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Cat & Mouse - Part I by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter One

"You have one hour to decide," Donatella coldly proclaimed.

Macen made the "cut" gesture with his hand and the main viewscreen reverted to its image of the 3 Warbirds. He turned to Riker and Zyrain. Zyrain was an easy read. He wanted to capitulate. What was P'ris' life when his own was on the line?

"Suggestions, Captain?" Macen inquired.

Riker's expression was rueful, "They waited until the rest of the Outbound Ventures ships deployed."

Macen looked to P'ris, "Actually, I think that was her idea."

P'ris was totally abashed, "I thought privacy would be necessary."

"Why?" Macen was insanely curious as to her reasoning.

"To insure that my debriefing was conducted in secret," P'ris explained.

Macen's expression was pained, "Let me reiterate something I seem to have to explain to the entire quadrant: I am not Starfleet. Standing, lawful procedures dealing with Romulan defectors, that's you by the way, stipulate that all defecting personnel are to be debriefed and interviewed by Starfleet and the Federation Security Agency."

"But I am requesting asylum," P'ris had a slightly hunted look in her eyes and with good reason.

"P'ris, I don't have the authority to grant it," Macen hated to admit.

"Then you will have to turn me over," P'ris barely whispered.

"Sorry, but that's not an option," Macen suddenly interjected.

Now it was P'ris' turn to be utterly curious, "What do you mean?"

"I may not have the legal authority to grant you asylum but I have the legal authority to grant you protection," Macen declared.

"But how?" P'ris wondered, confused by the intertwining list of rules, regulations, and by-laws within the Federation. In the Star Empire she was considered something of a lawyer but here? The Federation had conflicting laws that negated one another and they called that reasonable.

"You hire me," he said simply.

"Excuse me?" P'ris was completely boggled by now.

"I can protect you if I have a contract," Macen explained, "The Federation and Starfleet will back virtually any move I make in protection of a client. I don't usually take on bodyguard work but in your case I'll make an exception."

She caught the teasing tone of his final words, "Why, thank you."

"Now we just need to settle on a price," Macen said with a mercenary gleam in his eye.

"I have very little. I had to leave post haste and could not retrieve all of my intended provisions," she explained.

"Do you have a slip of latinum?" he inquired.

"A few thousand," she admitted.

"I only need one," he replied. She fished a slip out of her pants' pocket and handed it over.

Macen shook her hand, "All right, now we work for you."

P'ris adopted a bemused expression, "I could get used to that idea."

"Don't," Macen advised, "We're here to protect you, not take orders from you."

"As long as we're not taking orders, can we at least take some advice?" Riker urged.

Macen shot him a wry glance while P'ris gently laughed, "I would suggest that you deploy the Obsidian. By adjusting your weaponry's harmonics to that of the station's shields, you should be able to double the station's firepower until Starfleet arrives."

"I'll get Bryce onto recalling the crew. You get the weapons data," Macen instructed.

"Have Bryce recall Shannon and Jaycee first," Riker requested.

Macen gave him a quizzical look so Riker elaborated, "I need Jaycee in place so she can adapt the weapons and Shannon needs to organize the recall until I can come aboard and help her."

"Will you be going aboard as well, Commander?" P'ris asked pointedly Macen.

"I don't know if it'll be necessary but I'd like to be aboard in case we have to draw off the Warbirds from the station," Macen admitted.

"In order to accomplish that you will need me aboard as well," P'ris said logically.

"I don't know how effectively I can guard you aboard the Obsidian," he confessed.

"Where you go, I go as well," she decided.

That amused Macen, "That could get quite awkward later this evening. Supposing we get to rest at all."

P'ris wore a sly smile, "Because of the nature of the relationship between you and Detective Rockford?"

"There is that," Macen confirmed it, "And she goes by 'Celeste'."

"I prefer 'Detective Rockford'," P'ris obstinately replied.

"Ooo-kay," Macen digested that, "If you're going where I go then we need to get to my offices."

P'ris waved him on towards the turbolift.

Macen found Bryce still at her desk. She'd assumed that a recall would be underway and had already set the wheels in motion. Shannon Forger had left instructions to be passed on to any wayward crewmen. Despite her show of bravery and resourcefulness, Macen could tell Bryce was scared out of her mind.

"It's going to be okay, Bryce," He assured her in a gentle voice.

"Is she a Romulan?" Bryce wondered with a mix of awe and fear.

"Yes, she is," Macen confirmed it.

"She dresses like T'Kir," Bryce noted.

Macen grinned, "T'Kir got her customary attire from the Tal Shiar. P'ris is a Commander in the Tal Shiar and therefore entitled to wear it as well."

"Tal Shiar?" Bryce hesitantly whispered, "Isn't she here to spy on us?"

"Relax, Bryce," Macen urged, "P'ris is a friend and she's here so she can defect."

"That's why we're surrounded. So they can stop you from leaving and getting her to Earth," Bryce surmised.

"You were born for the business," Macen complimented her.

"I suppose you're the cause of this?" Rockford bantered as she entered the office.

"You could truly say I am," P'ris allowed.

"Oh, get the industrial sized wedgie out of your knickers," Rockford demanded, "I'm only teasing. Someone's gonna confuse you for a Vulcan at this rate."

"Elements forefend," P'ris dryly remarked.

"Is that where you got that expression?" Rockford suddenly inquired of Macen.

"Actually, she stole it from me," Macen defensively asserted.

"You truly wish," P'ris huffed.

"All right!" Rockford snapped, "You two remind me of my brother and sister. Don't make me get mom, that's all I'm saying."

Macen knew that last statement was the result of a major breakthrough. Celeste Rockford had never had brothers or sisters. She had no memories of them because she hadn't existed until ten years ago and had emerged into the world fully formed.

Rockford was one of a plethora of personalities that Annika Ryst had created. As an Angosian Augment Infiltrator, Ryst had utilized the personalities to accomplish her wartime missions. She and the rest of the varying personalities had recently been fused together, into the template that was Rockford. Whereas, Rockford had always possessed gaping holes in her memory from moments when other personalities controlled their shared body, now she remembered everything. Truth be told, they weren't even Rockford's siblings but Ryst's. But she had those memories now as well as the emotions that went with them.

Most of Ryst's personalities had been developed to infiltrate Tarsusian installations and had been crafted so as to pass the psy-scanners. Once she was inside, her orders were simplicity itself. She was to kill every man and woman that occupied that post and clear the way for other Angosian units to sweep it.

Needless to say, all of those memories were harsh and brutal. Rockford was having a hard time coping with them. She'd been the gestalt's sole non-combatant and now she had a lifetime's worth of memories of the most savage forms of violence.

Still, she was grateful. If this was the price to pay for her continued existence, then she would bear this burden and carry on the memories of her fellow "sisters". Annika Ryst had been the template but the poor broken down creature sacrificed her existence so Rockford could live. All of the other personalities had willingly let go in order to preserve Rockford.

Rockford had a noble purpose in life, she was well respected amongst her peers, and she had the love of one Brin Macen. None of the others could even marginally compete. She was chosen because she simply had the most to live for.

P'ris knew nothing of any of this. Romulan Intelligence records regarding Celeste Rockford suggested a connection between her the then-fugitive, and now presidentially pardoned, Annika Ryst. Rockford's professional credentials and background checks had been easy to obtain. Her client list, obtained from a disgruntled employee, had proven illuminating. Her agency was one the most prestigious in Federation space and she herself was among the most highly sought private investigators.

Her selling a 49% share in the company to Outbound Ventures' banner had only brought the Rockford Agency under the corporate wing, which gave them access to resources that they'd only dreamt of before. The only catch, Rockford herself was on permanent retainer and worked for Macen's Special Investigations Division team. That could hardly be called an onerous burden now.

Rockford would soon be on the receiving end of far more scrutiny from the Tal Shiar and the Typhon Pact's intelligence organs. She'd single handedly saved the Alpha and Beta Quadrants from the scourge of the prickly Argyn. That Elder Race had nearly wiped out half of Starfleet's assets. The Klingons had lost nearly a third of their forces. The Cardassians got off comparatively lightly with a quarter loss of forces. The Ferengi merely lost less than a quarter but they were yelling to anyone that would listen that they bore the brunt of the conflict.

P'ris knew the situation for the Typhon Pact nations had been just as devastating. The Star Empire had suffered a loss of over fifty percent of their forces. The Tholians survived with a 25% casualty rating. The Tzenkethi bore little of the weight, having only lost a few hundred ships. The Breen were reeling from a loss of a third of their fleet. The Kinshaya wouldn't even share their data but it was considered to be catastrophic. But perhaps the greatest blow was dealt to the Gorn.

The Gorn were still seeking a crèche world for their warrior caste. No new hatchlings could be nurtured until a world with very precise requirements was found and so far the Gorn had searched for three years with no success. When the current generation of warriors died, the Hegemony would be left with no more protectors. That's why their loss of half of their fleet was a national crisis. The Hegemony had been placed on high alert until further notice.

They felt that the Federation would launch outward from Cestus III and ravage the Gorn worlds, taking them by force against their mortally weakened foe. So in preparation for this "certain" event, the Gorn were preparing invasion plans of their own. Cestus III would be theirs again even if the Metron had to be damned. Almost twenty border worlds were in the crosshairs.

P'ris had tried to exert her considerable influence into allaying the Gorns' fears. Her superiors saw another scenario. They saw a weakened and shattered Gorn Hegemony as a client nation. Stripped of status as a founding member of the Typhon Pact, the Gorn would become the Empire's proxy. Of course, in exchange for favors, the Romulans would secure the Hegemony's borders and would aid in the search for a crèche world. Of course, none would ever be found.

P'ris had begun to be disillusioned with the Tal Shiar's policies with the Gulag episode and the utter betrayal of the Rihannsu movement. She'd founded those colonies and thousands had followed her only to be slaughtered by the very government that had promised them safety. A true survivor, she managed to move beyond that episode and removed the blot from her record.

Koval had personally persuaded her after the government had once again been found complacent in wholesale illegalities and treacheries. He'd been a mentor to her and she'd sensed that there was a discreet message behind his words. She hadn't known it at the time but he was grooming her to take his place, not as Chairman of the Tal Shiar but of his "other life".

Later he'd revealed that he was an informant and occasional operative for the clandestine Federation agency known as Section 31. He urged her to pick up his banner for he only had a decade left to live because of his being afflicted with Tuvan Syndrome. Little had he realized that Shinzon's coup would take his life before his life naturally expired. It was just as well, she supposed, for the Hobus incident would have killed him even if Shinzon had spared him.

Truth be told, she'd only survived because she'd reviewed the "treasonous" data that Starfleet had provided Macen and he in turn had handed over to P'ris. It predicted the supernova that later destroyed her birth world.

P'ris had formed an underground that got several million Romulans off of Romulus and to the colony worlds. Initially the colonies nearly lost viability under the strain of so many new settlers but her people had not only survived, they now flourished.

Rather than received accolades for her efforts, P'ris was hauled aside and told to toe the party line or perish. She'd inquired as to which party line needed toeing. A meeting with Proconsul Sela soon brought to light that her sympathies for the Gorn and her objections to the Imperial plans for them were seditious.

Barely escaping Sela's offices alive, P'ris contacted Admiral Amanda Forger through a back channel Macen had provided her with. She unveiled all of the Star Empire's plans and ambitions. She then turned a disruptor onto her comm/comp and ran for her life. Seeing peace forcers waiting for her at her domicile, she slipped away and left in a military shuttle she's "acquired" during the Hobus exodus. Its ID transponders and locator devices were all disabled. She'd only made it to Serenity first because she'd left Imperial space several days before her pursuers.

"Stay strong, Bryce," Macen urged, "You can do this."

"What...what if the Romulans board the station?" she tentatively asked.

"Head for Sickbay," Macen grinned, "Kort'll chop off the head of any Romulan trooper who tries to molest you. And the Infirmary is near the Security Office, so the security team will deploy from there."

Her face suddenly blossomed into a grateful smile, "Thanks."

"Remember, we'll be aboard the Obsidian," he reminded her, "If things get too hairy, give us a call."

Bryce shuddered, "I thought that Lantillian incident was bad. I've heard horror stories about the Romulans."

She looked to P'ris with some embarrassment, "No offense."

P'ris wore a predatory smile, "None taken. And the stories are all true."

"What?" Bryce yelped.

Macen ushered P'ris out of the room, "See you later. Take care."

But in the corridor, Macen began to lecture P'ris; "That was uncalled for. She's a very frightened young woman."

"Like you would not have done the same under the same circumstances," P'ris scoffed.

Macen knew she had him, "It was still rude."

"Children," Rockford suddenly said, "do I have to separate you?"

"Perhaps," P'ris sniffed.

Riker placed the Strategic Affairs Officer in command and the Tactical team manned the weapons and prepared for the worst. He left Ops and headed for Upper Pylon 2 where the Obsidian was docked. He caught Macen, Rockford, and P'ris at the hatch.

"Brin, Commander P'ris, I'd like you to come to the bridge and serve as advisors to the Senior Staff," Riker requested.

"My knowledge of Romulan tactics is negligible at best," Macen admitted.

"Yes, I know," Riker admitted, "But she won't come to the bridge without you."

Macen looked to P'ris, who merely smiled and said, "Precisely."

Macen barely resisted an exaggerated eye roll, "We'll go to the bridge then."

"What about me?" Rockford asked impishly.

Macen's expression turned quite mischievous, "You're coming too."

Rockford smiled as P'ris' jaw dropped. Macen gave her a victorious smile, "You said you wanted to protection. Celeste will double the amount of your coverage."

"I'm so certain she will," P'ris was heard to mutter.

The bridge was a flurried hub of activity. Forger had everyone at their stations. Riker was pleased to see his wife at the Sciences station.

Lisea Danan was a Trill with eight lifetimes worth of experience. One of Danan's previous hosts had been a Starfleet Intelligence analyst. Using that background, Danan had successfully convinced Starfleet to assign her to Macen's infiltration mission into the Maquis. Like Macen, she'd been swayed by the Cause and swiftly became a double agent.

She'd joined the troika that made up the Ronaran cell's Intelligence Unit. In fact, she was Macen's second-in-command. T'Kir had been the third member of their particular Trinity. She'd also been the splinter that severed Macen and Danan's romantic relationship.

Danan had left the Maquis mere days before the Jem'Hadar struck. She'd become disillusioned with the Maquis' increasingly reliance on terror tactics. Eddington's use of biogenic weapons had inspired the reflections that led to her decision to part ways.

She'd been swept up by the romance of the Cause. The romance had ended some months earlier, not lasting much longer than her relationship with Macen. She saw him as being increasingly instable. His reactions to the Cardassian violence were escalating into an increasingly disproportionate response. She couldn't endorse it nor could she approve of it.

The ultimate irony was that she joined him again when the SID was formed. She'd drifted away for a time into academia but that was short lived. The Magna Romans and the Omicron saw to that. She'd served as Macen's conscience for a time but she'd eventually relinquished that role as she adapted to his methods and even began to see them as being necessary.

P'ris immediately recognized Danan. The Trill had accompanied Macen when they'd first met P'ris during the Gulag investigation. That investigation had led to the birth of the SID and to Danan's brief venture outside of its ranks. P'ris had been very impressed with Danan and had long wondered why the El-Aurian and the Trill had separated.

Of course, the underlying reason behind it all had been T'Kir. When P'ris had learned of T'Kir's death she'd wondered if Macen would ever recoup. Then, eighteen months later, to learn of his union with Rockford had come as quite a shock. The subsequent knowledge that T'Kir now lived, and was severed by law and choice from her former husband and was quite content to be so, had initially alarmed P'ris. Now, she immediately saw the connection between the pair of Macen and Rockford.

It was similar to the connection that he had shared with T'Kir. Only He and T'Kir had started as mentor and student and evolved into equal footing. But they were essentially both lost souls. That truth held sway over Rockford and Macen. She couldn't define it exactly but she knew Rockford was an Angosian Augment and all Augments were cast offs. However, Rockford didn't seem to suffer from the behavioral conditioning imbalances that other Augments, say Rab Daggit for instance, seemed afflicted with. Rockford had managed to assimilate into the human culture. It was a foreign culture to be sure but she had managed it. P'ris wondered what the difference was.

