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Revelations by Travis Anderson

The Spy, the Rebel, the Daredevil, the Fighter, the Lightbulb, the Muscle, the Fixer, the
Rock, the Brain, and one ship shared by all. The tale continues...

Chapter 1

The Full Circle Fleet had retraced the USS Voyager's epic voyage. Or at least the first quarter of it as it would have been should they have transited through conventional means starting from the Beta Quadrant and delving into the adjacent Delta Quadrant employing their advanced quantum slipstream drives. The Voyager was the flagship as Starfleet explored the quadrant in greater width and breadth.

Admiral Kathryn Janeway led the expedition, chosen not only for her exemplary service record but also her hands on experience with the territories involved. Chakotay was now Captain Chakotay and served as her flag captain as the commanding officer of the Voyager itself. Despite a degree of the command staff remaining aboard, the crew was almost entirely comprised of fresh faces selected from among the best Starfleet had to offer in these troubled days.

Janeway currently resided in her flag offices where she was accepting a transmission from the Starfleet Commander, Fleet Admiral Edward Jellico. Holographic projections were returning to Starfleet vogue but the tenuous line of communication buoys laid out by the fleet as it traveled sufficed after the destruction of the Pathfinder array. As such, the communication had undergone several lags as the transmission was handed off from buoy to buoy as the fleet progressed across dozens of solar systems underway at warp speed rather than through a quantum slipstream.

"You understand that Brin Macen was also once a high ranking Maquis?" Jellico inquired.

"Are you honestly afraid Chakotay will forget his loyalties to Starfleet and this mission to aid Macen instead?" Janeway scoffed, "Chakotay served as my XO under extreme circumstances for seven years and has subsequently served as master of this vessel for the last nine."

"But you were there to ride herd on Chakotay while he previously served in the Delta Quadrant," Jellico rebutted her commendations.

"So what you're really afraid of is that Chakotay will become infected by Macen's rebelliousness and run off with this starship and raise up a brand new Maquis army. Is that it?" Janeway asked.

"He'd better not while on your watch, admiral," Jellico grated.

"It won't happen under anyone's watch. Why is Macen's arrest so important as to steal away my flagship to arrest him a quadrant away?" Janeway wanted to know.

"Macen has a long history of reckless behavior and bald faced insubordination. He defied orders to infiltrate the Maquis by actually aiding them. After the Dominion War he was court martialed and busted back to his previous rank of Commander. He was forced out of Starfleet only to hire him back in as a civilian contractor. Finally he was convicted of a murder which was later thrown out on a technicality because he killed the man's clone rather than the man himself. When he finally did kill the actual man, his conviction had already been overturned. We let him off the hook and he threw it back in our faces," Jellico fumed.

"Generally speaking or is there a specific infraction you're railing on about?" Janeway inquired.

"Mind your tone, Janeway or I'll bust you back to ensign again," Jellico promised, "Macen hired on two specialists. Specialists that turned out to be convicted and condemned felons from Ardana IV. The Ardanans have learned of this and want us to hand them over for execution."

"What did they do?" Janeway was aghast. The Federation had denounced the death penalty at the signing of the Articles of Federation.

"It doesn't matter. The Ardanans want them and Macen has them. He was ordered to hand them over through the chain of command and Macen fled into the Beta Quadrant instead. I want him found and I want him taken into custody and I want those convicts taken to Ardana so the Ardanans can execute them in what will probably be the most creative manners possible known to the Stratosians." Jellico declared.

"And this doesn't bother you at all?" Janeway asked.

"Ardana isn't a Federation world. And it's a strategic partner. It's the quadrant's only supplier of zenite ore. Ore the Ardanans are threatening to withhold shipments of until we deliver," Jellico explained.

"But doing so violates our own laws if we're aware of the condemned's fate. We'll be complicit in their deaths," Janeway argued.

"This is going to happen and you're going to make it happen. Or I'll scrub your whole damn mission," Jellico threatened.

"Admiral, you're leveling a lot of threats rather than persuading me to see your side," Janeway calmly spoke.

"Get it done. I don't care how and I really don't care what happens to the two prisoners when we hand them over. The Prime Directive makes it so we don't care. Understood?" Jellico signed off without waiting for a potential reply.

Twenty minutes later, Janeway was on the bridge after reviewing the official orders sent from Jellico's office directly rather than through Starfleet Operations. The more things progressed, the more uneasy Janeway was about the unfolding events. Still she met with Chakotay in his Ready Room off of the bridge.

"Chakotay, what can you tell me about Brin Macen?" Janeway began the conversation with a very specific question.

"Macen was semi-independent when he worked with the Maquis. He acted as a freelance 'information broker' and part-time smuggler of Federation luxury goods he peddled to the Cardassians. He was most closely identified with Ro Laren's Maquis cell on Ronara Prime. They're still friends today," Chakotay answered, "The rest of his Starfleet record is readily available. His record with Starfleet's Special Investigations Division is classified at the highest levels."

"Yet you're privy to some of those details," Janeway guessed.

"Privy to and sworn to secrecy," Chakotay advised her.

"What about Captain Ro?" Janeway asked.

"Even deeper into it and sworn to keep even more secrets," Chakotay warned her, "Why the sudden interest?"

"The SID vanished from all official records four months ago. Just after Macen received a full pardon for any and all criminal activities and violations of Starfleet regulations," Janeway told him, "And suddenly Fleet Admiral Edward Jellico has personally ordered you and the crew of Voyager to hunt Macen and his crew down and capture two specific individuals in order to hand them over to the Ardanan officials for execution."

"Who are the individuals and what did they do?" Chakotay wondered.

"The Ardanans won't reveal the true identities of the pair. And they were tried and convicted in absentia," Janeway shared, "But they're traveling under the identities of Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith."

"And Stratosians and Troglytes can easily pass for human," Chakotay noted, "Why Starfleet's sudden interest?"

"The Ardanans learned the pair is traveling with Macen and they're threatening to halt zenite production and export until they receive the pair," Janeway revealed.

"Any news on what they did?" Chakotay asked.

"The Ardanans are tight lipped but they're listed as being convicted of subversive activities," Janeway said.

"Which means one or both are Troglyte freedom fighters," Chakotay surmised, "Which would appeal to Macen's sense of justice."

"Will Macen fight rather than hand them over?" Janeway asked point blank.

"Undoubtedly," Chakotay replied, "Macen is an El-Aurian. He views every threat as the Borg reborn. Even with the Borg out of the equation, he will use any and all force he deems necessary to protect a member of his crew."

"Chakotay, this man received the highest medal of valor the Federation can bestow. I won't endorse a protracted struggle involving unwarranted casualties. Find him and find out the story behind Kerber and Smith," Janeway instructed, "It may make all the difference having all the facts."

"We'll set out immediately," Chakotay promised.

The Galaxy-class USS Rutherford was docked at Deep Space Four with orders to pursue Macen and the Obsidian. Captain Erika Benteen, the station CO, had never met a bigger group of Enterprise-D wannabes in her life. Captain Jean-Claude Voltaire even shaved his head bald to mimic Picard. Commander Bill Frakes was a goateed copycat of Captain Will Riker. Lt. Commander Diana Triad was an obvious Deanna Troi worshipped. Doctor Kimberly Krusher echoed her namesake. Lt. Geoff Burton wore vision enhancing spectacles to mimic a VISOR. Ensign Rey Lyran worshipped at Captain Ro's feet. Lt. Morag had obviously been raised on stories of the legendary Worf. And India Yar was related to Ishara but had escaped Turkana IV before its destruction.

And finally, a human named Brett Spiner that had been dealt a severe cranial trauma had had his brain replaced with a positronic one. Lt. Byte was the result of that synthesis. He had the data concerning his human existence but no attachment to it at all. Oddly enough, he and Yar had formed an intriguing pairing.

In their briefing session, Voltaire constantly revolved around the question of why Benteen hadn't rerouted the Nebula-class USS Sutherland to attempt to intercept the Nova-class Obsidian. And Benteen continually redirected his attention to the comm and sensor logs indicating the Obsidian had cruised past DS4 three hours before Jellico's arrest warrant was even received.

Benteen also pointed out that when the Sutherland's current mission was retasked, the starship was far enough away that the Obsidian had slipped deeper into the Delta Quadrant than the Sutherland's patrol route allowed for. And the projected course skirted Iridian Enforcer territory. Even Voltaire was quieted by that revelation. The Iridians were more inscrutable than the Tzenkethi and twice as hostile as the Gorn ever were. And indications were that the Iridians' xenophobia made the Tholians look warm and fuzzy.

The Iridians looked for any excuse to invade and plant a flag over conquered peoples. Their flag, exclusively. And yet it seemed the Iridians were in high demand as peacekeeping forces despite the fact all sides were assimilated into Iridian control. And they were paid monthly retainers to occupy worlds.

The Iridians had spread far and wide in the Galactic Center. They'd even blocked all travel from the Alpha Quadrant to the Galactic Core and the Great Barrier that guarded it. Which foolhardy souls still attempted to do despite Starfleet's quarantine after James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise-A penetrated the barrier in 2287.

Voltaire's first command, a New Orleans-class registered as the USS Sightseer had been lost to the Iridians during the abortive conflict between the Typhon Pact, Khitomer Accords nations, and the Iridians. Benteen could see by Voltaire's facial twitches at the mention of the Iridians that he still wasn't over the event. In less perilous times, Starfleet would have sidelined him before approving his next command. Instead, he'd hand selected his crew very selectively. Most of whose careers were either stalled or in a terminal backslide. Only Rey and Byte seemed destined to further themselves.

Benteen had done her research when it was announced the Rutherford would be calling on her. Voltaire was a rigid harridan that saw the world in stark black and white terms. But he didn't have a morality to base his paradigm on, merely Starfleet regulations. And rumor had it; he was quite selective in his own judicious implementation of regulations. Especially given the fact that he was having a shipboard affair with Krusher despite his years of friendship with her husband, John Krusher. And John Krusher seemed to be the last one willfully ignorant of the liaisons.

The rumor mill at Krusher's last posting spoke of impropriety between Krusher and her teenage son, Wilbur. Seeing the crew now, Benteen believed every scrap of scuttlebutt surrounding them all. She wasn't certain about Morag yet but his protectiveness towards Rey made his affections known. And Yar was a civilian specialist so she hadn't been included in the meeting. Which intellectual curiosity made Benteen wonder how Byte reacted around her.

"Tell me, Captain. Why do you continue to protect these criminals?" Voltaire decidedly refused to believe any fact presented to him

Benteen pitied his crew, "Even if I were protecting Macen, I would have to explain the 'why' to you and I don't think you could grasp it," Benteen finally fumed.

"I will be reporting your unwillingness to cooperate to Admiral Jellico," Voltaire bathed in the fact he was currently Jellico's favorite son, "I'll have you busted back to ensign."

"Even if you could, the record will show your accusations are unwarranted," Benteen replied, "Or, did you forget every room outside of quarters and restrooms has visual flight recorders? It should make for interesting video of you and Dr. Krusher 'examining' one another."

"Liars I tell you!" Voltaire raged.

"And the system is hardwired ever since the Finney incident. So don't bother trying to erase the evidence," Benteen enjoyed herself immensely, "But then again, extramarital affairs are rarely court martial material but they are a violation of regs. An infraction that could get you reassigned."

"Are you threatening me?" Voltaire tried to ignore his command staff's snickers. Even Krusher was laughing at him.

"Never. Consider it a warning," Benteen offered, "Leave me alone and I won't report that Starfleet should look for improprieties aboard your vessel."

"I want Macen's location," Voltaire tried again.

"Try the Delta Quadrant. Beyond that, I can't tell you what I don't know. Macen made it so I didn't have to try and protect him. He protected me," Benteen shared, "But I know someone who might know."

"Tell me!" Voltaire was like a rabid dog.

"Maltus Mazur is an El-Aurian who traveled to the Alpha Quadrant with Macen. He's currently moonlighting for a clandestine group," Benteen didn't mention Section 31 by name. It would've gone orbital above Voltaire's head, "I'll put you in touch."

"Now," Voltaire demanded.

"Don't forget your manners," Benteen chided him.

"Please," Voltaire sneered.

"I've projected our parabolic course around the nebula," Tracy Ebert reported from CONN.

"Proceed at half impulse," Macen ordered.

Beside him, Shannon Forger twitched, "We're really going in there."

"We really are," Macen promised her.

Forger had three distinctions. Her sister was Amanda Forger, the Director of the SID. Shannon had been born Sean Forger and transitioned into womanhood. And she was effectively the captain of the ship most of the time.

"Why are we hiding a nebula?" Forger asked…again.

"Because this nebula has an 'eye' to the electrostatic storm. And in it are a sun and a small solar system consisting of an M-class planet and several dwarf planets. And the locals owe me a favor," Macen added the last part for the first time.

The ship emerged to find a dwarf yellow star and a planetary system as described. Forger was nonplussed, "How?"

"Inexplicably, when the binary twin exploded to form the nebula, the Dwarf was created from solar shearing from blue super giant star to a yellow dwarf. The Class-L planet that survived was terraformed into something hospitable by friends," Macen explained at last.

"So what's the planet called?" Forger hated all the mystery.

"Gilgamesh," Macen happily told her.

"You're kidding, right?" Forger asked.

"You wish," Macen retorted, "Vulcans weren't the first aliens to reach Earth."

"Captain we're being hailed, "Edwin Zimbalist reported from OPS.

"And we're being targeted," Jaycee Miller stated from Tactical.

"Reply to the hail and ignore the targeting sensors," Macen instructed.

A male Gilga appeared on the screen. He appeared to be a rather large, humanoid tortoise wearing a turban, "Hail Macen, we have received your message and have made the requested arrangements."

"I'll be bringing down a small landing party. I don't wish to intrude too greatly. And we have coin so we can pay for our accommodations and food," Macen told him.

"Consider it repayment of our debt. You brought Guinan to us and assisted her as she healed my people of the plague that afflicted us. Without you and Guinan, we would be extinct," the Gilga responded to the offer, "And you and your party can be witness to the fact our business has paid off handsomely. You will honor us if we share our bounty with you."

"I won't insult you further by arguing with you," Macen conceded, "Please be ready to receive us on the half hour mark."

"We will be standing by," the Gilga assured him.

"Hold here and then enter the edge of the nebula when we depart," Macen told Forger.

"Why not move into orbit and beam down?" Forger asked.

"Because the Gilga won't permit it. We're already imposing so let's not stretch propriety to the breaking point," Macen chided her; "You need to think like a captain."

"But I'm not really the captain," Forge r complained.

"You will be as soon as we finish this business," Macen told her, "I promise."

"Like you and Captain Riker shared command?" Forger was skeptical.

"As in I'll stay off the bridge unless summoned and stick strictly with being the Mission Commander while you exercise full authority over the ship. The way it should be," Macen stated.

"Hot damn! Get off my frinxing ship, sir!" Forger enthused, "And why you're away we'll get Celeste and her team to Ardana IV."

"I'd expect nothing less," Macen admitted, "Tracy; you're flying the Corsair for the duration."

"No problem," Ebert replied as Aglaia stepped out of the turbolift, "I saw that one coming as soon as you said we couldn't use the transporters."

"The runabout is prepped and ready for departure," The Platonian pilot reported.

"I'll just double check the preflight checklist," Ebert told Macen

She arrived in the hangar bay to find Kerber and Smith already aboard. So she put them to work checking the runabout's stations while she verified the warp drive and flight controls checked out. In the hangar itself, the ship's EMH, Tessa, was applying inoculation boosters to the Angosian Rab Daggit and his Orion wife, Parva.

"So where is the captain?" Tessa wondered.

Daggit had served in Macen's SID team since it was officially created. Parva had followed soon behind. He and Celeste Rockford had confided with them his desire to step down as ship's captain to focus entirely on the SID. They kept quiet about feeling it was Macen's role to share with Tessa if he wanted to before he made the general announcement.

"Captain, if you're withholding information, Starfleet will find out. We always do," Admiral Leonard James Akaar advised Ro, "So if you know anything about Macen's plans, now is the last chance to divulge them."

"Do you really think Macen would share anything with me knowing I'd have to answer to Starfleet Command?" Ro was tired of the litany.

"It's career suicide if he did," Akaar warned her.

"I've thrown it away before," Ro tersely replied.

"And there are some that would still say it was a mistake to let you rejoin the ranks," Akaar told her, "Fortunately, I'm not one of them. I understand the choice you made to join the Maquis. You were a member of the Bajoran Resistance long before you applied to Starfleet Academy. Another disclosure that should have been made before you enlisted."

"Yeah, that'd work out. 'Hi, I'm Laren. I used to be a terrorist. Can I join Starfleet now?'" Ro was scornful.

"It's a pattern with you," Akaar stated, "And it's one you can no longer afford. I'm one of you supporters. That's why I volunteered for this detail. I don't want to sign off on you and have it blow up in your face."

"What about your face?" Ro wondered.

"I'm Teflon in this case," Akaar promised her.

Akaar's comm badge chirped and he tapped it, "Go."

"Biosensors indicate she's telling the truth as she knows it," Lt. Aiden Quinlan reported.

"Congratulations, you get to keep your command for another day," the massive Cappellan rose to exit, "But inform me if Macen does contact you. There's still hope that this can be resolved amicably."

"Even for Kerber and Smith?" Ro asked.

Akaar transported over to the Excelsior-class USS Freedom and it set course for Barrinor at a leisurely Warp 2. There he expected to meet with the former Admiral, and now Director, of the Starfleet Special Investigations Division. Amanda Forger had led the unit, now agency, since its inception. And despite it now being a clandestine entity outside of Starfleet, at least officially, it still answered directly to the Office of the Federation President.

The SID was located with Macen's space station, the Nor-class Ampok Nor. It was a recently constructed cousin to Terok Nor and Empok Nor. Akaar wasn't surprised to find the SID in full operation when he arrived. Amanda Forger was considered a Starfleet reservist but the President had appointed her Director of the Starfleet division that was a mixture of civilian and Starfleet components. Off the Federation's books, the SID directly served the Office of the President for Starfleet.

Akaar had been skeptical regarding the shadowy organization that had existed within Starfleet especially when they began contracting civilian specialists. Of course most of those same specialists were former Starfleet officers. But largely officers and enlisted that had left the service in disgrace. Macen and Tom Riker being chief examples.

The problem was that Macen had a seventy-two hour head start. Akaar had been recalled from an inspection tour of the Ninth Fleet in the Kalandra Sector to chase a ghost less than twenty hours ago. The rest of Starfleet had also been tasked with locating Macen at that time. And the longer it took to determine where Macen had fled the greater the lead he had on them.

"Amanda, I won't waste your time," Akaar promised the much younger woman

"But I'm a waste of yours. Brin took off without informing me of why or where his destination would be," Forger readily admitted, "It wasn't until the Interstellar Security Advisor contacted me that I was even aware there was a problem."

"You didn't know about Kerber and Smith?" Akaar was surprised.

"I knew there were irregularities in their background. But given most of Macen's crew, it didn't seem worthwhile to investigate. Plus, Kerber and Smith are computer experts. Read that as premier hackers. Kerber is the programmers and Smith is a cryptologist. Their documents were flawless and had all the right electronic earmarks. But if you spoke to them, their cover story began to fall apart."

"How so?" Akaar asked.

"Well, even colonials that have never stepped foot on Earth had better cultural ties and awareness of Earth's customs," Forger explained, "And until I spotted Kerber's shoulder tattoo and ran through a recognition program I never realized she was a Troglyte."

"A Troglyte?" Akaar hadn't been fully briefed yet.

"Yes, her tattoo marked her as part of the Root Clan. She's practically nobility amongst the Troglytes," Forger shared.

"Why the Delta Quadrant of all the places to go?" Akaar wondered aloud.

"We have minimal presence and Macen's an El-Aurian. Before the Borg assimilated his people, he was a member of their Expeditionary Forces. That's why he was injected with the same longevity drugs Guinan was exposed to. Guinan is older but she'll outlive all of her people, including Macen. Exposure to theta radiation negated the effect of the longevity serum in Macen's cells. He'll only live another two or three hundred years at most," Forger divulged.

"Macen was exposed to the Nexus, wasn't he?" Akaar inquired.

"All the surviving El-Aurians were," Forger corrected his assumption, "Macen's uncle became obsessed with the Nexus."

"Macen was related to Tolian Soran?" Akaar nearly yelped. It was the closest thing she'd ever seen to making the stalwart Cappellan panic.

"To say they were estranged would be a cosmic understatement," Forger chuckled, "Macen insisted, demanded really, that Soran move on. But despite outward appearances, the El-Aurians always knew Soran would do absolutely anything to return to the Nexus. Which he proved twenty-one years ago at Armargosa and Viridian III."

"Soran isn't the only displaying obsessive behaviors," Akaar noted.

"Check Macen's profile and multiple psych evals," Forger recommended, "He's only obsessive about protecting the people he cares for. Fortunately for us, the people he cares for live in or serve the Federation and generally are in Starfleet."

"Which is why he's gone to such lengths to occlude his purpose from his friends and acquaintances," Akaar grasped it at long last.

"The only living being that fully knows what's in his head right now is Celeste Rockford," Forger confided, "And she'll be with him on this."

"Despite the fact she tried to kill him as Annika Ryst," Akaar mused.

"Ancient history. And there's power in forgiveness," Forger spoke to him confidentially.

"I'll wrap up be speaking with Captain Riker and Commander Danan," Akaar decided.

"Tom and Lisea won't know anything either but you have to check them off the list," Forger stated, "They'll understand and will cooperate."

"All the cooperation in the quadrant is useless if no one knows anything," Akaar grumbled

Akaar fully realized he was probably wasting his time. But before becoming an Outbound Ventures Captain, Tom Riker had been XO aboard the Obsidian. And his current First Officer and wife, Lisea Danan, had been Macen's lover through most of their mission with the Maquis. Then she'd been his first XO in the SID before Riker joined the crew and Danan eventually rejoined it as the resident Science Officer.

Danan's loyalty stretched back through two Trill hosts and Macen had given Riker new purpose in life. So the odds of them betraying a confidence, if there was even one to betray, would be slim to none. But Akaar's assistants verified Riker and Danan knew nothing of Macen's departure until hours before it occurred when he filed for a window to leave the system.

And Macen, being the corporate founder and resident SID contractor, left under mysterious conditions all the time. Usually for Starfleet. No one had thought anything was amiss until Starfleet began threatening everyone in the company. Having found precisely nothing of note, Akaar scheduled his own departure and returned to the Kalandra sector to finish his inspection tour.

Macen said his farewells to Celeste Rockford privately in their cabin. Rockford was more than just Macen's wife and teammate; she was also his business partner. Outbound Ventures had merged with Rockford Investigations. And the company was stronger than ever with demands for their services departing a solar system at maximum warp.

Rockford Investigations had a greater presence on various planets but Outbound Ventures was the hub from which the corporate fleet deployed from. And Ampok Nor played home to the SID now that it had left Earth. Macen's SID team was comprised of Outbound Ventures contractors and Rockford investigators.

Only this time out their was dissension in the ranks. Lee Kang had led the "mutiny" against Macen's decision to keep Kerber and Smith out of Federation custody, and thereby Ardanan custody. Shade and Tony Burrows had eagerly gone along with the protestations. Finally Arianna Forte had eventually sided with them. And their solution had been to try and seize Kerber and Smith by force and use the Corsair to fly to Deep Space Four and turn them in.

The abortive mutiny had lasted less than ten minutes before Daggit and Jelena Kovic led the ship's security down upon them. They'd been occupying two cells in the brig ever since. Rockford was concerned about her investigative staff.

"So what happens to them?" she asked Macen, "They violated our trust not Federation law."

"Actually they did violate maritime law that governs the operation of any starship, space going vessel, or wet navy," Macen corrected, "But the point is I don't feel like pressing charges. Instead I still want them to accompany you to Ardana."

"They won't assist me," Rockford complained.

"Make it a challenge to prove you wrong by proving the Ardanans' case again Bailey and Angelique. If they can make the charges stick, without any shades of impropriety and actual evidence of wrongdoing, I'll hand them over myself," Macen promised.

"And if they do?" Rockford reiterated.

"They won't. I've examined my case myself. The flaws in it are bare naked for anyone to see," Macen assured her.

And if they refuse?" Rockford asked.

"They get off the boat here on Gilgamesh," Macen told her, "The Gilga will make certain they're comfortable…and quiet. Long enough for you to prove Angelique and Bailey's innocence."

"And where will you go after Harri gets here?" Rockford wondered.

"Maybe Ekos but it's really up to Harri. She's the expert on hiding out," Macen replied.

Harriet Fedora Mudd was many things but a saint wasn't one of them. Rockford had her services on retainer and she was tasking Mudd with helping Macen's group out. Plus, Rockford knew Mudd had a soft spot for Smith and Kerber.

"And if Starfleet manages to actually catch you all?" Rockford was concerned.

"Harri won't let that happen," Macen joked, "Besides, we hire the best legal team in the Federation to defend us. And if the worst should happen, I served two years on a penal colony. It's boring but survivable."

"You were sentenced to one with T'Kir," Rockford reminded him, "Which took every string Admiral Forger could pull. I won't be getting arrested and tried with you."

"You never know," Macen joked.

"I'm serious," Rockford fumed.

"So am I. I just have to manage not to get arrested," Macen replied, "Simple, really."

"You do we realize we split up on our last outing as well?" Rockford wondered.

"The problem with both of us being essential and invaluable," Macen drew her in for a kiss.

She gazed up at him and their eyes met, "You're not getting out of this that easily."

"Why do I suspect you have a demand?" Macen wondered.

"Because you're a genius," Rockford chortled.

"Okay, lay it on me," Macen insisted, "Before I choke on all the flattery."

"Two weeks at Risa," Rockford requested.

"Make it three," Macen promised, "And a private villa."

"You are so on," Rockford agreed before he could change his mind.

"Look, this situation won't last forever," Macen consoled his wife, "But if you unearth signs of legal tampering, run straight to Earth. Leave me a message at our agreed upon cutout and we'll join you all when we can."

"I'm just sick of saving the damn quadrant," Rockford complained.

"Would a solid month on Risa recharge your batteries?" Macen offered.

"Hell, let's save the universe," Rockford happily replied.

"It'll be worth it to see you in a bathing suit again," Macen grinned.

"Go. Before you start drooling," Rockford steered him towards the hangar bay entrance.

"Ah, you cut me to the quick," Macen sighed theatrically, "But I can still dream."

He went through the opening door and it slid shut behind him. Rockford called Kovic to warn her she was headed for the brig to release the prisoners.

Ebert expertly flew the Corsair through orbital traffic. Freighters could be seen landing, loading, or departing a large spaceport and warehouse district. The comparatively diminutive runabout had been redirected to one of several shuttle ports.

"Captain, why haven't we seen more traffic?" Ebert asked Macen.

"The Gilga hide their defensive flotilla in the nebula. There are other clear pocket where space stations and dry-docks have been built in orbit around Class-D planetoids," Macen explained, "The native industry is star seeding."

"What's that?" Ebert asked.

"They feed gases and stellar dust into brown dwarfs and initialize a fusion reactions to create a star. Of course, those stars only have life spans of a few thousand years to a million or so," Macen described the process, "Generally their clients are looking to create a short term solution for energy demands or colonization efforts."

After landing, they went to the nearby immigration offices where they could see glimpses of street life. Dozens of unknown alien races were represented just in that simple snippet of planetary life. Daggit inquired as to who everyone was.

"Refugees," Macen told the group, "The Gilga are survivors from the Borg assimilation of their world just like my people are. The Gilga made it a policy to shelter other beings facing persecution of every conceivable kind."

"We should fit in," Kerber remarked.

"That's the expectation," Macen shared.

The same Gilga official that appeared on screen approached them with two honor guards, "Welcome back to Gilga."

"It's a pleasure to return," Macen bowed his head since the Gilga were physically incapable of bowing at the waist owing to the shells encompassing their torsos.

"Tell me, in your many travels, have you encountered any other members of my species?" the Councilor asked.

"No, Councilor Aram. But there is a similar race on Rigel VII. The call themselves the Chelon and they're nearly indistinguishable for your people. At least, physically," Macen shared.

"And they dwell in this Federation of Planets you spoke of?" Aram inquired, "And are these further representatives of your own people? Or children perhaps of your kind?"

"No, most of my people are elderly. Just a few of us can still procreate. And we seem to be genetically incompatible towards most other races. But these people represent different corners of the Federation or its allies," Macen described.

Most had suspected this truth already. But it came as a shock to Ebert, "You can't have children?"

"Not quite, I just can't procreate with many other races," Macen explained, "And there are no surviving El-Aurian women of child bearing age. I heard rumors that some others of my people reached the Gamma Quadrant. But they would under the Dominion's control so I have no proof and no contact with any others of my kind."

Kerber and Smith were learning more about Macen's situation in this brief conversation than all the time they'd served beside him. Now they finally fully grasped why Macen had been so dedicated to the border colonies that became the Demilitarized Zone or were ceded to Cardassia. And why he joined the Maquis when Starfleet refused to defend them. A forced assimilation had effectively driven his race to extinction. He refused to see it happen again while he could still do something. No matter how futile it seemed.

"This is the pair I seek sanctuary for," Macen motioned towards Smith and Kerber. They couldn't gauge Aram's reaction because beings with beaks didn't smile. But he did click his beak, which among the Chelons was a sign of approval.

"Are they being actively pursued?" Aram wondered.

"Yes, by an organization called Starfleet," Macen told him, "Typically we would be working for Starfleet but in this we're at cross purposes."

"Shall we stop them if they come?" Aram asked.

"No, Starfleet represents the Federation. They're just in the wrong in this. It's happened before," Macen stated.

Ebert appreciated the veiled reference to the Maquis. Aram motioned for them to follow, "We have lodgings arranged nearby. We have quite a productive agricultural development on our world now. We produce foodstuffs of every kind. We can only hope you will enjoy samples of our fruits."

"I'm sure we will," Macen assured him.

Mudd cursed her luck. Her ship, the freighter registered as the Freehold, had been intercepted entering the Delta Quadrant by the USS Rutherford. Commander Frakes personally led the inspection team. Which Mudd wasn't impressed with. The entire team consisted of Lt. Morag and Lt. Burton in addition to Frakes. But then Burton summoned a strange character they called Lt. Byte. Which Mudd easily assessed that something was seriously wrong with Byte.

"Something funny, Captain Mudd?" Frakes was irritated by Mudd's good humor.

"Sorry, déjà vu," Mudd waved the slight away, "But seriously, you people look like someone replicated a poor copy of the classic Enterprise-D command staff. Except you're twenty years out of date. You do know Picard retired to become a Federation ambassador and Riker is a captain now? You're lagging behind, Commander."

Before Frakes could snap at Mudd, Burton came forward from the engine compartment, "Commander, you have to see the drive system on this tub."

"Is it in violation of regulations?" Frakes hoped.

"No, but it can provide enough power to outrace most starships in a sprint," Burton assessed, "If she could maintain those speeds, it would violate maritime regs. But she can justify it under emergency clauses regulating speed boosters."

"Can the frame take it?" Frakes angled for another venue of attack.

"A Bajoran built Antares-class was never designed to exceed Warp 5. Captain Mudd can exceed Warp 9 for a brief period," Burton reported.

"But is it a safety violation?" Frakes grated.

"It shouldn't be," Burton guessed, "But if it ever is one, she won't live long enough to realize it."

"I have permits and variances for every modification on this tub," Mudd brought up.

"Byte?" Frakes inquired.

Byte accessed the computer core with his tricorder which linked his positronic brain directly with the ship's computer, "She is correct. Even for the weapons systems Lt. Morag has undoubtedly discovered by now."

"Commander!" Morag bellowed.

"Who authorized the variances?" Frakes wanted to know.

"Various officials but they all recently renewed en masse by Admiral Amanda Forger," Byte answered.

"Who recently resigned in disgrace," Frakes looked like he'd swallowed the proverbial canary, "It can be argued every decision she ever made with Starfleet can be subject to review."

"Oh really," Mudd dripped sarcasm, "Especially when it's personal."

"Settle in, it may take Starfleet Command to settle this all out," Frakes was practically giddy.

"Take your time, Commander. I'm picking up cargo rather than delivering it," Mudd told him.

"What cargo?" Byte asked.

"You should read the transport license and bills of lading for one runabout a collector has acquired near the border with the Delta Quadrant and she wants it shipped to her location on Sherman's Planet," Mudd explained.

"I have the pertinent files pulled up. And they were verified by officials other than Admiral Forger. Her manifest is complete and she has a destination for pickup listed as well," Byte informed Frakes.

"Then you wouldn't mind an escort?" Frakes smiled.

"I'd love it," Mudd smiled back.

And they looked like predators about to duel over a prize snack.

Rockford faced down the occupants of the two cells in the Obsidian's brig. The third and final cell was still open to accommodate any freak incidents that required locking someone up. Security Chief Kovic unhappily released them all.

"I'm feeling generous," Rockford announced, "We're traveling to Ardana IV, the very scene of the crime. So, he's my challenge: we're going to review all the evidence and every record pertaining to Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith and you get to prove me wrong and that they're guilty."

"That's not their real names," Tony Burrows reminded Rockford and Lee Kang agreed.

"They are until further notice," Rockford explained, "The Ardanan official are expecting us on Stratos and they've redacted all the documents to reflect our accuseds' assumed identities."

"Why bother?" Shade asked.

"Because their identities are so inflammatory that they don't the public to who they are," Rockford shared, "Hence the secret trial even in absentia."

"That's…odd," Forte admitted.

"What happens when we prove it?" Lee asked.

"I contact Macen and he delivers them up," Rockford told them, "That simple."

"And you believe him?" Lee snorted.

"He believes in you," Rockford admitted, "If you can prove their guilt than he'll admit he made a mistake and make good on their capture."

