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Twilight - Part III by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter Thirteen

Joachim Kohl emerged from the turbolift onto the bridge with thirty-seven seconds remaining before the alpha shift started. As Kohl began to move towards the command station, he noticed T'Kir giving him a bemused smile. As he rounded the command station and set his sword down beside the XO's seat, Kohl noticed that Macen was also looking at him with some amusement.

"I'm sorry about my tardiness, Captain." Kohl apologised, "It shan't happen again."

"You look tired, Mr. Kohl." Macen observed, "Did you have trouble sleeping?"

Kohl shuffled his feet, "I spent the evening learning about my progenitor. I have nearly finished the selection of personal logs you provided."

"There's more where that came from." Macen revealed, "I'll authorise their release to you."

"And another thing," Kohl was suddenly emboldened, "I've made a decision about my new life. I no longer wish to be known as Joachim Kohl."

Macen's eyebrow quirked upward, "And what would you like us to call you then?"

"I wish to carry on the legacy of courage and service that my progenitor established. Over the last night I found myself closer to Hal Dracas then I have ever been to my ‘adopted family' on Magna Roma. I want to carry on that connection by adopting Dracas' surname and make it my own."

The would be Dracas was suddenly aware of every eye on the bridge studying him, "I mean no disrespect. On Magna Roma we carry the names of our fathers with pride and try to live up to the legacy begun by them. Hal Dracas was a great man who has inspired me to do my absolute best in whatever service my Emperor sees fit to place me in. I ask this as a orphan seeking his true father for the first time."

Macen smiled, "I don't know how we could refuse you then." He twisted in his seat, "T'Kir, alter the databanks. Joachim Dracas joined the crew yesterday and arrived for duty this morning."

"You got it." T'Kir replied happily.

"Good choice." Daggit offered Dracas, "You'll do Hal proud."

"Welcome to the family." Grace called out, giving Dracas a thumb's up.

"Back to your stations people." Macen insisted, "We're almost to the Iotian frontier. Who knows how far they've stretched beyond their borders since we were last here."

"We're almost at the drop off." Grace announced, "ETA 12 minutes."

"Drop off?" Dracas asked as he sat down beside Macen's chair. Macen activated a control on the console separating the two and a small stellar map displayed on a screen.

"The illuminated dot is where we're leaving our Roman escort. We'll proceed into this green shaded area and test the Iotians' reaction to our presence."

"So," Dracas grinned appreciatively, "this is where it gets dangerous."

"One thing you'll find working with us," Macen counselled, "is that your life will never lack for peril."

Dracas smiled, "I look forward to it then."

"Are you a Roman or a Klingon?" Macen asked.

"I'll to look into your second reference before answering." Dracas admitted.

"Add Cardassians and Romulans to the list and you'll have the other three major powers in the Alpha Quadrant." Macen advised, "I'll bookmark the files for your data console."

"I'd be grateful." Dracas sighed, "I'm still getting used to all of your various species and empire names."

"So are we." Macen laughed, "Our alien database grows every day and empires change names and borders all the time."

Dracas smiled at the truth behind the joke, "Then it's essential that I begin my education right away."

"You will." Macen assured him, "First you have to explore yourself and your place in the galaxy a bit. Then you need to know how this ship and crew functions. Finally, you'll need to search the databases on the major powers and their relevance in interstellar relations."

"So much studying." Dracas complained, "Where is the action?"

"You'll see action when you're prepared for it and you've earned my trust." Macen promised.

"Does this have anything to do with my being a clone?" Dracas asked with suspicion.

Macen laughed, "No, it has to do with you coming from a third rate power and being at least a century behind on the technology surrounding you."

"The new Banner-class cruisers are the equal to this craft." Dracas proudly proclaimed.

"This ship is the least among the Federation's front line vessels." Macen confided, "This one has actually been substantively upgraded from the original design."

"Truly?" Dracas asked in wonder, "It is virtually weaponless."

"We don't look for trouble." Macen explained, "It just finds us."

"Still," Dracas argued, "to assign a paltry vessel like this to a unit such as yours is..."

"Perfectly logical." Macen countered, "We're a covert ops unit hired by a special operations agency to be discreet. We have a surveyor because it isn't warship. It's research vessel. This allows the subjects of our investigations to lower their guard and trust us to a point. This is an invaluable first impression."

"So what happens when they meet you in person?"

"Usually?" Dracas nodded and Macen shrugged, "We get shot at."

"I thought as much." Dracas replied.

"Captain, we're almost on top of the drop off point." Grace announced

"T'Kir, signal Scipio and wish him well." Macen ordered.

A moment later, T'Kir replied with, "Commander Scipio acknowledges and awaits your signal."

"Here we go." Macen murmured.

A few hours later, Dracas was reviewing technical manual on padds that T'Kir had provided. The technologies uniting the different parts of the ship were becoming organic in his perspective. He could understand how each component fit in with the next. He could swear he was channelling the spirit of Hal Dracas.

"May I spend the rest of my shift down in Engineering?" Dracas asked.

"Certainly." Macen permitted and Dracas was out of his seat and in the turbolift before anyone could react.

"Somebody warn Parva." Macen suggested.

"What the hell are you doing with that thing in here?" Parva demanded, pointing at Dracas' sword.

"A legionnaire is never found without his sword." Dracas puffed out his chest.

"Honey, this ain't the Legion." Parva replied, "You're in the middle of my damn engine room and I'm a second away from ripping you in half!"

Dracas just looked at her with a defiant glare and Parva sighed, "Macen's not the only person on this ship that knows how to fight with a sword. I'm twice as strong as you are, faster, and a whole lot meaner. Take it from me, you're better off taking the thing off and returning it to your quarters."

Dracas seemed on the verge of arguing when Parva added, "You can argue with me or with the Captain. Take your pick."

Dracas subsided and exited Engineering. He stormed off to his quarters and threw the sword across the bed. Squaring his shoulders he turned on his heel and marched straight back to Engineering.

"Satisfied?" he demanded of Parva.

"Better." she conceded, "I can deal with the attitude. I've got a bit of one myself. Just remember, since Hal Dracas left this ship, this has been my Engineering compartment. I'm the goddess here. Everything you do in here is an act of worship and I punish those that don't offer fealty."

That, at least, was an attitude familiar to Dracas, "I'll do my part. Answer a few questions and I can begin work immediately."

A lopsided smirk landed on Parva's face, "You wouldn't mind of I had a few people check on your work?"

"Not at all." Dracas replied, "It would only be prudent."

"Okay, ask away." Parva relented and Dracas began his questions.

"We've got a sensor return." T'Kir announced, "Approaching from 90.36, 38 degrees down bubble."

"Classification?" Macen asked.

"It appears to be a Constitution-class analogue." T'Kir reported, "She's running with shields up but her weapons and targeting arrays are powered down."

"Raise shields." Macen ordered, "Sound General Quarters but do not target the Iotian ship."

"They're slowing and turning to come along side." T'Kir informed Grace.

"Match velocity and distance." Macen ordered.

"Brin," T'Kir looked up from her sensor read outs, "This isn't an ordinary Constitution-class, it's a Constitution refitted into an Enterprise-class."

"They're alongside now, Captain, and matching velocity at warp 6." Grace reported.

"Take us down to warp 5 and see what they do." Macen rubbed his chin.

"They're decelerating with us and maintaining distance." Grace informed him.

"They don't want to get too close in case the shooting starts." Macen opined.

"I'd do the same." Daggit admitted.

"T'Kir, put me on hailing frequencies." Macen waited for the camera light above the viewer to come on and then he began, "To the Captain of the Iotian vessel, this is Captain Brin Macen of the Federation starship, Obsidian. I've entered your sovereign space on an urgent mission that will assist the Iotian government, and Starfleet, in clearing its name before interstellar relations are irreparably damaged. Please acknowledge my signal as a gesture of good faith and we can begin the process of restoring your service's good name."

The transmission ended and the turbolift doors opened to disgorge Riker, "Have we met the Iotians?"

"Just hailed them." Macen replied, "Now we wait and see if they can do something besides match our course and speed."

Riker took his seat beside Macen's, "Where's wonder boy?"

Macen was irked but refused to show it, "Joachim is down in Engineering getting a tutorial from Parva."

Riker chuckled darkly, "That should prove educational."

To Riker's left, Daggit bristled but remained silent. Riker counted his blessings that the Angosian didn't feel called upon to defend his girlfriend's honour. Riker had doubts as to whether he could weather an assault by Parva. He knew he didn't stand a shadow's chance in Hell against Daggit.

"Brin, the Iotian ship is returning your hail." T'Kir interrupted.

"Visual feed?"

"You betcha."

"Put it on the main screen." The image on the viewer changed from a starfield warped by faster than light travel to that of a humanoid in his early thirties. He wore a Starfleet gold tunic with the breast insignia of the Iotian Starfleet Command. Seated in his command chair with his legs crossed, Macen could also make out his black pants and boots. He was the very image of a mid 23rd century Federation Starfleet officer.

"This Captain Pollux of the ISS Enterprise." the sandy haired man began, "I return your greetings and look forward to hearing how you can enhance the reputation of the Iotian Starfleet."

"I look forward to clearing our potential dispute." Macen replied, "Several days ago, ships and employees belonging to my company were assaulted and killed by Iotian Starfleet vessels. We have transcribed sensor logs as well as personal logs attesting to this fact. We seek the Iotian Starfleet's assistance in tracking down and prosecuting the guilty parties."

"You have proof that these were Iotian ships?" Pollux asked.

"We have proof of the classes of starships used and their point of origin." Macen answered, "The ships themselves flew with ID transponders belonging to Solarian Security Systems."

Pollux's lips twitched at the mention of Solarian's name, "Exactly what kind of prosecution are you seeking?"

"Disciplinary actions taken by the Iotian Starfleet would suffice as well as any clues as to how Iotian ships came by Solarian transponders." Macen replied, "I want to know who issued the orders leading to my people's deaths."

Pollux paused, "Send me your proof. I'll contact my superiors and get advice on how to proceed. In the meantime, if you could drop out of warp and proceed on impulse power, it would be greatly appreciated."

"Of course." Macen bowed his head, "Hannah, drop us to half impulse."

"Yes, sir." she reluctantly complied.

"T'Kir, ready with the data feed?"

"As soon as they are."

"Give 'em what we've got." Macen ordered.

Forty-five minutes later, the crew of the Obsidian was still waiting on word from the Enterprise.

"Maybe if we lobbed a torpedo up their butt they'd get their asses in gear." T'Kir opined.

"It can't be easy to learn that some of your own were involved in something like this." Macen replied, "Give them time."

"Sure." T'Kir said warily, "What else have we got to give them?"

A telltale on T'Kir's board lit up, "Hey! Guess who's decided to signal?"

"Put it on the viewer." Macen maintained his composure despite his wife's ranting.

"Well Captain, what have you decided?" Macen asked.

Pollux frowned, "The engine signatures do match Starfleet vessels on file. I don't know who ordered their deployment into Federation territory or in strikes against your fellow vessels but my superior, Admiral Crist, wants to assist you in discovering the source of these attacks."

"That's a start." Macen grinned, "When do we begin?"

"I'm to escort you to Iotia." Pollux revealed, "Admiral Crist is tracking down the vessels that engaged in these attacks. Together we may root out who authorised the attacks themselves."

"Together?" Macen asked.

"I'm to assist you and act as your liaison with Admiral Crist. His office will be put at your disposal." Pollux explained, "Your reputation proceeds you, Captain Macen. You are known as a premier investigator. We wish to help in whatever way we can. The first step in that process is not impeding you, hence Admiral Crist's and my own involvement."

"Thank you." Macen replied.

"This matter must be settled." Pollux insisted, "The Iotian Federation's expansion is dependent on co-operation, not intimidation. We've tried that route. It doesn't achieve favourable results."

"We're ready to proceed when you are." Macen informed Pollux.

"Maintain Warp 6 and follow us." Pollux instructed.

"You heard the man, Hannah." Macen said, "Set course and follow the Enterprise at Warp 6."

The Iotian ship slipped into subspace followed closely by the Federation surveyor. When the transition was completed, Riker let out a slow sigh.

"Something up, Tom?" Macen asked.

"The original Enterprise was Jamie's ship."

"It hasn't been her ship for several years." Macen reminded him, "And it's practically a new ship now. This Captain Pollux is her master now."

"I know." Riker shook his head, "It's just a harsh reminder."

"Focus on the present Tom." Macen suggested, "You've got a good life here. Every day brings new beginnings. Let the past take care of itself."

"You're right." Riker sighed again, "It's just that every time I think I'm over it, something crops up to remind me of what I've lost."

"Tell me about it." Macen agreed.

"You've lost a planet, just about everyone you knew, fought in three wars and lost friends in each." Riker recited, "How do you keep a positive attitude?"

"Being crazy helps." Macen replied with a laugh.

"You're a little unstable but you're not crazy." Riker countered.

"You haven't read my last three Starfleet psych evals." Macen smiled, "I'm committable."

"Then why are you allowed to serve?" an alarmed Riker asked.

"I'm no longer in the uniform and my services are ‘essential'." Macen revealed, "The things you'd rather not know about your CO, eh?"

"I've served with you. I don't always agree with you and I sometimes think you've gone too far but that doesn't mean I think you're crazy." Riker protested.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Macen replied.

"I wouldn't say it unless I believed it." Riker insisted.

