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Salvation - Part I by Travis Anderson

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

Prologue

Captain Adolae Thrax beamed down to the mountainside entrance of the principle city on Omicron Prime. He crossed the chasm found within the cave entrance by way of the massive land bridge. In the stygian depths of the gloom below him, the Lowlies had endured for countless millennia before being led by Rab Daggit on their mad quest for equality.

Thrax knew very little about the Angosian save that he was a civilian operative for Starfleet Intelligence. What Starfleet Intelligence had been doing here in the back end of nowhere was beyond his grasp. Violating the Prime Directive and assisting the native rebellion was also an action he couldn't condone.

The Rigellian made his way into the tunnels that led to the city proper. He recalled when the fleet had been alerted to the encroachment of Omicron ships. The Omicron had allied themselves with dissident groups from across the Alpha and Beta Quadrants and had wreaked holy havoc with the established governments, not that some of those planets hadn't needed a swift wake up call. Their human rights records were worse than the Cardassians'.

Thrax's thoughts cooled as Tressib and Thrax's XO, Commander Sela Hennessy, met him before the lift. Hennessy was overseeing the Endeavor's scientific mission here. The Sovereign-class explorer had been dispatched on a lone, extended mission due to the ship and crew's tasked purpose of long range exploration.

Thrax didn't know why he'd been summoned to the surface. All he knew was that his A & A team leader, Lieutenant Tim Prentiss was all hot and bothered over some new find. Personally, Thrax would've been just as happy to receive a detailed briefing in his ready room but he supposed it was good to stretch his legs. His CMO certainly thought so.

"Oi, Guv'nor. How you be doin'?" Tressib's language was now translated by the Starfleet comm badges. The translation matrix had been developed by another Starfleet Intelligence operative named T'Kir. Before the Lowlies had relied upon a native "translator" microbe found in the chasm's depths. Sadly, it had an adverse effect upon most humanoids.

The Lowly was an abnormal representative of his species. Rather than being a two meter tall humanoid, Tressib's upper torso was typically Omicron, except for his lengthy fingers on his four fingered hands. What was unusual, and unique, about Tressib was that his lower extremities were composed of an arachnoid body. He had six spider-like limbs, eight altogether if you counted his two arms. He had the bulbous rear torso of a spider. With it he could spin webs and everything.

Like all Omicron, Lowly or not, his skin was black as coal. This made sense since Omicron's epidermises were highly mineralized. His face resembled a skull with skin stretched over it. Utterly hairless, the Omicron resembled skeletal frames even more by possessing two slits in their face for a breathing apparatus. The normal Omicron had an upper and lower row of white teeth. Tressib possessed fangs, only attesting to his predatory adaptation.

The Lowlies were failed bio-engineering experiments. The Omicron had experimented with their genome for millennia and they had created various useful modifications to the baseline. These adaptations they had replicated en masse. The rest had been cast into the abyss. Before Tressib and his webs, most of the discarded Lowlies had perished in the fall. Tressib permanently changed that equation.

Thrax knew that the mechanism for the bioengineering had been a piece of primordial matter dubbed "ultramatter" by Lisea Danan, the lone Federation scientist that had studied it. It was theorized to be a piece of the "cosmic egg" that spawned the universe. The substance had been lost when the Kelvans had demanded it under threat of war and ejected it from the Milky Way galaxy. It had exploded trillions of light years from the edge of the galaxy and had birthed a new stellar nursery that might one day yield thousands of solar systems.

"I'm fine Tressib," Thrax insisted, "I take it we're going someplace so convoluted that I need a native guide."

Tressib laughed. It was a deep belly laugh and it was a sight to behold. Thrax didn't know whether to be amused or fear for the Lowly's safety.

Tressib finally calmed, without shaking himself into pieces, and he motioned for Thrax to enter the nearby lift, "If you'd be so kind, Guv'nor. I'll show you to where Tim is working."

Thrax bristled. He knew Tressib was highly informal. The Lowlies had done away with titles of nobility or rank amongst the Omicron but that didn't mean he should address Starfleet personnel by a familiarity. He saw Hennessey waving him off from behind Tressib.

Thrax inwardly sighed. Diplomatic niceties lent him to allow the Lowlies their eccentricities. It still galled Thrax. He'd worked relentlessly through the decades to be awarded the rank of "Captain" and command of a starship. He wouldn't let his position be belittled.

But in the end, weren't the Lowlies and the Omicron that worked alongside of them showing him the very deference he craved? So they were loose with the title, so what? They knew he was the CO of the Starfleet contingent and treated him as such. If they ever stopped, however, he would revisit this topic.

The lift descended onto levels Thrax was unaware of. He glanced over at Hennessy. She flashed him a wan smile. Apparently he was supposed to be as unnerved as he was suddenly feeling. The lift stopped and Hennessy ushered him out. Tressib came scaling down the shaft using his own physique for locomotion.

They'd exited into a tunnel. It was littered with portable lamps and Omicron biolights. It was still gloomy. The shadows seemed to move of their own accord and Thrax had the distinct feeling of being watched.

"Commander, have sensors detected any scan fields?" he asked.

"No sir. Everybody feels it though. It's as though..." Hennessy began.

"We're being studied," Thrax said.

"Yessir," Hennessy heartily agreed, "It gets worse as you near the monolith."

"Monolith?" Thrax repeated.

Hennessy's expression was a rueful one, "I take Lt. Prentiss was less than forthcoming."

"He just said the fate of civilization hung in the balance," Thrax explained.

"Sounds like him," Hennessy groaned, "His hyperbole surrounding this project grows by leaps and bounds with every new discovery."

"Let's teach him the error of his ways, hmm?" Thrax suggested.

They walked in uncomfortable silence. Having Tressib's unsettling bulk looming behind them didn't help any. Up ahead was a conglomeration of lights. As they entered the light Thrax discovered that it was all focused on an ebon monolith standing erect and alone on a rotunda. The walls of the rotunda were illuminated with an arcane script of sorts. They undoubtedly illuminated one as to the purpose of the space and its lone occupant.

Lt. Prentiss was scanning the monolith with a high powered sensor almost as sensitive as one mounted on the Endeavor. The A & A Officer looked frustrated. He let loose some choice curses and deactivated the scanner.

"Problems, Lieutenant?" Thrax asked.

It was the first time that Prentiss realized that his CO was there, "Sorry, sir. I didn't see you."

"That was obvious," Thrax dryly commented.

Prentiss's cheeks began to color. Hennessy bailed him out, "That sensation that you're feeling doesn't affect the Omicron. They feel something akin to...reverence in the presence of the monolith."

Thrax turned to Tressib. The arachnoid hybrid wore a blissful expression, "Is this true?"

"Oh, yeah," Tressib happily confirmed it.

"What do we know about this structure?" Thrax asked.

"It's littered with messages in a foreign script. It doesn't match anything in our databases," Prentiss answered, "That includes the Delta and Gamma Quadrant records as well."

Thrax frowned, "What about this monolith? Any distinguishing marks?"

"The monolith appears to be a computer of some kind. Its surface will display inputted messages. The input is provided by means of a touch screen keyboard with 47 symbols. Those same symbols comprise the messages on the walls," Prentiss explained.

"And there's no way of ascertaining which of these symbols relate to our own alphabets," Thrax unhappily surmised.

"Not without a corollary translation into a known tongue," Prentiss unhappily admitted.

"Have you tried randomly inputting in a message and seeing how it will respond?" Thrax impatiently inquired.

"It doesn't work for us. It only responds to the Omicron," Prentiss revealed.

"So have them type in some gibberish and see what it does," Thrax demanded.

"Sir, that could yield anything from a banal response to a planetary self destruct. We just don't know," Prentiss warned.

"I'll take full responsibility if we lose the planet," Thrax insisted.

"Tressib?" Prentiss asked.

"Shore, shore," The hybrid chuckled.

He shuffled forward and ran his hand down the surface of the monolith. It was as smooth and shiny as glass. A backlit cursor appeared as well as a virtual keyboard. He inputted several scrawled notes and then hit what they assumed was "enter." He repeated this exercise several times and then the Monolith's "screen" went blank. A geometric shape appeared and a flash of light erupted from the structure.

The Starfleet lamps all exploded and sparks showered the A & A team. The biolights held their ground but even they gave the monolith a wide berth after that. Thrax spun into damage control mode.

"Lt. Prentiss, is your team all right?" the Captain asked.

"Yes sir, but the comm relay network we laid out between here and the surface seems to be down. I can't raise the ship," Prentiss announced.

"Tressib, can you lead me back to the lifts and the surface?" Thrax requested, "I have to contact the Endeavor."

"Follow me!" Tressib scuttled off.

"Commander, over see the situation here and get back to me in an hour," Thrax ordered Hennessy.

"Yessir," She replied.

It took a good thirty minutes to reach the exit of the massive cave that led to the labyrinth the Omicron dwelt in. He hit his comm badge, "Thrax to Endeavor."

"Gev here," Came the voice of his Tellarite 2nd Officer, "Are you all right?"

"Forget about me. What's the ship's status?" Thrax wanted to know.

"All primary systems are blown. We're functioning on auxiliary systems and power," Gev reported.

"What did this?" Thrax asked.

"We were hit by an extremely powerful subspace pulse. Our best guess is it was a comm pulse. It erupted out of that entire mountain range the Omicron live in. No Federations ship has ever recorded a pulse of that strength."

"Do you have any idea of what or where it's aimed at?" Thrax knew the situation was entirely out of his control and he hated that feeling.

"It went corewards. That's all we know. Sensors only came back on-line in time to catch its wake. Now if it bounces of any relays along its way it could end up almost anywhere near the galactic core. There's just no way of knowing at this point," Gev laid it out.

"Any chance you could transport me back to the ship?" Thrax wondered.

"Sorry. Transporters were declared a "non-vital" system and were taken off-line. Debate it with our Chief Engineer," Gev said sourly.

"I'm sure you did enough arguing for the both of us," Thrax chuckled, "I'll be checking in with Commander Hennessey and the A& A team in an hour. I'll let you know what we've found on our end."

"Hopefully we can bring you back then," Gev wished, "If not, I'll kill Sonya."

"Please leave Commander Gomez alive, we need her expertise," Thrax requested.

"Can I at least put the fear of her native god into her?" Gev asked.

"Feel free," Thrax relented, "Out."

Thrax wondered what they'd unleashed. Commanders Danan and Andreja Sikorsky had theorized that the Omicron were an artificially created race. At one time they had ruled a large chunk of the Alpha Quadrant that rivaled the Federation at the very least.

What if those creators had left a means of communication behind? A means that had been forgotten over the countless millennia? More to the point, what if they were still alive and they decided to answer their misbegotten signal? What had he unleashed?

With the weight of unfathomable quandaries weighing him down, Thrax returned to his people struggling to find answers at the source.

 

Chapter One

Celeste Rockford strolled into the corporate office shared by Brin Macen and Tom Riker. The outer desk, which was adjacent to Riker's private office, was manned by Bryce Fanning. Fanning smiled and alerted Rockford to the fact that Macen had no pressing appointments. Fanning watched her go into the inner office with a sigh. She still missed T'Kir after the last 18 months since her death and nothing would change that, even if Macen was moving on.

Rockford found Riker was in the space as well. T'Kir's desk had been removed from the area and a couch and a bookshelf had been brought in in its place. Riker sat straddling one of the chairs that were typically in front of Macen's desk but Riker had moved it so it was alongside Macen's spot so that they could easily pass padds back and forth as they reviewed potential contracts.

