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Odyssey - 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 Seven

The twelve men and women that stood before Macen were tired, haggard, and bruised. Dirt clung to their black and grey uniforms. The dirt had mixed with their sweat to form muddy smears across their faces. Anger and loathing radiated from their eyes and faces.

"Do you think you're good enough?" Macen yelled as he paced back and forth across the line they stood in, "Do you really think you'll survive any kind of combat?"

He stopped in the centre of the formation and yelled at them, "Who are you?"

"Marines!" they yelled back in unison.

"What is your mission?"

"To win!"

"How?"

"By any means necessary!" they yelled back with a vengeance.

"Very well." He replied with approval, "Dismissed."

The twelve beleaguered Security officers filtered out of Holodeck One and headed straight for the mess. Macen remained behind, surveying the recreated training complex portrayed within the holographic environment. He'd watched old Marine training records to prepare for his role and program this simulation

"You're enjoying wearing that uniform, aren't you?" he heard behind him. Macen turned to find Lisea coming out from the control bunker. From the bunker, a person could monitor the entire "Centre", recording and scoring the performance of every "recruit".

He broke into an embarrassed grin, "Yeah, I guess I am."

The Marines held a mystique on Starfleet that persisted to this day. They had been a rugged and formidable force. Designed to land on any planet and form a beachhead until the Fleet could mobilise enough personnel to garrison it. They had been among the vanguard forces defending the newborn Federation's frontier. It was an ideal recruiting ploy for Section 31. It would be especially effective now that the war had concluded.

"It shows." Danan replied mirthlessly. She still did not approve of Macen's plan to train twelve Security officers as Marines. Those trainees would then accompany Macen and Danan aboard Commander P'ris' Warbird and transported to Gulag. Upon arriving, they would pose as a relief unit. Under that guise, they would sabotage the defence grid, allowing the Warbird and the incoming Odyssey to transport troops down to the surface and take the camp.

"Are you saying you're not?" Macen asked sardonically.

Danan's mouth tightened around then corners, then she sighed, "No, I'm not. I had hoped that with the Dominion gone and the Cardassians allied with the Federation, we'd have a chance to rebuild the colonies."

A cloud crossed Macen's face.

"What?" Danan asked.

"The colonies." He said quietly, "The Dominion razed the DMZ. They imprisoned all of the colonists and used them for forced labour."

Her face lost all colour, even her spots, "When?"

"The first year of the war." Macen said despondently, "That's why they had to remove the Maquis."

"By the Pool." Danan exclaimed in a stunned whisper.

"It's time to find our own way." Macen said grimly, "For ourselves, and the remaining Maquis."

A small spark shone in her eyes, "You have a plan?"

"Maybe." He shrugged, "I have an idea. I don't know if it qualifies as a plan."

"It's probably more than the rest of us have." She said with a thin smile.

"I hope not."

T'Kir sat at her Ops console staring out into space. She hummed a tune and bobbed her head side to side. D'art glared at her from her console alongside her. She strummed her fingers across her panels before turning to T'Kir.

"Stop it!" she demanded angrily.

"Stop what?" T'Kir protested with as much innocence as she could muster.

"All your.... your...everything you're doing." D'art replied in frustration.

"Such as?" T'Kir asked in a melodic tone reminiscent of the tune she had been humming.

"You know damn well what I'm talking about." D'art snarled in a whisper.

"I really have no idea." T'Kir informed her with over-acted confusion. She batted her eyes and placed her hand across her chest, "Why don't you enlighten me?" She unzipped the collar of her departmental tunic, "You could explain it over dinner."

D'art's face went red, "You presumptuous slut!" she hissed, "You think I'd take a piece of work like you to bed? You need your head examined!"

"So they tell me." T'Kir laughed, then wagged a finger at D'art, "But I know you. I know why you're here. Better behave."

D'art became so infuriated that she couldn't speak. She sat poised to lunge at T'Kir. T'Kir sat like a cat taunting its prey. She gave D'art a laconic smile.

Macen, Danan, and Derrico entered the bridge at that moment.

"What's going on here?" Macen asked sternly.

"Nothing, Captain." T'Kir assured him, still projecting innocence.

"Why don't I believe you?" he asked, sarcasm dripping from his words.

"Because she's liar." D'art snapped.

"Ensign D'art!" Danan's voice shot across the bridge like a projectile, "You will refrain from insulting members of this crew. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." D'art replied crisply, her face splotchy from her embarrassed flush.

"Good." Macen said condescendingly, "I would hate to have to schedule you for separate watches just because you can't behave without adult supervision."

D'art and T'Kir returned to their duties with one last loathing glare exchanged.

Energy bursts cut through black clad figures. Searing yellow streaks cut through armour as though it weren't there. Explosions and screams reverberated from every direction. Derrico led the three other officers of his squad into a bunker.

They stormed in. Derrico fired a burst through the chest of the first opposing sentry. She fell without a sound. Another rose from their post behind a gunnery console. Another one of Derrico's squad, Jansen, released a volley of fire into his chest. He slumped over his board.

Another officer, Hubert, rushed towards another gunnery tech, "Put your hands in the air!" he shouted, thrusting his rifle toward her. She complied. Hubert maintained a watchful eye on her as Jansen and the fourth officer, Radischev, passed behind him.

Another tech leapt to his feet and fired at Radischev. Radischev collapsed as yellow energy pulses lanced into him. Jansen pivoted. She fired two squarely aimed bursts into the tech's head.

Hubert's prisoner snapped him forward. She had a palm sized weapon that discharged a green pulse into Hubert. He hit the ground without a sound. Jansen was hit as she tried to turn. Derrico fired three shots into the tech. She fell.

"Computer, end program." Macen's voice cut through the air with a grim finality.

The bunker evaporated leaving Derrico's squad lying on the cubical surface of the Holodeck. Derrico turned and faced Macen. Behind the Captain stood Lisea and P'ris. Macen awaited Derrico's report with his hands clasped behind his back.

"I'm waiting, Lieutenant." Macen reminded Derrico.

"Sir." Derrico said, drawing himself up, "Squad two has failed."

"Why is that?" Macen asked coolly.

"We were ambushed by the enemy, sir."

"Don't you mean you were ambushed by a prisoner?" Macen asked acidly.

"Yessir." Derrico answered shamefaced.

"On your feet." Macen barked at the others.

They doggedly rose to their feet. The neural discharges they'd been hit with still affecting their nervous systems. They'd feel the pain throughout the remainder of the day. As uncomfortable as it was, it was less painful than even a mild phaser burst.

Macen approached Hubert, hovering centimetre's from the Security man's face, "Why didn't you shoot the gunnery tech?"

"It was unnecessary." Hubert replied evenly.

"Unnecessary?" Macen asked scornfully, "She killed you. After that, she killed Jansen. Do you still think her death was unnecessary?"

"Yes, sir. I do." Hubert's answer was less confident than his first reply.

"Why, exactly, do you think that?" Macen asked.

"She offered surrender." Hubert protested, "I couldn't shoot a prisoner."

"Why didn't you shoot her when you first saw her?" Macen asked.

"Sir?" Hubert croaked. Macen stepped back and surveyed the entire squad. His eyes were cold and disapproving. Muscles in his cheek and jaw flexed.

"The enemy you will face will respond exactly as depicted here." Macen informed them menacingly, "They will grant no quarter. They will not offer surrender. They will not yield...ever!"

His eyes narrowed, "How do you respond to an enemy like that?"

No one spoke. Finally, Jansen stepped forward, "We respond by killing them before they kill us."

Macen nodded, "At least one of you gets it." He waved them away, "Dismissed."

The dejected and battered squad trooped out. Macen turned towards Danan and P'ris. Lisea's face was rigid, revealing nothing. P'ris' smile was one of devious amusement.

"I am certainly glad you are a singularity within the Starfleet officers' corps." P'ris commented dryly, "I do not think the rest of the Alpha Quadrant would withstand an entire force of likeminded individuals such as yourself."

"Who knows?" Macen said wearily.

"The universe can barely handle one of him." Danan said dryly, "Don't compound matters by multiplying him."

Tarrik stepped into Macen's Ready Room, "You wanted to see me, Captain?"

Macen suppressed a grin. Even speaking, Tarrik's porcine hereditary revealed itself. Tarrik had an excellent grasp of Basic. He also had a guttural pronunciation to go along with it.

Macen stood, "Come here Chief." He took a case out from behind his desk as Tarrik approached. He pressed his thumbs against the locking mechanism's scanners. Recognising his DNA pattern, the case unlatched itself. The opening lid revealed a rifle and pistol.

"I want you to replicate twelve of each of these." Macen informed Tarrik.

The Tellarite ran a tricorder down the length of the rifle, "This is pretty impressive." The engineer's appreciation of the design echoed in his voice, "It has design characteristics similar to both a pulse rifle and a compressed phaser rifle, but with a much larger energy capacity and a smaller casing."

"Can the system handle it?" Macen asked, "Can they be replicated?"

"Easily." Tarrik assured him, "It's a wonder Starfleet didn't start making these ages ago."

"They did. They just didn't distribute them widely." Macen informed him, "And I'd like to keep it that way."

Tarrik looked uncomfortable, "Erasing the replicator logs is easy. I'm uncomfortable with not saving data on this power source. It's a superior design compared to anything we've got now."

"I'm aware of that, Chief." Macen replied gravely. "I'm also aware of the simple fact that these were designed for use by Starfleet commandos, not the fleet at large."

Tarrik nodded, "Alright. I'll erase all the data."

"Thank you, Chief." Macen told him in earnest gratitude.

"My people suffered greatly when the Andorians first learned of other cultures and other technologies." Tarrik told him, "The Federation went a long way towards curbing the mutual animosity between our peoples. Now that the Dominion War is over, it seems that continuing that work is unimportant next to securing old borders and recruiting new allies."

Macen nodded sadly, "So you see the dangers too."

Tarrik's voice was forlorn as he answered, "Yes, sir. I do indeed."

"Then let's do something about it." Macen said with grim resolve.

"Yes, sir!" Tarrik replied in kind.

"I don't see why you want to do this." Kort grumbled.

"Trust me," Derrico assured him, "it'll be fun."

"But why?" the burly Klingon grumbled.

"My team is boarding the Rihannsu Warbird tomorrow." Derrico explained, exasperated, "We've been drilling constantly for four days. It's time to relax."

"But you call this relaxation?" Kort moaned.

"They're not ready." Macen groused, leaning back in his chair.

'They're as ready as they're going to get in the time frame you established." Lisea replied, lying on the couch. Her eyes drifted across the Ready Room. She despised the barrenness found here. She stifled her displeasure with a sigh. Brin hadn't had time to personalise anything yet. She knew that as soon as they returned to Spacedock he was going to request several overhauls. She supposed one advantage to an experimental ship is that you got to modify it as you saw fit.

She sat up, "We need to get out of here."

"We need to run another drill." Macen replied sourly. He moved from behind the desk and began to pace across the room, "Another few simulations, and they may get their reflexes honed a little more."

She followed him with her eyes. Her eyebrows were raised with indulgent patience. "Or, we may just push them into exhaustion and they blow the mission from not being able to even walk."

Macen turned to glower at her. Finally, he broke into a contrite grin, "I have been pushing them hard, haven't I?"

"Harder than anything they experienced in the Academy." Danan replied, "Maybe even in the war."

"I wouldn't go that far." Macen protested.

Danan laughed, "Neither would I, but it was an easy shot."

"Thanks." He replied morosely, "So what's your suggestion?"

Her bright smile lit up her face, "Derrico and the team are throwing a party in Holodeck two. We could go to that."

"I'm sure the last person they want to see is me." Brin said hesitantly.

"Nonsense." Lisea replied, dismissing the notion, "Our attendance would be a great morale booster."

Macen still thought the idea a dubious one, but agreed.

"What is this...place?" Kort asked irritably.

Derrico motioned towards the long counter stretching before them. It had several stools set up on one side of the counter, occupied by customers. On the other side of the counter were clerks dressed in white smocks and paper hats serving them. At the far corner was an area with loud music and people dancing.

"It's a malt shop." Derrico answered gleefully, "It was a place in mid-twentieth century Earth to go eat, drink, and socialise."

"Eating is good." Kort commented, "As is drinking. What do they serve?"

"Mostly sodas and milk shakes." Derrico answered, then slyly added, "But the root beer at this place is to die for."

"I could use an ale right now." Kort muttered and approached the counter.

Derrico shook his head sympathetically, wondering what the Klingon would think of root beer. It had been hard enough to get him into biker's leathers much less participate. The team had invited most of the ship's crew and the curious were dropping in and out. His people were really getting into the swing of things. On the dance floor, Harriet "Harry" Jansen was dancing Leroy Adams' legs off. He almost pitied the engineer.

The door to the holodeck opened and two more participants entered. Derrico's heart almost stopped when he recognised the Captain and the XO. Commander Danan had promised she'd get Macen to attend, but Derrico hadn't believed her. He was out several favour points with other crewmen, but it was worth it to have the Captain present.

Derrico made his way through the milling crowd. Their uniforms easily distinguished the casual visitors. The true participants wore period piece clothing. To Derrico's even greater amazement, both officers wore the appropriate apparel.

"Sirs," he stammered, "I can't believe you're here."

Macen looked at him suspiciously, "Does this mean we're not invited?"

"No sir!" Derrico nearly shouted, "Commander Danan said she'd get you here, but I never believed it."

Brin gave Lisea an accusing stare as she turned away, trying to project innocence, "Seeing as how I'm here, I'd say the Commander's plan worked."

"Yessir." Derrico agreed enthusiastically, then turned to Danan, "Thank you, sir!"

A sudden shout of displeasure broke through every conversation. Kort stood sputtering at a hapless clerk while another patron tried to dry Kort's spewed drink off. The lady's companion was rising and coming towards Kort.

"You call this swill beer?" he bellowed at the terrified clerk. A finger tapped at his shoulder and Kort whirled around to find another biker his size staring menacingly into his eyes.

"You just spit all over my girlfriend." The biker informed him.

"I apologise." Kort said and started to turn towards the clerk. He found his arm held by the biker.

"That ain't good enough." The biker declared hotly, "You say 'sorry' to me an' ignore her? Where'd you learn manners, boy?"

"On Qo'noS." the Klingon snarled.

'I don't know where that is." The biker snarled back, "But I hope they taught you how to fight."

The holographic biker never landed the punch. Kort's palm smashed into his nose. The biker flew into a table. The patrons merely pushed his unconscious body to the floor and resumed their conversation.

Kort turned to the "assaulted" lady, "I apologise for my earlier actions."

She smiled at him, "You took out Bobby Joe. Nobody's done that before."

"It was a simple matter." Kort assured her, "He had no skills whatsoever."

Her expression turned very inviting, "You want to go somewhere private?"

Kort was surprised at first, then smiled heartily at her, "Certainly!"

Kort and the woman left to cheers bellowed by the Security team.

"I programmed that sequence entirely for Kort's benefit." Derrico explained proudly.

"I...see." Macen replied diplomatically, "Are there any more...surprises?"

"Join the party and find out." Derrico beamed.

Derrico urged Macen and Danan forward. They proceeded to the dance floor and soon fell into conversations with various crewmen. There were no more boisterous "surprises", just music and games. It was several hours before the program was finally deactivated. When it was, the participants went to their quarters exhausted but much more relaxed.

"Stand-by for transport." Petty Officer Rool informed his Rihannsu counterpart. The Bolian was the Chief Transporter Tech. The transport would occur in two stages. Macen and Danan would transport first. After their materialisation, Derrico and the other eleven members of the insertion team would beam over simultaneously from Transporter Rooms One and Two.

Macen was giving last minute instructions to Kort and T'Kir, "T'Kir, you'll be in command while we're away. You have all the details of the plan." T'Kir waved the padd containing the instructions, verifying that she had it. "Kort will be..."

"My overseer." She quipped, rolling her eyes.