Tessa appeared, "Celeste, you have an incoming message."

"From Brin?" Rockford hoped.

"From Harri Mudd," Tessa revealed before she vanished.

Rockford had to make it back to her quarters before she could receive the message. And Tessa could make the trek a thousand times by just vanishing a reappearing. Sometimes Rockford envied Tessa the life of a hologram.

Mudd sat out the flight that Byte was piloting. Morag had beamed over a security team to insure Mudd didn't interfere. Burton was still poking around the engine compartment. But thankfully, Frakes was back aboard the Rutherford. Which suited her. She was tired of him raping her with his eyes.

They were still traveling at impulse when Frakes transported back aboard, "Everyone pack up. Captain Mudd can go her own way."

"Really?" Mudd perked up.

"Starfleet Command has upheld your variances and weapons permits," Frakes unhappily told her, "Frankly; I wanted to bring you down. Like a Mudd deserves."

"You wound me, Commander," Mudd lied.

"There is a caveat," Frakes looked encouraged again, "You're ordered to report to DS4 for a further examination of you manifest and bills of lading. Don't be late or we'll find you again."

The Rutherford crew returned to their ship and Mudd watched as the starship went into warp to continue looking for the Obsidian. Which should have been sailing past DS4 at that time. So Mudd settled to report her delays to Rockford.

Back aboard the Rutherford Voltaire called a meeting of his senior staff officers. Rey was few minute slate reporting in. Her sister, Seti, was a the CONN Officer aboard the Sutherland. Rey had used that backdoor communication channel to alert the Sutherland of the extensive modifications made aboard the Freehold should Mudd make a run for it.

Voltaire scowled at Rey as she took her seat. The Bajoran was generally quite prompt and the captain had had to delay his briefing for an entire ninety seconds waiting for her. Something he felt should be noted in her next performance evaluation. Voltaire had also noted all the off duty time Morag spent with Rey. And Voltaire found interspecies fraternization distasteful.

Of course, Frakes and Triad had rekindled their past flame. But at least they were both human. They'd previously served together aboard the Trident under Kat Mueller's command. And no one ever spoke of the open secret between Voltaire and his Chief Medical Officer. And even their guest bounty hunter, Yar, seemed inflamed with lustful passions towards Byte. Voltaire care about any of it as such as long as it didn't impede performance.

"Ms. Yar, you say you are aware of candidate worlds where we could obtain information pertinent to our mission," Voltaire led the conversation.

"Please, just call me India," Yar insisted.

"Ms. Yar, you are guest aboard my vessel and we are not well acquainted. I will continue to address you in the manner in which I have already done so," Voltaire sternly lectured her.

"It's okay. My cousin Tasha was a pain in the ass after she joined Starfleet so I know your type," Yar quipped.

"Ms. Yar! Please come to the point!" Voltaire demanded.

"There are several trading hubs near the technical border between the quadrants. You can buy what you seek there," Yar informed the group.

"Buy?" Voltaire sputtered, "Are you aware that the Federation is a cashless society?"

"And are you aware that the Federation keeps hard currency reserves for situations like this?" Yar asked, "Or you could simply barter."

"How would you be aware of the Federation's reserves?" Voltaire wanted to know.

"How do you think Starfleet pays me for a bounty?" Yar was incredulous. Surely Picard had never been this stupid.

Rey couldn't help but snicker and Voltaire struck another rating off of her performance eval. It was bad enough their bounty hunting "mission specialist" had slighted him in front of the crew. Voltaire would sabotage her efforts at getting paid for her part in this.

"Please give Ensign Rey any and all pertinent coordinates, "Voltaire managed to keep his voice steady, "Exec, draw plans with Lt. Morag and Ms. Yar on capturing Macen and the fugitives. Dismissed."

Voltaire turned to Krusher, "Doctor, I have a matter that requires your attention."

Krusher smirked and knew the table would need wiping down when they'd finished. He was just lucky she also preferred to swallow.

Commander Reya Killa handed off responsibility for the Freehold to DS4's Ops Center. Then the Bajoran starship captain rerouted the Sutherland to patrol the border in order to assist the Rutherford if needed and to keep an eye on potential Romulan interference in the search.

Yeoman Ayn Rand delivered Mudd to Benteen. Benteen dismissed Rand, "That will be all, Yeoman. Now, Captain, I suggest you stay here for forty-eight hours before shipping out again. If I know Macen, he can hide for that long."

Mudd grinned, "Rockford said you were getting awfully chummy these days."

"She said the same about you," Benteen retorted.

"I like you," Mudd decided.

"Now, try not to rake my crew out of all their latinum in the inevitable card games," Benteen requested.

"No promises," Mudd definitely liked the station's CO.

"Forty-eight hours, then you're on your way," Benteen stressed.

"Aye, aye, Captain," Mudd threw her a mock salute.

Benteen already recognized that Mudd would be trouble. Just as her reputation stated. It would be a challenge having her on the station. But the crew had been bored lately so the challenge would be welcome.

"These people's technology is a step above the Federation's," Parva noted, "Their planetary engineering capabilities are almost as advanced as the stellar seeding programs."

"What use is a star that only lasts a few thousand years?" Smith quietly asked, as was her wont.

"Purely for energy extraction or warming planets undergoing development until proper life support and structural infrastructure can support life without assistance," Macen explained, "Those techniques were why the Gilga were a Borg target. But after the Borg received the data they desired, they promptly ignored it."

"And the Borg never shared with anyone," Daggit angrily stated.

"Very true," Macen said softly. But some former Borg drones, like Icheb and Annika Hansen, had refused to join the Caelier when they absorbed the Borg into their Gestalt from which the Borg had been separated from eons ago. And the Caelier had left them physically restored and left them to reconstruct their lives.

"At least we were given an entire house," Ebert spoke up.

"A prison is still a prison no matter how pretty it is," Kerber grumbled.

"What use would returning to Ardana be now?" Macen had to wonder.

"We could show the Troglytes they don't have to submit any more," Kerber angrily snapped back at him.

"But you'd die a martyr's death in secret and your people would never know your fate," Macen replied, "Or your message."

"We'd find a way to be seen," Kerber promised.

"But there's a better way," Macen promised, "Your case is being reopened and reexamined by outside experts."

"Celeste's secret mission," Smith realized.

"Her team is trying to prove your guilty but they're going to prove your innocence instead," Macen explained.

"But will they report it if they do?" Kerber wanted to know.

"Celeste is their conscience. She'll force them to admit they're wrong," Macen assured the pair of fugitives.

"So who is our conscience?" Ebert asked.

"We don't need one," Macen told her, "But Angelique and Bailey keep us honest."

"Stratos is built on a singular goal. Their only objective is to retain power by enslaving the Troglytes even though we share a common ancestry," Smith was from Stratos and spoke with greater insight than even Kerber had, "So Celeste and the others are in grave danger."

"Nothing will save Stratos if they're killed," Macen vowed.

 

Chapter 2

The Rutherford established a best time transit for the transit from Deep Space Four to an interstellar trading post called Gargamell. It was just twelve light years beyond the unrecognized border between the Delta and Beta Quadrants. But the proximity of the Romulan Star Empire to the region lent an air of terrified safety. India Yar had previous dealings with different proprietors in the past pursuing fugitives exiting Federation space.

Of course, previously she'd had latinum to toss around. Now she only had the promise of latinum if the information led to an arrest if Voltaire felt bothered to pay up. Which Yar couldn't imagine in anyone's lifetime. She silently berated herself for turning down Ishara's offer to join with Section 31. At least then, she'd still be with Fowler's faction.

Yar had warned Voltaire that the locals didn't react well to the sight of uniforms. So Voltaire simply ordered Frakes, Triad, Rey, and Byte into civilian clothes. Which left Yar wondering how Triad manged to pour herself into her skintight leathers much less breathe in them. They were even tight to splitting in delicate places. And it was obvious she'd foresworn underwear. And her jacket's zipper was unzipped to reveal she had also forsaken her brassiere and a tunic.

Frakes looked foppish. Triad looked slutty. Rey looked provincial. And Byte looked like a native. Which Yar had helped with by dressing him after he'd undressed her. The memory warmed her.

"This way," Yar immediately said as soon as they beamed down. And she led them to a tavern, "Feel free to mingle but be aware that they have no idea what synthehol is. Frakes ingratiated himself with some locals and began a drinking contest. Triad began seeking girl and boy toys to amuse herself with. Rey hung by the door for when the inevitable bruised feelings began. Yar decided she liked the Bajoran.

Yar and Byte were an obvious couple. Byte oozed mechanized sensibilities and couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old. Yar wore her worldly weariness openly and her forty-eight years of hard living.

"Long time, Yar," the bartender commented as he sent a server with drinks for Frakes' party, "Can they keep paying?"

"For a time," Yar noticed Triad was already half sloshed and escorting men and women in a line that formed up at the restroom. Rey looked as pained as Yar felt.

"I'm looking for people and can pay well for clues to their potential whereabouts," Yar and Byte had robbed the safe in ship's stores and lifted the ship's supply of latinum slips.

"Ask," the bartender allowed the inquiry to begin.

"I need to know where people would hide in this and the immediately surrounding sectors," Yar told him.

"Hide from whom?" the bartender wondered.

"Everyone," Yar replied.

The bartender considered it, "There are several locations but there is one special place no one has ever seen but people from there are known."

"And what will the coordinates cost me?" Yar asked.

"Place a number in your mind and let s begin negotiating," the bartender chuckled.

In the end, it would been worth twice as much to get the information. Now it was time for Byte to scrape Frakes off of the floor and Rey to interrupt Triad's "explorations" into local sexual customs.

Yeoman Rand made her way through all three taverns in DS4. Then she bothered with two local casinos. Finally she found Mudd in a private room in one the two nightclubs aboard the station. It seemed she'd cleaned everyone out at the other locations and had attracted a high stakes poker came at the club. And dozens of disgruntled card players were already balking at sucking up their losses and dealing with it. Station Security had performed a perfunctory sweep of every area Mudd played in after the first two taverns elicited numerous complaints.

The Ferengi that owned the nightclub had aided and abetted Starfleet in order to lure more players who would drown their sorrows in expensive liquors. Rand waited patiently until Mudd won the house.

She signalled Rand, "Can you get my duffel back from the bartender and make certain the bio lock is still secure?"

Rand was impressed. Bio locks were among the hardest to break or crack. And they cost as much as a small moon or dwarf planet. Most of the cleaned out gamblers hung around to see what Mudd had in the bag. A duffel full of latinum wasn't first on the guess list.

Rand signaled security and Starfleet officers to escort Mudd back to Benteen's office. A small riot threatened to break out and Rand shrilly whistled, "Listen up ladies and gentlemen. Starfleet Security examined the room, the entire club, every participant, including Captain Mudd, and all tests came up negative for means and methods to cheat with. Simply put: she's a better card player. Suck it up and remember, the replimat is always open."

The security detail detoured and brought Mudd to the airlock where her ship was docked. Captain Benteen awaited her, "The Rutherford made contact and is en route to a hidden planet inside of a nebula by the name of Gilgamesh. I don't expect you to break your poker face after it's served you so well. But I recommend you get to your pick up destination as fast as possible. And given Lt. Burton's extensive report on your drive system, you could make it there just in time."

"Good to know. I'll take it under advisement," Mudd said cheerily.

"Y'know, you're a much better criminal that anyone else in you lineage," Benteen complimented her.

"Tell to Pops the next time he's out this way," Mudd requested, "Make a point of it. And thank him for forcing me to earn meals through winning card games."

Mudd sealed the airlock and found she had a priority departure slot when she reached the bridge. As the Freehold transited the sector, the Sutherland began to follow. And none too discreetly. Its active sensors banged away like a gong being struck by an epileptic.

So Mudd finally got to use her hidden treasure that even Lt. Burton had missed. Her Suliban cloaking device dated back to the 22nd century but it was technology from a future date. And the Suliban had made them to last. So the Freehold simply vanished. And Captain Reya and her crew were completely baffled as to how.

"Celeste, can you really trust the others to do their job to the best of their ability much less be objective?" Forger asked Rockford as they shared a meal in the Team Room.

"Oh, they'll do it just to spite Brin and I," Rockford chuckled.

"And you're absolutely certain they'll exonerate Angelique and Bailey?" Forger asked between bites.

"Brin showed me pieces of the evidence that he was able to pull from Stratos before they shut his back channel down. And the evidences are obvious fabrications," Rockford stated, "What's more problematic isn't the crimes they were convicted of but rather the ones they actually committed and freely admit to."

"Ouch," Forger winced.

"I'm afraid my intrepid band may prove their collective guilt while proving they're innocent of the charges Bailey and Angelique were convicted of," Rockford complained.

"How do you think the others are doing?" Forger asked.

"Brin and the others have no worries on Gilgamesh," Rockford told her, "But so far Harri is getting the runaround from Starfleet."

"Won't Tony and the others just reveal where they're at to turn Bailey and Angelique in?" Forger worried.

"Bailey locked our intrepid quartet out of the computers before she left. And they were in the brig when Brin made the arrangements with the Gilga and Harri," Rockford told her, "Arianna is good but not good enough to break Bailey's encryption. She'll find a way around the lockout but it'll take her time. Hopefully enough time for Harri to pick Brin and the team up before Starfleet arrives on their own."

Aram approached Macen, "Our sensor buoys within the nebula and beyond its periphery have detected a starship matching the description of a Starfleet vessel approaching. They're scouting the nebula now. They've found one of the clear pockets and have returnd to the nebula proper. But they're sensors are blinded by the electrostatic discharges and stellar dust."

"We'll be off planet by the time they reach you," Macen promised, "But try to distract them from following us for at least three hours."

"You've grown devious in the years that have passed," Aram agreed to Macen's plan.

"I've had to be," Macen admitted.

Voltaire's crew was very frustrated and increasingly volatile by the time they reached Gilgamesh. And were promptly intercepted by defensive cutters. Voltaire leapt out of his chair.

"Lt. Morag! Contact these peasant ships and call them off!" Voltaire ordered.

"I've been trying, Captain. They refuse to acknowledge our authority," Morag reported.

"Double damn and shit!" Voltaire swore, "Can we scan the surface?"

"Unable to comply owing to the electrostatic interference from the nebula," Byte reported.

"Can we beam security forces aboard the cutters and take them by force?" Frakes asked.

"Our transporters will not function because of the same reasons as our long range sensors will not function properly," Byte replied.

"Commander Frakes, employ a shuttle and negotiate with the locals at the source on their planet," Voltaire ordered.

As Frakes began selecting his team as he entered the turbolift, Triad counseled the captain, "Don't worry. Bill has capable hands and an unbelievable tongue."

Voltaire felt Triad needed to display more decorum. Of course, Krusher employed base vulgarities during sexual encounters. The more vulgar the better. He rather enjoyed letting his hair, pardon the pun, down during their "medical exams". But at least the doctor had the common grace to keep such things private.

Rey piloted the shuttle simply because Frakes wanted the best pilot aboard ferrying him. And telling her so earned him a special reward in a supply closet in the hangar bay while the rest of the team gathered. Besides Rey, he'd chosen Morag, Byte, and Yar as his diplomatic team.

When Rey set the shuttle down at the port facility, she and her passengers would have no idea that the Corsair had lifted as soon as the Rutherford cleared the nebula gases. Since the Gilga had thus far refused to communicate, the crew had no idea of what to expect. But the Gilgas' reputation for sheltering refugees and the fact they hadn't fired on either the shuttle or the Rutherford indicated they could be reasonable. Then again the fact that the Galaxy-class starship could easily destroy the customs cutters surrounding is could merely prove a degree of practicality.

"Rey, lift off after we disembark and patrol the major cities with landing facilities," Yar requested.

"Yar," Frakes growled.

"If Commander Frakes agrees, that is," Yar relented.

"Rey, take the shuttle an d patrol the major cities with landing facilities as soon as we disembark," Frakes made certain it was his idea.

Yar couldn't understand why Jellico had selected this crew for the mission. Actually, she really couldn't understand why they even had the admiral's favor. They were the antithesis of everything Starfleet supposedly stood for.

The shuttle lifted and Aram and a much larger honor guard presented themselves to Frakes and his party, "Greetings."

Frakes went to shake Aram's hand and the councilor clicked his beak in rebuke several times and shiuddered. Frakes took offense at this display and thought the Gilgan was just ignorant of proper customs, "We're looking for fugitives that look like us."

Frakes had spoken painfully slowly and gestured wildly with his hands. He was like a spastic six year old who thought the world around him was full of idiots. Yar was completely insulted on the Gilgan's behalf.

"You're seeking Captain Macen, correct?" Aram asked.

"Ye-es," Frakes continued his drawn out speech pattern.

Yar promised herself if Frakes did it one more time she'd take matters into her own hands.

"Are you the captain of your vessel?" Aram could hardly believe that was true.

"No-oo," Frakes intoned.

Yar spun him around and knocked him out with a single right cross. Byte intercepted Morag and held a phaser to him. Yar spread her hands wide to display her nonviolent intentions.

"I have no idea where he learned his manners from but not every one of my people is as ignorant as him," Yar promised, "I sincerely apologize for the multiple offenses he has committed this day of first contact."

"We are used to fools but we hardly suffer them gladly," Aram spoke to her as an equal, "Perhaps you are a kindred intellect?"

"As Commander Frakes so ineloquently put it, we're here to apprehend three fugitives. You seem familiar with Captain Macen. We also seek two Ardanan women," Yar explained.

"Perhaps you do but what of the others?" Aram asked.

"Others?" Yar didn't appreciate the sound fo that.

"Yes, those traveling with your fugitives," Aram told her, "I believe they're leaving the planet's atmosphere at this time."

Ya tapped her guest comm badge, "Rey! They've lifted off. Contact the Rutherford and then pick us up."

"What will become of them if you capture them?" Aram asked.

"I honestly don't know. But the two Ardanans are facing a death sentence," Yar explained.

"Hmm…this is unacceptable," Aram decided.

"Break orbit and plot a pursuit course!" Voltaire shouted orders, "Why didn't the Away Team alert us?"

"Sir, we've lost all communication with the team and the shuttle," the Lt. JG at Tactical reported.

"Why wasn't I informed?" Voltaire roared.

"You were, sir. On your way to your daily medical exam," the lieutenant managed to keep a straight face.

"Sir, a number of larger vessels is moving out of the nebula and setting up a perimeter around us," the ensign at OPS reported.

"Tactical, assessment?" Voltairre requested.

"They're more advanced than the Rutherford. Even beyond Dominion tech," the lieutenant shared.

"Damn, this will not look good on my report to Fleet Admiral Jellico," Voltaire grumbled.

"A report that can't even be filed until we leave the nebula," the OPS ensign reminded him.

The Gilga fired a warning shot across the Rutherford's bow and Voltaire reacted, "Full stop. Let them think they've won."

The entire bridge crew, save Triad, wondered what misfortunes had occurred to post them aboard that particular starship under that particular captain.

The Corsair sailed free of the nebula and a communications signal was immediatly broadcast to them. Mudd's face appeared on the screen, "Come about 180 and came a halt. I'm coming atop you in order to receive you like a collection of cargo pods."

"Impeccable timing, Harri," Macen congratulated her.

"Thank Erika Benteen," Mudd replied, "Standby."

"I don't have anything on my scopes." Ebert complained.

Then the Freehold decloaked above the runabout, "Prepare for tractor lock."

The runabout barely fit into the cargo area but the tolerances had been checked and rechecked before the flight from the Federation began. Mudd cloaked her ship and got underway before the cargo area pressurized and the Corsair's passengers were free to move about.

The Rutherford cleared the nebula in time for the Sutherland's arrival. Captain Reya beamed aboard and while she gave her report to the Senior Staff, Voltaire began imagining her sucking his member. Of course, he had seniority in rank so he might have been able to coerce her into bed. Krusher was pressuring him to find a third for their escapades. Preferably female.

"Captain? Are you still with us?" Reya asked sharply.

"Yes, yes, carry on," Voltaire tried to hide his mental indiscretion.

"It appears that not only is Harri Mudd assisting Macen but she has a previously unknown cloaking device. Which is illegal even for Starfleet to operate," Reya reported.

"So that's how they slipped from our grasp," Voltaire saw a light at the end of his report for Jellico.

"Captain, your crew lost the Corsair before you ever emerged from the nebula. And given preliminary reports, you botched a first contact opportunity that I'm going to have to clean up after you," Reya was patently unhappy. So much for bedding her, Voltaire mentally sighed.

"In the meantime, a number of reports wee transmitted upon restoration of your ship to station communications. I have orders from our Internal Affairs officer to place the bulk of your senior officers under arrest. Commander Astra from my vessel will assume command. And don't bother me for the charges. TH e list is a textbook litany of impropriety and abuse of authority," Reya informed them, "Frankly, I'd just as soon throw you out an airlock but that's not how Starfleet operates. The doors to the conference room opened and Starfleet Security officers from the Sutherland entered in with phasers drawn.

"Lt. Byte, you and Ensign Rey will remain at your posts. Internal Affairs and the JAG Corps will be approaching to testify for the prosecution," Reya told them, "As for the rest of you, enjoy the brigs. Both the Rutherford and the Sutherland will be holding prisoners. Dismissed."

Security apprehended Voltaire, Krusher, Frakes, Triad, and even Burton and Morag for forcing subordinates to have sex with them. Reya was glad to see them go. After they were escorted out, she turned to Yar, "Thank you for the report."

"It just sickened me to see it happening," Yar explained, "Voltaire even tasked Burton with disabling the flight recorders in order to delete scenes from the system's memory."

"Which tampering with a recorder carries severe penalties in and of itself," Reya sighed, "How could this possibly happen?"

"Where do were go from here?" Yar asked, "The hunt is just starting."

"I have business here," Reya reminded her, "Astra will take the Rutherford straight back to DS4. Hearings will convene there as the investigation aboard ship concludes. A new crew and captain will be assigned to her."

"And me?" Yar asked.

"You're off the case. But you will be compensated for your time testifying," Reya informed her, "But you can help assess where Macen will go next as others pick up the pursuit."

They beamed aboard the Sutherland where Yar met Lt. Erin Fera and Lt. JG Hannah Boyd. Boyd spoke first, "Starfleet has updated Macen's records but most of them are so redacted to be useless."

"But he went to familiar ground," Fera stated, "Which is why we're here now."

"The problem," Rey's older sister, Seti, joined, "Macen seems to have been everywhere."

"Think Beta Quadrant," Yar suggested.

"Iotian Federation," Fera voiced, "Or Nova Roma."

"The Ekosian Reich," Boyd offered.

"Reports have the Iotians siding up with the Typhon Pact," Rey told them.

"Nova Roma has closed its borders," Boyd recalled.

"But the Ekosians are still friendly," Fera stated, "And they revere Macen."

"They'll see the error of their ways soon enough," Reya promised.

The Freehold was undergoing technical difficulties. Parva explained, "You can either keep the cloak and run at sublight or lose the cloak and achieve warp speeds."

Mudd glowered at Macen, "I can circumnavigate DS3 but it'll take a a day or two."

"Alfonso Reyes is a friend but he can't make his entire crew look the other way," Macen told her, "Besides, he can't hide what he doesn't know. We go around."

Kerber toted in a portable Starfleet issue computer case, "Starfleet Internal Affairs has begun an investigation into crew that followed us to Gilgamesh. The list of charges is as extensive as it is torrid. A lot of sexual misconduct charges filed there."

"Yet Jellico entrusted them with our capture," Macen mused, "Find out why."

"We'll have to kick down doors," Kerber warned him.

"Softly," Macen appealed to her.

"Have you ever softly kicked down a door?" Kerber complained as he exited the drive space.

"It seems someone aboard had a conscience after all," Macen surmised, "Once everyone starts coming forward I'll bet Jaros II is someone's idea of a lengthy vacations pot."

"So do we have a final destination in mind?" Mudd asked.

"Azati Prime," Macen told her.

"Why there?" Mudd was disappointed.

"Because Celeste is the only that knows you have a familial connection with the second Xindi home world," Macen revealed, "And Starfleet won't think to look there."

"You think they will go Ekos though," Mudd gathered.

"I would if I were them," Macen admitted.

"I'll tell Ebert. She's manning the bridge," Mudd ducked out.

"Can you get the cloak back full time?" Macen asked Parva.

"I'm a frinxing genius and I can barely dope out how this thing even works. It doesn't run on conventional principles," Parva complained.

"It's from the future sent into our past," Macen explained.

"That makes sense in a sick kind of way," Parva rationalized it.

"Welcome to the Temporal Cold War," Macen remarked and left her to it.

"Captain, incoming message from the Fleet Admiral's offices," Fera report to Reya.

"Route it to my Ready Room," the Bajoran requested.

Jellico's image was not a friendly one when it filled her screen, "Admiral."

"Captain, why the hell is Benteen reporting that you've relieved the senior staff of the Rutherford and placed them under arrest?" Jellico demanded to know.

"Those enemy orders, sir," Reya told him unapologetically, "Admiral Noyce personally authorized the arrests."

"What the hell does Noyce know from anything. Put those people back at their posts, Captain," Jellico ordered.

"It's not that simple, so far over half the crew have filed reports against the suspects," Reya reported, "It's a mag lev train wreck and it's just starting."

"Dammit, Captain! That ship operates under my personal authority. I want it redeployed with its staff intact," Jellico blustered.

"That mere fact compromises your position and your judgment," Reya advised.

"You'll be the captain of tug ferrying garbage scows when I' through with you," Jellico vowed before he terminated the transmission

Reya immediately contacted Noyce's offices where he was the Director of Starfleet Security. The Fleet Admiral's vested interest aside, someone had salvaged the careers of these officers and congregated them together in an environment where they could thrive at their misconduct. Starfleet Security was reporting most of the crew had tried to file grievances before but Internal Affairs had no records of such. Which meant the command staff had stifled the reports.

Just another check on the list of their malfeasence. With every passing hour the list of charges lengthened and Jellico's chosen crew seemed be part of a cover up. The question remaining was how far and how wide did it go?

Forger met with Rockford in the investigative offices aboard the Obsidian. In Starfleet registered Nova-class surveyors the space would have been dedicated to a science lab. Forger knew she was interrupting so she decided to make it brief.

"We'll be at Ardana IV in twenty-seven hours at our resent speed of Warp 5," she reported.

"Thanks for the update, Shannon," Rockford was grateful for the break.

"I take it the squirrels abandoned you?" Forger observed.

"But they've taken to their nut like little addicts," Rockford smirked, "Especially now that they've reviewed the official evidence."

"And?" Forger thought that required further explanation.

"Cracks begin to develop in the official story when examination of the sources of the evidence are independently reviewed," Rockford told her, "Starfleet obviously never looked further than the court transcripts. Which is odd they were available since it was a secret tribunal. Who keeps transcripts?"

"Do tell," Forger urged her to continue.

"Seven eyewitnesses reported seeing Bailey and Angelique plant the bombs that later killed nearly five hundred people, almost all Troglytes," Rockford told her, "But when you further examine the casualty lists you find those same eyewitnesses actually died in the blast. One week later they thumb scanned affidavits purporting that our happy fugitives did the dirty deed."

"And how did our merry band of malcontents that that revelation?" Forger seemed amused.

"To say they found it disturbing is like comparing the Big Bang to a firecracker," Rockford snorted.

"Good," Forger decided.

"Any word from Brin?" Rockford knew she sounded too hopeful.

Forger gave her a pitying look. Rockford hated her for it almost as much as she hated deserving it. She'd rather literally get shot over receiving pity.

"'Fraid not," Forger told her, "Mudd's delay could've blown the whole schedule. And our back channels in DS4 report Starfleet had found the Captain's team but they escaped somehow."

The comm whistled and Rockford tapped it, "Go."

Zimbalist spoke but it obvious he struggled with how to address the members of the crew that had no shipboard rank or function, "Incoming message for you, Detective. It's originating from Deep Space Four."

"I'll take it here," Rockford stopped Forger from excusing herself.

Erika Benteen's image filled Rockford's monitor and her hopes began to plummet.

Back on Ampok Nor, Akaar had leveled a charge at Amanda Forger. And she was insulted, "How is this my fault again?"

"You blindly accepted Kerber and Smith's identification without properly vetting them," Akaar read from a padd, "That would be criminally negligent if you were still in Internal Affairs."

"But I'm not and I am no longer actively serving in Starfleet," Forger reminded him.

"The Federation and Starfleet throw a lot of time, personnel, assets, training and trust your way. They should all be earned," Akaar attempted to shame her.

"Don't forget latinum," Forger dryly retorted, "Jellico always rants about latinum. He's worse than a damn Ferengi. He goes on and on about it ad naseaum."

"Admiral Forger, please display a little decorum," Akaar grated.

"I'm no longer an Admiral. I'm technically a 'Director' now. Please use my correct title or simply my name," Forger returned the hostility.

"Very well, Director Forger, you and your agency have found itself in a precarious position. Even the President will withdraw support if malfeasance is found within your ranks," Akaar told Forger in an even voice.

"Holding on to Jellico's coattails is even more precarious," Forger replied, "And defending him may be career suicidal."

"Meaning?" Akaar wondered.

"Jellico's dynasty as Starfleet is due to end in two years. But the good Fleet Admiral may be retiring much sooner than that. Commander Prentiss says I should trust you. So the question simply is, do I?" Forger wondered aloud.

"Would it do any good to tell you, you should?" Akaar had a much clearer understanding now.

"I would believe you. My assessment is you'll do whatever is best for the service," Forger told him, "This business with Macen had unearthed hundreds of irregularities in the admiral's decisions stretching as far as personnel and starship deployments."

"Why are we having this conversation?" Akaar asked.

"Because while Nanietta Bacco was still president she obviously ordered Jellico to appease the Romulan Star Empire while they were making progress in creating the Typhon Pact. Which they did anyway," Forger explained, "In fact, they did so with rabid fervor. Commander Michelle Prentiss is the Internal Affairs officer tasked with investigating Starfleet's culpability in that affair that resulted in Bacco going from a hard liner stance to offering even greater appeasements to stave off the Typhon Pact's aggression. But what happened between these two unofficial policy shifts to make the Typhon Pact form up so readily?"

Akaar just quietly stared at her as though she'd grown a fifth limb straight out of her forehead, "Are you suggesting a Fleet Admiral of Starfleet is responsible for the creation of a multi-nation alliance hostile to the Federation? And you're implying he did this intentionally. Why would the Starfleet Commander do such a thing?"

"In Jellico's lifetime Starfleet has engaged the Tzenkethi, Cardassians, and the Borg on multiple occasions. Then there were also conflict s with the Klingons, the Dominion, the Reman, the Argyn, and the Iridians," Forger rattled off, "And the Typhon Pact has been covertly funding and military training to dissident groups within an d without . The Andorians seceded from the Federation despite being one of the Five Founding Nations and aligned with the Typhon Pact, creating a security nightmare for Starfleet and the Federation on a very fundamental level. Combined with this is the near destruction of Starfleet's fleet and personnel along with a trillion civilian casualties. Frankly, Jellico is just weary of everyone's saber rattling."

"I'm also under fatigue from the strain but why would he violate Starfleet regulations and Federation law?" Akaar asked.

"Because he's guilty of something and he's covering it up," Forger stated flatly, "And it begins with Bacco's directives as a hard liner that caused her to reconsider her entire political ideology."

"It's theoretically possible," Akaar allowed.

"It's definitely probable," Forger declared.

"What does Commander Prentiss have to say about this?" Akaar asked.

"I'm glad you asked," Forger handed him a padd and then another, "And this one is from Admiral Noyce."

Ro was delighted to be receiving a call from Alfonso Reyes. Reyes was the son of the infamous Diego Reyes, former CO of the Vanguard station and mission. But Alfonso was a former Starfleet Academy classmate of Ro's and her current romantic interest. Their love life was complicated by the fact he was CO of the Deep Space Three just as she was the Commanding Officer over DS9. But although they were only able to visit each other two months out of the year, they managed to call one another every evening. Barring crises or other disasters, of course.

Reyes looked crestfallen when his recorded image appeared, "I'm sorry, Laren. I wish I had happy news. Trader's traveling between the station and the Neutral Zone detected the Freehold skirting outside our sensor range. She reported to be making repairs to get underway again. I buried the report but someone monitoring the reports for Jellico sent it upstream. Jellico subsequently ordered our attached starship, the Sternwheeler, to pursue."

Reyes' expression grew even graver if humanely possible, "I've been relieved of command and JAG has been ordered to convene a Board of Inquiry. I don't know if our ship caught Mudd's. I won't be allowed further communication after this. I just wanted you to know why I couldn't message you after today. I'm actually relieved to just leave a message because I don't think I could control my anger if we spoke."

Ro understood because of the way Diego Reyes had been railroaded by regulations despite their being wrong and costing lives. And Ro knew his grandfather's past would be used against him by anyone Jellico had influence over. And Ro wanted the Fleet Admiral to choke on any evidence brought to bear against him by Commander Prentiss.

A routine had developed aboard Mudd's freighter. Mudd and Ebert traded off command responsibilities every twelve hours. Ebert had been a 'Boomer' before joining the Maquis and be selected by Macen to pilot his Blackbird-class scoutship. The ship had been considered a pocket starship well before the Defiant-class had been developed. Parva spent the bulk of her time in the drive section.

Daggit assisted Parva in keeping Mudd's overtaxed engines alive as well as aiding her in repairing the overworked Suliban cloak. Kerber and Smith were stifle d in their makeshift prison despite its promise to eventually liberate them once and for all. Macen did his best to keep everyone's morale up.

Parva reactivated the cloak in time for the Steamrunner-class USS Sternwheeler to drop out of warp. Eventually the crew convinced Captain Barret that what they'd detected had merely been a sensor ghost. So the starship moved on. And predictably, the cloak failed one last time afterwards.

