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Relics - Part II by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter 6

The Romulan advance was stymied. P'ris was unconcerned about her troops' abilities. They were all hardened Tal Shiar agents and Imperial soldiers. They had been posing as scientists for the last few weeks to allay the Vulcans' suspicions. In truth, they had been carefully monitoring the archaeologists every move in case the scientists uncovered some exotic piece of technology like the Iconian gateways.

Explosions and phaser cannon fire tore up the ground in front of her men and women. The Federation team sent to assist the Vulcans included expert marksmen with a grenade launcher and the portable cannon. P'ris had noted though, not one burst had resulted in a casualty. Even the assault in the edifice had been nonlethal. Aredin would be hoarse for a few days but he would live without a scar to show for his pains. It was time, P'ris decided, for a bold move.

"Everyone advance. Hold the line and proceed forward at a single step march." P'ris ordered through her communicator. Her troops immediately began pressing forward. As she expected, the incoming fire from the Federation personnel retreated but stayed ahead of her company's advance.

In truth, P'ris only had thirty-six soldiers on the ground. She had the resources of an entire Warbird at her disposal and could easily call down five times that many troops. At this moment, she was glad she hadn't. It was hard enough to control the "fire if fired upon" instincts of the combatants she had.

Her people were grouped twelve across, three deep. Most of the third rank was in the ziggurat or gathering heavy weapons back in camp. Three more of the third rank ran forward to catch up with the others. This gave her six in the third rank.

The new arrivals brought low yield plasma mortars with them. A fourth arrived from the ziggurat and was handed the mortar team's sensor glasses. P'ris herself was using sensor glasses to keep track of the retreating Vulcan scientists. Although the dark glasses protected the wearer's eyes from intense light, the also worked as night vision, binoculars and range finder.

Although dusk was falling P'ris' vision was as clear as noonday. Her range finder ticked off the increasing distance between her forces and Macen's party. The mortar team was now set and she decided it was time to address them.

"Your target is the space between the harassing picket and the retreating Vulcan unit." P'ris informed her fire team, "Fire at will but do not, I repeat, do not harm the Federation forces. The Imperial fleet is in no shape to repel a vengeful Starfleet strike force."

"Are you questioning the ability of our valiant fleet?" one of the mortar techs demanded.

"Our fleet is stretched too thin right now. Insurgents are wreaking havoc across the Empire and they are being aided by these so called Omicrons." P'ris hotly replied, "These same wretches have crippled a quarter of the fleet and bolstered the morale of the insurgents. We must obtain the relics that the Vulcans have absconded with. They may provide a means to counter the Omicron aggression."

"It will be done, Commander." the senior officer present vowed.

"Then commence your attack."

All three mortars spewed forth blazing balls of plasma. These arced high in the air and fell to earth between Daggit and Radil's position and Macen's party. Radil flinched but Daggit remained nonchalant as two of the plasma mortars detonated behind them. Daggit never stopped firing but his grenades began landing closer to the encroaching Romulans. Radil adjusted the power setting and the width of her phaser burst and fired into the crowd of Romulans. Four stunned Romulans fell where they'd stood.

The third mortar nearly landed atop the retreating relic team. Macen saw the approaching plasma ball descend towards them and he yelled for everyone to seek cover. He then dove atop T'Kir and formed a living shield to protect her. The plasma mortar detonated fifty metres behind the team.

The concussive blast that preceded the expanding ball of superheated gas rolled across the blain in every direction. It passed over the prone forms of Macen and T'Kir. Next it threw Danan and the Vulcans off their feet and onto the ground. The grav sleds were pushed forward as well. Fortunately they didn't tip over.

Danan covered herself as best she could. She had bare arms and legs due to her race's aversion to high temperatures. The Vulcan's trusted their Starfleet uniforms to protect them from the wall of flame that swept over them in the wake of the concussive wave.

Macen rolled off of T'Kir and checked her out. She was unscathed except for a few singed hairs. Her clothing had protected her.

Macen was fine with the exception of singed hair and mild to moderate burns on the uncovered portions of his arms. He and T'Kir rose and ran to check on the others. T'Kir checked on the Vulcans and Macen inspected Danan.

Danan's arms and legs bore burns and her hair possessed the inevitable scorching. She shuddered and gasped at the pain in her limbs. Macen called for T'Kir.

As she arrived, Macen's eyes met T'Kir's, "Can you do anything?"

"I think so." T'Kir said with as much certainty as she could muster. She placed her hands to either side of Danan's skull. T'Kir's eyes met Danan's as their minds began to merge.

At the mortar position, P'ris used her disruptor to backhand the weapons tech that had fired the near miss, "Idiot! I said no casualties!"

"Forgive me, Mistress." The tech cowered, "It won't happen again."

"It had better not." P'ris growled, "If you create an interstellar incident, I shall be forced to kill you."

The tech gulped and returned to his post. All three mortar platforms adjusted their range and fired again. This time, all three rounds landed close enough to rattle one's nerves but far enough away to prevent physical injury.

T'Kir lifted her hands and blinked. Danan let out a contented sigh. Macen looked at Danan with some bewilderment and then gave T'Kir a quizzical glance.

"Why does she look like she's just had the time of her life?"

T'Kir rose and helped Danan to her feet, "Trills don't have anything like the Vulcan healing trance, so I used a Romulan pain blocking technique. She'll temporarily associate all pain with pleasure."

"She looks like she just had an orgasm." Macen commented.

"That's the pleasure centre I tied her discomfort to." T'Kir responded.

Danan let out another contented moan and Macen shook his head, "As long as she can travel."

"She'll absolutely love moving her arms and legs right now." T'Kir replied.

"As long as you keep an eye on her to keep her from injuring herself further." Macen said in a defeated tone.

"Sure thing, Boss." T'Kir quipped then her eyes went wide, "Elements! Here comes another volley!"

Macen turned and watched the plasma balls' arc, "Relax, they going to fall perfectly centred between us and the fire team."

"But why?" T'Kir asked as the plasma rounds detonated exactly where Macen had predicted.

"P'ris is running the same gambit we are. She's trying separate us so that she can impede our progress and overrun Rab and Radil." Macen explained.

"Clever bitch." T'Kir muttered.

Macen shrugged, "Its the only tactic that makes sense. Any other course of action will either end in failure on her part or create an interstellar incident."

"Like Radil firing into the crowd?" T'Kir asked.

Macen turned and saw Radil firing volleys into the Romulan ranks, "Oh, hell." He slapped his comm badge, "Radil, cease fire. Do not, and I can't stress this enough, do not fire into the Romulan ranks."

"Oh, all right." Radil grumbled.

"Now, let's get this procession on the move again." Macen said and then he went over to the Vulcans and got them to gingerly test the grav sled controls' temperature. By wrapping their uniform jacket sleeves over their hands, they were able to grasp the heated control boxes. T'Kir gathered up Danan and got her marching towards the archaeological campsite.

P'ris ripped off her sensor glasses, "Damn them!"

"Our ploy has failed mistress." The senior weapons tech reported, "The enemy is still proceeding to their camp despite the three warning volleys we have unleashed."

"I can see that you fool." P'ris snapped, "If you don't have a positive contribution to make, hold your tongue or I shall remove it for you."

"Commander," one of the subordinate techs cautiously spoke, "would it not be wise to strike the enemy now before they reach their camp?"

"No." P'ris answered firmly, "Despite our losses to the stun blasts of the enemy, we still outnumber them two to one. We shall overrun their rearguard. It is only a matter of time. They have nowhere to retreat except the stone city. They cannot elude us there. We shall yet be victorious."

"What about our mortar fire, Commander?" The senior tech enquired.

"Cease fire and join your comrades on the line."

The techs all exchanged worried looks but obeyed P'ris' order.

Macen's group reached the Starfleet expedition's tents. Danan was practically out of her head with blissful spasms. Dorik and Velrik each looked as harried as Macen and T'Kir felt. The couple's outward composure remained as unflappable as it had in the ziggurat's bowels.

"Commander," Macen addressed Dorik, "where is your transmitter?"

"In the command tent." Dorik answered, "Come, follow me."

Dorik pushed the grav sled onward. Velrik and the SID team members followed suit. The command tent was the largest and was located in the centre of the camp. Inside, were tables filled with artefacts and portable mainframes. Several high resolution scanners and holocameras were present as well. In the corner of the tent, located under a table, was a comm unit.

"Commander, now would be a good time to recall your personnel." Macen advised.

"And why is this?" Dorik asked calmly.

"I intend to extract your personnel when we withdraw from this sphere." Macen explained.

"That would leave our research incomplete." Dorik replied.

"If I were to leave your people behind, they would be constantly harassed by the Tal Shiar forces encamped on the other side of the ziggurat." Macen described, "They wouldn't be allowed to finish their investigations."

"How can you be so certain that all of the Romulan visitors are Tal Shiar agents?" Dorik asked.

"We fought with two of their so called 'scientists'. They were armed and instinctively responded to force. That's the hallmark of a soldier or security agent, not a scientist."

"Yet you appear to be both." Dorik countered.

"I'm the exception to most rules." Macen replied and then shrugged, "Besides, my days as a scientist ended upon entering Starfleet."

"Curious." Dorik mused, "Starfleet's primary aims are exploration and the quest for knowledge. Yet you purport that this same organisation diverted you from those pursuits."

"Not entirely." Macen rebutted, "Starfleet Intelligence seeks all the information it can acquire on every one of the myriad races The Federation has contact with. If it weren't for the research involved in that process, I would have left Starfleet Intelligence a long time ago."

"Yet you are now a covert operative and an investigator for the SID. A strange circumstance for a 'mere' analyst."

Macen broke into a lopsided smile, "We all have a past. Some just have more twists and turns than others."

"I find that answer most unsatisfactory." Dorik admitted.

Macen shrugged, "Some things are best left unrevealed. Just appreciate the mystery."

A human would have frowned or shrugged in the face of futility. Dorik merely changed the topic as if the previous conversation had not occurred, "Very well, Captain. I shall issue a recall and withdrawal order to my compatriots."

"Thank you." Macen bowed his head slightly. Next he joined T'Kir beside the comm unit, "Is she fired up?"

"Just waiting for your illustrious presence." T'Kir remarked.

"Watch it, smart ass." Macen warned.

"Oh, don't be a wanker." T'Kir chastised him.

Macen gave her a sidelong glance but refrained from commenting. Instead he activated the comm unit and began speaking.

Radil couldn't believe it. She'd always known that Daggit became a veritable killing machine when in combat, but she'd never realised how steely his nerves became as well. Expanding balls of flame had erupted behind Daggit and he'd never flinched. Even when Radil herself was tempted to dive for cover, Daggit stayed steadfast, calmly firing at the enemy as though nothing but rain were falling.

It made her realise how much she'd missed Kort's company over the last few weeks. They'd united for the volleyball game but otherwise Radil had kept her distance. She couldn't even remember why she was mad in the first place. It was something she needed to work on. She was good at fighting but terrible at long term commitment.

She supposed that was one of the reasons that becoming a mercenary originally appealed to her. A mercenary's commitment was short term. Once the money ran out or the singular objective was achieved you were off finding another contract. Her five years with Macen's crew were the longest she'd stayed with anyone in a very long time. Only her stint with the Bajoran Resistance surpassed it.

The truth of the matter was that she wanted her relationship with Kort to stabilise. And, she was forced to admit, a large part of the recent turbulence was her doing. Things had progressed further than she ever taken an affair before. The idea of settling down with one person for the rest of her life was daunting at best.

