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Countermeasures by Travis Anderson

The tales from the Maquis

Keev Falor was marched before the Vorta named Kilana and her cohort of Jem'Hadar. The Bajoran colonists of Valo II were assembled behind him.

"Why the unexpected break from our toil?" Keev asked.

"I know you've been sabotaging the work," Kilana told him, "And the inspection teams have been forcing you to correct your intentional errors," Kilana told him, "But Bajor has officially sided with the Federation in this conflict. That cannot go unpunished."

She turned to the Jem'Hadar First, "Do it."

The Jem'Hadar as one raised their weapons and annihilated the Bajoran crowd, sparing Keev alone.

"You will be returned to Bajor to bear witness to what they have forced us to do," Kilana sadly informed him, "The Dominion was willing to honor the non-aggression pact so long as Bajor didn't actively engage Dominion forces. They have and so we have retaliated. And you will inform the First Minister and the Ministers of Government that Bajor is now at war with the Dominion. When, not if, we retake Deep Space 9 we shall allow the Cardassians to invade and occupy Bajor once again. You are the Dominion's witness and herald."

"The colonists on Valo III?" Keev solemnly asked.

"Likewise dispatched," Kilana said sadly, "You forced this upon us. You have to see that."

"I only see the pettiness of violence perpetuated here," Keev told her.

"Then your blindness will cost your people greatly. As will theirs," Kilana warned him, "We have a Bajoran shuttle prepared for you. It will get you through the checkpoints and patrols Starfleet and the Militia have arranged for. You should make it to Prophet's Landing without incident. But the craft will not make it any further. It has been seen to. No Jem'Hadar, Cardassian, or Breen warship will fire on you as you journey. This has also been arranged."

As they watched the shuttle lift into the sky in a computer controlled flight, Kilana turned to the First again, "Transport us aboard the fighter. I have a meeting to attend. And tell Gul Macet I'll need slave laborers for the Valo system."

The First nodded his assent then had the Vorta and her force beamed aboard the Jem'Hadar fighter in orbit. Despite the setbacks in the Valo system, Kilana had been honored by the Founder to host a meeting of like-minded Federation citizens who wished to collaborate with the Dominion. The business community leaders had been assembled by the former Cardassian appointed governor of Ronara Prime, Krystal Gerin and her team. It had been Gerin's suggestion that they utilize Ronara Prime as the gathering place for the covert meeting.

Each industry leader represented a vital sector in the Federation's war effort. Each industrialist or their heir saw sabotaging that effort as being the most conducive to future business with the behemoth that was the Dominion. The Dominion was the only empire as large as the Federation and these opportunists saw the inherent weaknesses in the Federation's inherently democratic system. Flaws that would drive it to collapse. They simply didn't want their interests to collapse with it.

Kilana respected the wisdom in their decision. And the risks associated with traveling into Dominion-held space. If Starfleet or one of their allies were to discover them, their meeting with a Vorta representative of the Founders, then they would be ruined back home. But neither would the Dominion make allowances for their failures either.

Kilana had several pans in the fire. She'd hired bounty killers to kill whoever had been disrupting Dominion forces behind the lines. Whoever they were, they were efficient and effective. They left no survivors, no witnesses, no records, and no clues. In short, they were Jem'Hadar but working against the Founders. Which ruled the Jem'Hadar out. Still, the Cardassians weren't suited for detective work and the Breen weren't interested. But hired killers with a paycheck and bonuses offered could prove to be just what the Dominion ordered.

Captain Ignatius Freeman, the CO of Starbase 375, was lending support to Lt. Commander Stan Guthrie and his team from Starfleet Special Operations Command. SOC was a specialized branch of Starfleet Security that accomplished the impossible for breakfast. Except for now.

"It is illogical for you to withhold strategic information from a sector commander," Lt. Commander T'Lisa, Freeman's XO, bluntly stated.

"I'm telling you I don't know who they are," Guthrie angrily replied at having his word doubted.

"You need to find out quickly" Commander James Swallow told them.

"The meeting is in a few days," Lt. Commander Martina Harris stressed, "We need a who's who of attendees."

The pair of Starfleet Intelligence agents operated throughout the front lines as the crew of the free trader, SS Official Secrets, a dilapidated cargo hauler. Posing as civilians they didn't have their uniforms aboard the ship.

"And you said this meeting will be occurring on Ronara Prime," Freeman repeated.

"Yes," Swallow was feeling impatient.

"My people can't get that far into enemy lines without major support. Even if we were to hide out on the Official Secrets, it would still blow their cover, and get us all killed because we couldn't clear Dominion held space fast enough to get to safety when the inevitable response comes," Guthrie argued.

"Then who is making all of these successful sorties into Dominion space?" T'Lisa demanded to know.

"Hell if I know," Guthrie confessed.

"I could probably get us as far as into the former DMZ. But we'd still be hopelessly outnumbered when we had to fight our way out," Captain Benjamin Poole, CO of the Springfield-class USS Slipstream and Guthrie's usual ride, opined.

The casualty rate for delivering Guthrie's SOC team to their destination was so high that the attrition had an ensign named Brett Corwin as his Acting Executive Officer. The rest of the crew were enlisted personnel led by Chief Warrant Officer Spencer Hicks. Starfleet Academy had already promoted third and fourth-year student to ensigns. Volunteers were lining up and it took far less time to train up enlisted personnel than officers. Even during a war.

The causalty rate during the first six months of the war had been so high, relatively junior officers now found themselves receiving battlefield promotions to lt. commander or commander. Those already holding said ranks were making captain or holding Command positions. Commander Mandy Morris of the Saber-class USS Specter was one such officers. She was Acting Captain while her promotion paperwork came through and the slot was officially made hers. The Specter operated out Starbase 375.

Captain Cera Neva of the Steamrunner-class USS Sentinel was another. She was the first Bajoran officer to make captain. Only Captain Martin Agnew of the Norway-class USS Eclipse had been a CO before the war started. Cera and Agnew having to restrain Morris' aggressive tendencies. She tended to react rather than think proactively. A situation the Cardassians, Jem'Hadar, and now the Breen exploited on many occasions.

Morris had only held command for four weeks and was already on her third XO. But the Unjoined Trill, Lt. Commander Met Kitem, seemed to be fitting in with her nicely. Of course he wa s Starfleet Security officer rather than Command Division so tactics were his forte. Cera's XO, newly promoted Commander Trevor Jones, had also been rising through the ranks as much due to attrition as capability. Agnew also had an Andorian Starfleet Security commander named Shrev acting as his XO. Agnew's pre-war XO being promoted to captain the Centaur-class USS Threshold.

"Captain, Captain Agnew's group is returning. As usal theSpecter will require some yard time," Lieutenant Agma Jones reported in from Tactical.

"Alert Lieutenant Jelenic that Operations will need to go over all the incoming starships," Freeman instructed.

Mira Jelenic had been inherited after Starbase G-4 was destroyed.

"Also alert Doctor Leonid to expect casualties," Freeman added.

Kara Leonid was only a lieutenant but a damn fine Chief Medical Officer in Freeman's opinion.

"Also inform Lt. Commander Rhonda her staff is about to get busier," Freeman amneded. Dina Rhonda was the station's Head Counselor.

"Sir?" Jones hesitated.

"Go ahead," Freeman wondered wha this could be about.

"Commander Benteen and theLakota have returned from Deep Space Nine with orders from Vice Admiral Ross," Jones added. Freeman felt for Benteen. Captain Erika Benteen had been busted back just as swiftly as she'd promoted during the Leyton Affair. To add injury, she'd been placed in command of Starbase G-4 just weeks before the Jem'Hadar overran it. Placed back in command of the the Excelsior (refit)-class USS Lakota, Commander Benteen hadn't been reinstated as a captain.

The Lakota also suffered from short staffing. Benteen's Senior Staff was comprised of two ensigns. The Bajoran named Lyta Era had just graduated from Starfleet Academy's Command School before the war broke out. Now she was the official XO. Ensign Tyler Bates was a third-year Academy cadet promoted into being the Tactical and 2nd Officer. Still, Benteen had proven herself time and again as part of Agnew's squadron.

Bill Ross' sudden request for her presence now that he'd transferred his flag to DS9 came as a surprise especially during an impending combat operation. Captain Benjamin Sisko, General Martok and Fleet Commander Satik were preparing another push into Dominion space from Deep Space Nine so the admiral was knee deep in preparations with his allied and fleet commanders. Starbase 375 had been ordered to conduct sorties to pull enemy forces away from the targeted areas.

Agnew had obviously succeeded in provoking the Dominion's defenders. Commander Morris had predictably overstretched her tactical ability yet again. Yet she was responsible for more destroyed enemy vessels than either Captains Cera or Agnew throughout their careers in the war effort. Captain Poole's sudden interest in the Lakota's ETA and Commander Guthrie's expectations informed Captain Freeman that he should be expecting the unexpected ftom Benteen's return.

"They're coming in hot!" Lieutenant Jones reported.

"Divert the Sentinel and the Eclipse back to assist them," Freeman ordered.

"I'll report to the Slipstream as well," Poole offered as he headed out.

"Three Jem'Hadar fighters are engaging the Lakota," T'Lisa informed him from an auxiliary station in the briefing theater.

"Alert all local patrols," Freeman decided, "There may be more ships inbound."

"The Slipstream is away. The Sentinel and Eclipse are engaging the enemy," T'Lisa reported, "Station's defenses are up and weapons charged."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Freeman wished, "But have the runabouts standing by, just in case."

"Sentinel and Eclipse are engaging the Jem'Hadar," Ensign Brian Tyler reported from Tactical. Slipstream is deploying from the station. The Specter appears to be heavily damaged."

"Bring us hard about," Benteen ordered. The Chief Warrant Officer at CONN complied.

"Let's take the fight to them shall, we?" Benteen asked.

"Auxiliary power to the forward shields," Ensign Lyta Era, Benteen Acting XO, began issuing ancillary orders, "Mind that upper phaser array. Our port side emitters are damaged. Have the forward torpedo bay lack down our starboard launcher and clear that tube."

Benteen thougnt Lyta already sounded like a twenty-year veteran.

Trevor Jones had promoted in the field alongside Cera Neva when she made captain. The former Tactical Officer hadn't even been the 2nd officer when the action killed Captain Guiterrez and Lt. Commander Choudery cleared the way for he and the XO to assume command of the Steamrunner-class Sentinel. Cera had assumed command as though born to it. Jones had a rougher transition since his chief ambition had been to be a Strategic Operations Officer aboard a starbase.

But Cera had walked him through it when she could and kicked his ass to motivate him when they didn't time for anything gentler. The action action a Cardassian forward patrol had been shorthanded by the Lakota's being called away. The Sentinel, Specter, and Eclipse had been outnumbered two to one.

"Captain" Morris had been reckless once again and threatened the lives of her crew and put the overall operation into jeopardy. Yet she accounted for three enemy kills. They'd probably be putting up for a medal despite having a twenty percent casualty rate. The good news was, there'd only been a dozen fatalities so far. Captain Agnew was senior in grade and yet the most cautious. The Sentinel had taken out two of the remaining three Galor-class cruisers.

"Benteen has done very well for herself holding off three Jem'Hadar fighters this far," Cera confessed, "I know the Lakota had some serious weapons and defensive upgrades but half of their survival is on their commander."

Jones knew Cera felt Benteen had received the raw end of Leyton's meltdown. When Benteen had realized what her CO was up to, she defied his orders to allow Captain Sisko's crew to bring the evidence of the plot against the President and the Federation Council forward. Starfleet's justification for her demotion was that she'd still opened hostilities against a fellow Starfleet vessel, whether presumably held by Dominion forces or not. Starfleet did not fire first. Even the infamous James T. Kirk upheld that tradition even when it became obvious that the USS Reliant was proving hostile under Khan Noonian Singh's command.

But Kirk wasn't aware of the change of command yet so he played it cautiously. Despite his playing fast and loose with General Orders, Kirk had been exonerated in the deaths of his cadets by upholding Starfleet's unwritten rule: Never start the fight.

"The Lakota is coming about. But she's taken on some damage to her phaser array and torpedo launchers," the relief Tactical Offier reported. the Chief Tactical Officer had been wounded in action. The relief was operating from a reconfigured Mission Specialist station.

"Launch a volley, full spread. I want those Jem'Hadar to peel off. Target them as they begin to break off to avoid torpedoes," Cera ordered.

"Sentinel has fired a spread of torpedoes," Commander Shrev reported to Agnew from Tactical. His XO insisted on manning his old post.

"Watch how the Jem'Hadar break off direct pursuit and target that ship which Cera doesn't," Agnew ordered.

"Should I contact the Sentinel to confirm?" Shrev inquired.

"There's no time. They're breaking off now," Agnew noted, "Begin targeting tracks as the Sentinel opens fire."

"The Lakota is beginning to come about," Shrev observed, "Yet, they have halted their turn and are resuming ther run on the station's perimeter."

"Someone's in a damn hurry to get there," Agnew was stymied. Benteen wasn't one to run from a fight. Which meant someone overrode her initial order to turn around. He couldn't imagine that going over well. There was probably a lively discourse occurring on the Lakota's bridge right now.

"The Lakota has resumed her original heading and so has one of her pursuers," the Slipstream's relief Tactical Officer reported. Poole's normal officer hadn't made the deployment cutoff. Something he'd be discussing with her when they met next.

"Engage that Jem'Hadar and let them know we're spoiling for a fight," Poole's British upbringing accentuated itself.

"That fighter is almost suicidal in its pursuit of the Lakota," Tactical reported.

"Then let's oblige them, eh?" Poole mused.

"Lakota is within our shields," Agma Jones reported to Freeman, "Something they demanded on."

"This isn't Benteen's usual play," Freeman observed, "Even damaged, she'd stay in the fight."

"Unless she had orders to the contrary," T'Lisa surmised.

"But those orders were given in the field," Freeman noted, "Benteen's first inclination wa s to bring the Lakota about."

"Then it shall be pertinent to learn who overrode that inclination," T'Lisa ventured.

"Sir, all commands are reporting success. The Sentinel and the Eclipse took additional damages though," Agma informed them, "And you and Commander T'Lisa are being hailed from the Lakota."

"Maybe we can get some damn answers now," Freeman wondered.

Freeman and T'Lisa were surprised when Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev herself and a stranger with commander's pips requested to see them and Captain Poole and Commander Guthrie in the Captain's Office. Ross' flag office and adjunct's were still unfilled. Until Nechayev appeared flanked by the elderly, yet incredibly vibrant, stranger Freeman had wondered if the new flag officer had arrived.

"Please remain seated, captain. I won't stand on ceremony," Nechayev told them both in actuality.

"I prefer to stand," T'Lisa said stiffly.

"As you were then," Nechayev allowed, "Allow me to introduce you to Commander Elias Vaughn. Commander Vaughn will temporarily be assuming control of all SOC operations being coordinated out of this sector."

"It's an honor to see you again, Commander," Guthrie gushed. Vaughn had been a mentor to Guthrie as he came up through the ranks. The only other SOC officer to receive as much personal attention was Vaughn's chosen successor as SOC Commander, Lt. Commander Tony Burrows.

"It's good seeing you again, Vaughn," Poole heartily admitted, "I was afraid they'd gotten you on Betazed."

"I should've been so lucky," Vaughn chuckled.

For his part, Freeman was just pleased to see a Starfleet officer even older than his eighty-plus years, "You're legendary, Commander."

"I try not to be," Vaughn's survival depended on being a ghost. Which accounted for his having refused a promotion for the past thirty years. Once an officer made the lists, they had a public profile to accompany their classified and redacted personnel files. Something anathema to serving covert operatives. There was a public hierarchy to SOC. Above Vaughn was a captain with just a few more years in Starfleet than Vaughn had in grade. Above that was an Admiral JG and ultimately the Vice Admiral who served as the Director for Starfleet Security.

Above the DSS was the Chief of Starfleet Operations who answered to the Theater Commanders who reported to the Starfleet Commander. Nechayev had served as an Admiral without purview for several years now but in reality was attached to Starfleet Intelligence's Directorate of Operations. Now she'd assumed the Directorship of Starfleet Intelligence itself. Yet modestly, for now, declined the fourth rank pip that customarily accompanied that elevation. Those who knew Nechayev understood it was theater.

She had the authority of a full Admiral while playing the part of an Acting Director who wouldn't be formally confirmed until after the war concluded. Much to the chagrin of the official Deputy Director of Operations who'd been up for the role, seemingly unaware that the DDA, or Deputy Director of Analysis, had an equal standing on the lists and had an equal opportunity for elevation as well. The DDO had ten years in on the position. The DDA had only taken up the role in 2372, when Elijah Waters retired from the position. Only to be reactivated by Nechayev as Brin Macen's handler in the Maquis.

It was a completely off the record illegal operation that supplied money and targeting data to the Maquis in an effort to keep the Cardassian Guard off balance and thereby helping secure tne Cardassian border. If the Cardassians were busy dealing with an effective Maquis then they'd be less likely to cross the border, or so Nechayev's reasoning had gone. Section 31 had killed Waters for circumventing their own plans for the Cardassians. Thereby setting up an eventual confrontation between Macen and the S31 Director, James Fowler. A confrontation that extended to Fowler's son, Jack after Fowler was captured and Jack inherited S31's unofficial "throne". But those events were still a decade in the making.

For now, Nechayev and Vaughn knew that Brin Macen and a crew of former Maquis, aligned with Bajoran Militia officer Lieutenant Ro Laren and a platoon of Angosian commandos operated behind Dominion lines posing as "data brokers" as Macen had during the Maquis rebellion. Theoretically neutral, Macen had made great inroads with the Vorta named Kilana. She was their principle Dominion handler. The reality was that Starfleet ran the operation through the Militia. The entire operation only known to First Minister Shakaar and General Krim, who'd helped devise it.

Kai Winn Adami was peripherally aware that her personal troubleshooter, Neela, was involved in covert operation for the Militia. Something Kai Winn found to be a great inconvenience since she would have to personally deal with her perceived enemies. But Neela's partnership with Special Forces Major Anara had been cemented since before their days together in the Bajoran Resistance. Before the war, Winn had approved of the partnership. Now she saw Shakaar and Krim as threatening the non-aggression pact Bajor had signed with the Dominion.

As long as the Bajoran Republic upheld the fiction that Starfleet and its allies "occupied" Deep Space Nine and the Bajoran system, then the treaty held as long as the Republic or its Militia didn't directly act out against the Dominion. A fail safe should Starfleet lose the system again. Shakaar and Krim saw things differently. The Dominion had kept the Cardassians from directly occupying Bajor but hadn't quelled Dukat and others' ambition to do so. Only Weyoun and the Founder had stymied Cardassian ambitions.

If Bajor were to engage the Dominion in hostilities, that protection wouldn't be granted a second time. Colonel Kira Nerys' resistance against the Romulans occupying and arming a "hospital" on Lunar V, one of Bajor's many moons, lent credence to Winn's claims of political resistance to the Federation's returned presence. No one seemed aware of Winn's ongoing communications with a Vorta named Eris.

Eris had been the very first Vorta to visit DS9 and the Alpha Quadrant. Brought as a guest but revealed as a spy, Eris had escaped Starfleet custody in the wake of the USS Odyssey's destruction and the revelation of the existence of the Dominion and the Jem'Hadar that defended it. The Vortas' role in the Dominion's hierarchy had yet to be revealed at that time. Sisko and the station crew never encountered Eris again but now she was the Kai's "handler" and reported directly to Weyoun on Bajoran matters. Eris also still served other, more subversive roles for the Founder.

Kilana had been in charge of the winding, former DMZ and its enslaved populations as well as the Dorvan Sector. The Cardassians had been forced to withdraw from the former DMZ after the slaves had been "mismanaged" by vengeful Cardassian overseers. The Cardassians, at first at Dukat's behest and now Damar's, wanted the former Federation colonists removed. Weyoun saw it as a waste of natural resources. The colonists were present so they should be put to productive work.

The Maquis had been slaughtered wholesale so the colonists would have little will left to resist with now that their aggressive members were dead or scattered. Dukat had relented on the basis of his fixation on Terok Nor and Bajor. Damar was not so easily persuaded. Every minro transgression was seen as an excuse to slaughter the colonists.

