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Ascendancy Rising by Travis Anderson

A new era for the team develops as a universe finds its need
for a Starfleet Special Investigation Division. The same team in a different reality.

Chapter One

"Coming out of warp in the Bajor system," Lieutenant Andresso Pedrossi reported from the USS Intrepid's helm.

"Deep Space 9 Traffic Control is hailing us," Lt. Commander Ian Delaney reported to Commander Jonathan Striker, who was overseeing the bridge.

"Captain, you wanted to be informed when we were coming upon Bajor," Striker commed Captain James McKinley.

McKinley emerged from his Ready Room, "Alert Admiral Johnson that we'll be making our deadline."

"You never get tired of the Wormhole transit, do you?" Striker chuckled as McKinley retook his seat on the Akira-class starship carrier variant's bridge.

"How many times have we actually crossed over to the Gamma Quadrant through it?" McKinley asked.

"Three by my count, including today," Striker replied.

"Let's just call it a reminder that there still mysteries out there," McKinley said.

Striker knew the Senior Staff's own intertwined and complicated relationship with the so-called Prophets of Bajor fed McKinley's sense of wonder.

"Will Colonel Ro be waiting for us?" McKinley asked.

"On schedule and with Commodore Saavik aboard the new USS Endeavor-A," Striker told him.

"And her own ship?" McKinley referred back to Ro's personal command, the original Constitution-class Fist of the Prophets.

"On patrol in the Alpha Quadrant," Striker informed him.

The newly installed President Ardra had wanted the Federation to make contact with the Ascendancy in the Gamma Quadrant. A hybridized race derived from a blending of Bajora extremists and the natives of the world they crashed upon. Only recently rediscovered, the Ascendant had attacked a Bajoran colony, decimating its population and then engaging in a "holy war" against the Bajoran "heretics" led by a Cardassian by the name of Iliana Ghemor. The Starfleet Special Investigations Division unit led by Brin Macen had talked the Ascendant down and exposed Ghemor as a fraud.

But it reunited the Bajorans with their distant kin. A strained relationship as the Ascendant reevaluated their beliefs in the wake of new teachings in the ways of the Prophets. Bajor itself experiencing strained relationships with the Federation since getting cast out and then refusing readmission after a brief war between the briefly autocratic Federation government and Bajor. A war that included hostilities between the UFP and the Cardassian Union.

Roles that brought Bajor and Cardassia closer than ever. Their destinies apparently as intertwined as Gul Dukat had once predicted to then-Major Kira Nerys. Now-General Kira being the Chairperson of the General Staff of the Joint Chiefs of the Bajoran Militia. Ro Laren served as a colonel in the Militia Colonial Defense Forces.

The Ascendant had agreed to Starfleet sending a diplomatic envoy if the Militia sent one as well. Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson had been surprised when Kira selected Ro for the job. Ro was many things but diplomatic didn't register on her personal sensors. The Intrepid would be taking Ro aboard and she would negotiate its final reception by the Ascendancy. Kira's dispatches entailing Ro's involvement clearly indicated the clerical-military aspects of the Ascendant didn't wish to speak with either Bajoran faith or political leaders. They also wouldn't confer with the "faithless" without a Bajoran intermediary. Specifically, they'd asked for Ro.

Johnson was Starfleet's Diplomatic Specialist. He was the troubleshooter they sent to crisis spots. His former crew were the crisis management specialists should the situation escalate beyond Johnson's control. They were a well honed machine. Ro was an outsider with a common tie to the very Prophets she didn't view in a religious fashion. Ro was Bajor's most famous agnostic.

Perhaps that was her selling feature for Kira's decision making. The Ascendant had specifically demanded that the former Militia officer and ex-convict named Neela not be involved. The so-called "Hand of the Prophets" had exposed Ghemor's duplicity and rattled the Ascendancy's theocracy to its very core.

The Bajorans had enjoyed high level exchanges on political and spiritual matters over the past several months. Until the abortive war with the Federation interrupted ongoing efforts. Ro's Colonial Defense Forces had always escorted Bajoran envoys to and from neutral locations and provided safe haven when Ascendant envoys met at nearby Bajoran Gamma Quadrant colonies. The negotiations and cultural exchanges had fared better than expected given that the society's historical knowledge of Bajor came from Bajora ejected from Bajor to populate colonies in the Alpha Quadrant that been taken in by the Wormhole and deposited in the Gamma Quadrant where they wandered until desperately making contact with pre-industrial natives of a world they then conquered.

A similarly stricken pre-refit Starfleet Constellation-class starship had met the same fate in 2267. The starship becoming a template for the Ascendant to copy many times over in an aggressive move into space. The Bajorans had asked the Ascendant if they'd met other races before discovering New B'hala and annihilating the colony as "heretics" under Ghemor's teachings. They'd received no answer as of yet.

Upon transiting the Wormhole, the Ascendant fleet had travelled to Cardassia Prime to present itself as a new opportunity and ally in crushing Bajor underfoot. The current Castellan, Rekena Garan, declined the offer and the Ascendant made a long and risky voyage to Iotian Federation held space. But Brin Macen's efforts proved to the Iotians that the Ascendant were unstable partners at best.

Neela's undoing of Ghemor's lies had a spiritually stricken Ascendant fleet return home with Bajor's well wishes and further efforts at connection and reconciliation. The Federation and Starfleet in particular, had sent word of a desire to open a dialogue through the Bajorans before. They'd never received a warm reception until after Bajor left the Federation. Ghemor had poisoned the Ascendant against the Federation and Starfleet but did those spiritual and cultural imperatives still survive in her absence?

The Bajorans had been unable to ascertain Ghemor's fate after the Ascendant took her back to their world to be tried as a "False Emissary". The greatest apostasy she could be tried for. Neither Starfleet, the Cardassian Information Bureau, nor Militia Intelligence could account for Ghemor's presence in the Gamma Quadrant when her, surgically altered to appear Bajoran, corpse was still in storage units maintained by the successors to the Obsidian Order.

Ro and the Intrepid crew had answers but they couldn't divulge them without betraying their own greatest secrets. Macen's team, the Obsidian crew, and Commander Elias Vaughn of Starfleet as well as Starfleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev and Rear Admiral Amanda Forger shared this common forbidden truth. One that would shatter their place in the universe.

Commander Sam Lavelle, returned to full duty by Starfleet Medical overriding Vice Admiral Katherine Pulaski's recommendations, returned him to command of Deep Space 9 and oversight of the very officers that had removed him from command in the first place. Lavelle seemed to have shed his paranoid delusions but he was still distrusted by his senior officers. The Militia was especially leery of Lavelle since he'd been the one to instigate the war between Cardassia, Bajor and the Federation.

The Federation Council and the President's office had offered many concessions to broker a peace deal. But their one hard and fast stipulation was that Lavelle remain free of Cardassian custody despite leading an illegal raid into Cardassian territory and causing the deaths of Cardassian Guard troopers and assorted prisoners. Bajor had gone to war to support the Cardassians' claims to trying Lavelle for his crimes. Yet they abandoned that position to end the war on favorable terms.

In exchange, Garan saved face by gaining custody of the Federation President, Vice President, and Secretary for Starfleet later made President, that launched the war against Cardassia. A war that they provoked on false pretenses. A war begun with Starfleet Commander, Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy's avid support and creating the very situation that the Federation ostensibly went to war over.

Like Bajor, the Cardassians ended the war on highly favorable terms. Starfleet was in the process of consolidating support within its own ranks after the Mars Massacre and the two wars brought to light the foundational split in ideology between older Starfleet officers and those rapidly promoted during the Dominion War. Call it a division between idealism and ruthless pragmatism. Fault lines that fractured during the unjust wars and led several key starship commanders and crew to support Bajor's cause against their own fleet. Other commanders and crews notably defied orders and didn't actively engage in the war effort despite being called up.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the war had been the internment of Bajoran citizens throughout the Federation during the war's duration and the removal of Bajoran Starfleet officers from duty. Other officers such as Vice Admiral Bill Ross, were detained simply for failing to achieve demanded political goals in a timely manner. Another revelation had been the survival of elements of Section 31 after its supposed collapse and of Cell 51 being reactivated by a command code from beyond the grave.

Not even the Acting Agency Director of Cell 51, Dylan Sorbo, was aware that Jack Fowler truly was dead and that the Dominion had possession of his positronic brain, thereby allowing them to gut Section 31's greatest secrets. As Odo's minority became a majority in the Great Link, a rogue faction of Founders decided to cripple the only powers that had ever defied them and won. Using Cell 51 as a proxy, these Founders now guided a covert war for the Federation's soul.

Cell 51's Starfleet Section had been gutted but its civilian departments thrived in secrecy. Including its Political Action Section. A diehard core of political operatives still steered Federation Councilors as Director Sorbo wished. Sorbo followed "Jack Fowler's" ghostly voice from wherever he was transmitting from. Unaware that Founders that had infiltrated Cell 51 were orchestrating its movements now.

The Omicron Ceti III development was nearing operational status and would be a game changer. But for now, the Federation and the crew of the Intrepid didn't know of these continuing threats. They had enough to deal with their mercurial President who seemed to promise everything to everybody. Even when the next promise contradicted the first.

Ardra's criminal records had been carefully sanitized for public consumption by the Director of Starfleet Security, Commodore Oh. Oh herself was a Romulan agent posing as a Vulcan officer. The fox was definitely now in charge of the henhouse since Oh oversaw every practical security measure within Starfleet. It had been Oh and her agents that had corrupted the synthetics on Mars to massacre the population and ignite the developing atmosphere before destroying the Utopia Planetia Shipyards and the very transport fleet Starfleet was building to ferry Romulan colonists to safety from the effects of the Hobus supernova's shockwave. Despite Ambassador Spock's use of the Red Matter, Romulus and Remus were destroyed within minutes of the blast. Hundreds of colonies remained susceptible to the unbounded portions of the shockwave. One hundred million colonists on over sixty colonies would face severe atmospheric and orbital shifts that threatened the ecologies of the worlds these Romulan settlers inhabited.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard had left command of the USS Enterprise-E to become the admiral in command of an evacuation effort with Romulan support. The loss of the transport fleet and the public opinion aftermath of the Mars Massacre ended Starfleet's participation in the relief efforts. Further miring the antagonism felt between Romulan Star Empire and the United Federation of Planets.

Given that recent background coupled with a failed autocratic movement and two abortive and unsuccessful wars, one now softened through a proven criminal as the UFP President. Ardra was amongst the best confidence artists in the galaxy with some of the most elaborate investment and blackmail schemes ever devised. Notorious rogues such as Harcourt Fenton Mudd III were in awe of Ardra's successes. Harry Mudd IV was envious of her ability to gain the position.

Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd was terrified of what a person with Ardra's mores could accomplish as the President. It was the ultimate grift. The con to end all cons. Ardra was hedonistically enjoying every second of every backdoor deal and every influence she peddled. The entire Federation was up for sale. Its citizens, unfortunately, were still unaware that their worlds and resources were up for the highest bidders.

After another awe inspiring ride through the only stable wormhole known through the galaxy, the crew of the Intrepid found themselves 70,000 light years from their last known location and rendezvousing with the USS Endeavor-A.

Saavik had been the sole commanding officer of her predecessor, the Ambassador-class USS Endeavor.

This new Vesta-class heavy cruiser was equipped with a quantum slipstream drive in addition to conventional warp drive. With the Federation allowed free exploration of the Gamma Quadrant headed back towards the Alpha Quadrant itself, colonization and exploration efforts had begun anew. As had Bajoran efforts.

The Bajorans had even built a K-class space station as a replenishment port of call between colonies. Just as they'd built a J-class station at their colony of Free Haven in the Alpha Quadrant. The stations, simply named Waypoint and Free Haven Port, were the extensions of a growing Militia to defend a growing, and spreading, Bajoran population whose numbers had exploded after the Cardassian withdrawal ended the Occupation.

Bajor and Bajor VIII had simply run out of sustainable room for them all. The Valo II and Valo III colonies fostered difficult lives. Prophet's Landing, Dreon VII, Golana, and Free Haven were amicable to robust lives but they were still, even after centuries of their own population growth, relatively undeveloped. And while all of the colonies were experiencing an immigration boom, hardier settlers wanted new lands to build upon in the Gamma Quadrant. Even after the second fall of New B'hala, there were still seven intact Bajoran colonies spread around Waypoint Station.

Ro was tasked with defending every Bajoran colony. She was equipped with pre-drive refit Starfleet analogue vessels predating designs post-2270. The Iotian Starfleet considered Bajor and Outbound Ventures to be their two largest clients. Outbound Ventures being the security contracting corporation founded by Brin Macen and co-owned by Celeste Rockford as part of the company's acquisition of the Rockford Detective Agencies and a personal side effect of his marriage to Rockford. It was the umbrella organization that Starfleet's SID utilized to hire Macen's unit as well as other ships and crews under corporate control.

Ro's secondary mission was to support Bajor's System Defense Force and Planetary Forces in the advent of a war, as recently demonstrated. Kira and Ro had personally led the defense of DS9 and the Bajor system from repeated Starfleet incursions. The Bajoran Republic's First Minister, Astris Beru, had authorized Kira into hiring Outbound Ventures as a more advanced supplement to the Bajoran fleet. A decisive move that insured Bajor's safety until Starfleet defectors could begin arriving.

Starfleet's younger commanding officers badly underestimated the Bajorans and Outbound Ventures. Meanwhile, Macen's unit and the crew of the Nova-class surveyor, Obsidian, sought the mastermind behind the turmoil engulfing Federation society. The Intrepid had joined in at the end of that hunt and played a critical role in a renewed purpose Starfleet's victory over Cell 51 agents. But Director Sorbo had left the system days before their arrival.

In playing a hunch to capture Sorbo, Macen let go of his one tangible link to Cell 51. Doctor Taryn Argus, the rogue El-Aurian archeologist, never arrived at her destination and therefore avoided the starship awaiting her arrival. Instead, she piloted her stolen Type-9 shuttle to parts unknown. The Iotians had played an outsized role in assisting Macen despite their aggressive competition with the Federation. Cooperation built on personal relationships rather than political frameworks.

"Commodore Saavik is signaling us," Delaney reported.

"Tell her we await transport lock and we'll beam over shortly," McKinley rose from his seat, "Commanders Delaney and Striker, you're with me. Commander Liefers, you have the Conn."

"Aye, sir," Delany summoned his Tactical relief and joined the officers awaiting the turbolift. Striker accompanied McKinley and Delaney. Lt. Commander Elizabeth "Liz" Liefers was many things but she rarely assumed command. She was the Flight Operations Manager for the two squadrons aboard the carrier variant starship.

Liefers' second was Hannah Grace, who among other things was Delaney's wife. Despite being stood down, Grace arrived with the turbolift to relieve Liefers' usual post. The daredevil pilot winked at Delaney as she passed him by.

"Most unprofessional," Striker teased his friend.

"It'll be your turn soon enough," Delaney advised him.

McKinley knew from his own history that relationships were commonly forged on joint assignments. He'd had a romance with Doctor Andreja Sikorsky, the Chief Medical Officer, when Bob Johnson had commanded the Galaxy-class Intrepid and McKinley had been XO and Sikorsky his CMO. Now he was going out with Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli, the staff intelligence officer. Massoli would be accompanying them to the Endeavor as would Lt. Commander Robert Caplan, the Chief Engineer.

Caplan was dating Liefers after a few years of unrequited love. His Deputy Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Emily Johnson had practically asked Liefers out on Caplan's behalf to just break the unspoken ice. Admiral Johnson, Massoli, and Caplan were already waiting in the Transporter Room.

"Liz says 'hi'," Striker embarrassed the terminally romantically shy but technically brilliant Caplan. Caplan's cheeks flushed, as Striker fully intended.

"You'll get yours," McKinley warned him.

"Oh, just kiss her and get it over with," Striker indicated Massoli expectantly standing on a transporter pad.

"As I said before..." McKinley grated. Massoli was quite pleased that McKinley chose decorum and the ship's crew over her. Johnson was signing off on padds presented by his two aides who would also be accompanying them. Cadets Reeva DeBoer and Lyn Hadek had chosen midshipmen cruises with Johnson to unravel his secrets as Starfleet's finest negotiator.

"All aboard that's going," Lieutenant Johnson cleared her throat.

"Lieutenant," Johnson grinned.

"Admiral," she smiled back.

Once upon a life, a young Ensign Emily Johnson had led the admiral on a private tour of the new Intrepid while she was still under construction. Since then, Johnson had brought nothing but honor to their common surname.

"Endeavor is standing by to receive," Johnson activated the transporter. After experiencing a blur out, the officers and cadets materialized in a fresh, slightly different transporter room.

Saavik presented the Vulcan salute, "Live long and prosper, Admiral."

"Glad to be aboard, Commodore," Johnson told her.

"Not everyone is," Saavik said blandly, "If you will accompany me?"

Like Johnson, this Endeavor was not under Saavik's command anymore. It was her flag command from which she oversaw Starfleet's Gamma Quadrant exploration efforts and colony support initiatives.

Johnson knew Ro peripherally. They shared Macen and Rockford as friends. Ro and Macen had been Maquis together. He'd gathered as many former Maquis as he could successfully locate and convince to join his company. An impressive array of them had agreed to.

Ro had been tempted when Starfleet cashiered her out of her command at DS9 but Kira made a more persuasive argument for continued service. Ro never backed down from a challenge. Pitting mid-23rd Century designed vessels against modern late 24th Century vessel types commonly used throughout the Alpha and Beta Quadrants was a challenge indeed.

In the 119 years since Captain James T. Kirk and the original NCC 1701 USS Enterprise under his command reestablished contact with the Iotians, they'd progressed from an early 20th Century Earth tech base to a mid-24th Century Federation tech base. Of course, adapting Doctor Leonard McCoy's forgotten communicator into a subspace transceiver, they'd tapped into the Federation data nets even before the first Federation cultural specialist first came for their "piece of the action". The result was a madcap of technological revolutions built on textbook designs the Iotians tapped into on public instruction manuals.

Using them they'd quickly bridged the gulf into an atomic age followed two decades later by a warp age and continual copying of Starfleet starships designs until the Federation cut the feeds. By then, the Iotians were adapting from duotronic tech to and isolinear tech base.

Visitors from the Terran Universe had supplied stolen Starfleet designs to bring the Iotian Federation's Starfleet near the UFP's fleet inventory. The Iotian version of a Federation was essentially a criminal protection racket but dozens of worlds had subscribed to the "service" and supplied conscripts to join the Starfleet's enlisted ranks. Some Non-Iotians had even earned commissions but none would achieve command rank. The only exceptions to the Non-Iotian exclusion policy were humans. Survivors from Turkana IV lived on a colony within the Iotian Federation and were led by Ishara Yar. Her daughter Ishtashra Yar commanded her own starship. Other humans had completed the two-year Officer's Candidate and Starship Operations School.

Johnson was troubled by the fact that his thoughts had drifted away first to the recent problems with the Presidency and now the increasing rivalry with the Iotians when he was supposed to be prepping for a meeting the mysterious Ascendant. Saavik brought them to an observation lounge where Ro was found within, staring out the window.

"Admiral," Ro said without turning around.

"Oh, she's good. She used the faint reflection on the glass to ID us," Striker whispered to Delaney. Striker had been a Starfleet Intelligence officer at one point in his career. It left him with an appreciation for analysis and tradecraft afterwards. He was also one of the rare humans who still wore spectacles thanks to an allergy to the Retnax series of vision correcting drugs.

"I love you too, Commander," Ro said mockingly, "Can we get to it and get underway?"

"I take it you'd prefer a different mission," McKinley ventured.

"I've been dealing with the Ascendant. They're not reliable. They're still too fanatical in my opinion," Ro offered.

"Funny coming from someone who joined the Bajoran Resistance as a teen and the Maquis as an adult," Striker retorted.

"Takes one to recognize one, Commander," Ro said smartly, "These people still have heads full of bad wiring. And why is your Chief Engineer in this party along with two snot nosed cadets?"

"Caplan is here as a technical advisor regarding the Ascendancy's known technical capabilities. The cadets are my aides de camp," Johnson tried smooth Ro's rough edges, "I see you have no objection to Commanders Delaney and Massoli."

"They're useful," Ro shrugged.

"Colonel Ro will be fielding this briefing as the local expert on the Ascendancy," Saavik offered.

"I'm hardly an expert. No Bajoran is despite their only wanting to deal with our representatives. My impression is they're looking to get something specific out of the relationship. But no one can determine what that is yet," Ro took a seat.

"But they agreed to speak with us," Johnson prompted her.

"For no apparent reason for this sudden reversal of policy or preference, whichever it is. They're too damn prickly to get a straight answer from them," Ro complained.

"How exact is their duplication of Starfleet's mid-23rd Century technology?" Caplan asked.

"Having engaged them in a firefight I can tell you their ships are pretty damn authentic," Ro grumped.

"Have you been aboard one yet?" Caplan inquired.

"No, so I haven't been able to determine internal weaknesses in the ships or crews. I can tell you they're a theocratic society. Their religious leader is also the person who dictates official policy. That was Iliana Ghemor. Now that person is an unknown variable," Ro explained, "And they don't take kindly to questions regarding Ghemor's fate."

"So hypothetically, if Ghemor survived her trial for heresy, she could have resumed her post as Emissary," Johnson mused aloud.

"Militia Intelligence has offered the same theory. But the Kai on Bajor disagrees. Footage from Neela's deconstructing Ghemor's falsehoods seemed pretty authentic as well as the Ascendants' remorse over their actions," Ro offered.

"Still, it's plausible," Striker interjected.

"No matter how improbable? Should we play 'what-ifs' all day?" Ro asked tartly, "We have to deal in facts, of which there are precious few to go on. We know they can be incredibly hostile. We know their religion rules every aspect of their lives as determined by the Obsidian's intercepting their broadcasts. And we know that they've been spoon fed hatred of the Bajoran people and then the Federation as a whole by the extremists that first conquered the natives and subsequently expanded upon and reinforced by Ghemor. Did I miss anything pertinent?"

"That is slim," McKinley conceded.

"Where are we meeting?" Delaney asked.

"New B'hala. They picked the site," Ro told them.

"Opening negotiations at the site of a massacre is symbolic. Either they're deeply sorry or they're digging in for more violence," Johnson predicted.

"Which is why we're bringing the Intrepid rather than the Fist of the Prophets," McKinley pointed out.

"Gee, I was too dumb to figure that out," Ro sniped.

"Is there a problem, Colonel?" Johnson sharply inquired.

"My past issues with Starfleet aside, you just engaged in a war with my people," Ro reminded them, "Politically, we may have made nice but healing those wounds from that level of betrayal will take real time."

"Bajor getting expelled from the Federation was unprecedented and we know it was simply a calculation to grab power," Johnson reminded her, "But, may I tactfully remind you, your people were offered a chance to rejoin the Federation and you refused to."

"Would you have accepted the offer, after what we went through?" Ro wondered.

"I seriously doubt it," Johnson conceded, "But we were on your side. Starfleet was after us as well for disobeying direct orders to engage in hostilities."

"But you didn't take an active role until the shooting stopped," Ro threw back at him.

Johnson knew his and the crews' actions during the war were classified and Ro was no longer a member of Starfleet despite once having sufficient clearance as a Sector Commander to know about it. Lavelle could be told but he'd never ask. It was Ro and Elias Vaughn that actually needed to know. It would also go a long way to smoothing out Kira's currently bumpy relationship with Starfleet. But Fleet Admiral Clancy, at Commodore Oh's urging, was locking the general out.

Johnson and the officers knew Starfleet was apolitical but Johnson had increasing doubts regarding the healthy nature of Oh and Clancy's working relationship. They'd willingly gone along with the Federation's ever increasing authoritarian and illegal measures and even encouraged some of them. That was cowardice at best and complete complicity at worst.


I agree the paucity of information is crippling our prep work but any additional personal observations could prove to be critical," Massoli explained.

"They're up to something. Something bad and they're trying to hide it," Ro opined.

"But why would they?" Johnson had to ask.

"Don't ask the question if you don't want the answer," Ro chided him, "Ghemor isn't done with these people and they aren't done with her yet either. Otherwise they'd discuss her fate. Maybe reluctantly but they would at least acknowledge the question."

"They're that obtuse about it?" Delaney inquired.

"Hitting stone walls is softer," Ro replied.

"It would be logical to assume their reluctance to address the topic implies we won't like the answer or at least are expected to dislike the answer we would receive," Saavik put forth.

"Makes sense," Hadek blurted.

"Shhh," DeBoer chastened her. Johnson had to smile. Every diplomat had to learn their poker face and inside voice that was only heard in their minds.

"My people cleared New B'hala of the bodies but we never cleaned the site. It's messy," Ro pointedly stared at the cadets, "Presumably animals would've cleared away some of the gore but we left everything as it was as a memorial to the fallen."

"Yet you patrol that system," McKinley recalled the territorial map the Bajorans claimed as theirs.

"We may not have an active presence there but it's still our world and our dead paid the price for it in literal blood," Ro said harshly.

"You don't like these people," Johnson ventured.

"I don't like people that hide things from me. Like they are. And like you are," Ro told the admiral, "Why Starfleet's renewed interest in a race of people that are neither friendly towards embracing others nor openly hostile enough to the Federation to be an eventual threat to security?"

Everyone looked embarrassed while the cadets looked bewildered. Ro had hit the proverbial nerve.

"Starfleet Commander Clancy insisted why open negotiations with the Ascendancy to determine how poisoned they've become against the Federation under Bajoran influence," Johnson said evenly.

"Sounds like Clancy," Ro snorted.

"It isn't personal," McKinley promised.

"It sounds very personal. I'm Bajoran. Therefore I must be poisoning young Ascendant minds against the Federation," Ro sneered, "Why bring me along then?"

"You're the only one they actually invited," Johnson explained, "And we needed a cultural interpreter."

"Because of their religion," Ro snorted again, even more derisively, "Sorry, Admiral. I gave up faith in the Prophets when I thirteen and I've done my best to forget the prophecies."

"Which is why Kira sent you," Massoli explained, "It has to be. You're enough of a skeptic to see through their BS and not take religious differences personally."

"So I'm not an interpreter. I'm a filter, is that it?" Ro inquired.

"Essentially," Johnson thought that summarized things well enough.

"Frinx that," Ro said caustically.

"Colonel, both of our people may depend on the outcome of these talks," Johnson advised her, "If Starfleet and the Federation arranges a separate treaty with the Ascendant then it may be under terms whereby the Federation is obliged to side with them if they engage in a conflict with Bajor."

"Despite our mutual defense and cooperation accords that were just revisited and reactivated?" Ro was trying hard, and failing, at not getting angrier.

"Starfleet Command is a...variable right now," Johnson came close to confessing no one but Oh could predict which side Clancy would fall on in such a situation and how she'd advise President Ardra and the Federation Council to respond. Tension between the Bajoran Republic and the Federation hadn't been this high since the Circle incident within the Provisional Government. This time it was the Federation that was the antagonist. Ro was simply disgusted by the entire affair.

"I'll make the introduction. The rest is on you," Ro counter offered.

"I'll take it," Johnson agreed.

"Admiral, Colonel Ro had expressed doubts regarding your mission, hence our meeting aboard the Endeavor and discussing the particulars before she boarded the Intrepid and got underway," Saavik explained.

"Smart move," McKinley agreed.

"I agreed to help you because of our mutual friends in common. Don't betray my trust in their judgment or their judgment to begin with," Ro advised them all.

"Understood, Colonel," Johnson wholeheartedly agreed.

"Then let's get going," Ro sighed heavily.

"New B'hala system in," Pedrossi dropped the ship out of warp in the outer system.

"I hate coming here," Ro admitted from the command well of the Intrepid's bridge, "I've seen a lot of indiscriminate death in my time but I never saw anything like what happened here. Be glad you missed it when it was fresh."

"I reviewed the records you shared with the SID," McKinley told her, "I'm still having nightmares over what I saw."

"Me too," Ro confided.

"There are no other ships in the system," Delaney reported.

"Last time they hugged a starship to the primary moon over the planet," Ro told him.

"Waitasec," Delaney cautioned them, "She's right. I'm detecting a starship just meters from the moon's surface and station keeping. Must be SOP for them."

"Which means they get lots of practice," Ro had decided long ago.

"Alert the admiral and hail that ship," McKinley ordered.

"They're raising shields and breaking what they call orbit," Delaney warned.

"Raise shields as well," McKinley decided.

"They've armed weapons and are attempting a phaser lock," Delaney cautioned his CO.

"Arm weapons systems. Stand by for photon torpedo spread. Liefers, get your people to the hangar," McKinley quickly ordered.

"Put me on screen," Ro insisted, "I'll talk to them."

"Adjust the viewer intake," Striker told Delaney.

"Attention, we're the representatives you agreed to meet with. Our terms were to meet on the surface. We'll assume standard orbit after you power down your systems and then when we both lower our shields we can transport to the surface," Ro said with steel nerves.

"They're powering down weapons," Delaney reported.

"Do the same," Striker instructed.

"They've lowered shield sand are on approach for a standard orbit over New B'hala," Delaney announced.

"Drop our shields as well," McKinley ordered, "Pedrossi, put us in orbit right behind them. Caplan explained their chase weaponry is pretty light."

"Glad to hear it," Pedrossi muttered.

"Delaney, Colonel, if you'd join Admiral Johnson in the transporter," McKinley requested.

"My team is already standing by," Delaney was quick to tell him.

"I don't like this," Striker confessed.

"Neither do I," McKinley readily replied, "It feels like we're in someone's crosshairs. Someone besides the ship in front of us. I want a careful watch over the system's gas giants."

"You think they're lying doggo inside?" Striker understood the request.

"Let's say it's an open option for them," McKinley assessed, "Like Ro said, they have too much practice at this."

Johnson was immediately relieved he'd left Hadek and DeBoer on the ship when they materialized at New B'hala's central colonial outpost. Blood and gore was caked everywhere. Even the sporadic rains hadn't washed it all away yet. Two of Delaney's three Security officers looked extremely ill. Johnson was having trouble holding his own exquisite lunch down.

"It never gets better," Ro grumbled.

"You saw this when all the bodies were here?" Delaney asked.

"We collected the bodies and ran forensics to determine who the attackers were," Ro said, "We were here for days."

"It's so...brazen," a security ensign gagged.

"Some of these people were sacrificed to the Prophets on the altars within the temples," Ro explained, "Even in our darkest days, the Bajora never did that."

A crewman lost his lunch and two others did at that time. Johnson was a shade of green that was natural for Vulcans. Not so much for humans.

"You're doing well, Commander," Ro remarked to Delaney.

"Hannah has literally turned people inside out in front of me," Delaney reminded her his wife was a Kelvan disguised as a human.

"Built up a tolerance then," Ro understood.

"I wish to apologize for the décor. It was a cultural and spiritual misunderstanding," Ilaina Ghemor said as she and her guards approached. Ro went for her phaser pistol on her hip. She had it drawn and aimed at Ghemor as the guards raised their own Type III phasers from the same era as their ships.

"Please, Colonel," Ghemor wasn't afraid, "I've seen this moment. You won't shoot me."

"Colonel, please," Johnson was recovering now that a crisis was unfolding in front of him.

"The Prophets took me in when we crossed through the Celestial Temple. They took all of us. The spoke to me and showed me why I was chosen as their Emissary. I'd had it all wrong before," Ghemor attempted to explain. Ro saw that same light of faith that filled Neela's eyes whenever the Prophets spoke to her. Which Ghemor even more dangerous than before when she was just a charlatan. All of her guards shared her renewed faith.

"Admiral, get us out of here," Ro insisted.

"Colonel, they can go as they please. It's you I wish to speak to," Ghemor smiled, "I have things to show you back home."

"We came on good faith," Johnson protested.

"Leave. Now," Ghemor commanded. The guards all aimed at the Starfleet officers.

"Starships emerging from gas giants, Captain," the Tactical relief called out.

"Liefers, get your pilots in their fighters and get ready to roll them on my command. Pedrossi, standby to break orbit and plot us a vector out of here when we clear the gravity well and can engage warp drive," McKinley ran down his mental list of things to do, "Other than that, standby to raise shields but do not arm weapons."

Striker commed the Transporter Room, "Chief, get our people out of there!"

"I have them. Or at least, most of them," the chief glumly informed him.

"Raise shields!" McKinley called.

"Opposing starship has raised its shields and armed chase weapons" Tactical told him.

"Pedrossi, time to show off," Striker decided.

"Lots of moving obstacles. My kind of thing, of course," Pedrossi dug into it as he pushed the ship to full impulse as they broke orbit. He went to warp as soon as he had a clear vector out of the system and back to the Wormhole terminus. The turbolift opened and Johnson and Delaney spilled out.

"Jim! We have to go back!" Johnson warned him.

"We just got out of there without shots being fired," Striker was confused.

"They have Ro," Delaney got down to it as he took over Tactical, "And their entire squadron has gone to warp and are headed deeper into uncharted space."

"Except the Obsidianhas been there," McKinley recalled.

"The Bajorans won't appreciate us leaving Ro behind," Johnson predicted, "Not in this climate."

"Why take her?" Striker was still confused without facts to go on.

"Ghemor is not only alive but she's had a religious conversion and is still in command of a theocracy," Johnson explained, "This whole scenario was to get Ro here without her ship in support."

"How did Ghemor react to Ro?" McKinley asked, "Is this personal somehow?"

"They've never met before," Johnson recalled from the Militia's brief, "Ghemor isn't the woman that Macen broadcast across the quadrant. She's changed."

"Into what?" Striker inquired.

"Neela," Johnson said grimly. "She has that same confidence in the Prophets. She said she met them when the Ascendant crossed through the Wormhole. She's on a mission for her gods."

"Then we need help," McKinley correctly assessed, "You need to talk the Bajorans down and we need hard data on where the Ascendant went."

"Ghemor said she wanted Ro to see her home. I can only assume it's the Ascendant home world," Johnson recalled.

"We need Neela," Delaney suggested.

"Maybe Commander Grace can help as well?" Striker asked. Her status as a Kelvan infiltrator was still under a cloak of secrecy amongst the senior staff. But she'd demonstrated her ability to alter states of matter with her Attuner.

"Striker, make us a wish list of helpers and we'll see who we can gather with the Bajorans' support," McKinley went into crisis management mode.

"Even with Hannah, we can't take on a whole planet," Delaney reminded them.

"The Militia may not accept Starfleet's assistance after this," Striker glumly warned them.

"Make the list anyway," Johnson decided, "I'll try and sell it to General Kira."

"What about Starfleet Command?" Liefers interjected, "How will they respond?"

"They may not want us to stay involved," Pedrossi spoke up, "So we have to be ready to choose what we're going to do."

"Points well taken," Johnson acknowledged, "I'll report to Kira first, then Starfleet Command."

"I'll address the issue with Commodore Saavik and get her take on where she'll stand of we have to defy orders to stay involved," McKinley volunteered.

"God help us," Delany muttered just loud enough to be heard across the bridge.

"Somehow I don't think Admiral Clancy likes us anymore," Liefers complained.

Saavik was willing to ignore orders to retrieve the Intrepid should she pursue a rescue operation. But Starfleet demanded that the starship report to DS9 and Bajor to present their case for why they shouldn't continue to be involved. Johnson received those exact orders at the time McKinley was getting dressed down by Lavelle for losing a Bajoran national and making his joint command more divided than it already was because of recent tensions. Lavelle kindly skipped over the part where he was responsible for starting the wars with Cardassia and Bajor.

Clancy had personally overruled Pulaski's opinion to reinstate Lavelle as Starfleet's CO for Deep Space 9. He left it to Colonel Cenn Deska to address the majority of the crew, which were Bajorans, of the developing situation. Commander Vaughn quietly met with McKinley after his fateful encounter with Lavelle.

"The Defiant and her crew stand by the Intrepid," Vaughn promised him, "They won't leave our former Captain in Ascendant hands. Especially not Ghemor's."

"It's already appreciated," McKinley promised him, "How will you get past Lavelle?"

"Saavik is already gaming a support request for the Defiant. We'll be awaiting you in the Gamma Quadrant," Vaughn told him.

"I can't imagine Bob is having a better go of it right now," McKinley voiced. Vaughn merely grimaced.

"You what?" Kira was on her feet and her chair was rolling away from her, "You lost my colonel?"

"It was a perfectly executed ambush," Johnson sourly explained, "Iliana Ghemor is still the Ascendants' political and spiritual leader."

"That makes it so much better," Kira groused.

"We have a plan to get her back," Johnson promised.

"No! You've done enough damage for one week," Kira sternly told him, "We'll handle this on our own."

"General, we stand a better chance on technical merits alone," Johnson defied her wrath.

"Technically, you allowed my officer to get kidnapped," Kira retorted.

"Ro surrendered to secure our release. That's why she gave me her spare comm badge," Johnson handed it over.

"Why the push all of a sudden?" Kira changed topics, "Why the sudden demand to meet with the Ascendant?"

Johnson informed her of Clancy's motivation.

"Great," Kira threw her arms in the air, "Just when I was starting believe the Militia and Starfleet could still work together and maybe forget about a little war and invasion that just happened in our space."

"I believe we can. Starting now," Johnson pledged.

"I doubt Starfleet will just let you assist us," Kira retorted.

"Frankly, I don't give a damn what Starfleet Command says. She was lost on our watch and we'll move hell itself to get her back" Johnson told her.

Kira calmed herself, "Okay, I believe you. What do you need from me?"

"I need Colonel Ro's ship involved. And I need Brin Macen on the case. Starfleet won't reach out to him but you can," Johnson told her, "Ro is his friend and Brin doesn't abandon his friends. He's also the only person in this quadrant to have tracked the Ascendant back to their own world."

"Anyone else?" Kira was conceding his points.

"We need Neela and only you can provide her," Johnson stated, "She's the only counter balance other than Ben Sisko that could sway the Ascendant and maybe Ghemor herself."

"She really believes she met the Prophets and is their Emissary? For real this time?" Kira was dubious.

"I saw it in her eyes and heard it in her voice. She's a true believer in whatever encounter she had," Johnson advised her, "Which makes taking Ro all the more confusing."

"If she can convert Ro, Ghemor can convert anyone," Kira said.

"Which might be the point of the entire exercise," Johnson realized.

"We still can't explain how Ghemor's surgically altered corpse ended up in Obsidian Order hands and now she's walking around as a full Cardassian," Kira complained, "Even the CIB can't account for it."

"Maybe she really is an Emissary to the Ascendant and it just took this long for her to believe it herself" Johnson theorized.