Danan lit up when she saw P'ris, "Commander! It's so good to be on the same side again."

P'ris accepted this with a wry smile. The last time few times she'd encountered this SID team she'd been serving the interests of her native government. That had placed her at cross purposes with the team. Once one encounter had even devolved into a shooting match.

Of course, this encounter might turn into one major conflict as well. Commander Donatella was likely under orders to retrieve if possible and execute if necessary. Given the Typhon Pact's latest litany of complaints against the Federation, Donatella would likely destroy this station in event of a firefight. It was a civilian installation and therefore it was easier to deny culpability. Particularly with the list of enemies that Outbound Ventures had earned. Once elements of the Iotian Federation, under the employ of Solarian Security Systems, had razed the corporate headquarters on Barrinor and destroyed or crippled nearly every Outbound Ventures affiliated starship.

The Corporation had risen from the ashes and even established the Security Alliance Academy on Barrinor with other privateers and security agencies. With the destruction and deaths of so many Starfleet assets, private security firms were raking in the largesse of abundant contracts. The Federation needed its gaps filled and civilians were the only ones available to do so.

Outbound Ventures, already awash with government contracts, found itself overwhelmed and taking on new help. They'd once boasted two SID approved teams but with Riker's return to the Obsidian the SID had revoked its second license and now the Corporation only fielded one SID team. Of that team was also the original SID team and still considered the best. They drew the most difficult assignments and therefore also earned the most lucrative rewards.

One of those perks was that Outbound Ventures received decommissioned Starfleet vessels to fill its ranks. Most of these ships originated from the turn of the century up until the 2350's. Outbound Ventures fielded Newton-class science ships with weapons and sensors intact and upgraded to current standards. The same true for the Emden-class escorts that the corporation boasted. The Emden-classes were particularly tough ships despite only accommodating a crew of 22. In many ways they were reminiscent of the Archer-class scoutships that were popular in the 2250's and 2260's. Their crew complements were filled with cross trained specialists just like those early scouts.

P'ris slid all of this aside, "Indeed, Commander. It shall be good to work beside you once again."

Danan's smile only grew, "Please, it's Lisea or Lees."

"Indeed?" P'ris looked surprised, "It is rare for one in my culture to share a familiar name with a former foe."

"I believe former is the operative word," Danan said brightly, "I don't consider you a foe. Since our first meeting I've always seen you as a friend. A sometimes misguided friend but a friend nonetheless."

"Very well, Lees. I accept your terms," P'ris mused.

The deckplates shuddered and P'ris suddenly looked worried. Danan allayed her fears, "It's all right. We've just unlocked the docking clamps and applied thrusters. Tom took your advice and now we moving to the center point between the upper pylons in order to achieve a better firing solution."

"So we are expecting a fight?" P'ris asked.

Danan was somewhat glum as she answered, "It looks that way. The Burnett has been delayed and the deadline is five minutes away."

"So the die is cast," P'ris predicted despondently.

"Don't worry, if there's a way out of this Tom will find it. If he can't, Brin'll pull some miracle out of thin air."

P'ris suddenly cocked her slight to one side, "You truly married, Captain Riker?"

Danan was decidedly amused, "Yes, why?"

"You never reconsidered your romance with Commander Macen?" P'ris wanted to know.

Danan's expression was warm but chiding, "That ship had taken flight a long time ago. Besides, it wasn't as though Brin was vying for my affections."

P'ris seemed to ponder this, "I suppose not."

"Captain, both the Obsidian and Serenity are receiving a broadband hail from the Romulans," Jaycee Miller reported.

"Put her on screen, Jaycee," Riker ordered.

Donatella appeared on the viewer. She saw a split screen where she viewed both Riker and Serenity's Strategic Affairs Officer; "Well, what is your answer?"

Riker had agreed to take the lead on this one, "I think you know already but besides that you're awfully short on courtesy."

Donatella's face flushed emerald and she grated, "Yet your answer is?"

"The answer is 'no'. But you already expected that, didn't you?" Riker queried her.

Donatella's smile was ruthless, "Very well. Hail us when you want to surrender. We may be feeling generous and might take prisoners. Maybe not."

The screen went dark and all three Warbirds commenced firing. Interestingly enough, one concentrated on the station while the other two tried a crossfire to pummel Serenity's shields. Riker knew even if they penetrated the station's shields they still have to punch through the surveyor's,

Serenity's rotary photon torpedo launchers worked over time as did her weapons sail mounted phaser strips. But the raw truth of the matter was that even between them, the Outbound Ventures units were simply outgunned by ships of the line. Miller reported that Serenity's shields were failing when Danan suddenly called out.

"We have a vessel in bound," she reported.

"Afraid to hope, Riker merely asked, "Who is it?"

Danan turned from her sensor displays and smiled, "It's the Burnett."


Chapter Two

The Burnett rushed into the system at full impulse. As soon as she was in range, the Cheyenne-class cruiser unleashed a volley of quantum torpedoes. They bracketed a single Warbird. The other two Warbirds separated away from the stricken Warbird to minimize oncoming weapons' fire and to bracket the Burnett in a crossfire. Serenity and the Obsidian joined in the fray. The Warbird closest to the station broke free from the loose formation angled for a better attack on the space station.

"That is Commander Rejik's ship," P'ris informed Riker, "He is Donatella's second. He's the most experienced in ship to ship combat next to Commander Donatella herself."

"Who's the weak link?" Riker asked grimly.

"The wounded ship hosts Commander Sheyla. She is new to her post and most adept at boarding and occupation maneuvers," P'ris supplied the requested information, "She is Tal Shiar, not Imperial Fleet. She is best suited to skullduggery not open combat."

"Jaycee?" Riker suddenly said.

"Yessir?" she rejoined.

"Did you catch all of that?" he inquired.

"I was a little busy shooting at the enemy, sir," she quipped, "You'll have to run it by me again."

"Commander, will you?" Riker asked with a pained expression.

P'ris smiled warmly, "Of course."

She moved to Miller's station and began giving her instruction. Soon, Miller was focusing on the ship otherwise protected from the Burnett and held back from the station. The two gunslingers were meant to batter the station's defenses and pave the way for Sheyla's ship to move in and transport an occupation force aboard.

As Serenity's shields became increasingly porous, the more the Obsidian began to feel the incoming barrage. The Outbound Ventures crews were under another constraint as well. Starfleet regulated how many photons could be stored aboard a civilian station, even one run by a security agency. The station was desperately low on ordnance by now. The truly sad part was that the Obsidian had begun with more torpedoes than the more vulnerable station could be called a travesty.

As it was, the Obsidian was purposely built as a scientific vessel. Its description as a surveyor was completely accurate. The Nova-class had replaced the venerable, but long lived, Oberth-class science ships. While it was true that the Nova-class was better protected than the nearly unarmed Oberths, it was still lightly armed compared to a ship of the line. The entire class was designed to conduct in depth surveys after the exploration ships had passed through and other cruisers had secured the operational theater.

The Obsidian had faced unspeakable forces and triumphed over impossible odds while surviving horrendous damage. The truth was, she's simply been lucky to survive Macen's captaincy. The El-Aurian had a rather checkered past when it came to command. He'd lost the Hydra-class escort USS Odyssey, the Blackbird-class scout SS Odyssey, the Ju'day-class raider SS Eclipse, and the Blackbird-class SS Solstice. That didn't include the original Danube-class runabout SS Corsair. The Obsidian had just proven tough enough, and stubborn enough, to endure until Riker assumed the captaincy.

Of course the original Corsair had been replaced by a namesake. The Solstice had also been succeeded by the Solstice-A. The runabout served as the Obsidian's primary support craft while the scoutship was Macen's personal ship. She was housed in a massive underground hangar complex at the Outbound Ventures HQ.

With her had been the Skylark-class SS Idiot's Delight. Macen had shipped the craft off to Vulcan. It was the one tangible link T'Kir had with her past and Macen felt she should retain that since the ship had been her personal baby. Of course, the newly dispassionate T'Kir would probably be revolted at the emotional connections that the ship would replay for her but Macen didn't care. He couldn't bear to have the ship nearby if T'Kir wasn't there with it.

All said and done, the surveyor was giving as best she could but she was caught in a crossfire and taking a beating.

"Jaycee, firm up those damn shields!" Riker ordered.

"Don't yell at me!" Miller squawked back, "Chew on Parva's ass for a change."

Riker shot a disgruntled look towards Forger. His XO decided to take matters into her own hands and commed the ship's Orion Chief Engineer. After a moment, she signed off with a resigned expression on her face.

"Parva's got her hands full," Forger reported, "She has as many damage control teams deployed that she can spare. The warp core's starting to hiccup and she's even called in McMasters to help.

"Ouch. That had to hurt her pride," Riker winced.

"That's why I'm not pressuring her. She's getting the job and no one else can do it better," Forger reminded him.

Riker knew that was certainly true. The Obsidian had had three Chief Engineers so far. Parva had been the first but she'd stepped down when Hal Dracas rejoined the team. She stepped up again when he resigned and rejoined Starfleet. She stepped down after being gravely injured. Her physical wounds had healed fairly rapidly but brain damage had been inflicted and it took a long series of re-education course to restore her skills. In the interim Dracas' clone, Joachim Dracas, had assumed the mantle.

Joachim's death coincided with Parva's return to the ship. Truth be told, Riker was happy to have her back. Hal Dracas had been competent and Joachim had been inventive but Parva was inspired. The ship was running better than ever. Of course, Parva had swallowed her pride on occasion and asked for the SID Engineer's help on occasion.

Eric McMaster's may not possess Parva's intuitive genius but he was a wonder to behold when it came to drive and weapons systems. This is what had made him the Maquis' chief refit artist. After serving his stint on a penal colony for his part in the Maquis, he'd set up shop customizing racing platforms and hot-rodding shuttles and runabouts. If anyone could offer Parva fresh insights on how to keep the warp core intact, he would be the one to do it.

Riker began issuing order to Miller. P'ris watched the activity with obvious disapproval. Macen noted this.

"You disagree?" he asked.

"We need to maneuver," P'ris replied, "If we stay in this crossfire we will be destroyed."

"What was that?" Riker asked sharply.

P'ris hesitated and Riker used a softer voice, "If you have any suggestions, Commander, I'm open to hear them."

"Sitting here is going to get us all killed," P'ris ventured, "You need to maneuver, not only for your sake, but also to draw off fire from the station."

"Jaycee, what's the status on Serenity's shields?" he inquired.

"They're collapsing as we speak," she grimly reported.

"Rhiann, get us the hell away from her and see if you can get both Warbirds to follow you," Riker ordered, "Jaycee, fire at will."

"Why would I take a potshot at your brother?" she asked.

Riker glared at her. She turned back to her console, "Try to have a sense of humor, geez."

Rhiann started accelerating right for Donatella's ship. At the very last second she veered off and made a pass at Sheyla's. Miller unloaded phasers and photons at both ships. She laid into Commander Sheyla's Warbird. The Obsidian broke free and headed for the Warbird engaging the Burnett.

The Cheyennes were designed as light cruisers. She was giving the Romulan hell but like the Obsidian, the Burnett was heavily outgunned. A volley of torpedoes from the surveyor caught the Warbird cold. Her commander had rerouted all power to the forward shields and left his aft quarter undefended. The unprotected hull ruptured under the antimatter bursts of the photons and the Warbird was venting atmosphere as the Obsidian raced by.

The Warbird's shields faltered and the Burnett's next salvo inflicted heavy damage. By this time, Donatella was in pursuit of the Obsidian. The Burnett engaged her and the battle resumed while the damaged Warbird desperately tried to make repairs.

Sheyla's Warbird engaged Serenity again. The Obsidian came about and hammered the beleaguered ship driven by an inexperienced commander. Rhiann literally flew circles around the Warbird. Riker was desperately trying to give the station's engineering staff time to erect the shields. If Sheyla got troops aboard, things would get ugly.

"Tom!" Danan yelled, "The Warbird has initiated transporters."

"Damn it!" Riker snarled, "Rhiann, take us in close. Jaycee, unload everything you have."

The Obsidian flew down the Warbird's throat and made it choke on several photons. Rhiann pulled away and made to come about. Riker asked Miller for a damage assessment.

"Of us or them?" she asked.

"If I wanted a report on us I'd be talking to Edwin," he snapped, referring to Edwin Zimbalist, the senior OPS Officer, "What's going on in that damn Warbird?"

"Their shields are fluctuating," Miller began to report, "We may be able to squeak some torpedoes through the gaps and really do some damage."

"Do it," Riker ordered.

"But there's a problem," she warned.

"And that is?" he calmly asked.

"We only have a dozen warheads left," she explained, "We were never intended for such a prolonged engagement so our magazines are teensy weensy."

"Just get ready to do some damage," Riker counseled.

He looked to Forger, who was barely able to contain her mirth. He still saw her in a different light than before. He didn't mean to but it totally changed his whole outlook on her. Fully transitioned transgender woman were one thing, he had several amorous encounters with such woman, but a pre-op transsexual? He hadn't known people stayed that way.

It wasn't like he'd entertained fantasies about sleeping with her, but still; such a thing was totally out of the question now. It wasn't so much that he'd wanted an opportunity as an opportunity had died with his newfound knowledge.

Danan had told him that some men preferred women like her. He'd found that hard to believe until McMasters had apparently hooked up with her over their recent vacation time. Both seemed blissfully happy with whatever had happened between them. He was happy for them, especially for Shannon because she'd been waiting it out waiting for just the right man to come along and McMasters might very well be the candidate she'd hoped for.

"Rhiann, set 12 mark 5," Jaycee requested.

Rhiann set the course and barreled in. They began taking disruptor hits she couldn't evade. The Romulan gunner became bolder and began to lay in particle beam fire. Jaycee suddenly released four torpedoes.

"Break away! Evasive action," Riker ordered.

Rhiann pirouetted away and then jigged and jagged her way away from the Romulan ship. Explosions rocked it near its engine compartment.

"Yes!" Miller cried out, "They're now on auxiliary power. Wait...even that's failing due to secondary explosions. They're running on fumes, sir."

"Meaning they're down to battery power," he surmised.

"Exactly," she said with self congratulatory pride.

"Good shooting, Tex," Riker praised her and also referenced her origins, "Now hail Serenity and find out if they need help containing the boarding party."

"Oh shit," Danan suddenly exclaimed.

She took over the viewer and switched its view to further out in the system. Two more Warbirds decloaked and began their approach.

"Oh, man. They are pissed," Miller commented.

"Belay that," Riker commanded, "What's their status?"

"They're running weapons hot and their targeting sensors are looking to acquire," she summarized. A ding from her console made her swear, "They've locked onto us."

"Waitaminute!" Danan cried out, "We've got a third ship decloaking and coming in hot. It's the Defiant!"

Riker was incredulous. For the Defiant to transit across two sectors in this amount of time meant that Captain Ro Laren had stripped off the safeties and nearly overloaded her engines. Still he could believe it. Macen and Danan were family to Ro. Her cell had supported his abortive venture into Cardassian space but he hadn't met the woman herself until years later after signing up with the SID.

"How many torpedoes do we have?" Riker wondered.

"Eight," Miller said with her usual gusto.

"Rhiann, take us in. Let's show Captain Ro that we've still got some fight left in us," Riker instructed.

Rhiann wore a Cheshire grin, "Yes sir!"

The Defiant opened up with pulse phasers and quantum torpedoes. The closest Warbird was completely pummeled. The starship kept at it, never relenting, and the Warbird's shields soon buckled. Rather than finish off the Romulan ship, Ro opted to rescue the Obsidian.

Riker had unleashed every last photon at the remaining Warbird. The phasers continually fired afterwards to keep the pressure on. However, the Obsidian was swiftly reeling as the Warbird concentrated all of its formidable firepower on her.

The Defiant intervened and finished off what the Obsidian had begun. The two ships were damaged but they still had auxiliary power and their impulse engines. Nearby, the Burnett had severely damaged Donatella's ship as she committed to riskier and riskier moves as her desperation mounted. The Defiant's pulse phasers made short work of her.

Ro hailed the Burnett's Captain. After conferring with her, she turned her attention to the Obsidian, "Hello Tom. Is Brin around?"

"Let me shift the viewer pick up to wide scan," Riker said, "Better?"

