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Ascendancy 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.

Bodies glistened with well earned sweat and a sandy sheen. Three were mammalian pale humanoids and one was a jade skinned humanoid. Two Angosians, one El-Aurian, and an Orion. A simple net separated the combatants. It was the third set and game point towards Brin Macen and Celeste Rockford. Rab Daggit and Parva had excelled in the first game but Rockford and Macen had begun a coordinated campaign the likes of which no one had seen since the heady beach volleyball days of Macen and T'Kir.

The spectators in the stands certainly hadn't expected the second brutal round or the viciously fought third. The spectators a mix of SID operatives, Obsidian officers and Intrepid officers. The latter being fitting since it was the holodeck aboard the USS Intrepid. The games had even spawned a playful schism between Hannah Grace and Ian Delaney as they rooted for opposite contenders. The Intrepid had made port at Serenity Station, Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson carrying sealed orders for Macen and Rockford's eyes only. A new assignment had come from the Bajoran Militia by way of Starfleet. The Chairwoman of the Militia Joint Chiefs, General Kira Nerys certainly had no idea that the SID Director, Admiral Amanda Forger, would send Johnson to Macen concerning their mission.

It was Macen's serve. He expertly launched it at the opposing corner. Daggit got underneath it and propped up into the air. Parva set the ball and Daggit tried to spike it. But it went into Rockford's waiting forearms and she popped it up. Macen got underneath and set it higher in the air than anyone expected. He then dropped to one knee and cupped his hands. Rockford sprinted towards and stepped into his waiting hands and she aided him as he launched her into the air. Her devastating spike was the game point needed to clinch a victory. Daggit and Parva's last hope was that Rockford would foul herself by touching the net thereby reversing the point and the serve. But Rockford made a clean landing.

"Computer end program!" Parva defiantly shouted, "What the hell was that?"

"Practice made perfect," Rockford laughed as she and Macen held each other around the waist.

"That's illegal," Parva insisted.

"Technically, it's not. We looked it up. It just hasn't been tried before," Macen tried sooth Parva's mounting temper.

"This isn't over!" Parva screamed.

"No one likes a sore loser," Lieutenant Andresso Pedrossi yelled from the still existent stands. Parva flipped him a single finger.

"Parva, let's talk," Daggit held her by the bicep, "Quietly."

"Rab! They cheated," she angrily declared. Macen and Rockford were carefully studying Parva's behavior.

"Parva, honey, listen to me. This is the genetic modifications talking," Daggit whispered to her, "You've got to calm down before you get really agitated and Andreja takes notice."

Parva knew Dr. Sikorsky, the ship's CMO, would grow concerned if Parva escalated further and the tremors in her hands began. She fought for control, "Dammit! They're dissecting me with their eyes."

Daggit had also noted Rockford and Macen's hyper awareness regarding the situation. They were only ones beside the couple that knew how Parva's "miraculous" recovery from a decimating brain injury had occurred.

"Ah, hell," Parva subsided. The opposing couple also relaxed.

"Good game everyone!" Captain James McKinley called as he and Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli left the stands to approach. Massoli was the ship's Staff Intelligence Officer and McKinley's paramour. Tessa, the Obsidian's EMH, granted external mobility by her backpack-like mobile emitter, hustled Sikorsky and Tessa's own boyfriend, the Eminiarian Galen 3, out of the holodeck. Pedrossi settled up bets with the Obsidian's Chief Tactical and Chief OPS officer. Jaycee Miller and Edwin Zimbalist unhappily learning not to bet against the team commanders.

Tracy Ebert, Bailey Smith, Angelique Kerber, all SID agents, emptied their fellow agent's pockets. Harriet Fedora Mudd, "Harri" to her friends and victims, morosely learned the same lesson. Captain Shannon Forger, the Obsidian's CO, collected from the CONN Officer and her own XO, the Platonian Aglaia and the painfully human Joelle Jones respectively. Only another SID agent, Tony Burrows, attempted to salve the losers' pride. Delaney and Grace met up with Macen and Rockford.

"Thanks for winning," Grace bubbled.

"Ian," Rockford mock scolded him.

"Well played," McKinley offered his own personal congratulations, "After that first set, I worried for you both"

"In other words, he thought you were toasted," Massoli laughed.

"Never, ever assume we'll give up, Jim," Macen advised McKinley.

"I never knew you all knew each other. Jim's full surprises lately," Massoli was delighted to discover.

"Such as?" Rockford blandly asked. But inwardly everyone began to panic.

"He came to take me out the other week when we were on assignment on Cestus III and he arrived with a bouquet of my favorite flowers. But I never told, him what they were," Massoli was ecstatic; "I can't believe he knows me so well."

"Doesn't he just?" Rockford shared the laugh.

Macen cast a warning glance McKinley's way, "It's a captain's prerogative to be all-knowing."

"C'mon, we have places to be," McKinley guided her out by the hand.

"Until later!" Massoli happily departed.

"That man is going to get all arrested and detained for the rest of our lives. That's centuries for Celeste and I," Macen sighed.

"Bob, Jonathan, and Andreja should relent and let him tell her," Rockford opined.

"And besides, he's being romantic," Hannah Grace shared the sentiment. She appeared human but in reality she was an extragalactic Kelvan. The only other person aboard that could keep pace with the Augmented Angosians and Parva.

"It has to stay secret," Delaney insisted.

"You told me, you boob," Grace accused.

"We're married," Delaney defended himself, "And you're Kelvan."

She swacked his arm, "And what the frinx is that supposed to mean?"

"You're basically perfect so you'd notice the differences anyway," Delaney argued.

"You already owe me for the game," Grace warned him, "Don't owe me even more now."

Delaney backed down, "I just don't see any way of persuading the unholy trio of alarmists. I told you and the Admiral laid down the law thereafter."

"So Jim has to suffer?" Rockford stepped into it further, "Jennifer will figure it out. It's her occupation. Better he tell her willingly than she figure out everyone is deceiving her. She will report it right over Bob's head."

"And Amanda and Alynna will also take fall alongside Laren and Elias," Macen warned them. He was of course referring to Admiral Forger, Admiral Nechayev, Commander Vaughn, and Colonel Ro.

"Neela came clean and no one is arresting her," Grace pointed out.

"She came back from the futzin' dead!" Delaney exclaimed.

"She was never dead," Macen reminded Delaney of the Prophets' intervention in their servant's fate ten years ago. An intervention that extended to them all as well.

"Well, everyone's gone. I need a shower. A very looong shower," Rockford said suggestively, "With real running water and everything."

"I am so there with you," Macen said eagerly.

"It's still surprising to see you two like this," Grace commented.

"It's okay, Hannah, I'm used to T'Kir's ghost by now," Rockford promised her, "She's still a part of our lives too."

"And the great thing about holo sand is that it disappears completely," Macen gloated.

"Still have to check those nooks and crannies," Rockford grinned.

"Get out before you order up a shower in here," Delaney chuckled.

"It iiiisss a good idea," Grace leered at him.

"Why do I feel violated?" Delaney asked.

"That part comes later," Grace vowed.

"The hell with you two!" Delaney grabbed hold of Grace's hand and they ran out together.

"Ah, love is in the air," Rockford sighed.

"And sweat," Macen ran a hand through his drenched hair.

"Poor baby. Let's get you clean," Rockford purred.

Later in their quarters, after they'd cleaned up and satiated their lusts at the same time, Macen and Rockford bio-signed for their orders. The padd transmitted an exceptionally heavy file into their personal computer.

"Amanda is being veeery careful with this," Rockford was insatiably curious by now. That's what had made her a supreme private investigator after being a soldier and mercenary in another life as Annika Ryst. As an Augment Infiltrator, Ryst had literally become different people to enable her to infiltrate and assassinate targets at close range. Rockford was the ideal personality the others all wanted to be and eventually sacrificed their individuality to become Celeste Rockford's united memories but not her personality. Her mind was purged of Ryst and all the others. Which, now sharing their memories, she knew why they'd wanted to die. So much death and debauchery to accomplish too little in the ultimate sense. She would've been willing to sacrifice herself as well had she been an active participant in those lives.

Ro's image appeared on the screen.

"That's a surprise," Macen admitted.

"Brin, Celeste, as you know, as a Colonel in the Colonial Forces I oversee security for Bajor's colonies in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. Recently one of our colonies was devastated. The few survivors were traumatized to a degree I haven't seen since the Cardassian Occupation or our days in the Maquis," Ro began her briefing, "As you also know, my so-called 'fleet' consists of 23rd Century model Federation starships. While we've upgraded weapons and shields, we haven't had the funds to do so with the sensors yet. But we still detected and collected abundant evidence regarding the origins of our attackers. Here's the crazy part: our colonists were attacked by aliens with distinctly Bajoran features. Near-Bajoran with access to technology matching Bajor's. This wasn't holdover Cardassian weaponry; they were outmoded phasers and photon charges in keeping with Starfleet tech from the pre-Occupation days and no further advanced than these Iotian weapons we originally bought. I'm stuck in the Gamma Quadrant babysitting our remaining colonies. I personally asked Kira to bring you in on this. Find out who killed our people and if it really was some mystery band of Bajorans we didn't know were in the Gamma Quadrant mixed with locals or an entirely alien race. Good luck."

All the scan data and forensic evidence was collected as well.

"Helluva thing," Rockford whispered.

"I've never seen Laren so shaken. And I've seen her in a knife fight with a Jem'Hadar," Macen recounted.

"We need Neela in on this," Rockford predicted.

"Neela came to me with a warning that something like this would happen," Macen reminded her, "Back before our running battle with Solarian and the others. She called them the 'Ascendancy' and that they were also Children of the Prophets."

"I thought that was a boogeyman story," Rockford confessed.

"It seems like the Ascendancy might be real after all," Macen sighed, "It's not a political name. It's a spiritual name."

"Which means we could be stepping into a brewing holy war," Rockford surmised with distaste, "No one mass murders like a band of zealots."

"Why shouldn't they commit atrocities?" Macen asked, "They have their gods on their side. Or so they believe."

"But why lash out at their own?" Rockford had to ask.

"Before the Occupation, Bajor was rife with a history of religious wars. The Cardassians and Kai Opaka united the Bajorans in ways they'd never been before," Macen told her.

"So the Cardassians accidentally did some good," Rockford acknowledged, "To their own detriment."

"Pretty much," Macen agreed, "Let's gather up your detectives and my Data Team and take a look at this raw intel while Bryce alerts Shannon to recall the crew and Chris Pike that we're undertaking another SID mission."

"I'm sure Amanda already told Chris with complete and utter confidence we'd say 'yes' under the circumstances," Rockford said ruefully.

"You just hate going back aboard a starship," Macen playfully teased her.

"At least I put up with this station," Rockford gently chucked his shoulder, "And you should regret it to."

"Why is that?" Macen mirthfully inquired.

"It only has sonic showers," Rockford reminded him.

"Damn," this time Macen was the rueful one.

"Parva certainly lost it earlier," Kerber remarked to Smith as the disguised Ardanans ate dinner at the replimat. Kerber proudly flashed her Troglyte clan tattoo. Smith, of course, wore centuries' old vintage clothing, lace gloves, and a hat.

"She's been increasingly erratic since her return to full duties," Smith quietly observed as she sipped at her tea.

"So you say," Kerber dismissed the idea, "Arianna is still mooning over Tony."

"She'll get over it," Smith shrugged, "Or kill Bryce"

Bryce Fanning was Macen and Rockford administrative aide. As well as the current focus of the former Starfleet Special Operations Command officer's pursuits. Once upon a time, Fanning would have been labeled an "emo girl" with the distinctive blonde swathe dyed into her brunette hair and her multiple tattoos and body piercings.

Bryce reached into her pocket and withdrew her comm badge. After a brief conference, Fanning made her apologies to Burrows and headed back to her office to begin paging Forger. The Obsidian crew was Forger's responsibility but Fanning would alert the SID team that they were going back into action.

"That bodes ill," Smith softly commented, "As does this."

The dyed pink haired, over four hundred year old "teenager" from the planet known as Miri, approached Burrows' table. Across the room, Shade face palmed. Shade being a Fabrini exiled from the Yolanda for being an unrepentant and professional thief. Shade was another who framed her face with white dyed into her raven locks. Beside her, Lee Kang looked annoyed as both of their comm badges gave them automated alerts. Forte's agitation was plain to see.

"We'll be next," Smith predicted. On cue, their comm badges sounded a specific tone that meant Macen needed their assistance.

"At least we already finished dinner," Kerber grumbled.

"This has to be tied into the Intrepid being here," Smith surmised.

"I think we're about to find out," Kerber cleared the table for Smith. Her years as Anara, Maarta's handmaiden, still making an imprint in her behaviors. Smith really wished she'd stop but her friend was always insulted when Smith asked her to stop her deferential, at times, treatment. Smith was the legitimate heir to Stratos' government but her years as a terrorist and her death sentence imposed by her power grabbing uncle nullified all her claims to the throne she never wanted.

Aboard the Obsidian, the primary briefing room had been reconstructed as the Situation Center which also served as the Detective Squad's headquarters. There, Shade, Forte, and Lee received the news and raw intel from Rockford. Next door, there Kerber and Smith's Data Womb was tie d directly into the ship's multilevel computer core. In there, Macen briefed the pair and tasked them with looking for specific linguistic clues left behind. Kerber was the best hacker the galaxy had seen since T'Kir's passing. Smith was a naturally gifted linguist. Together they were a formidable team.

The Nova-class surveyor had received NovaX upgrades from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers so her power grid and defensive systems had been significantly updated. But her secondary deflector array and drive system were left untouched in keeping with the fact that Macen and Rockford co-owned Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies, they were civilian contractors for Starfleet's Special Investigations Division. Of course, Macen had been a Starfleet Intelligence officer nearly since he'd enlisted in 2303, ten years after his fateful arrival in the Alpha Quadrant aboard the SS Lakul. He'd served aboard as the interim 2nd Officer in order to pay passage for some of his fellow El-Aurian refugees. Macen, as a Survey Corps veteran, had been to the Alpha and Beta Quadrants before. so he was perfect liaison between the struggling El-Aurians and their Federation crew members.

A fellow Survey Corps officer had been aboard the SS Robert Fox when its passengers and crew were settled into the Nexus Ribbon. Whereas, Captain Montgomery "Scotty" Scott had transported Macen and forty-six others from the Nexus, ripped them from it. As effectively as the Borg had ripped apart their society. Guinan and Macen had sworn to their fellow El-Aurians that they'd find sanctuary in the Federation. They hadn't known that they'd suffer being torn from Paradise, fallen back into a realm of pain and suffering.

Most recovered from the existential loss. Macen's maternal great-uncle, Dr. Tolian Soran, never did. Only El-Aurian science selectively applied to Survey Corps members created an incongruity where Macen was older than his great-uncle. The longevity drugs given them prolonged already extended life spans. Macen was over four hundred years old but still younger than Forte despite his being an adult of "fast" approaching middle years.

As an Angosian, Rockford was also deceptively younger looking than her actual ninety years. She appeared to be a third of those. the Augmentation process that allowed her to shrug of stun settings in particle beam weapons also slowed her aging down even more. Due to a nearly lethal exposure to theta radiation, the longevity drugs had been neutralized in Macen's system. So both he and his wife could expect approximately two more centuries of life before they aged and died together. Assuming of course, neither of them died in action as Macen's two previous wives had.

Arinea had been assimilated by the Borg in the here and now, avoiding Macen having to kill her as he once had. T'Kir had been murdered by the interstellar crime lord and Iridian exile, Bertram Sindis. Macen had been married to T'Kir when he met Annika Ryst and she repeatedly tried to kill both of them. Then she became Celeste Rockford full time and Macen brought her aboard his team. They'd quickly befriended one another. After T'Kir's death, that friendship slowly blossomed into a new romance and a marriage.

He and Arinea had bonded over mutual vast, interstellar voyages lasting decades. He and T'Kir had helped heal one another. After her death, he remained healed and fostered a relationship based upon trust and mutual respect with Rockford. T'Kir had been Macen's soul mate but Rockford was the wife of his heart and intellect. It was a marriage by choice not of mutual need.

Macen knew Neela was serving aboard Serenity as a Deputy Chief of Operations engineer while the Blackbird-class Solstice was docked. Neela had prior experience with Nor-class stations due to her time as Chief Miles O'Brien's assistant on Deep Space 9. Most found it ironic that Macen and T'Kir had a Cardassian space station built for the company when he'd fought throughout the Border Wars and they'd been Maquis together. Yet, economically, the station made perfect sense and was adapted entirely to corporate needs. Even if the Cardassian builders had insisted on naming it Ampok Nor and the Cardassian stellar cartography charts labeled the station as such. One of the chief builders, Marik Cardon, had even remained aboard to serve as her Chief of Operations.

Captain Martin Madden, Picard's last XO, had taken over the Bajor Sector's regular patrol based out o0f DS9. But only the USS Defiant under Vaughn's command was currently authorized for colonial support in the Gamma Quadrant. Commander Sam Lavelle, once an ensign aboard the Enterprise-D, had taken up residence as CO on DS9. Lavelle had ranked up aided by Sito Jaxa's disappearance and presumptive KIA status.

Sito had survived a Cardassian prison/labor camp and eventually married her fellow Academy classmate Nick Locarno and both served aboard Serenity, Locarno as a resident runabout pilot and chief Flight Operations Officer. Sito served in Station Security under fellow Bajorans, Gerrit Gren and Radil Jenrya, and was the Gamma Watch Duty Officer. She and Locarno had a budding family with two children already.

Serenity kept local time. Barrinor had a 27.3 hour day. The colony on the glaciated world of Odin that Serenity actually orbited had an 18.6 hour day. Since the bulk of Outbound Ventures' corporate dealings in the system had to do with the banking cartel world of Barrinor, they kept the primary planet's time rather than its colony's. Besides standing just two nine hour watches was deemed ridiculous and disruptive to most humanoids' sleep cycles.

Odin locals worked full day shifts and stood down for another day before returning to work. Barrinor had a 537 calendar day year while Odin only had a 124 day year. Cardon had Neela working Beta Watch, which had just let off. So she was readily available and Fanning gratefully returned to her evening. Now Burrows had to make apologies as Forger mustered the crew and Fanning had automatically alerted the SID team. At least Forte was now distracted by the intel she helping process. Neela promptly arrived at the now busy airlock the Obsidian was assigned to at the Docking Ring.

"You wanted to see me, Commander?" Neela asked brightly. It obvious by the oversized bag she had strapped across her body she'd already known she was coming with.

"Do the Prophets let anyone surprise you?" Macen groaned.

"All the time," she said, "It's the spice of life. But when it involves their plans, no, they don't."

"So you know already?" Macen inquired.

"The Ascendancy has emerged onto the scene and my people suffered for it. But, that wasn't the Prophets. That was Colonel Anara," Neela's smile became a smirk. Anara, the Bajoran Militia Special Forces divisional commander, had lived and served alongside Neela since their days when they joined the Bajoran Resistance together. It had taken Winn Adami's meddling to fully separate them by Neela taking the fall and being convicted of murder. But First Minister Shakaar had commuted Neela's sentence four years later so she could Bajoran interests. Then she became Kai Winn's personal troubleshooter and served beside Major Anara as they dealt with interstellar problems affecting Bajoran security.

"Well, welcome aboard. I'll introduce you to our problem after I show you to our guest quarters," Macen offered.

"Thank you, Commander," Neela's bright smile returned. Her use of the honorific not only referred to Macen's standing rank when he'd "resigned" from Starfleet but also acknowledged he was the Mission Commander for the SID team. Rockford was content to be head of her Detective Squad.

Lee was a former Chief Inspector turned private investigator through less than honorable circumstances. Shade was the other expert on the criminal element. Forte was the problem solver par excellence who also solved cold cases in her spare time for various Federation law enforcement agencies.

They all knew Neela and her story and they warmly embraced her as a worthy colleague. of course, her prescient gift from the Prophets channeling through her at specific moments made her invaluable. Macen and Rockford maintained separate private offices aboard. While Rockford guided the investigators through their paces, he took a private look at the data.

Coordinating with Kerber and Smith, they began a line of inquiry that was a departure from the detectives. Macen provided the historical context to Smith's linguistic revelations and Kerber's customized data search engines she developed just for the task. Macen was interrupted by Mudd and Ebert. He had an open door policy so he took the opportunity to welcome them back aboard.

"Where we headed, Captain?" Ebert asked. Despite protocol, and Forger being the official Captain, Ebert still referred to Macen as such at times in deference to their days together in the Maquis when she piloted his Blackbird-class Odyssey.

His previous years as the Odyssey's CO never quite fulfilling a dream of his since the Nova-class went operational, yet he still panged for his original, and first, starship. Despite his personal feelings, he allowed Shannon Forger to retain command of the Obsidian and Christina Noble command the Solstice. Neela was a sometimes member of Noble's crew.

"A Bajoran Gamma Quadrant colony was attacked. Ro can't afford to track down who it was and Elias can't get permission to pursue since the attackers exited towards Dominion space," Macen told them.

"We're so screwed," Mudd invoked to the ceiling's deities, "Thanks."

Tessa blinked into existence, "Where are we headed?"

" and Galen 3 were enjoying 'naked time' again, weren't you?" Ebert asked with a blush. Tessa looked down and beheld a body full of her dark "flesh".

Clothes winked into existence, "Thanks, Tracy."

The door slid open and Daggit entered, "Are we going to get shot at?"

"Probably," Macen said.

"Good," the Riker-sized giant disappeared. Serenity's CO and XO then entered in. Which came as a complete, but delightful surprise, as Tom Riker and Lisea Danan made their appearance.

"Brin, we need to talk," Riker informed him.

"Which means we're leaving," Mudd said dryly but didn't budge.

"Yet, seemingly, you're not," Danan scolded her. The Joined Trill could deliver razor sharp tonal critiques beyond what an average Trill could. It was the weight of lifetimes' worth of experience.

"C'mon, Harri. We're gone," Ebert exited.

"Fine," Mudd huffed, "But only 'cause she said so."

The platinum haired con artist/criminal royalty departed in Ebert's wake.

"Why do you keep her on payroll?" Danan asked archly as she took a seat.

"Because apparently I'm supposed to. You know that, Lees," Macen gave her an exasperated look, "'re aboard and visiting. Care to elaborate?"

"Chris Pike has all the SID cleared crews busy with peacekeeping missions. But our twenty-one new crews are busy paying off your debt to the Orion Syndicate," Riker groused, "And we can't put her off forever. She wants to detail those ships to less sensitive peacekeeping missions."

"They're on a peacekeeping mission," Macen stated, "Tell her that. Just tell the client is also confidential. I haven't even told Kathy that the Orions engaged us to subdue the Meirkus Conglomeration."

"Because she'd balk at the rates the Syndicate agreed to pay. At a lost," Riker snorted. Kathy Tyrol's business acumen was why Macen had hired her on as corporate CEO nine years ago and why the company had prospered and grown as much as it had until the sudden business boom with Starfleet's Special Investigations Division taking them on as a contracting service provider. The nebulous relationship shared by Outbound Ventures and Starfleet between its founding in 2376 and until now in 2385 had been one of mutual noninterference. Most of the business stemming from the bounties the corporation earned as Federation privateers doing simple contract work as anti-piracy agents.

But that had still, controversially, allowed the corporation the leeway to work for entities such as the Orion Syndicate. Macen's agreement with the Syndicate was much a show of good faith as it was a pragmatic necessity to repay the Syndicate for its assistance in dealing with Solarian Security Systems and their allies. Admiral Alynna Nechayev and Admiral Amanda Forger suspected Starfleet Commander Kirsten Clancy of aiding and abetting the mysterious disappearances of Solarian's founder and hundreds of personnel and several starship assets within Solarian's official and "black" databases. Serenity Station was located in the Barrinor system but it s banking cartels felt no need to divulge where Solarian's financial assets were currently located. Investors had been fleeced by the founder's unloading his shares days before Starfleet and Federation Security's announcement of mass arrests and Securities and Exchange Commission financial seizures. Civil suits were flying and clogging up the courts as claims of massive fraudulent claims and breaches of contract had been made to secure the buyouts and high end pricing rather than the disaster that unfolded two days later after the deal was pushed through despite the law enforcement community and the SEC knowing that Solarian's investigation was being pushed through.

Hundreds of suspects had also disappeared at the hands of Starfleet Security officers. Those officers had received the prisoner transfers and subsequently never checked in again. Every Starfleet Security officer in charge of a missing detail had been hand selected by Captain Oh, the Deputy Director of Starfleet Security and the heir presumptive after Admiral Edward Noyce's planned retirement in three months time.

Noyce was shielding Oh from suspicion, investigation, and reproach. After all "Vulcans" never lied. Despite the fact that General Oh was a deep cover Romulan operative. Oh would be promoted to Commodore, the lowest flag rank once again replacing rear admiral lower half, when she assumed the Directorship of Starfleet Security before the year was out.

"How long do you think you can shuffle digital paperwork to keep Kath and Chris in the dark?" Danan inquired.

"Long enough for Captain Wei and the others to complete their pacification of the Meirkus Conglomeration," Macen said stonily.

"I know our new 'pasts' include cooperating with criminals but I never thought we'd actually still do it," Riker shifted uncomfortably.

"It's not on you, Tom. It's on Celeste and I. We agreed to it without consulting any other branch of the company," Macen reassured them both, "Therefore any legal censure falls on us as well."

"But you know neither Alynna nor Amanda will ever prosecute," Danan accused.

"They have in our past," Macen drolly reminded her, "Or did T'Kir and bore ourselves silly on the Yaros II penal colony for two years for no reason?"

"Senecka still managed to get a mistrial declared and you both were freed from a life sentence," Danan reminded him.

"And those surrounding events still led to Gantz's, Joachim Dracas', and T'Kir's deaths," Macen said coldly, "Or have you preferred to have forgotten, Lees?"

"No, and I haven't forgotten Hal Dracas or Jamie Kirk in all of this," Riker added. Kirk had been Riker's first fiancé years before marrying Danan.

"But we were spared Hannah Grace's betrayals and ultimate death in this Strange New World," Macen relented. Riker's comm badge chirped before the conversation could progress further.

It was Kalista, Riker's Deltan yeoman, "Captain, Ms. Tyrol really wants to talk to you. Lieutenant Pike is with her."

"Understood. Tell them Lees and I are on our way," Riker shot Macen a scathing glare.

"So, I guess we're just adding one more secret to keep," Danan was miffed as she too rose to depart.

"It's our life now and once again," Macen said regretfully.

Smith called for Macen as soon as the couple left.

"News?" he asked hopefully.

"There were ideograms burned into the walls of several locations scanned by Colonel Ro's investigators," Smith informed him, "They appear to be Bajoran but they're not. At least, not in a contemporary sense"

"Meaning?" Macen already didn't like where this was headed.

"The linguistic root is the same as Bajor forty thousand years ago but the dialect has progressed in a different direction than modern Bajoran," Smith pulled a flow chart to show the known progression of the Bajoran language and its outlier discovered being left behind on the decimated colony.

"You have a linguistic error here yourself," Macen pointed back seventy-five years ago. "Back then the Bajor's natives simply referred to themselves as the Bajora. The Cardassians changed that to the superlative 'Bajoran' and then name stuck with the Occupational victims and most of the refugees that assimilated to the terms as well as other Federation labels," Macen told her, "But a few die hards, such as the Valo system settlers, remained. And a few purists like Admiral Picard. But on Bajor, the cultural term Bajora died out with the last generation of survivors dating back to the pre-Occupation days."

"But how could Bajora reach the Gamma Quadrant?" Kerber wondered.

"The Bajorans, or Bajora as they were then, developed warp drive thousands of years before most Federation worlds. And the Celestial Temple has been in existence for presumably longer than that. So the religious wars on Bajor drove the colonization of the closest worlds, Bajor's moons Jaredo and Lunar V, Bajor VIII, and Prophet's Landing. The other colonies would follow over the centuries. Remember, A & A teams have found more abandoned Bajoran colonies than what are extant today."

"You said 'Bajoran' instead of Bajora'," Kerber smirked.

"The signs of the times. I knew Bajorans as such when I was first assigned to the Cardassian Desk at Starfleet Intelligence," Macen shrugged, "After Kirk's Enterprise first encountered Bajora colonies, we received most of our data concerning them from Archaeology & Anthropology teams or the Cardassians themselves. So their label stuck with Starfleet while academics preferred the more accurate Bajora label."

"But then Bajora began began self-referencing as Bajorans and the academic elites lost the culture war," Macen revealed.

"So, thousands of years ago, a presumable colony ship, or ships, found the wormhole terminus and ended up in the Gamma Quadrant?" Smith asked, "That's our new working theory?"

"For now," Macen shrugged.

The door chimed and Neela entered in, "Oh good. You've referenced the Bajora."

