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Independence Day 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

Rear Admiral Amanda Forger had to bully her way past Starfleet Security to reach Alynna Nechayev's offices as Director for Starfleet Intelligence. She saw the three bracketed pips at Nechayev's collar and gasped, "The bitch actually demoted you."

"I see you were out for the evening," Nechayev remarked.

"Let's stay on task," Forger suggested, "What kind of charge could she bring against you?"

"Insubordination and the leaking of classified files to the press. Both of which occurred under the Sok administration," Nechayev warned her, "Akaar, Jellico, and you were just as culpable as I am."

"But we all received Presidential approval for our actions," Forger scowled.

"Ardra approved our actions," Nechayev clarified, "Which now makes them seem suspect again."

"I'm surprised T'Lara let this go through the system," Forger confessed referring to Starfleet's Judge Advocate General.

"JAG wasn't involved and a Board of Inquiry was never convened to initiate a court-martial. Clancy and Oh just took it upon themselves to act unilaterally for the 'service's best interests'," Nechayev snorted, "They invoked a once used clause in the Starfleet Charter to conduct disciplinary action when highly sensitive materials were involved. Like I said, it's only been used once before."

"These are the same materials that went public through the Freedom of the Press Act?" Forger didn't think she could be further astounded.

"The very same," Nechayev smirked, "Lt. Commander Senecka is already filing protests and motions to contravene the findings and determinations."

"Even Commodore Reyes received a court-martial from his peers," Forger fumed.

Diego Reyes purposefully fed Tim Pennington, a freelance reporter whom Reyes had destroyed his professional reputation, the details of the reality behind Starfleet's Project: Vanguard and their true mission in the Taurus Reach. A mission that cost an entire Federation colony its lives. The Klingons had also cracked a planet trying to kill the Wanderer, a lone avenger representing the mysterious race of Shedai. The creators of the elusive, transformative, and perfect meta-genome that Doctor Carol Marcus had managed to partially reverse engineer into the Genesis Project.

Marcus being one of the few scientists that survived the Tholian attack on Starbase Vanguard that supported the mission. Vanguard itself being a radically enlarged J-class starbase. Like the super enlarged KX-class starbases derived from the K-class deep space stations, the JX-class took the basic design to its ultimate expression. Being a contemporary of when the first Douglas-class stations were being constructed.

"This'll play out with the JAG Corps," Nechayev promised, "Admiral T'Lara is too good a lawyer to let this action stand unanswered for."

"She'd better be," Forger grimaced, "But Clancy and Oh are going to pull every string."

Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy was the Starfleet Commander while Commodore Oh was the surprisingly junior ranked Director of Starfleet Security. Forger's own Starfleet Special Investigations Division itself being a joint operation between Starfleet Intelligence, Internal Affairs whose ranks Forger had risen through, and Starfleet Security.

Oh being the junior-most officer directing one of those divisions. But the "Vulcan" had been Vice Admiral Edward Noyce's handpicked successor. No one yet knew Oh was a covert Romulan general in the Tal Shiar.

"Once in awhile, Amanda, we have to place our faith in the system as it stands," Nechayev counseled her own handpicked protégé when IA had assigned Forger as their liaison to Starfleet Intelligence, "T'Lara has been in Starfleet even longer than I have and she'd been a full Admiral for a decade before being assigned as the JAG. Before that she was a star prosecutor and defense counsel before being assigned as the presiding officer over Starfleet's most infamous court-martials."

"I understand that she sat over both Ensign Ro and Lt. Commander Worf's court-martials," Forger recalled.

"And in both cases tried to make certain all of the facts were ascertained before a verdict was rendered," Nechayev reminded her, "Even though Ro wouldn't offer a defense."

"Thanks to Admiral Kennelly's bumbling that turned out though," Forger conceded.

"Look, you should get back to Bob Johnson and finish you're evening out. He's shipping out in the morning, San Francisco time which just gives you enough London time to finish whatever pretext you're enjoying before getting down to the sex," Nechayev smirked.

"I'll get back, all right. But just because I believe you when you said you'd be fine," Forger began to head out to use the public transporter network rather than Starfleet's internal one.

"Just go," Nechayev laughed. But Nechayev herself had a call to make before she herself could retire from a very dissatisfying evening.

"I can't believe we're putting the Starfleet delta back on the uniform," Colonel Ro Laren, Militia Colonial Forces, grumbled. Ro's personal history with Starfleet was mired at best. But Colonial Forces had always worn a different uniform than the rest of the Bajoran Militia precisely because of its frequent joint ventures with Starfleet's even now that the Bajoran Republic had been ejected from the Federation on admittedly trumped up charges.

"It won't be so bad," General Kira Nerys, Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chided her, "The cooperative effort proposed by Commodore Saavik makes sense...especially in the Gamma Quadrant colonies. Starfleet relies on our Waypoint Station to rally and restock exploration efforts just as we use to it to coordinate colonial defenses and support in the region."

