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Love and Starships - Part III by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter Seventeen

Sindis and Ryst were comparing notes on the Syndicate's smuggling operations when an aide reported to Sindis. She handed Sindis a padd and departed. Sindis read the document displayed by the padd and smiled. Ryst noted the change of mood.

"I assume it's good news." She observed.

Sindis nodded, "My agent on Ekos has reported in. He has dispatched agents to eliminate Macen and his team."

Ryst snorted, "Good luck with that."

"I don't honestly expect them to succeed but their sacrifice will lead them to my agent and that in turn will make the trail to Mityr even more tantalising." Sindis wore a predatory smile.

"You don't think Macen will simply waltz into your clutches do you?" Ryst asked.

"Captain Macen will attempt some subterfuge to garner my good graces. I will know it for the lie it is and Macen will know that I know." Sindis wore a pleased smile, "And then the game will be afoot."

"You're either the shrewdest bastard I've ever met or you're the most foolhardy." Ryst opined.

"Call it what you will as long as it succeeds." Sindis replied, "Come now; let us finish our examination of the benefits of merging Mityr's operations with the Syndicate's."

Ryst knew that Sindis knew an infinite amount of knowledge on the subject and she could barely contribute little more than a delighted equivalent of "Ooh, good plan" once in awhile. It was rather embarrassing and she knew that the slight was intentional.

Sindis had been unable to best her on the sparring mat and his ego was wounded. His revenge was little conferences like this. She was a trigger puller, not a strategist. Grand details and aspirations bored her to tears. Still, she did her duty and paid attention and dutifully said, "Ooh, good plan" when it was expected. Quietly, in her innermost heart, she plotted her revenge for the indignity and knew that Sindis would soon be brought low.

Macen opened his mouth in order to instruct Daggit to shoot both Ekosian commandoes. He never got the chance. A distinctly feminine voice spoke out ordering the two soldiers to stand down. It projected an ironclad authority laced with supreme confidence. The commandoes hesitated.

A Nordic Valkyrie appeared behind the increasingly bewildered Ekosians. She wore a grey on black uniform in the same cut as what the Luftwaffe wore. Macen recognised the platinum haired newcomer as being one Jorra Kend. Kend had drawn her service sidearm and Macen wondered how she would tip the balance of power on the bridge.

"Sergeant," Kend spoke with icy disapproval, "I've ordered you and your troopers to stand down. Why are you disobeying an order from a superior officer?"

"I'm Planetary Forces." The Sergeant sneered, "You are a Stellar Forces Colonel. You have no authority over me."

Kend moved her pistol and nestled its barrel into the back of the man's skull, "You are operating in my domain. If you refuse to acknowledge my jurisdiction as the ranking Stellar Forces officer on the scene I shall simply incinerate your brain and find someone who will."

"I can't lay down my arms, Colonel." The Sergeant grated, "If you hadn't noticed their entire bridge crew is aiming weapons at the Private and me."

"That's probably because you're holding a member of that same crew hostage." Kend dryly observed, "And they're probably getting tired of waiting for you to surrender."

"They're tired of..." The Sergeant's eyes went wide, "Private..."

"Rab." Was all Macen said. Daggit fired a particle burst into the Sergeant's face and then quickly pivoted and placed a stream burst into the Ekosian Private's armoured chest. Macen surged forward and caught Prentiss as she blindly stumbled forward. Daggit pushed past Kend, whose hands were in the air, and he inspected the outer corridor.

Macen pulled Prentiss onto her feet and passed her to T'Kir, "Pull her together."

"Sure," T'Kir groused, "give me 'Mission Impossible'."

Danan had moved across the cramped area of the bridge and was scanning the two downed Ekosians with a tricorder. Kend slid closer and took an interest in Danan's ministrations.

"Will they live?" she asked.

Danan, who was kneeling over the Private, looked up, "This one will live. The Sergeant is dead. No known humanoid can survive a heavy stun blast to the head."

Macen cursed under his breath, "Why did your Marshal want my cargo confiscated and my crew taken prisoner?"

Kend looked extremely uneasy. Macen held up a hand to ward off her reply. Instead he looked to Daggit.

"Rab, what's our status?" Macen enquired.

"Two of the Ekosians are at the Mess waving rifles around." Macen blinked when Daggit grinned, "One of theirs is also on the ground. I'm assuming Jenrya got him."

"Safe bet." Macen opined, "Any others?"

"There's one poking around Engineering." Daggit reported, "One is guarding Riker. I'm assuming the other five have gained access to the holds."

"Signal Joachim." Macen ordered, "He can deal with the intruder nearest Engineering. After liberating Tom, you take out one of the others at the Mess. That should provide Radil with a sufficient opening to take out the other one. After you neutralise those five, move into the holds and flush the rest out."

Macen thought about it and revised his orders, "Instruct Dracas to keep that sword of his sheathed. I don't want him skewering anyone."

"Does that apply to all lethal force?" Daggit asked.

"Only employ it if absolutely necessary." Macen instructed, "I will be conducting a full investigation of every death."

"Got it." Daggit sketched a jovial salute and disappeared. Weapons fire could be heard a moment later. Macen was left wondering what had happened to his emotionless super soldier. A grin and a jaunty salute during combat? He's almost human again. Macen thought to himself, What's different?

Don't ask me, T'Kir thoughtcast into his mind, I've got no bloody idea.

Macen decided that wasn't much help and turned to Kend once again, "Well Colonel, what's the story?"

Kend studied Macen for a moment, gauging him, "What makes you think you can trust me?"

"From everything that occurred, I'd say you were out of the loop." Macen decided, "You've already followed your conscience once. Do you have the courage to follow it again?"

"As long as it doesn't lead to treason." Kend rebutted.

"And why would it automatically lead to treason?" Macen wondered.

"It is improper to inform on one's superiors." Kend recited, dredging up some piece of social dogma.

"You do if they're corrupt." Macen retorted, "Who is Riekann responsible to?"

"Every citizen and soldier is responsible to their superior officer." Kend described her planet's social structure, "The Chancellor, as the highest echelon, is responsible to the voters who control his or her fate."

"Is Riekann working with the pirates?" Macen bluntly wondered.

Kend winced. After a rather painful internal struggle, she spoke, "When the pirates came they 'beamed' into the Reichstag and demanded to see our highest ranking military leaders. The presiding Marshal, the Kommandants of the Planetary and Stellar Forces and their deputies attended this meeting. Only Riekann survived. He assumed the role of Marshal and the other positions have been unoccupied at Riekann's request."

"The Officer Korps of the Stellar Forces was decimated by the pirates in our initial attacks against them." Kend revealed, "I am the senior officer of the Stellar Forces and only that by pure chance. I should have been killed along with the bulk of my squadron but my wingman took the shot intended for me and I escorted the survivors back to Ekos."

"How did you finally manage to capture one of their ships?" Macen asked.

"Our scientists have been reverse engineering the technology we purchased from the Ferengi." Kend explained, "Most of it is military tech and we were able to start manufacturing it even as we employed the industrial replicators we purchased to reproduce the items that were too advanced for our manufacturers."

"Why didn't the pirates take out the replicators?" Macen had to ask.

"They are secreted in massive caves four hundred kilometres to the east of the capital." Kend answered.

"Aren't you afraid telling me this will end up in the destruction of your military?" Macen wondered.

"I think that if you'd wanted to eradicate our remaining forces you would have done so by now." Kend replied.

Macen shook his head, "That's hardly conclusive."

"You could have killed either Sergeant Eloish or Private Jirnal at any moment of your choosing. You held off and waited for a peaceful resolution." Kend recited.

"There was still an unnecessary death." Macen grimly pointed out.

"That's the clincher." Kend argued, "You see the death as something unnecessary and you regret it. That's not the attitude of a mercenary raider."

"Hey Boss," T'Kir pulled Prentiss out of her station's seat and plopped down at Ops, "Someone down there just lit up a subspace transmitter. It's getting bounced off a relay at the edge of the system."

"Can you trace it?" Macen asked.

"Already have." T'Kir activated the main viewer. On it was displayed a city block on Ekos. A red dot indicated where the signal was originating from.

"Where is this?" Macen wondered.

"The capitol." T'Kir answered, "It's the Chancellery not the Reichstag building."

"It's Riekann's office." Kend sadly confirmed.

"Do you have the signal canned?" Macen enquired.

"I've got it recorded but it ain't gonna do us much good." T'Kir reported.

Macen was shocked, "Why?"

"The encryption is good." T'Kir explained, "It's damned good. I've rarely seen a code this complex and I've got to admit that I've cracked even fewer than that."

"Could one of your patented code breakers slice it?" Macen was getting worried.

"Maybe." T'Kir acknowledged the possibility of defeat, "Even if my best baby can crack this it would take less time and effort to get the information straight from the source."

"Looks like we're going to the Chancellery." Macen grinned, "Any chance you can find out where that transmission is headed?"

"Just gotta query the relay." T'Kir was pleased to have a task she knew she could complete.

Macen moved over to the command chair and switched the intercom to shipwide address, "All sections report in."

"Kort reporting in." came the Klingon's gruff voice. Macen smiled.

"Macen here." Macen replied, "What's up?"

"Can I leave this infernal box?" Kort thundered.

"Feel free." Macen assured him, "You might want to check the Mess and see if Rosemont is still there. If not, you have my permission to find him and chastise him."

"I shall break him." Kort growled.

"Don't do anything you can't repair in a few moments." Macen advised.

"Pity." Kort grumbled as he signed off.

Macen winked at T'Kir and she reported that Daggit was checking in. Macen activated the intercom, "How are you doing in the holds?"

"We've rounded them up." Daggit's voice was laced with good humour, "As it turns out your admonishment to keep lethal force to a minimum was unnecessary. And, as it turned out, Dracas wasn't the aggressive one this time out."

"Was it Radil?" Macen wondered if her incapacitating one of the Ekosians earlier was indicative of larger issues.

"No and before you guess that it was me I'll let you know that it was Commander Riker."

"Riker?" Macen couldn't believe it, "How did Tom end up with you clearing the holds?"

"Well, the Commander was kind of livid after I stunned the Ekosian that had pinned him up against the wall. The young idiot had pilfered Riker's phaser and held him there while thumbing through the phaser's power settings. When he got it back the Commander asked to come along with me. I didn't see any reason to turn him down."

"As long as it didn't provoke an incident." Macen sighed in relief, "Tell Tom this counts as his semi-annual planetside assignment."

"I will but I'm also certain that he will protest." Daggit chuckled.

"Too bad." Macen retorted and cut the line.

Macen turned back towards T'Kir, "Any luck with the relay?"

"I've spoofed its security." T'Kir suddenly blew a pink, elastic bubble. It popped and she pulled the substance back in with her tongue, "Now I just gotta retrieve its memory files."

She returned her whole focus to her screens and she absently chewed the substance in her mouth and blew another bubble...with the same results. Grace noticed that Macen was staring at his wife and she smiled. She closed the distance between them and conspiratorially lowered her voice.

"You don't have to be so concerned." Grace couldn't keep the tinge of laughter out of her voice, "It's just gum."

"Gum?" Macen asked.

"Alternately referred to as bubblegum or chewing gum." Grace explained, "I gave her some during one of our watches together and she said it helped her concentrate. I replicated her an entire pack."

"Is that a good thing?" Macen wondered, "What's it taste like?"

"Whatever you want it to taste like." Grace revealed, "Mine tastes like chocolate fudge and T'Kir's tastes like watermelon."

Macen smiled at that. Watermelons were T'Kir's hidden addiction. A tramp freighter with a hold full of ripened watermelons had diverted to Shial when she was a child. The freighter captain had divested himself of a spoiling product and the children of the colonists had learned to crave the juicy fruit.

"Okay, I got it." T'Kir announced. Silently, she revelled in Macen's protective attention. "The signal was relayed to the Meirkus Conglomeration. Where it's going after it gets there is probably Mityr. I could wrest the exact address out of this relay but it'd damage the core processor."

"Leave it." Macen sighed, "We'll get what we need from Marshal Reikann."

Kend winced, "Must you?"

Macen's eyes bored into hers, "Yes."

Kend let loose of a forlorn sigh and she shrugged, "How can I help?"

"Are you sure about this?" Macen asked.

Kend nodded with more assurance, "Yes. If Reikann has been co-opted than he needs to be dealt with."

"He will be." Macen assured her, "Trust me."

"I have no choice at this point." Kend remarked miserably.

"I can only say so much to reassure you, Colonel." Macen pointed out, "Now I need to get my people moving and you need to return to your craft."

"Why?" Kend had to ask.

"You need to instruct the pilot to ferry the boarding party to the surface and that you'll be returning to the surface with us." Macen instructed.

A sly smile appeared on Kend's face, "A clever gambit, Captain."

"We try." Macen quipped, "Now get going."

Kend exited the bridge and Macen turned to fact his crew. Staring directly at Prentiss he asked, "Is everyone all right?"

"I'm fine." Prentiss huffed. Behind her T'Kir was waving her hands back and forth and shaking her head while mouthing the word "No".

"I know what you're doing." Prentiss growled without turning around, "I'm fine. Really."

"We'll have to take your word for it for now." Macen conceded, "When we have time I want you to submit to a psychological assessment."

"You don't have a trained counsellor aboard." Prentiss scoffed.

"Excuse me." Danan smirked, "You'd better do better research on your suspects next time. One of my previous hosts was a licensed psychologist in private practice. Kort is a certified psychiatrist. Together we're a potent combination."

"A previous host, you say?" Prentiss looked like the proverbial cat with the canary.

"I've recently become certified in my own right." Danan trumped her, "Check with the Federation's Mental Health Services Board if you don't want to take my word for it."

Macen grinned as he tapped his comm badge, "Macen to Riker."

"Riker here."

"Round up the prisoners, living, dead, conscious or other wise and deposit them on their boarding craft." Macen ordered.

"Why?" Riker was just a tad petulant.

"Because I've got a plan." Macen revealed.

"Lord have mercy." Riker groaned.

"You haven't even heard the plan." Macen said defensively.

"I don't need to." Riker retorted, "If it's anything like the plan to let these trigger happy buffoons aboard then we're going to get shot at again."

"Not necessarily." Macen replied.

"Brin, all of your plans involve us getting shot at." Riker complained, "You're just lucky we're so good natured about it."

Macen felt a pang of guilt, "I promise that there's almost no chance of anyone coming under fire this time."

"All right." Riker conceded, "We're on our way."

After the Ekosians had been returned to their transport, including the ill fated Sergeant Eloish, Macen ordered Dracas and Kort to the bridge to monitor the situation while everyone else was to take a break. Kend was offered a chance to meet Rosemont and to assess his potential as a military advisor. Everyone else was given a thirty minute break.

Kort watched Dracas at work at the Tactical station. He was focused, diligent, and very cheerful. Seeing as how Dracas had been the picture of despair upon his arrival from Earth, it was a dramatic change. Kort said as much.

Dracas was actually embarrassed. Kort wondered if the reticent Nova Roman was finally going to open up. Much to Kort's surprise, Dracas began to address his question.

"To be frank, I do not know how to explain." Dracas admitted.

"Just relating the salient points makes it easier." Kort urged.

"While on Earth I met someone." Dracas looked like a worm on the hook. Kort had to give him credit, he was trying. "We went on something called a date. Whatever it was called it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. My...friend...and I seemed to share so many things. It made me feel as if something besides duty could enter my life."

Kort smiled, "Have you called him since then?"

Dracas actually smiled, "Daggit told me to. I now have a standing invitation for another 'date' whenever we can meet."

Kort chuckled, "I'm happy for you. I truly am. Take your friend up on his offer soon before he gets distracted by anyone else."

Dracas' eyes went wide, "I hadn't considered that."

"You'll manage." Kort reassured him, "You always manage everything else. You'll surely rise to the challenge this time as well."

"Speaking of private lives," Dracas switched topics, "how goes your pursuit of Hayley Galloway."

Now it was time for Kort to squirm, "I wouldn't say that I am pursuing Hayley..."

"But you want to." Dracas finished for him.

"Yes." Kort sighed, "But she has shown no sign of attraction to me. She merely wants to be friends."

"And you desire more?" Dracas enquired.

Kort nodded, "Of course I want more. Wouldn't you want a woman like that?"

Dracas grinned at Kort and Kort shook his head, "Of course you wouldn't. You do get the gist of what I mean?"

"Of course." Dracas chuckled as he ran another sensor sweep, "The question is: can you live with just being her friend?"

"I will have to." Kort said grimly.

Grace sat in the Mess nursing a cup of tea and some biscuits. Prentiss sat in a corner curiously jotting down notes on a padd. In the centre of the area Kend interviewed Rosemont. Macen had suggested having Rosemont work as a military advisor in order to work off his debt to society. Kend was apprehensive but the longer that she spoke with Rosemont, the warmer her reception became.

Radil monitored all the activity in the room. She may have been on break but the Security Chief in her refused to allow her to completely relax. Besides, discounting Kort, Dracas, and the SID members in this room, everyone else was spending time with loved ones whether live or via subspace comms. Grace no longer had loved ones to contact.

Her last discussion with Ian Delaney had resulted in the dissolving of their romantic partnership. It had been amicable and they were still friends. They had just grown apart with all the time away from one another and their own individual growth. Grace felt at peace about it.

As she had mentioned to Macen, she needed to find someone who could embrace the totality of what she represented. She didn't know where she'd find someone like that but she knew that she could. In the meantime, she could take a page from T'Kir's past and date around.

She sipped her tea and let its warmth fill her. Grace decided that she was looking forward to her next romantic adventure. Until recently, she'd never been free to pursue men. Now that she was she intended to make the most of it.

Across the room, Radil kept a wary eye on Rosemont and Kend. At the periphery of her vision she studied Prentiss. The investigator had found something to report and she was doing so with a vengeance. Radil idly wondered what the aftermath of her shooting Prentiss would be.