"That's one of the things I appreciate about you Tom. You're forthright. I can depend on you for honesty." Macen confided.

Riker wore a wry expression, "Even if you ignore my advice?"

"At least its honest advice." Macen grinned.

"I hate to interrupt this mutual admiration society gents," T'Kir interjected, "But don't y'think we need a contingency plan for when we reach Iotia?"

"My Ready Room?" Macen asked.

"Sounds good." Riker agreed.

"T'Kir..."

"The bridge is mine!" T'Kir shouted, "Bwahahahaha!"

Macen looked over at Riker, "I think I've created a monster."

"You'll get no arguments from me."

"Hurry up and get off my bridge." T'Kir shushed them away, "Its time to start my reign. I'll call it my campaign of enlightenment. There'll be parties on every deck. Feasting and drinking 'round the clock."

"Just keep us on course and avoid shooting the Iotians." Macen advised.

T'Kir jutted out her lower lip, "You're no fun."

"Keep up the good work." Macen smiled.

"Traitor." T'Kir pouted, "I'll rally the crew to my cause. Just wait and see."

Riker and Macen stepped into the Ready Room.

"Where do we begin?" Riker asked.

"First we start planning as though we're headed into a trap. Pollux admitted those ships were Iotian. Who's to say we aren't being led into a scenario where they can finish the job?" Macen offered.

"You have a deeply suspicious mind." Riker opined.

"It's kept me alive this long."

"May we all reach over four hundred years old." Riker wished.

"Stick with me and you might." Macen winked.

"So what other scenarios are we looking at?"

"We don't know how highly placed this Admiral Crist is." Macen said, "It could have been one of his superior officers that authorised the attacks."

"It could have been a subordinate." Riker countered.

"It could've been but it would require more people to cover it up." Macen theorised, "A flag officer makes sense since he or she could authorise the attacks and arrange the security surrounding the events."

"I hate to say it but it makes a perverse kind of sense." Riker admitted.

"That's our primary scenario...well, that and trap." Macen opined.

"Now to plan our contingencies." Riker said.

"If it's a trap, we call for the Romans and hope like hell we can stay alive long enough for them to arrive." Macen replied.

"And if it's a superior officer?"

"Then we see how much latitude Admiral Crist has in investigating this matter." Macen grinned.

Riker groaned, "Either way, we're in for trouble."

Macen rubbed his hands together, "Just like old times. Have faith Tom, we'll get through this the same way we've gotten through everything else."

"The ship's going to get blown up." Riker doomsayed.

"Don't be such a naysayer." Macen cajoled, "We don't lose a ship on every mission."

"Too many for my comfort." Riker complained.

"If this baby can survive the Omicron, she can survive anything." Macen remained upbeat.

"We've never taken on a dozen ships at once before." Riker pointed out, "If that happens, we have to be more than a little creative."

"We'll do fine." Macen assured him. There was a gleam in Macen's eyes that disturbed Riker. He reconsidered his opinion of Macen's sanity. Macen had the certainty of a madman or a Prophet. Whatever forces he was communing with, Riker wished he could have a taste of it to allay his fears.

"We'll be fine Tom." Macen repeated, "The probabilities aren't in flux. That means the Fates have already charted our course."

Now Riker knew Macen was nuts but he'd seen Macen's mysticism pay off before. Most notably when he'd insisted Rab Daggit was still alive on Omicron and it turned out he was right. Perhaps he needed to heed Macen's words and extend a little faith to the problem. It couldn't hurt. The most that could happen is that he'd be disappointed.

Riker took a deep breath and committed himself, "We'll play it your way. I'll try faith on and see how it fits."

"Good for you." Macen beamed, "Now, if you could relieve T'Kir before she starts an interstellar incident and send her in here. You might want to call Lees to the bridge and have her run a few discreet scans on that Iotian starship. I want to see how she stacks up against her Federation counterpart."

"You've got it." Riker rose from his chair and exited the Ready Room. With T'Kir, Macen could plan the aspects of the actual investigation. He could also get a progress report on how Mudd had infiltrated their systems, synchronised the launch of Deck 4's lifepods and then overrode the shuttlebay controls. These events had been a blow to T'Kir's pride and he pitied the next person that attempted to repeat these manoeuvres.

 

Chapter Fourteen

It took the Obsidian and the Enterprise one hour and twenty-seven minutes to reach Iotia. There were only three other ships in the system. They consisted of two Miranda-class analogues and a Mercury-class ship type. The shipyards were full. Two Constitution-classes were being refitted into the Enterprise-class of ship. The other eight ships were new hulls of the Miranda-class type.

The Iotian Starfleet was still headquartered in the massive orbital complex that orbited Iotia. The Enterprise slipped into a parking orbit around the station. The Obsidian followed their example. The next move was the Iotians.

The crew didn't have long to wait. Fifteen minutes after their arrival, Admiral Crist's office contacted Macen. He was invited to beam over to the station with a small retinue. Twenty minutes later, Macen and T'Kir were in the transporter room.

Radil had accompanied them to protest Macen's decision to leave her behind, "This is foolish. You could be walking into a trap."

"Another gunhand won't make much of a difference, Jenrya." Macen replied, "We'll be fine."

"Relax." T'Kir chimed in, "We're big boys and girls. We can handle ourselves."

Radil muttered a particularly vile oath but she subsided, "Rab and I will be on ready alert. Give the word and we're there."

Macen grinned, "I never had a doubt. Hear that Telrik, keep a constant lock on us. If you can't beam us out, beam Daggit and Radil in."

"You've got it, sir." Telrik promised.

"In that case, energise." Macen ordered.

Macen and T'Kir materialised in another transporter room. Captain Pollux stood by the transporter controls. The first thing Macen noticed is that all of the Iotian personnel wore sidearms. That suited him fine. That would make them less likely to object to his and T'Kir's pistols.

Pollux seemed surprised by their attire. Macen wore his normal ensemble of black cargo pants and leather boots coupled with a long sleeved sage green Henley and his black leather flight jacket. T'Kir wore her black leather pants, calf high leather boots, black tank top and her black leather longcoat. Both wore their tactical holsters/utility belts as well.

"You come well armed." Pollux commented.

"One can never be too cautious." Macen retorted.

"Rightly so." Pollux nodded, "The Admiral will see you now."

Pollux led the couple through the warren that comprised the interior of the station. After several twists and turns and a ride on a turbolift, followed by more twists and turns, they arrived at an office. A yeoman in the office's reception area invited them to be seated. After announcing their presence to the Admiral, she took drink orders from everyone and bustled off to the nearest synthesiser.

Macen glanced about the small reception area. A small desk offset to one side dominated it. The door leading to Crist's office was situated to the side of the desk, the pair dominating one entire wall. One couch and three chairs lined two of the other walls. This left the wall leading to the desk's office space unencumbered.

Macen and T'Kir sat on the couch, which had the exit into the corridor alongside it. Pollux sat in on of the three chairs and was the first thing seen by visitors entering the office. The door to the inner office slid aside and Admiral Crist stood revealed.

If Crist were human he'd have been in his late fifties. The differences in Iotian and Terran aging rates were a mystery to Macen. He knew they were close so he assumed that unless Crist was like Macen's friend Elias Vaughn and over one hundred years old while appearing to be in his low sixties, which he severely doubted, and then Crist was exactly what he seemed.

Macen tasted the man's emotions even while T'Kir conducted a low level telepathic probe. After a moment, they both looked at each other and mentally exchanged notes. Macen found him to be sincere and very concerned over the allegations that Macen had levelled concerning the conduct of his service. T'Kir verified that and added that this wasn't the first charge of similar malfeasance. Crist had staked his professional reputation on tracking down the culprits responsible.

Unlike so many other native officials Outbound Ventures and the SID worked with, the Iotian Admiral was genuinely glad to see the privateers. It was the role of the privateer that the Iotians knew the team from and therefore they'd have to downplay their connection to Starfleet. It would be permissible to mention that Starfleet had authorised their inquiries into the suspected Iotian malfeasance but not to say that this investigation was, as of yet an official probe.

Crist stood in his office way and stared down at the privateer couple. He turned to Pollux and asked, "Where's Jenza?"

"She stepped out to get us all beverages." the Iotian Captain returned with immediately.

"The girl better bring me a fresh mug of cafla or there'll be hell to pay." despite Crist's gruff manner, his eyes smiled.

Crist was several centimetres shorter than Macen and built like a squat wall. His muscular barrel chest and stomach showed none of the signs of aging that the rest of his body reflected. His thickly muscled legs and arms seemed ready to grab someone by the throat, which was the impression Macen was reading off of him. After a good throttling, Crist was fully prepared to kick the perpetrator of these crimes to death.

"I suppose you'd best follow me in into my office." Crist suggested, "Jenza can bring our refreshments in there.

Crist's closely cropped curls were predominantly grey. His eyes and forehead were deeply wrinkled. Here was a man who frequently worried but when he laughed, he treasured the moment. Cobalt blue eyes studied the troupe as they filed past him into his office.

The office was of equal size as the reception area but contained less furniture. Three chairs were seated in front of Crist's expansive desk. Whether this was just for this meeting or a regular practice, Macen didn't know. Part of him wanted to telepathically ask T'Kir to more deeply probe the Admiral's mind in order to learn the answer to that question but he let the matter go.

"So," Crist rumbled as he sat down, "you're the infamous Brin Macen."

"I'd like to know what I'm famous for." Macen retorted.

"You and your company have become well known among our trading partners." Crist explained, "Even the Ferengi are full of stories of your exploits."

"I'd trust a Ferengi about as far as I could bounce him." Macen remarked.

Crist broke into a feral grin, "That's how I derived my information."

The near truth of that statement was clearly evident to T'Kir's telepathy and Macen's empathy. It was a reminder of how ruthless Iotian society tended to be. They may have recently incorporated some of the ideals of the United Federation of Planets into their society but before that they had a century of a society modelled after the Chicago mobs of Earth's 1920s. The current Iotian generation was a bizarre fusion of the two extremes.

More to the point, Macen remembered that there was one Ferengi that he trusted. Quark may have been a profiteer but he dealt fairly with the Maquis. His merchandise had only been marginally overpriced. Quark had a conscience. He still had a profit driven mentality but he did have a strange code of honour. But that had nothing to do with the current conversation.

"I'm looking forward to your help with our investigations." Crist declared, "I'm assuming that this is an internal matter so that you're not being contracted by anyone else to investigate these attacks. I think I can find funds to help reimburse some of your expenses."

Macen neither confirmed or denied Crist's assumptions. T'Kir thoughtcast to him, He wants our help bad. His investigation has ground to a halt and he's hoping we can crack the case. Macen mentally nodded, I can sense his desperation. I hope we can deliver. T'Kir replied.

"I'm hoping we can provide solid support as well." Macen manner grew fierce, "I want the bastards behind these events."

"I have to confess that this is a pattern." Crist admitted wearily, "Over the last six months there have been three separate allegations of Iotian Starfleet vessels being involved in commerce raiding."

Crist's fist slammed his desk, "This cannot continue! We have worked too hard and staked too much of our federation's resources to providing security services to client planets. You are in a similar business. You understand my plight. As Chief of Starfleet Internal Affairs, it is my job to prevent such incidents and I will, by God I will."

"As I understand it, your Starfleet has been expanding the scope of its professional services." Macen said, "Much like my own Outbound Ventures."

"Indeed." Crist's resonant bass growled, "We've explored surveying ventures as well."

"You'll find those to be exceptionally profitable if you ask for a percentage of earnings gained by exploitation of natural resources or exclusive transportation contracts with potential colonists." Macen offered.

"We're exploring those very options." Crist grinned, "I can see that we will work well with one another."

"Where do we start?" Macen asked.

"I was hoping you would review several dead-ends we've encountered." Crist answered, "Starting with encrypted transmissions we've been unable to decipher."

T'Kir cracked her knuckles and broke into a cocky grin, "Bring 'em on."

Crist slapped his desk and then rose, "I like your attitude. Use my terminal."

T'Kir and Crist exchanged places and she plunged into the computer system. She tapped away at its controls and then pulled out her microcomputer from her utility belt.

"Does this unit have a subspace transceiver?" T'Kir asked, her tone lacking its usual flippant sarcasm.

"No." Crist shook his head, "The transceiver array is tied into the network."

"What's your account logon code?"

"It's voice coded." Crist replied, "I'll authorise access at the appropriate juncture."

"All right." T'Kir nodded and activated her computer, "That'll work."

T'Kir manipulated her computer and within seconds it chimed, "Authorisation please."

"Authorise network access, code enable Crist-delta-niner-foxtrot."

"Yesss." a wide smile spread across T'Kir's face.

"Having fun?" Macen asked dryly.

"These duotronically based algorithms are sooo easy to hack it ain't funny." T'Kir remarked.

"Have you found the transmission intercepts?" Crist asked from the edge of his seat.

"Honey, I can hand you your entire network at this point." T'Kir exalted.

"Can you pull up the intercepts that IA has been investigating then?" Macen urged.

"Got 'em." T'Kir's eyes narrowed, "These are Ferengi and Orion codes!"

"Can you break them?" Crist asked.

"D'you honestly think they'll pose a problem?" T'Kir asked rhetorically.

"I honestly don't know." Crist admitted. T'Kir's eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed.

Macen nudged Crist as T'Kir attacked her computer, "Now you've done it."