"Saavik has been coming through for us. She even fought Starfleet on our side when they kept invading Bajoran space," Ro glumly admitted, "And they're not sending me to prison for a third time. But to be demoted...again? How many times do I have to climb through the ranks? I'm not certain I'm invested in climbing through Starfleet rank and file again even if I am assigned to Counter-Terrorism on top of my Militia duties."

"You're an oppositional person. You're sad when you should be happy and distrustful when you should be accepting," Kira snarked.

Ro recalled Guinan initial observation that Ro had her "poles reversed".

"So it's been noted before," Ro admitted.

"A wise person then. I'd like to meet them someday," Kira smiled.

"I'll see what I can do about an introduction. She recently moved back to Earth," Ro told her.

"A human said that to you?" Kira was skeptical.

"She happened to be El-Aurian," Ro said dryly.

"What is it with you and El-Aurians anyway?" Kira had to ask.

Martus Mazur had been the only El-Aurian she'd known before Ro and Starfleet Intelligence introduced her to Brin Macen. Infamy surrounded the name Doctor Tolian Soran.

"Let me buy you a bottle of spring wine and I can tell you about my first encounters with Guinan and Brin Macen," Ro offered, "And how I'll have to adjust to being Lt. Commander Ro Laren of Starfleet Intelligence and a Colonel in the Bajoran Militia simultaneously."

"I'd like that," Kira confessed, "But look at this way of nothing else, two certain Starfleet admirals have your back. For as long as that can last."

Macen himself, utilizing seed money he'd earned under his legend of being a freelance data broker, had invested in creating the security contracting corporation, Outbound Ventures. Its roles included investigative and scouting work. Which had it a perfect fit for merging with the Rockford Detective Agencies.

Originally Celeste Rockford, then an alias for Annika Ryst, had meant to outright sell him the company she'd built using seed money from her mercenary work. But he'd elevated her to a full partner in the joint venture. It was little surprise them that they'd married some time after the death of Macen's second wife, T'Kir.

Macen's wives had a tendency to die. A trend Rockford would be happy to break. Especially since Macen had killed his first wife, Arinea, after she'd gone insane and tried to kill him and the Federation itself.

T'Kir had been killed by the criminal mastermind, Bertram Sindis. But her katra had resided in Macen's mind until Tessa, the Obsidian's sentient EMH program, had cloned T'Kir's body. One Fal-tor-pan re-fusion ceremony later, T'Kir was taken back to Vulcan. She'd been born and raised on Shial, a Vulcan/Romulan defector colony and taught under Sybok's tenets of emotional expression. The new T'Kir was a dispassionate creature of purest logic. Who found it most logical to begin her new life by killing everyone from her old one.

This time Rockford killed her and it stuck. The courts deemed it a moot point since T'Kir was still legally dead. She'd never moved to reverse that standing and since you couldn't legally kill a dead person twice, even legal scholars on Vulcan were hard pressed to find justification in prosecuting the death of a woman who preferred to remain dead in the eyes of the law.

It was a useful legal fiction for T'Kir's recruitment into Section 31. Since Macen and the other's belonged to Starfleet's answer to an accountable Section 31, the Starfleet Special Investigations Division. Section 31 had actually been disbanded upon the capture of its director and most of its senior agents.

Director James Fowler burned the agency to the ground rather than allow Starfleet to arrest its agents and secure the bulk of its assets. His son, Jack, inheriting what was left and the mastermind behind the S31 splinter faction, Cell 51. The SID headquartered out of Section 31's old "secret" base: the London Starfleet Data Archive. It served as an actual data archive as well functioning as the headquarters for one of Starfleet's premier intelligence gathering and law enforcement divisions. Though Macen was still buried in Starfleet's records as an analyst in the Cardassian Desk in Starfleet Intelligence, his history was vastly different.

Recruited for field work, he'd been trained by the legendary Commander Elias Vaughn himself. Then Macen had spent twenty years on the colonies faced with the Border Wars with the Cardassian Union. When the treaty establishing the Demilitarized Zone handed Federation colonies directly to the Cardassians or established them under Cardassian administrative control within the DMZ, Macen threatened to resign.

Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev, formerly an admiral without portfolio, had just become Director of Starfleet Intelligence and had covertly run Macen and Mackenzie Calhoun's missions for over a decade. So Nechayev ordered Macen to assist the Maquis distract and hobble the Cardassian Guard to keep them from threatening actual Federation interests. She'd even persuaded the former Deputy Director of Analysis to step back out of retirement to become Macen's handler as he embarked on a life of mercenary espionage euphemistically labeled a "data broker".

It was no small wonder Macen worked the closest with Ro. Their mutual goals for the conflict united in spirit and in purpose. It was a mutual partnership that outlived the Maquis and throughout the Dominion War. Macen's SID team and their closest allies found themselves in an alternate universe with differing timeline. Here, Macen resigned Starfleet in protest over the treatment of Maquis prisoners. But he still founded Outbound Ventures. A much more amoral corporation.

