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Crusade by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter One

The Outbound Ventures starship Waylaid cruised about in the Eritrea sector.
The locals having hired the Outbound Ventures Corporation for anti-piracy patrols. An increasing threat since the Mars Massacre had caused the Federation Council to withdraw Starfleet support from most Protectorate status worlds and independent colonies. The Asia-class (Refit) starship was registered to a consortium of Asian descended women who'd acquired the registration and subsequent starship in an effort to leave their home colony behind. Second-, third-, and later-born daughters, they had no chance of inheriting family businesses and sought their fortunes off world rather than be traded off as commodities in arranged marriages to strengthen familial ties. The original Waylaid crew had been a team of Maquis that went on to become infamous privateers. The current crew was former Starfleet enlisted and a few 90-day wonder junior officers from the Dominion War ten years ago.

Buying the registration from the captain of a now retired crew, the consortium had purchased the seemingly outdated starship and went to work. Kathy Tyrol, Outbound Ventures' CEO, had been tasked by the corporate owners to keep a weather eye for the Waylaid. So when this new crew and starship appeared in trade journals and news service reports, Tyrol quickly contacted the crew and made a bid to buy the starship and hire on the crew, who retained a reduced price purchase option if the corporation decided against renewing their contracts in seven years time. In a strange convergence of fate, the original crew's captain, Joelle Jones, came out of retirement and became the corporate flagship's XO.

So far, Captain Wei Ziya and her crew's patrols had been fruitless...a good sign in these troubled times. Since the Hobus supernova had destroyed Romulus and Remus, the Mars Massacre, and other political struggles, the Federation had grown more insular and increasingly shortsighted. But in this Prime Universe, one of four, survivors of now defunct multiversal universes had gathered and been recruited into the newly established Starfleet Special Investigations Division.

Designed as a replacement for Section 31, the SID would stand as a higher visibility and transparent security agency. Authorized to hire duly licensed privateers with Federation Letters of Marque and security contractors, the SID hired on Outbound Ventures over the protestations of Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy. Clancy herself now implicated in SID investigations regarding attacks made upon Outbound Ventures' starships, bases, and space stations by rival corporations. Unfortunately for Captain Wei and the crew, their lives were about to become infinitely more interesting in the terms of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

Within Papal Center, the capital of the planet named Vatican by its settlers, the culmination of decades' worth of planning was coming to a head. Earth's major, and minor, religions had claimed "great persecutions" in the aftermath of World War III. Despite their differing and often times clashing dogmas, they were just increasingly marginalized in the greater societal whole as Earth's population became universally secularized. Or at least, 99% secularized.

After the Earth-Romulan War ended in a cease-fire and the Federation's precursor, the Coalition of Planets was signed into being, the remaining followers of these credos and doctrines set forth to colonize newly charted worlds. Increasingly dependent upon one another these faith settled clusters of solar systems easily reached by one another, many containing more than one life supporting world. But, these faiths had plotted for generations of how to increase their relevancy as the Federation began colonizing worlds around them and the native civilizations that existed near their borders advanced and became interstellar travelers.

Each of the four major faiths had their own world. Christianity before its departure from Earth had once again become centered in a new, revitalized Reformed Catholic Church, having abandoned the term Roman Catholic to embrace its fractured, partisan Protestant denominations. Today's meeting took place on their primary world. Mecca was the capital planet for the Islamic faith. Dharma became the capital of the Hindu faiths. Karma became the capital of the Buddhist Ways. The minor religions shared a world, divided by Regions of Faith. These were the so-called "pagan" religions and those considered "benign" cults by the major faiths that pre-dated the "Big Four".

Over the history of the Federation, these faiths had grown increasingly intertwined and even more "persecuted" in their own eyes. So to adopt an older paradigm, they would "convert by the sword", beginning with their stellar power neighbors. Starfleet's withdrawal from active patrols in the region propelled them to take action. Inspired by such paramilitary groups and insurgents as the Bajoran Resistance and the Maquis, the Interfaith Council began arming small scout craft and equipping freighters as armed troop transports. The faiths had created entire military religious orders within themselves to prepare for these days. The so-called "monks, priests, and sisters of war" would lead the armed "missionaries". The most neutral language the Interfaith Council could utilize.

In addition to arming their own civilian craft, the Interfaith Council had begun purchasing from the Iotian Federation's 22nd Century Earth Starfleet analogue "econo line". Supplementing their raiders with Earth Starfleet NX- and Federation Starfleet Freedom-class starships as well as Ajax- and Hercules-class frigates, and Hercules-class tenders, the Council now felt prepared to begin their "missionary work" abroad.

"Captain, we have multiple bogeys dropping out of warp in the outer system," Dayon Ping, the Waylaid's OPS Office reported as they cruised the actual Eritrea star system.

"Bian Nguyen, set an intercept course," Wei ordered, "Quyen, hail them and get a list of their ID transporters to Binh Nguyen."

The Nguyen sisters manning CONN and Tactical. Kieu Quyen, the Communications Officer, went to work.

"They're refusing to reply," Quyen reported.

"Captain, I'm compiling a list of ship types. It's really eclectic," Binh Nguyen told her from Tactical, "I could use Xian Manhh's help identifying them all."

Manhh was the ship's XO.

"Do it," Wei told her First Officer. She commed Sickbay, "Doctor Linh, prepare for potential casualties."

"Again?" Canh Linh sighed.

"Chief, I need full power reserves available," Wei warned her Chief Engineer.

"Of course, you'll have everything we can provide," Cai Nhung promised.

Despite the majority of her Senior Officers seeming to be of Vietnamese descent, Wei's crew was filled with Thai, Indian, Pakistani, Bengalis, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Burmese, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Tibetan, Han Chinese, Mongolian, various minor Chinese ethnicities, and even East Russians and Farsi-speaking Turkic peoples who'd identified strongly with being Asian rather than Altaics, Turks, or Slavs. All descended from colonists who'd settled on a single planet during the first outer colonization wave following the advent of the commercialized Warp 4 engine.

"Captain, 'eclectic' doesn't begin to describe these ships. There are more than a dozen, all two to six man crew scouts and typical courier craft. But they all seem armed," Manhh explained, "There are also seeming "native' designs we can't identify."

"Shields up, arm the weapons," Wei decided. Binh Nguyen happily complied.

"Pirates?" Wei inquired.

"Not enough cargo capacity, even between all of them if they really were expecting to attack a convoy. Or even a single freighter," Manhh told her, "This is an attack wing."

"Quyen, update Serenity Station," Wei furthermore decided, "I want Captain Riker apprised."

Quyen dutifully sent off the updated log and flight recorder reports to Thomas Riker and his staff manning Outbound Ventures' headquarters on Serenity Station.

"They're not jamming us," Ping observed from OPS.

"Idiots," Binh Nguyen snorted.

"But they are approaching us spread far enough to maximize their firepower and limit our ability to maneuver," her sister, Bian Nguyen observed.

"So they're not complete idiots," Binh Nguyen revised her opinion.

"Begin targeting locks," Wei decided, "Let them know we will defend ourselves if provoked."

"Captain, the Boslic freighter scheduled to arrive just did," Ping informed her captain.

"Hail them and alert them of the developing situation," Wei instructed Quyen.

"Aye, Captain," the Communications Officer went to work.

"We're still transmitting hails to the approaching raiders," Manhh reported, "Still no response."

"Binh Nguyen, fire a warning shot through their center mass," Wei had had enough of their posturing.

The phaser burst was illustrated on the main viewer as it passed between the encroaching smaller vessels.

"No effect," Binh Nguyen sounded as frustrated as Wei felt.

"I'm losing the opportunity to take evasive action," Bian Nguyen warned.

"Full evasive," Wei ordered, "Bring us between them and the freighter entering orbit over Eritrea," Wei began issuing commands, "Relock phasers and photon torpedoes and await the command to fire."

"They've locked weapons," Ping reported from OPS, "And they're firing."

The shields withstood the multiple phaser strikes but overloads occurred across the ship and Manhh began handling the repair crew requests and responses in coordination with Nhung in Engineering.

"Those are simple phase cannons from two centuries ago. The only effect was achieved through sheer numbers," Bian Nguyen reported from her station.

"Return fire!" Wei ordered at last. Binh Nguyen and Bian Nguyen had practiced targeting maneuvers together since they first began training on simulators at Starfleet advanced enlisted training. The smaller raider type craft possessed polarized hull plating as well as military-grade phase cannons and it was swiftly discovered they carried small payloads of photonic torpedoes.

The Waylaid disabled all of the Interfaith's raiders but then NX- and Freedom-class
starships accompanied by Ajax- and Hercules-class frigates appeared.

"They softened us up," Manhh realized.

"We're receiving a hail," Quyen informed Wei.

"Source?" Wei intuitively inquired.

"From a subspace buoy," Quyen described the signal source, "The faint response lag I'm getting indicates that the source is several star systems away."

"But still in this sector?" Ping asked.

"Affirmative," Quyen revealed.

"Put it on the main screen," Wei opted.

A Catholic priest appeared, "Greetings. I'm Father Sun. I'm tasked by our great Interfaith Council's mission efforts. My missionary forces aren't meant to engage in hostilities but rather to bring a willing message of peace and examine spiritual well being."

"Peace and well being achieved through superior numbers," Wei concluded.

"Please, our forces will engage you further if you resist our approaching the colony on Eritrea," Father Sun told them.

"And the Boslic freighter?" Wei wanted to know.

"We are but humble customers if they're willing to share their wares," Father Sun promised.

"I need to confer with my superiors and our clients," Wei replied, "I will require at least two hours to do so. Will you be willing to hold your position for that long?"

"We will. But we cannot delay any further than that," Father Sun warned her, "I will contact the government as well and explain our mission to them. Perhaps we will not uninvited for much longer."

"Then it's agreed," Wei signaled for Quyen to terminate the connection.

"Get me Riker and contact Government House on Eritrea. Tell them we have an active shooter scenario underway," Wei quickly told Quyen. Then the hardest part began: awaiting replies.

The Cardassian built Nor-class space station named Serenity served as a commercial hub within the banking cartel world of Barrinor's home system. Serenity orbited Barrinor's colony on the Class-P fifth planet from the system's primary. The colony was named Odin. Kathy Tyrol was a deep conference with Eritrea's government, which was partially their client. Starfleet's SID had assigned the peacekeeping mission to Outbound Ventures. It had been Starfleet's liaison, Lieutenant Christine Pike that had dispatched the Waylaid and her crew to Eritrea. But only in conjunction with Captain Tom Riker's willing consent. Now Riker and his staff were weighing response options with Pike's participation.

Some in Starfleet found unsettling that Riker's cast of senior advisers were uniformly ex-Maquis. His wife, Lisea Danan, was a Joined Trill and the station's XO. Kristine Liu was a Starfleet veteran within Starfleet Operation's Logistical division. Svetlana Korepanova was also ex-Starfleet and ex-Maquis. Korepanova had run the Maquis' Architect Strategic Operations Center on DS9 for several years before being shut down by Major Kira Nerys and Constable Odo. Kira had been unsettled to learn how deeply the Militia supported and endorsed the Architect Program. Itself being a paying client of Sveta Korepanova's services. Until then, Kira had been unaware that the Bajoran Militia was even operating outside of the Bajor Sector.

Now even those operatives worked for Outbound Ventures. The Militia now singularly focused on Bajor's security and the security of her colonies. Interstellar defense initiatives and responsibilities fell on Starfleet now that Bajor was a member world of the Federation. General Kira was now the Chairwoman of the Militia Joint Chiefs.

Colonel Ro Laren was the effective commanding officer of the Colonial Defense Forces now that she'd been drummed out of Starfleet for a third time. The general in actual command of the Colonial Defense Forces was an inept political appointee dating back to Bajor's Provisional Government and the man simply refused to retire or expire of old age. He was content to be Kira's thorn and let Ro handle the actual commanding of the Colonial Defense Forces' operations.

Colonel Anara of the Special Forces was attached to Outbound Ventures as a special liaison. Even the Cardassian Information Bureau had attached an agent named Ziva Delain to the corporation. The Cardassians still stubbornly charting Serenity as Ampok Nor. The SID had stretched Outbound Ventures ships across the stars to act as peacekeepers to the now unprotected Protectorates and outer colony worlds. But even having over twenty starships meant that the formed a fragile line in the interstellar sands. And no one starship could be relieved because multiple Outbound Ventures crews and assigned worlds were under siege by the same missionary forces under Father Sun's command.

The SID director, Rear Admiral Amanda Forger, was alarmed by these events. Admiral Alynna Nechayev's Starfleet Intelligence had brought in scattered reports of the Missionaries forming up under the Interfaith Council's control but a deployment date had eluded her agents. It seemed now they'd prepared far more effectively than the SID had been able to muster forces to resist them. It had been Forger's decision to stretch the corporate assets so thinly but it was Outbound Ventures that would take the public opinion's induced black eye for these failures. Forger had only one question pervading her mind: Where the hell were Brin Macen and Celeste Rockford?

Despite Odin's Class-P glaciated world designation, the equatorial belt was quite temperate. Still cold, but temperate. Most of the colonists lived within this deeply wooded arena. Braver souls lived further north or south in the icier regions. It was in this area that Macen and Rockford found themselves staring up at the space station they co-owned.

"It even looks like a monstrosity," Rockford opined.

"You just hate outer space," Macen accused. But it had taken considerable considerations for he and T'Kir to overcome their Maquis prejudices and have the Cardassians build the corporate headquarters. T'Kir had died a number of years ago and Macen eventually married his best friend.

Rockford had already been Macen's business partner. The merger between Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies had been designed to make them equal voting partners and yet remain heads of their respective companies. The fact that they both excelled at being SID agents further insured that they remained together during cases. Macen had turned over corporate operations to Tyrol to better serve the SID's needs. Rockford had always let the local office private detectives manage their own affairs while granting them a wider database tapped into Starfleet Intelligence itself.

Rockford had selected three detectives to support her work with the SID team Macen had assembled. Macen's recruits were former terrorists and criminals. The four exceptions to either rule were Rab Daggit, Parva, Tony Burrows, and the illegal EMH named Tessa. The Federation's Artificial Life Form Ban making Tessa's continued operation, as a self-aware hologram, illegal in Federation territories. Fortunately for the EMH, Macen and Outbound Ventures rarely operated within the Federation's boundaries. The corporation and its starships were registered to Barrinor. A hard and digital currency banking cartel world that would remain independent.

Barrinor's vaults, physical and digital, held the currency reserves of nearly every major and minor stellar power within the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. No criminal or government would dare attempt a robbery simply because it would incur the wrath of planets and rival governments and mold them into a united front committed to tracking the thieves down. Even the Federation wouldn't defend them from proxy justice. Hosting Outbound Ventures in their system just added to their considerable defenses.

So it was that Outbound Ventures had come into the SID contract owing to their history with Admiral Nechayev, who along with Admirals Forger and Robert Tavar Johnson, lobbied Starfleet Command until Starfleet Commander Clancy relented and removed her negative vote and simply lobbed a protestation against the division's creation. Forger, having risen through Internal Affairs and being Nechayev's personal protégé, was the first choice to head up the SID. Vice Admiral Edward Noyce had recently stood down as the Director of Starfleet Security. Expectedly, Noyce lobbied hard for his choice for successor. Unexpectedly, they'd had to promote a Captain to Commodore to qualify for the command.

Commodore being back in vogue replacing Rear Admiral Junior Grade. Unknown to Noyce and Starfleet at large, Commodore Oh was a Romulan plant. She was also in a conspiracy illegally holding witnesses that could testify to Clancy's collaborating and inspiring the recent attacks on Outbound Ventures. Thereby sealing the certainty of Captain Oh's ascension.

"Oh frinx," Rockford growled as a Danube-class runabout went from being a speck in the distance to homing in on them.

"Tracy," Macen sighed. They made for a clearing and awaited the pilot's exit as the runabout, now clearly marked as the Obsidian's support craft. The Obsidian being the Nova-class starship Macen' team utilized. Macen had been her captain at the beginning. But after losing his previous commands, the Blackbird-class SS Odyssey, the Hydra-class USS Odyssey, the Ju'day-class SS Eclipse, the Blackbird-class SS Solstice, and nearly destroying the original SS Obsidian, Macen was more than content now to lead the SID team and leave starship driving to others better equipped for it. The Corsair's hatch slid open and Tracy Ebert was indeed revealed as the pilot.

"You could've just beeped our communicators," Macen complained.

"You 'forgot' to take them," Ebert said dryly.

Rockford patted herself down, "Damn, I knew I was missing something."

"We have a mission," Ebert explained, "Shannon has already deployed the Obsidian. We're to rendezvous before she's prepared to warp out of the system."

"Must be a rush job," Macen was intrigued despite his ruined vacation after just two days away.

"Admiral Forger will brief you ASAP," Ebert told them, "Afterwards, you two have the glory of ruining everyone else's day."

The surveyor's captain, Shannon Forger, was also the admiral's younger sister by ten years.

"All aboard that's going," Ebert went back to the cockpit.

"Back into spaaace," Rockford groaned.

"But maybe not for long this time," Macen cajoled her.

"We never get that lucky," Rockford purposefully trudged her way aboard. Macen sealed the hatch behind him and took a seat beside Ebert while Rockford sulked at the Engineering station. Ebert's hands flew across the LCARS interface and she applied antigravs and thrusters.

"Hold on to your lunch," Ebert warned, "We're clearing atmo at full impulse and maintaining it until we rendezvous and dock."

"This isn't my first rode-whoaaa!" Rockford felt the inertial damper's slip as the runabout propelled forward.

"I did warn you," Ebert grinned.

"I will be paying you back," Rockford duly warned her.

"Promises, promises," Ebert retorted.

"Of which I will make good on every single one," Rockford vowed.

"Another promise," Ebert shrugged. Macen snickered as Rockford pretended to strangle Ebert from behind.

"She's 'choking' me, isn't she?" Ebert inquired.

"Who? Me?" Rockford played innocent as she pretended to bash Ebert's head off of the bulkhead, "I'd never be so juvenile."

"Sure, sure. Just keep telling yourself that," Ebert chuckled, "Always maintain your lie. Under any circumstances."

"What's the unofficial version of the story so far?" Macen asked.

"Almost every one of our peacekeeping clients is under attack by a previously unknown set of bad guys that seems to be centrally controlled by someone clergyman calling himself 'Father Sun'," Ebert explained, "That's all Riker would explain as we boarded."

"And the official version?" Rockford was curious.

"No comment," Ebert shrugged, "So Riker is playing it fast and loose with what he can tell us."

"Good Ol' Tom," Macen chuckled. Riker had been his XO before accepting commands of his own. Tom Riker's record with starships was nearly as dismal as Macen's own. But he'd discovered a previously unexplored knack for commanding Serenity Station. Riker shared Macen's flaw: he was too improvisational. Riker could either be inspired or insanely reckless. Traits Macen shared.

But the two had swung the opposite ends of the pendulum during the course of missions frequently putting them at odds. They worked far better as partners than as CO and XO. Macen had also, for the sake of the Obsidian's crew, stepped down as captain. Giving Forger the center seat. Macen also made it a priority to stay off the bridge unless invited to be there. But he was the Mission Commander and ultimately dictated the terms under which the starship and her crew operated under. A situation Forger was more than happy to live with in order to get command of the most advanced starship in Outbound Ventures' "fleet" Which otherwise consisted of mid 23rd to early 24th Century decommissioned Starfleet ships or their identical analogues. Macen knew Forger and her crew were as anxiously awaiting word of what the new mission as his own Investigative Team. As were he and Rockford themselves.

"Order your contractors to stand down," Fleet Admiral Clancy order Rear Admiral Forger.

"Why? They end up doing our jobs for us," Forger replied.

"Interstellar politics have changed. Since the Mars Massacre we have to deploy our forces within Federation borders to more tightly control them as well have an immediate response to another unforeseen uprising," Clancy argued.

"All artificial life in the Federation has been decommissioned and/or dismantled," Forger grated, "We gave these worlds the pledge of protection, hence the term 'Protectorate'. Do I need to query the computer to obtain a definition of the word for you?"

"We need to protect our own. These worlds were applying for Federation membership but their applications simply took too long," Clancy was losing patience.

"Yet we fast tracked Bajor and Angosia IV despite difficulties with their applications," Forger reminded her superior officer.

"The Bajor Sector is perhaps the most strategic sector in the Alpha Quadrant. We needed Angosia's assistance during the Dominion War. Strategic importance can cause us to look askance towards certain 'problematic' application issues," Clancy informed Forger, "You came up through IA. You should be better at realpolitik than anyone else. Don't throw your career away for some naïve idealistic principle. You're becoming as annoying as Picard."

"Maybe he had a point after all," Forger retorted.

"You listen to me," Clancy snapped, "You think our ongoing exploration missions are actually about 'exploring strange new worlds'? We need allies as powerful, robust, and even more reliable than the Klingons. In order to find them, we have to look for them. Otherwise I'd mothball the whole exploration efforts underway even now."

Clancy's eyes narrowed dangerously, "You, Johnson, and Nechayev went over my head to the Federation Council and President to get this damned SID approved of over my objections. You wanted deniable civilian assets? You have them. Now rein them in or they will be disavowed. Those worlds are not our problem anymore. And I refuse to spend the Federation's hard currency reserves on defending them."

"Only you're not. Those worlds independently contracted with Outbound Ventures. The SID and Starfleet had nothing to do with it," Forger told her.

"Then they can fight the brewing war. If they can. If they can't, their reputation and business model is shattered and we can renege on our contract with them and hire decent operators," Clancy gloated.

"You already knew about this threat," Forger realized.

"Of course I knew. I'm the goddamn Starfleet Commander. And don't blame Nechayev. She can't tell you what I've classified above your grade. Now get out," Clancy growled.

"Happy to," Forger retorted. Inwardly Forger seethed at Nechayev choosing this opportunity to heed Clancy's direct order so precisely. If Nechayev was already committed to this course of inaction, she wouldn't be persuaded to do otherwise now.

Back in the Starfleet Data Archive in London that had once been a Section 31 front, Forger returned to her office to find her aide, Lt. Commander Ambril Delori awaiting her.

"Commander Ambril, were there any urgent messages while I was out?" she inquired stopping in the Bajoran's office before proceeding to her own. The entire complex now served as the SID's headquarters.

"Admiral Nechayev sent you FLASH traffic. It was sealed so I can't tell you what it's about," Ambril warned her. FLASH traffic was always regarding something urgent. When Forger was behind her desk and logged into her system, she unlocked the message. Nechayev hadn't given her any concrete intelligence. But she had supplied a set of spatial coordinates. Six sets to be precise. She began running inquiries into them.

Five sets of coordinates corresponded with a long established human colony. Each colony representing a religious enclave that had left Earth following the Earth-Romulan War. It had been a collective effort yet each major faith established itself on a different world. Worlds that stubbornly refused cultural contact with the Federation. Yet they would utilize independent trading partners to sell specialized wares and alcohols as well buy modernized tech.

Starfleet had sought access to the systems to find them controlled by an Interfaith Council. The Federation's interests had been piqued when a piece of Iconian technology had been smuggled out of the Interfaith systems. Yet the locals held to their air of reserve and denied Starfleet any kind if access. Sensor buoys had been placed in circumference of the claimed territory but had recently all gone offline. No Iconian energy signatures had been recorded by the sensors before they were destroyed, by best estimate.

But that didn't rule out the Interfaith Council having access to gateway tech. But that hardly answered the question of what would religious isolationists do with instant transportation technologies? The invaded star systems all surrounded the Interfaith Council's declared borders. And this Father Sun had openly boasted of his forces' religious purposes. She needed eyes in those systems. So Macen's team was selected to go there.

The Obsidian had recovered the Corsair. The runabout being the sole outrigger other than the Waverider-class shuttle recessed in the primary hull. It being a Nova-class starship's equivalent to a larger starship's Captain's Yacht.

"Hurry up and find out what we're up against," Ebert demanded of Macen.

"Aye, Captain," he snarked. Ebert's cheeks reddened underneath her eyeglasses. Ebert was one of those rare humans allergic to Retnax. She'd also begun as Macen's fifteen year-old pilot during his Maquis days in the SS Odyssey. He'd recruited her after the Cardassians had gutted and raided her family's freighter, slaughtered her family, and gang raped and left her to die. She still didn't discuss those events.

Ebert had also been part of the Odyssey's crew during the Dominion War as well. But after the war, despite earning a pardon, Ebert eschewed the Federation and became a smuggler based out of the Kalendra Sector. There, she kept in touch with fellow Maquis crewmen Tom Eckles, Heidi Darcy, and Christine Lacey. Whom Macen had recently hired on as Serenity crew and the crew for the identical Blackbird-class scoutship, Solstice, when she set sail.

"I think you've been hanging out with Harri for too long," Rockford chuckled. Harriet Fedora Mudd was the team's leading rebel and career criminal. Not that half the team hadn't been considered terrorists at some point.

Speaking of whom, Mudd was loitering, leaned up against the bulkhead outside the Hangar Bay, "So where we goin'?"

"I don't know yet," Macen sighed.

"Forger does only she ain't talking," Mudd complained loudly.

"Then bug her," Macen suggested.

"She has me locked off the bridge unless I'm escorted by you or Rockford," Mudd groused, "And she won't accept comm messages from me anymore."

"Shouldn't have burned those bridges, Harri," Macen counseled her.

"We just went to warp," having grown up on spacecraft, Ebert was never wrong about those things.

"I need to talk to Forger," Macen declared.

"Which one?" Mudd snickered.

"Both, eventually," Macen headed for the turbolift to get to Deck 3 where his office was located. Rockford had her own office nearby. Between them sat the Situation Center which was the operations center for Rockford's three resident private investigators.

Shade, was a Fabrini and a former career criminal. Lee Kang was a former Chief Inspector on his home colony of Chung Kuo. Lee had been framed for a crime he hadn't fully committed. He'd already been cast out of his family for arresting his own criminal father. Arianna Forte was a prodigy from the duplicate Earth world of Miri. Thanks to the genetic mutation through viral transmission, Forte appeared to be a teenager but was over four hundred years old. A few decades older than even Macen.

"Care to join me?" he asked Rockford.

"I thought you'd never ask," Rockford grinned. Despite their professional and personal partnerships, Rockford ran the investigative squad while Macen was responsible for the entire team. Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith would predictably be inside their Data Womb computing center. Kerber and Smith were secretly a fugitive Troglyte and Stratosian from Ardana IV. Of all the terrorist acts Anara and Maarta had committed, they were condemned to death for the one that secured Smith's uncle's succession to the throne of the sky city of Stratos over her rightful claim. The one deed listed on their execution orders that they hadn't actually committed.

Rab Daggit was another Angosian Augment who was a veteran of the Tarsus Wars and the Dominion War on behalf of the Federation. The conflict where he'd met Macen. Parva was the Orion Chief Engineer of the boat as well as Daggit's wife and the team's engineering expert and consultant. Tony Burrows was the final member. A Starfleet vet from Starfleet Special Operations Command, Burrows been wounded in action and had his knee replaced. Regulations stipulated he transfer or retire. Burrows chose retirement.

Macen's oldest living friend, Commander Elias Vaughn had recommended Burrows to Macen. Macen implicitly trusted Vaughn's opinion and happily took Burrows onto the team. Burrows' particular idiosyncrasy was his katana sword he'd been trained to use while on Earth. He'd first become a kendo master before learning how to wield an actual sharpened blade. Together they formed the premier SID team. It was knowing that they had the best team in the SID that made Macen and Rockford confident that they could tackle whatever Admiral Forger had for them this time. Even though it did ruin their supposedly two-week vacation.

The Interfaith Council maintained a tender station in unclaimed space within the Council's borders but outside of any faith's star system. It was here that Father Sun waited out the delays that he'd agreed to. Supplication was better than salvation by the sword. Or so the faith leaders had agreed to.

Father Sun already tired of this action. The plan had been generations in the making. Out of all the spiritual leaders offered the position, Father Sun alone had become the War Priest. The Mahayana Buddhists had presented several Bodhisattva monks for the role. The Theravada Path and Sarvastivada Path followers had also selected candidates. Imams had been selected and well as Hindu priests of every stripe. In the end it came down between Father Sun and a Kali priest. But the excesses of bloodshed in Kali worship prohibited the candidate from advancing and Father Sun was chosen by the Council as the War Priest. Father Sun himself was personally answerable to the Council of Bishops and the Cardinal.

"Stewing again?" Sister Moon asked Father Sun as she approached. Sister Moon led the elite Warrior Nuns.

"We've already waited for so long," Father Sun complained.

"So what is another thirty-six minutes?" Sister Moon asked.

"How is the Mother Superior?" he inquired.

"Ailing. As always," Sister Moon sighed. The Catholic Mother Superior was known to be a terrible hypochondriac. She was undoubtedly the healthiest nun in any faith yet complained the loudest about imagined ailments.

"What news do you have for me, Sister Moon?" Father Sun got down to official business.

"My nuns are already on the targeted former Federation colony worlds ready to commit the necessary acts of sabotage and espionage required to fulfill our crusade," Sister Moon shared.

"Doesn't let our Islamic brothers hear you say that. They still hold that woman's place is to be only in her husband's household and bed," Father Moon scolded her, "Jihad is men's work."

"I suppose that's why we haven't informed them," Sister Moon replied stoically.

"Still, it's a wonder that those same men have time for their wives now that the pagan faiths have reinstituted sexual rites if their faiths call for it," Father Sun said cheekily.

"At least the lesser faiths haven't been allowed to reinstitute human sacrifice under the same criteria," Sister Moon shuddered.

"But it still occurs in secret," Father Sun's final rival for War Priest had been ultimately disqualified because of his participation in human sacrificial blood rites for Kali.

"It's truly a pity no one seemed to account for my nuns being present for some of those practices," Sister Moon said innocently. That undercover work had toppled many aspirations for the position.

"What's the status of the Apostate?" Father Sun inquired.