Radil's entire life was a saga of loss. The idea of devoting one's heart to a single individual and then losing that individual was almost more than she could bear. Realistically, Radil was far more likely to expire than Kort was due to their relative roles. Still it was a concept that she found paralysing.

Snap out of it girl. Radil mentally berated herself, Keep your mind on the mission or you really will get killed.

In the meantime, Daggit took the opportunity to eject the magazine of his grenade launcher and put in a fresh clip. As soon as he completed this task he resumed firing. The Romulan line had surged forward during Daggit's reloading and Radil's reverie.

"Are you all right?" Daggit called out.

"I'm fine." Radil lied as she resumed firing.

"I think we should double time it to the encampment." Daggit suggested, "We can keep them off from there until our extraction arrives."

"Sounds good to me." Radil shouted back.

"Then hold on." Daggit replied, "When I stop firing make a break for it."

Without waiting for a reply, Daggit unleashed a rapid fire salvo. The grenades were each placed far more closely than any previous barrage. Romulans across the line dove for cover as the ground in front of them lifted into the air and rained down upon them. The grenades' energy discharge bowled over the second rank. P'ris had to charge forward and stand before her troops in order to restrain their natural inclination to return fire.

"Listen to me," P'ris shouted in order to be heard over the general clamour, "our opponents are running from us. Note that I did not say enemies. We are not at war and Elements preserve us, we will not go to war because of an incident on a backwater world outside of the Empire. We are guests in this region of space. We are struggling to 'convince' the Vulcans into disclosing what they have discovered and to share whatever benefits the Federation may derive from it."

P'ris' gaze swept the ranks of Romulan soldiers arrayed before her, "We will be victorious. We shall achieve this victory without resorting to killing the Federation personnel opposing our collective will. The Praetor assigned us to this mission with the expectation that it would be a peaceful endeavour. We shall not disappoint."

P'ris joined the first rank of troops, "Shall we press on towards victory?"

"Yes!" came the resounding cry.

"Shall we do so without bloodshed?"

"Yes." there was less enthusiasm this time but all spoke as one.

"Then follow me!" P'ris cried and charged forward. Like their barbaric ancestors before them, the Romulans surged forth with a deafening cry.

Daggit and Radil hurried to the Starfleet encampment laid out beside the ziggurat. Radil ran as best as she could while lugging around the powerpack and emitter of the portable phaser cannon she wore. Daggit would occasionally run backwards to inspect what gains the Romulans had made. As the Romulan war cry arose, Daggit turned back towards the camp and yelled out to Radil.

"Hurry Jenrya. They're coming on strong."

"Hurry he says." Radil grunted, feeling the drag on the right side of her body where the emitter hung from a shoulder strap. At least it's strapped to my hip so its not swinging everywhere. Radil consoled herself.

Even though it felt like an eternity, it only took seven minutes to reach the camp's perimeter. Daggit immediately swung around and began discharging grenades at the advancing Romulan horde. Explosions threw most of the leading Romulan pursuers to the ground. P'ris emerged from the dust and smoke of the explosions.

She addressed the enraged Romulan troops, "You see? They resort to delaying tactics and running away. Do not grant them the martyrdom they seek. Hold the line, stop for nothing and we will walk over these mites that so annoy us."

There was a general tumult of agreement and P'ris smiled, "Very well, my loyal compatriots, let us finish this!" The gathered Romulans stepped forward as a single line and bore down on the Vulcan camp.

Inside the command tent, Macen had secured a connection with the Obsidian's bridge, "Shannon? What other command officers are present on the bridge?"

Forger made a cursory glance around the bridge, "Commander Riker and Lieutenant Grace are present as well."

"Forget the military parlance crap." Macen bit back, "I'm formally doing away with all that nonsense right here and now. We don't need it and never have."

"All...all right." Forger stammered, "What...I mean why..."

"How can we help you?" Riker finished for her.

"Tom, I need an extraction team. We're under attack by the Romulans down here and we need to evacuate the Starfleet team."

"I'm on it." Riker assured him.

"See you then." Macen signed off and cut the circuit.

Riker turned to Grace, "Page Ceryx and inform him that he needs to relieve you. Then call Rhiann and tell her to join you in the auxiliary shuttlebay."

"Two Type 9 shuttles don't have the passenger room for sixteen people." Grace pointed out.

"The shuttles are just flying shotgun." Riker explained, "I'll be flying the Corsair in. She has plenty of passenger room."

Grace nodded, "This is crazy enough to work."

"Have you ever known anything relating to this group to be sane?" Riker asked.

Grace smiled and shook her head, "I'll make those calls now."

"Good girl." Riker nodded, wearing a grudging answering grin of his own. His months away from the team, and Grace's decision to become truly human, had transformed his opinion of her. She was far more likeable and trustworthy when she didn't have the ability to rewrite your memory or transform you into a little cube.

She's actually a remarkable young woman. Riker thought to himself, She'll have an amazing career as long as she doesn't revert back to her secretive ways.

P'ris' comm unit beeped and she drew her wrist up and tapped its activation stud, "P'ris here."

"Donatra." The Warbird's commander identified herself, "We've intercepted a transmission from the surface to the Federation ship in orbit."

"Were you able to decipher it?" P'ris enquired.

"Negative. They employed a new encryption algorithm. It was far more advanced than anything we've seen thus far." Donatra revealed.

"T'Kir." P'ris growled then shook her head, "Launch two fighters and have them patrol the skies above our position. The Federation team will try to extract the scientists and their relics. We cannot allow this."

"What rules of engagement do my fighter crews have?"

P'ris pursed her lips in concentration, "Their orders are to force the Federation shuttlecraft to land without damaging them. They can defend themselves if fired upon but only if they are directly hit."

"That's rather...restrictive." Donatra commented.

"Remember the goodwill Picard generated by defeating Shinzon?" P'ris asked, "Do you wish to kill that sentiment over a few potentially worthless trinkets on a backwater world?"

"No, I guess not." Donatra admitted, "Your orders will be relayed to the flight crews. Do wish to have more fighters on stand-by?"

"No." P'ris replied, "Two should suffice. The Valdore can deal directly with any unexpected surprises."

"The Obsidian and the Valdore are currently facing directly at one another." Donatra described, "That means the primary offensive systems of both vessels are currently aimed at each other."

"The Starfleet team on the ground has already demonstrated an aversion to provoking a war. I do not believe your ship faces any threat." P'ris relayed.

"Even if I did face a hostile ship, the Valdore outclasses the Obsidian. The discrepancy is so great as to create the impression of suicidal impulses accompanying any attack on this vessel." Donatra said confidently.

"Remember, you thought that about a similar vessel and these officers before." P'ris reminded her shipboard counterpart.

"That was the past." Donatra sniffed, "I have a superior vessel and our intelligence indicates that Hannah Grace no longer possesses her thrice damned 'Attuner'."

"Resolve and ingenuity are the equal to exotic technology." P'ris warned, "Macen possesses both. If he returns to his vessel, you will face a demon."

"Nonsense." Donatra rebutted, "My crew is comprised of veterans of the Imperial fleet. We are ready for any challenge."

"I hope your boastful confidence is warranted Commander." P'ris said sceptically.

"You will see, Commander." Donatra replied without a trace of doubt, "We shall prevail and the Empire will be rewarded through our efforts."

"I pray you are right." P'ris remarked, "I fear for the consequences if you are proven wrong."

 

Chapter 7

The main shuttlebay's flight crew vacated the Corsair's interior and the external crew finished their inspection of the runabout's warp nacelles, phaser banks, shield emitters and microtorpedo launchers. Satisfied that his personnel had done their job, the crew chief gave Riker a thumbs up. Riker approached the runabout's main hatch and patted the Corsair's hull.

"Thanks, Chief." Riker acknowledged her crew's efforts, "I'll try and bring her back in one piece."

"Just bring the Captain and the rest back and I'll call it even." the Chief told him.

Riker tapped his comm badge, "Riker to Grace."

"Grace here."

"Is Rhiann with you?"

"As requested." Grace replied, "Our shuttles just passed their inspections and we're boarding them now."

"Good. I'm boarding the Corsair now. I'll be ready to launch in a few minutes." Riker informed Grace, "Launch as soon as you get clearance from your bay controller."

"See you out there." Grace signed off.

Riker shook his head as he boarded the Corsair. Grace was an enigma he decided. Now that she was partially rehabilitated, she was transforming herself into a vibrant young woman. In fact, in many ways she reminded Riker of Jamie Kirk.

As he sat down at the CONN he shook himself. That wasn't a train of thought that he wanted to pursue. Jamie's death was still an open wound with him. Time was dulling the sharpness of the pain but he knew that he would always miss her.

The flight crew had activated all of the Corsair's systems. Riker merely needed to pilot the craft out of the shuttlebay. He activated the comm channel linked to bay control and waited for permission to disembark. The comm chatter indicated that the auxiliary bay was set to launch first so Riker sat back and awaited his turn.

Grace eagerly watched as the shuttle bay door opened. She rested her hand on the shuttle's flight and speed controls. Grace was flying the Eclipse while Rhiann helmed the Equinox. The rear blast shield rose behind the Eclipse and locked into place.

Grace received the preflight authorisation and she activated the antigrav and the shuttle floated above the deck. Next she received the launch orders and she pushed the impulse speed controls to maximum. Like a crossbow bolt the Eclipse launched out of the bay once she was released.

The forward blast shield descended back into the deck even as the rear blast shield lifted behind the Equinox. Rhiann followed the same process as Grace and achieved the same results. The Equinox roared out of the bay.

Riker tensed as the bay doors opened in the main shuttlebay. Without waiting for orders, he lifted the corsair off the deck. Riker waited for the blast shield to rise into place. The bay controller authorised the launch and Riker pushed the runabout for all it was worth.

The Corsair leapt into space and proceeded to the orbital position the two shuttles had assumed when the Obsidian's Tactical 2nd commed the planetbound flight, "Be advised Rescue Group, the Valdore has launched two Scorpion-class fighters. They are headed for the planet and will arrive ahead of you if you proceed with a normal reentry sequence."

Riker toggled the comm, "Thank you Obsidian, we stand advised." Riker shifted subspace frequencies and commed the two shuttles while he worked up a flightplan, "Riker to Rescue Two and Rescue Three. I'm transmitting a new flightplan. Be prepared to implement it in one minute."

"Rescue One, be advised, we'll have to use our shields or we'll burn up in the reentry. Even then, we'll overload the shields halfway through." Grace expressed her concerns.

"I'm aware of that. I'm also aware that the Romulans know we're coming. The circuit breakers on our shields will reset before the Scorpions reach us, so we won't be unprotected." Riker replied, "If you have any more objections, note them in your log later. For now, this is a direct order. Implement the revised flightplan...now!"

The three ships dove into the atmosphere as one. They were aimed directly at the planet's surface. Within seconds, a ball of flame enveloped the support craft. They continued like this for several minutes before the computer advised the pilots that their shields were collapsing. Riker maintained his course, with the shuttles in tow, for several more minutes. As the shields neared catastrophic failure, Riker commed the two shuttles.

"Adjust 45 degrees on the y-axis"

The three ships trimmed out just as their shields collapsed. They flew through balls of superheated gases and soon their hulls began to glow and fire began to lick at the leading edges of the vessels. Despite the environmental settings of the Federation craft automatically cooling the interior of the runabout and the shuttles, the temperatures rose until all three pilots were basked in a sheen of sweat.

Grace was having the time of her life. She loved plummeting descents. This is why she enjoyed orbital skydiving. The thrill of teetering on the very edge of being out of control was alluring to her.