Ro peered at P'ris, "So you're the reason I was dragged two sectors away from my designated patrol zone."

"A distinct pleasure to meet you again, Ro Laren," P'ris smiled gratefully; "I see you have made Captain."

"I have the feeling you already knew that," Ro retorted. P'ris didn't deny it so Ro persisted, "Nechayev has been chewing my ass off. She wants you to accompany me and head for Sector 001."

"You're kidding," Macen remarked.

"No," Ro grated, "She was quite insistent."

"What about Serenity?" Macen wanted to know.

"The Burnett will be on station. Elements of the 9th Fleet are en route to relieve her," Ro replied, "We're to depart post haste."

"The ship's damaged," Macen informed her.

"Can she make warp speed?" Ro wondered.

Macen looked to Riker. He in turn looked to Zimbalist. The OPS Chief nodded.

"I guess we can," Macen said, "But we still need to make repairs."

"Then you can make repairs while you're underway," Ro countered, "Let Parva live up to her reputation as a miracle worker."

"I might be motivated to persuade Tom to send her to your ship and dismantle it," Macen threatened.

"And who'll bail your sorry butt out of trouble next time?" she asked facetiously.

"You're just fishing for a thank you," Macen teased.

"So what if I am?" Ro asked indignantly, "I think I deserve one."

"So you do," Macen conceded, "Thank you, Laren."

"Now that that's settled, are you ready to get the hell out of here?" Ro asked.

"Tom, I'm picking up subspace wakes," Danan suddenly called out.

"How many?" Riker asked.

"Five, and before you ask, they have a Breen signature," Danan informed him.

"Where the hell is the 9th Fleet?" Riker demanded of Ro.

"There're on their way," Ro replied coldly, "They're tracking an entire Typhon Pact armada massed at the border, "The Barrinor system is lucky to be getting any ships at all."

"What about the surviving elements of the 7th Fleet?" he wondered, "They're stationed at Bajor."

"What's left of the 7th, which is made up of three ships by the way, has been reorganized into Picket Force 47, which I command," Ro tersely explained, "Now we don't have time for this bullshit. Go to your maximum available speed and follow me out of the system."

"Hold on," Riker tapped his comm panel, "Parva, I need maximum warp."

"Are you frinxed in the head?" the Orion demanded.

"No," he said dryly, "It's literally a case of life or death."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," she huffed.

"Parva, five Breen warships are bearing down on us. No one's in a position to fight them so we've been ordered back to Earth," Riker explained.

"Who the hell can give us orders?" Parva protested.

"Brin can and he's ordering us to Earth," Riker lied.

"Tell him I'm going to kill him if we end up dying," Parva growled, "I'll give you Warp 9 but not a microcochrane faster."

"You're a goddess," Riker praised her.

"I know," she said mater of factly.

"Rhiann, lay in a course for Sector 001 and engage for Warp 9," Riker ordered.

"Aye sir!" she crisply replied.

The Defiant followed suit and both ships raced out of the system. The Breen slowed to impulse and traversed the system at sublight. Donatella angrily told them that two starships had escaped and were vectored for Earth. The Breen force set out at their maximum spewed. Fortunately, they'd been slowed by their deviation out of subspace and they'd also been burning their engines at maximum warp for twelve hours to get here on time. They had to reduce speed in order to avoid critically damaging their engines. This ensured that though they would burn the brush and chase the foxes through the fields that they would still arrive after said foxes had made it to their dens.

Ro alerted Home Fleet and the Home Sector patrols. The Breen were running cloaked. Their access to the Romulan cloaking tech was a condition of their joining the Typhon Pact. Little did they realize that the Romulans had given away an older generation of the cloaking tech. The latest generation was being reserved for Romulan ships and would hold the Romulan fleet in good stead should the Typhon Pact splinter.

The Defiant was on its last leg arriving at Earth. Ro had indeed run the engines well past their safety ratings in order to arrive at Barrinor in such record time. Nog was screaming at Ro to drop out of warp for the last thirty minutes of the journey while Ro merely replied with, "Five more minutes."

Those accumulated five minutes had gotten the Defiant within the safe embrace of the Home Fleet. The Fleet was deployed in order to utilize a tachyon web to detect cloaked vessels. They were prepared for the Breen to try and penetrate the web despite certainty of discovery.

The Obsidian was minutes away from a warp core breach when she finally switched to her relatively stable impulse engines. Parva had threatened to blow the core just to spite them all if they didn't drop out of subspace. When the event finally happened, she angrily commed the bridge.

"It's about time!" she yelled, "Now I can clean up your frinxing mess!"

Riker glanced over towards Forger, "I think I should avoid Engineering for a while."

"Safe bet," she snickered, "And you might want to check the settings on your sonic shower the next time you use it."

"She wouldn't," Riker refused to believe it.

"Eric's down there with her," Forger reminded him. He gleefully noted her usage of McMaster's first name.

"Captain, we're getting a hail," Miller chimed in.

"Put it on screen," Riker instructed.

Admiral Nechayev's hardened features appeared. The blonde woman's hair had started to gray after the Borg invasion. The Argyn debacle had accelerated the process. Riker knew this latest event couldn't be helping matters any.

"Admiral, what a pleasant surprise," he jovially greeted her.

"Spare me the crap, Captain," Nechayev replied, "Is Commander P'ris secured aboard your vessel?"

"Yes, she is," Riker's voice lost all its friendliness.

"You're to put in at Spacedock. I'll have people waiting for her," Nechayev commanded.

"Civilian vessels aren't allowed in Spacedock," Riker archly reminded her.

She gave him a withering glare, "Civilian craft aren't allowed at the Utopia Planetia yards either yet you get tended there all the time on our nickel. You've been cleared. Just dock your damn ship where you're told, Captain."

The screen reverted back to its view of the Sol system. Riker squirmed in his seat. Macen came to stand beside him.

"It isn't worth fighting over, Tom. Alynna is right. We need to make port and make repairs," he tried to smooth things over.

"All right but she'd best remember who it is she's dealing with," Riker huffed.

"She does," Macen dryly replied. Seeing Riker's accusatory glare, "She looks at it this way: she's the boss of our employer, therefore her authority supersedes all others."

"Awfully shortsighted if you ask me," Riker grumbled.

"Have no fears, she won't," Macen remarked.

Riker's expression soured, "I'll let you know when we've docked. You know she'll have a team standing by to retrieve your little friend."

"You do remember the acuity of T'Kir's ears, don't you?" Macen idly wondered.

"Yes, so?" Riker was leery of where this was going.

"P'ris has those same ears," Macen warned him.

"Good. I want her to hear," Riker sniped.

Macen sighed and returned to P'ris and Rockford, "Ladies, I believe we have a date with an airlock."

P'ris looked slightly discomfited while Rockford appreciated the humor to be found there.

The airlock opened to one Commander Michelle Prentiss and a trio of Security officers. Prentiss was an SI agent, formerly in the SID's employ. She'd come up through Internal Affairs, just like Admiral Amanda Forger herself. The Director of the SID had been IA before being recruited by Nechayev to SI. Prentiss had been IA, then SID, and when the SID went over to civilian assets alone, she'd transferred to SI.

"Hello Commander," Macen said peaceably, "I hope you're not here to investigate us again.

That brought a slight smile to Prentiss' lips. Her investigation of Macen's SID team had been one of the most unorthodox experiences of her life, "No, I'm here to collect Commander P'ris."

"Commander Macen and Detective Rockford are coming with me," P'ris insisted.

Prentiss frowned, "That's highly irregular."

"Nevertheless, it will be a fact," P'ris demanded.

"May I ask why?" Prentiss chose to play along.

"Macen is my advocate. Where I go, he goes. Where he goes, I go. Detective Rockford feels the same towards Commander Macen so where he goes, she goes. Simple, no?"

"Hardly," Prentiss snorted. She returned to Macen, "I thought you were married to the Vulcan psi-witch?"

"I was. She died," Macen replied.

Prentiss blanched, "I'm so sorry. I didn't know."

"It's okay. She's alive now and living on Vulcan," he assured her.

Prentiss just stared at him, eyes bulging.

"Trust me, you do not want to try and unravel that particular enigma. I was there and I still don't get it," Rockford offered, "Suffice it to say, T'Kir's out and I'm in."

Prentiss knew Macen would literally fight to the death over this. For all of her relaxed, nonchalant demeanor Rockford had to be the same way or she wouldn't be with him. She knew nothing regarding P'ris but she could easily see the Romulan's steely resolve.

"Let me make some calls," Prentiss relented.

Minutes later she approached the trio, "All right. We'll play it your way but when we debrief her we'll do it without your participation."

Macen knew the comment was directed at him, "May I ask why you said 'we' just then?"

"Because this is my debrief. Admiral Nechayev is sitting in but I'm running the show," Prentiss proclaimed.

Macen knew Prentiss was in for some heartache when Nechayev finally pulled rank.


Chapter Three

The trio was taken to a briefing room. One wall faced a second room that mounted displays for the sensor feeds. Several specially trained Security techs were present. Macen and Rockford were invited to witness the proceedings from there. P'ris was brought into the briefing room and sat down at the table.

Two security officers maintained position by the door while Prentiss stepped outside to alert the Admiral that P'ris was at her designated location. Afterwards, Prentiss rejoined P'ris. The room was shielded against subspace frequencies so comm badges were neutralized while inside the room. Prentiss explained this and explained that it would take Admiral Nechayev a moment to settle her affairs so she could "step off the grid".

That moment turned into several. Prentiss asked if she could offer anything to P'ris. The Romulan requested a liter of water and some lyra crackers and r'lihj cheese. Knowing that these were Romulan cuisine, Prentiss consulted the diplomatic databases. Seeing that former Romulan ambassadors had programmed the replicator networks with those items before being recalled in lieu of the Typhon Pact Ambassador Tezrene, Prentiss happily presented them. P'ris seemed impressed.

She snacked away in silence while Prentiss observed her. The Tal Shiar agent was remarkably composed, as though she were still in control rather than Starfleet. Prentiss knew it was her job to disabuse her of that notion.

Meanwhile, Nechayev was consulting Macen, "What's her state of mind?"

"Why're you asking me?" Macen wondered.

"Besides the fact you've just spent the last five days with her getting here, you've also the most experience of anyone in Federation circles with her," Nechayev dryly remarked.

"She won't admit or show it but she's scared. She's afraid her request for asylum will be rejected," Macen informed her. Nechayev wore a predatory smile. Macen warned her off, "Don't use that against her." Nechayev gave him a querying glance so he elaborated, "She'll only fight you and you won't get the information that she promised Amanda."

"Does she have it?" Nechayev wanted to know.

"She has something of value," Macen expressed his impression of the situation, "She's not talking to me but on the way here she alluded to possessing information that could radically alter not only the Typhon Pact but also our relations with them."

"And why does she wish to share this information?" Nechayev inquired, "The attempt has branded her a traitor and up until now she's been a patriotic Romulan."

"A patriotic Romulan that pursues the best interests of her people," Macen amended her statement, "If she feels that doing this will benefit the Romulan people, she'll pursue this course without hesitation."

"I'd feel a lot better about this and her if it weren't for her involvement in that Rihannsu affair. She set those people up for the slaughter. The Tal Shiar rid itself of the bulk of the dissident movements in the Star Empire in one fell swoop," Nechayev complained.

"Yet she also assisted us in the Chandillan Affair," Macen offered.

"She told you it was an interstellar conspiracy which you already suspected," Nechayev coolly responded.

"But her confirmation saved me hours of wondering," Macen tersely replied.

Nechayev could tell that Macen was going to defend P'ris regardless of their firefight on Harbinger, "Why are you defending her?"

"I'm defending her because she is a Romulan patriot," Macen shared.

"This is because of T'Kir," Nechayev surmised.

"Not at all," Macen assured her, "Starfleet sent us to Romulus and Remus and P'ris wholeheartedly helped us track down the Romulan leaders that were supplying third parties with trilithium warheads. In doing so she confirmed my suspicions of her."

"And those were?" Nechayev was filled with morbid curiosity.

"That's she's a decent, honorable woman," Macen stated.

Nechayev gave him a dubious stare and he explained, "She's gone out of her way to avoid violence especially on Harbinger. Our success with cooperating with the Tal Shiar was entirely up to her. She doesn't necessarily see the Federation as an enemy merely as a competitor."

"But the Romulans have been known to kill or enslave competitors," Nechayev dryly pointed out.

"There is that," he conceded.

"If I might bring up a point?" Rockford suddenly asked.

Nechayev nodded in her direction so she spoke, "I may not have the history with Commander P'ris that Brin has but I am a good judge of character. She takes the Star Empire's allegiance to its fellow Typhon Pact members very seriously. When she sees the Empire moving against its fellow members and it worries her. Seeing us as a fairly neutral third party, she wants to enlist our aid in pressuring the Empire into honoring its treaty stipulations. She desires this because she sees a repeat of the Rihannsu betrayal underway."

Even Macen stared at her incredulously. Rockford shrugged, "There is such a thing as girl talk."

"She wants us to keep the Typhon Pact from falling apart?" Nechayev was incredulous.

"She looks at the situation as being composed of checks and balances. The Star Empire sees us as imperialistic and subversive," Rockford continued to explain, "We are the check. The tension between the Khitomer Accords nation and the Typhon Pact is the balance."

Nechayev looked distinctly displeased with that notion, "Thank you very much, Detective. I suppose you will be joining Commander Macen in his observations?"

"Oh, you can rest assured of that," Rockford's tongue in cheek reply just shot out of her.

Nechayev scowled as she left. She reappeared in the room Prentiss and P'ris occupied. Unexpectedly, the admiral dismissed the security contingent. She went to the replicator and ordered breakfast tea and then she sat down.

"Well Commander, I hear from Admiral Forger that you have something to say to me," Nechayev said with far more warmth in her voice than she had just displayed a moment before.

"First, I wish to formally request political asylum in the United Federation of Planets," P'ris dispensed with the formalities.

"And why is that?" Nechayev asked.

"My government wishes to kill me," P'ris replied.

"I repeat my question, Nechayev retorted.

"I am going to reveal certain state secrets to you, Admiral. For this intent I have been branded a traitor," the Romulan agent proclaimed.

"Are you?" Nechayev wondered.

P'ris cocked an eyebrow her way and Nechayev wore a slight smirk as she asked, "Are you a traitor, Commander?"

"No," P'ris replied with a steady smile, "I am a true patriot."

"Then can you appreciate my dilemma?" Nechayev inquired, "The Star Empire is hardly the Federation's friend."

"But neither is it your enemy," P'ris adroitly pointed out.

Nechayev snorted, "Even though the Typhon Pact is nominally united it still has divisions within it. Divisions that keep it from attacking us as a single entity."

The analysis greatly amused P'ris, "A tad naïve, even for a human."

Nechayev's expression read Oh really? P'ris chose to elaborate, "While the majority of Romulans choose to live with a 'cold war' between the Federation and the Star Empire there is a growing minority that urges a first strike option. They feel it is only a matter of time before the Federation egresses into our affairs and our territories. This group increasingly has the ear of the newly crowned Empress and especially of her Proconsul."

"I understand Sela's position but why Donatra?" Nechayev asked.

"The crown weighs heavily upon her head. There has not been an actual imperial ruler for a millennia. Many throughout the empire see her as a usurper of the natural political order. She needs to unite the empire under her flag and what better way than a war in defense of the realm?" P'ris rejoined.

"Indeed," Nechayev dryly agreed, "Now, about this information you claim to possess?"

"What guarantees do I have that you will grant me safe harbor once I hand over my information?" P'ris countered.

Nechayev's smile was cold and predatory, "None."

"That is most unsatisfactory," P'ris commented.

"See it from my perspective," Nechayev urged, "You're here to essentially betray your people for their own good. You have admitted you have no love of the Federation. Point in fact, you still see us as potential enemies and I'm willing to bet that you'd sell us out if you thought it benefited your own native people. Am I wrong?"

P'ris had the decency to blush a little, "No, you are correct."

"Then you understand my dilemma. If I allow you access to the Federation and its worlds you'll probably have access to some of its gravest secrets," Nechayev laid it out.

"I do not understand how I would have access to your secrets. Do all Federation citizens have access to Starfleet's classified material?" P'ris wondered.