Macen usually propped the reinforced glass door open and today was no exception. Realizing she'd entered the area without the notice of the two men, she smiled. Placing her fingers into her mouth, she let out a shrill whistle. It was a calculated risk seeing as how Macen was armed and might react strongly. She trusted his instincts as she had on countless occasions. She'd also faced him down on three separate occasions before joining the SID and she knew his reactions were under a modicum of restraint. She'd hate to see what he'd be like unleashed.

Riker was still surprised by the interruption but Macen grinned, "Aren't you needed at Rockford Investigation's hub office?"

She smiled as she swept on over to the couch and took a seat, "Been there and done that. This serving 'on an advisory capacity' is a lot easier than it sounds. My people are good. They don't need willy nilly interference from me. When they need help they'll ask for it."

Riker was a little uncomfortable with the way she looked at him when she said "willy nilly interference." Macen had obviously picked up on it as well because he shook his head.

Rockford frowned, "Why are you looking like you're ready to thrash me for my cappuccino?"

"Because I am," Macen admitted.

"Hold on to your seat and restrain yourself," Rockford warned, "I will hurt if you come between my coffee and I."

"You could always get me one," Macen playfully suggested.

"And leave my couch?" Rockford faux complained, "I just got comfy."

"I'd owe you," Macen said suggestively.

Rockford's eyebrow arched, "Oh really? You'd be my willing slave?"

"I don't know if I'd go that far," Macen hedged.

"Slave or nothing," Rockford demanded, "Your coffee is on the line here. Just think about that. It'll be a caramel vanilla latte made the way that only Roberta can do it."

"Roberta's working?" Macen perked up.

"It is her shift," Rockford remarked dryly.

"One of Roberta's lattes, eh? Might be worth it after all," Macen opined.

"So we have a deal?" Rockford asked in a chipper tone.

"We have a deal," Macen conceded.

Rockford wore a knowing expression, "Well, you're in luck. This week I'm taking applications for a love slave."

"I've got this nailed," Macen joked.

Rockford wagged her finger, "Not so fast, buster. You'll have to get in line with the rest and fill out an application and then I'll have to see your résumé. After that comes the interviews and, of course, the auditions."

"Of course. The auditions," Macen deadpanned.

"Come prepared for anything," Rockford winked and exited the Macen's office.

"I'll be back!" she called out as she exited the main office.

"You two seem very happy," Riker observed.

"I hear a 'but'," Macen surmised.

"She's not T'Kir," Riker pointed out the staggeringly obvious.

"Really? Is that what happened to her ears?" Macen quipped.

"You know what I mean," Riker said.

"I'm not sure that I do," Macen admitted.

"It's just, what would T'Kir do? About you and Celeste?" Riker blurted.

"Ah, the age old WWTD," Macen got it, "You do know I'm carrying her katra?"

"That's another thing..." Riker began to huff.

"T'Kir's happy," Macen revealed, "She's very much alive within my head and she'd let me know if she were unhappy. Trust me. As it is I get waves of contentment radiating from the portion of my psyche that she occupies."

"How can you know that?" Riker wanted to know.

"Because she's there, beneath the surface all the time. It's like maintaining our telepathic rapport. She's with me in essence but not in body," Macen tried to explain.

"You people weird me out," Riker confessed, "Even when you're dead."

"Does seem to happen quite a bit," Macen philosophically mused.

"But aren't you supposed to take a katra to Vulcan?" Riker suddenly blurted.

"That's one option," Macen slyly smiled.

"Lees did some research into this. Holding onto a katra too long can melt your brain," Riker warned.

Macen was amused. Lisea Danan would look up the Vulcan rituals out of concern for him. They'd shared a lot in the past and now in the present but it didn't mean she was right.

"Yes, T'Prynn told me the stories," Macen said obliquely.

"Who?" Riker was befuddled.

Macen waved it aside, "It was before your time."

"With you everything was before my time," Riker grumped.

"The joys of a relatively long life," Macen grinned

Macen's comm/comp chimed. He toggled it and Fanning's face appeared, "Chris Pike has cleared a window for you to talk to Admiral Forger. The Admiral will be contacting you in fifteen minutes. Chris is uploading the contract proposal now so you can be prepared for the admiral."

"Thanks Bryce. I'll be ready," Macen replied jovially.

The screen shifted to a series of file folders. Each was labeled differently and accessed different aspects of the proposed case. Macen counted the sheer number of folders and whistled.

"Someone's got a burr under their saddle," Macen opined. He handed Riker an empty padd and keyed it to copy the files into it. After it dinged he handed it to Riker.

"This way you can keep up," He relayed.

Riker and Macen both opened the folder marked "Overview". As he read it, Riker suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my God."

Macen's guts clenched as he took in the information.

72 hours before...

The Federation starship Intrepid was leaving orbit from around Felkor III. The ship and crew had been there for four hours. Their usual passenger, Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson, was acting in his capacity as Starfleet's Diplomatic Envoy. That position essentially boiled down to being Chief Cook and Troubleshooter. The Intrepid was essentially the giant gun behind the diplomacy.

Captain James McKinley was used to being at the short end of the stick when it came to crisis management. The standard protocol was for the Intrepid to put out brush fires while Johnson brought to conflicting sides together for mediation. That was pretty much what was happening this time around but the difference lay in the fact that the opposing sides both dwelt on the same planet rather than separate star systems.

If this had occurred on a non-aligned world, the Federation Council would have declared it off limits and Starfleet wouldn't have gotten involved. But since Felkor was one of the numerous protectorates that the Federation had signed up in the wake of the Dominion War, it was now obligated to quell the brush fire before it erupted and possibly interfered with Starfleet's primary interest these days, the expansion into the Taurus Reach. That effort had stalled over a hundred years ago with the destruction of Starbase 47 and the end of the Vanguard mission but events were in motion that were drawing the power back into the region.

That meant a backdoor conflict like Felkor, which threatened to draw in its neighbors, couldn't run unabated. Adding to the escalation of tensions was the planet's proximity to Ekos and Zeon. The Nationalist Socialist coalition that ran the sibling worlds were grave opponents to ethnic cleansing. Have succumbed to such madness a century before, they knew the danger to even the subtlest prejudice. Their newfound wealth in latinum and their trade agreements with the Ferengi and the Federation made them well equipped interlopers.

Their incursions into the system grew bolder every day. The Intrepid spent most of her time on patrol aiding the Felkorian authorities. Once a week, the ship returned to Felkor for a few hours so Johnson could brief Starfleet and the Federation Council. His security detail would also be rotated then. The only constant on the team was Lt. Commander Ian Delaney, the Intrepid's Chief of Security and Chief Tactical Officer. He was Johnson's appointed bodyguard.

Delaney's deputy was handling her responsibilities with a flourish but she still wasn't Delaney. McKinley was used to having his Tactical Officer's knowledge and wisdom on tap. Added to the losses this trip was Commander Jonathan Striker, the ship's XO. McKinley and Johnson had tasked the 1st Officer to use his connections inside of Starfleet Intelligence to flesh out the picture they were facing. Both the Felkorian authorities and the opposition were nebulous on some details and flat out lying on others.

Striker had been the Chief Intelligence Officer aboard the Galaxy-class incarnation of the Intrepid. He'd been replaced in that capacity by Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli aboard the latest Akira-class carrier. She'd proven invaluable as Striker's right hand and had originally been slated to brief the admiral. Striker had been elected due to his rank and position aboard the ship. The Felkorians did love rank and titles.

"Mr. Pedrossi, set course for the Ekosian border, warp 6," McKinley ordered Lt. Alesandro Pedrossi, the ship's Chief CONN Officer.

Pedrossi's fingers danced over the touch screen LCARS interface and the ship surged forward. McKinley got up and stretched his legs. He noted that Massoli seemed extremely interested in her signal intercepts. He couldn't help but notice that the blonde had returned to her naturally raven hair color. He decided it was none of his business, either way she was a striking woman.

The newly minted Lt. Commander Elizabeth "Liz" Liefers sat at her Flight Operations console talking to the equally newly minted Lt. Emily Johnson. Both women had earned their elevation in rank through hard work and excellence. So why were they sitting around swapping cock and bull stories? McKinley thought he'd find out.

"At ease ladies, or are you already there?" he asked.

Liefers looked perturbed, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

McKinley thought about it. He could regret this, "Granted."

"Just what the frinx am I supposed to do until we roll fighters?" she asked in exasperation.

McKinley realized she had a point. A damn good one too. What were his fighter jocks and their Flight Leader doing but resting on their backsides?

"I suppose we could run a few patrols after we get to the border," McKinley offered.

"Yes!" Liefers bounced out of her seat and kissed McKinley's cheek, "That's from the squadrons."

McKinley wiped his cheek in mock protest, "Just don't let Chief Caplan see you do that. He's liable to place an unstable warp core under my bed."

"Robert wouldn't dare!" Liefers defended her man.

McKinley chuckled. It had taken nearly five years to get Commander Robert Caplan and then-Lieutenant Liz Liefers to admit they had feelings for one another. Now they were inseparable. Thoughts of Caplan naturally shifted to those of his protégé.

"And you, Lt. Johnson? Do you feel you've earned a right to lolly gag on my bridge? McKinley jested.

"Technically I'm not here, sir," She quipped.

"You mind explaining that, Lieutenant? You certainly look here," McKinley countered.

"I'm shadowing Ensign Thiroz. She complained that I was badgering her. I'm now on stand-by in case a consultation is needed." Johnson explained.

McKinley looked to the Engineering station. The young Andorian zhen looked bewildered. He turned to Johnson, "You're up, Lieutenant."

Johnson blushed and she scurried off to aid Thiroz. McKinley called after her, "And Lieutenant, I expect you to be more aware in the future or I'll have to write you up."

Johnson was thoroughly chastised. Except for that incident in the bar on Rigel III her record was spotless. He'd like to see it remain so.

"Captain?" Massoli called out to him, "I think you need to see this."

He approached her station and saw that she was rapidly downloading files to a padd. She finished up and handed him the padd. He reviewed the first file folder. It contained a lot of traffic between to classified sources. That irked him because his clearance rating exceeded hers.

"What am I looking at, Commander?" he asked.

"I can't be positive but certain key indicators show a potential for movement," She reported.

McKinley stared at her for a moment. Had the treatment that restored her hair color also addled her mind? "You mind explaining that?"

"I think they're going to kidnap Admiral Johnson," She came out and said.

"The rebels?" he asked.

"No sir, the government," She clarified.

"But why?" McKinley couldn't quite wrap his mind around this. The government had asked for their presence.

"To quote intercept 17, 'to gain an advantage over the next negotiator'," Massoli said.

"Pedrossi, full stop! Bring us about and return us to orbit." McKinley ordered as he headed for his seat. Sensing the urgency, the crew got busy.

Admiral Johnson strode forward. Delaney flanked him on his right and Striker was on his left. That left Gorag and Mozz behind them. Like Delaney, they were both armed.

As they entered the Great Hall, they saw the leaders of the two respective sides standing beside each other. More to the point, they looked smug. The honor guard to either side of the Starfleet personnel suddenly lowered their rifles into a firing position and had them aimed at the negotiators and their security detail.

Delaney and the two crewmen had their phasers drawn. Johnson shook his head, "I only wish this was a surprise. Commander Striker had just finished explaining to me that you were on the verge of an agreement, one consolidating the Orion Syndicate's power on this world."

Grezz, a native Daldan, one of the ethnic alien minorities in the dispute proudly confirmed the news, "Yes, my people are to become enforcers. The Syndicate has been so impressed with us and we will project its will across the quadrant."

"And you, Blek, what do you get?" Johnson asked the native Felkorian.

"Freedom from this accursed struggle and the revenue from gaming centers," Blek happily declared, "Of course, there is also the bounty on your head."

