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The Romulan Mission - Part III by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter 12

Commander Donatra sat in her office and replayed the Admiral's message yet again. Her orders had changed. She was now to arrest P'ris on sight and destroy the Shadow as soon as possible. Macen and T'Kir would be taken into custody and handed over to Military Intelligence.

The Commander leaned back in her chair and let out a deep sigh. She had choices to make and very little information upon which to base her decisions. In combat, the goal was simple: strike out at the enemy. All she had to do here was determine who the enemy truly was. It was a task easier said than done.

There was also a question of duty. Donatra had never shirked from duty a day in her life. It had been this diligence that had carried her to command a Warbird at such a young age. Her record since assuming command only testified to her adherence to duty.

The last problematic element was P'ris' letter of authority from the Senate. As she understood it, no orders from the Fleet command hierarchy could override those orders yet that's exactly what her latest orders represented an attempt at. The questionable legality of such an attempt was not unheard of in Romulan politics. What was unheard of was placing her squarely in the middle.

The questions outnumbered the answers and none led a direct path to the answer. To complicate matters further, she had no idea of when P'ris would return, so she had no idea of how long she had before she had to make her final choice. In the meantime, she could at least obey a fraction of her orders. She exited her office and entered the bridge.

"Raise shields and bring all disruptors to bear on the Federation starship." She ordered and her crew eagerly obeyed.

Daggit was gratified as the vault's access terminal registered the correct entry of the entry code. The screen shifted to an incomprehensible display of Romulan characters that he couldn't understand. Ayrck and Khimar, however, seemed pleased. The Remans exchanged eager smiles as they readied their weapons.

"Now we can complete our mission." Ayrck intoned gravely.

"None can stop us." Khimar stared down at Daggit; "None shall stop us."

Daggit held his hands up in mock surrender, "I'm not here to stop you, just to help."

"Good." Khimar grunted, ""You are an able and honourable soldier. It would have been a shame to have to kill you at this juncture."

Versus later? Daggit wondered as he readied his own weapon. Ayrck retrieved a photon grenade from a fold in his armour and depressed the arming trigger. Khimar opened the vault's massive door while Daggit covered the growing opening with his disruptor rifle. He began laying down suppressive fire as Ayrck threw the grenade into the vault.

Khimar put his shoulder to the door and barely closed it before the grenade detonated. Khimar jumped out of the way of the door as it swung open on its massive hinges. Smoke billowed forth from the open space. A few dying groans could be heard from inside but there were no signs of movement.

"After you, Starfleet." Khimar said tauntingly.

Daggit placed the butt of his rifle firmly in his shoulder and proceeded to enter the vault. The stench of violent death hung in the air. He swept his eyes and rifle barrel across the guardroom as one. Seeing nothing, he called back to the waiting Remans.

"Clear!"

Ayrck and Khimar deftly moved in behind him. It was amazing how subtly a fully armoured being could move. The Remans brushed past him. They opened the door at the rear of the guardroom.

"Stay here and cover our line of retreat." Ayrck commanded before ducking into the vault proper.

At least they recognise the possibility of getting cut off, Daggit thought approvingly despite his disappointment at not being allowed to see what they'd come for.

The alert klaxon sounded and Grace rushed to her station, "Omigod! The Valinor has locked her weapons on us."

"Which ones?" Danan tried not to sound as scared as she felt.

"All of them." Grace replied ominously.

Danan activated the shipwide PA, "Radil, haul your ass to the bridge now!"

"All I'm saying," Dracas spoke as he carried an armful of "spheres" to Ensign Malideirck's quarters, "is that we all have our little secrets. Our little team's managed to gel together anyway."

Radil gestured with the spheres held in her arms, "This counts as more than a little secret."

"Radil, haul your ass to the bridge now!" sounded over the PA followed by the red alert klaxons.

Both Radil and Dracas dropped their cargo and sprinted towards the turbolifts. They separated at the two lift doors.

"Tell Danan I'll be in Engineering."

"Right."

The doors opened and Radil stepped into the lift and ordered it to the bridge. The doors next opened to reveal a portrait of quiet desperation. Danan was at Ops. Grace was sitting at her usual place at the Conn.

"Take Tactical." Danan ordered as Radil stepped out of the turbolift.

"Transferring weapons control to Tactical." Grace reported. Radil was inordinately pleased to see that Grace was buckling a bit under the pressure. Her unshakeable confidence had finally been rattled. Considering what she was evidently capable of, that was a sobering thought.

"What's our situation?" Radil asked as she brought the tactical station to life. Shields were up and both phasers and photon torpedoes were targeted at the Valinor. Radil checked her sensors and saw the problem even as Danan answered her question.

"The Valinor has raised shields and locked weapons on us." She paused for effect, "All of them. They're also refusing to acknowledge hails."

"Grozit." Radil swore, "What's the plan?"

"I was hoping you could help Grace and I come up with some options." Danan admitted, "They didn't simply blow us out of space when we were completely defenceless, so that counts for something."

"Or maybe this Donatra wants us to sweat a little before we die." Radil grumped.

Ignoring the conversation occurring behind her, Grace hailed Dracas, "Chief? Are you in Engineering?"

"Surely am."

"What's your status?"

"Everything's right where I left it, in partial stand-by mode."

"How fast can we jump to warp speed?"

"Four, maybe five, seconds."

Grace shook her head, "Too slow, Chief. I need that taken down to one or two. Can it be done?"

"Sure, if I take every safety off-line."

"How long will that take?"

"It'd go faster with an extra pair of hands."

By now, Radil and Danan were listening in.

"Could you use Kort?" Danan asked.

"As what?" Dracas retorted.

"Send me." Radil suggested, "I'm an able hand in Engineering and Kort knows weapons systems."

"How?" Danan replied in disbelief.

"Kort's a former Klingon Defence Force Combat Surgeon." Radil explained, "His primary speciality is medicine. His secondary speciality is gunnery."

"Okay," Danan held her hands up in surrender; "I'm sold. Get to Engineering."

As Radil exited the bridge, Danan once again activated the PA, "Kort, drop what you're doing and report to the Tactical station."

It may have been her imagination, but she could have sworn as the circuit closed, she heard a bellowing, "Yeeeessssss!!!!!"

"Keep moving." P'ris ordered, accompanied by a jab into Valrik's back with her disruptor.

The Admiral, for all his years of overseeing tortures proved exceptionally squeamish when confronted with death. He had turned an ashen shade of grey. Apparently the Admiral's experience incorporated evisceration, sodomy, all manners of utilising cutting torches and phasers but he'd never seen a battlefield corpse. He'd barely managed to pass by the dead strewn about the corridors outside his office. He lost his water completely when confronted with the dead at the security checkpoint the team had dispatched.

Valrik's thoughts were unfathomable to all, save perhaps, T'Kir. His token resistance dissipated upon seeing the corpses littering the hall. It was as though his last hope of rescue had died with them. Then the unexpected occurred.

Two Romulan guards appeared further down the corridor, past the ‘T' junction that the team was headed for. The Guards hastened their steps towards the team and it became evident that they would intercept the investigators and their prisoner before they reached the critical turn towards the shuttlepod.

P'ris reached down and lifted a disruptor pistol from one of the dead guards at the team's feet. She ejected the powerpack and handed it to Valrik.

"Use this as though you and I have these two Federation officers prisoner." P'ris ordered even as T'Kir passed the computer case back to her.

Valrik nodded but a spark of life returned to his eyes. Macen and T'Kir stood far enough in front of the Tal Shiar officers to be out of arm's reach. Inexorably, the two guards cautiously approached. As they drew ever closer, it became obvious that one of the two was in contact with another officer, presumably the leader of his squad.

Valrik suddenly cried out, "I'm being abducted! Summon reinforcements!" With that said, the admiral dove for the floor. He snatched a powerpack off the belt of a dead guard and rammed it home in the rear of the disruptor.

Meanwhile, the two guards went for their weapons. Macen pulled his own disruptor free and opened fire on the female guard already aiming at him. T'Kir snapped her pistol free and placed a particle beam right between the male guard's eyes. His comm badge continued to demand information even as its wearer slumped to the floor in a heap.

Valrik rolled to his back and took aim at where P'ris had been when he'd started this gambit. She was gone. A sudden, sharp kick to his gun hand caused him to yelp and release his grip on his weapon. The disruptor skidded further down the corridor.

"I really would have brought you alive before the Senate to answer the charges I am bringing against you. Your fate would have been their's to decide." Her eyes narrowed and glittered with a hardness Valrik found cause to fear, "Now I am afraid you have outlived your usefulness."

That said, she placed a disruptor bolt into his forehead. She then turned to her allies with a defiant air, "Comments?"

"Not the first time I've seen a prisoner executed." Macen replied noncommittally.

"Hey," T'Kir shrugged, "its a Romulan thing. ‘When on Remus, get the hell outta there' and all that."

"You certainly do not live up to Romulan expectations of a Starfleet officer." P'ris confided, "Where are the sanctimonious lectures on morality?"

Macen graced her with a grim smile; "We're only Starfleet officers for special occasions, like when we're specifically requested for a joint-operation. The rest of the time we operate on a far less idealistic and a far more pragmatic basis."

"Then there is hope for our two stellar nations yet." P'ris concluded.

"Glad to hear it." Macen confessed, "Can we go now? I'd like to reach the shuttlepod before reinforcements arrive."

Chastised for her momentary lapse, P'ris nodded, "But of course."

Donatra gazed contentedly across her bridge. Her officers had responded to her orders swiftly and efficiently. Up to now, there had been no questions. She wondered if that would hold true as she set out to issue her next set of directives.

Might as well take this plunge off the Firefalls, Donatra thought to herself as she mustered her resolve. What she was about to do could be construed as a discretionary interpretation of orders or it could not. Her court-martial would undoubtedly settle that issue.

"How is our prey doing?" Donatra asked of the Communications Officer.

"They've shouted for help from Starfleet," the Comm/ELINT Officer smiled mercilessly, "but of course they were told that they were on their own and ‘diplomatic channels would be employed to minimise the risk of confrontation'."

Donatra snorted contemptuously.

"Weapons officer, what is the status of our weaponry?" Donatra inquired.

"All systems ready and awaiting your command." The Weapons Officer reported eagerly. In all their years together, Donatra had never known her to be less than eager regarding the opportunity to flex the Valinor's might.

"Take the plasma torpedoes off-line and reset all other weapons systems to their minimal setting." P'ris ordered.

"We only use those settings for fleet exercises." The Weapons Officer felt obliged to point out.

"I'm aware of that." Donatra assured her, "My orders stand."

The weapons Officer bowed her head; "It will be done."

"Excellent." Donatra crossed her legs and fixed her attention upon the image of the Shadow displayed on the main viewer, "Be ready to fire upon the Federation ship in five minutes."

"The Valinor has deactivated its plasma torpedoes." Kort reported

"I knew it had to be a mistake." Grace commented, "It has to be."

"All their other weapons systems are locked on us." Kort reminded her with a sinister grin.

"Grace?" Danan spoke up, "You put down the mutiny in a rather dramatic and... unique fashion. Could you intervene here as well?"

"Yes. Probably. I don't know." Grace struggled to answer; "I'm just not sure how."

"Think of something!" Danan demanded.

Rattled, Grace fumbled to get her Attuner out of her pocket, "Yeah, maybe... I got it!"

She depressed the activation stud and the lights came on and.... nothing.

"And?" Danan inquired.

"All taken care of." Grace assured her.

"You're certain?"

"Oh, yeah." Grace replied breezily but inwardly added, At least I hope so.

Ayrck and Khimar returned from their searching of the innards of the vault in time to run into a troubled looking Daggit headed into the vault, "We've got trouble."

Ayrck and Khimar grunted and set down the deposit boxes they were carrying. Ayrck spoke first, "What trouble do you speak of?"

"The guards are on approach from all sides." Daggit warned, "I've shut the main door and stacked the weapons and distributed them along the gunslits' field of fire."

Khimar grunted, "You've done well to prepare for a siege, but perhaps we could have broken their ranks and escaped."

Daggit shook his head, "Check the bunker's sensor nets yourself. They've thrown virtually every remaining guard at us."

"Then let us trim their numbers down to a manageable horde." Ayrck wore an eager smile.

They relish this, Daggit belatedly realised, I only hope they don't get me killed.

Donatra excused herself from the bridge and retired to her ready room. She'd ordered her communications officer to hail the Shadow and patch it in here. She was amused to learn that the Federation ship's Klingon doctor had answered the hail. Taken in light of the earlier communications interception indicating there had been a mutiny aboard, it seemed the ship's officers had been forced to resort to drastic measures to maintain order on their vessel. Why else would they put a medical officer at tactical?

Not that she could fathom having a Klingon medical officer in the first place.

Danan's haggard face finally appeared on Donatra's comm screen. It appeared that the commander was taking the call on the main bridge. Donatra knew that her own communications officer was probably tapping into this conversation as well. At least it will settle the bridge crew's questions, she thought wryly.

"Jolan'tru Commander." Donatra purposefully used the familiar greeting to ease some of Danan's evident tensions. It didn't work very well.

"What the hell are you playing at, Commander?" Danan, who had nothing to lose anyway, demanded.

"A training exercise." Donatra replied.

"Couldn't you have warned us before scaring the life out of my people?" Danan asked warily.

"Let me be perfectly candid with you, Commander." Donatra said with a serene composure, "My superiors have ordered your complete and total destruction. It is only my choice to interpret these orders as pertaining to a simulated attack rather than arouse an interstellar incident so close on the heels of the Great War against the Dominion that is keeping you alive. Do not force me to reconsider my decisions."

Danan looked nonplussed as she considered her next words more carefully, "Your considerations on the matter are greatly appreciated. More than you'll ever know." Danan hesitated then asked, "So, now what?"

Donatra chuckled darkly, "That would be the question."

"I have to warn you." Danan rallied, "You won't be able to destroy us. We've access to a previously unknown alien technology. This technology is now shielding the ship."

