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Love and Starships - Part II 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 Nine

"What d'you mean you've developed a 'cure'?" T'Kir demanded. Macen and Grace struggled to keep her from taking hold of Galloway, "How can you 'cure' me? I don't have a disease!"

Galloway, who'd taken a cautionary step towards the exit, explained herself, "In a sense you do. Your telepathy is facilitated by the action of several specialised neurotransmitters activating and stimulating certain portions of your brain."

T'Kir settled down and Galloway stopped bracing for an emergency dash out of the room, "Comparing your cerebral scans against those of a 'normal' Vulcan, we were able to isolate a particular neurotransmitter that is proving to be the problem. Your brain overproduces the neurochemical Seracymoculic. Up until now, Seracymoculic was thought to be a minor ESP enabler. This evidence proves otherwise."

Galloway continued after a breath, "The herbal remedy that the Vulcan texts advocate neutralises smaller doses of Seracymoculic. It does not, however, address the real problem. The overproduction of the transmitter must be addressed."

"How?" T'Kir's nerves were raw.

"I can perform surgery on the affected member and through genetic therapy I can reverse the mutation that has destabilised the brain." Galloway revealed.

"How will that affect me?" T'Kir growled.

"Physically, there will be no changes." Galloway qualified before pressing on, "Telepathically, you'd be neutered."

"What d'ya mean 'neutered'?" T'Kir shouted with a touch of hysteria lacing her voice.

From behind her, Macen wrapped his arms around her. T'Kir pulled his embrace even tighter. In a calmer manner, she repeated her question.

"You'd still have telepathic abilities. That much is certain." Galloway assured her, "To what extent remains to be seen. You could be reduced to touch telepathy that is the Vulcan norm or you could retain a degree of your current level of ability. Our simulations vary widely."

Galloway grew deathly serious, "What is known is that the Vulcan records show that every Vulcan that has had a similar history has succumbed to madness and had to be executed for the public good."

"They couldn't just be locked away?" T'Kir wanted to know.

Galloway shook her head, "They penetrated into people's minds and killed hundreds. Luckily, this condition only arises once in every five hundred years or so."

T'Kir scowled, "Lucky me."

"Actually," Galloway persisted, "you're very lucky. We can treat your condition now. That wasn't possible before. All you have to do is decide whether or not you want to be treated."

T'Kir's mouth abruptly clamped shut. She blinked in surprise several times. Finally, she found her voice.

"Y'mean I have a choice?" she asked.

"T'Kir," Galloway's voice was firm but compassionate, "we all have a choice. Parva had a choice of whether or not to receive treatment. In her case it would have cost her her life to refuse. I can't estimate or predict what will happen to you no matter what decision you make here. Treatment is always an available option. It just depends upon you."

"Can I think about it for a minute?" T'Kir asked.

"Take your time." Galloway sympathetically smiled.

T'Kir took hold of Macen's hand, "C'mon. I need your help."

"I hear and obey." Macen joked while T'Kir dragged him out of Sickbay.

Out in the corridor, Macen asked, "Where to now?"

"Team Room." T'Kir said and briskly led the way.

Ryst leaned back in the runabout's cockpit. The computer was flying the ship. That suited Ryst. Her skills as a pilot were amateurish at best.

She read and reread the report the Syndicate's agents had compiled on Mityr's "king". Bertram Sindis possessed the ruthless genius necessary to bring order to this world. Mityr had been an anarchist's dream where the strong preyed on the weak and everyone was eventually broken.

Sindis changed all of that. No one knew quite how he had done it but the little Iridian had united the battling factions and all under his banner. Mityr's criminal enterprises were now far more profitable and successful than ever before. The pirates and narcotic runners had been reorganised along military lines and their newfound discipline showed.

That aspect of events made perfect sense to the analysts tasked with studying the planet. Iridians were a militant people. Hired as police and military units by aliens, the Iridian Enforcers had pacified large chunks of the frontier beyond the Federation. Only now was Starfleet realising how widespread the Enforcers' influence truly was.

From what had been gathered so far, the Iridians' territory informally stretched across corewards space in a chunk at least as large as the Romulan Star Empire. Informality was the word of the day since most of the inhabitants of those territories merely "hired" the Enforcers to defend their space. The question of who truly had the power had never been tested.

From what little was known about Sindis, it appeared that he had been a sector commander with the Enforcers. Having disobeyed orders, he was removed from his post. Rather than execute him, the apparent normal punishment for such a crime, he was exiled. His loss of face designed to be so severe as to induce a living death.

Sindis had disappointed them. He clung to life. Hopping from one planet to the next across the Federation's frontier, he soon became intimately familiar with the criminal aspects of the otherwise utopian civilisation.

Tracing the roots of the criminal activity, he learned of the Orion Syndicate and Mityr. Statements made by second and third parties indicated that Sindis had rejected approaching the Syndicate because of its monolithic hierarchy. Mityr became his first best choice for excelling. Upon arrival, he quickly set out to make that fragmented world his very own.

According to reports, Sindis was not all that impressive physically. He was lean and very fast but that was all that could be said about his physicality. He was shorter than the average humanoid. His grey skin was ashen. His thick head of hair was bone white and his cobalt blue eyes nearly glowed.

All of that, all precious little that there was, was what the Syndicate's analysts pitifully labelled a "biography". Ryst took the compilers' names down. She promised herself that she would have a very long and painful chat with them when this affair was over. Assuming, of course, that she survived her next encounter with the SID.

Ryst bolted up upright in her chair. Where did that come from? She asked herself. It was true Macen had beaten her three times now but she'd survived each encounter owing to his idiotic merciful tendencies. Those same tendencies are going to get him killed this time around. She swore to herself and settled back into her seat.

I'm in my prime. Ryst consoled herself, Defeat and prison have only hardened my resolve. My edge is still there.

The mere fact that she had to reassure herself gnawed at Ryst. It eroded some of her confidence and she cursed every deity that she could recall from childhood. She had to succeed. She had to! Ryst doubted that she could continue on as a mercenary if she failed this time around.

Ryst was suddenly stunned. She hadn't had the pre-mission jitters since she was augmented. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. All she knew was that the timing was awful.

"I don't know what to do." T'Kir confessed. She and Macen had ordered drinks in the Team Room and were now leaning into the couch in their quarters. Macen had his arms wrapped around her waist and her head rested in the nook of his shoulder.

"I mean it, Brin... I'm scared shitless." T'Kir elaborated, "I'm totally at a loss."

"What would you do if you weren't scared?" Macen gently enquired.

"I'd have the procedure done in a second." T'Kir blurted without a moment's hesitation.

"Okay, we know what you want to do." He said in a soothing voice, "Now, why are you scared?"

"I can live with the paring down of my abilities." T'Kir struggled to explain, "It'll be inconvenient but I can do it. What I'm afraid of is that we'll lose our telepathic bond."

"Don't conventional Vulcans form permanent mental bonds with their partners?" Macen asked.

"Yeah, but..." T'Kir squirmed.

"Even if we were to lose our mind link we'd still have our natural rapport." Macen added, "I can live with just that."

T'Kir twisted around to face Macen, "So you want me to have the procedure done?"

"I want you to be happy." Macen reassured her, "I want you to make an informed decision relatively free of fear."

"I'm losing it." T'Kir revealed, "It's like the old days only worse. If I shut my barriers down for even a second, I'll drown and never surface."

"Sounds like the decision's already been made." Macen said.

T'Kir nodded, "Yeah, pretty much."

"So, all that's left is the doing." He coaxed her.

"Okay." T'Kir sighed, "We who are about to die and all that stuff."

"That's the spirit." Macen softly cheered, "Joachim would be proud."

"Oh joy. The evil elf would've won his approval at long last." T'Kir rolled her eyes.

"Ready?" Macen asked.

T'Kir rose off the couch, "As ready as I'm gonna get."

Macen stood next to her and wrapped his arms around her. She tightly squeezed his waist. They held on to each other for several minutes. Finally Macen lifted her chin and kissed her.

"Let's go." He urged.

T'Kir took a deep breath, "Here goes everything."

They left their quarters and headed for Sickbay. T'Kir entered and informed Galloway that she wanted to undergo the treatment. Grace looked victorious.

Grace looked over to Galloway, "Told you."

"I'm glad to be wrong." Galloway admitted.

"You were betting on me?" T'Kir accused.

"Nope." Grace happily replied, "Hayley was having doubts as to whether or not you'd say 'yes'. I told her you'd be crazy not to and that you were crazy but not that crazy."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence...I think." T'Kir dubiously looked at Grace.

"Not a prob." Grace replied in a chipper tone.

"T'Kir," Galloway interjected, "if you're ready, Tessa and I'll get you changed and prepped.

"Ah, hell." T'Kir breathed, "Who wants to live forever?"

The Loki docked at Barrinor Station. Riker and Danan were there to greet the SPYards crew that had piloted her in. The "Captain" took Riker and relinquished the command codes. Danan was sitting at the Sensor suite. It was almost as impressive as the Obsidian's.

A woman appeared on the bridge. Danan judged her to be at least fifteen years younger than herself. She had a purposeful and confident air. Danan was immediately intrigued.

The stranger walked right to where Riker and the ship's temporary CO were conferring. The SPYards engineer immediately fell silent. Danan could tell that Riker was piqued.

"Can I help you?" Riker asked as courteously as his own anger would allow.

"Lt. Commander Michelle Prentiss, SID, reporting for duty. You're the team's 1st Officer so I'm reporting in." the woman said with a determined smile.

"Reporting for duty?" Riker repeated, "Who said anything about you reporting for duty?"

"I'm TDY with your team." Prentiss explained, "My orders come directly from Admiral Drake. They've been cleared by Captain Macen."

"They have?" Riker mused, "So, you're joining the team? What's your specialty?"

"I came up through Internal Affairs so I suppose you'd say that's my specialty." Prentiss replied.

Danan's radar went up as Riker asked, "And what are you investigating?"

"Why," Prentiss said softly with a sweet smile, "you and your team of course."

"Why so glum, chum?" Grace asked Macen as the two sat in the Team Room. She sat his drink down in front of him but he didn't touch it, "She's in good hands. If Hayley makes a single mistake or says 'Oops' Tessa will kill her."

Macen forced a smile, "I know." He waved aside Grace's fomenting protest, "I really do. It's just brought home to me, in a new way, how lost I would be without her."

Macen wished he didn't feel that way so strongly but it was the truth. In an age where the ethereal was becoming far more attractive, T'Kir was his anchor. They served in that function for each other. Macen helped keep T'Kir's telepathic demons at bay and she kept the monsters in his soul from devouring him. Fleeing from the path towards destruction that his work represented, Macen increasingly earned to devote his life to teaching and historical research. With her gone, there would be nothing left to restrain him and he would drown his pain in the blood of others.

"You're not the only one that would be suddenly lost." Grace shared, "This whole 'being human' shuk is totally beyond me. T'Kir's taught me how to forget everyone else's expectations and to just live for myself. She shows me how to do that everyday. Her influence makes me a happier, saner person. I know Ian appreciates it."

"And how is young Delaney doing?" an intrigued Macen asked.

"His duties aboard the Intrepid keep him busy." Grace smiled, "Admiral Johnson's harebrained missions keep him on his toes."

"Bob does get some of the most difficult cases." Macen said wryly, "Unlike us."

"As far as 'us' goes," Grace leaned back in her chair and gripped her cup of tea with both hands, "Now that we're over the panging of newfound love, we've settled into a slower rhythm. We're still friends but the torrid part of the affair is over. Ian is even seeing other people."

"Well, Delaney may not be in your future." Macen opined, "It sounds as though you're prepared for any eventuality."

Grace's look had a perceptive gleam, "And what would you know about this particular future?"

Macen took his first sip of his tea, "Mmm, it's good. Thanks, Hannah."

"I thought coffee was your stimulant of choice." Grace wore a bemused grin, "And you're avoiding the question."

"Tea is soothing." Macen ignored her comment, "Coffee isn't."

"Yeah," Grace wore a wistful look, "I need a crutch now and then too."

"Thanks for being such a good friend." Macen gratefully acknowledged

"To whom?" Grace teased, "To you or to T'Kir?"

"Primarily to her," Macen confessed, "but I'm also glad you keep her confidences. I'd hate for everybody to know my deepest secrets."

Grace blushed. So he knows, she thought. Basking him in her warmest smile, she replied, "And I thank you for not revealing any of my darker moments."

"From what T'Kir tells me, we three have closer bonds than anyone else on the team." Macen added, "You're the alien in a human body with the casual disregard for human life that is endemic to your race. T'Kir's learned the guilty thrill of killing. And I..."

"And you, in the deepest, darkest recesses of your soul, want to see the galaxy consumed by an orgy of death and destruction." Grace finished for him, "We make an interesting trio. Each of us is hiding from what we are and all of us gathering strength from the other."

"Does Ian know?" Macen wondered.

"He's come to realise that I'm more than I appear to be." Grace revealed, "He knows I'm a Kelvan. He just hasn't come to grips with what that means. I don't know if he can."

"The future will unfold as it should and I wish you all my hopes." Macen sincerely told her, "You deserve some happiness. Fates know you've given up enough."

"It was the least I could do." Grace blushed, "I betrayed your trust three times. I wouldn't have given me that many chances."

"You were young, confused, and conflicted." Macen gently ticked off, "I knew if you were given enough time, and the right set of circumstances, you'd make the right choice."

"And which of my options was the correct one?" Grace inquired.

"Do you feel you've grown as a person?" Macen asked.

"Yes." Came Grace's ready answer.

"Do you feel as though you're contributing to the common good of the galactic population?" Macen enquired.

Grace frowned, "Of course I do."

"Do you think you could have accomplished that by going back to New Kelva?" Macen asked.

"I..." Grace hesitated, "I'm not sure. When I'm completely honest with myself I have to say 'No'."

"Then you made the right choice by staying here with us." Macen surmised.

"I guess." Grace was far from convinced.

"It's your call." Macen admitted, "I don't have to make my peace with it. You do."

Grace thought about it for a minute and then she smiled, "Since it's too late to change my mind I'll just press on and be happy with what I have here."

"And we're all grateful for your graciousness." Macen teased.

"As well you should be." Grace sniffed.

They shared a laugh and then Macen's comm badge began to chirp. He tapped it.

"Macen here." He tried to keep the worry from his voice.

"Captain," Came Riker's concerned voice, "we have a situation here at the Loki."

"She's arrived already?" Macen asked.

"Nearly an hour ago." Riker hesitated, "Are you all right?"

"T'Kir's undergoing surgery. I'm a little distracted right now." Macen ruefully admitted.

"Then I'll take care of the details like usual but we have a big glitch that needs your attention." Riker informed him.

Macen tried to keep the frustration he felt out of his voice, "What is it?"

"There's a Lt. Commander Prentiss here." Riker explained, "She said she's part of the team."

"She is?" Macen was confused.

"She says she's from HQ and temporarily assigned to us." Riker lowered his voice, "She's IA."

"Oh," realisation dawned within Macen's mind, "Keep her quarters aboard the Loki. She'll be accompanying us on our next assignment."

"Sir?" Riker couldn't believe it.

"It was this or a formal inquiry." Macen explained.

"Got it." Now realisation dawned for Riker, "I'll see to her."

"Thank you." Macen said with relief, "Macen out."

Macen settled back and took another swig of tea. He stiffened suddenly.

Brin? T'Kir's clarion call echoed through his mind.

T'Kir! He urgently thoughtcast in reply, Are you all right?

He could hear her mental laughter, I asked Hayley to wait before contacting you. I wanted to see how "we" did.

The procedure's over? He asked.

Yup. T'Kir replied.

And? Macen wanted her to elaborate.

I'll tell you more when you get here. T'Kir laughed.

Macen jumped out of his seat and Grace yelped, "What is it?"

"T'Kir's out of surgery." Macen replied.

"How? What?" Grace babbled, "They haven't called for us."

"T'Kir did." Macen tapped the side of his head, "Trust me will ya?"

Grace rose, "Whatever you say. Lead on, Oh Infernal Leader."

"Shut up and move!" Macen urged as he ran out of the room.

I wonder if anyone will ever be that eager about me. Grace thought as she strolled out of the Team Room and headed for the lift.

"All right, Commander," Riker was far more gracious, "I've confirmed that you're to be attached to us. Have you selected quarters aboard ship?"

"Yes." Prentiss nodded, "I was told by Commander Ambril that this vessel would serve you and your team's needs during this mission. I made myself home in one of the cabins."

"Good thinking." Riker looked over Prentiss' Starfleet uniform, "You're not very discreet though. Change clothes and we'll get you kitted out for the mission."

Prentiss was surprised by the change in weather, "But I..."

"Commander," Riker grew stern, "we're going undercover. Your uniform could get us killed. Remove it at once."

Riker could see his words register with Prentiss. She nodded, "I fully expected to before we left. You just caught me off guard."

"Go." Riker urged.

Prentiss jerked her thumb towards the nearest hatch, "I'm going now."

"Good." Riker said approvingly.

"Bye." Prentiss said before she disappeared.

Danan approached, "Don't let that meek and mild act fool you. This one's a fighter."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Riker grimaced.

So Big Bad Riker thinks I'm a pushover. Prentiss thought victoriously as she approached her cabin, Ha! What he doesn't know will get him convicted.

Actually, Prentiss didn't think Riker was the problem if there was a problem. The charges had been levelled at Joachim Dracas. Technically, Dracas wasn't a citizen of the Federation but he was serving aboard a Federation flagged ship with a Starfleet organised covert investigation team inside of the UFP. That made him culpable under the UFP's laws.

