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Second Coming - Part II by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter Nine

The Obsidian and the Defiant raced to Corvat. It had been fifteen years since Macen and Ro had visited the desert world. Thoughts naturally went to those that had been here last time. Aric Tulley, Ro's former lieutenant was dead, killed in a battle with Macen. T'Kir was dead, yet strangely enough, resurrected.

T'Kir had died but she'd implanted her katra in Macen's psyche. Unbeknownst to anyone, Tessa had cloned T'Kir's rapidly cooling body. She'd held on to that clone for 18 months while she corrected T'Kir's genetic mutations that made her a Class 4 telepath, a rarity to be sure. Tessa had called in an Adept who was also a healer and he performed the fal-tor-pan and relocated T'Kir's psyche into her own body.

T'Kir's mind, unaccustomed to its new environment and also addled from the jostling about body to body, was understandably confused. The Adept took T'Kir with him to Vulcan. While there, she began to practice the logic based emotional control that her race was famed for.

T'Kir had been born and raised on the colony world of Shial. Citizens of that colony were students of the Way of Sybok rather than Surak. They sought fulfillment in emotional expression. Most of the defectors from the Romulan Star Empire ended up there.

Now she was embracing the practice of kohlinar or the Vulcan art of purging all emotion. She was literally unrecognizable to her former friends. Macen's marriage to her was irrevocably broken. But he still couldn't help but wonder what the old T'Kir would think of their return to Corvat. The new T'Kir would undoubtedly lay on statistics and logical reasoning on why the world killer should be used. He couldn't help but think that T'Kir would regret her passionless life at some point.

The evacuation was almost finished. The last convoy headed for Bajor under the watchful gaze of the Enterprise. Picard had been the man Ro surrendered the crystal control matrix to. Macen intuitively knew Ro was having a discussion with her former mentor regarding its use even now.

"I found it hard to believe that you, of all people, recommended using this weapon," Picard accused.

Picard may have had the quiet of his Ready Room from which to place this call but all Ro had were her Spartan quarters. Fortunately, she'd gotten Nog to remove the top bunk from the bed and install a small desk and a fixed chair.

"I don't see why it would be so surprising," Ro countered defensively.

"Laren, it was you that advised me to safeguard the control matrix in order to prevent it from being used," Picard elucidated.

"Do you see another choice?" Ro impatiently asked.

"There's always another choice. We faced this same choice against the Borg," Picard was growing angry, "We chose a different path."

"That's because another solution presented itself," Ro showed her temper as well, "We don't have an all powerful alien race conveniently hanging around this time. Do you know what we know about our opponent this time? We know they look like a gumdrop with tentacles and they can destroy a starship in 3 seconds. We don't know why they do it, how they can do it, or how we can convince them not to. That's a helluva a lot of questions we didn't face against the Borg."

"It's up to starship captains to provide those options or haven't you learned that yet in your long career as a Starfleet captain?" Picard acidly inquired.

"I may not have your decades of experience but at least I haven't given up!" Ro snapped, "Oh, it's all over Starfleet how you wanted to capitulate to the Borg. ‘We can't stop them anyway so why not let them mow us down?' wasn't that your basic attitude?"

"Damn you," Picard seethed, "What do you know of fighting against hopeless odds?"

Ro laughed scornfully, "You're actually going to ask me that? I fought for the Bajoran Resistance, remember? The Maquis were nothing but a hopeless cause. So hopeless in fact we were mowed down by the Jem'Hadar. But you want to know what I learned? I learned you never give in or give up. You fight until the last man is dead or dying."

Seeing she had Picard's undivided attention, she pressed on; "After the Maquis were crushed, a few of us fought in until we finally had to turn to the Bajoran Militia and apply for amnesty."

"Yes, I know that," he wondered where she was going with this rehash of her history.

"What you don't know is I was the Bajoran liaison to a select band of Starfleet commandoes that operated behind enemy lines. We were so far behind the lines that we were often cut off from Starfleet for weeks at a time. And while we were, we fought. We fought every damn day. I thought the Maquis had been arduous. They were nothing compared to Angosians."

"You were part of the Angosian assault force?" Picard was stunned by the lack of his knowledge.

Ro snorted, "Hell, in the end, we were assault force. Some other people you know were a part of it as well. Remember your former Tactical Officer named Rab Daggit?"

"Barely," Picard searched his memory.

"He was the commando unit's leader. Brin Macen was our intel officer," Ro supplied the answers to his unspoken questions.

"Brin Macen served in the assault units?" Picard was stunned.

"He didn't go straight from the Maquis to the SID," Ro dryly commented, "The SID wasn't formed until after the war."

"Why are you telling me this?" Picard asked in hushed tones.

"To prove a point. Macen never once suggested we use Corvat against the Dominion. Truth be told, he didn't suggest it this time around. I did but Macen finally agreed with Admiral Johnson's reasoning. Brin has an uncanny way of navigating probabilities. You know this a racial trait because of your friendship with Guinan. Don't you think he would have objected to the bitter end if he saw a better way ahead of us?"

Picard had to chew on that. Ro depended upon Macen's the judgment the way Picard had depended upon Guinan's guidance off and on over the long years. Guinan never shared where her amazing intuition came from. He'd simply accepted it for what it was and trusted in it implicitly.

Truth be told, Picard trusted in Ro as well. She was undeniably one of the brightest officers to cross his path in years. Her path had been highly unorthodox and a tad awkward at times but she had proven herself to Starfleet Command. So much so they had made her CO of both DS9 and the Defiant along with a promotion to Commander. A rapidly advanced promotion had followed. Starfleet was willing to trust her, as he'd fervently counseled them to 12 years ago when they put her back in uniform, so why was he suddenly so reluctant?

In her way, Ro was as seasoned as Will Riker had been when he finally accepted a command of his own. Picard had feared he was holding his XO back but Riker had moved on when the time was right for him.

It was the nature of Ro's experience that caused him to pause. She'd been a terrorist between ages 14-18, a cadet between 18-22, a Starfleet Officer between ages 22-24, a convicted criminal between ages 26-28, a Starfleet Officer again between 28-31, a terrorist again from 31-33, a Bajoran Militia Officer between 33-36, and a Starfleet officer ever since. Now at 48, she was on right on time for a command of her own.

Picard had always wished she'd advance to this stage in her career. However, DS9 was wreckage and it had been destroyed while she was elsewhere and couldn't defend it. Picard had lost the Stargazer and the Enterprise-D so he knew the conflicting emotions that such tragedies inflicted upon a commanding officer. He just couldn't be certain that her recommendation to use Corvat wasn't a knee-jerk, "get them back because they got me first" reaction. It wouldn't be atypical for the circumstances and Ro was certainly one to react first and analyze later.

Macen's attitude was of little help as well. It was circulated amongst command officers in the loop regarding the SID that the El-Aurian often responded to violence with harsher and greater violence. Point in fact; many of Macen's actions with the SID were illegal within the framework of the Federation. This is why Admiral Forger wisely had him operate in foreign territory most of the time.

"I just pray you can rest easy with the consequences of this decision," Picard intoned direly.

Ro wore a cocky smile, "I'm already sleeping better."

Picard knew there was no arguing with her. From official fleet dispatches he knew the Typhon Pact was reacting to the news of Corvat's existence. One might say they were overreacting but Picard didn't think so. They were concerned with their survival just as the Federation was at the introduction of Shinzon's thalaron threat. That technology had been universally banned and so should Corvat.

Picard offered a pittance of a farewell and the Enterprise departed. Three hours later, the Aventine arrived. She carried one Taryn Argus and one El-Aurian crystalline control matrix. It could safely be said she'd never carried such dangerous cargo before.

Dax beamed down to Sharray with a Security team. The security was divided between Argus and the case holding the node. While Jadzia Dax had visited Corvat once, Ezri Dax only possessed Jadzia's memories of doing so. Dax's previous host had wandered about New Cairo, which was a literal ghost town now, and had never visited the ruins of Sharray. Dax knew that even Jadzia would have felt dwarfed by the massive project to map out the weapon installed within Corvat but Ezri looked at it like a strategic problem and therefore could minimize the dangers involved.

In Dax's view, using a set of Vulcan-like logic parameters, the benefits simply outweighed the costs. If the Typhon Pact came across the borders it would be met with equal force. If the only forcer available or left standing were Corvat then Corvat would be used against the Pact nations. It was that simple and that cut and dried. Dax was more than willing to help tear the planet apart destroying its awful weapons array after the crisis was past. But until then, Corvat was a necessity and would be protected as such.

Both the Defiant and the Aventine were assigned as Corvat's guardians. It was receiving much more protection now then when it was vulnerable to Cardassian and Dominion attack. And unlike before, it now had no inhabitants. Dax found that thought to be very sad.

The removal of the settlers was a practical necessity. Not only would the world be taking direct fire soon enough but it would also be leaving its orbital track. It would leave its sun and the warmth and protection that it offered. The colonists would literally freeze to death if they remained.

Looking off to the near distance towards the edge of the city's ruins, the Obsidian stood proud and tall on her landing skids. Dax occasionally wished the shark-like Aventine possessed the ability to land on a planet's surface. It would have come in handy when she'd been trying to recover the Earth Starfleet vessel NX-02 Columbia in the Gamma Quadrant. The mystery as to how that far-flung vessel had arrived 70,000 light years from home had unlocked an enigma in the form of the Cailear. Of course Captain Will Riker and the crew of the Titan actually made first contact, or second, if you counted the crew of the Columbia.

The general resemblance between the Vespa-class Aventine and the enemy bioships perfectly fit the physical requirements for slipstream drive. It was little wonder that both sides had harnessed the technology, even it was by polar opposite ends of the spectrum. The Trills' experiences with the symbiots the dreaded parasite derivatives let them see the potential of organic tech.

Ro and Macen were waiting for Dax's party. Radil and Daggit were also there, armed to the teeth. Dax had perused Starfleet Intelligence's files on the Bajoran and the Angosian. They were spare in comparison to what the SID had to have compiled on them but SID files were classified waaay above Dax's security clearance. The so-called "public consumption" files SI had prepared told enough of the story that Dax knew better than to trifle with either soldier.

Dax knew from her reading that Radil was Chief of Security aboard the Obsidian. But before that she was a terrorist and a mercenary. Now, in conjunction with her Security duties, she was the SID team's Tactical Specialist.

On the other hand, Daggit's Starfleet records were blacker than black and required a lot of reading between the lines. He enlisted, and received a battlefield commission, during the Dominion War. His records during that span of time were virtually nonexistent. That bespoke of black ops. Macen and Ro had the same blank so it conceivable that they'd all served together. It would go a long way in explaining their familiarity and the degree of trust between them all.

Daggit had a few brief months in the limelight as one of the Enterprise-E's Tactical Officers. That ended three months after the ship's encounter with the ill-fated Hydra-class USS Odyssey. That gunslinger had been under the command of then-Captain Macen. Daggit had subsequently volunteered for a slot in the newly formed Special Investigations Division. He specifically volunteered for any team that Macen personally led. His wish had been granted and he'd disappeared into official obscurity again.

Even personal information was sparse. Daggit was married to an Orion engineer named Parva. She'd been a slave girl to the Syndicate crime lord Daveed B'nner. Unlike most Orion women, Parva had been an actual slave. Her pheromone glands had been surgically removed and she'd served as an object of his lusts.

Parva had escaped and made into Federation space. Acquiring advanced degrees in engineering, she went to work for the Utopian Planetia Yards. Eventually she served in the mythical SPYards. She'd served under Chief Hal Dracas. Dracas left the yards to serve as Macen's chief engineer. When Dracas stepped down, he handed the reins over to Parva.

She'd served in the post until being gravely wounded and receiving brain damage. She'd literally had to relearn how to walk and use her limbs. Undergoing rehabilitative education, she eventually recaptured the spark that made her an innovator. She retook the post of Chief Engineer of the Obsidian but she no longer served with the SID.

On the other hand, Radil's love life had wandered far and wide. Never one to settle down, she had a climatic fling with the SID team's then-Medical Specialist, the Klingon doctor Kort. She and Kort amicable parted ways and Radil began an affair with her deputy, Abigail Collins. Abby taught Radil how to truly love again but unfortunately she was cut down in the line of duty.

Radil turned to Kort for comfort and found more than that. They'd married and he now served as CMO aboard the Obsidian's home port of Serenity Station. Radil still played the field with same sex partners and only time would tell if that dallying would ever end.

"Captain," Ro gave Dax a small smile.

Dax still remembered the day she'd first met Ro. The Bajoran Militia officer had just reported in as Chief of Security and had single handedly put down a 7 person bar fight. Dax knew right then and there not to ever underestimate the older woman's resolve.

"Right back at you," Dax grinned.

"Ahem," Sam Bowers cleared his throat, "I'm still standing here as well, Captains."

Bowers had served as DS9 and the Defiant's Tactical Officer. He'd shared many adventures with both women as they soared through the ranks, leaving him behind.

"But you're so forgettable, Commander," Ro teased.

"Ouch. Just remember that the next time you want me to send reinforcements your way," Bowers playfully retorted.

"I don't believe I've ever met your Security Chief," Ro admitted looking over the female Takaran Lieutenant.

Dax motioned for her officer to step forward, "Lt. Lonnoc Kedair, meet Captain Ro Laren, one time Chief of Security of Deep Space 9 and now CO of the same."

Dax saw the involuntary wince on Ro's face and she blanched, "I'm so sorry. I forgot."

Bowers scowled as well. Ro brushed aside Dax's concerns, "I have Starfleet and Bajor's assurances the station will be rebuilt."

"But not a Cardassian design this time, I hope," Dax wished.

Ro smiled thinly, "Apparently some Bajoran architect has been presenting alternative designs for years. They've finally green lit his project."

"I don't know, I think I'll miss the smell," Bowers opined. The stations air scrubbers had been famous for wafting out a particular odor. Not necessarily offensive but for those in the know it was particularly Cardassian.

"Do I have to listen to any more of this drivel?" Argus testily asked.

Kedair and two officers still held her in place behind the Starfleet command officers. Although she was complaining about said officers, the truth was that Argus barely registered them. Her entire focus was centered on Macen.

Ro interposed herself between Macen and Argus, "I'd mind my manners if I were you. I can easily send you back to that rock we scraped you off of."

Argus smiled coldly, "I was granted a Presidential pardon. I do believe that overrides any of your petty concerns."

Ro's mouth worked on a silent protest and Argus suddenly cold cocked her. The Bajoran hadn't expected such an overt move and had been totally unprepared for it. Ro staggered back, recovered her footing, and locked her eyes onto Argus'.

She wiped the blood from her split lip, "Nice. I suppose that pays me back?"

Argus merely smirked and Ro decided to quell this little revolt before it began, "Fair enough. I would've done the same. But I have to tell you about the people that are going to be watching over you. They aren't Starfleet. They're private operators and they'll shoot you just as soon as look at you. Oh, they may just wound you on the first occurrence but I guarantee there won't be a second."

Argus looked over Daggit and Radil. Then her gaze shifted to Macen, "Yours?"

Macen nodded and Argus smiled warmly, "I knew you'd changed. Even when you were with the Maquis you were still a little too soft. But then you came to Yuros."

Argus grew pensive, "Of course you were with that Vulcan slut."

"Whatever you're thinking will happen here, it won't," Macen promised.

"You didn't used to think so," Argus pouted.

"That was over two centuries ago. Even then, I learned the error of my ways," Macen warned.

"That was only because you fell for Arinea," she almost spat the name, "Since the Vulcan was your second wife, I can only guess that Arinea went out the door quietly."

"Not quite," Macen replied.

"I'm thinking there's a story there," Argus smirked.

"She threatened my people so I killed her," Macen said without a trace of inflection.

That rattled Argus, "How?"

"We dueled. It was all very proper except that she was insane. I put her down for her own sake," Macen described the scene.

"I seem to recall her being a better swordsman than you," Argus pointed out.

"Time's change," Macen replied flatly.

"And you'd do the same to me?" Argus peered deeply into his eyes.

He met her gaze unflinchingly, "Without hesitation."

Argus nodded, "I believe you. Well, now that we know where we all stand, shall we get to work?"

"Not yet," Macen blocked her from walking to the command center, "Where do you stand?"

Argus smirked, "Very clever. I thought you'd missed that."

"You wish," Macen said sternly.

"I mean to kill these beasties that are ransacking the quadrant and then using my newfound freedom I intend to leave the Federation behind," Argus explained.

"But you're not going to Cardassia," Macen surmised.

Argus laughed derisively, "Still obsessed with Cardassia? You poor dear. Haven't you heard? They're on our side now."

Macen ignored her scorn, "Which Typhon Pact nation will you approach?"

Argus' eyes lit up with delight, "Excellent. You have been paying attention. I was thinking the Romulans. Satisfied?"

Macen gave her the barest of nods, "All right. When this is done you'll have free passage to the Romulan Star Empire. I can even contact someone in the Tal Shiar so they'll be expecting you. Agreed?"

Argus offered her hand, "Deal."

Macen accepted her proffered hand and gave it a firm grasp as he shook it lightly, "Just don't break your word, Taryn. You don't want to test me."

Argus offered him a genuine smile, "No, I don't think I will. You're liable to find a way of running this monument without me and I've waited several lifetimes to see it in action. One might say my entire career has been spent chasing this moment."

Macen offered her a slight grin, "I know the feeling."

 

Chapter Ten

The Argyn were reinforcing. More ships arrived from the Birth Sector every day. They gathered near the Black Cluster for Starfleet's 9th Fleet had been patrolling the border with the Breen Confederacy when the conflict broke out. The Fleet had detected several subspace distortions across the border and it could only be assumed that the Breen were on the move.