"I don't want to destroy you." Donatra sighed wearily, "If I did, no technology in this universe would shield you from my intent. My weapons have been reduced in intensity to their minimum settings. These are the same settings we employ for fleet manoeuvres It should be sufficient to allow me to fire on you, thereby obeying my orders, and allow you to survive."

"I like the sound of that." Danan admitted, "So when is this happening?"

"In one point four of your minutes." Donatra revealed.

"Grenade!" Daggit shouted and closed the shutter to his gunslit. The bunker wall shuddered as the grenade detonated. It was the third attempt by the Romulan guards to immolate the bunker's defenders. The bunker itself was proving to be durably resistant to the multiple attacks.

"Now comes the charge." Ayrck reminded him unnecessarily. Ayrck had the centre position at the door. Khimar had the left and Daggit manned the right defence point. After every grenade attack came a mass charge. So far, the insertion team had repelled every attempt to access the bunker. They'd cut a large swathe out of the opposition's numbers in the process.

The Remans hooted in enjoyment over the slaughter laid out before them. Bodies lay slumped and prostrate on the deck. The survivors and the as of yet untested guards heaped the bodies of their fallen comrades for use as cover in the exposed corridors. The bubble like protrusion of the bunker granting the defenders near total visibility and control of the approaches.

"We need to break out of here." Daggit insisted.

"No." Khimar replied flatly, "We do not."

"We can't hold this position indefinitely."

"We needn't bother." Ayrck promised, "Let us repel one more fools' charge and then we can withdraw."

Although the stench of death could not faze Daggit while he was in his "combat mode", the situation was beginning to appal him. Enough of the enemy had been killed or crippled to merit a breakout rush. They'd faced and broken equal odds to gain access to this veritable prison.

"Here they come." Khimar announced happily.

Daggit spared a second to glance over at the remaining stack of rifles next to him. Rather than waste time changing drained powerpacks, each of the three defenders had a supply of fully charged rifles to draw from. When one rifle was emptied, it was discarded. A fresh rifle would then be brought into play. Fresh powerpacks could be inserted while the Romulans cleared their wounded and dead.

Daggit tossed one rifle and grabbed another. With his enhanced reflexes, he was able to selectively aim at his targets. The Remans preferred scything blasts that cut down all in front of them. It also expended power at a vastly increased rate. The Remans had depleted three times the number of powerpacks that Daggit had.

The Romulans' spirit broke much sooner this round than any other time previously. A few laid down near useless cover-fire bursts while their fellows drug bodies back to the impromptu barricades built from the dead. Due to his psychological programming, Daggit felt nothing for the Romulans. They were merely an opponent who needed eliminating.

Aryck grunted, "They're fleeing."

Khimar snorted derisively, "They may be thugs and bullies, but their cowards when it comes to a real fight."

"And now, regarding our escape?" Daggit interjected, "I suggest we attack the right flank. I've trimmed them down quite a bit."

"Your efforts have been noted and appreciated, small one but they are not vital to our escape." Khimar informed him.

"Then how the hell are we getting out of here?" Daggit demanded.

"Follow us." Ayrck commanded and entered the vault with Khimar. Perplexed, Daggit followed. Once he was in, Khimar closed the door and reset the tumblers. The Remans then led Daggit deeper into the labyrinthine vault.

Daggit was led to the centre of the vault. Located here was a massive cargo transporter. Ayrck proceeded to activate the unit and program co-ordinates into it. Khimar busied himself by planting microexplosives to the control console. He tied these bombs to a minitimer. Daggit had to admire their ingenuity.

"Now, little one, we go." Aryck set the delay on the transporter and moved over to the transporter grid. Khimar and Daggit followed suit and a moment later dissolved in a halo of light. A minute passed, then another and then the timer sent out an encoded signal. The explosive detonated, destroying the console and any evidence of where the insertion team had beamed to.

 

Chapter 13

Donatra returned to the bridge as the countdown to firing on the Shadow drew to a close. She retook her seat as the seconds ticked by. The last second counted off and Donatra opened her mouth but her weapons officer spoke first.

"Die human scum!"

Donatra rose and spun to face her enraged weapons officer. The weapons are at minimum, the Shadow is safe; she thought. Donatra's eyes flashed to the weapon's console. All weapon systems had been returned to maximum yield. Donatra drew her disruptor and shot her long time comrade in arms in the chest. She then turned to face the main viewer to witness the aftermath of the onslaught her crew had unleashed.

"Incoming!" Kort announced, "All hostile weapons at maximum strength."

"You're counter-measure better work, Hannah." Danan warned, "Or we're all dead."

"It'll work, it'll work." Grace replied in a harried tone.

The ship began to shudder as the shields were pummelled by a torrent of particle beams, plasma and antimatter. Kort barely had time to register the collapse of the shields even as it happened. He tried to inform Danan of their imminent doom but suddenly the unexpected happened... absolutely nothing.

"What the frinx just happened?" Kort growled, "We should be dead."

Grace stood and took curtsy, "Tah dah!"

Danan ignored Kort's outburst. After all, T'Kir's influence was beginning to show in all of them, Her attention was squarely focused on the creature standing before her looking so imminently pleased with herself. Could they even hope to mount a defence against her of the need arose?

One step at a time Lees, Danan consoled herself, we'll cross that bridge if and when the need arises.

"Commander Danan," Kort's bass rumble snapped Lisea back to reality, "The Valinor is hailing."

"What the hell could they possibly have to say for themselves?" Danan snapped angrily.

"I suggest you receive the hail and find out." Kort suggested softly.

My, my, two miracles: Kort acting as the voice of reason and him projecting something other than bluster. She thought to herself, outwardly she ordered, "Very well, Kort, put it on the main viewer."

An anxious looking Donatra appeared on the screen, "Are you all right? Do you require any assistance?"

"No we're fine. In fact, we're just peachy." Danan replied calmly then exploded, "What the frinx was that about? You said your weapons would be set at their minimal power levels. That was a helluva long way from minimum."

"I apologise." Donatra bowed her head; "It appears my weapons officer was a Tal Shiar plant. She reset the levels and fired on her own accord."

Danan sensed Donatra's pain regarding this topic, "I'm sorry. Had you two served together for very long?"

"Eleven of your years." Donatra answered stoically.

"And what's to become of her?"

"She has already been dispatched by my own hand." Donatra said with steel in her voice and eyes, "There is no room for traitors or saboteurs aboard an Imperial vessel."

Danan swallowed hard. The Imperial military code was inflexible. Because of their similarities to their cousins, the Vulcans, it was easy to forget at times that this was a warrior culture. In their own way, their martial traditions defined their society as much as it did their nemesis, the Klingons.

"I'm sorry." It was woefully inadequate and Danan knew it.

"Your regrets are immaterial to me. What is done, is done." A sly smile slid across Donatra's face, "What does concern me is how you managed to develop an interphase generator without our learning of it. That is a fairly impressive feat."

Danan's mouth silently worked, An interphase generator? By the Pools! She means whatever Grace did to us. She must have phased us so that the weapons barrage merely passed through us. Clever girl, except it puts us in violation of the Treaty of Algeron.

"We didn't develop one." Danan confessed, "That line of research was ended when we handed over all the data and materials to your government."

Donatra's eyebrow arched, "Oh, really? Then can you explain what my own eyes saw. Need I mention that my sensors recorded it as well?"

Ah frinx! Just what we need, an interstellar incident on top ofd everything else, Danan thought glumly.

Donatra offered a lifeline of hope, "Let me say this, you choose not to report my ship firing on you and I won't report your miraculous escape. Sound equitable?"

Danan's smile was born of both warmth and relief, "Sounds like a plan."

"Then I suggest we return to awaiting the imminent arrival of the ‘leaders' of this miserable mission." Donatra suggested.

"I agree. Shadow out." As the screen died, Danan sagged.

"She might be bored to death but I'm about done in with excitement." Danan moved towards the replicator, "Order up now. Who knows what disaster will befall us next."

The Reman shuttlepod lifted off from the redoubt without incident. T'Kir had been instructing the central computer to ignore the diminutive craft even as Ayrck, Khimar, and Daggit materialised in the hangar. The Remans had returned with a portable computer nearly identical to the one T'Kir's team had retrieved from Admiral Valrik's office. The Remans' sense of satisfaction with their mission was sharply contrasted by Daggit's taciturn silence regarding the events.

Daggit's behaviour wasn't out of character by any means. Rab Daggit easily had to be the most solemn man she'd met since being introduced to Aric Tulley. Being reminded of her former Maquis comrade made her reflect on his demise. The arbitrariness of it all could easily make one wonder why one good man would be killed and she continued to overcome impossible odds. Was it all a freak accident, a roll of the cosmic dice or was their some sublime purpose behind it all?

These were questions she preferred to leave to Macen. He was the philosopher of the relationship. T'Kir preferred the role of quirky counterpart. It fit her natural proclivities and served to pair her with Macen.

The shuttlepod traversed the skyline of Remus and returned to the nightside. Outwardly, all conversation had ceased. Khimar and Ayrck basked in the glories of their campaign. Daggit wrestled with whatever demons had been evoked by his time with the Remans. P'ris silently calculated her next move in her investigation.

Well, that was certainly fun, Macen thought to T'Kir

Yup. Everyone but Ayrck and Khimar seem pretty bent out of shape. I haven't seen this many shell-shocked faces since the Jem'Hadar first hit us, T'Kir mentally replied.

Anything juicy going on out there in telepathy land? Macen wondered.

How dare you, sir? I expressly remember a lecture recently given to me all about invading other people's thoughts. T'Kir huffed.

I was wrong. So sue me. Macen replied, Snooping's more fun. Advantageous too.

Just remember pal, T'Kir warned, once the genie gets out of the bottle, she ain't going back in.

Understood, Macen acknowledged, now snoop away.

The Remans were naturally resistant to her probes. She could gain access but they would sense her inquiries. Seeing as how their lives still depended on Ayrck and Khimar's good graces, she opted not to push the issue. P'ris' scheming bored her.

The depth of Daggit's turmoil over the deaths he'd inflicted surprised her. She'd never paid much attention to Daggit. He always seemed the impervious, good soldier. Now her mental sampling was revealing a new side to him that she found quite familiar. Ro Laren had also suffered as a result of the deaths caused by her orders.

Unlike Ro, Daggit's mind was highly structured. It was akin to a Kohlinar trained Vulcan. The programming pathways laid out for his actions and reactions were so rigid as to be stifling. His inability to alter his reactions or alter their course literally trapped him within himself. It was a situation that threatened his very sanity.

Insanity was a topic that T'Kir was intimately familiar with. She suspected Macen was far closer with than he let on. She felt her heart go out to Daggit. He was so isolated in his misery that he didn't recognise that he had kindred spirits close at hand. T'Kir resolved to approach him as soon as this mission was over.

It's so sad. She thoughtcast to Macen.

What is? He asked.

Daggit. She answered, He's in hell.

He always is after a firefight. Macen informed her, He's been this way as long as I've known him.

And you haven't done anything about it?" she demanded, You're a "listener" for god's sake, couldn't you even have spent a moment with him?

"First he has to be willing to talk. Macen reminded her, Rab's a very private man. I can't order him to share his pain. He has to do that willingly, on his own.

That'll never work! T'Kir protested.

Worked with you. He replied rather smugly.

But I'm a mess.

But you're a functional mess. Macen argued, A loveable one as well. And sexy. Can't forget sexy.

"Stop it. she warned, Flattery will get you everywhere.

One can only hope. Macen thought suggestively

Right here, right now? T'Kir asked with fervour.

"Who'd notice?

T'Kir replied with a mental laugh, I must be getting too "normal". I'm actually going to be the one to suggest that we wait until we're back aboard the Shadow.

Too bad. Macen thought wistfully, The deckplates looked so inviting.

"Commander?" P'ris unwittingly interrupted, "After our return to our respective vessels, could we postpone our strategy planning session until my technicians have had an opportunity to retrieve the evidence from the computer and I've reviewed the salient points?"

Yes, I'll let you buy time to plan your next move, Macen thought as he answered, "Of course."

"Prepare for landing." Ayrck's gravelly voice suddenly penetrated the cabin.

Here we go, Macen thought, Round two with Shinzon.

After yet another harrowing breakneck ride through the twists and turns of Remus, the team was seated before Shinzon in his office. The portable computer case lay on his desk like a trophy. Shinzon clapped his hands together and beamed at Ayrck and Khimar.

"Well done, my brothers." He said, "You've done your people an immeasurable service. You may go and await our guests outside. They will be leaving shortly."

While his attention was still focused on the computer, and the data it contained, T'Kir opted to try to glean his surface thoughts. She received images of a massive ship with spreading, talon-like protrusions. It was ship built around a single weapon, a weapon of terrible power and built for... T'Kir found her connection broken as Shinzon's attaché moved in protectively behind his leader. T'Kir's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared as she pondered launching an all out telepathic assault on Shinzon's mind.

Hearing Macen's "voice" in her calmed her. It frightened her how easily he could read her even without their telepathic bond. It made her wonder if he sensed how badly she wished to be off her medications at moments like this. Without her meds, she could crush the Attaché like a bug. With them, it would be a struggle but she was still confident she could win... at a cost. T'Kir subsided and shifted her attention to the ongoing conversation between Shinzon and her partners.

"I must thank you for your man's efforts on behalf of my troops." Shinzon addressed Macen; "His assistance had helped further the cause of Reman independence."

"I take it then that the contents of the computer you've had retrieved will assist this goal?" P'ris asked.

Shinzon smiled warily, "The eyes and ears of the Tal Shiar are ever watchful for fear of the slaves of Remus gaining their freedom. As a gift for your co-operation I will confide this: the dream of Reman autonomy is closer to achievement than ever before. It shall be achieved sooner rather than later."

Shinzon nodded towards the case that P'ris held tightly, "I see your quest was fruitful as well."

"I found what I came for." P'ris allowed.

"I have held to my part of the bargain." Shinzon reminded her, "Hold to yours: no Remans shall be implicated by your investigation."

"That was implied in our agreement." P'ris agreed, "I hold to my word. Always."

"As do I." Shinzon bowed his head in acknowledged respect, "Generally to the regret of my enemies. I trust we shall not become such."