Macen was harder. If he was actively encouraging these incidents then a highly respected member of the covert operations community would be disgraced and possibly imprisoned. This SID team would be broken. Drake had ordered Prentiss to do all that she could to insure the viability of the unit. Prentiss wouldn't ignore a crime and it would be reported and fully dealt with.

Prentiss herself wasn't an especially priggish person nor was she a prudish one. She just worshipped at the feet of law and order. Unlike officers like Edward Jellico, Prentiss wasn't blinded by adherence to regulations. She didn't give a damn about regulations. All that mattered was right and wrong.

Prentiss would find out if there was something amiss here. She had a talent for rooting out the truth. That's what made her a celebrated investigator. She was good enough that Nechayev had arranged for her recent transfer and promotion. Those skills had earned her this case.

Prentiss was new enough that she had not yet succumbed to Macen's "cult of personality," as Admiral Drake put it. Macen was either revered or hated by his colleagues. Prentiss had been warned that she would swiftly discover why. To be frank, Prentiss was looking forward to meeting the illustrious Brin Macen.

Prentiss unzipped her uniform jacket and removed it. Next came her red uniform blouse. Pants and boots followed. Left in her underwear and socks, she pulled a black, utilitarian jumpsuit out of "her" closet and tugged it on. Securing the zipper, she pulled on a pair of grey boots. Finishing off the outfit with a grey scarf tied around her neck. Fluffing out her hair with her fingers, Prentiss rejoined Riker and Danan on the Loki's bridge.

"Is this better?" Prentiss dutifully presented herself.

Riker looked to Danan. Danan folded her arms across her chest. Her eyes narrowed.

"Tom, go prep the shuttle." Danan ordered.

"What?" a startled Riker asked.

"The shuttle." Danan repeated, "Go prep it. We'll be along shortly."

Still not understanding but willing to trust Danan, Riker left. Prentiss almost, almost, squirmed under Danan's intense scrutiny. She suddenly knew what it was like being a prisoner and subjected to her own brand of interrogation.

"Now, dearie," Danan smiled, it was a cruel thing, "Let's find out about you."

 

Chapter Ten

Dracas woke with a cry. His phaser was in his hand and he waved it about, madly trying to find his enemy. Realising there was no tangible foe, he returned it to the shelf next to the runabout's bed. The bed itself could easily accommodate three men Dracas' size. He briefly enjoyed the humour in that carnal piece of fantasy.

His humour abruptly died. Dracas cursed himself. He'd been woken by a dream.

A dream! He mentally snarled as he rose from the bed. He went into the attached sanitation unit and looked at himself in the medicine cabinet's mirrored surface. He looked worn and haggard. It was only a dream, he reminded himself.

"Gods above," Dracas whispered, "let it only be a dream."

Dracas returned to the bed and sat at its edge. He recalled its elements and shuddered again as the images replayed in his mind. The Roman Emperor Alaric had foresworn contact with the Federation. Dracas was ordered to kill the entire SID team.

Macen's death had been the hardest to accomplish but they had fallen one by one. Next, he slew Kiv Rever. Dracas had no idea how his stepfather had come to be on the Obsidian nor did he care. Stan Guthrie had appeared at the last, armed and prepared to fight to the death. He'd made one last effort to talk to Dracas but Joachim had killed him while he was still speaking words of rapprochement.

Finally, his bloody work done, Dracas activated the ship's auto destruct sequence but first he contacted the Emperor. He reported his success and then he fell on his own sword. The ship scuttled itself shortly thereafter and its destruction had woken Dracas.

I'm losing my edge, Dracas lamented while being wracked by grief and remorse, I'm failing as a soldier of Magna Roma.

Dracas recalled asking Rab Daggit how he retained his readiness now that he and Parva were married. Daggit had smiled and informed him that he was more battle ready then ever before in his life because he'd finally found something worth fighting for. Dracas had always thought that serving Alaric was his highest pursuit. Now, it crept up on him, it seemed he wanted more than that.

Out of loneliness and despair Dracas had forged a comfortable niche for himself with the SID. He discovering the joys of friendship, and if Guthrie were any indication, maybe he was ready to experiment with love. Having been deprived of both for most of his life, he wasn't certain of what to do next. How did his obligations to Alaric fit into this? Dracas desperately needed to talk to both Macen and Daggit about these issues.

Wide awake now, Dracas moved to the cockpit. He toyed with the idea of activating the comm and querying Macen that very instant. Something held him back, something intuitive. Checking the computer's auto pilot Dracas ascertained that the Seeker was on course and travelling at the appropriate speed. Sighing, he ran a hand through his hair and proceeded to the rec room to use the resistance machines located there. Anything was better than reliving that cursed dream and nursing his doubts.

"Hello," Radil smiled brightly as she entered Parva's room, "how's the happy couple?"

"Hello yourself, Jenrya." Daggit smiled.

Parva's smile glittered in its brightness, "Hi there!"

Radil stepped back, "I thought you didn't like me."

"I didn't trust you." Parva replied, "Like had nothing to do with it. But everything changed after you started hanging out with that cute friend of yours. You're no longer after Rab so I can be nice to you again."

Radil blushed at the oblique reference to her strange relationship with Abby Collins. Danan's words had provoked a lot of introspective thought. Unfortunately, Radil hadn't come up with any conclusions. All she knew is that she enjoyed Collins' company so she was going to keep on revelling in it.

As far as the present went: Parva looked fabulous! She hadn't been this vibrant or looked this alive since her injury had occurred. If it weren't for the slight slurring of her speech and the conspicuous absence of certain details in her recitation of events or people, she'd be whole again. Radil said most of the former and withheld the latter.

If anything, Parva glowed all the brighter, "Why thank you. I don't remember ever feeling better. They're supposed to let me go home tomorrow. They'd better!"

"I agree." Radil laughed.

"So are just dropping by to say 'hi' or is there something you wanted?" Daggit seemed to sense Radil's underlying tension.

"I'd like to talk to you...alone." Radil informed Daggit.

Daggit looked to Parva. Parva merely smiled, "Go ahead Rab. She's harmless now."

Daggit grinned at the thought of anyone calling Radil "harmless". Grabbing his jacket, he followed Radil out of the hospital building to the walking path that meandered through the grounds. Daggit noted that despite their tranquil setting, Radil was armed.

"Getting as jumpy as the Captain and T'Kir are we?" he joked.

"What?" she asked through her distraction.

"Jenrya," Daggit stopped her by taking hold of her arm, "what's wrong?"

"Do I seem as though I'm in love?" Radil blurted.

Daggit was surprised, "No. At least you don't to me. Are you supposed to?"

"It's just something Lisea said." Radil begged off.

"Lees is very insightful but she isn't omniscient. What's going on?" Daggit was definitely intrigued now.

Radil was sorely tempted to bare her soul but she couldn't do it. Not yet. "It's just something that needs to stay private for a while longer...at least until I sort things out."

"Are you in love?" Daggit asked.

Radil met his piercing gaze, "I honestly don't know. That's what I have to figure out."

Daggit processed this and asked, "Is this about Abby Collins?"

Radil coloured. Throwing up her hands, she exasperatedly asked, "Is there anyone on this frinxing rock that doesn't know Abby's fallen for me?"

"I didn't know that." Daggit chuckled, "I was asking about you."

"I'm just confused." Radil confessed, "I don't know what to think."

"It seems to me you need to discuss this with Abby and not everyone else." Daggit opined.

"I'm afraid to." Radil admitted.

"Then you already have your answer." Daggit revealed, "The odds are you just don't know if you can live with it."

Radil pondered that. She exhaled slowly, "Thanks Rab. I knew I could count on you."

"That's what friends are for." Daggit wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. Startled and crushed, Radil didn't respond. Daggit let go of her and she grinned.

"I think I like the 'new' Rab." She admitted.

"I know I do." Daggit confessed.

"Tell Parva she does good work." Radil urged.

Daggit chuckled, "Thanks. I will. How about you? Will you be all right?"

Radil nodded, "I think so. We'll be off on a mission in a few days. That'll give me time to straighten my thoughts out and figure out what I really want."

"Nothing like combat to clear the ol' head." Daggit grinned.

"Exactly." Radil started to walk away, "Later!"

"Good luck!" Daggit called after her. She gave him a thumb's up. Satisfied, he returned to the hospital.

"Who or what, specifically, are you here to investigate?" Danan's voice and eyes were icy.

"I already gave Commander Riker my answer." Prentiss doggedly clung to that answer. It was the third time she had used it in this general line of inquiry, "I am bound by confidentiality to withhold any other information."

"Hang confidentiality." Danan hissed, "I can help you or hinder you as I see fit. Give me a reason to help."

"You were Captain Macen's lover and confidant for a time. You served as his 1st Officer both in the Maquis and directly after the Dominion War. Why should I believe that you'd do anything to assist me?" Prentiss demanded.

"This is about Dracas and that wretched sword of his, isn't it?" Danan pressed on. Noting the surprised acknowledgement in Prentiss' eyes, she elaborated, "This is about his interrogating people at sword point."

"Very good, Commander." Prentiss referencing Danan's Reserve commission, "You may prove useful after all."

"Listen, Commander," Danan snarled, "I won't be your puppet. Ask me whatever you want and I'll answer honestly. I want to see justice prevail as badly as you do."

"We'll see." Prentiss was confident again. She was back in control and things would stay that way, "Don't you think we should rejoin Commander Riker? He's undoubtedly wondering about us."

"Follow me." Danan said gruffly and led the way to the airlock.

T'Kir was standing by a biobed when Macen arrived. He ran over to her and swept her up in her arms. He lavished her with kisses until finally stopped him. Laughing, she demanded to be put down.

Macen seated her on the bed, "You're really fine?"

"I'm perfect." T'Kir joyously replied, "Hayley was about to step outside."

"Why?" Macen wondered.

"I can 'read' her everywhere in this room." T'Kir revealed, "Now we're testing for proximity and distance."

Galloway attached her newly fabricated comm badge to her blouse, "Ready?"

"When you are." T'Kir jovially replied.

The Sickbay doors opened to admit Grace, "Nice disappearing act, Captain."

"You dawdled." Macen retorted.

"I have never dawdled in my life." Grace shot back.

T'Kir looked at Macen, "Let me see it." After a moment's silence, T'Kir apologetically looked at Grace, "Sorry Honey, you dawdled."

"Sure, take his side." Grace grumped.

"Somebody has to." T'Kir pinched Macen's cheek

"Stop that." Macen swatted her hand away.

"You're just too cute." T'Kir cooed. Macen rolled his eyes.

"I'm going now." Galloway announced to no one in particular and stepped out into the corridor.

"Hand me my comm badge, will ya?" T'Kir requested of Macen. He produced the badge and she held on to it.

T'Kir's comm badge chirped. She tapped it with her thumb, "T'Kir here."

"I'm five metres away from the door. How are you doing?" Galloway asked.

"You're getting' fuzzy." T'Kir reported, "Try reporting in every metre or so."

A moment later, "What about now?"

"I can sense your presence but I can't read your mind." T'Kir answered, "Try one more metre."

A longer period of time passed and then the badge chirped, "Anything?"

"Nope." T'Kir wistfully replied, "Come on back."

"Well," T'Kir rallied, "I may be a fraction of what I was but at least I'm still me."

Macen and Grace each hugged her. Galloway started to remove her comm badge but T'Kir stopped her.

"Keep it. You're family now. Wear it when you visit." She informed Galloway.

Galloway was touched and it showed, "Thank you."

"Don't mention it." T'Kir replied, "Am I cleared to leave yet?"

"Just gather your things off of that bed and use the dressing room and you'll be ready to leave." Galloway discreetly ran scans while T'Kir gathered up the clump that comprised her belongings. While T'Kir dressed, Galloway addressed Macen, "Her scans read 'Normal' but she should be watched for signs of confusion, dementia, or blackouts. If any of those occur, call me or the nearest neurologist."

Macen memorised the list and then smiled, "Gotcha. Thank you."

"First we have to see if it's a permanent fix." Galloway replied, "I was awfully conservative in the adjustments I made. They may not hold."

Macen shrugged, "Then you'll be a little more liberal next time. If there is a next time."

T'Kir emerged from the dressing room wearing a bright and happy smile, "C'mon Lover, I'm hungry."

"For actual food?" Macen asked.

"Of course." T'Kir replied, "Why? What were you thinking?"

"It could've been anything." Macen grinned, "Your tastes run the gamut."

"Yah, yah." T'Kir dismissively waved her hand, "Just feed me."

"Hannah," Macen faced his chief pilot, "Can you take Ms. Galloway back to the surface in the shuttle? It's parked at Tier Seven, slot B."

"And how are you two coming home?" Grace enquired.

"We'll take the commuter shuttle." T'Kir replied. She made shooing motions, "You two, get out. I wanna sample that new restaurant on Level Two of the station's Galleria."

"The one Chef co-owns?" Grace asked accusingly, "You just don't want to foot the bill for two more."

"Actually," T'Kir smiled sweetly, "I just had a delicate procedure performed upon my brain and I'd like a quiet moment to celebrate its success with my husband. Understand?"

Grace deflated, "We'll just be going then."

Galloway was all smiles as she exited Sickbay, "Enjoy yourselves."

T'Kir turned to Macen, "before we go, I was wonderin' if you'd help me out with something?"

"Like what?" Macen asked, instantly curious as to why she was acting conspiratorially.

"I want you to authorise Tessa to subdue Shannon Forger if she tries to rewrite any of Tessa's subroutines." T'Kir revealed.

"Shannon will just deactivate her and do what she wants." Macen countered.

"I want to disable her deactivation command." T'Kir grinned, "She'll only be inactive if she chooses to be."

Macen Shared T'Kir's grin, "But she'll still activated by vocal command?"

T'Kir pushed at his shoulder, "Of course. What d'you take me for?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Macen teased.

"Watch it buster," T'Kir warned, "or no nookie for you for two weeks."

Macen grinned, "I could stand to catch up on my rest."

T'Kir backhanded his arm, "You can be such a nincompoop."

"I try." Macen beamed, "I truly do."

"Can I adjust her program or not?" T'Kir demanded.

"Tessa," Macen addressed the EMH herself, "What do you think?"

Tessa wore an evil grin, "I like the idea. No one's gonna frinx with my program."

"And I'm supposed to wonder who you've been hanging out with?" Macen mused. Turning to T'Kir he said, "Go for it, dearie."

T'Kir gave a thumb's up as she accessed the holomatrix. Macen and Tessa talked while T'Kir whiled away her time. Just over thirty minutes later, T'Kir finished.

"Try turning yourself off." T'Kir requested. Tessa vanished. T'Kir grinned, "That worked."

"Computer, activate EMH." Macen ordered.

Tessa appeared. Her face was scrunched up, "I'm not gonna say it."

"You don't have to." T'Kir wore a giddy smile, "It's optional from now on."

"Thank you." Tessa said with the utmost gratitude.

"Computer, deactivate EMH." T'Kir ordered. Tessa looked hurt but when nothing happened, an evil smile crossed her features.

"Let's see Kort shut me up now." She growled.

"You give him what for when he tries." T'Kir urged.

"I will." Tessa said and then when the couple prepared to leave, she suddenly spoke up, "Would it be possible to place holoemitters somewhere else in the ship? Somewhere besides Sickbay?" Tessa's courage faltered and she mumbled, "I was just wondering."

Macen grinned, "I actually have technicians arriving tomorrow to give me an estimate of how much it would cost to install holoemitters throughout the ship. What's the point of having an EMH if she can't travel to an emergency?"

Tessa threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek, "Thank you!"

T'Kir wore a bemused expression, "So, do I have to put you on a leash?"

"Maybe so." Macen grinned, "You'd better be good to me."

"No nookie you, four weeks." T'Kir declared.

"I'd feel threatened but you'll never last that long." Macen sagely informed her.

T'Kir wore a goofy grin and bobbed her head, "I know."

"Want to blow this joint?" Macen reached out and took T'Kir's hand.

"Yes." T'Kir emphatically agreed, "I'm starving."

"Then let us be off." Macen turned back, "Bye Tessa."

"Later Honey." T'Kir called out.

After they left, Tessa returned to the physician's desk. Sitting down at it, she retrieved her padd. Today's selection, like yesterday's, came from Macen. It was a compilation of the most accurate biographies of Captain James T. Kirk. Macen had selected them based upon their strengths and historiography. So far, they had proven delightful. Tessa could easily see why Macen had referred to Kirk as his personal hero.

Tessa was beginning to think that Macen was hers. She idly wondered how T'Kir would react to that bit of news. Tessa felt it was better to keep it a secret. After all, she was an Emergency Medical Hologram. She had no tangible mind to read. Wearing a guilty smile, Tessa returned to her reading.

 

Chapter Eleven

The hourly commuter shuttle detoured and landed at the Outbound Ventures field. Macen and T'Kir shook everyone's hands on their way out. They waved at the passengers as the shuttle lifted off and proceeded to its scheduled stop. Macen was amused by the proceedings and T'Kir practically floated on a cloud.

"And you thought it was bad being a local celebrity." She playfully accused.

"It did come in handy." Macen conceded.

"Hah!" T'Kir literally pounced on him, "You loved it. Admit it. I know I did."

Macen struggled to pry her fingers off of his arm. She was gripping so hard it hurt. She was so excited she didn't realise what she was doing.

"Why're you pulling my hands offa you?" T'Kir suddenly became cognizant of what was occurring around her, "Elements Brin! I've squeezed fingerprints into your arms."

