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Cat & Mouse - Part III 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 Fifteen

Grace and Daggit were grateful for the opportunity to grab a drink. Daggit went even further and tried the local cuisine. McMasters started salivating and darted off to acquire his own meal. Soon the entire team had local delicacies.

Macen and Rockford had chosen different variations on the same them. Their choices resembled pita bread sandwiches. Grace had gone along with the same thrust. Daggit had a mound of spiced, shaved meat. It came from a domestic animal roughly resembling a pig and Daggit said it basically tasted like pork...with a twist. McMasters had a rich brothy stew. The meat in it came from a game beast resembling an ox.

Radil went the vegetarian route as did P'ris although the latter basically had the local variant of broccoli and cheddar. Radil's soup was rather tomato-like and had cuts of various other veggies in all shape, colors, sizes, and flavors. Danan had been the one, to the proprietor's horror, to inquire into the availability of poultry.

She received a stern lecture on how the Pewtree didn't eat their evolutionary cousins. She'd angrily demanded to know if the Trill ate their fellow primates. Danan restrained herself from grinning at this since the Trill were evolved from an amphibian ancestor. While it was true that their antecedents had devolved many mammalian traits, the Trill still loved cool, moist places. It was why the vermiform symbiots were drawn to them in the first place. Danan had surrendered and accepted the house specialty. Which looked and smelled like beef and broccoli.

While they were eating, Danan and P'ris briefed them on how they'd seen a Starfleet SOCOMM officer escape the grasp of his captors and make it out to the street. Danan added the fact that it had been Stan Guthrie himself that had made the escape attempt.

The Enforcers inside the cell block had obviously called in reinforcements because two antigrav repulsorlift troop transports had responded and it was those additional reinforcements that captured Guthrie.

Macen asked which directions that the transports had arrived. Danan looked to P'ris and the Romulan filled in the blank, "They came from the south."

"Hannah and I saw those transports flyby overhead," Daggit added to the discussion, "From what I've gathered from the rest of and comparing it to what we found, there's a concentration of troops at the southern tip of the enclave. We tried to get a visual on them but we were turned back at every approach."

Macen tapped his comm badge and asked for Edwin Zimbalist. The Obsidian's OPS Chief quickly responded, "How can I help you, Commander?"

Macen smiled despite the other man not being able to see it. Zimbalist had been brought aboard after Macen and T'Kir's incarceration. He'd never known Macen as the CO of the ship so the perceived awkwardness of the current command structure didn't impede him or color his perceptions.

"I need a scan of the southern tip of the city we're in. I'll need the data transmitted to my padd," Macen explained.

Zimbalist didn't ask for the padd's ID marker because he'd been the one to remotely link the Obsidian's computer to the Corsair's and from there to the individual padds carried by the team members. He took a visual scan of the planet's surface, particularly of the area indicated. Enhancing the features to be found there, he prepped the upload and sent it along.

"I think you'll be very interested in that area," Zimbalist commented.

Macen eyed the padd and saw that it had received the data. Daggit and Radil were already conferring over its contents. P'ris and Danan were also joined at the hip while they perused the information. McMasters could care less while Grace was asking Rockford for her opinion.

McMasters stood amiably by while Macen swatted him upside the head. The engineer yelped, "Hey! What was that for?"

"At least pretend to take an interest in the information that could or could not mean the difference between life and death," Macen chided him.

McMasters muttered darkly under his breath and began reviewing the optical scans. Macen turned to Rockford and Grace. He wrapped his arms around Rockford and peered over her shoulder. She wore a bemused smirk.

"Well, just make yourself at home," she teased, "Are you comfortable? Can I get you a pillow?"

"I'm fine," Macen contentedly replied.

Rockford was still smirking as she held her padd out where both Macen and Grace could see it, "As you can see, the transports are just the beginning. They have a whole flight line out there."

"I make six shuttles and those others have got to be six fighters," Grace surmised.

"Don't be too hasty. They could be rapid response craft," Rockford suggested.

"Oh, they are rapid response craft all right. Those things are fighter craft. I'd bet my professional reputation on it," Grace insisted.

Rockford leaned her head back and turned her face into Macen's, "They're fighters."

Macen kissed her and she broke into a pleased smile, "Those pillboxes have to be prefab bunkers. My guess is that they're barracks."

"They have to have a command, control, and communications center nearby," Rockford ventured.

"Why?" Grace asked innocently enough.

Rockford groaned and Macen chuckled, "Go easy on her."

"Why?" the detective wondered.

Macen bit her lower ear lobe and she broke into a naughty grin, "Don't start anything you don't have time to finish."

"Just explain to our young friend here why they have to have a C3 center nearby," Macen urged.

"Spoilsport," Rockford retorted.

"Celeste," now he chided her.

"Oh, okay," she pouted.

She lowered her head and turned to Grace, "This enclave is the population center for the planetary mining efforts. Literally everyone lives here. That means the bulk of the Enforcer troops are stationed her as well. This is a sizeable habitation and if you're going to effectively patrol it you need a communications hub. And that hub needs to be protected. So why not dump it into the middle of the area with the most Enforcers around?"

"Okay, I get it," Grace ruefully conceded. She then tilted her head slightly to one side, "How do you know this stuff? I thought 'Celeste Rockford' wasn't a soldier."

It was Rockford's turn to wear a rueful smile, "Annika was the soldier but then along came the Argyn. All of the various personalities that were born from her essentially committed suicide so I could live and left me with their memories. The personalities that were born to infiltrate Tarsusian camps were far more brutal and lethal then even Annika ever imagined she'd ever be."

"You have their memories?" Rockford nodded to Grace's question so she asked the question Rockford was so afraid of she'd only dared share it with one other person, "What about their personalities? You said they 'died' but do you carry any lingering remnants?"

"No," Macen said authoritatively.

Grace eyed him. There was a challenge in her eyes, "How can you be so certain? You're an empath and a low level one at that. How can you be certain of what's in her head?"

"Because I know her almost as intimately as I knew T'Kir," Macen cautiously replied.

"How?" Grace wanted to know.

Macen hesitated and Rockford took over, "El-Aurians can share an experience called an 'empathic cascade'. It opens up both parties to the other ones feelings. Nothing is hidden or can be hidden and when your partner absorbs it, it gets regurgitated back at you with their own feelings. This builds and builds until you physically can't take any more. Your mind explodes and you just bliss out."

"Why didn't you just say so?" Grace demanded as she stared down Macen.

"Because he's a bit of a prude," Rockford joked, "This only happens during sex."

Grace was brought up short by that, "If this is so good and it builds such intensity, what's it do for an orgasm?"

"Mind blowing isn't descriptive enough," Rockford shared, "Think of the best orgasm you've ever had and then imagine it reflected back to you a thousand times added to your partner's orgasm and it being amplified a thousand times."

"But how do you arrange to have orgasms at the same time?" Grace was still dissecting it.

"Once one starts, they other gets swept up by the wave. You can't help it," Rockford divulged.

Grace pondered it for a minute, "No wonder T'Kir was always horny."

"T'Kir was always horny before I met her because her telepathy did the same thing," Macen commented.

"How come Lees has never said anything?" Grace wondered.

"It doesn't work on Joined Trills," Macen revealed, "The symbiot's connection to the host runs interference."

Grace thought about it some more, "Sounds addictive."

"You have nooo idea," Rockford sighed, "And when you add the sonic vibrations from a shower..."

Grace's imagination picked up where the Angosian left off. She wore a big grin, "I bet."

"Okay, I think it's time we gathered and conferred," Macen said as he withdrew and went to the closest pair, which happened to be Danan and P'ris.

Rockford gave Grace a knowing smirk, "Aww, we embarrassed him."

Grace grinned back, "You should see what I do to Ian."

Rockford was glad to see Grace mentioning her newly acquired husband in a moment of levity. Delaney's absence had been wearing on the younger woman. She was rebounding though so her coping mechanisms were being established. They'd known they were for a tough go with Delaney in Starfleet and assigned to the USS Intrepid and Grace still with Outbound Ventures and serving with the SID aboard the Obsidian. She had a standing invitation to rejoining Starfleet at the rank of Lt. Commander but so far she'd declined. Rockford suddenly asked her why.

Grace shrugged, "If I was with Starfleet I still wouldn't be stationed with Ian. If I'm going to be away from him I want to be with my family."

Rockford knew exactly how she felt. Grace was an exile from the Kelvan colonists just as Rockford was an outcast from Angosia. Although, Grace's parents still loved her and missed her. They just viewed her as a threat to their way of life.

Rockford's status as an Augment made her a reject and a threat to the harmony on Angosia. She herself had no parents but she supposed she'd inherited Ryst's. If they met her now, they wouldn't know her at all. She'd be a literal stranger to them despite their being the birth parents to her physical form. She retained all of Ryst's memories of them but they meant nothing to Rockford. The only memory that Ryst had of them that mattered to Rockford was when they'd called the authorities to have their daughter dragged off and incarcerated.

They both viewed the SID team, and in extension the crew of the Obsidian as family. Daggit was everyone's older brother and Parva was the innocent sister-in-law. Danan was the matriarch, and by extension, Riker was in a high place. But not as high as Macen. He truly was the patriarch of them team. It was only fitting that Macen and Danan had begun the team as a couple.

McMasters was the reform school escapee. Radil was the protective one who felt as strongly about her ersatz family as the adoptees. Through them, Forger and Kort came into play. Forger was the reformed offender made good while Kort fiercely cared for every member of the team, with the possible exception of McMasters, but he would no longer participate in their mad cap adventures.

Tessa was the oddball. Restricted to the ship, she lived vicariously through the actions of the others. Barring Riker's restrictions she'd also taken over T'Kir's role as the team nympho. Galen 3 had quickly tired of the novelty of an intersexed girlfriend so he'd "deleted" her "package". She pouted for a while over that. She enjoyed being a "top" but Galen 3 figured she'd taken to the role with a little too much relish and his masculinity was threatened so the offending penis had to go!

Rockford's ruminations on that topic ended and shifted back to business as the group gathered. As would be expected P'ris, Daggit, and Radil all spotted the same layout that Rockford had. Grace, Danan, and McMasters sat out while the others conferred and nailed down their likeliest candidate for the C3 center. McMasters asked to see their choice.

"No stinkin'; way," he pooh pahhed their collective choice, "The power node is all wrong. It can't take the theoretical load. This is your best bet."

They all looked at their padds and McMasters grinned, "It's relatively isolated from the guard stations. That's just smoke and mirrors. It even sits in the ideal spot for receiving and coordinating transmissions. Added to that, it has clear lines of sight for optical sensors in addition to active EM band scanners."

Macen looked to McMasters, "You're sure?"

"You bet your bippy," McMasters wore an insufferable grin.

P'ris wanted to smack the smile off of his face. Radil was irked that he'd been the one to spot it. Daggit and Rockford were keeping their counsel to themselves. Danan was decidedly bemused and barely containing her mirth. That just seemed to egg P'ris and Radil on. Grace was the only one staring in mute surprise.

The problem lay in the group's relationship with McMasters. He and Rockford had worked closely with him during the field op on Felkor. His engineering skills had been invaluable on Corvat. Grace knew of his skill and dedication from the time they'd spent together rebuilding the Corsair. Danan knew him in all of those ways and a few more intimate ones as well. There was a reason he'd obsessed about her until he'd met Shannon Forger.

Daggit recognized McMasters' talents and he'd demonstrated his skills to Parva. He'd also treated Parva with the utmost respect which earned him acceptance in Daggit's book. Radil just found him to be a constant pain in the ass and she simply didn't like him.

P'ris just didn't know him. Then again, expect for Macen and Danan, she didn't know any of them. And her primary concern had always been with Macen. Her relationship with Danan was completely secondary to that. The rest of them barely rated above "bug". She respected Rockford and had come to view her as an ally if not a friend. She feared Grace and kept her demeanor purely professional towards her.

"Eric, can you set up an interference grid at this location?" Macen asked.

"What kind of interference grid?" McMasters asked in a dubious tone.

"Something that'll knock the Enforcer transports out of the air?" Macen wondered.

"All I brought was parts to build a subspace beacon in case we needed transport enhancers," McMasters explained, "And if you're thinking of an EMP discharge I can guarantee that those suckers will be shielded."

"What about a subspace pulse?" Macen asked, "The Argyn knocked out the Endeavor's systems with a subspace comm pulse. You studied the Endeavor's logs. You should be able to duplicate the effect on a smaller scale."

"I don't know if I can generate a strong enough pulse with what I've got," McMaster's admitted.

"Then use the Corsair's replicator to get what you need. Radil's phaser cannon is stored in the armory with its power cells. They should provide the power you need," Macen suggested.

"Yeah, yeah," McMasters looked like a feverish Ferengi. He turned to Grace, "I'll need some hands."

"I'll go as well," Danan volunteered.

"I thought you were keeping your distance from me?" McMasters suddenly commented.

"That was before Shannon," Danan laughed, "You're safe to be around now. You're veritably whipped now."

He grinned, "I notice the normal expression doesn't apply."

"Go figure," she teased.

"Just go," Macen ordered with an air of defeat.

"Spoilsport," Danan retorted, "It's a wonder you and Celeste have any fun whatsoever."

"But we do," Rockford's smile had a feline quality about it. It was as though she had the mouse cornered and knew could capture it at any time she pleased.

Danan recognized the look. Both she and previous hosts had enjoyed it as well, Danan had to reconsider the source. At one time she'd thought that the only woman that could replace her was T'Kir. The idea of anyone stepping into T'Kir's shoes had been unthinkable.

Rockford had slipped into that revered position, not because she forced her way into it, but because Macen had freely offered it of his own volition. Rockford had actually gone out of her way to avoid any pretense of seeking a romantic relationship with Macen. Macen had pursued her.

That was a stark contrast with his experience with T'Kir. T'Kir had done all of the chasing and Macen had eventually surrendered. Danan suddenly wondered how much of that surrender was the result of mutual desire and how much of it was simply the lack of competition. Even after her romance with Macen had ended while in the Maquis, he'd still kept T'Kir at a distance. It wasn't until she'd stepped aside that he'd "fallen" for T'Kir.

Danan knew that Macen loved T'Kir and she was consumed with him. But what would have happened if she hadn't left the fledgling SID team and joined the Daystrom Institute? Not that it did her much good anyway. Danan still ended up rejoining the SID.

Of course, doing so had brought her to her husband. She and Riker had slowly drifted together and then at the end it was like a massive collision. Instead of marrying him she'd very nearly quit the team a second time and never spoken to him again! But she'd forgiven him once he'd admitted he was wrong for being a pigheaded jackass. Their marriage had begun with a lot of bumps. Macen and T'Kir were in jail and Riker had assumed command of the Obsidian, not as her XO as he'd done previously, but as her Captain.

The first hurdle to cross was Rockford. Unexpectedly thrust into command of the SID team, the detective had barely treaded water. She was the newest member to the team and she was missing 4 members of her unit with no replacements in sight, as per Riker's orders. Next came Riker's veto on team assignments, which he frequently invoked. Rockford had only agreed to his having override authority due to his experience but she was soon beating her head against the bulkhead.

She held the team together by her fingernails while Admiral Forger sidelined the unit. She'd lost confidence in Riker and doubted the viability of her once prestigious SID operations team. Macen's return had heralded a return to greatness for the team but that was quickly sidelined by T'Kir's death.

Macen was put on suspension even faster than he'd been put in prison. The SID accepted purely civilian contracts for a year before being reinstated to active duty. Now, as before, they balanced their time between Starfleet and civilian contracts. They were usually knee deep in some form of trouble.

The collaboration between Macen and his newly instated Deputy Commander was a new era for the team. Rockford's evolution as a leader had grown by leaps and bounds by her reintegration with Annika Ryst and the other personas' memories. The team members had quietly discussed matters and found the new arrangement to be quite a potent combination. Rockford didn't suffer from the mental illness that drove much of T'Kir's personality. That in turn affected mission plans and leadership.

All these factors and more weighed in on how the team would react to this latest crisis. McMasters wasn't trying to ingratiate himself. Neither was P'ris. And Grace was obviously distracted. Until she could learn to cope with the absence of her newlywed husband, she wasn't entirely reliable. Danan was and wasn't helping. Having served as Macen's XO for 3 years in the Maquis and during the team's first mission, she tended to step into that role which, of course, stepped all over Rockford's toes.

Rockford was handling it well. She hadn't squished Danan like a bug nor would she. But Danan's sudden volunteering to assist McMasters and Grace had prevented Rockford from having a quiet word with the Trill scientist. That word would have gone a long way towards establishing dominance. As it was, she'd redirect P'ris, who was starting to waver on who really deserved the authority.

The plain truth of the matter was P'ris felt she deserved the role. She'd been a senior Commander in the Tal Shiar after all. Being a grunt was hard on her.

Macen gathered his little lambs and they began to plan.


Chapter Sixteen

McMasters had engineered a subspace pulse emitter. Danan had been valuable to him while Grace had merely been a tool pusher. McMasters utilized Grace's above human norms strength to help carry the emitter back to where P'ris waited.