Macen gave her a reproving look, "You've done a lot to earn my trust. That's why I'm leaving you in command." His voice became stern, "You've also done a lot to make me doubt you. Kort will be your advisor. Listen to him."

"He's also here to take over if I screw up." She said petulantly.

"He can do the same to me." Macen reminded her, "Deal with it." She gave him a smirk and shrugged.

"I will do all I can to assist her." Kort assured him.

"Brin, we need to get going." Lisea called from the transporter pad.

"Good luck." Macen told them.

"May your foes feel your wrath." Kort intoned sombrely.

T'Kir kissed him on the cheek, "Don't get dead." She whispered in his ear.

Macen flushed as he took her by the shoulders, "Don't ever do that again." he warned her. He turned and stepped onto the transporter pad. Danan eyes flashed phaser fire at T'Kir. T'Kir held up her hands in mock surrender. She grinned triumphantly as the two disappeared in a shimmering fire.

"You enjoyed that." Danan accused as she and Macen re-materialised.

"I did not!" Brin protested, "It surprised me as much as it did you."

"We're not talking surprise." Lisea growled, "We're talking enjoyment."

Macen sighed, "I had no idea she was going to do it. I warned her about any future 'incidents'."

"That little hussy's been after you since day one." Danan warned him, "Even when she was sane."

"Excuse me, but I require the transporter pads to be cleared for the next group." A Rihannsu tech informed them. They looked about the transporter room with some chagrin. P'ris and a group of her senior officers had been present for their exchange.

"Problem?" P'ris asked in obvious amusement.

"Not really." Macen replied stonily as he and Danan stepped of the transporter pads.

Six of his crew materialised in a crimson blaze behind them as they spoke with P'ris. "Do we have everything prepared?" Danan asked.

P'ris nodded, "As prepared as we can be. I have pulled the last three security codes out of the datacore. They are available for your scrutiny at any time."

"Good." Macen replied cheerlessly.

"Is there any other way I can assist you?" P'ris asked, noting Macen's grim preoccupation.

"Do you have a training area?" he asked, "Somewhere where we can exercise our team?"

P'ris smiled, "Yes. We have an area specifically designed for that purpose."

"Can you have the message sent to my people to join us there after they have stowed their gear?"

"Certainly." She replied again, then her smile became somewhat predatory, "I would venture that several of my crew would be...delighted to engage in sparring with your people."

Macen's feral smile matched hers in intensity, "We'd be delighted to have them join us."

Danan shook her head as the Commander led them to their temporary quarters.

"This is stupid." Danan said sourly. The exercise area within the Warbird was immense. The size of the assembled crowd made it appear quite small. She guessed that at least half of the Rihannsu crew had shown up for this spectacle.

"C'mon." Macen replied flippantly, "It'll build morale and camaraderie."

"If you believe that, then you're a bigger fool than I thought." Danan replied sharply, "They're here to see the 'vaunted' Federation representatives get pounded into the mat."

"Then why are you here?" Macen probed.

Danan rolled her eyes, "I'm here to record the full extent of my foolishness." She glared at him, "It's a Trill thing. When one of us is being stupid, we all line up to assist in making sure the symbiot survives for posterity."

"And here I was hoping it was just because you cared about me." Macen replied sarcastically.

"Maybe later I will." Danan replied, "But not right now."

Macen turned to face her, "Why don't we just get it over with now?"

"Get what over with?" she asked angrily.

"Whatever's eating you."

"Nothing is 'eating' me."

"Bull." He scoffed, "Ever since T'Kir kissed my cheek, you've been a royal..."

"Don't say it." Lisea hissed a warning, then glaring at Macen spoke, "Alright. The kiss bothered me." She spread her arms wide, "Honestly, it bothered the hell out of me."

"Why?" he asked, genuinely perplexed and frustrated.

"Because I haven't seen you in three years and you two have always been an item." She informed him, dropping her arms with a slap against her side, 'I have no idea how you feel."

Brin's expression was one of incredulity, "You don't know how I feel?" Exasperation crept into his voice, "Then why have I been bothered telling you how I feel for the last few weeks?"

"Brin," Lisea reached out for him, "please..."

He brushed her hand aside, "Please what? Don't you trust me any more? Is that it?"

"Of course I trust you." She assured him, "I don't trust her."

"If you trust me," he sighed, "then trust me to deal with T'Kir. You used to. At least for a while."

That said, Macen turned and walked towards the exercise mats. Lisea stayed alone against the wall. Brin's words had struck a resonant chord within her. Her anger stemmed from a lack of trust. He had not done anything to deserve her distrust. She merely assigned it to him.

She mentally chastised herself as she stepped in closer towards the mats. She knew whatever happened her would get interesting. Romulans, Rihannsu...whatever you wanted to call a Vulcanoid, were much stronger than humans. El-Aurians were nowhere near that same strength class. A Rihannsu child could crush a human adult's bones with little effort expended. Every Rihannsu gathered around the mat with a hungering eye was an adult.

Derrico and his troops were in prime physical condition, at least by Federation standards. Danan had been amused by the change in Macen's physique in the last three years. He had begun the infamous "Starfleet expansion". It was a qualified myth that the higher one reached on the chain of command in Starfleet, the wider the waistband wearing the uniform was. Macen had fought the good fight for eighty years, but his last three years on Angosia had had their affect.

Lisea knew he was far from portly. She found him more attractive than ever. He'd filled out to the point where he was no longer wiry. He did, however, now have a paunch in his abdominal region. She knew he'd received comparisons with William Riker over the last ten years or so. In this area, it was certainly applicable.

The Starfleet personnel were already engaged in some simple tumbling exercises. Macen walked onto the mat with them. Within seconds, he was engaged in a hearty wrestling match with an ensign named Smithers. The Rihannsu were whispering amongst themselves.

"Starfleet!" a Rihannsu called out, "Are you prepared for a real challenge?"

Macen turned in the voice's direction. His smile was predatory, "Any time."

A literal flood of bodies surged towards the mat. Macen held his arms in the air and shouted for order.

"Hold on!" he yelled, "We need to establish a few rules."

"What kind of voice?" a jeering voice asked suspiciously.

"The rules are simple: don't get thrown off the mat." Macen informed them.

"You said 'rules'." Another voice, female this time, "That implies a plural. What are the other rules?"

Macen's smile was mischievous, "No inflicting permanent damage. That means 'no killing'."

"What about breakages?" a bloodthirsty voice called out.

"As long as they aren't permanent." Macen replied evenly.

The Rihannsu roared their approval. One Rihannsu officer was designated the 'referee'. He held up his arm. The combatants readied themselves. The Rihannsu's arm dropped and the melee began.

Well, Danan thought to herself, they're not doing that badly.

Over a dozen Rihannsu lay scattered about the mat. Macen's rules had given the Starfleet team the initial advantage. They struck at their opponents ruthlessly. Every attack designed to incapacitate their opponent.

The Rihannsu had adapted swiftly and the second wave from the floor had struck with greater ferocity. The Starfleet team lost Smithers during that round. The sandy haired ensign had sailed off the mat and into a bulkhead. He'd remained unconscious ever since.

The third wave had cost the team even more. They were now at half strength. Many of the first Rihannsu causalities had returned from their Casualty ward and were clamouring against the referee's decision that any combatant thrown from the mat was disqualified from returning in later rounds. The fourth wave was being dealt with as the argument concluded.

Only three of Starfleet crew remained on the mat. Macen, Derrico, and Jansen rocked on their heels, trying desperately to catch their breath before the next onslaught was unleashed upon them. Lisea gauged the savage hunger radiating from the crowd waiting their turn and did not envy them what was about to occur. The Rihannsu knew victory was at hand, and they wanted to make it as painful as possible.

The stoic resilience of the Federation crew sparked sympathy among some of the non-combatants. They urged that the match be halted. The others ignored them, blinded by the "insult" of being humbled by an "inferior" race. Retribution had to exacted.

The referee brought his arm up. The crowd surged forward, ready to rush on to the mat. Lisea sucked in a deep breath and held it. Macen, Derrico, and Jansen assumed "guard" positions and awaited the inevitable.

The doors to the exercise area opened and P'ris marched in. Her manner was imperious and her temper livid. Her eyes swept the crowd scathingly. Disapproval radiated from her every pore.

"What is going on here?" she asked disdainfully.

"A contest, Commander." The referee explained haltingly.

"Really?" she replied scornfully, "I would think that it is an unruly mob about to rush three exhausted warriors. Wouldn't you agree, Centurion?"

The referee nodded embarrassed agreement with the assessment, her voice turned frigid, "Since when do Rihannsu fight as mongrel scavengers?"

Silence met her question. "I see." She commented tonelessly, "Perhaps we are no longer worthy of the name our ancestors carved out for themselves." She stood silent for a moment longer, "You are all dismissed. Have your wounds tended to."

She turned to Danan "I assume Captain Macen encouraged this?"

Danan nodded. P'ris snorted.

"Males." She said contemptuously and then left to return to her bridge.

After cleaning up, and having several strains and bruises treated, Macen joined Danan and P'ris on the Warbird's bridge. A stream of data being displayed on the Commander's personal console engrossed the two women. Macen stepped behind them in order to see what had captivated them. What he saw shocked him.

"Those are Starfleet codes!" Macen blurted.

"Yes, they are." Danan murmured, distracted by what she was reading.

"That means we can forge our orders and clearances to the Gulag." Macen said happily.

Danan smiled, "The first good news we've received."

They had twelve hours until they would reach Gulag's sensor range. Macen ordered his crew to try and get as much rest as they could over the first ten of those hours. Needless to say, sleep was elusive. It was a time of mounting tension for all.

Macen and Danan spent most of the time with P'ris and her bridge crew. Macen had analysed a pattern to the Starfleet traffic. Danan had forged their clearances utilising their new understanding of the codes. They were a variant of previous codes.

"This is important." Macen said, studying the latest intercepted message. He leaned back and put his feet up on the small table in P'ris' quarters. "They aren't using transwarp communications and their codes are a bastardised variant of Starfleet Command protocols."

"Meaning?" P'ris asked irritably. They'd been racking their brains for hours trying to anticipate every potential reaction they might receive when they reached Gulag.

"I don't think this is truly a Marine operation." Macen declared.

"How can you say that?" Danan asked, raising her head from its suspended position between her knees, "They use the uniforms, the weaponry, and the codes. How can they not be Marines?"

"How can we use Vulcans to portray Romulans?" he asked, placing his hands behind his head, "I think this operation is headed up by Section 31, hence the modus operandi, but I don't think that most of the personnel serving at the Gulag are the real thing."

"Do you have any evidence other than missing pieces of code?" P'ris asked crossly.

Macen grinned, "Yeah, one big clue. There aren't any surviving Marines left in the entire galaxy to man this base, much less its supplying operations across the Federation."

"What is Section 31?" P'ris asked.

Macen broke into a wry grin, "It's a long story. Suffice it to say they have access to the records and equipment to organise this sort of thing. It's also their style of operation."

"Can you be certain of that?" P'ris asked.

Macen shook his head, chuckling, "Nothing in life is certain. The fortunes of war are what they are. With more time and data, we could discover what every member of the Gulag's staff had for breakfast. Unfortunately, we don't have the time to take the cautious approach."

"Do we ever?" Danan teased.

Macen shot her a perturbed glance, "We need to neutralise this installation as swiftly as possible so that we can gather evidence against the originators of this conspiracy."

"Why do you refer to it as a conspiracy?" P'ris asked, perplexed.

Macen's chuckle was full of dark irony, "The Federation's citizenry doesn't realise the extent of the power base gained by their representatives. This entire operation has been cloaked in secrecy to prevent a burgeoning awareness of such facts."

P'ris broke into an amused smile, "You sound rather cynical."

"He is, trust me." Danan assured her, "You should hear his views on the future of humanity."

"I can only imagine." P'ris commented. A chime interrupted their reverie. "We are now within scanning range of the Gulag. We should proceed to the bridge." Macen and Danan followed her to the command deck of the Warbird.

Once they arrived, they were informed that the Gulag's commander had been trying to contact P'ris in order to confirm her orders. P'ris sat down regally in her command chair and received the incoming signal. The image that appeared on her screen was a serious countenanced woman with unruly blonde hair pulled into a braid. She wore a Marine uniform with Lieutenant's insignia.

"Attention Rihannsu Warbird T'Kut, this is Marine Command, Please respond." The woman's voice came over the speakers. Her voice was soft, with a confident edge to it. Macen suspected her alto could inspire terror when properly manipulated.

"This is Commander P'ris of the T'Kut to Marine Command. How may I be of assistance?" her voice was smooth and polished.

"Greetings Commander." The lieutenant replied, "I am requesting confirmation of your orders. We weren't expecting anyone for another two weeks."

"I am bringing a relief contingent of guards and personnel for your facility." P'ris explained calmly.

"No one here knows anything about a relief contingent." The lieutenant informed her suspiciously.

"Perhaps you do not know of it." P'ris replied sharply.

"I am Captain Carrase's aide." The lieutenant replied irritable, "If he knows of it, I know of it."

"Carrase's aide?" P'ris replied dubiously, "I have never heard of you. What is your name?"

"What does that have to do with..." the woman replied in a fluster before being interrupted.

"Your name woman!" P'ris demanded, "I have been involved with the transportation of prisoners and personnel to this facility since its inception. I need to verify your identity."

The Marine sighed, "I am Lieutenant Calyn Qek."

"Thank you, Lieutenant Qek." P'ris replied amiably, "Have you had an opportunity to review our orders?"

"They seem to be in order." Qek informed her, "Transit is approved."

"Very well." P'ris replied, "Please inform Captain Carrase that my crew is at his disposal during our stay here."

"I'm sure he'll be appreciative." Qek replied sardonically, "Command out."

The screen went blank and P'ris turned towards Macen and Danan, who had witnessed the entire exchange while staying out of the viewer's scan, "What do you think now?"

"She's definitely a Marine." Macen pronounced.

"Yup." Danan agreed heartily, "Sounds just like one of the recordings."

"Marine Command to commander T'Kut, please acknowledge." A crisp voice came over the Warbird's speakers as she slid into orbit over the prison facility the planet below was named after.

"T'Kut acknowledges, Marine Command." P'ris replied, "Awaiting further instructions."

"You may begin transporting the personnel to the assigned co-ordinates." The voice informed them.

"Very well." P'ris replied crisply, then added, "May I make an additional inquiry?"

There was a noticeable pause before the voice spoke again, "State your request."

"I desire to accompany the personnel to the surface." P'ris informed him.

"Why?"

P'ris raised her eyebrow, "The commander of the forces I am transporting has alerted me to possible obstacles concerning the fate of future 'services' normally provided by my vessels. I wish to discuss these with Captain Carrase."

Another substantial pause, and then, "Agreed. You may accompany the personnel."

"Thank you." P'ris replied politely. She turned to Macen and Danan, "It is now your operation. Let us hope that fortune smiles upon your endeavours."

Macen, Danan, and P'ris materialised in an open balcony overlooking a courtyard filled with prisoners. Standing between them and the entrance to the prison building were three armed men and Lieutenant Calyn Qek. The men wore the all black battle fatigues of Starfleet origin. Qek wore the typical grey/black duty uniform.

Macen took the opportunity to study Qek more thoroughly. She had high cheekbones that accentuated an angular jaw. Her lips were thin, with slight dimples at either end. Her nose was gracefully shaped, with a slight upturn. Her skin was quite fair.

Her eyes held Macen's attention. They were quite large, crowned with long lashes. They were also the darkest grey Macen had ever seen. They expressed barely restrained curiosity and passion. They spoke of a far-reaching and questing intelligence that was akin to Macen's own.

She was fairly tall. She stood over both Danan and P'ris. Her frame was thin and rangy. Qek did not possess an athletic build, her thinness derived as much form living on rations as to biology.

"Where is Captain Carrase?" Macen asked.

"She is in the Command Centre." She replied crisply, "I will show you the way." She turned and entered the complex. Macen walked alongside her. Danan and P'ris followed closely behind. One of the three armed Marines trailed behind. The other two remained stationed on the balcony.

