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Four in a Row 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

Outbound Ventures had been busily tasked with defending now-neutral planets and colonies from outside aggression now that Starfleet had officially withdrawn their support in the wake of the Federation Council's panicked orders following the Mars Massacre, as it was referred to in the press. The Council demanded that Starfleet withdraw back within Federation borders until such time as the crisis had passed. It had taken the Iotian Federation's expansionist drive to shake them loose from this policy. Now the Federation and Starfleet were actively re-engaging worlds they'd they'd abandoned before. To say that the former protectorates and colonies' reception was lukewarm at best was a severe understatement. Despite Starfleet providing decommissioned starships and training in their use, the "abandoned" worlds still felt mistrust over Starfleet's withdrawal in the first place.

The newly created Starfleet Special Investigations Division was Starfleet's replacement for the seemingly dismantled Section 31. But S31 had been "dismantled" before following the CONTROL crisis and had merely gone underground. But the splinter faction of Cell 51 had been completely deconstructed and apprehended and its members now faced trial in both Starfleet's boards of court martial and civilian courts of law. The Starfleet London Data Archive, secretly a S31 stronghold, had been repurposed as the SID headquarters. Through their chartered capability to hire security contractors and investigators, SID Director had hired Outbound Ventures to help secure threatened systems and employing the Starfleet retainer and the profits from successful SID missions, the corporation had recently acquired twenty late 23rd century analogues from the Iotian Starfleet. Having hired hired captains, command staff, and crewmen for each vessel, Outbound Ventures readily accepted the SID's expanding mandate to thwart threats against UFP security before they occurred. Hence, the small fleet was dispersed among those nearby systems most threatened by the Iotians' ambitions.

Blending the methods, ethics and ethos of the Chicago Mobs and the United Federation of Planets, the Iotian Federation's Starfleet habitually sailed into neutral or undeveloped systems and pressured them to purchase "protection" by means of resource extraction. These resources included conscripted personnel for the Starfleet's swelling ranks. The shift in the Iotians' thrust into the wider galaxy rather than just the hundred or so star systems within easy reach, and generally access restricted to the UFP because of Prime Directive concerns, despite James T. Kirk's early, and infamous, contact scenarios with them, had come from an external or internal source.

The Klingon-Cardassian Alliance of the Terran Universe had suffered multiple setbacks since the rise of thew Terran Rebellion. Regent Worf had been captured and subsequently released to be executed by the Klingon High Council . Supreme Legate Dukat had personally allied himself with the House of Duras. The Terrans had risen en masse across hundreds of worlds to reclaim and reforge their empire. The Alliance was in retreat and the increasingly disgraced Indendent Kira offered up this Prime Universe as a recompense for her failures. Indendent Ro Laren swayed Dukat to deploy troops with Duras' into the "Prime Universe" and utilize native proxies to carve out a second Alliance in that alternate universe. Kira took hold of Sigma Iotia II through seduction and guile.

Ro oversaw updating the Iotians' mid-23rd Century tech base into something more modern. Using stolen schematics, the Iotians updated their fleet within mid-24th Century UFP standards. The Iotians still produced 22nd and 23rd Century model starships for export purposes and had even sold off their remaining lower tech fleet. Outbound Ventures being their single largest customer. The Iotians had promptly delivered four ships of each class Brin Macen paid for. All post-2370s refit UFP tech. They were the Asia-, Constitution-, Constellation-, Miranda-, and Excelsior-refit types.

With the addition of the Waylaid to the fleet, that made for five Asia-class (refit) vessels. The other seven starships already owned by corporate coffers were decommissioned Starfleet starships from the early 24th Century. Additionally, serving as a fleet base and corporate base, Macen had a Cardassian Nor-class space station built in orbit around Odin, the Class-P glaciated colony world of Barrinor, the Class-M planet that dominated the wider banking "world' of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. That status granted it de facto neutrality. Even from the Iotians since they too were clients.

The Cardassian builders, and therefore Cardassian stellar cartographers, had named the station Ampok Nor. When Tom Riker took command, he renamed the station Serenity. Riker's name stuck and his wife, the Joined Trill named Lisea Danan, became his XO. Prior to, during, and just after the Maquis and the Dominion War, Danan and Macen had been romantically involved even as Danan had been his XO of the Blackbird-class scoutship, Odyssey. Trained as a career Starfleet stellar cartographer, Danan was ill suited as a combatant. But the Maquis left Danan emotionally scarred so she left Starfleet.

But Riker and Danan were stationary, as were Tom's "twin" Will Riker and Deanna Troi, now that they'd gone into Starfleet's active reserves to care for their terminally ill son, Thad, and their daughter, Kestra, on Nepenthe. A colony world popular amongst retired Starfleet captains and command level staff. The planet named after the Greekm "gods'" nectar that numbed emotional and physical pain. The planet, like Na'ku, offered healing potential. So the Riker family was finally spending time with each other now that Will and Deanna weren't traveling abroad aboard the USS Titan.

Macen had founded Outbound Ventures with T'Kir, a fellow former Maquis, after he liberated the Vulcan from a mental institution. While the security contractors had been licensed within and without the Federation, and received Letters of Marque, they hadn't been offered Starfleet contracts until the SID paved the way forward. Starfleet paid a retainer for first consideration towards any contract they offered. But it wasn't an exclusivity arrangement. But as of yet, the recently incorporated twenty-one starships weren't yet cleared for Starfleet assignments regarding sensitive matters. But simple peacekeeping missions were everyone's purview.

The Alliance itself had struck a coup. Kira and Ro, each respectively leading from a Iotian built Galaxy- and Nebula-class starship, fronted a coalition of Klingon and Cardassian warships manned by Dukat and Duras' forces as well as foot soldiers such as the Cappellans and Nova Romans and Germanic Berserkers of 492 IV against the Gorn. The Gorn had immediately retaliated against Cestus III. Starfleet quickly redirected Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson, Starfleet's highest ranked diplomatic specialist, and his flagship, the USS Intrepid to Cestus III to conduct negotiations with the Gorn Hegemony. Starfleet Command unanimously agreed that the dire situation required the famed "Johnson touch".

Meanwhile, the Alliance force was transiting across the Alpha Quadrant unopposed and headed straight for the Tholian Assembly. Presumably to anger the Tholians against the three stellar powers as they had the Gorn. The Cardassians' own protests that they had no alliance, secret or otherwise, with the Federation and the hated Klingons fell on deaf Gorn ears. Colonel Ro Laren of the Prime Universe's Bajoran Militia concurred with Macen's assessment that her counterpart would be striking out at the Tholians followed by the Breen Confederacy and the Tzenkethi Coalition. To add distraction to public relations disaster, the Iotians were spread in a tri-tip thrust from their own territories. each led by a renowned Commodore commanding an Ambassador-class flagship.

Their renown came from their effectiveness of threatening or actively brutalizing planetary populations into "signing on" with the Iotian Federation for "protection". One thrust skirted Federation territory to stretch forth towards the splintering Ferengi Alliance and the First Federation. The second amassed near Cestus III, having "chased off" the ships attacking the Gorn, and offering a mutual defense pact. The third and final Iotian thrust headed deeper into the Beta Quadrant to approach planets there that had rebuffed the Federation's overtures.

Now Starfleet had learned why the Iotians had been stockpiling weapons and ordnance on Turkana IV as they attempted to escalate the brewing conflict with the Gorn. The Iotians had built three fleets out of Starfleet's less popular starship classes from 2350-2368. including Eagle-class carrier variants. But the type of fighter craft they'd developed was still unknown.

Macen quintessentially co-owned every Outbound Ventures starship with his wife, Detective Celeste Rockford of the Rockford Detective Agencies that made up the other half of the burgeoning corporate empire. For a time, both entities had been bleeding clients due insufficient manpower to meet the demand. Competitors such as Solarian Security Solutions had vociferously eaten up the slack. But now, Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Agencies were catching up on their contract backlogs and clients were opting out of their arrangements with Solarian and others to go with their first choices now that they could.

Macen and Rockford operated private offices on Serenity, as every captain did, including a Rockford Agency for the system. For the Rockford Detective Agencies, generally a collective made up of private investigators operated out of a centralized world and operated throughout a populated sector. One of the agency's top priorities was investigating corporate espionage. One of Solarian's primary dealings was committing corporate espionage. So the two entities frequently clashed.

Now the military-style contracting end was losing open competition with Outbound Ventures. A circumstance the CEO and Board refused ot accept. Solarian had been passed over by the SID in favor of Outbound Ventures. That presumed slight affected Solarian's prestige amongst its potential clientele. Outbound Ventures' own rumored criminal activity hadn't weighed against SID Director Admiral Amanda Forger's decision to retain Outbound Ventures' service. Despite Solarians' charge of nepotism since Forger's younger sister, Shannon, was captain of Macen's personal bed of operations. Rather, Outbound Ventures could move even more easily through the criminal underworlds than Solarian operatives despite similar contracts.

Macen was the only El-Aurian to ever enlist in Starfleet. A career Starfleet Intelligence operative, his "retirement" had led to Outbound Ventures' founding. His personal associations with Admirals Alynna Forger and Amanda Forger had only enhanced his chances of obtaining the coveted retainer. The SID operated as a trifecta operation governed and staffed by transfers from Starfleet Intelligence, Starfleet Security, and Starfleet Internal Affairs. Entire starships, including the USS Hood, the USS Monitor, and the USS Merrimack among others served as permanent SID assets. Macen's personal transport was a civilian acquired Nova-class surveyor. But, in the advent of the Starfleet retainer, the Obsidian had been internally upgraded to the new NovaX- standards.

Rockford had been born Annika Ryst. An Angosian Augment Infiltrator, the sergeant had been psychologically conditioned to assume entirely new personalities to undertake undercover assassination missions. Every other Infiltrator had gone insane or committed suicide. As the last, Ryst and the rest of the personalities had committed psychological "suicide" to infuse the Rockford persona with their memories but not their personalities and so it was that Ryst, who had tried killing Macen on several occasions, became Rockford permanently and eventually msrried Macen.

Macen's first wife, Arinea, had been a fellow El-Aurian and assimilated by the Borg. His second wife, T'Kir, had been murdered by the criminal mastermind, Bertram Sindis. It seemed every one of Macen's wives had tried to kill him on at least one occasion. Something he seemed incredibly sanguine about. Then again, he'd made a personal vow that his marriage to Rockford would be his last. Guinan may have successfully navigated 23 marriages but Macen wasn't certain he could keep track of that many spouses. Rockford was a noted detective who'd inspired enough trust for her to have opened investigative offices throughout the Federation and beyond. Her detectives even consulted on police inquiries.

More of Outbound Ventures ships were beginning to report harassment from Solarian and other competitors' vessels. A distraction that his people, and Starfleet, could barely afford right now. So far, the opposing sides had seemed provocative trying to get Outbound Ventures vessels ot fire on them. Waiting ambushes would subsequently be revealed. Evidently trying to capture flight recorder data painting the corporate starships as the aggressor. Thereby legally allowing Solarian and others to challenge the validity of their preferred status with Starfleet.

As Outbound Ventures and Rockford Agencies took on more Starfleet work the less credibility they had with the Orion Syndicate and their competitors and affiliates. Macen's dedicated SID was reserved by Forger for missions outside the context of Starfleet, preventing the catastrophic from developing by halting its birth. The team had uncovered the Alliance's presence and pact with the Iotians. Their next major assignment had been unearthing Cell 51's existence while tracking down the last remaining discovered remnant of Section 3. Their very contribution to the Iotian situation had uncovered the Iotians' present capabilities, allies, and the composition of the Alliance's fleet. A fleet that had been a decade in the making. And most recently, the team had retrieved Single O agent 0212, Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas of Starfleet Intelligence, and made her way back to Federation space after penetrating the Iotians' heights of power, which now culminated in the person of Indendent Kira. Just as Indendent Ro was the power behind the Alliance mission.

Douglas had believed that her fellow operative Double O Agent 0086, James Smart, had been killed in action. But he'd escaped Kira's death sentence but at the cost of great bodily harm. Macen had worked with his former Maquis ally, Colonel Ro, to offer insights into the Alliance's strategy. But somehow, Macen's own successes weighed against him in the eyes of Starfleet Commander Kirsten Clancy. The SID had been created despite her misgivings and contracting irregulars had been enacted against her own counsel. Therefore, every Outbound Ventures success, which was rated at 90%, served as an embarrassment to the admiral. While Nechayev, Forger, and Johnson had supported Ro and Macen's conjectural analysis, Clancy had dismissed taking preemptive action.

Retiring Director of Starfleet Security Admiral Edward Noyce, dependent upon his Deputy Director's counsel. Was unaware that Captain Oh was a Romulan agent disguised as a Vulcan. Despite Tal Shiar Director Sela recommending to the Praetor Tal'Aura to close Romulan borders to the Iotians during their campaign, harmful disinformation regarding the Cardassians only served Romulan interests. An off-balance Federation also served Romulan propaganda already fueled by Starfleet abandoning its commitment to evacuate colony worlds in the Hobus supernova's blast radius. A decision Admiral Jean-Luc Picard had resigned in protest over. Despite the narrow millions of evacuee lives that had been saved, billions more were lost. Including Romulus and Remus themselves after Ambassador Spock arrived with the Red Matter after the star's destruction.

Ro was returned to her patrols over the Bajoran colonies in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. The Dominion granting permission for Federation settlement and exploration in star systems that closed the gap between the two quadrants after the Gamma side of the Bajoran Wormhole terminus. The Iotian Starfleet had begun exports of their ship types during the Dominion War while demand was high. A then-independent Bajor was among its first bulk customers. Bajor had purchased nine mid-23rd Century Miranda-class light cruisers and three Constitution-class starships as well. Before some colonial interests had requested Kremlin-class scoutships for defensive and exploratory purposes.

That gave the Militia twelve warp capable ships that they quickly refitted with modern phasers, shield emitters, and photon torpedo launchers. Ro herself, as Commander of the Colonial Forces, oversaw security matters from her Constitution-class flagship. Her experience utilizing outdated technology across a multitude of star systems made the Joint Chiefs, General Kira Nerys in particular, completely trust in Ro's ability to deflect potential adversaries attempting to inflict harm upon a Bajoran colony regardless of the quadrant it resided in.

Four Starfleet vessels regularly patrolled the Bajor Sector based out of Deep Space Nine. Commander Elias Vaughn, the station's XO, personally commanded the USS Defiant in its missions of exploratory and defensive support of Starfleet endeavors in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. The gutted starbases surrounding the Cardassian Union territory having been rebuilt and restaffed. Starbases 47, G-8, 211, 310, and 375 monitored all Cardassian traffic and movements that didn't involve the Bajor Sector. In a move that also seemed utterly inexplicable given Starfleet's advanced warnings, border patrols surrounding the Iotian Federation's expanded frontier had been suspended prior to their surge. As such, the Alliance's transit to Gorn space went undetected and unopposed.

But the Obsidian was returning to Serenity from its sister station, DS9, when Admiral Forger contacted Macen and he called Rockford into the conference.

"Now that you're both here, we can begin," Forger was feeling irritable today. None of the news she had to deliver was good.

"Yes, let's," Rockford snarked. Her relationship with Forger had soured over the extraction request had been made to pull Douglas and Smart out of Iotian territory. In the end, they'd merely made the Obsidian an available respite. The Double and Single 0 agents had made their own way to the surveyor in orbit. The Iotian Starfleet had made Outbound Ventures legitimate contracts to escort cargo convoys to Iotian Starfleet staging grounds.

The Obsidian's role was to insure a series of deliveries to Turkana IV. Admiral Clancy was apoplectic over Macen's buying twenty starships from the Iotians and that he'd insured that their last deliveries to Turkana IV had been finalized. Additionally, two other Outbound Ventures starships had done the same for convoys headed to Cappella IV and Omega IV. Both planets being utilized by the Alliance forces to harvest shock troops to march alongside the Nova Romans. Gideonite virologists sought to replicate the viral agents that decimated Omega IV and Miri.

"SI has made some deductions based upon the posturing made by your competitors," Forger announced.

"They don't like us," Macen summed it up.

"But they're bringing civil suits and legal charges to bear in Federation courts," Forger warned them, "Any unprovoked hostilities made by your people will be seen in court as the actions made by mavericks."

"Thereby denying the legitimacy and trust Starfleet has paid us," Rockford deduced.

"Clancy is eagerly rooting for the apparent opposition," Forger dropped the bombshell, "She happily wants to replace Outbound Ventures with Solarian Security Systems and other minor vendors."

"And your assertions that publicly contracting private organizations is your exclusive purview have gone over really well," Macen sarcastically predicted.

"To say the least," Forger sighed, "Their are also rumblings within the Orion Syndicate and other cartels that all of your recent transactions with Starfleet invalidates their trust in you."

"Denying us access into their operations and discrediting us further in Clancy's eyes," Rockford was irked.

"You must be a detective," Forger quipped. Macen saw his wife stiffen just ever so slightly. considering the brouhaha that had begun between their major employer and Rockford over extracting Agents Douglas and Smart, this sign didn't bode well for this conversation.

"Have a care, Amanda," Macen advised, "It isn't your life on the line. We have history with Solarian, remember?"

Forger nodded. it was a matter from a supposedly forgotten past.

"Moving forward, Solarian itself can't match your forces directly but they have allies in the form of the security contractors that Clancy is dangling retainers in front of their sniffing noses," Forger explained.

"So there's blood in the water," Macen acknowledged.

"Making your ongoing restraint even more frustrating to the opposition," Forger confirmed it, "Which given the fact that JAG and the civil courts have given specific deadlines for the plaintiffs to produce real evidence regarding yoru supposed criminal malfeasance, they'll keep pushing until yoru people open fire in a seemingly 'unprovoked' attack."

"And if they fire first?" Rockford asked.

"You have every legal right to defend yourselves," Forger promised, "And the mere fact they initiated the unprovoked incident will crash their legal cases down around their ankles."

"I haven't kept up with Solarian," Macen admitted, "What kind of hulls are we talking about and in what quantity?"

"Solarian itself has a dozen starships. All built between 2293 and 2330," Forger shared, "Making them equal to your forces. But additionally, they have a private army of security contractors that act as police forces."

"Vastly outnumbering our ground agents," Macen grimly realized.

"Those same contractors are beginning to have conflicts with my detectives across every sector I have an agency in," Rockford shared.

"Now you know why," Forger unhappily conceded.

"And the others?" Macen inquired.

"A dozen or so cooperating contractors each with a ship or two derived from adapted civilian classes and foreign purchases," Forger divulged, "Which given your contentious starship purchases from the Iotians, should equalize the forces."

"There was nothing contentious about it. The Iotians wanted to sell and I wanted to buy since Starfleet blocked all my acquisition and purchase requests," Macen snarked.

Forger gave him a dead stare, "Clancy personally blocked your purchase orders and shifted the available starships to Solarian amongst others."

"Aren't they the favorite sons and daughters?" Rockford mused.

"They have an impressive record," Forger shrugged.

"They also have an equally impressive record of charges of rights violations, brutality, unprovoked hostilities, as well as safekeeping political overlords and their interests," Macen retorted.

"All of which your company has done as well," Forger glared at him. Except they both knew that was different times and different people. But recriminations lingered even under the "new/old" management.

"Why are you really contacting us?" Rockford cut through the BS.

"Word is Solarian won't stop until they have a shooting match they can lay the blame at your feet with," Forger warned, "And if that happens, Starfleet will pull your funding without so much as blinking."

"I'll advise the captains," Macen agreed.

"Do more than that. Tell them their lives are on the line," Forger stressed, "If Solarian and the others manage to provoke even one of your captains into firing first, Starfleet will be under orders to bring you all in."

"Group guilt now?" Rockford snorted, "What happened to 'presumed innocent until proven otherwise'? Or due process under the law?"

"Clancy will see you as putting yourselves above the law and will crucify you to make her point," Forger cautioned.

"Frinx her and the horse she rode in on," Rockford snapped back, "That's blatantly illegal. How far up did you say Section 31 infiltrated Starfleet? Did anyone look into Clancy herself?"

"I wouldn't start throwing allegations around if you can't provide clear evidence supporting them," Forger heatedly replied.

"Yet she can do it to us and it's considered business as usual?" Rockford sneered.

"The JAG is looking into this personally. She knows it's a witch hunt. But she had to be able to prove collusion in order to prosecute," Forger explained, "And Clancy is smart enough to only make non-binding verbal agreements on civilian comm channels rather than create recorded official Starfleet comm logs."

"Then how do you know she's making these deals?" Rockford asked. Forger looked at her as though she were addled.

"And you accuse Clancy of illegalities?" Rockford nearly yelled at the viewer. Macen face palmed.

"That's contemptible," Rockford hissed at Forger.

"Alynna and I keep the secret safe," Forger said in a condemning tone, "Can you say the same?"

"And we're supposedly the criminals," Rockford snorted, "Isn't this what you condemned Section and Cell 51 over?"

"Alynna and I are at least accountable," Forger snipped back.

"To whom?" Rockford demanded to know.

"To each other, all of you, Bob Johnson, the Intrepid's Command Staff, Vaughn, your Riker and Danan, Ro...should I go on?" Forger wanted to know, "And now Sarina Douglas and Julian Bashir are in on it as well."

Rockford softened, "I should know the exorbitant cost of keeping secrets better than most. That's why I'm concerned."

"There's a time and place for transparency. This isn't it. It may never be," Forger relented as well, "We all have that burden to bear, each of us."

"At least Ian Delaney was able to share with Hannah Grace," Macen added to soften the mood.

"She's his wife and a Kelvan. There was no way he'd manage to hide it from her. Recall how they met," Forger managed a smile.

"I've heard the story," Rockford managed a wan smile.

"Commander! We're receiving a distress call from the Copernicus! They're under attack and we're closest!" Shannon Forger interrupted over the emergency channel.

"Best speed, Captain," Macen confirmed her first instinct, "I'll contact Serenity. They're close enough Tom should be able to dispatch the Indomitable as well."

The Indomitable was Serenity Station's Emden-class escort outrider. The ship class was precursor to what would become the guiding philosophy behind the Defiant-class. Macen felt the subtle vibration change as the ship shifted from a lower speed to accelerating to its maximum rated Warp 8.

"I'll have to sign off. Shannon's taking us into combat and I want to observe who and why," Macen informed the elder Forger.

"This isn't great timing. The opposition may have just made their move or your ship just made a mistake that will cost you," Forger lamented.

"We'll worry about that later," Macen signed off. Without needing to encourage Rockford, they shifted into the Situation Center. A former briefing room converted into the Detective Squad's work space and facility to oversee circumstances beyond the ship's hull. Red alert klaxons sounded.

Macen contacted the Data Womb, next door to the Situation Center and tapped directly into the multi-level computer core, "Angelique, Bailey, I need you to pull up everything available on a ship or ships attacking one of our own. Feed every result to the bridge."

"We'll begin as soon as we drop out of warp," Angelique Kerber promised. Kerber had been born as an Ardanan Troglyte named Anara who'd been chosen as a child to be a maid of honor to the heir of the planetary throne situate din the sky city of Stratos. Maarta, that noble, had befriended Anara and the two joined the Troglyte Separatists and were condemned for an act of terrorism that surprisingly they actually innocent of. As Kerber and Bailey Smith, the fugitives had taken up with Macen and his specialists.

Inside the Situation room, Rockford's three chosen investigators were already patching the main viewer and satellite viewers into the bridge viewer and the ship's sensors. Lee Kang had once been a Chief Inspector within the Chung Kuo Constabulary. Shade was a Fabrini and a professional thief exiled from the Yolanda. The pink dyed haired teen, Arianna Forte, was over four hundred years old and heralded from the doomed planet known as Miri. She was the only team member older than Macen himself. With the life extending drugs given to El-Aurian Expeditionary Surveyors neutralized, Macen could only expect approximately another two hundred years of life. Which meant he and Rockford had a nearly identical expected lifespan now. The other Angosian Augment on the team, Rab Daggit, and the former Starfleet Special Operations Command officer, Tony Burrows, burst into the center.

"Jelena has Security up and rolling," Daggit said approvingly. Kovic and her own deputy, Abby Collins, oversaw Ship's Security. Despite Burrows and Daggit not having an official capacity aboard ship, they often served as the front line defense for the Situation Center and Data Womb. Parva, the Orion Chief Engineer, was also Daggit's wife. The EMH named Tessa was also a member of the elite SID team. Macen's teen pilot aboard his Maquis ship ten years ago, Tracy Ebert, was his personal pilot now. Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd, of the infamous criminally inclined Mudd dynasty, rounded out the team's membership. They of course also crowded into the Situation Center and its wall of computers and viewers displays.