The Border Patrol also detected movement along the Tzenkethi Coalition's border with the Federation and the Cardassians. Starfleet Border Patrol vessels also noted traffic buildups near the borders with the Tholian Assembly and the Gorn Hegemony. The Klingons reported movement from the Holy Order of Kinshaya. Saber-class starships patrolling the Neutral Zone also detected Romulan Warbirds swiftly approaching but they all cloaked before crossing the Zone.

That was the problem with all of these movements. As part of a stipulation of membership within the Typhon Pact, the Romulans had shared cloaking technology with all of its members. It had taken time to adapt the basic technology to the native drives and space frames but it seemed that day had come. The Typhon Pact was on the move and no one knew in what strength or where they were headed.

The Klingons finally delivered a fleet to the struggling Federation forces. The movements of the Holy Order, the Klingons' second greatest rival, had convinced them that the Federation should remain standing. The Cardassians sent the 9th Order. They'd been swayed by Starfleet's dismantling of the Demilitarized Zone and its withdrawal from that area. Grand Nagus Rom sent 12 Marauders. That was all the Ferengi Alliance could free up from convoy duties.

The Khitomer fleet assembled around Deep Space 3. The station's CO, Captain Alfonso Reyes, deployed the station's auxiliary craft in deploying antimatter pods. Each pod was rigged with a remote detonator and a tractor beam emitter. Despite the bioships ostensibly having no magnetic surfaces, the gravitic based technology of the tractor beam could suck a pod into the surface of a bioship before it detonated.

20 bioships arrived in the system. The fleet intercepted them. Transphasic torpedoes killed 4 bioships and wounded 3 others. The combined forces fleet was in turn left in ruins and left behind in the Argyns' desire to destroy the station.

The antimatter pods were activated and they adhered themselves to 7 bioships before signal was given to annihilate themselves. The antimatter utterly destroyed all 7 ships. The remaining 6 ships retreated, taking the 3 wounded vessels with them.

In the Ops Center of DS3, Reyes sagged with relief. He immediately began issuing orders, "Deploy all support craft. We need to rebuild our line of defense and see to any survivors out amongst the crippled starships. We also need to tractor in any ‘lost' escape pods that aren't already headed our way. Stand by all transporters to beam survivors from the pods into the station."

His watch officers all hung on every word and so he added, "We survived the first round against these bastards. Now it's time to insure we can make stand against every assault they throw our way."

The various officers and enlisted men and women cheered and then issued the captain's order to the various sections of the station. Reyes traded notes with his XO and then stepped off into his office. Thoughts of Ro and her current situation washed over his mind.

He'd attempted to court her at the Academy but she'd rebuffed him. He'd kept tabs on her throughout the intervening years. When he was officially reprimanded for having Maquis sympathies and assigned as XO to his first space station, his wife had simply announced she was moving to the "ass end of space" and filed for divorce.

Unlike his duties aboard a Border Patrol ship, he infrequently received enough leave time to travel to Deneva. He saw his children infrequently. After the destruction of Deneva at the hands of the Borg, he'd been contacted by his adult children. They'd all been safely off world but their mother was dead. One of millions of fatalities.

Of course, he'd finally managed to not only woo but court Ro by this time. She'd been a Lt. Commander in Starfleet Security when they reunited. She'd been promoted to Commander and made XO of DS9 shortly thereafter. Vaughn had retired a year later and Ro received command but wasn't promoted to equal rank with Reyes until earlier this year.

While Reyes exulted in his lover's success, her promotion just made their love life more complicated. Although, he assumed that Mackenzie Calhoun and Elizabeth Shelby took the biscuit in that department. She'd been his XO before the destruction of the original Ambassador-class USS Excalibur. She was promoted first to command of the Trident and then to admiral and command of Bravo Station and made her husband's superior officer. They somehow managed to keep their priorities straight and balance duty with affection.

To be honest, Reyes envied Ro her dual command. He had no counterpart to the Defiant and was completely hemmed in by the station and its demands. However, unlike Ro, he had direct authority over three starships assigned to this sector.

Starships visiting Ro's sector were nominally under her jurisdiction in so far as law and order went but they operated independently of her command structure. But she got to stretch her legs with jaunts into the Gamma Quadrant. Maintaining contact with the Dominion, while warding off an incursion by their forces, was a top priority of her mandate. Defending the wormhole from entrance by criminal parties was another. Lastly, defending Bajor took precedence but Bajor's greatest foe was now an ally.

Cardassia's return to democracy was viewed with skepticism by some in Starfleet Command. Despite Cardassia's crowning Katreen Dervin their constitutional Monarch, it was felt that volatile elements in the right wing faction could still topple the government. Dervin enjoyed near mythical status as the Chrysalis Child of prophesied destiny but she was still only humanoid. She would make mistakes and how would the people respond to that?

A new danger had been added to the mix of political spectrums. Before there had been liberal Democrats, idealistic Monarchists, and traditionalist Unionists. The Unionists had represented the entrenched, and recently disenfranchised, elite of Cardassian society. Their overthrow of the Democrat/Monarchist majority had issued in a pogrom filled era of terror.

Literally, Billions of Cardassians had flooded into Federation space, including Bajor. Those left behind had shouldered the burden of the regime until they'd finally had enough. The Unionists lost their support in the ever necessary military and the people's revolution had instituted a new government.

They'd opted to install the nescient democratic monarchy that the Unionists had deprived them of. The Cardassian masses were carefully watching the government to see how it would meet their needs. Food, water, energy supplies and stores were all in short supply. Food and water could be supplemented with replicators but one needed a stable power grid, and one that wasn't overloaded, to meet those needs.

Medical personnel were also in short supply. And it seemed the only institution that had enough of everything was the Militia. Another problem loomed in the near distance: housing. The population was booming despite the difficulties and a housing crunch was on the way. This why the colonial acquisition of Solarian IV and other worlds were so important to the Cardassians.

While the young Queen had wanted to aid the Federation for no reward, the Cardassian Union's Ambassador to the Federation had counseled otherwise as had the current Castellan. Castellan Rekena Geran was a good counterpart to a female queen. Only the second person elected castellan in Cardassia's all too brief democratic history, Geran was also the first woman to assume the post. It was giant leap forward for the female sex in the traditional patriarchal Cardassian society.

Elim Garak had served Cardassia as an Obsidian Order agent, an exile, an Underground leader, advisor the Castellan, rebel leader again, and now as Ambassador to the Federation. It was seen that Garak's extensive dealings with the Federation would give him a greater insight into their particular brand of negotiating. So far his shrewdness had greatly rewarded the Cardassian government and those rewards were already starting to trickle down to the people.

All of these points were factors in Ro's security concerns. Of course, she also had the Breen Confederacy two sectors away. The Barrinor Sector stood between the Bajoran Sector's star systems and the Breen. The actual Barrinor system hosted Serenity Station and the corporate hub of Outbound Ventures Incorporated as well as a Starfleet tending station. Serenity orbited the fifth world in the system, Odin, and a KX-type station orbited Barrinor proper. Starfleet had begun work on a station to replace the 100 year old orbital works but they'd been distracted by the coming of the Borg.

The Breen had made noise about the construction of a modern station so close to their system. They'd ignored Outbound Ventures' construction because it was a civilian station but any station built by Starfleet would be manned by Starfleet and require starships for its protection. It could likely become a hub for the entire 9th Fleet.

It was an irony that the coming of the Borg had created the Federation's latest thorn. The Typhon Pact had arisen because their nations had felt the effects of the Borg as well. However, they refused to join the Federation in a mutual defense of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. They were so adverse to the Federation and her allies that they'd risked annihilation at the hands of the one foe that truly threatened them all.

The Pact had formed in the wake of the Borg's defeat. If the Federation had seemed threatening before, their having overcome the impossible must have made them seem like the Borg themselves. The Khitomer Accords alliance had happened as a direct response to the allied might of the Typhon Pact nations.

In truth, all of the Khitomer nations were hard pressed. Having lost hundreds of ships against the onslaught of the Borg, Starfleet was nearly incapacitated in the wake of the worlds that the Borg had razed. Billions were dead and billions more were displaced. While Bacco was seen as a hero for her handling of the crisis, several member worlds threatened to leave the Federation. One of these was a Founding Member. The Andorians threatened to secede unless assurances were made and demands were met.

Seeing as how Andoria never came under fire, the reasoning of its government was something of a mystery to the UFP Presidential Cabinet and even the Federation Council itself. The Andorians representatives in the Council certainly weren't trying very hard to explain. All they did was present an ever growing list of demands and threats of abandoning their membership. The would-be Andorian Empire already had proclaimed an Emperor and staked out territorial claims. Claims that went beyond Andoria's recognized borders.

Reyes' ruminations were interrupted as his XO approached, "The outer sensor beacons have detected something."

"More of those bioships?" Reyes asked with apprehension. His crew's rescue operations were still underway and no effort could be spared for rebuilding their static defenses.

"No, the surviving six dragged their wounded with them into the neighboring system. As you know, it borders the Neutral Zone," his Xo reported.

Reyes took her meaning, "The Romulans."

"Not just them." She amended, "It seems every Typhon Pact fleet that disappeared on our border patrols have made their way to this system."

"Which means they just witnessed the 9th Fleet getting bludgeoned with their long range sensors," Reyes added for her.

"Yes sir," she nodded tersely, "Our problems may have just multiplied by a quantum measurement. The Romulans have wanted to destroy this station ever since it was built."

"And an alien attack by an unknown foe provides a convenient cover," Reyes concluded.

"You read my mind, sir," the XO admitted.

"Pamela, my first order is for you to stop calling me ‘sir'. Next, get on the horn with anyone that'll listen. Get us some help," Reyes instructed.

"Command doesn't have a lot left in this region besides some Border Patrol ships," she advised.

"I don't care if they're Traffic Control cutters. Have them sent our way," Reyes ordered.

As she hustled off Reyes thoughts turned dark, I hope I live through this, Laren. I'd give anything to be able to hold you in my arms one more time.

Crevak, the Commander of the Warbird Viscera stared in horror at the alien behemoths opened fire on the Pact leaders hailing them. Within minutes the entire fleet was engaged...and getting destroyed. They were faring no better than the accursed Khitomer forces. He received a hail. It was Thot Gerin, the Breen leader in charge of the fleet.

Crevak knew that the Romulans should never have trusted this Breen simpleton with their fleet. Loyal Romulan soldiers were being butchered because of this swine.

Gerin spoke and his helmet produced a sound akin to an electronic handshake. Crevak knew the Breen hid their identities, racial and personal, behind their armor and false names. Crevak wished the coward had the simple courage to face him.

The universal translator took hold of Gerin's speech, "Commander Crevak, you are to cloak and withdraw at once."

"I will never abandon my station. Never!" Crevak proudly declared.

"I need you to report to our superiors that our efforts have failed and you have the only ship still capable of transluminal flight," Gerin bluntly replied.

"A subspace message can accomplish that," Crevak scoffed.

"But a living eyewitness can impart the severity of the truth," Gerin replied.

"And the truth is?" Crevak had to wonder.

"We are lost. Our arsenals are no match for these creatures. We need the transphasic torpedoes our enemies wield and we need antimatter bombs. Lots of them," Gerin imparted his wisdom, "We will distract the vermin while you make your escape."

"Thot Gerin, we can fight. We can..." Crevak began to argue.

"Go now! Before I unleash my weaponry on you while I still can," Gerin delivered his last ultimatum.

Crevak deactivated the comm viewer, "Engage the cloak. Bring us about and set course for Imperial Center."

Crevak's orders were carried out with a sense of urgency and an even greater sense of shame at the relief that the crew felt at leaving the battle behind. Crevak felt it himself. His reception on Imperial Center would not be a warm one.

He mused over that choice of names. Before the destruction of Romulus and Remus, Imperial Center had been the colony world, Saharien. When it, as the oldest and most developed colony, became the Imperial Seat and subsequently Imperial Center.

Praetor Tal'Aura had died along with the Senate and most of their families. Admiral Donatra seized the opportunity to proclaim herself Empress. It had been centuries since anyone had dared claim the throne but Donatra had the support of the people. Surrounded by fear and confusion, she offered strength. Her personal strength was proven to be formidable and with the aid of a few key allies, she carried the day and the integrity of the Romulan Star Empire was maintained.

"Have the accursed creatures pursued us?" Crevak asked his Sensor Tech at the Scan station.

"No, Commander. I can tell you, however that Thot Gerin's vessel killed one of the creatures by destabilizing their own warp core and ramming it down a bioship's throat before it exploded. Three more of the creatures were wounded as a result. The unharmed vessels seem to be patrolling the star system while their comrades make repairs or heal, however you wish to phrase it," the Scan Tech reported.

"You truly believe these ships of theirs are alive?" Crevak still couldn't wrap his mind around it.

"They produce life signs and register as a lifeform. The blisters that litter their bodies, however, are of an artificial origin and are grafted into the living flesh of the creatures," the Scan Tech explained.

"So our true enemies, whoever they may truly be, live inside those blisters?" Crevak was growing excited.

"Theoretically," the Scan Tech agreed.

"Congratulations! You may have just made me savior of the Star Empire," Crevak slapped the Tech's back and strode away to his own station.

The Tech scowled, "I seriously doubt it."

The Argyn held position and waited for their wounded ships to heal. Now, alerted to the barbarism of the neighboring races of this so-called "United Federation of Planets", they transmitted details of their findings to the Birth Sector and reinforcements were dispatched. These reinforcements would finish the extermination of the Federation and branch out to the worlds beyond.

The Cardassian Union, the Klingon Empire, and the Ferengi Alliance would all suffer for the harm they had caused by joining ten banner of the Federation. Even the enemies of these peoples would have to be exterminated. The Romulan Star Empire, the Breen Confederacy, the Tholian Assembly, the Gorn Hegemony, the Tzenkethi Coalition, and the Holy Order of Kinshaya had all failed to reach the mark of true civilization. While they showed technical innovation, they were barely sentient. They reacted as animals to the unknown and so like animals they would be tamed. Survival of the Fittest was a universal maxim and these beings weren't fit enough to compete with the Argyn so therefore they must be crushed.

There were those, like Contact Specialist Beriel that advocated using these races as breeding stock. They could be transformed into hardier beings and taught the light of true civilization. The counter argument came from experience hard won in days past. Lesser beings always rebelled especially after being properly equipped by their masters. Better to sacrifice them to extinction and allow some other lifeform to arise to dominance on their worlds that suffer that indignity again.

Almost a week later, Tezrene stormed into Bacco's office as soon as the doors were opened. Bacco's security agents almost brought the Tholian down but the President waved them off.

"You wished to see me, Madame Ambassador?" Bacco calmly asked. She had an idea of where this was going.

"My governments have consulted and we wish to join you," Tezrene announced without a preamble.

"I don't understand. You wish to join in an alliance with us?" Bacco angled.

"No," Tezrene stressed, "We seek a temporary partnership."

"For what purpose?" Bacco asked.

"Do not play coy with me, Madame President," Tezrene warned, "We are aware that you are aware that we have come under attack from these creatures with whom you began hostilities with."

"We were even less aggressive than your own forces when formal contact was made," Bacco said primly.

"Yes, but the USS Endeavor was not quite so circumspect, was it?" Tezrene was enjoying herself.

"No, it was not," Bacco said coolly, "But that doesn't explain your request."

"Like you, we wish to rid ourselves of this foe. Your ‘planet killer' is the best chance of doing so besides expending large amounts of antimatter and creating subspace distortions that would hinder transluminal transit for years, perhaps decades, to come. In short, we will lure the creature sot a point that you designate at a time you designate and we will condone your dispatching them with your abomination," Tezrene offered.

"So, now you want us to use the weapon built into Corvat?" Bacco enjoyed rubbing it in.

"There is is a condition to this arrangement. After we have vanquished our foe, the planet will be destroyed," Tezrene counter proposed.

Bacco steepled her fingers and gazed over them at the environment suited Tholian, "And how do you propose we do that?"

"Our scientists suggest that you pilot the planet into a star," Tezrene supplied the answer.

Bacco thought about it, "Doable."

"When can you be ready?" Tezrene asked.

Bacco smiled, "It just so happens we're test firing the primary weapons array in two hours. Granting time to calibrate everything, I'd say we could be in position tomorrow."

"I will advise our respective militaries," Tezrene allowed.

"Why doesn't Admiral Akaar's office directly coordinate with your embassies military attaché?" Bacco asked, "And don't act like you don't know Akaar is the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander."

"Very well," Tezrene agreed, "And I shall not pretend that Admiral Akaar doesn't already have our military advisor's comm code."

"Isn't life easier when we don't have to pretend or lie to when another?" Bacco asked brightly.

"Hardly," Tezrene huffed. She rotated her four legged body so that she was aimed at the door and stormed out as hurriedly as she'd stormed in.

Bacco hit the comm button on her desk and paged her aide, "Get me Secretary Shostakova. I need to see her immediately."

"Yes, ma'am," the aide perkily required.

Bacco quietly wished for the sarcastic stoicism of her former, Vulcan aide. He'd retired and returned to the aridity of his world to ease the aching in his joints. After his steady calm influence born of centuries of civil service, Bacco found his replacement far too excitable.

Oh well, she's just young and dumb, Bacco consoled herself, There are worse fates.

 

Chapter Eleven

The week had gone by hectically on Corvat. McMasters was committed full time to getting the massive, world-wide power system going. Parva and her Deputy Chief Engineer, Gilan, were in charge of charge of tending to the planet's warp propulsion system. Although it possessed traditional warp technology, it boasted transwarp conduit coils for travelling any distance and a gravitic lensing system for sublight travel.