"It did take years for Captain Sisko to finally believe it," Kira recalled, "And they finally called him to themselves before releasing him with a message for the people."

She referred to Sisko's disappearance which the Bajorans accredited to him as being with their Prophets in the Celestial Temple. A claim he himself made when he returned from wherever. Starfleet still refused to believe his connection to the wormhole aliens was viable. But they dropped the AWOL charges in exchange for his voluntary retirement. Which let him settle down and raise his new family on Bajor as he'd intended all along.

Captain Yates kept up with her work for the Bajoran Ministry of Transportation after a year of indefinite leave. Giving Sisko a chance to raise their child the way he'd never been able to spend concentrated time with Jake. Sisko greeted the daily pilgrims and extolled them to hold fast to their faith. Starfleet was uncomfortable with a high ranking former officer having gone so completely "native". They disavowed any and all statements that Sisko made in reference to them and the Federation.

Despite the clarity of how he'd predicted that the Federation would eject Bajor and even invade in a contest to secure Deep Space 9 and the Wormhole access. Thus leading to Starfleet's defeats in the Third and Fourth Battles for Deep Space 9. The Bajoran government, upon hearing Sisko's dire predictions, had financially begun to prepare by storing up latinum reserves and placing the Bajoran litas and leks back on the financial exchange markets despite the Federation being a "cashless" society. Starfleet's eventual concession to Bajor had elevated the heavily traded lek and the lesser valued lita to record strengths in foreign exchange rate. Everybody loved a winner.

The Cardassian lek traded higher than ever before after the Federation sued for peace from the very war they'd begun. Both the Bajoran Republic and the Cardassian Union had received infusions of tens of thousands of bars of gold pressed latinum as reparations from the wars. Their capital reserves were flush and domestic and interstellar trading as they rebuilt infrastructure and expanded their fleets only made their domestic currencies grow in value.

No one but a few adept accountants kept track of the 0.5% exchange commission of these hard currency transfers that went directly to President Ardra. The transfers were set in latinum so the strength of the leks and lita only increased in returns compared to other currencies. Bajoran litas had always traded in slips of latinum while both the Bajoran and Cardassian lek traded in strips. Both lek currencies now valued in historic highs nearing one bar apiece.

Quark was making a killing in currency exchanges for interstellar travelers interested in acquiring local currency. He simply one slip from each lita and one strip from whichever lek. With Bajoran shipyards expanding out into the colonies and orders for freighters at an all time high as merchant fleets aged out, and the value of a good Bajoran merchantman recognized, orders surpassed production capability. Which was why three additional shipyards were going into operation at Golana, Free Haven, and Dreon VII.

Free Haven bordered Breen and Tzenkethi space and had endured decades for aiding parties. Now Ro's forces kept a permanent presence there as well patrolled surrounding space. Free Haven Port had been built with the idea of creating a defensible position outside of the Bajor system that the Colonial Defense Forces could rally around should an incursion occur. With the loss of Federation membership, Starfleet patrols had ended. They only maintained the Defiant's permanent presence at DS9. Lavelle would refuse aid requests and everyone knew it.

The Bajoran government had been willing to hand him over to Cardassian justice. It took a peace negotiation to buy his freedom. Lavelle said all the right things but he was ordered to. Fleet Admiral Clancy wanted Lavelle to monitor the Bajorans and their developments in the Gamma Quadrant. Starfleet had divided itself over the Bajorans in a way it never had even over the Maquis. Those perilous days in and of themselves as defectors left Starfleet to join the terrorists. Fortunately the true numbers had been small but disproportionate amongst the enlisted crewmen from the affected colonies. The Maquis had been doomed by being criminalized by both the Federation and the Cardassians. The Bajorans only fought one foe. A foe that had previously been their staunchest ally. And their fiercest former foe became their ally.

The fact that Bajor and Cardassia were now in league with another gave Clancy pause. It only increased Bajor's chances of becoming a threat in her view. A threat that had repelled four attempts by Starfleet to retake DS9 and control over the Bajor Sector.

The Federation Council, in its contrition, blocked Clancy from taking her wrath out on Outbound Ventures by cancelling their SID contract and forcing them to pay restitution for the damages they'd inflicted upon Starfleet vessels. Without Outbound Ventures' support the Bajorans would've fallen right away and Bajor would've been occupied by Starfleet forces. The role reversal with the Cardassians then made that outcome complete.

Instead, the Federation was forced to deal with Bajor as an equal rather than a supplicant. That galled Clancy. Starfleet had to cooperate with the Militia to run DS9. The draw down in forces after the Dominion War had shifted personnel away from a post where the Bajorans were willing to assume the roles rather than juggle responsibilities. Starfleet's vulnerabilities becoming exposed by the Mars Massacre and the short lived conflicts with Bajor and Cardassia. Too many experienced senior officers had been killed in the Dominion War or retired in the peacetime that followed.

So too was it plain that too many experienced officers had sympathized with Bajor and disregarded their duties to the Federation to defend an ostensible enemy. The fact that it was proven the war was unjustly conceived of and executed by a corrupt President and her Cabinet with the assistance of misguided Federation Councilors meant little to Clancy. Their duty to Starfleet dictated that they fight on behalf of the Federation not against its apparent foe. The fact that the Federation declaring war on an opponent before the other had made a declaration or preemptively attacked Federation worlds was a historical anomaly. It had never occurred before. The Federation Council vowed it would never occur again. But times and politicians changed.

Clancy was convinced there was a smoking gun to be found with the Ascendant, hence her demand that Johnson open negotiations and root out the Bajorans' treachery. Thanks to Commodore Oh, Clancy saw enemies everywhere. Even within Starfleet. At least the self-righteous Picard was no longer around to dare lecture Starfleet Command on duty and obligation. They had a duty to their own people that outweighed any promises made to an enemy.

Picard had given his word to the Romulans. So he took the blame for Starfleet's change of heart. His subsequent self-imposed exile to his vineyard seemed a damning enough indictment to most Romulans. Even such die-hard opponents to the Federation as Praetor Tal'aura and Chairwoman of the Tal Shiar Sela had wanted to believe Picard's promises. Only the influence of Proconsul Donatra had kept the remaining Romulan forces on task with the evacuations and not engaged in some nihilistic path of vengeance against the Federation.

Still, Sela lobbied Oh long and hard to be appointed Starfleet Security Director. To which, Captain Oh made herself indispensible to the outgoing Director, Vice Admiral Edward Noyce. Arranging, at his insistence that she become the lowest ranked Security Director in Starfleet's service history. Commodore Oh had arranged for Clancy's unlawfully detained Starfleet officers and security contractors to be held in Cardassian prisons. The same prisoners Clancy allowed the Federation to use as a pretext for war. The very prisoners Lavelle had led a squadron of starships to "liberate". And whom Clancy had deported to the Iotian Federation before Starfleet could debrief them.

Clancy, the embattled Starfleet Commander on whose watch the Mars Massacre occurred, was under three distinct Internal Affairs investigations and an SID probe as well as Federation Security inquiry on behalf of Federation Council. Easily the most controversial Starfleet Commander-in-Chief since the organization's history began as the United Earth Starfleet. Certainly never since it became the United Federation of Planets Starfleet. Yet Clancy was ultimately destined to cling to power for another fourteen years until all of her decisions came under scrutiny again after the revelation of the true source behind the Mars Massacre and its subsequent Synthetics Ban became revealed. Also, Commodore Oh would stand disclosed as General Oh of the Tal Shiar's secret Zhat Vash. Clancy, who relied upon Oh as her right hand, would not survive Oh's disgrace. But what remained to be seen in the present was the depth of the secret pacts and deals Clancy would make to retain her fifth rank pip.

Clancy's ambition to become Starfleet Commander became revealed in her days in Starfleet Academy. Over the decades, Clancy became a political animal. When the Admiralty presented their shortlist of candidates for Commander-on-Chief, the President confirmed Clancy the next day. Johnson felt used. Ro was paying the price for that use and abuse.

"Get my officer back," Kira told him.

"That's a personal promise," Johnson assured her.

"It'd better be," Kira growled.

Brin Macen was leaving his offices aboard the Outbound Ventures' corporate space station, Serenity. Captain Thomas William Riker commanded the station. His wife, the Joined Trill, Lisea Danan, was his XO and a famed stellar cartographer. She was also one of Macen's exes and his former XO during their Maquis days aboard the decommissioned Starfleet Blackbird-class scoutship, the SS Odyssey. Having reassembled dozens of his former Maquis into working for Outbound Ventures, Macen was looking forward the twice weekly gathering of ex-confederates. Sito Jaxa was an honorary member.

"Commander, you have an urgent request coming from General Kira's offices," his aide Bryce Fanning, caught him on his way out. Macen stiffened. The war had ended less than a month before and tensions between Bajor and the Federation were still running high. Tensions between Starfleet, beyond the Special Investigations Division, and Outbound Ventures were also running at an all time high. And considering Vice Admiral Edward Jellico's initial antagonism and Fleet Admiral Clancy's ongoing opposition to hiring security contractors that said a lot.

Clancy herself had inspired a coterie of rival contractors to engage in a shooting match with Outbound Ventures. The largest corporation being founded by Clancy's discreet partner in an extramarital affair. An affair she'd begun with her closest friend's groom thirty minutes before the wedding ceremony. One that persisted until he went on the run after the collapse of the hostilities between corporations.

Clancy herself had been recorded suggesting to her bed partner that he and his subcontractors could acquire the SID contract should Outbound Ventures be found in, or forced into, malfeasance such as firing unprovoked on a Federation flagged vessel.

But the contracting rivals fired upon Outbound Ventures' corporate ships without provocation. Which created a private little war spurred on by Clancy's offer. Those captured by Outbound Ventures were diverted by elite Starfleet Security agents to black site prisons to eventually end up in Cardassian prisons. All services provided first by Captain Oh and then the newly promoted Commodore Oh.

The rank commodore replacing rear admiral junior grade. Johnson and SID Director Amanda Forger had been promoted to Rear Admiral rather than be relabeled as commodores. Other promotions included Nechayev's long overdue promotion from Vice Admiral to Admiral. Leonard James Akaar also made the tranistion to Admiral. Rear Admiral Jellico became a Vice Admiral. Picard had been elevated to Rear Admiral before his resignation. Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway recently ranked up to Admiral. Only Vice Admiral Bill Ross was frozen in grade owing to his revealed collusions with Section 31. Only his war record had spared him from a court martial.

Others in Starfleet Command and starship commanders had been implicated by S31 Director James Fowler before his suicide. The SID now occupied the London Starfleet Data Archive complex that had been S31's headquarters on Earth. No one knew anything about S31 building a secret station out in the Taurus Reach and it being appropriated by Cell 51. The various splinters from Section 31 had united under Cell 51 and Acting Agency Director Dylan Sorbo. The operatives code-named the Presider and the Gray Cardinal still oversaw the Political Action Arm among other operations. Elena Kita had overseen the development of the Omicron Ceti III project and now guided its deployment. Lauren Ryder served as Sorbo's top lieutenant gathering the splinters under Cell 51.

Thanks to Macen's interference in the Orion Syndicate, handing over its chieftain named Gomer, over to the Iotian Federation's Five Families dethroned Gomer as head of the Syndicate. Gomer had decided to threaten Celeste Rockford to end their supposed rivalry for Macen's affections. However, Macen had made his choice when he married Rockford. Not that there's ever been a choice for Macen. The only conceivable rival Rockford could've had would have been Gul Lyoti Mariska, a Cardassian monarchist Macen had befriended decades ago when she released him from Cardassian custody. He'd introduced her to her prophesied Chrysalis Child, the true heir to Cardassia's overthrown monarchy. Now Mariska served as both Katreen Dervin's personal security coordinator but also as the head of Legislative Security over the Detepa Council and its Castellan, Rekena Garan.

Macen knew Clancy was under multiple investigations including Federation Council inquiries. The Federation Attorney General was coordinating with the Starfleet Judge Advocate General to process the investigations being conducted by Starfleet IA, SID, and Federation Security on behalf of the AG and JAG. Clancy blamed a lot of her recent legal woes on Outbound Ventures and his team in particular. Clancy was a good bureaucrat and an excellent political player but she was woefully lacking in humility. She always found or designated a scapegoat for her shortcomings. It was the SID and Starfleet Intelligence that took the brunt of her current ire.

She was caught in a legal quandary. She'd ordered the very illegal comm taps that incriminated her with Solarian Security Systems and their extemporaneous conflict with Outbound Ventures. The question JAG faced was whether or not to prosecute Admiral Nechayev and Rear Admiral Forger for carrying out that illegal order. Even though it yielded the very evidence that implicated Clancy in spurring the attacks on. Which also raised the question if the evidence was admissible.

All of the prosecutions potential witnesses had either "disappeared" to and from a Cardassian prison it seemed. Evidence obtained by the SID indicated most if not all the witnesses were in hiding within the Iotian Federation's borders. Solarian's founder, and husband to one Starfleet admiral and the lover to another, had cashed out his savings on the banking cartel world of Barrinor and fled. Starfleet was still actively seeking these people out. Unwittingly utilizing Commodore Oh and Starfleet Security, the very woman and Division that had illegally detained the personnel in question to begin with before cutting a deal for the Cardassians to house the prisoners.

A fact Oh used to frame the Cardassians for in response to inquiries from elements within the Federation Council. Oh referred the matter to Vice Admiral Ross and Ross dispatched a squadron of starships under DS9's CO, Commander Sam Lavelle. Lavelle broadcast his intentions to the Cardassians before the attack that "freed" the prisoners just as he was ordered to by Commodore Oh. Thus enraging the Cardassian government and its people.

But Garan outsmarted the incoming authoritarian president and the stoked up Federation Council. The Castellan ordered the Cardassian Guard to take up defensive positions on the border and to reinforce it. But they were also under orders not to cross the border for any reason. Thus aptly demonstrating to the wider galaxy that the Federation had turned aggressor for the very first time. All because the Cardassian Ministry of Justice wanted to hold Lavelle accountable for Cardassian deaths, the deaths of legitimate prisoners, and the destruction of government property when Starfleet destroyed the prison complex.

The Bajorans, unwilling to comply with declaring war, were cast out of the Federation and attacked as co-conspirators in a nonexistent existentially threatening plot. Starfleet had learned that it forces would divide over Bajor, unlike the earlier and unpopular Demilitarized Zone. But at least the DMZ halted a war. Preemptive aggression against the Bajoran Republic served no purpose. It was all illegal, so the President and the Federation Council suspended the UFP Constitution.

Ardra kept the Ministry of Propaganda and renamed it the Ministry of Information. She also kept the original staff. Its sole purpose to deflect attention away from Ardra's lucrative land and raw resource sales. One Deeper Beta Quadrant colony even awoke to find themselves sold into slavery. Only to liberated by the Patriots. A band of disgruntled colonists led by former Maquis.

Starfleet's distraction during the war efforts increased the colonies' vulnerability to persistent raider attacks. The colonies simply declared independence and began a de facto war with the raiders in armed civilian ships. Many of which came from Maquis storehouses in the Alpha Quadrant. Others were retrofitted by the same engineering teams that had worked on Maquis weapons and shielding installations. The colonists had also begun hoarding small arms and light to heavy ordnance. Harry Mudd III found his services in demand once again. As did Thadiun Okona and Harry Mudd IV. Mudd IV was just relieved that his sister wasn't involved.

Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd always seemed to upstage Harcourt Fenton Mudd IV in the eyes of their father. Mudd III and Mudd IV were scheming and smuggling together all the while looking for opportunities to cheat the other one. Mudd III was just glad neither Harri nor his idiot son knew about their other sister. Fortunately for Mudd III, Mudd Kenra was busy elsewhere just as Harri Mudd was busy with Outbound Ventures. Mudd III was jealous of Harri. Mudd had always had a soft spot despite being a criminal genius and Harry knew the draw Harri had for Macen's group. He'd felt their allure when he was supplying the Maquis.

Word was Ro was now a Colonel in the Bajoran Militia after being driven out of Starfleet after making captain. She wouldn't rat Quark out and was blackmailed into resigning her commission. Macen ran an interstellar enterprise and worked with the Federation, the Bajorans, the Cardassians, the Iotians, and even the Orion Syndicate on occasion.

But Mudd IV had bad blood between himself and Macen. Harry Jr. had been dumb enough to escape custody with Macen's runabout. That hadn't ended well. So Harry Sr. was keeping his distance as well. But he thought he might have to warn Harri of a developing situation that might become a family affair. A severely dysfunctional family affair.

Macen sat at his desk and activated the monitor. Kira and Johnson appeared sitting side by side.

"Bob?" Macen was confused by this, "Aren't you supposed to be in the Gamma Quadrant?"

"I was," Johnson laid how Clancy's ambition drove the Intrepid crew into an ambush laid out by Ghemor and resulted in Ro's capture.

"I'm in," Macen pledged, "No fees involved. Laren's a friend and I don't abandon my friends."

"I'm certain we could at least reimburse your expenses," Kira promised.

"No need," Macen told her, "It goes back to our Maquis days. If she's in trouble, I'll gladly assist."

"We'll need Neela to counter Ghemor," Johnson then laid out his fragile, opening strategy.

"It could work. But if Ghemor and her captors really did have an experience with the Prophets inside the Celestial temple then they'll be hard to dissuade. They'll truly believe, as Ghemor does, that she's their Emissary," Macen warned him, "Ghemor specifically laid everything out to capture Ro. Why her? That's the key to this."

"She's agnostic," Kira stated, "I suppose of Ghemor could convince Ro of her legitimacy, she could persuade all Bajorans."

"Now we have motive," Macen told them, "And a destination. They'll go on a pilgrimage together to where it all begins for the Ascendant."

"Sinhera," Johnson recalled the name of the planet the Bajora had conquered.

"Where the Bajora reshaped a world they assimilated instead of being assimilated. It's also where the USS Gemini eventually ended up. Its capture pushing an industrialized planet into space as they reverse engineered the technology. Which happens to be on par with the Bajoran fleet the Republic bought from the Iotians," Macen spilled.

"At least we could afford a step above their econo-line," Kira snorted. It was made up of United Earth Starfleet starships designs. Including the NV-class that Joelle Jones had stolen and now Harri Mudd had abortively owned one of.

"It'll take us two hours to deploy. Then we're four sectors away. So you should see us some time in the next couple of Bajor standard 26 hour days," Macen estimated.

Shannon Forger was the captain of the Nova-class Obsidian but Macen as Mission Commander was her ultimate master. Forger was also Admiral Forger's youngest sister and former brother. Forger had fully transitioned and no one aboard had ever known she was trans until Tom Riker pushed the issue. Something he regretted now.

Forger's own XO, Joelle Jones, was another former Maquis and had frequently been at odds with Macen and Ro. Jones had commanded her starship once upon time as a free booting privateer. Now she was getting groomed for own Outbound Ventures command.

"We'll be expecting you on the other side of the Wormhole. Elias and theDefiant crew are demanding to be part if the operation as well," Johnson informed Macen.

"Militia support?" Macen inquired of Kira.

"I couldn't keep theFist of the Prophets crew away even if I gave them a direct order. Admiral Johnson has persuaded me to hold back further Colonial Defense Forces until such time as you or Starfleet request additional aid," Kira was unhappy with the bargain and let it show. Kira herself was a doer not a delegator. She'd led from the front during the brief war with the Federation. Retaking DS9 for Bajor. Having invoked the proprietary clause of the agreement with Starfleet letting then administrate the former Terok Nor, Starfleet had been ejected from the station's operations. Except a dedicated corps of officers that wanted to help end the senseless hostilities.

"Everyone will be in position by the time you arrive," Kira pledged.

"We'll get it done and uncover whatever plot Ghemor has rutting around in her brain," Macen promised.

"I have to go help Jim ignore some recall orders," Johnson briefly smiled, "It'll be good to be working together again."

"Always a pleasure, Bob. Tell Jim we expect to be hosted in the Officer's Mess and you'll be doing the cooking," Macen grinned.

"I'll pass that along," Johnson's smile warmed, "Give my best to Celeste."

"Whom I have to tell about this sudden departure," Macen replied, "And I have to ruin Shannon and Joelle's evening plans."

"This has ruined everybody's plans, trust me," Kira intoned solemnly. Which just demonstrated how the initially awkward and occasionally antagonistic relationship between Ro and Kira had changed. Fanning stayed late to ruin Forger and Jones' separate evenings out. They began the recall process to get the crew and the SID team assembled and aboard the Obsidian.

Macen gathered Rockford, Tom Riker, Danan, Colonel Anara and Neela. CIB Agent Ziva Delain took an active interest in the case as well owing to Ghemor's involvement.

"You can confirm that Iliana Ghemor still controls these people?" Delain sharply asked.

"I trust the source," Macen replied.

"Ghemor was last seen on Cardassia Prime spouting anti-Bajoran and anti-Federation rhetoric. I doubt she could find and a mass audience regarding Bajor today but my people's anger has been rightfully stoked against the self-righteous and treacherous Federation," Delain was a festering boil of anger.

"The acts of first aggression were an anomaly in Federation policy going back to the founding," Riker reminded her.

"We aren't at the founding. Any people willing to sacrifice colonial holdings in the name of' 'peace' can't be trusted. If they're willing to lose faith with their own citizens, they'll lose faith even quicker with their perceived enemies," Delain retorted.

"I doubt you'll find anyone in the room to argue with you," Danan reminded her. Macen, Danan, and Riker were all ex-Maquis. Anara and Neela were Bajoran and therefore twice as stung by current policies as the Cardassian agent. Rockford was the only potentially neutral party. But even the Angosian was enraged by the Federation's recent decisions and fear mongering.

"It's the griffing Tarsus Wars propaganda all over again," she'd complained at the time. The only positives notes had been the revelation of who was Bajor's ally and friend in the matter and how far they were willing to go to defend principle. The last had been the stunning revelation that Captain James T. Kirk, or at least a version of him, had emerged from the Nexus onto Veridian III during the clean of up of the Enterprise-D wreckage.

"Captain Quirk" had studied modern Starfleet technology and protocols while basing out of DS5 and penetrating into the Delta Quadrant in a Mission Scout, thereby making several notable first contacts in the Federation's favor. Captain Chakotay of the USS Voyager had trailed Kirk's path before being recalled for the war effort. Admiral Janeway had arranged for Chakotay to assume command of the prototype USS Protostar for his deeper advance mission back into the Delta Quadrant. Kirk had been returned to Starfleet Command to be evaluated for a return to command when the Voyager returned to deliver Captain Chakotay to his new command.

Voyager herself had been retrofitted with a quantum slipstream drive. The first successful conversion by Dr. Leah Brahms since the Vesta-class had been developed, purpose built around the drive. Brahms now served aboard the Galaxy-class USS Challenger with Captain Geordi LaForge after assisting LaForge with refitting the Enterprise-E with a slipstream drive while on mission in deep space. The Challenger was a technology test bed for the Starfleet Corps of Engineers and the Advanced Starship Design Bureau. The SCE and ASDB wanted a platform to test emerging technologies on deemed unwarranted to building an entire starship prototype around. It was LaForge and Brahms' role to adapt the technologies to existing starship designs and make them work.

Kirk was assigned command of the Voyager and returned to deep space exploration of the Delta Quadrant in the Protostar's wake. Kirk was vaguely disappointed not to be receiving command of the Enterprise-E now that Picard was no longer in command of her. But Clancy's appointee would retain command of the flagship assigned to exploring the Deeper Beta Quadrant. Still, half of each of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants were charted and explored. Half of the Gamma Quadrant was hostile territory while the slimmest sliver of the Delta Quadrant had ever been seen. If Kirk couldn't have an Enterprise, then he'd take the widest frontier to explore.

Saavik oversaw the Gamma Quadrant's exploration missions. Chakotay was the vanguard of Starfleet's efforts in the Delta Quadrant while Kirk and Voyager remained closer to Deep Space 5. Chakotay and the Protostar would be enmeshed in a temporal cross rip as a species tried to prevent first contact by deploying agents from the future to install a weapon of horrific potential aboard the Protostar and force its return to Starfleet in the past where the weapon would activate a doomsday scenario for the Federation, Janeway herself had become obsessed with retrieving the Protostar and determining the fate of her captain and crew.

Commanding a recreated USS Dauntless from designs retained from Voyager's original voyage through the Delta Quadrant, Janeway hunted down every lead pertaining to the Protostar and its fate. But following the mars Masscre the previous year, Starfleet contracted in on the Federation and the limited the scope of the very assets deployed on exploration missions. Other than the Protostar and Voyager, only three other vessels were exploring the Delta Quadrant.

The Enterprise-E was joined by rotating ships patrolling the Federation's presence in the Deeper Beta Quadrant. Also getting embroiled in the increasing resistance of the Patriots and their separatist colonies. Saavik only had four ships under her command with additional units based out of the Alpha Quadrant to be made available should the Dominion break its cold war policies and surge over its strictly self-enforced borders. Those units would detach from the 7th and 9th Fleets overseeing the Tholian, Cardassian, Tzenkethi, and Breen borders.

DS9 was the focal point for the Gamma Quadrant explorations as well as the renewed interest in the Alpha Quadrant, made available through a narrow passage between the Cardassian Farside border and the Breen Confederacy's established territories. Still, Breen and Romulan privateers were becoming a common sight in the neutral sectors along the borders. One reason the Militia's Colonial Defense Forces had built the J-class Free Haven Port.

Again, the Iotians had happily built the starbase and the K-class Waypoint in the Gamma Quadrant for an equitable fee. The Militia's burgeoning relationship with the Iotian Starfleet worried many within Starfleet Command. Especially the Starfleet Commander. Who saw the Militia as a relic destined to be swallowed whole by Starfleet and subsequently dismantled. But the Bajoran Republic's expansions of the Militia after Bajor gained admittance into the Federation seemed a slap in the face by Starfleet Command's standards. Especially after General Kira took control over the Joint Chiefs.

The First Minister and Chairperson seemingly guided more by warnings from an ex-Starfleet captain that supposedly had spent time with the Bajorans' gods. Starfleet traditionally downplayed Sisko's role in Bajoran religion. But they couldn't account for his disappearance just after the end of the Dominion War. Nor could they account for his reappearance in the Fire Caves eighteen months after he'd vanished there. Starfleet had happily accepted his retirement rather than prosecute him after his return and his "ravings" about events that he'd been shown regarding Bajor's future. Bajor entered the Federation against Sisko's advice. Thereby contradicting the very mission that had originally brought him to Bajor.

A contradiction that he'd spurred on twice when membership was offered. "Fortunately" the Republic accepted membership the second time over the warnings of the Emissary of the Prophets. So the Prophets took steps to secure Bajor's future. Steps that involved all the key players in the current drama.

"Ghemor has been touched by the Prophets," Neela advised them all, "This time; she might even have accepted that fact."

"So you're saying Ghemor really is the Emissary of the Prophets to the Ascendant?" Riker was skeptical.

"You should know the Prophets move in unexpected way," Neela chided him. Riker had to concede that point.

"Kira and Johnson insist you come along on any rescue mission," Macen told Neela.

"Then I'm coming too," Anara demanded.

"As will I," Delain voiced.

"We'll be happy to stay here," Danan grinned.

Riker, backed by Svetlana "Sveta" Korepanova and Kristiana "Kris" Liu, had become Outbound Ventures' premier strategist. Besides Serenity Station, he also commanded the Emden-class outrigger, the Indomitable. Riker's own relief officer, Christina Noble, also commanded the Blackbird-class, Solstice. Since the Nor-class station lacked Starfleet's tactical upgrades, she was more reliant on her outriggers for defense than DS9. Starfleet's Corps of Engineers had readily upgraded the Nor-class station's outmoded shield emitters. But they wouldn't address the weapons sails or install weapons systems. Because of this both ships rarely deployed beyond the Barrinor Sector and even then only in support of one of Macen's missions.

"Brin?" Riker sought clarification.

"You and Chris Noble are needed here," Macen concurred with Danan, "Lees is very right about that."

Danan gave Riker a victorious smile.

"Ro found commanding a space station limiting at times too," Macen offered.

"So we're talking a return trip to Sinhera?" Rockford inquired.

"Initially," Macen told her. Everyone except Neela looked startled by that.

"Very good, Commander," Neela said softly.

"I think Ghemor wants to brag up the Ascendancy's achievements in the name of the Prophets. We don't know what they've done or who've they've contacted beyond the massacre at New B'hala and their foray into the Alpha Quadrant. Call it a goodwill tour of faith if you want," Macen offered.

"The Commander speaks the words and will of the Prophets," Neela smiled, "Ghemor wishes to challenge Colonel Ro's lack of faith. We need to test the purity of Ghemor's newfound faith."

"Are they going to feel cooperative if we sail with a small flotilla of warships?" Anara asked.

"It'll get their attention," Rockford sighed.

"They'll want to cooperate. Just to boast to me how much they've achieved for the Prophets," Neela predicted.

"Sounds like a Kai I knew," Anara muttered. After the apostasy of Kai Winn Adami had been revealed, the Vedek Assembly was much more circumspect in it s next choice of kai. Unfortunately, he'd died in office just a few years later.

Afterwards it became a politically based popularity contest again. With candidate grooming Orders and plying the Assembly with promises of how Bajor's religion would look like under their leadership, considering that each Order would be the kai's partner. Everyone was promised everything and a majority soon ruled and life was upended as the new kai turned out to be more liberal than any kai before her. The libertines gloated and the conservatives bickered.

Some particularly restrictive orders, such as the one Winn rose in, threatened to break unity and appoint their own kai. It had taken the Emissary to quell the religious revolt. Evoking Kai Opaka's memory, Sisko reminded them of how in-fighting between Orders and the castes had led to Cardassia's easy victory over Bajor by dividing the people. The Occupation had unified the Bajorans as never before and the caste system was overturned never to be resurrected. Despite some conservative efforts to reinstate it.

Those same Orders wished for the First Ministers and the Ministry to resign and allow a new kai and the Vedek Assembly to govern Bajor. First Minister Astris had the vedeks and prylars preaching the message watched but she wouldn't have them arrested on charges of sedition until they had acted upon their pronouncements and actively attempted to overthrow the government and the sitting Vedek Assembly. But Kira had warned her the Constabulary was monitoring a greater acceptance of political violence amongst the so-called "spiritual" leaders in the movement. It was essentially an Alliance for Global Unity redux.

Kira knew that her faith bolstered her national patriotism. But these "spiritual nationalists" wanted to crown a theocrat who would then punish or imprison anyone whose beliefs differed in the slightest. Thereby recreating the Occupation's police state. Only this time, Bajorans would be oppressing Bajorans. The rally cry of "Bajor for Bajorans" had only intensified after the Federation's ejecting Bajor from membership and launching the illegal war against them.

All alien residents were to be deported if they won. Including the Emissary of the Prophets. Believing Sisko to be a False Emissary and Winn Adami the one true Emissary, re-scripting her final days as Kai. Dukat was widely accepted as the Emissary of the Pah-wraiths and Ghemor was gaining traction on her claims to have been the Emissary to the Ascendant. Winn was cast as the heroic figure that defeated Dukat and permanently imprisoned the Pah-wraiths at the cost of her own life. The Book of the Kosst Amojan had been destroyed when Dukat, possessed by the Koss'moran, fell into the Fire Caves with Sisko. The book's pages were incinerated, leaving only the covers and binding behind beside Winn's corpse. That was used to verify the heretics' claims.

So while prylars and vedeks typically interpreted Winn's last days as a desperate search of how to open the heretical book, there were those that spun the tale whereby Winn became the heroine who defeated the Prophets' enemies once and for all. This would herald in a "golden age" for Bajor once its surface was cleansed of all non-believers. People like Ro were to be excommunicated from the faith and banished from Bajor.

Neela was well aware of the developments since the various spiritual nationalists were courting her. They felt they could gain legitimacy by earning the support of a woman who had served Winn's ambitions even to her own detriment. A woman that had returned seemingly from the grave ten years after her "death". And had been anointed the Hand of the Prophets by the people.

It was little wonder Neela had fled to Serenity. No one doubted that the Prophets spoke to and through Neela. Not even Ro. Though she still termed them as wormhole aliens. Neela's own conversion to the pure faith coming while she'd been serving her prison sentence. The Bajoran courts were to execute her but the Federation intervened for clemency and Neela was sentenced to a life imprisonment. Of which she served less than three years.

First Minister Shakaar needed a disposable but plausible agent to infiltrate the Cardassian True Way movement. Winn suggested Neela to him. Paired with then-Major Anara, Neela's probation was the successful completion of the mission, which obliterated the True Way. Afterwards, Neela became Kia Winn's personal troubleshooter and agent within the duo of Neela and Anara as the Special Forces major dealt with interstellar security threats facing the Bajoran Republic.

Neela was no longer Winn's pawn but the Prophets spared Neela the anguish of Winn's apostasy until after Neela "magically" reappeared from certain death in space at the hands of a Jem'Hadar fighter craft. Anara had witnessed Neela's body being sucked into the vacuum of space. Then ten years later, she reappeared in a Bajoran monastery, not having aged a day. Neela shared with Colonel Anara how the Prophets had saved her and why. So when Neela departed Bajor for Serenity, Anara petitioned Kira for permission to set up shop on Serenity as the Militia's official liaison with the corporation.

Kira was happy to have Militia oversight on Neela and Outbound Ventures, whom the Militia paid a retainer to at Ro's urging. A retainer that paid off with Bajor's continued liberation by the corporation committing nearly all of its company fleet into the defense of the Bajor system.

Which bought the Bajorans precious time while Starfleet support began to arrive in defiance of official orders and Federation policies. Meanwhile, Macen's unit sought out the root behind the changes in Federation leadership and policies. Most of the security measures had been rolled back but the Federation Council was now seen with suspicion by many citizens and no one yet realized that President Ardra was a career criminal and confidence artist that was playing out her ultimate scam. Commodore Oh had buried or deleted Ardra's records at Acting Agency Director Sorbo's request. It paid to have Cell 51 owe her a favor.

"Shannon and Joelle are getting the Obsidian crew to their stations," Macen went on to explain, "We have an estimated hour before we can cast off."

"Liu has cleared her a traffic lane on the necessary approach vector and course," Riker promised him. Danan still had qualms about Jones. In the Maquis, Jones had sided with Michael Eddington's "total war" philosophy of embracing striking out at soft targets with any and all weapons made available. That included weapons of mass destruction that were outlawed by most civilized stellar nations. Even the Ferengi wouldn't deal in them.

But the Son'a had proven a willing partner to both the Maquis and later the Dominion. Until Picard and the Enterprise-E crew intervened in the operation over Ba'ku. The Son'a retained their provincial empire but reconciled with their parents on Ba'ku and began receiving treatment for their extreme age and genetic disorders. The Ba'ku, no longer simply shielded by the Briar Patch, became a Federation Protectorate. And like most it s protectorates were once again a vulnerable population. But now the Son'a defended them rather than tried to exploit them.

Part of the Federation coming to terms with the Son'a had been getting them to stop selling isolytic weapons and ketracil white. They signed on to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Khitomer Accords afterwards. After his resignation from Starfleet, Picard had taken a sabbatical on Ba'ku before returning to self-exile in the south of France.

"We'll be departing soon," Danan advised Macen, "Thad doesn't have much longer and we need to be there for Deanna and Will."

"And Kestra," Riker put in as well.

"Do what needs to be done. Sveta and Chris Noble can handle things while you're gone," Rockford urged them.

"Macen? Rockford? A word?" Lieutenant Christine "Chris" Pike interrupted their conference. Pike was Starfleet's liaison officer aboard the station. She worked with corporate CEO, Kathy Tyrol, to contract ships and crews for SID missions. Macen and Rockford joined Pike in the corridor.

"Look, I don't know how, but Starfleet Command learned of Ro's abduction. Clancy sent word to Admiral Forger specifically prohibiting you from searching for her," Pike told them.

"They can get stuffed," Rockford snorted.

"Inform Amanda that we aren't hiring on with the Militia to conduct a search and rescue op. We're going in as private and very concerned citizens of a stellar nation outside of the Federation," Macen explained, "Clancy can yell at Barrinor's diplomatic attaché and in turn get told to go to hell. No one tells Barrinor what to do. Not if they want their latinum deposits to be held."

Barrinor was a neutral world whose safety was guaranteed by interstellar treaties and mutual cooperation. The banking cartels that ran Barrinor held hard currency reserves for nearly every stellar power in two quadrants. Security was guaranteed because a raider or invader would face the combined wrath of all the depositors. In addition, Outbound Ventures was licensed by the Federation but its assets were registered in Barrinor.

The station orbited the fifth planet in the system, a glaciated colony world called Odin. Barrinor itself was a Class-M world that was third in the system from its primary. Barrinor itself had been a Federation colony in the late 22nd Century but declared independence in the early 23rd Century. It began holding investments for neighboring planets in the 23rd Century as the Federation was abolishing currency exchanges. Soon, the treaty system began and more and more major investors began depositing funds in Barrinor's vaults and playing money markets through its currency exchanges. Governments also began issuing bonds for sale based on repayment made with interest off of their Gross National Product figures. Planets that defaulted on their debts found their planetary assets nationalized and seized by creditors through arbitration made through Barrinor's financial courts. Gold pressed latinum bars being the reserve currently that all other currencies exchanged for at variable rates.

Bajor found itself in an enviable position because it had never retired its commodity and currency exchanges even while adhering to the Federation's gift credit financial system. The Bajoran Republic utilized two currencies that traded at different values. The lita was the domestic currency valued in slips of latinum while the foreign exchange Bajoran lek, a holdover from the Occupation, was valued in strips or even bars, as it currently was now that Bajor's accounts were filled with bars of latinum. The Cardassian lek had also seen a phenomenal rise in value following the Federation's reparations payments.

The Federation's own vast reserves were depleted to a degree that hadn't been seen since the Dominion War. Trading partners looked at that fact when deciding to engage in deals with the Federation government. Especially new potential partners that the Federation had just made contact with. The query was always the same: am I guaranteed payment? Which at this point, the Federation's outflow of latinum exceeded the intake. Which meant the bond market was an enticing new frontier for the Federation's treasurers and accountants. It also meant it needed to find more latinum to mine or rare resources, such as dilithium, to barter with.