Her earlier expression of concern had been for Riker and Rhiann's sake. Although Riker was reputed to be an excellent pilot, she'd never seen him in action. On the other hand, she knew Rhiann's capabilities. The Andorian was a competent starship pilot but she wasn't spectacular. Her performance in a shuttle was even less inspiring.

Without being boastful, Grace knew she was easily among a handful of the best pilots in the Federation. Her enhanced reflexes and paranormal hand-eye coordination left most pilots feeling inadequate in comparison. It wasn't pride or an overinflated ego that spawned Grace's confidence in her abilities. Hard won experience drove Grace's faith in herself.

The three Federation vehicles were swiftly approaching the treetop canopy of the jungle. Riker ordered another adjustment of their course and the craft trimmed out and flew a level course. According to their sensors the Scorpions were several hundred kilometres behind them. They were, however, closing the distance.

"Rescue One," Grace transmitted, "Requesting permission for Rescue Three and myself to detach and run interference."

"Permission granted." Riker responded, "Happy hunting and remember, no casualties."

"Roger." Grace replied, "Good luck with the extraction."

"I won't need it." Riker commented, "The Romulans will."

Grace smiled and signalled Rhiann. They tied their comms together and as the Scorpions closed to one hundred kilometres they fired their braking thrusters. The two craft slowed and the Corsair left them behind. As the Romulan fighters neared, Grace and Rhiann began accelerating. Although they'd doubled their speed the attack craft passed them and kept in pursuit of the runabout.

Grace and Rhiann went to maximum impulse and began to slowly close the distance between themselves and the two racing fighter craft. The two Scorpions were more manoeuvrable but the Type-9 shuttles were faster. Unfortunately, the fighters were more heavily armed and shielded. In an engagement, the Romulan fighters held all the trump cards except speed.

Grace commed Rhiann, "Rescue Three, prepare to fire. Follow my lead and commence with a warning shot."

"Acknowledged Rescue Two." came the Andorian's reply.

Grace fired a beam ten metres above her target. At first there was no response, then the dorsal mounted disruptor cannon swung around and locked on. The other fighter followed his comrade's example despite the fact that Rhiann hadn't fired yet. Grace dove underneath the fighter, clear of the cannon's weapons.

The Scorpion fighter wasn't a Romulan design. It had been designed, developed and deployed by the Remans. In a gesture of reconciliation following Shinzon's coup d'état, the new Romulan Praetor had opened the Romulan fleet to Reman recruits. Although racial tensions remained, the doors of equality were slowly opening.

The Remans though had an even more heightened warrior code than their Romulan cousins. Despite their orders to the contrary the slightest provocation was interpreted as an attack. No Reman worthy of his name would allow a threatening challenge to remain unanswered.

Rhiann followed Grace and took up position underneath the Reman craft. Grace commed Macen, "Captain, this is Grace. We have been engaged by the Romulan attack craft. Requesting permission to return fire!"

Macen winced as Grace's voice came over his comm badge's speaker, "Permission granted. Hannah, try to bring them down intact."

"Roger that." Grace replied and cut the circuit.

"Damn it." Macen said to T'Kir, "This is what I've been trying to avoid."

"Too late now." T'Kir shrugged, "We'd better evacuate this tent though. We stand a better chance if we're in the open and moving between the tents."

"Good thinking." Macen agreed, "Get the others ready to move. We'll leave in another few minutes."

"Right." T'Kir replied and bustled off.

Macen tapped his comm badge, "Rab, do you read me?"

"Loud and clear." Daggit said. In the background, explosions could be heard.

"Hannah just engaged the Romulans' air support." Macen informed him, "Expect a reprisal."

"Permission to engage?"

"Stun as many as you'd like." Macen conceded.

"About time." Daggit remarked and closed the circuit.

No sooner had Daggit closed the comm line then Riker hailed Macen, "Brin, I'm coming in and I'm coming in hot."

"Good." Macen replied, "We'll be standing by. And if you could, do something about a small horde of Romulans encroaching on our position."

"Consider it done."

As the circuit went dead, Macen considered that Daggit might be upset that his "fun" was cut short but Macen considered the risk worth the reward. He opened the comm beacon's access panel, revealing the computerised "brain" of the unit and pulled his phaser free of its holster. Macen took aim and then fired into the isolinear innards of the comm array's control panels, frequency regulators and encryption ciphers. The shattered and irreparable fragments of the isolinear chips fell to the base of the unit.

Satisfied, Macen closed the hatch and turned towards the computers lying about, "T'Kir, wipe their network and individual memories clean."

"No problem." she said and cracked her knuckles. Sitting down before one of the terminals, she perused the local network and secured the doorway to Starfleet's mainframes. With this done, she began composing line code.

"I hope you've backed everything up with Starfleet's xenoarchaeology department." Macen said to Dorik.

"Of course we have." Dorik replied without any trace of pride or indignation.

Vulcans. Macen mentally sighed and then turned to check on his rather more volatile Vulcan, "Are you almost done?"

With a flourish, she inputted a final series of commands, "You betcha."

All the screens of the various computers scattered across the work areas of the tent went dark. Smoke began to issue forth from the cases and the mainframe server billowed smoke. The entire area smelled of burnt circuitry and fused isolinear crystals.

"Yeeesss!" T'Kir closed her fist and swept her elbow in towards her hip, "I not only managed to erase the individual and collective memories, I also initiated a feedback loop that fried the internal workings, including the subspace transceivers.

Macen walked over to T'Kir and gave her a peck on the forehead, "Good work. Now its time to leave."

Dorik watched this exchange and remarked, "Decadence."

"Wait till we're aboard ship." T'Kir laughed, "Then I'll show you decadence."

Dorik refrained from comment and instead directed the recently arrived archaeologists to take hold of the grav sleds and to follow Macen and his team. Danan was still out of her mind with inverted pain. T'Kir took her by the arm and led her out of the tent. Macen followed, keeping close to the captured relics and the Vulcan scientists.

P'ris received a hail from the Reman pilots of the Romulan fighter craft, "What is it?" she shouted to be heard above Daggit's grenades detonating. Suddenly there was a lull in the Federation forces' barrage.

"Mistress, we have come under attack." The Reman flight leader reported, "We have engaged the enemy."

P'ris cut the connection and violently swore. She pulled her disruptor free and began issuing orders to her troops.

"Prepare to engage the Federation forces." she held her voice level despite the torrent of emotions coursing through her, "Try to refrain from killing any of them. I want living prisoners."

The assorted Romulans drew their pistols or unslung their rifles. In their fervour, they failed to notice that Daggit and Radil were now prone or down on one knee. Daggit had cast his grenade launcher aside and had unslung his phaser rifle. From a prone position, he began sniping at the Romulan line.

Radil fired one volley after another at the assembled Romulans. The Romulan line fell apart. Romulan soldiers scattered across the field and began returning fire. The conscious members of the first rank dropped to the ground and fought Daggit and Radil on their own terms.

A group of six Romulans skirted past Radil and hurriedly began searching the tent city erected by the Vulcans. Their acute hearing honed in on the infrequent whispers of Macen's group. The Romulans emerged from the tents directly in front of the Federation forces' way.

Wearing a daredevil smile, T'Kir released Danan's elbow and charged the Romulans. The Romulans, all male, grinned indulgently at this futile effort. Their smug expressions lasted until T'Kir delivered a backspin kick to a Romulan head. He hit the ground unconscious.

Another Romulan threw a punch at T'Kir. She deftly blocked it and then punched him in the throat. He went down, gagging as his airway rapidly closed.

A third Romulan grabbed T'Kir from behind. A fourth Romulan Strode forward the strike her. She kicked him underneath the chin. As he staggered backwards, T'Kir swung her leg backwards, reaching over her back, and kicked the third Romulan in the back of his head.

"Shouldn't you assist her?" Dorik asked Macen.

Macen shook his head, wearing a broad smile, "Nah. It'd just break her rhythm."

"Madness." Dorik commented.

"If only you knew the half of it." Macen retorted.

Dorik subsided as T'Kir delivered another kick to the fourth Romulan's head, knocking him out. As yet another Romulan tried to grab T'Kir from behind, she threw and elbow jab into his nose. Green blood spurted forth from the injured members. T'Kir turned and delivered an open palm strike to the man's nose. He went down in a snivelling heap.

T'Kir whirled and faced the remaining Romulan. He looked nervous. T'Kir wore a wild expression and motioned for him to come forward. He broke and ran back towards the Romulan line.

"Impressive, eh?" Macen asked Dorik.

"I must reluctantly admit that the display hearkened back to the days of Vulcan's martial past." Dorik's reply was met with a sceptical look from Macen, "I readily admit that I am also impressed by her unarmed defensive skills."

T'Kir returned to the group absolutely beaming. Macen returned her smile and then ordered the group to move out. In the distance, the rumble of an impulse engine in an atmospheric environment could be heard.

The Corsair appeared on the horizon and rapidly closed on the ziggurat. She visibly began slowing and eventually ended up in a hover between the Federation and Romulan forces. The runabout's twin phasers fired and carved a trench between the Imperial troops and the Starfleet personnel. Riker turned the ship and landed her with the primary hatch pointed away from the Romulans.

Daggit and Radil went to opposite lengthways ends of the Runabout and began laying down cover fire. Macen and the others emerged from the maze of tents. Urged onward by Macen, the Vulcans double-timed it to the Corsair. T'Kir brought up the rear, leading Danan. The Trill's pleasure centres had reached a saturation point and she was once again beginning to feel the natural effects of her burns.

The runabout's phasers had bisected the clearing and the Romulans were forced to leap into the trench in order to advance. While climbing out of the micro-chasm, the Romulan soldiers were easy prey for Daggit and Radil. A few of the Romulans had remained behind to lay down suppressive fire. Unfortunately, they had swiftly fallen to Radil's wide beam stun blasts.

Once the Vulcans, T'Kir and Danan were aboard and the relics stowed away, Macen called out to Daggit and Radil to cease fire and join the others aboard the runabout. As Radil and Daggit began running for the boarding hatch, a sound of high speed wind scraping metal began screaming overhead. In a near blink of an eye, the two Scorpion fighters and the Type-9 shuttles raced by overhead. The fighters were rolling, trying to acquire a shot at the shuttles. The shuttles rolled with the fighters and constantly fired at the Scorpions' underbellies.

This acrobatic feat required Grace and Rhiann to fly inverted in relation to the Romulan ships. The opposing fighters tried to shoot their partner's tormentor as they passed in and out of sight. On several occasions, the Reman gunners missed the shuttles entirely and struck their own brethren. The blows to the Romulan shields served the Federation shuttles' needs.

Grace fired yet another salvo at the Scorpion's underbelly and she watched as the ventral shields collapsed. Wearing a feral smile, Grace fired one phaser burst after another at the fighter's drive section. A small explosion erupted out of the rear of the craft and it began to descend. It swiftly began to spiral and the fighter's attitude thrusters began to fire. Soon it trimmed out and continued it's descent into the jungle.

Grace shifted her focus to Rhiann's opponent. Rhiann had been shot several more times than Grace and her shields were threatening to fail. Grace flew up behind Rhiann's shuttle and she instructed the other pilot to ascend as swiftly as she could manage. As Rhiann broke and climbed, the Remans levelled out their craft and began to fire at the fleeing shuttle.

Grace began her assault on the remaining Scorpion and the Remans ceased firing on Rhiann's shuttle. The Reman pilot tried to pull a Crazy Ivan. He cut his primary drive and used his manoeuvring thrusters to swing around. Unfortunately for the Reman, Grace had anticipated such a move for some time now.