"No, they don't. And you wouldn't be a citizen which should theoretically limit your access even further but we have a problem," Nechayev revealed.

"And that is?" P'ris had to know.

"Your protector," Nechayev said quite coolly.

It took P'ris a moment but then it dawned on her, "Ah, Commander Macen."

"You should go easy on the 'Commander" bit," Nechayev counseled, "Macen's retired. Just as you theoretically are."

"Why would my relationship with...Mr. Macen be a problem?" P'ris sought clarification.

"Brin is protective of you despite your somewhat turbulent history with him," Nechayev explained, "In fact; I think he sees you as a friend. He is very loyal to his friends and would quite literally lay down his life in their defense."

P'ris seemed inordinately pleased by this concept and Nechayev tried to strike her down...hard, "That wasn't meant to put ideas in your head. Now I could make it a stipulation that you avoid Macen but I know you'll just break it. Brin won't be a help in that department. I objected to his recruiting T'Kir and he not only brought her into the team, he ended up marrying her. I voiced objection regarding Detective Rockford and he made her his 2nd in command. Do you see the problem now? I say 'no' to you and you become catnip."

P'ris obviously struggled with the last word, "I do believe the translator is having a conniption over your last turn of phrase. Why would I pose a problem if I have been transformed into an herb?"

Nechayev looked exasperated and snapped at Prentiss, "Have someone from Starfleet Communications run an overhaul of the damn translation matrix into High Rhihan!"

P'ris intervened; "I understand your reasoning, Admiral. However, let me express my concerns. Agenst of my own Tal Shiar and other Imperial agencies will be after my head. I intend to keep it and in pursuit of that goal I will be eschewing the services of Starfleet Security and the Federation Security Agency. Brin Macen is my employee, contracted to provide for my safety. Since I am still in mortal peril, that contract still holds."

Nechayev stiffened and P'ris wore her own thin smile, "You and Commander Macen can review the terms of the contract that elaborated on her initial verbal agreement. No time frame was set only the stipulation that I be in need of services. Well, I am in need and I expect service!"

P'ris imagined that Macen's unseen and unlamented groan matched Nechayev's much more visible one. She decided it was best that she throw the Starfleet admiral a bone, "The nature of Commander Macen's activities is well known to me. One need only read between the lines of his corporation's public announcements and be able to make those deductions. And then of course, there are my personal experiences with the man. All of which led to my discovery of the Special Investigations Division."

Nechayev flinched, even though she controlled it well. Satisfied, P'ris continued; "On yes, I am quite aware of Admiral Amanda Forger's Directorship of the SID, and of her sister Shannon's duties aboard the SS Obsidian, which is in turn assigned to support Macen's SID team. I have known all of this and more yet have kept my suppositions to myself."

This visibly surprised Nechayev, "Why would you do that?"

"Friendships amongst my people are deep and abiding. As Commander Macen values me as a friend, I too value him as one. I would have been on Romulus during the Hobus crisis if not for him warning me years in advance. Millions of my people would also be dead. Do you repay such a gift by betraying their confidence? I think not!" P'ris insisted.

"My superiors, such as there were, knew of my early theories regarding Macen's allegiances but they never received confirmation of such. All they do know for certain is that Macen is a privateer and he is licensed to accept contracts issued by Starfleet. They do not realize that Starfleet is primary employer through a division of Starfleet Intelligence that only works through civilian assets for covert operations." P'ris cocked an eyebrow Nechayev's way, "Have I summed up the scenario adequately?"

"A little too adequately," Nechayev confessed.

"So, I have the data you require. You have the legal means to grant the status that I desire and we are at an impasse," P'ris' quizzical expression returned, "Or are we?"

"Give me the data and I'll make some calls," Nechayev promised, "How long do you have to wait?"

"I am obviously at your disposal," P'ris ruefully remarked, "Provided such a condition does not result in my disposal."

Nechayev actually smiled at that, "You'll continue to be confined in this room. Commander Prentiss will run you through the routine questions. If you have to use the restroom, you can use the facilities attached to this room. Understood?"

"I believe so," P'ris acknowledged. She pulled a data rod out of her sleeve and reached across the table to hand it to Nechayev, "This contains everything of interest to you."

Nechayev held it up to the light as though she could read the data on the isolinear rod by eye, "I'll be back."

"Feel free," P'ris remarked, "I am obviously not going anywhere."

Nechayev smiled at that. The obvious equanimity behind the words indicated that P'ris was not only serious about the process but was committed to it. That would go a long way when Nechayev presented her case to Admiral Jellico and President Bacco.

Starfleet Commander-in-Chief, namely Admiral Edward Jellico, and The United Federation of Planets President Bacco, met Nechayev's news with grim finality.

"So there's no doubt that Commander P'ris' information is valid and accurate?" Bacco asked.

"No doubt whatsoever," Nechayev affirmed it, "Sources outside of Starfleet have confirmed that readiness plans have been drafted by the Romulan Imperial Forces to enact such a contingency."

"I suppose that information comes from sources that will remain unnamed?" Jellico half asked, half directed. He'd learned of the machinations of Section 31 during the Cell 51 crisis and just as soon they remained in the shadows where they'd belonged. Discovering upon examination that section 31 of the Starfleet Charter did indeed create a clandestine agency to secure the safety of the Federation, he left it at that. Jellico's time and experience with the elusive Council of 5 had been clandestine enough.

"I suppose you've informed your peers of this as well?" Jellico wondered. He had to be vague, since the President herself didn't know of the Council or S31 in order to grant her plausible deniability.

"They will be if you grant Commander P'ris' petition for asylum," Nechayev replied.

"If we grant it?" Bacco mused, "You do realize that woman will be dead within 24 hours if we don't."

Nechayev turned to the viewer that Jellico occupied, "I've been incommunicado. What's the status of the Breen squadron?"

"They're holding and so are we," Jellico said grimly, "We've ten ships monitoring the Breen with the remaining forty deployed throughout every approach into the system. The Romulans are doubtlessly going to make another grab at her so we've had to blockade our own solar system."

Bacco could see Nechayev's obvious displeasure at that news so she added, "I've had words with Ambassador Tezrene. She and the Typhon Pact governments she represents know full well that this incursion and the strike against Outbound Ventures are tantamount to an act of war."

'Forgive my saying so, Madame President, but we are in an undeclared state of war. The Romulans actively engaged two Starfleet starships while assaulting a civilian station and a privateer," Nechayev pointed out the fine print.

Bacco did the same, "A privateer who frequently works for Starfleet."

"That's beside the point. Numerous civilian assets contract with Starfleet, especially since we have lost 60% of our active service vessels over the last three years," Nechayev pointed out, "That fact alone shouldn't make Outbound Ventures a target."

"No, but it seems to have," Bacco retorted.

"I think any station or starship that Commander P'ris presented herself to would have become a target. Commander Macen and Outbound Ventures just happened to draw that fate," Nechayev postulated.

"Well, I've already decided to grant her request. She can have safe harbor within the Federation," Bacco announced.

"You don't think our own allies will grant asylum as well?" Nechayev asked.

"The Cardassians may and the Ferengi will depending on the profit margin in it for them," Bacco summarized, "But the Klingons will not support a Romulan, whether they are a defector or not."

"I was just thinking that because of the importance of the information and its theoretical impact upon the cohesiveness of the Typhon Pact that it might sway them into doing so this time," Nechayev offered.

Bacco smiled slyly, "Are you certain you aren't a politician, Admiral?"

"There are times I thought I was," Nechayev said ruefully.

"I'll present the argument to the Klingon Ambassador but Chancellor Martok probably won't weigh in until the information has a positive impact," Bacco warned.

"And how, exactly, are you going to present this information to the Gorn when they no longer have a diplomatic presence on Earth?" Nechayev wondered.

Bacco's sly smile returned, "I have a few old friends from my days as Governor of Cestus III. The information will be disseminated."

Nechayev accepted the assurance at face value, "How will we arrange for security for Commander P'ris?"

"We don't," Jellico said curtly, "She wants Macen's help and Macen's help alone? Let him deal with it."

Nechayev knew the bad blood between the SID operative and the C-in-C was as contentious as ever but that was no reason to risk a woman's life and she said as much. Jellico snorted.

"You've entrusted this clown with the fate of worlds on occasion and now you're worried that he can't protect one lone Romulan?" Jellico baited her.

"Eddie, you know how he'll protect her. He'll incorporate her into his team," Nechayev felt compelled to warn him.

"So?" Jellico sneered, "He's already got a mercenary, three former terrorists, which doesn't include Macen himself, two Angosian Augments, a Kelvan spy, and a hologram with a sex addiction. Have I missed anyone?"

"Amanda would know better than I off hand but I think you've covered it," Nechayev grated.

"Then I say more power to him," Jellico declared smugly.

"Eddie..." Nechayev began to protest.

"Case closed," Jellico said forcefully, "Or am I not being clear enough?"

"No," Nechayev said angrily, "You've been perfectly clear."

"What's the status of Macen's ship?" Jellico suddenly asked.

"Well, technically it's Captain Riker's ship..." she began to explain.

"Spare me the details of their convoluted chain of command. We all know who's really in charge," Jellico snapped at her, "Now what's the status of their damn ship?"

"It's undergoing assessment for repairs inside of Spacedock," Nechayev reported.

"Good, I'll see that the repairs take a week or so," Jellico mused, "That'll give 3rd Fleet time to report in and scare off the bloody Breen."

"Are we done here?" Nechayev asked.

Bacco was amused, witnessing the interaction between Nechayev and Jellico. She knew very well that Nechayev had seniority in grade as an admiral over Jellico but she had declined the top slot while Jellico had jumped at it, to his seeming regret now. Jellico was grooming Akaar to take over for him, assuming of course that Nechayev turned down the position again. Reading the Russian descended admiral, Bacco thought that outcome to be likely.

"I'm done," Bacco cheerfully announced.

"Yes," Jellico replied tersely, "Just remember what I've said."

Jellico's screen reverted to the Starfleet symbol. Bacco gave Nechayev a pitying smile and signed off to be replaced by the UFP seal. Nechayev snorted at Bacco's attempt to console her. She was used to Jellico by now. They'd once been friendly acquaintances and then he'd moved up the ranks and become a sitting member of the Council of 5. Learning the true scope of her activities and how she accomplished them had permanently damaged their friendship. The creation of the SID had only been the final nail in the coffin.

The Special Investigation Division had been born with a single team in play and that team had all been Starfleet regulars or irregulars given brevet ranks and run through basic training. The need for hiring irregulars had come from Macen's court martial and early retirement.

Nechayev mentally hiccupped at that thought. Macen had served in Starfleet since 2296 if you didn't discount his time infiltrating the Maquis from 2370-73. His return to active duty in 2373 to fight the Dominion had resulted in his promotion to Captain in 2375. His captaincy had been short lived. In 2376 he was permanently reduced in rank to Commander and two of his commands were practically vaporized.

He'd been convinced to retire and a Letter of Marque was presented to him. It was that Letter that the SID operated under. Although technically given to a captain of an individual ship, Macen was the ultimate master of his vessel. He'd simply hired a ship driver to fill the captain's role. Nechayev had to admit that had been a wise move on Macen's part.

Riker's aptitude made him a natural starship captain even if said starship was only a surveyor. The Obsidian had not endured nearly the punishment under Riker's watch. Under Macen's command, the poor ship had been rammed into the outer walls of a terrestrial fortress. It had taken Starfleet two weeks to extract the ship off of the surface, a week to tow her to the SPYards, and three months for the yard dogs to repair her.

Macen's proclivity towards destroying ships had earned him a very nasty reputation amongst the engineers at Utopia Planetia and especially amongst the SPYards personnel. Even the Obsidian's Chief Engineer shuddered at the thought of Macen retaking direct command.

And now the crew is going to be an open target for any Typhon Pact fleet captain that decides to settle a score, Nechayev thought bitterly. Although it wasn't like the SID team and the crew weren't used to being targets. The Omicron had made a special case out destroying Macen's commands, succeeding with the Eclipse. Bertram Sindis had also made Macen's team and ship objects of his wrath. Throwing the combined weight of the Orion Syndicate and the Meirkus Conglomeration at Macen, the Iridian had nearly killed Macen on more than one occasion and set up him for murder.

But no one had rivaled the Typhon Pact for sheer numbers and firepower. Except for maybe the Omicron, she reflected. And it wasn't as if he would abandon P'ris to the mercies of her former comrades. Macen would be fully dedicated to ensuring her safety all while making her as productive as possible.

Oh, what the hell? It's Amanda's purview. She's his employer and he's her asset. I'm just the one who gets yelled at when Amanda makes one of her rare mistakes, Nechayev mused. P'ris would be the SID's responsibility. She hated foisting the problem off on Forger but both P'ris and eventually Macen would insist upon it.

Nechayev idly wondered if Macen's unorthodox approach to life was about to catch up with in a major way?


Chapter Four

Thanks to Jellico's intervention, the repairs did indeed take a week to complete. Parva went from keenly interested to spastically frustrated. Daggit coaxed her off of the ship for her own sake as well as that of the yard dogs. They decided to enjoy Barbados and call it good since there were only two days left to their estimated stay. Daggit had possessed an open reservation on the island for over a year so it was a perfect opportunity to utilize it.

Hannah Grace met up with her husband. The USS Intrepid was in port and her Chief Tactical Officer availed himself of a weeklong leave in order to meet up with his Kelvan born wife. While Grace appeared utterly human on the exterior, Delaney was still beginning to appreciate how alien she truly was. It made her an exotic creature that he utterly adored.

The SID pilot had met Delaney while he was on a mission to Risa to support the SID team. She'd deftly disarmed him on their first encounter and it had taken him weeks afterwards to deduce how she'd done it. Her inhuman reflexes helped of course and that had been the part of the equation that had taken him the longest to figure out. At first he'd assumed she was genetically enhanced somehow but when she'd revealed her true origins Delaney had not only reacted positively but he'd also reacted amorously.

McMasters and the younger Forger sister went out for a weeklong tour of Europe. McMasters had been born on a colony world fated to be included in the Demilitarized Zone between Cardassia and the Federation. The DMZ was dismantled now and fully ceded to Cardassia in order to secure their support during the Borg and Argyn invasions. It was a decision that still rankled McMasters.

Forger had her own clouds in the past. Born Sean Forger, Shannon had faced intense scrutiny and pressure to fully transition into womanhood. Her pre-op status worried some and disgusted others. But then again, she occasionally found a man like McMasters that was seriously turned on by her sexuality. She was enjoying every spare moment even if it might be destined to ultimately come to a close. She'd at least enjoy the time that she had.

Riker and Danan enjoyed Kyle Riker's hospitality in Alaska. The elder Riker, now reconciled with both versions of his son, had grown increasingly feeble as he aged. His years abroad and battling foreign illnesses weighing heavily on him as their ultimate toll became revealed. He still easily had a few decades left to him but his doctors only speculated on how much time he had after that. At the end of the week, Danan reported to the Obsidian while Riker joined Macen on a long delayed quest.

Macen and Rockford showed P'ris and Radil the sights of Belfast and the surrounding countryside. Radil Jenrya was the Obsidian's Chief of Security and the SID team's Tactical Specialist. The truth was her skills were employed as P'ris' minder. This was a relatively easy duty since they were on Earth but still, things had been known to happen on Earth as well as any other planet.

Rockford led the other two women back to Spacedock and Macen scurried off to his other appointment with Riker. He'd shared his ambition and Rockford had merely bemoaned the fact that she'd known this day was coming. He'd remarked that she deserved a good spanking to which she inquired when?

Riker waited for Macen in the lobby of Utility Procurements Central in Nigeria. The clothier was the chief supplier of replicator patterns for Starfleet uniforms in all shapes and sizes. Macen had acquired several surplus patterns from them in the past and the crew seemed content to wander about in Starfleet surplus but he wanted to modernize the look of Outbound Ventures. He also wanted to homogenize the corporation's appearance across crews. He'd warned the other ships captains of what was going to transpire so that they could warn their personnel. Those working at Serenity Station would retain their use of the Starfleet Field Duty Uniforms of 2280-2340.

