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Cat & Mouse - Part IV 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 Twenty-Three

Tessa had also been saved before the Obsidian was destroyed. The EMH program was constantly being backed up on an isolinear rod and Galen 3 rushed to Sickbay to retrieve it when the evacuation order was given. Riker had been very relieved to hear of it but then became angry as Macen explained to him that she would now be serving aboard the Solstice.

"You've had holographic projectors installed aboard the Solstice?" Riker growled, "How long have you been planning this move?"

"For awhile," Macen confessed.

"Were you ever going to tell me?" Riker thundered.

The rest of the Corsair's passengers were staying out of the runabout's modular Sickbay while the two CO's fought it out. Not even Danan and Rockford were in their company. The two had mutually agreed that the guys needed to hash it out their own way. Although, Brin is armed and Tom isn't, Rockford mused to herself. Danan's face betrayed her thoughts in that direction.

"You don't need Tessa aboard Serenity. You have Kort as your CMO. Also, the Infirmary isn't equipped with holoprojectors. Only Quark's has any," Macen reasoned it out for him.

"It isn't a matter of need, dammit! I would've liked to have an option," Riker insisted, "You already stole Shannon and Rhiann. I won't even get into Jaycee or Edwin's defection."

Macen gave him a rueful look, "I approached them after the Obsidian was destroyed and we were all barracked aboard the Hood. They want this opportunity. You didn't even have a command lined up yet so how is that stealing from you?"

"Stop being so damn logical!" Riker demanded, "I can never win an argument with you."

"And that's what this is really about, isn't it?" Macen inquired.

"Maybe," Riker said sulkily.

"Your day will come, Tom. You just need to react less and analyze more before thrusting your opinions out there. As my XO and as CO of the Obsidian you were in positions where you ultimately shared authority. You won't have that aboard Serenity. You'll be the final arbitrator of policy. Of course, there will be cases where you can bounce things off of Kathy to see what the corporation's official position is but for the day in, day out sort of thing, it'll be incumbent upon you," Macen shared, "Do you think you're ready for that?"

"Do you?" Riker sniped.

"Actually, I do," Macen surprised him; "You've been ready for some time. That's why sharing ultimate responsibility was awkward. You're your own man, Tom Riker. It's time you recognized yourself as such."

"But my solo commands were utter failures," Riker bemoaned.

"You let the ghosts of the SID team linger with you. Learn to let go and accept your current command as entirely your own," Macen urged, "Great things can happen if you do."

Riker mulled it over. What Macen said made sense. There were elements of what he'd said that Riker wanted to argue with but he recognized the truth upon hearing it. Even aboard the George Kelly and the Indomitable, Riker had looked through a lens shaped by his experiences with the SID. It was time to let go and embrace the future. Commanding Serenity might revolutionize his life.

He grinned, "Okay, I'm in."

"All in?" Macen used one of Riker's poker euphemisms.

Riker chuckled. He knew Macen hated poker for the simple reason that El-Aurians were barred from every casino across the Federation. They were allowed to play the roulette wheels or dabo, but anything involving people who could be "read", strictly forbidden.

"Yes, I'm all in," Riker assured him.

"Okay, now that that's settled, maybe we can alleviate the crews' concerns by making a joint appearance," Macen said dryly.

"Did they really think we'd come to blows?" Riker asked with good humor.

"I think the prevalent theory was that I'd gun down an unarmed man," Macen offered.

"Would you?" Riker was curious.

"In a heartbeat," Macen admitted.

Riker and Danan said their farewells from the dual transporter pads in the Corsair's cockpit. Forger hugged Riker goodbye while Danan and Macen embraced. The others said formal farewells and wished each other well. The couple was transported to the transporter pads in Serenity's Ops module. Riker assumed command within moments of arrival and ushered in a new era as he announced that Danan was the new Executive Officer.

Chris had accompanied the crew and he beamed over as soon as the commanding duo exited the transporter pads. Rhiann had a quiet word with him before he departed to assume his role as Chief of Operations for the station. Grace waited until they'd received acknowledgement of the safe transfers and then she set course for Barrinor.

Odin, the planet Serenity orbited, was the fifth planet in the system while Barrinor was the third. Barrinor lay in the heart of the habitable zone while Odin skirted its outer edge. The former colony of Barrinor had been inducted into the Federation as a member planet after resisting the Colonial Affairs Office for years. The settlers' perseverance paid off with full membership.

Odin, which had been colonized nearly a century after Barrinor, had accepted control from the Colonial Affairs Office. The colony was only marginally supported by its elder sibling so Federation support was appreciated. On Barrinor it was felt that Odin should never have supported anything more substantial than mining camps. Odin's settlers vehemently disagreed.

Outbound Ventures had played politics when it built its station over Odin. Although a perennial favorite amongst Barrinoran politicians, the move ruffled a lot of feathers. Forcing Outbound Ventures' corporate HQ off of Barrinor had been debated by the Barrinoran Senate.

In the end, cooler heads had seen that the corporation and its affiliated Security Alliance Academy were good of the safety and well being of the planet. After all, who needed a militia when you had an academy fill of eager security agents and a small squadron of ships based within your home system?

The Corsair settled down on the landing pad within Outbound Ventures' private strip. The runabout descended into the "ground", which was revealed to be a massive hangar area. The roof above them sealed and the passengers waited for the runabout's journey to end.

The bay controller signaled the "all clear" and Grace ran through her procedural. Finally, she released the primary hatch. The former crew of the Obsidian piled out and the first thing they saw was the Solstice sitting alone at the opposite end of the hangar. None of them had ever served aboard a ship of her class.

Upon first impression, it looked like a diminutive hybrid between the Excelsior- and Ambassador-classes. They walked around the ship and took in the sights. She had five small phaser strips whereas the typical scout boasted phaser banks. She had two photon launchers recessed in the forward section of the saucer-like command section. The rear of the engineering hull also had a single launcher. Rhiann noted the hatches underneath the saucer, which combined with the lack shuttle hatches in the engineering hull, meant that it was meant for shuttles. Given their size, it most likely meant they were dealing with shuttlepods.

Macen tapped his comm badge and authorized the ship's computer to initiate a transport. The SID appeared in the transporter room and they cleared the pads. The crew swiftly appeared as well. Macen took them on a guided tour.

The transporter room was on Deck Three, behind the Sickbay and before you hit the upper end of the warp core. Beyond the core was the storage compartments. He then took them to Deck Two which supported all of the crew's quarters. The ship was designed to support six officers and sixteen crewmen. Officers got the largest quarters.

Macen laid claim to his quarters and Rockford laid claim to him. Daggit and Parva settled in nicely. Forger and McMasters decided to formalize things a bit and moved in together. Grace, P'ris, and Radil claimed the rest of officer's country. Telrik, Miller, Zimbalist, Gilan, and Rhiann chose five of the remaining eight cabins which were designed to accommodate two crewmen each. That still left three cabins for guests.

Macen uploaded the uniform patterns from the Outbound Ventures database. He thought about throwing in a variant especially for SID members but Rockford talked him out of it. She reminded him that they were all Outbound Ventures personnel and Outbound Ventures personnel wore the green paneled uniforms. He smiled and kissed her while he thanked her.

He started to head for the door when she caught his arm. She wore a sly grin, "Hold on there. I don't think you've properly thanked me yet."

He smirked, "We're on a schedule but I think we can spare a moment or two to indulge."

"Damn straight. I...mmm..." she found his mouth on hers and she melted into the accompanying embrace.

She leaned back, "Okay, I'm satisfied...for now. Let's get this tour back underway."

They stepped out to discover that Parva had already led Gilan and McMasters to Engineering. Radil volunteered to escort Telrik back to Deck Three and the transporter room. Everyone else went to the bridge.

The Solstice's bridge was laid out like a Galaxy-class starship's Battle Bridge. At the fore, right in front of the main viewer, sat OPS and CONN. In the center of the space was the Command Chair. This boasted two add-on display panels to either side of it in a way borrowed from the Defiant-class.

Behind the command chair the deck elevated to a slight platform. Directly behind the CO was a railing dividing the two halves of the bridge. Dead center of that was the Tactical console. To either side of it were Science and Engineering. Miller manned the board while Daggit gave her a couple quick pointers.

Tucked away to the starboard side of the rear deck was the Library interface. Rockford took up her assigned position there. It was tied into all of the sensor feeds as well as the ship's library. Being connected to the comm relay, it could access subspace networks and planetary databases.

Grace proceeded to the CONN. Rhiann followed and reviewed its layout as she sat at the station. Grace patted her shoulder and moved away.

Next to CONN sat OPS. P'ris stood over Zimbalist's shoulder while he brought the board to life. The Romulan's shipboard duties included serving at this station. Zimbalist gave her a quick rundown and then she retreated.

The SID team had arrived on the bridge in one lift load. The crew had come up in the second pass. When they arrived Macen announced that they, not the SID team, would be lifting the Solstice into the air and launching her into space.

While everyone conferred, Forger quietly approached Macen, "You're certain you want us to do this?"

Macen smiled, "Why the case of nerves, Shannon? When you were my XO you practically ran the ship. What's so hard about doing so in a ship half the size of the Obsidian?"

"I perused some the specs on this ship class on our way here. I've noticed that we only match half of them. Mostly the cosmetic, exterior stuff. What gives?" she wanted to know.

"The SPYards refitted this ship to my specifications. The Obsidian was pretty much left in factory condition. This baby is a technical miracle," he shared.

"You sound as though you like her better than you did the Obsidian," Forger sounded hurt.

"I respected her but she was the company's ship. This beauty was built specifically for me. Besides I have a lot of time in this ship class," he told her.

"I read what I could find on the Odyssey and the original Solstice. Even the company's confidential files were pretty Spartan. I suppose Starfleet has the details?" she said wistfully.

"I'll see what I can get vetted and hand to you," he promised.

She brightened. Flopping down into the command chair she ordered everyone, "Clear the bridge. If you're not at a station then get off my deck."

Macen cleared his throat and she gave him a sheepish grin, "Captains excluded, of course."

"I'll be in my Ready Room," he grinned back.

"You have a Ready Room?" Forger yelped, "Where?"

"Check your specs. It used to be a briefing room," he said as he collected Rockford and opened the sliding door in the opposite side of the bridge.

"How come I don't get an office?" Forger grumped to no one in particular. Galvanizing herself, she began issuing order, "OPS, contact Bay Control and get us a lift clearance. CONN, raise a traffic controller and get us a priority transit through the system."

"What's our destination?" Rhiann asked.

"File a path to Tekik," Forger declared.

"So...this is cozy," Rockford commented as she beheld the space.

"The design is straight out of the XO's Office inside an Intrepid-class," Macen revealed.

Rockford took a seat on the couch to the CO's right, "So when are you going to wine and dine me?"

"And who says I can?" he smirked.

She pointed past his shoulder, "That kind sir is a replicator. It can dispense any number of wonderful things."

"And you think I should use it?" he playfully taunted.

"I don't have to think, I know," she asserted.

"Then what would you like?" he inquired.

Her first response made him blush and she laughed as he tried to regain his composure, "Now that was worth it!"

"Okay, what would you really like?" he managed to ask.

"How do you know that my first request isn't an honest one?" she innocently wondered.

He gave her the look and she found it adorable, "Give me the usual."

He ordered one vanilla caramel latte and handed it over and then ordered one for himself. She sipped it and she was startled, "It knew about the whipped cream. Replicators never know about the cream."

"Just like Roberta makes," he gloated.

"All right, you smug bastard, how did the replicator know?" she asked.

"I've been downloading our personal recipes for months," he explained.

"But we've either been aboard the Obsidian or Serenity," she protested.

"And they're on the corporate network," Macen said with a flourish.

"Tom was right. You have been planning this for awhile," she surmised.

"I first got the idea when I was on the penal colony. Coming back to the Obsidian just proved to me that my time there was done," Macen shared.

"When were you going to tell me?" she quietly asked.

"Tom asked that same question," he jested.

"Dammit Brin!" she snapped, "When were you going tell me?"

"I was going to tell you when we got back from the last mission. The Obsidian's destruction juts advanced my timetable," he shared.

"You were going to tell me. We weren't going to discuss it," it was statement not a question.

"Celeste, I love you more than life itself but I learned the hard way not to share command decisions. I learned that through Tom and through T'Kir," Macen confessed.

"T'Kir? But she was your partner," Rockford sought clarification.

"She was my business partner and my domestic partner. I placed her in the deputy commander role. That was a mistake. She was ill suited to the task and it cost the team," Macen explained.

"But I'm your domestic partner and I'm your deputy. How is that different?" she wondered.

"You're qualified to be the deputy. I'd make you the deputy even if we weren't involved," he stated.

"We're also business partners," she accused.

"I'm a partner in your detective agency. I'm only that through my controlling share of Outbound Ventures. That hardly makes a real partner," Macen countered.

"Would you make me a business partner?" she asked.

"If we were to be married, you would receive fifty percent of my share in Outbound Ventures and thereby increase your controlling interest in the Rockford Agency," Macen divulged.

"Why do I sense a big 'if?" she inquired.

"We've never discussed marriage. I wasn't certain you'd want to," Macen stated.

"Discuss it or actually do it?" she wondered.

"Both," he admitted.

"Okay, let's discuss it. I'll go first. Do I want to get married? Hell, yeah. I wanted to get married years ago but the war against Tarsus got in the way. That and my fiancÚ called in government forces and had me dragged off to prison. No scars there. Nossiree." She frowned, "But that doesn't answer your ultimate question. Do I want to marry you? You're an eager participant in the emotional cascade that we experience during sex. Hasn't that shone you anything?"

"I wasn't sure I was interoperating the signs right," he admitted.

"That's fear talking. You've been married twice to my never. The first marriage was to a psychotic bitch, from all accounts. And your second marriage was wonderful. If T'Kir was still alive, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Rockford laid it out for him.

"May I remind you that T'Kir is alive again," Macen said primly.

Rockford rolled her eyes, "Doesn't count. They scrambled her brains or something. Anyway, the point is, I love you. Even better than that idiot that had me drug off in chains. I wanted to marry that sorry sack of shit so why wouldn't I want to marry you?"

"I could..." he started to say before she cut him off.

"Oh shut up and admit that you love me," she snapped.

"You know I do," He stressed to her.

"And do you want to spend the rest of your life with me?" she ticked off her finger.

"You know I do," he said.

"Then shut up already. Get on one knee and propose, you dunce," she demanded.

"Now?" he wondered.

She glared at him, "What did I say about shutting up? You're gonna ruin the moment."

Macen moved from behind the desk and knelt before her, "Would you do me the honor of being my wife? I want to spend the rest of your life supporting you when you need support and relaying upon you to get my back. I love that you 'get' me and that I understand you. I want that to last until death itself separates us."

She made a show of thinking about it. She hemmed and hawed until he started to actually get worried and then she smiled beatifically, "Of course I say 'yes.'"

Macen rose and then leaned in and kissed her. He pulled back and she caressed his face. She wore a bemused expression, "'I want to spend the rest of your life with you'?"

He shrugged, "I'm going to outlive you be a few hundred years."

She shook her head and chuckled, "There's always something."

"It seems it's to be a day of big announcements," Macen mused.

"Let's not distract the youngin's while they fly the ship for the first time," Rockford suggested.

"So any ideas on how to celebrate?" Macen wondered.

Her eyes twinkled, "I think you're creative enough to handle that on your own. However, be that as it may, I'm going sit on your lap and we're going to plan a wedding and a honeymoon."

"You do realize that your employers at the time made my last wedding a living hell?" he asked.

Rockford blushed. She'd worked for the Orion Syndicate at the time. Later she'd personally come for Macen and T'Kir while they were on their honeymoon. That little escapade had ended up with the happy couple being executed. Yet somehow they came back to life through means no one could explain.

"Maybe I'd better handle the wedding. I'll have so much security locking the venue down a gnat won't get in if it's not invited," she declared.

"Just remember, we want a wedding not an occupation," he reminded her.

"You're certainly no fun," she pouted.

"Tell me that again later," he grinned.

"Oho! You're going to try and redeem yourself," she was pleased, "Good luck with that."

"You'd be a lot more intimidating if you weren't glowing," Macen dryly remarked.

"I am not glowing," she protested, "I don't glow."

Macen adjusted the viewer mounted on the desk's comp/comm. It displayed a picture of the intertwined couple. Rockford studied it.

"Damn," she breathed, "I am glowing."

"Expect more of that through the years to come," Macen warned her.

Rockford rolled her eyes, "You're just saying that because you expect to get some later tonight."

"I'm saying that because I love you and want to make you happy," Macen promised.

She let out a little sigh and then looked at the monitor again, "Oh hell. Now I'm really glowing."

"Oh, the terrible burden of happiness," Macen teased.

"Hey, I could get used to this glowing business. Don't create a monster unless you can satisfy the beast," she warned.

"You know how I like a challenge," he said and he kissed her neck.

"Who said you could stop?" she imperiously inquired.

"Call it a taste of things to come," he consoled her.

"Humph, and I was just getting in the mood to glow like a landing light," Rockford mock complained.

"If you remember, you wanted to plan a wedding," he informed her.

"And a honeymoon," she prompted him.

"Of course," he conceded. He could see the beginning of something wonderful taking shape here today. He'd taken a risk in letting Rockford into his heart and the rewards now outweighed the risks by such a margin he couldn't imagine why he'd been hesitant to begin with.