"What have I done?" a bewildered Crist asked.

"She recently had several of her security protocols broken." Macen explained, "It's a matter of wounded pride and you've just issued a challenge."

"I didn't mean to offend you." Crist apologised.

"Too late, Muscles." T'Kir huffed, "The gauntlet's been thrown."

"Here we go." Macen remarked wryly.

T'Kir focus was entirely on her computer. It beeped and blurped while she hammered at its controls. Jenza brought in the requested beverages. Her look of shock at seeing the Vulcan behind her burly boss' desk was quickly replaced by practiced indifference.

The orders universally consisted of cafla, which was the local equivalent to coffee. It was sweeter than coffee with a milder taste. It possessed a rich fragrant odour and was surprisingly good in Macen's opinion.

"You should export this." he said to Crist.

The Admiral smiled, "We have a trade deal with Bolian distributors. They begin receiving roasted beans next week."

"I look forward to it." Macen assured Crist, "Although, is there any way to make the flavour stronger?"

"Get the darkest roasts." Crist revealed, "They are the most vibrant. Unfortunately, here at Command, we have to appeal to the broadest possible tastes so we procure the milder roasts."

"Aha!" T'Kir shouted so loud that Pollux started, "I've broken them."

"What are they?" Crist was utterly captivated.

"Transit and deployment orders." T'Kir replied as she transferred the decrypted files to Crist's terminal and swivelled it so that he and Macen could see the display, "Someone has been issuing orders to commence commerce raiding. The latest of these reports order the attacks on Outbound Ventures personnel."

"How many ships are involved?" Crist asked dismally.

"Twelve." T'Kir answered, "The orders have been issued to the same twelve ships every time."

"Can you provide me with a list of those ships?" Crist enquired.

"Already done." T'Kir said happily and a flimsy popped out of a printer.

"Why are they doing this?" Macen wondered, "What was the motivation behind these attacks?"

"It's mercenary work." T'Kir explained, "They're hiring out to an outside firm that wants to use the Iotian provocations to expand their own clientele."

"Solarian Security Systems." Macen growled.

"Got it in one." T'Kir replied and smiled brightly, "Looks and brains. Is it any wonder I love you?"

"Only to some." Macen quipped, "Although they usually ask why I love you."

T'Kir stuck her tongue out at him and then continued, "There's a signet that's attacked to every authorisation. I couldn't find it in any Starfleet database."

Crist's eyes narrowed in anger as he recognised the symbol, "It's the seal of the Hereditary President."

"Bela?" Macen asked in surprise, "I thought he didn't have any authority over the Starfleet."

"He didn't." Crist replied, "But the new President carries the rank of Grand Admiral."

"Oxmyx staged a coup?" Macen was stunned, "But why?"

"I never knew before today but I think it's clear that he's perfectly positioned himself to issue these orders." Crist turned to Macen, his eyes wild with fervour, "We have to arrest him!"

"Does your Starfleet have the authority to arrest a sitting President?" Macen wondered.

"He's still an Admiral of the Starfleet. That places him within my jurisdiction." Crist growled, "If he resists, I'll see his bones ground into powder."

"Calm down." Macen instructed, "Breathe. You need a plan. I'm assuming he has his own Presidential security force?"

"Yes." Crist was still fuming.

"Then perhaps I should contact Oxmyx's office and inform them I have a business deal in mind. I'm also assuming that the government is still involved in negotiations between business partners and takes a commission off the top."

"That's correct." Crist acknowledged, "But what good will these negotiations do?"

"I might be able to get Oxmyx to incriminate himself." Macen revealed, "It will also allow me to get people within the presidential..."

"Mansion." Crist supplied.

"...the presidential mansion and shut down the facility's security grid." Macen finished

"And then I beam down with an IA team and secure Oxmyx." Crist smiled in approval.

"Whoa!" T'Kir blurted out, "We just intercepted a new message. All of the suspect ships, except for the one we put in the repair yard, are being recalled to this system and to secure both it and the Obsidian."

"Do you wish to depart?" Crist asked, "If you meet with Oxmyx, you'll surely be stepping into a trap."

"Wouldn't be the first time." Macen replied with a grin, "Ever since the Federation's domestic crisis, Iotia's been a vital partner of the UFP. You supplied colony worlds with ships, protection, and munitions during the strife. Your security contracts protected the border worlds' commerce from piracy while the war played out."

"It was the best decision we ever made." Crist opined, "It opened the door to ongoing convoy protection contracts and trade relations with the UFP."

"The UFP's interests are well met by a stable Iotian Federation." Macen added, "It would behove all involved to resolve this situation."

"But what about the opposing ships?" Pollux asked.

"Captain, you're to rally the local defence picket and transmit an open SOS." Crist ordered.

"There are fourteen ships within a four hour response window." Pollux replied, "Does that give us enough time and resources?"

"Nine of those ships are those listed as the raiders." T'Kir said, reviewing the Iotian deployments, "Two more are six hours out."

"It's hopeless." Pollux grimaced.

"All we need to do is hold out for six hours." Macen informed them, "We have a contingency plan in case of this scenario."

"What kind of contingency?" Crist asked.

"A reserve force of ships." Macen answered, "Nova Roman ships."

"Romans." Crist muttered, "Why does it have to be Romans?"

"They were willing to help." Macen supplied.

"They want revenge for the reparations we made them pay." Crist snarled.

"They will if you provoke them." Macen warned, "You're also forgetting another asset in your possession. This station is a defensive position as well as the starships."

"But we don't know how many of the Command staff have been suborned to Oxmyx's scheme." Crist countered.

"You never will unless you put this station on alert under IA authority and arrest those that object." Macen detailed.

"We could also arrest innocent flag officers." Crist realised.

"You'll have to sort that out after you capture Oxmyx's databases." Macen outlined, "Securing the databases will be a secondary operation for my team. I want to know about Solarian's connection with the commerce raiders. I want the names of the Solarian contacts."

Your team won't live long enough to secure anything." Crist opined.

"You'd be amazed at what we can accomplish when we set our mind to it."

Macen grinned, "But first we need to return to our ship and set the wheels in motion."

"God help you." Crist rumbled.

"Thanks." Macen smiled, "The Fates have always been kind to us."

"Pollux, show them to the transporter room and then get to your ship." Crist ordered, "I'll arrange the rest from here."

"Good luck, Admiral." Macen shook Crist's hand, "May Fortune smile upon you."

 

Chapter Fifteen

The first thing Macen did upon coming aboard the Obsidian was to signal the Nova Romans. The coded subspace pulse went out and the crew could only estimate that it would take two hours for the Romans to arrive. With the Star Legion's support, they merely had to survive the next six hours. No more Iotian raiders should be arriving after that time.

Of course, having the Roman's numerical advantage on their side was sure to help the Iotian system's defender's plight. Scipio had brought six Banner-class vessels and six Eagle-class scouts. Although individually the scouts were no match for an Iotian starship, they could work in groups. The Enterprise and her brethren would bolster the Roman squadron's numbers. The Obsidian would be held in ready reserve, strategically intervening when a Roman/Iotian was in danger of being overwhelmed.

Macen outlined this plan to Riker in the Ready Room and the XO concurred, "Good plan. There's no need to waste our superior firepower in a general skirmish. We should tip the balance when needed."

"You'll have to have Shannon at Tactical." Macen informed Riker next, "I'm taking a team with me to the surface."

"Is that wise?" Riker asked, "You're beaming down at the advent of a hostile action."

"More precisely, we're beaming down into the clutches of the person responsible for the attacks on our company." Macen revealed.

"Send me instead!" Riker demanded.

Macen shook his head, "I'm the Mission Commander and leader of the Investigative Team. You're the Starship's Operations Specialist. Your experience is with starships not with surface operations. The Iotian IA is providing us with support. We should be fine."

"You're nuts, you know that?" Riker asked.

"All the experts agree with you." Macen returned with a manic grin.

Riker shook his head, "Talking with you is hopeless at times."

"Only when I'm right." Macen remarked.

"When you think you're right." Riker asserted.

Macen shrugged, "That's all that anyone does until the Fates put their assumptions to the test."

Riker sighed, "I'm not going to talk you out of this am I?"

"Sorry, Tom." Macen said with genuine regret, "The Iotians are counting on us. I have to call Oxmyx's office now and arrange for a ‘business negotiation'."

"And he'll take you prisoner." Riker replied grimly, "So what happens after that?"

Macen sketched out his basic plan for Riker and the XO whistled, "Ballsy. Stupid but ballsy."

Macen grinned, "We do what we can."

Riker nodded, "I'll step out and let you make that call."

"Thanks Tom." Macen activated the comm unit mounted atop his desk. He tried a general hail to the President's office using the comm protocols given to him by Pollux. The pattern was SOP for the Iotians. The Starfleet intercepted unknown inbound traffic and then interrogated them as to their purpose back at Command. Traders were then handed off to the President's office to mediate trade negotiations with local businesses.

It was a system that was efficient enough and generated enough profit for all involved to be allowed to remain unaltered. Macen worked his way up through several functionaries before meeting a direct representative from Oxmyx.

"Captain," the trade representative said in an oily tone, "sooo good to make your acquaintance. I've heard sooo much about you."

"Do you have a speech impediment I should know about?" Macen asked, eyeing the rep dubiously.

"Nooo." the rep smiled, showing off a donkey-like array of teeth, "Sooo kind of you to ask though."

Macen sighed, "I'm I going to get a meeting with your office or not?"

"We'll transmit the coordinates of a location you can transport down to." the rep said ingratiatingly, "You can't beam directly to the Presidential Mansion but we'll have an escort standing by."

"I'm sure you will." Macen replied cynically, "Good bye."

"Sooo good making you..." Macen terminated the transmission before the rep could finish.

He exited the Ready Room to find Daggit handing over the Tactical station to Forger, "I take it you already know about the mission."

Daggit nodded, "T'Kir told me."

Macen eyed his wife. She was leaning over the shoulder of her relief at Ops. She smiled and shrugged.

"Seemed the easiest approach to the situation." she said, "I've already alerted Radil, Parva and Kort as well. They're in the armoury gearing up."

"And I'm on my way to join them." Daggit said and he entered the turbolift and was whisked away.

"Good job." Macen smiled at T'Kir.

"You too!" she said brightly.

"For what?" Macen crossed his arms and wore a bemused smirk.

"For...recognising my brilliance in taking preemptive action." she concluded with a firm nod of her head.

Macen laughed, "Okay, I'll give you that."

T'Kir curtsied then asked, "Shouldn't we be joining the children?"

"Seems prudent." Macen nodded, "Did a set of coordinates get transmitted here?"

"Yup." T'Kir confirmed, "They our landing spot?"

"Yup." Macen replied.

"That where they're gonna ambush us?" she wondered.

"Probably." Macen answered as they stepped into the turbolift.

"Fun." T'Kir was heard to say as the doors closed.

Fifteen minutes later, the mission team was assembled in the Main Transporter Room. Kort and Parva brandished phaser pistols and rifles in addition to Kort's edged weaponry. Radil wore her portable phaser cannon and a phaser pistol auxiliary. Daggit wore his shoulder holstered phaser pistols and his grenade launcher strapped to his right leg. Macen and T'Kir contented themselves with their pistols.

"All right, let's get this show underway." Macen remarked and everyone moved onto transporter pads.

"Good luck." Telrik grunted.

"Much appreciated." Macen smiled, "Take care, Telrik. Energise."

The six mission team members faded from existence and Telrik confirmed that they'd rematerialised on the ground and then he grunted again, "All I can do."

The Tellarite moved over to a chair alongside the control console and pulled a padd out of his pocket. Yesterday he'd reached Chapter 35 in the novel he was reading and things were just getting interesting. The damsel was in distress and as was common in Tellarite thrillers, the hero was currently sitting down to a large meal and a mud bath before taking action. The description of the delicacies made Telrik's mouth water. He had leave coming, maybe he'd spend it on Tellar.

The team rematerialised at an Iotian street corner. Seven Presidential guardsmen stood in a circle wielding phaser pistols. They wore maroon and black uniforms similar to the current Starfleet uniform. Instead of the Starfleet symbol, the guardsmen's uniform bore an intricate interlaced set of spirals.

"President Oxmyx sends his regards." one of the guardsmen sneered and raised his pistol.

Kort, who was holding his bat'leth in a two handed grip leapt forward and swung his blade, slicing an Iotian's throat. Radil pivoted her phaser cannon and fired. Another Iotian fell, this one with a gaping hole in his chest. Daggit drew his phasers almost faster than could be tracked by the humanoid eye and he killed the closest two guardsmen. Parva turned and fired her rifle from the hip, cutting into the chest of the Iotian next to her. Macen and T'Kir took advantage of the confusion to draw their weapons and dispatch the remaining Iotians.

"I'll say this for this Oxmyx, he's right neighbourly." T'Kir quipped.

"We expected no less." Macen remarked.

"Yah, but it still sucks." T'Kir returned.

Macen shook his head while wearing a wry grin. His wife's mastery of slang through the ages continued to amaze him. T'Kir knew the vernacular of dozens of worlds but specialised in human expressions. Her unremitting telepathic probes of the Maquis colonists had also yielded a rich heritage of swear words and other vile oaths.

"Can you get a bearing fix?" Macen asked T'Kir.

She holstered her pistol and pulled her tricorder from her utility belt and pointed down a street to the group's right, "Thattaway."