"As do I." P'ris returned the nod.

"Very well, if that concludes our business, Ayrck and Khimar will return you to the transporter station."

"That is all for me." P'ris admitted.

"I'm done." Macen declared.

T'Kir still wanted to pummel the Attaché's mental defences but she bit her tongue and her "talent". Daggit's silence remained unbroken. T'Kir felt a slight telepathic pressure and the office doors opened to reveal Ayrck and Khimar's hulking forms. Her sensitive ears heard a slight chuckle escaping the Attaché's lips. A slight stiffening of the spine informed her that P'ris had heard it as well.

Gritting her teeth, T'Kir ignored this final jibe. Outside, everyone mounted their vehicles in what had become their customary fashion and order. The trip was conducted in its usual manner and they arrived at the transporter station alive but slightly harrowed for the experience. Ayrck and Khimar nodded their farewells to the rest of the team but Daggit received a salute of a clenched fist over the heart. Even more surprising was the relief evident in the communications officer's voice aboard the Valinor. P'ris ordered an immediate extraction and the two transporter chiefs co-ordinated the action.

Donatra almost sprang from her seat and rushed headlong to the transporter room when the communications officer reported Commander P'ris' arrival. She'd been a barely capped fount of rage since her being betrayed by her longest serving officer. Donatra wanted answers on how long the little trollop had been spying on her and she would have them if she had to tear them out of P'ris' hide. She wondered how the Tal Shiar commander would fare under her own methods of interrogation.

Someone is responsible for this betrayal, Donatra's heart burned, and that someone will prefer the heart of Hell compared to what I will make them endure.

Macen wondered why he was giving up his disruptor and weapons belt to the armoury officer. He assumed he'd need it again before this mission was over. His career was filled with a history of frinxed up missions but this one was definitely up for the cluster frinx of all time award, and that took some doing. The situation rang too similarly to the Gulag mission that had birthed both his investigative team and the Special Investigations Division as a whole. In reality, that particular investigation had ended far short of uncovering the truth. The actual masterminds behind exporting political dissidents had escaped investigation and prosecution. Too many powerful figures had been caught with their fingers in the pie. With the Federation just beginning to recover from a costly war, it had been decided that turning a blind eye to most of the offenders would help ensure the stability of the Federation.

The whole experience had disillusioned Macen. Between the Federation's policies towards the DMZ and the Maquis and this subsequent circumstance, Macen's faith in Federation justice faltered. It was then that he'd decided to take a far more "proactive" role in deciding the fate of his suspects. As an independent consultant in the employ of the SID, Macen was technically free to treat his prisoners in way he deemed fit so long as it didn't violate any basic human rights law of the Federation. Prisoners had to be healthy when turned over to the authorities but that didn't mean they had to be happy.

The burden of daily command weighed heavily on Macen. The intricate and meddlesome details of authority did not mesh well with his personality. He appreciated being the Mission Commander and shaping the course of the investigations the team undertook. He wouldn't have trusted anyone else with that role. Call it ego if you will, but that was the truth.

Macen was a man of divided passions. On one hand, he was a devotee of peace and of orderliness. On the other, he was an adept of chaos and wrought destruction with little qualm when the situation demanded force. His inability to find a balance between these two extremes made him unsuitable for command in Starfleet's eyes. It was a major reason why he was no longer in Starfleet's active service.

All of these thoughts and admissions coursed through Macen's mind as his teammates were "escorted" by two armed sentries to Donatra's ready room. He did notice that the guards were slightly on edge. Their hands stayed close to their weapons. They also seemed more focused on P'ris than his team. That could prove useful if things turned ugly. How the hell they'd get off an entire Warbird filled with potentially hostile Romulans was another matter.

Macen felt a surge of concern coming from T'Kir. She'd noticed the same signs he had and detected his tension regarding them. He sent her a tug of reassurance and he felt her relax somewhat. Macen nonchalantly glanced over towards Daggit. Rab's eyes flicked in Macen's direction. He'd also detected which way the winds blew and was ready to spring into action. Macen was comforted by the thought of going into action with two of his most trusted companions. He'd faced and overcome countless campaigns with these two. If the Fates smiled on them, they'd do so again.

Donatra awaited the arrival of her "guests" in her office. She sat behind her desk with her fingers steepled together. The knuckles of her fingers had paled from the force she was exerting upon them. Her eyes were narrowed to angry slits and her breathing was carefully measured. She held her breath for half a heartbeat when the door buzzer sounded.

"Come." She ordered tightly.

The door slid aside to reveal P'ris. Donatra almost rose and plucked her disruptor from her belt at that very moment. Instead, her eyes flickered in the direction of the guards and she almost imperceptibly nodded. The guards reached for their weapons and the room exploded.

Daggit's elbow smashed into the bridge of the nearest guard's nose almost faster than could be visually tracked. He followed through by half turning into the man and slamming his fist into the guard's abdomen. As the guard began to slump, Daggit stepped back and caught underneath the sentry's armpit and threw the guard over his hip. The Romulan crashed to the deck and lay prone.

On the other side of Macen, T'Kir slammed her hand downward into the sentry's crotch. There was an explosive exhale and a whimper as the male guard started to slump forward. T'Kir spun on her heel and slammed his nose with the heel of her palm. As he staggered back, T'Kir caught the nexus where his neck and shoulder met and applied pressure. The Romulan's head snapped to one side and then his entire body went slack and he collapsed to the floor.

Macen stepped one leg in front of P'ris and pushed her over it with one arm wrapped around her waist. As she settled on the floor, Donatra began to rise. Daggit pulled the disruptor from his guard's belt. T'Kir yanked her sentry's disruptor free and spun and rose. Macen came up from the floor where P'ris lay with the computer case held out before him. Donatra levelled her disruptor at him. Daggit and T'Kir each took aim at the Romulan Commander.

"Seems we're at an impasse." Macen suggested.

"This is none of your affair." Donatra snarled, "Leave the traitorous bitch to me and return to your ‘Federation'."

Macen shook his head, "I'm afraid we can't do that. We signed on to complete this investigation. This case may contain the clues needed to break the case wide open."

Macen looked down towards P'ris then back at Donatra, "I don't know what bad blood has cropped up between you two while ewe were gone but I'll tell you this, I don't have time for it. We settle this now or I take P'ris back to my ship and continue the investigation from there."

"You'd never reach the transporter room alive." Donatra promised.

Macen's eyes narrowed as he leaned in closer, "Try me."

Donatra hesitated. She'd read the intelligence files on this man. He and his crew consistently managed to perform what appeared to be miracles. They regularly beat overwhelming odds and came out none the worse for the wear, the recent loss of Tom Riker notwithstanding. These facts gave her pause and gave P'ris time to get up from the deckplates.

"Donatra, I truly do not know what has offended you but I can assure you of this, we are within moments of catching those we are pursuing." P'ris said earnestly, "This computer contains files which must be accessed. All we strived for depends on this. Whatever ails you, speak now, so I may address your grievance."

"Did you plant the mole aboard my ship?" Donatra demanded fiercely.

"What mole?" P'ris blinked in confusion.

"My weapons officer was a Tal Shiar plant." Donatra practically spat, "Were you part of this plot to undermine my command?"

"I assure you," P'ris held her hands out imploringly, "I knew nothing of this. I disclosed my only asset, my comm tech."

"Then someone has done us both a disservice." Donatra lowered her pistol, "If you're telling the truth."

"Ahem." T'Kir cleared her throat, "I believe I can help clear this little matter up."

"You?" Donatra asked with more than a little scorn.

"Careful," T'Kir warned, "or I might leave you with a compulsion to eat gagh."

P'ris intervened, "Be warned, she can do it."

"So what do you suggest?" Donatra asked impatiently.

"What d'you think?" T'Kir snapped back, "I'm a frinxing Vulcan, for Elements' sake. How about I perform a three-way mind meld and let you two sort out your differences?"

"And your role?" Donatra asked cautiously.

"I play moderator and keep you two from duking it out." T'Kir shrugged.

"I agree in principle." Donatra allowed, "If no Romulan state secrets are at risk."

"I'll only be vaguely aware of your surface thoughts." T'Kir assured her, "Pretty boring stuff like what type of bath products you use. Which won't do me a helluva lot of good since none of it'll be available in the Federation."

"You are an odd one." Donatra observed.

"Ain't it groovy?" T'Kir beamed.

"How long will it take for you to prepare for this?" P'ris asked.

"I'm ready now." T'Kir informed her, "Question is, are you guys ready?"

P'ris and Donatra measured one another before nodding in unison.

"Ready."

"Proceed."

T'Kir cracked her knuckles and moved closer to the pair. She placed a hand at the temple of each woman. She took a relaxing breath then her brow furrowed slightly in concentration.

"Hold on to something." T'Kir said with an evil grin, "We're about to go where no one's wanted to go before."

 

Chapter 14

Macen materialised in the Shadow's transporter room still rubbing the nape of T'Kir's neck. Although the mind meld between Commanders Donatra and P'ris had gone successfully, it had caused a certain amount of tension in T'Kir. She'd been forced to maintain a higher degree of focus than she was accustomed o in order to guarantee her own mental shields did not allow her to spill over into the union. Macen's ministrations weren't much, but she appreciated them and he enjoyed the act of giving.

"Mmmmm," she purred as he withdrew his hand, "don't stop."

"Its only a reprieve." He assured her, "we're back aboard the Shadow. If Lees' report of a mutiny was accurate, then we're likely to have our hands full cleaning up the aftermath."

"D'you suppose they've lynched Hannah by now?" T'Kir asked with genuine concern.

"I'd like to see them try." Macen chuckled darkly.

At the transporter controls, Daggit was exchanging pleasantries with Dracas. Poor Dracas, Macen thought, pining away. Although he doubted Daggit would reciprocate the Chief's affections, Dracas needed to reconcile his feelings in some way. Dracas had far too many pent up emotions for him to achieve any form of balance or peace within his life.

Dracas was an eternally conflicted soul. He was rapidly approaching his sixtieth year and still had no real firm grasp on who he was. Macen had read about the stigma attached to homosexuality on Ardanna IV and guessed at why Dracas had initially hidden his sexual tastes from his newly assembled teammates. Later, as time went on and trust grew, the secret remained. It was as if Dracas himself were ashamed of his sexual orientation.

Given his homeworld's harsh stance and even harsher penalty for "deviancy", it was understandable if he felt something like a criminal for merely existing. Despite living within a greater community that embraced Dracas' freedom to express his sexuality however he felt compelled to, the shadow of his native planetary restrictions lingered. Macen wondered what he could do to help Dracas resolve the matter for himself.

The team didn't need any more disruptions. If Danan's concern were any indicator, Grace's "little" secret was proving to be a strain the team's cohesion precisely at a moment when no dissension could be afforded. Although nowhere on the scale of Grace's revelation, Dracas' secret could launch a serious undermining of the team's confidence in one another. Although the Federation readily accepted homosexuality, not all of his team members came from worlds where it was accepted.

Statistically speaking, homosexuals were still a minority amongst the greater populations of the member worlds of the Federation. The average representation was eleven to thirteen percent of the planetary whole. One obvious exception was the Fabrini worldship. There, heterosexuals were the minority.

Despite Jim Kirk's efforts to reintegrate the male and female members of the society, they remained divided into opposite sexual spheres. Men donated sperm to the women who then filtered it and introduced it to pre-selected ova. The fertilised eggs were brought to term in artificial wombs. The children were communally cared for until age six, where they were sorted by sex and distributed to their "kind".

Although Fabrini was an oft-studied reversal of the trend that occurred in nature, it didn't present Macen with a solution for Dracas' dilemma. The Chief essentially needed to get in touch with himself. Macen could only think of one world perfectly suited for that. He wondered if its natives would allow Dracas to intrude upon their lives. There would also be a mountain of paperwork in order to get permission to get Dracas there. The planet in question was a "restricted access protectorate". It was accessible only to highly monitored scientific survey teams.

It's a plan.... as soon as the mission's over, Macen thought to himself.

"Chief," he spoke aloud, "what's the situation? Commander Danan was a tad.... sketchy."

"It's a good thing you're back, sir." Dracas replied gruffly, "Things have been goin' straight to hell. We've had mutinies, miraculous interventions, hair raisin' revelations, life threatening situations followed by more miraculous interventions. Quite frankly, no one aboard knows which way is up or down any more."

"Thanks for the head's up." Macen nodded, "I'll see what I can do about it. Put whatever you're doing on stand-by and head up to the bridge."

"I can head there now." Dracas reported.

"Good, then tag along with us." Macen smiled.

The entire team, minus Dracas and the returnees, was assembled on the bridge. To Macen's disappointment, they were arrayed in an accusational semicircle around Grace's station. Hannah sat there looking emotionally battered and worn. Her face brightened momentarily as the turbolift doors opened and discharged Macen and T'Kir onto the bridge.

"Captain!" she exclaimed like a drowning woman with a single lifeline.

Macen, exhausted from his experiences on Remus, found himself deeply disappointed with his team's behaviour, "All right everyone, break it up. This witch trial is over. Hannah, I'll see you in my ready room. Lees, you'll join us as well." He paused to glare at everyone in the room; "Everyone else will wait out here."

Grace and Danan followed Macen into the captain's office. Macen flopped into the chair behind the desk. Grace and Danan each took one of the two chairs seated before the desk. Grace looked nervous and scared. Danan was the perfect picture of Trill composure.

"So, who wants to tell me what happened?" Macen inquired.

There was no response; not that one had been expected so Macen made the choice, "Heads up Commander, you're on."

Danan recounted the events leading up to the mutiny and the actual, albeit brief moments of the revolt. She repeated her earlier description of the device Grace had utilised to both immobilise the rebellious crew and to phase the ship. Danan added the details of the Valinor's assault and Grace's pivotal role in saving the ship and all aboard.

Macen thanked Danan for her observations and dismissed her from the room. Outside, on the bridge, Danan was badgered by inquiries as to what had transpired in the ready room. Danan deflected all such questions and threatened to shoot the next person that asked her for privileged information.