"The Inquisition is handling the apostates of every faith," Sister Moon scolded him, "And you know that's out of your purview as War Priest."

"Indeed," the Inquisitor-General agreed as he approached. The Inquisitor-General was an imam who oversaw the Interfaith Council's theological purities and dealt with secularized apostates and heretics from every creed. He also served as the theocracy's political officer overseeing the Crusade's various clergy. One could never be too zealous for the cause. Whereas idleness and slovenly behavior could get one tortured until a confession was made and the condemned recanted of their purported sin. And that was within the clerical ranks. The actual apostates and heretics were literally tortured to death with no forgiveness offered and none given.

"What about your oaths of chastity?" the Inquisitor-General inquired sharply. No other faith demanded the clergy be chaste. Some of the Buddhist paths encouraged it but it was no longer a necessity. Once the Protestant denominations remerged with the Roman Catholics to found the Reformed Catholic faith, as practiced before the Roman and Orthodox Churches split over and four hundred years before the Protestant Reformation the practice was retained. The Pentecostal dogma had dominated the Protestants before the mergers and still demanded an experiential, mystical faith. Father Sun had always been too realistic for that.

A fact the Inquisitor-General wielded like a scimitar of old. Imam Sayyid Ruholla Musavi Khomenei was as intense and potentially dangerous as his historical namesake. He had been the first ayatollah of Iran and was something of an obsession with Khomenei who saw the radicalized future theocrat of the Revolutionary Islamic State as a precursor for his own role. Just as Cardinal Justinian III saw Pope Urban II as his role model.

"Don't expect to use my vows against me," Father Sun warned.

"Yes, but the way you two gaze upon one another...simply scandalous," Khomenei accused.

"Just because I'm not wearing a hajib and a veil perhaps?" Sister Moon asked tartly.

"Do not try patience, woman. You're place is to be cloistered. Not parading with the men," Khomenei snapped.

"I'll go cloister elsewhere," Sister Moon departed.

"You do realize that few of your fellow faith holders still hold those extreme positions?" Father Sun asked.

"Spoken like a would-be heretic," Khomenei spat.

"Can I actually help you?" Father Sun inquired.

"The Ayatollah is recalling me," Khomenei sullenly informed him.

"It would be best to recall that you serve all faiths within the Interfaith Council," Father Sun primly pointed out.

"Some faiths are purer than others," Khomenei let his distaste show.

"I'm certain another of your exalted brethren will gladly take your place," Father Sun sighed.

"I'm assigning you the Sixth Sister," Khomenei gloated. This served two purposes: to rid the Inquisitor-General of an unwanted Inquisitor and setting her up for failure. Unfortunately, the Sixth Sister would know as much and prove to be a harridan. Inquisitors wore masks to prevent them from being recognized when they moved incognito. The Sixth Sister however dyed one half of her brunette hair red to distinguish herself in and out of the mask.

Khomenei wasn't a pure zealot. He was zealously bloodthirsty and had denounced every rival and personally overseen their tortures for their supposed "heresies" In the end, Khomenei had simply killed everyone in his path to become Inquisitor-General. But the Sixth Sister was a true believer in the Cause. She was also well versed enough in every faith to properly cite passage and verse of the holy writs to accurately support an accusation. Which made the Sixth Sister far more dangerous than Khomenei's simple denunciations based upon religious prejudices and grabs for power.

Sister Hildegard was named after a sainted nun, Saint Hildegard of Bingen and the Sibyl of the Rhine. In a perverse reversal to Khomenei's narrow perspective, she felt she had lockstep on the greater truths. To her, all paths led to God. But those paths were paved in blood and tears.

"Captain Wei, message from Eritrea's Presider," Quyen informed her CO.

"On screen," Wei ordered.

The Presider looked tired and defeated, "Captain Wei, thank you for standing by. We're regretfully allowing this 'Interfaith Council' access to our world. But, we'd like the Waylaid and her crew to stay as an observer in case these self-styled 'Crusaders' open hostilities anyway."

"Madame Presider, I'm not certain we could be of any real assistance should they," Wei sadly confessed.

"Nor are we asking you to fight a hopeless war. But we need someone to bear witness should the worst befall us," the Presider explained.

"Very well. We'll do as you request," Wei agreed.

"Then I shall contact this Father Sun and capitulate," the Presider sighed as she signed off.

Minutes passed before Ping reported, "All ships and newly arrived freighters are proceeding into the system."

"Bian Nguyen, match course and speed but do not interdict them," Wei issued further orders, "Binh Nguyen, reduce to yellow alert but keep weapons systems charged and shields up."

"Quyen, announce our intentions," Wei added, "Then update Serenity Station."

"Yes, Captain," everyone chorused at once.

Svetlana Korepanova, Serenity's Strategic Operations Officer, compiled reports as they came in and updated the plot board, "So far everyone is accepting your compromise, Captain."

"Too good be true, Sveta," Riker grumbled.

"But our captains commanding Excelsior-class analogues are complaining," Korepanova added.

"Of course," Riker felt grimly justified now.

"Now he'll be insufferable," Danan predicted.

"He's already that," Kristine Liu, Outbound Ventures' Logistics Officer, teased.

"Thank you so much for that, Kris," Riker deadpanned while Danan and Korepanova laughed. "Sveta, get me Chris Noble. I want to brief her."

Christina Noble was Riker's duty shift relief. Noble, like the others, was ex-Maquis. She, like Riker, also commanded a station outrigger. Riker commanded the Emden-class escort, Indomitable, while Noble was the commanding officer of the Blackbird-class scoutship, Solstice. Both starship classes having earned the appellation, "tough little ships" decades before the USS Defiant was even a mote in an ASDB engineer's eye. The Cardassians in particular had come to loath the two ship classes. Two starships wouldn't stem the Interfaith Council's Crusader tide but they could leverage one star system and work their way out from there.

The training and historical museum Constitution-class museum starship NCC-1701 USS Enterprise-M was about to embark on a further day of its tour. Captain Montgomery Scott, as a living legend and a rare survivor from the 23rd Century, had relished building the starship with its ostensible purpose of instructing cadets in how real starships really ran. The Enterprise-M orbited a Class-K adaptable world just now but would be setting sail at exactly 0700 Starfleet Universal Time. Scotty surveyed the bridge with deep seated enjoyment as he awaited the arrival of the "bridge crew".

Most Starfleet Academy cadets eschewed the elective course, seeing it as retrograde. But as most instructors would have it, the course was invaluable in getting cadets rotationally versed in less advanced engineering principles. Being able to operate, maintain, and repair such starships had become much more essential with the rival Iotian Federation's moves to sell off retrograde Starfleet analogue starships wholesale. As the course's chief instructor and the starship's captain, Scotty tended to chart the training cruise beyond Federation's current borders to insure that the cadets were utterly reliant upon their wits. The Federation's contraction had dismayed Scotty but despite the increased risk of interference, he kept to the original course that had been dutifully followed for the past several years.

"Good morning, Captain," the cadets each announced as they filtered in from the turbolift.

"Course setting, Captain," the cadet manning the helm inquired.

"Prepare t' break orbit," Scotty instructed.

"Standing by," the Helm Officer of the watch crisply reported.

"Break orbit," Scotty orbited, "One quarter impulse. Navigator, prepare t' resume original course as laid in."

"Standing by, aye," the first watch's Navigator acknowledged.

"Sir, we have FLASH traffic," the Communications Officer was as surprised as Scotty.

"Well, lass? What is it?" Scotty asked patiently.

"Hostilities have broken out throughout this sector and several adjacent sectors, sir," she reported, "We're to lay in and find safe harbor."

"Helm, make for that gas giant and take us into th' upper layers," Scotty ordered.

"Aye, sir," the Helm Officer confidently replied.

"Science Officer, resort t' passive sensors only. We don't want t' get caught out with our kilts up," Scotty instructed.

"Horrible mental image, sir," the Science Officer replied, "But aye, sir."

"Now, if someone can kindly tell me what th' hell just happened in this end of space?" Scotty inquired.

Macen gathered the team and the ship's senior officers in the primary briefing room. It was standing room only. The ship's senior crew consisted of Captain Forger and several other veterans. Gilan was from the planet Gideon and was the Deputy Chief Engineer. Galen 3 was from Eminiar VII and served as the Sciences Specialist. He was also Tessa's boyfriend.

Aglaia was from Plato and the Chief Flight Control Officer. Edwin Zimbalist was the ever faithful Chief OPS officer and Korepanova's significant other. Jaycee Miller was the longstanding Chief Tactical Officer. Jelena Kovic was the Chief of Security. Joelle Jones was the latest addition to the Senior Staff and yet another ex-Maquis.

Jones had been captain of the original armed freighter, Waylaid, before stealing an Earth Starfleet NV-class starship and becoming a captain of a crew of "security consultants" to escort high value cargoes from port to port. Her crew had eventually decided to stand down and settle across various colony worlds. Jones sold the Waylaid's registration to the obvious players. Jones tired of retirement and applied to Outbound Ventures in hopes of returning to command. She saw her position of Executive Officer as a stepping stone to her own command within the corporation. Her hostile past with Macen both securing and limiting her current role.

After Cal Hudson died, Michael Eddington ascended to the Maquis Commander's "throne". An ideological zealot, Eddington advocated for a "total war" scenario where any and all brands of conflict and terror were employed to achieve the Maquis' endgame. Including using biogenic weapons on civilian populations. Ro Laren and Macen led the opposition. Hell, they were the opposing side.

Jones sided with Eddington. The original Waylaid crew had been fortunate enough to be out of the DMZ when the Jem'Hadar crossed the border before the outbreak of the wider war. Macen suspected Jones had never forgiven herself for that fact.

"You've been briefed by Captain Riker regarding the attacks occurring across multiple sectors, including several being cared for by fellow Outbound Ventures crews in peacekeeping missions," Macen began, "What he was unaware was the width and breadth of these attacks."

The central screen displayed on avoid heart surrounded a red amoeba-like cluster branching out from it, "The attacks are centered around several habitable star systems with human colonies on them. These colonies were founded by religious separatists after the end of the Earth-Romulan War and the unification that became the United Federation of Planets. These star systems remain excluded by choice from the Federation. It just so happens that the inhabited star systems surrounding them were all Federation Protectorates and colonies until the Mars Massacre cause Starfleet to withdrew its support to these worlds."

"What we do know is that the attackers couch their intentions in religious phrases," Rockford took up the theme, "It is Admiral Forger's opinion that this a baptism by the sword by which the religious faiths and orders comprising these enclaves will spread their message. Through violent action if need be."

"But both the Federation and Starfleet are willing to take the diplomatic black eye from looking away in order to avoid diverting forces from the Federation's internal borders to intervene," Macen explained, "In fact, the SID had been specifically prohibited from intervening."

"So what's our pretext for going in?" Burrows asked.

"The enclave is exclusionary but commercial traffic does get through. Additionally, an archeological find of some importance was made within their border," Rockford explained, "A team was sent in to investigate the site and they haven't been heard from since the attacks began."

"The team is led by Dr. Tila Ashreen. Dr. Ashreen and her experts specialize in Iconian technology, particularly the nearly lost gateway tech," Macen explained. Macen's background as an El-Aurian Survey Corps Anthropology and Archaeology Officer had translated over when he joined Starfleet in 2303, ten years after his return to the Alpha Quadrant aboard the SS Lakul. From there he became an expert in the Cardassia Union as they were being discovered and approached.

During the resultant Border Wars, Macen had been brought into Starfleet Intelligence to head up the Cardassian Desk. From there he was cross-trained as a field agent and deployed on the front lines. Macen's decades amongst the afflicted colonists shaped his attitude towards the peace treaty establishing the Demilitarized Zone and his subsequent activities with the Maquis.

"Iconian?" Mudd looked eager, "Their artifacts fetch thousands of bars of gold pressed latinum. And that's for the junk. Working pieces can garner hundreds of thousands."

"Is it always greed with you?" Lee sounded weary.

"She has a helluva point," Shade pointed out, "These scientists may have just looted the site and made millions off of the artifacts they sold black market."

"We'll double check that angle," Rockford promised, "But for now this is classified as a search and rescue."

"And if Dr. Ashreen's team has reactivated some Iconian technology, we're to make certain it never falls into the wrong hands. Like those of the rampaging religious zealots," Macen promised everybody. Macen's comm badge began to chirp. He tapped it where it was mounted on his belt, "Macen here."

"Message from Starfleet," the relief OPS Officer reported, "Starship USS Enterprise-M has gone missing. Coordinates are locked in. The search area is inside our current assignment's radius."

"Inform Lieutenant Pike we'll add it to our to-do list," Macen instructed, "Out."

"Can our lives get any more complicated?" Zimbalist asked. He was far more cautious now that he'd entered into a committed relationship with Korepanova.

"We'll get you home in one piece, Edwin," Forger promised.

"All the available data pertaining to our mission in on your padds," Rockford informed them, "Break it down."

"I'll get back to the bridge then," Jones was getting impatient.

"I'll accompany you. I need a word," Forger stated. Jones looked irritated and then worried.

"It's nothing to fret over, Joelle. I just received an update from my sister regarding our specific role in upcoming events that the good Commander hasn't mentioned. But you need to know," Forger explained.

"Shannon's on top of it," Rockford mentioned after everyone filed out, "As usual."

"She's more than earned her command a dozen times over," Macen admitted.

"I've read the logs from before I came aboard. I know about the stims addiction. She really seems to have beaten that," Rockford said cautiously.

"Seems?" Macen noted the caveat.

"Addicts are never cured, they just to learn to cope," Rockford stated, "Like you always abstaining from alcohol."

"My first ten years in the Federation were a rough patch. I hadn't developed good coping mechanisms yet. And food and drink are endemic to my culture," Macen admitted.

"But you abused it," Rockford probed for the first time.

"But I began to abuse it as my only coping mechanism. Then I realized I needed a purpose again so I joined Starfleet," Macen told her, "Then, over time, other coping mechanisms developed. Some of which scared the Starfleet counselors."

"The Border Wars and then the Maquis," Rockford pointed out again.

"All of my outrage over the Borg transferred to the Cardassians. Only these Borg I could kill," Macen shrugged, "Classic transference delusions and impulses."

"Which means you became a killer for the Cause," Rockford held him close, "Something I know too much about."

"Life was simpler then," Macen sighed, "A well defined enemy is easier to destroy. These people are just deluded."

"But equally dangerous in the name of their Cause," Rockford warned him, "We can't ever lose sight of that."

"I won't," he promised.

The Eritrean Presider tight beamed imagery of the landing Crusader raiders and so-called "missionaries" transporting into city squares. Wei couldn't recall the last time she's seen armed missionaries. Each contingent of multi-faith missionary workers was accompanied by Interfaith priests and nuns from differing faiths united only by their red armbands or even seeming blindfolds.

"Are you seeing this, Captain Wei?" the Presider, whose name was J'emm, plaintively inquired.

"I am, Presider. But there's very little we can do at this point," Wei sadly admitted.

"You can leave our world and bear witness to what is occurring here. Tell the Federation they were wrong to leave. Tell Starfleet of their failure to protect us despite their lavish promises," the Presider was angry and bitter and no one could blame her.

"We'll try to break out of the system," Wei promised, "Somehow; we'll find real help and come back."

"Standing as our witnesses and our advocates is the best we can hope for," the Presider said with infinite sadness. She signed off and that galvanized Wei into action.

"Shields back up. Power all weapons and prepare to lock phasers on target," Wei began to order, "Bian Nguyen, plot an escape course. Binh Nguyen, target and fire on any vessel attempting to lock weapons or impede our progress. Quyen, transmit images and logs to Serenity. They will stand in for us should we be unable to break out of the system."

"Red alert!" Manhh announced over the intercom, "All hands, Red Alert!"

The overhead lights turned red and a cascading light pulse illuminated the "red alert" symbols strategically placed throughout the ship. A warning siren sounded three times and then fell silent to allow orders to be given without interference.

"Serenity Station confirms receipt," Quyen announced, "Captain Riker sends his personal regards and wishes us luck."

Korepanova and Noble had been transmitting status updates for all the affected Outbound Ventures starships. It seemed only the Obsidian and the station's two outriggers, the Solstice and the Indomitable, had been in port when hostilities broke out. The Dog Star and Guinevere had also been tasked with assignments outside of the conflict zone. The Lug Nut was inside Federation space and the Copernicus was conducting a planetary survey for the Daystrom Institute deeper into the Alpha Quadrant's frontier.

"Enemy vessels are arming weapons and polarizing their hull plating," Binh Nguyen announced.

"Lock phasers and prep photon torpedo salvos," Wei ordered. The ship was flanked by two NX-class starships. The Freedom-class, Ajax-class, and Hercules-class moving in from the outer system to attempt intercept the Waylaid in the inner system were the threats. The Asia-class frigate slipped past the two opposing flankers but the triad of starships coming on them would be more difficult to defeat.

"Clever," Wei appreciated their triangular formation, "They're trying to force us to punch through their middle where our broadsides would be exposed to flanking fire."

"Do we run the gap?" Manhh inquired.

"They expect us to make a run for the Freedom-class," Wei assessed, "Target the Hercules- analogue instead."

"Adjusting course to intercept," Bian Nguyen confirmed the anticipated order.

"NX-classes are attempting to pursue," Binh Nguyen announced.

"Dissuading them with the aft torpedo launcher," Manhh declared. Manhh took over torpedo guidance and launching from her post at Navigation. That freed up Binh Nguyen to focus on locking and firing the phaser banks while her sister Bian, could fly the starship. The ship endured a great deal of fire as it tried to escape the crossfire it was being herded into. Binh Nguyen and Manhh's efforts aided by Bian Nguyen's wizardry got them clear.

"Course laid in!" Manhh announced.

"Warp Factor 5!" Wei instructed.

The wounded NX-classes couldn't pace her for a time. But the Waylaid's top rated speed slightly favored her at Warp 5.8 versus the NX-class engines barely sustain Warp 5 for extended periods. The other ships differed between Warp 3.8 and Warp 4 as their maximum velocities. Still, only the damage inflicted by the Waylaid earlier impeded the Crusaders' NX-class starships from prolonging the pursuit. Which was beneficial because the Waylaid herself had taken damage and it wasn't long before Chief Engineer Nhung urgently requested a reduction in speed. It seemed a strategic shortfall on the Crusaders' part that they hadn't also widened their pursuit to include either of the lightly damaged Freedom- or Hercules-class vessels to overtake them at their maximum cruising speed of Warp 4 when the stricken Waylaid was forced to reduce to Warp 3 after losing contact with their potential NX-class pursuers.

"Plot laid in for the Barrinor system," Bian Nguyen confirmed Manhh's navigation course projection, "ETA is 76 hours present speed."

Fortunately, the Barrinor system was just outside the Crusader's own expansion zone targets. The planet itself defended by elite guardsmen in modern Andorian vessels sold to them by the Andorian Empire from their own defensive yards. Few planets in the Federation maintained independent militias but Andoria and Bajor ranked among them. The Bajoran Militia maintained close ties with Outbound Ventures and particularly Macen himself. Wei would return to Serenity to find all of the Outbound Ventures peacekeeping missions had ended identically.

Lieutenant Chris Pike promised to raise the flag to highest Starfleet authorities. But was as dismayed as her direct superior, Admiral Forger, by Starfleet Command's seeming indifference. Forger counted on Macen and her sister to uncover an existential threat to the Federation's security to prompt a reaction from Starfleet. If the Federation Council could be swayed, any former Protectorate that hadn't ceded control over to the invaders could legitimately request Starfleet's assistance now. A legality the Cardassians had exploited by installing a puppet government of approved officials sympathetic to the Cardassians' invasion and occupation of Bajor itself. At the very least, an established government-in-exile could elicit an investigation and a diplomatic response.

A course of action the Bajorans couldn't take since the bulk of their government had then been made up of collaborators. Keev Falor being the only duly elected Bajoran Minister of Government that escaped Bajor and oversaw the refugee camps on the colonies of Valo II and Valo III. Other non-corrupted ministers included Jaro, who strategically supported and guided the Resistance against the Cardassians. A few minor officials made it into the Federation where they pranced and preened and lived off of the Federation's sympathy for the Bajorans but had little recourse and even less influence on Bajor itself to bring about a real change. Jaro infamously returned to a Minister's post in the Provisional Government after the Cardassians withdrew and formed and led the xenophobic Circle. Keev remained on Valo II until the Dominion killed all of the colonists during a settler uprising. Wei and other captains and crews had no idea of the shitstorm they were now in the center of.


Chapter Two

"Captain, I'm reading sensor echoes. Someone is actively sweeping the system," Cadet Flores at Sciences reported.

"Give me numbers, lass," Scotty requested.

"I make out six individual sensor packages. All seemingly Federation technology," Flores told him.

"Seemingly?" he repeated.

"The computer marks them all as outdated Earth Starfleet and early Federation Starfleet scan profiles," Flores explained.

"Helm, take us t' the cloud barrier and see if we c'n get a closer look at who's probing this system. Perhaps even looking f'r us," Scotty instructed his cadets, "Stand by on shields, phasers and photon torpedoes, just in case they prove hostile."

"Are they looking for us?" Midshipman Garnex asked from Navigation as he primed the torpedo launchers and put them on standby.

"I canna know, lad," Scotty admitted, "But maybe we c'n find out."

"We're drifting at the upper layer of the gas giant," Helmsman Boroak announced, "We will be slightly visible for anyone carefully looking."

"That's a chance we're gonna have t' take," Scotty assured him, "As Captain Kirk once said, 'Risk is our business'."

"The sensor sweeps are passing," Flores told them all, "They didn't spot us. It just seems to be a general probe of the system. But they're massing around the second planet in the system."

"Wasn't tha' Class-L?" Scotty sought to refresh his memory.

"Yessir. Marginal capacity for humanoid life. But our survey yesterday showed that it once supported signs of a civilization."

"Show me those records ag'in, if ye will, lassie," Scotty requested as he moved behind her. Her displays showed evidence of ruins dating back fifty thousand years. No one local had displayed such technical capability. Before the Federation began colonizing the area, the most advanced species found were a few pre-warp and now warp capable, societies.

"Run those ruins through th' computer banks again, if ye will," Scotty amended his previous request.

"Sir, the closest match is Iconian ruins found on a Neutral Zone world. The Enterprise-D did a survey and the Romulans destroyed everything after they'd left," Flores read of the report summaries.

"Iconians, eh? An' who were they exactly?" Scotty wondered.

"I don't think you'll like that answer, sir," Flores admitted as the data banks displayed what was known of the former Iconian Empire.

"Right nasty buggers, weren't they?" Scotty mused as he read off the description of the race's history and myths surrounding them, "Gateways?"

"Confirmed, sir," Flores reiterated.

"An' now we have mystery guests with outmoded technology pokin' around at th' sites. It canna be good," Scotty surmised, "Were there any life signs when ye scanned the surface?"

"Sir, the planet was indicated to be lifeless and uncharted. We simply didn't scan for humanoid life forms," Flores felt dejected for every cadet that had manned that station during the survey.

"Not y'r fault, lassie. Nor any of y'r fellow cadets'. The blame lies squarely on y'r captain," Scotty reassured her, "But now we'll have t' take a more active interest in goin's on around here."

"Sir, FLASH traffic from Starfleet Command," Dirridian reported from Communications. Most of the species represented on the bridge today hadn't even been discovered by the Federation in Scotty's prime.

"Relay it, lad," he ordered.

"It's a series of coordinates. Former Protectorate planets are under fire and Starfleet vessels are being ordered to withdraw from the contested areas," Dirridian read off.

"Are ye sure of tha', lad? We're bein' ordered to na' defend Protectorate Status worlds?" Scotty couldn't believe it.

"Orders are countersigned by Fleet Admiral Clancy, sir," Dirridian reviewed the logs. Scotty had just about had enough with Starfleet's current timidity regarding its sacred obligations under treaties and pacts signed with trusting and trustworthy worlds since the Synthetic Uprising on and around Mars.

"Any standin' orders regarding us?" Scotty inquired.

"We're to return to Spacedock immediately," Dirridian told him.

"Excuse me, lad. But I dinna catch tha' last bit," Scotty played dumb.

"Sir, I can reread the message," Dirridian offered.

"I know ye can, lad. I'm just as certain I won't hear it a second time," Scotty stressed his point.

Dirridian gulped, "Understood, sir."

"What is th' description of the attacking forces?" Scotty asked.

"Um...mid-to late 22nd Century Starfleet analogues obtained from the Iotians," Flores read off her screen, "They appear to be registered to religious separatists from Earth, sir. Their colonies are nearby. All of the attacks are staging around their borders."

"So they're fairly understaffed right now, eh?" Scotty asked.

"I wouldn't know, sir," Flores sulked.

"Do any of our communiqués indicate they're engagin' Starfleet vessels?" Scotty wondered.

"No sir," Dirridian answered with confidence.

"So, if we were to stroll through this solar maybe get a better survey of tha' second planet...they wouldn't get hostile?" Scotty posed the question.

"We'll never know until we try," Boroak eagerly spoke up.

"Tha's spirit, lad! Break orbit and make f'r that second planet real leisurely. We don't wanna spook them at all," Scotty decided, "Cadet Flores, standby on active sensors."

"Aye sir!" she was swept up in the moment as well as Boroak.

"Torpedoes are on standby and ready for release, sir. Just in case," Garnex promised him. Scotty still wasn't certain if Garnex was a he or she. But they had the right idea.

Macen was tracking several factors at once as they neared their destination. The Interfaith Council's Crusaders had halted along their initial penetrations into star systems. They seemed content to broadcast their "peaceful intentions' while forcibly relocating people into public arenas to broadcast their messages of "universal love and peace" while armed to the proverbial teeth. Whatever variety said city or township happened to be occupied by them. The general consensus being their brand was better than whatever local custom held to.

In some cases, the subjected planets weren't occupied by Federation colonies. Of the twenty-six worlds surrounded by small forces of superiorly armed invaders, only seven weren't Federation colonies. The rest were Protectorate worlds that had been abandoned by the Federation in the name of "security". It was the Demilitarized Zone all over again. Apparently the Federation Council hadn't reflected on that previous debacle when they ordered Starfleet back within the Federation's borders.

Orders Starfleet Commander Clancy had seemingly been only too happy to convey. Commodore Oh, the newly promoted and anointed Director of Starfleet Security, certainly seemed ready to comply. Oh had risen through Starfleet Security's ranks with apparently no ambition to command. A virtue in the eyes of her predecessor, Admiral Edward Noyce. Oh simply got whatever task was before her completed. A perfect rank and file officer from all reports. Something that seemed nearly impossible. No reprimands or black marks on her file. Not even a single demerit in Starfleet Academy. Nor even a single caveat from a superior officer. There were no commendations before Noyce took notice of her either.

The Vulcan appeared perfectly molded to her duties on screen. Which generally proved impossible even amongst Vulcan officers. Yet there Oh stood, perfection itself. It made Macen uneasy. A record that perfect cried "forgery" to his experienced eye and Gupta's Law. "Enemy agent" would generally be the second descriptor. Oh's records went back for a century yet until Noyce selected then-Captain Oh as his heir apparent Macen had never heard of her. Not that his knowledge of Security officers was infinite or even voluminous.

Yet someone with a career dating back to when he joined Starfleet would've at least come up in conversations with Elias Vaughn. The current XO of Deep Space 9 had been career Starfleet SOC after transferring in from Starfleet Security. Yet she was a general unknown even to his oldest friend. Which was odd from someone that would've enlisted and attended the Academy at the same time as Vaughn. Macen had taken accelerated courses in command, starship operations, and station operations along with Starfleet protocols. He'd tested out of the doctoral programs in his fields of expertise.

Macen had been an A&A Officer for as long as Starfleet had held the billet. Guinan had been on Earth longer than any El-Aurian left alive. But even Macen had stopped in after the NX-01 Enterprise launched. Guinan had promised a world of exciting new prospects for expansion and knowledge. He'd stayed on Earth for three years and kept apprised of Guinan's reports on it as the Coalition of Planets was born and transformed into the United Federation of Planets. Fortunately for his people and himself, Guinan had been on a sabbatical on an El-Aurian colony world when the Borg assimilated the home world.

El-Aurians had fought the Q to a standstill but still couldn't match the Borg's ruthless intensity to assimilate all in their path, their relentless brutality, and voracious appetite for new species and technologies. They'd enjoyed tens of thousands of years of peace and had grown complacent. Guinan persuaded groups of refugees to seek out the Federation's help while others departed for the Gamma Quadrant and deeper into the Beta Quadrant from the Delta Quadrant. She'd helped Macen arrange for passage for hundreds of these El-Aurians to reach safety in the Federation. Then the Nexus Ribbon happened and only 47 of them were ripped away from paradise.

His own great-uncle, younger than himself due to genetic manipulations given to Survey Corpsmen and women, made it so Tolian Soran was one hundred years younger than his great-nephew. The loss of the Nexus paralyzed some El-Aurians who would barely move on. It broke Soran who was consumed by the desire to return at any cost to any life other than his own ambition.

In this reality, Soran died in the attempt to destroy the Veridian star. James T. Kirk had emerged from the Nexus to assist Captain Jean-Luc Picard in saving the Veridian solar system and the Enterprise-D's surviving crew and passengers though the proud starship herself was a total loss. But the legacy carried on with the Enterprise-E. A flagship no longer under Picard's command but rather under Captain Geordi LaForge's. With Commander Worf as his Number One.

Even Captain Will Riker and Commander Deanna Troi had stood down from the USS Titan to raise their family while their terminally ill son, Thad, still lived and had never had a terrestrial home to call his own. But they could still impart core values without Starfleet obligations in the way of raising their younger daughter, Kestra. With both Rikers freed from starship commands, they were able to reconnect. Tom and Lisea became an aunt and uncle. The most saving grace was that Will finally accepted Tom as his equal. Deeming that his transporter twin had lived a life giving towards the common good despite differences in terminology regarding methodology.

So the Rikers became close friends and Danan and Troi embraced each other as sisters. Both having wisdom beyond their years. And each choosing different variations of the same man. So they had stories to tell that embarrassed both husbands.

