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Love and Starships - 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 One

Arcadia Prison was a dismal place. It was a women's detention facility and the worst of the lot were sent there. Barrinor's penal system was more draconian than that of the Federation and it showed. The cells were tiny, dark, and closed off with bars. It made one feel like an animal in an archaic zoo.

The prison was divided into three sections. The first was for the general population. Thieves, swindlers, forgers, confidence artists, smugglers and the like were kept there.

The second section housed murderers, narcotics pushers, rapists, molesters, and those convicted of piracy were sent there. Fortunately for Barrinor, most crimes committed landed people in the first section of the prison. The third was the hardest population.

There was little to no chance of reforming this latter group. They were the criminally insane. Their psychoses ran so deep as to resist treatment. They were the "lifers".

Gerda Heinz had recently transferred to the guard detail of Arcadia's psych ward. She'd only been on the job for two weeks but she was already getting to get a grasp on which cases were the dangerous ones.

Take Harriet Spellman, for instance, she was a loon who kill you just as soon look at you. Sheria'thera was another hard case. The zhen had killed her entire family after performing some arcane mutilation rites. Adrianna Zen also made one stop and thank your deity of choice that she was safely incarcerated.

The worst of the bunch, though, was Annika Ryst. Ryst was utterly dispassionate about killing. It was how she made her living. What made her tricky was that she'd been psychologically conditioned to be a killer and that conditioning automatically resisted any attempts to alter it. If Ryst were unable to escape, or kill her counsellor, she would shut down into a nonresponsive state. It wasn't catatonia since she was able to recognise changes in her surroundings and become instantly aware. Ryst's augmented physique added to her lethality.

The psych ward differed from the regular floors. The inmates were contained behind forcefields instead of bars. This afforded an unrestricted view of the entire cell, floor to ceiling. Heinz strolled along, seeing the inmates behind their electrostatic screens. A few threw things at the field, just like always, and like always it was deflected. When she came to Ryst's cell she froze.

Ryst was missing! Heinz visually swept the room and there were no occupants. Procedure demanded that she call for back up. Being young, ambitious, and severely rattled, she ignored procedure, deactivated the screen and entered the cell. She almost had time to register her mistake.

Ryst had pushed in the panelling of her ceiling. She had done this by climbing up the walls, tiptoes and fingertips pressed against the opposing walls, and had laboriously created a niche that she could squeeze into. It had taken months of effort and planning. Heinz's arrival had only quickened her pace so that she could exploit the younger woman's inexperience.

Heinz had almost reached Ryst's bunk when Ryst dropped out of the sky. Heinz heard a muffled thump behind and began to turn but it wasn't fast enough. Ryst had landed on her feet, in a crouch, and she sprang forward like an uncoiled cat. Ryst slammed her fingers into Heinz's throat.

The younger woman gagged as her throat swelled. She was unable to cry out! Ryst never slowed. She brought her knee up into Heinz's stomach, doubling her over. The last of her air escaped Heinz's lips with frothy mix of saliva and blood.

Ryst leisurely came up behind Heinz's kneeling form. Taking the back of Heinz's head in one hand and her jaw in another, Ryst twisted with all of her might. The neck snapped with a loud crack and the body went slack.

Ryst lifted the body and placed it on the bed. Stripping Heinz of her navy blue jumpsuit and utility belt, Ryst followed this by stripping off her orange jumpsuit and clothed Heinz's corpse with it. Afterwards, she put the blue jumpsuit on. Heinz had been a large woman so the suit was actually too big for the more petite Ryst. She rolled the sleeves up to her elbows and her pant legs up once each. Next she strapped on the utility belt and stun baton.

Ryst covered Heinz's body with the bunk's blankets after placing a pillow under the corpse's knees. Ryst turned exited the cell. Activating the forcefield, she turned and strolled past the remaining cells. Most of the occupants were incoherent but a few were cognizant enough to realise that Ryst was escaping. She received cheers and well wishes as she passed.

Ryst reached the main door and came to a halt. The door was released by a biometric scan. Her reading would sound an alarm. She leaned up against the wall and waited for someone to come through the door.

One hour and nineteen minutes later, Dana Cousins opened the door. Eying Ryst, she asked, "Have you been here long?"

"Just got here." Ryst easily lied, "They're all quiet. Ryst seems to be sleeping in 113. The rest are in various states of catatonia."

Cousins snorted, "That's about right for this place." She took a closer look at Ryst, "Are you new here?"

"Just started today." Ryst eagerly smiled.

"You seem familiar." Cousins said and then shook her head, "You must get that a lot."

"The curse of being average." Ryst chuckled, "Am I done here?"

"The usual procedure is to check out with the main guard station." Cousins grinned, "And then you're free."

"Thank God." Ryst sighed, "It's going to take me a month to get used to working gamma shift."

"Hang in there." Cousins said encouragingly, "We've all been there. Let me get the door for you."

The door panel scanned Cousins and Ryst thanked her as she passed by. Now out in the main corridor, she proceeded to the main entrance of the facility. The main guard station stood in front of the doors to the outside world. Ryst brazenly walked past the station. She went unchallenged.

Once outside, she squinted in the light of the early morning sun. She fished a small transponder out of her belt and depressed its activation switch. Down the row of parked aircars, one fired up and its antigravs flared to life, bobbing the car into the air. Ryst went to the elevated car and opened the electronically locked door with the transponder. Climbing into the car, she activated the computer and requested positioning info. Discovering she was a mere two hundred kilometres away from Barrinor's capital, she instructed the autopilot to take her there and the car obediently began to fly in that direction.

Four hours later Ryst had ditched the car, accessed a reserve bank account under the name Celeste Rockford, purchased clothing and had her hair done. It was now cut shorter and was blonde. The thought of altering her hair colour had never occurred to Ryst until today. It would take a constable at least a second look to make her and by then she would have the situation under control.

Ryst carried her bags to a local 5 star hotel and booked a room. Taking her purchases to the room, she left and went to the luggage store in the lobby. Ordering a set of bags, she had them sent to her room. Next, she stepped into the café in the lobby and ordered lunch.

Having finished her meal, she hailed a cab and ordered it to the shuttleport. It arrived and she asked the driver to keep the meter running and wait for her. Stepping out, she headed for the local sales office.

Upon seeing a woman dressed in an expensive business suit, Harl Edgely smelled money. He quickly sized her up and approached, "Can I help you?"

"I want to buy a ship. A recent model runabout if you have them or a shuttle if you've nothing better." Ryst said in a matter of fact tone.

"Are you certain you wouldn't prefer to book a flight or charter a service?"

Ryst chuckled darkly, "I know the travel lines give you a higher commission but I want a ship and I want it now."

Edgely blinked but said nothing for a moment, "I have something you might appreciate. It's out of most travellers' price range but if I've guessed correctly, price is no object."

"You've guessed correctly." Ryst's lips curved into a smile.

"Follow me." Edgely proceeded to lead her out the back door, Ryst followed and he manoeuvred around several parked shuttles. Coming around a larger shuttle he stopped and beamed.

"What do you think?" he asked.

Sitting before them was a black metallic capsule with two warp nacelles. Ryst looked dubious, "How fast can she move?"

"She's capable of .7 c at sublight and she can get up to warp 4.75 for twelve hours. Her normal cruising speed is warp 3.6." Edgely explained and then went on to describe the ship's capabilities, "She is fully computer driven with manual override available. She sports a full living suite with a dining area and a bedroom suite as well."

"What are her defensive capabilities?" Ryst wondered.

"She has merchant marine issue defensive shields." Edgely described, "As well as Type II phasers."

"Those would barely pulverise an asteroid." Ryst snorted.

"But they will give the stray pirate or rogue the fright of his life." Edgely chuckled.

"I'll take it." Ryst declared.

"Without seeing the interior?" Edgely squawked.

"If it doesn't satisfy me I'll simply return and kill you." Ryst warned him.

It took Edgely a moment to realise that she wasn't joking. Taking it as a foible of the wealthy, he walked her back to the office where she transferred the latinum to the corporate coffers. She also authorised a fifty strip gratuity for Edgely. He gratefully promised to oversee the ship's detailing himself. Her business concluded, Ryst returned to the waiting cabbie who was greedily watching the meter climb.

Later that evening, after dinner, Ryst used the comm unit in her room to contact the Orion Syndicate. After two hours of being foisted off on increasingly higher-ups, she finally spoke to Robhurt B'nner's lieutenant. She, in turn, rerouted the call to B'nner himself.

The grizzled old Orion calmly studied Ryst, "You're looking well for someone who's just broken jail."

"And you're well informed." Ryst commented.

"I keep an eye on our top assets." B'nner informed her, "That independent job you did for the Solarian Security Systems was sloppy work. I would have expected more from you."

"I was careless." Ryst admitted, "I underestimated the targets."

B'nner smiled, showing yellow teeth, "Good. Very good. You didn't try and shift the blame. I respect that."

"Thank you." Ryst said.

"And now you want me to place a contract on Macen's life so that you can slay him." B'nner stated.

"Yes." Ryst coolly confirmed it.

"No." B'nner registered Ryst's disappointment and elaborated, "I have another target in mind. One that will lead Macen's lackeys into a trap that will avenge Daveed's death."

"Your son was my patron." Ryst confided, "I would do anything to repay his murder."

"Excellent." B'nner chuckled without humour, "Join me on Orion and we shall plot our vengeance together."

Ryst bowed her head, "It will be done."

"Which alias are you employing?" B'nner inquired.

"Celeste Rockford." Ryst answered.

"I will transfer five thousand bars of latinum to that account." B'nner announced, "That should cover your expenses."

"I'm grateful." Ryst replied.

"Don't be grateful. Be successful." B'nner admonished, "If you are, you will have a life of comfort and leisure."

"Maybe later in life." Ryst retorted, "I still have good years ahead of me."

"As do I." B'nner assured her, "When can you set out for Orion?"

"I secured a ship today." Ryst informed him, "I should be able to leave tomorrow."

"Good." B'nner smiled again. It was a ghastly sight, "Our vengeance has waited for too long."

The crowd's gathered in the chapel of the Ministerial Mansion on Bajor. Today Astris Beru, the 1st Minister of Bajor was wedding her long time love, Kara Gena. Their love and devotion for one another had been tested by trial and by fire. Now, a mere four months since Astris had proposed, their nuptials had arrived.

The guest list included Amelia Wynter, The President of Earth; Korista Schrieber, the President of Mars; Drake Parsons, the President of Luna; and Vladimir Kirov, the Premier of Bolshevik. Also in attendance were Brin Macen, T'Kir, Tom Riker, and Lisea Danan. With them were Captain Kira Nerys, Commander Elias Vaughn, and Lt. Commander Ro Laren. Every one of the honoured guests had taken part in the secret conspiracy that had led to this day.

While Astris was being given away by her father, Astris Marn, Kara was being escorted down the aisle by none other than the President of the Federation, Gant Delane. Delane had also been a victim of the kidnappings that cemented the brides' relationship. The Kai himself was conducting the ceremony and it promised to be the social event of the decade. Having been deprived of the Emissary's wedding, the people demanded to be part of this one.

Festivals and celebrations were being held around the world. Thousands on the opposite side of Bajor were staying awake or waking early to catch the live coverage of the event. Many still speculated on why Kara had stepped down as Legal Minister four months ago but now the talking heads were united in saying that it must have been to prepare for the wedding. That suited the couple since the truth was classified as a state secret by the Federation. The fiction was ever so much more elegant than the truth.

The brides were picturesque in gowns of satin and spun lace. Since Bajoran customs did not lend themselves to wearing a particular shade or colour for one's wedding, Astris had relied upon the Terran influences she'd encountered while attending Starfleet Academy. Artisans from around the globe had submitted designs in an effort to showcase their skills. In the end, a dressmaker working out of her home was chosen alongside an influential designer's offering. The designer was now trying to woo the artisan into working for him.

The assembled crowd was standing in a meadow. A pathway through the crowd was maintained for the bridal processional. A herald announced the beginning of the ceremony and the Kai took his place at the head of the crowd. Bell ringers came next and the crowd turned as one to face the approaching brides.

Astris came first. She was a breathtaking vision in white. Her father wore his finest garments for the occasion. He beamed with pride as his daughter walked beside him, glowing from within and unable to contain her happiness.

Behind her came Kara. Her coffee coloured skin was set off by the red satin she wore. Gant Delane proudly escorted her, holding himself erect and striding with purpose. He had one hand on her back, another supporting her arm and the last free and loose.

The brides took their places facing one another and the ceremony began. It was a short but reverent affair. When the last invocation was pronounced, Astris and Kara kissed and held each other tight. Holding one another's hand, they giddily met the crowd.

Later, aboard the Rio Grande, Ro manned the helm and T'Kir took Ops. Macen sat at the Science station while Kira, Vaughn, Riker and Danan occupied the aft crew compartment. The conversations, of course, revolved around the wedding.

"I'm glad their day is going so well." T'Kir declared, "After what they went through to get here, they deserve it."

"I was impressed by how many non-Bajorans showed up. They're getting an awful lot of interstellar support." Ro opined.

"Am I detecting a wistful note there, Laren?" Macen suddenly enquired.

"No." Ro said defensively and then she sighed, "Maybe. I'm not getting any younger and suddenly I want to share my life with someone."

"Sharing involves risk." Macen counselled, "You're not one for risk."

"What about all our madcap adventures in the Maquis?" Ro demanded, "That was risky."

Macen smiled, "You've never been adverse to physical risk but emotional risk is another matter."

Ro snapped her chair around and she glared at Macen, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means what it means, Laren." Macen calmly answered, "Your search for a strong father figure to replace your image of your own father is indicative of another, greater pain. You felt betrayed by your father and that broke your heart. You've carried that pain into your adult life."

Macen held Ro's gaze, "You're afraid of being re-traumatised so you hold the universe at bay. Quite honestly, I'm amazed that I'm as close to you as I am. To be frank, you still hold T'Kir and Lees at arm's length but you've chosen to confide in me. For that distinction I'm deeply touched and honoured."

Ro's fierce countenance gradually began to fade as his words sank in. Finally, she shook her head, "Oh hell, I can't argue with you even if I wanted to and I want to. All right, the truth is hanging out there for all to see, what do I do about it?"

"What's important to you?" Macen asked, "What will make you happy?"

"I...I don't know." Ro's admission was almost heartbreaking in its honesty.

"Figure that out and then you'll have your answer." Macen confided, "Once you have your answer don't let anyone or anything block you from getting it."

Ro slowly nodded, "All right."

Macen warmly smiled, "I suggest you explore this topic with Ezri Dax. Besides being your friend she's a former counsellor and she has eight lifetimes of experience. Her insights could prove to be invaluable."

Ro looked uncomfortable. She chewed on the idea for several minutes. Finally, she nodded, "Okay, I'll try it out. I won't make any promises about being successful though."

Macen rose out of his seat and went to Ro's station. He put his arms around her shoulders and gave her a hug.

"Whatever happens, you'll be happier." He assured her.

"Sure I will." Ro grimaced. She straightened herself out, "Time to get back to flying this tub."

"Why?" T'Kir asked, "The autopilot is doing just fine."

Ro glared at her and put the runabout back on manual control. T'Kir shrugged and swivelled her seat around. She bore a serious mien as she addressed Macen.

"I can't wait to get out of this dress." T'Kir said.

The dress in question was her bridesmaid dress from Daggit and Parva's wedding. Macen gave her an indulgent smile, "I think it's lovely and you look absolutely beautiful in it."

T'Kir sat erect and brightened, "Really? I'll have to wear it more often."

"Please do." Macen chuckled.

T'Kir genuflected, "Your wish, sir, is my command."

"That'll be the day." Macen scoffed.

"You know me too well." T'Kir put her hand to her forehead in a swooning manner.

Macen laughed and made to rise, "I think I'll check on the passengers. They're bound to be getting in trouble by now."

T'Kir's eyes went glassy for a moment and then they sharpened up, "Yup. They're telling war stories and right now Tom's regaling them with the capture of Deerven."

"Fates help us." Macen went aft.

Ro turned to T'Kir, "Who's Deerven?"

"He was a data smuggler we bagged a week ago." T'Kir informed her, "The story goes somethin' like this..."

"And then Brin ordered Telrik to beam Deerven up." Riker laughed, "Fortunately he felt the annular confinement beam take hold and he had time to stand up. He materialised aboard the Obsidian clutching a padd with his pants around his ankles."

"To make matters worse, he was faced with Daggit and Radil armed to the teeth aiming phaser rifles at him." Danan chimed in, "Brin just stood there laughing. Finally he said, 'Would you like to pull your pants up? You're making the ladies blush.'"