Back in the ready room, Macen asked Grace; "So what's your side of the story?"

Grace's lip trembled as she considered her next words very carefully, "Please, Captain, I didn't want to deceive you. I had orders."

"From whom?" Macen inquired with a steely tone, "After all, if I have a potential traitor in my midst, I'd like to know who's pulling your strings while you're being circumspect."

"I... I...." Grace stammered.

"You still can't get yourself to say the name?" Macen's tone became harsher, "Your people are known as the Kelvans. I'm assuming that's where your ‘orders' stem from."

Grace nodded and Macen sighed wearily, "I'd hoped we were past these games after the ‘incident' with Section 31. I have to confess that I'm disappointed, sorely disappointed. That doesn't happen very often."

Grace made a decision at that moment. Her only chance of redeeming herself was to confess. In shallow rapid bits and starts, Grace began to explain her mission and her people's reasoning for launching it. When she'd finished, she'd enjoyed a cathartic release but still had no idea as to her immediate future.

Macen pondered the matter for several gut wrenching minutes before weighing in, "All right, I'm going to trust in you. I'll trust the same Hannah Grace that's saved this team dozens of times over and will do so again. There is one condition though," Macen saw fear in Grace's eyes, "if your responsibilities between your people and this team are ever about to conflict, I need to know it. No more secrets. This one almost turned your friends against you. As it is, you can still salvage your relationships. Don't let that opportunity slip away even though the most important bonds will endure regardless."

Macen gave Grace a moment to digest this before plying her with the next obvious question, "Are you ready to go out and face the music?"

Grace nodded but her eyes were still large brown saucers. He assumed she'd find her own footing. If not, he'd be standing beside her to help her along the way if she faltered. Grace was resilient and resourceful so he doubted he would be called upon to intervene.

They exited the ready room together and faced the assembled team. Expectant, and some wary, eyes gazed intently upon Grace. She felt her resolve start to crumble, then bolstered it. Slowly, ever so slowly at first, she began to speak and to explain.

Reactions to Grace's revelations were mixed. T'Kir radiated unabashed and unreserved support. Danan was the picture of cool acceptance. Dracas vocally encouraged Grace when she paused, one underdog rooting for the other. Daggit, in a rare show of emotion, angrily silenced Kort and Radil when they began making disparaging remarks. Finding themselves unable to forgive or accept, Radil and Kort became the holdouts in the group. It was to these two that Grace had to tailor her appeals.

"It was my sworn duty not to reveal my true nature and purpose." Grace emphasised, "To betray this trust would have been a betrayal of my people's very soul. I didn't anticipate any conflicts between my two responsibilities: the one to this team and the other to the future settlers from our home galaxy."

"If one did arise, which would you have chosen?" Radil asked with a sharp edge to her voice.

Grace answered with silence and Radil smiled coldly, "I thought as much. That would've been my answer too once upon a time."

Kort suddenly strode forward and put his hands on Grace's shoulders, "You behaved as honour dictated. None can fault you for that."

"I don't like secrets that can radically affect my life." Radil warned, "It makes me... cranky. Let's keep everyone's secrets the ordinary, everyday variety. Prophets' know I have enough of those I'm not willing to share and I'm willing to bet we all do. Let's keep those and dump the rest."

"Makes sense to me." Grace said, wiping away tears of relief while T'Kir fiercely hugged her, "I guess I started off, who's next?"

There was a general chuckle that broke the lingering vestiges of tension. Macen pointedly watched Dracas to see how the Chief would react to this latest invitation to unburden his soul. Dracas seemed to be weighing the matter when he noticed Macen's scrutiny. He averted his eyes and quickly withdrew into himself.

Macen cursed himself for the lost opportunity and began to manoeuvre closer to Dracas.

His moment of opportunity faded as the comm signal alert sounded. Daggit separated from the group and moved to the tactical station. Macen moved up behind him and leaned down over the seat. He could read the signal identifier designating the originating source as the Valinor. Macen had the signal transferred to the monitor screen at the tactical station. Commander P'ris appeared before them.

"Greetings, Commander." Macen opened lightly, "Something I can help you with?"

"Something that perhaps you and Lieutenant T'Kir and yourself may be able to assist me with, Commander." She replied somewhat enigmatically.

"I don't suppose it'd do me any good to ask what that ‘something' is, would it?"

"Your questions will be answered when, and if, you transport aboard the Valinor." P'ris revealed.

"Figures." Macen grumbled then sighed, "Give us an hour to shower and eat something, then we'll come aboard."

"Thank you, Commander." P'ris practically gushed, "Your co-operation may very well salvage our efforts thus far and bring this investigation to a close."

With that, the screen winked out. Macen looked down at Daggit and shrugged, "A drama queen. Who would've guessed it?"

P'ris met Macen and T'Kir at the Valinor's main transporter. Both Macen and T'Kir felt refreshed from their respite if not rested. The shower had been playful and the meal had been intimate. Macen's description of P'ris' odd behaviour earlier had fuelled her desire to come aboard the Romulan ship.

The Commander seemed agitated as she said some perfunctory greetings as if by rote. She then led them through the bowels of the ship to a section neither had ever seen before. P'ris opened a hatchway and gestured for them to proceed through it. With a noncommittal shrug, Macen complied. Sensing no alarm, only puzzlement, emanating from Macen, T'Kir followed him in.

The room they'd entered was a small space whose every corner of wall space was filled with computer screens with access and control terminals. Placed between two Romulan techs and interfaced directly with the secondary computer core that powered this room was Admiral Valrik's portable computer. Although the two techs were working feverishly, the screens were filled with what Macen could only presume was indecipherable garbage. Unable to read Romulan, it was all indecipherable to him anyway.

"Can't read it, can you?" T'Kir asked smugly.

"You'd opened the files." P'ris snarled, "If you've done this, I will have your flesh slowly peeled from your bones."

"You told me you didn't want me to read the files," T'Kir shrugged, "so I re-encrypted them and unloaded any trace of my decryption software."

P'ris appeared ready to snap, then she sagged, closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, "What do you want?"

"Access." T'Kir rejoined.

"Agreed." P'ris consented, "But only to information directly pertaining to our joint investigation."

"Done!" T'Kir said as she withdrew an isolinear chip from her pocket, "I thought you might need this so I brought it along. You needn't worry about erasing it. Once I stop giving it authorisation to continue working at fifteen minute interval, it erases itself."

P'ris pursed her lips, "It seems that you have thought of everything."

"Not everything." T'Kir replied, "Life in the Maquis taught me the hard way that no one could ever plan for everything."

"Not even Commander Macen?" P'ris asked with some surprise.

"Truth be told," T'Kir whispered conspiratorially, "he plans less than most. He ‘feels' his way through problems. He's just damned effective at it."

The next several hours proved uneventful but extremely productive. Senator Cherand was revealed as the final authority behind the weapons distribution scheme. A handful of Fleet admirals and dozens of junior officers were named. The Tal Shiar's entire network supporting the operation was outlined in detail. Even Shinzon's part in providing security at the depot's and casting a blind eye to the movement of material that his troops reported to him was carefully described but edited out of P'ris' official report.

"This is madness." P'ris commented after more than an hour of silence, "Cherand voted to authorise my investigation. Why unleash the hunter that will stalk you?"

"Two reasons." Macen said.

"Like she didn't think you'd actually catch her with all the other obstacles in the way." T'Kir chimed in.

"That," Macen picked up, "or it's a smokescreen designed to throw off suspicion when you go to make the arrest. She can claim she authorised the investigation, which only proves she has nothing to hide."

"Bitch." P'ris spat.

"You're Tal Shiar." T'Kir pointed out, "Aren't you supposed to think just like that?"

"I began my career in the Political Dissidents Section, where I was when we first me, and have since made my way to Internal Affairs." P'ris answered happily.

"Ah, Infernal Affairs." T'Kir snapped a jaunty salute, "The overseers of righteousness no matter what police force they serve under."

"I take it you do not appreciate Starfleet's Internal Affairs Division." P'ris observed.

"Let's just say I've enjoyed a little too much of their scrutiny over the past few months." Macen said with a roguish grin.

P'ris couldn't suppress a tired laugh, "Why Commander, if I had known, I would never have requested your presence on this mission."

"You did know." Macen replied matter-of-factly, "That's why you requested me. You knew I put accomplishing the mission before politics and even rules and regulations." His eyes bored into her's, "Now, you have to decide, how badly do you want to complete this mission?"

"What do you mean?" P'ris warily asked.

"How far are you willing to take this?" Macen pressed, "Cherand will undoubtedly have support, support that will try to block the investigation and ruin your career. Are you up to facing that?"

"My career has been under the personal scrutiny and protection of Koval ever since the Gulag incident." P'ris revealed, "I think his influence can shield me from a few embittered Senators. Cherand will stand trial before the whole of the Senate and pay as her peers deem fit."

"Hot damn!" T'Kir clapped her hands together, "Where d'we begin?"

"Now that I know which Tal Shiar agents I can trust, I can contact fellow members of the Internal Affairs Section and co-ordinate the arrests within the organisation and the Fleet. Cherand will be left to us."

"Us?" Macen asked sceptically.

"Yes." P'ris affirmed emphatically, "I will need more specialised support than the Internal Affairs Headquarters in Ki Baratan can provide if I'm distributing agents across the sector. That leaves you two. I've seen you in action and you are formidable. And besides, this is a joint operation, it should be finished with you at least in ‘observance'."

"What about the local citizenry and the constabulary?" Macen wondered, "What's to stop them from kicking the crap out of us while we're trying apprehend the Senator?"

"I can provide the appropriate garments that will inspire the right amount of fear in the people." P'ris assured him, "Even military personnel will quail before you."

"Sounds good to me." T'Kir cracked her knuckles.

"What's the plan then?" Macen asked.

"You two will accompany me to the Senate chamber where I will provide the formal charges and take Cherand into custody for further questioning." P'ris explained. Both Macen and T'Kir cringed, knowing what the Tal Shiar's definition of "questioning" was.

"You will escort the Senator to an awaiting flitter." P'ris detailed, "If she attempts escape, you will pursue and disable her utilising whatever means necessary."

"You might wanna be careful with giving us such a broad strokes imperative." T'Kir warned, "We have a tendency to accrue a lot of collateral damage along the way."

P'ris responded with a rueful smile, "I had noticed that."

"So when do we begin?" Macen wanted to know, "Because if you ask me, and no one has yet, we need rest before we undertake this operation. We're all tired as a result of our misadventures on Remus. We should get some downtime and then pursue the Senator."

"Excellent suggestion." P'ris agreed, "It would also allow me time to contact my compatriots in Internal Affairs and set the wheels of the apprehensions in motion. Would eight of your hours be sufficient before reconvening here aboard the Valinor?"

Both Macen and T'Kir nodded and P'ris clapped her hands together and rubbed them in anticipation, "Then it appears our final hunt is set to begin soon."

 

Chapter 15

All the members of the team got to rest as they rotated a relief schedule. Macen and T'Kir beamed aboard the Valinor at the appointed hour and the Warbird bridged the distance between Remus and Romulus. The Shadow remained in Reman orbit fervently hoping their modified ID transponder correctly identified them as a Romulan ally. With less than a skeleton crew aboard, they could only rely on Grace's "miraculous" interventions so many times before they took devastating damage. Grace herself had admitted that there were definite limitations to her Attuner's capabilities. "Phasing" the ship had nearly exceeded them and likely would have if they'd maintained that condition for any length of time.

Aboard the Valinor, Macen and T'Kir received a last minute update. P'ris had directly contacted the Tal Shiar Director Koval. Koval would arrange for P'ris and two escorts to be granted access to the Senate chamber during the day's session. Koval himself would be attendance of the session and would deflect many of the countercharges that Cherand's allies would immediately hurl as a matter of course.

The Valinor had already received permission to insert herself into orbit of Ki Baratan. The Apprehension team would then beam to Tal Shiar Headquarters and gear up for their task. Macen and T'Kir would the first Federation guests of the dreaded secret police to willingly enter the headquarters complex of their own volition. There was some trepidation but P'ris' assurances were accepted as being as inviolable as they were intended to be.

A surprising amount of trust had developed between the Federation duo and their Romulan counterpart. They'd literally faced death together... twice. Their time spent together analysing and cataloguing data files had revealed much of each other's technical strengths and weaknesses. The operational planning sessions had been the most baring of all. Their differing styles and preferences had each come to the fore and compromises had been reached that accommodated everyone to some degree.

It was a lesson in miniature of what the Federation and the Star Empire could conceivably achieve together if the barriers of distrust ever came down. More than the Neutral Zone separated the two powers. Ingrained patterns of thought and perception, shaped by a war two hundred years in the past, still dominated relations between the two governments. This, before all else, had to change before any lasting or significant steps towards co-operation and peaceful relations could be achieved. In the interim, it was up to individuals like Macen, T'Kir, P'ris, and Donatra to build the first gossamer steps to peace.

Donatra saw them off to the transporter room. Her eyes were filled with an unexpected apprehension as the transporter tech activated the unit and converted their bodies into energy. They rematerialised as matter in a transporter platform within the Tal Shiar's headquarters.

Stares and slack jaws met the Starfleet officers as they passed through the building. P'ris ignored the incredulous looks and led Macen and T'Kir to an equipment depot. Contained within were banks of lockers, uniforms, weapons, and various other sundry equipment. She motioned for them to enter.

"In order for this plan to work, you must garbed as a member of the Tal Shiar's most fearsome retrieval units." P'ris led them to a section filled with black uniforms similar to those that P'ris had worn on Theridan. Macen could feel T'Kir's lust as she surveyed the potential selections.

"These look familiar." Macen commented dryly.

"This is why I have little fear regarding my deposition after this case." P'ris revealed, "I rank amongst the elite of my chosen profession. My superiors value my skills and contributions too much to throw my services away for a political trade-off."

"And if I were you, I'd watch out for just that happening." Macen warned, "My career ‘officially' ended when my superiors found it politically expedient to forget my record and focus only on what they considered a ‘unforgivable' incident."