"They are not military targets," Weyoun insisted, "And they serve a vital purpose in obtaining war materials. Arduous and hazardous labors that otherwise Cardassians would have to perform. Let attrition deal with the populaces."

Damar appreciated that reasoning. Meanwhile the settlers found that a Dominion labor camp wasn't a Cardassian labor camp, but a labor camp was still a labor camp. Kilana hjad made her headquarters on Valo II to underscore the privilege the Bajorans still held as treaty partners with the Dominion amd to protect the listening post carved into Valo VI. But Keev had led a futile resistance sabotaging the Dominion's work on Valo II and Valo III.

Only Valo I had been spared since they'd not participated in any acts of sabotage. Yet a greater portion of their population seemed to be missing despite the Bajorans not having access to warp capable vessels. It truly did grieve Kilana to order the mass executions. From a practical standpoint if for no other. Now she'd have to import workers from other DMZ colonies much to Gul Maret's sneering sense fo superiority. She supposed she could still make her quotas by lowering the age of mandatory service from sixteen to fourteen. That would add hundreds to the labor pool. They would also be more compliant if less capable.

She also wouldn't have to pretend to observe the niceties of non-aggression treaty stipulations and simply treat the children as the slaves they truly were. That cheered Kilana up as she prepared to brief Eris on the necessity of cleansing the Bajoran populations. She decided to skip over the missing colonists from Valo I.

Nechayev and Vaughn waited until Commander Swallow and Lt. Commander Harris from the SS Official Secrets were attendance beside Captains Freeman and Poole as well as Lt. Commanders T'Lisa and Guthrie before beginning their briefing.

"Break this down succinctly," Nechayev briskly began, "Federation citizens will be meeting Dominion representatives in an effort to determine how they can promote Dominion interests in the Federations as well as feed the Dominion war machine. We want this meeting to end badly for all participants."

"Who are they and where is the meeting taking place?" Guthrie inquired.

"We don't know yet but we have our most able intelligence gatherer for all things Dominion on the case," Vaughn assured everyone.

"May I ask who that is??" Poole was skeptical.

"Commander Brin Macen of Starfleet Intelligence," Vaughn answered.

Swallow scoffed, "The man is a renegade. First he became a Maquis and now he's a freelance spy for anyone...including the Dominion."

"Commander Macen is one of two assets that I implicitly trust," Nechayev said coldly, "They get the most difficult and dangerous assignments because they come through. Without fail."

"Sir, Ma'am, with all due respect, everyone on the front knows Macen has been a traitor since he joined the Maquis," Guthrie added.

"Your 'due respect' borders on insubordination, Commander," Nechayev sharply replied.

Vaughn stepped in, "Commander Guthrie, I personally trained Macen in trade craft and SpecOps. The man could be SOC if he so desired. He has the Admiral's confidence because she ordered him into deep cover with the Maquis. She also ordered me to arrange for a joint Starfleet-Bajoran Militia undercover operation that Macen is a now a part of."

"You're saying Commander Macen is leading this effort?" Poole was surprised.

"Macen is the Mission Specialist. Tactical control is held by Lieutenant Ro Laren of the Bajoran Militia," Vaughn explained.

"Now Lieutenant Ro is a deserter and a traitor," Freeman argued, "She truly was a Maquis cell leader and devotee."

"Guided by the intelligence Macen provided her," Nechayev said slyly, "The single most capable and productive Maquis cell in the entire movement and dedicated to only striking targets of military value. Targets that incidentally threatened Federation security."

"You are suggesting that Lieutenant Ro and her cell were inadvertently working on behalf of the Federation?" T'Lisa found it difficult to process.

"There was no inadvertent about it, Commander," Vaughn informed her, "Ro was quite aware that Macen was Starfleet Intelligence. But they made a pact to strike legitimate Cardassian targets together. The Federation benefiting from those operations was a secondary concern for Ro."

"Even here, Ro's cell was renowned for only striking military and security apparatus components of the Cardassian Guard," Freeman admitted, "But you're saying Starfleet steered her in those directions. And that she went along with it."

"Ro was a Starfleet officer. A highly competent one. That's why I initially ordered her into infiltrating the Maquis. I was unaware that her cultural prejudices against the Cardassians ran so highly within her," Nechayev admitted, "But Ro remained a Starfleet officer, if you will. She simply needed proper guidance targets of availability."

"Which Macen provided," Vaughn told the collective.

"Ro and Macen are working this problem together along with other varied assets. They are teamed with a platoon of conditioned and augmented Angosian volunteers," Nechayev resumed her briefing.

"What do you need from us?" Freeman inquired.

"We need Commanders Swallow and Mathis to continue their intelligence gathering and to report even a whisper about this upcoming conflagration," Nechayev informed them, "The rest of you I need prepped and ready to create a diversion in order to divert the Dominion away from the meeting site to grant Macen and Ro's team access to it. Captain Poole and Commander Guthrie will provide any additional support that they require."

"But before that occurs, we have a rescue mission to perform in the Valo system," Vaughn told them, "I'll be working with your assigned starship squadron commanders to plan and execute a penetration of the Valo system with an additional asset joining your duties here at Starbase 375."

"And that would be?" Freeman inquired with great interest.

"The USS Triumph," Nechayev informed him, "We're pulling her out of the fleet actions for now."

"Is she heavily damaged?" T'Lisa inquired.

"She was but is just back out of the yards," Nechayev told them, "She lost over half her crew. The bulk of the remaining officers are assigned as Acting Heads. We can't afford to pull a Galaxy-class starship from the fight yet we have no experienced command level officer ready to assume command of her or her remaining senior staff. While we cannot relieve the crew of the Triumph, we can place them near the front in an important supporting role rather than direct combat while the Acting Captain and senior staff adjust to their new roles."

"No promotions as of yet?" Poole wondered.

"Most of the senior remaining are operating outside of their primary specialties or even Divisions. A not unheard of matter over the recent year," Nechayev replied.

"One high profile example being Lt. Commander Dax's assuming command of the USS Defiant despite her being Deep Space Nine's Science Officer," Vaughn reminded them, "We all know people operating outside their primary classification or beyond their current rank."

"Commander Morris being a fine example," Nechayev pointed out.

"You're excluding Commander Benteen?" Freeman despised how she'd been railroaded for political purposes.

"Commander Benteen had made captain and assumed official command of the Lakota before the unfortunate black mark and demotion were placed upon her record," Nechayev stated, "Benteen, believe it or not, was spared being cashiered by vested interests inside of Starfleet who realized she'd been intentionally left out of Leyton's plot and planning. Starfleet Command was divided between those who would spare her and those crying out for blood claiming she had to have been complicit. Her fate and reassignment to assume command of Starbase G-4 after Captain Tillis transferred back to a starship command. One would note that the Lakota was assigned as the Starbase's outrigger and Commander Benteen retained command of her as gesture to reassure the Commander that not all of her supporters within Starfleet Command had abandoned her."

"I'm not certain Commander Benteen would agree with that assessment," Freeman scowled, "A woman's career was derailed rather than exonerated because she made the right choice and escorted the Defiant to Earth rather than continue engaging her with the intent of destroying the vessel and all hands aboard her."

"But there were those that vociferously demanded and exclaimed to any wall that would listen that Benteen shouldn't have ever fired on the Defiant," Nechayev grew cooler now, "Her choice to do so cost lives and yard time. Starfleet captains are expected to question the legitimacy of untoward orders to fire upon their fellow officers."

"Captain James T. Kirk, then an Admiral, was exonerated in the deaths of many Academy cadets on a training cruise when they encountered Kahn Noonian Singh when he'd commandeered the USS Reliant in an attempt to acquire the now infamous Genesis Device. Kirk hesitated, even in the face of General Orders to establish a defensive posture, to engage a fellow Starfleet vessel and crew until hostilities were established by said crew. The reasoning being Kirk was trying every means possible to deescalate the situation and diffuse it before the Reliant's command, still assumed to be Captain Terrell under those circumstance, openly attacked the Enterprise," Vaughn shared what had been breaking news during his childhood.

"The unspoken rule, Captain. Starfleet does open hostilities unless fired upon," Nechayev reminded everyone in the room, "That is why, even in the face of the destruction of the USS Odyssey upon meeting the Jem'Hadar, Starfleet and the Federation did not go to war against the Dominion until the Dominion invaded our space. Benteen was told the Defiant was under the command of one or more Founders. She needed to verify that through their hostile intent upon being openly challenged. One would note that Lt. Commander Worf acted with such restraint."

"And how did the Admiral respond to Captain Benteen's court martial?" T'Lisa inquired.

"One may ask but the Admiral need not answer," Nechayev refused to be drawn in.

"Even we were to establish fact regarding this meeting, how could we transfer that data to Macen?" Swallow got down to practicalities.

"Through his company office on DS9," Vaughn grinned, "It's operated by two former Starfleet officers that turned Maquis. They're the strategic and logistical support arm of Macen's operation."

"And the Dominion is fine with that?" Morris asked.

"It's a Bajoran registered company as are all of the vessels operated by Ro and Macen," Vaughn explained.

"They tool around space in Bajoran freighters?" Swallow assumed, as most did, that Bajoran civilian craft were the only Bajoran ships with warp capability.

"Not Bajoran ships, decommissioned Starfleet vessels," Nechayev wore a cat-like smile, "They have teeth."

"And who is arming these decommissioned Starfleet vessels?" Guthrie asked.

"A Bajoran intermediary for the Iotian Starfleet," Vaughn chuckled, "It seems the Iotians ordnance production capabilities outpaced their starship production yards' capabilities."

The ever-imitative natives to Sigma Iotia II had copied Federation warp technology and Starfleet designs readily available on the Federation DataNets using the technology they'd adapted from Doctor Leonard McCoy's lost communicator. Working in conjunction with Federation cultural advisors who came to collect their "cut" of the Iotians' criminal GDP. Blending the Chicago Mobs with the Federation and Starfleet, the Iotians had happily developed their own version of a Federation and a Starfleet. Spinning out the Alpha and Beta Quadrants largest protection scheme and arms deals the quadrants in question had ever seen.

The Iotians, untroubled by a Prime Directive, sold membership into their Federation as a protection racket and starships and small arms to anyone that could afford them. The Bajoran Republic had entered into trade negotiations for Starfleet analogous starships . The Iotian tech level was comparable to mid-23rd Century Federation standards. So the Bajorans weren't purchasing top of the line merchandise but it was adaptable and the prices were right.

Even the Dominion supported the Bajoran initiative after Colonel Kira Nerys' showdown with the Romulan Star Empire over the "hospital" on Lunar V began arming itself with weapons pointed at Bajor itself. Starfleet eventually backed the Militia but not after a tense standoff nearly erupted into open conflict between the Romulans and the Bajorans. Vice Admiral Ross deciding in the end to support the Bajorans and negotiate disarming the "hospital" once again. Ross clearly citing the agreement reached between the Bajoran Republic and the Star Empire for Lunar V to only support an unarmed medical facility.

The Federation, and therefore Starfleet, had originally held that the Romulans had a right to defend themselves despite the violation of the accord. The Bajorans simply wished to know why the "defensive" weapons were pointed at Bajor itself, orbital mechanics notwithstanding. The Romulans had armed the entire moon so that its weapons emplacements pointed in every direction all at once. Which happened to include Bajor's surfaces.

Vice Admiral Ross came to the agreement with Romulan Senate that with such robust Allied presence in the Bajor system, the wounded could easily be evacuated before the Dominion could retake the system. This wasn't DS9 defending itself all alone in the night with only the IKS Rotarran and eventually the Defiant to support the station. The Defiant had originally been engaged in laying and activating the self-replicating minefield that thwarted Dominion reinforcements from coming through. Leaving the Jem'Hadar's numbers limited to the cloning stock on hand. The same held true for the Vorta as Weyoun would eventually come to understand.

"So how stiff of a resistance are we talking about penetrating here?" Poole inquired.

"And how many ground forces?" Guthrie asked in turn.

"What we know so far is that the meet is scheduled to take place on a former DMZ world. Which one is an unknown still," Vaughn began sharing the technicalities, "Melding the distraction element into a rescue operation has been discussed and approved."

"Why a rescue operation?" Freeman inquired.

"The Dominion returned Keev Falor, the Bajoran leader of the Valo colonies, to Bajor's custody. They did so on the heels of eliminating the Bajoran populaces," Nechayev explained, "The Valo settlers had been engaged in working for the Dominion's war effort and they continually sabotaged it before mounting an armed resistance. Keev and the others knew it was suicidal given the Dominion's policy on treason. Before they did so, they quietly transferred all of their children and the elderly to the colony on Valo I. Subsequently they smuggled these would-be survivors to Valo I's largest moon, which its surface isn't habitable but its underground cave networks support an oxygen atmosphere. It was how a Resistance cell was able to remain hidden and operate out of the Valo system for a decade. The children are still there under their grandparents' care. Bajor wants them extracted."

"So why not whistle up some Bajoran freighters?" Poole inquired, "The Dominion and Bajor are still legally bound by their non-aggression pact. They slip in, get the survivors, and sail home with no worries."

"Except that the execution order included the lives of every colonist in the Valo system. Regardless of age," Vaughn cooled towards Poole's ruthless pragmatism, "And there are only a few weeks worth of supplies to take care of the newfound lunar population even in the face of severe rationing."

"And the Bajoran position is that the Dominion broke the pact," Nechayev stated, "Freeing them up to openly support the war effort. Which means Bajoran nationals can now directly enter the fighting."

"Fat lot of good that's going to do," Poole snorted, "We need soldiers, not terrorists gone legit."

"If you'd served in an occupied environment such as Betazed you'd realize the enormity and necessity of Starfleet learning from these 'terrorists gone legit," Vaughn grated, "Over a dozen Federation worlds and colonies still have a Dominion presence on them. Freeing up the Bajoran Militia into organizing and leading resistance campaigns gives an experiential boost over the Dominion."

"So why not free up some Maquis wankers from the penal colonies while we're at it?" Poole asked.

"It's been discussed," Nechayev said sternly.

"Bloody hell. It was a joke in bad taste, not a recommendation," Poole retorted, "They're bloody traitors!"

"The Maquis, despite their grievances with the Federation, didn't actively engage Federation targets. They restricted that for Cardassian targets. We need to fight an unconventional war in places that Starfleet can't project into. These people, like the Bajoran Resistance before them, are masters at it. And they have more motivation to lash out at the Jem'Hadar than most Federation citizens," Vaughn explained the rationale, "Macen and Ro's crew, beyond the Angosian Starfleet draftees, are all ex-Maquis."

"Wait, a minute ago these Angosians were volunteers. Now they're draftees'?" Guthrie seized upon that.

"The Angosian enhanced soldiers and their governments refusal to treat them were the Federation's reasons from excluding Angosia from membership. Their volunteering forces earned them a successful reapplication bid," Nechayev said emotionlessly, "This decision was made by the Federation Council over Starfleet's objections."

"Wait! So you're telling me Starfleet drafted these killing machines?" Guthrie was appalled.

"They're still fellow humanoids with all of the rights, privileges, and considerations due them," Vaughn said coldly, "They're not simply machines. But so far a single platoon of Angosian commandos has accomplished tasks and successfully completed missions the entire SOC brigade has failed to even be able to attempt."

"They've been managing a behind the lines since we retook the Bajor system without a single witness being able to identify them and every target facility being destroyed. Point in fact, Macen and Ro have frequently been hired to uncover the truth behind the acts of sabotage they themselves have committed," Nechayev managed a thin smile, "Successfully pitting the Dominion against such entities as the Orion Syndicate, the Nausicaans, and the Andergani Oligarchy."

"Thereby keeping the Dominion from hiring those same entities from waging similar campaigns against us," Vaughn appreciated the irony.

"What happens when the Gorn, Tholians, Tzenkethi, and Talarians move beyond non-aggression pacts and openly join with the Dominion?" Poole demanded to know, "Will we trust our fate to terrorists then?"

"This seems to be a personal issue for you, Captain," Nechayev's eyes narrowed, "What would you care to disclose before my investigators tear into your file?"

"My sister stayed on Solossus III when it was handed over to Cardassian control. She was killed by a Cardassian 'relocation' team attempting to force her out of her home. My niece and nephew subsequently joined the Maquis and got themselves killed over nothing," Poole said bitterly.

"It sounds like it was over quite a bit," Vaughn replied.

"The Maquis played on their grief and recruited them despite their having no military experience," Poole was still bitter.

"Few of the Maquis started out with military or law enforcement experience," Nechayev pointed out, "And grief combined with a desire for revenge were their common denominators. So don't act like your niece and nephew were outliers."

"No wonder they call you the frinxing 'Ice Queen'," Poole snapped at her.

"I'm not certain I appreciate your insubordinate tone, Captain," Nechayev said gravely.

"You're not certain?" Poole snapped again.

"I'm definitely certain, Captain. I'm just civilly attempting to grant you an opportunity to walk back away from career suicide," Nechayev stated.

"These decisions are being discussed far and away above your grade, Captain," Vaughn warned him.

"And just who are you to be warning me, Commander?" Poole wondered.

"Don't go there," Guthrie murmured to Poole.

"Don't go where?" Poole's emotions were overheated now, "I'm supposed to back down because someone whose been in the service longer than I've been alive can't get promoted?"

"I'll remain civil for one more elucidation," Nechayev spoke up, "Commander Vaughn's career has been more successful and storied than the Starfleet Admiralty combined. I'd recommend you looking up his personnel record but you'll find most of it classified above your grade. You'd have to reach Vice Admiral and be cleared by both Starfleet Security and Intelligence to read the unredacted portions of it. In short, he's irreplaceable whereas your first officer can easily fill your role. Starfleet captains are expected to remain professional even in turbulent times. A vitally necessary trait you're failing to demonstrate."

"You'd seriously consider removing me from my command because I'm questioning the right of a subordinate officer to question my judgment?" Poole wanted clarification.

"I'm questioning your judgment to heed the discreet warnings of a superior officer," Nechayev told him bluntly.

"You have no grounds to remove me," Poole countered.

"But I can have you medically reviewed and shipped off to the Federation funny farm, as they used to call it," Nechayev advised him, "There are enough witnesses here to present a case for your fracturing under sustained stress."

"Let it go, Poole," Freeman advised him as well.

"Don't lecture me when you can't even break admiral," Poole snarled.

"Point in fact, I've been deemed worthy of promotion a dozen times over. I just prefer to remain where I am in the field," Freeman warned him off.

"A fact I will attest to, with great irritation on Starfleet Command's behalf over Captain Freeman's unwillingness to accept further promotion," Nechayev stated, "Captain Freeman no longer feels fully capable of commanding a starship but he was specially selected to replace Admiral Ross here at Starbase 375. Now why would we transfer a mere captain intro a vice admiral's role if Starfleet Command and the Admiralty didn't have complete confidence in Captain Freeman's ability to shoulder the responsibility?"

"I never considered that. I just assumed we were running short on admirals," Poole admitted.

"Starfleet never runs short of admirals," Nechayev snorted, "Or overconfident captains. You consider your small role in the war effort to be so consequential that you can't be replaced. Yet I'm here to warn you that should you continue to buckle under the strain, you'll be pushing papers at Starbase 80 for the rest of your career."

Starbase 80 was a marginalized posting well within the Federation's border with the Klingon Empire. Commanding the station was considered career suicide. Those posted there were considered dead enders as well. Navigating the sheer volume of guaranteed to be refused transfer requests was considered a monumental administrative nightmare. As was fielding the endless "upgrade" suggestions pertaining to every fact of station life from officers and enlisted who clearly just barely competent enough to avoid being less than honorably discharged "for the good of the service". Starbase 80 was a threat that loomed over every career in jeopardy.

"You wouldn't dare," Poole was taken aback.

"I've done far more for far less," Nechayev shared, "Now reel in your attitude, Captain. Your personnel jacket is impressive but if you continue demonstrate an inability to control yourself in a briefing, much less in the field, I will order a medical review and transfer you off of your ship effective today. End of discussion."

"Now, for the real reasons for this briefing..." Vaughn got into the details of what was being asked of those present and would be asked of those under Freeman's command.

The station outpost labeled Deep Space Nine was currently fielding normal operations under the wartime demands. But the Allies were beginning to assemble a combined fleet action.

