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Twilight - Part I by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter 1

Hal Dracas came off of his shift at Starfleet Intelligence's Special Project Yards. He waited in the queue for a ride on a shuttle back to Earth. An hour later, he'd made the commute from Mars to Earth. He'd landed in San Francisco and headed for the nearest transporter station to spirit him away to Soho, where he lived.

He was met at the transporter facility's door by two armed Starfleet Security officers, "Master Chief Hal Dracas?"

"Yes?" Dracas replied to the older officer that had asked the question.

"I'm afraid you must come with us, Chief." the officer requested.

"Why?" Dracas asked, "What am I suspected of?"

"I don't know the particulars, Chief. You'd have to ask these gentlemen."

From behind Dracas, four burly, uniformed security agents moved up to take position. They were Troglyte United Clan Police. With all avenues of escape blocked, Dracas surrendered.

"Come with us, Deviant." the lead Police officer commanded as he placed binders on Dracas' wrists.

"I'm only considered a deviant by narrow minded officials back home." Dracas replied, "I'm accepted here."

"Their shame is not ours." the policeman retorted, "Our honour is intact and you will be punished for your unnatural acts."

"I still have the right of trial before the clans." Dracas insisted.

"Your punishment was decided before we left Ardana." the officer informed him, "You are going to die the death of the long knives."

Dracas remained silent, pondering the brutal nature of his sentence.

At Dracas' Soho flat, his boyfriend, Kiv Rever relaxed and prepared to watch the evening news. He was on furlough from the cruise line he worked for and was anticipating Dracas' return. Then the lead story of the news opened with a Starfleet officer getting arrested by Ardanian Troglyte Police. They had a picture of Dracas shown with a snippet from his personnel jacket.

Rever knew what he had to do, he had to get to Barrinor and alert Dracas' former commanding officer, Brin Macen. Macen ran a privateer firm out of Barrinor. Dracas had hinted that he was really an agent for a top secret division of Starfleet Intelligence. Whatever the rumours might be, Rever knew from Dracas' stories that Macen was extremely loyal to his officers and crew.

Rever was counting on that sense of loyalty to help Dracas in his hour of need. He just had to get to Barrinor. There was no direct route there since the recent upheavals that nearly toppled the Federation. In order to avoid two week's worth of travel, Rever would have to charter a flight. Fortunately, Rever had heard of a man that didn't ask too many questions and always delivered his cargo. He immediately set out to find the good captain and hire him.

Five days later it was the evening of the Grand Ball in the capital of Barrinor. As a capitalistic society, Barrinor favoured its wealthy citizens and tonight was the favourite event of the elite. Brin Macen and T'Kir were attending as the owners of Outbound Ventures, Inc. The company had brought a great deal of trade Barrinor's way and the invitations were the locals way of thanking the couple for the good press.

For all its rebellious spirit and progressive measures, Barrinor was highly conservative at heart. This was reflected in the dress code for the Grand Ball. Men wore their finest suits and woman their most spectacular gowns. T'Kir had had a gown made just for the occasion.

Since the dress code spanned the width and breadth of the Federation and beyond, her selection was entirely up to her. Once again, as in her wedding, she chose an Ikebana kimono. This one was sapphire blue with black embroidery to set off her crystal blue eyes. Included were black silken slippers.

She wore her raven hair shortened tonight, highlighting her elegantly curved, elfin ears. The top and bangs were long, covering her eyes but swept back by a jewelled hairband. The back was short, ending at the nape of her neck. It was a look reminiscent of when the couple first met.

Her generous mouth puckered at the sight of all the competing dancers on the floor. She and Macen had practiced ballroom dancing but they were beginners at best. T'Kir's competitive nature demanded that she be the best at every enterprise she undertook. That would be an impossibility tonight.

Macen sensed her mood and squeezed her hand reassuringly. The El-Aurian was competitive as well but knew when to concede defeat. He would dance for the sheer joy of it not for recognition. After a brief chat with his wife, she agreed to do the same.

Macen wore a suit of the finest Bajoran fibres. Barrinor was only a sector away from Bajor and Macen preferred to support his poorer neighbour when he could. Besides, the Bajoran textiles industry was second to none. Their natural fibres could be homespun or transformed into the most elegant attire...and it was exceptionally comfortable. Bajor's Vedeks and the wealthy had known of these properties for millennia.

Macen's suit consisted of Charcoal grey wools. His Venetian collared shirt was a dark turquoise that enhanced his eyes. His Starfleet issue boots and belt were black. Unbeknownst to the Ball officials, Macen wore his phaser in a shoulder holster and T'Kir retained hers in her silk handbag.

Barrinor was lenient towards personal firearms. Most of the citizenry was armed. Where the law stiffened was that only the stun setting of phasers was allowed. Disruptors were illegal. Both Macen and T'Kir had their Bajoran Militia surplus phasers set on maximum stun.

Macen's phaser bore an engraved L for "Laren". Macen had named his phaser for Ro Laren, claiming the two were the only friends that had never let him down. T'Kir found this amusing and let it pass unchallenged. She didn't rank amongst the infallible since she'd once tried to kill Macen.

Macen and T'Kir met during their time with the Maquis. Macen had been sent to infiltrate Ro Laren's cell and T'Kir was already a member. Macen had confessed the purpose behind his recruitment and became a double agent working for both Starfleet and the Maquis. For Ro's cell, he created a top-flight intelligence unit. T'Kir was assigned to that unit.

Macen's involvement capped off ten years at the front of the Border Wars with the Cardassians. T'Kir had joined when her home colony of Shial had had every man, woman, and child slaughtered by the Cardassians. The colony was comprised of Sybokian Vulcans and defected Romulans. It did not fall easily. The entire 5th Order had become involved by the end.

The grief and rage felt by T'Kir released her latent telepathic abilities and she soon became capable of reading minds throughout an entire sector. Her inability to shut these "voices" out led to her ever increasing instability. Macen became a lifeline of sorts because she couldn't read his thoughts unless he allowed it. Fed up with T'Kir's erratic behaviours, Ro transferred the Vulcan to Macen's command.

There was an instant, visceral attraction between the two but Macen had been in a relationship with another undercover Starfleet officer, Lisea Danan. Both of them denied their feelings until after the Dominion War. Macen's relationship with Danan had been terminated for some time and T'Kir had come to grips with her feelings. Now she merely waited for Macen to come to the same conclusions.

That moment came during his captivity in the gladiatorial pits of Nova Roma on the quarantined planet of 492 IV. The couple's reunion had been something to behold. They'd been a couple ever since. After six years as lovers, they married and things were proceeding apace despite bumps along the road.

The duo loved to argue and banter with one another. Sometimes these encounters went too far and feelings were hurt. Fortunately, Macen's mild empathic abilities and T'Kir's powerful, but heavily medicated, telepathy had fused to form a permanent telepathic rapport between the pair. Much to T'Kir's chagrin, Macen could still block her probes but he rarely chose to do so. T'Kir's medication kept the universe at bay.

An early bone of contention that had long since been resolved was Macen's decision to allow Lisea Danan to rejoin the SID team after an absence. Danan, like the rest of the team, had showed unwavering loyalty to Macen and had remained on as his crew after Starfleet ceased employing privateers. Now they all had their commissions or brevet ranks restored and were the senior officers of the Nova-class surveyor, the SS Obsidian.

The shipyards decision to start producing civilian model Novas had enabled Starfleet to "sell" Outbound Ventures, Inc a starship with all of its Starfleet specifications intact. The Special Projects Yards had even redesigned the warp nacelles, allowing the ship to exceed warp 8. The SPYards had also enhanced the shields and the sensor pallets. The ship was now an ideal investigative platform. Only the weapons systems had remained untouched.

Macen's irreverence toward rank and protocol filtered down to the lowest levels of the crew. Although a Commander in Starfleet, Macen was the Captain. His word was law aboard the mini-nation that comprised the ship. Tom Riker was the Executive Officer or XO. Rab Daggit was the Tactical 1st. T'Kir was the Ops Specialist and Lisea Danan was the Sciences Specialist. Hannah Grace was the Lead Pilot, the Klingon, Kort, was the Doctor, not the EMH, and Parva was the Chief Engineer. Radil Jenrya was the Chief of Security. Everyone else had titles made up for them by their Department heads.

T'Kir stopped entering the Grand Ballroom and whistled. Macen followed her gaze and had to admit what she was marvelling was stunning. Suspended fifteen metres in the air was a massive chandelier. The marvel of the thing was that it wasn't hung, it literally floated in mid-air.

Discreetly mounted antigrav generators in the ceiling kept the crystalline beauty afloat. Propulsor units rotated the chandelier so that it caught the spotlights mounted alongside the antigrav units. It was a floating jewel that sparkled like a perfect cut diamond.

Above the chandelier was a domed skylight composed of pure leaded crystal. The weather outside was inclement so the sheets of rain could be seen cascading down the dome's sides. The ceiling and walls of the great room were panelled in the finest fabrics from across the quadrant. They were interwoven to create an opulent pattern.

The floor contained concentric patterns composed of the most exotic hardwoods latinum could buy. The floor was sealed yearly in order to prevent environmental and damage from use. People from across three sectors attended. It was the greatest gathering of the affluent and influential to be found in the vicinity of Bajor.

Macen led T'Kir into the ballroom. Off to one side was a buffet table. The tables were made if duranium and as hardened as a starship's hull. It was another ostentatious display.

Fresh foodstuffs of every description were located on the tables. At the end of the tables was a full service bar. One of the rules of the ball was sobriety but synthehol was banned. It was a test of self-restraint.

Life on Barrinor was a series of tests. The planet had required decades of terraforming in order to be habitable by humanoids. It had been a test of wills considering the proximity of Earth style M-class worlds. That same sense of will and purpose permeated daily life on the colony.

The colony had separated itself from the Federation following the Border Wars and the DMZ treaty. The Federation's Colonial Office had angered Barrinorians by constantly advising them to abandon their terraforming efforts. The handover of Federation worlds to the Cardassians was the final straw. The citizens of Barrinor had no intention of becoming the next sacrificial lambs.

That proud spirit of self-sufficiency affected every facet of life on Barrinor. They had a self developed defence force. The arming of the citizenry was only the first step. Only the young and the infirmed were exempt from Barrinor's military reserve. Universal conscription kept the ranks of the spaceforce and the ground forces swelled. Volunteers were encouraged to stay on and form the basis of the officer corps.

Macen and T'Kir stepped onto the dance floor and began a traditional waltz but T'Kir soon tired of that so they shifted to a Bajoran honelee. It was like Irish figure dancing. Others took note and joined in. Soon the entire ballroom was filled with honelee dancers as the band shifted its style.

The dance judges were beside themselves. Macen and T'Kir shifted to a freeform style of honelee and began throwing in proper Irish figure dancing. The music notched up to a lively step and the crowd went wild. They began line dances and partner exchange routines.

The judges surrounded Macen and T'Kir and demanded that they leave the floor. Any other couple that continued with the proscribed style of dance was also asked to leave the floor. Twenty or so couple left but the rest resumed the allowed waltzing.

"Well, it was fun while it lasted." T'Kir sighed.

"We definitely changed the rules for a while." Macen laughed and looked up to view the chandelier and skylight. That's when he saw a shadow move behind the skylight.

"Get down!" he yelled as he grabbed T'Kir and got her to the ground and covered her body with his. Seconds later, the skylight exploded. The shockwave unbalanced the antigrav generators and the chandelier came crashing down on half a dozen paralysed revellers.

Macen already had his phaser out when the first ropes descended from the gaping hole in the roof and six humanoids repelled to the floor below. It took them a moment to gain their footing in the piles of broken crystal and bodies. Macen fired from a crouch and struck the closest masked and armoured figure. The others began firing into the crowd and at him.

Macen ducked and rolled under the buffet table and then came up on one knee and fired again. Once again he struck down another assailant. Meanwhile, T'Kir had rolled under the tables and was now making her way to the coat and bag check-in. Ducking into the diminutive room, she ignored the cowering check-in girl and shrugged off her kimono. Revealed underneath were a pair of silken "pyjamas". Next she found her handbag and pulled her phaser free from it. Hefting it in her left hand, she set out to stop this terrorist attack.

Macen had tipped over one of the duranium tables and was using it as cover. All of the attackers' energies were now focused on him. There were only three left standing and T'Kir decided to even up the odds. She fired, stunning yet another terrorist and took off at a dead run for Macen's position.

She slid into place beside him, "Miss me?"

"Terribly." Macen replied, "You have a clue as to why this is happening?"

"No." she admitted, "D'you?"

"You're the telepath. Read some minds." Macen suggested.

T'Kir's recently enlarged dose of medication limited her to an effective range of the size of the ballroom. They'd experimented with gradually lessening her doses but she'd suffered a breakdown and was once again at the maximum proscribed dosage. One benefit, or a negative depending on how you looked at it, was that she seriously had to concentrate to kill someone with her mind now.

T'Kir shuffled off to the left of the table and Macen took the right. Now both of them could use their strong hands to shoot around the corners of the table. T'Kir surprised one of the attackers and stunned him. Macen shot the last one but she remained upright.

The only humanoid species that Macen knew could shrug off a heavy stun blast was an augmented Angosian. Rab Daggit was just such a creature and he'd shared many of his kinds' secrets with his Captain. Macen reset his phaser to medium disrupt while T'Kir vaulted over the table and disarmed the attacker with a backspin kick. The Angosian dropped into a fighting crouch and waited for T'Kir's next parry.

Instead, Macen stood and shot her squarely in the chest, "Get anything?"

T'Kir shrugged, "Some reference to Solarian Security Systems. Nothing tangible though. She was pretty focused on the fight. I can tell you this is our old friend Annika Ryst."

"I thought she was serving time in some penitentiary on Angosia." Macen confessed.

"Apparently she got out." T'Kir deadpanned.

Annika Ryst was a name neither of them had ever wanted to hear again. The former super-soldier had turned mercenary and had aided in the capture of the pair on their honeymoon for an Orion crime lord named Daveed B'nner. B'nner's subsequent death had left Ryst without an employer. She'd found a new one in the form of Macen and T'Kir's former comrade in arms, Aric Tulley.

Tulley had reformed and reorganised the Maquis. This time, instead of fighting a strictly guerrilla war, he aimed for a terrorist campaign. The Cardassians hired Macen to locate and apprehend Tulley. Macen succeeded in the first part of the mission but was circumvented in the second part by the intervention of a powerful alien race known as the Omicrons. Macen had only survived the encounter thanks to a timely rescue by the extragalactic Kelvans.

Ryst had been captured as had a Maquis lieutenant named Deirdre Armstrong. Deirdre had been liberated from a penal colony by Tulley himself. Ryst, on the other hand, had been sentenced to a prison facility on Angosia's moon. It had previously housed the augmented soldiers that Angosia did not know what to do with for a decade. Apparently, as before, she'd escaped.

Given her past history and her rancour towards Macen and T'Kir, they were, in all likelihood, the evening's targets. The question was, if these were indeed employees of Solarian Security Systems, why would they be targeting Macen and T'Kir? More to the point, why would they risk their letter of marque in such an overt attack? The SSS was a privateer company like Outbound Ventures, a competitor in fact. Would the Solarians push the limits of competition to include direct violence?

There were too many questions and not enough answers. T'Kir couldn't engage a mind probe while they were unconscious and all of their attackers were stunned. Macen would've given his left arm at that moment for a hypospray filled with a stimulant.

"Freeze!" came a shouted command from behind the couple, "Put down your weapons."