Grace cut her impulse engine and fired her thrusters. She brought her nose straight up and fired at point blank range at the fighter's ventral section. As the Romulan ship reversed course rolled over and followed them, inverted, as they accelerated in the opposite direction. Next, the fighter trimmed out with the fighter "upright' and the Federation shuttle "upside down" and underneath. The Remans began to descend, trying to force Grace into the jungle canopy.

Fortunately for Grace, the Scorpion's ventral shields failed halfway to the tree line. Once again, she exacted a savage toll from the Remans' engines. The Romulan fighter's descent accelerated and Grace fell behind and started her ascent towards orbit.

Back at the ziggurat, the Corsair began its ascent. The Romulans on the ground fired in futility at the runabout trying penetrate its shields and bring it down. Riker manned the helm. T'Kir had Ops. Macen covered the Sciences station. Daggit worked Tactical. Radil was in the runabout's Medical modules tending to Danan's injuries.

Despite Radil's extensive knowledge of how to treat battlefield wounds, her expertise regarding plasma burns was limited. She stabilised Danan and prayed that would suffice. She then went to the cockpit and sprayed a salve across Macen's burns.

"Thanks Jenrya." Macen said gratefully, "Could you check on our Vulcan guests?"

"Do I have to?" Radil grumped.

"They don't bite." Macen scolded.

"No, they just bore you to tears." Radil replied with a sigh and trudged off towards the crew's lounge. The relics were stored in the runabout's detention cell. The Vulcan Starfleet officers placidly sat by in the lounge awaiting their ultimate fate.

The runabout swiftly achieved orbit. Once in orbit, Riker guided the miniature starship towards the Obsidian. Rhiann had already been tractored into the auxiliary bay and Grace was halfway into the bay. As per standard procedure, she was being tractored in backwards in order to facilitate a rapid launch.

Riker brought the Corsair about while the auxiliary bay closed. The primary bay doors opened and the bay's tractor beam took hold of the runabout and began dragging it in. As they were being brought into the starship's bosom, Macen reported the results of his sensor sweep.

"The Valdore's shields are up and her weapons are hot."

Riker swivelled his chair around to face Macen, "Will Donatra fire?"

"She will if she's provoked." Macen confirmed, "So we have to figure out a way to break orbit without engaging a Romulan Warbird."

"I have faith in you." Riker remarked with a grin, "You'll think of something."

Macen's right eyebrow rose, "I could make it your call."

Riker shook his head, "But you won't."

The bay had cycled the air back into the space and the bay controller signalled the runabout's CONN that it was safe to disembark. Riker released the primary hatch and Kort and two medtechs rushed into the runabout. One of the medtechs carried a collapsible litter.

"Who the hell called Sickbay?" Macen wondered.

"I did." Radil announced as she entered the cockpit. She placed her fists on her hips, "Did I do wrong?"

Macen shook his head, "Of course not. I just wish I'd done it sooner rather than waiting for us to dock."

"You've been preoccupied." Radil shrugged, "Despite your own expectations, you can't manage to do everything."

T'Kir shot him an expectant look and Macen broke into a sheepish grin, "Thanks Jenrya."

"Anytime, Boss."

Kort and the medtechs exited the infirmary carrying Danan on the litter. Kort cast a lingering glance Radil's way and she coloured slightly. T'Kir grinned.

"That looks like an interesting future conversation. I didn't even read his mind and I can tell reconciliation is on his mind."

Although Radil's heart beat a little faster, she maintained her gruff expression. Macen rose from his position and stepped through the hatch. The cockpit crew joined him in the shuttlebay.

"Jenrya, escort the Vulcans to the science labs." Macen ordered, "Rab, Tom and T'Kir, you're with me." As Macen ran out of the shuttlebay, he tapped his comm badge, "Macen to Forger."

"Forger here." she replied, "I don't know what you did down there but the Romulans are pissed."

"So am I." Macen remarked, "They'll get over it."

"Yeah, but..."

"I need you to break orbit and get the ship moving in a slingshot manoeuvre around the planet." Macen instructed.

"Yeah, but..."

"We'll be in the bridge in under five minutes. Have the ship moving by then." Macen ordered.

"Yeah, but..."

"Macen out."

As the quartet stepped into the turbolift, Riker turned to Macen, "Shannon sounds seriously rattled."

"She'd better get over it." Macen replied sternly, "She's the ship's XO. She needs to get used to acting on her own in my absence."

"Is this an ongoing problem?"

"More of an ongoing tendency." Macen explained, "Shannon feels overwhelmed by her recent promotion. I've been hoping she'd grow into the job but the plain truth is that she may not be seasoned enough for her position."

Riker seemed to mull this over as the turbolift doors opened. The bridge was in chaos. Grace was at the helm with Rhiann standing by next to her. The various Gamma shift officers were in a full fledged panic and Forger was standing amidst it all, staring vacantly at the viewscreen's image of a Romulan Warbird.

"Well, this is going to be fun." Macen muttered in disgust.

 

Chapter 8

"Commander Forger, you stand relieved." Macen pronounced as he strode onto the Obsidian's bridge.

Forger looked as though she'd been slapped across the face. For a moment, she visibly struggled with her emotions. Gathering the tattered remnants of her dignity and pride, she briskly walked to the turbolift. As its doors closed, Macen began issuing orders.

"All relief officers stand by. You'll be needed in a moment." Turning to Daggit, he continued, "Rab prepare to fire two torpedoes at the Valdore. I want you to use the phasers to detonate them 500 metres off their forward shields."

"Do you have any idea how difficult that kind of precision is?" Daggit asked with a pained expression.

"I have faith in you." Macen clapped him on the shoulder then proceeded to the helm, "Hannah, I want you to break orbit the moment Rab fires off the torpedoes. Accelerate to maximum warp and take us over the top of the Valdore. You'll continue our rotation around Harbinger and use the planet's gravity well to set up a slingshot manoeuvre. When we approach the vector for DS9, release us from orbit. When we clear the planet, go to warp 6."

Grace grinned, "I like it."

"Thought you might." Macen walked back to the command chair but he didn't sit down. Instead he faced T'Kir, "Feed Omicron's coordinates to the helm. Hannah, when you get the coordinates, adjust our course and proceed to the Omicron homeworld."

"Is that smart?" Grace asked, "Last time, they kicked our ass without trying. My people won't intervene this time."

"I'm aware of that." Macen informed her, "I'm also aware of the little countermeasure to their ion blasts that we picked up on the surface."

Grace's grin broadened into a bright smile, "Who wants to live forever anyway?"

"Not me." Macen replied, "I want to find out what the next plane of existence is."

"You've already died once." Grace pointed out, "Shouldn't you already know?"

Macen wore a rueful, lopsided grin, "It's a long story. Ask T'Kir about it sometime."

"I already have." Grace lamented, "She said to ask you."

Macen shrugged, "There you have it."

Grace grumbled to herself as she began laying in the coordinates to Deep Space 9. T'Kir had successfully uploaded the Herzet files to the Obsidian's mainframe. The translation matrix was loaded as well. She then began searching the database. Contained within the quarantined folder she'd created was the stellar cartographical survey containing Omicron's location.

"Rab, are you ready?" Macen asked.

"Affirmative."

"How positive are you that this will work?"

"I give it a 33.39% chance of succeeding." Daggit replied.

"Wonderful." Macen muttered, "We're going to start a war."

"Captain," Daggit interrupted Macen's gloomy reflection, 'the Valdore is hailing. Commander Donatra sounds upset."

"Put it on screen." Macen said and retook his seat. Riker gave him a wry grin from the Exec's seat.

"Captain." Donatra briskly nodded, "I see you have safely made it back aboard your vessel."

"Of course." Macen said with confidence not boastfulness, "My crew performed admirably despite the reckless hostility displayed by your fighter crews."

"My crews were fired upon." Donatra asserted, "They returned fire as a purely defensive measure."

"Not according to our sensor logs." Macen replied, "T'Kir, have we downloaded the Eclipse and Equinox sensor logs yet?"

"Yes, but I..."

"Please upload copies to Commander Donatra."

T'Kir shrugged, "Oookay."

What's your deal? Macen mentally queried T'Kir.

Nothing. T'Kir thought back, No deal here.

Liar, Macen telepathically scolded, What aren't you telling me.

T'Kir mentally sighed, I haven't reviewed the logs. I don't know who fired first.

You don't trust Hannah's word? Macen asked.

Yes, I do...on most things. T'Kir clarified, I'm just not sure about this.

What can you be sure about? Macen thought back.

Hannah would never intentionally disobey orders, T'Kir explained, not unless she felt she was receiving contradictory orders from an even higher authority.

Who would be her higher authority?

T'Kir shrugged and thoughtcast back at Macen, It was Section 31 and then it was the trump card beyond trump cards: the Kelvan Expeditionary Forces.

Macen had to concede that T'Kir had made a valid point. As unlikely as it seemed at this point, Grace could have received orders from a second party that prompted to ignite an interstellar incident. Her past was certainly rife with such occurrences and conflicted loyalties. Although Section 31 and the Kelvans were off her instructional menu, Grace could have easily received a comm message from a Starfleet admiral with an axe to grind. Macen could easily name a half dozen admirals with grudges against the Romulans, the SID, or himself.

Remaining impassive for the viewer's imager, Macen thought back to T'Kir, Send the data. We'll pick up whatever pieces there are.

Macen knew T'Kir was still apprehensive when she transmitted the logs but she transmitted them despite her misgivings. On the viewer, Donatra angled a monitor for easier reading. She frowned as she reviewed the visual and sensor logs. When she'd reviewed the information from both shuttles she pushed the monitor away and faced the imager.

"These are obvious forgeries." she pronounced, "Our forces were forbidden to fire unless they were directly attacked. Therefore, these logs represent an obvious attempt to falsely implicate the Empire when the fault lies with the Federation."

"No one's implicating anyone of anything." Macen countered, "What's occurred here is a tremendous mistake. A mistake that could have been avoided if there had been more trust between the Romulan and Starfleet ground forces. The Empire and the Federation recently reached a turning point in their relations. I refuse to let that goodwill die here and now."

"If you wish to make amends surrender the artefacts you retrieved from the surface." Donatra demanded.

"I'm more than willing to provide your government with any pertinent facts derived from our discoveries but I refuse to relinquish control of the artefacts." Macen argued, "If you wish to place scientific observers aboard my ship, I will allow them full access to all our scientific facilities and personnel. They can join in our inquiries and report directly to you."

"That may be a viable option." Donatra warily allowed.

"However, your observers would have to accompany my crew and I to Deep Space 9." Macen revealed, "They'd have full access to the comm network and be able to keep you advised of all our movements to that point."

"Unacceptable!" Donatra thundered, "If you try to break orbit, we will tractor you. If you attempt to resist our tractor beam, we will cripple you."

The transmission terminated and Macen was left facing a picture of the Valdore in orbit, "Okay, let's try plan B."

Macen looked over towards Tactical, "Rab, are you set?"

"Affirmative." came the Angosian's terse answer. Normally he wasn't that taciturn unless he was in his preconditioned "combat" mode. His abruptness indicated his degree of uncertainty in what he was being asked to do. Macen knew the odds against Daggit being able to successfully detonate the torpedoes before they strike the Warbird's shields but it was the best option for an effective distraction.

Macen faced forward and spoke to Grace, "Hannah, is everything ready?"

"Just give the word and we'll take a ride around this planet."

"Good job." Macen acknowledged her efforts and enthusiasm, "Engage the impulse engines the moment Rab fires."