"So you're sayin' Starfleet just allowed this 'Eris' to go to Bajor followin' Keev Falor's recovery at Prophet's Landing?" Chief of Operations Miles O'Brien asked Doctor Julian Bashir. Lieutenant JG Ezri Dax was joining them at a table in Quark's.

"First Minister Shakaar actually called for the meeting," Bashir told them both, "Eris is charged with maintaining relations with the Bajoran Republic. Back channels indicate she personally disagreed with Kilana's decision but since it was an uprising against the Dominion, she has no choice but to support the decision."

"If Shakaar had already formally disavowed the non-aggression pact, why the meeting?" Dax asked.

"Kai Winn insisted upon it," Colonel Kira Nerys said as she and Constable Odo stood by, "May we join you?"

"Of course," Dax smiled at her warmly.

Quark was personally at their table in seconds, "I don't care what Garak is spoon feeding you. The Kai wants to keep Bajor out of the war even longer."

"Quark," Odo growled.

"But we're already in the war, unofficially. The legal pretense is just being tossed aside now," Kira told them, "The Kai's motives are personal."

"Personal how?" Dax inquired.

"Her personal troubleshooter has been going forays with the Militia for years now. Bringing the Militia into the war threatens to deprive Kai Winn of her preferred agent," Quark told them all.

"Kai Winn has a personal agent?" Bashir had never heard of that before.

"You know her," Kira told him.

"Remember Neela?" O'Brien angrily asked.

"Wasn't she the Militia officer that tried to kill Vedek Bereil? Dax asked, "Or am I remembering it wrong?"

"You're right," Kira confirmed it.

"Wasn't she supposed to be serving a life sentence in prison on Bajor?" Bashir asked.

Odo harrumphed, "Shakaar pardoned her at Winn's request after the True Way began assassinating Bajoran Ministers of State. She helped put an end to the True Way."

"Afterwards, Winn took on as a personal problem solver. But unofficial word is that she's the Kai's representative in Militia missions resolving interstellar disputes," Kira informed them.

"I wasn't aware that Bajor had interstellar disputes," Bashir confessed.

"They're a sovereign world, Doctor. Every sovereign world has interstellar disputes," Odo snorted.

"Neela and a Special Forces major just solve them when they get out of hand," Kira shrugged.

"Solve them how?" O'Brien inquired, "Neela is a damn fine engineer and a killer. That doesn't strike me as a diplomat."

"No one said they solved problems peacefully, Chief," Odo added.

"I hear they tend to kill whoever stands in Bajor's way," Quark said conspiratorally.

"Shouldn't you be taking our orders instead of standing there eavesdropping?" Kira asked.

"I have your orders memorized and I can eavesdrop from the bar," Quark sniffed, "But I can't add my perspective from behind the counter over there."

"Well go back to your counter because you aren't wanted here," Kira told him.

"You all love me and some day you'll admit it too," Quark replied and pointed at Odo, "You especially."

"Leave Quark. Now," Odo demanded.

"Fine," Quark sulked, "But you'll miss me while I'm gone."

"That'll be the day," O'Brien called after him.

"He does have a point," Dax told them all.

"Where's Worf?" Bashir wondered.

"He's with General Martok in a planning session with the Captain, Admiral Ross and Fleet Commander Sivik," Kira answered, "Apparently they have something special in mind for the Klingons in this next attack."

"I still find it hard to believe we're trustin' the Romulans," O'Brien admitted.

"So do I after that business with Lunar V," Kira agreed.

"There's something about the Dominion assassinating the Romulan Senator that Benjamin knows but isn't sharing," Dax opined, "It's a burden for him."

"We're just lucky the Dominion was stupid enough to betray their non-aggression pact with the Romulans," Bashir added, "It was one of their great strategic blunders."

"If it was a blunder," Odo pondered it, "Garak was very involved with a project during the Senator's visit."

"You're accusing Garak of having something to do with the assassination attempt?" Bashir was surprised.

"All I'm implying is that good fortune rarely comes from the Dominion," Odo replied.

"Like they're bringing the Breen in," Dax agreed, "I'm still struggling with reconciling Damar's releasing Worf and I."

"At least he did," Bashir was grateful.

"But the long term ramifications still need to be seen," Kira warned them, "Damar is unhappy with the Breen joining the Dominion's war effort but how will that play out in the long term? And we can't discount Dukat now that he's found religion."

"But the Breen strike on Earth seems to have divided public opinion," Bashir also warned them, "There are an increasing number of people calling for a negotiated settlement."

"There will always be calls for collaboration in a struggle," Kira said dourly, "The Prophets know my people had a number of them."

"The Resistance dealt harshly with them," Odo neglected to mention Kira's own part in dealing with Bajoran collaborators, "Yet they remained undeterred in many cases. They felt there was no going back."

"There wasn't," Kira said darkly, "And Damar killed Ziyal. We can't forget that."

"No one is asking you to," Dax said solemnly, "But Damar's actions and disaffection present us with a whole new world of opportunities. If he can actually go through with it."

"He will. If there's one thing Cardassians are good at, it's betrayal," Kira said angrily.

"They've assembled a new fleet but we're just sittin' here," O'Brien changed the topic, "I'm wonderin' what we're waitin' for."

"Whatever it is, it has Admiral Nechayev written all over it," Kira warned them.

"That's never a good sign," Bashir fretted.

"That is why we need a three pronged attack on the Cardeva shipyards," Captain Benjamin Sisko ended with a flourish.

"I believe we're all true believers, Ben. But the Dominion knows we're assembling a new task force. The longer we wait for Nechayev's signal, the more we lose the element of surprise," Vice Admiral Bill Ross complained.

"Which is why your Seventh Fleet, the Klingon's Fifth Tactical Wing, and our own Imperial Third are conducting daily sorties into Dominion held space," Fleet Commander Sivik reminded him, "The probes are effective at gathering intelligence, and testing the enemies entrenched positions. We are still learning what they are willing to commit major forces to defend."

"Now that we've neutralized the effect the Breen damping weapon has upon our warp cores, we are discovering just how treacherous they can be," General Martok added, "They fight when they should flee and retreat when they should fight."

"Yet when they retreat, they lead pursuing forces into unexpected ambushes," Lt. Commander Worf amended, "They have no honor."

"Your notions of honor get your people needlessly killed," Sivik sneered.

"Then I guess we are fortunate there is no love lost between Romulans and the Breen," Martok gibed.

"Never turn your back on a Breen, my people say," Sivik agreed.

"What we need to focus on is softening this target area up by drawing off defensive forces to other areas," Sisko pointed at the plot display, "These are nearly the last remaining Cardassian shipyards modified to constructing and repairing Dominion ships. When we destroy it, it will greatly diminish the Dominion's ability to field damaged battlecruisers and Jem'Hadar fighters."

"When, not if," Sivik smirked, "I appreciate your confidence, Captain. I'm still wary of splitting our forces though."

"Starfleet and Martok's forces will come from two different approach vectors to pull away the remaining defenders," Sisko reiterated the core element of the plan, "While Romulan Warbirds under cloak approach the actual shipyards and then strike."

"It maximizes your people's talent for sneaking into combat zones," Martok said.

"We won't be the only force employing cloaking technology to get into position, General," Sivik held his temper, "Nor are the people who spent undue resources to deploy a prototype vessel that could fire while cloaked to assassinate our own leader. A ship that proved vulnerable to a simple modification to a torpedo warhead since she couldn't raise her shields while cloaked."

"And your people took part in the planning and execution of that assassination and the attempt that followed it," Martok spat.

"This is pointless," Worf chastised them both, "It is a sound plan. We need to be ready to execute it as soon as we are permitted to."

"We can't afford to wait forever on Admiral Nechayev, though," Sisko warned them, "Signal intercepts indicate that a wave of Dominion ships will be ready to deploy in the next two weeks. We need to get in and destroy them before that can happen, With Admiral Nechayev's blessing or not."

"Having a Dominion battlecruiser orbiting Bajor while we prepare is unfortunate," Sivik sniffed, "We should guarantee it never returns back to Cardassia Prime."

"I believe First Minister Shakaar's meeting will have Eris and her crew departing soon enough. And we want the Dominion to know we're preparing a strike. The gap between our gathering and our deploying will have the Dominion responding every sortie into Cardassian space with exaggerated force. I hope your peoples are prepared for that," Sikso advised them all.

"Starfleet always stands ready," Ross agreed.

"A Klingon thirsts for the battle," Martok pledged.

"Our force is prepared for every contingency," Sivik promised.

"Then we purposefully wait for the enemy to grow nervous and then we strike," Sisko said with satisfaction.

The native Kalendrans didn't allow for foreign settlement ion the lush Class-M world of Kalendra b, the smaller of the binary pair of Kalendra planets the sector was named after. Kalendra a was a much larger but Class-L marginal world where the Kalendrans allowed for a lawless environment. It was here that a pair of Kilana's bounty-killers were searching for the perpetrators of a recent attack on a Dominion cloning facility. The facility had been completely destroyed along with three generations of Jem'Hadar. The eldest of which was a mere five days old and being trained to be Dominion foot soldiers and shock troops.

The security and training forces had managed to confirm the arrival of two Federation starships before the attack commenced. They'd also manage dto confirm that the non-Starfleet attack force that deployed on the ground were worthy foes for any Jem'Hadar. Then all signals from the base had ceased.

Investigative forces found the facility had been destroyed by a runaway core breach of its warp reactor. The surviving visual recorder footage displaying men and women in concealing and unfamiliar armor. It was believed that the attack was not committed by Starfleet but rather agents on their behalf. These mystery players were now attributed to dozens of high profile attacks on rear guard bases, stations, convoys, and facilities. All equally destructive with little to no evidence left behind to incriminate them.

Most of the strikes had occurred within the Dorvan Sector. Placing the Dominion's security apparatus there under Kilana's direct control on the Dominion side and Gul Maret for the Cardassians. They were an unusual breed of humanoids who fought an unorthodox war by Starfleet and Klingon standards so Kilana provided an unorthodox solution by outsourcing the pursuit.

Some of the bounty hunters even agreed to collaborate. Knowing the evident caliber of the foe, it was deemed prudent to split the hunters up to locate and track the targets while the others converged in for the kill. The Dominion was offering a large enough amount of latinum to more than justify a group effort. The Cardassians chafed under the arrangement because it was their hard currency being spent on the project, further devaluing their fiat currency, the Cardassian lek.

Already, the exchange rate for the lek to convert into gold pressed latinum favored other stellar nations. And as domestic stagflation increased under the weight of the war effort, soon the lek wouldn't be accepted abroad. Forcing the Cardassians to further deplete their hard currency reserves which were already at record lows. Never had the Cardassian Union been forced to haggle for so little in exchange for so much. But the Founder didn't care so long as she received the items that she demanded the Cardassians purchase.

With one ketracil white production facility after another falling before the enemy, the Dominion had turned to the Son'a for supplies of the narcotic that kept the Jem'Hadar alive and manageable. Yet it was the Cardassians that paid for it. Supreme Legate Damar had noted to Weyoun that the Breen hadn't been asked to surrender funds for these purchases. Weyoun had simply brushed the concern aside and told Damar that the Breen were playing their part in the war.

A particularly swaggering Breen Thot named Gort enjoyed rubbing the discrepancy in Damar's face. Gort had met an untimely end when a combined Starfleet-Klingon patrol had seemed to know the exact approach and strength of a Breen raiding party headed for Trill. The Breen were enraged and Damar privately gloated that his intelligence leak had proven successful and he'd managed to implicate the Breen themselves in the security breach.

The Founder's growing intolerance with failure only exacerbated the Breen's position as the new favorites. Dukat's unexpected arrival and requests only seemed to play intro Damar's rebellious spirit. Even if the toadying Weyoun revealed he'd known about Dukat's arrival all along. Fortunately, the Vorta seemed to view Dukat as an untapped variable as the former Supreme Legate headed to Bajor disguised as a Bajoran. After all, it was the Bajorans directly informing Eris of their plans to abrogate the treaty terms even now.

The bounty-killers had tracked sightings of decommissioned Starfleet vessels to several locations throughout the Bajor and Kalendra Sectors. One of which operated out of Kalendra a. The two hunters assigned to investigate that included a human and a synthetic from Rigel V that killed its owners and gone rogue. Their names/designations were Destin and Alexei Adreev.

Adreev fancied himself as a ninja from Earth's feudal past. His primary weapon of choice was a katana sword from ancient Japan handed down through generations. Adreev had taken the sword after winning acclaim as a kendo master when he killed his sensei and strucj out to fulfill murderous fantasies of being a hired assassin. Bounty-killing just paid the bulk of his bills.

Destin was flamboyant for an artificial life-form. "She" preferred brightly colored uniforms, generally in pink. Destin's inhuman accuracy with particle beam weapons and greater than humanoid reflexes made her an ideal killer.

"The ship is registered in the Federation as the SS Iron Boots," Destin had jacked into a local database and was ripping her way through its files, "The owner and captain is one Thomas Riker. A former Starfleet lieutenant and a Maquis. Impressively, Riker escaped from a Cardassian labor prison."

"You mean camp," Adreev corrected her.

"Negative. The Cardassians to operate prison sites deeper within their territories closer to their Subject Worlds. The prisons are reserved for convict s considered to be a high risk for escape and flight. Riker exemplified both it seems," Destin explained.

"So what's Riker's business?" Adreev asked.

"He is the owner-operator of a sector-wide shuttle and delivery service. He currently owns twelve shuttles and personally commands and operates a Bonaventure-class starship," Destin reported, "Riker himself seemingly takes on smuggling operations for a considerable fee."

"Bonaventure-class?" Adreev scoffed, "No one in their right mind would attack a Dominion site with a relic like that. Where is this Riker? We should probably question him anyway."

"Riker has taken the Iron Boots into Federation space for a smuggling contract with the Orion Syndicate and a Ferengi consortium. There is no estimated time of return," Destin finished "her" report.

"It's a dead end anyway," Adreev decided, "Let's move on."

The Bajoran colony at Dreon VII was an increasingly important trading outpost for the Bajoran Republic. Situated between the Rolor Nebula and the Badlands, the colony attracted legitimate and otherwise traders of all description. It was also situated near the Bajor Sector's established border with the Kalendra Sector.

Two more hunters had made their way there. Local chatter was that Bajoran interests had acquired two or more decommissioned Starfleet vessels for private operations. Two humans had been assigned to the investigation there. Karin Slaughter and Yukio Hamishiro represented the collective venture in the tracking down of the mysterious attacks on Dominion sites. Both drew attention by going armed as they went about their business.

Like Adreev, Hamishiro carried a katana blade as well as a Suliban phaser pistol. Slaughter simply relied on her Klingon surplus disruptor. The local Militia Constabulary had taken special note of the bounty-killers and was watching them closely. Despite their obvious intimidation tactics, the two women hadn't learned much of value other than two non-Starfleet operated Federation starships frequently made port. But inconsistently and with no apparent reasons other than to enjoy a reprieve from shipboard life.

Despite their Bajoran registries, only one Bajoran national was part of the crews. The rest all appeared to be human with the exception of a single Bolian. No one knew where the ships would travel to next or when they'd reappear. To further complicate matters, no one seemed to ever know where the starships traveled to when they departed Dreon VII's orbit.

"This is a bust," Slaughter complained, "Let's move on to the next site."

"Agreed," Hamishiro conceded.

But she found it odd that a human collective would be granted Bajoran ship registrations. But she set it aside for now.

Skrell and Hariv found themselves on the harsh terrains of Dineesh II. There the hard bitten settlers reported of the comings and goings of an outdated Federation starship. They described smuggling drops and cargo transfers that rarely involved locals' interaction other than to provide grunt labor and security on the ground. The outmoded United Earth starship possessed an all-female crew. They were rumored to be ex-Maquis. But they knew their way around freight and how to discreetly move it between worlds. Skrell and Hariv both agreed that these suspects hardly matched the description of their intended targets.

Averab and Frenji Yuric were given the unenviable task of sorting through the debris on the dwarf planet of Releka. This had been the site of a Cardassian weapons cache that had been destroyed and was suspected of being targeted by the very perpetrators the contract killers were seeking. But after hours in EV suits pilfering through wreckage, the pair decided they were no closer to deducing the identities of the attackers then they were before they began. They decided to converge with the others on Nimbus III where unidentified Starfleet vessels had recently been spotted.

Nimbus III itself, the "Planet of Galactic Peace" having been abandoned by all three of its settling governments was now a haven for criminals seeking to avoid capture or extradition to the Federation, Romulan Star Empire, or Klingon Empire. Sustenance living and exile on Nimbus III itself considered punishment enough. There, Antonio Badrossi visited the one garden spot cultivated within Paradise City. A visit made at disruptor point. But the Orion Syndicate leader in charge of the planet had no idea of who or what visitors to Nimbus III were or up to as long as they paid their "tax" for conducting business on the planet. Such anonymity was the promise made to every paying customer.

Badrossi did learn, however, that no modern Federation starship had visited Nimbus III since the government pulled out of the cooperative effort along with the Romulan and Klingon withdrawal following the Khitomer Accords. Badrossi warned off his fellow hunters from traveling to the desert world. It seemed that the best chance for success that they had was determining the next target and setting an ambush.

What Badrossi was unaware of was that his visit coincided with that of Federation Security agent Brittany Darque. Darque had been tracking the movements of ex-Maquis and one of her suspects for continued subversive activities had just departed Nimbis III before Badrossi's arrival. Federation Security's file on him told Darque that something greater was afoot than her simple investigation. So she decided to follow him.

The assembled ex-Maquis and Angosian leadership met at the edge of the swathe that the primary hull of the Enterprise-D had through the forests of Veridian III.

"I'm glad I missed that ride," Ro Laren confessed as she gazed from a peak over the plowed earth and fallen trees that stretched across the horizon. Ro was the mission commander for the joint Starfleet-Militia operation. The only non-Maquis present were three Bajorans.

Major Anara was Special Forces. Her closest friend, Neela, was an ex-convict and the Kai's personal problem solver. Sito Jaxa was a former ensign in Starfleet taken prisoner by the Cardassians and held in a prison site until she was rescued by the group with the aid of Thomas Riker.

Riker, who'd befriended her in the prison was also now her employer as she was the Executive Officer aboard the Iron Boots. Despite its age and obvious outmoded technology, Sito had come to love the Iron Boots a s much as Riker did. Brin Macen had set Riker up with the starship after Riker's escape from Cardassian custody.

There was little love lost between Joelle Jones, Macen, and Ro but the captain of the SS Waylaid, an United Earth Starfleet NV-class starship, but she couldn't abide traitors even if they were turning against a Federation that she despised. The blue haired Idina Menzar was one of the few survivors of the Maquis cell on Quatal Prime.

"I managed to ferret out the location of the meet between the collaborators and the Vorta representing the Dominion in the talks," Menzar told them, "Every Federation citizen going into this is an industry leader capable of crippling the Federation's war effort by switching allegiances and swinging product and capital towards the Dominion."

Veridian IV, the neighboring and inhabited Class-M world was in view and despite the warmth of the day, everyone present felt a chill at hearing these words.

"So where and when is it?" Ro inquired.

"You're in luck," Menzar told her, "The meeting is scheduled in Ronaran City on Ronara Prime in four days time."

"That doesn't give us much time in the way of planning," Riker scowled.

"But we have the home field advantage," Ro told him, "We know Ronara's in-roads and by-ways to a degree the Dominion can never match."

Ro's Maquis cell had been based off of Ronara Prime. But not every member, herself included, had been a colonist. She'd recruited from far and wide disaffected Federation citizens that disagreed with the Federation's "peace plan" an d the creation of the DMZ. Most of her cell were Ronaran settlers. But certain key members hadn't been.

"It also puts the meeting within swift response time for when Nechayev unleashes the attack on the Valo system," Macen thought it over, "Which will significantly draw down the Dominion presence in the system."

"So that include Riker and I?" Jones asked sharply, "We don't have near enough firepower to go against a Jem'Hadar fighter, even working together."

"No, but you can disable civilian craft," Anara commented, "And the civilians will flee Ronara Prime like voles off a burning ship."

