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Countdown - Part III by Travis Anderson

The Spy, The Rebel, The Doppelganger, The Traitor, The Soldier, The Exile, The Tinkerer,
The Mercenary, The Stray, and one ship shared by all. The tale has merely begun...

Chapter Thirteen

The second morning after Macen's capture had arrived. T'Kir maintained a stoic attitude. A layer of volatility seethed under the surface but she had surprised Riker with her level of control. He'd been concerned for her ever since her abortive attempt to hijack the ship.

The ship and crew had pushed hard for the last forty hours. They'd only had to drop below warp 9 once. Even then it had been a choice between blowing up and slowing.

Riker had already privately informed T'Kir of his plans to stop at DS9. Her eyes had flashed with anger but she remained silent. Dracas insisted upon at least eight hours to overhaul the engines. It wouldn't be a complete job but it would alleviate the worst problems.

Having the opportunity to have the station's engineers support the crew was a priceless gem. Twice as much work could be accomplished during the limited span of time. It was the best offer they'd get within the foreseeable future.

Riker had already commed ahead and set up a strategy planning session with Kira, Vaughn, Dax and Sam Bowers. Ro Laren had already announced her intention of sitting in on the session despite its purpose being outside her purview as the station's Chief of Security. Permission to attend had come at Vaughn's behest.

Riker was bringing T'Kir, Daggit, Radil and Grace to the meeting. That covered the usual Investigation Team and Riker's 2nd Officer. He wished he could bring Shannon Forger but she needed her sleep. Riker needed her fresh and alert when the time came for her to be on the bridge. He would brief her during her next shift.

"Now entering the Bajoran sector." Grace's announcement shattered Riker's reverie, "Bajor system in one hour twenty minutes. Add another thirty minutes or so to reach DS9 at sublight."

"Excellent Helm." Riker commended her, "Carry on. T'Kir, if you would join me in the Ready Room?"

T'Kir shrugged and rose out of her place in the XO's chair. Riker rose, straightened his flightsuit and gave Grace her final orders, "You have the ship, Grace."

Ceryx padded over from his place at an auxiliary station and relieved Grace at the helm. She made her way to the Captain's seat and lowered herself into it.

Speaking to the Ops officer, Grace issued her first order, "Continue scanning for traffic. We're headed for a commercial centre so we're bound to have a lot of company."

"Yes, ma'am." The Ops rating crisply replied.

Once inside the Ready Room, Riker seated himself behind Macen's desk. T'Kir, breaking tradition, decided to forgo the couch and instead took one of the two chairs arrayed in front of the desk. She was visibly upset.

"Don't get too comfortable, Tom." she irritably remarked, "We'll be getting Brin back."

Riker leaned forward to lean on his elbows. Folding his hands together, he spoke, "A temporary redoubt to be sure."

"Just remember that when the time comes to give up command." T'Kir warned.

"T'Kir, on average I'm in command for ninety percent of my shift and usually part of Shannon's. Why would I need to cling to the Captain's seat?"

T'Kir paused, grew uncertain and then blurted out, "I don't know. Just don't."

Riker grinned, "I'm duly warned. Now, about your strategy proposals, any thoughts?"

"A straight forward assault." T'Kir described, "We use elements of the Security details of both the Obsidian and the Defiant and tear wherever they're holding Brin apart."

Riker looked pained, "Have you ever thought that they'd execute him before we could reach him? What about the hostages? We can't abandon them."

T'Kir waved her hand as if swatting an insect, "Of course we rescue the hostages. That's a given."

"And how do we locate them?" Riker enquired.

"All right. My idea sucks. Let up already." T'Kir stuck out her lower lip.

Riker wearily shook his head, "That ploy may work with Brin but it's wasted on me."

"Spoilsport." T'Kir stuck out her tongue.

"You're free to go. Ask Daggit to come in here." Riker requested.

"Yessir, Boss Man!" T'Kir hopped to her feet and she exited the Ready Room.

"What a nut." Riker murmured.

Riker and the SID team members invited to the planning conference sat across from the station staff. Kira had requested an update of the SID's progress thus far. In exchange, she offered a synopsis of Starfleet Intelligence's latest reports. Now she opened the meeting to operations planning.

"My information is that the Defiant once again has a Romulan cloaking device." Riker said, "Is this true?"

Vaughn nodded, "The Star Empire equipped the latest ship with a cloak. They feel that since we're the frontline defence against a resurgent offence by the Dominion that we should have every advantage available."

"That plays in perfectly with my proposal." Riker announced, "My suggestion is that the Obsidian openly enter the Chandillan system. The Defiant would trail us under cloak. Once we were intercepted by the local defensive forces, the Defiant could position herself to best help the Obsidian."

Riker paused before continuing, "The Obsidian would directly negotiate for the prisoners' release. If hostilities broke out then Commander Vaughn's forces could come into play and help even out the odds somewhat."

"Do you have any estimate of the Chandillans' defensive strength?" Kira enquired.

"No." Riker admitted, "Given that this was presumably a Bajoran colony, I'm assuming the worst. Given Bajor's armaments program and the Militia's strength I'd have to estimate that they have somewhere in the neighbourhood of twenty-five vessels."

Vaughn whistled, "If that's true, then we'd be hard pressed if hostilities do break out."

"Pressed but not out of options." Riker countered, "Odds are that the force will be spread out across several systems, patrolling for threats. The home force should be fairly small and the Defiant's opening sneak attack will cripple several ships at the outset. The combined jamming capabilities of both ships should prevent the homeworld from contacting reinforcements."

Vaughn rubbed his chin before grinning, "You've thought this out, Commander."

It was Riker's turn to grin, "I did my best."

Vaughn laced his fingers, "Well, Captain, I think we've heard a workable option."

"But is it the best plan, Commander?" Kira asked.

Vaughn wore a rueful grin, "I came up with the same plan. It seems to maximise our assets without exposing us to unacceptable risk."

Kira considered this for a moment and then nodded once, "I agree. Good luck and may the Prophets be with you."

Kira turned to Ro, "Is Pytor Boromov in protective custody?"

"He's being guarded by personnel that have had no contact with Kara Gena or her accomplices."

"Good." Kira said firmly, "Everyone is dismissed."

Astris paced back in forth. She glanced out of the living area's large window. The sky was brilliant and the city stretched out before her. She wished the beauty could alleviate her nerves. Kara had been gone for almost an hour now and she was sorely tempted to exit and go exploring.

Too soon, Astris chided herself, wait until you've gained Gena's trust.

In an effort to establish her credentials as a harmless prisoner Astris had listened to Kara's endless assurances of her safety and a promise from Kara that she would not allow any of the "honoured guests" to come to harm. The saddest part of it was that Astris believed her. Her being in Kara's flat ran contrary to Garane's wishes.

In the end, Astris had comforted Kara. They'd gone to bed and enjoyed a bout of lovemaking that was nearly frightening in its intensity. The raw honesty that came with all of their secrets being laid bare opened up a new dimension that enthralled Astris. Their relationship had a reached a new pinnacle. Astris was loathe to destroy it with her newfound secret.

I must, Astris reminded herself, no matter what it costs me personally. I must gather my wits about me and seize the first available opportunity to escape.

Resolved, Astris began striding for the front door when it suddenly opened. Kara breezed in and radiantly smiled, "I just spoke with Proconsul Garane. Your being here has been authorised."

Astris frowned, "And if it hadn't?"

"You'd be here anyway." Kara replied, "Or aboard our ship."

"You have access to a ship?" Hope rose within Astris' heart.

"Of course." Kara laughed, "Don't you remember?"

"I didn't see much of it." Astris dryly reminded Kara, "What type is it?"

"It's a Q-ship." Kara answered, "We took a stock Nue Yards freighter and converted her into a gunship."

Astris reflected on that. The Nue Yards were Bajor's largest shipbuilding concern. Nue Efram was most likely the most prosperous person on Bajor. His favour had created other, lesser commercial empires.

The conversion had to have taken place away from Bajor. Astris inquired as to where the work had been done. Kara promptly informed her that the modifications and refit had been done at Morrifate.

Astris was aghast. Morrifate was the primary supplier of raiders to the Orion Syndicate and independent pirate captains. Outside of the Federation, Starfleet was hamstrung as to what to do. The Federation Council had imposed a trade embargo but it was next to useless since illegitimate concerns financed Morrifate's shipyards.

"They're criminals!" Astris protested.

Kara shrugged, "They were quite accommodating."

"Of course they were accommodating!" Astris shouted, "Latinum is latinum after all. You couldn't go to a legitimate shipyard because, after all, how can you legitimise a damned illegal operation?"

To her credit, in Astris' opinion, Kara wavered for an instant before replying, "It is a legitimate operation in the eyes of my government. Chandilla is my homeworld, Beru. It is more of a home to me than Bajor ever was. After experiencing life in the Federation I'll admit that some of its views are provincial but it's where I came from."

"Came from?" Astris repeated.

Kara squirmed, "I made my home with you, Beru. I don't want to leave your side."

"Are you certain you haven't already?" Astris asked.

"I hope I haven't." Kara's voice quavered slightly.

"You'll have to choose." Astris predicted, "Before this is over you'll have to make a choice between me and this life."

"Please," Kara pleaded in a whisper, "don't force me to."

Astris closed the distance between them and gently stroked Kara's cheek, "It's inevitable, my love."

A single tear trickled down Kara's cheek. She forced herself to remain calm despite the roiling emotions tearing her apart. Suppressing her fervent desire to sob, she spoke in an emotionless tone.

"Things are happening in the dormitory. You're needed."

Astris sighed. Her hopes were quashed. She'd seen the indecision in Kara's eyes and had momentarily felt her estranged partner would choose her over the madness of the Chandillan position. Now it seemed her anticipation was in vain. She wearily followed Kara out into the corridor and to the lift.

When Kara and Astris arrived, the dormitory was in chaos. Dozens of planetary leaders had arrived during Astris' absence. Gelt bristled when he saw Astris arrive but he remained where he was, content to unleash sullen stares. The entire room was centred on four figures.

During the planetary night, Gant Delane and the three Terran presidents had arrived. The beleaguered Federation President was in a defensive posture as a score of various sentients tried to push their way past Wynter, Parsons and Schrieber. Astris noted that Kirov was removed from the throng and was sadly shaking his head.

Astris dove into the crowd and waded through it. Reaching the human presidents she turned and began shouting at the encroaching, panicked public officials. She punched the closest leader in the nose. Next, she slapped the Duchess of Palegonia across the face. The crowd subsided and gave her room.

"Look at you!" Astris shouted, "You're like a nest of Cardassian voles salivating over a piece of detritus. If your constituents could see you now, what would they think?"

"The lady is right." Kirov called from the rear, "You're making fools of yourselves. Let the man have room and he'll set aside time to meet with you later."

The crowd began to disperse. They spread out across the common area and took seats at the tables or stood milling about. Astris turned and faced Delane. The three humans had dropped their arms and the Edosian was able to extend one of his hands in friendship. Astris accepted it.

Delane smiled, "My thanks Minister."

"I'm only doing what and ex-Starfleet officer would do, Mr. President." Astris grinned and wiped a strand of hair out of her eyes.

"Quite effectively I'd say." Delane chuckled.

"Hello." Amelia Wynter thrust out her hand, "I don't think we've ever been introduced. I'm Amelia Wynter."

Astris shook her hand, "The esteemed President of Earth. Yes, I know who you are. I'm Astris Beru."

Schrieber came next, "Korista Schrieber. Call me Kori. I think you've earned the privilege."

Astris laughed, "Only if you call me Beru."

Schrieber smiled ear to ear, "It's a deal."

Parsons approached, "I'll admit I'm impressed. Drake Parsons is the name."

"That name is attached to a purported ladies' man." Astris wore a wry smile.


"You're not my type." Astris replied.

"I can become your type." Parsons assured her.

"Not without a sex change operation." Astris dryly revealed.

The rest of the entourage laughed and Parsons shook his head, "That's a little more extreme than I'm willing to go."