"What do you know?" Kerber tersely asked.

"That symbol," Neela pointed, "That's their self-label now."

"To rise?" Smith was cross referencing ancient Bajoran texts.

"To ascend," Neela corrected her, "Or properly, the Ascendant"

"You knew," Smith accused Macen.

"I had some advance warning," Macen deflected the charge.

"That would be the Prophets as I delivered their news," Neela confessed, "These are the Prophets other children."

"They don't seem to play well with others," Kerber muttered.

"Do any of us truly do?" Neela innocently asked. That earned her a sharp glare from Kerber. Smith wore a slight smile, intimately knowing Kerber's antisocial tendencies.

"What you smiling about?" Kerber snapped at Smith.

"Oh, nothing," Smith nearly whispered. Which her restraint drew even more attention to Kerber's outburst.

The door chimed again and Rockford entered, "Whoa! It's getting crowded in here."

"Glad you're here," Macen admitted, "Bailey and Neela were just introducing some salient facts to the case."

"Like what?" Rockford honed in on that.

"Like I should write a report so I'm not constantly repeating myself," Smith quietly chided them all.

"We'll leave you to it then," Macen stated, "Draft your findings and then attach them to the report I'll be sending you regarding the history we discussed. Neela can help me tracks down some specific episodes in Bajoran history that could relate."

"Is someone going to give me a preview or do I have to rip off some arms and beat everyone to death with them?" Rockford impatiently asked.

"Follow me and be elucidated," Macen offered.

"Good 'cause you were the first to die," Rockford warned him.

"Promises, promises," Macen chided her.

Macen had finished briefing Rockford on what they'd put together thus far.

"Was that so hard?" she cajoled him. Smith's report came in with the linguistic elements. Macen filled in the history with some insights from Neela. Rockford studiously absorbed every fragment of information.

"Okay, you two are officially off my shuk list," Rockford decided.

"If the Ascendency is composed of Bajora religious separatists, then they may not accept modern Bajorans as being worthy of the Prophets," Neela warned them.

"I knew it'd be a religious war," Rockford sighed.

Macen stood behind her and massaged her shoulders, "This too shall pass."

"Maybe not the way we would intend," Neela was unusually subdued, "The Prophets have told me very little about the Ascendant. I didn't even know they were Bajora until now."

"That's our leading theory anyway," Macen advised her, "We have few facts to actually base an accurate picture on. And the half dozen survivors have barely been able to describe the assailants because they wore helmets with full face shielding. Except for a leader type. And reports regarding her are sketchy."

"We had a history of extremists until the Cardassians invaded," Neela shared, "The extremists were generally exiled to remote places. If these Bajora are exiles of that sort, they could only have reinforced their belief structure over time. A belief structure so divergent from our understanding of the Prophets that they simply can't accept any difference of beliefs."

"You mean they simply won't tolerate differences," Rockford clarified.

Neela sighed, "That's what I'm afraid of."

"Ro reported that the bulk of the colonial population was executed," Macen reviewed the initial reports again, "But semen was extracted from the male corpses. The handful of survivors were all female."

"The easier to indoctrinate new blood," Rockford assessed, "Breed you own converts."

"Which after thousands of years of isolation, they may be at the physical limit of what their DNA can support. They may be dying or physically impaired by the genetic shortfalls of a limited population," Macen theorized.

"There's more to it," Neela started at the viewer showing the ideograms left behind, "Bailey stated that the language was divergent in many ways. What if it isn't linguistic evolution but actually a corruption? What if the Bajora population co-mingled with a native population within the Gamma Quadrant?"

"What are you basing this of off?" Rockford seemed poised to review the possibility.

"A hunch. Not the normal revelation that the Prophets bestow but suddenly things are becoming clearer," Neela admitted,

"If the population was less advanced than star faring Bajora, who knows how they'd be accepted?" Rockford asked Macen. His centuries with the El-Aurian Survey Corps as an A & A officer before his joining Starfleet and his very brief tenure as the same could possibly shed some enlightenment on the theory's strengths and weaknesses.

"Given the Bajora's level of technology if they came upon a less advanced culture they could prove to be anything from inspirational, conquerors, or even viewed as gods themselves," Macen warned them both.

"Not gods but apostles," Neela clarified.

"Diviners of a true faith in tangible gods," Rockford finished the thought, "Whose very arrival was a gift from the Prophets themselves."

"Which may not stray far from whatever actual truth we come upon," Macen summed it up the possibilities. Rockford seemed content with what she could bring to her team's table. Afterwards, she went to update her team.

Macen then contacted Commander Sam Lavelle, the new CO of Deep Space 9. Neela stood by. Vaughn had sent along Lavelle's personnel jacket when he was assigned to the station. He'd had a stellar career until the Dominion War. Although highly decorated and receiving the highest commendations, a stain was on his record.

He'd flagrantly defied orders to engage the Jem'Hadar at one point. The saving grace was that the hesitation actually worked to save the surviving crew if the nearly crippled starship when a small squadron of Centaur-class reinforcements arrived and dealt with the enemy and affected a rescue. Lavelle's summation of his actions proved that he was aware of the imminent arrival of the Starfleet ships but lacked a specific timetable to report to the 2nd Officer who'd assumed command after battlefield losses.

The Acting CO wanted to press charges of mutiny despite Lavelle's resistance saving the remaining lives aboard the ship as the Jem'Hadar began to assume it was crippled far more badly than it appeared. Lavelle was spared by the Board of Inquiry but the stain froze his career as it capped at Commander. His assignment to DS9 surprising him as much as anyone else. Vaughn was impressed with the new station commander's willingness to hear out divergent viewpoints and especially to learn from veterans who knew their roles.

If Benjamin Sisko had originally deemed DS9 as a dismal reward for faithful service then Lavelle viewed it as a face saving opportunity. One last chance at official redemption before being permanently frozen in grade.

"Commander, it's good to meet you. Even through this method," Macen greeted him.

"Commander Vaughn and Colonel Ro have nothing but great things to say about you, Commander. Even General Kira has a begrudging respect for you despite the rumors of how you've spent the past nine years," Lavelle remarked, "So I'm betting there's more than anyone officially sees."

"I could say the same," Macen replied, "Elias and Ro aren't easily impressed but you've managed to do so with both of them in a very short time frame."

"I'm flattered," Lavelle said ruefully, "But this current situation has splintered Starfleet's role in the region. Vaughn is still in command of the Defiant and I have her patrolling the remaining Gamma Quadrant colonies in support of Colonel Ro's Colonial Militia. The rest of the Bajor Sector's permanent patrol is securing the sector against Alliance incursions."

The Federation's newest thorn came in the form of the Indendants Ro and Kira from a parallel universe known in history as the Terran Universe. It was an alternate reality that Starfleet, and particularly DS9, had been dealing with for some time now. The Klingon-Cardassian Alliance from that universe that defeated the Terran Empire and spawned the Terran Rebellion that became a renewed empire had dispatched forces to this Prime Reality and joined with the upstart Iotian Federation to weaken the United Federation of Planets' hold in two quadrants. Thanks to Alliance and Iotian efforts, the Tholians and Gorn were up in arms against the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Cardassian Union.

Recently the traveling forces had irked the Talarian Republic as well. The Breen Confederacy, Tzenkethi Coalition, and the benevolent First Federation seemed the next, logical targets. The goal seeming to be to weaken the Federation, Klingons, and Cardassians for an eventual takeover by Alliance forces with the Iotians being their witting and ambitious pawns. But with Starfleet amassed in the Home Sectors to ward off an "impending" repeat of the Mars Massacre and potential Romulan reprisals for abandoning their evacuation efforts and Ambassador Spock's failure to save Romulus and Remus, few fleets were available to counter the Alliance and Iotians' march across the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. But an effort was at least being made to prevent their entry into the Gamma Quadrant and provoking the sleeping but vigilant bear known as the Dominion. The Dominion having come into possession of Jack Fowler's positronic brain and its entire catalog of Section 31 and Cell 51 secrets.

"Has General Kira briefed you on why we're transiting the Wormhole?" Macen inquired.

"She gave me the basics of hiring you to investigate further while Ro stays on station to secure the remaining colonies. I have Commander Vaughn and the Defiant on station with our colonies there as well. Colonel Ro is kindly assisting the commander and crew," Lavelle informed him, "Starfleet has two exploration missions underway on our side of the Dominion border that are coming back to assist in the support effort."

"May I ask what type of starships they are?" Macen wondered.

"A Parliament- and an Obena-class. They should be able to reinforce against any hostiles," Lavelle told him, "We even have the USS Endeavour on hand"

"Captain Saavik's ship?" Macen was surprised. Saavik was the only commander that the Ambassador-class USS Endeavour had ever had. And she was the last serving starship of said class.

"The Captain volunteered for the exploration mission. Starfleet couldn't find any reason to deny her the opportunity simply because they can't convince Captain Saavik to return to port to decommission her command," Lavelle shared with a humorous edge.

"It must be illogical to do so somehow," Macen shrugged.

"Actually, Fleet Admiral Clancy herself had me pass on the latest recall orders to Captain Saavik. She simply told me to relay to Starfleet Command one sentence. 'Go to hell'," Lavelle laughed this time.

"And Clancy can't touch a living legend," Macen surmised, "Not without offending the entire fleet."

"You got it," Lavelle chuckled, "Personally; I wish Captain Saavik strength towards the ongoing battle with Starfleet Operations."

"I've been there, believe me," Macen empathized.

"So Vaughn and Ro tell me," Lavelle shared, "Even Kira speaks highly of your war record."

"Nice to be thought of," Macen allowed.

"Which everything, and I do mean everything, is classified above my grade even as a sector commander," Lavelle said conspiratorially, "Vaughn and especially Ro aren't sharing."

"Then neither am I," Macen replied with a grin.

"Damn! Can't blame me for trying," Lavelle gave a theatrical sigh.

"No one can fault you," Macen joined in the fun.

"But they'll try," Lavelle's sigh was real this time.

"I've bucked Starfleet Command and superior officers enough to make a career out of it," Macen told him, "Sometimes it just takes a second or third chance before they recognize the good you can still do."

"Spoken with conviction," Lavelle noted, "I suppose the SID is your second chance."

"More like my tenth," Macen shrugged, "But I have friends in high places. And now I'd say you do too. Admiral Akaar wouldn't have pushed through your transfer orders otherwise."

"You seem to know a lot about my situation," Lavelle realized.

"My security clearance was reactivated," Macen revealed, "It rates with most Commodores and Admirals."

"Just who the hell are you anyway?" Lavelle was stymied.

"Just a person that wants to be friendly," Macen deflected the question.

"Commander, you're entire personnel file has been redacted since 2352. Before that you were researcher and an analyst. What kind of analyst has a classified file that lasts for 23 years just end in career flaming resignation and suddenly ten years have Starfleet give you the moon as a private citizen?" Lavelle wanted to know. Hungered to know.

"I'm afraid I can't discuss it but you can take it up with Admiral Forger," Macen replied.

"I did. She specifically replied with, 'No comment.' I need one thing: is there an active threat to my station and Bajor?" Lavelle sharply inquired.

"Bajor? Yes. The station? Maybe," Macen answered.

"At least you can tell me that much," Lavelle subsided.

"I'd love to tell you more but so far everything is either conjecture or classified by the Bajorans," Macen sadly shared.

"The usual," Lavelle deadpanned, "Since you can't actually share details about your case, what can you recommend?"

"Contact General Kira. Her service on the station will weigh heavily in your favor despite her not knowing you. And get Elias to vouch, officially, because unofficially he already has. Kira was still CO of DS9 when he came aboard as her XO."

"He still laments his previous stint as Acting CO while Ro was getting ranked up to take command. Her initial period as station commander marked the first time Vaughn served alongside a similarly ranked commanding officer," Lavelle recalled.

"Elias as more time in uniform than any other Starfleet officer including the Admiralty," Macen reminded him, "I met him as a Lt. Commander but he ranked up within a year after that and has declined promotion after promotion even after leaving Special Operations Command."

"DS9 is a strange environment. It's still a Bajoran space station run by Starfleet, Bajoran Militia officers still serve aboard and the Militia Constabulary makes up the bulk of the police force. And I do my XO's admin jobs while he effectively serves as the Defiant's captain," Lavelle remarked, "It's a totally different operating environment than any other starbase or Deep Space station except for K-7. It's still under civilian administration."

"Sucks to be you," Macen smirked.

"Thanks," Lavelle drolly replied.

"Check with Kira. I think you'll find her forthcoming," Macen urged.

"I will. Thanks. I'll contact you again when you reach the system, before you transit the Wormhole," Lavelle offered.

"I'll look forward to it," Macen told him and signed off.

"You did the right thing," Neela reassure d him, "Kira can determine how much he needs to know."

The door opened to reveal Rockford's return. She saw Macen's glum expression, "Starfleet?"

"Lavelle," Macen answered.

"DS9's new CO?" Rockford asked although she understood, "And you had to, let him down gently regarding his information requests."

She came behind him, leaned and draped her arms across him, and kissed his cheek, "On the bright side, my group is tearing into Bajoran history with a vengeance. Lee is looking into general Bajora history. Shade is looking specifically at migrations since the advent of warp drive. Arianna is tearing into religious schisms around that development onward."

"Angelique is helping Bailey investigate the linguistic discrepancies in the Bajora ideograms left behind at the scenes," Macen told her, "Bailey really believes the Bajora language has merged with an outside influence."

"Makes sense. It's a big quadrant. And Bajor has a history of failed religious colonies owing to insufficient populations or outside attacks," Neela stated.

"And the trail leads into the delineator the Dominion established as a 'no crossing' zone. So Starfleet is bound by treaty from assisting us while we're in the territory. We only have access as a private concern hired by Bajor's government to investigate the attacks further. Since Bajor is a member of the Federation Ro's Colonial Forces can't cross the border either," Macen sighed.

"Fortunately, we aren't off to fight a war," Rockford reassured him, "Despite what Amanda might think."

"Ro doesn't expect us to," Macen promised her, "And she'll cross the border, treaties be damned if we call on her."

"Any insights?" Rockford asked Neela.

"As frustrating as it is, the Prophets are silent once again. I think they want us to approach with open eyes. We're as much strangers to this environment than they are to Bajorans who hold to a different faith in the Prophets. But in the end, we all share the Prophets. That's what unified my people's faith under Kai Opaka," Neela stated.

"And you're certain this isn't a pah-wraith cult?" Rockford had to ask.

"The Prophets specifically called the Ascendancy their children. So I'm certain they aren't," Neela promised.

"Good to know," Rockford took a seat on the couch, "So what do we do in the meantime?"

"Advise our people. Study their updates and run our own private investigations. This is what we do. This is why we're part of this now," Macen concluded.

"We have three days until we reach the Celestial Temple," Neela reminded them, "Who knows what we can discover in that time?"

It turned out they didn't learn much. There was too much raw data and too many variables. But a general pattern of exiling religious extremists had emerged as Neela promised. Most had come around to the Bajoran's united faith over time or through Cardassian oppression. The rest had died out for the causes Rockford had mentioned earlier in their voyage. It had been one of these outlier colonies that had been first contacted by the Federation in the form of James T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise during its first five year mission.

When other Federation explorers reached Bajor itself, they'd found an insular society open to trade but not much else. It was that isolationist trend that put them into a sorrowful position to accepting Cardassian "aid" that became an invasion. A Lieutenant Alynna Nechayev had been a Starfleet observer on Bajor as the Cardassians formally began their conquest. As a decidedly neutral world that had openly invited the Cardassians in, the Federation was in no way obligated to intervene on the Bajorans behalf if the puppet government would've even have asked. The Prime Directive saw thousands of Bajorans escape their world and the bulk of the colonies remain excluded out of Cardassian territory but cut off from Bajor.

Although many on the Federation pitied the Bajorans, they wouldn't deploy military forces to eject the Cardassians while the Federation itself was in an undeclared war with the Cardassian Union along the contested border regions. The Cardassians, though, were taken by surprise by the Bajoran Resistance. Never had any occupied planet fought them for so long or so hard. Bajor was a bleeding wound for the Cardassian Guard no matter how bodies were thrown at the planet's freedom fighters. Gul Dukat, then Bajor's Prefect, made promises he was unable to keep and becoming a laughing stock amongst his superiors. When they armed paramilitary units in the DMZ, they hadn't bothered to ever inform him of their plans. Thus revealing the wound to his pride and rubbing salt in it at the same time.

He was even stripped of his command when he embraced his half-Bajoran daughter, Tora Ziyal. His wife and children castigating him as his entire society did until he led the fight back against the invading Klingons and restored a semblance of glory to the Cardassians when he allied them with the Dominion during his brief tenure as Supreme Legate. But Dukat's role as Emissary of the Pah-Wraiths led to his personal destruction just as the Dominion nearly eradicated the populace on Cardassia Prime. Dukat's life now serving as a cautionary tale to ambitious Cardassians. Just as Kai Winn Adami's life, her alliance with Dukat, and her conversion to the pah-wraith cult serving to warn Bajorans of the evils of unchecked ambition. If the spiritual leader of Bajor was a murderess and could shift her allegiance to the Evil Ones, what hope did a normal man or woman have if they lacked discipline and humility?

Neela herself, a former disciple of Winn, had served the then-Vedek's ambitions which included the murder of innocents aboard DS9 and a rival for achieving the rank of kai of Bajor. Neela had served her prison sentence until the kai had need of her again but it was First Minister Shakaar Edon that pardoned her and set her on her first mission for Bajoran interests. She ostensibly served as Winn's "troubleshooter" but she only served the Prophets and Bajor. The Prophets themselves had come to Neela while she studied and meditated in prison. They'd laid out her path for her. And they guided through it throughout the Dominion War. Until she woke up ten years in the future in an alternate reality. A journey she'd shared with others. Most of whom were involved in this mission somehow.

Only Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson, Captain James McKinley, and the senior staff of the USS Intrepid seemed to be lacking any participation. But Ro and Vaughn were accounted for as well Admirals Forger and Nechayev's formal participation behind the scenes.

Kira and Ro had grimly accepted the news regarding the one-time Bajora's seeming involvement. Even more striking to them was the theoretical mixing of races and spiritual isolationism. To such a degree that they would nearly exterminate an entire Bajoran colony's population. Thankfully only two thousand settlers had reached colony so far. Other, more agricultural worlds were being settled faster than the mineral and ore laden planet that had been scourged.

The current First Minister, the third since Shakaar had stepped down following the war and Bajor's admission into the Federation, looked upon the matter as one of vital importance. The Kai also reflected that reunification must be primarily sought between the followers of the Prophets, regardless of their actions. For the First Minister and the Joint Chiefs, it was a matte r of practical security. It was only matter of time before the Ascendancy reached Bajor's other colonies in the Gamma Quadrant and perhaps even rediscover the Wormhole terminus to reach and threaten Bajor itself.

"Commander Macen," Forger's voice spoke through his comm. Badge, "Commander Lavelle would like to speak with you"

"Did you get clearance for a Wormhole transit?" Macen inquired.

"Already done," the ship's captain promised.

"Good luck and have Edwin transfer the signal to the monitors in the Situation Center," Macen requested.

Lavelle's face filled the room, "Macen. You must be Detective Rockford."

"You haven't had the pleasure yet," Rockford grinned.

"Then I'm glad to finally have it," Lavelle beamed.

"How can we help?" Macen inquired.

"I've put the sector on alert," Lavelle announced, "Kira came through with the situation report. I can see why the situation's complexity demanded silence. But as a Federation member world, Bajor still had a responsibility to warn this command."

"Unless the government on Bajor forbade her. Which they did," Macen countered, "And Starfleet was made aware of the situation and Colonel Ro specifically requested the SID's involvement."

"You mean your involvement," Lavelle said ruefully.

"That too," Rockford deflected his lament, "We're all fulfilling our assigned tasks."

"At least now we are," Lavelle was still resentful.

"Commander, the Bajorans are extremely...compartmentalized in regards to strangers even after ten years within the Federation. They're as stubborn as Tellarites and as fierce as Andorians. So get used to it," Macen chided him.

"They've definitely retained the largest independent planetary defense command outside of the Andorian Empire," Lavelle conceded.

"For good reason," Rockford stated, "The Federation didn't back them during the Cardassians' invasion on technical legal merits. But the Dominion War changed all of that when Sisko led the recapturing of the station you're now commanding, liberating Bajor from the Dominion's influence."

"I'm not an apologist for Starfleet but policy is policy and the Bajorans need to learn that," Lavelle asserted.

Macen and Rockford exchanged looks while Shade, Forte, and Lee froze in their seats.

"That in and of itself is justifying the policies," Macen said quietly.

"Do you have an issue with the Prime Directive?" Lavelle sharply inquired, "It's General Order One for a reason."

"I think you should sign off now, Commander," Rockford advised him.

"I..." Lavelle was cut off as Macen terminated the signal.

"Thank you," Rockford sighed.

"He'll be useless," Macen predicted.

"There isn't much Elias will be able to do to mitigate him either," Rockford unhappily predicted.

"I think it's safe to say that DS9 will be hostile territory from now," Lee opined.

The door opened and Neela entered in, "I... Oh."

"Can we help you?" Shade asked in a strained voice.

"Bailey has news," Neela reported.

"Send her in," Macen requested, "We could use the break and so could they."

Neela smiled at the assumption that Kerber would automatically accompany her friend. which she did.

"What's so important that we had to come all the way here?" Kerber crossly asked.

"It's next door," Rockford deadpanned.

"Besides, we have the news," Smith reminded her friend, "I believe, thanks to Neela's help, that we've isolated the divergence in the Bajora's language to a range within the last two hundred years. Which coincides with three religious exiles of groups demanding a return to the 'old ways' including linguistics and writing."

"That's encouraging," Forte was delighted.

"Not so much," Kerber warned them all, "All three groups were comprised of fanatics."

"It's never easy with you people," Rockford sighed again.

"At least we're interesting," Macen replied encouragingly.

"I accept that. You can prove how interesting after hours," Rockford teased him.

"Don't let us interrupt," Macen insisted.

"Angelique is right. All three suspected groups were guilty of atrocities on an epic scale. Only the intervention of the current kais spared their lives. The criminal justice courts had revoked the death penalty anyway. But one group was so extremist that the courts offered to make an exception," Neela explained, "Otherwise the mobs would've killed them. Exile was a harsh sentence but at least they lived."

"So each group would have an extremist view of the world they behind. And each proclaimed they alone were of the pure faith," Smith interjected, "Which the ideogramic evidence seems to support from what I can translate from it."

"We're still approximately twenty-six hours from the Celestial Temple and our transit to the Gamma Quadrant," Macen reminded everyone, gather up in the main briefing room. It's time to bring everyone up to speed on this."

Neela did of the speaking on Smith's behalf while Ebert, Mudd, Parva, Daggit, Tessa, and Burrows were included into the nearly week long worth of discoveries. Armed with the new insights, Forte had managed to isolate the three religious terror groups Neela alluded to earlier.

"As Neela described them, each group was capable of slaughter on an unprecedented scale in Bajoran history. And the advent of the first two groups inspired the third to commit atrocities that wouldn't be seen again on Bajor until the Cardassians occupied the planet," Forte described each in turn before adding, "All three were lost and assumed to have died in transit to their original colonial destinations. Bajoran and the wider Federation's historical and archaeological teams never found remnants of Bajora civilization on any of the intended worlds which Bajor opened to further colonization by its inhabitants and other Federation members. In fact, the colony that the presumed Bajora hit was a rare instance in a Bajoran only colony in the Gamma Quadrant."

"Some Federation Council members decided the colony was too close to the buffer zone between the Dominion's borders and the piece of the Gamma Quadrant ceded to our exploration through mutual treaty," Macen took over, "Point in fact, no Dominion activity has been reported in the vicinity by either the lost colony or Militia Colonial Forces. It's safe to assume the Dominion didn't provoke the Bajora and that they discovered the colony quite by accident. he Federation has frankly made diplomatic inquiries into the precise nature of the threat and the Dominion's diplomats deny having any knowledge regarding the Bajora or their location. They also strictly forbade Starfleet or Militia forces from entering the buffer zone. We're going in strictly as civilian contractors hired by the Bajorans to locate the Bajora and determine their threat level."

"So the Dominion won't simply blow us up?" Burrows hoped.

"That's the working theory anyways," Macen couldn't be precise, "They know we're going in and they've restricted our search from crossing into their borders."

"And if the trail enters into their borders?" Daggit inquired.

"Then we break off and respect their decision," Macen promised, "Then we report our findings and the Bajorans pursue this diplomatically while preparing for another incident."

"What kind of support is Starfleet providing?" Ebert wondered, "We all know Captain, I mean Colonel, Ro will back us one hundred percent. But Starfleet?"

"Starfleet will have four starships within responsive range," Macen promised her, "The Defiant, the Endeavour, the Legislature, and the Franir will be standing by to respond as needed. The Starfleet presence will be under Captain Saavik's command as senior officer in grade," Macen noted the respect Saavik's name engendered. As well it should.

"As I've assured Shannon, we won't be standing our ground to fight if the Bajora are provoked by our presence. Our goal isn't stop the Bajora but to provide the Bajorans with actionable intelligence regarding the Bajora's intentions," Macen stated.

"What the forensics at the scene revealed was that the Bajora have developed particle beam weapons. They'd translate as Type VI phasers in our terminology. That puts them in mid-23rd Century tech base by our standards;" Rockford took over at this point, "Worst case scenario is they're pushing their way to Type VII equivalents aboard their starships. But the orbital bombardment sites we received scans of don't indicate that. They're also using the rough equivalent of Mark V torpedoes. Again, a mid-23rd Century tech base. To further clarify it, the ships Brin bought from the Iotians should be more advanced weapons-wise. Hopefully this same lag applies across the board to sensors and propulsion. So maybe we can detect and find them before they ever see us."

"I vote they never see us," Mudd offered. That elicited a few chuckles and murmurs of agreement.

"As I've promised the Captain, the Obsidian is in top shape. So we can expect, meet, or even temporarily exceed our rated capacities," Parva explained to everyone's relief, "The only reoccurring problem is this is a standard Nova-class drive system. Try as we want we won't get much more than Warp 8 for up to twelve hours before we have to cut back to a cruising speed no more than Warp 5. If we have to run, we have to hope they are as limited as their weaponry suggests they are."

"Thanks to our recent resupply for the ages, Sickbay is fully stocked," Tessa reported, "And my nurse has passed her qualifications and rates as a nurse practitioner. But I'm still the only surgeon on staff. My med techs are pushing their way through nursing school so we'll be a well oiled machine in no time."

"Chef just restocked the galley and hired on two short order cooks for simpler fare," Macen was happy to report, "She'll prep the menus and two meals and the cooks will overlap and cover the off hours in reheating the menu items Chef prepared as well as their own menus."

"Seems like old times are back again," Daggit chuckled. Seventeen objective years ago, when Macen first met Daggit, he would never have found humor in any moment. His life with Parva had changed all of that. Of course, now only twelve subjective years had gone by.

"On a more serious note," Neela interjected, "If these are Bajora radicals then they will utterly ruthless and completely fanatical because they know the Prophets are on their side. As I once believed before I was shown the error of my ways."

"You were convinced otherwise. Can they be reasoned with?" Lee asked.

"I was corrected by the Prophets themselves. They haven't deemed it fit to intervene with these Bajora. I wouldn't expect them to do so now either." Neela said sadly.

"So your gods are frauds," Shade snorted.

"My gods used the power of the Nexus Ribbon to bring us all here. That isn't an accident," Neela was defiant.

"Neither is it proof of divinity," Forte pointed out.

"That kind of talk will get us killed," Kerber sagely added, "If these really are religious fanatics attacking belief structure will only reinforce it in their minds."

"Which probably happened to the Bajoran colonists," Smith concurred.

"When did you convert?" Mudd asked.

"W can relate and understand without becoming one of them," Kerber snapped back, "Try it sometime without trying to grab somebody's latinum."

Rockford cast a worried glance Macen's way. His team members were more ideologically motivated whereas her recruits were factually or monetarily motivated. such as Shade being a career thief and Mudd a con artist. Ebert, Smith, and Kerber were all ex-terrorists driven by causes. That's what had driven them into fold as well. Daggit, Parva, and Burrows were the swing votes where Lee and Forte were generally joined in with Shade and Mudd on an issue. Now here was Neela poking the sleeping bear.

It didn't help that Macen was the chief ideologue and she was usually the bridge between the parties that swung the undecided votes. But even a "reformed" Neela edged towards fanaticism . Only now instead just believing in the Prophets she actually had regular contact with them. Which entrenched her religious views even further and that power of belief appealed to the likes of Macen, Ebert, Smith and Kerber whether they wanted to admit it or not.

"Do you really wanna go there right now?" Mudd growled.