Currently, the Iotians and the Klingons dominated the arms market. Each selling less advanced ships and small arms to undeveloped worlds or aspiring criminal cartels and pirates. But the Federation had depots filled with decommissioned starships and vaults filled with small arms that were never decommissioned, just taken out of service. Ardra was propelling the Federation into cutting deals with colonies and former protectorates to sell them weapons and ships. As well as cultivating new clients. Engaging in direct competition with the Iotians and Klingons for the very first time since the cold war between the UFP and Klingon Empire ended. The Federation's Prime Directive limited the scope of potential sales. Something Ardra was developing work arounds to circumvent enforcement of the Prime Directive in such matters.

"I'll be briefing my team and the Obsidian's senior officers after we disembark. Any additional insights that you acquire or contemplate needing to be said can be stated then," Macen informed the group after addressing Pike, "Pack what you need but we set sail in one hour. So either be aboard by then or get left behind."

"And best wishes to Will and Deanna," Rockford offered.

"They'll just be glad for the family to be gathered," Riker said grimly, "I can't imagine losing a child."

"Will they be going back to Starfleet after everything is said and done?" Rockford asked.

"Not until Kestra leaves home. They'll only reconsider returning to Starfleet full time afterwards. They still hold their commissions in the active reserves," Danan explained, "As Will demonstrated when he recently, and temporarily, returned to command the Titan during the recent upheavals."

"Yes, he was instrumental in our taking back Regula One and the Genesis Cave," Macen referred to Section 31's control over the facilities that had morphed into being Cell 51's. The battle over Regula and the space station orbiting had involved kamikaze fighter craft flown by the elite Starfleet Blue Angels demonstration team. The Aventine had been heavily damaged but the Titan, Voyager, Intrepid, Enterprise-M, and the Obsidian had each been damaged but the Aventine took the worst of it since the fighters focused on the more advanced ship.

That action also saw Commander Sam Bowers removed from being XO since he'd locked the Captain in the brig and become Acting Captain. Lt. Commander Ezri Dax was promoted to XO. Her rank would be adjusted in the normal course of her fitness evals. Her promotion came despite the fact Dax had supported Bowers. But the Captain felt Bowers should have persuaded him to his point of view rather than relieve Sarin of command. The Vulcan maintained she would have listened to a logical argument to support the Bajorans and resist the authoritarian President's unconstitutional acts. Dax hadn't participated in the mutiny but neither had she stopped it.

But Dax moderated Bowers' intentions and kept the Aventine in a supporting role rather than engage in combat against fellow Starfleet starships. A Starfleet and private security contractor presence at Regula had been as unexpected as those ships' response. The security detail engaged without challenging their presumed opponents. The Blue Angels' suicidal gambit when faced with certain defeat had also run amok of expectations.

One benefit derived was the fact Captain Kirk was finally allowed to visit the David Marcus Memorial within the Genesis Cave. Carol Marcus had forbade his doing so during his lifetime prior to his entering the Nexus. So there was a great deal of closure in being able to finally see how David's life, achievements, and sacrifice had been celebrated. Scientists still struggled to understand why the Genesis Cave was stable whereas the Genesis Planet hadn't been despite both being subjected to a Genesis Wave matrixed with protomatter.

Both Doctor Marcuses had taken Genesis to their graves after Carol deleted every scrap of theory and information regarding the Meta Genome data that she still possessed from Project Vanguard. All data and materials regarding Genesis and the Meta Genome were now classified Eyes Only for the acting Starfleet Commander. That had been the policy since before the destruction of the Vanguard starbase and after the information leak regarding the Project's true goals in the Taurus Reach region.

Commodore Diego Reyes had been court martialled for his leadership during the breach of security he allowed to happen. Chancellor Gorkon intercepted Reyes' prison shuttle en route to Jaros II but Reyes managed to escape both the Klingons and Starfleet to live out his days in quiet seclusion. His great-grandson, Captain Alfonso Reyes, commanded DS3. Captain Reyes was contemplating returning to starship duty and requesting a spot in the exploration of the Gamma Quadrant. So far his transfer requests had been denied.

His mere desire to leave the station resulted in the termination of his then-current romance. But his Academy girlfriend recently made contact with him. Ro Laren had had an even more turbulent Starfleet career than Reyes or his infamous ancestor. She'd been forced to resign as a Starfleet captain and relinquish command of DS9 to softly land in the Bajoran Militia with the rank of colonel. Reyes had followed Ro's career non-trajectory for years and often mentally play acted meeting her again. But Ro hadn't changed all that much and was completely straight forward and to the point.

She missed Reyes and had only refrained from contacting him out of respect for his former relationships. Ro strongly believed a romance between them could work very well for both of them. Reyes admired her confidence. Ro's previous weaknesses had all been relational. She self-sabotaged them. But that wasn't the same woman who contacted him. So Ro's strengths far outweighed her personal demons and weaknesses. An enticing proposition for Reyes since he'd admired and once loved the highly flawed Ro. This person was a diamond carefully cut from the spectacular rough.

He wanted to study this jewel up close and told her so. They were to reunite in seven days on DS3. Kira had been kind enough to transfer Ro's accumulated leave time from Starfleet to the Militia. She had ninety days of leave accrued. She'd spend a week on Deep Space 3 getting to know Reyes all over again and see how she'd spend the rest of her time off afterwards. History proved that she and Reyes would get on famously. Ro trusted in that and was willing to throw herself at the possibilities.

She was even willing to expose her vulnerabilities to a man she'd already loved once. Macen didn't want the Ascendant mucking up Ro's schedule. Reyes was Ro's destiny and it was high time she seized it.

"We know our roles until launch," Macen stated, "Let's get busy."

The meeting broke apart and Rockford and Macen had a quite different conversation once they'd packed and were headed towards the Obsidian.


Chapter Two

"She'll be okay. Laren's a survivor," Rockford promised him. Most wives would've been jealous of Macen's passion towards Ro and recovering her. But the detective knew her husband. To Macen, Ro was asexual. She was a trusted friend, confidante, and a fellow soldier at arms.

They'd gotten each through the Maquis years and the Dominion War without ever being sexually attracted to one another. Macen's heart had first belonged to Danan and then to the increasingly unstable T'Kir. But Macen and T'Kir had been mutually parasitic rather than symbiotic.

Rockford was overjoyed that she and he built up one another rather than reinforce their instabilities. They weren't co-dependent the way he and T'Kir had been. Rockford had been an independent operator as an Angosian Augment Infiltrator. Then juggling careers as a detective and as a mercenary, she'd built her own business empire. One that merged with his Outbound Ventures.

Macen and Rockford had enjoyed a platonic relationship while T'Kir was alive. But over a year after her death, they became a couple and quickly married. A side benefit was that Angosians lived nearly as long as El-Aurians so presumably they would die together of natural causes if they didn't get killed on the job first. Rockford, even as Annika Ryst, had never been married.

This was Macen's third marriage. Both his previous wives had died in action. One by his own hand. Macen was the last member of a philosophical group that had endured on El-Auria for fifty thousand years. Now that the Borg had assimilated his people, he was presumably the last Seeker of Truth. Seekers had one goal: to fundamentally improve the universe around them while pursuing ultimate truth.

Which was why Macen had become involved with the Maquis after twenty years on the front lines of the Border Wars. It was also the primary reason he'd joined the SID and created the Outbound Ventures firm. Which had grown from one ship and crew to over thirty ships and a space station.

Rockford had created her first detective agency and ran it solo for years before bringing on associates. Then she began planting agencies throughout Federation and non-Federation worlds. Like Macen, she now owned a corporate empire.

As a joint venture, Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies seemed to have unlimited reach. Until reality hit back with a situation like Ro's. Then their limitations were laid out for all to see.

"I know she'll do all right. It's Ghemor I'm worried about," Macen confessed, "She was dangerous enough before her 'conversion'. Neela is a good example of what happens when people answer a mistaken 'call of the Prophets'."

"But her experiences with the Prophets changed her for the better," Rockford slung her "go" bag over her shoulder, "Maybe they have with Ghemor as well."

"I really hope so. For her sake," Macen said flatly. Macen's tryst with Mariska proved he could look past certain people being Cardassian. He had a stable relationship with Delain. But most Cardassians triggered his "kill or be killed" reflex. Like Bajorans coming out of the Occupation, Macen was a latent racist. But the Bajorans were moving on. So there was hope for Macen and other Maquis as well.

"We'd better get aboard before Shannon seals the hatch and casts off," Rockford suggested.

"Here we go again," Macen sighed as he took her hand and they walked down the corridors to a lift to take them across Crossover Bridge 3 from the Habitat Ring to the Docking Ring where they would then transfer to a lift to descend to Upper Pylon 3 where the Obsidian was in port.

"You're late," Jones chided them at the airlock, "And you're the last aboard."

"Everyone's a critic," Rockford quipped. Jones took it well from Rockford. She was still stiff with Macen despite learning she was XO based upon his recommendation and that he'd asked that she be fast tracked to a command of her own once a ship became available. Their previous animosity had run deep but Macen seemed to have let go of it. After all, the Maquis had been crushed by the Jem'Hadar over twelve years ago. Jones and her crew had operated their own stolen NV-class from the United Earth Starfleet, obtained at the Terra Nova Starship Depot until three years ago. The all female crew retired and moved on.

Jones sold the ship and the registration to separate buyers. One, the consortium that bought the registration, now operated a refitted Asia-class starship under Outbound ventures' banner. Like Jones' crew, Captain Wei Ziya commanded an all female crew. All second, third, and fourth daughters of business families that would trade them off as commodities to further the family corporations. They wanted better lives so they'd saved and trained and become certified.

They bought the Waylaid's Federation registry to play off of the former crew's reputation. Then they acquired their decommissioned starship and set sail as private security providers. Eventually catching Kathy Tyrol's eye who recruited them into the corporate empire.

Jones had been lured by a posting of Outbound Ventures seeking crewmen, officers, and captains for a fleet of newly acquired starships. She'd grown bored with retirement so she applied. And found herself offered the Exec position on the Obsidian. Seeing no better offer was coming, Jones accepted. Now she was glad she had. The Obsidian crew was a family and she was being integrated into it. Slowly, she was also learning how to make amends with Macen. Still, she let him and Rockford get to their quarters aboard ship while she headed to the bridge to help oversee the casting off.

"Release docking clamps and moorings," Forger ordered.

"Moorings unlocked. Docking clamps disengaged," Edwin Zimbalist, the Chief OPS Officer reported.

"Aglaia, use thrusters to clear the pylon. Then engage impulse, set at one-third," Forger went further.

The pilot happily complied. She'd left Plato behind to see the stars.

"When we clear the outer marker, set course for the Bajor system, all ahead at warp factor 5," Forger issued her last set of orders. The crew would take it from here.

"Call your reliefs, we have a mission brief in fifteen minutes," Forger advised her senior officers. Zimbalist and Aglaia were joined by Jaycee Miller, the Tactical Officer. Leaving the ship in the hands of the relief crew, they reported to Cargo Bay 2 rather than a briefing room. Parva, the Orion Chief Engineer and Gilan, her Gideonite Deputy Chief were already present. Tessa, the very illegal EMH, joined them as well thanks to holo emitters being installed throughout the ship. Cargo Bay 2 was especially fitted with emitters to enable to create alternate landscapes and people while incorporating the actual cargo.

Joining them were also Gilan 3, the Sciences Specialist from Eminiar VII. Gathered as well was the actual SID unit. Tracy Ebert had been fifteen when Macen recruited her to pilot the Blackbird-class SS Odyssey. She'd displayed true talent at the helm of the decommissioned starship. Harri Mudd was the resident rogue. Rab Daggit was another Angosian Augmented soldier who'd also married Parva. Tony Burrows was ex-Starfleet Special Operations Command. He'd been offered a choice between retirement and a desk job. He chose to leave Starfleet. Elias Vaughn had steered his old second-in-command to Outbound Ventures.

The fugitive Ardanans, Maarta and Anara, were present as Bailey Smith and Angelique Kerber. The best hacking team in the galaxy. Rockford also had three of her detectives on staff. Lee Kang was a disgraced former Chief Inspector on Chung Kuo. Shade was an exiled Fabrini cast out for being an unrepentant thief. But she'd learned to stay within the law...most of the time. At least more often than not. Which was a better record than Mudd's. Arianna Forte rounded out the Detective Squad. An apparent teenager, Forte was over four hundred years old. A survivor from the plane Starfleet dubbed "Miri". Saved from the mutation she would have undergone as a result of the life extending genetic manipulation the planet's scientists had engaged in, Forte left the planet to build a life beyond a decimated world. A natural problem solver, Rockford had recruited Forte after she noticed the girl's name constantly appearing in the trade journals as solving cold case crimes everyone else had abandoned as unsolvable. A sucker for hard luck cases, Rockford took her in and gave her a new purpose. She still solved cold cases as a hobby. She appreciated the challenges and the closure she could bring to others by doing so.

Macen carefully laid out the situation before them. Neela, Colonel Anara, and Agent Delain were already briefed on the particulars. Ebert and Jones were particularly affected by the news because they actually knew Ro from the Maquis and beyond. Mudd seemed intrigued. Given her father's history dealing with the Maquis, he wasn't surprised. Everyone else knew Ro as an extension of his relationship with her. But they were duly concerned.

Other than the former Maquis, the Bajorans and the Cardassian were the most concerned given the volatility of the situation. Anara and Neela were under official pressure to retrieve Ro at any cost. Their secondary mission was to insure that ongoing discussions between Bajoran secular and religious officials continued with the Ascendant.

Delain's mission was clear cut. She was to determine of Ghemor was a threat to Cardassian policies and therefore their security. Macen and Rockford could only imagine Delain's orders if she concluded Ghemor was an ongoing threat. Ro would have to determine whether or not Ghemor should be spared if that was the case. She was the best placed to analyze Ghemor's current frame of mind. No one had any suggestions regarding how to deal with the Ascendant once again beyond Mudd's, "Can we go home now?" remark.

Ro paced in her assigned quarters aboard the early Constellation-class analogue built by the Ascendant. She heard the chime and barked, "Get in here!"

Ghemor seemed serene as she glided in. Ro had to admit the fires of hatred and ambition were gone from Ghemor's eyes. But now she had something worse: conviction of purpose. Before Ghemor simply wanted to eradicate the Bajoran people and raise Cardassia's flag over Bajor and the Federation's smoldering ruins. Now she seemed to be in actual peace. Which alarmed Ro.

"Colonel, I hope we're treating you well," Ghemor began.

"How did you get replicators?" Ro indicated the food and beverage supplier mounted in to the wall where a fountain dispenser should have supplied water.

"We've managed to secure a supplier or two," Ghemor shrugged, "Surely it's not immoral to acquire a few basic amenities?"

"Just how basic are we talking about?" Ro asked.

"We're not replicating weapons, if that's your concern," Ghemor told her, "Other than extending the hand of cooperation to the Bajorans, the Ascendant have no plans for the Federation or the Alpha Quadrant as a whole."

"You have a strange opening gambit regarding negotiations," Ro said dryly.

"You'll understand," Ghemor promised.

"And Cardassia? Any plans there?" Ro inquired.

"Bajor can bring them the Light of the Prophets. Our role is here, in the Gamma Quadrant," Ghemor assured her.

"So you're a true believer now?" Ro snorted.

"You've never met the Prophets. They're...very persuasive," Ghemor said.

"Actually I have met them. They're confusing and very ignorant despite being able to see everything," Ro said derisively.

"That is why you're here," Ghemor told her, "I will show you the Great Work of the Ascendant. Afterwards, you can tell the Bajorans whether or not we're worthy of the Prophets."

"I'm your spiritual litmus test?" Ro was astounded, "You have the wrong Bajoran."

"I need to show a skeptic what we're doing and what we've accomplished. A believer would not hesitate to approve," Ghemor explained.

"Just turn the ship around already," Ro told her.

"I'm afraid we're almost at our first destination," Ghemor advised her, "We'll be in orbit and transporter range within minutes. We need you to see the work we've done on the surface."

Ro noted that outside the window, the stars had quite streaking by which meant they'd dropped out of warp. Going to the surface meant Ro could manage an escape.

"All right. Show me," Ro agreed.

"Colonel, your escape attempt will fail," Ghemor advised her. That unnerved Ro but she refused to let it show. It was a very Neela-like moment. As though wormhole aliens had given away a secret and spoken it to her alone.

"I'll behave. I promise," Ro offered.

"No. No, you won't," Ghemor sighed, "But you'll see."

Ghemor motioned at the door, "If you will."

"You lead. I'll follow," Ro demanded.

"As you will," Ghemor acquiesced. She exited and navigated corridors until the entered a turbolift and ascended two decks. Upon exiting, Ghemor led Ro to the transporter room. It was identical to the one she used aboard the Fist of the Prophets.

"Coming?" Ghemor asked as she stepped onto a pad. Ro saw there was a single transporter chief. No guards were accompanying them. Why was Ghemor making it so easy? Ro stepped onto the pad not knowing quite what else to do.

"Energize," Ghemor instructed.

The traditional whiteout effect blurred Ro's vision as she dematerialized and rematerialized on a planet's surface. What she witnessed astounded her.

"It's the Emissary!" a local cried in joy. Native humanoids of a non-Sinheran nature crowded about Ghemor and Ro.

"Emissary, do you bring word from the Prophets?" a young male inquired.

"How can we assist the Great Work?" a female wanted to know.

"This, is a Bajoran woman named Ro Laren," Ghemor explained, "As it's implied, she's from Bajor."

That stoked everyone's interest even more.

"Tell us about Bajor!" they cried out.

"There isn't much to tell," Ro said uncertainly.

"Let me acclimate Ro to your world and later we'll hold a meeting and she can tell you particulars about Bajor and why her people are also Children of the Prophets," Ghemor dispersed the reluctantly breaking apart crowd. They flocked to tell friends, family, and neighbors that a Bajoran was on their world. Ro took a long look around.

"This is a pre-warp culture," Ro chided Ghemor.

"So was Sinhera when the Bajora landed in the time before the Ascendancy," Ghemor breezily replied, "And my people have never quibbled over natives' technological capabilities when presenting ourselves to them."

"The Cardassian version of First Contact is First Conquest," Ro snorted.

"True," Ghemor allowed, "But no one here has been conquered. We simply brought them the words and knowledge of the Prophets. Come, let me show you."

They travelled a short distance down the street while the natives desperately tried to hide their staring.

"Is that a Bajoran temple?" Ro was incredulous.

"As shown to Ascendant engineers. They reconstructed it exactly," Ghemor boasted, "But wait until you're inside. That's the real treat."

Ro was dubious but she followed Ghemor inside. At the rear of the chamber sat an Orb Ark.

"Is that...?" Ro was speechless.

"A Tear of the Prophets," Ghemor said reverently, "Exactly."

"How?" Ro was still stunned.

"After I came to terms with the reality of the Prophets and receiving their commission as their Emissary to the Ascendant, I and the crew of the starships inside the Celestial Temple were returned to our ships and allowed passage back into the Gamma Quadrant," Ghemor reverently explained, "When we emerged from the terminus, five Tears awaited us. We built Arks to house them and began distributing them amongst the Children of the Prophets."

"You mean there are other planets like this?" Ro was alerted to that fact.

"The Bajorans on the colony the Ascendant first encountered your people on weren't their first contact, merely another in a series of them," Ghemor revealed.

"Overseen by you," Ro was suspicious again.

"I had to recant many of my prior teachings to the worlds of the faithful," Ghemor sadly admitted, "The faith spread more easily when I brought them the revealed truth of the Prophets and messages for each of them."

"An Orb helps sell it," Ro confessed.

"Indeed," Ghemor agreed, "But the people want news of Bajor. They are understandably curious as to the world the Prophets say they are a part of. They want to understand the connection."

"You have the wrong person," Ro said flatly, "I don't worship the wormhole aliens."

"They want facts. They already have faith," Ghemor stated, "You were carefully chosen by the Prophets for this role. It's why you're here."

Ro got the hint that Ghemor knew a very secret truth regarding Ro's existence and the existence of her closest friends and allies.

"You too?" Ro inquired.

"I was chosen as well," Ghemor nodded.

That explained the mystery of how Ghemor's corpse occupied the Obsidian Order's vaults while Ghemor also stood before her. Ro was really beginning to hate the aliens and the Nexus both.

"I was just in denial regarding why I was chosen," Ghemor said sadly, "I thought I was to bring a second reckoning to the Bajorans and the Federation. It turns out I was wrong. The Prophets opened my eyes."

"You sound like someone I know," Ro said dismally.

"The Prophets had a great deal to share with Neela as well," Ghemor chuckled, "They had to show us both their real call and what it would cost to follow their true path."

"Cost?" Ro asked with some alarm.

"This," Ghemor swept the room expansively, "To be here in this here and now."

"Figuratively or literally?" Ro inquired.

"Is there a difference?" Ghemor asked in reply.

"You have been talking to the aliens," Ro muttered.

"Come, there's a small auditorium with excellent acoustics. The locals use it for staging performances. We can hold our briefing there," Ghemor insisted.

"My talk on Bajor?" Ro frowned.

"Just give a history of your people. Don't feel inclined to spare them the horrors of the Occupation. I've told them of my people's reasons behind it. But they need an honest appraisal of the results of those vain ambitions," Ghemor told her.

"I...could do that, I suppose," Ro relented.

"Good," Ghemor was satisfied, "The people will already have gathered and will be broadcasting your remarks."

"No pressure then," Ro grimaced.

"Deep Space 9 Traffic Control has our flight plan into the Wormhole logged," Aglaia reported, "Ready to commit."

"Take us in," Forger instructed.

"Committing course, aye," Aglaia sounded eager.

But then, their latest daredevil pilot was usually eager for an opportunity to push the Obsidian to her limits and beyond. Hannah Grace had been the first. Rhiann had been an excellent fill-in until Ebert took over the position. Aglaia was the closest match to Grace that they'd had. Ebert was a damned fine pilot but she was used to smaller craft so the ship's auxiliary craft, the Danube-class runabout, Corsair, was her baby.

Ebert and Mudd had made plenty of "special" modifications to the runabout. Which exceeded the safety limits so far the craft would have been grounded at a Starfleet facility, starbase, or starship. Mudd's own recent experiment, adapting a United Earth style NV-class to modern standards, had recently and literally blown up. Even the Iotians balked at her modifications and they historically played it fast and loose with safety limits.

Macen provided her a familiar ship design to augment to her usual madcap standards. Mudd once again had a Bajoran built warp capable freighter she quickly dubbed the Freehold. Her ambition was to meet or exceed her design specs on her previous Freehold of the same class. Tinkering on the ship gave Mudd, Bowers, and Ebert something to do on their downtime between missions.

Bowers and Mudd had been surprisingly growing closer ever since their two trips to Argelius II together. The first trip had been groundbreaking. Shade and Lee, who'd accompanied them on the second trip, wouldn't discuss what occurred there. Shade just replied with the mantra, "It's like Risa. What happens on Argelius stays on Argelius."

Lee seemed too shell shocked to even try and reveal any secrets. Of all the team members, he and Bowers had always been the most straight laced. Now it seemed Bowers was willing to take part in a life that was previously antithetical to his thinking.

Outbound Ventures had been relegated as a quasi-legal operator until Starfleet had unexpectedly offered them the Special Investigations Division contract. Which directly defied Lee, and everyone else's, memory. But Admiral Nechayev and Rear Admiral Forger had pushed through the SID's existence with Rear Admiral Johnson's aid by going above Starfleet Commander Clancy's authority and directly appealing to the President and the Federation Council. Who then ordered the SID into being,

The usage of vetted, private contracting irregulars would shelter Starfleet in the advent of missions gone seriously wrong. Giving them legal protection should the worst happen. The contractors would be easily disavowed. Clancy would revel in the act of doing so.

Just as she'd tried to engineer Outbound Ventures' downfall to spread the contract out amongst her favorite, Solarian Security Solutions, and its subcontractors. Clancy's personal involvement with Solarian's founder made her choice suspect. As well as the extent of the encouragement that she'd given these rivals. What wasn't supposition was that the DeVos and Solarian had openly attacked Outbound Ventures ships without provocation trying to elicit the same response from them.

Instead, the crews of the rival corporations' starships had been taken prisoner and handed over to Starfleet Security. Only to disappear during a routine prisoner transfer. To reappear in Cardassian labor camps. Thereby giving the Federation a pretext for war. Except for the investigators within Starfleet, everyone seemed to ignore the fact that the "liberated prisoners' subsequently vanished from Starfleet's custody once again after being loaded onto Vladivostok-class transports. A starship class Starfleet had largely decommissioned.

Oxmyx and Kracko, the respective leaders of the Iotian Federation's Familias and Starfleet, confirmed to Macen that they now had custody of the former prisoners. The generationally handed down positions had found historically unique bearers. They were the first female leaders of the family businesses. They were also the first same sex couple to lead the Iotian Federation. The only insulation they had from the Five Families was their successes at expanding the Familias' interests and the rapid progress the Iotian Starfleet had made expanding into mid-24th Century Federation Starfleet standards. They'd even copied a Galaxy-class starship and a Nebula-class starship as flagships for Kracko and her top underboss.

The three typical fleet commanders were each awarded Ambassador-class starships. The Iotians were fortifying their expanding frontiers with J-, G-, and K-class starbases. A new Douglas-class starbase was being built in Sigma Iotia II's orbit. The presently operational J-class station would then be towed to a nearby system.

In any other reality, the Nova Romans of 492 IV would've been rivals. Instead they were members of the Iotian Federation and training to assume duties aboard Iotian Starfleet vessels and stations. Other rivals would've included the Ekosians and Zeons. But the Ekosian star had been destroyed by the Romulans in an early test of trilithium's potential. But the yield and quality of the unstable trilithium had resulted in a slow collapse that Starfleet had exploited to evacuate millions of Ekosians and Zeons under the leadership of Captain John Harriman and the Enterprise-B.

It was that encounter that sparked Doctor Tolian Soran's interest in trilithium's potential. A potential that killed millions of innocent natives on Veridian IV before Kirk and Picard rewrote history. Sparking an obsession that would lead to his steering the Nexus ribbon to Veridian III through the destruction of the Argosian star and the attempted destruction of the Veridian star.

A series of events that would James T. Kirk to emerge from the Nexus Ribbon to assist then-Captain Jean-Luc Picard to end Soran's threat. Thereby saving the pre-industrial population on Veridian IV and the stranded crew of the Enterprise-D on Veridian III itself. After the evacuation of the Enterprise crew, it would be a recovery and cleanup team removing traces of the crashed Enterprise primary hull that would discover another Captain Kirk had also emerged from the Nexus. Having been victorious over Soran and swept away by a manipulation of the Nexus into a Prime Reality.

Because of the Prophets and a long ago encounter with a Traveler, Macen came to realize with Neela's assistance that the origin of the universe had quickly spawned a multiverse with four Prime Realities. Trillions of alternate realities had branched off from those four. But some cosmic convergence or a sentience had begun paring down the Multiverse down to a series of key alternate universes branching off from the Prime Realities. Three alternates were known to still exist. The literally darker Terran Universe still existed. What would become known as the Kelvinverse would continue onward. Another was the recently discovered Confederation Universe where Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner ruled what had once been a Federation to rival those of the Prime Universes.

No one knew of what universes remained or what or who had destroyed innumerable alternate quantum realities or how. Additionally, no one knew if any more alternate universes would continue to be destroyed. Or even if the Prime Realities were threatened as well. Neela promised them the Prophets knew and that was why the selected individuals had been chosen. But she also had to admit that the Prophets weren't revealing anything else to her about it.

On the Obsidian's bridge, the crew just took in the wonder of the wormhole's effect while it lasted. Then they found themselves 70,000 light years from their previous location. A patrolling Militia Colonial Defense Forces Mercury-class frigate, the Prophet's Hope, hailed them and informed them that the Intrepid, Defiant, and Fist of the Prophets awaited them at Waypoint Station.

Which meant backtracking towards the Alpha Quadrant a bit. The Iotian and Bajoran built K-class station was archaic to some Starfleet officers but most saw the value in the venerable design. K-class stations, such as Deep Space K-7, were still in operation. Even J- and G-class stations and been retrofitted and adapted to modern standards. The speed in which the Iotians' joint venture with the Bajorans had built Fair Haven Port and Waypoint Station had alarmed some Starfleet observers. Those familiar with the Iotian Federation's own territories marveled about how the Iotians conscripting local labor, rapidly filled their "member-client" systems with space stations. They'd constructed three sprawling shipyards over the last century with another going into operation later that solar year.

With the Iotians willing to sell warp capable starships to pre-warp and/or aggressive cultures, space was getting a little more harrowing every day. The Interfaith Crusaders' "missionary" work being a prime and very recent example. The so-called missionaries had orbitally bombarded twenty-seven worlds. Each starship a 22nd Century United Earth Starfleet ship design sold by the Iotians. The Interfaith Council had been toppled by secular leaders and those responsible spiritual leaders were being tried by the affected worlds for war crimes.

The Bajoran Militia Constabulary and Cardassian Information Bureau were investigating the crimes as third-party neutral players. The Interfaith worlds were united in purpose as never before and were opening formal diplomatic ties with their victims' home planets as we'll as the Bajoran Republic and the Cardassian Union. The Federation jealously coveted the relations but they'd been the ones to abandon their protectorate states and independent colonies to begin with.

To add oil to the fire, the Iotian Federation was making diplomatic overtures and their protection racket version of a Federation was gaining traction on the devastated worlds as well as already having gained ground on the five Interfaith worlds they'd supplied with starships. The Interfaith worlds were spending a great of deal of capital on repairing their damaged fleet. In addition, they'd opened up M-class worlds within their borders to colonization by the afflicted planetary populations they'd devastated. The Interfaith governments funding and supporting the colonial resettlement and infrastructural development.

They even ceded portions of their repaired fleet to the newly established colonies to prove that the colonists were safe from further Interfaith aggression. Freighters and commercial cruise liners were chartered to move the survivors of the devastated populations to their new worlds. The Bajoran Militia and Cardassian Guard responded by assisting with firmly establishing the colonies. The Bajorans and Cardassians each assigned a rotating patrol of the newly established colonial areas to supplement the colonists' own recently delivered starships. The Iotians volunteered to train the colonists in the operation of those same starships.

The Iotian Federation also took up the banner to foster good relations and groom future clients for starship operations support. They dispatched a two ship patrol to also be regularly rotated. The Militia and Guard equally watching the Iotian Starfleet as the Interfaith starship fleet was repaired from its defeat at the hands of the Militia and Outbound Ventures. The Bajorans were amongst the Iotians' best customers so they knew that their Starfleet and Federation amounted to little more than a criminal enterprise.

But the Iotians had openly supported Bajor during the recent conflict. So that bought them additional goodwill. A reputation was everything to a burgeoning enterprise like the Iotian Federation. The Bajoran Republic was happy to endorse them even as they rebuffed offers to join said Federation.

Outbound Ventures assistance had largely been provided with one generation of more advanced starships than those provided to the Militia. Macen had bought every vessel the Iotians had in inventory and the Bajorans wanted a first option on the successive vessels. The Iotians, ever imitative, offered a refit schedule for the Bajorans existing starships as well as options on further vessel construction. The Iotians could refit the Bajorans' existing Constitution- and Asia-class vessels to a more modernized standard.

In addition they'd offer free upgrades to the Militia's current Kremlin- and Mercury-class starships. They'd also offer steep discounts on Detroit-class analogues to supplement the fleet while it dry-docked some of its heavy and light cruisers. The Detroit-class was among the Iotians' worst sellers and the Bajorans had avoided purchases of them thus far. The Iotians had ramped up the refit time to a mere six months unlike the original three-year program the original NCC-1701 USS Enterprise had undergone as the very first test bed of a new warp core, drive system, and power distribution network.

Along with rest had come a new type of shield emitter network and advanced warp core powered phaser arrays as well as updated torpedo ordnance. The warp core fed phaser banks that were the direct precursor to phaser strip arrays and the photon torpedo type that would remain the standard for next forty years. The question was how many starships could the Militia sideline at any one time with tensions, barely patched over, and still remained with the United Federation of Planets. The Militia and Starfleet hadn't been that apprehensive regarding one another since the first days of Starfleet coming to administrate Deep Space 9 in the weeks following the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor.

Starfleet and the Federation had proven themselves invaluable friends and allies. Until an avalanche of events destroyed nearly two decades of built up goodwill. Kira and Ro knew Starfleet could be better. Members of it certainly had been. So they held hope even if they refused to admit it. But they wondered what had happened the Federation and Starfleet they had each known.

The Obsidian sailed to Waypoint to find the Intrepid, the Defiant, and the Fist of the Prophets indeed orbiting the K-class station. Other ships were in tight orbits loading and offloading cargo from one of the three out branched modules labeled in the first three letters in Bajoran script with Federation standard A, B, and C displayed more prominently.

"Waypoint traffic control has informed us that the crews of our awaiting starships have been informed of our arrival and will be breaking their parking orbits to join us en route to New B'hala," Zimbalist reported, "We're already receiving multiple hails."

"Coordinate the approach with Pedrossi, Tenmei, and Lieutenant Crispus," Forger instructed, "Please advise commands that the Fist has a top cruising speed of Warp 4. Include that message to Captain Wyn aboard the Fist."

Captain Wyn Meru was actually a junior Militia officer despite being the Fist of the Prophet's XO. The Bajoran officer rank table was pretty slim which didn't lead to rapid promotions. It increased from Lieutenant to Captain to Major to Colonel to General. Kira's assignation of the rank Major when the Militia reformed up was a sign of the respect the Shakaar and other Resistance cells had for her. Despite what the official Cardassian records indicated.

But Kira Meru had been both Nerys' mother and Dukat's personal Comfort Woman. So speculation was that he shielded Kira from Central Command's records despite the Obsidian Order recognizing her as a high level target, hence their ill-fated scheme to replace her with Iliana Ghemor. The Order collected evidence against Dukat beginning with Kira Meru and culminating with Tora Napreem and his daughter Tora Ziyal.

Enabran Tain held the information should Dukat secretly move against the Order. Especially in light of his being involved in unearthing the Order's hidden, and very illegal, shipyards and Keldan-class cruisers. Tain was able to stay Dukat's hand until after the dual Cardassian-Romulan fleet launched itself into the Gamma Quadrant to attack the Founders' home world. Which only resulted in Tain's capture and the deaths of countless Obsidian Order Agents and Tal Shiar operatives.

The Obsidian Order was eventually shut down but the Tal Shiar simply retrenched and regained their former position within the Romulan Star Empire's hierarchy under Director Koval. Koval had died and now Sela was the Director. A position of even greater power than she had enjoyed as Proconsul.

Tomalok led the Imperial Forces and Donatra was now Proconsul while Senator Tal'aura had survived Romulus' destruction to become Praetor. A minor noble found herself lauded as the figurehead Empress. Tomalok and Sela had voiced dissent against Tal'aura and other Senators' plans to aid Shinzon in his seizing control as Praetor. Donatra had been an influential Warbird commander who aided and abetted Shinzon until she began to recognize his brand of insanity and then fought against him.

Surprisingly, Tomalok had sided with her when she argued to allow Admiral Picard access to the Senate and a public forum to pledge Starfleet's support in evacuating worlds as the Hobus supernova loomed. Ambassador Spock and the Vulcans too pledged their resources and knowledge in averting a crisis. The Hobus star couldn't be saved but Romulus and Remus could be long enough to evacuate with Starfleet's support and a committed Romulan fleet effort.

But Spock was too late and Picard lost Starfleet's support. The Vulcan's Red Matter did dilute a broad stroke of the Hobus shockwave too late to spare Romulus and Remus. It was enough to evacuate dozens of worlds and alleviate the worst of the crisis to mitigate the full impact of the shockwave's effects in order to later relocate other colonial populations. But those plans were abandoned after Starfleet reneged on its promises in order to more tightly patrol its own internal borders following the Mars Massacre.

Even with a Synthetics Ban in place and all androids and self aware holograms made illegal and disabled, Starfleet was still repurposed into nearly an entirely internal response force. Its exploration efforts repurposed into finding worthy allies capable of assisting with such threats as the Dominion and the Borg. The recent discovery of the Borg tactical cube dubbed the "Artifact" in Romulan held space had launched untold research projects. Even a drone reclamation project spearheaded by Federation scientists under the watchful directorship of Hugh, himself a former drone.

A burgeoning black market in Borg implants had begun as well. One the Romulans greatly profited in as a principle supplier of recovered implants removed from the very drones that were being "reclaimed" by Hugh's teams. The Romulans carefully doled out the implants slowly in order to keep demand high and product availability low. Thereby keeping prices at record highs for contraband.

Macen, as a survivor of the Borg's assimilation of the El-Aurians, had taken an interest in this black market. Traditional Starfleet Intelligence sources weren't tracking the developing operations supplying the implants or surgically re-implanting them. But the Rockford Detective Agencies operated on planets outside the Federation as well as within it. Outbound Ventures' own favorable connections with the Iotians and the Orion Syndicate assisted in these discreet inquiries as well. The Orions were still largely confining themselves to the typical business model: drugs, weapons, contract killings, mercenaries, and trafficking traditional and sex slaves.

The Iotians weren't morally superior but their ethic disinclined them from slave trafficking and illicit drugs though they did export forms of tobacco products. Though their forced conscriptions did closely resemble a form of slavery. All men and women of member worlds within the Iotian Federation had to enlist eligible aged males and females for a seven-year term within the Iotian Starfleet. The conscripts, if they chose five years into service and were deemed eligible, could attend an Officer's Candidate School to become a junior officer in exchange for a thirteen-year extension on their service contract upon graduation. Making their total time in uniform a mandatory twenty years.

Native Iotians could qualify for a two-year academy program to generate command officers. All candidates had to receive permission from their Familias sponsors to apply. The Starfleet operated outside the Familias' individual direct control so they had to be willing to lose their applicant from the family organization. The Starfleet was only loyal to Fleet Boss Kracko and, through Kracko the first female Godfather, Oxmyx. Allowing them to retain power despite the Familias' discontent with their assumption of control over the Familias and the Starfleet. They still railed against the pairs' youth, gender, and sexual identities.

The five under-bosses unaware that the two were completely aware of how a concentrated effort had resulted in their being the only surviving direct ancestors of the original Bella Oxmyx and Kracko. They'd only been left alive because the under-bosses had assumed that the Oxmyx and Kracko heirs wouldn't garner public support or that of the Starfleet to gain and retain power. Yet the public and Starfleet loved them.

The alliance with the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance of the Terran Universe had upgraded the Iotians' technical abilities by over half a century and pushed their political agenda ahead by decades. Now that major and minor stellar powers viewed the Federation, Klingons, and Cardassians as unprovoked aggressors, the Iotian Federation had presented itself as an alternative alliance broker. The Iotians' straightforward, business transaction style of diplomacy was seen as more honest by many of the aggrieved stellar nations.

