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00:00 by Drew Z.


This story and more @ http://wagontrain.livejournal.com/

The door, an ancient affair of dusty wood, shattered under a kick. Starfleet officers clad in black, gray and gold stormed inside, the lights attached to their phaser rifles cutting through the gloom. One team rushed toward the cluster of lidless cargo containers at the far end of the room. Silently, the lieutenant commander in the lead motioned for the remaining teams to clear the rooms farther back in the building, then knelt to examine the containers.

The commander tapped his comm badge. "Kartesh-Aian to Tetsuo," he said.

A disembodied voice answered him. "Tabri here, Commander. Go ahead."

"The area is secure. We found the supply containers." Kartesh-Aian rubbed at the grime on the container's surface, clearing the identification stencil. "From the U.S.S. Marco-Polo." The other security teams returned, shaking their heads in disappointment. "Sorry, Captain, but there's nobody here. The black market closed up shop well before we showed up."

The line was silent for a few moments. Kartesh-Aian could literally feel his commanding officer's irritation. "All right, Commander. Collect the containers and see if you can find any witnesses to how they left the distribution center and got there."

"Yes, sir," Kartesh-Aian said to the air, then tapped his comm badge. It had been another useless search; this was the third bust against the black market for Federation relief supplies and the third time that they had found nothing. Kartesh-Aian turned to his security teams. "Well, you heard the woman. Get to it. I don't want to have to do this again, so let's get it right this time." He ignored the grumbling as his team shouldered their weapons.

A small crowd of Cardassians had formed outside, looking both expectant and hopeful toward the security teams. When they saw the officers filing back out, they began to drift away dejectedly. They, more than anyone, had hoped that the marketers would be caught, that the food that they needed to live would be returned. In a fair world, that would have been the case.

In the worlds of the former Cardassian Union, ‘fair' was a forgotten concept.

The Armstrong was a small ship, without room for holodecks or recreation facilities. As such, the crew had been forced to create their own forms of entertainment. One that had become popular was the monthly play staged by the ship's various departments.

This night, the mess hall's tables were pushed away from the exterior windows, forming a sort of stage. On it stood Storik and Aaron Korma. "Not long after first contact between Vulcans and humans, individuals from both races began to explore their counterpart's cultures," Aaron began.

Storik continued, "This play is an example of such exploration. Written by the Vulcan Solac, it is based on late twentieth century ‘postmodern' plays. It is titled ‘And the Vulcan Walked into the Bar.'"

Behind them, the stars abruptly shifted from blurs to points. Overhead, Lieutenant Kalb's voice said, "All hands, if you'd care to take a look out any of the forward or port windows, I think you'll be very impressed."

Korma and Storik lost their audience immediately. The room buzzed with anticipation as the first ship appeared, then the second, then a hundred more. Over the intercom Kalb announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Eighth Fleet."

The viewports were crowded by crewmembers straining to see the vessels of Starfleet's finest heroes. As the crew pointed and shouted, the ships soared past like great silver birds.

"Is that…is that…!"

"The Endeavor! My wife's on that ship!"

"Look at that…a Galaxy-class starship…it's magnificent…"

The last of the ships finally flew past, twisting into graceful barrel-roll salute as it slipped by the viewport. A few officers waved back, then the crowd drifted back to their seats, chatting excitedly.

"Never been upstaged by an entire fleet before." Korma sighed, glancing at Storik. "Though I've got to say, it's nice knowing that we've got them looking out for us."

"…and I hope that you are all very much fulfilled by ferrying supplies to murderers and tyrants. We'll try not to miss you too much as we defend the Federation. Goodbye." The transmission from the Concordia, flagship of the Eighth Fleet, cut abruptly and left the bridge in silence.

"No need to be rude about it," Kalb said quietly. "I don't think I like him at all."

There was a long moment of quiet before Ti'Fiano, enthroned on the command chair, intoned, "Indeed."

Kalb checked his scanners. "The Eighth Fleet has gone to warp."

"Return to previous course and speed, helm," Ti'Fiano said without moving.

At the back of the bridge, the doors opened. Jamie Cordiou stormed over to the captain's ready room and let herself in, somehow making the automatic doors slam.

"Somebody's upset," Kalb observed.

"Lieutenant," Ti'Fiano said dryly, "your command over the obvious is captivating."