While Macen could easily be distracted by Oh, the troop movements the Crusaders utilized to deploy indicated that all of their purchased and homegrown fleet was deployed given projected growth rates from the original colonial populations. Leaving the home colonies relatively defenseless. Not that Macen intended to strike out at them. But it showed true zealotry to put everything and everyone that was available to the task without regard to the people back home. Whatever propaganda the faiths were spewing forth, Macen couldn't imagine they'd left perfect panaceas behind.

No populace ever totally agreed with the official line. So how did they cope with dissent? What mechanisms did they have built-in to insure outward compliance at least? The home colonies were the strategic weakness. If the people left behind and largely untended to were unhappy with the regimes, well then, regimes changed all the time.

But the proposed Iconian relics disturbed Macen. What would faith driven absolutists do with the ability to appear anywhere they wanted and disappear without a trace? The images coming from the "missionary" work indicated the Crusaders saw this moment as a great cleansing of unbelief. How far would they go to cleanse a population? Especially if they had unlimited access and reach? Macen had a familiarity with ancient Earth religions. And he knew none of them generally espoused the tactics being used today. This was an intruder expecting forced conversions and professions of faith. When they didn't receive them, their response would be telling.

Doctor Ashreen's last report indicated that she and her team were close to making a positive identification on whether or not the relics were indeed Iconian. But it was different form of potential gateway generator than had ever seen before. Four concentric rings had been placed in the ground to potentially create an unprecedented gateway in Dr. Ashreen's working theory. Apparently the long buried myths regarding the Iconians had mentioned the possibility of such technology. But a workable mechanism or even a damaged beyond hope of repair one had never been found. But then, no one had had access to the Interfaith Council's territories since the mid-22nd Century when the Earth Starfleet first charted the sector. It hadn't been catalogued by the Vulcans when their probes indicated that there were only two planets to barely contain the ability to support humanoid life, the second and fifth, were Class-L and Class-K in the modern ranking Federation system.

The probes had subsequently and rather quickly went offline. Determined to be, two centuries later, the result of Ferengi capturing the probes and reverse engineering them for domestic and export sales. Back in a day when Ferengi business practices had literally been cutthroat. Ferengi Marauders carried the name for a reason. For over century afterwards, the sight of a Ferengi vessel appearing in a system evoked fear rather than a feeling of opportunity. The USS Stargazer had fallen victim to one of the last crews practicing that modus operandi. The Ferengi having learned that coming in relative peace loosened people from their valuable commodities in barter and exchange faster than raiding and pillaging. They weren't inherently more honest, just peaceable.

"Hard day at the office?" Rockford asked after the door slid open. Macen practiced an "open door" policy so anyone could walk in unannounced at any time.

"It's only getting harder," Macen stated seconds before his comm badge chirped, "Macen here."

"As the deployments predicted, we were able to penetrate deep into the hostiles' space without being detected. We're dropping out of warp into the so-called Fenris system," Forger alerted him, "Long range sensors indicate the presence of several starships."

"Thanks. We'll monitor from the Situation Center," Macen advised her.

"Here we go again," Rockford said ruefully.

"Hailing frequencies, lad," Scotty requested from Cadet Dirridian. Just as Starfleet had revised the rank of Rear Admiral JG back to being Commodore so had Midshipmen Years 1 and 2 been reverted to being referred to simply as Cadets on their shipboard tours. Midshipmen Years 3 and 4, typically the years a cadet would undertake a midshipman's tour, were typically called by that designation. The Enterprise-M, whose tours being an elective course, accepted all midshipmen and cadets who qualified and weren't already assigned to another ship for the required midshipmen's tour. Most of the upper classmen and women aboard had already completed their required practicum tour and had accepted executive positions aboard the Enterprise-M.

The current bridge crew consisted of three such cadets. Cadets Flores and Dirridian, at Sciences and Communications, respectively were second-year Cadets. But Boroak and Garnex at Helm and Navigation were third-year Midshipmen. Scotty's Acting XO was the fourth-year Sky Conway, who'd already served her time aboard the USS Exeter with top marks. Her stint at being ship's XO bolstering her chances at graduating top of her class. Also reinforcing her decision to enter into the Command Division upon graduation with practical experience. Midshipmen Conway was on track to graduate as a Lieutenant JG rather than a boot Ensign. The highest rank a cadet could graduate with, despite those with delusions of grandeur imagining they could become captains straight out of the Academy.

Storied future captains such as Saavik had graduated with such honors at Lieutenant JG. Other legendary captains, such as James T. Kirk, Hikaru Sulu, Pavel Chekov, Nyota Uhura, and Spock, had not. Uhura had never even been a starship CO. But she had earned the rank of Captain and taken over first as the Director of Starfleet Linguistics and then as the Director of Starfleet Intelligence-Analysis Division in 2293. She'd been the serving as Director of Starfleet Intelligence, at the rank of Rear Admiral JG, when Macen came aboard the division.

Chekov had ranked up in 2293 after Captain Kirk was lost aboard the Enterprise-B during the first Nexus Incident. He'd assumed command of the Soyuz-class USS Petrograd for five years before being promoted to admiral and being assigned as Director of Starfleet SOC. A post he eventually retired from. But first serving as a consequential mentor to Elias Vaughn. Captain Sulu never accepted promotion or transfer from the USS Excelsior. He'd learned from Kirk's experience the heartaches of surrendering starship command so he simply never did so before his retirement from active service in 2320, having commanded the starship for thirty years. Sulu himself being mandatorily retired to due to extreme age. Uhura and Chekov met similar fates within the next ten years. Scotty was lost in a transporter buffer within the USS Jenolan crash landed on a hidden Dyson Sphere only to be rediscovered in 2369.

Conway had joined him on the bridge, "Sir, hailing frequencies are open."

"The unknown starships are maneuvering to intercept us," Flores announced.

"Standby shields and weapons but let's give diplomacy a chance t' work first," Scotty instructed, "But let's go t' Yellow Alert just t' make it official."

"Computer has identified all six vessel types," Flores reported, "We have a positive lock on one NX-class, one Freedom-class, one Ajax-class, one Hercules-class frigate, and two Hercules-class tenders."

"They don't a chance against us," Garnex snorted.

"They have the numbers, Mr. Garnex," Conway chided him; "Enough mosquitoes can bring down a moose."

Conway heralded from Canada's British Columbia Province. But an early childhood in Edmonton in the upper Alberta Province had shaped her dialect and made it different than that of the lower BC cities. Whose dialect was more closely related with those of the Left Coast stretching from San Diego to Vancouver BC and Victoria Island. Modern Canadians readily embraced the First Nation Province that stretched across their entire northern borders. Indigenous languages becoming official along with English and French. Denmark had ceded Greenland back to the natives and they'd joined the First Nation.

Former national borders simply allocated cultural borders and provincial administrative districts on modern Earth. North America essentially being divided into 12 cultural and sociological divisions just factoring in Canada, the former United States of America, and the former United States of Mexico. The six northern states of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos joining with its cultural counterparts within the USA's Southwest before national boundaries became politically irrelevant. But the old lines still made for ideal local politics and national administrative districts of the United Earth.

Paris serving as the hub for the Federation Council and San Francisco as Starfleet Command Headquarters for the United Federation of Planets. Earth was bestowed the honor because the United Earth had persuasively pushed for the founding of the Coalition of Planets that evolved into the Federation. Starfleet evolved from being just the Earth Starfleet into the Federation Starfleet has an honorific of its diplomatic and explorative efforts as well as its defense of the words beyond the Romulan borders during Earth's war with them.

The Vulcans, Tellarites, Andorians, and Rigellians coming to Earth's assistance in its time of peril. Keeping the Romulans at bay in deep space and forcing them to broker a cease fire and the Neutral Zone treaty over deep space communications. No Romulan had ever been captured or observed. It would take until 2266 before the Romulans were revealed as militant former Vulcan colonists. Despite the Romulans already making their presence known to an elite few on Vulcan as early as 2154. But centuries after the Hobus supernova destroyed Romulus and Remus, the Vulcan-Romulan Unification would take place and the planet Vulcan would change its name to Ni'Var to forge a new destiny without a constant dividing reminder of the different group's sundered past and differing emotional paradigms. But hundreds of Romulan colonies within the former Romulan Star Empire remained viable throughout time, deep into the 31st Century and the Federation's rebirth. But Scotty had more immediate problems than the unknowable future.

"They're polarizing their hull plating and locking phase cannons on us," Flores warned everyone.

"Raise shields an' arm weapons," Scotty dismally ordered, "Go t' Red Alert."

The whoop of the Red Alert sirens resounded throughout the ship. Unlike its modern descendents, the original Constitution-class starship's siren would sound for as long as the alert status remained unchanged.

"All phaser banks charged and ready, fore and aft," Boroak reported from the Helm.

"Forward and aft torpedoes off standby and armed," Garnex stated from Navigation. Scotty recalled the first refit made to the venerable class had separated the weapons to a stand-alone station. Later refits replaced weapons control to the helm and navigation stations. Chekov, before and after his transfer as XO on the Miranda-class USS Reliant, had manned those stations as they bounced across the Enterprise-A's bridge.

Scotty had reviewed Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov's careers in Starfleet after his return from the Jenolan. It had inspired him to come out of retirement and accept an Academy posting regarding retrograde technologies after stints with the Starfleet Corps of Engineers and the Advanced Starship Design Bureau. Which had then persuaded him to introduce the proposal behind the Enterprise-M's construction and purpose. Nothing prepared cadets for dealing with older-than-Federation-current technology than a hands-on practicum. Best served in deep space. Where they might actually encounter "older" tech while dealing with it in their own daily lives. They'd just never expected to face combat within what had been Starfleet Protectorate space. But Starfleet suspending patrols of these areas had generated a rise in piracy. As well as open hostilities it seemed.

"Sir, we're receiving a reply to our friendship hails," Dirridian reported.

"Well lad, put it on..." Scotty never got to finish.

"Sirs! A Federation Nova-class starship just entered the inner system!" Flores yelled out.

"That changes things," Conway admitted.

"Aye, but in what direction, I wonder?" Scotty had to confess.

Macen gathered in the standing room only Situation Center with the rest of the team excluding Smith and Kerber. Fortunately for everyone involved, they remained ensconced in their private Data Womb. The room had four occupied stations sitting on one side and the other side had everyone leaning against the bulkheads. Lee, Forte, Shade, and now Rockford, had the stations since this was their typical work space. Their private monitors scrolled data that they were perusing regarding the unfolding situation while the large overhead monitor displayed the same scene the Bridge's Main Viewer was displaying at any given moment. Zimbalist, at OPS on the bridge, sent confirmation of the fact that was, indeed, an original model Constitution-class starship only with its transponder ID registering it as the Starfleet starship NCC-1701 USS Enterprise-M despite her hull registry dropping the -M designator alphanumeric.

"What the hell is an Enterprise-M?" Shade blurted.

"A museum piece starship built for a retrograde technologies course at Starfleet Academy," Forte read off, "The course instructor and starship commander is Captain Montgomery Scott."

"Scotty?" Parva gasped. Their chief engineer obviously idolized the living legend.

"You knew he was running about in this century alongside Spock and Doctor McCoy," Daggit reminded his wife.

"But they're dead," the Orion replied, "I just assumed he would be too."

"Captain Scott would only be 86 years-old now. Dr. McCoy was 153 when he died," Lee pulled up that info.

"I'm more interested in the four ships confronting him and the two remaining behind at Fenris II," Macen announced. The ship classes were identified.

"The tenders are obviously expecting to support something," Macen surmised, "Tracy, can you get us there undetected?"

"If Shannon can help stall these four, I can slip us in the long way from the other side of the planet from its star to make a landing in the Corsair," Ebert promised him, "The tenders might detect us but by then it would be too late. They'd have jeopardize whoever else is on the planet to strike out at us."

"Sneaky," Mudd crowed, "I like it."

A Danube-class runabout, the Corsair was diminutive starship in her own right. She was also Ebert's pride and joy. She, with Mudd's criminal genius, had modified the runabout well above and beyond legal Federation safety standards. Mudd's own former Bajoran Antares-class freighter, the Freehold, had been a work of malevolent genius. Now Mudd, with Ebert's help and her former SS Odyssey crewmates from the Maquis, Tom Eckles and Heidi Darcy, were assisting Mudd in modifying a decommissioned Earth Starfleet NV-class secured from the Terra Nova Starfleet Starship Depot. Joelle Jones had intimate experience with this vessel type, having stolen one from the same depot when she was with the Maquis making the vessel the second Waylaid. Jones was providing practical technical advice to the project. Giving the company two Q-ships in inventory.

The Karemma license-built Ark of the Prophets converted into a troop transport by the Bajoran Militia and Mudd's yet-to-be-christened starship. Colonel Anara and the Prophet's Hand, Neela, operated the Ark on the Militia's behalf in conjunction with the Starfleet SID. Mudd's ship had begun as the Hood. A rather boring name for Mudd. Earth Starfleet vessels hadn't begun hull registrations until the NX-01 Enterprise. Before then, ID transponder alone carried the ship's name and registration. The most famous NV-class was the NV-03 Intrepid which had travelled to the Delphic Expanse to assist the NX-01 Enterprise against the Xindi. Macen found it odd that the Interfaith Council had invested in NX-class vessels but not NV-starships while they spent more on early Federation starship types.

All their alien targets had just developed warp technology or had progressed up to roughly Warp 4 capable craft like the Freedom-, Ajax-, Hercules-, and NV-classes. The well-worn Daedalus-class and similar designs were missing as well. Although, that type had proven unpopular within the Iotian Starfleet so few hulls had been constructed. The Iotians cleared their inventory of them as soon as they developed mid-23rd Century UFP ship analogues. Starfleet had re-introduced the spherical primary hull design with the new Olympic-class medical ships. Doctors Simon Tarses and Alyssa Nogura being among the first captains and Chief Medical Officers of such starships.

The break between nurses and doctors nearly evaporating in the wake of the Dominion War. Medical technicians had replaced traditional nurses as Nurse Practitioners became a norm. Med Techs were trained well enough to diagnose and prescribe according to diagnostic equipment and formulary lists but only doctors and nurse practitioners could perform surgeries. Med Techs could only assist in medical research under supervision, not engage in it on their own accord. Tessa had one Nurse and three Med Techs under her. The Nurse Practitioner allowed Tessa free time to "develop" herself.

An egregious violation of Federation law under the Anti-Synthetic Ban. The Doctor ended up on a far flung world outside the Federation. Vic Fontaine performed in the holosuites at Quark's Bar inside Serenity Station. After the Orion woman, Treir, lost the franchise rights, Quark placed the bar under corporate control and assigned the one Ferengi he could trust with the thriving concern: the female named Pel. Under Grand Nagus Rom's reforms, Pel could openly conduct business.

After Quark reconnected with her following Ro Laren's leaving Deep Space 9 after her Starfleet career died a third time protecting him, Quark discovered Pel was between engagements and he opted to keep her a full partner in the Quark's Bar on Serenity. With a futures option to eventually buy a majority in it if she so chose. As his equal partner in the venture, Pel would earn more profit then a franchisee. And as a majority shareholder, she could earn the bulk of the profits and even expand the business without receiving prior authorization. Quark would then license, at a discounted rate, successful improvements in his other establishments, incorporating them into the franchise requirements. Quark's license fees could eventually overtake his profit margin and Pel would keep 100% of the profits. Potentially, Quark could even owe her a monthly stipend.

"Okay Parva, you'll stay with the ship. Celeste, you and your detectives stay as well. So will the Data Team. Did you get that?"

"Copy that," Kerber's voice came over comms.

"Brin..." Rockford began.

"It's for the best," he promised her.

"So...I'm staying too?" Mudd inquired.

"Nope. You're coming with," Macen grinned.

"Dammit!" she protested, "Why?"

"Because you're a survivor and you might end being our only hope. Or at least Tracy's," Macen clarified. He knew Mudd had a weakness for Ebert even if the pilot refused to reciprocate despite one torrid night together.

"Gentlemen, gear up and load for proverbial bear," Macen instructed.

"The armory aboard the Corsair will suffice once we bring our personal touches," Daggit assessed. He was the senior tactical specialist.

"I'll grab my sword," Burrows stated.

"Be in the shuttlebay in twenty," Ebert instructed, "Harri, you're with me on pre-flights."

"Oy vey," Mudd lamented.

"Say your goodbyes while you have time," Macen urged.

Outside in the corridor, Rockford confronted Macen; "This better not actually be goodbye."

"The Ascendant were just a warm up. But they saw reason in the end," Macen reminded her.

"Except we don't have a Neela this time," Rockford was still irked.

"I'm familiar with the root faiths. The trick is why have they, like the Ascendant, gone radical?" Macen told her, "I have to have that key and we can unravel this thing."

"Which is why you need Angelique and Bailey here, hacking their systems and my team wading through religious texts and teachings through the last 2,400 years," Rockford realized.

"And they need a leader. You," Macen encouraged her.

"You should've warned me," Rockford accused, "No secrets. Remember?"

"I had no plan until we arrived. I made it up while we confronted this brewing situation," Macen confessed, "You heard it as soon as I made up my mind. Along with everyone else"

"I wouldn't tell that to anyone else though," Rockford warned, "The myth of the infallible leader and all that."

"Can you speak with Angelique and Bailey? I have to brief Shannon and Joelle," Macen inquired.

"Go. Bear the bad news," Rockford pulled him in for a passionate kiss, "Down payment on later."

"Now I can't die," Macen promised. Yet, he had before and only a cosmic fluke involving the Nexus had brought him back to life. Supposedly that door was now permanently closed. Rockford waited until Macen waved goodbye from the turbolift before crossing the nearby space to enter the Data Womb and get Kerber and Smith properly tasked.

Inside Forger's Ready Room, while Jaycee Miller guided their approach, Macen briefed Forger and Jones and the need for distraction, "Keep them talking as long you can. And despite having a veteran commander, this Enterprise is crewed by cadets. With little supervision from the data Arianna pulled and I read off of a padd while when we first spotted the potential hostiles."

"These crews belong to the same group that's threatened everyone?" Jones asked.

"And invaded over two dozen planets," Macen confirmed it, "And reports still broadcasting from those worlds indicate the invaders are getting ugly because the natives refuse to capitulate and assimilate."

"I hate them already," Jones' Maquis sensibilities were flaring to life. Macen knew he and Ebert shared the same bias as her. For different reasons and affiliations, so did Kerber and Smith. They also shared a history of using the same responses to similar threats.

"That's the best you got? Talk to them?" Forger was doubtful.

"Would you prefer they shoot at you?" Macen asked.

"Because they will," Jones promised.

"I love the idea of a conversation," Forger amended. But like Miller, Forger was a former Starfleet Tactical Officer. But Miller had been enlisted whereas Forger was an officer unfairly drummed out of the service because her CO had a problem with her transsexuality. She wouldn't cater to his sordid fantasies so he gathered loyal officers and built a dummy case against her and court-martialed her.

She was subsequently steamrolled by her own appointed defense. She was forced to resign in order to avoid a black mark over her dismissal from the service. But the "official" reprimands and complaints stayed on her record. Her sister had steered her to Macen and he took her on as his Chief Tactical Officer before she eventually rose to Executive Officer. Now she was the Commanding Officer.

"Scotty won't shoot first and his ship is still more advanced than theirs but you've got two centuries worth of advancements on them. Utilize that to make them back down," Macen suggested.

"We could always destroy one ship to persuade the others to surrender," Jones only half-faux suggested.

"You have a twenty minutes ETA on their position. I have five minutes before we launch. Aglaia can get Tracy's projected course from her and tabulate an ETA for our arrival on Fenris II. Just buy us that long. We can outrun all of their starships thanks to Tracy and Harri's tinkering. But if you withdraw, convince Scotty to go with you," Macen instructed, "Now, I'm going to be late."

"We'll try not to get shot at this time," Forger offered.

"Amen to that," Jones concurred.

"I'll leave it to your capable hands," and with that, Macen was gone and then running out of the turbolift for the shuttlebay when he reached Deck 4.

"Captain, the Federation ship isn't Starfleet," Dirridian reported from Communications, "She's a privateer on business to conduct a search and rescue operation for Federation civilians last reported on Fenris II."

"Why on God's Earth would anyone be down there?" Scotty asked himself.

"It explains the presence of the starships and their interest in Fenris II," Conway remarked, "After all, they left their tenders in orbit over it."

"Aye, tha' they did," Scotty conceded, "Ye've made progress with our incoming. What about our other surprise visitors?"

"Still no response to hails after their original message terminated upon the arrival of the surveyor," Dirridian glumly informed him.

"So they're bein' wily and seeing how this all plays out," Scotty deduced.

"Sir, General Order Four dictates that we raise shields now that in weapons range and they refuse to respond further to communication," Conway primly pointed out.

"Aye, that it does. As I've learned the hard way before," Scotty recalled Khan Noonian Singh seizing control of the USS Reliant and approaching as a friendly who secretly meant great harm, "Raise the shields but dinna arm phasers yet. Keep torpedoes on standby only."

"That satisfy you, young missy?" Scotty asked.

"Aye, sir," Conway was placated.

"Sir, an auxiliary craft launched from the surveyor and appears to be headed out of the system," Flores told him.

"Can ye indentify it?" Scotty wondered.

"It's a Danube-class runabout and it's course correcting to make a broad orbit around the solar system," Flores was stumped by the maneuver.

"Making it possible t' approach from th' potential hostiles' backsides and reach th' planet undetected," Scotty said appreciatively, "They were undetected, were they not?"

"They launched between the clearest sensor sweeps of the potential hostiles and went to warp before an active sensor ping could reach them," Flores saw the move in a new light.

"Aye, now. They'll be wanting t' palaver in order t' divulge how they plan on stalling our unexpected arrivals," Scotty stated.

"Sir, they are hailing," Dirridian was amazed.

"And what are they sayin'?" Scotty wondered.

"They request we fall back and let them take point in discussing terms with the other ships," Dirridian stated.

"They definitely have access t' Federation databases t' know we're a boatload of cadets," Scotty mused, "Helm, back us off ten thousand kilometers. That'll still put us in ready response range."

Boroak easily complied.

"What happen now, sir?" Garnex was slightly nervous.

"Now we stall," Scotty chuckled.

Ebert orbited the Fenris star then made a close pass to it to approach Fenris II from it. Mudd watched the sensors closely from OPS beside Ebert at CONN, "No one is flinching yet. Seems Forger has them occupied."

"We're going to have come in hot and brake hard once we hit atmo," Ebert informed everyone, "The inertial damper is gonna balk."

"It's that or burn up," Daggit knew.

"Still, if those tenders are in synchronous orbit with the archeological site, they're gonna spot us coming in towards it," Ebert warned.

"Their phase cannon targeting systems aren't precise enough to avoid the site and the relics if they choose to engage us," Daggit promised Ebert, "From the strategic data I've been reviewing that the Commander gave us, they're probably stretched pretty thin to engage so many systems simultaneously. Six starships is a major investment of resources to put towards an expendable project."

"Makes you wonder why they did it," Burrows sat at the Engineering station while Daggit held down Tactical.

"Macen is receiving real time updates from the Data Womb. Whatever they learn they pass on straightaway. Rockford's team is filtering through it for analysis," Daggit promised.

"Do we tell the scientific team we're coming?" Mudd wondered.

"They might not be being held against their will. Doctors Ashreen and Fan have spent their entire careers looking for these kinds of things. From what Macen has shown us so far, this is pretty atypical for an Iconian site. So they may be trying to cement their place in history with this find," Burrows stated.

"That's cold, Tony. Even for you," Ebert accused.

"But it could be true. History making fame is pretty hard to resist for academic types," Mudd concurred with Burrows. Something that had been happening more and more of late. Ever since they'd worked closely together on Argelius. Whatever had happened on the planet had stayed on the planet. The way her encounter with Mudd should have remained a secret buried on Sigma Iotia II. But Mudd had been moon eyed afterwards. Despite the temptation to reciprocate and repeat the mind blowing sexual experience, Ebert held true to her convictions.

She was swearing of the "bad" archetypes of every gender of every species. After she'd been released from service following the Dominion War and informed that while she wouldn't prosecuted for being a Maquis thanks to her contributions, there was equally no place for her within the Federation. So she'd left the Federation's Kalandra Sector for the neutral Kalendra Sector and set up operations as a smuggler for hire. Getting involved with every imaginable breed of bad boy, girl, and third gender. Eckles, Darcy, and Lacey had also set up a retrofitting and chop shop in orbit over Kalendra itself.

Ebert knew the counselors' psycho babble. Being gang raped by Cardassians had traumatized her as deeply as watching her entire immediate family gets slowly butchered. Her sexual appeal to the Cardassians had bought her life. Forever altering her sexuality. Sex meant an escape from danger. So first she had to seek out the danger. So, likewise, she chose dangerous partners. Partners that often abused her as greatly as an entire squad of Cardassians had.

Macen had pulled her from that life by giving a fresh start...again. She was determined not repeat the past. But Mudd had nearly dissolved her commitment to bettering her emotional condition. Her constantly working closely with Mudd kept the temptation forever in front of her. Mudd wouldn't physically hurt Ebert, but she would inevitably break her heart. Something Ebert would turn tricks with Mudd in order to avoid. Falling back into the old habits.

Yet, Ebert sensed that Macen and Rockford had deduced their suspicions of her past, all of it, were true and were providing a safety net when it came to her proximity to Mudd. She'd never revealed her ultimate fate on her family's freighter after the Cardassians seized it. Nor had she ever discussed the particulars of her emotional state when Macen approached either time. He'd always seem to know where and how she was and always protected her. Even from herself when she was a teenager aboard the Odyssey.

That crew would forever be a second family to her. Macen and Danan the mother and father. T'Kir was the sex crazed sibling. Ebert was glad she hadn't been around when Macen and T'Kir were first getting together and Danan was still XO before Riker came aboard. She wouldn't have coped well with that. Afterwards, it was already a done deal. He'd already married the March hare of a Vulcan. Eckles, Darcy, and Lacey now having come to be part of Outbound Ventures now. Her family was reunited on Serenity Station if not the Obsidian herself.

Macen had reunited with many Maquis. Korepanova, Liu, Noble, Elfi Hendryks, Emjin Thool, Hakatay, Sekona, Nick Locarno, and even Aric Tulley. Ro was still in their lives. She was even reunited with Daggit, Neela, and Anara from their Dominion War days. She sometimes wondered what had happened to the rest of the Angosian platoon that had served with them aboard the Odyssey and Asimov.

Ro had even rejoined Starfleet when Bajor was admitted into the Federation and Militia officers were given an opportunity to apply for a Starfleet commission if they so chose. Ro had even made Captain shortly before her ouster from Starfleet, yet again. But this time she'd been railroaded by careerists. Who saw regulations as being far more valuable than her connections with people. Apparently connections weren't allowed when commanding a Federation Deep Space station. At least not anymore.

Ebert, like the others, recalled a time and place where those factors would have outweighed regulations. But General Kira Nerys had intervened and reinstated Ro into the Militia as a Colonel. Placing her in effective command over the Colonial Defense Forces in lieu of the politically appointed desk jockey that held the rank of general that was supposedly in command of a force he knew nothing about and knew less about how to lead. The Colonial Defense Forces had been an afterthought of the Provisional Government that formed up after the Cardassians withdrew from Bajor. Planetary defense and system defense were their priorities. The colonies had survived independently for sixty years. Why bother with them now?

But the colonies came to play an important role for Bajor before, during, and after the Dominion War. Ro's command held the bulk of the starships purchased from the Iotian Federation. And she oversaw colonies in quadrants on both sides of the Wormhole. With the brewing cold war with the Dominion freezing which direction Starfleet and Bajor could expand in within the Gamma Quadrant and options for colonies within the Alpha Quadrant used up or proven unviable during Bajor's star faring days, Ro had safeguarded all but one colony from even sneak attacks.

That far flung world had chosen to remain outside the Militia's patrol routes. The Ascendancy surprising everyone in their zeal to kill all "heretics" who believed differently about the Prophets. Ro had managed to hold and secure Bajor's remaining colonies against further aggression with starships no more advanced than the Enterprise-M herself. Proving once again that the general in command of the Colonial Forces needed to retire and make way for Colonel Ro to be promoted to the Joint Chiefs of the Militia. But the aged politician felt slighted by Kira's advancement to Chair of the Joint Chiefs when he held seniority over every member. He'd rather remain a thorn in Kira's side than stand aside for the good of Bajor, the Bajoran people, and the Bajoran Militia itself.

Yet in another political compromise, First Minister Astris Beru exempted the general from the Militia's mandatory retirement age, which he'd surpassed ten years ago. So long as he remained in good health, he could continue to plague the Militia with his unrelenting presence. But the moment his health failed, no compromises would save him from Astris insisting he retire with full "honors". But his Prophets' damned hard head refused to stand down until he'd been made Chairman and the highest ranking member of the Militia. Something even his allies wouldn't grant him. Careers in politics could only endure so much scandal. And the Colonial Defense Forces Commandant was a brewing scandal that few could escape unscathed. But Ebert's mind was far from Bajoran politics as she made their approach towards Fenris II.

"Shields are up," Ebert alerted Daggit, "Our life support system will still struggle through re-entry to keep us cool. We're gonna light up the night sky as we burn through the atmo. Those tenders will spot us coming for the site and have an opportunity to open up before we the close distance between them and their lack of accuracy threatens whatever operation they have on the ground."

"So any sentries on the ground will know we're coming?" Burrows was dismayed.

"Yup," Mudd cheerfully confirmed it, "But we got phasers; yes, we do!"

"I never took you for the team cheerleader, Harri," Macen quipped as he entered the cockpit from the aft cabin.

"I'm a fem of many talents," Mudd boasted, "You should see my stolen pom-poms."

"The probe we fired earlier hasn't detected any comm traffic between the ships and the surface. So either everyone is extremely confident no intruders will reach the ground, or..." Macen trailed off.