The First Federation alone was willing to readily accept the Federation's overtures and explanations. The Gorn, Breen, Tholians, Talarians, and dozens of other minor powers including the Son'a eyed the United Federation of Planets, Cardassians, and Klingons with suspicion and outright anger now. The Federation's subsequent step of being the aggressor in two wars waged simultaneously and new bend towards autocracy only seemed to demonstrate the inherent flaws within the Federation's power structure and the hidden dangers of its agendas.

A worst case scenario the Federation was desperate to diplomatically solve. But most of the Federation's olive branches had been rebuffed. Their stories of alternate universes and culprits from them being secretly aligned with the Iotians to drive them into the Iotian Federation's camp seemed preposterous to many given it was the Iotian Starfleet that "driven off" the attacking allied "Cardassian-Klingon-Federation" fleet that had freely attacked their territories. The subsequent war against the Cardassians and the Klingons simple refusal to participate only seemed a falling out between aggressor states to the victims of the Alliance's aggression.

The withdrawal of Alliance forces back to their universe only compounded the problem since the only evidence remaining was the ships they'd left behind. All safely stored behind Iotian Federation borders and being discreetly sold off. The Iotians had wisely scrubbed the ID transponders and altered the warp signatures of the Galaxy- and Nebula-class starships they inherited with Intendant Kira and Intendant Ro returning home. So the Federation's current diplomatic prospects looked bleak.

Hence a renewed interest in the surviving exploration efforts led by the Enterprise-E, the Endeavor-A, the Excalibur-A, Voyager and the Protostar. The Excalibur was tasked with first contact and security patrols alongside the Trident along the entire spiral arm controlled by the Thallonian Empire. The Titan, under a new CO, was about to launch a squadron through the Cardassian Farside and Breen Confederacy corridor to reach the Deeper Alpha Quadrant from DS9.

Commander Lavelle's role was to provide support to both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrant efforts. DS4 and DS5 were the support stations for the Delta Quadrant efforts and Romulan Border Zone security. DS3 coordinated the former Neutral Zone patrols. None of those support s would be assisting the search and rescue effort. Commander Lavelle would even be ordered to hamper them. He would issue forth recall orders for the Intrepid and the Defiant. Only to overridden by Commodore Saavik as the field commander on the scene. Eventually she would be overridden by Vice Admiral Edward Jellico at Starfleet Operations. But by then, the two starships in question would be out of easy communications range.

The Federation and Bajorans having no comm buoys or relay stations where they were headed. They'd have to be laid as the starships went. Meanwhile, the Militia Colonial Defense Forces starships on patrol in the Gamma Quadrant were standing by for word from either the Fist of the Prophets' request for aid or Kira's orders to push into the Ascendant space to locate the starship and its missing commander.

The Intrepid hosted Macen and the various COs and Acting Commanding Officers. Johnson himself prepared an Italian styled meal to lessen the tensions surrounding their mission. Macen, Vaughn, Forger, and McKinley were all glad to be reunited. Captain Wyn and Neela were pleased to be introduced and accepted into such renowned company.

"I can't stress enough the Militia's support in this operation, " Wyn explained, "Colonel Ro is effectively the commanding officer of the entire Colonial Defense Forces."

"General Kira made me quite aware of the situation," Johnson assured her, "My own role in this affairs quite limited. My job is talking Ghemor down from whatever she's planned and to release Ro. That leaves Jim as senior officer."

"Which I'm deferring to Elias' vaster experience despite the official difference in grade," McKinley shared.

"Which I'm happy to lead this effort," Vaughn confessed, "But Brin and Shannon are the experts on how to get to Sinhera and what to expect there."

"We never actually entered the system," Forger reminded them, "We stayed outside of it and monitored their broadcasts until we determined their intentions."

"Brin, you and Neela actually met with Ghemor," McKinley pointed out.

"A proto-Ghemor. She was a disbeliever then. Now that she's encountered the Prophets, she'll be an entirely different kind of operator," Macen warned, "Meeting them is life changing."

"You speak as though you've met them," Wyn observed.

"I have. On multiple occasions now," Macen confirmed it, "Even Ro met them once."

"But...she's a disbeliever," Wyn was mystified.

"Commander Macen has met them and also doubts their deity," Neela told her, "Despite having greater impetus to then most."

"I don't understand," Wyn complained.

"Everyone here has been touched by the Prophets," Neela explained what she could, "Never doubt that we follow their path despite differing personal interpretations of the nature of the Prophets."

"We all know they protect Bajor and through Bajor the galaxy and perhaps the universe at large," Johnson promised, "We just largely differ with you Bajorans on the nature of what they are."

"The Prophets called me to Deep Space 9 through an Orb. That's why I've served there through three commanding officers," Vaughn told her, "And why I've always defended Bajor from whatever threat presents itself. That's how I know how important Ro is to their plans."

"Has General Kira also been touched?" Wyn asked.

"Yes, a Prophet chose her as its vessel to face the Kosst Amojan in the Reckoning. Kai Winn's lack of faith halted the Reckoning and spun Bajor's fate into uncertainty. The Emissary had to seal the Fire Caves and the Pah-wraiths' Emissary in them beside them," Neela explained events as they'd occurred; "The Fire Caves was unsealed by the heretical acts of Winn Adami. Her death gave Dukat his powers once the Pah-wraiths resurrected him from his death-like state. Winn's belief she had killed him broke the seal on the Caves. The Emissary was willing give his life to restore the seal. That faith gave the Prophets the advantage they needed to once more imprison the Kosst Amojan."

"But the Pah-wraith cult endures on Empok Nor," Wyn argued.

"A broken faith led by one of Dukat's sexual puppets and mother to one of his children," Neela explained further, "That mother, named Mika, is seen as a regent holding the place of the Master of the cult for her child with Dukat. Her husband, Benyan, is the cult's charismatic speaker. Cultists make pilgrimages to the colony on Empok Nor to celebrate Dukat becoming their Emissary and the life of his child. Despite the Emissary defeating Dukat and residing for a time within the Celestial Temple to return to Bajor with messages from the Prophets, the cult still grows."

"But why?" Johnson was curious.

"Just as the Prophets gave the Bajoran people Orbs and secreted away the Orb of the Prophets for the Emissary to find to end the Kosst Amojan's siege on the Celestial Temple so to, it is rumored, the Pah-wraiths delivered a Tear of the Pah-wraiths to their followers that was likewise seized by the Cardassians and never recovered," Neela said sadly, "Their hope is that such an Orb can release the seal on the Fire Caves once again. Thereby releasing Dukat as well."

"Are the Cardassians even aware that they still have this Orb?" Vaughn asked with some horror.

"Officially, no," Macen said, "Agent Delain made some discreet inquiries within the Cardassian Information Bureau. But the Obsidian Order did have another Orb on file deemed too dangerous to return to Bajor. But it went missing from Archives before the Dominion War concluded. Damar released it into private hands. Private hands that have never come forward to the Cardassians, the Bajorans, or the Cult."

"It's out there. Waiting to be found," Neela warned direly, "Only, until Ghemor appeared, no one wanted to look for it anymore outside of cultists."

"And now?" Wyn was beginning to worry.

"Unknown, or undisclosed, parties are also searching for the Orb," Macen added, "According to Ziva."

"But why?" Wyn asked plaintively.

"What could disrupt Bajor more than release of Dukat and the Kosst Amojan?" Neela asked solemnly, "What else could threaten the Prophets themselves?"

"They're monsters!" Wyn angrily declared.

"On that we agree," McKinley voiced Starfleet's unofficial support, "But Empok Nor sits in neutral space since the first treaty with the Cardassians was signed prior to the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor."

"A treaty you happily violated," Wyn accused, "Don't respect treaties just when it's useful to excuse doing nothing."

"She has us there," Johnson conceded.

"All of us here defended Bajor during the war except for the people aboard this ship," Wyn was angry now.

"We helped keep the Breen and Tzenkethi from swooping in on you!" McKinley hotly retorted.

Wyn paused, "A Breen privateer did probe the Fair Haven system."

"It was only a civilian probe because a coalition of starships accompanied us to Breen and Tzenkethi space to warn them off from invading your back doors," McKinley was hardly mollified.

"Tell her, Bob," Macen firmly urged.

"Select starship captains and crews objected to the war but refused to engage fellow Starfleet crews. So they joined with us in forming a patrol to keep the Kalendra and Bajor Sectors free of foreign invaders and sent diplomatic overtures to the said stellar nations warning them off from military action during the hostilities," Johnson described what had happened.

"That was neutral territory," Wyn said coldly, "Which only reinforces my entire point."

"We were operating out from under the chain of command during that period," McKinley angrily told her, "Now we are under it again. Which means we can't send in starships to patrol a neutral sector without someone inviting us to."

"Once again Starfleet hides behind the Prime Directive. What was your excuse for ignoring the Cardassian invasion of Bajor? Oh yes, it was the fact the government hadn't asked for protection. Despite the fact that the legitimate government had been disbanded and a Cardassian proxy set up. Keev Falor was the only Minister from the Council to escape Bajor and Starfleet didn't even know he existed until Colonel Ro introduced him to Captain Picard," Wyn argued.

"Keev didn't form a government-in-exile nor did he ever present himself as a Bajoran Minister," Johnson had cooled towards Wyn.

"I think it's time we focus on the mission at hand," Macen interjected.

"Yes, Colonel Ro is depending on us," Neela opined in favor of Macen's timely proposal.

"Political shop talk aside, they have a point," Vaughn concluded, "Neela, you've ascertained that Ghemor truly does represent the Prophets in the Gamma Quadrant?"

"Yes, the Prophets chose Ghemor to be their Emissary to their other Children," Neela happily replied.

"Why Ghemor?" McKinley asked.

'Why a Cardassian?" Wyn furthered the question.

"And why now?" Johnson asked.

"Ghemor was sent to the Ascendant the same year Captain Sisko reported to take command of Deep Space 9 and discovered the gateway to the Celestial Temple your Federation refers to as the Wormhole," Neela answered, "Ghemor just wrongly assumed that it was a fluke and ignored her true calling."

"Until now," Vaughn said.

"The Prophets have a profound effect on a life once they intervene in it," Neela said sagely, "I should know. I worshiped them but I worshiped a false idol version of them created in my own mind and guided by then-Vedek Winn."

Everyone wondered if Neela would finally implicate Winn in the crimes Neela had been convicted off. Winn had intervened to spare Neela the imposed life sentence.

"I, of course, ultimately made my own choices," Neela evaded the implication. Despite Kai Winn's obvious apostasy Neela still wouldn't betray her pledge of silence given to Vedek Winn when she'd chosen Neela as her instrument of death. All to remove Vedek Bereil Antos from consideration to be kai instead of Winn. An honor Bereil himself removed himself from the running by taking the blame for Kai Opaka's collaboration that had gotten Resistance fighter skilled. Including Opaka's own son. All to protect the beloved Kai's memory.

Still, Neela's life sentence had been commuted when First Minister Shakaar Edon had need of her talents. Later, Neela had convinced Kai Winn to intervene on behalf of a vedek that had been imprisoned beside Neela for a number of murders. She too had been spared the obligatory death sentences for such crimes by virtue of her calling. The vedek had long used martial arts as a meditation technique. When confronted on the road by bandits, she'd simply meditated them to death.

She taught her arts to Neela while they were in prison together. The vedek was reduced to being a prylar upon release and sent away to a quiet retreat far away from populated areas. There, she had lived out her remaining days.

"We won't find Colonel Ro on Sinhera," Neela predicted, "But the Ascendant will be pleased to tell us where she is."

"You know this?" Vaughn inquired.

"How could she?" McKinley scoffed, "She's guessing."

"Neela is many things. But a guesser isn't one of them," Macen promised him.

"Good enough for me," Johnson assured everyone, "Seconds anyone?"

After beaming back aboard the Obsidian, Neela inquired of Macen after they'd left Telrik's domain, "You're worried."

"Ro and an Emissary of the Prophets, any Emissary, is a bad mix," Macen sighed.

"We're here as witnesses, just as she is," Neela confided, "Surely you've felt it?"

"I have," Macen told her, "What I don't understand is why Ghemor needs an audience beyond her faithful. And why choose Ro? Why not the Kai?"

"Taking Ro invites a measured response. Taking the Kai of Bajor invites a fleet of responses," Neela shrugged, "Why weren't Anara and Agent Delain invited by Admiral Johnson as well?"

"Anara may be a Special Forces Colonel but she has no official standing here. Unless she relieved Captain Wyn of command," Macen told her, "Inviting Ziva would be difficult to explain after we recover Ro and return home to the Alpha Quadrant."

"I see. The Admiral is afraid of the official response after they return home," Neela mulled it over, "I'll recommend to Anara that we transfer to the Fist of the Prophets and that she assume command."

"That wasn't an actual suggestion," Macen replied.

"But it was an inspired one," Neela smiled and left him standing alone in the corridor.

"Sonuva..." Macen muttered. He caught the turbolift after it sent Neela wherever she'd requested to be. Two others rode with him to Deck 2

There four crewmen awaited transfer to Deck 5 and Main Engineering. Deck 2 contained Sickbay and the SID team's official spaces. He and Rockford each had offices. The Detective Squad had the Situation Center. Smith and Kerber had their customized Data Womb next to the computer core. Macen's office was situated between the two specialized spaces.

"Hi sailor, new in town?" Rockford caught up with him as she exited her office, "I've noted you didn't drop by to say 'Hi, I'm back'."

"Neela caught me by surprise. I'm still processing that," Macen confessed, "But I'm glad I'm back."

"Something in your tone suggests things got ugly," Rockford noticed, "And Neela generally has that effect."

"Anara will be assuming command of the Fist," Macen told her, "Apparently it was my idea."

"You're not sure?" Rockford was surprised now.

"Neela certainly thinks it was. Or at least the Prophets speaking through me," Macen grimaced. They entered his office and Rockford lounged on the couch while Macen went behind his desk to take a seat. The two offices, like the Captain's Ready Room, were built around the same design as the XO office aboard an Intrepid-class starship.

"Neela is predicting Ro won't be on Sinhera. I'm inclined to agree," Macen shared, "She postulates that we're meant to be witnesses to something. Ghemor specifically meant for Ro to see whatever it is and Neela, of course, believes the Prophets included us on the guest list."

"This reunion with the Ascendant does smack of the preordained," Rockford sighed.

"Did I just hear you right?" Macen asked.

"Not in a touchy-feely faith kinda way. More like the crushing reality of circumstances would bring us back in contact with them," Rockford explained.

"You had me worried," Macen smirked.

"I'm not a true believer yet. I agree the aliens in the Wormhole can do amazing things but I find it hard to concede to calling them Prophets when they cheat by being translinear and outside of space-time," Rockford clarified her position, "And they used the Nexus, which is completely indecipherable, to bring us into our current situation."

"I spent lifetimes in the Nexus and it was mere seconds in the here and now," Macen admitted.

"Or at least a here and now," Rockford shrugged.

"When I first met Neela, twelve years ago, she was holding on to a secret regarding the Nexus and reality as we knew it. I'm always curious as to what secrets she's still holding onto," Macen had to admit.

"I'm always curious as to why she thinks they have to be secrets," Rockford amended.

"I'll give you that," Macen agreed.

"You'd better give me more than just that, mister," Rockford teased.

"Maybe later," Macen grinned, "Have either team at either next door found anything useful on the Intrepid's sensor logs yet?"

"Arianna spotted a sensor echo that no one else seemed to notice with everything else going on," Rockford told him.

"Another Ascendant ship?" Macen was intrigued.

"If it was, the power output was nearly doubled," Rockford warned him, "She's flagged all the data she could pull from the released logs. Angelique and Bailey tapped the Intrepid's computer core and got the raw feeds uploaded. My team is going over them now."

"They didn't think to ask nicely?" Macen groaned.

"They're one of your projects," Rockford reminded him, "They don't play well with others. Especially when there's a chance the others will refuse the request."

"Point taken," Macen conceded, "No one aboard the Intrepid ever noticed these readings?"

"They were in the background and Johnson was running with the whole breakdown of diplomatic relations scenario," Rockford grinned, "Especially with near space filling up with obvious Ascendant ships."

"But there was potentially one right in plain sight," Macen mused, "Awfully cocky of them."

"Ballsy can get you pretty far in most cases," Rockford shrugged.

"True," Macen often just brazened his way out of situations.

"The bigger questions is: how will you explain to Jim how you obtained unreleased sensor readings if we find anything worth reporting?" Rockford wondered.

"Hopefully he'll be too pleased with the results to question the methods," Macen sighed.

"Slim hope," Rockford observed.

"Yeah, I know," Macen said glumly.

"They what?" McKinley barely refrains from shouting the question.

"There are things you don't know about Kerber and Smith," Vaughn informed him, "For your own safety as well as theirs."

'They hack into my ship's computers again and they'll need to be safe from me," McKinley grated.

"Commander Massoli, what do you make of these readings?" Vaughn shifted the focus.

"I agree with Macen's team appraisal. These readings are similar to Constitution-class vessel...only amplified," Massoli frowned.

"Parva consulted on the final report," Macen told them, "It's about a 50% surge in available power resources."

"Which, no vessel of that design period met until the refit era," Massoli assessed, "At least nothing that was actually built."

"The Ascendant meticulously copied the only Federation starship they came in contact with. Yet in a century afterwards, they haven't improved the design," Macen reminded them all, "Yet here we are."

"You're suggesting an outside influence?" Vaughn wondered.

"I think it's likely," Macen told them all, "There is unrestricted traffic through the Wormhole. Literally anyone could have made contact."

"But the Ascendant were leery of non-Bajorans," Johnson added.

"Who's to say that the plans for a new ship design didn't come from a Bajoran?" McKinley asked.

"It's a Federation warp core. And a mid-23rd Century design based on the isolated readings once they're removed from the background. I can't believe we missed this before," it offended Massoli's professional pride.

"We were under a lot of official pressure from Starfleet and the Bajorans both to get back and search for Ro. I barely got Kira to allow for Brin to join us," Johnson explained.

"Besides we had obvious threats that we'd been facing. There was no reason to start searching out the outer system," McKinley consoled his girlfriend.

"But we scanned them the entire time we passed through the outer system on our way out of the system and we, I, never saw them," Massoli was inconsolable, "Yet private contractors did it inside of minutes. No offense to private contractors."

"Sure there is. You underestimate my team because they aren't Starfleet. That's our greatest weapon," Macen admitted, "As long as the opposition doesn't expect a lot from us; we can outperform their worst nightmares."

"Point taken," Massoli still struggled, "But it's getting odder. Until last year, there was no official contact between the Intrepid and your team yet everyone acts like old friends. Why? I was surprised when Jim told me you all are friends. And Ian doesn't remember key details about how he met Hannah anymore. She laughs it off, of course."

Delaney did remember meeting Grace a completely different way than Massoli and Grace herself did. But Grace was just happy that her marriage was free of its former difficulties and was willing to coach Delaney in on the "official" story. Obviously he needed to study the details better. Macen's own association with Grace was vastly different than she remembered as well. He preferred her treachery-free memories where she stayed in Starfleet and never joined his team for any length of time.

Grace was just grateful that Macen was willing to overlook the fact that she was an undercover Kelvan scout. But she'd decided to live in the completely human world and not sell out the Federation to the Kelvans coming from the Andromeda Galaxy and becoming "human" when they arrived in order to survive.

Their Attuners giving abilities that would easily overcome Starfleet. As Captain Kirk had discovered before convincing Rojan, the scouts' leader, to settle down on the M-class world the NCC-1701 Enterprise crew found them on. The Enterprise and joined the original USS Endeavor and the USS Sagittarius in scouting the Taurus Reach in an extension of the Operation Vanguard. The Enterprise had been released to explore other regions leaving her fellow heavy cruiser and the Archer-class scout to survey the expansive Taurus Reach. Before Starfleet abandoned its early efforts. The Reach remained a largely uncharted territory.

Johnson had long dreaded this day. Massoli was too intelligent not to spot the discrepancies. As was Emily Johnson. McKinley had begged Johnson and Nechayev for permission to brief them. Until now, he, Caplan, and Liefers had been forbidden to reveal the details that grace already knew. McKinley gave Johnson an imploring look. Johnson made a gut call and nodded his acquiescence.

"Jen, we need to talk afterwards," McKinley told her, "It'll explain a lot."

Like why McKinley had finally relented to asking her out after years of denying their mutual attraction. Johnson knew he had to deal with Sikorsky's anger over this decision. But it wasn't a medical issue so Johnson could pull rank.

"Could you find a correlating design with that kind of power output?" Vaughn inquired.

"That'd be Caplan and Lieutenant Johnson's department. We're looking at experimental designs or starship types that never went past the prototype stage," Massoli ventured.

"I'll tell Robert that he and Emily should start combing the archives," McKinley promised them.

"If we have no further business?" Vaughn asked, "Our ETA is less than two hours."

"Caplan might not have an answer by then," McKinley warned.

"I'll put Lt. Commander Nog on it as well," Vaughn assured him.

"I'll warn Colonel Anara that we're looking at a potential new threat," Macen offered.

"In that case, I wish you two the best," Johnson ushered everyone out so McKinley could come clean with Massoli. The aftermath of the revelation went worse than McKinley had expected and he expected a complete disaster.

"I can't believe you've been lying to me," Massoli was standing apart from him, holding herself tight.

"It is an existential crisis," McKinley feebly explained, "You're right of course. I know you haven't said it but I should've had the balls to defy Bob's orders and just tell you the truth."

"Damn straight you should've," Massoli let her anger seep through.

"I know this means trouble for us. If an 'us' even survives. But I can only ask on behalf of everyone involved, don't inform Starfleet Command," McKinley pleaded.

"Jim, I trade it in secrets. You should know by now I can keep one," Massoli grated, "You should've trusted me the way I trusted you. Before this. You're right. 'We' may not survive but I won't betray the crew."

She exited the Observation Lounge and never looked back.

"That went better than expected, I guess," McKinley thumped his head off the bulkhead a few futile times. Johnson, as it turned out, took the news from Liefers and Caplan much better than anyone could've hoped for.

"Dropping out of warp," Pedrossi informed everyone.

"And of course there's a welcoming committee," Striker groaned. Two pre-refit Constellation-class starships blocked their approach into the system.

"I'd say they've been waiting for us since they took Ro," Delaney ventured, "There's no warp trails in or out of this area for at least 24 hours. Any ones before then decayed long ago."

"It's about to be up to Colonel Anara," McKinley voiced.

"Actually, I'd say it's up to Neela," Liefers corrected him.

"Hail them," Anara ordered Tech Sergeant Triss Glivi, the communications officer.

"Communications established," Triss reported.

"On screen," Anara requested.

"I greet you in the name of the Prophets," a grizzled looked Ascendant offered as his image appeared on the screen.

"I'm Colonel Anara of the Bajoran Special Forces. I'm the Acting Commander of this vessel, the Fist of the Prophets, I request a consultation with your commanders."

"Your arrival, and that of your fellow pilgrims, has been expected, Colonel," the Ascendant told her, "If you standby, we can transmit coordinates to you and you can intercept the Emissary and Colonel Ro as they reach their next destination in Colonel Ro's tour of the mission field."

Anara stifled a groan at that term, "That would be appreciated."

"Whatever I can do for another Child of the Prophets," the screen reverted back to a view of the opposing starships.

"That went well," Lieutenant Crispus opined.

"Too well," Sergeant Bol Ferin, the Navigator, grunted.

"We'd like to avoid a fight, Sergeant," Wyn chided him.

"Coordinates received, Colonel," Triss announced.

"Pass them along with a note regarding their nature," Anara decided.

"This takes us around this star system," Bol noted, "I'd wonder why."

"They value their privacy?" Crispus offered.

"Neela?" Wyn asked of the visitor sitting at the Engineering station.

Neela interrupted her prayers, "There's no deceit. This entire encounter was scripted before they laid the trap that took Ro."

"So we'll still be playing into Ghemor's hands," Wyn growled.

"We have significant assets at our side, Captain," Anara reminded her, "They'd have to spring quite a trap for us to overcome the ships accompanying us."

"You still think Starfleet is here for us?" Wyn snorted, "I doubt it after that farce of a dinner the admiral held."

"Then why are they here?" Anara probed her XO's thoughts.

"To save face. And to ascertain how close Bajor is with the Ascendant. Just like the admiral was ordered to," Wyn did explain.

"The Obsidian is here of its own accord, strictly on Ro's behalf. Vaughn is also concerned for her. His loyalty overrides his sense of obligation for Starfleet's original intent. McKinley and Johnson do wish to save face. But they'll completely support Macen and Vaughn," Neela told her, "As will I."

Wyn subsided after losing face to the one they called the Hand of the Prophets.

"All commands acknowledge and are standing by for us to engage warp drive to lead the way," Triss informed Anara.

"Lay in the course, Sergeant Bol. We have a colonel to find," Anara ordered next, "Lieutenant, engage impulse engines and stand by for warp drive. Engage on my mark. Tech Sergeant Triss, advise all commands that we will be going to warp on the count of three. Mark! Engage Warp Factor 4."

The chase resumed.

"Commander? A word?" Massoli approached Striker. The XO was overseeing operations while McKinley was in Ready Room undertaking a last minute comms conference with Anara, Vaughn, and Macen.

"What is it, Commander?" Striker turned to face her.

"I need to show you something," Massoli led him to a Science station.

She pulled up the current sensor readings, "I started reviewing our active sensor logs and found something."

"Delaney, can you join us?" Striker asked.

"When you push our sensors to their maximum ranges, we get six echoes following us," Massoli pointed out.

"Except there are discrepancies in the warp signatures between each so-called echo," Delaney noted.

"Yet consistent with our mystery ship from before,"

"Ascendant ships," Striker surmised.

"And made up of their mystery class," Delaney stated, "I'll begin tentative targeting tracks to be active once they're in range. I'll also intensify our other sensor sweeps to detect any more surprises."

"Good work," Striker lowered his voice, "Jim wanted to tell you but the Admiral and Doctor Sikorsky forbade it."

"He should've manned up anyway," Massoli snorted.

"Andreja threatened to relieve Jim of command if he did," Striker explained at long last, "On the merits of obviously being delusional to be babbling about alternate histories."

"Doctor Sikorsky did that?" Massoli ground her teeth.

"Jim hasn't told her you're in the know now," Striker whispered, "Robert and Liz hadn't confessed to telling Emily yet because they were under the same threat. We all were."

"Yet Delaney told Grace," Massoli grated, "He hasn't been relieved."

"Hannah was told before the Admiral and Andreja set policy. And Hannah is a special exemption for reasons you'll have to ask her about," Striker offered, "She'll probably confide in you."

"At least someone would," Massoli complained.

"Just...assess where Jim was coming from when he withheld information he desperately wanted to share. That's all I ask," Striker pleaded.

"You're a good friend, Jonathan. Thank you," Massoli excused herself.

"I hope that worked," Striker confided in Delaney.

"I may want to keep some Security officers posted near Sickbay," Delaney suggested to his closest friend.

"Good idea. But quietly," Striker urged.

"I'm the very soul of discretion," Delaney boasted. Striker gave him a disparaging look.

"Most of the time," Delaney amended.

"Commander, how can I assist you?" Sikorsky inquired of Massoli, "My staff says you refuse to speak with anyone else."

"Your office. Now. Engage privacy mode," Massoli demanded.

Sikorsky did so, "You seem upset."

She never reckoned on Massoli's right cross that flattened her on the floor after bouncing her off the window.

"Try and take Jim's command away from him on trumped up charges and I'll rip your leg off and stuff it up your ass," Massoli warned her.

"He told you," Sikorsky grimaced as she wiped blood from her lip and spat some out.

"Damn straight," Massoli grated, "And about damn time too. I was beginning to have doubts because I knew he was hiding things from me. But he also did it because of you and Johnson. Now he came clean despite your threat. So just know this, no threat you make can keep Jim from sharing the truth with me."

"I suppose Caplan and Liefers have told Lieutenant Johnson," Sikorsky grumbled.

"Stay on the floor," Massoli warned her, "Or I'll just put you there again. Don't try to get between Jim and me ever again."

"It wasn't personal," Sikorsky promised.

"The hell it was," Massoli snapped.

Security accessed the office, "Commander, if you'll come with us?"

"Doctor, would you like to file a report?" Ensign Brad Turner asked Sikorsky.

"No, it was just a...misunderstanding," Sikorsky couldn't file formal charges without revealing the cause of the dispute, "Carry on, Ensign."

"Yes, ma'am," Turner backed down but was still discomfited. Assaults were rare aboard a starship and it was even rarer that they were left unreported. Lt. Commander Delaney had asked for Turner and Ismowaan to standby in case a call came from Sickbay. How Delaney knew beforehand was another mystery. But the Medical staff had reported a crashing sound from Sikorsky bouncing off of her office wall. The glass had been opaque and the sound suppressing buffers were on but angry tones could be heard through the screens.

Ensigns Gina McAfee and Kirsten Featherstone had been present. Turner was friends with both and decided to take statements from them later. Lower Decks stuck together. No matter how Senior Staff tried to screw with the ship's safety.

Ensign Ismowaan delivered Massoli to McKinley's Ready Room. Delaney hadn't quite trusted her to report there on her own.

"Well, Andreja isn't filing a report accusing you of assault," McKinley told her, "Mainly because she would have to report why a fight broke out in the first place."

Massoli was icing her knuckles, "Good."

"Thank you," McKinley quietly said, "You risked a black mark on your record for the truth."

"Sikorsky really would've relieved you. I saw it in her eyes," Massoli complained, "Which only reinforces what Striker told me about your conflict over the lie. You should thank him. He saved your chances with me. Just a word of advice, next time, just tell me and we'll run our own disinformation campaign to keep others from knowing that we both know."

"From now on, I promise," McKinley pledged, "Jonathan told me how you've been reviewing the sensor logs and identified that ships were tracking us since we left the Sinhera system."

"Bastards won't catch me twice. And that goes for you lot as well," Massoli advised him.

"I love you," McKinley confessed to a very stunned Massoli. He'd never said those exact words before. It was also confessed with the utmost earnestness that Massoli had ever hoped for.

"If I'd known getting pissed off would get you to admit that, I would've lost it months ago," Massoli grudgingly chuckled, "The fact you made me so hurt and angry is because I love you too. I just thought you didn't feel the same based on the lying and I thought we were over."

"We're just beginning," McKinley vowed.

"Was it like this between you and Andreja?" Massoli inquired.

"Long story for when we have more time. We have a 5 minute ETA," McKinley told her, "I hate to dodge that particular question right now but we..."

The red alert klaxon sounded and the warning lights went red, "See what I mean?"

Massoli smiled, "You're off the hook for now."

"Join us on the bridge. I think we'll be getting our answers regarding those mystery ships," McKinley offered, "I could really use your expertise backing Striker and Delaney."

"Flattery?" Massoli asked.

"Honesty," McKinley was headed for the door.

"I'll take Mission Specialist Station 1," Massoli told him.

"What have we got?" McKinley could feel the Intrepid dropping from warp.

"We are effectively blockaded and being surrounded," Striker said grimly.

"Tactical," McKinley requested. A wall of starships had formed up before and behind them. With screening units of Constellation-class ships flanking them.

"I'm beginning to hate Ghemor," Delaney confessed.

"I'm sure that's a pretty popular sentiment right now," Striker admitted.

"Can we identify those mystery ships?" McKinley asked as he took his seat.

The mystery ships were larger than a Constitution-class but built along similar lines with a third nacelle stretch forth from the primary hull.

"Emily Johnson sent up a report," Massoli read off from it, "When the Phase II refits were first considered and tested on the Asia-class, a secondary proposal was made for this class of ship. A Captain of Engineering at the ASDB named Franz Joseph designed a proposed 'dreadnought' class to supplement the fleet while select Constitution- and Miranda-classes would undergo refits. Newer hulls would be built to the new specifications. Joseph's proposal was rejected in favor of constructing five newer model Constitution-classes and refitting the still serving seven beginning with the Enterprise. Neither work order was ever completed."

"The Constitution-class starships began being decommissioned beginning in 2285 so there was no time to complete all of the work," Striker recalled, "After the destruction of the original Enterprise, the Yorktown was recommisisoned as the Enterprise-A."

The Yorktown had been the last Constitution-class to be refitted and even then, the process was never completed before she was pressed back into active service. Eight other similar starships were simply decommissioned and later sold off to private interests or granted to colonies in need of full time defense. The Enterprise-A's premier mission was a hallmark in Captain of Engineering Montgomery Scott's feats of ingenuity. It was the mission to Nimbus III and the events where the being simply known as the One was encountered.

"They're hailing the Fist of the Prophets," Delaney advised them.

"I want in on the conversation," McKinley instructed.

"Hacking signal now," Massoli promised. And an Ascendant appeared on the screen.

"Colonel Anara, I presume?" another grizzled Ascendant inquired. This was one was female.

"I am. And you are?" Anara asked.

"Vedek Belfor," she answered, "You seem surprised."

"On Bajor, vedeks are spiritual leaders, not warriors," Anara replied.

"All warfare is spiritual in nature," Belfor quoted her scriptures.

"That is from the Axioms," Neela interjected, "Not the Prophecies."

Belfor was stunned, "Who aboard your vessel could know theAxioms' texts?"

Anara motioned for Triss to expand the visual recorders range. Neela presented herself, "I am Neela, a servant of the Prophets and all their Children."

"The Hand of the Prophets? I am unworthy," Belfor nearly kowtowed, "You enlightened the Emissary of her heresies before the Prophets showed her their divine truth and their divine path for us all."

"And what path is she on?" Neela inquired, "We are to discover what the Prophets' work in the Gamma Quadrant is and to retrieve Colonel Ro."

"Of course. I would consider a great prestige to show you," Belfor offered.

"And my fellow travelers," Neela stipulated.

"Of course. They are all meant to see," Belfor signaled the other ships and path was opened amidst the forward screening units.

"If you'll follow my ship," Belfor offered.

"An Ascendant ship is moving off," Crispus announced.

"Follow it," Anara instructed, "Triss, signal the others to follow us in."

"How?" Wyn quietly asked Neela.

"The Prophets guide us the most when we are the least certain towards our path," Neela deflected the question.

"Uh-huh," Wyn moved off back to her station.

"How the hell did she know Ascendant scripture?" Massoli was completely flabbergasted, "Even our Bajoran contact uploads don't have any of those details."

"The Wormhole aliens told her," Massoli had called for a conference in McKinley's Ready Room so he answered her question openly.

"They're real," Sikorsky said glumly. She was still leery of Massoli's temper.

"But they're not gods, despite Bajoran and Ascendant teachings to the contrary," Johnson stipulated, "But their reverence towards Neela can be influential in our talks with Ghemor."

McKinley's comm badge chirped and Striker reported in, "Captain, the Ascendant are not following us but they have began patrol circuits around the solar system."

"They must be protecting Ghemor," Johnson theorized.

"Perhaps they're felling protective of Neela as well," Sikorsky offered.

"Excellent point," Johnson smiled, "They've obviously incorporated her into their religious worldview."

"What do we need to know about these dreadnought vessels?" McKinley asked.

"Twice the firepower of a Constitution-class. A standard heavy cruiser of the era had difficulty of maintaining speeds passed Warp 6 for an extended duration. The dreadnoughts were intended to be able to maintain Warp 7 for extended periods and have a maximum capacity for Warp 8 for a few hours. These are old style drive systems prior to the Phase II initiatives," Massoli reported.

"But they can outrun and outgun two of our sister ships and their sheer numbers make them a threat to the Defiant and ourselves," McKinley grimly assessed.

"Which is why we need to pursue a diplomatic resolution," Johnson insisted.

"And if diplomacy fails?" Sikorsky had to ask despite already knowing the answer.

"Then we're in real trouble," McKinley grimly stated the obvious.

"It won't come to that," Despite Johnson's bravado, he knew he had an uphill battle to climb.

"Helluva crossfire they're putting us in," Jones complained to Forger from the Obsidian'sbridge.

"Neela knows what she's leading us into," Forger promised.

"You're one hundred percent sure?" Jones asked even sharper. Forger refrained from commenting.

"That's what I thought," Jones grumbled.

"You have it?" Macen inquired of Kerber and Smith in their Data Womb.

"In needs translating but we have complete copies of mission logs and flight recorders from three separate Ascendant vessels," Kerber gloated.

"Focus on the translation and pass off the material to the detectives as soon as you clear each piece of data," Macen instructed the Ardanans.

"We still have our translation matrix from our last encounter," Smith told him, "So can start clearing the docket inside of a few minutes."

"Then stay abreast of whatever else they're communicating between themselves," Macen requested.

"Easy enough," Kerber looked a cat swallowing a canary.

"I'll warn Celeste and the other that data packets are headed their way," Macen stepped out. He stopped in the Situation Center on the way to his office. He began his own inquiries regarding ship movements and the religious text Neela had quoted from. That knowledge obviously had been provided by the Prophets.

The Axioms turned out to be like the Jewish Talmud Torah or Christian commentaries. Interpretations and theories regarding accepted canonical scriptural texts. The Axioms were a work in progress stretching back from the Bajora extremists that had been exiled from Bajor and brought through the Celestial Temple by the Prophets to Ghemor's recent additions to the texts.

Ghemor had spent recent months denouncing many, but not all, of her previous writings. She recanted of her previous biases and "heresies" and begged the reader not make the same assumptions and mistakes she had. But in the end, she was still an extremist. Ghemor had merely transformed from nationalist extremist to a religious extremist.

Macen knew, without question, that Neela had quoted from the Axioms to elicit more than Belfor's reaction of name dropping the book. The vedek was blithely unaware of the Data Team's ability to lift the scriptures and commentary from her ship's computers as well from others. The Interfaith missionaries had demanded a spiritual "awakening" and transformation from their intended "converts". Ghemor and the Ascendancy would settle for outward compliance. Faith would come from future generations once they stamped out the competing native faiths.

Which was why the Ascendant had needed newer and more powerful starships. They were taking the "word" from their world to those they had previously encountered. But unlike their meeting with the Bajorans, the Ascendant had displayed "shock and awe" tactics within their alien encounters but it had been the Bajorans divergence in the familiar faith that had set the Ascendant off into slaughtering the "heretics". Bajoran faith had lists of recommended behaviors, actions, and attitudes based on the prophecies given to them from representatives sent by the Prophets over the eons.