She shrugged that thought aside and reflected on her own personal crisis. What should she do about Abby? Her time alone had proven one thing to her: she was in love with Abby Collins. She also knew she didn't want to pursue that relationship.

Although her anguished heart cried out in rebellion, Radil had chosen to let her love remain an unrequited one. It wasn't just that Abby was a subordinate officer. It was that Abby had a history of pursuing her superior officer. Radil couldn't trust her enough to test whether or not the relationship could stick. She had considered a dalliance with Abby but she wasn't certain if that was something she could easily live with. It was all a matter of variables and which ones could be controlled.

Parva's face appeared on the screen and Daggit's heart melted. Parva lit up with joy. She looked vital and healthy.

"Rab!" she squealed, "I didn't expect you to call so soon today. Has something happened?"

"We met the enemy." Daggit reported, "Obviously we beat them."

"So you're okay?" Parva grew concerned.

"I'm fine." Daggit assured her, "We're all fine."

"I hate being here while you're there." Parva confessed, "Being part of the team is the one thing out of my old life that I miss."

"Do you want to serve aboard the Obsidian as a maintenance tech?" Daggit hoped.

Parva giggled, "I can't silly. It wasn't just my heart keeping me in the dirt."

"You mean on the ground?" Daggit gently prompted.

Parva smiled, "Yeah, that. I can't pass the test. At the headquarters I have time to look something up if I get stuck. In space, during a fight or something, I wouldn't have time."

Sadly, Daggit's heart acknowledged the truth of her words, "Parva, any time you want me to quit just say so and I will."

Parva laughed, "What would you do with yourself?"

"Six months from now Macen's opening an Outbound Ventures Academy." Daggit revealed, "He's going train his own crews and take on extra ships. I've already been asked to develop course curriculum. It's just an easy step to become the instructor of those courses."

Parva beamed, "Do it Rab!"

"I'll talk to Macen once this mission is over." Daggit promised.

"We can be together." Parva clapped her hands.

"I love you, Babe." Daggit confessed.

"I love you too." Parva bubbled, "You stay safe so you can become a teacher."

Daggit saluted, "Yes, ma'am."

"Y'know how the doctor told me to stay home until tomorrow?" Parva coyly asked.

"Yes?" Daggit saw something lurking in the future and he was growing wary.

"Well, today I went shopping and I found the cutest..."

"So," Danan said in a neutral voice as she examined the bruise on Riker's forehead, "you decided to play hero."

"It wasn't like that." Riker countered, "Rab and the others needed my help. They were outnumbered and...owww!"

Danan examined the tongue depressor she'd just used to thwack Riker's bruise, "Handy little things."

Riker gingerly rubbed his head, "You'd better watch it. If Kort discovers what you're doing with his equipment he'll..."

"Remembering who you're talking about?" Danan said with a smirk, "Kort would put you in traction for arguing with me."

Riker subsided, "What is it you want to say?"

"Rab, Jenrya, and Joachim are professionals. They don't need to baby-sit an amateur while detaining five armed soldiers." Danan pointed out, "If you need a less cerebral reason consider this: We've just firmed up our relationship with an honest to God mutual commitment. I don't want to be left alone just because you threw your life away on some stupid stunt."

Riker absorbed this and then his demeanour became one of contrition, "I'm sorry, Lees. It was stupid. It won't happen again."

"I'll hold you to that Tom Riker." Danan kissed him and then wrapped her arms around him.

I could get used to this. Riker thought.

Macen and T'Kir were locked in an embrace. They separated and T'Kir stared into his eyes, "Thanks for not getting dead."

"There was only a slight chance that he would shoot me." Macen replied, "Prentiss was the one in real danger."

"Hold on buster." T'Kir argued, "I could read his mind. You were an equal opportunity target too."

"I stand corrected." Macen said, "But with Rab there, the risk was minimal."

"Minimalise this, damn you." T'Kir's voice was rising, "He was going to shoot you. The decision had been made. If Kend hadn't distracted him you would be dead."

T'Kir stood wagging a finger at him, "I don't know how I could deal with that so don't make me find out."

Macen took hold of her shoulders and kissed her on the forehead, "I'll be more careful."

"Promise?" T'Kir was almost plaintive.

"Yes." Macen wrapped his arms around her, "I promise."

T'Kir snuggled him, "Good."

"Ready to transport to the surface?" Macen wondered.

"D'we gotta?" T'Kir inquired.

"'Fraid so." Macen replied.

"How long until we go?" T'Kir asked.

"Twenty minutes." Macen answered.

"Just hold me until then. 'Kay?" T'Kir requested.

Macen gave her a squeeze, "Anything."

 

Chapter Eighteen

The team, excluding Riker and Grace, assembled in the transporter room. Riker and Grace were operating the ship and Danan, after she finished manning the transporter, was staying with them to operate the sensors. Macen wasn't expecting trouble. They had Kend's support and the troop transport full of battered boarders would be landing at any time. Their testimony should help dissuade any thoughts of a violent greeting.

Then again, Macen mused, they could just cut us down where we stand.

Not very funny. T'Kir grumped

Macen, T'Kir, Daggit and Kend stepped up to the transporter pads. Radil, Dracas, Kort, and Rosemont would follow as the second wave. Danan selected her target and activated the transporter. The first wave dematerialised and was reincorporated in front of the Chancellery's entrance.

The second team stepped up and were deposited near the first group. The sound of heavy boots could be heard echoing throughout the Chancellery. Kend stepped out in front of Macen's team and held up her hands. Seeing her uniform, the wary defenders paused.

"Freeze!" a Waffen SS Major barked. Cradling his phaser rifle across his chest, he approached Kend.

"Greeting Colonel." The Major said very politely, "Can you identify yourself and state for the record how you came to be here in the company of aliens suspected of being assassins?"

"And just who levelled that charge?" Kend asked.

"Marshal Riekann." The Major replied, "He stated that the alien leader informed the Marshal of his intentions to kill him."

"He informed the Marshal of his plans to kill him?" Kend was incredulous, "Tell me Major, if you were planning on assassinating someone would you tell them beforehand?"

"Er...no." the Major replied.

"It would be counter-productive, yes?" Kend hammered her point home, "Besides, I have seen their technology personally. They are even more advanced than the Ferengi. What's to stop them from just appearing in the Marshal's office and killing him in secret?"

The Major squirmed, "I don't know."

Kend leaned into him, "Nothing Major! That's what."

Kend took a breath and the Major dared hope that she was done. Sadly for him, she was not, "And why kill the Marshal and ignore the Chancellor? Wouldn't it be more productive to kill the planetary leader and set up a puppet?"

The Major held up his hands, "All right, Colonel. You win."

"Very astute Major..." Kend waited for the blank to be filled.

He clicked his heels together and saluted, "Major Gall Effrit, at your disposal."

Kend returned the salute, "Colonel Jorra Kend at yours."

"Kend?" Effrit repeated, "But I know of you! You salvaged what was left of our space forces when the marauders wiped us out. You planned the counter-attack and you recently captured four of the pirate scum's ships."

"I captured three of those ships thanks to these people." Kend revealed, "They're friends and the Marshal tried to have them killed."

"Why?" Effrit was stunned.

"They have uncovered evidence that suggests that Riekann is working with the marauders." Kend divulged, "They wish to question him and see if there is truth behind these electronic whispers."

"It can be done under certain circumstances." Effrit offered.

"Name your terms." Kend replied.

"No more than two of the aliens will be allowed in the Marshal's presence. You and I will accompany them to guarantee the Marshal's safety."

"Done!" Kend shook his hand, "Let me inform my comrades."

Kend returned to the group to find T'Kir conspiratorially whispering in Macen's ear. When she approached, Macen grinned, "We accept. Excellent negotiating tactic."

"How did you...?" Kend trailed off.

T'Kir curtsied, "It's all in the ears, baby."

Kend's eyes widened as she gazed at T'Kir's curved lobes with new appreciation, "Marvellous."

"Ain't I just?" T'Kir teased.

Macen intervened, "I need to ask you something before her head gets too big. Will Major Effrit's troops be taking charge of Mr. Rosemont?"

"Good question." Kend frowned, "I'll explain the situation to him and have him give me a decision."

Kend hurried off. Macen explained the situation to his team. Everyone wanted to be the second person in the investigative duo. Macen disappointed them all by telling them that T'Kir would accompany him.

"Told you." Radil said to Dracas.

"Out of all of you, only T'Kir is capable of reading minds. I need her." Macen explained his decision to the disappointed SID team.

Effrit and two of his men came to collect Rosemont. Finding Rosemont hands already bound by a cellulose zip tie, they marched him off to their closest detention cell. Meanwhile, Effrit exchanged introductions with Macen and T'Kir.

Effrit saluted them. T'Kir nudged Macen in the ribs with her elbow. He sketched off a quick salute in reply.

"The Colonel tells me that you are largely responsible for our enemies fleeing. I welcome any one who accomplishes this task." Effrit enthusiastically confessed.

"My entire crew was responsible." Macen informed him, "It wasn't just my wife and I."

"May I greet them all?" Effrit asked.

Macen smiled, "Feel free."

"Careful, Captain." Kend advised in a low voice, "His enthusiasm may be a ruse."

Macen chuckled, "It's no ruse, Colonel. I guarantee it."

Kend frowned, "How can you be so certain?"

"Among other things, I'm an empath." Macen revealed, "I can read his emotions."

Kend was startled. She looked to T'Kir, "And you?"

"I'm a telepath." She said simply. Too much information would overwhelm Kend.

Kend nodded towards the SID team, "And them?"

"Just regular Joes." T'Kir smirked, "Same as you."

"I...see." Kend understood the gist of T'Kir's statement if not the basic words.

"Effrit's returning." Macen murmured. Everyone dropped what they were doing and waited for the Major.

"Shall we be off?" he asked.

"You're dreading confronting Riekann because you already think he's guilty." T'Kir said to Effrit. It wasn't a question.

"How did you know?" Effrit's voice faltered and then his eyes went wide and he aimed his rifle at T'Kir, "You! You were in my head."

Kend laughed. T'Kir had told a joke in her mind and she found it funny. Effrit glared at Kend, "You knew about this?"

Kend nodded, "I knew but I had not experienced it until now. Come now Major. It was a good pun."

Effrit slowly lowered his rifle. A grin slowly crept across his face, "I guess it was at that."

Kend noticed Macen returning his phaser to its holster but she didn't mention anything to Effrit. Returning her focus to T'Kir, she asked, "Why did you do that?"

T'Kir shrugged, "I'm gonna be in Riekann's mind. He's gonna act funny. I wanted you to know what was going on before it happened."

"Good idea." Effrit begrudgingly admitted.

"Of course it was." T'Kir beamed, "It was my idea."

Macen cleared his throat, "Can we expect any future resistance?"

"No." Effrit answered, "Colonel Jeerk personally commands the Chancellor's guard. As second in command I oversee all other security concerns. There are two crack troops guarding the Marshal's office but they are directly under my command. Their loyalty is unwavering."

"I hope so." Macen said, "After all, Riekann is your nominal superior. Their loyalty may be to him."

Effrit considered the possibility, "It could happen. Forewarned is forearmed. I shall be ready."

"After you then." Macen smiled, "After all, we don't know the way."

"I wonder how far they have to travel before they reach the Marshal's office." Kort wondered.

"Have you noticed that Major Effrit's troops are just standing there studying us?" Daggit asked.

"They are sizing us up as prey." Dracas commented.

"I agree." Daggit said.

"Then let's do something about it." Radil suggested and walked over to the opposition, "Hi. My name is Radil Jenrya."

The officer in charge presented himself, "I am Lieutenant Hap Jire. I did not catch your rank."

"I don't have one." Radil replied, "Sorry."

"But you and your comrades are armed." Jire observed.

"We're just a freighter crew." Radil explained, "We carry weapons in the advent of pirate boarding parties. We're not invaders."

Radil could see the tensions lines around his eyes relax. She smiled as Jire asked his next question, "Would it be permissible to meet your crew?"

Radil laughed, "Come on over. We're dying to meet you."

The mixed Ekosian/SID team entered the final corridor. Effrit's troops could be seen standing post on either side of Riekann's door. As they approached, the guard's responded by aiming their rifles at them.

"Halt!" one of the two privates, one Jaspe Holz, demanded, "Major, you know that no unauthorised personnel are allowed to see the Marshal."

"That's correct, Private Holz." Effrit replied, "These are a freighter captain and his officer that the Marshal has requested to see."

"Show me their papers." Private Gern Tom ordered.

"Private Tom!" Effrit barked, "They are strangers to our world. They do not have papers."

"Then they don't see the Marshal." Holz decided.

"They have an appointment to see the Marshal." Effrit sternly insisted.

"Then let's see their papers." Tom repeated.

Holz suddenly stiffened. He turned and aimed his rifle at Tom. Tom was understandably confused.

"Jaspe?" Tom asked, "What are you doing?"

Macen whispered to Effrit and Kend, "I suggest you disarm them now."

They leapt into action. As soon as Holz was disarmed, he returned to normal. He was befuddled and wanted to know why Tom was glaring at him. Upon hearing the story, he protested his innocence.

Macen stunned them both. Effrit was concerned over the well being of his men. Macen smiled, "I used the stun setting. The rifles you bought from the Ferengi should have a similar function."

Effrit examined his rifle with burgeoning respect, "So that's what that setting is for."

Macen turned to T'Kir, who was visibly strained, "Good job. Are you all right?"

She leaned up against the wall and waved his concerns off, "That used to be sooo easy. It takes a lot outta me nowadays. Don't worry. I'll be fine."

"You're sure?" Macen double checked.

"I'll be right behind you." T'Kir gave him a thumb's up.

"I prefer you being right beside me." Macen admitted.

"You just want to be able to see me in case of trouble." T'Kir accused.

"How can I bear to let a gorgeous creature like yourself out of my sight?" he asked.

T'Kir perked up, "Okay. You win."

"It's about time." Macen grinned.

Effrit approached them, "If you are fit to continue, we shall proceed."

"I'm fine!" T'Kir raised her voice as she springboarded off the wall, "See what you did? Now the natives think I'm helpless."

"I'm certain you'll prove them wrong." Macen encouraged her with a smile.

"You'd better say that buster." T'Kir warned.

Effrit was busy inputting codes into the door lock sealing Riekann's office. T'Kir came up beside him, "Problem?"

"The code has been changed." Effrit said in frustration.

T'Kir shoved him aside, "Let me." She removed her microcomputer from its pouch on her utility belt. Next, she removed a set of connections from the neighbouring pouch. Testing them, she found one that fit the lock's data receptacle. Fitting the connector to her computer, she plugged it into the lock. Seconds later, it was cycling through alphanumeric permutations.

The data processing took 7.4 seconds to complete. At the end of that time, the lock accepted the code and then Effrit opened the door and entered the office. Riekann looked up from where he stood. Riekann was down on one knee stuffing papers into a valise. He looked apprehensive and scared.

"Major, what are you doing here?" Riekann demanded as he rose to his feet.

"I'm escorting a party that's here to see you." Effrit replied.

"I am not accepting..." Riekann's eyes went wide and his face lost all colour as Kend stepped into the room. He fumbled about and eventually drew his sidearm. Aiming the Ferengi phaser at Kend, he started to accuse Effrit, "She's a traitor! She's in league with the alien assassins. You brought her here...you must be a traitor too!"

"Sounds like you're trying to validate a very poor decision." Macen said as he came up from behind Kend.

"You!" there was a feverish gleam in Riekann's eyes as he aimed the phaser with both hands at Macen, "You should be dead. Why can't you be dead?"

"It looks like you're leaving." Macen observed, "Going somewhere nice?"

"What do you know about it?" Riekann retorted.

Macen stepped aside to allow T'Kir access. She stood centre stage and she calmly spoke to Riekann in a soothing voice, "They said they were coming but they're not."

"How can you know that?" Riekann hysterically demanded.

"Because I have someone aboard our ship running sensor sweeps so sensitive that they can look beyond this star system. They can see much, much further than that and no cavalry is on its way."

"You're lying!" Riekann began to sob and he lowered his weapon.

"Who controls you?" T'Kir asked, "The pirate chieftain or someone higher up?"

Riekann was still crying but he struggled to answer, "Someone higher up."

"How much higher?" Macen gently asked.

"He said he's the Chairman of the Meirkus Conglomeration." Riekann attempted a feeble laugh, "He said that encompasses dozens of worlds."

"It does." Macen confirmed.

"He was going to give me one." Riekann almost whispered, "One to rule."

"How did you contact him?" Macen asked.

Riekann's eyes flicked towards a cabinet beside the door. T'Kir went to it. It opened up to reveal a subspace transmitter.

"What's its cipher?" T'Kir asked. She waited a second then smiled, "Got it. Thanks."

Riekann was horrified and T'Kir yelled out, "Brin!"

Macen went for his phaser but before he could stun Riekann, the Marshal pressed the barrel of his weapon to his head and fired. He collapsed to the floor. Macen checked his vitals and grimly shook his head.

"Too little too late." He said in disgust, "I wasn't fast enough."

Effrit and Kend were recovering from their shock. Kend shook her head, "Never fear, Captain. None of us were fast enough. To do such a thing..."

"Now what?" Effrit asked, already slipping into damage control mode, "What can I tell the Chancellor?"

"Tell him what you heard Riekann say." Macen replied, "He was in the employ of the pirates and their master."

Effrit nodded, "If you will excuse me, I will reassign guards to this post and make my report to Colonel Jeerk personally. Colonel Kend, if you would be so kind as to assist me?"

Kend nodded, "But of course."

Effrit turned to Macen and T'Kir at the transmitter, "I will have to ask you to leave."

Macen nodded, "Of course. My crew and I will be returning to our ship. We'll be in orbit if you need us."

"Yes," Kend sobered up, "there may be questions."

Macen smiled, "We'll be happy to co-operate."

"Will you require an escort?" Effrit asked.

"Nope." T'Kir tapped her comm badge, "Yo! Lees! Two to beam up."