"Are we going into a fight?" Evert wondered.

"Of course we are," Mudd rolled her eyes. The star field reverted from streaks to pinpricks. Sensors detected the conflict before the viewer could enhance the imagery. three ships had engaged the Newton-class science vessel, Copernicus. Despite the ship being poorly armed, her attackers weren't much better equipped and Captain Marta Haggit was making the best of a bad situation.

"Captain, we've identified the three attackers as belonging to the DeVos Security corporate arm," Kerber reported to Forger on the bridge .

"Jaycee, lay it out for me," Forger instructed Miller, her Chief Tactical Officer.

The XO, Joelle Jones arrived early to take her seat, "Here comes the fun part."

Forger could just barely tell the ex-Maquis was being snide.

"Edwin, hail those ships and warn them to stand down or we will open fire," Forger instructed Zimbalist, the OPS Manager.

"Captain, those are baseline Starfleet vessels circa 2250 through 2269. Their hulls are old enough to make them decommissioned Starfleet hulls. I make one Miranda-, one Kremlin-, and one Detroit-class starship. Each has received weapon and defensive upgrades but not drive improvements" Miller explained.

"Which they could still be running old style warp reactors," Forger caught on.

"Power signatures are consistent with that assumption," Miller had raised shield and armed the weapons as soon as they came out of warp, "They can't adequately power all their systems if they're taking a beating."

"So give them one," Forger relented, "No luck, Edwin?"

"Just static," Zimbalist explained.

"They'd spin that off as no power for communications," Forger grated, "Lock and load, Jaycee."

"Locking phasers and photons," Miller confirmed.

"Fire as targets present themselves," Forger committed them into action.

"Two are breaking off to engage us," Zimbalist warned.

"I see them," Miller grinned. Torpedoes and phasers fired. The Miranda-class and Detroit-class light cruiser weathered the first strikes and returned fire. Despite the surveyor's light armament, the Nova-class Obsidian was still better equipped than her cousin, the Copernicus. The ship bucked as the shields took the brunt of the attack.

"Overloads across the EPS grid," Zimbalist reported.

"Shields just down thirteen percent. Even their torpedoes are old school," Miller was happy to report.

"So that's why they're blue," Jones murmured. Jones had previously commanded a Maquis ship that was actually a decommissioned Earth Starfleet cruiser predating the NX-class. Before that struggle she's been an armed freighter "Q-ship" captain.

"We have a fourth contact," Zimbalist warned while Miller concentrated on the already engaged threats.

"Barracuda-class," Miller relayed, "She's a scout"

"She's also a Solarian Security Systems ship," Kerber interrupted over comms.

"Dammit, Angelique! Stop monitoring us," Forger yelled.

"Excuse me for caring," Kerber signed off.

"Now you've done it," Zimbalist snickered.

"Aglaia, keep those ships in front of us," Miller requested of the CONN Officer. The Platonian often lamented the fact that all of the Obsidian's weapons systems faced forward from the primary hull but secretly relished the challenge of out-flying their opponents.

"That Solarian ship is also almost a century newer than all three DeVos ships," Forger acknowledged.

"A fifth contact has dropped out fo warp," Zimbalist announced.

'Oh, come on!" Miller grated. Torpedoes slammed into the Kremlin-class ship attacking the Copernicus.

"And the Indie just joined the fight," Zimbalist said smugly. The Kremlin-class was reeling as the Indomitable's phaser strikes caught her amidships. The escort flew past the stricken vessel and Haggit's focus narrowed once again on the scoutship.

"I could kiss Tom Riker," Forger decided.

"Down girl, he's happily married," Jones warned her off.

"The Solarian ship is breaking off," Zimbalist reported, "And the DeVos commander is declaring a truce."

"Respond with a voice message only. Inform the DeVos crews that they can leave but Outbound Ventures will report and file any appropriate charges involving this incident," Forger instructed.

"They're duly notified," Zimbalist promised. The DeVos ships limped away at Warp 1.

"Contact Captain Haggit, see if she requires assistance," Forger ordered.

"Captain Haggit is on the line and is requesting transport aboard," Zimbalist relayed.

"Have her coordinate with Telrik. I'll meet her in the Transporter Room," Forger was already out of her seat and headed to the turbolift.

The Tellarite Transporter Chief had obviously contacted Macen and Rockford because Forger found ttey'd beaten her by a heartbeat to the transporter room. Haggit materialized, looking tired and haggard.

"Second transport underway," Telrik announced and Riker was the next aboard.

"We need to talk," Haggit advised them all.


Chapter Two

Haggit accepted some raktajino and embraced its warmth and bitterness as the elevated caffeine levels began to permeate her body, "Those ships tracked us for three days before committing to an ambush."

"Just to make one point clear, they fired first?" Macen had to ask.

"Of course. All our recorders and sensor logs will attest to that fact," Haggit promised.

"Send copies to the Indie and the Obsidian as well Serenity," Macen requested.

"Why did that Solarian ship simply bug out?" Riker asked.

"More to the point, why why weren't you attacked until we were in range of Serenity?" Haggit inquired.

"Tom! You have to alert Lees that an attack is imminent! Then you have to get there. We'll escort the Copernicus in," Macen instructed.

"On it!" Riker dashed for the Transporter Room.

"We can manage," Haggit promised.

"We aren't leaving you to a second ambush," Rockford promised.

"My engineers reported it would twenty minutes to be able to reach warp speed again. We can limp along at low warp after that," Haggit predicted.

"We'll stand by you," Forger pledged.

"It is appreciated," Haggit confessed.

"I need those records to transmit to the SID," Macen urged her.

"It'll be my personal priority," Haggit agreed.

"I understand, Tom. We'll activate the new defense grid," Danan promised her worried husband. She turned ot Korepanova, "Go to Red Alert. Inform Security they may have to repel intruders."

"The new defensive systems are largely untested," Korepanova reminded Danan.

"They work fo r DS9. They should work for us as well," Danan hoped. Liu took charge of readying the Ops staff for potential combat. Most of them had never served in Starfleet and were civilian managers. They cleared the docking ring in record time just as the first hostile starships appeared.

"We have two Bolivar-, two Barracuda-, two Lancelot-, and one Sparta-class vessel headed our way," Korepnaove reported, "Shields are up and weapons systems are active. Targeting now."

"Liu, hail them and talk them down," Danan ordered.

"They all bear Federation registrations marked as being owned by Solarian Security Systems," Korepanova reported.

"Here we go again," Danan hated the reoccurring parallels with her shared past.

"They are actively targeting us," Korepanova warned.

"Let them take the first shot," Danan instructed, "How are negotiations going?"

"They're jamming subspace signals," Liu replied, "I don't even know if our distress call went out."

The deck plates shuddered as the shields withstood multiple torpedo strikes.

"These ass wipes are shooting at civilians," Liu was angered.

"Return fire," Danan reluctantly ordered. Korepanova oversaw the auto-targeting of phasers from the weapons sails and docking pylons and rotary torpedo launchers extended and began rapid firing at their assigned targets.

"The Indomitable just entered the system," Liu cheered.

"The Indie is opening up on the Sparta-class. The Barracudas are breaking off to engage as well," Korepanova explained.

"That still leaves us against the four other ships," Danan grimly assessed, "How're shields?"

The station bucked as phaser fire and torpedo strikes began to bleed energy through the waning shields.

"Secondary emitters are also beginning to overload," Korepanova angrily explained, "Shields are at 33% and falling."

Danan contacted the Chief of Operations, one of the station's original builders, Merik Cardan, "Cardan, how are repairs on the shield emitters going?"

"Slowly," Cardan grated, "My teams are on it but it's a big station."

"Understood. Keep us posted," Danan signed off, "Hopefully we'll get further reinforcements."

As things went, the Indomitable inflicted serious damage upon its Barracuda-class cousins and was afflicting the Sparta-class as well.

The captains having severely underestimated Tom Riker and his tough little ship. So too did Solarian undervalue the opposition Serenity could put up when attacked. When the Obsidian and Copernicus arrived, damages had been spread across both sides. Adding the Obsidian's firepower potential to the Indie's and Serenity's caused the Solarian agents to pause and finally withdraw.

"Should we pursue?" Forger inquired of Macen.

"We have damages and wounded to care for now," Macen replied, "Stay sharp in case they return."

"Will do," Forger promised.

Hours later, Riker exchanged places with Liu and he oversaw the repairs of Serenity even as Tessa beamed aboard to assist the station CMO, the Klingon doctor named Kort. The Bajoran Security chieftains, Gerrit Gren and Radil Jenrya, kept patrols out in case of boarding parties as well as assisting people injured and needing to relocate to the Infirmary. Joel Osmont retook Comms in Ops with Liu aboard the Indomitable patrolling the system as well as the Obsidian.

The Copernicus docked at Serenity and undertook the major repairs utilizing one of the station's industrial replicators. The Blackbird-class Solstice and Lancelot-class Guinevere also returned to the area and took up patrolling the system. Barrinor's defenses were on alert but they stayed near Barrinor and allowed Outbound Ventures to tend to their own. Captains Christina Noble and Jennifer Gardner, respectively, were each enraged by the unprovoked attacks. But not quite as enraged as Admirals Nechayev and Forger.

Nechayev and Forger burst into Starfleet Commander Clancy's offices without invitation.

"What the frinxing hell are you doing here?" Clancy hit the panic button to summon Starfleet Security.

"You don't want an audience for this, Kirsten," Nechayev warned her.

Clancy waved away Security when they arrived and privacy sealed her office, "Talk before I have you both up on charges of insubordination."

"Your negotiations with Solarian Security Systems came to light. As well as their unprovoked attacks upon Outbound Ventures assets and personnel," Nechayev warned.

"I hardly think they'd go in guns blazing," Clancy snorted, "And why the hell are you monitoring my communications?"

"We're not," Nechayev explained, "We're monitoring Solarian's"

"That's illegal," Clancy snarled.

"It was under your orders," Forger retorted.

"My what?" Clancy was out of her chair again. The pair of admirals had brought a stack of padds with them.

Forger handed Clancy the top one, "Your directive concerning the vetting of security contractors for Starfleet's purposes and hiring practices as established by order of Starfleet Command and personally bio-signed by you."

"Maybe you should occasionally read these things," Nechayev said snidely. The vetting process, it seemed to written, was ongoing and involved monitoring Solarian's public access comm channels. Including the private conversations Clancy had had with them to underscore discrediting Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies for their own personal gain and to share the wealth with smaller security contractors as well. The best way to do so was to provoke said agents and assets into initiating illegal and "unprovoked" hostilities.

"I take it Outbound Ventures got into a shooting match with Solarian and others," Clancy smugly smirked triumphantly.

Nechayev handed her the padd with Starfleet Security and Federation Security Agency reports coming in, "Not quite. You might not want to start celebrating just yet."

Every instance seemed to involved Rockford and Outbound Ventures personnel being attacked by a majority of "unknown" parties with obvious paramilitary ties with a few Solarian and other minor contractors being implicated by those that were apprehended in the midst of assaulting their victims.

"And here are Outbound Ventures' unfiltered sensor reports regarding the ship and station actions in defending themselves," Forger handed off a third padd, "Just keep scrolling."

Solarian had evidently hadn't put every ship it had into the effort alongside recruiting smaller operators in doing the same. Besides the Copernicus and Serenity incidents, the Sirius-class Dog Star and and Andor-class Lug Nut had also been engaged. Reports were still coming from Outbound Ventures' newest starship acquisitions and crews. The Waylaid had been waylaid but emerged victorious. All three Mosquito-class runabouts had been attacked in deep space in transit back to Serenity or en route to fresh assignments and each attack, by recordings made at the time, proved that each had been unprovoked.

"Have Security verify the records," Nechayev taunted her, "My people certainly have."

"I was able to redirect Captain Limerick and the USS Hood to Solarian's headquarters on Rigel X. They, and I quote, 'had been fully authorized by Starfleet Commander Clancy herself to undertake operations to halt the illegal activities of Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies under the auspices of SID business by any means necessary. As reward for their loyalty to the true Starfleet and the Federation they would receive compensation and replace said entities within the SID framework' and I end the quote from Solarian CEO Frebish Norshbiner itself," Forger implicated the non-binary Rigellian itself.

"I am not responsible for these cretins lashing out with violence," Clancy snarled.

"But they believe you delivered expressly conveyed orders to do so," Nechayev handed Clancy a padd containing recordings of conversations she'd had with Norshbiner itself. in them, she strongly advocated for Solarian to recruit a network to replace Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Agencies once they were pushed into revealing their innate volatility.

"It seems the opposite reaction occurred," Forger glowered at Clancy.

Clancy returned it in kind, "I never expressly ordered them to do any of this."

"They believe it even if JAG would clear your name. The press would crucify you in the court of public opinion though and your tenure as Starfleet Commander began with the disaster at Mars," Nechayev shrugged, "It is what it is."

"Are you blackmailing me?" Clancy growled.

"Do you feel blackmailed despite my never having used those words or implied a threat?" Nechayev smirked.

"Don't twist this, Alynna," Clancy warned.

"Consider it a lesson in how 'broadly' Solarian interpreted your words," Forger sought a middle ground.

"You'll forget this if I speak with Norshbiner again and let him no in explicit terms that I disapprove of his actions?" Clancy inquired.

"It's beyond that," Forger warned, "It's a criminal matter now. You're insulated by JAG and IA's supposed indifference in investigating the matter regarding your influencing events. Then again, it hasn't been filed with them but with Federation Security. But Norshbiner is more than happy to blame you for everything."

"And public trials are the things of public record," Nechayev gloated.

"We'll excuse ourselves now," Forger stood and Nechayev did as well.

"We'll see ourselves out," Nechayev still gloated.

Clancy contacted Captain Oh, "Captain, I need certain matters classified and certain individuals detained without record. Use any and all available off books black sites to hold them."

"Security has recently refurbished Section 31's Lubyanka Prison site," Captain Oh replied, "That should be adequate."

"And Captain, no one speaks to the detainees except for me," Clancy ordered. Oh was intrigued.

Outbound Ventures ships gathered around Serenity as assignments concluded and the SID redirected resources to cover those upcoming ones they could spare the manpower for. most of those were investigative assignments routed through the Rockford Agencies. The Federation and beyond-wide agency putting its detectives on alert for potential attacks and other violence.

The Waylaid and the twenty new starships were continuously deployed as peacekeepers in and around former Federation Protectorates and "abandoned" colonies. Thereby bolstering the natives and colonists' own defenses. The remainder gathered around and took stock of the developing situation. Solarian's CEO and Board of Directors and mysteriously vanished right out from under Captain Merry Limerick's nose. The Elvin was less than pleased. The USS Hood was tasked with finding out just how they'd escaped SID scrutiny. The USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack undertook similar missions to apprehend DeVos and Bannon contractors implicated in the attacks.

General Kira herself oversaw the Militia's efforts at finding the Bajoran contractors sought for questioning in related attacks upon Rockford detectives and Outbound Ventures agents. Ro was particularly invested in uncovering the Bajoran affiliates based off of colonial holdings. Yet more and more, the corporate officers and operators had gone missing and the ground operatives being sought for questioning had either been withdrawn by affiliated starships or been swept up it seemed by other forces at work. And if so, by whom?

"I don't like it," Riker complained forthrightly.

"Neither do I," Haggit agreed.

"I'm not a fan either," Noble criticized.

"Blame our employer if you want to get huffy," Macen shrugged, "Forger contracted us to locate the missing mobile assets of Solarian and their conspirators. She also mandated that Serenity Station be adequately defended in case of a second attack."

"I don't mind getting left behind," Captain Bek vac Fok of the Lug Nut happily munched on his pork roast. The Tellarite knew his Andor-class transport wasn't much better armed than the Copernicus. But the Indie and Solstice did boast considerable firepower. enough so the Cardassians had loathed the arrival of any ship of their classes for decades.

"The Copernicus is your extended eyes," Korepanova had strategized the defense, "The Solstice and Indomitable are the remote responders. The Lug Nut is ready support and Serenity is the bastion that everyone is hubbed around."

"Meanwhile, Captains Gardner, Pryce, and Forgoen will join us in searching out these renegade contractors," Shannon Forger explained.

"Throwing ourselves into an ambush," Anyer Forgoen complained.

"It wouldn't be so bad if we could get some ready reinforcements lined up," Forgoen's XO, Jarro Wen, commented.

"The Admiral is committing the Hood, the Monitor, and the Merrimack to our immediate aid," Macen reassured her, "Their independent investigations are going nowhere and Starfleet Security has taken jurisdiction."

"Federation Security and local law enforcement are protecting my people but that doesn't mean military-style contractors flying in on rogue starships won't overwhelm local capabilities. But my investigators are attempting to track down where the missing contractor ships have relocated to," Rockford promised.

"It is good that we pursue matter on our own," Anastasia Slutskaya, Gardner's XO, replied. Slutskaya came from a backwater colony where Russian was still the primary language.

"She has a point, Jon," Pryce's own XO, Felicia Kendel remarked.

"No one suggested otherwise except for Anyer," Pryce said evenly.

Despite Pryce's neutral tone, Forboen took offense, "Watch your mouth, Jonathan"

"I'm not the one running mine off in protest," Pryce easily replied.

"Man has a definite point," Gardner said glibly.

"Mind your tone, Jennifer," Forbeon snapped.

"Captain, they have a strong point," Jarro complained.

Jarro's family name had carried weight on Bajor before the Circle conspiracy. Jarro had left a stilted career in the Militia to join Outbound Ventures. She'd quickly earned Forboen's trust and he relied heavily on her counsel.

"We have to find these animals and cage them before they hurt any more of our own," Jarro argued.

Forboen sighed, "Very well. As long as we're guaranteed help."

"We are," Macen assured him, "Now, we just need a clue as to where to start looking."

"My people will find it," Rockford pledged. But in the end it still took nine days to get the first clue.

"Captain, Copernicus reports sensor contacts beyond the system" Korepanova reported to the Indie.

"Make certain the Solstice is aware. Take the station to battle stations and deploy the Lug Nut to safeguard the Copernicus," Riker ordered. Everyone involved had agreed to Riker commanding the forces remaining behind in the Barrinor system.

"Be careful, Tom," Danan implored.

"We're through hiding, Lees. This time we're taking these bastards out," Riker replied. Lieutenant Thomas William Riker of Starfleet had famously stolen the USS Defiant from DS9 and ultimately surrendered to the Cardassians to spare his crew and avoid an interstellar incident. Korepanova had revealed Riker's prior Maquis missions that only Danan had known about. One of which he undertook with Chakotay before going AWOL from the USS Gandhi.

Only learning a decade later that the ship's XO, who goaded him to the point he went AWOL and joined the Maquis, had secretly been a Maquis sympathizer in Starfleet despite her cracking down on him for publicly voicing support for the cause. Korepanova had been the bearer of the news since the officer in question had been killed when the Gandhi faced heavy action in the Dominion War. Just as Korepanova had told Chakotay of the fate of the Maquis while the USS Voyager and her partially Maquis crew were still deep into the Delta Quadrant. His missions with Macen clinched the deal and they hardly knew all of them. They were part of the secret shared by the refugee cabal within Starfleet, the SID, and now the Bajoran Militia.

"The suspect vessels are not flying with their IFF transponders switched on," Lui reported directly to Riker.

"Berent, light up our weapons systems and raise shields," Riker ordered his Tactical Officer. Osmont had remained on Serenity to man Comms. Keeling, the woman at CONN/OPS, normally flew shuttles to and from Barrinor for various Outbound Ventures purposes. But she'd proven to be an ace pilot for the Indomitable despite no actual combat experience prior to nine days ago.

"They're coming in hot!" Berent warned.

"Accelerate to intercept," Riker ordered, "Fire at will."

Suddenly photon torpedoes flew by to strike an oncoming DeVos ship. Phasers followed as the Solstice streaked by. Evidently, Noble had taken the initiative without orders.

"Show off," Riker muttered.

Neela typically manned the Sosltice's CONN now days. The Bajoran engineer was capable enough pilot despite her engineering wizardry at constructing various weapons. Elfi Hendryks manned OPS and like every other crewmember other than Neela, she was ex-Maquis. Neela was ex-Resistance and briefly was a lieutenant in the Militia before her murder conviction. Aric Tulley was the XO, a role he'd fulfilled for Ro Laren in the day. Christine Lacey was the most familiar with Blackbird-class scoutships, having served aboard Macen's Odyssey throughout her time with the Maquis and the Dominion War. Tom Eckles, Heidi Darcy, and Emjin Thool shared engineering duties. Eckles' vaster experience with the ship class made him Chief. Darcy had beee his deputy aboard the Odyssey. Thool had been Ro's chief engineer by default and the Bolian knew it. He was just a glorified tool pusher and knew that as well.

They could feel the aft torpedo launcher firing as the impulse engines whined as the RCS thrusters fired along with impulse thrusters. The inertial dampers strained as did the structural integrity field and the artificial gravity fluctuated as Neela stressed the very hull itself.

"Damn! What's that crazy Bajoran doing now?" Eckles complained.

"Like Tracy was ever better?" Darcy chided him, invoking Ebert's day s aboard the Odyssey. The ship shuddered and EPS conduits sparked as systems overloaded from weapons' energy bleed.

"We're in it now," Thool fretted.

"Comamnder Danan, the Indie and the Solstice have managed to engage four of the seven incoming ships," Deidre Wash, the Copernicus' XO reported in, "The Lug Nut and we are moving to interdict the ones that have slipped away."

"Tell vac Fok to be careful. And you too," Danan requested.

"Copy that. But we owe these jokers," Wash said.

"Just don't get sloppy. Fight smart," Danan replied.

"They've signed off," Osmont reported.

"One Bannon ship has veered off to engage the Copernicus and Lug Nut," Korepanova advised, "Defense grid is up and auto targeting."

"Let them know better than to approach," Danan instructed.

"Lighting them up now," Korepanova unleashed the station's defenses as they lashed out.

Riker witnessed as a Bannon Q-ship lost a nacelle and secondary explosions erupted from within, "Concentrate everything on our remaining playmate."

The "other" was a DeVos Detroit-class that they'd faced before. Despite obvious upgrades it still fell victim to the Indie and her crew.

"Status, Solstice?" Riker inquired.

"They've crippled one DeVos Kremlin-class and are moving to neutralize the remaining Sparta-class," Berent alerted him.

"Break off and return to Serenity," Riker ordered, "Noble has this."

The Sparta- crew was used to shock and awe tactics where they met little resistance. The captain had been a relatively junior officer when he transferred to the private sector after a lackluster tour in Starfleet. A "90 day Wonder" made an officer after proving he had a university degree and volunteered ot join Starfleet during the last war, he'd served aboard a Centaur-class starship throughout the war and a few others besides afterwards. He'd held a command slot with DeVos over the last three years and never had he met resistance that lasted more than a few phaser blasts or torpedo strikes. In short, the "Captain" was in over his head.

Noble and her crew were all veterans that had survived the Cardassians throughout all of their lives. Growing up in an extended battlefield of an unofficial war that stemmed decades, most of them saw combat as a lifestyle rather than life choice or duty. Each had chosen civilian life after the Dominion was defeated or their penal sentences concluded. All had learned to deride such a life. So it took very little convincing from Macen to get them to enlist in his broader scheme. And, unlike most, he'd divulged the secret governing his and the others' lives.

"They're done," Lacey announced.

"They're also begging for assistance," Tulley reported.

"Inform them we'll consider it and make way for Serenity," Noble coldly ordered.

The hull shuddered as Serenity endured another barrage.

"Damn Cardie design," Korepanova cursed, "We have a hull breach in the docking ring. Thanks to this damn monstrosity's design, the hull plates provide the structural integrity rather that an inner frame. That section of the docking ring is under threat of being blown off. Force fields and pressure doors are engaged. That should spare us decompression unless they hit something closer, like the Habitat Ring itself."

"Where the phaser sails are mounted," Danan knew the problem as well as Korepanova did, "Gerrit, evacuate the Habitat Ring and get everyone into the Promenade. Fill the corporate offices if you need to."

"Yes, Commander," Gerrit Gren replied. The Promenade at least was in the Central Core. Explosions brightened the viewer image.

"The Indomitable has bypassed the Copernicus and Lug Nut to relieve us," Korepanova was never so happuy over a potential conmflict of interest before.

"Look at the sensors," Danan pointed at a screen, "The Solstice is backing them up."

"Looks like we've won," Korepanova predicted.