Chapter Twenty-Four

"How'd they squeeze an NX warp core in here?" McMasters wondered as he took in the sight of the single deck engineering compartment. Engineering dominated Deck Four. The only thing below them on Deck Five was the antideuterium tanks and the main deflector array.

"It makes sense though," Gilan said. Seeing McMasters' annoyance, he added; "The core was designed for the Defiant-class which only has four decks to our five. Of course, they spare a deck by recessing Deck One into the hull and merging it with Deck Two."

"And I suppose you've worked on one of those?" McMasters asked sourly.

Gilan offered him a peaceable smile, "My time in Starfleet only lasted one tour. And I was an enlisted rating to boot. I served aboard a Yeager-class cruiser. I must've done something right because the Outbound Ventures recruiter took one look at my record and she signed me up. It was just my luck that I got sent to the Obsidian."

Parva snorted and Gilan cast a bemused expression her way, "Something you'd care to add, Chief?"

"You came aboard the Obsidian because I made sure you came aboard. I wasn't about to let someone with your aptitude escape my grasp," she divulged.

Gilan brightened, "Thank you, Chief. That means a lot."

"Okay, that tell tale means the bridge is requesting power. Let's start this bad boy up and get ready for spaceflight," Parva began to order. Gilan went to the matter/antimatter injector relays and began setting levels. She saw that McMasters was loitering.

"Just don't stand there!" she snapped, "Make yourself useful. You've almost as much time in this ship class as I do."

That startled McMasters. The only way she'd know that was if she'd accessed his Starfleet record...his Starfleet criminal record. He'd worked on Macen's Odyssey on occasion. He'd taken her to the edge of her capabilities but that was a far cry from what he was seeing here. The Odyssey, which was set at design performance specs, had never been intended for atmospheric or landing operations. That certainly wasn't the case with the Solstice.

"Stand by on the warp plasma injectors and prepare to infuse the nacelles on my command. As soon as these yahoos break orbit they're going to want to run hard and fast," Parva declared. Seeing her troops weren't moving fast enough she added, "Well? I used to run this compartment on my own."

A sudden thought struck her, "In fact. I'm not here. See ya."

She exited and Gilan looked to McMasters, "You ready?"

McMasters grinned, "As ever."

The launch was successful and Macen congratulated everyone. Upon discovering that Parva had left Gilan and McMasters to their own devices, he sent a special note to her, thanking her for her efforts. Of course, the message was left in her in-box since neither she nor Daggit were answering their comms. A sure sign they were breaking in the bed, the couch, the floor, and anything else they could straddle in their shared quarters.

Macen and Rockford travelled to Deck Three and saw that Telrik was off exploring since he was on-call staff. The SID team would handle the First Watch and the crew would handle the Second watch. But the Second Watch crew would also cover for the SID team when they deployed.

McMasters was the only SID team member not on the First Watch. Parva, as Chief Engineer, covered Engineering during that watch. It had been agreed that the SID Engineering Specialist could choose his hours in order to better accommodate his girlfriend's sleeping schedule.

Macen and Rockford then reported in to Sickbay. It was the largest compartment on Deck Three. It wasn't as spacious as the Obsidian's sickbay but it was still large compared to the Corsair's twin medical modules.

Macen inserted an isolinear rod into the appropriate slot and uploaded the program. He then verbally activated the EMH. Tessa appeared and she seemed confused

"What happened? Where am I? This isn't my sickbay," real terror tinged her voice.

"It's all right, Tessa," Macen said calmly, "The Obsidian was destroyed and we transferred your program to a new ship."

"What about Galen 3?" she was on the verge of panic.

Rockford intervened. She moved to Tessa's side and took hold of the EMH's left arm with her left hand and gingerly touched Tessa's back with her right, "Galen's alive. He's aboard Serenity."

"Why isn't he here?" Tessa's eyes brimmed with tears.

"Because he wasn't needed," Macen shared, "Galen 3 is on-call for missions where his skill set will be needed."

"But you never knew when his skills would be needed before," Tessa said plaintively.

Rockford shot him a glare. She turned to Tessa and said, "Will you excuse us for a moment?"

"Of course," Tessa winked out of existence.

Rockford's fists became firmly planted in her hips, "So why wasn't Galen 3 invited?"

Macen's shoulders slumped in defeat, "It was an oversight. I was so used to Lees being on the team I just sort of forgot that we needed to replace her skill set."

"Okay, that's honest enough. I'm calling her back and you are promising to get Galen 3 aboard as soon as we make port. Got it?" Rockford insisted.

Macen smiled wanly, "Yes, ma'am."

"Good. 'Cause I'd hate to have to kill you before we get married. Afterwards? Fine. Then I get the corporation," she declared.

Macen knew she was teasing to soften her demands. He didn't take orders well but bantering? He thrived around it.

Rockford reactivated Tessa's program and she reappeared, "Can he come aboard?"

"As soon as we return to Serenity I'll have him permanently transferred," Macen vowed.

Tessa ran up to him and kissed his cheek, "Thank you!" She settled down and looked confused, "Do I still address you as 'Commander'?"

Macen chuckled, "No, I'm captain of the Solstice."

"Is that the ship we're aboard?" she wondered.

"Yes, you're still tied into the ship's database so you can pull up everything about her," Macen said encouragingly.

"Am I back to being stuck in Sickbay all the time?" Tessa whined.

"No, I had holoprojectors installed throughout the ship. You're free to go where you please. Why don't you study the ship's layout while you take a tour?" Macen suggested.

Tessa's head bobbed, "Okay. I'll do that."

She headed for the door and hesitated at the threshold. Rockford called after her, "Go ahead. Nothing bad will happen."

Tessa ventured forth and then shot down the hallway. Rockford looked to Macen, "I didn't just lie to her, did I?"

Macen grinned, "She's safe enough. Want to check out the cafeteria?"

"No Team Room?" she mused.

"Not enough room," he said ruefully, "The space will only accommodate ten people at a time.

"No chef either I take it," she ventured.

"Didn't I just mention there was no space?" Macen teased.

"Look pal., a covert operations team fights on its stomach. If we get nothing but replicator hash we're gonna do poorly," she warned.

"And what would you suggest?" he was honestly interested.

"We need live food," Rockford duly informed him.

"Live food?" he asked.

"Fruits and veggies, dope," she clarified, "A replicator can do a lot of things but it can't reproduce a carrot or an apple worth spit," she argued.

"Check the stasis chamber when we get in there," he said smugly.

She eyeballed him. He was far too confident so she knew something was up. The stasis chamber resembled a walk in freezer so it deactivated its field when she opened the door and stepped in. Lining this larder were produce from dozens of worlds. Also included was a pallet with lidded trays stacked atop it.

"What's that?" she inquired.

Macen smirked, "You're the detective. Find out for yourself."

"Don't be a wiseass," Rockford drolly warned him. She lifted the lid of the closest tray. Her eyes went wide with delight, "Eggs?"

"Uh huh," Macen's grin grew, "There's four trays to a level and each tray has a different kind of egg."

"You've gotta be kidding me," Rockford was at a loss.

"And that final door opens to reveal trays of fresh fish from a dozen worlds," he boasted, "I had to hit or miss the fish because there's so many kinds but hopefully there will be something for everyone.

"Have I told you lately that I love you?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes, but I could always stand to hear it again," he said smugly.

"Okay, I love you but if you don't lose the attitude I will flatten you," she decided to share.

Macen smiled warmly, "I got it. Now, would you like it if I made you an omelet?"

"There's a hot plate?" she asked skeptically.

"There's a full range and oven. There are also steamers available," his smirk threatened to make another appearance.

Rockford recognized it for what it was, "I swear if you smirk one more time we are done."

"Duly warned, now clear out so I can get the ingredients," he insisted.

"By hand?" it was her turn to smirk.

He pulled a cloth bag off of a hook, "With this, silly. Now scoot!"

She raised her hands in surrender, "Okay, I'm gone."

The watches were twelve hours long. The Second Watch stood slightly longer since they'd begun early. The First Watch was on duty when the Solstice approached the disputed border. Forger had called Macen in for a quick conference with Reyes as they passed DS3.

Macen didn't discuss the bulk of the conversation with her but he did share a Starfleet report on Enforcer traffic near the border. The Enforcers had reinforced the border regions. Since the total number of Enforcer forces was unknown, no one could estimate how many of their active units had been dispatched to the forward areas.

Reports from the Typhon Pact indicated that the coalition had repulsed the Enforcer invaders. However, the Iridians were expected to send more units to the region. The Typhon Pact, drawing on resources from closer nations, had surged several fleets passed the disputed borders and were now marching into the Enforcer Territories.

The Breen and the Tzenkethi were attacking from the Alpha Quadrant and the Romulans, Gorn, Tholians, and Kinshaya were staging from the Beta Quadrant. Starfleet Intelligence had unconfirmed reports that the Andergani had set out with their Tzenkethi neighbors. There was no sign that the Andergani were being considered for full membership within the coalition of stellar nations but their participation in a major campaign would earn them future consideration.

Grace manned the helm while P'ris sat at OPS. The Romulan's outer appearance was tranquil but Macen suspected that it was a fašade. For all of P'ris' acclaimed familiarity with Starfleet systems, this was her first real test with it when her life could be on the line. Macen chuckled to himself. She should have seen the board in its original configuration before he had it replaced and modernized with a LCARS style interface.

"Sensors indicate that two Enforcer ships are crossing the border to intercept us," P'ris reported.

"Subtle," Rockford could be heard quipping from the Library station.

"Rab, what's the status of the cloak?" Macen inquired.

"Parva looked at it like you asked and reported in an hour ago," Daggit relayed.

"And she said...?" Macen prompted.

"It's fully functional," Daggit simply said.

"Then turn it on," Macen ordered, "Hannah, you know the drill."

"Yay-boy," she retorted and began a series of evasive patterns.

P'ris swiveled her seat around so that she could face Macen, "Do we know if the Enforcers can penetrate a Klingon cloak?"

Macen wore a slight smile, "We're about to find out."

That certainly didn't do anything to settle her nerves.

The Solstice slipped past the interceptors undetected. The journey to Tekik also passed with the scoutship remaining unmolested by the scant patrols that it encountered. The dearth of patrols was the highlight of Macen's reports to Admiral Forger.

The Enforcers seemed to have a great deal of ships on the border but little depth in their forward positions. Subspace communications traffic was detected between the front and the rear but it remained to be seen how far back the rear extended. The extent of the Enforcers' presence at Tekik would answer a great many questions.

The approach to the planet began with dropping to impulse at the edge of the solar system. The gravitational pull of the binary pair of stars made that distance quite lengthy. Grace vectored them for an approach towards LTXR-423337691-B and the planets revolving around it, particularly Tekik. As they approached the outermost planet orbiting the G1 yellow star, they reduced speed to half impulse.

The approach took several hours. The Second watch was on stand-by as the First Watch stayed on duty for the approach. Several frigates were on patrol. In the inner solar system, three lights cruisers and a heavy stayed in Tekik's periphery.

Tekik itself was a Class K world. The Iridians had colonized the world through the use of pressure domes. It had begun as a mining concern but when the rare ores were tapped out, the Enforcers had seen the strategic value of the planet. Rumors abounded that dilithium had been found there recently. Colonists had arrived over the course of several decades and bolstered the second generation of colonists that had arisen from the original miners. A third generation was now reaching adolescence.

Macen ordered that the cloak be dropped when they reached the inner planets. Grace had swung them behind the sixth planet of the eighteen planet system. The Solstice became visible for Tekik's tracking sensors. Traffic Control immediately contacted them.

Macen dealt with a traffic controller while Grace kept their course steady and true. There was a high probably that at least one of the cruisers would intercept them and escort them in. Macen was bounced to the controller's supervisor.

The supervisor in turn contacted a military superior. In the end, the Solstice crews' civilian credentials were accepted as was their falsified contract with a Ferengi consortium to scout out potential markets. The ease of their being accepted indicated to Macen that while the Obsidian had been flagged by the Enforcers, the Solstice was an unknown element. It also showed that Outbound Ventures had not been blacklisted, only the Obsidian.

It was also apparent that despite having received the Solstice's crew manifest, it hadn't raised any red flags. When asked if the Solstice would be making a planet fall Macen's negative reply seemed to reassure the traffic officials. After all, transporters could be cut off far more easily than a starship.

Traffic Control plotted them a course and an orbital insertion. Macen summoned the Second Watch at long last. Forger questioned the wisdom of going down to the surface without getting some rest first. Macen thanked her for her concern but ordered her to summon Telrik to the transporter room.

Forger hesitated, "What happens if you need back up?"

"The USS Intrepid is orbiting the opposite side of the planet. Admiral Johnson and Ambassador Picard are on the surface dealing with an Iridian negotiator. If things go badly, I'm sure Captain McKinley could spare a few security officers," Macen paused and then grinned, "Especially since the Chief of Security's wife is coming to the surface with us."

"Damn skippy," Grace piped up.

Macen cast a wry look Grace's way but she was utterly unrepentant. He carried on, "The Enforcers will be closely watching the diplomatic conference and the Intrepid. That'll give us some leeway."

"But what's the mission?" Forger asked at long last.

"It's better you don't know just in case we get caught," Macen replied.

"Damn," she muttered.

Macen turned. He'd heard the turbolift cycle as it took people to Deck Three and the armory next to the transporter room. Only Rockford and Grace still waited for him.

"Ready to get this show on the road, Boss?" Rockford grinned.

"If we must, we must," he said with mock regret.

"Just keep thinking that," Rockford teased as the lift doors closed.


Chapter Twenty-Five

The SID team transported to the surface. Telrik received the destination coordinates and aimed at the transporter pads the targeting sensors detected. Macen and the team solidified to find themselves surrounded by armed guards. More to the point, the guards had their rifles trained on the newcomers.

The only Iridian not wearing an Enforcer uniform and armor wore a slightly smug smile as he stepped forward and spoke, "Your universal translators are capable of translating my speech, are they not?"

"We have the general speech matrix commercially available in the Ferengi Alliance. Our employers said it was the most advanced model in the Alpha Quadrant," Macen answered.

"Yes, they like to think so," the Iridian smirked, "I am Facilitator Gendik. I am assigned to your crew in order to explain and illustrate the commercial ventures on Tekik." He cast a wry glance their way, "I see you came armed?"

"It was our understanding that such things are permitted within the Enforcer Territories," Macen said, "And I understand that piracy is at an all time high while your forces are otherwise disposed."

Gendik mulled that over and then he broke into a genuine smile for the first time, "Delicately put. Assume you are the ship's captain?"

"Yes, my name is Macen." He confirmed it.

Gendik held up a data slate, "Yes, I have your crew manifest. As I check off your names please hold up a hand."

He went through the list and then turned his attention to other matters, "The rules regarding personal weaponry are fairly simple. You can only employ them in self defense. And by self defense the regulations clearly specify that you can fire when fired upon. Unless of course, the one doing the firing is an Enforcer. Returning fire at military personnel is cause for execution. Are there any questions?"

No one spoke so Gendik moved on, "Please follow me in an orderly fashion and we can take a tour of some of the domes."

Macen motioned for the team to follow and they fell into step with Gendik. The Enforcers stayed in place in order to terrorize the next arrivals. It was mundane but Macen had a hint that they enjoyed it very much.

The Iridian base and colonies were composed of geodesic half domes. These were interconnected by mag rail train lines running inside of access tunnels. Roadways and pedestrian thoroughfares also ran through the tunnels. The domes were made of transparent aluminum triangular panels supported by a composite hull framework. The frame was composed of layers of toranuim, polyduranium, and kelindine.

The hatches and pressure doors that could close off ruptured hull areas were also composed of similar materials. Airlocks led to the exterior. The structures were bolstered by integrity fields and external shielding that deflect weapons fire as well as meteorites. Tekik's atmosphere was primarily composed of carbon dioxide. Terraforming efforts were underway and atmospheric generator plants were distinguishable by their towers stretching into the sky. Plant life, molds, and fungi had been introduced into the biota. Fauna would follow as the atmosphere thickened and became breathable by most carbon based life.

The interior of the domes was built up to the edges of the half sphere. Little space was wasted. It also meant there were no atmospheric transports within the domes. External shuttles served as mass transit for the Enforcers from dome to dome. In the interior of the colonial outposts they used wheeled vehicles. Such vehicles could also be sealed up and utilized outside the domes as well. The only military personnel found aboard the trains were the handful of troops assigned to a train for a day.

The overpopulated housing grid reminded Macen of a week he spent on Gideon. Gideon's population had been comparatively thinned by the reintroduction of disease into the biosphere by Macen's hero, James T. Kirk. The planet still boasted a population of over twenty billion souls. Macen couldn't imagine what it had been like before if that were merely the surviving fraction.

Tekik closely resembled many other colonies across the Federation built upon Class K planets. Mars was among the more famous of those worlds. Closer to home, Barrinor had been a Class L, or marginal, world before it had been terraformed. The planet had only boasted sparse vegetation before being settled.

In the same system, Serenity orbited Odin. Odin was a Class P, or glaciated, world. It earned that designator by having eighty percent of its surface covered with water ice. Delta Vega in the 40 Eridani A system was another famed example of such a world within the UFP.

Gendik took them through the warrens of the colony, "imaginatively" designated Dome One. Rockford and Grace suppressed their urge to snicker upon the announcement of the name. P'ris exchanged a wry glance with Macen. She was obviously amused by the pervading military sensibilities that overshadowed the colony. Likewise, it amused Macen that Daggit, Radil, and McMasters didn't even bat an eye at the name.