T'Kir returned the tricorder to her belt and pulled her phaser free of its holster. Kort slung the bat'leth across his back and unslung his rifle. Everyone else kept their weapons at the ready.

One of the first things Parva had done after coming aboard the team was modify Radil's phaser cannon. It now had a handle and trigger located where Radil could grab it just by bending her elbow. With carefully balanced weights combined with the waist pivot point, Radil could easily elevate and decline the cannon. It improved the ergonomics and the ease of use had increased a hundred fold.

Parva had also modified the surplus Bajoran Militia phaser rifles so that they were now pulse weapons. The phaser pistols were left untouched except for adding targeting devices to Daggit's. Used in combination with sensor glasses, Daggit's phasers would display a targeting dot on whatever the phaser was aimed at. Also displayed were pertinent sensor facts that the targeting system detected. It was a smaller version of what Radil had on her cannon. The rifles now came equipped with the sensor arrays and they were an option on the pistols.

Parva had received the accolades of her peers for her tinkering. Daggit had shown the extent of his appreciation in a more intimate setting. Parva had never felt comfortable replacing Hal Dracas on the team. Substituting for the Troglyte had seemed innocuous enough. Filling his boots full time had seemed a daunting proposition.

Parva's barely settled doubts as to her actual place within the framework of the team had been ripped wide open by Dracas' death. Daggit had spent the previous night trying to reassure the otherwise fierce Orion that her position was assured. She'd seen Joachim Dracas' arrival in Engineering as a preemptive move to oust her out of the Chief Engineer's role. Daggit had had to call Macen and have the Captain intervene.

After a twenty-minute conversation between Macen and Parva she seemed much calmer and confident. Macen had explained that Dracas' scores on a Starfleet qualification exam had been off the charts. Engineering was literally in his blood. Macen wanted to harness that potential and make Dracas the Assistant Chief Engineer. Gilan would remain Engineering 2nd and Dracas would essentially become the XO of the engineering department.

This information went a long way to settling Parva's mind. She was slightly disturbed by the prospect of leaving Dracas behind in her engine room while she gallivanted about on the planet's surface but she'd learned a long time ago not to argue with Macen over his orders. Point in fact, Parva had to admit that she, the great decrier of persons small and large, respected Macen. That realisation had struck her prior to the crisis and his actions in the war had only made her proud to serve under him. Although, she swore to herself that next time she wouldn't be sidelined.

"All right people," Macen interrupted all trains of thought, "let's move out and stay sharp. I'm sure that this was just the opening gambit."

"What else is new?" Parva asked.

"Should have been with us that time on Farris Prime." Daggit remarked, "This is absolutely pleasant compared to that."

"Are you still complaining about Farris Prime?" Macen called back over his shoulder.

The group moved out with Macen and T'Kir in the lead. Macen took the right, T'Kir the left. Behind Macen was Kort. Behind Kort was Parva. Beside Parva walked Daggit. Radil was between T'Kir's back and Daggit.

They walked down six blocks without incident. Then a high-pitched scraping sound came at them from both ends of the street. T'Kir pointed up in the sky. An aircar on a high speed interception course was approaching. Daggit alerted them that another was approaching from their rear.

Macen ordered them to seek cover. They did the best that they could, hiding behind parked cars and the small terrace fences of the surrounding buildings. Radil and Daggit stood their ground. Daggit holstered his phaser, pulled his grenade launcher free, pumped it and waited.

The headlong car was beginning its dive now. Radil turned towards it and adjusted the aim of her cannon. As the car slowed to allow its passengers to lean out of the windows while brandishing weapons, Radil opened fire. She scored half a dozen direct hits and the engine exploded. The chassis was engulfed in flame and skidded down the paved street, twisting and turning.

Radil crouched to one knee as the next car passed and Daggit calmly stood as a torrent of phaser fire flashed by. He turned and fired a grenade into the rear compartment of the aircar and the engine detonated. It still had some life in it though and it struggled to keep the car aloft. The car could easily be seen sailing down between the buildings until it reached the large open space beyond the last building.

This was the estate of the Presidential Mansion. A forcefield covering the length and breadth of the estate flared to life as the car struck it. The car exploded as it met resistance and its engine could endure no more stress.

"That's how far we still have to go." Macen said as the team reassembled on the sidewalk.

"You take me to the most romantic places." T'Kir quipped, "Reminds me of the night we spent on Cistrum II."

"What is this? Stroll down bad memory lane night?" Macen retorted.

"It's only the local afternoon." Radil chimed in.

Macen pointed a warning finger at Radil, "Don't you start being a comedian too, Jenrya."

They travelled for another eight blocks before T'Kir abruptly stopped. Her brow furrowed and her eyes began searching the surrounding buildings on both sides of the street. She started to relax and then she went taut.

"Now!" T'Kir shouted and began firing at the doors up the street and began sweeping to her left. Gunmen emerged from the building fronts in time for T'Kir to shoot them. Macen copied her, sweeping the right side of the street. Kort and Radil also swept their respective sides of the street. Daggit and Parva neutralised the threats to the group's rear and then began dealing with snipers on the tenement roofs.

Within minutes, the SID Investigative Team had killed two dozen men and women. As the dust settled and the screaming stopped, Macen surveyed the scene.

"Oxmyx is starting to piss me off." Macen ground out between clenched teeth.

"Technically he's been pissing you off ever since he signed the order for Iotian ships to attack Outbound Ventures ships and sites." T'Kir corrected.

Macen shot her a warning glare and T'Kir raised her hands in surrender, "Okay. I won't try and cheer you up."

Macen's expression softened, "Sorry."

"We have a plan?" T'Kir asked and everyone's attention galvanised.

"We do." Macen replied and he began to outline his ideas.

"Four Iotian type starships are entering the system." Danan reported from Ops, having relieved the relief officer, "The station is activating its screens and powering up weapons emplacements."

"I guess that answers the question of the station personnel's ultimate loyalty." Riker mused, stroking his beard.

"You might say that." Danan observed dryly.

"Watch the mouth, Danan." Riker teased, "I don't need insubordination on my bridge."

"Puh-lease." Grace gagged, "Why don't you two just go back to your quarters?"

Danan coloured slightly and Riker leaned forward, "What makes you say that, Hannah?"

Grace turned to face him, did an exaggerated eye roll, and returned her focus to her board. Riker straightened up in his seat and tugged at his jumpsuit. The waist had started to tighten up. He needed less food and more time in the gym.

The price of getting older, an internal voice taunted Riker, Can't run away from aging forever.

I can stave it off with willpower. Riker mentally declared. Even as he thought it he recalled the wedding photos his twin had sent him. Will Riker had definitely been enjoying the good life. Tom was thinner due to the privations he'd endured over the years but he was starting to catch up with his "brother".

Riker mentally vowed to exercise more and eat better but even as he made the commitment he knew it rang false. His current regiment kept him in good shape for his age and that was the problem. He was getting...old. He'd never imagined that this day would come.

Riker suddenly felt hollow inside. He glanced back towards Danan and suddenly wondered what she saw in him. They were only ten years apart in age but that seemed like an unbridgeable gulf now. Danan turned, almost presciently, and gave him a warm smile.

He felt reassured and his inner doubts were put at bay for a moment. Riker shook his head. He was heading into multi-ship engagement and he needed focus. He forced his mind to be clear and changed his approach to the situation.

"Shannon, what ship types are sailing in?" Riker asked the 2nd Officer manning Tactical.

"Three Constitution analogues and a Mercury-class starship." Forger replied, "They're approaching from four different directions. The Enterprise and her siblings are setting up intercepts of the three Constitution-class ships and leaving the Mercury to the mercies of the station...and us."

"Hannah, set up an intercept of the Mercury-class ship." Riker ordered, "Shannon, begin a targeting track. Focus on using the phasers as your primary weapon. I'd like to save the photons for later."

"May I remind the Commander that both he and the Captain agreed in holding this starship in reserve." Grace said defiantly.

"That ship will double team one of our allies. It'll probably be the Enterprise. We can't afford to lose her. She's vital to our defence." Riker explained.

Grace grinned, "And the best defence is a rippin' offence."

"Sure." Riker faltered, nearly positive that he'd caught her meaning. Her close association with T'Kir constantly yielded unexpected results.

"Set up that intercept course and then engage at maximum impulse." Riker commanded.

"Aye, aye air." Grace quipped.

"Don't be snarky." Riker returned, "Just comply."

The view on the screen suddenly began to shift as Grace manoeuvred away from the station, around Iotia and then off towards the void. The Mercury was approaching from "above" the orbital tracks of the solar system. That was good since it meant there were no planets to interfere with combat operations. It also meant that there were no planets to retreat to or asteroid fields to use as a hiding place.

As the Obsidian sailed closer to the Mercury-class starship, Grace blinked. When she opened her eyes, her rich brown eyes were keen with razor sharp alertness. She brushed an errant strand of her honey blonde hair back into place behind her ear. Although her hair was pulled back, it wasn't braided and therefore had a tendency to escape the restraining scrunchie.

It was an exasperating thing during combat. Grace once again considered cutting her shoulder length hair. The problem was that she typified the ideal woman for many human males and she found that to be intoxicating. Her "look" worked to her advantage and she wanted to retain that edge. Once again she shelved the haircutting notion.

"Bring us in close." Riker said, "I want them to be able to read our registry numbers out their portholes."

Grace nudged the ship a few thousand kilometres closer. If the Iotian ship didn't change course then the Federation starship would pass within one thousand metres of her foe. Grace carefully watched the enemy starship for any sign of veering towards them. Quite the opposite occurred. The Mercury began firing her manoeuvring thrusters in a desperate, last minute effort to evade the close quarters intercept.

"Stand by phasers." Riker ordered.

Automatic proximity and collision alarms sounded and the Obsidian began her pass. Riker stood up and yelled, "Fire!"

The shields of the Mercury flared to life as phaser fire lanced out and struck the saucer section. They survived the initial assault but the sustained bursts soon overloaded the shield generators. The Federation starship raked the entire engineering hull of the Iotian ship. The Iotians had been damaged but they still retained auxiliary power.

Grace flipped the surveyor over and then proceeded at maximum impulse for another pass along the Mercury's wounded side. Forger opened fire as soon as the Iotian ship came into range. The phasers sliced through the hull all the way to the saucer section. The saucer's shields wavered but stayed functional. The Iotian ship shut down her impulse engines and began to drift.

Grace flipped the ship once again and brought the Obsidian squarely into a face off with the Mercury-class light cruiser. The move was a gamble on Riker's part. If the Iotian ship still retained the capacity, she would drain her phaser banks in one final, defiant volley. Although the Federation ship's shields could theoretically shrug off such a blow, there would still be multiple overloads across the ship.

After waiting for several minutes for a reaction from the Iotians, they finally got one when Danan announced, "They're hailing us."

"Put it on screen." Riker straightened his jumpsuit.

The screen shifted to a scene from the bridge of the stricken Iotian Starfleet vessel. The air was smoky and medical personnel could be seen treating casualties in the rear of the bridge. The ship's CO stood up from the centre seat. He was dishevelled and unsteady. Riker had no pity for him.

"Please stop." the Iotian captain pleaded, "We're done in. We surrender. For the love of God stop."

Riker's eyes narrowed, "Did you listen to the pleas of your victims? Did you stop when they begged for mercy?"

The Iotian quailed, "It was a job. We were paid to attack your associates. It wasn't personal."

"Neither is this." Riker said, "Shannon, fire a torpedo at their bridge."

"Sir?" Forger hesitated.

"Tom!" Danan yelled, "This is exactly the sort of stunt that you'd fight to prevent Brin from doing."

Riker shook his head, "You're right." He turned to face the screen, "You've been spared by the good graces of my crew. Don't test my generosity any further. You're to abandon your ship and await rescue in your ship's escape pods. If you signal incoming raiders, we'll destroy you. If you scuttle your ship, we'll destroy you. If you destroy the ship's computer core, we'll destroy you. Are these conditions clear?"

The Iotian commander numbly nodded and Riker broke into a thin smile, "Good. You have your orders. I suggest you hurry and carry them out."

The screen returned to its depiction of the front of the Mercury. Riker turned to face Danan.

"Lees, lock onto their computer and start downloading its contents." Riker directed.

"I'm not T'Kir." Danan replied, "I'm computer savvy but I'm not a cyber witch like she is. I'll just upload the whole thing and let her sort it out."

"Do we have the capacity to do that?" Riker asked with some surprise.

"Sure." Danan breezed the question aside, "Modern starships only use a fraction of their computing power and memory capacity. We'll have room for this one and a few more besides."

"That's what I'm counting on." Riker grinned.

 

Chapter Sixteen

The Investigative Team travelled the last five blocks to the outer gates of the Presidential Mansion unmolested. The gate, like the road that led to it, was designed to service ground transports. It was the Bela estate and had been in the family for over a century. It had taken Oxmyx one bloody night to alter history.

Oxmyx's estate had been similarly equipped during his family's reign as Planetary President. How he had coveted Bela's mansion once it was augmented. The Iotian Starfleet stood guard over the High Admiral's residence but it wasn't the same as having your own forcefield and personal retainers guarding your person. Now he had the best of all worlds, associates in Starfleet watched his backside and carried out missions on his behalf. The Presidential Guardsmen devotedly guarded his person, having been recruited from the very apple of the Starfleet Security Corps.