Johnson knew there was a bounty on his head but he'd long ago stopped keeping track of its worth. With all of the Syndicate strongholds he'd liberated and shut down over the last 18 months since Sindis's death, it had to be quite a sum by now.

"If I surrender, will you let my men go?" Johnson counter proposed.

"No. But I will let them live as prisoners," Blek issued his rebuttal.

"Stand down everyone." Johnson ordered.

"Sir, I can get you out of this." Delaney insisted.

"Ian, these weapons don't have a stun setting. You'll only get yourself and your two crewmen killed. Alive we may escape," Johnson argued.

Delaney hesitated. Johnson intervened as the honor guard took aim, "Think of Hannah, Ian. You're to be married in six months. Don't make her a widow before she's a bride."

That got through. Delaney tossed his phaser to the closest guard. His two Security officers did the same. They surrounded the Starfleet team and marched them out of the Hall.

"You have enough transport inhibitors to guard them?" Grezz asked.

"You were never able to break into the prison, now were you?" Blek taunted, "Come, now we make a joint statement to Captain McKinley ordering the Intrepid out of the system and make our demands to the Federation Council."

"I think I could learn to appreciate working with you after all." Grezz laughed.

"Thank the prostitute that took over after Sindis's death," Blek deflected the praise, "It was she that showed me the wisdom of cooperation with both you and the Syndicate."

Grezz chortled, "And like me, it took a lot of latinum to grease the wheels."

"Of course. Am I a fool?" Blek laughed as well.

McKinley swore as the transmission ended. He ordered a comm channel be opened to Starfleet Command. Particle beams suddenly lanced from the surface into orbit and penetrated the hull in seven locations. Explosions rocked the ship. Photon torpedoes also came at the crew as they struggled to raise shields. McKinley ordered them to break orbit and set an exit vector at max impulse.

"Talk to me, Jameson. Why didn't our sensors warn us of those disruptor bursts and torpedoes?" McKinley queried his Deputy Tactical Officer.

Heather Jameson met him unflinchingly, "They weren't using target locks. The disrupters must have been visually guided and the torpedoes were on ballistic courses. Our sensors aren't set up for that."

"Johnson! Shag ass over here and calibrate the sensors so they alert us from now on." McKinley ordered.

"Umm...I'm not sure that's possible," she replied.

"You're the whiz kid engineer Caplan's always bragging about. It's time to prove he's right." McKinley demanded.

"Yessir." Johnson said crisply and she moved to the tactical station.

"Get me Starfleet Command." McKinley requested, "I need to report a hostage situation."

72 hours later...

"Have no fears, I'm back," Rockford said as she entered the room carrying Macen's coffee. She saw the looks on Macen and Riker's faces and her mood fell, "Why do I get the feeling the other shoe dropped?"

"It did and it landed on Bob Johnson." Macen said as he gratefully accepted the cup from her.

"The Admiral?" she wondered, "Your ambassador friend?"

"The same." He explained, "They also have Ian Delaney and Jonathan Striker amongst others."

"Delaney? Hannah's not going to like that. More to the point she may destroy the planet looking for him," Rockford whistled.

"We'll keep her reined in." Macen promised.

"Oh, you are so not dumping that on me," she warned.

"Never say never," Macen replied.

"Argh." Rockford growled as she headed for the door, "I'll be at my agency squaring everything away so we can sneak off on another secret mission."

"Now what?" Riker asked.

"Now we sift through the data and start planning on how we're going to pull Bob out of there while we wait for Amanda's call," Macen answered.

"Can't Starfleet do its usual shtick and negotiate ad nausaem until the bad guys release them just to shut the negotiator up?" Riker wanted to know.

Macen grimaced, "You know it isn't that easy. Bob's on the Council of Five. The bad guys obviously don't know that or they'd have him strapped to a surplus Klingon mind sifter and be tearing his brain apart while we sit here."

Riker stood, "I'll get Bryce working on the crew recall and alert Parva that we're taking the Obsidian out."

Macen toasted him with his coffee cup, "I'm not going anywhere."

As the taller man departed, Macen began opening file folders, "Okay guys, how'm I going to get you out of there?"

 

Chapter Two

Amanda Forger's features filled Macen's screen. She looked concerned. Just as she had for every discussion since T'Kir's death. Macen saw her expression and sighed.

"It's all right, Amanda. I haven't blown anything up or tried to kill anyone for at least six hours," was his sarcastic quip.

After T'Kir's death, it had taken Macen a year to convince Forger, Nechayev, and the rest of the Council of Five that he wasn't dangerously unstable. They'd referred to him as a "time bomb". He of course felt that label was unfair and had happily defied its stereotype while his SID team was unable to accept Starfleet contracts because of him.

The team had rallied behind him and followed him as he accepted purely civilian contracts. His team's reputation being what it was, the civilian contracts were nearly as hair raising as the Starfleet jobs so they never lacked for a challenge. Although, there was an inherent thrill in serving the greater good that came with Starfleet missions so the team was grateful to get back on track when the Admiralty decided to clear Macen for duty.

There had been three back to back assignments in the span of four months. The last two months had dried up again and the team and crew of the Obsidian were once again getting by on short term civilian jobs. That had all changed with this request from Starfleet and Macen knew that no other SID team was as uniquely motivated to complete this task. Johnson, McKinley, and the crew of the Intrepid were extended family to the SID team. They'd seen life and death together and that had forged bonds that couldn't be broken in life.

Of course some team members had stronger ties than others. Hannah Grace was engaged to Ian Delaney and Delaney was a prisoner. Grace's Kelvan/human physiological adaptations granted her greater than human powers even without her people's customary Attuners. She was an exile from her own people and in the last 18 months Grace had lost T'Kir. Delaney would be the loss she wouldn't recover from.

Danan was close to Andreja Sikorsky but it seemed the good doctor was safe for now. It had been touch and go during the attack on the Intrepid and Sikorsky had been hip deep in casualties following that event. Riker was closer to Striker, for the name if for no other reason. When they'd met they were both the XO's of their respective ships and a bond was forged. Macen had noted Riker's pang of angst when he'd noted who comprised the hostages. He definitely had a vested interest in this mission.

Parva had a professional relationship with Caplan but it was Joachim Dracas who had been his friend. Daggit and Radil had never formed a tight relationship with any of the Intrepid's Senior Staff but they got on with them well enough. They were close enough for the SID pair to take this mission personally.

Grace also had close friendships with Liefers and Pedrossi. Rockford was a romantic interest of Striker's although she had done nothing to encourage it. She, like Macen, was closest to Johnson and McKinley although Celeste had also struck up a friendship with Massoli. She'd observed that the good captain had more than a passing interest with his busty beauty of an Intelligence Officer. She'd teased Macen that he was also smitten with her but Macen assured Rockford that his interest was purely professional.

McMasters had contact with Caplan, and through him, Liefers. McMasters had spent two weeks with Caplan modifying the Intrepid's fighter wings with performance upgrades. They were off spec but they outperformed any similar Peregrine IV-class fighter out there. Point in fact, Verity Jones, the CAG of the USS Hood's Rascal Squadron had put in a layover at Serenity Station in order to facilitate upgrade packages for her space wing's Lightning-class fighters. Now the rivalry between the Intrepid and the Hood's fighter jocks went on unabated.

Forger brought Macen's thoughts back to the present, "I never said you were going off half cocked. I merely wondered how you were doing. I know your team is close to the Intrepid's Senior Staff. You can't be taking this news well."

"It's always been a possibility. Bob gets handed the worst assignments that Starfleet can generate. Jim and the others do the best that they can to keep him safe but sometimes that's not enough," Macen declared.

"As I recall, that's how you met Bob Johnson," She said.

"Bob was being held by Cell 51 and we were available to extract him," Macen remembered.

"Considering what happened next, it's a good thing that you were successful. The Federation owes him and his crew a lot," Forger said with a tinge of sadness.

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to like where this conversation is going?" Macen asked.

"You obviously haven't had to time to review the last few paragraphs of the contract. I'll spare you the details but it boils down to this: if you can't rescue Robert Tavar Johnson, then you are to eliminate him," Forger stated baldly.

"You have to be kidding," Macen could believe it, he just chose not to.

"Orders from the President on down. Bob can't be interrogated. Everyone has their breaking point, you know that, and he has too much vital information in his head. The Orion Syndicate can't learn anything from him. It would jeopardize hundreds of operations and thousands of agents," Forger said.

"So use the bloody cortical implant in his skull and blow his head off," Macen snarled.

"We've tried. The Syndicate has found a means by which the implant in neutralized," Forger said flatly.

"I thought you were above this sort of thing," Macen eked disappointment.

"If it were Alynna or I, your orders would be the same. Even if it was Jellico," Forger saw the appreciative gleam in Macen's eyes, "But it's not Jellico so stop thinking about it."

"Too bad. It's a pleasant thought," Macen grinned.

Forger rolled her eyes, "You seriously need to curb this antagonism with Jellico. He's the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander. That puts him under the C-in-C, the SecDef, and the President. That's it."

"Does Gant Delane approve of this plan?" Macen inquired.

"President Delane approves of any measures that insure Federation security and keep Felkor III a complacent protectorate," Forger relayed.

"No one said anything about keeping Felkor in the fold," Macen pointed out.

"That's the whole point of why Bob was there," Forger spoke as if to an unruly child.

"Then why is the President endorsing murder?" Macen wanted to know.

"The President is not endorsing murder," Forger hissed, "He's employing a strategic option."

"That doesn't sound like the Gant that I knew," Macen opined.

"The Gant Delane that you knew didn't win re-election by 51% of the vote. It wouldn't take much for the Federation Council to impeach him. He's walking a tightrope. He can't afford to be seen as weak or waffling on this issue even if it's for moral principles," Forger stated.

"Seems like morality would be the exact reason to waffle," Macen declared.

"Brin!" Forger snapped, "Can you or can you not fulfill this contract?"

Macen thought about it. He truly mulled it over and wrestled with it. Finally he spoke.

"I'll do it. If Bob is to be executed, it should be by a friend," he decided.

"With luck, you'll be able to pull him out and all of this will be academic," Forger offered his first option as a ray of hope.

"That is my preference." Macen dryly remarked.

Despite his nonchalant manner, Forger knew Macen would bend space-time if he thought it would save his friend. Moving on, she said, "Of course there are the political ramifications."

"You mentioned that," Macen said irritably.

"This is important, Brin," Forger scolded him, "Bob travelled to Felkor in order to insure that Conciliator Blek stayed in power. Blek is the initiator and maintainer of the treaty between the Federation and Felkor. His heir apparent wants nothing to do with us."

"But Blek is using the hostages as leverage to renegotiate his world's relationship with the Federation and he's willing to harbor business dealings with the Orion Syndicate. Does that about sum it up?" Macen curtly inquired.

Forger sighed, "That it does. Look, the Federation is willing to overlook the Syndicate's being there while we groom the planet for admission into the UFP. They provide a wedge in between Tholian and Gorn space. The Tholians are actively hostile towards us and the Gorn are a bloody nuisance. To add to the conundrum, they border the Ekosians and Zeons. While we're actively courting the twin worlds, we don't have a lockdown on them yet and they're playing arms dealer to the region."

"So, what am I supposed to do with the Ekosians? We're a limited engagement operation," Macen reminded his employer.

"The Intrepid will handle the Ekosians. Everything else will be addressed by the Federation Diplomatic Corps," Forger announced.

"Fates take us all," Macen grumbled.

Forger ignored him as she continued, "However, seeing as how the Ekosian government and Space Command hold you in such high esteem, it has been suggested that you record a message for them during your initial debriefing of the Intrepid crew."

"Right," Macen sardonically replied.

"I'll let you get back to it. You have a lot of planning to do. Forger out," his screen reverted back to an image of the corporate logo.