Anara and Neela had been included because their ship, the Karemma license built Ark of the Prophets had been modified to serve as an armed troop transport. Ro had no intention of leaving the enslaved colonists behind when they left the system.

"I can't keep up with you all to make the deadline," Jones confessed, "But I know how to get a secured message passed the Dominion to Federation Security."

"Really? How?" Sito asked.

"Leave that to me and my girls," Jones promised.

"Then we'll the contact the Militia who can instigate Starfleet's end of things," Ro decided before turning to Riker, "Last chance to back out."

"Never," he grinned.

"So much like your twin," Ro mock grumbled.

Riker still hadn't gotten out of her what the unspoken tension was between them because of Will Riker. It almost bordered on intimacy.

"I don't see why it you had me risk my ship and crew just to deliver an ultimatum," Eris frowned as Shakaar Edon.

"Then think of it as my answering yours," Shakaar suggested.

"Did you really think we'd let the murder of all those Valo colonists go unanswered, child?" Kai Winn asked.

"But this laughable," Eris sneered, "When Starfleet falls and we retake this system, you'll all die horribly."

"And that is exactly why we can't be allied with you any longer," Shakaar said grimly, "We drove the Cardassians off once. We can do so again."

"But this time you won't face the enfeebled Cardassians but armies of Jem'Hadar. Merciless forces that will bayonet and shoot every last man, woman, child, and babe," Eris said coldly.

"And that attitude is supposed to convince me of you magnanimity?" Shakaar asked.

"You're all shortsighted fools," Eris stood and stormed out. Her faithful Jem'Hadar retinue followed her. Their First felt they were foolish as well. But at least they were brave enough to fight back.

Outside the Ministry, Eris found herself ambushed by the press. Clarice Starr and Anna Snow, veteran FNS reporters from the DMZ days led the questioning.

"What was the First Ministers response to the blatant Dominion abrogation of the non-aggression pact?" Starr inquired loud enough to outshout the others.

"And will the Dominion now actively engage in hostilities against Bajor?" Snow added for her colleague.

"Bajor has chosen the path of resisting the Dominion. The path of certain death," Eris coldly announced, "First!"

Then he tapped his wrist communicator and the battlecruiser retrieved her and her bodyguards.

"I guess that answers that," Snow said.

"Let's write it up and send along the vid footage documenting it," Starr encouraged her younger associate.

Scaros was a nearby world of vast oceans with narrows sands and atolls littering them. It was here Nikki Miller was playing her latest concert on a beach. Stephanie Gerin and Vicki Azerenka met with Jones and her remaining crew.

"Agent Darque resumed trailing us for reasons unknown," Gerin told them, "But she's here now on Scaros."

"How do we meet with her? Jones inquired.

"Fastest way?" Azerenka asked. She received collective head nods before answering, "Commit a crime."

Prior to and during their Maquis days, Jones and her freighter crew were marked by their universally bleached platinum white blonde hair regardless of race or ethnicity. Now that only four remained, that position had softened to any shade of blonde. Yet not one them was naturally blonde. Hanna Gunter, the helmswoman and navigator would play the distraction. The ship's engineer, Imoke Horvath was the lookout. Jones was the captain and her tactical officer, Inessa Levedeeva, would be her partner in the crime.

Gunter was dressed to kill. Horvath was primed to run. Levedeeva was the last holdout to the platinum blonde days and she would be Jones' partner today. Or at least they had to make it look like they were committing a crime in front of Darque. Gunter would serve as an equal distraction for the transbian Darque as she would any heterosexual man. It didn't Darque long to realize that Gunter was a distraction, Horvath was playing lookout, and Jones and Levedeeva were apparently casing an elite beach house that catered to the rich and decadent.

"Really? It took you that long?" Jones was incredulous, "We couldn't keep up the charade for much longer."

"What?" now Darque was confused. They wanted to be caught?

"A group of would-be Dominion collaborators will be meeting with a Vorta named Kilana on Ronara Prime in two days," Jones explained, "You need to get the Starfleet patrols on all approaches alerted so they can identify the good citizenry."

"Why should I believe you?" Darque wondered.

"Because we're the former Maquis crew you've been tracking for the last six months. Fortunately, Steph Gerin, Vicki Azerenka, and Nikki Miller are old friends so they always let us know when you returned to follow them around like a lost puppy trying to get at us," Jones explained.

"I knew there was a connection!" Darque boasted.

"Congratulate yourself later. Right now we need to warn your superiors," Jones told her.

"And why am I trusting you?" Darque asked.

"Because we could play cat and mouse for the rest of your life. But here we are with actionable intelligence that Starfleet is aware of but they didn't know where to watch," Jones explained.

"So now you're good citizens?" Darque was skeptical.

"No, but we hate collaborators," Jones explained. Darque decided then to believe them.

"The Lakota, Sentinel, Specter, and Eclipse are punching a hole through the Jem'Hadar defenders," Lieutenant Cameron Smith reported from the Galaxy-class USS Triumph's Tactical station.

"Have Doctor Sovik prepare trauma teams for any potential wounded," Commander and Acting Captain Sakara instructed.

"Entering orbit of Valo I's primary moon," Chief Varis Bin stated.

"Begin your scans, Lieutenant Williams," Sakara ordered.

Bradley Williams manned the OPS station and quickly complied, "I have Bajoran life signs. A few hundred of them. It's going to take time transport them all aboard."

"Inform the cargo bay to begin mass transports," Sakara decided.

"I should get down there and coordinate the rescue effort," Lt. Commander Gwenyth Cormaugh, the Acting XO, suggested.

"Do it," Sakara told her, "Please inform Captain Agnew we shall require additional time."

"Eclipse reports all Jem'Hadar fighters destroyed," Smith shared.

"Then we have time," Sakara almost sounded grateful.

"The enemy vessels weren't able to dispatch a distress signal but Dominion bases on Valo II and Valo III have," Smith regretted to inform her.

"Regretable," Sakara remarked.

"Captain, Eclipse reports human life signs and those of other Federation members present on the Valo colonies," Smith sounded alarmed.

"Slave labor from the Maquis colonies, no doubt," Sakara surmised.

"Commander Benteen is undertaking rescue operations," Smith said.

"Limiting our protective detail," Sakara almost sounded irked.

"Specter reports signal intercepts from Dominion response craft," Williams ran his board, "They're Cardassian signals."

"Please remind Commander Cormaugh that time is now of the essence," Sakara requested.

"She says she's aware," Smith chuckled, "Doctor Sovik's teams are reporting no physical injuries so far," Smith informed her captain.

"Fortunate. It appears Minister Keev was able to secretly transfer the colonists without the Dominion's knowledge," Sakara deduced.

"Sentinel reports Cardassian Galor- and Lakat-class cruisers on sensors approaching at high warp," Smith informed her, "Commander Cormaugh states they only have two dozen more settlers to beam aboard."

"Status on the Lakota's efforts?" Sakara inquired.

"Commander Benteen requires additional time," Smith said flatly.

"Inform Captain Agnew we are moving to Valo III to assist relief efforts while the Lakota concentrates on Valo II," Sakara ordered.

"Commander Cormaugh reports all Bajoran colonists aboard," Smith was relieved.

"Chief Varis, break lunar orbit and proceed to Valo III," Sakara instructed.

"Captain!" Smith was alarmed, "Commander Benteen is reporting that Jem'Hadar on the surface have begun to open fire on the workers. She transported Security teams to the surface to cover the withdrawal."

"Chief Varis, time is now of the utmost essence," Sakara reminded the Bajoran at CONN.

"Specter has engaged the enemy," Williams informed his captain, "Sentinel and Eclipse are joining her. I'm detecting multiple signals from across the former DMZ. The Dominion is mobilizing."

"Maximum impulse, Chief Varis. We must arrive and complete our task before the Jem'Hadar eliminate the workers and their reinforcements arrive to deal with us," Sakara insisted. Everyone aboard was well aware of the lengths the Jem'Hadar went to to eliminate the USS Odyssey.

"Lakota reports mission success. But there were over one hundred civilian fatalities," Smith sounded shocked.

"Entering standard orbit over Valo III," Varis informed Sakara.

"Lieutenant Williams, begin your scans," Sakara told him.

'I have, Captain. Twice. There are no non-Jem'Hadar life signs on the planet," Williams said stonily.

"Lieutenant Smith, target all Dominion ground facilities and prepare to fire torpedo spreads," Sakara said without flinching.

"Ma'am?" Smith was stunned. She'd never heard of a Vulcan ordering a revenge hit before.

"Do yo understand the order?" Sakara calmly asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Smith blurted.

"Then comply," Sakara said in no uncertain terms.

The turbolift delivered Cormaugh back to the bridge, "What have I missed?"

"We're bombarding the surface," Smith said in a clipped tone.

"Captain?" Cormaugh inquired for clarification.

"The Jem'Hadar have eliminated all of the former Federation colonist imported to Valo III. We are therefore depriving the Dominion of its gains," Sakara said rationally.

"Understood," Cormaugh took her seat.

"Targets locked," Smith informed anyone listening. Which was everyone on the bridge.

"Open fire," Sakara said simply.

"Torpedoes away," Smith informed her.

'Chief Varis, break orbit and Lieutenant Smith, please inform Captain Agnew the Lakota has successfully completed mission and is withdrawing as are we," Sakara requested.

"We have multiple surface detonations, if anyone cares," Smith said before carrying out her new orders.

"We are free to navigate," Varis told Sakara.

"Then return to Starbase 375 at maximum warp," Sakara told him.

"The Lakota is already underway," Williams told her, "Sentinel, Eclipse, and Specter have broken off and are following us. The Cardassians are not pursuing."

"Now they're the ones awaiting reinforcements," Cormaugh deduced.

"Lieutenants Smith and Williams, I wish for continuous long range scans. An unexpected enemy patrol may be diverted to intercept us until we clear Dominion held space. We must remain vigilant," Sakara cautioned them. Smith kept one eye on the sensors while she prepared a report on the operation and Sakara's decision to bombard Valo III's surface. Cormaugh would inform Sakara of course but she couldn't block the report from being filed.

Two hours earlier...

Captain Sisko sat in the command chair aboard the USS Defiant as the fleet moved out from Deep Space Nine. It began to split into its component parts as soon as they cleared Bajoran territory. The Klingon and Romulan forces each engaging their cloaking devices. Sisko knew intellectually that Martok's forces were nearby but being unable to detect them projected a lie regarding that salient fact.

Fleet Commander Silik's force was several hundred thousand kilometers from them by now. The Romulans would push inward while Starfleet engaged the defenders. The Klingons would come into support Starfleet when the tide began to shift against them. Thereby drawing off all Dominion defensive forces from the shipyards and clearing a path from the Romulans to employ their devastating plasma torpedoes to utterly destroy it and its vessels nearing completion.

Despite they're being detected early into Cardassian space, Starfleet was allowed to near the target before the Dominion's defense force intercepted them. The fleet included Cardassian, Jem'Hadar, and Breen forces. It would prove to be a painful struggle.

Sisko knew Martok had Starfleet's back. But would Sivik attack the Dominion's rear after competing his mission or would the Romulans safely withdraw? No one but Sivik knew the answer to that pertinent question. But Sisko assumed he'd find out soon enough.

"Sir, I'm reading two Federation starships in orbit over Ronara Prime," Poole's tactical officer aboard the Springfield-class USS Slipstream reported.

"Hail them," Poole requested.

Christine Lacey, the weapons officer aboard the Blackbird-class Odyssey answered the hail, "Odyssey here. We're in position. Ground forces have been deployed."

Poole was decidedly irked that a craft dared name itself after the ill-fated USS Odyssey. But it was civilian registration and a Bajoran one at that. Obviously her commander had no respect for Starfleet lives tragically lost in action.

"This is Captain Benjamin Poole of the USS Slipstream. Whom am I addressing? Is this Commander Macen or Lieutenant Ro?"

Lacey chuckled, "Sorry. They're both on the surface with our commando teams. I'm just the lowly weapons officer left in command while Macen is away."

"Then who is in command of the Asimov?" they were close enough to register the ships' ID transponders. Starfleet records indicated that the Newton-class science vessel had begun life as the USS Asimov. These bastards hadn't even changed the vessel's name in an affront to all things Starfleet.

"I'm afraid I already informed you tjat Lieutenant Ro is also on the surface," Lacey gibed at him.

"You're all ex-Maquis, aren't you?" Poole accused.

"Guilty as charged, chum," Lacey laughed.

"What are you all getting out of this? Exoneration? A full pardon? Revenge?" Poole demanded to know.

"All of the above. Now clear this channel. You're boring me to tears. I'll transmit the landing coordinates," Lacey informed him as she cut the transmission.

"Hold on there! Are you still receiving me?" Poole was agitate d now, "Respond, dammit!"

"No answer. But we have received coordinates and a Bajoran registered Karemma vessel is entering the system along with a...Bonaventure-class?" the tactical officer informed her captain.

"Scan the surface and inform Commander Guthrie to prepare for transport immediately," Poole ordered.

The SOC team beamed in to find minimal Jem'Hadar and Cardassian resistance. But they'd arrived at a housing settlement for Maquis colonial slaves. All of whom demanding to know if they were being rescued. Captain Tom Riker beamed down with Sito Jaxa from the Iron Boots.

"I'm Captain Riker. And you are? he asked.

"Lt. Commander Guthrie. SOC. What's the meaning of this? Where's the so-called collaborators?"

"On the other side of the planet," Sito informed them, "You're here to provide cover while we evacuate these colonists."

Riker was already organizing the colonists into beam out clusters. The Ark of the Prophets in orbit above them began mass transports of fifty at a time. Neela operated the transporters while Anara manned the bridge.

"Please step outside and find accommodations in the transport pods," Neela ceaselessly instructed the new arrivals. When the last colonist was aboard, Neela signaled Anara, "Everyone's aboard. We can depart now."

"Get back to the bridge unless you're still needed there,"Anara requested.

"I have to soothe quite a few nerves but I'll be up as soon as possible," Neela promised.

Riker got Anara's signal, "If you'll excuse us, Commander. But we have a ship full of refugees to escort back to Federation space."

"Now wait a minute!" Guthrie demanded but Sito had already requested a beam out. He irritably slapped his comm badge, "Guthrie to Slipstream. Requesting immediate evac!"

"They screwed us!" Guthrie shouted as he exited the turbolift to meet Poole on the Slipstream's bridge.

"Slow down and explain yourself," Poole demanded.

"The Maquis and the Bajorans. They were dicking us around. They sent us to a holding facility. They're weren't any Federation traitors. Just Maquis enslaved by the Dominion," Guthrie was irate, "They needed us to clear the security forces so they could evacuate the colonists."

"And you consider this a mission failure?" Poole wondered.

"Damn right I do. They're supposed to be working for us, not the other way around," Guthrie was still angry.

"We have their position," Poole attempted to calm the special forces officer, "They weren't lying."

"Excuse me?' Guthrie snapped, "Haven't you been listening?"

"Rein it in, Commander. Or I'll have you on report," Poole advised him, "The former capital's shuttle port is filled with civilian Federation craft. The former governor's mansion is filled with Federation life signs as well as a Vorta, two dozen Jem'Hadar, and three dozen Cardassians. It appears the intel was solid. Starfleet has been tracking civilian craft on approach to the front lines for days. Ever since Federation Security Agent Darque blew the whistle. We have tentative IDs on most of the Dominion's guests but we need verification. Do you think you can pull your head out of your arse long enough to arrest some people?"

"I only have a platoon of sixteen SOC operatives. That's a lot of bodies even for us," Guthrie advised him.

"But you have sixteen Angosian commandos on the scene," Poole chuckled, "And from what I hear, they'll make you envious."

"What are they doing now?" Guthrie's professionalism had returned.

"They're infiltrating and getting into position for Commander Macen and Lieutenant Ro to make positive identifications of all the parties concerned," Poole told him, "The Maquis aboard those starships were kind enough to share their encryption cipher so we're monitoring their signals. It's arguably the most sophisticated encryption our intelligence section has ever seen."

"What do they need?" Guthrie asked.

"A very loud distraction," Poole chuckled, "Think you can provide one?"

"Just beam my people and I onto the shuttle pads. We'll take it from there," Guthrie pledged.

"Very good, Commander. Carry on," Poole encouraged him.

"Do you think Starfleet will collect their asses and provide a decent distraction so Daggit and the others can get us in?" Ro inquired.

"Sometimes a little faith is all that's required," Macen replied. They knew Poole and his crew were listening in, so it was a bit of staged theater but still reflecting honest biases. An explosion lit the growing night.

"That'll do it," Ro admitted as a second explosion followed the first, "They're destroying the yachts and shuttle boats, aren't they?"

"Yup," Macen chuckled, "Your team is clear to go, Rab."

The fully armed and visually masked Angosians surged forward. The Cardassians were the first out of the mansion to respond to the detonations. All too quickly, they were requesting backup.

"First, see to it. I'll entertain our guests," Kilana whispered and the Jem'Hadar begin to file out to form a perimeter watch.

"Are those our ships?" Brooklyn Hilton demanded to know. She was the heiress to a diversified construction firm whose assets included shipyards.

"They'd better not be," Absko Atieno-Lou said sternly, "How can we expect the Dominion to win if they can't even protect our private property?"

Krystal Gerin, the one-time mayor of Ronaran City and then appointed Governor by Gul Maret, moved in to appease the mineral rights conglomerate. Another explosion resounded.

"I'm beginning to have my doubts," Alina Hernandez confessed. Paloma Hope, one of Gerin's former staffer intercepted the isolinear designer and manufacturing producer. Anne Pleasance, another former staffer began trying to calm down Andreea Gheata, whose family owned the richest dilithium deposits left largely untapped wigthin Federation space. That left Anne Pleasance and Erin Capshaw dealing with Agu and Aidan Quinlan, a pair of weapons manufacturers.

Other interests included the defensive and propulsion systems designers and manufacturers Alejandro Alvarez, Anbassa Diaz, Boryslav Stevchenko, Eleanor Sharpe, Fargas Nagy, Lia Zambrano, Mattia Ricci, Mikaela Hinden, and Nicola Conners. The heiress to the largest weapons manufacturer in Federation space, Baroness Estella Grimes, looked bored as she sat shielded by her sunglasses indoors to keep the light from aggravating her narcotic fueled dilated eyes.

Other intersted parties included Denispra Desai, the Raja of the tech manufacturing world of New Delhi. Rian Caellaigh, Shania Thorpe, Sheridan Smythe, Thao Thuong, Uwe Weber, Victoria Halliwell, and Zohrin rounded out the human industrialists who'd been shaken in the belief of the Federation's ultimate victory by the Breen attack on Earth. Foreign interests included Kiriste of Troyius, the Eldarin Elora Veron, and the Trellian Jenijj. All of whom were now expressing doubts as well.

"Enough!" Kilana unexpectedly lost her temper, "Are you all here because you believe your native worlds van ultimately defeat the Dominion or the other way around?"

That quelled the dissenting voices.

"I'm just here 'cause daddy believes that this war could go on indefinitely and its good for business," Grimes managed to slur. Kilana sighed. Why'd they'd sent a drug addict to represent a major weapons dealer was completely beyond her.

But the Baroness had a point, "She is correct. All of you are sinking in gift credits and latinum because of this conflict. And I can promise you more as we sweep across the Beta Quadrant and enter the Delta Quadrant."

"But can you actually defeat the Borg?" Agu wanted to know.

"With your help we finally can," Kilana said sweetly. More explosions rocked the city. The Angosians stormed the room, killing the remaining Jem'Hadar forming Kilana's protective detail. The rest of them had already been neutralized.

"Who are you?" Kilana demanded to know. Daggit killed Kilana 2. Elsewhere, Kilana 3 awoke as the memory transfer competed. Ro and Macen entered in carrying large handguns.

"One for you," Ro shot .Nicola Conner with an isolinear tag that immediately activated. The Slipstream's transporters did the rest.

"And you, and you, and you..." Ro repeated as she and Macen tagged the remaining humans.

The last to go was Baroness Grimes, "Whoa! Are you real?"

The transporter took her as well.

"We don't have any jurisdiction to detain you, so we'll have to come to an alternative arrangement," Macen informed Kiriste, Veron, and Jenijj.

"What kind of 'arrangement'?" Kiriste haughtily demanded to know.