The main gate into the Bela estate was made of wrought iron. It was two halves set on hinges and locked when the two sides met. The stylised square that contained the locking mechanism bore the image of a basilisk wrapped around a world. It reminded Macen of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent.

Presidential Guardsmen rushed out to the centre of the gate. One of them released the manual lock and then grabbed on to the gate to swing it open. Another guardsman did the same for the opposite side. The remaining sentries raised their phasers and aimed them at the SID team.

"This is gettin' old." T'Kir groused, "Lemme even the odds."

Macen gave her a dark look, "I thought your powers were curtailed."

T'Kir shrugged, "They are. I bet I could still fry one of 'em. You never know until ya try."

Knowing of her predilection for psychic violence, Macen opted to keep that particular beast caged, "Let's not find out."

T'Kir jutted out her lower lip, "You're no fun."

"Deal with it." Macen retorted, worried that she might be building a resistance to her medication.

Meanwhile, the guardsmen, who were not used to being ignored, were becoming agitated, "Look here, you lot, step over here and surrender your weapons."

Macen averted his gaze and stared straight into the speaker's eyes, "And if we refuse?"

Macen's calm manner destabilised the guardsman even more. He was used to people cowering in fear before him, either as a Starfleet Security lieutenant or as a Presidential Guardsman. Neither Macen nor his party were showing the slightest trace of dread at the sight of eight guardsmen training weapons on them.

Macen looked back at his forces and nodded. He stepped forward and handed over Laren. His naming the weapon after Ro hadn't offended T'Kir. Quite the opposite, T'Kir found this human-like trait to be hilarious.

T'Kir harboured no illusions regarding Macen's faithfulness. She knew Macen and she knew Ro. Her telepathy voided the secrecy and lies necessary to plan and conduct adultery. Although Macen could block T'Kir's telepathy he chose not to. Transparency was a vital part of a marriage and a telepathic rapport insured that both partners remained honest with one another.

That didn't mean they didn't fight. The entire ship was put on alert when they fought. They fought over little things and ordinary details. The emotional and sensitive matters were immediately resolved. T'Kir's dress code or Macen's insistence on leading the charge were matters that were still in dispute. They had dozens of things to fight over and when they did they did so with a vengeance. Nothing was as volatile as a passionate Vulcan. Macen had come to appreciate Surak and the practice of kohlinar. The last thing the galaxy needed was a planet full of hotheads running amuck.

T'Kir followed Macen's example put she slapped the phaser down in the man's hands so hard it nearly took his arm out of socket. There were advantages to coming from a higher grav world. For all of T'Kir's vaunted strength, she was a weakling compared to Parva's Orion bred muscles.

The others all followed along. Kort growled from deep in his throat as he handed over his bat'leth and the Iotians collecting the weapons quailed. Radil retained her cannon but the Iotians removed the battery from its harness. Three guardsmen bore the SID team's weapons and four more escorted the six team members.

Having stripped the Investigative Team of its weaponry, the officer in charge of the Presidential unit grew cocky, "Stupid Feds. Always coming here and mucking about in our business."

"First off, we don't represent the Federation." Macen corrected, "Secondly, the last Federation mission to Iotia was a year ago. Since then various Federation members, but not the central government itself, have contacted you. Third, your business is so mucked up already you don't need any help frinxing it up any further."

"A regular smartass, eh?" the officer asked in accusation. He threw a left hook at Macen. The El-Aurian neatly sidestepped the blow. The officer followed with a right cross. Macen took hold of his arm at the wrist and bent it inward. He then twisted, locking the elbow, stuck out his right foot and pivoted, throwing the man to the ground.

Several guardsmen snickered as the officer regained his feet, "What are you lot looking at? Resume the march!" He leaned in close to Macen before they resumed their procession, "I'll deal with you yet."

"Should be interesting." Macen responded with a lopsided grin.

"Just you wait and see." the officer promised maliciously.

Aboard the Obsidian, Danan completed uploading the Iotian database, "Got it!"

"Good work, Lees." Riker congratulated, "When can you have a synopsis of what it says?"

"Try six to eight hours." Danan answered.

"That long?" he wondered.

"I'm not T'Kir." Danan planted her fists on her hips, "My search programs aren't as precise as hers."

"Do what you can." Riker urged, "As fast as you can."

"Don't rush me." Danan growled, "You rush a programmer and you get a lousy program."

"What is it about that station?" Riker asked no one in particular, "She's been there for forty-five minutes and she's already acting like T'Kir?"

"First lover's spat?" Grace wore a wicked smile.

"Just back us away from the Mercury-class ship." Riker ordered, "I want to be free and clear to navigate in ten minutes or less."

"She has a name, y'know." Grace remarked, "It's right there, splashed across her hull. She's the ISS Vice. Accept no substitutes."

"We have to get that Vulcan off of this ship." Riker groaned. Grace's grin turned victorious and she began activating the manoeuvring thrusters and guiding the ship away from the stricken Vice.

In the lower decks, specifically the Security Office, Abigail Collins sat studying the ship's internal sensors. No boarders had attempted to come aboard during their last engagement. She didn't put a last ditch effort past the enemy and kept her Security force on alert.

Collins looked up and saw Harkins, a recently hired cargo handler, approaching. His hands were clasped behind his back. It wasn't a normal mannerism for him but the cargo and shuttlebay crews had little to do right now. A bad case of nerves could easily be developing.

Harkins stopped at the office door and leaned in, "Howdy."

"Hi yourself." Collins replied. She didn't know Harkins well but he was cute. She was distracted enough that it took her a full minute to realise his comm badge was missing.

"What happened to your..." Collins managed to get out before Harkins swung his left hand around and stunned her and her fellow Security officer manning the office. Harkins reached into his waistband and removed an old flip style communicator. He flipped it open and spoke.

"Harkins to demo team. Converge on the armoury and prepare for Operation Spinal Chord."

Twenty minutes later, six other men had gathered near the Security Office. Collins and Holvreet, the other stunned officer, were stripped of weapons and comm gear. They were moved to the brig and placed in a cell. They used the Office's access control to open the armoury. The conspirators stunned the two Security personnel stationed within and moved and equipped everyone with a phaser and a pulse rifle.

Harkins remained in the Security Office and activated its link to the rest of the Security detail, "This is Peter Harkins. Can anyone read me? There's been an accident at the Security Office, a weapons malfunction of sorts. We need help!"

Harkins aimed his phaser at the primary control board and fired. Sparks and smoke issued forth as the ODN lines blew. The Office was now isolated from the rest of the ship.

"Come on now!" Harkins shouted out to his remaining associates, "Carry those two into the brig. Place them with the other two."

Harkins and his compatriots were among the latest inductees into the ship's service. They were all Solarian Security Services employees and had been selected by Solarian's Special Branch to infiltrate and sabotage the Obsidian at an opportune moment. Harkins could think of no better opportunity to seize control of the ship and disable her then when she would soon face Iotian Starfleet vessels in Solarian's employ. Harkin's team would transmit a preselected code and the Iotians would board the Outbound Ventures ship and take the crew prisoner.

Harkins supposed the crew would subsequently "disappear" but that was no concern of his. Disposing of the rest of the Security team was. Harkins assembled his men and women in a huddle outside of the office and waited. Soon the Security force began arriving by twos.

They rushed in and were ambushed by the Solarian agents. The three cells of the brig were soon crammed full of stunned Security officers. Harkins' lieutenant in this operation, Sheila Peterson, approached for a quiet word, "You've blown the security controls. How can we deploy the anaesthesine gas?"

"We don't." Harkins replied, "We take the bridge, Engineering and Sickbay by force. The only armed personnel on this boat besides us are the SID team members on the bridge."

"Are you certain you can neutralise them?" Peterson asked.

"I'll personally lead that team. You'll take Engineering with Hamish and Trevloi at your side. Red Wolf will guard the brig and McCormick will secure Sickbay."

"Why are we taking Sickbay?" Peterson enquired, "It's manned by the EMH."

"The EMH is the physician on call but the medtechs on duty could run amuck and revive stunned personnel." Harkins explained.

"Why are we stunning them?" Peterson wondered, "Wouldn't it be easier to simply execute them?"

"Our superiors and our employer want them alive to undergo the Iotians' tender mercies as they're interrogated." Harkins answered.

"Poor bastards." Peterson shook her head, "It'd be better to kill them now."

"That's not for us to decide." Harkins said, "Operations has decided that the senior staff possesses invaluable information that must be extracted. We're not equipped to accomplish that so that leaves the Iotians."

"What about the rumour that these Nova Romans will ride to the crew's assistance?"

"From what little I've heard, they're primitives." Harkins sneered, "Their tech base is even more rudimentary than the Iotians'."

"They could still complicate matters if they arrive." Peterson warned.

"We'll have control of the most powerful ship in the system." Harkins deflected her concerns, "This ship is insignificant in the greater Alpha Quadrant but here, it's a juggernaut."

"I hope you're right." Peterson remarked.

"Trust me, Sheila. When have I ever let an op go south?"

"There's always a first time Peter." Peterson was in a dark mood now.

"Take Hamish and Trevloi and scoot along to Engineering." Harkins ordered, "That's a good girl."

Peterson responded with a rude gesture but she collected her team and went her way.

"Smythe, you're with me." Harkins directed, "Red Dog, man the brig. McCormick, Sickbay is yours."

McCormick wore a lascivious grin as he acknowledged his orders, "Righty Oh."

"I know that look McCormick." Harkins growled, "Keep it in your pants."

"You know I will." McCormick promised and disappeared.

"I don't trust that man." Harkins complained.

"Special Branch selected him so he must be competent." Smythe asserted.

"Special Branch has been known to use thugs in the past. I just hope that sadist doesn't end up raping someone." Harkins remarked in disgust.

"Are we headed for the bridge?" Smythe asked.

"Indeed." Harkins nodded, "Hold the fort, Lance."

Red Dog nodded in return, "They'll have to kill me to get past me."

Harkins knew Red Dog was wearing an experimental civilian version of the new ablative body armour used by Starfleet. He could shrug off several particle blasts before the armour failed. That would unsettle the enemy and give the Native American time to incapacitate his opponents.

"Let's go." Harkins said and Smythe followed as the Solarian team leader led the way to the lift.

The Presidential Guardsmen detail led their prisoners through the mansion. They entered through a service entrance to the side of the sprawling mansion. The entrance led to a bland corridor filled with other Presidential Guardsmen. The others stood by as the captive SID team paraded past. Macen and the others remained silent as they were herded into an elevator large enough to accommodate everyone.

The service lift descended. It opened to reveal a sprawling underground complex. The guardsmen nudged the Outbound Ventures officers forward. Macen, T'Kir and the others resumed following the weapons bearers while being herded by the guardsmen.

While the team marched towards their final destination, Daggit, Radil, Kort and Parva began looking around in confusion. After a moment, understanding cleared their expressions and they all settled down.

The Iotian guardsmen took the prisoners down a corridor adjacent to a large, open office area filled with staffers. The corridor led to a large private office. It was opulent, filled with lush furniture and exquisite rugs and tapestries. This was the auxiliary Presidential Office, used when the mansion was under siege.

The three weapons bearers entered first and deposited the team's weapons upon Oxmyx's expansive desk. They departed. Macen and T'Kir were escorted into the office by two of the remaining guards. The other four SID teammates remained outside with the other two guards.

"So," Oxmyx folded his arms and sneered, "these are the mighty Fed assassins."

"What makes you think that we're assassins?" Macen asked.

"You're here aren't you?" Oxmyx demanded, "If you wanted to do anything but kill me you'd have run after killing my hit teams."

"We have a different goal." Macen informed Oxmyx, "We want to see you taken alive to stand trial so killing you isn't an option."

"So you say now." Oxmyx laughed harshly, "My boys have you disarmed and surrounded."

"No, they don't." Macen remarked and simply said, "Now!"

The guards standing beside him and T'Kir stiffened and allowed the couple to smash their elbows into their noses. The guards went down on their knees. Outside the office, Daggit and Parva had already disarmed the guards and rendered them unconscious.

Oxmyx grabbed one of the team's Bajoran phaser pistols, took aim and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened.

"Learn to work the safety catch dumbass!" T'Kir snarled and her left foot smashed into the man's testicles. Oxmyx dropped the phaser, clutched his groin and collapsed. He turned purple and quit breathing.

"Kort!" Macen shouted, "Check Oxmyx out."

Kort moved into the office and retrieved his medical kit from the desk. He flipped open his medical tricorder and began his sweeping scan of Oxmyx's fallen form. Closing his tricorder, he removed a hypospray from his get and put one ampoule in. He pressed it up against Oxmyx's vein in his neck and depressed the trigger. It injected with a hiss. He loaded another ampoule, set the dosage and repeated the procedure.

As Oxmyx's colour and breathing normalised Kort stood and grinned at Macen, "A ruptured testicle. Nothing life threatening now that I've treated the shock. He should remain immobilised until the analgesic wears off. Pain should him keep him here after that."

Macen returned Laren to her holster and scowled at T'Kir, who was returning her phaser to its holster. Daggit, Radil and Parva crowded around the table. They all retrieved their weapons. Daggit replaced Radil's battery pack and she reactivated the cannon.

Oxmyx struggled to curse them but all that flew from his mouth was spittle. His face was covered in his own saliva. Raw hatred radiated from his eyes. His hands twitched and trembled but were unable to move from his groin.