Consulting with Daggit, Macen had set a point for the dimensional ambush. P'ris was placed in charge of the sub-unit. Since the Enforcers would still presumably be alive after their transports crashed, they needed to neutralize them. If Danan was upset about being upstaged by their newest member, she hid it well. So well, in fact, Macen's "Listening" skills didn't detect a single sour note.

McMasters and Grace seemed on the edge of protesting but they took their leads from Danan, who had seniority over the both of them. While Danan's brief absence meant that Grace, who had been with the SID team from its inception but had also been at cross purposes with the team for much of its early career, submitted to Danan's authority. She knew very well that Danan had been with Macen during his infiltration into the Maquis and had served as his XO back then. Danan had been among the first to encounter P'ris therefore if she was willing to take her lead from the Romulan it was no skin off of Grace's nose.

In orbit, Riker moved over to the Science station that Galen 3 manned. Riker respected Galen 3's scientific acumen but he thought the native of Eminiar VII was a tad strange. Reprogramming Tessa's physical being into being intersexed just struck Riker as being odd. Of course, dallying with a hologram, even one as realistic as Tessa, also struck him as odd. After all, who wanted a girlfriend you could simply turn off when a fight broke out?

Of course, T'Kir had disabled that function and only Tessa could deactivate Tessa but could she only reactivate herself? That was important to know. What if Tessa had a grudge against a fellow crewmate and decided to simply not "appear" when called upon?

Tessa's behavior had grown increasingly erratic over the years and people like his wife and T'Kir had encouraged it. Danan explained that it was the natural course of development. At first Tessa had been all awe and wonder. Then she was assertive and willful. Next she was exploratory. Riker mentally grimaced at that one. She'd certainly explored sex. He'd never had to order someone not to have sex.

Danan had been no help as she recounted how she'd been forced to deal with T'Kir's cavorting during the mission that resulted in the formation of the SID. Danan knew that T'Kir had shared many stories from her "well travelled" past and that Tessa looked to T'Kir as a personal hero. That hero worship had yielded a clone of T'Kir in which to place her katra. What had been totally unanticipated was that T'Kir didn't want to return to her old life. No one from her past could see her as a kohlinar master but then again, the Vulcan's life had always been one surprise after another.

Riker tamped down his misgivings regarding Galen 3 and asked his question, "Have you been able to detect life signs on any of those Federation starships yet?"

"We can't run an active scan without alerting the Enforcers to our intentions and activities," Galen 3 saw Riker's disappointment and softened the blow, "However, Edwin has been able to patch me into their internal sensors."

"You're tied into the ships' sensors?" Riker was incredulous.

"Yessir," Galen 3 said very enthusiastically, "We're on a tactical subspace band. It's only used for secure conferencing and is encrypted. Jaycee provided the encryption keys so we could tap into the Tactical systems. Edwin navigated the computer so we could use their OPS grid and run internal scans."

Riker looked around and said in a loud voice, "It seems I need to commend my entire senior staff."

Forger just grinned back at him with a knowing grin. Miller and Zimbalist were well pleased with themselves. Rhiann and Chris were at a loss and Galen 3 just seemed eager to please.

"So what's the status aboard those ships?" Riker finally asked.

"It's pretty uniform. There's Iridian life signs scattered across the ships. Only a half dozen per deck but that means there's still six of them on each bridge. Each ship has two lifeforms in the brig. Species vary but they're consistent with Federation races," Galen 3 reported.

"Just two per ship?" Riker asked.

Galen 3 nodded, "Do you have any idea why?"

"It's probably the Captain and 1st Officer of each ship," Riker offered a theory, "A lot of militaries stress capturing the commanders and holding them hostage to insure the cooperation of the crew."

Galen 3 frowned, "I see."

"Keep monitoring the situation and let me know if anything changes," Riker ordered.

He moved to Zimbalist, "Can you contact your opposite number aboard any of the ships?"

"That would be more up Jaycee's alley. I believe she's recruited Commander Forger into helping her," Zimbalist ruefully admitted.

Riker looked nonplussed. He approached the Tactical station and found Forger and Miller conferring over that very problem. He cleared his throat to get their attention.

"Do you mind apprising your captain before you potentially start a shooting match?" he asked.

"We aren't doing anything," Forger innocently insisted.

"Bull. I know what you're up to and I approve. We need to let those crews know that help is on the way," Riker asserted.

"You think there's going to be trouble?" Forger asked.

"Brin had Edwin scan a dirtside base. I can only think of one reason for that," Riker explained.

"Good," Forger asserted, "These people seriously need to get their asses kicked."

Riker gave her a pained look, "We're here to rescue people, not start a war."

"They're going to start one anyway," Forger predicted.

"No argument there," Riker conceded.

"If I can get through, what do you want me to tell them?" Miller wondered.

"Just tell them to stand by. We'll be sending over details shortly," Riker ordered.

"You're expecting Macen to call," Forger surmised.

"If he's going to be successful he's going to need our support so he'll have to transmit his requirements," Riker explained.

"That's if he needs our help," Forger countered.

Riker broke in to a wry grin, "You don't think he'll need our help?"

"I didn't say that. I just asked what if he doesn't call?" Forger argued.

Miller's board sounded and she checked the read out, "It's Commander Macen. The signal has a visual feed. Do you want it on the main viewer?"

"Of course," Riker moved to a spot in front of his seat.

"Tom? Are you ready to move on a moment's notice?" Macen inquired. His image was being displayed from the OPS station in the Corsair. Beside him, at the CONN, sat Rockford. Banging and cursing could be heard in the background. The initial yelling sounded like it came from McMasters and the subsequent rebuttal from Grace.

"That all depends on what the plan is," Riker hedged.

Macen shared his plan. Riker was surprised, "That's awfully ambitious. Even if you succeed on the ground, how long will it be before we take fire up here?"

"Eric is sending schematics for a large scale subspace pulse disruptor. Have Parva hook one up to the auxiliary deflector and use that to knock out the Enforcer ships," Macen instructed, "It's a smaller scale than the Argyn wave burst but it should still get the job done for at least 20 minutes if their tech is comparable to ours."

"That's a big if," Riker complained.

"One other thing, send a subspace comm message to Sector 411-G," Macen ordered.

"What'll be in the message?" Riker inquired, sensing that Macen had a hidden card to play yet.

"The ship's ID plus the word 'now'," Macen revealed.

"That's it?" Riker was surprised.

"That's all that's needed," Macen informed him, "You have 20 minutes to get ready. Comm me when you're ready."

"We're on it," Riker abruptly stood, "Riker out."

The Captain turned to Forger, "Head to Engineering and see that Parva is up to speed. Then head over to the Security Office and have Gerrit break out the armory. We're going to have a few dozen unarmed SOCOMM operatives aboard and they'll want to retake their host vessels."

"Anyone ever tell you you're sexy when you're bossy?" Forger grinned.

Riker turned red and she laughed, "God, you are so easy. I'll rustle up the children and call you when preparation is underway. Where will you be?"

"I'll be plotting an attack vector with Rhiann after I confer with Telrik. Someone has to tell him he's about to be very busy," Riker shared, greatly relieved that his XO's flirtation had only been a joke.

They got to work. They only had 18 minutes left and then Macen's team would undoubtedly unleash hell on Atrocitus. The team was depending upon the crew of the Obsidian and the crew had never let the team down and this damn sure wouldn't be the first time.

Grace lugged the pulse weapon to the spot Daggit had worked out for it. Several ground vehicles sat next to buildings and provided cover from the air and where the transports would presumably crash. Grace cursed out McMasters as he had her move it several times.

Macen conferred with P'ris when Danan suddenly interjected, "I hate to interrupt..."

"Then don't," Macen riposted.

"It just seems to me, we've never learned P'ris' first name. You've always been too polite to ask but we may all die here in a moment. I'd like to know my teammates name," Danan insisted.

All eyes turned to P'ris and her cheeks turned a creamy shade of jade, "Talera, my given name is Talera."

Danan beamed, "Was that so hard?"

P'ris studied Macen and then Rockford, "Neither of you seem very surprised by this."

"Brin had already shared your name with me," Rockford confessed, "I figured you'd share when you felt comfortable to do so."

"And you?" P'ris turned to Macen, "How long have you known?"

"T'Kir told me when we joined you on the fabled joint mission between the Tal Shiar and Starfleet Intelligence," Macen revealed.

P'ris wore a perturbed expression, "Her and her wretched telepathy."

"It did come in handy on occasion, as you should recall," Macen sagely pointed out.

"I would not speak ill of the dead but since she is alive, I can call her a cur," P'ris retorted.

Macen scowled, "I wouldn't go there."

"I see," P'ris commented, "You are still loyal even though she has left you. Admirable, truly admirable."

"But?" Macen prompted.

P'ris was startled, "There is no but, Commander. In my culture such loyalties are sworn forever, even if there is a dissolution of the marriage. I admire your commitment, as should Detective Rockford, for your commitment to her can be no less."

Rockford grinned at Macen. The El-Aurian was mollified so he went over the plan with them all one last time and then he and Rockford rejoined Daggit and Radil. As they approached, Riker commed Macen.

"We're ready," Riker informed him.

"Implement the plan and tell me when the Enforcer ships are neutralized," Macen urged the Obsidian's captain.

"Will do," Riker signed off.

"All right, Rab. I hope you have a game plan," Macen said wishfully.

Daggit wore a slight grin, "I think you'll even like it."

"All right, Rhiann, put us into position," Riker ordered.

The zhen used the thrusters to aim maneuver the surveyor so that the leading edge of her saucer section aimed at the Enforcer heavy cruiser. Zimbalist was operating the modified auxiliary deflector located in the saucer section rather than the main deflector in the secondary hull. He announced to Rhiann that her positioning was perfect. She puffed up as if to say, "Of course."

"Subspace generator is charging. Target locked," Zimbalist recited.

"Fire at will," Riker ordered.

Forger leaned in, "Now why would he want to shoot at your brother?"

"Very droll, Shannon," Riker retorted.

"Firing!" Zimbalist was excited as he announced the disruptor's release, "The array is now recharging."

"Galen 3, what is the cruiser's status?" Riker asked as he rose from his seat and came towards the Science station.

"Massive power failures and systems overloads," Galen 3 said as he actively scanned the cruiser. He looked towards Riker, "The two frigates are maneuvering. They've detected our scans."

"Did they detect the subspace pulse?" Riker asked.

"Presumably but they probably don't know where it originated from yet," Galen 3 shared, "I wouldn't expect them to remain ignorant for long."

"But their shields are still down?" Riker asked.

"Yes, but their defensive shields activated around their bridge module," Galen 3 reported.

Riker considered that. He had a perverse respect for the Enforcer designs. The heavy looked like an SR-71 from Earth's past, replete with integrated warps nacelles built into the rear wings, much like a Ju'day-class Maquis raider. The frigates looked like hammerhead sharks with warp nacelles slung under the body. The bridge modules were rather like their Federation counterparts, being constructed as bubbles nestled into the bodies. The frigates' modules blistered the shark head. The heavy cruiser's module lay where the cockpit of the aircraft would have been.

The oncoming frigate began issuing changes. Riker ignored them. He turned to Zimbalist, "How long before you can fire again?"

"15 seconds," came the grim reply.

"They've raised shields and their weapons are going hot," Miller reported.

"Damn," Riker groused, "Prepare to raise shields and arm weapons."

"Captain, the subspace pulse will penetrate their shields," Galen 3 shared, "Just like a subspace comm signal."

"Stand by on defense systems," Riker ordered, "Edwin?"

"Ready!" Zimbalist cried.

"Then fire already!" Riker demanded.

The pulse went out and Miller began reporting, "Their shields have gone down. Weapons are off line. In fact most of their power grid has overloaded."

"Raise shields and arm phasers!" Riker ordered, "Rhiann, break orbit and make for that last frigate."

"Do we really want to come in hostile?" Zimbalist asked.

"The element of surprise is long gone," Riker said as he headed back to his seat, "They know we're responsible for their comrades' calamities. They're going to be pissed and trigger happy. Just call out when the pulse generator is on-line. We'll need to know so we can line up a shot."

"Sir, there's a problem with the generator. She's running over redline. We may only get one more shot out of it," Zimbalist reported.

"Alert Parva," Riker instructed, "We'll just have to make certain our next effort is worth it."

Ten minutes later, the last pulse had crippled the final frigate. Zimbalist sourly checked his readings, "Cascade failure on the generator. She's burned herself out."

"What's Engineering have to say about that?" Riker asked.

"Parva said its innards have melted into goo," Zimbalist was loathe to say.

"Fine, at least we neutralized our targets," Riker said gratefully.

"Captain, the last frigate got a data squirt out," Forger informed him.

"So they got an SOS out?" Riker surmised.

"Probably," she concurred.

"Maybe we'll be done by the time they arrive," Riker suggested.

Forger gave him a sour look and he sighed, "I know. It'll never happen."

"He turned to Rhiann, "Take us into position."

Turning to Forger, he said; "Signal Telrik and have him get ready to get busy."

He tapped his comm panel, "Riker to Macen."


Chapter Seventeen

Macen took the comm message from Riker and then whirled his finger in the air and pointed at the constabulary cell house. They started for it. Daggit and Radil had their phaser rifles pulled into their shoulders. Macen and Rockford used two handed grips on their pistols.

A Pewtree constable came outside and Daggit stunned him. Three more exited the building, all shooting. Daggit and Radil cut them down with stun blasts. Stepping over the bodies, they kicked the Pewtrees' weapons away from them. Daggit kept his rifle trained on the door while Radil tapped the access panel. Nothing happened.

She tried the manual release. Nothing. She flashed a grim smile Daggit's way.

"It seems they locked the door," she said nonchalantly.

"Blow it," Daggit instructed.

Radil released her rifle. It was strapped to her chest and hung down with the barrel aimed at the ground. She removed a photon charge from her utility belt and affixed it to the door.

She moved back to the side of the door frames and hugged the wall while she readied her rifle, "Five seconds, people!"

They all ran a silent countdown in their heads and the charge went off on time. It blew the doors out of their sliding tracks and having the charges set on the juncture where they met and they blew inward. Bent and twisted, the doors formed a barrier between the interior guards and the gunmen entering the building.

Daggit recoiled as particle beams lashed out and largely struck the wrenched door. Daggit leaned out, avoiding the superheated edges of the door, and snapped off a few shots. A flurry of return fire came back at him.

He turned to Radil, "Get ready to toss some flash-bangs," he ordered.

She smirked, "What would you do without me?"

"I'd have Macen throw the damn flash-bangs," he grunted.

"Oh, please. You haven't been able to operate on your own since you kidnapped me," she chuckled.

"Just throw the wretched explosives," Daggit growled.

She pulled two metal balls out of her belt and held one in each hand. She thumbed the release and said, "Ready."

"Now!" Daggit urged as he spun around the edge and began snapping off shots. He stepped out into the foyer and Radil was between him and the door. She threw her bombs and retreated. Daggit followed her lead.

Essentially small cluster munitions, the balls released small "sprinkle" bombs as they rolled towards the enemy. After a few seconds, the sprinklets began to detonate. They flashed bright light or produced loud noises. Essentially, they were a distraction device.

Daggit and Radil moved out and began picking off the startled Pewtree constables. One of them clipped Radil's arm and she gritted her teeth in order to ignore the pain. The last avian went down and Daggit surged forward. Macen was on his heels. Rockford tended to Radil's arm.

Daggit tried the cell block door. He grunted when it didn't open, "Of course."

"Locked?" Macen inquired.

"Like I said, 'of course'," Daggit grimaced.

"They've undoubtedly called for reinforcements," Macen reminded him.

"You don't think the ambush team can bring down the aerial units?" Daggit was surprised.

"I think they can," Macen clarified, "I'm just more worried about the foot patrols. When they all converge on this location, we're all going to be overwhelmed."

Daggit gave him a speak for yourself look but he said, "I'll get the door open."

"I know you will," Macen said honestly and with great confidence, "Let me know when you're ready. Right now I'm going to check on Jenrya."

Daggit didn't say a word as Macen made to depart but before he got out of earshot Daggit called to him, "Is she all right?"

"Just looked like a flesh wound. I'll let you know more in a minute," Macen assured him.

Daggit went to work.

Two transports approached from the air. They looked like marine craft with gull wings. Slung under each wing and hugged up to the body was a small warp nacelle. That proved what had been assumed. The transports were also extraterrestrial craft capable of navigating in space. The warp nacelles, as small as those on a Starfleet Type-6 shuttle could probably do no better than Warp 2 and even then for only 12 hour stretches before dropping back to Warp 1. So even though they had an extended range for a transport, they were still essentially short range craft.

"Steady," P'ris whispered despite the transports' passengers' inability to hear her. The craft were now overhead and P'ris cried, "Now!"

They pulse generator was a directional device. Its field emitter was aimed straight up towards the sky. There was no visible discharge and the craft continued on their way.

"Well?" Grace impatiently demanded.

"Wait for it," McMasters growled.

Suddenly the transports' antigrav repulsors quit and the transports nosedived into the street below. The few pedestrians out and about scattered and were unharmed by this event. P'ris started forward. Using the parked vehicles as cover, she repositioned herself near the downed spacecraft. The others followed her.