"If only the others are so lucky," Danan breathed a sigh of relief.

"We have multiple distress calls stemming across the system," Osmont interrupted.

"Tell them sit tight and we'll consider helping them," Danan replied.

"Cold, Commander. Very, very cold," Korepanova chuckled.

"Would you do anything different?" Danan asked.

"I wouldn't even consider helping them," Korepanova confided.

Survivors had been transported from the crippled ships to Serenity. Lacking adequate brig space, they put the prisoners in the docking bays adjoining the blown apart section. leaving them little doubt as to what would occur of the attempted a breakout. Cardan had made his repair estimates to Riker and they included purchasing a modular docking section prefabbed in Cardassian space and shipped ot them, "Otherwise it take months to repair."

"Pass it on to Kathy Tyrol with my compliments," Riker wore a grim expression.

"Yes, sir," Cardan was less than intimidated. He'd battled with pretentious, overbearing and economically frugal guls and legates before. A mere CEO was hardly a challenge. Especially when her own life and livelihood depended on the repairs.


Chapter Three

The vast expanse of rim ward space at the Federation's border also bordered the Klingons and Tholians on opposing sides. Early into the Federation's explorations of this area had been met with incalculable disasters. The events had driven the Klingons out and the Tholians deeper into isolation. Recently, the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance forces present in the Prime Universe, had sailed through this space unopposed. Directly after attacking the Gorn Hegemony and laying the blame upon a supposed Federation-Klingon-Cardassian plot to seize control over the Gorn Hegemony. The plot had been "foiled" by the Alliance's "secret ally", the Iotian Federation.

The Iotians were brokering a mutual defense pact while Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson, supported by the USS Intrepid sued for peace terms, denying all allegations that that any such ambitions towards Gorn space existed outside of the Iotians and their allies. Johnson shared top secret data gathered by the SID revealing the Alliance's role within the Iotian Federation. The "bastardized" Iotian Starfleet seemed ready to battle their "illegitimate parent". The Gorn just seemed eager to watch the opposing sides pummel each other. Meanwhile, the Alliance was moving in on the Tholians.

Rockford's vast network of private investigators had learned that Solarian Security Systems had accepted a massively scaled contract with the Orion Syndicate. The full dozen starships officially under Solarian's control were thusly engaged. Leaving DeVos and Bannon Security to their own devices. Riker and Tyrol were reporting to the Outbound Ventures ships searching for Solarian's forces about the attack Bannon and DeVos Security had made upon the corporate station and it s defenders. The attack seemed to be a measure of desperate extremism. Flouting the very laws they were supposedly contracted by Admiral Clancy to defend.

Admiral Forger reported that both Starfleet Security and Federation Security were investigating the matters. But the apparent flight of the Solarian, Bannon, and DeVos Boards and CEOs complicated the investigations. Corporate lawyers were also inhibiting JAG and the civilian courts with law suits against the agencies. Tyrol had unleashed legal hell against the three security consulting corporations, further muddying the waters. Criminal charges had been filed en masse and the prisoners taken by Outbound Ventures were being held until Starfleet could relieve them of said prisoners. Their abandoned starships floating as untapped pools of evidence to be acquired by Starfleet Security to further the investigation. They'd merely been tractor towed by tugs out of the traffic lanes in and out of the Barrinoran system.

Barrinor itself was pressing legal claims against the private security contractors and seizing on-hand assets, all of whom had previously done business with the banking moguls on Barrinor, for threatening Barrinoran security and expressly the lives of their colonists on Odin, which Serenity Station orbited. Stray torpedoes had missed the station and bombarded the planet. Fortunately for DeVos and Bannon, the strays hadn't killed colonists but had disrupted heat and power on the Class-P glaciated world. Which in turn had created medical crises.

Solarian's wisdom in avoiding attacking the station directly was proving out as the charges mounted against their pawns/allies. The Bajoran contractors that had assaulted Rockford detectives were being located and apprehended by Federation Security on one hand and by the Bajotran Militia on the other. General Kira's own investigation had met physical resistance on occasion as had Colonel Ro's inquiries into contractors based upon Bajor's Alpha and Gamma Quadrant colonies.

Commander Elias Vaughn and Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas volunteered to oversee Starleet's Bajor Sector efforts in the widening pursuit. Ro and Vaughn had personal stakes in the outcome since most of the Obsidian's hierarchy were personal friends, especially Macen. Douglas too owed them a debt of gratitude for extracting the Single 0 agent off of Sigma Iotia II while she and 0086 were being pursued by the Iotian Starfleet. James Smart had seemingly given his life for Agent 0212's freedom and the mission. But 0086 had recently turned up on Deep Space K-7 with massive genital injuries that required surgical removal of his sex organs and replacing them with bio-synthetics. That procedure had been accomplished on Earth at Starfleet Medical itself by Katherine Pulaski, the Medical Director for Starfleet. It seemed Starfleet had continuing need of Smart's cock and balls.

Douglas had personally flown to Earth to thank Smart for his sacrifice and the success of their mission through it. Smart deflected any and all praise, commenting that, "The mission had always come first."

This despite Smart's frequent sexual activity in "pursuit of the mission". Smart's first move upon release from Starfleet Medical was to travel to Serenity Station and test drive his synthetic penis by "pumping" the Orion "Quark's" franchisee on the station for "further information regarding Indendent Kira". Treir and Smart had been on Barrinor when the attacks occurred. Treir rushed back to Serenity to review any and all damages to her leased space. Meanwhile, Smart joined a top-secret manhunt for Solarian, Bannon, DeVos, and associated independent security contractors involved in the multitude of attacks and ongoing assaults against Outbound Ventures and Rockford Detective Agencies personnel and properties.

The Double 0 and Single 0 agents had been mobilized to supplement the existing manhunts. Additionally, with Rockford detectives engaged in unearthing clues as to the whereabouts of all the suspects, Solarian's recently acquired contracts with the Orion Syndicate had been revealed. And, the contract seemed to revolve around the Syndicate's operations in the Taurus Reach. Specifically their newly established stronghold on the independent world of Cillius VI. A world festooned with casinos and pleasure palaces.

It was Argelius all over again but with the Orions in charge as they leased the entire planet from Cillius Prime, the Class-M fourth planet in the system. The Orions earned the privilege of accessing the Cillius system when the Regent Pro Tem lost a game of chance. The Orions leased planet instead of outright owning it because their rep lost the very next hand. So it was a mutually beneficial arrangement that could be redecided should the parties agree to another round of high stakes fizz-bin. The Iotians having codified the game after scouring over reports of Kirk's wildly erratic game rules descriptions. Fizz-Bin had become the gamblers' game of chance in recent years.

game staples included a computer controlled "dealer", screen displayed "cards" that randomly shifted and changed by the hour, minute, and day of the week, as well as provided proofs that the computer was isolated from all networks and was freshly unsealed from the packing crate from the manufacturer in public view. The integrating of the simple gaming software was verified by independent inspectors brought by the Gaming Commission contracted by the players themselves. The Gaming Commission being an interstellar body licensed and obligated by the various casinos scattered throughout the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Without a Gaming Commission clearance of approval, the games were all suspected of being rigged in the owners' favor.

Even Ferengi parlor owners had finally conceded the necessity of obtaining Commission endorsements. A necessity pushed through the Ferengi Alliance's businesses by Grand Nagus Rom and specifically written by his Bajoran wife and ex-Dabo girl, Leeta. So the Obsidian's arrival in Cilliusian space was unexpected and unheralded. The Orion "prince" in nominal control of the planet-wide den invited Macen and Rockford down for an audience.

Macen and Rockford appeared before Verant, the "prince" controlled by the true mistress of Cillius VI, Naveera.

"Word is you've gone Starfleet soft," Verant rumbled upon his lavish couch and cushions. Macen drew his phaser and shot the Nelori assassin preparing to strike. After Verant waved away his alerted guards, all aiming weapons at the nonchalant Macen and Rockford.

Macen holstered his sidearm, "Can we skip the posturing?"

A "cleaner" team arrived to dispose of all traces of the dead Nalori. Verant's scantily clad attendants had formed a humanoid wall between the pair and their Orion master. Two armed and armored bodyguards had formed up as well to protect Naveera. Verant waved his contingent aside but Naveera kept her guards in place.

"That was...unexpected," Verant admitted.

"An assassination attempt wasn't," Rockford said coldly.

"If I truly wanted you dead, the guards surrounding you would've opened fire by now," Verant bluffed.

"And half of them would be dead caught in their own crossfire," Rockford assessed using Ryst's memories and military knowledge.

"Perhaps," Verant was forced to concede.

"We just want make a deal regarding information," Macen stated.

"You want Solarian's whereabouts," Verant knew.

"And you want to erase the embarrassment their failure is now costing you," Macen asserted.

"We didn't arrange for those strikes," Verant protested.

"But you sheltered them even after the entirety of the Federation's law enforcement divisions began looking for them," Macen rebutted him, "And they've incurred our wrath."

"You can't afford to anger the Syndicate," Verant was confident in that.

"And you can't afford the same towards our agencies," Macen replied, "So let's make a beneficial trade."

Verant ever so slightly glanced towards Naveera who subtly nodded her agreement.

"Very well, what do you propose?" Verant asked.

"Clear them away from whatever asignment you've put them on. My people will complete it for you and we'll dispense with Solarian once and for all," Macen made his offer.

"And what about future considerations?" Verant wondered.

"The Syndicate will have equal access to our priority list as Starfleet. That would be putting you above almost all others," Macen described the nature of the proposed deal.

"But the personnel pool would come from your new employees and crews," Verant specified, "That way Starfleet won't have eyes in our operations."

Rockford nodded towards Macen and she stated, "We find the bargain agreeable."

Naveera did the same fior Verant, "Very well. Let my litigators draw up up the official pact and we'll provide locations after we redirect Solarian's force. We'll expect replacements dispatched to other specified locations. They'll receive sealed orders there."

"Done," Macen concurred. They were escorted out after the legal documents were signed and countersigned. Telrik beamed them up upon receiving the request.

"That was a little too easy," Rockford complained.

"The Orions would rather deal with us than Solarian. And a gutted Solarian's operatives will be even more desperate to work for the Orions on the Syndicate's terms," Macen shrugged, "Business as usual."

"Quick work with that Nalori. When did you seem him move?" Rockford wondered.

"I didn't. Nalori are just infamous assassins and Verant and Naveera's first reflex would be to have us killed and continue to deal with Solarian," Macen explained.

"So basically you just killed a man before he threatened you," Rockford assessed.

"Yup," Macen conceded.

"Works for me," Rockford dismissed it.

"Commander, we just received a set of coordinates to proceed to," Forger reported over the comms.

"Rendezvous with our other lambs and make best speed to the coordinates given us," Macen instructed.

"Trap?" Forger asked.

"Trap," Macen confirmed it.

"Naveera will give Solarian every opportunity to kill us," Rockford agreed with assessment.

"So we don't let them," Macen said slyly.

"You're scheming again. I like it," Rockford smiled.

"Damn rain," Nechayev complained inside of Amanda Forger's office.

"San Francisco gets as much rain as London, Alynna," Forger chided her superior officer and mentor.

Admiral Edward Noyce, the Director of Starfleet Security, sat in with them as well as Admiral Stenn, the Vulcan Director of Starfleet Internal Affairs. Stenn and Forger had come up through IA's ranks together.

"You wanted this meeting, Ed. Why?" Nechayev inquired.

"Captain Oh has spearheaded the recent investigation into the Solarian and other security contractors' attacks upon SID assets," Noyce began his explanation, "But the list of apprehended suspects I've been given seems to be inaccurate. Field incident reports indicate more fugitives being arrested and detained than Oh seems to have accounted for."

"A cover up?" Forger asked.

"Or perhaps a diversion of detainees to sites outside of our normal purviews," Stenn suggested.

"Capturing S31's bases of operations certainly gave us those. This office included," Noye observed.

Officially, the SID headquarters was still a Starfleet Data Archive located in downtown London. Unofficially it housed Starfleet's replacement for Section 31. An official data archive was just one function based within the facility. Despite Section 31 being officially dismantled in 2257, its vestiges remained untouched and empowered by Starfleet Command's tacit consent. until 2385 when Starfleet proactively shut S31 down for real and the SID was formed and subsequently identified the threat posed by the Section 31 splinter faction, Cell 51. But the greatest repository of of data concerning both Cell 51 and its parent organization had been lost with the destruction of Jack Fowler and his positronic mind in the Gamma Quadrant.

Vaughn and the Defiant crew had no idea that Fowler's last living action had been to sheer his skull open and drop his positronic brain inside of a stealth probe on auto launch and thusly avoiding the self destruction of the S31 stealth ship Fowler had occupied. The probe had subsequently been recovered by a Jem'Hadar fighter commanded by the Vorta named Eris. So the Federation and Starfleet's greatest, yet unknown, and darkest secrets were in the hands of the Founders. Fowler, as the son of S31's Director James Fowler, had been programmed with all of S31's deepest secrets and hidden history dating back to the founding of the Earth Starfleet and perpetuated in the Federation's Starfleet.

Secrets even S31's subsections beneath the London Data Archive, which housed Memory Beta, S31's answer to the greater Federation's Memory Alpha, and Starfleet investigators from every branch represented that day in Forger's office would not find all the records secretly stored in Jack Fowler's "mind" alone. The younger Fowler had been born with a cognitive disability. So when Jack reached adulthood, the elder Fowler had his organic mind replaced with a positronic substitute and James Fowler intended to live on through his golem-like son. But the successful transference of a personality as well as knowledge would not occur until 2399. 14 years after Jack Fowler's "death" enabling Jean-Luc Picard to live on after his organic body broke down and died.

"Who would have motive to 'vanish' all of these suspects?" Nechayev asked the elephant sized question in the room.

"Captain Oh is in personal command of Security's aspects of the investigation," Noyce explained, "So I suspect the problem exists further down the command chain."

"And not higher?" Forger asked.

"Why should it?" Noyce asked, "If I were implicated I wouldn't be bringing this up."

"Logical. But it also logical that the guilty party at the head of this endeavor will seek to deflect the blame," Stenn spoke from vast experience uncovering Starfleet personnel's malfeasance. Forger came from the same school of thought, training, and experience. which why the tri-directorate based SID was her fiefdom. Nechayev and Noyce had selected Forger to head up the new directorate and Stenn to assume command of IA as Admiral Howe retired rather that assume a multi-sector command in a lateral transfer sector command rather than a promotion in an overstaffed Admiralty.

The rank of Commodore was coming back into vogue to replace single pip admirals. Forger and Stenn had been promoted to a two-pip status to assume their commands rather than be reclassified as 'Commodores'. Nechayev and Noyce were rarified four pip Fleet Admirals. Clancy was Starfleet's only five pip admiral as the interchangeably labeled Starfleet Commander-in-Chief or simply Starfleet Commander. The war had fast tracked Edward Jellico to being a three pip Vice Admiral and being the Chief of Operations. Leonard James Akaar had just been promoted to Fleet Admiral because of his record during the Dominion War and his career leading up to the point of war. Bill Ross' affiliation with Section 31 hadn't been prosecuted but JAG's findings would limit him to remaining as a Vice Admiral until he retired despite his record as a war hero and commander. Nechayev had admitted to her tacit complicity when turning a blind eye to S31 operations and interference. Her honesty saved her career but also insured that Kirsten Clancy was promoted to C-in-C rather than her and she remained Director of Starfleet Intelligence. JAG declined convening a Board of Inquiry regarding the matter.

"So, you're completely vouching for Captain Oh in this matter?" Forger sought clarification.

"Every matter," Noyce said firmly.

"Then who would you presume in your chain of command would be responsible?" Stenn asked, of course, the logical question.

"It can't be one officer," Noyce asserted, "It has to be a cabal. That's why I want a review done regarding active service S31 agents and moles. Especially focus on Cell 51. They have to be responsible."

"Ed, S31 and Cell 51 are gutted ruins," Nechayev said quietly, "Stenn, Amanda, and Oh have made certain of it."

"Dammit Alynna! We're talking suspects vanishing across a multitude of sectors not just planets," Noyce was getting bellicose, "The corporate boards of three Federation security contracting agencies are in the wind. The prisoners the SID supposedly handed over to Starfleet have also effectively vanished without a trace. The Bajoran Militia also transferred prisoners into Starfleet custody just for them to subsequently vanish."

"My assets have bio-signature authorized completed transfer orders," Forger was irritated by the accusation.

"The Security detachments and commanding officers say otherwise. That there were no prisoners to begin with," Noyce was getting increasingly verbally combative.

"Does Federation Security share this problem?" Stenn inquired.

"No, and that's damning feature of all," Noyce deflated.

Forger retrieved a padd, "This is the SID's copy uploaded from Outbound Ventures regarding the prisoners they detained and the transfer over to Captain Zeroth's custody aboard the USS Shanghai."

Forger handed the padd, "It's countersigned by Zeroth herself and the Security officer attached to the transfer by Captain Oh. The next transfer point was going to be DS4."

"These are Starfleet issued orders and receipts," Noyce dismally, "Where is the Shanghai now?"

Nechayev queried the computer and it reported that the starship was still docked at Deep Space 4.

"Set up a dual comm line. I want to speak directly with Captain Zeroth and Commander Vale," Noyce instructed.

"I'll also engage Commander Benteen," Forger offered.

Minutes later while Forger was engrossed in a query with Benteen, her aide, Lt. Commander Ambirl Delori brought in a computer console.

"I'm sorry, Admiral. But I was only able to raise Captain Zeroth. Commander Vale is off grid apparently," the Bajoran unhappily explained.

Noyce questioned Zeroth only to discover that the starship had indeed picked up the prisoners but that upon arriving at DS4, they'd been transferred to a California-class ship apparently headed to Earth. That ship, the USS Redding, wasn't reporting in.

"I was under orders to deny ever receiving the prisoners," Zeroth explained.

"Who issued the order?" Noyce was astounded.

"Admiral Ross, sir," Zeroth unhappily reported.

"Thank you, Captain," Noyce signed off.

"Benteen confirms Captain Zeroth's story. Commander Vale with Lt. Commander Neeley's Security staff aboard DS4 transferred the detainees to the Redding and she immediately made way for Earth," Forger told them.

"I put an inquiry to DS9 as well," Nechayev quietly informed them, "General Kira and Colonel Ro have been successful in apprehending alleged Bajoran co-conspirators and delivered them to Starfleet. Another California-class, the USS Oakland, to be precise. That ship is also MIA. Commander Vaughn has deployed the Defiant and is actively undertaking a search for the missing starship."

"Who was the security officer implicated in this transfer," Noyce wearily asked.

"A Commander Vale," Nechayev smiled thinly, "Both Commanders Christine and Andrew Vale. A brother and sister of the same rank and both Security officers and both are based in different Sector Commands."

"And Captain Oh chose them for these transfers?" Noyce asked.

"It would appear so," Nechayev scrolled to the appropriate paper trail and handed her padd over to Noyce.

"But that hardly means Captain Oh is complicit," Noyce remarked, "Remember, we have no evidence. So far both Vales haven't had any comm derived or textually based orders to reroute the prisoners."

"An interesting point," Stenn commented, "And in keeping with the basic tenet of 'innocent until proven guilty'. The onus is upon Starfleet to uncover a possible connection or deduce that Commanders Vale are acting independently or within a cabal led by Admiral Ross alone."

"Ross is still aboard Starbase 375 and overseeing the 9th Fleet's deployments," Forger offered as she determined Ross' current whereabouts.

"His area of authority extends over the Bajor Sector as well," Noyce recalled.

"But a far cry from DS4," Forger reminded him.

Noyce used Nechayv's padd ot search out Oh's orders to the Vales and determine where each Commander was stationed.

"Oh issued over fifty orders to Comamnd level Security staffers to take charge of prisoners being held across the Federation. The Federation Security Agency has filed grievances regarding several prisoners to be remanded into their custody being taken by Starfleet across several jurisdictions. In each case a transport vessel or second contact specialty ship was present in the system," Forger read off her next discovery.

"I'll see Ross crucified!" Noyce stood up and stormed out of the office.

"Admiral?" Ambril checked on Forger and her guests.

"We're fine, Delori. Admiral Noyce has just received a dump of bad news," Forger explained.

"We cannot at this time discount the very real possibility of Captain Oh being involved in these actions. She did assign every officer that appears to suspect in these disappearances," Stenn calmly and coolly reminded them, "My offices can conduct a...discreet inquiry."

"I recommend Commander Prentiss," Forger stated of her IA Liaison, "She's very discreet and damned effective."

"It will be done," Stenn promised, "I must go now and inform Commander Prentiss of her new assignment and the details we have gathered thus far."

The Vulcan excused himself and left Nechayev alone of Forger.

"This doesn't play right for Ross," Nechayev grumbled.

"Times and people change," Forger shrugged, "As do times and places."

Nechayev ignored her oblique reference to their own circumstances, "I can't openly initiate an investigation into Starfleet officers. But my Single and Double 0 agents have the latitude. I'll assign one to overview the evidence."

"Choose Sarina Douglas. She'll also bring Bashir into it," Forger recommended. Both Sarina Douglas and her husband, Dr. Julian Bashir, were genetically enhanced. They'd also been prizes for Section 31 to recruit.

"Good choice," Nechayev had feared the couple's deductive powers and for good reason. They'd laid open everyone in the group's secret. But had also agreed to keep it until such time as the wayward refugees were considered a threat.

Merry Limerick invited the Outbound Ventures captains and his fellow Starfleet COs aboard the USS Hood. The Galaxy-class starship operated as a carrier vessel. Most of its support craft had been replaced with attack fighters. As such, Limerick invited his CAG to join them. Verity Jones wasn't the only addition. Since Macen and Rockford were in overall command of the Outbound Ventures group by virtue of owning the company, they were included in the briefing. Admiral Forger had updated Captains Limerick, Hev, and Prime as to the developments regarding the prisoners that had been taken so far. Now they were sharing with their private sector counterparts. If Captains Forger, Gardner, Pryce, and Forgoen were apprehensive at all, they hid it magnificently, Limerick thought.

Elvin's had a gift they referred to as the "Knack" for detecting dishonesty. He sensed the same withholding in Forger that Macen and Rockford and shared. The same basic truth they didn't want or needed revealed. The others were simply ignorant of whatever it was. But they were apprehensive regarding what they may be facing ahead.

"We have stopped two solar systems away from where our...informants stated the Solarian Security Services vessels would be," Limerick avoided the term "Orion Syndicate" at all costs, "And our probes indicate that our information is correct. Solarian is occupying the named system and doing so in force."

"Previously we knew that Solarian had acquired a dozen early 24th Century era decommissioned Starfleet vessels but 'mysteriously' Starfleet records do not indicate the c,lasses if said ships," Prine took over.

"But the probes have revealed that missing data," Hev assured them all. Hev Callas had accomplished the supposedly impossible in Starfleet. He'd assembled a strictly Bajoran Command Staff. Such racial favoritism was supposed to be impossible under the Starfleet Bureau of Personnel overseeing staffing selections. But incredible latitude was allowed of COs in their selections. The Bajoran majority was maintained throughout the ship. Only enlisted crewmen were of any race other than Bajoran.

And even then only because a qualified Bajoran couldn't be found when they were needed. Non-Bajornas quickly found themselves transferred off of the Defiant-class USS Monitor. Nechayev had shielded Hev from investigations into his selection priorities and Forger had inherited his crew. But recent allegations from transferred enlisted men and women of a racially charged atmosphere were currently being investigated by JAG and BuPers.

The USS Merrimack was the exact opposite. Despite Captain Alec Prine seeking to become a "true Southern gentleman" the crew was one of the most diverse in Starfleet. Given Prine's endless fascination with the American Antebellum South, Hev's racial elitism was far more in accordance with Earth history than Prine's.

"We are still facing a dozen light cruisers, scouts, escorts, and one heavy cruiser," Limerick began to explain, "On the padds given you, you'll find the details of the ship classes we'll be facing. They outnumber us, and in some cases, are operating newer starships, but we have a factor they can't account for. The fighter squadron aboard the Hood can equal any starship in space."

Commander Jones took over, "Rebel Squadron is the equal to any modern starship in the field. We'll actually have an advantage over any select ship we're paired off against because we're many to their one. Our Peregrine-class attack fighters are equipped with the latest upgrades their frames can handle. And my people are the best pilots in the galaxy, bar none."