"Too bad." Astris said mischievously, "I think you'd make a handsome woman."

"'Handsome' would be the word for it." Parsons muttered.

"Say," Delane was staring at the entrance, "isn't that your Legal Minister?"

"Yes," Astris said forlornly, "it is."

"Is she one of them?" Wynter asked.

"Yes." Astris answered in a dead monotone.

"You and she are, were, close." Wynter added.

"Yes." came the monotone reply.

Kirov approached and interceded, "Our dear Beru is utilising her romantic relationship with Minister Kara to affect an escape."

"A dangerous gambit." Delane commented, "The personal cost may be more than you're willing to pay."

"I'm not sure how much I'm willing to pay for our freedom." Astris admitted, "If Kara is willing to help then we have a future. Opposition will only breed resentment."

That caused a lull in the conversation. Kirov recovered first and took Wynter's hand, "My dearest Amelia, so good to see you again."

Wynter indulgently smiled, "You have always been a charmer, Vladimir."

Kirov sighed, "For all the good it does me."

"Vlad, your wife and I are friends." Wynter lectured, "You two may have an open marriage but I'm not quite that liberal."

"Too bad." Kirov murmured.

"How is it you've never come on to me?" Schrieber queried Kirov.

"Your tastes are a little wild even for me. I prefer one on one encounters not pluralistic sexual extravaganzas."

"You're no fun." Schrieber pouted.

"Can we focus people?" Delane asked, "One of our captors is giving Ms. Astris venomous looks and her Legal Minister is approaching."

Astris turned and falsely smiled, "Gena, come meet the Federation President."

Kara smiled with genuine delight, "Mr. President. I'm so honoured to have you here."

"An invitation usually works, Minister." Delane dryly remarked.

Kara blushed, "Hopefully you will soon learn why we had to take the steps we did to insure your presence."

"We'll see." Delane said noncommittally.

"Is there anything I can get you?" Kara asked.

"Yes." Wynter replied, "You can get us a flight out of here."

"You'll have the opportunity to leave after Proconsul Garane explains our proposal."

"She'd better hurry." Schrieber declared, "I've got a Prime Minister that's going to wreak havoc in my absence."

"Same here." Parsons agreed, "Myers has always wanted my job. Even though I've already got a Vice President she'll try and take over."

"I'll see what the Proconsul intends and get back to you." Kara assured them. Turning to Astris, she said, "If Jern gives you any trouble let me know and I'll deal with him."

Astris nodded, "I will. Hurry back."

Kara beamed, "I will. Trust me."

As Kara walked away Astris whispered, "If only I could."

"We're entering orbit." The Helm Officer reported.

Makra swivelled to face him, "Assume standard orbit. Communications, alert the Proconsul's office and inform her that her last honoured guest has arrived."

"Yes, ma'am."

Makra hit her comm badge, "Makra to Nelos."

"Nelos here." came the disembodied reply.

"Bring our guest to the transporter room." Makra ordered, "I'll join you there shortly."

"How many pieces do you want him in?" Nelos asked.

"Only one." Makra chuckled.

"Too bad." Nelos sulked.

"Poor baby." Makra said consolingly, "Get a move on."

"Yes, Captain. Nelos out."

Makra, Nelos and Macen beamed to the central courtyard before the Tower of Cooperation. Macen observed the statues. Their depictions weren't surprising since he'd witnessed the unity of the Bajorans and Cardassians aboard Makra's ship. The level of trust between them was indicative of a common cause.

"Impressive, is it not?" Makra playfully enquired.

"It's a laudable achievement." Macen conceded.

"Move it!" Nelos commanded as she jammed the barrel of her phaser into Macen's back.

"Gently." Makra chided her.

"This is a waste of time." Nelos fumed, "Let's take him straightaway to Interrogation and be done with it. Let the mind probe have him."

"Won't work." Macen predicted.

"The mind probe works on everyone." Nelos sneered, "No one can hide their memories from it."

Macen shrugged, "There's a first time for everything."

Rage threatened to consume Nelos and Makra intervened, "Remember your duty, Jari. The Proconsul wants to personally interview him."

Nelos let out a deep breath, "Come along, Captain Macen. Our Proconsul awaits."

"It'd be my pleasure." Macen said in a chipper voice. Makra led the way and Nelos trailed along. Macen noted everything but he held back on an escape attempt. He wanted to meet this Proconsul and he still had to find a way to help the detainees. Obtaining transportation off of this world was also a must.

So much to do and so little help. Macen mentally sighed.


Chapter Fourteen

T'Kir and Ro met in the station's Security Office. The ongoing repairs to the Obsidian were winding down and the Vulcan was anxious to proceed with their planned insertion into Chandillan space. Ro surveyed T'Kir's emotional state and shook her head.

"How close to falling apart are you?"

T'Kir stopped pacing and shot Ro an incensed look, "I'm fine."

"Rrriiiggghhhttt." Ro drolly remarked, "You forget, I've seen you like this before."

"My telepathy is under control, all right?" T'Kir said defensively.

"I wasn't suggesting otherwise." Ro said calmly, "All I was saying was that you're fraying around the edges."

"My husband has been kidnapped." T'Kir protested, "I think I have a right to worry."

Ro leaned back in her chair and propped her feet up on the desk, "But you yourself said that Brin feels he's in no real danger."

"As far as he knows." T'Kir deadpanned, "He arrived at Chandilla earlier today. They mentioned something about a mind probe."

Ro's feet hit the deck as she lurched forward, "Uh oh."

"What d'you mean ‘uh oh'?" T'Kir demanded.

"It won't work." Ro informed her, "El-Aurian brainwaves are too different for conventional mind probes to work."

"Yeah, I've heard Kort complaining about it." T'Kir shrugged, "What's the big deal?"

My friend Guinan got a concussion one day when the Enterprise was attacked." Ro explained, "I went to see her in Sickbay and they were monitoring her brainwaves. It was weird. I swear to the Prophets that there were two sets of brainwaves."

"Two?" T'Kir repeated.

"Two." Ro affirmed, "One was stronger and the other was like an echo. Dr. Crusher had no idea what to do about it."

"So?" T'Kir asked, "He shows up on monitors. Why wouldn't a mind probe work?"

"Think about it." Ro urged, "A mind probe locks onto and isolates the brainwave pattern and maps it out. How can it track two patterns?"

"Oh." T'Kir realised the implications.

"Add to that the fact that a probe is invasive and a monitor is passive." Ro added, "We have no idea what a probe will do to him."

"We need to leave." T'Kir insisted, "Now!"

Ro held up her hands, "I'm right there with you. Go talk to the engineers."

"Fine." T'Kir huffed and stalked out of the office.

"What've I unleashed?" Ro muttered and made to follow T'Kir.

"Oh, piss off, Tom." T'Kir snapped.

"Look," Riker growled, "I'm giving you one last warning: leave the engineering detail alone."

"They need encouragement." T'Kir protested, "They're slacking off."

"They're doing fine!" Riker yelled. He stepped back and took a deep breath. Releasing it slowly, he visibly relaxed. "Look, the question isn't about their motivation. The question is how schizoid will they be after you're done frinxing up their minds?"

"Y'know," T'Kir canted her head to one side, "you've been cranky ever since you found out that Hannah messed with your memory."

"It was a violation." Riker sighed, "Something about which you have no understanding."

T'Kir frowned, "Tom, somethin's gotta be done! These people are walking around like they're knee deep in shuk."

"What seems to be the problem?" Vaughn asked from behind the pair.

"My employer is trying to find new ways of motivating the troops." Riker said sourly.

"Using her vaunted telepathic powers, no doubt." Vaughn surmised.

"Got a problem with that?" T'Kir challenged.

"As a matter of fact, I do." Vaughn replied in steely tones.

T'Kir's eyes narrowed and then they widened, "You're using a Vulcan mental defence."

"Taught to me by a colleague named T'Prynn." Vaughn said with a tight smile, "Perhaps you've heard of her?"

Macen had spoken highly of T'Prynn. A Starfleet Intelligence Officer, T'Prynn had first made her mark as the mastermind behind the Vanguard station's security. Later, she moved to Special Operations and came to know Vaughn. Vaughn's daughter, Prynn, was named after the infamous Vulcan.

"Yeah," T'Kir grudgingly admitted, "I've heard of her."

"Then you know what kind of obstacles she faced." Vaughn developed his train of thought, "You know that they were similar to yours after a fashion."

"Yeah." T'Kir voice and expression were carefully neutral now.

"She overcame her obstacles and you can to." Vaughn concluded, "Brin raves about you and I'll admit that I've impressed by you in the past. Don't let either of us down now."

"Dammit." T'Kir said forlornly, "There goes my comeback."

"And I was looking forward to it." Vaughn smartly remarked.

"Brin told me you were a wily ol' bugger but I never knew why until now." T'Kir admitted.

"High praise indeed." Vaughn grinned.

"All right," T'Kir relented, "I'll go away peaceably and leave everyone alone."

"I believe Commander Ro is looking for you." Vaughn revealed, "She's on the bridge."

"Okay, okay, I'm going." T'Kir waved her hands in the air as she strode away.

"Thank you, Commander." Riker breathed easily for the first time in ten minutes.

"Not a problem," Vaughn smiled, looking fifty again, "and call me Elias."

"Make it Tom and I will." Riker offered.

"It's a deal, Tom." Vaughn's smile grew.

"I suppose work brought you here." Riker guessed.

"I need to see Nog and then I'll be gone." Vaughn assured Riker.

"He should be with Dracas." Riker supplied, "Let's go find them."

"Lead on."

"Nog?" Vaughn called up the Jeffries tube, "Can you come down here?"

"Sure thing, Commander." The Ferengi Chief of Operations slid down the tube and faced his XO, "How can I help you?"

Vaughn grinned. Nog's youthful enthusiasm was infectious, "How close are you to being done?"

"We just have to finish tuning the matter/antimatter injectors and then we'll be done." Nog happily reported.

"How's Dracas treating you?" Riker asked.

"The Chief?" Nog wondered, "Just great. He said I was the best engineer he'd ever seen for a troll. That's good, right?"

Vaughn barely refrained from laughing, "You'd better brush up on Terran mythology before you decide how to take that particular compliment."

Nog scratched his left lobe, "Uh, okay."

"Get back to work mister." Vaughn ordered, "I'm still expecting you to report to the Defiant's engine room."

"No rest for the wicked." Nog grinned from ear to ear.

"Exactly." Vaughn agreed as the Ferengi began to shimmy back up the tube.

"A troll?" Riker asked mirthfully.

Vaughn nodded, wearing a bemused smile, "You know we've all thought it."

"But to actually say it?"

"I take it you're still breaking Mr. Dracas in?" Vaughn enquired.

"His edges are starting to smooth." Riker admitted, "But every time we think we've crossed a major hurtle something like this crops up."

"Keep the faith, Tom." Vaughn advised, "It's all you can do."

"I sometimes wonder." Riker sighed.

"If I can make it anyone can." Vaughn gripped Riker's shoulder and then began to walk away.

"Bye." Riker called out. Vaughn turned and waved. Having accomplished that, the Starfleet Commander exited the Obsidian's Engine Room.

"I'll be addressing the delegates as soon as I've finished with this meeting." Garane explained to Kara.

Kara grew pensive, "Why is this arrival so important? I thought you'd already greeted all of our guests."

"All but this one." Garane softly laughed, "He is special. He is a member of the Federation's Security forces. His team safely absconded away with Pytor Boromov."

"Then the Federation may already know where we are." A startled Kara blurted out.

Garane steepled her fingers, "Which is why he's here."

The lift chimed and Garane smiled, "Exactly on time. I knew I could count on Makra Nura." Garane released the door with a touch of a control. The slid aside and a Bajoran/Cardassian hybrid exited the lift. She was followed by what appeared to be a human male and a Bajoran woman wielding a phaser.

"Really, Captain, is the phaser necessary?" Garane asked.

Nelos shoved Macen forward, "Yes, it is!"

"Crewman!" Garane's voice was angry, "Stand down! You are dismissed."

"But?" the wounded looking commando stammered.