"The dangers of hanging out with an excited Vulcan." Macen jovially said, "I needed to put my jacket back on anyway."

"Don't laugh about this." T'Kir was getting upset, "I hurt you. That's important and don't you dare give me any psychobabble bullshit about how it isn't."

"Yes, Mother." Macen said somewhat contritely.

"I oughtta..." T'Kir had to rein herself in, "I swear by all that's holy if you don't take me seriously you can find someone else to spend forever with."

"You mean it?" Macen was touched.

"Of course I mean it." T'Kir lamented, "What am I doin'? Talking for the sake of talking?"

"No." Macen waved all of that away, "Go back to the part about together forever."

"Oh. Oh!" T'Kir blushed, "I meant to tell you 'bout that."

"I thought you wanted to preserve your katra on Vulcan." Macen reminded her.

T'Kir scrunched up her face and kicked at a nonexistent rock, "Well, I got to thinking. If you held my katra then I would go wherever you did when you died and went on to the 'next plane of existence'."

Macen nodded, "It could work. Our telepathic rapport brought you along with me to the Nexus when we died."

Macen's face lit up with joy, then his countenance darkened, "Are you sure you want to do this? I don't know what happens next. It could be horrible and it could be permanent."

T'Kir wore a wry expression, "You don't think I've thought about that? The point is: if there's a chance to spend even a minute longer with you I'm willing to risk it."

"Have I told you lately that I love you?" Macen was overwhelmed.

"Not for forty-three minutes." T'Kir grinned, "A veritable lifetime."

Macen swept her into his arms and let his kiss express how strongly he felt. Releasing her, Macen watched while T'Kir caught her breath. She fanned herself and a naughty grin played at her lips.

"Would you like to discuss this further in private?" she asked.

"I'm up for a preliminary debate right now." Macen was eager to resume snogging.

"So am I," T'Kir sighed, "but naturally, we're about to have company."

Macen looked around and saw several people, led by Grace, coming their way.

"Telepathy?" Macen wondered.

T'Kir shook her head, "Ears. They're upwind and noisy. They're just entering my new telepathic range."

"Any clues as to what's up?" Macen whispered.

T'Kir leaned into him, revelling in the closeness of their bodies, and whispered into his ear, "All the Security officers know is that trouble is afoot and that someone had the audacity of landing their shuttle here." A quick grin later, T'Kir finished, "Hannah is as unreadable as ever."

The last had been said loudly for Grace's benefit. The flustered Kelvan almost managed a smile. It looked more like a grimace.

"Where have you two been?" Grace's hands went wildly flying through the air, "We've been trying to reach for over an hour."

"We were on the station." Macen grinned.

The unflappable, thrill seeking pilot had become flapped, "Then why didn't you respond to your comm badges?"

Macen pulled his jacket on. It was a brown Earth styled "bomber jacket" dating back to the earliest days of Terran aviation. It had been a gift from Elias Vaughn back in the earliest days of their friendship. T'Kir had unearthed it in his closet and now Macen found it to be the most comfortable and versatile jacket that he owned. Out of one the flapped pockets Macen with drew a case. Opening it revealed two comm badges.

"You mean these?" Macen grinned.

Grace looked on the verge of apoplexy. When she spoke, the words came grinding out between her teeth, "You've had them the entire time?"

"Yup." T'Kir's head happily bobbed, "The case is soundproof. We never knew a thing."

Grace turned around so they couldn't see her. "Ahhhhhhhhhh!" came screaming out of her mouth. She visibly restored her composure and turned around.

"Feel better?" Macen asked.

"Somewhat." Grace replied.

Macen handed a comm badge to T'Kir, "Here."

T'Kir accepted it and tapped it with her thumb. Nothing happened. T'Kir thrust it back in Macen's direction, "This is yours."

T'Kir received her badge and she tapped it with her thumb, "Attention Comm Centre, this is the Voice of Doom. Destruction has arrived and your lives are forfeit."

"Ma'am?" a nervous voice replied.

T'Kir closed the line with a giggle, "That oughtta keep 'em guessing."

Grace buried her face in her hands, "You have nooo idea."

"Hannah," Macen grew serious, "all kidding aside, what's wrong?"

"It's that IA officer!" the words came in a rush, "She's assembling the whole team. She's preparing to take preliminary statements from everyone. She was about to issue a warrant for the two of you."

Macen and T'Kir exchanged a meaningful glance. Macen addressed Grace in a soothing voice, "Hannah, she can't arrest us. Barrinor's outside of the Federation. The Barrinoran authorities would need compelling evidence in order to cooperate. She doesn't have that."

Macen's voice was soft and gentle, forcing her to stop panicking long enough to listen. When his words registered, her breathing normalised, "Really?"

"Right now all she has is smoke, mirrors, and a lot of bluster." Macen reassured her.

"She has plenty of those." Grace bitterly muttered.

"Let's go kick her ass!" T'Kir started for the headquarters building.

"Whoa!" Macen called out, "Ease off, Ms. Bloodwing. I'll handle the IA problem."

T'Kir halted in her tracks. The reference towards Romulus' famed raptor wasn't lost on her. The birds were fiercely single-minded. They were so intent on their prey they would needlessly sacrifice their lives, while in pursuit of prey, in traps set for them.

"Okay," T'Kir relented, "but hurry up!"

"I'm coming, I'm coming." Macen sounded tired.

As they entered Outbound Ventures' Headquarters through the public entrance, Macen squared his shoulders. He was torn between two desires. One was to just kill the intrusive IA officer and be done with it. The second required much more finesse and personal strength. He had to talk her down.

Although he had never complained about it, helping maintain T'Kir's tenuous grip on sanity during their time with the Maquis had taken a huge toll on Macen. He never complained because it was an act of love, platonic and romantic. He suspected T'Kir had gleaned that particular item out of his memories but in turn she had never said anything. It was a measure of trust between them that it he had loved her wholeheartedly, without desire for remuneration or reward, and that the events would go on unspoken.

Still, that kind of daily toll had left its mark. He no longer desired to nurse a problem when he could simply, and forcefully, deal with it now. That attitude had first shown itself during the Maquis Rebellion and had become finely honed during his time with the SID. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he had not only bent the rigid framework of legality but had also broken it a time or two.

When he had broken the law it had been out of expediency not malice. Macen had a high regard for the concept of law and order. He simply had a problem with certain laws and the way they were applied.

Despite all of this, Macen was sworn to uphold the laws of the Federation and to obey them himself. If the SID wanted to take him to task, he would comply with their investigation. He would not, however, sit back and let his people get intimidated. He was the team's commanding officer and that meant he was responsible for their actions.

Even if they don't know the Federation's laws or customs, he thought to himself.

"Thinking about Joachim, aren't you?" T'Kir whispered. She hadn't used their rapport even though she'd obviously been monitoring his thoughts through it. It was a nice illusion of privacy.

"Yup." He whispered back, "This could get ugly."

"Hold the faith, Love." T'Kir took hold of his arm, "The good guys will prevail."

She kissed him on the cheek and Macen blushed, "Exactly how long have you been monitoring my thoughts?"

"Long enough." T'Kir patted his arm with her free hand, "Now let's rip somebody's throat out."

"Right." Macen growled.

The workers in the reception area looked terrified until they saw Macen. Hope began to liven up some of their features. Clouds of doubt lingered over others. This scene was repeated as Macen navigated his way through the office areas and made his way to the lift that descended into the underground hangar and bunker areas.

The lift doors opened to reveal the cavernous hangar where the Solstice and the Idiot's Delight were stored. The Blackbird-class Solstice dwarfed the runabout sized Idiot's Delight. These ships were the personal vessels of Macen and T'Kir respectively.

Some had questioned their need to maintain private craft. After all, Macen commanded the Obsidian. However, the Nova-class surveyor was owned by Outbound Ventures. Even though Macen was the founder and co-owner of OVI, it wasn't truly his ship. The Solstice provided him with a personal craft that could be used on unofficial trips and outings. It was rented, on occasion, by Outbound Ventures for clandestine operations where the Obsidian wasn't adequate.

The Idiot's Delight had a convoluted history. T'Kir purchased the craft from Quark for use in an undercover mission. Skylark-class scouts were known for their many strengths and even more for their innumerable weaknesses. They were a modular platform like Starfleet's Danube-class runabout. T'Kir had extensively upgraded and modified the diminutive scoutship.

It had often been argued that neither T'Kir nor Outbound Ventures needed the Idiot's Delight but T'Kir did in a very real sense. She had never owned anything before in her adult life. The tiny scout provided her with her first real taste of permanency. It was a lesson that had sown seeds throughout her life.

Those seeds had blossomed into her marriage, her friendships, and even her present commitment to the SID. She had learned the costs of love, something that had been beyond her grasp in the Maquis. Few could say that the lessons had been unnecessary. Those that did did so out of selfish motive.

Standing in the shadows of these two ships stood Michelle Prentiss. She was surrounded by a circle comprised of Riker, Danan, Daggit, Radil, and Kort. Macen's empathic senses tasted the moods of his teammates. Riker was indignant, Danan was incredulous. Radil was disgusted and Kort was impatient. Daggit was the volcano waiting to erupt.

Daggit was irate. His emotions were a patina of guilt, rage, indignation, and apathy. As the trio neared, Daggit took hold of Prentiss' throat and began to squeeze. Riker and Kort tried to pry his fingers loose. Radil delivered her most savage chop to the back of his neck but all was to no avail. Finally, Macen intervened.

"Release her Rab." Macen said in a firm, yet surprisingly quiet, voice. Daggit hesitated and Macen raised his voice, "That's an order, mister."

Daggit released her throat and stepped back with a disinterested glance towards the collapsed IA officer. Kort examined Prentiss' ravaged throat while Radil angrily confronted Daggit.

"What the hell are you doing?" Radil yelled as she pushed Daggit backwards.

Macen interposed himself between them, "Back off, Radil. Rab, let's have a talk over by the Solstice."

Macen's ship was the furthest thing away from the lifts and the two went walking that way, each silent and brooding. T'Kir watched them go while Grace observed Prentiss' struggle to rise. Kort helped her up and she confronted T'Kir.

"It's about time you got here." Prentiss rasped, "I have questions..."

T'Kir coolly appraised her and graced her with a wintry smile, "Dearie, you and your questions can go to hell."

"Regulations state..." Prentiss struggled to continue.

T'Kir interrupted, "Want me to tell you about regulations? Starfleet hires us to undertake missions where regulations will prove embarrassing. What happens when we complete those missions? People with their collective heads up their collective butts poke their nose into our business. You're here to crucify my husband. I'm not gonna let that happen, capisce?"

"So you refuse to give testimony..." Prentiss began before being cut off again.

"Honey, I'm not Starfleet. I don't wanna be Starfleet and I've never had a use for Starfleet. I was happy being a rebel guerrilla fighter. I'm here because of him." T'Kir pointed at Macen, "So don't give me some textbook lecture on civic duty. I've given at the altar, literally, and I'm not gonna give up what I have left."

"So," Prentiss smiled, "you're saying he's guilty... Auuugghhh!" Prentiss clutched her head and went down on her knees.

"Don't press me." T'Kir warned, "You won't survive the encounter."

"Okay Rab," Macen stared Daggit down, "what was that?"

Daggit looked defiant but that quickly faded. Heaving a heavy sigh he said, "I don't know. Parva's having her heart examined and she's waiting for me. I told that...person that Radil and I had been outside in the corridor when Joachim threatened Hiram Zeist with his sword."

"Is that what this is about?" Macen asked.

"That and Joachim stabbing Harkins on the bridge." Daggit answered, "Hannah was the only one present at both events so she's been getting the worst of it."

"I noticed." Macen replied. A scream cut through the hangar like a knife. Macen saw that Prentiss was down and T'Kir was standing over her. Touching her mind through their rapport, he sensed cruel satisfaction. He ran to the scene of the disturbance.

"What's happened?" he asked though he dreaded the answer. He noticed that Prentiss was still breathing and some of the tension lines in his face faded, "T'Kir?"

She threatened you. Came her telepathic reply.

Her sense of defiance threatened to overwhelm Macen. He rallied his defences and responded to that particular piece of news, I can take care of myself, you know.

Not against a guttersnipe like that. T'Kir hotly insisted.

While I appreciate the sentiment, Macen ruefully smiled, you're just proving her point when you lash out like that.

T'Kir fidgeted and then woefully admitted, I never thought of that.

That's what I thought. Macen declared and then asked, You enjoyed it though, didn't you?

Oh yeah! Came gushing out of T'Kir's mind. Afterwards she was more repentant, Sorry.

You can't deny who or what you are but you can control it. Macen advised.

"Nyuh." T'Kir stuck out her tongue.

Macen rolled his eyes, "That conversation has come to an end."

"What conversation?" Prentiss croaked.

"A private conversation, miss..." Macen offered her a hand.

"Lt. Commander Michelle Prentiss." Prentiss said as she accepted Macen's hand and unsteadily rose to her feet, "Starfleet Special Investigations Division."

"I do know who sent you, Commander." Macen dryly remarked.

Prentiss seemed unsure of herself for the briefest of moments. Recovering her composure, she thrust ahead, "It's a new posting for me. Sometimes I need to remind myself that I'm no longer working for Internal Affairs."

"And yet here you are." Macen murmured.

Prentiss had the grace to look uncomfortable for the briefest time, "I need to schedule a time to take your statement."

"No," Macen said, "you need to accompany me to my office."

"Are you prepared to give your deposition?" Prentiss eagerly asked.

Macen shook his head, "We're going to have a little chat and then I'll decide whether or not you have access to my personnel."

"That's irregular." Prentiss frowned.

Macen laughed, "We are irregulars. We're contracted privateers not a traditional Starfleet unit. Learn to be flexible before you drown yourself in quoting regulations that I'll ignore."

"I don't give a damn about regulations." Prentiss' eyes narrowed, "I only care about justice."

Macen stood with his hands on his hips, "Good. Then let's go to my office and see that justice is served."

Prentiss finally relented, "Very well."

T'Kir made to follow. Macen stopped her, "Not this time. We'll be back in a minute. Everyone but Rab wait here."

Daggit looked surprised, having just rejoined the main group, "Me?"

"You have a wife that needs you." Macen smiled, "Catch a ride in the lift with us. I'm sure the Commander doesn't mind."

Prentiss looked miffed but she remained silent. Daggit boarded the lift with the two investigators. He pondered how different their styles were, at least based upon initial observations. Macen was all intuition suffused with logic. He felt his way through problems and made huge theoretical leaps.

Prentiss was much more rigid. She built her cases one data file at a time. She layered pieces of evidence atop one another until a coalescent whole was forged. She was eager and relentless, if her earlier treatment of the SID team was any indication. He wondered how she would fare in Macen's office.

Macen could be as relentless and dogged as anyone Daggit had encountered. Macen had once remarked to Daggit that the way to beat an adversary was to understand that adversary's strengths and weaknesses and pit those same strengths and weaknesses against them. Daggit seriously considered being a fly on the wall but if T'Kir had been denied access that meant absolutely no one would be allowed into that area.

The lift doors opened and Daggit escaped without another glance behind him. Macen led Prentiss and she stiffly, and proudly, followed. Macen exchanged a pleasantry with the aide camped outside his office area and she released the door. The door slid aside and Macen entered in with Prentiss trailing behind.

Prentiss took it all in. She faced two desks, joined together in a "V". Both contained com/comm stations. Laid out before the desks, almost in supplication, sat three stuffed chairs. A coffee table sat before them. Off to the left was a couch. To the right, a display case and bookshelf.

Prentiss approached the case. On it were some of Starfleet's highest awards for service and valour. Also present were pictures of smiling Vulcans and Romulans. These were undoubtedly a legacy from T'Kir's childhood on Shial. Holopictures of Macen, T'Kir, and Lisea Danan with Ro Laren and other scruffy looking individuals were a testament to their days in the Maquis. The expressions of those depicted varied from elated to haunted. Ro, Macen and T'Kir looked genuinely happy while Danan looked troubled. The others were unknown to her and irrelevant to her investigation.

The books on the shelf varied. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, On War by Carl von Clausewitz and The Art of War by Sun Tzu were prominently displayed. Also featured were Dialectics by Surak, New Order by Gul Drad Feral, Miasma by Glen Barus, and most conspicuously, Memories of the Keptin by Pavel Chekov. Prentiss saw a theme in Macen's choices, Chekov's biography aside. Each was a treatise on politics and warfare both pro and con.

Macen stood beside the desk to Prentiss' right. A replicator was built into the wall. Macen went to it and ordered a coffee drink. He offered Prentiss a drink and/or snack of her choice. After a moment's deliberation, she opted for ginger tea and a scone.

"I'm surprised that you're being so gracious considering the reception that I've received thus far." Prentiss remarked.

Macen shrugged, "People don't react well when they're threatened. I don't feel threatened so I can be more generous."

"You share this office?" Prentiss motioned towards the other desk.

"With my wife." Macen explained, "T'Kir and I are the co-owners of Outbound Ventures. It's easier to make joint decisions when you share the same space."

"Didn't you found Outbound Ventures on your own with Admiral Drake's assistance?" Prentiss enquired.

"I started the company with funds received from Amanda and I ran it on my own until I got married." Macen explained, "T'Kir is my life partner and she's fully capable of running this company herself. Why shouldn't she be my business partner?"

"I still don't know..." Prentiss' words drifted off.

Macen smiled, "I take it you've never been seriously involved."

"No." Prentiss blinked, "But what does that..."

"It's not for everyone." Macen interjected.