A few minutes later, the pair dematerialised. Effrit shook his head in wonder, "We need to get that technology."

"Agreed" Kend nodded, "However, it makes one feel incredibly strange."

"How so?"

"First you feel as though you've been peeled away layer by layer until you fade away into nothingness and then you are reconstructed by painting one coat after the next." Kend elaborated, "It's rather disconcerting."

"I can imagine." Effrit heartily agreed and then he flipped open his communicator and requested troops.

Macen and T'Kir rematerialised to find Riker manning the transporter controls. Macen grinned, "Where's Lees?"

Riker chuckled, "She's on the bridge having flashbacks of what it was like when she was your 1st Officer."

"Gotta go." T'Kir called out as she exited the room, "Hannah's gonna need consoling."

Riker was surprised, "What's was that about?"

Macen's grin grew wicked, "Well, Lees used to ride T'Kir pretty hard and since Hannah is T'Kir's protégé in the 'acting human' department, it's a safe bet sparks are flying."

The controls chimed and Riker checked, "Here comes the rest of the group."

Daggit, Radil, Kort, and Dracas reappeared in the flesh and all looked none the worse for wear. Riker frowned, "This isn't what I expected."

Daggit smiled, "We were having quite the cultural exchange and it's all because of Jenrya."

"Really?" Macen brightened, "Jenrya, can you tell me about later when we all have more time."

"What're we doing now?" Radil asked.

"You're going to General Quarters while T'Kir and I do some research." Macen shrugged, "It may be a false alarm but you never can tell how the Ekosian Chancellor is going to react to the Marshal's death."

"Captain!" Radil scolded.

"I didn't do it." Macen's hands were in the air.

"All right," Riker bellowed, "enough dawdling. Let's move like we have a purpose."

Macen grabbed Riker, "Send T'Kir to my office."

"Right." Riker agreed and then departed from the transporter.

Macen sighed, Never enough to do around here.

 

Chapter Nineteen

T'Kir bounded into Macen's office, "How come we're going to war?"

"It's just a precautionary measure." Macen explained, "If they want to retaliate because of Riekann's death they'll find us ready."

"Okay." T'Kir bubbled, "Good thinking."

"Thanks for your approval." Macen dryly remarked, "My plan can now proceed."

T'Kir dutifully stuck out her tongue and blew him a raspberry. Macen grinned with impish delight, "Done?"

"Yeah, for now." T'Kir grumbled and then asked, "What am I doing here?"

"You're here to operate the computer." Macen replied, "I need a verified computer genius to run different searches for me."

T'Kir plopped down behind the comp/comm and cracked her knuckles, "Okay."

She then suspiciously peered at Macen, "How come I gotta do this? You're proficient with research systems."

"Federation systems." Macen corrected, "I want to look at the Meirkus Conglomeration's datanets."

T'Kir wore a naughty smile, "Oho. We're going fishing for someone's dirty laundry."

Macen grinned, "Close enough. Can you do it?"

"Of course I can do it." T'Kir huffed, "The question is: can we afford it?"

"Afford what?" Macen leaned down close to T'Kir's ear.

"We'll have to subscribe to Meirkus' datanet service provider. We can use corporate funds and establish an Outbound Ventures account."

"Not a problem." Macen eagerly agreed.

"What if Drake refuses to reimburse us?" T'Kir was piqued by the idea.

"It's our account. If she doesn't pay she can't use it." Macen began to nuzzle T'Kir's neck.

"Stop that." T'Kir giggled, "I'll never get any work done that way."

"You'll just have to persevere through the pain." Macen replied.

"We'll see who's in pain once I finish here, spy boy." T'Kir laughed and went to work.

Danan manned Ops and operated the sensors from there, "Still no signs of any other vessels inbound for the system."

"Any word from Ekos?" Riker wondered.

"No." Danan shook her head, "They're staying quiet...wait a minute! There's comm activity across the board. Everyone's talking now."

"Look sharp people." Riker urged, "If anything is going to happen then it'll happen in the next few minutes." Riker activated the shipwide intercom, "Attention, we are expecting formal communication from the planet's surface within the minute. Stay cool and alert. Out."

In Engineering, Dracas and Radil quietly redirected power flow to maximise the weapons' output. In Sickbay Kort returned to finishing up a letter to Hayley Galloway. Meanwhile, in the Captain's Office, Riker's announcement found Macen on the floor with T'Kir lying atop him. She was hungrily kissing him.

Given a moment to catch his breath, Macen said, "Wow!"

"I told you to stop doing that." T'Kir purred.

"Stop what?" Macen laughed, "I tried a half dozen things out on you."

"All of them." T'Kir blurted, "None of them. It was the intent more than the specific actions that did it."

Macen caressed her cheek, "So you'd like me to do it again sometime?"

She closed her eyes and pressed her face into his hand, "Oh Elements, yes!"

Macen grinned, "Good to know."

"Where did you come up with that...that...?" T'Kir wondered.

"Thank Rab." Macen chuckled as he wrapped his arms around her torso and drew her in closer, "He was explaining how Parva had been bringing him closer to his long lost humanity and I asked for an example. Parva had taught him these techniques. Of course he could only describe them and leave them up to my imagination."

"Thank the Elements you have a vivid imagination." T'Kir laughed in delight.

Riker's announcement came on and Macen frowned, "Nuts. Time to get busy, dear."

"I was getting busy." T'Kir pouted.

"A different kind of busy." Macen clarified.

T'Kir pushed herself off of him, "Why didn't ya say so?"

"Just getting daft in my old age." Macen quipped as he rose to his feet.

"Heavens forefend." T'Kir teased.

"Just wait and see," Macen warned, "it'll happen someday."

"But I'll be dead and gone by then." T'Kir pointed out.

"I can never win." Macen grumped.

"Just keep believing it." T'Kir advised.

"Riker to Captain Macen." Came over the intercom and Macen sat down behind the comp/comm and hit the intercom button, "Macen here."

"We have a signal from the Chancellery." Riker said.

"Have they said what's about?" Macen wondered.

Riker shook his head, "All I know is that they want to talk to you and no one else but you."

"I'll take care of it." Macen assured him, "Thanks Tom."

Macen activated the comm unit and a dour image met him. It was all the more startling for its historic relevance. The man was a dead ringer a clean shaven Adolf Hitler. Macen was momentarily taken aback as his mind absorbed the image and put it in its context.

"Captain Macen, I presume?" the Chancellor had a deep, husky voice.

Macen shook off the last of his surprise, "Yes, Chancellor. I'm Captain Brin Macen. How can I assist you?"

"My name is Davod Balsat." The Chancellor revealed, "I have questions regarding Gelt Riekann's death. Would you be available to appear before my office and settle these matters?"

"When would you like us there?" Macen asked.

"Please arrive at the Chancellery in one hour." Balsat requested, "You should be able to find it."

The screen went black and T'Kir put her hands on her hips, "Was he sassing us?"

"Yup." Macen concurred, "I believe he was."

"Why the abuse?" T'Kir lamented as she "swooned" onto his lap, "Where's the love?"

"Hold that thought." Macen hit his comm badge, "Tom? You can stand down now."

"There won't be a war?" Riker's voice sounded hopeful.

"No wars, just a trial." Macen informed him.

"You and T'Kir?" Riker guessed.

"You've got it." Macen confirmed.

"Damn, damn, damn, damn, and damn." Riker bitterly recited, "Someone's going to get shot."

"Let's hope not." Macen chuckled, "We'll be beaming down in an hour."

"What do you want everyone to do until then?" Riker enquired.

"Relax as best they can." Macen said, "We'll be in here. If anyone has any questions send 'em our way."

"Got it." Riker agreed, "Anything else?"

"Nope." Macen said, "Out."

"So, no nookie?" T'Kir idly wondered.

Macen grinned, "Love the thought, hate the timing."

"So back to the datanets?" T'Kir asked.

"You read my mind." Macen joked.

"Didn't have to." T'Kir pouted, "You can be rather predictable at times."

Macen rolled his eyes, "Just punch in a search for the leader of the Meirkus Conglomeration, okay?"

Using their newly created account, T'Kir and Macen soon lost themselves in the information streaming back to them.

Forty-five minutes later, Macen and T'Kir still shared a chair and had arrived at one inescapable conclusion: they couldn't escape going to Mityr. The door chimed and Macen verbally unlocked the door. Riker and Danan entered in carrying trays of food.

"We thought you could probably use a bite." Danan explained. As she sat her tray down on the desk, T'Kir extricated herself from Macen's lap. Danan leaned in to conspiratorially ask, "Anything naughty going on?"

T'Kir snorted, "I should live to be so lucky."

"Perseverance is the key, my dear." Danan advised, "Now eat up."

"Found anything out?" Riker asked.

"Yep." Macen replied, "We're going to Mityr."

"Why Mityr?" Danan wondered, "It's pretty out of the way."

"Riekann was in communication with the Chairman of the Meirkus Conglomeration. The Chairman is one Bertram Sindis. Sindis is the nominal ruler of Mityr and is based there ergo..."

"We're going to Mityr." Was said by the chorus of four.

Macen reached out for the offered tray, "This looks good."

"Enjoy it while you can." Riker suggested, "You're due on planet in ten minutes."

Macen groaned, "I'd hoped they'd have gone away by now."

"Where would they go?" Riker chuckled, "They're on a planet."

"We're not." Macen rebutted, "We could disappear."

T'Kir grinned, "Best idea I've heard yet."

Riker glared at her. In reply she merely winked and took another bite of food. Danan laughed, "Did you really expect her to be contrite? Look who we're talking about."

Riker heaved a sigh, "Someday..."

"Someday you'll give up." Danan remarked, "She's an unrepentant cow. Leave it at that."

"Thank you." T'Kir said and then she frowned, "I think."

Danan smirked, "Don't mention it."

Riker went on to explain his plans for insuring Macen and T'Kir's safety. It involved beaming down the military personnel to predetermined points and having them stand by while Macen and T'Kir underwent questioning with their comms holding an open circuit. Macen sat his dish down and Riker smiled expectantly, "What do you think?"

"I like the part about the comms." Macen remarked, "We'll keep that. Everything else has to go. We're answering a few questions, not going to war."

"But if they try anything...?" Riker wanted to know.

"Then T'Kir and I will keep our heads down..." Macen began.

"Damn straight!" T'Kir enthused.

"...and you can send the cavalry in after us." Macen promised.

"All right." Riker conceded, unhappily, but he conceded.

Macen and T'Kir translated from energy into matter on the same steps that they had occupied during their last arrival. Major Effrit and two grim faced SS troops awaited them. Effrit's reaction to seeing them was a mild one.

Macen's empathy couldn't sense anything. He drew inwardly and glimpsed the currents. There were no notable probabilities regarding this meeting so he relaxed. T'Kir openly smiled and greeted Effrit with her usual lopsided grin and a "Hiya Major."

Effrit's lips finally twitched into something resembling a smile. The two guards accompanying him were befuddled. Apparently Macen and T'Kir weren't properly stricken with terror. Macen could feel T'Kir resisting the urge to initiate them in the ways of terror.

Down girl. He instructed.

But it'd be sooo easy. She petulantly whined.

Too bad. Macen inwardly replied and then outwardly greeted Effrit, "Hello again, Major. I didn't expect to see you out here."

"It is my test of loyalty." Effrit ruefully admitted.

"Then I suppose we should be marched away." Macen deduced.

"Before that," Effrit held out his hand, "your weapons."

The two guards levelled their rifles at the couple. Macen and T'Kir exchanged a knowing glance and handed their phasers over. Effrit visibly relaxed and "requested" that the SID agents follow him. The guards fell into step behind the pair and kept their rifles at the ready.

Quite a rosy reception. T'Kir grumped.

What are you getting from Effrit? Macen wondered.

He's under strict orders to deliver us to Balsat. T'Kir thought back at him, He and Kend have been put through the wringer. They've been cleared but we might be scapegoats.

Lovely. Macen's thought was sour.

Well, T'Kir ironically mused, it's not like we haven't been down this road before. What's the worst they can do? Kill us? We've bounced back from that the last time that happened.

Macen had to smile. Most people would find death to be a fairly permanent state of being. Macen and T'Kir weren't most people. They'd returned from the dead once before. Who's to say they couldn't do it again?

T'Kir wore an affectionate smile and she squeezed his hand, We who are about to die will do so with our heads held high.

They were led through the warren of maze-like corridors until they finally reach a heavily defended office entrance. A SS Colonel stood before the weapons emplacement/barricade that guarded the office door. T'Kir dipped into his mind and confirmed for Macen that this was Markus Jeerk, Effrit's immediate superior. He was also the man directly tasked with insuring Chancellor Balsat's safety. It was a duty that weighed heavily upon him.

Colonel Jerk here has been scared shitless ever since the pirates came. T'Kir thoughtcast to Macen, The mere fact that they could strike anywhere at any time has kept him up for months now.

I'm sure. Macen replied in kind, I'm also certain Colonel Jeerk wouldn't appreciate being called a 'jerk'.

Then he'd better be a lot nicer in reality than what he's thinking about being. T'Kir warned him.

"Just what are you two staring at?" Jeerk growled.

Told ya. T'Kir gloated.

We'll see. Macen thought.

Humph! T'Kir retorted and placed her fists on her hips.

Jeerk's eyes narrowed and he appraised the pair, "Are you deaf, mute, or just plain stupid?"

"Colonel..." Effrit spoke up.

"Stand down, Major!" Jeerk snapped and turned his attention to Effrit, "What is that in your hands?"

"Their sidearms, sir." Effrit crisply answered.

"Hand me one." Jeerk ordered. He received the phaser pistol and carefully examined it. Stepping close to Macen, he aimed the weapon at Macen's head. Macen and Jeerk's eyes locked on to one another. The Colonel's finger sat atop the trigger and it began to depress the firing stud.

Macen erupted into action. He took a hold of Jeerk's wrist and pulled while he rolled into Jeerk's body. His back met Jeerk's chest and Macen thrust his leg out and he pulled Jeerk forward and to the right. Jeerk rolled over the top of Macen's hip and leg.

Jeerk landed on his back and he let out all of his wind in a single exhale. Macen inverted the Colonel's wrist and snatched up the phaser as the pain caused Jeerk to release his grip. Macen then stood erect and held his hands in the air as the guards aimed their weapons at him. T'Kir laced her fingers behind her head. Effrit knelt next to Jeerk.

"Sir?" he asked, "Are you all right?"

The Ekosian officer scrambled to his feet, "By damn! Not stupid after all!"

"I thought you might appreciate that." Macen said wryly.

"Everyone stand down." Jeerk bellowed, "Yes, that means you Frackas."

The Ekosian troops settled down and their Colonel turned to Macen, "I'll take that weapon, Captain."

Macen easily handed it over and Jeerk smiled, "By thunder you're cooperative."

Macen grinned, "That's why we're here. Your Chancellor has questions and hopefully we have answers."

"What are your intentions towards my Chancellor?" Jeerk inquired.

"I don't have any." Macen honestly replied, "My mission didn't include contacting either the indigenous populations of Ekos or Zeon."

"What was your mission then?" Jeerk asked.

"The Federation hired us to drive away the pirates and to liberate this system." Macen explained.

"Which you appear to have done." Jeerk commented, "What was your business with Riekann?"

"We'd uncovered a possible connection between Riekann and the pirates." Macen answered, "I wanted to ask him about it personally."

"Which you did and now he's dead." Jeerk said sourly.

"Witnesses can confirm that neither my wife nor I had anything to do with that." Macen rebutted.

"Your witnesses already have." Jeerk grumped, "But the Chancellor wants to hear your complete story."

"I'm ready whenever he is." Macen informed Jeerk.

"Follow me then." Jeerk ordered and led them into the Chancellor's office.

Aboard the Loki Danan had managed to tie the sensors in with the Ekosians' video surveillance system. Wherever Macen and T'Kir went the crew would receive live imagery so long as that area had monitors with which to record. Although she had declared herself to be "No T'Kir", Danan basked in the glory of her accomplishment. The assembled crew waited as Macen and T'Kir were brought before the Chancellor's expansive desk.

"That was a slick move that Macen pulled on that Ekosian Colonel." Riker mused.

Daggit grinned, "He was a good student. Would you like me to show it to you some time?"

Riker chuckled, "Let me think about that for a while Rab."

"That's his polite way of saying, 'I'm getting to old for hand to hand fighting'." Danan laughed.

Riker replied with a stern look...the severity of which was negated by the twinkle in his eye. The repartee between them had taken on a new, vibrant dimension now that they had each finally come to grips with the depth of their true feelings. The tension that denial had wrought had faded and now they were free to express themselves. What had surprised and both of them was how well they knew each other already. They were already each other's natural foil.

To be perfectly honest, Riker could easily see where Danan's insistence on taking it easy and forgoing a formal commitment had helped them. They'd avoided prematurely leaping ahead until they were both certain that they wanted to take a step forward together. In the end, it had brought them closer.

"Look alive." Radil interrupted the reverie, "The show's about to begin."

 

Chapter Twenty

Davod Balsat, Chancellor of the Ekosian Reich, greeted his alien guests in silence. Colonel Jeerk rounded the Chancellor's horseshoe shaped desk and dutifully filled his master in on what Macen had revealed thus far and what had transpired outside. Despite the SS' initial impression, the Chancellor was not gearing up for war. Effrit and Kend were the native attendees inside the office.

Macen detected ire. T'Kir's smirk informed him that she was getting an informative read into the situation. Macen was going to telepathically interrupt and ask what was going on when Jeerk marched back around the desk and exited the office. Balsat sized up his guests. As he did so, he appeared to age ten years.

"I have to apologise for the way that you have been treated." Balsat's emotional spectrum was quite contrite, "The good Colonel does not yet realise that we are, in fact, in your debt."

The Chancellor broke into a wan smile, "The fault, of course, is mine. It seems I wasn't clear enough on what the official policy towards you and your crew was to be. I hope that you can forgive me."