"To which," Riker took over, "Radil said, "No, he's not.'"

"So Brin tried again but this time ended with, 'You're making the men feel inadequate.'" Danan added.

"So Daggit pipes up with, "Speak for yourself.'" Riker chortled, "Brin throws his arms up in the air and yells, 'Just work with me people!'"

"At this point," Danan was positively gleeful, "Deerven tries to run...but his pants are still around his ankles. He trips and falls off the transporter pads. His naked ass is up in the air, pointed right at Brin and the rest, and he's struggling to get up. Radil merely shrugs and shoots him in the arse."

"Brin gives her a weary sigh and asks her if she couldn't have waited until Deerven had pulled up his pants." Riker relates, "And I swear to God, Radil blushed for the first time since I've known her."

Vaughn chuckled and then asked, "So, how did Deerven's pants get pulled up?"

"Radil made two of her Security officers pull them up and fasten them. They tried so hard not to touch anything that it took them nearly an hour to straighten everything out. By the time they were ready to move him, he woke up." Riker relayed.

"Sounds pretty humorous." Kira opined.

"The worst part is that we'd piped the whole thing to every viewer aboard the ship." Danan grinned, "By the time they got Deerven to the brig, the entire crew was laughing."

Vaughn shook his head, still chuckling, "He'll use that in court."

"He already has." Macen said as he appeared in the crew compartment, "He's filed an allegation of torture."

"That's pretty serious." Kira replied.

"I've already been contacted by Admiral Drake." Macen revealed as he sat down on one of the unoccupied cots, "I can't undertake any SID missions until I hear from her."

"And she hasn't called yet so we've had a week off and could attend the wedding." Danan added.

"Which we would have made time for anyway." Macen asserted.

"I'm sure that Astris and Kara appreciated your coming." Kira turned to Riker and Danan, "All of you."

Riker gratefully smiled, "I was just delighted to be invited."

Danan bobbed her head in agreement, "I was simply touched."

Kira's smile became impish, "So, how long are you two going to wait before solidifying your relationship?"

Riker squirmed and cleared his throat. Danan shifted around like a worm on a hook. Macen laughed.

"You've asked the wrong pair." He explained, "They're contently committed to the single life. They just 'appreciate one another's company'."

Kira gave Riker a mirthful appraisal, "Tom?"

Riker cast a sidelong glance Danan's way before replying, "We're just friends."

"And lovers when the mood strikes?" Kira was unrelenting.

"That's right." Danan strongly asserted, "We're each free to pursue whomever we like."

"How often does that occur?" Kira inquired.

Danan prompted Riker with a jerk of her head and her gaze. Riker took a deep breath and released it, "So far it hasn't but the option is always there."

"It seems to me that you need to reconsider your options." Vaughn opined.

"We're fine." Danan insisted, "Things are great the way they are."

Kira shrugged, "Each to their own."

Riker sagged in relief. Danan still looked irked. Vaughn and Kira wisely kept their peace.

Macen returned to the cockpit and sat in while T'Kir regaled Ro with Deerven's fate. The moment's levity distracted Macen from how badly he dreaded Drake's coming call. The probabilities were fluctuating around this event. It could spell real trouble for the team.

Macen decided to forget about this trouble. It would happen when it did and go the way that it would. At least he had the company of good friends to revel in.

 

Chapter Two

Three days later on Barrinor, the morning found Macen enjoying a cup of coffee and a scone. He was reading the latest articles from the Federation News Service when the door chime sounded. T'Kir ran out of the office, past Macen, and to the door.

"It's probably Hannah." T'Kir said by way of explanation.

She opened the door and found Amanda Drake waiting on the porch. The Admiral was out of uniform. She wore a brown cropped jacket with a light blue ruche front tank top and khaki pants. She also wore brown Mary Janes.

"Oh boy." T'Kir gulped.

One of Drake's eyebrows rose in a decidedly Vulcan manner, "Are you going to invite me in?"

"Sure, I guess." T'Kir stepped out of the way and Drake breezed past her. She saw Macen sitting in a wingback chair and made a beeline for him.

"We need to talk." She declared.

Macen looked up from his padd, "My God Amanda, you're out of uniform."

Drake smirked, "I'm on leave. I'm taking the opportunity to visit my sister while I'm here."

"So what does that have to do with me?" Macen enquired, "I don't currently work for you. Not unless you want to have that talk you owe me."

"Oh yes, you do." Drake grinned like the proverbial cat.

"I think you'd better sit down." Macen suggested, "Can I get you anything?"

"The smell of coffee is permeating this place." Drake observed, "Don't tell me you have real beans."

"Yup." Macen gleefully grinned, "Freshly ground. Want some?"

"I'd kill for some." Drake replied with a laugh.

"How do you take it?" Macen asked as he rose.

"Do you have Irish cream?" Drake asked.

"No," Macen said, "but I can replicate some."

"What about flavoured syrups?" Drake wondered.

"That I have." Macen said with a smile.

"Then I'll take hazelnut if you have it." Drake ordered up.

"Be right back." Macen promised and headed for the townhouse's kitchen.

T'Kir continued to simply stare at Drake. Finally Drake responded, "Can I help you?"

"Nope." T'Kir shook her head.

"Then what is it?" Drake demanded.

"You look like a normal person." T'Kir replied, "I didn't think that was possible."

"My husband will be happy to hear that." Drake drolly commented.

"That's another thing that's too weird to think about." T'Kir opined.

"You're giving me lectures on convention and normality?" Drake scoffed, "That's rich."

T'Kir grinned, "Ain't it though?"

"What about your ensemble?" Drake nodded at T'Kir. T'Kir wore an olive green spaghetti strap tank top with black denim pants and black ankle boots. Drake shook her head, "Do you always dress like a mercenary?"

"Only every other day." T'Kir smirked as she nodded agreement. Her hair, loosely pulled into a tail, bobbed up and down with her motions.

The door chimed and T'Kir bolted for the door. With a jubilant "Hi!" she let Grace in. Grace saw Drake and did a double take.

"Sorry." Grace blushed, "I didn't recognise you."

Macen reappeared at that point carrying two steaming mugs of coffee, "Hi Hannah."

Grace curtsied. Her leather long coat scraped across the floor. T'Kir disappeared for a moment and then reappeared wearing her Tal Shiar issue V-necked black leather duster. She was also strapping on her gunbelt.

"You two make quite a pair." Drake observed, "Do you have the same tailor?"

"The coat used to be T'Kir's but she gave to me." Grace explained.

"And you," Drake stared at T'Kir, "don't you go anywhere without that thing on?"

"It's a nice coat." T'Kir protested.

"Not that," Drake clarified, "the weapon."

T'Kir wore a giddy smile, "My phaser is my friend."

"I'm sure." Drake sarcastically replied. Looking to Macen, she added, "And I thought you were nuts for naming your phaser."

"Laren and I were quite happy together." Macen wistfully opined.

Drake rolled her eyes, "Lord help me."

"We're off." T'Kir bounced to Macen's side and kissed him on the cheek. He caught her and drew her in for a proper kiss. Finishing, T'Kir looked pleadingly at Grace, "D'we have to go?"

"We made plans, dearie." Grace remarked with her arms folded across her chest, "We're testing out the new modifications Joachim made to the Corsair."

T'Kir backhanded Macen's arm, "You were supposed to come."

"Before I reply, let me say 'Ow'." Macen rubbed his arm, "I'd come but I need to stay behind and pay the bills."

T'Kir stuck her tongue out. Walking away, she called over her shoulder, "Don't forget, we have plans for this afternoon."

"I'm sure Amanda will be gone by then." Macen assured her.

"Good." T'Kir declared and she and Grace departed.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, she wants me gone." Drake opined.

"Yup." Macen confirmed.

Drake scowled, "That was your opportunity to make me feel better."

"That's not my job, Amanda." Macen retorted, "You wanted that bracketed pip on your collar. You also get the grief that comes with it."

Drake sighed. She took a sip of her coffee, "Mmm. That's good. My compliments."

"Thanks. I've been practicing on my lattes lately." Macen acknowledged the praise and then asked, "What's on your mind?"

"Before I get into that, what's T'Kir's latest beef with me?" Drake wondered.

Macen leaned back and became very sombre, "She resents working for the SID. She sees it as risking too much."

"I'll agree that you don't get the easiest cases but how is this different from when you were in the Maquis?" Drake pointedly asked.

"That time ended ten years ago." Macen explained, "Now we're together and she's seriously considering starting a family."

"T'Kir?" Drake's eyes bulged, "T'Kir as a mother? Wouldn't that qualify as child abuse?"

"I admit that a child of ours would receive a unique upbringing," Macen wore a rueful grin, "but she or he wouldn't be abused."

"Like T'Kir said, it's just too weird to think about." Drake was still in shock.

"All right," Macen drew himself up, "why are you here?"

Drake grinned like a little girl with a naughty secret, "Like I said, your contract has been renewed."

"I thought Jellico wanted my head." Macen replied.

"He does." Drake's grin grew, "And as Theatre Commander of the Alpha Quadrant, he can have it...as long as you're a commissioned officer in Starfleet. As a reinstated member of the Council of Five, he tried to demand that your contract be contingent upon you're being commissioned. Sadly enough for him, the rest of the Council voted against his proposition and your contract was renewed."

"Wait a minute," Macen looked aghast, "Jellico was promoted to the second highest position in Starfleet and he was put back on the Council?"

"As Alynna said, 'The best way to control Eddie is to have him close by.'" Drake's smile was feral.

"So I'm free?" Macen enquired.

"Not quite." Drake replied apprehensively, "Jellico insisted that we review your team's operating methods. That was a unanimous decision."

"What kind of investigation?" Macen warily asked.

"A member of the SID who was brought up through Internal Affairs' ranks, like myself, will accompany you during an assignment." Drake explained.

"Amanda!" Macen protested, "She'll get in the way and I can't guarantee her safety."

"You don't need to." Drake insisted, "She's a fully qualified SID officer. She'll hold her own."

Macen looked as though he'd swallowed something sour, "This is a terrible idea."

"The alternative is to come back to Earth and undergo a full, formal inquiry." Drake pronounced.

"Okay, the idea is getting better every time I hear it." Macen remarked.

"So you'll agree to submit to this informal investigation?" Drake asked

"Yes." Macen sighed, "I was just wondering how I'll explain Federation law to Joachim."

Drake rolled her eyes, "You'd better find a way. Your Nova Romans have given us nothing but trouble since you forced us to acknowledge them. They're as prickly as Klingons, twice as stubborn as Vulcans and at least three times as canny as Romulans."

"You gotta love 'em." Macen happily bubbled.

"Bob Johnson was ready to strangle you for several weeks." Drake revealed, "Their Emperor wanted to have a formal treaty with us but balked at the term 'protectorate'. Bob practiced some fancy linguistic footwork and accomplished the same thing."

"Not to the Romans, he didn't." Macen chuckled, "It would behove you to reread all of the fine print and the exact cultural meanings of the words as employed in Latin."

Drake hesitated. Pulling a padd out of her jacket pocket, she made some notations, "I'll have someone look into that."

"You do that." Macen smirked.

"Wipe that smug expression off of your face or I will personally cancel your contract." Drake threatened.

This amused Macen even more. Restraining his laughter, he changed the topic, "So how are things going with the Iotians?"

Drake shot one last irritated look in Macen's direction before replying, "The Iotians are sincerely trying to normalise relations between the two Federations. The plain fact that they've given up on their protection racket is proof enough of that."

Macen pondered that point. The Iotians, in loving homage to their gangster forerunners, would sail into a solar system and demand resources and trade goods in exchange for the "protection" provided by membership in the Iotian Federation. They had carried on in this way for nearly a quarter of a century.

"The good news," Drake interrupted Macen's train of thought with a smile, "is that Sigma Iotia II is about to have their very first elections. The Federation has been brought in to advise and oversee the process."

Macen was astounded, "How?"

"Well, as you know, James Kirk left Iotia in the hands of Bela Oxmyx and his lieutenant, Kracko. Oxmyx swiftly declared the 'Syndicate Racket's' top position to be a hereditary one. Kracko's family was displaced by the next generation of Oxmyx's. The new Oxmyx declared his in-laws to be the Bela family, named in honour of his father, and placed them as the hereditary heirs to the lieutenantship."

"Things went smoothly until the Iotian Starfleet was launched." Drake wore a nasty smile, "The real power lay with the Starfleet so Oxmyx declared his family to be the Grand Admirals of Starfleet while the Belas became the planetary rulers."

"Until recently when the contemporary Oxmyx ousted the Belas and seized the reins of power from both ends." Macen completed for her.

"Well," Drake's smile was utterly feral now, "it seems the good citizens of Iotia are tired about just hearing about their rights and decided to utilise them. Led by representatives of the Kracko family, who have become Iotia's leading voices of reform, they stormed the Bela mansion and staged a coup."

Drake delightedly brought her hands together, "The elections are in three months and there are already candidates for every seat of the proposed parliament."

"And where do the Krackos fit into this?" Macen cautiously wondered.

"That's the best part!" Drake bubbled, "The Kracko family is staying out of it. They're staying in their place as an independent watchdog."

"All right," Macen conceded, "I'm impressed."

Drake wagged her finger at Macen, "I knew you would be. You're always so sceptical. It's amazing that you can have any fun at all."

"I have fun."

"I know." Drake deflated, "That's what I don't understand."

"I've learned to leave it all behind when the mission is done." Macen asserted.

"Oho!" Drake sneered, "So he says now."

"Once the mission's done, all I can do is review my decisions, identify my mistakes and learn from them." Macen proclaimed.

"Sounds nice but life isn't that cut and dried." Drake retorted, "Somewhere inside, every mission you've ever been on is eating away at you. That's probably why you fail every psych eval we subject you to."

Drake was surprised by Macen's reaction. The man was robbed of his usual poise and he uncomfortably squirmed in his seat. For a moment, for just a flash, he was vulnerable. His defences and pretences were stripped bare and he was exposed.

Macen's voice was raw as he spoke, "You have no idea why I fail those tests, Amanda. The results are clinical and sanitised for consumption. The reality is darker...and far more dangerous."

Drake sat there, completely still and quiet as a stone. Macen sat before her and she hadn't a clue as how to proceed next. She watched as he rebuilt his shields. It was like he was putting on another person's exterior.

Drake opened her mouth but Macen curtly cut her off, "Whatever platitude you're about to recite, don't."

"To be frank," Drake opted to go with unrestrained honesty, "I'm not sure of what to discuss next."

"Finish your briefing." Macen commanded.

"Riiiight." Drake was still in shock, "I was about to discuss the Kelvans."

"I thought they were in negotiations with the Federation." Macen was puzzled.

"Negotiations?" Drake scoffed, "Try one sided demands."

"On whose part?" Macen dreaded the answer.

"The Kelvans want a military alliance...period." Drake revealed, "Any cultural exchanges are to be one sided. They take and we provide. Their leader..."

"Parvac." Macen supplied.

"Yes, Parvac." Drake uttered the name like a curse, "He sees the Federation as a convenient tool. He has no interest in a dialogue."

"We have alliances with other similar species." Macen reminded her.

"Not ones that can wipe out an Omicron fleet without trying hard." Drake groused, "These people are dangerous."

"Do you trust them?" Macen asked.

Drake snorted, "Not a chance in hell."

"Then why not explain that to them?" Macen wondered.

"It has been." Drake said wearily, "The Federation's envoy has repetitively stressed the need for trust and common ground upon which to build an alliance and..."

"And the Kelvans keep pushing." Macen finished for her.

"Damned right they do." Drake growled, "And they're so insular it's been impossible for either Alynna or I to insert agents into their colony."

"I thought there were human settlers on New Kelva." Macen remarked.

"There are but the Kelvans keep tabs on them as well." Drake muttered in disgust.

"Oh well." Macen sighed, "That approach wouldn't help you very much. Hannah has told me the Kelvans keep their distance from the humans."

"They're definitely doing that at the negotiating table." Drake said, "It's like they don't want to be infected by us."

Macen wore a sombre expression, "They don't want to be influenced by your emotional expressions. They're already having a hard enough time adapting to their new forms."

"That's what our exosociologists think as well." Drake offered a wan smile. Draining the last of her mug, she handed it towards Macen, "Can I trouble you for another cup?"

"Don't get spoiled." Macen laughed as he accepted her cup and rose to pad off to the kitchen.

 

Chapter Three

Macen returned from the kitchen to find Drake out of her seat and examining the holopictures on the end table. She activated one and watched the mini-movie it contained. She did the same with each presentation in turn. She stared off into blank space and sighed. The smell of coffee alerted her to Macen's presence.