"No, you idiot!" rang out the voice of the planet's Police Commissioner, "They're innocent. They saved our lives. The suspects are stunned and on the floor."

Macen and T'Kir cautiously turned around to see a dozen members of Barrinor's Hostage Rescue Team. The HRT was the best of the best drawn from every precinct. It had been created to combat the tendency of Barrinor's wealthy to be kidnapped and held for ransom. In its hundred-year history, the HRT had successfully brought out scores of hostages unharmed and lost only a handful. The unit was so good at their job that kidnappings were mostly a relic of the past.

"Are you certain?" the Captain of the HRT asked.

"Yes." the Commissioner nodded, "In light of the extenuating circumstances, I'm certain we can forgo arresting these fine people and ignore the usual fine for carrying weapons into the Grand Ballroom."

"Yessir." The Captain snapped off a healthy salute when the planetary prime minister came up behind the Commissioner and nodded.

"Do what the man says, Captain." the PM instructed.

"May I make a request?" Macen asked as he approached the triad.

"Name it." the Prime Minister answered.

"I'd like my people to sit in on the interrogations of these individuals, if at all possible."

"I'm sure that can be arranged, can't it Commissioner?"

"Of course. See to it, Captain."

The HRT captain looked as though he were eating something very sour but he nodded, "We'll begin at 09:00 tomorrow morning."

"Perfect." Macen said, "Now what about the casualties?"

The Emergency Response teams were racing into the building and treating wounds, severe and mild. Those under the chandelier when it fell were dead, as were another eight patrons gunned down by the potential assassins. Others bore disruptor burns or cuts from shattering crystal shards.

"We'll do all we can, Commander Macen." The PM assured him.

"Wait a minute, the Commander Macen, captain of the Obsidian?" The HRT Captain enquired.

"Yes." Macen replied simply.

"You and your personnel are welcome to assist our investigation however you choose." the Captain assured him.

"I think for now, we've done all we can." Macen told him, "My wife and I will transmit complete reports of what transpired here before morning."

"Of course." The Captain stammered, "That would be most kind. I don't want to detain you any further."

Macen and T'Kir excused themselves and made their way to the coatroom. It was deserted now. The check-in girl was being interviewed by a local police officer supporting the HRT investigation. They gathered their belongings, including T'Kir's kimono, and vacated the building. It was still raining outside so they signalled for a ground car to pick them up.

T'Kir threw back the hood of her leather slicker as she entered her and Macen's flat. Macen came in behind, his head and face soaked,

"Told ya you should've worn something with a hood." T'Kir scolded him.

Macen stripped off his flight jacket, "At least this is waterproof and at least my pants are water resistant."

"Sure, rub it in why don'cha?" T'Kir mouthed off as she bustled off to change out of her sodden pants.

Macen passed by the office/study and activated the lights. He wanted to finish his report for the police as swiftly as possible. That was when he noticed that both the computers were displaying the comm screen. Someone had tried, repetitively and unsuccessfully, to reach someone in this flat. Macen checked the sender's terminal ID and was surprised to find that it was Christine Pike's desk back at Outbound Ventures' headquarters.

Pike was a former Starfleet administration officer who now ran Macen's corporate interests and served as their liaison with Starfleet's Special Investigations Division. Macen wondered if the SID Director, Admiral Amanda Drake had another burr under her saddle as he opened a connection with Pike's terminal.

Pike's mahogany face sagged in relief when she saw Macen, "Brin! Thank God! I've been trying to reach you for two hours."

"I've been at the Grand Ball, Chris. Had quite the evening."

"The holovid news reports are starting to come in now." Pike admitted, "Are you and T'Kir all right?"

"Never better." T'Kir said as she entered the room wearing loose sweatpants and a pullover hoodie, "Why? What's up?"

"Hal Dracas has been arrested." Pike announced.

"For what?" Macen laughed.

"For moral deviancy." Pike answered, "He was picked up by Troglyte authorities five days ago on Earth. They've taken him back to Ardana IV."

"What's Starfleet doing about it?" T'Kir demanded, "Sitting around with their thumbs up their collective...

"Ardana is outside of the Federation." Pike reminded the couple, "The Prime Directive forbids them from interfering."

"Didn't stop James Kirk." Macen replied bitterly.

"Times have changed since Kirk's era. Now he'd be court-martialled."

"We'll go." Macen decided, "It won't be an SID mission. It'll be an Outbound Ventures' rescue of a former employee. We'll cover the costs."

Pike knew the reasoning behind Macen's decision. Dracas was under a death sentence. Homosexual Troglytes like Dracas were put to death by their clan. His only hope of reprieve was escape and the Obsidian and her crew were the likeliest means of escape.

"Put out the recall, Chris." Macen instructed, "I want the crew ready to sail at 09:00."

"Yes, sir." Pike acknowledged and signed off.

"There goes our interrogations." T'Kir said.

"Can't be helped." Macen replied, "Hal's life is worth more. We'll put in a request for transcripts when we send in our reports."

"We're still sending in reports?" T'Kir complained.

"Pull up a seat and get busy. The sooner we finish the sooner we can pack and get some sleep."

"What sleep?" T'Kir groused.

"I thought Vulcans could go for days without sleep, just relying on meditation." Macen teased.

"I prefer sleep." T'Kir said with finality but got busy on her computer working on the required report.

 

Chapter Two

Macen was walking a tightrope when it came to the planned rescue of Hal Dracas. While he operated under a Federation letter of marque, making him a privateer, his sole client was Starfleet's SID. His crew's Starfleet commissions had been reactivated in order to further legitimise their activities. It also brought a measure of control over Macen's operational habits.

The other five ships of Outbound Ventures could take whatever clients the head office deemed worthy. This usually involved convoy escort duties but also the occasional security job protecting high profile entities. Each ship's captain possessed a letter of marque but only Macen had letters from the Federation and Starfleet.

The first letter compelled him to protect the interests and well being of the Federation. The second allowed him to participate in Starfleet operations. Since Starfleet was sanctioning this adventure, it would be deemed a rogue operation and could very well cost Macen everything.

Macen had gambled with his Starfleet career twice before. He'd jeopardised a seventy-plus year career to join the Maquis and an eighty year career in a court-martial for disobeying a superior officer and destroying an enemy vessel. Both times Starfleet Intelligence had vindicated him. The first time, he'd simply been reinstated with all sins forgiven. The second event had launched his career as a privateer at the SID's behest.

His entire investigative team had resigned from Starfleet and followed him, at least those that had been Starfleet officers. T'Kir and the Bajoran mercenary, Radil Jenrya, had been exceptions to the rule. Hal Dracas had been a member of the team back then. He'd served for three years and was entitled to this risk. The decision having been made, Macen set out to insure its success.

Telrik, the Tellarite transporter chief for the Obsidian beamed Macen and T'Kir aboard, "Welcome aboard, Cap'n!" Telrik was without a doubt the cheeriest Tellarite either Macen or T'Kir had ever met. He was also the most agreeable member of his species anyone had encountered. In fact, he'd left Starfleet for Outbound Ventures to escape people trying to pick fights with him.

"Good to be back, Telrik." Macen replied.

"Heard about that business at the Grand Ball. Glad to see you both came out all right." Telrik chortled, "Better'n all right I'd say, you're planetary heroes."

Seeing the couple's incredulous looks, Telrik shrugged, "That's what the holovids say at any rate."

"Just keep on believin' 'em." T'Kir urged, "I've always wanted t'be a hero. That's why I'm attracted to lost causes." With the last, she playfully shoved Macen.

Macen ruefully grinned, "All right, let's stow our gear and meet ‘n greet the others."

"Commander Riker is aboard but none of the rest of the senior staff have boarded yet."

"Thanks Telrik." Macen acknowledged and stepped out of the transporter and headed for the turbolift in order to reach the deck where his shared quarters were.

After stowing their gear, they proceeded to the bridge. Thomas William Riker was there already. The ship's XO was chipper and eager to get underway. The difference in attire between the three was startling. Macen had never established a uniform code for the senior staff but the ratings generally wore coveralls.

Macen wore his prerequisite grey crew neck tee with black cargo pants. He accessorised with his holster/utility belt and black combat boots. His reddish blonde hair was short enough that it tended to spike along the part. His moustache and goatee were worn full but neatly trimmed.

T'Kir wore her usual leather pants and black tank top. The tank top revealed the IDIC tattoo on her arm. That still left the Romulan Imperial Emblem stretched across her back and the Maquis Command symbol on her ankle hidden by her clothes. She wore mid-calf high combat boots and her left-handed holster/utility belt.

T'Kir wore her bangs pulled to one side and her raven hair tacked back behind her ears. She adorned her lips with red lipstick. Varieties of lipstick were a recent discovery of hers, introduced to her by her best friend Hannah Grace. T'Kir's natural olive complexion didn't require artificial enhancements. Her subtle green blush provided colour enough.

Riker wore his hair neatly trimmed but bushier on top. Like Macen's it tended to spike. His beard was fuller than his "brother's" but still neatly trimmed. He wore the closest thing to a uniform. It was based upon Earth Starfleet's first uniform, a navy jumpsuit with a black undershirt. The colour accentuated his blue eyes and distracted from the spreading grey in his beard.

"How are you, Tom?" Macen asked as he exited the turbolift.

"Better than you if the newsies got it right."

"Oh, we're fine." T'Kir pooh-pahhed, "Our would be assassins took the worst of it, including Annika Ryst."

"How'd she get out of prison?" Riker said with some alarm.

"The same way someone escapes a Cardassian labour camp." Macen remarked, "With help."

Riker blushed at that reference of his accepting a ride from a Romulan shuttle pilot breaking out Romulan prisoners. Riker reminisced, about the supposed "cost" for his liberty. Fortunately that plan had failed and Riker had found himself completely free from outside interference. That is until Brin Macen showed up at his charter shuttle service and offered a Tom a command and a job.

Tom had lost two commands now and had opted to act as Macen's XO, "So what's the mission?"

"We're going to rescue Hal Dracas." Macen replied grimly.

"Why?" Riker was confused. Dracas was among the most law-abiding men he'd ever met.

Macen explained the situation and Riker darkened with rage, "That's barbaric."

"It's also a local custom of a non-aligned world so Starfleet won't interfere." Macen explained.

"So we're doing this on our own initiative." Riker nodded approvingly, "Can we afford it?"

"The corporate emergency funds should suffice. Anything beyond that T'Kir and I'll cover." Macen informed him.

"Put me in for a share." Riker offered.

Macen smiled, "Hopefully it won't come to that."

"'Hopefully' and reality are usually a parsec apart with this ship and crew." Riker reminded Macen.

Macen was about to comment when the lift doors opened. Hannah Grace barrelled out and fiercely hugged T'Kir. Rab Daggit and Parva exited far more sedately. The Angosian and the Orion were the most muscular couple on the ship.

Rab wore a uniform based upon the M.A.C.O. fatigues of the 22nd century. Parva, however, was dressing for effect. She wore a halter-top with a beaded miniskirt with a slit up one side. The slit revealed the fact that she was travelling sans underwear. Despite seven years of freedom, at heart Parva was still an Orion sex slave.

Daggit mirrored Riker's towering height. Macen was tall but he was four inches shorter than these titans' 6'4". T'Kir was five inches shorter than Macen and Parva was six inches shorter than Daggit. That left Grace standing there at 5'5", the shortest member of the team.

Kort and Radil were next to arrive. As usual, Kort wore Klingon battle armour but without a baldric to denote his shame. Radil also wore M.A.C.O. fatigues but without the camouflage shirt, preferring a Bajoran bush jacket. Everyone wore their sidearms and utility belts.

Macen called for them to all enter his Ready Room. It was a tight fit. Macen took a seat behind the desk. T'Kir and Grace took the couch. Parva seated herself in the sole visitor's chair. Daggit, Riker, Radil and Kort spread across the room and stood. There was some confusion evident on their faces.

"You're all wondering why I've called you in here instead of the main briefing room." It was a statement not a question, "The answer is simple, when you hear the details of our next mission, you're going to be upset. You'll be angry, frustrated and worried. I don't want the crew to see you that way. Therefore we'll spend as long as it takes in here to clear those feelings."

"What is our mission?" Kort came straight to the point.

"As a select handful of you already know, our mission is the rescue and extraction of Hal Dracas from Ardana IV." Macen explained.

"Rescue from what?" Radil asked, "Ardana is his home planet."

"It's also the most dangerous spot in the whole galaxy for Hal." Macen elaborated, "Troglyte customs are very ancient and very clannish. It is their practice to kill all homosexual males or females within the clan. Someone tipped the Ardanian officials off that Hal is a homosexual and the Troglytes responded by dispatching a retrieval squad. Hal currently faces a death sentence. It may have already been carried out."

Shock quickly transmuted into outrage with Radil leading the charge, "And aliens accused the Bajorans of atrocities because we killed collaborators. That's nothing like this. Certain orders of the Bajoran faith won't allow homosexuals to worship with them but there's always those that are so it's no big loss."

"Among the Klingons, such people are outcasts unless they can prove their mettle in battle," Kort added, "but they are not persecuted or slain."

"It's unheard of among the Kelvans so I don't know how they'd react." Grace admitted as the resident Kelvan.

"They're human now." Riker said, "It'll happen."

"Even Vulcans have a very small minority." T'Kir revealed, "They've got greater numbers than the surviving Sybokians but they're considered illogical as well."

"Are they considered anathema as well?" Macen asked.

T'Kir shook her head, "Just misguided. They still follow the precepts of Surak, unlike a follower of Sybok."

"So how goes the quest for Sha-Ka-Ree?" Grace teased.

"Sha-Ka-Ree is an internal value not an external value. Sybok was fooled by the entity beyond the Great Barrier on that one." T'Kir replied.

"Can we focus on the issue at hand?" Riker demanded, "What the Troglytes are planning is barbaric and cruel. They have to be stopped."

"Do they?" Parva asked, "Except for our sense of loyalty to the Chief, would we even be considering this?"

"No." Macen admitted to everyone's surprise, "This practice has gone on for millennia and this is the first time an outsider has interfered. If it weren't for Hal, I'm not certain I'd break the Prime Directive on this one. Because that's what it's going to take and I can't even guess what the consequences of that will be."

"On Orion, an overtly homosexual male or female is set aside for acts that involve pain and humiliation. An Orion male may involve himself in sodomy only after he's forced himself on several women and even then only for those acts I alluded to earlier." Parva divulged, "I don't see how Chief Dracas' situation is any worse than that."

"The preferred method of death is to be stretched out on a rack, publicly castrated and then to slowly die as your intestines are removed and filleted." Macen responded, "But Parva's right. We don't have to get involved. No one has to accept this mission. It won't be held against you, if we somehow retain our letters of marque. T'Kir and I have agreed we have to go but no one else is liable."

"I'll go." Daggit promptly volunteered.

"As will I." Riker seconded.

"Count me in." Grace asserted.

"It is no way for a brave man to die." Kort rumbled, "I am for it."

"You know me," Radil grinned, "I'm always up for a fight."

All eyes came to rest on Parva. She locked hers with Macen's.

"There's no pressure Parva. Gilan can handle Engineering." Macen assured her.

"Yeah," she ran a hand through the platinum streaks dyed into her black hair, "but Hal is my friend and I owe him this. I'm in as well."

A cheer resounded throughout the room that Macen abstained from. Grace asked the next question.

"So what's the plan, Captain?"

"The plan is to get underway, travel to Ardana IV as fast as our engines can carry us and break the Chief out of jail."

"Sounds good." Riker commented, "Take your stations people. And Parva...change your clothes."