"I was under the impression that this was a military colony," Macen shared with Gendik.

This amused Gendik, "Tekik is under a military governor. You will have already undoubtedly noted that many non-Iridians populate this colony. A strict military colony would be restricted along racial lines. The labor classes are necessary for our livelihood just as the Enforcers are necessary for our protection."

He went to an information kiosk and inputted his access code. Manipulating the display until it showed all sixteen domes of the colony, he related that only a few domes were restricted for strict military usage. One was the governmental dome and one was a troops barracks. Macen pointed to one dome in particular. It was offset from the colony and appeared to be an iridescent star burst in comparison to the rest of the domes.

The faceted surface of the domes already gave them a gem-like quality but this went above and beyond that. Gendik saw which dome was being touted and he chuckled, "That's Dome Sixteen. It is an area devoted to recreational pastimes and among those pastimes are the arts. The exterior effect that you're seeing is a result of the multi-hued panes that comprise the dome's surface."

"Can we see it?" Macen asked.

"Of course. I can direct the computer to give us a tour," Gendik allowed.

"No," Macen countered him, "I mean can we go there?"

Gendik frowned, "I'm afraid not. Only military personnel are allowed to enter in and use the facilities."

"But you said that artists contributed there," Rockford honed in on the subject.

"There is no artisan class amongst my people. Such dregs are considered wastrels. The Enforcer personnel are granted access to express themselves when they are off-duty. High Command finds that this helps relax our troops," Gendik explained.

While Macen and Rockford were engaged with Gendik, P'ris observed the tour. Grace was also absorbed by it. Daggit and Radil assessed the area in tactical terms. McMasters seemed intent on some grating in the floor.

"Excuse me," P'ris interrupted Gendik's conversation, "Why isn't there any green in any of these works?"

Macen and Rockford took note of the display and even Daggit and Radil's ears perked up. P'ris was right. Brilliant reds, burnt oranges, vibrant yellows, sky blues, bright purples, and earth tones dominated the varied works but there was an absolute dearth of green.

Gendik smiled, "My people cannot see this ephemeral color 'green'. It has been described to us by many client nations but we've never seen it for ourselves."

"Facilitator Gendik, what color are the shoulder panels of our uniform?" Macen wondered.

Gendik looked troubled, as though he were about to be tricked into giving away something. Macen gave him a reassuring nod, "You can go on. I'm not trying to trick you. The panels are what we call 'green'."

Gendik nodded his understanding, "But I see it as what you would call a 'muddy brown'."

"Rather like the terrain outside?" Macen inquired.

"Very similar," Gendik seemed amused by the questions, "Now if you would follow me into our commercial district, I can introduce you to the Commerce Guild."

"I'm surprised the governor allows guilds within the colony's boundaries," Rockford commented, "After all, a guild represents a challenge to his or her authority, however modest that may be."

"True, but the merchants know their place," Gendik sniffed.

Rockford exchanged a rueful glance with Macen.

The meeting with the guild served to reinforce the team's cover and also repaid the Ferengi who'd arranged for it in the first place. Macen had a selection of topics to discuss and he went down the padd's list item by item. Rockford joined in out of sheer curiosity and P'ris also began to explore items of interest to her. Macen suspected they were lines of inquiry that might prove useful later on in the mission but then again, she may have only been planning on selling the data to a Romulan trade alliance.

Romulan traders and merchants didn't form guilds but they did establish alliances. Alliances left maneuvering room for all of the participants to capitalize upon mistakes of the other allies without fear of restraint or repercussion. Every member of the alliance sought the same thing: maximum profit for minimal expenditure.

P'ris didn't know how thoroughly Macen had researched her background. She was a kinswoman of the Deridian Noble House. It was a family line that stretched all the way back to the Sundering. They'd been princes on Vulcan before throwing in with those fleeing Surak's reforms.

He knew she was related to the Romulan Commander that engaged the Enterprise under James T. Kirk's command. That was when the Imperial Fleet was actively testing the cloaking device by attacking the observation posts located along the Neutral Zone. His brother had later defected to the Federation and settled on Shial. He'd married T'Kir's mother and become his ex-wife's stepfather.

He also knew that T'Kir was his legal heir in the Star Empire. That made her head of the House and the closest living heir to the throne. Donatra undoubtedly knew this as well. Macen had few doubts that Sela was using her position as Proconsul to spur the Tal Shiar into tracking T'Kir's every move.

P'ris was further down the line of succession but she's still been targeted. Of course, her covert activities as a dissident had been suspected but her status as a hero of the Romulan people had protected her until Sela convinced Donatra to strike. Neither the Empress nor her Proconsul had been prepared for P'ris' escape. Surprisingly, rumors within the Star Empire placed the blame on Sela's underestimation of P'ris' skills.

P'ris' safety still concerned him. Despite the pervading threat that the Enforcers posed for the Khitomer Accords and the Typhon Pact, Sela wouldn't let her mistake to go uncorrected. Her agents wpould strike again and next time they would be prepared.

Serenity was the home port for the Outbound Ventures fleet but it was also a commercial hub. All of the aid pouring into Odin came through the station just as the colony's products flowed out into the Federation through Serenity's cargo bays.

Of course the KX-class station orbiting Barrinor was being decommissioned in lieu of a Starfleet tending station. When Barrinor Station ceased operations it would throw all of its commercial traffic Serenity's way. The Starfleet station had been estimated to begin construction a year ago. With the cumulative losses to the Borg, the Argyn, and now the Enforcers, that schedule had been pushed back. The authorities on Barrinor had already exceeded the designed lifespan of the hundred and twenty year old station.

The station had to be decommissioned for internal and structural safety reasons alone. Other issues were its inability to keep up with traffic demands. Too many ships wanted to dock and the station's personnel couldn't process them fast enough. Shuttles flitted in and out with hardly any supervision. The whole operation was a disaster waiting to happen.

With all of the extra traffic that would filter through Serenity's corridors, hired assassins would have plenty of opportunities. Macen and P'ris had briefly mentioned this to Riker en route to Barrinor. Riker admitted he needed to brush up on a Nor-class station's security features. His new Security Chief, Gerrit Gren, was stepping up from Deputy Chief of Security aboard the Obsidian to a well deserved promotion.

Gerrit had briefly served aboard DS9 when he was with the Bajoran Militia so he was familiar with a Nor-class station's layout. Outbound Ventures had added security measures that weren't in the original design. After the Night Coven's massacre, even more modifications and additions had been made. The staff had also tripled in size.

Kathy Tyrol had sent Macen a casualty list while he was on Earth during P'ris' debrief. The guards, despite some having prior professional experience, had lost a third of their number. Recruiting was underway but Starfleet was already tapping their usual resources. Starfleet Security was even recruiting out of Outbound Ventures' partnered Security Alliance Academy. Gerrit would be inheriting a mixed force of a few seasoned vets and a lot of snot nosed newbies straight out of training.

One bright spot had been the status report Riker had filed with Tyrol. All of the damages inflicted by the Romulans had been repaired. Tyrol had secured permission from Starfleet to augment the station's defensive capabilities in light of its growing importance in the sector. She'd negotiated a deal where a squad of Starfleet engineers would be posted aboard Serenity in the increasingly likely event Starfleet ships laid over for repairs. A small Security detachment would also be posted to enforce Federation law. They would coordinate with station security but would have jurisdiction over matters that extended beyond the local star system.

Gerrit Gren's ever expanding responsibilities would be compounded by P'ris' ongoing presence. He wondered about his ability to keep her safe. And he owed it to her to do so. She was more than a client and her newfound teammate. She was a trusted ally that had aided his efforts through the years. Their motives might have differed but the end result was a common denominator.

Gendik seemed pleased by their interaction with the merchants. It seemed to ease some of the doubts that had been clouding his judgment of them. The more Macen could lull him into complacency, the easier it would be to eventually strike. He needed to make some final preparations and then the team could move.

He approached Gendik, "Facilitator, is there a private location by which I could contact my ship?"

"Of course," Gendik started to usher him aside, "I take it you are finding things to your satisfaction?"

"Yes, the Ferengi trade association that employed us will undoubtedly find these results rather useful," Macen said smoothly.

'Tell me, Captain, why didn't the Ferengi personally approach us?" Gendik's question was benign on the surface but everything now hung in the balance.

"Bravery is not a common cultural trait amongst the Ferengi. Your forces attacked and crippled a Khitomer Accord fleet. Treasury Guard units from the Ferengi Alliance were part of that fleet. They believe war can be profitable, but only to those selling the weapons, and quite frankly you don't need any," Macen relayed.

"Whereas we might strike out at them for being part of the force that impeded us," Gendik mused, "Yet instead they send you. You know, your reputation has preceded you. You featured prominently in Bertram Sindis' reports."

"Did I now?" Macen chuckled.

"However, there is a reason why Sindis was stripped of rank and title. He was prone to exaggeration and of taking action upon his own paranoid fantasies," Gendik paused and Macen halted as well as the Iridian appraised him once again, " did dispose of Sindis so you must be very good at what you do and what you do isn't this."

"You'd be surprised where my work takes me," Macen confided, "The Ferengi wanted someone who would take a risk they were unwilling to take themselves. Such deeds warrant great rewards. The company I founded operates a space station. That station needs weaponizing and reinforced defensive capabilities. The Ferengi may not be the bravest souls but they do export some of the finest armaments. Have you ever traded a favor for a favor?"

Gendik truly smiled for the first time, "I believe I understand you, Captain. Our research shows that you are no longer a military operative per se. I add the caveat because your most frequent employer is Starfleet. Point in fact, all of the Outbound Ventures fleet is regularly employed by Starfleet."

"And that will remain so while Starfleet is licking its wounds and understaffed and underequipped," Macen betrayed no confidence.

"Yet your former command was recently spotted near Atrocitus. Spotted and destroyed. I wonder what would compel Captain Riker to go there?" Gendik verbally fenced.

"Perhaps it was the hostage factor," Macen retorted.

"You acquaint the detainment of spies with taking hostages?" Gendik asked.

Macen smiled, "I'm beginning to see that you function extends beyond a mere 'facilitator'."

Gendik bowed his head, "Then shall we dispense with the formalities. Your visitation has only been allowed because Command has no proof you were personally involved with the action at Atrocitus. Reports of your movements since your release from imprisonment have been sketchy at best. And strangely enough, there were no witnesses from the Enforcer garrison on Atrocitus."

"Why not?" Macen played innocent.

"Because there were no survivors amongst the cell block guards," Gendik admitted, "Rather convenient, isn't it?"

"I suppose," Macen allowed.

Gendik smirked, "Come now, Captain. It is quite convenient. Starfleet obviously hired Captain Riker to liberate our prisoners and his agents had experience with Iridians. How else would they know to strike at the brain through the eye rather than waste a particle beam to the chest? Our natural regenerative capabilities were obviously known and therefore taken into account."

"Do I look that smart?" Macen asked.

"You knew enough from your first encounter with Sindis to shred his clone's head with a flechette rifle and to behead the man himself," Gendik pointed out, "I'd say that makes you intuitive at the very least and intuitive people have a tendency to be problematic."

"As long as we're being honest, we both know the area where you're taking me is riddled with listening devices and that I'm going to destroy those devices. Why not save yourself some hardware and take me to a 'clean' room?" Macen inquired.

"As long as we're being frank, I'll confess that the only 'clean' areas are outside of this dome. So unless you want to suck vacuum I'll take my chances that you miss at least one of our surveillance monitors," Gendik rebutted the suggestion.

Macen shrugged, "As long as I don't have armed guards marching in when I disrupt the monitors."

Gendik chuckled, "The merchants will be desolate over their lost opportunity to eavesdrop but when aren't they that way? Their infernal complaints fill the governor's ears."

"But the governor also benefits from their presence," Macen observed, "As do you."

Gendik's ears perked up. It was true that the governor materially profited from her post. She received many "gifts" in exchange for favors. Monetary gifts were considered bribes and bribery was condemned in the Enforcer Territories but non-currency based rewards were considered remuneration for excellent service. Such practices extended to the Masters and all the way to the lowest officials. The Facilitator had undoubtedly been waiting for an offer of a gratuity in exchange for his ability to grease the wheels of commerce and cultural exchange.

Gendik's eyes glistened with anticipation as he said, "I must confess, Captain, I'm dying to hear what you have to offer."

Macen graced him with his most ingratiating smile. The Facilitator had no idea how true his words were.


Chapter Twenty-Six

Gendik showed Macen to an alcove. It possessed a comp/comm unit, a desk, and a chair. Macen smiled to himself at the notion of anyone actually using the obviously compromised data/comm unit. Macen thanked Gendik for his service and then watched as the door closed behind the departing Iridian.

Macen pulled a tricorder from his belt. Like his phaser, it was surplus Bajoran Militia issue. It detected seventeen obvious surveillance devices and two possible. Adjusting the scan bandwidth, he detected a cloaking signature around another device. He sat the tricorder down and retrieved a small cylinder from his utility belt. The uppermost portion of the cylinder opened into an antenna and the base of it flanged out to stabilize it on the desk.

The device was one of Joachim Dracas' legacies. It emitted a subspace pulse that would destroy the transceivers on all of the "bugs". Dracas had also designed a new class of sidearm for the SID but Macen had been reluctant to employ it. Exclusivity would label the team as well as a sign saying, "It's us!" But since Dracas had signed off the product to Outbound Ventures, Inc., Tyrol had joined with Bajoran Militia Arms to produce the armaments. The rest of the Corporation had switched to the new sidearms and assault rifles while they were in system defending Serenity. The SID team and the crew of the Solstice would be making the transition as soon as they returned to port.

Little things like that would keep Joachim's memory alive for the team. The younger Dracas had never served aboard the Solstice, unlike his progenitor, Hal. Parva had three years of service time with the ship class under her belt, and in her case, it was probably a garter. Joachim had only received his chance to be Chief Engineer of the Solstice because of Parva's injury. Her damaged brain couldn't readily recall a lifetime's worth of training and experience.

Re-education had helped Parva tap into the "lost" sections of her mind and find the dormant talents that lay nestled below the surface. Her personality had been permanently altered though. The jaded, cynical, and embittered Parva was replaced with a Parva full of innocence and wonder. Her years as a sex slave forgotten, she had lost her loathing for men.

Since her pheromone glands had been removed at Daveed B'nner's behest upon her enslavement, woman could be around her without risking horrendous headaches. She was accepted because of her skills. She was a savant when it came to engineering. Even when reduced by her previous injuries, she'd outperformed ninety percent of the Outbound Ventures staff.

Parva had a wicked talent when it came to armaments as well. She'd personally designed Daggit's photon grenade launcher. She'd also engineered the explosives they were going to use around the colony. Frankly, given his druthers, Macen would replace McMasters with Parva and vice versa. But such things were not to be. Besides Daggit's inevitable meltdown over such a proposition there was Parva's own docility working against her. Her former ferocity was extinguished. She nobly served in an engine room aboard a starship or a space station but put her into combat and she'd have a breakdown.

That had been proven when the Lantillian Night Coven overran Serenity. Parva fought with her would be assassin but she'd been temporarily reduced to helplessness afterwards. No, her spunkiness now revolved around the Solstice now that the Obsidian was gone. And Macen acknowledged that it should be that way.

Shrugging aside nostalgia, he depressed the activation stud on the subspace emitter. Sparks of flame erupted from virtually every surface of the room. Macen had to admit that he was impressed. He'd been spied on by the Cardassians before, who among the best in the quadrant at it, but this showed a whole new level of dedication to the art.

Macen swept the room with his tricorder. Unless the Iridians had developed a biotech means of observation that Starfleet Intelligence was unaware of, he was in the clear. He tapped his comm badge and placed a call to the starship Intrepid.

"Good to hear your voice, Captain," Lt. Commander Ian Delaney remarked, "I trust your team is well?"

"You can stop fishing, Ian. Hannah is doing fine," Macen tried to reassure the Chief Tactical Officer, "Anything interesting going on in your end?"

Macen could hear the frustration in Delaney's voice, "The Enforcers won't allow me to dispatch a security team for the Admiral and Ambassador Picard."

"And after that recent business on Felkor III, you find this to be intolerable," Macen ventured. Delaney took his secondary role as Chief of Security very seriously. On Felkor, Johnson had been captured along with Commander Striker, Delaney, and his two man security detail. "Buck up, Ian. Bob knows what he's doing. And he has Picard affirming this move, correct?" Macen inquired.

"Yes, the Ambassador backed the Admiral's decision to go in anyway," Delaney grumbled, sounding very disappointed and put out.

Macen chuckled, "There's a reason why they made the most decorated captain in Starfleet an ambassador."

"You're right, of course." Delaney begrudgingly conceded, "Call it professional paranoia."

"Well, I have good news for you. In about five hour's time, all hell is going to break loose," Macen cheerfully offered.

"Why am I not relieved?" Delaney groaned.

"Just put me on with Jim," Macen requested, referring to Captain McKinley.

It took several minutes for McKinley's voice to come over the subspace circuit, "Brin? Are you still there?"

"Yes, Jim. I only have a few minutes before my 'facilitator' knocks down the door to eavesdrop so I'll get straight to the point. How are the negotiations going?"

McKinley's snort could be heard over the line, "They're stalling and we're pushing for a resolution. Picard has the sense they badly underestimated us."

"Even after all of Sindis' reports?" Macen wondered.