P'ris and Danan had their rifles at the ready. McMasters unslung his rifle and brought it to bear. Grace eschewed a rifle and instead relied upon her pistol.

"Be ready," P'ris advised, "They shall blow the hatches any moment now."

On cue, several hatches blew off of the transports and Iridian Enforcers began to emerge. P'ris waited until several of them were out and about before she unleashed her rifle's fury. The other SID members also fired a volley of particle beam destruction. The entire first wave of Enforcers went down.

"Now it gets difficult," P'ris warned.

Those attempting to exit the transports laid down a barrage of cover fire so their companions could withdraw. They in turn were supported by Enforcers taking up positions and laying down suppressive fire to cover their retreat.

The second transport had landed out in front of the first. It finally blew its hatches. P'ris and McMasters savaged their first rank and the pattern repeated itself.

"Aargh!" Radil bit down as she tried not to cry out.

Rockford had cut away her upper sleeve so that the phaser burn was exposed. The Bajoran was lucky the Pewtree used phasers rather than disruptors which really mangled flesh. Rockford was repentant but only so much.

"Y'know, this is supposed to be your job," she reminded Radil that the former mercenary was the field medic.

"Don't remind me," Radil grumped.

"Look, it's repairable but the cellular regenerator will probably leave a scar behind. That's the problem with having a novice wield it," Rockford warned.

"Just do it," Radil said grimly and then she chuckled, "Besides, Kort will think it's sexy. He really grooves to scars."

"Must be why you have so many," Rockford muttered, recalling seeing Radil's naked form in the ship's gym shower room on occasion.

Radil said nothing and just grinned. Most of her scars were from her years with the Bajoran Resistance and later as a merc. Her husband, despite being quite capable of erasing all of the marks, found them erotic. So, a new one would just add to the general flavor.

Macen caught her expression as he approached, "Thinking of how Kort's going to react to that arm?"

Radil was far beyond blushing, "Of course."

"I'm just glad station operations added an extra layer of soundproofing to your rooms. I remember the old days and all the noise you two made," Macen commented.

"Why, Commander, I'm shocked," she teased, "You listened in?"

"T'Kir listened in," Macen grinned back, "She said it 'gave her ideas'."

"Did it?" Radil played along.

"More than you want to know about," Macen admitted.

"Okay, you're done," Rockford announced as she put the regenerator back into the med kit and slid said kit back into Radil's backpack.

Radil flexed her arm, "Seems good. Thanks."

"Don't thank me just be grateful it wasn't a complicated repair," Rockford demurred.

Radil slid on her pack and grabbed her rifle, "Rab's probably still pacing in front of that damn door trying to figure out how many explosives to use."

As the Bajoran disappeared Macen grinned at Rockford, "Ah, kids these days."

"Hannah Grace, now is the time," P'ris urged.

"Are you sure?" Grace wondered.

"I would not have said so if I were not certain," the Romulan countered. She noted a certain reluctance in the Kelvan which wasn't normally there, "Are you certain you can accomplish this task?

"I've never tried anything on this scale," Grace finally admitted.

"That would have been nice to know before we were depending on you for our very lives," P'ris dryly remarked.

"Yeah, but..." Grace squirmed.

"Hannah Grace! The enemy has us pinned down and is approaching. We cannot stop them. Only you can," P'ris admonished her.

"Okay," Grace hedged, "here goes."

She holstered her phaser as she slunk below the vehicle's protective shroud. She held her hands before her as though she were weaving. Her fingers were spread far and wide. Green energy began to lance out between fingers and soon a veritable loom was created. As she did so, green halos of energy enveloped the Iridians' heads.

They choked and slowly, inexorably collapsed. The energy lasted until they'd breathed their last. Danan wheeled on her.

"No one said anything about killing!" she accused.

Grace shrugged as she stood, "True."

"Stand down, Lisea Danan. She may not have had my authority but she has my blessing," P'ris informed her.

Danan glared at P'ris, "You've displayed a tendency for the ruthless in the past, Commander. I had a false hope that you were past that tendency."

"And would you have the enemy arise and threaten us again?" P'ris asked in acerbic manner, "Or what about our comrades?"

Danan was stymied and she knew it but she was still petulant, "Fine."

"Hannah Grace, I hate to be a bother but can you transport Lisea Danan and I to the cell house as well as transporting you and Engineer McMasters to the Corsair?" P'ris asked in a reasonable tone.

"Sure, why not?" Grace replied with gallows humor, "And by the way, I'm just Hannah or even just Grace if that's too uncomfortable for you."

"Very well, Grace," P'ris allowed, "Can you do it?"

"Why the hell not?" Grace waved her hand at Danan and P'ris and they disappeared in an exploding ball of green energy.

"You're gonna do that to us?" McMasters yelped and then he jumped when he realized that he was already aboard the Corsair.

"Sorry 'bout that," Grace smirked, "It seemed prudent to whisk us away before you had time to change your mind."

"Helluva thing," McMasters muttered as Grace headed for the cockpit. She sat down at the CONN station and noted Enforcers gathering outside the diminutive ship, "Eric! Haul your ass up here. I need shields and phasers."

McMasters scooted ion in and plopped down at OPS. He brought the power from "stand-by" to "Nominal". The Enforcers had men with scanners watching the runabout and they signaled the officers in charge. The Enforcers opened fire with their polaron pulse rifles.

"Hold on to something," Grace warned, "I'm not sure how much the inertial damper will take."

"What?" McMasters yelped and then he groaned and compressed into his seat as the Corsair catapulted straight up. Once Grace had reached a height of one kilometer, she engaged the impulse engines and started an ascent. She intended to break orbit and reunite with the Obsidian.

A green ball of energy exploded on the doorstep of the detention center. The advancing Enforcers stopped and stared. Danan and P'ris quickly gathered their wits and ran inside. Danan and Rockford took up position and stunned the closest troopers. P'ris conferred with Macen.

"That was certainly a novel means of travel," she opined.

"Grace's methods are certainly unique," Macen agreed and then he asked for a situation report. She filled him. He nodded.

"Understood," he said, "Relieve Celeste at the door and have her report to me."

P'ris disappeared and Rockford reported. She snapped off a crisp salute while standing at attention. He was decidedly unamused.

"Spare me," he quipped.

"You start issuing orders like you expect it and it's what you get," Rockford retorted.

"I'll keep that in mind," he responded dryly, "Want to check on Rab and Jenrya now?"

"After you, O mighty and masterful dictator-for-life," Rockford snarkily quipped.

"Oh please, like you'd follow me if I was really a dictator," Macen breezily dismissed the accusation.

"You're right," Rockford smiled, "I'd have to kick your ass."

Macen refrained from reminding her that Annika Ryst had tried that, on 3 occasions, and failed at every attempt. He led her to Daggit and Radil. Radil's fists were on her hips and she was getting into Daggit's face. Or at least as far as she could reach. He was a good 7 centimeters taller than she was.

"No!" she didn't quite shout but she was definitely on the verge, "No explosives!"

"Is there a problem?" Macen asked as he arrived. His tone left little doubt that he wasn't pleased with this development, "Because if there is, we need to solve it now! Lees and P'ris are holding off a veritable army and they could use a break, which they will only get if we recover the SOCOMM troops and get out of here."

"I told her we could just blow the doors open," Daggit stated.

"And have you blow us up in the process?" Radil waved her hand dismissively at him, "Please."

"Do you have a solution?" Macen asked archly.

Radil shot a panel in the wall and pulled open its wrecked hatch. Revealed within were ODN lines. She grinned, "We can hotwire it."

"Can you do that?" Macen wondered.

"No, but Lees or P'ris could," Radil countered, "I could relieve one of them and she could rewire this sucker."

Macen's comm badge chirped so he tapped it. Danan's perturbed voice came through, "Where's our damn relief?"

Daggit pulled his grenade launcher free and handed it to Rockford, "Here."

"Me?" she said with some alarm.

"You'll remember how," he said grimly and headed off to the building's entrance.

Radil grinned, "That's my cue to follow."

She scarpered off to join Daggit. Several minutes later, a distinctly harried looking P'ris and Danan joined Macen. He explained Radil's idea to them.

P'ris looked confident, "It should be easy enough."

Macen and Rockford moved to the left side of the door. Rockford folded out the stock of the launcher and braced it up against her shoulder. Danan ejected her nearly spent power pack and slapped a fresh one into her rifle. P'ris followed suit and then began pulling ODN lines free and plugging them into different slots.

A secondary set of blast doors sealed. P'ris pursed her lips, "It seems I have miscalculated."

"You think?" Danan sarcastically rebutted.

P'ris frowned and went back to work. The secondary doors opened and then the primary doors opened as well. Rockford swung into action.

She fired a photon grenade and the first one struck an Enforcer in the chest. He exploded and his viscera covered his comrades. She racked the pump to chamber another round and unloaded a shot into the nearest cluster of Iridians. She repeated these motions until she'd expended all 6 rounds.

She cast off the launcher and pulled her pistol free. She relentlessly mowed down the survivors. Danan gaped, "You're sure there's nothing left of Annika Ryst?"

Rockford knew what she meant. People tended to forget that although her persona was designed to mimic a human she was still an Angosian Augment with all that entailed.

Macen led the way into the cell block. The SOCOMM personnel were all on their feet. Macen turned to P'ris, "Celeste left the master control panel intact. Turn off the force fields."

P'ris was slightly indignant. She still had it in her head that she was supposed to be giving orders not taking them. She'd either adapt or be sent off to whatever glorified prison, termed "safe house", that the Federation could provide. Hell, they might even send her to Vulcan. Wouldn't that be torture for a former Tal Shiar agent?

The fields dropped and the SOCOMM men and women rushed forward. Rockford and Danan did their best to stifle the sudden crowd while Stan Guthrie pushed his way to Macen.

"I see you've made 'Commander'," Macen observed.

"For all the good it did me," Guthrie said sourly.

"I'm sorry I couldn't deliver the news about Joachim to you personally," Macen conveyed his regrets.

Guthrie gave him an angry expression, "You had your own legal issues to deal with. Speaking of which, how did you get out?"

"I didn't do it," Macen said jovially.

"There were eyewitnesses and a body," Guthrie snorted.

"It wasn't Sindis and the evidence proving that had been tampered with. Starfleet didn't trust its case anymore so they let me go," Macen explained.

"Just like that?" Guthrie tersely asked.

"Well, it was a little more complicated than that," Macen confided.

"The SID must have been rather desperate to reinstate you," Guthrie surmised.

"When aren't they?" Macen quipped.

"Okay, we're out of those cells but what happens next?" Guthrie turned professional, "And if I'm not mistaken, that's phaser fire in the background."

Macen fished isolinear tags out of his utility belt, "Form up your squads and give each of them one of these. We're transporting you out of here," Macen filled him in.

"Where are we going?" Guthrie wondered.

"You'll stop off aboard the Obsidian where you'll be rearmed. It'll be Bajoran Militia surplus but I think your people can handle that," Macen shared.

Guthrie smiled thinly, "I've always been a fan of Bajoran arms. From there we return to our assigned ships and liberate them from the Enforcers?"

"You read my mind," Macen was happy to confirm the suspicion.

"I'll get right on handing these out. The sooner we're away from her the sooner we can get these Starfleet crews across the border," Guthrie predicted. He called all of the squads into order and handed out the tags to each group leader. At the end he formed up with his team.

Macen tapped his comm badge. "Macen to Telrik."

"Telrik here," the Tellarite reported.

"Lock onto the isolinear tags and begin transporting each group of six that surrounds the tag," Macen ordered.

"I'm on it," Telrik jovially replied.

The squads beamed out in seven minute intervals. Finally, only the SID team remained. Telrik commed Macen.

"I've got all of them and have widened my targeting sensors. I've got the entire team locked and ready to transport," the Transporter Chief informed him.

"Then bring us home," Macen instructed.


Chapter Eighteen

Macen and Guthrie materialized in the Troy's Cargo Bay 1. With them were Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrews, Crewman Neflik, Crewman Norquist, Crewman Vak'quish, and Crewman Pizza. Pizza was truly unique. "He" was a Horta and used a vocoder to speak. His given name was untranslatable to Federation Basic so he used the nom de guerre "Pizza" since someone had once claimed he resembled a pan pizza.

Norquist and Vak'quish secured the outer corridor. They then began to advance. They acted as the scouts while the others brought up the rear. In preparation for this assault, Macen and the SID members had shared how to take down an Iridian. A lethal particle beam strike to the eye would sear the recipient's brain. Nothing less than a beheading would work otherwise.

Apparently the Ardannian Stratosian and the Antarean forgot that. When they encountered an Enforcer foot patrol the fired into the Iridians' chests. They went down but started to get right back up. Their fellow officers cut the Starfleet crewmen down.

Guthrie took careful aim and shot one on the eye and then the other. Macen dealt with one still on the deckplates and Neflik took out the fourth. Macen nodded to the Denobulan and the burly alien advanced forward while Macen and Guthrie covered him. He kicked the corpses and made certain they were truly dead.

Meanwhile, Andrews was busy keeping Pizza back. She was having a difficult time of it because the enraged Horta had been friends with both fallen Starfleet personnel. Guthrie had a few choice words for Pizza. This was combat, just the same as any other mission op, and cooler heads had to prevail or they would all die.

"Besides, they are using polaron phasers," Guthrie reminded him, "We don't know how much damage they can inflict on you."

"Oh, okay," Pizza sullenly relented.

"Neflik, you're with me," Guthrie ordered.

"I do have more experience with Iridians than either of you combined," Macen dryly reminded them.

"That makes you the expert. We need you alive to share your wealth of experience," Guthrie replied with a tone as dry as the Vulcan Forge.

Macen knew he'd just been put in his place. Guthrie knew that Macen had operated as a field agent for the last 30 years yet he was still juts an analyst in the SOCOMM officer's eyes. He was the man under whose watch Guthrie's lover had been killed. That kind of incompetence had to be dealt with by sidelining said incompetent and running the show as Guthrie damn well saw fit.

"Move out," Guthrie ordered.

In the end they swept that deck and then they proceeded to Main Engineering. Liberating the engineering staff, they were able to overtake the Enforcers in Auxiliary Control. Now able to override the bridge through the two main outlets, they locked down the ship. Force fields were erected through the corridors and the doors were locked so the Iridians couldn't hide in a compartment.

The Iridians had sent all nonessential personnel too their quarters. They were informed to stay there until called upon. With the doors locked, it wasn't as thought they could exit anyway.

Next they liberated the Security section of the ship. The Enforcers went down and the Captain and the XO were liberated from the brig. Neflik escorted the CO and his 1st Officer to Auxiliary Control where he would remain on station to protect them until Security officers could be freed up to guard them.

Guthrie laid out his plan for reclaiming the bridge and Macen interjected, "I should be the one to ride in the turbolift with Pizza. You're needed with Andrews to come in through the Captain's Ready Room. She can't do it by herself and you've made it abundantly clear you don't trust my 'inferior' skill set so I'm the logical candidate to place in the lift."

Guthrie wanted to argue but he could see Macen's point. He could see both of them actually. Macen was a 30 year veteran in the field. He'd survived the Border Wars, time placed with the Maquis, the Dominion War, and over ten years as a covert operative. The SID got the missions judged too sensitive even for SOCOMM. He'd earned his badges and his scars.

What this really boiled down to was Joachim. Dracas had died at the clone of Sindis' hands while Macen had survived. The clone had even cut off Dracas' head with his own sword. Guthrie had known nothing good could come of Dracas carrying the damned thing. It was only Dracas' stubborn Roman pride that insisted that he venture into every operation with it strapped to his hip.

Guthrie had lost his husband in the Dominion War and it had been Dracas that had helped mend his heart. They'd even begun to talk marriage themselves when the Roman was cut down. He'd blamed Macen for that. He guessed he still did.

Combat was no place for such feelings. It made one distracted and sloppy. Deaths occurred that way. Two members of his team had already died and he couldn't help but wonder if his attitude had contributed to them. His teammates certainly took their cue from him and he'd snubbed and belittled Macen before them. Why would they consequently listen to his advice?

A sharp stab of guilt pierced Guthrie's heart. His mentor, Elias Vaughn, had once confided in him that Macen was a close personal friend and that Vaughn had taught him everything he knew up until the point that Macen began to teach him new methodologies. Guthrie revered Vaughn. How could he so vastly underestimate a man that Vaughn himself honored?

Macen was also friends with Alynna Nechayev. Macen, in fact, had watched over her career in Starfleet Intelligence. Nechayev was a legend in the Special Operations community. She commanded the respect of such esteemed officers as Mackenzie Calhoun, Vaughn, T'Prynn, and it seemed Macen as well.

Macen was the James T. Kirk of Starfleet Intelligence. He'd literally told Starfleet Command to "get stuffed" on more than one occasion and came out on top. He'd been justified in the end but his methods had burned bridges with the Admiralty. They kept him aboard out of practical necessity but the day when he was no longer needed, Macen would be dropped on his ear and left there for dead.