"Go Jari." Makra said in a subdued voice, "I'll be fine."

Nelos retreated back to the lift and departed. Makra looked to Macen, "Well played."

Macen was all affronted innocence, "What did I do?"

Garane chuckled, "What indeed? Captain Makra states that you have given your name as Brin Macen and that you are the Captain of a privateer survey vessel."

"Correct." Macen affirmed.

Garane was amused, "Giving me the exact answer without letting on to anything else? Why Captain Macen I do believe you've been interrogated before."

"I've been interrogated by Cardassians if that's what you mean." Macen supplied.

"I am not a typical Cardassian, Captain Macen." Garane chided him, "I have been raised in this paradise, this bold experiment into perfection."

"You want perfection?" Macen asked, "Ask the Omicron what their quest for perfection led them to."

"The who?" Garane was baffled by the reference.

Macen ignored the question and turned to Kara, "How's Astris holding up?"

Kara visibly started, " do you know..."

"About Astris?" Macen asked clinically, "I was on Bajor the night you kidnapped her. My team led the investigative effort that brought us to Boromov. We had video footage of your part in the abduction."

"But the sensors were offline." Kara protested.

"The DVRs were still active." Macen explained.

"The whats?" Kara enquired.

"Digital Video Recorders." Macen answered, "They're archaic by our standards but they worked well enough to identify you."

Kara's mouth worked but no sound came out. Macen continued, "How are Sergeant Jared and Corporal Kelv doing? Are they adjusting to ‘paradise'?"

Garane frowned, "You seem awfully well informed. Makra reported that you knew of our biogenic device but not of its contents. What else do you and your associates know?" What gaps in their knowledge are there?"

"They know what I know." Macen informed her.

Garane smirked, "And how would that be? You have no subspace transceiver hidden on your person. You've been denied access to our communications equipment so there is no way you could have relayed a message to your compatriots. Tell me what I want to know! Did Boromov retain his knowledge of our location?"

"I have no idea." Macen replied.

"You're lying." Garane said grimly.

Macen shrugged, "Boromov did not disclose the whereabouts of Chandilla in my presence. Captain Makra had to tell me the planet's name. I still do not know its location. As you said, I've been cut off from my crew so how would I know what Boromov has revealed to them?"

Garane stared Macen in the eye, "I can still see deception in your eyes."

Macen intently stared back, "There's nothing more I can tell you."

"We shall see." Garane decided, "You will sit in with the delegates as I make the first of our proposals to them. Afterwards, you can decide if we truly are your enemy."

Garane turned to Kara, "Go. Herald my arrival." Turning to Makra, she added, "Take Captain Macen to the Thirty-Fourth Floor dormitory."

Makra bowed her head, "Yes, Proconsul." Makra took Macen by the arm and led him to the lift. Kara held the door for them while they entered. She then stepped into the lift and rode down with the pair.

As the lift descended, Macen tried to appeal to her, "Minister Kara, it doesn't have to be this way."

Kara bitterly laughed, "Of course it does."

"I saw Astris' reaction to your arrival in her room. She was confused but more than that, she gazed upon you with eyes filled with love. Not just affection or infatuation but honest to the Prophets love. It's not too late to save that."

The lift stopped and Kara whirled on Macen, "What do you know about anything?"

"I know how you feel about it." Macen calmly replied. His eyes met Kara's and he held their gaze, "I know how conflicted you are over holding her. Let go. Release her and be done with it. Maybe you can preserve your relationship."

"And the others?" Kara demanded, "You?"

Macen shrugged, "That's a matter of conscience. Do what you need to do and be at peace about it."

Kara looked uncertain. She cocked her head to one side, "That's an odd way to beg."

Macen slowly shook his head, "You misunderstood. I'm not worried about me. One way or another I'll be all right. I'm worried about you."

"Well, don't be." Although she projected confidence, Macen could feel her turmoil festering under the placid surface, "I'll be all right no matter what happens."

"Even if Beru rejects you after this?" Macen hated to ask.

Kara looked stricken. Anger welled up and she slapped Macen across the face, "Stay out of my affairs! Beru and I will be fine. We'll be stronger than ever. You'll see."

"I hope so." Macen admitted despite the intense stinging brought on by her augmented strength, "For your sake I truly do."

Makra cleared her throat, "Milady?"

"Yes?" Kara snapped.

"You're both due at the dormitory."

Kara looked crushed. "Bring him." she instructed in a resigned voice.

"Ma'am?" the Ops Watch Officer said to Kira as the Captain emerged from her office, "Both the Defiant and the Obsidian are requesting departure clearance."

Kira nodded as she came down the steps into Ops, "Grant it. Secure prioritised transit rights through the system and send them on their way."

"Already done, Ma'am." the young Benzite officer beamed.

"Good work, Lieutenant." Kira smiled, "Send one last message along to them."

"Hailing frequencies are open, Ma'am."

"Good luck." Kira transmitted, "May the Prophets watch over you."

Macen's arrival had caused quite a stir amongst the captive "delegates". The crowded around him and demanded to know which world he represented. Gant Delane ended the speculations by announcing that Macen was one of the Federation President's special advisors. Delane herded Macen to the rear of the room, along with his inner circle of conspirators, and began to interrogate Macen.

"Captain Macen," Delane grinned, "I'm surprised to see you here. Delighted but surprised."

"I'm a little surprised myself, Mr. President." Macen admitted.

"Pardon me for asking," Kirov interrupted, "but who is this?"

Delane waved two of his three arms up and down over Macen's form, "This, Premier Kirov, is Captain Brin Macen, an operative of Starfleet's very own Special Investigation Division."

Kirov rubbed his chin, "I thought they were a myth."

The Edosian chuckled good naturedly, "Hardly. Macen here was one of those responsible for there being a Presidency to be elected to."

"My team and I played a very small role." Macen insisted.

"Not according to the chief architect of our government's salvation." Delane's grin grew wider, "Bob Johnson tells me that you were invaluable."

"Admiral Johnson is very kind." Macen replied, "He gives credit even to those that least deserve it."

"Then what about Admirals Nechayev and Drake?" Delane gave Macen a canny look, "They have also sung your praise in my presence. Of course, they've also cursed your name a time or two."

A wry grin spread across Macen's face, "I can imagine."

"So what is the plan?" Delane asked with delight.

Macen was confused, "What plan, sir?"

"The escape plan." Delane elaborated.

"There isn't one." Macen's announcement might as well have been a pronouncement of death. He quickly amended his statement, "There isn't one yet. My ship and the USS Defiant are on their way even now to affect a rescue."

"How can you be sure?" Parsons asked.

"I'm still in contact with a member of my crew." Macen quietly revealed.

"When will they arrive?" Astris eagerly asked.

"Another twenty-two hours or so." Macen whispered.

Schrieber opened her mouth to ask a question but Kara cut her off, "Attention Ladies and Gentlebeings. Proconsul Garane, duly appointed civic leader of Chandilla and Chairperson of the Genetics Council, will now be addressing you. Please find a seat."

Murmuring to itself, the crowd found seats and faced the opposite wall as the entrance to the dormitories. A large viewer was located above the speaker's head and a logo appeared on it for the first time. It was a Bajoran spiritual symbol fused into a Cardassian military symbol.

While the whispers raged, Garane softly entered the chamber and took Kara's place at the head of the room. She waited patiently for the noise to quell. Finally, with a swat to the head from a fellow "delegate", the last speaker fell silent. Garane radiated poise and confidence as she faced the expectant, and irritated, crowd.

Garane had changed out of the mundane robes she'd worn in her office. Now she was bedecked in crushed burgundy velvet and white lace. Her dress reminded Macen of Terran fashions from the 1700s.

Garane's eyes swept the room. They rested on each individual for a moment before fluttering off to another guest. Her smile was warm and benign. After visually "greeting" every participant in this impromptu conference, she spoke.

"For those of you that need a reminder, or a fuller introduction, my name is Illa Garane. I am the leader of this world. You have been brought here to hear our offer and then you will be free to go."

Silence loomed and Garane's smile fully bloomed, "You will note that I said ‘offer' not demands. We have no demands to make except that you be here and listen to what we propose."

The screen shifted images and a solar system was now depicted, "One hundred years ago, the first Bajoran settlers arrived on this world and claimed it for their own. They built a thriving agrarian world that supported over two thousand settlers. Sixty years ago, the Cardassians reached these ‘shores' and a choice was made."

"Conquest was not a choice." Garane declared, "Rather, the method for building a lasting cooperative union between Bajor and Cardassia was at issue. The scientific leader of the expedition won the debates and modern Chandillan society was born. The Bajorans welcomed the Cardassian arrivals and listened to their proposals. In the end, the goals of unity and genetic perfection were endorsed by both sides."

"Cloning techniques were introduced as well as gene sequencing and selective breeding programs." Garane described, "It was your attitudes against such practices that made us approach you covertly rather than with an open diplomatic mission. Your prejudices dictated what actions we were to take."

There was grumbling at that and Garane laughed, "I've forgotten! Your society knows no faults. You are beyond such things as simple prejudices...yet you are willing to stand in judgement before me and my kind before we've been given the chance to speak in our own defence."

"Let us set aside our differences and focus on what we, as a society, can offer you." Garane happily offered, "Our people have not known war or violence for one hundred years. Our leaders are specifically chosen for their ability and their non-violent views."

"You have just come through a turbulent division of your ranks and are still struggling to heal all the wounds between you." Garane was intently focused now, "We can help. Create a new advisory committee, one that speaks both to your Executive and your Legislative branches, and we will assist you in overcoming these unstable days. We want to help, just allow us!"

Stunned silence met her words and Garane bowed her head, "Discuss it amongst yourselves. I will be back tomorrow to discuss matters with you again."

Garane exited the chamber and Kara approached Astris, "Coming?"

"I'd rather stay here and mull over what's been presented." Astris replied.

Kara was crestfallen but she recovered herself well, "As it should be. That's why you're here."

"Find me later." Astris urged.

Kara nodded, "I'll be back later."

Kara made it to the door then gave Astris one last lingering look before exiting. Macen smiled. He didn't know what Astris was doing but between her actions and his words, Kara was crumbling.


Chapter Fifteen

With Forger and the Gamma shift in command of the ship, the SID team was free to meet with Ro in the Main Briefing Room. Ro sat in Macen's usual spot at the head of the table. It was a calculated move and it had the desired effect.

As the team members finally settled down, Ro spoke, "All right people. You all know who I am. Just as a reminder, in case you've forgotten, I'm Macen's former commander in the Maquis. Forget about my position as Chief of Security back on the station. I'm on emergency leave from Starfleet and as such I'm operating as a civilian."

Ro bared her teeth, "Basically, I'm a Maquis again." Ro let her words sink in before continuing, "Given my past, and my ongoing relationship with Brin, I'm assuming command of the Investigative Team. I'll be planning the extraction of your Captain and the hostages."

This announcement was met with general stirring and a couple of murmurs. Ro raised a hand to quiet the group down, "I've reached this decision with the consent of both Tom Riker and T'Kir. I know I've never worked with most of you but I'm sure we can get along. I survived the Cardassians and the Jem'Hadar. I think my résumé speaks for itself. Any comments or questions?"

"Why the sudden involvement?" Daggit asked, "The Captain once offered you a position with the team and you turned him down. What makes you want to help us now?"

"I owe Brin Macen." Ro admitted, "He's saved my life and the lives of other good men and women dozens of times. I didn't accept his invitation to join this team because it's his team. He would have had me lead the team when it's rightfully his baby. I wouldn't let him do that to himself."

"But..." Radil started to say.

T'Kir interrupted her, "Ro can do the job. Brin, Lisea and I owe our lives to this woman's leadership. She overcame odds we haven't faced yet and she did it on a daily basis. We're lucky to have her."

"If I may," Danan said and all eyes turned to her, "I trust Ro implicitly with my life. Brin learned how to command at her feet. T'Kir's right. We're fortunate that she's here. She won't lead us astray."

"So what's your proposed game plan?" Daggit inquired.