"Every component is fused," Parva assessed, "It'll never work again in this century"

"That's okay, it was from the 31st century anyway," Mudd shrugged. Then seeing all the prying eyes she frowned, "Don't ask. Ever."

They got underway and with Starfleet examining the Romulan Neutral Zone, Nimbus III, the Ekosian Reich, and the Briar Patch, the Freehold quietly avoided the nets by slipping through the Taurus Reach and eventually making her way to Azati Prime. The few times the ship was challenged by freighter crews seeking the reward posted for Mudd's ship and passengers, Mudd used a holographic display system to appear Bajoran.

Afterwards she commented to Macen, "I might actually get surgery done for that 'ribbed for her pleasure' nose."

"You wouldn't be the first Mudd to have one," Macen told her.

Mudd had completely forgotten about that branch of the family. Harcourt Fenton Mudd the First had produced a half-Bajoran daughter before his encounters with the USS Discovery and NCC-1701 USS Enterprise. And that was a decade before the Federation ever discovered Bajoran colonist and eventually learned of Bajor itself.

The Obsidian had arrived at Ardana IV a day and half before the Freehold orbited Azati Prime. But the officials of Stratos kept them waiting that long before permission was granted for Rockford and her team to beam to Stratos. The Ardanan Patriarch greeted them It seemed the Matron had been deposed since Starfleet's last check-in with the Stratosian nobility.

The Troglyte servants were obvious because of their tribal tattoos that the officials in the sky city now made them wear openly rather than hide them like had been the custom a century before. The citizenry aboard Stratos simply felt the Troglytes had used the custom to infiltrate their society once too often. Despite the custom's origins within Stratosian society to begin with.

And then there were those that had been educated in Stratos and fled off planet. Hal Dracas and Kerber were among those. Dracas had met sympathetic ears aboard an ore freighter who decried his clan imposed death sentence simply because he was homosexual. Dracas felt that the Troglytes didn't need the Stratosians to suppress them if they did it amongst their own clans.

Dracas had been among Macen's first recruits and he'd taken Dracas' death at the hands of his own people hard. So hard in fact, Rockford wondered if that had catapulted Macen into assisting Anara and Maarta in forging the Kerber and Smith identities. Not that his own moral inclinations wouldn't force him to. But the combination was like a quantum singularities irresistible pull.

Rockford's first days of discovery were learning where the walls around the truth and been built and what those walls consisted of. By the time Macen arrived at Azati Prime the Patriarch had closed the team's lines of inquiry all the while professing complete cooperation and full disclosure. And everything had begun to collapse around them, even Burrows was frustrated.

"This is bullshit," he complained.

"It gets worse," Forte told everyone, "I've discovered the filters that seek and display corrected information for us and they were designed and put in place by Starfleet. Every piece of data and every visual and other evidence has been doctored. All we're seeing is a massive cover up."

"Let me see that," Lee snatched the teenager's padd out of her hand.

"Manners, Lee," Shade plucked it back out of his hand. She began perusing data points with Lee and Burrows watching over her shoulder. Burrows' anger was rekindled looking at it all.

"Remember, we have no authority here. Director Forger barely got us permission to act as an independent review of the facts," Rockford reminded them, "They expect us to uphold their findings."

"This wasn't a trial. It was frame up," Forte was the first to voice it.

"Why is it so important to frame these two?" Shade asked the question on everyone's mind, "Starfleet acts like it's a matter of interstellar security."

"Arianna, pull up everything you can find on Maarta of the House of Stone," Rockford finally relented.

Bailey's image appeared on the padd's screen and everyone crowded around Forte except for Rockford. She already knew what the files said. And how everyone would react.

"So that's who she is," Lee commented.

"Who she is?" Burrows was startled, "She's frinxing nobility. After the Matron, she's third in line for the throne."

"Which being the Matron was deposed, makes her second in line for the throne," Shade pointed out.

"And she gave all that up to join the Troglyte Underground," Rockford told them, "Because it seems Stratosians can grow a conscience too."

"What about Kerber?" Lee asked.

"Pull up Anara of the Root Clan," Rockford instructed.

Angelique appeared on the screen, younger and filthier than anyone ha d ever seen her before. And the look of pure fury in her eyes unsettled them.

"I would not want to be whoever pissed her off," Forte remarked.

"She was taken from her clan as a pre-teen and placed in the House of Stone. She'd been brought in as a companion and servant to Maarta, the woman we know as Bailey Smith. Anara, or Angelique Kerber, taught Bailey about the customs and history of the Troglyte clans," Rockford detailed, "When her parents discovered what Angelique was teaching the ingénue, Bailey's family exiled Angelique to the zenite mines."

"So how did they join the Troglyte Underground?" Burrows asked.

"Bailey went to the surface and flaunted her connections to find Angelique in the mines. Angelique was already a member of the Underground by then," Rockford shared, "Bailey convinced Angelique to abandon the mines. Angelique persuaded Bailey to join the Underground alongside her."

"You make them sound like a couple," Lee remarked.

"Not in the conventional sense. They would live and die for each other but it's hardly sexual," Rockford explained, "Bailey discovered just how proficient with computers Angelique had become while on Stratos. Bailey was a natural linguist, stretching even to programming languages. And while Angelique was all fiery passion, Bailey was a cooler intellect and it was her idea that they partner up to attack the logistical support systems and the public utilities."

"So they used computers to wage war rather than bombs," Shade realized.

"Not against people but I'd wager they bombed infrastructure. And both of them became proficient guerilla fighters," Rockford told them.

"I can attest to that," Burrows reminded everyone.

"But neither of them strike me as assassins. I rather doubt they engaged soft targets and civilians," Rockford assessed them both, "But against Stratosian security forces and Troglyte collaborators? I'm certain they waged all out war."

"So, I can understand a cover up to a degree. The Patriarch would hardly want in known that an heir to the throne sympathized with the Troglyte population enough to rebel against Stratos' authority," Forte stated, "But why this secret trial and demands for retribution and then including Starfleet into it?"

"What I wonder is how they got off of Ardana in the first place," Lee admitted.

"A sympathetic freighter captain let them work for passage and dropped them off at Deep Space K-7," Rockford divulged, "Brin found them there still wondering what to do with the rest of their young lives."

"And he gave them the same pitch he hands everyone else," Burrows guessed.

"So we're guessing Bailey and Angelique discovered something they might not even be aware of and the Patriarch is willing to kill them to protect the secret," Forte examined the particulars.

"And Starfleet is complicit in keeping that secret," Shade added.

"That's the theory we're running with," Rockford confirmed it.

"Good," Lee was fully behind the new investigation parameters, "Let's get the bastards."

Voyager arrived outside DS3's patrol route at the border of the Ekosian territories. Captain Barret immediately contacted Chakotay, "Don't bother entering the system. Even if Macen were here the Ekosians wouldn't give him up."

"I understand you have seniority here but I know Macen. I've worked beside him and seen how his mind works," Chakotay stated.

"Only in the Maquis. He's had over sixteen years as a covert operative since then," Barret informed Chakotay.

"I know enough to realize Macen would never come here," Chakotay claimed, "He wouldn't go anywhere this obvious and he would never force the Ekosians to make this kind of choice between him and their goodwill with the Federation."

"So why are you here?" Barret was incredulous.

"Admiral Jellico ordered me here," Chakotay shrugged, "And in case I was wrong after all I choose to be a restraining influence. My role is to talk Macen down not to shoot it out with him."

"Once a terrorist always a terrorist. You'll draw blood because it's your nature and it's his," Barret proclaimed.

"I aim to disappoint," Chakotay pledged.

"Chakotay, two vessels are patrolling the border," Voyager's XO, Lt. Commander Tom Paris, pointed out.

They resembled U-Boats with warp nacelles. Barret sent a coded message that Voyager's computers couldn't understand. Two more vessels resembling massive zeppelins dropped out of warp. They turned out to be carriers and the hulls opened up for support craft to launch.

"Harry, we need that signal decrypted," Chakotay spoke to Lt. Commander Harry Kim at OPS.

"Captain, the Ekosians are going weapons hot," Lt. Grelin Shue reported from Tactical.

"Raise shields but do not charge weapons," Chakotay ordered.

"Captain, the Sternwheeler has charged weapons and is engaging the Ekosian forces," Kim reported.

"Do not charge weapons," Chakotay repeated.

The U-Boats and Zeppelins quickly disabled the Sternwheeler with energy damping weapons and a judicious use of polaron phasers afterwards. The Starfleet vessel was crippled but was reporting nearly zero casualties. Paris was impressed with Chakotay's deductive skills.

"Captain, they're hailing," Kim informed him.

"On screen," Chakotay decided.

A platinum blonde Luftwaffe colonel appeared and she wore the designated insignia for the space korps, "Attention USS Voyager, your reputation for reasonable action precedes you. I am Kolonel Jorra of the Reich flagship, Gotterdammerung. Whom do I have the privilege of addressing?"

"Captain Chakotay of Starfleet," he replied.

"You did not fire on us," Jorra stated the obvious.

"You weren't a threat," Chakotay shared, "And I have no wish to provoke hostilities between our peoples."

"Then perhaps we can get to the matter at hand. You are seeking Brin Macen?" Jorra got straight to it.

"Yes, we actually happen to be old friends. I've been asked to bring Macen to Earth to answer questions regarding his crew," Chakotay answered.

"Your Captain Barret chose to push his agenda over our considerations. He threatened us with harm if we did not relinquish Macen's person or whereabouts. Barret escalated matters further when I shared that Macen wasn't among my people and I didn't know where he had gone. I supposed that Macen chose to shelter us from backwards thinking zealots," Jorra related to them.

"Captain Barret communicated using a coded encryption that I was unaware of Starfleet having," Chakotay told her.

"That encryption is utilized to keep our dealings with Starfleet secret. Apparently even from members of their own fleet," Jorra said drolly.

"And I was unaware that the Federation had dealings with the Reich beyond diplomatic channels," Chakotay informed her.

"You need to be better informed," Jorra replied curtly and the screen went blank.

"They've cut communication and are towing the Sternwheeler back towards Ekos and Zeon," Kim reported.

"I guess we've been schooled," Paris looked baffled.

"Sir, a voice message just came in. We have one hour to depart Reich space," Kim told them.

"What kind of secret dealings would Starfleet have with a barely capable warp culture?' Chakotay wondered aloud.

"And don't forget they bought that tech from the Ferengi," Paris reminded him.

"Whatever they had to trade with, it seems likely the Federation wants it too," Chakotay theorized, "Ensign Sawyer, get us out of this sysetm."

"Aye, sir," Margaret Sawyer's hands danced across her CONN controls.

"Tom, you have the bridge. I'm finding out what is going on," Chakotay told him.

"What about the Sternwheeler?" Paris wondered.

"The Ekosians are offended but they value their relationship with Starfleet. I doubt any real harm m will come ot Barret or his crew," Chakotay entered his Ready Room.

Mudd's ancestors, Anton Mudd and Penny Sovereign, had gathered transportation needed to evacuate the original Xindi home world. The Delphic Expanse had made the world uninhabitable. Azati Prime was primarily an aquatic world with small continents for the other sentient races. But while the Aquatics thrived, the Primates, Arboreals, Reptilians, and Insectoids survived they did so at the indulgence of the Aquatics. The reminders of the civil wars on Xindus that rendered the Avians extinct tempered their passions and rivalries.

The Xindi still felt they owed a debt to Anton Mudd and his descendents. Two centuries had passed and with Harry Mudd the First, the debt had been called in. And was continued to be called by Harry's own descendents. The Xindi had grown weary of Mudds exploiting them. So Harri Mudd's gamble to shelter on Azati Prime could just as easily backfire.

Mudd was invited to the Grand Council and Macen was allowed to accompany her. Everyone else was ordered to remain aboard the Freehold. Two representatives from each species were present in the undersea hall. The Aquatics swam nearby and were able to speak and to hear through a membrane instead of a force field. Macen knew Parva would drive herself crazy contemplating the science behind it.

The Council's Presider was a Reptilian whose hisses and groans were translated into Federation Standard. Once known as English. The Presider's electronically rendered voice call the meeting to order.

"Captain Harriet Fedora Mudd, do you come before us once again to seek asylum?" the Presider asked.

"Yes," was Mudd's simple answer.

"And you wish the same for Captain Brin Macen and his crew?" the Presider asked again.

"Yes," Mudd confirmed it.

"Starfleet has posted arrest warrants for Macen and two of his companions. Are they also among you?" te Presider inquired.

"Again, yes, they are," Mudd said.

"We have kept the peace with Starfleet since before there was a Federation," the Presider reminded her, "Explain to us why we should break with them in this."

"The only crime they're guilty of is obeying their own morality and ethical imperative. Starfleet knows they haven't broken any Federation laws but they've issued the warrants anyway," Mudd was rather impassioned, "And these officials remain committed to their illegal course of action in order to appear strong to their supposed enemies."

The Arboreals in particular reacted strongly to that argument. The Presider flicked his tongue nervously, "And for this reason, we should threaten the peace?"

"I honestly can't tell you why you should," Mudd admitted, "It may threaten Starfleet's perception of you and threaten the Federation's trade agreements with your combined peoples."

"We appreciate your candor. Please await our decision," the Presider dismissed them and their honor guard led them to a waiting ro.

Mudd explained what would typically occur at this point, "The Primates and the Insectoids are more aggressive and will want to thumb Starfleet's nose. The Reptilians and the Arboreals are generally more conciliatory and will want to surrender us into Starfleet custody. The Aquatics are naturally indecisive. They'll seek a manageable compromise."

"Yay us?" Macen was hopeful.

"We're nowhere near that point yet," Mudd advised him.

Paris entered Chakotay's Ready Room carrying a padd, "I did some checking like you asked. The Orion engineer named Parva is an outcast among her people so she won't turn to them. Her husband, Rab Daggit, is from Angosia and he's augmented. So no joy there. Tracy Ebert is a virtual unknown."

Ardanan officials had reported on which team members had arrived there. Chakotay filled in that blank, "Ebert's family is dead. She's lived on the fringe since the Maquis disbanded."

"So that leaves us Harri, Harry in an 'I', Mudd. Her list of known associations is a who's who of interstellar criminal super stars. But she avoided causes like it was her religion until Celeste Rockford put her on the payroll," Paris reported, "She rescued Bacco only to help get her impeached a few months later."

"And you're think Mudd is our torchbearer," Chakotay shared, "And I agree. The Mudd lineage has an outstanding debt of honor owed them by the Xindi. The population wouldn't have survived without the Mudd family acting on their behalf. And the informant that revealed the Typhon Pact was raising insurgent armies in Cardassia was a Xindi Insectoid."

"So we follow her trail," Paris realized.

"By setting course for Azati Prime," Chakotay ordered.

"Margaret will be glad to go faster than three-quarters impulse," Paris admitted, "But Brownstone still wants the quantum slipstream drive offline."

Lt. Paula Brownstone was the ship's chief engineer. B'Elanna Torres-Paris was the Fleet Chief Engineer and had stayed behind with Janeway. And she'd kept their daughter, Miral, with her.

"Torres will be back soon, Tom. Count on it," Chakotay promised him.

"We'd better go back before she comes looking for us," Paris laughed.

Mudd and Macen were readmitted into the audience chamber. The Presider looked as nervous as ever, "We have reached a compromise. You may stay with us as long as no one arrives to collect you. If they do, and you do not depart, we will hand you over without deliberation."

"Thank you," Macen shared.

"I'm releasing you from your debt to my family. I should have done it years ago," Mudd suddenly blurted, "If my father or brother come calling and want to cash in, tell them I freed you. Your self imposed obligation ended today. I intended to tell you that regardless of your decision."

Every Xindi bowed to them, even the Aquatics. Their escorts brought Macen and Mudd back to the transporter room where they beamed back to the Freehold.

 

Chapter 3

While the rest of the investigative team attempted to piece together local events prior to Smith and Kerber's flight from the planet and subsequent conviction and condemnation, Rockford examined Ardanan history from public databases. Ardana IV had actually joined the Federation between 2295-2324. They'd seceded because of the Federation overarching condemnation of slavery and discriminatory caste systems.

"But Ardana was still the only discovered source of zenite ore in the Alpha Quadrant. It seemed to be a result of the formation of the orange K-class star Mu Leonis, or Rasalas as the natives called it, interacting with the stellar dust that condensed into the planet. And zenite was the only cure for an entire genus of botanical infestations.

Rockford and her team transported from the Obsidian to the planet's surface. There they discovered the ruling class' population had overpopulated Stratos and spread to the planet itself. But in a reminiscence of an Earth system called Apartheid, 9 million Stratosians ruled over 9 billion Troglytes. And the Troglytes had no legal recourse and despite the fact they couldn't give testimony in legal matters fabricated statements were frequently issued in their names.

No Troglyte was represented in the planetary councils or by the Patriarch himself. Instead the entire government was designed to oppress the Troglytes. They were slaves that toiled their lives away in the mines or in Stratosian households.

Rockford had tracked down a retired house slave that had served the House of Stone while Bailey Smith lived there. And she'd known Angelique Kerber as well. Odds were she knew the truth behind Kerber's dismissal to the mines and Smith's planet wide search for her. And it seemed the House of Stone had wanted her well hidden and out of the way.

Rockford spotted those paid to spy out Zazza's callers. The former servant was surrounded by informers. And a number of plain clothes security agents.

And as the team tracked Zazza down, the security agents moved to drag her from her house and set up a public execution. Rockford and her team were unarmed but that hardly made them harmless.

Burrows moved in to disable the gunman preparing to kill Zazza. Lee intercepted another wanting to harm Burrows. Lee quickly and efficiently disabled him. But that was before he slide tackled a third agent going for his disruptor. Lee smashed the man's face into the concrete just to prove to him he shouldn't raise his visor.

Shade rushed another planetary agent to free Zazza from his grasp. Her side kick pushed him back and Shade handed the old woman off to Forte in order to more effectively deal with her opponent. Shade wrenched the man's truncheon from his grasp and she proficiently beat him senseless with it despite his helmet and body armor.

Forte hustled Zazza off to relative safety and contacted Telrik to beam her to the ship. Rockford had already potentially crippled one security officer and had disarmed the other of her disruptor. But Rockford pistol whipped her instead of shooting her.

"Catch," Rockford lobbed a disruptor to Forte, "Call the ship and get us out of here."

Forte could hear approaching sirens. Some Troglyte resident had summoned the security forces. But the transporter effect took the away before the force's arrival.

"Good job getting her to safety," Rockford congratulated Forte. Kovic had charge over Zazza. The old woman was bewildered.

"Who are you people?" Zazza asked.

"Friends of Maarta and Anara," Rockford told the apprehensive Troglyte, "And we're getting you away from this planet."

Zazza slowly relaxed as relief shown on her face.

"What do you mean she applied for asylum?" the Federation ambassador roared at Rockford two hours later within the embassy.

"If she returns to the surface they'll kill her," Rockford stated.

"She's charged with being a terrorist," the ambassador scoffed.

"She's a retiree who wasn't in much danger until we arrived to speak with her," Rockford explained.

"The Patriarch has demanded only two things. The first is that you surrender this woman to the authorities," the ambassador told her, "And the second is you take your ship and crew and depart from Ardana forever."

"I'll happily comply with the second but I'll blow Stratos apart before I hand this woman to their mercies. How can you have a surname like 'Freeman' and take the Patriarch's side?" Rockford had to inquire.

"I uphold the Prime Directive and don't judge or criticize local affairs," Freeman sniffed.

"So did the Ardanans until the anti-slavery laws were applied to them. Then they left the Federation," Rockford reminded him.

"Admiral Jellico has ordered you to surrender the woman," Freeman informed her.

"I'm not with Starfleet so he can't order me to do anything. And that 'woman' has a name. Zazza is a living, breathing, sentient being with basic rights we need to uphold," Rockford tapped her badge and requested being transported out.

"Oh dear, oh dear," Freeman fretted, fearing Jellico's wrath.

Parva was indeed fascinated with the membrane window and door technology. Daggit had to talk her down from dismantling the wall several times over. Ebert worried over Smith and Kerber, who grew more despondent every hour that went by.

Macen recognized Mudd's expression as she returned from a consultation with the Presider, "Starfleet is coming."

Mudd stopped and stared him for a second, "A Federation starship has been spotted traversing what used to be the Delphic Expanse. It's the starship Voyager."

"Chakotay's ship," Macen was pleased.

"Chakotay?" Ebert perked up.

"I take it you both know him," Mudd eyeballed them both.

"He's a former Maquis that ended up in the Delta Quadrant," Macen told her.

"Of course! The miracle ship," Mudd was more than a little sardonic.

"I take it the Council is still determined to hand us over," Macen guessed.

"Yes, but they alerted us with time to spare to make headway before Starfleet gets here," Mudd told them all, "Much to the shock and surprise of two-fifths of the Council."

"Jellico probably returned the Voyager thinking Chakotay could second guess me," Macen told the group, "But I'm not the Freehold's captain."

"I think it's time we got going," Mudd smirked.

The Obsidian had left Ardanan territory and was intercepted by the Lakota en route to Deep Space K-7. Captain Morgan Freedman was the station CO and a descended for Liberian slaves. So he sent an unofficial message to Rockford to keep Zazza off of the station. If the Troglyte stepped foot onto the station than she would be detained and returned to Ardana IV.

And Freedman reported that Zazza's request for asylum had been bumped up from the Diplomatic Service directly to the Federation Council's Diplomatic Oversight Committee. Where the debate raged between those that wanted to support Starfleet's position as represented by Jellico's position versus those who argued the Federation opposed the practice of slavery and opposed the practice of handing over applicants back to their home planets especially when they would be sent to certain death. The Federation committee wanted prooof of the allegations hurled at Zazza.

Only no evidence appeared to be readily available. And the committee grew suspicious regarding the charges as it took longer for Ardanan officials to produce even falsified evidence. And the seeming need to manufacture evidence poisoned the Ardanan case. But that only swayed half of the committee while the others seemed to blindly trust in Jellico.

So Freedman made a cursory inspection of the Obsidian in order to insure Kerber and Smith weren't aboard. He totally ignored Zazza's presence. And he ignored it to the latitude of releasing the surveyor to proceed further into the Beta Quadrant despite their obvious intention to reunite with Macen's team.

"They're playing us, aren't they?" Paris asked in between communiqués from the Ruling Council

"Of course they are," Chakotay agreed, "They feel indebted to Mudd no matter if she released them from their self imposed obligation or not. And Macen has a history of inspiring loyalty."

"You sound like you admire hime," Paris realized.

"I respect him. The truly great Maquis leaders didn't seek their roles and they would give their lives for their people," Chakotay analyzed, "But we have to consider Macen's options. Mudd can't travel into the Alpha Quadrant with us hunting her. The Khitomer Accord nations are all looking for them as well. The Typhon Pact nations would execute them as a matter of principle."

"But it leaves the Adraxian Alliance and Safehold in the Alpha Quadrant," Paris pointed out.

"The odds of reaching either are extremely slim and Macen burned his bridges with Safehold," Chakotay corrected him, "But Captain Riker led the first deep space exploration of the Beta Quadrant in decades. A dozen ships are still out there. And they've discovered the Garidian Republic, the Velora Aggregate, and the Darsaen Alliance. All of whom would offer safe passage simply because they wouldn't know any better."

"They could return to the Delta Quadrant . Both the Sutherland and the Rutherford were pulled out," Paris reminded his captain, "We've got more local expertise than any other starship crew."

"I think we should press further into the Beta Quadrant as they run to ground and try to hide like they attempted on Gilgamesh," Chakotay decided.

"That was pretty slick move hiding in that nebula," Paris admitted, "We had no idea that planet was in there."

"We should have realized the possibility was real after finding habitable planets within the Badlands," Chakotay was pensive.

"I don't think this chase will end sooner or prettier," Paris opined.

"I'm afraid you're probably right," Chakotay sighed forlornly.

Mudd let go of a contented sigh as the Freehold slipped past the vigilant Voyager, "It was nice of the Xindi to repair the Suliban cloak."

"Their familiarity with 31st century tech could prove problematic someday," Parva venturerd.

"The Xindi played their part in the Temporal Cold War and both Earth and the Xindi survived it," Macen replied, "But the Suliban Cabal paid a horrible price for choosing which faction to serve. What price would be demanded of races today and are the Temporal Cold War factions actually behind all of the travails the Federation has faced recently? Who really devised the idea of uniting the Typhon Pact. It certainly wasn't Praetor Tal'Aura."

"I don't know and I hope we don't have to find out," Ebert stated.

"We might not have a choice," Macen warned her.

"Captain," Kerber said as she entered the bridge.

"Yes?" Mudd and Macen said at the same time.

"Sorry, your team," Mudd stepped back.

"Captain, we have word on the Obsidian. They were intercepted near Deep Space K-7 by the Lakota and brought to the station. Apparently they have a Troglyte aboard seeking political asylum and Admiral Jellico wants their heads," Kerber reported.

"Captain, we know her. Zazza was the head of household in my home," Smith said from the hatchway.

"She can probably clear your names," Macen realized, "I'm surprised they've let her live this long."

"They probably assumed she'd never be able to talk to anyone about what she knows," Kerber shared.

"What other starships are in DS K-7's vicinity?" Macen asked.

"Just her attached starship, the Lakota. The Sternwheeler is limping home ot DS3 from Ekosian space," Kerber replied, "The regular patrol ships haven't been alerted to look for us but only along their assigned patrol routs."

"Those are actually Jellico's orders?" Macen was surprised.

"As interpreted by Captain Saavik, the patrol commander," Smith added.

"That makes better sense," Macen admitted, "But Celeste and your Zazza are in good hands. Captain Freedman has been in Starfleet nearly as long as I was. And he's impartial and fair. He'll handle Zazza's case strictly by the merits the case itself has. Not political pressure from Starfleet Command."

"And if Captain Freedman is ordered by the Federation Council to surrender Zazza to Ardanan custody?" Kerber wanted to know.

"Freedman won't condemn someone to certain death," Macen said with certainty.

"Admiral, I've already forwarded my recommendations to the oversight committee and the Federation Council that Zazza's petition for asylum be granted," Freedman informed Jellico.

The Fleet Admiral exploded, "Dammit, man! You've exceeded your authority in this matter. You will deliver this 'Zazza' to Ardana IV or I'll remove from command. This is a diplomatic matter at this point."

"What has Zazza even been convicted of, or even accused of?" Freedman asked.

"She's a Troglyte. They're all malcontents. And she'd left the planet. That's an offense punishable by death," Jellico explained.

"Maybe she left to escape her life of slavery," Freedman suggested, "A matter which the Federation Council will weigh into its decision."

"I don't care if she's a forking slave. She goes back to Ardana within the hour or I'll have your commission. If the council rules her in favor between our delivery or after her arrival we'll apologize to her for the timing and leave her on Ardana IV to face her punishment," Jellico declared.

"Aye, sir," Freedman appeared to concede.

Jellico terminated the transmission. Freedman forwarded the comm log to Commander Prentiss at Internal Affairs. Then he summoned his Exec.

"T'Lena, Admiral Jellico wishes you to take the Lakota to Ardana IV." Freedman informed her.

"Will the applicant be returning with me?" T'Lena inquired quizzically.

"No, this is more of a fact finding mission," Freedman said laconically, "I want to know what kind of reception she'd receive if she were with you. Make the Ardanans think Zazza is aboard and gauge their reactions."

"You wish for me to lie," T'Lena obviously disapproved.

"Not lie," Freedman reassured her, "Misdirect."

"I am not certain I approve," T'Lena admitted.

"You don't have to approve, Commander. In fact, you don't need to lead the mission if you feel it compromises your personal integrity," Freedman promised.

"Indeed?" T'Lena considered the matter, "I find it illogical that the authorities on Stratos would place such emphasis on recapturing an escaped Troglyte with no history of civil disobedience. In fact, Zazza was one placed in a high position of trust amongst the House of Stone."

"So you'll do it?" Freedman was hopeful.

"I believe misdirection is the logical course of action," T'Lena decided.

"Carry on, Commander. I'll inform the admiral's offices you're underway," Freedman told her.

After the Vulcan had departed, Freedman found it equally troubling that a contact within the Federation Councilors' staff had reported that Jellico was bringing his considerable clout to bear on the Oversight Committee's outcome. He was claiming the Ardanans would cut off the supply of zenite unless they were appeased and that the ore was of such strategic importance that nations would rise and fall on its acquisition.

The hyperbole aside, the fact Jellico was applying political pressure on a body Starfleet was meant to serve was deeply disturbing. Starfleet carried out the Federation Council's dictates not the reverse. And Jellico obeyed the Federation President at the expense of his personal wishes not the other way around. Starfleet hadn't always played well with politicos but an understanding had been reached twenty years after "Admiral Leyton's" abortive coup attempt and hadn't been breached until now. And this time by Starfleet itself once again..

"Damn you, Edward!" Vice Admiral Nute Gennady, the Starfleet Chief of Operations, angrily snarled at Jellico, "You're exposing us."

Jellico stared down Gennady, "Grow a spine, Nute. We essentially control Starfleet. No one will learn of our backdoor deal with the Ardanans or why we have it in the first place. The Oversight Committee will kowtow to our way of thinking soon enough and I have the President well in hand."

"No one outside of this office and key assistants ever realized zenite had a secondary potential until our researchers discovered this by a happy accident," Admiral Tobra Hesh, Starfleet Chief of Strategic Planning, reminded everyone present, "It can be refined and processed to not only kill bacterial and fungal infections that afflict flora but we can weaponize it to utterly destroy all flora on a planetary scale."

"Something we're all too aware of," Admiral Lela Starling was in charge of Internal Affairs. She'd been brought into the inner circle afterwards to cover up the accident on Weber's World near the Taurus Reach and the subsequent testing of the weapon on several Romulan agricultural worlds. Of course, that starship had been "disappeared" on a long range five year mission of exploration beyond where any other starship currently ventured out to.

The blatant atrocity had polarized Donatra and Sela but prevented Tal'Aura from crossing the Neutral Zone after the Hobus disaster destroyed Romulus and Remus. Instead it spurred Donatra into deposing Tal'Aura and nominating herself the first Empress in a thousand years and building the Typhon Pact predicated on the threat Starfleet now held over anyone's head.

"This is the first strategic secret of such importance since the creation of Section 31," Admiral Kostigan, the Chief of Research, admitted, "We now have the capability of committing genocide on a mass scale as we choke off or eliminate an enemy's food supplies. And with our stockpiles building, we'll soon be able to strike every Typhon Pact nation simultaneously."

"The fact we're building biogenic weapons and have tested them on a hostile power would only be counted against us," Jellico reminded the enthusiastic Kostigan. The scientist loved his ongoing project and wanted to see it further developed.

"Starfleet hid the fact Sisko did the same in the DMZ precisely because it was a strategic move employed to stabilize the threat posed by the Maquis before the Cardassians went off the walls," Starling recalled.

"Yes, we employed the loyalty his officers felt towards him to keep them silent long enough for Starfleet Command to expunge all log references and bury flight recorder data and present the implication it approved of Sisko's choice when the reality was the bulk of the Admiralty never knew about the incident," Gennady reminded everyone.

"Even the President and the Federation Council would condemn us for committing an act of war when no war was declared and for detaining our own service members in Orion black site prisons for refusing to forswear ever revealing those facts," Starling was indifferent.

"And no war was ever declared because we took decisive action," Jellico trumpeted his own ego, "Preemptive action only we had the foresight to take."

"No one is debating the wisdom behind this project," Hesh rationalized, "But it is difficult to sell to civilian oversight."

"Then damn oversight!" Jellico snarled, "Starfleet was virtually independent for two centuries before the Federation Council rammed themselves down a Vulcan throat."

Everyone already knew Jellico's opinion of the serving Fleet Admiral between 2230-2260 and the pacification policies that had been wrought. Jellico wasn't through frothing, "We have a leak, gentlebeings. We need to find it and shut down with extreme prejudice."

Everyone present had been familiarized with an American military term from the 20th and 21st Centuries meaning to kill without hesitation. Starling intervened, "Macen and his team are unwaveringly tenacious. The only way to draw them out is to give them what they want. Order the Patriarch to pardon the two so-called terrorists. They were innocent anyway."

"He'll demand concessions," Jellico grumbled.

"Stress the importance of play acting," Hesh urged.

"It could work," Jellico understood, "The Patriarch is so worried about Maarta's claim to the throne of Stratos he'd gladly have her killed. Just more quietly this time."

"Noyce is sniffing around our periphery," Starling warned the group, "He reassigned one of my top investigators and a staff to an unknown investigation."

"Order them off," Jellico insisted.

"He outranks me in my direct chain of command but you could order him to end whatever the investigation is," Starling pointed out.

"And if that fails I can take additional actions," Jellico sounded it out, "Very well. Everything will be taken care of. Dismissed."

And when the assembled admirals had departed, Jellico contacted Edward Fowler, the Director of Section 31. Theirs would be an interesting conversation.

Freedman asked Rockford and Forger aboard the station for a quiet meeting, "The Federation Council has approved Zazza's petition and they're reviewing the facts pertaining to your fugitives. They have requested that your Bailey Smith and Angelique Kerber testify before the Oversight Committee for Diplomatic Affairs. Zazza has also been called to testify."

Freedman sobered, "Now for the bad news, your associates have been technically pardoned for their so-called acts of terrorism based on the evidence you uncovered. But they're still condemned for violating the travel ban. The Federation will look the other way so long as they maintain their cover identities and avoid traveling back to Ardana IV. If they return and are caught, they'll still face execution and the Federation and Starfleet will not do a blessed thing about it."

"So is the manhunt still on?" Rockford asked.

"Officially it ended," Freedman advised them, "But then again, Admiral Jellico believes Zazza is aboard the Lakota being taken back to Ardanan territory and that the USS Voyager is closing in on Captains Mudd and Macen."