"It's easier to forgive someone when a gun hasn't been pointed at your head." Macen said dryly. As Balsat's face fell, Macen adopted a lighter tone, "Still, we're here on a mission of good will so I suppose we can let it slide just this once."

Balsat was on the verge of tears of gratitude, "Thank you."

"Chancellor," Macen began, "we came here as friends. We want nothing from you except your friendship in whatever form that you choose to offer it. The Federation won't threaten you, force you into anything, or take anything from you that you haven't freely given or traded for. They're not perfect but they're equitable. The worst that can happen is that they'll cajole you to death and talk your ears off."

A tentative grin appeared on the Chancellor's face, "I get enough of that already from the members of the Reichstag. I think we can survive it from aliens as well. We certainly survived the wheedling of the Ferengi."

Now Macen grinned, "They're not all bad but most tend to be annoying."

Balsat chuckled, "So it would seem."

"I can only hope that the Federation envoys sent here will be far more taciturn." Macen jested.

Balsat nodded, "Your cultural observers have been most kind and ingratiating over the years. They've instructed us without making us feel like children. After all, the first observer, John Gill, is now revered on Ekos and Zeon as the Fuhrer."

T'Kir giggled. The observers were supposed to have merely observed, hence the name. It seemed Ekos was just too great a temptation.

"I've read that the title was retired with Gill's death. How have the people taken to being governed by a Chancellor?" Macen asked.

"Admirably." Balsat admitted, "We have gone from being a nation of anarchy to one of order. That was Gill's doing. Each succeeding Chancellor is seen as being a custodian of his powers and intent."

"And how have the Ekosians taken to their Zeon Chancellor?" Macen enquired.

Effrit and Kend stiffened but Balsat laughed, "The old hatreds are dead and forgotten. My status as an émigré only added to my appeal. My election proves to the conservatives on Zeon that the Nazi Party has evolved. The Party on Zeon has increased its rolls by fifty percent since I was heralded into office. The old government has had to form a new coalition in order to stay in power. Soon we will overtake them and Ekos and Zeon will be united in every facet of the word."

"It's nice to see that you have goals." Macen dryly remarked.

At first Balsat was at a loss and then he recovered, "Marshal Kend has said that you offered us weapons. Is this true?"

"It's true." Macen confirmed, "I have fifteen hundred Type III phaser rifles that are available. You'll find them easier to use than your purchased weapons."

Macen faced Kend, "And may I congratulate you on your promotion. The Ekosian people will be well served."

"Yah!" T'Kir chimed in, "Give 'em hell."

Kend demurely accepted the well wishes and praise, "Thank you. I will endeavour to live up to your expectations."

"Just keep doing what you're already doing and you'll be fine." T'Kir enthused.

T'Kir telepathically flashed Kend a private message. Kend looked slightly startled and then slowly she nodded once. Balsat missed the exchange. Effrit only noticed Kend's apparently absent minded nod. Macen, however, sensed the shift in mood from both women. Macen could empathically taste Kend's hardened resolve. He made a note to himself to query T'Kir about it later.

"When can you provide us with the rifles?" Balsat enquired.

"We can begin loading them aboard your transports as soon as they arrive provided they're not carrying any more boarding parties." Macen warned, "I'm certain Mr. Rosemont will be well suited to the task of instructing your troops in their use."

Balsat looked amused, "Yes, Mr. Rosemont. The Chief Judicial has already informed me that Mr. Rosemont has been sentenced in absentia to death. However I'm willing to commute the death sentence and provide him a life term in exchange for his services. Is that acceptable?"

"It's all I hoped for." Macen confessed, "I'm sure Rosemont will be happy on Ekos."

"If not, there's always the death penalty to fall back on." Balsat wore a happy smile.

Macen's mind leapt upon that smile. Balsat's emotions were calm, if somewhat eager, and that eagerness worried him. He asked T'Kir what was on his mind.

T'Kir relayed a few boring items and one major revelation. Balsat, as indicated earlier, was devoted to the cause of uniting his two worlds. Once that was accomplished, he intended to marshal the strength of the billions of loyal Nazis into creating a fleet of their own and push out into the stars to make a mark in the universe. Admirable goals except that Balsat envisioned the military being the exploratory wing and history had proven over and over again that a militant push into the stars inevitably turned into a drive for conquest. Searching the Currents Macen found a distinct probability of Balsat being crowned the next Fuhrer.

Somewhat taken aback, Macen begged off further conversation, "We must be returning to the ship to prepare for the cargo transfers. If you'll excuse us..."

Balsat smiled, "Of course. Marshal Kend will contact you with the details."

Macen spoke for the benefit of his other audience, "Macen to Riker."

"Riker here."

"Beam us up and prepare for cargo distribution." Macen ordered.

"You've got it. Transporter says they have you. See you in a minute. Out."

On that note, Macen and T'Kir translated from matter into energy and said energy was gathered by the Loki and reverted into matter. The Ekosians knew the basics but they still stood and stared in awe.

The Barracuda-class scout, NDT-10537 SS Helios, crossed the imaginary line that denoted the separation between the Meirkus Conglomeration and the United Federation of Planets. Although the crew of the scoutship had been covertly working for the interests of certain parties in the Conglomeration for several years now, this border crossing was the first where it might not be legal for them to return to the Federation. Captain Richard Drake's recently discarded wife could very well bring down the wrath of the entirety of Starfleet upon them.

All of the crew had been members of that illustrious institution, albeit the Starfleet of the 23rd century, but it was still Starfleet. They'd made a go of it as honest scouts. They'd simply found the market was saturated. To be blunt, if you couldn't work for Starfleet or the Daystrom Institute then you couldn't work regularly. However, organisations like the Orion Syndicate, the Meirkus Conglomeration, and hundreds of unscrupulous Ferengi needed scouts for long term contracts by the dozens. The transition had been a surprisingly easy one.

"We have a Starfleet Sabre-class patrol ship inbound along an intercept vector." Gary Toombs, the Science Officer, reported.

Drake straightened in his chair, "All right Bree, drop us out of warp but maintain maximum impulse until they challenge us."

Aubrey Hathaway complied as the ship's XO, Harmon Rappaport, moved down to the Captain's side, "What are you playing at, Rich?"

Drake had a naughty grin showing, "I thought we'd play it like last time. We play the poor injured party prevented from going along our way. Since the holds are empty we can let them scan us and they'll be none the wiser as to our profession."

Rappaport shared his commander's grin but had to ask, "And if they go for the arrest?"

Drake shrugged, "Then we fight it out."

Drake swivelled his chair around to the left side so he could see Elise Feldman. Feldman was more than his Weapons Officer, she was also his mistress. They'd shared beds aboard the Bozeman and once again as soon as he'd gathered her for the crew for the Helios.

"Elise, honey, you might get a chance to shoot something so be ready." Drake knew that Feldman often complained that she had little to do aboard ship besides shag him.

"About time." Feldman wore a feral smile, "But you'd better be sure Stav has the power."

Drake nodded his thanks as she blew a kiss. He activated the intercom and paged Engineering. There, Stavros Xerxes answered.

"Engineering." Came Xerxes terse reply.

"We might be facing an engagement, Stav." Drake cut right to the chase, "Are you prepared for it?"

"All systems read 'Green'." Xerxes reported, "I can't tell you much more than that but we did just rebuild this beast. She should stand by you."

Drake softly chuckled at that description of their ship. The class was Starfleet's first modular design. It had been so universally unpopular that it had been scrapped and the best features incorporated into the Emden-class escorts. In fact two ships of the Barracuda-class, the Andes and the Viking, had been refitted according to the new design parameters. The remaining Barracudas had been swiftly decommissioned and made available to privateers and civilian scouts.

When Drake found the Helios she was on her ninth owner and most of her modular components were either malfunctioning or completely non-functional. Drake and the future members of the command staff pooled their resources and purchased the scoutship for far less than a comparable Blackbird- or Newton-class vessel would have cost. The bulk of their capital was reserved for repairs.

Over the course of the repairs it soon became apparent that all of the modular components would have to be replaced. Since Starfleet had stopped manufacturing modular units and pods for this class of ship sixty years before they'd need to find a private yard capable of doing the same. They'd ended up in Ferengi space. The parts had to be designed specifically for the ship and the function they were tasked with.

In spite of the components' origins being in the Ferengi Assembly, they were decidedly reasonable. The best part of the service is that any type of modular component could be melded to the ship as long as the price was right. Despite the discounts the Ferengi were willing to throw Drake's way in order to secure a lasting customer relationship, the upgrades tapped out the crews' financial reserves. They needed to find work.

Work, unfortunately, was scarce. Starfleet and the Daystrom Institute hired most of the surveyors and Starfleet's irregular contracts were rapidly dwindling. Drake and the others had no love of the modern Starfleet and wished to avoid any entanglements with them. That left the crew of the Helios in dire straits.

Feldman had found a discreet ad listing job prospects with the Meirkus Conglomerate. They arrived on Deep Space Three for the interview only to find Bertram Sindis waiting for them. Sindis had just solidified his control over Mityr after a long and bloody campaign. The Chairmanship of the Conglomeration had swiftly followed on its heels. What Sindis needed now was a reputable to semi-reputable wing of ships to scout out new, untapped sectors of space.

The jobs had been frequent and lucrative. Drake and the others had been amazed to discover how readily latinum greased the wheels in the "cashless" economy of the Federation. Their growing wealth also garnered them increased attention from Ferengi and Orion merchants. Cardassian military surplus brokers availed themselves of Drake's growing interest in their wares. The crews' increasing appetites demanded an ever increasing income.

The Helios had successfully charted dozens of previously uncataloged star systems but the crew desired a greater challenge. Sindis provided one when he asked Drake if his crew would be willing to discreetly deliver certain trade goods to specific clients on various worlds. The financial rewards would be far beyond those of surveying. Hence, the crew of the Helios became smugglers.

Sindis considered them to be ideal for the task. The Helios was far faster than commercial craft. The crew had unimpeachable records with the Federation authorities and Starfleet. They'd never be looked at twice.

At least that was true until Drake had raised Amanda's suspicions. Now they were returning to Mityr in disgrace. Sindis, however, had been very understanding and was willing to put them back to surveying uncharted systems and sectors. They just had to gracefully exit the Federation.

"Rich," Rappaport turned away from the Communications console, "they're challenging us."

"Give them ship's registry, crew and cargo manifests." Drake instructed.

"Aye." Rappaport complied and waited for the Starfleet vessel to reply. It did so in a matter of a few minutes. Rappaport smiled, "They send their captain's regards and wish us good fortune."

Drake wore a victorious smile, "Return the compliments."

Rappaport grinned, "Aye."

Drake addressed Feldman, "Sorry, Elise. We won't be going to war after all."

She pretended to pout, "Oh darn. I guess we'll just have to celebrate instead."

"I like the sound of that." Drake winked and turned to Hathaway, "Pour on the steam, Bree. I'd hate to keep our patron waiting."

"He'd hate it as well." Hathaway dryly observed.

"Precisely." Drake agreed, ignoring Hathaway's sarcasm. Only after they returned to warp did Drake allow himself to reflect. She obviously hadn't issued put out a warrant on him. He hoped, he sincerely hoped, that Amanda would be able to reconcile herself to his leaving.

If not, Drake glumly ruminated, I may never see Earth again.

All of the off loading had taken place. Kend was now aboard the Loki and making her farewells, "Thank you for everything, Captain. Neither my people nor myself can never repay you for what you've done."

"Your people can welcome the Federation to Ekos and Zeon as friends." Macen said with utmost sincerity, "That would be payment enough."

Kend smiled, "I'll pass that along."

"As for you," Macen's eyes twinkled, "remain a champion of your people. See to their safety against threats, both external and internal."

Kend took a deep breath and, after a moment of reflection, nodded, "I make this pledge that I will regard the people's needs as my utmost priority."

Macen nodded, "Close enough. Farewell Jorra Kend. If the Fates are kind we'll see one another again."

Kend offered a shy smile in return, "That would be nice."

T'Kir wrapped her arm around Macen's and waved, "Goodbye. Don't forget to write."

Kend frowned and transited to her waiting ship via the airlock. Dracas cycled the lock and secured it. The modified ore hauler detached itself from the freighter's hull and made for an atmospheric insertion. As soon as the Ekosians were clear, the Loki broke orbit and set course out of the system. Their intended destination being Mityr.

"Time to get back to hunting pirates." Macen opined after entering the bridge.

Riker swivelled the command chair around far enough to make eye contact, "That it is."

Riker luxuriated in the chair and asked Macen, "Want your chair back?"

Macen grinned, "Go ahead and get comfy. I'm going to be busy trying to put a face to the mystery named 'Bertram Sindis'."

Riker smiled, "You're right. I'm better suited here."

"I'll need T'Kir." Macen informed Riker. T'Kir alighted to his side.

"Take her." Riker chuckled, "She's a useless trollop."

"I'll show you 'trollop'." T'Kir stuck out her tongue.

"Oh no you won't." Danan declared, "And put that thing away before you decide to use it. Remember, I know your past history."

T'Kir pushed her tongue back into her mouth with her finger and then sucked on her finger. Danan rolled her eyes, "Get her off the bridge."

Macen took her by the waist and steered her off of the bridge. T'Kir was laughing, "Who ever thought Lees would turn into a prude?"

"She was playing with you and you know it." Macen rebutted.

"Yah," T'Kir agreed, "but it's more fun to kvetch."

"When did you go ethnic?" Macen laughed.

"Hey!" T'Kir protested, "I'm ethnic."

"You're definitely a different breed from the majority of Vulcans." Macen retorted.

"Thank you for noticing, kind sir." T'Kir bowed her head as Macen kept guiding her down the corridor. He stopped at the entrance to "his" office. Macen gave the audio pass code and the door slid aside.

Macen steered T'Kir into the waiting space. The door closed behind them and T'Kir turned around and wrapped her arms around Macen's neck. She drew his head down and kissed him. When their lips parted Macen smiled and closed the distance between them and kissed her again.

"Mmmm." T'Kir glowed with contentment, "Now, this I like."

The door chimed and T'Kir let loose of a verbal volley, "Dammit! I'm gonna kill whoever's behind that door."

"Come in." an amused Macen instructed. The door opened to reveal Prentiss. T'Kir rolled her eyes and threw her hands in the air, "Great! Just what we needed."

Prentiss marched over to T'Kir. Brow knitted, lips pursed, and fists on her hips, she demanded, "What is your problem with me?"

"You're Jellico's handpicked assassin. If it were left t'you the team would be broken apart and sent to penal colonies." T'Kir shouted.

"If you deserved it," Prentiss shouted back, "but I don't think you do."

That startled T'Kir. She blinked and asked, "You don't?" in a softer voice.

"No. I. Don't." Prentiss punctuated every word despite lowering her voice.

T'Kir's posture relaxed and she adopted a goofy grin, "Well why din'cha say so?"

Prentiss rewarded her with a very pained expression, "I thought you were the mind reader."

"Been busy." T'Kir remarked, "Haven't had time to review that vacuum bottle you call a brain."

Macen could swear he heard a growl emit from the back of Prentiss' throat but she limited her overt response to a glare squarely aimed at T'Kir. Focusing her attention on Macen, she asked, "May I speak with you?"

"Take a seat." Macen suggested, "Would you care for a spot of tea and some biscuits?"

"No thanks." Prentiss moved for the couch but T'Kir plopped down and curled up there first. Prentiss frowned but did not acknowledge the move in any other fashion. She took a seat before the captain's desk.

"Suit yourself." Macen instructed the replicator and then carried a cup of steaming tea and a small tin of biscuits over to T'Kir. He repeated the exercise and sat down behind the desk.

"How can I help you, Commander?" Macen asked as he got comfortable.

Prentiss allowed herself a small smile, "You undoubtedly heard what I said."

"You mean about no longer suspecting my crew of malfeasance?" Macen asked and Prentiss nodded. "No, I don't think I could have missed that one." He dryly remarked, "How did you reach this conclusion?"

"I've been monitoring your crew through the security sensors via remote." Prentiss revealed, "And of course, your meeting with the Chancellor was broadcast for the entire crew to hear."

"And how exactly did you access the security sensors?" Macen inquired.

Prentiss noted the change in his eyes. A moment before they had twinkled with merry amusement. Now they glistened with icy fury. It wasn't a change that bode well.

"Admiral Drake gave me the command codes before I boarded the ship." Prentiss explained, "I've monitored every report, transmission, and internal happening since we departed Barrinorian space."

Prentiss brightened, "I've witnessed your crew in action. There's nothing negative to report. My assignment is over."

"You think you're done?" Macen asked, "You may very well be but my team's mission is just beginning."

Prentiss' face fell, "Meaning there isn't time to drop me at the nearest starbase."

Macen nodded, "Exactly."

"So how do I pitch in?" Prentiss asked.

"What can you do?" Macen enquired.

"I've qualified as a bridge officer." Prentiss offered, "I'm no specialist at any station but I know my way around."

Macen wore a mirthful smile, "You just volunteered to become the standing relief officer for all three shifts. Congratulations."

Prentiss blinked in surprise, "All three?"

"We got here without your participation." Macen reminded her, "We probably won't need you."

"We'll see won't we?" Prentiss mused, "You've been a help. Am I dismissed?"

"Whenever you like." Macen informed her.

Prentiss rose, "I won't let the team down."

"We won't let you." Macen cryptically assured her.

Prentiss departed and Macen asked T'Kir, "Ready to work?"

"Do I hafta?" she retorted.

"Yes." Was his simple yet firm reply.

"Fine." She sighed. Finishing the last of her tea and biscuits, she moved behind the desk and bumped Macen out of the chair.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Several hours later, Macen and T'Kir's moods had soured. Macen had moved one of the guest chairs behind the desk so that he could sit beside T'Kir. She'd downloaded dozens of reports onto padds and now they were staring at a profile of Bertram Sindis compiled by Starfleet Intelligence. It painted a dark picture.