In the end, Macen played fast and loose with the rules governing the uniform choices. He opted on the pattern of the Starfleet Class B uniform of 2366-73 if not the color. It had been Macen's favorite uniform. Made famous by the crews of DS9, and especially Voyager, whose crew had retained the uniform choice 4 years longer than any other Starfleet personnel.

The jumpsuit's primary color remained a base black but the colored shoulder panels were altered into a forest green. The grey mock turtleneck undershirt remained untouched. Rank insignia for the collar were opted from the brevet tabs that Voyager's Maquis officers and crewmen had worn. Macen had acquired dispensation from Admiral Forger for that along with Captain Chakotay's blessing.

The two Command officers changed into their uniforms to model them for the crew. Accordingly, Macen wore a Commander's insignia while Riker alone bore the Captain's rank insignia. There couldn't be a divided command structure aboard a starship. They'd both learned that the hard way. Fortunately the lesson finally seemed to stick after the confusion while dealing with Solarian Security Systems.

The pair arrived aboard the Obsidian fashionably late. Macen uploaded the replicator patterns while Riker made the announcement of the uniform's adoption to the crew. There were some good natured groans but the crew realized that there had been a uniform code albeit a somewhat loose one. Everyone was given an hour to settle in and change attire. Afterwards, the Obsidian set sail.

Grace was flaunting her curves at Rockford, "Poor Ian got recalled just as I was leaving."

"At least he'll be busy so he won't have as much time to worry about you," Rockford consoled, "Is it permitted to ask where he's headed?"

Grace laughed, "It's okay. You're cleared for it since you're a member of the team. The Intrepid is delivering Admiral Johnson and Ambassador Picard to Andoria."

"I'd heard things were getting tense between the Federation and the Andorian Empire. The news feeds were full of horror stories of how thousands of Andorians had abruptly resigned their positions and jobs within the Federation and returned to Andoria," Rockford shared, "The chaos that created extended to daily life down on Earth."

"Tell me about it," Grace ruefully agreed, "Ian almost didn't get to take his leave because Jim and Jonathan are trying to shore up the personnel openings. Luckily, Ian had a couple of candidates firmed up and BuPers cut their orders the morning we set out."

"I take it McKinley and Striker aren't having as easy a go at it?" Rockford mused.

"Not with the losses Starfleet's endured over the last 3 years," Grace replied, "Everyone is essential and everyone is needed at their current post."

"So how did Ian manage to convince the Bureau of Personnel to free up his transfers?" Rockford wondered.

"He threatened to put his entire department in for promotions. That would effectively transfer his entire unit off of Intrepid since their newly achieved ranks would require them to assume more responsibility and that could only be achieved at another posting," Grace described the situation with a mirthful twinkle in her eye.

"I am sooo happy I never joined Starfleet," Rockford gratefully admitted.

"Didn't they approach you when they needed Augments to fill the commando units?" Grace asked, knowing that Rockford had the newfound ability to answer such a question.

Rockford grinned ruefully, "They did. However, I was smart enough to say 'no'."

"You do seem to have an attitude when it comes to Starfleet," Grace wryly observed.

"They wanted to use me. Hell, they wanted to use all of us. What was the reward? A potential treatment for the psychological conditioning and physical enhancements. And they'd grant membership for Angosia to the UFP. It was because they created us and abandoned us that the Angosian government's petition for membership was denied in the first place," Rockford angrily recited, "At least as a mercenary I was well paid for being used."

"But you weren't a mercenary," Grace pointed out.

Rockford's expression became rueful, "No, I wasn't but Annika was. Sometimes I think I have a serious title problem ever since her various psyches were merged into mine. I remember everything all of the various personalities did as though I did them but it wasn't me. Not really."

"I suggest you talk to Lees. Joined Trills know all about this stuff," Grace offered, "She can probably offer you a world of advice."

Rockford's grin turned wry, "I just may have to do that."

"So, where was Captain Ro during our festive shore leave?" Grace wondered.

Rockford smirked, "Ro got called back to Bajor. Starfleet Command was worried the Typhon Pact might get past the 9th Fleet and make a push for the wormhole."

"Okay, that's fine and dandy, but you two seem to be getting on better since the Argyn crisis," Grace observed.

"Actually, the breakthrough occurred before the crisis by a couple of days," Rockford shared, "We had a meeting of the minds."

"Oh really?" Grace said teasingly, "With T'Kir that could be taken literally. But you? How exactly did your minds meet?"

"We had a chat," Rockford said meekly.

"A chat chat or an I'm gonna throw you out an airlock chat?" Grace wondered.

"Do you really think I'd do that?" Rockford was affronted.

"In a heartbeat," Grace laughed.

Rockford was slightly abashed, "I'm not sure if I would've before the Argyn but I sure as hell would now."

"Just out of curiosity, what did you do with Commander P'ris while the rest of us frolicked and played?" Grace wanted to know.

"We showed her the sights. Jenrya kept tabs on her so we actually got to relax most of the time. I think little Miss Jenrya even put the moves on her once or twice," Rockford shared.

"That wouldn't surprise me," Grace chuckled, "According to Lees, P'ris swings both ways."

"Really?" Rockford was surprised, "That wasn't my impression."

"What was your impression?" Grace wondered.

"That she sees everything non-Romulan as a bug," Rockford stated.

"Everything except Brin, you mean," it was Grace's turn to smirk.

"Yes, I had noticed that," Rockford replied dryly.

"So, what're you going to do about it?" Grace was dying to know.

"Nothing," came Rockford's simple reply.

"Nothing?" Grace couldn't believe her ears.

"If I do anything, it'll just reinforce her fixation," Rockford explained, "But she'll grow out of being enamored if Brin doesn't respond."

"And if he does?" Grace pointedly asked.

Rockford frowned, "Then I kill him and space her."

"Amen to that, sister," Grace laughed.

The Breen had withdrawn when a dozen more Starfleet vessels arrived. The units assembled outside of Sector 001 and then entered as a squadron. There were one Himalaya-class heavy cruiser, two Venus-class light cruisers, two Tanganyika-class light cruisers, three Splendor-class destroyers, and two Pacifica-class light cruisers. The difficulty lay in the fact that all of these starships had been decommissioned over the last twenty years. They'd all been constructed between 2330-2350. Other classes pressed back into service included the Ambassador-class, the New Orleans-class, the Centaur-class, the Springfield-class, and the Niagara-class. Older runabouts such as the Mosquito-class had also been returned to active duty.

Starfleet's losses over the course of the Borg invasion and the Argyns' "litmus test" had necessitated the reactivation of mothballed ships. Personnel shortages and created a swelling need for enlisted crewmen with fewer officers. The bulk of Starfleet was now comprised of enlisted men and women. Experienced officers were in staggeringly short supply.

The bulk of the experienced crews were aboard the Sovereign-, Vespa-, and Luna-class explorers deployed on extraterritorial exploration. Most of the Luna-class ships were exploring the Beta Quadrant with the USS Titan, captained by Will Riker, leading the charge.

The Vespa-class ships were primarily deployed beyond the Bajoran wormhole in the Gamma Quadrant. Their slipstream drives made it easier for them to return to safer borders if recalled. Captain Ezri Dax and the crew of the USS Aventine were the leaders in that pursuit.

The vaunted flagship of the fleet, the USS Enterprise, was now commanded by Captain Data. Data's memory ingrams had surfaced within the framework of his older sibling B4 and he'd redesignated himself as Data upon his "awakening". The Enterprise was the leading edge of a squadron of Sovereign-class vessels that had journeyed beyond Cardassian territory and were delving deeply into the Alpha Quadrant.

The bulk of the Galaxy- and Nebula-class ships were assigned to short range exploration and defensive patrols. The chief examples of this were the USS Excalibur and the USS Trident patrolling Sector 221-G. Their siblings were spread across explored space working primarily as troubleshooters.

The Saber- and Steamrunner-class vessels were primarily assigned to border patrols. Interior patrols were carried out by starship belonging to the Akira-, Defiant-, Challenger-, Cheyenne-, and Freedom-classes. Yeager-class starships patrolled individual sectors backed by the reinstated older ships.

When it came to individual commands, the USS Hood was currently operating in support of Deep Space 3. The Defiant patrolled the Bajoran sector while the Monitor and the Merrimack were up to their usual skullduggery. The Intrepid had reported to Andoria.

The only ship that seemed to have fallen off of the grid was the Voyager. During the Borg crisis, a new race had been inadvertently contacted. The self proclaimed "Children of the Storm" had successfully beaten back centuries' worth of Borg incursions. These "Children" resided in the Delta Quadrant.

A small group of three starships had been sent to contact the Children and potentially sway them into an alliance with the Federation. Those three ships had fallen silent on the advent of contacting the Children and hadn't been heard from since. Voyager was being sent in on a potential rescue operation.

It was felt that Captain Chakotay's experience in the Delta quadrant would grant him some understanding into the Children's mindset and the imperatives that drove it. While only his XO, Commander Tom Paris, and his 2nd Officer, Lt. Commander Harry Kim, were from the fabled "lost" crew that still meant the majority of the Senior Officers had the necessary experience and adapted skills at dealing the Delta Quadrant species. Added to their knowledge this time however were Macen's exploration logs when he'd been an A & A Officer with the El-Aurian Expeditionary Forces. These logs not only covered species that Voyager had directly encountered but also over two hundred more that they'd never approached.

All of this meant that the Obsidian's path was unimpeded when she departed Spacedock. Still, she was escorted by the Splendor-class USS Tsunami. The destroyer accompanied the surveyor to the Bajoran sector. Ro and the Defiant traversed the sector. When they reached the accompanying sector, an Outbound Ventures ship intercepted them and took up escort duties while the Defiant returned to her patrol of the sector.

The Shogun-class SS Spearhead took up her duties without complaint. Her crew had just completed a contract that required them ward of pirates near the Aelyn system. The Spearhead had tracked down and destroyed the pirates' lair and crippled three pirate craft. They'd been collected by the Aelynee security forces. Unfortunately, two of the pirates had escaped.

The Spearhead stayed on station for two weeks but the Aelynee government tired of paying Outbound Ventures when there was no imminent threat. The light cruiser had withdrawn, much to the relief of the crew, and returned to Serenity. There they found the station in the midst of repairing itself and the USS Burnett keeping close tabs on the solar system.

Outbound Ventures had recently spent latinum and gift credits to acquire several ships. They were all decommissioned Starfleet vessels built between 2307-2330. There was the Spearhead. And then there was the Lancelot-class SS Guinevere and the Sirius-class SS Dog Star. All of these ships were light cruisers and were rated for crews between 180-292. Excluding the scientific specialists brought those numbers down to 120-200. This had required a massive hiring drive to meet the necessary numbers.

Two more ships were also acquired. The Andor-class transport SS Lug Nut joined the corporate fleet as did the Newton-class research vessel SS Copernicus. The Lug Nut often pulled convoy duty and additionally carried valued cargo as well. The Copernicus acted as a mobile sensor platform and scientific support ship. When another Outbound Ventures unit needed their specialized skills they were dispatched to the scene. Both starships were minimally armed and didn't even boast photon launchers.

Unlike the Obsidian which had been overhauled by the SPYards in order to exceed its original design specification maximum speed of Warp 8, the Spearhead still maxed out at the design limited Warp 7.5. Initially intended as an exploration vessel, it utilized components from the Franklin- and Miranda-classes. Only four ships had been constructed post 2307 and the last one had only recently left Starfleet service as a member of the interior defenses. The other three ships had been acquired by rival security firms. Even the restructured Solarian Security Systems corporate entity had been allowed to purchase two.

The bulk of the Lancelot- and Sirius- class ships were mothballed but some also went into the ranks of security services. Solarian had acquired three of each. Meanwhile all of the decommissioned Andor-class transports entered civilian service. Most were taken by shipping concerns for dealing with especially valuable cargo. Most of the retired Newton-class ships had their sensor platforms gutted out of them and were redesignated as transports. Some scientific foundations used intact examples to replace their venerable Oberth-class ships if they couldn't rate a modern Nova-class surveyor.

Jonathan Pryce, the CO of the Spearhead, commed Riker. Riker took the signal in his Ready Room, much to the chagrin of Forger. Pryce's image filled Riker's screen and he knew the other man was situated in his personal cabin. Starfleet vessels from the turn of the century didn't boast amenities like Ready Rooms. Pryce seemed amused by something so Riker asked what it was.

Pryce waved it away, "I was just remembering when you commanded the Indomitable. You were pretty shaken up from the loss of the George Kelly but you were chewing deuterium to get the Indie into action."

"And this is amusing because...?" Riker knew this had to be going somewhere.

"We, that is the rest of the Outbound Ventures captains and I, always felt your true place was on the Obsidian. It was good of Macen to finally step aside," Pryce explained, "That man is a singular menace when he's in command of a starship."

Riker shared Pryce's amusement, "I'm not going to disagree."

"Where is Brin? Is he still aboard?" Pryce asked. There seemed to be something on his mind.

"Of course he is," Riker said good naturedly, wondering where the pitfall lay, "We're just laying into port for a couple of days before setting out on a new mission. We have a rather interesting contract to fulfill."

"I suppose he's babysitting her while you return to port?" Pryce asked

Aha, Riker thought but he decided to play dumb, "To whom would you be referring?"

"That Romulan," Pryce nearly spat, "I talked to Zyrain. I know the whole story. Macen risked the lives of everyone on this station and your crew for some Tal Shiar bitch."

"That 'Tal Shiar bitch' provided Starfleet with vital information that will prevent a war and possibly tear the Typhon Pact apart," Riker replied in steely tones, "Millions of lives may be owed to her and now she's branded as traitor and a wanted criminal by her own people because of it. You may want to judge less and thank her more."

Pryce's face lost all its color, "I didn't... I mean, how were we to know?"

"You weren't supposed to," Riker answered, "The information is so classified most of us don't know it."

"Do you?" Pryce wondered.

"Brin decided I needed to know since her presence might affect the safety of the ship and crew. P'ris shared some information with me and all I can tell you is it's a damned good thing she defected," Riker shared.

"You call her 'P'ris"?" Pryce wondered.

"It's her name," Riker said drolly, "Besides it's not like she's a Commander in the Tal Shiar anymore."

"But the way you said it, it's like you expect her to be around for awhile," Pryce observed.

Riker's expression turned rueful, "Brin signed a contract with her for her own protection. As long as she's in danger we have to protect her. The problem is, she's in permanent danger until the Empress pardons her or there's a change of government that decided to do the same."

"But why does that affect you?" Pryce wanted to know.

Riker took a deep breath and plunged on in, "Because Brin's making her pay for the privilege. In order for her to afford our services she has to work them off. In lieu of giving her a meaningless desk job, where we wouldn't be able to protect her anyway, he's put her on the SID team where her experience can count."

"He's put her on the team? He's willing to trust a Romulan when the company's captains don't even know what the hell you people get up to?" Pryce fumed.

"She already knew," Riker dryly commented.

"I'm going to have to meet this Romulan and tell her what I think of her," Pryce snapped.

"I wouldn't if I were you," Riker advised, "She's liable to take your head off."

"We'll just see about that," Pryce cut the connection and left Riker grinning.

Yes, we will, he mused.


Chapter Five

The Captains and First Officers of the corporate "fleet" gathered in the briefing room dedicated to the Obsidian's crew aboard Serenity. Pryce was there along with his XO, Felicia Kendel. Also present were the Guinevere's Captain and XO, Jennifer Gardner and Anastasia Slutskaya respectively. Captain Anyer Forgoen and Jarro Wen represented the Dog Star while Captain Bek vac Fok and Krysta were on hand for the Lug Nut. Rounding out the crews were Captain Marta Haggit and her XO, Deidre Wash. An unexpected, but equally concerned, guest was Station Administrator Ephrim Zyrain.

Macen faced them all down. Rockford sat next to him in order to provide moral support and her own expert opinion on P'ris. Her evaluation would be highly regarded because of her experience establishing the Rockford Agency as a premier private investigation firm. Riker and Forger represented the Obsidian and would speak for the ship's crew rather than the SID team.

At the epicenter of the attention was P'ris herself. Macen felt it was only fair that she get to face her accusers. Although he could effectively pull rank and try and force her presence down their throats he knew it was far more effective, and reasonable, to allow P'ris to plead her case and sell her own solution. P'ris knew the stakes involved yet she seemed unperturbed. She'd had previous dealings with the Reunification Movement, perhaps she'd learned something from them?