"First I'll let Tom describe our approach strategy since that's his brainchild." Ro deferred to Riker's presence.

"...and so, we'll transport a party to the surface and let them scout out the locations of the various prisoners." Riker finished explaining.

"Which is where I come in." Ro took over the briefing, "We'll descend in the runabout and greet the locals in person."

"Not that I mind flying the Corsair," Grace piped up, "but why utilise a runabout when we can presumably use the transporter?"

"Because we need the runabout's sensors to ascertain the whereabouts of the hostages." Ro explained.

"Oh." Grace said with dawning realisation.

"Do we try and rescue the hostages right then?" Radil enquired.

"No." Ro answered, "The first visit to the surface is strictly a scouting mission. Our second descent will be a rescue operation."

"`Bout time." Radil grumbled.

"Your presence on this mission is optional." Ro coldly replied. Radil's surprise was palpable. Ro continued, "The extraction team will be composed of the SID with the exception of Tom...and Radil if she refuses to participate. Tom will remain aboard to command the Obsidian. Grace will fly the runabout and Lisea will provide sensor coverage. The rest of you will comprise the scouting team."

Of course," Ro wore a wry smile, "the actual extraction plan will depend upon our sensor readings."

Kort nodded his approval, "Sensible."

"I'm glad you approve." Ro dryly remarked.

"I think we need to focus on our goal." Dracas suggested, "We are rescuing the Captain and the various hostages. That is tantamount. All of your petty concerns must be set aside in order for this to happen."

All eyes were on Dracas as he continued, "Ro is capable. She claims authority in this matter and I see no reason to deny her the opportunity to lead us to victory."

A tense moment of silence followed. Finally, Daggit cleared his throat, "I didn't mean to sound critical."

"I did!" Radil chimed. Grace backhanded her arm and Daggit shot her an annoyed glare.

"What it boils down to is this: what would the Captain have us do?" Riker spoke.

Daggit met T'Kir's eyes, "Is this what he would want?"

"Yup." she confidently replied.

"I'm satisfied." Daggit announced.

"I'm not." Radil snorted, "What gives you the rimmfff!"

Grace held her hand over Radil's mouth, "She's happy too."

Radil swatted Grace's hand aside, "Like hell I am! You're all determined to do this though, aren't you?"

Everyone nodded and Radil blew out a long breath, "Fine. I'm with you too."

"I can see where Brin learned his authority structure from." Ro deadpanned, "I suppose I should have told him I just making it up as I went."

"He knew." T'Kir bubbled.

"We all did." Danan voiced.

"Hell," Ro grumbled, "There goes the mystique of infallibility."

"We love you because you're one of us grunts, Laren." T'Kir happily said.

"Small comfort that." Ro said sourly.

"All right," Riker clapped his hands together, "everyone's dismissed. It's time to grab a meal."

Kara returned to the dormitory housing the Federation delegates and found it in chaos. Delane had taken Garane's previous spot at the head of the room and was fielding comments and questions from the various planetary leaders. The orderlies watching the room seemed amused by the proceedings. She also noted that Macen kept himself aloof from the discourse.

She made her way across the back of the room and came to rest beside Macen, who leaned against the back wall. He'd noted her presence but had not betrayed his reaction with so much as a flicker in his eyes. He studied the proceedings and seemed vaguely disgusted with what was occurring.

"Something the matter?" Kara whispered as she leaned up next to him.

"Besides the fact that I'm a prisoner?" Macen queried her in reply.

"You'll be released as soon as they are." Kara assured him.

"What happens when you receive an answer you don't like?" Macen turned his head to face her.

The General Manager of Tellar began to shout at Delane and Kara winced, "You don't think they'll seriously consider Proconsul Garane's proposal?"

"No." Macen said with an air of finality.

Kara winced despite herself, "You don't know. How can you be so certain?"

"Garane's comments regarding genetic prejudices are right on target." Macen elaborated, "They see the genetically enhanced as megalomaniacal supermen. Their collective experiences with such types have been universally bad."

"But we're a stable society." Kara protested, "Bred out of careful, clinical study."

"I'm not the one that needs convincing." Macen reminded her, "They need to see your society at work. Show them practical examples of how Chandilla functions and you may prove your case."

Kara smiled, "I'll go talk to the Proconsul. Thank you."

Macen merely graced her with a dry expression and shooed her along. Kara shuffled out of the chamber and disappeared. Macen briefly wondered if he shouldn't have given Kara the suggestion. He dismissed his doubts with a shrug. A glimpse into daily life here in this genetically manufactured "paradise" would prove to be the doing or undoing of Garane's proposals.

"We should arming ourselves and escaping from here rather than arguing amongst ourselves." Grozik of Tellar loudly declared.

"Finally," Arlos Gannet, the Chancellor of Alpha Centauri, proclaimed, "a Tellarite with no stomach for arguments."

"Come over here human and see what I have the stomach for!" Grozik bellowed.

Gannet held up his hands, "Geez, Grozik, learn to relax. It was a joke. You know...a jo-oke."

"Spare me your humour." Grozik grumbled, "We need a plan."

"We have a plan in motion." Delane announced, "Our plan is to wait for Starfleet to arrive and extract us."

"That could take forever." Grozik whined.

"Patience friend Grozik." Hirjin Jant, the Governor of Risa, urged, "Perhaps we can accomplish two things while we wait."

"Like what?" Grozik snapped.

"We can learn more about our abductors and we can also seriously discuss their proposal." Jant elaborated.

"Their proposal is ludicrous!" Grozik laughed.

"I think it has merit but we need to know more about these people to see if they're ready for such a heady responsibility." Jant pressed his point.

"Are you insane?" Grozik barked. Echoes of this sentiment washed over the crowd. Jant wilted and sat down. Delane called for order.

"The proposal has merit." he announced to the stunned audience, "But I suggest we table any such discussion until tomorrow. Are there any further comments or suggestions?"

Delane's tone and demeanour indicated that the UFP President was in no mood to hear them if there were. None of the assembled "delegates" chose to risk Delane's ire. Everyone broke into pockets of discussion. Some flitted from group to group, gathering what the consensus was. Most contented themselves with their comrades in opinion.

A few souls approached Delane for a private conference. He graciously took them back to his assigned quarters and entertained them there. Meanwhile Kirov, Wynter, Parsons, Schrieber, Astris and Macen crowded into Wynter's room.

Kirov sat on the bed and sighed, "So close yet so far away."

Wynter swatted him upside the head, "Get off."

"If only I could." he said wistfully.

Wynter chuckled, "You're impossible."

Kirov's eyes twinkled, "I'm simply a naughty boy."

"No," Wynter countered, "you're..."

"If we could focus?" Astris interrupted the bantering, "Captain Macen, what did Kara have to say to you?"

Macen shrugged, "She wanted to know how the discussions were going. I told her they were stymied and suggested that the delegates be allowed to explore Chandilla tomorrow."

"She agreed to that?" Astris was astounded.

"She went off to discuss it with Garane." Macen informed her, "She was quite focused."

"She usually is." Astris broke into a wry grin.

"Your strategy is working." Macen suddenly said.

"My strategy?" Astris asked.

"Forcing Kara to choose between the Chandillan cause and you." Macen explained, "She's still trying to engineer a favourable resolution for her people but her connection to you is what grounds her. When the time comes, she'll choose you."

Astris studied Macen for a moment, seeing him in a new light, "Despite appearances, you're not human are you?"

Macen broke into a mischievous grin, "'Fraid not."

"Betazoid?" Astris guessed.

"El-Aurian." Macen revealed, grin intact.

"I've heard rumours regarding the mythical abilities of the El-Aurian refugees but I never believed them until now." Astris admitted.

Parsons took a renewed interest in Macen, "Can you really see the future?"

"Despite what you may be hoping," Macen's grin grew wider, "Astris and Kara will remain together and Astris won't be seeking solace from you."

Parsons blushed a bright crimson and Schrieber elbowed him in the ribs, "Never say die, eh Drake?"

Wynter folded her arms across her chest, "Lucky guess. How can you be certain Kara will remain true to Beru?"

Macen shrugged, "It's a matter of probabilities. It's more likely that course of action will be pursued than the contrary path."

"So you're gambling?" Wynter asked.

Kirov chuckled darkly, "I'd believe him if I were you. I met up with an El-Aurian. He was an unrepentant confidence artist but he was also the shrewdest gambler I'd ever met. Claimed he could read the probable course of events. I believed him."

Kirov intently stared at Macen, "I believe this one as well."

Macen took a bow, "Thank you for the vote of confidence."

"Don't thank me yet." Kirov waved the gratitude aside, "Just don't be wrong."

"All right, Mr. Secret Agent Man," Schrieber struck a similar pose as Wynter, "do you have any thoughts on escape?"

"A few." Macen cagily admitted.

"Let's hear them." Schrieber demanded.

Macen turned to Astris, "A lot of this depends upon you. Are you prepared?"

"I'm prepared for anything." Astris promised.

Macen wore a sad smile, "We'll see."

"Come." Garane called out to the computer as she ran a brush through her raven tresses. She had shed her gown and put on a nightgown and a robe. The nightie resembled a slip and was black. Her robe was a rich burgundy. The combination, on her enhanced physique, was stunning.

The door to her flat slid aside and Kara stood revealed. Brightening, Garane ushered her in.

"Don't just stand there, Gena, come in." Garane beckoned for her to approach.

Kara uncomfortably entered the space. Garane's quarters were both spacious and lavish. Taking up one entire floor of the tower, the flat rested directly beneath the Proconsul's office. Garane motioned for Kara to take a seat in front of the faux fireplace. It was scene Kara remembered all too well.

"Gena," Garane scolded, "what we had was wonderful but it's well and truly over so relax for Prophets' sake."

The tension in Kara's shoulders eased, "Sorry, Illa. It's just that with having my own relationship being so turbulent right now and this place is filled with memories."

"Fond memories I hope." Garane laughed.

Kara fervently nodded, "Of course they are."

"So totally relax and tell me what brings you to my door." Garane's smile was full of affectionate warmth.

Kara hesitated and Garane's smile blossomed, "You've never had trouble speaking your mind before so spill it."

"It's about tomorrow." Kara said with renewed confidence, "Why don't we take the delegates out into the city and the farmlands so they can get a better idea how we function as a society. These visits should allow them to freely walk around and contact whomever they desire so they can see that we're a free, open and functional society."

"Kara, that's brilliant!" Garane's smile was dazzling, "Why didn't I think of that?"

"I only wish I had." Kara admitted.

Garane was puzzled, "If you didn't then who did? Was it your lovely Astris?"

Kara shook her head, "It was the privateer captain, Macen."

Garane's smile twisted, "He's a shrewd one, our Captain Macen."

Kara frowned, "What do you mean?"

"I accessed the Federation's DataNet." Garane said with a conspiratorial air, "I researched our dear Mr. Macen."

"And?" Kara hated being left in suspense.

"He is a privateer as he claimed." Garane revealed, "He owns a highly prestigious, if small, security consulting service. Macen himself, and his ship, are exclusively contracted to an unknown party. Based upon his presence on Magna VII, it's obvious who his employer is."

"Starfleet." Kara deduced.

"It's also obvious that they won't take the capture of one of their operatives lightly." Garane remarked.

"He may be expendable." Kara opined, "Plausible deniability and all that."

"Perhaps." Garane chewed on the tip of her forefinger. It was her favourite nervous habit. "Perhaps not." she surmised, "Based upon Jern Gelt's report of how easily Macen ingratiated himself with Gant Delane, I'm willing to wager that Macen is no ordinary operative."

"Are you certain that you can rely upon Gelt's report?" Kara asked, "His recent behaviour has been erratic."

"Gelt may be a lovesick fool," Garane chuckled, "but he's observant."

Kara bit her lip, "I may have to kill him. If he touches Beru again, I will."

Garane pondered this and then nodded, "Do what you have to. Gelt is useful but he can't allow his personal feelings to interfere with the mission."

"Thank you, Illa." Kara heaved a sigh of relief.