"Sindis was a disgrace. He was so much of a pariah that they left him alive to rot in his shame rather than execute him," McKinley reminded Macen, "They felt anything he reported would be exaggeration to try and redeem himself in the Masters' eyes."

"Is there an Enforcer Master on Tekik?" Macen inquired.

"Not that we can prove but the Governor is in communication with someone higher up. Whether they're on this planet or not is a matter of conjecture," McKinley shared, "Bob feels they're stalling. What for, no one knows. If we could find out and get some kind of leverage over them during these talks, it could change everything."

"Are Bob and Jean-Luc in the Government Dome?" Macen asked.

"Yes," McKinley confirmed it.

"Tell them they have four hours to do the best they can and then they need to withdraw," Macen instructed.

"And what happens in four hours?" McKinley wasn't certain he wanted to know.

"Actually, it's in five hours but I want the diplomats off of the ground before my team makes its move," Macen divulged.

"And what does this move consist of?" McKinley knew he probably didn't want to ask but curiosity had him reeled in.

"In five hours I'm going to get us some leverage. That's all you need to know," Macen disconnected before McKinley could ask anything else. The less the Intrepid's crew, the less they could be implicated of.

Macen emerged from the alcove and Gendik appeared straightaway, "I see you are a man of your word. Every system went dark after you entered in."

Macen knew Gendik hadn't overheard anything or else there would be Enforcer troopers present to escort him off to interrogation. The key to his nascent plan was the Government Dome. From there, the Governor directed the defense of four surrounding sectors as well as this colony. Those sectors, and Tekik in particular, stood between any Enforcer reinforcements and the newly acquired territories. Point in fact, Tekik was the hub from which the expansion had launched from and could theoretically still control it.

Macen headed for where Rockford was in a deep discussion with a merchant. As Macen drew closer he could overhear that she was discussing how a private detective served her client. It was definitely lost in the translation because the merchant waved her away and walked off. She turned to Macen with a gleeful twinkle to her eyes.

Macen tilted his head towards Gendik with the slightest of gestures. Her twinkle birthed a mirthful smirk as she physically took him by the arm and began asking what the licensing requirements would be for her to open up an agency branch on Tekik. The Iridian was so taken aback by her forward manner he literally lost the power of speech.

Macen corralled up Daggit, Radil, and McMasters and brought them to the closest wall of the dome. He'd noted that people came to the edge of the dome to reflect or to discuss things in private. McMasters waved his tricorder around before anyone spoke.

"We're clear," he announced.

"Good," Macen said as he turned to Daggit, "What's your impression so far, Rab?"

"Not good," the Angosian admitted, "If we were to get into a firefight, the non-Iridians might actually run around like poultry with its head cut off. They'd surely interfere with our lanes of fire and the Enforcers would start tossing them out as cannon fodder in order to slow us down."

"So we take the civilians out of the equation," Radil interjected. Finding all eyes and ears pointed at her, she elaborated, "It's like the same basic problem we had in the Bajoran Resistance. We had to target the Cardies without taking out potential friendlies."

"There is no way these bootlickers are going to be friendly. At least not in this lifetime," Daggit argued.

"No, they're going to be blind, panicky pylchyks," Radil agreed, referring to Bajoran livestock, "So we use that. The Enforcers can't shoot at us while they're trying to keep the rising tide of panic at bay."

Daggit turned to Macen and wore a sly smile, "She has a point."

"Of course I have a point. I grew up doing this shuk. We have strike at the infrastructure. We disrupt their way of life and the whole system will erupt in chaos. The primary responders will be so overwhelmed they'll never see us coming at our primary target. We do have a primary target, right?" Radil ended the last rather crossly.

"We're headed for the Government Dome. They may or may not have information that would prove invaluable to our negotiating team," Macen revealed.

"And if they don't?" Radil wondered rather clinically.

"Then the negotiations get a lot longer and tenser while we beat feet back to friendly territory," Macen explained.

Radil smiled, "Sounds good. Now, what do we blow up?"

"Hold on," McMasters fished a padd out of belt. He pulled out a second data slate and attached it to the first. He then made groping gestures at his teammates. They each surrendered two padds. They shifted to one of the nearby benches and McMasters knelt while he furiously made sketches with a light pen. Radil sat on one side of the bench, leaned over and entranced by the work in progress. Macen sat on the other side and was reminded of McMasters' displays of brilliance in his youth. Daggit was content to loom over the scene and glower at any bystander that strayed too close.

McMasters came to a flourish and he stopped, "Okay, what we have is sixteen domes. But these domes aren't all centrally connected. The center dome," he pointed with his deactivated pen, "is the hub. It has access to every other dome. It's also the military headquarters on this world. Our task is to disrupt movement to and from that dome."

"What are these two domes?" Radil pointed at two that were nearly isolated, "They're only connected to the Enforcers' barracks."

"You really weren't paying attention when Gendik proudly laid out the design of this place, were you?" McMasters scolded.

"Hey! I was looking at how to tear apart the happy little colony," Radil asserted defensively.

"This is how you do it. Through infrastructure. Just like you said," McMasters mollified her. He pointed at the first isolated dome, "This is arts and crafts-ville. Totally negligible to our purpose. This other one though, is our eventual destination. It's the government dome."

"So we blow the access points and completely isolate it," Daggit opined.

"Nnnnh!" McMasters emulated a buzzer, "Thanks for playing but you're dead wrong."

"Then how do we do it?" Daggit growled.

"Have you caught up, m'dear?" McMasters asked Radil. Seeing the eager look in her eyes, he handed over the reins to her.

"We blow the access tunnels to every other dome. It'll have to be timed bursts in sequence. We want the military deployed as far away from the central hub before we move in on the Governor's Dome and blow the access tunnel between it and the Enforcers' Dome," she explained, "With the Enforcers scattered across the colony, they'll be disorganized to properly react. And in addition to everything else, the civilians will be in a full rout. They'll be trying to stay alive as the crowd mobs them."

"Meanwhile we'll be commandeering a troop transport," Macen added, "Once we're aloft, we'll blow the access tunnels to the Governor's Dome and come in through the airlock while the Governor's staff cries for reinforcements. Reinforcements I might add that they'll think we'll be."

"I can narrow in on the specific systems if we strike but this is all for nothing if we can't retrieve the data in a hurry," McMasters warned.

"I'll have a chat with our resident spymaster," Macen assured him.

"I though that was you," McMasters quipped.

"Our other spymaster. She's looking rather bored at the moment and I think she needs a challenge to tackle," Macen said and then went off to find P'ris.

"What makes him so cozy with her anyway?" McMasters wondered. Seeing the baleful looks from his companions he got irritated, "Well excuse me but we risked a helluva lot to keep her alive and deliver her to Starfleet. Once she was in Starfleet's custody they dumped her on us and he went for it."

"It's a long story," Daggit said.

"Well, I've got time," McMasters declared. Seeing their irritation he added, "Now you know how I feel. But I promise I get the story or this little act of terrorism goes up in smoke."

Daggit and Radil exchanged rueful glances. Daggit spoke, "Lees is the one you really want to ask. She was there with Macen when the team first met P'ris. Hell, it wasn't even a team yet. Only Grace is still here from the original crew."

"You mean you weren't signed up yet?" McMasters wondered.

"No, I was serving aboard the Enterprise trying to convince Captain Picard to blow Macen's ship straight to hell," Daggit admitted.

"Obviously that happened," McMasters dryly retorted.

"Will you shut up and let me tell the story?" Daggit asked.

"Okay," McMasters meekly cowed.

Daggit informed him of the basics of the first meeting of Commander P'ris and the crew of the ill-fated USS Odyssey. Radil took over at the meetings upon Harbinger and Bajor and the mission to Romulus. P'ris had been a confederate of then-Commander Donatra. Now-Empress Donatra wanted her head on a pike but Radil wondered how much of that was personal animosity or the urging of the ambitious Proconsul Sela.

"So she's screwed with your heads a little but pretty much played it straight?" McMasters asked.

"Essentially," Radil conceded, "She'll toy with you for the sheer hell of it but in the end she comes through."

"Good to know," McMasters said, "Now I think we should follow him because I need access to that information kiosk and Macen has the only real access to our Iridian friend."

"I've noticed that you never refer to our beloved captain by his given name yet he does the reverse towards you. Why is that?" Radil wondered as she helped McMasters dismantle the padd construct.

"I guess it's because he was already 'Captain' Macen when I first met him," McMasters confessed. Seeing Radil's piercing stare, he chose to elaborate, "Macen was captain of another Blackbird-scout named the Odyssey. He and Ro brought their ships to me for some performance enhancements. Now, Ro's Ju'day-class, that was a ship I could work with. After earning my spurs on Chakotay's ship of the same class, I'd earned something of a reputation amongst the Maquis." McMasters grinned, "The Maquis had just acquired a dozen of the ship class and they wanted all of them converted into raiders. I was more than happy to help."

McMasters grew nostalgic, "Ro's Indomitable was a work of art. She could never hold her own against a Galor-class cruiser mind you but she could put up a fight. Pit more than one raider against the Cardie and they'd go running." He sighed, "I refitted the whole dozen and it was still in vain. The Odyssey, however, was barely scratched. Macen wanted her as close ot design specs as possible for his scouting missions."

"What about Macen and Ro?" Radil asked and grinned at McMasters' confusion, "You were going somewhere with thus trip down memory lane."

"What I was getting at is why I never refer to Ro and Macen by their names. It has to do with my first impression of them," McMasters opined, "That'll always stick with me."

"Why?" Radil was well and truly baffled.

"The Maquis was full of believers. Zealots, if you will, willing to fight and die for the cause. Ro and Macen were a different breed. All of the Starfleet recruits were. They'd seen action. The kinds we heard stories of but didn't repeat," McMasters shared.

"I know Ro saw action in the Resistance and Macen served along the front lines during the Border Wars but I never gave it much thought," Radil admitted.

"Give it some. Give it some real good thought," McMasters advised, "The older Maquis told me war stories of how Macen served on both sides of the ever shifting line. He put it all out there for fifteen years and then came back for more when the DMZ was formed."

"What was he doing on the other side of the border?" Radil wondered.

"Stuff," McMasters replied. Seeing her temper flare he went on, "Macen was the first of a new breed of analyst for Starfleet Intelligence. Cross trained as a field operative, they went out with the Special Forces and personally got their hands dirty. He was trained by Elias Vaughn."

"Yeah, I know he and Macen are friends to this day," Radil retorted, "Old news."

McMasters couldn't refrain from rolling his eyes, "Elias Vaughn is the oldest surviving member of SOCOMM. No one else has reached the ripe old age of one hundred and eighteen. Hell, they usually don't make it to forty. You know why? Because they get the jobs that can't be done." McMasters looked truly discomfited now, "Vaughn took Macen under his wing and after T'Prynn died Macen became his right arm. They blew the hell out of the Cardassian installations near the border. Sometimes they didn't come back."

"What are you saying?" Radil pounced on that statement.

"Macen and Vaughn have both been interrogated by the Cardies. You know that isn't pretty," McMasters revealed, "Yet they came back alive, not once, but twice."

"There's no way," Radil protested.

"How do you think Macen rescued Admiral Johnson from Cell 51?" McMasters asked.

Radil narrowed her eyes, "How do you know about Cell 51?"

"I looked up the ship's secure logs. I like to know where a starship that I'm going to be working on has been," McMasters divulged.

"It seems P'ris isn't our only resident spymaster," Radil mused.

McMasters shrugged off the comment, "So anyway, while all the rest of the Maquis were getting ready to hurt the Cardassians however they could, Ro and Macen were ready for a war." McMasters shuddered, "Personally, I'd never get in their way when they decide something like that."

"Yeah, I've the look and the consequences," Radil admitted.

"You want to know who else to look out for?" McMasters asked.

"You're not going to go off about P'ris again? Or Daggit? Or Celeste? Because we know about them already," Radil dryly remarked.

"And you're missing the obvious candidate," McMasters informed her.

"Who's left? The only person I didn't name is Hannah," Radil shared.

"Bingo," McMasters said authoritatively.

"You're kidding?" Radil didn't believe what she was hearing.

"Radil, Hannah ain't human despite her looks," McMasters warned.

"Yes, I know," Radil's words dripped with scorn.

"Look into her eyes, dammit!" McMasters urged, "We're bugs to her. Bugs that she dearly wants to squish. And from what I saw the other day, she can damn well do it whenever she wants."

"Hannah's harmless," Radil insisted but she was beginning to wonder what was in Grace's eyes.

"And her people sent her out as a spy, right?" McMasters hammered at Radil's protestations, "She's supposed to look harmless. Her people have a nasty track record of killing anything and everything that isn't them. Now, I'd like to believe as much as the next guy that she's got that impulse in check but the more I get to know her, the more I seriously doubt it."

"I'm beginning to see your point," Radil admitted.

"Good. Two sets of eyes and ears can cover more ground than one," McMasters said gratefully.

"Shouldn't we tell Macen?" she asked at long last.

"Do you honestly think he doesn't know?" he asked derisively.

"What's with the hostility?" Radil wanted to know.

"Look, our beloved captain is shacking up with a woman who has tried to kill him on three separate occasions. Do you think that something like Hannah's little attitude problem is going to faze him?" McMasters demanded of her.

Radil fell silent and McMasters adopted a knowing smile, "I thought not."


Chapter Twenty-Seven

P'ris smiled as Macen approached, "I had wondered when you would seek me out."

Macen was bemused, "You knew I would."

"I gather that we are to move against our hosts?" she inquired.

"Yup," Macen confirmed it.

"Good," she said flatly, "The sooner we can strike out against these monsters the better."

"We're not sure they're all monsters yet. To assume they are is rather narrow minded," he warned.

"Are they not moving against our governments?" P'ris asked archly, "Does that not make them enemies at the very least?"

"Enemies, yes. Monsters? I don't think so. No race has ever been purely composed of monsters," Macen asserted.

"Not even the Cardassians?" P'ris asked crossly.

"Not even the Cardassians," Macen's voice was taut as he said this.

She studied him for a moment, "I had heard you had taken one as a lover for a short time. Is this true?"

"Lyoti and I are old friends who shared a moment," Macen admitted.

"Indeed," P'ris mused, "Several moments by all accounts."

The topic of conversation irked Macen, "I haven't gone prying into the men and women that you've slept with."

She laughed, "No, you are far too prudish for that." Seeing he wasn't mollified, she added, "If it is any consolation, my information came from the Cardassian Intelligence Bureau."

Seeing he was affronted, she smirked, "Surely you realized that Gul Mariska's actions are monitored by the security organs? She is Queen Katreen's chief protector. She is responsible for all of the monarch's security. It was she that ordered that every member of her staff be monitored, including herself. You just happened to be in their sights during your trysts."

"She warned me that the Bureau would be eavesdropping, I just didn't know that included the Tal Shiar," Macen dryly commented.

"You displayed great stamina and technique. I do believe she was greatly fulfilled. After all, you did introduce her to a new realm of experience," P'ris teased.

Macen looked decidedly piqued so she added, "I do mean the cunnilingus. The Cardassians do not indulge in such endeavors. The males consider it beneath them. Of course, the reverse is not always true."

P'ris' snippy tone amused Macen and he began to grin. She recognized this, "Ah yes, there was much to be delighted with. And as far as your intended inquiry goes, I would be more than happy to break into the Enforcers' files."

"You knew I was going to ask?" Macen chuckled.

"As the humans say, 'I would if I were in your shoes'." P'ris was quite pleased with herself. Seeing Macen's curious look, she added; "You are familiar with my history as a data slicer, are you not?"

Macen nodded. P'ris' usage of the Romulan term for hacking through a cyber defense platform and acquiring the data protected behind it was telling. He knew that she had specialized in such activities as a youth, freshly enlisted into the Tal Shiar's ranks.

"You're rather good at it so I assumed you'd stayed up to date with enemy systems," Macen revealed.

"I have," P'ris declared and then she grew grave, "There is a condition."

"And what would that be?" Macen asked neutrally.

"You want the Enforcers' plans for the Khitomer Accords," P'ris said matter of factly, "I want the same information for the Typhon Pact."

"Of which the Star Empire is first among equals," Macen acknowledged.

"Very astute, Captain," P'ris verified his hunch, "I may no longer be accepted in the Star Empire but I am still its servant. I will not allow my people to be trampled under the Enforcers' boots while the Khitomer nations escape ruin."

Macen's answering smile was benevolent, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Truly?" she was somewhat surprised.

"You should know me better than that by now," he scolded, "This move will not only foster good will towards yourself but also for the Khitomer Accords."

"Truly you are too beneficent," P'ris dryly quipped.

"Just don't let it get around," Macen jested, "Now round up Hannah and join Eric and Jenrya. Celeste will be joining you shortly.

"That leaves you and the Angosian man mountain, P'ris realized, "What shall you two be up to?"

"Clearing a path," Macen said enigmatically.

Macen signaled Daggit with a predetermined hand gesture. The former commando began to follow Macen at a distance. Macen returned to Rockford and Gendik. The Iridian looked relieved to see him.

Rockford immediately read Macen's intent in his eyes. He fooled most people but when you'd been inside of his emotions like she had, the subtle clues were laid bare. More importantly, she could see Daggit malingering in the distance. All of his non-verbal cues were pointing to his combat conditioning being triggered.