Lt. Commander Mikeala Leishman, the Aventine's Chief Engineer and her crew, threw their weight behind Parva and Gilan. Commander Nog, the Defiant's Chief Engineer and the former Chief of Operations for DS9, added the starship's engineering team's effort to McMasters'. During breaks, Leishman caught up with Nog. Nog had been her superior when she'd been assigned to the station and they reminisced over some the quirks the adaptation of Federation technology to its Cardassian specs had brought on.

Leishman found herself slightly awed by Parva. She knew the usual about the Orion when they'd begun working together. Parva had brain damage and had come a long way in her recovery. However, the civilian engineer's familiarity with transwarp coils and gravitic lensing impressed her and a passing reference to time spent at Utopian Planetia sent Leishman on a feverish quest to discover all she could about Parva. The sheer number of walls listed as "Top Secret" that arose completely impressed her.

Likewise, Nog was utterly fascinated by McMasters. McMasters had been warned not to share any stories from his time with the SID so he recounted tales from his days with the Maquis. Nog had been a mere youth during those heartbreaking days. Serving alongside Ro, he developed a fanciful notion of the "romance" of the Maquis struggle. McMasters enjoyed showing off so he did little to disabuse his eager young assistant.

Ro and Dax oversaw the restoration but the heart and soul of the effort revolved around Macen and Taryn Argus. By this time, Argus had met Rockford and correctly deduced the nature of the relationship between Macen and the Angosian. She held her counsel for several days but now that everything was culminating to an actual test firing, she couldn't hold back any more.

"Really? You and the Angosian woman? While I'm glad that it's anyone but that Vulcan bitch, you really want to romance a mundane?" Argus asked.

Macen's eyes flashed fire, "The term ‘mundane' was dropped from our vocabulary thousands of years ago, Taryn. You've been reading between the lines of too many history books."

"Brin, she'll be a crone while you'll barely be middle aged," Argus snapped back.

The look in Macen's eyes told her that she'd gone too far. For the first time ever, she was afraid of him. She realized that he could lash out at her and possibly kill her and that he'd be perfectly content to do so. She'd seen that spark in him during their time on the Yuros penal colony together but that essential force had been restrained. Now she was unleashing the beast and it was hungry.

"Don't tempt fate, Taryn," Macen warned.

His comm badge sounded and he stepped off. She made to follow but Radil intercepted her, "Let the man work."

Argus scowled and she went over to a portable replicator and got some coffee. Rockford moved in and squeezed Radil's arm. Radil began to smirk and gave the Angosian some berth.

"Hello Taryn," Rockford smiled, "I thought it was time we had a little chat."

Argus smiled victoriously, "You mean you want to warn me off your man."

"Nope," Rockford admitted. Seeing Argus' confusion she opted to go further, "I don't need to. What you're trying won't work."

Rockford could see in Argus' eyes that the El-Aurian doubted her word. She smiled even more brightly, "I don't have to worry because I know something about an 'empathic cascade'." Are you familiar with that phenomenon?"

Argus flinched and so Rockford pressed even harder, "Of course you do. It's natural to your people. You see, I didn't know anything about it until a couple of years ago. Now I'm intimately familiar with it. Stress on the word ‘intimate'."

Rockford saw a hint of defiance in Argus' eyes so she decided to squash it, "I know how Brin feels about me. That's because in the cascade no feelings can be hidden. It's everything, good, bad, and ugly. I know every facet of Brin's feelings for me. Would you like to hear what they are?"

"Not really," Argus tried to bluster.

"Oh, I really think you need to hear it," Rockford's smile was glacial now, "He loves without preamble or precondition. It's total, all consuming, and totally free of prejudice. It's forgiving and all encompassing. He loves every part of me and some of those pieces aren't very pretty yet he loves them regardless."

"Did you know I tried to kill him?" Rockford suddenly chimed in, "On more than one occasion yet he took a gamble on me. Not only personally but professionally."

"I feel those ways about him as well. I had to relearn how to love but I grasp it in its immenseness by being loved by that man," Rockford concluded, "Now if you seriously think you can interfere with that, feel free."

Argus was startled, "You're serious."

"Completely," Rockford assured her, "But let's recall the past. You were Brin's first lover. Were you his first love? I don't think so. He would've fought harder if you were and I know you know this. Then came Arinea. She faked her own death and he didn't see her for almost two hundred years. When he did, he killed her. Then came Lisea Danan."

Rockford saw the startled look in Argus' face and she smiled again, "Didn't know about that one did you? They went their separate ways amicably because he wasn't truly in love with her. Who he was in love with was T'Kir, whom you met on Yuros. She literally died so that ended that relationship."

Rockford's gaze was steady and rock hard as she stared into Argus' eyes, "Now there's me. I can only hope to be his next great love. Will I grow old and die before he does? Yes. Is there a chance he'll leave me when I'm old to find greener pastures? Yes, but I don't think that will happen. Why do I think that? It's because he loves me wholeheartedly and without reservation. And when Brin loves, he loves for a lifetime, whether it be mine or his."

Rockford's gaze turned fierce, "So if you do anything to hurt him or betray him during our little ‘mission' I will personally punch your clock and send you to the great beyond."

"What do you know of the El-Aurian afterlife?" Argus scoffed.

"A great wall, small gate, leads to the Fates and judgment?" Rockford sarcastically quipped. She adopted a knowing smile when she saw Argus blanch, "I know a little something. The judges in your belief system are known as the Fates. For humans it's God. What is a common thread between the two is that souls are judged into damnation or paradise."

Rockford waved aside Argus' expected protest, "Now I know that it's really a transmigration of the soul as the physical is cast aside and the soul transforms into a state of pure energy. That's the theory at any rate. What matters is no one knows what paradise looks like but they know something of the damnation."

Argus was squirming now and Rockford had to admit she was enjoying it, "You become living ghosts. Beings of noncorporeal energy that wander about the living world but unseen and unable to affect the physical world. Completely forgotten."

"I bet that thought terrifies you," Rockford guessed, "You want attention and to be noticed so badly it's a physical need. You want to leave a permanent mark on history. A mark so big every race in the galaxy will know of it. Does that sum it up?"

"Damn you," Argus hissed, "How can you know any of this?"

"Well, Brin told me a helluva lot," Rockford admitted, "But the choice bits about you? That was simple observation and deduction. That's what I do and I'm damned good at it."

Argus mutely stared at Rockford for several minutes. Finally she choked out, "That's good to know."

Rockford smirked, "Just keep it in mind."

With that said, she strolled off. Argus took a nervous sip of her coffee and found it had turned cold. Disgruntled, she placed in the replicator and adjusted its temperature. She gingerly approached Radil.

"Just who is she?" Argus conspiratorially asked.

Not wanting to give anything untoward away, she replied; "She's a private investigator. And she ‘s one of the best."

"I can imagine," Argus murmured.

Macen took a break. The engineering teams had called in their "all clears" and the system was ready for a test. The first system to be tested was the gravitic lensing process. They were moving Corvat out of its orbital track and into the outer system. Travel across the surface on foot or ground vehicle would become impossible due to the plunging temperatures.

Fortunately the crews had been moving via shuttle craft. While the Defiant team was utterly dependent upon their starship's transporters, the Aventine was equipped with Type-9 shuttles and Danube-class runabouts. The Corsair was on standby inside of the Obsidian. Grace had audibly wondered why but Macen simply told her that she would be needed at a moment's notice so she should remain at her station.

While Grace moved into the Corsair, the team within the control center was now dependent upon the seal placed over the open roof by Starfleet's previous A & A teams. The interior was heated and tents had been set up in antechambers as well as portable sonic showers and waste reclaimators for bodily waste. The replicators were in the chamber where the Cardassians had once hosted a security station. It was long gone and tables and chairs were set up in its place.

Macen sensed Rockford's pleasure. He grinned, "Finally had a chat with Taryn?"

"Who me?" she played the innocent.

"Celeste, you're eking satisfaction. Since you haven't much to do but review everything we know about our opponents, it has to have something to do with Taryn. She's irritated you ever since the two of you met," Macen confided.

"Can you blame me?" Rockford scoffed.

Macen's grin transformed into a warm smile, "No, I can't. Just what did the two of you find to talk about anyway?"

"El-Aurian metaphysics," Rockford popped off.

Of all the answers Rockford could have come up with, that one was the least expected; "Really?"

"Life after death. Transmigration and transmutation of the soul. Being a living ghost. All that kinda stuff," Rockford sweetly explained.

"Would any of this life after death talk have anything to do with your theory that Taryn craves attention, both in this life and in history?" Macen wondered.

Rockford's reply was cheeky, "Oh, you know me too well."

Macen gave her a knowing look. He queried the comm system as to the time and cursed, "We've only got ten more minutes until we test this monstrosity."

"Brin?" Rockford was suddenly subdued, "You always refer to the aliens we're fighting as the ‘opposition.' Everyone else pointedly calls them the ‘enemy." Why the deviation?"

"I know you really don't have access to Annika's memories but she could tell what an enemy is. These creatures don't qualify," Macen declared.

"Brin, they blew the hell out of several fleets and are attacking every ship, station, and planet they come across," Rockford accused.

"I know it sounds ludicrous but this is all because of a misunderstanding," Macen defended his position, "And before you protest, review the log records. These creatures opened negotiations and we stated our desire to prove peaceful relations. They simply replied that they would see and then they attacked."

"Which proves everyone else's point," Rockford insisted.

"I think we're missing something. They attacked because we wanted peace. Our counter attack triggered an insane response within them and we've been fighting ever since. What if we weren't supposed to reply? What if we were simply supposed to accept our fate?" Macen inquired.

Rockford's mouth puckered as she thought it over. She'd seen the same patterns that he had but had drawn a completely different conclusion. She'd seen the aliens' motivates as being standard for a known Alpha or Beta Quadrant race. It never dawned on her to think of them as an abstract that had developed a completely independent way of thinking. She admitted as much.

"If these beings are the creators of the Omicron, and the Omicron are at least 100,000 years old, then they may be one of the Elder Races that arose after the First Ones. We have fragmentary clues about that first species. They seeded worlds in order to pass on something of their genetic code into a variety of species. It's why so many humanoid species can interbreed. Next arose the Elder Races. They established great cultures and fostered life around them. At least some did. Others, like the Shedai, enslaved other less advanced cultures. Then there were those like the Preservers that established ‘game preserves' for threatened cultures on certain worlds," Macen described the history of the galaxy, "We don't know much about the Elder Races other than most of them have died away or moved beyond this stage of existence. If these beings are really an Elder Race, then their way of thinking may be unrecognizable to us."

"Don't be a pessimist," Rockford admonished, "If these things are an Elder Race and if we've misread their cues, we'll figure it out."

"Let's just hope little ol' Corvat doesn't convince them otherwise," Macen mused.

Rockford scowled, "Maybe it's just what they need to rethink their strategy."

"We can only hope," Macen said darkly.

Five minutes later they were in the command center. Argus and Macen were manning the controls. Argus had control of the flight operations interface. She'd always been a better pilot than Macen and since they also wanted to keep her away from the guns, she was elected to pilot an entire planet.

Parva and Leishman reported in one last time. They gave a green light to engaging the engines. Argus pulled up the holoplot projected from an emitter array that took up the bulk of the command center's central space. What Starfleet considered a tactical display was shown. Danan had arrived to assist Argus with her navigational plots. As a stellar cartographer, the science officer was more than equipped aid Argus.

With Danan's participation, Argus set course for the outer system. There was a massive shudder as the planet shifted out of orbit. There had been many fears of massive earthquakes and volcanic upheavals as the tectonic plates endured the stress of the orbital shift. Fortunately, the creators of this technological terror had accounted for that and a damping field akin to an inertial damper alleviated the worst of the stress load.

The planet moved across the system at a rate of .9 c. That equaled maximum impulse in most Federation starships. They were headed for the 8th planet in the system. The primary had originally had 14 planets locked in orbit around it. Now it had 13. If all went well, there would be fewer than that by the time that Starfleet was done.

The 8th planet was a rarity in outer worlds. It was a world very similar to Ceti Alpha V after the destruction of its sister, Ceti Alpha VI. It possessed a weak atmosphere and was dominated by high winds and dust storms. It also possessed three nickel-iron moons varying in size between Luna, Titan, and Ganymede. Meaning two of the moons were 2x as large as Luna. The planet itself was larger than Earth, roughly the size of Uranus, or 15x the mass of Earth.

Argus parked Corvat 50 million kilometers from its targets. They were going to fire first at Scarab, the Luna sized moon, to calibrate the weapon. The second test would be a shot at Khalid, the Titan sized moon. The last moon to be used as a test range was Nile. Finally, the primary world itself would be targeted and theoretically destroyed.

"We're all set, Boss. You can start creating navigational hazards at any time," McMasters jested over the comm line.

Macen called up the holographic controls. They worked like a touchscreen with no physical screen to manipulate. Scarab was floating past in its orbital track. Macen toggled the "Capture" button and then tapped the 3D image of Scarab. He then touched the "Commit" button.

A shudder passed through the command center. And the video and sensor feeds from the pursuing Defiant and Aventine displayed great streams of energy erupting out of the sands of Corvat and coalescing into a single beam. That beam lanced out and struck Scarab.

Scarab shattered into billions of pieces but some of the energy bled off of it and struck Goshen below. Macen conferred with McMasters and he and Nog made some flow adjustments and then gave the "all clear."

Macen had to wait for Khalid to enter maximum firing range. Once the moon was in position, he repeated the process. The discharge effect repeated itself and the energy unleashed destroyed Khalid. The moon was nothing but rubble.

They repeated the process on Nile 30 minutes later. Finally, Goshen was utterly destroyed and the solar system had an entirely new asteroid belt to navigate through. Macen shut down the weapons systems.

"How long between impact and detonation?" Macen inquired of Danan.

"3 seconds," Danan reported.

"Seems to be a nice symmetrical number nowadays," Macen mused. He focused on Argus, "Can you get us to the Genesis Sector?"

"If Danan helps me find it, I can get us there," Argus boasted.

"I'll let the engineers a final warning and when they clear us, engage transwarp drive," Macen instructed.

"Yes, master," Argus quipped.

Macen gave her a longsuffering look in return, "You wish."

"Well, I have to admit..." Argus fell silent as she saw Rockford in the distance over his shoulder.

"You were saying?" Macen asked in a bemused tone.

"Nothing," Argus went back to conferring with Danan over her plot.

Parva and Leishman gave the transwarp coils a clean bill of health. They were nearly identical to the Borg designed coils that Voyager had brought back from the Delta Quadrant. A future incarnation of Kathryn Janeway had brought them. She'd been assimilated by the Borg Queen for her aiding the present crew of Voyager. A bitter irony was the fact that the current Admiral Janeway had also been assimilated by the Borg during the Federation's last stand against the murderous intentions of the Collective.

Parva's expertise with theoretical and exotic machinery was vital to the effort. Leishman's own expertise with slipstream drives and other advanced propulsion systems placed her in good stead to match wits with the Orion. Parva's own deputy, Gilan, was lost in the proverbial mist. He was accustomed to the prototype drive in the Obsidian. The Nova-class surveyor could easily exceed its rated maximum velocity of warp 8 and could instead reach speeds up to a maximum of warp 9.751 for up to twelve hours.

It was their combined efforts though that carried the day and the transwarp drive was cleared for testing. Argus found the appropriate star map with Danan expertly guiding her. The plot was laid in and Argus activated the drive. A transwarp conduit opened and the planet was whisked away.

"Captain," Delaney caught his CO's attention, "The Aventine is hailing us. She says that Corvat is now in position in the Genesis sector."

"Put Captain Dax on screen," McKinley ordered.

Dax's petite frame filled his viewer, "Hello Jim."

"Did the Aventine accompany Corvat through the transwarp conduit?" McKinley had to ask.

Dax broke into an impish grin, "No, we pursued using our slipstream drive. Ro and the Defiant assumed a tight orbit over the world and rode it out. Apparently it was quite bumpy. They'll be cleaning up the deckplates for a few hours."

McKinley could only imagine the scene aboard the Defiant, "Ouch. I'm glad I missed that one."

Dax twinkled, "I doubt even Prynn Tenmei will want to try again."

"Finally met her match has she?" McKinley chuckled. Tenmei's daredevil escapades were only rivaled by Hannah Grace. Like the fighter pilots aboard his own ship, the Defiant's XO had become fast friends with Grace.

"How is our favorite SID team faring?" McKinley inquired.

Ears across the bridge perked up. The team and the crew of the Obsidian were as much a part of their family as the crewmen aboard the Intrepid. Delaney was supposed to marry Grace next month, further cementing the bonds between the two crews. In an odd sort of way, McKinley owed his love life to Macen. If he hadn't become so jealous of Massoli's flirting with the SID Mission Commander, he wouldn't have made his move. It turned out that Massoli had silently returned his unspoken affections for some time now. Flirting with Macen had only been a gambit to force McKinley's hand.

"They had it pretty easy," Dax assured him, "The things inertial dampers are designed to withstand nearly limitless velocities."

"I guess I don't have to say I'm relieved," McKinley smiled.

"Your favoritism towards Macen's team is the stuff of legend, Captain," Dax teased.

"When you've traveled the paths that we have together, it's only natural," McKinley defended his crew.

Dax smiled brightly, "Have no fears. I feel the same way towards the crews of the Defiant and DS9."

"Only there isn't a station anymore," McKinley gently reminded her.

Sadness clouded Dax's features, "I know but Ro has assurances that it will be rebuilt."

"Not another Cardassian monstrosity I hope," McKinley said with disgust.