"There's no troop presence there," Daggit deduced.

"'Cept we never get that lucky," Mudd complained.

"And that's why you were fired from the pep squad," Ebert retorted.

"Just keepin' it real, folks," Mudd quipped.

"Harri's got a damn fine point," Daggit conceded.

"Told ya!" Mudd crowed.

"I miss this," Ebert suddenly confessed. Macen knew she was reminded of her Maquis family aboard the Odyssey.

"We're just as much family now as then. It's just grown," Macen confided with her.

"No, no, no! I already have a sib. That's enough for me," Mudd protested.

"You feel it more than the rest of us, Harri," Ebert divulged.

"You tramp! You were supposed to be drunk outta your mind!" Mudd protested anew.

"Some things are unforgettable," Ebert confessed.

Mudd was honestly shocked, "Who woulda figured given all your lamenting?"

"Ladies, minds back on this mission please," Macen requested.

"But the other one was sooo much more fun," Mudd complained loudly.

"Harri," Ebert chided her.

"Five orgasms! That's all I'll say!" Mudd finally got it off her chest.

"Harri!" Ebert was scandalized. The guys collectively groaned.

"Okay, okay. The past is now the past," Mudd promised, "But: five!"

Burrows was the only that seemed intrigued by this confession. It was obvious he viewed Mudd in a new light. Whether good, bad, or lasciviously remained to be seen. The ship began to buck as the planet loomed in the viewports.

"We're going into atmo!" Ebert cautioned them, "Be prepared to get hot and sweaty."

"Been there, done that," Mudd bragged.

"Harri!" everyone scolded her at once.

"Okay already!" she yelped as friction fires lit up around the shields.

"They're still not responding," Zimbalist informed Forger and Jones from OPS, "Enterprise reported the same."

"We've been staring each other down for forty minutes," Jones sounded bored.

"Corsair should be on target by now," Aglaia calculated at the CONN at the fore of the bridge.

"They're maneuvering into flanking positions," Miller reported from Tactical.

"Arm phasers and photons," Forger ordered, "We'll see if that jogs them into communicating."

"Enterprise has also armed weapons," Miller told them.

"Captain Scott stands by to assist," Zimbalist happily stated.

"The Ajax- and Hercules-classes are flanking our positions. Putting their most capable ships on our broadsides," Miller assessed.

"I have weapons fire at the planet from the two tenders," Zimbalist was alarmed.

"Corsair must be making her run for the surface," Aglaia calmed him down, "They'll cease fire as soon as Ebert gets them in range of the relics and outdated ships can't precision target them alone."

"They knew this going in," Forger reassured her crew, "Jaycee, fire a shot across everyone's bows."

The Obsidian's Type X phaser strips could simultaneously fire in four directions. The fixed phase cannons on the older model vessels could not. But they had the numbers.

"That halted their advance," Miller happily declared, "They still have a partial crossfire on us though,"

"They're finally hailing," Zimbalist announced, "Voice only."

"On speakers," Forger instructed.

"Attention hostile vessel. You have intruded on the territories of the Interfaith Council. If you don't wish meet the Many Faces of God, you will withdraw or be destroyed," the voice announced, "You have thirty seconds to comply."

"And...the message ended," Zimbalist said dismally.

"Is that supposed to be a weapon of some kind?" Forger wondered.

"I think they just mean they'll blow us to hell," Jones opined.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Forger called seconds before weapons fire began.

"They didn't even lock their weapons. They just fired blindly," Miller reported, "And badly."

"Return fire. Phasers and photons," Forger ordered, "Aglaia, give Captain Scott a clear field of fire."

"Aye, Ma'am," Aglaia happily maneuvered away to pit the Obsidian against the Freedom-class and Hercules-class starships. Miller's targeting systems easily compensating for the well practiced and coordinated evasion tactics. Meanwhile, the Enterprise-M also opened fire and began evasive maneuvers.

"Boroak, lock phasers an' open fire while ye commence evasive," Scotty ordered, "Mr. Garnex, lock photon torpedoes an' fire at will."

"Mighty considerate of them to announce an ultimatum and just open fire anyway," Conway remarked.

'They dinna care if we complied or not. The timetable was meant t' confuse us, na' give us a way out," Scotty clarified.

"None of them have shields," Flores felt badly for them, "And a Nova-class isn't much but she's tougher than us."

"Some people learn the hardest way possible, lassie," Scotty lamented, "Hopefully, they won't take themselves t' th' grave proving their point."

"Shields are being drained but holding against their weapons fire," Garnex happily reported.

"The Obsidian has disabled both starships engaging her. I've disabled the NX-class and our last torpedo strike against the Ajax-class has her reeling," Boroak fixed the situation through the helm's targeting viewer.

"What's the status on the tenders, Flores?" Scotty inquired.

"They're staying on orbit but they've ceased fire," she read from her sensor hood, "Sir! All engaged enemy starships have deregulated their matter-antimatter flows! Their warp cores are going to breach in seconds!"

"Brace for impact!" Scotty announced over shipwide. The explosions pummeled the Constitution- and Nova-class starships.

"Anyone get the number of that warp core?" Zimbalist groaned as EPS conduits sparked and systems rebooted on auxiliaries.

"That was as crazy assed if I've ever seen. And I served under Michael Eddington," Jones groaned as she retook her seat after being thrown to the deck.

"Hail the Enterprise and see if they require assistance," Forger requested, "Parva, how bad are we hit?"

"We survived but I need a few minutes to get everything back to normal," the Chief Engineer reported in.

"Have Gilan ready a team to go aboard the Enterprise-M," Forger ordered, "I'd send you to meet your hero but I'd prefer you stay on to hasten repairs before more trouble arrives."

"Understood," Parva heaved a heavy sigh.

"Sorry," Forger glumly offered, "Edwin, any word from Captain Scott?"

"He's ready to send help rather than receive it," Zimbalist informed her, "But admits he probably needs it worse than we do."

"Hard call to make. Especially for a legendary engineer," Jones chuckled.

"With a boatload of cadets," Forger reminded her, "Signal Captain Scott to stand by to receive our team."

"Thank God that's over with," Mudd groaned. Evasive maneuvers had been easier after the runabout slowed enough to stop creating a friction burn but the two Hercules-class tenders had also had time to narrow in on them more effectively. But as predicted, they ceased fire on the Corsair when it neared the four concentric rings partially buried into the hard scrabble ground. Greek-styled ruins were nearby.

"I'm reading power emanating for the Doric-type complex," Macen was impressed Daggit had learned anything about ancient Earth architecture.

"There's a Starfleet type Mission Scout landed nearby too," Mudd reported.

"That explains how the Federation science team arrived," Burrows stated, "And points out they could've left at any time of their choosing."

"Are there any life signs aboard the Mission Scout?" Macen asked from the crash seat in the rear of the cockpit.

"Negative," Daggit replied.

"Then target it with phasers and disable it. I don't want them leaving unless it's with us," Macen ordered as he lifted out of the seat and returned it into the bulkhead it recessed into.

"Certainly," Daggit used two phasers to disable the warp and impulse engines of the scoutship.

"Now we can land," Macen stated as the scientific team began to exit the ruins in order to investigate the explosions. Doctors Ashreen and Fan were the first to approach the landed runabout.

"Who the hell are you frinxing people?" Doctor Ashreen demanded to know as Macen exited the ship, "Because you're certainly not Starfleet!" "Who the hell are you frinxing people?" Doctor Ashreen demanded to know as Macen exited the ship, "Because you're certainly not Starfleet!"

"Most of us were," Macen assured her, "Now we're private contractors sent to retrieve you and your team."

"We were in no danger," Doctor Fan rebutted him.

"Are you completely unaware that your host government has invaded twenty-seven neighboring star systems with intent to forcibly 'convert' them to their religious causes?" Macen sharply inquired.

"We knew they were unstable," Doctor Ashreen confessed, "But they funded our research."

"Research into what exactly?" Mudd asked as she stepped out of the runabout, "Grave robbing? Tech extraction?"

"Oh hell, no. She is definitely not ex-Starfleet," Fan protested.

"Bingbing, let's give them a chance since they're now our only way off the planet," Ashreen mildly rebuked her along with a cold inference to the SID team.

"Just what the hell are you all playing at here, people?" Mudd angrily wanted to know.

"Doctors, she's asked a valid question," Macen said sternly.

"This technology has been confirmed to be..." Ashreen began.

"Iconian in nature. But it's a unique example of their gateway technology," Macen finished for her, "I've read your reports to the Daystrom Institute. Who, by the way, paid for this excursion in order to safely secure you, your team, and your notes. We're also here to conduct a threat assessment for Starfleet considering the hostility displayed by the locals."

"There is no threat," Fan hotly insisted.

"Actually there is," Ashreen confessed.

"Tila!" Fan hissed at her.

"Bingbing, they need to know," Ashreen sighed, "Come with us, please."

"Katana, huh?" Fan asked Burrows, "I prefer a Jian myself, or a GuanDoo."

"You're an expert with a sword?' Burrows was intrigued.

"I dabble," was all Fan Bingbing would say. Mudd scrutinized the exchange. Much to Ebert's amusement.

Inside the ruins, the team had set up camp and had power routed to the various consoles they had lovingly removed millennia of dust and dirt from.

"Captain, I presume?" Ashreen inquired.

"Commander, actually. I'm the Mission Commander for this and every jaunt," Macen told her, "I'm Brin Macen. These are Rab Daggit, Tony Burrows, Tracy Ebert, and Harri Mudd."

"You seem all acquainted with Doctor Fan and I. These are our assistants, Doctors Bowlen and Shriel." Ashreen indicated a human male and a female Andorian, "Also with us are Technicians Frink and Dodger"

The man named Frink garnered Macen's attention, "I wasn't aware any Frinks had made it off Ronara Prime."

He'd known the entire clan had moved to the colony in the 23rd Century when it was first established.

"You knew my family?" Harold Frink asked.

"I knew Annabeth," Macen told him, "She helped us out a lot."

"Aunt Annabeth got what family would leave smuggled off world days before the Jem'Hadar enslaved the colony," Frink answered, "I'm Harold. Or just Frink around here."

"Does Annabeth still tend bar?" Macen inquired.

"Sure. Why?" Frink asked.

"I know a certain Ferengi bar owner named Pel that can triple her pay at the Quark's on Serenity Station," Macen told him, "And Aric Tulley is on the station."

"Tulley?" the name meant something to Frink, "Aunt Annabeth always refers to him as the 'one that got away'."

"He works for me on Serenity," Macen revealed, "I can make this happen if she's interested."

"The Tulley angle might make her move," Frink admitted, "Where's this station located?"

"In orbit around Odin in the Barrinor System," Macen shared.

"Lots of money," Frink whistled.

"Just let her know to contact Outbound Ventures and ask for Macen by name," he told him.

"You have pull?" Frink asked.

"I own the corporation and the station," Macen divulged.

"Still, a Ferengi bar?" Frink hesitated.

"Pel's a female Ferengi and she manages this Quark's as its partner as well as manager," Macen told him.

"That certainly changes things," Frink grinned.

"Can we get to it?" Fan inquired testily.

"Still, a display of unexpected humanity is refreshing from military contractors," Ashreen allowed.

"We're more akin to Starfleet Security's Investigations Division," Macen told her, "And I'm not human. I'm El-Aurian."

"And you've never encountered this type of Iconian technology in your travels?" Ashreen was fascinated.

"No, there weren't even rumors," Macen admitted.

"Then we have something to truly rare to show you," Ashreen boasted, "Frink and Shriel, please calibrate the equipment"

"This part takes some time, I'm afraid," Ashreen apologized.

"What is the true nature of your find, Doctor?" Macen wanted to know.

"This isn't a sidereal displacement device. It's an interdimensional transportation device. It opens gateways to other universes," Ashreen explained at last. Macen and the team stifled groans. Alternate universes had been plaguing them for months now. Particularly since they'd come from one before the Prophets of Bajor utilized the Nexus to transport them from "home" into one of the four Prime Universes.

The Four created from the Origin Point of the Multiverse and all other alternate realities stemming from and intertwining the four Primes. The two most connected alternate realities to this Prime Universe being the "Kelvinverse" hosting Ambassador Spock in its past and the Terran Universe, also dubbed the Mirror Universe. Both universes being ones where the Prime Spock had had undue influence.

"We are in communication with members of an alternate universe. We've contacted a group of explorers and have been discussing shared and divergent histories," Doctor Fan boasted.

"Breaking Federation law," Macen dismally realized, "And the Temporal Accords."

"The what?" Ashreen had never of such a pact.

"Doctors, you and your staff are going to be learning about the Temporal Cold War any minute now," Macen warned them.

"Doctors!" Frink shouted, "The geothermal taps are running away from us. They seem locked in a cascading power draw that's increasing in intensity."

"Look!" Doctor Bowlen pointed past the ruins at the rings in the distance. They were all glowing and energy fields and formed within their circumferences. A beeping sound had Ebert pull a padd from her utility belt, "We have an ion storm developing in near space. It'll ionize the atmo to the point we can't breathe as it converts to ozone."

"We're getting off-world," Macen ordered the scientific team.

"Shut her down," Ashreen deflated.

"We can't!" Frink was still panicky, "It's locked in its energizing cycle. The gateway is about to open wide."

"We're going," Macen insisted, "Now!"

The Corsair lifted as the team abandoned their equipment but took their research notes. Ashreen and Fan tried to hover in the cockpit as the crew got the runabout through the ion storm.

"It's like lightning in space," Ashreen gasped.

"You can observe from the rear cabin," Macen pulled the doctors away, "We have two research stations that can be tied into the sensors from them."

The storm raged as the Corsair broke free but Macen instructed they remain close by to record what happened next. The ion storm broke and fizzled out revealing Fenris II as a lifeless rock who'd cracked under the immense pressures placed on its core by the geothermal taps. Lava streams dominated the now mostly molten Class-D planet now. In orbit sat a Galaxy-class starship. But not a variant seen before. It had three warp nacelles. The third mounted between the typical two.

"A Federation starship?" Mudd scoffed, "Are you kidding me?"

"Tracy, angle us so we can view the saucer while the ions dissipate and we can get a clear signal off of their IFF transponder," Daggit instructed.

"Good thinking, Rab," Macen was out of the crash seat again. A registration became clear as they rose above the primary hull's saucer rim. It boldly displayed NCX-1701 CSS Enterprise.

"Close but not quite the same," Ebert noted, "No alphanumeric after the ship's name either."

"Well, they're hailing us," Mudd remarked.

"Let me take it," Macen had Mudd slide out of her seat at OPS and he received the message. The purveyor of which had him speechless.

"This is Captain James T. Kirk of the starship CSS Enterprise. To whom am I addressing?" the legendary captain inquired. He was in his prime as though just beginning his first five-year mission. He also dressed in the Starfleet uniform that had just passed out of vogue. His undershirt the Command Red rather than Yellow that their Captain Kirk had worn. In either universe they'd dwelt in.

Surrounding him were the familiar officers also dressed in near-contemporary uniforms from circa 2373-2383 in this Prime Universe. They had just been replaced two years earlier by a new uniform whose necessity had been dictated by Starfleet Commander Clancy. Apparently Kirsten Clancy wanted to make her mark on Starfleet history with something other than the Mars Massacre and resultant Synthetic Life Form Ban that had just occurred earlier this year in 2385.

"Commander?" Ebert verbally nudged Macen's frozen brain. Captain Kirk, Scotty, and the crew of the Enterprise-B had been the ones to pull him and forty-six other El-Aurians from the Nexus. What had seemed a curse had become a blessing. Macen had studied every available shred of information regarding Kirk. Even some that had been unavailable thanks to his far-reaching Security clearances when he'd been a member of Starfleet Intelligence. Those clearances had been restored when the SID formed up and hired his company, and especially his team, on.

"Captain Kirk, my name is Brin Macen. Welcome to our universe. May I ask who you represent? And if you're a member of Starfleet?" he began.

"We are members of Starfleet and represent the Confederation of Planets," Kirk answered, "Who do you represent?"

"We're here as operatives for the United Federation of Planet's Starfleet Special Investigations Division. We were conducting a search and rescue operation regarding the very scientists that accidently arranged for your unexpected arrival," Macen explained.

"It had something to do with that molten ruin of a planet we're in near orbit of, didn't it?" Kirk asked.

"Yes, sir," Macen confirmed it.

"So there is no way home, right now, is there?" Kirk inquired.

"Not that we're aware of at this time," Macen didn't wish to bring up the Prophets and their Wormhole into it just yet.

"Good," Kirk smiled confidently, "We'll make our own way back. In the meantime, you and those other vessels we detect will immediately surrender to me on the Confederation's authority."

"Commander?" Ebert whispered. The tenders had miraculously survived the ion storm but were floating dead in space. As the OPS board's sensors the atomic remnants and debris of the entire Interfaith Council's squadron they'd deployed against the Enterprise-M and the Obsidian. He keyed in several coded messages as well as screen displayed instructions for Ebert on her CONN console.

"I'm afraid I don't recognize that authority, Captain," Macen replied.

"You will soon enough," Kirk grinned. Macen gave Ebert a discreet thumbs up. She engaged the impulse engines and went to full impulse, barely raking over the strange, new Enterprise's hull and clearing her third warp nacelle. The Obsidian and Enterprise-M also accelerated and every ship jumped into warp speed to exit the Fenris stars system. Leaving Kirk and his crew the dilemma of how to respond to strange new worlds.


Chapter Three

"Scotty, how long until you can restore main power?" Kirk wanted to know.

"I can give you Auxiliary inna few minutes, Captain. We're just lucky the batteries held while we were caught in the ion storm without any shields," the Chief Engineer replied, "Dependin' on how many overloaded units we have t' replace will tell us how long until main power is up"

"Mister Scott, we're in a potentially hostile universe. I need one of your patented fix-it miracles right now," Kirk admonished.

"Gimme two hours and we'll have partial main power. Tha's the best I can promise right now." Mr. Scott informed him.

"Make it an hour an half," Kirk requested.

"Aye, captain," Scotty definitely took up that gauntlet with relish.

"Mister Spock, where the hell are we?" Kirk inquired.

Spock lifted an eyebrow, "Spatially, we are still in near orbit of Fenris II. As are two outdated Hercules-class tenders ships as used by Starfleet at one time. However, the quantum variance in the surrounding matter indicates that we have indeed shifted into a parallel universe."

"And your readings on those other starships?" Kirk wondered.

"Interesting to note, the two that departed along with the runabout were an original Constitution-class and an unknown ship type even more advanced than our own. If considerably less powerful," Spock reported.

"I see," Kirk began to consider options, "Mr. Chekov, tactical options and analysis?"

"Keptin, we don't have power to any weapons or defensive systems right now. Even the navigational deflector is barely operative. But the unknown ship class, despite being slightly more advanced, was lightly armed. The others are museum pieces," Chekov made his own report.

"Lt. Uhura, have your passive communication transceivers detected any signals surrounding us?" Kirk made his way down the list.

"The damaged starships are sending out distress beacons to an 'Interfaith Council'," Uhura told him, "Our databanks have no references to such an affiliation."

"But it could be exploitable?" Kirk wondered.

"If primitive by our standards," Uhura conceded.

"Mr. Sulu, plot a course towards wherever Lt. Uhura's passives indicate the signals are being directed towards," Kirk instructed, "Maybe we can get a feel for the locals if we track them down."

Uhura checked her LCARS board, "Doctor McCoy is requesting a conference with you."

"Mister Spock, please assist Scotty with whatever he requires to get us moving again," Kirk said, "Sulu, you have the Conn."

Spock joined Kirk in the turbolift, "I believe I can best assist Mister Scott in person."

"My thoughts exactly," Kirk grinned, "Think about it, Spock. A new universe full of opportunities."

"And potential perils. This 'United Federation of Planets' sounded like a contemporary of the Confederation," Spock stated.

"Maybe, but they didn't open fire while we were vulnerable," Kirk reminded him, "This Federation may soft in comparison."

"Perhaps," Spock conceded, "But we must be very cautious regardless."

"Too true," Kirk agreed.

The turbolift halted and Kirk stepped off to proceed to Sickbay and to visit his probably irritated Chief Medical Officer. He couldn't imagine the transition for the crew had been any easier than that shared aboard the bridge. As he entered Sickbay, he saw that he'd been right. Burn victims littered the corridors. Doctors and nurses mended broken bones. It seemed everyone been triaged and stabilized.

Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy himself was tending a severe burn and break victim while Nurse Christine Chapel ran the rest of the treatment ward.

"Howdy, Jim. Nice nice night for a stroll," McCoy offered laconically. Kirk knew he was in for the ringer because the Doctor was never this congenial.

"Look Bones, I..." Kirk began to try and pre-empt the soon-to-be coming lecture.

"Dammit, Jim! What the hell is wrong with you? You're playin' with people's lives here!" McCoy launched into it, his Southern drawl expanding as he raged.

"Bones, we received a signal. Of a type we'd never seen before. When Uhura filtered it, it was from another universe. We began exchanging pleasantries," Kirk told him.

"Hell, Spock says they asked for our whole damn history," McCoy snorted, "You know Confederation policy about interdimensional breaches."

"We had to determine if there's a real threat of breach. It was just some lousy scientists playing with an ancient relic. They had no idea of what it could do," Kirk defended his motives.

"Except they pulled us across universes and stranded us from scuttlebutt," McCoy was still displeased, "And I hear tell of a ship type we've never seen before belong to a 'United Federation of Planets'. Is that their version of the Confederation?"

"From what the scientists shared, yes. Only, this is a very open society that integrates alien species into it," Kirk explained, "They love freedom of expression and movement more than security."

"Hardly a Confederation," McCoy muttered.

"Mind your tongue," Kirk snapped, "Our resident Political Officer seems omnipresent. And her accomplice is twice as brutal."

"What do expect from ex-Borg other than 'perfection'?" McCoy snorted again.

"Look, we still remember the Federation that we had. Before Mitchell and Dehner," Kirk reminded him, "Was it wrong to see if we could to gain some advantage to maybe bring that back again?"

"May I remind you your speaking of our beloved Dictat and his Second-in-Totality?" McCoy couldn't even say it with a straight face.

"Charlie Evans came close to ending their threat and Apollo permanently weakened them. If only Trellane had stayed true to his purpose, we might be as free as this Federation we find ourselves in," Kirk was desperate.

"Or we could simply stay where we're at," McCoy suggested.

"I've considered that. But we know Seven of Nine will override any command decision I make towards that," Kirk was angry, "And Three of Nine will partially assimilate the entire crew if it backs my play if we decide to."

"We know from Seven and Three that there is an entire section of the Delta Quadrant assimilated by the Borg," McCoy said with some thought, "Maybe we could strike a deal? Give them Mitchell and Dehner in exchange for immunity? They did kill a Borg Queen and liberate a Tactical Cube's drones."

"Giving them an ideal Secret Police," Kirk commiserated.

"They'd only learned of humanity because Seven's family experimented with time travel outside the Beta Quadrant. Seven doesn't recall enough of the Hansens' lives to remember if the Confederation was still standing in her original time," McCoy further complained.

"But learning of us, they pushed into the Beta and Alpha Quadrants looking for a humanity that could eventually develop temporal technology," Kirk recalled, "The only thing keeping the Borg from returning is Mitchell and Dehner's presence."

"You've seen M'Benga's report he died smuggling out. They don't have much longer to live. That's why they're on the edge of the galaxy trying to augment what the Great Barrier did to them to restore their bodies because their minds are killing them," McCoy knew he was one of the few Confederation Starfleet doctors M'Benga had trusted enough to transmit the file to.

"Yet M'Benga wasn't killed outright. The Political Branch held him first. There's no telling what secrets the Borg nanoprobes pulled out of him. Including his list of trusted co-conspirators," Kirk warned him, "Seven can't convict on a nanoprobing alone because they can be fooled. Don't give her reasons to suspect you more than she already does."

That gave McCoy pause so Kirk asked, "How's the patient?"

"He's been dead for twenty minutes. I just keyed the biosensor to keep replaying his last readings before he died because I knew you'd drop by and I wanted Chapel thinking I was busy so she wouldn't feel compelled to report us," McCoy explained. He deactivated the biosensor and called the time death at that moment.

Chapel entered the treatment room, "Doctor? Willis could use a hand and we really need the room. How much longer will Harrison's treatment take?"

"Unfortunately he just died. There was nothing left I could do," McCoy said grimly. Chapel understood how much it grieved McCoy to lose any patient. Especially one that had been dead for twenty minutes already. But she kept up the pretense.

Kirk and McCoy were friends of Mister Spock. She'd do anything for Spock. Especially when betraying the Their-Totalities was the moral thing to do. Their scourging the Platonians' planet to insure no rivals could arise from there was gross xenocide driven by sheer fear of the loss of power rather than even a deranged racist motive. Both motives had classic presences in human history. But the racism and speciesism on the rise since Mitchell and Dehner's rise greatly disturbed Chapel, who still remembered the Federation's dream of equality. The Vulcan Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations being adapted to a greater paradigm.

But humans, being the birth race of Mitchell and Dehner had begun to see themselves as overlords of the rest the newly reconstituted Confederation. A government of equal voices, as long as they all spoke with Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner's voice. A looser conflagration of worlds allied politically yet those that attempted to project independence were quickly crushed underfoot and occupied for "internal safety measures" "Eternal" safety measures had proven to be more akin to the objective truth rather than Their-Totalities subjective "truths" of walking amongst "mere" mortals as gods above insects. All of which just added to humanity's collective burden of shame.

Three of Nine entered the Sickbay. The woman was odd, even for a Borg. She'd adapted clockwork mechanisms such as clocks into her cybernetics. For reasons yet unknown and perhaps unknowable. Unlike Seven, Three had had her face completely reconstructed and liberated from obvious implants. But of the two, she was the least human. Seven made an attempt at recapturing her humanity after her liberation from Borg Collective. She still obediently served the Dictat but she explored humanity in a way Three distanced herself from it, as though it were disease crippling her.

Chapel had hopes Seven could be reached someday. But Three seemed a lost cause. Seven retained a child-like curiosity regarding her former life as a human child when she'd been assimilated by the Borg. The trauma of Three's assimilation as an adult Confederation colonist in the Beta Quadrant drove her from her human essence in order to flee the trauma of losing it to begin with. Seven yearned to unlock her repressed human memories. Three struggled to contain them behind a duranium wall in her mind.

"Can I help you, Three of Nine?" Chapel asked.

"I seek Captain Kirk," Three said tonelessly, "Seven of Nine would refresh his mind of his duties to the Confederation in our current situation."

"I'm certain the Captain is all too aware of his ongoing responsibilities," Chapel promised, stalling Three.

"It's all right, Nurse Chapel. Doctor McCoy has made his report on the ship's crew," Kirk assured her as he approached. Which McCoy had actually just completed.

"You will follow me," Three demanded.

"I know my way to the Political Office," Kirk passed her. Three stood gawking before recovering her normally implacable composure and following him out of Sickbay.

McCoy chuckled evilly, "Had to happen someday."

Chapel shared a grin.

"Welcome aboard, Captain Scott;" Forger warmly greeted him after Telrik completed the transporter sequence.

"Oh, aye;" Scotty enthusiastically. Parva had come back aboard with him. A few of Gilan's makeshift repairs requiring cadets' assistance had failed aboard the Enterprise-M as the two ships had exited the Fenris System at the Connies' maximum warp. They'd made it to clear neutral space before having to drop out of warp. Parva had the delight of assisting Scotty in making repairs to the Constitution-class museum ship. Which had been everything she'd hoped it would be.

After returning to Starfleet, Scotty spent time with both the Starfleet Corps of Engineers and the dual Starfleet/civilian Advanced Bureau of Starship Design. He'd personally worked with Doctor Leah Brahms on designing and testing the Vesta-class' quantum slipstream drive at the ADSB. Whose revolutionary power-flow distribution system had been designed by an engineer of note that had made the SID team's acquaintance before, a certain Doctor Bernd Schneider. Command hadn't come easily to Captain Geordi LaForge, but it tempered and seasoned him to the point that now Brahms was very interested in renewing their acquaintance. His rank and title meant little to her. But the change in confidence within the man himself had spoken volumes.

He also maintained his expertise in all things engineering and was quite up to date on her cutting edge work with quantum slipstream mechanics. His elevated rank even granting him full access to every applicable nature of her work. Which he devoured. Who wouldn't be flattered?

But LaForge had finally learned not to jump the gun and just accept life as it happened. Plan for the worst, hope the best, and just accept life as it came in broad strokes between those ranges. Leah Brahms had finally met her ideal engineer now that he was also a starship captain. Commanding yet another starship she'd highly influenced the design of. She'd learned to appreciate the modifications and tweaks he'd made while Chief Engineer as helps and not hindrances. So she'd grown as well.

She would personally credit Scotty for teaching her to embrace other engineer's input that didn't just flower from her own design principles. He'd gone from being an "old fossil" to a brilliant mind in her esteemed opinion. She'd helped sell the Enterprise-M project and curriculum as well as devoted man hours to building her. She'd continually cited her experience with Scotty in the developing the slipstream drive and how his expertise in seemingly outmoded tech had actually saved the project from months if not years of dead-ends because it looked for solutions from the past and adapted them to the future. Something Brahms had been loath to do until then.

"Commander Macen would like to brief you on Starfleet's ongoing responses and commitments, or lack thereof, to the developing situation," Forger explained, "But Parva here has duly explained the necessity of a grand tour. So, while my XO basks in the center seat, Parva and I will take you far and wide."

"Oh, tha'd be grand," Scotty was delighted. They saved Engineering as the last stop.

"This c'n hardly be called a Nova-class surveyor anymore," Scotty had inspected the NX-class warp core adapted from the Defiant-class escorts.

"Except for our actual drive, we've been adapted to NovaX- standards," Parva proudly explained.

"Aye, an' ye truly can be called a right starship now," Scotty agreed, "An' don't think I don't see ye're hand in things, lass. But I see a bundle of EPS and ODN lines I canna account for even in the Master Systems Display."