"Are you sure you don't want me to finish him off?" Daggit asked Macen.

Macen had years of experience dealing with Daggit's preconditioned ‘Soldier' mode and dismissed the idea, "Sorry, Rab, we need him alive to turn over to Admiral Crist. A lesson in accountability must be made."

T'Kir sat down behind the desk and fired up the computer atop its polished surface, "Oh, Admiral, don't think about your clearance code." She brightened and broke into a radiant smile with dimples showing, "Thank you."

She got busy hooking her microcomputer up to the Iotian terminal and punched in Oxmyx's clearance code. Her eyes widened as she began exploring the system, "This computer is tied into two networks. The main network and a private mainframe dedicated to the use of the President."

"And I'm willing to bet that what we want is on the private mainframe." Macen opined.

"You wouldn't be wrong." T'Kir confirmed, "The security network is on a third mainframe but this one can observe the Security network without yielding access either way."

"Can you locate the shield generator?" Macen asked.

"Easily." T'Kir answered breezily and she began her inquiry. She began tapping her finger on the desk and then she stopped and sat upright in the plush chair she occupied, "The generator is in the mansion's basement, over in the west wing."

"Can it be shut down by remote?" Macen enquired.

T'Kir shook her head, "It's a manual operation."

"Print a flimsy of the layout of this facility and mark our present location." Macen ordered.

"Aye, aye Captain Bligh." T'Kir sketched off a salute and got to work. The printer, located on the other half of the wraparound desk began to spit out flimsies. T'Kir distributed a schematic of the basement levels to each of the team members.

"Where's yours?" Daggit enquired of T'Kir.

T'Kir jerked her thumb in Macen's direction, "I'm with him. If I'm not beside him it's because I'm dead and then I won't care where I'm at."

Daggit looked surprised, "Very well."

"Rab," Macen interrupted, "that shield hast to come down at all costs."

Daggit jerked his head up and down, "You can count on us."

"Wait a minute." Parva interjected, "No one said anything about ‘at all costs' before we left."

Daggit gave her a fierce, feral smile, "Welcome to the team, honey."

"You can keep the team." Parva complained, "I want to live."

"Stick close by and you'll be fine." Daggit grimly assured her.

"I better be mister or no sex for you, one month." Parva threatened.

Daggit took a phaser from one of the fallen guards and exited the office. Radil followed. Parva and Kort slung their weapons and picked up Iotian phasers from the fallen guards. After they'd left, Macen retrieved the final guard's phaser, adjusted its setting and shot each of the guardsmen before taking up station at the doorway.

"Executing prisoners now?" T'Kir teased.

"Now they won't wake up for awhile." Macen returned.

"Sure, sure." T'Kir retorted and resumed her search for the evidence linking Solarian Security Systems and the Oxmyx's Presidency.

Alarms sounded and Macen shook his head in regret, "So much for Daggit's team going unnoticed.

Daggit and the others exited the corridor leading to the Presidential Office. Several staffers started at their sudden appearance. Consulting their floor layouts, they turned right and proceeded towards the wing containing the shield generator. Unfortunately, as they hurried away, a staffer ran towards a central pillar and slammed her fist on a bright red button. Alarms sounded across the entire mansion and the surrounding grounds.

"So much for the element of surprise." Parva groused.

Daggit scowled, "Our mission remains the same. Radil, beside me. Kort and Parva, bring up the rear."

"Yessir." Parva remarked and leapt to attention.

"Move out." Daggit ordered.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Gilan, the Assistant Chief Engineer, was startled as Sheila Peterson, Hamish and Trevloi burst into the engine room and began brandishing weapons. Peterson shouted for everyone to move away from their stations and to gather in the centre of the space. A junior engineer reached for her comm badge and the Farruck gunman, Trevloi, stunned her. Upon hearing the angry outcry from her compatriots, he simply thumbed the intensity setting of his pulse rifle up to the lethal setting.

"We would prefer not killing you," Peterson was explaining to the captive audience, "but we will without a moment's hesitation if provoked. What this means is that you should shut up and do as you're told."

Trevloi snarled in order to stress the severity of her words. His ridged skull, cheekbone ridges and sharp teeth gave him the appearance of a predator. For all the crowd knew, he very well might be. The Farruck were a civilisation from beyond the edges of the Federation. Only one starship had ever reached the edges of their frontier. Pleasantries had been exchanged and that was all.

Trevloi was the first Farruck to travel to UFP territory. Scientists, anthropologists and sociologists had attempted to study the singular alien. He had rebuffed every such attempt. It had been a chance encounter that had brought him to Solarian Security Services. What they'd discovered was that Trevloi was a master of military science. Armed with the skills and temperament of a Starfleet Special Operations agent, Trevloi soon became the star agent of the Solarian Special Branch.

Peterson smiled. She knew that Trevloi was as steady as a Jem'Hadar. Since meeting him, she'd often wondered what a squad of Farruck would do in an encounter with a group of Jem'Hadar. When questioned over his military expertise, Trevloi merely shrugged and said that he was an amateur compared to the average Farruck. That made Farruck territory a place that Peterson preferred leaving well alone.

"All right you lot," Peterson shouted out, "I need the watch commander and I need him now."

Gilan stepped forward, covered by both Hamish and Trevloi, "I'm the Assistant Chief Engineer."

Peterson wore a feral smile, "Good. I need you to power down the warp core."

Gilan blinked in surprise. Peterson stepped forward and pressed the barrel of her phaser rifle into the underside of his jaw, "I'm in a bit of a hurry and I'm certain that someone else here can accomplish the same thing for me. Don't make yourself a liability."

"All right." Gilan relented and led Peterson over to the intermix controls, "This will take a few minutes."

"Take your time." Peterson chuckled darkly, "But not really."

Gilan suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He focused on his work instead. He was intent on taking as long as he could. That increased the chances of someone discovering what he was doing and dispatching Security to deal with this threat.

McCormick reached Sickbay and walked in. The on duty nurse and medtech looked askance at his brandishing weapons in their territory. McCormick shot them both without a moment's hesitation.

"Activate the EMH." he snarled.

The holographic image of a pleasant looking woman in her thirties appeared, "Please state the nature of the medical emergency."

McCormick slapped her across the face, "Shut up bitch! Let's find out if you're programmed to be anatomically correct."

The EMH blinked and then disappeared. McCormick swore and went to a wall panel behind the physician's desk. He called up the EMH's holographic matrix and subsystem protocols. After editing choice lines of code, McCormick returned to standing in front of the doors.

"Activate the EMH."

The woman reappeared, "Please state the na..."

McCormick struck her with all of his considerable might and she went down to the floor. The EMH looked up defiantly and blinked...only this time nothing happened. Her confidence wavered and McCormick loomed over the top of her.

"I clipped your wings, Poppit." McCormick leered, "Now you're mine."

"You'll never have me." the EMH vowed.

"Yes, yes I will." McCormick chuckled darkly, "Now, let me hear you scream."

Harkins and Smythe stepped out of the turbolift and stepped onto the bridge. To Smythe's right, Lisea Danan sat at the Ops station. Smythe shot her with the pulse rifle and she collapsed onto the deck. Riker heard the weapon's discharge and leapt to his feet. He turned to see Harkins aiming his phaser at him.

"Harkins?" Riker asked and then collapsed as the particle beam lanced into him, overloading his nervous system.

Shannon Forger leapt from the Tactical station at Harkins but his reactions were honed from years of similar work and he stunned her in midair. Smythe brought his weapon to bear on Grace but the pilot was already in motion. At the beginning of hostilities she'd dove and rolled away from her station. She came to rest on one knee and cut Smythe down while Harkins was busy with Forger.

Harkins looked towards Grace and held up a hand as if trying to ward away the inevitable. Grace broke into predatory smile and she squeezed off her shot. The phaser burst caught Harkins squarely in the chest. He slumped over and folded down upon himself.

Grace called out to the rating manning the bridge's Engineering station, "Help me collect their weapons."

The lad initially quailed but then he gathered his resolve and nodded assent. He brought the phasers to Grace, who was checking vitals on the three stunned officers. The one she was the most concerned with was Danan. Her link with her symbiont was far too precious to allow some third-rate hijacker to sever it.

Grace handed back Harkins' phaser to the rating, "What's your name?"

"Josh...I mean Crewman Lawson." the boy stammered.

"Hold on to that Josh and shoot whoever I'm shooting at. Got it?" Grace insisted.

Lawson looked as though he was about to be ill but he nodded and gingerly took the handgun. Grace slapped her comm badge, "Grace to Security." Silence met her request and she tried again. After a third attempt, she gave up, "Dammit. They got Security first. They're not as stupid as I'd hoped."

"What now?" Lawson asked.

"Now you check that board of yours and you let me know if anything hinky is happening with the engines." Grace ordered.

Lawson checked his readouts and looked up excitedly, "Someone's shutting down the warp core!"

"Are you certain?" Grace enquired.

"Positive, ma'am." Lawson assured her, "The boards don't lie."

"Great." Grace grumped, "What the hell do I do now?"

In the lowest level of the Iotian Presidential Mansion, Daggit, Radil, Parva, and Kort had met up with the security force guarding the ground's shield generator. The generator complex was located at the end of a service corridor. It included the fusion reactors that powered the shield array as well as the control room that manipulated the energies involved. The power was shunted from the reactors to the mansion and the electrostatic projectors located around the mansion's perimeter and on the building's roof.

Daggit and Radil were currently trading shots with the Iotian guards. Parva and Kort were busy looking for an alternate access route. Radil was keeping the guardsmens' heads down with her cannon. Daggit chambered a round into his grenade launcher and fired off a photon grenade.

The miniature antimatter warhead struck a corridor wall and began its matter/antimatter annihilation sequence. The resultant energy discharge killed everyone in the confined area of the guardsmen's access control room. Bodies were ravaged and mangled by the matter/antimatter annihilation. One guardsman's upper torso had completely disappeared and another was decapitated. The remaining corpses were all maimed in some fashion.

A door leading deeper into the reactor area opened and an Iotian stuck his head out and visibly paled. He quickly shut the door and the locks could be heard as they cycled. Daggit grimaced and chambered another grenade. He took aim and counselled Radil to seek cover.

"There will be a backblast from this Jenrya." Daggit voiced his concern, "I don't want you caught by it."

For a half second, Radil's expression changed. It was the thrill of hope that played across her features. Daggit recognised it but was incapable, at least during a combat situation, of analysing the situation. Seeing her safely tucked back behind another wall, Daggit squeezed the trigger and leapt behind the wall Radil was sheltering behind.

The two soldiers were pressed up against each other and that same flicker crossed Radil's features again. This time it lingered for a longer period of time. Daggit opened his mouth to speak but an explosion silenced him. Daggit peered around the corner to look down the corridor and saw that the door's lock mechanism was destroyed and that the door was hanging loosely on its hinges.

Kort and Parva came strolling up at that moment and Parva's mouth quirked into a mirthful grin, "Is there something going on between you two that I should know about?"

Daggit and Radil separated and Radil flushed. Daggit shook his head, "Nothing that I'm aware of. Why?"

Parva's eyes narrowed and her grin spread, "Because you both look distinctly guilty. Don't they Kort?"

Kort was sombre, "Indeed they do."

"There's only one appropriate response." Parva snapped her fingers and threw her arms around Kort, "Take me Kort, take me now!"

"How do you want it?" Kort growled as he tipped her back.

"As T'Kir would say, ‘ride me hard, Cowboy'." Parva replied in a sultry voice.

"Surely." Kort assured her with confidence and then leaned in closer and whispered, "What's a cowboy?"

Parva patted him on the cheek as he lifted her back to her feet, "Drop by my quarters tonight and I'll have Rab show you what a cowboy is. You can take turns branding me."

Kort blinked and looked over at Daggit. Daggit gave the barest of shrugs, "She's serious."

"Are you?" Kort demanded.

"I never said I'd be there." Daggit racked the pump slide on his launcher and began to walk down the corridor, "She said it, not me."

Radil paused and then asked Parva, "What's up with him?"

Parva shook her head, eyes narrowed in concentration, "I don't know but I intend to find out as soon as this little mission is over. He won't talk until the shooting stops so it's pointless to ask while he can't process the answer."

"I guess that means we need to keep him alive long enough to talk." Radil opined and took off after Daggit.

Parva glanced over at Kort and asked, "Are you worried?"

"Of course not." he replied bombastically, then his features became less certain, "Of course I am. Jenrya and I only resumed our relationship because you and Rab began yours. If, for any reason, she felt that Daggit were available for an involvement, then I don't know how she'd react."

"Rab chose me over her," Parva stated, "so I'm not too worried about that front but I'd hate to have to squish Jenrya like a bug."

Kort smiled, "I'd prefer if you didn't."

"Even if she's planning on cheating on you?"

Kort shrugged, "Emotional matters confuse Jenrya. She's been a soldier since the age of twelve. That's a young age even for Bajorans. Even among Klingons it's rare for a youngster of those years to assume the mantle of a warrior. All of the years that Jenrya should have spent developing interpersonal skills and life goals she spent in combat. She's made up for some lost time as a member of the SID team but she still has years to go and she has the mentality of a Bajoran teenager, hence the developing predicament."

Parva placed her fists upon her hips, "She doesn't deserve you."

Kort laughed, "Yes, she does. She just doesn't believe it yet."