"Sorry." She said with some embarrassment, "I didn't realise that you'd come back."

"I live here." Macen said with a gentle smile, "I can do that."

Drake accepted her cup back and she sat down on the sofa, "I didn't mean to get distracted. I did come here for a purpose."

"We'll get to it." Macen promised her, "The pictures filled you with conflicting emotions. One strong one was a sense of pride but foremost above them all was regret."

Drake nervously sipped her coffee before replying, "I don't know what I can say."

"Try the truth." Macen offered, "It usually goes a long way towards resolving a problem."

"I don't know what I should say." Drake clarified.

"Is this about your career?" Macen wondered.

"Oh God, no." Drake nervously laughed. Macen could tell that she was struggling to keep back a torrent of raw, painful emotions. "My career is so stellar I've been fast tracked for a promotion."

"Congratulations...I think." Macen paused, "You do realise that leaves your personal life as the chief suspect?"

"Yes." Drake said through a strained voice.

"The only thing you've never discussed with me is your family." Macen gently coaxed, "So I'm willing to bet that it's time to break that rule."

Drake broke down. Macen took the cup from her hands and sat it down on the appropriately named coffee table. He came to sit beside the ailing admiral. He draped an arm around her and she cried into his shoulder.

Her sobs were deep and racking. Macen quietly soothed her while the outpour overwhelmed her. Her emotions were still in flux when her pride demanded that she comport herself. Macen gently pulled her back down to his shoulder.

"Shhh." Macen urged, "You need this worse than you need your perceptions of dignity."

Drake released another bout of tears but it wasn't as fervent and didn't last half as long. When she was spent, emotionally and physically, she pushed herself away and wiped her eyes. Her face puckered.

"What?" Macen asked, acutely aware of newfound distress.

"I've made a mess of your shirt." Drake wailed.

Despite her being on the verge of tears again, the situation made Macen laugh, "I'll survive Amanda. Will you?"

Drake wiped her eyes again and her nose for good measure. She reflected for a moment. Cautiously, she nodded, "I think I will."

Macen rose and went to the nearest replicator. He returned to Drake with a handkerchief, "Use this."

"But I..." Drake feebly began to protest.

"Just use it, Admiral." Macen softly demanded.

Drake took it and brought it to her nose. After several loud blasts, she felt far more content.

"Done?" Macen asked. Drake nodded. Macen accepted the handkerchief back from her and recycled it in the replicator, "Now if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll change my shirt."

Drake fidgeted while Macen was away. Every instinct screamed at her to leave. She'd just broken down in front of a subordinate. She wondered what he could be thinking.

Macen returned suddenly. The flannel shirt was gone only to be replaced black shouldered grey sweater.

"Still here, huh?" Macen grinned, "I thought you would've bolted by now."

"I wouldn't." Drake insisted.

"Then why are you blushing out of embarrassment?" Macen asked her point-blank.

Drake subsided, "Why did you give me the opportunity to run?"

"I had to see if you honestly wanted help." Macen informed her, "You're still here which means that you want help."

"I wouldn't be so sure, mister!" Drake took another look at his shirt, "And what the hell are you doing in a Captain's alternative shirt?"

"They're no longer in Starfleet vogue." Macen grinned, "I was able to get a great deal at a surplus equipment depot on Chrinem VII."

"Do I even want to know?" Drake asked with a pained expression.

"Probably not." Macen chuckled for a moment, "But let's talk about you."

"Do we have to?" Drake groaned and buried her face in her hands.

"Yes," Macen dryly remarked, "I think now is a good time."

"You do realise that you're a subordinate and that it's completely improper for me to break down in front of you?" Drake wryly asked.

"First," Macen said with a wicked gleam in his eye, "I've never considered myself to be your subordinate. I always saw it as a meeting of equals and since I'm a civilian you really can't order me about."

"I can fire you." Drake warned.

Macen nodded, "You can do that. I'm willing to bet that you don't want to after fighting so hard to renew my contract."

Drake made a face, "What's the second point?"

"I already knew you were human. So the fact that you can have a rough time of it is no real revelation." Macen finished with a kind smile.

Drake sighed forlornly, "How do I begin?"

"Being as honest and as blunt as possible is the usual method." Macen informed her, "Trying to make the situation sound better than it is only makes it worse in the long run."

Drake took a deep breath and released it, "Richard left me."

"And Richard is...?" Macen enquired.

"My husband." Drake revealed.

"I thought as much." Macen nodded, "Why did he leave?"

Drake grimaced, "It gets rather complicated. Richard was the 1st Officer aboard the Bozeman when it went through the causality loop that the Enterprise discovered. Finding himself suddenly thrust into the 24th century, Richard availed himself to the resettlement training that Starfleet offered."

Drake ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it away from her face, "All Richard had wanted to be his entire life is a Starfleet officer. That was suddenly stripped from him."

"He could've served in an administrative or scientific post." Macen reminded her.

Drake replied with a wan smile, "Richard was a Command officer. He wanted his shot at the centre seat."

"I see." Macen grew pensive before he asked, "How did you two meet then? I have to ask because I'm sorry to say that I can't imagine you having a wide circle of friends."

A rueful smile crept across Drake's face, "You wouldn't be wrong. Alynna recruited Richard and put him to work in Starfleet Intelligence. He was an operative and I was Internal Affairs' liaison with Intelligence."

"That's a mix." Macen commented.

"We didn't formalise our pairing until he quit working for Alynna." Drake divulged.

"Why did he quit?" Macen wondered.

"Richard gathered together a group of the Bozeman's crew." Drake recalled, "He sought a letter of marque and received it. They pooled their resources and purchased a Barracuda-class scout. Their license authorised them to keep the weapons array intact. They went into business for themselves contracting out as commercial scouts."

"So they weren't affiliated with the Security Consultant's Guild?" Macen asked.

"No." Drake heaved a careworn sigh, "Richard has never been a private investigator nor a security consultant or provider."

"But he could be." Macen insisted, "With his qualifications he could act in that capacity, couldn't he?"

Drake's eyes narrowed, "I don't like what you're implying."

Macen shrugged, "You don't have to like it. You simply have to keep yourself open to possibilities. You've been trained to be objective. Apply those lessons to your own life."

"I don't know." Drake began to fidget, "Richard...my God!" Drake's eyes went wide and she stared into empty space, "Everything changed after he started that company."

"His assignments...he claimed that he'd signed confidentiality agreements. He was sworn to secrecy and so was I." Drake was disturbed by where this train of thought was leading her, "When he was in Intelligence we could discuss cases he was cleared for. After he left, his clearances were revoked. We could still discuss declassified operations and cases but that ended when I accepted the mantle of the SID. Every case is classified."

Drake wore a haunted expression, "We were apart most of the time and even when we were together we had nothing to talk about."

Macen gently laid a hand on her shoulder, "How certain are you about those confidentiality agreements?"

"What do you mean?" Drake started to blink back tears.

"Think it through, Amanda." Macen softly urged, "You're an Admiral in Starfleet Intelligence. You're a former Internal Affairs officer. That means you're pretty well authorised to know the specifics of any mission or survey in the Federation. It's your duty to know."

Drake sniffled, "I've been asking him about his jobs. I told him I could easily get permission to investigate one of his previous contracts."

"And he reacted badly didn't he?" Macen enquired.

Drake nodded while becoming weepy, "He was livid. He asked why I didn't trust him any more. He stormed off. When I reported for duty the next day, there was a message from him saying that everything would be explained when I returned home. I rushed home that night to find all of his things missing."

Drake was openly crying now, "I ran a trace on him and his comm code is being used at a flat in New York City. That was three weeks ago! He hasn't even tried to contact me since then even though I've left two or three messages a day."

Drake broke into a new round of sobs. Macen held her close and stroked her head. The display of grief didn't last as long as her first two bouts. She quickly began to compose herself.

"You think Richard was up to something." Drake said as she wiped her eyes and sniffled.

"You have to admit, he had the perfect cover." Macen ruefully elaborated, "He was married to one of the top cops in the Federation and you never looked into what he was doing. When you finally nosed around, he left and hasn't been heard from since."

Drake frowned, "Sounds damned suspicious to me."

"Have Alynna check into it." Macen advised, "Anything you do will draw criticism."

"Jilted wife and all that?" Drake asked and Macen nodded, "Can I use your comm?"

"Be my guest." Macen led her to the office and activated his computer/communications terminal. He excused himself and let Drake make her call. When she'd finished she rejoined him in the sitting room.

"Alynna is home in bed." Drake wryly grinned, "I left her a detailed message. With any luck a probe will be launched."

"Feel better?" Macen had to ask.

Drake pondered the question and then vigorously nodded, "Yes. Yes, I do."

"Good." Macen smiled as Drake retook her position on the couch. Macen had moved to one of the oversized chairs, "We were getting to why you called on us when we got distracted."

A wry smile dominated Drake's features...that and her puffy, bloodshot grey eyes, "Before I melted down you mean?"

"Yes, that's what I mean." Macen gently cajoled her.

"I have a mission for you." Drake answered.

"What kind of mission?" Macen wondered.

"What do you know about the Ekosians and the Zeons?" Drake enquired.

"The Nazi planet and its neighbour?" Macen asked.

"Parties of Miradorn raiders have been coming out of the Ekosian star system and attacking passing shipping." Drake explained, "The system is sanctioned in order to prevent any more cultural contamination by representatives of the Federation. That means the regular fleet can't investigate but you can."

"Do you know if the population still follows a National Socialistic ideal?" Macen enquired.

"The last cultural observer left that area ten years ago." Drake described, "At that time a democratically elected Nazi Party was still in power. Zeon's government had a coalition Nazi and native government. The locals were flitting about the solar system in impulse driven craft."

"And now there's Miradorn raiders in the area." Macen recalled.

"Exactly." Drake confirmed, "Will you look into it?"

"Of course we will." Macen promised, "I'll need a week to reassemble the Obsidian's crew."

Drake shook her head, "No. We're sending you in aboard a Q-ship the Special Project Yards people have developed."

"What kind of Q-ship?" Macen asked.

"A modified Bajoran freighter christened the Loki." Drake answered, "She's got more firepower than the Obsidian and almost the same sensor capability."

"I like the name." Macen mused.

"I thought you would. She's being brought here as part of a cargo run. It should arrive within the week. After the mission, the ship will belong to Outbound Ventures, Inc." Drake assured him. She fell silent for a moment and then brightened, "I forgot to tell you the rest of the news."

"Which is?" Macen sceptically asked.

"The exclusivity clause of your contract has been amended." Drake happily reported, "You can now accept outside contracts."

"Well, gee, thanks." Macen dryly remarked.

"Don't knock yourself out with gratitude or anything." Drake said sourly.

"I'm basically still your lap dog but now I get to take other people's latinum as well." Macen wryly explained his position. He brightened suddenly, "Does this mean I can double bill?"

Drake rubbed her temples, "You've certainly taken to capitalism like a Ferengi to latinum."

"There's nothing worse than a communist dabbling in capitalistic waters." Macen grinned.

"The Federation isn't communist." Drake said in horror.

"No." Macen agreed, "It's socialistic."

"And trillions are happier for it." Drake insisted.

"Which is why it works." Macen added.

Drake waited and waited. Finally she couldn't take it any more, "Where's the gibe, wisecrack, or barb?"

Macen shook his head, "Amanda, you wound me. My people were communists. Property ownership was unheard of in my culture. I find the Federation's brand of socialism to be a beneficial compromise between extremes."

"But you're operating on Barrinor." Drake pointed out, "How can you endorse the Federation's economics when you live under a competing system?"

"My employees' needs are met." Macen explained, "Most of their desires are met as well. How well the splurges are accommodated depends upon work performance. Everyone earns a Basic Living Stipend. Perks are earned the old fashioned way...through sweat."

"What about the disabled?" Drake wondered.

"The incapacitated are given a comprehensive benefits package." Macen assured her, "They earn their full salary and have all medical expenses provided for."

"What about Parva?" Drake enquired, "You've put her to work."

"Anyone that wants to work will have a place carved out for them." Macen replied, "Half of our administrative staff is comprised of disabled ships' crew."

"How is Parva doing?" Drake asked with genuine concern.

"Well," Macen's eyes danced mischievously, "today she's doing great."

Drake chuckled, "I meant how is she doing in general and you know it."

"Her condition would improve if she'd allow Kort to replace her heart with an artificial one." Macen said with more than a hint of frustration.

"She still has her organic heart?" a disbelieving Drake asked.

Macen nodded, "Apparently it's a taboo amongst Orions to use biosynthetics to replace organs or limbs. The philosophy takes 'survival of the fittest' to its ugliest extremes."

"Would they kill one of their own if he or she were crippled?" Drake had to ask.

"They would if it was a permanent affliction." Macen replied.

Drake looked horrified. Macen smiled, "That's why it's better that she's with us."

"If she's violating her people's ethos by staying alive why doesn't she go just a centimetre further and replace her heart?" Drake wondered.

"I really don't think she's thought too much about it either way." Macen admitted, "She's been focused on relearning enough technical skills to qualify as a maintenance tech and on her recent wedding."

"Has she requalified?" Drake was almost afraid to ask.

"She's the chief repair technician for Outbound Ventures' HQ." Macen smiled, "If she'd replace her heart, I'd certify her to work on the orbital drydock."

"Does she know that?" Drake enquired.

"It's been mentioned." Macen wore a wry expression, "She said that she's happy with the way things are."

"You can't argue with happiness." Drake sighed.

"Sure you can." Macen grumped, "Happiness leads to assimilation by the Borg."

"The Federation has beaten the Borg back twice and we're happy." Drake argued.

"You're content, Amanda." Macen rebutted, "Underlying that contentment, though, is a gnawing restlessness. It isn't good enough for you to stay within your proscribed borders, mental and physical. You want to know the unknowable, to see the farthest star, and to reach out and grasp infinity. That's what keeps you ahead of the Borg."

"And your people?" Drake had to ask. Even after eighty-plus years, the El-Aurians were a mystery.

"We had walked amongst the stars and grew complacent. We thought we'd evolved beyond the strife of the surrounding universe." Macen's voice was hard and bitter, "We were wrong."

Drake was pensive for a moment and then she spoke with resolution, "After you give up this life of crime, you should share your people's history with the Alpha Quadrant."

"I'll share that and more." Macen promised, "There are some metaphysical techniques and philosophies that I'd like to share as well."

"You're thinking about leaving the SID?" Drake asked with some horror.

"I won't stay much beyond the duration of my present team." Macen informed her, "Most of them are pairing off now. Soon they'll want to start families."

"Not all of them." Drake assured him, "Some of us can be paired off without reproducing."

"True." Macen mused, "But they're getting older."

"So are you," Drake retorted, "even though it doesn't look that way right now."

"But at nowhere near the same rate." Macen countered, "Comparatively, I'll have aged a few years when they reach their next couple of decades. They'll all retire by then."

"You could always assemble a new team." Drake offered.

"And maybe I will." Macen conceded, "Teaching is my long term goal. Everything up to that point is in flux."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed." Drake said.

"Why?" Macen was perplexed.

Drake laughed, "Ask your pop culture queen. She'll know."

Macen smiled but he still shook his head. T'Kir's fascination with current and classical popular culture was a mystery to him. There were times when all he understood out of her was the gist of what she was saying and that was with sharing a telepathic rapport with her. All he knew for certain was that she never failed to liven up a conversation.

Drake snapped her fingers, "Barrinor to Macen. Wake up."

Macen sheepishly grinned, "Sorry. Thinking about T'Kir."

"More power to you." Drake encouraged him, "As for me, I have to go surprise my sister."

"You haven't told her you're here? What are you going to tell her?" Macen wondered.

"About why I've been crying?" Macen nodded and Drake let loose of a bitter laugh, "I'll tell her the truth. It'll be easier with the second telling."

Macen doubted it but he didn't want to discourage Drake's catharsis, "You'll do fine."

Drake rose and made for the door. When she reached it, she looked back over her shoulder, "Thank you. I couldn't have done this without you."

"You say that now." Macen pooh-pahhed.

"No, Brin. I'm grateful." Drake admitted and then suddenly grew fierce, "But if word of this gets out, I'll murder you."

"My sense of self preservation will guide me." He assured her.

"I don't suppose you could forgo telling your wife?" Drake enquired.

"Not a chance." Macen laughed.

"Damn." Drake grumped.

"Amanda, Shannon is waiting for you." Macen reminded her.

"Mmm?" Drake was lost in thought.

"That's polite speak for 'get out'." Macen prodded.

"Oh!" Drake's attention was back on this planet, "Shannon. Right. See you!"