Sindis had once been a sector commander with the Iridian Enforcers. Disgraced by the fact that he conducted a genocidal campaign against the wrong foe, Sindis had been stripped of rank and exiled from the sphere of influence dominated by the Enforcers. T'Kir made a disgusted noise.

"They didn't throw him out because he killed an entire race." She angrily observed, "They banished him because he wiped out the wrong people."

"You might try reading the contact reports regarding the Iridians." Macen suggested, "You'll find a lot of that."

T'Kir rolled her eyes, "What's the usual punishment for something like that?"

Macen reviewed a padd, "Death. But Sindis distinguished himself by taking full responsibility for the deed and then proceeded to convince the Enforcer tribunal that they would have ordered the massacre in fifty years anyway. They agreed in principle but still had to mete out some punishment for failing to properly follow orders."

"So he gets tossed out and now we're stuck with him." T'Kir growled.

"Essentially." Macen confirmed it, "Look at this. Sindis is known for the complexity of his strategic traps."

"One of which we're sailing headlong into." T'Kir grumpily surmised

"Probably." Macen agreed, "Look at it this way now we get to see how good we really are."

"No thanks." T'Kir quipped, "I can live with being inadequate."

"Fates forefend." Macen teased, "I thought you wanted the entire galaxy to know you were top cat."

"That's 'top dog'." T'Kir corrected, "And it's not just the galaxy, I want the whole frinxing universe to know."

"Here's your shot at fame and glory." Macen insisted.

T'Kir rolled her eyes, "You really want to go after this guy even though he'll probably squash us like teeny weenie bugs?"

"Yup." Macen admitted.

"Who'm I to stop you then?" T'Kir rhetorically enquired.

Macen kissed her on the cheek, "Thanks. I knew you'd understand."

Macen started out of the office. T'Kir reined him in, "Where are you goin' buster?"

"I have to brief Tom." Macen answered.

"All I get is one lousy peck on the cheek and then you're off to brief Tom?" T'Kir grumped.

"Check your chronometer." Macen suggested, "Your watch begins in a couple of minutes. Love you. Bye."

Macen was out of the office before T'Kir could reply. She took him up on his suggestion and checked the chrono. Seeing its display, she frowned.

"Oh hell." She groused, "This day just gets better 'n better."

Riker's reaction to Macen's news was understandable, "Why would this Sindis set a trap for us?"

Danan nodded her agreement, "The odds of this exact team dealing with this situation are fairly remote."

"I don't think the trap was specifically set for us." Macen sought to explain, "From what T'Kir gathered in Riekann's thoughts the pirates boasted how they were there to set a trap. Given Starfleet's interest in Ekos and Zeon it's a small deductive leap that they were there to make trouble for Starfleet. My guess is that it would affect Starfleet Intelligence since the matter was sensitive and SI co-ordinates most of the fleet's anti-piracy operations."

Riker glanced over to Danan, "Man's got a point."

"What's the real reason you're so certain this is a trap laid out for Starfleet?" Danan asked, "Is this one of your 'hunches' again?"

"The Currents flow in that direction and I'm willing to follow them." Macen revealed, "We have to trust our intuition on this one."

"My intuition tells me we should stop and call in reinforcements." Riker opined.

"I'm already considering that." Macen looked over to Danan, "Lees?"

"My eight previous lifetimes' worth of experience agrees with Tom." She admitted, "But I, myself, trust your interpretation of these 'Currents' of yours. They've never steered us wrong before."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Macen grinned, "I know that had to cost you."

"Not as much as you think." Danan confided.

Macen rose from the couch he was seated upon in the rec room and leaned over Danan and kissed her on the cheek, "Thank you for that. It means a lot."

"Sit down." Riker ordered, "You're married. Shame on you." Turning on Danan he said, "And you, you're spoken for or have you forgotten that little fact?"

Although the words were playful they still startled Danan. A heartbeat passed and then a sly smile crept across her face, "Why don't we go to my quarters and you can remind me?"

Riker turned to Macen, "I take it all back. You're forgiven."

Macen laughed while Riker and Danan exited the rec room. The moment's levity passing, he noted that Radil was keeping solitary company. She was involved with a padd and seemed to be composing a letter. She saw his shadow loom over her and she tucked the padd away out of sight. Turning, she saw Macen gave him a quizzical look.

"I was wondering if you'd like some company?" Macen explained.

Radil seemed torn, "I need to finish this first."

"Take your time." Macen replied, "I'll either be in my office or on the bridge if you find you want to talk."

Radil nodded, "I'll find you when I'm ready."

"All right." Macen nodded and then departed. Whatever Radil was working on it was causing her emotional pain. Waves of loneliness and sorrow radiated off of her.

Macen could count the number of private conversations that he'd had with Radil on a single hand and none of those had been a heart to heart. He didn't know if she would open up or if she were even capable of it. If she did, he could only hope that he would be capable of helping her.

After the doors sealed shut behind Macen's departing back Radil retrieved her padd. She reviewed the contents of the letter she'd drafted. In it Radil had declared her love for Abby. She had then gone on to explain why they could never unite as a couple. Signing off she pleaded with Collins to retain their friendship but that she would understand if they couldn't remain friends.

Radil fought back tears as she rose and went to her quarters. Once there, she opened up a comm channel and transmitted the letter to Collins' personal mail account. Having done so, she collapsed upon the bed and went limp.

Emotionally drained and exhausted, Radil dreaded meeting with her Captain. She also wanted to go to him and confess her woes and travails to him. Nearly every other member of the team had presented themselves to him in the past and every one of them had been grateful that they had. Pushing herself up to a seated position she sighed. She was finally going to take the plunge herself.

Prentiss stepped onto the bridge. Grace manned the helm and T'Kir was leaned up against the station. Luckily civilian CONN stations, at least Bajoran ones, possessed a wider border surrounding the controls and T'Kir's pose did not hamper operations in any way. Not that there many operations to impede. The computer had control of the sometimes lumbering ship and there wasn't much for the crew to do but monitor the ship's progress.

Prentiss studied the pair for a moment. Grace was her own age. T'Kir appeared to be her age but she knew from the Vulcan's file that she was much older in that typical fashion when compared to humans. Prentiss reminded herself that she wasn't here to be jealous. She was on a mission to mend fences.

Unfortunately her mission seemed to die aborning. T'Kir spotted her and suddenly declared, "Red alert! Shields up!"

Grace swivelled around to see what the commotion was about. When she saw Prentiss she frowned. Staring squarely at T'Kir, she declared, "Shame on you!"

"What I do?" T'Kir demanded.

"Her vendetta's over." Grace scolded, "Yours should be too."

Looking thoroughly chastised, T'Kir repentantly murmured, "Yes, mother."

"That's better." Grace replied, "Now play nice."

Prentiss was amazed. The last person she expected to see as an ally was T'Kir's closest friend. She voiced that opinion and Grace laughed.

"Everyone expects me to be the sidekick." She explained her mirth, "They're always surprised when I strike out on my own."

Prentiss coloured, "I can't say much since I'm guilty of the same fallacy."

"So what brings you up here?" T'Kir abruptly interjected.

Prentiss released a heavy sigh, "Can we forgo the hostilities? I was doing my job. I didn't do it to the best of my ability but I found out what I needed to know. You're all in the clear." Prentiss locked eyes with T'Kir, "We may not be friends but we can at least be professionals."

T'Kir looked dubious but Macen suddenly declared from behind Prentiss, "Best idea I've heard yet."

T'Kir's cheeks held an emerald flush, "Okay, okay, I get it already."

Prentiss looked embarrassed and Macen attempted to reassure her, "No disparagement to your efforts was intended but my wife is particularly hard headed. She occasionally needs to be smacked over the head with something before it takes hold."

"Hey!" T'Kir protested, "I'm not the only hard headed one standing here bucko!"

"This is why I have to report to our employer. Who, in this case, is an admiral." Macen replied, "And speaking of whom, I have to make a report. Have a pleasant evening ladies."

Macen left and T'Kir wondered, "Now what?"

Prentiss broke into a coy smile, "Have either of you ever played Fizzbin?"

Ambril Delori's features filled Macen's monitor. He'd routed the call to the wall monitor and the Bajoran appeared to be life size. For the first time in their contentious relationship Macen noted that Ambril was a pretty young thing. She wasn't a beauty but she possessed a delicate attractiveness and that couldn't be denied.

"Hello, you've reached Admiral Amanda Drake's offices." Ambril recited by rote, "How may I assist...oh, it's you, Captain. I'll let her know you've commed."

"Thank you, Commander." Macen placed the emphasis on her rank to highlight her recent promotion. Ambril rewarded him with a pleasant smile and then the audio cut out and she was addressing another screen. After a few words were exchanged, Ambril returned to "his" monitor.

"I'm sorry Captain." Ambril was sincere, "The Admiral will be occupied with meetings and briefings all afternoon and early evening. She suggests you file your regular report and she'll get back to you at her earliest convenience."

"Not a problem." Macen replied, "I'll just call back later."

"Thank you for understanding." Ambril said, "HQ out."

Macen deactivated the wall monitor after the image reverted to the symbol for Starfleet Command. He went to the replicator and materialised a cup of coffee and then he requested two chocolate biscotti. Retrieving a padd, he sat down on the couch and began to write his Special Incident Report. He'd barely finished the first paragraph when the door chime sounded. He verbally released the door and it slid aside to reveal Radil.

Even without his empathic senses Macen could tell that Radil was distraught, "Jenrya, can I get you anything?"

She stiffly nodded, "I'll have whatever you're having."

Macen invited Radil to join him on the couch and then he went to the replicator and repeated his previous orders. He brought them to Radil and retook his seat. He dipped his biscotti into his coffee, let it soak for a second, and then took a bite out of the moistened end. Radil watched this and then mirrored it.

Her eyes regained a bit of life to them when she did so, "This is good."

The surprise in her voice made Macen chuckle, "Sometimes new things are. Maybe you should take a lesson from that."

Radil frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Most people with the emotional upheaval you're experiencing have suffered a loss. Since you have family that I'm aware of that leaves a loved one. A certain Abigail Collins is the only loved one of yours that I know about so this relaters to Abby somehow."

Radil was shocked, "How did you know...?"

"That you love her?" Radil nodded and Macen sought to explain, "How could I not know? You're a different woman when you're with her. You're happier and the emotional void left inside you from decades of warfare is filled. To be blunt, you're a better and more complete person with her than without."

"But I can't be with her." Radil groaned.

"Why not?" Macen asked between bites.

"It's too difficult to explain." Radil complained," There's just too much..."

"Explain it to me like I'm a six-year old." Macen suggested, "That should trim away most of the excess fat."

Radil faltered at first but as she warmed to her audience the words came flowing out. She expressed her fears, her hopes, her worries, her desires, and her doubts. She'd made her decision regarding her involvement with Collins and she didn't know if she could live with it. It made Macen's heart ache.

"But what causes you to doubt Abby's sincerity?" Macen asked.

"She's had affairs with her last three commanding officers regardless of race or gender." Radil revealed, "I'm just another notch on her belt."

Macen took a deep breath, "That does look bad. However, as an impartial witness, she definitely plays the part of the devoted prospective suitor well."

"That's my major concern." Radil struggled to clearly express herself, "What if she's oh so devoted now but that all changes when our command structure shifts?"

"You mean if she's promoted to the post of Chief of Security on another Outbound Ventures ship?" Macen narrowed the options down.

"Exactly!" Radil leapt upon that interpretation.

Macen shook his head once, "I don't know. I guess it would all depend on how much she loves you."

Radil firmly shook her head, "No, it doesn't. My choice. I've made my decision. Unless she can prove otherwise we're done even before we started."

"Can you live with that?" Macen enquired.

With a fresh wave of determination, Radil nodded, "Yeah, I think I can."

"Then I wish you the best." Macen informed her and then after a moment of silence had passed he asked, "Is there something else you'd like to talk about?"

Radil hesitated and then plunged ahead, "Yeah. I was wondering..."

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Annika Ryst sat before the comp/comm unit in her runabout. She was reviewing the data files on her Celeste Rockford identity. Rockford was a licensed private investigator. She was so well esteemed she'd qualified for a universal weapons permit enabling her to carry a phaser anywhere in the Federation.

Ryst sighed. She enjoyed every opportunity that she had to play Rockford. It was usually in between merc jobs. Her cases were occasionally challenging and there was a helluva lot less killing.

Ryst's stomach soured. She was tired of the meaningless destruction. She only had one more job to finish and then she could give up the mercenary life and become Celeste Rockford forever. Once Macen and his team were gone she would be free from her past at long last.

Despite her vaunted Vulcan endurance, T'Kir looked tired. Macen mentioned this and got a dirty look in reply. Stepping onto the sparring mat, T'Kir looked ready to do some damage. Macen whispered a prayer to his favourite deity and joined her.

Twenty minutes later, Macen stripped his gloves off and removed his headgear and mouth guard, "You want to tell me why you're so angry?"

T'Kir ripped her glove off and spit her guard out into her liberated hand, "I could have gotten some sleep if it wasn't for you. I'd understand it if we'd done something fun but nooo we have to research Bertram bloody Sindis. He's gonna kill you, you know that don't you?"

"He doesn't even know me." Macen retorted, "Why would he kill me?"

"Brin," T'Kir was becoming exasperated, "this guy's entire life is about killing people he doesn't know."

Macen studied her for a moment and then he softly asked, "What are you basing this upon?"

That question seemed to rattle her and she was reticent to speak but Macen urged her to do so. Finally, she opened up, "It's just a feeling. You know how you've let me see the Currents through your perceptions? This feels like that. It's like I can see how things will probably turn out. It's scaring the hell outta me."

Macen graced her with a sad smile, "It does get old."

"Have you known about this?" T'Kir demanded.

"It's a possibility." Macen replied, "Actually it's one of several."

"Spare me the humour and don't try and get out of this one, Brin." T'Kir insisted, "You've known that there's a real possibility that you could get killed on this mission and we're still continuing on with it?"

"Yes." Was all Macen said.

Flustered, T'Kir persevered, "Can I ask why?"

"We hired on to do a job." Macen said with firm conviction, "It imparts upon us a sense of duty. We perform to the best of our ability for every employer we contract with. You remember those three years that we weren't able to accept SID jobs?"

T'Kir slowly nodded and Macen pressed on, "We did the job. We outdid ourselves and pushed ourselves every second of every day because we'd made a promise to do so. That promise holds for every person who employs us whether it is for five minutes or for five years. We do the job."

T'Kir wore a sheepish smile, "Anyone ever tell you that you're sexy when you're convicted?"

Macen broke into a bashful grin, "Not today."

"I'm telling you right now." T'Kir emphasised, "I'm done here. I'm gonna take a shower. Wanna help?"

"Do I ever!" Macen ripped his gear off and tossed it aside.

T'Kir laughed and darted out of the gym with Macen hot on her heels.

Feldman groaned as the comm terminal continued its incessant chiming. Withdrawing her arm from where it had been draped across Drake's chest, she rolled over and presented him with her back. Drake rolled out of bed with a disgusted grunt. Padding over to the comm, he took a moment to verify the sender's identity.

The sender was a minor functionary in Sindis' operations. Drake accepted the call and Sindis' pale features appeared. Sindis softly chuckled upon assessing Drake's appearance.

"Dressing informally these days I see." Sindis dryly commented.

Drake's eyes passed over his nude form. "I didn't exactly have time to dress myself. Would you prefer to be kept waiting in the future?"

A cold smile appeared on Sindis' face, "You chose wisely. Do sit down."

Drake obeyed. The leather chair's embrace was cool to his skin. Drake struggled to hide his momentary discomfort from Sindis. He could tell from the cruel gleam of delight in the Iridian's eye that he'd failed.

"So," Drake sought to forge ahead, "what have I done to warrant a personal call?"

"Nothing that I'm aware of but that's exactly what I need to find out." Sindis replied.

Drake rubbed his face. Was he just that tired or was Sindis playing more than his share of mind games today? "Find out what?" he finally asked.

"We have an unexpected guest charting course for Mityr." Sindis revealed, "The ship is Federation flagged and registered to Outbound Ventures, Inc. Her captain is a certain Brin Macen."

"Why does this all sound familiar?" Drake wondered.

"Macen is a privateer." Sindis explained, "Outbound Ventures is the umbrella corporation under which he and seven other owner-operator privateers contract under. As the founder of Outbound Ventures, Macen gets a cut of every contract that the others sign. In return the individual captains and crews are granted enviable insurance coverage."

"So why does Macen's imminent arrival pose a threat?" Drake had to wonder.

"Macen has made his post-Starfleet career by capturing pirates, apprehending smuggling rings, and tearing apart criminal cartels." Sindis' manner grew colder, "Can you see how that might prove a difficulty?"

Drake ruefully nodded, "I see your point."

"There is another point to make as well." Sindis informed him, "Macen's primary contract is with Starfleet, specifically the Special Investigations Division. Are you certain your wife has never mentioned anything regarding him?"

Drake grimaced, "Amanda never spoke to me about anything."

"Pity." Sindis mused, "I'd rather hoped that she'd confided some mortal weakness of his with you."

"Sorry." Drake sincerely replied, "Amanda never discussed work and, since her job is her life, that didn't leave much room for meaningful conversation."

"I see." Sindis said with meaning, "If, however, you should recall some offhand remark that may prove useful then contact me at once."

"How will I know if it's important if it's insignificant?" Drake asked.

Sindis' smile could have frozen hydrogen, "Trust me, Richard. You will know."

Drake wearily nodded, "As you say."

"What is your ETA?" Sindis enquired.

"We're not due for another three days at our current cruising speed." Drake dutifully reported, "Want us to quicken the pace?"

"No." Sindis answered thoughtfully, "Presumably Macen knows nothing of you. There should be no need for clandestine manoeuvres."

"And if a need arises?" Drake's guts tightened up.