Rebecca Gangies had been raised to be a considerate person and to heed the opinions of others. In fact, she'd been told that those very attributes made her suited for command. But as she sat in her ready room and listened to the tirade, she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and scream.

"I don't see how any decent person could keep that woman in command!" Jamie Cordiou snarled. Both of her palms were pressed against Gangies' desk and she leaned in even closer as she raged. A tangle of her hair fell out of place and Rebecca buried the compulsion to brush it behind her ear beneath frosty apathy. Jamie watched her for a moment, then ranted on. "She killed a man! Her own report says so!"

Sitting opposite Gangies, Lukan spoke up. "No one is denying that Commander Ti'Fiano killed the Cardassian, Lieutenant." His blue face looked exhausted; he was as tired of this argument as Gangies. "But can you deny that he was dangerous? A threat to others?" Jamie twisted to glare at the doctor and he held her gaze. "Jamie," he said as evenly as he could, "we've been over this four times in the past week alone. Commander Ti'Fiano did not act inappropriately."

Jamie fumed a bit longer, trying to think of any untried approach. Finding none, she gave up, turned and stalked out of the ready room.

Gangies let out a breath. "Thanks," she told Lukan.

The Bolian stood and began to pace in front of the desk. "Cordiou is acting…abrasively, but she does have a point."

"What is that, exactly?" Gangies asked mildly.

Lukan stopped. "Ti'Fiano is a frightening woman. Rebecca, she's entirely amoral. She was trained to kill and she is very, very good at it."

Rebecca shifted in her chair so that she could keep one eye on the smears of stars going by. "Most people would say that it's not a bad thing to be good at what you're trained at."

"Yes…," Lukan agreed, "but do we really want a woman in command whose first trained instinct is to kill the problem? How the hell did she get into a position of command, anyway?"

"I don't like it either," Gangies said slowly, gazing out the window. Her eyes focused and she turned to Lukan. "But she is still first officer of this ship."

"There are better."

"There are worse."

Gangies' comm badge chirped and the voice of Ensign Pojman announced, "Captain? We're entered the Camor system. Sensors show the starships Odyssey and Tetsuo arriving in-system in approximately twenty minutes."

"I'll be right out," Rebecca said. To Lukan she simply said, "We'll have to finish this later." He nodded and didn't seem to be any more pleased than she.

The doors opened to the bridge as Pojman was saying, "…I really wouldn't mind having Kyle back."

There was a snort from Kalb at the ops station. "He's so arrogant. It took him four months to be able to walk onto the bridge without looking like he stepped in something unpleasant."

Ti'Fiano nodded tersely to Gangies as she gave up the center chair. "You don't like flying the ship that much, Ensign?" Gangies asked lightly as she sat.

Pojman's eyes went wide. "Oh, no, sir!" Her hand flew to the single shining pip on her collar and in a quieter voice she said, "It'd just be nice to have him back, is all."

Suppressing a smirk, Kalb broke in. "Incoming message from the Odyssey, sir. Captain Orsini."

The main viewscreen flickered from a starfield to a bridge much like the one Gangies sat on, albeit larger, with rounder curves colored dark blue and gun metal. From the center chair, Jace Orsini spoke.

"Captain Gangies. We're hosting the meeting on board the Odyssey; please make your way over here in half an hour."

Gangies nodded. "Understood." The viewscreen shifted back to stars, this time with the silver hull of the Odyssey visible. "Commander, you have the bridge. I'm going to prepare for my meeting."

The doors closed behind her and Kalb smiled. "A discrete rendezvous…a secret meeting between captains…how exciting. How romantic." He shot a look over at Pojman. "Too bad Kyle couldn't be here."

Pojman blushed and turned away.

"Where was the Gorn Hegemony during the Dominion War?" demanded Councilmember Hedda. Being seen through a video monitor, Jace Orsini reflected, did nothing to dampen his intensity. "While good officers of Starfleet fought for our lives and theirs, what were the Gorn doing? Attempting to make peace with the Dominion!" Hedda spread his arms, his face a mask of incredulity. "Could there be a greater crime than not standing to fight an evil as foul as the Dominion of the Founders?"

Jace Orsini sat silently in the Odyssey's conference room, watching the ongoing debate within the Federation Council. The room felt cold and Orsini decided that it had nothing to do with the temperature.