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is P'ris. She's an expatriate from the Romulan Star Empire and a former Commander in the Tal Shiar," Macen announced. There was a lot of stirring and accusatory glares sent his way upon this revelation, "P'ris has been assigned quarters aboard both Serenity and the Obsidian. I've made her a member of my SID team and I expect you to treat her accordingly."

There were defiant stares at that request. Macen sighed, "Why don't you address your questions directly to her and get this over with?"

"Just who the hell do you think you are, lady?" Pryce fired the first salvo.

"I do believe I am all of the items that Commander Macen listed as well as the bearer of one other notable distinction," P'ris replied.

"And what is that?" Gardner wondered.

"Commander Macen has authorized me, on behalf of the SID, to share my account with you. This information is not to be disseminated," P'ris warned them. She then explained the Star Empire's overtures urging the Gorn Hegemony towards war and the Empire's plans to second the Gorn as a client race. She shared with items in her past, such as the abortive Rihannsu colonies, the prevention of the sale of trilithium devices, and her own efforts in defiance of the Praetor's wishes to save as many of her people as possible from the Hobus disaster.

"At first I saw Empress Donatra as a moderate, if not a progressive, but since the rise of Proconsul Sela the government has became increasingly polarized against the Federation. The Typhon Pact was intended to mitigate the need for saber rattling yet here we are, being even more intransigent than ever," P'ris described her situation, "The Star Empire and the Federation may never be allies but at least we can be respectful of one another's wishes and territories. I have witnessed the Federation's efforts in this area over the last fifteen years as marked by your standard stardates. The Empire has been aided and assisted by the Federation during the Reman coup and the Hobus incident. Countless billions of lives have been spared privation and death yet the Empress, who was witness to all of these events, turns her back on even an uneasy truce. This cannot stand."

"But why take such a drastic measure?" Slutskaya asked, "Are you that friendly towards the Federation?"

P'ris' lips twisted up in a wry expression, "Admittedly no."

Fok, letting his Tellarite cultural inclinations get the better of him, demanded to know why she'd bothered then. Krysta, his Orion XO, concurred. Forgoen, Gardner, and Pryce all jumped on that bandwagon to be swiftly followed by their First Officers. Finally, even Haggit and Wash joined in agreement with the others.

P'ris was decidedly amused, "You are all so blind."

That comment did nothing to endear her in their hearts and minds. Seeing their reluctance to move past their biases, she decided to encourage them, "You have all lived within the Federation for so long you do not see its seductive power."

All the little noises and whispered comments ceased so she pressed on, "Oh yes, the Federation is the ultimate seductress. Guaranteed rights, freedom of ideas, speech, and expression. The goal of peaceful exploration and eventual assimilation of other worlds through friendship and mutual respect, this is what my government fears. If the common people were to ever know the truth about you, they would wish to join you in your noble pursuit. This would threaten the power structure of the Empire, which is built on fear and repression. The Code of Orthodoxy would be repealed as it was discovered that each citizen could remain uniquely themselves and Romulan to the core while embracing our brothers and sisters amongst the stars."

"I did what have done for the good of my own people. We would demean and belittle ourselves with this course of action," P'ris let that statement sink in; "The side effect that this can also drawn our two nations closer together is a secondary benefit."

"You admit that you're a Romulan patriot yet you have no love for the Empress. How can you reconcile those facts?" Kendel inquired sharply.

"Do you always approve of your elected officials?" P'ris sparred with her, "I do not approve or disapprove of the Empress. I will state however that my people successfully did without a monarch for over a millennia so I do not fathom the need for one now."

"I will also baldly state that the Typhon Pact is doomed to failure, whether sooner or later, it will fracture and implode. We shall all be lucky if its various members do not end up in a state of war with one another. Such a war would inevitably draw in the Khitomer Accord nations and then chaos and havoc would win the day," P'ris predicted.

"I cannot allow this to happen," she boldly declared, "If you object to any part of this say so now for I am committed to my cause."

A hush fell over the room as they each pondered the full import of her words. Finally Jarro Wen broke the silence. The young Bajoran had been stigmatized back home for her kinsman's role in the Circle conspiracy. She'd left Bajor to seek her own destiny free of Bajoran society's prejudices.

"I think you should stay," she proclaimed.

Every eye turned in her direction and she swallowed hard, "I can completely relate with your motives and your reasoning. I agree that our peoples need to learn to look past our misperceptions of one another and learn to get along. You may be reviled back in the Star Empire today but I think you'll eventually be vindicated in the eyes of your people."

P'ris was touched and it showed, "Thank you...truly."

Haggit ushered the other officers out of the room. Before she herself stepped out she turned back and faced P'ris, "You'll have our response momentarily."

"Well, this has certainly been a day of surprises," P'ris bleakly remarked.

"Don't give up yet," Macen counseled.

"You've got Jarro Wen on your side and Captain Forgoen is no fool. He knows enough to trust her instincts," Rockford added.

"And the others?" P'ris ruefully asked.

"Anyer holds a lot of weight with Jonathan, Jennifer, Bek, and Marta," Macen revealed, "Like all of them he's ex-Starfleet. However, unlike the rest of them, he turned down a command to turn privateer."

P'ris' eyebrow arched and she wore a very droll, Oh, really? expression.

"Amanda and Christine helped me recruit the captains and crews that are now members of Outbound Ventures. We used to have more ships and crews but the Iotians took care of that at the behest of Solarian Security Systems," Macen explained.

"Word of your struggle against Solarian even reached our borders," P'ris shared, "Of course; the Fleet would have nothing to do with that information. They blindly insisted it was a dispute between rival corporations and left it at that."

"It was," Macen agreed with that summation, "But something was motivating Solarian and I do mean besides Ezexial."

"Was he not the Omicrons' advance scout?" P'ris asked.

"Yup," Macen confirmed her suspicion, "He promised them technology transfers in exchange for our destruction."

"Yet you feel that there was more to it," P'ris surmised.

"Solarian risked more than a slap on the wrist. They risked everything. Their entire livelihood came from Starfleet. Why bite the hand that feeds you by blatantly violating every law governing privateer operations and their Letters of Marque?" Macen inquired.

"I see your point," P'ris conceded, "The reward must be worth the risk. Enough to supplant Starfleet's employment if need be."

"Celeste has had her agency discreetly looking into it," Macen chose to reveal.

"And what have you found, Detective?" P'ris wondered.

"There wasn't a lot to go on but my people are tenacious," Rockford answered, "They've recently found a paper trail but it contains material way over their pay grade."

"Most unfortunate," P'ris offered insincere condolences.

"That's where you come in," Macen said with a mirthful grin.

"I come in where?" P'ris hoped her translator was having difficulties again and Macen wasn't suggesting what she was fairly certain he was implying.

"You're going to help Celeste track down the trail and find out where it ultimately leads," Macen's expression only grew more amused by the second.

"Will she take direction?" P'ris wanted to know.

"I don't think you're quite grasping the reality of the situation," Macen's grin was truly becoming insufferable she thought, "You're following her lead."

"What?!" P'ris indignantly exclaimed, "I am a Commander in the Tal Shiar not some congested rookie."

"I hate to be the one to break this to you, P'ris, but you aren't a Commander in anything anymore. You're not even a legal resident. The best appellation that can be applied to you is civilian. That is, of course, if you leave out the whole fugitive issue," Macen said gently.

Macen could see that P'ris had fire in her eyes and in her belly but she slowly reasoned it out. Comporting herself with as much dignity as she could, she addressed Rockford; "Very well, Detective, how shall we proceed?"

Rockford's grin was just as insufferable as Macen's, "Well, assuming you aren't tossed out an airlock in the near future, I thought we'd gather round at my office and I'd brief you on what we have so far."

"That is...agreeable," P'ris hated to give an inch but it was Rockford's due.

"Good, then we'll take you to your assigned quarters and then..." Rockford paused as the doors to the briefing room slid open. The starship commanders entered in. Haggit stood in the center of the crowd facing P'ris. It seemed she was the designated spokesperson.

"We discussed it and we've reached a consensus. Before I relay that to you, I think it's best you understand why we had to," Haggit stated, "Your presence here places our lives in jeopardy. Risk is something we live with everyday but usually we know the 'why' of it. You've shared the why, and in turn, implied how grave that risk is."

"In turn you've pretty much risked or given up everything to be here today," Haggit conceded, "Yours is the life in primary jeopardy. You sacrificed your career, your standing, and presumably your family to do our worlds a service. We, in turn, can do no less. We support your continuing presence and will place ourselves in harm's way in your defense."

P'ris was on the verge of being choked up, "I thank you."

Macen rose, "If that's all, we have to get P'ris to her new quarters and I have a several meetings to attend to."

"Where are you headed now?" Fok asked.

Macen grinned, "It's better that I don't tell you at this point."

There was a collective groan at that. The Outbound Ventures captain and XO's went their separate ways. Macen asked Riker to accompany him to their station-side office. Forger volunteered to help show P'ris to her quarters while Rockford gathered her files in her office and waited for P'ris to arrive.

Later in her quarters, the Romulan looked around and finally said, "It is so Cardassian."

Forger laughed, "Purportedly that's what T'Kir said upon seeing her new quarters."

A cloud passed over P'ris' face, "Does Commander Macen miss her?"

"Not as much as he used to," Forger confessed.

"Because of Detective Rockford?" P'ris wondered.

"There is that but I think it's more because of the fact that T'Kir is back to being alive," Forger revealed.

"Truly?" P'ris' eyes lit up.

"Yeah, it all had to do with a katra and something called a fal-tor-pan," Forger related, "Frankly I don't know what to believe."

"Yes, the Vulcan mystics are purported to be able to convey the essence of one being into another's body," P'ris stated, "Where is T'Kir then?"

Forger shrugged, "She's on Vulcan mastering the art of something called kohlinar."

Recognition lit up in P'ris' eyes, "Ah yes, the so-called art of purging all emotion."

"Anyway, Macen says she looks pretty happy. Hannah agrees with him so I guess everything is fine," Forger shared.

Amusement laced every one of P'ris' words, "Isn't happiness and emotion?"

Forger looked flummoxed, "Okay. So the exact word they used was 'serene'. Happy now?"

"Giddy," P'ris chuckled.

"So, are we getting the rest of your belongings now?" Forger wondered, "I mean, we stopped by your shuttle but that can't be everything."

"I am afraid that it is," P'ris admitted, "Running for one's life only allows you to gather pre-prepared items."

"Well, we'll have to change that," Forger declared, "There are some excellent shops on the Promenade. We'll hit a couple of clothiers on the way to Celeste's office. Sound good?"

"It seems I have little choice," P'ris wryly conceded.

"First things first," Forger decided, "We need to issue you a company uniform."

P'ris was shocked, "Really?"

Forger grinned, "Macen said you were a member of the team. The team wears the corporate uniform, at least it does now that we have a corporate uniform."

"I just assumed that I would be excluded," P'ris admitted.

"Honey, you're going to be a tempting target in that get up. Everyone will know who you are," Forger consoled her.

"Hmmm...I suppose you are correct," P'ris conceded.

"Stand here," Forger directed her. She activated the replicator. Requesting the desired pattern, she activated the replicator's sensor grid and P'ris' measurements were taken using the room's internal sensors. It then fabricated a jumpsuit, a mock turtleneck, underwear, boots, and a utility belt. P'ris began to change, first stripping out of her old attire, showering, and putting the new.

As she slid the underwear on, Forger grinned; "You're lucky. I have to customize mine. Same with my swimsuits.

"Yes, how do you account for your..." P'ris faltered and then she recovered, "You were born male were you not?"

"Back in the dark ages," Forger shared, "That was a literal lifetime ago. I barely remember those days."

"But how do you accommodate your genitalia?" P'ris wondered.

"Through stuffed panels to make the area flatten out and seem proportional," Forger explained, "Don't you have T-Gurls in the Star Empire?"

"There...are a few," P'ris said cautiously.

"So what happens to them?" Forger wanted to know.

Although P'ris had expected the question, she dreaded the answer just the same; "If they are discovered they are imprisoned...or worse. In prison they are forced to assume the sex they were born into and no accommodations are made for them. They generally die from sexual abuse from the other prisoners."

Forger was appalled, "That's barbaric!" Forger struggled with her outrage for a moment and then a decidedly nasty thought crept into her consciousness, "Have you ever rounded up any transsexuals and sentenced them to that?"

"No," P'ris assured her, "But then I had a personal motive. My elder sister was once my brother. I established new identities for her and several of her friends on a colony world. No one ever reported them so it is best assumed that she is all right."

"Why haven't you ever visited her so you'd know for yourself?" Forger coldly asked.

P'ris sighed, "It would only draw attention to her."

Seeing Forger didn't understand, P'ris elaborated; "My contacts and visitations were carefully monitored. If I visited a strange woman on an outer colony without provocation they would investigate her and her secret might come out."

"They spied on you?" Forger was stunned; "I thought it was your job to spy on everyone else."

"It was," P'ris shared, "All the members of the Tal Shiar place each other under surveillance. It ensures loyalty.

"No wonder the Tal Shiar is comprised of paranoid bastards," Forger cracked and then she blanched, "Sorry.

"Have no fears, I am not offended. Quite the contrary, I quite agree with you," P'ris said.

Something finally clicked with Forger, "You seemed awfully interested in T'Kir's whereabouts. Was that idle curiosity or is there something behind that?"

P'ris wore a rueful smile, "It is a matter for another day."

"P'ris, we're not leaving until I get an answer," Forger warned.

That amused P'ris, "I even believe you would put up a fair fight. Very well, did you know T'Kir is a member of the Noble Families of Romulus?"

"I thought she was Vulcan," Forger countered.

"She is but her stepfather was a Romulan. A highly placed Romulan directly descended from the Imperial line. When he adopted T'Kir, he made her his heir in Romulan eyes as well as Vulcan," P'ris explained.

"Oh. My. God. You want to put T'Kir on the throne!" Forger suddenly grasp the gist of it.

P'ris shushed her, "Shhh. This is a conversation for another day. Promise me you will not speak of it with anyone else."

"Not even during pillow talk?" Forger squirmed.

"No one, especially not Macen," P'ris requested.

"Fine I won't tell anyone. Not even Eric or Macen," Forger agreed.

Amusement tickled P'ris, "Why do you refer to your fellow officers by their given names except for Commander Macen? I though you and he held the same shipboard rank?"

Forger look discomfited, "Commander Macen outranked me in Starfleet and he was my Captain before Captain Riker took over. And he is the Mission Commander so even Captain Riker answers to him in that capacity."

Seeing P'ris' droll expression, Forger huffed, "It just seems wrong to call him by his given name."

"In that we are agreed," P'ris reassured her, "Now, we have very little time before my meeting with Detective Rockford and you were saying something about clothiers?"

"Right! Follow me!" Forger led her out, "After you're done with Celeste, you can have Radil issue your equipment."

P'ris' lips twisted into a wry grimace so Forger asked, "What? Does this have something to do with Radil?"

"Your Radil has made several suggestive offers to me since I came aboard the Obsidian and during out time on Earth," P'ris divulged.

"Yeah, but she's aboard Serenity now so that won't happen," Forger assured her.

P'ris' words were laced with dry humor, "And what difference does the location bring?"

"Her husband is stationed on Serenity," Forger shared.

"Elements! She's married?" P'ris didn't believe it.

"Well, they have an understanding," Forger tried to explain without going into detail.

"What kind of understanding?" P'ris grated.

Forger sighed, "She can sleep with any woman she wants to but he's to be the only man for her."

"And what kind of emasculated simpleton agrees to such terms?" P'ris was truly disturbed by this.

"Actually, you've met him. He's the station CMO," Forger shared.

"The Klingon?!" P'ris stopped abruptly as she let loose of that outburst. They'd exited the crossover bridge and were now on the Promenade. Several other pedestrians turned at the sudden noise and seemed amused by the flummoxed Romulan.

"Keep it down, will ya?" Forger hissed, "Kort's not your average Klingon. He thinks with something other than his mishveks."

"He doesn't think with them at all," P'ris hotly declared.