"So what are your plans when this is over?" Garane asked, "Will you return to Chandilla or will you remain on Bajor?"

"If Beru will still have me, I'll remain on Bajor." Kara answered then chuckled darkly, "Of course, I'll have to step down from my post as Legal Minister."

"Won't they imprison you?" Garane worried.

"Perhaps for a time." Kara shrugged, "If Beru will wait for me it will be easy to endure a penal colony for a season."

Garane sighed, "If only I'd captured your heart as effectively."

"Surely there's somebody in your life?" Kara asked.

"Well," Garane coyly replied, "there is a certain vedek."

"What's his or her name?" Kara demanded to know.

"His name is Vetris Yul." Garane said sheepishly, "He's wonderful. He's kind, attentive, gentle and most of all, not intimidated by rank."

"Sounds perfect." Kara was delighted for her old friend, "Tell me everything. How did you meet?"

"In the central market." Garane answered, "I had gone to..."


Chapter Sixteen

Astris helped Kara turn down the bed. She was restless. Thoughts of what Macen had asked her to do filled her mind. She knew she was ill at ease with what had been asked of her.

More than that, she realised, my soul is troubled.

"Beru," Kara was worried, "what's wrong?"

Oh, hell. Here goes. A downcast Astris thought. Aloud she said, "I want to go back to the dormitory."

"Why?" Kara was honestly perplexed.

"I can't do this anymore." Astris declared, "You've betrayed me, Bajor, and us. I can't stand the thought of being with you. Please take me back."

Kara was anguished and it tore Astris apart, "Beru! Please! Gelt will kill you in the morning."

"Better him than you." Astris tore her partner's heart out.

"There has to be something...something I can do to prove myself to you?" Kara pleaded.

"Let us go." Astris said coolly and calmly.

"Wh..what?" Kara was dumbfounded.

"Let the hostages go, Gena." Astris declared, "At the very least let Gant Delane and I go. That's how you can prove your love."

Kara began to cry, "Don't ask me to do this."

"I have to ask." Astris insisted, "For the sake of you and I. I don't want to lose you, Gena, but you can't go along with this and expect me to ever trust you again. Without trust, what is there in the end?"

Kara was on the verge of sobbing. She reached out towards Astris. Her voice came out as a ragged whisper, "I can't."

"Then take me back to the dormitory." Astris was adamant.

"Beru..." Kara was desperate.

"Now!" Astris almost shouted.

"Tomorrow." Kara gasped through her sobs.

"What?" Astris didn't believe her ears.

"If you still want to go tomorrow then I'll take you." Kara promised.

"What about Delane?" Astris pressed.

"No." Kara found a hidden reserve of strength, "You and I escape, no one else. I can secure a small shuttle that's perfect for two but three would stretch its resources."

"Fine. As soon as we reach Federation space you'll contact Starfleet and tell them how to reach Chandilla and how to free the prisoners." Astris set her terms.

Kara sniffled as she wearily nodded. She wiped her swollen eyes and spoke, "I'll even surrender myself to the authorities on one condition."

Astris was suspicious but she ventured ahead, "Name it."

"We get a second try when I get off the penal colony."

Astris felt a genuine smile creep across her face, "Easily done."

"What about tonight?" Kara asked.

"Oh." Astris had forgotten all about that, "Well, I don't think you should be alone."

"I still love you, Beru." Kara started to cry again.

"And I still love you, Gena." Astris confessed, "I just don't know how far I can trust you."

Kara sat on the edge of the bed and struggled for composure. Astris laid down and patted her chest, "Lie your head here and tomorrow everything will be all right."

Kara laid her head on Astris' chest and continued to weep. Astris gently stroked Kara's head and tried to soothe her. Eventually, Kara's tears dried up and after pulling up the blankets she fell into an exhausted sleep. Astris lay awake and planned tomorrows getaway.

If only you'd come through Gena, Astris held on to that hope with all of her being, If only I can trust you once more.

The next morning found the various planetary leaders finishing up their breakfasts. Most were still drinking their morning beverage of choice when Garane arrived. She retook her previous position at the head of the room and waited for the various murmurs to cease.

"Greetings gentlebeings." she began, "I am seeking volunteers for an excursion outside."

This announcement was met with wary silence so Garane pressed on, "You will travel in groups anywhere you want to go on-planet and be able to see my people in the course of their daily lives."

"But we won't be able to talk to them." Grozik challenged.

"Quite the contrary," Garane's latinum smile was on full display, "You'll be free to talk to whomever you wish."

"But we'll have guards watching over us." Grozik continued his challenge.

"Each group of ten will have two orderlies to assist them." Garane described, "They will be at your disposal."

"I bet." Grozik snorted.

Garane let the comment pass unchallenged, "Once you exit the building, simply tell your guides what you would like to see and we'll arrange for it to happen."

"How do we know the visits will be spontaneous and not prearranged?" Jant asked.

"My people don't know you're coming." Garane said with delight, "Their reactions will be a testament to my culture."

"We'll see." Grozik was heard to grumble.

Garane remained chipper in the face of such intransigence, "Please begin filing out into the corridor. The lifts will carry you to the ground floor. Your escorts are awaiting you."

The crowd hesitated for a moment. Grozik yelled for the others to get out of his way and he charged out into the corridor. The others soon began to follow. Soon, a cluster of people were assembled at the doors waiting for their turn to reach the corridor and the awaiting lifts. Delane and his usual companions still lingered and Garane approached them.

"Do you not wish to partake of a day in the life?" she asked with a bright smile.

"We'll depart when Astris Beru joins us." Delane replied.

"Oh," Garane faltered, "that may prove difficult. Kara Gena took out earlier. They'd expressed a desire to be alone. I trust this won't be inconvenient?"

"No." Delane shook his head, "We'll be on our way then."

"Without Captain Macen, of course." Garane's voice tightened.

"Is there a problem?" Delane enquired.

"Although today's outing is Captain Macen's idea, he won't be partaking in the privilege of inspecting our society first hand." Garane said with resolve.

"This is preposterous!" Delane's umbrage was laid bare, "You want us to trust you but you won't..."

Macen gently placed his hand on Delane's shoulder, silencing him, "It's all right, Mr. President. I'll be fine."

"I have, of course, arranged for the dear Captain to be entertained by a special pair of officers." Garane looked to the door, where Makra Nura and Nelos Jari stood, "Will they prove acceptable?"

Macen brightened, "Of course."

"Those two women are armed." Delane interjected.

"Of course they are." Garane laughed, "Captain Macen is an agent of the Federation, of Starfleet in particular, and you want me to trust him not to seize an opportunity to escape or sabotage our work here?"

Delane wanted to argue but quite frankly he could see her point, "I guess not."

"Of course not." Garane was all smiles again, "If you'd all follow me?"

Delane hesitated. His eyes met Macen's and Macen almost imperceptibly nodded. Still troubled but momentarily satisfied, Delane led his entourage out of the dormitory's main chamber. Garane exchanged greetings with Makra and Nelos and then departed with the Federation party.

Makra and Nelos approached Macen. Nelos wore an ugly sneer, "Still feel safe?"

"Easy, Jari." Makra counselled, "The Proconsul wants him alive and intact."

"Mentally or physically?" Nelos asked.

"Both." Makra warned.

"She's certainly a poster child for genetically enhanced stability." Macen quipped.

Nelos' hand went for her disruptor. Makra stopped her and hissed, "Do it and I'll cut you down myself. There won't be any more warnings."

Nelos growled and broke free from Makra's grip. She stalked off to the opposite side of the chamber. Makra slowly shook her head.

"You're not helping, you know." she scolded Macen.

"Sorry." he said without an ounce of contrition.

"I am worried about her, though." Makra admitted, "She's already been to a re-education camp. One more offence and she'll be shipped off to the penal colony on Algor's third moon."

"Tell me about this penal colony." Macen requested.

Makra cursed, "I know I shouldn't have said anything."

"Too late now." Macen grinned, "I'll find out somehow even if you won't elucidate me."

Makra sighed, "Algor is the largest gas giant in the system. It's a protostar. There's a habitable moon there. It's a ferocious place. It takes a certain kind of individual to survive in that environment. Those that are unable to adapt to the demands of our society are sent there."

"How ‘ferocious' is Algor's moon?" Macen inquired.

"It's a primordial jungle." Makra described, "Myriad lifeforms of every description thrive on Mara's surface."

"Mara?" Macen asked.

"The name of the moon." Makra explained, "The colonists are denied spacefaring technology of any kind. Their tech base is that of a pre-fusion culture."

"Why the restriction?" Macen asked despite already suspecting the answer.

"Those sent to Mara are the...uncontrollable elements of our society. They cannot be allowed to return. We would have to kill them if they attempted to escape." Makra reluctantly answered.

"Let me guess: violent mood swings, megalomania, abnormally heightened intelligence and physical prowess not to mention a half a dozen other side effects. Does that sound right?" Macen's voice was tight.

Makra blinked in surprise, "Yes. But how did you...?"

"Welcome to the fate of every other culture's attempt at genetic engineering." Macen said with a tinge of bitterness, "I'm also willing to bet that the numbers of this type of individual are on the rise."

Makra hesitated and Macen curtly pointed out, "We don't have time for games, Captain. Both our societies are at risk here."

"The eugenics program is breeding individuals with greater capabilities but the genetically engineered are phenomenal." Makra revealed, "Unfortunately the engineering also breeds instability. The current ratio of successful engineering efforts lies around fifty percent."

"How many exiles are there on Mara?" Macen asked with dawning horror.

"Close to seven thousand." Makra woefully admitted, "That's accounting for all sixty years of the engineering efforts."

"And the numbers are growing every year because your geneticists insist upon expanding their engineering efforts." It was a statement, not a question.

Makra sadly nodded and whispered, "Yes." She lifted her eyes and faced Macen, "Now you know our secret shame."

Macen put a hand to her shoulder and squeezed, "I've heard worse."

Makra gratefully gazed at him, "You're being awfully understanding. I thought the Federation hated genetic engineering."

"They do." Macen confessed, "But I wasn't born or raised in the Federation."

"Then where...?" Makra faltered.

"This isn't even my native quadrant." Macen revealed, "I'm an El-Aurian."

Makra nodded with new understanding, "I've heard rumours about your kind. I thought you were mythical."

"Woefully short numbered but very real, Captain Makra." Macen grinned.

"Please," Makra actually blushed, "call me Nura."

"I'd be honoured." Macen admitted, "I'm Brin."

"So," Makra coyly began, "what is the life of a secret agent like?"

"You should know better than me." Macen's grin grew, "I'm just a humble privateer. Most of my contracts revolve around convoy duty."

"Liar." Makra laughed, "I've seen your corporate file as well as your public Starfleet record. You're either a covert operative for Starfleet or I'm an Andorian."

"So what's the weather like on Andor this time of year?" Macen teased.

Makra cuffed his shoulder, "You don't lie very well."

Macen shrugged, "What does it matter? Your mind is made up already."

"There's still room for doubt." Makra admitted, "Not much room, though, given how easily you spotted my troops on Magna VII."

"Could've happened to anyone." Macen breezily dismissed the notion.

"And we were pursued by a Starfleet starship during our escape." Makra's eyes twinkled.

"A science ship." Macen pointed out, "A civilian model surveyor available to any organisation with the proper licenses."

Makra placed her fists on her hips and held her arms akimbo, "How long are you going to maintain the pretence that you aren't an agent of Starfleet?"

"I am a licensed private investigator." Macen admitted, "Starfleet happens to be one of my clients."

"You have an exclusive contract." Makra tapped Macen on the chest with her forefinger.

Macen shrugged, "So Starfleet is my only client. The rest of Outbound Ventures works on an individual, bid by bid basis."

"And what kind of work does Starfleet have for a private investigator?" Makra demanded to know.

"Informal inquiries. Light protection work. Convoy duty." The last was said with a sigh, "Anything Starfleet doesn't want to get officially involved in."

"Like securing a potential witness?" Makra smirked.

"Now that is something the fleet would love to do." Macen happily said.