"And has it not proven to be the best thing to ever befall your long career with Starfleet?" P'ris asked dryly.

Macen remained silent so T'Kir spoke in his place, "That means you got him. Now, when d'we get to try on clothes?"

"Let me secure you two lockers and we can begin." P'ris explained and moved off to find the quartermaster... or whatever the Romulan equivalent was called.

"I can't believe we're doing this." Macen whispered to T'Kir.

"Jealous?" T'Kir teased back, "After all, the wild plans are usually your idea not someone else's."

"I'm not sure even I would have come up with this one." He mumbled.

"Sure you would've." T'Kir whispered, "Just to spite P'ris if nothing else."

"Gee, thanks." He said ruefully, "Nice to know I'm held in such high esteem."

"I'd tell you all the ways I hold you in high esteem," she said in a breathy voice, "but since we're undoubtedly being monitored, d'you really want to let the Romulans in on that much of our private lives?"

"Let 'em take their chances." Macen replied with a devilish grin that nearly melted T'Kir's resolve. Only P'ris' return bolstered it and held it intact.

"Ready?" P'ris asked brightly, "I have two lockers designated for your use. You can place your uniforms in there for the duration of the mission. You can pick them up again after the successful completion of our task."

"No." Macen replied sternly.

"Pardon?" P'ris faltered.

"We'll leave this facility in whatever uniforms we don here." Macen informed her, "There's less likelihood on nanotech ‘bugs' being implanted throughout our clothes that way."

A look of consternation passed over P'ris' face but she quickly stifled it and smiled, a little more warily this time, "Any more surprises?"

"Not yet." Macen assured her.

"Peruse and take what you wish." P'ris gestured at the wall of clothing, "But do not take too long. We are still on a schedule."

T'Kir immediately went "shopping". She went up and down the racks with little "ooh"s and "aah"s streaming from her. Seeing that there was slightly less selection for men, he concentrated on finding garments in his size. Fortunately his workouts with Daggit kept him in fighting trim and allowed him to wear the various items properly.

In the end, Macen retained his Starfleet issue undershirt, and communicator, underneath the rest of his apparel. Only given the option of leather pants, he'd opted for... leather pants. They were loose enough to avoid any constriction problems as a result of perspiration. With the pants came two mid-calf length boots. They were clasped shut by two hinges and Macen found them infinitely more comfortable than his Starfleet boots. Over everything was a leather jacket that was a hybrid between those that used to be worn by pilots and motorcycle operators. It possessed claps identical to those of the boots as well as an upraised "mandarin" style collar.

T'Kir, in the meantime, had found an entire trove of treasures. Like Macen, she'd stripped down to her Starfleet issue grey undershirt but had donned a dark forest green zippered front equivalent to her yellow Starfleet Departmental tunic with the throat zipped open. Over that she put a flat panel leather vest. She also wore leather pants and boots identical to Macen's. Her jacket was a three-quarter length, flat panelled, collarless duster. T'Kir bubbled with excitement to be wearing the uniform despite its obviously intimidating overtones.

P'ris smiled approvingly as they each made their presentations. When they'd finished she approached and added a few items to their inventory. The first was a pair of gunbelts, each with the requisite disruptor. Macen wore a wry smile as he strapped his on. T'Kir rolled her eyes as she affixed her's in place.

"And now for the most vital part of this charade." P'ris announced and handed each of them a helmet. It closely resembled a 21st century Terran motorcycle helmet, including the three-quarter visor and full-face modular face. That was where the similarities ended. After Macen secured his chinstrap, he lowered the face. The visor's Head's Up Display came to life. In the spirit of co-operation, the Romulan's had redefined the display's outputs to read-out in Federation Basic

"Keep the faces of your helmets down at all times." P'ris instructed, "Avoid speaking unless spoken to and wear these..."

She handed the SID officers each a pair of black leather gloves; "Your skin is too pink. We'll find you a scarf or something to disguise your neck." This was said to Macen and T'Kir was addressed with, "As for you, it completes the look."

A scarf was not to be found but a zippered black tunic identical to T'Kir's was found and he put it on. Finally, P'ris nodded with approval, "Now, we are ready. Follow me."

They were next led to a lift and taken upwards. The lift opened to an unsupposing corridor. P'ris ushered the pair along to a nearby door. The door slid aside to reveal a veritable hangar of small terrestrial vehicles.

"Is this real?" Macen asked aloud, his voice carried by his helmet's communicator to P'ris and T'Kir's communicators.

T'Kir whistled at the rows of flitters, aircars, airlorries, groundcars and lorries, and even, her pulse quickened, impulse driven cycles. She nearly cried out in joy as P'ris led them to one such cycle. T'Kir ran a possessive and lustful hand over its sleek curves. P'ris smiled indulgently.

"This is as real as it gets, Commander." P'ris finally answered his question, "Meet your vehicle of choice."

"Yeeeeessss!" T'Kir crowed victoriously as she pumped a fist in the air.

"May I ask why?" Macen asked, "Her reaction notwithstanding."

"These scooters are a favourite amongst the retrieval units." P'ris explained, "They are fast, manoeuvrable, and have virtually limitless range."

"Don't balk now buster." T'Kir chided, "We're taking it and I'm driving it. You got the quad. I get this."

Macen could almost see T'Kir's gleaming eyes through her visor as P'ris tried to soothe any frayed nerves brought about by T'Kir's errant comments, "By rights she should be the one to drive. Vulcan reflexes are almost on par with their Romulan counterparts. It will be a sky and city full of drivers that can react at over twice your best reaction time."

"I have no problems with her driving," Macen confessed, "or with riding this scooter. What I have an issue with is: where do we put a prisoner if we apprehend one?"

P'ris looked perplexed, "It has never proven to be an issue before."

"Has anyone ever attempted to bring back a prisoner on one of these?" Macen gestured towards motorcycle-like vehicle with its underslung impulse driver and forward and rear canards. Theoretically, it was capable of supersonic flight... if one could manage to hold on.

"Generally the retrieval unit turns their prisoner over to a support team driving either a flitter or a aircar." P'ris detailed.

Macen's eyes surveyed the other craft. The larger vehicles, the flitters, resembled terrestrial jet fighter aircraft but were boxier and had passenger room for nearly a dozen troops. Aircars were slower and generally oval shaped. They were cheaper and in more widespread use by the masses. As with all aircraft on Romulus, their usage within the highways and flyways of Ki Baratan and the rest of the planet was carefully monitored by the uhlans, or military police.

Macen seemed quelled by P'ris' answer and dropped the subject. The Tal Shiar officer checked her chronometer and pursed her lips; "It is time. The full session of the Senate has begun. We must depart if we are to ensnare Cherand."

Macen and T'Kir bobbed their helmets in an approximation of a nod. T'Kir swung herself onto the bike's saddle with a sigh. She excitedly reached out to the handles and took hold of the throttle with her right and the "clutch" with her left. The left shifted through the pre-set, governed speed controls. Her feet rested on outcropped pedals. These pedals housed the flap's controls for the scooter.

Macen sat down behind her. The spilt level design and mid-back seatback of the rear half of the saddle insured that he wouldn't need to hold on to T'Kir. With someone he was less intimate with, such as Daggit or Grace, he'd refrain, but with T'Kir, he gripped her waist at the sides and leaned forward in anticipation.

T'Kir started the bike and it growled to life and began to vibrate between their legs. She rotated the throttle and angled the flaps for lift-off. The bike roared out of the hangar. The accompanying, "lead", flitter initially struggled to catch up. Owing to its greater speed and familiarity with the area, the flitter passed the scooter and signalled its driver to follow them.

Although unhappy at suddenly being regulated, T'Kir still exulted in the sense of freedom inspired by essentially sitting atop a rocket as it flew through a metropolis. Macen could sense her euphoria through their rapport. Knowing how deeply this affected her doubled his own exhilaration. In what seemed to only a few minutes, the rising edifice of the Hall of State loomed ahead of them. T'Kir's disappointment at this suddenly hammered at him.

There are definite drawbacks to dating a telepath, Macen realised for the hundredth time.

I heard that, T'Kir chided. How rude.

Mind on the mission, woman, Macen thought back, We have work to do.

His only reply was the mental equivalent of a raspberry.

The flitter began its descent for a landing in front of the Hall of State. After scattering a gathering of schoolchildren, the flitter landed before the steps that led from street level and the Grand Plaza up to the Hall. P'ris instructed T'Kir to park at a side entrance where most of the Senators had their aircars or private flitters pick them up.

T'Kir lowered the landing skids and set the bike down. As she and Macen dismounted, she pulled the isolinear "key" and pocketed it. They strode purposefully for the entrance into the Hall. The guards there deferred to them exactly as P'ris had said they would and opened the way for them.

Once inside, they bullied their way through the corridors to the central rotunda. With the helmets' visors tied into P'ris' communicator, they were able to spot her highlighted image approaching. The visors' Heads Up Displays were also tied into their disruptors. Wherever they were aimed was illuminated in the wearer's sight.

P'ris stopped in front of the pair and squared her shoulders, "You two look magnificent. There is no way to tell you from the genuine article. Remember, follow my lead and this will proceed apace. Koval has us on the Centurion-at-arm's roster. All we have to do is present ourselves and we will be granted access to the Senate chambers."

"What are we waiting for then?" Macen inquired.

P'ris flashed them a grim smile and turned to lead them to the Centurion, as she walked she instructed over her shoulder; "Walk one to each side of me, one step back."

It took a moment for them to perfect their lockstep. Once achieved, it conveyed a foreboding sense of precisely controlled power. The march was hardest on the taller Macen, who had to shorten his natural gait to accommodate the two women. P'ris and T'Kir were roughly equivalent in height and build, making T'Kir's efforts to stay in step much easier.

They reached the Centurion at-arms and P'ris presented her Tal Shiar credentials. The grizzled old veteran nodded once curtly and motioned for the trio to follow him. They were led to an iron door guarded by two sentries from the Praetorian Guard. T'Kir's telepathy detected nearby snipers also monitoring the door.

The well-oiled door came open with the barest groan. The ancient manual lock on the door was thrown as soon as the door was closed behind them, sealing them in. The doorkeepers seemed apprehensive at the sight of the "retrieval squad". It seemed a reaction ingrained in every Romulan citizen. It made Macen very glad that his people had charted the area of the Alpha Quadrant that birthed the Federation some two hundred years before its birth and had seen a glimmer of hope in the civilisations arising there.

"What is the meaning of this?" a burly Senator with a Northern accent said as he rose and straightened his senatorial robes. A stir was passing through the rest of the assembled Senators. The Praetor cast a weary eye Koval's way but then quickly hid is momentary displeasure and impassively waited for the enfolding drama to play out. P'ris led Macen and T'Kir to the centre of the chamber, directly before the Praetor and the assembled Senators. The Praetor smiled indulgently down upon P'ris.

"As I recall, Commander, in your last appearance before this body, you were seeking authorisation to investigate the alleged theft and sale of trilithium based weaponry. Am I to take it by your appearance here now that you have concluded your investigation and are ready to make arrests?"

A touch of green touched P'ris' cheek as an embarrassed flush came to her as she replied, "I have nearly concluded my investigations, milord. I have now begun the process of bringing suspects in for questioning."

"By questioning, you mean ‘interrogation'" the Northern Senator chimed in.

"Then what business do you have here, Commander?" the Praetor inquired, nudging P'ris along.

"I am here to accuse and apprehend a member of this august body." P'ris' voice rose several decibels, "They will then have the opportunity to affirm their innocence or condemn themselves when confronted with the evidence."

Several Senators rose shouting protests and threats. P'ris never wavered. Macen turned to face the major cluster of protest. He held up a single finger and held it close to his helmet's face. His other hand hovered near his disruptor. Many of the Senators wavered at this overt threat.

A smile played at the edges of the Praetor's mouth at seeing the normally fractious Senate quelled so easily. It made him wish the by-laws governing the Senate allowed him to utilise his Praetorian Guard in a similar fashion. It had been used as an intimidation force in past, despite all strictures, but not for several centuries. He inwardly sighed and refocused on the matter before him.

"Then make your accusation and let us witness justice being carried out."

P'ris turned and pointed at Cherand, "I accuse Senator Cherand of organising and authorising the allocation and distribution of trilithium weapons amongst foreign stellar nations."

"This is prosperous!" The Northern Senator shouted above the mixed protests of his similarly inclined peers, "Where's your proof?"

"My proof is found in the records of Admiral Valrik of the Tal Shiar. He was a fellow conspirator in this mad scheme to create client nations dependent on the Star Empire for arms and technical support."

"Where is this Valrik?" the rabble rousing Senator demanded, "Why was he not brought before us to face inquisition on these charges?"

"The Admiral is dead." P'ris reported flatly, "He was killed while attempting escape."

"How convenient." The Senator purred.

P'ris returned her attention to Cherand, "Senator Cherand, you will accompany us. If you refuse, we will take you by force. If you surrender willingly, we will forgo the use of binders and preserve your dignity for the duration of the walk to our vehicle. Choose!"

Cherand remained in her seat for a heartbeat, then ever so slowly she rose. She made her way through the rows of senatorial chairs and made her way to the central dais the Senators all faced. She nodded her acknowledgement of P'ris' authority and did not resist or flinch as T'Kir took a firm grip on her arm. P'ris prepared to lead them out of the hall when the Northern Senator, already up from his seat, made a grab for T'Kir. Macen intercepted him and jammed the barrel of his disruptor under the Senator's chin. The elderly Romulan gurgled slightly and backed up.

P'ris led the way back to the hall's main entrance. T'Kir followed, escorting the still compliant Cherand. Macen brought up the rear, weapon still drawn. P'ris lingered at the door until they were regrouped and then exited as a unit. Now P'ris led and the Senator was escorted to either side by the "retrieval squad agents".

In the Senate Hall, the Senators had leapt out of their seats and were convened on the same dais that P'ris had delivered her accusation from. Wearing a wry smile, the Praetor leaned over to Koval, "You always manage to find ways to keep my life interesting."

Koval did not reply.