But the company was still headquartered on a Cardassian Nor-class space station Macen had built in the Barrinor system. The banking cartel world the only planet no one would invade for fear of universal retribution uniting foes into convenient allies. So Barrinor was protected by interstellar treaties nearly as old as the colony itself. Founded in 2178 nearly a century before the Federation became a cashless society. Nearly every interstellar power, or would-be power, held currency reserves on Barrinor. Usually in gold pressed latinum.

Barrinor was also one of the currency exchange markets whereby fiat money was converted and traded in latinum based denominations. Latinum was an extremely rare liquid precious metal that replicators couldn't duplicate. So it became the standard that all interstellar currencies were based upon. Latinum came in three broad denominations: gold pressed slips, strips, and bars. it took 100 slips to make a bar and 10 strips to do so.

The native Bajoran lita was trading up as well as its interstellar exchange currency, the Bajoran lek. A holdover from the Cardassian Occupation days where the Cardassians traded their native leks for vast quantities of Bajoran leks yet the Bajorans had to trade vast quantities of their own imposed currency to acquire a single Cardassian lek. It had been a rigged exchange rate throughout the Occupation. But it established the Bajoran lek in foreign markets. So much so they would hardly trade the lita for commodities whereas threy would happily accept the leks. So Bajor kept both. Litas for internal transactions and leks for foreign trade. So of course, leks traditionally performed better in exchange currency rates and latinum valuations. Right now, with the Federations reparations funding coming through, the Bajoran lek was climbing in value.

Even the lita was beginning to appear in interstellar money markets as investors began to view the Bajoran Republic as a force to contend with after repulsing four Starfleet invasion attempts. The Iotian Federation in particular wanted to expand their extensive trade ties into political alliances. The Republic and Outbound Ventures being the two single largest customers the Iotians had. Formalizing relations that extended beyond trade would go far in legitimizing the Iotian Federation in many planets' eyes.

The Iotians refused to give up. But that wasn't issue facing the Outbound Ventures corporate board today. Kathy Tyrol had been appointed CEO years before and was now introducing Caity Floss, the new Public Relations and Personnel Resources Manager. Floss had been a member of Starfleet's Bureau of Personnel before leaving BuPers for Public Relations. Resigning after a seven-year stretch, she hired on for an abortive career with Solarian Security Systems.

Floss had turned whistle blower and had cooperated with Federation Security and Starfleet's multiple inquiries and investigations into what was now the gutted shell of Outbound Ventures' greatest professional rival. Floss wasn't under indictment so she'd had nothing to hide and no deals to broker. She simply wanted to see justice done. That very criteria alienated and blacklisted her amongst all the other non-governmental agencies and companies she had the experience to apply to.

Tyrol had immediately snatched Floss up and provided a healthy hiring bonus and relocation costs. She'd even sent the Andor-class transport Lug Nut to ferry Floss and her belongings to Serenity Station, as the corporate headquarters was dubbed though it was still listed as Antok Nor by its builders on Cardassian and its allies' star charts. The Federation and Klingons not being part of them.

The elected Castellan, the second Cardassian to hold the post, Rekena Garan had moved against the Cardassian Guard and secured non-aggression agreements with the the Talarian Republic, the Tholian Assembly, the Gorn Hegemony, the Romulan Star Empire's remnants, and the Tzenkethi Coalition. All traditional rivals or aggressors.

Only the Breen Confederacy was a potential threat unwilling to sign with the Cardassians even after the Cardassian Union won its favorable peace terms with the Federation. Others, such as the Ferengi Alliance and First Federation had also been willing to sign the treaty terms. Bajor had already forged its own mutual defense pact with Cardassia Prime. The Dominion had deigned the terms unworthy of their attention. Though Odo's faction within the Great Link was garnering greater support every passing second, the holdout traditionalist Founders sought revenge against the Allied Forces that had fought them, the Cardassians for "betraying" them, and the Breen for failing them.

The Dominion had never lost an armed conflict against any beings outside of the Borg and it turned out the Founders were very sore losers. Despite the profitable detente enjoyed by the Dominion with the Federation, Klingon Empire, Cardassian Union, and Romulan Star Empire, the disappearing faction within the Great Link wanted to destroy them all before they lost influence. The Cardassians were even negotiating with the rising power of the Iotian Federation.

It was little wonder then that the Cardassians and the Bajorans both paid Outbound Ventures retainer fees for intelligence and military assistance. The Bajoran resistance to Starfleet's unwarranted aggression having been initially secured by the arrangement before Starfleet's own began defecting to the Bajoran cause. The Cardassian Bureau of Information retained the corporation for intelligence gathering beyond its usual scope.