Dax laughed, "No, it's going to be a Bajoran design this time."

"Have the Bajorans ever built a space station?" he skeptically asked.

"It'll be their first," she mischievously replied.

"Well, since you're calling to tell me that Corvat is in position, I suppose you want us to be too," McKinley guessed.

"That would be nice," Dax drolly replied.

"Have no fears, dear lady, my comrades and I will draw the herd off of DS3 and rescue Captain Ro's true love at the same time," McKinley proclaimed.

"Why Jim, are you turning into a romantic?" Dax queried.

"Isn't every starship captain?" he retorted.

"I'm too busy," Dax deadpanned.

"More's the pity. We'll head out now so have everyone standing by," McKinley instructed.

"They will be so informed," Dax replied jovially.

The viewer returned to its star field. McKinley turned towards Delaney, "Hail the Hood, the Monitor, and the Merrimack. We're going hunting."

"Aye sir," Delaney buried himself fin his work.

McKinley commed, Johnson, "McKinley to Admiral Johnson."

"Johnson here," came a disembodied voice.

"We're underway," McKinley informed him.

"Corvat?" Johnson asked.

"Seems to be fully functional. They already have it in position," the CO informed his superior.

"So now we draw in the fleet," Johnson mused.

"Yep, playing sitting duck is our specialty," McKinley joked.

"Inform the group that I wish them Godspeed and good luck," Johnson instructed.

"Yes sir," McKinley signed off.

"Pedrossi, plot a course to DS3, best possible speed," McKinley ordered.

"This is where it gets hairy," The young CONN Officer remarked as he laid in the course.

"I have every faith in your keeping us from getting shot," McKinley encouraged him.

"Yay me," Pedrossi grumped.

McKinley ignored the comment, "What's our ETA, Mr. Pedrossi?"

"4 hours, 23 minutes," the helmsman answered.

McKinley turned to Stryker, "Jonathon, I'm going to take the next three hours of down time to myself. Keep me advised of our situation. If we encounter the enemy before we reach our destination, I want to be alerted immediately."

"Give my regards to Jennifer," Stryker smirked.

McKinley couldn't deny his intentions. Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli was his Intelligence Officer but she was also his girlfriend. She wouldn't have much to do during the warp transit so he thought he could steal her away from her office for a few hours.

McKinley decided discretion was the better part of valor and began to steal away when he was interrupted by Lt. Commander Elizabeth "Liz" Liefers, "Captain, will my people see any action this time around?"

As the Flight Operations Officer, Liefers served as CAG for the Intrepid's two fighter squadrons. She and her squadrons had sat out their last encounter with the Argyn. They were afraid they'd have to do so again.

"'Fraid so, Liz," McKinley gently broke the bad news, "We're engaging in a fleet action to draw the enemy after us. Our fighters are fast but they'd get left behind at the speeds we'll be travelling at."

"I knew you'd say that," Liefers grumped as she leaned against her station.

"Have Emily build you faster fighters," McKinley suggested.

"Permission to leave the bridge and report to Engineering," Liefers asked, "It's not like I have a helluva lot to do besides holding down my seat."

McKinley smiled, "Permission granted. And say ‘hi' to Robert and Lt. Johnson."

Liefers blushed as she entered the turbolift with him. Robert Caplan was the ship's Chief Engineer. He was also Liefer's boyfriend. Emily Johnson was his Deputy Chief Engineer. Johnson was always looking for a new project. Retrofitting the fighter squadrons should keep her busy for a few days. At least that was the theory.

 

Chapter Twelve

The Intrepid, Hood, Monitor, and Merrimack dropped out of subspace in DS3's assigned system. Support craft had spent last week clearing a trail through the wreckage of allied starships. 3rd Fleet had arrived to bolster the station's defenses. Only 3 more fleets remained. However, Starfleet still had hundreds of ships deployed around the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. All were being recalled for the crisis.

Captain Mackenzie Calhoun was in command of a new allied fleet. Typhon Pact forces were supporting it. The fleet was six times larger than anything put together during the Dominion war, it was the deadliest force ever assembled in the dual Quadrants. And it was all staged around Deep Space 3.

The Argyn had sent reinforcements to their comrades near the Neutral Zone. Others had deployed into the Beta Quadrant and were attacking Romulan, Klingon, Kinshayan, Gorn and Tholian bases. The Breen, Cardassian, Tzenkethi, and Ferengi were also under attack. The Typhon Pact and Khitomer nations were defending themselves but they still managed to send units to Calhoun's force.

The Argyn had gathered their largest force in order to oppose the station that had inflicted such damage. Now with the gathered defenders, the Argyn were even more determined to strike out. So much in fact, they deployed before Johnson's picket force could arrive.

Calhoun divided his forces into three sections. The Typhon Pact nations were under the command of Sela and her forces would sweep in and flank the backside of the attacking Argyn as they engaged Calhoun and Chakotay's forces. Calhoun had command of one half of the Starfleet and allied force while Chakotay had the other. They would open a hole in their center to lure the Argyn in and then collapse down around the bioships.

The Argyn charged into the system. They were met by the allies in the outer system neat the Kuiper Belt. The Argyn fell for the bait and the allied forces hemmed them in on every side. However, the allied forces were being immolated. Calhoun called for a retreat even as Sela finally launched her attack.

The Typhon Pact ships suffered the same high rate of loss that the allied forces did and Sela sounded a retreat after she had lost 3/4 of her force. Starfleet had lost 1/2 its force. The Ferengi suffered the lightest casualties, lost only a 1/3 of their forces. The Cardassian Militia equaled the Federation's losses. Unfortunately for them, the Klingons had lost 3/4 of their force, owing to wasted displays of bravado against superior forces. For them, it truly was a good day to die.

The Intrepid and her cohorts emerged from the Kuiper Belt to find dozens of active bioships. Half of their original number was now dead or wounded. McKinley ordered a transphasic torpedo strike against the Argyn ships in order to get their attention. The active bioships recoiled in pain as the transphasics tore holes in their flesh.

The active Argyn ships turned and pursued the decoy force. The starships leapt into subspace and proceeded at warp 9 to the Genesis sector. The Argyn bioships, limited to warp 9 in standard warp velocities, attempted to ambush the picket force several times by leaping ahead in slipstream drive. Johnson's force was watching for that and navigated away from their original course then only to set their plot for Genesis again when the danger had been averted.

After six hours of cat and mouse games, the picket force arrived in the Regula system. Corvat sat waiting for their pursuers. The Argyn paused when they entered the system, as if sensing something was amiss. The Starfleet ships swooped around and fired upon the bioships again.

Once again, the pursuit was on. The starships raced past the relocated planet as the bioships slowly undulated through space on a cautious approach. Johnson commed Macen.

"Now's the time, Brin. Open fire," he ordered.

"Have you tried hailing them again?" Macen wondered.

"We try every time we encounter them. They simply aren't responding. Now fire," Johnson stressed.

He could hear Macen's hesitation, "Dammit Brin! Lives are hanging the balance. Now shoot them!" Johnson demanded.

"All right!" Macen snarled back. The line went dead and Johnson looked over at McKinley as the CO sat in the center seat. His old friend was holding his breath too. He could imagine that every starship crew assembled here was doing the same.

Macen highlighted a bioship and toggled the holographic "commit" button. The energy lance speared forth and gutted the bioship. It was literally filleted. Pieces of the massive creature began to float in different directions.

Macen selected another target and fired. Another bioship died. He hated to imagine what was happening to the inhabitants of those ships. He heard an orgasmic gasp and looked over at Argus in horror. She was getting a sexual thrill from watching the Argyn die.

Macen suddenly felt dirty but he fired at a third target. At this point, the Argyn replied in kind. Particle beams lashed out at Corvat's surface. Immense stretches of arid land were torn apart as the weapons fire scorched them. Kelbonite laced sands were fused together.

The energy bleed from the El-Aurian weapons battery and the Argyn reprisal ionized the atmosphere and a massive electrical storm was building. What free water there was vaporized and formed dark, rolling clouds. The discharges neutralized the availability of transporter use. They were completely and utterly dependent upon support craft now.

"Do it again!" Argus begged.

Macen gazed at her in disgust. She was oblivious. Johnson called again wanting to know if there was problem and that was why Macen had stopped firing. Macen's reply was to skewer another bioship.

Five minutes later the solar system was filled with bioship guts. The mechanical portions of the ships underwent close in scans and it was discovered that the energy discharges had ripped through the inhabited portions of the ships and killed all of the crews. Forensic and science teams were going aboard the more intact portions and analyzing the physiology of the dead.

Macen reminded Johnson that Starfleet regulations and Federation law forbade dissecting the corpses. Non-invasive autopsies were allowed as his team, with Sikorsky's help, had performed on the Omicron Ezexial. Macen had killed the Omicron provocateur and Danan had joined the Intrepid's CMO in an examination.

"I'm sure Andreja herself will be quoting the rulebook," McKinley assured the El-Aurian. Once upon a time, aboard a completely different Intrepid, McKinley and Sikorsky had been lovers. That was before they switched starships and McKinley took the center seat for himself. It sure as hell was way before Massoli stepped into the picture.

"Just to warn you, the sensors on this weapons array are pretty fantastic. Lees detected a subspace pulse like the one that seems to have created all of the problems back at Omicron. It was during the final round with the last bioships as they committed to kamikaze attacks," Macen informed McKinley and the flag officer sitting beside him.

"Where was it directed?" Johnson asked.

"Pretty much everywhere. It seemed like a basic SOS. Of course, whoever answers it is going to be sorely disappointed," Macen commented.

"But you think help is coming?" Johnson asked.

"I'd count on it," Macen advised.

Johnson turned to McKinley, "Have one of the corpses brought aboard. Andreja and her people can look at it while the rest of us go on alert."

"Oh, she'll love that," McKinley quipped.

"Tell her to make due and that it's a direct order from me," Johnson counseled.

"Trying to protect me from my own CMO?" McKinley chuckled, ""Or does this range into ex-flame territory?"

"Neither," Johnson assured him, "As the standing representative of the Council of 5, I'm the next best thing to the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander that you're going to see for a while. I'm thinking strategy here. The more we know about the enemy the easier it may be to communicate with him the next time we meet."

"And handling their dead gently equals a show of good faith," McKinley surmised.

"You'll have my job in no time," Johnson chuckled.

"No thanks. I was happy to step up and take command of the ship but you can keep the Diplomatic Envoy crap," McKinley confessed.

Johnson had no reply.

Over the next three days, three Argyn fleets assembled and assaulted Corvat. Reports came in from across allied space. The Argyn had withdrawn in order to attack the world-weapon. The Typhon Pact was reporting that the Argyn had left their territories as well. What they wouldn't reveal was how stark their losses had been before that withdrawal.

Three more days passed without incident and finally Johnson visited Corvat, "You may be able to stand down, Brin. We have ships scouring both Quadrants and there are no signs of those beasties."

"And like I warned you, the ships all broadcast a subspace pulse in one direction before they died," Macen bit back.

Johnson scowled, "Omicron."

"Or at least somewhere in its periphery," Macen amended, "Lees was specific about the directional plot though."

Johnson took an appreciative look around the control center, "I still can't believe your people built this."

"Just because you're used to my people simply being refugees?" Macen dryly inquired, "Besides this was constructed by an offshoot splinter group of my people that identified themselves as the Selah."

"Yes, I've read the report you filed after you and Ro uncovered the Cardassian plot to annex Corvat and utilize its power," Johnson admitted, "I've also read Dr. Argus' papers on the matter."

Macen wore a rueful expression, "You let her write papers about all of this?"

"Starfleet requested them," Johnson informed his friend, "We classified all of her documents. She wrote them in exchange for a consideration of the possibility of parole."

"Because heavens forefend the all benevolent Federation should incarcerate someone for the entirety of their natural born life," Macen acerbically remarked.

"It is going to be an extremely long life," Johnson dryly observed.

Macen gave him a baleful look, "I've known her for over 300 years. She hasn't changed since the day I met her."

"Yet you and she...?" Johnson bemusedly inquired.

"We were professional partners. I was young and she was my mentor. I found her experience to be an aphrodisiac. I soon learned the error of my thinking," Macen wryly explained.

"She's older than you?" Johnson yelped.

Macen grinned, "She's over 650 years old. So if you're imagining any possible...meeting of the minds, be warned. Her mind has been around several blocks."

"Wouldn't that make her the same age as Guinan?" Johnson wondered.

"Roughly," Macen agreed, "Guinan isn't very forthcoming about her actual age so no one knows for certain. All we have to go on is when she started reporting for the Expeditionary Forces and the fact she's had 23 husbands."

"23...?" Johnson yelped again.

Macen smirked, "She got lonely."

"But she hasn't been married for at least..." Johnson waited for Macen to supply the answer.

"40 years," he obliged.

"40 years," Johnson murmured, "And for your people, that's a drop in the bucket."

"Feeling old, Bob?" Macen queried him.

Johnson smiled ruefully, "Only in my heart and soul. If our friends Ed Noyce and Elias Vaughn can teach us anything, it's that modern man can contribute well beyond previous expectations."

"But?" Macen prompted him into speaking further.

"It's this damn war," Johnson admitted, "I'd been ruminating over everything we discussed even before you through the facts back in my face. We missed an opportunity somewhere. We should be talking to these beings, not butchering them."

"Well, if it's any consolation, we won't be doing so for much longer," Macen consoled him.

"Have we run out of enemy to fight?" Johnson sarcastically quipped.

Macen gave him a wry expression of disgruntlement, "The geothermal taps are stressing the planetary core. It's destabilizing. The atmosphere has been ionized and has been transformed almost entirely into pure ozone. Only the air scrubbers within the different control node sites are keeping the air pure enough to breathe but we've had to seal all of them so the outside air can't enter."

"You noticed that when you arrived and had to wear a breather mask. You also noticed that transporters are inoperable within the atmosphere," Macen described the scene.

"How bad is the core?" Johnson wondered.

"Tectonic shifting is already occurring. Earthquakes have plagued every node, including this one. The inactive volcanoes are becoming active again and are further polluting the atmosphere," Macen explained, "The lichen growths have all died off because of the freeze after leaving the host primary. There's no living mechanism to clean and replenish the oxygen in the atmosphere. In short, we've killed this world's ecosystem."

"But surely these ‘Selah" would have thought about that," Johnson pleaded.

Macen gave him a pitying look, "The Selah were one of dozens of violent offshoots of my people. When the pacifistic ideals my people were famed for, and ultimately doomed us to the Borg, were introduced many resisted and took to the stars to find new lands to conquer."

"Like the Romulans leaving Vulcan," Johnson saw the similarity.

"That's the local variant and for much the same reason," Macen concurred with the analogy, "Neither Taryn nor I can find any mechanisms for stabilizing the planet. Everything seems geared towards offense. The Selah referred to Corvat as their ‘redoubt'. It may also be their version of a doomsday weapon."

Macen's eyes suddenly blazed, "And having Taryn write ‘papers' about this little ‘blessing' only reinforces the concept that Starfleet has always intended to use this weapon."

Johnson met his friend's gaze and held it, "I won't lie, the option has been on the table a few times. The Council requested that Argus make her reports during the height of the Dominion War. However, the overriding concern was that the Founders would unleash a biogenic holocaust."

"You've already admitted that it was considered against the Borg," Macen prodded him to continue.

"Yes, the Borg's genocidal campaign made us re-examine our priorities regarding Corvat," Johnson confessed.

"Why wasn't it used then, when ‘all hope was lost'?" Macen's voice dripped acid.

Johnson shook his head, "It wasn't that simple. The Borg sent 1700 ships in their final onslaught. Every world on the quadrant was threatened. Corvat could only defend one and if it left that one, then said world would be under threat again."

"So Starfleet Command wanted to send it to Sector 001 to defend Earth," Macen surmised.

Johnson looked pained, "Yes, only President Bacco wouldn't allow it."

"Why not?" Macen had to admit that he knew next to nothing about the sitting President and her actions surprised him.

"She couldn't condone defending one world when the rest would perish. She said, and I quote, ‘It wouldn't be fair to the citizens that elected me if I didn't share their risk,'" Johnson revealed, "She even refused to join in the evacuation of the planet. She said she didn't deserve a guaranteed seat when everyone else was getting theirs through a lottery."

Macen grinned, "I think I like this woman."

"You might not," Johnson wore a rueful grin, "Gant Delane left her the ‘Macen File'."

"I have a whole Presidential file dedicated to me?" Macen was decidedly bemused.

Johnson sighed, "Yes, you've managed to create enough diplomatic rows you've earned a place in infamy."

"But I get the job done," Macen said primly.

"And you have one more job to do," Johnson declared.

Macen looked pained, "Omicron?"

Johnson nodded, "Yes."

"I could say I don't recommend it but you'd just ignore me again," Macen realized.

"You have a keen grasp on the situation," Johnson confirmed Macen's fears.

"All right, but there's a condition this time," Macen counter offered.

"There are no conditions, Brin," Johnson sighed.

"Hear me out," Macen begged, "You're going to have to ride the conduit in a tight orbit around Corvat. Laren already discovered that it's the worst rollercoaster ride of your life. The picket force is going to need time to recover. That won't happen if we drop into the heart of the system."

Macen gathered together all of his powers of persuasion, "We're going to have to exit the transwarp conduit near the Kuiper Belt, towards the outer planets. While the starship crews are recovering and we're assessing the weapon's viability, I'd enter the inner system."

"But we need you on the damn gun!" Johnson thundered.

Macen held up his hands, palms towards Johnson, "Hear me out. Taryn has been studying me as I target the bioships. She wants to shoot them. She gets off on it in the worst way imaginable."