P'ris marched through the main corridor of the Hall of State. Macen was to the right of the prisoner, hand poised over his sidearm. T'Kir was to the left, her hand free and unobstructed. With her right, she held onto Cherand's arm. The attack, when it came, was so expertly timed that if T'Kir's telepathy hadn't granted the arrest squad a second' warning, they'd have ended up dead.

T'Kir suddenly sensed massive waves of hostility and flashed a warning to Macen. Macen dove to one knee and called out a warning for P'ris to dive to the floor. T'Kir met Macen on the floor as two armed Romulans emerged from behind one of the numerous columns lining the Central Corridor.

Macen reflexively fired. The two armed assailants immediately returned fire. Their pattern was selective, primarily meant to force Macen and T'Kir under cover while keeping P'ris pinned down. After the first few shots were exchanged, Macen undertook a diving roll behind a column and he set about changing his angle of attack on the two mysterious assailants. T'Kir swiftly sought cover as well.

One of the armed Romulans stayed in position and raked the corridor with cover fire while the other man rushed forward and met Cherand. Throughout this incident, Cherand had calmly, almost blandly, stood by and waited to observe the outcome of the struggle. Now the gunman hustled her off down the side entrance where Macen and T'Kir had parked their scooter. The other Romulan continued to lay down suppressive fire with his pulse rifle as he slowly moved towards the adjoining corridor.

T'Kir chose this moment to rush the gunman. He swung his rifle toward her and fired off several bursts. T'Kir jumped sideways but it was too late, the first few particle beam pulses caught her in the side. She spiralled out of control as she lost control of her legs. She collapsed in a heap and lay there lifelessly.

Enraged, Macen stepped out from behind his pillar and fired a disruptor blast into the gunman. This was followed by another shot, swiftly followed by yet another. Macen continued to shoot the Romulan assailant as he crossed the hall. The Romulan was severely scorched by the time Macen came up alongside him and fired one last burst into the corpse.

"Finished?" a shaken P'ris asked.

"I haven't even begun." Macen vowed.

"Don't get pissy on my account." T'Kir mumbled, struggling to rise.

"You're alive!" Macen exclaimed and knelt to embrace her.

"I should be dead though. As it is, I feel like a starship landed on me." T'Kir accepted his hand and he helped hoist her to her feet, "How'd I survive?"

"The uniforms you are wearing are hardened against particle beam emissions." P'ris revealed.

"Rather like Starfleet SOBs." Macen said, referring to Starfleet's Special Operational Battledress uniforms.

"Quickly now!" P'ris urged, "You can still catch them."

Macen and T'Kir ran headlong down the corridor towards the side entrance to the Hall of State. They exited the doors in a high-low cover formation. In the middle of the alleyway they'd parked in, lay a stretch limousine aircar. It was just beginning its take-off from the ground and heading for the main traffic stream in front of the Hall.

Macen fired a few shots at the limo while T'Kir raced to the bike and started it. Macen holstered his weapon and ran to join her as she revved the throttle on the scooter. As soon as he was behind her and secure, she launched the bike forward at full throttle and gave chase to the departing limo. The pursuit was underway.

 

Chapter 16

T'Kir swerved the bike hard to the right. They accelerated passed the irate pilot of the trailing aircar. He bestowed a gesture upon them. His eyes widened as he recognised the uniforms worn by the two riders moving past him. He began to pray the two Tal Shiar agents hadn't noticed him as he decelerated. The more distance between them, the better.

"I think you're annoying the locals." Macen commented dryly.

"Frinx 'em," T'Kir replied tersely, "teach 'em for getting in my way."

"In a mood are we?"

"Getting shot tends to piss me off." T'Kir growled, "Or had you forgotten that little fact?"

"Get me near that aircar and they'll learn how good my memory is." Macen vowed, "By the way, why can't we lift above this traffic and overtake the limo that way?"

T'Kir sighed in frustration, "Romulan flyways are strictly controlled. The scooter's computer and throttle are both being monitored and regulated by the city's traffic control system."

"So essentially we're stuck following the limo's wake."

"Yes." Came her defeated reply.

As it was, the limo was careening through traffic at full throttle. It was relying on its greater bulk and armoured hide to carve a path through the thick afternoon commute. The discombobulated drivers brushed aside by the limo's reckless flight found themselves all over the flyway's lanes, attempting to regain control of their vehicles. It was through this firestorm that T'Kir had to fly.

"You're the hacker." Macen reminded T'Kir, "Can't you do something to sever us from the traffic system's computers?"

"I can try." She said through gritted teeth, "But it kinds hard while dodging half the flyway."

"Just do what you can."

"Ki Baratan Traffic Control to Commander P'ris, please advise the suspect vehicle has been located headed northeast along the Svyllian Expressway. One Tal Shiar vehicle is in close pursuit."

"Acknowledged Ki Baratan Traffic Control, this is Tal Shiar Pursuit Two requesting permission to circumvent the standard travel routes and compute and execute an intercept course."

"Permission granted Pursuit Two. Please advise Pursuit One to quit twiddling with her Control link or we'll ground them."

Grateful that the irritated Traffic Control Officer could not see her, P'ris smiled at the mental image of T'Kir jigging the bike's computer link with the entire Ki Baratan Traffic Control System. The TCS held the inhabitants of Ki Baratan in as much thrall as the Tal Shiar ever did. One affected them on a grand scale, the other during a daily, grinding commute. P'ris suspected that the Tal Shiar and TCS' long-standing mutual affection for one another was about to take a hit.

So be it, P'ris resolved, I undertook an oath to arrest all the perpetrators of this crime, whomever they may be.

"Pilot, plot an intercept course for the Senator's fleeing car and make way as soon as the course is ready." P'ris ordered.

"Yes, milady." The pilot replied crisply and went to work.

"I think I've got it!" T'Kir announced with some excitement.

"Good." Macen said with some relief, "At first all this dodging, swerving, braking, and accelerating was fun. Now I'm slightly nauseous."

"Never fear babe," T'Kir reassured him, "we're about to pounce on the bastards and put an end to this."

"Let's do it." Macen concurred.

T'Kir rotated the throttle to wide open and angled the flaps to give them lift. The scooter ascended the level of traffic they'd been in. There was a buffer layer of one traffic lane's worth of height between the traffic lane they'd departed and the opposing traffic byway overhead. Exits were to the right of the flow of traffic.

T'Kir gunned the accelerator and the bike raced forward unimpeded by the obstacles of other traffic. Up ahead, and below them, loomed the careening limo.

"Bring us up alongside them." Macen requested of T'Kir.

She began a dive towards the limo's general path. Macen unholstered his disruptor and checked its power level. T'Kir began to swerve side to side as she settled back down into the traffic lane. She was learning to anticipate the limo driver's zigs and zags. Feeling she had a basic grip on the driver's responses, she gunned the bike forward, alongside the limo's rear passenger compartment.

Macen began to fire his disruptor into the underside of the aircar, damaging the car's impulse engine. The limo swerved toward the bike but T'Kir braked, accelerated and swerved around an out of control aircar and repositioned the scooter next to the limo. Macen resumed his assault on the impulse driver. The roof of the limo's rear compartment blew off with the assistance of explosive bolts. The surviving Romulan gunman stood up in the newly created rear deck. He locked a metal pole to the car's deckplates. To the pole he affixed a pulse cannon.

"Watch out!" Macen warned.

T'Kir braked just as the cannon fired. The car that had been beside the bike erupted into flames as the particle beam disrupted the impulse engine's fusion reactor. T'Kir swerved behind the limo and Macen began firing over her shoulder. The gunman realigned the cannon for a new shot. T'Kir gunned the bike's impulse engine and began to climb. The cannon fired at where the bike had been but it was no longer there. A lorry took the intended shot. It too exploded.

The gunman tried to traverse the cannon high enough to fire at the elevated bike but it could not adjust that high. Not that it mattered; the bike was already in a diving descent. T'Kir aimed slightly to the left of the gunman. Macen laid down a strafing barrage of fire as they swooped down on the limo. The gunman took several hits as the bike came up just above the limo.

Macen leapt off the bike into the rear compartment of the limo. As he settled himself, another of Cherand's bodyguards emerged from the passenger compartment of the limo. Macen attempted to raise his pistol but the guard swatted it aside before he'd even brought it to bear. A staggeringly fast punch to Macen's gut sent him sprawling backwards. As he panted for breath, he realised he was in trouble. He never even saw the last blow and now some hand-to-hand combat expert was waiting to take him apart.

C'mon, improvise, Macen thought desperately, "Outside the box. Anything that doesn't involve grappling with this killer.

Cautiously, Macen rose. Apparently, his opponent wanted to savour the event and was waiting for Macen to be up and ready before striking again. They guardedly approached each other. This time Macen saw the Romulan's hand snake out. It still did him no good, since he was still several heartbeats behind responding. He was struck in the ribs and they flexed, possibly cracked, but mercifully did not break.

Macen warily rose again. A searing pain coursed through his chest but he was resolved to get passed this guard or die trying. This time they approached each other and both dropped into a "guard" stance. This seemed to please the bodyguard. Under the helmet, Macen's lips were pursed in concentration, his brow furrowed. This time when the blow came, he saw it and was able to react.

Macen ducked. The bodyguard punched the hardened Tal Shiar helmet and cried out. Macen then charged forward, striking the Romulan's gut and heart with his helmet. He stood up quickly, smashing the man's lowered face. While the Romulan struggled to recover, Macen retrieved his pistol and shot him.

Macen then ducked down and entered the still covered passenger compartment. Senator Cherand sat in there, ashen faced and strapped into a chair. Another guard located next to the driver spun his seat around and took aim at Macen. Macen shot him in the abdomen, near his heart and he went limp. Cherand, if possible, lost even more colour.

"Do you know what you're doing?" she hissed, "Your career is over."

"A risk I'm willing to take, milady." Macen replied, to the driver he said, "Exit the flyway and set us down."

"Brin," T'Kir's voice cut in over his helmet's speakers, "something's up. The oncoming, overhead traffic is being held or diverted."

"Any official reason why?"

"Nope." T'Kir, "There's been no official announcements concerning it."

"It must concern us." Macen concluded, "Have you spotted P'ris' flitter yet?"

"There's a flitter coming in but the angle of approach seems wrong."

"We're doomed!" Cherand wailed, "We must flee!"

"Calm down." Macen ordered, "I have to bring you in but I don't have to bring all of you in."

Cherand settled down and sat in her crash seat trembling and muttering to herself. Macen couldn't make out most of it but got his helmet's recorders on it anyway. Most of her ramblings seemed to revolve around "Him" and "He will never let me live to incriminate him". Macen wanted to interrogate her on the spot but knew that was a job to be left to P'ris and her specialists.

"Suddenly T'Kir's voice yelled in his ear, "Watch out!"

Disruptor bolts began tearing their way through the armoured canopy of the limo. Macen dove onto the deck, between the banks of chairs to either side of the compartment. Particle beams cut through metal, plastics... and flesh. The strafing barrage passed and Macen pushed himself up off the deck.

Cherand was dead, slumped in her chair with large burns across her body. The driver too was dead, the back of his skull a scorched skeletal remnant of what it had been. The car began to careen wildly. Macen ran to the rear deck and looked for T'Kir.

"T'Kir, are you all right?"

The bike and rider raced into sight, the rest of the traffic now held back in fear, "Thank the Elements you're alive!"

"Get me out of this car or I won't be." Macen advised.

"Gotcha." T'Kir accelerated and swerved in closer. She hugged the unpredictable movements of the larger vehicle as best she could. Finally, the aircar trimmed out for a few moments. Macen leapt from the back of the limo to the rear of the bike. He almost overbalanced and fell off to the side but managed to save himself with a quick arm around T'Kir.

"Hiya lover." T'Kir greeted him happily, "I take it there were no other survivors?"

"Nope." Macen answered grimly, "What the hell happened?"

"That flitter I spotted came in and strafed the limo. The moment it was done with its pass, Traffic Control released all the overhead traffic. It's so thick now there's no hope of getting through it and giving chase to the flitter."

"I can't say this making me very happy." Macen grumped, "We need to confer with P'ris. It's her planet and her bad guys. Any idea where she... oh frinx!"

The limo's primary impulse coil chose that moment to explode. The surviving clusters of the chassis scattered in an enlarging plasma fireball. T'Kir banked the bike hard to the left and angled the flaps for an airbraking manoeuvre. She then rotated the throttle completely back and accelerated in a semicircle until she aimed in the opposite direction. They proceeded unopposed for several kilometres before banking left and exiting the flyway.

T'Kir set the bike down on the roof of a nearby building. Even as the riders dismounted, the shadow of a descending flitter passed over them. Macen and T'Kir waited as the engines whined down and the hatchway opened up in the side of the vehicle. P'ris was the first out of the door and she headed straight for the SID officers.

"What happened?"

Macen pulled off his helmet and glared angrily at P'ris, "What happened was that someone else with access to a flitter and the TCS arranged an assassination after I'd captured the suspect."

P'ris looked to T'Kir, "Is this true?"

The helmetless T'Kir met her eyes, "I was outside the limo when the strike happened. An unmarked flitter, identical to your own, came from the west and got the TCS to stop the overhead traffic flow, presumably to get a cleaner shot. All in all, a pretty thorough and professional job."

"Damn." P'ris swore softly, "This is what I was afraid of. Someone, either in the military or within the Tal Shiar itself, has escaped suspicion and therefore arrest"

"Cherand alluded to that." Macen revealed, "She referred to a man that would kill her to prevent discovery."

"If only we could have analysed even that much of her confession."

Macen grinned, "I had my helmet recorders on while she was saying it. You'll still get a chance."

"So now what?" T'Kir wondered.

"The arrests are completed, with the exception of one." P'ris replied, "What we will do now is track this lone criminal down while we process the rest of the conspirators."

"What about us?" T'Kir asked impatiently, "What do we do next?"

"From the look on Commander Macen's face, I suggest you seek medical treatment. After that, I will see if I'm authorised to keep on this portion of the case. If not, you may return to the Federation with my gratitude."

"Sounds good to me." T'Kir smiled.