"Something a tad more drastic," Macen slung his transponder launcher and pulled his Militia issue phaser free and killed the Troyian.

"What?" Veron shrieked as Ro dispatched her as well.

"We can talk about this," Jenijj begged. Macen's second shot killed her as well. As previously planned, when the bio signs of the occupants had been confirmed, the feeds were terminated as soon as the last transponders were tacked into Gerin, Hope, Capshaw, and Pleasance before Grimes' blithely addled departure.

Daggit and Command Master Chief Varglas then detached the Angosians into separate squads. Daggit and his squad beamed up with Ro to the Asimov. Varglas and his troops accompanied Macen to the Odyssey. The two starships broke orbit and headed out of the system at their maximum velocities. Guthrie's SOC team was recovered and the Slipstream headed out as well.

"Did we get everyone?" Guthrie later asked Poole once the starship was back in Federation held space and en route to Starbase 375.

"Our sensors had a Troyian, an Eldaran, and a Trellian on them before the Maquis initiated transporters.

"The Bajorans don't have the authority to hold them," Guthrie complained.

"Neither do we," Poole admitted, "So let their diplomats worry about it."

It was dawn in Ronaran City as Kilana reviewed the scene. Her operation on Ronara Prime and in the Valo system was in shambles. Starfleet had obviously gotten wind of the meeting. Yet the intruders that killed her previous self bore no markings and didn't wear or carry standard Starfleet issue. They'd also noiselessly killed a dozen Jem'Hadar, including a First. She'd summoned the hunters that she'd hired on a hunch that her mysterious assailants traipsing about the Dorvan Sector were ultimately responsible.

"Find them," Kilana bordered on a rage, "Cost is not an issue."

"We will be working with the Federation to relocate those settlers recovered from Valo I," Shakaar had granted Snow and Starr an exclusive to the breaking story of Starfleet units based out of Starbase 375 conducting a daring rescue that not only recovered hidden Bajoran nationals but settlers from other former DMZ worlds.

The Ark of the Prophets and the Iron Boots had dropped off the Ronaran colonists at the overwhelmed starbase. Captain Freeman and Lt. Commander T'Lisa found themselves stymied at trying to reconstruct the final moments or locations of Kiriste of Troyius, the Eldarin named Elora Vernon, and the Trellian named Jenijj.

"I'm truly sorry, Captain. But we were already gone well before Lieutenant Ro and Commander Macen planned their arrest. I'd double check with Captain Poole of the USS Slipstream since they made the actual arrests," Major Anara slipped into officialdom to evade the question.

"We weren't privy to their planning regarding those precise moments. Only that they intended to 'tag and bag' the suspects," Neela added her support.

"I suppose you're ignorant too," Freeman asked Captain Riker.

"Of a great many things," Riker smiled jovially.

"Ensign?" T'Lisa inquired of Sito.

"My post-liberation resignation from Starfleet is on file, Lt. Commander," Sito made certain to stress T'Lisa's precise rank rather than the generic "Commander", "Like Neela, I'm just a Bajoran citizen now."

Sito had applied for Bajoran citizenship after her rescue from the Cardassian where she'd been held since her capture. She'd also symbolically renounced her Federation citizenship.

"I am aware," T'Lisa said coolly.

"Then you know we can be on our way," Riker told them.

"A moment, Captain," Freeman requested. "You were still wanted on charges of desertion, impersonating a superior officer, and the theft of the USS Defiant. Until I made the inquiries into those charges. Then they were suddenly dropped. Care to speculate why?"

"Who knows the minds at Starfleet Command, Captain Freeman?" Riker grinned.

"Apparently you do. Just as I would assume you know Commander Macen and Lieutenant Ro's minds," Freeman added, "And yet you refuse to speculate on the fates of our three missing suspects. I have to wonder why that is?"

"Maybe you shouldn't know the answer much less ask the question," Riker replied sternly this time.

"Thank you all. Captain Riker is correct, we have nothing to hold you on," Freeman allowed, "But I would suggest avoiding Captain Poole for some time in the immediate future."

"We weren't planning on any reunions," Sito told him.

"I should hope not," Freeman replied, "That's all."

The foursome left his office.

"They know what happened," T'Lisa opined.

"We all know what happened but it's a perfect crime. By the time we retake Ronara Prime, if ever, the evidence will be long gone," Freeman stated, "Ro and Macen are more Maquis than Admiral Nechayev and Commander Vaughn were willing to let on."

"So it would seem," T'Lisa said grimly.

Sisko was first relieved when Martok's forces came to Starfleet's relief. Then the shipyards were destroyed and Silik attacked the enemy's rear. Ross and the strategic advisors from Starfleet Operations along Martok, Worf, and the Klingon strategists had all counseled Sisko against relying on Silik's staying in the battle once the easy target was destroyed. Nechayev had suggested taking the plan's general outline to Architect Project station on DS9.

Sisko knew Svetlana Korepanova had run the original Maquis think tank from their Promenade offices with Militia backing before the war as well as Sveta returning with the Bajorans' blessing once again. Korepanova surprised Sisko with the certainty of her predicting Silik would remain to focus on the easy kills of the enemy's aft quarters presented to his fleet and distracted by Sisko and Martok's forces. For the Romulans it was like being handed the victory and claiming to be the heroes of the battle afterwards.

Sisko made note in his written log to congratulate Korepanova on her estimation. The former Starfleet lt. commander from Starfleet Strategic Operation had been the only one to be right. Korepanova's current, and only remaining, collaborator was another former lt. commander this tiem from Starfleet Logistics.

Kristiana Liu had made several recommendations that tightened up the station's convoy routes. Liu had volunteered to work for the retired Rear Admiral Elijah Waters when he founded the Demilitarized Zone Shipping and Consignment Agency. Others were employed as well but Liu's sole focus was getting legitimate work to Maquis cells to place them near targets Korepanova had identified.

Waters had two major distinctions. He'd retired from being the Deputy Director of Analysis for Starfleet Intelligence and he was killed by what later became identified as Section 31. Bashir had identified a man named Sloan as an operative. One that also seemed to be interested in recruiting Bashir himself into the fold. If Macen's reports were accurate enough, another agent was named John Browder.

Bashir's research found that apocryphal reports dated back to the United Earth Starfleet. But from the founding of the Federation Starfleet until 2252, Section 31 had operated as an open secret. After a near catastrophe with a S31 AI called CONTROL, Section 31 had officially been disbanded. Apparently they had just gone underground instead.

But Sloan still easily operated within the context of Starfleet. Making Section 31 Starfleet Security and Internal Affairs' headache. Though Bashir's experience was that Sloan could easily pose as IA or Intelligence when he so chose. Or even as an ambassadorial attaché, with Ross and the Admiralty's complicity.

With the remnants of the Dominion fleet still capable of propulsion exiting the system, Sisko summoned the warp tugs and their fighter escorts that had remained out of the system to assist vessels in need on their transit back to the Bajor Sector. The Dominion wouldn't let this go unanswered but the timing had been perfected by Admiral Nechayev and Rear Admiral JG Edward Jellico at Starfleet Operations. The 5th and 3rd Fleets had attacked near the now-destroyed Argosian Array to push into the Dorvan Sector while elements of the Starbase 375 task force penetrated the Valo system.

The 3rd and 5th had Klingon support while the Romulans had pushed into the Breen Confederation itself to unleash holy hell on the Breen for joining the Dominion's war effort. The Romulans could care less that the Breen had attacked Earth. The Star Empire had certainly dreamed of it often enough. But the Breen's inclusion meant dragging the war out further.

The Breen were moving ships through the unclaimed sectors between the Cardassian Farside Border and the Confederacy. So the Romulans just waited for them there. The planning and execution of the mission went so flawlessly, and with so few Romulan casualties, the young Commander behind the attack named Donatra was promised command of the Valdore,a new class of Warbird to leave the docks. The promise came from Fleet Admiral Tomalok himself.

Romulan scoutships would patrol the areas to uncover when the Breen dared bring ships across again. Afterwards, they'd find fleet elements ready to respond once more. So the Allied forces were briefly harried by inferior forces but they never left a starship behind. The next to last Cardassian yards refitted to build Dominion vessels a gutted ruin with all hulls under construction lost.

The Founder was outraged to learn the yard stations were total losses. Replacements would take months to build even utilizing nonstop slave labor from the Subject Worlds. To further complicate matters, their proposed Fifth Column in the Federation's manufacturing sector had been arrested by Starfleet. Bajoran survivors had escaped the Valo system. Maquis slaves on Valo II and Ronara Prime had also been freed. The final egregious error came from Starfleet's 3rd and 5th Fleets destroying further cloning facilities in the Dorvan Sector assisted by the Klingons' 8th Tactical Wing.

It seemed Kilana had much ti answer for. But perhaps Kilana 3 would succeed where Kilana 2 had obviously and outrageously failed. At the price of her own life.

Eris' report to Weyoun of the Bajorans' open defiance led her to believe the Bajorans had been actively engaging Dominion forces already. Perhaps as part of the covert action force that seemed to plague Kilana's command. Kilana's one stroke of recent brilliance had been buying a squad of bounty-killers with Cardassian resources to track these saboteurs down since they seemed able to move between Allied and Dominion lines quite freely. Suggesting they were 3rd party intermediaries hired by either the Allies or even the Bajorans to inflict maximum harm on the Dominion's supply lines and support facilities.

Which meant they were dealing with armed transport vessels rather than proper warships. Eris' deductive abilities had been spot on until that last point. Given her purview over Bajoran affairs had ended, Weyoun put her in overall command of the bounty hunters.

Impulse only haulers ferried supplies and people back forth between the tidally locked Kalendra habitable worlds. Ferrying from Kalendra b to the larger world of Kalendra a were two undercover Section 31 agents. John Browder had been tasked with managing the DMZ's affairs until the Jem'Hadar purged the zone. Lena Black was another Senior Agent like Luther Sloan. They'd waited on Kalendra b awaiting word of the return of the Iron Boots. That word had finally come.

S31 was well aware of how Macen had staked Riker's operation using the profits from his supposedly mercenary "data brokerage" business. Browder and Black also knew the lie behind that fiction. Browder had been the brains behind Elijah Waters' murder. His triggermen had died as a result of Macen and Ro going balls to the wall to avenge the former admiral. It had been one of the few missions Browder found distasteful.

Waters, on Nechayev's behalf, was conducting a successful effort at destabilizing the Cardassian Guard's presence throughout the Dorvan Sector and the DMZ. Gul Evek was dead. Gul Maret was publicly chastised if privately lauded. Gul Ocett had been transferred in to support Maret's dismal war effort against the Klingons and the Maquis. Waters had contributed to every success that Starfleet applauded.

But the Cardassians were beginning to suspect Waters' involvement despite his agency being located on Kalendra a. Despite the Obsidian Order being closed down, its successor, the Cardassian Information Bureau was actively investigating both Waters and Liu. Fleet Admiral Marcus, despite being in bed with Section 31, found their tolerance of Waters' known activities to be intolerable. He'd protected the existence of their fleet yard in Jupiter's orbit and kept even random flights from passing through its security zone.

Not even Starfleet knew what they were defending since it was "Starfleet Commander's Eyes Only" information handed down since 2252. That orbital track around Jupiter had become Starfleet's Area 51. Officially, it was testing ground for projects coming out of Jupiter Station. Unofficially every officer had heard ghost stories regarding the Quarantine Zone and how pilots and crews "disappeared" if they violated its boundaries. Marcus, like so many Fleet Admirals before him, let the stories run amok. Fear of the truth kept idle explorers away.

Those intrepid enough to investigate the truth became permanent residents at the Gulag facility beyond Deep Space Five. A black site prison defended by Romulan separatists. An arrangement Koval, the newly appointed Director of the Tal Shiar, would keep in place during his tenure. Dealing with the Gulag's existence would become the very first mission of what would eventually become the Starfleet Special Investigations Division.

For now, Donatra's operation was underway and her squadron kept nearby to insure no Dominion ships managed to cross over or approach the nearby Tzenkethi. Starfleet's negligence to the borders had led to the catastrophic emergence of the Breen. It was time for the Star Empire to take charge of their security.

"Riker's not gonna just hand Ro and Macen over," Browder warned Black.

"Good. Then he'll put up a fight when the bounty-killers question him as well," Black decided.

"I know it isn't our usual SOP but we could just approach them directly," Browder suggested.

"If they learn about your part in Waters' death, how long do you expect to live and how receptive will they be to the message we carry?" Black wondered.

"War is an impersonal business. They'll cope," Browder predicted.

"Except this isn't warfare for them. It's personal," Black rebutted him, "For Macen it's been personal since he arrived at the front lines of the Border Wars twenty-three years ago. For Ro, she's been in the fight since she was born on Bajor before she escaped the planet for Valo II. Objectivity went out with the mental and emotional trash decades ago."

"That being said, why am I here then?" Browder asked.

Black wore a cold smile, "To test what they know about your involvement."

"Great," Browder groused.

"Relax. That's why I'm here," Black consoled him.

"We're talkin' a whole platoon of frinxing Angosian commandos," Browder reminded her.

"Who have a private deal with Sloan. We simply remind them of its terms if things go sideways," Black shrugged.

"So this little Bajoran effort didn't come as a surprise to Sloan? Or the Federation buying the rental of the Angosians?" Browder was impressed.

"Should it have?" she asked in reply.

"I guess not," Browder relaxed. He was just relieved to learn he wasn't being sent to his death. The Maquis in the group would guarantee he lived long enough to suffer until he begged for death.

"So, we're still posin' as employers for Riker's services?" Browder asked.

"We are employing Riker's services. They're just very personal services," Black smiled, "I sincerely doubt he'll refuse our offer. Especially after he's heard it. The upshot is, it'll get him back away from Kalendra while the hunters make their way back here."

"They could be the patient sort and wait his return out," Browder reminded her.

"Sloan and I are counting on it," Black revealed with a smirk.

Riker leased office space and repair bays on an orbital platform situated between Kalendra a and b. The Lagrange Point being the most gravitationally stable area in the solar system. The office staffers quickly bumped Black and Browder up to Riker's attention.

He ushered them into his small office, "Sorry. Space is at a premium."

"We aren't staying long," Black confided, "We're here to personally hire you for one contract and a return shuttle to Izar as another."

"The return shuttle is no problem. We run a regular service there," Riker told them, "They're scheduled to depart anytime in the next seventy-two hours depending on clientele and their needs."

"We want exclusive use of the shuttle and an immediate dust off," Black told him.

"Are you ex-Starfleet?" Riker asked judging by the term.

"I'm an ex-many things," Black confided, "Most of all, I'm in a hurry."

"Hurries cost extra," Riker warned her.

"Price isn't an object," Browder promised.

"And my personal role in this?" Riker finally asked.

"I need you to deliver this isolinear chip to Brin Macen. It isn't a tagger. We know where he's at anyway. But this information will go down easier if its delivered by a friend," Black told him.

"Am I his friend?" Riker asked.

"He's certainly your silent partner in all of this," Browder pointed out.

"This data may save his life and the lives of everyone aboard the Odyssey and the Asimov," Black elaborated.

"And it's cost free?" Riker asked.

"Considerate it a professional courtesy," Black shrugged, "My superiors appreciate their efforts against the Dominion."

"If any of this is true, then you're well informed," Riker hedged.

"We'll pay you to track down a fantasy then. As long as the chip gets delivered to its intended recipient. Here is an additional chip for Major Anara and Neela. Tell them to review the information before reporting it to General Krim and First Minister Shakaar," Black held out two chips together, "I'm willing to authorize a billing tab for any unforeseen transit time and expenses in addition to your flat rate for transiting to Dreon VII."

Riker barely refrained from a wince. Macen and Ro were currently at Dreon VII awaiting future orders from Krim. They also expected word from Kilana at any time now.

"You have a deal. I'll alert the shuttle crew in Bay Seven to expect you for an immediate departure," Riker said as he accepted the chips, "Give me a minute to draw up the appropriate contracts."

"No contracts needed. Just thumb this and we'll begin transferring funds into your accounts, private and corporate. Thumb the padd again when you've completed both tasks and the running tab will pay out a bonus in addition all expenses that you itemize if you get the job down in the next thirty-six hours."

Riker reviewed the data, "That doubles my usual fee."

"Saving lives doesn't have to be pauper's work. No matter what they told you when you enlisted in the Maquis," Black gave him a disarming smile, "Even Starfleet will transfer latinum into personal accounts in exchange for accrued gift credits. That is how station personnel operate on Deep Space Nine, isn't it? Since the Bajorans still rely on a currency system and there always Quark to deal with."

"I don't make a habit about revisiting the station," Riker warned her.

"But you recently made an exception at Starbase 375," Browder told him, "And you were warned to duly stay away for quite some time in the near future."

"Why do you even need me?" Riker wondered.

"This type of information sells best from a trusted friend," Black told him, "So we chose you."

"Why me in particular?" Riker asked.

"Consider it an audition," Browder told him, "Certain interested parties will come looking for Ro and Macen only they won't know who they're looking for. Give them this. Say the people owe you a great deal of debt. They'll understand the profit motive."

Browder handed off a padd.

"If they come while I'm gone?" Riker wondered how far these people had thought things through.

"Leave the padd here. Somewhere they'll find it without it being obvious you want it found," Black told him, "You're creative or you wouldn't have survived eight years on Nervala IV and a year inside a Cardassian prison camp much less had the wherewithal to uncover a secret Obsidian Order fleet yard or have the audacity to betray Sela after she rescued you from the Cardassians."

"Let's not forget goin' back to prison to rescue everyone," Browder added, "Starfleet could use you in the war effort full time."

"They have my twin," Riker said sourly, "Let him be the hero this time."

"Yet you're the one who had penetrated deep within Dominion held territory in a relic of a starship. Would Commander Riker leave the Enterprise to do the same?" Black wondered.

"Will he ever leave the Enterprise, period?" Riker complained, "He's turned down three captaincies so far."

"Something you wouldn't do?" Browder asked.

"Not ever," Riker still had a lot to learn about himself it seemed as he would discover later in life.

"You should alert your shuttle crew to expect us," Black rose from her seat and Browder followed her lead.

"I haven't authorized payment yet," Riker pointed out.

"You will," she predicted and they left his office. Riker sighed as he thumbed the padd. Then he contacted Sito, who was still aboard the Iron Boots with the crew repairing some minor damages incurred by facing to Cardassian Hidalki-class fighters as they escorted the Ark to Starbase 375.

"The repairs can be made en route to Dreon VII. We have a reunion to attend," he warned Sito.

"I'll inform the crew," she replied before cutting the transmission. He held up the labeled chips. One label was in Federation Standard and other marked by Bajoran ideograms. Riker wouldn't go looking at the data. But he would linger while Macen and Ro opened it up. With luck, Anara and Neela would still be at the colony so he wouldn't have to travel to Bajor. His curiosity over the dire warnings nearly consuming him now.

Sito signaled ahead so the Odyssey and Asimov were still in Dreon VII's orbit. They'd managed to delay the Ark of the Prophets' departure.

After reviewing the data, Ro snorted, "This could play right into our hands."

"Trap?" Macen asked.

"Trap," Ro confirmed it.

"How can I help?" Riker asked.

"Major? Care to share the news?" Ro asked Anara.

"There's to be assassination attempt to killed the First Minister and have the Kai replace him," Anara was shaken by the news.

"It seems three of the contract killers have been reassigned to Bajor and the effort to replace the First Minister," Neela added quietly.

"Does Winn know?" Macen asked.

"Not yet anyway," Neela recalled the kai's early effort to assume the Ministerial duties as well her religious ones. She was torn. Her professional responsibilities lay with the Kai of Bajor and the Vedek Assembly. Blocking the assassination would directly conflict with Winn's own express desires. Yet Winn sough a conciliatory tone with the Dominion. She wished to renew the non-aggression pact and ask the Federation to willingly abandon DS9 and reassert Bajoran control over the station.

A move which drive a wedge between Bajor and the Allies. Perhaps even prompting them to occupy the station and blockade Bajor. The Romulans would eagerly do so. For the Klingons it would be sheer pragmatism. The Federation might relinquish control over the station but Starfleet wouldn't leave the system to be reclaimed by the Dominion. But the Kai would surely end this joint program.