"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?" Johnson didn't want to believe it.

"Yup, and the President just set her free. Comfy thought, eh?" Macen remarked.

"But what the hell do you think you can accomplish in the Obsidian?" Johnson wondered.

Macen shook his head, "It won't be the Obsidian. It'll be the Corsair."

"A runabout? You want me to authorize you approaching these monsters in a runabout?" Johnson was reeling.

"When did they become monsters?" Macen quietly asked.

Johnson settled down, "All right. I see your point. You'll be our white flag."

"And maybe they'll be ready to talk knowing we have our really big stick sitting in the same system. If nothing else, they'll be wondering why we just don't move in and slaughter them," Macen added.

Johnson closed his eyes and weighed his options. He knew it could be tactical mistake that could cost them their one slim advantage. But if he said ‘no' he'd never be able to sleep at night again. Enough lives had already been lost and for what? If there's was even a chance, no matter how slim, for a peaceful resolution that spared lives on both sides then he was duty bound to pursue it. Akaar may be prosecuting this war like it was a battle to the death but these creatures weren't the Borg.

Hell, even the Borg were brought to heel by peaceful means. The Collective was free. The trillion drones were now individuals again and yet they were all united in the Cailear Gestalt. While no miraculous rescue was going to come from an advanced species the opportunity for a good old fashioned dialogue may have arrived.

The question was who would comprise Macen's team? Johnson asked as much.

"Celeste and Hannah," Macen answered.

That answer came as no surprise. However, Rockford had studied the enemy at Macen's behest and she's seen behavior patterns that Johnson himself had missed. Macen had assured him she was an excellent observer of humanoid behaviors and quirks. Perhaps she could apply those skills to a non-humanoid species as well? And Grace? What was there to be said? She was a Kelvan and had resources undreamt of by humanity.

"All right," Johnson finally said, "But there is one caveat."

Macen grinned, "Okay, I'll play along. What is it?"

"You have to bring Hannah back alive," Johnson chuckled, "I believe Commander Delaney would shoot me if his bride-to-be ends up getting killed on this little jaunt."

Macen smiled, "I think I can arrange that."

"You truly think this is going to work?" Johnson had to ask.

"I've thought so for the last several years," Macen admitted.

"Years?" Johnson was taken aback, "You've known that we were going to face these people for years?"

"Let me clarify, I knew there was a threat out there that could possibly threaten the entire Federation. I didn't know the who, when, or where surrounding this threat but now I know it's them," Macen explained, "And I also know that one of the members of my team is the key to unraveling this mess."

That revelation caught Johnson cold and brought him up short.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Beriel approached Hennessy, "Sela Hennessy, may I have a word?"

Hennessy looked to Gomez, who nodded. Gev also shooed her away. Beriel bared his fangs in an approximation of a human smile, "Thank you Sonya Gomez and Gev ab Shon. Your assistance may help us end this destructive conflict between our peoples."

Beriel motioned to alcove under a petrified tree. No Omicron citizen or Starfleet officer was near it. Hennessy noted with some amusement yet again that Beriel made slurping sounds when he propelled himself across the cobblestones. When they reached the secluded spot Hennessy turned on Beriel.

"I've told you before, Beriel, I won't give you any information about my peoples' defenses," Hennessy warned him.

"Perhaps in the case you will make an exception," Beriel pulled a small globe out of the pouch he wore around his "waist". He activated it and a hologram of a desert world appeared. Argyn ships approached and the planet itself leveled a volley of fire that destroyed each and every one of the Argyn ships. It was then that she noted that Federation starships were in the periphery of this planetary scale weapon.

"What is that?" Hennessy asked.

"We were hoping you could tell us," Beriel confessed, "It has destroyed our fleet."

"You'll probably just send another one at it," Hennessy scoffed.

"No, Sela Hennessy, it has destroyed our entire fleet. Only the three ship expeditionary force here in this system remain," Beriel explained.

"How can that be?" Hennessy asked.

"The whaloong, the creatures we use as mounts, must reach maturity before they can be adapted to our purposes. Even then we must give those ten years in which to initiate the mating cycle. Except for a dozen brood mares, all of our captive whaloong have been killed by that...thing. It will be ten of your years before we can harness the strength of the current generation."

"So sue for peace," Hennessy urged.

"We did so at our first encounter with your people. You failed to pass the litmus test of civilization," Beriel complained, "And now we are going to be overrun by bloodthirsty savages."

"You do realize I take exception at that description?" Hennessy asked.

Beriel held up a tentacle true hand, "Wait. I am receiving a message."

He held a hand to what Hennessy had come to recognize as an ear canal. He held up the globe, "The planetary weapon has appeared from a transwarp conduit in this very system."

"So what's it doing?" Hennessy inquired.

"It has stopped forward propulsion and is hovering near the Kuiper Belt," Beriel reported.

"It seems to me they could've dropped in on you laps," Hennessy suggested, "Are there any starships with it?"

"Several," Beriel answered.

"And what are they doing?" Hennessey wanted to know.

"They are holding position in planetary orbit," Beriel described the scene even as he expanded the hologram to show the starships.

"They rode a planet's orbital track through a transwarp conduit?" Hennessy exclaimed.

"It appears so," Beriel said matter of factly.

"That had to be a helluva ride," Hennessy muttered, "Is there any movement whatsoever?"

"Yes, it seems a small support craft has lifted from the planet's surface and is in bound through the system," Beriel dryly explained.

"I'd say that's your opportunity," Hennessy recommended.

"Opportunity for what?" Beriel was confused.

"They obviously want to talk," Hennessy paused for effect, "Otherwise they would've swooped in and simply blasted you out of space already. Can you enhance that craft?"

An image of a Danube-class runabout dominated the image. Hennessy nodded, "Not only is it a small craft, it's a civilian small craft. They want to talk. They're providing themselves as a peace offering."

"Are they really?" Beriel mused, "We shall see."

"I don't like the way you said that," Hennessy commented.

"You have been invaluable, Sela Hennessy. Your input may change your various species' standing with us," Beriel applauded her, "Now I must return to my ship and evaluate this ‘peace offering'."

"Just remember what you've learned from interacting with us," Hennessy pleaded, "And this can end happily for both sides."

"It is far too late for that, Sela Hennessy. But perhaps we can end things on an amicable note and you will all be able to return to your birth worlds."

He disincorporated and she pondered the meaning of his last words. Could they go home? Would the Argyn allow it? She didn't know but the troops needed the hope that it could come true. She turned and returned to where her officers and crewmen were enjoying a corner of the square.

"Do we have to go through that again?" Tenmei moaned.

"And here I thought you were the bad ass, ultimate thrill seeker," Ro taunted. She felt quite pleased with herself. Unlike last time, she hadn't heaved all over the deckplates. In fact, statistically speaking, the entire crew did better. Only a handful across the ship had reported to Bashir to get treated for severe motion sickness.

Lt. Evelyn Sanger turned from her tactical display. Sanger was still a little green around the gills but she was toughing it out, "Message from Admiral Johnson, he says to stand by. They're launching a runabout from the surface and it's going to proceed ahead of the force in order to establish contact with the enemy commander."

There was only one person stupid enough to try this harebrained stunt. She wasn't about to let Macen commit suicide on her watch, "Get me Admiral Johnson. Now!"

It turned out Ro was placed in a queue by Johnson's aide, Savit. Johnson finally addressed all of the starship commanders at once, "Commander Macen is proceeding on my personal authority. We still exist within a chain of command and that means my decision stands and you will all abide by it. That means you, Captain Ro."

"We still have one last chance to end this amicably and establish relations with these people. I'm not going to throw away any opportunity to do so. Our credo is still to explore ‘strange new worlds and lifeforms'." Johnson said and then cut the connection. Leaning back in his chair he swiveled so he could gaze out of his office window.

Starfleet regulations bound him to the task force yet diplomatic contact was his purview. His dual hats were in conflict and he didn't like the one that had taken precedence. His people needed him even more than the diplomatic mission did as long as he had competent help. Macen was the only one that believed in this mission. That made him qualified. Hopefully the gesture wouldn't cost he and his team their lives.

"So tell me again," Rockford casually asked from the Science station, "Why are we doing this?"

"We're going to find out why these people are fighting us," Macen said patiently from the OPS station.

"Are you sure we not just the sacrificial lamb being offered to the angry war god?" Grace chimed in at the CONN.

Macen gave her a wry look and she shrugged, "I'm just saying."

"I get all that," Rockford clarified, "What I mean is why are we doing this? Isn't this more like Admiral Johnson's usual shtick?"

"Bob's a busy man," Macen sniffed.

"That doesn't answer the question," Rockford dryly retorted.

"What he means is, he has a clue as to what's going to happen next and he doesn't want to prejudice us from doing our preordained roles," Grace offered.

Macen rolled his eyes, "If they were truly ‘preordained' they would be a certainty rather than a probability."

"I'm not sure that would hold up in court," Rockford opined.

"I'm not preparing a court defense," Macen asserted.

"You might be if you insist on talking to these people," Rockford insisted, "They're kinda fickle."

"Or that's just our perception of them because we haven't established a common frame of reference," Macen replied.

"It's ‘Darmok' all over again," Grace piped up. Seeing the quizzical glances from her comrades she blushed, "It's one of the Enterprise logs. They used it as a First Contact lesson at the Academy."

"Someone actually studied," Rockford teased, "I bet you were the class brain."

"I had to be," Grace said in a subdued voice, "My people wouldn't accept any less."

Grace didn't mention her people very often. She mentioned her family even less. Her role as an infiltrator and spy in Starfleet was virtually off limits and her time with Section 31 was taboo. Rockford had shared with Macen that Grace was beginning to open up with her. Annika Ryst's past as an Augment Infiltrator made her accessible. Grace could easily relate to splitting oneself into several compartmentalized versions. She just couldn't literally do it as the Ryst had hence birthing Celeste Rockford and a myriad of other personalities.

Rockford's panel urgently beeped, "I think we're being approached."

"You mean you don't know?" Grace was suddenly all business.

"Hey, I know diddly about shuttles and runabouts. I let the computer fly them," Rockford defended herself.

"I've got it," Macen announced to fend off Grace's planned cutting remark. As a pilot and certified bridge officer Grace just couldn't imagine a life where one couldn't man any critical station at a moment's notice. Macen's OPS display shifted to sensor mode. An Argyn bioship was approaching.

"We've been spotted and they're approaching at .99c," he reported.

"I'd love to get my hands on the tech that allows them to bend space/time," Grace wished.

"Full stop, Hannah," Macen instructed, "I'll open hailing frequencies."

The bioship slowed in its advance. It finally stopped 130,000 kilometers away. Its looming presence filled the viewscreens. Several tense seconds passed while the three SID team members waited for their doom. Mercifully, the Argyn replied to the hail.

Beriel filled the mini-monitor to Macen's right. He, of course, was indistinguishable to them from the Argyn commander that had attacked Johnson's task force. When he spoke, the universal translator conveyed his hesitation.

"It has been suggested that you are a peace envoy," Beriel shared.

"This is true," Macen confirmed the theory as fact.

"You have the capacity to destroy us yet you wish to negotiate?" Beriel seemed confused.

"Our peoples regret the loss of life that has been inflicted thus far. We regret the loss of life to both sides. We would prefer to end the conflict here and now so that our two peoples could someday enjoy amicable relations," Macen informed him.

"Are you willing to testify to that effect to my ship commander?" Beriel asked.

"I thought that's what you were," Macen admitted.

Beriel's globular body shook as he laughed, "No, I am a Contact Specialist. I would examine you before the ship commander and determine your true motives."

"We agree. Shall we transport aboard your vessel?" Macen asked.

"No, you're matter/energy convertor will damage certain biotech mechanisms aboard our vessel. We shall tractor you in to a landing bay. Is that acceptable?" Beriel inquired.

"Of course it is," Macen assured him.

The Corsair lurched forward as the tractor beam took hold. They were brought to a dome-like mechanical "blister" that emerged out of the whaloong's back. They sat inside until the external sensors registered an atmosphere mix and pressure that fell in between M-class world classifications.

Grace popped the hatch and the trio exited. They milled about while they waited for an escort. Finally a hatch opened and three Argyn slushed in. Beriel halted his advance and waved them forward with his true hands.

As they made to approach, a field surrounded Macen and another encapsulated Grace. Rockford protested, "What gives?"

"He is not indigenous to this part of the galaxy and she is not even of this galaxy. They are not representatives of the native cultures of these regions," Beriel explained, "You are. Will you speak on behalf of your combined peoples?"

Rockford looked back at her comrades. Macen gave her an encouraging nod and smile. She faced Beriel, "All right but I'm hardly a diplomat."

"So much the better," Beriel assured her.

He led Rockford into the ship's inner corridors while the remaining two Argyn impassively watched over the captive SID teammates. The fields dropped and they were able to move about. Grace made to move in after Rockford but Macen stopped her.

"This is their game. We can't impose our rules upon it," he warned.

"Why do I get the impression that this doesn't surprise you?" Grace drolly inquired.

"Did T'Kir even mention why I brought Celeste aboard?" Macen wondered.

"She said Celeste had some grand destiny," Grace recited and then the implications dawned on her, "Oh shuk! This is it, isn't it?"

"The future is being made here," Macen shared, "And it all depends on whether or not Celeste can make one choice."

"What is it?" Grace wanted to know.

Macen shrugged, "I don't know. I only saw all of this in a fragmented glimpse."

"Will she make the right choice?" Grace suddenly had doubts.

"Now that is the question we need to ask ourselves," Macen replied, "That and how much faith do we have in her?"

"How much faith do you have in her?" Grace wondered.

"I trust her with my life. I'm just not sure I trust her with the fate of the galaxy," Macen admitted.

Grace suddenly looked very worried.

Rockford was led to an audience chamber. Three Argyn stood behind a raised podium and stared at her as though the weight of worlds rested upon her. She didn't like that feeling.

"Now Celeste Rockford, we shall begin," Beriel advised.

"How do you know my name?" she asked.

"Would you prefer another? We sense that you have several," Beriel said.

"You're telepathic," she surmised.

"Mildly," he corrected her, "But we are gathered here because of you. You say you want peace. You shall manifest this desire or we will renew hostilities."

"But you'll lose," Rockford said in horror.

"And in a generation, our heirs will return and wipe your gene pools out of existence," Beriel said with such confidence that Rockford had no doubts that he, and his people, meant it.

"All right. How do I ‘manifest the desire for peace'?" she asked.

"You trade your life for theirs," Beriel said plainly.

That startled Rockford but then she began to think about it, "My life, for the lives of two quadrants?"

"Yes," Beriel confirmed the offer.

"And my friends aboard this ship?" Rockford decided to get technical.

"Will be freed as will the Starfleet officers on Omicron," Beriel explained.

Rockford really wished she had time to say goodbye to Macen but she didn't want to press her luck. She also knew her resolve could weaken of she told him of her choice. Steadfastly resolved, she announced her decision.

"All right, I'll take that offer," she declared.

"Very well," Beriel spoke to his fellows in his native tongue, which Rockford's translator decided to choke on.

A blister rose out of the floor. It had the distinct look of a particle beam emitter. She squared her shoulders and said a silent goodbye to her friends. It seemed a fitting death after all the harm she had caused throughout the years.

A green beam lanced out and struck Rockford in the chest. She gasped as it tingled but it had no effect other than that. It faded and she was left with a slight stinging sensation.

"I don't understand," she admitted to Beriel.

"You have demonstrated the true hallmark of civilization," Beriel happily announced.

"And that is?" she dryly asked.

"The capacity for self sacrifice," he explained.

"You mean that beam was harmless?" Rockford inquired, "You were merely testing my reaction?"

"The beam was quite deadly until you willingly accepted your fate in order to spare your assorted peoples," Beriel tried to phrase it in terms she would understand, "When that was established; we transmuted the beam to a harmless radiance."

"Then, when you're people encountered Starfleet's envoy, the proper response was to not respond," Rockford deduced.

"Precisely," Beriel was pleased that one of the humanoids had finally grasped this fundamental proposition.

"That's stupid," Rockford retorted to Beriel's dismay, "You attacked without warning or provocation. How were they supposed to know that not responding was the desired result?"

Rockford could swear that Beriel derisively sniffed as he said, "They are supposed to know because that is the civilized response."

"Then back that up, buster!" Rockford demanded, "When the Endeavor fired on your ships, you didn't just take it because you were oh-so civilized. You blew her away in 3 seconds time. Where was your ‘civilization' then?"

"We will not be questioned by an inferior being!" Beriel hotly asserted.

"That's what galls you, isn't it?" Rockford had a new insight, "We're not all that ‘inferior'. In fact we come frighteningly close to parity with you. Give us 20 to 50 years and it could be a level playing field. You created the Omicron 100,000 years ago and in all that time since, you've advanced so far that we ‘minor' races are almost keeping up with you. That's gotta be humiliating."

Beriel seemed on the verge of responding when the ship commander spoke solemnly in that garbled mismatch they called a language. Beriel seemed to bow and then he addressed Rockford.

"Our arrangement will still be honored," he imperiously announced, "I am authorized to offer you a boon."

"What do you mean?" Rockford asked warily.

"Your psyche is fragmented. We can repair it," he offered.

"You can merge all of the personalities that I'm carved into?" she asked hesitantly, "Would I have full access to all of my memories?"

"Indeed and you would only have one core personality. All others would be erased," Beriel announced.

She thought about it. That meant her existence as Celeste Rockford would end. Annika Ryst would undoubtedly be the core personality since she was the original template. Still, it was a more than tempting offer. Her only concern was her relationship with Macen. What would become of it? Ryst would have all of Rockford's memories and feelings. Could she overcome her loathing of Macen and her humiliation at being defeated by him and learn to love him as Rockford did?