"On this, the first anniversary of the end of the Dominion War," Hedda continued, drawing himself up, "I propose sanctions against those races that did not see fit to join the Federation Alliance in defeating the evil of the Dominion. Tholians, Gorn, Talarians, Tzenkethi and more. All have proven that they are not allies of the Federation. Why should we trade with them, or support their scientific or political endeavors? They could not support us in our war to live."

Orsini's eyes slitted at the last words. While was true that the Gorn, Tzenkethi, Talarians, Tholians and many more had all signed non-aggression pacts with the Dominion, one thought nagged at Orsini late at night. That they had been smart. Smart to keep themselves out of the killing and the slaughter. Orsini had commanded the Odyssey in more than three dozen major engagements during the three years of the war and, while he certainly would have been grateful to see a squadron of Gorn destroyers flying to the rescue…he couldn't blame them for not risking the wrath of the Dominion.

Heedless, Hedda continued. "Furthermore, we must take measures to insure that the peoples of the Federation are never threatened again by the Dominion or any of their allies. Even now the Dominion hides in the Gamma Quadrant, fearful of our strength. In the Alpha Quadrant, we already have a strong beginning: the crippling of the military and economic capabilities of the Cardassians and Son'a, as well as the restrictions placed upon the Breen military, are steps in the right direction. But there needs to be more. I suggest military occupation of Cardassia Prime and the Breen homeworld after that. The rest of the galaxy will take their fates as an example of what evil will bring!"

That sent the Council chambers into an uproar, though not as much of an uproar as Orsini might have hoped. In the years previous to the war, punitive sanctions the likes of which Hedda was proposing would have been utterly unconscionable. Now, it seemed that the movement to punish those who had lost or remained neutral during the Dominion War was gaining dangerous power.

They seem bloodthirsty.

The voice echoed in his mind and Orsini turned to see Kestra Tabri standing at the open door, watching him with dark eyes. She crossed the room and sat on the table next to him.

"They…we're still scared," Orsini said aloud. "How many million people died…? And in the end, we couldn't truly beat the Dominion, just force them back to the Gamma Quadrant. No matter what Hedda is telling the public." He reached out and took Tabri's hand. She smiled and he could feel her warmth through the Betazoid telepathy that bound them. "I think that people want vengeance. I know there are enough captains out there who do—"

Kestra brushed against his mind. Shh. Do you remember what you said to me two years ago? When the war seemed at its worst?

Jace's mind flashed back to Kestra's darkened quarters, to holding her and telling her that Starfleet existed for more than killing, that it existed to explore and protect. "I'm afraid I might have lied," he admitted.

Kestra looked toward the door and slipped off of the table and out of his grasp. An instant later, the doors parted and Rebecca Gangies stepped inside. "Ah…Captains," she said. "Hello." She took a seat across from Orsini and tried to become very occupied with her fingernails.

Tabri leaned forward and offered her hand. "You must be Rebecca Gangies. It's a pleasure to meet you. I am Kestra Tabri of the Tetsuo."

A little relieved, Rebecca took her hand. "Ah…thank you. I admit I was kind of surprised when we were pulled off our mission to meet here…"

Orsini took that as a cue and nodded. "Delivering supplies has, unfortunately, become a secondary concern," he said. "As Commander Ti'Fiano and Captain Tabri have found, a black market has sprung up, based on Cardassia Prime. Admiral Fahoma, the director of Federation relief aid for Cardassian space, has ordered that the marketers be arrested so that the supplies that we bring will actually get to the people that need them. As long as our supplies are diverted to the rich minority, more and more people are going to starve or die from easily-curable diseases."

Gangies frowned. "It's not like we haven't been trying to catch the privateers, but there's simply too much ground for us to cover." She glanced at the other captains, trying to express her opinion without seeming contrary. "Armstrong drops off supplies at eleven Cardassian planets between Deep Space Nine and Starbase One Twenty-Nine, and that many again on the trip back. My ship simply doesn't have the crew to spare to defend the storage depots on nearly two dozen planets, plus the colonies aided by civilian relief organizations."