"That's seven layers of horse shit," Forger fumed, "The situation hasn't changed."

"The hunt could resume and your friends could be prisoners right now being handed over to the Patriarch of Stratos' tender mercies," Freedman reminded her.

"I suppose they have no choice but to accept the compromise," Rockford said sadly, "As a fellow exile I know how much this will hurt them."

"Considering how Stratos deals with Troglytes I'd say this is the better option," Freedman stated, "And there's no precedent for a noble working against their oppression. That fact will motivate the Patriarch to be especially creative and especially brutal with your friend's execution. It could last weeks. Ardana IV has acquired something called an 'Agony Booth' from sources unknown. But word has it it came from the Federation."

"Brin's mentioned those in passing. But I don't remember him saying they're from a Federation world," Rockford shared.

"Maybe it's some exotic tech we acquired from another planet," Freedman hypothesized.

"Maybe," Rockford was troubled. It wouldn't be for several more weeks that she recalled Macen mentioning agony booths in reference to a different quantum reality.

The Federation had expanded its borders beyond the Klingon Empire. The Ferengi Alliance, the First Federation, and was now pushing past the Cardassian Union and Tholian Assembly. It fragmented the Federation but as long as the current alliances held it was feasible. During the brief Second Klingon War, the colonies surrounding the Klingons had been ravaged.

Following the resumption of the alliance, the Klingons themselves rebuilt those colonies as a gesture of renewed friendship. So Voyager was distracted by searching out known member worlds as well as newly discovered political powers beyond UFP territory. Meanwhile the Freehold quietly charted a course to reunite with the Obsidian.

Zimbalist intercepted the general announcements regarding Zazza, Kerber, and Smith. The declaration was a bittersweet one for the Ardanans. And the true nature of its legal stipulations wasn't lost on them.

"You don't have to abide by the offer," Macen advised them, "Zazza will still get asylum regardless of your status."

"Zazza was a house servant for my family. She served faithfully and protected Anara and I when we went rogue," Smith explained, "But it seems I'll never be Maarta of the House of Stone again."

"And I'll never be Anara again," Kerber was bitter, "We've traded one death sentence for another. The only difference is we're allowed to rot in exile. We have the Federation's permission to pretend to be other people."

"I never said it was fair," Macen conceded, "But it does end the official pursuit. But there will be unofficial pursuers. I'd ask you stay with us to fight other injustices and to protect yourselves by adding other eyes to watching your backs."

"Staying with you is almost as hazardous as running on our own," Smith gave him a small rueful smile.

"But there's a secret on Ardana IV. A secret both the Patriarch and Starfleet are willing to kill you over," Macen told them.

"You really think there's a conspiracy here?" Kerber was doubtful.

"Starfleet is protecting Ardanan interests beyond the diplomatic variety. They condemned you after you'd already left the planet," Macen shared, "The obvious answer is you know or saw something you shouldn't have. Or they think you have."

"Whatever it is, it turned my own family against me," Smith recalled, "He murdered innocent people to frame me for the crime."

"So how do we go about discovering the truth and exposing whatever the secret is?" Kerber asked.

"Celeste and the others are setting course for DS4 where can safely rendezvous under the watchful eye of Captain Benteen," Macen told them, "From there you can set out on your own or you can stay on. I know what the rest of the teams and the crew will say. Even Lee Kang, Shade, and Tony Burrows are true believers in your cause now. Arianna Forte always regretted not standing up for you both."

"Could you send Tracy our way?" Kerber requested, "I'd like to bounce some ideas off of her."

"Good idea," Smith agreed, "She'll be our litmus test."

"The hunt has been called off," Chakotay announced coming from his Ready Room, "We're to engage the quantum slipstream drive and rejoin the Full Circle Fleet at Negera."

"I guess I won't be meeting Macen after all," Paris quipped.

"This has all been one massive misdirection," Chakotay complained, "So what weren't we supposed to be looking at?"

"I have no idea," Paris admitted.

"Whatever it was, it's still there," Chakotay promised.

It took the Freehold almost two weeks to traverse the space between Azati Prime and Deep Space Four at Warp 5. Mudd was getting used to having a friendly reception when she strepped out of the airlock. Rockford leapt into Macen's arms, almost knocking him over. They continued their reunion off to one side. Burrows and the Rockford Investigative Team threw themselves at Kerber and Smith's mercies. As Ebert had predicted.

Parva made an uppercut motion to offer her advice on how to respond. But Ebert had suggested otherwise and the duo took their cue from her. They settled everyone down.

"I can't say all is forgiven," Kerber was the spokeswoman, as usual, "But we couldn't have come back here without your assistance. So we're willing to start over."

"That's honest and fairer than you might deserve," Smith added.

"I can speak for everyone when we admit we were wrong to doubt you much less condemn you," Shade answered, "We're grateful for a second chance and to make amends."

"Where's that leave me?" Ebert wanted to know after the criticisms that had been leveled at her.

"You were a Maquis with the Captain. That's old news," Burrows had championed condemning Ebert alongside the Ardanans, "Anything afterwards until you signed up here is also forgotten history."

"'Bout time, you giant turd," Ebert snapped at him.

"Excuse me, but I have a reception waiting so you can celebrate in style and also formalize these peace accords," Benteen interrupted.

"Can we bring the whole crew?" Macen asked.

"The rest of them are already there," Benteen promised.

The owner of Robierre's, the finest restaurant on DS4, had a thick French accent. And accent Smith revealed wasn't native to France but rather a colony near the Cardassia Union. Smith summoned him after the party was seated.

"What part of Liverpool did you study at at?" she asked him.

"You have a discerning ear, mamselle," he congratulated her.

"But you're from Tycho and that colony was settled by lunar migrants," Smith continued.

"I'm leaving before you tell me what color underwear I have on," Robierre told her.

"You aren't wearing any," she informed him.

He left thoroughly scandalized. Macen was glad to see Smith having fun. It had been a rare commodity for her and Kerber for the past several months. He said as much to Rockford.

"You really have no idea," Rockford told him, "We uncovered data trails regarding Maarta and Anara that you really need to read ASAP."

Robeirre summoned Benteen when the meal had ended and conversation was beginning to wane, "Director Forger suggested the meal which was on the SID's tab, by the way. You'd break the station's hard currency reserve budget if we paid for it. Captain Freedman has conveniently misplaced Zazza because despite the Federation Council's ruling, Jellico ordered her to be brought to Ardana IV."

"They'll kill her!" Kerber snarled.

"I recommend Captain Mudd for the task of retrieving Zazza," Benteen offered.

"Why me?" Mudd just wanted a week off.

"Because you're invisible, Harri," Benteen implied more than the metaphorical sense, "And Macen and company are needed elsewhere."

"Like where?" Macen asked.

"Earth," Benteen answered, "Michelle Prentiss is building a case alleging impropriety by Jellico and a handful of top admirals in Starfleet Command. Murder, conspiracy to commit murder, unlawful detention, and genocide are among the charges she'll be filing. But she won't be able to if Internal Affairs finds her first. And I say that because her own commanding officer is on the list of suspects."

"Understood but if she's being protected by Noyce and Starfleet Security like you've said before, why is the threat imminent?" Macen asked.

"Because sources close to Jellico claim he contacted Edward Fowler and put Section 31 on the case," Benteen revealed she still had sources within Starfleet Command dating back to her allegiance to Section 31.

"What's at the heart of this?" Rockford asked, "It all points back to Ardana IV."

"It specifically ties into zenite production and refinement," Benteen shared what Prentiss had briefed her on, "You two stumbled onto something kept hidden when you ravaged the production facilities. Apparently you saw things and data best kept in the dark."

"I have no recollection," Smith replied.

"Neither do I," Kerber added, "It was a simjple shut down the production facility to prove we could."

"Starfleet has taken over control of all zenite production and refinement. That includes ore extraction," Benteen quietly revealed.

"Those bastards are enslaving my people?" Kerber was outraged, "Where's all the talk of basic rights?"

"Why would they even bother?" Parva derailed the anger floating around.

"What's even more curious is that one third of all the shipments going out never arrive at a destination," Benteen shared, "The Port Authority for Ardana and the end user confirmed those numbers. So where is the rest going?"

"And why," Daggit broke his silence.

"Jellico signed off on the takeover of zenite production himself," Benteen explained the data trail, "As well as four other admirals Prentiss has indentified. And the mysterious end user missing their shipments? Starfleet itself."

"Harri, could you take Zazza to a hiding place until the Federation Council is ready for her testimony?" Macen asked.

"Got a happening hotspot in mind?" Mudd cheerfully asked.

"Nimbus III," Macen told her.

Mudd's good humor died, "That armpit?"

"No one will suspect you," Rockford said, "After all, who goes there on purpose unless they're on the run?"

"Take Tony with you," Macen suggested.

"Now hold on a damn minute!" Mudd began to fly off the handle, "I don't need to nursemaid two people at the same time."

"If the shooting starts, you'll be glad he's along. And he can spend his time guarding Zazza," Macen told her, "Freeing you up for…whatever."

That pacified Mudd enough for Benteen to rise out of her seat and hand Macen an isolinear rod, "I have Prentiss' secure location. But it's just a matter of time before Section 31's secure sources within Starfleet Security betray her location."

"This also has an up to date record of Prentiss' investigation?" Macen inquired.

"That's my understanding," Benteen assured him.

"These people will kill without hesitation," Kerber reminded everyone, "Bailey and I didn't know Starfleet controlled the mines but we were attempting to shed light on the fact the quotas had become so large people were literally being worked to death. Hundreds had died when we shut down the ore production facilities."

"And my own father arranged the 'terrorist' attack we were accused of after we left the planet," Smith shared, "That effort was undoubtedly a move to limit our audience to the facts to the select few we could find who would actually deal with us."

"Starfleet rated everything revolving around Ardana IV and zenite production at above the President's clearance level," Kerber complained.

"The it's a good thing Amanda Forger still rates as high as Nechayev and Jellico on the official secrets scale," Macen stated, "And Alynna can help us because she's standing down soon and doesn't have much to lose at this point."

"You really think Nechayev would burn her whole career over this?" Shannon Forger asked.

"I think they'd just make her retire early and shuffle her off into the frontier," Macen opined.

"Nechayev has asked me to serve as a bridge between Starfleet Intelligence and Section 31 since I have contacts and sources in both," Benteen shared.

"Then tell Fowler to stay out of the way," Macen instructed.

The Freehold slipped past Deep Space Three to reach the triangular partitioned solar system contain the "Planet of Galactic Peace". Upon becoming Empress, Donatra had bolstered the Romulan presence on Nimbus III. Their security detachment set the tone so Starfleet and the Klingon Defense Force also increased their presence within Paradise City.

The Klingons and Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel considered assignment a penal duty. And everyone was convinced the Romulans were up to nefarious ends. And the more the Romulans kept their composure over their assignment the more everyone suspected them of being up to something covert.

The Klingons scrutinized the Romulans' every move. And the Federation forces watched the Klingons shadow the Romulans. And everyone correctly deduced that the Romulans laughed at them all from within their barracks.

The colonists, voluntary or penal, that came to Nimbus III were forbidden weapons. And the infrequent visitors to the planet were also forbidden to bring weapons to the surface with them. However, Burrow's sword confounded Starfleet and the Klingons voted in favor of it since knives were allowed. The Romulans kept their peace about the matter so Burrows won the right to wear his sword and call it a very long knife.

"I suppose we should acquire lodgings," Burrows suggested. Zazza agreed.

"Ugh. You acquire lodgings. I'm berthing back aboard the Freehold," Mudd grunted. She'd never warmed the rule oriented Burrows. His opposition towards Kerber and Smith, whom she admired an even liked as friends, hadn't put him any further into her good graces.

"Why the walls?" Burrows wondered as they wandered Paradise City.

"To control access," Mudd couldn't believe Burrows was that fundamentally naïve, "There are close to two million settlers on this planet. Most of them penal colonists. Paradise City is the only real modern town on this wretched planet. Riots have nearly killed every inhabitant in the past. So the peacekeeping forces hole up in their barracks and wait for the shooting to start up again."

"Why don't they build a weather control system or something to help with the constant drought conditions?" Burrows wondered.

"They've tried but every time techs wander outside to build one, raiders come along and massacre the party," Mudd told him, "The Planet of Galactic Peace is hardly peaceable even in the 24th century."

"I wonder why they bother?" Burrows stated, "A weather system would actually help everyone."

"They don't think that far ahead. This is where they ship the criminally inclined that are too violent or too dangerous to reside in your standard penal colony. Beyond these walls, it's a land of gangs and warlords and the rule of law is simply kill or be killed," Mudd revealed.

"Were you ever sent here?" Burrows asked.

"A few planetary governors made a case for it when they failed to amass enough evidence to convict me to a penal colony," Mudd felt generous so she answered.

"Were you guilty?" Burrows inquired.

"Probably," Mudd admitted, "I have been here on occasion to duck the law."

They found a boarding house the rates were prohibitive. Burrows was dismayed, "If we stay a week we'll blow through our entire budget."

"Space is at a premium and capitalism is alive and well here because the Romulans and Klingons still rely on currency. There's any number of Ferengi and Orion loan sharks," Mudd divulged, "And if you're in shock now, the only thing scarcer in Paradise City than living space is food and water. But fortunately the booze is cheap and it's so watered down as to count as sterilized water. Usually."

"So how do we make more money?" Burrows was curious.

"You could work for the loan sharks I mentioned earlier. They're always looking for debt collectors," Mudd told him, "Or you could stake me in some games of chance. I'll only ask for five percent of the returns."

"What if you don't win?" Burrows wanted to know.

Mudd scoffed "Please, you must be joking."

She saw he wasn't, "Okay, I'll guarantee your investment. You'll always get back what you gave me," Mudd promised him, "But you'd better guarantee my share of the winnings."

"If there are any," Burrows replied.

"Oh, ye of little faith," Mudd patted his cheek much to his annoyance, "Ask around. I'm legendary."

"Okay, where do we go to play?" Burrows asked.

"No, Sport. I go and I play. You babysit granny here," Mudd held her hand out expectantly.

Burrows gave her half of what was left despite himself. Mudd grinned like a Cheshire cat, "I know just the watering hole to start at."

Burrows had a sense of impending doom.

The Obsidian neared Sector 001 while Mudd sat down for her first game. The ship was queued in parking orbit near the dwarf planet named Pluto. Mercantile traffic was offloaded to shuttles and only Starfleet and high ranking diplomatic traffic was getting through. Ebert took Rockford and her team with her and Macen aboard the Corsair and set course for Earth.

Macen approved of Rockford's plan to allow Shade, Lee, and Forte a chance to redeem themselves. But Daggit, Parva, Smith, and Kerber were irked to be left behind. Macen had talked the Ardanans down and they acquiesced but very unhappily. For Ebert it was a chance to visit a world that had dominated her peripheral existence her entire life and she'd never visited it before.

Nechayev pulled rank and got the Corsair a landing strip at a secondary field controlled by Starfleet. The fact that the Corsair was also a Danube-class runabout identical to Starfleet vessels only disguised the ship further. Nechayev's personal authorization would ward too many inquiries into the vessel's origins. But if the matter were pressed, Jellico would learn of it alongside Noyce.

Jellico answered his irritatingly incessant comp/comm to find Edward Fowler's face looking back at him. Jellico still found his resemblance to Donald White startling. Of course, White had been Fowler's uncle and his mother had been a twin sister. So the rumor went that White had been Fowler's actual father. A disturbing comparison considering White's end on Ronara Prime at the hands of the Jem'Hadar.

"Hello, Eddie," Fowler was always amiable.

"What do you want, Edward?" Jellico asked, "I don't have time for this."

"Are you aware that Nechayev authorized Brin Macen to enter the solar system and land on Earth?" Fowler was still agreeable, "In fact, his runabout set down on a Starfleet landing pad ten minutes ago."

"She did what?" Jellico sputtered.

"More to the point, my sources on DS4 say Macen has Prentiss' location. I can't just make her disappear at this point. It's time for a hard choice," Fowler advised Jellico, "I need to end this investigation and end it completely and irrevocably."

Jellico knew it was a soft sell for terminating Prentiss and her fellow IA agents as well as Macen's personnel and any civilians that knew about the investigation, "Do it."

Jellico had surprised himself with how fast and easy that reply came. Fowler was delighted, "Your wish will be my command."

 

Chapter 4

Ebert was amazed by San Francisco. She'd seen dozens of worlds, each unique in themselves, but no human colonies were as vibrant as the home of Starfleet, "The whole planet is like this?"

"Pretty Much," Macen was enjoying her sense of awe and wonder, "The colonies just aren't mature enough yet to match the home planet for its sense of culture."

"Fortunately, humanity found a way to balance out respect for others and the need for territorial expansion. That's why Federation colonies are generally just that with colonists from across the Federation," Rockford had seen just as many worlds as Ebert had and even more strictly alien planets.

Forte saw a planet that would have been hers if a biological agent had poisoned the youth with a mutagenic that afflicted them as adults and killed out the bulk of the humanity deposited on that Earth by the Preservers. The Enterprise had cured the survivors of the plague and enlightened them of their ultimate origins.

Lee had only been to Earth once to visit China, the Middle Kingdom itself. It was as a requirement for all police cadets on Chung Kua to illustrate perfection. Lee wouldn't have given the Chinese that much credit. He found them very indolent compared to their colonial offspring. He took one thing away from the experience. Eventually his own home planet would one day fall into cultural corruption as well.

Shade had left the Yolanda and travelled through a dozen Federation colonies before ever setting foot on Earth. Coming from a matriarchal society that saw men as reproductive tools as well as recreational and menial labor ones at that, she'd found the Federation's egalitarianism unsettling at best. She saw it as a deep flaw within Federation society. At least in the colonies every conceivable societal structure was represented on different worlds.

But Tessa displayed the sheer joy Macen had hoped for her. Louis Zimmerman was still trying to reverse engineer the Doctor's mobile emitter and he'd finally produced a backpack sized emitter that Tessa was field testing. Besides Vic Fontaine, Reginald Barclay had also liberated Prof. James Moriarty and the Countess Regina Bartholomew from their prison. Moriarty and Bartholomew were off on a madcap tour of the Alpha Quadrant while Vic Fontaine loyally stayed on Deep Space Nine.

Tessa's sheer childlike wonder at every sight helped encourage everyone through the recent dark days. Rockford got everyone back on track again, "Earth never tightened security around its solar system to this degree even in time s of war."

"The Breen attacks came as a shock as did the more recent bombings attacking the Federation Council. Even knowing the causes doesn't alleviate the concern," Macen analyzed the situation, "Which begs the question what is going on Ardana IV that cannot bear scrutiny?"

"Something ties everything together," Forte reasoned, "The Typhon Pact and the Khitomer Accords nations enjoy military parity. Is someone risking provoking a total war? Or is Ardana an isolated planet with no relation to interstellar politics and the heightened sense of alarm between alliances?"

"The Typhon Pact has been aggressively recruiting signatories and client nations since its formation while the Federation is just resuming exploration efforts again," Lee observed.

"I used to regard this political shuk as a waste of time," Shade admitted, "But it seems politics is just a popularized version of a murder and extortion case."

"Get used to it," Ebert counseled, "'Cause it's pretty much everything we do."

Shade and Lee looked unhappy over that. Forte looked pensive. Macen and Rockford were just resigned to it. Tessa was just plain giddy over her minute by minute discoveries of everyday life. Her only regret was that Galen 3 was still aboard the Obsidian and unable to share the experience with her. But now Macen had promised she could leave the ship just about any time. And she promised herself to hold him to it.

"We're here," Rockford announced. She'd had dealings with the law firm of Cogley, Cogley, and Shaw before. They were the descendents of Samuel T. Cogley and Areel Shaw. And they were among the Federation's premier law firms. There were two Cogleys, a father and a daughter. And a male Shaw that served as the senior partners.

Director Forger had revealed the firm handled special cases for the President and the Federation Council on an as needed basis. Prentiss and her two assistants had been sequestered in one of the two apartments the firm kept for special off world clients on the 23rd floor of the building. Inside the apartment the trio used, Prentiss had set up a mobile office to continue her research from.

Macen and Rockford had approached the youngest Cogley since the elder was out of town and the Shaw was off world. She in turn verified Director Forger's directive to remove the Starfleet IA officers. Her aide was entering her office when the confirmation came through.

"Annie, I have the…" she never finished because a phaser stun blast knocked her out.

Jack Fowler and a team of Section 31 agents were in the process of stunning everybody in the firm, "I want them all taken out! Find Macen's people and eliminate them all. Kill the lawyer too if she gets in the way."

The agents under his command scrambled to comply. They were a mixed species grouping worthy of the Federation's ideals. But their zealotry to defend those ideals through murderous and brutal means defied every single one of them.

Tessa shielded Cogley with her holographic body. Ebert and Forte got Prentiss under cover. Shade and Lee did their best to stun or be stunned.

Rockford threw a flash bomb no one knew she was carrying. The S31 agents had unwisely doffed their sensor glasses to appear more average. The blinding flash scrambled most of their optic nerves. Thee others it startled and they fell victim to Lee and Shade's phasers. The bomb had a secondary effect of short circuiting their comm badges. So the agents were completely on their own until they commandeered communicators or comp/comms.

Fowler found cover while the SID was dealing with those alien agents that were unaffected by the flash bomb. Macen toppled a large antique bookshelf on Fowler. The Cogley family's entire legal library was resting on him while the SID hustled Prentiss out to collect her assistants. Rockford instructed Annie Cogley to summon Federation Security and not Starfleet.

On the way to the roof, Prentiss collected her research files and her two enlisted support staffers. Zora and Vas Hash were bewildered as they wee marched up the stairwell rather than take the turbolifts. On the roof, Vas Hash began to argue about the indefensibility of their newfound position.

Everyone ignored the belligerent Tellarite and that just annoyed him further. Ebert used her remote control to lift the Corsair off of the landing pad and began to fly it to their current position. Starfleet Security had been attempting to secure the runabout and breach its hatch when it took flight. As ordered, they reported the development directly to Jellico, bypassing their own chain of command.

As the ship flew by Jellico's office window, he flew into a tantrum. Ebert brought the runabout to a hover over the law firm's building. She accessed the transporter and Prentiss and Zora were beamed aboard first. Vas Hash was sputtering his outrage at being left behind when he and Forte beamed up. Lee and Shade were next to go.

The door to the rooftop had been broken by Rockford but Section 31 had agents at the door burning through it. She turned to Ebert, any time now."

Section 31 was annoyed because while Prentiss retrieved her files and staff courtesy of the stairwells, S31 had cleared the roof by traveling by means of the turbolift. The SID team was already on the roof by the time Fowler's agents began combing the stairwells in a level by level search.

She and Macen were transported. Ebert stayed on the roof with the controls while Macen steadied the ship and Rockford locked the transporter onto the pilot. She beamed aboard as Section 31 breached the doorway.

Jack Fowler watched in rage as the Corsair headed out of the atmosphere. Ebert ignored all of Traffic Control's demands she turn about, "Captain, Stardock is scrambling every starship within it to intercept us."

"Most of the ships should have to recall their crews," Macen assured her, "But a fraction will have been ready to deploy."

"According to Starfleet Command, only one ship had a standing crew ready for departure. They're scrambling it now. It's the USS Federation. I don't know what she is but with a name like that she has to be important," Ebert related to Macen.

"Head out of the system at maximum warp. It'll take a few minute s for this Federation starship to get permission to do the same and Starfleet has nicely cleared the traffic lanes for us," Macen instructed with good humor.

"What the hell is the Federation?" Rockford asked from the engineering station. Forte held Sciences down and the others were in the aft compartment with Prentiss and her team.

"Starfleet has been building a ship bigger and more capable than te Galaxy-class," Macen told them, "it's designated the Federation-class."

"I thought that was the role of the Sovereign-class," Ebert ventured.

"Sovereigns are multi-role starships like the Vespa-class. This ship is intended to eventually replace the Galaxies and supplement the Luna-class dedicated explorers," Macen informed them all.

"Commander Forger is hailing us," Ebert reported, "The Obsidian began making way as soon as Traffic Control went ballistic. We're gonna do a barn swallow."

Which mean Ebert would fly the runabout into the docking bay while the Obsidian was underway at warp speed. Rockford groaned, "Tell me you've done this before."

"On a simulator," Ebert confessed, "But I got a perfect score."

"Let's hope it didn't grade on a curve," Rockford grumbled.

"It says here Captain Susanna Lietjen turned down flag rank to command the Federation," Forte had accessed Starfleet's files on the crew, "She commanded a Constellation-class ship called the Victory during the Dominion War and earned several commendations along the way. After the war she was assigned to command a Sovereign-class called the Lighthouse. She explored in parallel with Tom Magnum's group but received heavy damage from a Tholian border patrol. Starfleet offered her flag rank or a final command to shakedown the Federation prototype before accepting promotion."

"So how are we going to evade this wonder ship?" Ebert asked.

"We're not even going to try," Macen corrected her.

"Huh?" Ebert was half confused and half panicked.

"Just concentrate on the docking procedure. Everything else will make sense afterwards," Macen promised his longtime collaborator.

"Set course for Alpha Centauri B at maximum warp," Macen ordered as soon as he cleared the turbolift.

Aglaia happily complied. Forger looked rueful, "I take it we're about to be chased."

"You're getting precognitive, Shannon," Macen happily told her.

"No, this just happens. Every. Mission," Forger unhappily stressed, "I'm just embracing the reality of it."

"But this time there won't be shooting," Macen assured her, "I hope."

"It sold better before the caveat," Forger groaned.

"Sorry. Truth in advertising and all of that," Macen grinned.

Captain Leitjen cleared her ship past the asteroid belt and was cleared by Starfleet Command to engage at high warp. A feat which Macen had joined past the Kuiper belt. Lietjen had met then-Commander Macen serving alongside Bajoran Militia officer named Ro Laren and a ragtag band of Angosian commandoes. Reckless wasn't a term to associate with them.

Yet this entire endeavor of Macen's seemed reckless in the extreme. As they cleared the ice fragment belt beyond Pluto, the Obsidian's subspace wake was obviously pointed at Alpha Centauri. And given their head start, the surveyor might actually beat the USS Federation there.

Macen had to realize he couldn't outrun her or outgun her in a Nova-class starship. Was he trying to hide in a trinary star system that was highly populated? The Federation had Starfleet's most advanced sensors, excluding rumored projects produced by the Special Projects Yards. Leitjen didn't desire a confrontation and really didn't want to get aggressive.

Yet Jellico had ordered the capture of the Obsidian through any means necessary. Including deadly force. And if prisoners were taken, they were to be detained until transferred to a civilian ship, allegiance unknown. Jellico had supplied the ID transponder registration of the vessel and Leitjen couldn't find any listing with the Federation Security Service or the Federation Bureau of Investigation. And equally troubling, all of these unusual orders were flowing straight from the Fleet Admiral himself and bypassing Starfleet Operations.

All of that worried Leitjen. If anyone knew proper regulations it was Jellico. So why was he throwing the book away on this one?

Leitjen had chosen Commander Arenten th'Arasar as her XO. He'd been a Tactical Officer aboard the Victory and they'd been separated when she commanded the Lighthouse and he'd been Chief Tactical and Chief of Security aboard the Potemkin. Finding he was between assignments, Leitjen pushed his promotion through and requested him as her Exec,

Leitjen had a simple reason for wanting Aren as her First Officer. Aren was something of a strategic genius and Leitjen wasn't. She was a decent tactician but Leitjen's genius lay in delegating. She had an uncanny knack for picking exactly the right person for the right role. And she'd selected Aren for the very specific role of XO.

Aren was an Andorian than and had come under intense scrutiny like all Andorians that remained Federation citizens when the resurgent Andorian Empire seceded from the UFP. But Leitjen had never doubted him even when Internal Affairs conducted a second round of background checks that she was a witness for.

Leitjen joined Aren at his station. He was perusing Macen's official Starfleet record, "I find it contradictory that an analyst would be assigned to lead a shadow operation within a covert division of Starfleet."

"Read between the lines. After 2350 when the Border Wars began, Macen was TDY with Starfleet Security for months at a time. He still filed regular reports but the origin signature stamps on the subspace relays originated within the border regions," Leitjen pointed between the official transcripts, "He also received years worth of 'additional' yet unspecified training with Starfleet Security. My guess, he trained with Special Operations Command. He's very close friends with Commander Elias Vaughn and Vaughn is specified as a frequent collaborator. Which didn't occur after the Special Investigations Division got up and running because Vaughn was the Exec at Deep Space Nine."

"A very public role," Aren agreed, "So Vaughn and Macen served together during Macen's frequent absences. That affinity for the Cardassian border regions would explain why Macen publically resigned from Starfleet when the treaty creating the Demilitarized Zone was signed into effect."

"Yet Admiral Elijah Waters came out of retirement to serve as Macen's hander on an unofficial basis," Leitjen scrolled through the report of Macen's official activities with the Maquis, "This is when Macen met Ro Laren. And they were more than acquaintances. Ro was a fellow soldier in the Maquis' self perceived 'war'. Later, she joined the Bajoran Militia during the Dominion War and she and Macen ran an outfit of behind the lines commandoes comprised of Angosian Augments."

"I recall their presence on DS9," Aren admitted, "They could be...disturbing."

"Which why their home planet wants nothing to do with them," Leitjen stated, "But After the Dominion War Macen was involved in a mission that later became classified at the highest levels. And the director of that mission founded the SID on that mission's merits. She was Admiral Amanda Drake nee Forger. She goes by her maiden name now."

Leitjen guided Aren through the text, "Forger came up through Internal Affairs. She even assigned Prentiss to Macen's team when it was a wholly Starfleet operation. Like Starfleet Intelligence, the SID expanded to include civilian agents and towards the end of its operational life the field staff were almost wholly civilians."

"And is it coincedence that Macen arrived on Earth to retrieve Prentiss?" Aren asked.

"At this point, do you really believe Prentiss is fleeing an investigation into allegations of impropriety?" Leitjen had to ask.

"You believe Prentiss is conducting her own investigation," Aren realized, "Possibly a rogue investigation outside of Starfleet."

"Which also imply Amanda Forger isn't sitting outside of Starfleet looking in but rather with official credentials to look from the inside," Leitjen said.

"Ma'am, we've arrived at the edge of Centauri space," her Bajoran CONN Officer reported.

"Very well, Ensign Pad. Drop us out of war and proceed at three quarters impulse. Make your heading between the binary pair Centauri A and B," Leitjen ordered.

"Captain that's the area of greatest electromagnetic interference," Pad protested.

"Which makes it a good place to hide a starship," Leitjen commented, "Lt. T'Linn find a way to locate the Obsidian through this solar ejection murk. Lt. Starn, prepare to disable the ship without inflicting greater casualties. I want them alive despite what our orders may imply."

Leitjen commed her chief Engineer, "Commander Bellechik, batten down everything and reinforce our radiation shielding."

Sorya Bellechik acknowledged her request and Leitjen moved on to Sickbay, "Dr. Borien, have you unpacked yet?"

"We're still working on it, Captain. So I request you don't hand me casualties for another four or five hours." Borien reported.

"No promises," Leitjen warned him. They'd served together on the Lighthouse and respected one another.

"Interesting first ride out of the barn," Pad remarked.

"Let's hope it just stays interesting and nonlethal," Leitjen replied.

"Captain, long range sensors may have located the vessel," T'Linn reported from OPS, "Records show her to be a standard Nova-class surveyor. The starship in question is orbiting the second planet from Centauri B. But it is within the subspace shock wave region."

"Making long range communications next to impossible," Aren analyzed the choice.

"Or insuring privacy for a little off the books chat," Leitjen guessed.

"Captain we'll have to close to five thousand klicks to secure adequate communications," Starn reported.

"Ensign Pad, make way at full impulse the come alongside their starboard bow and hold position at four thousand kilometers," Leitjen instructed.

"Captain, I'm beginning to feel apprehensive about this scenario," Aren shared.

"They're not trying to hide and they only have forward torpedo launchers which we'll be abreast of. and they have standard Type X phaser rings. So it'll take them a while to punch through our shields," Leitjen reasoned it out, "I truly believe this is an invitation rather than a trap."

"May you be right," Aren intoned.

"Looks like they want to talk after all," Macen mused as the Federation took up position alongside the Obsidian and synchronized their orbit, "Edwin, hail them and have Prentiss standby with Angelique and Bailey."

"Visual communication is down but we have voice messaging," Starn told Leitjen.

"On speakers," Leitjen decided.

"They're on." Starn assured her.

"We're receiving you," Leitjen prompted Macen.

"Captain Leitjen, I can only assume you've been ordered to arrest Commander Prentiss and her two enlisted assistants. I don't want to imagine what the orders state for the rest of us," Macen began explaining, "Commander Prentiss is conducting an investigation on the direct authority of the President herself. But she would like an opportunity to review with you as a neutral third party."

Leitjen was surprised at the gender qualifier applied to the President. Most people had difficulties with the Hermats since they were simultaneously male and female. Their own choices of personal pronouns drove most single sexed beings insane. It had to be similar for Andorians and their four sexes

"Understood, Captain. I look forward to greeting Commander Prentiss aboard my ship," Leitjen stressed making certain it was nonnegotiable.

"To establish the basics, we're transmitting a summary of Commander Prentiss' findings now," Macen promised her.

"We have it," Starn told her.

"Very well, we'll open the docking bay and prepare to receive your support craft," Leitjen offered.

"Captain a new vessel has dropped out of warp ten thousand kilometers distant," T'Linn reported.

"That close? In these subspace wakes?" Aren was astonished.

"Visual," Leitjen couldn't help but gasp at the enormous black hulled starship. The Federation was touted as the largest Federation built starship yet this vessel, unmistakably derived from Federation designs, was four times the size of Leitjen's own command.