"Think we should catch up with the naughty youngsters?" Parva cocked her head in the direction of the reactor room.

"After you, my dear." Kort ushered her down the corridor. Phaser fire could just be heard as they started down the hallway. They quickened their pace.

Back in Oxmyx's office, T'Kir worked furiously at sorting through terabytes of information. Macen stood vigil at the door. Footsteps could be heard running towards the office. Macen set the intensity of the Iotian phaser he'd confiscated and waited for an available target.

Three guardsmen soon presented themselves. They were cautiously approaching the open door leading to the President's bastion. Macen stepped out, took a two-handed aim and fired. The three guardsmen were neutralised in less than ten seconds.

"Fire!" a second wave of guardsmen received their orders and unleashed a torrent of phaser fire towards Macen. Macen returned to his place to the right of the doorframe. Like the rest of the walls in the lower levels, doorframe was composed of pure duranium.

"How's it coming?" Macen asked T'Kir in a conversational tone as particle beams blasted by him.

"I've set the search parameters," T'Kir shrugged, "now its just waiting for the computer to finish its search. Problems?"

Macen grinned, "Not yet. I might need your help later though."

T'Kir smiled in return, "Just say the word."

Macen dropped to one knee and pivoted around the doorframe. He immediately opened fire. The guardsmen, caught in the middle of an advance, were caught unprepared. Macen cut through half their numbers before they returned fire.

Macen kicked off and flew backwards away from the doorway. T'Kir shook her head, "Are we taking prisoners?"

Macen rolled onto his knees and stood, "Nope. They outnumber us already. The last thing I want to see is a siege that lasts long enough for the stunned personnel to awaken and threaten us again."

If there was one thing T'Kir had come to appreciate over the last twelve years of knowing Macen, it was that he didn't look kindly upon threats to his, or anyone he cared about's, safety. He would take any measure he deemed necessary to neutralise a perceived threat. Macen had no regard for the consequences of his actions when he was like this, as could be seen by the end of his active service career with Starfleet. As comforting as T'Kir found it to realise that Macen would literally go to any lengths to protect her, she didn't want him to do anything that would jeopardise their position with the SID.

"Don't worry," Macen scolded, "I won't jeopardise our standing with our employers."

T'Kir blinked in surprise. Next, she blushed. Macen chuckled.

"Don't worry, you weren't telepathically broadcasting." he assured her, "I could sense your concern but your face and especially your eyes gave your thoughts away."

"Damn it." T'Kir muttered.

Macen shrugged, "The dangers of a union as intertwined as ours is."

"Never thought I'd wind up bonding with a flippin' telepath." T'Kir murmured.

Macen fired a few shots at the encroaching guardsmen and then returned to their conversation, "I'm not a telepath, remember? You just never expected to form a rapport with someone else that was psi sensitive as well. Add to it my ability to sense the Currents and you occasionally get freaked out because you're not in control of the situation like you would be with a non-esper."

"That, and you're too clever by half." T'Kir grumped.

"Just observant." Macen replied and fired off another salvo. As phaser blasts sailed by in reply, Macen asked T'Kir, "Almost done there?"

"D'you need help or something?" T'Kir teased.

"I wouldn't turn it down." Macen admitted.

"Keep your shorts on," T'Kir winked and smiled, "at least until later."

"I make no promises."

T'Kir's eyes went wide and she covered her open mouth with her hand, "Scandalous."

"You take low." Macen grew serious, "I've got high covered. Wait until I tell you to go."

She watched as he reset the intensity level on the Iotian phaser. It began to whine.

"Well?" T'Kir demanded, "Don't just stand there! Throw it for Elements sake!"

"Calm down." Macen softly urged and drew his phaser from its holster, "Ready?"

"I was ready as soon as that thing started howling." T'Kir retorted.

"It's hardly ‘howling'." Macen chastised.

"It's close enough!" T'Kir insisted, "Throw the damn thing already!"

"On three." Macen suggested, "One...two...three!"

T'Kir swung out of the doorway, hugging the doorframe. Being left handed, she was in a position ideally suited to her disposition. She aggressively fired into the assembling crowd of guardsmen.

Macen stepped out and began firing. His right handed grip required that he clear himself of the doorframe. He clasped the overloading Iotian phaser in his left hand. Macen shot two or three guardsmen before he threw the whining phaser into their midst. The surrounding guardsmen attempted to dive atop the critically charged phaser in a vain effort to disarm it.

It was too late. The phaser had reached the point of no return. The prefire chamber had overloaded and now a massive discharge was imminent. Macen grabbed T'Kir and pulled her back behind the shelter of the office walls.

The whining pitch of the phaser finally reached a howl and then it exploded. The phaser's power pack discharged, essentially turning itself into a small bomb. The discharge washed across the captive and fleeing guardsmen. Their bodies were tossed to and fro.

A wave of destructive energy pulsed past the open doorway of the Presidential Office. The bookshelves, pictures and the furniture were destroyed as their molecular bonds were assaulted and dissipated. T'Kir sat huddled into Macen's arms. Her hands were pressed against her sensitive ears and her eyes were squeezed closed.

As swiftly as the barrage had begun, it ceased. Macen loosened his grip on T'Kir and softly shook her.

"It's over." he said both audibly and telepathically.

T'Kir's eyes fluttered open and she released her ears, "Damn. You've gone and blown everything up again."

Macen stood and grinned, "Whoops." He reached down and helped her to her feet, "Guess someone will have to deduct that out of my pay."

"Don't tempt me." T'Kir growled, "I hate it when you overload phasers."

"Not all of us are comfortable carrying grenades." Macen replied with a wry grin.

"The worst part of it is that you know how I feel and you do it anyway." T'Kir complained.

"Take a look at that corridor now." Macen jerked his thumb towards the doorway, "Tell me a faster way of accomplishing that."

T'Kir sighed, "There isn't. I just hate it. All the mental death screams get to be too much."

"Like a phaser blast is better." Macen snorted.

"There's still the fear and the anticipation." T'Kir acknowledged, "But there's also time for acceptance. With a bomb there's just dread, panic and then agony."

Macen thought about it, "It's that bad?"

T'Kir nodded and he put his hands on his hips, "Then we'll only use bombs as a weapon of last resort. Which, by the way, I considered that last application to be."

T'Kir nodded, looking oddly vulnerable. It was disturbing. She quietly returned to her efforts at sorting through the Presidential database. Macen stole a glance at the corridor outside.

Bodies were haphazardly strewn about. The stench of burnt flesh hung in the air. Macen idly wondered how that was affecting T'Kir. It was a documented fact that a Vulcan woman's olfactory senses were almost as sensitive as her hearing. This charnel house had to be disturbing her.

Although he couldn't see movement, he could hear shouts and the issuance of orders and directives from beyond the bottleneck of corpses. Within moments, a clear soprano called out, "Hey you! What about a temporary truce so we can collect our dead?"

"Only if both sides return to their respective ends of the hallway at the resumption of hostilities." Macen countered.

"A mutual verbal five-minute warning?" the voice asked.

"Agreed." Macen conceded before adding, "And I get to supervise your efforts?"

"No problem." the female officer agreed, "We're beginning our recovery...now."

A petite brunette stepped out. She wore the livery of the Presidential Guardsmen and bore the sleeve insignia of an Iotian Starfleet lt. commander. She also still held her phaser in her hands.

"Is Admiral Oxmyx still alive?" she asked.

Macen nodded, "He wishes he weren't but he'll live." Macen holstered his phaser, "We have a temporary case of peace breaking out. You should try it."

The brunette smiled and attached her phaser to her belt, "You have a name?"

"Brin Macen."

"Alyss." she smiled, "Is that woman in there with you, your girlfriend?"

Macen shook his head, "Wife."

"Too bad." Alyss grumped, "I would have enjoyed ‘interrogating' you." She broke into a wicked grin, "I still might."

"Are all Presidential Guardsmen this audacious?" Macen enquired.

Alyss nodded while maintaining her grin, "Sure. It's a job requirement."

"Well, right now your job requires you to stand watch over the removal of a couple of dozen of your fellow guardsmen. Officers that I killed." Macen clarified, "You might be next."

Alyss shook her head, "Never happen."

"Why not?" Macen asked coldly.

"Now you've seen how cute I am." Alyss replied with a twinkle, "Now you'll hesitate and I'll get the drop on you. It's that simple."

Macen laughed, "It's not that simple. I hesitate and my wife'll shoot me waaay before you get the chance."

"And here I thought you had a pair of mivshrin hanging under that gunbelt." Alyss called out as her troops began filtering into the corridor and collecting the bodies and remnants of bodies.

Macen waved a finger at her, "No fair trying to get me to break the truce. It's not going to happen so why don't we concentrate on trying to find a way out of this situation."

"You want to negotiate?" Alyss was surprised.

"Always a safe bet in my book." Macen replied.

"Some worlds eating, planet smacking, fifty foot tall Fed monster you turn out to be." Alyss kicked a piece of debris, "I liked you better before we talked."

"The point is we are talking so let's keep talking." Macen insisted, "Enough people have died already."

"Boring but okay." Alyss replied, "Here's my first demand is that the Admiral gets returned to us. Alive and breathing."

"Easy enough." Macen agreed, "My only demand is that T'Kir and I get to walk free."

"It'll never happen." Alyss vowed.

Macen shrugged, "Then we go back to the carnage. Take a look at the bodies being hauled out of here and think about it."

 

Chapter Eighteen

McCormick leaned over the fallen EMH. He'd left his pulse rifle on the physician's desk but he retained his phaser pistol. The bridge opened a comm link to Sickbay at that moment.

"Bridge to the medical staff." Grace's voice rang out, "Please dispatch a team to the bridge."

After a moment's silence, Grace repeated herself. The EMH shouted out, "Sickbay's been taken. Ahhhh!"

McCormick slapped the EMH so hard it made it her photonic teeth loosen, "Shut up you nameless bitch!"

McCormick grabbed a hold of her hair and banged her head up against the bulkhead, "They make you realistic enough to pass for human to make you a better doctor. What they don't tell you is that it also makes you a better trollop."

He leaned in close enough to her that she could feel his breath across her cheek, "That call means Harkins' assault on the bridge failed. Now they'll be looking for us all. That means we're a tad rushed, sweetie. Why don't you spread your legs and make my job easier."

The EMH head butted McCormick, breaking his nose. He savagely kicked her in the ribs and went for his belt buckle, "You're gonna pay for that, little missy."

Just then, the Sickbay doors opened.

"Grace to Rhiann," Grace said via comm badge, "I know you have another hour before your shift starts but I need you to relieve me."

"Of course." Rhiann replied brightly, "What's going on?"

Grace gave her a synopsis of current events and Rhiann thought for a moment before replying, "Why don't you give Ceryx a call? I'm an Andorian. I was training on how to respond to situations like this when I was in grade school."

The Andorians did have a strong warrior tradition in their culture. It was a trait that Grace was happy that she could suddenly count on.

"Report to the bridge." Grace ordered, "I'll equip you with our attackers' spoils."

"Be right there." Rhiann was so bloody cheerful it made Grace wonder if the Andorian pilot stayed awake wishing for an event like this.

Joachim Dracas meandered down the corridor. He knew he really should have reported in earlier but the truth was that Kort made him uncomfortable. What was worse, the doctor realised that he made his patients nervous and used that knowledge to torture them. He'd thought that Roman doctors lacked tact. He'd never encountered sadism until Kort had examined him.

Dracas knew that a great deal of his discomfort had been a direct result of his provincialism. Other than the Omicrons and a few select Vulcans, the Nova Romans had never had to deal with outright aliens before. Kort had sensed his uneasiness and had capitalised upon it. The Klingon had said that immersion therapy was the best treatment for what ailed Dracas.

Yesterday Kort had left a message for Dracas that his medical exam results were in and that he'd like to discuss them with Joachim. Dracas had postponed going to Sickbay until the "good" Doctor was gone. He was still uneasy discussing his medical condition with an artificial being like the EMH but he preferred a computer driven holographic representation of a person over a very real Klingon. Besides, from what Dracas could tell from his brief encounter with the EMH, she was a sweet young lady...even if she wasn't real.

Truth be told, Dracas was growing more excited to be going to Sickbay with every passing second. The chance to witness an engineering marvel like the EMH in action was simply too good to pass up. He expected his consultation to be one of the more interesting experiences of his short life.

The doors to Sickbay opened with a distinctive hiss. Dracas stepped in and immediately noted the rifle lying across the physician's desk. Turning his head to his right he noted the hulking form of McCormick leaning in over the EMH. The holographic doctor looked terrified and Dracas drew his short sword in one smooth stroke.

McCormick began to turn and Dracas saw that the man's fly was undone. As the Solarian agent began to reach for the pistol tied down to his leg Dracas was filled with rage. The EMH might not be a human but as he was discovering on this ship, humanity was a relative term. Dracas threw his sword with all of his might as the phaser pistol cleared the holster.

McCormick staggered backwards as the sword impaled itself into his chest. It was a perfect shot, piercing his heart. Dracas smiled in triumph. All those hours spent practicing that particular throw had paid off at long last.

McCormick dropped the phaser and then collapsed on top of the deck. The EMH scrambled away from the corpse, revulsion filling her features. Dracas rushed to her side.

"Are you injured?" Dracas asked as he took hold of her shoulders, "Can you be hurt?"

The EMH numbly nodded her head, "M'fine."