Sindis replied with one of his trademark oily smiles, "In that happenstance I shall endeavour to persuade Captain Macen to look the other way."

"And if he refuses?" Drake felt cold all of a sudden.

Sindis chuckled, "In that case, Captain Macen and his crew will soon regret having rejected my generosity."

"Look," Drake didn't know what he was saying, "if this guy is a privateer that means he's essentially a ship for hire. I can reason with him on that basis."

"I rather doubt that." Sindis coolly remarked.

"At least give me a chance." Drake almost pleaded, "What can that hurt?"

"It won't," Sindis acknowledged, "provided that this isn't some devolution into your abandoned Starfleet morality. I'd thought that you were beyond such trivialities by now. Remember, victory is achieved at any price."

"And no price is too great." Drake smiled as he recanted the Iridian mantra.

Sindis smiled as well, "Just so. Remember these words in the days to come. They will see you through."

"They already have." Drake admitted.

"I shall take my leave of you and allow you to gather rest." Sindis signed off and the comm screen went dark.

"It's about time." Feldman said from the doorway leading to the bedroom, "Doesn't the man know what time it is aboard ship?"

"More to the point is does he even care." Drake snorted. He idly began tracing her curves with his eyes. She caught this despite the dimmed lights, "Stop that."

Drake rose and met her. His hands traced her skin. She protested but it was with a smile, "I'm warning you. I'm tired and cranky. You don't want to start anything you won't finish. I'll make your life a living hell."

"I think someone needs a rubdown." Drake countered.

"Oh, you do?" Feldman's smile grew, "What else do you think?"

Drake whispered his answer and Feldman sprinted for the bed. Drake caught her and tackled her as she bounded atop the mattress. She went down in a squeal of delight. Drake began to apply oils to her back, arms, and legs. Lavishing every once of concentration on her comfort, he proceeded to live out what he had suggested to her earlier in a whisper.

After breakfast Macen tried calling Drake again. Ambril was far more enthusiastic this time 'round, which he took to be a good sign. After a quick word with the Admiral, Macen was transferred to Amanda's comm unit.

"'Lo Amanda." Macen used his usual greeting.

Drake was bright and alert but her eyes and the corners of her mouth were tight. Not for the first time, Macen wished he hadn't been barraged by theta radiation during the Odyssey's death throes. His ability to read the Currents, enhanced by his exposure to the Nexus, had been severely curtailed.

Once upon a lifetime, he would have been able to sense the most probable futures revolving around Drake even from this distance. Now he felt nothing. Even when all else was lost he could still listen to her and help her find her future path.

"Brin," Drake smiled but not all of it reached her eyes, "I viewed the summary to your incident report last night and read the full text report this A.M. I've reviewed the material with Alynna and she's released Starfleet's 'Eyes Only' assessment and briefing on Sindis to you. I'm attaching the file to this transmission and sending it to you while we converse. It's secured with one of T'Kir's encryptions. She should have no problem opening up the message."

Macen grinned, "Anything else?"

"Yes," Drake's demeanour became very assertive, "I'm ordering you off the case."

"Does that mean you're rescinding our contract?" Macen calmly asked.

"You'll receive your full remuneration but you are not, I repeat, not to proceed to Mityr and engage Bertram Sindis." Drake declared.

Macen was thoroughly amused by now, "Any particular reason why?"

"Read the files and you'll discover what Alynna and I have been afraid of for over ten years now." Drake opined, "You'd be outgunned and outclassed even if you had the crew of the Obsidian behind you. As it is, in the Loki, you're too vulnerable. I'm not sending you in."

"How about we compromise?" Macen offered.

"I'm listening but I'm not promising anything." Drake warned.

"I wouldn't want you to." Macen's grin blossomed into a smile, "I've given this some thought and here's what we'll need..."

When he was finished, Drake wore a grim expression of approval, "I like it better than you're sailing off to your doom."

"I find most things preferable to that particular scenario." Macen admitted, "Remember, tell Elias the rendezvous is at DS3."

"Copy that." Drake nodded, "I'll have the other elements in play before today is concluded."

"It's three days to DS3 from here and another five to Mityr from there." Macen pointed out, "Will everyone have their timing down?"

"Everyone will be waiting on you." Drake grinned.

"Oh, wonderful." Macen groused.

"Brin," Drake hesitated and was uncharacteristically unsure of herself, "Richard is in the Meirkus Conglomeration and likely to have ties to Sindis."

"Remind me who Richard is." Macen requested.

"My husband." Drake sighed forlornly, "His ship, the Helios, was hailed by a border patrol ship heading into Conglomerate space."

"I see." Macen frowned, "How do you want it handled?"

"I want the ship and crew taken into custody." Drake grew fierce, "If they resist, use all due force to apprehend them."

"I take it they have warrants out on them now?" Macen asked.

Drake was cool as she answered, "Yes. I took the circumstances of the Helios' disappearance to the JAG offices and they authorised a search and seizure. Elise Feldman, the Helios' weapons officer, kept a back-up of the ship's internal security recordings on a portable computer core. They were...revealing."

Macen knew that was a loaded statement but left it up to Drake to divulge any further information. She didn't, "Study the files we have on Sindis and keep in mind that the assessments were made by Mackenzie Calhoun. The rivalry between you two should lend extra credence to the report's veracity."

A sober Macen nodded, "I'll keep that in mind."

"Good." Drake seemed satisfied with the outcome of the conversation. She should, Macen thought, She got her way on almost every detail. The screen went blank and Macen recycled his dishes. Next, he travelled to the bridge.

"Full stop." He ordered as he stepped onto the bridge. T'Kir and Grace exchanged a look of surprise but Grace immediately complied. "Bring us about and set course for Deep Space 3."

T'Kir voiced the obvious question, "Why? I thought we were headed for Mityr."

"We still are." Macen replied, "We're just taking the long way around."

T'Kir's eyes went wide and she tapped her temple, "Got it. I'll brief Hannah. You do what you need to do."

Grace was still puzzled but T'Kir began to unfold what she'd gleaned from Macen's mind. Macen himself did not stay for the conclusion of this discourse. Instead, he returned to the sparse office and began to set Outbound Venture's wheels in motion. Fortunately, Christine Pike seemed tickled by the notion and promised to devote her full attention to the matter. The crew of the Obsidian would sail on time or they'd face the wrath of Pike!

After the transmission had terminated, Macen leaned back and basked in the knowledge that he'd forged a good crew and that they'd be where they needed to be on time. Next, he had T'Kir decrypt the Starfleet reports Drake had sent. Macen began to read them. In short order he knew why Drake was concerned. He had chills as it was and he hadn't even encountered the reality of the reports.

We're in for the ride of our lives. He thought with trepidation.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Richard Drake studied the viewer and the old sense of foreboding crept over him again. Stretched out before them lay the shattered space station built by the original humanoid culture that had arisen and thrived on Mityr until the planetary war engulfed the population.

The original surveys of the planet revealed that the biogenic weapon that had decimated the population had been keyed to the inhabitants' DNA. With no inhabitants to host the viral agents, the strain had been driven into extinction. The corporation that resettled Mityr sought an easy and resource savvy method of colonising their foothold in what would become the Meirkus Conglomeration so Mityr was repopulated.

The infrastructure had to be rebuilt since none of the native technology functioned. The corpses of the populace were disposed of in mass graves. A popular myth among the settlers was that the angered spirits of the dead civilisation would resurrect their corpses and massacre the intruders.

Although Drake's conscious mind rejected such tales there was a subliminal truth there that inhabited part of his awareness. This accounted for his caution when approaching the station and the field of starship debris beyond it. Safe transit channels had been carved out long ago. They were constantly patrolled by tenders and hazards were removed.

Still, Drake mused, it never hurts to be careful.

"How're we doing, Bree?" Drake asked Hathaway.

"Five by five, Skip." Hathaway cheerfully replied.

"Don't worry, Darling." Feldman teased, "No bogeymen will eat us."

Drake shot her an irritated glare, "I didn't think they would."

Feldman patted her station's console, "Even if they tried, we've got superior firepower."

"I'll keep that in mind in case demons leap out of Hell to destroy us." Drake dryly remarked.

"Skipper," Toombs interrupted, "We're receiving a hail from Sindis' offices."

"I'll take it in the briefing room." Drake informed the Science Officer. Like the Blackbird-class the Barracudas possessed a briefing room attached to the rear of the bridge. Drake made his way to the display control centre and activated the wall monitor.

"Sindis." Drake tipped his head out of respect.

"Drake." Sindis exchanged the greeting, "It appears that you were not Macen's quarry after all."

"Not that I'm surprised," Drake chuckled, "but what brings you to that conclusion?"

"Macen diverted to Deep Space 3 and should be arriving there even as we speak." Sindis announced, "Yet my informants in Starfleet Intelligence tell me that arrest warrants have been issued on your crew and that Starfleet knows that you're in the Conglomeration."

"Hardly surprising that they know that since we were challenged by the border patrol on our way here." Drake reminded the Iridian.

"Too true." Sindis wore a tight smile, "I'd still like your crew to berth in the Citadel."

"We'd be honoured." Drake bowed his head.

Sindis waved this consideration away, "Richard, you and your crew have proven to be valuable assets no matter what task you're assigned to. I'd like to see that continue. If I can assist that effort by affording you some well deserved kindness then that's what I'll do."

Before Drake could reply, Sindis signed off. Drake whistled to himself and then returned to the bridge to break the news to the crew.

The Loki translated out of subspace into "normal" space. She was on an approach vector for DS3. Because she was a freighter instead of a starship she was placed into a holding pattern to wait for a commercial berth at the busy port. Everything seemed normal until T'Kir announced that a ship was hurtling towards them on an intercept course.

"Identify that ship!" Macen ordered, "Rab, stand-by weapons and shields."

"Brin!" sheer delight laced every one of T'Kir's words, "It's the Obsidian."

"Put her on screen!" Macen excitedly requested.

The Obsidian adjusted her vector and slowed to come up along side the larger Loki. She barrel rolled over the top of the freighter and came to rest on the Loki's port side.

"That's gotta be Rhiann." Grace opined with a bright smile.

"They're hailing us." T'Kir announced.

"Put it on screen." Macen directed.

The viewer switched to an image of Ro Laren wearing civilian clothes and sitting in Macen's chair. Macen was surprised and puzzled, "Laren?"

"Elias couldn't make it." Ro began by way of explanation, "He's...well he should be the one to explain it. It isn't good. He could really use a word from an old friend."

"He almost died, didn't he?" Macen was ruthlessly calm.

"Yes." Ro confessed, "He's recuperating but he's...well, he's old and he just isn't bouncing back like he could've in his seventies or his eighties. Hell, if he even still in his nineties..."

Macen knew Vaughn was 108 years old. Even with today's advances in human medicine that age still took a toll. They were going to have a lay over at the station and Macen vowed that he would use some of that time to contact Vaughn. After all, their careers had woven in and out of each other for almost fifty years now. He owed Vaughn the call.

"Thank you." Macen's gratitude was genuine, "I'll take care of it."

Ro's relieved smile revealed her true feelings, "I'd hoped you would."

"So," Macen's tone lightened, "are we receiving an escort?"

Ro grinned, "Of course. We are just two Outbound Ventures ships out for a stroll."

Ro's grin was infectious as Macen replied, "Then lead on, dear lady."

The airlock connecting the Loki to the station slid up, revealing a small reception committee. Macen was surprised to see Captain Alfonso Reyes, the station's CO, prominently leading the entourage of well wishers. Reyes was the great-grandson of Diego Reyes, the famed first commander of Vanguard station.

Macen stopped in front of Reyes and transferred his duffel bag out of his right hand. He offered his hand and Reyes shook it. Leaning in, Macen whispered, "A little public, don't you think?"

"Never fear." Reyes grinned, "I greet one prominent visitor a week. This week, you're it."

Macen looked dubious, "Great."

"Smile." Reyes instructed, "You're on public holovid."

Reyes drew himself up and turned Macen so that he faced the cameras, "Outbound Ventures has earned preferential treatment aboard this station and today we extend every courtesy to Brin Macen, the founder of Outbound Ventures. I'm certain Captain Macen would be delighted to answer a few questions from the press today."

Macen could have sworn. Reyes' devilish delight was palpable even to a non-empath. Questions flooded Macen's perceptions and he took a moment to collect himself.

"Pardon me," he spoke in hushed tones so the newsies would be forced to listen, "I'll answer one question from each of you, starting with this gentleman to my left."

"Captain Macen," the reporter began gravely, "it is well known that you and your ship's services are under exclusive contract to Starfleet. Does your presence here predicate an increased awareness of local conditions?"

Here we go. Macen sighed and began to answer the question, "I'm not familiar with Starfleet's strategy concerning this sector. That's a question for Captain Reyes. However, I can make an announcement that my exclusivity clause has not been renewed and my crew can now accept general contracts."

"Was there some dissatisfaction with your work?" The woman next in line asked.

"It was a simple matter of economics." Macen explained, "Starfleet had to retain us at half-pay even when we weren't actively assigned any duties. Since specialised assignments such as ours rarely arise within Starfleet's framework, that meant we were usually getting paid to do nothing."

"Would it be more feasible for Starfleet to retain exclusivity if you moved your base of operations from Barrinor to within the Federation's borders?" came the next question.

"You mean if we operated under the Federation's gift economy rather than the capitalistic framework of Barrinor?" Macen chuckled. The reporter nodded and Macen continued, "The Federation can easily afford to spend its latinum reserves. The question is: why should it do so unnecessarily? The mere fact that Starfleet has kept us on retainer should indicate that they intend to employ us in the future which further implies that they are satisfied with our competence."

The last reporter asked her question, "What are your predictions of Outbound Ventures' continued involvement in this sector as Starfleet moves towards annexation and the nearby Meirkus Conglomeration has elected Bertram Sindis chairman?"

Macen took a breath, "Starfleet's increased presence is always appreciated by those in my profession. It will be some time before there is no frontier left. Until that time, private entrepreneurs will venture out beyond their recognised borders and gamble on the unknown. We're primarily hired to protect these brave souls. As long as they're willing to dream, we'll go with them."

"So long as they pay." A reporter mocked.

"A price has to be paid somewhere." Macen calmly replied, "Better an economic cost rather than a mortal one."

"Captain...!" the reporters almost said in unison.

"No more questions." Macen let them down, "I have business to conduct."

The reporters dispersed and Reyes smiled wide, "Excellent, Captain. I knew you had it in you."

Macen grimaced and shook his head, "Remind me to hurt you later."

"Of course." Reyes chuckled, "Let me show you to your real ship."

"I can't believe Reyes wants to have dinner in three hours." T'Kir leaned up against the bulkhead outside their quarters on the Obsidian.

"I can't believe he asked us to dress formally." The door slid aside and Macen led the way into their shared space.

"Poor Laren." T'Kir lamented, "What's she gonna do? She doesn't have a single girly outfit to her name."

"She soon will have." Macen smirked, "I sent her to the most fashionable boutique aboard escorted by Kalista. She has orders to make the most of the next two hours."

"Two hours?" T'Kir protested, "Dinner is in three hours."

Macen gave T'Kir a weathered look, "It's going to take Kalista an hour to get Laren comfortable in her new outfit."

"And Laren's goin' along with this?" T'Kir was amazed.

"She and Reyes are Academy classmates." Macen explained, "Apparently she wants to dress to impress."

"Could Ro Laren be on the prowl?" T'Kir looked positively wicked, "I'm goin' down the boutique."

"T'Kir." Macen scolded.

"I'll behave." She looked angelic, "I promise."

Macen rolled his eyes, "That'll be the day."

"So I can go?" T'Kir's excitement mounted.

"Who'm I to stop you?" Macen said balefully.

"Love ya!" T'Kir sprinted for the door, "Bye, bye."

"What have I unleashed?" Macen asked the bulkheads.

T'Kir arrived at the posh boutique and salon, Estrinne, and waltzed in. Guided by intuition and her own native telepathy, she swiftly tracked down Kalista and the unwitting Ro. Kalista was advising Ro as the sales associate was showing her gowns. Ro's interest had been piqued by a red shimmersilk evening dress and T'Kir resolved to convince her to buy it.

"Go on," T'Kir urged as she stepped up from behind Ro, "try it on."

Ro almost, almost, started, "Where the hell did you come from?"

"I need a dress, same as you." T'Kir replied.

"I thought you had dresses." Ro almost accused.

"On Barrinor." T'Kir explained, "In our line of work you rarely get the opportunity to wear an evening gown so I don't lug 'em around."

"So..." Ro was hesitant, "you think this one could work?"

"You'll never know until you try it on." T'Kir prodded.

"Ah, what the hell." Ro groaned and followed the sales girl to the dressing rooms.

Kalista exchanged a smile with T'Kir, "So why are you really here?"

"I'm here t'get a dress." T'Kir haughtily replied, "And to get the scoop on Ro and Captain Reyes."

Kalista's eyes twinkled, "Is there a scoop?"

"Hopefully." T'Kir rubbed her palms together, "Now how do I get service 'round here?"

Three associates suddenly appeared and triangulated T'Kir. She smiled, "Now that's what I'm talkin' about."

While the associates were gathering a bevy of choices from which T'Kir could select, Ro appeared in the red shimmersilk gown. The dress featured a teardrop shaped diamond brooch with a diamond encrusted halter top. This highlighted a pleated sweetheart neckline. A gathered empire waist complimented the upper portions of the gown. Draped over Ro's form it possessed a slinky, fitted silhouette.

"Laren!" T'Kir exclaimed, "You're gorgeous!"

Ro actually blushed, "You think?"

"You know it." T'Kir prodded, "Just admit it to yourself."

Ro turned to Kalista, "What do you think?"

"You're lovely and very appetising." Kalista admitted.

"Can we afford it?" Ro wistfully asked.

"I guarantee it." T'Kir grinned.

"I don't know." T'Kir said as she twirled in front of the mirror, "I don't want to steal your thunder."