Parva wiggled her arse at Riker as she left. Riker, T'Kir and Macen stayed in the Ready Room.

"Do we stand a chance?" Riker asked.

"We always stand a chance, Tom." Macen retorted, "The question is how good of a chance do we have?"

"And the answer is?"

"Slim to none." Macen grimly admitted, "But we have to try, if only to honour his memory."

"I won't tell the crew." Riker replied, "Let them keep their hopes high."

"You're a good man, Tom Riker." Macen said, "By the way, when's Lisea coming back?"

"Her leave isn't due to end for another three weeks." Riker replied rather forlornly.

"Never fear, Tom, she always turns up. Especially when you least expect her too."

Riker grinned, "Looking forward to it."

After Riker left T'Kir turned to Macen, "Are he and Lees...?

"Halfway there." Macen looked taken aback, "What gives, normally you're the one telling me all the ship's gossip."

"Yeah, but now I'm so doped up I can barely read my own thoughts much less anyone else's."

"We'll have to get Kort to lower the dosage."

"We could just do it ourselves."

"Ohhh no, I made that mistake once already. I'm not going back there." Macen was adamant.

"Fine." T'Kir was crestfallen, "We'll do it your way."

"Of course. Its good to be the Captain." Macen said smugly

"If this couch weren't bolted down, I'd throw it at you." T'Kir warned.

T'Kir's comm badge chirped and she slapped her belt, "What?"

"I hate to interrupt," Riker said dryly, "but we need you at your station so we can release moorings and the umbilical to the station."

"Right." T'Kir nodded to no one, "Sorry. I'll be right there."

As she made for the door, she cast an accusing finger at Macen, "This isn't over yet."

While the Obsidian crew made final preparations for departure, a dilapidated runabout named the Flea came hurtling into Barrinor's atmosphere. It was owned and captained by one Dack Arrow. His sole passenger and temporary engineer was one Kiv Rever.

"Why's it heating up in here?" Rever asked as he came forward.

"Older models like this didn't rely on heat shields." Arrow explained, "They had ceramic tiles over the duranium hull plating."

"Exactly how old is this ship? That technology was old in the 22nd century." Rever asked, "The engines are such a hodgepodge that it can't be told. Oh, and we're about three minutes from a warp core breach."

"Then get back there and deal with it!" Arrow commanded, "I gave you a special rate in exchange for a working passage. And put on an environmental suit. The life support systems a bit wonky, it's liable to get a whole lot hotter in here."

"I'll show you hotter." Rever muttered as he shrugged into an environmental suit that fit. He read the instructions on the suits and realised they were in Cardassian. If they were like any other Cardassian equipment he'd worked with, it'd fail. The last safety inspection tag was dated back before the DMZ treaty, making it twelve years out of date.

First he sealed the boots, and then the torso ring, the gloves and finally the helmet. The helmet was wide to accommodate Cardassian neck bones. The effect on a human was a tad unsettling. It felt like not wearing any neck protection at all.

"How're ya doing, lad?" Arrow's voice called over the helmet's comm system.

"Headed back to the engines now." Rever reported as he moved.

"Good. I'm getting a red telltale up here."

You wouldn't if your ship weren't an antiquated piece of junk. Rever thought bitterly as he set about working on the myriad problems facing him. First off was the intermix regulator. It looked vaguely 23rd century Romulan in design. All Rever knew was that it required constant monitoring or an uncontrolled matter/antimatter annihilation would begin.

The entire interior of the ship seemed to be a vague collection of surplus parts and black market goods. Arrow had already scheduled a flight to Barrinor and was looking for an engineer when Rever contacted him about hiring him. Arrow had been so delighted to find a flight engineer to work of passage, he let him board for free. Now Rever felt he should have waited and paid someone else to take him.

Arrow had a solid reputation though. If you wanted something delivered in a hurry and wanted to avoid the authorities, Arrow was your man. He refused to traffic in slaves and narcotics but everything else was fair game.

Rever could see how he squeezed the speed out of his antique ship but he had to by-pass every conceivable safety margin to do it. Arrow had told him that a collector of vintage spacecraft awaited him on Barrinor. Rever could see how he could part out the ship to collectors for years to come, especially if the intended buyer wanted to restore her.

"Just hold her together for a few more minutes and then we'll be on the ground, one way or t'other." Arrow commed.

"I prefer a landing over a crash!" Rever shouted back through the static of his suit's comm gear.

"Me too, lad." Arrow shouted in return, "Me too."

A fierce shudder passed through the ship and Rever feared the worst until Arrow commed him again, "We're down, lad. Time to shut down the engines...for the last time."

Arrow seemed saddened by this but he'd regaled Rever with tales of his ambitions. First he'd take his newfound wealth and purchase a surplus Mosquito-class runabout and then hire three hands to help him run her. He was certain he'd recoup his expenses in six months or less. After all, he claimed he'd been turning down jobs for months.

Rever didn't care, "How far are we from Outbound Ventures?"

"You're here, lad!" Arrow boasted, "I landed on their private field."

Rever unfastened his helmet and cycled the warp core shutdown. He stalked off towards the cockpit while he stripped out of the cumbersome environmental suit. He stormed into the cockpit full of rage.

"What do you mean you landed on their private field?"

It seemed the best way to reach them. This way, they come to us and help me find my buyer." Arrow grinned toothily.

"Are you insane?" Rever asked then held up a hand, "Don't answer that. Look a greeting party is approaching and they're armed and looked extremely unhappy."

"It'll motivate them to help us." Arrow said as he shrugged out of his own environmental suit.

Arrow proceeded to the main hatch and released it. It slid open to reveal three armed individuals aiming phasers at them. Behind the wall of guards stood an elegant looking African-Cuban woman. She seemed infuriated.

"Who the hell are you and what the hell are you playing at?" Pike demanded.

"Why, I am none other than the legendary Captain Dack Arrow and this is my young passenger, Kiv Rever." Arrow announced bombastically. The Trill engineer wanted to die.

Pike's expression softened, "Kiv Rever, as in Hal Dracas' Kiv Rever?"

Rever nodded urgently, "I need to speak with Captain Macen. It might mean the difference between life or death for Hal."

"Come to the office." Pike instructed, "Both of you. I'll see if Macen has left the system yet. He's mounting a rescue operation even as we speak."

"As for you," Pike pointed squarely at Arrow, "we're not through yet."

Barrinor Station was a K-series space station. Originally labelled K-15, the locals had swiftly changed the name to suit their tastes. Barrinor Station was twice as large as a normal K-series. That was to facilitate its ore processing centre and industrial nodes. Although over a century old, the station was meticulously maintained and upgraded. Most of industrial capacity was now devoted to fabricating spare parts that were no longer available elsewhere.

The Obsidian was docked at one of the outlying pylons on one of the station's three "arms". The station was a commercial hub for Barrinor and the station's traffic reflected that. The Obsidian was only being allowed to dock there until the SPYards completed the ship's orbital maintenance dock. After that, that would be the surveyor's "home port".

The Obsidian had already disconnected from the station and was using manoeuvring thrusters to push herself away to a safe distance to engage impulse engines. It was during this choreographed dance that Macen received Pike's message. Macen ordered Grace to place the ship in a parking orbit over the planet while he and T'Kir beamed down to find out what was so urgent that it had driven Kiv Rever halfway across the quadrant.

Macen and T'Kir materialised on the transporter pads of the headquarters building's transporter room. Pike was awaiting them. With her was a haunted looking Kiv Rever.

"It's all my fault." Rever began rambling, "Hal is going to die because of me!"

"Slow down." Macen suggested, "Let's go to our office and sit down."

It was "our" office since he shared the space with T'Kir. There were two desks situated in a "V". The other furniture was all centred on looking at the desks and their occupants. Pike selected a couch that faced T'Kir's desk. Rever sat at a chair between the viewpoints of the two desks.

"Why don't you begin at the beginning?" Macen suggested.

"Hal and I kept our relationship as secretive as we could." Rever explained, "We both knew the consequences of his people ever discovering about us. Hal shared our secret with you, knowing his secret would be safe. I never told my co-workers, not knowing who to trust."

"But you told someone else." Macen deduced.

Rever nodded and swallowed hard. His guilt and remorse threatening to overwhelm him, "I told my contact at Solarian Security Systems. I mentioned that was how I'd obtain the information they wanted about you all."

Macen gave T'Kir a meaningful look, "It appears Solarian Security Systems is on an active campaign to harm us."

"What do you mean?" an anguished Rever asked.

"Last night they sent six would be assassins after us." Macen divulged, "At least that's the theory considering who they sent and the body count they racked up."

"By the Pools, this is all my fault." Rever wept.

"It's true you made a foolish deal with Solarian but you aren't responsible for their actions." Macen consoled him.

"But Hal?"

"If they're responsible, I'll see to it that they pay." Macen vowed and turned to Pike, "You have a second piece of business?"

"A certain Captain Arrow landed his ship on our landing area. Right atop the doors that lead to the underground hangar in fact."

"Dack Arrow?" Macen asked incredulously.

"Exactly...you know him?" Pike was surprised.

"I know of him, from my days with Starfleet Intelligence and with the Maquis." Macen revealed, "Where is Captain Arrow?"

"Being held in the reception area."

"Let's go meet him." Macen rose and everyone else did likewise.

The portly "free trader" was seated between two security guards. The third sat across the reception area with her hand on her phaser. The three guards were from the Obsidian's Security detail doing their stint at HQ. Only Radil and her deputy, Abigail Collins, were exempt from the three-month rotation. The other Outbound Ventures ships' crews were exempt as well.

Arrow rose upon Macen's appearance and was thrown back down into his seat by the guards. Macen held up a hand.

"It's all right. Let him approach."

Arrow rose and shook himself, gathered his composure and approached Macen with a beaming smile, "Captain, I can see that you are a kindred intellect. We're both men of action and profit. I'm losing both by being detained here like this."

"I appreciate that Captain Arrow, but I'm certain the Bajorans won't." Macen replied.

"What?" a baffled Arrow sputtered.

"They appreciate the arms and technology transfers you smuggled to them during the Occupation but they also want to try you for smuggling weapons grade dolomite to the Cardassians. As I understand it, they're willing to commute the life sentence down to a mere ten years."

"I must deny these charges." Arrow said with umbrage, "I'm an innocent man."

"You smuggled arms to the Maquis, for which I'm grateful enough to avoid turning you in for it to the Federation." Macen noted Arrow's surprise at this revelation, "You should have changed your aliases more often Dack Arrow, or should I say Simon Greeley, or perhaps it's Herbert Fountenroy this week. Or should we skip to the chase and call you by your real name, Harcourt Fenton Mudd IV."

"Damn." Mudd muttered.

"Who?" T'Kir had to ask, "I thought we knew Harry Mudd."

"This Mudd is the great-great grandson of the original Harry Mudd and the son of the Mudd we knew. The original was an infamous con artist and a nemesis of James T. Kirk." Macen revealed.

"Hence your interest." T'Kir opined.

"Harry conned his way into several beds as well as into several misspent fortunes." Macen explained, "At least one of these star crossed lovers named her offspring for Harry and regaled the child with the exploits of his father. He followed in his father's footsteps and the generational cycle began. It's the most famous family crime ring in Federation history."

"So where's your heir, Mudd?" T'Kir enquired, "Ah, Bolius. Good choice. The Bolians are pretty liberal when it comes to confidence schemes and smuggling."

Mudd looked aghast, "She read my mind!"

T'Kir curtsied, "It's a speciality of mine."

"What do we do with him?" Pike asked.

"Throw him in a detention cell and call the Bajorans." Macen shrugged.

"You need me, Captain!" Mudd cried as two of the guards each grabbed him by an arm.

"And why is that?" Macen asked sceptically.

"You're going to attempt to mount a rescue of young Rever's beloved are you not?"

Macen glared at Rever, "What of it?"

"I've had several dealings on Ardana IV, particularly with the Troglytes. I can be of invaluable assistance." Mudd insisted.

Macen looked over at T'Kir who nodded and then shrugged, "All right but you will be under constant surveillance."

"Wouldn't have it any other way." Mudd clapped his hands together.

Macen tapped his comm badge, "Macen to Radil."

"Radil here."

"Have a Security team meet us in the transporter room." Macen ordered, "We're bringing aboard a guest who will require special attention."

"Understood." The transmission ended.

"Not very chatty is she?" Mudd asked.

"You have no idea." Macen replied and led the way back to the transporter room.

The guards stood by as Mudd climbed up to a pad. Macen and T'Kir surrounded Rever.

"We'll do everything we can to bring him back." T'Kir said and hugged him.

"Solarian won't get away with this, you have my word." Macen repeated his earlier promise.

"Thank you, all of you." Rever said including Pike in his visual sweep.

"C'mon," Pike said taking him by the arm, "let's get you a room for the next couple of days. We have a couple of safe houses. I think one of those will do nicely. We can keep updated from there."

"Thanks." Rever said gratefully.

Macen and T'Kir stepped up to the transporter pads and Mudd spoke, "Since we're going to be working together, please call me Harry."

"I prefer ‘Mudd'." Macen replied tersely.

"Really Captain." Mudd chastised, "No need to be hostile. We should..."

The transporter beam took them.

"Try our best to get along together during this period." Mudd was finishing as he materialised in the Obsidian's Main Transporter Room. Telrik grinned upon seeing his captain's pained expression.

"I don't know what you're expecting from this trip Mudd." Macen stated, "All you're getting out of it is a good word at your trial once the Bajoran authorities have you in custody."

"I was hoping to discuss that aspect of your plans..." Mudd began when the room's doors opened and Radil and two members of the Security detail arrived.

"Is this our lowlife ‘guest'?" Radil asked, pointing at Mudd.

"Now I object to your terminology." Mudd protested, "I may be a smuggler but that doesn't make me a criminal, rather, I'm an entrepreneur at heart."

"Shut up!" Radil snapped, "You'll keep your mouth closed or you'll be gagged. One of my officers may have to escort you wherever you go but that doesn't mean he or she has to listen to your drivel. Understood?"

Mudd mutely nodded and Radil turned to Macen, "Access rights?"

"The Team Room, the rec room and the gym. The bridge upon request." Macen detailed.

"All right." Radil planted her fists on her hips, "Jarvic, you get first watch. Have fun."

The Bolian sighed and motioned for Mudd to follow. T'Kir grinned.

"This is certainly one of your more interesting ideas."

"I just hope I don't live to regret it." Macen sighed.

"If he acts on any one of a dozen plans he already has hatching in that stewpot he calls a brain, you will." T'Kir warned.

"I feel better already." Macen deadpanned.

 

Chapter Three

The trip to Ardana took six days. In all of that time, Harry Mudd IV did his best to stay out of trouble or invite suspicion. This, of course, just bred more suspicion. T'Kir incessantly laughed about it all.

"He's toying with us." she said between bouts of hilarity in her and Macen's quarters, "He hasn't found a means of escape so he's just rattling a few nerves trying to shake an opportunity loose."

"I'll let Radil know she can ease up a bit." Macen nodded.

"You might try relaxing yourself." T'Kir advised.

"Mudd is the least of my worries." Macen admitted, "The Troglyte authorities have had Hal for eleven days now. In all probability he's already dead."

"Great optimism." T'Kir criticised as she rolled onto her stomach on the bed and crossed her feet, "Really inspires the troops."

Macen rolled his eyes, "C'mon T'Kir, I'm confident we can help Hal if we get there in time."

"Well, how long do the Troglytes typically wait to execute someone?" she leaned her check against her hand.

"Depends on the severity of the crime." Macen explained, "Minor offences require two or three days. Severe crimes, such as this one require ten to twelve days of public humiliation."