Scotty had been reviewing a padd with the schematics and counter-juxtaposing that with the Master System Display in Engineering.

"You're about to find the keys to the real kingdom," Forger laughed, "I'm off to the bridge to mutiny against my XO."

Parva swore Scotty to secrecy before proceeding to Deck 3. There he discovered the Situation Center and even convinced Kerber and Smith to allow him a peek inside the Data Womb.

"An' ye're tapped directly int' the Computer Core without ODN lines runnin' any distance," he mused, "Thereby preventin' a loss of data should a line get severed or disconnected. But ye maintain taps on every system regardless f'r the redundancy. I'm supposin' ye've run y'r cables independently of the primary bundles."

"Okay, I'm suitably impressed," Kerber admitted.

"An ye're a Troglyte from the Stone Clan. I recognize the clan tattoo across y'r shoulder 'n arm," Scotty pointed out, "Makin' ye what? Stratosian?"

"Very good, Captain Scott," Smith covertly rotated a knife in her hand.

Parva spotted it even though Scotty might not have yet, "I vouch for him."

"Lass, I was there when Captain Kirk 'persuaded' Stratos t'make some much needed concessions t' the Troglytes. Ye've got nothing t' fear from me. I've always felt y'r people get the raw end from y'r own rulers atop their sky city," Scotty promised her. Kerber snorted. Smith had been one of those rulers before her uncle show trialed her in absentia. Now she was hunted and slated for execution on charges of mass murder, terrorism, and treason.

Two out of three were accurate. Maarta of Stratos and Anara of the Troglyte Clan of Stone couldn't exist anymore. But Bailey Smith and Angelique Kerber drew up their swords for them.

"Very well, Captain Scott. You have impeccable references," Smith allowed.

"Ye c'n put y'r knife away now, lassie," Scotty chuckled.

"Scotty, if you'll come next door?" Parva shot Smith a glare on their way out.

"Touchy, Princess," Kerber snarked.

"I've told you, don't call me that," Smith said coldly.

"Ye must be Commander Macen," Scotty clapped a handshake on him, "I understand ye were onuva our El-Aurians. Sorry 'bout the others, lad. I did my best."

"They're better off anyway," Macen said ruefully. Rockford took note of his wistfulness.

"So what've ye got f'r me, lad?" Scotty inquired. They offered him Rockford's seat in the room. Lee, Burrows, and Forte was were awestruck along with Parva. Even Daggit, Shade, and Ebert were slightly swept away. Mudd and Rockford remained jaded. Tessa viewed him like a fascinating specimen.

"Ye're wearing Reg Barclay and Lewis Zimmerman's reverse-engineered mobile emitter," Scotty viewed her just the same way, "I won't tell if ye won't."

"Seventy-two hours ago, the Interfaith Council claimed authority over twenty-seven additional inhabitable star systems that contained twenty Federation colonies dating back to the Earth year 2267. Now, they claim thirty-three inhabited star systems," Macen began the brief and visual maps accompanied him. Then actual broadcasts began streaming from the lightly occupied worlds, "As you can, forced conversions by the sword have become a norm just within the last twenty-six hours. The only reason these scenes aren't on a mass scale per planet is because the Crusaders, as they call their militarized missionaries, are stretched so thin. They're dedicating six starships to Fenris II is indicative of just how important the project was to them. Doctors Ashreen, Fan and their team are presently being debriefed via long range communications by Starfleet Intelligence. So far they plead innocence in knowing their sponsors' intents and purposes with an interdimensional gateway."

"What is doubly tragic is that these affected worlds were all Federation Protectorates. As such, most laid down arms in lieu of Starfleet's protection," Rockford took over the briefing, "Other than some loose planetary militias and rising insurgencies, they've met no resistance. However, our hack into the Interfaith Council's own databases revealed a lot about their internal structure."

"I dinna understand. What is this 'Interfaith Council?" Scotty posed the obvious question.

"A collection of major and minor faiths that were dying out on Earth following the Earth-Romulan War," Macen explained, "Working together and pooling resources they left Earth in 2267 to settle near the Pillars of Creation within the Eagle Nebula inside the Sagittarius-Carina Arm of the Milky Way 7,000 light years from Earth. When Federation explorers approached their colony worlds, the colonists rejected all cultural overtures, preferring to remain a closed society. Other than trade, they've remained so."

"So we've got a group of religious fanatics threatenin' everyone around them?" Scotty summed it up in one question.

"They feel they're facing an existential crisis," Rockford explained, "Their own populaces are increasing secular. Labeled 'heretics' and 'apostates', the recent generations have drifted from the increasingly strict orthodoxy to approach greater contacts with the outer galaxy."

"They maintain their separation from the 'evils' of the Federation and surrounding cultures by limiting contact with outsiders and interstellar communications. The open Federation database and educational programs are forbidden viewing yet a large percentage of their populations view them, even clergymen and women," Macen told Scotty, "They're the Interfaith Council's weakness."

"And they know it. So they've created an Inquisition to demonize those seeking to leave, secularize, or reform their faiths," Rockford described them, "Inquisitors are masked over the course of their duties so that they can freely function as infiltrators when unmasked. The Inquisitor-General of the Office and his followers, though greatly exposed to outside influences, remain the various faiths' most ardent believers. They're inflexible, rigid, and increasingly lethal as the people recoil from their religious leaders for creating a monstrosity such as the Office of the Inquisition."

"Aye, we saw such tactics on Beta III back in my day. Landru controlled everyone's lives through strict adherence t' a rigid code of behavior and weaponizing fear of aliens," Scotty mused, "I understand they've rebuilt Landru and the so-called apostates left the planet and joined the Iotian Federation."

"Some people can't survive without a top heavy, rigid code of morality is laid upon them," Macen shrugged, "It's more common than liberal societies would like to admit."

"Aye, I suppose you'd have seen a boatload of them," Scotty allowed, "But ye could've just transmitted this data. Why the special treatment?"

"We need you and your cadets to put a face on this tragedy for Starfleet Command," Macen said sternly, "These worlds are helpless because they put their faith in Starfleet to defend them. So it's time for Starfleet to put on their big boy pants and get the job done."

"Aye, we c'n do that right enough," Scotty promised, "I suppose ye have a route we c'n take t' get back to Federation space unmolested?"

"It just so happens we do," Rockford smiled.

"I hope that y'r barkeeps will know that most've my cadets aren't of legal drinking age on Earth?" Scotty fretted.

"Pel is wise enough to make certain that they are dependent upon planet of origin," Macen promised.

"I never thought I'd see another of these buggers outside of Cardassian space again," Scotty confessed gazing about at Serenity's interior.

"Captain Scott, this is Captain Tom Riker and his Executive Officer, and I might add his wife, Lisea Danan," Macen made the introductions as Riker and Danan met them in the Promenade.

"I hope ye haven't left Ops on my account," Scotty chuckled.

"No, we're here for a happy reunion Brin arranged while on Fenris II," Danan smirked. Macen followed her gaze to where Aric Tulley stood by the access corridor leading to the Habitat Ring and the Docking Ring beyond it.

"I arranged?" Macen wondered.

"Wait for it," Danan promised. Annabeth Frink emerged from the access with her bags in hand. Which she dropped to fling herself into Tulley's waiting arms.

"That only took fifteen years," Riker chuckled as the couple passionately kissed in wide view of everyone on the Promenade's two decks.

"Well, that didn't take long," Macen mused, "Did they reinvent subspace travel or put her on a Vesta-class ship?"

"Annabeth was already in transit for Bajor when her nephew contacted her. She quickly hopped transports and came here instead. Pel happily gave her the job like you'd suggested," Danan explained away.

"She certainly risked everything. Aric could've stayed just as stubborn about refusing to admit his feelings as before," Riker remarked.

"Aric did a fair bit of self-reflection during and after his time on a penal colony. When I found him on Izar, he was ready for a change of life," Macen told them. The couple were in tears of joy now.

"I took the liberty of having Tulley escort Annabeth to her quarters," Riker grinned, "And Gerrit and Radil have offered him a week's leave while she settles in."

"I spotted a whole slough of starships from my era floatin' about the system while we were on approach," Scotty confessed, "I'll admit tha' me and my cadets were alla atwitter over it."

"Barrinor hired the non-SID rated ships for system defense. They don't trust the Interfaith Council to respect their neutrality since they haven't respected anyone else's," Riker said grimly, "But the other starships are completing their assignments and reporting in."

"We reviewed the Obsidian's flight recorders and how they tapped into your conversation with 'Captain Kirk'," Danan looked slightly worried.

"It's Kirk. Just not our Kirk. I expect he's under duress. Just a hunch based on everything he said and left unstated during our conversation regarding the Confederation," Macen subtly reminded them that he was an El-Aurian Listener.

"Captain Scott..." Riker began to get formal.

"Just Scotty, lad," the engineer told him, "I met y'r brother after all."

"Scotty, Starfleet is sending a nearby starship to escort you and your crew back into Federation space. I believe you know her captain, Sonya Gomez," Riker began and concluded.

"Oh, aye," Scotty was immensely pleased by the news, "And she still commands her Obena-class, USS Archimedes?"

"According to Starfleet registries," Danan promised, "Gomez has been her captain for seven years after her stint in the SCE. Where she worked closely with you and Doctor Brahms on occasion, I believe."

Danan had an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes.

"They request you rendezvous with them in fourteen hours outside of the Barrinor system," Riker explained, "Starfleet vessels have to get special clearance to enter the system since it's neutral ground for the planet's banking clients."

"A bloody Demilitarized Zone, is it?" Scotty chuckled. All three ex-Maquis blanched.

"I'm sorry," Scotty said sadly, "I know DMZs are touchy subject s f'r some folk,"

"Some memories can't be buried," Danan tried to console him.

"Even if we live in a Cardassian built space station," Riker amended.

"Or have a resident Cardassian Information Bureau agent living aboard her," Macen spotted Ziva Delain on fast approach.

"Or its Chief of Operations," Riker likewise spotted Merik Cardan headed his way.

"We need to talk," both Delain and Cardan said as they reached their prospective targets.

"Captain Riker, this maintenance schedule is completely unacceptable," Cardan asserted his manhood. Delain gave him a weary look over his Cardassian patriarchal attitude of superiority. The Castellan of the Cardassian Union was one Rekena Garan, the second person to hold the office and already the first woman to do so. Garan had immediately pressed for Gul Malyn Ocett to be promoted to Legate and charged with Cardassian Prime's defense. The former defector and Chrysalis Child's defender, Lyoti Mariska, was promoted to Gul and placed in charge of Legislative Security as Katreen Dervin had been made a ward of the Detepa Council and the Castellan's office.

Mariska could serve her traditional role while also serving her people's democratic initiatives. The Central Command balked at both requests. Ocett had been the first female officer to reach the rank of gul and no one had ever considered advancing her further. Mariska was considered a traitor by most since she'd gone AWOL to protect the long deposed monarchy's sole surviving, and prophesied, heir. Dervin had returned to Cardassian space after the Dominion War to lead relief efforts even as a young child. Although she'd agreed to never seek office or hold an official position within the government, her relief agencies provided succor to a still devastated people and made her one of the most popular figures throughout the Cardassian Union. Even the populations of the Subject Worlds adored her.

Legate Maret, in particular, had had fits since Dervin's return. Ocett had the hallmark of being the only other leader of Damar's resistance against the Dominion other than Elim Garak to survive the war's conclusion. Maret had actively supported the Dominion yet was owed enough political favors to retain his rank after the war ended and even be promoted to Legate in the reorganized Central Command. Both he and the equally and recently disgraced Legate Macet had been dealt with when they attempted to mount an invasion of Bajor. Yet word amongst the officer corps was that both former legates were receiving preferential treatment in the labor camps on Cardassia IV and even gathering cult of personality followings.

Ocett was attempting to offset their influence but the mere fact that she was a woman negated most of her influence. Gul Mariska had swayed the CIB and the Constabulary to seek out and arrest those with rebellious intentions to liberate the former officers and remount an insurrection ultimately meant to invade Bajor and rekindle a war with the Federation. Fortunately, the intelligence and law enforcement communities realized that Bajor had been Cardassia's staunchest supporter in relief efforts and that the Central Command was in no shape to mount a war against the Federation. Even with replacement Galor- and Kelvan-class cruisers and the new Damar-class battlecruisers leaving the shipyards, the Central Command still lacked enough personnel to properly crew the warships, lacked the prerequisite number of capital ships to sustain a war, and lacked the ground troops to mount invasive efforts. They could barely hold what they had. And in a gesture of reconciliation, the Federation had ceded away the former DMZ territories to Cardassia.

A decision that further angered the surviving colonists from those worlds that had endured slavery in labor camps just to be betrayed by the Federation Council once again. They went to the furthest Federation colonies in the Beta Quadrant beyond Klingon space. There they agitated for independence from the Federation.

"Let's discuss this," Riker offered Cardan, "In my office. Lees, joining us?"

Danan sighed, "Of course."

Cardan's complaints would hardly be as interesting as Delain's conversation with Macen. Which Riker readily knew. But if he had to suffer so did she.

"Commander, a word?" Delain requested.

"What's on your mind, Agent Delain?" Macen wondered as Scotty meandered off to chaperone his cadets. Her mix of agitation and easiness was an interesting conflict of emotions.

"My superiors have decided to unite my mission here with the Bajoran Militia's. Colonel Anara and I will now answer to a joint authority spearheaded by Militia Intelligence's offices," Delain explained, "Which also means a portion of my access to sensitive Cardassian intelligence will be restricted."

"But you'll be better poised to coordinate with Neela and Anara," Macen realized.

"Precisely," Delain confirmed it, "My superiors in the CIB feel Neela is worth watching. Colonel Anara is a proven and known Bajoran asset. Militia Special Forces highly recommends her."

"And the Cardassian Guar d and the Militia have an officer exchange program now in place," Macen recalled Zivan Slaine aboard DS9 and Elias Vaughn including her on the crew of the USS Defiant as a Militia officer representative.

Besides the fact she was simply the best Tactical Officer aboard the station. Also the most familiar with a Cardassian Nor-class station than any other Starfleet or Militia officer despite Terok Nor being in Bajoran hands for sixteen years. A sister station to Serenity herself.

"And how is Colonel Anara taking the news that the CIB is now partnering with Militia Intelligence?" Macen asked.

"Far better than Starfleet," Delain smirked. Macen could very well imagine Nechayev having a fit of pique over the development since Starfleet Intelligence had been offering an information exchange program for the last ten years to no avail. And now a Federation member's planetary defense force had garnered just such an arrangement. There were only a handful of planetary defense forces left. But the Bajorans and Andorians in particular demanded to maintain independent forces because of Starfleet's previous lag in responding to domestic crises. Despite the strategic importance of both member worlds.

The Andorians particularly faced challenges from the Orions and Nausicans. Bajor faced a potential rise in Cardassian threats, the instability of the Gamma Quadrant side Ascendancy, and the Dominion itself. Bajor also maintained colonies in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants thanks to their access through the Celestial Temple, known to other races simply as the Bajoran Wormhole. The only artificially created stable wormhole known to the Federation and its allies and rivals. It was also the only wormhole known to have positionally fixed terminuses.

Grand Nagus Rom had secured favorable docking fees at DS9 and reduced tariffs from the Bajoran government in exchange for reduced rate Ferengi contracted cargo deliveries. The fact that Rom had been an engineering contractor for the Bajoran Militia aboard DS9 and his wife, Leeta, was a Bajoran national, he tended to get the First Minister and Economic Minister's attention. It reduced the Bajoran shipyards demand for freighters at a time when customer demand outpaced delivery schedules. Bajoran designed and Karemma licensed design Bajoran built freighters were in high demand across two quadrants. The government had subsidized building another shipyard and was also expanding Bajoran ship building capacity to the colonies of Dreon VII and Golana.

With the Dominion and Federation's relations at a favorable freeze, with exploration and trade from the Wormhole's Gamma Quadrant terminus towards the Alpha Quadrant open, business and transportation requests were booming. Rom granted Bajor "favored planet" status with the Ferengi Alliance and trade commenced on less favorable terms for Ferengi hucksters who could now be reported to the FTC for bilking customers. With Deep Space 9 itself now under the command of Commander Sam Lavelle, business was not quite as usual. Sisko had been flexible when it was required. Ro more so. But Lavelle was by the book, having this last opportunity to revive his career before he was permanently consigned to his present rank. Unwilling to see that his brevet wartime commission to Commander had been approved and Deep Space Nine being a strategic assignment. But Lavelle, like Sisko originally had, viewed the station as a penal sentence.

With the Dominion still stonewalling any and all diplomatic overtures and communiqués, the Ascendancy arriving, and Cardassian agitators crying for open war and another Bajoran Occupation, Lavelle's role was critical to Federation security. But his ever enduring XO couldn't convince him of that fact. Vaughn had quietly warned the station's officers and crew that their CO felt persecuted and unwelcome owing to the manner of Captain Ro's departure. Doubling Lavelle's paranoia was the fact Ro still regularly reported to Bajor in her duties commanding Bajor's Colonial Defense Force. His relationship with General Kira and the Militia being contentious since he asserted they were irrelevant owing to Starfleet's ongoing presence and commitment. Kira replied by reminding Lavelle of the DMZ cessation and the Federation Council ordering Starfleet to abandon their obligations to the Protectorate stellar nations in favor of increasing patrols inside Federation borders hunting down an internal threat that wasn't looming.

Regards between Starfleet and the Militia were at a low not seen since the Circle crisis. Lavelle hadn't yet realized he was fortunate that it was Kira that was Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs and not an exceptionalist Bajoran nationalist who would break all ties with Starfleet and oust the agency from Deep Space Nine to make it an entirely Bajoran outpost. Vaughn did realize these things and quietly tried to convince his new commanding officer of the truth of them. But Lavelle was convinced of his "punishment" and sank lower and lower into an angry resentment and began ever more inflexible regarding regulations and protocols. Starfleet protocols alone in a mixed command.

He'd attempted to fiddle with the working day, converting it to a Starfleet 24 hour norm based on Starfleet Headquarters' time rather than the Bajoran 26 hour day based off of Dahkir's hourly time stamp. He also tried to enforce strict Starfleet regs on Militia officers rather than under the Allied Code of Regulations that Sisko and General Krim had devised after the Circle debacle. He'd even gone as far as assigning Starfleet brevet ranks to Militia personnel and demanding they answer to them. Giving Colonel Cenn Deska a demotion to Lt. Commander than his actual Starfleet equivalent of Commander. According the Militia tables of rank a colonel was equal to a Starfleet captain.

But Kira accepted Starfleet's slightly demeaning equivalency chart. She had gone to Cardassia as a brevet Starfleet Commander after all. Thus the precedent was set. Adding salt to that wound, Starfleet, refusing her resignation, still held her in a reserve commission of Commander after she'd been promoted from Colonel to General in the Militia. A fact Lavelle exploited to refer to her as "Commander Kira" rather than address her by her proper rank. Vaughn knew it was little wonder communications had completely broken down. Concerned Starfleet Admiralty officers in the Bureau of Personnel had personally reported the matters to Fleet Admiral Clancy. Who then quietly reported to back to Vaughn that Clancy seemed it tacitly approve of Lavelle's treatment of Kira and the Militia as a whole.

Vaughn knew Kirsten Clancy had just recently assumed the role of Starfleet Commander, Commander-in-Chief with her promotion as the sole Fleet Admiral in Starfleet when a planet dooming uprising occurred. She seemed desperate to make her mark after the surprise of the Mars Massacre during her first years in her new position. But she seemed to be deliberately antagonizing ideological foes such as Admiral Nechayev, Rear Admirals Forger and Johnson, and was highly dependent on the newly installed Commodore Oh at Starfleet Security. When word leaked out that a branch of Starfleet Internal Affairs was investigating Clancy's potential connections in regards to the private war select privateers and security contractors had waged against Outbound Ventures in an effort to secure the SID contracts from them, Oh shut the department down and reassigned the investigators to starbases across two quadrants. A not-so-subtle warning from Oh to her department heads. Clancy was off limits.

Which didn't stop Commander Michelle Prentiss' private investigation into Clancy's dealings. Working with the Rockford Detective Agency on Earth, Prentiss employed the Freedom of Information Act to secure records that weren't deemed "classified" for security purposes. Historically, a great deal of a Starfleet Commander's logs and daily communications were public domain. But Oh, sniffing out the volume of requests being routed through multiple personal accounts began "classifying" everything regarding Clancy and her life. Even her public Starfleet record was sealed off. Much to the chafing of countless reporters and would-be biographers.

So Prentiss leaked the data she'd acquired to the press. The Federation News Service, Galaxy Broadcasting, and the wire services would take over. The longer Oh stonewalled them, the more suspicious Clancy's record would seem to be. Even Starfleet's Public Relations Department was being blacklisted from accessing Clancy's public records and couldn't mount a credible defense. Clancy personally blamed the recently departed Picard.

Prentiss did quietly subpoena Clancy's private comm logs through JAG traced back to her by IA, Starfleet Intelligence, and the SID. There the revelations began and pieces fell together. Probing further and further back, Prentiss unearthed Clancy's decades' long affair with the husband of a fellow officer, now a Starfleet admiral. The sexual congress itself wasn't illegal. But the nature of it violated Starfleet regs. The equivalent of a misdemeanor under the "Officer Unbecoming" regulations.

It also opened a broader door to linking Clancy influence peddling by suggesting and quietly urging that Solarian Security Solutions engage in hostile harassment of Outbound Ventures personnel and starships. Personnel who were on a mission to provoke them into violating Federation law while under Starfleet contracts. With Outbound Ventures than blacklisted from Starfleet's contracting processes, Solarian and other smaller companies could then apply for SID contracts and other paramilitary work for Starfleet Intelligence.

Clancy had actually spoken those words in records quietly given to her by Admiral Forger after hinting that her department be given subpoenas for "probable" record keeping regarding contractors vetting processes. Illegal taps existed on Clancy's own orders and Prentiss was given the full array of incoming and outgoing comm traffic for months leading you to the candidate selection processes and continued observations for ongoing vetting processes. The suggestion had been made to Solarian's Founder, her own discreet lover.

Oh then requested that JAG conduct an internal review in order to clear the decks for a prosecution of Prentiss for violating interstellar security protocols by obtaining the comm records, despite the legality of the process she employed to obtain them. A cease and desist order was also requested.

Furthermore, an internal IA investigation would be conducted to ascertain Prentiss' negligence in other unrelated cases. Forger arranged for a transfer to the SID from IA to further shield Prentiss from wrongful prosecution. As IA's liaison to the SID, Prentiss was retroactively under the SID's authority to look into the matters. Only Clancy herself could override the SID's authority to look into her affairs since it served as the legitimate replacement for the banned Section 31. But doing so was an open admission of guilt and would face severe legal challenges within JAG, whom she couldn't override under Starfleet's Charter.

Prentiss had no idea that Clancy's first twenty-four months as Starfleet Commander would forever be remembered not for her being the youngest admiral to reach the lofty position since Fleet Admiral Murrow but for her responses to the Mars Massacre that scarred her, and the Federation Councils', mind forevermore. Clancy would have the longest time in service in the grade of any fleet admiral before her, guiding Starfleet into the 25th Century. Clancy's term would end in disgrace over the revelation of Oh's actual rank as a General in the Tal Shiar, the Romulans' complicity in the Mars Massacre, and the exoneration of synthetic life forms ending the Federation's ban on artificial life forms.

Also, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard's redemption in the knowledge he'd been correct all these years further tarnished Clancy and her avid criticism of his "outdated" positions, beginning the restoration of Starfleet to its former idealism. But first, Starfleet would weather fourteen more years under Clancy's direction. And react to events rather than be proactive.

"So the situation is ideal for you?" Macen asked.

"It almost is. The loss of certain accesses is troubling but expected," Delain admitted.

"Expected?" Macen sough clarification.

"This unification of purpose is a pilot program Anara and I proposed to our respective branches. It seemed further warranted after the revelation of Maret and Macet's goals. A greater necessity now that it also been revealed how popular such goals are with a distinctly growing minority within Cardassian society," Delain explained, "It seems populism equals creating the idea of an internal threat to society and promising to counter it with a return to a fabled 'greatness'. A greatness that comes with the repression of political and ideological opponents. Or even a moderate majority in order to keep a minority in power. A minority that seeks then to externalize an existential threat in order to retain their power base surrounding a cult of personality."

"You've been reading up on our current case," Macen smiled.

"As well as assessing Maret and Macet's chances of internal success. I'm afraid the odds are quite alarming if the democratic faction can't persuade the moderates to support their reforms. The Cardassian Union's experiment with liberalization may yet be doomed to failure owing to cultural wars of differing opinions of where our society should go next."

"The first step is confirming a universal understanding of the very term 'great'. Different persuasions will define it it according to their own narrow paradigm," Macen advised her.

"Point taken. I'll pass that along," Delain considered it then accepted it.

"On to cases, I suspect you have an official message regarding my current assignment," Macen surmised.

"Officially the Cardassian Union holds no opinion regarding this Interfaith Council and their foreign dealings," Delain dutifully spouted the line she was ordered to.

"And unofficially?" Macen knew there was one.

"The Detepa Council worries that these fanatics will stretch beyond their current ambitions and cut through to Cardassian space as a result of Starfleet's negligence. The appearance of the Cardassian Guard killing humans, no matter that they are unaligned with Earth or the Federation, will prove problematic for my government. Our new colonies in the former Demilitarized Zone are weakly defended and defending them would necessitate the use of capital ships. Perhaps even landing additional ground troops."

"Probably," Macen sighed, "But why the sudden concern?"

"These 'Crusaders' bombarded several planets just a standard Federation hour ago and then withdrew to 'allow' the survivors to 'reconsider' their 'steps of faith'," Delain informed him, "They then consolidated their forces into a spearhead. One aimed squarely at the Kalendra Sector."

"Two sectors away from t he Cardassian Sector. But they'd have to pass through either the Kalandra Sector or the straighter approach through the Bajor Sector to reach your borders," Macen understood now.

"Both of which are Federation held sectors patrolled by Starfleet," Delain included, "And Starfleet is famously negligent in stopping non-belligerent forces as determined by their actions taken against Federation member worlds only."

"And you're pointedly excluding colonies because of your government's success in taking colonies away from the Federation," Macen said grimly.

"Precisely," Delain confirmed, "Which, as a warning, aids in dictating future policy decisions by my government."

"And I'll pass that along. Though some of us already learned that lesson the hard way," Macen was grim again.

"I understand you came to call Ronara Prime 'home'," Delain admitted, "I'm sorry for your loss of it."

"Feel sorry for the colonists taken into labor camps and worked either to death or close to it," Macen couldn't help but retort, "Then they were released to find their home world inside Cardassian territory given to them by the Federation and left nowhere to go but the deeper Beta Quadrant or a penal colony for their suffering."

"It's a wonder you can work with any of these entities any longer," Delain was surprised by his reaction.

"Sometimes I wonder as well," Macen confessed.

"You have endured great loss, Brin Macen. I speak as one who knows from personal experience; even a single loss can change a person for good or ill. Only you can choose the moments that will define what they made of you," Delain slipped away at that point. Macen was left wondering of Delain had been spending too much time with Neela lately.

Still she had a very valid point. Macen was choosing even at that moment. He decided to have a conversation with Kira and Ro. Ro and Vaughn were his closest friends beyond Rockford. They'd also been friends for longer than anyone else other than Danan who'd been his friends for two Trill lifetimes. His ongoing relationship with Kira was always enigmatic. Kira supported Outbound Ventures and had committed the Militia into keeping the agency on retainer. Now it was time make due on the pledge he'd made to her and her people.

Macen's conversation and later follow up didn't surprise him. The initial conversation was hopeful. The second was dismal. Kira and Vaughn's conversations with Lavelle went just according to the expected script. When Kira appealed to Starfleet Command, she was informed by Vice Admiral Bill Ross that as Sector Commander, Commander Lavelle dictated local policy. And that Starfleet had a tradition of letting non-belligerent starships through as long as they hadn't attack anyone along the way. Apparently the hours' old lethal aggression didn't count. Despite seven Federation colonies being victims. Kira knew Ross was embittered over having career frozen at its level thanks to his complicity is several of Section 31's crimes.

The Section 31 Director James Fowler had named names before he took his own life as an act of personal revenge for the admiralty abandoning him to his fate. The death of his son, Jack Fowler, had been devastating to Fowler not because Jack himself had died.

Jack Fowler's brain, impaired at birth, had been wholly replaced by a positronic substitute. That mechanical mind had held the secret and sum total history of Section 31 since its inception in 2151, the same year the NX-01 Enterprise had launched. Humanity's "Great Leap Forward" meant Earth needed even greater protection from outside and internal threats the 31st Amendment to the Starfleet Security Charter was meant to do that. As Archer began and completed the task of creating the United Federation of Planets, Section 31 grew even larger and stronger out of the Earth-Romulan War.

But after the CONTROL debacle in 2252, Section 31 had been officially disbanded and its still-active agents driven underground. Fowler had no idea that Jack's mind had been jettisoned from his starship before it destroyed itself as the Defiant pursued it. That same "lost" repository of secrets throughout human and Federation history post-2151 had been recovered by the Dominion. Whose agents were now pouring over Section 31's voluminous catalog of secrets. Including the knowledge of Cell 51's sleeper agents. Jack may have had a mechanical mind, but he'd created and imbedded the radicalized Cell 51 inside of Section 31. A fascist movement within the Federation's power structure.

Avoiding racial and ethnic intolerances, Cell 51 simply sought an autocratic ruler that would lead the Federation into "a new age" where it dominated all of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants and sought to secure those portions of the Gamma Quadrant between the Federation's current borders and its colonies and outposts in the 70,000 light years away in the Gamma Quadrant. When the Romulans were underfoot and the Dominion bottled up, then Starfleet could turn towards its greatest enemy: the Borg. One final conflict to insure the survival of only one party.