"Boromov once mentioned a special unit that attempted to shut down his operations. Afterwards, he enlisted in the effort to restore the Federation and earned a pardon for his gunrunning. He said that special unit was also part of that effort. Would you know anything about this?" Makra wore a predatory smile.

"How would I?" Macen asked, "I was busy trying to keep my company afloat. My ship was busy guarding convoys during the confusion that the coup wrought."

"So your company information states." Makra conceded, "I don't believe it."

"I'm sorry." Macen was genuine.

Makra sighed, "I'm not going to make you confess, am I?"

"No." Macen firmly replied, "I have nothing to confess."

"Fine." Makra sulked, "I'm going to get something to drink. Want to grab a seat and let me get you something?"

"I'll take a cup of oopla tea." Macen requested, "It's the closest thing to breakfast tea that the Bajorans have."

"Any particular blend?" Makra was amused.

"Any blend will do but it needs to have a double dose of sachri and a quarter ounce of moos' milk."

"Anything else, O' slave driver?" Makra was openly laughing now.

"That should do it." Macen said with a straight face.

A moment later, Makra joined him at the table and handed him a mug. Macen cautiously sipped its contents. He nodded.

"Perfect." He pronounced.

Makra smiled, "Glad you like it."

"What happens now?" Macen enquired.

"Could you tell me everything you know about the Mirror Universe?" Makra asked with unbridled curiosity. Macen flinched. Makra laughed.

Kara guided Astris to the central marketplace. Here Chandillans shopped, talked, traded and ate. Astris freely approached dozens of them and asked them uncensored questions about their world and the people living upon it. What she learned surprised her. Stopping for lunch, she sat with Kara and watched as the people went by.

"I've noticed that there are a lot of Cardassian/Bajoran hybrids." Astris idly observed.

"The equally low numbers of Cardassian and Bajoran settlers demanded crossbreeding if the eugenics program was to work." Kara said in between bites of her hasperat.

"Are there ever...mistakes?" Astris asked as delicately as she could.

Kara set her fork down and grew sad. Then she told Astris about Mara and the "settlers" there. When she finished, she was contrite and Astris was indignant.

"That's...that's..." Astris sputtered.

"The Federation locks its genetic engineering mistakes away in institutions. They're there for the rest of their lives." Kara reminded her.

Astris suddenly came up short. With a sheepish grin, she said, "It is kind of the same."

"Now, I know the institutions have better amenities," Kara added, "but they're deprived of their freedom. Our system doesn't do that."

"No." Astris said sarcastically, "Instead, it drops them on a hostile moon and deprives them of modern technology."

"But they get to build a better life." Kara insisted, "One of their own devising."

"You know, I once read where James T. Kirk tried a similar approach. It didn't work out so well for him." Astris retorted.

Kara sighed, "I won't argue history with you, Beru. I take it you still oppose having my people acting as advisors to the Federation?"

"To be blunt, your society doesn't have the experience to act as advisors to anyone." Astris replied, "Maybe in a few hundred years, after your society has proven it's viable, we'll talk."

"That's what I was afraid you'd say." Kara said with a note of frustration.

"Why are you afraid?" Astris asked.

"You are a reliable barometer of what the moderate faction thinks." Kara explained, "The conservative element was expected to side against us but we were trying to persuade the moderate political elements. That, apparently, was futile."

"What will Garane do?" Astris asked with growing dread.

Kara shook her head in open frustration, "I don't know. She engineered our reconnaissance and abduction plan. I'm not sure how far she's willing to go to see her dream come to life."

"You and she seem...close." Astris wavered a bit, "Did you and she...were you two ever..."

"Yes," Kara admitted, "yes, and yes."

"What happened?" Astris found herself terribly intrigued.

"We made better friends than lovers." Kara simply said.

"Why?" Astris had to ask.

"She isn't the person I want to settle down with...or start a family with." Kara revealed, "You're that person."

Astris blushed, "I think I'm flattered."

"At least you didn't run away screaming." Kara said wryly, "The way things have been I thought that was a likely reaction."

"Gena," Astris' sincerity was palpable, "despite everything that's been going on, I love you. That's why I've fought so hard for you to come clean. We can make things work."

"You still want to leave, don't you?" Kara asked.

"Now more than ever." Astris admitted.

Kara sighed, "Finish up and follow me. The shuttleport is that way."

Astris rose and came around the table. Leaning down, she kissed Kara, "Thank you."

"Don't mention it." Kara said somewhat glumly, "I betray my people every day."

"Think of it as helping them." Astris suggested, "That's what got Elim Garak through the war."

"We'll see." Kara said stoically and finished her soufflé, "Ready?"

"Lead the way." Astris was eager to begin the journey.

Kara took their dishes and recycled them. Returning to the table, she took Astris by the hand and led her away. She'd chosen her course and there was no turning back now.


Chapter Seventeen

Garane looked expectantly at her tour group, "What do you think of Chandilla?"

The various leaders looked at each other. Finally, Amelia Wynter spoke, "It all seems very orderly."

"A work that required generations of effort I assure you." Garane boasted.

"It's a little too orderly." Kirov opined.

"What do you mean?" Garane warily asked.

Korista Schrieber planted her fists on her hips, "Every society, no matter how well adjusted, has malcontents. Where are yours?"

"Mind your place, mundane." Jern Gelt barked.

"And you mind yours, Gelt." Garane said hotly, "These are guests not prisoners."

"Who are you calling a ‘mundane'?" Drake Parsons demanded.

As Parsons and Gelt squared off, Schrieber placed her hand on Parsons' arm, "Easy, Drake. I can take an insult or two."

"Careful Gelt." Garane warned, "There's a re-education camp with your name on it."

Gant Delane calmly spoke, "If you would be so kind as to explain the insult and the purpose of a re-education camp?"

Garane placed her hands on her hips and looked defiant. After facing off with Delane for several moments her features softened. With a sigh, she began to explain.

"Gelt is a product of genetic engineering." She held up a hand to stymie any comments, "The bulk of our society is made up of eugenically bred citizens. There is a movement amongst a minority of the engineered to view the bred as mundanes."

"Essentially as inferiors." Delane clarified.

Garane reluctantly nodded, "Yes. Those that are discovered to hold these views are sent to re-education camps where they are schooled in the virtues of the common good."

"And if this ‘re-education' effort fails?" Delane pointedly asked.

Garane shifted uncomfortably. Slowly, haltingly, she described the penal colony on Mara. She revealed that the Chandillans maintained observation satellites in orbit above Mara's surface. The colony had had a rough start but was now starting to thrive.

When she'd finished she waited for an observation or a comment. Not receiving one she pointed out that the Federation maintained penal colonies. Parsons bristled.

"We rarely remand our prisoners to a life sentence. What about the prisoners' children?"

"They are born with the parents' instabilities." Garane sadly replied, "It is part of their genetic heritage."

"What a load of crap." Parsons retorted in disgust.

"We allowed the first generation of malcontents to live among us." Garane revealed, "Their children were worse than the parents. This isn't a decision that we came to lightly."

"In our system," Wynter intervened, "the individual has to commit the crime before being sentenced to it. We believe in the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven."

"That is fortuitous for you." Garane conceded, "However, it does not work in our society."

"Now wait a minute..." Schrieber hotly began.

"My dear," Kirov interrupted, "please remember the Prime Directive. It is not our place to judge this society. Our role is to determine if we wish to present to our Federation Council representatives our desire to have them discuss the Chandillans' proposal."

"Thank you." Garane graced Kirov with a grateful smile as Schrieber subsided.

"I believe we have seen enough." Delane announced, "Perhaps we could return to the dormitory now?"

"Of course." Garane bowed her head, "Please follow me."

"I can't believe that leaving was that easy." Astris ran a hand through her hair. Kara knew it to be a nervous gesture.

"My position here is even higher than that of Legal Minister." Kara admitted.

"What is your position?" Astris had to know.

"I'm the Special Advisor to the Proconsul." Kara revealed, "Or at least I was."

"Oh, Gena," Astris reached out to Kara, "You never said anything."

Kara took Astris' hand in her own, "It doesn't matter. Choosing between Illa or you, you win every time."

"Not every time." Astris said dryly, "Otherwise I wouldn't be in this mess."

Kara blushed, "I hadn't thought of that."

"It doesn't matter." Astris squeezed Kara's hand, "We're away and we can get help."

"The Truncuator didn't pursue us." Kara said grimly, "Hopefully the Coorwin will let us go as well."

"Speaking of the Truncuator, that was the smallest Cardassian warship I've ever seen." Astris said, "Where did she come from?"

"She's a Girol-class support ship. She was designed to escort a capital ship and draw fire from the Galor-class warships." Kara explained, "She was the escort for the original Cardassian colonial transport."

"The Cardassians left her here?" Astris asked in disbelief.

"She escorted freighters here until the High Command abandoned the colony for lack of resource harvesting." Kara described, "The Truncuator was decommissioned after that. Her crew simply returned her to Chandilla and stayed on with the colony."

"There's another warship, the Coorwin. What is she?" Astris enquired.

"She's a hybrid." Kara clarified, "She's a synthesis between Bajoran and Cardassian assault ships."

"And she's on patrol?" Astris wondered.

"Yes." Kara confirmed, "She'll be patrolling the least time approach vector to the Federation."

"We need to plan our escape." Astris insisted.

"My personal authority should get us past them." Kara assured her.

"And if it doesn't?" Astris demanded, "We need a plan."

"All right." Kara relented, "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Just one." Astris admitted.

Garane escorted Delane and the others back to their assigned dormitory. Makra and Nelos were still minding Macen. A sullen Nelos hung to a corner of the room looking quite unhappy. Makra, on the other hand, was thoroughly enjoying herself.

As Gelt and Dathar took up their usual positions by the door, Garane approached Makra, "Captain, I have a favour to ask of you."

Makra still wore a smile, "Name it, Proconsul."

"Continue to watch Captain Macen." Garane smiled, "It does not seem to be an odious chore."

Makra's smile grew, "It's no problem at all, Proconsul."

Garane was pleased, "Carry on Captains."

She exited the room and the Federation entourage approached Makra and Macen's table.

"You seem to have had an excellent time in our absence, Comrade." Kirov grinned.

"Nura, meet Vladimir Kirov." Macen made the introduction, "This is Amelia Wynter. This lovely lady is Korista Schrieber and this gentleman is Drake Parsons. Last but certainly not least, the esteemed President of the Federation, Gant Delane. Everyone, meet Captain Makra Nura."

Everyone greeted Makra. She politely fielded inquiries for several moments before waving off any more questions.

"Please, I've said too much all ready." She laughed.

"Leave the lady alone, ladies and gents." Macen came to her defence.

"You just want her to yourself." Parsons accused.

"We have need of you, Captain." Delane said quietly.

Macen made his apologies to Makra and followed the group down the corridor to their rooms. Gathering in Delane's suite, they relayed their discoveries to one another. The revelations regarding Mara dominated the conversation.

"I'm inclined to like these people." Delane admitted, "But their society just isn't mature enough to grant them the status of advisors to the Federation Council. I could see taking them on as a Protectorate or even an ally but nothing granting them control over our affairs."

"I agree." Kirov was the first to raise his voice. The others all agreed in short order. Macen waited and then added his agreement to the consensus.

"They're still too new of a civilisation to engender trust." Macen quantified the problem, "Their social evolution could go any direction from here."

"So now we know what course we'll propose to the rest of the gathered leaders." Delane said with a frown, "The only question is: how will Garane react to the news?"

"My impression is that she's sincere in her desire to return all of you to your homes as soon as the vote is finalised." Macen disclosed.

"Is this as a Listener?" Delane enquired.

"That comes from every ability at my disposal." Macen clarified.

"What about you?" Wynter asked, "You're a prisoner."

"Makra revealed to me that her standing orders are to take me anywhere I want to go once everyone else departs." Macen confided.

"I'll believe that when I see it." Parsons grumbled.

"Have faith." Macen grinned, "The Fates will prevail."

"Whatever." Parsons retorted.