"Why not?" Kerber growled back.

"Enough!" Macen thundered, "We are up against what could be our most dangerous foes since Bertram Sindis and we can't afford to turn on each other. Now now. Not ever."

Of course, the Sindis reference was wasted on everyone except for Daggit and Rockford but they recognized the depth of the sentiment. Parva had been sidelined during those series of events and the others had joined the team yet. T'Kir, Joachim Dracas, and Gantz hadn't survived meeting Sindis and Annika Ryst had barely escaped him. Except in the here and now, Dracas had never existed.

"I won't have you all falling over each other fighting like voles over rancid scraps of meat," Macen warned them, "Or do we need to suspend this mission and fail to deliver on a contract for the very first time?"

Even Rockford and Neela felt that sting. That question roused Daggit and Burrows from their indecisive stupor. Their professional pride was at stake now. Even Parva wouldn't back down now.

"She started it," Mudd was barely mollified.

"Are you six years old?" Macen scolded her, "And don't count this as a victory, Angelique."

"Every flaw this team has ingrained in it is going to tested until breaks on this mission. If we want to survive we work together or we die together. How's that for simplicity itself?" Macen asked them all, "I already had this conversation with Shannon and the Command Staff. They pulled their bootstraps up. We have to do the same with equal aplomb or we're scorching the earth as we go down."

Everyone paid attention now, "We've been three separate camps until now. Part of that is organizational. Part of that is preference. Now get out of here and make peace amongst yourselves and for Fate's sake, learn to cope with each other. You have less than twenty-three hours to come grips with one another before we revisit this and reconsider our ability to perform. Now get out."

Everyone filed out except for Rockford and Neela.

"You too, Neela," Macen urged, "You're part of this now."

The door closed behind the departing Bajoran and Macen leaned against the back of a chair. Rockford came from behind and wrapped her arms around his waist. He pushed back and turned to face her. Looking down he saw her rewarding smile, "Good speech"

"Think it worked?" he asked.

"Worked on me," she said, "So let's go lead by example."

"Mess Hall?" he inquired.

"Mess Hall," she confirmed.

He kissed her and she melted, "Mmm, that's nice. Keep it up and I'll keep you."

"Who could resist that motivation?" he wondered.

"Come on, silver tongued devil. We have a team to put together," Rockford held his hand and led him out.

Despite the tables being bolted down, the entire group was gathered together for perhaps the first time for a social occasion rather than work related. Macen and Rockford didn't know who'd offered the first olive branch but their smiles and gentle humor going around as they finally began to bond for the first time.

"Looks good so far," Rockford whispered to Macen.

"Maybe we shouldn't spoil it," Macen whispered back.

"Some Listener you are," Rockford sneered, "C'mon. Live a little."

"We saved you two seats," Daggit called out as he spotted them, "Parva made certain you'd sit by us."

"All's forgiven then?" Rockford asked Parva.

"It was just a game," Parva said, "I lost it."

"She's certainly competitive," Daggit didn't quite plead for understanding.

"We all were," Macen said, forgiving the outburst.

"So what's the topic that has everyone talking?" Rockford asked.

"We were sharing Sindis horror stories," Mudd revealed, "Turns out we all had encounters with him or his Meirkus Conglomeration toadies."

"Other than you four I think Harri has the scariest story," Ebert shared.

"I wasn't actually 'aware' for any of that," Parva relented, "I was still...damaged"

"No, you weren't," Tessa promised, "You gave me my name. You were different but you weren't any less."

"I was on the other side," Rockford glumly admitted, "Rab and I had a knock down drag out that I had to cheat to win."

"Catching me off guard wasn't cheating," Daggit confessed, "It was my own fault."

"This is back when you were still trying to kill Macen?" Kerber asked, "Why didn't you ever succeed? Weren't you really trying?"

"Oh, I was trying hard enough," Rockford was rueful, "But Elias taught him well and Rab restored all of that training. I never stood a chance."

"Really?" Smith was intrigued.

"But he kept giving me second chances. And here we are today," Rockford accepted the coffees Forte brought her and Macen.

"Seems like we've all second chances on this team," Ebert quietly observed with Smith's usual demeanor.

"Except those were all from the top down. We really haven't given each other first chances much less second ones," Burrows made his own observation, "I'd say our being together now is a second chance at everything. We should start with each other."

"We should all share one true thing," Tessa suggested, "Answer one group question honestly and without reservation."

"I'm game," Burrows agreed.

"I guess," Ebert wasn't as sanguine.

"I will," Daggit decided.

"Where he goes I'm forced to go with," Parva teased him.

"Why the hell not?" Mudd shrugged.

"As long as we don't talk about sex lives," Shade set the first condition.

"Or childhoods," Smith insisted.

"Or capital crimes," Kerber bought in.

"I'm game," Lee agreed.

"Just remember I have multiple memories from multiple lives lived," Rockford warned them.

"Neela?" Macen prompted her.

"I accept the terms," she quietly allowed.

"I'll do it," Forte decided.

"That leaves you," Rockford reminded Macen.

"Just don't asking anything you don't to hear the truth about," Macen advised them.

"Ominous," Mudd chortled.

"I'll go first!" Tessa happily volunteered.

"I think I speak for everyone when I ask about you and Galen 3. How does that even work?" Shade posed the questioned everyone concurred.

"Like everyone else. Except for when he programmed me to have a penis and a vagina. But that didn't last long," Tessa answered. fits of laughter broke out.

"That was before their time," Macen reminded Tessa as she looked puzzled.

"You could tell them about you were sleeping with the half the crew at the time as that," Rockford suggested.

"No sex!" Shade hissed, "But I'm glad you answered that anyway."

"Rab, when did you know you loved Parva?" Ebert asked.

"When she told me I was idiot for trying to break it off and I realized I had almost lost her," Daggit recalled warmly.

"Parva, the same question," Ebert urged.

"I realized I loved myself when I was six years old," Parva said with a straight face. That got the appropriate laughter as well.

"I figured it out days before this dummy did. But it wasn't too long before," Parva shared.

"Tracy, why did you join the team?" Mudd asked Ebert.

"The Captain asked me and I hadn't anything or anyone to believe in since the war ended and we were separated," Ebert confessed.

"Forger asked you to join?" Mudd was confused.

"Captain Macen, he'll always be the Captain to me, asked me to join the team. I'd thought he'd forgotten about the Odyssey crew until recently," Ebert divulged, "But I was at a low point and he reached out. How could I say 'no'?"

"Do you love him?" Shade couldn't help but blurt.

"It's not like that. He's the first person after my family was killed and the Cardassians...left me to die that reached out and gave me a purpose. He did it twice," Ebert answered, "And that was two questions."

Macen's long held suspicions of Ebert's gang rape were finally confirmed. Rockford knew it as well. They didn't reveal anything because that was for Ebert to share not them.

"Harri, when did you run your first con job?" Burrows inquired.

"I became a confidence artist at the age of eight," Mudd proudly told them, "Pops threw me out of the house after refusing to let me eat for three days and told me to find a rich benefactor to feed me. Which took me a few more days. But there I was, living in the lap of luxury when Pops showed up at my benefactor's doorstep and I contrived a story about my parents lived in abject poverty and that if they could only have some material and financial help to move upwards in society and employment. Which Pops negotiated a settlement and he took back home. Afterwards he congratulated me and said I could stay home for a year before my next big lesson slash life opportunity would occur. In the meantime, I could perfect my art and my skills as a pickpocket."

"That was how your dad raised you?" Lee, the ex chief inspector of the Chung Kuo Constabulary yelped.

"Me and my brother too," Mudd shrugged, "We learned to make a living."

"At other people's expense," Lee grumbled.

"Okay, Mr. Policeman, tell us why you became a law enforcement officer," Mudd's voice dripped sarcasm.

"Because my father was like yours," Lee said with some embarrassment, "And I grew up hating him for what did to us. He spent most of time away sentenced to penal colonies. So when he left as I graduated secondary school, he returned to find me a constable and privately assigned to watching him. His last penal stint was based on evidence I compiled against him."

"That's harsh," Forte murmured.

"He got what he wanted," Lee was implacable in his convictions.

"What about you, Arianna? What was the first thing you did after you were cured and taken off of Miri?" Ebert asked.

"First thing was glutted myself with food," Forte fondly recalled, "After a lifetime of hunger, a food synthesizer slot machine seemed like heaven itself. And since I was entering into puberty and didn't have to worry about the transformation, I decided to teach myself about sex."

"And...?" Mudd coaxed her.

"You learn by doing," was all Forte would confess to, "Shade, what was the first thing you stole?"

The career thief wore a sly smile, "I first stole a food slot machine. It fed our district in Yolanda for a week before the authorities tracked it down to me. Afterwards, I stole food cards to increase the district's ration selections. Eventually I was exiled rather than the authorities continuing to put up with me. It wasn't until afterwards that I really became a professional and diversified my interests."

"You mean targets," Lee said drolly.

"Them too," Shade snickered.

"So Mr. Burrows," Mudd changed targets, "Do you have a girl back home or in every port?"

"There was a woman. She thinks I'm a dead criminal now," Burrows said sadly, "So, I guess the answer is 'no' to both options."

That seemed sobering to the group.

"Angelique, when did you first discover your gift with computers?" Forte quickly changed topics.

"Well, this breaks the childhood rule but when I was brought up to Stratos to train as a handmaiden, I quickly learned how navigate and break into any Stratosian system. It proved handy over the years to persuade Bailey here the justness of my people's cause," Angelique spoke of Anara's past.

"And before anyone asks, I literally grew up in an ivory tower. So when Angelique was assigned as my handmaiden, she showed the truth about my world. And I got angry. Very angry. So I left Stratos and went into the Ardanan mines to rally the Troglytes against my own kin," Bailey spoke about Maarta's past in quiet, menacing tones. The silence loomed again.

"Celeste, we all know you tried to kill Brin and T'Kir beginning with their honeymoon. Yet you became friends with both and eventually married him. When did you first realize that you'd fallen in love with him?" Parva suddenly broke the uncomfortable silence.

"When he and T'Kir were sent to the penal colony for two years. I was running Outbound Ventures but discovered I didn't want to without him being there. I told him how I felt when he and T'Kir were released. But I never made a play and it was never an issue until after T'Kir was killed. Which, by the way, was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. And Brin stepped down for a few months afterwards again. I admit that I was jealous that he physically turned to Lyoti Mariska for comfort. But I was his emotional linchpin and we're together now and Mariska is still guarding Katreen Dervin," Rockford easily answered.

"So why the Mariska adventure anyway?" Parva had always wanted to know.

"Lyoti and I were both suffering from losses, had been long time friends, and both wanted sexual release without any emotional baggage," Macen explained, "So we met each other's needs and expectations. Which I admit, I never saw coming."

"Because she was a Cardassian and you'd fought them for decades?" Daggit asked.

"Partially that. The other part was that we'd never considered that move before. So it was strange and yet fulfilling all at once. Call it animal sex just its own sake," Macen told them all, "And that was two questions."

"I have a third," Ebert asked, "You knew Mariska from the Border Wars and trusted her. How, when, and why?"

"Very few people know that both Elias Vaughn and I were captured by the Cardassians. Twice. The first time I was with him and he'd escaped before. So we worked together and got out. The second time I was alone and it was much worse," Macen told them, a dark edge creeping into his voice, "Much, much worse. Mariska was a glinn serving at the outpost I'd been taken to. She silently objected to my treatment, seeing no need for war between the Cardassian Union and the Federation colonists to begin with. So she arranged for my 'escape' and got me out. Afterwards she was covertly feeding me intelligence once in a while regarding future attacks on Federation colonies along the border."

"That's why you brought into the Chrysalis Child's birth," Ebert realized.

"Mariska had time to explain to me that she was a royalist and what that meant. It finally cleared up the legend of Chrysalis Child that Cardassians whispered about," Macen continued explaining, "And although I was losing a source of information, I was fulfilling her life dream, which I owed her. And I saw a chance to destabilize factions of the Cardassian Union."

He gave everyone a rueful smile, "And that was four questions."

"You knew all of this?" Parva asked Rockford.

She smiled beatifically, "Of course"

"Neela, you're last one standing," Macen redirected everyone's focus.

"One question only," Neela said.

"When did you realize you were wrong to kill those people?" Rockford pre-empted any other line of questioning.

"It's sad to confess it wasn't until the Prophets spoke to me first through their written prophecies but also then through their direct revelation. Before then I was still blinded," Neela readily answered.

"Blinded by loyalty? Choice? Or idiocy?" Shade asked.

"You had your single question answered," was all Neela would reply with. Macen and Rockford exchanged a look. They had admire Neela's ongoing loyalty to the faithless Kai Winn Adami despite Neela knowing Winn was wrong, motivated by a lust for power, and later turned heretical apostate.

"One more and You've gotta answer," Mudd demanded, "Are you and Colonel Anara...Y'know?"

Neela smiled warmly, "A couple?"

Mudd nodded her clarification.

"No. Like Bailey and Angelique we're just lifelong friends. We joined the Resistance together. We joined the Militia together. We were reunited when I was pardoned. And finally we fought the Dominion together. And suddenly we were reunited again just recently both physically and finally in faith," Neela knew everyone knew those final details. Ebert, Daggit, and Macen knew the war record. They'd been there for most of it. As had Ro Laren.

"Now for the big questions we all need to answer: how are we all settling into our new reality? How can we help each other do so more effectively? And how can we ease Shannon and the crews' transition as well?" Macen redirected them. Rockford was again proud of his handling the situation and for opening up by going beyond the single question phase just as Neela and Ebert had been willing to as well. Even Burrows had actually answered two questions disguised as a single inquiry. An inquiry Mudd seemed to have personal reasons for asking. It seemed there were interesting times ahead even without the looming threat of the Ascendancy.

"C'mere you lovely man," Rockford said to Macen in the privacy of their quarters.

"Lovely man, huh?" he said as he held her.

"Would you prefer 'sexy beast'?" she snickered.

He brightened, "I think I would. Does this mean you decided to keep me?"

She laughed at his remembrance of her words. But was an El-Aurian, after all.

"Yes, I think I will. I'll even let you sleep here tonight," Rockford said magnanimously.

"You're too kind," he replied.

"I know. It's a burden," she said with an aggrieved air.

"Let me relieve your burdens tonight," Macen offered.

"Oh, really?" Rockford was intrigued, "How?"

He whispered in her ear. she whispered back, "I approve."

And as he tended to her unspoken needs, she was thrilled that she had.

"DS9 traffic control has cleared us to transit the Wormhole," Forger announced to Macen.

He eyed Rockford, "No personal messages from Commander Lavelle?"

"Nope," Forger replied, "But I'm wagering Ro will want to talk with you as soon as we clear the other terminus."

"Safe bet," Macen chuckled. Forger cut the comm line to focus on the ship's needs.

"Seems we lost an ally," Rockford mused as Macen's office door opened.

"We never had one," Macen admitted, "Can I help you, Neela?"

"The Situation Room is monitoring ship's sensors. They'd like you both to join them," Neela explained her intrusion.

"We're not even there yet," Rockford pointed out.

"In light of the Prophets' intervention in all of our lives and we're entering their actual domain, tensions are running high," Neela fingered it.

"Who all is in there?" Macen asked.

"Everyone but Bailey and Angelique but they've asked me to hold their hands," Neela said ruefully, "No one is taking my word that we'll simply transit to the Gamma Quadrant without incident."

"We're up," Macen informed Rockford.

"Yup," she sighed.

Neela returned to the Data Womb while Macen and Rockford discovered the veracity of Neela's statement. Even Parva had abandoned her engine room to be present.

"Where's Tessa?" Rockford asked.

"In the science lab with Galen 3," Ebert told her, "I checked on her earlier."

"Put the viewer visual on screen," Macen requested.

Lee happily complied, "Maybe we'll see it coming this time."

"What you'll see is Colonel Ro's starship waiting for us," Macen chided him.

"Aren't you the slightest bit nervous?" Forte wondered.

"No," Macen confidently while Rockford answered differently.

"A little," she admitted.

"What?" she saw Macen's look of disapproval, "It's only natural."

They watched as the Wormhole's aperture opened at the Alpha Quadrant terminus. The tunneling effect surrounded them for several minutes and the stars reappeared and an Iotian built Constitution-class starship registered to the Bajoran Militia as The Fist of the Prophets awaited them.

"We made it!" Forger announced over the comm circuit.

"Et tu, Shannon?" Macen ruefully asked.

"Just saying," she cut the circuit again.

"But are we still where we left?" Shade voiced the lingering concern.

"Colonel Ro is hailing," Forger informed Macen.

"Patch her through please," Macen requested, "ASAP."

"Gotcha," Forger sounded like she'd needed her hand held as well but discovering Ro awaiting them had soothed her frazzled nerves. Macen didn't even want to have been on the bridge until this moment of revelation.

"Brin," Ro's image appeared, "...and everyone else it seems."

"There some...concerns we wouldn't make it to you," Macen said as diplomatically as he could manage.

"Or at least to the here and now," Ro smirked.

"I'm headed back to Engineering," Parva made her way out.

"I'll be on the range," Daggit announced.

"I'll join you," Burrows decided.

"I'm gonna indulge with some real liquor in my quarters," Mudd called out as she departed.

"Hell with this," Shade chased her down.

"Don't they make a pair?" Ro's smirk deepened.

"I admit it sounds good," Lee stated.

"How but some synthahol instead?" Forte asked. The last of the detectives departed leaving Ebert alone with Macen and Rockford. Until Neela led Smith and Kerber in.

"Now for some real business," Ro declared, "My XO is relaying instructions for Forger to follow. We'll reach the colony site in forty-five minutes at Warp 5."

"That's some distance compared to New Bajor," Macen admitted.

"Which has nine of my ships guarding it," Ro told him, "Saavik and Vaughn are an hour out."

"That's nearly half your force," Rockford realized.

Militia Colonial Forces received nine of the twelve of the Constitution-class starships Bajor had purchased from the increasingly hostile Iotian Federation. Colonial Forces also had nine of the twelve Mercury-class frigate s acquired shortly thereafter. In addition to the remaining three of each class committed to Bajor's own system defense, a sub-division of the Militia operated three Kremlin-class scouts in the exploration zone. the Federation colonies had equipped themselves with several Asia- and Mercury-class starships as well in addition to the Militia's protection since Ro's forces were usually evenly divided between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrant colonies. The Iotians' wholesale clearance of their former fleet had attracted buyers from throughout three quadrants. The list of buyers included Outbound Ventures.

"We ran intensive forensics scans but had to move the bodies to stasis pods," Ro informed them, "Kira's orders and the families back home demanded it. The kai even sent representatives from Vedek Assembly to begin conducting rites. They're six hours into the mourning chant."

Rockford eyeballed Macen and he supplied the data she was silently requesting, "It's a thirteen hour chant"

"These people know how to grieve," Rockford muttered.

"Don't even get her started," Ebert issued a warning whisper.

Ro seemed impatient, "As long as you don't disturb the bodies during the chant, I've negotiated that Tessa could examine them one last time. They refused to abbreviate the ceremony."

Macen could sense Neela fidgeting over Ro's urbane attitude towards the ceremonial requirements.

"We'll be busy elsewhere anyway," Macen allowed.

"Brin, the weaponry used is on par with my own forces' equipment," Ro pointed out.

"We'd note d that," Rockford told her, "It's suggestive that their tech base was understandably arrested if they're really lost Bajora."

"It's not like Bajor could reach and lend a helping hand. And all the potential candidates that you listed were exiled without a sustainable population," Ro had made her observations, "Which explain the genetic deviancy we managed to detect this morning."

"Deviancy?" Macen jumped on that point.

"We found a blood splatter that contained Bajoran and alien DNA mixed together," Ro informed them all.

"That could explain a lot," Neela voiced, "Especially if the culture they invaded was technologically less advanced. The Bajora could impose their faith system on an entire world then."

"Raising the differing culture or 'ascending' them," Smith pointed out.

"Is it really that simple?" Ebert asked.

"That means it just got infinitely harder," Macen told her, "The Bajora influence would feel persecuted at home and galvanize that into a planetary belief system. And the divergence in the species could also help explain why they massacred a planet with Bajoran settlers."

"Because they're different and they were the persecutors long foretold," Smith stated.

"Mind explaining that?"Rockford interjected.

"That's why we're here," Smith told them, "I've had more luck using common symbols interlaced with the Bajoran ideograms to deliver some rough guesses at translating more of the seemingly obscure scrawl."

"Do we have to beg for more?" Ro dryly queried the linguistic expert.

"The success is due to Neela. She's had experience translating Bajoran texts and prophecies in their original script dating back to before Bajor discovered warp drive. She's even viewed copies of the very first prophesies from an Emissary when belief in the Prophets began," Smith deferentially said, "Her expertise was invaluable in deciphering the ideogramic roots of the alien fused script."

"Can we get to your point before we arrive at our destination?" Ro inquired rather impatiently.

"They recognize Bajorans as being their kin. And with their history, they probably view any other form of worship of the Prophets as antithetical to their very being. So they react," Smith detailed it.

"They overreacted," Ro snorted.

"Not according to their perspective. They're simply guardians of their truth," Neela stated.

"Which is?" Ro wanted to know.

"I have no idea," Neela confessed, "But in their eyes it's the only valid truth perspective."

"So that would make this a hearts and minds campaign," Macen surmised.

"Essentially, at least on our behalf," Neela agreed.

"No. Not that again," Ro resisted.

"We don't have an Eddington screwing things up this time," Macen reminded her.

"No, I mean it," Ro was adamant.

"Anybody want a peanut?" Rockford quipped.

Macen looked pained while everyone stared at her.

"What? It's a classic," Rockford was defensive.

"I never should have shown that to you," Macen decided.

"Take that back," Rockford insisted.

"As you wish," Macen smiled.

"Just keep it that way, Wesley," Rockford said good naturedly. Everyone else was lost.

"Can we please focus before our missing antagonist returns to finish off my investigators and the clerics?" Ro wondered.

"It's not like we're pushing Warp 10 anyway," Kerber said tersely. Macen could swear he actually heard Ro growl in her throat.

"We need to refocus here," Macen informed everyone.

"Skipper, you and Captain Macen are on the same side. Always have been. Always will be," Ebert interjected, "Together, you'll find everyone a way out."

Ro looked chagrined, "Tracy, you have to be the last person that would still refer to Brin and I as 'Captains'."

"You'll always be captains to me," Ebert confessed, "Same goes for Tulley, Chris Noble, and the crew of the Solstice."

"The same with Sveta Korepanova and Kris Liu," Macen shared.

"Even Captain Riker and Lees still see you two as Captains," Ebert added.

"So did Starfleet. Where did that get me?" Ro asked with an acerbic tone, "Now I've got thousands of colonists depending on me and I'm failing them."

So the truth behind Ro's acerbic expressions was finally revealed.

"You haven't failed anyone," Macen promised her, "The colony never sent a distress signal. The massacre went undetected until a supply ship arrived with materials and more colonists."

"Technical specialists," Ro sighed, "The freighter was going to stay on station for a few days but got recalled early. It seems our antagonists struck hours after the freighter departed."

"Which shows us these Ascendant were already observing the colony," Rockford pointed out, "This was pre-planned."

"Which also indicates that the Ascendant didn't attack until after they met the Bajoran settlers discovered their 'wayward' faith. The legends of persecution may have arisen in their minds and they decimated the Bajoran population rather than risk a spread of the heresy," Neela assessed the situation.

"And there might even be outside influences motivating the Ascendant," Macen warned.

"The Dominion?" Ro asked tersely.

"Or other more traditional Bajoran foes," Macen stated.

"Cardassians? Here?" Ro was taken aback.

"They were allowed free access to the Gamma Quadrant prior to the war," Rockford picked up the dangling thread.

"Or the Prophets may have provided an Emissary as they did my people throughout the millennia. Sisko was hardly the first Emissary. Just the first alien Emissary," Neela suggested, "That person would be the seen as the voice of the Prophets themselves."

"Which is why we need to make contact," Macen reminded Ro.

"They're my people too," Ro stiffly reminded Neela. Just because Ro was agnostic rather than spiritual, therefore treating the Prophets as "Wormhole Aliens" rather than gods, Neela tended to treat Ro like a child. Whether it was conscious or not would be debated later.

"Of course!" Neela rushed to say. Ro knew Macen's acceptance of the importance of the Prophets to Neela made him more sympathetic than she was. But then again, she'd discovered over time that El-Aurians had sense of First Cause, a force/entity behind the multiverse. El-Aurians debated the degree of which this First Cause took in the universe. Guinan was pretty lax about whereas Macen believed Fates governed every life across the alternate universes. Therefore Fate intervened through the Prophets in all of their lives to bring them all here today.

"Look, just be careful," Ro implored, "And don't start a holy war."

Macen looked wounded with his best "Who me?" face and pose.

"Yes. You," Ro was forced into smiling.

"We'll review the updates you've provided and narrow in areas we'd like explore further," Rockford promised.

"I'll see you on the ground then," Ro signed off.

"I'd like to be there as well," Smith requested.

"Then I'm coming with," Kerber vowed.

Smith gave her her best, "But of course you are", smile.

"I want to come with," Ebert suddenly requested, "We might need the Corsair should these Bajora types show up again."

"Okay," Macen readily agreed, "Seems sound."

"Of course I'm coming as well," Neela promised. Rockford recalled her detectives to their post. Shade only had a slight buzz showing when she arrived.

"Welcome to New B'hala," Ro said grimly as they viewed the crater pocked, phaser scorched principle settlement, "There's a monastery a few kilometers away and outcropping farming settlements radiating from here. There were two more principle villages on other continents with farms springing up around them. The casualty count was almost one hundred percent. They even killed infants."

Ro's anger was on full display indicating why she didn't want reconciliation with the Ascendancy.

"Colonel, we've found some more blood," a weary Bajoran in Constabulary Brown reported in.

"Inspector Mysa, meet Commander Macen, Detective Rockford and their investigative team," Ro made introductions.

"You wouldn't happen to have a sister by the name of Tem, would you? A pilot?" Macen asked.

"I would," a startled looking Mysa confessed, "How could you possibly know that?"

"Never ask about trade secrets," Macen joked.

"Macen was Starfleet Intelligence before he joined the Maquis," Ro partially answered Mysa's inquiry.

"I can do the medical scans," Tessa volunteered, "I don't even need to open the stasis pods so I won't interfere with the vedek and prylar's chants."

"I'll take you then," Mysa said, "I could use a break from forensics. Here's everything my teams have found so far."

She handed of a tricorder and a padd to Ro. Since the team also used Bajoran equipment and such equipment had long ago been integrated into Federation standard protocols, the team received the updates as well.

"I'd like to examine the phaser strikes made from small arms," Lee requested.

"Go ahead," Rockford acknowledged, "Tracy, can you give Arianna, Shade, and I a lift to the monastery?"

"Sure," Ebert brightened.

"Rab, Tony, make appraisals on the ship based ordnance from the blast patterns here on the planet," Macen requested.

"I'll tell you that this planet was spared an orbital bombardment. All of this physical damage was done by just two torpedo impacts," Daggit offered.

"But given the tech base gathered from the yield are they domestic manufacture or based entirely on something familiar to us?" Macen asked.

Parva frowned, "I'll get in on this as well"

Parva's "hobby" was designing and manufacturing specialized weapons and ordnance for the team. She'd recently adopted wearing Daggit's other grenade launcher. A twin barreled breech loading pistol version. She wore that on her right hip with her phaser pistol worn in a cross draw fashion on her left.

"I want to see the script burned into the standing walls before moving on to the monastery," Smith said softly.

"I'll accompany Angelique and Bailey," Neela stated.

"The bulk of the alien's writings desecrated the temples both here and at the other settlements," Ro frowned.

"We need to see them all. Every sample," Smith insisted.

Ro tapped her comm badge, "Lieutenant Nerrit, report to my position."

"My ground team leader will be at your disposal as will our shuttle," Ro promised.

"Thank you, Colonel," Neela deferred to Ro's authority and acquiescence.

"Nerrit Wen?" Macen asked.

"Her younger cousin, Nerrit Kyla," Ro chuckled. Ro gave Nerrit her standing orders as the Militia lieutenant arrived.

"What about me, Boss Man?" Mudd inquired.

"You're with Ro and I," Macen smirked.

"Oh. Joy," Mudd said flatly.

"Every piece of equipment was either plundered or smashed," Ro said as she began taking them on a tour of the village's remains.

"Temper tantrums?" Mudd asked.

"Mostly computer systems and replicators," Ro replied.

"Definitely tantrums," Mudd remarked.

"Why do you say that?" Ro asked.

"With no translation matrix, they obviously couldn't operate the more advanced systems," Macen explained, "Leading them to destroy what frustrated them."