"The Hood will engage the sole Apollo-class heavy cruiser. The Monitor and Merrimack will engage the two Renaissance-class light cruisers. Rebel Squadron will be engaging the two Emden-class escorts. That leaves two Barracuda-class scouts, four Sparta-class light cruisers for the four of you. Do you think you're capable of engaging two extra foes in a six to four shooting match?" Limerick was brutal in his line of questioning.

"Of course," Gardner and Forger confidently said in stereo.

"I believe we can," Pryce allowed despite the older nature of his Shogun-class light cruiser and Gardner's Lancelot-class light cruiser types. Forgoen was far less ready despite his Sirius-class light cruiser being of the same design era as most of their oppoennts. Forger's confidence, despite being CO of a surveyor, was in her crew and the fact the Obsidian was a tough little ship even if weren't designed for combat. It was the most advanced Outbound Ventures starship in their would-be "fleet". All the other ships were less capable or pre-dating the 24th Century in their design. Only the Solstice and the Indomitable, of the ships not present, could hope to evenly match one of the opposition in a fight.

"I would strongly recommend that the Obsidian deal with the Barracudas- while the Guinevere, Spearhead, and Dog Star concentrate on the remaining Sparta-classes," Limerick had seniority over all the captains present so he was the squadron leader.

"We can hold our own," Forger promised.

"And we can hold out until assistance arrives," Gardner vouched for her comrades.

"They'll attempt to converge on us so, with your willing assistance, it's been recommended that Outbound Ventures enter the system first and distract the Solarian ships so that our arrival comes as a shocking surprise," Prine drawled.

"And my people will have launched beforehand so we'll engage as soon as we drop of warp," Jones promised.

"It's also highly recomended that you on the move to force the opposition to engage you on the fly. It'll reduce their accuracy...and yours. So spare the ordnance and make certain every shot counts," Hev stressed. they discussed a general strategy and then the meeting broke apart with the Outbound Ventures COs and corporate owners returning to their respective vessels.

"Think they actually have a chance?" Prine wondered.

"Of course," Jones asserted.

"Of course not," Hev snorted dismissively, "The wouldn't even qualify to be Resistance fighters. And we took anyone."

"There was a day when most of Starfleet felt that way about and your crew," Limerick gently chided Hev.

"At least we weren't charity cases," Hev sniped.

"Are you so sure?" Prine goaded him, "Seems to me that everyone in Starfleet already knows your crew are a buncha racists and you get away with it because everyone feels bad for Bajorans."

"I'd be worried about a 'friendly fire' incident of we were that incompetent," Hev snapped back.

"No one called you incompetent, Hev," Jones interjected, "He called you a racist and the facts show that you are."

"I can't help that non-Bajorans make for incompentent crewmen," Hev got in her face and Jones wouldn't back down, "If this were the Resistance, we'd settle this with our fists."

"Try it," Jones grated.

"If either of you throws a swing I'll lock you both away in the brig," Limerick advised them.

"This cowardice is why we're superior to Cardassians, humans, every Federation weakling race," Hev stormed out.

"He is aware that the recorders are on, right?" Prine had to ask.

"I really think he's past caring. Keep your distance from the Monitor or you may very well be fired upon. Warn your pilots as well," Limerick coached them, "Meanwhile, I'll speak with Admiral Forger and see if we can arrange for a replacement and Hev and his crew can stand down."

"They won't simply stand down," Jones predicted, "I've seen the look in his eyes before."

"Even I think he's getting unstable, and I've known and worked with the racist sonuvabitch for five years, so that's saying a lot," Prine warned everyone.

"We'll make do however we have to," Limerick promised.

In the end, no nearby Starfleet vessels were available to relieve Hev and his crew. Limerick was given the option of doing it on Forger's authority which he did. The Monitor left sensor range but Limerick, Jones, and Prine were convinced that it wasn't last they'd hear from the Monitor and her erratic commander. Starfleet had redirected every available starship in the region, other than theirs, to deal with the mounting crisis with the Tholians.

As Colonel Ro and Macen had predicted, the Indendents Ro and Kira lashed out at the Tholians as they had the Gorn. And once again, the same gambit played out as the Iotians came past the Cardassian and Andergani borders to "scare" off the Alliance forces, who then sailed through Federation space headed for the Tzenkethi and Breen territories. Even the Talarian Republic was struck in passing.

En route to Coalition and Confederacy space, they had to circumnavigate the Cardassian-Federation border. The Cardassian were mobilizing to avert Tholian aggression. Starbases 211, 310, G-8, 375 and DS9 reinforced their positions as the 9th and 7th Fleets gathered to fend off an Alliance attack and any spillover from the Tholians. Chancellor Martok mobilized a Klingon Fleet to reinforce the Federation's Tholian border but this was just agitating the Tholians even more as the Iotians egged them on in their paranoia.

While these events were occurring, the Outbound Ventures ships dropped out off warp in the Jenetour system and engaged their targeted vessels. In compliance with Federation law, the privateers did not fire until fired upon. Then, legally required to transmit distress signals, they obligated Starfleet's duly offered assistance of the USS Hood, Rebel Squadron, and the USS Merrimack and to no ones surprise, the USS Monitor flew in and attacked what would have been their assigned vessel. Thus, the Battle of Jenetour began.

The Barracuda-class scouts were inexplicably patrolling the debris filled the system. when the Shedai withdrew the system primary and its inner planets, the outer gas giants and ice balls along with the Oort Cloud had lost gravitational stability as the orbital mechanics vanished instantly and they became rogue planets and proto-comets. But the gas giants possessed mineral and gaseous resources rarely found in systems beyond Jenetour. Most of the start-up mining operations had required high interest, short term creditors to begin operations. The Orion Syndicate was chief among them. Certain Iotian Family members had heavily invested as well.

The yields were unimaginably profitable and involved exterminating a sentient gas dwelling species for the chemicals they produced and the mineral composition of their skeletal structure. Even their hides were valuable. Since the disappearance of the inner system and the system primary in 2266, Starfleet had ignored the area since their initial investigations yielded nothing . Only the internal heat and radiation produced by the two brown dwarfs within the system sustained their inhabitants now that the primary star was long gone. Starfleet considered the "mining" operations within the system to be pure folly. Unaware that two sentient species were being systematically hunted to extinction and the variations between the two races spread between the former system's two brown dwarfs doubled the profit potential. An orbital processing plant had been constructed in orbit between the dwarves to strip down the corpses to their raw materials. Those materials were then loaded into Iotian Java-class freighters for transport to niche pharma companies. Solarian had been hired to escort the next convoy and to defend the system from raiders. To do so they'd arranged regular patrols. Patrols that were both predictable and easily ambushed.

The Obsidian dropped in on the two Barracuda-class scouts at the outer ranges of the unstable system.

"Let them do it," Forger advised Miller, who already had shields raised and the weapons armed. The ship shuddered from a phaser crossfire .

"Now, Aglaia! Break!" Forger lurched forward in her seat. Alone in the forefront before the center seats, Aglaia ran her hands across her LCARS based control interfaces and the ship made instant maneuvers that stressed the inertial dampers and structural integrity fields even as the artificial gravity wavered.

"Cut this shit out!" Parva snapped from Engineering.

"Not now," Forger chided her. Aglaia was well aware that all of the Obsidian's weapons were forward facing. their ventral and dorsal phaser strips were only mounte d on the primary hull. as well as thei r two forward facing photon torpedo launchers but they had no aft launder. Aglaia loved flying the nimble Nova-class starship and its additional ability for atmospheric maneuvering but the minimal defensive capabilities could drive her batty. keeping not one but both escorts in front of the Obsidian so Miller could have an unobstructed way of fighting back was essential and Aglaia was happy to have the challenge.

"Tough little bastards, aren't they," Jones asked from the XO's seat.

"One of the toughest Starfleet ever built. Only the Defiant- and the new Inquiry-classes outmatch them for size and firepower," Forger advised her.

"Still, notice their shield overlaps," Jones pointed out, "It creates stress points where the projectors aren't compeltely harmonized."

"Jaycee!" Forger yelled out.

"On it!" Miller shouted back as she reprioritized her targeting.

"Good call," Forger congratulated Jones.

"This is hardly my first rodeo," Jones grinned.

The Shogun-class Spearhead was a more advanced rival to the Sparta-class she was facing. Pryce knew the difference would lie less in their technological differences and more in their commanders and crews. Pryce had absolute confidence in his crew, he just doubted himself regarding this action. Usually he faced simple raiders and makeshift pirate vessels as well as armed merchant ships. Most of the conflicts he'd been sent in recently to settle involved cultures that had just developed warp capability. So even a 23rd and early 24th Century model starship could easily overwhelm a small armada of ships not far beyond Earth's warp capable Delta Wing and other 22nd Century starships.

Earth Starfleet had beaten the Romulans into a stalemate but at the end they were also receiving assistance from the Vulcans, Tellarites and Andorians. Even the Rigellians were helping the back end logistics of the war. Pryce had served as an XO aboard a Cheyenne-class starship as a Lt. Commander before exiting Starfleet. But he'd adapted to his less capable Outbound Ventures command but his skills and tactics would be severely tested today.

"Glazer, keep us on their six," Pryce ordered Merrick Glazer, his Chief CONN Officer and then began issuing orders to Tiffany Chase, his Tactical Chief, "Fire as soon as a target presents itself. We're aiming to disable, not destroy."

"Aye, Captain," they both said.

"Gerrit, see about scrambling their systems," he instructed Paul Gerrit, the resident OPS genius.

"Dr. Collins, be prepared for casualties," he needlessly warned Siobhan Collins, their resident CMO from Ulster.

His Chief Engineer, Walter Franklin, had already braced his crew for what was coming. The ship shuddered from energy strikes and EPS conduits sparked as overloads surged through system and the Spearhead crew were officially in the fight now, having met the legalese oblige.

Despite her earlier bravado, Gardner was apprehensive about engaging multiple starship alone. But Forger's raw courage and tenacity inspired her. Forger's personal story did as well. Even in a culture as socially advanced as the Federation, finding the courage to transition to one's true gender was still an act of lifelong bravery. Their were still Federation member worlds and older colonial holdings that viewed Forger's femininity as "fake" or even an apostasy.

Gardner herself had fought for recognition of her skills and talents her entire life. Gardner's Starfleet career had ended badly for her. Being assigned to starship duty had been a often delayed dream. Once finally posted aboard the USS Lakota, she finally had her dream assignment under Captain Erica Benteen. But Benteen famously fired on the USS Defiant following the orders of a renegade admiral. Benteen came to the realization her orders were illegal and ceased following them but Gardner had advocated her to continue following said orders...on record. So Benteen was permanently busted back to Commander but eventually rose to command DS4.

Gardner's career stilted after her assignment aboard the ill-fated Lakota. She remained on staff when Benteen was transferred but the new CO took a dim view of Gardner's previous assertions that Benteen should unquestioningly have followed orders until they were fulfilled. The Board of Inquiry convened after the Lakota-Defiant incident cleared her of facing charges since she was relatively new starship command officer but the stigma effectively ended her ability achieve a command of her own.

Learning Outbound Ventures expansion and seeking to assign captains to recommissioned Starfleet vessels, Gardner resigned her commission and parlayed her status as ship's 2nd Officer into a command slot with the security contractor. Her years as an officer aboard an Excelsior-class starship, no matter how upgraded, served Gardner well as she assumed command of the Lancelot-class Guinevere. Gardner's own given name an Anglicization of the ship's name.

The ship shuddered as the shields dealt with the crossfire streaming at them, Slutskaya began issuing orders, "Simmons, evasive action! Marks, you cleared engage. Rasputin, try break into OPS systems. Shut them down"

"Remember our goal is to cripple them, not kill them," Gardner mediated some of Slutskaya's fierceness. The Russian was a bit of an extremist, which was why her Starfleet career had ended early. Matt Simmons was an excellent pilot coming from a freighter owning dynasty. Illyana Rasputin was a technical wizard hired to man OPS right out of grad school because she was "bored with desk jobs". Colburn Marks was a former Martian colonist and member of its interceptor force before being recruited to Outbound Ventures and the Guinevere crew. After the Mars Massacre, he was a possessed man with a burning mission to right all wrongs. Paul Haggerty, her Chief Engineer, had promised both the ship and his team were ready for the fights they'd all be enduring. Tox, the Denobulan CMO, also vowed his personnel were prepped and ready for all challenges. Like James Harra on the Spearhead, that left Ekaterina Kozlova manning sensors looking any unexpected threats coming their way.

The final Sparta-class was confronted with the newer Sirius-class Dog Star. Yet of all commanding officers, Anyer Forgoen was the least confident in his ability overcome the enemy for many of the same reasons Pryce had nagging doubts. But Forgoen hadn't ever joined Starfleet. He had been an officer in a neutral world's defense forces. Defense forces that only dreamed of starships as advanced as the Dog Star. Jarro Wen, his XO, was highly confident though and steadied his nerves. She issued rapid fire orders to Elia, the CONN Officer, Sean Flaggerty at Tactical, and her fellow Bajoran at OPS, Neela Teska. Their Tellarite Chief Engineer, one blustery Beren kesh Mog, exuded confidence in his staff as did the CMO, Dr. Medea Vetras. Taking the first strike in order to relay the distress call and legally respond too deadly force nearly frayed Forgoen's last nerve but Jarro got him through it. Their success, if they had it, would be to her credit. Failure would be to his and he knew it.

Lieutenant. Cesta Nara expertly placed the USS Hood in the Apollo-class' way as it moved to assist other Solarian starships. The shields withstood the opening attack and Lt. Commander Shwren ann'Wren, or simply Wren, opened fire with phasers and brace of torpedoes. Wren had once served beside Tom Riker aboard the USS Gandhi. Lieutenant JG Heron Gat managed OPS while Lt. Comamnder Harve Trennor ran Engineering. Dr. Elise Debois had Sickbay's staff prepped ready to respond. That left their CAG, Lt. Commander Verity Jones, directing Rebel Squadron from a separate station attached to the Bridge. All of the Hood's bridge crew were veterans of a few missions with Limerick in command.

Commander Sevil Havelick, the ship's XO, gently patrolled the bridge station's and offered advice when needed and encouragement when that was required. Limerick was confident the Solarian crew wouldn't know what hit them.

The twelve attack fighters split into six man wings and engaged the Emden-class escorts before they could respond to the Outbound Ventures threat or Starfleet's arrival. A design precursor to the feared Defiant-class, the Emden-class escorts had safeguarded larger starships throughout the Border Wars and the conflict with the Tzenkethi. Individually, no Peregrine-class fighter could disable a single escort. But grouped together, it was a fair fight. Especially under Jones' experienced guiding hand. Jones herself had been the squadron leader upon a time before being promoted to CAG. So her people knew she wouldn't throw their lives away.

Prine's XO was also the Merrimack's CONN/OPS Officer. So the onus of commanding the starship was entirely on him. But Prine had assumed command of the Springfield-class USS Argon as a battlefield promotion during the Dominion War. He was used to engaging equal to superior foes. He hardly considered the opposing Renaissance-class light cruiser to be equal or superior to his Defiant-class escort. But from the very beginning, the Solarian captain began to surprise him. As he began issuing a rapid sequence of rethought orders to Commander Kat Denning at CONN/OPS and Lieutenant Bim Rytyst at Tactical, Dr. Vicki Kilgrove and Lieutenant Bryce Tanner down in Engineering began feeding him dismal reports from the heavy fighting they were enduring despite Prine's initial expectations.

Hev engaged the other Renaissance-class light cruiser despite orders to stand down and return to Earth. Lt. Commander Annis Valyn manned Tactical and served as second-in-command. Ensign Jara Kim flew and managed the ship's system simultaneously at CONN/OPS. That left Ensigns Keeve Burien and Dr. Nicco Barra bitching at him. Neither were rated by Starfleet as being imminently qualified to be Chief Engineer and CMO respectively but Hev's flouting of BuPers' requirements of mixing crews had left Hev with limited Bajoran-only options. All the ensigns had come aboard to replace veteran officers who'd reccntly died under Hev's command. The rest of the crew were enlisted ratings only trained to do a single job. Even Nechayev, Hev's long-term protector, would look askance at what he'd created here after the action was finished. Assuming Hev's crew survived his increasing detachment with reality.

The Iotian Java-class freighters that were fully loaded departed the system sans escort rather than be boarded and searched by Starfleet or Outbound Ventures. The remaining Java-class freighters finished loading what they could also departed. Leaving the hunters, miners, and orbital factory workers to evacuate under cover of the combat distracting any form of law enforcement.

"Concentrate fire on the second scout," Forger ordered as her screen echoed Miller's sensor reading the its shields were buckling. Taking strikes from the other scoutship, Miller concentrated phaser fire with torpedo launches to overwhelm the ship's defenses. in desperation, they volleyed off several torpedoes in rapid succession.

"Evasive!" Jones ordered while Aglaia was subtly adjusting their course. The torpedoes barely missed as they went onward to batter the Barracuda-class firing on the aft quarter. Miller's next offensive wave crippled the stricken Barracudas' drive section. She lost main and auxiliary power and went nearly dead in space as her battery reserves kicked in to maintain basic systems support. Aglaia pushed the structural field to its rated capacity as augmented impulse thrusters with RCS burns to pull a "Crazy Ivan" to bring weapons to bear on the pursuing scout. They were caught nearly unawares. Miller fired a barrage torpedoes until the scoutship's shields collapsed. Then pinpoint phaser fire dealt with her drive and weapons systems.

"Parva, how long until we can bring shield strength back up?" Forger inquired.

"We're fighting major brush fires down here. It'll be ten minutes at least," the Orion reported.

"Stay on it and keep me informed," Forger requested.

"Status weapons?" Jones inquired.

"Phaser coils are overheated. It'll took the coolant systems a minute to catch up. But we're dangerously low on ordnance. Torpedo bay racks read a half dozen torps per magazine and that includes those locked in the tubes," Miller described their situation, "Shields are critically low with fifteen percent average per shield."

"What's the status on our friends?" Forger inquired of Zimbalist.

"The Guinevere could use some help," he told her.

"No rest for the wicked," Forger sighed, "Parva, we'll be undergoing some chop. You've been warned."

"I hate you," Parva sulked.

Pryce cursed as major overloads affected his ship-wide systems owing to the last torpedo strikes.

"Chase, hit them with everything we have!" he ordered, "Glazer, line up her shot."

"We'll be crosshaired," the CONN Officer warned.

"It'll be worth it," Kendell hoped.

Chase concentrated all fire from forward ventral and dorsal phaser banks and torpedo launcher to unleash a devastating blow against the opposing ship's forward shields. As Pryce had hoped, the commander of the Sparta-class starship presented his or her broadside in order to still utilize the ship's port side phaser bank. But that relieved the Spearhead from its torpedo launchers. As the light cruiser continued its turn, Glazer used thrusters to match its spin and Chase unleashed holy hell upon its broadside, collapsing its shields and heavily damaging its drive section. Yet another Solarian vessel lost main and auxiliary power in one fell swoop. Its emergency batteries were all that left to keep life support and basics running. Yet the spiteful commander wasted precious energy on one last phaser discharge before Chase targeted the port side phaser banks, blowing out a section of the primary hull along with them.

The Guinevere could hold her own and more against a single Sparta-class cruiser but two were proving too many for even Gardner's inspired command style. Main power was knocked out as the shields suffered overloads and the secondary emitters were also starting to be knocked out.

"Engineering, I need main power restored. Now!" Gardner warned Haggerty.

"We're doing what can," the wearied engineer promised. Gardner felt bad for him and worse for her that she was failing.

"Simmons, get to starboard side port cruiser," Slutskaya ordered, "Take pressure off from crossfire"

Gardner knew most Russians felt English was overloaded with useless connective words. But it had still taken getting used to from the provincial colonist that was a rare of example of one of her people leaving the colony to explore the greater galaxy.

"Marks, I'm reading shield fluctuations in the opposing cruiser as we change aspects. Feeding the data to you now," Kozlova advised him from sensors. The information flew to Tactical and Marks quickly adjusted his firing solutions. Simmons did an inspired job of keeping the enemy cruiser between them and the other opposition starship.

"I'm breaking in!" Rasputin shouted from OPS, "Attempting to override their defenses!"

"Their shields are deactivating!" Kozlova excitedly announced.

"On it!" Marks promised and barraged the target with phasers and photons. The unprotected vessel fell victim to his efforts. But, holding steady had weakened their posture against the Sparta-class rounding its sister ship. the deckplates heaved beneath them as a fresh barrage assaulted their systems.

"Shields down to twenty-four percent!" Marks warned.

"Captain! The Obsidian is targeting the enemy cruiser!" Kozlova happily announced.

"Bring us to bear and concentrate all fire on that ship!" Gardner yelled to Simmons.

"Will take beating," Slutskaya quietly warned her.

"We have to endure just a little longer," Gardner advised her. the Solarian commander surrendered after facing the dual barrage only losing main power but maintaining auxiliary.

"Inform them they're to lay down arms and prepare to be transported aboard our vessel under arrest by order of Starfleet," Gardner ordered Marks.

"Security to cargo bays," Slutskaya ordered, "Prepare for mass transport."

Forger contacted them and offered them Kovic's security team's assistance as they needed to pick up the crews from the crippled Barracuda-classes as well.

"We are so advised," Gardner almost laughed, "And we'll take all the help we can get."

For all of Forgoen's fretting, Jarro led an inspired campaign against the Solarian foe. The enemy commander sued for peace and gladly accepted the arrest terms and transport to the Outbound Ventures vessel.

"It's all good, Captain," Jarro promised Forgoen as she went to personally accept the Solarian surrender. Forgoen refused to leave the bridge.

The Apollo-class was a direct ancestor of the Nebula-class being a side development of the Ambassador-class just as the Nebulas were of the Galaxy-class starships like the USS Hood. As such, she put up a tremendous fight. As the Solarian force's flagship, she carried nearly a full crew complement. Which was rare amongst private contractors. Even rarer yet was possessing such a recently decommissioned, for the second time, ship class in private hands. Someone in officialdom liked Solarian.

Admiral Forger had warned Limerick of the upper echelons of Starfleet blocking Outbound Ventures' acquisition of such ships. Relatively forcing them to buy a small fleet of slightly older style vessels from the Iotians. Who were now potential adversaries of the Federation. Which, those same officials railed against despite their actions being a complicit precursor to the buy out.

Cesta's skills at CONN were a godsend and Gat's skills at OPS were inspired. Wren was efficiently dismantling the Apollo's defensive and weapons systems as well as threatening its drive section. Trenner was containing and repairing damages as fast as his crew could go. Dr. Dubois' staff was triaging cases and she and her medical partners were treating them on a case by case basis from the worst to the least wounded. One of Earth histories famed naval battles was between the hunter turned hunted pocket battleship Bismark chased down and destroyed by a squadron led by the HMS Hood.

Evidence discovered nearly a century later would reveal the Bismark was scuttled rather than destroyed by enemy guns. Nearly destroyed but not quite. Apparently the Solarian commander was under no such compulsion because he surrendered early into the engagement. Limerick would later learn Solarian's pride in possessing the heavy cruiser outweighed any potential inclination to see her heavily damaged or outright destroyed . Still, bringing her entire crew aboard and detaining them stretched the Hood's resources.

Rebel Squadron quite simply swarmed and overwhelmed the two Emden-classes. Still, they refused to surrender until they had literally lost everything including life support. Then they pleaded for assistance. Which the attack fighters weren't able to render. But rather than wait for the Hood to respond, the two commanders activated their self destruct charges, desperately trying to avenge themselves upon Rebel Squadron. Jones pulled her people from them in time to evade the destructive force of the explosions. But now the fighters had other concerns as Jones had time to recognize that a mass evacuation of the solar system was underway.

Prine led the Merrimack to victory but at great cost to the Solarian crew of a Renaissance-class light cruiser that was also an off-shoot of the Ambassador- and Apollo-classes. That crew, too, decided to scuttle rather than be taken. Prine had no idea what would drive such a decision when faced by Starfleet of all people. But Limerick swiftly alerted him to another, graver problem.

Like Prine, Hev committed to an all-out assault on the other Solarian Renaissance-class cruiser. But the Solarian wasn't even being given a chance to scuttle as Hev systematically destroyed the vessel. The Merrimack fired a pulse phaser shot across the Monitor's bow.

"Hev, the next salvo is aimed right at your aft quarter," Prine warned him.

"You haven't the balls," Hev snorted.

The warship shuddered under a pulse phaser barrage.

"Annis, break off. Plot a course out of this system and proceed at maximum warp," Hev ordered. The Monitor veered off from its attack and exited the system at Warp 9.65. Limerick ordered Prine not to prusue but to render humanitarian aid to their collected prisoners trapped aboard a dying starship. Prine readily complied.