"Where have my men arrived at?" Macen asked.

Qek gave him a confused look, then smiled. "They are at the primary troop barracks. They are there awaiting their next orders. Those will be forthcoming after your meeting with Captain Carrase."

They marched in silence for some time. They navigated the labyrinth of passages until they reached a heavily constructed double door. Macen floated in a stream of memories. He'd previously served in installations similar to this. Although, the differences in purpose were rather glaring.

The doors opened outwardly. Qek led them inside. Several techs manned various posts. Standing over them was a small, dark skinned woman.

"Captain Carrase," Qek said respectfully, "the new officers are here."

Carrase turned to inspect the new "replacements". Her eyes widened in surprise, "Captain Macen, I wasn't aware that you'd joined us."

Macen shrugged, "It wasn't a matter that was discussed among many." He'd known that there was a chance that some of the personnel here might recognise either Danan or himself. Carrase seemed to accept this.

"I can understand why." Carrase commented, then changing the topic, "may I ask why you are here?"

"Starfleet has obtained evidence of this installation's existence." Macen told her, "I'm here to review your records and see if there is an informant among your personnel."

"The records are not stored here." Carrase replied, "They are in the Archives building. They are primarily Lieutenant Qek's responsibility."

Qek flushed slightly at Carrase's shifting of potential blame. Macen didn't blame her, "Then we should start there."

Carrase motioned towards the doors and the company stepped out of them once more. As they were leaving, P'ris raised her left wrist to her voice and discreetly said, "Proceed."

Derrico's wrist comm vibrated softly. He raised it to his ear and heard P'ris whisper, "Proceed." Derrico took two controlled breaths. This was the moment he and his team had trained for over the last few days.

His people were spread out across the barracks. Each one had occupied a strategic position, both in terms of fire control and visibility. Every member of his team could see his every movement. His hand flashed the silent signal and the team's response was instantaneous.

It took less than three seconds to kill every soldier in the room. The team reached into their tactical vests and withdrew dark glasses. They put them on. Everyone's vision was now slightly enhanced. More importantly, electronic tags every crewman wore now transmitted a red "halo" around their wearer. Anyone wearing the glasses could easily identify their comrades.

The team slipped out of the barracks and divided into three units. Each unit was designated to find and destroy an anti-matter converter. Without the power generated by the modified warp cores, the shields and phaser banks would be inoperable. It was a fairly delicate brand of sabotage. A mistake could result in a core breach and the installation's destruction.

The Odyssey sat beyond the Gulag's sensor range. T'Kir sat at her post watching the chronometer. If everything had gone according to plan, then the assault had begun. They could now move further into the system.

"Set course for Gulag." T'Kir ordered.

D'art looked at her console, but did not comply. T'Kir swivelled her seat so that she faced D'art.

"Hel-looo." She said waving her hand up and down, "Subspace calling Ensign D'art. I said, 'Set course for Gulag'." She acted out, pointing at herself, then at D'art, "You say, 'Yes sir, course laid in'. Then we sail off for the planet." She veered her arm off like a missile to illustrate her point.

"No." D'art growled form the back of her throat. She turned to face the Vulcan. Her face was livid with rage, "I say 'put your hands up'." She held a phaser and held it pointed at T'Kir.

T'Kir rolled her eyes, "You don't seriously think you'll stop everything from happening?" she asked laughingly.

"I don't need to." D'art sneered, "The forces down there will easily overwhelm the pathetic band sent down there."

"Right." T'Kir replied scornfully.

"Get your hands up." D'art barked. T'Kir complied, putting her hands in the air. D'art leaned in closer, "I bet you didn't hear me say this."

"Actually," T'Kir answered, crooking her finger towards the door, "I did." D'art turned towards the left to see Kort stepping out if it armed with a Klingon disrupter.

D'art began to turn to aim at Kort. As she did, T'Kir spoke for the computer's benefit, "Computer, execute Sarek One."

D'art completed her turn and pressed the firing stud on the phaser. Nothing happened. She whirled to face T'Kir who stood grinning victoriously at her.

T'Kir blew her a kiss, "Got you."

"You...you...you...bi..." D'art began to scream before collapsing unconscious courtesy of a disrupter blast from Kort.

"All's well that ends well." T'Kir said brightly, then kicked D'art's still form.

"Stand down, T'Kir." Kort growled, "She is unable to defend herself. There is no honour in this."

T'Kir turned to him, her eyes hard with hatred, "Who cares about honour? I just want revenge."

Kort shook his head sadly as he bent to lift D'art.

Derrico's squad moved silently through the corridors. They were death to anyone that happened across them. Fortunately for both them and the Marines, they did not happen across many people. Derrico knew it would only take one miss for them to lose the element of surprise. He ignored his moral qualms and focused on not missing.

Carasse led the others into a small, cylindrically shaped room. The data core sat in the middle of the room. It was a crystalline structure that sat within a round dais. Molecular scanners stretched from the dais upward, surrounding the crystal. Data terminals were located in a circular pattern around the dais.

"This is our Archive." Carasse said proudly.

"I haven't seen a data matrix for nearly a hundred years." Macen murmured.

"Yes, we were fortunate to find one intact." Carrase replied.

He turned to face Carasse, "Have you ever considered what you are doing?"

Carrase looked perplexed, "Why...why should I?"

Macen shrugged, "Maybe to reflect on whether or not your actions are necessary, or even right?"

She was aghast, "No."

He sighed, "That's what I thought." Macen hit her across her jaw, sending her to the floor.

"What are you doing?" Qek asked in alarm. She jerked her pistol out of her holster.

"Listen to me carefully." Macen said slowly, turning towards her with his hands raised and his palms out, "Your superiors have been lying to you."

"Why would they do that?"

"Because they can't stand the truth." Danan replied, "It exposes things they can't stand to have revealed."

"Like what?" Qek stammered.

"Like the fact they aren't needed any more." Macen answered coldly.

"No." Qek snarled, "It's not true." She went for her phaser. Qek's mouth puckered. She sank to the ground. Behind her, P'ris held her disrupter. The feet of the other Marines could be seen to either side of her.

P'ris shrugged, "I could not let you get killed. I want to see what you will do next."

 

Chapter Eight

Derrico's fortunes changed radically as his team rounded the last corner before they would have reached the power core. His point man died as pulsar bursts ripped through her. The only good thing to have come from her death was that their ambushers had given away their positions. Not that it did Derrico or his unit any good, the opposition was dug in while the Starfleet "Marines" were fairly exposed.

Derrico heard a cry as another of his men went down. He thought it had been Hubert. His quick sweep verified that theory. He glanced towards Jansen as she returned fire at their opponents. Derrico wracked his brain for a solution to their "little" problem.

An explosion echoed throughout the corridors of the massive Gulag complex. The violent tremor that followed threw Macen, Danan, and P'ris from their feet. Macen sprang to his feet swiftly. Danan retrieved her rifle as she stood. P'ris looked indignant as she rose from the floor.

'What, may I ask, was that?" P'ris asked sharply.

"That was the sound of a detonation near a power core." Macen informed her.

"The explosion was too small for the core itself to have exploded." Danan commented, "I would guess that the power mains were detonated instead."

"That was the plan." Macen replied archly.

The sound of pulsar fire caught their attention. Macen and Danan darted out of the Archives room and down the hallway. They reached a "T" junction and stopped. Before them lay a balcony with two guards firing down towards the ground. Screams could be heard form below.

Macen shot one the guards. Danan followed suit. They stepped warily out onto the balcony. Prisoners were running across the open courtyard.

More pulsar bolts lanced into the crowd. On a balcony across from where Macen and Danan stood, another guard had a heavy blaster set up and was firing. The tripod-mounted weapon was far more powerful than anything the Starfleet officers had brought with them. It was punching holes a half-metre in diameter into the ground. The effect it had upon living beings was horrifying.

"Cover me." Macen ordered.

Danan gave him a puzzled glance. Macen grew agitated, "I'm going to deal with him. I need you to distract him so that he stops firing into the crowd."

Danan's expression was that of a person dealing with a lunatic, "His weapon can punch holes in walls. There's no way I'll be able to hold his attention for long."

"Just do it!" Macen yelled as he re-entered the corridor. Danan took a deep breath and stepped back into the doorway. She raised the rifle to her shoulder, her lips twisting into a wry expression. She let out the breath and squeezed the trigger.

Her shots lanced out at the gunner across the courtyard. The distance was great enough that she could not make out his features. A remote part of her mind was amused that she automatically assumed her target was male. Her shots pocked the walls around the gunner. He ceased fire and Danan hoped beyond hope that she had killed him. When the blaster pivoted up towards her, she knew better.

Danan turned and started to run down the corridor Macen had just sprinted down. Blazing yellow bolts seared holes on the wall behind her. She dove to the floor, holding her breath as sections of the wall rained down around her. The firestorm halted several metres before her.

She paused a moment longer while the dust and acrid smoke cleared. She cautiously pushed herself off the floor. Crouched on one knee, she peered through one of the holes blasted through the wall. She could see the gunner traversing his weapon, seeking new victims for his bloodlust.

Danan's bangs clung to her sweaty face. She swiped her brow as she backed slightly away from the wall. She rested her rifle barrel in the hole she had peered through and aimed at the gunner. She squeezed the trigger and released a volley at the man's position.

As soon as she'd fired, Danan sprang to her feet and began running down the hall. A torrent of return fire cascaded through the space behind her as she ran. The flying shards of debris and superheated gasses licked at her heels. She stumbled, falling to the floor.

Oh Gods, she thought as she fell, this is it! The world flashed white as she hit the metal deck plating. She knew she should try and crawl further before the searing blast enveloped her. The throbbing in her head was too disorienting and she remained immobile for several moments before she realised that her fiery demise had not occurred.

She tried to stand, but her knees were still too wobbly. She groped for her rifle. Finding it, she crawled closer to the perforated wall. She ignored the minor burns she received from pieces of slag lying in her path.

The gunner had ceased fire because he had a new opponent. P'ris had realised what was occurring and had opened fire just in time to spare Danan's life. She could see green disrupter bursts lancing out towards the gunner. He turned the blaster in P'ris' direction and unleashed the deadly maelstrom of its wrath.

Danan brought her own rifle up. Her vision blurred and her hands shook. She couldn't hold the weapon steady. She cursed at herself. She had to try. P'ris had revealed herself trying to save her. She could do no less.

She pulled the trigger once again. The familiar throb of the weapon's discharge vibrated throughout her body. All of her anger, outrage, and desperation were poured out in that discharge. Her finger slid of the trigger. Her head slumped against the butt of the rifle. There was no escape. She did not have the strength left to move. She would die here, alone, without Brin's arms holding her.

Macen had run the length of the corridor until he hit a second "T" junction. He came around the corner with his pistol ready. Seeing that the way ahead was clear, he approached at a jog. He could hear the muffled explosions from the gunner's assault against Danan.

He reached the next intersection. It only went to his left. He peered around the corner cautiously. It served him well. The gunner had an accomplice in the hallway entrance of the balcony.

Macen holstered his sidearm and jogged purposefully forward. He was halfway to the balcony before the "guard" noticed him. Amateur, Macen thought derisively. The guard unslung his rifle and challenged Macen.

"I'm here to see if you require assistance." Macen informed the guard, walking towards him all the while.

"We are fine." The guard replied suspiciously, "Who sent you?"

"I received Captain Carrase's orders through Lieutenant Qek." Macen replied easily.

Macen was almost at arm's length from him. He could here the distinctive whine of a disrupter. P'ris must have joined the battle. The guard turned his head for a second to see what was occurring as his comrade swore viscously.

Macen's hand snapped the pistol out of the holster. He fired two shots point blank into the man's chest. He turned to the balcony's entrance. The gunner was pivoting his weapon to his left. Macen fired several shots into the man.

Danan woke up, finding her upper torso supported by someone else. She jerked reflexively, trying to recall how she had arrived at this position. Strong arms held her shoulders from behind, restraining her struggles. She wanted to shout a warning but found her throat too raw to utter anything beyond a strangled cry.

"Take it easy." She heard Macen say softly into her ear, "You had a concussion and were going into shock. This was the easiest way to keep you guarded and warm while P'ris sought medical equipment."

Danan relaxed. She slid her feet further under her. Their two bodies had been tucked into a corner. She used her change of position to lean forward and allow Macen to stand.

The world tilted on its axis as she moved forward. She placed a stabilising arm out and caught herself from falling. Her other hand went to her temple. The throbbing she experienced made her nauseous.

"Are you alright?" Macen asked.

She glanced upwards. The concern in his eyes belied the stern expression he wore on his face. She nodded.

"What about the symbiont?" he asked.

"We'll be fine." She said as convincingly as she could. She tried to rise and found her knees still a tad shaky. Her eyebrows rose, "Although I could use a hand in getting up."

A ghost of a smile flittered across Macen's stony visage. He thrust out his hand.

He glanced towards the door of the room they were in, "P'ris should have returned by now." His voice went as cold as his expression, "Something's wrong."

"Then let's solve the problem." Danan suggested.

Macen nodded his approval. He removed her pistol from where he had held in the small of his back and handed it to her butt first. Her expression was one of wry amusement as she returned the pistol to her holster. She gave him an expectant stare.

He shrugged and moved to where he had placed the rifle. He picked it up and handed it to her. She smiled and patted the gun indulgently. She noticed his scrutiny and gave him an embarrassed smile.

Macen pulled his pistol out and readied it in a two-handed grip. He took a last glance towards Danan. She held her rifle levelled at her hip. She still appeared shaken, but her eyes still shone with fierce determination.

"Let's go." He said quietly. His grim certainty was something of a comfort to her. She knew Macen would walk through the bowels of Hell if he felt it was necessary. His willingness to do so for an ally they barely knew was an example of why she loved him.

Macen exited the room. Danan followed. They proceeded down the corridor. No one appeared before or behind them.

"Where are they?" Macen muttered.

An explosion ripped through the complex. Another power main had been destroyed. A shriek filled the air as tremendously brilliant streaks of light surged into the sky.

"They've activated the anti-ship batteries." Danan informed him.

"They're firing on the T'Kut." Macen commented dispassionately, "That's what distracted P'ris." He turned his full attention to Danan, "How do we stop them?"

She pondered the question momentarily. Her expression hardened, "We proceed to Command Centre. We can deactivate the system from there."

Macen's eyebrow quirked upward, "Lead the way, Commander."

Danan nodded, then reversed course and went they way that they had come. They passed the section of wall mutilated during Danan's duel with the gunner. They proceeded further, passing the Archive that had become a tomb.

Macen and Danan reached the Command Centre several minutes later. The double doors were sealed and locked. Danan punched a code sequence into a console to the doors' left.

"I hope the codes still work." She murmured. A blue beam projected form the ceiling, enveloping her body.

"Code clearance accepted." A mechanical voice announced. The doors opened and Macen and Danan stepped through. A worried looking tech noticed them and turned and rose from his seat. Danan unleashed a pulsar burst into him. Macen snapped into action, shooting seated techs one by one down the sequence of chairs on his side of the room. Danan did likewise down her side.

Danan slung her rifle over her shoulder and approached one of the consoles. She manipulated several controls. Half of the displays in the Centre went lifeless. She turned to Macen with a satisfied smile on her face.

"I've deactivated the defence system." She informed him proudly, "All systems are now locked down and cannot be reinitialised without my clearance."

"What about internal sensors?" Macen asked.

"At our disposal." Danan answered.

Macen nodded in approval, "Find our people." And then as an afterthought, "And find out if the Odyssey is here yet."

"We've achieved standard orbit." Ensign Grace, the acting helmsman reported.

'Understood." T'Kir acknowledged, "Contact the T'Kut. See if she needs assistance." She turned towards Ensign Killian, the acting Ops officer, "Any signals from Captain Macen?"

"Negative, sir." Killian answered her voice taut with worry.