"Great. Enemies that operate on a three-year old's level," Ro grumbled, "But that explains why they destroyed the industrial replicators rather than loot them."

"What did they take?" Macen asked.

"The early crop harvest and they concentrated on the Constabulary's armories and recharging systems," Ro listed off.

"So they're hungry and they like guns," Mudd mused.

"Which sounds consistent with revolutionaries, fanatics, and zealots," Macen opined.

"That was us once upon a time," Ro chastised him.

"So I speak from experience," Macen grinned.

"You're hopeless," Ro sighed.

"I like you, despite my better judgment," Mudd decided about Ro.

"Gee, thanks," Ro riposted back, "I can sleep better now."

"This is why I like you!" Mudd cheered her on.

"Great," Ro grumbled, "A groupie."

Ro saw Macen's reaction and thrust a finger towards him, "And not a single word from you."

"You love it. You know it," Macen couldn't help it. It was almost compulsive.

"That's six words, mister," Ro complained.

"Which are five words beyond a single word. Which I was only prohibited from speaking a single word," Macen spouted off. Mudd was snickering now.

"Shut it," Ro told her. Mudd waved off a two-fingered salute and kept snickering.

"You're both hopeless," Ro said in resignation to the situation, "Just follow me."

Rockford had been analyzing blood smears for an hour when Neela, Smith, and Kerber arrived at the monastery.

"Such unprovoked rage," Neela almost gasped at the desecration surrounding them.

"I sent Shade and Arianna on to the other continents. They report the local temples were hit as hard as the primary village's. But nothing compared to this," Rockford admitted.

"They were sacrificed," Neela was horrified. She could kill in defense of her faith but to simply bathe an opposing monastery in blood to "sanctify" it? Even she had limits.

"This is a treasure trove," Smith remarked, "The religious symbology of the Bajoran faith was even more prevalent here than in the temple. So the 'purifying' defilement is greater as well. It must have frustrated them beyond reason to be able to almost read the texts and the inlaid scriptures."

"Only you would make something seem good out of this," Kerber snorted.

"Just start taking scans of text blasted into everything. Try to keep in context as much as possible," Smith requested.

"I'll pass that on to Shade and Arianna as well," Rockford volunteered.

"It's appreciated, Detective," Smith said.

"It's just Celeste to you, Bailey," Rockford insisted, "And you too, Angelique."

That warded of the inevitable outcry of protest.

"We still don't know each other very well, Neela. But I extend the courtesy to you as well," Rockford offered.

"Is 'Neela' your given name or your family name?" Kerber asked.

Neela was disinclined to answer so Rockford obliged, "It's her family name."

Neela eyed Rockford and the Angosian explained, "I thoroughly vetted you when our association began. You've withheld your personal name so far so that's not mine to hand out."

"Dammit!" Kerber muttered. Her researches had come up blank. Neela had been erased from the Bajoran registries when she "died" at then-Major Anara's insistence. Neela had left matters that way when she'd been "reborn". Colonel Anara agreed and persuaded General Kira Nerys to let matters stay as they were. As the Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs, Kira wielded an inordinate amount of influence with the Ministerial Government as well as the Vedek Assembly. According to Bajoran records, Neela had never been born. Cardassian rolls might show her birth but the Cardassians were notoriously sloppy record keepers recording any Bajorans that they hadn't positively identified as Resistance fighters. Then there had been Gul Dukat downplaying Kira's role in deference to Kira Meru's memory and his own unquenchable lust for Bajoran flesh.

A lust that cost him his own Cardassian family as well as his followers in the Cult of the Pah-Wraiths. Benyan had allowed Mika to care for her child by Dukat until the child was old enough to fend for itself on the streets on a neutral world. Then the Bajorans had abandoned her child and fled the planet so they couldn't be followed. Empok Nor still housed the growing Cult but it grew slowly. But even as before, vedeks and prylars also became members as they followed Winn's example and elevated Dukat as the pah-wraiths' Emissary. They actively sought a means by which to liberate their gods and their Emissary from the Fire Caves on Bajor. They scoured the quadrant looking for Cultist artifacts from historical members even as Dukat had learned of the imprisoned pah-wraith held in the Cardassian Archives.

That renegade had invaded the Celestial Temple and fought the Prophets to a standstill. Another had inhabited Jake Sisko's body to fulfill prophecy in an epic showdown with the Prophet possessed Kira to decide which "gods" would rule Bajor. So the existence of relics tying pah-wraiths to the physical realm theoretically existed. The Cult just had to find them to break the seal placed upon the Fire Caves.

Neela silently wondered if the Bajora exiles had actually been Cultists. Would they still be Children of the Prophets? She didn't know and the Prophets were silent once again as in the days when they first delivered her to this place in time and space. She supposed she was to keep an open mind. Neela knew the Cultists on Empok Nor could be redeemed back to the pure faith. But few others had her redemption story to foster that belief. Maybe that was her ultimate purpose by which to serve the Prophets.

"Neela!" Smith was unusually vocal and insistent. Neela joined her side and went wide eyed as she too beheld Smith's discovery phaser carved into a previously overlooked lectern. The Cardassian script for Emissary.

Ebert returned Shade and Forte to Rockford. Given Smith's discovery, they echoed it at the temples in the villages they'd scoured over. Macen found the one unseen in the village he, Ro, and Mudd were examining.

"I'll be damned," was all Ro said before she got busy communicating with Wyn and Nerrit as well as her ship, The Fist of the Prophets.

"How are the others doing?" Shade asked Rockford. She seemed unusually concerned over their well being so Rockford readily replied, "Brin has them checking in regularly. This new evidence has everyone, Bajorans included, scouring every rock and tree within distance of a temple. Lee in particular is in his element."

"What about Harri?" Ebert asked.

"Wanting to get the hell out of the quadrant," Rockford chuckled, Despite every Cardassian ship ever logged into entering the quadrant being accounted for by the Dominion."

"That didn't long to find out," Forte was pleasantly surprised.

"The Federation Diplomatic Corps is working overtime on this. Surprising given all the double Dutch talking they're doing allaying fears across two quadrants that the Cardassians joined with the Klingons and the Federation to attack them thanks to the Intendants Ro and Kira," Rockford explained.

"What's a 'Dutch'?" Shade asked. Rockford laughed. Despite all appearances, Shade, Macen, Tessa, Smith, Kerber, and the two Angosians, weren't remotely human. Nor were the very human appearing Aglaia, Galen 3 or Gilan aboard the Obsidian. Forte was genetically human if completely altered by her planet's own scientists seeking immortality. She and the remaining survivors from the planet labeled "Miri" were now humanity's oldest teenagers and despite Dr. McCoy's "fix", no matter how hard it was advocated by some, the genetic reprogramming wouldn't be duplicated within the Federation.

Forte knew she'd outlive everyone on the team. That was the price of leaving her devastated planet. Most of the survivors on Miri had been consolidated to a single location and Federation assistance and education centers had been established to restore basic amenities. But a handful, like Forte, had left their planet. Including Miri herself.

Seeing the original Earth whole and undevastated had been the greatest shock in their lives. Even the devastation of the Eugenics Wars and World War III had paled in comparison to their world. And they knowledge that their Earth had been constructed by an alien race for unknown reasons was frightening to fully and finally grasp. Omega IV and 492 IV being the final examples if the same. Each one a seeming "backup copy".

Duplicates of other worlds had been found as well. Each of those contained non-humanoid sentient races. It was theorized that all of these populations had been set up by the mysterious Preservers. Obelisks similar to those erected on the Amerind planet and other varied worlds had protected races from extinction. But the Preservers themselves had vanished by the 22nd Century when the first of the obelisks was discovered. At least by Starfleet. Macen's index log of his voyages with the El-Aurian Survey Corps had other examples from across the Delta and Beta Quadrants. He could only assume the Gamma Quadrant was littered with them as well.

"I don't think I've ever seen Bailey this engaged before," Shade said thoughtfully, "Angelique looks bored and testier than usual."

"Neela is monopolizing Bailey's time," Rockford had noticed, "I think Angelique is wee bit jealous."

"Jealous jealous?" Forte asked.

"They're both about as straight arrow as they come," Ebert denied the prospect.

"You'd know this how?" Shade asked.

"It's pretty obvious," Ebert looked pained.

"Let's try again, you know this why?" Shade reiterated.

"Because it's obvious," Ebert shrugged, "Just like I said before."

"Don't you agree?" Rockford had to wonder.

"Of course I agree," Shade snorted, "But I come from a very urbane matriarchal society where heterosexuality primarily serves to breed the next generation. And we have all forms of conception techniques that don't involve actual sex or carrying a child to term."

"No sex?" Forte yelped.

"Not with men, generally," Shade explained.

"Bummer," Forte remarked. Rockford felt her sides trying to split from the repressed laughter she was holding in. It was actually getting quite painful.

"Let's check on our intrepid trio," Rockford managed to get out and strode off.

"What's her deal?" Shade asked.

"Some detective," Ebert remarked as she followed Rockford's trail.

"Well, the news just weirder and weirder," Daggit announced.

"You mean the weapons fire was of Cardassian origin," Ro ventured.

"No, Federation," Lee corrected her.

"What?" Ro was stumped.

"On the technical side, the photons, heavy phasers, and hand phasers all show consistency with the same types that the Federation employed in the mid-23rd Century," Parva explained, "I ran a query past Galen 3 and he looked up any missing Starfleet vessels from that period that vanished in or around the Bajor Sector. Five came up."

"Which we know one fell to the Cardassians, one to the Breen, and one to the Tzenkethi," Daggit continued, "So that just left two complete unknowns."

"And your people were still oblivious to the Wormhole as a fact and not prophetical anecdotes?" Macen asked Ro.

"Yes," Ro didn't like this at all, "And it was low point for inter-system travel. Even the colonies were barely supported. That's why so many collapsed."

"So one of those ships could've been sucked through the Wormhole?" Mudd asked.

"It's theoretically possible that one or both transited into the Gamma Quadrant and failed to trigger this side's terminus," Macen allowed, "Did Galen 3 mention ship types?"

"One Constellation- and one Mercury-class," Parva answered him, "Both pre-refit models."

Macen's comm badge chirped and we tapped it Forger's voice came through, "Commander, we have company. A warp signature entered the system and is lying doggo above the largest moon over New B'hala."

"Recall the Corsair and have Telrik beam us up. We need to distract whomever it is while the Fist's crew is recalled," Macen advised her.

"Got it," Forger signed off.

"We'll buy you all the time you need," Macen promised.

"Pack it in," Rockford informed the linguistic team.

"We're done here anyway," Smith promised.

"All aboard that's comin' aboard!" Ebert called from the Corsair's hatch, "Tickets, please."

"Oh, shut your hole. All of them," Shade grumped.

"Commander, the Corsair is making way and we've broken orbit and are attempting to come at the target from behind," Forger informed Macen.

"Ease off the 'target' terminology until we prove they're hostile," Macen so advised.

"Yeah, in a rat's pattooty," Forger signed off.

"They've spotted us and are breaking out of lunar orbit," Edwin Zimbalist reported from OPS, "Jeez, they were just meters off of the lunar surface."

"Edwin, give me visual," the screen shifted perspectives, "Is that a...?"

"It's definitely a mid-23rd Century Constellation-class starship," Jaycee Miller reported from Tactical.

"Except its hull composition doesn't match known Starfleet metallurgy. And the hull dates back just a few dozen years. I'd say somebody local copied it," Galen 3 reported from the Sciences station.

"The local version of Iotians?" Forger wondered.

"Too soon to tell," Galen 3 shrugged.

"Their shields just up and their weapons are hot," Miller gave the bad news.

"Match their move," Forger ordered, "Aglaia, slow our approach but keep a clear vector to break away from them."

"Slowing to one-third impulse and angling our approach," the Platonian announced from the CONN station. Of all the starship pilots Forger had worked with, including Rhiann and Wyn Mesa, Aglaia came the closest to matching Hannah Grace's natural élan at flying starships.

"Those are definitely the phaser and photon types that struck the colony," Miller unhappily reported.

"Damn," Forger sighed, "So much for 'non-hostiles'."

"They're locking phasers!" Miller announced.

"Standby evasive," Forger ordered. The ship shuddered as the shield s deflected the opening bombardment.

"Report," Forger demanded.

"Type VI phasers, confirmed Federation type," Miller rattled off, "Shields holding at 91%. I think they're probing our defenses."

"Testing our response?" Forger wondered, recalling the Argyn.

"Torpedo, torpedo, torpedo!" Miller warned as the shields once shrugged off of most of the blast.

"Type V torpedoes, again consistent with Federation tech," Miller reported after the single torpedo strike, "Shields at 76%."

"Aglaia, give us more maneuvering room," Forger decided, "Jaycee, lock phasers but hold until my command."

Joelle Jones arrived on the bridge, "Is someone firing torpedoes?"

"Ask them," a disgruntled Forger replied.

"Between the Bajorans and these jokers it's like being in the past again," Jones remarked.

"Captain, the Fist of the Prophets confirms they've recovered all personnel. The Corsair is free and clear to maneuver as well," Zimbalist informed her, "Colonel Ro is assuming command."

"She is the client," Forger acquiesced.

"The ship breaking off," Miller told everyone, "She exiting the system at Warp 6."

"Nominal high cruising speed for that ship type," Jones recalled, "She probably maxes out at Warp 6.6 or so"

Jones herself had once commanded the NV-class Earth Starfleet starship type when she was still a member of the Maquis and for nearly a decade afterwards. Jones had "retired" but grown bored after selling the registry to the Waylaid. The buyers had emulated Jones' all-female crew and now had hired on with Outbound Ventures flying an original Starfleet Asia-class (refit) starship. Only one of four that Starfleet had refitted to the new propulsion and warp core design that would come to dominate all future developments.

Only four pre-refit Constellation-class starships had been constructed before the new redesigned hulls went into production. The most famous of which had been Captain Jean-Luc Picard's first command, the original USS Stargazer. Admiral Picard having resigned after the debacle regarding Starfleet's refusal to commit further relief efforts to the Romulans in the wake of the Hobus supernova that had already destroyed Romulus and Remus. Those efforts had been suspended in light of the Mars Massacre, as dubbed by the free press, and the complete and utter destruction of the Utopia Planetia Yards.

The resultant ban of synthetic life forms, the mysteriously motivated culprits, had also led to stipulations regarding holographic life forms. The Doctor and Tessa, two sentient holograms, had been forced to go underground and flee Federation space. Vic Fontaine had also been smuggled out by Dr. Julian Bashir and his wife, Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas. Douglas, the Single 0 agent 0212, had Admiral Alynna Nechayev's blessing it getting Vic out of Federation held territories. Fontaine and Tessa's programmer, the mysterious Felix, was under house arrest to deter further efforts at developing self aware holographic programs.

Strictly speaking, Ro should have arrested Macen and Forger for harboring a fugitive EMH and deactivated Tessa to be handed over to the Daystrom Institute for study and permanent storage until the ban was lifted. If ever. Just as Commander Vaughn should have done during his collaborative mission with Macen's team on Izar. The new restrictions put a damper on Commander Tom Paris' new side career as an interactive holo novelist but he readily complied with the new legalities. Those officers and crewmen that had served aboard the USS Voyager during her fateful cruise through the Delta Quadrant had been advanced up to two ranks dependent on their fitness and personnel evaluations from the period.

Kathryn Janeway had famously accepted a promotion to Admiral. Chakotay remained aboard the new Voyager-A as her Captain. Lt. Commander Harry Kim was her XO. One of the few Maquis to remain aboard had been one of those that greatly struggled with adapting to Starfleet life at first. Lieutenant Mariah Henley was Voyager's Tactical Officer.

Ensign Marla Gilmore, who'd been stripped of all rank and privileges, had been deemed to have served her penal sentence by the Court Martial Board that had been convened for every surviving member of the ill-fated USS Equinox crew. Gilmore had reapplied to Starfleet as an enlisted crewmen and the Board had accepted her decision and consulted with the Bureau of Personnel and adjusted her rank to Chief Petty Officer. As such she was back aboard Voyager as her Deputy Chief Engineer with Lieutenant Vorik standing in as the Chief. Chakotay personally took her on when he requested she be assigned to his command and told her as much. Gilmore, alone of the "Equinox Five" reenlisted the others left Starfleet in disgrace. Gilmore, though, had shown true remorse over her actions as a member of Rudy Ransom's crew and their xenocidal means of traversing large portions of space. Gilmore had learned that her advancement to Chief had come at Chakotay's behest. Lt. Commander Kim was also giving her a chance at redemption.

So even these darker times for Starfleet's morale and the murkier dealings of Starfleet Command's recent decisions, there was still a scope for forgiveness and redemption. added to the equation was the fact that both Ro and Vaughn had known Tessa for years and viewed as a valuable associate if not quite a friend. So now Ro was seeing the mystery ship for the first time.

"She's a design match for us," Ro stated to her XO.

Nerrit nodded from the Navigator's station, "Except the Iotians never built this hull design."

Ro knew that they had built the post-refit version of a Constellation-class. Macen had procured nearly every vessel they'd built. He'd acquired four out of the five they'd constructed along with sixteen other examples of the same design technology stretching from Asia- to Excelsior-class (refit) ship types.

"Hail them," Ro ordered.

"They're not responding to standard hailing frequencies," her comm sergeant reported, "I'm scanning for other emissions but they don't seem inclined to respond at all."

"They've opened fire on the Obsidian," Ro snorted, "I'd say they're responding."

"They've bugged out," the corporal at the helm suddenly reported, "Should I pursue?"

"That vector will take them into the buffer zone," Ro sighed, "We can't follow them"

"But that's why General Kira brought in civilian contractors," Nerrit reminded the bridge crew.

"Sergeant, signal the Obsidian command. Wish them luck," Ro requested.

"The Corsair has been recovered," Zimbalist informed Forger.

"Aglaia, get underway, Warp 6. Galen 3, you're certain you can follow that warp trail?"

"It's like a neon glide path," Galen 3 told her.

"Good to know," Forger mused.

In the shuttle bay, the runabout was the sole occupant. Macen waited to greet his wife. The airlock opened and he exchanged pleasantries with everyone and noted with a rueful air that Rockford and Ebert were the last to exit the runabout.

"You enjoy making me wait," he accused playfully.

"I have to build up the anticipation of our fateful reunions," she joked. He pulled her close and kissed her.

"Now you know why I make you wait," she smirked.

"I take it everyone saw?" Macen asked.

"Tracy was quite excited to see a working pre-refit Constellation-. She said they were rare. Only four being built or some nonsense," Rockford told him.

"Spoken like a lifelong ground pounder," Macen grinned.

"You know I hate starships and space travel," Rockford unnecessarily reminded him. It was a running conversation.

"And, as always, I'll point out you never arrived anywhere without riding in a starship or transport of some kind," Macen stated.

"Sad, but true," she said with a faux wounded air.

"Are you two still here?" Ebert asked as she'd finished up securing the Corsair for future flights.

"Just rehashing old news," Macen told her.

"The whole 'I hate space travel riff?" Ebert grinned.

"You can go back to your runabout now," Rockford acted miffed but really she was delighted.

"What's our status?" Macen inquired.

"Let me check," Ebert touched the frame of her spectacles and the Head's Up Display transferred from the Corsair's nav system to the Obsidian's, "Shannon has us in pursuit. But we're pacing the Ascendant ship rather than overtaking her"

"Exactly as we'd discussed earlier," Macen was pleased.

"Still it has to gall her, being an ex-Tactical Officer and all," Ebert opined, "They did open fire"

"And the ship easily withstood they're best effort. So they chose discretion over valor. No w we track them to their home and observe them quietly while trying to stay out of their way," Macen reminded Ebert of the plan in motion.

"Yeah, yeah," she waved dismissively as she strolled away.

"She's all grown up," Macen sighed.

"You're just now realizing that?" Rockford deadpanned.

"Just saying it aloud for the first time," Macen and Ebert's history went back to when she was fifteen years old and now she was in her early thirties.

"Before you get all nostalgic, we need to talk," Rockford guided him to his office where they could enjoy some privacy. There, she began briefing him on the extent of Smith and Neela's discoveries...and Kerber's growing resentment towards Neela.

"Bailey has opened up to Neela in a way that she hasn't with anyone else other than Angelique," Rockford finished her summation, "They will all kill in an instant for a chosen cause so it has the potential to get ugly."

"A headache we don't need right now or ever," Macen acknowledged.

"You gave them a life outside of Ardana IV and Neela respects you. But Bailey and Angelique are dangerously co-dependent. If Angelique sees Neela as driving a wedge between her and Bailey..."

"Then Angelique will respond to Neela as a threat," Macen easily understood.

"Is there some Seekers of Truth pearl of wisdom you can lay on her?" Rockford was hopeful. Smith and Kerber was a pair of Macen's students beside Rockford in the El-Aurian philosophical approach. It was a martial discipline intended to preserve truth at all costs and social justice was viewed as a paramount truth. The tenets of being a Seeker had led Macen to join Starfleet, alone of his fellow 46 refugees "rescued" from the Nexus Ribbon by the Enterprise-B in 2393. The Federation closely echoed the ideal for a Seeker. It was close but still needed some adjustments. Especially now.

"'Fraid not. The path should seem clear but with her emotions running wild, she's probably going to lash out at someone," Macen sounded discouraged.

"Which is why a word from you might derail that," Rockford verbally nudged him again.

"I'll try but in the end, it's on her," Macen reminded her.

"Of course. But we can't sit back and do nothing of there's another option. That path should seem clear," Rockford threw the gauntlet.

"Yes, dear," Macen was defeated and he knew it.

She rose to tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, "Good luck"

She left and Macen sighed, "Here goes everything"

Macen entered the Data Womb to find Smith and Neela huddled over a display and Kerber sullenly sitting off to one side, "Angelique, can I speak with you?"

She detached herself from the group, looking both relieved and apprehensive.

"This'll be painless, I promise," Macen said encouragingly, "But we might want some privacy."

They went into his office where he waved at a chair, "Have a seat."

Kerber's apprehension was growing every second so Macen got straight to it, "Please don't kill Neela. We still need her and she'll be back aboard Serenity soon enough."

Kerber blinked her surprise at having her hidden impulse revealed so starkly.

"It does sound...bad...hearing you say it," she ruefully admitted.

"She's helping us unlock a puzzle. Not joining the team," Macen promised. Kerber gave him an Oh really? look.

"She isn't," he reiterated more forcefully, "Frankly, except for now, she's never had a place here. I'm not certain she really has a place other than a monastery."

"She's a long way from that," Kerber groused.

"She's on a path to self discovery as well as we are," Macen told her, "We're still figuring our places in the universe out and so is she. Serenity and Outbound Ventures are just way stops along her path until the Prophets lead her elsewhere."

"The Prophets should hurry up," Kerber said menacingly.

"As we're all discovering, they move in their own time. Meanwhile, allowances need to be made. Bailey doesn't need you as a friend any less now than before. Neela already has a friend named Anara. Maybe she could use another named Angelique," Macen suggested, "Rather than resent the hell out of her, try hurrying her path along so she leaves all the sooner."

Kerber looked inspired now.

"Go, be fruitful and try not to multiply charges that can be brought against you," Macen waved her on. Kerber made a dash of it and Macen leaned back as the door closed, "Thank the Fates that's over with."

"They're slowing to impulse," Zimbalist warned Aglaia.

"I've got them," she replied.

"We're nearly in Dominion space," Forger breathed a sigh of relief that they hadn't crossed the official border. But they had been skirting it for an hour.

"How the hell did some lost Bajora find this system?" Jones wondered.

"Pure blind luck," Forger theorized, "They set out, lost and confused, and stumbled onto a system that presumably has a Class-M world in it."

"And we're assuming it was already occupied?" Jones asked.

"Yup," Forger confirmed it.

"And we're further assuming a Starfleet ship got stranded here and somehow made the same journey?" Jones found it incredulous.

"I don't think they managed that last bit on their own," Forger explained, "Our working theory is that the Wormhole aliens manipulated all parties involved for whatever reasons. Tessa's latest report shows traces of human DNA mixed in with the blood samples. Very minute traces but they're there anyway."

"And in the century since absorbing a Starfleet crew, they replicated the technology the starship represented," Jones accepted that idea at last.

"The Bajora at least had interstellar capabilities upon arrival. We don't know what kind of tech base they found upon reaching here. But it's odd that it took them at least a hundred years without seeming to advance before a starship happened to stumble on them and they copied it so exactly," Forger didn't like mysteries.

"Well, they have duotronic tech at least. How long ago did the Bajorans discover isolinear based technology?" Jones asked.

"According the Macen's notes at least three hundred years ago. Right before religious wars broke out again, splintering the Bajoran faith and forcing the relocation of large segments of the population to colonial settlements off Bajor," Forger explained, "We know Bajor itself became isolationist before the Cardassians approached them."

"Approached?" Jones snorted.

"They came in the guise as friends before they actively conquered Bajor," Forger reminded Jones, "Long enough to establish a willing, proxy government that isolated the Bajorans further before the Occupation officially began."

"And the Federation so happily rolled over to comply with the puppets' wishes," Jones was bitter.

Her experience as a Maquis gave her a particular insight into the Federation's political maneuvering with Cardassian Union. Even the democratically inclined Cardassian government under Castellan Rekena Garan harbored abiding animosity towards the Federation even after a decade of support in rebuilding after the Dominion War devastated Cardassia Prime and millions of Cardassians soldiers died in combat and over a billion civilians were killed in Dominion reprisals. The planned genocide of the Cardassians halted by the Allies' victory after the Cardassian Guard turned to oppose their Dominion partners. But the Federation did not protect the Cardassians from heavy war reparations inflicted by the Klingon Empire and Romulan Star Empire.

The Dominion and Breen escaped such burdens while the Cardassians, who made a swifter victory possible, languished under a decade of heavy debt. A debt that would've been prolonged had not the Federation negotiated on the Cardassians' behalf to limit the reparation totals. The UFP denied the Klingons and Romulans demand for generational debts to be repaid over several lifetimes. Even after decades of mutual animosity, the Federation even helped subsidize the Cardassians' repayments. Yet Garan had been elected Castellan on a rising tide of resentment. Replacing the more moderate Tekeny Ghemor.

The Federation's officially ceding the territorial concessions regarding the former Demilitarized Zone only officially confirmed that the Cardassians had taken hold of the colonies during the war and wouldn't relinquish them. The Federation's former citizens had been enslaved and the survivors from the labor camps had been officially returned but official death tolls didn't account for the missing persons still unaccounted for when the camps were "liberated". Particularly amongst female colonial prisoners taken during the opening of the war. Select Starfleet POWs were still MIA but there wasn't a profound gender bias as the colonial missing persons tally.

Bereaved family members claimed the women had been selected as "comfort women" for occupational forces and taken away with the troops when the Allies retook the areas. Nonaligned traders proliferated stories of mixed Cardassian/human children born into bondage. Few settlers were even allowed to return to their original colonies to retrieve whatever personal items might still be recovered. The forced relocation generated an even more profound disgruntlement than the DMZ had.

The Maquis had proven open conflict was a losing proposition. But hundreds of former colonists had now been arrested over the years by Federation Security on charges of seditious conspiracy. Most of the homeless colonists had been relocated to other far flung colonies in the Beta Quadrant and there separatist movements arose. To achieve through political process what force of arms would fail to. There too small arms were being stockpiled and civilian ships armed for the eventuality of success. With the Klingon and Romulan Empires stretching between these colonies and the Home Sectors, logistics were against the authorities on colonies more dependent on foreign trade than the Federation itself.

"Sensors are detecting other starships in the vicinity of the solar system they're not on approach for," Zimbalist advised his captain.

"But us in an orbit around the solar system's periphery. Jaycee, do we have an identity on those ship types?" Forger ordered and inquired.

"They're all Constellation-class vessels. I count nearly a dozen," Miller reported her findings.

"So, they can overwhelm us," Jones said direly.

"Forger to Macen, we're in position," she commed.

"Hold here while we get to work," Macen instructed.

"Yes, Oh Lord and Master," Forger snarked.

"Just don't forget that," Macen jested before closing the circuit.

"Now we wait to get blown up," Forger predicted.

"Captain, I advise we dampen the active sensor output and raise the subspace radio gain," Kerber signaled the bridge.

"We might not detect them then," Forger argued.

"They are detecting us right now," Kerber growled back.

"Fine," Forger signed off with a warning, "But when we get blown up, it's your fault."

The comm array's sensitivity and output increased.

"Care to explain why you just made an enemy of Shannon?" Macen asked.

"The system is littered with subspace comm buoys. The surrounding regions have them as well. But the in-system versions also have active and passive sensor arrays. We were triggering them," Kerber told him.

"Try telling that to Shannon," Macen suggested.

"Fine," Kerber groused.