"I believe that is the Federation equivalent to the Reman Warbird Scimitar," Aren said dryly.

"She is a predator," Leitjen unconsciously echoed Picard under similar circumstances.

"Captain, they are hailing us utilizing quantum bands that our sensor array is equipped to analyze," T'Linn informed her captain.

"We don't have that technology," Starn sputtered.

"But a subspace message would be impossible even at that distance," Leitjen rationalized it, "Put it on."

A reasonable sounding yet determined voice came on the speakers, "Hello, Captain Leitjen. We've never met but I studied you tactics against the Jem'Hadar over Provos I. Your sense of duty and sacrifice were tangible even off the official reports. I know you're not equipped to reply, so stand by for instructions. You will maneuver away from the Obsidian and clear our line of fire. You will then return to Spacedock and report a successful trial run of your ship's capabilities. We have jurisdiction over these fugitives and you will not interfere in how we dispose of them. After you reach Earth you will receive citations of gallantry regarding how you ran down the dangerous criminals so Federation Security could deal with them. Tomorrow you will successfully conduct your actual trial run and reach Terra Nova."

"I don't think he accidently used the term 'dispose' of the fugitives," Aren remarked.

"Neither do I," Leitjen said grimly.

"They are signaling again," T'Linn informed them.

"Captain Leitjen, let me inform you this is a limited time offer. You either comply or we simply go through you and teh Federation can build a replacement. If you so much as attempt to defend Brin Macen and his SID team or his ship's crew, we will destroy you without hesitation or difficulty. If you attempt to somehow retrieve Commander Prentiss and abscond with her, we will track you down and destroy just as mercilessly as we will these traitors." the voice stated calmly.

"Pad, use thruster to aim us at that monster," Leitjen ordered, "Starn keep shields raised and load quantum torpedoes and arm phasers but don't lock them yet."

"They just locked everything on us. And we don't stand a chance," Starn commented.

"Captain, they've activate ship wide speakers," T'Linn almost sounded alarmed.

"Attention Starfleet crew. You don't have to die for your captain today. I give you ten minutes to signal us with a torpedo off of our starboard bow that a mutiny has been successful., Then you will remove this starship from our way," the voice offered reasonably.

"Captain, the Obsidian just accomplished a data squirt through our firewalls," T'Linn announced.

"Is it a virus?" Leitjen worried.

"It appears to be a compressed file archive," T'Linn assessed the nonexistent threat.

"Call their bluff, Mr. Starn," Leitjen ordered.

"Are you certain it is a bluff?" he asked.

"I rather think it isn't," Leitjen admitted.

"Captain!" T'Linn uncharacteristically yelped, "The Obsidian went to warp 8 and is headed between the Centauri stars."

"Right through the most subspace distortion," Pad remarked.

"Captain, the unknown is breaking off to deal with the Obsidian," Starn was excited.

"Helm, intercept that ship," Leitjen ordered.

"Hells, now they're focused on us again," Starn grumbled.

"This is on you, Captain," the voice coldly proclaimed.

The mysterious ship only locked on with four quantum torpedo launchers and six phaser arrays. Still, the damage to the Federation was crippling. The unknown ship left them behind as it went to circumnavigate the Centauri system and resume the hunt for the Obsidian should it have survived its mad plunge between binary stars.

"Remember, you were helpless and I spared you," the voice spoke one last time.

"God, if I never hear that man's voice again it'll still be too soon," Leitjen decided, "Okay people, let's get this ship running again. Mr. Aren will coordinate all efforts from here and keep your eyes out in case that bastard comes back to gloat some more."

Leitjen went to the turbolift to find it inoperable. Sighing, she accessed the ladder well.

Leitjen took a break from inspecting damages to reading reports about them. The entire ship had suffered. Engineering was on batteries when the fusion reactors that powered the impulse engines brought them back emergency power. In five hours it was estimated they'd have partial main power. At which point they could proceed at warp 5. The summary of complaints for the bio-chemistry labs made Leitjen lose her temper and throw the padd across the room. And then the door to her Ready Room chimed.

It was Aren, "T'Linn has been reviewing the documents Macen sent to us. The summary alone is inflamatory reading but the actual report, primary source documentation, and policy studies Prentiss unearthed at Memory Alpha must have taken her months."

"So what are we dealing with?" Leitjen wearily asked.

"The current President tasked Prentiss at Forger's recommendation to investigate actions that occurred and were ordered by the previous administration," Aren told her.

"So we're still dealing with Bacco?" Leitjen sounded bored, "Is this all just a political witch hunt?"

"It is amusing you phrase it that way. Bacco is directly responsible for the creation of the Typhon Pact," Aren explained.

"She tried to appease them, illegally," Leitjen reminded him.

"After she ordered an act of war upon the Romulans that drove them to create a grand alliance of overwhelming force," Aren stated.

"Bacco ordered a war?" Leitjen wondered why that hadn't been part of her trial.

"Bacco ordered the weapon's deployment on three prominent Romulan agricultural worlds. Thereby threatening a food shortage within the Empire shortly after before Hobus disaster," Aren further explained.

"No wonder the Romulans went batshit crazy," Leitjen finally grasped the importance of it all.

"And the crews involved in the delivery of the weapons are being detained in Orion black site prisons," Aren had to divulge, "Officially, they were MIA in the unspecified actions that led to the ag world famines."

"But how was this kept quiet?" Leitjen had to ask.

"Because if key players within Jellico's inner circle. Jellico ordered the secret mission,, Admiral Starling covered it up, Admiral Gennady supplied everything needed, Admiral Hesh was behind the science of it, and Admiral Kostigan has been the hatchet man," Aren shared.

The heads of Starfleet itself, Strategic Planning, Internal Affairs, Operations, and Research," Leitjen recited it from memory, "But why?"

"Because Bacco reacted out of fear of how the Romulans would respond should the Hobus star supernova and moved to shaping how they'd respond. But that response went far beyond any of her predictive models," Aren analyzed te scenario.

"No wonder the Typhon Pact is pissed at us," Leitjen grasped it at long last.

"And no other signatory to teh Khitomer Accords is aware of what happened either," Aren warned her, "But it's a lightning rod that galvanized the Typhon Pact powers."

"So where do we go?" Leitjen asked, "If Starling gets wind that Macen communicated with us we'll be detained."

"Macen's accomplices were very clever in inserting a compressed file 'microdot' as a visual on a document. When accessed, it expanded itself to reveal a message detailing Macen's plans to travel to Deep Space Three and gather likeminded accomplices," Aren reported.

"Make ready to set course for DS3," Leitjen ordered.

"And Starfleet Command?" Aren wondered.

"I'll inform them we're making record time on the repairs and we'll still be out of commission for another twenty-four hours at least. It'll take them that long to get a tug out here and find we're missing," Leitjen explained.

"So, we're going rogue in a ship blasted halfway to the seven hells?" Aren asked., "Even before our maiden voyage?"

"We're making certain anyone actually guilty stands trial for it," Leitjen promised.

"I'll make a note of it in my log," Aren smiled as he departed.

Several hours after they were underway, T'Linn requested admittance to see the captain, "Captain, Commander Macen transferred over an additional document that had to be specifically unlocked by you."

"Don't you mean 'Captain' Macen?" Leitjen was amused.

"Negative. Starfleet has covertly reactivated his commission in order to more effectively court martial him with maximum severity," T'Linn explained, "But Commander Macen managed to insert the identity of our mysterious attackers based on voice recognition files."

"Of course, the quantum signal was received by the Obsidian as well," Leitjen realized.

"Here he is," T'Linn handed her a padd with a Starfleet officer pictured, "I assumed it was only logical to unlock the file for you."

"Commander Jack Fowler of Starfleet Security," Leitjen noted.

"Keep scrolling," T'Linn insisted.

"Commander Jack Fowler of Starfleet Special Operations Command. And Commander Jack Fowler of Starfleet Intelligence," Lietjen was wondering how this was possible, "Commander Jack Fowler of Internal Affairs. Agent Jack Fowler of the Federation Security Service and Special Agent Jack Fowler of the Federation Bureau of Investigation. Boy gets around when he isn't blowing starships to hell and back again. I wonder why they never listed him as a 'Captain'."

"Precisely" T'Linn was pleased she had such a firm grasp on the situation, "Officers attaining the rank of 'Captain' or flag rank are highly scrutinized by adversarial agencies and fleets."

"Meaning Fowler gets maximum representation within the Federation while avoiding unwanted attention outside of it," Leitjen fully comprehended now, "Whos is that sneaky and with that kind of influence?"

"Such entities only exist within myth and rumor," T'Linn tried to convince herself.

 

Chapter 5

The Federation arrived at Deep Space Three three days after the incident at Alpha Centauri. Leitjen was summoned the bridge upon arrival, "Status?"

"The Obsidian is docked with the station and two other ships are on station," Aren reported.

"Have we identified the Ambassador- and Steamrunner-class ships?" Leitjen asked.

"The USS Triumphant is the older ship and is Captain Saavik's first and only command," Aren shared, "The ship class of course has had an extended life thanks to the losses suffered to the Argyn. The Sternwheeler is assigned to the station as one part defender and one part patrol craft."

"Starn, are there any signs of our attacker?" Leitjen asked.

"Negative, Captain. Scopes are clear," Starn answered.

"Of course, our sensors are exceptionally limited just now," T'Linn warned her captain.

"Has anyone ever accused you of being a ray of sunshine?" Leitjen asked.

"No," T'Linn replied.

"There's a reason," Leitjen observed.

"Captain, we're receiving a text message," Starn reported.

"To my station," Leitjen sat down and perused the message on her screen, "CONN, take us within transporter range."

That placed the damaged starship within DS3's defensive envelope. Captain Reyes was expecting trouble, his crew having restored him to command. As the ship was maneuvered into position, the Hood, the Monitor, and the Merrimack arrived. The Galaxy-class starship supported a fighter wing. The two Defiant-class escorts were dedicated warships. All three were permanently assigned to Starfleet Intelligence.

It spoke volumes to the Federation crew which side Nechayev had chosen. After they took up positions around the starbase, the commanding officers of each ship were summoned to a conference aboard the station. First Officers would remain with their ships in case of an attack.

In the conference room, Reyes represented the station. Saavik stood for the Triumphant. Leitjen represented her own command. Barret was there for the Sternwheeler. Samuel Fox was now CO of the Hood. Alec Prine still commanded the Merrimack. Amelia Hunt was the newly assigned captain of the Monitor. The previous commanding officer and crew had resigned from Starfleet to transfer to the Bajoran Militia.

Fox, Hunt, and Prine were working partners but they didn't completely trust in each other yet. But Hunt's background in Special Operations Command made her a tactical asset but her strategic skills were still in question.

Reyes called the meeting to order, "Macen has shown us his sensor footage of the ship that attacked the Federation. I have asked Captain Leitjen to fill in the blanks after we review the data at hand."

After Leitjen commented on her crews' experience, "We know who commands that monstrosity but we have no idea of who built it or for who."

Hunt scowled, "I worked with Jack Fowler. He's a hard ass but he's a patriot."

"Can you explain why he has multiple personnel jackets from multiple divisions and agencies?" Leitjen inquired.

Reyes summoned Macen, "Captain Macen has an explanation."

"You've stumbled across one of Starfleet's deepest secrets. A secret security organization called Section 31. They answer to no one and obey no laws," Macen told them, "You've met a splinter of Section 31 when you faced Cell 51."

"Anyone have an idea of how to combat a ship like this?" Fox asked.

"It's like fighting the damn Borg," Prine shuddered.

"An apt description," Barret agreed.

"But there are several logical ways to undermine its offensive and defensive capabilities," Saavik spoke.

Every commander listened sharply.

Jack Fowler's command was registered to no one as the Tribulation. Edward Fowler had named the starship and proclaimed it a "judgment from God". But unlike Macen, the elder Fowler didn't believe in a monotheistic triune deity. Or know that such being existed at all.

After the captain's conference aboard DS3 broke apart and the COs returned to their individual commands, a quantum slipstream tunnel delivered the Tribulation to their midst four hours after the various starships deployed.

The Obsidian remained in the inner solar system close to the starbase. Then the Tribulation triggered the outer system sensor buoys. With exception of Macen's surveyor, the other starships converged on Deep Space Three while the Section 31 dreadnought plowed through the outer system at maximum impulse.

Jack Fowler had expected Macen to try and gather allies but the sight of the Triumphant amongst them made his blood chill. Captain Saavik was a national hero dating back to her midshipman cruise where she'd faced Khan Noonien Singh. Her first assignment out of the Academy had been to survey the Genesis Planet.

Saavik had taken a year's leave afterwards. Some records indicated it was for medical reasons. But one year later, Saavik was back on duty and assigned as Science Officer aboard the USS Robust. And her record was exemplary. And she'd been fast tracked for command, receiving it in the shape of the Triumphant. Her unusual Vulcan-Romulan heritage made her invaluable on the Romulan Neutral Zone patrol where Saavik had aided an abetted dozens of defections and inserted a dozen agents into the Romulan Star Empire.

Bowing to Saavik's preferences, Starfleet Operations had delayed the decommissioning of her starship until such time as the Argyn made recommissioning all of the retired Ambassador-class ships. But the ships had all undergone extensive modernization refits. And the Triumphant had topped the docks' list.

But while Fowler was rattled by Saavik's presence, he was equally committed to killing a Starfleet legend if he had to. Fowler watched with amusement as DS3 and the Hood launched fighter wings. Standard Peregrine-class attack fighter were a feeble match against the wrath of the Tribulation. Despite Verity Jones' reputation as CAG of the Hood's squadron.

"Slow to one quarter impulse and prepare for a full stop. These idiots are going to try and talk us to death. But we'll be in position to use our thrusters to gain us maximum targeting advantages. And it'll be a target rich environment," Fowler jovially announced to the crowd on the bridge.

"Deputy Director Fowler, may I remind you that engaging Starfleet is in direct contradiction to our orders from Agency Director Fowler?" Sekona asked.

Fowler scowled. The damn former Maquis was proving to be a hindrance in establishing Section 31's dominance over the Federation. Her insights into Macen were valuable but not invaluable. Hakatay was much more pliable and knew when to keep his fool mouth shut.

"I have operational authority as befits my role as Deputy Director of Operations," Fowler said disdainfully, "And we had this discussion already before we engaged the Federation."

"A fitting metaphor it would seem," Sekona retorted, "A veritable 'shot heard around the quadrant'."

Fowler was suddenly glad that for all its immense size an d crew capacity there were only twelve Section 3 agents aboard. He'd have to execute her for her continued insubordination otherwise to make an example for the others. Fowler decided to shut the discussion down with an air of finality.

"Do I have to relieve you of your post and confine you to the brig?" Fowler inquired sharply.

"That would be illogical since there is no brig," Sekona replied.

"I'll get creative with an airlock," Fowler threatened.

"Yet it has proven unnecessary as of yet," Sekona told him.

"It may come to it, Agent Sekona," Fowler wasn't through threatening yet, "Now hail Reyes."

Sekona patched Fowler into DS3's Ops Center, "You are on visual."

"Attention, Captain Reyes. This is the commander of the USS Tribulation. I have orders towards the arrest and detention of Captain Macen, the crew, and passengers of the SS Obsidian. You will surrender them to me within the next five minutes or you will face deadly force in light of your treason."

"And we both well know that your monster ship isn't a Starfleet vessel anymore than you're a Starfleet officer anymore, Agent Fowler. We've secured Captain Macen as per the Admiralty's orders derived from Starfleet we just haven't surrendered them until we can fully interrogate everyone involved," Reyes replied.

"You will cease and desist any and all inquiries into this matter on the personal authority of Fleet Admiral Jellico," Fowler shouted.

"Or rather the personal authority of Section 31 Director Edward Fowler. Your father, I believe," Reyes stated, "We will not be transferring prisoners or personnel to a renegade agency with no authority under the legal codes of Federation law and Starfleet regulations."

"The you've forced my hand, Captain," Fowler promised. He made a cutting motion and the connection ceased, "Lock all weapons onto the station and every ship between us and them. I want them destroyed. We'll blame the Romulans afterwards an added excuse to use our zenite weapons against the entire Typhon Pact."

"Director, that defies not only the spirit of our orders but the very wording as well," Sekona protested.

"Secure her in an airlock!" Fowler snapped at Hakatay, "We'll jettison her t o space after we destroy everyone."

Hakatay looked wounded at having to sentence his long time friend and fellow soldier to death,. But he complied.

The pre-refit Constitution-class NCC-1672 USS Exeter slipped into orbit behind Mudd's ship over Nimbus III. Senior Section 31 Agent Sarina Douglas made the observation, "That is unmistakably Mudd's ship."

"Bor-ring," Eden Smith complained, "Let's blow it apart and bombard the populace. No one will miss them."

"The Director of Operations wants the Ardanan dead and Mudd unscathed," Douglas pulled Robert Roy's rank, "Roy and Director Fowler feel Mudd's disappearance or death would create alarm amongst criminal organizations we don't want aware of our infiltrations just yet."

"And reports from the surface indicated she has Tony Burrows with her," Seamus Butler added to the conversation.

Smith continued her litany of complaints, "And why are we in this museum piece? Section 31 could have at least commandeered the Ambassador-class Exeter-A. At least it was built in this same century."

"This ship is presumed lost," Captain Rodansky reminded her guests, "When it was derelict over Omega IV, the biological agent that killed the crew was rendered inert by the time the Enterprise found her. Irrational fears amongst starship crews kept anyone from serving aboard afterwards. So the hull was decommissioned to be taken to the fleet bone yard at Terra Nova. Section 31 intercepted her and the skeleton crew reported her destruction. Since that time she'd served the agency well."

"So it literally is a ghost ship," Smith snickered.

"And this ghost can lay waste to Nimbus III if it's deemed necessary," Douglas promised Smith, "But not until then. We're here to perform surgery not bludgeon the populace."

"We're here to be invisible," Butler reminded Smith, "The Rutherford crew might have been debauchers but they thoroughly examined Mudd's ship. We have the edge but she'll put up a fight."

"Yeah, and they're my kinda debauchers," Smith almost swooned with lust.

Douglas reminded Smith's antics on Safehold all too well, "Put your sex drive on hold. We still have a mission here."

"Where do we start looking?" Butler wondered.

"Paradise City, where else?" Smith groaned, "Everything else is desert and sustenance farms."

"You've been here before," Butler deduced.

"Just long enough to realize the only high note is all the lonely, bored soldiers looking for a good time," Smith wore a lascivious grin, "The raunchier the better."

Douglas stifled a groan. Smith's libido was legendary. Matched only by her fellow agent, Colin Riley. But Riley and Smith together were a warp core breach in progress. Which was why Riley was with Jack Fowler and not at Nimbus III. But he had a tendency to egg Fowler on and Jack was unstable on his own.

"Fowler, the Starfleet ships are maneuvering around in such a way that they always clear each other's forward and aft lines of sight," Riley reported from Tactical, "Each ship always has a clear shot at us as they make their passes and come about to bear on us again,"

"Persuade them otherwise," Fowler ordered, "Bring all weapons to bear on the station. That will reprioritize them into defending a stationary target by putting themselves in harm's way."

"Jack, this Starfleet we're talking about. They aren't the enemy," Senior Agent Li Kang told Fowler. Li Kang was the veteran agent assigned as Jack Fowler's second-in-command.

"They became the enemy when they chose to oppose us. Section 31 s now the short swift sword of justice in the Federation," Fowler opined, "Starfleet has done nothing to defend us since they lost their nerve in the Dominion War. These dregs need to be carved out of the carcass to preserve what little spine Starfleet still has."

Li had heard these arguments from Fowler before. And he recognized how flawed they truly were. Starfleet had sacrificed itself against the Borg, the Argyn, and the Iridians in recent years. the Federation wouldn't have survived without the crews and the courage they displayed. It was agents like Jack Fowler that owed their lives to Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel. And Li knew Edward Fowler agreed with that supposition. But the elder Fowler was blinded by a patriarchal loyalty to his offspring.

Ever since Cell 51 had divided the Federation on itself and nearly created a civil war intended to purge the Federation of its weakest members, a cadre of Section 31 agents had held true to Cell 51's vision of the Federation. Officially, Jack Fowler had never served with Cell 51. But unofficially, he was a veritable spokesperson for their political platform.

"Just be certain you don't turn this against us or Jellico," Li warned Fowler, "Even blaming this on the Romulan wil fail. You destroy a starbase and starships to go with it and too many people will know what really happened. Starling can't make the entire Starfleet disappear into Orion prisons."

"But we can ensure there are no witnesses left alive," Fowler was getting manic now.

"Jack, Bacco took the fall and so will Jellico if this goes south. But not every Starfleet admiral will fall on their own sword," Li warned Fowler.

"Then we run them through ," Fowler was too excited by the prospects of destroying Starfleet in repayment for imprisoning him on Jaros II.

Fowler wheeled on Riley, "How are our goddamned firing solutions coming?"

"It could be better. The ship has the capacity to volley shots in every direction but the targeting computers can only focus on a narrow number of targets at a time. We can target twenty-four individual targets but our launchers can only handle half that load per volley. And the fighters are e only confusing the situation," Riley reported.

"Then obey my orders and destroy that space station," Fowler growled, "Now!"

"Jack, there are over two thousand civilians aboard that starbase," Li was aghast.

"Helluva day to be at the wrong place at the right time," Fowler sneered.

"Captain, the enemy vessel is targeting us with everything they have," Commander Lisa Neeley reported as the station shook from the kinetic impacts from the explosive yield of the photon torpedoes and the energy dissipation of the phasers through the shield projectors.

Reyes knew Neeley was a veteran of the Deep Space Nine and the Dominion War. Lt. Neeley had served aboard the ill fated mission led by Benjamin Sisko aboard a captured Jem'Hadar fighter. Neeley had been among the survivors to be temporarily marooned on a planet located within a nebula.

She'd returned to DS9 to complete a second eighteen month rotation under the supervision of then-Bajoran Militia Lt. Ro Laren, the station's newly appointed Chief of Security. Neeley went to serve aboard several starships and a second starbase before achieving the rank of Commander and being selected by Reyes to be his Chief Tactical Officer and Chief of Security.

But during several close calls, Reyes had never seen Neeley rattled or spooked. And this was no exception, "Suggestions, Commander."

"We need everyone to draw off that ship and pound away at it until its crippled," Neeley stated, "Captain Saavik's initial plan was workable but it fails in the long term. I suggest we have Svella concentrate every fighter on disabling forward weapons systems while the starships and the Hood's fighter wing cripple the drive and power systems."

Reyes knew Lt. Tearsvella zh'Rhoren would be more than happy to direct her fighters right down the Tribulation's throat. Reyes had another addition for the plan as Lt. JG Kristin Sorensen began calling out damage assessments and they were rapidly mounting. Casualties would be coming any second now.

"Contact Captain Barrett. I need the Sternwheeler to run interference between us and that starship," Reyes instructed, "Give Barrett my personal regards."

Neeley knew, as Barrett would as well, that it was a suicide mission, "Understood."

"God help s all," Reyes muttered as he went back to the strategic display board and helped redirect the defenders against the attacker. Reyes just wished he would've had time to contact Ro for potentially one last time.

"It's a damned suicide run," Commander Magus 4 understood all too well coming from Eminiar VII.

"Magus, there are over twenty four hundred civilians trapped on DS3 not counting the twelve hundred Starfleet officers. Starfleet volunteered to risk their lives. The civvies haven't. It's our role to slow the Tribulation down long enough for Reyes and the others to dope out a weakness in that monster." Barrett explained then he began issuing orders, "Ensign Parsons, ram us down that beast's gullet. Lt. Kiv, sync our sensors in with the station's so our fellow crews can learn something that hopefully kills this beast. Helix, throw everything we have at that ship. Transfer torpedoes from the aft launcher to the fore launchers if you have to. Devorious, let helm have a ten second impulse burn before rerouting all power except artificial gravity, sensors, and ECM thrusters to the defensive systems."

"What about Sickbay and life support?" the engineer asked.

"My orders stand," Barrett informed him.

"It's been an honor to serve," the engineer understood his instructions.

"Same here, Strat," Barret acknowledged.

Leitjen's crew was discovering just how armor plated the the Tribulation truly was. Starn grumbled as phasers and quantum torpedoes gauged the three meters of duranium plating but didn't penetrate, "Captain, this beastie has more armor than most Class-D dwarf planetoids."

"We can't let up, Starn. Reyes just ordered the Sternwheeler to act as a shield for the station. We have to draw their fire away before the crew gets demolished," Leitjen informed him.

"It's suicide," Pad realized from her post at CONN.

"It is logical," T'Linn was dispassionate, "To sacrifice a few to save many is equitable."

Aren looked stricken, "Susanna, Grev is playing it on the QT but we have fewer than fifty quantum warheads left."

"We'll ram them if we have to," Leitjen announced loud enough to be heard across the bridge.

"Do not grow complacent, Ensign Silvar," Saavik warned her Efrosian helmsman, "When the Tribulation turns its full wrath upon the station it will be cataclysmic."

The Triumphant's XO, T'Ryl, studied her sensors, "There is a minor power fluctuation developing in their aft shields. It appears they are intermittingly drawing power from that quarter to fully defend other portions of the ship."

Saavik wished she could express the pride she felt in T'Ryl at that moment. When she had assisted the regenerating Spock with his first Ponn Farr, she had conceived. After birthing T'Ryl she placed the child in an orphanage where she was secretly acknowledged by Sarek and Amanda but never publically because Spock didn't know he was a father. And he never inquired of Saavik as to why she took a year's leave from Starfleet.

And now Spock would never know thanks to the Hobus supernova. And Saavik herself had never confided in T'Ryl. And she employed the obscuration regarding T'Ryl's lineage to request her as her first officer. A truth Saavik would never share with T'Ryl so long as they served together.

Sam Fox was the newly installed CO of the Hood. He'd previously commanded an Oberth-class surveillance vessel for Starfleet Intelligence. When Merry Limerick retired, most of the senior officers transferred to new postings. Cyndella Harris had been 2nd Officer aboard the Prometheus before accepting the role of XO aboard the Hood. The fighter wing CAG was the only holdover from the Limerick days. Verity Jones' loyalties were to her pilots and then Starfleet and finally the Federation in that order. While most of the crew was composed of seasoned professionals, they hadn't found their footing with each other just yet. Which accounted for Fox's summation of their recent performance on other missions as "subpar".

Fox was a patient commanding officer but if that crew were to continue in its designated role as a crisis extinguisher they needed to make drastic improvements. Something which the desperation of their current crisis seemed to be accomplishing. Fox they just lived long enough to replicate their newfound successes.

"Captain, their shields are weakening but analysis indicates we'll run out of photon torpedoes before we penetrate their armor," Lt. Commander Illustrious Shan reported.

"Any chance of augmenting a photon's yield?" Fox asked his Tactical chieftain.

"Of course but they all require time we don't have," Shan told him.

"I could put us in harm's way," Ensign Sanders volunteered from her post at CONN.

"It may come to that but it's Reyes' call," Fox turned to Harris, "Signal Jones. Have Rascal Squadron take out that under saucer torpedo turret. That will ease off the attack on the Sternwheeler somewhat."

Harris got busy.

Rascal Lead got her orders. Jones had already lost a third of her squadron and they were all perilously low on microtorpedoes. And it seemed the rest of the squadron would be delivering their remaining payloads. Such was the life of a Starfleet fighter pilot.

Then-Lt. Verity Jones had become the Hood's CAG on Limerick's insistence. And he'd always allowed her to lead from the from the front. A decision Fox was rescinding as soon as this mission ended. If she survived or if she even had a squadron left to lead.

"Rascal Flight form up on me," Commander Jones ordered, "We're going for the primary torpedo turret."

clicks in her ear signaled the squadron's acknowledgement. Jones counted them off and every survivor would comply. She was determined to tear the Tribulation apart one weapons mount at a time if need be.

Hunt had been too aggressive an the Monitor had just restored full power. Seeing Reyes' orders she ordered her CONN Officer to swing in front of the offending starship and the Monitor would escort the fighters in. Her pulse phasers and quantum torpedoes penetrating the rapidly collapsing shields as she did so.

The last of the station's fighter wing died brilliant deaths as the Tribulation tried to push past them and through the Sternwheeler to destroy Deep Space Three. Hunt was sworn to preventing that from happening. So after Rascal Flight laid their barrage, the Monitor would pick up the slack.

Prine was inspired by Hunt to maneuver the Merrimack between the Tribulation and the crippled Sternwheeler. At this point it was an all or nothing venture for Starfleet But lives would be saved today or Section 31 would have the entire quadrant hunting them to the ground.

While the battle for DS3 raged, the Obsidian had skirted the outer system to come up behind the Tribulation. at the Triumphant's signal, the surveyor moved in to collapsed the starship's aft shields. With the shields down, Kerber and Smith infiltrated Section 31's computers and initialized a systems wide diagnostic. This shut down the defensive systems.

Macen led a party that Telrik beamed aboard the voluminous shuttle bay. from there, the group split into three smaller units. Macen led Kerber, Smith, and Ebert to draw the enemy's attention. Rockford led her investigators towards the bridge. Parva and Daggit would secure Engineering and shut the warp core down.

Daggit dealt with the three Section 31 engineers while Parva studied the design. When Daggit, he found his wife enviously drooling over the equipment, "This is incredible."

He'd never heard her so reverent before. She was ready to sacrifice a bull to the warp core. So he asked why.

"This is essentially five separate yet linked warp cores. The primary is surrounded by four secondaries but only is required to maintain the ship's systems. It's no wonder this thing has power to spare. The primary core produces enough output to power a planetary grid."

"What about the fusion reactors tied to the impulse engines?" Daggit asked.

"There are no less than eight reactors. Two powering primary systems and redundancies and six on standby," Parva admired, "It's so elegant."

"Do they really need all eight?" Daggit sounded pained. It was his job to sabotage it all.

"Think of the fusion core of a Nor-class space station. It's made up of eight reactors but essential systems just need one to operate," Parva broke it down into simpler terminology.

"So it'll make a really big boom when we blow it," Daggit surmised.

Parva was agahst, "You don't destroy a work of art like this."

"It's killing people and it's intended to kill a lot more," Daggit doused her dream of keeping it.

"Would you settle for completely disabling it?" Parva whined.

"If I have to," Daggit relented.

"The design seemed to require all three engineers to enable to a shutdown. But I can get us past that," Parva promised.

"And it'll be a complete shutdown?" Daggit wanted to be certain.

"Everything but the batteries and those will primarily feed life support, gravity, and emergency force fields," Parva explained, "It will also power thrusters and may even give them a phaser burst or two."

"I won't complain if you don't," Daggit conceded.

"All right. Let me explain your part in this…" Parva began.

Rockford's team ran into the bulk of the Section 31 roving security force. Lee was holding his own. Shade was valiantly pinning S31 agents down. But Forte was a lost cause with a phaser even set to stun. So Rockford intended to make so much noise she drew the entire ship's complement towards them.

Smith sniped off two agents and was about to kill Hakatay and Sekona when Macen stopped her, "They're friends. Or at least they used to be."

Hakatay gladly surrendered his weapon, "We can get you onto the bridge."

"Why would you do that?" Macen asked.

"Because we were never terrorists despite how the Federation labeled us," Sekona answered, "It is illogical to choose that role for ourselves now."

"I think he's wondering why we're with Section 31 at all," Hakatay clarified.

"To safeguard the Federation's security and freedoms," Sekona obviously thought the answer was obvious to anyone who put thought to it, "Why else?"

"Why else indeed," Macen hated that he understood the fear behind the rationale, "Just get us to the bridge. We can discuss your future afterwards."

Fowler was alone on the bridge with Dorian Collins. Li had taken Riley to reinforce the team confronting Rockford. Sekona's access had already been taken from her but Hakatay keyed the security code to access the bridge. Macen and Ebert secured Fowler with a stun blast. Collins confronted Kerber, Smith, Sekona, and Hakatay, "You'll die before you stand trial."

"It is illogical to protect Federation citizens by endangering them," Sekona said coldly.

Smith backed Collins away from his station at phaser point. Hakatay assumed command while Sekona disabled the weapons systems. Kerber was busy with internal sensors and security, "I've secured the rest fo the Section 31 agents behind force fields and I'm gassing them to keep them quiet."

"Sekona, patch me into DS3," Hakatay requested.

"You have a channel," she informed him.

"Tribulation to DS3 command, we surrender. I repeat we surrender. We're shutting down all nonvital systems and securing to be boarded by security teams," Hakatay pledged.

"Captain Reyes, this is Macen. I can confirm," he promised.

"Captain Macen, DS3 has launched several runabouts and they intended to board," Sekona reported, "The surrounding starships are deploying to secure the system and to begin rescue operations towards the crippled Sternwheeler and Merrimack."

"Signal Reyes and tell him his runabouts are cleared to proceed and land. God knows the shuttle bay is big enough to accommodate them," Macen instructed, "Chief Collins. So good to reaquiant with you. Tell Ms. Smith how to clear any and all obstacles towards data retrieval."

"I don't require her assistance," Smith felt insulted.

"Bailey, we still have friends on Nimbus III. I rather doubt Section 31 will ignore that fact. And it's obvious they have someone aboard the Obsidian," Macen told her.

"On it," Smith pledged. She owed Mudd and Zazza that much. Burrows was expendable.

Neeley reported to Macen and Rockford and her investigative team joined Kerber and Smith's inquiries into Section 31's operations. Two of Neeley's men marched off Dorian Collins and four more took custody of Fowler after reviving him. He raved about automated self destructs as he was forcibly removed from the bridge.

Ebert ran the ship while Parva and Daggit restored auxiliary power. Neeley's security details rounded up the S31 agents and took them to DS3's waiting detention cells. Neeley herself would commandeer one of the Tribulation's shuttles to return but first she wanted to confer with Macen.

