this union is viable since it has already withstood the test of time. Forged in the fires of friendship and camaraderie, this relationship has withstood over a decades worth of trials. We do not fear for the future of this union since the two partners enter into it with the deepest commitment. Join with me now as the two petitioners recite their vows and pledge themselves eternally to one another."

Macen straightened a bit and gazed intently into T'Kir's sparkling eyes, "I have to confess, over the last dozen years, I rarely thought this day would come. The first six years were filled with wrath and fire. The next six were filled with wonder, joy, and more fire and turmoil."

The audience chuckled appreciatively and Macen continued, "We reached this day because I can no longer envision a day without you in it. You have a power over me that is both wonderful and terrible to behold. I revel in it and fear it at the same time. For these reasons and a multitude of others, T'Kir, I pledge all of myself to you. I shall stand beside you no matter what travails arise and count myself blessed for it."

A profound silence lay over the crowd as the weight of Macen's declaration washed over them. T'Kir herself wiped away a single joyous tear. She waited for a moment to ascertain whether or not Macen had concluded his vows. Seeing that he had, she proceeded with hers.

"You carried me through the darkest years of my life. I wouldn't be here if not for you. At first you were my commander, my confidant, and my friend when I had no others. I relied upon you for my strength to carry on for another day."

T'Kir took a deep breath and plunged on ahead, "When I spent time isolated from the world, you kept in touch with me, giving me a lifeline to the galaxy beyond my walls. You were the one to rescue me from that place and provide the escape from the mouth of madness. Your actions allowed me to rediscover myself. I found my true self and once again stood equal to anyone else around me."

"It was at this time I realised that my infatuation with you had grown into genuine affection. My love for you surprised me in its intensity even as it consumed me. Fortunately for me, you returned my love. Since that day, my life has been an infinite voyage of discovery. It is a journey I want to spend the rest of my life completing."

Fervently now, T'Kir finished, "I pledge myself to you, Brin Macen, mind, body, and soul. All I have and am is yours."

The crowd sat in silence as Alifro resumed speaking, "Ladies and gentlebeings, we have witnessed this pair's declarations of dedication. With the authority granted to me by the United Federation of Planets and the Vedek Assembly, I pronounce you man and wife."

Macen embraced T'Kir and kissed her fiercely. When they separated, a loud pneumatic crack resounded through the wedding grounds. T'Kir flinched and then inspected her arm. Attached to her sleeve was an isolinear tag. She began to reach out for Macen but the transporter beam caught her and she disappeared in its incandescent fire. Ro held Macen at bay as his wife dematerialised.

"Save your strength for what you're good at!" Ro advised, "Track whoever did this down and get her back."

Macen reined himself in and started down the aisle, motioning for his crew to follow. It was then that armed men and women appeared at the end of the aisle.

Macen dove for the ground while yelling, "Down!"

Ro, who'd been following him, mirrored his action. Once on the ground, she reached into the waistband of her pants at the small of her back. She withdrew the Type I "Cricket" phaser secreted there in one deft motion. She instinctively brought her weapon to bear and fired.

The lead assailant went down as the stunning force particle beam struck him and short-circuited his nervous system. The woman behind him brought her disruptor up and returned fire. Ro rolled across the aisle and then stopped and fired again. She missed but her female attacker retreated.

Macen and Ro rose as one. The mysterious assailants had begun firing into the crowd. Most of the guests had taken cover behind the titanium chairs they'd been sitting in. Macen retrieved the fallen raider's pistol and began firing at the pirates. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that one of the corsairs had flanked him.

Daggit suddenly appeared and felled the human with a single upward strike to the nose. Meeting more resistance than anticipated, the pirates chose the better part of valour. The female that had duelled with Ro uttered a command into a hand communicator and the strike force beamed out. Left with no other ready sources of information, Macen returned to the felled attack leader.

Macen requested a bottle of water from the guest's refreshment table. Once he had it, he threw its contents onto the pirate's face. The other man came awake, sputtering his outrage.

"Shut up." Macen ordered glacially, "Under Barrinoran law, kidnapping is punishable with an immediate application of the death penalty. You've one opportunity to stay alive. Answer my questions to the best of your ability and I'll hand you over to the courts with a recommendation for clemency."

The various prospects ran through the pirate's mind. He'd read a dossier on Macen en route. He knew of the El-Aurian's ability to be ruthless on occasions that warranted it. He had little doubt that Macen would consider this just such an occasion.

"All right, I'll co-operate."

"Who sent you?" Macen inquired.

There was no reply and Macen shot the man in the leg. Over the cry of pain and following whimpers, Macen said, "I'm giving you the chance to co-operate. I suggest you use it. This is a Cardassian made disruptor. I'm intimately familiar with its operation. I could keep this up for days. The question is, can you?"

"Adrya Jeklan!" the man cried out, "He sent us!"

"Where is she being taken?" Macen asked angrily.

"To Adrya's base on Starfarer Station." the man sobbed, "You have to protect me. If he learns I've betrayed the Syndicate, they'll kill me. It's the Code. Ask her." he pointed at Parva.

Parva nodded, "It's their damned code all right."

Macen looked around at his crew, "I know I promised you all some leave time, but would you consider postponing your vacations?"

"Of course!" Grace affirmed enthusiastically.

"No problem." Daggit nodded.

Radil crossed her arms but jerked her head in assent, "I'm here for the team."

Parva broke into a savage grin, "Anything to frinx these bastards."

"You can count me in as well." Danan announced.

"Then all that's left is to spring Kort and we can get underway." Macen declared.

"I can extend my leave and come with as well." Ro added.

"Thanks Laren. It's appreciated." Macen smiled.

"Belay that Lieutenant." Admiral Nechayev said as she approached, "This is an extra-territorial matter. As such, you are forbidden as a Starfleet officer to get involved."

"This matter is about to become a territorial matter, Alynna." Macen argued, "Our next stop is Starfarer Station."

"If you can end, or even curtail, Adrya's operation, we'll arrange for a monetary award." Nechayev stated, "But I cannot allow a Starfleet officer to participate in what will appear to be the harassment of a 'law abiding' citizen."

"Thanks again, Alynna." Macen said in disgust, "I knew I could count on your support."

"I have a feeling you won't need it." Nechayev replied.

"No." Macen said evenly, "We won't."

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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