"Using those buoys, we've tapped into the communications grid. Not many visuals but lots of subspace chatter," Smith was fascinated, "The spoken language definitely has both Bajoran and alien roots."

"Pull up a visual. Let's get a look at the people," Macen requested.

"Angelique?" Smith asked.

"Got one. Seems to be military," Kerber isolated a signal. The display promptly showed two visages. One male and one female in adaptation so Starfleet's standard uniform dating back to 2265-2270. The people themselves were more angular than Bajorans and had a bronze tinted skin. But they had the distinctively Bajoran ridges on the bridge of their noses and they were elaborate earrings on their right ears.

"Well, they aren't pah-wraith cultists," Neela noted.

"We need a series of things now. We need to be able to translate and understand their written and oral languages," Macen began to list the requirements, "Then we need to examine their historical and religious development. Focusing on why their technology is still retrograde and how extremist are they in their religious views. Do they perceive aliens, and particularly Bajorans, as an existential threat?"

"We can and will be able to translate," Kerber predicted, "Interfacing with their computer systems might take a little longer because their mathematical expressions are also a strange blend of Bajoran and whatever they are's numerical systems. The computer is digesting it but it'll take time for me to adapt a program to decrypt it. And you've got to keep in mind; these people may eschew centralized digital record keeping."

"She's right, it took tens of thousands of years to transcribe my people's literature into digital copies because of religious objections," Neela lent Kerber her support.

"I am aware," Macen promised, "Just as I'm aware that we're barely avoiding detection. We have no idea how many of their starships are beyond this system and when they'll be returning from who knows where."

"Can I ask that we task Tessa to the problem as well?" Smith quietly implored, "All of our available, and considerable, resources already chewing on the problem. Tessa has one million yottabytes of available processing space not being utilized at any given time"

"I'll ask her," Macen conceded.

"It's appreciated," Smith acknowledged and committed them to the cause with, "We'll be working as fast as we possibly can."

"I'm also aware of that," Macen smiled at them and then departed to ask Tessa if she'd volunteer for the project.

With Tessa's help, and Forger's increasingly incessant demands, Smith and Neela completed their translation matrix for the hybrid script and language. Kerber made a breakthrough afterwards having the numerical equivalents she was able to access and hack the Ascendants' computer networks. Data flooding into the Situation Center where Lee, Forte, and Shade were guided by Rockford in what to search for. Macen was independently running parallel searches as well along different parameters.

The Data Womb team's role was to insure the hack and the translation stayed updated and intact. Neela was brought back to Macen's office to review his work on the Ascendants' religious beliefs and practices. The Detective Squad was pouring over history and technological capabilities. Tessa was released but opted to review the Ascendants' medical practices and capabilities as well as their basic biology. In more hours than Forger to spare, the teams compiled a comprehensive look into the Ascendant and released the Obsidian to return to New B'hala.

The entire SID unit assembled while the Obsidian was en route to the decimated Bajoran colony. They'd played fast and dirty with the raw data but had drawn some general conclusions. Forger and her command staff stayed at their stations while the surveyor fled through the buffer zone back to supposed safety while avoiding attention from neither the Ascendant nor the Dominion. Parva had excused herself from attending on that basis. Kovic was in attendance in order to properly prepare for any potential conflicts aboard ship or on the ground stemming from an encounter with the Ascendant. Rockford presented her team's findings first.

"The general history follows along a neat little path. The original inhabitants of the world they call Sinhera were barely industrial when the original Bajora Ascendant arrived. Of course, their advanced technology made them seem superior and god-like. They happily accepted the Ascendants' views on the Prophets as sacrosanct," Rockford began explaining, "And the Bajora happily discovered that they could assimilate and keep the fires of the religion and their DNA alive with the Sinherans. But after their landing a thousand years ago they uplifted the native tech level to Information Age and beginning Space Age but wasn't until the USS Gemini arrived from their own slingshot through wormhole and their inability to touch off the Gamma Quadrant's terminus that the Starfleet crew happened to pick a Bajora distress beacon on subspace channels and were drawn into what became a trap."

"The Ascendant seized the ship in a hostile action after boarding her. The assimilated natives had kept the knowledge of the era technology if not the ability to reproduce it yet. But once they had control of the transporters, they crew was simply outmanned and overwhelmed. After a brief 'conversion by the sword' failed, the crew was simply killed," Rockford wrapped up her brief, "And the Ascendant used the fabricators aboard the Gemini and the Starfleet database, once they translated it, to reverse engineer that class of starship. They have plans to reverse engineer Constitution-, Miranda-, and Archer-class starships as well but without actual samples, they're struggling to make them realities."

"Which brings them to the modern day where they're searching for vessels and technology to bring back and recreate," Macen began his portion, "But they're also religious missionaries bringing their 'true faith' to the unenlightened masses. And the Gemini crew was just the first of many to be summarily executed for disagreeing with their paradigm. Their contact with the Bajorans affirmed their paranoia that the religious leaders of Bajor would eventually seek them out to stamp them out of existence. Given that existential threat and the 'heresies' practiced by the Bajorans, they were slaughtered without the opportunity to convert."

"So it will be a religious war to end all religious wars," Shade grumbled.

"The Bajorans have a technological edge. They've refitted all of their starships and upgraded the weapons and defensive systems up to turn of the 24th Century standards," Daggit reported, "Which also weaned them off of Iotian support."

"But their drives and sensor specs are roughly equivalent," Burrows finished for Daggit.

"How can we end this before it begins?" Forte wondered.

Neela fielded the question, "Their cult revolved around a differing interpretation of several prophecies. In our experience over the past millennia, we've come to accept them as being fulfilled by the Cardassian Occupation, the arrival of the Great Emissary, and the brief period where the Dominion held the sector. They're still a doomsday cult waiting for those prophecies to fall down upon them. Except, in their reasoning my people will be the great oppressors."

"And how do we specifically know this?" Lee asked.

"The Ascendant fill their comm system up with preaching broadcasts 24/7 so the faithful can tune in from anywhere at any time," Kerber snorted.

"And they're firebrand sermons now involve the 'heretics' they discovered and must stamp out," Neela sadly told everyone.

"So tell them the stupid prophecies already happened," Mudd suggested, "I can think of a few con games that sell it."

"Except for once we're not being asked to supply the cure to the problematic disease. We're merely here to diagnose it," Macen informed everyone.

"I like the medical analogy," Tessa beamed, "I have taught you well."

"So if these people manage to come aboard, they might just try and kill us all without any qualm or hesitation?" Kovic inquired.

"They might settle for dividing and conquering in order to try and convert us later," Neela shrugged, "But any and all Bajoran personnel will be killed on sight. Your harboring them might extend the sentence to you all as well. Sorry."

"We're accelerating," Ebert announced as the steady vibration in the deck plates altered.

"Commander, we picked up a tail and had to go Warp 8 to outpace them. You should probably brief Ro that we're coming in hot," Forger signaled Macen.

"Thanks for the update, Shannon," Macen closed the circuit.

"Anyone that hasn't logged in their evals for Militia should do so now," Rockford suggested and on that note everyone dispersed except for Macen, Rockford, Neela, and Tessa.

"You wanted a private debrief regarding the Ascendants' biology?" Macen prompted the EMH.

"Commander, the Bajora lucked out and found a genetically compatible race to reproduce with. But the hybridization caused harmful mutations. Generally matching two compatible races or ethnicities brings out a superior expression of the dominant traits. The Bajora-Sinheran expression brought out recessive traits and made them dominant," Tessa explained carefully, "In short, every bad expression you can imagine is occurring. They're dying."

"Feeding their apocalyptic theology," Neela concurred, "They believe by either cleansing or converting the universe they'll be saved physically and spiritually."

"That's not uncommon as we'd like to think," Macen said dourly.

"Brin?" Rockford prompted him this time.

"Something Amanda mentioned and I compared what Neela was telling me to a religious expression occurring within Federation borders," Macen explained, "Representative colonies from five of the major Earth religions found homes in the stars. Now they're uniting in a doomsday cult calling themselves the Inquisition. And they resemble the worst traits of all of their individual faiths."

"Fanned on by the Mars Massacre, no doubt," Rockford grimly accepted the news.

"And the rising tide of secularism in their own respective ranks," Macen stated, "So they've united on a common front."

"So I'm doubting they'll be keeping this a human problem," Tessa said sadly.

"The Ascendant are good parallels to the movement in many ways," Macen warned, "If they unite in a common purpose..."

"Prophets help us all," Neela grasped it immediately.

"Right now the Inquisition is an increasingly reactionary arm of the united faiths but they're becoming the mainstream," Macen advised them.

"Are they armed?" Rockford asked the pertinent question.

"Not officially," Macen replied, "Unofficially? They're the Maquis all over again. And the Iotians are happily arming them through their econo-line of NX- and NV-class starships capable of Warp 5 and Warp 4 respectively."

'It suits their ultimate purpose," Rockford conceded.

"United with the superior forces of the Ascendant they could wreak havoc," Neela predicted, "Though they would ultimately clash when they encountered one another."

"But with Starfleet distracted by the Alliance and the Iotians, they'd never these forces coming," Rockford mused.

"Which doesn't seem to be a random convergence," Macen decided.

"This ramping up your messiah complex again?" Rockford teased him.

"Think about it," Macen urged, "There's no Typhon Pact or Khitomer Accords Alliance. The major players that would've been the Typhon Pact are all too paranoid to cooperate with another because there was no Borg apocalypse to provoke such grand alliances."

"And we've got agitators from the Terran Universe working with local powers to keep everyone here too involved in putting out brush fires to understand the interplay of forces going on," Rockford switched from microcosm to macrocosm.

"The preachers mentioned an Emissary from the Prophets," Neela quietly revealed, "Her name is Iliana Ghemor"

"Cardassian?" Tessa asked.

"Waitaminute, your saying her father was Cardassia's first Castellan and that this Emissary is General Kira's dead lookalike?" Rockford tried to swallow it but it wouldn't go down.

"I was 'dead' for ten years and you all 'returned' from the dead," Neela argued.

"But why would the Prophets send an Emissary to the Ascendant?" Tessa asked the glaring question.

"Because she's their talking point," Macen concluded after a moment, "She's the one that needs to be reasoned with or debunked."

"If this is her then she was an Obsidian Order agent who was modified to look like Kira," Rockford protested, "Kira even saw the body"

"Bodies can be cloned," Tessa sagely pointed out.

"You're not helping," Rockford grated.

"Why not simply ask the Prophets?" Tessa wondered.

"I have. They're not replying," Neela sounded exasperated, "Apparently they want us to do the legwork on this one."

"When is that new?" Rockford was caustic.

"Commander, we have a new problem and so does Ro," Forger's voice interrupted them, "Two more Ascendant, if that's we're calling them still, starships swung in to join the pursuit. They're going flat out at Warp 6.8 but because of their multiple warp nacelles they can switch off and on to maintain maximum speed for twenty-four hours whereas we're limited to twelve before Parva marches up here and takes my lovely head off of my shoulders."

"I agree," Macen stated.

"With which part?" Forger asked.

"You do have a lovely head," Macen replied. Forger signed off.

"She'll think of something," Macen said proudly.

"You'd best be contacting Ro," Rockford urged.

"True," Macen grinned, "Laren lives for a great crisis."

"Not this time," Rockford smirked.

"I'll go find out," Macen pointed at the exit, "Anyone else want to head to my office?"

"Dammit! I have a patient," Tessa winked out if existence to reappear in Sickbay.

"Probably just Galen 3 faking it," Macen chuckled.

"I think I'll review the Ascendant's texts further," Neela offered.

"You're sure?" Macen asked.

"She's sure," Rockford took his hand led him out of the briefing room.

"They want what?" Ro yelled over the screen.

"Just to eradicate anyone that doesn't believe in their path of the Prophets," Macen shrugged, "No biggie"

"Except if you're Bajoran," Ro growled.

"There's that too," Macen conceded.

"I'll relocate to the terminus and contact Starfleet and see if they'll help," Ro was resigned.

"You don't want to just 'cause Captain Saavik intimidates you," Macen snarked.

"Watch it, mister," Ro signed off.

"You and your friends," Rockford laughed.

"At least we're entertaining," Macen shrugged, "Hold that thought."

Vaughn's image replaced the corporate logo on the monitor, "I thought I'd hear from you."

"What's Starfleet's official position on events?" Macen inquired.

"Defend Bajor and to defend the colonies. I have orders to redeploy back across the Wormhole to help defend the station and the star system, if need be," Vaughn admitted, "Saavik is under orders not to engage unless fired upon."

"You'd think these people would learn that doesn't always work," Macen quipped.

"It's tradition," Vaughn looked piqued.

"It started a war once upon a time," Macen reminded him.

"But we kissed and made up," Vaughn grinned, "Eventually."

"We have actionable intel that the Ascendant are being led by a Cardassian Obsidian Order agent that vanished during the occupation. She probably isn't aware of anything that's occurred over the last fifteen years," Macen warned him.

"Meaning she thinks her people are still engaged in an undeclared war with the Federation and Bajor is still occupied," Vaughn understood.

"She can't be allowed to utilize the Wormhole to reach the Alpha Quadrant," Macen warned.

"Unless they display hostile intent, Starfleet Command says not to impede them," Vaughn warned, "I'm headed back now. Captain Saavik and her support are within light years of responding, creating a buffer between the terminus and the colonies."

"That's shuk and you know it," Macen accused.

"It's what happens in a chain of command," Vaughn said sternly, "You used to believe in it."

"Then it broke down at the top," Macen replied angrily.

"Don't make it personal. We're beginning our transit. I'll see you on the other side," Vaughn signed off. Macen contacted Ro again to update her. She was as frustrated as he felt.

"My entire force is committed to this defensive posture. If they transit the wormhole, they'll be able to strike at Bajor largely unhindered by my forces. We'll reach the Alpha Quadrant after a first strike," Ro complained, "Kira is assembling the Militia's forces but the only retain three starships for system defense because of Starfleet's presence."

"Hopefully Lavelle is taking this seriously enough to gather the sector defense force at the Wormhole terminus," Macen hoped beyond hope.

"What's your ETA at the terminus?" Ro inquired.

"Fifteen minutes, give or take," Macen answered.

"I'll wait for you here then," Ro told him, "Vaughn already took the Defiant through."

"Will that leave any of the colonies shorthanded?" Macen worried.

"Actually, at this point my force would be glad to get rid of me," Ro managed a rueful smile. Red alert klaxons sounded behind Ro, "Damn it! They had other units in the vicinity. It looks like they might engage."

"I'll see if we can boost our speed for just long enough," Macen promised.

"Copy that," Ro signed off.

Macen's next message was to Forger, who in turn delivered the bad news to Parva. The Orion genius managed to get Warp 8.3 out of the nacelles long enough find the Fist of the Prophets engaged in combat operations against three Ascendant ships.

"Full photon spread on the port vessel," Ro ordered, "Lock phasers on the center ship. Helm, maneuver us towards the starboard vessel. Keep them off of our broadside."

"Starship dropping out of warp," the Sciences Officer reported, "It's the Obsidian."

"Draw the enemy's attention while Forger lines up her targets," Ro ordered.

"Bracket that port ship with everything we have," Forger ordered, "That should keep them off of Ro."

"They're out of the fight for now. The starboard Ascendant ship is coming about to engage us while the Fist fights the center ship," Miller reported.

"Fire for effect," Forger instructed. The Fist of the Prophets was cleared to engage the Ascendant vessels with everything she had. The Ascendant vessels broke off.

Ro hailed Forger, "I guess Parva came through."

"She'll bellyache for a week, but yeah, she came through," Forger smirked.

"Oh hell," Ro received a report, "You didn't tell me you had a fleet chasing you."

"Vertiron radiation is rising. The Wormhole is opening!" Forger exclaimed as Zimbalist warned his captain.

"We're nowhere near the terminus," Ro scowled.

"Jesus! The aperture is going wild! It's going swallow us from here," Forger warned. The Celestial Temple swept in the two starships.

"It's not reopening," Ro complained.

"Orders, Colonel?" Forger inquired.

"We'll come about and see if we can transit to the Alpha Quadrant," Ro announced, "If the Ascendant didn't already know about the Wormhole, those three ships that engaged us do now."

But the Alpha Quadrant terminus did open. Ro immediately contacted both Commander Lavelle and General Kira.

The sector patrol was in attendance. These days it consisted of the Akira-class USS Shinobe, the Centaur-class USS Sagittarius, and the Norway-class USS Oslo. In addition the station's outlier, the USS Defiant, was prepped and ready to engage if necessary. Lavelle had the station's shields raised and weapons armed but he wanted to negotiate despite the obvious hostilities the Ascendant vessels had displayed against the Fist of the Prophets. The Starfleet picket had time to prepare and Kira dispatched three Constitution-class starships alongside the Fist of the Prophets to create a secondary line between the Celestial Temple and Bajor itself.

Eventually the Wormhole opened and two dozen Constellation-class starships emerged from its embrace. The Ascendant forces came to a dead stop as their sensors probed local space. The fact that the Starfleet ships out powered them was clearly evident. But so was the simple fact the Ascendant could still inflict a great deal of damage.

"Commander, we're being hailed," Zivan Slaine reported. The Dalin held the Cardassian rank equivalent to a Starfleet lt. commander but she was an exchange officer with the Bajoran Militia. Kira had posted her aboard Deep Space 9 given her expertise with its tactical interfaces.

"Let's have a look at our opposition," Lavelle said smugly. The sight of a Cardassian woman that closely resembled Kira unnerved him, "I...uh...I'm Commander Sam Lavelle, commanding officer of the space station Deep Space 9. State your purpose and intent. And explain why you fired on a Bajoran starship in neutral territory."

"Starfleet? Where is Gul Dukat? Why is Terok Nor out here rather than in orbit of Bajor?" Ghemor demanded to know.

"I don't think you understand how this works," Lavelle remarked. Ghemor nodded to someone off screen and every Ascendant ship raised its shields, armed weapons, and locked targeting sensors.

"I think I have a very firm grasp on how this works, Commander," Ghemor gloated.

"How do I address you?" Lavelle switched tactics.

"I'm Iliana Ghemor, of the Obsidian Order and Emissary of the Prophets to the Ascendant," she smugly announced.

"Well, Agent Ghemor, Cardassia withdrew from Bajor sixteen years ago. The Bajorans claimed Terok Nor and called in Starfleet to administrate the station and through it the Federation's relief efforts. Nine years ago, Bajor was accepted into the United Federation of Planets. Our two governments currently enjoy a stable if frigid peace. Don't jeopardize that here fulfilling some kind of revenge fantasy," Lavelle counseled her, "I suggest you consider accepting my offer of safe passage to Cardassian space and you can review history with your own government."

"Oh, I shall, Commander," Ghemor signed off.

"They're moving off," Slaine announced.

"Who the hell is 'Iliana Ghemor' and how did she get into the Gamma Quadrant before anyone knew that there was a Wormhole?" Lavelle was frustrated by the lack of answers provided.

"She referred to herself as an 'Emissary of the Prophets' yet me people reviled the Bajoran faith," Slaine considered matters, "And her last name has to be connected with Cardassia's first Castellan."

"She has no love for Dukat, that was certain," Lavelle further assessed.

"Who did, besides Dukat himself?" Slaine grumbled.

"My people are looking into the data you provided but the summaries were very insightful. You're people lived up to their reputations," Kira congratulated Macen and Rockford.

"We'll pass that on," Rockford smiled.

"If you would be willing to extend your contract, I'd like your team to conduct a further review into the matter. I understand you possess...discreet...Cardassian contacts. My people would be very interested in how the Ascendant are being received on Cardassia Prime," Kira offered.

"Of course," Macen nodded.

"Colonel Anara has requested to accompany you back to your space station to oversee the investigation as a consultant in addition to Neela's ongoing role," Kira smiled warmly.

"Of course we'll reunite them," Macen agreed.

"Thank you, Commander. Colonel Ro has returned to the Gamma Quadrant should any more Ascendant forces threaten our colonies there. I'll be assuming direct control over the Special Forces while Anara is away. Dalin Slaine confirmed your hypothesis regarding Iliana Ghemor's identity. I was led to believe she was dead," Kira said sadly, "But the truth, as usual, is far more twisted."

"I've already reached out to my Cardassian contacts. I should know more by the end of a week," Macen offered.

"Then I won't keep you here. I understand Anara is already aboard so I'll let you get back to it," Kira rose.

Rockford escorted the general back to Telrik's care. When she returned to Macen's office, she asked, "Are we ever going to inform Neela that she's from an entirely different universe than ours? That we only know that she apparently died in this universe where she and Anara actually joined the SID back in ours?"

"She already knows," Macen told her, "She always has. But she trusted her other self's judgment regarding us and her faith, as always, is in the Prophets."

"We could have led them away from the Wormhole if it hadn't grown to swallow us," Rockford fumed, "What the hell are the aliens thinking to bring Ghemor and her fanatics here? Now of all times?"

"They're translinear. They exist in the past, present, and future simultaneously," Macen reminded her, "Sisko taught them a great deal about linear time but I think causal relations still confuse them. They saw a future where this played out. So they enabled it."

"And if they hadn't?" Rockford was appalled.

"Then maybe it could've been different or it really is unavoidable," Macen had to say.

"But that negates personal responsibility," Rockford argued.

"We still possess individual responsibility towards a greater whole," Macen contended, "But that doesn't mean that the universe isn't unfolding precisely as it should."

"I liked you better in the old universe," Rockford sighed.

"We didn't have to dwell on it. These matters were ephemeral. Now everything thing is a reminder that they aren't," Macen allowed, "And seeing dead versions of us confronts us with our own mortality. Which defines us. My great-uncle believed time is the fire in which we burn. But how we burn is of our own choosing. We can't choose events but we can choose how we react to them."

"Yay for us?" Rockford tried to be enthusiastic.

"One crisis at a time. That's how we've always come through these things. But in doing so, we're making an impact in how this plays out. We get choose our roles at this point. But once we've chosen, we've committed to our path," Macen counseled her, "And we can't decide to simply avoid choosing because that is as much a negative choice as selecting the wrong path. It's probably the worst kind of choice. To willfully ignorant and to avoid taking any responsibility whatsoever."

"And what is your choice?" Rockford inquired.

"To protect those I love," Macen pledged, "In by doing so, I find a way to lessen the impact the Ascendant play in our world."

"You still think they can be reasoned with?" Rockford was surprised.

"They are about to face cold hard facts about the history of Bajor. What will be telling is how their Emissary reacts to these facts. The facts will redefine her supposed truth. But we'll have to simply see how factual her truth remains."

"You believe the aliens really sent her to Sinhera?" Rockford felt obliged to ask.

"I do," Macen answered without reservation, "But I don't know if they know why they did."

"These people give me a migraine," Rockford complained.

"Endorphins," Macen grinned, "That's the cure you need."

"And I suppose you have a suggestion on how to raise my levels?" Rockford teased.

"One or two," he smiled.

Back at Serenity, Riker and Danan met the Obsidian crew at the airlock. The crew happily disembarked. Anara was assigned guest quarters and Kalista showed the Bajoran colonel to them escorted by Neela. Forger was throwing the after mission, "We didn't die!" party at Quarks. Everyone quickly met up with friends and family before the gathering. The SID team was gratefully taking the night off. Macen and Rockford were the last off the boat. Even Tessa used her mobile emitter to disembark with Galen 3 to attend the party. But Riker and Danan's downcast looks warned the couple their evening had just been ruined.

"Your guest arrived early," Riker informed them, "She's taken quarters aboard the station and reserved them indefinitely."

"That's new," Macen remarked.

"And troublesome," Rockford groused.

"She's deeply troubled about something," Danan had observed, "My guess is the domestic situation on Cardassia Prime has just gotten a lot more complicated."

"And now she wants to babysit. And we just signed on a Bajoran Militia equivalent as well," Rockford was decidedly unhappy.

"But between the Militia and the Cardassian Information Bureau we may actually get somewhere with our thorny problem," Macen stated, "Neela can address the theology and prophecies the Ascendant differ from the Bajoran faithful on and Ziva Delain can give insights into Iliana Ghemor herself."

"You hope," Riker clarified.

"Fervently," Macen admitted.

Macen called Anara and Neela into the meeting with Ziva Delain. Delain was less than pleased.

"I'm certain you do realize these are sensitive matters, Commander," Delain protested.

"If you tell me, I tell them," Macen shrugged, "It's called 'cooperation'. It's a valuable tool against common enemies."

Delain scowled but eventually relented, "Very well. In answer to your questions, Iliana Ghemor was an agent for the Obsidian Order. She was surgically altered to appear as Kira Nerys. But she failed to terminate and replace Kira. Afterwards she simply vanished."

"To reappear in the Gamma Quadrant with her Cardassian looks restored," Rockford found it hard to believe despite her own experiences.

"Ghemor was highly steeped on Bajoran religion since Kira was known as a 'true believer' in the Bajoran Prophets even then," Delain explained further, "However she found herself in the company of the Ascendant, she knew enough about the Bajoran faith to persuade the faithful that she was indeed their long prophesied Emissary."

"Yet you harbor doubts regarding Ghemor's own internalization of the creeds," Anara was the first to voice it.

"Ghemor is an infiltration agent. As Detective Rockford can fully appreciate," Delain defended her reasoning, "But her loyalty to Cardassia was unquestioned. If her story is true, then the Wormhole aliens intervened to transplant her onto this Sinhera and subvert the faith in an eventual bid to return to Bajor and Cardassia to complete her mission to undermine the Resistance."

"But the Central Command and your superiors doubt her loyalties," Macen surmised.

"Ghemor is a creature from the past," Delain struggled to explain, "Her devotion to Dukat's reign as prefect over Bajor is proof enough despite her own personal animosity towards the man himself. And her desire to complete her mission has been corrupted by her association with these fanatics, whether s e realizes it or not. Bajor is a friend to the Cardassian people despite our longstanding differences. They championed our cause before the Federation Council and persuaded that body to intervene to prevent the greatest atrocities the Klingons and Romulans wished to inflict upon us. I can truly state the disarray the Hobus disaster created for the Star Empire created a cessation of the exorbitant reparations they'd demanded and earned Bajor our eternal thanks for the Federation's willingness to secretly subsidize our payments."

"Yet the Cardassian Union still holds the Federation at political bay," Macen observed.

"It is a cultural weakness of my people to be so proud that we cannot accept kindness with dignity," Delain admitted, "It is a shortcoming that has created the greatest atrocities of our own making. The Bajorans welcomed us with welcome arms and we coveted their resources and despised them for the generous bounty. So it holds true towards the Federation. Yet even through our stigmas, we recognize the grace Bajor has shown us and we are forever grateful."

"Then we can build upon that," Macen stated, "The Ascendant wish to genocidally wipe the Bajorans from existence."

Delain wore a sad smile, "And there Ghemor has deceived you. She wishes to enslave the Bajorans once again and utilize them as labor and breeding stock to repair the genetic mutations that are afflicting the Ascendant."

"Is Castellan Garan listening to this?" Rockford feared the worst.

"Our Castellan knows full well the debt we owe Bajor," Delain promised, "Ghemor will not find the aid she requires from the Cardassian Union. But, before hopes are raised, elements within the Central Command have pointed Ghemor towards the Alliance forces posing as our own."

"Let me guess, Legates Maret and Macet," Macen grimly said.

"Indeed," Delain was startled.

"The Federation is tied up with putting diplomatic crises generated by the Alliance, Starfleet allowed the task force to return to the Iotian Federation," Macen was repulsed by that turn of events.

"Our own diplomatic back channels are burdened by the wrath the Alliance has generated towards us with the Gorn, Tallarians, Andergani, Tholians, Tzenkethi, Breen, and the First Federation," Delain herself was dismayed, "The Ascendant have already departed Union space and are driving towards the Alliance by following the circuitous route that they in turn followed across the Taurus Reach to traverse into the Beta Quadrant and to skirt the Klingon and Romulan borders to reach Iotian territory once again."

"The Militia is currently concentrating on guarding its colonies in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants," Macen shared, "How does the Cardassian Guard stand in relation to that?"

"Most of the Guard, particularly Legate Ocett, stands with Castellan and the Detepa Council. However, the 6th and 8th Orders are loyal to Maret and Macet. Should they move against Bajor, the bulk of the Guard stands ready to intervene on Bajor's behalf," Delain revealed.

"In doing so, you'll also inadvertently assist the Federation," Anara spoke again.

"Not so inadvertently," Delain smiled, "And if we falter or delay, the Subject Worlds will insure that we act or they will rise in revolt."

"It's nice to be loved," Anara grinned.

"Your people inspire them. They also wish to meet us as equals yet do not wish to divest themselves of our protections or trade. Therefore they simply demanded voices within the Detepa Council. Voices that strongly advocate that we defend Bajor against all potential enemies as any attack would be a stain upon our honor. As I alluded to before, Cardassian pride is a powerful tool."