Prentiss glowered, "Why did you want to see me in private?"

"Admiral Drake personally informed me that you are here to observe my crew in action during our next mission and to utilise these observations in determining whether or not to initiate a probe into possible past malfeasance. Am I correct?"

Prentiss nodded, "But I also need..."

"You don't need anything else." Macen harshly cut her off, "You have our after action reports, the evidence from the flight recorders, and the file on each of us. That's sufficient."

"So you won't grant me access to your personnel to review the facts of this case?" Prentiss became belligerent.

"You don't have a case yet." Macen retorted, "Your mission is the appraisal of my team's normal operational methods. That's it. If you still have questions afterwards then we can discuss this more fully during an official inquiry."

"You seem awfully confident." Prentiss observed.

"You've read all of the after action reports?" Macen asked.

Prentiss nodded and Macen smiled, "Then you realise that Chief Dracas' initial actions took place before he was a member of my crew or team. Later, he was ordered to harm someone as a matter of a bluff to persuade a prisoner to talk. The informant talked and no violent action was needed."

"So, Dracas knew you were bluffing?" Prentiss leaned forward.

"No." Macen shook his head, "That's what made the gambit successful."

"So Dracas really was going to stab Zeist?" Prentiss eyes narrowed.

"He would have if Zeist had maintained his silence and I didn't call him off." Macen easily explained.

"Mr. Zeist soiled himself and yet you didn't allow him to change clothes. Why is that?" Prentiss inquired.

"We were in a combat zone." Macen replied more coolly, "Finding Hiram a diaper wasn't part of my larger concerns."

"Your attitude is revealing." Prentiss remarked.

"Isn't it though?" Macen cheerfully mused.

Prentiss' brow furrowed and she wore a confused expression. Macen delighted in sensing her conflict. She'd obviously drawn a mental picture of him from reading the pertinent reports and now she was facing the true reality of the person. He was pleased to confound her expectations.

Prentiss broke her silence, "When will Joachim Dracas be reporting in?"

"As soon as he returns from Earth." Macen answered, "He's the reason we're delaying the mission for four days. Once he checks off on the Loki we'll depart."

"The SPYards team thoroughly shook her down. Why do you..." Prentiss noted Macen's disapproval and stopped, "What?"

Macen's eyes glinted with a pained expression, "You've never served aboard a starship have you?"

"I was a junior Security officer aboard the Destiny for two years." Prentiss proudly announced.

"Long enough for you to make it to Lt. J.G. and transfer to IA." Macen stipulated.

"Er...yes." Prentiss confirmed.

"Let me explain something to you," Macen spoke softly, "before you take a vessel, any vessel, into a potentially hazardous area you have your Chief Engineer thoroughly inspect the boat. Next you make certain that your officers have a basic understanding of their stations and their related equipment. Practice can occur en route but the fundamentals have to be there before you disembark."

Prentiss gratefully thanked Macen, "Thanks for being understanding. Most people would have browbeaten me."

"I might later." Macen grinned, "There's plenty of time yet."

"So what do I do until the mission gets underway?" Prentiss wondered.

"Get to know my team." Macen suggested, "They'll all be on the Loki trying her systems out. Learn about who they are and why they do what they do before you see them actually doing it."

Prentiss actually relaxed enough to smile, "A novel approach. I think I'll try it."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it." Macen smiled in return, "Now, while you're finishing your tea and scone, tell me what's happening back at SID Headquarters."

Prentiss smiled and began to recount the recent exploits of the other SID teams.

 

Chapter Twelve

Four days later found Ryst landing on an elite landing pad situated at an upper level of the citadel recently renamed the Stronghold. Originally it had been Mityr's planetary defence headquarters. Later, as law and order evaporated, it became the last redoubt of those opposed to anarchy. Under Bertram Sindis the facility had been returned to its original status as a defence centre. Sindis lived within its walls and held court there. It was seen as an imperial palace by the average citizen of Mityr.

A full honour guard met Ryst's runabout. At the head of the guard was Sindis himself. He knew who and what she was yet he hadn't kept her at arm's length or tried to impress her with his own power base. Ryst was intrigued by the man's self assurance.

"You honour me with your presence, Master Sindis." Ryst said as she descended the runabout's boarding ramp and Sindis took her offered hand. Ryst ordered the door closed and it sealed behind her.

"It is you who honour us, Mistress Ryst." Sindis bowed his head once, "I have long awaited an emissary from Robhurt B'nner. To send a personal representative who is also an Angosian will prove fascinating if not ultimately profitable."

"Then we must start over." Ryst said holding out her hand, "I'm Annika to my comrades."

"And I am Sindis to mine." Sindis remarked with an easy smile as he accepted her hand.

That particular statement was revealing. Iridians closely guarded their first names. They only allowed social peers or superiors to use their given names. Sindis was, in effect, establishing dominance.

Or at least trying to. Ryst mused to herself.

Ryst was supremely confident in her own abilities...or at least she had been before. Her multiple defeats at the hands of Brin Macen had scarred her ego. Sindis, however, wasn't Macen. Iridians were known for being quick and their lean frames were very strong but neither of those factors was a concern. Sindis had already misjudged her and if that were to continue then she would have him.

"I'm looking forward to a mutually beneficial partnership." Ryst lied though a bright smile.

"Then let us be away to begin discussions on how we can assist one another." Sindis kept his grip on her fingers and he guided her into the fortress. He glided with every movement and Ryst was envious of his grace.

I've been a foot soldier too long to move that fluidly. She ruefully thought. Her movements were smooth and precise but Sindis was a veritable dancer.

Ryst wondered where she was being led but she kept quiet. Weaving their way through interconnecting corridors they eventually arrived in a small study. Sindis dismissed the guards and a liveried steward appeared. Sindis ordered sandwiches and some spring wine. That business concluded, Sindis ushered Ryst to a comfortable chair.

The study was lined with bookshelves. A desk dominated one corner with a comp/comm system atop it. A holographic fireplace crackled inside another wall. The centre of the room held a table, a couch and two chairs. These were angled so that all of them afforded a view of the fireplace and partook of the heating unit built within it.

Sindis sat on the coach and appraised his visitor, "You hardly match your reputation, which is formidable, by the way."

"And you hardly look or act like a cold blooded killer despite your reputation for lethality being firmly established." Ryst verbally fenced.

Sindis studied her for a moment and then a genuine smile spread across his face, "I like you, Annika Ryst. I honestly do. Most people quail in front of me but you are as confident in yourself as I am about myself. That's rare gift. It is a rarer thing for one's deeds to match up with their confidence. You have these two exemplary gifts. Treasure them."

"I do." Ryst replied, "Sindis, Now tell me..."

Sindis stopped by raising his hand, "Please, let me correct myself. Call me Bertram."

Ryst smiled, "Very well, Bertram, we need to start by discussing our ongoing joint venture."

"Ah, yes," Sindis nodded, "I've had a progress report just this morning..."

In orbit over Barrinor the Loki lay docked to the KX-type station. Her systems were all on and running. The bridge crew, having spent the last three days familiarising themselves with their stations, stood ready. Everyone waited for Dracas to finish one last diagnostic and then they would clear moorings and depart. No one waited for that moment more eagerly than Michelle Prentiss.

Prentiss had no station so her time was whiling away while she watched the tedium of a stationside departure. She hadn't had an opportunity to meet Dracas yet. Macen had advised her to wait until they were underway to try and ingratiate herself with the Roman Troglyte. She was getting fidgety and had to ask...

"Are we leaving yet?"

"No!" came the chorused voices of the entire bridge crew at once.

Fine, see if I ask again. Prentiss sullenly thought.

"Just keep thinking that." T'Kir called out.

Prentiss started. It was taking some time to get used to being around an invasive telepath. She felt as though she had no privacy whatsoever. Supposedly T'Kir's abilities were now a fraction of what they'd once been. Prentiss was relieved. She was bad enough this way.

Observing the crew, she reviewed some of her observations about them. T'Kir, of course, headed that list. The raven haired, sapphire eyed beauty of a Vulcan would draw attention to herself even if she weren't so...eclectic. Prentiss had discovered though that T'Kir's actions were motivated by a passionate desire for the protection of her loved ones. She was literally an elemental force not unlike the Elements of Romulan legend.

Macen came next. She thought bumping him to the top of the list but to be fair Macen hung in the shadows a bit while his wife attracted all the attention. Once the spotlight was on him it was difficult to take it away. His reddish gold hair and fair features made him appear Scandinavian-born but he'd been born a quadrant away from Earth. The man was electric. She knew El-Aurians possessed metaphysical skills but his perceptions were positively arcane. Combining his talents with his wife's made for a potent combination.

Tom Riker came next. A duplicate of the famous Captain William Riker, Riker had made his home with this lot of rebels. He was every inch as capable as his "brother" he was just seasoned differently. Prentiss had immediately taken a liking to him.

Lisea Danan was the matron of the group. A gifted scientist and natural nurturer, she was the grease that kept everyone smoothly sailing. Prentiss was coming to appreciate the Trill for her insights as well as her unbending moral code.

The ever imposing Rab Daggit had still not forgiven her for separating him from his wife. Only later had she discovered that his Orion wife was his only link to his lost humanity. He seemed a decent sort but she'd been warned not to cross his path during combat. Prentiss was terrified to learn why.

Prentiss looked around and noted that Radil and Kort had exited the bridge. Kort would likely go to the ship's infirmary while Radil was tasked with assisting Dracas during the cruise.

Besides being a doctor, Kort had also proven himself to be an atypical Klingon across the board. He was a man of many passions, of which combat was only one. She'd also learned of his difficulties with alcohol and she felt for him.

Radil, like many Bajorans, was the terrorist made good. Radil had also been a mercenary for a number of years. Despite her earlier flexible loyalties she'd proven herself to be a bedrock of the team and she relished in her friends' reliance upon her.

That left Dracas. A clone of the team's original Engineering Specialist, Dracas had been "born" and raised on the formerly quarantined planet 492 IV or Magna Roma as it was now referred to. Until he had joined the SID his only allegiance had belonged to the Roman Emperor. Prentiss wondered where his ultimate loyalties now lay.

"Engineering, status?" Macen said into the intercom pick-up. He was stroking the beard on his chin.

As he was wont to do, Prentiss had observed.

T'Kir snickered and Prentiss realised that her thoughts had been "overheard" again. She thought of a very special message just for T'Kir and watched as the Vulcan straightened herself out and began paying more attention to her board. Prentiss felt vindicated after that.

After the telepathic incident that occurred at their meeting, Macen had ordered T'Kir to stay out of Prentiss' mind. Prentiss had just reminded T'Kir of that. She was happy to see a mild emerald flush to T'Kir's cheeks as she turned to face Macen.

"The diagnostics done." She reported, "It should only take Joachim a moment or two to compile the results of his tests."

"Hannah, get on the horn with Station Ops." Macen ordered, "Request a departure clearance and an exit vector. File our flight plan to Ekos and Zeon."

"Thank God." Grace said dramatically, "I was going to commit ritual suicide if we had to sit here much longer."

"Button it and get busy." Macen mildly rebuked her.

The Loki's bridge was a small oval. In many ways it was reminiscent of the bridges of the Defiant-class. The CONN sat before the viewer. Ops was situated on "the wall" to the left. Engineering sat next to that. To the right of the helm sat the Sensor station. Beside it lay the Tactical station. The design was intentionally small to accommodate more cargo and more weaponry.

Grace, Daggit, and T'Kir sat at their usual stations. Danan manned the Sensor station since it was the closest thing to a Science station aboard. Riker sat at Engineering but he was actually expected to do very little but command the ship. Macen manned the centre seat for now but he would soon be relinquishing it to Riker.

Prentiss sat at the rear of the bridge. Situated there was a small tactical display table with two seats. She occupied one of those seats. Macen handed off control of the ship with Riker and joined Prentiss.

"Having fun?" he asked.

"Are starship operations usually this boring?" Prentiss blurted.

Macen grinned, "Yup. I'm afraid 90% of operating a starship is just plain tedium."

"And the remaining 10%?" Prentiss had to know.

"Pure undiluted terror." Macen casually answered, "Freighters aren't designed to take the stresses you can undergo on a Starfleet mission. Hopefully this crate is up to it."

Prentiss broke into a wan smile, "You really know how to inspire confidence."

"Never fear." Macen's grin was infectious, "We've travelled in worse. After all, my wife is captain of that wreck she calls the Idiot's Delight."

"Hey!" T'Kir yelped, "I heard that."

"As you were meant to, m'love." Macen waved at her. T'Kir stuck out her tongue and returned to preparing the ship for departure. Macen chuckled.

"Fates, I love teasing her." He grinned like a naughty school boy.

Prentiss could understand Macen's "cult of personality" now. It would have been better described as a "Macen and T'Kir cult." These two were among the most vivacious people Prentiss had ever met. Their life was an adventure and they joyfully asked you to come along for the ride. What was refreshing was that they didn't pretend to know the end of the story any more than anyone else did.

"No fair brooding." Macen gently teased.

"Just letting my thoughts drift." Prentiss ruefully admitted.

"Reflecting on how we're not what you expected?" Macen enquired.

Prentiss felt a warm flush come to her cheeks, "No, of course not."

Macen's knowing smile belied her fabrication, "You don't lie very well, Commander."

"Engineering to Bridge" came Dracas' voice over the intercom.

"Bridge, Riker here." Came the reply from the centre seat.

"I've completed my tests and simulations." Dracas reported, "Coupled with the data from the shakedown cruise, I'd say we've enough for a confidence rating."

"You think she's up to it then." Riker asked.

"She's up for anything short of a full scale war." Dracas chuckled, "The SPYards engineers have outdone themselves."

"Are we ready for departure?" Riker enquired.

"Just give the word." Dracas replied.

"The word has been given, Chief. We're setting out." Riker declared.

Riker started issuing orders and the crew instantly responded. Prentiss looked askance at Macen, "Shouldn't you be doing this?"

"What?" Macen asked, "And spoil all of Tom's fun? He lives for this stuff. More power to him I say."

Prentiss stared at him, "You're not your typical Starfleet captain."

Macen sighed, "How many times do I have to explain that I'm not in Starfleet anymore?"

Prentiss' mouth worked but no sound came out. Finally, her lips curved into an embarrassed smile, "Sorry. You don't realise how hard it is for me not to call you Commander. You did hold that rank for forty years within an eighty years Starfleet career. Your service record was quite impressive until the end."

"And the end is all anyone remembers." Macen remarked.

"Your record with the SID is impressive if somewhat tainted by rumours of illegality." Prentiss noted.

"Ah, the beginnings of another witch hunt." Macen smiled, "My team has always been cleared of every allegation and we will again."

Macen sensed that Prentiss was uncertain but she pressed on anyway, "I've reviewed and re-reviewed your incident reports. I've accepted that things proceeded as they had to. However, that doesn't mean I'll tolerate any malfeasance on this mission."

"What you'll see is us operating as we always do." Macen promised, "You can base your subsequent conclusions on that."

Prentiss was plainly relieved, "As long as we have an understanding."

"Trust me Commander," Macen grinned, "I haven't the time or energy to attempt a cover up. I want the truth to be as firmly established as you do."

Prentiss stuck out her hand, "Is that a deal?"

Macen shook her hand, "It's a promise."

"So what happens now?" Prentiss asked.

The vibration of the deckplates shifted and the stars on the viewer began to streak. Macen looked at Prentiss, "Joachim is free now. You could try talking to him."

"There's no need." Prentiss shook her head, "I fully accept that he was not a member of your crew when he assaulted Mr. Harkins and that you never fully intended for him to assault Mr. Zeist. However, as a member of your SID team, he is culpable under Federation law."

"Then would you be kind enough to tutor him in the basics of that law?" Macen asked.

"I...I suppose I could." Prentiss realised.

"C'mon, let's go to Engineering." Macen rose and beckoned for Prentiss to follow, "Joachim rarely bites and he's a dedicated student."

Prentiss was still hesitant but she decided to brave it out, "All right. Lead on, Captain."

Macen's smile became encouraging, "That's the spirit."

Macen and Prentiss had already left when Riker announced, "All right people, you're free to move about."

Everyone but Grace vacated their seat. Riker came up behind her and rested his hand on the back of her seat, "It's okay Hannah. I'll take the first watch."

The Loki retained a high degree of automation. It was a vestige of her origins as a humble freighter. Freight lines couldn't afford large, specialised crews so they made up for it with quad redundant systems. The Loki could effectively pilot herself to and from the Ekos system. She just couldn't make port, transfer cargo, or fully utilise her weapons systems by herself.

During transits the ship only required one officer of the watch. The rest of thee crew was free to do as they pleased. They were just permanently on call if an emergency should arise. Right now, the various officers were milling about freely chatting and grabbing refreshments.

T'Kir grabbed Grace's arm, "C'mon. Let's check out the ship's rec room."

Grace half followed and half stumbled as she was dragged off the bridge. The remaining crew chuckled at the sight. T'Kir's manic babblings could be heard all the way down the corridor.

"Maybe I shouldn't have relieved Hannah after all." Riker murmured.

Daggit's smile grew wider and Danan looked about ready to laugh. After the moment passed, Riker took a seat at the helm. Danan approached Daggit, who was preparing to leave.

"Comming Parva?" Danan asked.

Daggit shook his head, "Not just yet. She's still in bed. Besides, Joachim came to me and said we needed to talk. He looked distressed."

Danan smiled, "I'd noticed that he seemed unhappy when he returned. I was about to suggest that you meet with him. Of all of us, he's bonded more with you than anyone." Danan took a moment to reflect on that statement, "I should say any of us except Brin."