"I think we're done here." Delane decided, "We'll see how the others feel when they return."

"Should be interesting." Macen opined.

"It will be." Delane predicted with absolute surety.

Garane reached her office and sat down behind her desk. Messages were queued up on her computer. Sighing, she began to view them. One brought her up short. It was from the central shuttleport.

Kara had taken a shuttle on her own authority. Since Astris had not return to the Tower Garane assumed that she was still with Kara. Garane cursed. She had been afraid that Kara would surrender to the 1st Minister's wiles. Now they were making a break for it with every probable intention of bringing Starfleet down on Chandilla.

She dispatched orders to the Coorwin instructing her to search for Kara's shuttle and to detain the occupants. She would deal with Kara's treachery when she had been brought back. Now she knew she had another use for Captain Macen. It was time for the good Captain to reveal how much Starfleet knew about Chandilla or face the mind scanner. Either way, she'd get the information she required.

Alarms began to sound inside of the shuttle. Kara checked her sensors. Swearing, she threw the shuttle into a series of evasive manoeuvres.

Alarmed, Astris asked, "What's going on?"

"It's the Coorwin." Kara grimly answered, "She's outside of her patrol route."

"Someone must have anticipated that we'd try to skirt the assigned patrol lanes." Astris surmised. Taking action, she fired up the comm array.

"What are you doing?" Kara wondered.

"I'm trying to signal Starfleet." Astris explained, "I have to transmit Chandilla's coordinates before they can capture us."

"You'd better hurry." Kara advised, "They're closing fast."

Kara aligned the array and began transmitting. All of her hopes and wishes went with that transmission.

"Tom," T'Kir turned to face Riker's position, "I'm picking up a signal. It appears to be a distress call."

Riker winced at her use of his name rather than his title but he let it go...for now, "Put it on screen."

The screen shifted from its warped starfield view to that of a desperate looking Bajoran woman, "If you're receiving this, please relay this message to Starfleet Command. My name is Astris Beru. I'm the 1st Minister of Bajor. There will be a reward for you if this message is received by the Federation authorities."

Riker watched in wonder as Astris gave the coordinates of Chandilla and begged the recipient of the message to forward those same coordinates on. Her image rocked and Astris glanced over to her right. Another voice informed her that they were taking phaser fire.

"I don't have any more time." Astris concluded, "We're about to get recaptured. Dozens of lives are in your hands. Please, please pass this information on to Starfleet."

The image winked out and Riker stood, "Source of the transmission?"

"Traced and forwarded to the helm." T'Kir fired back.

"Hannah?" Riker prompted Grace to action.

Grace tapped several controls, "Maximum warp in three seconds. ETA is four minutes."

"Sir," Sam Bowers began to report, "the Obsidian is taking off at warp 9.71."

"Faster than our own top speed." Vaughn said to himself.

"They're responding to the distress call." Ezri Dax surmised, "So what do we do?"

"We increase speed and follow them." Vaughn grinned, "Hopefully they won't get in over their heads in the time it takes us to catch up."

Dax grinned back, "Right. Helm, maximum warp. Lay in a pursuit course."

"Yes, Ma'am." Prynn Tenmei broke into a manic grin and inputted the commands. A moment later the Defiant leapt from warp 6 to warp 9.65.

Garane entered the dormitory. Several of the tour groups had returned by now and a lively debate was waging between delegates. Macen held himself apart from these discussions. Makra stood beside him and watched the proceedings with some amusement. Garane signalled Nelos to join her. Nelos snapped to and followed the Proconsul as she made a beeline straight for Macen.

Macen could sense Garane's anger and determination even before she confronted him, "Can I help you, Proconsul?"

"Captain," Garane snapped, "seize him! Bring him to the examination room."

Makra looked stunned but she drew her phaser out of its holster and aimed it at Macen. Nelos wore a gleeful expression as she covered Macen with her own weapon. The debates had ended and the Federation representatives were openly staring at the proceedings.

"Is there a problem, Proconsul?" Delane attempted to intervene.

"Stay out of this, Mr. President." Garane warned, "It is none of your concern. This man possesses information that I require. I will have it."

"Surely Captain Macen will cooperate." Delane tried to soothe her anger.

"That is up to him." Garane snapped and stormed out of the dormitory with Macen in tow.

"There it is!" Grace called out as the Obsidian dropped out of warp. The Chandillan shuttle was dodging and evading low power phaser blasts. The larger ship was trying to disable the auxiliary craft.

"Their tractor beam is primed and ready." T'Kir reported, "Once the shuttle is disabled, she'll be brought into tow."

"If they aren't beamed away first." Riker muttered to himself, "Tactical, what do you make of that ship?"

"She seems to be a fusion of designs. The outer structure, the hammerhead melded to the isosceles triangle with low slung warp nacelles indicates a union of Bajoran and Cardassian assault designs. The equipment I'm reading indicates a synthesis of technology too." Daggit summarised.

"What's their reaction to our arrival?" Riker asked.

"They're shields have gone up and the rest of their weapons array has powered up." Daggit answered.

Riker hit his comm badge, "Riker to Telrik."

"Telrik here."

"Lock onto the occupants of that shuttle and bring them aboard." Riker ordered.

"Can't" Telrik replied, "Their shields are still up."

"T'Kir?" Riker prompted.

"I'm on it!" came her reply.

"What the hell?" Kara demanded.

"It's a starship!" Astris exclaimed, "It's Starfleet!"

"It's a science ship, Beru." Kara tried to calm her partner down, "The Coorwin will destroy her."

The shuttle lurched and smoke filled the cabin from the rear quarter. Kara shook her head, "The engines have been disabled. Now they're going to lock onto us with a tractor beam and bring us aboard."

"Can't they beam us out?" Astris wondered.

"Not as long as the shields are still up." Kara replied, "They're awfully weak but they'll still block a transporter."

"Obsidian to shuttlecraft." A woman's voice came over the comm's speakers, "Drop your shields and prepare for transport. I repeat, drop your shields and prepare for transport. We're from the Federation. We're here to rescue you."

"Drop the shields!" Astris ordered.

"It could be a trick." Kara protested.

"Whether they tractor us in or beam us aboard doesn't matter." Astris argued, "Take a chance."

Reluctantly, Kara deactivated the shields. Mere seconds later, an annular confinement beam caught them and then they began to discorporate. The world blurred and then the couple realised that they were standing in a transporter room being stared at by a jovial looking Tellarite.

"We made it!" Astris threw her arms around Kara's neck and fervently kissed her.

Kara blushed, "If I'd known that was going to be your reaction, I'd have dropped the shields ages ago."

Astris actually giggled and drew close for another kiss. Telrik took the opportunity to report to the bridge that he'd recovered the pair. Riker acknowledged and said Radil and a Security detachment would be present shortly.

The doors slid open for Radil and Collins to enter. Seeing the two women locked in an embrace, Collins grinned, "Sparks ideas, eh?"

Radil ignored her, "Excuse me, we're here to take you to the bridge."

Kara and Astris separated. Seeing Kara's unobscured face Radil drew her sidearm, "Hands up. Lace your fingers behind your head with your feet spread apart. Abby, search her for weapons."

"What is the meaning of this?" Astris demanded.

"This is Kara Gena is it not?" Radil enquired.

"Yes, but..." Astris started to say.

"There's a Federation-wide warrant for her arrest." Radil interrupted, "I'm taking her into custody."

"But she freed me!" Astris yelled in protest.

"She kidnapped you first." Radil retorted. Collins gave her the all clear, "All right Abby, place the binders on her."

"This is ridiculous." Astris fumed.

"It's all right, Beru." Kara reassured her, "I'll just be turning myself in a little earlier than expected."

"I'll speak to the captain." Astris promised, "I'll see to your treatment."

"Good luck with that." Radil snorted, "He's a prisoner on the same planet that you were held on."

"This is Captain Macen's ship?" Astris' eyes widened.

"Yep." Radil confirmed and took hold of Kara's arm. Collins marched behind the duo, hand on her phaser.

"Watch out for her, Telrik." Radil called out as she left.

"Oh, no you don't." Astris declared and followed the Security team out of the transporter room. Telrik reached for his comm badge when the ship shuddered. Realising that the ship had just been struck by an energy weapon, he opted to cancel calling the bridge until things had settled down.


Chapter Eighteen

The Coorwin fired on the Obsidian. It was a low level phaser strike. The Obsidian's shields easily handled it. Riker was annoyed.

"Hail them, T'Kir." Riker ordered, "Let's find out what's wrong with these jokers."

"They're hailing us, and brother, do they sound pissed." T'Kir replied.

"Put it on screen." Riker warily said.

A Cardassian's visage appeared on screen. He was livid, "Release the two prisoners to us at once and we'll allow you to go on your way."

"Those were two Federation citizens that we beamed aboard." Riker countered, "Tell me why they were imprisoned and I'll consider your terms."

"They are escapees from our penal colony." The Cardassian angrily replied, "They hijacked a personal shuttle and made to escape. They must be returned to us."

"Why were they sentenced to a penal colony?" Riker enquired.

"Surrender them or be fired upon." The Cardassian warned, "You have one minute to decide."

The screen shifted to the picture of the Coorwin hanging in space. Riker stroked his beard, "That was unfriendly." Straightening up, he began his rounds, "Tactical, threat analysis?"

"Their ship carries twice as many phaser emitters as ours and they're twice as powerful." Daggit described, "The only place where we outmatch them is in shield strength. Our shields are stronger and possess more regenerative capability."

"T'Kir," Riker growled, "remind me to lecture our dear captain on his unwillingness to upgrade our weapons package."

"Not a prob." T'Kir chimed.

"Helm," Riker continued, "plot us a course the hell away from here."

"That's awfully hard." Grace lamented, "The Cardies are sitting in the middle of our prime exit vector."

"First off, we don't know if they're all Cardassians." Riker retorted, "Second, you're supposed to be a navigational genius so start navigating. Third...where the hell is the Defiant?"

"I thought I spotted her a coupla minutes ago." T'Kir answered, "But I haven't seen a sign of her since."

"Maybe they're lying doggo," Grace opined, "waiting to decloak when we need her the most."

"Get back to your calculations." Riker ordered, "We have to assume we're on our own so let's use what's left of our minute..."

"Seventeen seconds." T'Kir interjected.

"...and plan our escape." Riker finished irritably.

Daggit suddenly yelled, "They're firing!"

Riker staggered as the deck plating shuddered, "Why the hell are they shooting at us?"

"Maybe they read our minds and know we're not gonna give Astris and her pal back." T'Kir offered as one explanation.

"I read comm traffic aimed at the enemy ship." Daggit revealed, "My guess is that they received orders to fire."

The ship shook again.

"What are they targeting?" Riker wondered.

"Engines and weapons." Daggit answered, "They're trying to cripple us."

"Which means they want prisoners." Riker surmised, "We can use that."

The deck plates groaned as another barrage was deflected by the shields.

"How the hell can we use that?" T'Kir demanded.

"It'll come to me." Riker yelled back, "Trust me."

Ten thousand kilometres distant, the USS Defiant decloaked and targeted her pulse phasers on the Coorwin. Bolts of concentrated phaser fire, each twice as powerful as a conventional Type X stream phaser discharge, lashed out and struck the Chandillan ship. The Defiant closed the distance while maintaining her barrage.

"Woo hoo!" T'Kir cheered, "The Defiant's pounding 'em!"

"Told you." Grace said victoriously.

"T'Kir, begin jamming subspace." Riker quickly ordered.

"Too late." T'Kir angrily replied, "They already got a data squirt through."

"Damn it." Riker's fist came down on his armrest.

"Commander," Daggit interrupted Riker's dark thoughts, "The enemy ship's shields are failing. She's hailing the Defiant."

"Put it on screen." Riker said.

The ragged features of the Cardassian appeared on one side of the screen and Vaughn's stern countenance appeared on the other. The Cardassian spoke first, "For the love of the Prophets, we surrender. We have wounded we need to treat."

"Do you require assistance?" Vaughn asked, "We can beam aboard medical personnel."