Rockford ran the investigation while the Chief of Station Security probed Macen's intentions regarding Sekona and Hakatay. She made it abundantly clear she was uncomfortable with their continuing freedom even under armed escort. And Macen had a succinct reply.

"Commander, these people gave us the win we're currently enjoying. Sekona and Hakatay got us onto the bridge before Fowler could bring everything to bear on the station you protect. I have no doubts that even with main power down Fowler had the capability to launch a last ditch assault," he told her in no uncertain terms.

"He is quite correct, Commander Neeley," Sekona informed her from where she'd eavesdropped across the length of the bridge.

"Damn Vulcan ears," Neeley said knowing full well Sekona could hear her, "Captain Ro spoke fondly of you when we served together. She also pointed out you were a royal pain in the ass."

"Well, she should know," Macen said warmly, And she's the best judge of character I've ever met. I understand she recommended you to replace her as Chief of Security when she was bumped up to the XO slot."

"How do you replace an infamous legend?" Neeley asked, "You simply don't."

"Jefferson Blackmer seems to have made the position his very own," Macen reminded her.

"Blackmer never served under Ro before," Neely argued.

"Everyone copes in their own way. You did it by transferring," Macen allowed, "Just don't resort to killing spouses."

"What?" Neeley blurted.

"Never mind. Long stories," Macen waved it away, "Shall we return to the business at hand?"

Neeley was suddenly grateful to.

Mudd had awoken aboard the Freehold to find the Exeter in orbit. And since her cabin was shielded, they hadn't realized she was aboard or she would have awoken to find a security detail poised to kill her. And it didn't take much to fathom who would place a museum piece in orbit behind her ship.

Starfleet had been forced to mothball the Exeter rather than refit her in the mid- to late-23rd century. And pirates had stolen it and many other 23rd century Starfleet vessels to sell to developing worlds in the 2360s and the Iotians had profited by arming those vessels and maintaining them. The Maquis had joined in too late to acquire any Constitution-class vessels but they had taken one Asia-class as we well as two others.

It had been a success story for the Bajoran pirates and their clients...except for the Maquis. One crew had escaped from the Cardassians to trade in their Emberton-class merchantman for a elderly starship. The all-female crew unanimously decided to trade the freighter, optimized for smuggling, for the NV-26 Saratoga. The entire class had been retired by Starfleet ten years after the signing of the Federation Charter and the Federation Starfleet was incorporated.

After the Jem'Hadar wiped out the Maquis wholesale, the crew and the Saratoga sailed for the far reaches of the frontier whereupon they committed acts of piracy against Cardassian shipping. And eventually began looting Federation shipping as well until Starfleet pushed the ship and crew further into Iotian space. And there, Captain Joelle Jones and crew enlisted in the Iotian Starfleet. There, their criminal bent made them prominent within the ranks and fast tracked for a newer class of starship being built.

But Jones and the ladies owed Mudd a favor and Mudd intended to collect since they were close to Sigma Iotia II anyway. The Freehold's automatic sensors detected Douglas, Smith, and Butler transporting to the surface. Mudd signaled Burrows and gave the panic call sign before beaming herself down as well.

The crew of the Exeter was startled as a Constitution- refit-class starship dropped out of warp nearly atop of them. And the Iotian Starfleet vessel registered as the Freebooter kindly informed the Exeter they would be escorting the captain and her ship out of the system or they would open fire.

The Section 31 CO had a very heated discussion with Douglas.

Mudd beamed down to Burrow's locale but not his location. Douglas and her team of agents were nearly atop of Burrows and Zazza and a transporter would have attracted attention and pinpointed Burrows' locations. Mudd dragged the pair out of their overpriced lodgings and managed to find what appeared to be a hostel.

"Please, I need an hour with this man or I'll simply die," Mudd vamped it up for the proprietor.

"And the old woman?" he asked.

"She records everything for my very private collection," Mudd told him, "I'll give you a copy in exchange for the room rental"

"Upstairs. Room six," the man was atwitter with anticipation. As they headed up, he desperately called out, "You won't forget me?"

"How could I? You're making my wet dreams come true," Mudd disdainfully called down.

"How do you do that?" Burrows asked.

"Use the mark or size them up?" Mudd asked.

"Both, actually," Burrows confessed.

"Lots of practice for the latter combined with given talent and the former is just family upbringing. My dad had me running confidence games by the time I was nine," Mudd explained to him.

"We're not seriously going to film…?" Burrows wondered.

"Puh-lease, I prefer vertebrates," Mudd chuckled.

"Burrows wasn't certain he should feel grateful or insulted. And he assumed he should feel both, "If you planning to leave the planet I'm assuming they have a ship in orbit."

"Parked right behind mine. Which pisses me off," Mudd shared, "But they'll have a hard time getting past our escort."

"You arranged an escort?" Burrows didn't believe it.

"I have friends in this region of space," Mudd promised.

Burrows just stared at her. Mudd was irritated, "I do have friends, y'know."

"Actually I didn't," he confessed.

"Whatever," she got everyone to the roof and hit her comm badge and signaled a transport.

Which Douglas was in range to detect, "They left the planet. Contact the Exeter and have us transported aboard."

Mudd raced to the Freehold's cockpit and shoved Burrows into an aux station, "Man the weapons, stud."

She went to maximum impulse without warming up to it and the engines barely protested. Burrows was amazed, "Starfleet should have one of these."

"Starfleet can't afford it," Mudd warned him.

"Just how much latinum have you stolen?" Burrows asked.

"I own my own moon but terraforming ii a bitch," Mudd told him, "But I almost have the atmospheric processors paid for."

"Our pursuers must be aboard because that relic is chasing us," Burrows advised her.

"Wanting to, you mean," Mudd snorted.

A blue torpedo sailed past them, "Jesus! A Mark IV torp."

"They missed on purpose. I have an aft torpedo in the tube that will give them something to think about next time," Mudd told him.

"Got it," Burrows studied his displays, "You know how illegal this equipment is?"

"I have a fairly decent idea," Mudd shared, "But I paid a now retired enlisted archivist to forge exemption waivers."

"I am so not hearing this right now," Burrows complained.

"Just fire the damn torpedo!" Mudd angrily yelled at him.

The first shot his the Exeter's torpedo launcher. Burrows congratulated himself, "Now that's elegance.

"Not bad. Their shields are down twenty-three percent and the torpedo room should be disabled for at least ten minutes," Mudd analyzed her sensor read outs.

"Holy God!" Burrows shouted, "Your friends just micro jumped into subspace and back out to interpose themselves between us and the Section 31 vessel."

"That's my girls," Mudd said proudly.

"The Exeter barely evaded the new ship and it's already coming about," Burrows read off.

"Tony Burrows meet the former crew of the Maquis vessel Waylaid that traded in for the Earth Starfleet starship Saratoga before they finally joined the Iotian Starfleet," Mudd recited their credentials.

"So they're pirates," Burrows said distastefully.

"Such a dirty word," Mudd scolded him, "See if you can eavesdrop. They should be on general channels."

"Attention Exeter command, you will cease pursuing the Freehold or we will be forced to engage you," Joelle Jones informed them.

"That's Joelle Jones herself," Mudd grinned.

"Hail Freebooter command, you are impeding in a lawful Federation pursuit of wanted fugitives. If you engage us without jurisdiction, of which you have none, you will be committing a gross act of war," Douglas responded.

"I can only imagine what Captain Mudd is up to but if you were legit you'd be in a real ship. So I'm going to call 'bullshit' on you and call your bluff. Just to warn you though, Harri is an honorary member of this crew and will be defended as such. You harm her and I will hurl the wrath of the gods themselves down upon you." Jones replied.

"What did she mean by that?" Burrows asked.

"Shhh," Mudd chided him, "It's about to get good."

"Please stand advised we cannot break of pursuit for any reason," Douglas warned Jones.

"Look honey, you're obvious inexperienced at this sort of thing. Your people sent you out in a relic that should be scrap metal by now. This starship seems only marginally more advanced but we're incorporating turn of the century armaments and ordnance as well as defensive capabilities and shields. In other words, it'll be painful at first but I will blow you to hell and back. And then I'll eat breakfast without a qualm," Jones advised Douglas.

There was a protracted silence before Douglas replied, "Very well, we'll stand down for now. But you can't always protect her."

"And when you're stupid enough to confront Harri Mudd, she will rip you a new one so wide you'll be able to park a dwarf planet in the hole," Jones promised.

The Exeter changed course and went to warp. Jones' voice was heard again, "Harri, I know you were listening in 'cause I'd do the same. The Iotia Federation became a Typhon Pact signatory this morning. I'm awaiting my new orders."

"Thanks all the help, Joelle. We can take it from here," Mudd promised.

"Harri, we saw you this far. The girls would kill me if we don't get you back to the barn," Jones advised Mudd.

"The set course for Deep Space Three and make ready for Warp 5," Mudd informed her.

"We stand advised and will make way at your order," Jones acknowledged.

"And that's what it's like to have friends," Mudd scolded Burrows as she gave the signal and got underway herself.

 

Chapter 6

The Hood assumed the Sternwheeler's sector patrol duties despite its depleted fighter wing. The Sternwheeler, along with the Federation, the Monitor and the Merrimack all began repairs at Deep Space Three. The Obsidian guarded the Tribulation as the Triumphant returned to her border patrol duties.

While the SID team delved into the Tribulation's secrets with Sekona and Hakatay's assistance. The Obsidian's engineering and scientific divisions assisted in these explorations. Kovic also posted a four person security detail. Leitjen, Hunt, and Prine also rotated four man security teams aboard the ship as well as reinforcing Neeley's security staff guarding the Section 31 prisoners.

Macen and Rockford led the exploration as the investigative team sifted through the raw data Kerber and Smith unlocked. Macen primarily poured over the summaries and asked for details as needed. He brought Prentiss into the investigation since she'd begun it to begin with.

Macen was surprised when his comm badge interrupted him, "Macen here."

"Brin, your prodigal just arrived in the company of an Iotian starship. One of their newer Constitution-class analogues. Burrows and Zazza beamed aboard the Obsidian but afterwards the Iotian ship transferred something to Mudd," Reyes sounded weary, "The Iotians joined the Typhon Pact some twenty hours ago. So if Mudd is trafficking in contraband, I need to confiscate it."

"Alfonso, Harri Mudd only loosely works with me, not for me," Macen warned him.

"Brin, this is still Federation controlled space," Reyes grew more insistent.

"I'll deal with it," Macen sighed.

Macen waited for his badge to cycle down before tapping it again, "Macen to Obsidian transporter. Telrik, can you transport me directly to the Freehold's bridge?"

"Aye Captain, Mudd's still runnin' with her shields down," Telrik confirmed, "She just beamed Mr. Burrows and Ms. Zazza over to us."

"I await your transport, Telrik," Macen felt the annular confiement beam take hold of him as soon as he finished speaking. a blur of consciousness and color and he found himself aboard Mudd's ship. With every alarm going off.

Mudd charged into the bridge from the cargo bays, "What teh hell are you doing?"

"Reyes wants to know the same about you," Macen replied, "He sicked me on you like a rabid dog."

"Why?" Mudd was oblivious to any wrongdoing. Or at least according to her body language and empathic feel. Which was a very good sign.

"Starfleet thinks you beamed contraband aboard from the Freebooter," Macen explained.

"Only in the loosest sense," Mudd groaned, "Follow me. You'll find out anyway."

Mudd led him to the holds where he found the former crew of the Waylaid. Some familiar faces were missing and others had been added but every member was a woman with platinum white blonde hair. Universally artificial platinum hair.

It seemed they'd left Iotian service as abruptly as they'd joined it. Macen acknowledged Jones, "Captain, I'll admit this is a huge surprise."

"Harri needed our help and the Iotians refuse dot understand that pertinent fact. Upon our arrival, a mutiny broke loose and the girls and I found ourselves seeking refuge with Harri," Jones explained, "So we meet again."

"And if memory serves, you're still wanted on charges of theft, piracy, and kidnapping," Macen recalled.

"We've had our differences in the past but Harri promised us you'd at least consider giving us a fresh start," Jones almost pleaded.

"I can but Starfleet won't," Macen mulled it over, "Do you have the means to acquire a ship?"

"We have the Saratoga docked at Forrest Station."

Macen knew the station. It was outside of Federation space bordering the Federation worlds beyond the Klingon Empire. It also was a haven for battered and abused women. A perfect landing spot for Jones and her crew.

"I'll bluff Reyes and Harri can get you to Forrest Station. Afterwards I can put you on Outbound Ventures' payroll. But you have to be aware that assignments won't be haphazard. There will be codes of conduct that will be met or I'll personally hand you over to Starfleet," Macen offered.

"I'm actually surprised considering what went down between us girls and Ro," Jones admitted.

"I respect Laren but she's a Starfleet officer again and that limits her options," Macen told her, "I'll give you the second chance to succeed or fail. It's all on you."

Macen had Telrik return him to the Tribulation. Jones was ecstatic, "That went so unlike what I expected."

"Macen's a decent guy. And don't tell him I said that. Or the fact I'd follow him to Hell and back again," Mudd confided, "But he isn't kidding when he implies there's a rulebook. It's pretty open to interpretation except when he dictates absolute terms. Then it's do or die time."

"Yet you keep working for him," Jones pointed out.

"'Cause he has a dream and I believe in it and it has nothing to do with politics or borders. But it's about people," Mudd told them all, "I'll explain after I get us underway before Reyes flips and sends a search party."

"Brin, you need to follow this data trail we picked up," Rockford warned him, "It seems everything is random until you filter it through Michelle's data."

Every one of teh investigators looked ill. Prentiss and even the unflappable Rockford also looked disquieted. But Kerber and Smith were time bombs waiting to detonate.

After he followed the notes he felt like they did, "They actually built it. And they're still building them and stockpiling them."

"Biogenic weapons so potent the soil can never be reclaimed or terraformed," Rockford said quietly.

"And Bacco did order three worlds to be decimated with these weapons and thereby leaving the Romulans facing a disastrous food shortage before the Hobus incident," Macen summarized.

"And Bailey and I unearthed the records of Starfleet assuming control of zenite ore production and processing to be sent for weaponization," Kervber finally realized, "That was our so-called crime that threatened our planet."

"And had me sentenced to death rather than replace the Matron when she stepped down," Smith literally shook.

"We need to brief absolutely everyone and disseminate this data so we're not the only ones possessing it. If Section 31 kills the head than the body can simply grow another one," Macen decided.

"And we're back in the Maquis," Ebert remarked.

With the myriad security details aboard, the team could return to the Obsidian and dock with DS3. Rockford and Prentiss briefed the assembled captains. Macen showed Reyes while Neeley prepped Fowler to be interrogated by the pair.

"You're all dead. Every crew and every civilian on this station that may have heard or seen something," Fowler promised.

"Actually, your father is maintaining his guise as a Starfleet admiral and has ordered a prize crew to return the Tribulation to Earth for inspection. He hasn't said a word about your disposition," Reyes informed him.

"Will you attempt to return it?" Fowler wondered.

"I think Jellico will want his pet project back to deliver zenite to every Typhon Pact signatory's territories," Macen offered up.

"Whatever it is you think you have to hold over us, it won't mean anything," Fowler laughed at them.

"Maybe not but Admiral Starling herself is sending a prison transport to deliver you to the Orions," Reyes was happy to report.

"I'll never arrive there," Fowler was confident.

Reyes was summoned to Ops to discover the USS Venture-B was arriving to escort the Tribulation on its journey. The captain and crew were another example of Nechayev's schemes. Morgan Avery was named for the sole captain the original Constitution-class Venture ever had. That Morgan Avery and all hands had died defending a colony from the Tzenkethi.

The current Morgan Avery was her great-grandniece and she'd petitioned Nechayev to have the ship's registration altered when she accepted her assignment and the Galaxy-class Venture-A had been destroyed during the Dominion War. Avery commanded a Saber-class starship listed as having been stolen after a mutiny. And the crew was listed as pirates. The crew ostensibly worked for the Orion Syndicate. But in reality, the three Orion women assigned to shepherd them were informants for Starfleet Intelligence.

Captain Avery and her crew posed as "free traders", a polite euphemism for freelance pirates and mercenaries. Unlike the bulk of Starfleet, her crew was mostly non-human. And they no longer wore Starfleet livery as keeping with their cover.

Reyes was nervous while trying to compare Avery's public profile with the secret Starfleet Intelligence file that Macen had inexplicably unlocked. A feat that a non-Starfleet officer shouldn't be able to do. Which made Reyes wonder if Macen's status as a civilian was still a legend arranged by Nechayev. Macen could detect his turmoil even without his "Listening" skills.

"I know Morgan," he revealed, "She can be trusted."

"You know her from when and where?" Reyes asked.

"From behind Dominion lines on Gryma where Laren, Rab, our commando unit, and I got pinned down with no exit. Morgan brought the Valinore in to relieve us. A then-Lt. Avery led the away team that supported us on the ground," Macen told him.

"Laren said those missions were never straightforward," Reyes admitted.

"The Dominion replied by sending a battleship and a dozen Jem'Hadar fighters," Macen recalled, "The Valinore retreated to secure reinforcements. It became a war of attrition on the ground. Morgan lost every officer except for two Deltans. Fortunately we rallied the Cardassian colonists into joining the Federation settlers in a revolt that distracted the Dominion until Starfleet led allied forces to capture Gryma."

"And what happened to Avery and her men?" Reyes wondered.

Morgan was promoted and made First Officer of the Valinore following the armistice. Her Deltan officers, correctly labeled as men, became lovers. It seemed their oaths of celibacy didn't register where fellow Deltans were concerned. So regulations were obeyed to the letter if not the spirit."

"Regulations change," Reyes grunted, "Look at the shift towards Ro. She went from being a JAG witch hunt to commanding a starbase."

"Laren always has been an exception to regulations," Macen smiled fondly.

"Don't let her hear you say that," Reyes warned, "But it stems from her being exceptional."

"Another thing to never tell her," Macen stated.

"Laren admits you two are the closest of confidantes yet you never became intimate," Reyes observed, "Why?"

"It never came up," Macen revealed, "Laren led the Ronaran cell and I had the crew of the Odyssey. Despite the crew and I affiliating ourselves with the Ronaran cell we were truly independent for most of the years of the Maquis. Laren and I just naturally knew we'd never blend as lovers. And I had Lees and T'Kir to worry about on that front. So Ro Laren and I fully realized and accepted that we were destined to be friends and never anything more.

And Reyes knew Lisea Danan had moved on to eventually marry Tom Riker. Macen had married T'Kir before her unfortunate demise and resurrection in a cloned body. And T'Kir joined Section 31 and tried to kill Macen. Celeste Rockford did the honors of killing T'Kir once and for all as her katra couldn't be passed on.

"So Avery will arrive in two hours time," Reyes shared, "She's requested provisioning. Apparently her Orion passengers require lots of fresh and spiced meats."

"They prefer to cook kabobs," Macen reviewed the Venture's skeleton crew manifest. Apparently the crew included a sixteen year old human female, "Use the data pack on Avery to cross reference a Vera DeMarco."

"Says here she's a boomer kid. Orphaned at nine. Sold as a house slave at age ten. Escaped that planet by working as a deck hand on a passing freighter. Bounced around two quadrants doing the same. Sold back into slavery when she rebuffed a captain," Reyes was horrified yet admired DeMarco's pluck, "She was sold to a Romulan senator. And when Avery's crew ran across her she'd escaped sexual and physical abuse on Caligula and made her way back to the Alpha Quadrant with a pack of Nausican hunters following her. The Senator was a woman."

"Gender doesn't dictate who is or isn't a predator," Macen reminded him, "And she confirmed what's been long suspected. The Romulans have been breeding human captives since the Earth-Romulan war to use as agents against the Federation."

"What was that?" Reyes searched the data file again.

"The Tal Shiar has been indoctrinating humans for over one hundred and fifty years and training tem as agents against the Federation," Macen read again, "The Star Empire has entire planets built as mock Federation worlds to train their people to act and sound like Federation citizens. The two most highly infiltrated institutions are the Diplomatic Service and Starfleet. DeMarco's captor was an overseer of the program."

"But to breed people as spies," Reyes was still horrified.

"Romulans can't pass as humans. Klingon tried to pass themselves as human on occasion through surgical intervention but genetic screenings took care of the problem. If you want to infiltrate human centers of power now, you need actual humans," Macen said clinically.

"You don't seem very surprised about any of this," Reyes realized.

"Ask Laren about the Cardassian-Bajoran indoctrination center we encountered of Farva V," Macen told him, "Then get back to me on this."

"I guess all I can ask at this point is are you looking forward to reuniting with Captain Avery again?" Reyes changed the topic to a more pleasant one. Or so he hoped.

"Any meeting with Morgan is a welcome one," Macen admitted, "And Celeste, Morgan, and I have more in common than I think any of us realize."

Avery studied the notes Prentiss had sent to her. What the united effort on so many parts had uncovered was distressing at best and xenocidal at worst. She had to admit it explained Nanette Bacco's fall from grace and seemingly inexplicable reversal from hard liner to appeaser. And the implications towards Starfleet's admiralty was just as difficult to comprehend.

Avery's time on Gryma had changed her universal paradigm. Events following the war had just solidified what she already believed. Nechayev approaching her, at Macen's recommendation she later learned, had given her the ability to surgically remove cancers from interstellar society.

Evolution dictated the survival of the fittest. But the Federation had discovered mutual cooperation ensured survival for everyone. Even their rivals were learning to accept that truth. How else could you explain Typhon Pact? But beyond the frontier, life frequently got messy again.

"Morgan, you're drifting again," her Betelegeusian XO gurgled.

He was as inhuman a humanoid that could be found. But he was the perfect first officer for their mission. Armino interrupted her thoughts again, "You're anticipating our reunion with Starfleet...and Captain Macen."

"I haven't seen Daggit or Macen since Rab married Parva," Avery told him, "Before that it was when Macen married the Vulcan."

"Parva seems to be a familiar name," Armino mused.

"She's Orion. One of the few actual sex slaves that Daveed B'nner surgically created by removing her pheromone glands," Avery told him, "She escaped him and worked her way into the SID. Her example should bolster our three passengers' self esteem."

"You seemed to mention Macen's wife in the past tense," Armino realized.

"She died and I understand she was one of the galaxy's original characters. I regret never knowing her," Avery stated.

"They said teh same about Admiral McCoy," Armino gurgled.

"Similar reasons," Avery admitted, "Only she was better looking."

Armino's laughter literally bubbled, "You're obviously biased."

"Tell the crew to forgo personal weapons while on DS3," Avery dictated, "We have to pretend to still be respectable."

Armino studied his captain. Her attitude frequently took militant towards gang member from Turkana IV, "Shall I pass the word to Vera?"

"Please," Avery sighed.

"Megen has hinted at having our young trainee doing some skullduggery whilst aboard the station," Armino warned her.

Megen Hasslebeck was purportedly the worst offender aboard the starship. She was also the only official Starfleet Intelligence agent. Hasslebeck was one of three crewmembers who still wore regulation haircuts. The Bolian chief engineer named Ghere was another and their half-human-half-Rigellian enlisted engineer was the third Her name was Ilin Kano.

The fraternal twin Winters sisters at CONN and OPS boldly defied regulations. Emilie was still a brunette while Rosie was proudly platinum blonde. Rosie had only convinced Emilie to do the same once to burn one of Rosie's suitors after he jilted her. Emilie had quickly restored her natural shade and never looked back.

The Caitian and Rigellian crewmen and women all wore their manes wild and free. DeMarco wore an undercut pixie that was white atop and black underneath. Dr. Lops and Security Chief Arno were Avery's Deltan holdovers from Gryma. All the women aboard were disgruntled that they were a homosexual couple. Except for Hessle, the male Benzite sciences officer who was also flustered by the Deltans.

the strike team aboard consisted of three Caitians and four Rigellians. Arno had one Cardassian officer beneath him named Gar Lagat. And then there were the three Orions. Nara led Yiyi and Pava in their endeavors to destroy the Orion Syndicate.

Gomer, the first openly female Orion head of the Syndicate had placed enormous bounties on the trio's heads. Nechayev was no fool. She fully realized the triad wanted to kill Gomer and assume control themselves. Which was why Avery wanted them to meet Parva so badly..

Lt. Commander Angie Harmony, Reyes' XO, was personally overseeing Ops. So when the Venture requested a docking approach, she signaled her captain as requested. In the brig, Neeley was overseeing the prisoner transfers of the Section 31 detainees. Each one was beamed into a life support pod to be ferried by a Java-class hauler. A Pacifica-class light cruiser was providing escort. Noyce had issued the orders and bypassed Starfleet Operation to assign the crew to the mission. Captain Noches and the USS Broadband were vetted and cleared of any connections with Section 31 or the suspect admirals.

Fowler had no way knowing for certain that Sekona and Hakatay hadn't been detained as well but he suspected it. Collins had been, he'd heard her complaining to Security that she needed to get back to the engine room. Which told Fowler Marla Gilmore hadn't been captured yet. And Fowler was counting on his chief engineer to destroy the Tribulation as soon as it reached Spacedock. and take everyone aboard the station with it.

Avery's tactical team handled loading supplies. The Winters sisters chaperoned teh Orion trio. Daggit and Macen were ecstatic over reuniting with Avery, Dr. Lops, and Arno again. Their respective spouses were quite amused. "Tone it downs, fells. Let them breathe," Rockford finally intervened on the guests behalf.

"Morgan Avery, this is Celeste Rockford. Rockford is my partner in life and in business," Macen stated.

"I like your prioritization," Avery admitted, "Detective Rockford, your reputation does you justice."

"I'm just glad to finally meet you, Captain," Rockford grinned, "Brin doesn't worship at the feet of many so it's good to have a face to go with the idolized name."

"I'm as human as the next person, present company excluded," Avery watched all around look pleasantly amused, "No matter what these louts may believe. And please, just call me Morgan."

"Only if you call me Celeste and not 'Detective'," Rockford insisted right back.

"Do I rate an introduction?" DeMarco asked from nearby.

"This must be your legendary protégé," Macen remarked.

"Vera DeMarco, you're my new hero," Rockford told her, "You've survived in just a few years what most people couldn't endure in a lifetime."

"Really?" DeMarco was skeptical.

"I rarely lie and never to friends," Rockford promised her, "I'm hoping we'll end up there before this is done."

"Okay," DeMarco was at a loss for words.

"Explain to me what you just did," Avery requested, "Because she's never speechless. She'd talk through a supernova in progress."

DeMarco just looked annoyed as Rockford intervened, "Maybe over lunch."

"Everyone's invited," Macen promised.

A mass exodus departed Deep Space Three four days later. Sekona and Hakatay served as technical advisors for the SID team as they served as a prize crew to deliver the Tribulation to the SPYards. The Obsidian would be travelling to Earth more slowly while Macen delivered Zazza and Prentiss to present evidence and testimony to the UFP President and the Federation Council in special session.

Forger would escorting Leitjen and Hunt as the Federation and Monitor limped home. The Sternwheeler and the Merrimac still had extensive repairs to go just to be spaceworthy again. Jellico himself issued order for the Hood to withdraw and join Saavik's task force. The Romulans were saber rattling and Jellico wanted to who the flag after the Typhon Pact's recent efforts to successfully recruit Turkana IV, the Iotian Federation, the Magna Roman Empire, and possibly the Ekosian Reich to their fold.

And given the fact the lid had been blown off of Proconsul Sela's efforts to destabilize the Khitomer Accords signatories and pit them once against the other even as they negotiated in good faith with the First Federation. With the Kelvans annihilated by the Borg, the Argyn vanished once again, the Organians gone to another plane of existence, the Q completely unreliable and unpredictable, and the Metron Consortium still closing its borders, vying for control of half the galaxy were states utilizing conventional arms and personnel.

But the Iridian Enforcers potentially destabilized the alliances as did the Dominion. The Caelier had removed the Borg from everyone's consideration but they themselves were inscrutable and had seemingly vanished as well. With tensions ratcheting higher, a single inflammatory mistake could produce a war that would consume two quadrants and spill over to the other two. It was little wonder the Q hadn't even bothered to provoke an incident.

"We have done as you asked," Sekona reminded Macen, "What about our arrangement?"

"She has a point, Brin," Hakatay added, "We agreed to help and you agreed to let us off on a colony somewhere. Preferably a non-penal colony."

"I've arranged an amnesty with the Cardassians and you can return home or you can immigrate to a new colony in the Gamma Quadrant. The Bajorans are rebuilding New Bajor and are inviting anyone from any allied power to join them. And the Bajorans are still sympathetic and nostalgic regarding the Resistance and the Maquis."

"So, we'll be dropped off at Bajor?" Hakatay wondered.

"Or thereabouts," Macen simply said.

Tessa was cataloguing Sickbay. It was advanced and rudimentary all at the same time. She'd disabled the ship's EMH. He'd been such a bore. She wondered if people had ever enjoyed turning her off. It was a disturbing comparison.

She found a hypospray and several stimulant ampules missing and she reported it to Macen.

The deck by deck searched began immediately. Ebert remained on the bridge operating the immense starship. Kerber and Smith monitored Sekona and Hakatay as the searches got underway. The enormity of the ship proved problematic. Forte used a tricorder while Rockford probed rooms and lockers with her phaser drawn.

Rockford halted the search rather unexpectedly, "May I ask you a personal question?"

"Why not?" Forte was good natured about it.

"Why neon pink hair?" Rockford came out and asked.

"Why not?" Forte laughed at the nonsensical nature of the question.

"Most people leaving Miri desperately try to blend in and yet you did the exact opposite," Rockford told her, "Instead you went with pink hair, a leather jacket, an animal print skirt and thigh high "frinx" me leather boots. That's definitely not going unnoticed."

"I was unnoticed my whole life until I left Miri. And I found attention doesn't hurt. So once again, why not?" Forte asked.

"Okay then, let's find our stowaway," Rockford opted.

"We seem to be paired up quite often," Lee chuckled.

"Hold the fort, Skippy," Shade warned him, "You come from a regressive patriarchal society and I come from a remnant of a matriarchal society. You want to be the ruler and I am."

"The Federation is egalitarian in nature if not entirely in practice," Lee warned her, "Women accept that fact."

"And I think the women demean themselves," Shade told him, "When they should assert their natural superiority."

"We'll revisit this later," Lee promised.

"Not on your damn life," Shade warned him.

Macen operated the tricorder and Burrows swung his katana around. Macen sighed, "Try not to skewer anyone until I tell you to and after I ask some questions."

"They'll answer faster and more honestly if I do a little selective skewering first," Burrows advised him.

"Take a wait and see attitude," Macen warned him.

"Where are you going?" Daggit asked Parva as she abandoned her post in Main Engineering.

"We need to check out the Jeffries tubes leaving Engineering," Parva insisted.

Daggit watched as she disappeared. Then she angrily called down the tube, "Someone's made a rat's nest out of the EPS conduits. If we would have brought the additional warp cores on line we would have had a power surge that would blown the mains."

"I'll signal the bridge," Daggit decided.

But the bridge crew had their hands full with a manic Marla Gilmore, "Drop us out of warp!"

Ebert looked down the phaser aimed at her, "Um…no?"

"Don't frinxing move!" Gilmore swung to confront Kerber and Smith at their assumed stations.

"Really? You want to go there?" Kerber asked disdainfully.

"Sekona and Hakatay, I see Jack will get the pleasure of executing you himself as the traitors you are," Gilmore was rather giddy.

"Ah yes, the sexual liaisons. They installed a sense of loyalty I rather doubt Fowler has for you," Sekona analyzed.

"Shut the hell up!" Gilmore screamed.

"And that's the stimulants talking," Hakatay joined in.

"Frinx Fowler!" Gilmore raged.

"I believe you have already. Repeatedly," Sekona surmised.

"I'm killing you myself!" Gilmore roared and took aim.

Kerber had slipped her Type I phaser from it hip holster and stunned Gilmore. It took a sustained particle stream to subdue her thanks to the stimulants overloading her system. Smith kicked Gilmore's phaser out of her hand and then picked it up herself.

"Someone deal with that," Kerber was dismissive.

The turbolift opened to reveal Rockford and Forte. Rockford was amused, "I should have known."

Forte retrieved binders from her now-infamous boots and clapped them on Gilmore's wrists and after she pulled the engineer's wrists behind her back. Rockford asked the obvious question of Sekona and Hakatay, "And she is?"

"Marla Gilmore," Hakatay told her, "Chief Engineer and supposed lover."

"Whose lover?" Forte asked.

"Jack Fowler," Kerber and Smith sneered together.

"If memory serves, Marla Gilmore was the chief engineer aboard the USS Equinox when she was lost in the Delta Quadrant," Sekona explained.

"Figures," Forte snorted.

"Be nice," Ebert chided her.

"Is she going to be okay?" Rockford asked the recently arrives Tessa.

"With some sleep and a lot of rehydration," Tessa determined.

"And that's your expert opinion?" Rockford wondered.

"As expert as it'll get aboard this nightmare," Tessa said derisively, "The Sickbay and ship's EMH are jokes."

"Then you wouldn't mind giving Arianna a hand in getting oru prisoner to a detention cell?" Rockford wondered.

"If i must, I must," Tessa theatrically sighed.

Rockford couldn't suppress a grin. Sekona interrupted, "The airlocks double as detentions cells."

Rockford lost her smile.

Earth had built a station near the former Delphic Expanse near the turn of the 23rd century. It hadn't been built in Federation territory, or even resided in Federation territory to the present day, but had been a private endeavor. Changing hands over the centuries, it now belonged to an administrator that used it as a haven for abused and battered women from every stellar nation. Strangely, it had two brothels aboard it. Club Fem was hosted by naturally genetic females. Club Trans was hosted by transgender women who had refused Sexual Reassignment Surgery for whatever reasons.