"He does seem to worship at the Captain's feet." Daggit opined.

"He has his orders and by God he's going to obey them." Danan said in a deep, strident voice, "Alaric told Joachim to obey Brin and that's what he's going to do. The fact that emperors and great leaders are seen as semi divine on Magna Roma doesn't sway him at all."

"Of course not." Daggit dryly commented.

"Macen to bridge." Sounded the intercom.

"Bridge here." Riker replied, "How can we help, Captain?"

"If you can catch Rab before he leaves the bridge," Macen instructed, "send him to Joachim's quarters."

"Will do. Bridge out." Riker swivelled his seat around, "You heard the man, scoot!"

Daggit bowed low from the waist and happily trudged off. Danan sauntered up to Riker and graced him with a playful smile. Riker was pleased but immediately suspicious.

"You're up to something." He grinned.

"Me?" she batted her eyes innocently.

"Why do I get the impression the next few minutes are going to prove life altering?" Riker asked.

"Because I've been doing a lot of thinking lately and we need to discuss some decisions I've come to." Danan disclosed.

Riker's expression darkened, "Oh boy."

Danan frowned, "What do you mean, 'Oh boy'?"

"Every time we have one of these talks it's about you wanting to put on the breaks and slow down." Riker grimaced, "I hate to tell you but we're already at a crawl."

"Not this time." Danan suddenly said.

Riker's eyes widened, "What did you..."

"I said, 'Not this time'." Danan wore a mischievous grin, "And if you keep interrupting me this could all day."

"Well hurry up then." Riker was intrigued, "I've got to hear this."

"I came to a few realisations the night we waited up with Rab during Parva's surgery. You were concerned about Shannon, and you should be, but I became jealous." Danan revealed, "Jealousy can be a bad thing if taken too far but this was a nice healthy pang of 'he's not paying attention to me'. Since you're someone I keep insisting I'm not involved with, that reaction shouldn't occur."

Danan sat down at the Sensor station, "It got me thinking and what I realised is that we are involved, no matter what I say about it, and I like that fact."

Riker stared at her in open mouthed shock, "So you're saying..."

"I want to be a couple." Danan smiled sweetly, "I want to keep on doing what we've been doing but I want to be open to the possibility of something permanent coming out of this."

Riker was still as stone for several seconds and then he said, "Wow."

This irritated Danan, "I bare my soul and all you can say is 'Wow'?"

"I can't say I haven't tried to persuade you to go this route before." Riker was still flabbergasted, "But I didn't expect this...especially not during this mission."

"What do you think about what I said?" Danan prodded.

"Like I said, it's what I've wanted but..." Riker began.

"Why is there a 'but'?" Danan wanted to know.

"I haven't always enjoyed how slowly we've moved but it has helped me get over Jamie's death." Riker alluded to his slain fiancÚ, "That was your idea and it was a good one. Now I'm doing what I want when I want to and I know why I'm doing it."

"So what do you want to do about 'us'?" Danan asked, her voice just above a whisper.

Riker wore a wry grin and he dryly remarked, "If you haven't noticed, there isn't anyone else I want to be involved with, Lees. I spend most of my free time with you already. I don't have to do that. I do it because I want to."

"Same here." Danan agreed.

"So let's finally admit to ourselves and the galaxy at large that we're a couple and be done with it." Riker insisted.

Danan came out of her seat, wrapped her arms around Riker's neck and gave him a passionate kiss. When she finished, she said, "I love you!" and sprinted off the bridge.

Riker absorbed all of this in stunned silence and then he grinned, "I could learn to like this."

He returned his attention to the navigational sensors and settled in to endure the next six hours.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Sindis gazed at Ryst from across the top of a wineglass, "I do believe that concludes our most pressing business."

Ryst switched her padd off, "I agree. I have to confess that I expected you to be much more reticent. You readily agreed to most of our terms."

"Or at least those that you mentioned." Sindis swirled his spring wine around in his glass, "I do believe that B'nner gave you a much more exhaustive list."

Ryst's eyes narrowed, "And what would make you say that?"

Sindis took a sip of his wine and savoured it for a moment before replying, "I have my sources. It pays to be well informed about competitors...or well intentioned potential allies."

"If you already knew what I had to offer why did we play out this charade?" Ryst grated.

"It was a test of character, dear Annika." Sindis calmly replied, "You held most closely to those items which would affect the Syndicate's long term interests. I was curious as to what those interests were and how strongly you would defend them. You are a mercenary after all."

Ryst was angry but she couldn't quite define why. Sindis had done exactly what she would in his place. Perhaps that's the problem, she thought, He's a little too familiar for comfort.

Ryst had once been betrothed. Both her and her fiancÚ were selected for the augmentation process during the Tarsus Wars. They had happily served together for five years when he, Tannin, had been killed by an enemy sniper. Driven by her conditioning, she'd abandoned his body with nary a tear. After the battle had concluded, she'd gone back but the corpse had already been collected. She had been denied permission to attend the funeral and had subsequently lived with a vague wound in her heart ever since.

Sindis reminded Ryst of Tannin in many ways. It was an experience that was both rewarding and terrifying all at once. It was gratifying to see her old ghost in the flesh once again but she dreaded the emotional baggage that came along with that apparition. She'd let her guard down with Sindis during the negotiations because of these associations and she violently swore that such behaviour would not continue.

"You fallen into a sullen silence." Sindis observed, "Perhaps it is because I remind you of your long lost betrothed?"

Ryst went cold, "What did you say?"

"I have done my research quite thoroughly." Sindis wore a thin smile, "Tannin and I shared many qualities. It was in the advent of his death that you truly dedicated yourself to the arts of war. You have become a magnificent pupil, I might add. You are everything I could have imagined."

"So what kind of twisted fantasy are you planning on living out?" Ryst scornfully asked.

Sindis shook his head and clucked his tongue, "Shame on you Annika Ryst. I have no overtures to expend or desires for you. You are far too rosy coloured for my tastes. I am a simple admirer. We will work well together. Your enemies are now my enemies and they shall never realise what it is that has killed them."

"I want them to realise it." Ryst insisted, "I want them to feel despair overwhelm them as they are slowly, inexorably drawn into their deaths."

A cold, cruel smile played across Sindis' features, "Your every wish is my command."

The door to Dracas' cabin was open so Daggit poked his head in, "Joachim, are you in here?"

"Coming." Dracas called out and then emerged from the san, "You're here!"

"I didn't have much choice." Daggit replied dryly, "The Captain says you won't sit down with our resident IA officer until you spoke with me."

"I'm sorry." Dracas said miserably, "I truly am but if I do not discuss matters with someone soon I will go mad."

"Are you certain you don't want to talk to Lisea?" Daggit asked, "She sort of has experience with things like this."

"No." Dracas adamantly shook his head, "It is a soldier's problem. I need to discuss it with another soldier."

"All right," Daggit conceded, "but can we move down to the Mess? I don't think anyone's there and I need to grab something to eat."

"Wherever is best for you is best for me." Dracas assured him.

Daggit beckoned for Dracas to follow, "Grab whatever you need and come on."

"Thank you for this." Dracas said as he shut up his cabin.

"Don't thank me until I find out if I can help." Daggit advised.

"You will." Dracas assured him, "Your life is a result of the answer I seek. I just need to know how you derived at that answer and what it is."

"So nothing important then?" Daggit sarcastically quipped.

"Exactly." Dracas cheered up.

We should've called Lees. Daggit gloomily thought as he proceeded to the Mess.

"Oi!" T'Kir called out as she bounded into the engine room, "Guess what happened to Tom and Lees!"

"They decided to have Elvis' love child?" Macen retorted.

Radil and Prentiss both said, "Huh?"

Grace caught up with T'Kir, "Don't spoil it. Let Lisea tell him."

T'Kir was not about to be dissuaded, "They've tied the knot!"

"What?" a stunned Macen asked, "I'm the Captain and I haven't married anybody."

"They could've done it over subspace radio." Radil piped up.

"They aren't married." Grace settled everyone's confusion, "They've just finally settled the fact that they're a couple. A rather serious one at that."

"Well, it's about time." Macen grinned.

T'Kir tucked herself under Macen's arm, "Another wedding. It's getting to be an epidemic."

"Who said anything about a wedding?" Danan asked as she entered the area.

"T'Kir's prognosticating your and Tom's future." Macen explained.

"Could be." Danan commented, "Now that I've taken the blinders off, I've discovered that that would be awfully nice."

T'Kir poked Macen in the stomach, "Told ya."

"So you did." Macen allowed, "I bow before your infinite wisdom and insight."

"As well you should." T'Kir haughtily remarked.

"I'm leaving before her ego expands to the point that it collapses and creates a stellar quantum singularity." Danan laughed and departed.

"Tom's manning the bridge. You're relieving Jenrya in eight hours and we've nothing to do until then." Macen told T'Kir, "Does that about sum it up?"

"Not quite." T'Kir wore an impish smile, "You've gotta check out the rec room."

T'Kir began to drag Macen out of Engineering. Grace, who was tagging along, merely shrugged and advised Macen, "Might as well go with it. She's merciless."

Macen switched tactics and instead began to chase T'Kir down the corridor. Squeals of delight echoed throughout the ship.

Daggit and Dracas sat in the ship's Mess drinking various forms of stimulants and eating sandwiches. Dracas had haltingly confessed all of his recent actions and concerns to Daggit. Daggit was now taking a moment to reflect on what had been revealed. Outside they heard footfalls and a running shriek pass by.

Daggit smiled, "Seems the Captain and T'Kir have found a way to amuse themselves."

Next T'Kir's soprano rang out, "Try and find me!" A hatch cycled and she was gone. A moment later the hatch cycled again.

"And now they're into the cargo holds." Daggit's smile widened, "I'll have to mention hide and seek as a game the next time Parva gets bored."

"This...this is what I'm talking about!" Dracas was growing frantic, "How can you hold on to loved ones whilst facing the spectre of death every day?"

"It gives me a reason to continue." Daggit replied, "I'm actually a better soldier because I have something tangible to fight for. You should try it."

"I'm afraid." Dracas whispered.

Daggit nodded, "That's natural and nothing to be ashamed of. This is something completely new to you and outside of your knowledge sphere. What would be shameful would be to succumb to these doubts and fears. You're made of sterner stuff than that Joachim Dracas. You carry a proud name. Live up to it."

"But how?" Dracas plaintively wondered.

"You enjoy the company of this Guthrie, correct?" Daggit asked. Dracas nodded and Daggit smiled, "Then comm him. Make another date. Spend time with him when you can. Who knows what will happen?"

"And Kiv?" Dracas asked.

"Kiv Rever has to make his own choice." Daggit declared, "If he truly loves you like a son, he'll contact you and he will find a way for you two to carry on your relationship."

"What kind of way?" Dracas innocently asked.

"I suggest a compromise." Daggit said, "You refrain from pulling weapons in his flat and he'll not chastise you for carrying them. That would be a start."

Dracas pondered that idea for a moment and then finally nodded, "That could work."

Daggit nodded, "At least it's a start."

"You truly feel I should pursue an active relationship with Stan Guthrie?" Dracas sought reassurance.

"I not only think so, I'm going to order you to do it." Daggit said.

"I don't know if..." Dracas squirmed.

Daggit chuckled, "I was like you, you know. I was so afraid of my past and what I was that I feared for Parva if I was to date her. All of my arguments and fears were stripped away by her. You know who helped me see reason? Hal Dracas. He showed me how I was hurting myself by denying her. I owe him a lot."

Daggit's eyes bored into Dracas', "Out of respect for that man's wisdom I'm going to tell you again: comm Guthrie, ask him out. Go on a date and have fun. It worked for you once already. Try it again."

Dracas leaned back in his chair while gripping the table, "All right. I see your point."

"But will you act on it?"Daggit asked.

Dracas rose and started for the door, "By all the gods, I think I shall."

Dracas went out the open door and Daggit raised his glass in salute, "More power to you, Joachim."

"What's all that about?" Grace asked from the empty doorway, "Joachim nearly ran me over."

"I am sure you could've defended yourself." Daggit grinned

"Mind if I join you?" Grace asked.

"Not at all." Daggit replied, "Grab something to eat and drink and come on over."

"You want a fresh cup?" Grace asked.

"I'd love one." Daggit nodded, "Make this one a raktajino, please."

"Your wish, as ever, is my command." Grace curtsied and went to the replicator.

Daggit watched her mused over the days when Grace had pined away for him. He was glad that their friendship had survived both angst and disappointment. In many ways Grace was a female version of himself. She was physically superior to most of the crew and she possessed a killer's instinct.

Grace had an instinctive drive to angle the ship so that her phaser arrays were presented towards the enemy at all times. This made Daggit's job at Tactical that much easier. They'd never discussed or coordinated their efforts it was just seamless teamwork.

Grace's bright enthusiasm often propelled the team forward but today was an exception and Daggit said as much. Grace offered him a wan smile and replied, "I've just been thinking."

"About Ian Delaney." Daggit realised.

"Among other things." Grace admitted, "I had a conversation a few days ago with the Captain that's gotten me thinking about my place in the universe."

"I'd have thought that it was here." Daggit opined.

"It is." Grace wistfully replied, "And it isn't. There's a whole realm of human experiences I'd like to try out. I'd like to have a committed relationship and maybe have children. I don't know. The thought of children terrifies me and exhilarates me all at the same time."

"And all of these thoughts revolve around the fact that you don't know if Ian Delaney is the one to help you accomplish them." Daggit surmised.

"Exactly!" Grace finally grew animated, "Ian's wonderful and I love being around him but I don't know if he's ready for me, all of me."

"Only one way to find out." Daggit sipped his drink, "Reveal yourself and see if he can handle the whole, unadulterated truth. It's better to find out now while the relationship is just starting to season than to spring it on him later, after you're committed, and have him walk out."

"But it's..." Grace began to whine.

"Daunting?" Daggit interrupted, "Yes, it is. It's supposed to be. That's how you know it's worth it."

"You're right." Grace forcefully declared. She rose and started for the door, "I think I'll comm him right now."

Daggit sat in the silenced Mess for a while. He looked around and a big, self satisfied grin crept across his features.

"Damn, I'm good." He chuckled softly.

"Rab!" Danan breathlessly said in delight as she poked her head into the Mess, "There you are! Do I have news for you!"

T'Kir and Grace took over Engineering and the CONN respectively. They spent the bulk of their watch talking to one another via the intercom. Macen had shut himself inside the Captain's Office. He wasn't to be seen again until the next shift change. Dracas and Daggit stood the next watch. It all began again when Riker and Radil resumed their initial positions.

Kort and Danan were immune to the changes. Kort was on permanent stand by and basically did as he pleased while he waited for an emergency to arise. Danan took periodic sensor readings but since they were currently flying through the Federation's heavily patrolled Home Sectors, there really wasn't much to do.

The designated Home Sectors were at the very heart of the Federation and were comprised of the very oldest members. At one time the appellation "Core Sectors" was used but that swiftly confused the heartland with those systems lying closer to the galactic core. Since its inception the term "Home Sectors" had proven popular with starfaring vessels and cartographers alike.

The Federation was now unofficially divided into several pieces. There were the Home Sectors. The Beta Sectors which bordered the Beta Quadrant. The Rim Sectors which reached out toward the energy barrier beyond the galactic rim. The Core sectors and the Border Sectors. The Border Sectors paralleled the borders with the Tzenkethi, The Cardassian Union, Talarian space, the Ferengi Alliance, and the Breen Cluster. All of these designators were unofficial and it was popular sport amongst inhabitants within these regions to debate upon which group they belonged to. It was all good natured fun despite the vociferous participation of the Tellarites.

What all of this meant was a lot of boredom for the team. They were living the life of a freighter crew and it was understandably sedate. Used to the rigours and tension of the typical SID contract, the group was getting understandably complacent. Macen ended all of that on the second day.

"Battle stations! Battle stations!" the computer's voice rang out throughout the entire ship, "All hands to their stations!"

Dracas joined Radil in Engineering while T'Kir, Grace, and Daggit sprinted for the bridge. Riker had the helm while Danan was buried in her sensor hood. Macen calmly watched the scene from the centre seat. On the viewer a Breen cruiser was bearing down on them.

"How the hell did a Breen ship get so far into the Home Sectors?" Grace asked as she relieved Riker.

"That's just what Earth said after their attack seven years ago." Riker retorted.

"Aspect change." Danan reported, "Hostile One has adjusted his vector. We're now on a collision course."

"Hannah, adjust our course by five degrees." Macen ordered, "At this distance it should put us kilometres away from them."

"Aspect change." Danan reported after Grace complied, "They've matched our course adjustment and have increased speed for a least time intercept."

"Rab, raise our defensive shields." Macen ordered, "Power up the weapons arrays."

The Loki, like all starships, had both navigational and defensive shielding. Stock freighters only came with navigational shielding so this move would prove enlightening to the Breen. In turn, their countermeasure would prove enlightening to the crew of the Loki.

"They're powering their weapons array." Danan reported, "And they're accelerating."

"Lock all phasers on target." Macen ordered.

Daggit went to work. Rather than carry banded phaser emitters, the Loki sported the same type of phaser banks as the Solstice. Although a proven technology, it was abandoned by Starfleet in the mid-24th century. Their presence on the Q-ship would only reinforce her status as a privately held vessel.

All of a sudden the image of the Breen ship froze and everyone's instrument readings locked up. The screen shifted to an empty starfield with the words SORRY, YOU'VE BEEN DESTROYED prominently displayed. Macen tapped a control on his armrest and everyone regained control of their stations and the message evaporated.