The Cardassian shook his head, "My people can handle it."

"Why did you fire on our sister ship?" Vaughn wanted to know.

"We had orders." The Cardassian said miserably, "Straight from the Proconsul."

"What were those orders?" Vaughn pressed.

"We were to disable the Starfleet vessel and take it under tow to Chandilla." The Cardassian commander replied, "Her intended fate after that is unknown to me or my crew."

"Do you currently have warp capability?" Vaughn enquired.

"No." came the weary reply, "My engineers haven't reported how long it will take to repair but it's safe to say it will be several hours."

"Good." Vaughn said coldly, "We'll be returning this way. Do not interfere with our operation or you will be destroyed. Understood?"

The Cardassian nodded, "Understood."

The screen shifted back to its view of the stricken assault ship. Next, T'Kir perkily announced, "The Defiant is hailing."

"Let's not keep the good Commander waiting." Riker replied, "Put it on screen."

A much happier looking Vaughn appeared on the viewer, "Hello Commander."

Riker grinned, "Hello yourself, Commander. Tell me, why did you wait so long to take action?"

"We were doing a threat assessment." Vaughn replied jovially, "Besides, it might teach you not to run out on your teammates."

From the XO station, Ro snorted. Riker ignored her, "Time did seem to be of the essence. We barely arrived in time to rescue the 1st Minister and..."

Riker looked around, "Does anyone know who transported aboard with her?"

"Check with Radil." Ro suggested, "You did send her to greet the guests."

Vaughn laughed, "I see I'm not the only to get helpful ‘pointers' from her."

"No." Riker wryly replied, "She seems to take even more delight in it if it's me. I think it has something to do with my brother."

"Yes." Vaughn said knowingly, "You should hear the war stories, especially the ones that involve memory loss."

Riker was perplexed and Vaughn waved the suggestion away, "Never mind that. Are you ready to resume?"

"Just give the word." Riker eagerly said.

"Warp 6?" Vaughn asked.

"Sounds perfect." Riker agreed.

"See you at Chandilla." Vaughn signed off.

"Hannah, previous course and speed." Riker ordered.

"You've got it." Grace happily replied.

"So what about this memory loss angle?" Riker asked of Ro.

Ro burst into laughter, "I'll tell you what, you go check in with Radil and wait until this mission is over, I'll tell you all about memory loss and what happens during it."

Still not satisfied but knowing that was as close to an answer as he was going to get, Riker stood, "T'Kir, come with me."

"Yes-sah Mr. Boss Man, sah." T'Kir bounded up and away from her station.

"Have you ever considered depressants?" Riker asked.

"Nah." T'Kir elbowed him in the ribs and stepped into the lift as the doors opened.

Riker shook his head and wondered if it was safe to enter the turbolift.

"Hey!" T'Kir protested, "I heard that."

Heaven help us, Riker thought glumly, here we go again.

"Hey!" Came the inevitable protest.

Garane stormed into the examination room. Macen was strapped into a seat. His head was surrounded by three flat panels. Makra and Nelos stood guard as three techs tried to calibrate the mind scanner.

Makra turned to the incensed Garane, "What is the matter?"

"Two Starfleet ships just disabled the Coorwin." Garane fumed, "They are on their way here."

"We'll destroy them." Nelos' manic grin disturbed Makra.

Garane turned to Makra, "How many scout craft can we scramble to support the Truncuator?"

Makra thought for a moment, "Nearly a dozen."

"Alert the various captains." Garane ordered, "I want those ships in orbit immediately."

"What about my crew?" Makra asked.

"No." Garane decided, "I want you here to bolster the Tower's defensive forces."

Makra bowed her head, "As you wish." She then excused herself to place her calls.

Garane shifted her attention to Macen, "This is your last chance to willingly give up the information I seek. The scanner is uncomfortable since it is invasive. It will leave you weak and disoriented. Do you truly want that fate?"

"It really doesn't matter at this point." Macen said in resignation, "I won't talk and I really doubt that this machine will work on me."

"Overconfidence will be your undoing." Garane warned, "This machine has read the strongest minds."

"It's not a matter of strength." Macen counselled, "You just don't know what you're dealing with."

"I'll find out soon enough." Garane bitterly replied.

"I'll be damned." Riker muttered, "What is she doing here?"

Kara calmly returned his gaze, albeit from behind a forcefield, "I'm here to help extract the Federation prisoners currently on Chandilla."

"You helped take one of those same prisoners." Riker reminded her.

"And she helped me escape." Astris declared with her fists firmly planted on her hips.

"I'm still suspicious about that too." Riker declared, "What's with her sudden change of heart?"

"I did it for Beru." Kara confessed, "If it weren't for her I'd still be on Chandilla."

"Why did you do it?" Riker demanded.

"I needed to prove my love to Beru." Kara firmly stated, "Helping her contact Starfleet and surrendering to you seemed the best way to do that. I'd do it again if the need arose."

"You say you want to help?" Riker asked and Kara nodded, "Fine. Give us a schematic of the place where the prisoners are being held. Give us whatever security codes you know and details of the expected response to a rescue effort."

Kara wrestled with the request for a moment. She squared her shoulders and boldly asserted, "I'll do it."

"You'll find a padd next to the food replicator." T'Kir spoke at last, "It's tied to the library computer. You'll find architectural programs stored there."

Kara retrieved the padd and queried the computer. Selecting an appropriate program, she went to work. Astris got into Riker's face.

"She's doing her part so cut her some slack." She insisted.

"T'Kir?" Riker queried the Vulcan.

T'Kir shrugged, "So far she's told the truth."

"Just keep on it." Riker said to Astris' confusion, "I want to know the moment she lies."

"Of course. I'll...yeeeeeaaaaaarrrrggghhhh!" T'Kir clutched her head and collapsed while screaming at the top of her lungs.

Macen screamed. He screamed until his throat was raw and then he screamed some more. Garane whirled on her technicians.

"What's wrong with him?" she demanded.

"He displays multiple brainwave activity." One panicked tech answered, "We can't get a lock on any one wave pattern."

"Recalibrate the machine!" Garane ordered.

"We're doing that." The tech rebutted, "It's having no effect."

If any thing, the screams grew louder. Garane endured it for as long as she could and then she made her decision.

"Deactivate the scanner." She instructed the techs. They complied and Macen passed out.

Nauseated, Garane asked, "Could you adjust the machinery and try again?"

"Proconsul," the lead tech spoke again, "the physiological data suggests that a second attempt so soon may prove to be fatal."

"Damn." Garane cursed. Pacing back and forth, she wrestled with what to do next, "Utilise the readings you have and adjust the machinery to isolate a single pattern and ensnare it."

"Yes, Proconsul." The tech bowed her head.

"Captain," Garane turned to Makra, "take Captain Macen to one of the empty guest suites. I don't want the Federation delegates seeing him in this condition. Monitor him and keep him there until I call for him."

Makra was uncertain, "Shouldn't a physician attend to him?"

"You have your orders, Captain." Garane simply replied.

Makra and Nelos unstrapped Macen and picked him up and carried him out of the chamber. Garane was left with her thoughts. Guilt threatened to overwhelm her. No, she resolved, I won't succumb to guilt. I did what was necessary. I'll do it again as soon as the machinery is adjusted. Prophets help me.

T'Kir struggled to her knees. Riker supported her, "What the hell was that?"

"The bastards are torturing Brin." T'Kir angrily rasped. She shrugged off Riker's hands and unsteadily rose to her feet.

"How can she know this?" Kara asked.

"She shares a telepathic rapport with Captain Macen." Riker explained, "What happens to him happens to her." Riker turned to T'Kir, "I thought he could block your telepathy?"

"He can." T'Kir was livid, "They're tearing his mind apart. He doesn't mean to transmit the pain but he has no rational capability with which to block it."

"How can you justify this?" Riker demanded of Kara.

"They must be using the mind scanner." Kara said with shame, "It's never had this effect before."

"Brin isn't your usual somebody." T'Kir snapped.

"So I've noticed." Kara admitted.

T'Kir eyed Kara. Her eyes narrowed and she studied the Bajoran for a moment. With a grunt she relaxed.

"I guess you have." T'Kir surmised.

"You just read my mind?" Kara asked. T'Kir nodded and Kara grinned, "That must be handy."

"You have nooo idea." T'Kir replied.

"It can also be dangerous for her and others." Riker interjected.

"Don't be a downer." T'Kir rebuked him, "I just had a traumatic experience. Let me savour the moment."

"Speaking of which," Riker asked, "what happens if it happens again?"

"Then I go from simply killing those responsible to making it last." T'Kir solemnly vowed.

Riker's comm badges chirped and he slapped it, "Riker."

"Ro here. We're rapidly approaching Chandilla. You might want to come up here."

"Right." Riker said dourly, "I'll be there in a moment."

Turning to T'Kir, he said, "This isn't over."

"Yes, it is." She confidently replied.

Seeing that her resolve was unwavering Riker made to leave. T'Kir lingered for a moment. Facing Kara, she spoke.

"Think of where the Federation hostages are being held." T'Kir stared into space fro a moment and then nodded, "Got it. Thanks."

T'Kir left and Radil approached Astris, "Our yeoman is here to escort you to your guest quarters."

"Can I see Kara again?" Astris enquired.

"Check with the Security officer on duty and you'll be allowed monitored visitations." Radil explained.

"What about now?" Astris pleaded.

"Now isn't good." Radil sternly replied, "See your cabin, settle in, and check back with my deputy."

"All right." Astris relented. She turned to Kara, "I'll be back, Gena."

"I'll be here." Kara offered a wan smile.

Astris waved before exiting the room. Another stern faced Security officer replaced Radil. Kara slumped onto the cot provided for her in the cell. Forlornly, she began working on her diagram of the Tower of Cooperation.

T'Kir bounded out of the lift. She came to stand behind the CO and XO's stations. Ro rose from the XO's seat and looked back at T'Kir.

"You made it just in time to leave again." Ro grinned.

T'Kir noted that Ceryx was here to relieve Grace. Tanner was sitting at Tactical and Daggit was imparting final words of advice to her. T'Kir's own relief had been manning Ops for nearly half and hour. Looking around, she nodded.

"Good." T'Kir said gruffly, "I have some payback to dish out."

Ro frowned, "Is there something I should know about?"

"They're torturing Brin." T'Kir seethed, "Everyone involved is going to pay."

"All that ‘eye for an eye' shuk may have worked while we were in the Maquis but it won't fly now." Ro said resolutely, "We represent something greater than ourselves now."

T'Kir bitterly laughed, "When did you become a moralist, Ro?"

"When I put my Starfleet uniform back on." was Ro's simple answer.

T'Kir wore a sly grin, "If you hadn't noticed, Laren, I'm not wearing that uniform and neither or you."

"It's always on, T'Kir." a convicted Ro replied.

"How nice for you." T'Kir smartly remarked, "I never chose to wear it and I don't."

"Are you going to be a problem down there?" Ro asked.

"Only if you get in my way." T'Kir calmly answered, "I'll make you think you're a six-year old girl again."

"So," Ro shook her head, "we are going to have a problem."

"Laren," T'Kir growled, "I'm gonna..."

Ro held up her hands, "Look, just take prisoners. I'll overlook how roughly they're treated to a point. We're here to solve an interstellar incident not to create a new one."

T'Kir backed off a bit, "Point taken. Can we go now?"

"Tom?" Ro asked.

"Their cruiser is moving in to intercept." Riker answered, "You might have a delay if they decide to shoot at us."

"So it's business as usual for the SID?" Ro joked.

"How did you know?" Riker dryly replied.

"Brin tells me everything." Ro playfully smiled.

"You'd better get going." Riker remarked, "I want you on standby when we assume orbit."

"Right." Ro nodded, "Let's head out people."

The bridge crew assembled in the lift and Ro tapped her comm badge, "Ro to Danan."

The reply was cut off by the closing doors. Riker turned his full attention to the approaching Cardassian warship. Let's see what you're up to. Riker thought as his eyes narrowed.


Proceed to Part IV


Last modified: 02 Jan 2014