The risk was worth it, she decided. Speaking to Beriel she said, "Okay. Let's do it."

"Very well," he motioned with a true hand as a door opened, "Please follow me."

The room was stark and barren except for a single table. Beriel guided her to the table, "Please lie down upon this and relax."

Tentatively, Rockford lay down. As she did so, a biomechanical gel arced over her head and solidified. A second Argyn entered the space and began to manipulate holographic controls. Beriel loomed over her.

"Do not be afraid and do not resist. Resisting will only make you psychotic," he warned.

Great, just what Annika needs, Rockford glumly thought.

Tubules sprang firth and attached themselves to her temples. She began to feel warm and then she was awash with cascading memories. She saw everything that every personality remembered. Most of them stemmed from the war and what they remembered wasn't pretty. She saw the war, which she'd always been spared from, and she suddenly recognized the cause for Annika's great sorrow.

Ryst had always been an idealistic young woman. Called to serve her planet, she readily volunteered. Given a chance to join the Augment program, she leapt at the chance. Only, warfare wasn't all the propaganda programs said it was. Her heart broke as she divided into multiple personalities, each as deadly as she was. Years of death and destruction took their toll.

Finally an armistice was signed and the soldiers, including the Augments, came home. Only the Augments didn't get the parades and the medals, they got locked up in prison. Ryst's heart broke as her lover rejected her and cursed her name.

Then the Augments escaped. Hope swiftly became disappointment and Annika left Angosia for parts unknown and became a mercenary. If fighting personified Ryst's life, then fighting would become the essence of it.

Rockford was born when Ryst needed a getaway. She built up a reputation as a private investigator in the three months a year that Ryst was inactive. Finally, she'd become the fully active personality when Ryst retreated from the fore following the emergence of Bertram Sindis and the death of Robhurt B'nner. She'd sought an escape from her life and therefore handed the reins to Rockford.

The tubules detached and the arc dissolved. Rockford blinked several times in confusion. What the hell had happened? Why was she still here?

Beriel offered her a true hand and assisted her into rising to a seated position, "Are you all right, Celeste Rockford?"

"Why am I still here?" she asked, afraid that she'd slowly fade away any second now, "Where's Annika Ryst?"

"Annika Ryst was a damaged soul. She saw no further use in her existence. She envied your happiness and did not wish to take that from you. All of the multiple personalities felt that way. They have faded into nothingness and left you their memories so they will not be forgotten. It was a very civilized thing to do," Beriel proclaimed.

"So I'm alone, after all this time?" Rockford said with wonder in her voice.

"Search your mind," Beriel urged, "Do you find evidence of any other consciousness?"

"No." Rockford tentatively agreed, "I've just never been alone before."

"You have a nascent empathic bond with the El-Aurian. I do not feel you are truly ever alone," Beriel revealed.

"Can I see him?" Rockford blurted.

"Of course." Beriel assured her.

She was beaming as she slid off of the table.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Rockford was led back to Macen and Grace. Macen immediately recognized her overflowing happiness. He inquired as to what happened and Rockford shared the details of the "litmus test".

"There's more to it than that," he told her, "I've never seen you this...settled."

"I'm whole," she gushed.

"How so?" he wondered.

"I'm the only personality. Everyone else is gone, even Annika," Rockford shared.

"But what about their memories?" Macen wondered, "I know you have huge gaps in your memory from when the others were in control of your shared body."

"I have them," Rockford informed him, "And part of me wishes that I didn't. They're not very pretty. I have a feeling I'm going to have a lot of sleepless nights as I sort through all of this."

Macen drew her in to his arms, "I think I can help with that."

"You'd better," she warned, "I need your skills as a Listener more than ever now."

"I live to serve," he rejoined.

Rockford smirked, "You'd better. Otherwise I'd have to find a new love slave."

"Not while I live," Macen assured her.

She wore a rueful expression, "Annika had all sorts of ideas about that very topic."

"I bet," Macen agreed, "Are you going to be able to reconcile the disparate feelings?"

"I am nestled in your arms, or hadn't you noticed?" she teased.

"Hey, stranger things have happened," he retorted.

"Like your dead wife coming back to life?" she wryly asked.

"That's a perfect example," he concurred.

Beriel made a gargling noise in his throat, "Excuse me, but what shall we do with the guests on Omicron?"

"Guests?" Macen gave Rockford a quizzical glance.

"The survivors from the Endeavor," she supplied the answer.

"Would you mind if we collected our starship and proceeded to Omicron and transported the survivors aboard?" Macen inquired.

"Which of the vessels is it?" Beriel warily asked.

"The Obsidian. We were here before on an observation mission," Macen informed him.

"Yes, the one that Sela Hennessy described as a surveyor," Beriel recalled.

"I take it Sela Hennessy is one of the ‘guests'." Macen surmised.

"She is their leader," Beriel happily said.

"While we are retrieving the guests could you contact Admiral Johnson?" Macen urged, "He's Starfleet's Diplomatic Envoy. That's why he was chosen to lead this particular mission. He has the authority to negotiate a cease fire and to establish boundaries regarding contact between our races and determine what our future relations will be."

"I would be most happy to contact this Admiral Johnson. Tell me, Brin Macen, what is his full given name?" Beriel wanted to know.

Macen looked amused so Rockford stepped in, "The Argyn, that's these guys, tend to address people by their full names. They usually learn them through telepathic means but since Bob isn't here they need us to tell them."

"Hence the ‘Sela Hennessy' business," Macen mused before replying, "His proper name is Robert Tavar Johnson."

"Thank you, Brin Macen. We are indebted to your noble effort to bring peace between our peoples. Showing us a savage such as Celeste Rockford being able to overcome her primitive impulses and achieve the epitome of civilized behavior was a revelation," Beriel sang her praises.

"I wouldn't go that far," Macen quipped.

Rockford elbowed him in the gut, "Watch it, buster. Your love goddess demands respect."

"You must go now," Beriel insisted, "We will allow you 2 of your hours to retrieve your people. After that this system will be closed."

"That doesn't give you long to negotiate," Macen warned.

"The time shall be sufficient," Beriel assured him.

"Good luck then. I hope we can avoid misunderstandings like this in the future," Macen stated.

"Oh, we shall," Beriel cryptically declared.

The Corsair returned to Corvat. While the runabout was returning to the planet, Macen dispatched instructions to Riker. Riker eagerly lifted the Obsidian off of Corvat's surface and headed in system to Omicron. The rescue operation was hailed with much fanfare and rejoicing.

Beriel hailed Johnson. He took it in his office and the Argyn's image appeared on his monitor. Beriel explained the nature of the conflict between his people and the Federation. Johnson was incredulous at how Celeste Rockford had single handedly turned things around. Her selfless act deserved accolades at the highest levels.

"I can gladly accept your offer of a cease fire," Johnson joyfully admitted, "I've wished for nothing else since our first fateful encounter."

"Yes, Celeste Rockford has made us re-examine our determination process. She pointed out things that may have infested our perceptions and subsequent actions that we find quite disturbing. It shall take us some time to reconcile her insights with our paradigm," Beriel confessed.

That had to hurt, Johnson mused, "How would you like to proceed from here? My people would dearly love to start an exchange with yours. We believe in active engagement with foreign races so that we may know them better and have an exchange of ideas and grow stronger through our union."

"I can see the benefits of such an exchange. You have much to learn from us," Beriel said haughtily.

"You may be surprised and learn something from us," Johnson offered.

"I think not," Beriel reacted and then he softened his stance, "I do not think so at this time. Perhaps in another generation or two we will have much to offer one another."

"And how shall we arrange for that meeting?" Johnson inquired, "And how shall we approach further contact between our peoples? It's not like we don't know the other exists now and we have to establish a protocol for communication between our governments."

"We will contact you," Beriel announced.

"Excuse me?" Johnson was afraid he'd caught the alien's meaning.

"There will be no further contact until we deem it to be so. You will not attempt to contact us. In fact you will avoid us at all costs. You have a system for ‘guaranteeing" a planet or a nation. You will quarantine us. I will provide details of where our birth worlds are located and you will respect our privacy."

"I must confess that I am disappointed," Johnson admitted.

"Stay disappointed. Our privacy and sovereignty must be protected at all costs," Beriel demanded.

"Of course your wishes will be respected. I must ask though, what of Omicron? They invited us into their system before you arrived," Johnson pointed out.

"Omicron is one of our territories. It will be as inviolable as the others," Beriel decided.

Johnson frowned. Beriel caught this cue and spoke, "Omicron will be our point of contact with you when we resume contact with you. Until that day you must allow us to heal the shattered remains that are Omicron."

"I suppose the cease fire depends upon this?" Johnson asked.

"Precisely. You will accept all or nothing," Beriel confirmed Johnson's fears.

Johnson adopted a rueful smile, "How can I say ‘no'?"

"You cannot," Beriel determined.

Beriel let Johnson stew in his own juices before speaking again, "I will transmit the necessary data on a subspace frequency and binary format that your computers can understand."

"I have a feeling that you already have cleaned our computers out and know everything our data banks have on the Federation, her allies, and her enemies," Johnson surmised.

"You would be correct," Beriel seemed to sense Johnson's frustration. His time spent with Hennessy and her crew had proved enlightening, "Have no fears, Admiral. We no longer see you as mindless savages. You are not savages but wayward children finding your way in the galaxy. You have a spark of greatness in you and we wish to foster that. But first we must rebuild. Who knows how far you will have progressed when we reinitiate contact?"

"You got all of this from Celeste Rockford?" Johnson had to ask.

"Yes, what we gleaned from her has spared your worlds from genocide. You should be appreciative," Beriel lectured.

"Oh, we are and we'll be demonstrative," Johnson assured him.

Beriel happily rippled his gumdrop body, "I am pleased to hear this."

Beriel's demeanor turned serious again, if Johnson was beginning to be any judge of Argyn body language; "This system is now closed to you. You were given two hours to vacate this territory. You have 1 hour and 15 of your minutes left. Furthermore, there will be no more examinations or observations of this system, such as that conducted by the SS Obsidian earlier. No probes will be launched and no deep system scans committed. This area is a hole in space to you."

Johnson wanted to protest. He really did but he couldn't jeopardize the tenuous peace being offered. Corvat was on its last legs and the rest of Starfleet didn't stand a chance of repelling a renewed assault. He had to accept the offer and the terms were fair, they just stifled intellectual curiosity.

"We have an arrangement," Johnson conceded, "Send your data and we will immediately.

"Tell me, what will become of the planetary weapon?" Beriel finally asked.

"I was actually surprised you didn't make its fate a condition of your treaty," Johnson shared.

"We believe in free will. What you do with it is your concern but it will color our future relations," Beriel warned.

"One of the conditions of recruiting some of our tentative allies was the destruction of the planet. We always honor our bargains so it will be destroyed," Johnson revealed.

"Ah, yes. The so-called ‘Typhon Pact'. You do realize that such a weapon would give you a significant strategic advantage?" Beriel inquired.

"A deal is a deal. It will be honored," Johnson assured him.

"Perhaps you are not so childish after all," Beriel commented.

"I'll take that as a compliment even though it was rather backhanded," Johnson remarked.

"I shall be transmitting the pertinent data as soon as I sign off here," Beriel announced. He held up a true hand, "Pleasant journey, Robert Tavar Johnson."

The screen went blank and Johnson waited for the data buffer to fill. It did and he saved everything in the queue. He then contacted McKinley and gave the task force its marching orders. The starships exited the system and set course for Federation space.

The Obsidian landed upon Corvat and the world transwarped back to the Genesis sector. The Aventine pushed ahead to alert Starfleet Command of the new cease fire and its stipulations. Meanwhile Johnson and the others settled into a 7 day cruise.

Three days later, Tezrene was summoned to Bacco's office. Piniero and Shostakova were also present. Bacco described the terms of the cease fire and handed Tezrene a padd and a data rod with all of the details.

Tezrene immediately made a demand, "The world-weapon Corvat must be destroyed immediately."

"We're working on that," Bacco assured her.

"No!" the Tholian screeched, "Our observers can be on station at a moment's notice. We will monitor the destruction and insure that you have not tried to replicate the weapon."

"Quite frankly, the technology behind the weapon is beyond either side's science," Bacco asserted.

"You agreed to our observers being present," Tezrene angrily reminded her, "Where is the weapon currently located?"

"I'm not certain," Bacco dug in her heels.

"Madame President, my governments are prepared to go to war over this and we both know that your once vaunted Starfleet is in no shape whatsoever to stop us," Tezrene leveled her ultimatum.

Bacco looked to her advisors. They both nodded their assent. Bacco took a deep breath, "Corvat is currently in the Genesis sector awaiting decommissioning."

"We do not want ‘decommissioned'. We want destroyed," Tezrene stressed.

"We intend to destroy the control matrix with photon charges after plotting a course for the world to collide with the system's primary. Will that prove satisfactory?" Bacco asked impatiently.

"Yes, and our observers will make certain that it is all as you say," Tezrene promised her.

"We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate our good intentions," Bacco said sweetly.

Tezrene unleashed a Tholian curse that the translator refused to budge on and she shuffled out of the room.

Bacco turned to Shostakova, "Who doers Starfleet have in the area?"

"Jellico reports that Calhoun is available as well as Chakotay. The remainder of the fleet is still stationed around DS3," the SecDef reported.

"But these ‘Argyn' are no longer threatening the station," Bacco reminded her.

Shostakova wore a pained expression, "But the Romulans have long had a desire to remove the station from its vantage point near their borders."

"And blame it on a residual Argyn strike," Bacco grasp the situation.

"Exactly," Shostakova confirmed it, "Captain Ericson can relieve Calhoun and that would free the Excalibur and the Titan to report to Corvat. We can also swing the Aventine their way now that she's returned to Federation space."

"Pull it up so I have a better idea of what's going on," Bacco instructed.

A holographic star plot appeared where Tezrene had just been standing. Starfleet symbols represented starships. Bacco was immediately taken aback by how few of those symbols there were now.

"My God, we've taken a beating," she gasped.

"Yes, ma'am," Shostakova concurred, "But our vital patrols are still covered with the exception of the Home Sectors patrol near Andoria. Our forces took a pasting there. The planet itself suffered as well."

Bacco sighed, "I know. The Andorian representatives to the Federation Council already submitted their articles of secession. It became official this morning. The Andorian Empire is no longer a member of the Federation."

"But there are thousands of Andorians in Starfleet and the Federation Security Service," Shostakova gasped, "When was I going to be informed of this?"

"Raisa, you were running a war. I thought I'd spare you the news until we had a resolution one way or the other," Bacco confided.

"What's that mean for our fleet assets? The Andorians will be owed some ships to get them by until they can domestically produce," Shostakova reminded Bacco.

"They've asked for 12 Miranda-class, 6 Excelsior-class, and 3 Ambassador-class starships from the Reserve Fleet," Bacco informed her, "I already signed them over."

"We just recommissioned those ships," Shostakova dryly remarked.

"Then the Andorians won't complain that we're handing over mothballed rust buckets," Bacco brightly commented.

"You're playing this as though the Andorians will come crawling back and beg for re-admittance," the SecDef realized.

"I wouldn't go so far as say ‘beg' but I'm looking forward to the day they rejoin our family," Bacco smiled.

Shostakova snorted and Piniero spoke up, "The Andorian Empire's economy is totally dependent on trade with UFP member worlds. That pressure will prevent them from becoming complete isolationists."

"We'll see," Shostakova acerbically remarked, "If I've learned anything about Andorians it's that you never underestimate their paranoia or their stubbornness."

"As you said, we'll see," Bacco said confidently.

"Yes, we will," Shostakova confided.
***

It took two more days for everyone to assemble in the Genesis sector. Calhoun had contacted his wife and Admiral Shelby had rerouted Captain Kat Mueller and the USS Trident from Thallonian space to Genesis. Dax and the crew of the Aventine were the first to arrive and Calhoun and the Excalibur and Chakotay and Voyager arrived shortly thereafter. Mueller barely arrived ahead of Sela and the remainder of her fleet.

Corvat's ionized atmosphere prevented beaming to the surface so Calhoun and Sela took shuttlecraft to the surface. Sela was accompanied by two other captains, one Gorn and one Tzenkethi. Calhoun only had his pilot.

Sela greeted Macen and Argus, "I understand we have you two to thank for our ‘miraculous' rescue."

"I formally request asylum in the Romulan Star Empire," Argus suddenly blurted.

Calhoun's scar turned a deep shade of red. Macen looked rueful but Calhoun noted that he didn't look surprised. He knew the El-Aurian wasn't the type to often be caught unawares.

"Granted," Sela happily proclaimed. She turned to the Federation's representatives, "Any problem with that?"

"Dr. Argus was granted an unconditional pardon," Calhoun stated, "That means she has the right to renounce her UFP citizenship. Truth be told, if she doesn't want to stay, she's more than free to leave."

"Excellent," Sela looked the proverbial cat that'd swallowed the canary, "We're here now so you may begin."

"Taryn, set curse for the primary," Macen instructed.

Argus hesitated and Macen spoke again, "That was the plan, Taryn. Remember?"

"But this is the epitome of my life's work," she bemoaned.

"And you can spend the rest of your life trying to recreate it. That is why you're defecting isn't it?" he dryly inquired.

"Damn you," she muttered and inputted the course and activated the gravitic lens. The holographic plot began to shift as Corvat moved through space as sublight speeds.

"Eric, it's time to pull the plug," Macen cued McMasters.

"It's a good thing life support, heat, and the lights are running off of external batteries," McMasters opined.