All eyes but Riker's were on him. Macen grinned, "The computer thinks that the Breen was going to destroy us. I'm not in the mood to argue. What I am in the mood for is a little brainstorming. What could we have done differently?"

"We could'a ignored them and seen if they'd pass us by." T'Kir offered.

"Since they kept plotting a collision course, I doubt that would have worked." Macen replied.

There was a moment's silence and then the room erupted with ideas. Macen, with Riker's assistance, happily fielded them all.

Ryst returned to her guest suite. Sindis had gone out of his way to make her feel welcome. He'd even allowed her to participate in his morning exercise regime. Having tested firearms and hand to hand simulations with him she was suddenly very happy that he was on her side. For the first time since leaving the company of her fellow Angosians, she felt as though she were amongst equals.

The nagging doubt that was Brin Macen and T'Kir in her mind came screaming to the surface. With an almost physical effort she quelled these fears. She was at the top of her game. She'd just proven it. Still, her confidence had been eroded and she didn't know if it would ever shore itself up.

Kill them and life will be fine. A part of her mind railed. Another, calmer voice acknowledged that if the El-Aurian could best her then perhaps another non-enhanced sentient could as well. After all, Macen was considered to be the weakest link of his action team's combat capabilities. What did that bode for her?

Casting all of her damnable doubts aside, she showered and changed. Afterwards, seeing that she had a free moment, she commed Robhurt B'nner. Knowing that her conversation was being monitored, she kept things short and sweet.

Ryst filled the gnarled old Orion in on the concessions she had made. B'nner mulled them over, "He's after something. Something larger than he's let on."

"That much is obvious." Ryst agreed, "His goals are immense. I suspect that he wants to capitalise on his criminal empire and transform it into a political empire as well."

"Let him try." B'nner cackled, "The Orion Syndicate will never bow before him."

"The proud will be humbled someday." Ryst quoted a native axiom.

"Has he started with you?" B'nner wondered.

"Perhaps." Ryst allowed, "I'm certainly more cautious in my dealings with Sindis than I thought I'd have to be. He's a canny one. Those cobalt eyes of his seem to see through you."

"Buck up dear girl." B'nner cajoled, "I sent them my most fearsome enforcer for a reason. Live up to the job."

Ryst bowed her head, "He won't slip past me."

"Excellent." B'nner chuckled darkly, "Carry on, Annika. Make me proud."

"I will." Ryst promised, "The Syndicate has nothing to fear."

"Excellent." B'nner's toothy grin disappeared as the screen went dark. Ryst stared at it for a moment then shrugged and went out to find Sindis.

Seated at his desk in his study, Sindis watched Ryst's transmission terminate. B'nner had been his usual overconfident, boorish self. Ryst was what intrigued him. She had doubts within her. They were gnawing at her even now. He wondered what it was that Brin Macen had done to cow such a creature.

More importantly, she had deduced the nature of his ambitions. He wondered how he'd given it away. After a moment's retrospection, he deduced that she was just so akin to his nature that she had sensed it. That could be good for her...or very tragic. He'd had others, far closer to him, put to death for less.

We shall wait and see where Annika Ryst's loyalties truly lie when this is over. Sindis thought to himself and then exited his study in order to find her.

 

Chapter Fourteen

The Loki dropped out of warp. It was the fourth day of her journey and it represented the last leg of the trip. The Q-ship had entered the outer edge of the Zynar system and was proceeding towards Ekos and Zeon.

The binary planets shared more than a common orbital track. They shared a common language and culture. Theorists had speculated that the two sibling civilisations had once been united. It had taken a disaster of some sort to reduce them to technological barbarism and sunder the two planets.

Zeon's fledgling efforts to reunite with Ekos had initially been met with hostility and fear. The Nazi movement had capitalised on these fears and propelled itself to power. The Ekosians had had a hard time explaining away the similar dialects of the same tongue shared by the two planets. Even Zynar was a common word meaning "sun".

Over the last century, the Nazis had learned to share power and compete in planetwide and local elections. Their racial elitism had ended and they were now the party for progressive, cooperative change. The Nazis had even become popular on Zeon despite them once being the object of the Nazis' misguided hate and fear.

All of these facts had been in the reports of the last cultural observer. He'd left the planets ten years ago. No contact had been made since. All that was known was that a squad of Miradorn raiders operated in this region of space. They did not discriminate between targets and all passing shipping was vulnerable.

Macen was on the bridge. It was T'Kir and Grace's watch. T'Kir had abandoned the automated routine of the engine room. This was permissible since the computer would alert her to any problem requiring her attention. She manned Ops and monitored the engineering reports from there. She also ran sensor sweeps of nearby space.

"Whoa!" T'Kir remarked, "We've got three Miradorn raiders coming in fast. Triangular formation. Approaching at .75c and vectored for an intercept."

"All right Hannah," Macen calmly said, "make us look like a panicked freighter."

"Shouldn't be too hard." Grace murmured and began throwing in erratic and ineffective evasive manoeuvres.

Macen toggled the intercom, "All hands to your stations. Repeat, all hands to your stations. This is not a drill."

This last was an incentive to the crew. Macen had run continuous drills over the course of their journey. A few members of the team were becoming resentful. Frankly, Macen didn't care. The simulations had been very creative and a lot of fun in his opinion.

Daggit bounded onto the bridge. Dracas and Radil checked in from the engine room over the intercom. Lastly, Riker and Danan arrived.

Macen grinned, "A little late aren't we?"

Riker shrugged, "Maybe."

"Care to confess about anything?" Macen's grin turned wicked.

"I never kiss and tell." Riker said primly and took his post at the Engineering console.

"They're cutting impulse engines and firing braking thrusters." Danan reported, "The centre ship is reversing engines and dropping into the rear."

"They mean to form a wedge around us." Macen opined. Riker nodded his agreement.

"They're hailing." T'Kir sounded off.

"Ignore it." Macen said, "Rab, stand by on shields and weapons. Have them ready to go at a moment's notice. I want that centre ship bracketed by a torpedo strike and I want full phaser broadsides on its partners."

"These boobs are running with their shields down." Danan commented.

"They're facing a helpless freighter not a starship." Macen reminded her, "How are we doing Hannah?"

"Still panicking." Grace happily replied.

"They're calling again." T'Kir advised, "And they sound pissed."

"Accept the hail, audio only." Macen ordered.

"This is Captain Macen of the free trader, Loki, who am I addressing?" Macen asked.

"I'm Dirge." Came the gruff reply, "Come to a halt and we won't open fire."

"We're running empty." Macen lied.

"You have shielded cargo bays." Dirge said, savouring the moment, "No one has shielded cargo bays unless they have valuables to hide."

The truth was that the holds were filled with crate after crate of pulse rifles. Each had been gimmicked to fire two or three shots and then the prefire chamber would melt down, causing a feedback loop which would fuse the power cell. Prentiss had been apprehensive upon learning of the nature of their cargo until the ruse had been explained to her.

"Our holds are empty." Macen continued, "You can beam over and see for yourself."

"Oh, we shall." Dirge said with the utmost confidence, "Believe me, we shall."

"Looking forward to it. Loki out." Macen signed off.

Rubbing his hands, he addressed the crew, "Now we know they won't raise their shields."

At the rear of the bridge, Prentiss sat watching events unfold. So far the mission had transpired like a typical undercover operation. She wondered if things were about to change.

"Full stop." Macen instructed Grace, "Let's cower for awhile."

"Cowering, aye." Grace acknowledged perkily.

If we die, at least we'll die happy. Macen thought upon hearing her cheerfulness.

"They're coming alongside our port and starboard guns." Daggit reported, "They still have shields down and all our weapons are locked on."

"Raise shields and power weapons arrays." Macen ordered, "Fire at will."

Daggit tapped controls and on the viewscreen, two torpedoes flared to life and collided with the central raider. Daggit cycled the phaser banks several times and then asked, "Do we want prisoners?"

"If we must, we must." Macen commented, "I want them crippled but not venting atmosphere. They need to be cowered but still able to talk."

"Acknowledged." Daggit briskly replied.

Prentiss approached Macen, "What you said..."

"About if we must take prisoners?" Macen asked and she nodded, "If I feel or discover that they are a continuing threat, any of them, I will destroy their vessels in order to preserve this one. Am I clear?"

Prentiss nodded and returned to her place. Sensing that she was mollified for the moment, he turned to Danan.

"Okay, Lees, crank up the power to the sensors and let's see what's going on in this system and beyond." Macen ordered.

Danan happily obliged. Staring into the sensor hood, she began to report her findings, "There are three more Miradorn ships in this system. They all appear to be under attack from impulse driven fighter craft."

"The natives were supposed to have impulse driven craft in their repertoire." Macen revealed, "Maybe these fighters are theirs?"

"They're certainly nothing I've seen before." Danan observed, "One of the raiders appears to be badly damaged. The fighters are clustering around it and largely ignoring the other two Miradorn ships. Wait...the viable raiders are leaving the system at high warp. The crippled raider is now being approached by a small freighter. Looks like an ore carrier. They're hard docking to the raider."

"Boarding party." Macen surmised, "I'd hate to be aboard that ship right now."

"I'm getting multiple hails." T'Kir announced, "The captains of our three 'friends' out there want to discuss terms of surrender."

"Put them on a split screen visual." Macen requested.

None of the faces that appeared were born on Miradorn. One was a female Denobulan with wild eyes and unkempt hair. Another was a male Bajoran with a vicious scar running down the left side of his face. The third was a defiant looking Andorian who was missing half of one antenna.

"Which of you is Dirge?" Macen's latinum was on the Andorian.

"I am Dirge." The Andorian admitted.

"What is your full name?" Macen asked.

"I am known as Dirge." The Andorian hissed, "That is all you need to know."

Macen knew then that the Andorian had been formally stripped of his name. That was the most severe punishment in that culture. It was considered more heinous than execution. It was a living death.

"Very well Dirge," Macen allowed, "You wanted to talk, so talk."

"Why are we still alive?" Dirge enquired, "What do you want from us?"

"I want information." Macen answered, "Where did your two comrades bug out to?"

"Go frinx yourself." Dirge snarled.

Macen motioned for the transmission to be terminated. Activating the intercom, he signalled the engine room, "Radil, man the transporter. Stand by to receive coordinates."

Moving to Danan's side, he asked, "Can you get a fix on an Andorian lifesign?"

"Easily." She laughed, "But what if there's more than one?"

"It'll be the one on the bridge." Macen replied, "Other Andorians won't serve under Dirge. He's part of the nameless caste. He does not exist to other Andorians."

"Ah." Danan remarked. Peering into her sensor hood she smiled, "I think we have a candidate in the central raider."

"Transfer the coordinates to the transporter." Toggling the intercom control, he spoke to Radil, "You should have the coordinates. Watch out, our guest will be armed and cranky."

Radil chuckled humourlessly, "I know the feeling."

"Brin," Danan sounded concerned, "we have several native fighters headed this way."

"ETA?" Macen asked.

"Ten minutes." Danan replied.

Macen smiled, "Plenty of time to question Dirge."

"Radil to bridge," the intercom sounded, "I have the prisoner secured. Where do you want him?"

"Bring him to the bridge." Macen answered and then cut the connection.

Macen moved over to T'Kir, "Ready?"

"As ever." T'Kir bounced out of her seat.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'." Macen shook his head.

"You betcha." T'Kir said.

Dirge came stumbling into the bridge. His hands were bound behind him and blood trickled out of his nose. Prentiss saw this and rose out of her seat.

"What's the meaning of this?" she demanded.

"He resisted." Radil shrugged and handed Prentiss a disruptor pistol and a serrated knife, "He tried to make his point with those."

Prentiss stared at the weapons and then meekly sat down. Radil took Dirge to the seat opposite of Prentiss'. She shoved him into the seat and he defiantly stared at the bridge crew.

"I'll tell you nothing!" he proudly declared.

"Yes, you will." T'Kir said, wearing an evil grin, "And I won't even cut off your other antenna."

"Drugs won't work." Dirge warned, "Besides, they're illegal. Starfleet can't use them."

"Point in fact," Macen replied, "we're not Starfleet. We're privateers that work for Outbound Ventures, Inc."

Dirge looked distinctly nervous, "I've heard of you. You're guns for hire. Especially the one they call..." Dirge's eyes went wide, "You're him! What are you doing here?"

"I'm here because you're here." Macen revealed, "My employers want to clear this sector of pirates. That means you have to go away."

"We'll leave!" Dirge promised.

Macen shook his head, "Not good enough. I think the locals want to have a word with you. They're on their way."

"The neo-barbs? On their way here?" Dirge laughed. It was a vicious sound.

"I doubt that they're barbarians." Macen replied, "Now, on to business. Will you answer my question?"

"I've sworn an oath." Dirge, "That means something even to one such as I."

"As much as I hate to abuse your honour," Macen shrugged, "I need that data."

Macen turned to T'Kir, "He's all yours."

T'Kir let loose of a gleeful giggle as she rounded on Dirge, "Don't think about the whereabouts of your base."

She frowned, "Been tricked like that before, eh? Well, there's other ways 'round that."

Her brow furrowed and Dirge's head lurched back. Prentiss watched in transfixed horror. Dirge's eyes went wide and he screamed.

"Stop this!" Prentiss shouted.

"This isn't torture." Macen firmly declared, "He's confronting his personal demons while T'Kir searches his memories. If he's distracted it's painless. This is helping him."

Dirge whimpered and Prentiss shuddered, "This is helping?"

"If he wanted an easier time of it then he should have lived a more virtuous life." Macen retorted.

Dirge's head slumped forward and his body went slack. T'Kir turned to face Macen, "Got it."

"Is he all right?" Prentiss asked.

T'Kir patted Dirge's head, "He's just fainted. Our boy here has been awfully naughty. It took a lot outta him to relive those moments."

"Brin," Danan interrupted, "the locals are here."

"Are they hailing?" Macen wondered.

Daggit shook his head and Danan began reviewing her scanners, "I'm detecting a modulated EM transmission. On the radio bandwidth. I'm converting the transmission into something the computer recognises."

"Got it." Daggit announced, "They have a visual feed. Do you want it displayed?"

"Of course." Macen stood behind his seat, "Let's be friendly."

"Should I keep the weapons hot?" Daggit asked dryly.

"Yeah, let's not be too friendly." Macen conceded.

"On screen...now." Daggit said and the scene on the viewer shifted. Going from wrecked raiders and smaller fighter craft it changed to the head and upper torso of an Ekosian. She wore a grey and black uniform. Her helmet bore the iron cross.

"Unknown vessel, identify yourself." Came an angry voice, "I repeat, identify yourself or we shall open fire."

"Attention," Macen spoke and he could see from the female pilot's response she was receiving the Loki's signal, "I'm Captain Brin Macen of the Outbound Ventures' freighter Loki. We were surrounded by these pirates. They meant to board us."

"Yet they are crippled and you are not." She remarked dryly, "How fortunate for you."

"We defended ourselves." Macen allowed, "We mean you no harm. In fact we're here to help."

The officer's eyes narrowed, "Why would you wish to help us?"

"We represent elements of the United Federation of Planets." Macen revealed, "We have no interest in seeing your planets ravaged by outsiders. Furthermore, we'd like to extend our hands in friendship. How can we assist you?"

"Can you give us weapons?" the officer asked.

"I can give you what we can spare." Macen promised.

The officer nodded, "Very well. I am Flight Commander Jorra Kend. I will escort you to our base on Ekos. I assume you cannot land on the surface but I am also assuming you have one of those 'transporters'."

"You'd be correct on both counts." Macen confirmed.

"Additional units will be here shortly to collect the prisoners. They will take charge of these ships." Kend warned.

"Understood." Macen nodded, "I have a prisoner aboard as well. Do you want me to return him to his ship?"

Kend thought about it for a moment and then nodded, "I think that would be best."

"We'll await your signal to move out and then follow you." Macen said, "Macen out."

The screen went dark before Kend could reply. Turning to Daggit and Radil, he spoke, "Take Dirge back to the transporter and beam him back to the bridge of his ship."

"Why the bridge?" Radil wanted to know.

"Consider him an object lesson." Macen replied. Moving behind T'Kir, he said in a soft voice, "Open communications with the three raiders again."

"Tom, man Tactical." Macen ordered as the screen reverted back to its three way view of the pirate commanders, "Attention, we're returning Captain Dirge to you. You'll see he's a little worse off then he was. That's the price of resistance. Local cutters are on their way to apprehend you."

"If we find you've resisted, we will return and destroy you." Riker locked the phasers and the torpedo launcher on target. A predatory smile spread itself across Macen's face, "I trust you all want to stay alive. Cooperate and it'll happen."

Macen nodded at T'Kir and she cut the channel. Grinning, she said, "I think that got their attention."

"Wiping out three of their ships without even trying, that got their attention." Riker opined.

Prentiss quietly approached, "You're not seriously thinking of giving them weapons are you? After all, the Prime Directive..."

"Doesn't apply here." Macen finished for her, "This culture has been tampered with by starfaring races for a hundred years now. The Federation was here first but the Ferengi arrived five years ago. They sold the Ekosians and the Zeons their first warp drive. The natives were happily toolying around local space when the raiders appeared. The native ship was destroyed by these pirates and the Ferengi vacated this area and have stayed out ever since."

"What did the Ferengi want with this system?" Prentiss wondered, "And how did you find out about all of this?"

"I received my information from a credible source." Macen answered and T'Kir let out a whoop of laughter.