Forger dragged P'ris into the closest clothing store, "They're happy with the arrangements. If you have a problem with it or the attention you're receiving I suggest you take it up with Radil personally. Understood?"

Forger realized she'd used her "command" voice and demeanor. P'ris actually seemed relieved by this.

"Yes, Commander. I shall heed your advice." P'ris assured her.

"Good, now let's look at their catalog," Forger suggested.

P'ris readily agreed.


Chapter Six

Forger took P'ris to the Rockford Agency's station-side office. It had transformed into the hub office when Rockford herself moved from Laos IV to Serenity. Since the various agencies were now reporting the Outbound Ventures it made sense to move their support staff as well. Only two other investigators of the roughly two dozen detectives employed by the Rockford Agency worked out of the Serenity office. However, next to Rockford herself, they were the best.

Her two detectives had put countless billing hours into researching the Solarian document trail before they unearthed the elusive link to their mysterious backers. Those two agents were greatly relieved to hand off the case to their boss.

One of the office's aides intercepted P'ris and Forger. Forger explained the scenario and the aide was relieved. She was beginning to think the former security services agent was going to run a little late. Forger wished P'ris well and the Romulan glanced back with a rueful smile.

Now comes the true litmus test, Forger thought as she headed for Quark's. Everyone had noticed the tension P'ris felt around Rockford. No one was entirely certain as to why, except for the possible exception of Hannah Grace, but Forger felt as though Macen had thrown P'ris to the wolves in a case of sink or learn to tread water.

Inside Rockford's inner office, P'ris took a moment to gaze around. When she'd finished her assessment she noticed that Rockford was observing her carefully. She looked rather bemused.

"Am I a source of amusement, Detective?" P'ris had to ask.

"Not really. I'm just waiting to see how long you'll dangle before you ask me to throw you a life line," Rockford confessed, "I have a feeling we could be here for a long time before that happens so I'm going to save us a little time." Rockford's eyes bored into P'ris' with a rather unnerving intensity, "I'm not out to get you. I'm not even going to run interference between you and Brin despite your obvious fixation on him." She held up a hand to ward off a futile protest, "Face facts, Commander. You are fixated. It's perfectly reasonable even. Brin is literally the only person you know and trust within the Federation."

Rockford's gaze intensified, "I'd like to offer you a hand, if not in friendship then in camaraderie. Our lives are going to depend upon one another and I want you to know that yours rests comfortably with me."

"Yet you say nothing of yours resting with me," P'ris noted.

"To be fair, I don't know you well enough to trust you with my life," Rockford admitted, "And before you use that argument with me. You know Brin and you know the esteem he holds me in. Would he lightly place his faith in anyone?"

"No," P'ris conceded.

"And in perspective, he places a measure of trust in you. Which is why I'm willing to sacrifice my safety for you," Rockford shared.

"It seems we have an accord then," P'ris realized.

Rockford was pleased, "Then take a seat at the secondary desk. I've already punched up the necessary files and highlighted which ones I want you to explore."

"Do you always have an auxiliary station in your offices, Detective?" P'ris wondered.

"It saves time when you're working with someone if you can converse with them directly while you network a united front against the problem," Rockford shared, "And it's Celeste."

A slight smile tugged at P'ris' lips, "Very well, Celeste. I shall get started."

"Will you have any difficulties with Federation databases?" Rockford asked.

"No, I am quite comfortable with them," P'ris confessed as she sat down too work.

"I just bet you are," Rockford murmured to herself. She missed P'ris' smile at the comment.

Leera's image filled Macen's viewer. Riker was eavesdropping by piggybacking the signal, seeing but unseen. Orions were known for their strikingly beautiful women. Parva could literally take your breath away and the Lug Nut's XO, Krysta, was not ugly by any stretch of the imagination. Leera beat them both, hands down. She had a beauty rivaling a Tzenkethi female's.

The Tzenkethi were all ethereal and soft curves and Leera was also graced with supple lines and gentle curves. She'd made her way to the pinnacle of the Orion Syndicate only to be superseded by Robhurt B'nner's rebellious act of appointing Bertram Sindis his heir. Sindis had proven immune to her pheromone laced charms and Leera had been left out in the cold.

Sindis' death provided a window of opportunity and Leera took overt control of the Syndicate. Possessing no proxy with whom to maneuver, she steered the Syndicate's interest openly. This generated great unrest amongst the Syndicate's dons. While they appreciated the Syndicate being returned to control of an Orion, they balked at a female flaunting herself for the entire Quadrant to see.

Only Jonathan Archer had ever been confronted with the truth behind the Syndicate's power structure and those findings had long since been buried through discreet bribes which afforded the Syndicate's purges of the official records. During the Vanguard mission, an Orion trader habitually docked at Starbase 47. The truth behind its Orion master and his mistress was suspected but it was never confirmed.

Leera needed to solidify her position and she needed to do so immediately before the traditionalist faction toppled her. She had no desire for a proxy. Slaves, certainly, but no one to stand in her place. She would take what she wanted when she wanted it and the consequences be damned.

When Leera ousted her rival for the Syndicate's throne, Enrick Gaston, returned to the Meirkus Conglomeration and tightened his hold on Mityr and left The Orion Confederacy to Leera. This wasn't to say that they didn't compete. The Conglomeration's agents began to crop up everywhere within the Syndicate's traditional markets. The grumblers within the Syndicate immediately took issue with Leera and she in turn gathered her most trusted lieutenants.

The Andorian, Shar, offered the current operational plan. The Orion forces and free traders would gather outside of Conglomerate space and then stage an invasion. While there was widespread support for such an option, there was one caveat. Shar's plan called for hiring Outbound Ventures. More the point, it specifically called for hiring Brin Macen and the crew of the Obsidian.

Many quailed at this requirement. Shar argued that Macen and his team had successfully penetrated the Citadel complex that Gaston operated out of. That experience would prove invaluable since Gaston was to be taken alive and bartered for certain concessions and an infusion of latinum.

"So, you've decided to accept my offer," Leera exuded charm and sensuality. The word "offer" was loaded with innuendo.

"I'll be happy to accept in exchange for the terms agreed upon," Macen countered.

Leera pouted, "Yes, it will be done."

"What will be done?" Macen wanted to be certain they were agreeing upon the same terms.

"In exchange for your help the Syndicate will suspend and halt all agent provocateur agreements with the Typhon Pact. We will no longer act as their proxy within Federation space," she recited.

"I believe the agreement stood for all the Khitomer Accords nations," Macen reminded her.

"Yes, very well," Leera sulked. It wasn't getting her anywhere so she stopped, "The terms are agreed upon in the contract we sent for your review. Have you imprinted it and transmitted it back?"

"Just now while we were verifying the agreement," Macen informed her.

"You mean while you were verifying the terms of the agreement. I already knew I was telling the truth," Leera huffed.

"So you did," Macen allowed, "When do you want us on station?"

"In three days time," Leera decided, "Our forces are already gathering and should be fully assembled by then."

"We'll be there," Macen promised. He cut the transmission and turned to Riker, "Well Tom, that only gives us a few more hours in port.

Riker sighed as he rose from his desk, "I'll tell Bryce to begin the recall. I'll inform Shannon personally. She's going to hate your guts for a while."

Macen was surprised, "Really?"

"She and McMasters have a special evening planned," Riker informed him.

"They still can aboard the Obsidian," Macen replied.

"Apparently not this special," Riker retorted.

"Just get her going. Blame it all on me," Macen insisted.

"Oh, I plan to," Riker chuckled.

Macen decided to personally inform Rockford that the hammer had fallen and it was time to work with the Syndicate. Her mixed memories were filled with recollections of working for the Syndicate. In fact, she'd been the one to convince him to accept Leera's contract.

Rockford saw the inevitability behind the rise of organizations like the Syndicate and sought to curb it rather than eliminate it. If the Syndicate were eliminated a new, potentially fiercer organization, would arise to take its place. Perhaps it would be the Meirkus Conglomeration; perhaps it would be one of the Syndicate's lesser competitors that littered the stars.

With the Syndicate partially tamed it would become predictable in its larceny and illicit offerings. Gone would be the covert operations on the Typhon Pact's behalf. It would be fully committed to criminal activities and once again leave politics to purview of stellar nations.

Macen tapped hit the shield-like comm badge affixed to his belt. Privateers, private investigators, and security agents were issued police-like badges that doubled as comm badges. All of the SID team and the crew wore them. The only true distinction between the team and the crew, besides duties, was the fact the team was habitually armed.

Riker and Danan shared membership in both the team and the crew and therefore neglected to wear their holsters and utility belts. Danan would retrieve hers if she was called to a planet or ship-side assignment. But otherwise she never wore it aboard the Obsidian.

"Macen to Rockford," Macen said for the computer's benefit.

"Rockford here," she said a moment later.

"How's it going?" Macen inquired.

"Do I have news for you," Rockford's voice was laced with anticipation.

"So I take it P'ris is working out?" he asked.

"I feel a helluva a lot safer with her on our side than having her loose with the Tal Shiar," Rockford admitted.

"I'll keep that in mind," Macen dryly noted.

"Is there a reason you're bugging me?" Rockford asked.

"It's time to pack up. We're headed out," Macen warned her.

"Right," she said skeptically.

"Hey, this was your plan, Macen reminded her.

"I know, I know," she defensively replied, "I just hate to give up while we're on a roll."

"You don't have to give up. You'll just be relocating to the Infosys Center," Macen encouraged her.

"So, we're giving P'ris the empty desk?" she asked hopefully.

"That's the plan," he affirmed it.

"I love it when you think like me," Rockford teased.

"Just get ready and make sure P'ris makes it to the right airlock on time," Macen urged.

"I don't know. Which pylon are we docked at again?" Rockford facetiously asked.

"Trust me; you'll get yours," he playfully threatened, "Now scoot. I'll see you there."

"You never got our bags out of the ship, did you?" she inquired wryly.

"Pays to plan ahead," he remarked.

"We'll see who gets what once we're aboard," Rockford played along.

"Oho! A challenge," he quipped.

"Or a promise," she said suggestively.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens then. Later," he signed off and gave Fanning some final instructions. After that, he headed for Upper Pylon 1.

Rockford met him in their quarters and pounced on him, "C'mere you!"

She playfully growled as she wrestled him to the ground. Her training as an Augment made her even more skilled than Macen in hand to hand techniques even though he'd been mentored by Daggit. He fought back but he knew it was a lost cause even as she finally landed him on his back.

"Now you're mine to toy with," she declared haughtily.

"What if I don't want to be toyed with?" he defiantly asked.

She draped herself over him and leaned into his ear and whispered, "You're my love slave, remember? You won't want to resist."

Macen wasn't surprised to discover she was right.

They were retrieving their clothes from all across the living room, bedroom, and bathroom when the door chimed. Macen had on a pair of boxer underwear and was slipping on his uniform shirt while Rockford was just sliding on her panties.

"I'll get it," he grinned.

"Just close the damn door on your way out," she insisted.

Macen ordered the door to open to reveal Kalista and P'ris waiting outside. Kalista wore a knowing grin, "I told her to give you two at least an hour but here we are."

"It's all right, Kally. Have you given her the tour?" he inquired.

"Everywhere but the bridge, engineering, and the security office," she reported.

"Any particular reasons why behind those exclusions?" he wondered.

"Well, the official line is that they're too busy to entertain guests right now but the plain truth is they just don't want her in those particular fiefdoms. Jenrya was a little more honest when she simply declared, 'Oh hell, no!'"

Macen scowled, "I should have expected this. I'll take care of it."

P'ris intervened, "Please Commander, do not trouble them. I must earn their trust as I have earned yours."

Even though Macen asked if she was certain, she could tell he was pleased with the sentiment. He asked the two ladies in. Kalista was still very amused. She wasn't used to seeing Macen in his underthings. He was still sans socks and boots besides not having his uniform jumpsuit on. The bedroom door opened and Rockford stepped out completely clothed and uniform. However her hair was a tousled mess.

"Okay, it's your turn," she advised Macen. He retreated into the bedroom as Rockford began greeting the other two women.

"It seems you two had a bit of fun," Kalista happily observed.

"What makes you say that?" Rockford asked innocently.

"Do you normally hang your underwear off of the arm of the couch?" Kalista observed.

Rockford took a step over to the piece of furniture and snatched up her errant underthings, "If the moment serves."

P'ris decided to take the high road, "Did you have an opportunity to present our findings to Commander Macen?"

Rockford's eyes twinkled merrily, "I presented him with a lot of things but that certainly wasn't one of them."

P'ris' cheeks rewarded Rockford by burning a bright emerald.

Macen emerged from the bedroom, "Shall we be going?"

Rockford smirked, "I need a minute or two to get a little more presentable."

"Scoot," he urged.

A few minutes later she returned with her hair in a sloppy up do. It didn't take much imagination to wonder how her hair had gotten so tousled. Rockford didn't care. She figured everyone deserved a bed head moment now and then.

Later, in the Infosys Center, P'ris was reunited with Grace. Knowing of Grace's creation of a phasing field that saved the Obsidian from renegade Warbirds, P'ris was curious as to how the pilot had accomplished that. Upon learning of Grace's Kelvan origins, the pieces began to fall together. Grace explained that her people had stripped her attuner from her but she'd developed "a few tricks since then."

At first P'ris was slightly apprehensive about having Grace present for the briefing. After all, her skills as a pilot were renowned but did she have a head for intelligence work and tradecraft? At a nod from Macen, Grace shared her story. Sent amongst humans as a spy infiltrating Starfleet, her obvious talents attracted the attention of Section 31 who recruited her as an agent with the same goals and agendas that she secretly had as an operative of the Kelvan Concordant.

P'ris relented at this obvious display of resources and talent. She saw Grace in a whole new light and that light slightly frightened her. Signaling Rockford to begin, she waited while the Angosian presented the bulk of their investigative findings.

"The funds transfers that led to the Solarian attack on Outbound Ventures derived from the 1st Bank of Ferenginar. I called in a favor to determine where the trail went next. It went from Ferenginar to Anodis, from Anodis to Croav, and so on and so forth until it landed smack dab in the middle of Mityr and ended there," Rockford reported, "That places the blame squarely in Bertram Sindis' lap. He'd been in place as ruler of Mityr and the leader of the Meirkus Conglomeration for roughly a year when the funds transfer began to flow."

"How can you be sure the funds targeted us?" Macen wanted to certain.

"All of the funds transfers were earmarked with the code phrase 'Immolation'. That's the same internal code name Solarian used for the operation," Rockford explained.

"So Sindis brainstormed this 'Immolation' and Ezexial just jumped aboard," Macen summarized.

"That's what it looks like at this time," Rockford stated, "However, thanks to my esteemed colleague we were able to go further."

Macen turned to P'ris, "You found something?"

"The Star Empire and the Tal Shiar share certain...relations with the Meirkus Conglomeration," P'ris shared, "Utilizing the backdoors built into that relationship, I was able to determine that project 'Immolation was only the beginning of a large scale plan."

"I hate to ask this but what was the plan?" Macen cringed.

"Sindis used the Conglomeration to scout out worlds to annex and others that would be amenable to his cause," P'ris revealed.

"And what was his cause?" Macen wondered, "He'd professed a desire to expand the Conglomeration's political clout but he didn't have the resources to do so beyond accepting volunteers willing to side with him."

"He was going annex worlds by force," P'ris declared, "They would be annexed under the aegis of the Iridian Enforcers and Sindis would serve as the territorial governor. This plan is still in effect."

Macen was puzzled but then he swiftly realized the why of it, "Because Enrick Gaston is stepping into his shoes."

"Yes, the Lantillians are a client race to the Iridians. Gaston was Sindis' lieutenant so he is being allowed to proceed with the Conglomeration's part of the operation but only the Conglomeration's part," P'ris described the machinations.

"That's got to sting," Macen mused.

"P'ris and I uncovered a wealth of contingency plans Gaston has prepared for the big day. The first order of business is seizing the Iridian appointed governor and setting him up as a proxy while he plays the Gray Cardinal in the shadows," Rockford added.

"So, it seems that leaving Gaston in place will throw a curve in the Iridians' plans while removing him will just speed up their designs," Macen surmised.

"Got it in one, Boss," Rockford quipped, "So now the question is: what do we do about it?"