"Just kill it," Macen cajoled.

McMasters tinkered with the shroud housing the control matrix. It opened and Sela gasped as the diamond like crystalline matrix was revealed.

"It's beautiful," she commented.

"But oh-so deadly," Calhoun remarked. She shot him a nasty look.

McMasters brought the crystal to a housing set up in the center of the inactive holoplot. Daggit moved forward. He carried a duffel filled with photon charges. McMasters scurried back to the control panel. He began checking controls laid out in a portable computer set up on the floor.

"Diagnostics are good. The portable shield emitter is up and running," he declared.

Daggit attached the charge sand set for maximum yield. He trotted back behind the shield's intended periphery. He nodded to McMasters, he activated the shield. Daggit activated the trigger.

"Good to go on your mark," he told Macen.

"Everyone ready?" Macen asked.

"As we'll ever be," Sela spoke for the Typhon Pact captains.

"Do it," Calhoun instructed.

"You heard the man, Rab," Macen gave the signal.

Daggit blew the crystal into a million shards. Everyone had to wait for their eyes to clear from the flash. Sela turned to Calhoun.

"You won't mind if we stay on station until this planet and everything on it tumble into the star?" she asked.

Calhoun smiled thinly, "Since that will only take another 6 hours, I suppose that's okay."

Sela signaled her fellow commanders and they started for the lift and airlock. Taryn Argus accompanied them. Calhoun called after Sela, "Proconsul, will you require an escort back to your home space?"

Sela offered him a cold smile, "I suppose you're going to insist?"

"You bet your ass," Calhoun remarked.

"Then how can I refuse?" Sela smiled.

Calhoun turned to Macen, "I here you've made good in my absence."

Macen grinned, "Frankly, I was going to say the same about you."

Calhoun snorted, "The Trident and the Excalibur will escort the Typhon forces to the border. Captains Dax and Riker have orders to bring your people and the Endeavor survivors to Earth."

"I'm sure my Captain Riker will enjoy seeing Captain Chakotay again," Macen chuckled.

Calhoun wore the barest of grins, "You've always been a smart ass."

"That's why we compete. I remind you of yourself. The man in the mirror urges you to go that much further," Macen counseled.

"Maybe," Calhoun allowed, "What I do know is that you and your Detective Rockford saved our collective hides. As one hide to another, pass on my thanks to Rockford."

"I'll be sure to do so," Macen promised, "I'll also advise her of how rare an occasion such thanks are."

"Humph!" Calhoun grunted, "Make sure you do."

Calhoun returned to his shuttle and the lifted off of Corvat to return to his ship. Macen, McMasters, Daggit, and Grace returned to the Corsair. She lifted the runabout as the Obsidian also lifted from the doomed planet's surface. She docked the support craft in the starship's shuttlebay after they broke orbit.

As predicted, Corvat plummeted into the primary's gravity well within the span of 6 hours. The Typhon Pact fleet departed with their Starfleet escorts in tow. Oddly enough, Sela didn't order her forces to cloak as had been expected. It seemed as though she were proudly showing the flag, but for whom?

The Aventine and Voyager escorted the Obsidian to Earth. They relaxed and traveled at warp 6. News came in from Johnson's task force. The Intrepid, the Defiant, the Hood, the Monitor, and the Merrimack had returned to Bajoran space. There they found that the Enterprise had been directed to lead Home Fleet in a defense of Sector 001.

Picard had achieved one of the few decisive victories of the conflict before the Battle of DS3. Corvat's emergence had redirected all of the Argyn's efforts on the Genesis sector so everyone else had earned a chance to recoup.

But an end of an era had arrived. Picard, having turned down the opportunity to be promoted, opted to retire. But even his retirement would be filled with active service to the Federation. He was entering the Diplomatic Service. He'd already been chosen as the Federation's Ambassador at Large. Replacing Spock in that post, he was the Diplomatic Service's designated crisis manager.

This would allow him a chance to relocate to Earth. His ancestral home was already rebuilt and waiting for him and his family. Beverly Crusher would join him as the Director of Starfleet Medical and together they would raise their young son, Jack.

B4 had been redesignated as Data after his memory reboot had restored Data's consciousness. Restored to his rank of Commander, he was being promoted to Captain and assuming command of the Enterprise. Worf would carry on as his XO. Geordi LaForge was still Chief Engineer but he'd also assume the mantle of 2nd Officer.

The ceremony announcing Picard's appointment led into the celebration over the Federation's peace accord with the Argyn. On the side, a private ceremony was held for the President to present the Medal of Freedom to Rockford.

She slipped the medal over Rockford's head, draping it across her evening gown. Bacco wore a sad smile, "I'm sorry that this has to be a private affair. Your contribution should be a matter for public acclaim and the history books. However, your unique past necessitates a quieter means of celebrating."

"I can tell you that Annika Ryst has received a full pardon, cancelling her warrant on Barrinor. Furthermore all Federation records regarding Annika Ryst and her aliases have been expunged. Individual planets are another matter but for the UFP, Annika Ryst has never existed. You, Celeste Rockford, are the only bearer of the legacy once carried by Annika's various personas," Bacco informed her, "You have been a model citizen and we reward you as one. If fate is kind, you're future will only be better and brighter from here on in."

Rockford beamed, "I think you can count on it, Madame President."

"I'm glad," Bacco confessed.

Later, she pulled Macen aside for a quiet chat while the gala continued. She took a sip of her champagne as she studied Macen.

"I have to admit, you're not quite what I expected," she shared.

"I'm happy to disappoint," Macen quipped with smirk.

"Oh, I didn't say I was disappointed," Bacco amended, "I just said you weren't what I expected."

"And what was that?" Macen asked.

"A reckless adventurer," Bacco admitted, "But your actions during the recent conflict saved billions of lives, perhaps even spared us from a generational, genocidal campaign."

Macen didn't respond so Bacco added to her assessment, "Gant Delane said you would make my life easier and harder all at the same time. Usually at the same moment. I can see what he meant."

"And how did I make your life harder?" Macen inquired.

"Corvat could have been studied. It is a convenient tool," Bacco expressed her true thoughts on the matter, "But you insisted upon destroying it."

"That was the arrangement with the Typhon Pact," Macen dryly observed, "They would have started a war over it."

"Oh pishaw!" Bacco literally dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand, "The Typhon Pact could've been talked down and you know it."

"Only by threatening to use it against them," Macen added.

"If need be," Bacco said, "Oh, don't look so surprised. We've just survived the Borg and now the Argyn. How dare we allow the Typhon Pact stand in our way?"

"It seems to me that you had 15 years to study Corvat so that begs the question would we be letting the Typhon Pact stand in our way or yours?" Macen pointedly asked.

Bacco wore a thin smile, "Delane said you'd be trouble. I see what he means. Enjoy your evening, Mr. Macen. I sense you've only just begun to make my life difficult."

"I'm beginning to think that's a good thing, Madame President," Macen confided.

"Good evening then," Bacco strolled off.

Rockford made her approach, "I held back because things looked a tad uncomfortable."

"Maybe. We'll have to see," Macen allowed.

Rockford tugged at his arm and guided him towards the dance floor, "Come on. It's time to forget your worries and dance with me."

Macen grinned, "How could I let the hero of the hour down?"

Rockford snorted, "The hero no one knows about."

"Starfleet knows and I know," Macen consoled her, "I'll make certain you have a celebration worthy of the name."

Rockford smiled brightly, "I knew there was a reason why I loved you."

His eyes twinkled, "You have no idea."

 

Chapter Fifteen

The Obsidian returned to Earth 3 weeks later for Grace and Delaney's wedding. Stryker served as Delaney's best man and Caplan also stood for him. Rhiann stood as Grace's Maid of Honor and Ensign Auray served as a bridesmaid. It seemed odd to some that two Andorians stood for Grace while their government had seceded from the Federation.

This was Auray's last function on Earth before returning to Andoria. She'd resigned her commission in Starfleet to take the helm of one of the Andorian Empire's Ambassador-class heavy cruisers. Her paperwork had cleared just a few days ago and she'd booked a flight home after the wedding.

Rhiann, however, was content to remain with Outbound Ventures and more specifically with the Obsidian. Since Outbound Ventures was a civilian company, her exemption was logged in and recorded. There was some pressure on her to report on the company's dealings and she hadn't decided how to proceed. Chris had informed her that he would happily report on his comrades and had even submitted a letter to Captain Riker stating that he would do so. The matter was now in Riker's hands.

The ceremony went flawlessly. Johnson officiated and happily pronounced them man and wife. The happy couple left the garden and proceeded to the restaurant where the reception was taking place. As the guests were leaving the Palace of Fine Arts, Macen took a wistful look around.

"Sparks ideas, eh?" Rockford teased as she bumped up against him.

"You have no idea," he said, voice laced with emotion.

"Oho, it seems we need to have a little talk. Get me to the restaurant and I'll make sure we get some private time to discuss this," Rockford promised.

Macen bequeathed a warm and tender smile upon her, "You're on."

Grace and Delaney had to leave the reception early. They had a flight to Pacifica to catch and they were just barely going to make it.

McKinley and Massoli also conveniently ducked out together. The Intrepid was in an orbital slip above Earth undergoing repairs and her CO decided to scarper off with his Intelligence Officer and head to Risa.

Most of the Intrepid's crew was taking leave time. Caplan and Liefers were headed to Mars to visit her home there and get away from it all. As with others, Delaney's marriage had seeded ideas and Caplan wanted 4 weeks with Liefers all to himself in order to explore the realms of possibilities.

Emily Johnson and Shannon Forger decided to sail around the Med. McMasters hesitantly asked to come along. Forger was surprised.

"I thought you didn't like me," she admitted.

He wore an embarrassed smile, "It wasn't that. Your condition just reminds me of someone."

"Someone good or someone bad?" Forger wanted to know what she was dealing with, "Because we got along just fine before you knew my little ‘secret'. In fact, I thought we got along a little more than fine."

"We did...I mean we do," McMasters blurted, "Look, I'll come clean. You're being transsexual reminds me of another woman I knew that also didn't completely transition."

"And you two were close," Forger guessed.

"She was the only woman that ever made me forget about Lisea," McMasters admitted.

Forger whistled, "That is close. So why did that affect how you viewed me?"

"I was having...ideas about where we could go," McMasters confessed, "And then I found out about your condition."

"It's not a ‘condition', it's who I am," Forger dryly pointed out.

McMasters' expression turned rueful, "Don't be like that, Shannon. You know what I meant."

"I'm not sure I do," Forger persisted.

"Look, I like you...a lot. I think we could go somewhere," McMasters declared.

"But?" Forger waited for the bomb to be dropped.

"But what?" McMasters wondered.

"But what about the fact that I'm a woman with a penis?" Forger was getting exasperated.

McMasters wore an impish grin, "Frankly I think that's sexy as hell."

Forger grinned, "Oh really?"

"Yeah," he said with conviction.

"Well, Emily said it was my decision whether or not you could come. I'll let you come on one condition," Forger warned.

"And that is?" rather than feel threatened McMasters was mildly amused and intrigued.

"You have to show me just how sexy you think I am," Forger delivered her ultimatum.

McMasters' expression turned lustful, "I think I can oblige."

Forger's smile was decidedly impish, "Then welcome aboard."

Tom Riker and Lisea Danan went on vacation to Risa with Chakotay and Annika Hansen. Daggit and Parva took off for Cestus III. Only Macen, Rockford, Radil, and Tessa were the remaining command staff when the Obsidian docked at Serenity Station. Tessa couldn't leave of course or she would have. As it was, Galen 3 stayed aboard so that he and she could enjoy their downtime alone and her new equipment.

Radil joyfully reunited with Kort and the station's CMO decided to take three weeks off so he and Radil could travel to their home on Barrinor. Macen and Rockford caught a ride on the corporate shuttle Radil flew to Barrinor.

It was a momentous occasion for Rockford. It was the first time she'd travelled to Barrinor without fear of discovery. Even if the authorities determined that she'd once been Annika Ryst, they couldn't touch her. Bacco's pardon negated their arrest and detention warrants.

She'd never visited Macen's townhome and she was delighted to discover its eccentricities. There were still a few vestigial reminders of T'Kir. They'd spent nearly 18 years together and that time didn't just disappear because fate had other plans.

They spent 2 weeks lounging and redecorating. Then they appeared at Outbound Ventures Corporate HQ. Kathy Tyrol tried to shanghai Macen but he deftly slipped her grasp and headed for the underground hangar. There the Blackbird-class SS Solstice waited for him.

He'd managed to finagle Kort and Radil's participation in the next little jaunt and they were in the hangar waiting for him. Maintenance engineers were giving Radil a sitrep on the scout's condition.

They were all headed for Caldos II. Elias Vaughn was living there in semi-retirement. He was bunking in Alfonso Reyes' cabin on an island in the middle of one of the northern continent's largest lakes. Reyes had inherited it from his grandfather, the famed and disgraced, former Commodore Diego Reyes.

Kort and Radil were going thrill seeking while Macen and Rockford approached Vaughn. Prynn Tenmei would be there as well while the Defiant underwent repairs. Given her unexpected free time it was only natural that she would seek out her father.

The flight to Caldos went without incident. The ship performed with all of the nimble grace that the class was renowned for. Macen had commanded a Blackbird-class during his time with Maquis and shortly after joining the SID. The Odyssey had died an inglorious death. She'd certainly deserved better. The original Solstice had died giving her all for the team. It was only fitting that the very last new construction of the class should bear her name.

Although the Solstice was unique from her predecessors in that she could make terrestrial landings, she remained in orbit as the foursome beamed down to Caldos' largest spaceport. Kort and Radil made their way to their hotel and began to plan their adventures.

Macen and Rockford arranged for transportation to Reyes Island. They took a taxi to the shoreline and hired a captain to take them out. As they left the boat's slip, Macen and Rockford studied the colonial city as they left it. The entire settlement was based upon an idealized image of the Scottish Highlands.

The boat ride took nearly an hour. They came slowly up on the dock built in a little cove. The boat captain and commed ahead and announced his arrival to Vaughn. The Starfleet veteran was at the dock waiting for his visitors.

Vaughn tied off the boat as Macen cast of the line. He and Rockford debarked and Vaughn released the line. The captain was expecting a call in a week to come and get them. He cast off and reversed his engines. Turning around, he throttled the engines and took off for his base.

Vaughn still looked decades younger than his 114 years. He looked a good 40 years younger and had a robust physique to match. Now that his bones had been replaced by polymers his daily workouts no longer cause fractures. Still, he wasn't quite as fit as he'd still been even at age 108.

Both Macen and Rockford noticed this. Macen because he'd been friends with Vaughn for 38 years. Rockford because she and Vaughn had briefly been lovers. Although she'd taken their parting of the ways jovially, she'd been vaguely disappointed since she considered Vaughn a "committed" kind of guy.

"Hello Elias," she said pleasantly.

Vaughn smiled as he met her eyes and held them. His expression faltered, "There's something different about you."

"I'm reintegrated," Rockford explained. She'd described the possibility to him in bed one night.

"Yet you're you," Vaughn surmised, "Where's Annika?"

"She gave her life so I could have mine," Rockford explained.

Vaughn was startled, "You'll have to explain that more thoroughly."

Rockford wore a rueful smile, "Amy chance I can do the explaining indoors?"

Vaughn suddenly broke into a sheepish grin, "Of course. Prynn's dying to see you again. So's Alyssa."

"Alyssa?" Macen repeated.

Vaughn looked pleased with himself as he adopted a Cheshire grin, "I have a few surprises of my own."

"Alyssa" turned out to be one Alyssa Munroe. Special Agent Alyssa Munroe of the Federation Security Service. She was Vaughn's opposite number as he'd shifted to a life as a Security Consultant for Starfleet. She was his live-in lover and 74 years his junior.

"Detective Rockford, Commander Macen, I'm so glad to meet you. I've heard so much about you from Elias," Munroe gushed. She winked at Rockford, "I especially enjoyed the more lurid stories. You loosened him up just the way that I like him."

Rockford was speechless for once and Macen turned to Tenmei, "Hello Prynn. Enjoying your leave?"

Tenmei was only 2 years younger than Munroe but she seemed at ease with his relationship. Vaughn had always favored younger women. He'd been 76 years old when Tenmei was born and her mother had been in her late 30's. Macen had known Tenmei's mother and had mourned her assimilation by the Borg.

Tenmei grinned, "I've discovered that if you take a speedboat fast enough it's a lot like flying."

Vaughn wore a rueful expression, "She's scaring the hell out of the locals."

"So, Detective?" Munroe began.

"Please, I'm just Celeste," Rockford pleaded.

Munroe's eyes sparkled, "So, Celeste, how's it feel to win the Medal of Freedom?"

Vaughn and Tenmei gaped. Tenmei gathered her wits first, "Congrats! Scuttlebutt had it that Admiral Johnson was putting you in for it but it's nearly impossible to get the Federation Council to agree on anything long enough to bestow the medal."

"I think saving civilization as we know it may have played a minor role in their decision," Rockford dryly remarked.

"And she's modest too," Tenmei quipped.

"Why didn't I know anything about this?" Vaughn finally asked.

"Because I didn't want you to know," Munroe declared, "And I swore Prynn to secrecy. This way you can share in your friends' happiness without dissecting the events leading to it to death."

Macen chortled while Rockford smiled brightly, "She does know you, Starfleet."

"In case you haven't noticed, I no longer wear the uniform," Vaughn said defensively.

"Elias, you'll always wear the uniform whether it's actually on your body or not. It's how you carry yourself," Rockford commented.

"I think I've just been insulted," he declared.

Rockford grinned, "Just a little."