The Ascendancy had a playbook of proper outward shows of faith and compliance intended to demonstrate a prostrated soul. It was this list of "thou shalls and thou shall nots" that Ghemor's followers were codifying into laws on the contacted planets. It seemed the closest technological match to the Ascendant had been the fifth planet discovered before New B'hala. It was a warp capable culture. But just barely.

They'd broken the warp barrier mere weeks before the Ascendancy arrived on their world. The new Ascendant dreadnoughts were capable of lumbering atmospheric operations and the sight of warships filling the skies had to have terrified populaces as much as it thrilled them. Then to be handed rules and regulations from seemingly deified aliens with words of prophecy and scriptures detailing beings even more powerful than the invaders had seemingly cowed most of the worlds.

But pockets of resistance remained. Those pockets tested the Ascendancy's patience. Especially Ghemor's, who had visions of the Bajoran Resistance happening all over again. Which, defiantly in the face of her aspirations to declare all Bajorans fellow Children of the Prophets, stoked Ghemor's paranoia and anger at the Resistance against the Occupations. Unwilling to recognize she herself was launching limited scale occupations, Ghemor willfully and blinded forged ahead with her ambitions to "spread the love of the Prophets". At phaser point if need be.

In essence, Ghemor was recreating the very Resistance she'd been trained and sworn to destroy. Religious awakening or not, that was Ghemor's default mode. It was the comfortable portion of her mind so that is where she sought solace. Reading through highlights of the Axioms and Ghemor's past and current additions, Macen began to grasp Ghemor's mentality. He also recognized the schism she refused to acknowledge. It was part of why Ro was here. To talk down the fighters.

In the end, she was still a Cardassian bred with all of a Cardassian's cultural disdain for religion. It was an imperative throughout Cardassian history to root and destroy religions within their society. Believers were executed as threats to the state and the people. Now Ghemor ranked amongst those threats. Or did she really?

Had the Prophets called her to incite cultural warfare on five planets or was that an offshoot of her own prejudices and doubts regarding her cause? Ghemor's internal schism led five billion adherents to act upon her internal strife. Was this outreach simply a plot for Ghemor to convince herself of the truth behind her path? Did she truly worship the Prophets as their Emissary or did she simply find a new way to exploit the Ascendancy's faith in them?

The tone of her recent commentaries was vastly different from her original entries. But was it doubt that drove her or an actual conversion experience? That was what he and Neela to root out once again. The Prophets spoke to Ghemor as their Emissary. But did she really listen yet?

Belfor's ship led them to a planet revealed to them as Raas II. It was a vast desert world with several small salt water oceans and inland seas. Galen 3's survey reports indicated the presence of fresh water oases scattered across the sand dune covered surfaces and rocky terrains of the Raas II. Great salt water rivers ran from the seas to the oceans. Commercial traffic and barges sailed these waterways to provide transit ways.

Galen 3's survey also revealed the presence of desalinization plants scattered across the planet's surface and canals dug to foster agriculture. The planet's inhabitants were humanoid and their culture was surprisingly similar to the Nile culture of the Egyptians on Earth during its early zenith. The similarities were striking. So striking as to suggest a link. But the natives weren't human so the Preservers weren't involved in any way.

The Raasians hadn't developed space flight yet. But they'd unified their various tribal states under a single banner centuries ago. Therefore their buildings and monuments were the result of a homogenous culture. Each of the three major continents had a Dreadnought-class starship patrolling them. It was both a support vessel for the Ascendancy's land based activities and an immediate threat to those that would rise up against the alien presence.

For a desert culture whose entire technology base was built around survival, they had no comparable means of defending themselves. And it seemed to be that way on every world the Ascendancy had "reached out" to Ro would later testify to. But the two Constellation-class starships that had greeted the rescue operation at Sinhera was the last of the Ascendant fleet. Every other starship was deployed. Most of them here at the Raas system. Approximately two-thirds of the Ascendant fleet was committed to the system. Stressing just how important this showcase effort was to Ghemor.

Ghemor had had over a week now to show off her efforts to Ro. He was curious as to how his friend would be reacting to Ghemor right now.

Ro was surprised when her comm badge began chirping. She cautiously tapped it, "Ro here."

"Colonel Ro, this is Colonel Anara aboard the Fist of the Prophets. We're in orbit over Raas II," came the unexpected announcement, "Are you well?"

"So far," Ro was being studied by Ghemor as they walked the surface streets of Raas II's capital, "I've been on a grand tour of the Ascendancy's ambitions. Are you alone?"

"Negative. The USS Intrepid, USS Defiant, and the Obsidian are with us," Anara reported, "As well as the Hand of the Prophets and Agent Ziva Delain."

Ro now studied Ghemor's reaction. She was copacetic with Neela being mentioned. But she blanched upon hearing Delain's Cardassian name. It seemed Ghemor either didn't want a Cardassian reminding her of her own past or she didn't want a witness to what she'd been up to reporting back to Cardassia Prime.

"Is everyone in orbit?" Ro asked.

"Negative. Starfleet has taken up an orbit of the planet beyond transporter range. However, Admiral Johnson wishes to attempt to resume his mission," Anara told her, "Commander Macen is also anxious to reunite with you."

"Hold," Ro instructed the Triss to quiet the comm circuit, "Can they beam down?"

"I wouldn't advise it," Ghemor breezily replied, "The winds are picking up and there are ionized particles in the sand. It creates some spectacular storms. But they can land using auxiliary craft."

"Ro to Fist," Ro signaled Triss to resume, "Landing parties need to use aux craft owing to potential ion storms within the impending sand storm."

"Copy that," Anara acknowledged, "I'll inform all parties. Anara out."

"We have an hour or so before the storm rolls into the city," Ghemor predicted, "The locals will go to ground before then. However, we can shelter in a local cantina."

"They'll find us either by tracking my comm badge or our bio signs," Ro conceded.

"Then I suggest we relax while we wait," Ghemor allowed.

"You're the expert on local dining," Ro made a sweeping gesture beckoning Ghemor to lead.

"Walk beside me, Colonel Ro. We have much to discuss," Ghemor countered. Ro was suspicious again.

It was decided the Obsidian's sole runabout, the Corsair, would ferry down the envoys. Macen's team would also be providing armed escort for Johnson since Starfleet wouldn't allow a flag officer into a potentially hazardous zone without one. Striker accompanied Johnson as well as Johnson's two aides, DeBoer and Hadek. Neela and Captain Wyn were with the party with addition of Command Sergeant Tryllis Tilya, the Fist's Company Platoon Commander. Vaughn spared Dalin Zivan Slaine, his Cardassian Guard exchange officer through the Bajoran Militia. Delain came as well. Macen and Rockford assembled Ebert, Mudd, Daggit, and Burrows as their team.

"What the frinx?" Mudd exclaimed after they'd launched.

In orbit before them, behind the Obsidian, lay a Bajoran stock freighter seemingly identical to Mudd's own. She pulled the freighter's transponder ID, "The frinxin' SS Freebooter? Frinxin' Federation registration?"

"Check the owner's registration," Ebert was slightly wide eyed.

"Who the hell is Mudd Kenra?" Mudd demanded to know.

"Your half-Bajoran sister," Macen sighed.

"You knew about this?" Mudd angrily wanted to know.

"Your father told me back in the Maquis days," Macen confessed, "I thought you knew."

"Bastard never told me," Mudd grated.

"I'm sorry," Macen gave his heartfelt apology.

"I have her criminal file pulled up," Rockford told Mudd.

"She and her mum moved back to Bajor after the Dominion War. They'd been in a refugee camp on Kalendra before then," Mudd read aloud. "Kalendra" could have meant Kalendra a or Kalendra b. Native Kalendrans dwelt on the smaller and fertile Kalendra b while foreigners were related to the marginal Kalendra a. It made better sense to put a Bajoran refugee camp on Kalendra a. At least to the Kalendrans. Kalendra a was populated by foreign criminals cartels and gangs. Most Bajoran criminal interests were based off of Kalendra a.

"Hmph," Mudd snorted, "She's good. Very good. Not as good as me, of course. She's definitely a step up from my idiot brother. I'm gonna rip his balls off and feed `em to him."

"Your brother?" Ebert worried.

"My father," Mudd snarled, "This is another one of Pops' mind games to make everyone compete. He played Harry Jr. and me off of each other for a coupla decades. `Till he realized just how stupid Junior is."

"No arguments there," Macen said under his breath.

Rockford shot him a scathing look, "Harri, he's still your father and this is still your sister."

"We'll see. Won't we?" Mudd angrily asked.

Raas II had one principal cereal crop: a type of corn. Forms of wheat and hops grew in controlled environs. Wheat was relegated to the wealthy. Including whiskey and malt beer. The commoners typically drank a cornbread infused beer. It provided nutrition as well as a 15% alcohol content. A cheap corn whiskey was also available at higher prices. Ro tried the beer as well as two oily cornmeal cake bars.

"This is their rotgut and it's still better than kanar," Ghemor chuckled after swallowing a bit of corn cake. A stranger entered and Ro nearly choked on her next swallow of beer.

"Are you all right?" Ghemor was alarmed.

"Is that a...Bajoran?" Ro almost stammered in disbelief.

"Ah yes, let me introduce you," Ghemor signaled for the woman to approach.

Ro noted that the stranger would've been a pre-adolescent during the Occupation. If she'd even been born on Bajor. There were so many refugee camps along with original Bajoran colonies to choose from...not to mention Federation worlds that had sheltered Bajorans.

"Mudd Kenra, meet Colonel Ro," Ghemor offered.

"Did you just say 'Mudd'?" Ro stared at her in disbelief.

"You know my family?" Mudd Kenra was intrigued.

"I thought I did," Ro was still in shock.

"Just kidding. Da talked about you, you know. He wanted to do more for the Maquis but he had a legacy to uphold," Mudd Kenra shared.

"You knew your father" Ro asked.

"Of course I did," Mudd Kenra retorted.

"What about your siblings?" Ro inquired sharply.

"I know of them," Mudd Kenra clarified, "We've never met. Da told me they don't know about me yet. I'm trying to keep it that way."

"Too late," Ro guessed as they heard the runabout pass overhead to begin a landing cycle. The tavern was built into a hillside to keep it cooler. The Corsair set down next to the hillock. A very human and very enraged Mudd was first through the doors. She stopped dead in her tracks.

Seeing Kenra made it certain that they shared a father. Kenra was so stunned that she never saw Mudd's right cross coming. Kenra propped herself up on her elbows and spat blood out, "I guess I deserved that."

"You? Never? Told? Us?" Mudd gnashed out between her clenched teeth, "Never told me?"

"Listen, Da made it plain you were the competition to be the true Mudd. If he wouldn't tell you, why should I?" Kenra inquired.

"Because why would Pops tell me anything? Ever?" Mudd ranted.

The natives were even more unnerved as the rest of the Corsair's passengers caught up with Mudd. In addition, everyone save Johnson and his aides was armed.

"Miss Mudd, I assume," Johnson grinned. He'd been raised up to speed after witnessing Mudd bolt out of the runabout.

"Quite an assemblage," Ghemor eyed Delain and Slaine warily.

Both the Cardassian Information Bureau and Cardassian Guard officer were armed. She turned her focus to Neela and Macen, "I have you two to thank for this."

"Kidnapping?" Macen inquired.

"Purpose," Ghemor replied.

"Which still involved kidnapping," Macen retorted.

"You can calm down. I've been well treated," Ro sought to de-escalate the rising tensions. She also made a discreet hand gesture that Macen noted carefully.

"Which is a good thing, to be certain," Johnson said sternly, "You lured us under false pretenses."

"You came to gain an advantage over Bajor and her people," Ghemor scolded him, "I simply turned matters on their head."

"You still took me by force," Ro said with long simmering anger.

"Colonel?" Ghemor was startled, "Are we not friends?"

"Friends don't kidnap friends," Ro told her firmly.

"With rare exception," Macen interjected.

"Nix that," Ro hissed at him.

"Colonel, how of all people, can you deny the power of the Prophets?" Ghemor wanted to know.

"I don't deny their power," Ro said heatedly, "I deny their godhood and their 'benign' motives. Something about worship gets them off."

"If you doubt them then you doubt me?" Ghemor asked.

"You bet your ass I doubt your motives," Ro was on her feet now, "All you've sown me is a Cardassian leading the occupation of five worlds. Not including the world she's supposedly the 'Emissary' too."

Neela face palmed.

"I suppose I have at that," Ghemor replied. She tapped her wristband and was slowly transported up to her ship.

"That was dodgy," Kenra remarked as she got back onto her feet. Daggit burst into the tavern.

He'd taken a post outside the door, "The Dreadnought- is lifting into orbit."

Striker hit his comm bade it merely chirped, "They're jamming us."

"We can lift off and get a signal out," Ebert offered. Explosions ripped through the streets and building blew apart. Everyone stepped outside to assess the situation.

"I think we just provided a very convenient distraction for the local rebels," Macen deduced.

"How so?" Ro asked.

"Every building hit was filled with Ascendant life signs when we approached to land," Rockford explained, "With the threat of the overhead starship lifted, the resistance fighters lashed out."

"I like them already," Ro smirked.

"You may not in a minute," Kenra warned, "They know I've collaborated with the Ascendant."

"Too bad for you," Mudd snorted.

"Harri!" Ebert scolded her.

"I'm Bajoran. The only Bajoran they've ever met. But Ghemor has filled their heads about the unity between the Ascendancy and the Bajorans," Kenra warned.

"Making us all viable targets," Ro understood now.

"Maybe if I spoke with them?" Johnson offered.

"You look like a Bajoran without nose ridges," Neela warned him, "They'll shoot you before asking pointed questions."

"Admiral?" Hadek looked scared.

"You've been trained for this, Cadet," Striker interposed.

"Look, I'm good with the local black market," Kenra offered them hope, "They'll hide us. For a price."

"What kind of price?" Johnson asked.

"We'll have to outbid the resistance fighters," Kenra told him, "So get ready to cough up."

"What do they use for local currency?" Macen asked.

"Gold, silver, and copper. The usual pre-industrial society stuff where it's scarce. Value is in that order. These people around here use copper coins. They're lucky if they ever see silver. Gold is reserved for the wealthy and local nobility," Kenra explained.

"Precious jewels?" Macen asked next.

"Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds mainly. They go for looots of gold coins per gem," Kenra described the situation, "These dumb frinxers haven't imagined fiat currency yet. So no banking systems or escalating debts that exceed hard currency reserves."

"We can replicate all of that on the Corsair," Ebert realized where Macen was going with it.

"I'da done the same but what good is gold in the galaxy?" Kenra shrugged.

"We can't interfere in the local economy," Striker interjected.

"It's already interfered with along with the entire societal evolution of these people," Johnson lamented.

"Is that gunfire?" Rockford asked suddenly.

"Muskets," Kenra explained, "They were the price of the local rulers' compliance."

"And you black marketed them," Mudd groaned.

"A fem has got to eat when she's on planet," Kenra shrugged, "Besides I offered them a superior product. These poor saps had never heard of rifled barrels much less of gunpowder."

"So it's a local political revolution as well and we're caught in the crossfire," Johnson looked as frustrated as everyone else felt.

"I oughta knock you on your ass again," Mudd threatened.

"What happened to you?" Kenra was obviously distressed, "Da raised me on stories of how you were such a natural crook."

"I still am," Mudd said defiantly.

"You sound like Starfleet," Kenra was disgusted, "I guess I really am the only Mudd left worthy of the name."

"Okay, let's separate the kids," DeBoer suggested.

"Excellent suggestion," Johnson agreed, "Miss...?"

"Mudd Kenra," Kenra introduced herself.

"Maybe we can live long enough to replicate bags of jewels and find these black marketers that are so fond of you?" Ro tersely asked.

"Good plan," Kenra mock saluted her, "A fem with brains. And of course, she's Bajoran."

"Just move," Ro ordered.

"So pushy," Kenra complained.

"A sand storm is beginning to occlude the target site," Galen 3 reported from the Sciences station on the Obsidian's bridge.

"Forger to Macen," she tapped the LCARS comms control on her chair, "Hello?"

"They're jamming us," Zimbalist warned.

"Shit! Shields up! Charge weapons!" Forger ordered, "Aglaia, break orbit and give us room to maneuver!"

"Fist is breaking off as well!" Miller reported, "Both Ascendant ships are locking phasers. We also three rising from the surface. All three are Dreadnaught-class."

"Prepare to return fire!" Jones ordered, "Ed, any luck with communications at all?"

"Nope," Zimbalist replied, "And it's Edwin."

'Touchy," Jones muttered.

"Ghemor's moving her entire fleet towards us," Miller reported. The ship shuddered and bucked.

"Damn!" Miller complained as relays overloaded, "Those Dreadnaughts- pack a punch."

"So do our ships," Forger smirked as pulse phasers streaked by the viewer pickups.

"Obsidian and Fist of the Prophets are breaking orbit!" Tenmei reported from the CONN/OPS station.

"Why?" Vaughn asked.

"Ascendant ships are charging weapons, raising shield, and establishing target locks," Tenmei explained.

"Starships ascending from the planet's surface," Lieutenant JG Willow Myers reported from Tactical 2.

"You wanted some live fire experience, Lieutenant. You're getting it," Vaughn grimly told Slaine's relief, "Target those ships rising through the atmosphere and fire phasers."

"Aye, sir!" Myers went to work. Vaughn could already tell Slaine had made a good choice in her station relief.

"Firing phasers," she announced.

"Somebody raise me another captain," Vaughn requested.

"All frequencies are jammed," Tenmei reported.

"Of course they are," Vaughn muttered.

The Intrepid came upon the scene of the Obsidian and Fist of the Prophets breaking orbit and being fired on. The Defiant was already in motion and firing...on the surface?

"Defiant is engaging starships rising through the atmosphere," Delaney answered McKinley's unspoken question.

"Commander Liefers, prep your squadrons," McKinley ordered.

"They're already on alert," Liefers assured him, "We can begin rolling out fighter craft in five minutes."

"Keep it up, Commander," McKinley approved.

"Starships in-bound into the outer system," Delaney warned.

"Pedrossi, turn us about. We'll slow their advance," McKinley instructed.

"I've been unable to raise any other command or our assets on the ground," Delaney warned.

"Task the computer to look for a Danube-class runabout. We'll dispatch four fighters to cover them," McKinley instructed, "Understood, Commander Liefers?"

"Relaying message to squadron leads," Liefers crisply reported.

"Go to red alert," McKinley instructed, "It seems we're at war with the Ascendancy."

"Like that was unexpected," Pedrossi snarked. Everyone on the bridge conceded the point.

"Dammit!" Anara snarled. The Fist was down her commander and her XO and going into combat operations. Anara wasn't even in nominal command of the Ark of the Prophets. She and Neela had never needed a formal command structure. Now she was dealing with complete strangers. But equipped with an actual starship rather than a troop transport.

"Make certain to differentiate between Ghemor's ship and Belfor's. Ghemor is our priority," Anara instructed.

"Those three encroaching Dreadnaughts- are taking up escort positions around Ghemor," Bol reported.

"Stay on her anyway," Anara ordered, "Make them fight defensively rather than us. Lieutenant Crispus, Sergeant Bol, you may fire at will."

"Yes, Colonel," Crispus happily replied. Anara thought she could get used to starship command. Of course it helped that Ro had culled the best from the fleet to staff her command. They were making her look good rather than the opposite.

"I don't suggest lifting off in this ionized storm," Ebert glumly admitted.

"Then we go with Operation Jewel Heist," Macen sighed.

"My kinda operation," Mudd enthused.

"It's just a name, Harri," Rockford warned her, "We're not stealing from the locals. Unless we have to."

"We good?" Macen asked Striker as he led Kenra, Burrows, and Daggit to the cockpit cabin.

"Four duffels ought to do it," Kenra gloated.

"Why do I think you're about to break the local economy?" Striker complained.

"Sergeant Tryllis, Tracy, Striker, Hadek, DeBoer, Slaine, and Delain will remain aboard to secure the ship and protect the admiral," Macen instructed.

'Now wait just a damn minute!" Johnson protested.

"Sir, I have to concur," Striker admitted,

"At least allow me to accompany you. A Cardassian presence might prove useful," Delain offered.

"Captain, you're remaining behind as well," Ro told Wyn.

"But Colonel!" Wyn protested this time.

"Captain, I've been doing this since you were child. Hell, since I was a child," Ro countered, "You're staying put."

They'd armed Ro and Kenra from the runabout's armory module. A few component removals had rendered Kenra's phaser pistol locked in its "stun" setting.

"You guys are no fun. Especially not you," Kenra accused Mudd.

"Happy to disappoint," Mudd quipped.

"Da must be so disappointed," Kenra verbally jabbed at her sister.

"Pops is used to it," Mudd shrugged.

"I know your skin isn't completely phaser proof. I'll get to you yet," Kenra warned her. Mudd decided to devote her attention to watching her estranged half-sister.

"Back us the hell off!" Parva snarled over the comm circuit.

"I thought you said Starfleet augmented this bucket," Forger sniped.

"They did. That's why we're still alive. But we can't continue to take this pounding," Parva informed her, "Much more of this and I'll have to take the warp core offline and then we'll really be screwed."

"Know when to back down," Jones advised Forger.

"Aglaia, pull us back," Forger relented.

"To where?" the pilot asked, "We have a small fleet approaching our backside with only the Intrepid in their way."

"Defiant is pulling away," Miller warned, "Two of those Dreadnaughts- are temporarily disabled. Now will be our only chance at Ghemor."

"I guess we aren't backing down just yet," Forger decided, "Aglaia, take us in as fast as you dare."

"Jaycee, try and keep up," Aglaia challenged Miller.

"Good call, Captain," Jones acknowledged.

"That remains to be seen," Forger relaxed a little.

"Intrepid rolling out fighters and making enemy contact," Tenmei reported.

"Full ahead," Vaughn ordered, "Myers, I want a full spread of quantum torpedoes as soon as we're in range."

"Our accuracy will be poor," Myers warned.

'Clustered up like they are?" Vaughn chuckled, "How can you miss?"

"They're breaking past us," Delaney warned, "Shields already down to 42% and falling."

"Full evasive," McKinley grimly ordered, "Pedrossi, time to get creative."

"If Commander Delaney is up for the target practice," Pedrossi chuckled.

"Try and shake me, you snot," Delaney called back.

"Getting creative, aye," Pedrossi said gleefully.

"Fighters rolled," Liefers announced.

"Order your squadrons to engage," McKinley ordered, "Pedrossi, take us in."

"With pleasure," Pedrossi often times treated the Akira-class starship as his own personal fighter craft.

"Alpha Lead to Alphas, break by wingmen. Clear a path around the Intrepid," Grace ordered her squadron. Beta Lead would take his cue from her. Alpha and Beta Squadrons had a friendly professional rivalry to maintain. While Grace had an unfair advantage as a Kelvan, Beta had a Vulcan and an Andorian in their ranks. Both skilled and fearless pilots.

Alpha had a battle tested Bajoran who'd flown sub-impulse raiders against Cardassian frigates. She also had another inspired Andorian and a Tellarite that were a shit hot pilots. Every pilot was strong but the stronger pilots helped carry their wingmen. Age and rank were the only factors that could disqualify a pilot.

Liefers herself had been a squadron leader before McKinley tapped her to be his Flight Operations Officer when he assumed command of the Intrepid. Two versions of the starship thus far. Johnson had been CO of the ill-fated Galaxy-class Intrepid. The Intrepid-class Intrepid had gladly been signed away to the ASDB. McKinley had been given special dispensation to christen the newly built Akira-class the USS Intrepid.

Liefers had been the one to persuade Hannah Grace to sign aboard as a squadron leader. The legendary meeting between Grace and Delaney had even been far more spectacular in the here and now then Delaney recalled by Grace, who loved recounting the tale. Though posted at separate commands, Delaney and Grace's romance had sparked like a supernova. So Liefers had great satisfaction when McKinley and Johnson pulled strings to get the greatly admired and desired Grace's skills aboard their ship.

If Johnson found it strange to merely be a passenger in the command chain, he never once complained. As a two pip Rear Admiral, Johnson could pull rank but he was now living out his greatest goal as Starfleet's designated diplomatic troubleshooter. McKinley was the stick should Johnson's carrots fail to entice a spirit of cooperation. Alpha and Beta Squadrons were elements of the force the Intrepid could bring to bear into a flashpoint.

Johnson, McKinley, and Commodore Saavik had also arranged for a series of periodic check-ins accomplished through a series of comm buoys left on the trail. Which the jamming had prevented McKinley's latest report. However, how Saavik would choose to respond was anyone's guess.

"Use photons to soften targets and pulse phasers to finish disabling them," Grace broadcast on an open channel, "Orders are to disable, not destroy."

Which was good since a Peregrine-class fighter craft only carried a dozen or so microtorps. Each fighter had a crew of two: a pilot and a Weapons Systems Officer. Grace alone disdained carrying a Wizzo aboard with her. Her mental discipline was so vast as to allow her total situation awareness and the reflexes to carry out both functions on her modified LCARS interface. Additionally, by reducing cockpit space to accommodate a single crewmen, she could mount four additional microtorpedoes in specially designed magazines adapted to her fighter.

Emily Johnson had relished the challenge of adapting the system. Proving once again why the Lieutenant had been chosen as Deputy Chief Engineer over higher ranked officers. She'd been fast tracked for ranking up from ensign specifically so she could assume the role. Caplan had seen her grades from the Academy and had queried the Commandant as to why Johnson hadn't graduated a Lieutenant JG to begin with. She'd had the grades and the recommendations.

It took McKinley's personal request to receive the sealed portion of Johnson's Academy records. Caplan discovered that Johnson had been involved with a cadre of Engineering cadets selected for a modern equivalent of Red Squad. They'd worked closely with the ADSB and SCE to develop a prototype of a future fighter craft. But Johnson had led the project and overlooked a controversial design element that proved to be a fatal flaw in the design. That flaw cost two test pilots their lives.

The remaining cadets were disciplined and sent back to retake courses on design safeties and structural and technological limitations versus innovations. Johnson alone was singled out for her administrative failure in her role as cadre supervisor. She didn't have to retake the engineering courses but she was put through Command Division courses on personal responsibility in leadership. The event was sealed so that her failure wouldn't hurt her chances for assignment.

It had been sheer seemingly random chance that Johnson had been assigned by the Bureau of Personnel to the Intrepid crew. Where she quickly excelled. Starfleet Command and BuPers felt comfortable with Johnson's promotions and elevation of responsibility so they approved both. Grace simply appreciated Johnson's wizardry with small and auxiliary craft. She was very competent at starship maintenance and major innovations but she was a malevolent genius when it came to supervising maintenance and refits of the squadrons' fighters.

She'd also tricked each of them out with personally designed modifications that caused the Peregrine-class fighters to excel without exceeding safety limits. But they came pretty damn close to doing so. Well outside the commonly accepted limits imposed by Starfleet. Liefers and Caplan had signed off on them and personally vouched for Johnson's work. Grace and the pilots raved about the refits so McKinley happily signed off on it. And the fleet was beginning to make similar adjustments to all of the fighters in the class.

Grace was Alpha Lead. The squadron designators were assigned by experience rather than rank. Alpha Two was the second most experienced pilot and so forth. Alpha Lead took on Alpha Twelve as her wingman because they were the least experienced crew and needed to the most tending to. They never took it as insult to them or their talents.

It amused Grace that it had taken meeting alien life for humans to adapt to personal pronouns beyond the binary "he" and "she". Though they still struggled with the Andorians' four sexes. Two "male" and two "female" bonded in groups of four. The Aenar had also defied explanation to many humans. But the Andorian majority had granted the Aenar minority equal rights as the price of admission to the Coalition of Planets that was the precursor to the modern United Federation of Planets. The Coalition being born out of the Earth-Romulan conflict and the United Federation of Planets being shaped by the experiences of the Coalition's expansion to other worlds other than the Founding Five.

Most citizens knew there had been a threat to the civil liberties because the recent Presidential administrations had suspended the Constitution. The common citizen though hadn't realized how extensive the threat was. If it hadn't been for Starfleet's conflicted and poor showing in the wars against the Cardassian Union and the Bajoran Republic, the fractures would have never caused the downfall of those successive administrations.

What the commoners didn't yet realize was how corrupt the current President was. Ardra was a career criminal whose only interest in power was how to sell influence and reap financial rewards. The Director of Starfleet's Special Investigation's Division, Rear Admiral Amanda Forger, along with Commander Michelle Prentiss, like the admiral was formerly of Internal Investigations, were running dangerous investigations first into Fleet Admiral Clancy and now also Commodore Oh. Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Admiral Leonard James Akaar, and Vice Admiral Edward Jellico supported these efforts.

Nechayev being the Director of Starfleet Intelligence. Akaar was the Alpha/Beta Quadrant Theater Commander. Jellico was the Chief of Starfleet Operations. Three of the most influential Starfleet admirals in Starfleet Command. Admiral Johnson was aware of the secretive yet ongoing investigations and committed any and all resources at his discretion at Forger and Prentiss' own disposal. They would have approached Admiral Kathryn Janeway as well but she was sidelined into an unimportant role after her well known dissent with Starfleet's prosecution of the recent wars. Janeway was left to her own devices to pursue the recent disappearance of the USS Protostar.

Clancy would've retaliated against Nechayev, Akaar, Forger, and Jellico but President Ardra forbade it. The four had vacated Federation space ahead of Starfleet Security arrest teams. Their vocal support of the Bajorans and the illegality of the Federation's aggressions deemed treasonable by Clancy. Vice Admiral Bill Ross had been arrested on dereliction of duty charges for failing to take the Bajor Sector. Those politically motivated charges had also been dropped. Clancy had teams specifically tasked with arresting Picard should he speak out but he remained in silent seclusion.

Clancy would work with the four admirals because she'd been ordered to. But their lack of personal loyalty would forever taint them in her eyes. The fact that IA and JAG had recordings of her dealings with Solarian Security Solutions' top official suggesting that they could have the SID contract if Outbound Ventures were removed from Starfleet's future considerations. That had launched a blood bath as Solarian and DeVos Security worked together to provoke Outbound Ventures into violent action. Instead, DeVos and Solarian fired on Outbound Ventures for no legal reasons.

In response, Outbound Ventures nearly crippled both companies. Clancy was facing officer unbecoming charges in addition to the conspiracy charges regarding her decades' long affair with a fellow admiral's husband that had begun on his wedding day. Unproven, but theorized, was Clancy's complicit involvement in the disappearance of the captured DeVos and Solarian agents.

The Cardassians provided documentation expressly laying out an agreement that the Cardassians had entered into with Commodore Oh, and signed off by Clancy, to hold those prisoners. The very Federation citizens liberated by an attack led by Commander Sam Lavelle and used as a pretext for war. The Cardassian documentation was considered unreliable owing to recent hostilities by the Federation Council but Starfleet had verified the bio-signatures and command codes.

But, given the subsequent disappearance of those same prisoners once again after they'd been brought to DS9 and cleared without debriefing or statements being taken added to a general picture of Clancy and Oh operating outside of Starfleet regulations and Federation law. But suspecting a rogue operation and proving it especially when one official was the Starfleet Commander was proving difficult. That very sentence being a galactic sized understatement.

Oh oversaw every Starfleet Security organ. Clancy oversaw Starfleet itself. Open investigative and prosecutorial miscues could prove career ending. Much to Clancy's ire she couldn't override JAG's attention to matters. But she had Ardra force the Judge Advocate General to appoint a special counsel. A former JAG came out of retirement to oversee the investigation and recommend a prosecution or a dismissal of all inquiries.

Clancy took the pre-emptive step of requesting a defense counsel who was hell bent on throwing every procedural impediment in the special counsel's path to impede any investigations. There wasn't even an official prosecution yet and the defense counsel was already seeking a dismissal. At the least they demanded a stay in the investigations for an as of yet undetermined period of time. Presumably the tenure of Clancy's time as Starfleet Commander for the "good of the service".

Oh was as imperturbable as any Vulcan should be. But the Romulan was scrambling every resource to stay ahead of investigative interviews to make certain the interviews revealed only what she desired them to. But the SID reported potential witness tampering. They'd set a watch on the potential witnesses and noted Starfleet Security's unexpected visitations including one unanticipated arrest. Several witnesses recanted their depositions and secondary interviews were conducted.

Oh sheltered herself behind a wall of subordinates and thus far had escaped with a mere censure for being "unaware" of her lackeys' efforts. With intimidation tactics being overturned, Oh settled on discrediting the witnesses. Her army of loyalists dug up dirt even JAG hadn't discovered yet. It hadn't escaped official notice that every potential witness was now subject to an IA investigation. Many gaining traction.

Yet Oh herself couldn't be linked to a single investigation. Most of who were launched by "anonymous" tips. The rest were Security officers falling on their swords to implicate others. Starfleet hadn't seen such a cult of personality since Admiral Leyton's failed coup. A pattern easily identified by a hapless Captain Erika Benteen. Despite her fervent warnings, the special counsel had already become aware of the situation but had no longer had any recourse until the investigation yielded definitive proof of criminality.

All of these situations formed the backdrop of Clancy's assigning Johnson to seek out the Ascendancy in an attempt to prove Bajoran complicity in an attempt to instigate hostilities through a secret triumvirate of the Cardassian Union, the Ascendancy, and then-Federation member, the Bajoran Republic. Only, Johnson didn't know that Clancy was desperately seeking to deflect attention from Starfleet and the Presidency to an imaginary threat to justify the Federation's recent choices after the fact.


Chapter Three

"Ghemor's ship is making a break for it!" Bol reported.

"Crispus, stay on them!" Anara ordered.

"Two out of three Dreadnaughts- are crippled and the other Ascendant Constellation-class is done as well," Bol finished reporting, "The Obsidian is finishing off the last Dreadnaught-."

"Incoming vessels," Crispus announced as the Fist of the Prophets turned to follow Ghemor's fleeing vessel.

"The Obsidian is breaking off to assist us," Bol announced.

"Any signals from the surface yet?" Anara inquired of Triss.

"We're still being jammed across the board," Triss was frustrated as Anara felt.

"What the hell is Ghemor thinking?" Anara asked no one in particular.

Aboard the Corsair, that sentiment was being echoed.

"It doesn't play out," Johnson complained to Striker, "There's no strategic value in making herself an enemy of both Bajor and the Federation."

"Everything seems to be one massive misdirect," Striker acknowledged.

"True. But why?" Slaine ventured into the conversation.

"Mudd Kenra managed to reach the Ascendancy without anyone's knowledge. What if there are other players?" Striker offered.

"Who?" Ebert asked from the CONN.

"I have no idea," Striker glumly admitted.

"Mudd," a native sentry allowed Kenra and the others admittance into a sandstone brick building.

"Gainish, take me to Varic," Kenra demanded.

"Why?" Gainish asked.

Kenra tossed him a fist sized ruby, "Because you'll earn that by doing so."

"Follow me," Gainish instructed.

"Mudd is here," Gainish announced as he brought them into a lush, sumptuously adorned audience chamber, "And she brought strangers like her."

"And other types as well," Varic observed from a cushioned would-be throne. He was a literal King of Thieves it seemed, "Why are you here, Mudd?"

Macen watched Mudd gnash her teeth at having the family name bandied about.

"This will buy our audience with you," Kenra handed off a duffel to Gainish. He brought it to his master as the onlookers fingered muskets, sword, and daggers.

Varic's attitude changed abruptly when he unzipped the duffel and sifted through its contents, "Speak."

"I'll hand over this bag as a one off," Kenra announced, "But remember the plan came together. You can reap the benefits tomorrow."

"I take it those bags are filled with more...benefits?" Varic was intrigued.

"Enough to buy the Kingdom," Kenra promised.

"What makes you think I'll let you leave alive?" Varic asked, "I could simply take what I want from your corpses. After all, you aren't of the People."

"Their name for themselves," Kenra quietly explained.

"Rab," Macen instructed.

Daggit chambered a photon grenade in its launcher, "A slight demonstration on why we'll be leaving unharmed."

Daggit aimed at a wall and blew it apart. The shockwave knocked most of the unsuspecting natives off of their feet.

"Do we have understanding?" Macen asked.

Varic was still coping with the ringing in his ears, "You've made your point."

Daggit chambered a second round.

"I'd love nothing more than to leave you these three extra bags of jewels. But It'll cost you," Macen told Varic.

"What do you want?" Varic prepared to haggle.

"Answers to some questions," Macen allowed.

"Done," Varic thought a Macen a fool.

"Are we the only aliens you've ever seen?" Macen inquired right away.

"No," Varic admitted. Everyone stared at Kenra.

"What?" she shrugged, "It never came up."

"Describe the other strangers," Macen told Varic, "And tell me what they wanted."

"Damn," Miller grunted as ODN and EPS conduits and relays overloaded under he repeated barrages.

"Tell me," Forger grimaced.

"Ghemor is getting away. There are too many ships running interference and those starships are pounding away at our shields. We won't last much longer under this amount of fire," Miller explained.

"The Fist of the Prophets is slowing," Zimbalist reported, "They've been pretty damaged."

"Move in to support them. Leave Ghemor to the Defiant and the Intrepid," Forger decided.

"We might regret that later," Jones warned.

"We have people still on the planet and most of the Ascendant fleet is here," Forger explained her rationale, "And they're reeling just as badly as we are."

"So we stay and make certain they aren't a further threat to anybody," Jones nodded, "Got it."

Given Jones' past, her 'final solution' to the problem at hand would be catastrophic.

"The Ascendant are moving on to screen Ghemor's retreat," Miller reported, "With a few strategic shots we could cripple the ships staying behind."

"Do it," Forger ordered, "Aglaia, bring us within transporter range of the Fist. Hopefully they'll feel secure enough to drop shields and let us beam aboard to assist."

"If Parva will spare anyone," Jones amended for her.

"There is that too," Forger allowed.

"Our torpedoes are devastating them. Sustained pulse phaser bursts are enough to buckle most of their shielding," Myers reported to Vaughn.

"Continue coordinating with Tenmei, "Vaughn ordered, "Let's end this."

Several starships passed by at maximum impulse.

"Damn. They're in a hurry," Tenmei muttered.

"Whoever they are, they've inspired a last ditch resistance to us," Myers conceded.

"Then let's dissuade them," Vaughn decided.

"You're getting sloppy," Pedrossi laughed as he weaved amongst the Ascendant ships. Delaney fired for effect as they passed individual ships and clusters of them. Alpha and Beta Squadrons did the same.

"Someone attempting to break free," Delaney reported, "I have a triad of ships headed out at maximum impulse. They're attempting to freely navigate to jump to warp speed."