"Macet has no illusions regarding our chances against the Federation and the Klingons. But he favors a joint action with the Alliance Cardassians against the Subject Worlds. Maret dreams of a day prior to the Klingon War and our disastrous union with the Dominion in which we still rule over Bajor. He sees Bajor's liberation as the greatest stain on Cardassian honor that has ever been inflicted upon us. Greater even than the Dominion's carnage," Delain fully briefed them, "Together, with their combined forces, they make up an instability within the Guard that can tip the balance of loyalties if Maret and Macet can prove the viability of their ambitions"

"I never thought I'd miss the simplicity of Gul Evek's machinations," Macen sighed.

"They are both aware of your connections to Starfleet and the Iotians. Outbound Ventures' loyalties and ambitions are questions that they need answered," Delain warned them all, "And they will find a way to do so."

"Even intercept your reports," Neela warned Delain, "You already know Bureau agents that are sympathetic to Maret and Macet's positions."

"I am to directly answer the Director and she to the Castellan," Delain said primly.

"But who vouches for the Director?" Neela quietly asked.

Delain's eyes almost popped out, "The Director was personally selected by the Castellan and confirmed by the Detepa Council."

"Yet she also a former Obsidian Order agent who plays the long game nearly as well as Ghemor does," Neela warned her.

"How dare you!" Delain raged.

"It isn't wise to question Neela's warnings," Anara warned, "Everyone that has suffered for their willful ignorance"

"By your hand no doubt," Delain spat.

"By destiny's hand," Anara said firmly, "Neither of us, or the Militia, ever played a role in it. In fact, the Militia itself learned the hard way not to ignore her."

"There are rumors regarding her actions prior to and during the Dominion War," Delain allowed as her temper began to cool.

"We owe Neela our lives," Rockford shared, "And we'll owe them again in the future. She was the guiding force that allowed us to understand what we know about the Ascendant and Ghemor's role with them."

She purposefully left Kerber and Smith out of it. To draw attention to them could lead to a death sentence finally being enacted upon them. As was already demanded of by Ardanan "justice".

"Very well," Delain reassessed Neela, "If your words are true, what would you suggest as a precaution to take?"

"Let her play it out. Circumstances will catch reveal her perfidy if there is any," Neela answered, "But the Castellan should be the direct recipient of your report from these proceedings. Without disparaging your Director, merely state that there were security concerns that she might not receive the full and proper report. You can then submit your report to your Director. Castellan Garan can then draw her own conclusions from the Director's subsequent reports."

Delain considered it, "Well played for an engineer."

"It's social and political mechanics," Neela shrugged.

"No wonder Kai Winn Adami chose you as her personal agent before she herself revealed her true ambitions and treachery," Delain conceded.

"In hindsight, she revealed them all along," Neela made the concession she normally avoided speaking about. Rockford knew to this day that Neela wouldn't implicate Winn in the murders she herself had committed. Kira had long standing suspicions of her own but Neela had never confessed to a guiding hand or a co-conspirator. She'd even willingly pleaded guilty to every charge brought against her to shield Winn.

Winn had wisely waited for four years before intervening with Shakaar on Neela's behalf to quietly and unofficially resolve the True Way crisis by cutting the head off the Cardassian snake. So Neela's sentence was commuted and she was reunited with Anara for the first of many foreign adventures. But she'd died ten years ago and the Neela the SID team knew was also dead along with their home universe. Somewhere from sometime in the past, Neela had been drawn from yet another alternate universe to fill the void in this place and time in one of the four Prime Universes. Three being branched off of the original Prime Event and each as viable and as necessary to the flow of time and space itself as the original. The oldest of the subsequent offshoots from the Prime Realities was the Terran Universe. Unknown to anyone present, the second major branch would have been dubbed the Kelvinverse. Then there was the universe they now dwelt in which diverged when Picard utilized the Nexus to create a massive alternate ending to the original destruction of the Veridian star. And finally, the origin point that every alternate universe ultimately stemmed from before its particular divergence. Yet, some power had been terminating the "unstable" divergent universes. Some being or beings of a higher scale than even, it seemed rather limited in comparison, Q Continuum.

"I don't understand," Delain confessed.

"Neela has a special relationship with the Wormhole aliens the Bajorans dub the "Prophets" and worship as gods," Macen clarified. Neither Neela nor Anara took offense. Neela especially knew the Prophets had established their own special relationship with Macen before the Dominion War concluded. As an adult, Anara had been agnostic until Neela's death. Then she'd rediscovered the faith of her youth in the Camps. A faith confirmed by Neela's miraculous return.

"I...see," Delain said without truly comprehending it.

"You really don't," Rockford advised Delain, "Be warned, Neela speaks for the aliens, who exist outside of linear time. So she knows the past, present, and future when they reveal any or all of them to her."

"Agent Delain, you were an Investigator for the Constabulary and assigned off of Cardassia Prime during the Dominion period. You returned to the devastation to help maintain order as your society teetered on the edge. During the process of Reconstruction, the CIB approached you and offered you the chance to do what you do best: protect your fellow citizens but with a broader scope and with greater authority. You exulted in Castellan Garan's victory because it furthered the cause of female empowerment in the reaches of Cardassian authority. And when Commander Macen approached the CIB's agents along the border and requested you as a handler, you saw an opportunity that your fellow agents dismissed. And now your entire career trajectory rests on whether or not this venture is successful in deflecting fallout from the Ascendants' arrival and Ghemor's mad ambitions," Neela spoke up. Delain gaped at her.

"That is what she does when the Prophets speak to her," Anara promised.

" couldn't know those things," Delain stammered.

"You became an Investigator because your father was a prosecutor and you desired to help insure that Cardassian justice always prevailed," Neela continued.

"Stop!" Delain cried out, "I see now!"

"I warned you," Anara gave her a sad smile.

"How?" Delain's voice was shaky.

"The Prophets showed me your life," Neela explained, "Not to condemn or to exploit but merely to explain their role and their power."

"Why?" Delain was still struggling.

"To demonstrate Ghemor's role as the Prophet's Emissary to the Ascendant," Neela stated, "She had a purpose but has fallen from its purity. Her hatreds blended with the Ascendants' to twist the Prophets' message to one of hate rather than nurturing life and especially life on Bajor."

"You believe she had another role?" Rockford asked.

"Ghemor was chosen to show the Ascendant that the prophecies were fulfilled and the Emissary was being appointed. Yet she claimed the title and sent the Ascendant on a warpath to fulfill her ambitions and rain destruction down upon my people," Neela explained what she'd been shown, "The Prophets can reveal, they can place agents, but they can't control free will. So Ghemor saw the Ascendant as a tool rather than a revised mission."

"But why choose her at all?" Delain wondered, "And why reverse the surgeries done to her?"

"She was steeped in the faith even if she ultimately chose to disbelieve," Neela answered, "And only a Cardassian could explain the Occupation in such a convincing way to a culture brought up on a mythologized history of my people and my world."

"Mythologized how?" Delain inquired.

"The Sinherans believed the Bajora were gods brought to them in incarnate flesh," Macen explained.

"So Ghemor simply presented your people as the even more powerful god-killers," Neela added.

"That...would make sense of certain things that she has claimed," Delain allowed.

"Will the Castellan delay the Ascendant's departure?" Macen inquired.

"I'm sorry. They left even as I left Cardassia Prime," Delain was saddened by the news.

"They have a five day head start to the Taurus Reach," Rockford realized, "And Starfleet won't have resources in the area as long as the Ascendant avoid the Tholian border."

"And Starfleet has pulled every valued asset out of the Beta Quadrant this side of the Klingon Empire," Macen informed Delain of what the CIB already suspected, "Only the deep range Beta Farside patrols are still in place as the Iotians begin touring nonaligned worlds there."

"Captains Calhoun and Mueller are accounted for in the Thallonian Sector but Captains LaForge and Chakotay have evaded our detection," Delain admitted in reciprocity of Macen's allowance.

"The Enterprise went beyond Klingon space and the Federation colonies there as Voyager rounded past the Star Empire to explore near the Delta Quadrant delineator," Macen shared as well.

Rockford alone knew Macen dreaded their discovery of the Borg infested El-Aurian Sector and what it could provoke once again. Not mention the old wounds it would inevitably re-open amongst his fellow refugees. The majority of whom were elderly and should be given the opportunity to die peacefully without confronting their worst fears again. But Admirals Forger and Nechayev had allowed Macen and Rockford the insight that Starfleet had developed new transphasic shields and torpedoes thanks to the USS Voyager's return with assistance from an alternate future's Admiral Janeway.

Weapons that future Janeway promised that the Borg hadn't found a means to adapt to them yet. Now that the Artifact, a disabled Borg cube in Romulan space, had Federation and Romulan scientists tearing it apart to reverse engineer its technological treasury, the Borg would presumably find even fewer inroads into the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Unbeknownst to the Federation and its neighbors, a second Borg Queen that had traveled for nearly 400 years from 2024 to modern times into the Borg territories and was confronting the existent Borg Queen for control over the Borg Collective itself. The Juradi/Queen fusion confronting the Borg Queen of this universe with the existential knowledge that cooperation was the key to expansion rather than forced assimilation.

But that event's outcome wouldn't be known until early after the new century had dawned. For now, transphasic tech was still experimental and a closely guarded secret. the research and development given to the eccentric but brilliant engineer code-named R and the Special Projects Yards, or SPYards being built near Jupiter Station. Nechayev's Single 0 Section provided security so Admiral Edward Noyce and Captain Oh of Starfleet Security were unaware of its existence. So therefore the Romulans were unaware of it as well. the Double 00 Section made certain those that accidentally discovered the true nature of the facilities disappeared.

A game that Oh herself had been playing at Starfleet Commander Kirsten Clancy's request. The unfortunate DeVos Security, Bannon Security, Solarian Security Solutions, and other minor security contracting companies that went against Outbound Ventures and were apprehended had found their way to unregistered Starfleet Black Sites. Most prominently the infamous Lubyanka Prison beneath Moscow and resurrected by Section 31. To be detained without trial for as long as Admiral Clancy and Captain Oh deemed fit. Certainly long enough for Clancy's frequent lover, and husband to her closest friend, to get away from known civilization. He'd founded and owned the major stake in Solarian after all and his public trial, having been captured by Federation Security, would shed light on Clancy's complicity with the attacks. That she herself had mentioned the possibility of Solarian and its subcontractors being awarded the SID contract if Outbound Ventures were to be found in engaging in illegal activities or provoked into firing "without cause" on civilian vessels.

Only the Bannon and DeVos elements had fired first without provocation in hopes that their sensor logs could be covertly modified enough to pass through the inevitable investigation unquestioned by the authorities. Unfortunately for Clancy herself, Nechayev and Forger had taps on all of the security companies' comm lines as duly authorized by Clancy herself as part of the vetting process to hire future contractors. So despite her taking precautions to utilize public comm channels rather than official Starfleet communications, her comments had been logged and recorded before the harassment began and escalated into open conflict.

"I can see this going to be more work than I'd wanted it to be," Macen sighed. everyone else felt the same way.

Treir kept watch as the Obsidian crew unwound. She'd returned her favor to the Indendants Kira and Ro and informed them when the starship had been estimated to return. Outbound Ventures, Macen and Rockford in particular, had found new favor in the Orion Syndicate's eyes. So the Iotians had had to outsource the coming assassinations to independent contractors. Including many aspiring Iotian enforcers working for the Federation's Founding Families. The vestiges of the gangster era that had founded the Iotian Federation and Starfleet and still controlled its government and military.

Every Iotian, in some meaningful way, owed allegiance to one Family or another. The hereditary Oxmyx oversaw the Federation's politics while the hereditary Kracko oversaw the Starfleet. Both were besotted with Indentant Kira and were her willing puppets in all things.

"I'm sorry Brin and Celeste couldn't attend," Danan told Forger, "But I know they rather be here"

"The crew is just grateful to left out of whatever for now," Forger confessed.

"Jacyee and Abby Collins seem to getting on," Riker observed of the Chief Tactical Officer and the Deputy Chief of Security.

"They've been dating for just a couple of weeks," Forger told him, "It's still in the 'young love' stage where everything is wine and roses."

"Do I detect some bitterness, Shannon?" Riker asked.

"Just wondering when my time will come," Forger sighed and pulled from her beer, "Even Amanda is seeing someone these days."

"But your sister deserves a second chance after discovering she was still married to her slime devil of a husband," Danan remarked.

"Except in the here and now he'd never crippled her and still thought his illegal activities were hidden," Forger clarified, "Which Mandy put an end to in short order."

"Mandy?" Riker almost spewed his whiskey.

"My name for her when we were kids," Forger smirked, "She may be ten years older but she was still my bratty sis."

"I'm sure she felt that way about you as well," Danan enjoyed the levity of the moment.

Riker's comm badge chirped, "Damn! Riker here."

"Gerrit, sorry to disturb you but you have trouble headed your way," Gerrit Gren, the station's Security Chief reported, "Aric Tulley and a squad of deputies is headed your way as well but stay frosty."

"Understood," Riker signed off.

"I wonder what that was about?" Forger mentioned aloud.

"Them," Danan's eyes narrowed as several poncho wearing men and women entered into Quark's. The wait staff and bartenders vanished as Treir led the evacuation.

"Oh hell," Riker grumbled.

The office lighting went red in Macen and Rockford's conference room.

"Shuk!" Rockford was instantly on her feet and tipping the duranium table over.

"That would be our signal from Bryce that trouble just arrived," Macen explained as he drew his phaser from its holster. Neela and Anara were unarmed. But it seemed Delain wasn't.

"Mind explaining how you got that past the weapons scanners?" Rockford wondered as someone tested the door.

"It's a Cardassian station. There are ways, if you know them," Delain shrugged.

"It seems someone else does as well," Macen dryly commented as the lock was blow from the outside and the door rolled aside.

"Everybody down!" Riker bellowed. Ponchos were flipped aside to reveal various forms of particle beam weapons. But throwing knives killed two of the would-be gunmen and women before they could draw.

"The hell?" Riker muttered as he tossed the table on its side.

"From what I've been told, Bailey and Angelique just started the fight," Forger crouched beside Riker and Danan behind the table as tables slammed to the floor and weapons fire could be heard. a cry of pain rose through the air as Riker glanced over the table top to see a flying chair smash into a gunman. Parva broke the wrist she was holding, forcing her foe to drop his weapon. Burrows snapped another's neck as Daggit drove a killing blow into a man's face. Two more women went down with knives in their throats while Kerber and Smith still weren't visible.

The lone shooter fell and Tulley was behind him with his phaser freshly discharged, "Everyone all right?"

"I need a rag," Daggit glanced at the blood dripping off of his fist.

"Mine's alive," Parva boasted.

Treir stumbled into the serving space, green blood trickling out of her nose and split lips. Kerber and Smith were preceded by several Ferengi waiters and the Lurian bartender. The knives they now wielded were hardly meant for throwing but made for close quarters combat.

"I'll say it again," Riker muttered, "What the hell?"

"Just don't piss them off," Forger whispered.

"Where do they put them?" Danan had to wonder at Kerber's modern fashion and Smith's dated back to Earth's 1930s.

"I'd rather not imagine," Forger admitted. Gerrit arrived with the rather unnecessary reinforcements.

"It seems you just shut down, Treir," Riker told her.

"You're all dead anyway," Treir scoffed.

"I've been dead before. It rarely sticks," Riker stated, "Take them away and process them. I'm talking to Quark right now."

"What about Brin and Celeste?" Danan asked sharply.

"Jelena! Abby! We still have troubles!" Forger called out. Daggit and Burrows perked up as well.

The first two assassins through the door were literally cut half by a swathe fired by Rockford. As they next in line focused on her, Macen burned a hole through his chest. they ducked beneath a returning swathed crossfire. Delain dispatched them with her disruptor. The final gunslinger held Fanning hostage, with her Klingon disruptor aimed at Fanning's head.

"It'll be okay, Bryce," Macen promised her as he stood and took aim with a two handed grip. Rockford did the same as did Delain.

"You got this?" he asked Rockford.

"Always," she said after she'd fired and put a particle beam through the woman's left eye.

Fanning kicked the dead woman's body, "Serves you right!"

Riker led the charge as the SID team with Kovic, Collins, and Radil in tow.

"You too, huh?" Macen asked.

"Just who the hell are Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith anyway?" Riker had to wonder.

"Better you should never ask," Rockford advised him.

"How the hell did you get a weapon past my scanners?" Radil challenged Delain.

"I've already been over this," the Cardassian sourly answered the Bajoran.

"It's okay," Anara promised her, "I vouch for her."

Radil wasn't going to argue with a Militia colonel and Delain nodded her thanks.

"Who do we have to thank for this?" Rockford asked Riker.

"Treir," he said grimly, "Gerrit has her in a holding cell along with her entire staff. Jenrya is due to rifle and pillage through Quark's."

"Right. On it," Radil took her cue.

"Need an assist?" Kovic and Collins eagerly volunteered.

"I never turn down free, qualified help," Radil grinned.

"I want a word with Quark himself," Riker growled.

"I'll deal with Quark," Macen promised, "You oversee Treir's interrogation. She'll get arrogant with you and Gerrit. That'll make her sloppy. Besides, she did this for the Alliance and the Iotians."

"Think we'll find proof of that?" Riker asked.

"Not a chance," Rockford snorted, "But if we could have access to any other prisoners outside of the wait staff, my detectives and I can probably get somewhere with any would-be assassins."

"And you have the authority as station CO to eject Treir and her employees," Macen reminded Riker, "It's in her business license."

"And her franchise?" Riker wondered.

"Quark retains the right to revert the establishment back to his corporation at any time that that franchisee is unable to meet their license fees and profit sharing minimums. If Treir is off the station and the franchise is closed by the CO's direct order, Quark will be forced into supplying either a new franchisee or sending a corporate rep to manage the establishment until such time as a new licensee can be, or will be, found."

"You played a part in that," Riker came to realize.

"It was a condition of hosting a Quark's on Serenity and he incorporated the clause into all of his licensed franchises," Macen shrugged, "Poe-tay-toe, poe-tah-toe."

"Still, it works for me," Riker admitted, "I'd better process the paperwork before I confront Treir."

"Make certain her shuttle is tagged before it departs. I'm betting she runs straight to the Iotian Federation but I want to be certain," Macen instructed.

"I volunteer, Commander," Delain suddenly stepped forward, "It is within my purview as a CIB agent."

"And this way you stay in the loop," Macen acknowledged, "Get her equipped."

"Rather, I brought my own and I will let you into the loop," Delain wore a smug smile.

"That works too," Macen rolled with it.

"I'll need your Security personnel to gain access without wasting any time with anti-tamper measures you've installed in the shuttle pads," Delain informed Riker.

"You'll have your deputies here in five minutes or less," Riker vouched for his staff.

"Excellent," Delain smiled triumphantly.

"I'd better get busy," Riker departed.

Macen turned to to the still present Parva and Daggit, "Install a kill switch in Treir's warp core so she can be stopped outside of the Iotian border."

"I like it," Parva grinned, "C'mon Handsome"

The highly scarred Daggit wasn't handsome anymore by most human standards but Parva was an Orion. Scars and piercings were common place amongst Orion males.

"I'll go prep my team," Rockford stepped out.

"Why do I feel like we're the last women standing?" Anara inquired.

"The Solstice deployed with a replacement CONN Officer while Neela is otherwise engaged," Macen began to explain.

"You're a CONN Officer?" Anara asked. Neela simply shrugged.

"Go on," Anara said apologetically.

"That means you two can take the Ark of the Prophets out and be the ones to sabotage Treir's shuttle. And offer assistance before the Iotians show up," Macen explained, "Whereby you'll take them to Deep Space 3. En route you'll contact Colonel Ro and have her make arrangements with Captain Alfonso Reyes to delay the repairs by any and all means necessary."

"And a Starfleet Captain will do this for Ro? Just because she asks nicely?" Anara refused to believe it.

"Reyes will do it to impress Ro. He'll also succeed," Macen said.

"I thought she was the one that made prophecies," Anara jibed.

"Call it a replay of history," Macen said enigmatically and departed after inviting Fanning to an alternative to Quark's and buy her a drink to settle her nerves.

"What does that mean?" Delain wondered. Neither Neela nor Anara let her in on the secret they shared with the Obsidian team members and select others.

While everyone performed their roles, Macen contacted Admiral Forger. Unlike their home reality, this Prime Reality's Starfleet Command had never formed a Council of Five. He briefed her on the developing situation before asking, "Any luck locating the missing security contractors?"

"No, and IA and SI are crawling up everyone's ass about it. Captain Oh has been directly implicated but she's weathering through the investigation like a trooper and Admiral Noyce and now Admiral Clancy are protecting her from the worst allegations," Forger complained, "Unfortunately, having this occur directly after the Cell 51 revelations just makes a vast conspiracy of Security officers seem plausible."

"Any developments with the contractors apprehended by civilian authorities?" Macen inquired.

"They've all been released on negotiated terms dictated by Starfleet Security," Forger scoffed, "I really wish this was a conspiracy but personally my gift credits are on Oh. Noyce announced his retirement and Clancy railroaded Oh's promotions to Commodore and the Directorship of Starfleet Security through all in one fell swoop despite the clouds of suspicion hanging over her. Both effective immediately. Noyce is now without an assignment until his retirement becomes official in three months' time."

"Because Noyce has already groomed her into his perfect replacement," Macen acknowledged the fact.

"I wouldn't call her perfect," Forger sniped.

"Innocent until proven guilty is still the basis for Federation law and Starfleet regs," Macen cajoled her, "Even if planetary localities can override it under certain circumstances. The Federation's code of non-interference in internal affairs applies to aspects of its membership's local jurisdictions as well as foreign bodies."

"Sometimes that's damn inconvenient when you know someone is dirty," Forger grated.

"Who's the one always badgering me to 'believe in the system'?" Macen asked.

"I'm an idiot," Forger groaned, "Why do you ever listen to me?"

"Because you're usually right," Macen promised her, "So watch Oh and wait for your moment. She'll eventually slip."

"She's Vulcan. I could be dead by the time she tips her hand," Forger complained.

"Don't let it get personal," Macen advised her, "That's what I'm here for."

"How do you keep from going mad" Forger entreated him to answer.

"You've read my former unredacted file. You know I haven't," Macen scolded her; "I'm just feeling better now."

"Great. We're both going to snap," Forger groused.

"Just keep on task and broaden your search. Eventually the connections will be found," Macen promised, "In the meantime, cultivate your personal relationships as well as your professional ties."

"Yes, Mom," Forger sighed.

"Steady on, Mandy. Oh will slip up," Macen smirked.

"God help me, Shannon has been talking again," Forger groaned.

"It's good for you. It keeps you humble," Macen grinned.

"I should reactivate Shannon's commission just to pull her away from you lot," Forger threatened.

"Where's the fun in that?" Macen asked.

"Dammit," Forger whispered.

"I have a very urgent call to make to Quark. So when I'm done forcing his hand, do you need another pep talk?" Macen asked.

"I'm good," Forger replied, "Promise."

But as he signed off, she knew she'd lied.

"Why do you always create so many problems for me?" Quark bemoaned.

"Serenity's Quark's is one of your most profitable franchises. So taking over should be a no-brainer," Macen shrugged, "Even for you."

"Still, I can't take over so long as Treir can make her premiums," Quark complained.

"Her assets are frozen," Macen told, "The Barrinoran banking officials aren't kindly towards clients that try to assassinate even more profitable clients."

Macen transmitted Treir's seized balance sheets from her own records.

"Why that...!" Quark sputtered as he began to peruse them, "She's been cheating me for months!"

"So I'm actually doing you a tremendous favor since you'll be the legal depositor on record regarding her accounts as per your legal franchising agreements. I've leveraged her franchise so that the Barrinoran banking cartels have seen her ledgers as well. So they've been cheated out of their premiums as well. They're absorbing her investments as recompense. But you get the liquid assets. That'll be more than enough to staff our Quark's and appoint a manager you trust."

"Did you get Vic's holomatrix?" Quark asked in hushed tones.

"Ro smuggled it to me after Bashir and Douglas passed it off to her and he's ready to be installed in the holosuites," Macen promised, "Now that Treir is out of the way."

"Much as I hate to admit it, but only Pel has the lobes for this," Quark sighed.

"That had to hurt," Macen chuckled.

"You have no idea," Quark confessed, "But she's parlayed her hidden investments away from Ferenginar into a small fortune. She recently approached me regarding a franchise opportunity. Serenity came up in the conversation."

"And you wouldn't have to micromanage," Macen smirked.

"Pel is honest. At least now that she isn't pretending to be male," Quark relented, "I'll have her on the next transport."

"I take it you've had a happy reunion," Macen smirked even more, "I guess Laren breaking it off with you will prove profitable in the long run."

"Hmph!" Quark snorted.

"Just remember, Ro getting rolled by Starfleet means you have a new, ignorant station CO you can run circles around," Macen tried to find a positive, "Even if keeping your secret cost you her intimacy for propriety's sake."

"Hang propriety!" Quark snapped.

"I think you actually fell for her," Macen realized, "But, if you play things right, Pel can ease your burdens and profit your bank rolls at the same time."

"When did you become a Ferengi?" Quark wondered.

"I just know you. Laren was the first woman to steal your heart after Natima Lang and Jadzia Dax. But none of them were Ferengi. And a nice, liberated Ferengi female can do wonders for your heart and soul."

"Damn Listeners," Quark snorted.

"But you know I'm right," Macen nudged him further.

"But I know you're right," Quark sighed.

"Send Pel along and Captain Riker will make certain she's safe and that Quark's remains open and profitable," Macen pledged.

"I'll say this for you, you've always been honest with me even when a lie would've been profitable for you," Quark admitted.

"And even you're 'discounted' rates had a healthy profit margin built in," Macen replied, "So we've both come away happier for it"

"Just don't tell anyone," Quark warned him.

"I'm the soul of your discretion," Macen told him. Macen preferred avoiding being sentenced to a penal colony's In his history he and T'Kir had spent two long very years on one before being released on a technicality. Rockford had kept the company going in their absence while Riker had kept the Obsidian flying. It wasn't a happy time for any of them. Especially discovering that Sindis was still alive despite Macen beheading what turned out to be a clone.

But this universe's Macen had killed Sindis on behalf of his rivals within the Orion Syndicate. Gomer had amply rewarded him rather than the Federation putting him on trial for murder. She'd furthered "his" corporate ambitions after Macen finished the job with the real Sindis at the cost of T'Kir's life. In this reality, Macen had found solace in Gomer's arms rather than Lyoti Mariska's before returning to the Obsidian and outbound Ventures. "He and Rockford" had barely tolerated one another despite their corporate ties. So when they "returned from the dead" and were married, many had been surprised. Just as they had to accommodate their altered history.

But even larger surprises awaited the skeptics when Starfleet formed the SID and put Outbound Ventures on retainer. In Macen's original history, the Starfleet Special Investigations Division had been created as an alternative to Section 31. In this history, it was an accountable replacement. But even so, after the dismantling of Section 31 and its derivative Cell 51, the SID had still been mired in controversy. Most of the contentiousness stemming from Admiral Clancy herself.

Traditionally, Starfleet's Admiralty included four four pip admirals to chair massive Starfleet Departments. Admiral Edward Noyce oversaw Starfleet Security and the Internal Affairs Division. Alynna Nechayev oversaw Starfleet Intelligence and the SID over Rear Admiral Amanda Forger. The Rear Admiral Lower Half being reverted back to officially being called Commodore once again. Vice Admiral Bill Ross was permanently confined to that rank owing to his ongoing complicity with S31 before its fall. James Fowler had been more than happy to serve Ross up to IA. But a war hero rarely took the fall.

Other notable Admirals included Admiral Leonard James Akaar, the Cappellan nobleman that had been delivered by Leonard McCoy and protected by James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock. Vice Admiral Edward Jellico had just been fast tracked to Admiral. Now "Commodore" Kathryn Janeway was being promoted to Rear Admiral. But with Noyce retiring and his duties being handed over to Commodore Oh, which left an opening at the top. Admiral Liiritz, the Judge Advocate General was another of Clancy's top advisors. Rear Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson had also found himself promoted rather than being referred to as Commodore.

Surprisingly, it was Liiritz that suggested to Admiral Akaar, who oversaw Starfleet Operations, Starfleet Strategic Operations, and the Bureau of Personnel, that after reviewing Commander Erika Benteen's career and records since being busted back days after her promotion to Captain that she should be restored to that rank and offered a starship command of her own. Preferably the outlier assigned to her present command at Deep Space 4. Benteen could then command both station and starship together as Benjamin Sisko had at Deep Space 9. The USS Lakota incident was over ten years in the past and Benteen had turned evidence regarding S31's strategic operations over to launch Starfleet's inquiring that dismantled Section 31.