More to the point, Macen was a valuable resource. Guthrie needed to put his personal animosity aside for the mission's sake if for no other. What was eerie though was that Macen seemed to know what was running through his emotional spectrum even as it occurred. He knew El-Aurians were famed as "Listeners" but he'd never encountered one before. After all, there were only 76 of them amongst the trillions of beings populating the Federation.

"All right," Guthrie conceded, "We'll do it your way."

Andrews' eyeballs almost popped out but she quickly recovered. The Petty 3rd obviously knew it was bad form to gape and stare. Pizza was rather more pleased by the turn of events.

"We'll do a site to site transport and beam into the Ready Room. Once we're there we'll comm you," Guthrie instructed, "Comm us when the lift arrives and hold the doors while you comm us. After you've done that, open the doors and let Pizza roll."

He turned to the Horta, "Do whatever it takes."

"Yes sir!" the vocoder translated the grinding noises that comprised a Horta's native language. It seemed to capture his enthusiasm perfectly.

"Move out," Guthrie ordered.

Macen and Pizza headed down the corridor for the lift. Guthrie called out to them, "Good luck."

Macen threw a salute his way, "You too."

In the transporter room, the Senior Chief in charge readied the machine. Aligning the internal targeting sensors for a site to site transport, she locked their destination into place and told the commandoes such.

Guthrie and Andrews dissolved out of existence and rematerialized in the Ready Room. The internal sensors registered their presence and activated the lights. As expected, the area was vacated. The entire senior staff was being held in the bridge with the exclusion of the captain and XO.

Guthrie commed Macen and then waited by the door. Not close enough to trigger its opening but near enough to trigger such an event at any time. Andrews scrutinized Guthrie.

"If you don't mind me asking, what is this Macen guy to you?" she inquired, "Are you his jilted lover or something?"

Guthrie glared at her for a moment and then softened, "I guess I do owe you and explanation. Just so you know, Sasha, he's not an ex-lover."

"Then what is it? You obviously dislike the guy," she pressed even harder for the truth.

"You've heard me mention Joachim Dracas?" Guthrie asked.

Andrews rolled her eyes, "Only about a million times. What's the connection?"

"Macen was Joachim's commanding officer," Guthrie explained, "Macen lived while Joachim died."

"So you hate his guts because he lived while your boyfriend didn't?" Andrews asked. Seeing Guthrie's nod of affirmation she continued, "I hate to say it but that's the stupidest reason I'd ever heard for hating someone."

Guthrie was visibly startled by her candor, "If he killed Joachim or he caused the death through negligence on his part, I could see it."

"He went to prison for murder. He was supposed to be there for 20 years yet they let him out early," Guthrie spat.

"Was he convicted of killing Joachim?" Andrews asked.

"No. The investigation said that Bertram Sindis was solely responsible. Macen wasn't even in the area at the time," Guthrie elaborated.

"Then who did Macen kill?" Andrews wanted to know.

"Sindis," Guthrie admitted.

"God, he killed the man that actually killed your boyfriend and you want to lock him up?" Andrews was incredulous, "You should be thanking him!"

Guthrie simply stood there as her words sank in. He could tell Andrews was ready to literally beat the message into him. Her frustration threshold had been maxed out and he was an inviting target. Besides that, what she'd said made a disturbing amount of sense.

"I'll take it under consideration," Guthrie allowed at last.

"Seriously sir, if you don't get over this hang up I will kick your ass," Andrews warned.

"I'll take that under consideration as well," Guthrie chuckled. He checked his chrono, "Now just where are our little lost lambs?"

Getting Pizza into the turbolift had been easy. Getting turned around so he could face outward when the doors opened on the bridge was another matter. Macen had to wait outside of the lift while Pizza swiveled about. That had almost proven to be impossible.

"Sorry, sir. It appears I have gained same mass on this trip," the Horta apologized.

Macen stepped into the lift, "Just how do they feed you while you're aboard ship? Don't you ingest ores and rock?"

"They keep a supply down in that cargo bay we beamed into. I go down there once a day and have a snack. Apparently my helpings have been a tad too generous," Pizza described the situation.

"Nervous eating?" Macen wondered.

"Yeah, I guess so," Pizza sheepishly confessed.

"Hold on," Macen hit the "Stop" button as the lift reached its destination. Tapping his comm badge, he routed a call to Guthrie, "We're in position."

"Good. We go on 3," Guthrie decided, "1...2...3!"

Macen released the door and Pizza charged out with a rumbling battle cry. Macen himself had his phaser drawn and ready. Swinging it up into a two handed grip he shot the Enforcer closest to the Security station.

Pizza had run over the closest Iridian and was atop of him. Smoke from his acidic excretions was billowing and the smell of melting flesh filled the air. Two more Iridians fired at Pizza forcing him off of their comrade with a loud cry of pain at their polaron strikes.

Guthrie and Andrews emerged from the Ready Room even as Macen was pinned down. They each killed an Enforcer. Guthrie spared a glance towards the charred and partially dissolved form of the Iridian Pizza had dealt with. There were only two Enforcers left and they had hostages.

"Drop your weapons and lace your fingers over your heads!" Guthrie demanded.

The Enforcers glanced around. One, the presumed officer, held The OPS Officer, one Ensign Harriet Lee, in front of him with a polaron pistol pointed at the back of her head. Lee was understandably discomfited. Such things were supposed to happen as a member of an Away Team not on the bridge of a starship.

The other Enforcer kept Lt. Commander Rory McLean, the Tactical Officer, at gunpoint by aiming his rifle at the human's back. As the 2nd Officer, McLean was the ranking bridge officer and he was trying to keep his people calm. Which was good. The Iotian lieutenant at CONN, one Gazda Trellian, was looking rather twitchy. McLean knew she was inches away from launching herself at an Iridian.

"Trellian, stand down. Harriet, stay calm. We're all getting out of this. Got that, Sien?" McLean made the verbal rounds.

Sien was the Science Officer. He was a Rigellian Vulcanoid. When the proto-Romulans went out from Vulcan, a splinter faction went to Rigel IV. While Vulcans mastered their passions through logic and the Romulans channeled them in martial prowess, the Rigellians harnessed them into sexual energy. McLean wasn't as afraid of Sien attacking the two Iridians as much as him jumping their bones.

Both Iridian sexes were represented on the bridge, assuming there only two. The officer was female. She had the chalky gray skin her race was known for but she had raven hair in stark contrast to the males' stark white mops. McLean hadn't noticed any other differences between the sexes that could be exploited. Both Enforcers were consummately deadly professionals and now they were desperate.

"You kill her and I kill you," Guthrie warned the officer.

She smiled and edged her arm past Lee's head in a heartbeat and shot Guthrie in the chest. Her other hand steadied Lee by grasping the human's shoulder and returning her pistol to the back of the young woman's head.

"Goddammit!" Guthrie snarled from where he tried to rise from the deckplates. His ablative armor vest was stripped all the way down to nothing and his uniform was smoking.

"Stand down, sir," Andrews ordered, "I've got this."

"Do you now?" the Iridian female sneered, "Really?"

Macen suddenly shot Lee in the leg and she went down. The Enforcer officer had time to look shocked before a particle beam pierced her left eye and killed her. Andrews and Macen now turned their attention to the trooper holding McLean at bay.

McLean had used the distraction to spin and push the rifle away but the Iridian head butted him and his superior strength staggered the human and he went down. The Enforcer, engrossed in his private little war, forgot about the SOCOMM and SID agents and was therefore easy prey. He went down and the bridge crew began securing the bridge. They found their stations overridden from Auxiliary control.

Guthrie commed Captain Enerya, "Captain, this is Guthrie. We've secured the bridge. You can release control now."

The Bolian replied, "Yes, Commander. We'll be releasing the bridge controls and joining you on the bridge. Can you and your force assist our security units in capturing the remaining Enforcers?"

"I wouldn't recommend taking prisoners," Guthrie said as he rose from the deck.

"That isn't Starfleet policy," Enerya retorted.

"Make an exception," Guthrie resolutely asserted, "These people can't be casually killed by a phaser strike set to 'maximum disrupt'. The 'stun' setting is useless. Only a direct shot to the eye can harm them. They're stronger, faster, and meaner than your personnel. I recommend not taking prisoners and since I'm the mission commander I'm giving you my strongest recommendation not to toy around with these people. They'd do the same in a heartbeat."

"And that's what makes us superior to them," Enerya rejoined.

Frustrated, Guthrie shook his head; "Where's Security gathering?

"Deck 2, Section 4," Enerya announced, "We're in the turbolift and will be there in seconds."

Pm cue the turbolift opened and the Bolian captain and her Tellarite XO exited. Enerya halted Guthrie, Andrews, and Pizza's advance towards the lift, "I need a sitrep."

"Macen, will you oblige the Captain?" Guthrie said as he moved around the Starfleet CO.

She called after him, "Are you injured, Commander? I couldn't help but notice your armored vest."

"Only my pride, Ma'am. Only my pride," Guthrie said before he released the doors and they shooshed shut.

"And you," Enerya took in Macen's uniform, "You're not Starfleet."

"Not anymore," Macen retorted.

"I take it by that badge you're wearing you're licensed privateer," Enerya ignored his humor.

"Yes, ma'am. Starfleet hired me to find you and recover you," Macen explained.

"I know Starfleet has been employing more and more irregular forces but to hire a civilian to conduct a rescue operation? Where's the fleet?" Enerya inquired.

"Slightly busy averting a war," Macen replied. Seeing her alarm, he decided to pose a question of his own, "How long have the Iridians held you?"

"A little over seven days," Enerya answered.

"Well, in those seven days the Enforcers have moved up several fleets. One threatens the Breens' borders, another the Romulans', and a third ours. The fleet opposite of the allied task force has announced its intention to traverse through the Bajoran wormhole into the Gamma Quadrant," Macen reported.

"To meet with the Dominion," Enerya surmised.

"That's the consensus," Macen shared, "The point is, the Enforcer units are jamming active sensors so we have no idea of what's behind the forward units."

"And the diplomatic option?" the captain asked.

"Is being explored as we speak," Macen assured her, "However, there aren't high expectations for a successful mission."

"And your mission? What were we to do once we were liberated? Flank the fleet facing the Federation and see what's behind them?" Enerya asked wearily.

Macen grinned, "No Ma'am. I was to get you directly across the border and to DS9. There you would confer with the Admiralty and receive new orders."

"Sounds reasonable. Unlike our original orders," Enerya sighed.

Macen's comm badge sounded off and he excused himself as he moved away from the captain and she and her XO reestablished order amongst the chaos. It was Rockford.

"We've cleared the bridge and now Avila is clearing out the remaining pockets of resistance." Rockford's casual reference to the Orion Master Chief meant the two women had hit it off, "So what are my marching orders, Boss?"

"Update the Captain as to Starfleet's situation and let him or her know that they can proceed home once all the ships and crews are secured," Macen replied.

"Gotcha. And the captain's a 'her' by the way," Rockford informed him.

"And aren't you just insufferably pleased by that?" he teased.

"You betcha. Oops! Got to go. Shvaughn's giving me the evil eye. She wants her report and she wants it now! Talk to you later. Love you!" Rockford signed off.

Danan and P'ris were the next ones to report in. The only SID team, he'd place the Trill with the Romulan to ease the starship crews' concerns over P'ris' ethnicity. Their report followed Rockford's lines.

Daggit reported in. He'd waited until every Iridian was put down. The ship was secure and ready to travel. Radil came last and reported similar circumstances as Daggit. Riker chose that moment to contact Macen.

"Grace is coming in hot with an entire fighter wing after her and the Enforcer ships are powering up," he divulged.

"We knew it couldn't last forever," Macen sighed.

"Do you want us to recover the team?" Riker wondered.

"No, we'll sit this out aboard our individual ships. Assist Hannah. She's good but I think these pilots might be a match for her," Macen instructed.

Riker chuckled, "You'd better not ever say that to her face."

""Do I look suicidal?" Macen chuckled.

"Weeelll, there have been rumors," Riker played along.

"Just help Hannah. Out," Macen signed off and moved to inform Captain Enerya. Next he called his people and told them to stay put. They were about to engage the enemy...with five lightly armed science ships. Luckily, Macen still had an ace to play.


Chapter Nineteen

"Strap in," Grace advised McMasters, "The inertial damper is not going to be able to keep up."

The engineer quickly fastened the crash harness secreted in his seat. Grace did so as well. The runabout began taking polaron strikes and the shield monitors displayed at the OPS panel began showing weakening. Grace broke into a maniacal grin.

"Hold on. This is where it gets...interesting," she proclaimed and then launched into a series of evasive jukes that McMasters knew would've ripped the chassis apart if he hadn't bulked up the structural integrity fields.

The enhancements made to the Corsair's maneuvering thrusters had tripled the response time but they were still lagging behind Grace's commands. He knew she really wasn't human but she'd never had a reason to demonstrate just how alien she really was until today. That trick with depriving the Iridians of air was chilling enough but these inhuman reflexes were just too much to bear.

Grace hadn't hid anything from him when she'd requested these modifications to the runabout. He knew she had complete situational awareness. Every sensor monitor, motion tracker, and old fashioned eyeball perspectives played into her reactions. And her response time was off the charts! McMasters had never seen anyone's hands move so fast.

Grace had been right about the inertial dampers. McMasters was thrown one direction and then another. There would have been no way he could've stayed in his seat without the straps. Even the artificial gravity was getting twitchy. His inner ear was wreaking havoc with his equilibrium. He noted that Grace was entirely unaffected by these conditions. Her focus was absolute and nothing could distract her.

"Dammit," she swore under her breath.

"What is it?" McMasters was alarmed. Whatever could rattle the pilot could only bode ill for him.

"Six fighters have broken off and are engaging the Obsidian. To make matters worse, the Enforcer cruiser and frigates are powering back up. Their targeting sensors are active and their weapons are coming on-line," Grace reported the malady.

"Shannon?" McMasters plaintively asked.

Grace smiled despite the situation, "She's fine for now but the Obsidian isn't a ship of the line. Unless Shannon and Jaycee come up with a brilliant counter offensive, the ship's going to take a beating."

That did little to allay McMasters' fears. Grace's expression turned wry, "Eric, Shannon is a professional. She was the Tactical Officer aboard a Centaur-class starship during the Dominion War. They were employed as long range tactical assets so she knows what she's doing. Probably better than Tom because he sat the war out near Sherman's Planet."

"But..." McMasters protested. He'd noticed that Grace had thrown them into a spiraling loop and arrived behind the enemy fighters...if they truly were considered the enemy yet.

"No buts about it," Grace irritably declared, "Trust her like you've never trusted her before."

"Yes, mom," he managed to smile, "I did notice that we're now pursuing those fighters."

Grace's face broke into a thin smile, "Best way to help the ship is to clear a path."

"And if you have to destroy a fighter?" McMasters wondered.

Grace's smile turned feral, "That is Plan A."

"Shields up!" Forger ordered, "Activate trackers and begin targeting individual fighters."

"Commander, our tracking system can only acquire four targets. That leaves two unaccounted for," Miller reminded her superior.

"Do what you can, Jaycee," Forger encouraged her.

Riker took over, "Rhiann, plot an exit vector. I want to draw the fighters away from the Starfleet vessels."

"So, we're the bait?" Forger inquired.

"Basically," Riker confirmed her fears, "Those survey ships only have phasers and one torpedo tube. The optional pods they carry are sensor platforms not torpedo launchers. Those Iridian ships are going to eat them alive."

The ship shuddered and Forger turned to Miller, "Sitrep, Jaycee."

"I destroyed one but they've all engaged us now," Miller reported as she frowned in concentration.

Forger pulled up the tactical display on her screen, "Captain...their shields are a joke."

"But they're nimble," he commented, "They're evading most of our shots."

"But how?" Forger wondered in disbelief.

"They start to evade the moment we lock phasers on them," Riker observed.

Forger was out of her seat and at the Tactical station, "New plan: don't use the phaser lock. Target them manually."

Miller just stared at her as though she were insane. Forger pushed her out of the way, "Let me."

Forger sat down and immediately began leading fighters with her targeting scanners. She then proceeded to destroy three in a row. That left two and they went into wildly erratic patterns that were difficult to predict. Miller, who was still gaping over the first three kills, watched in horror as Forger missed time and again.

"Wait!" Miller exclaimed and she pointed at the screens, "Look!"

What there was to see was the Corsair swooping in and neutralizing the last two targets. Forger slid out of her chair and offered it back to Miller. A telltale went off and Miller reported to Riker.

"Captain, the Corsair is hailing," she informed him.

"Put it on screen," Riker ordered.

Grace's features filled the screen, "'Lo Captain. Ready to rock and ruin?"

Riker chuckled, "If you mean 'ready to engage the cruiser' then yes, I am."

"That's what I said," Grace pouted.

"If you'll lead the way, we'll follow you in," Riker offered.

"Right," Grace said with some relish, "Tell Rhiann to keep up."

The Andorian gave Riker a thumbs up, "I do believe she's looking forward to it."

"Then let's be about it," Grace signed off and the runabout darted off. Riker smiled, "Follow her."

Rhiann's fingers danced across her LCARS CONN interface and the Obsidian began her pursuit.