Orsini watched her coldly for a minute, then shrugged. "That's a fair point. I'm told that Admiral Fahoma requested vessels from the Eighth Fleet to aid us and was refused. It seems that the Eighth Fleet is needed where it is, reminding the Cardassians who is in charge. As it stands now, the resources available to us now are our three ships and the Marco-Polo." He smiled. "Fortunately for us, I think I know how we can do it with less than that." Tabri raised an eyebrow, but Orsini continued on. "And I think I know just the role for Armstrong to play…"

When the silvery glow of transport faded, Tabri and Scott Bayucy stood in a darkened lawn. Several hundred feet away loomed a huge mansion, lit only by a few flickering candles.

"I thought they had repaired the power systems on Cardassia Prime," Tabri said.

Bayucy shook his head. "The damage done by the Jem'Hadar at the end of the war is going to take years to repair fully. Even richer neighborhoods like this one don't have the resources to make much headway." He shrugged. "The Starfleet Corps of Engineers is here and on several other Cardassian worlds doing what they can, but…"

Tabri held up a hand, interrupting him. "We are about to be addressed."

The massive front doors of the mansion swung open and an elderly Cardassian slowly walked towards them. "Are you the Starfleet representatives we were asked to admit?" he asked.

"Yes," Tabri said, advancing and bowing slightly. "I am Captain Tabri of the Tetsuo. My comrade is Commander Bayucy. We would speak to your master."

The Cardassian nodded and motioned them ahead of him. "Right this way, lady."

When compared to the desolate rubble that made up most of the capital city of Cardassia Prime, the interior of the mansion seemed to be another world entirely. Torches had been placed to excellent effect, giving an almost rustic feel rather than one of primitive conditions. In front of a large fireplace sat a Cardassian. His gray skin was warmed by the light of the flame and he dismissed the butler with a motion of his hand.

"I am Tucet, formerly a Legate of the Union's military. I agreed to this meeting out of a sense of gratitude towards the Federation, for all that you have done for us." His eyes met Tabri's and held them. "How may I help you?"

Tabri seated herself next to the man. Bayucy positioned himself behind her massively overstuffed armchair, the grumbling that might be expected at his lack of chair curiously absent. "I am thankful for this audience, Legate. Please understand that we have only the Cardassian people's best interests in mind."

"Of course," Tucet said dryly.

"The matter that concerns us is that of the black market that has appeared on Cardassian Prime and many other worlds across the Union. It seems that there are vagabonds who would steal the very supplies intended for starving civilians. Honestly, I find the concept disturbing."

Tucet snorted. "A response to be expected from an empathic race such as the Betazoids."

Bayucy watched Tabri plaster a smile on her face. "Very true," the captain said. "But the simple fact of the matter is that we do not have the resources to put a stop to these marketers. We have four starships charged with covering more than five dozen worlds. We are concidering leaving military presences at the supply depots, but are stretched thin. My vessel, the Tetsuo, as well as the Sovereign-class Odyssey and the Intrepid-class Marco-Polo are even now attempting to track and capture the marketers."

"You said four ships," Tucet interrupted. "What of the last one?"

Tabri paused, thinking. "Bayucy, where is that other ship? The little Saber-class?"

The engineer looked up in surprise. "The Armstrong? It's picking up the slack in delivering supplies; it's loaded full and heading to the Torros system from Avenal VI, I think."

Tabri smiled. "As he said." She leaned forward. "I hope you understand the difficulties we face."

"I do, I actually do." Tucet eyed her. "I suspect you have a request to make of me?"

"Yes." Tabri smiled with relief she didn't feel. "I come to you because I have been told that you wield much power among the civil and military authorities here on Cardassia Prime. It is my hope that you could be convinced to extend some of your influence to aid us."

Tucet opened his hands to her. "How so?"

"Perhaps by increasing patrols around the supply depots or enlisting a sort of civilian watch. Anything that could help in bringing these brigands to justice."

"I will speak with my comrades." Tucet rose and Tabri stood to match him. "Until later, then?"

Tabri took his hand and shook it gratefully. "Yes, yes, until later. Good evening."

The elderly Cardassian led them outside again and Tabri took a moment to enjoy the cool air.

"So much for him as a suspect," Bayucy said. "He didn't give up a thing."

"No," Tabri said, " but we did. Are you ready to return?"

Bayucy shrugged. "Yeah. Let's get going."

Tabri smiled and she tapped her comm badge. "Tabri to Tetsuo, two to beam up."