Perhaps even go back on Shakaar and Krim's word and hand the Maquis over to Starfleet...or even to the Dominion. The fate of the Angosians would rest with Starfleet since they would forcibly extract Daggit's platoon rather than see them delivered to the Dominion. Anara herself could be accused of acts of treason against the Dominion. The Kai would shield Neela, she knew, but her closest friend might be sacrificed for a political agenda.

The Militia and the average citizen would be called upon to form up a new Resistance against the Allies. All so Bajor's religious leader could also become its secular overseer. The damning portion was that it might even work. Neela herself knew intimately that Winn's ambitions knew no bounds. She'd betray or murder anyone to achieve her aims.

"We need to return to Bajor," Neela warned everyone.

"Laren, you go with the Ark and prove to Shakaar the value of this program by defending his life. Tom and I will deal with the bounty hunters still after us," Macen suggested.

"I will?" Ro and Riker asked in stereo.

"Tactically it makes sense," Daggit agreed.

Ro was one of the rarefied graduates of Starfleet's Advanced Tactical Training program. So she conceded the point, "Okay, I'll agree to that but splitting our forces? Now?"

"I'll have Brin and his crew's back," Riker pledged.

Sito looked proud of him, "I'll explain it to our crew."

"This is why your mysterious employers added the running tab to your contract," Macen surmised, "They want this to succeed."

"The added latinum will help sell it to the crew," Sito predicted.

As Riker's exec, her role included managing the crew while Riker handled the tactics and strategy. The former Starfleet ensign had proven adept at her newfound role. But then, she'd been one of Starfleet Academy's finest pilots and graduated as an Operations Division officer specializing in Security. Riker himself had been an OPS officer when he was duplicated by the transporter and stranded until rescued by the Enterprise-D.

Riker had been reassigned to the USS Gandhi before defecting to the Maquis and temporarily commanding the stolen USS Defiant. Kalita, from Ro's cell, and other Maquis from Ronara Prime aided Riker's takeover and crewed the ship though Ro herself avoided all contact with Riker at that time. She still wouldn't tell him the "why" of it. Macen knew but refused to answer on the ground s that was Ro's secret to share.

As the Angosian squad leaders, both Lieutenant Daggit and Command Master Chief Varglas were present as well.

"Starfleet gave us a mandate to protect Bajoran interests. I'd say defending the First Minister counts," Daggit opined.

"And my people can handle any scummy bounty-killers thrown at us," Varglas promised.

"So we'll join you at Nimbus III after we finish up on Bajor. Assuming you're still there," Ro pledged.

"We won't stay any longer than we have to," Macen admitted.

"Thank God," Riker breathed.

The Militia was out in force orbiting Bajor. The Asimov's credentials were scrutinized before she could assume orbit. The Ark of the Prophets went in for a landing. Elfi Hendryks and Emjin Thool would remain aboard the Asimov and maintain station keeping. Meanwhile Daggit and his squad beamed down to the capital with Ro.

The difficulties included the fact that Bajor was no stranger to foreign traffic these days. Next was the fact that the assassins could have already have landed. And finally, no one knew who these people were or what they looked like.

Ro kept her rank tab and communicator discreetly placed inside her jacket. But she and the Angosians were attempting to blend in wearing civilian clothing and having restricted their personal armaments to discreetly hidden side arms and blades. Anara still wore her gray Special Forces uniform when she met up with them. Neela, simply a civilian now, also wore civvies.

Ro and Anara were the only ones legally allowed to openly brandish firearms. The rest would be arrested and have to wait until their credentials were verified before the Constabulary would release them. Assuming of course that Starfleet would acknowledge their Angosian "volunteer" conscripts and that General Krim would verify Ro's identity and rank in the Militia.

"So how do we proceed?" Anara asked Ro.

Despite Anara's greater rank in the Special Forces they belonged to, she always deferred to Ro's greater experience.

"Same as in the Resistance, locate and identify collaborators and Cardassian agents," Ro put it in terms familiar to all concerned, "Once you identify the Dominion agents, you kill them. No questions asked."

"No interrogations?" Daggit wondered. He had no qualms about simply killing the bounty hunters. He was just concerned that they might be surrendering potential intelligence sources.

"Macen's team will handle any captures," Ro reminded them all, "Here on Bajor they need to die so Kai Winn can't pressure Shakaar into leveraging the assassins for some renewed appeasement towards the Dominion."

Everyone looked towards Neela. Winn, after all, was her patron.

"We do what we must," Neela agreed, "For Bajor."

That was a little too cryptic for Ro's tastes. Before the Prophets personally contacted Neela while she was imprisoned she "answered their call" before and killed a Starfleet engineer, blew up a school, and attempted to kill Vedek Bereil Antos. And she still wouldn't incriminate Winn despite Major Kira Nerys' certainty the then-vedek had been behind it all. Neela did owe her freedom and current position to Winn after all.

"I need to hear you say it," Ro asserted.

If Neela was offended, it didn't show, "Every last bounty-killer on Bajor needs to be dealt with."

"Wait!" Ro paused.

Neela was cryptic at best but she never used unnecessary terms or words, "You're saying there's another group of killers on Bajor?"

"The Dominion believes in being thorough," Neela replied, "The Prophets told me we're dealing with two separate groups."

"That certainly frinxes things up," Chief Monty complained.

"Belay that talk," Master Chief Plenum warned everyone, "We still have a job to do."

"Neela, I need you to visit Winn at the monastery and ascertain what she knows," Ro told her in no uncertain terms.

"Of course," Neela agreed.

"The rest of us will...wait!" Ro exclaimed at the end.

"I thought waiting was bad," Crewman Floas opined.

"Harry! Get over here!" Ro yelled at Harcourt Fenton Mudd III across the market square. Mudd bolted.

"I want him," Ro growled.

"Fan out!" Daggit ordered and the Angosians deployed. Mudd ran for as long as the crowd and his decidedly out of shape body would allow. He headed for a bridge over one of the many cultivated lakes within the capital. Leaned up against the railing was a muscular woman who at least appeared to be human. Mudd was instantly deep in lust.

"How can I assist you, lovely lady?" Mudd tried not to sound as winded as he was.

"You can follow me back to Lieutenant Ro," Crewman Lasse told him, "Now."

"I think I'll be on my...urk!" Mudd froze where he was at. Lasse had a knife prodded into his groin.

"With a flick of my wrist I can change your gender," Lasse hissed at him.

"I have a daughter. One right here on Bajor," Mudd pleaded.

"Then I suggest you cooperate. Fully," Lasse so advised him.

"Very well," Mudd sighed. Mudd Kenra was used to daddy being late if he showed up at all. All of his children were. Though he suspected young Harri preferred his absences. Harry Jr. was just too much a people pleaser to realize that he was being played off of Harri to win daddy's approval.

Even at a young age, Harriet Fedora Mudd had and resented the hell out of Mudd for it. Now as a young teen, Harri had basically struck out on her own and was already far more accomplished than Mudd himself had been at her age. The girl was a natural born criminal genius.

So was Kenra. He just wondered where he'd gone wrong with Harry. The three siblings, Harri and Harry unaware of Kenra's existence, were the only three of Mudd's bastards that he acknowledged. Harri and Harry's mother being criminally inclined herself. Kenra's mother had been a Bajoran refugee making a life on Kalendra a. A life hustling every cartel and gang in order to survive.

When Mudd had met her, she'd conned every criminal organization to be found on the planet. He bought her life debts and set her up as his asset manager. He knew she was embezzling from him but that was why she'd hired her. After Kenra was born and Tila Jori broke Bajoran custom and gave their daughter his surname instead of hers, Mudd entrusted Tila to raise Mudd Kenra up as one of his potential successors.

Like Harri, Kenra was a natural born confidence artists and thief. And while he never shared Kenra's existence with her half-siblings, she was all too aware of theirs. Keeping the Mudd family legacy of playing the offspring off of each other to maximize their potential alive and well. Only, Mudd had succeeded a little too well with Harri. She knew her brother was an idiot.

So her goal was a singular focus to outdo her father and his ancestors. She simply wanted everyone to associate the name Mudd only with her rather than her predecessors. An admirable goal in Mudd's opinion except that it threatened his own criminal legacy. But Mudd saw in Harri his own fallibility. Buried deep beneath their cynicism beat a soft touch for a noble cause.

For Mudd, the Maquis had suckered him. Mudd never worked or smuggled for free but he did drastically cut his percentages down for Ro's cell in particular. Of course, in the end, he did sell her out but otherwise he meant well. Mudd hadn't seen Ro since that fateful day in the dance hall when Macen and T'Kir busted up the Federation authorities. Ro had blacklisted Mudd with the Maquis despite her own position as an outlier.

Even Michael Eddington, Ro's ideological rival and the Maquis' choice to replace the deceased Calvin Hudson, wouldn't hire Mudd after that even just to spite Ro. Eddington's own capture came swiftly afterwards. Mudd had still lost the most lucrative collection of customers he'd ever had.

The Jem'Hadar eradicated the Maquis after that. Mudd had never expected Ro to survive much less avoid capture by Starfleet for desertion and terrorism and end up on Bajor. Mudd, of course, had heard the rumors that Shakaar had extended Bajor's amnesty policy towards Resistance fighter s coming in from the cold to the Maquis but he'd assumed the rumors to be balderdash. But Ro's being here, on Bajor's streets seemed to confirm the rumors. Lasse was met up by fellow Angosians as she marched him back to Ro's position. With her was a severe looking Special Forces major.

"Harry, I'm going to assume you smuggled people onto Bajor," Ro began, "And if you lie about it, I'll simply have you killed and we'll sort through the Fame & Fortune's logs to find out who you brought and when."

"But they'll kill me," Mudd whined.

"Not if I kill them first. Which I can do when you give me names and descriptions," Ro said business-like. Mudd had always admired Ro's dispassionate nature when it came to life and death. So he knew that he was a certified dead man if he defied her whereas he was a potential dead man if he betrayed his clients. Ro of course knew from experience how Mudd's mental calculus worked in these occasions.

"I brought them in yesterday before the Militia began their security screening," Mudd informed her, "I set the four of them up with fake IDs. But two of them will stand out in any crowd regardless."

"Care to elaborate?" Ro wondered.

"They're synthetics," Mudd told her, "Androids programmed to kill."

"And the other two?" Ro inquired.

"Two women, both human," Mudd hastily replied, "I didn't change their names. I just blocked access to their foreign criminal records. They've never been charged inside the Federation or especially on Bajor."

"How do I spot them?" Ro got to the point.

"One is discreet and only carries knives. But the other is wearing a kimono and carrying a sword," Mudd explained, "They got them through Customs on religious exemptions."

Ro face palmed, "How?"

"Well, you Bajorans respect all religious activities so long as they don't conflict with your own. So I simply invented a religion and certified credentials for them," Mudd seemed proud of that fact.

"Can I kill him now?" Anara begged.

"Never use a believer's faith against them. It irritates them," Ro warned Mudd, "Now the Major here is usually a calm and collected person. But you've deeply offended her. So, should I let her kill you?"

"I can provide their identification paperwork. I stored their ID pictures and bio signatures on the Fame & Fortune," Mudd hastily revealed.

"I knew your sense of self preservation would kick in soon enough," Ro smirked, "Daggit, you and your platoon begin searching out the Ministerial Grounds and see if you can head off any potential penetrations," Ro instructed.

"You heard the Lieutenant!" Daggit barked and his people fanned out to make their predetermined approaches.

"Did he just call you 'Lieutenant'?" Mudd asked, "I thought you were done with that Starfleet nonsense."

"I am. Now move," Ro told him. Anara escorted them with her hand on her phaser's grip in her belt holster.

"Is this really necessary?' Mudd wheedled.

"You tell me," Ro grated, "I'd hate for you to sell me out again."

"I can see you're still a bit tetchy about that. I did apologize at the time," Mudd replied.

"It wasn't accepted," Ro said tersely.

"What if I apologize again?" Mudd asked.

"It still won't be accepted," Ro warned him, "But you can save your own ass by giving me what I want to know."

"There's just no pleasing some people," Mudd complained.

"I've got Mudd's data, Skipper," Hendryks reported from the Asimov's OPS station, "I'm downloading it to everyone's padds now. You should be receiving it shortly."

"Got it, Elfi," Ro reported back, "That cuts our work in half."

"Give 'em hell for Thool and I," Hendryks chuckled.

"Well, it seems Harry gets to live. For now," Ro said for Mudd's beenfit.

"You think he really has a daughter on Bajor?" Hendryks asked.

"Who knows?" Ro snorted.

Plenum and Oblek picked up on Zed-D's trail without a positive ID needed. As Mudd had predicted the android stood out in the crowds.

"Hello," Plenum greeted Zed-D while Oblek came from behind, "Could you give me directions?"

"I am not a servitude," Zed-D seemed to boast, "Ask a local."

"Oh, I will," Plenum promised and backed away as Oblek gave him the signal.

"Wait! What have you placed on me?" Zed-D managed to ask before the explosive charge Oblek placed on its back detonated.

"No need for alarm, good folk," Oblek told the crowd, "It simply malfunctioned."

"Plenum to Asimov," he reported in, "One android is down."

"Confirming that," Hendryks replied, "The Constabulary has been notified. I'd be employing your exit strategy right now."

"Copy that, Asimov," Plenum concurred.

Chief Monty and Crewman Apprentice Ladwen found Zed-X making an approach on the Ministerial Compound. Ladwen was the distraction while Monty got behind gthe android and fired his phaser at maximum setting directly into the back of the synthetic's head. The body lashed about for a minutes while its secondary processors died down. The Angosians quickly moved off and contacted Hendryks to report their success.

Crewman Floas and Crewman Apprentice Jorgan picked up Alura Knowles trail. She suddenly ducked down an alleyway and the Angosians followed. Only to nearly be gutted by Knowles. She licked her dagger after her near miss

"You're outnumbered," Floas pointed out.

"You're not brandishing those phasers of yours," Knowles wore an evil smile.

Jorgan knew they were restraining themselves this close to the compound because of the heavy Militia presence there. They were within earshot of the nearest Militia enlisted personnel guarding the gateways. Apparently Knowles had intended on stabbing her way through the gate. She certainly seemed determined to do so to Floas and Jorgan. Floas blocked a stabbing thrust but Knowles spun away to make a slashing move at Jorgan, who'd gotten behind Knowles. But the dance ended swiftly as Floas caught hold of Knowles' wrists and Jorgan used a b;ade to her throat to kill Knowles. Then the Angosians vacated the area before the Militia or anyone else found the body.

After they were certain they were free from Militia interference, they reported in to the Asimov.

As Mudd had promised, Hayley Adderwell was completely easy to spot in her kimono carrying a sword. Adderwell drew her sword and spun on her heels in one fluid motion as Daggit and Lasse made their approach. Lasse deftly avoided the blade. Daggit took a glancing cut across his bicep. But nearby Constabulary deputies stunned Adderwell. One overzealous deputy also tried to stun the Angosians but they shrugged off the particle beams.

"Stand down, Deputy," the Constable said as she approached, "I think they're on our side. Isn't that right?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Daggit replied.

"Besides, that was an unprovoked attack. I assume you wish to press charges?" the Constable asked.

Daggit didn't want to lose the time it would take to make a statement but he had no alternative, "Constable, I believe you should be aware of an active threat against the First Minister."

She pulled a padd out and started recording, "I'm listening and recording this. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Daggit exchanged another look with Lasse.

"The Bajoran Militia has shut down all access to the Ministers of State citing an unspecified threat," Starr reported, "Major Host Kreb stated that Starfleet informed the Constabulary of the threat after assisting in foiling four assassination attempts with three more assassins still at large. Anna Snow has more."

"The Militia and Constabulary established lockdown procedures for officials under threat following the True Way incidents," Snow reported from the Federation embassy on Bajor, "Even Federation delegates and Starfleet officers are being screened before meeting with Bajoran officials now that the Bajoran security forces have closed ranks."

"Additionally," Snow added, "it appears that Militia officers uncovered this plot to assassinate the First Minister and replace him with Kai Winn Adami, Bajor's spiritual leader. At this time, Kai Winn is refusing to comment on speculations that she knew of or willingly participated in the plot. Furthermore, the Militia is squarely laying the blame for this development on the Dominion after the terse formal ending of the non-aggression pact between the Bajoran Republic and the Dominion. Starfleet hasn't officially confirmed or denied this allegation but sources with the embassy spoke under conditions of anonymity that Starfleet Intelligence was involved in the Militia probe and that every allegation is based on precise facts to those effects. Back to you, Clarice."

"In breaking news, the First Minister and the Kai will issuing a joint statement in two hours time," Starr revealed, "We'll bring you that statement live as it is given. This is Clarice Starr reporting live from Bajor."

The monitor shut off and Badrossi screamed out, "Frinx! Our plan has gone to shuk! Who the hell brought in the Zeds, Knowles, and Adderwell?"

"Obviously it was Eris, our own employer," Hamishiro said stoically.

"The bigger question is why were they tracked and not us?" Adreev wondered, "Or at least not yet."

The trio had rented a house in a suburb of the capital. The area still hadn't recovered economically from the Occupation. Most of the homes were now rentals for ambassadorial staffers from dozens of worlds.

The three entrance doors blew apart and Daggit's team, in full concealment armor stormed in from all three directions. The bounty-killers, taken by complete surprise, were separated from their personal weaponry. They surrendered rather than be killed.

"Site secured, Lieutenant," Daggit reported over his helmet's communicator. Regular Militia forces entered at that point. Ro and Anara were supervising from a secure location but weren't present in order to keep their identities concealed. The Militia's formal involvement negated the earlier plans to simply execute any prisoners.

"We'll take them from here," Major Horst Kobb informed Daggit.

The Angosians didn't stand down until the prisoners were secured in a confiscated Cardassian armored transport and driven away. Then Daggit commed Thool aboard the Asimov and requested an exfiltration. Once aboard, the team removed their armor and stowed their rifles but kept the sidearms and knives with them and prepped for Ro's imminent return and their departure for Nimbus III.

"I have trouble understanding why you doubted me, my child," Kai Winn scowled at Neela, "Have I not been faithful to the Prophets and Bajor?"

"But you have expressed your desire for our world to remain tied to the non-aggression treaty with the Dominion," Neela said evenly.

"I see now that allowing you to operate with the Militia has tainted your pagh," Winn decided.

"Do not touch me," Neela pushed away Winn's reaching hand, "The Prophets spoke and I answered their realcall this time. My place is where I'm at. When the Prophets choose to release me from my bond to the Militia, they will let me know," Neela said.

"Am I not their voice, child?" Winn asked.

"No," Neela coldly, "And you never have been nor ever will be. I'm done here in your service. Find someone else to do your dirty work. I thought I could guide you out from revenge projects but I was wrong. You needed a killer and you thought I'd be your weapon. But I've never killed anyone in your name. I let those people you sent me to deal with into exile from Bajor to keep them safe from you."

"You've been lying to me?" Winn was angered.

"You asked if I dealt with them. And I did. The way the Prophets would have it done," Neela answered, "It's not my fault you assumed I killed all of them."

"You're right. Your time of service is over," Winn said with cold wrath, "I will speak with Shakaar about your future. I must say, it looks grim."

"I walk with the Prophets now. They'll protect me from yout anger and your vengeance schemes," Neela declared, "And some day, the Prophets will deal with you too."

"They already have, poor child. They made me kai," Winn said smugly.

"You're the place holder," Neela said, "The real kai will come after you."

"I suggest you leave now before you say something you'll regret," Winn was adamant now.

"I regret nothing except for those things I did for you in the name of prophets that don't exist outside of your mind," Neela said angrily, "But even then, that's what it took to wake me up to the Prophets' truth. Their real truth as written in the Prophecies. You serve your purpose as kai. But not forever."

"Go! Now! Before I have you ejected from the monastery by force," Winn shouted ta Neela.

"And which prylar will obey that command?" Neela asked before turning and striding away.

"Impudent fool. The Prophets made me kai and I serve their will," Winn promised herself. But angrily she admitted to herself that she'd never once heard the Prophets' voices nor had an Orb experience. Neela experienced both within without of prison.