The company also enjoyed favorable terms with the Orion Syndicate in this universe. Although the pirate culture of the Andergani Oligarchy was still a familiar foe. So too history was "altered" from their recollections by never having cause to visit the Nova Romans of 492 IV. Though Magna Roma and Sigma Iotia II were allies rather than the bitterest foes in this Prime reality.

One of four such Prime Realities split a nanosecond after the Big Bang birthed the multiverse. Though other alternate realities were stable branches such as the Terran Universe and the Kelvinverse. But their home reality, as well as the one Neela derived from, had been destroyed by some selective cosmic cataclysm. One that would begin killing off the elder Q in their Continuum. Which made one wonder about the lesser elevated races. The Prophets had chosen them and brought them here as interventionists employing the power of the Nexus Ribbon. But how and where did the One, trapped in the center of the galaxy; the Metrons, the Organians, the race that spawned Apollo, and others fare in this equation?

"Sorry I'm late," Lieutenant Christine Pike said as she joined them, "I was receiving the latest contract offers from Starfleet and the latest gossip regarding Admiral Nechayev."

"Let's start with Nechayev," Rockford suggested.

"Clancy demoted her without convening a Board of Inquiry or a court martial. It was a simple unilateral decision supported by Commodore Oh. They cited an obscure regulation unused since after the Battle of Axanar to justify the procedural manipulation."

"Clancy just served notice not to cross her," Macen grimaced, "How long before she goes after Admirals Jellico, Akaar, and Forger? Much less Commanders Senecka and Prentiss?"

"JAG is sheltering Prentiss and Senecka behind regs that state a superior officer cannot demote or charge a subordinate involved in investigating them. Admiral T'Lara herself is looking into the propriety of Clancy's action after Senecka filed an appeal on Nechayev's behalf citing both extraordinary circumstance and conflict of interest," Pike elaborated.

"This is over the classified information Nechayev released during the Bajoran and Cardassian Wars?" Rockford asked.

"Precisely," Pike conformed it.

"The information did paint Clancy in a negative light," Tyrol conceded.

"Which makes this a revenge move shielded by a regulation that Oh probably had to look up to unearth some precedent so specific to Clancy's case against Nechayev if it has a hope to get it passed JAG and the President," Macen surmised.

"So why should we have a response?" Caity Floss inquired.

"Because Nechayev sends a lot of work your way," Pike grated.

"All the more reason to stay quiet," Macen told Pike, "Despite Alynna being a personal friend."

"We are politically neutral," Tyrol reminded Pike, "We serve a host of clientele. Not just Starfleet's interests. As was clearly demonstrated in our being hired to support the Bajoran Republic despite Starfleet's involvement being contrary to that effort."

"Which risked our most lucrative retainer and clientele," Tyrol sounded miffed.

Macen and Rockford had overridden Tyrol's commercial interests to accept Bajor's contract. But now more systems were asking for Outbound Ventures patrols than the corporation could currently provide. So Caity Floss had been brought in to manage public affairs and recruiting while Tyrol, with Macen's backing, negotiated for more starships. The recent conflict had proven that Asia- (refit) class, Constitution- (refit) class, Miranda- (refit), Constellation-class, and Excelsior- (refit) class starships equipped with Type VIII phasers and modern photon torpedoes could hold their own against most Starfleet vessels.

Of course, the quality of captains and crews also played into it. Traditionally, Outbound Ventures had heavily recruited from ex-Starfleet officers and enlisted. Then they'd shifted to include former members of planetary defense forces from outside the Federation. As the Federation made contact with new races almost daily between the the galaxy's four quadrants, that meant an ever expanding pool of talent to draw from. Hence the necessity of bringing in an ex-Starfleet BuPers recruiting officer like Floss.

Floss had also served time in Starfleet's Public Affairs offices. So her qualifications weren't in question. Just her biases. Rockford had selected her own internal personnel to recruit any additional investigators for her final approval to join her detective agencies. Rockford detectives looked after their own. They were as much an extended family as Outbound Ventures' fleet was. And the fleet and detective agencies all revolved around this space station. Despite the Rockford Agencies having offices across the Federation and beyond it.

But Serenity Station served as headquarters for both entities. The station itself named by her first and only commander, Captain Thomas Riker. His Joined Trill wife, Lisea Danan, was his Executive Officer. Both had served in that position under Macen when he still captained starships. Now he let others carry that burden while he focused on his team and their contracts with Starfleet's SID or others.

Outbound Ventures now fielded thirty-six starships in the field. The most advanced models were decommissioned Starfleet vessels. These others consisted of a Newton-class, a Lancelot-class, a Sparta-class, an Andor-class, a Sirius-class, a Charleston-class, a Blackbird-class, and a Nova-class that was Macen's personal starship. He also kept a Ju'day-class Maquis raider on the side for low profile missions. The Charleston-class Indomitable was Riker's personal command as Serenity's primary outrigger. The Blackbird-class Solstice was a secondary outrigger generally commanded by Christina Noble, the station's Gamma Watch Commander.