But now the Dominion possessed all of Jack Fowler's knowledge and well laid plans. It also held the secrets to activating Cell 51's still hidden agents and tipping the already fragile Federation Council towards despotism in this age of fear after the Mars Massacre and the Synthetic Uprising. Once an autocratic strongman or woman was placed upon the Federation's throne, then all it would take to control the Dominion's greatest rivals would be to replace one single person with a loyal Changling. Odo's increasing faction within the Great Link notwithstanding.

Even the female Changling that had commanded the Dominion's forces against the Allies saw them differently now that they'd provided the cure to Section 31's plague without making any demands first. She surrendered because it was the wisest of actions rather than being coerced with the Great Link's survival. When Sisko vanished, the Wormhole reopened and Odo was able to travel back and save his people. He finally joined them, which was all they'd wanted to begin with.

But now a slimming majority saw Odo as an insurgent. With the tools at their disposal now, they could dictate the future of the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the remnants of the Romulan Star Empire as well as the Cardassian Union and the Breen Confederacy. Everyone would suffer for either opposing the Dominion, betraying it in its moment of crisis, or failing to achieve victory in its name.

Dominion watch ships observed the Bajoran Militia and Starfleet traversing the Wormhole all the time. With their improved stealth technology, the Dominion could easily transit a warship behind a starship or transport and begin their fated conquest anew.

"That bad, huh?" Riker asked sourly.

"Lavelle is committed to a peaceful transit as long as the Interfaith Council doesn't engage Bajor itself while cruising though the Bajor Sector. Bajoran colonies are considered expendable. Ross said as much for his forces based around Starbase 375 in the Kalandra Sector," Macen shared from his shared compartment aboard the Eclipse, "But the Bajorans just hired us to bolster their defenses in case the Crusaders choose to engage them."

"And where will Starfleet be in all of this?" Danan asked.

"Defending Starbase 375 and DS9," Macen told her, "As well as the Wormhole Terminus."

"And Bajor itself?" Riker still had fellow labor camp prisoner friends that had repatriated back to Bajor. They all had friends there.

"The Barrinoran government continued to contract our non-SID ships to defend their system," Macen stated, "But our SID ships that made it back to port already are free to assist Bajor."

"Which is why you decided to leave the Obsidian, the Indomitable and the Solstice off the books on this one," Riker finally realized. The departures had been so rushed that no one had had time to explain the why of it to the station commander and the logistical and strategic support crew. Macen had unveiled plans as the conversation progressed.

"Anara and Neela are coming as well within the Ark of the Prophets. Harri has Delain aboard the Freehold as well. We're heading into Interfaith space as traders. It's part investigation, hence the justification to bring the Detective Squad and part military operation," Macen conceded.

"Justifying bringing Daggit and Burrows and borrowing Eckles, Darcy, Lacey, Tulley, Noble, Thool, and Hendryks along with outright stealing Neela," Riker playfully accused, "I didn't object at the time because officially your name is on the pay credit receipts."

"Anara wouldn't undertake the mission without Neela. And both would prefer to be headed to Bajor right now," Macen shared.

"I'm sure. We all would," Danan admitted then asked, "Who'd you choose as senior amongst all the starship captains?"

"They're all equal under Kira's command," Macen shrugged, "And Ro's if they approach Dreon VII, Golana, Free Haven, or skip by to threaten Prophets' Landing or even the Valo system."

"I imagine the Militia is on high alert," Riker guessed.

"Ro has assembled her strongest forces throughout the Bajor Sector," Macen explained, "Our people will be joining her there. Kira holds a strategic reserve at Bajor. But every ship Bajor has is committed on this side or the other of the Wormhole on a complete war footing. Meanwhile, Lavelle recalled all Starfleet patrols and has them docked at the station."

"When will the Crusaders reach the Kalendra Sector?" Riker wondered.

"Their ETA given their maximum safe cruising speed is tomorrow, mid-day station time," Macen told them, "Our people should arrive in the Bajor Sector two hours ahead of them at their maximum warp speeds. Of course, everyone is just assuming the Crusaders will sack Kalendra itself given their history so far."

"And no one is offering Kalendra assistance?" Danan was surprised.

"The Bajoran government extended an offer of assistance and Kath was in touch with them as well. They brushed everybody off," Macen shrugged referring to the Outbound Ventures CEO, Kathy Tyrol's efforts to secure a contract binding Outbound Ventures into defending Kalendra, "But the comm lines remain open. If Bajor receives a distress call and permission to cross the border with military units, our contract with the Militia ties our participation in as well."

"Kalendra probably wants to avoid exposing their clientele. Ebert, Eckles, Darcy, and Lacey know better than anyone that the sector is a hive for criminal activities. It's neutral status offers safe haven since they won't allow military ships in and won't extradite prisoners to anybody," Riker commiserated from personal experience. He'd set up his shuttle and courier service in the Kalendra Sector during the Dominion War. He himself had captained an aged Bonaventure-class starship named the Iron Boots.

It was the call of a grander purpose that drove Riker to walk away from it all to become the XO aboard the original Ju'day-class Eclipse. A Maquis raider that Macen had recently replaced from long hidden Maquis reserves that the Cardassians and the Jem'Hadar had missed because it had been stored outside of the DMZ in the aforementioned Kalendra Sector. The raider itself being the last one refitted by Eric McMasters. The original had only enjoyed a very short life before being replaced by the Blackbird-class Solstice. Riker himself was thought lost in the ship's destruction. But Section 31 had other plans for him, hence his narrow escape and subsequent detention.

"It must like old times to aboard the ship," Danan had her share of memories as well as Ro's Indomitable of the same ship type.

"It's like being aboard the Solstice," Macen confessed, "A lot jumbled memories of the Odyssey and the original Solstice herself."

"You should have taken the Solstice in," Riker admonished him; "At least it's a real starship."

"And a known Starfleet vessel type," Macen shrugged, "We have to assume that someone on the other side has studied Starfleet enough to size up how they'd react to this power play. So far they've been correct on every call. Harri is at least in command of a ship type produced by the Iotians that the Interfaith Council itself never purchased."

"Head's up, sailor. We're already at the outer 'Keep out' marker," Rockford told him from the cabin's door. They naturally shared the Spartan quarters. For Macen slipping back into command of a Maquis vessel was like slipping on a care worn glove molded by time and usage to fit his flesh.

"Gotta go!," he signed off leaving Riker and Danan understanding the urgency of his departure. Now the SID would discover just how large a strategic reserve the Crusaders held back and what ship types. They were challenged by comm buoys that had detected their approach. Hendryks easily got them past with her forged credentials from OPS. Kerber or Smith could've easily done the work but Hendryks was an expert with these older systems. They needed that expertise now.

"Harri reports their approach is set," Noble reported from the comm station, "So does Colonel Anara."

Tulley manned Tactical. Both the same as in their former lives along with Hendryks.

Ebert was out of place but in her natural element, "I have approach coordinates. We'll be passing three major sites. The planet they call Mecca and we're headed towards another world called Vatican before arriving at the tender station near the Eagle Nebula. Those names mean anything to anyone?"

"Muslim pilgrims used to be called to make a pilgrimage from anywhere they lived on Earth to an Arabian holy site in the ancient city of Mecca," Macen answered her," The Vatican was the hub and city-state of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. In the late 21st Century, after World War III all Christian churches united under the Catholic banner before leaving Earth permanently."

"Somebody has been studying," Rockford grinned from the entryway she leaned against, "It's taken my people the last two days to sort that all out."

"How's your team progressing?" Macen asked, "Can they blend in well enough yet?"

"I don't think any of them can blend in. Lee stands a chance on Karma but Harri and crew are headed by there and the Bajorans for Dharma," Rockford named off the Buddhist colony and the Hindu colony together, "We seem to be neglecting the planet Pagan."

Pagan was a loose knit collection of religions from throughout Earth's past. It was the unwanted stepchild to the Catholics and Muslims, who barely tolerated the pantheistic views of all the others versus their own monotheistic dogmas.

"So I'm recruiting Bailey and Angelique," Rockford informed him.

"Who to where?" Macen asked.

"Tessa tinted Bailey's skin a darker shade and we're dropping her and Tony off on Mecca when we land. Angelique and I will go undercover on Vatican," she explained.

"I want you to assign Noble, Tulley, and Lacey to the teams as well," Macen told her.

"What about you?" Rockford asked.

"We shouldn't be going into combat and Elfi can add comms to her board while Rab can man the weapons. We're overloaded with engineers. Which will play out well when we visit the tender station," Macen explained his reasoning to her, "We'll swing by Pagan and drop Shade, Arianna, and Lee off there."

"We'd best be carrying a lllooottt of contraband," Rockford teased.

"That's easy to do since they collectively ban just about everything from the outer galaxy," Macen shrugged.

"We'll be at Mecca in forty-five," Ebert announced.

"Best gear everyone up," Macen urged.

"Yes, O lord and master," Rockford headed for the ladder well leading to Deck 2.

"Just don't forget it!" he called after his wife. He could imagine her hand gesture from where he sat. It brought a smile to his face.

A small amount of bartering went on at Mecca's shuttle port. Surprisingly, explosives were the best seller. Rockford put Smith, Tulley, and Burrows to finding out why. Smith was a mystery to all wrapped in her robes and a hajib and veil covering her head and face.

On Vatican, the replicator went into overdrive producing alcohol and small arms. Kerber wore a body covering purple gown to hide her clan tattoo since body art was forbidden on Vatican and Mecca. She'd appear to be a planetary pilgrim to the capital city of Papal Center. Body art was tolerated on Karma and Dharma and encouraged on Pagan. Rockford kissed Macen goodbye as she, Kerber, Noble, and Lacey vanished into the space port while inspectors were dealt with. After replicating a few more cases of booze for the part authority, the Eclipse was cleared to fly again.

A slight detour would take them to Pagan before they finally approached the tender station sitting in an uninhabited system adjacent to the swathe of solar systems with M-Class planets. Shade and Forte could more easily blend into the diverse crowd they found on Pagan. Lee was their minder.

Then the raider set sail again to arrive at the large tender station where the Crusaders' raiders had been refitted and their starships were maintained.

Upon arrival Macen groaned, "Just great."

"We're doomed," Ebert shared the sentiment.

Docked to the tender station was the novel yet exclusive three warp nacelled Galaxy-class Confederation built CSS Enterprise.

"From what I recall, they only saw you," Daggit reminded Macen.

"Gather everybody up," Macen requested while Ebert handled getting permission to land inside a hangar bay.

Father Sun consulted with Sister Moon and the Sixth Sister, "I seek counsel. What do you make of these strangers' offer?"

"They're faithless. And one of them is part machine," the Sixth Sister spat venomously.

"Still, they can offer us much in exchange for very little," Sister Moon was more pragmatic.

"I say we take the ship and burn the crew at the stake," Sixth Sister offered her counsel.

"That's your solution to everything," Father Sun sighed, "We bombarded worlds with precious photonic torpedoes to make them submit and see the truth of the faiths. All resisted us. Even the survivors vowed to die before submitting."

"Then the savages died for their lies and lack of faith," the Sixth Sister was undeterred, "We obeyed our holy vows."

"Did we really?" Sister Moon asked, "They weren't all human but they were intelligent enough to cross the stars. Something we had to buy from the Iotian traders that visited us, prospecting for additions to their own Federation. You would say the strength of our faiths deterred them from enforcing their will upon us. I say they simply didn't believe we were worth the challenge of trying to cow us."

"Heresy!" the Sixth Sister accused.

"She speaks the truth. We were more valuable as pawns to strike out at our stellar neighbors and have the Iotians sweep in and promise to defend them and exact their revenge for the price of admission to their 'protective' Federation," Father Sun predicted.

"You both could be on the rack within moments," Sixth Sister warned them, "The Great Almighty God protected us."

"The Iotians simply didn't want or need anything we had other than the conscripts we dearly paid with for antiquated starships. Which just so happened to overwhelm our less developed neighbors. The traders from whom we bought information from were accurate enough that we saw an easy victory and instead we're simply butchers rather than bearers of salvation," Sister Moon warned the Inquisitor.

"I can sleep well knowing we performed our holy duty to God," the Sixth Sister proclaimed.

"We're to purge the heretics and apostates from our own ranks rather than inflict carnage on unsuspecting worlds. I fear our entire philosophy of our approach is warped," Father Sun confessed, "We're to bring the light and hope. Not darkness and death. We've caused too many to suffer already."

"You'll see our path through or I'll have you both on the rack with the call for the guards," Sixth Sister advised, "You want leniency? Very well. We'll coddle them. But we still make them bow their knees or die resisting the holy writs."

Father Sun and Sister Moon exchanged a look before they consented. It was better to play moderator than allow a new War Priest and Warrior Nun ramp up the Crusaders to further acts of brutality against an unbelieving world like Kalendra.

"We'll do our parts as the writs proscribes," Father Sun pledged.

"My faith is my life. My life is spent for the faith," Sister Moon repeated the mantra of the warrior nuns.

"And the strangers from the Fenris II project?" Sixth Sister asked.

"We reached out to gather more of our numbers from other universes. Instead God provided these strangers. Perhaps they can serve God without even knowing it," Father Sun suggested. Then he explained his plan. Captain Kirk and Seven of Nine were then brought before them.

"You wish to receive data on this new universe. We need an act of good faith to demonstrate that you will not betray our confidence in you," Father Sun proclaimed for his Inquisitor audience.

Seven was unimpressed, "We could simply conquer your worlds and you would be unable to stop us if we so chose. That is ample demonstration."

"Tell us what you need and we'll see if we can provide it," Kirk countered her statement.

"Our faithful missionaries are on approach to yet another strange world to us. They may face stiff resistance to the spreading of peaceful gospel. We wish for you to insure they need not turn back," Father Sun explained and detailed his request.

"You will comply!" Sixth Sister demanded. Seven remained impassive.

"We'd be happy to help. Give us the coordinates and we'll be underway shortly," Kirk promised.

"We will?" Seven was reluctant.

"We will," Kirk said sternly and gave her a veiled looked.

"I suppose we will," Seven conceded.

"We're looking forward to a rewarding partnership," Father Sun said.

"The reward is all ours," Kirk promised.


Chapter Four

Tulley and Burrows "chaperoned" Smith as they tailed the would-be bombers who'd concealed the bomb components in their jackets and robes. They were very aware of their surroundings and who was near them at all times. Smith had them draw back to where their suspects were barely visible.

"Can you track them in this crowd?" Tulley asked quietly.

"Easily," Smith promised. She'd tracked fewer farther in crowded mining tunnels. They were all discreetly armed but even the normally sword wielding Burrows was taken aback by the bandolier of knives Smith concealed under her all encompassing robes.

"Most of these people, don't even speak English," Burrows observed.

"The languages vary between Arabic, several African dialects, Indonesian, Farsi, Pashtu, and a few indigenous Chinese languages and Mongolian," Smith explained, "But Arabic is their universal language since the Quran is written in it."

"And you speak them all?" Burrows was amazed.

"I learned them en route. I can read and write in every tongue as well," Smith explained, "Languages are my natural element."

"How many are you fluent in?" Tulley was equally amazed.

"I lost count after fifty. I can also navigate my way around approximately thirty more after today. That doesn't include machine languages and coding. They're a separate specialty," shee revealed without boasting. The men exchanged stunned looks.

"They're turning direction and discreetly sweeping the area to spot tails," Smith advised them.

"I can't even see them," Burrows admitted. Which embarrassed him after years of serving in SOC.

"That's the point," Smith chuckled, "They believe they can't see us so we remain safe and on their trail."

"The rumors are you and Kerber were terrorists," Tulley got to his question of the hour.

"Technically we're still wanted on charges of terrorism. We were tried and condemned to death without attending our trials. It was simply a proclamation from my uncle when he took power," Smith shrugged.

"So Kerber's nickname for you...?" Tulley couldn't quite ask.

"Is a distortion of my title, but I was third in line before my uncle killed my parents and demonized me," Smith admitted, "But I was generally demonized from my efforts for equal rights anyway."

Burrows thought that was concise if highly edited recounting. But Tulley wasn't a member of Smith's general circle. Only Kerber, Ebert, and Macen seemed to be a member of her intimate circle. Kerber had been since their shared childhood when young Anara had been brought up from Ardana IV's surface to become Maarta's handmaiden.

They'd become terrorists together as teenagers after escaping from Stratos. Kerber meeting Colonel Anara had been rife with ironies abounding. Since both had joined resistance movements as teens to throw off oppressive regimes. Kerber was a programmer and Anara was a self-taught combat engineer. Neela was the Bajoran's childhood friend that had joined the Resistance with her. Neela was the problem solving innovator/inventor while Anara was the practical maintainer. Neela particularly had a flair with explosives and had taught the Special Forces colonel more about them than the Militia ever had.

Fortunately for Smith and Kerber, they'd never had a Vedek Winn Adami in their lives. So they'd never been led down a false path of faith like Neela had been. Winn had gone on to become the Kai of the Bajoran faith while Neela served out a prison sentence for murder and attempted murder on her behalf. Only being pardoned when First Minister Shakaar Edon need a disposable agent who could strike back at the Cardassians' True Way.

But Anara was assigned to Neela, who'd literally met the Prophets while in prison and come out a changed woman. Their mission was a rousing success. Neela went to become Kai Winn's personal agent and was frequently paired with then-Major Anara in solving Bajor's secretive foreign affairs problems.

Kerber and Smith's highest profile crime was hacking Stratos' antigravs, cutting them off, and letting the entire city drop 100 meters before re-engaging them. Afterwards, their simple automated message of, Your lives are in our hands, didn't play well. Smith's uncle "disposed" of his political rivals citing their "weakness" before an "implacable" Troglyte Resistance and instituted the worst crackdowns Ardana IV had ever experienced. Kerber and Smith had been forced by their fellow resistance cell members to flee the planet.

Once abroad, they'd concocted human identities, since they could pass as such, and waited for an opportunity to return home. But the increasing bounties on their heads and awaiting death sentences were a working deterrent. They'd almost thrown their lives away in a fatalistic return when Macen found them. They took his "Third Option" and joined his SID team. Now Ardana IV was literally a different planet.

Smith's great-grandfather Plasus and her grandmother Droxina had overseen the High Advisor's position elevation to Lord and Lady Magistrate after the visit by the original NCC-1701 USS Enterprise under James T. Kirk's command. The Troglytes had earned a major concession in obtaining filter masks to curb the de-humanizing effects of zenite gas in the mines. Vanna, Kerber's own great-aunt, had been instrumental as well in achieving chinking away at the Stratosian polices of apartheid. Droxina allowed the Troglytes to resume many of their ancient customs, such as marking their clan affiliations in their flesh once again.

The Clans were able to organize a Tribal Council and have limited autonomy once again. The Troglyte rebel cells were drawn along similar lines. Which Smith had learned was natural amongst insurgent cells. The Bajorans and Maquis had drawn up ersatz "families' from people from differing walks of life. Establishing new clans that endured to the present day.

Just examine the ex-Maquis aboard the Eclipse. They were as much extended family as the SID team or the Obsidian's crew. As a literal orphan, Smith appreciated her new family/clan. Despite their probably not realizing it. She knew she owed it to them to change that. Kerber would probably faint if the introverted Smith extended herself. It'd be worth it just for that reaction.

"They've turned into that café," Smith informed her escorts.

"Let's go around back and see if we can affect a discreet entrance," Burrows suggested.

"Tulley, go in from the front and pose as a customer while Burrows and I approach the rear. A woman still requires at least one escort," Smith instructed.

"That's a better plan than Captain Proton's," Tulley agreed. The reference was lost on Burrows. Tulley had been one of those infected by Tom Paris' obsession with black and white serials from Earth's 1930s-50s during Paris' abortive career with Chakotay's Maquis crew aboard the Val Jean. Commando Cody was another favorite and very similar to Captain Proton, just being produced by Republic Studios ten years after Universal Studios debuted Captain Proton. The Adventures of Captain Proton serial series and magazine stories in Amazing Stories themselves being inspired by Alex Raymond's seminal Flash Gordon series of comic strips and the adapted movie serials derived from them. Yet another series to impact radio, television, cinema, and literature for centuries to come. Buck Rogers had been another series clone and enduring science fiction legacy.

Flash Gordon had born in an era where newspaper daily strips and Sunday comic strips were separately serialized stories. Impacting one another yet kept apart. Thereby achieving world building at twice the rate of a later era where the weekly comics were one serialized combination. Separation also allowed different writers and artists to work in tandem under a single editorial control. A development that comic book publishers would benefit from as character and series became legacy intellectual properties. The expansion into other media also contributed to greater interpretations of characters and worlds.

Some property rights would be continually renewed whereas less profitable properties would lapse into Public Domain and be free to all to view, adapt, and reproduce. But several property holders allowed for fan and professional venues to create and distribute variations of their intellectual property so long as the fan did not generate an unlicensed profit. Eventually these fan creations threatened some property owners' confidence in their ability to generate a surpassing product so they restricted the development of unlicensed productions. When Earth and the Federation moved from a profit based economy in the late 23rd Century to a "gift" economy such motivations ended and property rights weren't infringed upon without permission out of respect for the original artists' works.

But many works had been lost in the destruction of the Eugenics Wars and then World War III and its aftermath leading to First Contact. It took true hobbyists like Paris to delve through seemingly forgotten media files. Tulley had taken up the banner while in the penal colony and then his isolation on Izar. With Paris and B'Elanna Torres moving out of Starfleet to focus on raising Miral and her expected siblings, Paris had more time to indulge in programming holo novels. Surprising everyone, Paris and Torres moved their growing family to Auckland, New Zealand. Far from the penal colony Paris had been consigned to but still a remembrance of his past there. Brought on by a past that introduced him to Torres. His sentimentality touched his wife. Drawing them closer and towards a path to having a second child.

Just as learning that Paris had been arrested drawing Starfleet forces away from Chakotay's last known position. A location Starfleet never derived from Paris. Kathryn Janeway already had Tuvok imbedded with Chakotay's cell when Paris agreed to assist her. So he himself had never given anything up. A fact made even more poignant when Torres finally learned that his sense of loyalty didn't stem from his short tenure with the Maquis but rather from his meeting her.

"But I just found you annoying," Torres had confessed.

"I didn't mind," Paris admitted as well.

Tulley had met with Chakotay as he resigned from Starfleet a second time. Eventually Admiral Janeway convinced Chakotay to return to command the refitted USS Voyager with Harry Kim as his XO. Mariah Henley, surprisingly, had been the only other Val Jean Maquis to remain in Starfleet after Torres resigned. She'd found no home or kin to return to. So she'd remained aboard Voyager.

Tulley himself, despite grateful for his chance to serve a cause again, had never expected to end up on a Cardassian space station. Especially not one Macen and T'Kir had built for them. But Macen had rebuilt the Maquis cell from Ronara Prime and beyond as best he could. Tulley had really never expected to be in Starfleet's employ. At least on occasion.

It was weird to see Macen in the center seat. Even when Ro came aboard Macen's command, the Odyssey, he'd relinquished the center seat to her. But Macen seemed adept enough even if his rumored history with leading ships to their destruction were all true. Tulley had been afraid he'd be the only one still tied to his past. But Macen owned a Cardassian space station, operated out of a Starfleet designed Nova-class surveyor, owned a decommissioned Blackbird-class Starfleet scoutship, and now a Ju'day-class Maquis raider. Tulley no longer had to desire to shove the past aside. He saw now that one could embrace it without wallowing in it.

His only lasting regret was having betrayed Ro for Eddington during the Maquis' last weeks. She'd accepted his heartfelt apologies while he still resided in a penal camp, repeated in person when he was released, but he still felt a debt of obligation to her. Frink's re-entrance into his life settled his last lingering doubts and other remaining regrets. He'd been unable to track her down and yet it turned out she hadn't been far from Barrinor all along. Close enough to simply transfer from one passenger shuttle to another while en route to Bajor to complete her passage at Serenity. Tulley had learned through scuttlebutt that Macen had assembled most of the other Maquis for a mission. Frink had merely laughed and sent him on his way to volunteer. She'd settle in at Quark's even sooner that way.

But they had enough time with her to propose opening a bar together on Odin. Even to build a house there to share on their vacations together. Frink hadn't agreed yet but Tulley was devoted to giving her every reason to agree. To a life together after too many wasted years of separation. Harry and Ronnie Graff had taken Frink and Gloria Leakes off of Ronara Prime days before the Jem'Hadar flooded into the DMZ.

When Tulley and a few other escaping Maquis had been picked up by Bajoran patrol and imprisoned to appease the Dominion, he'd heard that the Falcon and the Graffs had been destroyed with all hands and passengers lost. Tulley numbly transferred to Starfleet custody after the Federation liberated Bajor and secured DS9 and the Wormhole once again. Tulley realized when he met with Macen on Izar that he'd simply went numb and in hiding ever since that he'd heard that news. Then Macen offered him a new chance at life and he began to feel again.

But learning Annabeth Frink was alive had elated his soul. The Falcon had made made it to behind Federation borders far enough to get swept up in the invasion. Frink had married and divorced since leaving Ronara Prime, her married name being the reason he hadn't found her listed in the Federation Comms Database. Frink too, had heard that Tulley was also dead.

Her ruinous marriage dissuading from seeking out new romantic entanglements. Then she'd learned Tulley was alive mid-trip to Bajor. Her heart skipped a beat the same it had whenever he entered the Old Biddy. He was hopeful and she was hesitant. But they had a mutual desire to move past their previous wounds and move forward, preferably together. So Tulley was a man looking survive when he entered the café. His experience in the trade immediately alerting him to the fact this was a locals' establishment and he was a mistrusted stranger. So he simply sat down to have a quiet coffee and avoid any trouble Smith and Burrows didn't instigate. Which sadly, didn't take long at all to happen.

Rockford's petite 1.52 meters or 5'1" feet and inches by the scale used by some on Vatican was slightly abnormal for women it seemed but not as much as Lacey's towering 1.84 or 6'3". Of course, like Shannon Forger, Lacey had been born genetically male and undergone sexual transition into womanhood. But even with puberty blockers, Lacey had developed into an exceptionally tall human. Her glands adjusted to secrete female hormones in such a balance as to completely feminize her even before she underwent SRS as a teen. She drew stares that Kerber and Noble simply didn't. A few gawked at Rockford as well.

Noble looked around, "What in the world is in that god-awful tower at the center of town?"

"You're not blending in very well," a voice said from behind them, "Everyone in Papal Center recognizes the Crystal Cathedral. Hell, everyone on Vatican knows it inside and out."

"I was wondering when you two would approach," Rockford confessed before turning around.

The young male had spoken but the equally young woman was surprised by her reply, "You knew?"

"You stand out as well," Rockford noted, "His earring and your hair seem rather taboo."

"We're former seminary students who saw the real light," the man stated, "For that we're labeled 'Apostates' and hunted by the Inquisition."

"Still, you're not attempting to blend in very well," Rockford observed.

"We do in our circles," the woman told her, "This area is for...older folks, if you hadn't noticed. Even you're all too young to really congregate here."

There was still the dig at the four women each being at least fifteen years older than the young rebels.

"Do you have names?" Lacey asked.

"Do you?" the guy snorted.

"Okay, we'll begin," Rockford offered, "I'm Celeste Rockford. This is Christina Noble. Next is Angelique Kerber. Finally, you're already antagonizing Christine Lacey."

"We have a lot Chrises," the guy laughed, "I'm Cristian Botezatu."

"And I was Sister Magdalene of the Order of Warrior Nuns. Now I'm back to just being Zandra Ionescu."

"You mentioned the term 'apostate' with particular emphasis," Kerber noted. She was taking a cue from Smith.

"Apostates have risen on all the Interfaith worlds," Ionescu explained, "We really have to vet people to uncover whether they're sincere in undermining the faiths or whether they're Inquisitors in disguise."

"That's the second time you've mentioned them with stark terror in your voice," Noble pointed out.

"We should go," Botezatu pointed out, "We're drawing more attention."

"You're aliens. Or at least outsiders. You snuck off of that ship. Inquisitors don't do that and they ride in shuttlepods rather than raiders," Ionescu divulged, "Our hope is you feel the same way about the Interfaith Council and its constituent faiths."

"We don't know enough to judge yet," Rockford revealed, "But they are decidedly hostile to the worlds beyond their own. Your own."

"That's why we have to force a change in regime. No more theocracies," Botezatu stressed.

"Maybe we can help after all," Lacey mused.

"You have a scheme in mind already," Noble accused.

"I certainly do," Kerber shared as well.

"I guess it isn't cliché to say, 'take us to your leader'," Rockford grinned.

"Follow us," Botezatu urged them on, "And don't pretend to blend in. Most of our members are your ages or younger."

"That's a comfort," Noble sarcastically quipped.

"How long have they been following us?" Lee asked Shade.

"Which group?" Shade wondered, "The first one picked up the second and now everybody is pursuing everybody else."

"Pursuing?" Forte puzzled that one.

"I smell criminals and local law enforcement," Lee told her.

"I agree," Shade concurred, "We've seen what the law does. Let's check in with the crooks and see how that plays out."

They ducked down an alley. The first pursuers lost them there.

"Where did they go?" one young woman asked another.

"Better yet, how did they do it?" the opposite woman asked.

"You there! You're out of your Region! Show us your hands and then slowly show us your transit passes," the supposed cops demanded.

"We misplaced them?" the second speaker offered.

"We don't allow your kind here. Maybe a few days in prison will teach you to respect the borders," the second cop sneered. Yellow particle beams lanced out and stunned the two "officers".

"I knew it!" the woman who faced them crowed. Lee and Shade discreetly holstered their Bajoran made phasers.

Forte studied the young woman's heavy facial piercings, "You're friendlies?"

"We're desperate to be your friends and for you to be ours," the woman told her.

"Why were following us?" Lee inquired like the ex-law enforcement detective that he was.

"You're strangers. You left your ship to scout around. We're hoping you're advance scouts sent in response to the Interfaith Council invading everybody else out there," the obvious leader of the two spoke up.