It had been the SID's follow ups that rooted out and revealed the existence of Cell 51. A self-perceived stigma on Clancy's record. The Fleet Admiral's objections to hiring civilian security contractors being broadly denied and accepted as wisdom on Nechayev and Forger's part now that the SID's irregular forces had enjoyed outstanding successes in revealing internal Starfleet irregularities and the nature of the Alliance threat that had propelled the Iotian Starfleet into action. Macen's team had also enabled Agents 0086 and 0212, James Smart and Sarina Douglas, accomplish their mission in the Iotian Federation, predetermining Intendant Kira's plans and what Intendant Ro had accomplished in the secretive shipyards based around 492 IV and what forces had she amassed from the Terran Universe. A planet known to the interdimensional refugees as Magna Roma.

0086 had been thought to have been lost in action but he'd managed to escape Kira's "tender mercies" and now equipped with a biosynthetic penis to replace his mutilated member and testicles, was ready to go forth and "pump" informants for any and all the information that they possessed. Now, he could pump them for hours at a time. His targets yielding ecstatic confessions in climaxing waves. Until they finally begged him to stop. Frankly, the Single 0 Agent Douglas was thankful to be rid of her limited partnership with Double 00 Agent Smart. She found him, on the most part, to be a deplorable misogynist but he'd sacrificed himself to save her so he obviously had his own sense of honor and he valued the success of the mission above his own life.

A trait Douglas could admire even as she resented his paternalism and his sexually preying on women in unhappy marriages or otherwise committed relationships. Such as the medical staffers he'd "field tested" his new penis on. She knew Smart would overplay his charm again as he had with Intendant Kira had would probably die from it in the end. Or he would sacrifice himself for a greater cause and got out in a blaze of supposed glory. But unlike a few previous 0086s he wouldn't be dismissed in shame. Or hunted by the Double 0 Section itself.

The Earth Starfleet had inherited the Single and Double 0 Sections from British Intelligence and they'd been under the exclusive purview of the Director of Starfleet Intelligence ever since. Unlike Special Operations Command which was under Starfleet Security but frequently loaned out to SI. Elias Vaughn and Tony Burrows had come up through SOC. Before his insertion into the Cardassian border during the undeclared wars, Macen had been trained by Vaughn to meet Single 0 qualifications without joining the section. Macen had remained listed as a Starfleet Intelligence analyst on the Cardassian desk. Nechayev and Forger believed, after continuing his training with Rab Daggit and Celeste Rockford, Macen could now qualify as a Double 0 agent. But he was more useful as an independent contractor.

Gerrit's deputies had engaged the privacy screens in the other cells to grant Rockford and her detectives' autonomy in their interrogations of the surviving assassins. Which meant Treir could only imagine what secrets were being shared. Riker had already served her with her expulsion paperwork. Quark's takeover of the franchise came minutes afterwards. The Orion was more than happy to depart. Intending to persuade Kira to obliterate the station at the Alliance's convenience. Her rage against Macen, Rockford, and Riker was unabated as Gerrit's Security removed her and her entire staff from their cells and force marched them to the landing pad where her shuttle was docked.

"I have no room for this many employees," Trier grated, "Or any employees at all."

"You should have thought of that before getting involved in the Intendant's schemes," Riker stated as he arrived alongside Gerrit.

"Please, make a move," Gerrit encouraged her involuntary twitches.

"Do yourself a favor," Riker suggested, "Don't ever try coming back."

"I won't," Trier hawked a spit wad and tried to hit Riker with it.

But he was out of her range, "Get them out of here"

They all boarded her shuttle at phaser point. Gerrit personally sealed the airlock and then locked it down. Ops cycled the pad, opening the upper hatches and raising the ramp. The station's weapons systems and tractor beams were armed and readied in case Trier attempted anything other than a departure.

Riker hit his comm badge, "Inform the Ark that Trier is departing."

"Copy that," Danan perkily replied. Riker ruefully recalled his wife's original recommendation that Trier be denied a business license on Serenity. Kathy Tyrol had argued for the allowance and Danan adamantly disagreed. Ultimately though, Riker had made the decision to allow the Orion outcast settle in. He could see now how Trier could've betrayed Parva and sold her into sexual slavery as well as running afoul of the Syndicate itself and forcing her into neutral territory.

When Neela activated the "kill switch" installed into Trier's warp drive, the Ark of the Prophets would then tow the shuttle to DS3. At such time, Macen would contact Gomer, the Syndicate's boss of bosses, and inform her of Trier's whereabouts. That knowledge would be employed by Captain Reyes to enjoin Trier into testifying regarding Kira and Ro's next ambitions now that they'd toured the Alpha and Beta Quadrant borders and elicited violent reactions from the Federation's political rivals. Only the Romulan Star Empire had remained unaffected. But then, after Starfleet's refusal to finish evacuating Romulan colonists out the projected Hobus supernova's blast radius, the Romulans hated the Federation more than ever.

They needed Hugh to unlock the Borg cube and he would only do so if the Federation was also allowed to conduct research of the vessel and attempt reclamation of the drones. Now the Romulans barely allowed restricted diplomatic travel into their territory. So the former Neutral Zone and the border regions became lawless enclaves controlled by local warlords intended as a buffer region between the Star Empire, the Federation, and the Klingons.

But that still left Rockford's team investigating Trier's records before confronting the assassins in their cells. Customarily, the technique was to interrogate them individually and play their weaknesses off of each other in hopes of negotiating a testimony and confession out of one of them with which to hang one and deliver a milder sentence to the other. But under Barrinoran law, the station acted as an independent state within the star system. Even Odin's legal jurisdiction, despite Serenity orbiting the glacial world, was irrelevant. Regarding past criminal cases, Outbound Ventures had voluntarily extradited the accused to Odin where the Barrinoran legal system prevailed. But nothing compelled the company to release prisoners into another legal system.

So Macen and Rockford conferred regarding the Detective Squad's discoveries and further records unlocked by the Data Team and decided to chart new legal waters and prosecute the accused aboard the station with an ad hoc legal system. Under these guidelines, Riker stood as the presiding authority. He would determine their ultimate fate, whether that be extradition or condemnation in the here and now with immediate sentencing. As a neutral system, Barrinor and its colony weren't under Federation law. neither was Serenity despite its ties to Starfleet. Therefore there were no laws or regs stipulating that the accused were presumed innocent.

An entire space station had witnessed various stages of the crime. The intended victims had already reported the circumstances and Trier's own security system had recorded it for Kira's benefit. However, the outcome was far different than initially anticipated. A tremendous outflow of latinum had come the assassins' way. An outflow the Iotian would demand be recompensed by the Alliance. The Alliance had no liquid assets and little credit left with the Iotians.

The Federation's Diplomatic Corps had staved off the predicted apocalypse that should've befallen the Federation. Even the Klingons and Cardassians were willing to talk rather than shoot first and negotiate from a position of overwhelming strength. The Tholians and the Gorn would never accept the real version of events but they were outmanned and stayed within their own borders. The Tzenkethi and Breen at least came to the tables and accepted at face value that the Cardassians would never ally themselves with the Klingons. Not even for a power grab in the Alpha Quadrant.

The First Federation too accepted the oddity of the mixture of forces and the untenability of the idea that the Federation would break their long held bonds of friendship with the First Federation. So despite the Alliance's first foray into Prime Universe politics being an overt play to unleash a war to end all wars and conquer the surviving scraps, they learned that the Federation was neither the Terran Rebellion nor the Terran Empire, past or present. So like the Federation, Cardassian Union, and Klingon Empire in these cases, the burden of proof of innocence was upon the accused and legally speaking, the accused were already convicted.

But Rockford couldn't simply tell them that. She needed them to play out the usual betrayal of one upon the other that Federation courts so frequently relied upon. After the initial denials and intransigence, Rockford invited Delain to join the efforts.

"What's a Cardassian doing here?" one assassin, "Bill", asked.

"That's a racist question, isn't' it?" Delain coldly smiled at them, "This station, Ampok Nor to my people, operates under Cardassian credence. You've already been found guilty. Now we just have to determine the severity of your sentences."

It wasn't a ruse. Since Macen and Rockford had contracted with the CIB, and Delain was their official handler, Outbound Ventures did operate under a measure of Cardassian allowance and jurisprudence. Riker's judgment was as binding as any Cardassian judge's. They simply disposed with the mock trial and went straight to the sentencing phase.

"You have two options: give up your employers or live with your silence. Silence will earn a slow, grinding death in a Cardassian labor camp. Partial cooperation will get you spaced out an airlock. Full and total cooperation will earn a reprieve consisting of being reduced to atoms and beamed across the solar system. Choose carefully."

Delain retook her seat as her pronouncement took hold in her audience's minds. The assassins erupted into a spate of violence where they hurled themselves against the force fields to try and overload them. After they shocked themselves senseless, Kort came to assess their condition.

"They're simply suffering from terminal stupidity," the Klingon doctor diagnosed.

"Thanks, Kort," Rockford grinned as she reactivated the force fields.

"The Tellarite should awaken in twenty minutes or so," Kort predicted regarding "Bill" then shifted to "Vas Ist", "The Andorian will recover quicker. Give or take ten minutes."

"Their code names are idiotic," Lee complained.

"Why?" Forte asked.

"The Tellarite chose the contraction of a very human name while the Andorian is using a question in German," Lee explained.

"Or their root names simply sound human," Shade mused.

"Get on that," Rockford seized on it, "Their biometric data has been erased but probably not their births and name christenings."

"On it!" Forte happily called back.

"Quite deductive, Detective," Delain congratulated her, "You live up to your reputation."

"I employed facial recognition with the name fragments and came up with IDs," Forte announced. She threw the data to every padd.

"Bill vok Bill?" Lee asked.

"Yup," Forte confirmed it.

"No wonder he shortened it," Shade allowed, "And Vas Ish'teraranda...? Good job, kid."

Forte beamed proudly.

"Let's give them the bad news," Rockford wore a devilish grin. In the end, both assassins chose dispersal and gave up everything regarding the Iotian backed transactions that had hired them. Trier had merely provided the access codes that would override the weapons scanners. Delain altered the codes within seconds and was confident the Outbound Ventures staffers could encrypt them now that they knew about the backdoor protocols being in place.

"I have given you quite a bit today," Delain ruefully.

Riker was loathe to dispense Cardassian negotiated justice and intervened by negotiating a prison sentence on Odin. Which amounted to exile on a barren iceberg with infrequent supply drops.

"Better you should have killed them, Captain Riker," Delain said with great amusement.

"We'll see, won't we?" Riker asked in rebuttal.

"Now, we wait for Anara and Neela to perform Stage 2 of the plan," Rockford announced after making her summary report to Admiral Forger. Which took another week. Oddly enough, Trier's frantic calls into Iotian space remained unanswered until she received a voice message forbidding from using her "personal access" channel again.

Nechayev supplied the next piece of the puzzle. Back in the Terran Universe, the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance had fallen apart. The Klingons and Cardassians openly declared war upon one another. Dukat and Duras' egos both running too high to see how this eventuality only played into the still struggling Terran Empire's hands. The Klingon and Cardassian forces in the Prime Universe died in a mutually orgasmic wave of destruction as they killed one another. Intendants Ro and Kira managed to escape back to their home universe and the Iotian Starfleet laid claim to their flagships.

Just in time for the Ascendant to arrive and Ghemor was never one not to seize an opportunity. Nechayev's sources within Iotian space reported that Ghemor further stoked the fires of discontent that Iotians nursed towards the Federation. Ghemor repurposed the Ascendants' rage into a genocidal ambition rid the universe of all Bajoran life. The Iotian Federation was inclined to assist them. While the Iotians' rhetoric became more visceral, Martok unhappily reported to Starfleet that the High Council had unanimously voted to forgo honoring the mutual defense pact if the Iotians should engage in open warfare.

The Klingons had lost an entire generation of warriors between their successive wars against the Federation, Cardassians, and Dominion. Ships could easily be replaced but experienced commanders were in short supply and the High Council refused to wager the Empire's defensive posture in war aiding the Federation against a foe "they had created". Martok, against all advice, resigned as Chancellor in protest. He vowed to raise a private army to assist his Starfleet comrades-in-arms. A move which threatened to end in exile for every participant.

So once again, as Neela and Anara returned to Serenity, the impetus was upon their collaborative efforts to find a peaceful solution or to discredit Ghemor in the eyes of the faithful and send the Ascendant home.

"Both the Iotian Federation and the Ascendant share a manpower shortage," Macen reminded everyone in a conference that included every team member and the Obsidian officers, "They lack the numbers to achieve an all out victory. But all they to actually achieve is to approach through neutral space to Bajor and achieve Ghemor's primary aim. The Iotians will be emboldened to press for the Federation's acquiescence to territorial claims in said neutral space in exchange for the release of the Bajoran Wormhole."

"My people would have varied and profound reactions to such an accomplishment. There are a good many of those within the Cardassian Guard that would view this turn of events as favorable to ouster Castellan Ghemor and return a military junta into power," Delain explained.

"And our people would wage a holy war to avenge the losses on Bajor," Anara direly predicted, "Every able Bajoran from every colony and Federation world would unite in purpose to strike back at Sinhera."

"Which Ghemor, aided by the Cardassian Guard, would retaliate and draw the Federation back into war with Cardassia," Macen finished the final thought, "So how do we stop it before it begins?"

"I think you're right in that Ghemor is the key to the Ascendants' thinking. We remove her from their pillars of belief structures and we derail the whole contest and cast doubts upon their holy crusade," Rockford theorized.

"The Ascendant don't believe in the fulfillment of keys prophecies," Neela explained to the masses, "They believe they are to be the prophecy fulfilled. This is fueled by Ghemor's claims. If they doubt the veracity of her faith in the Prophets, then they'll doubt the veracity of her claims and her aspirations."

"But how do we cast doubt?" Anara asked testily.

"We seclude her and simply request verification of her beliefs," Neela said simply, "We broadcast her conversation and confessions and steer her towards revealing her deepest innermost secret: that she has no love for the Prophets because of the very fact they sent her to an alien world to be their Emissary. The simple fact is that she despises the Ascendant even more than she hates our people and the Federation at large."

"Neela! You're brilliant!" Macen exclaimed.

"I wouldn't say that," Neela protested.

"It's elegant in its simplicity," Macen told her, "And if we lay the burden of proof on her to verify her beliefs, then her frank admissions will only be that much more readily accepted to a crowd that wants to disbelieve but can't. Because this is their Emissary spouting apostasy."

"How did you come up with all of that?" Delain asked, "Was it the voice of your Prophets once again?"

"Actually, I have some experience with disillusionment with heroes of the faith," Neela simply shrugged.

"So do I," Macen confessed, "So you and I together will be confronting Ghemor regarding her faith issues."

"First we have to reach her," Forger pointed out, "And we don't have a standing invitation into the Iotian Federation. Do we?"

"I bought most of their second fleet before it went into service," Macen reminded everyone, "I think that will get us in the front door."

"And what gets us to Ghemor herself?" Daggit asked the next obvious question.

"Again, it's simple. Ghemor will want to meet us and she'll trap herself," Macen explained no further. Which everyone else, besides Neela, found really frustrating.

"All right, spill," Rockford demanded in the privacy of their quarters.

"Ghemor will want to meet the people that found her and escaped her. It'll be a morbid fascination with her. And with us seemingly in her grasp, she'll want to gloat," Macen told her the gist of it.

"And what assurances will you have that she won't simply have you both executed?" Rockford inquired.

"None. But her ego will drive her into sparing us long enough to discredit herself in the eyes of her faithful," Macen assured her, "We'll actually be in danger but since we're meant to do this I'm willing to also bet my life on the fact we'll have advance warning in case Ghemor changes her mind."

"Your messiah complex is showing again," Rockford complained.

"It's simple psychology," Macen promised her, "Ghemor has been living a lie since arriving upon Sinhera. At some point she wants to simply scream out her confession and make her claims of triumph for deceiving the religious dupes she's been fooling all of these years in the simple hope that somehow she'd reach Cardassia again and assist with their mission to conquer the known galaxy. In the meantime, she doles out punishment to an offshoot mixed blood people descended from Bajoran exiles. The same Bajorans she wants to enslave for all time. And she has a foothold in doing so by playing to the Ascendants' primal necessity to enshrine any alien visitor that reaches their world and can quote some of their scriptures with their same demented interpretational standards. Ghemor wasn't meant to conquer the Ascendant. She was meant to bring them back into reconciliation with the Bajoran faithful."

"And you got all of this from Neela's assertion that we should debunk Ghemor herself?" Rockford was skeptical.

"Neela and I have been working on this solution for some time but it seemed impractical as long as the Intendants were around to endorse Ghemor's false claims. But they've been removed from the equation. Now it's just her against the universe."

"And just how will you sneak transmitters past whatever security Ghemor will have?" Rockford wondered.

"My dear, wondrous Celeste, I have ultimate faith in Parva's sneakiness," Macen grinned. Rockford had to give him that one.

The Obsidian departed from Serenity and Macen contacted Oxmyx en route to the Iotian border from his office aboard the ship. Rockford, Neela, Anara, and Delain sat in on this meeting. Delain had conferred directly with Garan. The Castellan made the decision to promote Ocett to Supreme Legate. A decision that was popular amongst the voting masses and despised amongst the conservative military circles that still saw a woman's place in the sciences and at home rearing children. Macet and Maret gained traction as a result of the blatantly political move. But the junior officer corps, made up of equal numbers of men and women, saw it as a beacon of hope that they too could arrive at a top seat in the military circles someday.

Garan also promoted Lyoti Mariska to Legate and placed her in command of the Legislative Guard. The former Dalin had bypassed Dal to reach the rank of Gul just weeks before at Garan's command. With her watch over Katreen Dervin included in her duties, Mariska readily accepted her posting to guard the Castellan and the Detepa Council from all threats, foreign and domestic. Mariska's ability to protect the Chrysalis Child from every assassination attempt since Dervin's birth announced to Legates Macet and Maret that they needed to be especially overwhelming in their attempted coup against Garan, the Council, and Ocett. But the rogue Legates had made a pact with Ghemor to support her devastation of Bajor and to launch an all-out offensive against the Federation when they rallied to retake Bajor.

Oxymx's features appeared on Macen's screen. She'd gone blonde since Ebert and Mudd had met her. Kracko also appeared in the screen in full Starfleet uniform. Which was now a variant of the rather militant original Starfleet's uniforms circa 2280-2330. Macen saw a feature that Ebert and Mudd had neglected to mention before. The still brunette Kracko wore sensor glasses. Her eyewear, like Ebert's being corrective in nature, could also enhance vision and tap into computer network displays. Kracko was also a decade older than Oxmyx, having risen through her Familia sooner than the younger woman. Both having inherited their Family's legacies.

Oxmyx to be the Big Boss of Bosses and Kracko the Fleet Admiral of the Iotian Starfleet and therefore the Iotian Federation's enforcer as well as the Iotian Federation's Number Two. The fact that the two most powerful women in the Iotian Federation were also intimate stifled any impulses the other three members of the Five Families could have had about ousting Oxmyx from her hereditary role. While Kracko's position had precedent with one of her recent ancestors, no female Oxmyx had ever risen to lead the Five Families before and gender bias was still strongly prevalent in the Familias' makeup. Whereas gender equality was largely established in the Starfleet. Many of the gun molls from the Familias having joined the Starfleet upon its creation.

The issue confronting the Starfleet now was racism. The so-called "Protectorates" and "Junior Partners" in the Iotian Federation contributed conscripted crewmen to the Starfleet. But only native Iotians could assume command of a starship or space station despite many of the volunteers from these other worlds earning officer's commissions. This cap on ultimate promotions was brewing a cesspool of resentment amongst the officer corps. A cesspool Kracko would have address before mutinies occurred, both within the Starfleet and upon the member worlds of the Iotian Federation. The Iotian Federation being a "softer" approach to the Terran Empire of the Terran Universe's past and more akin to the reboot of said empire.

But still, ultimately, one had had be Iotian to truly prosper in the Iotian Federation. As the "member" worlds voluntarily enlisting or press-ganged into joining were discovering. Oxmyx looked pleased with herself despite Intendant Kira's abandoning both her "love" stricken puppets. Kracko was more apprehensive regarding the nature of this conference.

"Godfather, Fleet Admiral, I'm pleased to finally be in contact with both of you," Macen had only spoken to Kracko previously.

"The pleasure is ours," Oxmyx oozed. Kracko looked decidedly skeptical.

"The Commodore spoke highly of you and your ongoing purchases and replenishment contracts bespeak of the nature of your commitment to your business partners," Oxmyx happily stated. Kracko looked ill.

"How can we service you today?" Oxmyx had a merry twinkle in her eye. Rockford looked ready to gag herself.

"I need a conference with Iliana Ghemor and I think we can reach an accommodation towards that end," Macen said forthrightly.

"Who?" Kracko responded first.

"Don't be insulting, Admiral. I know your Federation is hosting the Ascendant," Macen warned her, "I want to meet their Emissary in person."

"For what end?" Oxmyx intervened.

"To discuss her aims and goals. I'll be bringing along a Bajoran citizen," Macen informed her.

"Very well. But to what end?" Oxmyx repeated.

"I'll be coming unarmed and so will my companion. We don't intend to harm the Emissary in any way. We merely wish to discuss the Ascendancy's goals and their Emissary's understanding of their ties to the Bajoran people," Macen explained, "I believe that Ghemor's explanation will go a long ways in establishing a mutual dialogue not only with the Bajorans and the Cardassians but also with the Ascendant themselves."

"And what's our role to be?" Kracko asserted herself once again.

"You'll provide a neutral location and secure it from outside intervention from either the Ascendant or other potentially destabilizing forces," Macen replied, "Of course, Outbound Ventures would contract you for this service."

"Can we have a minute to confer?" Oxmyx asked.

"Take your time," Macen allowed.

It only took seconds before their images reappeared, "We accept your proposal and will arrange the details as well as a billing structure to reimburse us for our time and efforts."

"Send me the bill and the details and provide safe passage for my ship and Captain Forger's crew and we'll meet with the Emissary at the assigned place at the assigned time," Macen promised.

"The Iotian Federation always appreciates your business," Oxmyx signed off.

"And we're in," Macen gloated.

"Prophets help us all," Anara sighed.

"They will," Neela was utterly confident in that fact. So was Macen.

The Obsidian was met at the Iotian Federation's border beyond the stars system containing Beta III. The UFP had a standing policy of allocating a circumference of twenty solar systems in every direction around a pre-warp culture. This allowed that same culture to expand and colonize beyond the home world when they achieved warp speed. The greater goal being the eventual addition of that society to the Federation's greater whole and therefore gaining access to even more colonial opportunities.

The Iotians had learned about this standing policy from the Federation public data nets using the communicator technology left behind by Dr. McCoy and they'd built an advanced warp capable culture from an early industrial base in a century. What the Iotians lacked in native ingenuity they made up for with their flawless mimicry. Exploiting the UFP's policies, the Iotian Federation had rapidly expanded by pressuring less developed cultures into their "protective embrace" at a cost. For equally advanced cultures, they simply appealed to the worst parts of their nature and the exploitative practices began to include them if they participated in the Iotian Starfleet.

The Iotian Federation included more alien worlds than Sigma Iotia II could ever hope to conquer. But they were successful at maintaining their advantage within the Starfleet's ranks despite the fact that the bulk of the enlisted corps were aliens. Point in fact, alien junior officers now outnumbered the Iotian natives. But the Familias kept their oligarchic control over the self named Federation through pure intimidation. Surgical violence, which the Iotians were more than willing to dole out, maintained the status quo on the diplomatic and legislative fronts. And in a bizarre twist Gul Dukat would have envied, the subjugated were often grateful that they'd been conquered in all but name.

With the Iotian fleets returning home, Starfleet's border patrols had thinned as assets were redeployed for the potential eventuality of conflict generated by the Iotian and Alliance's "grand tours" with the Alliance having immolated itself and the Intendants fleeing to their native universe to shore up whatever influence they retained there, the Iotians were the only victors in the "hearts and minds" campaigns that Ro and Kira had devised for the Iotians to play out following Alliance attacks. The Iotian Federation was now poised to become a regional power beyond their present confinement. Only the Federation's territorial policies had kept a corridor of neutral and undeveloped worlds between the Iotians and the Barrinoran system.

So Outbound Ventures' arms deliveries went on unabated despite Starfleet's wariness regarding their developing namesake rival. The proof that the Iotians had advanced into the 24th Century level technology that the Federation had achieved in the first half of the century came when an Emden-class starship met the Obsidian at the Iotians' official border. But their influence was already prevalent far further than that imaginary sphere. The escort was a vast improvement over the pre-refit Asia- and Mercury-class light cruisers and frigates that had patrolled the borders before.

Sigma Iotia II had copied post-2271 technology and built a fleet of ships that would have been familiar on the UFP between 2271-2293 and found them already outdated by the designs that been denied the Iotians by the Federation when the Alliance offered them in exchange for complicity in their plans. Macen had bought the small fleet that they constructed and never deployed. The latest updated fleet came as a shock to Starfleet despite early warnings that the Iotian shipyards were swiftly churning out modern hulls. The epitome of the Iotians' efforts were three Ambassador-class fleet flagships and Kracko's inherited Galaxy-class flagship. With a Nebula-class as the Home Fleet's flagship.

With the larger hulls deploying beyond the Iotian frontiers, they'd built a small fleet of escort vessels to supplement the Home Fleet. Like all militant society's the Iotian Federation was always in a desperate quest to obtain more raw materials and conscripts to fill its expanding ranks. Latinum and dilithium were prized above all else other than bodies to fill starships and space stations that were being built throughout the Iotian Federation's ever expanding borders. The Klingons had always existed within a dilithium vacuum. The precious crystals were beyond easy reach of the Empire outside of their moon, Praxis. So acquisition had become paramount to the Empire's goals until the mining catastrophe on Praxis that nearly destroyed Qo'nos. The Federation had taught the Klingons how to filter the deadly ozone permeating their breathable atmosphere, threatening to make the Klingon home world uninhabitable.

Secondly, the Federation shared the newly developed technique of recrystalizing spent dilithium and how to use it far more efficiently. The Romulans took an even more drastic approach to solving their dilithium extraction limitations. They developed artificial singularities to be contained within their vessels and using the quantum fluxes generated by the rifts in time-space to power those same vessels. A fortunate happenstance in the Dominion War when the Breen joined in with their dampening technology that crippled traditional warp capable vessels.

The Obsidian was brought to a newly constructed J-class station and ordered to dock. There the crew nervously awaited further instructions. Believing in the art of the deal, the Iotians faithfully provided an outlet for Macen and Neela to meet with Ghemor and her chosen Ascendant equivalent to a Bajoran kai. Parva had indeed come through and the pair wore holo imagers and transmitters that the Iotians sensors hadn't detected. Furthermore, they never realized that Smith and Kerber had penetrated their comm systems as soon as the Obsidian was in range to detect them. So utilizing the station array, transmitting throughout the Iotian comm buoy system into Federation space and having unlocked those comm systems to broadcast simultaneously throughout the Federation and into Cardassian territory where Ocett herself authorized the external link and prepared to relay the performance throughout the Cardassian Union and transmitted directly to the Cardassian Guards' commanding officer corps.

The Iotian Starfleet Security officers ushered Macen and Neela into the prepared conference setting before the Emissary and her kai were brought forth. Having failed to detect any weapons or transmissions, the Security team allowed Ghemor to face her expected accusers.

"So, they've sent you to me," Neela was surprised to discover Ghemor spoke fluent Bajoran with a slight accent developed from her time with the Ascendant. The Ascendant's spiritual leader doted on his Emissary. The show of devotion in eyes could've brightened the room with its wattage.

"I suppose I should be grateful that you led me to the Wormhole," Ghemor allowed as she took a seat and the would-be kai joined her at her side.

"Always happy to oblige a refugee, Iliana," Macen stated, "I can use your real name, can't I? You can hardly pass yourself off as Kira Nerys now."

Ghemor's laugh was one of pure delight, "You think I wanted to look Bajoran? It was my mission to replace an upstart terrorist and slowly kill every Resistance cell leader I could possibly approach."

"That's a moot point," Macen shrugged. For the first time, Ghemor's irritation showed. It seemed she'd become quite used to the flattery and fawning of the Ascendant over her. As Delain had pointed out when she unknowingly introduced this tactic, pride was the Cardassians vice of choice.

"Everyone has a tale of woe and sorrow, Ilaina. Let's hear yours. The unvarnished version," Macen encouraged her, "I'm sure you doctored a few details for your Cardassian audience."