Serenity Station also served as a commercial hub for the system and a vital trade link for the colony world of Odin which she orbited. The principal world in the system was Barrinor. But the banking cartels that ran the planet had tightened security so that only their own transports could bring cargo in. So Serenity served as a commercial way station where incoming traders dropped their goods and Barrinoran and Odinian freight runners picked it up to deliver to their worlds.

Orbital transporter transfers into quarantine zones were also accepted. But only the largest freight companies possessed mass cargo transporters. Starfleet, like any military organization, was forbidden to enter Barrinoran space without express permission from Barrinoran officials. The treaties that inured Barrinor's political neutrality also protected it from invasions from any single party or alliance of parties seeking to abscond with its latinum reserve holdings or digital or physical fiat currencies. Since nearly every space faring planet or coalition held reserves on Barrinor, it was mutually agreed upon that any theft or invasion would unite the staunchest of enemies in an effort to liberate Barrinor.

A mountainous planet, the vaults were buried beneath large granite peaks and defensive emplacements ringed the world both on the ground and in orbit. A planetary shield could be erected and secondary emitters replicated in seconds should any primaries fail. Phaser banks were embedded across the planet as well photon torpedo launchers with vast underground stores of ordnance.

In keeping with Outbound Ventures' constructing a Cardassian Nor-class station, the Barrinorans recently invested in the Cardassian orbital weapons platforms that had beaten Starfleet back on more than one occasion. Only this time, the controller would be based on a heavily shielded and defended world. Still, Starfleet's nose had been bloodied more than once by the constructs. Barrinor laced the system with them, creating deadly crossfires and concentrated kill zones. The Bajorans had also fortified their borders with the platforms. Long range sensor platforms dotted the Bajoran/Cardassian/Barrinoran territories now. No one was risking an unexpected invasion.

Despite the Federation's overtures to restore an alliance with Bajor, the Bajorans had been burned and refused to take Starfleet and the Federation at their words anymore. The treaty terms between Bajor and the Federation were even less formal that those when Starfleet first began to administer over Terok Nor. Starfleet's presence in the Bajor Sector was tolerated but not actively cultivated.

To Starfleet's alarm, the Bajoran Militia was using its access to Bajor's four completed shipyards to refit and renovate their mid-23rd Century analogue Starfleet type starships into something much more modern. Colonial Defense Force patrols weren't assumed by Starfleet but rather Outbound Ventures ships. Other than five Detroit-class cruisers, six Kremlin-class scouts, and the six Mercury-class frigates, the Militia's fleets had gone in for refits and redesigns. It was a strategic gamble that Kira was willing to make and the Joint Chiefs agreed.

Colonel Ro took up station at Free Haven Port, the J-class starbase the Iotians had built for the Militia with a Kremlin-class assigned just to ferry her to the K-class Waypoint Station in the Gamma Quadrant should she need to direct forces there in real time. That was proving to be unlikely because Iliana Ghemor had committed the Ascendancy's starships to supporting the Bajoran Gamma Quadrant colonies while the fleet was undergoing redesigns.

In exchange, Ghemor got an introduction to the Iotian Starfleet and its Corps of Engineers. With so many Ascendant ships damaged beyond repair in an accidental escalation between the Ascendancy and Starfleet, Ghemor was looking to improve her remaining pre-refit Constellation-class style fleet and bulwark her dreadnoughts.

Buying starships was also possible since the Ascendancy had access to latinum deposits. Also as well, the Iotian Federation would extend its usual "offer" to join their alliance in order to gain a foothold in the Gamma Quadrant. The Bajorans had advised Ghemor against doing so but she was an Emissary of the Prophets and they alone guided her.

Benjamin Sisko, the Emissary of the Prophets to the Bajorans and the Kai had visited Ghemor on Sinhera. Both came away convinced, as Neela was, that Ghemor was sincere in her faith having met the Prophets themselves in the Celestial Temple. Sisko recognized, as Neela had as well, that Ghemor was now touched by the Prophets and heard their voice.

The Kai, bless her, had initially found it difficult to believe that a Cardassian could be the Prophets' anything to a race of people descended from a blending of Bajoran heretics and the native Sinherans. Sisko alone hadn't persuaded her though. Vedek Opaka, freed from the undying prison world, lent her voice in Ghemor's support. Opaka had fulfilled promise to disappear into monastic obscurity rather than dispute the young, evangelical Kai's claim to the position. After all, she had the support of Sisko and Neela.

The Emissary and the one called the Hand of the Prophets by the people and Vedek Assembly communed with the Prophets directly and as such served as much as their voice as Ghemor did for the Ascendant. Opaka understood Neela's reluctance to involve herself with Assembly politics after her years of service to Winn Adami.