"Well, she's got us there," Shade smirked.

"You have names?" Lee asked.

"Do you?" the woman asked in reply.

"I'm Lee Kang," he told them.

"I'm Shade," she revealed.

"I'm Arianna Forte," she also shared.

"I'm Dinkinish," the more forward of the two told them, "My friend is Belkis."

Belkis was slightly less pierced than Dinkinish, "I'm so pleased to meet you."

"We need to go. Now. If we've been spotted we might be able to get out of this district," Dinkinish warned, "They will detain and torture us before they kill us."

"Who will?" Lee wondered.

"The Inquisition. The locals will have called them in," Belkis offered to explain.

"We can talk as we move," Dinkinish already was on the move.

"Why would they torture and kill you?" Shade asked the obvious question.

"Because they consider us Apostates. Actually, we're trying to save our individual faiths from the Interfaith Council and restore our worship to what it's supposed to be," Dinkinish elaborated.

"So there's more of you?" Forte had to wonder.

"From every faith on Pagan," Belkis proudly confessed.

"Why trust us?" Shade asked.

"Because you didn't kill those two back there. Inquisitors would," Dinkinish told them, "You may be spies but you have rules. The Inquisitors don't."

"We just came to learn about your cultures," Lee assured them both.

"And poke some holes in this 'Interfaith Council'," Forte promised them.

"Then we're the people to talk to," Belkis boasted.

"Is that what passes for a holo imager around here?" Delain was curious.

"I'm pretty sure that's an old fashioned celluloid or digital camera," Mudd told her, "And she's been taking our pictures ever since we arrived."

"I noticed," Delain assured her.

"Her friend is unusual. Most Vietnamese women don't try to pull blonde off," Mudd remarked, "But she does it well."

"How do you know she's Vietnamese?" Delain was curious, "Human ethnicities and administrative regions escape me."

"Because I've been across the whole Federation. So I got to know 'types'. These two scream 'Vietnamese'. Of course, just about every Asian group represented in this crowd," Mudd told her, "And quite a few Anglo, Slavic, and Celtic types. But Italians, Greeks, Turks and South Americans seem to be lacking as well as Semitic groups."

"I'll take your word for it," Delain said dryly.

"I'm tired of modeling. Let's meet the camera crew," Mudd suggested. The two women looked trapped as Mudd and Delain approached them. But the blonde tried to play it cool by simply leaning back against the harbor walkway railing by the park they were all in inside the city's main public square.

"Gig's up, you two," Mudd told them, "Why are you watching us?"

"Because the Inquisition is," the darker haired one told them, "And you're aliens. Which means you're probably safe to approach."

"The masked men. They are this 'Inquisition?" Delain inquired.

"You really are new," the blonde snorted.

"Please, let's go someone safe to talk." The other local requested, "Before they drag us all in."

"You have a name?" Mudd inquired, "I'm Harri Mudd. That's Ziva Delain."

"I'm Cai Huynh," the darker haired woman replied, "My friend..."

"Can speak for herself," the blonde interjected, "I'm Dong Pham."

"I think we have a lot to talk about," Mudd smirked.

"Indeed," Delain agreed.

"I have to admit, I haven't seen this many Buddhist monks and nuns since visiting Chung Kuo," Mudd confessed.

"There are others out there?" Huynh was startled, "Believers like us?"

"Probably not exactly like you all," Mudd amended, "That planet is more Han Chinese and Tibetan. It's not as thoroughly represented by a lot groups from Earth. And they have Confuciusts and Taoists."

"But they exist...beyond Karma?" Pham was astounded, "Another lie we've been told our entire lives is that we alone hold to the faith, regardless of our Path."

"Nope. Pretty much every Buddhist path but Zen shows up on Chung Kuo and some other colonies," Mudd shrugged, "Sorry to disillusion you."

"Hardly," Pham snorted again, "We've always known we were lied to. That's why we became Apostates."

"You speak as though that term implies a rebellion," Delain noted.

"It is," Huynh confirmed, "Across every Interfaith world."

"Then we really do have lots to talk about," Mudd grinned like the proverbial Cheshire.

Anara and Neela beamed down to Dharma's surface while the Ark of the Prophets remained in orbit. Their cargo had already been transported down. Neela boldly, as usual these days, marched straight up to a young Indian woman, "Very well, Sarika Anand. We'll help your struggle. Ask your questions so we can prove our intent."

Anand was suitably stunned.

"She's like this," Anara sighed when she'd caught up with her erstwhile companion, "Our gods have touched her. So she knows things people think she really shouldn't yet. Or ever in some cases."

"You're obviously not the Inquisition so I'm guessing you can be trusted," Anand was recovering from her shock.

"Still, I'm supposing there's neutral ground we can discuss your needs in," Anara stated.

"You're...Bajorans? Rebels?" Anand asked.

"Former rebels. The Resistance won," Anara informed her.

"Then, we Apostates have hope?" Anand wondered.

"More than you know," Neela promised.

"I'd believe her. She's never wrong about these things," Anara confessed.

"Then let me take you to the Data and Trade Center and I contact the others after I debrief you both," Anand offered.

"Very reasonable and very safe that way," Anara commended her.

"We've learned the hard way," Anand admitted, "And the Inquisition has taken too many lives."

"Not for much longer," Neela shared.

"How can you know that?" Anand wondered.

"I'll explain once we're safe. The Inquisitors are approaching," Neela warned, "We've attracted their attention."

"Here. Wear these to blend in," Anand pulled cloaks from a nearby vendor's cart. Despite the jungle world's close proximity to its sun, the heat wasn't horribly oppressive so the Bajorans didn't mind bundling up with cloaks and cowls for a limited time.

"Follow me," Anand recognized their expertise at blending in, even amongst aliens.

The NCX-1701 CSS Enterprise deployed while the Eclipse was making its final approach to one of the tender station's hangar bays.

"That bodes ill," Daggit said grimly.

"But it'll make our time here easier," Macen reminded him.

"But what about Captain Ro?" Ebert fretted.

"The Skipper will kick their ass," Hendryks confidently predicted.

"Elfi? You can hack their systems?" Macen asked.

"Already started to," she told him, "But their tech is antiquated enough I'll need a hard line connection to finish the job."

"That'll be Parva and Thool's job. Tom and Heidi can keep the engines warmed. Rab, you're protecting Parva and Thool. Tracy, ready to make some trouble?"

"As ever was," Ebert grinned.

"Seems we've warranted a reception committee," Daggit observed his monitor as Ebert used the antigravs and thrusters to gently land the raider in the hangar bay.

"At least most of them seem unarmed," Ebert said brightly.

"Seems is the operative word," Daggit flashed his sensor scan readings to every board.

"Oh well, hope was nice while it lasted," Hendryks sighed.

Colonel Ro Laren sat in the center seat of her Iotian-built pre-refit Constitution-class Fist of the of the Prophets as she prepared for war. Her entire fleet was Iotian-built Kremlin-class, Mercury-class, Asia-class, and seven other Constitution-class starships. General Kira withheld four Connies and Bajor's domestically built defense ships to protect the Bajor system itself. Ro had half a dozen of each other class other than the Constitution-class spread across the Gamma Quadrant overseeing the defense of Bajoran colonies there. She sat her ship up near Dreon VII, the closest Bajoran colony to the Kalendra Sector and situated between the Rolor Nebula and the Badlands. But Ro had only deployed her own vessel to this line of defense.

The other Constitution-class starships were deployed throughout the other Alpha Quadrant colonies, defending Golana, Free Haven, Prophet's Landing, and the rebuilding colonies on Valo II and Valo III. Augmenting her force was Outbound vessels the Shogun-class Spearhead, the Lancelot-class Guinevere, the Sirius-class Dog Star, and the Waylaid. Ro estimated that with these mostly early 24th Century technology ships, she could easily best the Interfaith Council's war fleet, no matter how many 22nd Century starships they threw at her.

If not, her reinforcements and Kira's fleet would deter them from making any landings on any Bajoran worlds. The Crusaders weren't up against technologically less advanced or less defended worlds now. As far as the Outbound Ventures crews went, this was a grudge match for Captain Wei and her crew.

"Colonel, General Kira on line for you," Ro's Comm Sergeant reported.

"On screen," Ro dictated.

"Ro, Kalendra has officially requested aid," Kira informed her, "You're free to go in now."

"About damn time," Ro growled, "Sergeant Triss, inform the other ships we've been cleared to engage the Crusaders."

"Yes, Colonel," Triss happily responded.

"These bustards want to fight a religious war on my watch?' Ro asked acerbically, "Then let's give them one."

The bridge crew cheered.

While Tulley enjoyed his Turkish coffee, Smith and Burrows came in upon one Ayyubi Farooqi and a woman named Amira Dara's meeting with the explosive smugglers.

"Who are you?" Dara demanded to know. Strangely forward behavior from woman on Mecca.

"Calm yourself, Amira. I'm certain these interlopers have a good explanation," Farooqi counseled her, "After all, they sold us the devices."

"Imam?" the others had drawn wicked looked kris daggers.

"Bring their companion to me," Farooqi instructed, "Then Allah be merciful to them if they prove to be Inquisitors."

Tulley was marched in. He looked rueful, "Situation normal?"

"FUBAR as always," Burrows grimaced meaning Frinxed Up Beyond All Recognition.

"We want to help disrupt the Interfaith Council on this planet," Smith said evenly, "We'll even help you topple it."

"Why?" Dara suspiciously asked.

"Because they're attacking our friends and neighbors. And someone needs to do the job. Why not you?" Smith asked.

"And how could possibly help us do that?" Farooqi inquired incisively.

"We can teach you how to build your own explosives and make phase pistols to match the Inquisitions," Burrows stated.

"Get me inside their computer networks and I'll cripple their response mechanisms and capability to communicate while leaving you free to," Smith promised.

"And I can help you with the explosives and the weapons as well as how to make your own communicators she can give unrestricted access to on the enemy's networks," Tulley stated his intended role.

"I can also teach you how to place them and maximize fields of fire," Burrows offered.

"I believe you are an answer to prayer," Farooqi relented, "Teach us and we'll pass the lessons on through our own Virtual Private Networks."

"Gladly," Smith assured them and began disrobing to get down to her garments underneath. Her bandolier of knives and her phaser drew gasps. Burrows and Tulley also revealed the phasers and their own combat knives.

"See?" Smith asked, "We want to help. Not harm."

"I believe you now," Dara decided for herself.

A modern technological "castle" stood between populated Regions outside the Shuttle Port Region's borders proved to be a mixed representation of faiths. Worshippers of every stripe freely associated with every other kind of worshippers, basically every minor or formerly crushed religion or philosophy that had been revived prior to WWIII had members present. It was also a haven for using modernized, for the Interfaith Worlds at least, comm and computer equipment as well as healing centers using medical technology purchased from off world. It also served as an inter-and extra-colonial trade center.

"These public meeting places are placed between Regions so we can conduct trade and governmental discourse. Similar buildings are in every Region," Dinkinish explained, "They also allow us to communicate with other colonists on other worlds at identical sites. As well as occasionally penetrate the jamming that the Interfaith Council ordered placed around the Federation Databases."

"They also help us out running the Apostate rebellion," Belkis grinned. The Ethiopian women exchanged greetings with passersby.

"Our world religions represent everybody but the Big Four. We appoint a league of representatives to the Interfaith Council but basically we're just the tiebreakers and the whole league gets one whole vote," Dinkinish sneered, "Pathetic."

"You're called 'Apostates' yet you seem concerned for your faiths," Lee had realized.

"We don't want to tear down our faiths, just 'reboot' them to the way they'd been on Earth before all the intolerance began after the migration," Dinkinish explained, "We want contact with other humans and the races of the Federation as well peaceful relations with our neighbors."

"Who the news services have been bragging about how our 'noble Crusading missionaries' just bombed back into the Neolithic age," Belkis acerbically told them, "To make them more 'receptive' to the preaching from the Big 4."

"We knew about that," Shade told them, "That's why we're here as 'concerned' neighbors."

"They attacked your world?" Dinkinish was horrified.

"Not yet," Forte reassured the pair, "We want to prevent future slaughters of even your peoples."

"If they come, they'll come to convert or kill you," Dinkinish warned them.

"No, we'll slaughter them," Shade chuckled.

"How can we help you," Lee stressed.

"What do you know about making particle beam weapons and explosives?" Dinkinish asked with hope.

"Not much," Lee let her down.

"But we're fantastic at stealing them," Shade boasted. The women's hopes rose again.

Mudd and Delain managed to get themselves lost out into a smaller village outside the city they'd been in. A Data Center loomed nearby.

"We can move on the Interfaith leaders on our world but we need weapons and explosives," Huynh explained.

"Of which I have none of aboard," Mudd almost told the truth. She had a personal weapons locker. Which wouldn't be enough to stage a coup.

"Are there arms depots?" Delain asked.

"What're you thinking?" Mudd inquired.

"We simply steal what they need," Delain replied, "And then the domestically supplied insurgents stage an internal revolt."

"There's one right outside of the city," Pham answered the original question.

Mudd grinned, "A heist? Let's get it on."

Anara and Neela discovered that the Apostates on Dharma had already stolen two industrial fabricators from off world smugglers and moved them within a centrally located Data and Trade Center. They just didn't know how to program it. Anara taught them a crash course in make it yourself chemical explosives while Neela programmed the fabricators to yield magnetically coiled hypervelocity guns and rounds. The network began exporting the weapons and explosives to other nearby cells in and out of the district, across the planet.

"We just aided an attempt to topple a government," Anara complained.

"Meh," Neela shrugged, "Would we have turned down Starfleet assistance? They're threatening Bajor as we speak. Should we turn away because of a legality?"

"Good point," Anara relented.

Father Sun and the Sixth Sister greeted Macen and Ebert. Sister Moon had been extracted as soon as the Eclipse was docked by an NX-class berthed at the station for just such a purpose. There was still another identical starship designated a defensive outrigger. As Father Sun was aware, she had more pressing concerns elsewhere.

"Why have you come here?" Sixth Sister demanded to know.

"Rude," Ebert popped off.

"I can have it squeezed out of you!" Sixth Sister spat from behind her mask.

"I can take it from here. Thank you, Sister," Father Sun offered. She stomped off and her guards remained at the door.

"It's best of we speak inside your craft," Father Sun offered.

"Very well," Macen tried not to sound flummoxed by the change of plans.

Once aboard, Father Sun said, "I can't allow you to sabotage the station. But I can give you unlimited access to whatever information you require to stop our missionaries, those we call the Crusaders."

"Couldn't they just be recalled?" Macen asked.

"I'll record a message you can deliver. But you must hurry. Captain Kirk and his crew have been asked to intervene on our behalf. I had to avoid compromising myself in front of the Inquisition," Father Sun told them, "I plan to be safely away before they discover it was I that called off our great work."

"Why would you do that?" Macen inquired.

"This was not the work we were called to do. Our commanders on the ground lost control of themselves and the Sixth Sister overrode my authority as War Priest to bombard innocents. I'm assuming you're here in response?" Father Sun explained.

"You could directly say that. Those were my peacekeeping forces you threatened and populations we were pledged to protect that you killed," Macen angrily informed him, "Now, your forces are encroaching on worlds that my friends are pledged to defend. You have no idea of the universe of trouble you've brought upon yourself."

"Then help me end it!" Father Sun desperately begged.

"Record your message, get off my boat, and rot in whatever hell you believe in," Macen told him.

"I understand," Father Sun did believe his soul was in jeopardy.

"Follow me," Macen took him to a comm panel near the hatch, "Just press this button and record whatever message you have for me to deliver."

Father Sun did so and kept his word. He called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a return to Interfaith borders.

"Now clear us to depart," Macen told him. But Inquisitors were storming the hangar.

"The Sixth Sister suspects. She'll kill us all," Father Sun direly predicted.

"She could try," Macen tapped the comm panel, "Prep for immediate dust off."

Ebert scrambled to climb the two decks to the bridge level.

"Sit over there," Macen instructed, "We'll try to engage the station."

"It's defenseless," Father Sun said weakly.

Ebert had them out of the hangar Bay before Macen even reached the bridge. The tender station sat at the very edges of the Eagle Nebula. The Pillars of Creation were visible from their current vantage point.

"Head out of the system. We have a transmission to broadcast," Macen told Ebert and Hendryks.

"Ships emerging from the nebula," Daggit reported, "Oh, they have to be kidding me."

"News?" Macen asked.

"One NX-class, one Freedom-class, and a Hercules-class. I'm petrified," Daggit drolly reported.

"The station is jamming all channels. I could burn through but it'll take a minute," Hendryks told Macen.

"Raise shields, arm weapons," Macen ordered, "Fire if fired upon and just cripple them."

"They've polarized their hull plating," Daggit chuckled, "They reeeaaally have no idea, do they?"

"I'm afraid not," Macen replied.

"Photonic torpedoes inbound," Daggit warned them.

"Should I evade?" Ebert wondered.

"Why bother?" Daggit snorted. A tremble passed through the ship.

"And shield strength hasn't been severely compromised," Daggit informed them.

"Return fire, phasers only," Macen sighed.

"Like ducks in a pond," Daggit volleyed phaser fire back at the Crusaders.

"Holy shuk!" Ebert shouted and pulled a sharp turn. The CSS Enterprise flew through their last location.

"Parva! Get that priest up here! Now!" Macen yelled over the comms, "Send Thool do it!"

Father Sun was herded to the bridge at phaser point.

"You knew?" Macen angrily asked as Ebert desperately tried evading phaser fire and torpedoes.

"I didn't!" a horrified Father Sun confessed, "The Sixth Sister outmaneuvered us!"

"Thool, take the Engineering station," Macen ordered as the first torpedo struck their shields, "You! Get below!"

Father Sun hurriedly exited the bridge compartment.

"And now?" Daggit wondered.

"Tracy, into the nebula," Macen ordered.

"That isn't Khan out there," she retorted.

"No, it's the man that beat him," Macen said grimly.

"Keptin, enemy wessel has entered the nebula," Chekov reported.

"Of course," Kirk rubbed his jaw, "Sensors and shields will be useless. Tactical and monitor displays won't function well either."

"Do we pursue?" Spock inquired.

"That was the deal I made," Kirk said equally grimly as Macen had spoken, "Sulu, take us in an one-quarter impulse. I have a plan."

"This should be a doozy," McCoy snorted from beside the Captain's chair.

"Am I keeping you from anything, Bones?" Kirk inquired.

"Nope," McCoy told him.

"Doctor, please prepare Sickbay in case of casualties," Spock requested.

"This is just an errand to get me off the bridge," McCoy accused.

"Indeed," Spock concurred.

"Fine!" McCoy stomped off.

"Sulu, split the display into every approach angle. We won't be able to spot them until they're on top of us but I want see them first," Kirk ordered, "Make your position the heart of the nebula then got a full stop without station keeping."

"Aye," Sulu dutifully replied.

"Now we'll see if our target's captain plays 3D chess," Kirk mused.

"Entering Kalendra system," Lieutenant Wyn, the XO reported.

"Where's the support," the helm officer asked.

"Kalendra doesn't have a defense force," Ro explained, "They rely on local smugglers, pirates, and mercenaries based off of the planet to defend it. Obviously, they found it prudent to be elsewhere."

"Some stragglers just noticed us," Wyn reported, "They're...polarizing their hull plating?"

"They don't have shields. They also have simple phase cannons and photonic torpedoes a century out of date for even our ships," Ro explained.

"But they have numbers," Wyn noted.

"And desperation now that we're here. Remember what that breeds in an opponent because we've all been there," Ro advised everyone to consider, "Sergeant Triss, hail our ships and order them to engage. God have mercy on their souls."

"Don't you mean the Prophets?" Wyn asked.

"Them too," Ro shrugged indifferently.

Farooqi and Dara had quickly contacted all their various cells for Smith, Burrows, and Tulley to begin their instruction courses. When they'd finished, Farooqi followed the lectures and demonstrations with a benediction. It seemed they'd been smuggling in the proper components for years but had never had access to anyone that knew how to implement constructing the desired weapons. It had taken hours of prep work but Farooqi's people were ready to mass mobilize.

Smith, Tulley, and Burrows stood down and Smith stood defiantly revealed, minus her bandolier that she'd donated to the cause, in the street while waiting for the Eclipse to return. Instead, Tulley's communicator beeped twice. He pulled out the outmoded model and flipped it open, "Tulley." {Bailey Smith revealed on Mecca.jpg]

"Good to hear your voice, Aric," Captain Riker told him.

"Tom?" Tulle almost lurched off of his feet.

"Macen detailed a plan for us to extract you should he miss his deadline. We've been standing by outside of Interfaith space waiting. The deadline's been missed so here we are," Riker explained, "I've got the Indomitable transporters locked on you. Prepare to beam up."

"Go with Allah, be safe from evil," Farooqi gave them his blessing.

"Thank you so much," Dara was robing herself up again with Smith's bandolier and phaser kit underneath.

"Good luck," Smith stated as the annular confinement caught and they disincorporated.

"So that's what it looks like," Farooqi was astounded.

"Come, Imam. We have a revolution to lead," the Indian woman reminded him.

"Indeed we do," the Arabian man concurred.

Aboard the Indie, the trio reported to the bridge. Riker swiveled his seat to greet them, "We have a few stations open. Make yourselves at home."

"What now, Captain?" Burrows asked.

"Now we go to the Eclipse's last known location and make certain they're all okay," Riker informed them.

Chronologically, it took Rockford, Noble, Kerber, and Lacey longer to reach the convent that was their ultimate destination on foot than any other team. There they learned that a NX-class starship had rendezvoused with the tender station while Macen's team was conducting their op. It brought Sister Moon to Vatican. When the quartet met her, she was praying overlooking a lake.

Then she ceased her prayers and looked back at them with a warm smile, "I pray bringing you here is worth all the risks associated with doing so."

"Who are you?" Rockford wondered.

"I'm Sister Moon of the Order of Warrior Nuns. I'm also the de facto leader of the Apostates on Vatican. Your ship docked at our tender station. There, the War Priest, Father Sun is cooperating with her fellows to end our conflict," the nun explained, "I need you to pass along a message for whomever you represent: we surrender."

"That's your entire plan?" Noble scoffed.

"We'll take the Cardinal and the Council of Bishops prisoner. The Inquisitor-General will also be captured since he is visiting our world," Sister Moon predicted, "Afterwards, we'll appoint a secular, provisional government and accept whatever punishments we've earned."

"We'll deliver your message," Kerber promised.

"Waitaminute! We're going along with this?" Lacey was indignant, "They carpet bombed entire civilizations back into the stone ages."

"And we're out of time," Rockford stated as her communicator to beep, "Shannon, what've you got for us?"

"The Eclipse's last known location. Obviously they blew the check in deadline," Forger reported from the Obsidian's bridge.

"Beam us up and then give us any word have on Kalendra," Rockford ordered.

"Joelle and Telrik will be waiting for you in the Transporter Room," Forger promised.

"What the hell?" Lacey grumbled as the transporter took hold of them.

Shade and Forte had led the break-in at the arms depot. The rebels had trucks and air skimmers readied to load and distribute the weapons and explosives they procured.

"It must be Macen," Lee stated as his communicator beeped twice, "Lee here"

"Sorry to surprise you but Commander Macen missed the check-in deadline so we came in as pre-arranged to extract you," Korepanova reported from the Solstice.

"I'm sorry, what?" Lee was dumbfounded.

"Macen had us and several other ships standing by in case they missed extracting you. We're to converge on their last location," Korepanova explained, "I'm Sveta Korepanova. I'm commanding the Solstice with Nick Locarno at the helm and Sito Jaxa on Tactical. Sekona and Hakatay are overseeing engineering. Standby for transport."

Without another word, Sito activated the transporter she had locked on to the communicator's signal.

"They're good kids," Mudd grinned as she retook the Freehold's helm.

"We have a message coming in," Delain reported from comms, "We've been given instructions to vacate the territory."

"Happy to," Mudd laid in a course for Serenity.

"How odd that they'd reinforce the standing order," Delain murmured.

"But it's a damn fine order," Mudd broke orbit and began heading out of the system at maximum impulse, "You can figure it out later at her heart's content once we're back at Serenity."

"I suppose," a glum Delain hated to give up on a mystery.

Anara and Neela also returned to the Ark of the Prophets but to find Colonel Ro impatiently awaiting a status report on Macen's efforts, "Riker says Macen missed his scheduled check-in. The entire team had been extracted by Outbound Ventures crews supposedly left behind at Serenity. Apparently Macen, Rockford, and Riker concocted the plan before ever venturing in some ship called the Eclipse. Have you heard anything from him?"

"Negative Colonel," Anara answered on their behalf.

"We received a message Serenity about retraining to port," Neela unhappily informed them.

"Belay that order. I want you joining the rest of Macen's crews in investigating what happened to him and the Eclipse crew. In the meantime, I'm coming to you," Ro told them, "Kalendra has filed articles of war and offered Bajor a temporary mutual defense pact instigating us to press forward on their behalf. Outbound Ventures is operating on Bajor's behalf in mopping what's left of the Crusader fleet and transferring prisoners to Kalendra."

"Just for the record, Colonel Ro, the Eclipse is a Maquis raider," Anara grimaced.

"Damn it! What was he thinking?" Ro was visibly upset by the news, "Our ETA is in five hours at maximum warp. You're the Militia's representative on Bajor's behalf in this developing scenario, Colonel. Do what needs to be done. Ro out."

"Any word from the Prophets?" Anara asked Neela.

"Not since we set out. But they seemed unhappy by the arrival of this other Enterprise. I don't think it falls within their plan. Knowledge, yes. Plan, definitely not. They've learned enough about causality to know it might not have happened here in this space-time continuum. But it knowing it did seemed to anger them."

"Great. We're going in blind and our gods are angered," Anara sighed, "Could this day getter any better?"

"Always," Neela cheerfully put forth.

"That's what I love about you. Your faith never wavers," Anara stated.

"I wouldn't go that far," Neela said cryptically. Anara knew there was an unrevealed story there. A story for another, calmer time


Chapter Five

"We're back to zero bubble," Ebert informed Macen, "Now what?"

They'd taken a ninety degree dive upon entering the nebula knowing the CSS Enterprise would pursue them.

"Now we head to the center of the nebula where Kirk will go to. He'll let his ship simply drift there and wait for us to find him. Which we will," Macen told everyone.

"So it's a trap?" Hendryks inquired.

"He'll suppose it is but when we reach the dead center according to our position charts we'll go ninety degrees up bubble and use RCS thruster only to begin a drift 'upwards' through the nebula clouds. Their sensors, shields, tactical display, and monitors will be useless or heavily distorted. We don't have a visual display to rely upon so as we slowly come towards them, we can spot their ship, slowly adjust course, and then come straight up at their belly."

"And you know this will work how?" Hendryks inquired.

"Because he's obsessed with Captain Kirk," Ebert laughed.

"I wouldn't label it 'obsessed', it's simple intellectual curiosity" Macen was defensive.

"He's obsessed," Ebert repeated with a rich chuckle, "He'd tell stories about Kirk's life All. The. Time."

"You sound like a stalker," Hendryks smirked.

"You're only a stalker if the object of your obsession is alive to stalk," Daggit clarified. No one else aboard but Macen knew that "a" Kirk echo had still been alive in the Nexus and had emerged when the Borg Queen attempted to reanimate his corpse. A revived Kirk now owned a scoutship, living out a quiet life charting new frontiers, often times ahead of Starfleet, in the border edges of the Delta Quadrant. Captain Chakotay and the USS Voyager led a squad of starships seeking out potential allies and just exploring the unknown regions of the Delta Quadrant the starship had bypassed on her transwarp conduit voyage home. The Delta Quadrant had barely been skimmed by a lone starship and crew in the quest to traverse 70,000 light years in seven years rather than seventy to return to the Federation.

Chakotay and his fellow starship captains knew plucky private captains and privateers had ventured forth into the Delta Quadrant from Deep Space 4 and 5 but none seemed have gained as much traction and goodwill as "Captain Quirk" as the locals mispronounced his name. Kirk's entrance into the 24th Century was classified by Starfleet Command.

The rationale was to prevent a madcap exodus of attempts to enter the Nexus to seek immortality. Only Captain Scott and selected others, such as Admiral Picard, knew the truth. Guinan had referred Starfleet and Kirk to Macen because he possessed his logs from his journeys across the Delta and Beta Quadrants even into the Alpha Quadrant from his nearly four hundred years of service with the El-Aurian Survey Corps. Like the Vulcans, the El-Aurians teamed six individuals in a starship and sent them scouting.

Unlike the Vulcans, the El-Aurians had a quantum slipstream drive. Whose processing unit was a small portion from an El-Aurian brain harvested from cadavers. The very technology Section 31 had tried to recreate using El-Aurian "donors". No one outside the El-Aurian community seemed to have noticed that four of the remaining forty-six El-Aurians had gone missing after Soran's death. Another had been imprisoned literally since their arrival in the Alpha Quadrant.

That prisoner had provided the technical details to develop an El-Aurian driven slipstream drive to Section 31, giving them access to slipstream drives nearly a century before Starfleet perfected its mechanical equivalent. The elderly El-Aurians in question were simply assumed to have died by their neighbors. Guinan and Macen being the sole survivors who'd been injected with the DNA altering rejuvenation serums that prolonged the lives of already long-lived Survey Corps members.

Even the renegade archeologist, Doctor Taryn Argus, hadn't been injected. Argus had served her time on a penal colony and was back to selling relics to the highest bidder regardless of affiliation. The very practice that had gotten her sentenced in the very first place. So Argus was the very model of "rehabilitation".

"We're center mass," Ebert announced.

"Adjust our heading ninety degrees up bubble then proceed on thrusters only," Macen instructed.

"Still going with that? What I don't get is why not bait the trap in the Pillars of Creation?" Hendryks admitted, "It's relatively clear there and they could see us coming more easily."

"All the reasons we wouldn't make an approach there," Daggit almost grimly chuckled. He was in his psychologically and behaviorally adjusted "combat mode" now.