"You got it." Grace replied brightly

"Stand by Rab." Macen ordered, "Ready...fire!"

The photon torpedoes launched. The two forward ventral phaser strips fired at the same time. The phasers were fixed at a specific point 500 metres off the Warbird's shields. The torpedoes collided with the phaser beams and the resultant antimatter/matter annihilation created a distortion wave that blocked the Valdore's sensors.

The Obsidian's impulse engines flared to life and she rocketed forward. Her course was angled to pass by the Warbird's starboard side. The starship continued onward around the planet. Accelerating at the periphery of Harbinger's gravity well, the ship picked up speed.

The Obsidian broke free of Harbinger's gravity travelling at .95c. Einsteinian physics demanded that speeds nearing light speed created temporal dilations. The Nova-class vessel's internal timeframe was now separated from the surrounding universe by several moments. Each moment minute spent at relativistic speeds would increase the discrepancy.

Once free of the planet's gravity, the Obsidian leapt into subspace and transcended the lightspeed barrier that ruled normal space. Vectored for an approach to DS9, the Outbound Ventures surveyor left the system behind and continued sailing into the void. Macen hailed the Valdore shortly after departing Harbinger's periphery.

"Clever ruse, Captain." Donatra admitted ruefully.

"Sorry about the tactics, Commander. You left me little choice." Macen offered.

"Perhaps." Donatra allowed, "We still could have ended this peaceably. I cannot predict the overall consequences of this exchange."

"You were already in violation of the Neutral Zone treaty. Your transit rights ended with the Dominion War's close." Macen pointed out, "I understand a new treaty is being negotiated even as we speak. Perhaps you should have postponed your visit to Harbinger. The only reason behind my crew's presence was your provocative stance."

"I see." Donatra paused and then grew pensive, "I myself questioned the wisdom behind Commander P'ris' mission. The powers that be in the Senate endorsed her mission proposal and that was all that needed to be said."

"Starfleet often operates the same way." Macen admitted, "That's why I prefer to be an independent operative. I can choose my missions."

"But what authority do you serve?" Donatra asked.

"My own conscience." Macen shared, "I accept the missions that I see serving the greater good."

"Based upon your limited perspective." Donatra frowned.

"We all serve our own limited perspectives," Macen said, "even if we operate within the framework of a larger organisation."

Donatra pondered that point for a moment before replying, "I can sense the truth behind your words. I am just uncomfortable with the concept of rogue operators deciding interstellar policy."

"Then accept this maxim, I am an adopted citizen of the Federation. I became a citizen by choice. My choice remains unaltered. I will not betray the precepts of the Federation. My methods may differ from conventional Starfleet forces but I am constrained by their underlying philosophy."

"I will relay that to my superiors." Donatra promised, "They will be reassured."

Macen nodded, "Until we meet again, Commander."

"Until then." Donatra agreed and cut the transmission.

"All righty then," Macen slapped his knees, "All relief officers can now take their stations." He turned to face Riker, "Thanks for the extraction, Tom."

Riker grinned, "No problem."

"The bridge is yours."

"Turning in?"

Macen sighed, "I wish. I'll be in my ready room for awhile yet."

"I'm joining you." T'Kir announced as she approached the command chairs, "I want to finish searching the Herzet database and get those coordinates for the helm."

"Sounds good to me." Macen said.

"Might I suggest you have one of Kort's nurses visit you to take care of those burns on your arms?" Riker offered.

Macen wore a sheepish smile, "Thanks. I'd gotten used to the pain and forgotten about getting treated."

"Glad to help."

Hand in hand, Macen and T'Kir disappeared into his office.

The Captain's ready room on the Nova-class surveyors was an identical design to the XO's office on the Intrepid-class starships. Macen took a seat on the room's couch and composed a report for Admiral Drake on a padd. T'Kir sat at the desk and utilised the computer. The nurse had been and gone and Macen stretched his arms, marvelling at the relief he felt. He opened his mouth to comment on the situation when the door chime sounded.

Macen responded with, "Come."

The door slid opened and Shannon Forger stepped inside. T'Kir saw the expression on Forger's face and rose from the desk and made for the door.

"I'll give you two a moment alone." with that, T'Kir slipped out onto the bridge.

With T'Kir gone, Macen motioned for Forger to take a seat in the office's free chair. Forger shook her head.

"I prefer to stand while I say what I have to."

"You're bothered by your performance earlier." Macen stated.

"Its the latest in a series of events that have led me to my decision." Forger announced, "I'm resigning from my position as 1st Officer, effective immediately."

"Shannon, today..."

"Was one of a hundred events that proved I'm not ready for being the XO of this vessel." Forger was adamant, "I've tried to grow into the position but I'm not ready yet. Captain Riker can assume my duties and I'll return to my former position as 2nd Officer. I'm comfortable there and I'm damned effective."

"Are you sure about this?" Macen had to ask, despite his empathic abilities tasting her resolve.

"I'm fine as long as I can call upon a superior officer for advice or support." Forger explained, "A 1st Officer has to be ready to operate independently in the CO's absence. I'm not ready for that. I deserve to be demoted, in fact, I beg you to demote me."

Macen held up a hand, "No need to be drastic. I'll tell Tom he's been promoted and you go off and get some rest. You need to reset your circadian rhythm."

Forger finally smiled, "That won't be a problem. I've had more trouble adjusting to the XO's mid-shift then I did to the 2nd Officer's overnight shift."

"Sounds like you're set then." Macen said and rose from the couch, "If there's nothing further, I'll inform Tom of his change of status."

"Thank you, sir." Forger gushed.

"No, thank you." Macen gratefully replied, "Your insights into yourself have resolved a potential hazard to the ship and crew. You didn't allow your pride to interfere with resolving this issue. That's a mark of genuine maturity."

"Thank you." Forger whispered, voice thick with emotion.

Macen reached the door and it slid aside to reveal a crouched T'Kir. Macen shook his head, "I take it you heard all of that."

"Not all of it." T'Kir complained, "She whispered at the end and the door was too thick to hear what she said."

"Poor baby." Macen cooed. T'Kir stuck out her tongue and Macen chuckled, "I have to talk to Tom and then I'll join you in the ready room."

T'Kir focused her attention solely on Macen for a moment and then a flash passed through her eyes and she nodded, "Okay. I'll see you in a minute."

Macen sat down in the command chair and began to speak to Riker in hushed tones. Forger flashed a wan smile at T'Kir and proceeded to the turbolift. T'Kir pursed her lips and entered the ready room. She felt as though a major shift in the ship's destiny had just occurred but she dismissed it. Prognostication was Macen's forte, not hers.

We'll simply deal with the future when it arrives. T'Kir thought to herself and resumed her work on the Herzet database.

The following morning, Danan was released from Sickbay. She changed clothes and then proceeded to the science labs. Lab One contained the mysterious relic previously hidden in the depths of the alien ziggurat. The representative technological finds were housed in Lab Two. Danan arrived to find Macen, T'Kir and Parva in Lab Two.

"Install this shield generator as soon as you can." Danan overheard Macen say as she entered the lab, "T'Kir will bring the tech manuals with her and you can build an interface between the ion shield and our systems."

Macen turned to face Danan, "Lees, how are you feeling?"

"Fine now." Danan answered and then she walked up to T'Kir, "Don't...ever...do...that...again."

T'Kir absorbed this with aplomb, "I was just trying to help."

"You almost overloaded my nervous system." Danan rejoined, "I found out there is such a thing as too much pleasure."

"I had to get you mobile and only had a few moments in which to do it." T'Kir argued, "I did what I had to in order to get you to a place where you could get treated."

"I appreciate that." Danan admitted, "Just don't do it again. An experience that intense can get addictive in a hurry. I don't want future relationships to be judged by an artificial high that can't be achieved naturally."

"Who says it can't?" T'Kir asked, "Maybe the problem is that you've been seeking the wrong type of relationships."

Danan gaped for a moment and then shook her head, "Whatever. Just respect my wishes, okay?"

"All right." T'Kir raised her right hand, "I solemnly swear I won't intervene to spare you unnecessary pain."

"Knock it off, you smart ass." Danan retorted.

"Seriously," T'Kir rejoined, "I won't do it again."

"That's all I'm asking for."

"But it was great, wasn't it?" T'Kir prodded.

"You have no idea." Danan confessed.

"Ha!" T'Kir crowed.

"I hate to interrupt..." Macen interjected.

"Then don't." T'Kir shot back.

"But we need to get busy installing the ion shield and investigating the mysteries of this shard we've recovered."

Danan tilted her head to the side, "He's got a point."

Parva hefted the shield generator and made for the door, "He brought my man back to me. I'm doing whatever he says."

T'Kir picked up the manual reader and the data crystals and followed the Orion out the door, calling out, "Suck up!"

Macen and Danan both started laughing as T'Kir and Parva began bantering as they walked down the corridor towards the turbolift. The former lovers moved from Lab Two to Lab One, where the Vulcan archaeologists were working with the Obsidian's science team examining the Herzet relic. Danan marvelled at how comfortable she was with Macen now that he was married. Knowing he was unavailable had broken the post-relationship tensions that had arisen.

"Any progress?" Macen asked as the varied scientists registered his presence.

"We have attempted to date the fragment but have proven unable to." Dorik answered, "Its composition is so dense that it defies our normal half-life decay dating methods. Even the potassium argon measurements have proven inconclusive."

"Have you attempted a neutrino decay survey?" Danan asked.

"That is most irregular." Dorik replied.

"This isn't normal matter." Danan said, "Its akin to protomatter yet curiously stable."

Dorik's eyebrows rose, "Yes, I see the similarities. What do you suppose would happen if we were to infuse this material with energy?"

"In addition to its natural energy?" Danan mused, "It would be a fascinating study."

"Agreed."

"I see that great minds are all ready thinking alike." Macen observed, "I'll leave you to it then. Keep me apprised of your progress."

"Not a problem." Danan agreed.

"'Till later." Macen said and departed.

"Let's see what we can see." Danan rubbed her hands together in anticipation.

"Indeed." Dorik concurred with as much excitement as he would allow himself.

 

Chapter 9

The Obsidian was on course for DS9. Macen had decided to offload the Starfleet scientists there before proceeding to Omicron. Dorik was amenable to this decision as long as his team was given unlimited access to the Herzet relic before they disembarked. There had been some debate over whether or not the primordial fragment would depart with the archaeologists. Macen won by virtue of his superior numbers.

The scientific team had already had twenty-four hours to examine the relic. They'd spent the greater portion of that time setting up the energy infusion experiment in Cargo Bay 3. Today they would test their theories.

Macen was present for the test. Danan had already briefed him on her theory. The ship's Sciences Specialist was postulating that the influx of energy would result in an energy and particle expulsion. What that expulsion would produce was still a matter of speculation.

"Everybody ready?" Gilan asked. Parva was busy overseeing the adaptation and installation of the ion shield generator. Her deputy was present in her stead. The Gideonite had constructed the energy projection device exactly to Danan's specifications. Having set the device up, he was ready to throw the switch.

After one last triple check of the portable sensors set up around the bay, Danan gave the okay, "We're set. Activate the generator."

Gilan activated the energy projector and ran back behind the sensor control board. A megajoule pinprick of energy lanced out from the projector and struck the suspended fragment. Several seconds passed and then a plume of ejected matter and energy filled the aft portion of the bay. Danan and her science techs hurriedly deactivated the generator and monitored the mounting sensor readings.

"By the Pools." Danan whispered.

"What is it?" Dorik asked, "What have you found?"

"The readings are off the chart." Danan breathed, "We've just created a micro solar system."