"I heard they have chefs on the Sovereign-class," Kuni Acots said. He glanced across the long table, then down to his plate of replicated food with a sigh.

Next to him, Jamie twisted a strand of her hair around and around. "I doubt it. There hasn't been a Starfleet ship with a chef in seventy years." Irritated, she stabbed at her food.

"So what do you think we're going to do now?" Kalb asked. Kuni followed his gaze out the front window to where the Odyssey majestically dominated the view. "I heard the captain's not saying." He glanced slyly over to Jamie.

"You're right," Cordiou said coldly. "She's not saying. So leave it."

Kalb shot a look over to Acots. "I catch you at a bad time, sir?"

Jamie flipped her hand and turned at him. "You want to know why I'm angry? I'm angry because Gangies refuses to put that psychopath Ti'Fiano in the brig!"

Kalb frowned. "Why would she do that?"

For a few moments, Cordiou simply stared at him dumbfounded. Acots slowly shifted away from her, attempting to intervene with a hesitant, "Sweetie…?"

"She would do that," Jamie interrupted, "because that woman is insane. She isn't what a Starfleet officer's supposed to be."

"I think you're looking at her wrong." Kalb leaned back in his chair easily. "She killed a Cardassian. So what? The man was a Cardassian, and a threat to boot. It's because of Commander Ti'Fiano and people like her that the Federation made it through the war." He paused contemplatively. "If you ask me, she's a hero."

Jamie buried her face in her hands, then finally fixed him with a disgusted look. "Think about what they taught us at the Academy: We explore strange, new worlds. We seek out new life forms and civilizations. No part of that includes killing people!"

"See, that's where I think you and I differ," Kalb said. "About the role of Starfleet. Yes, it's great for us to find new species and explore new worlds and all that. But while we're off becoming enlightened, what about the rest of the Federation? You know what I was taught at the Academy? That those of us in these uniforms are the only line of defense between the citizens of the Federation and whoever would harm them, whether they're Jem'Hadar, Borg, or whatever else there is in this galaxy. That is our job." He stood and dropped his napkin at on his plate. "And you know what? Nani Ti'Fiano has done more to defend the Federation than anyone else on this ship." With that, Kalb turned and stalked out of the galley, leaving Jamie in silence.

"Captain, I'm reading them again," Kalb announced, breaking the uncomfortable silence on the bridge. "Scanners are detecting mild disturbances at the edge of our sensor range."

Ti'Fiano's eyes slid over to Gangies as the captain let out a measured sigh. "Have Chief Cordiou run another diagnostic on the sensors."

Kalb paused for a minute, then said, "Captain…this is the second time in the last forty minutes we've picked these things up; I don't think that they're sensor ghosts."

"What would they be, Lieutenant?" asked Ti'Fiano.

"Cloaked ships," Kalb said, raising his chin at her challenge. "Or vessels at the extreme edge of our sensor range, following us and attempting not to be seen."

"Maybe they're ghost ships," Pojman said, then blinked. "Do ghost ships have treasure?"

Gangies turned to face Kalb. "Personally, I doubt that cloaked ships would randomly follow us halfway across a sector. Don't worry about it, Kalb."

"Sir…" Kalb began.

"Don't," Gangies repeated, "worry."

Pojman frowned at Kalb, who fidgeted with his console. Gangies went back to drumming at her armrests, and even Ti'Fiano seemed restless. "Captain," she said. "We've been on course for a week now, with nothing…out of the ordinary. Perhaps we should…"

Gangies stood up and began walking circuits around the bridge. She swiped the helm console for dust and poked her fingers through the holographic image of the viewscreen. "Commander, I was once told that all things come to those who wait." She paced a bit more, then murmured, "And we will wait." Rebecca wandered towards the starboard side of the bridge and stared at the dedication plaque mounted on the bulkhead. "You know this ship was made at the Antares Fleet Yards?"

"Fascinating," Kalb said drolly.

"And the lead project designer was…Alex Jaeger. Doesn't he sound like a good person?" She traced a finger along the bottom most line of text on the plaque. "‘There's the known and the unknown; in between there are doors,'" she read.

"New sensor readings," Kalb interrupted.

"More ghost ships?" Pojman asked.

Kalb shook his head. "No…no. It's a Cardassian freighter and it's putting out a general S.O.S."