Male clients could visit station but they couldn't reside or berth there. Forrest Station was a hotbed of smuggling activities. Jones and her crew had left their Saratoga docked at the station while they served within the Iotian Starfleet. Mudd knew most underestimated the 22nd century vessel but it had been covertly brought up to late-23rd century specs by Iotian dockyards.

Jones' crewman were relieved to get back to the station and to the Sara, as they affectionately called the ship. Mudd felt the same about the Freehold so she understood. Over the course of the voyage, Jones and the others had learned far more about the SID and Macen's own private security operation than Amanda Forger would ever feel comfortable with.

"You actually enjoy working for Macen, don't you?" Jones couldn't believe it of Mudd.

"I work for Rockford Investigations but she's partnered up with Macen, literally," Mudd divulged, "But yeah, I kinda enjoy helping out. They're certainly wiping out the competition."

"Macen had a hypnotic effect on the crew of the Odyssey as well," Jones shared, "Tracy Ebert still suffered from it when we ran into beyond the frontier."

"She's back with Macen now," Mudd informed her, "And Macen isn't about rules or laws. God knows he's been jailed and imprisoned enough times because of it. He's like Celeste. They care about what's right not what's legal. Like now, he's taking a bucket of molten piss and throwing it in Fleet Admiral Jellico's face."

"Why?" Jones was confused.

Mudd explained what she knew, "And so the Typhon Pact was created as a direct reaction to Bacco and Jellico's plans. Bacco already took the fall but now it's time Jellico and his cohorts to take one as well."

"This is a new side to you, Harri," Jones admitted, "Before you only saw one side of an issue, its bottom line for your ledger."

"Yeah well, I've learned I can't just stick my head underground and pretend the universe isn't full of shit. Especially if my name happens to be Mudd."

"And you're suggesting we freelance with Rockford Investigations?" Jones asked.

"Nope. That's my thing," Mudd answered, "You could sign up with Macen's Outbound Ventures where the dooky hits the fan every day. And the greater the risk, the greater the rewards."

"Rewards?" Jones was intrigued despite herself.

"Macen operates a latinum only business," Mudd explained, "And he has more of it than most Ferengi corporations. Money he spends on his personnel and their equipment."

"How much money?" Jones asked.

"I asked that once and Celeste showed me her account ledgers. And she's only half of the agency," Mudd told her, "Frankly, I don't know why they don't pool their resources and simply buy the Ferengi Alliance."

Jones was almost sold at that point.

The Tribulation dropped out of warp so Parva could assess the extent of the damages wrought by Gilmore. Sekona and Hakatay were made provisional engineers and given little oversight since their lives depended upon fixing whatever ailed the dreadnought. Avery took the opportunity for a tour. DeMarco seemed startled to have been invited as well.

Rockford took the time to compare notes with Avery regarding their mutual histories with Gomer. DeMarco wanted to learn more about the SID team's mutual adventures. Macen sat her down with Kerber and Smith to compare histories.

The most entertaining moment came when DeMarco informed Daggit he "even looked like a badass" upon seeing his facial scars. She could imagine what the rest of his rock hard body looked like. Avery saw the lust in the girl's eyes and had to laugh.

"You, I don't get," DeMarco admitted regarding Macen, "You don't look like much."

"Because I'm not. At least by myself. Put these people with me and I'm unbeatable," Macen promised her.

"And that's why we'd lay our lives down fr him," Rockford admitted.

"So how did you meet Mr. Super Spy?" deMarco asked Rockford.

"I was hired to kill him and I almost succeeded," Rockford shared, "But he did something no one else ever had, he survived."

"Seriously?" DeMarco thought she was joking.

"I actually came back for a rematch a couple of times before I abandoned Annika Ryst and resumed being Celeste Rockford," she told her.

"Um...you make that sound like different people," DeMarco realized.

"Same body, different minds and personalities," Rockford shared, "But Annika and the others sacrificed themselves so I could just be Celeste."

"That s so weird," DeMarco opined.

"You almost get used to it," Rockford assured her, "And it certainly isn't any worse than what you've lived through."

"What would you know of it?" DeMarco hissed.

"I've got you pretty well read," Rockford warned her.

"Celeste," Macen warned her off.

"Another time perhaps," Rockford conceded.

"So is this latest case typical for you all?" Avery asked.

"Normally there isn't much to tell," Macen demurred.

Rockford face palmed.

"Oh, come on," Avery protested.

"I'm no longer officially part of Starfleet just like you aren't. My team is comprised of out and out civilians and my ship is my private property not Starfleet's. And the Special Investigation Division is one part civilian agency and one part Starfleet with direct Presidential oversight outside of Starfleet's chain of command," Macen shared, "If it weren't for the fact this investigation is so incendiary and threatens Starfleet's centuries' old stability, you wouldn't even be involved. But that was Alynna's choice to make not Amanda Forger's. But if this goes wrong, you'll face prison time on imaginary charges. Probably in an Orion black site where you and your crew will be slowly raped and tortured to death. Happy you signed aboard now?"

"It's like the Maquis all over again," Avery realized how splintered the service was getting.

"Got it in one," Macen told her, "And Deity help whoever crossed the Powers-That-Be if we can't convince the Federation Council this case is valid."

"I so hate my life now," Avery groaned.

"Have you swept your offices?" Starling asked the complicit admirals, "Prentiss is my best and brightest and I tried listing her as AWOL for dereliction of duty, and borderline treason and the President overrode everything and listed her as TDY with his offices," Starling advised the complicit admiralty.

"And the Ardanans are useless," Hesh grumbled, "They record all of their data on Cardassian optolythic data rods. It can't be corrupted. The rod only be destroyed and a gap in the records will expose as mightily as the data itself. Rockford's team copied the pertinent files without realizing it, it seems, onto a fresh rod so their copy is as good as the original in damning quality."

"It's obvious Section 31 failed," Gennady pointed out, "And very publically this time."

"Fowler is angry over his son's disappearance and the capture of the prototype warship we commissioned," Kostigan shared.

"But Noyce requested the ship be brought here to Sector 001 for the SPYards to dismantle. I couldn't intervene without tipping my hand while I'm still securing the personal loyalty of most of Starfleet Command," Jellico told them collectively, "The time has come for Starfleet to choose between their Fleet Admiral and their President."

No one spoke or even breathed. They were literally plotting treason now. But only if their coup failed the way Leyton's had before the Dominion War.

"We label the ship as being under the control of Andorian supremacists and order its destruction," Starling began the course of action that would further define them in history.

"I've prepped Captain Tom Magnum and his squadron of ships fresh in from patrolling beyond the Tholian Assembly," Jellico told them, "Magnum s a veteran of five wars and his married to regulations and duty. Almost even more so than Captain Voltaire. Whom, I ordered released and placed back into command over the Rutherford. They have a penal crew scoured from the cell blocks on Jaros II but Voltaire is so driven by revenge he'll gladly hunt Macen and his crew down regardless of where they run to."

"And Captain Benteen's protests have been officially shelved and she's received disciplinary reviews as a result of bringing it up to begin with." Starling promised.

"Then we unleash Magnum's force," Jellico happily decided.

Magnum commanded the Nebula-class USS Vanguard. Other ships in his squadron were the USS Sentinel, the USS Specter, the USS Eclipse, and the USS Dauntless. Each commander was a decorated veteran of more than one Starfleet engagement over the past twenty years. Despite the demands for newer vessels spread thin, none of the captains commanded a a vessel constructed prior ot 2366. Which was remarkable given the median age of most serving starships now averaged forty to fifty years.

Magnum's intelligence packet was marginal. An unknown Federation warship of previously unknown design had been stolen from an unknown or unspecified Fleet Yard and used to attack Deep Space Three for purposes unknown. Four starships had been damaged or crippled including the USS Federation which was supposed to be conducting trial runs out along Vulcan.

Now the vessel was headed for Sector 001 presumably to attack Earth. Andorian supremacists were hypothesized to be behind the theft and attack. But no one seemed to actually know anything. Or at least no one was telling his group anything. Which meant the truth was probably very messy.

Their orders were to retake the ship and deliver it to Utopia Planetia. To capture the crew of it and any escorts and hand them over to civilian authorities yet to be determined. And the orders implied a high rate of casualties was acceptable if not preferred. In other words, the orders themselves had more holes than certain varieties of cheese.

Captain Divine was making ripples amongst the captains by questioning the veracity of everything they'd been given. Magnum himself had grave doubts. But he wasn't going to go whining over Jellico's head to the President as Divine was threatening to do.

Nechayev sat in the underground stronghold built beneath Starfleet Command that housed the meetings of Starfleet's clandestine Council of Five. Designed as an interstellar security panel, the Council frequently dictated policy to Fleet Admiral's and UFP Presidents. But in recent years, Jellico had all but undermined the Council's mission.

Today's meeting was no less clandestine in that it was held in secret from even the Starfleet Commander. All of the five regular members were in attendance along with chosen guests. Kira Nerys represented the regional command containing the Seventh Fleet along the Breen and Tzenkethi borders. Bill Ross represented another strategic command area and he oversaw the Ninth Fleet patrolling the Tholian and Andergani borders. Edward Noyce directed Starfleet Security and ostensibly oversaw Starling. Leonard James Akaar was the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander and the man in line for Jellico's position. Nechayev rounded out the regular membership and her grant of authority was over Starfleet Intelligence.

Additionally, Captain Beverly Crusher directed Starfleet Medical and was married to the infamous Federation Ambassador Jean-Luc Picard. Elizabeth Paula Shelby also oversaw a great area of strategic importance. and she had Starbase Bravo and her husband, Captain Mackenzie Calhoun, and Captain Kat Mueller under her command. As such, these men and woman controlled a sizeable portion of Starfleet's strategic assets.

And the case set before them today was a fragmentary report received from DS3. Reyes had tried to transmit Prentiss' report in its entirely but "mysteriously" communications broke down mid-transmission. And contact with Deep Space Three and Four had been lost. Amidst rumors Captain Voltaire and his crew and vanished along with the USS Rutherford itself and scores of inmates that had been inexplicably released from Jaros II and dropped off at DS4.

"You know Starfleet takes the health of its personnel very seriously," Crusher began her summary, "But the named officers have had their biometric monitors deactivated, the sensors in their offices and homes disabled, and even the rudimentary data we can collect from comm badges has been scrambled."

"How was any of that possible?" Akaar grumbled.

"Jellico floated the ideas past my office but I turned him down on every count," Noyce revealed.

"I tracked the responsibility down to Q Branch," Nechayev shared, "I personally spoke with Q at the Quartermaster's offices and they're taking steps to try and reimplement the health studies."

"It would still be too little too late to try and remove anyone from their posts," Crusher informed the group.

"And anything else is mutiny," Ross' holographic image complained, "Even if we have regultions and the law on our side."

"Which precisely what they're counting on to hold us back," Kira's image retorted.

"You've all ready Prentiss' summary and part of her initial report," Nechayev changed the topic, "Witnesses are being brought to Earth even now. And even now, Starfleet and Section 31 forces are maneuvering to prevent that from ever happening. I've seen copies of the orders issued and taking prisoners is discouraged 'for the good of the service'."

"Two of these women listed as witnesses are the fugitives Jellico tore the Alpha and Beta Quadrants apart trying to find," Akaar saw their names listed.

"And the reason is because they unearthed Jellico's complicity in the Ardanan side of the biogenic weapons production," Nechayev told them all, "The saddest part is their own families want them dead for crimes they didn't even commit and they were completely caught unawares of the so-called crime they had committed against Jellico."

"What about the crimes they committed against Stratos as part of the Troglyte Underground," Noyce asked.

"The Prime Directive covers that," Shelby broke her silence, "They plainly broke the laws of a neutral planet and sought political asylum here in the Federation. Admiral Forger granted that request. I say we let that decision stand."

"Though Amanda is no longer officially Starfleet," Nechayev smiled.

"Isn't she?" Akaar asked, "I spoke with the President at some length and he explained the situation to me. I believe this council deserves the truth."

"It all began with these charges rearing their head," Nechayev began and she continued for quite some time. And everyone was startled by how things had progressed into Starfleet needing an agency outside of its chain of command in order to conduct the investigation still underway.

"Akaar and Nechayev gathered the Council of Five including Crusher and Elizabeth Shelby as well," Starling reported to the conspiracy group.

"We need to do something," Hesh demanded.

"Something is being done," Starling promised, "When they adjourn they will all be arrested on charges of mutiny. If we ever fish them out of Orion custody then we can make more permanent charges stick or just leave them in the Orions' loving embrace," Starling offered.

"It's too dangerous holding them," Gennady complained, "Even outside of the Federation."

"It's even more perilous letting them run amuck," Jellico declared, "They'll see reason after six months in Orion hands."

"I'll certainly feel safer on the ground on Earth," Prentiss told Captain Hunt.

Why?" the captain of the Monitor inquired, "You still have to be protected until you can submit your report and Zazza can testify. Speaking of whom, how is she holding up?"

"She's very eager to leave space and testify so she can have a semblance of a life again," Prentiss shared, "Even knowing Starfleet is unaware of our presence aboard ship doesn't soothe her much."

"Here's hoping she gets the chance to start that life," Hunt offered.

"Captain Avery is hailing," Sekona reported.

"On screen," Macen instructed.

Morgan Avery was plainly unhappy, "Starfleet is moving to intercept us."

"Well, we weren't hiding," Macen acknowledged.

"Brin, they want Zazza and Prentiss and then they mean to board us and take the crews prisoner," Avery told him.

"Do these problems have a name?" Macen asked.

"Tom Magnum is ranking on this one," Avery advised him.

"Well, now that you mention it he is a teensy problem because he doesn't like us very well," Macen confessed, "Unless we can prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, Magnum will assume his orders are legitimate and carry them out to the letter."

"He always did have a warp nacelle up his ass," Avery complained.

"I suggest we drop out of warp," Macen said, "Tracy, get ready to run high speed maneuvers. Sekona and Hakatay, time to prove which side you're on."

Sekona identified the encroaching starship. But the Tribulation dwarfed even the Vanguard and none of the multi-role exploration starships were equipped with quantum slipstream drives.

"Hail every ship simultaneously," Macen requested.

"The Venture is ten thousand kilometers off of our port side," Hakatay reported.

"Morgan knows her business," Macen counseled him, "Now patch me in."

"Captain, you are on," Sekona promised him.

"Attention Starfleet, this is Captain Brin Macen. I've been contracted by Admiral Bill Noyce of Starfleet Security to deliver this vessel to the Utopia Planetia Yards. Stand advised, we will complete this contract barring legal recourse from the UFP President himself or the dully elected Councilors from the Federation Council. But we would prefer to be escorted in."

"Come to a full stop and prepare to be boarded. All hands will stand down and surrender," Magnum's voice echoed.

"Starfleet please stand advised that we are duly licensed security contractors and we are acting on Starfleet orders. Whose orders are you acting on?" Macen inquired sharply.

"Cut the crap Macen. Noyce and Nechayev signed off on your contract. Jellico revoked it and I'm acting on his direct orders. I hold the trump," Magnum declared.

"Please verify the source of your orders particularly in regards to this vessel and its disposition," Macen switched gears.

And silence loomed.

"What the hell?" Ebert wondered.

"Section 31 is now looping him though Starfleet Operations while he tries to pin down the origination code on his orders," Macen turned to face the former Section 31 agents, "Thanks for that advice, by the way."

"I never ordered you not to take prisoners," Jellico told Magnum's image, "Particularly implying I wanted them dead. I just wanted them stranded for later pickup."

"The orders wee cosigned by Admiral Fowler. In addition we were to surrender the vessels and any survivors to civilian contractors who would then take it to parts unknown," Magnum reviewed his orders.

"What rank does Fowler attribute to himself?" Jellico worried.

"Fleet Admiral, sir. I thought perhaps you had retired," Magnum stated.

"Not yet," Jellico grated, "Escort that ship to Utopia Planetia. It'll keep Macen quiet and we can arrange a reception. That's all, Captain."

Jellico terminated the transmission and Fowler brazenly entered his office despite the locked door, "Hang it up, Eddie. You officially retired twenty hours ago. I assumed command of Starfleet twenty minutes later.

"The President signs off on who becomes Starfleet Commander," Jellico argued.

"And in a day I'll have so much dirt on him he'll beg me to stay in the job," Fowler predicted.

"Section 31 is supposed to secure the Federation not stage coups," Jellico replied.

"But this coup is for the security of the Federation," Fowler told him, "If I don't this, and you don't disappear, Starfleet will have a black mark like it hasn't been dealt in two hundred years."

"And you think you can win political support?" Jellico wondered.

"Hell, I'll win popular support," Fowler chuckled, "You see, we modified the zenite weapon to be anti-fauna as well as anti-floral. So we can eradicate entire populations with delivery of a single warhead. Nothing says peace like the absence of enemies."

"You're insane," Jellico realized.

"No, I'm the long awaited messiah," Fowler's eyes gleamed.

"I can't let you do this," Jellico declared.

"Too bad, it could've gone easier," he motioned at the open door. Starling led four security officers in.

"Edward Jellico, I hereby strip you of rank and title and sentence you to life imprisonment," Starling read from a padd.

"When did I undergo court martial?" Jellico wondered.

"Twenty hours ago," Starling smiled at him, "This is how it's always worked, Eddie."

After he'd left, Starling faced Fowler, "We have a secure holding facility on Luna. It'll keep him quiet until we can arrange something where he dies in Orion hands."

"You always have been my best undercover operative," Fowler chucked her under the chin, "I want him on only water. No food. Hunger will be good for his soul."

"So treason isn't a trumped up charge?" Starling wondered.

"Anyone who opposes the will of Section 31 or myself commits treason," Fowler shared, "Now I have to address Captain Magnum's idiotic concerns."

"Tell him about the treasonous bit," Starling suggested.

 

Chapter 7

Magnum had allowed Macen and his escort to proceed. And oddly enough, they were headed out at impulse power rather than rabbiting like cornered criminals. Starfleet Command finally responded to Magnum's requests for clarification of his orders. He was surprised when the seal of the Fleet Admiral was replaced by Edward Fowler's face.

"You seem surprised, Captain," Fowler was amused by Magnum's confusion, "Jellico was forcibly removed from these offices less than an hour ago. I've taken his place."

"Pardon my saying so, but the President couldn't have appointed you that quickly," Magnum replied.

"Starfleeti s at its heart a military organization despite what the propaganda would tell you otherwise. I don't require an appointment. I'm simply assuming the role with the consent of the Admiralty," Fowler explained.

Which Magnum assumed explained why no one at Command was answering dispatches or requests for information, "The President and the Federation Council still need to weigh in. That's the nature of civilian oversight."

"Maybe in days gone past," Fowler allowed himself a triumphant smile, "In the meantime, I will not allow dissent amongst my captains and commanding officers. You will obey my orders as though they are th e writ of God herself. Understood?"

"I'm beginning to," Magnum allowed.

"Now to clarify those pesky orders. You are to capture and board the Tribulation a d kill everyone aboard save a lone engineer by the name of Marla Gilmore. Shoot them, eject them out of airlocks, whatever you deem best. But make no mistake, if that party reaches Earth you'll be the one sucking vacuum," Fowler told him.

"You can count on me to do the right thing for the service," Magnum pledged.

"I never doubted your loyalty," Fowler lied.

Magnum exited his Ready Room and quietly discussed a request with his XO, "Jerry, I need every comprehensible file on a Starfleet Admiral Edward Fowler. I believe he's staged a coup and has taken over Starfleet Command."

"Can this day get weirder?" Hunter asked.

"Probably not," Magnum promised him, "Ensign Hawke, raise every task force CO and patch them into the main viewer simulcast. We have a lot to discuss."

"Aye, sir," Siva Hawke readily complied.

The bulk of the Council of Five escaped capture by Starling's Internal Affairs officers. None of them had ever counted on facing a Cappellan or the Director of Starfleet Security. Nechayev arranged for the exit. Her personal runabout set course for a rendezvous with the Excelsior-class USS Endeavor. Section 31 unwisely pursed the runabout only to intercept it at Jupiter Station to discover it was being flown by the onboard computer to meet with the waiting Endeavor. The captain and crew of the starship honestly expected Nechayev to be aboard so they were of no use to Section 31.

But a small transport owned and operated by Mackenzie Calhoun lifted off of Earth and headed for Alpha Centauri where the Galaxy-class USS Excalibur-A awaited her captain. Even Edward Fowler didn't want Calhoun involved in retaking Starfleet Command, so the Excalibur was deemed free to depart Federation space.

"Where to, Admiral?" Calhoun asked.

"Deep Space Nine," Nechayev selected Ro's command.

"Eppy just sent word," Calhoun used the familiar name he'd given Admiral Shelby, "Starling let her off with a reprimand."

"And Crusher?" Noyce wondered.

"Safely ensconced back at Starfleet Medical. Some celebrities are immune to prosecution it seems," Calhoun chuckled.

"We must contact those admirals based outside of Starfleet Command and alert them that there is a truth beyond what they're being fed," Alkaar stated.

"Kira and Ross are safe enough and so it seems with Shelby. But that still leaves others such as Johnson and others overseeing starbases or fleets," Noyce reminded them, "We know Deep Space Three, Four, and Nine's commanders are on Section 31's hit list. Morgan Freedman out at Deep Space K-7 won't be far behind. I can't imagine Captains Data, Sisko, or Riker staying uninvolved. Or even retirees such as Elias Vaughn."

Commander Robin Lefler reported, "Starling is arresting various Starbase and starship commanders on trumped up charges and junior officers are being given command. Most of the more ambitious officers feel it's their due"

Nechayev knew Lefler was in line for her own command and that she'd risen through the ranks to earn it, "Starfleet has changed with the nature fo our mass recruiting efforts. The meticulous screening process we used to put the prospective cadets or enlisted crewmen have grown relatively lax as a prerequisite to fill starships with bodies"

"And that's on us," Akaar unhappily admitted, "On every admiral in the service"

"The nature of warfare has also changed the federation," Calhoun had been the warlord over a war torn planet fighting for its independence during his adolescence. His adult life had been in Starfleet's service, whether it be undercover or commanding a starship. He also had two other merits of notoriety: he'd honestly beaten the Kobyashi Maru scenario and he'd broken Jellico's jaw with a single punch.

"I've fought wars, like Kira and Ro, where you made due with whom you were able to recruit," Calhoun said.

"This isn't a provincial world or the Bajoran Resistance or the Maquis," Akaar grumbled, "Even my people, who have a proud warrior tradition, wouldn't be acceptable to Starfleet's old standards"

"Yet somehow you managed to qualify," Calhoun pointed out, "Every society has exceptional people. But then there are times when the numbers of such people are tragically low," Calhoun reasoned with him, "This is one of those times. The exceptional people are by and large deceased. You can keep holding Starfleet's standards on a pedestal or you can shape the material in the form of the recruits you receive into the officers and enlisted personnel you want."

"When Earth Starfleet became the Federation Starfleet, it had to adapt and it had to unify diverging views of how to operate and why," Lefler added.

"Our latest and ongoing recruits don't measure up so we teach them to," Nechayev asserted, "It's an opportunity rather than a liability."

"Yet those opportunities are now commanding starships they're barely qualified to serve on," Noyce reminded her.

"Then we reason with them," Calhoun suggested, "And failing that, we use their inexperience to our advantage."

"We do it all the time in Sector 221-G," Lefler promised therm.

"Commander Lefler, could Wesley Crusher be persuaded to use hsi abilities once again?" Noyce asked.

"Wesley stepped away from being a Traveler and its gifts in order to life his life as an ordinary man who could help shape the Federation's future," Lefler replied, "And that's just the way I like him."

Nechayev knew Crusher and Lefler had rekindled their very brief romance when he returned to Starfleet. And the accelerated promotions Starfleet had been permitting meant Lt. Commander Crusher wasn't horribly outranked by soon to be Captain Lefler.

"Starfleet has always had its share of malcontents. Even those that passed all of our screening sand graduated through all of our training programs," Noyce shared, "Some have even been admirals."

Magnum negotiated a halt on Macen's advance on the edge of Sector 001. Then he called together his COs. Captain Divine shared that her sister, Kimberly, was an agent with the Federation Security Service and was on a special assignment to determine who Edward Fowler was and where he'd suudenly appeared from, seemingly from thin air. And Agent Divine relayed the poor news that Jack Fowler's prison transport had been hijacked by renegades from Turkana IV. The entire crew of the Tribulation was free to roam the galaxuy.

And visuals of Edward and Jack Fowler made them out to be father and son or some other exceptionally close relatives. Agent Divine's theory was that the civilian "specialists" Magnum's squadron had been waiting for were none other than Jack Fowler's team. A theory endorsed by Magnum himself.

Starfleet was in an uproar. The chain of command had been so thoroughly disrupted by Fowler's coup and Internal Affairs' mass arrests, that no one knew who to recognize as the authority dictating Starfleet policy. Some factions, empowered by Fowler, implicitly endorsed his authority. Others opted to recognize the Council of Five's members as the legitimate remainder of Starfleet Command. And the third and final faction awaited orders of confirmation from the UFP President, blithely unaware that all communications traffic from Earth was being jammed and unable to leave the solar system.

Fowler hadn't outwardly seized control of the Federation Council and the President's Cabinet but the threat was implicit. And the government wondered who "Admiral" Edward Fowler was and where had he come from? Of course rumors flew that Fowler was none other than the director of thee mythical Section 31 that had bred Cell 51's threat several years ago.

"Our chief problem seems to be Edward Fowler," Magnum shared with the holographically composed briefing room of starship commanders, "Just yesterday, the man was an obscure blip in Memory Alpha's records and had been mentioned in Starfleet's Bureau of Personnel as an Admiral in charge of an archive site in London. Now he claims to be the Starfleet Commander. And in the same of 'security' he's destabilized Starfleet further than any one individual since Admiral Leyton."

"With bulk of Starfleet's experienced command officers detained, how could we repel an external threat at this juncture?" Agman inquired.

"Whoever he is, he isn't stupid. He'll have a contingency list," Morris complained.

"This is undoubtedly theater but for whose benfit?" Cera wondered.

Magnum's comm badge alerted him to an incoming message, "Captain, the USS Asimov is signaling their approach to deliver Captain Jack Fowler to assume command of the flotilla and pursue the Tribulation and her escorts."

"Thanks you, Ensign Hawke," Magnum shifted in his seat, "Computer, identify USS Asimov."

"Subject vessel is a Sydney-class transport permanently assigned to Jaros II," the computer recited.

"Sonuvabitch. They hijacked the prison transport," Morris was agitated.

"Or more appropriately, Admiral Fowler ordered the release of his son," Magnum said wearily.

"Has anyone else noticed that Jack Fowler w s just promote d from 'Commander' to 'Captain'," Divine asked.

"He'll probably be given flag rank if we protest his orders to assume command and pursue Macen's crews," Magnum dismally guessed.

"I don't know about the rest of you but I'm not following any orders coming out of Starfleet Command from this point forward," Morris angrily declared.

"If they're lawful orders, you're obligated by oath to obey them," Magnum grasped at one last straw.

"Tom, there's no chance in hell Fowler legally assumed his post. Look what's happened across Starfleet since he assumed command. Internal Affairs is being backed by a division of Starfleet with extensive tactical training and they're supposed to be archivists?" Divine was incredulous.

Magnum looked defeated, "Signal Macen. We need to know what he's actually up to,"

"Captain Magnum is requesting information regarding our actual mission," Kerber reported.

"Send Prentiss' report with my compliments," Macen told her.

Smith handed five strips of latinum over to a smirking Kerber. The ship came to an abrupt halt. Macen turned to Ebert, "Tracy?"

"The helm locked up," she told him.

"Every system has been locked," Sekona almost frowned.

"Celeste, signal our imminent departure," Macen requested, "Parva, wreck everything you can."

"On it," the Orion engineer reported.

The lights and life support ceased to function as Macen signaled the Venture, "Morgan, we need transportation to DS9."

"I wondered," Avery replied, "Standby."

The familiar tug of s transporter's annular confinement beam grabbed hold of everyone. Avery met Macen in the transporter room, "What now?"

"We set course for Deep Space Nine," Macen repeated.

"Any particular reason why?" she asked.

"Because that's where the resistance will form up," Rockford explained.

"You might want to explain that to Tom Magnum and his squadron," Avery smiled.

"I'm looking forward to it," Macen confessed.

Twenty starships, including the Obsidian, gathered at Deep Space Nine. The other Deep Space station kept their assigned starships close by in case Fowler loyalists should attack. All except Benteen's Sutherland. Smaller light cruisers had taken station instead.

Mackenzie Calhoun remained in Sector 221-G but Kat Mueller led the Trident crew to DS9. Captains Data, Sisko, and Riker had been called away from exploration efforts in the Alpha, Gamma, and Beta Quadrants respectively. Chakotay and the Voyager were requested to return from the Delta Quadrant but Janeway overruled the idea stating her fleet could serve as a strategic reserve.. Captain Dax brought the Aventine to bear on the problem as well.

Akaar, Nechayev, and Noyce had slipped free of Fowler's dragnets to reach Ro Laren's protection. Prentiss and Lietjen had been rerouted before they could reach Earth. Rekena Garan, Chancellor Martok, and Grand Nagus Rom all pledged their support to the Council of Five's efforts under Akaar's guidance. Top diplomats from each stellar nation attended erstwhile hearings given for representatives of the Federation Council aboard DS9. The revelation that the Federation had developed a biogenic "doomsday" weapon and also used it on three Romulan worlds staggered their imaginations.

And so Bacco's epic policy reversals were explained at long last. And the Romulan representative present for the findings acknowledged those events had catapulted the creation of the Typhon Pact. But Kerber and Smith had additional testimony to offer on events outside of Ardana IV.

"Starfleet has revamped their security in the wake of so many defections but prior to Fowler's overt takeover, Bailey and I managed to access the layered files regarding the zenite weapon. In short, the weapon is now effective against flora and fauna. But it's effects dissipate within a generation and the worlds became candidates for terraforming and restocking of species."

"But that's insane," Kira protested.

"No one is arguing that, Admiral. But the Tribulation was reclaimed in order to fight its way to Caligula and decimate the new Romulan capital," Kerber explained.

"Does Fowler want an all out war?" Akaar shouted to be heard over the clamor of voices.

"That does appear to be his goal," Smith confirmed it.

"With Bob Johnson and Picard back on Earth, we hardly have an emissary the Romulans will respect," Jim McKinley, the Intrepid's CO realized.

"I shall inform my government," Senator Tarn offered, "But Empress Donatra will not see a penetration of the Neutral Zone as anything but a prelude to war."

"Our task is both simplistic and daunting," Data surmised, "We must arrest Fowler and his fellow conspirators and we must also halt the Tribulation's attack."

"The Seventh Fleet has secured the Tzenkethi and Breen borders," Kira pledged.

"Same for the Ninth and the Tholians and Andergani," Ross promised.

"Captains Data, Sisko, and Riker, I need you to get Admiral Noyce and myself to Starfleet Command," Akaar ordered, "Riker, we have matters to discuss as soon as this meeting concludes."

"I'll be staying on Deep Space Nine to manage Starfleet Intelligence," Nechayev turned to Ro, "Hopefully that won't prove difficult for you."

"None at all," Ro said firmly, if tersely.

"Everyone else is pitted against the Tribulation. Captain Magnum has seniority so he will lead the action," Akaar continued, "Captain Saavik, in lack of an experienced diplomat, you will serve as our envoy to Caligula."

"I'll make the necessary arrangements," Tarn promised.

"Congratulations, Captain…or should I say Admiral," Akaar told Riker.

"Why now?" Riker asked.

"Because this crisis has shown the admiralty needs a dedicated troubleshooter. And despite Sisko's efforts, you bet qualkified for the job," Akaar told him.

"Can I refuse?" Riker wondered.

"Only if you resign in the same breath," Akaar railroaded him.

"You want this bad," Riker realized.

"The Federation needs it even more badly," Akaar ended the debate.

And Admiral Will Riker returned to his ship.

Nechayev pulled Ro, Macen, and Avery aside, "Akaar will be returning Prentiss to Earth to testify before the entire Federation Council and to report her findings to the President. I want you there as well."

"But the Defiant…" Ro began to protest.

"Will stay here with the station," Nechayev assured her, "I want you, Captain. You both were Maquis once. It's time for that kind of thinking again."

"You're ordering us to kill Fowler and hsi conspirators," Avery deduced.

"I can't issue that kind of order. It's blatantly illegal. However if weapons should discharge and 'accidental' deaths occur, there would be no investaigations into the matter," Nechayev revealed.

"But Ro and I are still with Starfleet," Avery protested.

"Director Forger accepted your transfer requests to the SID earlier today. I seem to have forgotten to tell you until now," Nechayev had covered several bases.

"How will we clear the sector patrols?" Ro asked.

"Your mutual friend, Captain Mudd. She's being given identity and transit papers," Nechayev revealed, "And Captain Mudd will no longer be the only woman in the room with platinum white blonde hair."

"Joelle Jones and her crew signed on as well, I take it," Macen realized.

"Argh," Ro groaned.

It seems Mudd pitched her recruitment to Jones and Jones and her crew applied for a Letter of Marque. Which she received along with an employment offer with Outbound Ventures and received a new ship. Shocking really," Nechayev faked surprise.

"So Jones is our escort," Macen ventured.

"The Venture will accompany the Hathaway as they enter Sector 001. Mudd will land the SID team on Earth where my people will have narrowed down a target list," Nechayev stated, "Captain Avery will assist Captain Jones in securing Spacedock."

"It seems our choices have all been made fo us," Ro grumbled.

"You could always return to yoru cell on Jaros II," Nechayev offered with sickly sweetness.

"Where do we meet Jones?" Macen changed the subject.

"Here," Nechayev told them, "She and Mudd are due any minute now."

"Last time I saw Jones she had a NV-class starship," Ro recalled.