T'Kir wore an iridescent emerald gown. It sported empire style spaghetti straps and jewelled trim just below the bustline. It also featured low back decorated with beads and criss-crossed back straps. It was long and highlighted her curves.

"You love it and you should wear it." Ro urged.

Not requiring much persuasion T'Kir nodded, "I'll take it! Now let's get our hair done."

"I think you need to take the dress off first." Kalista chided her.

"Oh foo!" T'Kir pouted.

Where is she? Macen wondered as he paced back and forth in their quarters. The door swooshed open and T'Kir breezed in. She carried several bags and her hair was cut much shorter and her make up was done. She spread the garment bag out across the bed and turned around and wafted her hands over her hair.

"What d'you think?" she eagerly asked as she motioned towards her hair.

It was a pixie cut. Her bangs were long enough to partially cover her eyes. The hair to the back of her head and neck was now tapered. It was a general style T'Kir had attempted before.

"It's a variation on a theme we're familiar with. It's stylish yet playful. I really like it." Macen said after much anticipation.

T'Kir hurried to his side and kissed him on the cheek, "Wait until you see my new dress."

Macen marvelled at how she'd completely missed the fact that he was wearing one of his suits. It was a tad conservative but it warranted at least one compliment. The jacket in particular was a design marvel since it allowed him to wear a full sized holster and Militia phaser without drawing too much attention. However he couldn't, and wouldn't, deny his wife this moment of happiness.

T'Kir sprang forth out of the dressing room and presented herself in all of her glory, "Taa Daa!"

"You are gorgeous!" Macen opined and truly meant every word of it, "The dress is stunning as are you."

She kissed him, "Thank you, kind sir. Shall we be going?"

"It is that time, isn't it?" Macen mused.

"Wait 'till you see Laren." T'Kir gushed, "You won't recognise her. Captain Reyes is in for a surprise."

"Does she want to surprise him?" Macen wondered.

"More than anything." T'Kir confided.

"This could be an interesting evening." Macen chuckled.

"You know it, babe." T'Kir concurred as they exited their quarters.

Alfonso Reyes was immaculate in his earth toned suit. He rose from his chair as the maitre de showed Macen and T'Kir to the appointed table. His eyes drank in T'Kir.

Reyes took her hand and kissed it, "Madam, you are a vision." He turned to Macen, "You are an extremely lucky man to be escorting such beauty."

"Not as lucky as you tonight." Macen gazed past Reyes' shoulder and the Starfleet officer followed his line of sight.

Ro stood revealed behind Reyes. Like T'Kir, her hair and cosmetics had been done. Ro's bangs were cut and combed to one side. Her raven hair now hovered two centimetres above her shoulders and was layered. She wore an uncharacteristically nervous smile and both Macen and T'Kir could feel Reyes' heart melt.

Reyes approached her and took her hand, kissing it he moved her hand to his heart, "I truly have never seen a woman as breathtaking as you are at this moment."

Ro was immediately flattered, "Thank you. I don't think I've ever seen you look so handsome."

"I tried to impress." Reyes admitted, "Have I succeeded?"

"Just as well as I have." Ro warmly smiled.

"Then I am the most beautiful man to ever live." Reyes chuckled.

Ro's eyes glinted with humour as Reyes guided her to her seat. Macen seated T'Kir and Reyes emulated him. The two men sat and a waiter appeared. The foursome ordered drinks and appetisers and Reyes grew rather eager as the waiter departed.

"I never thought I would be able to sit you all down at the same place and time." He confessed, "Ro knows of my affections for her and she can rest assured that they have not waned over the passing years. But to have the three of you together, that is a dream come true."

Macen was intrigued, "Why is that?"

"My promotion to captain came as a great surprise to many." Reyes revealed, "When I was the XO aboard the USS Stormhold and I actively endorsed the Maquis. I was actually taken off starship duty and relegated to station personnel. But from there I prospered."

Reyes expectantly glanced from one to the other, "Tell me what it was like to serve together."

Macen and T'Kir exchanged bewildered glances and then stared at Ro. Ro looked like a game animal trapped in the headlights but she quickly recovered. She began by recounting story of how her cell and others pilfered a hidden depot of ships. The story of how Ro had struggled to rein in the mad Maquis captain Rand and his Andorian XO freely flowed after that.

They finished the appetisers and ordered their meals as Ro began the story of how she and her cell faced down the mind controlling machinations of Tiro Anadis. The last tale, and the longest, was recounting how they had rescued the newborn Chrysalis child from the High Command.

"And she's still alive?" Reyes had to know.

"She'll be twelve years old in seven months." Macen reported, "Old enough to assume her throne."

"Will the Cardassians let her?" Reyes asked.

Macen shrugged, "There's a lot of internal pressure to allow her to return. The current Cardassian President, Castellan Ghemor's hand picked successor, has been negotiating a deal whereby Katreen Dervin could mount her throne and be Head of State while the elected President would be Head of Government."

"It's worked before on other worlds I don't see why the Cardassians should be any different." Reyes commented.

"If it were an ordinary monarch it probably wouldn't." Macen surmised, "But since Katreen is the Chrysalis child of legend the populace is will to give her leeway...at least for a short time."

"Enough politics." T'Kir groaned, "Let's just have fun."

Macen wore an abashed smile and Reyes chuckled, "The lady knows what she wants. I'll tell you what, you tell me about life at DS9 and I'll describe my usual day. Throw in some stories from the life of a privateer and we could have an exciting time of it."

"Now you're talkin'!" T'Kir readily agreed. With a murmuring of consent, the discussion shifted and the mood became elated.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Grace entered the nightclub Riker had recommended and saw most of her comrades gathered at a central table. The table was located next to a large brazier that sported real flames fuelled by coals. Grace noted that the rest of the group had dressed down for the occasion.

None of them wore a strict uniform but each one had adopted a distinct manner of dress that replaced a formal uniform. Everyone mixed and matched pieces from surplus Starfleet uniforms and created a style all their own. Tonight, not one trace of that practice existed. Each appeared as civilian as any other sentient in the establishment.

Daggit wore an olive Henley with khaki pants. Radil wore rust and earth tones incorporated into traditional Bajoran weaves. Joachim wore a toga albeit with shorts underneath. Kort was the most shocking. The Klingon wore a suit and a silk tie.

Grace was still reeling from this when she realised that everyone in the group was staring at her. Grace had opted for a simple A-line black cocktail dress. It wasn't fancy but it was drawing attention. Dracas rose and escorted her to her chair. Having scooted her in, he returned to his own seat next to hers.

A waiter appeared and offered Grace a glass of wine. It was a Château Picard. Grace had first sampled the vineyard's offerings when she'd been a Starfleet cadet. She hadn't found them very appealing then, but taking a cautious sip, she discovered that she rather liked the label's Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grace quietly studied her friends. Despite having lived amongst humans for the past thirteen years, she still found their emotional ranges and expressions to be somewhat confounding. Moments like these allowed her to observe her friends' expressions and try and deduce their origins.

Kort, normally the most boisterous one at a gathering, was subdued. He quietly drank his raktajino, exchanged the occasional pleasantry or anecdote, but he remained strangely preoccupied. Or maybe it's not so strange. Grace reflected, This has Haley Galloway's name all over it.

Kort had been quietly pining away for Galloway for several months now. Galloway seemed friendly enough and genuinely enjoyed Kort's company but Grace doubted, from her observations, that Galloway was ready for a romantic pairing. T'Kir had alluded as much after having a heart to heart with the human doctor.

Riker and Danan arrived fashionably late. Riker wore a burgundy tunic with black pants. Danan wore a sea green pants suit that complimented her eyes. Danan ordered her drink and then scrutinised the gathered host. She immediately narrowed in on Kort and asked him what was on his mind.

Aha! Grace thought, Here it comes.

"I must confess that I have been dwelling on our current mission as of late." Kort said.

Oops! Grace managed not to blush, Wrong again.

"How so?" Riker enquired after ordering his drink.

"The Captain's sudden bout of caution bodes ill." Kort explained, "Macen tends to plunge ahead regardless of personal risk. Our original ops plan called for us to complete our mission in the Loki. It is the natural choice for attempting an unobtrusive entrance into the Conglomeration. The Obsidian is a known asset and many of the criminals sheltering on Mityr will remember her."

"T'Kir's awfully frustrated." Grace opined, "She's shared her opinion that the Captain is facing impossible odds this time 'round."

Riker studied everyone at the table and then spoke, "Brin has already approached me. He's going to share everything with you all tomorrow aboard the Obsidian. I can't say much but I will share this: we are headed towards the greatest peril we've ever faced."

"Even worse than the Omicron?" Danan inquired.

Riker was grave, "Very likely."

There was some discontented stirring upon hearing that pronouncement. Riker tried to soothe their worries, "Brin has a plan that involves Starfleet. It can work but it will be risky."

"So it's not a solo operation?" Daggit asked, "We'll have support?"

Riker nodded, "The assets are already moving into place. They'll go at a moment's notice."

Kort leaned onto his elbows, "That is well and good but what are we sailing into? This team has blindly been led into disaster before. We've always been saved by pure luck but how long can this last?"

That comment created quite a stir. Grace flushed with anger, "You filthy coward! Why don't you..."

She was interrupted by Dracas placing a firm yet gentle hand on her shoulder, "I think the Commander wishes to speak."

Grace was far from mollified but she subsided. Riker wore a stern expression as he spoke, "I think we can all agree that our captain has a tendency to step into situations angels would qualm at. That doesn't mean they are insurmountable. We've survived every contract, every assignment, and every task we've set out to accomplish."

Riker took a breath and continued, "Brin has led us through every one of these campaigns. Relying on either his beloved Fates or his own intuition, however you want to label it, he's carried us through."

Kort started to protest but Riker halted him with his upraised hand, "I know better than most that we've lost souls along the way. I watched as my crew on the Eclipse died. I sat by helplessly as Jamie died. I was taken captive for several months and left for dead by all of you." Riker's piercing gaze held Kort's eyes, "I know we may not survive but I'm willing to take that risk."

Kort remained unmoved, "I wished to discuss this with the Captain first but now is as good a moment as any to inform you that this voyage is my last. Olympus Mons has offered me the opportunity to head up the Trauma Centre and I've accepted."

"Maybe that's for the best." Riker gently conceded, "You should be free to move on if you're unhappy."

Silence lingered long after that as each of Kort's teammates struggled to comprehend the full importance of what he'd revealed. The brooding was interrupted by Daggit clearing his throat.

"I hate to have to say this but as long as we're confessing secrets I have to announce that I'm also leaving the team when this mission concludes." He revealed.

A round of protests erupted around the table and Daggit waved the noise down, "Parva and I discussed it and the decision is final. As you know, Outbound Ventures is opening an academy for privateers, investigators, and security agents. I've been asked to formulate a large percentage of the curriculum. I've decided to accept a posting as an instructor as well."

Everyone was at a loss for words but Danan recovered first, "I hate to see you go, Rab, but I honestly wish you and Parva the best."

"I think that goes for everyone." Riker added. The looks of betrayal on Radil and Dracas' faces belied that rosy picture but they readily accepted the fact that the decision was made and there was nothing that they could do about it.

"Sorry about the timing." Daggit glumly added, "It just had to be said."

Grace swallowed her first comment and smiled, "Rab, it's okay...really."

The waiter returned only to discover that most of his clientele had lost their appetites. Kort ordered a hearty meal and, smiling, encouraged his comrades to partake of some entrees. They followed suit but still ordered lightly.

"I think you may be insane." Reyes remarked with all due gravity.

"Admiral Drake approved of my plan." Macen countered.

"She's insane as well." An exasperated Reyes retorted, "Have you seen the undoctored file on Sindis? Starfleet Intelligence and the SID have been trying to infiltrate his organisation for years. All they've ended up with is dead agents."

"They all employed subterfuge to gain access to Sindis." Macen observed, "I'm not going to do that."

"What approach are you going to use?" Reyes was intrigued despite himself.

"Honesty." Macen happily replied.

"What?" Reyes was baffled, "You're simply going to fly in there and tell Sindis Starfleet has hired you to apprehend two of his crews and then you're going to simply leave if he says 'no'?"

"Essentially." Macen grinned.

"Madre Dios." Reyes muttered darkly, "I was right all along. You are insane.

Reyes composed himself and then tried a new tact, "What happens if he says 'yes'?"

"Then we spring his trap and hope like hell we can outwit him." Macen confided.

"Oh, yes," Reyes scornfully remarked, "that is an excellent plan."

"You gotta try." T'Kir snapped back, "What've you accomplished by sitting safe in this

station?"

Reyes and T'Kir stared at one another. Several tense seconds passed by and then Reyes finally broke into a crooked smile, "Who am I to judge? Perhaps, God willing, you can pull it off."

"I'll drink to that!" Ro chimed in with a lifted glass. The others joined her in her toast and the conversation drifted on to more pleasant things.

Seven men, two women, and one hermaphrodite moved quietly but with purpose through station. They converged on the entrance of Élan. Towards the rear of the nightclub the Outbound Venture's team could be seen. Tabitha Cristal, the team leader, ushered everyone off to the side and addressed them in hushed tones.

"This is it." She whispered, "As you know, this mission determines whether or not Sindis will offer a long term contract to Jixm's Razors. We have seven targets. That puts the odds in our favour. One shot one kill, that's our mantra. A prolonged firefight will only bring Station Security down on our heads. I think we all want to avoid that. Let's go in there and do what we do best."

"Ooo-rah." Came the hushed chorus. The group broke apart and headed into the club in pairs. Once inside the threshold, they spread out. The host went forward to address them.

"Are you here for the dancing and entertainment only or can I interest you in a meal as well?"

Cristal's icy demeanour stopped him cold, "Go away."

"A...away?" the host stammered.

"Shoo!" Cristal demanded. The host half ran, half walked away as fast as his four feet could carry him.

Grace's hearing was one of her attributes that people underestimated, ignored, or did not fully realise how keen it truly was. Blessed with auditory acuity rivalling T'Kir's, Grace easily eavesdropped on conversations spanning the nightclub. One such conversation was the exchange at the entrance.

Grace's dark brown eyes lighted upon the assembled mercenaries. They all wore long flowing coats reminiscent of T'Kir's favourite duster. Their eyes were hard and their hands were inexorably drawing towards the folds of their jackets. Grace knew she had to act

She sprang up and held, "Cover!" Grabbing hold of the table, she began to lift it. On the opposite side of the rising table Riker, Danan, and Kort also scrambled to their feet. Recognising the danger facing them, Radil, Daggit and Dracas assisted Grace and flung the table onto its side.

Radil roughly grabbed Riker and pulled him down behind the protection of the table. Danan and Kort also moved that way as Daggit found cover behind the upended furniture. Grace and Dracas sprinted across the way to rest behind a large column.

"What do those two think they can accomplish from there?" Kort wondered.

Radil wore a wicked smile as she pulled a miniature phaser pistol out of her pocket, "Oh, probably the same thing I can from here."

Cristal swore under her breath as she drew her team drew their weapons seconds after the Outbound Ventures group went to ground. The element of surprise was firmly lost but perhaps they could still accomplish their mission after all. Turning to the Iotian Drizam brothers she began to issue orders, "Bellas, Tof, and Ab, move to the left and flank them."

Next she addressed the Hekian, "Meris, cover their advance."

Meris adjusted hir position and Cristal knew s/he would do hir job. Personally, Cristal hated the mangled personal pronouns involved with hermaphrodites. Meris was so picky and she knew that the Hekians' distant cousins, the Hermats, were just as finicky. Frankly, you could neuter and spay the whole lot of them in Cristal's opinion.

"Molk, Remy, and Garot, move on those detached personnel behind that column." Cristal ordered. The Klingon, Andorian, and Ferengi silently deployed. That left Cristal with her fellow human, Alice Witt, and her unit's single Romulan, Hadrian.

"All right, people," Cristal said with determination, "we hold the middle. No matter what else happens, we hold this entrance."

Witt and Hadrian vocalised their understanding and acceptance of their orders. Cristal was pleased with the entire group. She just wished she knew what kind weapons the Outbound Ventures people wielded. She supposed she'd find out the hard way in a moment or two.

From their concealed vantage point, Grace and Dracas observed the approach of the Klingon, Andorian, and Ferengi on their position. Grace slipped out of her heels. Next she unzipped her top and reached into it. Withdrawing a compact phaser pistol, she kissed it.

"Thank you for that particular word of advice, T'Kir." Grace grinned.

"I have to thank My Lord Emperor for this one." Dracas agreed as he pulled a throwing dirk and a Bajoran Militia issue phaser pistol out of his toga.

Face puckered in consternation, Grace had to ask, "And where, exactly, did you hide those in that get up?"

"The less said the better." Dracas opined.

"Riiight." Grace deferred to his wisdom.

"What are they saying?" Dracas inquired.

Grace gave him a quizzical glance. Dracas rewarded her with a warm smile, "Not all of us underestimate you."

"The Klingon is boasting about he's been given the honour of the first kill. The Ferengi is complaining that the longer they stay here the less profit they'll earn individually. The Andorian is silent."

"Then I will kill him first." Dracas decided.

"The Captain would probably like to talk to these guys." Grace reminded him.

Dracas' features hardened, "One must perish in order to set an example to the rest."

Grace shrugged, "Fine with me."

"Shall we begin?" Dracas asked.

"One other thing," Grace thumbed her phaser's power setting up, "If they resist, we kill them. Right?"

Dracas smiled, "You think like a Roman."

"You have no idea." Grace replied.

The Andorian, Sevrem'yevret or "Remy" to his colleagues, proceeded with all due caution towards his target. His antenna were twitching. Remy knew this to be a bad omen. The last time that had happened on an op had been at Tigrid VII and what a frinxing disaster that had become.