Riker stepped in, "It got quiet so I thought I'd check on where we're at."

"Adrift on the Great Material River without a paddle," Macen grumbled.

"What?" Riker was baffled by the reference.

"Ask Quark about it on our next layover at DS9," Macen suggested.

"Okay," Riker said skeptically, "You look grim. The kind of grim I haven't seen since we were preparing to meet Sindis for the first time."

"Grab whatever you want to drink. You'll need it to hear what our marching orders are," Macen warned.

Riker replicated a sports drink and straddled the chair he'd vacated earlier. Macen eyed the tropical punch flavored enzyme laden potion. Riker noted his eyeballing the drink.

"Lees put me on a diet. Less food and more calories from 'healthy' substitutes. Basically this stuff is sugar water but it makes her feel better so what can I do?" Riker explained.

"You can happily comply and keep the peace," Macen sagely ordered.

"That's what I thought too," Riker chuckled, "Now what's the bad news?"

Macen told him and Riker swore, "Next time you talk to Admiral Forger be sure to give her a token of our appreciation."

"And what would that be?" Macen asked with some amusement.

"You could pull down your pants and BA her," Riker suggested.

"Isn't that a little juvenile?" Macen mused.

"That's the beauty of it. She'll never see it coming," Riker enthused.

"Oh trust me, she'll never see that coming," Macen shared.

"At least tell me we have the beginnings of a plan?" Riker wished.

Macen shook his head, "Nope. There are too many variables. We know that Johnson and crew are being held but we don't know where or by what forces. There's also the matter of Ensign Auray."

"Who's that?" Riker wanted to know.

"A Starfleet shuttle pilot. Felkor's atmosphere is highly ionized and that prevents transporter from operating in it. Local transporter traffic, below the aptly named ionosphere, is unaffected but you have to be inside a specific zone before you can beam down," Macen described the situation.

"But what about the pilot? What's going on with him?" Riker inquired.

"It's a her actually. Auray is an Andorian zhen and she's a recent transfer to the Intrepid's crew," Macen detailed the facts, "Auray's second billet is as a reserve fighter jock. So when she saw the armed Felkorians coming for her, she hopped aboard her Type-6 shuttle and headed for deep space while blaring away on the horn."

"So what happened to her?" Riker was entranced.

"No one knows. Her shuttle was shot down and the Felkorians presumably reached it. However, they aren't claiming her as a hostage," Macen let Riker down gently.

"So she may be dead." Riker angrily suggested.

"It's a very real possibility. As things stand, she's MIA until we can get the Felkorians to fess up or she lights up her emergency beacon," Macen proclaimed.

Riker was discomfited by this and it got worse when Macen added, "She's not part of our mission package."

Riker shot him an evil glare and Macen held up his hands, "Don't shoot the messenger. Personally, I think it should be an objective and since I'm the Mission Commander in the field, Amanda can go hang her prerogatives."

Riker was mollified...for now, "So we don't have a plan?"

"Until we get more info from the crew of the Intrepid to fill in the glaring holes these intel reports sport I can't even begin to assess local conditions. Of course our reconnaissance of the planet will tell us the most," Macen asserted.

"And how are we going to do that?" Riker wondered.

"The Felkorians are keeping Starfleet at arm's length. As I so desperately have to remind everyone, we're not Starfleet. Our ship bears a civilian registry and we are agents for hire. That ought to play towards their sensibilities," Macen offered.

Riker had a look of dawning appreciation, "It's so simple it could actually work."

"KISS often does," Macen quoted the acronym for Keep It Simple, Starfleet.

"Well, I have the recall underway. Bryce is ready to kill you for requesting the quarterlies and a ship wide deployment at the same time," Riker chuckled.

"I'll take my chances as I cross the threshold," Macen assured him.

Riker rose and took his drink with him, "I'd best get aboard and manage the chaos."

"It's not that bad," Macen defended the crew.

"You never thought so because you had me there guiding everything. Shannon takes great, evil delight in watching me manage crises so she's no help," Riker complained.

"You betcha." Shannon Forger said from behind Riker's hulking frame.

"Shannon," Riker growled.

"So this for real? The deployment I mean. I thought we were taking a week off." Forger whined.

"Stow it," Riker commanded, "Put on your game face and assure everyone you meet that we really do need to deploy in four hours."

Forger snapped off a sloppy salute, "Aye, aye Captain, sir."

"Just scurry forth and spread rumors and innuendo." Riker sighed.

"Now that I can do." Forger turned on her heel and went forth to spread her version of the truth.

Riker followed in her wake leaving Macen all alone with the padds. Pulling a messenger bag out of the filing cabinet, he scooped all of the data slates and put them into the bag. He then headed for his quarters. Bryce snarled at him as he passed.

Macen packed a duffel bag with some clothes he thought might prove useful. The main door opened and closed. Rockford sauntered in with a smile and eyes full of mischief.

"What are you doing in my quarters?" she demanded in an imperious voice.

"These just happen to be my quarters as well," Macen offered.

"Yours too?" she repeated in a disbelieving tone, "I don't think so. These are my quarters, given to me by my wise and generous boyfriend."

Macen smirked, "Then where is he?"

"Alas, he left me stranded. Now I have to replace him. Are you interested? I have an opening for love slave," Rockford grinned like the proverbial Cheshire.

"Would there be auditions?" Macen asked with a bemused look.

Rockford grew excited and she pointed at him, "Exactly!"

"You do realize we're on a schedule?" he inquired.

She waved the thought aside, "What're they gonna do? Leave without us?"

Macen threw the duffel off of the bed and pulled Rockford close. Their faces drew close but he lingered just a hair's breadth away for a moment. She could feel his breath on her lips and she groaned. He drove forward and their lips made contact and their tongues danced. Pulling away, he looked awfully satisfied. She did too.

"I might let you stay for awhile after all." She proposed.

"Oh no. I have to at least show you my résumé so you can decide if I'm worthy of an audition," Macen decided.

A victorious smile spread across Rockford's features, "Best thing I've heard all day."

 

Chapter Three

The Obsidian made her departure and sailed through subspace at warp 6 for three days. The moderate cruising speed kept the engines from too much strain but Parva stepped up preventative maintenance all the same. The SID team reviewed all the known facts regarding the case in a briefing on the first day and then spent the next two days in combat training and rescue drills in the holographic fields of the cargo bays. Tessa stopped by and cheered the team on after each drill concluded. Daggit would dissect their performance and then run a different scenario to see what they had digested and taken to heart.

By the time they arrived in Felkorian space, the team was pretty beat up. Daggit called a cessation of training so they could respond to an emergency if one presented itself to the ship. No sooner had Macen showered and dressed then Riker requested his talents as staff intelligence officer.

Macen went to the Infosys Center and manned his desk. The sensor readings and the visuals were displayed on his screens. Rockford and Grace sat back at their desks and took in the view. What appeared before them were five large transport/freighters and two smaller craft. The smaller craft were definitely Starfleet by design but boasted a dish-like primary deflector and round warp nacelles. Riker asked what they were.

"They're Archer-class analogues. They're primarily designed as scoutships but they do carry 4 photons in the fore magazines and 2 aft. The crew complement is rated at 14 persons. Starfleet relied heavily on this design in the 2260's. It went out of vogue when the Constitution- and Miranda-class refits dominated the service," Macen explained.

"If they're over a century old, how did they end up here?" Riker wondered.

"The Iotian Federation Shipyards have been producing them in bulk and sales of been astronomical," Macen reported.

"Well, since we're approaching the Ekosian border, I'd say the Ekosian Space Command is a customer." Riker surmised.

"More to the point, they're in a stand-off with the Intrepid." Macen pointed out.

"I'll get back to you. Keep monitoring the situation and keep me advised." Riker instructed.

"Aye, Captain." Macen grinned.

"Jaycee, go lights out. I don't want the Ekosians to know we're here until we're on top of them." Riker ordered.

"Tom, three more ships are dropping out of warp on the Ekosian side of the border." Danan reported from Science.

The ships were a Constitution-class analogue and two Mercury-class analogue frigates. Riker requested that all efforts be put towards signal intercepts. He wanted to know what was said between the Ekosians and the Intrepid.

The image of Jorra Kend filled half the screen and then that of James McKinley filled the other half. McKinley was not amused, "Marshall Kend, why are you attempting to force your way through a legal blockade?"

"I do not recognize your authority here, Captain. Felkor is not a member of the Federation and has requested and paid for the items we are delivering." The statuesque, platinum haired Nordic looking beauty declared.

"Felkor is a Federation protectorate and is an ally that has granted Starfleet jurisdictional rights." McKinley countered.

"Then you should be escorting this shipment rather than trying to hinder it." Kend demanded, "And if you hadn't noticed, we outnumber you and we are going to make delivery, whether by your grace or through you, it makes no difference."

McKinley called over his shoulder, "Liefers, roll fighters."

The Intrepid began launching fighters and within five minutes time had all 24 Peregrine IV-class fighters flying in formation and preparing for attack. McKinley looked smug.

"What do you say now?" he asked.

"Stand down, Captain. I will use force." Kend declared.

At this point, Macen had Riker patch him into the communications scramble. The Ekosians went on high alert as another Federation starship suddenly appeared. Kend frowned and accepted the communications request. She was surprised to find that it was Macen.

"Captain, I know we wished to see one another again but honestly, I didn't expect it to happen," She confessed.

"Marshall Kend, there are forces at play here you don't know about yet. Captain McKinley is well within his rights to intercept you and I'll tell you why," Macen promised.

"I wish someone would." Kend complained.

"The government on Felkor is holding Starfleet officers hostage. Those officers belong to the Intrepid. Your arms delivery will supply those that are illegally holding Federation citizens against their will," Macen described the situation.

"And your part in this?" Kend asked.

"To affect the rescue of the hostages," Macen answered, "Captain McKinley is charged with border security and the prevention of aid reaching the kidnappers."

"What do you wish of me?" Kend inquired.

"Hold delivery until after I extract all Starfleet personnel," Macen said simply.

"How long do you expect that to take?" Kend wondered.

"Three days. If I haven't completed my mission by then, you make delivery regardless of my status," Macen offered.

"I agree in principle but I need to consult with Chancellor Balsat." Kend revealed.

"Do what you need to do. So will we," Macen promised.

Kend cut the connection. McKinley commed Riker.

"Good to see you, Captain Riker," he said.

"Good to see you too. We came as soon as we got word," Riker assured him.

"Admiral Jellico said help was on the way. He just didn't say who it was going to be. Personally, I think we're all a little relieved that it's you," McKinley admitted, "The only question now is, if Brin and the SID are deploying to Felkor's surface, what is the Obsidian going to be doing in the interim?"

"Well, since they're utilizing our runabout, that leaves me free to support you," Riker said with a smile.

McKinley finally broke into a relaxed grin, "Now that is really good news. I don't trust the Ekosians further than I can bounce them."

"I can see your point," Riker agreed based upon past experience.

"Can you patch me in with Brin? I need the team to beam over here so we can debrief them on what's been happening since they captured the diplomatic team," McKinley requested.

"Certainly," Riker consented, "Jaycee?"

Macen brought along Rockford, Grace, Radil, Daggit, and McMasters. Danan came as well but she had personal business with Sikorsky. The others were met by McKinley's yeoman, who brought them to the staff briefing room. There McKinley and Massoli awaited them.

Massoli rushed forward and hugged Macen. He smiled, "Jennifer, you've changed your hair."

She ran a hand through her raven tresses and struck a seductive pose, "Do you like it?"

"It was perfect before. It's perfect now. You just don't have any flaws," he replied.