Munroe stepped in, "Tell me about yourself, Celeste. I've read the official files of course but they're pretty bland. Elias said you've lived multiple lifetimes. How's that work?"

"Yeah, I'm curious about that myself," Tenmei admitted.

"Show me food and I'll tell you whatever you want to know," Rockford promised.

"Anything?" Munroe asked with an impish twinkle in her eye.

"Anything," Rockford shared conspiratorially.

"Gentlemen, your company has been nice but it's time for you to leave," Munroe commanded.

"Can we at least grab a plate and something to drink?" Vaughn wondered.

"If you must," Munroe said with a longsuffering air.

They gathered a tray and individual plates and went outside. Vaughn and Macen exchanged details of the Argyn conflict and then Vaughn shared an insight, "The Romulans couldn't have mounted a full scale offensive against the Federation. They lost nearly 50% of their forces against the Argyn. The rest of the Typhon Pact faced similar losses. They still haven't matched our transphasic torpedo. But it's merely a matter if time before they do. They have a prototype ready to test."

"And how exactly would you know all of this?" Macen wanted to know.

"Starfleet Intelligence has an asset in the upper hierarchy of the Tal Shiar," Vaughn shared.

"I thought Koval was dead," Macen thought aloud.

"He is. He died in the Hobus Incident with the rest if the Senate," Vaughn informed him.

"Then who is it?" Macen asked.

Vaughn looked decidedly uncomfortable, "I'm not certain you're cleared to know."

"Then why did you bring it up?" Macen asked crossly.

Vaughn weighed his options. Finally he made a decision, "The asset is someone you know."

Macen chewed on that for a moment as he tried to think of who he knew in the Tal Shiar. Only one name came to mind.

"It's P'ris. Isn't it?" Macen demanded to know.

Vaughn slowly nodded, "She approached us while you were confined to Yuros. She wanted to deal with you but you were imprisoned. She finally accepted the fact that I could handle her even more effectively than you could."

"Why are you suddenly telling me this?" Macen had a nasty hunch.

"Because she's missing," Vaughn confirmed Macen's worst fear, "She hasn't reported in for a week now. We fear the worst."

"Where was she last reported to be?" Macen inquired.

"Brin! This is why I'm telling you," Vaughn shared, "You are not authorized to invade Romulan space. And in case you're thinking about mounting a rescue operation as a civilian operator, think about this: you are also a known asset. P'ris has reported on every encounter with you and all of her considerable speculations. The Romulans know who and what you are and they are waiting for you."

"I can't just sit here!" Macen snapped.

"For once in your life that's precisely what you need to do," Vaughn counseled, "If P'ris can get free of the dogs, she's going to head straight for you. So are any Romulans that are assigned to pursue. You need to stand by and give her time to cross the Neutral Zone and navigate across Federation space and handily arrive at that space station of yours. The moment she arrives you need to get on the horn and request Starfleet assistance."

"I need to get back to Serenity," Macen decided.

"Brin, slow down and think about this. P'ris can't have gotten away with anything than a shuttle. Even at a constant max speed of warp 2, it's going to take time to reach the Barrinor system. Given that Romulan drives get just as cranky under stress as Federation warp systems, she's going to have to reduce speed occasionally and will probably have to drop out of warp from time to time," Vaughn reminded his friend, "You came here to relax. I read what you had to do with Corvat and I know that can't have settled well with you. It's time to recoup."

"That's the problem, Elias. It doesn't bother me," Macen revealed.

"Are you certain?" Vaughn asked quietly.

"You're one of the few that's seen my classified psych eval. I had a cause. The Argyn were an obstacle in accomplished that goal so I exterminated them with extreme prejudice," Macen said coldly, "What's probably the worst aspect is that it was easy. Push a holographic control and a ship died. Not just a ship but a living creature that hosted hundreds, possibly thousands, of alien crewmen."

"But you argued against the use of Corvat," Vaughn reminded him.

Macen nodded, "At first. Bob made a convincing argument. He played into my weaknesses so I wiped out over a thousand bioships and their crews. There were no survivors, no prisoners, just a perfect display of power."

"You can't mean that," Vaughn was horrified.

"I can see why my people outlawed such technologies. They're frighteningly seductive," Macen admitted. He paused and then smirked, "Taryn had an orgasm every time we killed a ship."

"Did you?" Vaughn quietly asked.

Macen gave him awry look, "Would I have destroyed it if I had?"

"I guess not," despite his calm statement, Vaughn was visibly relieved.

"Starfleet was always afraid of what would happen if they ever unleashed me," Macen summarized, "They finally have. I wonder what happens next?"

Vaughn didn't know how to reply.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Over the rest of the week, talk inevitably turned to work. Vaughn and Munroe elaborated on a few cases they were working on. Everything nowadays seemed to revolve around the Typhon Pact. Of course, the resurgence of the Andorian Empire also presented some new and unique challenges.

Tenmei shared that the Defiant was staying in Bajoran space to patrol the Wormhole's entrance. Ro would be assuming command of the new Prophet-class Deep Space 9 station when it finished construction. Until then, she was to maintain regular patrols and not only secure the wormhole but also the construction zone. Surviving elements of the 7th Fleet would bolster these efforts. The Cardassians were also stepping up patrols near the border in order to be able to immediately respond to a crisis.

Then Macen was badgered into sharing Outbound Ventures latest contract offerings. He warned them that they wouldn't like it. Leera, the dominatrix of the Orion Syndicate, had offered a substantial contract in exchange for Macen's assistance in crippling the Meirkus Conglomeration.

Vaughn almost dropped his whiskey tumbler and Munroe looked aghast. Rockford gave Macen a wry look, "I told you."

Macen held up a hand to ward off any objections, "The rewards are fairly large. The Syndicate would stop acting as the Typhon Pact's proxy in Federation space."

"But they're criminals," Tenmei blurted.

"And both your father and Alyssa know that sometimes you have to deal with the criminal element. Hell, I have been the criminal element and so has Ro," Macen reminded her.

Tenmei feel silent after the not so subtle chastening. Vaughn spoke before Munroe could, "Still, that warning I gave you about being a known asset applies here as well. Leera and the rest of the Syndicate would see your participation as being Starfleet's tacit consent for their operation."

"Who says Starfleet shouldn't consent?" Macen wondered.

That stirred the metaphorical hornet's nest. Vaughn struggled to control his frustrated anger, "Brin, Starfleet's been opposed to the Orion Syndicate for two centuries. We can't just change our mind and become friends now."

"Why not?" Macen asked.

"Because they break every law we have!" Vaughn snapped.

"But this is outside Federation space. Our laws don't apply," Macen smirked.

"It still boils down to interfering in a foreign culture, which is against the law," Vaughn said between gritted teeth.

"The Meirkus Conglomeration is classified as a criminal organization and is not recognized by the Federation as a legitimate government," Macen pointed out.

Vaughn looked to Munroe, "You straighten him out."

"I can't," she softly admitted.

"Why not?" an exasperated Vaughn demanded.

"Because he's right," she said with an air of resignation, "The Meirkus Conglomeration has no legal standing in the eyes of the Federation. This means they have no legal protections either."

"But the Orions...?" Vaughn trailed off as he began to see the implications.

"The Orion Confederacy is a recognized legal entity. It's an established nation state. The Conglomeration was just a collection of corporate interests operating outside Federation space and regulations. When they devolved into anarchy, the criminal elements took over and reshaped the Conglomeration into its present form," Munroe ran through a brief history of the territory to make her point stick, "At no time did the Federation ever recognize the legitimacy of the Conglomeration or establish diplomatic relations with it. In short, there are no legal constraints to Brin accepting this contract."

Vaughn hung his head, "I can't believe you just said that."

Munroe grinned, "Believe it, Lover, because it's the truth. We may not like the idea and officialdom will certainly balk but there is no legal standing to prevent Brin from accepting this contract."

"You've made your point," Vaughn groaned.

"Actually, I didn't bring up the possibility to browbeat your perceptions of right and wrong," Macen shared, "I was actually looking for advice."

"Say ‘no' as soon as you can," Vaughn quipped.

Macen smirked, "Actually, let's assume I've said ‘yes' and work from there."

"You haven't, have you?" Vaughn tried not to groan again.

"Not yet. I want to run it by Tom. He has to captain the Obsidian while the team gallivants around so I need his input," Macen admitted.

"Run away. That's all I have to say," Vaughn counseled.

"Thank you," Macen dryly replied, "I'll take that under consideration after I get there."

"I actually have a few ideas," Munroe offered.

"Then please share," Macen requested.

So she did.

At the end of the week, Tenmei joined Macen and Rockford for the boat ride back to town. She happily accepted an offer to hop a ride aboard the Solstice. She "paid" for her passage by piloting the scoutship. She was delighted by its performance and admitted that she could now see why Ro was such a fan of the diminutive starships.

Their layover in the Bajor sector was a brief one. Ro came aboard for a few hours and she and Macen discussed the Corvat affair. Vaughn had alerted her to Macen's outlook and she was understandably worried. She'd been an eyewitness to Macen's transformation from an upstanding Starfleet officer to a sometimes radical privateer.

"It will be fine," Macen assured her as they returned to the transporter.

"Are you sure?" Ro asked, gazing deeply into his eyes. She saw a blazing fire there that disturbed her.

"As certain as I can be," he reiterated.

"Don't prove everyone right about you," she cajoled as she stepped up onto the pad.

"When have I ever done that?" he teased, "I'll see you sooner rather than later. By the way, you owe me a tour of your new station when it's finally built."

Ro smiled, "Deal. Do I even have to say, ‘take care'?"

"Not really. It's a given," Macen chuckled.

"I'll say it anyway," Ro conceded.

"Same to you," he replied with heartfelt meaning.

He activated the transporter and it returned her to the Defiant. Radil grumbled about having to pilot the Solstice again but she readily broke orbit and plotted a course back to Barrinor. They made the trip in a few hours. Barrinor was located in the neighboring sector after all. They descended into Barrinor's atmosphere and landed at Outbound Ventures' private spaceport. Storing the ship underground again, they switched over to the corporate shuttle they'd left behind and returned to Serenity.

Everyone was returning from their vacations and had scads of stories to tell. Grace was the last to return. She was a tad starry eyed from her honeymoon and already missed her absent husband terribly. Delaney and the Intrepid were shipping out to deal with another brush fire so their time together would have been interrupted anyway.

"Have you thought about reactivating your commission and requesting an assignment aboard the Intrepid?" Rockford wondered, "McKinley and Liefers would be drooling over your transfer request."

Grace wore a sad smile, "I can't leave my family. At least not yet."

Rockford nodded with understanding, "As much as I appreciate the sentiment, you're in for some hard, cold, lonely nights."

"Tell me about it," Grace grumped.

"I'll tell you what, Roberta's working today. Why don't we grab some lattes and surprise Brin and Tom?" Rockford suggested.

Grace broke into a genuine smile, "Sounds good. What are they discussing anyway? Did we get a contract offer?"

Rockford grinned, "Let me tell you about it."

In the end, Riker agreed to the accepting the contract, "The thought of getting the Syndicate out of the Typhon pact's pocket is too good to pass up."

"That's what I keep telling everyone but Amanda and Alynna are screaming in my ear," Macen grumped.

"Speaking of a Forger, have you noticed the newfound spring in Shannon and Eric's steps?" Riker grinned.

"They didn't?" Macen was honestly surprised. He hadn't seen that one coming.

"They went sailing around the Mediterranean together. Of course Emily Johnson was there to play chaperone but I hear she did a lousy job," Riker chuckled.

"I knew Eric was interested in Shannon. I just didn't think he'd make a move because of Lees," Macen admitted.

Riker groaned, "I know. I have to admit that I'm really excited by this new relationship because it keeps the delusional twit away from my wife."

"It can't be easy having a stalker aboard the ship," Macen agreed.

"And I can't space him because you'll object," Riker complained.

"Possibly. It depends on what he's done," Macen conceded.

"Ops to Commander Macen," Ephrim Zyrain's voice rang over the comm circuit.

Macen and Riker were both surprised. The station's administrator rarely involved himself with Outbound Ventures personnel.

Macen tapped his comm badge, "Macen here. Go ahead, Ephrim."

"Commander, we've received a hail from a ship that's apparently cloaked. It's requesting to dock and the pilot wishes to speak with you," Zyrain explained.

"And the pilot is a female Romulan named P'ris," Macen surmised.

Zyrain was surprised, "Why, yes. How did you know?"

"She's been expected," Macen gave him as much as he needed to know, "Open a runabout landing pad and when she signals you, bring her shuttle into the station. I'll meet her at the airlock in the docking ring. As soon as she signals you, raise shields and go to red alert. Understood?"

"But why?" Zyrain was alarmed.

"Because if she's here the hunters can't be far away," Macen said.

"First the Lantillians and now this," Zyrain huffed, "You said this posting was going to be peaceful. What kind of trouble are you bringing aboard my station?"

"Administrator Zyrain, may I remind you of who owns this station?" Macen crossly asked.

"You do," Zyrain cowed a bit.

"Then I expect you to carry out my instructions or to start preparing your résumé," Macen angrily declared.

"Very well," Zyrain relented, "I'll keep you apprised of our developing situation."

"I expect you shall," Macen acerbically replied.

"You want a detail to go with you?" Riker asked.

"No, go to Ops and hold Zyrain's hand. P'ris probably has a few things to share and she can't do it in front of anybody else," Macen warned.

"And if Romulan Warbirds start decloaking nearby?" Riker wondered.

"Yell for help," Macen instructed as he headed out the door.

The circular airlock door looked like a giant gear as it rolled aside. P'ris emerged from the runabout pad. She was rather disheveled but Macen knew that a few days on the run could do that to a person.

"Nice to see you again," Macen quipped.

P'ris ran a hand through her tangled locks, "I know I must look dreadful but do you have to be so amused by my appearance?"

"Somehow I didn't picture our reunion to be your defection," Macen dryly commented.

P'ris wore a wry expression, "Nor would I have chosen it to be. However, these things are as they are. May I come aboard your station?"

"I may own the station but one Ephrim Zyrain is its administrator," Macen mused.

"A horrible little man," P'ris vented, "How did he assume command?"

"This isn't a military outpost," Macen reminded her, "Typically the hardest thing about his job is getting 48 freighters docked at 36 ports."

She pursed her lips, "Not the sort of individual I would have in authority when my pursuers arrive."

"Well, Tom Riker is bracing Zyrain's backbone right now. How many are after you?" Macen inquired.

"At least 3 and possibly more," P'ris shared.

"Riker to Macen," came the comm call everyone was expecting.

"I take it our Romulan friends have arrived," Macen ruefully commented.

"Yep. 3 Warbirds have decloaked. I'd bet there are more of them out there though," Riker ventured.

"That's our guest's best guess as well," Macen replied.

"Mind stepping up to Ops?" Riker wondered, "They only want to talk to you."

"Why's everyone want to talk to me?" Macen griped.

"I don't know. Just don't let it go to your head. Pride goeth before a fall and all that," Riker warned.

"Yeah, yeah. We're on our way," Macen informed him.

Macen and P'ris ran into Rockford and Grace as they headed to the turbolift for Ops. Rockford wore a bemused expression, "You must be the infamous Commander P'ris."

"I was. Now I am simply a civilian patriot," P'ris stated, "Although we have never met, your reputation does precede you Detective Rockford."

Rockford smirked, "Call me Celeste. I have feeling we're going to be seeing a lot of each other."

P'ris was uncertain how to respond, "I suppose you could be right."

"I am, trust me. My instincts are rarely wrong," Rockford assured her.

P'ris sensed a veiled warning hidden amongst the banter, "I see. I shall endeavor to spare you any offense then."

"I really doubt that," Rockford admitted.

"We really need to get going," Macen reminded them.

"Nice meeting you," Rockford called after them.

P'ris was totally unnerved by the time they reached Ops. "Unnerved" was a good descriptor for ht general feeling in the Operations center. They'd drilled with their weapons facing theoretical threats. Now shields were up, phasers were charged, and the photon launchers were armed. All because of 3 very real Warbirds really threatening to destroy the station.

"Give me a sitrep," Macen barked as he rounded the Operations control panels.

"Commander, they insisted on speaking with you as soon as you'd arrived," Zyrain spoke first.

Macen gave him a scathing glare, "I'll touch bases with the enemy as soon as I know our status and the likelihood of relief forces arriving."

"All defensive systems are running ‘hot'," Riker informed him, "The USS Burnett was on patrol nearby and her ETA is 15 minutes. Starfleet dispatched the Defiant and she'll be here in 2 hours."

"What about the 9th Fleet? Isn't the Burnett attached to it?" Macen sought clarification.

"The Burnett is TDY with the 9th. She's a Cheyenne-class operating as Barrinor's ready response patrol while the 9th patrols the Breen border. The Breen have deployed a fleet along the border and are running exercises. Or at least they're claiming they're exercises," Riker reported.

"Or they're a mighty convenient distraction to keep the closest fleet busy. And with the 7th comprised of so many fragments, that leaves us woefully unprotected," Macen realized.

"That pretty much sums it up," Riker said grimly.

"Okay, let's actually talk to the buggers," Macen decided.

He assumed position before the viewer pick up and had the comm activated. A very put out looking female Romulan Commander appeared. She wore the traditional box-like haircut favored by Orthodox Romulans. P'ris had always been an exception of that rule. She'd been tolerated because of her penchant for results.

"I am Commander Donetella. You have a traitor to the Romulan Star Empire aboard your station. We demand that you surrender her to us," she haughtily declared.

"And if I refuse?" Macen knew the answer but the question had to be asked.

"Then we destroy you," Donetella said with a predatory smile.

 

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