T'Kir's face was a frozen masque, "Do not worry too much, Ensign. Such distractions will make one less efficient."

Grace and Killian both turned to face the acting captain. T'Kir shook her head, as though clearing out another's thoughts. She noticed the ensigns' scrutiny.

"What?" she asked defensively. Both junior officers hurriedly returned their focus to their consoles.

"She's here." Danan reported, "Right on schedule."

"That's amazing." Macen replied. Lisea chuckled. Neither of them had believed T'Kir would get the ship here on time.

She looked up with a stricken expression on her face, "The ship's unstable."

Macen's face fell, "What?"

"The warp core, the structural integrity field...everything! She's destabilising." Danan explained, "The ship is breaking down at the quantum level."

Macen sighed, "Can you determine the source of the breakdown?"

Danan returned her attention to the scanner read-out, "It appears that the engines are putting out a low level transwarp signature. The resulting dimensional stress is breaking down the ship's atomic cohesion."

"The Federation doesn't have transwarp technology." Macen muttered, "They louse it up every time."

He glanced up at Danan, "Is there any way to recalibrate the warp engines to avoid creating the transwarp effect?"

"Not from what I'm reading here." She replied grimly, then met his gaze, "I may be able to re-evaluate that determination with a first-hand examination of the engines."

"That's what I thought." He replied in resignation, "How long until the ship falls apart?"

Danan shrugged, "Another day, maybe two."

"Focus on finding our Starfleet personnel. They're our first priority." Macen decided.

"What about the ship?" Danan asked quietly.

Macen looked slightly pained as he answered, "She's a good ship. She'll understand if we have to sacrifice her."

Danan nodded and returned to the sensor sweeps.

"The ship's what?" Tarrik asked incredulously.

"She falling apart Chief." Macen informed over the comm link Danan had established, "She's dissolving on the sub-atomic level."

"We'll fix that right up." Tarrik announced.

"No." Macen reply was bitter even to his own ears, 'No, we won't. Just try and stabilise the effect for as long as you can. Any attempt at eliminating the problem would require the shutting down of the warp core. We don't have time for that."

"And why not?" Tarrik demanded in outrage.

"This base is a symptom Chief." Macen responded calmly, feeling his engineer's pain, "We need to get to Earth so we can deal with the disease."

There was a long pause, followed by a reluctant, "Aye, aye sir." Another pause, "She's too young and vital to go this way."

Macen closed his eyes, pinching the bridge if his nose between his thumb and forefinger "They both were, Chief."

"What?"

Macen shook himself, "Never mind, Chief. Just get to work on slowing down the dissolution of the bonds."

"Understood. Tarrik out."

Derrico and Jansen were still pinned down. They could hear the Marine defenders moving about around the power core. A disrupter beam went down the corridor between them. Derrico turned and barely restrained himself from killing Commander P'ris.

"Commander," his deep bass rumbled, "I almost killed you."

"I could have killed you if I had so desired." She reminded him archly. Derrico's face wound up in an expression of reprehension. She could have killed them, all because he'd been too focused on the obvious enemy. That did not settle well with him.

"Too true." He admitted tightly, "Why are you here? You are supposed to be with Captain Macen and Commander Danan."

"They are fine." P'ris replied coldly, "Commander Danan was injured, but your Captain was tending her."

"How have the others done?" Derrico asked.

P'ris' gaze turned sad, 'One core has been disabled, another destroyed."

"What about our people?"

P'ris knew the pain he would feel when he heard what he knew was coming, "The entire team was destroyed with the core. No one has heard from the second."

Derrico's knees nearly buckled. He shook his head, as if clearing away thoughts he didn't want to have.

"No." the word was a growl on the back of his throat, "We're not finished."

P'ris was astounded by the feral quality in Derrico's voice. There was a bloodlust there she'd never heard form him before. The Security Chief had struck her as being moribund by Starfleet rules and traditions. He had never appeared the type to succumb to murderous rage.

Derrico turned the corner and unleashed a volley of continuous fire. He bellow that would have struck fear into the soul of a Klingon loosed itself from his lips. Jansen aided his efforts. Several shots passed by him before he returned to his shelter.

"Feeling better?" P'ris asked sardonically.

"I have a firefight occurring in Core Centre Three." Danan reported to Macen, "I also have an unknown party of three moving away from Core One."

Macen nodded expressionlessly. "That'll be our people." he commented, the asked, 'Is there any opposition between them and the group at Core Three?"

Danan shook her head, "No. All Marine personnel seemed to be involved in the holding action at Core Three." She ran another series of scans, her brow furrowing. She squinted as she concentrated on the read-outs, "They seem to be...damn!"

"What?" Macen asked in sudden alarm at the frustrated concern in Danan's voice.

"They're trying to overload the core." She answered testily, "They've opened the regulators and are unbalancing the matter/anti-matter ratios."

"Meaning 'boom'?" Macen asked dryly.

Her eyes went wide for a moment. Her jaw closed as she realised that he was joking. Her mouth twisted into a grim smile, "Meaning big boom."

"How do we stop it?"

"From here?" she asked in disgust, "We can't."

"How do we stop it there?" Macen asked pointedly.

Danan debated options, then determinedly replied, "Follow me."

"Sir!" Grace called out excitedly, "I'm detecting a warp core imbalance on the surface."

T'Kir leaned forward in her chair, "Can we beam down?"

Grace nodded, "We can, but the area surrounding the core seems to be experiencing energy discharges."

"What kind of discharges?"

"Weapons fire." Grace replied sombrely.

"Can we contact our teams?"

"No sir." The ensign manning Tactical answered, "A subspace disturbance is forming around the core. It is blanketing the vicinity of the core for a radius of seven kilometres."

T'Kir slammed her fist against the arm of the seat, "I need solutions people! What can we do?"

The only replies she received were blank stares.

Danan and Macen raced down corridors until they reached an access panel. Danan read the panel's designation and nodded. She keyed in an operational code into the panel's hatch. It opened with a hiss of escaping air.

"This inspection tunnel leads all the way to the core." She informed Macen, "We can use it to flank the Marine team."

"Good thinking." He commended, then motioned towards the hatch, "Once again, after you."

A resonant hum throbbed outward from the core. Derrico noted the change and glanced towards P'ris, "Is that what I think it is?"

P'ris nodded in resignation, "Yes. They are creating a matter/anti-matter fusion imbalance. Soon, we shall all be sub-atomic particles spread across the quadrant."

Derrico took a deep breath and drew his pulsar rifle close to his chest, "Not I few kill them before they finish."

P'ris smiled approvingly, "Spoken like a true warrior." She checked the power pack of her disrupter. Satisfied, she nodded in the direction of their opponents, "Shall we?"

"We're almost there." Danan assured Macen.

They reached the bottom of the ladders and she saw the hatch she was seeking. She took a final glance towards Macen. He was fine, and looking to her for an indication of where to go next. She nodded towards the hatch.

She keyed the hatch. It opened outwardly. She crouched behind it, weapon trained on the opening. Although weapons fire could be heard, none of it was in the hatch's direction.

Danan slowly moved her way through the hatch. Macen followed. They found themselves on a catwalk above and behind the power core. Several Marine techs were hurriedly making adjustments on multiple panels. Armed Marines were flanking them and firing at unseen opponents on the other side of the core.

"Well, we seem to have maintained the element of surprise." Danan commented optimistically.

"You move further to the left." Macen ordered, "I'll take the right. When I start shooting, kill the techs."

"What about the guards?" Danan asked.

"Use your own discretion." Macen replied blandly.

They separated. Macen edged down the catwalk. He crouched low when he found a nexus of pipes and coolant hoses that offered some cover at least. He glanced in Danan's direction. She gave him a thumb's up. Her facial expression was as impassive as his own was. There was no joy or satisfaction in this duty. It simply had to be done.

Macen took careful aim and fired his first shot into the back of the closest tech. The man lurched forward, his back a smoking ruin. It took two shots to hit and kill the next tech. The third had noticed the demise of the second and started to move. Macen fired off three rapid shots. The tech fell to the ground.

Danan lined up her sights on the innermost tech, much as Macen had. Her pulsar rifle was set on rapid fire. She depressed the trigger and cut a swath to her left. The streaming flashes of energy cut through the ranks of the hapless techs without care or mercy. One of the armed guards was cut down as well.

The final tech had been harder to hit, as one of the guards had began an exchange of fire with Macen. The tech had made an abortive run at a control panel. That effort cost him his life. The guard threw caution to the wind and stormed towards Macen.

Derrico's shout alarmed his companions more than his foes. That changed as he charged towards them firing his pulsar pistol with frighteningly inhuman accuracy. Jansen and P'ris were laying down cover fire with lethal effect. Derrico made for the cluster of guards to his left. As he came barrelling towards them, he realised he wasn't their only going concern.

As he reached the first positioned formerly occupied by a formerly living guard, he heard the cries of death and the sound of weapons fire from behind the power core. The stench of burnt flesh hung thickly in the air as Derrico peered around the core towards the remaining guards. There were two of them left, pinned down by fire being poured down form an overhead catwalk. He decided to settle that issue and promptly shot the guards.

The shooter on the catwalk wavered for a moment, then threw an acknowledging wave and went towards Derrico's left. He continued to skirt around the core. As he came around the backside, he saw the female shooter drop into a crouch and open fire on a Marine charging towards a ladder leading up to the catwalk. Derrico could also see Macen as he continued to exchange fire with the remaining guards.

After a moment's consideration, Derrico continued creeping around the core. When he was within sight of the first Marine, he shot her. She fell to the ground. He could hear an anxious exchange between the remaining forces. Derrico felt it was time for a new tactic.

""Surrender." He shouted.

Macen and Danan heard Derrico's shout and ceased fire. Macen stood at his position and yelled to those below, "I am Captain Brin Macen of Starfleet Intelligence. Surrender now. You are surrounded and have no hope of victory." He paused, then continued, "You have fought valiantly and there is no dishonour in yielding."

There was a drawn out silence, then the sound of weapons clattering to the floor. Four bedraggled men and women walked out form their refuge with their hands raised. Derrico quickly herded them into a corner while keeping his weapon trained on them. Jansen and P'ris ran to join him as Macen and Danan scrambled down the ladder.

"Can you stabilise the conversion ratios?" Macen asked.

Danan nodded, her face drawn and distant. Macen realised this was a sign of concentration, not concern. He waved her towards the consoles, "Then get to it."

He met P'ris where she stood by the prisoners, "Glad to see you're still alive Commander."

She raised a speculative eyebrow, "Really? I would have thought you would be quite upset with me for abandoning you to your vigil over Commander Danan."

Macen nodded, "I am, but I understand your motivation."

P'ris laughed, "That is good, for I will never understand yours Captain Macen."

Macen shrugged, "Keep them guessing."

Her mouth quirked into a cynical smile, "And you were able to avoid using the term 'enemies'. I am quite impressed."

He turned to her. His face was a stoic masque, his eyes fierce. "Don't be."

Macen turned away and strode towards Danan.

"The weapons fire seems to have stopped." Grace reported.

"Have a team comprised of Security and Medical beam to the site immediately." T'Kir ordered.

"Aye, sir."

"Everything has been stabilised." Danan reported wearily as she draped across a handrail.

Macen looked mildly amused, "Good job Lieutenant."

Transporter shimmers appeared near the core. A dozen Security and Medical personnel from the Odyssey joined their comrades. One of the Security men conferred briefly with Derrico. Derrico then reported to Macen.

"Sir, two teams have been sent down. The second team is with Insertion Team One. They are now inspecting the prisoners." He reported crisply, then after a moment's hesitation, "Lieutenant T'Kir also sends word of Ensign D'art's arrest on charges of mutiny."

"Bloody hell." Macen snarled. He walked away with his hands on his hips and paced for a moment. After a moment, he returned to the others. "Have the prisoners beamed directly to the brig. Commander Danan will provide you with the location of the Archives Library. Send a Medical team there to remove the bodies from it. Also, try and locate a representative for the prisoners. I want to personally talk to some of the detainees."

Derrico nodded sombrely. His apprehensions regarding deadly force had been resolved after testing his enemies' mettle. Derrico had seen some of the most brutal fighting during the Dominion War. He felt that the Marines would have made a good counter-measure to the Jem'Hadar.

"Aye, sir." He replied crisply, betraying none of the fatigue he felt.

"And Lieutenant?" Macen called after him. Derrico turned, still trying to hide his weariness. Macen smiled, "Have the Insertion Team members relived as soon as possible."

"Aye, sir!" Derrico replied with real enthusiasm.

Macen stood with his back to the data crystal. His arms were folded across his chest and he was oblivious to the motion of the scanning arms running up and down the length of the crystal. He'd been retrieving the history of the prison and a partial list of its inmates. Macen ignored all of that. He was looking for the originators of this operation.

Macen's success as an intelligence analyst stemmed from his ability to step into his opponents' minds. In this case, it was the minds of those raised in an idealistic culture that abandoned all pretences of idealism. They felt that action, quiet and direct, was the best solution to any mounting crisis. The prisoners had been brought here because they fought on a battlefield Section 31 refused to engage in, the battle for people's hearts and minds.

Macen met with Valdrin, the designated representative of the Gulag's prisoners. The man was a Vulcan, and was on of the installations first inmates. He had the serene air that typified virtually every Vulcan, except for T'Kir. Macen wondered, not for the first time, why he'd rescued the lunatic Vulcan.

Valdrin offered Macen the split fingered salute of his people, "Greetings Captain Macen."

Macen returned it, "Greetings Representative Valdrin."

"I see you have perused my file." Valdrin replied dryly.

Macen gave the Vulcan a wry smile. When Valdrin's name had come to him as the prisoners' choice for a representative, he'd felt compelled to look up the Vulcan's "crimes". Valdrin's crime had consisted of was endorsing a philosophical system that urged emotional releases between the seven year Ponn Farr cycle. Valdrin had conjectured that it would lessen the potential health risks for couple's that were unable to reunite if they partook of his system. For that, he'd been sent to Gulag.

"I'm afraid I don't have a great deal of time here." Macen told Valdrin with regret, "I would however like to assure you that other vessels will be here shortly and inquire as to any requests you may have before we depart."

Valdrin's gaze remained level and placid as he spoke one word, "Justice."

Macen's eyebrows rose, but he remained silent as Valdrin explained the nature of that sole request, "We are quite well provisioned. We do however request that the perpetrators of this...hypocrisy be brought before the law."

Macen's smile was predatory, "That I can guarantee you."

Macen and Danan stopped by the office P'ris had taken as her own. "We're leaving now." Macen informed her, "I just wanted to thank you for your help."

P'ris smiled in bemusement, "As I recall, you bribed me."

Macen nodded, "That's true, but you didn't have to honour our arrangement."

P'ris shook her head, "No, I could not live with myself if I did not honour it. What is more, I still owe you a debt." Macen raised a hand in protest, but P'ris persisted, "It is true. I will watch over these souls until your Starfleet returned for them."

Macen's smile turned mischievous, "That also guarantees that Starfleet, and hence the Federation, will have to talk with you."

"So much the better." P'ris shrugged, "We all win."

The two commanders shook hands and then Macen commed his crew and requested transport.

Macen stepped off the transporter pad and turned to Danan, "Report to Sickbay. I want Kort to have a look at you."

"I'm fine." She protested.

"When's the last time you had your symbiot examined?" he asked.

"I'm fine." She assured him.

"Yuh, huh." He replied sceptically. His wry expression telling her what he thought of that assurance. She sighed, shrugged her shoulders and trudged off sullenly.

Macen stepped onto the bridge and immediately began giving orders, "Helm, set course for Earth. Plot your course through Klingon territory. T'Kir, contact the Klingons and inform them we are invoking the Zed protocol and direct transit through their territories. We also request a welcoming committee at Zed's table. Got that?" T'Kir nodded and hitting his comm badge, he continued, "Tarrik, I need maximum warp for as long as you can give it to me. Any problems and you talk to me."

"Aye, sir." Tarrik's guttural reply came over clearly.