As the door closed, Macen shook his head but he wore a broad smile. Amanda Drake was human after all. As much as he loathed her pain, her newfound sense of vulnerability was good for her. He wondered what the future had in store for her. Her path to her sister's was clear but then the Currents muddied around her and all he could see was trouble ahead.

 

Chapter Four

"My dear Annika," B'nner took her hand and held it aloft as she descended from the runabout, "it is agreeable to see you again."

Ryst adopted a submissive mien... but not too submissive. Orion males lived to dominate. Although Ryst would die before breaking, she didn't advertise the fact. They also didn't want to just be handed the conquest.

"What are your plans, Lord?" Ryst meekly asked.

B'nner chuckled low in his throat, "Come now, Annika. We both know that you could, and would, slay everyone present before you would submit."

A coy smile crept across Ryst's features, "Do you have such a profound lack of faith in your personal guard?"

B'nner eyed the arrayed men and women standing behind him and shook his head, "I don't trust their chances against you."

Ryst wore a sly grin, "I know who I would place my latinum on."

"As would I." B'nner studied her for a moment longer then ushered her on, "Please follow me. Tomorrow we have much to discuss."

"What about tonight?" Ryst asked, "We could..."

B'nner held up one bony finger, "Tonight you learn the rewards of silence and loyalty. Your every whim is about to be indulged my dear. Enjoy it."

Joachim Dracas had spent the last week on Earth. More to the point, he'd spent the last week on Earth with Kiv Rever. Rever had been the partner of Hal Dracas, the man Joachim was cloned from. That being the case, Rever had taken Dracas under his wing, showing the same paternalistic concern for Joachim as the Nova Roman Emperor Alaric was wont to have.

Rever had gently but firmly guided Dracas through the intricacies of modern Terran life. Despite the occasional wound that his pride suffered, Dracas was eternally grateful for Rever's coaching. Truth be told, he'd had the time of his very short life. Now that was threatening to come to an end...

"I don't know why you're so reluctant to come with me tonight." Rever said as he was pulling on his jacket.

"This meeting is for lost Federation soldiers." Dracas insisted, "It is not fitting that I attend."

"This meeting is for the bereaved survivors who've lost a family member or loved one in Starfleet." Rever corrected him, "Both you and I qualify. Hal's dead and he was in Starfleet."

"But I didn't know him." Dracas protested.

"It doesn't matter, Joachim." Rever put his hand on Dracas' shoulder, "You've lost Hal as a father. I've seen the haunted look in your eyes that you get when you think no one is watching. You deserve to attend this meeting as well as anyone else."

"Besides," Rever brightened, "it's full of cute guys."

Dracas was aghast, "You're not seriously thinking of..."

Rever shook his head, "It's too soon for me. However, there are a few people that have healed and are still there. They're mentoring the freshly bereaved but some of them should move on."

"I would be honoured if you shared this event with me." Rever quietly pleaded, "It would be cathartic. Your presence has helped me lay most of Hal's ghost to rest. This would be the final step."

Dracas mulled it over, "All right. I'll come. I will share this moment with you."

"Good!" Rever reached into the closet and retrieved Dracas' coat, "Dress warmly. It's going to be chilly tonight."

"I do know how to dress myself." Dracas harrumphed.

"Sorry." Rever winced, "Being a stepdad to a grown son is all new to me."

"I can imagine." Dracas put his coat on, "I do not know how to make it any easier."

"Just be yourself, Joachim." Rever requested, "All I want is for you to be happy."

"Perhaps tonight will be the beginning of my future happiness." Dracas opined.

"That's what I'm hoping for." Rever said enigmatically as they left the flat.

"Rab?" Parva sought Daggit as she returned to their town home.

"In here." Daggit called from the kitchen. Parva walked towards the sound and smells. She noticed the spicy aromas as she neared the open door leading to the kitchen area. Upon entering, she saw Daggit stuffing peppers. A selection of stuffed mushrooms was already laid out.

Daggit looked up and broadly grinned, "How's the working woman?"

"What are you doing?" Parva giggled.

"I'm making you dinner." Daggit replied, "It only seems fair. I've had the week off and you've gone to work everyday. I wanted today to be special."

"Are you marinating strips of meat?" Parva asked in wonder as she stole glances everywhere.

"For the kebobs." Daggit proudly explained, "I have the grill set and ready to go. We have Irrilean Curry to go along with everything."

"This is wonderful!" Parva exclaimed, "When did you learn how to cook?"

"My Starfleet unit was based off of DS9 during the Dominion War." Daggit explained, "Captain Sisko held a cooking class to help bolster morale. He featured Creole cooking but he also branched out to other styles such as tonight's feast."

"This so unexpected I don't know if I want to make my announcement." Parva blurted out.

Daggit stopped everything, "What announcement?"

Parva put her hands behind her back, bit her lower lip, and swished one of her feet around, "I've been thinking about my situation."

"And?" Daggit was growing unsettled.

"I want to have the heart transplant surgery." It all came out in a rush.

"I thought you were happy." Daggit said.

"I was." Parva looked vaguely disappointed, "Now I'm not." Parva looked uncertain, "Are you upset? Do you want me to skip the surgery?"

Daggit broke into a loving smile, "I want you to do what makes you happy."

"I want to have the surgery." Parva firmly declared.

"Let's call Kort and arrange it." Daggit went to the sink and washed his hands. Meeting Parva in the middle of the room, he took her hand and led her to the comm unit.

Parva sat down and reminded herself of how to activate it. She'd relearned the sequence but it constantly slipped her mind. Having successfully activated the comm and selected Kort's comm signature, she placed the call.

The screen showed a tri-tipped Klingon symbol. After several seconds, Kort's face appeared. Recognising his caller, he brightened.

"Parva!" he happily called out, "How nice to see you."

"Hello Kort." Parva replied, "Is that pretty lady still with you?"

"You mean Hayley?" Kort asked.

Parva nodded, "I can never remember her name."

"Yes, Hayley is here." Kort confirmed.

"I need her help." Parva decided to level with Kort.

"How can Hayley help you?" Kort was growing concerned.

"You said that if I wanted to replace my heart that she'd be the one to do it." Parva explained.

"You've decided to have your heart replaced?" Kort wanted to verify what Parva was saying.

"Yes." Parva nodded again.

"Wait a moment." Kort insisted and he stepped away from the comm. Hayley Galloway sat down and filled the screen.

"Hello Parva." Galloway warmly smiled, "I'm pleased that you want to maximise your health. Replacing your heart will revolutionise your life."

Parva beamed, "That's what I want. I don't want to be afraid any more."

"Well," Galloway grinned, "We'll see what we can do."

Galloway turned her head, nodded, and returned her focus to Parva, "Can you stop by the infirmary in the Olympus Mons Hospital tomorrow?"

"It would have to be after work." Parva replied.

Galloway listened to a barely discernable voice and then smiled, "You've just been written a prescription. You have tomorrow off with orders to visit the hospital."

"I can be there when the building opens." Parva eagerly informed her, "What are we going to do?"

"We're going to measure your chest cavity." Galloway explained, "After that, we're going to get an appropriately sized artificial heart. Once we have that, we'll prep you for surgery and take out your old heart."

"Wow." Parva said with childlike wonder.

"I think so too." Galloway confided, "You just said it better."

Parva's cheeks darkened, "You're so nice."

Galloway laughed, "I'm glad you think so. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Nope." Parva giddily informed her, "I have to go now. Rab is cooking."

"You're lucky." Galloway said conspiratorially, "I either have to use the replicator or eat raw Klingon food."

"You could come here." Parva offered.

"Thanks sweetie." Galloway graced her with a radiant smile, "There are other reasons to stay."

"Oh," Parva caught her meaning, "I'll say bye then."

"See you tomorrow." Galloway signed off.

"So," Daggit wore a playful smile, "do you want to change clothes and help finish dinner?"

"I'd rather watch." Parva grinned.

"You still need to shower and change." Daggit urged, "You smell like burnt conduit."

"Yeah." Parva agreed as she put the comm on standby, "Hannah and T'Kir burned out the new impulse manifold in the pirate ship."

"The pirate ship?" Daggit mirthfully.

"The runabout." Parva said over her shoulder as she walked into their bedroom, "I can never remember its name."

"The Corsair." Daggit called out.

"Yeah, that's the one." Parva called back.

Daggit thought about going to the kitchen and then reconsidered it. He followed in Parva's wake. He entered the bedroom to find her stripped down to a black lace bra and matching bikini brief panties. Of course, her leg braces were present as well.

The same wound that had damaged Parva's heart had also created critical blood loss. She'd suffered brain damage as well as permanent cardiac injury. That accounted for Parva's memory loss and her ongoing difficulties with remembering select information. Also lost were some fine motor skills. She'd regained the full use of her hands through physical therapy. Her legs had proven more resistant and it seemed that she could very well be restricted to using braces for the rest of her life.

"What's wrong?" a semi-nude Parva broke his reverie, "You look sad."

Daggit cheered right up, "Sorry. I was just thinking of how we rarely get to have an evening like tonight."

"We'll never get a chance to eat our dinner if you don't go back and finish cooking it." Parva scolded.

"Let me take one last look at you." Daggit drank in the sight of her and grinned, "Now I can finish dinner."

Parva giggled, "You're silly."

"Alas, only now does she discover the truth." Daggit said in a martyred tone as he made to leave.

Parva blew him a raspberry as he passed through the door. Although her braces were powered, they still responded more stiffly than her legs should have. As such her attempt to glide into the walk-in closet was more of a stumble. Parva frowned and began looking at her selections. She wanted to impress Daggit. After several minutes of looking, she found what she wanted. Holding it up to herself in the mirror, she wore a triumphant smile.

"I thought you said that Parva wouldn't submit to the surgery." Galloway said as she returned to the couch. She sifted a half emptied glass of spring wine.

Kort sat beside her. He retrieved his abandoned mug of raktajino and took a sip from it. He was delighted to learn that it was still warm. He knew Macen could drink cold coffee but Kort refused to unless the situation was desperate.

Kort shook his head, "Something must have happened to change her mind. It would have required something significant."

"She did say that she didn't want to live in fear any more." Galloway pointed out, "Do you suppose something happened to accentuate that feeling?"

"Parva only remembers a fraction of her total life but she what does remember of it she remembers a woman that was vital, in full possession of herself, a risk taker." Kort recounted sadly, "Now she is a ghost of her former self."

"I think we'd better find out what triggered her change of heart." Galloway insisted, "If it's what I think it is we may have to move up our schedule."

"Hayley, my dear, I was supposed to wine and dine you tonight." Kort grumbled and then held up his hands in response to her glare, "All right. She spent the day at Outbound Ventures Headquarters. Let's play back the security logs and see what happened."

Kort moved to the computer/comm station and accessed the network. He pulled up Parva's file and instructed the computer to play back the security logs and display Parva's whereabouts. He then set the computer to replay at 4X speed.

Parva's day whirred past. She'd made dozens of minor repairs and then Grace tapped her for a repair on the Corsair. Galloway asked that the playback speed be cut in half. Grace and T'Kir happily exited the runabout's main hatch and after they'd disappeared Parva appeared.

She was in obvious distress. Kort dropped the playback speed to normal and moved it back to when Parva first exited the runabout. She had laboured breathing and suddenly clutched her chest and her face was screwed up from the pain. She staggered on her way to the industrial replicator and had to lean against it for over ten minutes.

Finally, the pain eased off and Parva relaxed. Her breathing was still laboured but it wasn't coming in gasps any more. As her body settled down, she replicated an impulse manifold and lugged it back to the Corsair. With one final look around to see that no one had witnessed these events, Parva entered the runabout and disappeared for almost an hour. When Parva reappeared, she was obviously exhausted but she exited the HQ like nothing had happened.

"Damn her!" Kort thundered, "I've told her and I've told her: call me if anything happens. She has a damned cardiac arrest and blithely goes about her business as though nothing's wrong."

Galloway frowned and stood with her fists firmly planted on her hips, "Calm down Kort. I doubt that this was the first time."

"That's what infuriates me." Kort declared, "Any of these times she could have died. What has she been thinking?"

"Probably that she's seen too much of folks like you and I recently." Galloway opined.

"I don't..." Kort blustered then stopped in mid-sentence, "You're probably right."

"At least you can admit it." Galloway playfully teased, "The question is: what do we do about it?"

"We have to take her to Olympus Mons right away. It is the best facility on Barrinor and I am a consulting physician so we will receive access to the necessary equipment." Kort decided.

"What's your consulting speciality?" Galloway was curious.

"Trauma." Kort grimly replied.

"Should we call first?" Galloway wondered.

"Yes." Kort adamantly nodded his head, "We'll get resistance if we just arrive in person."

"There goes dinner." Galloway sighed.

"I am truly sorry." Kort replied, "You don't have to attend."

"Like hell I don't." Galloway snapped, "I don't know about you but this doctor's always on duty."

"As am I." Kort said with a broad smile, "Come let us conquer death together."

"Damn straight!" Galloway cheered. Just then, Kort's comm badge started chirping. Kort picked it up and pressed his thumb against it.

"What?"

"Kort, it's Macen." Came the disembodied reply.

Kort winced, "How can I help you, Captain?"

"I need you to come to Olympus Mons." Macen requested, "We have a medical emergency."

"I already have a medical emergency." Kort replied, "Parva needs an immediate heart transplant."

"Has she agreed?" Macen wondered.

"Just today." Kort informed him.

"Stay with that." Macen instructed, "All our best. Macen out."

"He's mighty cooperative." Galloway observed.

"Not always." Kort ruefully informed her, "But he has been very worried about Parva. We all have been."

Galloway leaned in close and kissed Kort on the cheek. Kort touched where her lips had been and looked utterly confused.

"Why did you do that?" he wanted to know.

"You care about them...your team, I mean." Galloway tried to explain, "It's almost like they're family."

Kort drew himself in preparation of an argument. Taking a second to reconsider, he had to admit Galloway had a point. His shoulders slumped in defeat.

"Wow." She breathed, "I don't know what happened but you just ran the emotional gamut."

Kort sheepishly grinned, "I was going to argue with you..."

"But?" Galloway prompted.

"But I realised that, in essence, you are correct." Kort admitted, "Of all of us, only Tom Riker and Lisea Danan have any contact with their relatives...if they have any living relatives."

"Your Captain and his wife don't have any living relatives, do they?" Galloway asked.

"They have no cultural peers at all as well." Kort added, "The rest of us have been driven into exile either by choice or by circumstance."

Galloway frowned, "I'm glad I'm a surgeon and not a psychiatrist. I think I could make a profession out of you lot."

"Come," Kort insisted, "Parva needs us."

"Let me put my sweater on and I'll be right with you." Galloway promised.

Although it was barely into the early evening, the Soho weather had turned quite brisk. Rever and Dracas' breath puffed out while they walked. It reminded Dracas of a tour he'd taken of Germania during the late fall season of the Magna Roman's northern hemisphere. Dracas could see why Alaric Germanicus loved his native land.

Dracas had recently asked Macen how the office of the Federation's President had come to be. Macen had diligently explained the process that had created the position. He had then followed up with a question of his own.

"Why did the position of Emperor replace that of the Roman Proconsul?" Macen innocently asked.

"The Proconsul had become weak." Dracas fired off, "His election by the Senate meant that he could be swayed by political masters. The Emperor rose from the ranks of the Legions and is beholding to no one."

"What about the Legions?" Macen asked, "If the Emperor's power begins with the Legions, doesn't it end there as well?"

Dracas had frowned, "You're trying to confuse me."

"I'm trying to make you weigh all of the evidence." Macen had explained, "Sometimes that's confusing."

"Yet you offered me a singular view of your own politics." Dracas accused.

Macen laughed, "I offered you a piece of a very large puzzle. It's up to you to find the answer. I can show you where to look but you have to find your own answers."

It was advice that Dracas had opted to apply to his entire life. Take going to this support group. He thought he might find a piece of his puzzle here.

Whatever else this shall be, Dracas thought, it should be interesting.

 

Chapter Five

Macen, T'Kir and Grace hurried into Olympus Mons' main reception area. A frazzled looking Amanda Drake was pacing near the entrance and immediately recognised their entrance. She purposefully strode to them.

"We came as soon as we could, Amanda." Macen explained, "What's going on? What's happened to Shannon?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Drake growled.

"Calm down." Macen sternly ordered, "Take a seat and tell us what's been going on up until now."

Drake looked ready to argue and then her shoulders sagged, "The waiting area is this way."