"I knew I liked you." She said as she took her seat beside McKinley. McKinley was playing it cool but Macen could sense he was slightly out of joint. Perhaps it was time to advise the Captain to come to grips with his latent attraction or move on?

The SID team grabbed seats. Macen sat next to McKinley, opposite of Massoli. Rockford sat beside him. Massoli was still taking a guilty pleasure in Macen's compliment. Rockford rested her left hand on Macen's forearm. He reached over with his left and squeezed it. Massoli settled down and became all business. Having established her territorial claim, Rockford settled in to listen what Starfleet had for them.

"We don't have any hard evidence as to where they're holding Admiral Johnson and the others but we have managed signal intercepts that suggest where they might be," McKinley began, "Commander, will you do the honors? It is your project after all."

Massoli smiled and activated the screens in the table. She manipulated data at her terminal and it changed the displays elsewhere. She pulled up several voice files that she played. They were Felkorians referring to Johnson. It suggested he was sequestered at a facility known as "Mount Fildkirk".

"There are no mountains named Fildkirk on Felkor, not even accounting for alien dialects. It's my supposition that this is an honorific applied to an artificial construction," Massoli revealed, "Here are the four leading candidates for being this installation."

The data terminals displayed four fortresses. Each more foreboding than the last. Cracking one, or all, of them could very well prove impossible.

"How have managed to receive signal intercepts out here?" Macen wondered.

"We have the new DR-97's. They're stealth probe that can be launched or tractored into orbit. It was Jennifer's idea that we place one in orbit when we launched the shuttle the first time. It grants us remote listening abilities," McKinley explained.

Massoli practically preened at being acknowledged. Macen asked if the SID team could have access so they could listen in as well during the mission. He brought up a point that the Intrepid crew seemed to be avoiding.

"What about Ensign Auray?" he asked.

McKinley shifted uncomfortably, "She hasn't lit up her beacon. She's MIA and will remain so until she makes contact."

"That's a crock and you know it," Macen accused, "She's probably running for her life and can't activate the beacon without bringing the planet down upon her."

"You're probably right but I have orders that state that she's expendable so unless she confirms that she's alive, she will remain an MIA," McKinley replied.

Macen fell silent but everyone knew it wasn't over. McKinley himself was rooting for Macen on this one. She needed to be found and found soon before the Felkorians got a hold of her. The zhen may have been one of the four Andorian sexes but she was close enough to a typical dual sex humanoid to be sorely used. McKinley wouldn't wish that on any of his crew.

They discussed the scant details of the SID plan and how they would use the Corsair to fly to Felkor and land. From there they would use Rockford and Radil's contacts to search for leads. Macen had only discussed one facet of his plan with Rockford. He intended to make contact with the Orion Syndicate and barter for the diplomatic team's lives. Of course that was all predicated on them finding the Syndicate.

Right now the Orion Syndicate was fighting for its very life. The dons had rejected the ascension of Enrick Gaston to the godfather's throne. Now, the Syndicate and the Meirkus Conglomeration, which Gaston did lead, were competing where they had once been allies. To complicate things worse, no Orion had been deemed worthy to lead the Syndicate.

The power behind the throne, a waif named Leera, hadn't found a suitable male proxy. She'd killed Robhurt B'nner when he outlived his usefulness. She'd been promised a continuation of her reign under Sindis. She soon discovered that the Iridian had no intentions of making good on that promise. Her pheromones and her seductive charms were wasted on the monastic overlord.

Leera controlled the Syndicate but it was fragile exercise of power. She had to find a suitable patsy soon or the dons would get rebellious and think they actually controlled the empires their female mistresses had carefully built.

McKinley's comm badge chirped and he answered. It was the bridge wanting to route a comm message to him. Kend had received word from home and she wanted to discuss her orders.

Her image appeared in all of the data terminals but she only received McKinley's image, "Very well, Captain. Captain Macen played his hand very well. We are to hold for 3 days and 3 days only."

"May I remind you that if you break your word, you will be engaging a Federation starship in an act of aggression that will be tantamount to an act of war?" McKinley posed the question.

"And if this does occur?" she defiantly asked.

"Your sector is literally surrounded by the United Federation of Planets. We can close off your territory and choke off your fledgling trade routes. It's gets awfully lonely in the cold of space." McKinley warned.

"I will advise the Chancellor of your warning. Kend out." The screen reverted back to an image of the UFP seal.

"If there's no other business we'll get back to the Obsidian and make way for Felkor." Macen said.

"Do I even have to wish you luck or tell you our hopes go with you?" McKinley asked.

"Not really." Macen smiled.

The team gathered their specialized equipment and headed for the shuttle bay. Radil was lugging her portable phaser cannon and McMasters had several cases draped across his body and held in his hands. Everyone else was simply carrying their sidearms. Daggit would rely upon the armory located within the Corsair.

Radil and Grace wore jumpsuits while Daggit wore black and grey FDU's. McMasters wore coveralls and a vest containing various tools. Rockford wore black pants, combat boots, a colored top and a vintage brown bomber jacket. The jacket was technically Macen's; having been given to him by Elias Vaughn, but Rockford liked to borrow it. Macen had his modern era flight jacket along with the gray Captain's alternative shirt that had gone out of Starfleet vogue in 2373.

Grace took the CONN station, as was only fitting with her status as Flight Operations Specialist. She'd been the former Chief CONN Officer of the Obsidian until she'd had exchanged disparaging words with Riker. Grace had always wanted more field experience so rather than allow her to constantly undercut Riker's authority as captain of the ship; Macen brought her fully into the fold of the SID team. The yearlong gap in Starfleet contracts had given her the time to fully assimilate into the field unit and now she functioned as well as could be expected. She was still more of a pilot than a commando or an investigator but she was learning the ropes.

Eric McMasters sat at the Engineering station behind CONN. He'd served as the engineering specialist for the Maquis before being sent to a Federation penal colony at the end of that conflict. Upon his release, he created a "hot-rodder's" shipyard at Dulces II. Becoming a celebrity amongst an elite crowd, McMasters soon found himself bored to tears and readily jumped at Macen's offer to join the SID. Like Grace, the yearlong gap had granted him the time to accommodate himself into the framework of the team. His one lingering deficit was that he had fantasized about a reunion with Lisea Danan for fifteen years after their two week stand and he found her marriage to be a distraction not a deterrent to his affections.

Rab Daggit sat at the nominal Science station only it had been rerouted into being a Tactical station. He'd left the team due to the injuries sustained by his Orion wife, Parva. Her brain damage had left her partially crippled and scatter brained. Now, however, with the use of braces and her relearning her arcane skills as an engineer, she'd been able to reclaim her position as the Obsidian's Chief Engineer. Daggit had followed her aboard and rather than sit idly by, he'd rejoined the SID team as their Strategic Ops Specialist.

As an Angosian, Daggit was perfectly suited for combat. Under fire, he became distant and cold, a ruthless killing machine. Parva referred to him as "the Terminator" in a reference to an ancient Terran movie. Whatever the label applied, one thing was known to all of his teammates, they didn't want to fight him.

The possible exception to that rule was Celeste Rockford. Born Annika Ryst, Rockford was also an Angosian Augment. However, she was an Augment Infiltrator. Literally transforming into different aliases, she compartmentalized whole personalities. She was the only person in living memory that had beaten Daggit in hand to hand combat.

The Rockford persona was a Federation licensed private investigator and had a thriving detective agency before Macen recruited her and absorbed her entity into Outbound Ventures. Rockford herself had joined because she sought a cause worth living for and she found it in Macen's dreams of a better tomorrow. What she hadn't counted on was falling for him along the way.

Of course, T'Kir had been alive when these feelings first dawned within her and Macen had been slavishly devoted to T'Kir. T'Kir's death changed all of that. Considered a "vulture" by some, Rockford's nascent feelings had blossomed as she helped him through his grief. She never asked for anything nor did she make the first move. Macen had come to realize that he reciprocated her feelings all on his own.

Macen sat at the OPS station. It was primarily configured to run sensor scans and access the Federation library network. He'd come a long way in the last 18 months. T'Kir's death had devastated him but Rockford's strong steady support and intimate understanding of grief pulled him through it. He still missed T'Kir but the edge was taken off by the fact that he was the holder of her katra, the living essence of a Vulcan's mind and spirit. He had a constant awareness of her presence. It comforted him but he was beginning to realize that it was less than fair to Rockford for him to keep holding it.

The whole idea for him to indefinitely hold it was T'Kir's mad plan to join Macen in the El-Aurian "afterlife". The El-Aurian migration intro a state of energy upon physical death was well known to the race. Unfortunately, no one who had passed on had ever sent a message back so no one knew exactly what happened. T'Kir's plan was predicated upon prior experience with the migration but even that experience had been aberrant because they ended up in the Nexus instead of passing on.

Radil was the final member of the team and she'd joined Rockford in the runabout's passenger compartment. She'd come a long way in the last ten years. A former Bajoran Resistance fighter turned mercenary turned secret agent and security chief; she'd lived a dozen lifetimes worth in those years. Having lost her true love when Abby Collins died, she found comfort in the arms of Kort, who rekindled their former passion and she'd eventually married him.

Now they all sat back as Grace launched the runabout out of the shuttle bay and headed for Felkor III. It was a two hour trip and their reception would be anyone's guess. In other words, it was a typical mission.

 

Chapter Four

"Mount Fildkirk" was indeed an installation. Once designed as a royal redoubt, it served to house extremely valuable prisoners in addition to protecting the upper echelons of Felkorian society during a crisis. The base of the fortress was a square paddock three stories high. This served as the entrance into the structure and as a blockhouse for prisoners and troops.

A geometric dome sat atop the paddock. An outrigger building was a square block that stood five stories tall. The dome itself stretched twenty stories into the sky. The dome was festooned with disruptor banks and shield emitters. Rotary photon torpedo emplacements also served to guard the elite. The launchers were handicapped in being unable to fire at the structure itself.

A limo was parked in front of the facility and Felkorian troops were guarding it while its passengers were touring the citadel. The driver was amused by this attention and contentedly sat back and waited for his principals.

Inside, Blek was greeting the dignitaries from the Orion Syndicate. One, who was known to him, was a Caitian. This was Kreow, the sector boss. The lanky Andorian chan was a stranger.

Although Blek was beholden to Kreow, it still galled him on an instinctual level to allow to remain on the planet. Felkorians were quite pugnacious, literally, having been evolved from canine ancestors. The Andorian seemed to pick up on this and it amused him greatly.

"I don't believe we've met," Blek declared.

"No, we haven't," the Andorian said amicably, "I am Shar. I oversee the Syndicate's interests in the Iotian, Tholian, Gorn, and Ekosian territories. You fall in that vacuum so I oversee you as well."

Blek bristled, "I work with the Syndicate, not for the Syndicate and that lasts only as long as latinum flows my way."

"Your latinum will flow provided you insure our success on this world," Shar countered.

Blek looked nonplussed, finally he blustered, "I have your prisoners. I expect the bounties are still valid?"

"The bounties will be paid upon delivery," Shar explained.

"I can deliver now. They're here in this facility," Blek said excitedly.

"Why don't you hold on to them for a while longer?" Shar urged, "I'll take delivery when I love this lovely planet."

"But, I..." Blek began to protest.

"I assure you. The Syndicate is good for it," Shar gave him his "salesman" smile, "In the meantime, show me where they are."

They navigated the warrens of the blockhouse until they came to a row of metal doors, made of solid duranium. Blek explained that behind the solid doors a force field was erected. They were designed to hold even a species as robust as a Brikar or a Gorn.

"How do you monitor them?" Shar asked.

"There are full spectrum sensors mounted in the ceilings of each cell," Blek described, "They have food replicators that dispense a ration bar twice a day. They can also receive as much water as they want."