Annika Ryst, and by extension Celeste Rockford through Ryst's memories, had been an Angosian Infiltrator. Her brand of Augment actually created new personalities that subsumed the original template and allowed them to become the enemy. They were assassins, pure and simple.

Daggit's breed of Augment had been that of a strategic operative. Conditioned to work behind the lines for weeks, possibly months, at a time they were killing machines. Whereas the Infiltrators were scalpels, the Spec Ops troops were broadswords. Rockford had once seen a Terran sword known as a claymore. She thought its design fit Daggit's mentality very well. Particularly after Macen had added the fact that the Scots had devised the weapon to deal with their mortal enemies: the Scots.

Rockford felt pity for Gendik but she didn't allow that emotion to betray her as she bid him farewell. As Macen led Gendik back to the communications alcove, Daggit followed. Rockford shook her head and went in search of her teammates. If Macen was "removing" Gendik from the equation it meant he was ready to roll.

Gendik stepped inside of the alcove at Macen's behest, "Really Captain, I don't know why you've called me in here. You've already ruined the equipment."

"I need to call my ship again and the comp/comm's controls are in Iridian script. I need to change the language protocols. I tried but it seemed locked up," Macen explained.

Gendik was amused, "Considering that you shut down every other subspace transceiver in the room, I'd be surprised if the unit works at all. Have you tried using your own communications gear?"

Macen grinned, "I tried but apparently someone in the colony is objecting to my using my own equipment. They probably want me to be observed this time...just in case."

Gendik nodded, "It does rather sound like Central Command." He sat down and activated the comp/comm. To his surprise, it activated, "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the machine."

"Language protocols, remember?" Macen reminded him.

Gendik touched the screens and everything shifted to Federation Standard, "I don't see the problem. I..."

Gendik turned to find Daggit looming over him. The Angosian was nearly two meters tall and the musculature of a weight lifter. He saw the look in Daggit's eyes and Gendik knew his time in this universe was over.

Daggit saw the acceptance of the inevitable just before he plunged his Bowie knife into the Iridian's eye. The blade was coated with blue tinted blood as Daggit withdrew it. He cleaned the blade with Gendik's cloak. The facilitator wouldn't object.

Daggit opened the door and he exchanged locations with Macen. Macen used his tricorder to record Gendik's retina print from his good eye and then he recorded his thumbprint. Exiting the alcove, he nodded to Daggit. The ex-commando allowed the door to shut and then jammed his blade into the door's controls. It was now jammed shut.

Macen and Daggit arrived at the information kiosk to see McMasters studying it. Macen brushed him aside and used the biometric recordings too access the unit. McMasters' face lit up and he began surfing for the required information.

Radil watched the displays over his shoulder. She made a comment from time to time and McMasters usually agreed with her but once and a while he poo-pooed her idea. Finally they came up with a mutually agreed upon list of targets.

Using the kiosk's transmitter, McMasters tied it into the team's padds and downloaded the information to them. After shutting the kiosk down, McMasters suggested that they return to the dome's edge rather than stand out in the plaza. They were already attracting attention for being strangers. Worse yet, they were unsupervised and accessing the information systems.

After they gathered around, McMasters pulled out a padd; "Pull up the pertinent info, boys and girls. I'm going to run through this fast and dirty."

Everyone had the padds out and scrolled to the overview of the colony's dome system. McMasters began his brief, "Pull up the environmental systems. The first thing you'll notice is that these people don't use matter/energy reclamators. They're still using plumbing. That means we have a weapon at our disposal."

"How is sewage a weapon?" Daggit asked.

"Why don't they use reclamators?" Grace blurted. She noticed that everyone was looking at her, "What? Don't tell me you weren't thinking it."

"I'll answer in reverse order," McMasters shared, "The sewage is used as fertilizer for the agricultural domes. And as for how sewage is a weapon, have you ever imagined if an entire colony's toilets backed up at once?" McMasters let that sink in, "We blow the main lines and the system will overflow and then there will be a spill. Since the treatment center is also their primary source for filtered water I'd say we would've struck two birds at once."

"We need to take out the agricultural domes," Macen instituted.

There was hesitation after that. McMasters broke the silence, "We can use charges to crack the domes. Once there's a breach they'll be sucked apart by the near vacuum of the atmosphere."

"We do we need to do that?" Daggit unexpectedly asked.

"This base is a vital link in a chain that leads home. All our homes, inside the Federation and the Star Empire as well as their assorted allies. If they have to spend time, money, and resources on supplying this colony with food and making infrastructural repairs, they'll have to slow their advance. That delay will allow our sides to reinforce and possibly avert a war," Macen explained.

"Or it could start one," Daggit countered.

"A calculated risk to be sure but for now we play things my way," Macen ordered.

"Speaking of food, the colony relies upon protein synthesizers instead of replicators for supplemental foodstuffs. They have industrial replicators but it would take time to reprogram them into making food," McMasters revealed, "Another major weakness to exploit is the access tunnels connecting all of the domes. The tunnels are pressurized but they're prone vulnerable to being collapsed. We blow out a few key supports and the tunnels go down. The pressure doors at the domes seal and the trains also go airtight so we're not talking a massacre here."

McMasters used his light pen to mark the locations and then transmitted them to the other padds, "We don't have enough charges to knock out the whole system so we'll concentrate on these points. The red dots are access tunnel supports. The purple dots are the synthesizers. The blue dots are the placement locations for the dome cracking and the green are for the sewer."

They split up the duties. They each had primary and secondary targets. They then split up and went their separate ways with a plan to reunite at their current location.

Four hours later, Johnson and Picard excused themselves from the negotiating table and returned to the Intrepid. Meanwhile the SID team was beginning to reunite at the venue where they had last been together. They all reported success.

Each person had been assigned two tunnel supports. Macen, Grace, Daggit, and Radil had each taken a synthesizer. Rockford handled the Agricultural dome while P'ris set a charge inside the hydroponics dome. McMasters took on the sewer because no one else had volunteered.

"Good work," Macen congratulated them, "But we've only begun. Now we have to get to the closest airlock and wait for the Enforcers to start mobilizing. After they've barreled through and bulldozed their way towards the unfolding crises, we'll board the transport, neutralize the pilot, and head for the government dome." He turned to Grace, "You're sure you can fly one of these?"

She smirked, "If it can lift off, I can fly it."

Macen grinned, "Just checking.

They collapsed the outer access tunnels and the Enforcers responded en masse. They surged out of their dome and spread to the outer edges of the colony. The interior access tunnels then blew. The synthesizers and the sewer plant went next. Pipes ruptured around the colony and sewage backwashed throughout the system. The weakest joints between pipes also ruptured, spraying the filth into the domes' interiors.

Troop transports deployed to every dome. Similar in design to a Federation shuttlepod with much greater capacity, they docked with the airlocks of the individual domes. The explosives then cracked the agricultural domes. They imploded as their atmospheric pressure equalized with the near vacuum of the planetary environment.

The crowds panicked. The Enforcers went into lockdown mode as they attempted to quell the rising tide of fear. The Enforcer barracks emptied as the reserves scrambled to protect the emergency responders as well as reinforce the troops dealing with the increasingly volatile crowds. Scan teams and other forensic experts were escorted to the scenes. With the troops spread so thin and the colonists turning against them there was no one to observe Grace slipping aboard a transport.

The pilot spotted her and drew her weapon. Grace bent the Iridian's wrist and wrested the polaron phaser out of her hand. Grace then thrust the gun's energy emitter into the Enforcer's eye and fired. She tossed the weapon into the OPS station's seat. Tugging the slain Iridian out of her harness, Grace unceremoniously dumped the body onto the deck beside the CONN.

She tapped her comm badge and called Macen, "We're clear."

The SID team boarded the transport. McMasters sealed the hatch and signaled Grace that she could cycle the airlock and any time. He could hear the airlock seal up behind the transport. The docking clamps disengaged and Grace activated the antigravs and started firing the RCS thrusters.

As he went forward into the passenger compartment, he spotted the dead Iridian lying next to their resident pilot. He sat down and met Radil's gaze across the aisle. His wry expression spoke volumes as did her rueful one.

Grace piloted the transport to the government dome. In order to elude suspicion they needed to transmit a request to dock in the Iridian's native tongue. Rockford surprised everyone by mastering a few phrases within mere moments. She demurely put it down to her indoctrination as an Infiltrator. After all, she'd quickly adopted the language and dialects of different Tarsusian soldiers. She then demonstrated her skills by flawlessly employing different human dialects.

Daggit wore a grim smile while Radil and McMasters were rather unnerved. Rockford noted this and shot a verbal riposte across Radil's bow in Bajoran with the accent of a native of the Kendra Valley. P'ris stared at her as though she'd betrayed the Romulan's trust.

The two most interesting reactions were those of Macen and Grace. Macen already knew of Rockford's linguistic skills. He'd proudly proclaimed that she had a talented tongue. She'd chosen to demonstrate just how talented it was at that point. Grace, however, was a mystery. She seemed unfazed by Rockford's revelation almost as though she'd been expecting it all this time.

They docked and Daggit and Radil went to the airlock. The sensors read "green". They had a positive seal and the airlock was pressurized.

Daggit released the hatch and brought his rifle to bear. Radil already had her rifle's stock firmly nestled into her shoulder and was prepared to go into instant action. Although, it turned out there were no Enforcers waiting for them. They were at the other end of the airlock, waiting for the transport's passengers to enter the dome n ad answer for their deviating from the commercial dome.

Grace followed in the heels of the two gunners. She told them to wait before they reached the airlock door. She stretched forth her left hand while her right gripped her phaser. Ripples of green energy danced across her lifted hand. A translucent green wall formed in front of the Angosian and the Bajoran.

"Remember, you can shoot through the field but nothing can penetrate it to come at you," Grace explained again, "And I'll be right behind you."

Radil didn't know whether to be reassured or afraid. She and Daggit were the vanguard of the invasion force. They could carve out a wide path while the others acted as the scalpel and cleared out the inevitable voles that dug in and sniped at them from the sides.

"Do it!" Radil instructed.

Daggit released the hatch and two Enforcers barely had time to register that the people they were greeting weren't Iridians. Radil shit them both in the eye, one right after the other. Grace pushed her field outside of the airlock and Radil and Daggit followed it.

Phased polaron bursts slammed into the field and they were deflected. The energy wasn't dissipated, instead it was shunted to the edges of the field where it arced off and struck the surroundings. A dozen brave souls lined up in ranks and fired at the SID team.

Daggit dealt with the standing rank while Radil mowed down the kneeling rank. At first the Enforcers were clueless as to the nature of the attack. They were overconfident in their regenerative abilities. After their enemies had killed half the lines, they recognized the pattern of attack. They began to dodge and weave their heads but that also served to eliminate any semblance of accuracy to their shots.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team brought up the rear and dealt with those flanking the field. And Enforcer officer marshaled the remaining troops and they switched their weapons from "pulse" to stream and took aim at Grace's field. The strain she was enduring became apparent within a few minutes.

"Scatter!" she commanded. The team went to either side of her and took more traditional forms of cover.

Grace dropped the field and the polaron stream came right at her. It struck her only to go through her. She holstered her phaser and stretched out both hands. Repeating her effort on Atrocitus she formed individual force bubbles over the Enforcers' heads. This time though, she didn't collapse the fields until they'd all suffocated.

Having been in the cell block assault, Radil hadn't seen Grace's earlier performance. The fact that she could accomplish such a deed wasn't as unnerving as her attitude regarding it. It wasn't that she was exultant because she wasn't. She wasn't filled with remorse. She wasn't consumed with guilt. Rather, she was filled with a smug sense of satisfaction. In her ever so humble opinion the Enforcers deserved exactly what they got.

Radil couldn't say she disagreed. After all, these people had reared Bertram Sindis and attacked her home planet's solar system. It was because of them that the Celestial Temple had been closed. Who knew when, or if, the Prophets would reopen it? The Pah-wraiths had closed the Temple once but the Emissary had freed a Prophet held captive in a Tear and the Celestial Temple had been reclaimed.

Only, now the Emissary insisted he no longer walked with the their behest. The Perhaps the Prophets were leaving Bajor to its own devices. Maybe they felt they'd served their purpose and brought Bajor to the point where her people could stand on their own. After all, Bajor had proven itself worthy of membership within the Federation. When the former Terok Nor had been destroyed, the Bajorans built a new Deep Space 9 to replace the old. They'd stood tall and shouldered the burden, determined to press forward even if the Federation Council doddled and Starfleet didn't receive permission to rebuild.

DS9 had even been commanded by Bajorans. First by Colonel, then Captain, Kira Nerys. Kira had a brief career as a Starfleet Admiral before resigning to join a Vedek order. She'd rocketed through the ranks. First a Ramjin, then a Prylar, and she'd recently taken her vows as a Vedek. Kira's story of rising through the ranks of the Bajoran Resistance, then the Militia, transitioning into Starfleet, and ending up a spiritual leader had inspired millions of Bajorans. Nothing could hold the Bajorans back. They had living proof.

And now the station was commanded by Captain Ro Laren. Her storied past was a history of overcoming obstacles. Ro kept out of the news cycles as best she could but she was adored by her fellow Bajorans. She fiercely guarded her privacy but her former superiors in the Militia and her commanders in Starfleet had revealed a great deal of her past. She was a celebrity on her birth world and Radil felt it was deservedly so.

Radil had overcome many obstacles as well. Loaned out by her Resistance cell to a mercenary company, she'd fought across landscapes and worlds that most Bajorans had never suspected existed before the Cardassian withdrawal. And then fortune had it that she joined Macen's SID team. She'd literally shaped the fate of the Federation on more than one occasion. She'd had two great loves of her life. Abby Collins was dead but she'd managed to marry her husband, Kort. All of these factors should have prepared her for the unexpected but she had utterly no clue on how to deal with Grace.

Grace had chosen exile from New Kelva rather than return to her people. Of course, her people wanted to "re-educate" her for becoming too culturally contaminated during her time in the Federation. She'd chosen to remain with the SID. Hell, she'd even married a human. But how many of Grace's cultural imperatives had been overridden? She'd betrayed the team twice. Did she have it in her to do so again? And if so, could the team contain her? Macen had single handedly beaten her to a literal pulp the last time she'd acted against her friends. What had she learned from that? Did she think she had it in her to overcome him at long last?

Radil reluctantly shrugged these thoughts aside as Macen called the team together. He spoke after they'd gathered, "Okay, now we need to move on the Governor."

"Why?" McMasters asked.

"Because she's the military governor of this colony and the surrounding sectors. If the Enforcers are going to send troops this way she'll know about it," Macen explained.

"Oh. Okay. The Governor's HQ is thattaway," McMasters jerked his thumb to the right.

Macen smirked, "Do we have your permission to deploy?"

"Of course you do," McMasters frowned, "Smartass."


Chapter Twenty-Eight

Daggit, Radil, McMasters, and Grace fanned out and blew apart the dome's tunnel access. The airlock collars were also damaged so the expected transports couldn't establish a hard lock seal. Without one, the arriving troops would find their craft turbulently rocked as the atmospheric gases within the transport blew out to the near void of the planet's native atmosphere. The Enforcers might prove resourceful enough to reseal the transports with minimal loss of life but as moribund by regulations as they were, it was deemed unlikely. The SID team also expected such an event to occur.

Macen, Rockford, and P'ris headed for the Ops Center. The saucer-like construct was centrally located in the dome. Most of this dome was empty. There were barracks near the dome's edges that served the center's staff but there were only three outlying buildings from the Ops.

The Ops Center reminded Macen of the similarly purposed areas on the Cardassian built Nor-class stations. Terok Nor, Empok Nor, Outbound Ventures' own Serenity, and dozens of other identical station built across Cardassian territory, or in some cases former territories, all shared this standard feature. And this wasn't the first technological or construction method attribute that the two cultures shared. The composition of the framework for the Iridians' domes was identical to the hull plating that Cardassian space stations and starships were made out of. If there were a congruity of technology then there might also be shared weaknesses that could be exploited.

They'd met less resistance than was expected when they entered the Ops saucer. Alarms were sounding all over. Voices called over intercoms but there were no answers. The occasional pair or trio of guards confronted them but like their brethren, they were to overconfident in their natural healing abilities to seek proper cover. They died in short order. After awhile, even P'ris' martial impulses were sated.

"Will these people never learn?" she bemoaned, "They come and come and continually die yet they do not change tactics or seek other recourse."

"What happened to 'enemies of the Empire must die'?" Macen asked with some amusement.

"There is a difference between honorable combat and wholesale slaughter. Despite the recent leanings within my government, particularly represented by its new Proconsul, my people do not kill for sheer sport," P'ris huffed.

"I never said they did," Macen consoled her; "The Star Empire plays by the rules of war. It's just a little tough to figure out what exactly those rules are sometime."

P'ris grinned, "You must learn to the play the game, Captain, or the game plays you."

"I do believe that's the first time you've referred to me by my shipboard rank and not my defunct Starfleet title," Macen mused.

"I am no longer your equal in rank. I am subordinate to you so I will defer to the rank you pretend to honor...despite my knowing the truth," P'ris said primly.

"And what truth is that?" Macen inquired with some fascination.

"That in your heart you will always be Commander Brin Macen of Starfleet Intelligence," P'ris declared.

Macen shook his head, "It doesn't matter what I believe. Starfleet permanently closed that door."

"You also believed you were exiled to a penal colony for twenty years and look how that turned out," P'ris cajoled.

Rockford returned from scouting ahead, "Are we done here? I think I found the command center."