The fleeing exodus of factory workers, hunter/killer and pirates found themselves under scrutiny as the Obsidian and Rebel Squadron moved to intercept the last of the fleeing xenocidal murderers.

At Macen's behest, the Obsidian pursued some of the last of the fleeing hunter/killers and factory workers. Miller only managed to disable two transport s by shearing off a warp nacelle off each craft. But they were left to await their fate as their fellows abandoned them at warp speeds and Macen turned the ship's attention the processing station situated between the binary gas giant pair. Binary stars were common enough and mounting exploration derived evidence demonstrated that binary brown dwarfs weren't as rare as originally estimated. The rest of the rogue planets were loosely held by the dwarves' combined gravity.

"We need aboard that station," Macen decided, "Get everybody to gear up. That includes Bailey and Angelique."

Telrik apologized when they arrived at the transporter room, "Sory t'bits, Commander. But they got transport inhibitors all over the place. That's why it took them s'lomg ta evacuate it seems."

"No worries, Telrik. Tracy, you and the Corsair are up,": Macen decided.

"Awl right!" Ebert enthused.

"I'll keep her safe and sane," Mudd promised as she followed the scampering Ebert.

"Think they'll booby trap the airlocks?" Rockford asked.

"I would and so would you," he smirked

"Fair enough," she grinned.

Kovic, Collins and the Obsidian's eight-man Security detachment beamed aboard the Guinevere. She'd taken aboard the surviving crews from two Sparta-class starships and detained them in cargo bays. The Dog Star and Spearhead also took on Sparta-serving officers and crewmen. They divided up the Barracuda- scoutship crews between themselves. The light cruisers, it was found, each had a dedicated military presence aboard. They were dispersed into holding cells rather than allow them to agitate and foment rebellions. Engineers arranged to strip the captured vessels of their precious photon torpedoes.

Limerick dispatched Security team aboard the Apollo-class cruiser. Wren personally oversaw the acquisition and disposition of prisoners. Which included a brief firefight with the military contractors placed with the Solarian crew. But mercs were poor substitutes for Starfleet veterans. While Wren mopped up operations and Hevelick beamed over with an OPS team to extract records from the computers, Limerick took time to check on Jones and Rebel Squadron's ongoing activities.

"That's it Rebel One, lock them down. Form up a system wide Combat Patrol and await further orders," Jones was instructing her squadron leader.

"Further developments?" he inquired.

"A whole lot of rats deserting a sinking rogue system's operations," Jones informed him, "We have a space station nearby and everyone seems to be clearing out before Macen's team can investigate it. What's strange is some of the departing ships were heavily reinforced for high g and sported harpoon launchers besides standard particle beam weapons."

"Hunters?" Limerick asked.

"Poachers are more likely given their need to run away and poach another day," Jones grimaced, "Anyway, the Obsidian managed to disable two transports. We bagged six and a hunting vessel. I'm guessing we're waiting on Macen's report before we proceed further."

"We can hold them on suspicion until then," Limerick agreed, "But we can't make lasting arrests until we know what they've been doing. But this is nominal Federation claimed space so we can hold them to the law."

"That's probably what they're afraid of," Jones added.

The Defiant-class Merrimack wasn't designed to transport a large of number of evacuees or prisoners and the ship was bursting with both. But the fight had been taken out of the Soalrian crew and their paramilitary fighters. Right now they were just grateful for the attention Dr. Killgrove and her medical staff as well the emergency kit blankets and rations provided. Still, Prine worried about Hev and the Bajoran's intentions while still commanding another Federation purpose-built warship.

Hev was contacted by Admiral Forger, "Captain Hev, you need to stand down."

"Not happening, Admiral," Hev warned her.

"Captain Limerick wants to convene a Board of Inquiry but I can deflect that if you go undercover for the SID. You'll officially be deserters with a stolen starship but Starfleet Intelligence and my branch will covertly inform interested Starfleet commanders to avoid detaining you and only making a show of trying to to stop as you carry out my orders," Forger told him, "And it's the only way your crew will remain together. You've violated more regs than I can can count and BuPers, IA and JAG each want a piece of you."

"I'll right. We'll play it your way. Where do we go first?" Hev cautiously agreed to the terms.

"Back to those Orions Macen met with before. You're about to become a crew of mercenaries operating on behalf of the Orion Syndicate," Forger told him, "You'll do whatever they tell you to."

"Even if goes against the law?" Hev asked.

"Especially of goes against the law," Forger advised him, "You need to build your bona fides."

"And if they order me to attack Starfleet vessels?" Hev smirked.

"Just leave them alive. Starfleet can worry about the repair bills," Forger instructed him.

"Then we're on our way," Hev grinned.

"This is a standard Pacifican meat packing station. They use these in orbit over Pacifica to process their catches of fish and especially their whale sized catches," Mudd explained.

"Why park it here?" Rockford asked.

"Some gas giants are known to have life forms in them," Parva informed her, "It isn't common but it does occur."

"Will there be a problem docking?" Macen inquired.

"They left the lights on," Ebert stated, "They're probably hoping to come back when the dust settles."

"So that's a 'no'?" Macen pressed further.

Ebert grinned, "It has standard Federation shuttle pads and docking collars. We'll slip right in and the station's automatic responses will take over as we land."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Rockford shared.

"I'll take care of whatever is waiting to greet us," Parva promised.

Like the Nor-class Serenity Station, the Pacifican processing station had landing pads that descended into an airlock docking area. The station itself was laid out like a city in space. It had a underlying connecting base with tower/cores jutting up from themselves a central spire/core housed operations and the commercial aspects of the station. Habitat cores arose around it. Two processing cores were extended away from the main station hub and contained the widest selection of docking ports for cargo transfers. The upper doors sealed and the umbilical stretched out to secure itself against the Corsair's hatch.

"Umbilical is sealed and we have a green light on outer atmo. Reads as classic Class-M oxygen-nitro mix. A little lower on the oxygen than Earth standards but breathable by all aboard," Ebert announced.

"Parva, the hatch is yours," Macen instructed as the team lined up to exit. Daggit finished loading the seven round chamber of his pump action photon grenade launcher. he safed it and slung it into the sheath on his back attached to the bandoleer he wore with grenades festooned across its front. Burrows was right behind him. He wore his katana on his back and both he and Daggit had Bajoran Militia issue phaser rifles poised and at the ready. Every member of the team wore a Militia issue phaser pistol and Macen and Rockford also uncharacteristically carried rifles.

Parva would carry an engineer's toolkit. Smith and Kerber would each ferry around a portable computer case. Mudd would serve as an ersatz guide since she was seemingly familiar with the station type. Tessa was along in case of medical emergencies and would carry her med kit rather than a phaser rifle. Shade, Lee, and Forte would also forgo rifles in favor of standard issue Militia tricorders and Militia Constabulary issued forensic tricorders.

Ebert was engaged in an argument with Macen, "What d'you mean I'm staying with the ship?"

"Someone left this station running for a reason. My guess is it has defenders. So if we need to retreat, we need this runabout secured and held for us. You're the pilot so you get to volunteer," Macen told her.

"Lucky me," she grumbled.

"You're not missing anything fun, I promise you," Macen tried to console her.

"Yeah, yeah," Ebert said dismissively and flopped down into her seat at CONN. Kerber and Smith uncharacteristically wore the team uniform. Smith added a beret to the mix. Mudd wore her usual ensemble of leather jacket, pants, boots, fingerless gloves, and this time, a sheer bra that left nothing unseen. But at least she carried a corporate Militia phaser pistol instead of her old Klingon disruptor.

Parva had opened the main hatch and halted, announcing the presence of motion detectors and other active sensors. Further tricorder scans revealed the presence of both photon and chemical-based explosive charges. She worked for several minutes defusing the explosives after deactivating the various sensors.

"All yours, boys," she stepped aside to allow her husband and Burrows to exit first. She followed closely behind with her tricorder running, "Approaching life signs."

"Their mistake," Daggit said darkly. Unlike contemporary Angosian Augments, Daggit had never undergone the treatment for his psychological combat conditioning. Since risk was literally his business he'd never found the need. But his relationship with Parva had broken down some of his induced walls, humanizing him.

"Contact!" Daggit yelled as he opened fire at the encroaching defenders. Burrows also opened fire as well. Parva put her tricorder away and drew her phaser pistol.

Lee, Shade, and Forte were right behind them and Lee also opened fire while the two women hunkered down to avoid being hit by particle beams. Mudd pressed herself against the hull. Smith and Kerber protected the computers while Macen and Rockford took aim with their rifles and waited for an open shot. Foot falls could be heard as the still standing defenders scampered away, seemingly unaware that their fallen comrades were merely stunned. However, Burrows had a nasty and painful disruptor burn on his upper arm that Tessa had to treat before they could move forward.

"Getting sloppy," Burrows said between clenched teeth as Tessa's dermal regenerator minimized the permanent damage. But the wound would still hurt for days to come. Tessa injected him, via hypospray, with a mild analgesic that would ease the pain somewhat without numbing his mind and dulling his reflexes. That had been at his personal request.

"You good?" Macen asked.

"Let me at them," Burrows grinned.

Parva had holstered her pistol and drawn out her tricorder again, "Life signs are distant now. But they're spread out across five decks."

"Have you located command and control?" Macen inquired.

"Sure, but it's the most heavily guarded," Parva shrugged.

"Find us a turbolift. Rab, whip up an explosive device with a timer," Macen requested.

"And after you've blow up the turbolift?" Rockford snickered.

"We find an alternative tpo seizing control of the station," Macen told her.

"I have an idea," Parva stated.

"I thought you might," Macen replied, echoing his hero during the Enterprise-B mission that had rudely yanked Macen from the Nexus.

But as the Last El-Aurian disciple of the Seekers of Truth, Macen was oddly grateful that Kirk had inspired Harriman to rescue those that he could from the transport ship Lakul despite everyone's misgivings at the time. Particularly his maternal great-uncle, Tolian Soran. who actually was younger than Macen himself. Such were the oddities of life when members of the Expeditionary Survey Corps were given aging process inhibitors to an already slowly aging race. Macen's family had a distinguished legacy serving the Survey Corps before the Borg assimilated the vast majority of his people and scattered the few survivors across the galaxy.

Macen had temporarily been the 2nd Officer aboard the Federation Whorfin-class SS Lakul as it, along with its sister ship the SS Robert Fox, transported his people to the Alpha Quadrant from the Beta Quadrant. Where they'd traveled to escape El-Auria and its colonies in the Delta Quadrant near the delineator between the Delta and Beta Quadrants. Though long suspected, Macen recently confirmed that his first wife, Arinea, had indeed been assimilated by the Borg. Guinan herself had witnessed her escape craft, with dozens of others aboard, had been tractored in by the Borg Tactical Cubes attacking El-Auria and its extra-solar system colonial holdings.

Macen had been aboard a different Survey Corps ship evacuating those he could. He'd felt their empathic link shatter after a burst of terror that almost crippled him. Her psychic scream still echoed in his mind. However, once upon a time, Arinea had escaped that fate despite her terror. So Macen could only presume she'd survived until recent testimony from Guinan cleared up all remaining doubts. Which was fortunate because he'd dreaded having to kill her again.

Kerber and Smith each had a plethora of throwing knives strapped across their bodies and each was equally and efficiently deadly at using them. With a slight edge tipped towards Smith despite her Stratosian heritage versus Kerber's Troglyte cultural identity. As they'd discovered on Izar, Smith had a royal temper she kept hidden most of the time behind her quiet, shy demeanor. But as Kerber warned afterwards, "Never piss off the Princess."

Both Kerber and Smith had displayed their amazing situational awareness and unnatural precision when throwing knives. Again, a demonstration occurred when would-be snipers tried to ambush the team with an intersecting field of fire. But as the snipers rolled into position on a second floor catwalk, Kerber and Smith shot them each in the face with their phasers. Although set to stun, a head shot was invariably lethal. Not even Daggit, Parva, Rockford, or Burrows managed to attempt to fire before the Ardanans reacted.

"That's not normal," Burrows commented. Whether in awe or in fear had yet to be determined.

"Did anyone else just piss themselves?" Mudd tried to make light of the situation.

"We should keep moving," Macen directed everyone to refocus them on the task at hand. The two Angosians had a great deal of experience with Augmented soldiers displaying feats such as that. But they were usually also the first to experience mental breakdowns because they couldn't turn it "off". Parva had also seen specialists of the sort during years of being trafficked as a sex worker by the Orion Syndicate. The Maquis had also had their fair share of hypervigilant but unbalanced fighters. But he knew Kerber and Smith better than they thought. He knew they could talk themselves down so they could relax when they weren't in combat. It was a malady most "freedom fighters" labeled "terrorists" suffered from.

Macen himself had forced himself to change and dull that constant need to be ever vigilant. But the Ardanans' reflexes were astounding even to a group such as this. Life in the mine tunnels of Ardana IV readily reflected the infamous words of Thomas Hobbes when he wrote, "Life is brutish, nasty, and short." As Anara and Maarta, the pair had fought and killed almost more times than anyone would truly ever know about.

The people they'd fought for were the ones to betray and castigate them with a death warrant. Still, Kerber still openly showed her clan tattoo that spread across her left shoulder and down her arm when aboard the Obsidian. As the legitimate heir to the leadership of the ruling sky city of Stratos, Smith had sacrificed the very comfortable life path that had been chosen for her so she could defend Troglyte freedoms. Now the pair were fugitives. So they each had a few anger issues to resolve. Few off-worlders understood the significance of Kerber's tattoo or Smith's sometimes indifferent attitude inbred into her as a child.

Both had needed a cause to fight for to continue in life after fleeing Ardana IV. Macen provided that outlet although few were in on that secret or that life path. As newfound disciples of the way fo the Seekers of Truth, they were in a cabal only joined by Rockford and Macen himself as he taught them the ancient philosophical ways and how they'd caused to take up the Federation's defense and to aspire to positively benefit that adopted society.

He additionally taught them of worlds, their histories and cultures and sciences even the USS Voyager and the USS Defiant had never reached despite their journeys into the Delta and Gamma Quadrants. In the past and recently revived Age of Exploration, the USS Enterprise-D and "Big E" had come the closest to reaching the former El-Aurian outposts.

The El-Aurians in their prime had established a network of trading partners and allies rivaling the Federation in its intent but was less intrusive into the network's daily lives and social evolution. Except for the Seekers of Truth who saw themselves as the unofficial guardians of all that was and could be. For the three women, it was the cause they'd been searching for to replace the ones they'd lost. At Rockford's behest, Macen was gently probing his personal friends and comrades in arms to test out their willingness and suitability to join up as well. His skills as a Listener proved invaluable. so he was convinced that others were primed to join in as well for the common cause.

"More life signs are moving to intercept us," Parva warned them in a whisper. Daggit held up a fist and everyone sought cover.

Except for Mudd, "What the futz?"

Forte dragged her to a shielded position with her.

"Thanks, kid," Mudd whispered to her.

Forte rolled her eyes since she was even older than Macen. Doctor Leonard McCoy had altered the negative consequences of the longevity experiments her people had done to themselves through retro-viral transmission. Every adult died but every prepubescent child was nearly immortal now but they mutated when puberty changed them bio-physically into adults. Now those children scattered across a desolate globe were learning how to survive in the Federation. An exceptionally gifted problem solver, Forte had been bored until Rockford took her in as a fully fledged private investigator. Now she had the life of daily challenges she'd always dreamed of.

Rockford kept her busy between contracted assignments by solving cold case files the law enforcement agencies from across several stellar nations brought in. Forte had always deduced the events of the crime and provided evidentiary proof to confirm it. So her reputation expanded as did the Rockford Detective Agencies' clientele.

The next wave of attackers weren't average criminals. They were highly trained and motivated Solarian mercenaries. So much so, they effectively pinned the team down wile to create an enfilade by having mercs approach from the catwalks and from behind.

The Solarian agents' ablative vests and helmet absorbed phaser strikes at a cost. the armor broke apart layer by layer but it would require a steady, sustained stream to stun someone. Daggit and Parva immediately increased the particle beam setting to "lethal" and Daggit pulled his grenade launcher free and fired off his first photon grenade. The resultant blast hurled energy and shrapnel from the force of the matter-antimatter annihilation he aimed at a support strut. Burrows and Parva began picking off Solarian troops and they had to lower their visors to absorb and deflect the particle beam strikes.

In the rear, Macen and Rockford dealt with the oncoming Solarians. Forte led Shade, Lee, and Mudd in firing at would be snipers across from them on the upper catwalks. Kerber and Smith repeated the exercise towards the opposite catwalk.

"This is fun," Rockford complained.

"These aren't poachers," Macen conceded, "What is so important that the Orion Syndicate would hire mercs to guard it?"

"Something that makes a helluva lotta money," Rockford replied as she applied head shots at lethal force against the Solarian troops. Their visors were almost universally gone and now they sought cover.

"Cover!" Daggit yelled as he snapped off two grenades at their opponents before returning attention to those harrying Burrows and Parva. The detonations flushed out several surviving Solarians and Macen and Rockford systematically forced them to retreat. The Solarians fighting Parva, Daggit, and Burrows also withdrew. The attacks from the catwalks had been stymied and the two or three survivors quickly withdrew.

"I'd say we we're onto something," Parva loudly announced.

"Everyone exchange your power cells for fresh ones regardless of how much energy you actually expended," Macen ordered. Daggit fed grenades into the launcher and racked the pump slide and loaded one last grenade in now that he had one in the chamber and had room for the extra.

"I'm reading a lot of EPS conduits feeding an off site on this level rather than strictly devoted to the Ops Center five levels above us," Parva explained, "They're reinforcing this secondary site and abandoning the principal control center."

"Find us a way there," Macen urged.

"There appears to be an emergency lift to Ops," Parva explained, "It seems to be large enough to take us all in two trips."

"You'll take Rab, Tony, and the Detective Squad up first. Secure the center and after we come up, disable the lift," Macen instructed.

"Got it," Parva nodded, "Everyone, follow me!"

They made it to the hatch that led into a basic platform with handrails that would rise up a shaft directly to the Ops Center.

"You're sure about this?" Burrows asked.

"We can hold," Smith said defiantly, "You just worry about your targets."

Which was more than anything Smith said publicly in a normal day.

"Why am I being left behind?" Mudd sharply inquired.

"You're one person too many for the lift and you're a survivor. You'll take care of yourself," Rockford told her the reasoning.

"I am sooo billing you two for hazard pay," Mudd warned them.

"Duly noted," Macen replied as they prepared for an imminent Solarian attack. The sound of boots on metal came from every direction except for behind them.

"You take high and we'll take low," Macen advised the Ardanans as he and Rockford took a knee before them. Mudd and Tessa impatiently waited for the lift return.

The lift's arrival in Ops went unheralded. But four Solarian security asgents were present and seemed to come out of their fugue state as Daggit picked off two in rapid succession. Parva dealt with another as Burrows finished the job. The two remaining people still standing were techs overseeing station operations in the absence of a crew. Lee placed binders in their wrists while Shade puked and Forte began examining the systems.

"Damn data logs are encrypted," Shade huffed after finishing with dry heaves after expelling her lunch.

"Arianna?" Lee asked the protege.

"It'll take too much time. Angelique and Bailey are the talents here," Forte gave a frustrated reply.

"I've already sent the lift down," Parva was quickly activating the station's systems and scrolling through schematics, "What the hell?"

"Have something?" Lee inquired.

Daggit and Burrows had already sent the lift down and were poised to repel any attackers that rode up in it.

"They're hunting something bigger than the leviathans on Pacifica," Parva showed him the specs for the processing units, "Then they strip the carcasses down into component parts."

"Seems to be adjusted for different species," Lee noted.

"One for each brown dwarf?" Parva wondered aloud.

"That works," Lee agreed.

"But why all the secrecy and why a mass migration when Starfleet entered the system?" Parva asked.

"We're waiting on those answers," Lee sighed.

Macen's grouping exchanged heavy phaser fire with the Solarian mercenaries before the mercs withdrew and the lift returned. As the lift rose, everyone but Mudd ejected nearly spent power cells from their phasers and replaced them with fully charged ones. Happily, they were greeted by the very vigilant Daggit and Burrows upon their arrival. Parva quickly filled in Kerber and Smith who sat up their individual computers and manually plugged them into the computer's ODN I/O jacks.

Daggit saw the lift descending and emptied his grenade launcher into the lift itself, the mag rails that suspended it, and the maintenance ladder beside it. Burrows attached the last of the explosive charges to the maintenance hatch. Daggit destroyed the turbolift's access ladders as well as the lower level entryways. he loaded the last seven grenades into his launcher and pump actioned the first round into the chamber before sheathing the launcher again.

"Now we might stand a chance of holding" he stated.

"They're trying to override the systems controls from the auxiliary station in the lower core," Kerber warned.

"They're attempting to keep us from destroying the outer processing towers," Parva clarified.

"What's so damn important about them anyway?" Mudd was clearly agitated by recent events.

"Everything," Smith said quietly, "I unlocked their encryption. Throwing the data to all the monitors and making backups."

"I've locked Solarian out of the auxiliary stations. But they've got someone good on their side. It'll be a running battle. And external and internal comms are still jammed," Kerber announced.

"What about internal sensors?" Macen inquired.

"Tracy?" Rockford caught on.

"The's gone!" Parva was horrified.

"How?" Macen asked sharply.

Ten minutes ago....

Ebert detached from the umbilical and made certain the pad was raised again so she could initiate launch at a moment's notice. All systems were active and the pad began to descend. Ebert fired the runabout's RCS thrusters to gain distance from the station and then orbited it trying, withing mounting frustration, to hail the Investigative Team or the Obsidian and finding comms were jammed. Rather than leave the jamming field, Ebert decided to knock out the station's comm array. But first she had to isolate it. Which took an embarrassingly long time to achieve. Then she moved into position, locked phasers, and fired thereby destroying the comm array.

"Is that the Corsair?" Burrows asked, looking out the main viewing window. Ops shuddered as explosion ripped away the comm array.

Macen's comm badge chirped from his belt and he tapped it, "Macen here."

"Commander! Thank God! I was cut off and had no idea if you guys were okay," Ebert told him.

"We're fine," Macen promised.

"Speak for yourself!" Mudd yelled for the comm badge to pick up.

"We've got further company," Rockford nodded at the window as the Obsidian came above the Corsair.

"Captain Forger wants a word," Ebert confessed.

"Patch her through but stay on comms since this will affect you as well," Macen guessed.

"Commander, are you and your team all right?" an increasingly frantic Forger demanded ot know.

"We're fine, Shannon," Macen promised, "But we'll need more time here."

"Captain Limerick has recovered all the ship's personnel including those that were blocked from evacuating the system," Forger informed him. The Merrimack is requesting to have our people escort his ship to the nearest Starbase."

"Make it so," Macen chuckled.

"Not even funny," Forger chided him, "But I'll pass the word. We can recover the Corsair as well."

"Hear that, Tracy?" Macen asked.

"Surely did," Ebert piped up.

"How long will you need?" Forger wondered what to tell Limerick.

"I have no idea at this point," Macen sighed.

The mounting horror of discovering the atrocities that had been committed by the poachers became an accrued list of murder charges and other Prime Directive related crimes. The sentient gas swimmers within the brown dwarves' atmospheres were intelligent, a Starfleet survey had concluded decades ago but they were inherently a pre-warp culture. So interaction with them was strictly forbidden. The Orion Syndicate had paid to have those survey reports buried amongst bureaucratic minutia. Therefore effectively "lost".

Only the intense scrutiny applied by Rockford and her team unearthed the reports, thereby explaining the need to secure the planets and the processing station from intrusion. More embarrassing, the client lists were a who's who of Federation elites. Before the debunking of a great deal of ancient medicinal practices, Earth cultures had subscribed to the slaughter and processing of rare species to "enhance" their health, longevity, or sexual prowess. So the case was here too. The list of middlemen also stretched on across the quadrants.

Using the mounting evidence, Lt. Commander Wren was able to elicit confessions from several poachers and factory workers aboard the USS Hood. Limerick's Security details, stretched beyond imagination, he left the investigative work to the SID. After the complete data logs of the station were copied over to the portable computers. Further investigations would be conducted aboard the Obsidian. The station's systems were shut down and the hatch's sealed. With the transport inhibitors offline, Telrik easily recovered the team.

Macen paid a courtesy call upon the bridge where Jones was overseeing matters. Forger awaited him in her Ready Room, "The personnel you fought aboard the station are suing for peace."