"Get underway." Macen ordered, "I'll be in my Ready Room. Join me there in fifteen minutes."

"Aye, aye." Tarrik sounded as weary as Macen felt.

"What the problem with the engines?" Macen asked evenly.

Tarrik squinted at him, then shrugged in resignation, "The Hydra-class has a few...problems. That's why it was never put into production. Six prototypes were made before the decision was made to pursue other avenues."

"What kind of problems?" Macen asked, voice still chillingly level.

"It has to due with the impulse reactor." Tarrik answered, sounding like an Academy lecturer, "The reactor can't maintain integrity. It's mounted too close to the main warp drive. The first Hydra was destroyed when its reactor lost containment."

"So why are we flying this one half-way across the galaxy?" Macen asked dryly.

Tarrik took a deep breath, "We thought we'd put a lid on the problem. We installed a new type of containment field. It uses adaptive field modulation to counter the shifts in the reactor core. It ties directly into the warp core so that it impulse reactor is shielded most heavily when we're at warp. That's when the imbalance usually occurs. Has something to do with the warp signature."

"Maybe it has something to do with the fact that pieces of the failed transwarp drive were implemented into the engines?" Macen suggested sardonically.

Tarrik looked as sheepish as his porcine features allowed, "Well, that too."

Macen leaned forward on his desk and rubbed his forehead, "Didn't anyone think about this before we left?"

"It worked in simulation." Tarrik assured him.

"I'm sure it did, Chief." Macen replied wearily, "You'd better get back to it. Just hold us together as long as you can."

"Aye, sir."

 

Chapter Nine

Picard stepped into Alynna Nechayev's office. The Admiral was absorbed by the contents of a padd she held. She held up her other hand and motioned Picard closer. He broke into a wry smile and stepped forward.

It wasn't that he and the Admiral were enemies, they just had different methods of dealing with a crisis. Although Picard was adept at subtlety, he preferred keeping things as open and honest as possible. Nechayev, on the other hand, was the queen of mischief and mirrors. That, he mused, is why she is the Director of Starfleet Intelligence and I'm a humble Starship captain.

Although, he had to admit, he wasn't that humble. He certainly wasn't vain, but the Captain knew exactly where his talents lay. He knew his strengths and how deeply they ran. His disparity with an egotist was that he was also aware of his many deficiencies.

Nechayev sat the padd down and gave him a pleasant smile, "I can I assist you, Captain?"

Picard returned the smile, "I believe that I may assist you."

Nechayev's interest was certainly piqued, "And how is that?"

"I would like to join in whatever efforts are being made to assist Captain Macen's mission."

Nechayev chuckled, "Just can't stay away, eh Picard?"

Picard chuckled good naturedly, "I suppose not."

Nechayev stood and motioned for him to follow, "Then you'd better follow me."

"Where are we going?"

"To Command and Control." Nechayev answered, "The Klingons reported Macen's transit across their space. Now he's making for Earth like a bat out of hell."

Picard gave her a wry grin, "He certainly can in that ship."

She nodded knowingly, "He certainly broke all of the Enterprise's records while eluding you."

"A fact that has been causing my Chief Engineer to lose some sleep." Picard replied.

"I'm sure Mr. LaForge will find a way to even the odds." Nechayev said consolingly.

The pair entered a turbolift near the Admiral's office. After receiving its destination orders it then received security clearance verification from both officers. Picard had never before gone to Command and Control, which was popularly referred to as the Nerve Centre. It was the cerebral cortex of Starfleet. It monitored every starship and outpost in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Abandoned bases and colonies in the Gamma Quadrant were being re-established now that the war had ended, adding to the Nerve Centre's jurisdiction and reach.

Picard wasn't sure of what he was expecting when the doors opened, but the reality exceeded it. He'd thought the stellar cartography lab in the Enterprise was impressive. Now he knew what impressive truly was. The entire room was a map of the galaxy with a central area with monitors and consoles. Any sector, any system with significant Starfleet presence could be brought up.

"I...I never knew." Picard whispered in awe.

"That is the idea." Nechayev chided.

"How is this possible?"

"Most of the data is received from traffic beacons and navigational satellites." Nechayev informed him.

"Isn't that slightly..." Picard paused as words escaped his grasp.

"Immoral, paranoid, or perhaps deceitful?" Nechayev asked sarcastically, "Come now, Captain, we monitor vessels. These systems are neither designed nor utilised to monitor individuals upon a planet."

Picard knew the reasoning behind the Federation's prohibitions. Late twenty and twenty-first century Earth had utilised intelligence satellites to monitor first nations and then individuals. Before the wars that occurred just prior to First Contact, the satellites boasted powerful weaponry as well so they could eliminate those they observed. Nowhere had been shelter enough against their enhanced "senses".

"How can we track all of this?" he asked.

"It has become easier over the years." Nechayev admitted, "Neuro-gell pack technology has enhanced our capabilities greatly. The greatest factor though is that we concentrate our attention based upon reports received from starships on the line."

"Where is the Odyssey?" Picard asked.

Nechayev smiled, "Before we get to that, there's someone I'd like to introduce you to." She turned towards an officer watching over several of the techs and analysts, "Amanda, can you step over here?"

The woman that stepped over was young for her Admiral's rank. She wasn't much older than Picard had been when he'd received his first command. She had lines around the corners of her mouth and eyes, indicating her propensity towards smiling. Her platinum blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail.

Nechayev made introductions, "Admiral Amanda Drake, I'd like to introduce Captain Jean-Luc Picard."

The name made Picard's mind began reviewing references to where he may have heard it before. When he made the connection, his mouth dropped open.

"The 'Fire Drake'?" he asked incredulously.

Drake laughed. It had a rich, earthy flavour to it. "I see my reputation, and that of my granduncle, have preceded me."

Picard still found it difficult to believe. Amanda Drake was a veritable legend within the Internal Affairs Division of Starfleet. Her reputation was well earned as a vigorous investigator into malfeasance. That was partly derived from her own infamous grandfather's attempted coup at Khitomer.

Nechayev seemed to be reading his mind, "I couldn't let such obvious analytical talent remain wasted."

Picard shook his head. This was one of those points that the Admiral and he disagreed. She saw an officer with Drake's immense talent as being under-utilised in IA. Picard, on the other hand, felt that she had more than lived up to her potential. Such a disparity was typical of their professional differences.

"Admiral Drake has been tracking the developments surrounding the Odyssey's mission." Nechayev informed him. She turned to Drake, "What is her status?"

Drake grinned, "They cleared the Klingon Empire in record time. Their ETA in Sector Zero-Zero-One is currently forty-two hours."

"Any ships deviating form their assigned sectors to investigate or intercept?"

Drake shook her head, "No. I'm not sure of that's a good thing or a bad one."

"That my dear Admiral," Nechayev said cynically, "remains to be seen."

Aboard the Odyssey, life had returned to a measure of normality. The crew had readily accepted the news of their ship's impending doom. They had little choice since their captain seemed resolute about returning her to Sector 001.

Macen and Danan spent most of their time trying to sort the teraquads of data. The sheer volume of what they'd captured was daunting. The worst revelations did not come in the form of the who's or why's, but the absence of the complete picture. Section 31 had covered their tracks again. They'd left enough evidence to convict disposable members of the operation, but enough to reveal the totality of the Section's existence.

Picard had returned to the Enterprise after his discussion with Admiral Nechayev. There truly wasn't a great deal he could do at this point except await further orders. The ship was in a southern orbit over Australia. Most of the crew was enjoying shore leave.

Riker and Daggit had volunteered to supervise a skeleton crew. Picard felt mildly guilty over this and wanted to give them the opportunity to partake of some leave themselves. When he entered the bridge, he was relieved to find both officers present. Both of them instinctively gave him their full attention.

"Commander Riker, Lieutenant Daggit, will you please report to my Ready Room?"

Both officers followed Picard. Once inside, he turned and smiled pleasantly, "It appears that things are going to be quiet for at last another thirty-six hours. If either, or both, of you would like some time on Earth, now is the time to take it."

Riker grinned laconically, "Deanna is with Dr. Crusher in Paris. They are taking some time to be 'girlish'. If it's all the same to you, sir, I'd like to stay aboard and help in any way I can."

Picard smiled appreciatively, then turned to Daggit, "And how about you, Lieutenant?"

The Angosian looked distinctly uncomfortable, "I...I decline the offer."

Picard and Riker exchanged a curious glance. Daggit's tone nervous tone bespoke of an inner turmoil that was threatening to overwhelm him. When dealing with the likes of an enhanced former commando with Daggit, any kind of incident could prove fatal. Picard wanted to know if there was a potential hazard well before it may appear.

"Sir," Daggit said in a quavering voice, "I request that you place me under arrest."

Both Riker and Picard were visibly stunned by the unexpected request. "Is there any particular reason for this request?" Riker asked.

Daggit shifted his weight uncomfortably, "I have good reason. I am about to commit a direct violation of orders from a superior officer and break Security Regulation Eleven."

Picard's head threatened to spin, but he refused to allow it, "You are about to reveal a Level Six secret? Why and how exactly did you come by this information?"

Daggit was sweating now, "Sir, I must ask that I be placed under arrest."

Picard shook his head, "You explain what secrets you are determined to divulge and I'll explain the matter to Admiral Nechayev."

"May I sit?" Daggit almost pleaded.

"Certainly." Picard answered motioning towards the couch.

Daggit sat and looked up uncomfortably at Riker and Picard, who remained standing, "It started when Brin Macen came to Angosia."

"You stated some displeasure at Mr. Macen's recruiting of you and your fellow commandos." Picard recalled.

"Yes." Daggit admitted with a heavy sigh, "There was that. The largest part was in how we were used."

"Used in what way?" Riker asked as he pulled up a chair and sat down, straddling it.

"Captain Macen was also in charge of our mission." Daggit admitted slowly.

"What mission?" Picard asked sharply, his eyes keen.

Daggit's face lost colour as several muscles flexed in his jaw, "We were assigned to a Nova class starship, the Infinity."

Picard's eyes widened, "The Infinity was lost before the Dominion War, in the Gamma Quadrant."

Daggit shook his head, "No, sir. She wasn't. That was her cover. She was re-assigned to Starfleet Intelligence. She was used for reconnaissance and insertion missions."

The bitterness in his voice left no doubt about the underlying nature of those missions, "Suicide missions." Riker said grimly.

Daggit nodded, "Yes, sir. We were assigned to the mission because we stood a better chance of surviving."

"I take it that wasn't the case." Picard said sourly.

"Unfortunately." Daggit tersely.

"What was Macen's reaction to this?" Riker asked.

Daggit snorted, "I think a small part of the Captain died every time a member of the crew bought it. There wasn't anything he could do about it."

"He couldn't protest the nature of the assignments?" Picard scoffed.

Daggit's eyes became fierce, "No, sir. He couldn't."

"And why not?" Picard asked sombrely.

"I think he was trying to make amends." Daggit admitted aloud for the first time.

"For the deaths of the Maquis?" Picard asked.

Daggit nodded vigorously, "Yeah. Every death just made him more determined."

"Did you consider him unfit for command?" Picard asked seriously.

Daggit paused before answering, "No, sir. We never thought that. Captain Macen did his duty. He did a damn good job of it too."

"Then why the anger towards him?"

Daggit's eyes held intense pain in them as he answered, "He was too damn good. We didn't all go out in a bang. We kept succeeding, and every time we succeeded, they sent us to another death trap."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Picard told him, "Those admissions could not have come easily."

"No, sir." Daggit admitted ruefully, "They didn't."

"Here is another difficult question." Picard warned him, "Do you feel capable of performing your duty to the best of your ability?"

Daggit looked from Picard to Riker. There was an intense struggle occurring behind his eyes. His face contorted as he faced his own limitations and desires. Finally, he shook his head.

"No, I don't." he said hoarsely, "I just want to go somewhere quiet, where I don't have to fight any more."

Picard reached down and squeezed the man's shoulder, "I believe that can be arranged.

Picard beamed down to meet with Admirals Nechayev and Drake. Daggit had been sent to Starfleet Medical to seek further treatment for his "alterations". He was also being placed on Inactive Duty until a posting on a tranquil world could be found. Nechayev had been upset by Daggit's initial disclosures but had been pleased by their effect upon Picard, so she had forgiven them. Which was not to say she had forgotten them in any way.

Drake excused herself in order to continue her monitoring of the Odyssey's progress. Picard and Nechayev sat across from each other in her office and glared at one another.

"How could you?" Picard asked accusingly, "How could you send these men on these missions, knowing full well the state they were in? My God, we denied Angosia's admission to the Federation owing to their treatment of those commandos. What kind of message have we sent them by returning to utilise that which we condemned?"

"That didn't matter at the time." Nechayev replied dispassionately, "What did matter were the thousands of deaths that were taking place on a daily basis."

"Of course it matters!" Picard protested, "It always matters."

"Don't even slip into your higher than thou mode with me, Picard." She warned him coldly, "I will not tolerate it. That attitude of yours is exactly why you and your crew served on the periphery of the war and not directly under Admiral Ross' command."

"My attitude?" Picard asked, stunned.

"You seem to think that you are the conscience of Starfleet." Nechayev answered scornfully, "I hate to inform you, but we already have an Inspector General. You're devotion to the ideals of the Federation are admirable." Her eyes softened a bit, "In fact, that devotion is one the single greatest reasons why I respect you." Her eyes narrowed again, "However, you allow your personal indignation interfere with certain...necessities of war."

"Such as exploiting broken men for reasons of expediency?" Picard snapped.

"Such as utilising a forgotten resource that may obtain the data necessary to preserve trillions of lives." Nechayev voice flashed with inner fire, "These men were the most highly qualified individuals in the entire damned Alpha Quadrant for what we were asking of them."

"Are you suggesting that I should have abandoned my recruiting of them because I didn't agree with how they received those qualifications?" she asked acidly. "Hell, I don't like how most Andorians receive their combat training at home, but I don't let that affect my judgement on whether or not I should allow them to serve."

Picard's jaw worked side to side for a moment, "I am forced to agree with your logic, but not the practice of it." His voice grew quieter, "Macen served under you. How could you send him on a mission like this?"

"War is hell, Captain." Nechayev replied thickly, "It forces you to put aside personal considerations in favour of professional ones. This man faced the Borg and survived. He fought in the Cardassian wars. He's fought against species we've never heard of yet. He's an expert on intelligence gathering and system surveys. He was the best choice for the mission."

"And of the price to him personally?" Picard archly demanded.

"It's a price he's willing to pay." Nechayev answered in a voice that made space seem warm.

"We've got a problem." Tarrik grunted.

Macen sighed, "What is it, Chief?"

"The quantum breakdown is accelerating due to the prolonged use of the warp drive at maximum." Tarrik informed him.

Macen leaned against the railing that surrounded the warp core, "How long do we have?"

"Maybe twenty hours."

Macen gave the engineer a sharp glance, "Maybe twenty hours?"

"Give or take eight hours."

Macen dropped his face into his hand, "Our ETA for Earth is eighteen hours. Can you hold her together that long?"

Tarrik shifted his weight uncomfortably, "I don't know, sir."

Macen patted him on the shoulder, "Your orders are to find a way."

"Aye, sir." Tarrik replied with a profound sense of fatalism.

"At least we have a list of those responsible." Macen commented, twirling a padd between his hands.

"We have a list of every political leader and every Marine officer involved." Danan clarified.

The rest of the senior staff nodded appreciatively. The group surrounding the Briefing Room table had changed quite a bit since they'd left Spacedock. One of their former number now lay in the brig. That knowledge, and the knowledge of the impending destruction of their vessel, had eroded much of their original confidence.

"I will be beaming down alone to the Council chambers when we reach Earth." Macen informed them.

Derrico and Kort both erupted into protests in stereo. Macen held up a hand to deflect their voices. When they didn't halt their protestations, he slammed that hand down on the table. The silence that followed was profound.