Macen had never seen Drake close to defeat before. He decided that it was an unsettling sight. Drake stopped at the replicator and got herself some coffee. Macen and T'Kir followed her lead. Grace ordered tea and sat down with the rest. Noticing Drake's pointed stare, Grace made to rise.

"I can leave." She offered.

"No." Drake said forcefully. A second later she said more gently, "Shannon puts a lot of stock in you. You might know something the rest of us don't."

"I'm flattered." Grace settled into her seat, "But I barely know Commander Forger."

"Amanda," Macen was growing more concerned with every passing moment, "what's happened?"

"When I arrived at Shannon's she wouldn't open the door. I kept buzzing her until the door opened. What I saw terrified me." Drake recalled, "I've never seen her skin to sallow or her eyes so swollen, red, and sunken. She shambled about like a lifeless creature."

Drake thought about it and revised her statement, "I shouldn't say lifeless. She was still animated enough to be obsessed with one reoccurring theme."

"Which was?" Macen prompted.

"She wanted to get to your ship, to the Obsidian, and see your EMH." Drake elaborated, "She wanted her prescription refilled."

"What kind of prescription?" Macen asked, "Why couldn't she see a local doctor?"

"It made me suspicious too." Drake admitted, "I asked her those same questions. She handed me this bottle in reply to the first." Drake handed Macen a bottle, "And all she would say about the other was that the EMH wouldn't ask questions. She'd arranged that."

"Amanda," Macen held Drake's gaze, "this was a bottle of Cetryn."

"I know." Drake sagged.

"What's Cetryn?" T'Kir wanted to know.

"It's a stimulant." Macen explained, "It stimulates the brain's production of dopamine. The dopamine makes one hypomanic. That means they're more alert, quicker mentally, require less sleep, and their metabolism is sped up. The bad part is that when a person enters hypomania they also become megalomaniacal and hyper aggressive. The sensation is also addictive even of the drugs aren't."

"Shannon collapsed shortly after I arrived and I called the paramedics." Drake finished telling the tale, "I left messages with you but I had to contact Christine so that she could page you."

Christine Pike was Outbound Ventures' liaison with the SID. A former Starfleet administrative officer, she knew how to navigate the bureaucracy that Macen detested. In her "spare" time, she was the corporate Operations officer.

"Sorry about that Amanda." Macen was sincere, "We went to the wildlife preserve for the afternoon."

"Wildlife?" Drake snorted, "What wildlife? This planet was devoid of life before it was terraformed."

"They brought animals in." T'Kir said defensively, "Everybody loves cuddly critters. There's even a tribble petting zoo."

"Do the rangers know what they're dealing with?" Drake asked in horror.

"Yup." T'Kir said gleefully, "Every night the whole population is left out for the predators to have at and every day there's baby tribbles left over."

"The system is surprisingly efficient." Macen added, "The predators aren't fed at all and they're contained in order to prevent them from hunting. All they get are tribble snacks."

"Damn Sisko." Drake grumbled, "By the time Starfleet knew anything about the tribbles reintroduced from the past, it was too late to do anything about it."

"Aww," T'Kir wheedled, "But they're cute."

Drake gave up, "What do you know about your EMH? Does she prescribe medications that aren't needed?"

"Tessa has been having memory glitches lately." Grace piped up.

"I checked that." T'Kir reminded her, "Nothing in her program had been deleted or corrupted."

"What about added?" Grace wondered.

"Shannon is an expert in holoprogramming." Drake revealed, "If she added anything to the EMH program, it would look like it's always been there."

"Damn it!" T'Kir snarled as she leapt to her feet, "C'mon Sweetie, we're goin' to the ship."

"Do I have to?" Grace moaned as she rose and started to follow T'Kir out.

"C'mon!" T'Kir called back, "We can take the Corsair up. It'll give you a chance to test everything but maximum impulse."

"Well, we already know max impulse has crapped out." Grace replied, "When's Dracas getting back?"

At this point they were outside and well out of earshot. Drake expectantly looked to Macen, "When is Kort arriving?"

"Soon." Macen said, "But he has an emergency of his own. Parva's heart is giving out."

"She's opting for the surgery?" Drake asked hopefully.

"She is." Macen assured her.

"Thank God." Drake sighed, "At least something is going right today."

"Where's Shannon now?" Macen enquired.

"I'll show you." Drake wearily rose and began to head deeper into the hospital's recesses.

Kort pressed the door chime again. Galloway took hold of his hand, "Relax. They'll answer."

The door slid open and Daggit wore a surprised expression, "Kort, Ms. Galloway, this is a surprise."

"It's Hayley." Galloway bestowed her warmest smile upon Daggit.

"All right Hayley, what are you two doing here?" Daggit was getting suspicious.

"We are here in a professional capacity." Kort assured him.

"Is this about Parva's heart?" Daggit asked.

"Yes." Kort gravely replied, "Her heart is beginning to fail. We need to operate tonight."

"What makes you think that?" Daggit wanted to know.

"Rab? Who is it?" Parva appeared in the hall and suddenly looked distinctly guilty.

"Parva?" Daggit lost any and all certainty.

"Parva," Kort spoke gently, "we've reviewed the headquarters' security logs for today. We know you suffered heart failure. You've probably had this before, correct?"

Parva shuffled her feet and stared at the floor with her hands clasped behind her back. Daggit coaxed her out of it and Parva nodded, "It started two weeks ago. Today was the worst."

"That's what I thought." Kort murmured.

Daggit was stunned, "Why didn't you say anything?"

Parva graced him with a sweet, innocent smile, "I didn't want to worry you while I decided what to do."

"But you've decided to undergo the surgery." Daggit didn't quite ask, "Are you certain?"

"Completely." Parva happily nodded, "I don't want to leave you."

Daggit wrapped his arms around her and squeezed, "I don't want you to go."

"So when do we do this?" Daggit ask the doctors.

"Now." Kort said, "The surgical unit is prepared and a selection of hearts is standing by."

"Can I grab a change of clothes?" Parva wondered.

"You won't need them." Kort insisted.

"She changes clothes." Daggit demanded.

"Oh, very well." An exasperated Kort relented.

A few minutes later Parva came bounding back to the doorway wearing a loose fitting pair of sweats, "I'm ready!"

"We have a car waiting." Galloway informed the couple, "You can catch a ride with us."

Parva squeezed Daggit's arm, "Isn't this exciting?"

Daggit granted her a gentle smile, "I guess it is."

"Can we go now?" Kort prodded. Galloway swung the medkit she'd been holding behind her back forward. Seeing Daggit's glare, she smiled and shrugged.

The doctors led the couple to their waiting groundcar and they all boarded it. With a word, the car hurried off towards Olympus Mons. They arrived to find the surgical team ready to receive them. Daggit caught Kort by the arm.

"Do what you can." He pleaded.

"Do not fear." Kort assured him, "Hayley is the finest surgeon in the sector."

"I'll be holding you to that." Daggit replied.

"I have to go now, Rab." Kort gently pried Daggit's fingers off of his arm, "They need me."

"Right." Daggit murmured. He returned to the waiting area and perused its offerings. A viewer displayed local entertainment vids. The replicators could serve meals and drinks. A computer/communications station sat by. Padds were offered for guests to download reading material. Daggit ignored all of the amenities and began to wander the halls.

Daggit's worst fear was coming to life. He'd almost lost her today. Today and a few more besides. Daggit didn't know if he could continue without Parva.

It was a legitimate concern. Parva brought out the best in him. She'd helped him reconnect with his forgotten humanity. He'd have to forgo all of that in order to survive her death. He'd truly become a soulless killing machine.

He didn't know how long or how far he'd wandered when he came upon Macen and Drake standing outside a patient's room. They seemed deeply engrossed in a conversation and Daggit intended to pass them by. Drake's eyes lit up with recognition. Macen turned.

"Rab!" Macen blurted, "How's Parva?"

It was early evening and everyone was filtering out of the support group's time shared meeting place. Everyone but Dracas and his newfound friend. Stan Guthrie was an attendee of sorts and Rever had made the introduction. As Dracas had already discovered, Guthrie's husband had died eight years ago during the Dominion War. Guthrie had attended these meetings for years, as well as his Starfleet duties would allow, and only came now to mentor and console the freshly bereaved.

"So you're from Magna Roma?" Guthrie incredulously asked.

"You know of my world?" Dracas was surprised by Guthrie's interest.

"Of course." Guthrie's enthusiasm was undiminished, "Everyone in Starfleet has heard of your world and its recent discovery."

"Recent...?" Dracas was flabbergasted, "Your Captain Kirk encountered Magna Roma over a century ago."

"That's impossible." Guthrie shook his head, "There'd be records."

"There are." Dracas assured him, "Just as there are records of Captain Macen's visits."

"You've pluralized them." Guthrie noted

"That is because he visited my world shortly after your great war." And before I was born, Dracas carefully omitted, "Then again the following year and finally he came to us shortly before our revelation to the Federation at large."

"Is this Macen Brin Macen?" Guthrie asked.

"Yes." Dracas affirmed, "He is my commander here in the Federation."

"You're SID?" Guthrie was surprised.

"Yes. What of it?" Dracas asked a tad defensively.

"I'm SpecOps." When Dracas didn't recognise the reference, Guthrie elaborated, "I'm a member of Starfleet's Special Operations Command. You might say we serve kindred divisions."

"Yes," Dracas nodded, "the Captain has told me of you and your exploits."

"Not me personally." Guthrie demurred.

"You are part of a cadre; the glory of one is the glory of all." Dracas said firmly.

"Are you two done?" Rever asked as he approached. He wore a sly smile.

"Actually, I was hoping to share Joachim's company for a while yet." Guthrie said and he looked at Dracas, "Would you mind?"

"I would be honoured to." Dracas looked to Rever, "Would you be all right with this?"

"I'd give my left leg to see you on a date." Rever grinned, "Go out and have some fun."

"Thank you." Dracas said appreciatively. As he and Guthrie were exiting the building, Rever overheard Dracas ask Guthrie, "What's a 'date'?"

Shannon Forger limply lay on the biobed. Most of her readings were still strong and vital. Those that were showing signs of fatigue and depletion hovered above non-existence. Forger herself was insensate. Drake led Macen back out of the room.

"What's the prognosis?" Macen quietly asked in the hallway.

"Guarded but optimistic." Drake recited from memory, "All indications are that she hasn't permanently altered her neurochemistry but that's based upon preliminary readings. She's been on Cetryn for nearly a year."

"If Starfleet didn't administer Cetryn in the field, she would never have known about it." Macen pointed out.

"I know." Drake spat, "We promote it as being non-habit forming and harmless after a few night's sleep."

"I think it would be best to send her to rehab." Macen suggested.

"She isn't addicted to it." Drake protested.

"Maybe not physically but she is addicted to it emotionally and mentally. She needs to be somewhere where she can spend the next few months relearning how to live without the stimulants."

Drake mulled it over and finally she nodded in agreement, "You'll be busy so I'll bring her back to Earth with me and place her in a suitable program."

"One at least ninety days long." Macen insisted.

"I'll make that a stipulation with the counsellors." Drake promised. She saw movement over Macen's shoulder and she recognised Rab Daggit shambling up to them.

Macen followed her line of sight. Daggit was an emotional mess. Macen hardly needed his empathic senses to confirm that diagnosis. It has to be about Parva, Macen surmised.

"Rab!" Macen said in as upbeat a tone as he could muster, "How's Parva?"

Daggit stared at Macen with hollow eyes, "She's going to die."

Macen took Daggit by the shoulders and evenly met Daggit's gaze, "She's going to live, Rab. Even if she doesn't, if she's like the rest of this team, she'll come back to life again."

Daggit was totally perplexed. Macen turned him around and started him down the hallway, "Let me stay with you Rab. We'll sit there together and wait for Parva's surgery to be over."

"Amanda, I'll talk to you later." Macen called back over his shoulder.

The last thing Drake heard from Macen was his exhortation to Daggit to talk to him. Drake shook her head. Macen was having quite the day. First a distraught CO, then a drug addled XO, followed up by a grief and worry stricken Special Operations Specialist. Drake was wondering how he was pulling everyone together. The legends of the Listeners were true, she realised.

She wondered who Macen would turn to if T'Kir were to die. For now, it would most likely be Ro Laren. They had a bond forged in fire and blood. But after she passed on, who did that leave. Drake suddenly realised both Macen and T'Kir would outlive everyone they knew by at least two hundred years. Presumably longer for Macen. He would bury his wife and still face another century's worth of life. She wondered how he faced that every day.

Macen would start facing the end of his friend's lives over the next fifty years. Alynna Nechayev, barring a McCoy-like endurance, would die then. Riker would follow. Daggit, Radil, Danan, and Dracas would be next. Ro would fail. If Grace followed human norms, she could see another hundred years worth of life. Kort would be the last to fade.

Macen would have to reconstruct his life. It was no wonder he wanted to retired when his teammates did. It would be his last chance to enjoy them.

Drake had to shake herself. Such thoughts were maudlin and she had enough troubles of her own. The realisations did make her appreciate her troublesome agent all the more. The next hundred years would be hard on T'Kir and him. She'd do all that she could to ease their burdens before those dark days arrived.

Having resolved to do one task she shifted her attention to a more pressing need. Retracing her steps, she returned to the waiting area next to the main entrance. The visitor's com/comm terminal was unattended so Drake sat down and began researching recovery clinics on Earth.

Daggit had poured out his turmoil upon Macen on their way back to the surgical unit. Macen, in turn had reassured Daggit that Parva would be fine. He sought the Currents surrounding this event and they were untroubled. Macen told Daggit as much.

"I've never put much faith in your mysticism," Daggit admitted, "but I've also seen you predict some wild things that have come true."

"Just give me the benefit of the doubt on this one, okay?" Macen urged.

"All right." Daggit agreed with some true hope in his voice, "Want anything from the replicator?" Daggit asked as he rose and crossed the room.

"A vanilla latte." Macen requested.

Daggit ordered Brillian spice tea for himself and brought Macen his coffee. Macen grinned, "I thought that was Parva's favourite drink."

Daggit looked flummoxed for a second and then he settled into a sheepish grin, "It is. I discovered that I like it too."

"Aren't our partners wonderful creatures?" Macen warmly smiled, "They introduce us to things we'd normally quail at."

"It is a wonder." Daggit chuckled.

The doors opened and Riker and Danan rushed headlong in. They wore casual wear and horrified expressions.

"My God!" Riker exclaimed, "Are we too late?"

Danan focused on Daggit, "Rab, I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"

Macen and Daggit exchanged a bewildered look. Danan turned bright scarlet and Riker heaved a sigh of relief, "Parva's not dead, is she?"

"No." Daggit said a tad defensively, "Why should she be?"

"Kort left a message on my com/comm. He said that Parva had suffered a major heart attack and was lapsing into terminal heart failure. We were afraid that the worst had happened." A still blushing Danan explained.

"Kort." Daggit growled through gritted teeth.

"As long as you're both here," Macen began to suggest, "you can help me keep Rab company."

"Of course." Riker enthusiastically agreed. Danan merely nodded and staked out chairs for her and Riker.

The conversation covered the actual events surrounding Parva's being in surgery. Next, it covered what everyone was doing with their day. Danan noted that Macen was conspicuously quiet. She was going to inquire as to what he was thinking when Radil burst into the scene.

"What the hell is going on?" the Bajoran demanded.

Grace and T'Kir had reached the Obsidian's Sickbay. In it they found Tessa reading a book. She was quite happy to receive guests.

"How does that go again?" Tessa bit her lip and then brightened, "Oh! 'Please state the nature of the medical emergency.'"

T'Kir and Grace chuckled. The EMH looked inordinately pleased with herself. Grace glanced a peek at what Tessa was reading.

"Sherlock Holmes!" Grace exclaimed, "I love Arthur Conan Doyle!"

"Me too." Tessa bubbled, "The Captain loaned me the book and suggested that I read it."

T'Kir smirked, "Sounds like Brin."

"Doesn't it though?" Grace grinned. Taking Tessa by the arm, she led her away from the main computer access terminal, "So what do you like best about the book so far?"

"What's she doing?" Tessa nervously glanced back at T'Kir.

"It's okay, Honey." T'Kir assured her, "I'm just tracking down the glitches with your memory."

"I thought you said you couldn't find anything wrong." Tessa replied.

"I have a new lead." T'Kir explained, "I looked for deleted or corrupted files. I didn't search for ones that could have been added."

Tessa rolled this around in her mind. Finally, she nodded and wore a bright smile, "Okay. Begin your examination."

T'Kir chuckled, "You're learning humour from Kort."

Tessa drew herself up, "And if I am?"