Neela felt tainted and unworthy to lead. But the Prophets had plans for her. That was why she'd been saved by them from certain death. Both from the void of space and from obliteration. Opaka wasn't an Emissary or a Hand but her pagh was attuned to the Prophets. She saw a great many of their truths. Such as the fact that they were hardly done with Sisko, Neela, and Ghemor. Kai Tila Trus would play a major role in their future service to the Prophets.

Tila being something of a firebrand who wished to take the word of the Prophets to every world. So it was that Kai Tila was the second kai in Bajoran history to launch a great missionary campaign. A campaign joined by Ghemor and endorsed by Sisko. Neela privately endorsed Kai Tila's efforts but wouldn't publicly join them. Whereas Sisko had become her advocate amongst the Federation races. His war record alone gaining him ears to hear. Then there were the prophecies that he'd delivered on behalf of the Prophets when he returned from the Celestial Temple. Most of which had to come to pass regarding the Federation's treachery and the discovery of the Ascendant. All events that had seemed unfathomable when he'd emerged back onto Bajor.

So too had his calling to unite with the Cardassian people. A happenstance that the wars had reinforced its coming. The Cardassians repaying the Bajorans kindness and faith during the Reconstruction decade with a loyalty that the Bajorans had thought to be found with the Federation. But despite the resealing of the Fire Caves, there was one last Emissary to be dealt with.

"Brin, I know your loyalties to the Bajorans are binding, but over half our fleet is committed to their protection right now," Tyrol complained.

"And they're paying us well for it," Macen reminded her.

"But we have other lucrative contract offers that are being refused because of it," Tyrol wouldn't back off just yet.

"The R & R rotation you've put the SID qualified crews into also hampers things," Pike complained, "Despite expanding the roster with the captains and crews of the Waylaid, Hammerfall, Waveriser, Artemis, and Manifesto."

"Which is why we purchased an additional twelve starships from the Iotians and I've been on a recruiting drive," Floss reminded Tyrol, "The captaincy final candidate lists are ready as well expanded executive officer rolls and over a thousand qualified crew candidates. Once you finalize the captaincies then they can work with my department in selecting their crews."

"You really found that many candidates so swiftly?" Rockford was amazed.

"Starfleet culled its ranks after the wars concluded. The conscripts were released but with valuable training and some experience," Floss elaborated, "Even the 'Ninety Day Wonder' officer candidates make valuable junior officers. A lot of enlisted terms came up during the conflict and those crewmen opted out of re-upping once the wars ended."

"Unjust wars have a tendency to purge the ranks," Macen admitted, "Not always for the better of the service affected."

"Starfleet lost a generation of command staff during the Dominion War. Those rapidly promoted haven't always lived up to their predecessors' legacies," Rockford had Captain Mandy Morris and her ilk in mind.

"To be certain, not every rapid promotion was ill conceived or implemented. But Starfleet detaining every Bajoran officer and enlisted during the war has cost them dearly. Non-Bajorans included who balked at the blatant racism," Pike agreed.

Everyone present knew Pike had almost resigned in protest herself until Macen and Rockford had begged her to stay on as a force for tolerance within the ranks. Still, a Captain Cera Neva was a rare Bajoran officer who remained in Starfleet when reinstatement was offered. The internment of all Bajoran Federation citizens had set off a mass migration for Bajor and her colonies.

Though one could lay the blame at ex-Presidents Sok, Perez, and Ardra's feet, the Federation's citizenry had simply rolled over and believed that their Bajoran neighbors could be foreign agents and saboteurs. They'd even reported on their neighbors sheltering Bajorans from the door to door searches being conducted by Federation Security and Starfleet Security's street patrols. The Ministry of Propaganda having done its job all too well. Merely to be reincorporated and kept even by the reinstated President Kilbrek as the Ministry of Information. Whose directors and agents remained the same as instituted by President Sok. All with suspected ties to Cell 51's Political Action Directorate.

Federation Security had quietly vetted and passed every serving Federation Councilor but had fallen short of investigating their staffers. Which is where Macen's friends and allies in Starfleet Command felt the problem truly lay. Federation Security having been complicit in their anti-Bajoran efforts during the war's course. Kilbrek had assigned a new Director but the agency's reputation had still been tarnished. Federation Security had cleared the Secretary for Starfleet, Akifa Chol, but Starfleet Intelligence and the Special Investigations Division still suspected her.

Starfleet Security, under Commodore Oh, washed their hands of investigating any further. Deeming it a matter of "impropriety" to investigate Starfleet's own Cabinet-level secretary. Yet Oh had held no such reservation about investigating President Kilbrek before his impeachment trial before the Federation Council. That willingness being the impetus that damned him after the vote of no confidence was taken that unleashed the impeachment proceedings and in fact, Oh had been Ardra's one supporter after officialdom learned from the Rockford Detective Agencies and sworn witness statements regarding Ardra's criminal past.