Macen glanced towards P'ris, "Another time."

"I shall look forward to it," she promised.

Macen moved forward to join Rockford. As he was approaching, the detective leaned over and gave the Romulan a knowing smirk. It rather unnerved P'ris. It seemed as though all of her secrets had been laid bare to the Angosian. P'ris didn't consider her a rival for Macen's affection but only because he didn't have any romantic inclinations towards P'ris.

Not even one, she inwardly fumed. Rockford knew this as well. If what Danan had revealed about the empathic cascade shared by the El-Aurian and the Angosian, it was no wonder that Rockford was preternaturally confident in her ability to hold on to Macen. She truly had seen the depths of his feelings for her just as he in turn had seen her depths.

Macen and T'Kir had been a charmed couple seemingly drawn together by the Elements themselves. But their union had always been strained by T'Kir's volatility. Now T'Kir was cured but she was also distant, wanting nothing to do with her former life.

As she understood it, Rockford had also presented an element of danger at first. Her core personality had not been hers but Annika Ryst's. Word of Ryst's enmity with Macen had reached Romulus, at least when there had been a Romulus. The Argyn had destroyed thousands of ships fielded by the governments of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants but they had also merged Ryst' myriad personalities into a gestalt. Ryst herself had chosen to fade into oblivion and leave Rockford nothing but her memories and her skills. All of the various personalities had. They saw Rockford as their one sure path to happiness and she would carry on their legacies.

Rockford had definitely absorbed the skills sets of her lethal "siblings." The detective had been abnormally competent with a particle weapon before but now she threatened to put Daggit to shame. Her fellow Augment would take issue with such an assessment but it was clear to P'ris that there was a reason Rockford had been chosen for the elite of the elite Infiltrator program. She was truly gifted.

Daggit gave Grace some competition in the hand/eye coordination department but Rockford nearly matched Grace's lofty abilities. She truly challenged the Kelvan, which was as rare as the pilot's species itself. There were under a million Kelvan refugees on New Kelva. It was no wonder they felt constantly threatened. The Kelvan had conquered nearly the entirety of the Andromeda Galaxy when an opponent created a radiothermic biogenic weapon that only killed the Kelvan race. Within a few months, the desperate survivors in the path of the weapons fled their native galaxy.

Scouts had preceded the main force. Rojan and his forces discovered their physical forms couldn't survive in the Milky Way. Surviving the Galactic Barrier, they crashed upon a world on the outer Orion Arm and encountered humans for the first time. Desperate to survive, they used their attuners to transform their physical forms to those of a nearly perfect example of humanity.

Rojan's encounter with Captain Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise was the stuff of legend. Rojan gave up on his quest to reunite with his people. Instead he and his fellow refugees settled on the Class-M they had originally crashed upon. They sent a signal to the incoming refugee fleet with instructions on how to survive within this new galaxy. Then Rojan and the others settled down to wait for their brethren.

P'ris knew the basics of the story. Her infiltration into Starfleet's files was extensive. She knew that Rojan and Kalinda had children just as Drea and Raynar and the rest of the Kelvan settlers had as well. One side effect of their perfecting the human genome was that their life spans had been increased exponentially. Now, more than one hundred twenty years after their encounter with Starfleet, Rojan's crew had just reached the age of infertility.

Grace was a child of Drea and Raynar. She'd inherited her mother's piloting skills and Raynar's tactical abilities through genetic memory. Her parents had received their skills the same way. Only the dominant skill was passed along so as to not overwhelm the descendents of a long line of ancestors. Grace's primary skill was piloting, like her mother, and she would pass that trait down to her offspring.

It was unknown how her marrying a human would dilute the genetic transfer. Doctor's had confirmed the compatibility of genes between Delaney and Grace. His, however, were flawed in comparison. Delaney had been bothered by this at first but Grace had simply laughed and told him she liked his imperfections. Having "perfect" children had been her worst fear after growing up in the rigidity of the culture on New Kelva.

The Federation had sought out the Kelvans after the bulk of their colonists arrived. It seemed even more apropos after the Kelvans eliminated the Omicron threat to the Federation. The Kelvans would have nothing to do with cultural exchanges. Rojan and the others had dispatched children like Grace to the Federation to spy on it and see how their arriving kinsmen would be received. The news had been grim.

The Kelvans didn't want the Federation "contaminating" their culture and they certainly felt no need for a mutual defense pact. In other words, they weren't buying what the Federation was selling. They also rebuffed the Klingons, the Romulans, The Cardassians, the Breen, and the Tzenkethi. They went so far as to castigate Grace for remaining within the Federation's bosom and denying her any part within New Kelvan society.

What P'ris knew, and wasn't sharing, was that the Star Empire had a fallback plan if the Kelvans ever went on the offensive. After the Hobus disaster and the loss of Romulus and Remus, it was felt a "doomsday" weapon was needed in case of attack by a vastly superior force. The Kelvans feel under that category. So Donatra had the Scimitar rebuilt. Of course it had a new designation. The Empress had foul memories attached to the original ship and its master.

Only the Empress could command the vessel. It literally wouldn't work without her. This is probably the only thing that kept Sela from running away with it and wreaking vengeance on those that she considered enemies. Even if Donatra died giving away the secret command codes that would transfer authority over the weapon, Sela couldn't be aboard when it was operational or it would self destruct. Donatra was many things but foolish wasn't one of them.

Donatra had been the one to send envoys to all of the various Typhon Pact member states. The idea of an alliance between them began in the Star Empire. Since the Romulan state was by far the largest and arguably the most advanced, the other nations listened. Surprisingly, the Breen, the Tzenkethi, and even the Tholians were willing to put aside their traditionally xenophobic tendencies and listen. The Gorn had faced the Borg during the Borg's war with the Federation and had suffered losses they felt made them vulnerable. The Kinshaya, well the Holy Order of the Kinshaya was as insane as ever but at least they directed their vengeful insanity towards the Klingons. If the Kinshaya kept the Klingons busy, then the ridge heads couldn't attack the Star Empire, or so the thinking went.

P'ris refocused and followed her teammates as Rockford led them to a circular door, yet another similarity with the Cardassians. P'ris had noticed the same patterns that Macen had. Her mind was already reeling from the potential consequences. Both species possessed gray skin but the Iridians lacked the Cardassians' distinctive bone ridges. But could there be a common ancestry?

Supposedly a link between a mysterious precursor race and several races within the Alpha and Beta Quadrants had been discovered by the famed Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Representatives from the Klingons, Cardassians, and even the Star Empire had been present. It might explain the annoying tendency the races had to cross breed.

The guards at the door were already dead. Macen gave Rockford a quizzical glance. She shrugged, "It seemed the best course of action."

Macen approached the door's controls and studied them, "These are the same as the comm alcove's. I wonder..."

As his voice trailed off he withdrew his tricorder and placed it up against the biometric scanner. He turned to the others, "You ladies may want to prepare yourself just in case this actually works."

Rockford and P'ris poised their pistols and Macen activated the tricorder's imager. The door rolled aside and the two SID teammates rushed in. Macen put his tricorder away, pulled his phaser free and followed them in. What he found when he crossed the threshold was a lot of dead bodies. Not all of them had been armed. That irritated him but it could best be addressed at a later time.

An inner office door hissed as it opened and all weapons were instantly trained on it. Revealed within was a petite Iridian woman. Like all Iridian female's, her hair was coal black rather than the stark white of the males. Her cobalt eyes seemed to glow with menace.

"So this is what becomes of negotiating with your pathetic Federation?" she nearly spat.

"Actually the Federation has no idea that we're here," Macen revealed, "You're more or less a target of opportunity."

"So the Ferengi have developed a spine at last," she said scornfully.

"Not quite," Macen replied. Seeing her confusion, he elaborated; "The information we can gather here could very well change the balance of power in this region. People will pay for that kind of data, including the Ferengi and the Federation. The Cardassians certainly will."

There was flicker in her eyes when he mentioned the Cardassians but he couldn't quite get a read on her. She was also too far away for his empathic senses, such as they were, to work on her. She spared him from making anymore "revelations" as she bought into what he was saying.

"Sindis said you were a mercenary. A conveniently placed mercenary," The Governor embellished, "You have a it Commander still or Captain once again?"

"Captain," Macen shared.

"Captain then," she smiled coolly, "You have a knack to be where you're most needed, or least wanted, depending on one's perspective. In fact, your entire Outbound Ventures organization shares this trait, if to a somewhat lesser degree.

Macen bowed at the waist but never took his phaser off of her, "I'm sure our clients would agree."

"So the Ferengi hired you to come here not only to ostensibly scout out trade opportunities but also to make a raid of our databanks if the opportunity presented itself?" she asked. Her steely gaze fell upon P'ris at a terminal and was disappointed to see data scrolling across the screen faster than she could track it. Rockford guarded her from harm and the Governor recognized the lethality behind those eyes.

The Governor turned to Macen, "Are you to kill me as well?"

"That would be most unfortunate but it could happen depending on what you do here," Macen warned, "The Ferengi Alliance wants to do business within the Enforcer territories. They see trade as the guarantor of peace."

"There is something to be said of that," the Governor admitted, "Once one's self interest is tied into another nation's, one does not attack that nation for fear of spiting oneself."

"Exactly," Macen concurred, "I'd approach the Federation a little more openly after this. They'll know your plans for the 'new' frontier between the Territories and the Federation. The Ferengi also sit near your newfound border. Consider that as you represent your Masters."

"What will they give you in exchange for that data?" the Governor suddenly blurted. She composed herself and asked, "Will they give a world of your own? Because I can offer that."

Macen smiled thinly, "I already have a space station."

"Where is the profit then?" she was beginning to be morbidly curious.

"I lost a world to the Borg. My new home was threatened by the Cardassians, then the Dominion, then by forces too numerable to mention, then the Borg again," Macen recited.

"And now the Typhon Pact," the Governor smiled slyly, "We could help you destroy them."

"But we don't want to destroy them," Macen smiled at her obvious befuddlement, "We'd rather befriend them."

"You people are so...inconsistent," she complained.

"That's what makes us adorable," Macen quipped.

"I've got it!" P'ris declared proudly and she rose from her seat.

Rockford ushered her over to where Macen was standing. P'ris shifted her focus onto the Governor and any move that she might make. The Iridian in turn remained as passive as before.

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

There was a moment's silence and then, "Telrik here."

"Are you eating?" Macen wondered.

"Kind of," Telrik sheepishly replied.

"Well, I hate to interrupt, Chief, but we need an immediate evac," Macen ordered.

"Commander Forger just called down here before you did. She wanted me to know we're breaking orbit because we've got in bound cruisers. Seems the whole sector patrol is collapsing in on us," Telrik reported.

"Will that prevent you from transporting us aboard?" Macen ruefully wondered.

"No, sir," Telrik replied.

"Then get to it!" Macen snapped.

An annular confinement beam grabbed the team just then and they disincorporated only to reintegrate in the Solstice's transporter room. All seven members of the team stood there. Most of them still had their weapons drawn. Telrik noted their surprise at being transported.

"Sorry 'bout the down and dirty grab but the Captain said to beam everyone up so I did," Telrik chuckled.

Everyone smiled at that. Telrik was probably the most agreeable Tellarite in the Milky Way Galaxy. The mood was broken as Macen tapped the comm badge on his belt, "Macen to Forger."

"Forger here," she replied.

"Have you engaged the cloak?" he inquired.

"Did it as soon as you and the others were aboard," she informed him proudly, "Now we're playing hide and seek with the Enforcer patrols."

"Any sign that they can detect us?" Macen asked.

"Not yet," Forger replied, "I have Rhiann running evasive patterns anyway. It'll take us twice as long to exit the system and go warp but I think it's worth the wait."

"Good call, Shannon. I'll see you in a few," Macen said. He could almost feel her glowing with pride across the distance. He turned to Rockford and P'ris, "You two, with me in my Ready Room. Everyone else, feel free to stand down."

Forger didn't even get a word in edgewise as the SID trio blew through the bridge and went straight into the Ready Room. Forger muttered, "I wish I had my damn office on this deck."

Miller seemed to sense her superior's frustration, "Look at it this way, Commander. It's a vote of confidence in our abilities."

Forger gave her a wry look, "Thanks, Jaycee. I knew I could count on chirpy enthusiasm from you."

Inside the Ready Room, Rockford sat down upon the couch while P'ris took the only visitor's chair. The Romulan had handed her tricorder's isolinear data rod over to Macen. His access to Starfleet Intelligence got him in straight to the watch commander's desk. Transmitting the data, Macen received an acknowledgement and signed off.

He allowed P'ris to exchange positions with him as she accessed the Romulan CommNet. Reaching her own contacts within the Tal Shiar, she sent them a copy of the data as well. She stayed on the line while the agency verified the information.

"Elements, Talera, you are in Enforcer space," her contact exclaimed.

"Yes Hiran, I am. I am now terminating this connection. Even if the Director has ships to spare to look for me, please advise him that a war for survival is more important than my assassination," she terminated the connection. She offered the desk back to Macen and reclaimed her seat.

"So, what happens now?" Rockford asked impishly.

"Now we make our way home and let the wheels of diplomacy and the threat of war bear down on everyone's psyche," Macen replied.

"But the Enforcer Masters crave war," P'ris argued, "They are worse than the Klingons or the Kinshaya."

If Macen was about to comment that both sides, the Khitomer Accords and the Typhon Pact, had allied themselves with those species he wisely refrained. Instead he said, "I think Picard was right when he said that the Enforcers badly underestimated us."

"Bad enough to make them rethink a war?" Rockford wondered.

"Maybe. Rather than throw every reserve unit they have at the two alliances, they've sat back and reinforced their internal positions within their uncontested territory."

"Which may very well just be a prelude for another invasion," P'ris pointed out.

"It might be," he allowed, "But I think they're going to be cautious for a while and retake everyone's measure."

"I hope you are right, Captain," P'ris said direly, "For all of our sakes."


Chapter Twenty-Nine

Tekik's Governor quickly shifted positions when she came out of consultation with her Enforcer Masters. Johnson and Picard had received a brief on the Enforcers' plans and an outline of how to deal with it. Starfleet, the Cardassian Militia, the Klingon Defense Force, and the Treasury Guard were all mobilizing units to the new border but they held there rather than cross into disputed territory.

The Enforcers, in turn, pulled out of the disputed region and held at their original border. Surprisingly enough, the Typhon Pact and the Enforcers reached a similar concordant. The cease fire was unofficial but it seemed to least long enough for diplomacy to begin. Johnson and Picard were granted negotiating authority for the Khitomer Accords nations. Castellan Garan balked at first but her two prized diplomats, Ambassador Elim Garak and Negotiator Detrek, were both busy dealing with the alliances the dual quadrants seemed embroiled in. Garak primarily dealt with the Federation and took up Cardassia's cause in the Khitomer Accords on the side. Detrek, no one was fully briefed on her given name, was Cardassia's liaison with the Typhon Pact. Not the Khitomer Accords representative, for there surely was one just as the Pact dispatched Tezrene to Earth, but the Cardassian Union's personal envoy.

The Typhon Pact surprised everyone by sending Alizome Vik Tov-A, the Tzenkethi Autarch's personal Agent-at-Large. Alizome had served in dozens of posts, under dozens of guises, but her own success had eventually caught up with her. She was now well known as the Autarch's troubleshooter. Her presence at the negotiations either indicated the seriousness with which the Typhon Pact took these negotiations. Inversely, it could also be taken that Alizome was present as an agent provocateur bent on pitting the Enforcers against the Khitomer nations. All Johnson and Picard knew for certain was that these talks, already balancing on a knife's edge, had just had the blade sharpened.

The Enforcers opened the talks with an offer to minimize their presence in the disputed areas while the Khitomer and Pact nations militarized their own borders. That offer fell flat onto deaf ears. In the end, several surprises came about. One was that Alizome seemed as concerned about the security of both alliances. Picard suggested it was a case of "the enemy you knew versus the unknown foe." The Typhon Pact disliked the Khitomer nations and actively felt threatened by them but they knew their opponents and how they would respond under threat. The Enforcers were the exact opposite and therefore had to be contained.

Adding their weight to Alizome's, the diplomats showed a united front that the Enforcers had not expected nor could contend with. Their initial strategy of "divide and conquer" had horribly backfired. Now they might have to contend with a grand alliance the likes of which the Enforcers had never faced.

In the end, it was reluctantly proposed by the Enforcer Governor that a Demilitarized Zone be established encompassing the entire disputed regions. Alizome readily approved since the Star Empire had a proven track record with the Neutral Zone with the Federation. Johnson and Picard were far less enthusiastic. The Federation's DMZ with the Cardassian Union had only just been taken down by the Union's joining the Khitomer Accords alliance.

The Maquis, the single most divisive political organization had arisen in that selfsame DMZ. On occasion the ragtag rebel group had almost pushed the two nations back into war. Instead of falling victim to the Maquis aggression, both sides had effectively hunted the terrorists down. The Cardassians had finally purged the threat from their territory with the help of the Dominion. The feeling survivors then faced prosecution in the Federation. After the Dominion War, the DMZ had been re-established under Cardassian control but once again neither side's military could mobilize there.

Taking note that Alizome wouldn't support any other suggestions or offers, Johnson and Picard raised the issue of groups like the Maquis arising. The threat of piracy also existed. Alizome recommended creating a joint task force, consisting of units of all three powers and the natives in a fledgling agency solely devoted to border patrols and customs duties. The Governor rallied to the Tzenkethi's side and Johnson and Picard finally bowed to their wishes.