I will travel to the surface alone." He repeated, his voice rigid, "Commander Danan will remain here in command." His eyes swept every face in the room, searching for further protests. Finding none, he continued, "Several members of Starfleet have been identified as being involved. Some are involved without their knowledge of the consequence of their actions."

His eyes locked on Danan's, "If something happens to me, you are to use whatever means prove necessary to get someone to examine the evidence we have gathered."

"Yes, sir." She said through gritted teeth.

"Now that this has been settled, I need to everyone to focus on something else." He said gravely, "Try and find a way to hold this ship together."

Picard and Nechayev joined Drake in the Nerve Centre. They arrived to find the complex in quite a stir.

"What's going on?" Nechayev demanded of Drake.

Drake looked stricken, "We have two ships moving on an intercept course towards the Odyssey."

"Which two?" Nechayev's voice was as fierce as her facial expression.

"The Charleston and the Reclamation." Came the answer.

"Who ordered the interception?"

"I did." Answered a confident voice from the opening lift doors, "Just as I'm about to order your arrests."

Nechayev, Drake, and Picard all looked at Admiral Edward Jellico in stunned astonishment.

"What's our status?" Macen asked.

"Sensors are clear." T'Kir reported.

"Tactical at stand-by." Derrico added.

There was a pause from Danan. Macen stood from his chair and looked back, "Commander Danan, do you have something to report?"

Danan frowned as she turned from her display, "Someone's trying to masque it, but a lot of comm traffic nearby is about us."

"That's to be expected." Macen assured her, "We are breaking every speed and traffic lane reg in the quadrant."

She shook her head, "No, sir. Most of the traffic is being scrambled. It's also being directed at mobile receivers."

"Starships." Derrico said even as Macen thought it.

"Can you triangulate the position and bearing of those ships." Macen asked.

"I can try." She replied.

"T'Kir, what's our ETA for Earth?"

"Eight hours."

I just hope we make it, he thought to himself.

"I couldn't agree more, sir." T'Kir whipped off.

"Stay out of my thoughts, Lieutenant." He sighed.

"Don't think about me so hard and I will." She cracked.

"You wish I thought about you that hard, Lieutenant." He whipped back.

"Yes, sir." She replied earnestly, "That I do."

Jellico had not come to the Nerve Centre alone. With him were two individuals, one male and one female, both in Starfleet uniform. The man wore command departmental colours and the rank insignia of a Commander. The woman wore Security gold, based on the phaser on her hip, and bore Lieutenant Commander's rank pips.

"Allow me to introduce two of my aides." Jellico said laconically, "My chief of staff, Commander Hal Ran." He motioned toward the man on his right. "And my Strategic Advisor, Lt. Commander Della Voos."

Picard's eyes narrowed as he scrutinised both officers, "Have you thoroughly examined their records?" Picard asked with a hint of irony.

"Of course not." Jellico flustered, "Why would I do that?"

"We are investigating a conspiracy involving elements of Starfleet Intelligence and Security." Picard replied mildly.

"Not on my staff." Jellico informed him smugly.

"And how well do you know them?"

"Dammit Picard!" Jellico snapped, "You can not divert me from your failure with these baseless innuendoes."

"What failure?" Picard asked angrily.

"The failure to report directly to me if you had any contact whatsoever with Macen." Jellico reminded him.

"That order was superseded by those of a superior officer and extenuating circumstances." Picard replied flatly.

"Which brings us to the other member of this little conspiracy." Jellico sneered.

Jellico approached Nechayev and stood inches from her face, "Did you really think you could get away with this?"

Nechayev's eyes narrowed, "I am trying to end the conspiracy, not achieve its ends." Her voice became scornful, "Can you say the same, Eddie?"

"The receiving ships are almost four hundred thousand kilometres out." Danan informed Macen.

"Can they intercept?" Macen asked calmly.

"Not before we reach Sector Zero-Zero-One." Danan reported.

Macen found her detachment refreshing. The others found such news either comforting or dismal. The name Sector Zero-Zero-One, or Earth, did not evoke all that much of an emotional reaction from it. It was just another place to Macen. The world of his birth was across the galaxy.

"Good." He replied with grim satisfaction.

"You are accusing me of trying to deport Federation citizens to some Romulan hellhole?" Jellico laughed in her face, "That's rich Alynna."

"Then why are you here, interfering with our attempts to stop it?" she asked harshly.

"I was informed of the plot by Commander Voos. Commander Ran confirmed it. They showed me proof of Starfleet Intelligence's complicity." Jellico answered confidently.

"And where did they obtain this evidence?" Nechayev asked.

Jellico's mouth opened in reply, then snapped shut. He stepped back from Nechayev. His eyes stayed locked on hers. He motioned Ran and Voos forward.

"Hold them here." He said as a cocky smile crossed his face, "We'll witness the capture of the Odyssey and the capture of her incriminating evidence from here."

The hours ticked by slowly. The tension level ratcheted upwards. Although most of the crew were veterans of the Dominion War, the majority still were not seasoned enough not to let their tension show. If he hadn't been trying so hard not to demonstrate his own case of nerves, Macen would have found it amusing.

He'd discovered early on that half of command was sitting back and appearing confident while the crew did their jobs. That wasn't always the easiest thing. It was hardest when things could easily go to hell. He had to admit that this was one of those situations.

The pursuing Starfleet vessels were only forty minutes behind them. The good news was that they were only ninety-six minutes from Earth. The bad news was that they had no clue as to the reception they'd be receiving. To make matters worse, Tarrik's latest estimate placed the ship as crumbling apart in three hundred minutes.

There was nothing he could do about it, so the Captain remained focused on appearing confident for the rest of the crew's sake.

"Where will Captain Macen deliver his report?" Ran asked Nechayev softly.

Nechayev heard the ice underneath his polished veneer and knew that his question would only be asked once this politely. She shrugged, "With Macen, who knows?"

Ran slapped her across the face. The echo of it rang across the Centre. Several techs looked away from their consoles to observe what was happening. Picard started forward but was stopped by Voos pulling her phaser out and pointing it at his chest.

"Is this necessary?" Picard shouted in outrage.

Ran gazed at him coldly. Picard could see the contempt in the Commander's eyes, "She must learn respect and obedience."

"Now wait a minute." Jellico protested from behind Ran, "I never authorised the use of force. They will be interrogated by the proper..."

""Silence!" Ran roared, "Or I will have you silenced."

Jellico's face turned an interesting shade of purple, but his mouth clamped shut.

Ran gave Nechayev a reproachful look, "let us begin again, Admiral. Where will Macen deliver his report?"

Nechayev gave him a brittle smile. Her face was already swelling and bruising.

"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you." She said with steel lacing her every word.

Ran's next blow caught her squarely in the abdomen. She collapsed to the deck, gasping for air. Picard rippled again. Voos edged closer.

Ran turned to Picard. He still wore a wintry smile, "I see that this is getting us no where. We'll simply have to wait and see what the good captain decides to do."

"Sector One Traffic Control has on their scopes." Derrico reported then smirked, "They're asking us to slow down"

Macen shook his head with a chuckle, "We'll slow down at the emergency lunar marker."

He rose from his chair and went to the Science Station. He leaned over Danan's shoulder.

"There's something I have to show you." He whispered.

She glanced up into his eyes. She was calm and confident. Macen was grateful for her unspoken support. Her commitment to his plan meant more to him than any accolades they might receive if they stayed alive long enough to get any.

He handed her a padd, "Read the contents of this, then delete the data."

Both his tone and his emotionless expression told her what this would be. She glanced down and it confirmed her guess. She read it quickly, committing it to memory. She hit the delete key and the data flashed off the screen.

She met his gaze levelly, "If it proves necessary, the orders will be carried out."

She was grateful she'd managed to keep her voice as level as her gaze. She knew he'd given her the orders to prepare her, and as a sign of his trust in her. She knew she couldn't willingly betray that trust.

Macen gave her a wry smile, "I wish it weren't necessary, Lisea, but it will be."

Alarms sounded throughout Starfleet Command. Those alarms were spread throughout the system. Spacedock went on alert and raised its shields. In orbit, the Enterprise also raised shields and awaited the Odyssey's arrival.

Riker sat in the command chair and wondered why he hadn't heard from Captain Picard yet. He knew that Picard had desired to extend any assistance he could to the Odyssey's crew. He'd expected to receive orders on how to accomplish that. He had not expected a system wide alert.

"Break orbit Lt. Perim." Riker instructed.

The Trill helmsman's fingers flew over her console, "Leaving orbit now." She reported.

Riker turned to Data, "Data, can you plot where the Odyssey will attempt orbital insertion?"

Data studied his sensor display for a moment then lifted his head and stared at the viewer in a distracted way. He became "cognisant" seconds later and turned to face Riker, "I believe the Odyssey's best insertion trajectory will place them over Paris."

And over the President's Office, the Federation Council Chambers, Riker mused in begrudging appreciation of the high-speed approach.

"That's going to take a hell of a helm officer." Perim commented.

"Come now, Lieutenant," Riker chided with a twinkle in his eye, "you could make that insertion easily."

She turned and gave him a mischievous grin, "That's because I am one hell of a helm officer."

Experience told Riker not to debate her. All the evidence was stacked in her favour.

Danan sat in the command chair. Macen had stepped off the bridge in order to go to Transporter Room One. They had just dropped to impulse and were headed straight for Earth at full thrust. Although she and T'Kir had programmed the orbital insertion together, she still had qualms about it. T'Kir on the other hand...the Vulcan was at her station bobbing her head up and down.

Danan had asked her about it earlier. The Vulcan had referred to it as "head-banging". Not only that, but it was..."to rock". The metaphor was absolutely lost on Lisea. She could see no point in pretending that one was intentionally bashing one's head into a rock. If it were an opponent then certainly, and by all means, but a rock?

T'Kir stopped "banging" and turned give Danan a look of strained patience, "It's not into a rock, it's rocking out." She gave Lisea a chilly stare with implications regarding Danan's intelligence, "Just forget about it. You'll never get it."

With that, T'Kir returned to her instruments. She also did it without any bizarre movements of her head. For that, Danan was grateful. This next manoeuvre would be difficult enough without wondering about the ship's Ops officer's sanity.

" I heard that." T'Kir called out accusingly.

"They are beginning their orbital insertion." Data reported.

"Put it on main viewer." Riker ordered.

The manoeuvre was as elegant as it was unorthodox. The ship "slid" into orbit by turning sideways and letting the outer atmospheric shell of the planet assist in the braking. Riker could only wonder at what kind of adjustments to the shields and structural integrity fields had been required. Data and Perim were equally impressed.

Data examined his sensor displays, "One transport beam has been directed at the planet's surface."

"Location?" Riker asked, instantly cautious.

"The Federation Council's Chambers Complex." Data reported, then cocked his head to one side, "Two more ships are in-bound, dropping out of warp."

Riker fought the urge to swear. The lunar marker was the closest anyone was allowed to use warp engines for reasons of safety. The Terran-Lunar corridor was filled with traffic. Dropping out of warp this close to the planet could prove disastrous.

"Sir!" Data called out with alarm, "One of the ships has just collided with a freighter."

"Damage?" Riker asked with a mixture of anger and concern.

"The starship is undamaged, her shields were up." Data replied efficiently, then he paused for several seconds, "There are no life signs in the wreckage of the freighter."

Riker could hear the sorrow in the android's voice thanks to his emotion ship. Riker shoved his own aside as anger swelled up in him to replace it.

"Give me the name's of those two starships." He growled.

"The Charleston and the Fortitude." Data reported.

"Hail them." Riker ordered.

"Shields up." Danan ordered.

"Captain," Tarrik's voice came over the comm, "We cannot go into combat. The ship won't hold together."

"I don't plan to, Chief." Danan informed him, "Please report to the Cargo bay. Co-ordinates have been laid into the controls. Stand-by for further orders after arrival."

"I can't abandon my post." Tarrik protested.

"You aren't." Danan replied with quiet strength, "You are being ordered to another."

A moment's pause, then a grudging, "Aye, sir."

Danan turned to Derrico, "Inform the crew to proceed to the escape pods. We're abandoning ship."

Derrico managed to avoid releasing a strangled cry. He nodded mutely and complied. Danan turned to the faces staring at her across the bridge. She smiled wanly.

"That goes for all of you as well, with the exception of the senior staff and Ensign Grace." The crewmen stared at each other in stunned silence then began to clear the bridge.

Danan turned to Derrico, "Mr. Derrico, please hail our pursuers."

Derrico's face twisted into a wry grimace, "I don't have to. They're hailing us."

Alarms sounded across the Nerve Centre. Panicked techs darted from one station to another. Several yelled instructions to one another, then silence descended. The eerie calm was broken by Ran's impatient voice.

"What's happened?"

A tech turned to him, his face glazed over with numb shock, "The U.S.S. Fortitude, It just collided with the freighter, Olga coming out of warp."

"Was the starship damaged?" Ran demanded.

The tech slowly shook his head. His words came slowly, as if in a dream, "No. Her shields were up, but...there're no life signs from the Olga." The techs eyes were filled with anguish and pain, "They're dead."

"The fortunes of war." Ran replied coldly.

"This isn't a damned war." Picard growled.

Ran's head snapped around, "Isn't it? It has become a war of ideology hasn't it? Your way versus our way?"

Picard shook his head sadly, "There is no struggle occurring except for the one you are creating."

Ran's smile made Picard's blood run cold, "I did nothing to create this struggle, Captain. All of the participants have been awaiting their opportunity for the actions we have undertaken. We have merely channelled that desire."

Picard's eyes narrowed, "Channelled it into what, exactly?"

Ran's eyes shone with his zeal, "The chance to preserve the Federation. To strengthen it beyond harm."

"Put them on main viewer." Riker said with unnatural calm.

The screen came to life, revealing a man Picard's age. He was slightly heavier, giving him a stocky appearance. His thinning hair was shot with white. He wore a salt and pepper Van Dyke beard. His features were hard and set.

"Captain...Picard?" the man said, his eyes narrowing as he focused on his viewer image, "I am Captain Johann Guttman."

"I am Will Riker, the First Officer of the Enterprise." Riker informed him.

"Where is Picard?" Guttman asked suspiciously.

"Captain Picard is at Starfleet Command attending to pressing matters." Riker replied, "May I ask why you and your fellow captain violated the warp prohibitions in place around this planet?"

Guttman stiffened even further. Riker thought the man might implode. "My fellow officers and I are in pursuit of a dangerous foe to the Federation." He snarled.

"And that authorises you to kill an innocent freighter crew?" Riker asked with steel in his voice.

Guttman's face coloured with rage, "We are going to apprehend these fugitives, Commander." He spat out Riker's rank, "Be advised that any...any...interference will be met with deadly force."

"I have been so advised." Riker informed him defiantly, "I'm sure you'll recognise my decision when I reach it."

Guttman stifled a curse as he killed the comm link between vessels.

"Surrender your vessel now!" Captain Sarah Mackenzie demanded.

Lisea gazed back at her dispassionately, "Very well. We will lower shields and allow your boarding parties aboard. We will lower shields in five minutes. Agreed?"

Mackenzie looked dubious, but slowly nodded. Danan wondered what sort of discipline Mackenzie would be in for after destroying a civilian merchant ship. She knew the punishment she would like to dispense. She smiled to herself. She might yet have that opportunity.

"Very well." Danan said, "You may begin boarding as soon as we drop shields."

The viewer went blank and Danan turned to Derrico, "Have all life pods launch in four and half minutes."

"Yes, sir." Derrico replied, tasting retribution in the air. He savoured the taste of it.

"The Resolute is powering weapons." Data reported, "The Fortitude is lowering shields, but weapons are coming on-line."

"Raise our shields and power weapons." Riker ordered.

"Are all pods ready?" Danan asked.

"Yes, sir!" Derrico replied.

Danan tapped her comm badge, "Tarrik, lock on to all personnel on the bridge and yourself. Transport on my command."