It was only after Ardra fled the Federation rather than face the preliminary vote of no confidence that would lead to her impeachment trial and remove her immunity to prosecution that Oh turned against her civilian commander-in-chief. Federation Security uncovered how Ardra had bartered away and outright sold Federation systems and colonies. Including colonists that had been enslaved by their new "masters". But the Starfleet Commander, Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy, sheltered Oh from any backlash. Only heaping additional suspicions upon her and Oh.

They were already the subject of half a dozen Starfleet probes and now Federation Security had begun inquiries as well. Yet they were all destined to come to naught until the year 2399. And only then because Oh's arrogance led her to reveal herself as a General in the Tal Shiar. Clancy allowed to quietly resign in the face of the scandal and her utter reliance upon Oh during the intervening years.

Starfleet Intelligence and the SID would run assessments only to determine that since Clancy had granted Commodore Oh unlimited access to every Starfleet secret, Oh had laid them bare to the Tal Shiar Director, Sela. But, in her swaggering overconfidence, Oh took all of her deep cover agents with her when she left Earth and Starfleet for good. In addition, Oh's cult of personality within Starfleet Security would be broken and leaderless. Internal Affairs would review every Security officer under Oh's tenure and command afterwards.

"But we're still down half of our available vessels," Tyrol complained.

"Not for long," Macen grinned.

The Iotian Starfleet arrived in the Bajor Sector with six Excelsior (refit)-class starships, six Miranda (refit)-classes, and six Constellation (refit) class as well six Archer-class scouts and six Errant-class starships exemplified by the second USS Bonaventiure in Starfleet service from 2245-2285. In exchange, the Iotians received latinum transfers and the Bajorans' fleet of Detroit-class, Mercury-class, and Kremlin-class starships for their resale market. These transfers were made at Fair Haven Port rather than alert Starfleet's officer corps administrating Deep Space Nine.

Before departing, the Iotian prize crews trained newly recruited Militia officers and enlisted in their operation. With the refit program well underway, the Militia would have twelve Constitution (refit) class starships and six Asia (refit)-class vessels as well. The six Excelsiors- were reserved for the Systems Defense Force.

Kira's group would patrol the Bajor Sector in addition to Ro's Colonial Defense Force patrols. Ro was offered an Excelsior-class as her flagship in exchange for two Connies- but the Colonel refused. She'd stand by the Fist of the Prophets once it was out of the yards. Meanwhile, the Archer- and Errant-class vessels took over deep space explorations in the Gamma Quadrant, replacing the less capable Kremlin-class scouts and doubling the exploration efforts.

The Miranda-class and Constellation-class starships were immediately put on patrols, replacing the venerable Mercury- and Detroit-class frigates and light cruisers. All of this would come as surprise to Commander Sam Lavelle, CO of DS9. However, most of his senior staff had been briefed by Kira ahead of time.

The day came as the Excelsior-class starships rolled into the Bajor system and Lavelle came out of his office in a fury, "Colonel Cesca! Where the hell did those Excelsior-class starships come from?"

The Militia Colonel exchanged a "Give me strength" look with Commander Elias Vaughn, the station's XO and CO of the USS Defiant.

"It was in the Militia briefs that you pointedly ignore," Cesca drolly replied.

"Starfleet has finally decommissioned that entire class," Lavelle wasn't pacified, "Did you receive them from Starfleet?"

"Point in fact, Starfleet retains one such vessel. The USS Lakota is still assigned as Deep Space Four's defensive outrigger," Vaughn interjected.

"I'd stay out of this, Commander Vaughn. You obviously knew what to expect. Yet no one bothered briefing me?" Lavelle was still angered.

"If you'd check the Militia briefings stacking up on your desk, you'd learn that Militia has traded off several vessels and received several more," Cesca had had enough.

"And your people still have eighteen starships in the refit yards?" Lavelle scoffed, "Bajor doesn't have that kind of latinum."

"If you'd read my briefings, you'd find the Bajoran Republic is flush with latinum at this juncture," Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas, the station Strategic Operations Officer, added.

"Are you saying I'm negligent in my duties, Commander?" Lavelle went cold.

"Only certain duties, Sir," Douglas stiffened.

In addition to being genetically enhanced, Douglas was ex-Starfleet Intelligence and one of the two hundred and fifty Single 0 agents. The only strata above that in Starfleet Intelligence were the ninety-nine Double 0 agents. Matters that Lavelle, even as a sector commander, wasn't privy to.

Agent 0212 helped Vaughn and Starfleet Special Operations Command deal with escalating developments in the region, quietly and off the books. Vaughn himself had been career SOC before transferring to DS9 to take up the XO role over ten years ago. Despite their identical rank, Vaughn had more time in grade than Lavelle had been in Starfleet's service. To avoid making the lists, Vaughn had declined promotion for the past twenty years. Something he'd begun reconsidering under Lavelle's short but notorious tenure as station commander.

The man had singlehandedly aided rogue elements within the Federation Council and Starfleet Command to engineer a war between the Federation and the Cardassian Union. Bajor's expulsion from the council and Starfleet's subsequent invasion of the sector had followed Lavelle's illegal raid into Cardassian space.