"Liefers," McKinley prompted her.

"I still can't get through. There were indications that the fighters were able to communicate in close proximity. But we aren't in range pof any of them anymore," Liefers complained.

"We can't let Ghemor escape to do this again," McKinley grated, "Pedrossi?"

"She's galvanized their resistance. They're forming up to block us," the CONN Officer replied.

"Then show off," McKinley let the demon bear loose.

"About time," Pedrossi grinned like a maniac.

Grace saw Ghemor's screen moving off, "Alpha Twelve, drop back and form up with Alpha Two and Alpha Seven."

She then pushed her ship to near light speed to catch the departing screen and its protected starship. She knew she was risking relativistic effects but she didn't care. Coming in hot, the screens thought they could target her but her inhuman reflexes allowed her to evade the phaser fire. She was actually slowed by the fighter's limitations. But she came in on Ghemor's ship and opened fire. The other ships couldn't risk firing upon her as she evaded their early attempts and they inflicted harm on their protective charge. Then the Intrepid came screaming in.

"Pedrossi! You nut!" Grace gleefully yelled though no one was listening. Suddenly a new starship dropped out of warp and came head on towards them. It was a Cheyenne-class Federation starship ID'd as the USS Aguila. She concentrated fire on Ghemor's ship as outpaced her escorts as they dealt with the maniacal Pedrossi and determined Delaney. Grace added her firepower to the Aguila's.

The starship's shields failed and explosions rocked its engineering decks as Grace unleashed her last photons. The ship was adrift and the Aguila moved to intercept.

The open channel came to life, "This is the USS Aguila. Surrender and prepare to be boarded."

"Stand down, Aguila," McKinley's voice cut in, "I'm asserting seniority and chain of command privilege. We'll deal with your target. Please assist our fighters and the Defiant in securing the other vessels."

"Acknowledged, Intrepid Command. Give my regards to the Admiral," the Aguilamoved on.

"Delaney, I want Ghemor back here in restraints in fifteen minutes. Liefers, reroute Alpha and Beta in suppression patrols. And congratulate Alpha Lead will you?"

"Commander Grace sends her regards to Pedrossi and asked me to blow a kiss to her husband. Which I won't, if he understands," Liefers grinned.

'He does," Delaney promised.

"Someone raise Admiral Johnson," McKinley ordered.

"USS Intrepid to Corsair, please respond," McKinley's voice cut in over the comms.

"Jim, it's good to hear you," Johnson routed the call to his monitor where he sat at OPS, "What's your status?"

"Ghemor made a run for it but the Aguila cut her off," McKinley reported through the ionic static, "Delaney has Ghemor in custody. She surrendered without further fighting. The rest of the Ascendant fleet is pretty battered. They won't be capable of warp travel for days. Vaughn reports minimal casualties as does the Obsidian. We got off lightly too. But the Fist of the Prophets lost a dozen fatalities and her warp drive is down for the time being. Parva has a team aboard to assist them."

"We can't fly in this sandstorm because it's ionized and we also have boots on the ground elsewhere getting answers," Johnson explained, "Get what answers you can out of Ghemor. If she'll even talk to a non-Bajoran."

"She's getting comfortable in the brig. I'll check with her in a few minutes. I assume we can't beam anyone in our out even if we were in position to," McKinley said.

"Correct. And no one can fly in either," Johnson told him, "Unless they were totally insane."

"I might have a volunteer," McKinley grinned.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't stun your ass and dump you outside in the storm," Ro grated.

"Because it's not in your best interests," Kenra smiled victoriously, "Ghemor thought she played us while we played her."

"Why?" Mudd seethed.

"Because the Ascendant home world is virtually defenseless right now and they have resources we wanted," Kenra grinned, "A lot of them, actually."

"What kind?" Delain had her phaser aimed at Kenra now.

"Dilithium," Neela announced, "In quantity and already mined and processed. That's why the Ascendant were able to field so many starships at once for a single planet."

"You knew?" Rockford asked.

"I was just informed," Neela shrugged, "But it makes sense."

"And we have grateful planets across the sector that we just liberated from rebellious efforts and influence thanks to Ghemor throwing everything here and drawing them out. A conflict was bound to break out on its own, if we didn't start it ourselves," Kenra still grinned. Mudd once again flattened her with a single punch.

"You'll regret that someday," Kenra vowed as she wiped blood from her lips.

"Not in this lifetime," Mudd promised her.

"You have gone soft," Kenra sneered.

"Listen to me. I will break you and you're entire network if it's the last thing I do," Mudd vowed.

"It will be," Kenra promised.

"Harri, back off," Macen advised her, "Before she pulls out her holdout disruptor and kills you."

"You knew?" Kenra was frustrated.

"Always," Macen motioned around where Delain, Daggit, and Burrows were all covering her.

Rockford handed off the second and third duffels to Varic, "I think this outbids whatever they offered you for our lives."

"It does indeed," Varic smiled.

"Word of advice, spend it slowly or you'll break the planetary economy," Macen offered.

"We still get what we wanted," Kenra laughed as she stood back up.

"Which was?" Ro had her phaser drawn as well.

"You," Kenra was still mirthful, "There's a bounty on your head and we intend to collect."

"Must be a helluva a bounty," Ro snorted.

"You embarrassed the Federation. They won't forget or forgive that. And, your loss at the ineptitude of a Starfleet admiral would drive a wedge between the Federation and Bajor," Kenra chuckled.

"How many ships do you have out there?" Macen had her by the throat.

"Enough to do the job," she gasped.

"She's mine," Macen threw her to the ground.

"Take her," Varic agreed, "You more than bought her life."

"Varic!" Kenra hissed, "I won't forget this."

"Cross this man again and I won't have to worry," Varic smugly said as he retook his pillowed seat.

Macen's comm badge chirped, "Strip her of all of her holdout weaponry. Macen here."

"Brin! It's some kind of trap!" Johnson warned him.

"Get a hold of everyone and warn them there are cloaked ships in the vicinity as well as conventional fighting forces lying doggo throughout the system."

"How do you know?" Johnson asked.

"Mudd's sister was very informative once she'd thought she'd won the argument," Macen told him, "Now hurry!"

"On it!" Johnson promised.

Johnson simulcast his warning to all commands, including the newly arrived Aguila, "Macen says there cloaked ships in the immediate vicinity as well as conventional fighting forces laying a trap for us."

"They certainly picked a good time. Except the Aguila, we're all a mess," McKinley admitted, "We had the technical advantage but they had the numbers."

"Any word from Ghemor yet?" Johnson wondered.

"I was just going in to speak with her," McKinley informed him, "I'll tell you what I learn. If anything."

Delaney had the bridge in Striker's absence. Massoli joined the captain in the detention center.

"She's one of you?" Massoli quietly asked while they had privacy.

"Sort of. A long story even we can't explain," McKinley confessed.

"That'll twist the interrogation into virgin territory," Massoli frowned.

"I doubt it'll even come up," McKinley opined.

"We'll see, won't we?" Massoli sighed, "Come on. Let's get this over with."

Ghemor was placidly seated on her bunk, "Captain, Commander, I see you've made up."

"Do you have sources on my ship?" McKinley wanted to know with some alarm.

"The Prophets told me. Just as the Prophets called and I answered the call to bring you all here. They neglected to tell me of that last starship though. Most curious," Ghemor smiled, "But I have faith."

"This was all a ruse?" Massoli asked.

"No, I honestly was instructed to show Colonel Ro all that we accomplished. She simply chose to publically interpret aspects of the great work as I'd hoped for our greater audience," Ghemor sighed, "You know you can't hold me. The Ascendant will never rest until I'm released."

"We'll take our chances," McKinley warned her, "Your ships opened fire on us."

"Only when you pursued me," Ghemor smiled beatifically, "Let me go and no further harm will come to you."

'Your allies say differently," Massoli tried.

"Yes, them. They're in for a few surprises yet," Ghemor chuckled, "The Prophets would never abandon their children. Even their silence during the Occupation on Bajor was merely allowing my people to unify the Bajorans as they hadn't been in centuries. United in spirit and purpose they rose from the ashes to become a great people again."

"You giving Cardassia that credit?" McKinley was conflicted.

"Dukat himself made that argument once but Kira Nerys failed to see the truth behind it. She also failed to heed his words that Cardassia and Bajor would unite in common purpose in the future. Now that future has arrived, has it not?" Ghemor continued to smile indulgently, "Even the Emissary of the Kosst Amojan can speak truthfully."

"It makes a twisted kind of sense, I'll admit," Massoli allowed, "But it's a very disturbing interpretation of a casual inflicting of great pain and suffering to enact a greater good."

"I speak the truth I am given. Be on guard James McKinley and Jennifer Marie Massoli, our lesson here hasn't concluded yet," Ghemor warned them.

"Captain, please report to the bridge," Delaney requested.

"This isn't over yet," McKinley advised Ghemor.

"Oh, I know it," Ghemor chuckled again.

"Damn, she is getting to be like Neela," McKinley vented as Massoli accompanied him to the bridge.

"Report," McKinley requested as they stepped out of the turbolift.

"We have a vessel contact," Delaney reported, "And you'll never believe it."

"I've recalled all fighter craft for rearming except for Alpha Lead. She's on her special assignment," Liefers told him.

"What have we got?" McKinley stared at the viewer as a starship approached.

"Believe or not, it's a Walker-class Federation starship," Delaney explained, "Light cruiser. The class was decommissioned after the First Klingon War."

"Where is she headed?" McKinley asked, "The planet?"

"The Fist of the Prophets," Delaney had plotted her course, "They'll come parallel if they don't alter course. The Obsidian has moved away and is preparing to defend the Fist."

"What's the Fist's status?" the Captain asked.

"Auxiliary power has failed and they're on batteries for life support and basic functions. They can't even use their impulse engines to maneuver," Delaney delivered the bad news.

"Have they deemed us worthy to talk to?" McKinley inquired.

"I'm detecting tight beam transmissions aimed at the Fist. They're ignoring the rest of us," Delaney explained.

"Ballsy," Pedrossi opined.

"They've slowed and come abreast of the Fist. Subspaee chatter is alive and well between them. It's on a restricted Bajoran frequency," Delaney revealed.

"Not so restricted to leave our strangers out of the conversation," McKinley mulled it over.

"You have that look," Massoli warned him.

"What look?" he asked.

'You're about to do something crazy look," she told him.

"I don't have one of those," McKinley protested. The crew politely cleared their collective throats.

McKinley sighed, "Contact the Obsidian. Tell them I want their data thieves on this. They can work for us this time."

Massoli smirked as Delaney reached out to multiple starships.

"Put Vaughn and Captain Allegro on the Main Viewer," McKinley settled into his seat. Uninvited, Massoli sat next to him despite being outside the starship's chain of command. But her show of support and solidarity relieved McKinley.

"Keep all weapons locked on that pirate ship," Jones instructed.

"How can you be sure they're pirates?" Forger asked.

"I know who the captain is, was, might still be," Jones revealed, "They stole that ship from the Terra Nova Depot Yards just like I stole the second Waylaid from there."

"The Iotians don't manufacture this ship class, do they?" Forger asked Miller.

"Not according to intel from Starfleet and the Iotians' own buyer's catalog," Miller replied.

"Tessa to Captain," the EMH broke in over the comms.

"Report," Forger got straight business.

"Twelve wounded, one fatality. We got off pretty lightly," Tessa warned Forger.

"We're gearing up for another fight, so clear Sickbay and get ready to start triaging further casualties," Forger explained.

Tessa let loose of a scowling sounding sigh, "Will do. But try not to get us blown up. I'd hate to be wasting my time."

The circuit was cut.

"You're sure she's just an EMH?" Jones inquired.

"EMH, yes. 'Just' doesn't do her justice," Forger managed a wan smile.

"No wonder the Federation banned self aware holograms," Jones remarked.

Forger thought of Vic Fontaine playing at the Quark's on Serenity and the Doctor on the run from Starfleet. Not a psychopath between them, "Actually, it's a big wonder."

"Captain, the potential hostile that we're labeling a pirate just came abreast with the Fist of the Prophets and subspace between them just lit up," Zimbalist reported.

"So they're talking," Jones sounded aggrieved, "Which can't be good."

"Why?" Forger asked.

"Message from Commander Delaney," Zimbalist announced, "Captain McKinley requests that Kerber and Smith share any data they receive from our mystery guest's conversation."

"Good idea," Forger grunted, "Have Bailey and Angelique patch it through up here as well. Give Vaughn an insight as well."

"The Aguila?" Miller asked.

"Isn't part of the party. Just the solution. McKinley and Vaughn can tell them what they need to know," Forger replied.

"Data Team is patching through," Zimbalist called it, "Now."

The room's speakers filled with angry voices.

"I don't give a frinx who you say you are. You're not coming aboard this ship without a fight," Anara warned the opposing commander.

The Walker-class had activated its ID transponder mid-approach. It was registered in Orion space, no surprise, as the Fisticuffs and was commanded by one Bajoran, going by Captain Bek Ferrit.

"Colonel Anara, I have no qualms about blowing your starship apart to get I want. But I prefer not harming fellow Bajorans. The Spoonheads inflicted enough harm on our people to last lifetimes. Don't force me to use their methods," Bek threatened.

"Bek were Kohn Ma. Fled from Bajor to Valo II. From Valo II you went into the Badlands rather than support Keev Falor's resistance to the Dominion. From the Badlands it seems you escaped the Jem'Hadar purge. Now, you're what? A pirate?" Anara listed Bek's career thus far.

"You had that dossier memorized," Bek realized.

"Militia Intelligence had you listed as a pirate. All extra planetary serving officers are required to be on task with locating and neutralizing Bajoran criminals and cartels. Your name made the list," Anara explained, "But you aren't the highest name on the list."

"Because I'm very good at leaving no witnesses behind," Bek warned her.

"Yet here we are, in space surrounded by three Starfleet starships and a security contractor's starship. Not a very discreet place for a slaughter," Anara replied.

"Your friends will be dealt with if you refuse to hand over Colonel Ro," Bek delivered the ultimatum.

"Sorry, don't have her," Anara flippantly replied.

"Stupid move," Bek warned.

'She's on the surface, isolated and trapped by an ionized sandstorm. So it seems we'll be waiting this out and we'll have repairs underway the entire time. So we can make it sporting in the end," Anara flashed him a feral smile. Bek cut the connection. But the pirate ship began moving and accelerating to place herself into planetary orbit.

"Parva? We could really use an update on those repairs," Anara contacted Engineering where the Orion engineer was assisting the Fist's own Tech Sergeant Klego Jeron.

"You'll have auxiliary power in five minutes," Parva explained, "The warp core will be coming up inside the next two hours."

"We might not have that long," Anara warned her.

"Damn," Parva muttered, "If I bypass the main energizer like a Christmas tree I can get you partial main power inside of thirty minutes."

"What's a 'Christmas tree'?" Anara asked.

"Some foliage Macen makes us sacrifice and decorate every year," Parva softened, "He invites friends and family to a gathering where we talk and share gifts in a festive atmosphere. I'll make certain you and Neela get invited this year."

"Oh," Anara sounded disappointed that they'd been overlooked so far.

"To tell the truth, half the fun is seeing who is going to try and kill us at that year's party," Parva laughed as she signed off. Anara suddenly didn't feel so bad about being overlooked on the guest list.

Macen and the group was swaddled up in robes, gloves, and goggles as they were about to attempt to brace the sandstorm and reach the runabout. Kenra was wearing restraints and a pair of goggles unceremoniously forced down around her eyes but otherwise left unprotected. Like her sister, Mudd Kenra was ingenious in finding places and ways to hide weaponry on her person. Mudd herself had taken charge of strip searching Kenra under Ro and Delain's watchful eyes. They kept the particle beam weaponry and "donated" the blades and garrote Mudd found on/in her person and in her clothing.

"In-frinxing-believable," Rockford groaned, "And I thought Harri was a paranoid extremist."

"She did get you out of the Wolf's Lair," Macen reminded her, "Because she was a paranoid extremist."

"I should have left Bacco to die there," Rockford said in hard tones. Nanietta Bacco had been the Federation President and a hostage at the time. Later it would be revealed that her concessionary policies crossed the border into treason. Leading the office of president vulnerable to recent further abuses.

"No one could've predicted a hard liner like Bacco coming out of Cestus III would begin selling off Federation security in rapprochement gestures to attempt to buy Federation security," Macen consoled her undeserved guilt.

"But P'ris paid the price," Rockford lamented.

"In this here and now, P'ris survived the Hobus disaster and is still serving with the Tal Shiar," Macen told her, "She has a passing acquaintance with us."

"But we're still stuck with Maret and Macet being pains in the ass," Rockford said grimly.

"Rekena Garan has to deal with them as Castellan or she isn't worthy of the role," Macen opined, "But they threaten Katreen Dervin and through her, Mariska."

Rockford knew Macen had been present after the Chrysalis Child's birth. But this prophesied monarch did not assume a glorious throne and restore a monarchist's golden age. Dervin threw herself into social work and reconstructing Cardassia Prime after the Dominion War concluded. Now a young woman, Dervin was one of the most respected and influential voices on a new Cardassia.

She still warranted protection from Gul Lyoti Mariska, the Commander of Legislative Security under a deal struck with Garan. Dervin avoided politics and stuck to "good deeds" in support of the Detepa Council in exchange for a living wage and her freedom. Dervin's Social Contract aid society also received generous federal grants as an appeasement to both the teen and her growing constituents. Garan and the other members of the Detepa Council fretted as the Chrysalis Child's legend grew despite the restraints placed upon her.

"I know it mentally but my heart tells me otherwise," Rockford grimaced.

"Well, I can help with your heart by reminding you that you once saved the galaxy. That doesn't happen every day. So don't expect it to," Macen counseled her, "And know that I'm not the only one in your would-be family that loves you."

She gazed into his intent eyes, "I know. Let's end this if we can."

"Everyone remember where we parked?" Macen broke the intimate quiet he and Rockford has been speaking in.

"I do," Daggit promised.

"Then you're our scout and guide," Macen told him, "Everyone, weapons drawn and ready. We have to assume everyone out there is a rebel and we aren't. So they won't like us much."

"Set for stun," Ro intervened.

"That too," Macen allowed.

"You won't make it fifty meters," Kenra warned them.

"We'd best," Rockford told her, "For your sake."

"Oooh! Is that a threat?" Kenra mocked her.

She never saw the phaser pistol smash into her face.

"Oh, did anyone tell you I'm Angosian?" Rockford taunted her, "Or that Daggit is too? Did you know that Burrows is a former Starfleet Special Operations Command officer? Ro and Macen are former Maquis and your sister would strip the flesh from your bones just for the hell of it. After all that we'd hand you over to Agent Delain's tender mercies."

"What about her?" the bloodied Kenra asked regarding Neela.

"She's the frinxing Hand of the Prophets," Mudd jammed the emitter end of her phaser under Kenra's jaw, "So don't expect a happy afterlife."

"Just step outside and try not to swallow too much sand," Macen pulled her outside. Kenra immediately began choking on all the sand and dust swirling about.

Mudd fired a phaser burst at her sister's feet, "Walk."

They made it through several abandoned, wide city blocks and were nearing their destination when Neela halted the procession, "The People have an ambush set up around the Corsair."

"Told you," Kenra gloated.

"Shut her up or stun her," Macen directed. Mudd gagged her sister.

"Now march her in front of the column," Macen ordered. Kenra looked panic stricken.

"Unless you know a way to get them not to fire at us?" Ro inquired. Kenra shook her head.

"It was nice meetin' ya, sis," Mudd glibly offered.

"If you try to run, I'm an expert in keeping targets alive and in maximum pain," Delain advised her.

"It's no longer an issue," Neela told them.

Seconds later, a Peregrine-class fighter broke by overhead, pulse phasers flashing through the storm. Cries could be heard as explosions ripped through the assembled rebel ranks. The fighter than landed beside the runabout.

Grace climbed out, "Miss me?"

"How did you make it through the storm?" Delain was astounded.

'Trade secrets," Grace knew Delain wasn't privy to the fact that she was a Kelvan and that her Attuner allowed her to reshape matter and energy. Thereby turning buffeting sands into noble gases and redirecting ion bursts cutting through the storm. Neela wasn't officially in on the secret but neither was she surprised by Grace's miraculous arrival.

"Let's get inside," Grace pleaded as she sealed up her fighter, "It'll be crowded but more comfortable than this. And I could really stand a drink, a meal, and a chance to pee."

"We all need to get updated as to the status out there as well," Ro interjected.

"It's getting complicated as we speak," Grace warned.

"Shields up! Red Alert," McKinley announced the change of status, "Tactical."

The viewer shifted to a 3D depiction of surrounding space, designating Starfleet vessels, allied vessels, the stricken Ascendant ships and the encroaching pirates.

"I mark three pre-refit Asia-class starships and three Kremlin-classes," Delaney reported, "All decommissioned Starfleet vessels, not Iotian builds."

"What the hell?' Massoli was still on the bridge at the Mission Specialist I station, "On my screen."

"This paperwork is a complete fabrication," Massoli quickly deduced, "These are all hulls that were found to be missing during Starfleet's last audit of the Terra Nova Depot. Before the Iotians contractors manning the depot were jailed."

"It was proven they sold ships to the Maquis," McKinley recalled "But no definitive proof was added to verify they'd sold to other criminals."

"I'd go easy on the 'criminal' talk regarding the Maquis around Macen and Ro," Delaney advised.

"Point taken," McKinley acknowledged.

"Sir, Admiral Johnson requests a sitrep," Delaney informed the captain.

"Commander Massoli, brief him. But be as succinct as possible," McKinley instructed.

"Aye, sir," Massoli got to it.

"Aguila and Intrepid have raised shields as well," Myers reported.

"Status phasers and quantum torpedoes?" Vaughn inquired.

"Phasers fully recharged and torpedo magazines nearly half full," Myers reported.

"Good," Vaughn smiled to himself, "Drop shields and activate the cloaking device."

"Sir?" Myers wondered.

"We are in the Gamma Quadrant so it's within the bounds of our agreement with the Romulans," Vaughn's smile turned wolfish, "CONN, hard impulse burst for one minute then a hard turn to port and bring us about."

"I love it," Tenmei told her father. The former tensions between them long gone now.

Aboard the USS Aguila, Captain Kev in Bakin grunted, "The Defiant has cloaked. Good. We could use the element of surprise."

No one disagreed with their Tellarite captain.

"I sent word to Commodore Saavik in regards to our developing situation," Commander Matilda "Mattie" Morris, the ship's XO, informed the captain, "We were cut off in mid-report. She'll undoubtedly be sending reinforcements. As well as the Bajorans since the Commodore has been briefing General Kira on matters at hand."

"Good. The Bajorans have a stake in this. It'd be good for them to vent their spleens," in Bakin stated.

"Sir?" Morris was surprised, "Didn't we just fight the Bajorans?"

"A major screw up by the Federation Council," he snorted again, "They were members in good standing until they became scapegoats in a drive to go to war. It's no wonder they hardly trust us now. Letting them deal out a few bloody noses will go a long way in shoring up relations."

"Bajorans aren't Tellarites," Morris reminded him.

In Bakin laughed, "No, they're even more stubborn and argumentative."

"The Defiant has cloaked and everyone else has raised shields and gone weapons hot," Miller reported to Forger.

"Status on the Fist's repairs?" Jones inquired.

"Their fusion reactors are online and auxiliary power has been fully restored," Zimbalist happily reported.

"Shields are going up as well. It seems their damage control teams were able to repair the damaged and overloaded shield emitters. They'll have impulse drive, limited phaser capacity, but the photon launchers will be up and running," Miller detailed the situation, "The Kohn Ma pirates are staying abreast of them."

"Target them. Just let them know we mean business," Forger decided.

"That could provoke them," Zimbalist warned.

"Good," Jones voiced.

"Impulse engines and thrusters standing by," Aglaia was anticipating the call to action, "We'll need to break loose before the pirates surround us completely."

"Which is why Vaughn cloaked the Defiant," Forger chuckled nastily, "I'd love to be a vole in the air ducts aboard that lead pirate ship."

"They what?" Bek roared.

"The Starfleet vessel cloaked," the former terrorist at Weapons reported.

"Why the hell weren't we warned the Defiant still had a cloak?" Bek raged.

"Because our 'ally' is hardly reliable," Bek's First Officer chided him, "You were foolish to trust her."

"You're always a skeptic, Chelle," Bek accused.

"I'm a realist and you're a dreamer," Pirk Chelle reminded him, "Should I list all the times that's brought us trouble?"

"I wonder if Starfleet or the Bajorans have figured out yet how we all reached the Gamma Quadrant?" Bek mused suddenly.

"Does it matter?" Pirk asked caustically.

"They came through wormhole escorting commercial traffic," Triss had researched Deep Space 9's public flight plan filings, "Starfleet assumed they were our ships and didn't challenge them."

"I'll kill Commander Lavelle," Anara promised, "How incompetent do you have to be to be removed from command in Starfleet? The man started a war for Prophets' sake."

"We're being targeted," Bol warned.

Anara sighed, "Lock phasers on their ship and arm photon torpedoes. Prep the impulse engines for immediate dust off. I want one quarter impulse or better on command."

"Sergeant Klego reports warp power will be restored within twenty minutes," Triss informed the Acting CO.

"Tell him and Parva they have ten or less," Anara replied.

"Yessir," Triss glumly acknowledged the order.

Anara knew from experience their guest engineer could deliver legendary tongue lashings.

Massoli filled in the assembled command staff within the Corsair's cockpit.

"I could get us off planet," Grace confided, "That would free up the others from staying close to Raas II."

"Could you do so without giving yourself away?" Johnson asked quietly.

"I could end the sandstorm," Grace explained, "It would seem to be a natural occurrence. I could also return most of us back to their respective starships."

"Most?" Striker sought clarification.

"She can't affect me," Macen reminded them.

"Why?" Ebert wondered.

"Because I defy her understanding of humanoid life," Macen explained.

"I'm not going anywhere," Ebert volunteered, "`Sides you need a pilot."

"Sending any of us away would reveal your secret," Johnson counseled against the idea.

"Not if I make it seem like some sort of enhanced transporter effect," Grace countered.

"But you could do that from here," Rockford guessed.

"Yes, even through the storm," Grace volunteered.

"So we send through specific Starfleet officers and attached staff, such as Slaine, and Rab, Tony, Tracy, Mudd Kenra, and I stay aboard with Brin," Rockford explained her theory.

"I'll be staying as well," Neela interjected from the Runabout's narrow corridor, "You'll need me. But except for Ziva and Harri, everyone else is needed aboard their ships."

"I can fly escort for the Corsair after I 'clear' the weather," Grace volunteered.

"Start transporting everyone," Johnson conceded, "Begin with Slaine then move to Ro. We can wrap up with Jonathan and me."

"Make certain Ian knows not to worry," Grace insisted.

"He knows better than to," Striker said of his closest friend.

"Then let's 'enhance' the transporter," Grace grinned devilishly.

"Jonathan?" Delaney asked in confusion as Striker and Johnson entered the bridge.

"Has our mystery player revealed themselves yet?" Johnson asked McKinley.

"Not yet but Ghemor revealed that all their plans revolve around Ro," the Captain stated, "Having Ro lost on our watch was intended to spark another conflict."

"It came close," Johnson revealed, "It took all of Kira's past admiration for Starfleet to refrain her from launching an all out offensive against the Ascendant and letting us handle things instead."

"Thing is, Ghemor seems to have known about the plan without participating in it," McKinley had had time to think.

"I'll talk to her," Johnson decided, "In the meantime; Colonel Ro is back aboard the Fist. We can't let anything happen to that ship and crew."

"Parva is aboard so the Obsidian is close by and watching the pirates closely. Vaughn is under cloak and planning God knows what," McKinley filled in the blanks that had been left unsaid on a potentially monitored channel.

"Good. Very good. This might work out after all," Johnson mused, "Commander Massoli, I assume you spoke with the prisoner?"

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"You're about to again," the Admiral warned her.

"Colonel!" Triss exclaimed as Ro exited the turbolift.

"I won't ask," Anara vacated the center seat as Ro and Captain Wyn retook their stations, "This is all about you."

"What the hell?" Ro was understandably baffled.

"Your death will gain them a reward and they hope to start a war with the Federation," Anara explained.

"I hope they're prepared to be disappointed," Ro snorted her derision, "Sergeant Bol, standby photon torpedoes. Crispus, I assume you have phaser lock on the ship off our starboard."

"Yes, sir," Crispus confirmed it.

"Keep the lock intact and prepare to engage a forward target," Ro ordered.

"No one's out there," Crispus protested.

"That you can see," Ro countered, "And standby full reverse, maximum impulse."

Slaine reported to the Defiant's bridge and took Tactical II.

"I'm not asking how you beamed aboard through ionic interference much less had a target to aim at while we're cloaked," Vaughn already knew the answer. He was just surprised Grace risked revealing herself.

"Some kind of technological miracle that Outbound Ventures seems to have developed," Slaine reported.

"Or at least the Intrepid crew has," Vaughn mused to himself.

"I'm not asking how Grace did all of this," Ebert decided as the storm dissipated.

"A long story for later," Macen advised her. Rockford, Burrows, and Mudd were standing by near the runabout's sole holding cell. It was just large enough to allow a prisoner to sit or stand. Kenra was still gloating about her eventual victory from within it.

"Pipe the forward targeting array's sensor feed into the brig," Macen ordered, "Rab, target the Freebooter."

"Disable or destroy?" he asked.

"Destroy," Macen decided.

"What the frinx?" the scream could be heard from the brig.

'Fire when ready," Macen ordered.

Daggit employed sustained phaser bursts along with four of the runabout's six microtorpedoes.

"You frinxing bastards! I'll see you all dead!" Kenra was screaming now.

"Shut it!" the sound of the electrostatic force field detaining her was heard as Burrows smacked his sword blade into it. Burrows habitually carried a Japanese katana into action as a melee weapon.

"Hannah is signaling that drew our Romulan friends out," Ebert told Macen.

"Now we get down to it," he smirked.

The Romulan Bird of Prey Deathblow decloaked in front of the Fist of the Prophets. Before she could activate her shields or weapons systems, the Fist opened fire with phasers and torpedoes. She also went into full reverse. The Fisticuffs was caught unawares as seconds later, phaser strikes came from the passing Fist.

The Obsidian surged forward to engage both targets. Aboard the stricken Romulan ship, Commander Tekana reeled. Additional phaser strikes hit the ship.

"Full evasive!" she shouted over the din of alarms, "Engage the cloak and prepare to withdraw!"

"Director Sela will not tolerate our failure," Subcommander Kerik predicted.

"Unleash our pawns. We may still catch our prey unawares," Tekana reconsidered, "Helm, bring us about. Stay close to the Bajoran cruiser"

Red alert sirens sounded three times before falling silent within the detention center.

"You see? They have already lashed out," Ghemor said sadly, "You must protect my people."

"How are the Ascendant your people?" Massoli asked.

"I am their Emissary. Their protection is my charge," Ghemor replied.

"You actually believe in the Prophets?" Johnson wondered, "And your messianic role?"

"I'm hardly a messiah," Ghemor argued, "And if you had met the Prophets rather than be snatched in your sleep, you too would worship them."

"We agree on one point," Johnson conceded, "And our oaths as Starfleet officers will insure the lives of your crews."

"I need results. Not Starfleet platitudes," Ghemor said grimly, "My people have sacrificed much to spring this trap."

"You sprang the trap?" Massoli asked, "You knew there was a trap?"

"Of course I knew. The Prophets reveal many things to me. What they failed to share was how you would react to our presence. Specifically my presence. These fools were hired to start a war between the Federation and Bajor. Sinhera was the price for their participation."

"The Ascendant home world?" Johnson was puzzled, "It's under threat?"

"No. Thanks to Colonel Ro's understanding," Ghemor smiled.

"Wait a minute! Ro knew about the trap?" Johnson was uneasy.

"As did your General Kira," Ghemor smirked, "As I diverted my forces as expected, Ro diverted hers to defend the Ascendant world. In exchange we played along with Mudd Kenra's mad ambitions. I missed my calling as an actor. Ro as well."

"When did Kira find out?" Johnson was getting angry now.

"Only after you departed from Bajor to await Commander Macen's arrival. Ro quietly shifted her forces around and through the Celestial Temple while you wiled away at Waypoint," Ghemor explained.

"So Ro was never your prisoner?" Massoli sought clarification.

"Never. She was a willing actor in all of this," Ghemor explained, "Once she knew the nature of threat. By now her forces have dealt with these pirate scum and will be coming here."

"And so is Starfleet," Johnson shared, "The pirates jammed long range communications so the so Captain in Bakin and the Aguila missed their check-in."

"Proving once again that the Prophets wish for Bajor and the Federation to be closely knit together yet independent of one another," Ghemor ventured further.

"The Prophets wish that? Really?" Massoli was skeptical, "Then why hasn't Neela spoken of this?"

"Who says she hasn't?" Ghemor's smile was indulgent, "But who said she spoke to you?"

Johnson recalled Macen retelling how Neela kept secrets even from Anara for years before revealing a portion of them during the Dominion War. And only then because the Prophets bade her to.

"Dammit! We've been set up all along," Johnson snarled.

"I did try to warn Captain McKinley," Ghemor stated, "Am I free to go yet?"

"You're staying put!" Massoli escorted Johnson from the area. The deck plates and gravity shifted underneath them.

"We're in combat," Johnson realized.

"It won't take Jim and the others long to neutralize these outdated ships," Massoli guessed.

"That's probably how you all felt about the Ascendant as well," Johnson fretted, "Ghemor's playing an even deeper game. If she wanted to bait the trap and then spring it so that we easily defeated the pirates, she wouldn't have engaged our forces. She's driving towards an unseen conclusion."

"The relationship between the Federation and Bajor seems to be what everything pivots around," Massoli ventured.

"Of course! How could I have been so blind?" Johnson wondered, "Hurry Commander, we have to reach the bridge!"

"Why are just sitting here again?" Ebert wondered.

"I'm sure Hannah is wondering the same," Macen chuckled.

"She has mentioned it," Ebert admitted.

"Patience. Both of you," Macen instructed, "Laren signaled a code to me when we 'rescued' her. Back from our Maquis days."

"What code?" Ebert was indignant.

"The one that means she was with friends," Macen told her, "Ro and Ghemor were working together."

"They were play acting?" Ebert yelped, "Then why all of...of...of this?"

She made a sweeping gesture towards the field of crippled ships.

"I suspected as much, actually, based upon Bailey and Angelique obtaining the Ascendant's fleet movements. I queried General Kira through the comm buoy network we were establishing established en route. She confirmed Ro was moving starships to Sinhera."

"Why?" Ebert was aghast.

"To protect the system from the same pirates that showed up here to kill Ro to start another conflict between Bajor and the Federation," Macen explained.

"So the Skipper set us all up?" Ebert was stunned.

"To be sure, I think the Ascendant took their roles too seriously," Macen allowed.

"What are we waiting for again?" Daggit finally inquired.

"A ship to decloak," Macen told them both.

"Decloak," Tekana ordered. The Deathblow wavered into sight. Directly behind the Fist of the Prophets.

"Prepare to fire!" she ordered. Just before explosions echoed throughout the ship's decks. And it lost power, "What in the hells?" Tekana demanded to know.

"And that's what we've been waiting for," Macen explained after the Corsair was joined by Grace's fighter in opening fire on the Bird of Prey as she presented herself threatening the Fist of the Prophets.

"Are they really Romulans?" Ebert asked.

"Of course they are," Daggit stated, "Romulans aren't Klingons. They don't sell old military equipment to outsiders. That's a T'Liss-class Bird of Prey. She'll be a privateer."

"Which is why their being here isn't an act of war for crossing the Border Zone," Macen explained, using the new nomenclature for the former Neutral Zone.

"The pirates are all breaking off and trying to run," Ebert noted. Six starships dropped out of warp, blocking the pirates' exits. They ranged from Asia-, Mercury-, and another Constitution-class starships.

"Meet the Militia Colonial Defenses Forces deployed to protect the Ascendant home world from pirates," Macen stated.

"I have a migraine trying from trying to keep this all straight," Ebert massaged her temples. The Bajorans crippled all but the Fisticuffs, which attempted to flee deeper into the Gamma Quadrant. But the Defiant appeared and her pulse phaser quickly crippled the ship.

"The Skipper is hailing," Ebert groaned.

"On my screen," Macen requested, "Laren."

"Thanks for playing along and having the Fist's back," Ro sounded grateful.

"Ghemor should have told the Ascendant to play a little nicer," Macen scolded Ro, "They'll be undergoing repairs for months."

"Kira is sending over some new Detroit-class cruisers with engineering support crews to assist them," Ro explained, "They should be arriving in the system even now. Meanwhile, my people will assist the Ascendant ships here."

"Jim, Bob, and Elias will have figured everything by now if Ghemor hasn't already told them," Macen warned her.

"I'll give them the Romulans. That'll make them happy," Ro shrugged.

The Obena-class USS Franir and the Parliament-class USS Legislature dropped into the system as well.

"It seems Starfleet has come to help," Macen grinned.

"My heroes," Ro signed off.

"Take us in," Macen requested.

"What are we going to do about Harri's sister?" Ebert asked.

"That's a very good question," Macen confessed.


Chapter Four

"This debacle was ill conceived and poorly executed," Johnson paced the Intrepid's officer's mess. Ro and Ghemor hardly looked contrite. McKinley was still wrestling with his own misgivings. Vaughn seemed irritably amused. Macen kept his own counsel at the meeting.

The Aguila, Franir, and Legislature had already moved off ferrying the Romulan privateers and ship between them. Tekana and her crew were wanted in suspicion of several major crimes against Federation ships and ports of call. The remaining Defiant and Intrepid were standing by while Caplan and Nog made last minute repairs and adjustments. It was just a pretext for Johnson to stay on station to vent at Ro and Ghemor.

"This was a diplomatic train wreck," Johnson continued, "The Militia should have informed Starfleet of its plans."

"You didn't even tell Starfleet of your plans to affect my rescue," Ro countered, "All of you have only been exonerated of being AWOL because you caught Commander Tekana and her crew and shut down an Alpha Quadrant piracy ring."

"Of whom you're retaining custody of," McKinley retorted.

"They did commit crimes against the Ascendant and not your people," Ghemor charged.

"You fired on us without provocation," Johnson nailed the last coffin lid.