"Can you clarify that?" Macen wondered.

"All the necessary components for a solar system are present in that cloud, including the building blocks for life." Danan explained, "With a large enough infusion of energy, this fragment could easily form dozens of full solar systems."

Danan paused then faced Macen, "Do you realise what this is? It's exactly what I predicted it to be. It's a fragment from the 'celestial egg' formed by the heat death and contraction of the previous universe. It must not have had enough energy to detonate with the rest of the 'egg'."

"What are the potential uses of such a fragment?" Macen asked.

"They're nearly limitless." Danan said, "We hit the fragment with a broad energy spectrum. Theoretically, a more specific energy discharge would result in a correspondingly specific matter expulsion."

"Such as the creation of new lifeforms?"

Danan nodded, "The potential for unlimited variations of life are contained within that mass."

"That's what I was afraid of." Macen admitted, "I think that's how the Omicrons mastered biotech. They've had millennia to perfect their extraction technique. Who knows what they've produced."

"There is the possibility that they've utilised the amino acids to manipulate the DNA of existing lifeforms. That may explain how they produced their ships." Danan postulated.

"An even worse thought." Macen grimaced, "At least with the other way, they'd have to wait for their creatures to develop. Under these proposed conditions all they'd have to wait for is the alterations to manifest."

"Unfortunately." Danan agreed.

"Now it's more imperative than ever that we report our findings to the SID and scout out Omicron."

"I agree." Dorik admitted, "I withdraw all my previous objections to your keeping the relic, Captain. You may yet receive invaluable insights from it that may help safeguard the Federation."

"Thank you for that." Macen said, "Your cooperation is appreciated."

"But unnecessary," Dorik remarked dryly, "since you intended to keep the fragment irregardless of my approving of it or not."

"True." Macen conceded, "But your approval means that I can proceed with a clear conscience."

"Emotionalism." Dorik disapproved.

"Such is the nature of the beast." Macen chuckled, "I am what I am."

"As are we all." Dorik allowed.

Danan continued her probes with the assistance of the Vulcan scientists. Fortunately for her they were all cross-trained in multiple disciplines. All of their skills were utilised in the ongoing investigation of the primordial matter.

Parva was able to install the ion shield with the use of a tailor made adapter. All of her notes were carefully logged and prepared for transfer to DS9. The station was less than a day away and preparations for their brief layover were already made.

Riker had accepted his "promotion" with aplomb. In many ways, he seemed relieved by the transfer. Forger had definitely blossomed after her return to the gamma shift. Riker reported that Shannon had instantly adapted to her "new" post and that the gamma shift was performing with greater efficiency than ever.

Riker was so happy with returning to his old position that Macen was worried that the reluctant captain wouldn't want to return to a command of his own. Riker had the skills but perhaps he no longer had the ambition. The loss of the George Kelly had affected him deeply. His sense of loss over losing Jamie Kirk's former command had reopened barely healed wounds.

Riker's twin, Will Riker, had postponed accepting his own command for over a decade. Perhaps Tom would follow a similar path. Whatever Riker's decision was, Macen would endorse it. Ultimately, Riker knew the best course for his life.

Macen surveyed the bridge and pondered the various soap operas that his officer's lives consisted of. Daggit and Parva's relationship was heating up. They'd recently taken a page from Macen and T'Kir's book and incorporated more kissing into their relationship. They'd recently been spotted engaging in some smouldering embraces. Macen could sense the growing bond between the two and he wished them every happiness in the world.

Macen considered Hannah Grace. Her life was still in transition. Having embraced her humanity, she was cut off from her people. Macen could empathise with her pain regarding this consequence.

Grace had made great strides towards rebuilding her teammates' trust. The wounds were still fresh but they were healing. Her actions were judged day by day. Thus far she'd given no one cause to complain.

Macen contemplated his relationship with T'Kir. They'd always enjoyed a very passionate union. Their compulsion to embrace bespoke of deeper commitments and of a fiery intimacy. Their respective tempers also brought another kind of heat into the mix.

So far, there had been no resentments since they'd always managed to heal the rifts between them in short order. Macen prayed that trend would continue. The secret behind their success so far had been their open communication. Neither of them held back when expressing their feelings or opinions. Their willingness to seek a common ground had proven invaluable.

Macen was grateful that he'd met T'Kir and fallen in love with her. Their acceptance of each other's faults had cemented their relationship. Both of them carried some serious psychological baggage into the pairing. Fortunately, their individual psychoses seemed to negate each other.

Each of them also brought some complimentary character traits into the union. T'Kir's freewheeling spirit invariably lightened Macen's sombre moments. Macen's creativity inspired T'Kir to new heights. T'Kir's passions ignited similar feelings within Macen. In turn, Macen's dedication and quiet convictions helped temper T'Kir's volatile mental states.

It had taken six years for the pair to acknowledge their mutual attraction and to risk a romantic liaison. Another pairing aboard the Obsidian had a clouded beginning. Kort and Radil had slowly paired up. Their ongoing relationship was tempestuous at best. Macen hoped that they would either eventually resolve their differences or permanently call an end to their association. Luckily, they were both professional enough to prevent their spats from interfering with their duties.

Danan proved to be the wildcard in the fold. Her love life had proven to be quite the whirlwind since her separation from Macen. Her temporary fixation with Macen had proven short lived. Since that occurrence their working and personal relations had markedly improved. T'Kir had forgiven Lisea for her momentary weaknesses and developed a warm bond with her.

Danan had returned to the team because she no longer felt she fit in with normal life in the Federation. What she would do if she felt that issue was resolved remained to be seen. Hal Dracas had returned to Starfleet's fold. Danan could very well follow in his wake.

Macen had already laid contingency plans for such an event. He hoped he wouldn't have to use them but he was prepared to if the need arose. He didn't foresee losing any other members of his investigative team. He'd been wrong before and surprises happened.

The underlying bond that the team had was their conviction that they were outcasts within the framework of the Federation. Utopias bred dissent. They were the dissidents, the misfits of civilised society. They believed in the dream of the Federation, they just couldn't live within its strictures.

The team's members were anachronistic throwbacks compared to the average Federation citizen of the late 24th century. Starfleet employed the group's antics in defence of the Federation but they weren't welcome to join the perfect society they were striving to create. The urbane citizens of the Federation would label Macen and his teammates as monsters.

Like the faceless operatives comprising the ranks of Section 31, Outbound Ventures attracted the sort that considered the ends justifying the means. That philosophy was an anathema to Starfleet and the Federation's common man. It worked for the SID since it was Starfleet's answer to Section 31. Even they were finding it difficult to rein in their operatives since those same individuals were highly individualistic, sometimes to a fault.

Stop brooding. T'Kir's mental voice cut through Macen's reverie.

Sorry. Macen thoughtcast back, I'll try to think of more uplifting things.

Good. T'Kir replied with satisfaction.

Macen wiled away the rest of his shift researching all of Starfleet's records and reports regarding the Omicron. The depressing part was that except for the encounter along the Tholian and Gorn borders, the bulk of the material was derived from Macen's own reports and theories. After reviewing Starfleet's records, he downloaded every reference to the Omicron in the Herzet database onto a padd and resumed reading. When Riker came on duty, Macen moved to his ready room and spent the late afternoon and early evening there.

The following day, the Obsidian arrived in the Bajor system. She docked on DS9's Lower Pylon 2 and offloaded liberty parties. They were only scheduled to remain at the station for 24 hours so it was a whirlwind event for the crew.

Macen had already forwarded along all of the technical, scientific, and sociological information that the Outbound Ventures and Starfleet teams had compiled from the Herzet database and the relic. Next, standing at the mouth of the airlock leading to the Obsidian, he handed copies of all the information and schematics to Dorik.

"Make sure Admiral Drake gets this information."

"You do not believe our transmission made it to Earth?"

Macen shrugged, "I'm not leaving anything to chance."

"Very wise." Dorik commented.

"Of course it's wise." T'Kir remarked, "We thought of it, didn't we?"

The rest of the investigative team, also assembled, refrained from snickering. Dorik almost kept the pained expression from his eyes. Dorik took his leave and departed. The Vulcan had an appointment with the station's CO, Captain Kira Nerys.

As the SID agents scattered across the station, Macen proceeded to his lunch appointment with Ro Laren. Macen and Ro had known each other since before she'd attended the Advanced Tactical Training Course that Starfleet offered. Macen had been temporarily attached to the Enterprise-D in relation to an anti-piracy campaign along the Cardassian border. His recommendation to Will Riker had prompted the Enterprise's XO to, in turn, recommend her applying to the ATTC to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Picard had leapt at the chance to further the career of his protégé.

Macen and Ro had next encountered one another when Macen and Danan were infiltrating the Maquis. Having recognised Macen's name, she'd had the intelligence operative and his partner transferred to her command. It was Ro that convinced Macen to follow his conscience and play double agent on behalf of the Maquis. He in turn formed an intelligence gathering unit for her cell that was the envy of the rest of the Maquis Council.

Macen had helped negotiate the surrender of Ro's surviving Maquis when the Dominion War ended. The Bajoran government agreed to shelter the survivors in exchange for their retiring or joining the Bajoran Militia. Most of the Maquis assimilated. Ro herself joined the Militia and was swiftly assigned to DS9 as its Security Chief.

When Bajor joined the Federation and Deep Space 9 was reclassified as a Starbase, elements of the Militia were integrated into Starfleet. Ro was offered the choice of rejoining Starfleet as a Security officer or of returning to Bajor as a Special Forces officer in the Bajoran Militia. She opted to give Starfleet a third chance and donned the yellow Security blouse. Fortunately, Captain Kira's own past as a renegade granted her the ability to give Ro a wide discretionary berth for her department.

"Hello Brin." Ro smiled as she looked up from the menu at Quark's.

"I'd have thought you'd have that memorised by now." Macen commented as he took a seat opposite of Ro's.

"I do." Ro said as she sat the menu on the table, "But it's always nice to know what the daily specials are, that and to read the personal notes quark scribbles in the margins."

Macen's right eyebrow rose, "Still? I thought you'd told him 'No' years ago."

"I did." Ro chuckled softly, "But Quark strives to acquire the unattainable. He still pursue Ezri Dax for the same reason."

"My understanding is that he has a weakness for Daxes." Macen said.

Ro nodded, "He chased Jadzia as well. When Ezri arrived on the station after Jadzia's death, he began his campaign. Her brief affair with Dr. Bashir notwithstanding, Quark has doggedly sought a relationship with Ezri ever since."

"You sound as though you knew Jadzia Dax." Macen observed.

Ro shrugged, "Sometimes I feel as though I did. Even though Chief O'Brien, Worf and my predecessor, Odo, left the station before my arrival, the remaining senior staff officers still speak fondly of her."

"Lisea has fond memories of her as well." Macen confided, "They became...close during their time together at the Symbiosis Institute."

Ro blinked at the pregnant pause in Macen's sentence, "Yet, you and she..."

"Something bothering you?" Macen asked, his eyes twinkling with merriment at her obvious discomfort.

Ro shrugged, "I guess not."

"Good." Macen replied and picked up the menu the waiter had brought during their discussion, "Now, what's good on here?"

"What about him?" T'Kir asked, pointing across the Promenade towards the Klingon restaurant's seating area.

"Too many tentacles." Grace responded.

"What's with you, girl?" T'Kir threw her hands up in the air, "This place is a veritable hotspot, with starship and freighter crews from across the quadrant, yet every person I point out isn't good enough for you. Why are you so picky?"

"Ha!" Grace pounced on T'Kir's statement, "You say that now but look at who you married."