"Quark made him promise to get rid of the pirates." She said with glee, "Turns out the little troll has an investment in the firm that first exploited the Ekosians."

"And the Zeons." T'Kir amended after receiving a telepathic prompt from Macen.

"As for what they wanted," Macen picked up the conversation a heartbeat later, "There are two major asteroid belts in the system. One is rich in duranium the other is laden with latinum."

"Latinum." Prentiss whispered as her eyes widened.

"The locals had already discovered it when the Ferengi arrived." Macen continued, "They also knew it was valuable. I suspect the last Federation cultural observer wasn't as circumspect as he'd made everyone think."

"But giving them guns?" Prentiss asked, implying that there was a greater good to be considered.

"They can get them from us or buy them from the Ferengi." Macen replied, "I'd rather forge a friendship out of a simple exchange than an enemy."

"Exchange?" Prentiss wondered, "What exchange?"

Macen grinned, "They want guns. I want information. Trade one for the other and what do you have?"

A sly grin crept over Prentiss' features, "An exchange."

"You've got it." Macen nodded, "Now please sit down. We have work to do."

Prentiss bobbed her head, "All right."

Daggit returned to the bridge, "The prisoner has been deported."

"Rab," Macen stood before his hulking subordinate, "I need you to break out those phaser rifles we stashed aboard before departing."

"The Type-3's?" Daggit enquired.

"Those are the ones." Macen confirmed.

"You're going to give them away, aren't you?" Daggit wore a victorious grin.

"Yes." Macen automatically replied and then he hesitated, "Why?"

"Jenrya and I had a little bet going over what you were going to do with those surplus rifles." Daggit's smile blossomed, "I won."

"Get out of here before I throw you in the brig." Macen chuckled.

"We don't have a brig." Daggit countered.

"How about we throw you out an airlock?" Macen asked.

Daggit shrugged, "Okay. I guess that would work."

"Just get going." Macen laughed, "I have to talk to the locals and tell them their guns are ready."

"Nothing to do around here but work." Daggit cheerfully grumbled as he left the bridge.

"Oh, darling," T'Kir said sweetly, "someone's calling for you."

"Is it Kend?" Macen wondered.

"Nope." T'Kir replied, "It's Amanda. She wants a word."

Macen rolled his eyes, "Pipe it into my office and tell her I'll be there in a minute."

"Will do, love of my life, but what'll we tell the natives if they call for you?" T'Kir playfully asked.

"Tom," Macen stared at Riker, "you talk to them."

"Me?" Riker pointed at himself.

"Tell them that you're the 1st Officer, which you are, and tell them we'll follow them home. Got it?" Macen suggested.

"I don't know." Riker scratched his head, "You want to follow them where?"

"Shut up." Macen replied, "I'm leaving now. Anyone have any messages for Admiral Drake?"

"Nothing I'd say out loud." T'Kir muttered.

"I'll take that as a 'No'." Macen ducked out.

What kind of people am I travelling with? Prentiss wondered. A chortle of laughter from T'Kir reminded her that she wasn't entirely alone in her own mind any more. Prentiss sighed and leaned back in her chair. This was going to be a long assignment.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Drake drummed her fingers across the top of her desk. She didn't normally fidget this much but there was a lot on her mind and she surely wished Macen would answer his damned comm. She also knew that she rarely contacted him during a mission. He'd call her but things rarely operated in reverse.

Macen preferred having a fair degree of autonomy and since he was no longer a serving member of Starfleet she was forced to give it to him. It wasn't that she didn't trust him. Heavens knew he'd accomplished veritable miracles before without any input from her. She also knew her reasons for calling had very little to do with his current case.

Drake's screen shifted and Macen's visage appeared. He didn't look annoyed. Rather, he looked slightly amused. She wondered what she was interrupting.

"'Lo Amanda." Macen said with a mirthful tone tinging at his voice, "I see that you're keeping the reins awfully tight this time around."

"Sometimes an employer likes to know what she's paying for." Drake replied in a jovial manner, "So spill it. What's going on?"

"We've arrived in the Zynar system and have met the enemy." Macen smirked.

"I take it the Loki performed up to specs?" Drake queried him.

"She took three of the raiders completely by surprise." Macen happily reported, "Two of the other three fled the system."

"Two?" Drake was confused, "What happened to the third one?"

"The locals got him." Macen grinned, "They've showed up here too. They want to collect the prisoners. Seems the pirates harassed them as well."

"They have the capability to cripple a Miradorn raider?" Drake couldn't quite believe her ears.

"Amanda," Macen was trying to soften the blow to her preconceptions, "They're flitting about the system in fighter craft armed with plasma launchers and photon microtorpedoes. They're using ore haulers as troop transports and prison shuttles."

"Photons?" Drake yelped, "How'd they get those?"

"From a Ferengi firm establishing a trading post here." Macen answered.

"What do the Ekosians and Zeons have that the Ferengi want?" Drake wondered.

"Latinum." Macen revealed, "In abundance."

"Oh!" Drake's eyes widened, "That would do it."

"So what's the real reason that prompted your calling?" Macen asked.

"I...uh...what?" Drake stammered.

"C'mon Amanda, you only call when something's hit your panic button and you want to yell at me." Macen explained, "You've been nothing but polite and inquisitive. What's wrong?"

"I..." Drake hesitated.

"Amanda..." Macen prompted her.

"Alynna ran a review of Richard's company." Drake pressed forward, "Something's wrong. He's getting payments from unlisted clients for services unspecified. He also has accounts under different aliases. She's tracking down where he purchased the ID files. They're works of art."

"That alone narrows the list of suspects." Macen opined.

"You'll appreciate this particular irony: one of his clients is Pytor Boromov." Drake reported.

Macen frowned, "I appreciate that in ways you don't want to hear about."

"Alynna's pulling in Boromov for a round of questioning." Drake revealed, "No one expects it to be very revealing."

"Let T'Kir question him." Macen suggested, "He'll crack like an egg."

"Sorry but there's no time to waste. Richard and his entire crew have disappeared." Drake explained, "They departed from Earth yesterday. Alynna rerouted a patrol ship to intercept them along their filed flight plan. They never showed."

Wile Macen digested the implications of this, Drake continued, "A convoy of freighters spotted a Barracuda-class sporting Richard's registered ID. It was headed for the Meirkus Conglomeration."

The Meirkus Conglomeration was a loose gathering of non-aligned worlds. Most of them had marginal to nonexistent degrees of law and order. The Conglomeration produced more than its share of the quadrant's pirates.

"Sounds suspicious enough." Macen said at last, "Has Alynna authorised a full investigation?"

"The mission's yours if you want it after you complete your current contract." Drake announced.

Macen nodded, "Of course I'll take it. You do realise that I'm going to have to extensively interview you."

Drake nodded stiffly, "I can't say this hasn't been difficult or embarrassing but I want to cooperate however I can."

"Send me everything Starfleet has on him and his crew and I'll take a look during the quieter moments of our mission."

"I already have a packet prepared." Drake said. She paused and then said, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet. I haven't found them and they're going to have quite a head start on me by the time I'm ready to look." Macen replied.

"I understand that." Drake acknowledged, "However, you're our best hope of getting the job done. Richard knows you're a privateer. He doesn't know that you're contracted with the SID. The whole gun for hire motif may inspire a sense of camaraderie. He's also a fan of yours from your days with Starfleet Intelligence. Use that against him."

Macen nodded, "I'll keep it in mind. Anything else?"

Drake shrugged, "That about covers it."

"How's Shannon?" Macen enquired.

Drake brightened, "The doctors say she's adapting well. She's having difficulties transitioning to a 'clean' life but that's understandable."

"Give her my best and tell her the entire team is pulling for her." Macen requested.

Drake smiled warmly, "I will. Take care, Brin."

"You too." Macen urged, "Macen out."

The screen reverted back to its image of the UFP seal. Drake leaned back in her chair and pondered the meeting. It had certainly been out of character. Macen had been both polite and respectful. He was generally polite but respectful? Not a chance.

She could see that baring her soul to him had fundamentally changed their relationship. They were meeting as equals and as such Macen was much more receptive. She cursed herself for not having done so in the past.

Nechayev had warned her that Macen's autonomy in the field combined with his native sensibilities fostered a sense of egalitarianism within him. He could be friends with his superior. He'd respond positively as long as said superior did not try and impose their own sense of elevation due to rank upon him. Nechayev had walked that tightrope for several years.

Drake had tried the traditional chain of command approach. It hadn't bred hostility but it had fostered indifference. Macen would proceed however he intended despite any misgivings expressed by Drake. Reaching out to him as a friend had changed all of that.

This time around she hadn't treated him like a subordinate. In return, he took her suggestions and whatever scraps of information she could pass along with grace. There were no flippant comments or sarcastic remarks though Drake knew those would return. Even Nechayev hadn't been completely shielded from Macen's mouth and attitude.

Drake vowed she wouldn't return the relationship back to where it had been. It was time to explore new possibilities. Rising from her desk, she moved to the replicator and ordered some tea. Returning to her desk, she commed Ambril and requested that her inbox be updated. Her aide complied and Drake swiftly lost herself in activity reports.

Macen reappeared on the bridge to find Riker lounging in the centre seat. He came to stand next to his 1st Officer and asked, "So, what's our status?"

"Kend called again." Riker reported, "She'll be flying point and we'll follow in her wake. We'll be departing in twenty minutes."

"I take it that's when the troops show up." Macen surmised.

"Nope." Riker countered, "Their ETA is in five minutes."

"But we're departing in twenty?" Macen sought clarification.

"Apparently Kend wants to oversee the initial boarding actions." Riker revealed.

"So would I." Macen admitted, "Honey, can you hack into the pirate's internal security sensors and display what's going on over there?"

"Do ducks like water?" T'Kir retorted as she got busy.

"This could prove disastrous." Macen muttered.

"I heard that." T'Kir warned, "You're my husband. You supposed to adore me. So worship away."

"I do worship you," Macen laughed, "otherwise you'd still be locked away in the Andes Institute."

"Always bringin' that up." T'Kir muttered, "That and the stabbing incident...always gotta beat me over the head with those."

Macen moved over to her station and kissed her in the head, "You know I do it out of love."

"Love this." T'Kir made an obscene gesture and Macen returned, chuckling, to Riker's side.

"A good day to be alive." Macen's good humour was infectious and Riker grinned back.

Radil chose that moment to enter the bridge, "So is anything going on or can I go back to bed?"

"I got it." T'Kir happily declared.

The viewscreen shifted to an image of pirates preparing their bridge for boarding. Radil suddenly gasped.

Macen turned to her, "What is it?"

"I recognise one of those pirates." Radil revealed, "He's Skip Rosemont. We served in Brazzinik's Battalions together."

"Brazz-who's Battalions?" Macen asked.

"Brazzinik." Radil answered, "He was the founder of the mercenary company so he got to name it after himself."

"And this Rosemont, you were friends?" Macen sought clarification.

"We were comrades in arms." Radil answered, "We shared the occasional night but it was always a spur of the moment dalliance."

"Do you want him to stay alive?" Macen pressed.

Radil shrugged, "If he's the same Skip I know, he could prove useful as an informant."

Macen was intrigued, "Why's that?"

"Skip is a rich boy playing war to scandalise his parents." Radil revealed, "He was a good fighter but always thought of war as a game. It seems to me that maybe the game has caught up with him and he might like a chance to get out of it."

Macen's eyes were still locked in on Radil's. Neither his intuition nor his metaphysical senses were alerting him to any weakness on her part. She saw Rosemont as a potentially useful tool. It had probably always been her perception.

"T'Kir, which ship is that?" Macen asked.

"The centre one." T'Kir replied, "Also known as the Guderion."

"Position of the locals' boarding parties?" Macen enquired.

"They're assuming position alongside the centre ship while the others near their targets." Danan reported.

"Inform Kend that we're monitoring the situation." Macen ordered, "Alert her to the fact to withdraw her forces if they meet resistance and we will deal the resistance."

"She wants to know how." T'Kir reported.

"Tell her she'll receive a free demonstration of photon torpedoes at work." Macen replied, "Jenrya, point out Rosemont for Lees so she can acquire him on her sensors and route his coordinates to you in the transporter."

Radil complied and she started for the exit. Macen motioned Riker aside, "Accompany her. I think her former friend will be too shocked to shoot first but I'd rather be safe."

"I know the feeling." Riker concurred just loud enough for Macen, and T'Kir, to hear.

Danan focused her attention on the readings in her sensor hood, "Found him. I'm relaying coordinates now." Danan toggled the intercom and told Radil exactly that.

Macen watched as Rosemont dematerialised on the screen. He idly wondered what the look on Rosemont's face was.

"Good news, my dear." Sindis said to Ryst as she emerged from his private work out chamber. She dabbed her sweaty forehead as her behaviour mods deactivated and allowed her to react like a "typical" humanoid again.

She threw the towel over her shoulder, "What is it?"

"An unknown, and heavily armed, freighter wandered into the Zynar system and crippled three of our raiders. The locals staged an impromptu revolt and crippled a fourth. The remaining two are headed here." Sindis smiled.

Ryst frowned, "And this is cause for celebration because...?"

"Because, dear Annika, our trap has been sprung." Sindis looked as though he'd swallowed a canary, "The ship was a Q-ship. One so powerful that it must have been produced at the enigmatic SPYards. It was undoubtedly a Starfleet Intelligence operation. The severity of the response would indicate that there was indeed a SID team crewing the freighter."

"But the trap failed and now they'll follow the remaining raiders here." Ryst protested.

"Quite the contrary," Sindis' smile was as cold as it was predatory, "the trap has just been sprung. Those fools were mere cannon fodder. I knew that they would turn and run. That's why I sent them. I want them followed. I want them followed here."

"You want Macen to personally face you." Ryst wrapped her mind around it.

"Here he has no support, no avenue of escape, and no chance in hell." Sindis gloated, "He will be dead before he has even taken measure of the place."

"C'mon," Ryst began to lead the way, "I need some fruit juice and we have a toast to drink."

Rosemont's reaction was one of sheer terror. He waved his disruptor around, erratically aiming at Riker and then Radil. Riker had his phaser drawn but Radil kept her hands visible in the air. After several moments of Rosemount's frenetic panic, Radil began to speak.

"Skip?" she said softly, gently trying to prod his memory, "It's me, Jenrya. Do you remember who I am?"

Rosemont kept his disruptor trained on Riker but he cautiously cast a glance towards Radil, "Jenrya? I don't know a Jenrya."

"Yes, you do." Radil assured him, "Look at me. Try to remember Brazzinik's Battalions. We served in the same platoon."

"Brazzinik's..." Rosemont's eyes widened and he stared at Radil, "Oh my God...Jenny?"

"Jenny?" Riker repeated as Rosemont declared, "It is you!"

Radil aimed a finger at Riker, "Drop it." Her finger shifted to Rosemont, "Hand over the damned gun and follow me so we can do something about that cut on your forehead."

Rosemont touched his forehead and winced. Stepping down off the transporter pads, he handed Riker his pistol, "Imagine seeing Jenny after all of these years."

"Must be a shock." Riker replied.

"Come over here." Radil forcefully demanded, "Now!"

Rosemont loosed a wistful sigh, "Some things are eternal."

Riker held him by his arm, "Listen, find me later. We need to talk."

"Rest assured, old chap. I shall." Rosemont promised and then followed in Radil's wake.

"Jenny." Riker murmured to himself and returned to the bridge wearing a broad smile.

"What's with the smile?" Macen asked as Riker appeared.

"I'll let Jenny explain it to you." Riker mirthfully replied.

"Jenny?" Macen repeated.

"You know, Jenny Radil." Riker chortled.

Macen looked to T'Kir. She winked and a moment later relayed what she'd seen in Riker's mind. Macen smiled.

"It seems we'll have to get to know Mr. Rosemont." Macen chuckled, "To equalise the odds for Jenrya's sake if for no other reason."

Riker's head snapped around in the direction of T'Kir. She blew him a kiss. He ruefully shook his head.

"You two don't play fair." He complained.

"We'll see about fair play in just a second." Macen advised, "The Ekosians are boarding."

The main viewer showed a split screen display. One scene showed the exterior of the Guderion as the Ekosian ore hauler hard docked with it. The other showed the pirates laying in wait.

"Contact Kend," Macen ordered, "have her troops ready to withdraw at a moment's notice."

"She'll take it under advisement." T'Kir replied.

Macen muttered a dark incantation under his breath. The ore hauler's umbilical sealed against the raider's hull. From the interior view, the airlock rolled open and the Ekosians charged in two abreast. They'd nearly reached the first junction when the pirates revealed themselves and open fired.

It was a case of particle weapons versus plasma guns. The Ekosians put up a stiff resistance but they were open and exposed. Their line of retreat was blocked by the rear echelon rushing forward to reinforce. It had become a charnel house and Macen was through with it.

"Patch me in to Kend!" Macen snapped, "Flight Leader Kend, withdraw your personnel and we will permanently deal with these scum."

The overwhelmed Ekosians finally began a fighting retreat. Half their number was cut down before the managed to close the airlock again. The pirates cheered and congratulated one another.

"Am I still on with Kend?" Macen asked. T'Kir nodded an affirmative and he continued, "Flight Leader Kend, redeploy your forces so that they achieve a minimum safety distance of ten thousand kilometres from the boarded ship."

"They're moving away." Danan reported.

"Let me know when the Ekosians are all clear." Macen turned to Daggit, "Target a brace of photons. I want that ship destroyed."

"Here now!" Prentiss was on her feet, "You just can't..."

Macen silenced her with a look, "I warned them. They ignored that warning and now they'll reap the benefits."