"Look at me." he commanded the stricken hologram. Her gaze averted from McCormick's fallen form to Dracas' eyes, "He can't threaten you any more. You're safe."

The EMH snorted, "As safe as anyone on this ship." Bitterness tinged her voice, "He has friends. He mentioned a "Harkins' going to the bridge."

Dracas frowned, "They've obviously hit Security as well."

The EMH's brow furrowed, "What makes you say that?"

Dracas bent to retrieve the phaser pistol, "These weapons came from the ship's armoury. They'd have to neutralise the Security staff in order to obtain them."

"Oh." The EMH's mouth and eyes formed little O's.

"Can you manage?" Dracas asked.

The doctor nodded, "I think so."

"Where's your staff?"

"Over there." The EMH pointed out, "He stunned them before coming after me."

Dracas studied her, "Do you want me to flush your memory?"

The EMH gave him a wry smile, "Tempting, but no. What I want is for someone to program me with self defence tactics in case this happens again."

"I can show you some techniques any time that you'd like." Dracas offered, "For now, though, can you revive your staff?"

"Do you need them?" The EMH was focused now.

Dracas nodded, "There may be wounded on the bridge and at the Security station."

"You're going to attempt a rescue?"

"Yes." Dracas affirmed.

"But you're alone." the EMH protested.

"I won't be as soon as you awaken your staff." Dracas mildly redirected the EMH's attention.

Dracas could swear the EMH blushed. She hurried off to examine and treat her fallen comrades while Dracas stripped McCormick of his weaponry. First, he pulled his sword out of the man's chest and returned it to its sheath. Next he unfastened the utility belt/holster and pulled it free from McCormick's bulk.

Dracas strapped on the holster and placed the phaser pistol in its appointed place. He then retrieved the pulse rifle from the desk and checked its charge. He rummaged about in the utility belt's pouches and discovered spare power packs for the rifle and pistol both. By this point the EMH had administered stimulants to both the duty nurse and the medtech.

The two medical officers were groggy but awake. Dracas examined them and then turned to the EMH.

"Gather up two medkits." he suggested, "I need them to be equipped to revive stunned personnel and treat phaser burns."

"Right!" The EMH acknowledged and snapped to it.

Dracas returned his focus to the two recovering medical staffers, "Are you capable of performing your duties?"

The nurse merely nodded. He didn't trust his voice as of yet. The medtech squeaked out a "Yes." Her voice was still unsteady.

"Your efforts may prove to be the undoing of the enemy." Dracas attempted to rouse them to action, "I need you to follow me. Now."

Both staffers rose to their feet. They were unsteady at first but they quickly found their footing. The EMH brought their medkits.

"Here's everything that you'll need." she said.

The two medical officers gratefully accepted their gear and looked to Dracas.

Dracas broke into a feral smile, "Now we go on the hunt."

Ceryx manned the Obsidian's helm. Rhiann accepted Harkins' phaser and checked the charge on its powerpack. Ceryx possessed Smythe's phaser pistol while Lawson was armed with Smythe's rifle. The two stunned prisoners were stretched out by the Captain's Ready Room's entrance.

Danan, Riker, and Forger were stretched out in front of the Science and Command stations. The relief Tactical and Ops officers had been called and were now manning those particular duty posts. They divided Riker and Danan's pistols between them. With that done, Grace and Rhiann were planning on an assault aimed at liberating Engineering.

The turbolift doors opened and Grace, Rhiann and Lawson all aimed their weapons at the lift's entrance/exit. Dracas stormed out with his rifle at the ready. Grace breathed a sigh of relief and holstered her weapon.

"Joachim, you could have called ahead." Grace scolded.

"And alert the enemy of my imminent arrival?" Dracas grinned, "That wouldn't constitute a surprise."

Grace's features twisted in a wry expression, "That ‘surprise' almost got you stunned."

The two medical officers exited the lift and Grace looked them over, "Good thinking. You can start with Commander Riker."

"Belay that." Dracas ordered, "You'll awaken the bridge staff when I give the authorisation." Dracas moved over to the fallen forms of Smythe and Harkins. Both wore cargo handler's coveralls and when Dracas rolled Harkins over he found Harkins' name printed on the left breast.

"Revive this one." Dracas commanded and then nodded towards Grace, "You, come here."

"I am not your puppet." Grace growled, "Don't bark orders at me."

"Hold my rifle so I can interrogate this man!" Dracas snapped.

Grace heaved a sigh but she relented. She snatched Dracas' rifle from his outstretched arm and stood by while the nurse administered a stimulant to Harkins. It took several moments but Harkins' eyes fluttered open.

"Where am I?" he croaked.

Dracas knelt beside Harkins and grabbed the man by the lapels and lifted him off the deck, "How many of you are there? What parts of the ship have you taken?"

"Go frinx yourself." Harkins laughed darkly.

Dracas dropped Harkins and then drew his sword. He contemplated its blade for a moment and then he plunged it into Harkins' leg, "How many of you are there and what sections of the ship do you occupy?"

"Frinx you." Harkins hissed between clenched teeth.

Dracas twisted the blade and Harkins cried out. Dracas twisted the blade in the opposite direction and Harkins began sobbing, "I'll talk...I'll talk. Christ Almighty...there are seven of us."

"Six." Dracas revealed coldly, "I've killed your man in Sickbay."

"Six then." Harkins gasped, "We have Engineering and the brig."

"How many in each?" Dracas demanded.

"Three in Engineering and one guarding the brig." Harkins deflated as he passed out.

Dracas pulled his sword free and looked up at the nurse, sedate him but do not treat his wound until you've treated the bridge officers. The nurse nodded, wearing a worried expression.

Dracas rose, sheathing his sword, and looked over at Grace, "From what I've read about your Federation, I'm surprised you didn't object."

Grace shrugged, "Don't let appearances fool you. I wasn't born in the Federation. Furthermore, Captain Macen probably would have eventually used that method if T'Kir weren't around."

"Yes." Dracas nodded, "I have been impressed with the Captain's strength and resolve. He will be an easy man to serve under."

"There are those days." Grace conceded.

"What's happening?" a groggy Riker asked as he struggled to rise.

Grace handed Dracas his rifle and hurried over to Riker's side, "You, Lisea and Shannon were stunned by apparent saboteurs."

"Crewmen?" Riker blinked and widened his eyes, trying to clear them.

"Yes." Grace answered.

"How many?"

"Seven." Grace replied ruefully, "They've taken Engineering and are shutting down the warp core. They also have the brig. They had Sickbay but Joachim took care of that problem."

"Joachim?" Riker was confused on that point then his memory served him and recognition lit his eyes, "Dracas. Gotcha."

"Oh my frinxing head." Danan complained as she regained consciousness. Riker tried his feet out and moved to Danan's position where he knelt.

"Lees, are you alright?" Riker asked worriedly, "How's the Danan symbiont?"

"Mad." Danan's voice sounded steadier than a moment ago, "Like its host."

"Oh my God!" Forger rasped as the stimulant drove her out of unconsciousness, "Did anyone get the ID of that gunman?"

"One of them is named Harkins." Grace elucidated.

"The other is named Smythe." Dracas added.

Grace blushed, "Joachim pointed out their names. We overlooked them."

"Who's ‘we'?" Riker enquired.

"Rhiann, Ceryx, Lawson and me." Grace revealed.

"So," Riker grinned ruefully, "you managed to stop both gunmen while the rest of us were caught cold?"

Grace shifted uncomfortably, "The advantages of being superhuman."

"I suddenly wish I was as well." Riker mused, "If I'd had your reflexes I could have stunned this..."

"Harkins." Grace supplied.

"Thanks." Riker nodded, "I could have stunned this Harkins and Smythe before they gunned down two members of my crew."

"Hey!" Forger had propped herself up on her elbows and was noting Riker's relative position to Danan, "What do I have to do to get personalised attention?"

"Try sleeping with him." Danan remarked.

Forger grimaced, "No thanks. Have fun with that."

Riker looked over at Danan and whispered, "Is she...?"

Danan smiled, "No. You're just not her type."

"Humph." Riker grunted and returned his attention to Grace, "So what was your plan?"

"Rhiann and I were going to retake Engineering. From there we would move to the brig and liberate the prisoners." Grace answered.

"Are there prisoners?" Riker asked.

"Why else would they hold the brig?" Grace theorised.

"It would make sense to hold the Security force in their own brig." Dracas added.

"What's your part in this?" Riker shifted his attention to Dracas, "What role have you played besides liberating Sickbay?"

"I had the medical hologram revive the medical staff so that they could treat the wounded after I retook the bridge." Dracas explained, "Fortunately, it was already free."

"Thanks to Hannah." Danan pointed out and rose to her feet. Forger had also regained her footing. Riker frowned.

"You're something of an engineer." Riker said to Dracas, "Could you assist in the engine room after it's freed?"

"I've performed warp core restarts in the past." Dracas boasted, "Its something of an art."

"So I've heard." Riker smiled, "All right, you're on the Engineering team. Shannon, you'll accompany him. Hannah, you and Rhiann are on the brig. Any questions?"

Silence met the inquiry, "No questions then? Gear up Shannon and everyone else get back to your stations."

The Ops and Tactical ratings gave Danan and Riker back their phasers. Lawson surrendered his phaser rifle to Grace. Ceryx handed Forger his captured phaser.

"Good luck." Riker wished then addressed Dracas, "We need that warp core up ASAP."

"No worries." Dracas grinned confidently as the lift doors closed.

"Is it done?" Peterson demanded, "Is it shut down?"

Gilan stubbornly refused to answer until Peterson shoved her rifle barrel into his ribs, "Yes." The words grated out of the Gideonite's mouth, "It will require at least an hour to restart."

Peterson flashed a wolfish smile of victory, "Then all we have to do is wait for our Iotian comrades to board us."

"Speak for yourself." Gilan muttered.

"Watch the attitude boy." Peterson warned.

"'Boy'?" Gilan repeated scornfully, "You're scarcely older than I am."

"Experience ages." Peterson replied, "And I have a galaxy's worth of experience on you."

"We'll see." Gilan shot back.

"A little late to be baring your fangs now." Peterson laughed and flipped open her communicator, "Peterson to Harkins."

Her query was met with silence, "Peter, this is Sheila. Pick up dammit."

"This is Tom Riker." a steely voice replied, "I suggest you surrender now."

"You may have Peter and your precious bridge but I've shut down your warp core and I have hostages. Seems we're at an impasse, eh?"

"No, we're not." Riker replied and cut the comm circuit.

"Riker?" Peterson said uncertainly and then she closed her communicator. Turning to Hamish and Trevloi, she began issuing orders, "Get ready for visitors. Take four hostages apiece and use them as human shields."

The human and the Farruck began moving when the main doors opened. Forger shot Hamish and the man crumpled. Dracas fired upon Trevloi and then shifted his aim and stunned Peterson. It came as a surprise for Dracas to realise that Trevloi was still standing. Forger adjusted the setting on her phaser and shot him again.

Trevloi staggered but remained upright. He fired his pulse rifle from the hip and shot Forger. Dracas dropped his rifle and drew his sword. He leapt forward and slashed Trevloi's rifle arm.

The Farruck dropped his rifle and broke into a feral smile, "Excellent!"

The Farruck's forearms bulged larger than any muscle in his body and the muscles suddenly began to ripple. A tiny orifice above Trevloi's wrists widened and a curved and sharpened bone slid through the opening. The Farruck stood there with two apparent claws, one sticking out of each arm.

"Now the battle can be joined." Trevloi said with satisfaction.

"I'll be damned." Dracas muttered and then Trevloi surged forward.

Grace and Rhiann stood to either side of the entrance leading to the brig. They'd already planned their assault. Grace would bypass the door locks and open the door. Rhiann would wait and then the two of them would attack the saboteur together.

Grace opened the outer access panel and tried to remember everything T'Kir had taught her of lockpicking. Grace rerouted the various power and data lines and the door slid open. Several pulse bolts sailed out of the open space. Grace held up one finger, then two followed by a third. Both women sprang into action on three.

They jumped into the doorway simultaneously and opened fire on Lance Red Wolf. The man staggered backward as particle beams slammed into him. Layers of his ablative armour cracked and peeled off. The pair ended their assault and Red Wolf smiled.

"Is that all you've got?" he asked and then shot Rhiann.

The Andorian went down and Grace ducked behind the bulkhead surrounding the doorway. Red Wolf laughed as Grace pondered what to do next. Rhiann appeared to be breathing so at least she wasn't dead. Now she just had to do something about the cackling sadist in the next room.

Grace threw her rifle into the brig. Red Wolf tracked the movement and fired at the skidding weapon. He realised his mistake and wheeled to face the doorway. Grace was already standing there with her pistol poised.

Grace fired and caught the Solarian agent in the face with a particle blast. Grace calmly strolled forward with her pistol gripped by both hands. She kicked the rifle away from Red Wolf's still form. Next she removed his pistol from its holster and threw it out into the corridor. Finally she checked his pulse and didn't find one.

"Goodbye and good riddance." she said and rose to deactivate the brig's cell forcefields. Grace tapped her comm badge, "Grace to Riker, send the nurse to the brig. Rhiann's been stunned and the entire Security team is knocked out and in the brig's cells."

"He's on his way." Riker assured her, "Good job Hannah."

"Thanks." Grace replied but she had a hollow feeling inside.

 


Proceed to Part IV

 

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