Ti'Fiano caught Gangies' gaze and raised an eyebrow. Gangies nodded and walked back to her seat with more vigor then she'd shown in the last several days. "On screen."

"Audio only, patching it in," Kalb said.

The speakers crackled. "To any ship that can hear this, we are the Cardassian merchant freighter Kammal, out of Cardassia Prime. We have been attacked by Maquis raiders and our drive systems are out. Please assist."

"Kammal, this is the Federation starship Armstrong. We will arrive at your location shortly. Hold on." Gangies tapped her armrest. "Put the ship on screen."

The cargo ship appeared, spinning end over end and spilling shimmering plasma into space. "Negligible damage to the outer hull," Ti'Fiano observed.

"Too bad," Kalb said coldly, then remembered himself. "But that is real plasma they're venting."

"Dropping out of warp…now," Pojman announced.

Gangies sat back in her chair. "Helm, bring us to within thirty thousand kilometers. Kalb, steady their tumble with the tractor beam."

There was a pause, then Kalb's voice rose. "Captain, energy readings on the Kammal just shot through the roof. The Cardies have their warp drives back on-line and I'm reading a serious build-up—"

"Red alert," Ti'Fiano interrupted. "Raise shields."

The deck bucked and Gangies gritted her teeth and held on. "They've fired on us!" Kalb yelled. "Before we got our shields up…they've damaged our shield generators!"

"Bridge to security," Gangies said quietly. "Prepare to be boarded."

"Boarded?" Pojman asked. "Why would they—"

"Reading transporter signatures!" Kalb yelled. "Intruders detected on decks four, nine and eleven!"

Ti'Fiano stepped out from around her station. "Captain, I believe now would be an appropriate time." Gangies nodded once and Ti'Fiano rushed out through the door at the rear of the bridge.

Kalb looked angrily from his board to Gangies. "Captain, are we going to return fire on the Cardies?" he demanded.

The red alert klaxon sounded twice before Gangies spoke. "I would thank you not to use slurs on my bridge." She turned to face the lieutenant and continued, "And no."

"But…" Kalb sputtered. "They're Cardassians! Why the hell not?"

A faint, faint smile spread across Gangies' lips. "Because, Lieutenant. There are better ways to resolve conflicts than fighting."

Kuni Acots pressed himself flat against the bulkhead as another disrupter blast erupted near him. The Cardassians were laying down a barrage just thick enough to keep anyone from getting near the cargo bay they had holed up in and Acots swore to himself as he failed to line up a shot. Over the scream of phaser fire Acots could hear the whine of a transporter as the Cardassians stole more and more of the relief supplies. A Cardassian leaned past the carbon-scorched doors, the barrel of his disruptor questing, only to fall to Acots' weapon. Seeing a break in the fire, Acots yelled, "Auija! Cover me!" He charged into the cargo bay, rolling through the door and coming up with his phaser ready.

There was a moment when the Cardassians did nothing but smirk. Then they, and the last of the supply containers, disappeared into a golden mist. Acots swore and slammed his fist into the wall. He grimaced a moment in the pain, then tapped his communicator. "Acots to bridge. The intruders got away, Captain."

He expected anger, perhaps yelling of some sort. Instead, Gangies voice simply asked, "Did they capture all of the cargo containers?"

Acots surveyed the empty room. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Good," Gangies said.

Acots looked up in surprise. "Sir?"

The line clicked off.

When no one greeted him as he stepped off the shuttlecraft Kepler, Kyle Jovi began to realize just how bad things were. Shouldering his bag, he left the shuttlebay and joined the press of officers streaming through a corridor darkened for ship's night.

Main engineering was in better shape then he'd expected given the air of general panic around the ship. Jamie was standing waist-deep in an access panel in front of the warp core, tugging out isolinear chips and bio-neural gel packs and tossing them aside. She didn't notice his approach, so Kyle plunked down next to her with a grin.

"I see you all had fun without me," he said lightly.

Jamie startled, then glared at him as she shifted a strand of hair out of her face. "While you were out having fun, the rest of us were being ambushed."

"Ambushed?" Kyle asked.

"Yes. By Cardassians. It wasn't fun, either. They boarded and stole all of the supplies we were carrying." Jamie began to separate the piles of isolinear chips and gel packs. "They took out our shield generators and one of the boarding teams hooked up a device to our power distribution system that kicked a lot of our systems out of whack, including the warp drive. Kept us from chasing them down."