Aboard the Troy, Captain Eneryo was in command of the ship and the squadron. The Carthage and the Karakorum were directed at the Enforcer frigates while the Zimbabwe and the Persepolis joined the Troy in engaging the heavy cruiser. Macen had been allowed to remain on the bridge as a mission specialist.

Guthrie and his SOCOMM troops were bolstering Security and preparing for a potential boarding action. Guthrie had recently learned that the SOCOMM units under his command had suffered seventy-five percent losses. While he'd only lost two crewmen, most of the six man teams had lost an average of four personnel. That included Lt, Wijra and Senior Chief Thorien, the SOCOMM commanders on the Zimbabwe and the Karakorum.

Aboard the Carthage, Master Chief Avila only had Crewman Aron 8 with her. The Zimbabwe's sole remaining SOCOMM member was Crewman Annetta. Lt. Greffar still had Crewmen Klytus and Vetris aboard the Persepolis. Crewman Kitra and Belerian were the survivors from the Karakorum.

"Mister Macen," Eneryo practically sneered the title even as she avoided his shipboard rank, "what do you estimate our chances to be against the Enforcer frigates?"

"I think you've sent those ships to their doom," Macen replied evenly, trying not to betray the emotions roiling just under his surface.

"I beg your pardon?" the Bolian captain was affronted. Her Tellarite XO was instantly in Macen's face.

"You'd best be explaining yourself before I have Security remove you from the bridge," Commander Caz beg Calig warned.

"Your forces are all rated by Starfleet as being of being classified as frigates. That's not their primary role but they can serve a secondary purpose as such. We classified Iridian ships as 'frigates' simply because they are the weakest link in the chain not because they possess corollary strength with a comparable Starfleet analog. Their analog would be a heavy cruiser just as their heavy cruiser could easily be ranked with our Galaxy- and Sovereign-class starships," Macen recited the facts and then moved on to analysis, "But that's not the real danger. The real danger is the Iridians' love of complex stratagems and traps. They'll expose themselves to harm in order to lure their prey in and spring a trap of massively destructive potential."

This amused Eneryo, "What I see is that you still refer to yourself as 'we' as though you still belonged to Starfleet Intelligence. You do not. You're a third rate privateer and you've obviously based your assumptions on your own pathetic ship and crew not on front line Starfleet forces."

"Except you're not front line forces," Macen sagely reminded her.

She sniffed derisively, "We are today." She cocked her head in Calig's direction, "Have Mister Macen escorted to the Security Office."

"Shall I have him placed in the brig?" Calig gleefully asked.

"No," she honestly seemed to consider it as she weighed her options, "Let Commander Guthrie decide what to do with him."

Calig snapped his fingers and the on duty Security rating stepped forward to Macen's side. Macen shook his head, "Do not underestimate these people. The moment you do, it'll be the last mistake you ever make."

"We'll be certain to keep that in mind," Calig's words dripped with sarcasm. He turned to the rating, "Take him away."

The Starfleet vessels opened with a volley of torpedoes and phaser fire as they broke orbit. Unfortunately, their timing was off. The Enforcers got their shields up in time to minimize the effects of their weaponry. In turn they began retaliating with their polaron phasers. The deadlier polaron strikes quickly ate away at the starships' shields.

As if to add insult to injury, the Enforcers began to hammer away at the stricken starships with quantum torpedoes. The Starfleet ships only wielded photons so the higher caliber yields of the Enforcer torpedoes were devastating. It was during this general onslaught that the Karakorum began to maneuver ever closer to the Enforcer frigates. Constantly pummeling of their shields and the incessant demands of damage control parties distracted her commander from realizing he'd maneuvered his ship into a crossfire.

The Enforcers abandoned attacking the Carthage in order to concentrate their combined firepower on the stricken Karakorum. The Carthage flanked one of the Enforcer ships and began pounding at her broadside. It was far too little, far too late. Captain Becker ordered all hands to abandon ship as the shields collapsed. Even the emergency bulkhead shields were intermittently failing and a half a dozen crewmen had been lost to the void.

Radil was one of the hapless passengers fleeing the ship before the warp core lost containment. She did her best to calm those entering the lifepods. Having served under Macen's command, she was no stranger to losing a ship. It had been awhile and one never completely lost the queasy feeling in one's gut over such a loss. Now they could only hope the Enforcers were feeling merciful and wouldn't fire on the helpless lifeboats.

Meanwhile, the Troy, the Zimbabwe, and the Persepolis were fighting for their lives. Captain Eneryo was beginning to think the fight was an exercise in futility when the Obsidian sailed in an engaged the Enforcer heavy. The Corsair sailed past and headed for the debris field created by the Karakorum's demise.

Eneryo was galvanized into action. She hailed Commander Miller of the Persepolis and had her divert to reinforce the Carthage. Erin Miller was the ship's XO but she was in command since the Iridians had slain her captain. Miller complied without a word being said. Ten years ago she'd been a relatively junior officer who'd been promoted through the ranks because her superiors were all dead. It was a common story from the Dominion War. Eneryo could see in Miller's eyes the numb acceptance of what had happened to her CO and knew the Commander would do her duty or die trying.

"Damn it! We're taking a pounding," Forger observed between gritted teeth.

"Jaycee, keep pouring it in!" Riker shouted over the sound of shorting out systems and micro explosions, "Rhiann, see if you can give us some maneuvering room."

Rhiann grunted and did her best. Riker knew comparisons between her and Grace were unfair. The Andorian was highly skilled but Grace was a savant. Miller suddenly shouted out.

"Shields are collapsing!" she yelled.

Riker toggled the comm, "Parva, we need more power."

"You'll be lucky if we don't blow up in the next ten minutes," Parva snarled.

Explosions rocked the ship and everyone was thrown from their stations. Riker got to his seat first, "Report!"

"They sheared off the port nacelle," Forger said as she stared at her display. She and Riker exchanged a look. That meant the Obsidian was effectively stranded within this solar system. Riker commed Parva.

"Can you throw everything into propulsion and shields?" he asked the Orion engineer.

"I can but why?" she wanted to know.

"Just do it and prepare to abandon ship," he ordered.

"Captain, we can..." Forger desperately began but Riker held up a single finger to ward off her objections.

He hit the comm button again and made a ship wide announcement, "All hands, abandon ship. I repeat, all hands abandon ship."

He turned to Rhiann, "You're relieved."

The zhen stepped away with a confused look on her face.

Forger grabbed Riker's arm, "I am not letting you do this!"

His roundhouse punch caught her unprepared and she went down. Riker turned to Rhiann, "Get her to a lifeboat."

"Good luck, Captain," Rhiann offered as she gathered up Forger's nearly insensate form.

Riker looked around at the bridge officers milling about, "What are you waiting for? Get to your lifeboats!"

Riker sat down at the CONN and began plotting his course. He was taking the Obsidian down the throat of the heavy cruiser. He pulled up an auxiliary display and saw that all of the lifeboats were away. Now that his crew was as safe as they could get, he threw the ship into maximum impulse and guided the crippled surveyor at the Enforcer menace. Riker knew its threat was going to end one way or another in a matter of seconds.

"What are they doing?" Eneryo asked in bewilderment.

"It appears they're going to ram the cruiser," Calig observed.

"Are they mad?" Eneryo wondered.

"Maybe, but they're also our best hope of stopping these bastards," Calig opined. Eneryo considered his words. The Troy had taken a beating but her shields were still up and the secondary systems had engaged when the primaries went down.

"Status of the other ships?" Eneryo suddenly asked.

Calig checked his screens, "The Carthage is a gutted ruin. It appears her lifeboats made it off in time. The Persepolis crew is abandoning ship. A warp core breach is imminent."

"And the Zimbabwe?" Eneryo asked with little hope.

"Dead in the water," Calig grimly reported.

"And the two Iridian frigates?" Eneryo dreaded the answer but she had to know.

"Headed our way," Calig said with an air of finality.

Riker felt the familiar sensation of an annular confinement beam. Next came the all too welcome embrace of a transporter. He solidified to find McMasters peering at him.

"Are you all right?" the engineer inquired.

"Fine, thanks to you," Riker breathed a sigh of relief.

"Eric!" Grace shouted back into the runabout's cabin, "Haul your ass up here!"

McMasters grinned, "Duty calls."

Riker followed as McMasters planted himself at the OPS station. Riker sat down at Engineering.

"Excuse me, Captain, but you aren't in charge here so kindly keep your fat lip shut," Grace warned.

"Yes, ma'am," Riker crisply replied. Riker tried to sound upbeat but he was truly dismayed. Grace had quit being the Obsidian's Chief Helmsman because she adamantly refused to serve under him any longer. He thought they'd reached neutral corners of not an actual accord since then. Apparently that wasn't the case.

"Whoa!" McMasters shouted as the Obsidian buckled the heavy cruiser's shields and rammed the forward sections of the Enforcer ship. Iridian designs were similar to the newest generation Federation starship so their bridge modules were located at the center of an elliptical saucer that swept back into an engineering hull. The damage was severe enough to feed back into the drive section and destabilize the warp core. The ship was subsequently destroyed by an unchecked matter/antimatter annihilation reaction.

"Your plan worked, Captain," McMasters cheered.

"Unfortunately I'm fresh out of starships," Riker said glumly.

"Well, there's not a whole lot we can do. Somehow I think a lone runabout against two starships is a lot like throwing a spit wad at a tiger," McMasters commented. Grace suddenly broke into a huge smile.

"What're you grinning at?" McMasters asked in a dubious tone.

"Check your sensors," she instructed cheekily.

McMasters started to but the Corsair was suddenly overtaken and then passed by a wing of Lightning-class fighters. The Starfleet fighter squadron attacked the two remaining Enforcer ships.

McMasters gaped and Grace laughed, "Wait for it."

A Galaxy-class carrier and two Defiant-class escorts came in, phasers and torpedoes blazing. McMasters looked back at Riker, who was just as stunned as he.

"It's the Hood, the Monitor, and the Merrimack," Riker breathed.

"You knew!" McMasters accused Grace.

"Maybe," she teased.

"How could you know when I didn't?" Riker demanded to know.

"Macen told Celeste and Celeste told me," Grace explained as though it were the most simplistic thing in the galaxy.

The Monitor and the Merrimack unleashed their pulse phasers upon the frigates. Rascal Squadron yielded salvo after salvo upon them. The Hood took up station between the cloud of lifeboats and the Enforcer ships. The concentration of firepower bore fruit and the Iridians scuttled their ships rather than be taken prisoner.

Grace received a hail from Commander Verity Jones, the Flight Control Officer aboard the Hood she knew Jones had recently stepped down as CAG of the squadron and now served aboard ship rather than flying with her fellow pilots. It was a choice Liz Liefers had to accept when she'd become flight controller of the USS Intrepid. Grace had Liefers counsel Jones during the transition. From what Grace could tell from Jones' image, the flight controller was content but there was still an element of yearning in her eyes.

"Hello Hannah," Jones offered by way of greeting, "Glad to see you're still flying."

"I see your people neutralized the threat," Grace observed, "What happens now?"

"The shuttlebay is deploying all craft and we're mounting rescue operations. The Monitor and the Merrimack will cover us," Jones described what was to happen.

"Ooo-kay, but what about us?" Grace clarified.

"We've allocated space for in the shuttlebay. We're recovering the Rascals right now. As soon as they're done the shuttlebay flight controller will signal you and bring you in," Jones explained.

"We could actually coordinate in the rescue effort. We have emergency capacity for at least forty people," Grace offered her services.

Jones smiled, "I'll pass that along. Stand by."

"Thank you for that," Riker said softly.

Grace offered a benevolent smile, "With any luck we'll pick up Shannon, Rhiann, and Parva."

While that prospect thrilled McMasters, Riker was worried about his wife. Danan had nine lifetimes worth of experience so if anyone was safe, it would be her. Still, he felt a pang of worry. They'd been in combat and in combat anything could happen. He knew the situation was out of his control but he wouldn't relax until Danan was back in his arms.


Chapter Twenty

The survivors were staggered between the Hood's cargo bays. The Tenochtitlan-starships had an optimal crew compliment of 116. However, even the addition of the surviving SOCOMM and SID forces couldn't replace the losses endured and return the ships' complements to that number. The Karakorum's crew was herded into Cargo Bay One. The surviving members of the Zimbabwe's crew went to Cargo Bay Two. Likewise, the members of the Carthage went to Bay Three and the Persepolis crewmen went to Bay Four. The Obsidian's complement went to Bay Five.

Aboard the Troy, Captain Eneryo was arguing with the Hood's CO, Merry Limerick. Slamming her fist against her desk, the Bolian hotly declared, "I absolutely refuse to scuttle my ship!"

"Then we'll leave you behind and you can take your chances against the Enforcer reinforcements that are on their way and you know they're coming." Limerick coldly replied.

"You can't leave us!" Eneryo practically shrieked, "Your orders..."

"My orders were to bring back anyone I could safely and with minimal incidents," Limerick quashed her argument, "Your ship is severely damaged. You've lost auxiliary power and are surviving on your battery supply. You yourself stated that your engineers might be able to restore auxiliary power in two hours and main power within twenty-four hours." Limerick's eyes bored into hers, "We don't have that kind of time. If you're lucky enough to set out before an Enforcer war party arrives then you may transit out of this star system before they find you. Whatever the case may be, the rest of us won't be here to watch your demise."

"We can't abandon this ship!" Eneryo roared, "She's the last of her kind!"

Limerick studied her as she composed herself. The Bolian had leapt out of her seat as she thundered. Now she collapsed back into it, "This squadron represented every surviving ship of the Tenochtitlan-class. This ship, in turn, is the last of those. I will not abandon her."

"Then I suggest you ask for volunteers and allow the rest of your crew to transport from your vessel to mine," Limerick offered.

"Starfleet is not a democracy," Eneryo snapped.

"You ask for volunteers to stay and abide by those decisions or I transport the whole damn lot of you and throw you in the brig," Limerick's growing ire was revealed.

Eneryo's eyes narrowed, "Very well. Have your transporter chiefs stand by to receive the cowards that abandon ship."

Limerick ignored the slight and opted to celebrate any victory that he could, "I'll alert them."

Eneryo signed off and Limerick signaled Transporter Room One. The Troy only had one transporter versus the four aboard the Hood. The other three transporter room could continue recovering crewmen stranded in their lifeboats. The Monitor and the Merrimack had ceased patrolling the system and were rescuing crewman from the Zimbabwe.

Eneryo stood in the transporter room and scowled as crewmen filed in and took their positions on the transporter pads. She furiously typed onto a padd, recording their names and their crime of 'desertion'. After every name had been taken she'd transfer the list to the main computer and file charges with Starfleet Command. At least that was the plan before her padd got rudely ripped out of her hands.

Macen handed the padd to Guthrie, who threw it on the deckplates and shot it with his phaser. Macen met her imperious glare with a steely gaze. She saw a fortitude there she knew she couldn't match.

"Get out," he instructed.

"Are you telling me what to do on my ship?" she wanted to know.

"Yes, now get the hell out of here before Commander Guthrie and I throw you out," Macen ordered.

"I'll have you up on charges," she weakly threatened.

"So what?" he asked scornfully, "I'm a civilian. And quite frankly I don't think Guthrie gives a damn."

"Damn straight," Guthrie growled.

"You'll be hearing from me," Eneryo warned as she stalked out of the transporter.

"In a few hours we'll never hear from you again," Macen said sadly.

Guthrie knew from Joachim that Macen often navigated the realms of probability, a realm known as the Currents by the El-Aurian mystics, and he could very well be announcing Eneryo's ultimate fate. He started to say something when Macen glanced his way, "Time to gather your lambs, Commander."

Pizza, Andrews, Neflik, and Macen joined Guthrie on the pads and were swept away by a transporter beam.

The SOCOMM personnel were gathering in the Rascal Squadron briefing room. The Rascals had redeployed and had taken up the patrols the Monitor and the Merrimack had abandoned. There was a general clamor upon Guthrie's arrival. Crewman Annetta was the sole surviving SOCOMM member aboard the Zimbabwe and she had been transported to the Merrimack and had checked in from there.

Lt. Greffar had taken a preliminary head count and begun debriefing the SOCOMM troopers. Guthrie thanked the Capellan and had him carry on. Klytus spoke for Greffar's team just as Andrews spoke for Guthrie's. Guthrie contacted Commander Havelick and reported in with the Hood's XO. The normally gruff First Officer promised that Captain Limerick would contact him when he had time. The Elvin officer was debriefing the starship captains, including the Obsidian's Captain Riker. That news made Guthrie wonder about Macen. Would the El-Aurian be included in that brief or would he sit in on Guthrie's report, or perhaps both?

Macen was escorted to the Senior Staff Briefing Room. There he found Riker gathered along with the assorted Starfleet captains. Limerick waved him in.

"Please Commander, join us," he said.

Seeing that there was an empty seat next to Riker, he opted to occupy it. Macen knew Limerick. Their paths had crossed on several occasions. Although the last intersection had been before Macen's imprisonment, back when he was still Captain of the Obsidian. The Elvin was obviously adapting to Riker's place in the center seat well enough.