"Not surprising since we also shut off life support," Macen shrugged. Red alert klaxons began to resound.

"Joelle, what the hell?" Forger asked.

"We have an Andromeda- and Merced-class dropping out of warp in close proximity and making a high impulse run by us," Jones explained, "We've raised shields and moved off from the station to enhance our maneuverability."

"That's what they want!" Macen realized too late.

"They want the Solarian personnel," Forger immediately grasped it, "And we can't beam them aboard without lowering our shields."

Forger and Macen rushed out of the Ready Room, "Further status?"

"The Merced-class is advancing on us. The Andromeda-class has engaged the Hood," Jones explained. A few phaser strikes tested the Obsidian's shields but nothing lasting.

"Transporters have retrieved the personnel from the station," Zimbalist announced.

"And they're going to warp," Miller grumbled.

"The Andromeda- has broken off from their attack and have also left the system at high warp," Zimbalist further reported.

"They'll be back to retrieve their assets and we can't stay on station indefinitely with all of the prisoners loaded aboard the Hood," Macen predicted.

"Starfleet better get some ships here ASAP," Forger kibutzed.

"Incoming message from Captain Limerick," Zimbalist hated to announce.

"On screen," Forger sighed.

"Starfleet Command has ordered us to withdraw," Limerick informed them, "The orders were relayed through Admiral Forger but did not originate with her."

"We'll beam one of pur portable copies of the data we retrieved so you can deliver it to the SID and JAG. Federation Security has jurisdiction as well," Macen informed him, "Meanwhile, we have a play date at Cillius IV"

"Again?" Limerick smirked.

"I need a few things clarified," Macen replied.

"Understood," Limerick ended the transmission.

"Transporter Room, standby to receive," Limerick told the Chief in residence.

The Obsidian made good time to the Cillius system. Macen and Rockford were refused access to Cillius IV. Naveera also refused a comm audience and left matters to her proxy, Verant.

"Why destroy a profitable operation like the one in the Jenetour system?" Macen bluntly asked.

"That wasn't us," Verant smiled, "Oh, Solarian was a gift to their operation but they refused to pay fealty, or repay their loans, to the Syndicate. They chose the Iotians over us. So they paid with the loss of their livelihoods and the cost in lives."

Verant smiled smugly, "And you still owe me that favor."

"I honor my bargains," Macen pledged despite not wishing to given the subterfuge.

"I know. That's why we continue to do business with you," Verant ended the transmission.

"I hate him," Rockford confessed.

"So do I," Macen agreed, "Which didn't take long."

Nechayev entered Clancy's offices again without porior permission, "Dammit, Alynna! Do I have change the locks?"

"I'll still override them," Nechayev shrugged.

"I suppose there's a damn good reason for this intrusion?" Clancy was impatient to get the inevitable over with.

"You let Solarian recover their starships in the Jenetour system despite having assets at DS10 that could have prevented that."

"Waste of our time," Clancy snorted, "We're up to our eyeballs in Alliance troubles. Or have you simp;y been too distracted by petty criminals to notice?"

"Or, you're playing favorites again," Nechayev accused.

"Suggest that again and I'll have you busted back to ensign," Clancy warned

"Heavy sits the crown, Kirsten. Watch yourself," Nechayev stormed out.

"Was that a frinxing threat?" Clancy barked back at her departing back.


Chapter Four

Seven days later....

Riker studied the report Rockford's team had made. Macen and the Data Team had conducted a side investigation echoing their own. Both sides concluded that Solarian Security Systems was far larger in fact than it was on the official licensing and accounting books.

"And the reason to be so covert is to insure their illegal operations go unnoticed," Riker drew a similar conclusion. The assemblage included Riker, Danan, Forger, Rockford, and Macen himself.

"Chris Pike has everyone scattered across dozens of solar systems," Danan acknowledged.

"But, there's still us, the Indie, and the Solstice," Macen reminded her.

"You want to prove Solarian is dirty," Forger realized.

"We did it before," Riker recalled.

"Except this time there's no Hannah Grace willing to ram our ship into a city-wide wall and then use our outrider to ram a building," Forger warned Macen, "I won't give those commands and Aglaia won't follow them anyway."

"This is all before my time," Rockford admitted.

"Better for you," Danan shuddered.

"Rab and Parva were there," Forger told Rockford, "But Parva's memory is probably pretty spotty"

"Tessa would remember," Macen mused.

"I wonder if she still has nightmares," Danan admitted.

"There's no USS Intrepid to assist us this time," Riker made his observation.

"Naveera and Verant were able to redirect Solarian to the Jenetour system within hours of calling for them," Rockford remembered, "That implies a base nearby."

"Something else off the books," Macen grinned.

"Starfleet JAG subpoenaed all of Solarian's official work records and corporate holdings declarations. Those two ships weren't listed among them," Rockford continued to search her memory of recent reports the SID had forwarded to them.

"Starfleet Security also reported that the 'security' teams of trained mercenaries were largely composed of ex-Starfleet enlisted Security officers were not on the official payroll or employee ledgers," Macen added.

"If they are working clandestine deals and reinvesting the money into their operations, they could have built up considerable resources by now," Riker considered.

"And the Orions don't causally hand out contracts to known Starfleet associates," Rockford reminded them all of the nature of Solarians' public venture in Jenetour.

"Which is hurting our own accessibility to them," Macen said softly.

"Your deal with Naveera and Verant will go a long way to rectifying that," Danan promised.

"I took at the inventories of the Starfleet Starship Depots and hundreds of ships are missing from a recent inventory assessment," Forger unhappily reported, "That's what they get from hiring Iotian subcontractors."

"Starfleet saw the vessels they wanted for the war were still available for recommissioning so they ignored the losses," Riker assessed.

"To their own detriment," Danan concurred.

"Yet the border patrols and sensor and jamming buoys would've detected them bringing former ships of the line across the border so they wisely avoided doing so and sent cold, hard currency across instead," Rockford had double checked Starfleet's incident reports from the borders around the Iotian Federation's claimed territories.

"Currency they expended building a new fleet with the Indendents' help," Macen knew the irony because he'd made a massive purchase of twenty newly constructed starships from the Iotian Starfleet.

"The Indomitable can hold its own against a Merced-class, but an Andromeda-class is iffy. She's a ship of the line from the same era," Riker expressed a doubt.

"And the Solstice, though the Blackbird-class is plucky enough, would also face a giant," Forger concurred with Riker's worries.

"Remind me to tell you of a wee man named David," Macen grinned, "And we don't have to fight them. We just have to distract them and get passed them to reach whatever headquarters they've fashioned for themselves."

"We can't go in blind this time," Riker counseled, "We need to know what they have to throw at us."

"Ro is working that angle even now," Rockford smirked.

"You mean she's working Quark," Danan snickered.

"He'll love every minute of it," Riker grinned.

"But what Alfonso Reyes? Wasn't she seeing him?" Forger asked.

"He's already taken," Danan regretfully told her.

"Now we can bring everyone else in on it," Macen decided.

"I agree," Riker stated, "Chris Noble and the Solstice crew have to have the ability to turn this down if they want to."

"They won't" Forger predicted, "Solarian attacked us and brought the fight to our doorstep."

"Even if DeVos and Bannon took the fall," Danan summarized.

A chime rang and Riker swore, "Damn. We have a staff meeting scheduled now so Lees and I need the briefing room cleared."

"No worries," Forger promised.

Returning to his corporate office, Macen found Neela awaiting him inside of it.

"Bryce didn't tell me you were in," Macen sounded disappointed.

"She didn't know. She was out when I arrived," Neela informed him.

"The doors were locked then," Macen gave her an intent stare.

Neela simply shrugged, "I have word from the Prophets."

"And?" Macen was slightly exasperated.

"You must defeat the Solarian Security Systems threat. In another universe they become a challenge to Federation security. And even threaten Bajor itself," Neela explained, "That can't be allowed ot happen here."

"It's nice to see the Prophets still have their priority set on Bajor. And this universe," Macen remarked.

"There is a far greater threat coming," Neela warned him, "One that will be provoked by both Bajor and the Dominion. It will be a battle over the Prophets as both their children fight."

"Both?" Macen was surprised.

"The Bajorans currently of Bajor and the Bajora of the Ascendency. Both have embraced the Prophets' love. Both believe they are the only pure faith," Neela sadly explained, "Each has received the Prophets' wisdom and guidance in different ways."

"A religious war. Great," Macen grumbled.

"This is why Colonel Ro and Commander Vaughn were chosen," Neela finally revealed, "And for this task, you are also necessary. You are less...."

"But I must become more," Macen finished the Prophets' declaration for her, "So I've been told. Twice before."

"The soul of the Federation cannot be healed until the hearts and souls of the Prophets' children are first united," Neela proclaimed.

"So this is the ultimate task we were chosen for?" Macen inquired.

Neela wore a sly smile, "Commander, they're all ultimate tasks. This directly affects Bajor in the immediate now. Just as the Alliance threat does. So they are merely the first tasks that need ot be addressed."

"Is it any wonder I'm beginning to hate the Prophets?" Macen sighed.

"But they still love you," Neela smiled beatifically.

"Shoo now. Find Captain Noble and tell her we need her crew assembled in the briefing theater in thirty minutes," Macen instructed. Neela departed before he went to prep the large briefing theater that could hold up to fifty people. It was intended for mass briefings of the various starship captains and their execs. Outbound Ventures had always planned for their eventual expansion to their current size. The Iotians just provided a means to do so all at once in the face of Starfleet's intransigence.

As Macen left his office, Fanning intercepted him, "Captain Riker wanted me to inform you that Captain Wei and the Waylaid just made port."

"Have her and her Exec join us in the Briefing Theater," Macen requested.

"Will do," Fanning happily replied.

Captain Wei Ziya and her XO, Xian Manhh, of the Waylaid arrived as requested. It was just freak coincidence that most of her Senior Staff was of Vietnamese descent and it was no accident most of them were related considering the entire crew came from the multi-ethnic Asian populated colony of New Malaysia. Noble brought along her Exec, Aric Tulley. Tulley was still grateful to be called into service after his falling out with Ro and Macen that ended up in his incarceration on a penal colony for several years. But, the time of reflection and later years of isolation on Izar had taught Tulley the vestiges of extremism and hate had to be purged so that he could live again. Unlike Wei and Manhh, the entire command crew of the Solstice knew the secret held by Macen, Forger, Rikwer, and their teams.

On Riker's part, only Korapenova and Liu were in on his and Danan's mutual origin story. An origin shared by a select few through the SID and Starfleet...and now the Bajoran Militia. If anyone found Liu's habit of bleaching her raven hair blonde or Forte's pink locks were odd, Manhh's bright pink hair would have just unsettled them even further. Most of the Waylaid officers and chiefs were under thirty with many crewwomen still being in their teens. Most had dropped their family names and used their second names as their "family" name now. Captain Wei was the "old woman" of the crew at the age of 38. Meanwhile, Manhh was only 24. the average of age of the officer and noncom corps being 23. But, elements of Macen and Rockford's presentation would have to edited out because of Wei and Manhh's presence. With everyone assembled, they began.

Riker actually began the brief, "Thank you all for coming and the roles you played in defending this station. Wei and Manhh looked embarrassed.

"We all know that some of you were off on assignment and couldn't add to Serenity's defense. We also realize that you future participation in this project is completely voluntary," Riker added. the crews rotating between assignments had seen the damaged portion of Serenity's docking ring as well as other exterior damages under repair. the Copernicus was still undergoing repairs to her drive section. the Indie and Solstice were also undergoing minor repairs in comparison. Those repairs were wrapping up today.

The Dog Star, Guinevere, and Spearhead were also undergoing moderate to major repairs. Only the Lug Nut, of all the regular SID starships had escaped anything except for the barest of battle damage. The Obsidian herself had done some yard time. The SID contractors were returning to the field as the ships were cleared to depart. The twenty newest crews and ships were undertaking peacekeeping missions on behalf of the SID but weren't cleared for sensitive matters yet. Those that weren't were contracted out on behalf of the Orion Syndicate as Macen and Rockford had pledged. The Obsidian's new XO was only cleared because Macen vouched for her and like all the Maquis he'd recruited, he let her in on the truth of current matters. Even Sekona and Hakatay were aware of the "reality" of the situation. Making conversations between old friends far less awkward then they would have been otherwise.

Others, like Kort and Radil, were left out. The sight of the Klingon and Bajoran in a happily stable relationship raising their daughter together was too precious to jeopardize. It was a debate facing members of the USS Intrepid crew as well. Captain James McKinley wanted to bring Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli, the Staff Intelligence Officer, into the fold as Lt. Commander Ian Delaney had Hannah Grace, the ship's fighter wing squadron leader. Grace was also Delaney's wife. The Chief Engineer, Robert Caplan, didn't know how long he could evade his deputy's increasingly probing questions. Lieutenant Emily Johnson deserved better in his opinion. Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson, Commander Jonathan Striker, and Commander Andreja Sikorsky felt otherwise. As XO and CMO, respectively, Striker and Sikorsky carried a great deal influence over McKinley, Caplan, Delaney, Grace, Elizabeth "Liz" Liefers, and Alessandro Pedrossi, the others burdened with keeping the secret. Johnson, Forger, and Nechayev ordering them to remain silent. However, Macen and Rockford were under no such compulsion owing to their status as private contractors.

Commander Vaughn was also directed to remain silent. Colonel Ro did so on her own volition. Dr. Bashir and Lt. Commander Douglas had deduced the nature of what was being hidden and after personally gauging certain members of the secretive society, pledged their silence in overt support of the group's goals. Neela had confided in Colonel Anara of the Bajoran Militia. The pair had served together in Bajoran Resistance cells, been recruited into the Bajoran Militia, served aboard DS9, and fought in the Dominion War together. Consequently, Anara had believed Neela to be dead for the past decade and Neela felt the need to disabuse her of that notion. Of course, all of Bajor knew about Neela's "miraculous resurrection" now. The reason behind her accepting Macen's offer to join Serenity's maintenance crew and as CONN Officer aboard the Solstice. Of all the SID cleared vessels, the Indomitable and Solstice rarely deployed after the first few hectic months of Outbound Ventures securing the SID contract with Starfleet. While Macen trusted Riker and his crew, Noble and her crew, and of course Captain Forger and her crew with his and his team's lives, Captain Wei and her crew were a new variable to consider.

And their Asia-class (refit) starship was an older model than the other three ships combined. It still employed the duotronic technology that the isolinear systems in the other vessels had replaced. Only four of the original Asia-class vessels had undergone the then-test bed refit process. The Waylaid was the only surviving original hull rebuild of the starship class, although re-registered and the name changed. But the Iotians had revived the class but never deployed them until they delivered them to Outbound Ventures and select other clients.

"We're undertaking an investigation into Solarian Security Systems' illegal operations. We know they exist because two of their off the books starships engaged our and Starfleet vessels," Riker went on to explain, "So we know they have at least two covert starships and possibly more since the Iotian caretakers of the Starfleet Fleet Depots took the computer cores containing all of their transactions when they recently returned to Iotian space preceding their Starfleet's surge into Federation territory."

"The investigation is already underway," Riker informed everyone, "The question now is: how do we respond when the data is collected and analyzed?"

"Count us in for any support needed," Noble quickly volunteered. Wei and Manhh quickly conferred in hushed tones.

"We too will support our new comrades," Wei announced.

"Now you're cleared for the rest fo this briefing," Rockford announced as she took Riker's place at the podium, "Members of my agency are collecting information from sources across the known quadrants. That'll merely points us in the right direction. However we have assets in play infiltrating Solarian itself."

That created a stir as Macen stepped up and Rockford and Riker stood beside him, "After much conjecture, I assigned Sekona and Hakatay to the task of 'betraying' us hiring on with Solarian."

Macen studied his audience's reaction carefully as he proceeded, "Once we know where Solarian's still active and illegal hub is located, we'll deploy. However, We're hoping to avoid a direct confrontation. Rather the point is to support a data extraction team and extracting Hakatay and Sekona before Solarian discovers their true allegiance."

Macen laid out the data that led the upper management team to deduce that Solarian had a base in the Beta Quadrant that it kept secret from the Federation and Starfleet, despite the very real possibility that elements within Starfleet knew of its existence and tacitly supported it.

"Basically, the starships will run interference while Macen, Rockford, and their Investigative team deploy via runabout to infiltrate the Solarian base," Riker further detailed, "I have seniority so I'll be in command of our distraction unit."

Forger and Noble were hardly discomfited by that announcement. Wei settled after a brief word from Manhh. It struck the others odd that the captain with the least experience would be the one to register discomfort with Riker's leadership. Forger had served directly under Riker. Noble had been part of his planning commission when he went off to steal the USS Defiant. Despite the mission's costs, he'd shown the Cardassians a blatant violation of their own internal accords and he'd made the sacrifice of himself for his crew. No Maquis would ever doubt Tom Riker's resolve and courage under fire.

Wei had been chosen as captain of the Waylaid by the collective of women that owned her and served aboard her. Wei being one of the few former Starfleet officers aboard. the rest of the former Starfleet ranks were former enlisted ratings. But even Wei had been a junior officer when she resigned. She'd never commanded anything larger than a Type-6 shuttle craft before her departure from Starfleet. The bulk of her crew had worked aboard various freighters and merchantmen with their families

But being the second or later born daughters they'd never own or captain a ship of their own. They were basically chattel to be bought and sold to solidify trade alliances and secure routes and they wanted a better life. With the power of collective bargaining, they researched ships and crews that had gone before them in their intended career path as privateers. One of the more infamous crews had been the original Waylaid crew under Joelle Jones' command.

But the ship had been sold off and the crew dispersed across two quadrants. But Jones had still owned the ship's registry, which the collective purchased from her. Then they traveled ot the Starfleet Fleet Depot in Sector 04 and bargained for the last remaining Asia-class (refit). Rearming it using Iotian contractors and ordnance suppliers, the ship was re-registered and the Waylaid set sail once again. Kathy Tyrol, the corporate CEO, caught news of the ship and crew and watched as reports of their exploits came in. Finally, she offered them a position within Outbound Ventures. The corporate coffers purchased the starship at a 100% profit for the crew collective.

Not only did Outbound Ventures take over ownership, restocking, and repairs but they also offered the crew more advanced training in its operations. That training had been overseen by Riker and devised by Korepanova. Noble and the Solstice crew had taken part in the training exercises as well. So Wei and her crew were familiar with the former Maquis crew....and its one former Bajoran Resistance/Militia representative. Riker and the crew of the Indomitable had also played a large role in the training sessions playing OpFor against the two vessels. What Wei didn't want to be discovered was that she and her crew were frarkly terrified by Riker's skill and efficiency as an enemy combatant.

Macen resumed the briefing, "Through our good friend Colonel Ro, Sekona was reunited with Quark. He got her and Hakatay in touch with Solarian and they've been moved from location to location while their backgrounds have been thoroughly vetted. Sekona's principal role in the Volon III Maquis cell beside Cal Hudson has greatly influenced the decision making process regarding her. Hakatay's past as a Dorvan V cell leader has also appealed to the covert Solarian operations commanders and administrators."

"Added to their appeal is their access to us," Rockford informed the others, "They're being recruited to assassinate key members of the Outbound Ventures hierarchy, including Brin and I."

"Why this blood feud?" Wei inquired.

"We actually have no idea beyond the fact that the Starfleet Commander hinted to the Solarian CEO that if we could be pushed into instigating hostilities then Starfleet would shut us down and the SID contract would go to them and a few minor subcontractors. Given Captain Haggit's reports and her ship's recorders, the DeVos ships just preemptively attacked out of apparent frustration that their harassment wasn't working. DeVos and Bannon Security are both under considerable economic strain and the guaranteed retainer offered by Starfleet would've shore d up their financials," Macen explained.

"And the Copernicus represented a soft target," Riker grated.

"Which given the dated nature of the opposition's own starships and their desperation, made the Copernicus and the Lug Nut their preferred targets. Solarian was wise enough not take part in the provocation but waited it out until the shooting had begun to attack Serenity itself," Rockford replayed the event,. "All indications are that DeVos and Bannon were set to take a fall for Solarian and Solarian itself would harvest the Starfleet retainer and future contracts all for themselves."

"And these are the guys Starfleet Commander Clancy prefers over us?" Noble was indignant.

"She still views us as terrorists and criminals, Chris," Macen advised her, "That creates a very broad blind spot."

"Especially when on paper Solarian looks squeaky clean," Rockford put in.

"They've been operating a shadow economy," Macen explained before anyone could ask, "The covert side takes payment in the form of hard currency physically traded for services rendered. No banking institutions ever track the monies other than deposits and withdrawals physically made by shell corporations."

"They're tricks mastered by the Orion Syndicate and its competitors," Rockford revealed, "And worlds such as Barrinor protect clients' interests and privacy above all else. Therefore there's little accountability of where the funds come from or where they go."

"And even less cooperation in trying track such things," Macen added to the ongoing discussion, "Barrinor recognizes no judicial authority other than its own and the banking cartels notoriously own the courts."

"And the Federation has too many hard currency reserves on deposit to risk offending Barrinor's banking cartels," Riker said sourly.

"However, my agents have leveraged enough bankers to learn what we have so far. We at least have the beginning of a trail regarding the chain of shell corporations and subsidiaries," Rockford stated, "My people are still running down the links back to the official Solarian Security Systems corporation."

"So begins the paper trail, but getting inside will still provide the most damning evidence," Macen affirmed.

"But there must be more," Wei argued.

"The math is pretty simple," Rockford sighed, "As Outbound Ventures has increasingly withdrawn from the Syndicate's orbit, and others like them, we've opened business opportunities for Solarian to fill. If they could takeover our legitimate interests as well then Solarian would hold a veritable monopoly on private security contractors both within the legal and illegal boundaries."

"I see," Wei finally seemed contented.

"So this is our classic hit and run, snatch and grab," Noble assessed.

"Old school stuff," Riker grinned.

"This isn't revenge or even justice. It's simply about survival at this point," Macen informed everyone, "They hit us, we hit them back, and it just escalates from there. Unless we can find the legal means by which to shut them down and shutter their doors for good."

"Our casualties so far have been unusually light but it can only get worse," Riker told the assembly, "So we need to end this."

"Everyone with station duties will switch back to them until we get actionable intelligence," Macen stated, "Captain Wei, you and your people can check in with Kristine Liu or Lieutenant Pike for any short-term assignments you're eligible for."

"With all due respect to Captain Riker but my people would prefer active duties to station-side watch keeping," Wei replied.

"Then you know who to talk to," Riker replied.

Twelve days later....

Sekona had reported in from a location outside the Taurus Reach but within Federation claimed space en route to the Beta Quadrant bypassing the Gorn Hegemony and Metron territories. Draco II orbited a red giant main sequence star. the natives had blasted themselves back into an apparent Bronze Age. Inefficient slave labor at best but Solarian made due. Arming natives and hijacked space traffic crews were utilized as "enemy combatants" during training exercises. Of course, the "enemy" was supplied particle weapons that were barely capable of a stun setting whereas Solarian forces invariably used lethal force. The kidnapped scoutship and freighters crews could hardly be left alive to testify against the corporation's practices. Hakatay had led Sekona away during one of these exercises.

Hakatay quickly befriended the locals and they assisted the undercover agents in stealing a subspace transmitter. It had still taken the faster than light message four days to relay through comm buoys. As soon as the message came in, the Obsidian, Indomitable, Solstice, and Waylaid crews were put on alert, the Waylaid returning from a convoy escort detail.

Since the Waylaid's top speed was Warp 5.8, she would cruise at Warp 3.7 and eventually reach the system as a reinforcement unit while the others traveled at Warp 5 and quietly observed the star system until the Waylaid arrived. The Obsidian's advanced sensor platforms would be especially be needed at that point.

In the interim, Sekona and Hakatay had abandoned the subspace transceiver since Solarian forces were using it to triangulate their position every time it was used. The natives provided a groundswell of support having secretly retained late industrial capacity still hidden and unused as to not alert the Solarian occupation forces. They'd retained black powder and ballistic munitions and were eager to test them on the Solarian forces. Using long hidden texts and means of manufacturing, they'd recreated magazine-fed bolt action rifles using the industrial capacities hidden away in undergrounds, caverns, and caves. It seemed their "neo-barbarism" was a utopian choice much in the way of the Ba'ku. Unlike the Ba'ku, the Draconians easily slipped back into a war-like state under the extra-societal pressure and their war was with Solarian.