"And Kirk knows that," Macen knew.

"We're aiming for Main Engineering, right?" Hendryks asked.

"Yup," Macen confirmed it.

"It's better protected by deck levels from the dorsal sections that the ventral. Why approach from here?" she wondered.

"Because their third nacelle makes the approach nearly impossible in these conditions," Daggit answered, "This way we'll have a clean shot if we get to take it."

"Love that optimism," Hendryks retorted.

"It is what it is," Daggit replied. Daggit and half his Angosian platoon had served aboard the Copernicus-class Asimov under Ro's command during the Dominion War. She and Thool and been recruited by Ro to go undercover as freelance privateers in the Dominion's service to conduct behind the lines sabotage. The other half of Daggit's platoon served aboard the Odyssey under Macen's command with Ebert, Lacey, Eckles, and Darcy still as her crew. Only Danan and T'Kir had been missing.

Danan had returned full time to Starfleet's stellar cartography section. T'Kir was incarcerated in the Andes Institute for the Criminally Insane. Macen represented Starfleet Intelligence and the Angosians were assigned brevet ranks as conditional Starfleet non-commissioned officers and enlisted men and women. Daggit was the sole officer amongst them. Granted the brevet rank of a full lieutenant. Daggit commanded the sixteen strong platoon.

Command Master Chief Varglas had been in charge of the Angosians assigned to the Odyssey. So Hendryks had gotten to known Daggit quite well during his tenure about the science vessel. Physically intimate on several occasions. Something that amused Parva greatly now that Hendryks was a member of Outbound Ventures and assigned to Serenity station. The trysts had been ten years ago but Parva could easily see why Daggit would have been attracted to Hendryks. Especially since regulations would've prohibited him from sexually engaging one of his enlisted female subordinates and the only other option was Ro herself. Which wasn't a happening thing back then. Hendryks was a phenomenal woman anyways.

Almost an hour passed by before Ebert called out, "I think I see it. Without my HUD functioning or nav sensors I can't be certain."

"Yup, that's definitely a Galaxy-class profile off of our port," Hendryks confirmed.

"I'll use RCS thrusters adjust heading and compensate for drift," Ebert worked her board.

"I've got nothing," Daggit complained, "Even the visual recorder is down. Ebert, Hendryks, I'm transferring weapons control to you two. You've got a better view than I do."

"Phasers at my command and at the ready," Ebert said with relish.

"I've got photon control," Hendryks reported.

"We'll close to one five hundred meters before engaging. Tracy, you'll open the hull with phasers. They'll be reacting to you. Adjust to keep on target and auto fire the phasers after the first strike. Elfi, empty our forward magazines into them."

"That's gonna create a lot of damage," Hendryks admitted, "And a number of casualties."

"A ship that size can absorb a lot of damage," Macen countered, "We need Main Engineering and the warp core down. Their impulse reactors will scram because of the power overload but they'll have auxiliary power up in minutes. I want them to be able to function and even pursue us."

"Pursue?" Hendryks yelped, "Why?"

Macen told them of the reception that was planned at that point.

"I love it!" Ebert said heartily, "You're so sneaky, Captain."

"We're coming on range," Hendryks warned.

"Stay on target and prepare to fire," Macen instructed. They closed the distance.

"Five hundred meters and holding," Ebert reported.

"Then fire away," Macen fatefully ordered.

"Where is she, Spock?" Kirk wondered at the railing of the command well, "If they were running a grid pattern, they'd have crossed us already."

"Unless they are familiar with conducting operations utilizing RCS thrusters alone within a nebula's boundary," Spock theorized, "Conceivably if they did so, and allowed for simple inertia to draw them close, they would remain undetected until they closed to firing distance."

"Captain! Our dorsal imager has them!" Sulu cried out.

"Evasive starboard!" Kirk reseated himself. The phasers cut the hull and repeatedly fired while Ebert adjusted for the impulse turn with a likewise application of impulse thrusters. Hendryks took a deep breath and salvoed a single torpedo as a ranging shot. The detonation washed debris and shock wave over the Eclipse.

"Stay true, Tracy," Macen urged.

"I'm on them, Captain Sulu or not!" Ebert said between gritted teeth.

"This one is still a Lieutenant," Macen corrected her.

"Whatever! I'm on their ass," Ebert shouted back.

The first explosions rattled Engineering and EPS conduits and relays across the ship overloaded.

"What the hell?" Scotty fretted, "Lock down the injectors, lads!"

"But Mister Scott!" a protest rose.

"Lock them down and evacuate Engineering. We're the bloody target," Scotty yelled at his people. They scrambled but explosions began overtaking the space.

Power fluctuated as the warp core automatically ejected and main power was cut. The impulse reactors scrammed but the engineers staffing them quickly restored auxiliary power using the fusion cores.

"Mr. Scott! Damage report!" Kirk called over the din of damage reports coming in, "Uhura, isolate Engineering."

"Mr. Scott on the line," Uhura reported back.

"Scotty how bad is it?" he needed to know.

"The warp core auto-ejected," Scotty sounded pained from more than the loss of his beloved warp core.

"Scotty, are you alright?" Kirk asked, "How are your people?"

"We dinna know the losses yet. Doctor McCoy and a team of medics just arrived," Scotty sounded wearier than Kirk had ever heard him, "Main power is out but we have full auxiliary barring any more hits. We need to leave this bloody nebula. So we can raise shields at least."

""How long will it take to replace the warp core?" Kirk dismally asked.

"Specs say eight days but I can have ye one in two," Scotty pledge, "Once we restore hull integrity that is."

"Captain, they've ceased fire," Sulu observed.

"Mister Sulu is correct," Spock noted, "Once the damaged warp core ejected, the attacking vessel altered trajectory and engaged full impulse to evacuate the area prior to the core's detonation."

"Kirk!" Seven of Nine demanded his attention as she and Three of Nine exited the turbolift, "Why are we standing still? Plot an intercept course immediately. The Dictat's enemies cannot be allowed to escape."

"We're hardly in position to pursue," Kirk grated.

"You will comply," Three said coldly, "You will all comply."

"Seven, have your enforcer stand down," Kirk angrily demanded with his arms folded across his chest.

"Three of Nine, return to your post," Seven allowed.

"Affirmative," the seemingly less-than-human former drone complied.

"Our bargain with the Sixth Sister was ill conceived. I don't believe, given the nature of such potent small craft, that these 'Crusaders' are our best chance at returning to the Confederation," Kirk informed her, "Our best recourse is still the Federation."

"You seem persistent in the desire to unite with this Federation," Seven accused.

"They're technologically on par with us. If not slightly more advanced," Kirk told her, "That raider we tracked into the nebula was deemed an older model of their technology in light of the small starship we already encountered. Her commander obviously has experience in combating foes inside of a nebula. Yet, when we were at their mercy, they left us alive and with enough power to escape the nebula. That isn't the hallmark of a devoted enemy."

"It could still prove to be a trap," Seven argued.

"But what is the perfect pursuit in this matter?" Spock asked her reasonably, "Logic suggests that our imminent return to our universe should be our tantamount goal. Not uselessly flailing against the natives that immeasurably outnumber us."

Seven considered his words, "Agreed. Perfection means returning to our universe. With a primary goal of seizing this one for Their-Totalities once we have secured our own," Seven deemed it wisdom.

"In the meantime, we need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court," Kirk replied.

"Unacceptable. We bargain for our freedom from a position of strength or not at all," Seven deemed it.

"I... what's that?" Kirk wondered as the screen began filling with flashes.

"Fascinating, the electrostatic discharges are being seeded from within Main Engineering's wreckage into an ion storm. An interdimensional breach is forming around us. It appears we may be on the cusp of returning home after all," Spock was amazed. Systems erupted across the ship.

"Scotty, what's our status?" Kirk inquired.

"We're down to the batteries sir, but I can auxiliary power back to ye in an hour," the engineer proclaimed through his pain.

"Mr. Scott, stand down and have your chiefs look into it. Get yourself medical attention. That's an order," Kirk advised him.

"Aye, aye," Scotty said wearily.

"Captain, quantum variances indicate that the gases and dust surrounding originate from our own quantum universe," Spock reported, "In other words, we are home once again."

"Because of that freak ion storm?" Kirk asked.

"I do not believe the artificial ion storm was accidental in nature," Spock reported, "However, internal and external sensors went offline during it s occurrence. It would be impossible to replicate the process without that necessary data."

"Very well. Undertake the necessary repairs, Captain. I shall make a full report to the Dictat for when we emerge from the nebula. I expect to review yours before transmissions resume as well," Seven decided and went to the turbolift.

As the doors shut, Kirk turned to Spock, "Brilliant work shutting down the sensors."

"It was not my doing," Spock admitted, "Whomever arranged for our transit home also arranged that the process remain a mystery."

"Thank God for small favors," Kirk breathed easily again.

"Indeed, should he or she actually exist," Spock conceded.

The Eclipse emerged from the Eagle Nebula as the ion storm built within it.

"We left there just in time," Hendryks remarked. Then the storm died away, "Go figure. Just a freak accident."

"I wonder," Macen mused, "It was centered on that other Enterprise. And if a transporter effect could've been projected then..."

"Everything's up again and we have a welcoming committee," Daggit alerted them. Waiting in the distance were the Obsidian, the Solstice, the Indomitable, and the Ark of the Prophets.

"I wonder why Neela and Anara are still here?" Ebert wondered.

"Let's hail them and find out," Macen suggested.

"Obsidian is hailing," Hendryks reported.

"Confirm we're all alright and get me Colonel Anara on the line," Macen requested.

The Special Forces officer relayed her standing orders as well as the fact an NX-class vessel had darted from the station and out of the system as everyone else arrived. The remaining NX-, Freedom-, and Hercules-class starships, already heavily damaged by their brief skirmish with the Eclipse's phasers, simply surrendered and threw themselves on their prospective foes' mercies. Crews traded hands while everyone awaited Ro's arrival.

Macen, Parva, and Daggit returned to the Obsidian. Smith and Burrows also transferred back aboard. Noble and Tulley returned to the Eclipse to assume command of her. The Indomitable, Solstice, and Eclipse were released to return to Serenity given Ro's incoming reports of the action over Kalendra. The Crusaders were all in custody and in no shape to mount an offensive much less a resistance.

Father Sun was awestruck as he beheld a modern starship from within the Obsidian's corridors. He pleasantly and somewhat meekly for someone with the title War Priest accepted a berth in the brig. There and in the cargo bays, Jolena Kovic and Abby Collins oversaw the disposition of the prisoner awaiting Colonel Ro's decision regarding their future.

Rockford heckled Macen for not immediately answering her hails but decided, in the end, to forgive him anyway. Galen 3 used every scientific resource and enhanced sensor platform on the Obsidian but could detect the whereabouts of disposition of the CSS Enterprise.

"I'm sorry, Commander. It's as if they simply vanished," Galen 3 unhappily reported.

"I wonder," Macen mused again, "Let's take this to my office."

Rockford joined him there, "What's up?"

"You can come out now," Macen instructed.

"Say what?" Rockford asked then was startled as a bearded human in a recently retired Starfleet uniform seemed to appear from the shadows and into existence.

"Very good, Commander," the man said, "Most people can't spot me when I don't wish to be seen."

"I take it you've been aboard the other Enterprise?" Macen noted the uniform.

"They believed me to be a Command Davison officer that was tragically lost in the first crossover. I simply wanted them to believe I was him and they did. They'll be finding the body from where I placed him in stasis a few days ago," the man said.

"Who the hell are you, anyway?" Rockford's hand rested on her phaser pistol's grip.

"Celeste Rockford, meet Wesley Crusher," Macen introduced her.

"She doesn't know what I am?" Crusher was intrigued, "Or even who I am?"

"That was our agreement. Which you've decisively broken, by the way," Macen told him.

"That Enterprise shouldn't have ever been here. So I simply returned her home," Crusher ignored the accusation.

"Hence the ion storm inside a nebula," Macen allowed.

"It seemed a natural enough event," Crusher shared, "At least enough to get passed their Political Officer. An ex-Borg drone by the way. A certain Seven of Nine."

"This universe has enough Sevens in it already," Macen conceded.

"And you did all of this how?" Rockford asked.

"You trust her?" Crusher asked.

"With everything I'm not honor bound to withhold," Macen told him.

"Then you can know my identity as well and what I represent," Crusher winked out existence.

"Was that a frinxing Q?" Rockford wondered.

"Nope. Just a human being with remarkable gifts. Sit down, I have quite the story to tell you of how I first met Wesley Crusher some two hundred years ago while I first visited Earth," Macen offered.

"He's that old?" Rockford was amazed.

"No, but he can move freely through space and time. He's what they call a Traveler. A very unique and gifted collection of beings that observe, and occasionally intervene in, remarkable events throughout space and time," Macen explained, "This isn't the same Crusher I met, of course. But this Crusher met the universe's version of me at the same approximate time. And, he's probably infinitely aware of how we came to be here in the now."

"So...a not so cosmic cosmic being?" Rockford guessed.

"That pretty well sums it up," Macen confirmed it.

"You and your acquaintances," Rockford accused.

"Anyway, after I deduced Wesley's special nature, he pledged me to a lifetime of silence. Which held true until a few minute s ago," Macen concluded, "His Starfleet record is open to anyone with your clearance level. The bits on the Enterprise-D and the Starfleet Academy are particularly revealing."

"Of course he was Starfleet," Rockford snorted, "And one of Picard's no less."

"The man pooled talent. Even inadvertently," Macen agreed.

"So we just wait for Laren to roar in like the wrath of God?" Rockford wondered.

"Pretty much sums it up," Macen concurred.

"Colonel, we have an NX-class starship on fast approach from enemy territory. Coming straight at us," Wyn reported to her.

"Hail them and standby photon torpedoes," Ro ordered.

"I'm getting a voice message ordering us to stand down or face the wrath of Allah," Triss reported.

"Who?" Wyn asked.

"Who cares?" Ro inquired, "Fire torpedoes."

"Target destroyed," Wyn was happy to report now.

"Stay on course and speed," Ro ordered.

The Fist of the Prophets delivered Ro to the tender station where she took custody of Father Sun. He requested the transit to Vatican where the newly established interim governments of the former Interfaith worlds would be gathering thanks to the NX-class starship loyal to the Warrior Nuns. She was the last survivor of her kind purchased from the Iotians. Sister Moon was holding the Cardinal's seat open for Father Sun but a nonreligious leader had been temporarily appointed governmental leader from the Apostate's ranks. As one had one from every faith colony.

Ionescu was Vatican's temporary leader until elections could be arranged. Dinkinish led Pagan. Farooqi was the Caliph of Mecca but not its spiritual leader. Huynh led Karma while Anand was the chosen leader of Dharma. They were all relieved to learn Ro had inadvertently destroyed the starship carrying the Inquisitor-General, the Sixth Sister, and the bulk of the Inquisition's leadership that had escaped justice on the colony worlds.

"Here's how this will work," Ro informed them, "My government will be leading the relief efforts to all the worlds you've attacked. The survivors will be invited to commission war crimes trials against those of you we've already captured as well as Father Sun and Sister Moon, despite their allegiances to your movements, because of their blatant tacit consent in unleashing this unholy hell on sentient beings."

"Furthermore, my government will be running point in the Federation's diplomatic approach to your worlds," Ro warned them, "There are members of the Federation's Diplomatic Corps that simply want to let bygones be bygones and open discussions with you. However, it was their fault these worlds were vulnerable before you in the first place. So, Bajor will send civilian and Militia representatives to help secure your worlds from retribution while the investigations and subsequent trials get underway. This will place me in the unenviable position of having a world shattering headache. So don't cross me."

"However, my people are probably the most understanding of yours being ruled by a system of theocracies. So don't aggravate us into throwing you to the wolves that'll want your blood," Ro shared.

"And what will you demand in return?" Sister Moon was feeling apprehensive now.

"The simple right to co-exist in peace. You have nothing we want except an open hand of friendship. But that hand won't be gripped until you prove your intentions are truly peaceful," Ro informed them, "As someone that grew up on an occupied world and harbored a resistance against that invader, I understand where you've come from. My entire people will empathize. But you have to make a shift from a militant provisional government into something long lasting and willing to peacefully co-exist or we'll simply leave you to rot and decay from within."

The provisional governors took the opportunity of Ro pausing to glance at one another. Their meeting at the Dome on Vatican, one of five identical holy sites on each colony dedicated to the Interfaith Council's getting them to their respective worlds, wasn't coincidental. The new governors planned it that way to signify a new change for their respective and collective societies. The meeting was being simulcast across the colonies, transmitted into every household, meeting center, and edifice of faith. Macen and Rockford were among those gathered in the adjacent Crystal Cathedral.

"Laren has certainly become a stateswoman," Rockford quietly observed.

"She was CO of one the most critically and strategically important sectors in known space," Macen shrugged, "Besides, she appreciates a challenge."

"Her current command is just as challenging," Rockford commented.

"Her obvious intention, with Kira's backing, is to embarrass the Federation and Starfleet into action," Macen opined. They exited the crowded Cathedral hall.

Equally watched later that day was Cardinal Sun's assumption of the clerical throne and his broad declaration of cooperation and culpability in whatever decisions the war crimes trials revealed and whatever charges they brought against any officer of the Church. Includmg himself and Sister Moon. The question now on everyone's mind was how would the Federation respond?

Inside the Federation Council chambers chaos had erupted.

"How dare you commit the Federation to assisting in a witch hunt?" the human ambassador shouted at the Bajoran delegate.

"I don't recall my government asking the Federation step in on these investigations. This is an internal matter that the Militia can rightfully assist the aggrieved Protectorate planet s that Starfleet failed to protect," the delegate, one Councilor Beric calmly replied, "My government pledged Bajor's assistance. We didn't bother mentioning Earth's involvement or lack thereof. Or any other esteemed member planet's."

Admiral Johnson hid a smirk at how well Beric had outplayed Ambassador Shelly Gaynor.

"You lay this at our feet?" the Andorian delegate demanded to know.

"You did help conceive of the accords that made these worlds protectorates in the first in your radicalized quest for allies against the Dominion," Beric was placid, "Some of you here even help draft the accords and voted them into binding stature. Of course, everyone present here, with notable exceptions, voted to withdraw Starfleet from actually adhering to these agreements in lieu of increasing patrols near your own worlds. Dare I say that makes you culpable? I suppose that decision rests upon your individual consciences."

"You voted in that decision making as well," the Tellarite ambassador argued.

"The records shows I and my government voted against the proposal," Beric continued, "The vote was taken in the naïve assumption that no harm would actually ever befall these stellar nations before they could adequately defend themselves. Of course, most of them never pursued the military applications of their technology trusting in the fact that the vaunted Starfleet would sail to their rescues. So who is the more foolish looking now?"

Johnson knew her scorn had a lit a fuse now.

"Ambassador Beric, if you would refrain from insinuating blame here..." the Federation President began.

"I'm merely offering a case of why Bajor, despite overwhelming pressures and ridicule from members of this august body, maintains its own private military forces," Beric interrupted, "Especially given Starfleet's current underwhelming commitment to keeping the peace, even within the Federation's own borders."

That stark reference to the march of the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance working with the Iotian Federation hurt more than Johnson cared to admit. The only fortunate outcome had been that a resurgence by the Terran Empire had caused the Alliance troops to return to their own universe. Still, the Alliance forces had set back relations with the Tholians, Gorn, Breen, and First Federation back decades if not centuries. The Iotians were still agitating for military responses and Starfleet was leaving the Iotians unchecked in their own aggressive, expansionist moves throughout the Beta Quadrant and creeping into the Alpha Quadrant now.

Even the revered Martok had resigned as Chancellor in protest to the Klingon Empire's own ambivalence. He'd risked being stripped of his House and exile to support the Federation during the Alliance's campaign. To far too little reward.

"And can Bajor be blamed for involving an interested third party into these relief efforts?" Beric asked. Nechayev had forewarned Johnson of First Minister Astris' request and he still knew it was going to be a slap in the face.

"What third party?" the President asked suspiciously.

"The Castellan of the Cardassian Union has pledged to support Bajor in its relief efforts as a token of friendship given my own people's spearheading the post-war rehabilitation efforts extended to the Cardassians," Beric announced.

"Have your people gone insane?" a rising roar of voices sharply inquired.

"We're already bound by Federation decree to allow the Cardassians transit rights through the Bajoran Sector and home system to allow them through the Wormhole. Isn't it a minor alteration to allow them access to the neutral Kalendra Sector as well?" Beric posed the very simple question. And now Bajor had the rest of the Federation by the proverbial balls.

"I do not recognize the urgency of the topic to be discussed outside of Starfleet Headquarters," Commodore Oh stressed the inconvenience of relocating their already clandestine meeting to New Berlin on Luna.

"First we were deporting our unofficial black site prisoners to Cardassia and now Garan is entering into secret pacts with the Bajorans?" Fleet Admiral Clancy clarified, "How does that affect our plan?"

"It does not," Oh clarified, "Garan is still willing to secretly accept our prisoner transfer. In exchange, she receives vital aid covertly from Starfleet Security to putting down unrest on the Cardassian Subject Worlds that the Cardassian Guard is too overstretched to providing for themselves."

"But the damn timing..." Clancy sputtered.

"Is inconsequential. Your policies created both of these situations, Admiral," Oh sagely pointed out.

"Is that a critique?" Clancy wanted to know.

"Simply a timely observation, Admiral," Oh pointed out, "One that others would make if they ascertained all the facts."

"Which it's your job you make certain no ever does," Clancy ordered.

"I'll need to expand my purview to make certain that never happens," Oh replied.

"Consider yourself having limitless authority to do so," Clancy stipulated.

Oh secretly wished she could savor the smile that decision would naturally bring on. But she had to continue playing the Vulcan. For now.

Inside the dwarf planet Ceres within the asteroid belt located between burning Mars and Jupiter, Cell 51's computer network found itself reactivated. The Dominion's order issued forth from there and the political sleeper cells began to move forward at long last.

"So...vacay?" Rockford asked her husband.

"We could at least finish ours," Macen ruefully replied.

"The full two weeks. Starting over as soon as we reach the landing site again," Rockford insisted.

"I can live with that. I'll inform Amanda not to face any existential threats to her existence or the Federation's in the interim," Macen smirked.

"Like she'll listen," Rockford grumped.

"I told Kathy to authorize leave for the whole team and crew," Macen told her, "We have enough ships now to take up the slack," Macen told her, "I even authorized the Solstice's deployment to deliver a contingent of our teammates to a suitably agreed upon main hub. That crew can then stand down as well."

"I already heard Tom and Lees were making plans to vacate the station," Rockford chuckled.

"All ashore that's going ashore," Macen grinned, "And all that, of course."

"Any word from Ro?" Rockford asked. It'd been nine days since they'd left the Interfaith worlds behind.

"Laren is back to her normal duties. Kira assigned the war crimes investigations to the Militia Constabulary. Most are veteran investigators that sought out Cardassian war criminals. The Cardassians Guard provided a dozen Lakat-class frigates to help distribute relief supplies that transports and medical frigates are bringing in. Kira and Ro each sent ships in to defend the Bajorans on the ground and the transport convoys en route," Macen explained, "The CIB is openly assisting the Constabulary. My understanding is Ambassadors Beric and Garak are busy in Paris deflecting irate and baseless accusations of a secret collusion and pacts against Federation policies and security."

"FNS had a report that member planets even put forward a motion to eject Bajor from the Federation," Rockford frowned.

"They'd lose DS9. It's still a Bajoran space station utilized by Starfleet. They lose Bajor, they lose the Wormhole and they have to recall all of their starships and colonists from the Gamma Quadrant. Even paranoia has to give way to reason once in a while," Macen stated.

"Don't be so certain. You should've seen the witch hunts looking for Tarsusian collaborators on Angosia during the war," Rockford grimly recalled, "Ever since the Mars attacks the Federation Council is acting out of fear rather than logic. Even the Vulcans have been infected."

"Not surprising since the Vulcans feel fear far more intensely than even humans do," Macen reminded her, "They just typically control it better."

"Like Sekona?" Rockford dryly asked.

"Joining the Maquis was her logical response to her fears," Macen shrugged.

"We should all be so logical," Rockford chuckled again.

"Waitaminute! Did you say landing site?" Macen dimly recalled.

"I was wondering if you'd noticed that. The cabin we stayed at is already re-booked. So I invited Tracy to take us down in the Corsair. She needs some quiet time to reflect on life, love, and universe," Rockford duly explained, "She gets the aft cabin and we get our tent."

"Any other previously unannounced campers coming?" Macen was dubious now.

"I may or may not have invited Arianna and she may or may not have agreed to come with," Rockford played coy, "And Angelique and Bailey maaay have agreed to set up their own camp along with ours."

"Your idea?" Macen wondered.

"Bailey's actually. Something changed for her on Mecca. I think she wants to join in with the rest of us more now," Rockford told him, "Consider this a baby step."

"As long as Angelique doesn't try to sink a mine shaft," Macen agreed in principle.

"Neela, Anara, and Ziva may have also been inadvertently invited as well," Rockford warned him, "That was mostly by accident. I was discussing the trip with Arianna and they overheard us and expressed real interest."

"Anyone else I should know about?" Macen was finally rather amused rather than slightly irked.

"Nope. Rab and Parva are going to their house on Barrinor and taking a few others like Gilan, his current boyfriend, Tessa, and Galen 3 home with them," Rockford was relieved to see his shifting mood, "Edwin and Sveta are also stepping out for two weeks so he can introduce her to his family."

"Heidi Darcy told me her wife will be meeting up with her when the Solstice makes port. They haven't seen each other for a few months. She works cruise lines like Tom Eckles used to do. Chris Noble is meeting up with a couple of cousins. Tulley and Annabeth are staying here to reacquaint properly and get Annabeth situated in her new job. Radil, Kort, and their daughter are visiting his family on Qo'nos. Kris Liu is taking Eckles and Chris Lacey for their first ever visits to Earth. Liu has family in Beijing and San Francisco she wants to visit. Lacey is headed for New York City and Eckles wants to visit Detroit and Pittsburg," Macen recalled, "Locarno and Sito are travelling with the kids to Bajor where her family relocated to. Gerrit Gren is leaving Tulley in charge of Security while he traipses back to Bajor with Locarno and Sito."

"Shannon is going back to London to reunite with Amanda. Jaycee and Joelle are taking Aglaia on a tour of Greece. Which just about accounts for everyone save Tom and Lees," Rockford admitted, "I don't know their plans."

"They're saving their leave for when Tom's nephew, Thad, dies. They want to able to attend the funeral and stay with Will and Deanna as well keep Kestra occupied while her parents grieve," Macen told her.

"That's depressing," Rockford glumly stated.

"But a harsh reality is sometimes the only one we'll face for a while," Macen knew she understood all too well.

"Wait! What about Harri and Tony?" Rockford suddenly recalled that she didn't know their plans

"They're headed back to Argelius," Macen said conspiratorially, "Along with Shade and Lee."

"All together?" Rockford was intrigued, "These are our Lee Kang and Tony Burrows headed to a den of iniquity with two blatant criminals?"

"None other," Macen smirked.

"Oooh to be a fly on those walls," Rockford's imagination was in overdrive already.

"Rein it in," Macen chided her lurid thoughts.

"You're no fun. Half of detective is probing scandals," Rockford shared, "Sometimes it's the fun part too."

"Why Celeste Rockford, you're a closet voyeur," Macen had just discovered.

"Shhh! I have an image to uphold. I only accept serious issue clients. Then I dig up the dirt," Rockford said in a manic way.

"We've been married for how long? And I'm just discovering this demon?" Macen acted infringed upon.

"Oh, drop the act. This kind of thing is the half the reason you became a spy," Rockford accused.

"Guilty as charged," he freely admitted.

"So what do you think of our soon to be scandalized teammates? Who? When? And how many times?" Rockford probed.

"Harri and Tony have been flying in that radar since their last visit to Argelius. I just don't see Shade and Lee in working out in that fashion. Or even interested in it," Macen revealed.

"Bummer. That's my take on it too," Rockford sighed, "Lee and Shade just have no mojo. But Tony and Harri? Sparks could fly now that she's realized Tracy is a no-fly zone."

"Tracy is damaged goods and has been since was gang raped by the Cardassians that killed her family in front of her. We both know this. Now she's realized it to. That's the first step towards making better relational choices," Macen stated, "I'm hoping a few nudges along the way will help steer her towards her happy ending."

"You big ol' softie," Rockford teased him, "Where's that killer instinct now?"

"That killer instinct is the same one that killed the last person that intentionally hurt her just because they could," Macen confided.

"Does she know?" Rockford wondered.

"Hasn't a clue and doesn't need one. All she needs to know is that we have her back," Macen shared.

"Glad you included me in this process," Rockford grinned.

"Wouldn't leave you out even if I wanted to," Macen promised.

"Did I just note a 'wouldn't' rather than 'couldn't'?" Rockford queried him.

"Hmm. You must a detective after all," Macen smirked, "The devil's in the details after all. I wouldn't leave out because you're my check and balance. Also, I wouldn't want to exclude from a portion of my life that I could freely share."

"Versus the things you still can't share," Rockford understood.

"I am privy to some serious state secrets after all," Macen reminded her, "Elias and I shared some adventures that neither of us can discuss even between ourselves."

"That is pretty serious," Rockford conceded.

"So, when are the ladies gathering in the Obsidian to launch the Corsair?" Macen asked

"They, and all our gear, are waiting for us even now," Rockford revealed with a grin.

"You've been stalling," Macen realized.

"I've been stalling," she confirmed it; "This way you couldn't have refused the company. And I'm glad you know me so well."

"You will pay for this later," Macen escorted her to the awaiting turbolift to reach the assigned docking pylon.

"If only you kept your promises'" Rockford sighed again.

"My revenge will be as creative as it is unexpected," Macen vowed.

"Now this I like," Rockford laughed as they prepared to undertake a fun adventure.


Last modified: 20 Jan 2023