"Brin Macen is one of the most exotic individuals I've ever met." T'Kir asserted, "He may not be physically unique but mentally he's off the charts."

"Okay," Grace backed down, "I agree that the Captain's got a unique personality and a first rate mind, but is he exotic?"

"Matter of taste, I guess." T'Kir shrugged, "He rocks my world and that's all that matters t'me."

"That's all I'm after." Grace protested.

"Not if you're being narrow minded about appearances you're not." T'Kir warned, "Physical attraction is good in a relationship but it doesn't sustain it."

"What about him?" a wide eyed Grace asked, staring at a tall, dark, handsome stranger in Sciences blue."

"The station CMO?" T'Kir wondered with concern.

"He's a Persian god." Grace remarked, "Who is he?"

"His name's Julian Bashir." T'Kir replied, "He's considered one of the Federation's leading medical minds."

"Tell about him." Grace demanded, "What is he interested in, what are his hobbies, what are his passions and most of all, what type of woman is he attracted to?"

"Slow down, girl." T'Kir cautioned, "Let me see." T'Kir's eyes focused on Bashir's retreating form. As he stepped into the Infirmary, a slow smile crept across T'Kir's face, "Oh, this is perfect. You're the perfect example of the human genome's current potential manifestation and he's genetically engineered. You'd have remarkable children."

"Forget about kids." Grace counselled, "What does he like?"

T'Kir smirked, "Okay Speed, here goes, Bashir likes independent, attractive, intelligent women that aren't afraid to display the quirks in their personality. He wants someone who can keep up with him emotionally and intellectually. He's seeking an idealist who'll stand next to him and defend the dreams and virtues of the Federation."

"Well, except for the last, "I've got it covered. Go on."

T'Kir shrugged in resignation, "He's looking for a playmate that will indulge his many hobbies. A participating partner would score major points with him. Barefaced emotional honesty is a winner. So are personal integrity and loyalty."

"But," T'Kir warned, "he's had several bad encounters with Section 31. I'd avoid telling him about your former allegiances on the first date."

"Easy enough." Grace retorted, "I'm good at keeping secrets."

"Secrets can be a bad thing, remember?" T'Kir advised, "Just break him in gently. That and stress the fact that you live on Barrinor, which is only four star systems away."

"Sure." Grace nodded, wearing a hungry expression.

"And for Elements' sake, stop looking like you're ready to jump his bones." T'Kir warned.

"He likes independent." Grace reminded T'Kir, "What about forward?"

T'Kir tilted her head to one side, "Depends on the circumstances. He enjoys flirting so go in and be coy. Coy and slightly mysterious will be alluring."

"I can do this." Grace said with confidence.

"Go get him." T'Kir enthused.

T'Kir stood back and watched Grace prowl up to the Infirmary door. She was lithe and poised, like a tiger getting ready to pounce. Grace gave T'Kir a thumb's up before venturing into the Infirmary. T'Kir leaned against a shop window and chuckled to herself.

Now this should be interesting. T'Kir thought. Looking across the way, she saw Kort and Radil sitting down at the Klingon restaurant. T'Kir smiled. Looks like they're finally ready to have their heart to heart. she observed.

Having ordered their meals, Kort and Radil took a pair of seats at a table at the edge of the restaurant's seating area. Kort relished the thought of eating fresh gagh again but Radil's circumspection had caused her to carefully limit her choices to a few items. Kort had convinced her to order a goblet of bloodwine. He himself had brought a mug of root beer from Quark's.

The Klingon proprietor and chief chef of the establishment bombastically sang selections of Klingon opera while preparing the various meals. The pair listened in silence for several minutes. Finally, Kort broke the reflective mood by speaking.

"Jenrya, I asked you here so that I could speak to you of matters that have been weighing on my heart."

"Good," Radil breathed, "the Prophets know I've a lot to tell you."

"Then speak. I can wait." Kort swept his hand outward in a beckoning motion.

"Okay, here goes." Radil said with some apprehension, "I don't know what we're fighting over. I can't remember. All I know is that I pick fights for no good reason. I do it because I'm afraid. I'm afraid of long term commitments and of sharing my innermost secrets."

Radil took a deep breath and plunged onward, "I want to have a relationship with you. I want to overcome my fears and eventually form a permanent bond with you."

Seeing Kort still expectantly staring at her, Radil shook her head, "That's it. I'm done."

Kort straightened up in his seat, "That places a different spin on what I was going to say." Seeing Radil's worried expression, he smiled warmly, "Never fear. I too want to work through our difficulties. I crave a permanent, stable relationship with you. I had a suggestion of how to accomplish that but I think I should wait before asking that question."

"What was it?" Radil asked, "Perhaps it can help."

Kort shook his head, "I was going to ask you to marry me. But I see now that you aren't ready for such a step."

Radil looked stunned, "Marry you?"

Kort nodded, "It was a thought I had. You see, I love you. My heart burns like a star at the thought of you. I ache when we are apart. I wanted to cement our union. That was selfish of me. We can arrive there when you are ready."

"You want to marry me?" Radil asked, still dazed, "You burn for me?"

"Perhaps I've said too much." Kort looked uneasy.

"No." Radil blurted, "I've always wondered how you felt. I needed to know. I just never imagined. You want to marry me? After I've been so horrible?"

Kort shrugged, "I love all the facets of you. I find our relationship to be...spicy. I like a little heat to fuel my heart's embers."

"Well, I won't marry you." Radil replied, "At least not yet. I may swoon for you though."

"I stand ready to catch you." Kort vowed.

"I know that," Radil commented, "and I think that's what scares me the most."

Daggit and Parva acquired guest quarters and then began exploring the station. They settled in the springball court, after changing into athletic gear and played several rounds before being bumped by the next scheduled players. After showering, they went to Quark's and had a quiet dinner. Dinner was followed by stargazing and watching traffic flow through the wormhole. When all was said and done, they retired early and cuddled through the night.

Kira was approaching her quarters when she noticed a looming figure in the corridor of the Habitat Ring. As she neared her door, she recognised the man. It had been a decade since Kira had last seen Tom Riker but he still looked healthy and vibrant.

"Sorry to sneak up on you like this, Kira, but I wasn't sure I'd get through via a frontal assault on your office."

Kira smiled, "Ro told me you were aboard the Obsidian. Part of me wondered if we'd meet again."

"I just wanted to apologise for kidnapping you all those years ago. It was a mistake and I regret it."

"Tom, you more than paid for any debt you owed me while you served in that Cardassian labour camp." Kira assured him, "You were fighting a war in your own way. Having fought a similar war, I empathised with your plight and the reasoning behind your actions."

"But not enough to endorse our conflict." Riker bitterly commented.

"Governments and people change once they come into power." Kira said philosophically, "The same rang true for Bajor. Resistance cells and groups that had once been tolerated by the whole of the Bajoran people suddenly found themselves prosecuted if they didn't accept an amnesty deal that mandated retirement from the conflict with the Cardassians. Most cells accepted the deal but a few groups refused. They were branded as terrorists."

"The Maquis followed a similar path and were also branded as terrorists by both the Federation and the Cardassians. Bajor officially followed the Federation's lead but the overwhelming sympathy vote assured the Maquis of tacit support even though the government publicly denounced them."

Riker sighed, "Look, I'm tired and the Maquis Rebellion was a long time ago. I was hoping for a quiet evening of conversation." Riker explained, "If you're uncomfortable with that, I can go."

Kira shook her head, "Once upon a time, we had the beginnings of an interesting evening. Let's see where that night could have gone."

Riker smiled, "Sounds good to me."

 

Chapter 10

The following morning, Macen and T'Kir enjoyed an early breakfast with Ro. While sitting at a Bajoran eatery on the Promenade, they spied Captains Kira and Riker meeting at the replimat for breakfast as well.

"Tom looks happy." Ro observed.

"He's needed to bare his soul to someone for a long time now." Macen remarked, "It looks as though he finally found someone to do that with."

"So has Kira." Ro revealed, "The question is: how much baring did they do?"

"Nothing beyond the verbal kind." T'Kir pouted.

"Would you at least pretend you aren't in everyone's head?" Ro lamented, "If you don't, I'll arrest you for invasion of privacy. Lots of counts of it."

T'Kir stuck her tongue out at Ro and Ro laughed, "It's always the same with you two."

"Meaning what?" T'Kir demanded.

"Meaning a get alternating news of gloom and doom mixed with irreverence from him and I get rebellious feistiness from you." Ro described, "Both of you barely tolerated my orders during the Maquis Rebellion, you defied Starfleet's wishes so much they threw you out, and now you've once again been reined in by the barest of margins. Tell me, has Admiral Drake authorised your little excursion to Omicron."

Macen and T'Kir exchanged guilty looks and Ro chuckled, "That's what I thought."

"Well," T'Kir defended their position, "it's not as if she wouldn't want us to go."

"On a suicide mission pitting one outclassed surveyor against and entire planet of bad guys?" Ro asked dryly, "Oh, I'm sure she'd endorse that plan without reservation."

"I informed Amanda of our intentions." Macen revealed, "She has just chosen not to respond."

Ro's comm badge chirped and she tapped it, "Ro here."

"The Captain's ordered you to find Captain Macen and bring him to her office."

All eyes turned to the replimat in time to see Kira and Riker put their dishes in the recycler node and stride off to the turbolift.

"Acknowledged." Ro replied, "Inform the Captain that we'll be there momentarily."

"I think Drake has replied." T'Kir opined.

"I think you're right." Macen concurred.

T'Kir, Ro and Macen joined Riker and Kira in her office.

"You're dismissed Lieutenant." Kira informed Ro, "This is an 'Eyes Only' transmission."

"My people stay." Macen informed her.

"That goes against regulations." Kira countered.

"I'll just end up telling them what's in the transmission anyway." Macen divulged, "Tom's my acting 1st Officer and T'Kir's my wife, with whom I share a telepathic bond. The odds of my keeping these people in the dark are nil."

"Yeah!" T'Kir enthused, "D'you really think I won't pry the info out of him. I don't even need telepathy. I know where to tickle, Lady."

Macen closed his eyes and shook his head, all while wearing a grin. He opened his eyes and spoke to Kira, "It's my message. Its within my discretion to disseminate the information how I see fit."

"Actually, its our message." Kira replied, "Admiral Drake wants me present to serve as a witness."

"I have witnesses." Macen jerked his thumb in Riker and T'Kir's direction.

Kira offered Macen a knowing smile, "The Admiral wants impartial witnesses."

"Bugger." Macen muttered.

Kira swivelled her chair to face the comm viewer. Macen rounded the desk and came to stand behind her. Kira gave her voice code authorisation and the screen came to life. It briefly showed the United Federation of Planets symbol but then switched to an image of a worried looking Amanda Drake.

"Ah, Kira. Good." Drake seemed distracted. It was amazing how much she resembled her younger sister. Macen gained a new appreciation for how hard Shannon Forger had worked to distance herself from Drake's persona and reputation.

"Is Macen that torso behind you?" Drake asked.

"Yes, it is, Admiral." Kira replied.

"Brin?" Drake enquired, "I need to talk to you about your mission plans."

"I'm here, Amanda." Macen told her, "My plans are finalised and will be acted upon in less than three hours time."

"As much as I want the information regarding Omicron and its people, I can't endorse you dragging your crew off on some damned suicide mission." Drake argued.

"The mission is hardly suicide." Macen countered, "We have the ion shield. That neutralises the Omicrons' most powerful weapon. After that, they'll have to rely on disruptor blasts. We already know the Omicron ships can project particle beams from previous encounters with them. The Obsidian possesses twice the shielding of the Eclipse. We also know how powerful those particle weapons are. We won't be blindsided again."