"My people were overly protective when you pursued me. The Colonel and I developed our ruse and played it out for Mudd Kenra to keep her from alerting her partners that we were on to her. In order to draw them out, we had to simulate a battle between our forces. Sadly, the simulation became reality," Ghemor stated. "Mistakes were made."

"You could at least pretend to be contrite," Vaughn admonished her.

"Or let us in on the secret after Mudd Kenra was already captured," Johnson accused.

"Grace was already transporting people back to their ships by the point that she was detained and the battle had already occurred," Ro reminded them all, "There wasn't time to stage debriefings while things had escalated beyond the planet's surface."

"How can the Militia and Starfleet rebuild trust after furthering our distances with an operation like this being undertaken?" Johnson wondered.

"You're the diplomat, Admiral. I appreciate the sentiment of your riding to my rescue but it was hardly necessary and I said as much at the time," Ro snorted, "And the distance between the Militia and Starfleet was Starfleet's doing when it repeatedly invaded the Bajor Sector."

"We can't keep dwelling on the past," McKinley replied.

"You're doing a fine job of it right now," Ro accused.

"Moving past all that, how do we move forward from this point?" Vaughn interjected.

"We trust the Militia to undertake their own rescue operations and their personnel to be competent enough not to require Starfleet intervening unless asked to," Macen suggested.

"Finally, someone get s it," Ro said dryly.

"I'm surprised at you. You lost people too," McKinley said disapprovingly.

"The Militia held off Starfleet over the course of weeks of repeated and escalating attacks. Try and imagine they could've dealt with this situation on their own," Macen replied, "Kira tried contacting you after you'd gotten underway but you were rejecting all incoming traffic from the Alpha Quadrant for fear of being forced to choose to ignore recall orders. Orders Kira herself was attempting to deliver."

"As I stated, mistakes were made," Ghemor said, "By both sides."

"It's true Ghemor could've approached me with a dialogue request but she wanted my undivided attention to show me things. And to plead the Ascendant's case and deliver her request for assistance. She then put me in touch with General Kira. She knew you'd defy orders and sail in, wanted or not, so she staged everything to play out the pirates' fantasies of quick and easy kills. But the Ascendant are as protective of Ghemor as Bajor is of Sisko. So they got out of hand and the plan went south quickly," Ro explained, "Colonel Anara and Captain Forger are as equally guilty of it as well as you three."

"I can see we have a long way to go to restore trust between us," Johnson said sadly.

"No shuk," Ro snorted.

"And you didn't help by not cluing us in," McKinley accused Macen.

"By the time Ro signaled me, the storm overtook us and Ghemor was already well on her way out of Raas orbit. And a silent signal is silent for a reason. We had an audience that included the locals the pirates had bought off" Macen shrugged, "Afterwards, it was already too late."

"In the end, despite the egregious errors on all sides, there were few fatalities on both sides," Ghemor stated, "We can thank the Prophets for that."

"You'll forgive me for remaining a skeptic," Johnson said sourly.

"If we're done casting blame about, I have repairs to oversee," Ro told them.

"Dismissed," Johnson said aloud, "Your security escort will take you both to the transporter room."

'Thanks. I wasn't asking for your permission," Ro sniped. She and Ghemor departed.

"This is going to be a so much such slower process than I expected," Johnson complained.

"You weren't in the Bajor Sector when the Federation kicked Bajor out or when Starfleet sent forces in to claim sovereign Bajoran territory as their own," Vaughn said tersely.

"There's an argument that Deep Space 9 was allocated to Starfleet when the Bajorans ceded administrative control," Johnson replied half-heartedly.

"That legal theory would never hold up in a neutral court and it's self serving at best," Vaughn said derisively.

"The war and the invasions were proven to be unjust," McKinley stated, "But the Federation willingly paid a price for it."

"But that hardly rebuilds shattered trust. Guilt payments are nice and all but the Bajorans are pouring the latinum into building up the Militia and their sector defenses," Vaughn told them, "And the Militia has hardly any reason to trust Starfleet Command when they reinstated Commander Lavelle as station commander over the express wishes of the Bajoran government and Militia."

"I'm not responsible for Starfleet's decisions," Johnson snapped.

"But you are their face," Vaughn reminded him, "Even when you don't choose to be."

"You're strangely quiet," McKinley verbally prodded Macen.

"A Romulan privateer does not operate in Federation space or especially the Gamma Quadrant working against Federation interests without official support. Specifically Tal Shiar support," Macen stated.

"We're all well aware of how Sela feels about the Federation," Johnson replied.

"But renewed tensions with Bajor would draw down forces from the Beta Quadrant," Macen told them, "Thereby playing into Sela's hands. For whatever she intends."

"You actually think the Director of the Tal Shiar would openly strike out at the Federation?" Vaughn asked.

"I think the Director of the Tal Shiar would covertly strike out at Starfleet while their attention was diverted elsewhere," Macen explained.

"And now that our attention isn't diverted?" McKinley wondered.

"There's always a secondary target in Sela's machinations," Johnson grumbled.

"She'll learn soon enough that Commander Tekana has been captured," Macen told them, "See where that leads."

Five days later...

The Intrepid and Defiant departed the Raas system as soon Macen returned to the Obsidian. Parva and Gilan had finished repairing the surveyor and assisting Klego with the Fist's repairs. Parva accepted Ro's explanation of how the Ascendant had simply overreacted when striking out and making a mock combat the real thing. She'd gleefully begin boarding Dreadnaught-classes to assist in repairs...and to take notes on their design and systems.

Bajoran engineers arrived aboard four Detroit-class light cruisers. Ro dismissed her Colonial Defense Forces to resume their typical patrols. Half the crew aboard each new ship were engineers of varying level of experience and expertise. With so many Bajorans resigning from Starfleet, the Militia's ranks were swelling.

The Systems Defense Fleet was the first to begin refit upgrades with the Iotians. To reduce transit times and yard costs, the Iotians sent teams to Bajor to use the native shipyards to begin adapting the Constitution- and Asia-class cruisers. With the wars concluded and reparation latinum flowing in, the construction of two additional shipyards at Golana and Dreon VII had been completed. With the booming demand for Bajoran freighters, investing in the infrastructure had made commercial and military sense.

Part of Bajor's reparation demands had been twelve Class 4 industrial replicators. One each for each of the Bajoran Gamma Quadrant colonies and Valo II and one for each new shipyard. Despite Ghemor's initial duplicity, she'd brought the Ascendant and the Bajorans closer than ever.

The Obsidian took its leave even as the Fist of the Prophets and the engineering ships left Ghemor's fleet behind at Sinhera. A Bajoran diplomat was already awaiting Ghemor's arrival in the fifth and final Detroit-class cruiser that Bajor had just acquired.

Ro had been summoned back to Bajor to personally report to Kira after the general had fielded Johnson and McKinley's voluminous complaints. Vaughn had returned to DS9 to face Lavelle's own displeasure at his XO's leaving the station behind to accompany the Intrepid into an unnecessary battle with the Ascendancy.

Johnson himself faced a closed doors meeting with Fleet Admiral Clancy. But he had delayed dinner plans with Admiral Forger to look forward to. Just as Ro would be embarking on leave after reporting in with Kira. She and Captain Reyes were looking forward to exploring new possibilities.

The turbolift delivered Chris Pike to Serenity Station's Ops center.

"Chris! Are we slumming today with us mere corporate security contractors?" Lisea Danan joked with her.

"I'm never slumming when I'm with you, Lees. Has the Obsidian returned yet?" Pike asked.

"Her ETA is still a few hours away," Danan informed her, "I take it Admiral Forger has work for them."

"The good admiral is off for the weekend with the estimable Rear Admiral Johnson leaving me the dirty work," Pike complained.

"I do declare, this is becoming habitual," Danan smirked.

"Whatever it is, it means I get all the flack," Pike was still irritated.

"Why ask me if they've arrived?" Danan suddenly realized the oddity of the situation, "Couldn't you just contact Brin?"

"Except he's not answering and Shannon's running interference for him. She's reciting the same 'needing a layover for proper repairs' line," Pike explained.

"Which isn't far from the truth," Svetlana Korepanova added to the conversation, "The Obsidian was hit harder than Parva or Gilan would care to admit."

"Fortunately they can undergo repairs when they report to Deep Space 3," Pike told her, "Admiral Forger wants them to pick up a trail that Starfleet Intelligence fumbled."

"Why us?" Danan asked.

"It involves the Iotians," Pike shared.

"Of course," Danan snorted.

"No one else has Macen's access into their Federation," Pike relayed the official reasoning.

"Then why DS3?" Korepanova inquired.

"I wish I could tell you, Sveta. But I don't know myself," Pike admitted, "Once I get Macen on the horn, I'm to pass him up the chain to Admiral Nechayev."

"Sveta, clear a channel and tell Shannon it's important. Let her know about DS3 and have Kris Liu arrange for a repair schedule while they're there," Danan instructed.

Tom Riker and Christina Noble exited his office, "Chris! Come to see how real people do real work?"

"I'd request a transfer if I wanted that," Pike quipped.

The other officers in Ops were being relieved just as Noble was there to do so for Riker. Riker and Danan had just returned from Thad Riker's funeral, having spent almost two weeks with Will and Deanna. Besides consoling the parents, they watched over young Kestra and eased her grief. Reluctantly, they'd returned to duty. The weight of loss still weighing over them. So the levity was much needed and appreciated. Korepanova explained to Noble that Liu would be returning to schedule the Obsidian's layover at DS3. She then passed the message to Macen through Forger.

"Thanks," Pike said with great relief.

"Care to join us for dinner?" Danan inquired.

Riker accepted his wife's decision with aplomb, "That'd be great."

"Thank you. It sounds like a good way to unwind," Pike confessed.

"Good," Danan decided, "You can give us all the dirt on Forger and Johnson."

"Is that still a thing?" Riker asked.

"It's becoming a thing," the Trill chastised him.

"Where have I been?" Riker rolled his eyes.

"Who knows?" Danan teased, "You definitely haven't been keeping up with the chatter."

"God forbid," he rolled his eyes again even more dramatically.

"So you'll rendezvous with us at DS3," Macen instructed Ebert and Mudd.

"We'll just beam Ziva, Neela, and Anara aboard Serenity and come straightaway," Ebert promised.

"Of course we will," Mudd rolled her own eyes.

"Problem, Harri?" Macen asked.

"Did you hafta hand my sister over to the Bajorans? I wasn't done getting' my pound of flesh outta her yet," Mudd complained.

"Kira will get a few pounds out of her on your behalf," Macen promised.

"Good," Mudd harrumphed.

"Your launch window will be in twenty minutes. That places us as close as we'll be to Serenity," Macen told them, "Shannon will alert you when we've dropped out of warp. Your passengers are already waiting for you two in the shuttlebay."

"We'll see you soon," Ebert promised.

"Do I get time off at DS3?" Mudd asked.

"I have no idea yet," Macen confessed.

"Damn. That's a 'no'," Mudd complained.

"Just go," Macen sighed.

."I can't believe you came all this way just to see how my date was going," Ro smirked at Macen after they'd all arrived at DS3.

"That was a secondary concern," Macen smiled back.

"So how is it going?" Rockford perkily asked.

"I just got in last night local time. Alfonso greeted me at the airlock. Afterwards, we went out to talk," Ro told them.

"And then...?" Rockford probed further.

"And then nothing. He just went back on duty," Ro shrugged.

"Does he usually work two shifts?" Rockford wondered.

"They talked all night until the next morning when Reyes reported for duty," Macen explained.

"That's good," Rockford enthused, "That's very good."

"I'll be sending him to bed early after he gets off duty," Ro sighed, "I can't wear him out the first two days I'm here."

"Would he like to invite you to join him?" Rockford asked.

'Celeste," Macen said under his breath.

"What? First, I'm a private investigator. That's means I'm a professional voyeur. Second, pretty soon we're going to be too busy to get details," Rockford retorted.

"You'll be first to know if sex is involved," Ro promised.

Rockford fist pumped, "Yes!"

"You and your women," Ro mock complained to Macen.

"So, is Johnson still pissed off?" Ro asked.

"I wouldn't accept any invitations from Bob or Jim to board the Intrepid any time soon," Macen advised her.

"I'm pretty sure you're covered in shuk as well," Ro stated, "But thanks for backing me."

"Elias wanted to but the regs were against you," Macen told her.

"Screw the regs," Ro snorted, "Why is Parva giving us the evil eye?"

"That means we're working," Rockford sighed, "Now you promised. I get the dirt first. Even before him."

"I never renege," Ro assured her.

"Time to earn some latinum," Rockford tugged at Macen until they were both on their way to rejoin Parva and Daggit. Rockford was surprised, and Macen amused, when Ro followed them.

"What?" she asked defensively, "I'm bored."

"Five hundred points of interest on this station and you pick us," Rockford rolled her eyes.

"I only came to see one," Ro drolly reminded her, "So...why are you here?"

"Amanda asked us to keep tabs on an associated Iotian starship crew," Macen told her.

"How do you become 'associated' with the Iotian Starfleet?" Ro inquired, "I thought you either in or out."

"Ishtashra Yar and her crew are from Turkana IV," Rockford explained, "So they're more like independent contractors."

"Yar?" Ro stiffened, "Like Tasha and Ishara?"

"You knew them?" Rockford was surprised.

"Both before my time on the Enterprise-D," Ro corrected her, "But Data still spoke of them fondly. The crew's senior officers practically revered Tasha Yar. They could barely mention Ishara."

"Ishtashra is Ishara's daughter," Macen explained, "And captain of the Iotian Starfleet vessel the ISS Capo."

"Anything I should know about the ship and crew?" Ro asked.

"The Capo is a Himalaya-class heavy cruiser. One of the top of the line in the new Iotian Starfleet," Macen told her, "So Kracko made an investment by giving Yar the ship."

"But it also helped cement the loyalties the Turkana IV survivors felt towards the Iotians after being rescued from their failed colony," Rockford added, "The Alliance won the gang war but destroyed the infrastructure that kept them alive underneath the irradiated planetary surface. Ishara Yar rose to become leader of the survivors and brokered the deal with the Iotians to resettle the colonists."

"Yar and the Capo operate semi-autonomously and have close ties with the emerging Orion Syndicate leadership now that Gomer has been displaced. Oxmyx is hoping to use Yar's familiarity with the emergent don to generate concessions between the Iotian Federation and the Orion Syndicate," Macen described the interstellar ramifications.

"So why you? Why them? And why here?" Ro inquired.

"We were available. They are presumed to have contacts with Yar's aunt. And DS3 is the perfect meeting place if that's the case," Rockford told her.

"Her aunt?" Ro had to recall the familial tree, "You're talking Sela, the Director of the Tal Shiar itself?"

"One and the same," Rockford finished briefing Ro, "Since the collapse of the Neutral Zone, Romulan privateers have begun crossing the Border Zone. Starfleet feels many, if not most; of these privateers reflect the Tal Shiar's wishes."

"Like Tekana and the Deathblow in the Gamma Quadrant," Ro said with satisfaction, "At least she's out of the way."

"Actually...she's here," Macen grimly informed her, "Starfleet Intelligence felt it was easier to cut bait and track down where the Deathblow went next and see who Commander Tekana contacted afterwards."

"She tried to blow me up and I'm expected to just sit on my hands and watch her broker a deal with the Iotians?" Ro was incensed.

"A deal with Yar," Macen clarified, "Which may or may not include the Iotian Starfleet. That's why we're here. We need to find out with certainty what the case may be."

"And if it is a side deal?" Ro grated.

"Then Oxmyx and Kracko should be very interested in learning what it is," Macen explained.

"Are we done sightseeing?" Parva fumed as the trio met up with her and her husband.

"Tony and Harri have ingratiated themselves with several members of the Capo's crew," Daggit reported, "Lee and Shade are working the crowd. Forte is coordinating and Ebert, Kerber, and Smith have eyes on Tekana and the Romulans with her."

"Their Bird of Prey docked an hour ago. The good Commander and her escorts are having a good time but obviously waiting for something or someone," Parva described the situation.

"Their outdated uniforms may mark them as privateers rather than regular Romulan Imperial Forces but Tekana herself is drawing attention," Daggit reported.

"Redheaded Romulans aren't your usual," Rockford had observed.

"I doubt the color is natural," Parva opined, "But it shows that the good Commander craves attention."

"Has Starfleet Security responded?" Macen inquired.

"They have four obvious uniformed people in the bar and they stand out," Daggit grimaced, "So does the one undercover operative. If you can call him that."

"Amateurs," Ro agreed upon entering the bar.

"Find a table," Macen instructed, "I'm the only one Ishtashra ever had contact with so I'll make the approach."

"I'll come with," Ro suggested.

"You're on leave. I doubt Captain Reyes would support my getting you into trouble," Macen smirked.

"Screw it," Ro snorted.

"He's got this," Rockford insisted.

"You're good with this?" Ro asked.

"Yar will be dead before she can draw on Brin," Rockford promised.

"You think she's armed?" Ro asked.

"You are despite station prohibitions," Rockford observed, "We are because we're licensed to carry on Federation installations. But Starfleet still balked."

"Alfonso doesn't know you yet," Ro had to remember, "Give him time."

"Here he comes," Rockford noted, "You can tell him yourself."

"Laren, what a pleasant surprise," Reyes was pleased but also slightly exasperated. He was also very out of uniform, "I take it you know our excessively armed security contractor friends?"

"You remember my mentioning Brin Macen?" Ro asked.

"From the Maquis?" Reyes suddenly became aware of what was transpiring, "Your friend is still with Starfleet Intelligence?"

"In a manner of speaking. Captain Yar is of interest to Starfleet and so is Commander Tekana," Ro advised Reyes.

"This is the same Romulan that threatened you in the Gamma Quadrant?" Reyes' eyes widened, "Did you know?"

'No. It's just bad luck. But Macen knew so he and his team are here for more than simple repairs," Ro explained all to him.

"Hi, I'm Celeste Rockford," she offered, "Care to sit down?"

"The esteemed private investigator?" Reyes knew the name. The station had a Rockford Detective Agency within its confines.

"I own half of this operation. I also have people involved," Rockford explained.

"I take it Macen is about to stir the proverbial pot," Reyes realized as he sat down, "Hello, I'm Alfonso Reyes."

"We're well aware, Captain," Parva's eyes twinkled with mischief, "I'm Parva and this hulking Angosian is my husband, Rab Daggit."

"Didn't we meet once on Deep Space 9?" Reyes asked Daggit, "You were a lieutenant with SOC?"

Daggit nodded once, "My platoon and I were volunteers. We served with then-Lieutenant Ro and Commander Macen behind enemy lines."

"I was a commander aboard the USS Xiang Yu. She was a good ship and had a better crew," Reyes admitted. "I was promoted to DS3 based upon her captain's recommendation."

"What class was she?" Parva eagerly inquired.

"Norway-class, she was just out of the yards when the war began," Reyes shared.

"Things are about to get interesting," Rockford advised them.

Ro knew that Reyes was relieved to spare the others the fate of the Xiang Yu. Or the year spent in convalescing after the action that destroyed the ship. Most of her crew had been taken prisoner by the Cardassians and Jem'Hadar. Roughly half of those survivors had died in the labor camps on Cardassia IV. Her captain never commanded another ship. He'd been assigned to DS3 instead. He begged off and requested that Reyes be sent in his stead.

Captain Hogarth's actions had enabled a dozen other starships that escaped the embattled Betazed system. Commander Vaughn had personally commanded the rescue attempt that collected the Xiang Yu's escape pods that the Dominion forces hadn't captured. Vaughn would return to Betazed to lead a ragtag resistance movement supported and led by Starfleet Special Operations Command.

Reyes was dispatched to DS3 in honor of Hogarth's request. The commander, an able administrator, easily slid into the role of coordinating defenses and patrols of the Romulan Neutral Zone after a narrow corridor was opened to allow the Imperial Fleet a transit route to DS9 and the war effort. DS3 also became a valued repair and replenishment site as Romulan Warbirds and scoutships ferried back and forth.

Reyes had developed good working relationships with Romulan commanders, doctors, and engineers that blossomed during the thaw in relations following Shinzon's post-war coup. The deconstruction of the Neutral Zone into a mutually patrolled Border Zone had taken place under Captain Reyes' watch. But Reyes had done his time on the station and wished to be reassigned to starship duty to explore the Gamma Quadrant. A request Starfleet denied.

Reyes' fiancé had left him for just making the request. Reyes himself felt as though he'd torched his personal life by doing what he felt called to do. Just like his great-grandfather, Commodore Diego Reyes, the infamous overseer of Project: Vanguard had by revealing the truth behind Starfleet's ambitions in the Taurus Reach despite Starfleet Command having classified everything to do with the project. A project that had cost Starfleet two starships and the Federation the lives on two colonies.

The fate of those officers and seven thousand colonists weighed heavily on the elder Reyes. So he blew the whistle and let the reporter he'd disgraced, Tim Pennington, grab the scoop of as life time. Pennington would later found one of the most prestigious schools of journalism. Reyes would live out his life in obscure freedom on a remote colony wanted by both Starfleet Security and Chancellor Gorkon's personal agents. Only two of Reyes' friends knew where Reyes was located. Doctor Ezekiel "Zeke" Fisher and JAG Captain Rana Desai.

Fisher retired after the destruction of the Vanguard station. Desai spent time at JAG headquarters on Earth before putting in for retirement at her twenty year mark and joining her estranged lover, Reyes, in exile. It was Desai that would approach Reyes' sons and daughter with the truth of what all had occurred after his death. She dared the sitting JAG to prosecute her for sheltering Reyes for all those decades. Alfonso alone of all Reyes' descendents, had enlisted in Starfleet. He sought to forge a new Reyes legacy within Starfleet.

"Should I alert my people?" Reyes asked.

"Only for them to clear out," Rockford advised. Reyes didn't appreciate that sentiment.

"All right, Starfleet only has four idiots here. They'll never know what I discuss with Commander Tekana," Yar boasted to her comrades.

"Are you sure about that?" Macen asked as he sat down at the table.

"Macen?" Yar was stunned, "What are you doing here?"

"Though she's unaware of it, Commander Tekana and I had recent dealings in the Gamma Quadrant," Macen shared, "I've been hired to find out why she was there and why a pirate network was supporting her in an effort to destabilize the Bajorans' relations with Starfleet and the Ascendant."

"I had no idea," Yar admitted.

"But you're the middleman between Tekana and the pirates," Macen didn't ask.

"Yes," Yar freely admitted it, "Arranging a few discreet partnerships isn't illegal."

"Except that one set of partners are wanted criminals. By both the Federation and the Star Empire," Macen reminded Yar, "Tal'aura may allow a degree of lawlessness in the Border Zone but hardly within Imperial borders themselves."

"Perhaps," Yar wasn't convinced.

"Oh, that's right. Your deal is actually with Director Sela, not Tekana. She's just another tool of the Tal Shiar," Macen concluded.

"It isn't healthy to know what you know," Yar warned.

"You're about to be cut out of the deal," Macen warned her.

"What the frinx?" Yar saw the pirate cartel leader approaching Tekana directly.

"Better hurry if you want to stay cut in," Macen urged. Burrows and Mudd had persuaded the pirates to cut Yar and the Capo crew out. Lee and Shade had worked their "discreet" minders into a lather regarding the Turkana IV survivors.

"Captain Yar, a word," a Nauiscaan pirate loomed over Yar, "Docking Bay 27."

"Go to hell," Yar snarled.

"Good," the Nauiscaan ejected a knife from a sleeve holster and went to stab Yar. Only to find his knee broken from the side by Macen. The knife plunged into the table.

"Bastard!" Yar delivered an impressive punch to the Nauiscaan's multi-toothed jaw. More pirate minders approached the table. Other's began attacking the four uniformed Starfleet Security officers and one obvious plainclothes officer.

"I warned you," Rockford reminded Reyes. Yar and her three crewmen went for the pirate leader attempting to capture Tekana's attention. So far the Romulan privateer was making a good show of ignoring him. Yar shoulder checking him away from the table was decisive. Tekana and her three crewmen rose and exited the bar. Mudd and Burrows followed them.

Lee and Shade headed for the Deathblow's docking berth. Burrows stopped by his rented station locker to retrieve his phaser and katana. Mudd also armed herself. Macen simply navigated his way through the fight that had broken out between bar patrons.

"Thus endeth Phase One," he grinned when he rejoined his table.

"Um..." Reyes raised a finger.

Macen threw an elbow into the face of an encroaching freighter crewman enthusiastically joining in the brawl.

"Everybody off?" Macen asked Rockford.

"Tracy, Angelique, and Bailey just exited. Everyone else is reporting to their assigned posts," she happily reported.

"Sorry about the mess," Macen offered Reyes, "I'll want to speak with Yar after you have her and her men in custody. Make certain she survives the fight."

Ro stayed with Reyes as the SID filtered out.

"Who the hell is Macen?" Reyes asked.

"I'll tell you over dinner," Ro smirked, "One thing: he's never dull."

Starfleet Security flooded the room at that point.

"I can vouch for that," Reyes groaned.

Commander Lisa Neeley, the station's Chief Security Officer, led the cleanup, "I'll have everyone detained and begin processing them immediately."

"Processing can wait until morning," Reyes told her, "Be certain to detain the Iotian flagged crew separately from our suspected free merchantmen."

"Polite speak for 'pirates'," Neeley snorted.

"This fight, and the attempted murder, gives us an excuse to search their ship. Prioritize that," Reyes instructed, "Any violation of regs and Federation law, no matter how small, use it as a pretext to probe their computer core. A complete probe, including deleted and scrubbed data recoveries."

"Something tells me someone just handed these killers to us," Neeley grinned.

"Didn't they though," Ro said under her breath just for Reyes' benefit.

"Now about that dinner," Reyes gallantly gave Ro his arm, "I think our conversation will be fascinating."

Ro hesitated. She hated gallant gestures. They were usually false. But she knew from the past that Reyes was genuine. So she took his arm, "Lead the way."

"Somehow I think you've already memorized the route to my quarters and its interior layout," Reyes opined.

"Maybe," Ro guiltily answered.

"Not a bad thing," Reyes smiled warmly.

Forte alone manned the Situation Center while the Obsidian was undergoing repairs. The crew was taking leave on a rotational basis. Parva had ordered her engineers to stand down and enjoy themselves. Or else.

Jelena Kovic and Abby Collins had to be as direct with the Security detail as well. Although, Kovic and Collins were up for a little adventure themselves. They were surprised to find themselves joined by Aglaia in watching members of the Deathblow crew.

Aglaia looked to be an average tourist jotting diary notes on a padd. Collins and Kovic wondered just why Forger and Jones had given the pilot for this assignment. Kovic was interrupted by call from the ship.

"Got to go," Kovic told them, "Some Starfleet engineer is trying to raise the alarm over our weapon and defensive upgrades."

"Or the fact our warp core has been totally replaced by a more powerful model?" Collins grinned. The ship's NX-class warp core was originally designed for the Defiant-class ships. But it and the other upgrades were to bring the surveyor up to the new Nova X-class standard.

Surprisingly, Macen had Starfleet leave the actual propulsion system untouched. Which meant the civilian science vessel was still limited to a maximum Warp 8. Her auxiliary deflector array was also left untouched. Despite Parva's objections, Aglaia appreciated Macen's decision.

While the warp drive itself was still a limiting factor, the propulsion change would've been a dead give way that Starfleet was providing the otherwise covert upgrades. Miller lamented the lack of quantum torpedoes but it simply meant Outbound Ventures could still procure photon torpedoes from civilian sources. Therefore adding to Outbound Ventures' veracity as a civilian operation.

The bulk of its protective operations were civilian contracts. Though many of those were endorsed by the SID. Outbound Ventures had taken up what slack had been created by Starfleet reneging on its protectorates and colonies that organizations such as the Fenris Rangers couldn't manage to secure. Even then, all such entities were stretched thin by Starfleet's abandonment of its extra-territorial obligations.

Lee and Shade monitored another group of the Deathblow's crew complement taking advantage of shore leave. Tekana and her crew being forced to stay longer while Yar and her pirate contacts awaited legal processing by Starfleet's local JAG representatives. The pirates had run afoul of Starfleet Security's inspection of their ship. Its holds full of contraband and its computer core filled with records of illegal transactions. None of which connected to Yar or Tekana.

Still, Reyes and Neeley dragged their feet processing out Yar and her crewmen. Starfleet assigned fines and ordered restitution be paid to the bar's operators. The reparations were evenly spread across the participants. To Yar's surprise, she found her fines and reparations already paid. In addition, she learned that Tekana was still docked at the station. Her crew rotating shore leave passes.

The Romulans traveled in groups. With the bar Yar had intended for the meeting closed for repairs, they retired to the local Quark's to discuss adjustments to Tekana's request for additional collaborators.

"Most of the criminals you're attempting to recruit are leery of participation after Starfleet Security posted the arrest records of your previous associates. You're singular ability to escape custody notwithstanding," Yar advised Tekana from a private booth.

"My crew and I have experience in escaping Federation detention facilities," Tekana retorted, "It's unfortunate that the criminals you recruited weren't as experienced."

"Or were you cut loose?" Yar inquired.

"I would choose the rest of your words carefully, human;" Tekana warned her, "I lost three crewmen to Starfleet Security. But we more than repaid them in kind."

"That I can use that to sell your pitch," Yar conceded.

"If it's a matter of latinum..." Tekana wondered.

"No, keep the offer as it stands. It isn't the money that's an issue. It's escaping Starfleet now that they're aware of your intentions," Yar warned her.

"My people didn't talk and the pirates you hired merely thought we were arranging an epic robbery," Tekana frowned.

"Brin Macen knows. Starfleet must have told him," Yar suggested.

"Macen was present at the operation," Tekana warned Yar, "Or at least his usual ship was."

"Someone hired him to follow up with me," Yar realized.

"Macen has known contacts with the Bajorans and Starfleet," Tekana knew from briefings she'd received from Sela.

"Macen paid my fees," Yar shared, "Why would he do that?"

"To insure this meeting occurred," Tekana swore an oath in Romulan that the universal translator choked on. Tekana stormed out of Quark's. Her detail awaited her outside. Mudd and Burrows reported the departure.

Inside Quark's Collins and Aglaia finished recording Yar's coming and going. A separate group of Romulans hurried to pay their tab and headed for their docking berth. The Obsidian's pilot and Deputy Chief of Security made certain they reached it despite a few would-be pirate assassins.

"You're pretty handy in a fight," Collins congratulated the Platonian.

"You have no idea about my life before Macen recruited me," Aglaia advised Collins. Which was true. Aglaia was a mystery to most. She rarely even acknowledged coming from the world known as Plato. She was also one of the few to give up her telekinetic abilities derived from the native fruit to restore her immune system and travel the stars. Somehow arriving aboard the Obsidian.

"Let's change that then," Collins suggested. Aglaia seemed hesitant.

"C'mon, the repairs aren't finished so we won't be casting off. Let me buy you dinner and we can swap histories. Mine's pretty juicy. I promise," Collins grinned.

"I guess," Aglaia relented. She hated the fact that she hadn't reviewed her "own" back story. Collins had the resources to look into it and spot any discrepancies from the official version. But she could also rely on Kovic to run interference.

"Can you afford it?" Aglaia wondered.

"With what we get paid?" Collins snorted, "Of course. I also keep money on hand in case I need to buy a beautiful woman dinner."

Aglaia knew enough about Collins' reputation to know she was flirting with the pilot. Rumor had it Collins was settling into something stable with a man from engineering. One of the rare occasions when Collins hadn't attempted to romance an immediate workplace superior regardless of race, species, or gender. Only because Kovic had shot her down. Aglaia wasn't certain she would. She'd been alone since before their "rebirth". A little commitment-free recreational sex could be called for.

"You got it?" Macen inquired.

"Don't be insulting. Of course I got it. Quark relies on commercially available privacy screens. It took me ten seconds to break the encryption," Kerber was piqued.

"I fail to see how this was useful," Smith admitted, "Yar couldn't pay a substantial blackmail."

"I'm not going to blackmail her. But I am going to ask Kracko if she's aware that Yar is dealing with the Romulans on the side. The Iotian Federation signed a non-aggression pact with the Star Empire but Oxmyx is well aware of the Romulans history of subverting treaty stipulations," Macen told them, "And Yar can lead us to Tekana's next rendezvous with her and ultimately the Star Empire's next target."

"The Iotians will demand a presence," Smith warned him.

"I'm well aware," Macen smirked.

"I'm afraid I'm almost afraid to send you off after a Himalaya-class ship," Reyes admitted.

"We're not picking a fight," Macen promised, "And backup is on its way."

"Let me specify: I'm not comfortable sending you into action against a superior foe with Ro aboard," Reyes quietly confided.

"Word to the wise, keep that to yourself," Macen suggested. Rockford and Ro reported to the docking berth. Reyes and Ro exchanged a very warm kiss.

"Next time, you're coming to Bajor," Ro advised him.

"I promise that there will be a next time," Reyes vowed.

"Good," the next kiss was verypassionate.

"I'll be waiting for your call," Ro admitted.

"It'll be sooner than you think," Reyes confessed.

"We need to go if Galen 3 will have a hope of tracking the Capo," Macen warned the blossoming couple. Reyes bowed out four's way.

"Thanks for the 'lift home'." Ro grinned.

"Thank Kira for agreeing to it," Rockford advised her.

"Oh, I have support units on their way. Send them my way when they ask for me," Macen requested.

"Laren's right. You keep things interesting, Commander Macen," Reyes grinned.

"He does his part," Rockford promised.

"Starbase 17?" Forger sounded disappointed as the ship dropped out of warp.

"It's best to plan criminal mischief under Starfleet's nose," Jones shared, "Keeps other interested parties off of the scent."

"I'll bow to your experience," Forger grumbled, "What the status on the Capo?"

"She's assumed a circular orbit around the starbase. Sensors indicate transporter signatures from the Capo," Galen 3 read off his screen.

"Orders?" Aglaia inquired.

"Clear an orbital path with Traffic Control and park us," Forger grumbled.

"You're assuming we won't be leaving the ship," Jones realized.

"One thing I have learned from our passengers, showing up every place the quarry is raises suspicion," Forger admitted, "I'm surprised we were authorized to get this close after remote pursuit for the last three stops."

"The last three stops were havens for mercs and free traders," Jones shared, "Yar is recruiting again."

"You're speaking from experience," Forger realized.

"My crew and I rarely walked on the side of the law following the Maquis," Jones confessed, "Places like those drummed up good work."

"Were you ever a pirate?" Forger softly asked.

"That's debatable," was all Jones would say. Forger dropped it, afraid to push it any further.

"Thanks," Jones acknowledged her choice.

"Keep active sensor sweeps going as well as passives. I want to know who's coming in and out of this system," Forger instructed.

"That's what this ship was built for," Galen 3 gloated.

"So what are we doing again?" Ro asked from inside the Situation Center.

"Waiting," Macen watched the individual and main screens.

"Argh," Ro growled.

"Yar should know we arrived by now," Macen confided.

"Which means her paranoia will be spiking like adrenalin," Rockford chuckled.

"So she'll cut this visit short and head straight on to her next destination," Macen finished the thought, "Hopefully to rendezvous with the Deathblow. With any luck, the hirelings will show up as well."

"We'll already be outgunned," Ro warned him.

"That never stopped you before," Macen chided her; "It never even slowed you down."

"I've sent our status report on to all prospective parties," Rockford shared, "So they should be converging on our position."

"The mail packets Angelique dropped into the comm buoys should be guiding everyone to us," Macen hoped.

"Galen 3 signaled," Lee reported, "A starship just dropped out of warp into the system, "It's more than just a freighter."

"A Q-ship?" Rockford asked.

"From the readings I'm being forwarded, it is," Lee confirmed it.

"Maybe the meet is here," Ro felt a sense of dread.

"Saves us another chase," Macen shrugged.

"Three more ships from different vectors," Lee reported, "Including a Miradorn raider."

"There's another contact!" Shade was quick to point out.

"That's a Starfleet design," Forte pointed out, "ID transponder is coming through. She's the ISS Kelly."

"Captain Mirita's ship," Rockford was pleased to acknowledge. The crews had worked together in the past. The Capo had briefly been part of that collaboration. But Mirita had hung in there with them until the end at Regula. The Kelly was a Splendor-class light cruiser. Also outgunned by the Capo. The pirate ships made things more difficult.

"Shuk!" Lee exclaimed, "A Romulan Bird of Prey just decloaked from behind us."

'That was to be expected," Macen admitted.

"Why is it?" Ro struggled to understand.

"Because they've been following us since we left DS3," Macen shrugged.


Chapter Five

"Shields up! Red Alert!" Forger yelled across the bridge.

"Status Bird of Prey?" Jones called out to Miller.

"She hasn't raised shields or armed weapons yet," Miller reported back.

"Times like these are when I hate the fact we don't have any chase armaments," Forger complained.

"Deathblow has armed plasma torpedo launcher," Miller informed them, "She's raising shields."

"A hit from a plasma torpedo will finish us at this range," Jones stated.

"Aglaia, can we outrun a plasma torpedo if you go to full impulse?" Forger inquired.

"Not in a direct vector," Aglaia replied, "But if I roll us out at the same time, we'll lose some momentum to inertia but we could evade a torpedo launch."

"I don't like this 'could' business," Jones grumbled.

"Why haven't they fired yet?" Forger asked the crew.

"Starbase 17 has every weapons system locked on the Deathblow," Zimbalist reported before Miller could, "And she sent out a distress call. Civilian traffic is panicking and scattering."

"Except for the Q-ships steaming straight for us," Miller amended his report.

"Capo is maneuvering to cut away," Aglaia warned them.

"Kelly is making for an approach," Galen 3 informed them, "Her shields are up and weapons systems are armed."

"It was nice serving with you all," Jones lamented.

"Kelly's approach vector is off," Galen 3 noted, "She's bearing on the Capo."

"Is anyone at all attempting to talk to us?" Forger asked.

"No, but lots of subspace chatter between the Capo and the Kelly," Zimbalist studied the waveforms, "The Q-ships are also hailing each other."

"The pirates are halting at one hundred thousand kilometers out," Miller informed her commanders, "But they've established a three point perimeter watch."

"The last civilian ship has crossed that same perimeter. It's just us, presumably the Kelly, and the starbase," Galen 3 announced.

"Has Starbase 17 bothered to attempt communications?" Forger found their silence disturbing.

"Starbase 17 is focused on raising the Deathblow," Zimbalist read from his screens.

"I have warp signatures in the outer system," Galen 3 noted, "Two ships dropped out of warp and they're splitting up."

"Can you indentify them?" Jones wondered.