"She's traded up since then," Nechayev said smugly.

"Not counting her Iotian command?" Macen wondered.

"Are you suggesting your new fellow agent once commanded a starship for the Iotian Federation, a known member of the Typhon Pact?" Nechayve sounded insulted.

"Still playing head games," Ro observed.

"Better than being a head case, dear," Nechayev retorted.

Ro actually growled.

"I think we'd best get all our personnel ready for departure," Macen suggested to end the bickering.

"You will transit to Alpha Centauri in the Obsidian which will lay in wait while you approach Earth. If you leave now, you can arrive after Admiral Riker's team departs DS9 twelve hours from now," Nechayev advised them all.

"So they promoted Will," Ro was pleased, "Finally, an admiral beside s Kira I can respect."

As Ro strode off, Nechayev asked Macen, "Does she need to be reminded to leave the uniform behind?"

"She knows the drill, Alynna," Macen assured her.

"If Picard hadn't had such pull I would have let he rot in the Bajoran Militia," Nechayev shared.

"I'll be sure to tell her so," Macen replied, "It's a great motivator."

And Avery exited with Macen.

"He's going too far," Gennady whined.

"Oh, shut up." Starling snapped at him, "This is precisely what we said we wanted."

"I never wanted a doomsday weapon," Kostigan complained.

"Be careful of what you say!" Hesh warned, "You saw what they did to Jellico."

"What did happen to him?"Kostigan asked.

"Was it Jaros II or somewhere in the Orion Confederacy?" Gennady fretted.

"He's in a Section 31 black site. Supposedly no one can find it," Starling told them, "Everyone else Internal Affairs detained is detained by the Orions."

"It's that Gulag fiasco all over again," Hesh bitterly complained.

"Careful, Hesh. These Section 31 types are cracking down on perceived disloyalty," Starling told him, "They're probably tapping into our conversation even now."

The conference room doors opened and a squad of Section 31 agents rushed in before finally admitting Edward Fowler himself, "You'd be oh so correct, Admiral Starling."

"Fowler," Starling said neutrally.

"I prefer you all standing by my side. It would make things less complicated and legitimize my rule," Fowler offered, "Akaar and his band of malcontents are intent on toppling me just as I'm establishing my new empire."

"Rule over an empire?" she didn't appreciate the terminology.

"Every hierarchal bureaucracy is its own fiefdom," Fowler defused the provocative language, "Starfleet is no exception."

"I suppose you have lists of new targets," Starling knew for certain.

"The command staffs of Deep Spaces Three, Four, Nine,, and K-7 must be removed through any means necessary," Fowler instructed.

"You want them terminated, not arrested," Kostigan realized.

"If the arresting agents should feel threatened for any reason, they have a right to defend themselves with whatever force is necessary," Fowler created the legal fiction to cover the actions.

Starling in particular was disturbed by this course of events. She'd never been asked or ordered to assassinate fellow Starfleet officers before. And she was amazed at how politely it could be done. Starfleet Command really was a brave new world these days.

The Constellation-class USS Hathaway arrived at DS9 beside the Freehold. Starfleet Intelligence had refurbished the starship and reregistered her as a civilian transport. Joelle Jones and her crew of ex-Maquis commanded the SS Hathaway now. But in the years since the Maquis, Jones had supplemented members of her original crew with eager replacements due to losses or retirements.

And now the veteran Maquis crewmembers were living a dream. They would get to topple Starfleet. Mudd was more than happy to assist as well. Nechayev's terms of service were exceptionally generous.

Avery decoupled the Venture and went to the outer edge of the Bajoran system to meet the two newcomers. The Obsidian also disembarked under a new commander. Macen insisted Ro take the center seat for the duration of the mission.

The crew didn't know Ro well enough to either judge or willingly accept this turn of events. But Macen had also turned tactical command of the SID team over to Ro. And despite most of their long acquaintanceships with Ro, there was a great deal of disgruntlement over the turn of command. Only Ebert was used to seeing Macen take orders for Ro and defer to her judgment.

Ro left the running of the Obsidian to Macen and Macen deferred to Shannon Forger. Ro contacted Jones from the Captain's Ready Room and began burying the proverbial hatchet. Jones was feeling magnanimous after her cordial greeting from Macen laced with Nechayev's generosity of issuing a blank pardon for any and all crimes committed within Federation space.

Ro briefed Jones, Avery, Forger, Mudd, Macen, and Rockford simultaneously, "The Special Investigations Division is ostensibly a civilian agency owing its total allegiance to the UFP and the President. I say 'ostensibly' because the agency retains all of it s previous ties with Starfleet including its former Starfleet assets. In light of Prentiss' investigation, the President felt incumbent to 'remove' the SID from Starfleet's control and place it under his direct authority."

Ro continued, "Once we reach Sector 001, Captain Avery will conduct sorties of local Starfleet traffic in anticipation of Admiral Riker's action. Captain Jones and Commander Forger will be assisting her in this."

"It'll basically boil down to a series of hit and run guerilla styled attacks," Avery told them.

"My favorite kind," Jones had zeal lighting up her eyes.

"And all of this is distract Sol Command from Harri's entrance and weaken the defense grid to prepare for Riker's group," Forger had a keen grasp of the situation.

"Hey, distract away," Mudd grinned.

"What about the ground team?" Rockford asked.

"A twofold approach is being used," Ro told her, "Celeste, you and your investigators will have access to Starfleet from a remote duty station. It's your role to uncover any and all evidence to be used in trial against the conspirators. Brin and I will lead the tactical team in completing the arrests."

"But you can't seriously be thinking about taking these people alive," Rockford complained.

"I can and I will," Ro silenced the debate before it began.

"Do we even know where Fowler will be?" Avery asked.

"He won't be at Starfleet Command," Macen shared, "But Jack Fowler gave his father's position away when he contacted him from the Sydney-class prison transport he and his team were allowed to steal during the supposed jail break. Amanda Forger and her teams at Ampok Nor have been eavesdropping on both Fowlers ever since."

"You sneaky bastard," Rockford punched her husband in the arm.

"It wasn't just me," Macen rubbed his wounded member, "Amanda put it all into motion after the initial suggestion and tailored it so it worked seemingly without a flaw."

"Modesty doesn't suit you," Rockford deadpanned.

"So where will Fowler be?" Avery impatiently asked.

"First a little background, after the Breen strike on Earth and specifically on Starfleet Command and the Federation Council Building, basic services on Earth were disrupted and the loss of communication, even for such a short time, disrupted governmental functions across the Federation," Macen reminded them all, "In response, a shadow government was created. A hidden means of keeping the government intact and functioning in the loss of the President, the Federation Council, and even the bulk of Starfleet Command. That cabal still exist today."

"Only now Edward Fowler wants to be the public face in charge as well," Jones guessed.

"To be fair, Section 31 owns and operates the shadow cabinet. Fowler's immediate precursor as Director of the Section 31 held the same dual post as well," Macen explained, "But Section 31 has been operating openly in London since after First Contact and the worldwide unification. They stage from a data archive that is both a legitimate Starfleet resource and the hidden headquarters for Section 31."

"Best place to hide and all that," Jones seemed to approve, "My girls and I have been hiding in plain sight at Forrest Station for a decade."

"And it seems you have a knack for acquiring decommissioned starships," Avery countered.

"You can thank Ro here for leading us to the Saratoga and your precious Admiral Nechayev for giving us the Hathaway," Jones shared.

"Captain Avery, I expect you to work hand in hand with Captain Jones and Commander Forger," Ro reminded everyone, "And your primary mission begins before my team reaches London."

The two disparate captains' holograms faded away leaving Forger to mutter as she exited the Ready Room, "This ought to be fun."

"Brin, I think you'd better give me everything you have on the archive," Ro recommended.

"Everything is public Starfleet record. Everything else is just an inference knowing what we do about Section 31," Macen told her, "Only Section 31 operatives will know more."

"And Erika Benteen will be blocked from communicating with us," Ro guessed, "Is there anyone else?"

"Possibly," Macen allowed, "Agent John Crichton Browder was with Sloan when we investigated Elijah Waters' death. When Sloan died, Browder fell out of favor. But he knows where most of the bodies are buried so that bought him insurance. He may or may not be willing to topple Fowler."

"Ask him if he'd appreciate living under Browder's regime," Ro insisted, "That should motivate him."

"Captain, Sector 001 seems devoid of Starfleet traffic," Armino, Avery's XO, reported.

"And that worries me," Avery confided, "Commercial and civilian traffic seem unaffected. And our credentials seem to have paid for our entrance into the system."

"Meaning our bona fides as pirates," Armino deduced.

"Precisely," Avery confirmed it, "The same holds true for Jones and Mudd."

"Fowler must presume he can purchase our loyalty," Armino speculated.

"Good bet," Avery agreed, "And I'm not certain he isn't wrong about Jones and Mudd."

"And yet Captain Ro trusts Captain Jones and Captain Macen seems certain of Captain Mudd," Armino reminded Avery.

"Which leaves me the resident skeptic," Avery pointed out, "A fact I'm well aware of, Armino. But it doesn't change anything."

Mudd transported the SID team to Bari, Italy. It was a port facility and hosted a Starfleet telecommunications post. Rockford led Lee, Shade, and Forte to it and they quietly took the post over. And they began doing their research.

Macen's team took the ferry to Ulcinj, Montenegro. The town was one of the oldest port cities on the Adriatic. It dated back to 5 BCE. From there the team hired ground transport to Sasko Lake where the village of Sas existed. It was a quiet hamlet with a population always lingering around 300 people. But next to it was the medieval site of Svac.

Svac had been overrun and destroyed in the 1200s by the Mongols. Now it was home to one individual. Browder made the ruins of Svac his home. And it here that Macen attempted to contact him.

"This place is a wreck," Ebert complained.

"But we're being actively scanned," Daggit replied.

"And targeted," Parva added as phaser turrets revealed themselves in every direction.

"They probably won't target me," Tessa theorized.

"But they may find your mobile emitter to be a threat," Smith softly warned her.

"Well, if I live and breathe. Ro Laren and Brin Macen reunited," Browder drawled his laconic southern accent.

He'd put on twenty pounds over the last sixteen years. Browder finished his thought, "Sloan told me you might come for me someday."

"Not in the way you're thinking," Ro countered, "You know what Fowler is up to."

"And I warned anyone that would listen and most that wouldn't what would happen if that man was made Director," Browder complained, "And they forcibly retired me as my thanks."

"Help us stop him," Ro requested.

"Fowler may have lousy methods but his intentions are decent. The Federation is soft and decadent. They need to realize the universe s essentially hostile to life and civilization," Browder spoke, "Cell 51 was the first step in that revelation. Fowler is the natural progression."

"We could force you to help," Ro threatened.

"How? Sick your pet Angosian or EMH on me?" Browder scoffed at the idea.

"Easy everyone, we need him," Ro warned everyone else.

"No, you only need them," Browder pointed out Kerber and Smith, "All you need from me is an introduction to get past the front door. Once you're inside, you'll need to plunder the specially coded armory. And if Fowler captures all of you, I'll simply say you overpowered me and raped my data vault."

"Deal," Ro agreed to his terms.

The UFP President had resigned amidst unknown suspicions. That made Vice President Shwren ann'Deri te newly sworn in President. Seen as a joke by her political rivals Wren had run on a populist platform despite her Andorian heritage. But she'd served at the Tactical Officer aboard the USS Gandhi and worked beside Tom Riker. And he'd broken her heart.

After joining the Cobalt Office, Wren had looked Riker up and discovered he'd settled down into the SID and married a joined Trill named Lisea Danan. At reading the news, Wren still felt a pang of regret that she hadn't confessed the depth of her feelings to Riker. But at least he'd seemingly found happiness and a purpose all his own.

Wren's Chief of Staff was another fellow officer from those days. Annalise Valis had navigated Starfleet bureaucracy for a dozen years before resigning and joining Wren's initial campaign for a governorship over Sherman's Planet. Riker had introduced Valis to the broader world of fluid transfers and thus overcoming her background as a clone from a society of clones.

Now Valis was the giddy, if overwhelmed, mother of six children by six different fathers all of six different species. She was a literal United Federation of Planets in her own backyard.

Wren had changed her name upon entering Starfleet shortening it from Shwrenann zh'Deri to something more pronounceable to pinks skins. And Wren fell in love with human men. She couldn't even fathom marrying into a quad sexed Andorian family grouping. As a zhen she more closely anatomically resembled human females than the other feminine Andorian sex.

Wren was in a long term relationship with a Starfleet captain. Brian "Skip" Tyler commanded a Constellation-class starship recommissioned after the Enforcer debacle. Wren had stepped down as she was being promoted to Captain and being assigned as a Sector Security Commander.

Protocol was trickier with unmarried partners. Tyler couldn't be referred to as the "First Husband" nor could he simply be discounted because he and Wren had cohabitated every opportunity they had for the last fourteen years. One PR staffer had suggested "First Consort" but the imperialistic tinge reminded people fo the Andorian Empire which was an association everyone worked hard at avoiding.

Wren had grown up on Sherman's Planet had had spent less than two weeks in Andorian territory much less Andoria itself. Wren had seen the best the Federation had to offer growing up and in Starfleet. And that message of hope was what she brought to the Presidency, however unorthodox her arrival to it had been.

Wren's campaign had been "Strength through peace and peace through strength." She voiced the belief that the Federation would sway nonaligned worlds through example rather than force. And that belief in the collective good would overwhelm foreign hostility. But now it seemed domestic hostility needed to be dealt with.

Diplomacy served the Federation's interests far better than militancy. It had been policy for over two hundred years and Wren wouldn't see it die on her watch. But Starfleet had forcibly evacuated her and her staff to Section 31's London base. And injured four of her people getting them into the cells located beneath the archive amongst other things.

Wren shared a cell with Valis since they were short on space. Fowler had been making infrequent visits. And now he'd returned.

"How are you feeling now, Madame President?" he asked with seeming sincerity.

"Irritated, just like before. This is a poor way to try to 'persuade' me to conform to you ideology," Wren replied tartly.

"I could force you to conform but I want you to be a willing working partner. The masses must have their illusions that all is as it always has been," Fowler replied.

"You simply want me waving at the grandstands from a balcony window while you sit behind me as the gray cardinal in complete and total control. I'd be the public face of your policies and the likeliest target for the disgruntled," Wren stated, "My assassination would enable to exert public control afterwards with a Committee for Public Safety or some such."

"Congratulations, Madame President. As politically astute as your predecessor was, I doubt he would have been fully cognizant of those facts," Fowler didn't even bother to try and hide his ambitions, "But an assassination would prove meaningless and unnecessary if you simply did what you were told."

"Which is te sticking point where our ideologies part ways," Wren told him.

"You fool!" Fowler spat, "The Federation can no longer afford your regressive policies. You were doomed to failure before I ever began my campaign to consolidate control over the Federation."

"And who chose you to be the Federation's unwanted savior?" Wren asked.

"Messiahs are rarely appreciated in their own lifetimes," Fowler angrily declared.

"And yet all of your ambitions rest on a single weapon. Do you really believe the Federation will remain whole and intact after mass xenocides are committed?" Wren had to ask.

"Section 31 has studied the Terran Empire from the alternate universe. We could learn a lot from them," Fowler revealed.

"Like how to unite a Klingon-Cardassian Alliance that will crush the Terran Empire?" Wren retorted.

"The fall of Emperor Spock's Terran Empire is history. The rise and continuation of the true Terran Empire is another matter," Fowler smirked.

"And that kind of fear and hatred doesn't dissuade you from going down that path?" Wren wanted to know

"Fear is life and it propels me down this path," Fowler postulated.

"Then you're even more delusional than I thought," Wren said.

Fowler stormed out. Wren sighed, "We have bigger problems than I originally thought."

"They're holding my children,," Valis growled, "If I get out of here I am ending him."

"You might be doing the universe a favor," Wren conceded.

"Too simply put things, we've reactivated everyone's Starfleet commissions. Except Tessa, who doesn't require one. Parva is listed as an engineering consultant at the SPYards again, and Bailey and I are data processing specialists brought into the archive to facilitate data storage and file transfers to Memory Alpha," Kerber explained.

"That doesn't include me," Ebert pointed out.

"Because you're excluded from the team," Smith told her, "We thought you knew."

Ebert flashed Macen an angry look, "No, no one told me anything."

"It was my call," Ro told her, "Brin didn't know until now. Angelique and Bailey have arranged for you to have access to a runabout located on a Starfleet pad in Bari. Your job is get Rockford and her investigators to Paris as soon as they have enough evidence to make a case."

"Which does fit our original mission better," Macen conceded but he was also plainly unhappy at not being consulted.

"I can provide uniforms," Browder assured everyone, "As well as transportation back to Italy."

The Mars based system interceptors challenged the Obsidian, the Hathaway, and the Venture, interrupting a quiet egress into the solar system. And then a lone Galaxy-class starship indentified as the USS Rutherford entered the system behind them.

"Who are these blighters and why are they flitting about in my solar system?" Voltaire rambled.

"Identify transponders identify the individual ships a,.." Byte began.

"Shut it or I'll have you dismantled," Voltaire warned, "You and Rey are just damn lucky Fowler wants you on duty."

Voltaire considered his options as the ship bore down exclusively on the Venture, "Mr. Byte, bring Ms. Yar up to the bridge. I want the ship's captain to see how we deal with traitors. You'll be personally chastising Ms. Yar. Or I'll have you recycled."

The threat was blatantly illegal considering that the only mechanical portion of Byte was his brain. The rest of him was purely organic. And human nonetheless.

"The Venture is hailing us," Morag told Voltaire.

"Let them eat static," Voltaire was quite manic now, "Prepare to lock phasers and target photon torpedoes on that vessel when I give the order. I want her destroyed as example for the rest."

"Prep all weapons systems and shields," Avery ordered, "Alert boarding parties to stand by."

"Are you certain?" Armino was advising caution.

"They would have replied to our hails long ago if they meant any good for us," Avery replied, "Arm weapons and raise shields. Now we'll see what they have in mind."

"We're rigged for silent running," Nyota Nicjols reported, "On course for their shuttlebays."

"Our proximity will foul their torpedo launchers until they disable the proximity safeties," Jones told her, "Helm?"

"Approaching at half impulse and they're slowing," Jena Cole relayed.

"Slow accordingly. I want to match the Rutherford's speed not overtake them," Jones instructed, "Sensors?"

"They seem wholly focused and committed to engaging the Venture," Tatsu Toshira stated from the Sciences station.

Jones tapped a virtual button, "Hailey, get ready to transport our surplus 'packages' at a moment's notice."

"Yes, Captain. We have everything prepped and ready to deploy," Hailey Cooper, the ship's teenage transporter chief confirmed.

"All right Illyana, let them know we're here," Jones instructed Fermova, her communications chieftain.

"Captain! We're being hailed from our aft quarter!" Morag lamented.

"Incompetents! Must I do everything?" Voltaire raged.

"Red Alert! Raise shields!" Frakes ordered.

"Several teams were beamed aboard from ahead and astern," Byte revealed, "Engineering has fallen to the boarding parties."

Everyone's systems went in to standby as an hours long diagnostic began.

"Clever," Rey mused.

"Exceptionally," Byte concurred.

Yar disarmed the two guards standing watch over her. She handed Byte one of her captured phasers.

"I've got one," Rey pulled it out from underneath the CONN station.

Avery's boarding party flooded onto the bridge from the turbolifts and the crawlspaces.

Jones' engineering team had followed the stun bombs that detonated throughout Engineering thanks to Cooper's precision placements. The Deputy Chief, Ryssa Davis, reported in to Jones, "We've secured the ship. The could cut their way through bulkheads to get to us but we could set the auto destruct and be back aboard in time to watch the fireworks."

"I'll be happy to report that to Paige," Jones' Chief Engineer was woman named Donaldson.

Hailey Cooper's older sister, Gwen was the EMT beamed aboard to tend to any wounded. The 2nd Officer, Zara Smythe, also came with. Once Davis' engineering team shut everything down, Smythe led the holding action.

Yar threw in with Avery's boarding party and opened negotiations with Voltaire. Frakes was indignant, "Where did you people come from?"

"Your main briefing room. We transported in as soon as we were in range," Arwara was happy to tell them, "It seemed that your anti-intrusion defenses were offline."

Morag looked mortified before he was stunned. Frakes was just plain stunned before he hit the deck. Triad begged and pleaded and offered sexual favors before she too was put down.

Avery hailed Arwrara's team, "Captain Jones is recalling her personnel. We have an inbound hostile."

"Understood, we'll continue to hold," Arwara confirmed.

"Now is a good time to start being reasonable," Yar dictated to a seething Voltaire, "And we really should sit down in your Ready Room. I know where you keep the aged bourbon. You're going to be breaking out some sifters and we'll all be indulging. Even you."

With the Tribulation damaged beyond easy repair, Jack Fowler received orders to load experimental long range torpedoes aboard the USS Thunderchild and begin delivering them one Typhon Pact nation at a time. After that was accomplished, Fowler would rearm and attack the Federation's fellow Khitomer Accords signatories and finally move to eradicate the Iridian Enforcers.

And the Federation would plant their dominion over every known civilization. It was plan gestating within Section 31 since the late 23rd century but had never reached a fruition point until the agency explored the Mirror Universe.

Edward Fowler was irate. All the timetables were bogged down. Gennady and Kostigan were late arriving at Ardana IV. Starling had retreated to Luna. Hesh was trying to bury himself somewhere amongst Starfleet regulars.

Kostigan had the most disturbing news. Half of Starfleet hadn't reported in yet since Fowler's take over. And less than a quarter of those that had previously removed their senior officers still had a viable chain of command. And the teams sent to replace the expectedly problematic crews had never reported in since departure.

Gennady assured Fowler that every space station and starbase held by the resistance faction would deplete available forces since the stations necessitated protecting. But every scenario was built around an external foe not a potential civil war. Not even the Cell 51 precursor design to test the viability of the plan had so thoroughly carved up allegiances.

Akaar and the Council of 5 simply needed to disappear. And so did Data, Riker, Sisko, Dax, Janeway, Chakotay, and a dozen other top officers. Fowler had allowed Wren to survive this long as bait. But once Starfleet was finally and completely his, her execution would be the first order of business.

Browder brought Ro's team into the heart fo Section 31. From all appearances the above ground floors were exactly what they purported to be. The data archive extended twenty stories into the London skyline. But the staffers were aware that something covert existed beneath them. It was part of the nondisclosure orders they received upon being posted at the archive.

"How far down does this facility extend?" Ro asked Browder.

"Twenty levels. That makes as deep as it is tall," Browder told her.

"Where exactly does the Section 31 name derive from?" Daggit asked.

"I've wondered that myself," Parva admitted.

"The agency was incorporated because of the ambiguity of Section 31 of the original Starfleet Charter revisited and reaffirmed by the Federation Starfleet Charter," Browder revealed.

"I never saw that," Burrows confessed, "And Starfleet Special Operations Command shares its origin in the same clause."

"You have to realize the perspective. They were creating a clandestine agency within Starfleet that most officers, even the admiralty, wouldn't know about," Browder shared, "Particularly not the Vulcans when it was first instituted into being."

"It's just more men and women playing god," Ro said distastefully.

"Then it's a good thing all gods die this day," Daggit decided.

"Damn straight," Parva resolutely agreed.

While security finally cleared them into the archive center, Kerber and Smith distanced themselves. Only four data terminals on the ground floor accessed Section 31's secure servers. They'd memorized the location of each one and they commandeered two of them facing towards each other. Then they quietly began infiltrating the system.

Browder got everyone else into the security office and used his clearance to arm them with phasers equipped to not be automatically deactivated by the in-house security net. Macen commented to Ro, "Tracy and Tessa are going to be upset they missed this"

"Even your frinxing EMH is an adrenalin junkie," Ro complained.

"You're the one that left them in Italy," Macen reminded her, "So they'll only be angry with you."

"Something to look forward to," Ro rolled her eyes.

Browder took them to the turbolift, which was large enough to ferry twenty people at a time. And after riding down one level, they got their first glimpse of Section 31's secret base. And the beast was even more developed and entrenched than anyone had dared guess.

"Communication from the Obsidian," Fermova reported to Jones, "Two ships have dropped out of warp at the edge fo the system and are blazing their way towards Earth at maximum impulse."

"Tatsu, get me a scan of those ships and then plot a parabolic course showing their egress into the inner system," Joes ordered Toshira. And Toshira was more than happy to obey.

"Illyana, contact Avery and find out of she wants to be a pirate as well as play one," Jones instructed Fermova.

"She wants to know what you have in mind, Captain," Fermova told her.

"We'll play concerned helpers to a stricken Rutherford as it broadcasts distress signals," Jones replied, "Once we've lured Starfleet in, we'll strike while they're unprotected."

Fermova passed the information along before replying, "She'll do it. She doesn't like it at all but she'll do it anyway."

Jones addressed Ana Novic, "Plot us an exit course out of the system if we can get these buggers to follow us."

"Yes, ma'am," Novic happily replied.

"Captain, I have IDs on the two inbound starships. They're the Centaur and the Manitoba."

"Give me everything we have on them," Jones insisted, "And hurry. Anji, pull up their specs."

Botwan complied.

"Using a starship as bait. This is the first truly piratical thing we've done," Avery complained.

"We've all known it could come down to something like this," Armino stated, "But suddenly I wish I was on another starship."

"It'll get better as other stragglers arrive," Avery sarcastically told him, "And we have to keep up pretenses until Riker's squadron arrives."

"I hate my life," Armino only half joked.

"I can't get at the AI," Kerber quietly complained.

"Artificial intelligences are illegal within Federation borders anyway," Smith whispered back, "I'll deal with the AI. Just keep security off of me."

The facility security detail had taken notice of Kerber and Smith's efforts at the secure stations. As had the ground floor archival staffers. Smith focused on the AI's language parameters.

The Federation founders had each suffered disastrous results at the hands of computerized intelligences that cost billions of lives. So one of the first unified acts of the Federation Council was to band artificial intelligences. And that law had remained unchanged and unbroken for centuries or so it had seemed until arriving at Section 31.

But other sentient fleshly beings had made similar decisions for similar reasons as the AIs. Kodos was a prime example from somewhat modern history. Or the madness of offspring trying to protect their fathers in the case of Kodos' daughter, Lenore.

Kerber decided to simply deal with the closest guard first. The enlisted officer was human so a palm strike too the nose nicely distracted him with Kerber plucked his phaser from his belt and she stunned him. And then she began stunning everyone wearing a phaser.

Meanwhile Smith noted that archivists were running around in a panic rather than guarding their collections. She supposed it was a difference between Ardanan society and the Federation. But she had expected better spinal fortitude from Starfleet.

"Got in," Smith announced in a normal tome and then lights went out.

"Turbolift?" Kerber asked as she stunned the last of the security detail.

"Functional but only to our biosigns," Smith bragged, "I've reset it to a fairly primitive relay and all other security lockouts are disabled."

Another security officer was pinned down behind a console and she wondered how Kerber had spotted her in semi-darkness. Unaware that Kerber and Smith had spent their formative years fighting in mineshafts and in the dark of night.

"Going down?" Smith asked Kerber.

"Right behind you," Kerber agreed as she volleyed fresh phaser fire at incoming security reinforcements coupled with Federation Security Service agents. Then the turbolift sealed and whisked them away below ground.

What Starfleet Security deduced was that Smith hadn't shut the building down. She'd simply put it on standby so its sensors could register her location an d activate as she needed it to. And then they discovered the AI she'd tricked into doing so.

Browder led Ro and the SID team to the armory on Sub-Level One. And the lights and power went down. Emergency lighting came to life and the SID dealt with the startled agents in short order. Afterwards, even Browder was impressed.

"Pretty impressive, I doubted you people had brutal takedowns in you," Browder admitted.

"We could still demonstrate on you," Ro quipped, "Meanwhile binder and gag these men and women."

Ro called Macen and Browder in for consultation to ascertain where to go next. Smith and Kerber followed their tricorder link to the internal sensors to find the team, "We've disabled the primary system but left internal sensors keyed to this unit and the turbolifts activated by Bailey and I's life signs."

"They have the UFP President in detainment," Smith shared.

"Our priority is the President," Ro informed the team, "Daggit, Kerber, Smith, and Macen are excluded from that effort. Burrows, Parva, and Browder, are all on me."

"I'd prefer to stay with Macen," Browder drawled, "I've been waiting for this shindig since Sloan died."

"So be it," Ro snorted.

When Ro's unit reached the detention center, they found otherwise unrestricted Presidential Cabinet members herded into clumps by Section 31 gunmen. Taking out the extremely distracted gunmen proved to be the easier part of the equation. Getting them, and Valis' six children, out quietly would be another matter.

"Burrows, take point. Parva you have rearguard, I'll mind the President," Ro told them.

"Why are you doing this?" Wren asked at last, "How are you doing it?"

"It's a long story but we have time," Ro began explaining as their small column moved out. She concluded with, "Starfleet has given me three second chances. It's time I repaid that."

Fowler was haranguing then facility's engineers over their inability to reactivate the system AI. One tried to be reasonable, "The system is deactivated. It's has new language codes it accepts but we can't isolate or remove them to tell it to standby until further notice."

Starling knew her end was drawing nigh. As was Section 31's. The engineer's were too busy congratulating themselves over reactivating unimportant subsystems that were never part of the attacker's priority. .

Macen and Daggit began stunning engineer's a security personnel alike. Fowler was incensed and wholly focused on Browder's presence, "I should have known you'd betray us."

"I'm not the one trying to seize control over the Federation," Browder retorted.

"So these are the people trying to kill us?" Kerber's voice held a dangerous edge.

Fowler backed Starling into a secretive room to find out why she'd left Luna. Smith deprived it of power and sealed the doors shut. She promised Macen it would open again before they asphyxiated. Maybe.

"Do they have any basic amenities in there?" Macen inquired of Browder.

"Chemical lighting, chemical sanitation, water and rations to last a year," Browder shrugged.

"Now do we contact our half of Starfleet?" Kerber asked.

"First order of business," Macen pledged.

The Titan led the Enterprise and the Robinson in relieving the Venture, the Obsidian, and what was left of the wreckage of the Hathaway. Avery and Forger took on survivors from Jones' crew. Emelie Winters reported from OPS that Mudd had called the "all clear". So Avery and Forger set course from Earth as fast as Rosie Winters and Aglaia could input the coordinates into their helms.

Wren went into crisis control putting down the actually rebellious elements of Starfleet before turning her attention to the Federation Council and its "election" of a Fowler stooge as President after hearing reports of her death. Prentiss would be delivering her repport. And Wren insisted Ro be there as well.

"All right. But I won't like it," Ro curmudgeonly replied.

"Neither will I," Wren promised.

The Obsidian reported its arrival and Smith "persuaded" the artificial intelligence to commit "digital suicide". And the lights went out permanently on the underground Section 31 base but left the data archive unaffected. Macen bid Browder farewell.

"You could come with us,:" he offered.

"Sorry, but I think Section 31 needs a little more housecleaning. Hakatay and Sekona are my first recruits. I might even be able to convince Gilmore," Browder replied.

"This just goes to show again that Section 31 and the SID make natural allies," Macen told him.

"We'll see," Browder allowed before disappearing into the archive. Some secrets couldn't be divulged. Ever.

Jones opted to return to Forrest Station to retrieve the NV-26 USS Saratoga rather than crew aboard the Venture. All of her crew was transferred to Avery's ship and then the voyage was made.

Section 31 was officially shut down and dismantled but Amanda Forger and Nechayev tracked the distribution of suspected Section 31 assets long after the agency's official demise. But it seemed there was now more than one faction of S31 in existence. So it made them harder to monitor than ever.

Fowler and the conspiring admirals faced trial before the Federation Council and the trial actually brought the possibility of death sentences despite longstanding Federation policy. But in the end they all received sentences to Jaros II's maximum security wing. Jellico was never located. Wherever Fowler had put Jellico, it was like he'd vanished from the universe.

The SID was officially reincorporated within the Starfleet organizational framework. Agents would be chosen from Starfleet officers and exemplary civilian assets. So those members of Macen's crew that had once possessed Starfleet rank found themselves recommissioned as officers. And most were promoted as such.

Seeing as, Shannon Forger was promoted to than rank of captain and given formal command of the Obsidian. Macen was made a commander again and given the title Mission Commander. The SID has a whole remained aboard Ampok Nor. Which was still a civilian space station.

But Macen was divested of any and all corporate responsibilities regarding Outbound Ventures. Rockford, on the other hand, was now the managing partner of Outbound Ventures and Rockford Investigations. Going forward it was believed the mix of Starfleet and civilian assets would only strengthen the team rather than hinder it.

But the Obsidian crew was homogenized into being Starfleet only. Those ship's officers that had never served in Starfleet enlisted a s noncommissioned officers and underwent training as such. This left Ebert restricted from the bridge. But the Corsair was her exclusive dominion.

Tom Riker and Lisea Danan kept their ranks as they rejoined Starfleet but a new XO was sent to Ampok Nor. Which suited Danan who wanted more time for her scientific studies. And Riker was a Starfleet captain at long last just as his brother made admiral.

"The uniform's look good," Macen told the Forger sisters, "And congratulations on the promotions."

Amanda also been promoted from Rear Admiral to Vice Admiral. She shared her concerns regarding Section 31, "I don't suppose Browder will just let it die?"

"Of course not," Macen replied, "And he won't be able to keep it intact."

"Which means more nuts to the squirrels," Rockford grumped.

"So top flight agents like Sarina Douglas will have options to choose from," the elder Forger realized.

"And Jack Fowler will scoop up the remainder," Macen predicted.

"Yay, Jim Bob," Rockford rolled her eyes.

"You know it," Macen seemed almost amused.

 

- The End -

 

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Last modified: 02 Sep 2018 
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