T'Kir swung herself into a seated position, "Humiliation?"

Macen nodded, looking grave, "The prisoner is placed in stocks during the day where he or she can endure public insults and abuse. At night they're placed in what Terrans used to refer to as a "Crow's Cage". This way midnight pranksters and animals are allowed to harass the prisoner throughout the night."

"That's so...primitive." T'Kir said in horror.

"When James Kirk, the Troglytes' ‘Great Liberator', came he found the Stratosians living comfortably in 23rd century human standards and the Troglytes relegated to the 18th century." Macen described, "Their customs are still very feudal despite being push started towards a modern era."

"How are the locals armed?" T'Kir's brows knitted.

"The local constabulary carries phasers but the rest of the populace are universally armed with knives of varying length." Macen answered, "At least that's according to Harry Mudd."

"Should be the Gospel truth then." T'Kir remarked snidely, "He probably sold them the phasers and the knives."

"The phasers at any rate." Macen agreed.

"So what's the plan?" T'Kir brightened.

"Well, Mudd, Tom and I came up with a workable plan that the Troglytes might buy into."

"Mudd as in Harry Mudd?" T'Kir demanded, "Where was I during these planning sessions?"

Macen shook his head, "Mudd wouldn't speak in front of you. You scare him."

"I should." T'Kir said with pride. Her meds had been lowered to a more comfortable level. Her telepathy was still under control but it was much easier for her to glide in and out of other minds. All minds except those of Macen and Hannah Grace. Their mental shields were strong enough to repel her probes even when her abilities were at full strength.

T'Kir often wondered if Macen's resistance to her telepathy had been what first attracted her to him. It certainly had served to make him a refuge and a confidant. It was that role of confidant that had cemented her feelings. Macen had never discussed what it was that had drawn him to her and T'Kir's curiosity had finally reached a peak.

"What first attracted you to me?"

"What?" Macen was thrown by the sudden change of topic.

"When we first met, what drew you to me...much to Lees' chagrin?" T'Kir wore a devilish smile during the last part of that question.

Macen shook his head, "You shouldn't make fun of Lisea. She and I tried to make it work despite you."

"You're avoiding the question." she accused.

"All right." Macen sighed, "When Ro transferred you to my command, when we first secured the Odyssey, she described you as an unrepentant troublemaker. When I met you, I had another impression."

"Y'mean I'm not a troublemaker?"

Macen laughed, "Yes, you are and you're unrepentant about it. But what captured my attention was your raw vitality. You felt everything and you felt it with the entirety of your being. You were an individualist and you weren't afraid of what anyone thought of you. You were the rebel fighting the galaxy and you needed an ally."

"So that's what attracted you to me." T'Kir looked like a Cheshire cat as she slinked off the bed and walked over to Macen and pulled him up out of his chair and wrapped her arms around his neck, "I think that's sweet."

Their kiss was smouldering, full of unvoiced passion and desire. When it ended, Macen was grinning, "Anything else you'd like to know?"

Macen's comm badge began chirping and T'Kir planted her fists akimbo, "Yeah, why's that have to happen just when it's getting good?"

Macen ignored her complaint and slapped the offending badge, "Macen here."

"We'll be entering the Ardanan system in ten minutes." Riker announced, "You said you wanted to know."

"Are the alpha shift personnel on duty?"

"You and T'Kir are the only ones that left to...discuss strategy." Macen could hear Riker's grin through the voice link.

"Calm down, Commander." Macen advised, "We were discussing the operation plans."

"Thought you answered a little too soon for it to be anything compromising." Riker said with disappointment.

"Happy to squelch your expectations." Macen remarked, "We'll be up in a minute."

Macen cut the link and then lifted T'Kir's chin with his forefinger. He then reached around her neck, took hold and pulled her into him. The kiss was fierce and full of promise.

"Riker should call more often." T'Kir commented.

"A pre-celebratory moment." Macen remarked.

"I'm looking forward to the celebration." T'Kir confessed as they left their quarters.

It took forty-five minutes to reach Ardanan orbit. The officials of Stratos welcomed them and expressed a desire to meet with some corporate representatives in order to arrange convoy escorts for their ore shipments. Macen said he'd be happy to negotiate a deal but that he first had to conclude some business with the Troglytes. The Stratosian looked disappointed but rerouted Macen to the Clan Confederacy Centre.

At this point Harry Mudd took over the negotiations, "Hello again, it's me, Harry Mudd. I'm back."

"We know who you are, Mudd." the hard-bitten elder replied, "You have been paid for your services. We have nothing else to discuss with you."

"Wait!" Harry cried before the elder could terminate the transmission, "The people I'm with, they're here to collect a debt from a Troglyte. A prisoner to be exact held by one of your clans."

"Which prisoner?"

"Hal Dracas." Mudd supplied with a sigh of relief.

"The deviant?" the elder chuckled harshly, "its no wonder he had foreign debts. Your people better collect swiftly, he's being executed tonight."

"Can you give us his location?" Mudd enquired.

"He's at these coordinates but your people had better expect a bit of a walk." the elder replied, "He's being held in a place of dishonour in the centre of the village. Transport inhibitors are set up to keep any other deviants from beaming him away."

"The XZ-12s I sold you?" Mudd asked.

The elder nodded, "I'll alert the village constables to expect you at these coordinates. It's getting on toward evening. The crowds will soon be gathering for the execution."

"We understand." Mudd signed off and turned to face Macen, "There you go, Captain."

Macen tapped his comm badge, "Radil, meet us in the armoury. Load for an extraction."

"Roger." she replied.

"T'Kir, Rab you're with me." Macen said and moved towards the lift, "Tom, the ship is yours. If we're not back in an hour, come and get us."

"And risk my new ship and crew?"

"You don't get paid without T'Kir or I to authorise the vouchers." Macen reminded him.

"Okay, I'll rescue her and leave you to your fate."

"Good man." Macen nodded and stepped into the awaiting lift followed by T'Kir and Daggit.

In preparation for the upcoming event, every team member altered their attire. Macen and T'Kir merely added their jackets. His was a ribbed, black flight jacket. Hers was a black leather longcoat. Daggit changed into a stone grey Starfleet surplus field duty uniform with a black turtleneck shirt underneath. Radil wore black trousers and a black cable knit sweater.

All wore their holster/utility belts. In addition, Radil had a portable phaser cannon strapped to her right side. Daggit added a double shoulder holster to his double holster rig. One leg bore a pump action photon grenade launcher and the other an ammo pouch for the launcher. All carried extra power packs for their phaser pistols in loose pouches on their utility belt. Tricorders, sensor glasses, image intensifiers, basic first aid equipment, and in T'Kir's case, a microcomputer filled the other pouches.

When Daggit and Radil emerged from the Armoury, they met Macen and T'Kir at the Transporter Room. Mudd and his escort were in there as well, giving Macen last minute advice.

"These are blunt, plainspoken people, Captain." Mudd described, "Its best to be the same towards them."

"Y'do realise that if you're lying, we'll kill you when we get back." T'Kir smiled sweetly.

Mudd started, "And they'll want to see proof of your claim."

Macen handed Mudd a padd for the smuggler's inspection, "This is good." Mudd said admiringly.

"Since Hal was a former employee, all we had t'do is transfer fifty bars of latinum into his account." T'Kir boasted, "The bank's security protocols need some work."

"Would you consider a limited partnership?" Mudd asked.

T'Kir draped her arms around Macen's shoulders and gave Mudd a feral smile, "I have a partner and he knows how to show me a good time."

"Right." Mudd looked uncomfortable, "Are you certain you're a Vulcan?"

"Born and bred." T'Kir replied, "Logic's a useful tool but living according to its ethos is awfully boring. I prefer passion."

"And it looks good on you." Mudd returned.

"If I thought you were being sincere, I'd be flattered."

"I never lie to a beautiful woman." Mudd retorted, "It's my one virtue."

"And for once, he speaks the unfiltered truth." T'Kir announced.

"So what did you filter from me, Mudd?" Macen asked.

"You're being armed will grease some wheels with the Troglytes. They'll be more prone to believe you." Mudd answered, "They're a proud people who settle disputes with Clan refereed knife fights. If you've transmitted your bona fides like I suggested, they'll respect you."

"Two for two." T'Kir pushed Mudd's shoulder, "I'm proud of you, Harry."

Telrik interrupted, "We're in range of the coordinate you specified, Captain."

"Time to go." Macen announced and stepped up onto the transporter padd. The rest of the team joined him.

"Try not to miss us while we're gone." T'Kir blew a kiss in Mudd's direction. He blushed while the team shimmered out of corporeal existence. Mudd turned to his escort, "Well m'dear, let's check out your recreation centre again. I feel like a game of chance."

Macen and company rematerialised at the edge of the village. Apparently the Troglyte Clan was taking no chances. Two Troglytes wearing comm badges and phasers were there to greet them. Included with the phasers were two knives with at least as big as Daggit's massive Bowie knife stored in a boot sheath. The two constables took in the team's heavy armament and nodded to one another.

The older of the two stepped forward and extended a hand. Macen filled it with the padd containing their falsified claim and proof of currency to cover it.

Satisfied, the man broke into a grim smile, "Greetings Captain Macen. You and your party meet our expectations. We'll escort you to the deviant now."

As the two led the team through the warrens that led to the centre of the village, the team observed landmarks so they could retrace their steps in a hurry. Soon they came to a circular area surrounded by buildings. A pair of stocks dominated the centre of the area. Off to the side, hanging from a yardarm was a crow's cage. A battered and bruised Dracas occupied it. A third guard stood by the cage.

"There he is." the older constable pointed, "Present your claim."

Macen and company moved over to the cage, surrounding it. The third constable maintained his post.

"Hal, it's us." Macen said.

Groggily, Dracas registered the face and voice, "Captain! You have to leave. They're going to kill me in a hour."

"Give us a thumbprint authorisation on this padd." T'Kir instructed, "It'll maintain the illusion that we're here to collect a debt."

"What debt?" Dracas asked as his wits sharpened.

One I invented as a pretext for this visit. T'Kir spoke into Dracas' mind, We're breaking you out. Just relax and go along with us.

T'Kir shifted her weight so that she was closer to the monitoring constable. Her left hand flashed out and took hold of the katra point in his neck and applied the infamous Vulcan nerve pinch. The guard collapsed and his two compatriots leapt into action. The younger went for his phaser while the older slapped his comm badge.

Daggit pulled a phaser and shot the younger while Macen assumed a two handed stance and stunned the older man. Unfortunately, the man had gotten enough of the word out that the alarm was sounded. Radil pulled her phaser free with her free hand and shot the mechanical lock of the cage. Daggit assisted Dracas out of the cage. The Chief was unsteady on his feet.

Approaching footsteps motivated the group to move out. Daggit supported Dracas while the Chief found his footing. Radil took rearguard and laid down a barrage of cover fire. Macen and T'Kir took point and guided the ragged group through the streets.

They were drawn up short when they ran headlong into a street full of knife wielding Troglytes. They were in the middle of a boulevard and had building to either side of them. Troglytes began appearing from the buildings. Behind them, Radil continued to lay down suppressive fire but it was a losing battle as the advancing throng pressed forward.

Macen and T'Kir drew their weapons but there were far too many bodies for them to stun them all before they would be overwhelmed in a mass rush. Dracas touched Macen's shoulder.

"It's me they want." he said, "You're offworlders. You'll be free to go."

"Chief, no!" Macen insisted, "We'll find a way out of this."

"I already have." Dracas said and walked out in front of Macen and T'Kir and approached the milling crowd, "My friends are innocent. They are just offworlders doing what they think is right."

"They shall be free to go." A gruff voice spoke and pushed its way through the crowd. An ancient Troglyte appeared, "Are you prepared to meet your sentence, Hal Dracas?"

"Yes," Dracas replied, "but I think it's foolish to be killed over my sexual preferences. This is who I am. I've lived a good life and harmed no one. I left and didn't subject you to my differences. I was accepted in the Federation. I found love. Can any of you say you haven't sought the same?"

"Their tolerance is their crime, not ours." The clan elder proclaimed, "You are being judged by the standards of your people not by alien ways."

"Someday," Dracas insisted, "someday your progeny will come to accept people like me and they'll regret days like this."

"Not as long as these generations lives." The elder proclaimed.

"Then it's a lucky thing that other generations will follow after you're dead." Dracas said in finality.

"Enough of this!" The elder's voice cracked as he shouted, "The sentence will be carried out now!"

A group of men approached Dracas and the first thrust his knife under Dracas' ribs and pushed upward into his heart. Dracas gasped as the man retreated. The other six men came at him, knives stabbing at him repetitively.

Macen began to take aim at the men but T'Kir pushed his pistol back down, "He chose this, Brin. Don't dishonour his sacrifice."

The six men ceased their efforts when Dracas was prone and unmoving on the ground. They retreated and Dracas' bloody body lay limp and lifeless.

Macen approached the elder, "What of his body?"

"What of it?" the elder replied, "It is rubbish. It will be recycled with the trash."

"I want it." Macen declared, "It may be worthless to you but it has value to me."

"Take it!" The elder spat, "Sweep up our trash for us."

Daggit knelt and picked up Dracas' corpse in a fireman's cradle and the elder spoke again, "Know this offworlder, your identity will be spread across the clans. Clan Dracas is not the only place you will be banned from. The surface of Ardana IV is closed to you. We care not what you do with the Stratosians."

"Don't worry." Macen stared into the elder's eyes, "I have no reason to return. This was a good man. What happened here was a tragedy and someday you'll realise that."

"I trust you can find your way past the transport inhibitors?" The elder asked.

"We can."

"Clear a path!" the elder shouted, "The aliens are leaving."

A path appeared as the Troglytes parted to wither side of the street. With their weapons stowed, the Outbound Ventures squad walked down the middle of the lane, carrying the body of their comrade. A group of Troglytes, the same that had killed Dracas, followed them. Macen's hand tightened around the grip of his phaser but T'Kir placed her hand atop his.

They reached the edge of the inhibitor field and Telrik commed, "Ready to come up, Captain?"

"More than ready." Macen said, his rage having turned cold and precise.

The transporter took hold of them and they were whisked away.

The Obsidian immediately broke orbit. Macen signalled the Stratosian officials and gave them Outbound Venture's business comm code. The ship was on a parabolic course around Ardana, the system's primary. It was all for Hal Dracas' funeral.

The SID team changed into their Starfleet dress uniforms. The rest of the engineering staff and those few other crewmembers like Shannon Forger arrived in whatever uniforms they were wearing at the time. Radil and Parva stood out in their all grey dress tunics standing next to the mixed white and grey of the officers. Kort wore his most formal armour. Harry Mudd and his escort attended as well.

The flag draped photon tube containing Dracas' body was in position in front of the starboard torpedo magazine. The magazine load had already been shuffled to allow the insertion of the casket. The crew was assembled around the tube with Macen standing at its "head". With a heavy heart, he began to speak.

"We must remember that Hal Dracas gave his life for us, so the mission could be completed without further casualties. The Chief didn't see this as a failure, our attempt to rescue him was validation enough for him. It is difficult to look at what happened and not see failure but Hal saw it differently. He used his death to try and bring change to his people. I will not be dissuaded from believing they heard him. They saw a brave man facing his own death who spoke to them about tolerance and change. That is a victory. It wasn't ours, it was the Chief's. If I can meet tomorrow as bravely as Hal met his death, then that will be a triumph over any obstacle that arises. Hal's example should inspire us all to strive to excel and bravely meet the drudgery of the day."