"It's quite simple," Ghemor was amused by the untraditional approach, "My shuttle was swallowed by the Wormhole and I found myself trapped on the side with nowhere to go until an Ascendant ship found me. They took me in after some lengthy technological questioning. I proved to them that the Prophets sent me. How else could I come spewing out of the Celestial Temple itself?"

"Your conclusion or theirs?" Macen wondered.

"It was mutual," Ghemor remarked. But there was that flash of irritation once again.

"You must be well versed in the faith of the Prophets," Neela broke her silence, "After all, Kira is a devout woman. You'd need to be intimately familiar with the faith."

"Kira was murderer," Ghemor sneered.

"So was I then. I served in the Resistance since I was old enough to aim a disruptor or take and rebuild a captured Cardassian rover," Neela informed her.

"You're hardly old enough," Ghemor scoffed.

"Sometimes those that serve the Prophets remain ageless," Neela shrugged.

"And what is your tale of woe?" Ghemor returned the question at Macen.

"I fought your people, unrelentingly, for 23 years of unremitting warfare on various scales. First with Starfleet Intelligence, then the Maquis, and then with Starfleet again seconded to the Bajoran Militia when they decided to operate within the war against the Dominion that Cardassia allied itself with," Macen explained, "I'm sure your briefings on recent events covered those basic historical highlights."

That irritation flared again before Ghemor spoke, "They did. So, you're counted amongst the murderers too."

"Proudly," Macen smiled, "They sent me here you know."

"Who did?" Ghemor whispered conspiratorially.

"The Prophets," Macen verbally at her.

Ghemor was amused, "The Prophets only send their Emissaries."

"To serve as an Emissary is great honor," Neela took up the gauntlet again, "It also is a life of sacrifice and burdens that few can bear."

"Like being sent 70,000 light years from home and mission," Ghemor glanced at the Ascendant leader beside her, "Of course, I took on a new mission for the Prophets."

"And what exactly was that?" Neela asked.

"To speak for them," Ghemor smiled cruelly, "To prepare the Ascendant for their day of victory and purging."

"Yet you didn't know how to provide that day," Macen quickly pointed out.

"I didn't have to," Ghemor felt victorious; "They sent me you."

"But the Ascendancy first met the Bajoran colony," Macen rebutted, "Was it slaughtered on your authority or did your faithful simply panic when they met full blooded Bajorans?"

"They asked for my wisdom of course. The Bajorans confused them and tore them from the purity of their faith. For that heresy they had to die," Ghemor relished the thought.

"So the faithful Children of the Prophets had to slay the other faithful Children of the Prophets?" Macen asked.

"They were hardly faithful," Ghemor scoffed.

"I was there, in the aftermath, you recall?" Macen inquired, "I saw the temples and the monastery. I saw the bodies and what had been done to them. That was more than a religious debate. Even a purging is clean. That was wholesale xenocide."

"You see, the Bajora that landed on Sinhera taught that those that exiled them could find them one day. But there were also those that would be faithful and that the Ascendant could rejoin the Bajora and enlighten those that believed the fictitious untruths of the current dogma they were banished from," Neela told her, "There are no accounts in the Ascendants' scripture that account for the brutality of the 'cleansing' of supposed apostasy. The Ascendant scripture dictates that the Bajoran brethren that would one day find them were to be shown the purity of the faith practiced on Sinhera by the Ascendancy and any errant doctrines held by others were to be countered through exchange, not slaughter."

Ghemor looked stunned.

"Have you read the holy texts as predating the Bajora landing and those writings that sustained the faithful afterwards? Or did you simply emulate their Bajora ancestors that set themselves up as tin gods?" Neela inquired sharply.

"I showed them a new way. Directly from the Prophets," Ghemor growled.

"How do the Prophets speak with you?" Neela was incisive.

"Excuse me?" Ghemor was startled by the question.

"The Prophets. How do they speak to you?" Neela probed harder and deeper, "The scrolls of the prophecies elaborate on how the Prophets manifest themselves to their Emissaries. It is these proofs that define a true Emissary from the deluded. I'm guessing no one ever asked this question before."

"My arrival was proof enough that I speak for the Prophets. The crew saw me ejected from the Celestial Temple," Ghemor insisted, "Their eye witness was enough for the Ascendancy to embrace me."

"But why were you ejected rather than embraced?" Macen asked.

"Excuse you?" Ghemor was indignant.

"It's a simple question," Macen explained.

"I don't need to answer to you," Ghemor snarled, "My path is obviously that laid out by the Prophets themselves."

"So they've never spoken to you," Neela deduced.

"Of course they have!" Ghemor snapped at her, "I won't be questioned by terrorists!"

"Then how do the Prophets manifest themselves to you when they speak?" Neela reiterated.

"They whisper to me," Ghemor stated, "As loud as thunderclaps because their voices would kill me if they fully spoke aloud."

"So how do they appear?" Neela asked.

"What?" Ghemor was taken aback again.

"When they whisper to you," Neela clarified, "How do they appear to you?"

"Like gods who reign majestically above us all," Ghemor said proudly, "And I am but a humble servant."

"So they don't look like people you know?" Neela sought clarification this time.

"Why would I recognize a god?" Ghemor laughed, "Your ignorance is your undoing"

"And they speak plainly to you? Giving you precise instructions to pass on to the faithful amongst the Ascendant?" Neela hit another nail in Ghemor's coffin.

"Of course. I am their Voice," Ghemor declared haughtily.

"An obviously humble voice that only speaks the plain truths of the Prophets themselves. Who appear majestically as the gods of both the Ascendant and the Bajoran," Neela surmised.

"Are you deaf as well as dumb?" Ghemor sneered at her, "Of course they do."

"But not according to Bajoran prophecies before the sundering of the Bajora into exile and not afterwards," Neela professed.

"What are you on about?" Ghemor had lost her patience with the whole affair.

"Emissary, she quotes our holy writ," the kai equivalent spoke up, "The texts clearly describe an experience with the Prophets, unchanging from Emissary to Emissary...until you."

"Do you doubt me?" Ghemor wheeled on him.

"I seek to understand, your Eminence. The Prophets have never spoken to any other as you say they speak to you," the priest advised her.

"Because I am their True Voice," Ghemor savagely snapped at him.

"But the Prophets speak in plurality," the priest warned her, "Over eons. Each Emissary reciting the riddles and visions that the Prophets lay down. Only fully explained over time as they prophecies themselves unfold."

"I am the fulfillment of your prophecies," Ghemor warned him.

"Which prophecies?" Neela asked, "Because an Emissary would surely understand which exact prophecies she is the fulfillment of. If the Prophets speak to her so plainly, that is."

Ghemor saw the doubt building in her Ascendant follower's eyes and finally understood the nature of the trap she'd fallen into.

"My people are the fire that consumed your world," Ghemor snarled, "And we're coming back to finish what we started."

"Are speaking of the Ascendant?" Neela asked very piously, "Because the Ascendant haven't consumed Bajor yet. Nor are they meant to. T e Cardassians, your people not the faithful Ascendant, wish to see my people dead for the transgression of driving you off of our world,"

"And I suppose the Prophets are responsible for that as well?" Ghemor had lost her temper now, "Let me tell you something, the Prophets didn't aid your terrorism because they don't exist! There are no gods in the Celestial Temple watching over the Bajorans or the Ascendant. There is only me. And I am the whirlwind you have always rightly feared."

And at that moment, Ghemor knew she'd lost her kai's faith so she slit his throat before he could protest then threw the knife away from her and called for the guards.

"Arrest them! They killed the Watcher for the Faithful!" she declared. The Iotians separated her from the still seated Macen and Neela.

"You need to calm down," the officer of the watch told her, "They've broadcast every word you've said. Every screen on this station and every ship in this sector has been watching you unravel. You need to get grip on your so-called 'faithful' before they riot on this station."

"Commander, Command is reporting that the aliens are beaming aboard the station and tearing it apart looking for her. The rest of their ships are en route," a junior officer reported.

"You need to grant me asylum," Ghemor demanded.

"We don't do that," the Lt. Commander informed her, "Take her. Give her to the neo-barbs and let them have their way with her."

As Ghemor was marched off in custody, the Security Chief came to Macen and Neela, "The aliens are demanding to speak with you as well."

"We'll meet with them if they're completely disarmed this time," Macen stipulated.

"Of course," the Lt. Commander readily agreed.

"Hoo-rah! Score one for the good guys!" Burrows enthused from the Situation Center where the broadcast was playing out as well as other venues aboard the Obsidian.

"The hard part has just begun," Anara warned him, "Now, they have to convince the Ascendant that their path has been flawed since Ghemor twisted it."

"Red alert!" the automated warnings resounded, "All hands to battle stations!"

The overhead lighting reddened.

"The Ascendants' fleet just arrived from Sigma Iotia II," Lee announced from his monitor screen.

"We're detaching from the station," Ebert announced as the ship's deck plating began to gently vibrate.

"They'll detach every ship to muster them in the station's defense," Daggit predicted.

"I'm off to Engineering," Parva kissed Daggit's cheek.

"I'll grab my gear," Daggit stated, "You should too."

Burrows followed him out to secure the corridor in case the starship was boarded by the Ascendant.

Delain re-entered after an excursion to her guest quarters, "I've made my immediate reports. First I briefed the Castellan directly. Then I briefed the Director. The Castellan's office contacted me to inform me that the Director's accounting of current events had drastically differed from my own direct analysis as well my summary of unfolding events that the Director claimed I had reported to her but I hadn't yet."

"That confirms one suspicion," Rockford said gently.

"Unfortunately," Delain sighed, "This event will stir Macet and Maret's passions as their time table for invading Bajor closes. Supreme Legate Ocett and Legate Mariska have alerted the Loyalist factions of the Cardassian and Legislative Guards to counter any coup attempt the implicated Legates might attempt against the Castellan and the Detepa Council."

"Will it devolve into violence?" Rockford asked.

"No Cardassian authority has fired on another for a thousand years. Not even the Obsidian Order fired on Dukat's forces when their secret and illegal shipyards and vessels were discovered thanks to your Captain Riker," Delain added, "But everything is dependent upon how determined, and desperate, Macet and Maret are to see change."

"Or they could go straight for Bajor," Mudd warned. Anara looked horrified.

"I hope they do," Rockford smiled nastily to Anara's even greater horror.

The Iotians admitted two Ascendant soldiers.

"I am Captain Grex Ferran of the Ascending Star, flagship of my people's fleet. You may address me in the Bajora naming fashion," the leader stated, "We have taken the False Emissary into custody. But we implore you to allow us back to our home world to deal with her directly and re-evaluate our positions on the Bajora. Or 'Bajorans' as they are now called, we have learned."

"Both our peoples have come a long way since the Sundering, Captain Grex," Neela affirmed for him. "Grex" being a Sinheran name but the given name "Ferran" being Bajoran.

"I'm certain I can speak for my people when I say safe passage can be arranged," Neela promised, "We have an official, ranking member of the Militia aboard our ship. She can make the necessary arrangements. Afterwards, if we could approach your people or have you approach us, in peace this time, which would be a great honor to my people."

"It would?" Grex was somewhat surprised.

"You are now distantly our kin. And even through Ghemor's machinations, the Prophets have used her to bring our peoples together," Neela explained, "The prophecies regarding the great calamities of peoples' meeting were fulfilled when Cardassia invaded Bajor. But even that mutual animosity has been set aside when the Cardassian people needed the Prophets' love and Bajor responded to their need. There needn't be a gulf between the Bajoran people and the Ascendant. We have much to learn from each other and a great faith in the Prophets to share."

"We are relieved to hear these words," Grex admitted, "Our previous actions are to our everlasting shame. But...could we approach you again, in peace, as you rightly stated?"

"Bajor has other colonies in the Gamma Quadrant that could serve as a neutral meeting place, as this was here. When the safe passage is arranged, my government and spiritual leader would gladly give you the coordinates and arrange for a time and date to meet," Neela promised.

"We earnestly await your messages," Grex assured her, "Now if you excuse us; we have a False Emissary to secure."

They excused themselves and the Lt. Commander returned, "Commander Macen, Fleet Admiral Kracko asks that you cease your broadcast now"

"Please inform the Fleet Admiral that we thank her and the Iotian Starfleet for its indulgence," Macen had warned the Iotians to be prepared for a surprise during the meeting. But that it wouldn't overtly affect Iotian Federation security. Which had been the only thing that saved them from being arrested.

"Also inform the Admiral that we'll inform your Security Division here on the station what back doors and back channels we employed to broadcast the message so that you can shore up your security protocols and encryption to prevent a second occurrence," Macen pledged. He knew Kerber and Smith could defeat any changes made at their leisure.

"Again, a great relief to my superiors," the Security Chief admitted, "Now, we've contacted your ship and they're expecting you. I'll personally escort you to the transporters. Meanwhile, please fulfill the lady's promise and get these fanatics out of our territories."

"Easily done, Commander," Neela promised him, "As they stated, they want to leave."

It took a week for the Ascendant's ships to transit across the space between the Iotian Federation and the Bajor Sector given that they had to remain in neutral space and the outmoded nature of their ships compared to their Starfleet equivalents. The Obsidian was called upon by the Bajoran government to escort the Ascendant to Bajoran space and through the Wormhole back to the Gamma Quadrant where Colonel Ro and her Colonial Forces awaited them with the support of the USS Endeavour and USS Defiant.

The Bajor system and the nearby border system containing the colony world Prophet's Landing were filled with Federation starships. Given Macen's advance warning of how they intended to elicit Ghemor's confession, Starfleet redirected elements from the nearby 9th and 7th Fleets to assist the Bajor Sector Patrol's defense of Bajor itself and Deep Space 9. Maret and Macet had redeployed the 6th and 8th Orders to the border to find it completely occupied by Starfleet and three Militia starships.

Having tipped their hand, Ocett gave them a rare opportunity for a merciful ending. Maret and Macet could lead the Cardassian Guards' ventures beyond the Cardassian Farside border into the deeper Alpha Quadrant or stand trial and be convicted and sentenced to a labor camp where they would die ignominiously rather than as martyrs if properly executed. Even the risk of their being rescued was a slighter likelihood than their banner being taken up by the Guard itself should they be summarily executed for their "righteous cause". The disgrace of a labor camp would permanently stain their honor. But to push out beyond the Cardassian Union's present borders would also subjugate them to a perilously tenuous logistical support chain. A chain that could be severed from Cardassia Prime or the closest Subject Worlds at the slightest hint of treachery.

Before transiting the Wormhole, the Obsidian's SID team bid farewell to Delain and Anara.

"You're both welcome back anytime," Macen promised.

Rockford surprised Delain by hugging her, "Take care, Ziva. You have friends here."

Even Ebert gave Delain a friendly farewell. Then they were transported to DS9.

"We've been cleared to transit," Forger advised Macen.

"Tell the Ascendant they're about to walk with the Prophets," Neela advised her.

"Shouldn't that be the Kai's line?" Forger teased.

"He isn't here," Neela replied simply. If the Ascendant were surprised by the nature of their transit this time, traversing space-time through a portal created by their gods, they gave no indication. Nor did they raise an alarm to find the Starfleet vessels and Ro's Militia starships awaiting them.

"We have the way home charted," Grex signaled, "Thank you again for this second chance."

"Just earn it from now on," Neela implored him.

"We shall," he promised.

The Endeavour and the Defiant stayed on station until the Ascendant vessels were well out of sensor range then Saavik returned to her ongoing mission of exploration and Vaughn and his crew returned to DS9. Ro beamed aboard the Obsidian from the Fist of the Prophets.

"I hereby extend an official invitation for you to resume your enlistment in the Militia," Ro offered Neela, "That comes from General Kira herself."

"Thank you, but no thanks. My path lies elsewhere," Neela replied.

Ro snorted, "I already told her. Anara was offered a promotion and permanent command of the Special Forces including a seat with the Joint Chiefs. She retired instead. She's headed to Serenity."

Neela radiated joy but asked, "Is she certain?"

"Never more so, apparently," Ro shrugged.

"I'll alert Tyrol and Pike to make a place for Anara beside Neela and we'll press the Ark of the Prophets into part-time work," Macen offered.

"Thank you, Commander," Neela exuded her happiness.

"Delain briefed Kira on how you work with the CIB. I say 'with' because you don't work for anyone," Ro snarked, "The Militia is officially offering you the same deal. Anara would be your unofficial 'handler'."

"To everyone's 'unofficial' amusement," Macen dryly remarked. Neela had the grace to look embarrassed.

"We can deliver Anara to Serenity ourselves once she's packed and ready," Rockford offered.

"I'll officially pass that along," Ro smirked, "And I'm returning my regular Alpha Quadrant patrols to their assigned duties. You're coming to DS9 to wait for Anara."

"This is about an unofficial 'kiss and make up' with Lavelle, isn't it?" Macen complained.

"I didn't say it," Ro held her hands up in surrender.

"So what's next?" Rockford inquired.

"I have six hours before my troops return to the terminus. I can talk freely for four," Ro informed them.

"So we relocate to my office," Rockford suggested, "Unlike Brin, I don't have an open door policy."

"Good," Ro told them.

Once ensconced in Rockford's office, the conversation began for real.

"So, we've averted the Ascendancy crisis and survived the Alliance putsch, what's next?" Ro sighed as she nursed her drink. She was having something a bit stronger than everyone else's coffees.

"Now we get to our real work," Macen decided.

"How so?" Rockford inquired softly.

"The Prophets are concerned for Bajor," Macen explained, "That motivates everything they do. Bajor is now part of the Federation. So they share a common fate."

"So to help Bajor, we help the Federation," Neela finished the thought for him.

"Exactly," Macen congratulated her quickness, "Which explains why most of us are directly or indirectly involved with the Federation. Laren, you've been shifted into a position with overt influence over Bajoran security. The rest of us gathered on this vessel are involved with the SID. Those of us that aren't part of Outbound Ventures are directly influencing Federation security."

"And you put all of these key players into position and you accomplish the Prophets' goal of defending Bajor from external and internal threats. Which is why Elias is still on DS9," Rockford surmised.

"The gatekeeper to the Alpha Quadrant's terminus," Ro stated, "And a direct doorway to Bajor."

"Which implies that the Dominion could still prove problematic in the future," Macen hated to say.

"But they dictated the terms of our present Cold War," Ro argued.

"Accepting that a former enemy is at your gates isn't the same as wishing them long life and prosperity," Macen rebutted her; "They closed the border to everything but minimal trade on their terms. They knew we probably wouldn't stay on our side of the Wormhole forever so they dictated the existence of the 'buffer zone' and frankly told us to 'go to hell' as long as we kept to our side of the zone and only explored back towards the Alpha Quadrant."

"Why do say 'probably'?" Neela asked.

"Because the Federation skirted around the Klingon Empire, the Gorn Hegemony, and the Metron Confederacy to slink passed the Thallonian Empire to explore and expand deeper into the Beta Quadrant. We've hemmed them all in. The Romulans can still push further into the Beta Quadrant and the Dominion has reached the Delta Quadrant and can make inroads that way. But eventually they'll collide with the Borg and the Romulans will meet us or some other potential adversary and that will stymie their expansion efforts. Just like decades down the road, we'll collide with Cardassians once again from this side."

"Stop. You're cheering me up," Ro groused.

"Still, it's worth considering. We made tremendous in-roads with the Cardassians thanks to intervening with Ghemor and the Ascendant. Maret and Macet were ready to plunge the Cardassian Union into war to avenge the loss of face regarding Bajor. Macet was once appointed to negotiate the first official cease-fire of the Border Wars. For his outlook to change so drastically shows just how badly the Cardassians' losses to the Allies and the Dominion really were to the military's psyche," Macen stipulated.

"And to now be beholden to the Bajorans has to rub salt in every raw wound," Rockford agreed.

"The Cardassians are launching a new Damar-class battlecruiser to supplement the fleet. Even the Type III Gamor-class is seen as lacking now," Ro agreed, "And the Keldon-class is just a troop transport variant of the basic Galor- developed by the Obsidian Order and adopted the Cardassian Guard during the Dominion War to transport large numbers of troops with orbital and system-wide protections."

"The Cardassians still have large numbers of the Lakut-class frigates because they were assigned to patrolling the sectors surrounding the Subject Worlds and escorting the military freighters hauling raw resources and finished products to the war zones," Macen reminded everyone, "So despite the personnel losses still restricting their ability to deploy on a massive scale again, the addition of women and subject races into the military is supplementing the Guard and making the Cardassians able to project force, if in a limited scope by comparison to before the wars."

"And they're under Ocett's management now," Neela broke her silence, "Cardassian women have always been the craftier of the two genders. That's why the Obsidian Order was so effective in comparison to the Cardassian Guard. They enrolled female agents wholesale. That's where an Iliana Ghemor stems from."

"Or a Ziva Delain," Rockford acknowledged.

"And Zivan Slaine is still aboard DS9 as an exchange officer with the Militia," Ro reminded everyone.

"I wonder how Sam Lavelle is dealing with that blatant snub?" Macen mused.

"You have to get over this Lavelle thing you've developed," Rockford chided him.

"Sam Lavelle will be a massive variable," Neela predicted, "The Prophets haven't told me his role in current and future yet."

"Still, he has Vaughn to shepherd him," Ro shrugged.

"If Lavelle will continue to listen to him," Rockford warned, "He seems to be rather impetuous and stubborn. Hence the friction with my beloved husband."

"It does take one to despise another," Ro smirked.

"Lavelle was aboard the Enterprise when I returned from Advanced Tactical Training. He'd become the Beta Watch OPS Officer after Sito Jaxa disappeared. He always seemed to harbor a doubt that he earned that first promotion just because Sito wasn't there," Ro seemed irritated by that, "If he's still driven by an incessant need to prove himself, he could be dangerous."

"His getting remanded to be passed over for promotion for the last several years could drive him to command excesses in our case," Macen deduced.

"But he got command of the station," Rockford thought the attitude was senseless.

"But he didn't rank up," Ro reminded her.

"The Emissary was a Starfleet Commander when he arrived and he wasn't promoted until well after I went to prison," Neela spoke again.

"During his third year of command over the Bajoran assistance effort and the station itself along with getting the Defiant assigned to the station and his personal command," Macen read off Sisko's resume.

"I was only a Commander when I was promoted to CO," Ro was blasť about it. Her being reinstated just as an ensign when she was released from her imprisonment in the stockade on Jaros II had never seemed to bother Ro. Picard himself, thinking Ro was dead, had remarked that he believed she would've been a lt. commander by that time had she not been court-martialed.

But she'd promoted to Lieutenant JG by the time she'd been accepted by the Advanced Tactical Training program and a full lieutenant when she graduated. Then she'd gone AWOL to join the Maquis. She'd been granted amnesty by the Bajoran government to lead a mission against the Dominion. She'd made a lateral transfer into the Militia with the same rank. When Militia officers became candidates for Starfleet commissions when Bajor was accepted into the Federation, Picard had quietly urged her to apply.

Once again reinstate at her former rank, Ro and still assigned to DS9 she was quickly promoted to Lt. Commander at last. When Kira left the station to assume the rank of General, Vaughn had assumed temporary command as Ro was given the role of XO. Under his tutelage and recommendation, Ro was fast tracked to full commander and given the C O's billet. She was promoted to captain before her Board of Inquiry regarding her knowledge of Quark's smuggling scheme within the Kalendra and Bajor Sectors and a potential conflict of interest in avoiding prosecuting a criminal conspiracy.

To avoid a second court-martial and refusing to give Quark up to Starfleet Security, Ro resigned from Starfleet and was re-accepted into the Militia at the rank of colonel and given field command of the Colonial Defense Forces. Her mobile command was the Fist of the Prophets while the General in official oversight commanded a seat with the Joint Chiefs. Her direct superior was a compromise political appointee that had little scope and less regard for Ro's actual circumstances and duties. He was simply riding his desk until he felt compelled to retire. Something he refused to do out of grudging anger at Kira being appointed Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs immediately upon her promotion.

He naturally felt he was owed the position since he'd ridden his desk since the Militia was reformed following the Cardassian withdrawal. Whereas Kira had risen from her initial rank of major to assume command of the most strategic posting in the Militia. The entire originally cast Joint Chiefs had retired save one belligerent holdout that no one wanted and had been given a posting that everyone had originally assumed was irrelevant. That was before the Wormhole was discovered and Bajor's colonial prospects had increased.

The Dominion War had subsequently proven that the command of the Colonial Defense Forces was now the second most paramount posting in the Militia. So the irksome general refused to retire while his second-in-command always did the actual work. He also proved a contentious voice within the Joint Chiefs, arguing the opposing viewpoint to the Chairperson regardless of actual feeling or the merit of the position held by his supposed political "enemies".

The First Minister had instituted a mandatory retirement age for Militia personnel. But created an exception for general staff officers. So the cantankerous and pedantic general was exempted to everyone else's regret. especially Kira's. But the internal politics of the Militia General Staff weren't an issue...yet.

The instabilities in the command structures of the two most valued and strategic forces in defense of the Bajorans could easily snowball any crisis. Kira's worst fear was that the doddering general would actually try and assume personal command of his own force. Added to the situation was her already mixed opinion of Commander Lavelle. She could only hope Commander Vaughn could rein him in and moderate his obvious contempt for the Militia forces and their ongoing role in the defense of Bajor and her colonies. Something he apparently viewed as an unnecessary hindrance. His regards for Vaughn, who had more time in grade than Lavelle had been in Starfleet, were still a mystery.

Lavelle worshiped at Will Riker's feet. he'd tried a dozen times, unsuccessfully, to be transferred to Riker's command aboard the USS Titan. He'd also campaigned to be considered for the XO slot aboard the USS Enterprise-E when Captain LaForge assumed command. But the Counselor's notation that Lavelle was resentful of Captain Riker's passing him over for a dozen transfer requests dismissed Lavelle from LaForge's calculus regarding suitable candidates for his First Officer. Eventually, after reviewing all of BuPers suggestions, he promoted from within and gave Commander Worf his shot at the second seat.

He'd even applied to be Captain Martin Madden's XO, trying to push the Enterprise connection despite Lavelle having served aboard the Enterprise-D well before Madden's brief tour as XO of the Enterprise-E before his own assumption of command aboard a new Parliament-class starship, the USS Federation Council. Command slots were opening and awaiting filling as the bulk ordered Inquiry-, Concorde-, and Chimera-class starships were beginning the to leave the shipyards. What was beginning as a trickle would soon become a flood. Following the Breen attack on Earth, both Starfleet Headquarters and Starfleet Academy had been rebuilt and drastically expanded.

The enlisted training facilities had exponentially multiplied across several member worlds. Federation Security had opened several new branches and was actively recruiting for them. Including the new Federation Bureau of Investigation that would handle internal and external counter-terrorism. The Special Investigations Division and FBI intended as Starfleet and Federation Security's answers to the gap left behind by the fall of Section 3. Both agencies needed to provide answers to questions that plagued civilian minds and those of officialdom as well.

With the public's trust eroded, both Starfleet and Federation Security needed to find concrete ways and measures to restore public confidence in their institutions. Directly after the Mars Massacre, the Andorian Federation Council Representatives and a few other more rigid societal Representatives campaigned for a period of martial law. Thus marking one of the few instances when the Vulcan and Tellarite legations were in complete agreement with the Andorian ambassadors.

In a circumstance that surprised Nechayev and Forger, Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy campaigned against such a drastic move. The compromise hammered out was the ban on synthetic and holographic life forms and the negation, over Vulcan protests, of the effort to evacuate millions of Romulans from the Hobus shock wave's path. The very decision that Picard resigned over.

Macen saw the "refugees" being in this new universe as an opportunity to beat back the forces of fear that currently dictated Federation and Starfleet policies. It was a vision the others were beginning to embrace as well. So it was time to get to work. For real.

"I don't think we've ever seen Neela so ready to literally explode with happiness," Rockford mused regarding Anara's joining Outbound Ventures.

"Nope," Macen chuckled.

"So how will the Solstice crew function now?" Rockford wondered.

"The Solstice was never meant to deploy full time," Macen explained, "Chris Noble understood that when she assumed command. She doesn't want to be a starship commander. The ship is actually intended as a secondary option for us when the Obsidian would be an inappropriate response."

"So they're a backup crew for a backup ship?" Rockford sounded amused, "Too complicated for me."

"Nothing is too complicated for you," Macen encouraged her.

"Good man," Rockford grinned, "I might let you take me out for date night when we reach the station."

"Why wait?" Macen asked, "Tessa and Galen 3 are hosting a rom-com holo program in the Cargo Bay. Everyone's invited. Parva even replicated and built a concession stand that Chef herself will be manning."

"Chairs on demand?" Rockford asked.

"Parva is seeing to it personally," Macen promised.

She offered him her hand, "Then lead on, kind sir."

"My pleasure, Milady," Macen meant and she knew it.


Last modified: 08 Jun 2024