"Unfortunately, we already have a contract in place that spells out our part in the affair," Macen said in resignation.

"We could always break the deal," Grace suggested.

Both Macen and Rockford gave her scathing looks. P'ris was rather bemused. Grace looked around, "What did I say?"

"In case you forgot a little speech I gave one time, we signed a contract so we have a job. We do the job regardless of cost. Period," Macen asserted.

"The Tal Shiar is not so rigid. We move with the circumstances and we adapt our strategies accordingly," P'ris said smugly.

"We aren't the Tal Shiar and we aren't Starfleet. If we were we never would have taken this job," Macen lectured her, "And since we're neither, all we have to promote ourselves with is our code of honor and our reputation. Both will take a severe hit if we back out now."

"If you say so," P'ris relented but there was plenty of fight left in her.

"So what do we do?" Grace wondered.

"We do the job but before we do, I have a little chat with Admiral Forger and forward these findings to her. They are in the computer?" Macen asked.

"Of course," Rockford said smugly.

"I'm going to use the holo imager so you and P'ris stand by to answer Amanda's questions," Macen instructed.

"What a thrill," Rockford groused.

Macen didn't chastise her. Unlike Nechayev, Forger had come to accept Rockford's presence on the team, especially now that she'd won the Medal of Freedom. Saving known civilization had a way of winning friends and influencing people. It had even softened Nechayev's rather bellicose manner.

Although, it did seem as though there was always one teammate that the SID wanted to get rid of. First it had been T'Kir. Radil had filled that role next. Joachim Dracas took over from there and Rockford had been his successor. Now P'ris got all the love, or lack thereof.

Every one of Macen's "strays" had redeemed themselves in the eyes of the SID and Starfleet Intelligence so it was only a matter of time before P'ris won accolades. They just had to keep her alive until then.


Chapter Seven

Forger listened to Rockford and P'ris report their findings. When all was said and done her image was rotated so that it faced Macen. She was understandably livid.

"Dammit Brin! This is why you were originally restricted from taking private contracts," She lashed out, "My God! The Orion Syndicate? How could you stoop so low?"

"Listen to what's on the table," Macen urged. He explained Leera's agreed upon 'payment'. That cooled Forger down somewhat.

"Interesting. Most of the Typhon Pact's covert operations inside of Federation space are accomplished through the Syndicate," her gaze was sharp as she asked Macen, "Will she live up to her bargain?"

"There's a contingency in place. If she reneges, she loses her position and she probably won't survive that," Macen informed her, "Her opponents will hold her to the deal just to make her life miserable."

Forger mulled it over, "It is true that you're a private operator. That's why we made you an independent, so we'd have plausible deniability."

"So does this mean you approve?" Macen wore an amused expression.

"Let's just say I won't object," Forger countered.

"So does this mean I'll get paid?" Macen inquired.

"What are you? A Ferengi?" Forger retorted.

"Hey, the only thing I'm getting out of this is Leera's agreement to suspend Typhon Pact deals," Macen duly informed her, "Everything else is out of pocket."

"Brin, you know I can't sanction this, even unofficially," Forger lamented.

Macen quirked an eyebrow and wore a bemused expression.

Forger relented, "All right, damn you. I'll see if I can free up some discretionary funds. But this had better not bite me in the end. Got it?"

Macen grinned, "Clear as crystal."

"What a comfort," Forger quipped.

"Stop it or I'll have Eric spank your sister," Macen teased.

"Hah! She'd enjoy it," Forger rebuffed the idea.

Macen smirked, "That's why I suggested it."

"Fine," Forger sulked, "Just be careful and don't tell me what else those two get up to."

Her image disappeared and P'ris asked, "Why would Admiral Forger not want to hear what her sister is up to?"

"Amanda is a bit of a prude," Macen explained.

"How so?" P'ris inquired.

"Well, while we were on Earth Shannon introduced Eric to her sister and she asked him how he was enjoying his time with Shannon. Eric replied that no one had ever 69'd until they 69'd a T-Gurl," Rockford explained.

This only added to P'ris' confusion, "69?"

Rockford chuckled and explained the basics to her. Then she elaborated with the physiological adaptations required for a pre-op transsexual woman. P'ris was rather wide-eyed.

"Oh my," she said, "Have you ever done this?"

Rockford grinned naughtily, "Well, not with a T-Gurl."

P'ris' eyebrows shot up, "Yes, but are you a transsexual?"

"Now that would be telling," Rockford replied mirthfully.

P'ris desperately looked to Macen. He was nearly beside himself with appreciative humor. He did, however, grant her a boon and shook his head 'no.'

P'ris gave Rockford a smug look and the Angosian turned to Macen, "I had her going and you ruined it. That's coming out of your hide, mister."

"Promises, promises," He said blithely.

"You'll think 'promises'," she warned, "You'll have to work it like a new boy should."

"I see you've been sampling Eric's collection of 20th Century musicians again," Macen mused.

"You know that one?" Rockford was amazed.

"ZZ Top is one of his favorite bands. He listened to them constantly while in the Maquis," Macen shared.

"Do you like them?" she wondered.

He shrugged, "I like a couple of their songs. I much prefer his collections of Evanescence, Delain, and Leaves Eyes. Of course, my favorites from the 20th and 21st Centuries were Sarah McLachlan, Delirium, Dido, Anna Nalick, and Tara Maclean. Kelly Clarkson wasn't bad either."

"Don't you think for a moment that I haven't noticed every one of those artists is a woman or a band fronted by a woman," Rockford advised.

Macen grinned, "So I'm biased. So what?"

Rockford rolled her eyes, "Oh please."

"I really hate to interrupt," Grace said with a tone that indicated she wasn't, "but we need to decide on what we're going to do about Gaston."

"We bag him and hand him over to the Syndicate," Macen said with a tone of finality.

"But..." Grace began to protest.

Macen cut her off, "Hannah, we made a deal."

"But what about the Enforcers?" she managed to get out.

"The Conglomeration is surrounded by non-aligned worlds," Macen reminded her, "Unless they formally petition the Federation for military assistance there isn't anything Starfleet can do."

"But what about us?" Grace asked.

"Hannah, we're one ship and a surveyor at that," Macen squashed her idea, "This ship is made for in depth scanning of sectors of space and planets not combat."

"You certainly sent her into combat often enough when you were in command," Grace hotly retorted.

"Then it's a good thing I'm not in command anymore," Macen flashed back.

"There's gotta be something we can do," Grace plaintively insisted.

"There is," Macen's stance softened, "We can contact the governments bordering the Conglomeration and warn them."

"Now you're talking," Grace enthused.

Macen looked pained, "They'll probably ignore us."

"That's fine," Grace said dismissively, "As long as we try."

Macen and Rockford exchanged a wry glance before Macen spoke, "Okay, we'll divide our efforts into four astrographical delineations. Lees can divvy up the sections."

There was a general nodding of heads. Even P'ris felt compelled to assist. Unfortunately, as Macen warned, it was too little too late.

"Idiot!" Grace signed off from her last conversation with a planetary official.

"Problems?" Rockford mirthfully asked.

"What's wrong with these people?" Grace exclaimed, "We show them the proof of the invasion plan and they breezily dismiss it."

"The reading I got is they figure they're safe since Sindis is dead," Rockford shared.

"I concur," P'ris sighed.

They'd been at it for two days now without a single success. Rockford had only garnered that opinion recently when one official confided her reasons for ignoring the warning. Adding to the bleak outlook was Macen's absence from the Infosys Center. Grace had finally had enough of that.

"Where the hell is Brin?" she wanted to know.

"He's trying to reach Admiral Forger to try and get her to convince the Diplomatic Corps into mobilizing and trying to warn everyone since they seem determined to ignore us," Rockford shared.

"Yes, they do not see us as a credible source of information. The Federation can flex its muscles and perhaps some will finally be persuaded," P'ris added.

The door to the Center suddenly opened and Macen strode in. He was obviously frustrated and that frustration was quickly transmuting itself into anger. Rockford knew that an angry Macen was not one that they wanted right now. They were supposed to be planning their "snatch 'n grab" of Gaston.

Macen's anger was the type that simmered. It burned cold rather than hot and made him a ruthless bastard. The worst parts of his psyche were fully realized at those moments. Starfleet had been so concerned over this trait that they had suspended all contracts with the team for a year following T'Kir's death. Fortunately, that had proven unnecessary but Rockford privately thought that was only because Macen had been the carrier of T'Kir's katra. That fact let him slowly say goodbye over the next six months until it was removed from his mind.

"I take it the news is bad," Grace said in a defeated tone.

"Starfleet has 'assessed' our data and found unsubstantiated," Macen said in a low voice. Rockford could see just how dangerous he was at this moment.

"And how did they 'assess' our findings?" P'ris asked. Rockford could tell the Romulan recognized all of the same symptoms that she did. Only Grace seemed immune. She also knew that wasn't because Grace was ignorant of the facts it was just as a Kelvan she was probably immune to just about anything he could do to her.

Although she did tell me that he hospitalized her on one occasion, Rockford mused.

"They asked Solarian Security Systems if any of it was true," Macen almost spat.

"What?" Rockford and P'ris yelped at the same time. The two women exchanged a quizzical glance and then returned their full focus on Macen.

"Why would Forger do that? More to the point, why would Nechayev?" Rockford needed to know.

"It wasn't either one of them," Macen informed them all, "The data was handed off to Starfleet Security which meant that it landed in Edward Noyce's lap."

Rockford had heard of the Chief of Starfleet Security but she'd never dealt with him, "Noyce asked Solarian?"

"Yes," the answer was nearly a snarl, "Noyce is friends with several members of Solarian's Board. So he thought he would make an informal query."

"The Board was reorganized after the mass arrests following Solarian's attack on Outbound Ventures, wasn't it?" Rockford inquired.

"Yes, the Board of Directors is now made up of former Starfleet admirals and captains," Macen said in disgust.

"Maybe they don't know about the plans," Grace offered.

"Or perhaps they know full well and are seeking to escape culpability," P'ris ventured.

"I think that's the case," Macen admitted, "Solarian has broadened his contract base but Starfleet still provides the bulk of their work."

"So why didn't Noyce take our information seriously?" Grace wondered.

"Outbound Ventures is Solarian's chief competitor for both Starfleet and non-Starfleet contracts," Macen explained, "In short, it probably seemed as though we were trying to sabotage Solarian."

"Noyce should know us better than that!" Grace snapped.

Macen looked pained so Rockford took over, "I don't know Noyce personally but I know his reputation and I also know his activities within the Council of 5."

P'ris' ears perked up but Rockford ignored her. It was up to Macen to decide if their newest member would get briefed on the secrecy shrouded Council. Then again, she probably knew more about it than Macen.

"Noyce can be flexible if the occasion warrants it but his first instinct is to operate by the book. He has mixed feelings regarding the SID in general and our particular team specifically," Rockford shared, "He feels his Division should be able to accomplish what we get assigned to."

Grace snorted, "As much as I love Ian, he's Starfleet Security and I can tell you that he's about the only Security Officer that I think could join us without having a coronary."

Grace had shared her husband's darker past with Rockford so she agreed that Delaney stood a chance of assimilating into the team, "That being said, Noyce is career Security and that colors his every perception. Added to this fact is that his old friends are on the Board of Directors. They couldn't possibly be involved with anything illegal."

Rockford turned to Macen, "That about sum it up?"

"Yes, unfortunately," he agreed. He was cooler now but that could be a bad sign rather than a good one.

Macen's comm badge chirped and he touched it. Radil's voice came through, informing him that she, Daggit, and McMasters were waiting for the intel unit in the team's dedicated briefing room. Macen told her they were on their way.

As the rest of the team, Riker and Danan were fashionably late. Riker explained that Captain Alfonso Reyes, the CO of Deep Space 3, had signaled his greetings as the Obsidian skirted the station's periphery. Despite Starfleet's refusal to sanction their current mission, Forger had, with Nechayev's blessing, signaled Reyes and put him on standby should the Obsidian require assistance.

Unlike his lover, Reyes didn't have a divided command between a station and a starship. Ro Laren's command extended to both the currently being rebuilt DS9 and the Defiant. Reyes directly commanded DS3 but he did have three starships under his nominal control. Its primary mission was supporting the Federation colonies that were pushing the frontier ever further out.

Usually the prospective colonists hired a privateer to escort their transports as they pushed beyond Starfleet's jurisdiction. Outbound Ventures was a popular supplier of such services. They also engaged in contract antipiracy patrols as well. Of course, Solarian Security Systems was also a major provider of such services and had been operating out here for slightly over two decades while Outbound Ventures was a relative newcomer with only fifteen years experience.

Reyes had eagerly pledged his support for the team's mission. He had expressed some qualms regarding cooperating with the Orion Syndicate but when he learned of Leera's offer to rescind the Syndicate's involvement in Typhon Pact schemes he immediately recognized the weight of the potential rewards. Located near the uppermost end of the Neutral Zone, DS3 was host to many Romulan efforts to destroy the station. The Syndicate had been working overtime recently, engaging in a multitude of nefarious schemes to undermine the station's safety.

Other efforts had been dedicated to drawing off Starfleet's support of the colonies so that raiders could pillage them. Fortunately, Starfleet Command had seen this one coming and stepped up contracting privateer patrols. Seeing as how the privateers had no conflicting duties near their assigned solar systems they were allowed a far greater measure of operational latitude.

After Riker passed on Reyes' well wishes he got down to business, "So what's the plan?"

The holo emitter projected a 3D map of Mityr's solar system. Prominently featured was the massive debris field that dominated the edge of the system. It had been created by Mityr's natives as they exterminated one another. No evidence of survivors from that last great war had ever been found. The Conglomeration had settled on Mityr, and the surrounding worlds throughout the sector, and utilized the derelict structures and adapted them to their purposes.

The SID team had penetrated the Citadel, the defense center and "palace" of Mityr's ruler. The Citadel possessed capital ship grade shielding as well as three planetary defense phaser banks capable of destroying a starship in orbit. Last time the team had been on Mityr they'd disabled the Citadel's main reactor but it had undergone repairs since then. Not only had it been repaired but it had been replaced and upgraded.

In the same sense, there had only been one phaser bank before and that number had also grown. It was estimated that the shields had undergone comparable augmentation. These improvements would be problematic since the SID team needed to be able to get past the phaser arrays and penetrate the shields.

That effort would have to be accomplished by means of the team's runabout. The Corsair would deploy beyond the Lagrangian point where the Obsidian would stay on station. The surveyor would only enter orbit, and risk the wrath of the planetary phaser banks, if the Corsair ran into more troubled than it could deal with.

Radil called up the schematic Dracas had acquired of the Citadel, "This is the layout as we knew it. Times have changed and so it may have too. But unless they've sealed it off, there is a backdoor on the surface level. Starfleet's Special Operations Command encountered heavy resistance coming in the main entrance. SOC Team One entered through the landing pad on the upper levels just as we did."

"Entry through the landing pad will be virtually impossible. As it is, we're going to be flying through a storm of phaser fire," Radil stared at Grace.

The pilot just smirked, "Not a problem."

"By landing some distance from the Citadel we'll be able to approach by stealth," Radil suggested, "That will allow us to reach the backdoor, which is located some 5 kilometers from the Citadel proper. Once we're in, then we just have to keep the sentries from sounding the internal alarms.

"I should be able to disable the internal sensors and alarms from the inside," McMasters promised.

"Well, we know that Gaston will be in or near his office in the command center on Deck 2," Macen added, "So we have to concentrate on getting there."

"Once we control the command center, we can shut the defense grid down and begin recalling our personnel with the Corsair's transporter," McMasters offered.

"But we can only grab two at a time," Daggit reminded everyone, "That means one of us will to initially transport with Gaston and then the rest of us will return in a staggered process."

"We only have one little glitch in all of this," Radil suddenly warned, "What do we do about her?"

P'ris was surprised to find herself at the receiving end of Radil's glare, "Whatever do you mean? Am I not a member of the unit?"

"Yes, she is," Macen said sternly before Radil could reply, "And she'll be with us when we penetrate the Citadel.

Storm clouds rolled through Radil's eyes but they subsided. Seeing that there would be no further objections, Macen declared; "Now that we have the basics down, let's move on to the specifics."


Proceed to Part II


Last modified: 02 Dec 2022