No military traffic whatsoever would be allowed in, out, or through the DMZ's borders. Any such action would be tantamount to war. The Governor also warned Alizome that cloaked ships would constitute a breach of the zone. If either, or both, alliances broke the zone a general war against both would be carried out.

Commercial traffic, in the form of unarmed freighters and scouts, would be allowed to cross. When Johnson brought up the fact that pirates could be lurking in the DMZ and those same ships would be defenseless against them, the Governor and Alizome joined together in saying the joint task force would be arrayed against them and would marshal to the freighters' defense.

In the end, Johnson and Picard did manage to get one concession. The Khitomer contributions to the joint task force would not only be personnel but Starfleet also had decommissioned starships that could be handed over. When asked why these ships were available while Starfleet was recommissioning as many ships as possible, it was revealed that these ship classes had been built around the turn of the century and were currently being held of eventual use by the growing number of privateers. But for such a cause as this "joint effort", Starfleet could hand over two dozen ships or so. The Enforcers could contribute an equal number as could the Typhon Pact. This way ships of the line wouldn't be deployed in the zone.

"And the border patrol can be easily overcome by your forces," the Governor dryly observed.

"Or by yours, Madame Governor," Picard countered.

"True," the Governor mused, "I must relay these terms over to the Masters but I d believe they meet the spirit, if not the exact terms, of the Masters' original wishes. Shall we reconvene in four hours' time?"

The ambassadors all agreed but as Johnson and Picard were returning to the transporter pad they found Alizome already there waiting. Although Johnson didn't know her beyond her reputation, Picard had some personal experience with her. The Venette Convention had dropped their petition to join the Federation largely due to the coaxing of the Tzenkethi. Alizome had represented the Coalition's interests while Picard and a group of Khitomer nation ambassadors had tried to convince the Venettens to change their minds. Alizome had carried the day while the Venettens learned mistrust and resentment towards the peoples of the Federation. It had been Picard's last assignment before the Argyn incursion and his subsequent retirement from Starfleet.

"It is a pleasure to see you again, Alizome Vik Tov-A," Picard said amiably.

Alizome laughed, "You always have been able to lie so eloquently, Picard." Tzenkethi speech patterns literally sounded like bells to humans so her laughter literally tinkled while his universal translator made them sound like Federation standard.

"It is no lie, Alizome. You do me a grave injustice if you believe that of me," he said sadly.

"I think that of all your peoples, Picard. The Federation is so...fragmented and chaotic. In the Coalition we know our place. Our genetic coding gives us our place in the Autarch's grand design and we serve him to the best of our ability," she said with utter conviction.

"I wonder if you would feel the same if your grade were Ret-EE?" Picard idly wondered.

Alizome looked as though she'd been slapped, "Have a care, Picard. Our common interest were united today so I served my Rej by securing is future, our allies future, and even your future. Please do not make me regret it any more than I already do." She used the informal genetic designation given only to the Autarch.

"But you haven't secured anything," Picard sorrow grew as he realized she had no inkling of the consequences of her actions, "You've merely put a pretty stopper on an intricately carved bottle. All of these tensions are going to fester, wounds or going to be licked but they shall find no succor. The Enforcers were given pause today only by our unity. If we fall into bad habits and go at each other's throats once more, they will come for us and we will be sorely unprepared."

Alizome weighed his words carefully, "So you are saying we are in a balance?"

Picard nodded, pleased that she was finally getting it; "A very delicate balance. If even one of its participants is thrown out of balance, all of the partners will be immolated upon the knife's edge."

The tinkling laugh returned, "I knew you spoke the language but I didn't know you also indulged in Klingon poetry."

"I am quite serious, Alizome," Picard warned.

"So you are," Alizome conceded, "And you are never quite as dangerous as when you are, Captain."

A rueful smile appeared on Picard's face, "I am not a Tzenkethi. I can grow beyond my former roles without a genetic redetermination."

"Pity," Alizome's bell tones took on a sorrowful sound, "I will discuss these matters with my Autarch and his allies, Picard. We will have this treaty and then we shall determine how to live with it."

"I can only hope that we all learn to do so in peace," Picard said somberly.

She scrutinized him for a moment as if assessing his sincerity. Finally she spoke, "As do I."

The transporter operators had been growing quite impatient with the delays and they approached the ambassadors. Alizome turned her gaze upon them and they melted. Few humanoids in the galaxy were as beautiful as the Tzenkethi. Their large, luminous eyes; their fluid filled bodies shaped in curved in alluring proportions, and their incandescent glow all served to draw other species towards them. It almost made Picard and Johnson forget the atrocities committed during the Federation-Tzenkethi War. She playfully waved at the humans and disappeared as the transporter effect took her away.

Picard relayed his destination to the Enforcers manning the transporter. As they contacted the Intrepid, Johnson softly spoke with Picard; "Do you think you got through to her?"

"I don't know," Picard sighed, "Alizome Vik Tov-A is incredibly flexible by Tzenkethi standards but she's still inflexibly bound to Autarch. I have no doubt that she will make a full report of the proceedings and of our exchange. It all depends upon what Korzenten Rej Tov-AA has to say."

"Korzenten hasn't a good thing to say about the Federation since his grading was confirmed and the previous Rej stepped down," Johnson said sourly.

"Yes, but Alizome wouldn't have pursued this action unless Korzenten approved of it," Picard reminded him, "And that decision was probably found in outside sources."

"You think the other members of the pact pressured him into this?" Johnson thought he saw where this was going.

"Domo Brek and Empress Donatra are facing the brunt of this war. The Tholians rarely leave their own space. The Gorn military caste is nearly extinct and the Kinshaya are solely focused on the Klingons. That means the Tzenkethi and their clients, the Andergani, are the best hope for the Typhon Pact's mutual survival," Picard summed it up, "Neither the Breen nor the Romulans are unreasonable. They just like to have the upper hand at all times. Secrets are as necessary as atmosphere to them. It's literally a way of life for them."

"I had high hopes for Donatra after the Shinzon incident but they seem to have evaporated," Johnson admitted.

"Do not count the Empress out despite her selecting Sela as her second. I believe that was a purely political move on her part. Sela represents the hardliners and their united forces. Donatra represents those who wish to secure their people's future, especially after the Hobus disaster. Unfortunately, I now believe the young Empress will do so at any cost," It was Picard's turn for an admission.

"You two!" the transporter tech barked, "Are you going to stand there all day or return to your ship?"

"Age before beauty, Jean-Luc," Johnson grinned.

"You do realize that Beverly and I have an eight year old son?" Picard dryly asked.

Johnson shrugged, "I'm not against senior citizens having children of their own. They have more time to devote to them."

"Do you abuse Edward Noyce like this?" Picard asked. Noyce was Picard's age as well as being Johnson's superior officer.

"All the time," Johnson happily shared, "He loves it."

"I'm sure." Picard sighed. He and Johnson and moved onto the transporter pads. The armed guards seemed alert and tense. Of course, you couldn't see their faces behind their helmet's visors but their body language spoke volumes.

It had nearly taken two days for the Enforcers to properly affect damage control after Macen's little "move". The Intrepid had been joined by a dozen Enforcer warships while they orbited Tekik and waited to be summoned by the Governor. Surprisingly, when she called on them she wasn't full of recriminations. Apparently she'd fallen for whatever story Macen had concocted to distance himself from the official organs of the Federation. She also knew they already had copiers of the Enforcers' operational plans and intentions for the newly acquired border regions. The Typhon Pact had signaled that they'd received copies as well and wished to talk. That information had surprised the Federation diplomats so much they'd actually given away their surprise.

That little lapse seemed to wipe away the last vestiges of doubt that the Governor had. She then returned them to the Intrepid to await the arrival of the Linerea which was bringing Alizome to the negotiations. The Governor seemed amused by the Federation team's less than enthusiastic response over who was leading the Typhon Pact mission. As they were being escorted out of her official chambers and towards the transporter room, she fired one last shot across their bow.

"It seems that the Typhon Pact has more faith in its negotiator than the Khitomer Accords does in the pair of you. After all, they've entrusted their faith in one person," she'd laughed at their departing backs.

The Intrepid's holo deck once again served as a briefing room. Holographically represented were UFP President Nanietta Bacco, Castellan Rekena Garan, Chancellor Martok, and Grand Nagus Rom. Starfleet C-in-C Edward Jellico was also present. They accepted the proposed treaty with grim finality.

"This will postpone the inevitable," Bacco complained.

"Madame President, if I may?" Jellico interrupted. He pulled up 3D star map of the border region and designated two points along the proposed DMZ, "These are sites for proposed Deep Space stations. We've had development plans in this area. Deep Space 10 and Deep Space 11 have all but been built. The approval to build them was granted before this conflict."

"I thought we diverted those resources to Deep Space 9?" Bacco retorted.

"The technical crews but not the resources;" Jellico replied smoothly, "DS9 is in the finishing stages. It's already gone operational."

"But it's in orbit around Bajor," Garan commented.

"There's no need to drag it out to a wormhole that no longer exists," Jellico explained.

"Rekena, most of our starbases orbit a planet. There are those that do not, like Starbase 375 or Deep Space 3, but on the whole a starbase is considered a tactical and strategic point in the defense of a member world," Bacco softened the blow that the admiral was trying to bludgeon Garan with.

"But not every member world has a station in orbit," Garan grated.

Bacco wondered why DS9 was suddenly an issue. Garan had not objected to constructing a replacement for the old station. She only seemed to have a problem with its current location. Was this a signal that Cardassia still had designs on Bajor? Weren't they over that madness yet? Maret had certainly steered them in that direction again while the Unionists were in power but he was dead and gone. What influences still remained that would direct Cardassian intentions towards Bajor? Bajor was a member world of the Federation. If the Cardassian Union were stupid enough to attack an allied world it would not only mean the end of the alliance but it would also escalate into a full blown war.

"Rekena, DS9 is going to stay in orbit until such time as the wormhole reappears," Bacco said gently.

"But the Cardassian Militia has been using the station for repairs, rest, and recreation. How receptive will the Bajorans be of our forces at a station orbiting their world much less potentially visiting their soil?" Garan finally expressed her concerns.

Aha! Bacco thought, "Castellan, you are an ally of the Federation. That means you are an ally of all of her myriad peoples, including the Bajorans. There won't be a problem."

"How can I be as certain as you?" Garan challenged her.

"You have a Militia officer serving under Captain Ro, do you not?" Bacco asked.

"Yes, I do not recall her name though. I think she holds the rank of dalin though," Garan admitted.

"Ro Laren was a member of the Bajoran Resistance and later a member of the Maquis," Bacco asserted, "In both of those roles it was her sole mission to kill Cardassians. Has your officer reported any problems with her superior officer?"

Garan pondered it before admitting that she had not, "Legate Macet feels it is a good match. Ro respects our exchange officer's abilities and has even reached out to her in friendship."

Bacco threw her hands up, "There you have it!"

Garan pursed her lips, "That is an isolated incident with a Starfleet officer."

Bacco buried her face in her left hand, "Oh, for the luvva..."

"Why are we wasting time on this shuk?" Martok suddenly demanded, "We have a treaty to approve or disapprove."

"Yes, of course," Bacco hoped she wasn't blushing as bad it felt like she was, "Admiral, how soon could Starfleet have these stations built?"

"One year," Jellico boasted, "We could have both stations up and running in that time."

"It sounds like you already have a plan, Admiral," Bacco dryly observed.

Jellico shrugged, "Luke said, the appropriations committee approved our plans last year before the Argyn struck and the Enforcers came crawling down our throats."

"You may proceed with your plans, Admiral," Bacco unnecessarily said just to remind him who was boss, "What those ship transfers? Can Starfleet really afford to hand off starships right now, mothballed or not?"

"We're talking a few Shogun-, Sirius-, and Lancelot-class light cruisers with a smattering of Newton-class science ships for sensor sweeps. The newest class was built over fifty years ago. We've reserved these ships for privateers since we seem to be relying upon them more and more," the distaste Jellico had for that notion was obvious to all.

Bacco chose to ignore it, "Carry on."

If Jellico was stung by the rebuff, he hid it well; "Picard suggested we turn over two dozen of these ships for this 'customs task force'. We can easily manage that. The staffing requirements on these older models prohibit most privateers from taking them on. They usually rely more on scouts like the Barracuda- and Blackbird-classes from the same era. Now that we're releasing the Emden-class to civilians we're having trouble finding enough of them."

"Are they in that short of supply?" Bacco wondered.

"The demand is fairly high," Jellico informed her, "At least it's the ship with the most demand and they did have an unfortunate tendency to get blown straight hell while they were running interference for ships of the line."

Garan blanched at this. The Cardassians and the Tzenkethi were responsible for most of those losses in separate conflicts. Bacco sensed the sudden tension and changed the conversation direction, "Get the ships ready. Our negotiators will hammer out the details of just how this force will be put together and what its duties are."

"I only have one question," Jellico suddenly interjected. Bacco waved him on and he continued with his thought, "How the hell are we going to staff those ships?"

Bacco frowned, "I thought the alliance members would all contribute personnel."

Jellico snorted, "Pretty picture, Madame President, but we can barely staff Starfleet right now. That means the rejects will end up crewing these ships, or even worse, becoming privateers."

Bacco rolled her eyes despite her intention to remain neutral on the issue, "They may be irregular forces but those irregulars are taking up Starfleet's traditional patrols within the Federation's borders. That leaves the regular forces free to deal with border defense and strategic defense pockets, or isn't that what your briefings have emphasized, Admiral? After all, if you want Starfleet to regain its primacy you'll have to recall all of those deep space missions in the Alpha, Beta, and Delta Quadrants."

Although it was delivered with sugar sweetness, the barb was there and Jellico felt it. He scowled, "We need those exploration missions to continue to find us new allies."

"I'm not arguing that point," Bacco assured him, "What I am saying is that Starfleet can't be everywhere at once. Not anymore."

Even though it galled him, Jellico knew when to quit, "That doesn't explain how we overcome the staffing issue."

"We have to make it attractive and then people will want to join," Bacco insisted.

Johnson, Picard, and Alizome reported that their governments had decided to accept the treaty stipulations. The Governor reported that the Enforcer Masters had also accepted it as is. They sat down to hammer out the details and make the treaty work. The single biggest issue was the joint task force. Fortunately, Johnson and Picard had come armed with some key ideas. It turned out it was an easy sell.


Chapter Thirty

The Solstice arrived at just over 2300 hours GMT -8, which is what Starfleet set their clocks at based upon their HQ on Earth. The crew wearily exited and headed for their quarters. Gerrit Gren was summoned to show P'ris her quarters' enhancements despite his being off duty for several hours. It came with being Station Chief of Security.

"It all seems so...unnecessary," P'ris commented after Gerrit ran her through her suite's sensor grid, force field nets, and panic buttons.

"Pardon my saying so, ma' am, but it's probably very necessary," Gerrit rebutted her.

"And why is that?" she mirthfully asked.

"Because your former bosses are vindictive sons a bitches," Gerrit blurted.

Riker nearly burst out laughing. Macen remained passive. He could see P'ris' effort to keep her temper in check.

"P'ris, he does have a point," he said at last. She whirled on him, her face contorting with unchecked emotion. He held up his hands, both in surrender and to ward off her mounting wrath, "The Tal Shiar has made no secret of the fact that they want you dead or alive, preferably dead. Sela is probably whipping them into a frenzy and now that the war with the Enforcers is presumably being called off, they have means, motive, and opportunity."

He saw her struggle with that. Romulans were emotionally volatile but she was able to clamp down on hers in a hurry, "You may be right, Captain. I shall certainly take it under advisement."

"And then there's the safe room," Gerrit stated.

"What?!" P'ris thundered.

"Commander!" Macen raised his voice, "You will stand down or the deal is off."

She blinked. A wounded look filled her features. Much more contritely, she nodded to Gerrit for him to continue. He showed her the last safety feature and then he and Riker stepped outside. Macen remained to speak with her.

"Talera, you know this is the way it has to be," he calmly reminded her.

"You are not the one forsaking all privacy, she growled.

"Nor am I the one that alienated and angered an entire empire," Macen countered.

P'ris sighed, "Am I not allowed any discretion?"

"The room is remotely monitored. The computer does most of the work. If the hallway were to fill with biosignatures, the computer would alert a sentient being. Attempted penetration of these quarters would then be averted if tried," Macen described the likeliest scenario.

"That is what I am worried about," she grimly revealed.

Macen grinned, "I'm sure you'll have no problem with 'entertaining' guests. After all, you joined my SID team, not a nunnery."

"A what?" the translation was obviously lost on P'ris.

He waved the comment aside, "If you truly that worried about it, meet at their quarters." Her eyebrow arched and he nearly snickered, "You never thought about that?"

"No," she admitted, "I truly had not."

"Maybe you're happier about these security arrangements than you're willing to let on then," Macen suggested.

"Perhaps," she allowed, "Would you like to stay and help me 'break in the place' or so they say?"

His smile was rueful, "Sorry, Celeste and I are calling it an early night. We both have office hours in the morning."

Though disappointed, the answer also seemed to please her; "Perhaps I shall stop by the famed 'office' tomorrow."

"The more the merrier," he grinned, "Good night."

He exited the quarters to find Riker and Gerrit standing outside of them, "I suppose you're loitering to make some dire prediction."

"There's going to be trouble with her aboard," Gerrit warned.