"I take it it's formulated to local standards?" Shar inquired.

"Of course. Only the best for our prisoners," Blek happily admitted.

Shar fought the urge to grimace. Felkor III's water was brackish at best. It had a mineral element that made the water smell and taste like sulfur oxide. One could only put up with the smell and taste of rotten eggs for so long if they were from another world.

"I see they are good hands. I trust you to maintain their comfort until I am ready to receive them," Shar cornered the politician.

"I..." Blek was interrupted by an underling approaching.

"Chief Conciliator, the defense grid has picked up an approaching Federation runabout." The minion reported.

"I warned the Intrepid against trying to return," Blek fumed.

"The Intrepid doesn't count runabouts amongst its small craft complement," Shar derailed Blek's anger, "Have you swiped the craft's ID transponder?"

"It registers as the NS 40671 SS Corsair," The aide reported, "The registration traces back to a corporation named Outbound Ventures in the Federation database."

Shar smiled, "Brin Macen. Excellent."

"I know of this Macen. His bounty makes Johnson's pale in comparison. I shall capture him for you." Blek offered.

"You'll do nothing of the sort. I want Macen unmolested. Whatever pretext that he's using to be here will go unchallenged. Do I make myself clear?" Shar demanded.

"But I..." Blek faltered.

"Non-compliance with this directive will result in forfeiture of all your bounties," Shar warned.

Blek swallowed his pride, "It will be as you say."

"I'll be going now but I will stay abreast of Macen's situation. Make sure he goes unchallenged," Shar commanded.

Blek didn't trust himself to speak as the Andorian and the Caitian departed.

"Can I raise shields now?" Daggit asked again.

"We're not hostile so let's not give them a reason to think we are." Macen retorted, "The sensors read clear. They swiped our ID and tried to get an interior scan but no targeting sensors are tracking us and no weapons have gone hot."

Daggit simmered down, having been told what his own board revealed. It just wasn't natural to fly amongst so many potentially hostile cruisers and not respond somehow. It seemed as though Felkor had recalled its entire "fleet". Truth be told, it wasn't much bigger or more effective than the Bajoran Militia's force.

They passed through the cluster of ships and proceeded towards the planet's atmosphere. Traffic Control commed them at that point and Grace got permission to land and landing coordinates. Then she plunged the ship into the charged ionosphere. Electrical discharges began to dance across the ship. Arcs of electricity could be seen out the front viewports. Turbulence began to buck the craft around and a "Whoa!" could be heard from Radil in the back.

Grace grinned as she brought the craft under heel. They plunged below the ionic disturbances and it became smooth sailing. She followed the nav beacon she'd been assigned to and crossed the better part of a continent before they were instructed to slow and descend. Adhering to the instructions she received, Grace brought the runabout down with a little flourish at the end to make the landing her own.

"Atmosphere checks out." Grace announced with a grin.

"Thanks Hannah. That's what all the travel brochures say as well." McMasters lipped off.

She blew him a raspberry and Macen took the opportunity to deliver bad news, "I'm glad you two are getting along so well because you're both staying with the ship while we proceed."

"That's not fair!" came from Grace while McMasters came up with, "Now wait just a damn minute!"

Macen held up his hands to quiet them down, "We may need a rapid extraction and that won't happen if we're all on the ground."

They both gave him sullen looks and he sighed, "It just makes sense."

McMasters was the first to relent, "I hate to admit it but he's right."

"But Ian needs me." Grace tried one last gambit.

"And you'll be helping him by staying with the ship." Macen assured her.

"Fine," she pouted.

"Is that all settled?" Rockford asked with a grin near the hatch.

"I think only for now." Macen said.

"Damn skippy." Grace quipped.

Radil had grabbed a phaser rifle out of the armory and opened the hatch. She frowned, "Head's up people. We have a welcoming committee."

Daggit moved past her and went and got his own rifle. Macen exited first, followed by Rockford. Radil stayed put at first, discreetly covering her employer. Daggit relieved her and she exited as well. McMasters took up Daggit's post with his phaser pistol in his hand. The investigative team met the local constabulary near their flyers.

"Identity chit and licenses to carry weapons." The Chief Inspector demanded with an outstretched hand.

Macen pulled a padd out of his utility belt. Several officers put their hands on their holstered weapons while he did so. The Chief began surveying the information displayed.

"You'll find that the treaty between our governments requires you to recognize my licenses. That means my Level 9 clearance allows me to carry weaponry. It also suggests that I receive support from local law enforcement but that's entirely on a voluntary basis," Macen commented.

The Chief growled. It was a vestige of his ancestry, "I'll have to run this by the legal experts back at the station."

"Feel free." Macen cheerfully agreed.

The Inspector returned to a flyer and entered it, presumably to contact the aforementioned experts. Macen leaned into Rockford, who'd been standing next to him.

"What's your read on this?" he asked in a hushed voice. It was probably futile given the Felkorians' acute hearing but he had to at least try.

"They're running through the standard motions but they also know we're important personages of note. I've been to Felkor before as Annika Ryst and I cleared the initial official meet 'n greet within a few minutes. They never checked my credentials. They just took my word for it," she relayed.

"That matches my impression so far," Macen admitted, "Starfleet's cultural studies show the Felkorians are slow to warm to strangers but they're given ready access to society."

"I can attest to that. Last time Annika was here, she had a dozen drop troops and they were given run of the town. Even the constables tended to look the other way as long as damages were paid for," Rockford confided, "I wonder what's different now?"

"We showed up in a Federation runabout, in a model Starfleet uses, and they have to be wondering if we're undercover Starfleet agents," Macen theorized, "And since they've effectively declared war on Starfleet they have to be wondering how to respond to us if we are Starfleet."

"Makes sense," Rockford admitted.

"The trick will be, how will they respond to our ostensible mission to recover Auray?" Macen wondered.

"Heads up, Boss. Our inspector is marching this way." She warned.

Macen smiled at her terminology. "Boss" had always been her playful address of respect for him. That remained the same despite their romantic interests.

"You've interpreted our law correctly." The Inspector said as he handed the padd back to Macen, "Hopefully that will stay true throughout your stay."

"We'll do our best." Macen assured him.

"I'm required to ask what the purpose of your visit is." The Chief stated.

"We're here to find Ensign Auray. Her shuttle was shot down in near orbit by your defense forces and she was never recovered. Her family wants her, whether dead or alive," Macen told most of the truth.

"Her name is Auray?" the Chief asked and Macen nodded. The peace officer frowned, "Her whereabouts are of interest to us as well."

"Could you give us the coordinates of the wreck? We can begin our investigation there," Macen requested.

"I can input it into your padd." The Chief offered.

Instead, Macen handed over his tricorder. The Felkorian had never dealt with the Bajoran design before and it took several seconds for him to familiarize himself with the layout. Once he had he inputted the coordinates from memory. That indicated two things: that the Chief Inspector was involved with the investigation into Auray's disappearance and the shuttle had crashed nearby because it was still in local jurisdiction.

The Inspector handed over the tricorder, "The crash is nearby but no trace of the pilot's whereabouts is revealed in the wreckage."

"So, she survived the crash?" Macen inquired.

"She left the site, unless of course, scavengers carried the body away. It is located in the slums of Verid and the inhabitants are savage," the Inspector warned.

Verid was the city they'd landed in. It was the largest metropolis and the seat of the planetary government. It was also obvious by the constable's reaction to the news that the Starfleet pilot was female that he hadn't known that before. Auray had obviously gone to ground or had been secreted away.

"Could you provide us transport to the site?" Macen wondered.

"There are rental flyers available from several agencies at this spaceport. I suggest you aid the local economy and hire one," the Inspector gruffly replied.

"All right. We'll do that," Macen conceded.

"Stay out of trouble," the constable ordered, "We'll be watching."

The peace officers all loaded up in their flyers and lifted off. Macen gathered the team and transmitted the coordinates into each of their tricorders' databases. Then he scanned the area and pointed east, "There seem to be aircraft in this direction."

They hoofed it on foot and came to an area that advertised three competing rental agencies yet there was only one lot to draw vehicles from. Rockford confirmed that the separate agencies charged different rates but they pooled their vehicular resources. Prospective clients were shuttled around to the "appropriate" agency depending upon how high they were estimated to be able to afford.

"It's like Three Card Monty." She explained.

"Which agency is the cheapest?" Macen asked.

She gave him an incredulous look, "Boss, these are intergalactic corporate franchises. They advertise across the quadrant."

"So that means you should know which one is cheaper," Macen asserted.

"I do. The question is, why don't you?" Rockford pointedly inquired.

"I don't pay much attention to popular media and popular media is where most advertising is embedded," Macen retorted.

""Even the Federation News Service and the Interstellar News Corporation have advertising," she pointed out.

"Yeah, but it's easy to ignore," Macen rebutted her.

She smirked, "So you're willfully ignorant."

"Yes," Macen agreed.

Now Rockford looked like she'd swallowed the canary, "It's nice to see that you can admit that you're ignorant."

"What?" Macen exclaimed.

"Don't worry, Boss. We all love you anyway," she got on tiptoes and kissed his cheek.

"I was tricked," he grumbled.

"You were blissfully led down the path and they say ignorance is bliss, so I've proven my point once again," Rockford was relishing this victory.

Macen pondered this turn of events. T'Kir had been quick witted too but she'd been overt. Rockford was subtle. Repartee with her was a fencing match and she scored direct hits more often than not. He appreciated the game because it was friendly. It could be twisted into something destructive but as long as it stayed playful he'd enjoy every moment of their sparring.

"Are we going in or are you just going to sit there and gather your thoughts?" Rockford grinned. She knew she had him once again.

"Let's go." Macen smiled back.

Rockford led them to the agency whose reputation was built on high end budget vehicles. Macen began the negotiation. First he had them access the Subspace Comms Network and query the Bank of Bolia. Looking up Outbound Ventures accounts, they searched the Obsidian's operating account. Seeing a credit limit worth more than their franchise was worth, the sales agent fell all over himself to accommodate Macen.

"Wouldn't you like to go to our sister agency? They have higher end vehicles worthy of someone of your financial stature," he said.

"So they can rent me the same vehicle you would but at a higher rate?" Macen sarcastically asked, "I don't think so."

The agent looked caught and he was, "I see you are a discriminating client. We have three classes of flyers. I'll give you one of our premium models at the..."

"Budget price," Macen suggested.

"Yes, the budget rate." The agent conceded. He then offered several insurance options. Macen thumb printed a contract that obligated Outbound Ventures to compensate the agency for any loss or damages. There was a nonrefundable deposit of course and the agent could already smell his commission.

A maintenance tech led them to their rented vehicle. They'd been given a temporary pass code. The tech made certain that the lock-out system was working and then handed off the craft. Radil checked the controls and saw that they reminiscent enough to a sub-impulse raider's or a modern shuttle's so she fired up the thrusters and the antigravs. The rental lifted in the air and then, guided by the tricorders, they set off for the crash site.

 

Chapter Five

Radil followed the guide path laid out by the tricorder. It reminded Macen of when he, T'Kir, Ro, Tulley, and Harry Mudd III went in search of lost artifacts on Caldos II. That brought a moment of nostalgia. Rockford noticed the change.

"What are you thinking of?" she asked.

Macen explained what had happened and she grinned, "So, you had some actual adventures with the Maquis?"

"They were few and far between but we did manage to save civilization from the Cardassians on occasion," he said it playfully but she could tell he was also serious.

"You've never told me much about those days," she reminded him.

"You've never really brought up the Tarsus Wars," Macen aimed right back at her.