"Well," Kyle said, taking to his feet, "look at it this way: now you've got plenty of opportunities to use your fancy techno-babble."

"I would appreciate it," Jamie shot back primly, "if you didn't refer to what I do as ‘techno-babble.'" An alarm began beeping from deep within the access panel. "Oh, for…Yaysi! I told you: ramp up the magnetic constrictors to shut off the matter and antimatter flows, then begin running alignment checks on the dilithium crystal articulation frame. You're never going to get a clear reading on it if you've got deuterium and antideuterium flying around!"

Grinning to himself, Kyle left engineering. Each doorway in the dark halls carried deep shadows, but they didn't hide the carbon scoring around the cargo bays. Kyle whistled quietly and tapped his comm badge. "Computer, locate Commander Ti'Fiano."

The computer beeped, then said, "Commander Ti'Fiano is not onboard the Armstrong."

Kyle frowned, then said, "Okay…locate Captain Gangies."

"Captain Gangies is in the mess hall," the calm voice of the computer replied.

"Kinda late to be there," Kyle commented. He turned away to find a turbolift, but paused to say, "Thanks," before heading off.

The mess was deserted; the tables and stage cast long shadows away from the piano where Rebecca Gangies sat. Her fingers danced up the keys and Jovi cleared his throat.

Gangies turned around. "Kyle. Welcome back."

Jovi straightened to attention. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"

"Granted. How was your trip home?" Rebecca straddled the piano bench and Kyle turned a chair around and sat.

"It was…enlightening. Good to be with my family for a little bit." Kyle ran a hand through his hair. "Ran into Jamie on the way here. She was pretty angry about the extra work you all seem to have picked up."

"I would imagine so."

Her tone was not sharp, but still Kyle grasped for a new conversational thread. "Well, I see we've had some excitement here."

Rebecca sighed. "We got tricked by a fake S.O.S. from a Cardassian freighter. They jumped us and stole the relief supplies."

"Yeah, I tried to report in to Ti'Fiano, but it doesn't seem she's around. Do you know where she is?" Kyle asked.

Quietly, the ship's chimes declared the midnight hour and Gangies chuckled to herself, turning back to the piano. She searched the top of the piano for a moment, then pulled down a sheet of music. "Kyle," she said, placing the music in front of her and running her finger across the title: "The Entertainer." "I know exactly where Ti'Fiano is…"

The base's cargo bay was Cardassian in design, colored in brown and gold, with high arches stretching to the ceiling. The top of one of the Federation cargo containers spread across the floor popped open. Silently, a figure clad in all black stepped out, carrying an ax. The figure replaced the lid and departed the cargo bay.

Down the hallway the figure could hear voices coming from the operations center. "The starship has crippled the Kammal! Our shields are at seventy-six percent from one hit. One hit!"

"Did the distress signal get through to Tucet?"

"Yes, but…"

"What!"

"He says we're on our own."

"That's a Sovereign-class starship. What does he think we're going to do?"

There was swearing and the black-clad figure strode into the operations room to speak in harsh Cardassian dialect. "All of you are under arrest. Lower your weapons and put your hands in the air."

A dozen Cardassians looked up from their monitors in surprise. "Who the hell are you?" asked one with the rank markers of a glinn.

"My name is Nani Ti'Fiano. All of you are under arrest. Lower your weapons and put your hands in the air." Ti'Fiano stepped forward, her black uniform devouring light as she held her kar'takin loosely in front of her.

The Cardassians traded incredulous looks and a few smirks broke out. "Of course," the glinn said. "Marrek, Runi. Would you kill her?"

"Thank you," Ti'Fiano whispered.

And she began to move.

"Excellent," Kestra Tabri said, then tapped her communicator off. She addressed Kartesh-Aian and the squad of security officers that waited with her on the front lawn of the mansion. "Odyssey has tracked the vessel that attacked the Armstrong back to its base and is now capturing both the ship and the base. The distress signal from the base was directed to that house, which is all the proof we need to bring Tucet in for questioning." She gestured towards the mansion. "Go."

Kartesh-Aian led his squad to the front door and rapped on it sharply. The aged butler opened it almost immediately and looked at him with surprise. "You were not expected."