She took a look around the bridge, "Computer, initiate Alamo protocol." Her mouth twisted into a bitterly ironic smile, "Authorisation phrase is, 'Resistance is futile'."

"Auto-destruct sequence engaged." The computer reported.

"One minute silent count-down." She ordered.

"This shall be the last warning. Self-destruct in one minute."

Danan turned to Derrico, "Lower shields." She tapped her comm badge, "Initiate transport."

Derrico, T'Kir, Grace, and Danan took one last look around as they disappeared in a shimmer.

"The Fortitude is transporting personnel to the Odyssey." Data called out.

"What is the Perseverance doing?"

"She is locking phasers," Data said apprehensively, "on us."

"Hail Guttman." Riker growled

"Sir!" Perim called out excitedly, "The Odyssey is jettisoning her escape pods."

"What do you mean no one is aboard?" Ran snapped at Mackenzie via comm link.

"They've abandoned ship." She reported nervously, "Their escape pods are all headed for Earth."

Ran's eyes met Picard's, "Destroy them."

Picard flinched as Mackenzie sputtered, "Sir?"

"Destroy them, Captain." He commanded, his voice venomous.

"Aye, sir." She replied wearily.

Ran turned to Voos, "Has anyone tracked down Macen?"

Voos shook her head, but never took her eyes of her prisoners.

"Damn." Ran muttered.

"Captain," Data reported urgently, "The Fortitude is locking phasers on to escape pods!"

"See if you can move to intercept." Riker told Perim.

The Odyssey exploded in a quiet orgasm of destruction. Her charges sent large pieces of shrapnel sailing into the Fortitude. Her navigational deflectors nearly collapsed under the strain of being assaulted with so much wreckage. Most of her main systems were knocked off-line as she convulsed in the Odyssey's death throes.

"Captain Guttman," Riker said calmly into viewer, "You have the chance to end this."

Guttman scoffed, "Trust me. I will."

"No one else has to die here." Riker protested.

Guttman nodded sadly, "Yes, they do. The past must be swept away to make room for the future." He cut transmission.

"What the hell does that mean?" Riker muttered.

The Fortitude brought her shields up. The bridge was filled with smoke as Mackenzie stabilised her crew. She'd lost two dozen officers on that boarding party. She vowed they'd not die unavenged.

"Lock phasers on the life pods closest to Earth." She ordered robotically.

"Are you certain?" her First Officer asked.

"There has to be a reckoning." Mackenzie replied without feeling.

"The Fortitude has just fired on three life pods." Data reported, "Destruction was complete."

"Lock phasers on the Fortitude." Riker snapped off, "Fire on my command."

"The Enterprise, the Perseverance, and the Fortitude are all engaged in combat!" a tech shouted.

"Are you satisfied?" Picard asked scornfully.

"Not yet." Ran replied honestly, "When Macen is dead, I'll feel much better."

"And if he's already dead?" Picard asked.

"Then we are just being thorough." Ran replied as if discussing the death of a fly.

"Shields are down to sixty percent." The Ensign at Tactical announced.

"Fire quantum torpedoes." Riker ordered, "Perim, get us out of orbit and give us some manoeuvring room."

"Aye, sir." She replied as she acted upon the order.

The ship shuddered as she took more fire. They were facing a Miranda-class and an Akira-class. Separately, neither vessel was as powerful as the Sovereign-class Enterprise. Together, however, even the ninety-year-old design of the Miranda proved threatening.

Riker was about to order the ship to break for beyond lunar range at full impulse when the Fortitude ceased her attack. Her shields were crackling with radiation as she shrugged off enemy fire. The smaller Perseverance continued her harrying fire. Riker was trying to figure out what happened to the newer, more capable Fortitude when he could see explosions puncturing her saucer section.

A small ship slipped past the reeling Fortitude. Phaser blasts streaked past it as it cartwheeled in space. The ship was headed for Luna when it turned end-over end and returned down its previous course. It opened fire on the Fortitude.

Steady phaser blasts gave the ship away. It was a Blackbird-class starship. It was a Starfleet scoutship from the early 24th century. It was a sleek ship resembling a hybrid between a Excelsior-class and an Ambassador-class. It was tiny, almost the same size as a Defiant-class. Riker didn't know where this one came from, but he was grateful for its assistance.

"Data, which ship is that?" he asked.

Data activated his sensors and queried the ship's ID markers. The reply made him raise his eyebrows. He turned to face his commander with a look of confusion and surprise.

"It is the S.S. Odyssey, sir."

 

Chapter Ten

The transporter beams made the air shimmer and vibrate. Five forms materialised from the incandescent fire. Four of them looked about at their surroundings with some confusion. They appeared to have beamed into a cargo bay.

"Where are we?" Derrico asked, voicing the question on almost everyone's mind.

A fleeting smile crossed Danan's face, "We're on the S.S. Odyssey."

"That's not funny." Tarrik growled.

Danan turned to face the other officers, "It wasn't meant to be humorous. This ship is the Odyssey."

"So what...what kind of ship is this?" Grace asked.

"It's a Blackbird-class." Danan replied with a shrug, "This is the ship Captain Macen, T'Kir and I commanded in the Maquis."

Derrico nearly choked, "This is a Maquis ship?"

Danan gave him a withering glare, "Yes, it is. This ship has saved thousands of lives during that service. I don't want to ever hear you disparage her, or her cause, in any way."

"Yes, sir." Derrico replied crisply.

Danan gave the others a cunning smile, "Then I suggest we get to the bridge and begin to use this ship for something useful."

The group quickly rushed out into the corridors. A handy map of the decks was posted on the wall. Their primary interests were on Decks 1 and 4. That would be the Bridge and Engineering. Tarrik would secure engineering. The rest would proceed to the bridge.

They reached the bridge, startling the two crewmen sitting there. They'd been left as caretakers until the ship was recalled into active duty. The sight of four armed Starfleet personnel bursting into the bridge was enough to thoroughly unnerve them. Danan could easily understand how the two had drawn such a pathetic assignment.

"Computer," she said aloud as Derrico escorted the two men to the rear of the bridge and "advised" them to stay quietly at the work table there, "initiate command release to Lt. Commander Lisea Danan, authorisation Expedition Kurzon Twelve."

"Command codes accepted." The computer chimed back.

Danan sat down comfortably in the command chair and activated her two display consoles. Grace went to the helm/ops station at the front of the bridge and began de-coupling procedures. Derrico hurried to Tactical, which sat to the right of the command chair, facing forward. T'Kir plopped down into the Science station, which was arranged like Tactical only on the left instead, and began running sensor diagnostics.

Derrico turned towards Danan with professional admiration on his face, "How'd you know...?"

Danan grinned, "Captain Macen discovered they'd put it in storage while we were searching the captured database from Gulag. He activated the command codes through subspace transmission while we were en route."

Derrico shook his head while grinning ear to ear. He returned his attention to his console, "Phaser banks are fully charged. Torpedo racks are stocked and ready. Shields are ready at your command."

"Understood." Danan acknowledged, "Helm?"

"I have cleared all moorings." Grace reported, "I have impulse engines and thrusters on-line."

Danan tapped her comm badge, "Tarrik, what's your status?"

"Engineering looks good." He replied, "I brought warp engines on-line. I could use another hand down here."

Danan nodded to herself, "You've got it." She turned to T'Kir, "You've just been elected."

"Why me?" T'Kir protested, and pointed at Grace, "Why not her?"

"You've more experience." Danan replied in a warning tone.

"Whatever." T'Kir muttered as she left her station, "You just don't like me."

Danan routed the sensors to one of her display. The other showed the ship's tactical data. The technical data on the Blackbird class had revealed that the ship was designed to operate under "extreme conditions with minimal staffing". She wondered if her designers had ever contemplated going into battle with a crew of 5. It shouldn't be much of a stretch considering her normal complement of 22.

"Ahead one quarter impulse." Danan ordered.

"One quarter, aye." Grace replied quickly as her hands flittered across her controls.

"Increase speed to full impulse once we've cleared the orbital dock." Danan continued confidently, "Plot our course. Take us in an elliptic orbit to the other side of the planet."

She turned to Derrico, "Raise shields. Ready phasers and torpedoes."

The Odyssey cleared her moorings and accelerated as she sped around the planet. She'd been parked in a high polar orbit. Her new course put her on an intercept course for the last known location of the Fortitude. Danan glanced down at her display and saw the three ships ahead of them. They were engaged in combat, two against the Enterprise.

"Lock phasers." Danan snapped off, "Fire at will."

The Odyssey dove in, phasers blazing.

"Another starship has engaged in the contest." A nervous tech reported.

"Which ship?" Ran hissed.

"The Odyssey, sir." The tech gulped.

"What?" Ran asked dumbfounded.

Picard and Drake both chose that moment to move. Drake hurled herself into Voos. Picard made for a nearby console. His fingers groped for the transport inhibitor controls. Finding them, he deactivated the inhibitors.

Ran yelled in rage and took aim for Picard. Another cry lifted as Jellico interposed himself between Picard and Ran. The phaser burst meant for Picard grazed the Admiral across the shoulder. Ran never had the opportunity to fire another as Starfleet Security officers beamed in behind him and fired.

A Security Lieutenant Commander pulled Voos off of Drake. He wrenched her arm behind her in a restraining hold. He gave Drake a bland smile. Drake gave him an appreciative pat on the shoulder as she focused her attention towards the Nerve Centre's techs.

"Patterson," she snapped, "I need an update!"

"A Blackbird-class has joined in the orbital skirmish." Patterson reported, "She has sided with the Enterprise."

"What is the ship's name?" Picard asked, having left Jellico to a medic.

"The Odyssey." Patterson reported ironically.

Macen had transported to the President's office only to find that the august representative had already departed to attend the Federation Council meeting. The Council met in the adjoining Chambers building. Alarms set off by his unauthorised transport were already sounding. He had to get to the Chambers quickly.

Macen stepped out of the office, past the startled secretaries and aides. He stepped out into the main corridor and saw several uniformed men approaching him. Their serious demeanours indicated a succinct unwillingness to discuss Macen's reasons for being there. He took a deep breath and readied himself for the battle that was about to occur.

Several minutes later, Macen was strolling down the corridor. The secretary occupying the room he'd thrown a Protective Services man into, through the transparent aluminium door was on her comm. He only stopped his march long enough to pick up a pair of phasers dropped by the men he had just incapacitated.

He'd studied the layout of the building during the long flight here from the Gulag. One level down was an access to the nearest sky bridge interconnecting the Chambers complex with the Office of the President. That route would be blocked. However, he might still be able to get there from this level.

Macen strode towards the enclosed balcony overlooking the bridge. A Services man lunged out of a corner at him from behind. Macen allowed the man to get one arm around his shoulders before thrusting his elbow into the man's mid-section. He finished the movement by sweeping the man's moving legs with one of his, and dipping his shoulder down.

The Services man fell to the floor. Macen kicked him square on the nose with his knee. The man went over backwards, his head hitting the duracrete floor. He went limp as unconsciousness overwhelmed him.

Macen bent down and retrieved another phaser. He calmly walked up to the balcony's enclosure. He thumbed the phaser's power setting to overload and walked away. Macen took cover behind a structural arch as the phaser's whine hit its crescendo.

A brilliant flash of light accompanied the phaser's detonation. Bolts of iridescent energy flashed down the corridor, resembling lightening. Several Services men approaching Macen's position were caught in the discharge's wake. They were knocked unconscious.

Macen removed himself from his shelter and approached the hole he had created in the outer wall of the building. He leapt across a corresponding hole in the sky bridge's ceiling. He began a jog and made for the other side of the bridge. He had to get there before the Service's agents could block his entry into the building.

He reached the end of the bridge without encountering opposition. He could see several agents yelling at him through the plastisteel windows. He ignored them and retrieved a piton launcher from his utility belt. He aimed for a balcony several stories above his position and fired.

The piton sank into the balcony. It formed a molecular bond with the balcony and held solidly. Macen attached the other end of the launcher to his belt and depressed the retrieval stud. He suddenly began an ascent upwards as the cable was shortening back into the launcher.

He stopped the cable when he was still several metres below the balcony. He fired a phaser at the wall, disintegrating it. He swung like a pendulum and released the launcher's connection to his belt when he had achieved sufficient momentum to reach the building. He landed on the floor, tucking into a roll.

Macen got to his feet and headed for the stairwell leading to the roof access. He ran up the stairs until he reached the roof. He slowly stepped out onto the roof with a phaser ready. Finding the way clear, he began a sprint across.

He was halfway across when two Type Nine shuttles streaked in towards him. They opened up with phaser fire. They barely missed him on either side. He stumbled and went down, rolling across the roof.

He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the searing pains coming from several joints and muscles. To his left was the dome that housed the Federation Council's meetings. Straight ahead and behind were angled drops, modelled after Gothic cathedrals. The shuttles were looping back for a second pass.

Macen adjusted the power setting on first one phaser, then another. He then steadied himself and prepared for his run. The shuttles came in much lower. They were only a hundred metres above the roof.

Macen aimed at the one on his right and fired both phasers at it. He had set the weapons to release their entire charge in a single blast. The shuttle's shields flickered and its flight path wavered. Macen threw the two phasers away and began a mad dash for the slope.

The two shuttles broke off and gained altitude. Macen leapt off the side and fell ten metres. He landed on the slick crystalline surface and began to slide. As he careened down the angled side of the building, he withdrew another piton launcher from his belt.

He clipped the line to his belt and waited for the moment to fire. He waited until seconds before he slid over the edge. He plummeted in freefall for several seconds before he stopped the line from playing out. The rope snapped taut and broke his fall in an awful snapping motion.

He bounced off the side of the building once. As he swung away from it, he pulled his pulsar pistol form his holster and fired several bursts into the wall. They created a gaping hole. Macen released the line and sailed in through the hole.

He staggered to his feet and continued his march towards the Chambers.

The Odyssey broke away from the Fortitude. She continued around the Earth's curve at full impulse. The beleaguered Fortitude followed. She fired phaser bursts at the rapidly manoeuvring Odyssey. The targeting system couldn't lock on to the ship while it engaged in all of its evasive turns and jigs.

Danan smiled. She had hurt the Fortitude. Her captain was a proud woman. She'd never let a gnat like the Odyssey escape unpunished.

The simple fact that the Odyssey's phasers were nearly as powerful as the Fortitude's would never factor into that mental calculus. The smaller ship was manoeuvrable enough to literally fly circles around the larger ship, a fact it had demonstrated with skill. Nothing would succour Mackenzie's wounded pride except the defeat of her opponent by her hands.

Danan was counting on that reaction. Her plan depended upon it. They had set course straight for the massive Spacedock complex in orbit a bare seven thousand kilometres away. The Fortitude was nicely co-operating by being led blindly by the nose.

"Spacedock is hailing." Grace announced.

"They want us to turn about." Derrico added.

"We will." Danan assured him, "Shortly."

She opened a comm channel to the Fortitude, "Once I clear Spacedock, I'll head out of system at full warp. Catch me if you can."

Derrico stared at her in bewilderment as she closed the channel. She shrugged while wearing an impish smile, "The old taunts are the best taunts."

"The Fortitude is arming photon torpedoes." Derrico warned.

"Good." Danan said in satisfaction.

"Torpedoes away!" Derrico announced.

"Wait for it." Danan told Grace calmly. Seconds ticked by before she called out, "Evasive action, bring us about."

Grace nearly turned the Odyssey up on its "end". She vectored the ship away from the atmosphere. The four torpedoes were unable to manoeuvre that tightly and sped past. Grace continued the loop and brought the ship around, with her primary weapons array aimed squarely at the Fortitude.

Derrico fired the phasers. The staccato pattern of the phaser fire resembled ancient anti-aircraft fire. The Odyssey maintained a four-second burst before vectoring off and leaving the Fortitude behind. The Odyssey was returning to aid the Enterprise, if she needed it. The Fortitude had larger problems.