"We'll rendezvous at Headquarters then." P'ris suggested, "In the interim, I will attempt to track down who authorised that flitter's flight plan."

"Sounds like a plan." Macen agreed.

"Okey-dokey." T'Kir agreed to speed things along, "Can we get going now?"

"What's with you?" Macen asked as P'ris strode away.

"Y'know how I was raised by a Romulan dissident?"

Macen nodded, "Yes."

"Well, I have to get off this rock before my urge to yell ‘Power to the people' gets this mission ruined."

"See?" he beamed, "You are an idealist after all."

"Spare me."

"It's true. Admit it."

"I am, and will forever will remain, a rabble-rouser. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Bless your little activist's heart when you say that."

T'Kir sighed in defeat and strapped her helmet back on, "Are you ready?"

Macen slapped down his helmet's face, "Let's do it."

Despite all assurances that their uniforms were not nano-bugged, Macen and T'Kir opted to remain in their retrieval squad uniforms. A very wry and chagrined P'ris led the pair to the transporter room for beaming up to the Valinor. They were to receive guest quarters there while P'ris received the answers to her queries and the investigation unfolded.

Macen and T'Kir were received warmly, a genuine warmth for once, by Donatra. She was quite pleased with the synopsis of the investigation's progress and the SID officers' role in it. For the first time, she regarded them with something akin to mutual respect. She led them through the warrens of the ship until coming before a particular door.

"These are the ship's VIP quarters. They are yours until your status is determined." Donatra informed them.

"And if we're to go?" Macen inquired.

"My understanding is that there is to be a brief ceremony at the Hall of State followed by your return to this vessel. We shall ferry you to your vessel then escort your starship out of Romulan space."

"Fair enough." Macen allowed, "Any idea of how long it'll be before our case is decided?"

Donatra gave him a rueful smile, "Bureaucracy being what it is, I suspect you have several hours. Relax, eat, bathe and relax."

With that said, she excused herself. Two guards were posted nearby with more undoubtedly secreted away in hidden corners of the corridor. Macen and T'Kir exchanged a glance and shrugged. They depressed the palm lock on the door and it slid aside to reveal a much more sumptuous room then they'd have expected from the otherwise austere Warbird.

T'Kir whistled, "I could get used to this."

"This must be designed for Senators and high ranking nobles." Macen observed.

"Ah, the price of being born a snob." T'Kir sighed as she collapsed upon the bed.

Macen gave her a wry grin, "Don't get too comfortable. We still eventually have to go back to the Solstice."

Sobered by the realisation that they would eventually return to their ship, a ship even more diminutive than the one they were employing for this operation, she did what any rational person with her mood and temperament would do: she stuck out her tongue.

Macen rolled his eyes and pulled a tricorder loose from his belt. He flipped it open and began to sweep the room.

"What'cha doin'?" T'Kir drawled.

"Seeing how many surveillance devices are in here and turned on." He answered.

"You think they'd spy on their leaders?"

"I think they'd spy on their beloved grandmothers if it afforded them some sort of advantage." Macen snorted.

"No doubt." T'Kir laughed, "Dibs on the shower.... unless you'd care to join me?"

He gave her a lusty smile, "Always a pleasure."

On Romulus, P'ris and a sound tech were reviewing the recording taken by Macen's helmet of Cherand's final words. They were utilising the finest computers available to the Tal Shiar to enhance and clean up the audio captures. So far, they'd enhanced all of the overt dialogue caught by the recorder. Now they were moving on the more garbled mutterings and mumbles.

Despite the early successes achieved early on in the work, the nitty-gritty piecemeal portion had begun. P'ris was listening to a particular segment that she'd reviewed a dozen times before. Each replay was preceded by minute adjustments to the playback quality, frequency, modulation, and amplitude. P' ris remained relentless because she'd thought she'd heard Cherand evoke a name, the very name they were seeking the final suspect.

When P'ris finally caught it, she very nearly missed it entirely. She replayed it again and once again the name surfaced. This time she did catch it and an icy dagger plunged into her heart. There were only two names in the entire Star Empire that could not, should not, be named by Cherand as the mysterious conspirator that had sold out her empire.

P'ris needed to act swiftly, and discreetly, if the final conspirator suspected she knew, she would be a dead woman, regardless of her position. She needed to recruit trustworthy allies. Allies that were incorruptible. That left two people in the vicinity of Romulus.

Macen and T'Kir had just finished returning their trays to the replicator when the door chime sounded. T'Kir called out "Come" in Romulan. The door slid aside to reveal P'ris. Macen observed that she bore the same ashen complexion that Cherand had for the final few moments of her life. She held the recording chip from his helmet up.

"This is the only copy of the recording that you made?"

"Yes." Macen replied warily.

"Praise the Elements!" P'ris nearly sobbed, "I sent the sound tech away with an excuse that I was coming up here to question you further but what I really needed to know..."

"Was if there were any other copies." Macen supplied, "Copies that would have to be destroyed."

P'ris nodded wordlessly, finally forcing out a croaked, "Yes."

"I take it you found something on the chip." Macen observed.

Another nod.

"Something that incriminates someone of staggering importance."

Another nod.

"So it's either the Praetor or Chairman Koval." Macen deduced out loud.

P'ris rewarded him with a hunted look and he glanced down at T'Kir, "That means it's Koval."

"Bummer." The Vulcan replied, "Nothing's worse than trying to arrest the boss."

"What am I to do?" P'ris pleaded.

"You have to at least confront him and see if you want to try and arrest him." Macen suggested, "An interview may reveal his innocence."

"It would be suicide." P'ris said, aghast.

"It's either that or letting a potential traitor go free." Macen said knowing, and ignoring, the fact Koval was a Federation agent, "Can you live with that?"

"No." P'ris said with a trace of conviction, "Will you come with me?"

"What?" Macen and T'Kir said in unison.

"He'll never suspect what is about to be sprung if you are there as well."

Her desperation caused Macen to relent, "All right, but we're moral support only. Any arrests have to be made by you."

"Agreed."

We're gonna get killed, T'Kir thoughtcast to Macen.

Who knows? Maybe this will go smoothly. He thought in reply.

Are you kidding? This is us we're thinking about, she reminded him.

 

Chapter 17

"How long are we gonna have to sit here?" Grace wondered aloud... for the third time in the last hour.

"Grammar young.... whatever you are." Danan chided, "You've been hanging around T'Kir for too long."

"Wait a minute!" Grace protested, "What's this ‘whatever' crap? Just because you've found out my ancestors were eight metres tall with multiple eyes and tentacles, you suddenly think I'm someone else. I'm still Hannah Grace. I still have feelings."

"It was a joke, Hannah." Danan tried to downplay the incident before a crisis erupted. Placating a near all-powerful being was proving to be more trouble than what it was worth, "We, as in the rest of the team, are still dealing with all that you've revealed to us. Humour is a coping mechanism. I'm sorry if the joke seemed in poor taste. It was the best I could do with what I had."

"Okay." Grace seemed mollified, then raised a solitary finger, "Now what's this about spending too much time with T'Kir. She's my best friend. Why wouldn't I spend time with her."

While Danan fended off this latest verbal barrage, Daggit and Radil, the bridge's only other occupants, scooted closer together and began to whisper amongst themselves.

"Remember when she was shy and retiring?" Daggit asked.

"How could I not, it was just a few days ago." Radil replied.

"Think those days are gone?"

"Forever." Radil assured him, "Now that she is freed from the burden of her secret, her true identity will surface at last. We'll finally meet the true Hannah Grace."

"I wonder how surprised the Captain and T'Kir will be by the changes in her?"

"I don't know. I think it'll be impossible to tell."

Daggit looked at her with some puzzlement, "What do you mean?"

"I think one of Macen's great tricks at appearing all knowing is to be instantly adaptable to whatever situation is presented to him."

"So your theory is that it isn't that he predicts what's coming, it's that he reacts faster than everyone else?"

"Yup."

"Let you in on a little secret." Daggit's whisper dropped several decibels, "It's both."

If I didn't know you could kick my ass, I'd wipe that smirk off your face." Radil glowered

"What?" an exasperated Danan called out, "Do I have to break up a crisis up there now?"

"We're fine." Daggit assured her.

"Thank god." Danan sighed as she slumped into the command chair.

"And another thing...." Grace began.

Danan closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose and prayed for the strength not to kill Grace.

Koval's calendar had been cleared to allot space for a meeting between the investigating team and the Director of the Tal Shiar. This was either an excellent sign or an extremely bad one. Koval either had nothing to hide nor fear or would have them seized and executed for their knowledge. It seemed the dilemma of what to do would be resolved either way.

P'ris struggled to seem calm. Her stray fidgets revealed a slight nervousness. Her face showed nothing. Only T'Kir's telepathy could sense the roiling turmoil under the surface.

Macen and T'Kir were apprehensive but had faith in their ability to get out of trouble even faster than they'd gotten into it. Although, with an entire planet full of Romulans potentially stacked up against them, the odds weren't exactly in their favour. In the end, T'Kir had faith that Macen hadn't finally led her astray and Macen had faith that the Currents had brought them here. There was a definite convergence of probabilities and outcomes centred in the office before them. Now it was merely a matter of deciphering the meaning of these convergences and their possible outcomes... that and manage to find a way to stay alive.

"The Chairman will see you now." Koval's ascetic looking aide announced and moved alongside the double doorway entrance leading to Koval's office.

The double doors swung open to reveal a rather cavernous space. The room was designed in the round. Besides the entrance they'd just entered from, there were two other doors leading to destinations unknown. Centred in the room, sat a semicircular desk. Behind the desk, suspended from the ceiling, hung several viewers. One large, starship sized viewer dominated the space. This was surrounded by smaller, standard desk-sized monitors.

Seated at the desk, half occluded in shadow, was Koval himself. The lighting was intended to intimidate the petitioner and it worked. Macen's nascent empathic abilities could sense P'ris girding up her resolve. T'Kir was still trusting in his judgement... and keeping telepathic tabs on the vicinity.

"Ah," Koval spoke, his voice and tone rather dry, "the intrepid investigators. It appears you have a report for my eyes only, Commander?"

P'ris nodded in the affirmative and Shook his head wearily, "Then why are these Starfleet ‘officers', if one wishes to maintain the pretences regarding their true identities, present for a private meeting?"

"These ‘officers', as you put it, are here to assist me in clarifying up some troubling allegations that have been made." P'ris answered.

Koval smiled coldly, "As I knew you would. Very well. Commander Macen, ‘Lieutenant' T'Kir, I shall be counting upon your discretion in these... and other matters."

Macen gave Koval a barely perceptible nod and Koval's attention wholly shifted to P'ris, "In answer to your question: yes."

"Yes?" she repeated in confusion, "'Yes' to what question?"

"The question of whether or not I was guilty of knowing about the trilithium conspiracy." Koval dropped that revelation like a lead weight.

P'ris hesitated and Koval clucked his tongue at her, "Come now, Commander. You were once considered my brightest pupil. Surely you can surmise the appropriate question in response to my declaration."

"You knew of the conspiracy?" an affirmative nod answered her, "Were you part of the conspiracy?"

"If you mean by knowing of its activities and its membership in order to monitor its progress in order to unleash agents bent on its destruction at the appropriate time, then yes, I was part of the conspiracy."

"Your involvement was a ruse in order to entrap them?" P'ris asked with some incredulity.

"If you are certain of my guilt, consult with the Praetor." Koval suggested, "Otherwise, let me present my case. This is for your benefit as well as my own."

"My benefit?" P'ris wondered.

"You have a great talent, my dear but you are rather short-sighted when it comes to operational methodology. If all goes well, this will expand your horizons."

"How could you go along with them?" P'ris demanded, "They violated both Imperial law and our treaty with the Federation."

"I care little for our treaty prohibiting the use and distribution of trilithium weapons. I care only for the insane mind that would conceive of gaining strategic advantage over another by destroying a star. That is the individual that must be stopped for they are capable of any travesty."

"It was I that allowed the original reports of the missing trilithium devices to reach your capable hands." Koval confessed, "The conspirators had reached the point where they had actually distributed weapons and they had been used. It was only at this point that they committed crimes worthy our full attention."

"And the Federation's involvement?" P'ris pressed, "Why were they allowed to participate in the investigation?"

"In order to avoid the appearance of culpability. The Imperial government and even the Senate could be compromised if the truth were to be fully known."

"So Senator Cherand's death?"

"A tragic accident to be sure but it serves a higher purpose. As a suspect, Cherand brought the stain of dishonour upon herself. As a convicted criminal, she would stain the Senate itself." Koval explained, "If I were to ever discover who flew that flitter, I would thank them for a service well done."

Another protracted silence followed this admission. Finally, P'ris softly cleared her throat, "And what do I do now?"

"I care not." Koval declared, "I am safe enough within the Praetor's graces to survive any charges stemming from this case. Silence on the other hand would indicate your growth in comprehending the fundamental tactics a Tal Shiar leader can and must employ."

P'ris considered his words in silence. T'Kir cast a questioning glance Macen's way. He replied with a barest of shrugs. Koval remained as glacial as ever. Finally, P'ris sighed.

"All right. You win." She pronounced, "I not only understand why you did what you did, I understand the mechanics of it."

"Excuse me," Macen spoke at last, "but how can that be?"

"No Imperial interests were harmed or placed at risk. The trilithium weapons used were under Romulan control but aimed at targets selected by lesser races. The Empire suffered no real harm beside the loss of face."

Macen thought his head would explode, "What a load of crap! We were charged with finding and apprehending those involved with this conspiracy. That means everyone involved in the conspiracy. It's not our job to determine guilt or innocence."

"There you have it wrong." P'ris corrected him, "The Tal Shiar is charged with determining the guilt or innocence of a suspect. I've made my determination. It will stand. As this is my home and my government, my decision will go unchallenged, am I clear?"

"So, we're reduced to threats?" Macen asked coldly.

‘Not threats... suggestions intended to bring about a mutually successful conclusion to this affair. The future of such joint ventures weighs heavily in the balance." P'ris worked to diffuse the more militant atmosphere of a moment before.