Macen recognized Lt. Commander Rory McLean from the Troy. The ship's Second Officer was present because both Eneryo and Calig had remained aboard the doomed science ship. Captain Colin Becker represented the Karakorum. While the acting CO, Commander Bell Tone, stood in for the Zimbabwe. Tone was also one of the other Elvins in Starfleet. Commander Erin Miller sat in on the Persepolis' behalf. Miller's older sister, Shvaughn, was captain of the Carthage. It wasn't unheard of for siblings to be in similar positions within the fleet. What was unusual was for them to serve aboard identical starships in the same squadron.

"Commander Macen, Commander McLean has advised us as to Captain Eneryo's decision. Would you care to comment?" Limerick asked.

"I don't have any comments that would be fit to be put in a report," Macen admitted. While the chuckles and grim smiles faded, Macen interjected his real concern, "I think it would be best of Commander Guthrie were to join us. As the CO of the SOCOMM element his observations should be included."

Limerick paged Havelick and was distressed to discover she'd sidelined Guthrie. He demanded that the SOCOMM officer be brought to the briefing immediately. While that element seemed to escape the shell-shocked surveyor captains, Macen noted that Riker had also observed that the fractious command structure aboard the Hood had gone unchanged.

Havelick had served as XO for eight years. And for eight years she had "interpreted" Limerick's orders and intentions, usually to his chagrin. Most of the senior staff had moved on to higher posts on other commands but Havelick remained. And as long as she decided to pursue her agenda of what she thought was best for the captain, she would never move past being a First Officer.

A yeoman brought Guthrie in. The only open seat was between Macen and Shvaughn Miller. He hesitated and finally committed himself to taking a seat. His lapse had been noticed. Captain Miller gave him a wry look while her sister's eyebrows went up. Guthrie ignored them and reflected.

Macen was the only one who hadn't had a reaction to his hesitancy. Andrews' words rang silently through his head. Sindis' machinations had killed Joachim, not Macen. Macen had, in turn, killed Sindis at the cost of his wife's life. The man had atoned for his alleged crime. He himself had lost his husband during the Dominion War and had met Joachim when the younger Dracas had been brought to a grief counseling session to mourn his progenitor. Guthrie had stayed with the group to console the newly bereaved and it had literally been love at first sight between him and Joachim.

"Commander Guthrie?" Guthrie started as Limerick repeated himself for what was obviously at least the second time.

"Sorry. I was lost in thought," Guthrie admitted.

"Yes, we could tell," Limerick wryly observed, "Are you fit or do you require medical assistance?" The unspoken do you need a counselor? was conveyed as well.

"I'd just as soon stay, sir," Guthrie implored.

"Very well, what can you tell us about the opposing forces?" Limerick inquired.

Guthrie relayed his observations and then deferred them to Macen, "Commander Macen is the true expert. He's faced Iridians on more than one occasion. He and his team liberated my force and assisted us in retaking the Starfleet vessels."

"Very well. Thank you for your candor, Commander," Limerick turned to Macen, "We're all ears."

"The Iridians love a good gambit," Macen stated, "It's doubtful that they'll content themselves to merely responding in this singular star system. We should expect them to intercept us at the border."

"Why would they do that?" Becker asked, "Isn't that too little too late?"

"They appreciate a challenge," Macen calmly explained, "Giving us an out within our grasp makes their victory sweeter when they cut us off and execute us within sight of our goal."

"It should also be noted that the border is no longer an issue," Limerick informed them.

All eyes turned to him and he grimaced, "Iridian forces crossed the border four hours ago. They engaged the allied fleet. As of our last communication with Starfleet Command, the Enforcers had inflicted heavy damage and the fleet was virtually crippled. The viable elements of the fleet were making repairs in a race to beat the Enforcer elements in the same straits. Starfleet's Third Fleet was bound for them as was the entire Treasury Guard."

"Who needs the goddamn Ferengi?" McLean grumbled, "It's not like the helped out in the first place."

"That's not fair!" Captain Miller snapped, "My acting Chief Engineer is a Ferengi exchange officer as is my OPS Officer. Tolk and Blud are among the most contentious officers under my command."

McLean bristled. Commander Miller spoke before he could, "What about the Cardassians and the Klingons?"

"The Klingons are scrambling what they can but with their heightened patrols along the Kinshayan border Starfleet isn't expecting much," Limerick responded.

"Shouldn't the Kinshaya be supporting their Typhon Pact allies along their borders with the Enforcers?" Bell Tone wondered, "After all, if the Iridians have attacked us, I doubt the Romulans and the Breen will escape unscathed."

"Our information is that simultaneous attacks were staged along the Romulan and Breen borders. Starfleet Intelligence estimates that it is a stratagem designed to cut off potential support from the Typhon Pact," Limerick passed along the assessment.

"The Iridians certainly don't understand the Typhon Pact," Commander Miller snorted, "They'd happily watch us fall and then dance on our graves."

"Maybe not," Macen interjected. All eyes snapped towards him and he ventured on, "The Typhon Pact sees the Iridians as a greater threat than the Federation and its allies. While it's true that the Pact would let us fend for ourselves in a straightforward contest of nations, they would also swoop in to pick the skeletons clean. They would fall on the depleted Enforcer fleet and secure one solar system after another while the Iridians recuperated. Taking them out before they can do that or ally themselves with us in an act of desperation is an appealing prospect."

The gathered commanders pondered that before Bell Tone asked, "What about the Cardassians?"

Becker had a Cardassian exchange officer as his XO just as Bell Tone had a Cardassian OPS Officer. Limerick took this into consideration as he explained that the Cardassian Militia was sending the Second and Fifth Orders to the Bajoran sector.

"Why is that?" Becker asked.

"Because a secondary force of Enforcers, shielded from sensor sweeps, gathered behind the invasion force. While the principle force fought us to a standstill, this secondary force deployed and his cutting a swathe across Federation space heading for Bajor," Limerick described the scene.

"The wormhole," Captain Miller breathed, "They're trying to contact the Dominion."

Limerick nodded, "Starfleet Command concurs. In the days up to this event, the Seventh Fleet was rebuilt and stationed at the mouth of the wormhole."

"What about Deep Space 9," McLean asked.

"DS9 is nearing completion in orbit around Bajor. It won't be back in place near the mouth of the wormhole in time to be of consequence. Attempting to move it there hasn't even been suggested," Limerick revealed.

"But the Defiant will be in place?" Macen asked.

Limerick knew of Macen's attachment to Ro so he felt a pang of guilt as he explained, "Captain Ro is the near space expert and dedicated commander of all defensive forces in Bajoran space."

"Do we know if the Iridians are aware of the status of the Dominion's borders?" Macen wondered.

"What do you mean?" Commander Miller asked. Seeing the reproving looks that she received she grew defensive, "What? Somebody had to ask it."

"What Commander Macen is reminding us of is that the Dominion closed its borders thirteen years ago. They haven't allowed any traffic in or out of their territory, commercial or military, since that time," Limerick stated.

"Then why do the Enforcers want to contact the Dominion?" Bell Tone wondered.

"Starfleet Intelligence's sources are highly limited but the suggestion is that the Enforcers feel they can present themselves as equals to the Founders and are willing to discuss an alliance to hand the Alpha and Beta Quadrants to a coalition of the Founders and the elusive Enforcer Masters," Limerick recited.

That subdued the tone of the room's occupants. Limerick attempted to rally them, "Captain Riker, Commanders Macen and Guthrie, I will now be debriefing my fellow officers. Riker and Macen, your crew complement is gathered in Cargo Bay Five. Commander Guthrie, I believe your people are still in the Squadron Briefing Room. My yeoman will show you to emergency bunking."

"If it's just the same..." Guthrie began.

"Commander, my Rascals need their briefing room back. Please vacate it," Limerick said as gently but firmly as possible.

"Yessir." Guthrie said crisply.

Macen and Riker held the lift for him as he exited the briefing room and crossed the aft section of the bridge. As the lift descended Guthrie turned to Macen, "Look, I was wrong about you. It took Andrews practically drop kicking me but I now realize you aren't responsible for Joachim's death. You actually killed Bertram Sindis and it cost you your wife. I guess he put us in the same position and we should find common ground."

He thrust out his hand, "You don't have to accept my peace offering but I'd be grateful if you did."

Macen gladly shook his hand as the lift stopped, "It's always a pleasure to work with you, Commander."

The doors opened and Guthrie exited. Macen and Riker continued on their way to the cargo bays. What they found was chaos. Security officers were stationed in the corridors, ostensibly to "assist" the newly arrived refugees but their true purpose was obvious to all.

The various Executive Officers handled crowd control and liaising with the ship's disaster relief coordinators. For the crew of the Troy, this task was made harder by the fact that their CO and XO were still aboard the crippled ship's futile struggle to bring her to life. With the Second Officer consulting with Captain Limerick, that left Lt. Sien, the Rigellian Vulcanoid Science Officer, in command.

Macen and Riker reported in with the coordinator assigned to Bay Five. She was an ensign and looked like she was just out of the Academy. Macen noted her frustration.

"Relax Ensign. Life will go one whether it's perfect or not," he grinned.

She mutely stared at him in shock for a moment and then a grin spread across her face, "Yes sir."

"Is everyone gathered, ensign?" Riker asked.

"Yes, I think so," she deflated, "Actually; no one is talking to me. A pair of women just came in from the Merrimack. They were tasked with recovering the Zimbabwe survivors."

Riker suddenly rushed into the cargo bay and the ensign yelped as he passed. Macen's smile disarmed her again, "His wife is probably one of those two women."

"Oh!" the ensign was surprised, "That makes sense."

"Did anyone else just arrive?" Macen tried not to get his hopes up to high, "From the Carthage?"

"Yessir. A runabout crew just delivered a group from the Carthage. One of them reported here," she informed him.

Macen broke into a grateful smile, "Thank you, ensign. I'll send Commander Forger out to confer with you."

"Thank you, sir," she called to his disappearing back, "It would be appreciated."

Rockford was unaccustomedly startled as arms swept her into them and she found a mouth upon hers. Recognizing Macen's taste and scent she gladly surrendered with a thought of ah, what the hell? She smiled giddily as he let her up for air.

"And here I thought Tom and Lees were making a scene," she teased.

"We could really make a scene," he hinted.

She laughed. It was a bubbling wellspring of her relief to see him again, "Calm down, big boy. There'll be time enough later. For now I just want you to hold me."

"As you wish, milady," he said as he tightened his embrace.

She gazed up at him, "You do realize that the Obsidian is gone?"

She saw sadness creep into his eyes, "She always did give her all for us."

This greatly amused Rockford, "You talk like the ship was alive."

"It's a captain thing," he retorted.

"But you haven't been captain for awhile now," she decided to pursue the matter, "I'm captain of my runabout. I don't think I'd even blink if it got blown up."

Macen smirked, "But you're a ground pounder at heart. Starships aren't your thing."

The look in her eyes told him he'd drawn a verbal saber with that comment. She riposted with, "And you're essentially an overblown analyst. So are you telling me you're grieving over your desk?"

"But it was a nice desk," he sniffled.

Rockford released a belly laugh, "I think we can get you a new one."

Grace had been observing all of this and decided now was the time to intervene, "Brin, will we get another ship?"

He met her imploring gaze, "You mean will we get another Nova-class ship?"

"Yeah, basically," she admitted.

"I doubt it," he answered honestly.

She was crestfallen and he gauged her reaction. Despite having stepped down as the Chief Helmsman, she still had an indelible love for the Obsidian. Or at least she'd had one. He decided to explain his comment.

"It's a question of supply and demand," he offered, "Starfleet has lowered the priorities for new Nova-class hull construction. No new civilian hulls have been built since the Borg invaded four years ago. The plain fact is no new Starfleet hulls have been constructed either."

Grace struggled with that reality, "But why?"

"With the threat of the Typhon Pact looming Starfleet had had to reactivate starships constructed fifty years ago. The Andorian succession took away some of those ships. This loss to the Enforcers only reduced the active forces even further. Starfleet is dedicating all of its shipbuilding resources into tactical cruisers. We can put in a request for a new surveyor but we'll be put in the queue with everyone else and that could take years to wade through."

"So this is it?" the anguish in her voice broke Macen's heart.

"We do have a ship in reserve, Hannah," Macen reminded her.

"Wha...what?" she stumbled over that concept.

"The Solstice is sitting in a hangar on Barrinor just waiting for somebody to fly her again," he offered a reassuring smile to go along with the news.

"But she's too small to handle the crew," Grace blurted.

Macen grinned. It was true. The Blackbird-class scoutship was designed to hold a crew of twenty-two, not the eighty members of the former crew of the Obsidian.

"We'd have to reduce the crew to fit the ship. Something along the lines of employing the team as crewmen and augmenting them with volunteers from the present crew," Macen eased her into his idea.

Her eyes went wide, "Who would be captain?"

"I was thinking that I would return to the fold," Macen said with an air of humility.

"Wait 'till I tell Rhiann!" Grace exclaimed and darted off.

"Hopefully Rhiann will be among the new crewmembers," Rockford murmured to Macen.

"She was on the list of prospective recruits," Macen divulged.

"This isn't some last minute back up plan," Rockford observed, "You've been mulling this over."

"I actually started thinking about it when I first got back to the team," Macen confessed.

"What about Tom?" she asked the obvious question.

Macen sighed, "Ideally he would have been left in place aboard the Obsidian."

"Well, that's not an option," she dryly remarked, "What's Plan B?"

"This isn't the first time Tom has lost a ship and crew. He doesn't take it well," he said. Rockford gave him an irked look to prod him into explaining further so he did, "I need to put him someplace where his talents are utilized but he can recuperate until he's ready to tackle command of a starship again."

"Logical," Rockford mused, "But where?"

A slight grin spread across Macen's face, "With Zyrain gone there's an opening aboard Serenity Station."

"You're kidding," Rockford deadpanned.

Macen shook his head, "The station needs a commander that can relate to the rigors the Outbound Ventures crews face every day."

"But I thought the top slot aboard the station was an administrator's post. That's basically a civilian's job," Rockford made her assessment.

"Not anymore," Macen advised her, "Kathy Tyrol made the administrator call and I went with it because I didn't see any imminent threats to the station. However, with the Romulans gunning for P'ris, and P'ris living aboard the station, that changes everything."

"Good point," Rockford conceded, "So when are you going to tell him?"

"Tomorrow when the sheer joy of seeing Lees alive has worn down a bit and the guilt has begun to creep in," Macen informed her.

"So he'll say 'yes' despite his better judgment," she surmised.

He grinned, "Something like that."

Rockford smirked, "You're a sneaky bastard. You know that?"

"Flattery will get you everywhere," he said with mock indignation.

"Oh, I know it," she said cunningly, "If we get a private room, we'll have a little I survived party and you can thank me afterwards."

Macen's expression was rife with Oh really? Rockford saw this and patted his cheek, "Trust me. I'll have you groveling for more."

He decided he liked the sound of that.


Chapter Twenty-One

Six hours after intervening, the Hood recovered her fighters and departed Atrocitus' solar system. Leaving at Warp 6, the Hood allowed the escorts to push out ahead. The gun slinging starships would be a fair match for any enemy ships encountered. The Hood was only fifteen minutes behind the Monitor and the Merrimack so she could rapidly reinforce their efforts with her own armament and her fighter wing.

The Troy still hadn't restored auxiliary power upon her siblings' departure. Minutes dragged on and became several hours before Limerick's Tactical Officer, Lt. Wreshander Ch'Aya, turned away from his board. The Andorian looked stricken.

Havelick was prowling around the bridge while Limerick exuded calm from the center seat. She saw Shan's distress and loudly inquired as to its nature. The Andorian informed the XO that he was receiving a distress call from the Troy. Havelick demanded that he put it on speakers.

Captain Eneryo could be heard shouting at whoever was listening to assist them. Screams could be heard behind her voice. There was a final series of screams and the signal died.

"There's nothing else, Commander," Shan reported with a ragged voice.

Limerick rose and surveyed his crew. Guilt shone on every face. They were all looking to him. Verity Jones carefully studied him. She'd been with the crew longer than anyone other than Havelick. She was also a commanding officer, albeit of a fighter wing. She knew the agony that Limerick must be feeling.

Limerick noted her empathetic gaze and nodded in her direction. That left Cho at OPS and Sanders at CONN. The other occupants of the bridge looked shell-shocked. Limerick knew he had to act or the crew would consume itself in its grief.

"The commander and crew of the Troy made their choice. Rather than exit an occupied system, they chose to risk it all for a crippled vessel. I would hope that this crew would not do likewise in similar circumstances. A ship is an object. It was once wisely said, 'Risk is our business.' And it is but I would trust that we would not take foolish risks for vainglorious causes. The remnant of the Troy's crew knew that this would probably be their fate. They knew that we could not support them yet they opted to go it alone. We will honor their memory and choose to overlook the rashness of their final choices. Carry on."

He turned to Havelick, "Commander, you have the bridge."

With that, Limerick went to his Ready Room, let the door close behind him, and he slumped behind his desk. The message light on his computer console flashed and Shan paged him, "Captain, you have a message coming in from the Merrimack."