The torpedoes sailed past the Odyssey, and squarely into Spacedock's shields. Their primary weapons array was targeted on the Fortitude, and began firing as the Odyssey broke off. Impulse sleds and fighters launched and surrounded the crippled starship. Mackenzie and her crew were out of the fight.

"The Perseverance is signalling her surrender." Data informed Riker.

Riker grinned triumphantly. Once the Enterprise only faced a single opponent, she'd quickly knocked the fight out of her enemy. The imminent return of the Odyssey galvanised Captain Guttman into action. He assumed he stood a better chance with Riker than with whoever was in command of the Odyssey.

"Signal our acceptance." Riker told Data, "Then hail the Odyssey. I'd like to thank them for their timely intervention."

"The Fortitude has attacked Spacedock." Patterson informed Drake and Picard, "They have returned fire and launched defence forces."

"Where is the Odyssey?" Picard asked.

"Rejoining the Enterprise, sir." Came the report, "The Charleston seems to have signalled her surrender."

"Very good." Picard replied in relief, then turned to Drake, "But, where in all of this is Captain Macen?"

"Where else?" Nechayev asked wearily from a communications console, "He's trying to break into the Federation Council Chambers."

"We must go there immediately!" Picard exclaimed.

Nechayev chuckled, "As usual, Captain, I'm already ahead of you. Transporter Six is waiting for us. We can beam directly to the Council floor."

The shuttles were circling back around. Two more shuttles came bearing in on the first two shuttles. The original shuttles turned and opened fire on the new arrivals. An aerial battle quickly erupted.

Macen didn't care. It provided a greater distraction for him. He continued down the corridor. Ahead, it reached a "T" junction. Just around the corner to the right, there should be a door that granted access into the Chamber's back anterooms.

Macen came to the junction and stopped he cautiously peered around the corner, weapon ready. The left was clear. He holstered his pistol and began to approach the door on the right. It opened.

Macen's hand flew to his pistol of its own accord. He had the weapon aimed and ready. The person facing him never flinched. The man was a Vulcan wearing ambassadorial robes.

"Your actions are illogical." The Vulcan informed him, "You must cease them immediately."

Macen kept his weapon trained on the Vulcan as he scornfully replied, "My actions are illogical? Where's the logic in deporting your citizens?"

The Vulcan remained unperturbed, "Their thinking was in error. They refused to see the fallacy of their logic. For the good of the many, they were removed."

Macen shook his head angrily, "That sound similar to the Cardassian Union."

The Vulcan's eyebrow rose, "It is a logical society. The state must prosper in order to provide stability for its citizens."

Macen snorted, "The only thing their state ever provided were endless wars to expand the borders."

"Nevertheless." The Vulcan replied calmly, "It also provided you with the cause and purpose to continue your life and in the Maquis you found a society to replace that which you lost to the Borg."

"We survived." Macen replied angrily, "By the mercy bestowed upon us by the Federation. I won't allow anyone to emulate the Borg by creating a place where dissent must be crushed to protect the fanatic dreams of an empowered few seeking their vision of 'perfection'."

"Our actions are in the name of the Federation as a collective whole." The Vulcan assured him.

"I will not be party to a system always sacrifices the individual for the so-called 'collective'." Macen said is low, measured tones.

"I shall not let you pass." The Vulcan informed him.

"We'll see." Macen replied. He stepped forward. The Vulcan moved swiftly, trying to grasp the nerve bundle in Macen's neck.

The Vulcan's eyes widened. He staggered back and gazed down at his mid-section, where his heart had been. Now, only charred hole remained. He fell to the ground with a look of absolute shock on his face.

Macen keyed the door and it slid open. He entered warily, weapon poised. Before him stretched a hall with multiple doors. He slowly moved past them, expecting an ambush. He reached the door at the other end without incident.

This door opened and he repeated his previous approach. This time, he was at an observation deck above the Council floor. Below him, the rotunda seating all of the Council members circled the President. Macen saw that he wasn't alone.

He was male, slightly older and heavier than Macen. His thinning hair was already white. His blue eyes stared malignantly at Brin. The man stood there with his hands clasped behind his back.

"Persistent bastard, aren't you?" he asked Macen.

"No less than you, Tetran." Macen replied disdainfully.

Tetran Ridl laughed. His laugh was as venomous as his gaze. Macen had known Ridl for nearly two decades. He had been a commander in the Starfleet Reaction Forces. That was the division of the Starfleet Commandos that responded to the threat of "domestic" crisis."

Macen and Ridl had battled throughout their association. Ridl's arm snapped around from behind his back. Macen was growing weary. He'd allowed his arms to droop so that his pistol was pointed at Ridl's feet. He brought the gun back up to pointing at Ridl's chest. Ridl now had a gun pointed at his chest as well.

They stared at each other. Hate radiated from Ridl's eyes. Disgust and pity shone in Macen's. Neither gave quarter nor asked for it.

"You'll never kill me." Ridl mocked him.

Macen pulled the trigger. Ridl fell to the ground. He was dead before he hit the floor. Macen holstered his pistol. He left the observation lounge without a word.

Picard and Nechayev materialised in the middle of the Council Chambers. Dozens of members leapt to their feet. The President stepped off the podium towards them. His look of surprise matched that felt by all those in attendance.

"Admiral, Captain," he said softly, "how can I help you?"

"Actually," Nechayev replied wryly, "we're here to help you."

"With what?" the President asked, even more perplexed.

The Chamber doors flew open. Brin Macen stood there. His eyes blazed. He marched forward.

Macen's movements reflected the pain he felt. Anger was all that moved him forward. He marched straight towards the President. He purposefully ignored the stares of the Council members as he passed.

He similarly ignored Nechayev and Picard as he came to attention, "Mr. President. I have evidence you need to see."

"Evidence?" the President repeated uncertainly, "Why present it to me? Is it not proper to present such things to Starfleet Command?"

"Not in this case." Macen replied stiffly, "I have uncovered evidence of an illegal operation conducted and condoned by elements of Starfleet, an underground movement, and by members of the Federation Council itself."

"What?" the President exclaimed.

"Mr. President." Nechayev joined in, "Captain Macen is correct."

The President looked stricken. This was too soon after the conclusion of the war. How many crises was he supposed to deal with?

"What evidence do you have?" the President croaked.

"The complete list of conspirators and all activities." Macen reported.

"Lies!" An Andorian representative shouted, "He is a terrorist! He has assaulted Security Services in both the President's Office and here in the Chambers. He has killed people."

"How many have you killed?" Macen snarled, turning to face the Andorian. The intensity in the look of contempt he gave the bombastic alien caused the Councillor to shrink back into his seat. "How many people have you condemned in order to justify your sense of superiority? How many lives have paid for you to be able to smugly sit here and feel that you're leadership is the greatest thing for your people?"

Silence resumed as Macen's last words echoed across the hall. His derisive snort echoed across the hall.

"There is no escape." Macen said sweeping his arm across the room, "We have you. We have all of you."

He turned to the President. He reached into a pouch in his belt and withdrew a data record chip. He handed it to the President.

"This is the evidence." Macen said without emotion, "Do what you need to do."

He turned and strode out of the Chamber. He held his head up proudly. He was satisfied. His duty had been done, justice would prevail. The only concern he had now was contacting his ship and checking on his crew...his people.

Three weeks later, Macen stood before Admirals Nechayev, Drake, and Jellico. He was wearing his standard uniform again. Jellico had made a snide comment regarding Macen's refusal to wear the Command Department's colour, but he'd subsided after Nechayev kicked him under the table. This was the last hearing into the events that had led to the destruction of the "Odyssey" and to the deaths of several Starfleet personnel in orbit. He had already been cleared of his actions by Protective Services.

"It is the finding of this board that Commander Brin Macen is not culpable for the events listed in the articles of inquiry." Nechayev announced.

Macen grinned at that announcement. The only factor in the investigation that he'd feared might leverage it against him was Jellico's involvement. Having discussed the Admiral's line of questioning with his Senior Staff, he'd lost that fear. After that, it was just sitting through the tedium.

Jellico rose and approached Macen. He extended his hand.

"Congratulations." He said gruffly, then left.

Macen turned back to Nechayev and Drake. Nechayev motioned for him to sit in the chair before the table they sat behind. He complied and waited. Nechayev reviewed the data on a padd.

She sat the padd down and stared straight at him, "We shall now discuss the future of your command."

"I assumed I would resume command of the Odyssey." Macen replied.

"That's essentially correct." Nechayev responded, "There will be some changes."

Macen's expression became uneasy, "What kind of changes?"

Nechayev chuckled softly, "Personnel mostly. You submitted several recommendations before the informal inquiry, and now I have time to tell you what my decisions were."

Macen shifted in his seat as he prepared for the worst.

Nechayev ignored Macen's triumphant smile as she continued, "Regarding brevet Lieutenant Junior Grade T'Kir, her temporary rank as been revoked. She may remain in your custody provided," Nechayev paused, hammering the last word, "Provided that she does not display any more bouts of instability."

Macen nearly cheered as Nechayev pointed a finger at him sternly, "T'Kir will be supervised. In fact, most of the former Maquis are being released. Any infractions or excessively irregular behaviour and they shall be remanded into custody. That includes T'Kir."

Macen nodded. His head spinning as Nechayev resumed, "Lt. Commander Danan will retain her current assignment as both your Science Officer."

Macen was filling giddy, but stifled the impulse to show it, "Of your current senior officers, only one has requested to stay aboard. Doctor Kort will remain under your command . Many of the junior officers requested to stay aboard. Some of their requests will be granted."

Macen felt some disappointment, but it was overshadowed by the glow of his victories, "Furthermore, the Odyssey will be sent to Utopia Planitia to be stripped down for parts."

"Wait a minute!" Macen protested, "You can't do that. She's my ship."

"Yes." Nechayev agreed, "You are retaining command of her."

Macen shook his head, "Not that like that. I own her."

Nechayev gave him a thin smile, "Commander, the Odyssey was returned to the fleet upon your...return. She's the property of Starfleet."

"You stole my ship?" he growled.

"It was assigned to you only for the tenure of your assignment with the Maquis." Nechayev corrected.

"What do you want?" Macen asked in resignation.

Nechayev motioned towards Drake. "Admiral Drake is now your direct superior. She will be overseeing your entire Division."

"What Division?" Macen asked.

"A new one." Nechayev replied cryptically, "Assigned to trouble shooting crises."

Macen's eyebrows rose, "Trouble shooters?"

Nechayev sighed, "Surely this episode has proven that we need specialists in dealing with emergency situations and special investigations? More directly, specialists that can and will operate outside the normal parameters of Starfleet?"

"Certainly, but..." Macen began, "But what exactly the parameters of such an assignment be?"

"It's a joint venture between Internal Affairs and Intelligence." Drake answered, "Recent events have shown Command that we're losing touch with operational realities."

"You can say that again." Macen muttered.

"Excuse me?" Drake asked sharply. Nechayev suppressed a grin and glared instead.

Macen at least appeared contrite, "Sorry."

"As I was saying," Drake began again, "Command is realising that a lot is going on out there, and in our own fleet, that we don't know about. The bureaucracies have grown too large for our current organisations and institutions to keep track of. We need something new, a new perspective."

"So why me?" Macen asked warily, "I don't exactly abide by the rules."

"You're perfect for the job." Drake admitted ruefully, "You have little respect for ingrained thinking, or the ponderous inflexibility of red tape. You all want to change the galaxy? Well, here's your chance."

"Sounds nice, but a little too neat." Macen commented, "What's the catch?"

"This is also the easiest way to keep tabs on you." Drake admitted, "You're too stubborn to give up on your damned quest to change Starfleet. This is the best way to insure that we'll know if you're about to start another armed rebellion."

Macen sighed, "It wasn't a rebellion."

Drake smiled, "I know that, Commander. It was a group of homesteaders fighting to preserve the homes they'd carved out for themselves." Seeing his surprise, she shrugged, "My ancestors fought on the colonial side of the Argusian civil war."

Macen was familiar with this titbit of Terran history. Argus VI had been settled by a group of humans over two hundred years ago. When the Romulan war broke out, the colonists were ordered to evacuate. They refused. After the war, several ships from Earth were dispatched to deport the settlers. They refused to be deported. Six months of intense fighting broke out, only to be resolved by granting Argus independence and allowing it to sign the original Federation Charter.

Drake read the surprise in his eyes, "I understood the Maquis. I also disapproved of many of their methods."

"I won't argue with you there." Macen allowed.

"Having heard the details, will you join us?"

Macen rubbed his chin, "It's tempting, but it still sounds too good to be true."

"You'd rather be poking around the galaxy looking for a new planet for the Maquis survivors to settle down on." Nechayev finished dryly, waving her hand at him.

"So you say now." Nechayev snorted, "And then you'll go crazy because you didn't accept my offer."

"I doubt it. I've had enough problems with Section 31 without trying to steal their job description" Macen snorted sourly, "So what about my ship?"

"What about your assignment?"

"You can blow it out of the nearest airlock, sir."

"Really?" Nechayev asked disdainfully, "And you think this will help you in your career?"

"My career in Starfleet ended five years ago." Macen flatly answered. He reached for two padds that sat in the seat next to him. He picked them up and carried them over to the Admirals. He sat them down in front of Nechayev.

"And this would be?"

"My retirement papers." He explained, "And Lisea Danan's resignation."

"Is this your final decision?"

"Yes." Nechayev heard the steel in his reply.

"Very well." She shrugged, "Your requests will be refused immediately."

"What?!" He shouted suddenly.

Nechayev gave him a cool, appraising glance, "Starfleet is handling the repatriation of the Maquis. The colonies are being re-established as a Federation Protectorate. If you are looking for a place to be 'needed', it's right here Commander."

"Brin," Nechayev said with sigh, "you're one of my best. Both the Federation and Starfleet are at crossroads now that the war is over. I, we, can't afford to let you go now. I'm asking you again, will you accept the offer?"

"Thank you, Admiral." Macen replied quietly, "I think I will."

Nechayev's face nearly fell. She waved him away. "Get out. Leave now. If you start being proper now, I'll have you arrested."

He threw her a cocky salute, "That'll never happen." He turned serious again.

"So what happens next?" he asked.

"T'Kir will undergo an advanced training program to bring her up to speed on Starfleet protocols. She'll also be observed and treated at that time. It should take three months. That will coincide with the approximate time it will take to refit your ship."

She shot Macen a glare warning him not to gloat, "The rest of you will be assigned to the Academy as temporary lecturers."

Macen smirked and Nechayev scowled, "Don't do it Brin. This isn't an opportunity for you to mangle cadet's minds."

"I wouldn't dream of it." Macen smirked.

"Just leave." Nechayev firmly ordered, "And take that rabble loitering on the plaza steps with you."

Macen stepped out into the plaza stretching out in front of Starfleet Command. Danan, Kort, and T'Kir stood together. They all looked nervous as he approached. He came toward them, his face a stony masque.

They saw the glower on his face and fell silent. No one spoke for several heartbeats.

Danan broke the silence, "What did they say?"

"What do you think?" he replied sourly, "They want to assign us to a new ship, and they tried to recruit me into a new service division."

"What kind of division?" T'Kir asked suspiciously.

"Flying around kicking Federation hind end." Macen replied, "They want us to do what we do best: annoy lazy, corrupt bureaucrats, outwit Starfleet officers and generally wreak havoc. We'd be the first agents of a new joint Starfleet Division created by Intelligence and Internal Affairs."

"What did you tell them?" Danan asked with a hint of worry in her voice.

"I told them it was about time they let us loose and that we would've done that with or without their permission." He grinned, "So, they're keeping us together despite their better judgment."

It took several minutes for his words to sink in. They stared at him while they tried to digest what they'd heard. Danan figured it out first and laughed happily, hugging him fiercely. Ignoring T'Kir's wounded look, Macen broke into a laugh and the others relaxed and thought about the implications of their new assignment. It was a heady prospect. They enjoyed the moment, knowing it was only the first of many yet to come.

 

- The End -

 

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Last modified: 02 Jan 2014 
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