"Annika fought the Tarsus Wars. I came along afterwards," Rockford's reply served to remind Macen that Annika Ryst's compartmentalized personalities served different purposes at different times and each had a unique sense of history.

"Those stories all involve T'Kir. I didn't think you'd want to be reminded of her," Macen admitted.

Rockford cuffed upside the head, "Don't think. I want to know your stories and share them with you. I'll tell you what I can of our history and then we can compare notes. Got it?"

"Yes, ma'am," Macen sheepishly replied.

"Hey Lovebirds, you may want to check this out." Radil called from the cockpit. Daggit rode shotgun so Macen and Rockford had to crowd in the space between stations. Macen bumped her aside with his hip and she yelped. Tickling his ribs she got him to make an allowance for her petite frame.

The wreckage was fairly contained. The shuttle had been mostly intact as it made contact with the ground. Auray had the presence of mind and control of the craft to land beside the slums and not in them. The shuttle's fuselage was intact. The warp nacelles were sheared off and the rear loading ramp was blown off. It was nowhere to be seen in the debris trail so presumably it was lost earlier in the flight.

"Take us down," Macen ordered.

"Yes, O Lord and Master," Radil quipped.

Radil landed the flyer. It was a competent landing but it lacked the flair of Grace's landings. Daggit grabbed the rifles from where he'd secured them and gave Radil hers and then exited the craft. Radil followed, rifle draped across her.

Daggit and Radil formed a perimeter and studied the surrounding country. Rockford began taking scans of the wreckage. It only took her a moment to make her first find.

"Brin, there's Andorian blood in the cockpit." She reported.

He came to examine her findings, "Any sign of what injured her?"

"My guess is she was caught by a shard when the cockpit windshield shattered. There's a blood outline of a knife-like shape but the object is gone," she explained.

"Our good Chief Inspector and his team," Macen surmised.

"Safe bet," she concurred.

"Is there a trail of blood?" he asked.

"Only as far as the emergency lockers. I'd say she grabbed a med kit and used the dermal regenerator to seal the cut before she bugged out," Rockford observed.

"Any supplies missing?" Macen wondered as he stared at the open compartments.

"You've got to be kidding me, right? This wreck has been picked apart. It was probably a scavengers dream," Rockford lectured.

Macen nodded, "Point taken. Anything else of note in here?"

"I could probably record the fingerprints of a few hundred people," Rockford dryly complained.

They exited the shuttle and Macen indicated the slums that rose just a few hundred meters away, "Do you think she'd go there or into the woods?"

Rockford studied the barren field that eventually spawned a woodland, "It's almost a kilometer of open country between here and the tree line. If she was in a hurry to escape detection, and she probably was, her best bet for hiding is the urban landscape. I got the impression the cops wouldn't follow her into it."

"The inspector did refer to them as 'savages'," Macen added.

"Yeah, and he said it with fear in his voice. I'm willing to bet my professional reputation that our girl headed into the cityscape," Rockford's reputation at detection was formidable so it was no idle wager.

"Rab, Jenrya, we're headed into the urban jungle." Macen called out.

They formed up and went to the right as a concession to Macen's consulting the Currents. Daggit took the lead. Macen followed with Rockford trailing him. Radil brought up the rear. They were hyper-vigilant, ready for a firefight or ambush to break out in any moment. Macen tried to speak to a few natives that were on the street but the Felkorians invariably turned away and walked off.

Finally, after traversing eight blocks, a Felkorian approached them, "Hey Starfleet! Are you looking for your pilot?"

"We're not Starfleet," Macen established that fact right away, "But we are looking for the Starfleet pilot. We can make it worth your while."

"Follow me. I'll take you to her," the Felkorian promised.

They walked for another four blocks and the entered a derelict building on the left side of the street. As their eyes adjusted to the dark they recognized that they'd entered a large open area. In the center of it was Auray tied to a chair. Her head was slumped into her chest and her uniform jacket and blouse were unzipped.

"Jenrya," Macen said.

Radil moved forward and knelt next to Auray and began inspecting her injuries. She used her tricorder to scan the Andorian. She grew angry.

"The bastards beat her. She has massive bruising on her breasts. Prophets know how many people took turns groping them," Radil angrily declared.

"I can show you how many." The Felkorian chuckled. He began yapping and let out a single howl.

"Did he just bark at us?" Macen asked Rockford.

"I think it was meant for them," she pointed out all of the Felkorians entering the space. They were surrounded.

"I've got east." Daggit announced, his rifle tucked into his shoulder.

Rockford had her pistol drawn and cradled in two hands, "I've got north."

"I'll handle west." Macen also had his phaser in a two handed grip.

"I'll take south as soon as I get her up and running." Radil promised. She applied a stimulant to Auray's system. She put away the hypospray as Auray's eyes fluttered open.

"No!" she yelled, "No more!"

Radil gripped her shoulders, "Snap out of it. We're the good guys. We're here to take you home."

"You're Bajoran," Auray realized.

"And you're Andorian," Radil smarted off, "Let's get multicultural after we get out of here."

Radil pulled out a flick knife and cut the bonds holding Auray. She got the zhen to her feet but the pilot had a severe limp and had to be supported. Radil moved around her and wrapped her left arm around Auray's waist.

"Hold on to me." She instructed.

Auray threw her arm over Radil's shoulders. Radil had her rifle unencumbered but she also had a phaser strapped to each leg, "Grab a phaser. Maybe you'll get some payback before this is over."

Auray was hesitant at first but then with a look of grim determination, she pulled a phaser pistol free from Radil's left leg.

"Good girl," Radil praised her, "Now start walking towards the exit."

The lead Felkorian growled, "You're not going anywhere, Fed. We want a ransom and I figure whatever you were going to offer pales in comparison to what they'd offer for the lot of you."

"Walk down this path and all you'll get is an early grave. I'm willing to pay for her freedom. Take the latinum while you can," Macen offered.

"I don't think so," the Felkorian laughed. Macen shot him. The pack moved forward but the SID team punctuated that movement with phaser bursts. The pack halted.

"Keep this up and it gets very real," Macen thumbed up the power to his phaser. The others followed suit.

"You got nowhere to go, Fed. We'll give you ten arfets to surrender." A deputy counter offered.

Calculating that the time equaled fifteen minutes, Macen tapped the comm badge on his belt, "Macen to Grace."

Grace's voice filled the air, "I hear you."

"Lock onto this position and get us out of here." Macen instructed.

"Do you need an extraction already? You've barely had time to piss of the locals." Grace chided him.

"Hannah, I'm not laughing," Macen replied.

"Must be bad. We'll be there in a few." She promised.

The time counted down and just as the deadline arrived, Grace's voice filled the open circuit, "We have you on sensors. We can only transport two at a time so who goes first?"

"Radil and her friend are the priority." Macen decided.

The Bajoran and Andorian dissolved in a halo of energy. The Felkorian pack surged forward. McMasters targeted Macen and Rockford next. They quickly hopped out of the transporter frame and McMasters brought up Daggit. The Angosian looked totally nonchalant.

"Damn. It was just getting interesting," he grumbled.

"Where's Auray?" Rockford inquired of McMasters.

"Jenrya took her to the medical unit." He answered.

The Corsair, like all Danube-class runabouts, was a modular design. While the cockpit and rear passenger compartment were kept stock, the center modules had been selected for general mission use. One was a single occupancy brig. Next to it was the armory. Across the way was a medical module with two biobeds and it was fully stocked and rated as a trauma unit. The last module had two sonic showers and a decontamination cell.

Radil had Auray on a bed and was running a medical tricorder over her. The biobed's sensors were also examining her. Rockford approached while Radil was distracted.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

"Is it really over?" Auray asked with tears in her eyes.

As an Infiltrator Ryst had been captured and tortured on occasion. Rockford had been spared that but she had access to communal memories of such events. She knew that Auray needed affirmation that it was well and truly over.

She gripped the zhen's hand, "It's over. You'll never see them again."

"I knew Captain McKinley wouldn't leave me." Auray sighed.

Rockford decided not to disabuse her of that notion. McKinley hadn't been pressed to abandon his pilot yet, just to delay any and all search efforts until the political climate was better. She didn't believe him to be capable of unnecessarily abandoning a member of his crew.

"Strap in. It's gonna get bumpy," Grace's voice filled the runabout. Radil and Rockford were nearly thrown off of their feet as the ship jumped to maximum impulse. They strapped Auray's waist belt and then activated the emergency crash seats in the med bay.

"We've got six hostiles in bound. Targeting sensors are active and their weapons are hot." Daggit read off from his displays.

"Now you can raise shields." Macen conceded.

Grace made her announcement and then pushed the impulse engines' virtual throttle bars to maximum. The runabout leapt ahead but as it did so it drew fire from the constabulary flyers trailing it. Grace tried a serious of evasive maneuvers but the flyers were aircraft while the runabout had the aerodynamics of a brick.

"Head for the city. Maybe we can lose them in the traffic," Macen suggested.

"We're twice as big as their flyers; I think we'll stand out." Grace snapped.

"But they'll have to shoot at their own people," Macen offered.

Grace grinned, "Good point."

The Corsair headed for a traffic lane. Rather than get bogged down in it, she flew above in the buffer between traffic levels. The flyers continued firing.

"They're shooting at their own people!" Grace was incensed.

"How effective is their formation?" Macen asked.

"It's a two layered double delta. They're pretty much bracketing us," Grace explained.

"Try street level and see what they do," Macen ordered.

Grace gave him a wary glance and then shrugged. She rolled the runabout off of the traffic lane and dove for the deck. The flyers pursued but they gave up firing when the Corsair began a mad flight down city streets and lanes. Grace kept them ten meters in the air so there was no danger of hitting a person but civilian traffic lifting off and descending was nearly grazed a few times.

"Now what?" she asked.

"Just run a loop," Macen instructed.

"For how long?" she wanted to know.

"I'm working on it," he promised.

"Sir, Macen's team is under fire in downtown Verid." Kreow informed Shar.

"Contact Blek. I want to talk to him now!" Shar demanded.

"They're breaking off," Daggit announced.

"Why?" Macen wondered.

"Who the hell cares?" Grace opined, "As long as we can navigate again."

"Head back to the spaceport," Macen told Grace.

"Aren't we returning Auray to the Intrepid?" Grace wondered.

"Somebody just intervened on our behalf. This window may close if we leave the planet and it may not reopen upon our return. Auray's a survivor. She can handle a few more days without a ship's counselor," Macen said expressly.

"You're the Listener," Grace dubiously gave in.

Grace returned them to the same pad where they'd parked before. Macen explained to Auray that the team was there to rescue Admiral Johnson and the diplomatic team. She'd have to stay aboard the Corsair with Grace while the others searched for Johnson and the others.

McMasters met the news that he was coming with excitement. Auray showered and replicated a new uniform and then joined Grace in the cockpit as the others exited. Grace ushered her back to passenger lounge.

"They'll comm us if they need us," she explained.

"So now what?" Auray asked.

"How are you at Wings over Tokyo?" Grace asked with a grin.

"You have the game here?" Auray's antennas twitched excitedly.

"I've killed the computer six ways from Sunday," Grace admitted, "I've been looking for a challenge and you present the perfect one."

"I want to be the zero pilot," Auray said with a feral grin.

"Okay, you're on," Grace readily consented and got the holoprojector and motion control joysticks out of the storage locker where they were held.

 

Chapter Six

"Of course I'll authorize reimbursement for your flyer," Macen resisted the urge to throttle the sales agent as he repeated his statement for the fourth time. The Verid Constabulary had reported to the rental agency that the flyer Macen had rented was a gutted ruin. They'd left it next to the slums and the locals had stripped it and then torched it. Since it ran on fuel cells, they had detonated because of the fire and the craft was beyond recovery.