"I agree," Riker added.

"Tom, you already know my reasons for her staying," Macen turned to Gerrit, "And Gren, you could leave before she did and it wouldn't bother me. No offense."

"None taken. But would somebody tell me why this woman is so damn important?" Gerrit bemoaned.

"Tom, you have the honor of briefing him," Macen said and then he started to stroll away.

"Me?" Riker yelped.

"You're station CO, not me," Macen called back; "He's your Chief of Security."

Riker looked nonplussed and Gerrit chuckled, "Take it easy, Captain. It's not like our night isn't already shot."

"You have a point, Chief;" Riker mused and then he brightened, "Your office or mine?"

"Let's try yours," Gerrit suggested, "Casey won't be daft enough to expect your to relieve her while my Deputy will be."

"Good point," Riker grinned, "Then it's off to Ops we go."

The next morning Rockford reported in at her agency and Macen arrived at his office to find Bryce Fanning busy at work. She brightened when she saw him enter, "Lord Almighty you would not believe the amount of offers you've received."

"I'll start looking at them in a moment," Macen chuckled, "Any other news?"

Fanning's interest looked decidedly piqued, "Chairperson Tyrol's office keeps paging you every five minutes. Whatever it's about it's so hush hush they won't even leave a message with me."

"Ooh, interesting," he said impishly and ducked into his office to find it rearranged. Rearranged and down to one desk. He popped back into her office, "Tom's desk is gone."

"He has the office in Ops," she said, "He thought it would be redundant to keep a second one here especially since he's not part of the crew."

She could see the wounded look in Macen's eyes and it tore at her. Macen had shared an office with T'Kir from 2376-2385 and one with Riker from 2387 until now. The two years in between had been spent on a penal colony. She knew Rockford had her own office at her agency. She had her own affairs that were separate from the ship's business and she liked it that way.

"Okay," he was slightly crestfallen, "I'll see what Kathy wants."

"She'd probably appreciate that," Fanning said, trying to fan the fires of encouragement.

Macen smiled to himself as he crossed the room he'd just entered and took a seat behind his desk. Riker had made a good selection when it came to placing the furniture. Having no view because it was nestled insider of the station's core, the desk was situated to grant him an expansive overview of the room's interior. Since the door between his office and Fanning's was opened and closed by a release in his desk, he'd hear would be assailants before they reached him.

He still ran a series of checks to determine whether or not his comp/comm had been tampered with or accessed. His decades at Starfleet Intelligence and his time with the Maquis made him especially paranoid. Of course, it's not as though my current role doesn't have enough cloak and dagger to it, he wryly mused as his checks came out negative.

Activating the comm he paged Kathy Tyrol's office. It seemed she really had been anticipating his call because she appeared on screen in less than five minutes. She was also notably flustered which was a rarity in and of itself.

"What's going on Kath? You seem a little...out of sorts," Macen broke the ice first.

"Have you been talking to the Tellarites?" she nearly snarled.

Taken aback, he cautiously replied; "No, I haven't."

"Well someone has," she sourly revealed.

"Why don't you tell me what's going on from the beginning," Macen suggested.

"Dammit Brin! Don't manage me. You know how I hate it when you pull your 'Listener' tricks on me," Tyrol vented.

"I'm not 'managing' you, Kath," Macen assured her, "I'm just trying to present a calm fašade so you'll calm down and tell me what's going on."

She adopted a rueful smirk, "That m'dear, is managing."

"And how am I supposedly doing at it?" he dryly asked.

"You suck at it," Tyrol complained, "My daughter does a better job than you and she's eleven."

"Then I must not be trying very hard," Macen said wryly. Seeing her get irritated again his face twisted in a rueful expression, "Hey, you're the one who doesn't like to be 'managed'."

A growl escaped the back of her throat, "Just what the hell was your crew up to in the Enforcer Territories?"

Macen's face reflected his disapproval, "You know I can't talk about that."

"Well, sometime between your last trip out and returning to Serenity an Outbound Ventures employee contacted the government on Tellar and suggested that they hire us."

Macen smiled, "That's great. You've wanted to increase our clientele base."

Tyrol shot him a scathing glare, "Look you idiot, our clientele base is one thing but this is an intervention designed to prevent a war. We're not set up for that."

"What war?" Macen wondered.

Tyrol sighed and explained the current tensions between Tellar and the Andorian Empire. The Andorians were making moves to overrun a few dozen colonies. The Tellarites didn't have anything capable of stopping the Andorians. So, someone had given the Tellarites the bright idea of hiring Outbound Ventures to secure their territory.

"So why not just turn them down if you're this unhappy?" Macen wondered.

"I would've but Starfleet told me my answer was 'yes'," Tyrol grumped.

"But this is Starfleet's jurisdiction," Macen retorted.

Tyrol shook her head, "Not anymore. Starfleet doesn't have the resources to maintain border security and internal security. And up until recently Andoria was a loyal, founding member of the UFP. No one ever expected them to be hostiles after they seceded."

"Let me call some people and I'll get back to you on whether or not you should commit to this," Macen offered.

Tyrol grew deadly serious, "Brin, they want all of the Outbound Ventures fleet deployed on their behalf. This includes the Solstice. Point in fact, they won't offer a contract without your ship and crew being involved."

"Good to know," he murmured, "I'll get back to you in a few hours."

"Sure, I should have a full blown ulcer by then," she quipped.

He smirked, "I'll keep this in mind."

Her image disappeared and he scrolled through his incoming messages. The one from Ro caught his attention. Although it would have even if it weren't marked "Urgent". He opened it and Ro's image appeared.

"Admiral Forger wanted me to deliver this news personally but I knew you've just returned from the Enforcer Territories and I thought you should get one night's sleep before you get thrown back into the fire," she said gravely. Macen double checked the time stamp on the message. It had been sent just four hours ago. Given that the station followed Bajor's 26 hour day and not Starfleet standard time, it had been roughly 1400 hours there when the message was sent. Macen settled in to watch more.

"By now you've probably heard that Tellar wants to hire your company. Your entire company. I'm supposed to tell you that the SID wants you to accept this contract," Ro held up a hand and wore a wry grin, "Before you get huffy, consider all the facts. The following is a visual recording taken inside my office two days ago. You'll find it very informative. You'll also appreciate the irony that all of Starfleet's regulation equipment 'mysteriously' shut down during this meeting and it was only because of Cardassian Intelligence Bureau equipment installed by my Second Officer, Dalin Ishkara Slaine." Ro paused and wore wry expression, "Yes, I know you're probably smirking and thinking 'It's about time' when it comes to Slaine. I respect her as an officer. I know she's had a rough go of it being a minority."

Ro didn't explain that women in the Cardassian Militia were considered minorities and frequently unwanted ones at that. He studied Ro as she continued, "Ishkara is more than a fellow officer now. She's a friend. Sort of like you and Lyoti Mariska...without the sex. And before you flash me a message saying maybe the sex would be good for me I'll have you know that Alfonso and I do just fine in that department." Ro's eyes twinkled at the last and she practically glowed just from her memories. Macen's former Maquis commander was definitely in love.

Ro grew serious again, "Watch the video log, accept the contract, and kick Section 31's ass!" Ro adopted a surprised mien, "Oh, did I give something away? I guess you'll have to watch now."

Ro's victorious smirk shone as the image faded. She had him and she knew it. After the mention of Section 31, Macen had to watch, just as she said.

The link to the encrypted file displayed and he made a copy of the file onto an isolinear data rod. Before opening the video log, he reflected back on his history with S31. The SID had been born out of the fires of S31's Gulag project near Romulan space. There, they'd gathered a host of what they considered to be dissidents culled from across the Federation and imprisoned merely for speaking their mind.

His original Chief CONN Officer aboard the USS Odyssey, Julia D'arte, had turned out to be a S31 mole. And it should have come as no surprise that her replacement, Hannah Grace, was one as well. But Grace had the temerity to betray her S31 handlers and truly serve her team and her teammates.

S31 had then apparently killed, but actually secretly captured Tom Riker, in an effort to learn how to duplicate soldiers on an even greater scale than the Dominion bred Jem'Hadar troops. Section 31 had allied itself with the SID team during the Cell 51 coup. Cell 51 had been a faction of Section 31 before it splintered off and decided to reshape the Federation.

Since then all had been quiet on the S31 front. Macen knew that Doctor Julian Bashir still had infrequent contacts with them. That was unless you counted his bedding Sarina Douglas. Douglas was genetically enhanced like Bashir but she was smarter and quicker by several degrees. She was also a Section 31 operative.

When Douglas had transferred from being a civilian Starfleet Intelligence operative to being a Starfleet Security officer, she'd approached Ro and given up that she was a S31 operative. She claimed that she wanted to take the rogue organization down from the inside but Ro was skeptical. Douglas' enhancements gave her the ability to beat any biorhythmic "lie detector" so Ro couldn't prove she was lying so she accepted Douglas' story with several caveats.

Colonel Cenn Desca, of the Bajoran Militia, was Ro's Security Chief as well as being the official Bajoran Liaison to the station. Ro had Cenn keeping an eye on Douglas. So far Ro hadn't reported any problems or irregularities from Douglas. In fact, the woman had made quite an impact during the evacuation and destruction of the old DS9. Douglas' ability to analyze and synthesize data and tremendous speeds allowed her to circumvent disasters before they occurred. She'd personally risked her life countless times and saved an even greater number of people.

Something must have happened though. Ro didn't seem upset. Her manner and vocal intonations had indicated a certain level of stress. From what she'd alluded, Tellar's proposed contract for the Outbound Ventures "fleet" was tied into Section 31 somehow. Knowing he'd get nothing more from watching Ro, he opened the video log file.

Ro was slightly perturbed as she read the padd a second time. It had all of the proper encryption protocols and authenticators but still...

Ro tossed the offensive padd into the middle of her desk, "No."

The Vulcan that sat across from her merely arched her eyebrow and repeated what Ro had said, "No?"

"That's what I said," Ro said defiantly. Ro didn't know the Vulcan but then again she didn't know more than a handful of Starfleet Intelligence officers. Her staff intelligence officer had vouched for the Vulcan though. He'd seemed quite taken with her. For "professional" reasons, of course.

"Look...what was your name again?" Ro was irritated that she'd forgotten the woman's name but she did blend into the background.

"T'Lana," the Vulcan answered as though she received this question on a regular basis, "Commander T'Lana."

The subtle inflection in that last reply informed Ro that she'd struck a nerve after all. She'd served with a handful of Vulcans in both Starfleet and the Maquis. T'Kir in particular had taught her that the race was a seething kettle of volatility waiting to boil over.

"Look, Commander T'Lana I'm a captain," Ro threw that fact in the impertinent Vulcan's face, "I can override your request at my leisure."

"Did you not read Admiral Ross' orders?" T'Lana queried her.

"You watched me read the damn orders," Ro grated.

"So you have a clear understanding that Admiral Ross is not asking you to cooperate with me, he is in fact compelling you to through the proper channels and chain of command," T'Lana made it a statement, not a question.

"Julian Bashir is my Chief Medical Officer and Sarina Douglas is a vital member of my security force," Ro countered, "They aren't available."

T'Lana tilted her head to one side as if she were studying something puzzling, "Dr. Bashir can be spared just as he has been before for missions on Starfleet Intelligence's behalf. Lt. Douglas is hardly 'vital' to your operations. As per your orders, her duties are quite routine. Other than her secondary role within the forensics unit, she would hardly be missed if she is temporarily attached to my command."

"Lt. Douglas is Deputy Chief of Security and she hasn't been marginalized. This station is just getting up and running. She'll be busy enough for three people in a matter of weeks."

"So it is better that she accept a detached duty assignment before the traffic arrives in force," T'Lana countered.

"Why them?" Ro sharply inquired, "I thought Douglas told you people to go to hell. I know Bashir did after that Breen infiltration.

"We need them for the same reasons they were recruited for the 'Breen infiltration' as you put it," T'Lana replied, "They can assimilate body language and non-verbal clues in seconds whereas it would take the standard operative month, perhaps years or a lifetime, to incorporate the same mannerisms in every facet of their lives." T'Lana looked surprisingly cross for an unemotional Vulcan at that point, "And just how did you learn of the operation to recover Starfleet technology inside of Breen space?"

Ro rolled her eyes, "Bashir is my subordinate and Douglas became my subordinate because of that little escapade. Normal people talk out what troubles them."

"And that mission disturbed them?" T'Lana asked.

"On more levels than you want to count," Ro said drolly, "I can't say I blame them."

"Still, they are ideally suited for this task," T'Lana retorted.

Ro felt like banging her head against her desk, "Look, talk to them. If they agree to this escapade, I'll sign off on it." T'Lana rose and Ro called after her, "Just as a courtesy, can I ask where they are going? Next of kin purposes and all that."

"I am not at liberty to discuss that matter," T'Lana said clinically and stepped out.

Macen watched as T'Lana returned flanked by Bashir and Douglas. Bashir seemed reluctant but Douglas practically vibrated with giddy anticipation. Ro was resigned as she signed off on the transfer orders. Her image appeared at the end of the log. She looked grim.

"Forger has contacts within Section 31. They confirmed that S31 has a current interest in the Andorians. Nechayev confirmed that Starfleet Intelligence did not issue the orders that I signed off on. She ran a records check and no 'T'Lana' ever worked for Starfleet Intelligence, or any other branch of Starfleet that her hounds can find," Ro looked worried now, "I sent them out to fend for themselves on whatever world S31 deems worthy of their particular brand of attention. Julian's basically harmless. His moral compass works better than mine. Sarina though, she's a true believer. The very same kind as Tiro Anadis and Michael Eddington. Bashir gets screwed up because of her. He leads with his heart and in this case the object of his desire has him by the mishveks and she's twisting them to get him to sign on to this. That can be used against him. Get him away from her and he'll be reasonable again. But as long as they're together they're going to be hell on wheels."

Macen watched as the time index on the display changed. Ro's meeting with T'Lana had occurred in the morning, her signing of their orders happened in the afternoon, and the first message was recorded a day later? Macen rechecked all of the time stamps. Bashir and Douglas had left DS9 three days earlier. Why was he just learning of all of this now? He hit "resume" and waited for Ro to explain this discrepancy existed.

Ro returned. She looked rueful, "By now you've figured out that Bashir and Douglas left with T'Lana three days ago. I wanted to send a message earlier but Admiral Forger said you had enough on your plate dealing with the Governor on Tekik. It was also felt by grades higher than mine that a signal from Starfleet might clue the Enforcers into your working for them instead of the Ferengi." She stopped to grin, "Quark thanks you for the market report by the way. He wasn't certain you'd actually deliver one but he's thrilled at the news. He already has a bidding war going on for the list he sent you with." She ran a hand through her over the shoulder length hair, "Nechayev learned of The Tellarites' offer to your corporation through a contact in their government. It seemed to be a natural cover so she and Forger wrote up a contract for you. And yes, she's authorizing you to double bill. Nechayev has assets on the ground on Andoria. They'll be in contact with you when you arrive."

Macen wondered how he was supposed to get on Andoria when he was patrolling star systems near Tellar. Once again, Ro had the solution; "The Andorians' representative to the Federation claims that the movement towards the Tellarite colonies is the work of agitators within the government. They won't allow Starfleet into their territory but they are willing to let you investigate the matter. Inspector Aradshin' Wy'Gist will assist you. The Andorian Emperor has thrown the government's full support behind this investigation."

Ro's expression became very wry, "As usual, the SID will disavow any and all knowledge of your activities at the event of capture. They'll probably also send someone to kill you rather than rescue you."

Macen wore his own rueful expression at Ro's dark humor. She'd know, just as he did now, that it wasn't really humorous. If the Andorians decided to arrest them on any number of trumped up charges, the SID would help them throw away the key.

He paged Fanning and she immediately answered, "Shelve the offers, Bryce. We're headed out."

"Already?" she yelped, "Do you know how much the crew hates me after I call them up and tell them their deploying again the day after they've just come back?"

Macen grinned. He'd heard this argument before, "That's why you have a thick skin, Bryce. You wouldn't have gotten the job otherwise.

"And the potential clients!" she was in a lather now, "They don't breathe down your neck but down mine. You know why? Because I keep the hordes at bay!"

"All right, Bryce, what is it you want?" Macen wondered.

"Why, whatever do you mean?" she asked with feigned innocence.

"Last time this came up you wanted a raise," Macen reminded her, "So what are you after now?"

"I want a synced data tablet so I can route calls to it as I go about my business in the Promenade," she revealed at last.

"So basically you're tired of being chained to your desk," he surmised.

"Damn skippy," she asserted.

"Okay, draw up a work order, I'll authorize it, and station operations can fill it," Macen suggested.

"I happen to have a work order sitting on my desk. You can authorize it on your way to break the bad news to Celeste," Fanning admitted.

"You're a harsh taskmaster, Mistress Fanning," Macen chuckled.

"Does that mean I get another raise on top of everything else?" Fanning asked hopefully.

"Not a chance," Macen said and cut the connection. He authorized the work order on his way out and headed for the Promenade. The Rockford Detective Agency had its offices there and inside those offices was the woman he loved. Whether or not she still loved him after he dropped the news would be another matter.

As he approached the agency he smelled coffee. The kiosk was open and Roberta was working. A delightful bribe whipped up by a maestro. He might survive the next ten minutes after all. He smiled. Things were looking up already.


- The End -


Last modified: 12 Jun 2022