"You need more variety in your repertoire." T'Kir advised, "I'll tell you what, Brin, Hannah and I will start spending more time in here and you'll get to see alternative forms of humour. Okay?"

"I'd appreciate that." Tessa confessed, "Kort's jokes rarely elicit any laughs."

"Remember," Grace took over, "humour has to come from the inside. You can't copy someone and expect to be funny. It has to be natural."

"How can I be natural when I'm artificial?" Tessa complained.

Both Grace and T'Kir laughed. Tessa was confused at first and then started to smile. Grace squeezed her arm.

"Now that was funny because it was natural." Grace informed her.

"I'm happy. Confused but happy." Tessa admitted.

"It's a start." Grace assured her, "Now tell me about the book..."

While Grace and Tessa compared notes on The Hound of the Baskerville, T'Kir buried herself in Tessa's holomatrix.

 

Chapter Six

Having explained the situation to Radil, the group resumed their discussion on the day's activities. Daggit regaled them with the preparation of the dinner Kort and Hayley Galloway had interrupted. Riker and Danan spoke of a casual brunch followed a walk in the nearby meadowlands and a picnic dinner. Macen related how Grace had joined T'Kir and him for a hike though the massive wildlife preserve on the island continent of Brombique.

Danan felt Macen was leaving something out of his recitation but she chose to let it go. Finally, Radil explained that she'd been shopping. Danan brightened.

"With anyone?" she asked.

"Abby Collins." Radil replied nonchalantly.

Danan's internal sensors suddenly received a clear picture of the situation. Collins had an evident, visceral attraction to Radil. Radil, on the other hand, was harder to read. One moment she apparently reciprocated Collins' affections and in the next moment she appeared to share a platonic kinship with Collins. Danan wondered if Radil herself knew how she felt.

"What were you shopping for?" Danan enquired.

"Lingerie." Radil blurted out. She suddenly very aware of every eye being focused on her.

"What?" she demanded, "Can't I get a little girly?"

Danan took her by the hand, "Let's have a quiet chat outside."

Radil looked annoyed but she followed along. They stopped outside in the courtyard laid out before the entrance. Radil looked apprehensive so Danan attempted a level-headed approach.

"Jenrya, you are aware of Abby's attraction to you, aren't you?" Danan asked.

"Of course I am." Radil grunted, "She told me herself."

"And how did you respond to this revelation?"

"I told her I'd think about it." Radil revealed.

"Have you ever been with another woman?" Danan decided blunt was the way to go here.

"Yes." Radil confessed, "Just before the Cardassians left, I had an affair with a fellow Resistance fighter. It lasted for several months."

"How did it end?" Danan wanted to know.

"She decided that she'd made a mistake and concentrated on the male members of our cell." Radil shrugged.

"How did that make you feel?" Danan asked.

Radil gave her a wary eye and Danan laughed, "Come on. This is serious."

Radil sighed, "I felt awkward and confused. It was awkward. I was confused and hurt for a very long time. When that ended, I decided to give men a chance and never looked back."

"So you were only attracted to women before that?" Danan queried her.

"Yeah. So?" Radil was growing defensive.

"Jenrya, have you considered how you are around Abby?" Danan tried to refocus the discussion.

"I have a good time." Radil admitted.

"It's more than that." Danan pointed out, "You're genuinely happy. In fact, it's the first time I've seen you like that. Every time you're with Abby Collins you light up like life is suddenly worth living."

Radil was disquieted, "I don't think I want to talk about this any more."

"Can I ask one last question?" Danan earnestly asked.

"What?" Radil wearily replied.

"How old are you?" Danan wondered.

"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"Maybe nothing, maybe a whole lot." Danan replied, "Humour me."

"I'm thirty-four." Radil answered, "Why? How old are you?"

"I'm forty-two." Danan answered, "But to answer your real question: you may be looking for a mate. Most Bajorans pair off before the age of thirty."

Radil scowled and Danan brushed the thought aside, "Just something to contemplate."

Radil studied the late night sky, "Can we go in now?"

"After you." Danan said in a chipper tone. Radil was aware of her behaviour. It may not have been placed in context before but something was working on her subconscious. Danan just hoped that she'd helped somehow.

Dracas and Guthrie had been talking now for three hours. The first hour had been after the close of the support group's meeting. After that, the pair had spent an hour at dinner. The last hour had been spent wandering the streets of New York City.

At first, tentatively, they broached the topic of their careers and their respective units while at dinner. Finding a great deal of common perspectives, the conversation drifted to their personal lives. Guthrie had been delighted to learn that Dracas was a clone. He wanted to know what sort of paradigm one had when you were a duplicate of someone else.

Dracas frowned, "It was a moot point. My progenitor had left Nova Roma before I was created. All that matter was that clones are anathema on Magna Roma. If it were not for the graces of my Emperor, I would be a slave now."

Guthrie stopped. They were walking in Central Park, near the water, and at this time of night fewer and fewer people were about. Guthrie ran a hand through his close cropped hair and shook his head.

"Jesus." He grimaced, "First they create you and then they decide to enslave you. What kind of world do you come from?"

"In the Legions discipline is everything. Every facet of life is regimented. Who you can address, see socially, and eat with is regulated. There are Roman citizens, freemen and women, and slaves. Clones are beneath slaves. It is not a matter for debate. It is merely a fact."

"Let's keep moving." Guthrie suggested, "Tell me..."

"Aha!" T'Kir gleefully exclaimed, "I found it!"

"You found my memory glitch?" Tessa asked hopefully.

"Found it and deleted the subroutine patch that caused the problem." T'Kir met Tessa's eyes and intently looked into them, "Tessa, if Shannon Forger ever tries to access your program, call Security."

"I could use a few of those self defence moves Chief Dracas has been showing me." Tessa eagerly suggested.

"You beat the crap outta her, Honey." T'Kir wore a feral grin, "Just call Security first."

"You betcha." Tessa sketched a salute.

"Been spending some quality time in here already?" Grace bemusedly asked T'Kir.

T'Kir impishly grinned, "You do what you gotta do."

"With you that generally means getting into trouble." Grace quipped.

"We each have a destiny." T'Kir brought her palms together and bowed at the waist.

Grace grinned, "Shouldn't you alert your husband, our captain, the illustrious light that leads us to the fact that you've fixed the problem?"

"I have taught you well, young grasshopper. Soon you will be ready to attain the true Zen of sarcasm." T'Kir proudly smiled.

"Now my heart can go on." Grace retorted.

Still smiling broadly, T'Kir hit her comm badge, "T'Kir to Macen."

Macen was listening to the others converse when his comm badge began to chirp. He ignored everyone else's surprised glances and tapped it, "Macen here."

"Hi, it's me." Came T'Kir's jubilant voice.

"I thought so. That's why I answered." Macen dryly replied.

"Listen mister, I just spent two hours poking around in a very complex holo program. Spare me the attitude." T'Kir huffed.

"Duly noted." Macen acknowledged, "Was the culprit who we thought?"

"Yup. The bypass was activated by a voice trigger. The voiceprint ID matched what we had on file." T'Kir reported, "Basically, it just confirms what we already knew."

"We had to be certain." Macen sighed, "When are you returning?"

"You're still there?" T'Kir was only partially surprised.

"Parva's still undergoing a heart transplant." Macen explained, "We're helping Rab stand vigil."

"Oh." T'Kir had forgotten about Macen's earlier conversation with Kort, "Hannah and I will be there shortly."

"See you soon." Macen signed off, "Love you."

"Love ya too." T'Kir said happily, "Later."

The circuit closed and Macen rose, "I have to go see someone."

"Who?" Riker wondered.

"Someone else that needs help right now." Macen cryptically replied and left.

"So that's what's been on his mind." Danan remarked.

"He got that out of T'Kir's conversation?" Radil wondered, "I didn't get anything out of it."

"Admiral Drake is here." Daggit informed them, "Her sister has been hospitalised."

"Shannon?" Riker was very alert all of sudden.

Danan was suddenly very jealous of the intensity of emotion behind that question. Danan knew that she shouldn't feel that way. She and Riker had never formalised anything between them. She'd even boasted of their relationship's flexibility to Captain Kira and Commander Vaughn. So why was she suddenly irked by Riker's enthusiastic concern for a fellow crewman?

Because I can be! She petulantly declared to herself.

Riker excused himself and strode down the hallway looking a reception aide. Danan's eyes followed him as he left. Profound silence loomed over the remaining trio.

"Now who's unsure of their feelings?" Radil smugly asked.

Danan made to reply but nothing came out. How could she counter Radil's charge? After all, it was true.

Macen found Drake engaged in a conversation on the waiting room's public com/comm. It was with an older gentlemen. As Macen approached, he recognised the man as Nigel Forger, Amanda and Shannon's father.

The elder Forger had spent the last twenty years as a Project Manager for the Antares Shipyards. His entire Starfleet record had been distinguished. It was a proud legacy for his daughters to aspire to. Today's news had to be troubling.

They said their farewells and Drake cleared the call log. Rising from the terminal she turned and spotted Macen. Her lips twisted into a wry smile.

"Don't you have anyone else to loom over?" she sarcastically quipped.

"They're fine at the moment." Macen grinned, "So I'm all yours."

"As T'Kir would say, 'Oh joy'." Drake groused.

"Was that your father on the screen?" Macen wondered.

"Yes." Drake's mood lightened somewhat, "By the way, Dad says 'Hi'."

"I was impressed with your father when I met him." Macen revealed.

"Most are." Drake said wistfully.

"You have nothing to prove, Amanda." Macen counselled her, "Your achievements in your specialty might even outweigh your father's."

Drake flashed him an irritated look and Macen sobered, "Besides I can now confirm that Shannon altered the ship's EMH program."

Drake groaned, "So T'Kir found it?"

"Yup." Macen nodded, "Have you arranged for her to receive treatment?"

"Yes." Drake wore a pained smile, "She'll be seen at the Andes Institute. I understand you're familiar with it."

Macen broke into an impish grin, "T'Kir's far more familiar with it than I am."

Drake rolled her eyes, "for God's sake Brin, you strolled in and broke her out of there. Alynna may not have been so generous as to cover it up if she'd known you were simply breaking your girlfriend out."

Macen adopted a wounded air, "You wrong me, Dear Lady. We weren't involved at the time."

"Hah!" Drake forcefully replied, "I know all about you two. I ran a background check on her before I allowed her into the SID. Didn't know that, did you?"

Macen ignored the challenge in Drake's eye, "That would've been prudent."

"I talked to Ro Laren. The Bajoran Militia was only too happy to guarantee her cooperation." Drake described, "Ro wasn't very happy to be discussing you two and grew even more defensive when I explored your relationship with T'Kir."

Drake waited for a reply. Not receiving one, she plunged on, "Ro told me how your spending so much time with T'Kir caused Lisea Danan to call it quits on your relationship. The last year you were all in the Maquis together you spent almost every waking moment with T'Kir. Most felt you were spending the rest of the time with her as well. I received this story and corroborated it with similar reports from the Maquis captured alongside you when you fled from the Dominion. Aric Tulley and the others were willing to exchange information in return for a shorter sentence."

"How obliging of them." Macen dryly quipped.

"You know what I discovered?" Drake waited for Macen to respond and he met her expectations with silence, "Tulley was convinced that I was inquiring about you because the pair of you had decided to go haring around the galaxy together. That was my greatest fear when I approved your team roster."

"And has it happened?" Macen asked.

"No." Drake admitted, "At least not as badly as Tulley predicted. You two are a force to be reckoned with but unfortunately you're rarely on Starfleet's page of things."

"But we keep life interesting." Macen sagely pointed out.

"I had an interesting life before I met you. I still have an interesting life." Drake insisted.

"Ongoing crisis management can't substitute for a real life." Macen opined.

Drake shot him an annoyed glare but didn't argue the point. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew that there was a large kernel of truth lurking behind Macen's words. As her personal life crumbled she substituted the fulfilment of self with the pleasure of tasks well done. Her office was scrambling to keep up with her as she moved at a frenzied pace. All was well in her universe...everything but the very core of it.

Drake ran a hand through her hair and she sighed. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she squeezed her eyes shut. She then widened her eyes and patted her cheeks with her hands.

Wearing a weary grin she spoke, "I'll tell you what, you tell me what's going to happen to my sister when she gets out of the Andes Institute and I'll take your comments under advisement."

"Shannon's place is secure. I let T'Kir and Kort stay in the SID team despite their 'difficulties'. I can do no less for a member of my crew." Macen promised, "She'll be held accountable and if she lapses she'll be given one last chance. Failing that, she becomes an ex-employee."

Drake mulled it over and grudgingly agreed with the policy, "Sounds fair enough as long as you hold Kort and T'Kir to the same principle."

"Kort knows he's on his last leg. T'Kir on the other hand..." Macen grimaced.

"What is it?" Macen could sense Drake's rising level of concern even as she spoke.

Macen frowned and he grew pensive. Drake had seen him vulnerable once already today. This second showing was a rarity amongst rarities.

"T'Kir's growing resistant to her telepathic sensitivity meds." Macen finally articulated, "Her doses can't be raised any higher for fear of blood toxicity."

"Are her abilities controlled?" Drake was horrified. Macen's reports regarding T'Kir's psionic abilities had been graphically detailed. Drake loathed the thought of an unrestrained T'Kir being unleashed upon the galaxy.

"She can't casually kill with her mind yet," Macen wearily reported, "if that's what you're concerned about."

Relief flooded through Drake. Her principal worry had just been addressed. Of course, there were other sundry concerns. First and foremost was the possibility of a rogue agent unleashing her nearly unlimited psi powers upon an unsuspecting quadrant.

"Damn." Drake groused, "This was so much simpler before she figured out that particular trick."

"More to the point, life was easier before she learned to enjoy killing with her mind." Macen sorrowfully added.

"We can't do anything about it now except try to prevent her from fulfilling that guilty little pleasure." Drake maintained.

A weak smile crept up on Macen's features, "Shouldn't you be visiting your sister?"

Drake returned his anaemic smile with a bright, confident one, "Only after you return to your stricken crewmate."

"Technically Parva's not a member of the crew." Macen quibbled.

"She'll always feel like a teammate though, won't she?" Drake's smile shifted to the knowing kind.

Macen's smile blossomed, "Of course."

"Keep holding on to that," Drake pointed at his heart and then to his head, "and to that and everything will be fine."

"Aye, aye Admiral." Macen retorted.

"Now you're respectful?" Drake complained.

"Don't get used to it." Macen warned, "It won't last."

"Never fear, I hold out no hope." Drake softly laughed as she promised.

"All right then." Macen nodded in approval, "I go now to oversee my team's welfare."

Drake waved goodbye, "Good luck with that."

Drake watched Macen's retreating back for a moment. With her shoulders squared and her heart resolved she marched off to her sister's room.

 

Chapter Seven

Ryst was escorted to B'nner's private veranda. It was protected by a forcefield that could shrug off one or two bursts from a starship's phasers or disruptors. Even in the heart of his criminal empire Robhurt B'nner was a virtual prisoner of his own success.

Even though he was the ostensible leader of the Orion Syndicate, he was in constant danger of being eliminated by an ally or a younger subordinate. Although the Syndicate now frowned upon such methods of advancement B'nner's position had been severely weakened by the death of his son and heir apparent. Daveed's death left the succession nebulous and the various bosses and racketeers were trying to find their own solutions to the brewing crisis.

The Syndicate's power structure was rather monarchical. The "Godfather" was the king. The Dukes of the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Quadrants were the next tier. Sector bosses and system racketeers ran things on a daily basis. Planetary controllers were the local management. With Daveed's death, the two remaining Dukes were fighting over his territories in the Alpha Quadrant. Added to that was the power struggled from below to assume the coveted mantle. Robhurt B'nner's search for a dependable heir only muddied these issues.

The bulk of B'nner's recent problems with retaining the Syndicate's "throne" revolved around his refusal to engage in reprisals against his son's killers. B'nner had ended the cycle of violence between the Syndicate and Outbound Ventures in order to avoid the escalation that would have transformed it into a "last man standing" conflict. This was a problem with a simple solution and Annika Ryst represented a large part of that selfsame solution.

"Please," B'nner gestured at the chairs gathered around an open fire pit, "take a seat."

Ryst looked around. It was ludicrous to her to build a fire pit in a large, open rotunda. She knew it stemmed from the Orions' love of spicy, skewered roasted meats. Their obsession with such snacks ranked second only to their love of purloined wealth. Selecting an overstuffed leather chair to B'nner's right, she strode over to it and primly settled herself down into it.

B'nner was obviously pleased with her choice of seats. He took a moment to scrutinise her. Her once flaxen locks were once again so dark they were almost black. Her sharp, dark eyes unflinchingly met B'nner's canny green ones.