"Would you like another flyer?" the agent finally asked.

"Yes, I would," Macen almost wanted to kiss him.

"Would you like to purchase insurance or do you want to sign another damage waiver?" the agent inquired.

"We'll do everything the same as last time," Macen informed him.

"Well, hopefully you'll bring this one back," the agent sniffed.

Macen suddenly had visions of pulling his phaser free and stunning the agent and then letting Rockford fill out the forms. She hadn't anywhere near T'Kir's level of expertise with computers but she was pretty savvy. The longer he mulled it over the more tempting it became.

Rockford leaned into him, "Don't shoot him because I'm not filling out those forms."

Despite knowing she wasn't a telepath he could almost swear that she was one at times, "I'll let him be."

She patted him on the arm, "Good boy."

Macen refrained from his usual reply lest he inadvertently insult the sales agent. She saw his restraint and gave him a beautiful smile. Some forms of self restraint came naturally to Macen. Control over his tongue wasn't one of them. While he could be quite diplomatic at times his natural instinct was to be sardonic.

They finally cleared the agent and the same maintenance tech led them to their new flyer. He left them with a "tsk, tsk" and an "I hope this one comes back." Macen wore a pained expression. He obviously wanted to give the tech a lecture on operational realities.

Rockford chuckled as she guided him into the flyer. McMasters took over the piloting chores. Macen sat next to him in his role as navigator. Rockford and Radil comprised the second row while Daggit made up the third and final row.

McMasters lifted the flyer up in a single movement as he also applied forward thrust. It was smooth but very unexpected. The engineer just grinned like the proverbial Cheshire.

"Having fun?" Macen dryly asked.

"Hey, just 'cause I build 'em doesn't mean I can't fly 'em," McMasters grinned.

Macen gave him a wry look, "No one ever accused you of the sort."

"Good," the engineer huffed, "Do we have a destination or should I just fly around in the traffic grid?"

"Celeste?" Macen deferred to her expertise.

They'd paid to access city and planetary maps for their personal padds. Rockford consulted hers and then read off coordinates. She then explained her choice, "The Love & Rockets is a favorite amongst mercs, smugglers, and local criminals. They don't ask questions and general information can be bought."

"Sounds like the place for us," Macen agreed.

Verid was divided into several layers. The higher the level the more prestigious and affluent it was. It also created microclimates. The Love & Rockets was located in a lower sector and the flyer moved into a weather system. It was raining in the lower levels and the rain created a brown sludge on the windscreen.

"Oh, that doesn't look healthy," McMasters muttered.

"Well, It's a good thing you feel that way," Macen said happily.

"Why's that?" McMasters asked despite knowing he wouldn't like the answer.

"Because you're staying with the flyer," Macen informed him.

"Because we may need a quick getaway," the engineer replied in a flat tone.

"You're beginning to have a firm grasp on operational necessities," Macen grinned.

"Just shoot me now," McMasters groaned.

"Maybe later," Macen promised.

They parked in the nearby lot adjacent to the bar. The team, minus McMasters, stood in front of the bar's entrance. Above the doorway was a neon sign proclaiming "Love & Rockets", of course, the "&" symbol was wrapped around a phallic image with a missile erupting from its head.

"Subtle," Radil sarcastically quipped.

"Oh, it gets better," Rockford said warily. They slogged through the torrential rain while McMasters suddenly felt grateful he was left behind as he watched them enter the front door.

Macen stepped into the bar and was immediately assaulted by the several smells. Fumes from various types of carcinogenic and narcotic pipes and what not wafted in the air. The smells of sweat and stale beer hung heavily in the tainted air. Love & Rockets also boasted a slop house style kitchen so burnt food and grease permeated everything as well.

Macen barely paused before stepping aside to allow the others in. Whether blatantly or discreetly, every eye or sensing orifice was turned their way. Their armaments didn't attract any undue attention. Everyone was armed in some fashion.

Daggit's sheer size caused some to turn away. Unfortunately, the sight of Radil and Rockford seemed to seize the collective imagination. Even the bulk of the women in the establishment seemed to leer at them. Macen was instantly offended but Rockford tugged on his arm.

"Remember, I've been here before. Just follow my lead," she suggested as she headed for the bar.

Macen knew she could handle herself. Annika Ryst had nearly killed him and T'Kir on three separate occasions and her Rockford persona was just as capable. Despite his protective instincts raging at maximum, it was best to settle down and let her play the game out. He looked around and didn't see any empty tables or booths. He guessed that relegated them to the bar.

Radil seemed startled. When asked, she simply said, "I think I know those people. Wait for me. I'll be back."

She wandered off to a far table near the kitchen. Servers wandered the floor, delivering drinks and food. They'd take orders and stroll on back to the kitchen and the bar. It seemed each of them was pinched or slapped on the butt at least once each pass through.

The composition of the staff and most of the clientele was indicative. They were all aliens. Whether born on Felkor or not, they were not indigenous to the planet. Only one table boasted four native Felkorians and they're tongues hung out and wagged at the passing servers.

Macen focused on Rockford's negotiation. She was saying, "...I only need pointed towards who here could contact the Orion Syndicate on our behalf. You'd get four slips of latinum for your trouble."

"Four strips," the bartender countered.

"Why so much?" she asked.

"You and the big guy are Angosians. Angosians are trouble. Second of all, although they're wearing Starfleet surplus, the aforementioned big guy and your boyfriend wear it like it's a Starfleet uniform. That spells trouble. I'm willing to bet that if trouble starts, then I won't be able to stop you or your friends from tearing the place up. That means I'll have to call in the constabulary and most of my patrons don't want to be anywhere near the police. So once again..." he faltered.

"Trouble," she finished for him. Turning to Macen, she said, "Pay the man four strips of latinum."

"Yes, dear." He murmured as he pulled the coin purse out of his jacket pocket.

Rockford grinned victoriously, "And don't you forget it."

Meanwhile, Radil met the three mercenaries at the far table. There were two males and a female. She didn't recognize two of them, but she did know the sergeant wearing the company leader's bars.

"Ozzit?" she said to get his attention.

Ozzit glanced up to tell the server that he didn't need another drink yet when he suddenly realized his petitioner wasn't a server. It had been over ten years but he still recognized the Bajoran.

"Jenny!" he exclaimed.

Radil groaned, "Only Skippy ever called me that."

Ozzit laughed, "And only you called him Skippy so all's fair."

"So you're still with Brazzinik?" she asked.

"Sure am," he happily confirmed it. He patted the chair next to him, "Take a seat!"

She sat down and Ozzit shook his head, "I never thought I'd see you again, Radil. You left and then we heard you went to work for the Syndicate. Afterwards there were rumors that the Orions had put out a death mark on you. Five years later, the mark is gone and you'd disappeared."

"Not really," Radil chose to enlighten him, "I've been working for Outbound Ventures all these years."

"Aren't they a collection of privateers?" Ozzit inquired.

"Yes, I've been with the flagship since I left the Orions," she revealed.

"You must not have left the Orions on their terms or there wouldn't have been a death mark," Ozzit surmised.

"No wonder you made Master Sergeant. You're staggeringly brilliant," she dryly commented.

"I am a strategist beyond compare," he chuckled, "Although, I have to ask, when did you start wearing jewelry?"

She fingered her earring, "It just seemed right."

"Forget the bloody earring. Every Bajoran wears an earring. I'm thinking of that necklace," Ozzit pointed out, "When did practical, old Radil become froofy?"

Radil pulled the necklace's medallion out of her jumpsuit, "I think it speaks for itself."

"A Klingon marriage token?" Ozzit was stunned, "You're married?"

Radil frowned, "Don't say it like it's an impossibility."

"Sorry, but you married a Klingon?" Ozzit still didn't believe the evidence presented to him.

She threw her hands up, "Again with the impossibilities."

Ozzit's orange skin mottled, a sign that he was embarrassed, "It's just, I never asked you out because you seemed happy with humans and other Bajorans but you were uncomfortable with anyone who wasn't a 'pink skin'."

"I wasn't that bad!" Radil protested.

"Yes, you were," Ozzit said calmly, "So, you're married...to a Klingon wife or a husband?"

"My husband is a doctor. He's a combat and trauma specialist," she asserted.

"He'd have to be to be linked with you," Ozzit quipped, "So, a husband. I'm almost surprised."

"Why?" Radil huffed.

"Because you used to undress the female members of the unit with your eyes. We all wondered when you'd snap and take one of them by force," he admitted.

Radil flushed, "I never..."

"No, but you almost did," he chuckled, "So what brings you to Felkor III?"

"You first," she countered, when he started to balk she waved a finger in front of him, "You've spent all of this time embarrassing me in front of two strangers. I'd say you owe me."

Ozzit went to protest but she thrust a finger towards his nose. He caved, "We're guarding a facility with some celebrity prisoners. That's it. The Orion Syndicate didn't trust the locals to secure their prizes so we called in to supplement the locals."

The female Battalion soldier snickered, "'Replace' is more like it."

"They're a Starfleet admiral and his security force, aren't they?" Radil asked.

The table grew very quiet. Finally Ozzit wanted to know, "How do you know that?"

"Because I'm part of the rescue mission," Radil shared.

"I hate to tell you, Radil, but you've travelled a long way for no reason. Brazzinik has committed five companies to this operation. You and your people will be dead if you try and affect a rescue," Ozzit warned.

"You may be surprised," Radil replied.

"No, I won't be," Ozzit said flatly, "Look Radil, I'm warning you off as a friend. Stay out of it."

"We'll see," she said coolly.

Ozzit sighed, "Look, can I at least get you a drink?"

"I think I'd best check in with my commander," Radil rose, "Thanks for the offer though."

"Yeah, anytime," Ozzit said feebly.

Macen and Rockford sat down at a table with a Drenibian. He was less than enthusiastic to be across from the SID teammates.

"And what am I supposed to do for you?" the Drenibian asked.

"Just tell the local Syndicate Sector Boss that we want to see him or her," Macen stated simply.

"And why would they want to see you?" the alien asked.

"We're here to bargain for Admiral Johnson's life and the lives of his security detachment," Macen said as plainly as possible.

"How much latinum are we talking?" the Drenibian suddenly got very eager.

"That's for your boss to discover. But let's just say I have the credit of the United Federation of Planets behind me," Macen revealed.

"Many have said that," the Drenibian scoffed.

"But I can prove it. Have your people look up the credit limit of the Arinae Exchange. We'll talk afterwards," Macen began to rise.

"How can we contact you...presuming we're interested?" the alien tipped his hand.

"You're the Orion Syndicate," Macen grinned, "You'll be able to find us."

Macen and Rockford joined Daggit and Radil at the bar. Radil quietly described her encounter with Ozzit. Macen heartened and Radil asked him why.

"Because now we know the opposition. Or at least part of the opposition. Once we make contact with the Sector Boss, or whomever they've placed over them, then we'll know how things stand," Macen explained.

Flashing blue lights penetrated the windows as Constabulary flyers came to a landing in front of Love & Rockets. Armored officers burst through the door and waved rifles around. The Chief Inspector strode in and came to the SID team.

"You will come with me. Now," he ordered.

"And where are we going?" Macen inquired.

The Inspector's eyes narrowed, "To see Chief Conciliator Blek. That's all you need know."

The SID team surrendered their weapons but they weren't bound. They were split up into four flyers and transported through the city. The police convoy travelled upwards and across town. They came to a highly opulent high-rise and the convoy's flyers touched down on the ledge-like tarmac.

The team was reunited and then marched into the penthouse. There, guards manned posts every twenty meters or so. Each Federation agent was scanned by a tricorder and then they were admitted into the Conciliator's presence.

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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Last modified: 02 Jan 2014 
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