The Waylaid arrived and Riker briefed Captain Wei and the ship's officers and chiefs on their upcoming role. The Indomitable, Solstice, and Obsidian would provide cover as the four ships engaged the present Andromeda-class and two Merced-class starships. Whatever other support ships Solarian had were evidently deployed elsewhere. While under observation, Solarian had deployed two Barracuda-class scouts, two more Merced-class starships, and a third Renaissance-class elsewhere. The ships damaged at Jenetour were still undergoing repairs since Solarian only had one dedicated drydock repair facility. As it was, the Andromeda-class had been recalled or finished its current assignment and had returned a mere day before while the Waylaid was still in transit.

"Make no mistake, they will be out for blood," Riker warned Wei.

"We are prepared," Wei promised, "How will Commander Macen, Detective Rockford and their team reach the Solarian base on the second planet?"

"They'll deploy in their runabout before we make our run. Our job is to draw forces off from the second planet so that the Corsair can touch down largely unobserved. Once they're in range, they can use mid-range comms to contact Sekona and Hakatay through their comm badges they've discreetly carried with them," Riker explained. He spent the next half-hour discussing strategy and answering questions that were raised.

At the end, Wei ended the discussion, "We are satisfied, Captain Riker. We are ready to get underway. It will be good to prove ourselves to a greater degree than we already have. We welcome this opportunity to prove our honor, mettle, and courage."

"All of which will be needed today," Riker promised, "We make our sortie as soon as the Corsair launches."

"Understood," Wei herself promised.

The Corsair launched and the four starships surged forward at maximum impulse, raising shields and arming weapons as they went. Riker's plan was to make the Solarians too angry not to give chase. Their targets weren't the active starships but rather the already stricken ships undergoing various stages of repairs. The losses of so many undefended assets and technical support personnel would severely hinder Solarian's ongoing and future operations. Meanwhile, the runabout would proceed slowly towards the second planet as the Outbound Ventures arced passed the system's primary and headed out of the solar system with Solarian in pursuit. The opposing starships readied their shields and were bringing weapons online as Outbound Ventures began volleying torpedoes which streaked passed the three starships, striking down the already wounded sister ships. Riker's plan worked and the Solarian starships engaged in a rabid pursuit.

"Now we can move in," Mudd said as the sensors cleared.

"Carefully though," Ebert said cautiously. the planet had surveillance sensor satellites around it. six in total, to at the poles and four encompassing the planet. The destruction of the polar satellites and a third would create a sufficient blind spot to land unnoticed. The delicate balance was, the satellites had to be destroyed before the runabout came under their range. So Daggit was calculating orbital mechanics to fire three micro-torpedoes. Only leaving them one in reserve for a final attempt.

As they neared the inner system along the orbital track of the sixth planet of fourteen total, Ebert held station keeping, "All yours, Rab."

"Just keep her steady," Daggit absentmindedly said.

"What do you think she's doing?" Mudd muttered darkly.

Ebert rolled her eyes. Three torpedoes streaked off...and then a fourth.

"What the hell?" Mudd wanted to know.

"Losing their surveillance is going to alert them to a potential threat. The first three neutralize the sensor grid above their HQ. The fourth, which we can follow now, will blow a hole we can actually use to land while they mobilize ot defend the 'imminent' attack on their base," Daggit explained.

"You sneaky bastard," Ebert congratulated him as she engaged the impulse engines

As predicted by Daggit, the Solarians scrambled what passed for air support, largely just a few armed troop shuttles, replete with mercs to deal anyone who survived getting shot down. A few kilometers beyond their perimeter, Hakatay and Sekona were surprised to receive a comm badge alert from Macen. They gave him coordinates to one of the locals' cave networks nearby. So Ebert would have a concealed place to land after all.

Even at the Waylaid's max speed of Warp 5.8, the Outbound Ventures ships were caught up with two solar systems away in the Laven system. Riker signaled to drop out of subspace. The four starships performed a slingshot around a gas giant to make a headlong rush at the three pursuing starships.

"They're breaking pursuit," Riker's Zakdorn Tactical Officer wheedled in his nasal voice.

"Convince them otherwise," Riker ordered, "Osmont, patch me in to the others."

"You're on," Joel Osmont reported.

"Everybody, engage targets of opportunity. Just keep them in this system."

"Riker's going high," Noble observed, "Neela make an approach beneath our assigned target, then make a steep climb. Lacey, standby on torps."

With both Noble and Lacey preferring to by "Chris" they'd agreed to use last names for each other and the entire crew by default. Neela began to "dive" and then climb.

"Fire!" Noble ordered. Lacey unleashed both photon torpedoes and the forward phaser banks. The effect to the secondary hull was prominent.

"Standby aft torpedoes," Noble advised as Neela broke off before Noble could announce, "Ramming speed".

"Fire!" Noble ordered and Lacey volleyed more shots.

"Bring us about and we'll do it again on their broadside," Noble instructed. This would bring them in targeting position of the enemy's phasers. But also exposed them to the combined weight of their own weapons as Riker peeled off to attack from the port side. The Solstice would work high this time and the Indie took low. The Renaissance-class heavy cruiser had to endure ro risk her aft quarter while bringing the full weight of her weapons to bear on a single opposing starship.

"They're attempting evade," Hendryks warned.

"Stay on them, Neela," Noble ordered.

"Indomitable is adjusting," Hendryks reported.

"We're in position," Neela made her run ran evasive patterns to dodge incoming phaser fire.

"I've got this," Lacey announced as she volleyed more torpedoes and phaser fire.

"Their starboard shields are strained," Tulley announced from from the auxiliary station that matched any board on the bridge at Tulley's command, "Indie reports the same."

"Break and prepare aft torpedoes," Noble ordered. The Solstice flew over the Andromeda-class' primary hull while her phasers lashed out at the same time. Beneath the vessel, the Indomitable echoed the efforts with her phasers aimed at the drive section. When they each came free, their aft torpedoes targeted and struck the affected shielded areas that the other vessels had just commenced their primary attack on.

"They're redirecting auxiliary power to engage the secondary emitters on the port side," Hendryks reported.

"Indie reports the same from starboard," Tulley announced, "Riker orders us to engage Phase 2."

"Take us down their throat, Neela," Noble switched tactics. The strategy had been once the power reserves were redistribiuted to bolster the flagging broadside shields, the two ships would split again and the Solstice would engage the fore ventral section while the Indomitable would engage the aft dorsal section, specifically targeting the drive section and warp nacelles.

"The enemy is turning," Tulley warned.

"Makes my turn a little more...aggressive," Neela warned everyone as she made an RCS thruster aided impulse turn. The "Crazy Ivan" completed with minimal overloads, Neela went straight down the belly of the beast. Still corkscrewing and jigging and jagging to evade incoming phaser fire and photon torpedoes, Neela set the straight at the larger heavy cruiser. The scoutship unleashed hell once again. Lacey concentrated phaser fire at the weapons emplacements while her photon torpedoes lashed out at the primary deflector.

The resultant explosion within the deflector framework equally damaged the ship's Engineering section and the torpedo launcher mounted above it. Neela broke off and proceeded down their port side while Lacey engaged with the starboard phaser banks. The Indomitable traveled the length of the dorsal side of the ship before veering starboard.

"CONN, bring us about," Riker ordered, "Prepare to engage the starboard broadside again."

"Solstice reports prepping to engage the enemy's port side," Osmont relayed.

"Captain, we should begin strategically targeting specific areas of the ship," Berent advised.

Riker resisted the urge to facepalm, "That's what we're doing, Mr. Berent. Or had you forgotten?"

Berent huffed and puffed and reengaged the Solarian vessel. Riker knew the pretentious Zakdorn couldn't help it. His cultural imperative demanded he be the strategic genius in the room.

"Sir, the Solarian ship is turning to face us," the CONN Officer reported. For the life of him, Riker couldn't remember the name of whichever Serenity runabout pilot was currently manning the post. He already missed Keeley.

Suddenly he felt old, "Mr. Berent, adjust accordingly."

"Very well, Captain," Berent huffed and puffed again as though it were the most excrutiating order he'd ever been given.

"Let them complete their turn and stay on target," Noble advised Neela. Lacey fired phasers as Neela matched course and speed with the Andromeda-class vessel.

"They're drawing off aux power from the shields to phasers," Hendryks happily reported.

"Now, Neela!" Noble lunged forward in her center seat. The Solstice banked and made a nearly straight line at the ship's port broadside. Lacey unleashed torpedoes again along with phaser fire. Neela dove the scoutship beneath the dorsal line of the heavy cruiser while Lacey continued barraging the drive section. Their aft torpedoes pelted the starboard hull side as they flew past. The ship shuddered again as responsive phaser fire struck their shields.

"Shield status?" Noble inquired.

"Last strike took us down to 67%. Engaging secondary emitters," Lacey told her.

"Hendryks, throw aux power to the shields," Noble ordered. Neela had allowed for an excessive amount of battering at their shields but still, the cruiser had the advantage in raw firepower.

"Captain Riker wants to engage Phase 3," Tulley advised Noble. Phase 3 was a concentrated, combined strike on the drive section from the aft quarter and then the dorsal section. It would be complicated by the opposing starship's increased maneuvering to avoid such a strike. Which would also expose them to increased enemy fire from first the aft torpedo launcher and then the forward phaser array. but the two starships, one scout and one escort, aligned to make their run.

"Jaycee, concentrate fire power of the weapons systems," Forger ordered.

"Trying," Miller replied through gritted teeth. The surveyor was taking a pounding from the Merced-class light cruiser's phasers and torpedoes. Only the recent upgrades in the warp core and defensive systems had allowed the Nova-class Obsidian to endure the beating it had taken thus far.

"No walls in sight yet we still take heavy damage," Forger grated.

"Excuse me?" Jones asked from beside her. It still took Forger some getting used to that Jones wasn't privy to that shared history, just the knowledge that there was one.

"Dammit, Shannon! We can only take so much!" Parva yelled over comms. Forger knew half of the Orion's angst was that Daggit was headed into danger without her.

"Just hold tight, Chief! We've almost disabled their weapons," Forger promised.

"Use a goddamn tachyon pulse to remodulate their shields and fire for effect while they're doing so," Parva demanded.

"Jaycee?" Forger mentally kicked herself.

"On it!" Miller promised.

"Edwin?" Forger prompted.

"Secondary deflector array set," Zimbalist had worked wonders in seconds. The fact that the secondary deflector was on standby awaiting emergency usage meant that its systems were primed but inactive...making it easier to modify its usage.

"Do it already," Forger ordered. Aglaia already had the ship faced forward to reengage the Solarian vessel. As the Solarian ship's shields remodulated, they were porous for just a few scant seconds. Therefore, the incoming torpedoes found their way home. To devastating effect.

"Ventral weapons array disabled," Zimbalist cheered.

"Concentrate further fire on the drive section," Forger then ordered, "We don't want these bastards running home."

"They're barrel rolling," Aglaia warned as she fired thrusters to match the rotation.

"Just stay with them," Forger urged. Jones left her seat to quietly consult with Miller. Miller began focusing torpedoes on the warp nacelle struts. As their shields faltered, the Solarians went into full impulse to escape.

"Aglaia! Stay on them!" Forger excitedly instructed. Miller continued her shearing action and one strut after the other blew apart, separating the ship from it s nacelles as the shields buckled.

"Good plan, XO," Forger acknowledged.

"When you're pitting a 22nd Century NV-class against more modern starships, you get creative," Jones said ruefully.

"Fortunately for us," Forger admitted.

"We're being hailed," Zimbalist announced.

"It's about time," Forger exhaled.

"It's not the Solarian ship," Zimbalist corrected her, "It's the Waylaid."

Jones looked stricken.

"Tell them we're coming," Forger instructed, "Aglaia, alter course and accelerate for intercept."

"Aye, Captain," the Platonian acknowledged the order. Jones looked grateful. Her emotional attachment to the people that bought the ship's registration from her plain to see on her face. Forger admired that brand of loyalty.

"Captain, the enemy is suing for peace," Osmont informed Riker. Together, the Indomitable and the Solstice had inflicted grievous harm upon the Andromeda-class. The much larger vessel's crew and commander had assumed they had tactical and strategic superiority. But the Emden- and Blackbird-class opponents that they faced were infamous amongst the Cardassian Guard as being some of Starfleet's toughest little ships put into the longstanding Border Wars.

"Berent, cease fire but keep weapons locked on. If these bastards so much as twitch, resume firing at all target points," Riker ordered, "Signal the Solstice Command and let Captain Noble that we're negotiating the enemy's surrender."

Osmont got busy and then swiveled to face Riker again, "Captain, Captain Noble has been advised that the Waylaid requires assistance. The Obsidian is moving to assist but Captain Forger requests aid."

"Tell Captain Noble she's cleared to assist," Riker told him.

"Captain Wei, Cai Nhung reports the fires and plasma leaks in Engineering have been put out and repaired," Manhh reported.

"Thank her for the crew, Xian Manhh," Wei Ziya urged, "Binh Nguyen, maintain fire at all vulnerable points. Bian Nguyen, keep us out of the line of fire as best you can."

The CONN Officer had already been attempting to maintain the Asia-class light cruiser's relative position behind their Merced-class' primary hull to target the secondary hull. They'd maimed the impulse engines sufficiently that the fusion impulse reactor aboard her scrammed so the Waylaid was focusing fire on the nacelle's instead using her port and starboard phaser banks. But the defiant Solarian crew was utilizing RCS thrusters to bring their ship about faster than the Waylaid could maintain following.

"Dr. Linh reports moderate casualties, mainly consisting of engineering crew," Manhh reported next.

"Urge Canh Linh to make haste. We need everyone at their station as swiftly as possible," Wei instructed.

"Captain, both the Obsidian and the Solstice have acknowledged our signal and are responding," Kieu Quyen reported from Communications.

"Binh Nguyen, target the port nacelle exclusively. The shields there are weakest," the OPS Officer, Dayen Ping informed her, "Captain! The Obsidian and Solstice have engaged the enemy vessel!"

"Kieu Quyen, signal our thanks to both commands," Wei ordered.

"Captain," The Obsidian is now breaking off to reengage the other Solarian vessel they originally faced. It's running on impulse only and attempting to assist their sister ship," Binh Nguyen reported as she targeted the specified nacelle.

"Captain, the enemy vessel is hailing wishing to discuss terms of their surrender," Quyen informed Wei.

"Binh Nguyen, cease fire. Bian Nguyen, assume station keeping. Kieu Quyen, give our thanks to Captain Noble once again," Wei requested.

"Yes, Captain," all three women, two sisters and a not-so distant cousin, all chorused together.

Manhh came to stand beside Wei, "It's a good thing we received help when we did. We just lost main power. Cai Nhung estimates she can partially restore it in two hours. In four we'll have warp capacity as well."

"We seem to have chosen our side and chosen well," Wei commented. Manhh knew Wei was a Confucian rather than a Buddhist like many of the crew. She simply expected ethical behavior from friends and allies because it was proper. The Buddha taught that to end desire was to end suffering. But like his Hindu believing ancestors, he believed that one's karma was built up by fulfilling one's dharma, or cosmically assigned role. She knew that the crew had earned a great deal of karma today and furthered themselves down path to enlightenment.

"You take command," Wei stood up out of the center seat, "Captain Noble and I have many things to discuss with the enemy commander. Afterwards, I will be in Sickbay, bolstering our wounded's spirits."

"Yes, Captain," Manhh allowed herself a small smile after Wei went for the turbolift. Wei Ziya was a good woman and an even better captain for the Waylaid crew.

"Your ship's are all damaged and without main power. One will even be incapable of warp drive and will have to be towed back to make repairs. Your orbital drydock is damaged and all the ships under repair even damaged further. Obstinance is not your friend," Riker warned his Andorian counterpart aboard the Andromeda-class starship.

Captain Shard'iteren, self referred to as simply Shard to avoid humans mangling his name, sneered, "We have other warships on assignment. They will find us. Find you. You think our attacks against you were great before, we will annihilate you and your precious station before we're done. Outbound Ventures will cease exist!"

"Cut the channel," Riker instructed Osmont, "He's being bellicose for more reasons than simply being Andorian."

"That's a stereotype," Berent wheedled.

"I could mention a few cultural idiosyncracies about Zakdorns if you prefer," Riker glared.

"No, that's fine. But he is being stubborn even for an Andorian," Berent conceded.

"You just made my point," Riker sighed.

"I merely made it official," Berent said haughtily.

"Remind me why I keep you on payroll?" Riker earnestly implored.

"Well, I never..." Berent huffed.

"Actually you do," Osmont chided him, "All the time."

"The Obsidian's Security detachment isn't large enough to capture a starship. The Solstice simply doesn't have one. The Waylaid's people aren't trained for it. And we're lacking as well. So why provoke us?" Riker thought out loud.

"Because they have other ships and they're keeping us here for that reason because they're obviously abandoning their clients to return to Draco II," Berent said impatiently.

"I think you're right. Signal the others. We need to return to Draco II," Riker told Osmont.

"The Waylaid reports she's currently unable to use warp drive," Osmont quickly replied.

"Signal Noble," Riker instructed, "Inform her that our two ships will tow the Waylaid together. The Obsidian can scout ahead."

"Aye, Captain," Osmont returned his attention to his station as he relayed the orders. Riker still never tired of hearing that title spoken aloud .


Chapter Five

"Harri, you stay with ship. Besides which, your leathers will chafe in this climate," Macen told her.

"Finally, I get to come on another field mission," Ebert enthused. Despite a red giant star's burning cooler than even a G-Type dwarf main sequence star like Earth's Sun, the close proximity Draco II had to it made her subtropical in this region. The nearby Sigma Draconius IV was inhabited by the technologically advanced, yet ignorant, Eymorgs below the planet's surface and the neo-barbaric all-male Morgs on the surface. That star too was a red giant and the cold, bitter temperatures on the surface did little to resemble this heavily forested region. Yet most of the trees were fairly new growth with mushroom infested rotting trunks, highly scorched and blasted off of their stumps, indicated the cataclysm that had struck Draconian society. The armed Draconians eyed the newcomers with suspicion until Sekona and Hakatay arrived with a native squad.

Macen had reviewed the sensor logs and analysis made of the inhabitants technological level based upon the automated sensor probes launched through the solar system as a matter of Starfleet routine, "This hardly seems like a Neolithic or Bronze Age culture."

"They aren't, Commander," Hakatay told him, "They just live in harmony with the world around them since they nearly annihilated each other in the wake of their own cultural and political morass. After the nuclear winter subsided, they made a global peace accord."

"But they kept some heavy industry hidden away," Macen observed from a distance.

"The natives purposefully lead the Solarian hunters away when they're captured," Hakatay explained how it had been a secret, "They even have radio and air travel through dirigibles. Others from distant lands and continents are on their way here, converging on Solarian to rid themselves of their oppressors."

"You mentioned 'hunters'," Macen noted, "How else are the people afflicted?"

"Solarian frequently takes captives and enslaves them. The women serve menial and sexual tasks while the men are dispatched with useless training weapons and indiscriminately slaughtered for sport. But they call them 'training exercises'."

"Ballistic firearms?" Rockford had noted the brandished weapons.

"With armor piercing rounds," Sekona explained, "Logically, they will puncture even the modern versions of energy ablative armor."

"Squads of hunters are approaching," a Draconian scout reported in over the radio Hakatay held.

"Lead them to the primary ambush site and field test your weapons against them," Hakatay ordered. Seeing everyone's expectant stares, he shrugged, "They've made me their military campaign leader."

Moments later the distinct cracking of bullets surpassing the speed of sound resounded through the air at some distance. After a lingering silence, Hakatay signaled them, "Did anyone manage to speak with their base?"

"Negative, General," the scout replied, "They were taken unawares. We left no survivors to recount our exploits."

"Like the Cheyenne, they practice warfare by counting coup," Hakatay explained, "So this day has long been coming. The natives feel they've been patient enough."

"I'm sure they have been," Macen stated, "Can we reach the headquarters before sundown? Because I don't want to navigate this forest at night even with sensor glasses. I'm assuming predators will be out and our weapons fire will give us away."

"We can reach the Solarian base before then. Then they have a wide clearing leading to force field projected fencing. The main gate is the only way in and the only place to deactivate the fields from the exterior."

"Since we are in Solarian uniform, we can distract the guards and you could strike will they attempt to detain us," Sekona offered.

"Attempt?" Forte asked.

"Attempt," Sekona said solemnly.

The sun was setting when the SID team, led by the natives, reached the edge of the cleared forest. Daggit had macrobinoculars and viewed the area, "Three guards. Two outside and one in the booth. They certainly are lax."

"The Draconians have offered little in the way of resistance until today," Hakatay told him, "Surprise is on their side once the force field fences are deactivated."

"Leave that to us," Burrows promised.

Sekona led Hakatay to the gate with hands supposedly bound behind him and a phaser pressed to his back, "I need to deliver a prisoner."

"You're the deserters," a guard said.

"It is illogical to assume that merely because this one decided to 'go native' that I was anything less than a prisoner," Sekona scolded him as they arrived.

"Just stand there," the guard motioned for the other one to join him. A sword suddenly thrust out of the lead guard's chest. The other one's neck was snapped before he could respond. Before the third could hit the alarm or summon reinforcements, Daggit smashed his rifle butt through the hardened glass window into the guard's face. Burrows was in the shack and skewered the last guard before he could cry out.

"Very efficient," Sekona noted.

"We try," Burrows grinned. Sekona deactivat d the force fields and then attempted to encrypt the controls.

"Just wait," Burrows advised.

"Now!" Hakatay radioed. Swarms of Draconians rushed from the woods, completely surrounding the compound and stretching over one thousand men and women.

"They really are pissed off," Shade murmured. The SID team closed the distance as rifle shots began to be fired. The whine of phasers also rose in the blossoming night.

"Move," Kerber shoved Sekona aside and quickly emplyed an adaptive algorithm to encrypt the fence line's controls.

"Very...efficient of you," the affronted Sekonma allowed as Kerber snatched up her computer case and followed the trail of warm bodies headed for the five story building that served as an administrative area.

"Vulcans don't like to have their personal space violated," Lee advised Kerber.

"I don't give a shit," Kerber snorted, "She was in the damn way."

Lee gave Smith an exasperated look. Smith merely shrugged. She was used to Kerber's behaviors.

They came to the main entrance and found a squad detail exiting to repel intruders. Rifles volleyed rounds of bullets that riddled the guards. The door's secondary force field activated.

"Rab, make a hole," Macen ordered. Daggit unsheathed his grenade and launcher and racked the pump to chamber the first round and took aim and fired twice to detonate the door and third shot shorted out the overstressed interior force field emitters. The Draconians stared at him in awe.

"You two," Macen pointed at Hakatay and Sekona, "Stay out here and coordinate the invasion. Meanwhile shoot anyone exiting that isn't us."

Daggit entered first with Burrows on his heels with his phaser rifle shoulder and poised. Macen and Rockford came next followed by Lee. Forte and Shade drifted back to find Kerber and Smith drawing their phasers. Ebert pushed them along until they were walking forward on their own again.

"Keep up," she said impatiently.

"Besides, they'll try and come from behind us anyway," Kerber snorted. Forte and Shade quickened their pace as phaser fire erupted ahead. Macen and Rockford were on each side of a corridor's entrance shooting down the hall. Particle beams spat past them in reply. A deafening explosion ended the counterattack.

Lee shook his head, "What kept you guys?"

"Clear!" Daggit yelled over the rising wave of moans and shrieks of pain.

"They don't pay me enough for this," Shade grumbled. The forefront of the fighters had already moved on. Lee trailed checking corners with his phaser aimed. Kerber and Smith began shooting the survivors they passed and they went slack.

"What are you doing?" Forte asked.

"Mercy killings," Smith said stonily.

The Mirian was beginning believe the stories she'd heard about the pair.

"Draw your weapons!" Kerber snarled at Forte and Shade, "Now!"

They clumsily did so as Kerber and Smith spun around to begin downing Solarian agents with head shots. Ebert covered the protege and the thief as they hastily found cover as Lee backtracked.

Lee's assistance, though late, turned the tide and Solarians withdrew, leaving a mass of hemmed in bodies. A lone Solarian peeked around the corner to find a phaser blast between his eyes. The sound of scuffling boots retreating caused the Ardanans to restart the forced march by terrifying Forte and Shade into scurrying after Macen's forward progress. The body count began to lessen as they proceeded up an emergency stairwell.

The next choke point proved decisive when Daggit's grenade launcher winnowed the number of defenders and Ebert, Kerber and Smith dealt with those attempting to climb the steps to surprise them from the rear. Again Lee, joined by Rockford proved the decisive edge to hasten the retreat made by Solarian agents. Rockford signaled for the others to follow her as she reached the fifth and final floor. While making progress, an emergency exit door opened and Rockford single handedly repelled the attack.