"I should hope not," he said, pushing the door open to allow the security officers inside. "We are here for your master. Where is he?"

"What is the meaning of this?" Tucet's voice boomed down from the staircase.

Tabri stepped forward, framing herself in the lit fireplace. "Sir, I have reason to believe that you are somehow tied up in this heinous affair of profiteering from stolen relief supplies." She motioned to Kartesh-Aian. "I hope you won't mind chatting with my security chief about it. I'm sure that this can be cleared up in no time. After all, we are civilized individuals."

To say that there was blood everywhere was something of an exaggeration. There were portions of the ceiling that were their original color. Along the walls lay the Cardassians: dead, maimed, or otherwise pacified.

Ti'Fiano examined the three Starfleet officers who beamed in to the operations center. They looked at the carnage around them in surprise, then to the woman who knelt untouched in the center of it all.

A'dem Tristrem took in the corpses stoically and asked, "Is the base secure?"

"Yes, Commander," Ti'Fiano responded.

"I see," Tristrem said. "And the stolen cargo?"

Ti'Fiano nodded towards the door. "Down that hallway."

Tristrem sent the security officers to secure the containers, then regarded Ti'Fiano. "Impressive work," he said. "I thought only Jem'Hadar were this…savage."

Ti'Fiano stared at him, her face revealing nothing, then rose to her feet. "Beam me aboard. I wish to return to my ship."

It seemed that even on the decimated world of Torros Minor there could be celebration. From her perch atop a container, Rebecca Gangies watched the Cardassians' first moment of joy since the black market had come into being, a smile on her face.

"Captain Orsini is looking for you," said a voice from behind her. "There is a celebration among the command staffs for the successful completion of the operation and he was surprised that you did not attend."

Gangies turned and watched Ti'Fiano for a long moment. "I am celebrating. Here." She motioned at the crowd of Cardassians. "I helped to distribute the supplies. It seemed like a better use of my time."

"True," Ti'Fiano said evenly.

Neither said anything for a very long time; Ti'Fiano because she had nothing to say and Gangies because she had to find the words within herself. Finally, after considering numerous rants and speeches, she opted for the simple approach.

"You killed," she said.

Ti'Fiano nodded. "Seven fatalities. The remaining five Cardassians are expected to make full recoveries within the next three weeks."

Gangies closed her eyes and a hint of steel worked its way into her voice. "I asked you not to kill, Nani."

"An unreasonable request that you should not have made. Captain."

"All right…" Gangies said and slid off of the container. "Let me ask you this. Commander. What makes us, as officers of Starfleet and citizens of the Federation, morally superior to the Jem'Hadar?"

Ti'Fiano's eyes slitted as she rose to the bait. "The predisposition to act in a manner consistent with the morals of the Federation, presumably."

Gangies thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. "Yes. Virtues like mercy. You didn't have to kill any of them, but you did. How can you claim to defend the virtues of the Federation when you refuse to exercise them?"

"A good question," Ti'Fiano said. "Allow me to pose you a similar question. Was it the Federation's morality, with its virtues such as mercy, that allowed us to defeat the Dominion and their Jem'Hadar?"

"I…" Gangies began, then paused. "I suppose not. War tests virtues, not supports them."

"Exactly," Ti'Fiano hissed, surprising Gangies with her sudden intensity. "The Federation's lofty ideals cannot survive their encounters with the rest of the galaxy around us. That's why there will always be people who stand outside of those ideals, ready to protect them."

"Understanding can resolve our conflicts before they result in death."

"Spoken like one who has never fought," Ti'Fiano said icily. "Will your mercy towards a Jem'Hadar convince it that peace and universal brotherhood is the proper path? No." She cut the air with her hand. "It will give it another opportunity to kill you, and it will take it." Ti'Fiano stepped in close to Gangies and the captain could almost feel the other woman's body vibrate with repressed rage. "The society that you are so proud of would not be possible if not for individuals like me who are willing to damn ourselves to ensure that you are able to keep your…virtues."

Gangies tried to lock stares with Ti'Fiano and failed utterly. She stared at the ground and listened to Ti'Fiano walk away, then pause.

"Although," the commander said, "without those virtues. The Federation wouldn't be something worth damning one's self for."

Rebecca Gangies looked up in surprise at the admission, but Ti'Fiano had disappeared.

 

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