Ro was at the helm as she set course for Federation space and the long journey to Nimbus III. Anara and Neela were being sent on another task for General Krim and the Joint Chiefs. Bajor had been conducting secret negotiations with Iotian Federation to acquire starships. The Iotian Starfleet would sell to anyone with the latinum to buy them.

They would be outdated by Starfleet standards but far superior to the Militia's current impulse-only assault craft. It would enable the Militia finally be able to defend her own colonies stretched across the Bajor Sector. As well be able to adequately defend Bajor itself.

Anara was authorized to transfer the last of the latinum required to purchase the starships Bajor had ordered through careful transactions and investments in native and foreign business ventures. The Militia had also traded replicator technology as part of the purchase price. From the samples the Iotians had been given, they could reverse engineer them and expand the technology into industrial replicators. The frontier from there was vast and endless.

The Bajoran government had also invested in Iotian businesses then utilized the gains towards the starship purchases. But they were long term investments that would tie Bajor to Sigma Iotia II. Their fates would be intertwined from this point on.

"This is Clarice Starr and Anna Snow coming to you live from Bajor," Starr said into the imager, "First Minister Shakaar and Kai Winn are about to make their joint public declaration. Anticipation is running high for the citizens who fear their spiritual leader could be implicated in a Dominion plot to kill the First Minister. But the fact that it is a joint statement has led many to believe that Kai Winn has been exonerated."

"We'll broadcast the declaration and then provide analysis on any points that seem unclear from non-Bajorans' vantage point. Volunteers and experts have already agreed to interviews and to serve as pundits to assess the tone of the statement afterwards," Snow stated, "Wait! Here comes the First Minister and Kai Winn, together, approaching the podium."

Shakaar looked about gravely, "As every Bajoran knows, my life was and has been threatened by Dominion agents. The Dominion hired outlaws and assassins from outside Cardassian and Breen territory that the Dominion claims as their own. Four of these agents have been captured, detained, and interrogated."

He looked over Winn before continuing, "As everyone also knows, Kai Winn was implicated in this plot. But interviews and investigators have assured me, as well as the Kai herself, That Winn Adami had no part in the planning of this conspiracy to replace me. The Dominion alone sought to manipulate the scenario so that Kai Winn would assume planetary leadership and re-engage with the Dominion. If anything, the desperation made apparent by this blatant attempt to unseat me indicates just how untenable the Dominion's position is and that Bajor has chosen the winning side of this conflict."

Shakaar studied his padd before continuing, "Security around the Ministerial Compound will be increased throughout the duration of the war. All Ministers and key officials will have armed escorts with them as they travel in the course of their duties and in their leisure activities and at home. Customs checks will be intensified throughout the war's duration. We cannot allow any more strangers with weapons to walk our streets and threaten our officials. Even Allied forces outside of embassy grounds and duties will surrender any weaponry upon reaching customs or be turned away. Bajor welcomes peaceful and friendly business relations with any traders. But we will not condone lawlessness or tolerate any foreign intrigues on Bajoran soil."

Shakaar's expression hardened, "The Federation has asked us to extradite the prisoners. I am here to tell you that these for would-be killers will face Bajoran justice for crimes committed against Bajoran citizens and Bajoran interests. We will not extradite the prisoners. Ever! Thank you and good night."

Shakaar and Winn, accompanied by a small security force, reentered the Compound.

"There you have it," Starr resumed her commentary, "Bajor will prosecute rather than extradite the would-be assassins despite revelations from Starfleet that these four are wanted by the Federation for crimes committed against Federation citizens. Will the Federation provide evidence and allow Bajor to prosecute on its behalf? Let's get the local color and ask the experts."

With that Snow began recording pundit interviews and Starr got attendees' opinions. A pattern emerged where the common citizens applauded Shakaar's statements and the legal experts worried about how this would affect future legal proceedings where Federation citizens and charges were involved. It would be a landmark test case.

It took the Odyssey and the Iron Boots seven days to traverse the Alpha Quadrant to reach the Beta Quadrant and finally that triangular tip where the Romulan Star Empire, Klingon Empire, and the Federation overlapped. A single Class-M world was situated in that triangle: Nimbus III, the "Planet of Galactic Peace". Not that had ever enjoyed much of it.

The Romulans having abandoned the project after recalling Ambassador Caitlin Dar, who subsequently defected to her grandfather's Federation. The Klingons and Federation also abandoning the project and officially converting it to what it had always been in actuality, a penal colony. The last stop for the prisoners consigned there. Neither Starfleet nor the Klingon Defense Force had a presence on the planet. But they inspected commercial traffic in and out of the system to insure no prisoners were being smuggled out.

Weapons were forbidden to the "settlers" since the colony's founding in 2267. So they simply fashioned compressed air powered rifles that shot rocks. Visitors were allowed personal side arms as long as they were still accounted for when the personnel still retained them upon the exit inspection. Most commercial traffic simply delivered essentials such as food, water, clothing, implements, and of course, liquor.

Replicator technology was contraband as well. Forcing the colonists to be dependent upon the "goodwill" of the Federation and Klingon Empire. Blockade duty for Starfleet and the IKS was considered a penal assignment comparable to Starbase 80. Starfleet was currently represented by te USS Astronomer, a dilapidated Constellation-class starship, and an eighty-eight year-old B'rel-class Klingon Bird of Prey scout badly in need of repairs.

The Klingon ship had moved off to undertake repairs at a nearby yard. The Astronomer crew weren't being penalized so much as they were inexperienced and in an outmoded starship. But the fleet couldn't afford to retire her from service or this duty. So her young captain and crew persevered to the best of their ability to announce to BuPers they were worthy of greater assignments.

Complicating matters was the arrival of the USS Reliant. The Reliant was a Galaxy-class starship whose captain was being penalized. Both crews had been out of contact with a starbase and so wore the recently outmoded uniforms dating back to the pre-2373 changeover. They also mixed the Class-A and -B uniforms freely as was the wont aboard starships post 2370 prior to the uniform code change in 2373 to the modern Starfleet standard for capital ships.

The Reliant was orbiting Nimbus III in pursuit of the stock freighter Erstwhile. Its captain, Thadiun Okona, was suspected in smuggling Ansata refugees from the former DMZ where they'd been hiding to Nimbus III. Joining the Reliant crew was former Security Commandant Alexana Devos. Devos had been demoted to Chief Inspector and put on the trail of three suspected Ansata terrorists who had fled the planet.

Complicating the crew's relationship with Devos was the fact their recently transferred CONN officer was one Ensign Karina Devos, a younger second cousin to Inspector Devos. Ensign Devos had left her world to join Starfleet Academy under the stricter non-Federation applicant requirements. Devos had been a third year cadet when called into active service owing to the war.

But an early altercation between the ensign and a superior officer led to her temporary transfer to Starbase 80. Properly chastised, Ensign Devos arrived aboard the Reliant in a customized Starfleet uniform as the malfunctioning replicator at Starbase 80 had issued her and transfered its pattern data to the Reliant. So Ensign Devos, trying stay under official radar, drew attention owing to her alternate unfirm and the viral program accidentally transfered into the Reliant's computers made her personal pattern option locked in.

Captain Bradley Shepherd was on a penal duty tour of the temporarily unnecessary Romulan Neutral Zone watch posts and the completely unneeded Klingon border posts that were still manned for unfathomable reasons or simply having been ignored by every Starfleet Commander since the signing of the First Khitomer Accords. His hunt for Okona and his passengers was the first welcome relief from the tedium that Shepherd's crew had enjoyed in months. Ensign Shelley Vinterfjord, the OPS Officer, had tracked Okona's freighter to Paradise City but Okona himself seemed to be avoiding his ship.

Inspector Devos had demanded to be transported to the surface alone, without a Starfleet Security detail accompanying her. Her search on the surface was impeded by the fact she refused to divest herself of her uniform and the locals despised officialdom. So her search for the Finns was as frustrating as ever.

Her suspects were the husband and wife team of Riley and Sioran Finn and their daughter, Sheena. The Finns were wanted in connection to several bombings including that of an elite academy schoolyard that catered to officials' children. Devos had tracked the Finns to the DMZ prior to the war. Eddington seemed to have employed them to instruct the newer Maquis recruits in bomb making and placement.

After the Jem'Hadar purge of the Maquis colonies and the Cardassians takeover, the Finns had disappeared and Devos was led to believe that they'd died by Jem'Hadar hands. But an informant had come forward describing an Ansata encampment on Nimbus III. Added was the fact that the Finns had escaped the Jem'Hadar purge of the Maquis and enslavement of he DMZ colonists. Her renewed search led her to Okona who was making a marginal living smuggling fugitives into Nimubs III.

Her informant had told her the Finns were among Okona's latest passengers. Approaching Starfleet, Devos was granted support from the Reliant. Further complicating matters was the arrival of the Odyssey and the Iron Boots and mysterious orders Captain Bobbi Caplan of the Astronomer had just unsealed.

She showed them to her joint XO/Tactical Officer, Lt. Commander Zara Wilkinson.

"This is nuts," Caplan complained to Wilkinson.

"You verified these orders?" the joint Exec/Tactical Officer inquired.

"Three times. Every time the proper authenticators came back," Caplan told her, "Besides the legality issues, could we even survive this is if it goes down?"

"Lambeaux has done wonders but we'd still need a miracle," Wilkinson stated flatly. Lieutenant Este Lambeaux was the ship's Chief Engineer and resident malevolent genius.

"Inform Karim to expect potential casualties," Caplan sighed.

"You know she's short staffed," Wilkinson said gravely, "Every department is."

Lieutenant JG Jezi Karim was the resident Chief Medical Officer. The Unjoined Trill was just out of Academy, graduating Starfleet Medical as a lieutenant JG. She barely held the rank to be a CMO. Like the rest of the crew, she was largely untested in her role. Caplan and Wilkinson being the only two to have any diverse experience. Wilkinson actually had more time in service than Caplan despite their difference in grade.

"I can't believe having two Bajoran registered decommissioned Starfleet vessels the system just hours before we receive these orders can be a coincidence," Caplan confided in Wilkinson, "First Admiral Nechayev clears them without a proper inspection and then she issues this?"

"Maybe they'll take our side if the shooting starts," Wilkinson hoped.

"Or they could be the very reason the shooting starts," Caplan made up her mind, "Helm, take us to Nimbus III."

Riker's image filled the viewer. The Odyssey and Iron Boots had inserted into standard orbits over Nimbus III some distance from the Reliant. They were at the very edge of the Iron Boots' transporter range for Paradise City.

"I don't like this," Riker confessed, "Why is a Galaxy-class starship here instead of the front lines?"

"Captain Shepherd is serving an official penance tour of the Neutral Zone. He's here assisting a law enforcement officers in tracking Ansata refugees. Refugees that happened to assist the Maquis when they arrived in the DMZ," Macen explained, "Nimbus III supports an Ansata settlement."

"You knew about this?" Riker was annoyed.

"I knew about the Ansata. The Reliant being here is a complete surprise. But it may work to our advantage. The bounty-killers your mysterious employers warned us about were steered here when they broke into your offices."

"They scared the hell out my support staff," Riker was incensed.

"Starfleet's presence will impede them. They'll have to brazen out a public attack to get at the squad once they touch down," Macen advised him, "Varglas and the squad are in civvies but they're armed and aware of the descriptions your people gave you."

"When I get..." Riker began.

"You're staying aboard the Iron Boots just like I'm stuck aboard the Odyssey. This is Varglas' show. And they can't leave any hunters alive to report back any potential witness statements to the Dominion," Macen warned him, "Starfleet is going to get the news and get veeery unhappy."

"So why is this Shepherd on penal duty?" Riker asked.

"He unilaterally declared a General Order 24 scenario on a Cardassian outpost. He bombarded the planet with torpedoes until it cracked," Macen explained.

"I can see pulling him off the front," Riker was horrified. General Order 24 hadn't been invoked since the Vanguard mission just over a century ago. It had come into existence just twelve years prior to that in the aftermath of the First Klingon War.

"So when is your Angosian kill squad deploying?" Riker managed to ask.

"They beamed down ten minutes ago," Macen grinned.

The Last Chance Saloon survived because it wa s the only bar in Paradise City. It had exclusive franchise rights from the local Orion Syndicate Operator in charge of the protection scheme in force over the planet. Other liquor-less cantinas were spread across the barren world and all owed fealty to the Operator. Unfortunately for Ashid, an inspector from the Orions had come to Nimbus III just when things were spiraling out of the human's control. The Orion woman kept reporting in to her Syndicate superiors as things progressed. Ashid's capo, Wrrrwr, a small felinoid who wore a computer interface on his furry head, kept abreast of the developments as they occurred.

"The assassins are moving," Wrrrwr reported, "They're investigating the new arrivals. They've learned a Bonaventure-class starship as entered orbit with a Blackbird-class scoutship. Both are decommissioned Starfleet vessels. Neither of their ID transponders are relaying data to ground control. I can't identify which ships they are or who owns and operates them."

"But they are something to the bounty-killers," Ashid assessed. He was sitting out on his balcony and adjusted his sunglasses. Lalani also wore a pair to protect her eyes from the harsh glare of the system's primary. Wrrrwr abstained from such contrivances. His eyes were evolved from a predatory species. His culture demanded that he be able to see targets clearly. Besides, the occular implant relaying visual data from the interface automatically shielded his visual input. His natural eye, indistinguishable from the expertly made prosthetic, coped just as nicely.

"Operator, the new arrivals have split into three three personnel teams with perfect synchronization," Wrrrwr sounded impressed, "These are not amateurs."

"Special Operations Command, perhaps?" Lalani had ended her conversations for now.

"Starfleet has no record of them and they aren't registered as Federation citizens," Wrrrwr replied, "They're unknowns but clearly they are highly trained and proficient."

"Why proficient?" Lalani inquired.

"The hunters have become the hunted," Wrrrwr explained.

"Maybe they'd interested in an employment offer?" Lalanii mused.

"Let's see how it plays out first," Ashid counseled her.

"That's the last of the provisions," Riley Finn announced as they threw the last sack onto the pile behind their equine driven cart. Native equines had been domesticated and made into the primary transportation on Nimbus III. The Ansata settlement had sent the Finns out with their mineral and ores they'd mined to exchange for food and goods. The Ansata had been especially fortunate in finding a small vein of latinum in the caves that served as their settlement.

The Orions controlled the store and exchange rates. But the Federation and Klingon data nets were available on Nimbis III so the miners watched the interstellar exchange rates closely. The assay office/store was allowed a reasonable markup on their products or the miners would simply purchase black market goods directly from the traders that supplied the provisions outlet. Where the Syndicate made its real money was the taxation imposed on every settler. It was a fifteen percent flat tax on all deposits exchanged at the outlet.

"I hope everyone got what they wanted," Sioran Finn wiped the sweat from her brow.

"They did," Sheena Finn, the couple's daughter, had been in charge of the checklist and funds. The Finns had left to find a kind of peace where their daughter could live a free life. Nimbus III was a hard scrabble life but if one paid their taxes, they were left alone. But their pasts as terrorists alerted them to trouble when the Angosian squad led by Senior Chief Petty Officer Veritas and comprised of Crewman Apprentice Sardin and Crewman Dawd came down the street.

"We need to get under cover. Now!" Riley instructed his family.

"But the supplies!" Sheena Finn protested.

"Will still be here but we might not survive," Sioran Finn advised her daughter.

Averab and Destin were so overconfident in their supposed surprise attack they never realized when they walked into a deadly crossfire. The Angosians had formed up a triangular trap. Each had a clear line of fire without endangering a fellow squad member.

"Drop your weapons!" Sardin shouted at them as she emerged from cover. The bounty-killers believed her to be alone and didn't comply.

"I'd listen to her. She's very short tempered," Dawd said from behind them down on one knee with her weapon aimed at them.

Chief Veritas made up the third point, "Drop them. Now."

The assassins unbuckled their holsters.

"And your back up pieces, with two fingers or appendages," Sardin commanded.

"Now," Dawd was still collected.

A pile of ordnance surrounded the bounty hunters after precious seconds drew by.

"Happy?" Avereb asked.

"Compliance has been met," Destin spoke up, "Will you take us prisoner now?"

"No," Veritas replied, "Fire!"

The three Angosians did so to devastating effect.

"You three! The family! Come out," Veritas commanded.

The Finns emerged from cover.

"Their weapons and valuables are yours now," Veritas informed them.

"Particle beam weapons are forbidden here," Riley Finn spoke up.

"Then don't advertise that you have them now," Sardin snorted.

"You can rig chargers up for their power cells," Dawd suggested, "It's a fairly easy conversion."

"Who are you?" Sheena Finn asked.

"We're figments of your imagination," Veritas replied and the squad disappeared down the street.

"Quickly! Before the Syndicate sends people out," Sioran Finn instructed. They stashed the weapons in their wagon and pocketed the latinum strips and slips the hunters had carried. Then they simply drove out of town.

Chief Inspector Devos had learned the Finns were in town and was hurrying to try and catch a glimpse of them. From then and there, she could follow them back to their settlement and demand Starfleet extract them all.

Frenji Yuric and Hariv began to hassle her, "You haven't seen any strangers nearby, have you?"

"No one stranger than you," Devos smartly replied back to Yuric.

"She's mouthy," Hariv fingered her weapons.

Yuric drew her cleavers, "Maybe she doesn't need a tongue to talk anymore."

A phaser strike hit Hariv and she spat up black blood over her bone white skin as she gazed at the hole in her chest before she crumpled to a heap. Yuric attacked Devos and drew blood before two separate phaser strikes took her down as well. Petty Officer 2nd Class Crommery led Crewman Apprentices Kullin and Jago out into the open.

"I'd get those wounds looked after," Crommery insisted.

"You did arrive by starship, didn't you?" Jago inquired.

"Just have them beam you up," Kullin suggested.

"You killed them," Devis accused.

"Before they killed you," Jago retorted, "A little gratitude is in order."

"I don't have time for treatment or gratitude. My suspects are getting away," Devos tried to move past Crommery.

"You actually believe the Orion Syndicate will let you arrest anyone while they're paying protection money to the Syndicate?" Crommery laughed, "Keep that sense of humor. You'll need it while you bleed out."

He began to lead the squad away, "Take whatever you want from them."

"I'd do it before the local scavengers arrive," Jago called back to her.

"Who the hell are you?" Devos shouted at them.

"We're your imaginary friends brought on by blood loss," Crommery called back, "Just a thought."

Devos surrendered and called the Reliant for an extraction and treatment options so she could back on the hunt.

Okona wandered out of the Last Chance Saloon with a Caitian woman, "Wait until you see my beautiful ship."

"She's pretty?" the Caitian asked.

"Better than pretty," Okona told her, "And since I'm the only crew, I converted the cabin spaces into one master cabin. I think you'll appreciate my handiwork"

She began to purr loudly. Okona took that as a good sign.

"You have a ship?" the scarlet clad Karin Slaughter demanded to know, brandishing her weapon. Skrell approached from beside them. His methane capture helmet obscured his features but the black helmet and darkened visor made him seem even more menacing.

"You need a ride?" Okona though drum up some business, "I'm at pad four. Call me in the morning. I have tour to give right now."

"When did you arrive?" Slaughter placed the emitter end of her disruptor under Okona's jaw.

He stepped back and crossed his arms, "Look. I know you're desperate to leave, And I will be too. Tomorrow."

"He's an idiot," Skrell advised Slaughter, "He's too stupid to be a master saboteur."

"I'd listen to him. I just run cargo and deliver people," Okona shared, "So if you need a ride somewhere, I'm your man."

"Who have you delivered to the Dorvan Sector?" Slaughter persisted.

"Dorvan? You mean, in a war zone?" Okona was surprised, "That's where you want to go?"

"I told you. He's an idiot," Skrell was tired of the game.

"Who have you taken there?" Slaughter demanded one last time.

"I'm afraid my client list is confidential," Okona replied smugly.

Sh e placed the emitter at his groin, "Care to be a smart ass now?"

"No one!" Okona desperately confessed, "I don't do war zones."

"I told you," Skrell sighed.

"I still think I should kill him," Slaughter growled. Then a phaser strike burned a hole into her partially concealed face. The body dropped. Okona screamed and ran leaving his potential evening partner behind.

"Get a better choice in men," Skrell drew his side arms. The Caitian departed in the opposite direction of Okona.