Her detectives found it easy to forget she numbered among the Angosian Augmented soldiers. A stark reminder such as this made them grateful that Rockford had managed to overcome her behavioral conditioning, unlike Daggit. Still, she functioned as an exception humanoid, but still, an emotive and compassionate one when she wasn't defending the lives of her teammates. This time, she and Macen had forsaken their rifles and carried only their customary sidearms.

Spent power packs littered the steps as everyone recharged their weapons during the lull. Another explosion announced that Daggit, Burrows, and Macen had encountered the enemy again in a forward location. Signs over doors indicated they were entrances to an Ops Center. The door to one, though magnetically sealed, hadn't withstood a directional photon charge. The last sound of whining phasers could be heard inside. Rockford cautiously entered in followed swiftly by Lee and no sounds of any conflict issued forth.

"Stand aside," Kerber told the terrified Shade and Forte. She and Smith boldly made their entrance. When the hesitant detectives were frog marched in by Ebert, they found bodies littering the place. Most of which were armed but a number of unarmed technicians joined the ranks of the slain. This time Forte helped hold Shade's hair back while she vomited.

"Plug in," Macen instructed the Data Team, "The systems are still in operation."

"We'll hold as long as needed," Daggit pledged and he and Burrows stepped out. Rather than connect wirelessly, both Smith and Kerber used ODN lines to tap the Solarian computers.

"We've used the remaining interior defenses to corral the remaining Solarian defenders," Smith softly told Macen.

"Pull up everything relevant that you can find and distribute it across the terminals," Macen told them both. They nodded their assent. He tapped his belt mounted comm badge, "Hakatay, your teams can move in now"

"Copy that," Hakatay swicthed to his radio to begin issuing orders.

"It isn't pretty," Kerber told him. he studied the scenes of the natives expending their rage upon their oppressors and liberating the captive women that had been enslaved.

"Sucks to be them," He nodded at the images if the captive defenders.

"Take a seat and the Data Team will unlock the files and we'll surf them as we compile evidence," Rockford instructed, "This is why we have padds, people."

"Make a copy of everything," Macen quietly instructed the Adanans.

"Copying already underway," Smith promised in a hushed tone to match his.

"And...we're doing what?" Ebert asked Macen.

"You're contacting Harri and having her move the Corsair here," Macen told her, "After that, you're keeping the Detective Squad safe."

"They have Celeste," Ebert protested.

"Even she can get distracted," Macen advised her, "Now scoot!"

"She rarely takes orders like that from others," Smith quietly commented. It was her way.

"We met after her family was butchered by the Cardassians and she was left to die. Personally, I believe they gang raped her and then left her but she doesn't talk about it," Macen told the Ardanans in confidence, "I found her as a teen already piloting smuggler vessels for hire. I gave her a chance to serve a cause. She went all in. And then Starfleet cast her aside when the war was won and she effectively exiled from the Federation. It didn't tale much persuasion to convince her to come back into my fold," Macen related the events.

"She did it for you," Smith replied, "She's loyal. You must've have been extraordinary to deserve that."

"They were extraordinary circumstances," Macen shrugged.

Smith smiled, "Most people would've asked why they weren't extraordinary now. That is how you earn our loyalty. That's why people will follow you, even unto death."

"There are people willing to follow you if you ever decide to return to Ardana," Macen confided.

Now Smith shrugged, "Maarta died. But Bailey Smith has a future. Here. With you all. Let the Princess remained buried."

"I thought you didn't like being called a Princess," Kerber snickered.

"I'm not the one that constantly applies the label," Smith chided her lifelong friend. Despite Maarta's status as royalty, the Troglyte Anara had grown from being a simple handmaiden to her closest confidant and friend and the one person that would tell the truth regarding the brutal conditions that still existed within the mines of Ardana IV. Anara was also the only person that followed her into those mines to lead others to freedom.

Anara had also accepted exile with her rather than accept an honorable execution. When Maarta transformed into Bailey Smith, Anara had followed once more by becoming Angelique Kerber. They'd decided together to join Macen's crusade. But it was Smith that had pushed the issue to begin with. For all her rough edges and acerbic, private wit, Kerber felt a sense of loyalty as great as Ebert's to Macen or perhaps even stronger towards Smith. Smith wouldn't trade that off for anything.

"We'll have to compartmentalize the data and compress it to fit between our two portables and every padd we brought. The core they're using is station level. It probably ascends through every floor," Kerber warned him, "This'll take time"

"Riker will buy it for us," Macen promised.

"As if we had a choice," Kerber lamented.

The Solstice and the Indie released the Waylaid from their tractor hold. The light cruiser's crew possessed the largest starship and biggest crew but she'd also sustained the greatest damage.

Osmont turned to report to Riker, "The Obsidian has detected two warp signatures at the edge of the solar system. Whatever just dropped out of warp is storming at us at full impulse. Positive identifications haven't been made yet."

"Tell the Waylaid to seek sanctuary and alert the Solstice," Riker instructed, "Then contact Forger and have her trail the newcomers towards us and engage as needed as we intercept the intruders"

"Technically it's their system," Osmont remarked.

"I can fire you when I fire Berent. Now just relay the messages," Riker chuckled.

"I'll remind you of that when we reach Serenity," Osmont replied.

Riker appreciated Joel Osmont';s certainty that they would reach Serenity again, "Battle stations. Go to red alert."

"Go back to red alert," Noble sighed, "We seem to be far from finished."

"Bridge, we have everything buttoned again and even fixed a delay in the aft torpedo launcher while we were at it," Eckles reported from Engineering.

"I thought that was sluggish," Lacey commented.

"You're welcome," Eckles signed off. After dealing with Thool with the Ronaran Maquis cell, Noble could see why Macen had always secluded Eckles and Darcy aboard the Odyssey. She already appreciated them both. Even Thool's work performance had improved.

"How many torpedoes do have left?" Noble inquired.

"Not enough," Tulley answered before Lacey could give an exact count, "The Obsidian just updated the ship classes coming at us. It isn't pretty"

"Two Renaissance-class light cruisers," Lacey read off of her board, "Where in the hell are they getting these ships? Somebody high up certainly like s them over us."

"Neela plot an intercept course. Tulley, coordinate with the Indie. We need an action plan and we need it now!" Noble instructed everyone.

"Those are coming in fast and weapons hot," Hendryks warned everyone.

"Seems Macen stirred the pot," Noble grinned.

"Given the subspace chatter, I'd say he's leading a native revolution," Tulley remarked.

"Tell me more later," Noble set aside her curiosity, "Hendryks, keep us posted. Lacey, repeat targeting from last time and fire for effect"

"You got it," Lacey enthused. Noble idly wondered what kind of boy Lacey had been to grow into the woman she was now. She figured it was time to know after they survived this encounter. Maybe she could get Forger to share her transition history as well.

"Estimated time on repairs?" Wei asked of Nhung.

"Warp drive is still down but we have the mains back online," Cai Nhung reported.

"Bain Nguyen, wait until our force has engaged the enemy and then bring us in to support them," Wei ordered.

"Yes, Captain," the CONN Officer happily replied.

"Binh Nguyen, raise shields and arm weapons. We're going back in," Wei gave the last orders she would before they made their approach.

"They're certainly stirred up," Macen noted of the internal feeds displaying the Solarian troops, "Give me externals."

Other monitors flared to life to display the compounds exterior. Transporter halos appeared en masse as Solarian reinforcements materialized.

"Damn!" Macen swore and fervently tapped his comm badge, "Hakatay! The Solarians have reinforcements outside. They know we're here."

"Of course they do. The natives don't understand comm badges or distress beacons yet. The Solarians got a signal off before I had them perforate the beacon full of bullet holes," Hakatay sighed, "We'll hold them as long as we can."

"Don't trade lives for coverage. We'll hold them off," Macen terminated the signal, "We're about to have hostile company!"

"I'll warn Rab and Tony!" Ebert shot out the door.

"Where the hell is Harri?" Rockford had to wonder.

Mudd was a decent pilot in outer space. But navigating a cave system upon launch was certainly more Ebert's thing since she got the stupid runabout inside in the first place. Mudd knew the scratches all over the hull would be punished with hard work supervised by Ebert as she repaid Mudd back for every ding. Mudd would prefer repaying Ebert back with hard work put out by her body. But, sadly, Ebert had firmly demanded that "What happens on Sigma Iotia II stays on Sigma Iotia II" And damn it all, Ebert absolutely refused to go drinking with Mudd any more to make certain that declaration held.

Mudd blinked in surprise as the Solarian reinforcements beamed in near the compound she was to land at. A microtorpedo would've taken most of them out but all she had available were phasers. So she began strafing runs, forcing them into the compound. Mudd could either fly or fight. Her personal ships had been civilian freighters with minimal in the way of illegal armament. She usually had one disruptor cannon and a torpedo launcher with no more than three torpedoes. That was usually enough to scare off whomever and could be shielded from Starfleet or Customs inspections. The truest heart of Mudd's mechanical genius had been her warp core and impulse engine modifications. All of which stretched far beyond standard safety limits. A fact that had gotten her in deep waters of trouble with Captain Data of the Enterprise-E. Of course, now Data had never assumed command of the Enterprise and had joyfully, in Mudd's opinion, remained dead. So she was either a flier or a fighter and not both with any degree of consummate skill.

So the Solarians scattered but easily grouped into squads near the compound's buildings. alerted by their fellow Solarians, these troopers were equipped with portable riot shields as well as hand phasers. There were only six dozen. But they assumed they could bolster their numbers with those trapped within the admin building's 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors. Then they could easily retake the Ops Center. Only three dozen operatives entered the building, awash with confidence. The others set out to slaughter the "savages" that dared rise up against them. Afterwards, isolating the Draconians' DNA from the corpses, they would order a biogenic weapon from the Gideonite arm of the Iotian Federation and simply exterminate all native humanoids on the planet.

Unfortunately for the Solarians, they were so vastly outnumbered they were the ones indiscriminately slaughtered after killing well over a hundred natives. dirigibles full of similarly enraged Draconians began to arrive from further nations. The ones from other continents would pour in for weeks. The Solarians had inadvertently reunited a planet's civilization. Most profoundly against them. Hakatay quickly got everyone under cover and sent a small legion of his original force into the admin building pursuing the Solarians that had dared entered into it.

Macen saw the newly arrived Solarians free the captive troops. Then they stormed the stairwell and the turbolift. Only to find a directional photon charge with a motion sensor primed in the lift. Macen joined Ebert at the previously ignored door while Burrows and Daggit defended the door they'd blown open. Activating the remote door stop, Macen and Ebert took up position at the second door to help repel the invaders. An explosion down the corridor away from the defenders collapsed a section of the hallway's flooring. ascension cables fired into the ceiling and Macen spun to face the arriving soldiers. Ebert joined in as the four mercs hung limply in the air above the hole. The bodies left to foul up further attempts to ascend. Daggit expended the last of his grenades at the startled soldiers that first arrived from the stairwell and caused part the stairs themselves to buckle.

"That buys us only a few minutes," Daggit called out. The hole in the floor proved problematic as well as the mercenaries displayed an unusual tenacity for hired troops regarding reaching the Ops Center. They felt the building's supports groan as Mudd sat the Corsair down on the rooftop shuttle pad.

"Harri?" Ebert asked after discouraging the next wave to attempt access the 5th floor through the hole.

"Harri," Macen agreed.

"I could tell by the landing," Ebert complained. Macen had given Ebert the best cover over her own protests. Daggit and Burrows resumed their fighting. Then the crack of repeating rifles could be heard and the invasion was halted. Finally, native Draconians appeared at the stairwell entrance and were received warmly by Daggit and Burrows.

"Macen, do you copy?" Sekona commed via her badge.

"Macen here," Macen reported, "Your insurgents just ended our latest threat."

"It seems Solarian has reinforcements in the system," Sekona advised him.

"So do we," he revealed. The headquarters building still had access to two surveillance satellites and they'd reported the return of the Outbound Ventures vessels. he'd wondered why they'd returned so abruptly until Solarian's own reinforcements also arrived shortly thereafter.

Riker ordered the Indie to fire upon a single Renaissance-class while the Solstice primarily engaged the other. the Obsidian supported the Solstice while the Waylaid, in defiance of his express orders, supported his own crew's efforts. Riker was pleased that they'd disobeyed after all.

"That took the fight out of them," Noble remarked when the opposing captains, outnumbered two to one, sued for peace. Still victory had only come after the two Solarians commanders realized they and their crews were in for a sustained fight from mostly seasoned veterans.

"Good. We were down to one torp per launcher," Lacey reported.

"Don't tell them that," Tulley said without irony.

Noble was pleased the "new" Tulley was much like his former self.

"Commander, are we pleased to see you," Forger breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing Macen on the viewer, "At least I am. I won't vouch for anyone else."

"No need, Shannon. My ego doesn't need coddling," Macen grinned, "We found Sekona and Hakatay alive and well and marshaling the planet's natives against Solarian. Our plan wouldn't have worked without their assistance."

"Any word from Starfleet?" Forger wondered.

"You know I contacted your sister before we began this. So far nothing official has come back. But then again, if Starfleet Command was secretly backing Solarian, then the wheels of bureaucracy are going to grind very slowly." Macen warned her.

"Which means Solarian could still be expecting reinforcements and our ordnance levels are running dangerously low," Forger advised him.

"Angelique and Bailey rigged up a dummy 'all clear' signal so Solarian should think the crisis is resolved in their favor," Macen let her know, "Meanwhile, we secure the system as best we can."

"What about the planet?" Forger wondered.

"I wouldn't come down here at all," Macen shuckled, "The natives are very, very restless."

"I understand," Forger smirked.

"We were pleased to assist you, Captain Riker. We should have warp capability restored within the hour," Wei told his image.

"I want you set course for Serenity as soon as you're able to," Riker ordered, "Even if we face another foe, at least you can word out of what happened here and that we need help."

"We will comply, but unhappily," Wei admitted.

"It's the best service you could give us at this point, Captain. You and your crew have performed admirably. This isn't an insult to you, them, or your collective honor. It's simply the needs of the many," Riker explained. Riker knew Asian cultures generally adhered to the same ethos as Vulcans.

"I know we can count on you all," Riker signed off.

Wei gave the orders and the ship got underway at impulse, setting a course vector for Serenity to implement as soon as they could with warp drive.

"This does not look good for our Solarian friends," Rockford handed Macen a padd, "Here's some of the highlights. We have a client list that's who's who of the notorious. A breakdown of their assets and personnel. A full accounting of the shadow economics and a directives signed by the mainstream CEO and Board members as well as administrators in the public face of Solarian Security Systems as well implicating evidence linking them directly to the attacks on us and their ties to Devos and Bannon Security."

"This won't go over well at the echelons of Starfleet's Admiralty," Macen predicted.

"But it's inescapable," Rockford told him, "It's as airtight as we could possibly wish for."

"When we hand this over ot Starfleet, keep our copies and we'll also turn them over to the civilian authorities," Macen requested.

"You think Starfleet will try to bury it?" Rockford didn't sound surprised.

"I think someone or several someones might make an attempt to," Macen clarified.

"And you're still certain Starfleet will even show up here, given that?" Rockford asked.

"I know Amanda and Alynna won't let it drop until someone is dispatched out here. Clancy will approve it to save face," Macen told her.

"I hope you're right," Rockford stated.

"Me, too," He conceded.

Hours later, the Nebula-class USS Farragut, the Cheyenne-class USS Cree, and the New Orleans-class USS Cajun arrived from DS10 and took possession of the star system and the primary evidence with everything cataloged for quick and easy reference. The senior Captain in charge of the Starfleet picket force clucked her tongue and bemoaned the complication of the Draconians' presence on the planet because "Prime Directive concerns". It also complicated any attempt to clean up Solarian's mess with native witnesses and more arriving every hour. If that even was a prevailing intention.

Hakatay and Sekona agreed to stay on as liaisons with Starfleet to be retrieved at a future date by a purpose-sent corporate runabout. With matters officially settled, the Outbound Ventures ships departed at the best speeds that they could manage together. As previously discussed, Macen forwarded copies of the data and preliminary findings to the SID and Federation Security. Despite loud complaints regarding the move by Admiral Clancy, the matter stood and Starfleet Security moved to cooperate fully with JAG prosecutors and Federation Security's Federation Bureau of Investigation.

"I'm just glad everyone made it out okay," Danan confessed as she snuggled closer to Riker in their quarters. Macen and Rockford were there as well.

"It isn't clear if anyone higher up in Starfleet wanted quash the investigation because of the FBI's involvement," Rockford chuckled as she wa salso leaned into Macen, "And we had a zero body count on our side despite the starships taking some serious wounds."

"Captain Wei and her crew certainly came through," Riker admitted, "Knowing they'd previously been approached by Solarian cast a shadow over their ultimate loyalties."

"They were cleared by Solarian's own black books," Rockford confessed, "That was the first thing I personally looked for."

"Not that inflicting grievous harm against Solarian ships would win them any hidden backer's praise," Danan remarked.

"The fact that we took Solarian completely by surprise swiftly indicated that trusting the Waylaid personnel was an achievable goal," Macen commented, "Still, I think they had to seriously weigh their options regarding betraying us or not. Sekona and Hakatay each reported they weren't suspected by Solarian until they spared natives and deserted their posts."

"But your idea to appeal to their sense of collective honor panned out as well," Riker stated.

"Call it a hunch based upon Joelle's own recommendation when I approached her privately over what she thought of their consortium when they bought the ship's registration from her," Macen urged.

"I still can't get over Joelle Jones being one of us now," Danan confessed.

"I don't see us having any future difficulties regarding ideology anymore and Celeste's people thoroughly vetted her tracing her back until when the Jem'Hadar effectively obliterated the Maquis," Macen reminded her.

"Still, it ended badly between you all," Riker had observed from Danan's first reaction to the news.

"It ended badly with Aric as well but no one protested that choice," Macen shrugged.

"Elfi approved and she knew him better than anyone after all these years," Danan confessed.

"And if Lees approved, so would I since I only remembered Tulley from his helping me plan out taking the Defiant," Riker recalled.

"Such enchanting powers you hold over men, Lisea," Rockford teased.

"It's an illusion at best," Danan sighed.

"We'll see, won't we?" Rockford suggested.

Mudd nursed a drink alone at the local Quark's Bar & Entertainment. Ebert joined her, "You promised to help me fix every scratch on the Corsair. That earns you me having one drink with you. One."

"I'll take it," Mudd smiled.

Parva was playing with Kort and Radil's daughter in the couple's quarters. Radil happily watched while Daggit and Kort prepared dinner.

"I never thought I'd see this day," Radil freely admitted.

"What day?" Parva inquired.

"This day," Radil stated, "You, playing with Kenaris. Rab and Kort cooking dinner of all things."

"I'm not a complete ogre when it comes to children, Jenrya," Parva chided her, "If Rab and I were genetically compatible we'd think about a family."

"Hopefully you're husband isn't an ogre when it comes to cooking," Radil fervently hoped, "Kort certainly is."

"My man has many secret talents," Parva boasted.

"I'm relieved to hear it," Radil laughed.

In a back booth at Quark's, Forte commented, "Well, Harri and Tracy don't look completely uncofmrtable."

"Time will tell," Lee replied.

"Mudd doesn't stand a chance," Shade predicted.

"Tony just entered in," Forte observed a little too quickly.

"O-ho! Someone has a secret crush," Shade laughed.

"He's literally a child compared to me," Forte grumped.

"And he thinks you're jail bait," Lee cautioned her. Fanning walked briskly in as Burrows selected a table and she happily joined him.

"Shit," Forte said with disgust.

"Well, at least Treir let's you drink here," Shade said consolingly.

Smith and Kerber were unexpectedly joined by the station Security Chief, the Bajoran Gerrit Gren, at the replimat where they were eating.

"Ladies," Gerrit greeted them, "May I take a seat?"

"Is this official?" Kerber asked.

"No," Gerrit admitted.

"Social?" Smith wondered.

"No, again," Gerrit told them both.

"That doesn't leave much else, Chief," Kerber stated.

He sat down, "Unofficially, the Ardanan government has been sending out warrants for convicted criminals tried in absentee. Your faces came up. I buried it but those inquires are across two quadrants by now."

"Yet you're first instinct was to tell us rather than arrest us on trumped up charges," Smith observed.

"I've been labeled a terrorist myself, so I understand how inappropriate it can be. And I've met you two and observed you for some time. You don't act guilty," Gerrit explained further.

"Maybe we just don't have consciences," Kerber snorted.

"I don't think so," he stood, "But I could be wrong."

He resumed his patrol and Smith eyeballed Kerber, "He was being helpful."

"Even a Resistance fighter might quail at some of the things we've done for the cause, 'Bailey'," Kerber advised her.

"Brin and Celeste never have," Smith reminded her.

"They've done worse," Kerber retorted, "Besides, the others still have no idea and we can't let them or we'll face their righteous indignation. Especially from Lee Kang and Burrows. Ebert, Mudd, and Shade certainly have no right to judge."

"Arianna won't either. Because of what she endured and what she did to survive," Smith made her own prediction.

"But Daggit and Parva would still have to play out," Kerber warned her again, "And they'd be the final variables before the crew turned against us."

"You're forgetting Tessa," Smith advise d her friend, "You've seen her memory logs. You know what she's done. She wouldn't have any right to judge either."

"I wonder how Galen 3 would respond to those truths?" Kerber idly stirred her food with a fork as she considered it.

"Don't," Smith warned her against it.

"Just thinking aloud," Kerber unconvincingly replied.

Tessa and Galen 3 occupied the Obsidian's mess. The Eminiaran was eating and Tessa was playfully watching him do so, "All this caloric input. I expect complete satisfaction when you're done."

"You know I'm terrible at Spring Ball," Galen 3 lamented.

"Which is why I play against you," Tessa laughed, "You need to be humbled on regular occasions."

"I've been practicing so hopefully I'll surprise you some day," Galen 3 hoped.

"I have perfect form but I set my reflexes to their lowest level. So maybe you will stand a chance today," Tessa unrepentedly teased him again.

"Hope springs eternal," he sighed.

"No, that comes after you're already nice and sweaty," she promised.

He decided his evening was looking up after all.

"You're just lucky I persuaded the JAG that you weren't a flight risk," Clancy told Solarian's founder and chief shareholder, Jordan Jeremy.

"It's appreciated, Kirsten. In repayment, I'll kindly skip on out of the Federation never to be seen again," Jeremy told her.

"I never should have had that affair with you," Clancy cimplained, "Angie is my dearest friend."

"What Admiral Jeremy doesn't know won't kill her," Jeremy assured her, "And Captain Oh has kindly implicated her in my eventual escape."

"She's completely trustworthy and dependable. I promised her that this was for the good of Starfleet. She agreed," Clancy told him, "And Angie can never discover you and I came together on your wedding day. Or that we've been clandestine lovers over the years."

"Be rid of me and your secret is safe forever," Jeremy promised.

"It'd better be. This will bite you on your ass as much as it will mine," Clancy warned him.

"Just make certain the news doesn't break long enough for me to sell off my shares at a high index and my Barrinoran accounts clear and I'll honor our arrangement. You'll have my location so if you're ever looking for a good shag again, look me up," Jeremy offered as he started to head out.

"It was never that good," Clancy retorted.

"Then why've you been addicted to me ever since minutes before I took my vows to Angie, Kirsten?" he chuckled as the door opened.

"Frinx the man anyway!" Clancy snarled after the door closed. Which before, had always seemed like a good idea, best friends be damned or not.

Captain Oh discreetly watched the exchange and smiled to herself since no one was around her office to see the "Vulcan" do so. Humans were so easy to dupe. The "Tal Shiar" agent managed a celebratory chuckle. She owned Clancy now and her ascension to Starfleet Security Director was assured as part of their arrangement. The security agents being held in black site prisons would never be discovered. And only herself and Clancy had authorization to speak with any of them at any time.

Her agents in Starfleet and throughout the Federation had easily conscripted Cell 51 into manufacturing the malfunction responsible for the synthetics' uprising on and around Mars. Jack Fowler desperate to find relevance after Starfleet dismantled Section 31 and Fowler himself being an abomination in her eyes. The Federation and even the Romulan Star Empire dancing to her strings now. Now that was worth celebrating. And Oh had discovered that gloating was a shared trait between Vulcans and Romulans.


Last modified: 20 Jan 2023