"They're...masking their warp signatures somehow. They seem to be changing on a rotating modulation," Miller frowned.

"That's an old Maquis trick," Jones noted.

"Have they been detected?" Forger asked.

"The Q-ships seem unaware of them," Zimbalist told her, "The Deathblow is replying to Starbase 17 and the Capo and Kelly seemed focused on each other."

"The Miradorn raider is breaking formation and making a run on the station," Galen 3 announced.

"Starbase 17 is adjusting the bulk of their weapons locks onto the Miradorn," Miller called out, "The Deathblow is backing off from us."

"They don't want to be caught in the detonation wash," Jones grimly assessed.

"This is frinxing Border Zone territory," Forger grumbled, "Where the hell is Starfleet?"

"Captain, we're receiving a distress call from Starbase 17," Commander Kell Perim reported to Captain Erika Benteen as Deep Space 4's CO came on duty.

"Who else is in the area?" Benteen asked.

"The Farragut and the Cutlass are both responding to Watch Station reports that the Romulan warlords are testing the border," Perim answered.

"Is the Lakota prepped?" Benteen asked.

"Manned and ready," Perim grinned.

"Take her out," Benteen wished she could lead the mission. But DS4 was her primary responsibility. Perim had served two tours aboard the Enterprise-E before ranking up and off the ship following the conclusion of the Son'a incident. She'd served as 2nd Officer aboard the USS Hood before Merry Limerick took command.

Benteen had selected Perim as her XO from a short list of qualified officers. She needed someone with starship experience to command the station's outrigger. The Lakota was due to be decommissioned as the last Excelsior-class ship of the line. But her heavy modifications and upgrades had delayed that requirement.

The Lakota had been Benteen's first command. Benteen had been caught in Starfleet's crosshairs following Admiral Leyton's abortive coup attempt. She'd been complicit for far too long to escape Starfleet's wrath. Benteen had been demoted back to Commander and exiled to Starbase G-4. A command that had been overrun in the opening days of the Dominion War.

But Benteen had managed to fend off the Jem'Hadar and their Cardassian allies long enough to evacuate a majority of her crew and the starship supports. Not one civilian had been lost. During the first losing six months if the war, Benteen had been returned to command of the Lakota but not restored in rank.

Later during the war, the squadron Benteen served in worked closely with their newly arrived Romulan allies. Following the war, Benteen was assigned to DS4 owing to her good personal relations with several Romulan Commanders.

The strategic station bordered the Neutral Zone and the tip of the Federation reaching core ward towards the galactic center. Benteen's open defiance in the face of the Federation's elected autocrats earned her long deserved promotion back to captain. She knew she'd never be considered for flag rank. But at least she finally outranked her XO.

"Good hunting, Commander," Benteen wished Perim.

"Hopefully it's just a brush fire," Perim nodded her thanks.

"Keep us posted," Benteen instructed.

As the turbolift left Ops, Benteen began issuing orders, "Go to Yellow Alert. I want all defensive systems charged and ready to go on command. The Romulan warlords may or may not be planning a strike but they shouldn't get a free shot if they are."

Her Ops crew got busy. Especially her Strategic Operations Officer who began pulling in every intelligence and strategic update being filed in the area.

"What the frinx is Mirita doing here?" Yar angrily demanded answers.

"Driving straight at us," her XO reported.

"The Kelly is hailing us," Tactical reported.

"Don't reply," Yar ordered, "Raise shields and arm weapons. We'll see of Mirita has the stomach for a fight."

"You called it, Captain. The Capo raised shields and armed weapons when we hailed her," the Kelly's XO reported.

"Update Starfleet," Mirita grimly commanded, "And Breck, tell them we're probably going into action."

"Of course we are," Commander Breck complained.

The free trader Slander found herself under attack.

"We've been struck, Cap'n!" the First Mate announced.

"I can feel that," the Captain snarled, "By whom and from where?"

"I can't identify the vessel but they're usin' polaron phasers and photon torpedoes," the First Mate reported.

"Who the hell then?" the Captain growled. Sparks and explosion ripped throughout the ship's EPS conduits.

"We're losin' shields," the Slander had military grade weapons at the expense of sporting civilian shields. The bridge lights and consoles went dark, "An' we've lost power and propulsion."

"I'm gonna kill you if we live through this," the Captain vowed.

"Well that was easy enough," Colonel Anara of the Bajoran Militia Special Forces decided at the helm of the Ark of the Prophets.

"It won't stay that way," Neela warned her from her OPS station beside the helm.

"Any word from the Indomitable yet?" Anara asked.

"No, but that's to be expected," Neela told her lifelong friend.

"Why?" Anara wondered.

"Because Riker hasn't opened fire yet," Neela explained.

"Shields up! Weapons hot!" Captain Thomas Riker ordered the crew of his Emden-class Indomitable.

"They're raising shields. If you can call them that," Berent said from Tactical.

"I've lined up the shot," Jessica Keeley reported from CONN/OPS.

"They're screaming for help," Joel Osmont informed Riker from Communications.

"Let them," Riker said grimly, "Open fire."

Berent surgically crippled the lightly shielded but heavily armed Q-ship. The Indie had taken a few return shots so Riker called down to Engineering, "Status Chief Garzz?"

Marz Garzz happily informed his CO that damage control teams had repaired the effects from the disruptor strikes before the action had even ended.

"Congratulate your teams for me, Chief," Riker signed off, "Keeley, take us in on that Miradorn raider."

"An actual challenge for my superior skills, "tha Zakdorn Berent relished the chance.

"Mr. Berent, there isn't enough room on this bridge for your swelling ego. Remember, the Miradorn are at least on par with our own vessel if not more advanced. So focus on actually targeting them rather than bragging about anticipating doing so."

"Of course, Captain," Berent nasally wheezed.

"Keeley, take us in," Riker prepped himself for action.

"I have confirmation," Galen 3 announced, "The Indomitable and the Ark of the Prophets have dealt with the Q-ships. The Miradorn raider is still moving to threaten the station but the Indie is maneuvering to deal with them."

"Go Riker!" Forger enthused, "What is the Ark up to?"

"She was on approach but now she's slowing," Galen 3 explained, "She seems to be halting."

"Hopefully in weapon's range?" Jones asked with anticipation.

"Far from it," Miller unhappily told her.

"What the frinx?" Jones grumbled.

"Target these coordinates and then prepare to move off to this next set of coordinates," Neela instructed.

"I'll have to manually target lock because there's nothing out there," Anara complained.

"Yet," Neela replied.

"Firing," Anara activated the phasers. An explosion ripped open in space.

"Move off to the next coordinates and fire before it's too late," Neela urged.

Anara did so and saw a distortion developing on their viewer, "Firing!"

A second explosion caused the decloaking Bird of Vengeance to become as visible as its damaged sister ship. Near space filled with decloaking Romulan privateer vessels.

"Oh hell," Anara sighed.

"The Ark has fired at nothing!" Zimbalist was in disbelief.

"I'm registering explosions from their phaser strike. They're peeling off and firing at a developing field distortion," Galen 3 reported.

"Damn it," Forger said under breath, "We're totally screwed."

"Birds of Prey and Vengeance decloaking throughout that portion of space," Miller warned them.

"Of course," Forger grimaced, "Because, why not?"

"Status enemy shields?" Riker inquired.

"Their forward shields are near collapse but they keep driving for us," Berent reported, "Our own shields have been reduced to 32% of maximum strength."

"Keeley, make one last pass and then make way for the starbase," Riker instructed, "Berent, use whatever you have left to make the Miradorn angry enough to chase us."

"Phasers and torpedoes had their effect. Engaging with aft torpedoes and phasers. They are pursuing," Berent reported.

"Osmont, signal Starbase 17 and let them know we're leading the Miradorn to them."

"They have weapons standing by," Osmont informed him.

"Keeley break on their signal," Riker told her, "Osmont, tell us when the station wants us out of the way."

"Rear shields have collapsed," Berent reported, "The Miradorn have dropped surrounding shields to throw all remaining power into their forward emitters."

"Too little, too late," Riker predicted.

"The station says to break off. Now!" Osmont stressed.

'Hard to port!" Riker had Keeley peel off back towards unoccupied space.

"The station has opened fire," Berent added, "The Miradorn vessel has been neutralized."

"Life signs?" Riker inquired.

"Twenty. Three are very faint," Berent explained.

"Captain! The station is issuing a system-wide alert," Osmont alerted him.

"Why?" Riker asked. The Romulans began decloaking.

"Never mind," Riker grimaced.

"Mirita, I ought to have known. Your jealousy knows no bounds," Yar's image on the viewer accused.

"Ishtashra, I knew you double dealt but I never thought you'd pose an actual threat," Mirita replied.

"A threat to whom? You?" Yar cynically laughed.

"The Starfleet allows for private enterprise but your deals with the Romulans threatens the Federation," Mirita admonished Yar.

"Not our Federation," Yar snorted.

"Destabilizing the other Federation threatens our Federation," Mirita snapped, "Are you just too stupid to see that or just too greedy?"

"We have a non-aggression pact," Yar growled.

"Which will be broken once the Federation no longer patrols the Border Zone in strength. The Bajorans already humbled the Federation Starfleet so they would respond with overwhelming this time. Which would pit them against the Cardassians once again as well. Afterwards, the Romulans could cross the border with impunity. Guess whose Federation stands between them and the Alpha Quadrant," Mirita lecture d her, "I'll give you a hint if you need one."

"You want me to betray them," Yar realized.

"You've already betrayed us. Prove your true loyalty one way or the other," Mirita demanded.

"Very well. I will," Yar cut the connection.

"Target them," Mirita ordered.

"Captain are you...?" Breck began just as the Capo opened fire.

"I'm sure," Mirita said dryly, "We need room to maneuver if we're going to stand a chance."

"Captain! The Romulans are on the move," Tactical called it out.

"And they're coming straight for us," Mirita drolly remarked.

"How did you know?" Tactical asked.

Mirita turned to Breck, "Remind me to replace him afterwards."

"Okay, patch me in," Macen instructed Kerber.

"You're on," she replied over the comms.

Tekana's face appeared on the Situation Center's main viewer.

"It's over, Commander," Macen told her.

"I don't know how you broke into my communications but I believe you're finished, Commander Macen," Tekana laughed.

"Now," Macen instructed Kerber and Smith through comm channel.

He watched as the screen wavered and the lights went out aboard the Deathblow before the emergency power cut in. Even then, there was a far more subdued lighting.

"What have you done!" Tekana raged.

"Why not ask your engineers?" Macen suggested.

Tekana turned, "Flay the engineers alive of they can't restore main power in five minutes or less."

"We're turning about. Maybe you'll restore power before we can bring our weapons to bear," Macen sounded doubtful.

"Commander! Power is being diverted to communications. The computer is automatically contacting each of our ship," her Subcommander reported, "They're also reporting cascade power failures before their systems go completely dead."

"You have life support and short range communications activated by an encrypted signal. The cipher has been planted into your computer core. You can send and receive messages from a sender using a carrier wave transmitting the cipher key," Macen explained, "Attempting to purge the computer will result in a loss of both life support and communications. In other words you'd be helpless until Starfleet begins boarding your ships."

"You'll never get away with this!" Tekana raged.

"I already have," Macen told her as he cut comms, "Macen to bridge. What the Capo's status?"

"She engaged the Kelly. We signaled theIndomitable and the Ark. They're on approach," Forger reported in.

"Tell them we want the Capo taken intact," Macen advised her, "And take us into in action in support of the Kelly."

"You got it," Forger happily agreed.

"So how long have Angelique and Bailey been cooking up that prize number?" Rockford asked.

"Since we met the Deathblow in the Raas system," Macen shared, "They just let me know it was ready. It seems Bailey demanded that they translate the codes into all three Romulan dialects. Angelique added a few flourishes but the adapted command codes are pretty straightforward. All they need to do is replace the main computer core in each privateer ship. Which is a yard job."

"With closest yards being on the other side of the Border Zone," Rockford appreciated the cruelty of the Ardanans' "joke", "Nice."

"The Star Empire will be given the opportunity to retrieve the vessels, of course. We'll see if they bother," Macen shrugged his indifference, "The T'Liss-class Birds of Prey and T'Kut-class Birds of Vengeance are old news. But the cores will potentially have damaging Tal Shiar secrets within them that Angelique and Bailey can unlock at any time."

"Commander, it's bad," Lee grabbed their attention.

"What the hell?" Rockford was stunned by the scene unfolding before them.

The Capo was a heavy cruiser pitted against its light cruiser sibling. But the Kelly was giving as good as she got. Mirita proving to be the superior tactician. But against Yar's all out offensive and superior firepower, that edge was merely keeping her crew alive. The Indomitable sped by the Obsidian to engage the Capo. The escort vessel was diminutive in comparison but she was a gunship designed to screen and protect ships of the line. Her maneuverability, speed, and small size made her a difficult target.

The arriving Ark had none of these advantages. But Anara and Neela knew it.

They held back and laid down suppressive fire to keep the Capo from the stricken Kelly. Aglaia guided the Obsidian into the fray. Like the Indie, they relied upon hit and run tactics while the Ark and Kelly narrowed the avenues for the Capo to attempt to escape through. Starbase 17 called all the involved ships and lent her firepower to the cause. The arrival of a Cheyenne-class and a Nebula-class starship caused Yar to transmit a gloating message.

"You're finished now!" she declared.

"I beg to differ, "Mirita replied.

"You'll be begging, all right," Yar continued to assume she'd won.

"Just shut up and answer their hails," Mirita advised Yar.

"We are being hailed by the Capone," Tactical reported to Yar. The ISS Capone was Kracko's personal flagship. The smaller, swifter vessel was the ISS Capote.

"Captain Yar, You will stand down or be destroyed," an enraged Kracko warned Yar, "You were given that vessel as a measure of trust. A trust you betrayed us for your own financial accounts. Barrinor has been informed and the Iotian Federation has seized all of your assets as fines for your prior crimes and this action. The Capo will also be seized from you and her captaincy auctioned off."

"You would dare?" Yar flew into a further rage.

"Don't test me," Kracko signed off.

"The Capone and the Capote have targeted us," Tactical reported.

"XO, there's an opening," Yar was feverish. "That transport is their weakest link. Plot a course at it and fire for effect at every other vessel."

"That'll strain targeting computer," the First Officer warned.

"So help that idiot manually target half the shots," Yar ordered, "CONN, you heard the order. Prepare to engage at maximum impulse and build up a run at warp speed."

"We're set," the XO promised.

"Everyone engage," Yar ordered.

Phaser fire and torpedoes flew from the Capo as she surged forward. She bore down on the Ark of the Prophets. Which didn't evade. She simply returned fire.

"That's no simple transport," Yar's XO warned, "She has military grade shielding and weapons."

"Run her down!" Yar yelled.

But the CONN officer veered off. And found itself facing two more Iotian vessels as the Ambassador-class ISS Hitman and the Buenos Aires-class ISS Gun Moll dropped out of warp with their shields raised and immediately targeting the Capo.

"We're now completely surrounded," her First Mate warned Yar.

"Get me Kracko," Yar angrily ordered.

The USS Lakota arrived to find the star system filled with dead Romulan ships, pirate ships, and one crippled Miradorn raider. In addition, four Iotian starships had surrounded a fifth. A sixth seemed to be receiving support from a Nova-class surveyor with civilian corporation registration and an Emden-class with the same. Starbase 17 signaled them.

"Commander Becket here. Seems you're too late," a jovial senior officer told Perim, "But thank Captain Benteen for her regards."

"Commander Perim here, can we be of any assistance?" the Trill officer wondered.

"We've got more Romulans to detain than we have capacity or personnel to manage. So any relief would be well received," Becket told her, "Their ships are losing life support with comms being the only thing still receiving any power. Our private contractor friends provided a cipher key for communications. It seems the Romulans can't transmit or receive without it even amongst themselves."

"Remind me of the standard crew complement for vessels this old," Perim asked.

"A dozen to twenty-five per. We've got two dozen privateer vessels locked up around us. You can start with the closest to the station. Her commander's name is Tekana. She's tired of talking to me. Maybe you can persuade her to surrender peacefully," Becket suggested, "Starfleet has started a jacket on her. You might to peruse it before contacting her. But be warned, she's in a foul mood."

"Understood. Perim out," Perim used her console to pull up all files pertaining to a Romulan named "Tekana". The file's contents were revealing.

"So just how did you break out of custody and liberate your ship?" Perim mused aloud.

"Thank you for your assistance," Mirita said gratefully.

"Thank my engineers...and Captain Forger for sparing them," Macen told her.

"Could I ask how you disabled two dozen Romulan ships at once?" Mirita asked.

"You could," Rockford quipped.

"But you won't tell me anyway," Mirita understood now, "Got it. Fleet Boss Kracko requests we beam over to the Capone for a formal meeting with Admiral Brisen and Captains Jaylana, Veritis, and Killi.

"May I suggest Colonel Ro accompany us as well Captain Forger and Captain Riker?" Macen asked.

"You're going to make this an issue?" Mirita asked, "Aren't you?"

"Me?" Macen asked innocently.

"Nice try. I saw you lead your team in slaughtering Doctor Argus' research team," Mirita reminded him, "You're more Iotian than Federation Starfleet."

"What about the crew of the transport that assisted us as well?" Mirita asked, "You've included everyone else."

"You'll note they departed already," Macen told her, "We were a stop on their route to Deep Space 5."

"Out of the way but I'm happy they showed up," Mirita confessed.

"Tekana made it personal," Macen advised her, "For Colonel Ro as well."

"Intelligence knows you and Ro were Maquis together," Mirita told him.

"I was Maquis with a lot of people I work with," Macen shrugged.

"They noted that as well," Mirita grinned.

"Is Commander Becket invited?" Rockford inquired, "He did help out."

"Why not?" Mirita sighed.

"Well, it certainly looks like a standard Nebula-class from the inside," Forger opined after materializing on the transporter pads.

"Please clear the pads," the transporter chief requested. Riker was the next aboard. Becket was the last addition.

"Damn fine mimicry," Becket noted as well, "It's an exact copy."

"Considering they used Starfleet blueprints, not surprising," Ro snorted.

"If you will all follow me?" a yeoman requested.

"Where are we going?" Riker inquired.

"The Fleet Boss' personal mess," the yeoman told them all, "The Fleet Boss is rarely aboard so she rarely hosts functions. This is a special event for the cooking staff."

"Happy to oblige," Ro rolled her eyes behind the yeoman. They were led to a large room with enough space to seat them all. It was easily twice the size of the Obsidian's Team Room that served as the entire crew's mess hall.

"Please, come in," Kracko enthused, "You are equal celebrants in this occasion."

"And what occasion is that?" Riker wondered.

"The opportunity for the Iotian Starfleet assist the other Federation in suppressing an enemy plot," Kracko happily stated, "Despite the diplomatic releases' enthusiastic portrayal of our system's superiority over yours, we are in your debt and are glad to come to your aid when called upon."

Riker, Forger, and Ro stared at Macen.

"She's sincere," he replied.

"Starfleet does value your assistance," Becket allowed.

"You helped root out a dangerous element within our Starfleet. No captain can simply go rogue without there being repercussions. Ishtashra Yar will be dealt with, I assure you," Kracko offered, "And you all have Oxmyx and I's personal apologies that things progressed to this point."

"Then why did the Capo set sail before this banquet got underway?" Macen calmly asked.

"Captain Yar has learned her true place within the Starfleet. She will be monitored far more closely from now on, I assure you. But a first mistake is still a first mistake and must be treated as such," Kracko stated.

"Even when that mistake has interstellar consequences?" Becket was angered, "The Federation wanted a chance to interrogate Captain Yar to determine her contact network with the privateers and their criminal associations."

"We've done that work of you," Kracko handed him a data slate, "I think you'll find this list to be quite comprehensive. Happy hunting."

Becket reviewed the information, "This omits the Romulan side of the equation."

"You have the Romulans in custody," Kracko chided him; "We shouldn't have to do all your work. Besides, it would diplomatically intemperate for us to reveal sources from a binding treaty partner."

"I think I'll skip the banquet and return to my station now," Becket requested.

"Of course," Kracko still wore her best benevolent smile, "Yeoman Grethel can assist back to the transporter room. Appetizers anyone?"

Everyone else stayed and Kracko ordered the aforementioned appetizers while making introductions, "This is Admiral Brisen of the ISS Hitman. Captain Mirita of the Kelly some of you already know. May I also present Captain Veritis of the Capote, Captain Jaylana of the Gun Moll, and Captain Killi, the flag captain of the Capone?"

"I have to admit your commanding officers are much younger than their Starfleet equivalents," Riker noted.

"Flag officers tend to retire earlier and wealthier in the Iotian Federation so we promote rapidly since there's usually room at the top to accommodate the practice," Kracko explained.

"That and you exclude Non-Iotians from command," Ro said as she carefully sampled a morsel.

"A policy that is being revisited," Kracko admitted, "As newer members of our Federation gain loyalty to the system and prove themselves in service, new opportunities are always opening up."

"Like Captain Yar, who is human, I believe?" Riker mentioned between swigs of some form of native alcohol.

"Yes. One of those new opportunities I mentioned before. It's an experiment in process. One that led to an unfortunate convergence of events. But ongoing nonetheless," Kracko allowed.

"She helped the Romulans try to kill me and start a war between my people and the other Federation you're claiming to be friendly with," Ro reminded her.

Kracko sighed, "Arguing just spoils an appetite. Please, you're guests tonight. I understood your bias, Colonel. And yours, Captain Forger. You were personally affected by the Romulan plot. But it failed. You can't harbor a grudge over a failed attempt. You'd never be able to move on in life. Especially over the fragility of the reproachful animosity lingering between your Bajoran Republic and the other Federation."

Ro simply and angrily stared at her.

"Things are tense but the Federation has a new President with a new administration," Riker spoke up.

"We're well aware," Kracko smiled, "We're finding your new President to be someone we can work with."

"So you can tone down your rhetoric?" Riker wondered.

"I'm not the politician," Kracko said sadly, "As Fleet Boss my only purview is the Starfleet."

"But Brin said you're close to the Godfather," Ro stressed that relationship.

"Intimate is the word you're looking for, Colonel. I make no secret of it although our relationship, being both personal and professional, is a first in the annals of Iotian history. As is our age and gender regarding inheritance," Kracko stated.

"You certainly sound like a politician," Ro said.

"I suppose the Admiralty could be considered political," Kracko shrugged.

"How exactly is the new President easier to deal with," Macen broke his lingering silence.

"She simply is," Kracko looked trapped.

"Can you give me an example of this new relationship in action?" Macen asked.

"That would be a state level admission. I'm not authorized to make one," Kracko evaded the question again.

"I'm not asking for a policy declaration, simply an observation. You're imminently qualified and positioned to make one," Macen continued.

The assorted captains were all tensing up.

"Perhaps business styled discussions can wait until later," Admiral Brisen sailed in to assist his Fleet Boss.

"Nice save, Admiral," Macen countered, "But it still dodges a simple question. A question that's beginning to look more and more complex. Perhaps worthy of further attention."

"The main course is arriving," Mirita cut in.

"Let's table this," Kracko decided.

The Iotian captains tried to compare notes with the Outbound Ventures commanding officers. It seemed private security and the Iotian Starfleet had similar career arcs and purposes.

"So essentially, your military is actually a business model," Ro finally understood.

"Precisely," Veritis happily agreed, "We provide a service in exchange for membership within our Federation."

"That sounds somewhat like a criminal conspiracy," Riker opined, "What happens to worlds that refuse to subscribe?"

"They're left to their own devices unless they should reconsider," Jaylana answered.

"What could persuade them to?" Forger asked.

"Unfortunate incidents occur to less developed civilization all the time," Killi fielded that one.

"The galaxy is full of predatory races and criminal cartels that prey upon weaker worlds," Brisen offered, "We simply offer a level of protection against such common threats."

"Especially when you steer the threats in that direction?" Ro sharply inquired.

"Colonel, you seem determined to ruin the evening," Kracko chided her.

"I thought we were simply discussing different ideologies and practices based upon them," Ro smiled sweetly.

"Has she always been this way?" Kracko asked Macen.

"For as long as I've known her," he confided, "But it's a valid question."

"We are watched by conflicting parties. When our approaches fail to yield mutually beneficial results those uninterested parties can fall victim because we approached them. It's a sad reality in our so-called 'business model'. But one we warn prospective members of before we withdraw," Kracko explained.

"Convenient," Ro snorted.

"Howcum you answer his questions and no one else's?" Forger suddenly asked, feeling slighted.

"Commander Macen made this and many other moments possible. His ongoing friendship is valued at the highest levels," Kracko imparted upon her, "And Colonel, don't forget who sent you several resupply convoys during your recent and very brief war."

"That was appreciated. But you were well paid afterwards," Ro allowed.

"Another mutually beneficial relationship. One that is ongoing and greatly valued," Kracko offered.

"I guess it's the fact I'm hardly a diplomat," Ro conceded.

"No, you're a fighter," Brisen interjected, "One that would defend her cause to the death. But we're not your enemy."

"It seems the Fleet Boss isn't the only politician," Riker observed.

"As she said, navigating the branches of the Admiralty can take some finesse," Brisen admitted.

"What about captains? Are you all salesmen or politicians?" Forger wanted to know.

"We don't debate policy," Killi explained, "We simply enforce it."

"Just following orders, huh?" Forger followed up, "The worst atrocities were committed by people that said the same."

"Can I propose a temporary truce?" Rockford finally joined in. She'd been silently observing events much as Macen had. Thus allowing her to form several theories and make some basic deductions to be discussed later in private.

"Agreed," Kracko enthusiastically concurred, "Why not answer some of our questions about your exploits?"

"As long as it doesn't break confidentiality," Macen allowed.

"Try me," Ro's eyes narrowed in challenge.

"Well that went well," Riker sarcastically commented once everyone returned to the Obsidian. The Indomitable's crew was enjoying rotating shore leaves aboard Starbase 17. Its recreational facilities were limited but vaster than the diminutive escort vessel's tight confines.

"I call bullshit on most of it," Forger decided.

"I won't argue," Ro agreed.

"We need to discuss things in private," Rockford told them.

"My Ready Room is bigger than either of your offices but it'd still be tight quarters," Forger offered.

"The Situation Center won't be manned," Rockford shared, "It's a former briefing room so it'll be spacious enough and has the computer access to illustrate some points that need to be made."

"You got points out of that?" Forger was skeptical.

"Bailey and Angelique sampled some of their recent logs to illustrate some points that were brought up during dinner," Macen revealed, "Kracko and the others' evasiveness just proved the veracity of some of some of the highlights we skimmed over."

"So by dodging the questions they just confirmed rather than denied what you'd already learned?" Forger was stunned.

"And you let us be your cat's-paws in order to maintain your good relations with the Iotians," Ro understood the couple's earlier reluctance to engage now.

"Pretty damn sneaky," Riker was both irritated and impressed.

"This complicates ship's operations so you need to be included as well, Shannon," Rockford offered.

"Let's rock and ruin," Forger enthused.

"So...President Ardra is selling Federation territory off?" Riker refused to believe it.

"It's claimed but unsettled by Federation members," Macen explained, "Several systems have less advanced worlds unable to be contacted under the terms of the Prime Directive."

"Which the Iotians don't adhere to," Forger got it.

"Their society is a result of the United Earth Starfleet's lack of a Prime Directive," Rockford stated, "So they feel no compunction to formalize a similar rule."

"But their criminalized society actually benefits from convincing less advanced cultures to buy into their protection scheme," Ro understood that portion, "But what do the Iotians get in return?"

"Raw resources and manpower," Rockford explained, "Every member planet has to provide conscripts under seven year contracts to the Starfleet. Besides that facet there are quotas of materials and resources that need to be filled in exchange for technological infusions and ongoing defense contracts."

"But to answer the question about how threats arrive after a culture refuses the Iotians' membership 'offer'?" Riker asked.

"They leak the vulnerability and assets of a planet to pirates or other criminal associations. They always avoid involving the Orion Syndicate because the Iotian Starfleet waits for the raiders to strike and then 'deals' with them, The grateful populace instantly has a change of heart and signs away their planet's future," Macen described the process, "And like their version of a Prime Directive, they see no need to change a winning process. Every contacted planet eventually signs up and if they refuse a second time the raiding attacks intensify. The Iotians will have left means to contact them and eventually they're called in to solve the problem they actually created. This time, the terms of compliance are harsher for a specified period of time as a penalty for making the Iotians work for it."

"Getting back to President Ardra, how can the Federation Council be unaware of what she's doing?" Riker wondered.

"You forget, Cell 51 operates a Political Action Division. They created the crises that the Federation surrendered basic civil rights to deal with. Think of it as a simple Iotian transaction. Cell 51 created a crisis and provided the solution to it as well. Freedoms were the price for salvation," Rockford elaborated, "When the people turned against the autocrats, Ardra was elevated to power. Her entire concession during the election, her rise to Speaker of the Council, and now President was all carefully orchestrated. But not entirely by Cell 51. They simply adapted to someone else that threw Ardra into the race as a monkey's paw," Rockford shared, "Selling off the Federation and peddling influence were her asking price to take control. Actual policy decisions and pursuits are shaped by external forces and she rides out the control in order to repay the financial benefits."

"The perfect scam as long as the Federation Council continues to look away," Ro surmised, "I'd say the oversight managers have been bought off."

"But not necessarily with latinum. Remember, Ardra's political support is auctioned off. Legislation benefitting their constituents keeps Councilors in power and their own personal gains increasing," Macen added.

"Shuk!" Forger exclaimed, "And I thought it was all over."

"It's only begun," Ro warned her.

"Someone somewhere has to have noticed," Riker argued.

"Your faith in the system is heartening," Macen told him, "Naïve, but heartening. Have you ever watched footage of Ardra's original campaign stops?"

"No," Riker thought that should be obvious.

Who had the time or obsessive compulsive behavior to do so?

"The highlight is at every stop she promised the voters exactly what they wanted to hear. Then at the next stop she repeated that mantra, even if she was promising the exact opposite of what she promised at the stop beforehand. She promised everything to everyone and won the popular vote. Right now, with Ardra coming in after a Constitutional crisis and unwanted wars, she seems to be delivering her promises to all the differing groups. Eventually they'll all come to realize that none of their demands were ever met. By that time Ardra will have scammed her way to incredible personal wealth," Macen described the scenario.

"How can we stop her?" Forger asked, "Can't we report her to Starfleet?"

"Starfleet has no jurisdiction," Rockford explained, "Federation Security can look into it after the Federation Council authorizes them to. And only the Federation Council can impeach a sitting president."

"So there's nothing to be done," Riker grimaced.

"Not true," Rockford replied, "My agency can investigate if we have a client. Our findings could be then handed over to the Federation Council. They would then proceed with an official inquiry. Of course, Ardra would break and run. But Federation Security, and then finally, Starfleet would be on her trail."

"Does your client have to be domestic?" Ro inquired.

"Nope," Rockford grinned.

Ro hadn't gotten her hint quite yet so she elaborated, "They just have to have a reasonable suspicion of impropriety. Which the log entries we've pulled would provide adequate suspicion. But the findings would have to be defined as acquired by a third-party asset that would remain anonymous for security reasons."

"I think that can be arranged," Ro looked forward to presenting the case to Kira when the Obsidian dropped her off at DS9, "You'll help pitch it?"

"To the First Minister if we have to," Macen promised.

"Bajor would have to remain unspecified as the source of the data as well when the Federation Council opens debate over the matters," Riker deduced, "Or it could jeopardize your standing with the Iotians."

"I'll have Alynna and Amanda inquire with Bob over whom sympathetic Councilors could be," Macen offered, "Having Starfleet support would also bolster the validity of the evidence. It wouldn't seem like a smear campaign by the Bajoran Republic to skeptics then."

"And Starfleet Intelligence and the SID could cite the information as coming from trusted and reliable sources," Rockford continued.

"Agreed," Ro knew the value of having Admiral Nechayev and Rear Admirals Forger and Johnson backing Bajor's claims. The independent nature of their purviews would prevent Fleet Admiral Clancy and Commodore Oh from stonewalling the presentation. The pair seemed increasingly intertwined and as obstacles. Having the Starfleet Commander and the Director of Starfleet Security opposed to Bajor's presentation of evidence would kill any efforts to indict Ardra. But having the Directors of Starfleet Intelligence and the Special Investigations Division as well Starfleet's trusted Diplomatic Specialist in their corner would sell it indeed.

"Captain," Jones' voice came over the comms, "The Iotians are signaling their departure."

"Send them all commands regards," Forger replied.

Riker's comm badge chirped. It was Berent, "Captain, all crew have reported in. We're ready to make way."

"I'll be aboard shortly. Standby for departure. Set course for Serenity. It'll be good to get home," Riker instructed.

"I'll get us underway for DS9," Forger offered.

Rockford handed Ro a padd, "This is an invoice to the Bajoran Republic for one slip of latinum. It's retainer for the Rockford Detective Agencies. With this contract authorized by a representative of said Republic, I can begin assigning case managers and investigators to look into Ardra's dealings both within and without the Federation."

Ro thumb printed it, "I'll cover that cost."

"Astris will finance the inquiry. We'll discuss it with both her and Kara," Macen promised.

"It's so weird to see Kara Gena still acting as Bajor's Finance Minister and Astris unaware of Kara's genetic status and origins," Ro admitted.

"Kara obviously made her choice without ever kidnapping Astris," Macen said, "It must have been so much easier and so much less messy."

"Anything would've been," Ro still remembered those events with distaste. Macen himself had been kidnapped and tortured during the affair. So his remarks were understandably subdued and understated.

"I have a feeling things are hardly resolved," Riker complained, "We still never captured Director Sorbo or collapsed what's left of Cell 51."

"Don't remind me," Forger grunted as she excused herself to prep the ship's departure.

"I'll be heading back to the Indie now," Riker decided, "I've been away from Lees long enough. She hates it when I leave her command."

"And you take great delight and relief in that," Rockford observed.

"It is what it is," Riker grinned and also exited.

"I'll warn Kira that we need a meeting of the Ministers," Ro promised, "I'll be turning in afterwards."

"Good night," Macen wished her well.

"I'll start getting my people up and running," Rockford headed for her office.

Macen decided it was time to apprise Admiral Forger of what was going to occur. So he headed to his own office. He and Rockford would compare notes later that night in their quarters.

In the Taurus Reach, a space station existed where no Federation presence had ever been logged. Stronghold had been built as Section 31's secondary headquarters. A staging ground for their ships and personnel. Now it was Cell 51's inheritance from its defunct parent organization. Having abandoned his redoubt inside the Genesis Cave, Acting Agency Director Dylan Sorbo was in communication with the Presider as she and Elena Kita oversaw the deployment of the Omicron Ceti III colonists that had been weaponized by decades of S31 research.

Over seventy years' worth of development had been put into the alien plants and spores that altered humanoid behavior. Originally, the species thrived by taming emotional responses and creating a blissful environment in which to host. Section 31 and now Cell 51 had genetically altered the spores to create actual mind control. The price was that the colonists visibly displayed signs of the plant life infestation. But they themselves could project spore clouds.

Specific target lists had been drawn up by Ana Johansson, Cell 51's Gray Cardinal. Planetary leaders and colonial governors topped the lists. Other targets included the Director of Federation Security, Admiral Leonard James Akaar, Vice Admiral Edward Jellico, Admiral Kathryn Janeway, and Rear Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson. Nechayev, Forger, and Commander Michelle Prentiss would simply be terminated. Vice Admiral Bill Ross would be promoted, his compromised status forgiven by Starfleet.

He would serve Cell 51's needs as the Director of Starfleet Operations. Admiral Clancy and Commodore Oh seemed to have agendas all their own. Sorbo could accommodate whatever they ultimately were. Cell 51 had already bought the Federation Presidency.

Director Jack Fowler, operating out of the Gamma Quadrant, wanted the Federation's wars with the Bajor and the Cardassian Union to be resumed and successfully completed. With the Wormhole secured, Fowler would present his newfound allies to the Alpha Quadrant. Afterwards, the Federation would unite with them to crush the Romulan Star Empire and the Klingon Empire. Fowler had returned Senior Agent John Browder from the Gamma Quadrant so assist Sorbo's efforts.

Browder had been Luther Sloan's deputy before Sloan's death during the Dominion War. Browder had inherited Sloan's responsibilities and was an early high ranking member of S31 to join Cell 51. Other extant S31 commanders that remained free and loyal to Cell 51 were Katie Monroe, the Director of Intelligence Operations; Lydia Martins, the Deputy Director of Intelligence; Robert Ro, the Director of Field Operations; Thora Collins, the Director of Field Support; and Senior Agent Wes Petrie.

Together with Sorbo and Browder, they represented the remaining vanguard of S31 and Cell 51 leaders. Jack Fowler inherited Agency Directorship from his father, James Fowler. Fowler had literally been born, bred, and created to become Agency Director. Suffering from a rare and untreatable brain defect, James Fowler had Jack's brain removed when he reached adulthood and replaced it with a positronic substitute. Fowler had been programmed as the perfect director and filled with every secret Section 31 had ever possessed and kept since before the Federation was founded.

He'd created Cell 51. What Sorbo was unaware of was that Fowler was dead and the Dominion possessed his positronic brain. Using Fowler's command codes, they'd reactivated the remnants of Cell 51. Now they were setting Cell 51, and through them the Federation, on a crash course to obliteration.

Afterwards the Dominion would surge across the brokered border in the Gamma Quadrant, transit the Wormhole, and finally conquer the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. In the process the Federation, Klingons, the Cardassians, and the Romulans would be devastated and then enslaved. A growing consensus was developing within the Great Link to liberate the Dominion worlds. The Vorta and the Jem'Hadar would be kept as protection against the galaxy at large but the Founders would go forth to learn to co-exist the solids. The opposition had to finalize the conquest before the consensus turned against the ambition.

The Vortas named Aris and Kilana were charged with coordinating and maintaining the Fowler deception and the manipulation of Cell 51 and the Federation. For Kilana it was an opportunity to reconcile the shame her predecessor had brought upon the Kilana line of Vorta clones with her failures in the war with the Allied Forces. Unlike the Weyouns, the Kilanas lived on. But Kilana, unlike Aris, had a personal stake in the effort and multiple scores to settle with Brin Macen, Ro Laren, Rab Daggit, Anara, Neela, and Elias Vaughn. She relished the opportunity to repay them in kind for their successful efforts to discredit her predecessor in the war. Unlike Kilana 3, Kilana 4 would not be fooled again.


Last modified: 14 Jun 2024