"Hal Dracas was one of the kindest, decent men I ever known." Macen divulged, "He had an earthy wisdom which could illuminate if listened to. I've missed his presence aboard this ship. I'll miss him even more now."

Macen nodded at Daggit and Grace who took the UFP flag and began folding it. Macen tapped his comm badge, "We consign this body to the fount of life." The

torpedo tube rolled forward and the magazine's hatch closed behind it. When the hatch was secure, there was a slight shudder in the deckplates as the casket was shot into the sun.

Macen's comm badge chirped, "What is it?"

"You said you wanted to know if any Solarian ships showed up." Rhiann, the gamma shift pilot said, "Two just entered the system and seem to be plotting intercept courses for us."

"Hang on, Rhiann." Macen said, "We'll be there in a moment." Then he addressed the assembled crowd, "Everyone, take your battle stations!"

 

Chapter Four

The ETA on the ships with the Solarian ID transponders was over forty-five minutes away so everyone had an opportunity to dress down from their uniforms to their normal modes of dress. Upon entering the bridge, Macen was wearing his flight jacket in addition to his usual clothes.

Shervarhia'annderi, or "Rhiann", slid out of her seat and let Grace take over the helm. The Andorian may have come from a proud race but she knew her skills paled before Grace's piloting wizardry. Rhiann's Starfleet fitness reports had been adequate but fell far short of spectacular. Grace was a demigoddess behind the controls of a ship and Rhiann marvelled at how effortless it was for her.

Of course, Grace's Kelvan ancestry played a major part in that technical expertise. Born the granddaughter of Drea, the pilot of the original Kelvan mission to the Milky Way, Grace inherited the genetic knowledge of astronavigation. She'd learned engineering from her grandfather. Her mother was a pilot and her father was an astronavigator. Add that accumulated knowledge with her genetically perfect human body and you had quite a combination.

Grace's eye/hand coordination was legendary. She was the only crewmember aboard that could consistently beat Daggit at darts. Her muscle memory was also excellent. She was learning Vulcan and Romulan martial arts from T'Kir at a phenomenal rate.

Grace plopped down behind the board and visually scanned it, "I have the controls, Captain."

Macen looked around to see that Daggit and T'Kir had done the same. T'Kir was unlocking the "extracurricular" functions of the Ops board. Danan simply sat down and fired up her station. The gamma shift didn't keep a science officer on duty. Danan's Sciences department was on call 24/7.

Danan's people normally worked the twelve-hour alpha shift with Danan herself covering the gamma if something arose. She sat perched at her console looking bright and alert. Her dark, chestnut hair was pulled back into a "tail". The colour accentuated her species' natural spots that framed their faces and extended down the length of their bodies.

T'Kir sat at her station and studied her sensor readings through a few loose strands of hair. Her hair was normally parted from the right and swept across her forehead to the left, tucked behind her ear. Stray hairs always crept up regardless of what hair products she used. It was a problem that dogged her every time she wore a similar style.

"What do our sensors say about the incoming ships?" Macen asked.

"They're definitely Solarian ships. The Rascal and the Vanguard. What you're not going to believe is the ship classes of this vessels." T'Kir reported.

"What would those be?" a bemused Macen asked.

"The Rascal is a Mercury-class frigate and the Vanguard is a Constitution-class heavy cruiser." T'Kir revealed, "That's a bit odd, don'cha think?"

Indeed it was, Macen concluded. Both ships were 23rd century models. There shouldn't be any left, not even decommissioned surplus ones.

"Is the Constitution a refit model?" Macen enquired.

"D'you honestly think I'd have left that fact out?" T'Kir sniped.

"Sorry." Macen replied, an idea coming to mind, "Lees, scan the hulls of those ships. I want to know when and where they were made."

"Is it important?"

"I think it's vital."

"I'm on it then."

Every shipyard utilised different ore deposits. Even refined duranium contained variations of trace elements. These variations in hull composition could be used to determine the known point of origin for every ship.

"Hannah, what's their ETA on overtaking us?" Macen wondered.

"Well, we're travelling at half impulse. I thought the inbound ships were travelling at three-quarters impulse but now I know its full impulse for them. Give them another twenty-eight minutes I'd say."

"Bring us about, Hannah." Macen ordered, "Let's see what their intentions are."

"Even a mid-23rd century Constitution-class starship can inflict a healthy amount of damage upon us." Riker advised, "We're a science vessel, not a combatant."

"Not as much damage as we can inflict upon her." Macen countered.

"How can you be so certain?" Riker asked.

"Rab, analysis of the incoming ship's shields and weaponry?" Macen requested.

"The ships appear to have Type V phasers and unimodular shields." Daggit added a shrug, "All fairly standard for a mid-23rd century starship."

"If my guess regarding the origin of these starships is accurate, they'll be completely based on 23rd century tech." Macen informed Riker, "That means their tactics will have to match. They'll want a long distance engagement so we'll go to maximum impulse and close the distance. Hear that, Hannah?"

"I love maximum impulse." Grace replied gleefully.

"Take a seat, Tom, and enjoy the show as it unfolds." Macen suggested with a grin.

"You're nuts." Riker commented.

"No." Macen shook his head, "That would be my wife."

"Hey!" T'Kir protested, "I heard that!"

"You were meant to." Macen confided as he retook his seat, "Shields up. Arm all weapons systems but do not fire until they do. Concentrate a torpedo barrage on the Constitution-class and focus phasers on the Mercury-class ship. Hannah, when we pass, keep the frigate between us and the cruiser."

"Gotcha." Grace perkily acknowledged.

"Lees?"

"Yeah?"

"I really do need that information."

"You'll get it when we pass by them."

"Thank you."

"Hey!" T'Kir protested, "How come she rates a ‘thank you' and I get a ‘she's nuts'?"

"Because you are and I love you for it." Macen replied.

"Oh...okay then." T'Kir brightened.

"ETA on our intercept?" Macen asked Grace.

"Seven minutes."

Macen smiled and glanced over towards Riker, "Well within weapons range. We'll see their true colours at any moment."

It took another minute before the two Solarian ships opened fire. When they did, they engaged with phasers and photon torpedoes. Like the rest of their armament, the torpedoes were antiques but far more powerful than anything a civilian raider would typically sport. Mercenary craft and Orion pirates would sport more modern weaponry but typically not as powerful a warp core which meant the Solarian ships could sustain a greater rate of fire for longer.

The Obsidian's shields were automatically modulated away from the frequencies the phasers and torpedoes were set for. Daggit began returning fire. His phasers modulated, seeking the frequency the enemy ship's shields were on. It was a distant hope but one that had to be tried.

His torpedo barrage was unrelenting and the Vanguard's shields soon began to buckle. The tactical sensors revealed the damage being inflicted upon the cruiser. As Grace vectored the surveyor to the far side of the Rascal, The torpedo assault on the Vanguard ceased but the frigate blocked the cruiser's starboard phaser banks from firing upon the Obsidian. Daggit continued pummelling the frigate with phaser fire. Her shields were buckling and explosions began erupting across her hull.

"Warp speed, Hannah." Macen ordered, "Now."

The stars in the viewscreen streaked as they blue shifted and then settled into rapidly moving pinpricks of light.

"Course and speed?" Grace asked.

"Maximum warp." Macen answered, "I'll have a destination in a moment. Lisea? About that data?"

"They're new hulls from an unclassified shipyard." Danan reported.

"Unclassified because they're from outside the Federation." Macen growled, "Hannah, set course for Iotia."

"Are you sure?" Grace asked.

"Now isn't the time to start questioning orders, Hannah." Macen warned.

"Aye, sir. Iotia it is."

"Macen to Parva."

"Yes, Captain? Planning on abusing my engines again? I've already have all of my damage control crews working as fast as they can."

"It's appreciated and yes, we're going to be travelling at high warp speeds for the next few days."

"How many days?"

"Hannah?"

"Seventy-seven hours at warp eight, given a twelve-hour run at warp nine." Grace replied.

"Got that?" Macen asked.

"Yeah." Parva was less than happy, "We'll make it happen. Count on it."

"Thank you, Parva. I knew I could count on you."

"Here we go with the ‘thank you's' again." T'Kir complained loudly, "Don't I get a thank you?"

"Thank you for being partially insane and keeping our lives so interesting." Macen primly responded.

"Was that so hard?" T'Kir asked pleasantly.

"Can we cut the comedy for a moment?" Riker demanded, "How can you be certain those ships were Iotian in origin?"

"Starfleet Intelligence has the Iotians gearing up for refitting their Constitution-class ships to line up with the same program Starfleet underwent starting in 2271. All new Iotian Starfleet hulls will be constructed along these lines as well as Miranda and Oberth-class hulls. Rather than revamp all of their existing shipyards, they're continuing to produce original model Constitution-class and Mercury-class analogues for sale."

"Who'd buy a 23rd century model starship?" Riker wondered.

"Less advanced warp cultures, stellar aeronautics museums and, apparently, Solarian Security Systems." Macen answered.

"My God." Riker breathed, "They could rework the entire balance of power in the quadrant."

"Possibly." Macen allowed, "Starfleet Intelligence has feelers out that suggest that Section 31 is already in motion rectifying the situation."

"Scary thought. The Iotians may be pushed into war." Riker worried.

"Generally, S31 is fairly discreet, nearly invisible." Macen reassured his XO, "Besides S31's involvement is nothing but rumours and unofficial worries at this point."

"And when they're official?"

Macen grinned, "Then we'll get sent in."

Riker shook his head. The Federation had just barely survived an insurgency that split the member worlds. Starfleet was still struggling to rectify what had nearly become a civil war. Tensions between starship crews from opposite sides ran high but opposing officers were all allowed to remain in the service with an oath of loyalty to the UFP. Some tensions between the various UFP members ran even higher. The Federation's diplomatic corps and individual planetary ambassadors were still struggling to smooth things over to their pre-crisis state.

Riker was about to relay his concerns when Daggit interrupted from Tactical, "Captain, you have a priority message from Christine Pike coming in."

"Route it to my Ready Room." Macen ordered and left the bridge.

Seated behind his desk, Macen addressed the built in computer, "Computer display message."

"Identify for security scan." came the computer's female voice.

"Macen, Brin." he replied and waited as the internal sensors matched his biosignature to that on file. After a moment, Pike's dishevelled, harried features appeared on screen.

"Chris, what's happened?" Macen asked as he recognised her location as being the communications room in the underground bunker under Outbound Venture's HQ.

"We were attacked." Pike began to divulge, "It was an orbital bombardment. Solarian Security System's ships assumed orbit and then announced a twenty minute deadline to evacuate the building and then opened fire when the deadline ended."

"Was anyone hurt?" Macen asked horrified by this turn of events.

"Ardra." Pike replied heavily, referring to her assistant, "She went back for some files and the bunker auto sealed. She was running from the building when the attack commenced. The shockwave of the photon blast caught her."

"What did the Barrinoran authorities do?" Macen asked, his anger rising."

"They engaged the Solarian ships. The Solarians lost one ship as the Barrinorans crippled her. The Barrinorans also lost one ship in the exchange. The Solarians were using 23rd century Starfleet vessels. They've taken the Solarian survivors prisoner."

"We're pursuing the ship angle right now." Macen informed her, "The ships are Iotian and we're going to cut off Solarian's supply line."

"Brin," a stricken looking Pike added, "this wasn't the worst of it. Solarian vessels attacked every Outbound Ventures ship. They hit us with two to one odds, all with 23rd century Starfleet ships."

"What are our losses?" Macen grimly asked.

"The Typhoid is a complete loss but the survivors were recovered by the convoy they were escorting. The Mantle is crippled and in need of extensive repairs. She isn't under her own power at the moment. The same goes for the S'harien, and the Raptor. The Duderion was lost with all hands. The others all report thirty to forty percent casualties."

Macen was incensed, "So basically we're what's left of Outbound Ventures."

Pike nodded, "Until the SPYards delivers the Q-ship they've promised and our refitted Newton-class."

"The same ship that was to replace the Duderion." Macen sorrowfully observed.

"The very same." Pike confirmed, "Now we can cobble together two crews from the survivors of the other ships. We'll have the engineers coming to work for us in the orbital repair facility expedite their travel plans and estimate whether the surviving ships are worth repairing."

"Good plan." Macen acknowledged, "Have you contacted Admiral Drake regarding these events?"

"No." Pike heaved a sigh, "I wanted to inform you first and try to warn you that they might be coming after you."

"Too late." Macen's lips quirked in a near grimace, "They've already struck."

"I see you survived." Pike offered a wan smile.

"We have a Starfleet vessel. No one else was adequately equipped to survive the firepower they encountered. Civilian raiders and scoutships just don't have the necessary resiliency." Macen assessed.

"So," Pike tried to brighten, "can I inform Admiral Drake what your next move will be?"

"I'm going recruiting." Macen divulged, "Once I've evened the odds, I'll hunt down Solarian Security Systems' ships and reap justice."

Pike frowned, "Amanda won't like that. She'll want you to re-enter the Federation and seek Starfleet's protection."

"Since when have I given a frinx about what Amanda wants?" Macen asked flippantly.

"You're sounding more and more like your wife." Pike commented dryly.

Macen shrugged, "Marriage does that."

"Speaking of marriage," Pike segued, "how did the rescue effort go?"

This time Macen did grimace, "Hal bartered himself to buy our freedom. They executed him right there on the street."

Pike's eyes widened, "That's barbaric."

Macen ran his hand through his hair, "It's just as well that we've been banned from the surface of the planet. I'm not sure I wouldn't be tempted to execute a few Troglytes in retaliation."

Pike chuckled then her humour faded as she recognised the cold rage in his eyes and realised that Macen was being serious. She quickly changed the subject.

"Have you informed Kiv Rever of Hal's death?"

Macen seemed to collapse in on himself and then he straightened himself of up with renewed determination, "No. Is he still in one of our safehouses?"

"Safehouse Two to be precise." Pike answered, "Do you want me to inform him?"

"You have enough to do." Macen shook his head, "It's my responsibility. I won't shirk it."

"Good luck." Pike mustered as much enthusiasm as she could.

Macen returned with a bleak smile, "You too."

Rever was devastated, "It's all my fault."

"No." Macen forcefully asserted, "It wasn't. You may have made an error in judgement by not being discreet enough but it was the Solarian execs that used this information to set Hal up that are ultimately responsible. Even the Troglytes are partially innocent because they were acting out of ignorant fear and backwards customs."

Macen's eyes bored in on Rever's image, "Hal was one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. He was also loyal. He wouldn't begrudge you. He'd stand by you and forgive you. With rare exception, he was generous and forgiving. His kindness and willingness to serve will be sorely missed."

Rever wiped his tears, "So you're saying Hal wouldn't want me to blame myself?"

Macen nodded, "You know it as well as I do."

"It won't be easy." Rever sniffled.

"Start your atonement by telling me everything you know about Solarian Security Systems." Macen suggested.

Shift change came and went and Macen remained in his Ready Room researching Solarian Security Systems. T'Kir popped in with a tray containing dinner for two.

"I'm sorry." Macen said remorsefully, "I got up with my research."

"Yeah, I got that." she winked, "Telepathic rapport remember? Your shields have been down ever since you talked with Kiv Rever. You've been miserable ever since. Intense but miserable. It's time to lighten the load for an hour or more."

"It's just as well," Macen admitted, "I was just about done here. I was going to brief Tom before I called it a night. You should sit in on this."

"After dinner." T'Kir insisted.

"Your wish is my command, milady."

T'Kir wore a wry grin as she lifted the covers off of their plates, "If only."