"I assume I'm surrounded," Skrell announced as he laid his pistols down.

"All of it!" Command Master Chief Varglas appeared in the open.

Crewman Apprentice Pultice and Crewman Apprentice Bowlly also revealed themselves.

"Pretty slick. Letting us trap ourselves," Skrell admired their tactics and strategy, "Where will you take me now?"

"Slow and painful or quick and painless?" Pultice inquired.

"Excuse me?" Skrell wasn't certain his universal translator caught that right.

"How do you want to die?" Bowlly explained the options.

"See, we can't have you reporting back to Eris what we look like," Varglas bothered to explain, "That makes you a liability. I don't leave liabilities behind to be found."

"Then I prefer painless to suffocation," Skrell decided.

"Wise man," Varglas burned a hole in hs chest.

"We done on the surface?" Bowlly wondered.

"We need to evac befoe the Orions respond," Pultice mentioned.

"Let me get a sitrep," Varglas replied.

All the team's signaled their success, "Now we're leaving."

Tom Eckles dutifully transported each team in sequence before returning to his precious engine room where his deputy engineer, Heidi Darcy kept things running.

"We now have a straight shot between their nacelles," Tracy Ebert, the young teen pilot reported.

She'd used maneuvering thrusters to shift their orbit slowly and subtly. The Reliant hadn't responded yet.

"That's where her shields are the weakest," Macen explained his earlier request, "Chris, manually target them. Torpedoes and phasers both. As soon as their shields start to raise, fire at will at your discretion."

Christine Lacey appreciated the challenge, "Will do."

Macen to Riker," he only opened a voice channel.

"Riker here," came the other captain's reply.

"My squad is back aboard and reporting universal success. Starfleet will respond somehow. Break orbit to get a head start. We have them targeted for a sneak attack if they attempt raise shields and arm weapons," Macen explained.

"Our departure could provoke that response," Riker warned him.

"Too bad for them," Macen chuckled.

"Aren't you officially Starfleet again?"Riker wondered.

"So Nechayev keeps telling me. But we can't blow our cover. We're targeting their secondary hull and engine spaces. Then we'll switch over to their nacelles. Once their capacity to go to warp is removed, we'll bug out too."

"Good luck with that," Riker sounded grim.

"You too," Macen signed off.

"Secondary target spreads programmed in," Lacey informed Macen.

"Just keep an eye on them for now," Macen advised.

"Multiple transporter activity between the surface and the scoutship at our aft," Vinterfjord reported from OPS, "Now the older Bonaventure-class is breaking orbit."

"Captain, Inspector Devos is making accusations that those transported are in fact murderers," Ship's Counselor Dina Myers said as she rejoined the bridge crew, "Hellix is still taking her statements but they get wilder with every accounting. I think she's in acute trauma. The stress of her yearslong investigation and the shooting incident on the surface have mildly unhinged her center of being."

"Sounds about right," Karina Devos said from the CONN station.

"You have an opinion, Ensign?" Shepherd asked sharply.

"When my cousin was Commandant of the Security Forces she became very paranoid. She sees the universe as one massive plot to assist the Ansata in their terror campaign. Now that the government is engaged with the Ansata's political action arm for a peaceful solution and her demotion, Alexana is flailing. Sir."

"That's mighty speculative," Shepherd accused.

"But also highly accurate from my assessments of her mental and emotional state," Myers countered, "Doctor Demik has been forced to sedate her for her own safety."

"Sir, the security forces have recalled every agent sent forth to capture escaped Ansata. Why is Inspector Devos still on the trail?" Devos asked.

"Sir, the Bonaventure-class starship is now proceeding out of the system at maximum impulse," Vinterfjord told her captain, "And she still refuses to acknowledge hails or activate her ID transponder."

"Lock a tractor beam on her and prepare to break orbit," Shepherd instructed both Devos and the ensign at Tactical.

"What about the Blackbird-class at our rear?" Vinterfjord asked.

"Raise shields, just to be safe," Shepherd made the fateful call.

"Their shields are going up!" Lacey announced, "Firing spread."

The Odyssey's forward torpedo tunes each spat two torpedoes in rapid succession. Her forward phaser banks also fired behind the torpedoes. Then Lacey activated the secondary targeting protocol she'd inputed earlier and torpedoes and phaser strikes were unleashed first against the starboard warp nacelle and then the port nacelle.

"Good shooting, Chris. Raise our shields and activate targeting sensors and get a lock on their primary hull fusion reactor. I want to knock out auxiliary power if we have to," Macen instructed.

The starship bucked under Shepherd and he fell back into command chair. EPS conduits overloaded all over the bridge.

"What the hell?" Shepherd snarled, "Report!"

"The Blackbird-class volleyed photons and phasers at our primary engineering space prior to crippling our warp nacelles," Vinterfjord explained.

"How the hell did they penetrate our shields?" Shepherd demanded to know.

"They fired just as the emitters were powering up and they were lined between our warp nacelles where our shields are at their weakest. We never stood a chance," Vinterfjord explained.

"Sir! We can still raise shields on auxiliary power," the ensign at Tactical reminded the captain.

"Status on that scoutship?" Shepherd wondered.

"She's raised shields and this time she has a phaser and torpedo guidance lock on our impulse reactors," Vinterfjord told him.

"And we missed that the first time?" Shepherd sneered.

"They manually locked their targets," Vinterfjord offered, "They had plenty of time to do so."

"Status on that relic ship?" Shepherd snapped, "Where's my damn tractor beam? And somebody fire a goddamn aft torpedo at that Blackbird-class"

"Uh...our aft launcher was disabled in their opening strike," Tactical reported.

"Phasers then!" Shepherd demanded, "Just distract them long enough for us to get shields up."

"The Bonaventure- is free and clear to navigate. They've also raised shields and prepped their weapons," Vinterfjord reported in, "Such as they are."

"Target them as well," Shepherd ordered.

"Sir, nav sensors have the Astronomer on fast approach," Devos suddenly spoke up.

"Finally! Someone showed some goddamn initiative and called for reinforcements," Shepherd gloated.

"Sir, we never sent them a signal. They were already on approach," Vinterfjord warned him, "They're raising shields and targeting weapons."

"At the Bonaventure- or the Blackbird-?" Shepherd continued gloating.

"At us," the ensign at Tactical told him, "They're hailing."

"Put it on the goddamn screen," Shepherd roared.

Caplan could easily tell Shepherd was irate. Counselor Myers looked worried from beside him.

"Captain Shepherd, you will stand down," Caplan instructed, "By order of Starfleet Command, I'm instructed to force your compliance if you attempt to accost these starships."

"Are you out of your goddamned mind?" Shepherd raged, "They fired on my goddamn ship."

"Long range sensors and communications indicate you attempted employ your tractor beam, raise shields, and arm weapons without giving the civilian vessels due notice of your intention. That's a violation of regs and of our newly standing orders," Caplan explained.

"What goddamn orders?"Shepherd snapped.

"If you'd bother checking your comm logs you'd see Starfleet Intelligence issued orders not impede or otherwise block the exit of these two ships almost two hours ago," Caplan told him, "I suggest you check your incoming orders now."

Shepherd did so, "I don't give a damn what Starfleet goddamn Command says. They fired on me without provocation."

"My sensor logs indicate otherwise," Caplan replied.

"So what's your play here, Caplan? Let two criminal vessels free and fire on me or get the hell out of my way?" Shepherd was losing it now.

Caplan could see now why Starfleet had pulled him from the front lines, "My orders are to prevent you from disobeying yours."

"So goddamn Starfleet Command knew I'm going to kill these goddamn motherfrinxers?" Shepherd snorted, "Ahead of time? Don't be ridiculous."

"If you arm weapons and target either or both of these ships, I'm ordered to disable the Reliant," Caplan warned him one last time, "Your call, Captain."

"You'll never do it," Shepherd sneered and cut the transmission off.

"That went well," Wilkinson groaned.

"Myers and Demik's reports on his mental state seem accurate enough," Caplan assessed.

"He's targeting our protectees," Wilkinson warned.

"Take out their reactors," Caplan ordered.

And the Astronomer fired on the Reliant.

"Sir, we're running off of the batteries," Vinterfjord warned him.

"Give me goddamn phasers and return fire!" Shepherd screamed.

"Sir, I'm relieving you of your command on medical grounds, Your mental state has been compromised," Doctor Demik was on the bridge and had been for some rime without Shepherd's apparent knowledge.

"I concur," Myers had summoned Demik.

"Et tu, Myers?" Shepherd snapped at her, "You can't force me to stand down, Lieutenant Junior Grade Demik."

"I'm the only one that can without you being able to question my judgment outside of a Board of Inquiry," Demik said stonily.

"I won't surrender my command!" Shepherd screamed. A phaser blast brought him down.

Devos reholstered her Type II "cobra" phaser under her station's console where she kept it in case of boarding parties, "He's all yours, Doctor."

"You're in command now, Ensign," Myers warned Devos.

"Contact the Astronomer and request Captain Caplan send over a prize crew as well as assist us with repairs," Devos instructed Vinterfjord.

"Thank God," Vinterfjord sighed.

Wilkinson led Lambeaux and a party of her engineers as the Astronomer's XO took temporary command of the Reliant.

"Good call, Doctor," Wilkinson applauded Demik's courage.

"Counselor Myers and I were ordered to continually update Starfleet Command and Starfleet Medical regarding captain Shepherd's mental state. This has been a long, slow breakdown," Demik explained.

"Still most junior officers, even those serving as Chief Medical Officer, would've balked at relieving their CO," Wilkinson assessed.

"Then they're not qualified to be CMOs," Demik replied.

"Thank you, Doctor. You'd best get back to your patients," Wilkinson advised.

"I'd like a Security escort to accompany me for when Captain Shepherd awakes in his quarters," Myers requested.

"I'll see to it," Wilkinson agreed, "OPS, raise the Astronomer. We need to report in."

"Commander, a third older starship has arrived in the system. She's also running without an active transponder," Vinterfjord reported.

"Ship class and status?" Wilkinson asked.

"United Earth Starfleet NV-class," Vinterfjord said incredulously, "And she seems to be engaged in communications with the two departing civilian vessels."

"Let Captain Caplan deal with it. We're in no shape to assist," Wilkinson said gravely.

Joelle Jones' main viewer displayed a split screen as she discussed matters with Macen and Riker simultaneously, "Ro signaled that her mission was a success. She contacted me through the cutout. She's en route as previously agreed to."

"We may have to relocate the rendezvous,"Macen said, "Starfleet intervened on our behalf and they're demanding to know why. Nechayev's orders are stifling them from forcing the issue but they'll reach a breaking point if we have four decommissioned starships in the system alongside our work on their planet."

"Captain! Breen privateer entering the system," Jones heard Lacey advise Macen.

"You two standby to assist. But Breen privateers are almost as heavily armed as Breen warships. Photonic missiles won't do much against their shields," Macen warned and cut the signal.

"The hell? What are Breen doing this far into Federation territory?" Jones asked Levedeeva.

"I have no frinxing idea. But this is trouble," Levedeeva was activating the defensive systems, "We don't stand a chance against that monster."

"Hanna, coordinate with Riker's pilot. I want a pincer maneuver ready the moment Macen has softened the Breen's shields. Someone tell Imoke we need all the power she can muster," Jones laid out instructions for Gunter and Horvath, "We're in it now."

"Captain, we've received a voice only signal from the scoutship. They advise we defend the Reliant while they deal with the Breen intruder," Wilkinson's relief informed Caplan.

"Acknowledge signal," Caplan ordered, "Prepare to defend ourselves and the Reliant. The civilians are outside our purview unless they identify themselves and request assistance."

Although privateers were civilians, Thot Lewyn had assumed direct command of the ship departing Cardassian space. They'd made a torturous route through neutral systems to penetrate ethe Federation and reach the Nimbus system. All at Eris' request that the bounty-killers' trap be reinforced with actual Dominion agents. As the new favorites, the Breen were happy to dispatch an armed civilian ship with military assistance. Thot Lewyn being that assistance.

Lewyn gave the command to attack. The crew hurried to comply. Unlike a Breen warship, a privateer's vessel didn't have a damping weapon. But the only advanced Starfleet vessel in range was already crippled.

The ship shook and threw Lewyn back into his seat. He was unnecessarily informed that the opposing starship had launched torpedoes. The Thot ordered a counterattack. The strength of the phaser strikes surprised Lewyn. Those were supposed to be Type VIII phaser banks that were hitting as hard as Type IX phasers. Someone had been making impressive modifications to phaser bank tech to gain strip emitter strengths out of them. It made the Thot wonder of the elderly starships had been likewise refitted.

He demanded a report regarding the photon torpedo type. Again, the launchers had been modified to handle current yield types. He demanded sensor scans of the Waylaid and Iron Boots.

Both ships should be restricted to phase cannons and photonic missiles. Yet both registered having early generation phaser banks and torpedo launchers. So the intercepted communication regarding photonic missiles had been for his benefit.

The two elderly starships were engaged in a classic pincer maneuver with the scoutship coming up on their rear quarter. He ordered the helmsman too push forward at maximum impulse. Attacking the stricken Galaxy-class starship would gain them a valuable distraction and accomplish a military goal. The even older Constellation-class was moving to intercept as the Iron Boots, Waylaid, and Odyssey began triangulating fire on them. As the Astronomer added its firepower, Thot Lewyn knew he'd fought his last campaign.

He'd failed. He ordered the crew to scuttle rather than risk the capture of either ship or crew. The unregulated intermix imbalance resulted in a warp core breach. As everyone's sensors cleared, the Asimov was detected dropping out of warp in the outer system. She'd made better time because she hadn't been hindered by the Iron Boots' slower speeds.

Ro had taken the precaution of activating her reserve her ID transponder settings as well. She now registered as the Federation starship USS Asimov. Macen had Lacey reactivate their old Starfleet setting as well and the previously undisclosed Odyssey became the USS Tiberius once again. The Iron Boots and Waylaid made hasty exits as Macen and Ro fielded communications with Captain Caplan and Acting Captain Wilkinson. The three-way splits on the screens displayed every other player for the CO in question.

"Thank your assistance, Captain," Macen offered, "I'm hoping that no one was seriously injured aboard the Reliant."

"No fatalities or loss of limbs or organs at least,"Caplan scowled, "Was that really necessary?"

"We're deep cover operatives," Ro interjected, "We're listed as potential renegades by Starfleet. That status gets us access into Cardassian territory where we can disrupt supply lines deep inside Dominion held space."

"Then why reveal yourselves now?" Wilkinson asked.

"You deserved the explanation," Macen told them, "And our ship IDs are altered for operational purposes."

"So the fact you're both pulling up as manning decommissioned starships?" Caplan led.

"Feeds that perception for the Dominion and the Cardassians. Which is also why we couldn't leave living witnesses to blow our cover. Operational security dictates that no one on the enemy side can discover our true loyalties," Ro explained.

"Like the fact you're both registering as Starfleet deserters and Maquis?" Wilkinson double checked her padd.

"All part of the illusion," Macen promised, "You'll find us listed as freelance data brokers...or bluntly put: mercenary spies."

They switched their ID transponders again to the Odyssey and the Bajoran registered Asimov.

"And the Bajorans are in on this?" Caplan asked.

"I happen to be Militia Special Forces," Ro shrugged.

"So you see why we're trusting you with our very lives," Macen made an unspoken plea.

"Go," Caplan decided, "I'm certain Admiral Nechayev will continue to clean up your mess regarding what our official logs should say."

"Thank you, Captains," Macen signed off. The Odyssey and Asimov exited the system as set course again for the Kalendra Sector. Jones and the Waylaid crew would go their own separate ways again but Macen and Ro owed Riker a debt.

They managed to persuade Riker and the Iron Boots crew to enter Bajoran space once again. There they were treated to the finest meals the local restaurateurs on the Bajoran colony on Golana could provide. Ro was privy to Militia initiatives to build a shipyard in the colony's star system. Another would be built in the Free Haven system and one at Dreon VII as well as Bajor's first domestically built space station with Iotian supervision and aid at Free Haven. First Minister Shakaar and General Krim were already looking forward towards a day when Bajor would provide most of its own security.

With Bajoran refugees pouring in from the Federation and the neutral systems, the Bajoran Republic was experiencing its first population boom since the Occupation began. They had no way of predicting that in eleven years, a second mass migration back to Bajor would occur. By then, the Militia would have a small fleet of starships and two space stations besides Deep Space Nine. But those days were visionary. For now, victory was still nearly a year away. And Ro and Macen's teams still had much work ahead of them.

On Sigma Iotia II, Anara had concluded her official business with the native Starfleet. Every starship being ordered was one of the Iotians' advanced models. Neela had noted that the Iotians were busy building their spreading Federation a new fleet of post-refit drive technology starships. But they were still producing a mid-to last 22nd Century starship Econo line for entry level buyers and early to mid-23rd century starships for advanced customers who could pay.

Steep discounts were offered in exchange for membership within the Iotian Federation and its protection scheme. Anara was authorized to decline but to enter into far reaching ordnance replenishment and starship repair contracts until the Militia's Corps of Engineers was up to the task of domestically handling every facet of repair work on the new ships. The twelve Constitution-class, six Asia-class, six Mercury-class, and six-Kremlin-class starships were nearing completion. Soon prize crews would transfer them to Bajoran space after a training period and shakedown cruises within the Iotian Federation itself.

Ultimately, the Dominion would surrender before the first ships arrived. But the Militia's System Defense Force and nascent Colonial Defense Force would finally have teeth. After an evening's respite, the pair had returned to the Ark of the Prophets were prepping their dust off.

"Kai Winn's official dismissing you from the Vedek Assembly's service came through while we were off the ship," Anara sadly told her friend, who was running OPS.

"Good," Neela simply said.

That answer confused Anara, "But I thought you enjoyed working for the Kai."

"The Prophets have shown me that Winn Adami does not walk with them," Neela said tersely, "Her time as kai is coming to a close. But how, I haven't been shown yet. If ever."

"So there's nothing preventing you from rejoining the Militia," Anara suggested.

"Starfleet would have a fit. You think they object to Ro's amnesty? Try reenlisting someone who murdered one of their own," Neela sighed, "At least Ro never killed a Federation citizen much less a Starfleet ensign. No, the Militia can't afford to recruit me again. But I can still volunteer my services."

"Krim will be happy to learn that," Anara pledged, "I know I am."

"All that time we spent fighting the Cardassians. We never really thought about what we'd do if they ever actually left," Neela realized, "I only joined the Militia after you encouraged me to because Winn asked me to be her advocate within its ranks."

"Her tool you mean," Anara said dourly.

"It was my choice. Every single time and event," Neela said sadly, "I thought I'd met the Prophets. I didn't know I was an apostate until their Tear came to me in prison. It was their will that Starfleet intervened and my death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Otherwise I couldn't serve them for real now."

Even the ever skeptical Anara knew Neela was touched by their gods, "You could always tell someone Winn orchestrated everything."

"It was my choice," Neela insisted, "My delusional state of narrow belief."

Anara wanted to curse the fact that Neela still wouldn't lay the blame on Winn. Why protect her after what the Prophets showed her? She asked as much.

"She has her role to play just as I have mine," Neela told her.

"She had you bomb a school!" Anara wouldn't relent this time.

"My hands fashioned that bomb and placed it," Neela said with infinite sorrow, "No one else is to blame."

"You're kinder than I would be," Anara snorted.

"The Prophets will deal with Winn. I don't have to," Neela shrugged, "Just as they'll deal with me."

"There are days I wish I had your faith," Anara admitted.

"And in days to come, you will," Neela promised her, "That much I've been shown."

"I beg to disagree," Anara laughed.

"You can beg all you want but the Prophets know better," Neela replied, "And you'll accept that wisdom someday after I'm gone."

"You're going somewhere?' Anara was alarmed.

"Not just yet," Neela told her, "But soon enough."

"You certainly enjoy your cryptic riddles since you've gotten out of prison," Anara accused, "But that's all right. You've always been strange."

"I just have a journey I need to make," Neela knew that soon she'd be in the Celestial Temple itself. In time, another would take her place in Anara's life. It was all good. So she was content with what was to come.

Last modified: 16 Dec 2023