B'nner smiled, revealing yellowed, crooked teeth, "You truly have no fear."

"I'm only afraid of those things that I can't control." Ryst allowed herself a small smile, "You don't qualify under that criteria."

"I may surprise you, m'dear." B'nner countered.

"You're undoubtedly still formidable when pitted against a Terran." Ryst surmised, "A Vulcan, however, would likely prove a challenge."

B'nner's weathered face twisted in rage but he said nothing. As the seconds ticked past, his anger drained away. Finally, he limply folded further into the recesses of his chair. Propping his feet up on an ottoman he refocused on Ryst.

"There was a day when I faced three Vulcans at once." B'nner wistfully recounted.

"There was a day when I didn't find it harder to move because of being in a gravity well three times stronger than my native world's." Ryst snapped her fingers, "Oh, yeah! That was yesterday."

"Is the gravity truly bothering you?" B'nner enquired.

"Not enough to prevent me from defending myself but I am slowed down." Ryst admitted.

"Then I think it's time to discuss the plan I have set in motion to lure Macen's SID team to their doom." B'nner portentously announced.

"You need to work on your delivery." Ryst softly laughed, "You need to be wearing a skullcap and a cape. Next you need to be twirling the end of a moustache and maniacally laughing 'bwah ha ha ha ha ha'!"

"Excuse me?" B'nner was perplexed and his temper was beginning to fray.

"Just remind me to introduce you to someone named Chaotica." Ryst insisted.

"Enough digression." B'nner grunted, "On to the plan: Several months ago I contacted the so-called leadership of Mityr. As you may know, the society of Mityr is wholly given over to the pursuit of criminal ends. Several entrepreneurs on that world frequently collaborate with the Syndicate."

B'nner hawked something up out of his throat and spit it out. Finished with this matter, he returned to his scheme, "I contacted the ruler of this world, essentially the brute with enough firepower to enforce his will, and made a modest proposal. For several months now, Mityrian raiders have been pillaging Ekos and Zeon."

B'nner had a canny look to his eye, "You probably don't know that Ekos and Zeon are sister worlds. Their system is protected by Federation law. No Federation traffic is allowed in or out of that system. For seven months now the Mityrians have been prowling around that area and I have received word that Starfleet Intelligence is starting an investigation and that a SID team is being dispatched. Odds are that it's Macen's."

"What makes you think so?" Ryst wondered.

B'nner revealed his gnarled teeth, "He gets the most sensitive cases."

"And if it isn't him?" Ryst wanted to know.

B'nner shrugged, "One slain SID team, more or less, will only get us closer to our goal."

Ryst grinned from ear to ear, "I like it. What's my job?"

"I want you to travel to Mityr and assume control of the local situation. The raiders have standing orders to lead Macen's ship to the planet. Presumably, once there, he will travel to the surface and begin a thorough inquiry." B'nner was all smiles, "An inquiry that will lead to his demise."

"That's the perfect spot for a villainous 'Bwah ha ha ha ha ha!'" Ryst informed him.

B'nner shot her a glare and Ryst held up her hands, "Sorry. Just trying to help."

"Help by focusing on the matter at hand." B'nner snapped.

"What do I use as leverage to get the local ruler to accommodate me?" Ryst enquired.

B'nner reached into the folds of the thick quilted jacket he wore even on this tropical planet. He retrieved a padd and motioned for Ryst to retrieve it. Ryst rose from her seat, took the proffered device, and sat back down. She immediately began to review its contents.

After just eying a few of the items listed she whistled, "Gods, Boss, you're willing to give up a lot."

"Only if I have to." B'nner conceded, "I'm trusting that you will make our actual trade arrangements far more tolerable."

"I'll have them begging to have their mishveks out of the vise." Ryst promised, "So when do I leave?"

"I was thinking in the morning, after you've rested." B'nner suggested.

"Just the same to you," Ryst offered the old man an apologetic smile, "the sooner I'm out of this gravity, the sooner I'll be able to rest."

"Very well." B'nner nodded, "You'll find Mityr's coordinates loaded into your navcomp and your weapons package has been upgraded into something useful."

"Good." Ryst snorted, "That tin can's phasers were worthless."

"She'll match any Starfleet vessel her size now." B'nner wore a nasty grin.

Ryst rose and made for the door. B'nner called out to her before she reached it. Puzzled, she turned around.

"I'm counting on you Annika Ryst." B'nner intoned, "We all are."

Ryst hesitated but she refrained from asking the obvious question. Squaring her shoulders, she exited the veranda and strolled off to her runabout. B'nner remained where he was thinking brooding thoughts.

She will get the job done and the eroding sandstone beneath my feet will be shored up. B'nner desperately wished, If that woman fails so do I and perhaps the Orion Syndicate with me.

T'Kir and Grace had arrived at Olympus Mons in the early hours of the morning. Joining the vigil, they began overloading on caffeinated beverages as well. When dawn arrived, the entire group was grateful to see Kort and Galloway emerge from the surgical unit. Both doctors wore satisfied smiles.

Daggit was immediately on his feet, "How is she?"

"Hayley?" Kort deferred to his colleague.

Galloway's smile grew even wider, "The heart functions perfectly. Her circulation has been restored to her physiology's norms. The surrounding tissue and bone regenerated perfectly. All in all, I'd say this has been a brilliant success."

"Where is she?" Daggit nearly babbled, "Can I see her?"

Kort clasped his arm, "Of course. She is in a recovery area. Soon she will be moved to her room. Once she is there, you may all start visiting her."

"Room?" Daggit repeated with suspicion, "Why does Parva need a room?"

Galloway quickly moved to his side, "It's standard procedure with a transplant. You have to give the new heart 24 hours to develop any problems or for the body to develop any rejection issues. These situations are rare but they require immediate attention if they occur."

Daggit scrutinised Galloway for several seconds before he slowly smiled, "Have you ever thought about working for us? I'm certain that the Captain would hire you on."

Galloway laughed, "And give up on trying to sleuth out what you people do? Never!"

Her merriment was infectious and the entire SID team smiled. Kort took this moment to urge Daggit into following him. Daggit eagerly complied. Galloway went to the replicator, ordered the largest mug of raktajino it offered and collapsed into a nearby chair.

Riker and Danan were off to visit Shannon Forger. Riker had located her room during the early morning hours but she had been sleeping. Danan had been quite pleased, and more than a little relieved, to be asked to come with him to Forger's room while the occupant was awake.

Grace and Radil had stepped outside and were strolling amidst the hospital's many walking paths. That left Macen and T'Kir alone with Galloway. They each took a seat, one to either side of the exhausted doctor.

"Is he gone?" Galloway asked with her eyes closed, clutching the coffee mug.

"Yup." T'Kir happily replied, "Both Kort and Rab have gone away."

"Kort's not the problem." Galloway sighed, "He knows the rules."

"And what rules would these be?" Macen enquired.

"Specifically, it's the rule about never breaking down or falling apart in front of your patients or their loved ones." Galloway weakly grinned, "I do believe starship captains have a similar ethos."

It was Macen's turn to grin, "I do believe you're right."

"Before you two get all chummy," T'Kir warned, "remember to include me or else I'll just have to read her mind and get the pretences over with."

Galloway graced T'Kir with a sweet smile, "You don't frighten me. Once you open up your mind to me you'll take in everyone else within your sensitivity radius as well. That's a black abyss you don't want to get pulled into."

T'Kir merely glared at Galloway as Macen softly laughed, "I think you have her pegged."

Galloway shook her head, "No. Kort has her pegged. I just notice details."

"What kinda 'details'?" T'Kir growled.

Galloway chuckled despite her fatigue, "When we first met, and every encounter since then, you've slipped in and out of my mind without effort or hesitation. This meeting, some two months after our last, you are being highly reserved with your telepathic abilities. This, combined with Kort's statements that you've been bolstering your psionic shields, leads me to believe that you're losing control of your abilities and that it is now easier to block them out rather than try to rein them in. Am I right?"

T'Kir looked on the verge of apoplexy but she restrained herself and jarringly nodded her head twice. Galloway sighed and leaned back to rest her head against the wall with her eyes closed.

"I thought as much." She sadly confessed.

"Wait a minute!" T'Kir finally erupted as she leapt out of her seat, "How the hell do you know so much about me?"

Galloway offered a wan smile, "I'm on Barrinor to consult with Kort regarding your increased tolerance to your telepathic inhibitor medication."

T'Kir threw her arms in the air, "Why doesn't he just tell the whole frinxing galaxy?"

Galloway opened her eyes and met T'Kir's challenging stare, "Kort has only told one medical colleague about your problem out of regard for your privacy. That medical professional was me."

T'Kir's eyes narrowed, "Why d'you rate?"

"If you haven't noticed, Kort is an excellent trauma specialist. Medical research, particularly of such a complex problem as neurotransmitters running amuck, is slightly beyond his reach. That's where I come in." Galloway explained with a hint of mischief twinkling in her eyes.

"How d'you 'come in'?" T'Kir defensively asked, "And how often?"

"Is this a question regarding the nature of Kort and my relationship?" Galloway covered her mouth in mock horror.

"Maybe." T'Kir lost some of her vehemence.

"Just to stifle concerns that Kort and I are swapping secrets in between the sheets: Kort and I enjoy a very platonic relationship. It could progress further with time and effort but I don't see that happening in the near future." Galloway leaned back and closed her eyes again, "Lord, I hate interrogations. They leave you feeling drained and I'm tired enough already."

"Was the surgery that difficult?" Macen gently probed.

Galloway's eyes opened and she met Macen's gaze. Wearing a bittersweet smile, she explained, "If we'd started the procedure even ten minutes later Parva would be dead. Her heart arrested as we were rerouting her blood flow into the cardiac bypass regulator. As an experiment we tried to revive it. It never responded. We removed it and placed the implant into the cavity."

"And there were problems." Macen guessed before Galloway could close her eyes.

Galloway leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. She vigorously rubbed her face. Ceasing her ministrations she rubbed the back of her neck while she rotated her head. She started when she felt T'Kir's hand brush hers away.

"You're doin' it all wrong." T'Kir wore an apologetic smile, "Trust me. Vulcans know necks."

T'Kir began her ministrations and Galloway groaned, "Ohhhh God. I'll be asleep for sure if you keep this up."

"Just answer the man's question and things will stay as they are." T'Kir offered.

"Anything. Just don't stop." Galloway begged.

"Hayley," Macen used his "command voice", "what kind of difficulties did you and Kort run into during Parva's transplant procedure?"

"The heart is the wrong shape and size." Galloway closed her eyes and frowned, "Orion hearts are almost teardrop shaped. It's never been a problem before because Orions would rather die than accept synthetic or biosynthetic replacements. Also, Orion physiology is still relatively unknown. We rarely convict an Orion and even when we do everyone from the medical profession is forbidden from mapping out their physiology."

"Let me guess," Macen wore a wry expression, "it would violate their rights since it would be an act of torture."

Galloway blinked in surprise, "How did you know?"

"I've encountered a similar situation in regards to an autopsy." Macen explained.

"Starfleet wouldn't let us examine a dead body." T'Kir chuckled, "We convinced them otherwise."

"And just how did you go about changing their minds?" Galloway bemusedly asked.

"We appealed to their sense of logic." T'Kir defiantly insisted.

"Oh really?" a mirthfully delighted Galloway retorted, "Are you sure you just didn't tweak their minds a little?"

"You really think I'd do that?" an affronted T'Kir asked.

"In a heartbeat." Galloway wholeheartedly answered.

"Couldn't." T'Kir muttered, "I can't selectively control my abilities any more."

"It must be rough to suddenly have a conscience thrust upon you." Galloway playfully remarked.

"Hey!" T'Kir protested.

Galloway let loose of a delighted laugh, "That serves you right for what you did to me on our first meeting."

A slight emerald blush coloured T'Kir's cheeks, "Sorry 'bout that."

Galloway dismissed the notion, "No, you're not so don't lie about it."

T'Kir grinned, "You're right. I'm not."

"This was just so you'd know I can take care of myself." Galloway informed her.

"We never doubted it." Macen assured her, "You're friends with Kort. That alone implies that you're formidable."

"Thanks." Galloway bowed her head and genuflected with her hands.

"How come he gets respect and adoration and I get abuse?" T'Kir complained.

"Because he's worthy and you're not." Galloway replied primly.

"Why not?" T'Kir demanded.

"Because you're evil and he isn't." Galloway teased.

"Hey!" T'Kir loudly protested.

Macen and Galloway laughed. T'Kir looked exasperated. A nurse approached them.

"I'm afraid I have to ask you to be quieter." She apologetically informed them, "They can hear you on the ward."

"We'll behave." Macen promised and then he asked, "Do you happen to know what time it is?"

"It is 8:30 local time." The nurse politely answered and then bustled off to other things.

Macen groaned as he rose.

"What is it?" Galloway grew concerned.

"He has to call Joachim and tell him to come back." T'Kir replied and Macen pointed at her and nodded.

"You have another mission?" Galloway enquired.

"Yup." T'Kir confirmed it for her.

Galloway frowned, "How soon?"

"We depart in about a week." T'Kir explained.

Galloway sucked on her lower lip for a second and then made a decision, "I'll contact Sinherra University and see if I can extend my stay."

"Kort can handle the medical stuff." T'Kir replied, "Why d'you you need to stay?"

"I'm staying to help you." Galloway asserted, "That is why I came to Barrinor after all."

"Really?" T'Kir brightened and sat up straighter.

"I have an idea of where to go from here but I need more data." Galloway revealed.

"You do?" T'Kir asked, desperate hope clinging to every word.

"Yes, I do." Galloway confidently confided, "I've been working with some older scans Kort made of your neural activity. I'd like to update those. Are you available tomorrow?"

T'Kir's eyes with bright with fervour, "Of course! What time?"

"I just need to schedule a time to use the hospital's diagnostic equipment." Galloway explained.

"Use the Sickbay aboard the Obsidian." Macen suggested, "Kort and Tessa can assist you."

"Tessa being the EMH?" Galloway smiled.

"You know about her?" T'Kir wondered.

"Kort thinks the world of her." Galloway replied.

A mischievous grin spread across T'Kir's features, "Oh really?"

Galloway looked distressed, "What have I said?"

"Kort is constantly complaining that Tessa is planning on usurping his place as CMO." Macen explained with an amused smile.

Galloway shook her head, "Sounds like Kort, all sturm, drang, and bluster."

T'Kir looked up at Macen with an expectant look on her face, "I like her. Can we keep her?"

"Honey, I don't think she wants to be kept." Macen tried to gently disappoint her.

"Oh foo." T'Kir's lower lip stuck out.

Macen's smile was an affectionate one, "This too shall pass."

"I'd better be consoled later on." T'Kir pouted.

"I promise." Macen vowed.

"Well, just don't stand there." T'Kir said impatiently, "Go ruin Joachim's day."

Macen held his arm before him at waist height and bowed, "Your wish, as ever, is my command Milady."

As Macen departed, Galloway turned to T'Kir, "Why can't I find one like him?"

"How hard are you trying?" T'Kir asked.

"Not very hard." Galloway glumly admitted, "I only know doctors."

T'Kir perked up, "Well, now you have me on your side so you're sure to succeed."

Galloway wore a naughty grin, "I don't see why we can't help each other out."

"That's the spirit." T'Kir leaned in closer and whispered conspiratorially, "What are you looking for in a man? Be completely and bluntly honest."

Galloway blushed and then began to describe her ideal mate.

 

Chapter Eight

The chirping of the comm badge instantly awoke both Dracas and Stan Guthrie. Both of their eyes were sharp and alert as they sought out the distressed device.

"It's mine." Dracas grumbled and slid out of bed. He plucked the offending badge off of his discarded shirt and left the room. Crossing the flat, he arrived in the kitchen. Once there, he tapped the badge with his thumb.

"Dracas here." He said quietly but firmly.

"I hate to disturb you Chief but we have a mission." Macen's voice was apologetic.

"When do I need to leave?" Dracas embodied pure professionalism itself.

"Immediately." Macen regretted to reply, "We've been assigned a new ship for the length of the mission. I need you to inspect it and see what makes her tick."

"I understand." Dracas acknowledged, "I shall depart within six hours."

"Thanks Chief." Macen said gratefully, "Macen out."

Dracas heard the padding of bare feet behind him and he turned. Guthrie stood there, wrapped in a robe.

"I like the view," Guthrie alluded to Dracas' naked form, "but the expression bodes ill."

"I have to leave." Dracas said without inflection, "We have a mission."