"You wanted to see me?" Tom asked as he entered the Ready Room.

"Take a seat." Macen insisted, "I have some information you need."

Riker took the chair. T'Kir was curled up on the couch. The computer display just to the right of Macen's position was activated. Solarian Security System's corporate logo was prominently featured.

"Solarian Security Systems has held a Federation letter of marque for over two hundred years. It's considered to be the most prestigious of Security consultation firms." Macen began, "However, over the last four years Outbound Ventures has gouged out a twenty-seven percent cut of their total business. That figure has been steadily growing up until today."

Macen described Pike's report of the Solarian attacks on Outbound Ventures ships and crews. The recounting of the losses sobered both recipients of the recitation. Macen leaned against his desk and prompted the computer to display the next item. It was an advertised order of battle.

"According to Solarian's publications, they possess twelve combat capable vessels at all times." Macen revealed, "This was certainly demonstrated in their proven capability of striking six targets with two to one strength. They may actually have fourteen vessels but the attack on headquarters came several hours after the attack on the Raptor and she was travelling home."

"So a double whammy?" Riker wondered.

"That's my feeling but we'll run with a worst case scenario in our planning." Macen replied.

"What, exactly, are we planning on?" Riker asked with suspicion in his voice.

"We're currently travelling to Iotia." Macen began to answer, "While there, we will ascertain exactly what kind, and how many, of each vessel Solarian ordered. Next, we'll hire the Iotians ourselves to assist us in striking out at Solarian."

"Brin, respectively, we can't afford to be taking out revenge right now." Riker counselled.

"I'm not talking about revenge, I'm talking about justice." Macen stressed, "Hal Dracas and all of the dead Outbound Ventures employees were killed in acts of cowardice. I want to see those losses atoned for."

"That's Starfleet's responsibility." Riker rebutted, "Solarian operates within their jurisdiction."

"But most of their attacks took place outside of Federation territory." Macen pointed out.

"It sounds as though you've taken these attacks personally and are acting out a personal vendetta." Riker accused.

"You're damned right I'm acting out of personal rage." Macen said in a low voice, his eyes hardened, "I watched a personal friend get butchered. Over one hundred of my employees are now dead. I want to see the people responsible pay for those crimes. I want to be on hand when the Solarian employees and execs that planned and carried out these acts are apprehended."

"Why not simply execute them?" Riker's voice grew more resolute.

"I'm tempted." Macen admitted, "But I want to see legal justice done in order to prove to these people that laws exist and are enforced. As long as these people surrender, they'll live."

"And if they don't?" Riker demanded.

Macen shrugged, "They take their chances."

Riker stood suddenly, his features livid, "I won't be a party to this."

"Then you're relieved of duty for the duration."

Riker stiffened, "Very well. May I be dismissed?"

Macen folded his hands, "You may leave. Inform the shift's duty officer that you're relieved until further notice."

"Yes sir." Riker said stiffly and exited the room.

T'Kir hesitated for a moment then commented, "That's one unhappy boy."

Macen leaned back in his chair, "It'll do him good to sit this one out. If he's going to have a moral crisis, I want him off the bridge while he's having it."

"Hey, you'll get no arguments from me." T'Kir held up her hands, "I want to get Solarian as badly as you do."

Macen ruefully smiled, "You're probably the only one aboard besides Rab Daggit that would understand the strength of that feeling."

"We've buried too many friends." T'Kir opined, "A line needs to be drawn somewhere."

"It's more than that." Macen informed her, "Almost everyone else died during combat. That's expected. This was an unprovoked ambush. I won't let that go unanswered."

"You shouldn't have to." T'Kir agreed, "So we start with the Iotians. What comes next?"

"Depends on how many ships we can talk the Iotian Starfleet out of." Macen confessed.

"If they give us twelve or thirteen ships?

"Then we mount an immediate strike against Solarian."

"And if they don't?" T'Kir asked.

"Then we go to Plan B."

"Which is?" T'Kir prompted.

Macen grinned, "I'll hold that one in reserve."

"You poophead." T'Kir pouted.

"I believe there's an appropriate adage about sticks and stones that applies here." Macen's grin blossomed into a smile.

"Nice to see that back." T'Kir commented.

"Thanks for brining it back." Macen bowed his head.

"Let's say we blow this room and go have some fun?"

"Sounds good." Macen agreed, "Any ideas?"

"Sex is good." T'Kir playfully suggested.

"Fates, you're insatiable." Macen shook his head.

"Reminds me I'm alive." T'Kir replied with a smile, "Besides, I have to put the passion in ‘passionate Vulcan'."

"You succeed, trust me." Macen confessed.

"Good." T'Kir's smile grew brighter, "So how about some time in the gym and then some nooky?"

"I bow to your superior wisdom." Macen conceded.

"Good, otherwise I'd have to hurt you." T'Kir advised, "Besides, this way you can take out your anger and frustration on me. Should make for a wild ride."

"It should at that." Macen admitted.

T'Kir ran around the desk and kissed Macen on the cheek, "Lookin' forward to it. Now, c'mon."

Taking him by the hand, she led him out of the Ready Room and to the turbolift. Shannon Forger and the rest of the Gamma shift crew were amused to see their Captain and wife so playful.

 

Chapter Five

Ten minutes before the alpha shift was to begin, Macen contacted the Investigative Team and requested their presence in the main briefing room. Each officer in turn contacted their reliefs and ordered them to the bridge and Engineering. Kort merely called his fellow alpha shift med staffers and informed them that he would be briefly detained and to contact him in the course of an emergency. For Parva it meant that she wouldn't relieve her deputy chief engineer, Gilan.

Everyone gathered at the appointed place by the time their shift was due to begin. All had taken the opportunity to grab an extra mugfull of their beverage of choice. Coffee, in all its varied forms, dominated the selections. Parva preferred an Acamarian spice tea and Danan preferred a chilled Andorian elixir that Rhiann had introduced her to.

Macen sat at the head of the conference table. The room's primary display was just above his right shoulder. T'Kir, having already heard the news, had gone to the bridge to relieve Shannon Forger. The others assembled around the table and looked around.

"Where's Tom?" Radil asked.

"He's been relieved of duty." Danan answered before Macen could speak. Obviously Danan and Riker were continuing their nightly "debriefings". Macen wondered how thorough these exchanges were becoming.

"Is this true?" Grace yelped.

Macen nodded, "Tom objected to the action plan I'm about to present to you. Rather than force him into a conflicted position, I relieved him of duty for the duration."

"And what of us?" Kort enquired, "If we object, will we be relieved as well?"

Macen levelled his gaze on Kort and said firmly, "Yes, you will Doctor."

Macen activated the display, "After you see and hear the reasoning behind my plan, I think you'll agree that it's the wisest course of action."

Macen reiterated the presentation he'd made to Riker and T'Kir. Expressions had sobered considerably. He let the information sink in while he waited.

"And you're not letting Starfleet handle this because...?" Danan asked archly.

"Because we have a firmer grasp of the situation and a better chance of capturing the guilty parties." Macen replied.

"How?" she enquired, "By using mercenaries?"

"Our forces will be highly motivated to see this mission through." Macen explained, "The Iotians will be preserving their reputation as responsible shipwrights that only release their products into safe and qualified hands."

"You think they'll care?" Danan wondered.

"I do." Macen answered, "They want to legitimately expand their business. That won't happen if their first clients become little more than overpowered pirates."

"I still think you're relying too much on the Iotians' desire for credibility." Danan folded her arms.

"You're entitled to your opinion." Macen ended the debate and looked around, "Anyone else?"

"These ‘Solarians' are dishonourable cowards. We must find them and crush them."

Radil patted Kort's arm, "I won't go that far but I have no problem with us doing the appropriate butt kicking ourselves."

"I'm for it." Grace chimed in.

"I only have one question." Parva announced and leaned forward, "Will we execute the guilty?"

Macen shook his head, "No. We're going in to capture and release to the proper authorities. I say we need to do this ourselves because Solarian will just present doctored ships' logs showing that their vessels were all gainfully employed at other locations."

Macen folded his hands together in front of him, "Christine Pike is compiling the sensor readings from our surviving ships but it turns into a case of our word against theirs. Their lawyers can drag this process out for years."

Macen leaned forward, "I'm all for due process but I say we take their headquarters and pull the damning evidence out of their own databases. Starfleet will be hampered by regulations and procedures that we, acting as privateers, can kindly sidestep."

Daggit released a long breath of air, puffing his cheeks out, "Put that way, I don't see how anyone can object to our taking this on."

"I can." Danan said and looked squarely at Macen, "You'll have to count me out on this one too, Brin."

Macen nodded, "I understand. You and Tom try and enjoy at least a little bit of your time off. Too many ethical crises can age you."

"Is that why you're so ageless, you have no conscience?" Danan flung at him.

Macen's features hardened with resolve, "I would think that you would know better."

Danan nodded at her former lover, "You're right. That was unfair of me. You're being understanding and trying to allow me to protect my moral toes and I'm being a guttersnipe. Forgive me."

"No problem." Macen said but remained stern, "A lapse here and there is understandable."

"If you'll excuse me." Danan requested and rose at Macen's nod. She left the briefing and sought out Riker. She found him in the gym and asked him to follow her to the Team Room. It was full of just relieved gamma shift crewmen and the noise would drown out their conversation.

Back in the briefing room, Macen was concluding the briefing, "T'Kir is going to collate all of our sensor data on the two ships that attacked and use it to provide the Iotian Starfleet a clear picture of what's being done with their products."

"I still don't see why they'll care." Daggit admitted.

"If the ships were being used to conduct a war, that's an affair of state. Stellar nations war against one another all the time." Macen paused to allow Daggit time to recall the Tarsus wars and the Dominion War, "This was an act of piracy. Mercenary piracy at that. If it becomes known that Iotia will sell to anyone, including pirates and criminals, then the legitimate buyers will stop coming and all that'll be left is the criminals. Eventually the criminals will turn on them and attempt to take what they want by force. The Iotians' unique history grants them a keener insight into the criminal mind then you'll find with the average Federation citizen."

Daggit nodded, shrugged and grinned, "I see. Thank you for that clarification. There goes my last qualm."

Suddenly the meeting was interrupted by Macen's chirping comm badge. Macen tapped it and waited to see who was calling. He was somewhat relieved that T'Kir's voice came across the circuit.

"Sorry to interrupt but you've got an urgent hail."

"From who?" Macen frowned.

"Admiral Drake."

Macen sighed, "All right. We were almost done here anyway. Pipe the message here."

"Gotcha." T'Kir was far too chipper for Macen's taste. She could taste his irritation and discomfort via their telepathic rapport. She found his uneasiness amusing.

The rest of the team excused themselves and left Macen alone with the computer's monitor, "Computer, accept the incoming signal."

Admiral Amanda Drake looked harried and gravely tired, "Whatever it is you're planning on doing, stop."

Macen looked innocent and pointed at himself, "Am I planning on doing something?"

"Dammit Brin!" Drake snapped, "Chris has already told me about what happened. You're too bull-headed not to respond to this yourself. I just got done with a rather heated discussion with Tom Riker where he claims you're recruiting the Iotian Starfleet to wage a private war with Solarian Security Systems."

"I wouldn't call it a war." Macen replied calmly.

"So it's true then?" Drake waved her hand, warding off his reply, "Don't answer that. I already know the answer. Let's settle for ‘what would you call it'?"

"A police action." Macen said, "I plan on arresting everyone at Solarian's primary operations hub and conducting an investigation as to what happened yesterday."

"I keep forgetting that you have your ship's shift schedule based upon the Barrinoran day." Drake rubbed her temples, "Brin, this is a job for the traditional fleet forces. I can authorise you to investigate Iotia's ties into this matter but no more."

"But will you?" Macen said wearing a wry expression.

"Will I what?" Drake asked, obviously confused.

"Will you authorise my investigations?" Macen said slowly.

"I may be bone tired Brin but I heard that plural." Drake sighed, "I said ‘investigation', singular. There will not be an SID investigation into this matter. Not without more compelling evidence. This is something ships of the line can handle. We do actually have a few competent Starship crews, you know?"

Macen heaved a massive sigh, "All right, Amanda. I'll try playing it your way. But if the Iotians give up anything its back to plan A."

"I'm still not comfortable with your using the Iotians." Drake informed Macen, "They're unstable. That's why the Federation has only maintained limited contact with them since they stole warp technology from us."

Macen grinned, "They tapped into an educational seminar on warp mechanics and engineering. It was a primer for high school students."

"All of this is because of that damned communicator." Drake shook her head, "Admiral McCoy is a lovable old coot but I could strangle him for leaving his communicator behind."

"Now I know you're tired." Macen chuckled, "What's keeping you up late?"

"Team 4's latest investigation has led to the Orion Syndicate and we've just exchanged bloody noses." Drake Drake's reply reminded Macen that his group was dubbed Team 1. It was a dubious honour bestowed upon the original SID team. It also was indicative of Drake's concern for her people.

"Losses happen, Amanda, you know that as well as I do." Macen said quietly.

She returned with a fierce gaze that gradually melted away into a sorrowful expression, "And that's why I'll add this caveat to your orders, in memory of Hal Dracas, if your investigation leads to a tie to Solarian Security Systems and falls within our established mandates, I hereby authorise you to take whatever actions you deem necessary to bring these killers to justice."

Drake held up a finger, "But that narrows the scope of your authorisation. If you stray from these parameters or indulge in any creative interpretation of my orders, I'll charge you with insubordination and throw you to the wolves."

Drake graced Macen with a nasty smile, "I'm sure Edward Jellico would love to have an excuse to convene a court-martial on your behalf."

Yeah," Macen responded with a rueful grin, "I'm certain Old Iron Butt would love to try and hang me."

"Let me guess, another of T'Kir's alliterations?" Drake asked dryly.

"Got it in one." Macen proudly smiled.

"You know, she might not be quite so...eccentric if you didn't encourage her erratic behaviours."

Macen shook his head, "The erratic behaviours are her chief attraction."

"That's because you're mental too." Drake opined.

Macen gave her a mock bow, "Thank you for all the gracious praise but really, it's too much."

"Case in point, everyone else would find that insulting but you take it as a compliment." Drake slowly shook her head.

"Speaking of bent characters," Macen said with sudden realisation, "tell the Bajoran Militia that we have a present for them."

Drake's eyebrows quirked and Macen elucidated, "We have Harry Mudd IV in custody."

"So someone finally corralled that rogue." Drake brightened, "I'll call the Militia in the morning. Is he in the brig?"

"So far he's got the run of the nonrestricted areas of the ship supervised at all times by an armed escort." Macen explained.

Drake pursed her lips and rested her forefinger on her chin, "I think it would be better to put him in the brig. You're going into a potentially hostile situation and you'll need your Security forces unencumbered."

"I'm going to get an earful from Mudd but I'll gladly throw him into lockdown and disable the forcefield's deactivation button." Macen said with an anticipatory grin.

"I'm glad that was so easily settled." Drake said with a wry grin, "Normally, every order or suggestion I make becomes a negotiation."

Macen put a hand on each cheek and adopted a horrified look, "No!"

"Knock it off wise guy." Drake warned, "I don't know why I tolerate your attitude."

"Because my team and I are the best you have." Macen replied sagely.

"If only that weren't true." Drake said wistfully, "Life would be so much easier."

"Already regretting reinstating the SID privateer program?" Macen chastised her, "I gave it another month before you gave up on that policy again."

Drake's lips puckered, "Why a month?"

"I assumed my investigation and subsequent operations would be concluded in a month."

"Operations?" Drake's frowned.