"Yes, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers has reviewed the schematics you sent us. The entire fleet has been sent the plans and has begun installing the ion shield generators. The adapter allowing the generator to overlap the existing shields was, and I quote, 'brilliant'."

"Parva will be happy to hear that." Macen said.

"I'm still worried that you'll be outgunned." Drake stated.

"So am I." Macen admitted, "But we need as much information on the Omicron as we can gather. Alynna wouldn't hesitate to send us even with the odds being what they are."

"Yes," Drake reluctantly revealed, "she said as much when your mission proposal came in."

"Its not a proposal." Macen argued, "Its what's going to happen."

"We need to spend an afternoon discussing your attitude." Drake sighed, "What if I don't authorise the mission. You won't get paid."

"Then I'll do it on my own." Macen informed her.

"That's what I thought you'd say." Drake sounded resigned, "Very well, I'm authorising the mission. The 7th Fleet will be standing by to reinforce you."

"It'll take them three days to reach our location." Macen replied, "I don't think upping their alert status will do much for us."

Drake was frustrated, "There must be someway we can help you."

Macen shrugged, "Not that I know of."

"We could send the Defiant along with you." Drake suggested hopefully.

Kira nodded, "We have three screening elements from the 9th Fleet on call."

"The 9th Fleet is going to be busy as soon as we relay whatever information we gather regarding Omicron's defensive posture." Macen said in reply, "We're going in for a covert reconnaissance, not a full fledged assault. The Defiant would just provide a provocation while we might escape unnoticed on our own."

"You never escape unnoticed." Drake complained.

"We do, all the time." Macen protested.

"Not when you're working for me."

"Still not true." Macen pointed out, "My team and I have successfully infiltrated three Orion Syndicate cartels, two terrorist cells, and covertly investigated five corrupt Starfleet contractors that were selling production and design secrets to the Romulans, the Ferengi and other high bidders. All of these operations were completed without our revealing our identities or sparking an incident. That doesn't include our private contracts."

"All right. I stand corrected." Drake conceded, "I guess all that's left is to wish you luck."

Macen leaned down to be captured by the imager, "If you don't hear from us in six days, send all available forces to Omicron."

"Take care of my sister." Drake swallowed hard.

Macen nodded, "As best as I can."

"Come back alive." Drake ordered.

"Always do." Macen winked. Drake stared for a moment and then terminated the subspace connection.

"She's so easy to embarrass." Macen confided conspiratorially.

Kira shook her head. "Elias is discreet. You should allow him to follow you in the Defiant."

"The Defiant is needed here in case of an Omicron attack." Macen countered, "We'll be fine. Honest."

Kira still looked dubious but dropped the matter, "I believe you have a departure slot in three hours, Captain."

"I surely do, Captain." Macen bowed, "Until later."

"Take care, Tom." Kira called out as the Outbound Ventures trio were departing her office. Riker waved back and smiled.

He's still a charmer. Kira thought ruefully. Seeing that the Obsidian's officers had exited Ops on the turbolift, she summoned her XO to her office. Commander Vaughn reported instantly.

"Trouble, Captain?" the 107-year-old Special Operations veteran asked.

"How did you guess?" Kira rubbed her temples.

Vaughn rubbed his bearded chin and smiled, "Macen's a top flight intelligence operative but trouble is his personal shadow."

"How long have you known him?" Kira enquired.

"Almost 80 years." Vaughn explained, "There's a lot of war stories between us."

"I can imagine."

"No." Vaughn asserted, "You really can't."

Kira was surprised by Vaughn's sudden attitude but let it go, "I have a fresh assignment for the Defiant. You, as usual, will be commanding her."

Vaughn broke into a boyish grin, "I thought as much."

The Obsidian's departure from DS9 went by without incident. The location of Omicron had been determined thanks to Danan's cartographical expertise. She had spared a few minutes time from her researches to investigate the whereabouts of the Omicron homeworld.

With the coordinates determined it was discovered that Omicron lay beyond the Cardassian farside border, close to the energy barrier surrounding the galactic core. James Kirk had had the unfortunate privilege of penetrating that barrier and Starfleet had subsequently learned the price of violating that particular barricade. Macen was glad that the Omicron homeworld was on this side of the barrier. He had no intentions of encountering the capricious energy being that dwelt on the other side of that particular "cage".

It would take the ship three days at warp six to reach their destination. Macen once again reviewed what information they had on Omicron and its inhabitants. The Herzet, Iconians and the rest of the rebels' alliance had razed the planet. It had been a class-M paradise. Now it was a barren rock. Lichens, moss and algae provided what atmosphere there was.

Since all of the cities and dwellings on the surface of Omicron had been utterly destroyed, that left underground or underwater locations for the survivors' descendents to arise from. From all indications, the Obsidian's enhanced sensor platforms were more advanced than what had been utilised by the victorious rebels. Danan felt confident that she would be able to pinpoint the location of an Omicron city. That was good enough for Macen.

Danan's research into the primordial fragment had slowed. She was isolating the shard's reactions to individual energy wavelengths. After this, the next step was to attempt imbue cloned rDNA strands with the "rock's" discharges. So far she'd managed to fuse DNA with 43 different variations of ejected mass. Varying the DNA sources also altered the results.

Computer modelling of the fully grown results of the infusion process had been startling. The radical departures from the original expressions of the genome had shocked the entire Sciences department as well as the Vulcan archaeologists while they'd been involved with the inquiry. The experiments left little doubt as to the source of the Omicrons' mastery of biotechnology.

Macen and Daggit spent time planning potential incursions. Macen sat down with Riker and developed contingency plans for the ship and the extraction of the investigative team. The team's roster would include the entire unit sans Riker and Grace. Grace was less than happy about this turn of events but she knew her place lay with her primary skill set.

The alpha shift ended their shift a mere two hours after the ship's departure from the station. The conflicting differences in on-board timekeeping had created this discrepancy. It meant that the gamma shift personnel had had less shore leave time than the alphas. Such were the vagaries of starship schedules.

Having changed for a work out in the ship's on-board gym, T'Kir cornered Grace before starting to exercise and lifted the details of Grace's evening with Bashir from her.

"So," T'Kir asked eagerly, "what happened?"

"When?" Grace asked innocently.

T'Kir's widened expectantly, "When you were with Dr. Bashir, silly."

"Oh," Grace still acted meekly innocent, "Julian."

"Julian, eh?" T'Kir broke into a lopsided grin, "So tell me about it...all of it."

"Well, I went into the Infirmary..."

"I saw that part." T'Kir impatiently reminded her, "What happened after you entered?"

" I asked the nurse if I could speak with Julian." Grace continued, "He was just coming off his shift but he took a moment to see me."

"And sparks flew." T'Kir supplied.

"Not exactly." Grace bit her lower lip, "At first he was a little irritated that I'd pursued him at work but then he eased up a bit and was flattered."

"Flattered is good." T'Kir commented, "A stroked ego usually greases the wheels towards a conversation."

Grace brightened, "That's what happened!"

"Told ya." T'Kir cockily replied.

"Julian accepted my invitation to dinner and we went to Quark's." Grace explained, "It seems Quark is in competition with a new Bolian restaurant and gaming parlour. According to Julian, his menus and prices have become really competitive lately."

"Yeah," T'Kir nodded, "Brin and I ate at the Bolian place. The food and the service were excellent. Quark would have to revamp a lot of his business practices in order to compete."

"I know you and the Captain have had dealings with Quark in the past, and they may colour your view of him, but he was very sweet and cordial towards Julian and myself."

"Did he know which ship you sailed with?" T'Kir frowned

"Well, no." Grace replied uncertainly.

"That explains it then." T'Kir looked vindicated.

"That's not fair!" Grace protested.

"Listen, Hannah, I just happen to know this troll a lot better than you do."

"He's sweet."

"He'd also sell your mother to the highest bidder if given half a chance." T'Kir pointed out.

"My mother would turn him into a little cube," Grace replied, "and then step on him."

"See?" T'Kir pointed at Grace, "Feisty and exotic. A potent combination if there ever was one on the black market."

"Kelvans are not exotic." Grace folded her arms across her chest.

"They are when you aren't one." T'Kir said wryly.

Grace stuck out her lower lip and it quivered. T'Kir rolled her eyes in exasperation, "Don't pout. Tell me the rest of your story."

Grace's depression instantly disappeared and she livened back up, "Julian and I talked for hours. He's so well rounded. He can hold an intelligent conversation on virtually any topic. Any topic but flight, that is. I waxed on and on about the sheer joy of piloting a ship through the stars and he was captivated."

"As well he should be." T'Kir said adamantly.

"He was." Grace said confidently, "The rest of the evening we discussed literature, art, and holodeck programs."

"I didn't know you were a holodeck enthusiast." T'Kir revealed.

"When have we had a ship large enough to have one?"

"Good point." T'Kir conceded, "Go on."

"It was a wonderful evening." Grace informed her, "Afterwards, he invited me to his quarters for a intimate drink."

"So how is he in bed?" T'Kir asked, eyes sparking with anticipation.

"I don't know." Grace admitted.

"How can you not know?" T'Kir demanded, "There were sparks, chemistry, raw sexual magnetism. How could you not sleep with him?"

"Keep your voice down!" Grace hissed, "For your information, I don't sleep with men on the first date."

"How about women?"

"No." Grace replied, "I don't sleep with women and I don't throw myself at a guy on the first date. I'm not you."

"That was cold." T'Kir said without any emotion.

"I don't mean to come off as rude or anything but face it, you were promiscuous before you started seeing the Captain."

"Didn't bother him." T'Kir replied, "Why should it bother me?"

"It shouldn't but you have to realise I'm not you." Grace implored, "I take things slowly. So don't criticise when I don't charge in to a full blown orgy."

"Might change your world." T'Kir suggested.

"My world has enough problems right now."

"Why?" T'Kir wondered, "Sounds like things went awfully smoothly. You didn't mention Section 31 did you?"

"No." Grace replied glumly.

"You didn't start bragging that you're a Kelvan?"

"No."

"You didn't proclaim yourself to be the best pilot in the Alpha Quadrant did you?"

"Yes." Grace wailed, "I'd had too much synthehol and I didn't catch what I was saying until it was too late. I sobered right up after that."

"How bad can it be?" T'Kir asked hopefully.

"Julian took me up on my claim and issued a standing simulator challenge between Prynn Tenmei and myself."

"Who the hell is Prynn Tenmei?" T'Kir wondered.

"The chief helmswoman aboard the Defiant and Command Vaughn's daughter." Grace was nearing tears now.

"It's just a stupid challenge, Hannah." T'Kir consoled her friend, "I'm sure they'll forget about it in a week.

"What if they don't?"

"Then you'll blow her out of space and prove you were right." T'Kir confidently asserted.

"Yeah, you're right." Grace said with more of her usual confidence.

"Yup." T'Kir nodded, "I usually am."

"Now who's cocky?" Grace teased.

"Like you, I am merely stating fact, not opinion." T'Kir opined.

"May all our facts be true." Grace raised her fist in a defiant gesture.

"Amen!" T'Kir shouted. Several of the assembled, exercising crewmen stared.

"Get back to your workouts ya voyeurs." T'Kir decreed. Many shrugs and a few muttered, disparaging curses later, T'Kir faced Grace again, "You ready to sweat your angst away."

"Oh yeah."

"Then let's be about it." T'Kir laughed.

 


Proceed to Part III

 

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