"But you can't!" Prentiss repeated, "It's..."

"Illegal? Immoral? Against Starfleet regulations to destroy one crippled ship in order to tame two more?" Macen quipped, "Care to take your pick?"

"This will go in my report." Prentiss warned.

"I wouldn't have it any other way." Macen retorted, "Lees?"

"The last hauler just cleared the minimum distance barrier." Danan informed him.

"Rab, take 'em out." Macen's eyes were still locked on Prentiss'. He could see the anguish there as well as the uncertainty. He respected the uncertainty and had no time for the anguish.

Daggit fired three torpedoes and the Guderion broke apart. Macen turned back towards the screen, "Put me on with the pirate chiefs and Kend."

Macen stared levelly at the viewer pick up, "You've tasted the results of resistance. If you want to survive, cooperate with your boarding parties. We will be watching."

Macen signalled T'Kir to cut the transmission. Turning to Riker, he said, "Monitor the remaining actions. If the pirates put up a fight, repeat the lesson."

Riker swallowed hard but he nodded, "All right."

Macen stepped over to Prentiss, "I sense that you want to talk to me."

"Can we go somewhere private?" Prentiss was trying hard to control her temper.

"My office?" Macen suggested.

"Perfect." Prentiss readily agreed and stepped off of the bridge. Macen glanced back, "Keep her steady, Tom."

"Always." Riker promised.

 

Chapter Sixteen

The door to the Captain's Office closed behind Macen and he queried Prentiss, "What do you want?"

Prentiss wheeled about on him with such force and with a new wave of resolve that Macen had to reappraise her, "I know why you're doing this. I've read your file, Captain."

"That's hardly news." Macen remarked, "I'd assumed that you've read SID's files on all of us."

"I've read your classified file." Prentiss revealed, "Your 'Eyes Only' file only open to Admirals Nechayev and Drake."

That stopped Macen cold, "And?"

"I know why you're a privateer." Prentiss continued.

"That's in my declassified file." Macen snorted, "It's ancient history."

"I know what you dream about." Prentiss said and Macen's guts froze, "I know why you joined the Maquis, why you're a privateer, and what you secretly want to do."

"And what is that?" Macen asked with far less confidence than he would have liked.

"You're the perfect little idealist." Prentiss began, "You've always wanted to create the perfect little universe. Noble ambition but somewhere along the way you got twisted. You now want to create this idyllic existence by any means necessary. Whether by reason, teaching, armed force or wanton violence, you want to destroy all that we know and recreate it in your image."

"Not my image..." Macen began to protest.

Prentiss laughed, "Of course not. You want a future moulded by some ethereal deities known to you as the 'Fates'. In other words you want to take us back two hundred years and return to paganism."

"You don't know what you're discussing." Macen said in an ominous tone.

"Yes, I do. All of these ultimatums are designed to allow you to lash out and lay one more brick in your road to perfection. You survived the Borg only to become them." Prentiss opined.

Prentiss suddenly stopped. She saw something in Macen's eyes that scared her. She saw her own demise and she knew there was nothing she could do about it if she chose to act at this moment. She stood perfectly still as Macen spoke.

"You know nothing about the Borg." He said in quiet, yet threatening, voice, "You may, however, know something about me. Keep it to yourself."

"Your crew doesn't know." She suddenly realised.

"My wife knows and she's told her closest friend." Macen elaborated, "The others don't need to know. This information was classified for a reason. To protect the misinformed from themselves."

"Information is freedom." Prentiss argued, "You could get help."

"I don't need help." Macen retorted, "My belief system is as valid as yours."

"My belief system doesn't endorse murder and anarchy." Prentiss countered.

"Doesn't it?" Macen derisively asked, "I'm assuming you believe in the Federation."

"Of course I do." Prentiss snapped.

"The Federation may condemn discrimination, murder, and social injustice within their own borders but they willingly tolerate it in foreign planets that they deal with." Macen accused, "As long as the guilty party has a vital resource or is a 'strategic partner' all sins are forgiven."

"The Prime Directive forbids tampering with a planet's right to determine their own customs." Prentiss remarked.

"Yes, we choose the diplomatic route wherein we let them do whatever they wish and we make polite but feeble protests based upon humanitarian grounds but the death tolls continue to rise and the persecuted get no relief." Macen passionately argued, "Relativistic values will be the downfall of this civilisation. The Federation and its neighbours need to come together and establish a core set of absolute principles. Values that can be applied to any form of life and sentience."

"And I suppose that you'll be the one dictating these values?" Prentiss scornfully asked.

Macen grew irritated, "As I said, this would be a collaborative effort. The end result would be the thing to look forward to not the process."

"And what end result would we be addressing here?" Prentiss sarcasm continued unabated.

"Universal absolutes." Macen said with a hint of a smile, "Standards that could be embraced by all cultures."

"It'll never happen." Prentiss dismissed his dream in a single breath, "At least, not until you lead a galaxy wide revolution."

"You'd be amazed at the power of education." Macen replied, "It can change civilisations. A revolution of ideas if you wish."

Prentiss suddenly swallowed hard. Could she see it? Macen had at least another three hundred years on this mortal plane. That left a lot of time to spread ideas and exert influence.

Prentiss opened her mouth to reply but Macen cut her off, "Are we done here?"

Prentiss nodded and Macen dismissively asked, "Could you send T'Kir in here?"

Prentiss wanted to argue but didn't see the point. She left without saying another word. Macen ordered some juice and sat down at "his" desk. T'Kir bounded into the room.

"I see you got rid of your headache." She cheerfully observed.

"She's seen my file." Macen grumbled, "The unabridged edition."

"Yah, I got that." T'Kir ordered herself some coffee and plopped down into the chair situated in front of the desk.

"She thinks that document sums me up into one neat little unstable package." Macen complained.

"So show her you're not." T'Kir urged.

"I think the jury has already decided." Macen opined.

"Nah." T'Kir grinned, "She's still confused. As long as she's bewildered she hasn't made up her mind. Besides, you neglected to tell her that you want to educate an entire army into handing you the galaxy."

"Thank you for that encouragement." Macen deadpanned.

"Besides, the current mission's not over." T'Kir revealed, "Far from it."

"Dirge?" Macen enquired.

T'Kir nodded, "Yup. Seems our missing raiders are headed for Mityr."

"Isn't that in the Meirkus Conglomeration?" Macen asked.

"Yup." T'Kir confirmed, "And a more lawless place you never have found."

"I think I ran across an intelligence report on it not too long ago." Macen said, "Something about some new strongman uniting the factions on Mityr."

"Y'might wanna bone up on the place cuz that's where we're headed." T'Kir suggested.

"How's our situation with the Ekosians?" Macen asked.

"How come they're suddenly Ekosians when they were natives ten minutes ago?" T'Kir wondered.

Macen blushed, "I remembered the file on these people. The Zeons are the technical innovators. They're also pacifistic. The Ekosians are aggressive and make up the military arm of the two worlds."

"Don'cha think that would have been useful ten minutes ago?" T'Kir dryly enquired.

"Probably, but I can't remember everything." Macen said a tad defensively.

"Oh relax." T'Kir said playfully, "We're still alive. No one's gonna take away your Captain's privileges so don't worry 'bout it."

"You're such a comfort." Macen remarked dryly.

T'Kir bowed her head, "I try. I really do."

"Okay, scoot." Macen said, "Have Tom call me when we enter orbit over Ekos."

T'Kir raised her right arm in a salute and clicked her heels, "Yes suh."

"What's that?" Macen looked pained.

"Just trying to jive with the locals." T'Kir said.

"Don't." Macen urged, "Ever."

T'Kir stuck out her tongue, "You're no fun."

"Thank the Fates for small favours."

"Whatever." T'Kir sat her mug down on Macen's desk and rose out of the chair, "See ya."

Macen called up Starfleet Intelligence's latest dispatches concerning Mityr. He didn't like what he saw in the summaries alone. He requested the raw intell to go along with the abstracts. The intercom interrupted his train of thought.

"Captain," Radil's voice almost pleaded, "can you join us in the mess? Skip needs to talk to you."

Macen quickly rose. If Radil were seeking help then the situation definitely needed his attention. It struck him as odd on how much he depended on Radil now.

She'd joined the team under protest after Daggit had unwittingly kidnapped her from her assignment with the Orion Syndicate. The Syndicate assumed, incorrectly, that Radil wanted to "escape" with Daggit and had placed a bounty on her head. Macen offered her a steady job and a refuge from the Syndicate's headhunters.

Always a dedicated soldier, Radil threw herself into whatever duties she was assigned. Over time she came to realise that she'd found a potential home. It was left to her to decide whether or not to accept the invitation and embrace the group.

Radil made her choice after her death mark had been rescinded. She threw herself into the team as never before. She had no regrets and had never looked back. Her steadfastness had become indispensable. Macen wondered what kind of insight into her mysterious past did Rosemont represent?

Macen arrived at the Mess. The doors were locked open. Macen quietly stepped in and found Radil and Rosemont seated at the closest table. Rosemont's back was to the door. Radil looked relaxed but Macen could sense the underlying tension waiting to erupt into action.

"Captain," Radil smiled, "may I introduce Skippy Rosemont."

Rosemont turned from reaching out to shake Macen's hand in order to glare at Radil, "You know I hate my given name."

"Call me 'Jenny' one more time and see what happens." Radil warned.

Rosemont looked properly chastised. He went to shake Macen's hand only to find that Macen hadn't extended his hand in return. Macen took a seat next to Radil.

"Hello Mr. Rosemont." Macen leaned on his elbows, "Do you know why you're here?"

"Jenny... er, Radil said I'd been brought aboard to do you a service." Rosemont grinned, "I do suppose that one good turn deserves another."

"I agree." Macen locked eyes with the man, "The Guderion has been destroyed. You're the sole surviving member of her crew."

"Those neo-barbs destroyed the ship?" Rosemont was in shock.

"No, Mr. Rosemont," Macen's voice was laced with hidden danger, "I did."

"But why?" Rosemont blurted.

"They resisted." Macen answered, "They were warned not to but they did it anyways. You'll be happy to learn the crew of the other ships have complied and are still alive."

"You're inhuman." Rosemont gasped.

"Point in fact: I'm not human." Macen admitted, "While we're at it let's not mention the dozens of freighters, cruise liners and pleasure craft that you and your associates attacked over the last six months. I'm sure evidence given by them will exonerate you and your comrades."

Macen let his words sink in and then began anew, "The locals don't seem to like you or your fellows very well. Care to say why?"

Rosemont stared at the table, "No."

"Listen," Macen relented slightly, "I'm handing you and your comrades over to the Ekosians. I have an idea how to elevate your situation but you need to cooperate. Are you interested?"

Rosemont looked up. His eyes were red and swollen, "I'll do whatever you want."

"Tell me about Mityr." Macen inquired, "Who's in charge there? What kind of defences do they have?"

"I don't know a lot but here's what I do know..." Rosemont began his description.

Thirty minutes later Rosemont had spilled his guts and Macen had described his plan to him. Rosemont was completely at ease over being handed over to the Ekosians and was even eager to disembark from the Loki. Riker had paged Macen and the good Captain was returning to the bridge.

"Are we there yet?" Macen asked as he stepped onto the bridge.

"Take a look." Riker gestured towards the viewer. An emerald and sapphire planet met his gaze. Two ruined space stations hung in orbit. Undoubtedly a legacy left by the pirates. Dozens of impulse driven fighter craft swarmed around the Q-ship.

"They want to board us." Riker warned, "I've been putting them off but they're getting insistent."

"Put them on." Macen exchanged places with Riker. A bald man with a Van Dyke beard appeared. He wore the customary grey and black staff uniform belonging to the Wehrmacht Heer.

"Are you Captain Macen?" the man asked, showing signs of frustration.

"I am." Macen replied.

The Ekosian officer brightened, "Excellent. I am Planetary Marshal Gelt Riekann. I have been discussing matters with your subordinate. You must permit us to inspect your vessel."

"May I ask what this inspection is for?" Macen enquired.

"We have had enough of piracy in our system." Riekann declared, "We must determine what your intentions are."

"We neutralised three of your pirates with no assistance from your forces." Macen recalled, "Furthermore, we eliminated a threat to your forces. Add these facts to the simple truth that we could easily destroy the rest of your starfaring forces and raze your planet and you'll see that by refraining we prove ourselves to be your allies."

Riekann blanched but his resolve remained intact, "Yes, we appreciate what you have done and what are your obvious good intentions. I must still insist upon inspecting your ship if you intend to remain in this system for any length of time."

Macen weighed his options and nodded, "Very well."

This was said to Riekann's obvious relief, "I'm so pleased that you wish to cooperate. We mean no insult. It's just that with the recent advent of the raiders we cannot afford to risk a second siege."

"Yes." Macen nodded, "I was hoping to discuss these matters with you in depth."

"I'll look forward to it...after your ship and crew pass inspection." Riekann said, "Now on to other items: There will be a slight delay in launching the transport with the inspection team."

"I hope it isn't anything serious." Macen honestly hoped. If it was a bad situation he was sure his crew would get the blame.

"No, no," Riekann dismissed the notion, "Colonel Kend has requested to be attached to the inspection team. She has just landed her fighter and is proceeding to the transport."

"Very well." Macen replied, "We'd love to have her aboard. What is your transport's ETA?"

"Ten minutes." Riekann answered a little too smoothly.

"We'll be waiting for them." Macen smiled, "Loki out."

The screen went dark and Macen's focus shifted to Grace, "What's their realistic ETA, Hannah?"

"Based upon the space based performance profile, and assuming that their RCS thruster technology is concurrent with the same level of development," Grace paused to do the math in her head, "I'd say forty to forty-five minutes."

Macen activated the intercom, "All right people, we have work to do. Rab and Tom, secure the cargo holds. Joachim, secure engineering. I do not want these people near our warp core. Kort, lockdown the Infirmary and hide your bat'leth. Radil, keep Rosemont in the Mess until called for. Hannah, prepare to break orbit and plot us a vector towards the Meirkus Conglomeration. T'Kir, standby for Intrusion-Level One. Lees, keep your eyes on your sensors. I want to know when they're arriving. Okay, everyone get busy."

"What about me?" Prentiss asked.

"Stay out of the way and don't get taken hostage." Macen instructed.

"What do you mean, 'don't get taken hostage'?" Prentiss demanded.

"My guess is that these people are coming aboard to take our cargo and to take us as prisoners." Macen impatiently explained, "My job is to prevent that and still remain friends. In order to do that I need you to implicitly obey orders when they're given. Do we have an understanding?"

Prentiss nodded but he could see hesitation in her eyes. Somehow, sometime during this boarding, she was going to make trouble. Macen just hoped he could get her out of it unscathed.

Right now, Macen was cursing Edward Jellico's name. He might be the second most powerful officer in Starfleet but he was the single biggest pain in Macen's ass. Someday soon, and very soon, he and Macen were going to have to come to grips with their enmity. It was starting to get in the way of job performance.

Macen couldn't understand why Jellico still felt irritable with him. Jellico and Mackenzie Calhoun had patched up their differences and there had been a history of personal violence there. So why was the good Admiral in a tizzy regarding Outbound Ventures and Macen's SID team?

Even as he asked the question, he realised the answer. Outbound Ventures was the problem. If Macen were still a uniformed officer then he and Jellico would have found a way to resolve this conflict. Since he was a privateer he was unworthy of such a role as the SID's vanguard unit.

Jellico's methods for dealing with Macen's team were by the book and totally irrelevant to a non-Starfleet organisation. Jellico's only hope lay in voiding Outbound Ventures' contract with the SID. Since four out five members of the Security Council of Five had voted to renew Macen's contract, Jellico needed the spectre of a human rights violation or a charge of murder to push the agenda back to a vote. Despite Prentiss' presence aboard, Macen was certain that the team wouldn't give her cause for alarm.

The Ekosian transport docked ten minutes earlier than had been anticipated. Grace jotted down a note about it and placed the padd back into her vest pocket. Riker manned the airlock and waited for the banging on the door to reaffirm the door's sensor reading of a successful hard dock.

The anticipated clang arrived and Riker cycled the door. Immediately an armed and armoured Ekosian aimed his rifle at Riker and began screaming for him to face the wall with arms and legs spread. A squad of eleven Ekosians rushed into the freighter's central core and fanned out. Two of the intruders stormed the bridge and began shouting orders.

"Face down on the deck!" The lead Ekosian ordered, "Fingers laced atop your head."

Macen and the team remained where they were. Down the corridor weapons fire could be heard. The apparent leader swore, "Find out who that is and instruct them to hold their fire."

The subordinate whispered into his radio while the leader reiterated his earlier demand, "Face down, now!"

Prentiss rose and moved towards the Ekosian, "I'm sure we can work this ou..."

The Ekosian grabbed her. Plucking her phaser out of its holster, he spun her about and placed his rifle barrel into her back. He aimed the phaser pistol at Macen. The entire SID team had their weapons drawn and ready.

"It doesn't have to be this way." Macen said while sighting down the barrel of his gun, "Just release the girl and we can talk."

"No." the Ekosian remarked, "You lay down your weapons or she dies. I'll give you until the count of five."

"If she dies you'll be joining her in the afterlife." Macen vowed.

"One." The Ekosian began his countdown. His fellow aimed his rifle into the "crowd".

"Rab?" Macen asked.

"Two."

"You have the shot?"

"Three."

"Give the word." Daggit replied.

"Four." The Ekosian's finger tightened on the rifle's trigger.

 


Proceed to Part III

 

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