Such thoughts only distracted him for the time span of a blink but it was enough. Dracas leapt out from behind the column and threw his dirk. Grace leaned out and fired. Remy went down grasping at the knife buried into his throat. Cerulean blood flooded his oxygen starved lungs and he slowly drowned in his own vital fluids. The last thing that his mind registered before slipping away was the fact that Garot already lay dead beside where he'd fallen.

The Drizam brothers witnessed the destruction of their mirroring probe. That distraction proved fatal. Radil cut down Ab and Tof while Daggit rushed Bellas and drove a dinner fork into his heart. Meris panicked, unleashing a torrent of disruptor fire at Daggit. He tried to keep the weapon's discharges from straying towards civilians and ended up getting struck down. Radil ended any further interference by shooting Meris.

Cristal, Witt, and Hadrian opened fire at both Radil's position and the column shielding Dracas and Grace. They steadily marched straight down on the upturned table while continuously barraging the SID defenders. Radil, Dracas, and Grace snapped of return fire as often as possible but the opportunities were rare.

"Someone must sacrifice themselves for the rest." Dracas grimly assessed, "I will go. Avenge me."

Grace slammed him up against the pillar, "Don't you dare run out on me."

Dracas was shocked by the vehemence in her voice, "But I..."

At that moment the firing stopped and the screaming began.

Richard Drake and the crew of the Helios materialised on the landing platform housing Annika Ryst's runabout. Their welcoming committee was large...and well armed. Drake found it to be disconcerting. His crew grew unsettled as well.

Sindis drew up from the rear and he smiled, "You look rather apprehensive, Richard."

"The welcome was unexpected that's all." Drake admitted.

"The honour guard?" Sindis chuckled, "It was the least I could do."

Drake finally noticed the woman standing beside Sindis. If she were human Drake would guess that she was a Slavic beauty but it was Drake's intuitive hunch that she wasn't human. She possessed a fire and a vitality that Drake found daunting. She certainly didn't lack for confidence and Drake wondered if Sindis had finally met his match.

Sindis detected his scrutiny and gestured towards Ryst, "Let me introduce Annika Ryst. Ms. Ryst is a representative from our partners in the Orion Syndicate. She is here to see that our mutual goals are met."

Drake wondered just how many "mutual goals" Ryst was assisting with. Sindis was amused and Ryst bristled as though they could read his mind. Amanda had possessed that singular talent. That's why he'd had to cut loose of her.

"You seem to be missing one of your number." Sindis observed.

"Yes." Drake confirmed Xerxes' absence, "You know engineers. I'm captain of the Helios but it's his ship."

Sindis smiled, "Yes. That does seem to be a universal constant. Pity. I'm hosting a small reception in your crew's honour. Nothing fancy. I'm just introducing you all to the staff."

It was Drake's turn to smile, "We'd be delighted."

"Good. Astris will show you all to your rooms and then lead you to the party." Sindis decided. One of his aides stepped forward and motioned for the privateers to follow her.

After they'd gone, Sindis and Ryst made their way towards the reception. Ryst was mildly intrigued, "Why does this crew rate all the special attention?"

"They are the cornerstone for my next plan." Sindis revealed.

"And what is that?"

Sindis stopped and presented Ryst with the most chilling smile she'd ever seen, "The assassination of Amanda Drake."

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Molk bellowed in rage. He took aim at the tables to his right and began firing at bystanders. They began screaming and running for cover. Seeing an advantage to this, Cristal ordered Hadrian and Witt to randomly fire into the crowd to their left. Cristal continued to unleash a volley of fire at the table Radil, Riker, Danan and Kort sought cover behind.

Molk chuckled at the sight of the civilians fleeing in terror. It made him feel powerful. Powerful enough to single-handidly slay the two targets that had killed Garot and Remy. Molk actually felt something akin to remorse at their passing despite the fact that the Ferengi had been obnoxious and the Andorian had been insufferably smug. Even so, they had not deserved to die at the hands of their very own intended victims.

We once outnumbered them but now they outnumber us. Molk feverishly thought, Their deaths will be glorious! He turned his head back towards the column Dracas and Grace were shielded behind only to find the emitter end of a phaser pistol pressed against his nose.

"Try something." Dracas coldly taunted, "Please."

Swiftly, Molk tried to raise his disruptor. Dracas shot him in the face. Grace eyed this dispassionately and focused her attention on the scene before the SID table.

"Dracas look!" she exclaimed.

Hadrian continued firing into the crowd while Cristal addressed the SID team, "Throw down your weapons and no one else will get hurt."

Riker rose, followed by Danan. Kort was seething as he stood. Radil slowly came to her feet, hatred eking out of every pour. Despite Cristal's word, Hadrian continued to pick off nightclub patrons.

Unexpectedly, a set of strong arms reached out from underneath Hadrian's arms. Rather than go for a headlock, the hands took a hold of the Romulan's jaw and base of his neck and twisted. The spine severed with a satisfying crack and Daggit dropped Hadrian's limp form.

Cristal gaped at him in disbelief as Daggit rounded on her. She struggled to voice a command to Witt. Grace chose that particular moment to end Witt's participation in this affair. Cristal tried to shoot Daggit but he merely swatted the disruptor out of her hand.

Her mouth worked wordlessly. Daggit's fist smashed into her, lifting her off of her feet. Daggit checked the vitals of the prone assassin. Satisfied that she would be able to answer questions later, he scooped up a loose disruptor. Dracas, Grace, and Radil were already headed for Élan's entrance. Daggit hastily sprinted after them.

Grace turned the left corner at the nightclub's entrance. Phaser poised in a two-handed grip, she swept the Galleria with her eyes and pistol. Radil mirrored her to the right. Dracas and Daggit held the middle.

"Clear!" Grace announced.

"All clear here." Radil reported.

"Stand down." Daggit ordered, "Station Security is on its way. They can take over."

"We'd better secure the prisoners." Radil commented, "At least the ones that are still alive."

The quartet re-entered the club. Security entered hot on their heels. The privateers were disarmed even as Medical personnel began fanning out to the wounded. The station's Chief of Security, Lt. Commander Thomas Barclay, handled the investigation while the XO, Commander Sheila Hall, managed the overall crisis.

Hall hated to interrupt her CO's evening, knowing how much his reunion with Ro Laren meant to him, but her duty was clear. Tapping her comm badge, she spoke clear enough for the audio pick up to cycle her request through the main computer, "Hall to Reyes, come in please."

Reyes grimaced as his comm badge started chirping. He dabbed the corner of his mouth with a cloth napkin and excused himself. He tapped the badge as he proceeded out of the restaurant, "Reyes here."

"Captain, this is Hall." He could hear the regret in his XO's voice, "We have a situation."

"Give it to me." Reyes ordered as he reached the Galleria.

"So what do you think?" a nervous sounding Ro asked.

"Of the man or his intentions?" Macen asked in return.

"Either." Ro waffled, "Both."

T'Kir laughed, "Honey, he's been carrying a torch for twenty years now. He's reaching a certain age and has decided it's about time to see what can happen."

"Really?" Ro wondered.

"He's awfully sincere." Macen added, "Even if things only progress as far as a one night dalliance that will still serve to satisfy some mutual needs."

"Good point." Ro ruefully remarked.

"Here he comes." T'Kir warned.

Reyes approached with a sad smile, "I'm sorry but I have to go. Duty calls. There's been an incident."

Macen was intrigued, "What kind of incident?"

"A shooting at a local nightclub." Reyes revealed, "It seems your crew was involved."

"Then T'Kir and I are coming as well." Macen informed him.

"Very well." Reyes consented. Turning to Ro, he asked, "And what of you?"

"I'll accompany you." Ro smiled, "Let's just say professional curiosity has me in its grip and to be honest I have more experience dealing with SID happenstances than your people."

Reyes was delighted, "I bow before your expertise. If you'll all follow me?"

Radil glared at the Security officer waving a tricorder over her form again, "Listen sister, you probe me with that damn thing one more time and I'll shove it so far up your ass it'll register as a brain tumour."

Barclay pulled the ensign off the duty, "Any particular reason why you object to being scanned?"

"Yeah!" Radil snapped, "She's already done it four times now. Whatever she's looking for was never there or left a long time ago...sort of like my patience."

"Yes." Barclay smiled thinly, "She's going to scan you again. I suggest you co-operate or we will make you comply. Is that understood?"

Daggit caught Radil's arm as her fist flew of its own accord. Barclay chuckled, "Too bad. I would have enjoyed feeding you your teeth."

Barclay strolled away and the ensign stepped up to bat. Radil rolled her eyes and shooed Daggit away. While the ensign thoroughly ran the scanner over every curve, nook, cranny, and crevice of Radil's body, Radil recited every prayer chant she could recall. It still didn't help much.

Reyes arrived at that moment along with Macen, T'Kir, and Ro. Hall and Barclay manoeuvred towards Reyes in order to report their individual and collective progress. Hall began her report immediately by virtue of reaching her CO first.

"What's the status of the wounded?" Reyes asked, noting the stretchers and emergency services people.

"Almost all of them have reached the Infirmary and are being treated." Hall said, "Those remaining on scene are here by virtue of being triaged as a relatively minor case. They're mostly comprised of shock victims. The counselling staffers are sorting through them now."

"Any fatalities?" Reyes inquired.

"Twelve." Hall gravely reported, "There are three more likely fatalities being treated right now. The Med staff will report in when they know either way."

"Damn." Reyes grimly muttered before refocusing, "Station status?"

"We're on yellow alert with Security teams being on high alert." Hall said crisply.

"Commander Barclay," Reyes shifted his attention to the Security Chief, "Was this an isolated incident?"

"I believe so." Barclay assured him, "Using biometric data obtained from the suspects we have been able to partially trace their movements. They arrived on station a mere two hours ago. They then accessed the Security mainframe. This was done with some apparent ease."

Barclay paused to let the full import of his last statement sink in. When he judged that it had the desired effect he pressed on, "Using our own scanners and surveillance equipment, they tracked the Outbound Ventures crew to this location and attempted an ambush."

"Are we certain that the Obsidian officers were the only target?" Reyes wondered.

"As certain as we can be at this stage of the investigation." Barclay hedged, "Their sole focus to this point was the privateers."

Reyes ignored the sneering quality placed upon Barclay's last word. His Security Chief's disdain for privateers was a long established position. The Captain didn't care what the Lt. Commander's private opinion was but he needed an objective perspective to be presented and he needed one right now!

"I see." Reyes replied, "May I ask why Captain Macen's crewmen seem to be detained?"

"They smuggled weapons aboard." Barclay reported, "I've been trying to ascertain how this was done before pressing charges."

Reyes couldn't manage to suppress a sigh this time round, "If you'd look up Starfleet's files on these individuals you'd see that they have Level 9 clearances. That grants them the same level of access and security clearances as a Starfleet junior officer. They didn't smuggle anything aboard. Their personal firearms are fitted with the same security transponders that are placed within fleet issued phasers. The computer registered them as friendly and so should you."

"I...I had no idea." Barclay admitted.

"You have a blind spot, Commander." Reyes informed him, "I expect you to work on that."

"Yessir!" Barclay snapped.

"Just to drive home the message," Reyes pointed at Macen, "see their captain addressing his crew? He holds a higher fleet security clearance than I do. He's responsible for his fair share of the intelligence coups that we've enjoyed over the last sixty years. The man's a hero. To insult his crew is to insult him and I will not tolerate that. Understood?"

Barclay nodded, "Info assimilated."

"Good." Reyes said with satisfaction, "Now what about eyewitness accounts?"

"I swear to all the Prophets," Radil growled to Macen, "if they point one more tricorder at me I'm going to forget that I'm an honest citizen."

"Calm down, Jenrya." Macen tried to soothe her nerves, "Their security chief is an eager beaver with an axe to grind against privateers."

"Well, bully for him." Radil grated, "I still want to kneecap him."

"Before you pass judgement you may want to know a thing or two about Commander Barclay." Macen warned, "He grew up on a family owned Antares-class freighter. At seventeen he decided to enlist in Starfleet. His aptitude tests indicated a flair for security work but he managed to get involved in the engineering courses."

"Just as he was completing his ratings in engineering, his family's freighter was attacked and boarded by pirates. They managed to get a distress call off and it was answered by nearby privateers." Macen explained, "The privateers were green and bungled the rescue attempt. By the time Starfleet arrived both crews, freighter and privateer, were dead and the pirates had gained control of the armed privateer vessel and sailed off in it."

"Barclay applied to the Academy and was accepted." Macen revealed, "He accepted a Security designator and never looked back. He served under Jellico as a junior officer and was apparently a favoured student of his."

"Do you see how this all relates?" Macen enquired.

Radil unhappily subsided, "I'll behave."

"Your underlying protest is noted and appreciated." Macen smirked.

"Good." Radil huffed, "Does that mean there's a bonus in it for me?"

From behind him, Macen could sense waves of satisfaction rolling off of T'Kir. He turned to her, "Have you been coaching her?"

Adopting her best Who me? pose, T'Kir innocently shook her head. Macen didn't believe it for a moment. Macen's retort was cut short by Riker.

"We need to talk." He said to Macen.

They stepped off to one side to confer and T'Kir and Grace began their own consultation. T'Kir grinned, "Mighty fine shootin' Tex."

"Got the low-down from the crowd?" Grace wryly asked.

"And from your very own highly esteemed colleagues." T'Kir admitted.

"Am I ever so glad you can't pick through my brain." Grace chuckled.

"It was mostly the ears picking up witness statements, so there." T'Kir stuck out her tongue.

Grace laughed, "By the way, nice dress."

"You too!" T'Kir said after doing a pirouette.

"You really think so?" Grace wondered, "I've had it forever."

"You should wear it more often." T'Kir advised, "It really highlights your curves."

"What about that gown you're wearing?" Grace asked, "Where did you get it? Oh, and I love your hair! I've been thinking about cutting mine. Do you think I could get the same stylist? And..."

Macen looked grim, "So they're both resigning?"

Riker nodded, sharing his commander's mood, "Yes. They're both pretty resolute about it."

"Rab's been waffling for a while now." Macen revealed, "His sense of duty towards us only outweighed his loyalty to Parva because he was living under the illusion that her health had stabilised. Now that that's been stripped away Parva comes first."

"Can't blame him for that." Riker opined.

"That's why I approached him with the teaching job in the first place." Macen confessed, "He wasn't ready to accept it before. I'm glad to hear he is now."

"What about Kort?" Riker enquired.

Macen frowned, "He's more of a surprise but he really shouldn't be."

Riker was confused, "Why's that?"

"Hayley Galloway has caused Kort to do a lot of soul searching as of late." Macen explained, "What he's come to realise is that he wasn't disgraced on the field of battle, an arena he's proven himself in time and again, but he was disgraced while performing a medical procedure. Kort obviously feels he still has demons to work out and that Olympus Mons is the place to do it."

"What's that mean for the ship and the team?" Riker wondered.

"The ship is covered." Macen assured him, "I'm having holoemitters installed throughout the ship. The warp core produces a surplus of power and can handle the extra load. Tessa can manage the shipboard cases."

"And the dirtside trauma?" Riker had to ask.

"Radil and Lees are both fully qualified medics." Macen replied, "Either one of them can stabilise a patient and prepare them for transport to the ship."

Riker scowled, "I'm not sure I like where this is going."

The corner of Macen's mouth twisted in a sly smile, "Have no fears Tom. Lees won't be going dirtside any more than her specialty requires."

The larger man was visibly relieved. Macen studied Riker for a moment before speaking, "If you're having these kind of qualms perhaps you two should discuss getting out yourselves. I'm looking for a captain for the Indomitable."

"Isn't that the ship named after Ro's Maquis command?" Riker wondered.

"The same." Macen confirmed, "She's an Emden-class escort."

"Tough little ships." Riker grunted with satisfaction.

"And thoroughly reliable." Macen agreed, "Our Letter of Marque allowed us to take possession of her from Starfleet with all of her primary systems intact. Her refit time will only last a few months."

Macen's 1st Officer ruefully grinned, "You're not making this easy are you?"

Macen wore a naughty grin, "It's not meant to be easy. You have three months to make a commitment. After that she goes to someone else. Confer with Lees and get back to me."

"I will." Riker promised with a smile, "Count on it."

"That's all I can ask." Macen replied, "Of course, I'd hate to lose my own starship driver but this'd be a great opportunity. One might even go so far as to refer to it as the fulfilment of a dream."

Riker looked surprised and then his initial shock began to turn into indignation, "Don't you start to..."

Macen held up a hand to quell his protest, "Reyes and his security chief are coming over."

Riker was nonplussed. Macen's back was to the Starfleet officers. Slowly, it dawned on him, "T'Kir tipped you off?"

Macen smiled, "Of course."

"And she's the reason you haven't asked me any questions regarding what happened?" Riker's unhappiness was bald.

"She scanned the surface memories of the team." Macen explained, "I know Hannah has left you gun shy regarding telepathy and mentalist powers. All she did was grab those thoughts the individual was actively dwelling on. Fortunately, everyone seemed to be reliving the events that brought us here."

"It sounds harmless but I still don't like it." Riker grumbled.

"Shhh." Macen put his finger to his lips, "The game is about to begin."

Macen turned to greet Reyes, "Captain."

"Your people are efficient." Reyes ruefully observed, "They left two survivors out of ten assailants. Hopefully we can get something out of the pair we have in custody."

"Let T'Kir and I sit in on the interrogation." Macen requested, "You'll get something."

"Brin," Reyes was chiding, "you know telepathic confessions are regarded as hear-say evidence and therefore inadmissible."

"But they are unnerving and tend to prompt verbal confessions." Macen grinned.

Reyes looked to Barclay, who merely shrugged, "All right. We'll coordinate with you tomorrow."

"Thank you." Macen replied, "May my people leave now?"

Barclay's jaw worked but Reyes beat him to the punch, "You're all free to return to your ship."

"And only to our ship?" Macen inquired.

"For now that would be best." Reyes clarified.

"Understood." Macen turned to Riker, "Gather up the troops. We're going home."

 


Proceed to Part IV

 

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