"Well, after securing the operations hub, I'd have to come to Earth and arrest the chief executives in corporate headquarters." Macen nonchalantly responded.

Drake's eyes widened, "You were going to conduct a raid in the very heart of Starfleet?"

Macen sighed, "This attitude is why I don't want this matter left up to the fleet. This Solarian operation has to have been authorised at the highest echelon of the corporate chain of command."

"I still find it improbable that Solarian Security Systems attacked you. I think you'll find it was the Iotians themselves that mounted this operation." Drake countered, "They could have duplicated Solarian's ID transponder codes the same way they've duplicated 23rd century Starfleet technology. Solarian is the most trusted privateer organisation in the Federation. They've been in business since the 22nd century. They have more of Starfleet's trust than any other security firm in the Federation with the exception of Outbound Ventures."

"The fact that every one of your employees and captains is either ex-Starfleet or a former SID agent garners you more trust than even Solarian commands." Drake assured Macen, "Someone could have hired the Iotians to shut you down and frame Solarian's people. With the two top convoy escort firms out of business trade routes across the Federation and beyond would suddenly become fair game for raiders."

Macen thought about it and conceded she had a point, "I hadn't thought of that."

"You've been distracted by you grief over the Chief's death." Drake observed, "Strong emotion will throw anybody's game off."

Macen wore a rueful grin, "I'm the empath, remember? I recognise the truth behind your observation more than the average humanoid. This lapse is embarrassing."

"I'm not saying I'm right, but it's something to keep in mind." Drake suggested.

"I certainly will." a humbled Macen replied, "This changes my whole approach with the Iotians."

"I wish you luck, Brin." Drake said earnestly, "I want to see Hal Dracas' murderers caught as badly as you do."

"We'll take the luck, and a sobered commanding officer, and see what we come up with." Macen promised.

"Report as soon as you find anything out." Drake insisted.

"I will. As soon as I'm able to I'll report any and all findings." Macen swore.

"And if it actually happens, I'll know that miracles never cease." Drake laughed and then signed off.

Macen rubbed his chin as he pondered Drake's theory and knew that it had more merit than his own original concept. The turning in of Dracas to the Troglytes still had Solarian's stink all over it, as did the "coincidence" of the Obsidian being attacked in the Ardanian system. It was entirely too possible that Solarian had hired the Iotians to do the dirty work while they sat back and reaped the benefits. It was also a distinct possibility that this was a rogue operation within the ranks of Solarian itself.

With this adjusted framework in mind, Macen exited the briefing room and made his way to the nearest turbolift. He named the bridge as his destination and settled in to enjoy the brief ride. When he strode onto the bridge he was surprised to find T'Kir still occupying his seat.

"Bucking for a promotion?" he teased as he rounded the dual command station and faced her.

"Yah," she grinned like a naughty child, "this command stuff looks pretty easy. Thought I might try it out for awhile."

Macen searched the room and was surprised to find Radil present on the bridge, conversing with Daggit, "Jenrya, I need you to place Mr. Mudd in the brig for the duration."

"Thank the Prophets." she burst out, "It's about frinxing time."

"Rab, you have the bridge." Macen informed him, "I need to speak with T'Kir in my Ready Room."

"This just an excuse to hold a make out session, isn't it?" Grace chimed in.

"Hannah, you're more than welcome to join us." Macen invited her.

"Where's the fun in that?" Grace demanded, "Takes all the joy out of the innuendo."

"You'll survive." Macen said and took T'Kir's hand to guide her out of the command chair and towards his office.

Later inside the Ready Room, after Macen had described Drake's theory to T'Kir and Macen's further deductions based upon that theory, T'Kir whistled; "Seems like the good Admiral has beaten you at your own game."

Macen shrugged, "Amanda Drake was something of a young turk in Starfleet Intelligence's Operations Division. I was the premier star of the Analysis Division before my transfer to Ops. Its no shame to be second guessed by her."

"It's just such a rare thing." T'Kir said with a victorious smile, "You never admit you're wrong and it's something of a thrill to see it happen."

"I admit when I'm wrong." Macen said defensively.

"Like, once a year." T'Kir retorted.

"So?" Macen insisted, "It just means I'm only wrong once a year."

"Oh, the sound of expanding egos rapidly filling this room." T'Kir accused.

"All right. I may have a slight problem with admitting I'm wrong." Macen conceded, "But you have to admit, I'm proven right rather than wrong more often than not."

"You get lucky." T'Kir countered.

Macen rolled his eyes and T'Kir laughed, "Okay, maybe you are almost as good as you think you are."

T'Kir knew that Macen was actually more humble then he was letting on. As the Mission Commander of the SID team and Commanding Officer of the Obsidian, Macen had to project an aura of invincibility in order to inspire the troops and inspire them to outperform themselves. It was a technique taught to every cadet at Starfleet Academy but it still worked.

Besides, Macen actually did proceed with a certain sense of destiny and invincibility. He was so certain of the course he'd plotted that he would proceed headlong into the very fires of Hell because he knew he'd survive to tell the tale. A great deal of this stemmed from Macen's ability to read time-space probabilities, or the Currents as the El-Aurians called them. Macen was in a very real sense guided by his intuitive grasp on what may happen over the next few hours.

T'Kir had never before encountered such a sensation until Macen had finally allowed her into his mind. What had once seemed to be a masterful analytic ability proved to instead be a knack for feeling his way through a situation. Combined with his low level empathic talents, Macen's gifts attested to an arcane knowledge of a hidden world. It was an ability that had been honed by the Seekers of Truth and amplified by the Nexus.

But all of this was predicated on Macen's accurate interpretation of the salient facts and his own instincts. This was an example of how Macen had superimposed what he wanted to be over what probably was. T'Kir shuddered to think of what may have happened if the Obsidian had blindly flown into the Iotians' arms. She doubted if even Daggit and Grace's enhanced reflexes could have ensured enough survival time to allow the outgunned surveyor to flee.

Thinking of Grace made T'Kir reflect upon her fair skinned friend. Grace typically wore her shoulder length blonde tresses pulled back. Her large brown doe eyes could flash with wrath or melt your heart with heartbreaking vulnerability. Grace's figure nearly mirrored T'Kir's own voluptuous form.

Grace owed her Germanic goddess looks and figure to the perfect genome inherent to the Kelvans' adopted human forms. Grace was stronger, faster, and smarter than the average Terran. Grace had opted to live as a human amongst her teammates rather than to return to New Kelva. She was rapidly learning what it meant to be fully human.

Rab Daggit, on the other hand, was a study of granite features and a body hewn out of solid rock and sculpted into a model of physical fitness. His close-cropped, greying brown hair was in constant danger of being shaven off altogether. The purple and grey mark on his right temple denoted where the Angosian military scientists had implanted the control to the psychological conditioning that enabled him to become the perfect soldier. Various other implants throughout his nervous and endocrine systems and his musculature enhanced his physical capabilities by a hundred fold.

Daggit's relationship with Parva was grounding the former commando and reintroducing him to his emotional side. Their flowering love affair was a sight to behold. She was all passion and fierceness and he was all controlled power and lethality. It made for some rousing trysts and even more spectacular fights.

The thought of Parva amused T'Kir. The Orion engineer was uncomfortable around the Vulcan. Parva feared a telepathic probe from T'Kir. The truth was that in her previous, less medicated state T'Kir had scanned Parva's mind in an unguarded moment. The former sex slave's past elicited a protective sympathy from T'Kir and she had shared Parva's secrets with no one outside of Macen, who would likely pick up on T'Kir's thoughts when she was ruminating on the matter.

Parva's raven hair was banded by two platinum streaks that framed her face. She'd recently trimmed her previously wild mane of hair back into a jaw length bob. Her eyes were nearly black, a rarity amongst Orions that had made her extremely desired and valuable amongst the slave traders. She'd had her revenge though, first by escaping and fleeing to the Federation where she had learned a trade and specialised in starship engineering and maintenance. After she'd spent time as an engineer for a major shipping firm she'd subsequently been posted as a project manager at Utopia Planitia.

It was there that Hal Dracas had met her and later recommended her to be his replacement while he left on a sabbatical with the Baku. She introduced a new element into the team: unbridled restlessness. She was constantly tinkering with the ship's systems and the weapons in the armoury to improve their capabilities and performance. Daggit took the edge off and grounded her.

Macen interrupted her reverie, "You're lost in thought."

She smiled, "Just reflecting on the mission and members of the team."

"Anything I should know?" Macen's right eyebrow rose.

T'Kir shook her head, "Nothing important. It can wait for a private moment."

"This is a private moment." Macen remarked.

"I mean it's nothing that can't wait until we're off duty." T'Kir laughed.

"Well," Macen propped his cheek up with his fist, "That leaves calling Tom and Lees and calling another briefing session."

"You think they'll want to attend?" T'Kir was surprised.

"I think they'll sign back on with our new mission parameters." Macen replied, "If not, we can still proceed without them."

I have to admit I never thought I'd see the day that there'd be dissension in the ranks." T'Kir admitted, "Up till now you've had quite a cult of personality going."

"Nothing lasts forever." Macen said sagely, "Lees has her own reasons for being reserved about any call I make and Tom should be in command of his own ship rather than being XO for this one."

"No arguments here." T'Kir said and uncurled from the couch, "Want me to summon everyone to the briefing room and get the reliefs back here."

"If you would." Macen bestowed her with a grateful smile, "I'll handle the calls to Tom and Lees personally."

"Natch." T'Kir said and rose. She'd tapped her comm badge and was conversing with one of the relief officers as she exited.

Macen took a deep breath and tapped his own comm badge, "Riker."

The computer cycled the call to the appropriate comm badge and Riker groggily responded, "Riker here."

"Tom, it's Brin. I need you to attend a briefing in fifteen minutes. There's been some new information come to light and we're changing our operations plan."

"What kind of ‘change'?" Riker asked with suspicion.

"We're investigating the Iotians rather than recruiting them." Macen informed him, "My approach was wrong because, as you said, I let my emotions cloud the issue. Admiral Drake and I had a nice long talk and she presented me with an alternative theory I think bears investigating."

"Well, good. I'll be there in a few." Riker replied.

"Now I'll call Lees and hopefully she'll come as well." Macen said.

"Don't...bother calling her." Riker sounded hesitant, "She's heard every word you've said and she's coming as well."

"What? Oh...I see. Are congratulations in order?" Macen asked.

"I'd like to think so. Everything has been rather impromptu." Riker confessed, "We're still sorting through it all."

Macen chuckled, "Well, keep me informed. I'm glad you'll be at the briefing. It didn't feel right going into action without you, either of you."

"It's good to be back." Riker replied, "I hope."

"Trust me." Macen said, "You'll be pleased with the new mission parameters."

"Hope to find that out." Riker said, "But we'll be seriously late if you don't cut the line and let us shower."

"Right." Macen said and terminated the connection.

Tom and Lees. he thought, Can't say T'Kir and I didn't see that one coming. I wonder how Hannah is going to react?

 

Chapter Six

Macen exited his Ready Room and saw the gleeful expression on T'Kir's face, "I was thinking a little too loud, eh?"

"You were broadcasting like an emergency beacon." she gushed, "Elements, Lisea moves fast. I didn't think Tom was over Jamie's death yet."

"He isn't." Macen replied, "Not entirely anyway. He still mourns her but he isn't consumed by grief any more. Lees has become a source of ready comfort. Apparently Tom needed a little extra comfort last night."

T'Kir made to reply but Grace interrupted, "Hey, what're you talking about?"

"You'll find out soon enough." Macen replied, "I don't want to ruin the surprise."

"Fine." Grace sulked.

"Is it my imagination or is she acting more like you every day?" Macen asked T'Kir.

T'Kir beamed, "She has excellent taste in role models."

"We'll see." Macen retorted.

"Where's the faith?" T'Kir demanded, "Skip that, where's the love?"

"Right where it's always been." Macen took her hand, kissed it and then touched his forehead and then his breastbone, "Here and here at the very centre of my being."

T'Kir canted her head to one side, "Is it any wonder why I love you?"

Macen grinned, "Not to me. Anyway, you'll be in command while I brief the others."

"Command?" T'Kir's eyes brightened and she rubbed her hands together, "Clear off the bridge of my ship mister or I'll have you in irons."

"Another briefing? Really? I thought she was joking." Grace lamented, "We just had one."

"Damn." Macen murmured, "Her ears are almost as good as yours."

T'Kir nodded, "It's that genetically perfect thing. She really is the ultimate expression of human capability, at least at this stage of their development."

"She and Rab should form a club." Macen muttered.

"She wanted to and more, remember?" T'Kir adopted a mischievous grin.

"Sore subject." Grace hollered back, "Just drop it. Thank you."

The turbolift doors opened and the relief officers arrived.

"All right, I have to do this again and correct my previous screw up." Macen said.

"This should be good." Grace remarked as she proceeded to the lift.

Macen briefed the team. Riker and Danan conceded that the new ops plan was far more in keeping with their ideals than the previous plan. Macen apologised for the second time over his previous error.

"It's understandable." Daggit assured him, "We were all mad about Hal's death ands the attacks on the other Outbound Ventures ships and the losses there. Any one of us would have drawn the same conclusion."

Macen ignored Riker's shake of the head, "Thanks. We have a more realistic plan now and an official sanction from the SID Director herself."

"What about the Iotians' superior numbers and firepower?" Riker asked.

"I have a thought about that but it will require a detour." Macen answered.

"What kind of detour?" Grace asked.

"When we return to the bridge, I want you to plot us a course to 492 IV." Macen revealed.

"Magna Roma?" Grace asked, "We haven't been there since we told Alaric about Livia's death."

"The Romans have a debt to settle with Iotia." Macen said, "I'm willing to bet Alaric will offer us aid if we ask for it."

"How will flying into Iotian space with a Roman legion assist us in solving the mystery of whether or not the Iotians attacked us?" Riker demanded.

"I wasn't planning on flying into the dragon's mouth with an obvious escort." Macen explained, "The Star Legions will be held in ready reserve to come to our rescue if things go badly for us."

Riker settled down, "All right, that sounds better."

"This isn't a democracy Tom." Macen warned, "Don't start questioning every order I give."

"I'll remember that." Riker replied without any real commitment.

Macen could sense Riker's ambivalence and knew there was trouble for the days ahead. He could also sense everyone's deeper commitment to this objective than the last. He knew this was an appropriate time to adjourn the meeting.

As everyone began to file out of the briefing room, Macen called Riker's name and his XO stopped and turned, "Do you have a minute?"

"Of course. My shift doesn't start for another two hours." Riker replied.

"Good." Macen replied in kind, "If you ever go over my head again, I'll crucify you. You'll be finished within the SID and Outbound Ventures will fire you."

Riker's eyes narrowed, "Understood. Is there anything else?"

"Are you happy?" Macen asked.

"What?" Riker blurted, "What kind of question is that? I question your orders and suddenly you're asking if I'm happy?"

"You are ready for a command of your own." Macen asserted, "I'm just wondering if you're chafing at the bit."

"I'm happy in my role here, Brin." Riker assured him and Macen could detect the truth behind the words, "I wasn't thrilled with your previous game plan but that doesn't mean that I'm not content. I said I'd let you know when I felt ready for my own command and I meant it. My prior reservations still persuade me that I'm not ready for the command chair so I'll be happy to occupy the XO's seat for a while yet."

"All right." Macen replied, "That's what I needed to know."

"You're not going to grill me for another twenty minutes on whether or not I mean it?" Riker wondered.

"The trick with being an empath is quitting when you've felt the truth behind the words." Macen said.