"I'll take it in here," Limerick replied. He activated the screen and it went from its standard UFP symbol to an image of Captain Alec Prine looking for concerned.

"What can I do for you, Alec?" Limerick asked. He and Prine had worked closely together for years as Starfleet Intelligence's dedicated troubleshooters. Captain Hev Callas of the Monitor fleshed out their little group.

"I think the question is: what can I do for you, Merry?" Prine stipulated.

"I don't think that..." Limerick was suddenly cut off by Prine's sharp retort.

"Cut the crap, Merry. It was your call to leave Eneryo and her band of lunatics behind. That's got to be eating you up inside," Prine guessed.

Limerick sighed and sagged even further, "You have no idea."

"Look, Paige is running things over here and I can spare a few minutes but I think you have someone aboard that you really need to talk to," Prine suggested.

"I'm sure Counselor Wedge's staff is probably overloaded right now," Limerick replied.

"I'm not thinking of your ship's counseling staff," Prine dryly replied, "Right now you have a certain 'Listener' aboard. I think he could do wonders."

"Macen?" Limerick suddenly realized who Prine was referring to. Prine nodded and Limerick blurted out, "How could he help?"

Prine was decidedly amused, "Brin Macen lost his entire civilization, an entire insurrection, a career, several starships, and his wives. I think he could help you with coping."

Limerick mulled it over. After getting over Prine's usage of the term wives he began seeing the human's point. Macen had been dealing with life and death struggles for over eighty years that he knew of. As a commanding officer, he'd helped his people navigate the Delta and Beta Quadrants, he'd led an intel unit in the Maquis, he'd lost at least three aforementioned starships, and he'd endured losses at a highly personal level. Yet he kept going. He dealt with the losses and hadn't let them stop him. Rather, the misfortunes had caused him to flourish.

"I think I will talk to him. Thank you, Alec," Limerick decided.

"You can thank me by freeing up a member of your counseling staff and sending them my way," Prine requested.

"I'll talk to Lt. Wedge and see what I can arrange. Do you think Hev needs a counselor as well?" Limerick wondered.

Prine shook his head, "His crew is entirely Bajoran and they're all among the faithful. That got them through their time on the Resistance and I'm sure it'll do for now. Once we return to port I'll recommend to Hev that his people get assessed. He won't like it but he'll see it's done."

"I see," Limerick said with a tone that voiced his disapproval.

Prine grinned, "Rein in your prejudices, Merry. The Bajorans may be religious but they're also warm, caring people. Without their faith their culture never would have survived the Cardassian Occupation."

"I'll reserve judgment and bow before your expertise," Limerick slyly deferred.

"You're such an ass," Prine laughed.

Limerick playfully sniffed, "I am also senior in grade so you should be more respectful."

"That'll be the day," Prine scoffed, "Take care, Merry. Talk to Macen."

The screen reverted to the UFP seal and Limerick thought about it. Picard swore by the Guinan's skills. The El-Aurian bartender had left the civilian Starfleet Support Services Agency after the destruction of the Enterprise-D but she'd recently taken a position in an establishment located within Deep Space 3. She'd spent the intervening years at a bar called Sanguine on Beta IV.

Guinan had left Beta IV following the massive Borg invasion of four years ago. The colony had been destroyed by the Collective and only a handful of survivors had escaped destruction. While the Federation sought to rebuild the colony, Guinan had been severely shaken by her second near death encounter with the Borg. She'd departed for DS3 and never looked back.

The station's CO, Captain Alfonso Reyes, adored Guinan and sang her praises...sometimes quiet literally much to the chagrin of his paramour, Ro Laren. Ro was a close personal friend of Guinan's and made a point of seeing her every time she visited the station. Guinan in turn had toured Ro's commands, both old and new. Ro and Guinan had conspiratorially shared the opinion that the new, Bajoran designed station was a vast improvement over the Cardassian built Terok Nor turned Deep Space 9.

Limerick was familiar with Reyes. Reyes' grandfather was the infamous Commodore Diego Reyes of Starbase 47, also known as Vanguard, who violated the State Secrets Act and divulged the true mission of the Taurus Reach expansion. The uncensored account of Starfleet's encounter with the Shedai and Reyes' own authorization of the use of General Order 24 against the aliens had resulted in the extermination of all life on an M-class planet and the eradication of a Federation colony.

Diego Reyes had been court-martialed, stripped of rank, and sentenced to the New Zealand Penal Colony on Earth. The Klingons had liberated him, the Orions had given him sanctuary, and Lt. T'Prynn of Starfleet intelligence had arranged for his exile to Caldos. Alfonso Reyes had followed in his grandfather's footsteps, the first Reyes to enter Starfleet after the elder Reyes' fall from grace.

Alfonso Reyes had served aboard starships and space stations. He preferred space stations. His administrative talents made him a natural candidate for a station command of his own. As a Commander he'd led Starbase 52 for two years until he was promoted to Captain and offered any open slot that he desired. Commodore Westlake was stepping down at DS3 so Reyes leapt at the opportunity to serve there.

Deep Space 3 sat at the edge of the Federation's coreward frontier and it straddled the Romulan Neutral Zone. Life was rarely boring. Unlike his lady love, Reyes didn't have personal command of an auxiliary starship. Instead he had command authority over three starships assigned to his territory. They conducted exploration missions, colonial support missions, provided law enforcement, and protected the station. Reyes was more than happy with the arrangement since he knew he was out of his league on the bridge of a starship.

Given all of that, Reyes had surprised Limerick by not only seeking Guinan's advice but also heeding it on most occasions. The Elvin knew that Reyes was heavily influenced by Ro. Rumor had it the El-Aurian had only skipped out on moving to Deep Space 9 because of Quark. The Ferengi bar owner had become an institution aboard the station. He'd arrived while the Cardassians still administered the station and had stayed until its destruction. It was common knowledge that he'd already secured a billet aboard the new Prophet-class station.

Quark's had acquired such a reputation that the owner had been able to franchise his name. Of course, it helped that his brother was the Grand Nagus but it was also because Quark honestly cared about his patrons. Of course, a patron who felt appreciated was looser with their latinum. And Quark had a bottom line after all.

But Guinan had felt compelled to avoid competing with Quark so she'd enlisted Ro's help in seeking a new residence. Ro had guided her to DS3 and history had begun. Carrying letters of recommendation from Captains Picard and Riker as well as securing a personal appearance by Ro, Reyes had been persuaded to "suggest" to the owner of La Salsa that she hire Guinan. The owner had done so and now gratefully let Reyes and Ro dine for free.

Reyes had talked Limerick's curved ear off about Guinan. The Elvin knew all the usual fanciful tales about El-Aurians but there were so few of them left that he'd never encountered one for himself until he met Macen. Limerick had to admit that there was something to the man. Something that reminded him of the Elvin Elders. Elvins were a long lived race but they were in a separate class from El-Aurians. Limerick was over three hundred years old and was beginning to feel his age while Macen beat that by over a century and he was still in his prime.

But it was Macen's eyes that had seized Limerick's attention upon their first meeting. Macen's were alight with arcane knowledge. Macen knew things that he wasn't telling and his eyes twinkled with delight at the thought. They also shone with the clear light of experience. Macen had seen things no sentient deserved to see and yet he'd witnessed them and grown from them. Limerick could use that right now.

"Computer, locate Brin Macen," Limerick instructed.

The SID team's comm badges had been tied into the comm network and the Obsidian crewmen had been issued guest badges. The computer located Macen in the VIP quarters assigned to Riker and Danan. The Obsidian CO, along with the SID CO and the Starfleet captains, had been assigned to the VIP cabins aboard. Guthrie had declined one and had opted for the crew bunks set up in the cargo bays. The married couples had objected to the group arrangements but they'd basically been told to stow it until they arrived at Bajor.

The Hood, Monitor, and Merrimack had been ordered to the Bajoran Sector. Ro had fought the Enforcers to a near standstill but some of the Iridian ships made it through the wormhole. Admiral Jellico, acting as Starfleet C-in-C, ordered her to implode the wormhole despite the danger to the aliens dwelling within its realm. The so-called "Prophets" had once "removed" a Dominion fleet at Benjamin Sisko's request but there was no telling if they would do so again especially now that the Prophets no longer considered Sisko their Emissary.

Ro did as she was ordered and the wormhole permanently closed with a miasmic discharge of energy. The potential threat from the Dominion had been averted. From a practical point of view, it was no longer necessary to move DS9 out of Bajoran orbit and place it at the mouth of a wormhole that no longer existed. This meant the commerce directed at the station would also spill over to Bajor far more easily than before.

The Hood and her escorts had a thirteen hour transit before they reached Bajor. DS9 was up and running while engineering teams put in the finishing touches across the station. Admiral Leonard James Akaar, who'd overseen Ro's defense of the wormhole, was conducting an after action briefing aboard the station. Surviving elements of the Ninth Fleet would be present just as the Seventh Fleet would be represented. The Cardassians, Klingons, and Ferengi would all be there. Realistically Akaar, as Alpha Theater Commander, was seeking information so he could prosecute the next stage of this conflict. Limerick had learned Admiral Johnson and Ambassador Picard would be in attendance as well.

Limerick shoved aside the dark thoughts of war. All out conflict could still be averted. After all, that had been Johnson and Picard's mission. Of course, the Iridians had struck during the negotiations. Limerick dimly recalled something in human history of a group attacking another group at a location called Pearl Harbor during peace talks. He couldn't remember the nations states involved but he had visited the memorial while at the Academy on Earth.

As Limerick dimly recalled, the resultant conflict had yielded earth's Violent Atomic Age that had ended with their Third World War shortly before First Contact with the Vulcans. The war against the Dominion had not spurned the use of biogenic agents or other weapons of mass destruction but the Maquis conflict had. How Sisko had gotten away with unleashing a biogenic weapon, even in response to the Maquis' previous use of one, was beyond Limerick.

The Borg conflict had resulted in the proliferation of transphasic weapons. Like the slipstream drive, these weapons were entirely the purview of the Federation but it was only a matter of time before her allies, and her enemies, gained access to the technologies as well. Amongst the allies, the Cardassian Union was pressing hard and fast for technology transfers. Meanwhile, the Typhon Pact's best minds were working on the problem as well.

Limerick tried to shove such concerns aside for at least a few moments. He stepped out of his Ready Room and quietly conferred with Havelick and then he entered the turbolift and proceeded to Deck Five Section Eight. There, he found the cabin assigned to Tom Riker and his wife. If he'd known what was transpiring inside, he may have hesitated before touching the door chime.

"You want me to what?" Riker couldn't believe his ears, "You honestly want me to take over command of Serenity?"

"Yes," Macen calmly affirmed the request.

"It's a space station!" Riker yelped.

"I am aware of that," Macen dryly reminded him.

Danan and Rockford were staying very quiet. Danan remained silent because she knew Riker had to make this decision of his own accord. Rockford just felt Macen was better qualified to persuade Riker than she was. Her own history with the starship captain was rather turbulent owing to their conflicts while she led the SID team.

"I'm a starship captain," Riker insisted.

"But will you accept a starship command right now?" Macen asked as if he already knew the answer.

Riker blinked. The question caught him cold and Macen knew it. Riker looked to Danan with an imploring gaze. She smiled her encouragement but she already knew the answer as well.

"No," Riker admitted defeat, "Not yet." He shook his head in disgust, "Dammit."

"That's what I thought," Macen said in a neutral tone, "Tom, you're too vital of an asset to let lie around while you get your head back together and take command of another ship. Zyrain is gone and Serenity needs a new CO."

"But it's a civilian post," Riker countered.

"In case you hadn't noticed, Captain, you're also a civilian," Macen chuckled. Seeing a glint of acknowledgement in Riker's eyes, he pressed on, "Kathy and I agree that P'ris' presence and the Romulans' hard on for her militarizes the situation aboard Serenity. It has also become glaringly apparent that the station CO should also be familiar with the rigors that the Outbound Ventures crews face every day." Macen paused for effect and then added, "I'm not asking you to take permanent command. When you're ready to move on, we'll find a replacement for you and transfer you to a ship."

Macen suddenly smiled slyly, "And just so you know, the Indomitable has been assigned as the station's permanent protector. You'd be in command of her."

Riker suddenly smiled. He'd briefly commanded the Indie before his return to the Obsidian as her captain. The Indie had been constructed in an era where the "Escorts" weren't dedicated warships but rather smaller ships designed to draw fire off of the ships of the line. She was a tough little cookie and could slog it out with ships three times her size.

"I think I could live with that," Riker admitted. He began to seriously consider the option, "Who would be XO? Is Shannon going to be available?"

"Shannon already has a posting," Macen said gently.

"With whom?" Riker indignantly wanted to know.

"She's the newly appointed Exec aboard the Solstice," Macen supplied the answer.

"The Solstice?" it took Riker a moment to recall that Macen had arranged for a replacement for the first vessel that bore that name. She was even of the same class and had the same adaptations as the original. She was also Macen's personal command. He pointed at the El-Aurian, "Your ship?"

"Yup," Macen proudly said.

"Does she know what she's getting into?" Riker asked with some dismay.

Macen smirked, "She did serve as my XO for a couple of years before I was, shall we say, relieved of command?" Seeing that Riker's concerns were not alleviated, he pressed on; "Shannon's father ran the shipyards that designed and produced the Blackbird-class. She's been weaned on stories about them."

Riker had to grudgingly concede that there were plenty of those. The scoutships had served on the frontier between the Cardassian Union and the Federation during the Border Wars. When the war with the Tzenkethi broke out, the scouts served at the forefront of that conflict as well. Despite their small size, they were in fact twenty meters shorter than the Defiant-class ships; they were rugged and highly formidable. It had taken a ship class the caliber of the Saber-class to replace them.

Macen had first gained control of a Blackbird-class scout with the civilian registry of the NDR-17017 SS Odyssey when he stole the ship from a Section 31 bone yard. That move had begun the brief conflict between himself and S31. The Odyssey served as Macen's command throughout the bulk of the Maquis conflict. She'd been pressed into Starfleet service as the SID's first undercover vessel. She'd also been subsequently destroyed on her first mission.

Macen's team had briefly utilized a Ju'day-class raider such as those used by Chakotay, Michael Eddington, and Ro Laren. It was then that Riker had been brought into the team as the ship's captain. That vessel too had been destroyed. The original Solstice had been brought into play at that point. She'd died rescuing Macen and T'Kir from the Orion Syndicate. She'd been replaced not only by a namesake but also by the Obsidian.

The Obsidian became the team's primary asset while the Solstice was subsequently relegated to secondary duties as Macen's personal ship. She'd seen action in the Cell 51 crisis and occasionally when Macen took her on a jaunt. Riker knew of Starfleet's desperate recommissioning of any and all vessels they could lay their hands on. Intellectually he'd known that their getting a new vessel was a slim hope. It just seemed strange to have the Solstice back in action again.

"Can I at least have Parva as my Chief of Operations?" Riker whined.

"Nope," Macen grinned.

"Gilan?" Riker was getting desperate now.

"'Fraid not," Macen lipped off, "Let me save you some time. Besides the aforementioned staff, Jaycee and Edwin have also signed on."

Riker just stared at him. Macen offered him a bone, "At least Gerrit Gren is available for Chief of Security. The station needs a new chief now that Delequoi is retiring."

"Gee, thanks," Riker grumbled.

"Chris is available for Chief of Operations," Macen reminded him.

Frankly, Riker had never considered Christino ard'Vret. The Andorian rubbed him the wrong way. But Parva sang his praises so he couldn't be all bad.

"I'll take it under consideration. Now what about an Exec?" Riker wondered.

Macen and Rockford looked at Danan. She gaped at them. When her husband added the weight of his imploring gaze she held up her hands in awarding gesture, "Ohhh no. I'm done with that bull crap. I'm a scientist, specifically I'm a stellar cartographer, leave it at that."

"The only problem is that Serenity's home system is pretty much mapped out. So is everything around it until you hit the Black Cluster and the Breen Confederacy," Macen sagely reminded her.

Danan gave him a cold glare and then she met Riker's eyes. She heaved her shoulders and sighed, "All right, damn you. I'll do it.

Riker rose and swept her up into a bear hug. After extricating herself from his embrace she distanced herself from him. Stabbing a finger into his chest she declared, "But you're doing your own goddamn paperwork."

"Of course," he said blithely.

She shot him the stink eye, "Don't 'of course' me. Shannon told me what kind of shape the personnel records were in when she took over."

He held up his hands in surrender, "Hey, I was First Officer and pretty much the acting Captain before she took over. I didn't have time to keep meticulous files."

"Yeah, yeah," Danan said scornfully, "Somehow Shannon manages to."

"Well, Shannon is...unusual in several areas," Riker said defensively.

"Here we go again," Danan rolled her eyes.

"What?" Riker was trying to figure out what he'd said.

"Never mind. As long as you're not judging her by her penis," Danan asserted.

"I never thought I'd hear anyone say that," Riker muttered.

"Thomas William Riker!" Danan scolded him.

Riker hung his head. There were some days when he just couldn't win. James T. Kirk was dead wrong. There were no win scenarios.

The door chimed and Riker opened it and Limerick stood outside, "Am I interrupting?"