Guthrie rubbed the back of his head and wore a rueful expression, "I was afraid of that. When do you leave?"

"Now." Dracas sighed and started to move.

"Listen," Guthrie stopped Dracas in his tracks, "I don't normally pick strange men up and go straight to bed with them."

"Really?" Dracas seemed surprised, "That is a norm on Magna Roma."

"What I'm trying to say is that I'm hoping this isn't a one night stand." Guthrie confessed, "I'd like to see you again."

"As I would like to continue where we left off." Dracas admitted, "You are a remarkable man Stan Guthrie, I would like to know you better."

"Contact Starfleet Command any time." Guthrie urged, "They'll know how to reach me."

"I will." Dracas promised, "But now I must get dressed and retrieve my belongings before I depart in the corporate runabout I arrived in."

They returned to the bedroom and Dracas dressed. Guthrie silently escorted him to the front door. There, he broke his silence.

"You've stirred something inside of me, Joachim, and I'd like to find out what it is." Guthrie revealed.

Dracas nodded, "Perhaps we'll get that opportunity. Farewell."

"Until later." Guthrie replied and watched Dracas trudge off through the morning frost. If only we get that lucky, he reluctantly said to himself.

Parva woke and Daggit experienced rapturous joy. He openly wept tears of joy as he took her hand and fervently kissed it. Parva tousled his hair and laughed.

"It's all right, Rab. I'm okay." Parva giggled.

Daggit stopped kissing her hand and gazed directly into her eyes. Her eyes danced mischievously.

"Who said you could stop?" she demanded imperiously.

Daggit looked back towards Kort, "She's all right. If she has enough energy to imitate T'Kir she's healthy enough to live."

Kort chuckled, "Why don't you both pretend that I'm the doctor and let me examine the patient."

Parva and Daggit looked chastised but thoroughly unrepentant. Kort sighed and produced several specialised tricorders out of his smock's pockets. Utilising them, he soon broke into a satisfied smile.

"You are alive." Kort playfully began, "Your body has not rejected the heart. The heart seems to be working at expected capacity. All of the venal and arterial connections to the heart are stable. In short, you can expect to stay alive."

Parva beamed and Daggit laid his head across her lap. Kort touched Daggit's shoulder.

"We're bringing in a cot so you can rest in the same room." He announced.

"When can I see my friends?" Parva wanted to know.

"I'll let them in so they can see you for a moment." Kort advised, "They have been here all night as well so it is only fair to let them rest as well."

"I'll be good." Parva promised.

"I will let them visit then." Kort announced.

Kort rounded up the various SID team members and brought them to Parva's room. He found T'Kir and Galloway deep in whispered conversation. A conversation which caused Galloway to blush. T'Kir reprimanded Kort for the interruption but forgave him when she discovered why he'd disrupted the clandestine talk.

Macen was intercepted while he was on his way to rejoin T'Kir. Radil and Grace were rounded up and brought into tow. Riker and Danan were paged and they arrived shortly. They brought word that Forger was awake and stable but despondent just the same.

Drake was with her sister and they were sharing laughter and tears. Danan opined that this encounter would go further towards the healing process than any other intervention. She did lock eyes with Macen and sternly informed him that a visit from him was called for. Macen gave his word that he would drop by Forger's room after he'd seen Parva. That satisfied Danan.

Parva almost leapt out of the bed when she saw her friends. She held out her arms and T'Kir rushed into them. Kort barked a warning.

They unclasped and Parva frowned, "He's no fun."

"True." T'Kir's eyes rolled to an angle above her shoulder, "Sadly, he's also right. You have to take it easy for a day or two, kiddo. After that, you'll be better than ever. Promise."

"I already feel tons better." Parva ebulliently announced.

T'Kir laughed, "I'm sure you do, Sweetie. Let's try for megatons next."

"Okay!" Parva bubbled.

"Time to go." Kort announced.

Everyone waved goodbye and said their best wishes as they filed out of the room. After they'd gone, Parva looked to Daggit.

"I hope I haven't worried anyone." Parva said wistfully.

Daggit laughed. It was a laugh rich with irony and delight, "Baby, you have no idea how close you came to dying."

"But everyone else knows." She realised.

"Hence the worry." Daggit squeezed her hand, "You almost waited too long. I almost lost you."

"I'm sorry Rab but I had to think it over." Parva tried to explain, "I mean really think it over."

"But you could've died." Daggit reminded her.

"It would have been my choice, a completely valid choice, to live out my life with the body I have been provided with." Parva struggled to bring the concepts to life, "Look at it this way: what if someone approached you tomorrow and said they could reverse all of the augmentations and psychological conditioning that's been done to you and you find out they can really do it? What's your choice?"

At first Daggit was aghast. Slowly, a rueful expression dominated his features. He shook his head.

"You still know how to go for the throat, m'dear." Daggit admitted with just a tinge of regret.

"I had to pick something that would place you in the same position." Parva did not relent.

Daggit thought about for a moment and then wryly admitted, "I wouldn't do it. That's a far cry from where I was six years ago. Maybe even two. I don't know. My planet's cultural baggage would demand that I do it. My own first inclination is to do it."

"Then why wouldn't you?" Parva quietly asked.

"Because I can make a greater contribution to the greater good as I am." Daggit sounded defeated, "My personal views don't carry any weight."

"Exactly." Parva almost whispered.

Daggit was very sober as he studied his wife, seeing in a new light for the first time, "You wanted to die?"

"No!" Parva replied strongly, "If I'd wanted that we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Then what was the exact source of contention?" Daggit calmly inquired.

"I wanted to be whole." Parva fervently expressed, "I wanted my body to function as nature intended whether that be before or after the shooting."

"What changed your mind?" Daggit wondered.

"Hannah and T'Kir took the Corsair out. Joachim had modified the impulse drive and they were testing it. The impulse manifold melted down while they were using the runabout." Parva described the events, "They didn't know what caused the malfunction. Dracas certainly hadn't anticipated the problem but I solved it. Poor brain damaged, dumb bunny me solved it. That's when I knew I still had something to offer the team. It may not be much but it's something."

Her gaze softened, "Then there's you. You'd survive if I was gone but you'd go back to being 'Mr. Super Soldier' all over again. I couldn't have that on my conscience."

"I won't apologise for being a motivating factor in this." Daggit affectionately smiled.

"Good." Parva brightened. She yawned and stretched her arms, "I hate to say it but I'm really tired. Can we talk more later?"

Daggit patted her hand, "You do whatever is best for you. I'll be right here."

"I know." Parva contentedly exhaled before drifting off.

Daggit paged the nurse and he had two orderlies bring in a cot. With that accomplished, Daggit lay down and fell into a contented slumber as well. A nurse dropped by and a warm smile crept across her face as she saw the couple sleeping. Taking her scans as quietly as possible, she left them there dreaming as she continued her rounds.

The next day came. Parva's morning had been filled by rest and visitors. Now it was T'Kir's turn to be examined. Grace ferried T'Kir and Galloway to the Obsidian in the Corsair. Kort remained behind to oversee Parva's treatment. Macen remained behind to escort Drake and Forger to the Admiral's shuttle.

Grace had expertly flown the runabout on what she'd deemed a "milk run". Her primary motive for coming along being concern over T'Kir's health rather than for the opportunity to helm the diminutive starship. Galloway was delighted by the company. Even after the flight her intrigue regarding the adapted physiology of the Kelvans remained palpable.

"But how do your people achieve their reputed physical augmentations?" Galloway badgered Grace.

Grace stopped in the middle of the corridor and faced down Galloway, "Look Hayley, I'll let you run whatever scans of me that you want, when you've finished with T'Kir, but just don't ask me one more bloody question."

The delivery was good natured enough that Galloway wasn't offended. Embarrassed, yes, but not insulted. She contented herself with joining in on Grace and T'Kir's playful banter. Galloway was quite proud of being so readily accepted.

"So how did you talk Kira out of one of her runabouts?" Macen grinned upon seeing the Rio Grande sitting on Outbound Ventures' tarmac, "Not just any old runabout but her runabout?"

"What do you mean?" Drake looked surprised.

"Ro told me about it. That's the only runabout left that was originally assigned to DS9. Kira's quite proprietary about it."

"Well, she never uttered a word." Drake countered.

"Can we just go if we're going?" Forger sullenly enquired.

Shannon Forger was through the worst of the withdrawals but now the long, cold days without any pharmaceutical assistance had arrived and they would prove to be the real trial. Yesterday she'd received Macen's news that her position with Outbound Ventures was secure as long as she ceased taking stimulants. Her mood had lifted somewhat but she hadn't uttered a word in her captain's presence until now. Macen let it go since he could sense her deep seated shame.

Drake couldn't simply sit by, "Shannon, this man is willing to let you remain as a part of his crew in spite of everything. You might as well be civil."

Forger blankly stared at Drake and Macen pulled Drake closer to him, "It's all right, Amanda. She's in a lot of turmoil right now. She needs time to adjust and help coping. You both do."

Drake blinked out of shock but she quickly recovered, "Very well, I'll give you that one. I'll check in with Alynna on the way back and see how the inquiry is coming."

"Confide in her, Amanda." Macen suggested, "Alynna is understanding and compassionate. She also has wisdom beyond her years."

"It was bad enough to break down in front of you but now you want me to confess my weaknesses in front of my boss?" Drake protested.

"Alynna is your mentor." Macen countered, "If she truly respects you she won't judge. She'll help guide you."

"So you say now." Drake grumped.

"Amanda." Macen scolded her.

Drake held her hands up in surrender, "All right. I'll confide in her."

"Good girl." Macen patted her on the head.

Drake swatted his hand aside, "Watch it buster. You'd better not get all chauvinistic on me."

Macen grinned, "Wouldn't dream of it."

"Liar." Drake snorted. She turned and took Forger's hand, "Come on, Honey. We're leaving."

"'Bout time." Forger muttered. Drake led her to the Rio Grande's hatch. Drake released the lock and the hatch opened. She climbed aboard as Forger stayed on the ground. Turning to face Macen, she offered a tentative wave and then hurried aboard the runabout.

Macen had returned the wave with a bright smile. The hatch sealed and the ship's impulse engines cycled. Drake ran her pre-flight checklist and then sounded an alarm outside. The runabout's antigravs cycled and she lifted from the ground. She flew off in an upward arc into the morning sky.

Macen watched the Rio Grande disappear and then he turned and strode over to a nearby shuttle. Boarding the shuttle, he took a seat at the controls. It was a classic civilian variant of Starfleet's Type 6 shuttle. Running his own checklist, he sounded the departure alarm and lifted off. Setting course for Barrinor Station, where the Obsidian was docked, he looked forward to reuniting with his wife and hoped that Galloway had made progress.

Kiv Rever awoke to the almost imperceptible sounds of Dracas moving around in the neighbouring room. A feeling of dread seized his guts and he rose to investigate. He found Dracas studiously packing his things. A board creaked under Rever's foot as he started to enter the room.

Dracas' reaction was instantaneous. He spun on one heel and whirled to face the source of the sound. Simultaneously, his right hand reached into jacket and withdrew a Bajoran Militia issue phaser. Dracas automatically aimed at the centre of Rever's mass. It was only after he was positioned to deal with a potential threat that he paused to assess that same threat.

Seeing that the source of his "impending doom" was one terrified Rever, Dracas flexed his wrist, aiming the phaser at the ceiling. He bent his arm and tucked the phaser into his jacket. Sliding it into the shoulder holster he wore, he secured the weapon and reassessed Rever.

Rever continued to stand there staring at him in mute horror. Dracas shooed him on, "Be a good man and fetch us some tea. I think we could both use some."

It took a moment for this request to sink in. In the interim, Dracas resumed packing. When Rever's reaction came, it was explosive.

"Make tea? As though nothing had happened?" Rever thundered.

Dracas glanced back over his shoulder, "Nothing did happen. Now scoot along."

"Joachim," Rever almost pleaded, "you almost killed me."

Dracas sighed and turned around, "I could have easily have killed you. There was no reason for it so I didn't."

"And if you'd had a reason?" Rever wondered.

Dracas shrugged, "We wouldn't be having this conversation and I'd have my tea by now."

"Hang the tea!" Rever blurted, "You'd have killed me! What kind of person are you?"

Rever saw the first glimmer of irritation in Dracas' eye and it was a frightening think to witness, "Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not Hal Dracas. I am a Roman Legionnaire. I was born and bred to be a soldier in the service of my Emperor Alaric. I am currently on detached duty and serving with the Special Investigations team of Outbound Ventures. I am sworn to uphold Captain Macen's word as my Emperor's own."

Dracas' visage grew dark and his voice became terrible, "I respect Captain Macen and even admire him but if my Emperor were to revoke his mandate and order Macen's death I would comply without a qualm."

"You're monster." Rever gasped in a hoarse whisper, "And to think I set you up with poor Stan."

A bitter smile crept across Dracas' face, "Stan Guthrie understands me in ways that you will never comprehend. I thank you for the kindness you showed. I will be leaving now. I thank you for your many courtesies. If you reconsider the matter and wish to continue our relationship, call me. If I do not hear from you, I will understand."

Dracas zipped his duffel closed and exited the bedroom. Rever realised that he should say something. As he exited the bedroom he heard the front door close. Rever ran to the door and out into the hall. The corridor was empty. He checked the lifts, none were descending. The stairwells were empty. Totally at a loss, Rever returned to his flat.

He thought about coming Dracas but he had no idea what he'd say. Truth be told, he had no idea why he was chasing Joachim in the first place. Was it merely because he was a ghost of Hal Dracas? Was there anything deeper to the bond between them? Rever buried his head in his hands. Until he could answer those questions it was better for him to stay out of Dracas' life.

Dracas sealed the runabout's hatch. Unbeknownst to Dracas, Annika Ryst had recently purchased an identical model. The Syndicate's modifications and augmentations meant hers could now face down a Danube-class runabout. That left the Outbound Ventures' Corporate Fleet outgunned and underpowered in comparison.

He sat in silence for a moment. The ship's computer awaited instructions but none were forthcoming. Dracas pondered what had just occurred in Soho. He'd assumed that Rever would attempt to follow him and he had been correct. The civilian engineer had never considered the possibility of Dracas climbing the stairs.

In truth, Dracas almost pitied the man. He'd clearly been completely unnerved by the full reality of Dracas' character and hardened resolve. From what he'd learned of these Federation types, it would be a common reaction to those that he revealed himself to. It wasn't their fault that they were weak. It was systemic to their way of life.

That was why Stan Guthrie had surprised and delighted him. Guthrie was a battle tested warrior with years of experience under his belt. Tested in the Cardassian and Klingon-Federation wars and then the Dominion War, Guthrie had proven his mettle time and again. Dracas respected him and that was why he had bedded him. It was a compliment.

To Dracas' delight, and horror, Guthrie wished to carry on their union. Dracas had never been in any relationship that lasted more than a week. Quite frankly, he didn't know how he should feel.

Should I feel anything? Dracas plaintively wondered.

Dracas literally shook himself. Settling into his seat, he spoke, "Computer, begin pre-flight diagnostics of the ship's systems."

"Beginning diagnostics." The feminine voice of the computer acknowledged.

Dracas activated the comm, "Earth Traffic Control, this is the Outbound Ventures runabout Seeker. I am requesting a departure clearance and an outbound traffic slot."

"Ultimate destination?" the traffic controller asked.

"Barrinor." Dracas answered.

"We should be able to squeeze you in within the hour." The controller informed him, "Please stand by."

In truth it took thirty-seven minutes. With that accomplished, Dracas surrendered control and allowed ETC to guide his ship to the system warp boundary. Upon arrival, Dracas received his supralight speed clearance and control of his craft was returned. Dracas thanked them and set out on the course devised for him by ETC at warp 3.

For only the second time in his life, Dracas was in a quandary. He'd been in one when he'd first arrived aboard the Obsidian and he was definitely in one now. He found he mourned the loss of Kiv Rever in his life. To make matters worse, he longed for a greater involvement with Stan Guthrie, if only as a friend. To be blunt he wanted Rever and Guthrie to remain in his intimate circle but he had no idea how to accomplish that.

Dracas sighed and chastised himself over his self perceived frailty. Thinking on it he came to realise the person best able to be in a position to advise him was Rab Daggit. Daggit was the soldier's soldier yet he'd managed to carve out a personal life for himself. Dracas craved the opportunity to receive a few scraps of wisdom from him.

With a grunt Dracas shut off that train of thought. The entire subject was set aside by the man's disciplined decision. The matter would be broached again when he was in Daggit's presence and not before. Finding a false sense of resolution Dracas busied himself in whatever tasks he could find to accomplish. It would be a long five day journey.

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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