"Commander," Koval interceded, "surely you see that the continuity of the existing order is of paramount importance. A radical shake-up in the Senate and the upper echelons of the military and the Tal Shiar could easily work to your disadvantage. There is an entire generation of firebrands waiting in the wings of power who'd love nothing more than to engage the Federation in open warfare and see who fared the best against the Dominion."

Koval then smiled nastily, "Besides, aren't you supposed to adhere to a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others. This is our affair. We'll handle it as we see fit."

Macen's jaw clenched and unclenched for several moments but finally he nodded assent, "We do have that principle. Handle this matter however you see fit."

"Wisely spoken, Commander." Koval praised Macen for his positional shift.

"So now what?" Macen asked.

"Now you return to your uniforms," Koval held up a deflecting hand, "which I assure you will not be bugged. Nanobugs are too short range to be of any use anyway."

Macen wasn't reassured but nodded, "and after that?"

"A small ceremony will be conducted at the Hall of State where the Praetor will praise the symbolism of this joint effort and the efforts of the investigators as well."

"Oh joy." T'Kir was heard to mutter.

"You will be respectful and grateful for the Praetor's attention." Koval warned.

"Yeah." T'Kir replied bitterly, "Not a problem."

Koval cast a menacing glare her way while Macen asked another question, "Do we also get to speak? On behalf of the Federation I mean."

Koval's smile became solicitous, "The Federation ambassador will be speaking on behalf of your government. You need only appear and accept the accolades of the Romulan people."

Macen and Koval locked gazes, trying and testing one another's mettle. Finally Macen backed down, "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse my crew and I, we will be unable to attend the festivities."

Koval's cheeks coloured a bit but his expression remained as bland as before. No outward sign betrayed his seething fury, "Are you certain? The Praetor will be most disappointed."

Turn our investigation into a farce will you? I'll turn your award ceremony into a joke as well. Macen thought.

Damn skippy! T'Kir rallied to his mental aid

"We have repair issues that can only be addressed at a Federation starbase." Macen explained smoothly, "There was a also a security matter that arose over the course of the investigation."

"I was informed that you had suffered a mutiny." Koval stated, "I'm assuming your presence here is an indicator of your success in overcoming it."

"Yes." Macen gave Koval a slight nod, "There remains, however, investigations to be conducted, boards of inquiry to be held and courts martials and other appropriate punishments to be meted out. I'm sure you understand."

"But of course." This smile was almost genuine, "I will personally inform the Praetor of your regrets. We will forward any medals or honours to you through your embassy."

"You needn't other." Macen assured him.

"I assure you, we must." Koval replied, "Now, to return you to the Valinor and then to your ship. Inform Commander Donatra that I will be keeping Commander P'ris planetside for a few days. She has that long to do whatever she likes."

Macen grinned despite his frustration with the situation. T'Kir mentally flashed him a warning and he sobered up. She moved closer to him. Koval noted this and smiled coldly.

"If I were to so choose, the number of agents that would swarm into this room would overwhelm even you two. You see, I am aware of your rather formidable reputation and came prepared." Koval informed them, "Fortunately, they will prove superfluous now."

"Why?" Macen asked. T'Kir punched him in the arm and shot him an evil look.

"I believe we have an understanding now." Koval folded his hands together, "Romulan internal affairs are to remain internal. We asked for your help in finding the criminals responsible for the sale of trilithium weapons. We will deal with them and use our own methods for determining their guilt. Before, you struggled with that. Your decision to depart and leave the matter to us is both wise and indicative of your new-found wisdom."

"How's this for wisdom?" Macen asked, "If I thought the Praetor would listen to me, I'd show him our evidence against you. Since I don't think he'll listen to me, I'm leaving that to those that might have an attack of conscience later on."

"Goodbye Commander Macen." Koval said with obvious annoyance and tapped a button on his desk, "Valinor, this is Koval, the transport inhibitors are deactivated. Lock on to our Starfleet ‘comrades' and beam them out of my sight."

Koval massaged his temples as the two SID agents dissolved into a shimmer of energy, "Thank the Elements they're gone."

"Can I be of assistance?" P'ris asked

"No." Koval sighed, "Thank Reynak I can count upon your loyalty P'ris. Too many other of my agents are nothing but mercenaries."

P'ris glanced away guiltily, "If you have no further need of me, I shall return to my investigative duties."

"Good girl." Koval said with his head propped back. P'ris shut the doors behind her, earning her an approving look from Koval's aide.

Being freed from the yoke of her own personal chaperone pleased Donatra. She offered up the use of the VIP quarters again, then insisted, confessing she had nowhere else to put them either than the brig. In a rare moment of solidarity she even promised to deactivate the various monitors and listening devices lining the bulkheads. Macen and T'Kir accepted her offer and thanked her for her confidence in them. Donatra shrugged.

The rendezvous with the Shadow went without incident, as did the transfer of personnel. Returned to his temporary command, Macen felt a lightening of his mood despite the fact that seven-eighths of his crew had been reduced to small spherical objects. At least the last one-eighth was unwavering in the support... usually. When they didn't, well, he just ignored them. It just so happened that he ignored them a lot.

"Grace, get us underway." He ordered the moment the bridge turbolift doors opened.

"Well, hello t'you too." Grace snapped.

Macen paused for a moment and shot a questioning glance Danan's way.

Danan shrugged. Macen waved the matter aside and went into his ready room. T'Kir and Danan followed closely on his heels. Macen fell into the Captain's chair. T'Kir plopped down on the small couch adjacent to the desk.

"Make our speed warp one-point-five." Macen instructed.

"That slow?" Danan balked, "Why are we lingering around? The mission's over. Let's get the hell out of here."

"Things may still change." Macen insinuated, "We'd have less of a turnaround time if we're still in the neighbourhood."

"What do we tell the Valinor?" Danan asked.

"Tell her the truth, we don't want to overwork our engines and their engineer."

"Yessir." Danan rolled her eyes and departed.

"Ah," Macen said expansively, "the respect that comes with authority."

"Respect is earned, m'love." T'Kir replied, "This gambit of yours makes no sense and everyone will know it."

"D'you think I'm crazy?"

"I think you're desperate to see justice done." T'Kir explained, "This is one of those cases you're always lecturing about: the hard reality isn't going to match up to the ideal outcome. We have to simply accept the present situation and make do as best we can."

"Sounds like you've memorised that speech."

"It seemed to get Ro Laren through the Maquis Uprising, I figured it had to have some merit."

"Want to go to our cabin?"

"Business or pleasure?"

"Business being..?"

"Sleep."

"Definitely pleasure than."

"Count me in."

A few moments after Macen and T'Kir had departed, a grinning Kort appeared on the bridge, "You should have seen the Captain and T'Kir going at it in the passageway. They couldn't even wait to get to their quarters."

"Well," Danan commented, "it's not like there's a crew whose confidence will be eroded by such displays. Add to that the fact that both of them just survived a rather harrowing adventure on Romulus, I'm betting they want to celebrate merely being alive."

"How do you know about their planetary adventures?" Daggit asked.

"That Federation signal being relayed to us is coming from the UFP embassy and the wire services on Romulus." Danan explained, holding up a padd she was reading, "Pretty thrilling stuff. Seems the Captain outdid himself this time, at least in the Romulans' opinion."

"I should have been there." Daggit muttered darkly.

"Macen and T'Kir can take care of themselves." Danan fired back, "They've been doing it, together and apart, but mostly together, for years. If you'd been there, you'd have just been in the way."

The hint of bitterness in her voice reminded everyone present that Lisea Danan had stepped aside in her relationship with Macen in order to make room for T'Kir's attempt to pair bond with the unpredictable intelligence officer. Thus far, T'Kir had earned far more trust in a far shorter period of time than Danan had ever come close to accomplishing. She saw the reactions on the faces of those on the bridge with her and cursed herself. Her regrets must not become public knowledge to this group. Dysfunctional as they were, they were a tight knit group of misanthropes. They were misfits everywhere in the galaxy except when they were united together as a whole. Then they were an unstoppable juggernaut.

The trip to the Neutral Zone passed without incident...unfortunately. Much to Macen's disappointment, the Praetor's award ceremony went without incidence. P'ris never revealed the existence of the evidence against Koval to him. Before the Shadow departed Romulan space, Donatra hailed the Federation starship.

"Thank you again for your assistance in these matters. Your presence focused Commander P'ris and the rest of us. Your resolve was to be admired and emulated." Donatra hesitated then plunged on, "You've altered my opinion of Federation citizens in general and Starfleet officers in particular. Perhaps, someday, I will be in a position for my new opinions to count towards something."

"I can only hope so as well." Macen replied, "Thank you for your honesty and steadfastness throughout this mission, Commander. You were the investigation's right hand and strong arm."

"Enough of this." Donatra blushed slightly, "Away with you before I have to board your vessel for violating the Neutral Zone treaty."

"You heard the lady, Grace, make your course heading sector zero-zero-one and your speed warp five." Macen ordered as he settled down into his chair.

"Elements preserve you." Donatra signed off.

"Fates watch over you as well." Macen rejoined then cut the transmission.

He rubbed his bearded chin and glanced over towards Danan, seated in the XO's chair, "Well, we're finally headed home."

Danan lifted herself up and twisted so that Daggit could hear her clearly, "Be sure to broadcast our identity on all IFF frequencies. I'd hate for the border defences to go active and blow us up on the way back to our glorious ‘triumph'."

"Yes, ma'am."

Back at Spacedock, the Shadow was berthed at her assigned slip. Several security teams had come aboard to collect Commander Chekova and her cohorts. Grace returned them to their original forms in metered progressions. It took several hours to gather, sort and transform the spheres. The Security detail didn't know whether to be impressed or terrified.

Admiral Drake knew which she'd prefer, "Imagine what we could do with a dozen more just like her!"

"You're in luck then," Macen replied dryly, "according to Grace there's several thousand, perhaps over hundreds of thousands, more of her kind headed for the Milky Way."

"Can their present colony support them?" Drake asked.

"For the foreseeable future." Macen answered.

"Then they should have nothing to fear from us." Drake poured herself a cup of coffee and offered Macen some, "Of course, the Federation Council is the final arbiter on diplomatic policy."

"And therein lies the sticky wicket." Macen muttered.

"I know you haven't been a fan of the current administration's policies since the close of the Dominion War, but that's part of the price of democracy, We put up with less desirable leadership at times and await the next election and our chance to appoint new leadership when the time comes." Drake waxed on, then chuckled; "That's assuming, of course, you can find a candidate worth voting for."

"Don't lecture me on democracy." Macen sighed in annoyance, "My ancestors were erecting democratic republics on other worlds while your own Greeks were scrabbling about for rocks to make tools with."

"Okay," Drake took a sip of her coffee, "no more cultural comparisons."

Macen took a swig of his mug's contents and set it down on her desk, "Have you had a chance to read my report?"

"Yes, I have." Drake's expression was carefully neutral.

"And?" Macen could have sworn it was like pulling teeth.

"The entire Commission of Five has seen it." Drake warned and made recommendations as to how this situation could have been improved.

"Jellico." Macen growled, "Just great."

"First and foremost, it was felt by all of the Commissioners that you should have stayed and attended the Praetor's ceremony."

"It was a hypocritical joke." Macen protested.

"It was still a function that an active Starfleet officer would have been compelled to attend." Drake pointed out, "This leads us to our second point, it has been suggested that irregulars and inactive duty officers should not be part of the SID owing to its handling of extremely sensitive matters ands situations."

"Now that sounds like Jellico." Macen snarled.

"The point is this: your job hangs by a thread. The vote on the non-Starfleet agents came down to three to two but that third vote is tenuous at best." Drake explained, "You can't afford to draw criticism. Not if you wish to continue working for the SID."

"This is bullshit." Macen snapped.

Drake nodded, "It very well may be but it's also the noose around your neck."

Macen shook his head then grinned crazily, "I promise to behave Mom."

Drake sighed heavily and rested her head in her hand, "Why don't I believe you?"

"Maybe 'cause you know me too well?"

"Brin," she said with all levity departed from her voice, "be careful. He's gathered support this time. Alynna and I can only protect you so much and so far."

Macen blinked in surprise. Drake was exposing a lot of herself with this admission. It was a rare day when Alynna Nechayev and Amanda Drake were on the defensive. The combined power of Starfleet Intelligence and the Special Investigations Division was generally enough to persuade any faction within Starfleet command of the surety of their cause and position.

Macen nodded contritely, "All right. I'll do my best."

"So what do we do now?" Dracas wondered.

"We do what we do best." Macen replied, "If they don't like it, they can fire us. We still have a legitimate business concern to fall back on." That brightened everyone's spirits and Macen sent them to their stations. He and T'Kir hesitated before heading to the Solstice's bridge

"Are we really gonna be able to stick with the SID?" she asked.

He shook his head, "I don't know. The way things are going, I really doubt it."

"Full time privateers and security ‘consultants'," she chuckled, "That'll make for an interesting life."

He put his arms around her, "When isn't our life interesting?"

"When we're apart." T'Kir answered in a breathy voice.

"Actually," Macen said in a teasing tone, "my life was really pretty exciting while you were away. Ask Daggit."

"Listen buster," she growled, "I wasn't ‘away', I was locked up in the Federation funny farm. Don't talk to me about excitement until you've tried spending two years with bed wetters, droolers, and screamers."

"I did try it." Macen smirked, "Ask Daggit."

"You're insufferable." T'Kir punched him in the shoulder.

"But I also love you."

"I don't believe you."

"Do you believe this?" he drew her in and kissed her passionately.

"Do it again and I'll believe you." She said in a husky voice.

He heard and he obeyed.

"D'you think we should make an appearance and mind the children for awhile?" Macen asked after a moment.

"D'we have to?"

Probably." Macen replied, "Price of being ‘Captain' and all that."

"This is why I prefer being one of the children."

"But you're also the naughtiest which is why I have to watch you the most."

"Oh, really?" she bit her lower lip and gave him a seductive look.

"Oh hell," Macen said in surrender, "there goes the afternoon's plans."

 

- The End -

 

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Last modified: 02 Jan 2014 
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