"No," Riker gratefully replied even as Danan said, "Yes," from within the quarters.

"How can I help you?" Riker inquired.

"Actually I'm looking for Commander Macen," Limerick hesitated.

"Actually, he's taking command of a ship so he'd be 'Captain' again," Riker said helpfully.

"I see, but is he inside?" Limerick asked.

Macen shouldered past Riker, "How can I help you, Merry?"

"Do you have time to talk?" Limerick wondered.

"I have nothing but," Macen replied, "Shall we move to your quarters?"

Limerick nodded, "I think that would be best."

"After you," Macen smiled and then he turned and addressed the occupants of the VIP cabin, "Try to leave him alive, ladies."

The door closed and Riker turned around to realize that Rockford had suddenly taken Danan's side and they both looked as though they wanted to rip him a new one. He looked towards the ceiling, "No one said it would be easy."


Chapter Twenty-Two

The Hood and her escorts arrived safely at Deep Space 9. Roughly seventy-five percent of the station was habitable at that point. Ops was functioning and the habitat sections were fully equipped. The remaining work was being done on the defensive systems and the cargo areas surrounding the docking rings.

"Rings" was the operative word. The Prophet-class design had been inspired by the Immense-class stations. The station's core was similar to Spacedock's centralized design. But like the Immense-class stations it had gantries that led to saucer-like pods. There were four pods stretching forth from fifty meters below the lower lip of the mushroom styled shroud that housed the Ops dome and the interior Starfleet docking facilities.

Below the docking pods were a ring of dry-dock style construction housings ringing the shaft that comprised the length of the station. Its core was equal in proportions to Spacedock and its gantries stretched out to widen its scope even more. The new Deep Space 9 was easily the largest space station the Federation had ever built and with the collapse of the wormhole, Starfleet Command and the Federation Council had to be questioning the wisdom behind its construction.

Politically, it had been an uphill battle to get construction authorized in the first place. The Bajorans shamed the Federation Council's Appropriations Committee into action by declaring they would build a station even if Starfleet didn't. Councilor Adoman Thrax vehemently opposed constructing a new station and had advocated that the system's traffic control duties be placed on Bajor. He was humiliated into recanting that position when he was confronted with the plain fact that the station had been destroyed by the Argyn. The same Argyn his nephew Adolae had provoked into a violent conflict that had reduced the already decimated Starfleet forces by another half. The very same Captain Adolae Thrax that Adoman had used his position to blackmail Starfleet into promoting his nephew well above and beyond his natural ability. A series of promotions that had cost thousands of lives.

Thrax knuckled under and DS9 was built. The Bajorans still saw the station has having a completely viable purpose. Their solar system represented the outer edge of the Federation's territory in the Alpha Quadrant. As such, the station served as a hub of exploration and colonization. A dozen Starfleet vessels had set out from Bajor over the last few weeks, led by Captain Data and the Enterprise-E, and were moving beyond Cardassian and Bajoran territory into the unknown. Then-Commander Sisko and his crew had ventured out that way despite pressure to explore the Gamma Quadrant. The reports from the exploration effort were already yielding potential friends and trade agreements.

The Cardassians were pursuing rapprochement with the unconquered worlds on their borders while the Ferengi were busy plundering their pocket books. In the areas beyond Bajor the Ferengi were dogging the heels of the Starfleet explorers. Even the Cardassians were joining in. The situation had so destabilized First Contact with dozens of worlds that President Bacco was holding side meetings with Castellan Rekena Garan and Grand Nagus Rom while dealing with the Iridian incursion and its fallout.

Martok seemed content to merely sit back and glower with the human drew a line in the proverbial sand. Starfleet Intelligence had contacts within Federation Security, namely Alyssa Munroe's sharing Elias Vaughn's bed, so the news out of the meeting of the Chiefs of the Khitomer Accords was beginning to look grim. Both the Cardassian Castellan and her Ferengi counterpart insisted that their activities were "due" them for agreeing to the alliance in the first place. If there were to be no rewards for joining, then why should they stay?

That attitude had spread through Central Command and the Treasury Guard. Akaar met with Legate Macet and Treasurer Fob as well as with General Kritok of the Klingon Defense Force. Each of them brought their subordinates. Admiral Nechayev sat in as well with her aide, Commander Prentiss. Admiral Johnson sat out but Picard represented the Federation Diplomatic Corps. Ro represented Starfleet's assets in the local area.

Admiral Johnson joined Admiral Amanda Forger in a special meeting attended by Captains Limerick, Prine, and Hev. The CO's of the obliterated Tenochtitlan force were debriefed by specially selected Starfleet Intelligence officers. Afterwards, Macen and Riker were personally debriefed by Forger.

"Jesus Brin, another ship lost?" Forger grimaced, "And another change up for your team as you go back to the Solstice?"

"It actually fits our cover better than the Obsidian," Macen countered, "The rest of the corporate ship handlers utilize decommissioned Starfleet hulls from the same era as the Blackbird-class. Why should our group be excluded?"

Forger hated to admit that he had a point. The Outbound Ventures crews used Starfleet starships dating from the Earth years 2305 to 2330 so having them use the Blackbird-class scoutship whose design dated from 2318 made perfect sense. She also knew that the Solstice had been completely refitted since its days as the USS Charon in Starfleet service.

The Solstice could exceed Warp 8, which was its designed limitation. It possessed a Class 4 Klingon cloaking device and, unlike its previous brethren, had atmospheric maneuvering and landing capabilities. Coupled with a state of the art sensor platform, the ship was quite formidable.

"And I suppose you'll be captain of the ship again?" Forger warily inquired.

"Yup," Macen happily confirmed it.

"Damn," Forger muttered. Seeing she was being observed she straightened out, "How soon can your group be operational again?"

"We do need a ride back to Barrinor," Macen quipped, "That's where the Solstice is being stored."

Forger looked nonplussed and then Macen grinned, "The crew can ride back aboard the Corsair."

Forger glanced over at Johnson, "How does that fit in with McKinley's timetable?"

Johnson wore a slight grin, "Jellico already cut Jim's orders. The Intrepid is to ferry Jean-Luc and I to the Enforcer's Gamma Base on Tekik."

Tekik was a world within the Enforcer Territories. It was twenty light years beyond the former border that existed before the Enforcers' recent expansion. The primary that Tekik orbited around was labeled LTXR-423337691-B by Federation stellar cartographers. It was a G1 yellow mainline star paired with a K9 orange giant. Tekik orbited its star in one hundred eighty-nine standard days with a six day period of tidal unrest as the planet passed between the binary pair of stars.

The gamma base on the world served as a theater command. It had long been suspected that an Enforcer Master might be stationed there. When Riker questioned the wisdom of sending yet another diplomatic mission in the wake of the last treacherous disaster, Forger opted to share these details.

Johnson also filled in a few blanks, "The Iridians asked for these talks. They accepted our offer before but this time the imitative came from them."

"And why is that?" Macen inquired. Seeing the admirals' irked reactions, he amended his statement, "Hypothetically?"

Forger cast a wary eye Riker's way, "What I'm about to disclose doesn't leave this room. Got it?"

"Don't look at me," Riker huffed, "I understand operational security. Talk to Lover Boy here that blabs everything to his girlfriends."

Forger shifted her glare to Macen, who refused to wilt; "Much to Celeste's relief, I refrain from telling her anything she isn't cleared for."

"Are you certain? Will she try to get it out of you later?" Forger demanded to know.

"Despite everyone's expectations to the contrary, Celeste isn't T'Kir. She can control her curiosity and she doesn't share a telepathic rapport with me. She understands operational security better than Tom," Macen said with an edge to his voice, "What's with the fifth degree, Amanda? Celeste ran the team during my imprisonment."

"And that factor, among others, got your team derailed to the sidelines," Forger finally admitted what Macen had long suspected.

Knowing that he was one of those factors, Riker took umbrage with her depreciative tone, "Now see here...!"

"Captain, you were the one that refused every mission offered you," Forger coolly reminded him, "You didn't want to work for Starfleet and you received what you asked for. Don't play the martyred soul now."

"Let's clarify something here, Amanda. You've been against my team since I was sent to the penal colony and you have been hostile ever since I was freed. You arranged for my Letter of Marque to be reissued and you reinstated me to the SID roster. Since these facts are in evidence, what is causing you to be a royal pain in the ass?" Macen suddenly interjected.

"You were convicted of murder, Brin. That speaks for itself," Forger retorted.

"It was also overturned," Macen reminded her.

"On a technicality. You were convicted of killing Bertram Sindis not his clone. You didn't kill Sindis but you did kill the clone in a rather cold blooded fashion according to eyewitnesses and your own statements. You were freed only because Starfleet's evidence against you was so tampered with that another conviction was a sketchy proposition," Forger grated.

"And then you sent me to kill Sindis. So what's your moral quandary here? That he died or that I got caught in the first attempt?" Macen decided to seek clarification.

"Getting caught was damn sloppy!" Forger snapped, "How'm I supposed to trust you now?"

A knowing grin spread across Macen's features, "So it wasn't the act. It was getting caught."

Forger squirmed and Johnson looked decidedly uncomfortable with the conversation. Bob Johnson dealt with the law abiding portion of the Federation not the slogging through the filth and mud that the SID typically dealt with. It was a long drop from the lofty heights to the gutter.

Johnson cast a sideways glance at Forger. She grimaced, "You know murder or attempts of murder are illegal. You were never contracted to kill Sindis."

"No, I was told to use any and all means necessary to neutralize him," Macen recalled, "There aren't many gray areas to be found there."

Johnson tried to suppress a smirk as Forger flushed at being openly caught at issuing blatantly illegal orders. Both Forger and her mentor, Alynna Nechayev, frequently skirted illegality in their operations. Nechayev's Starfleet Intelligence was overseen by a special commission within the Federation Council as well as direct oversight from the C-in-C and the Council of 5, a body that both Forger and Nechayev belonged to.

The SID only answered to Nechayev and the Council. This gave the organization great latitude. It seemed that perhaps it had a little too much discretion. Johnson decided not to pursue the matter now but perhaps it was time the Council as a whole reviewed the SID's recent actions. Lord knew Johnson's own mentor, Starfleet Security Director Edward Noyce, had wanted to do so for some time now. Only Johnson and Akaar's ambivalence had kept Noyce from pouncing.

Johnson still wasn't quite certain where Akaar would fall on the matter. The Capellan seemed to give Nechayev and her protégé wide berth. Perhaps it was the circumstances of his own birth but Akaar seemed more accepting of certain irregularities than his predecessors in his position. Jellico was his direct antecedent in the post of Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander. Jellico had moved to the top slot afterwards. Many expected Akaar to follow Jellico's path as well.

Jellico hadn't fared well as Starfleet C-in-C. The Borg had attempted to annihilate all sentient life in the Federation shortly after his taking office. The Typhon Pact had been forged in fire and constantly threatened the interests and security of the Federation. The Argyn had struck mere months ago pushing an already shaky Starfleet teetering towards the edge of destruction.

Although, Jellico had suggested vital concessions that President Bacco had utilized to secure the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance's signing the Khitomer Accords treaty. Jellico's own hard won experience with the Cardassians had proved invaluable in dealing with Castellan Garan. Captain Sisko had provided insights into Grand Nagus Rom's character and interests. Rom had greatly surprised Bacco and the Federation negotiators by being quite an atypical Ferengi. Of course, the mere fact that he had a Bajoran wife should have been an obvious clue to that effect.

Johnson's thoughts shifted back to the present day's concerns when Forger growled, "I don't think Admiral Johnson wants or needs to review that particular contract."

Macen flashed her an Oh really? look that Johnson inwardly echoed. She shook her head, "This may come as a surprise to you but you can be replaced. You spent two years on a penal colony and the SID got along without you."

"Yet the very first thing you did upon my release was to personally come and pick me up, reinstate me, and give me the contract to deal with Sindis," Macen reminded her, "It truly does seem I'm no longer needed."

Macen rose and started to exit the briefing room and Forger called after him, "Sit down, you prima donna. All right, you're needed. At least for one more contract."

Macen sat down and looked to Riker, "Can't you just feel the love?"

"Brin, this is serious," Forger implored. She reached over to a stack of padds that were near her elbow and she slid one to Macen. Another went to Johnson. Riker waited expectantly but then he realized that he wasn't getting one.

"Sorry Captain. But you're no longer a starship commander. Since Serenity Station won't be involved that means you're time with us here today is over," Forger formally declared.

Riker just stared at her and she adopted a rueful expression, "That means you're dismissed."

Riker looked wounded as he excused himself. Macen watched his friend's back as he withdrew. The El-Aurian gave Forger a scolding look, "You could've been a little nicer."

Forger rolled her eyes, "It's bad enough that I have to coddle you. I don't have the time or energy to make Thomas Riker feel good."

Macen's stare intensified. Forger sighed, "I'll send him a fruit basket, okay?"

"It's a start," Macen conceded.

"If that crisis has been averted, can we get down to business?" Forger wanted to know.

"I have a question," Johnson suddenly announced.

Forger looked pained, "Shoot."

"Who came up with this plan?" Johnson incredulously wondered.

"Admirals Jellico and Nechayev came up with the basics. I fleshed it out as new details came in, like the destruction of the Obsidian," she shot Macen a glare.

"Hey, I wasn't even aboard her when she was immolated," Macen pointed out the obvious.

"Harrumph," Forger retorted, "You're to blame for it though. I just can't prove it yet."

"She wasn't even my ship anymore," Macen shot across her bow, "Why would I want her destroyed?"

"To get your own command," Forger accused, "You've been hanging on to the Solstice for years just in case this happened."

"You have to remember she came in handy during the Cell 51 crisis," Macen pointed out.

Johnson grinned. He owed his freedom and his life to that ship. But he wisely understood now was not the time to rehash that particular history.

Forger looked pained, "Yes, she did come in handy. The question is: is she up to this task?"

Macen smiled, "Even better than the Obsidian would be. Remember, the Solstice has a Klingon cloaking device."

"Which directly violates the Treaty of Algeron," Johnson mused.

Macen's smile grew, "But she's not a Starfleet vessel. She's a civilian scout and like most civilian ships she's in violation of a regulation or two."

Johnson put his fist to his mouth to hide his sudden grin. Forger hung her head. Were all of her operational secrets going to be laid bare today? In front of a tentative ally at best?

Johnson decided to console Forger, "Don't worry, Amanda. I won't report you." He shot a bemused look towards Macen, "Or you."

"You should've thought that way when I decided not to kill you, contrary to orders," Macen bantered.

"Duly noted," Johnson allowed despite feeling Macen should have tried harder to keep Felkor III out of the Typhon Pact's grasp. Then again, the Pact announced their presence in the system by decloaking a flotilla. The Intrepid and the Obsidian were simply outgunned and the incident could have led to an all out war.

"Can we get back to business?" Forger plaintively asked.

An hour later, they'd hammered out the details of the proposed mission. Macen was given a second padd. This one with his contract to undertake the mission which he accepted on the spot. He then went in search of his teammates and crew. They were to depart within a two hour window.

Ro intercepted him as he was wandering about the new Promenade, "What do you think?"

He stepped and graced her with a smile. He could hear the pride in her voice. Not only that she had a new command but he suspected that part of it was the pride that all Bajorans felt at the station being designed by one of their own. The Bajorans had never designed and built a space station even before the Cardassian Occupation. Terok Nor had grudgingly become accepted as Deep Space 9 out of practicality. But a lot of national pride had gone into this creation and deservedly so. He told her as much.

"Starfleet's thinking of using the design in new locations in lieu of the old Immense-class." Ro said with a ready grin.

"I hear you did good work today, Captain," Macen never tired of emphasizing her rank. Despite her holding it in the Maquis, she'd only been a Starfleet lieutenant at the time. Ro had been grateful to reach lt. commander and then surprised to achieve the rank of commander. With that promotion had come command of the old DS9. Captain had seemed out of her grasp to her despite everyone else rather expecting it.

"I could say the same, Captain," Ro grinned. Seeing Macen's surprise, "I ran into Celeste and she let me in on the news."

"I thought you didn't like her," Macen admitted.

"No, I didn't trust her. That's changed," Ro confessed, "So, another Blackbird-class ship? That should dredge up memories.

"Have no fears, Laren, I know full well that the Maquis are dead and gone. I won't be haring around the galaxy looking for lost causes to defend," Macen promised.

"No more than you already do," she teased with a smirk. She grew serious, "A little bird told me you have a new contract behind enemy lines."

"And who told you that?" Macen wondered who he was supposed to chastise.

Ro laughed as though she could read his thoughts, "It was Admiral Nechayev, so you can take it up with her."

Macen grinned. Okay, so maybe she could read his thoughts, "Point taken." He also grew serious, "Seeing as how you've seen Celeste, do you know where my little lost lambs are?"

She chuckled, "Follow me. It'll give me a chance to show off the new digs to you."

"Lead on and I shall follow," Macen said theatrically.

She rolled her eyes, "If only you'd been this compliant in the Maquis."

He grinned, "Where's the fun in that?"


Proceed to Part IV


Last modified: 02 Jan 2014