"It wasn't this simple trying to convince you that I wanted to rejoin the crew." Riker reminded him.

"You were conflicted then." Macen explained, "When you said you were ready to forgo a command of your own and resume your role as XO, I accepted it with little questioning."

"I thought I'd just worn you down by then." Riker admitted.

"If this episode has taught you nothing else, it should have pointed out that I'm stubborn and hard to persuade." Macen asserted.

"Admiral Drake got through to you." Riker pointed out.

"I've known Amanda for a lot longer than I've known you." Macen confessed, "To be blunt, I trust her word more than I do yours. Even she has a hard time convincing me and I've known her for twenty years. It's one of the reasons why I still see her as a snot nosed junior officer and not as the Director of the SID."

"Yet she got through to you." Riker repeated.

"Even without empathy, I detected the truth behind her words." Macen revealed, "Your statements caused me to pause. Amanda's words, with two decades worth of weight behind them, caused me to reconsider. It's nothing personal. I've just staked my life on her judgement more times than I have yours."

"Lisea's right." Riker opined, "You really are more insular then you let on."

"I'm afraid my secret is out." Macen admitted, "I like you Tom and I even trust you to a point but not to the same degree that I trust Alynna Nechayev or T'Kir. They both know me to a degree that you don't. I in turn know them to an extreme that I don't know you. It's all relative."

"If T'Kir had disagreed with you from the first then you would have...?" Riker enquired.

"Probably dropped my original assessment at the beginning." Macen divulged, "Unfortunately, she proceeded with the same bias that I started with."

"It's a terrible thing to discover that the craziest person aboard holds more weight with you than your second in command." Riker opined.

"T'Kir and I know each other to a degree that you will never achieve or understand." Macen expressed, "Her opinion carries more resolutely with me than any other living soul."

"I see." Riker said, "I'm not certain that I completely understand but I see things more clearly than I ever have before."

"And that insight should steer you more straightly than before." Macen commented.

"If we're done here, I'd like to go settle a few things with Lisea." Riker revealed.

"Of course." Macen allowed.

Riker left and Macen paused before returning to the bridge. He and Riker had never seen eye to eye, but it had never posed an insurmountable odd before. That may be ending, Macen realised. The day was approaching when he and Riker would just not be able to come to terms.

Riker had grown over the trials and turmoil of the last few years. With growth had come the same sense of certainty that had proven to be Macen's downfall. Macen recognised it as the mark of a commander. He also knew it to be a potential hazard.

The day was swiftly approaching when Tom Riker had to leave his post. Macen had to prepare for replacing Riker. If things progressed the way they'd started, then Danan would be going with him as well. Shannon Forger was both unwilling and unready to assume the XO's slot. That left recruiting from the outside.

Not knowing where to start, Macen supposed he'd have to defer to Amanda Drake's good judgement on selecting candidates. He hated thinking about such things at this stage of the team's development. As T'Kir had stated once, the SID Investigative Team had melded into a family of sorts. A dysfunctional one to be sure but a family nonetheless.

The team had been fractured and split apart on more than one occasion but had always reunited. Macen feared that this time the fracture would be permanent. What would happen to the team in that event remained to be seen. He was certain they could survive if he found a worthy replacement up to the task of assuming Riker's duties, official and unofficial.

Danan would be just as hard to replace. The combination of covert operative and scientist was rare even amongst Starfleet personnel. Danan was a rare gem in many ways, Macen admitted to himself. Many people would call him a fool for allowing her to end their previous relationship. Macen would call any man or woman that would try to force her to maintain a half-hearted romance a fool.

Having clarified his concerns, Macen rounded the conference table and headed for the door. It was a short walk down the corridor to the lift. Once again, he proceeded to the bridge. And once again, T'Kir sat in the command chair.

He stepped to her side and waited for her to acknowledge him. She defiantly stared straight ahead.

"I'm not leaving." T'Kir declared, "Get your own starship."

"I did already." Macen countered, "You're sitting in right now like a queen upon the throne."

"You must be mistaken," T'Kir replied imperiously, "This ship was given to me by my husband, a dear, sweet man that would never rescind a gift."

"Yes, he would." Macen said and pulled her out of the chair, "Get to your own station."

"Ruffian." T'Kir accused, "I say you're a bounder, cad, lout and villain."

"Yeah, yeah." Macen scooted her on her way with a pinch on the butt. T'Kir's eyes sparkled as she retook her station at Ops. Daggit and Grace each seemed perfectly delighted with the exchange.

We live to amuse, Macen thought wryly, what an ignoble fate.

Oh, quit complaining. T'Kir's mental voice called out to him, It does the crew some good to see us relax and take a quiet moment to have some fun. Besides, can you see me as stuffy?

No, Macen thoughtcast back, I can't see conforming to anyone's standards of ‘proper' much less anything else.

Good. T'Kir mentally asserted, I'd hate to have to kill you.

"You already tried that, remember? Macen replied, Didn't work out so well for you the last time. This time I won't break you out of the sanatorium.

Will you let that drop? T'Kir pleaded, I was sick. I'm better now. Promise.

If I didn't already know that, I wouldn't have married you. Macen reassured her, It's just nice to have something to remind you that you're not perfect.

It would take something drastic like that to prove it, wouldn't it? T'Kir thought back. Macen could sense her amusement. Despite T'Kir's protestations over Macen's supposed aura of invincibility, she projected a pretty convincing air of infallibility herself.

Back to work, m'dear. Macen ordered, We have a ship to run.

Yes, darling. the sarcasm lacing T'Kir's thoughts projected across the rapport as well as her emotions.

"Hannah, what's our course?" Macen enquired.

"We're en route to Magna Roma, in the solar system catalogued as 492. Sector quarantine imposed by the Council of Five in 2269." Grace recited the facts, "Originally visited by SID Team One in 2376, six years ago I might add, and revisited in 2377 in order to inform the Emperor of the death of his sister as a member of the crew of the Eclipse."

"Okay," Macen held up his hands in surrender, "I bow before your encyclopaedic knowledge."

"As well you should." Grace's head bobbed authoritatively.

"Is everyone on this boat going to give me attitude from now on?" Macen lamented.

"Comes from having an informal chain of command." Daggit theorised.

"Thank you Rab." Macen retorted, "Would you prefer a dictatorship so you'd all have an excuse to mutiny?"

"Seems to me that can happen anyway." Daggit returned.

That brought Macen up short. It seemed his difficulties with Riker were becoming too transparent for comfort's sake. Steps had to be taken and soon. Receiving a mental nudge from T'Kir, Macen forced himself to think of other things.

"What's our ETA for the 492 sector border?" Macen asked.

"Nine hours, eleven minutes present speed." Grace answered.

"All right." Macen said, his mind made up, "T'Kir, summon the relief officers. Alert Radil and have her go off duty for nine hours, same with Kort. The EMH can pick up the slack. The rest of you will take time off and report back here in nine hours. I want my varsity team players at their posts when we cross the border."

"The gamma shift could handle that." Grace rejoined.

"The gammas are good but you all are better." Macen returned.

"Can't argue with that." Grace grinned.

After the relief officers came, T'Kir plopped down into the XO's seat beside Macen's command chair, "Staying here?"

Macen nodded, "For another two hours until Tom starts his shift."

"You two are sure butting heads." T'Kir observed, "Planning on getting rid of him?"

"Promoting him to his own command isn't ‘getting rid of him'." Macen clarified.

"What if he refuses to assume command of another ship?" T'Kir wondered.

"Then I get rid of him." Macen stated unequivocally.

"It's gonna get ugly either way." T'Kir warned.

Macen rolled his eyes, "Thank you, I already knew that."

"Don't get smart with me buster." T'Kir warned, "I know where you sleep."

"I would hope so." Macen remarked, "I'd hate to think that you couldn't find your way back."

"Another remark like that and I might develop amnesia." T'Kir decided.

"Heavens forefend." Macen said with mock gravity.

"Laugh if you must." T'Kir raised a warding hand and closed her eyes while wearing an expression of forbearance, "There's many a soul that would welcome me into their quarters."

"Besides Hannah?" Macen couldn't help but ask.

That earned him an irritated flash of the eyes, "Many a noble champion has sought me out. It's only my longsuffering nature that's allowed me to endure your bed."

"You want to leave? Leave and be done with it." Macen shrugged.

T'Kir stuck out her tongue, "You never want to play."

"Not like this, at least not when I'm on duty." Macen replied.

"All right." T'Kir heaved a submissive sigh, "So what d'we do until Tom gets here?"

Macen quirked an eyebrow, "Speculate on what he and Lees are talking about right now?"

T'Kir clapped her hands together, "Oh goodie! I like this game."

Riker had wandered down to the science labs nestled within the Obsidian's saucer section. Danan only had three techs to work with but they were highly competent. Any one of them could easily handle the science station on the bridge. Each of them came with their own areas of specialisation and the overlapping expertise granted the crew a fully developed scientific team.

That cohesion allowed the team to investigate such diverse and mystifying phenomena as "ultramatter", a fragment of primordial matter that predated the universe. Danan was still upset with Macen for surrendering their two ultramatter samples to the Kelvans. She couldn't try and persuade the Kelvans to grant her access to the material since the extragalactic refugees had dispatched the fragments to the void between galaxies. The data she had collected in her all too brief encounter with ultramatter was already being dissected by scientists across the Federation and was rapidly altering cosmological theories across the spectrum.

It was the closest that Danan had come to scientific immortality. Most of her more mundane researches generally revealed a new and creative means for murdering some poor unsuspecting sentient. She knew her discoveries had saved lives, would save future lives, and that the guilty were prosecuted but it wasn't the same as a major contribution. She'd made an impact on the scientific community as a whole and she wanted that to continue.

Danan's temperament had gelled during her time undercover in the Maquis with Macen. She no longer had the patience for strict lab work. She also craved action. Seeking to find a balance between her two pursuits had drawn her back into Macen's SID team.

Her personal life had been in upheaval since she'd left Macen. A series of torrid affairs had left her temporarily satisfied and then left wanting something more. This morning's encounter had been refreshing, hopefully for both of them. Danan wouldn't mind if the trend continued but she'd survive unscathed if it were a one time dalliance.

Riker's appearance, and serious mien, bespoke of potential trouble on the horizon.

"Tori, could you excuse us?" Danan asked her Benzite physical sciences tech.

"Of course." he replied and left the lab.

"How can I help you, Commander?" Danan lightly enquired.

"Lees, we need to talk." Riker intoned.

"Please," Danan sighed, "spare me a DTR."

"A what?" a confused Riker asked.

"A Determine The Relationship talk." Danan explained, "As far as I'm concerned, we don't need to approach our situation with that clinical of an eye yet."

"But this morning..."

"Was a wonderful thing." Danan expressed, "It was enjoyable and educational all at the same time. It's something I wouldn't mind repeating for as long as you're willing to. That doesn't mean I'm committing myself to a monogamous relationship with you. I like you Tom and I enjoy our time together. I really enjoyed this morning. It was the first time in a long time when I could fully relax and just embrace the moment."

"I want to keep seeing you and exploring the possibilities of a relationship but there isn't one, at least not yet." she continued, "You're in a hurry to cement things because of how Jamie was taken from you. You see yourself as having waited too long before committing to something permanent. Don't make the opposite mistake now. Overcommitting to a fledgling romance is just as potentially harmful as ignoring the real possibility of a lasting happiness."

"Let's just take things as they come." Danan advised, "The future is an unknown. Enjoy the journey of reaching tomorrow. We can have a lot of fun in the interim."

Riker whistled, "You should've been a man."

"I've been a man." Danan reminded him, "Twice. It was informative. I know how the other half thinks so I know the pitfalls and the warning signs. Take it from me, you're trying to move way too fast."

"Oookay." Riker expression was on of wry amusement, "That didn't go as planned but it was far better than what I intended. You were right. I was going to coerce you into establishing an informal union. Your way is far more healthy and satisfying in the long term."

"I'm glad you can admit it." Danan confessed, "I remember the pride that my male hosts had. It got in the way of a lot."

"I'm sure that some of your female hosts did too." Riker insisted.

Danan nodded, "Not that I'm all that humble myself."

"Your ego is well hidden by your common sense and humility." Riker observed.

Danan smiled brightly, "I knew there was a reason why I liked you. Keep talking."

"Well, uhhh..." Riker nervously rubbed the back of his head.

"I was only kidding." Danan squeezed his hand, "The nervous little boy act was cute though."

Riker grinned, "I can settle for cute."

"Actually I think you're quite sexy but don't quote me. I'll deny everything."

"I see." Riker stroked his beard, "I guess I'll get out of your way and let you get back to..."

"Prepping the labs in case of impending work." Danan supplied, "We never know when our department will get called upon."

"Same with Radil's forensics team." Riker compared.

Danan nodded, "Something like that except they usually get more warning then we do. We generally get prior notification if we're going to be solving a murder case. Scientific inquiry just crops up. And we have to be prepared to answer any question or mystery that crops up regardless of the particular science that is used to solve it."

Riker ran a hand through his hair, "And here I'd thought the science team had it easy."

"I could double my staff and still be overwhelmed." Danan admitted, "If my team didn't love mysteries and challenges, Brin would be up a proverbial creek."

"Speaking of Brin, he won't be a problem will he?"

"No." Danan smiled wistfully, "He and I parted ways quite amicably. From what I could tell at the last briefing, he's generally happy over our liaison. He and T'Kir have probably been speculating over it for quite some time."

"You think?" Riker was less certain.

"By the Pools, Tom, T'Kir's a frinxing telepath. She's probably ‘overheard' enough stray thought to make her suspicious. Brin's an empath. I don't know about you but I've been slowly building up to this morning's release for some time now. Those types of emotions are hard to hide."

Danan shrugged, "Besides which, Brin's entire race are considered to be ‘Listeners'. He studiers every little physical and verbal clue he sees."

"In other words, they knew before we did." Riker wore a rueful smile.

"'Fraid so." Danan laughed.

"I'm glad this amuses you." Riker retorted, "I feel a little put upon myself."

"They can't help being what they are Tom." Danan replied, "Part of being around them is accepting them for who and what they are."

"You didn't think so this morning." Riker pointed out.

"I know." Danan admitted, "That was a matter of conscience not of acceptance. I was allowing Brin to make his own mistakes without compounding them with my own participation."

"I went over his head." Riker confessed, "I commed Admiral Drake and told her what was going on. Brin's mad but it made him see reason."

"I'm amazed." Danan commented, "I'm amazed that he saw reason and I'm amazed he didn't throw you out an airlock."

"We had words." Riker sniffed, "He's warned me of future reprisals if I call Drake again."

"You're lucky that's all that occurred." Danan advised, "The same trauma history that caused Brin to make the leap of illogic that he did this morning is the same psychological scar that would cause him to treat you as a threat. As we all know, Brin reacts quite...strongly to threats."

"T'Kir is no help since she is similarly traumatised." Danan added, "They need a check and balance system when it comes to reacting to threatening situations and people. They both have a knee jerk ‘crush the threat' reaction that catapults them, and subsequently us, into action."

"Brin's as much as told me that T'Kir is the only person aboard that he'll listen to." Riker revealed.

"Then, in those circumstances, we have a problem that will rear its ugly head again." Danan grimly assessed the situation.

"That's what I was afraid you were going to say." Riker pursed his lips, "What can we do?"

"If you believe in a supreme being, I suggest you pray." Danan offered, "Other than that, all we can do is find someone that he will listen to and bring them aboard."

"Great." Riker grumped, "We could get killed before that happens."

"Unfortunately, you're right." Danan agreed.

 


Proceed to Part II

 

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