The Federation Council, President, and Starfleet had learned to never back Bajorans in a corner. It was an exceptionally costly mistake. One the Republic wasn't willing to open themselves up to again by remaining independent after the Federation Council asked Bajor to rejoin the Federation. The Bajoran Republic would remain independent for the foreseeable future. At least until the Federation leadership and Starfleet proved themselves trustworthy to the Bajorans again. The tide of public consensus had turned against Federation membership.

A decision First Minister Astris Beru was more than happy to abide by despite her own Starfleet record. Even she'd been burned by the Federation's choice to go to war against the Bajorans. That wasn't quickly or quietly forgotten. The populace now embraced sovereignty and independence over Federation collaboration. The Federation had faced dark says over the past year since the Mars Massacre, most of them of their own choosing.

The Federation Council and Starfleet Commander Clancy's decision to abandon Protectorate worlds and outer colonies had festered into an open rebellion in the Deeper Beta Quadrant and cost the Federation Bajor's trust. The Patriots, as the secessionist movement was called, had fully manifested itself over the wars and President Ardra's "selling" their colonies to slavers. It was no coincidence that the bulk of the Patriot leadership was comprised of relocated Maquis settlers.

Starfleet risked open confrontation every time they tried to enter the claimed space of twenty-two secessionist colonies. It was time for a different approach. Nechayev had asked M, the O Section Director, to dispatch Double and Single 0 agents into the field. They'd worked their way into the Patriots' periphery but they were still isolated from the leadership.

Nechayev had requested that Forger deploy Outbound Ventures crews to observe the movement. But as Pike had warned Forger, only seven vessels were currently unassigned or had crews that weren't guaranteed leave time. Pike laid open Forger's request.

Macen and Rockford exchanged rueful looks. The Obsidian and her crew as well as their team were one of the seven vessels available. The others were the newly promoted to SID clearance status. The Obsidian had Macen and Tracy Ebert as celebrity Maquis aboard her when she deployed. The Manifesto also had former Maquis as crewmen.

Pike had checked in with Sveta Korepanova and Kristiana Liu to discover that two other Maquis special agents were also available. Sakonna and Hakatay were currently unassigned. Outbound Ventures was an ideal middle ground for Forger's section. Unlike the 0 Agents, none of them were currently Starfleet officers or enlisted and their status as former Maquis gave them cause celebrity amongst the Patriots leadership as well as their neutrality as independent security contractors.

Having Joelle Jones, a former ideological opponent of Ro and Macen and close operative for Michael Eddington, aboard as the Obsidian's XO would also help sell it. Then there were Macen's inroads with the Iotians and the Orion Syndicate. Both carefully cultivated as occasional working partners. The nature of coincidence led Ro to reveal to Macen that the Patriots were the Iotians' buyers of the Militia's former Kremlin-, Mercury-, and Detroit-class starships.

But the mission profile called for concentrating on a solar system in an adjacent sector. The Rekena system and sector was important to the Patriots, the Romulans, and potentially the Klingons. It was here the bulk of Nechayev's 0 Section agents had been sent for purposes yet unrevealed. Forger promised further briefings while Outbound Ventures was en route.

"We'll do it," Rockford decided before Macen could reject the offer, "We can even drum up a crew for Sakonna and Hakatay to arrive in the Eclipse."

The Eclipse was a refurbished Ju'day-class raider. The type favored amongst Maquis cell leaders. Apparently, the Maquis Patriots had retrieved a number of Ju'day-, Ma'jel-, and Peregrine-class raiders from a stockpile hidden away and never discovered by Starfleet, the Cardassian Guard, or the Jem'Hadar. Added to their inventory were heavily armed Q-ship freighters. The type Joelle Jones had commanded prior to switching the SS Waylaid's ID and registration to a stolen United Earth Starfleet NV-class.

Jones had sold the registration to a consortium of Asian corporate colonists, all third and fourth born daughters looking to make a life outside of arranged business marriages for themselves. That Asia (refit)-class starship and crew now numbered amongst the SID cleared crews. It was also one of the four original decommissioned Starfleet vessels of the type.

As random chance would have it, the bulk of the senior officers were of Vietnamese descent. But the captain, Wei Ziya, was Chinese as were many other crewmen. The crew also included representatives from across Central and East Asia, including Slavic settlers from the Russian Far East and every member of the crew were women looking to make a mark in the galaxy. They'd certainly found their opportunity to with Outbound Ventures. Captain Wei and the crew had played a strategically important role in defending the Bajor Sector. Now that they'd been vetted by Starfleet, they could participate in SID contracted missions.

Other newcomers to the club were the officers and crew of the Hammerfall, the Waveriser, the Artemis and the Manifesto. The four starships had been obtained from the Iotians as were the bulk of the vessels serving in the Outbound Ventures fleet. They were part of the Iotians' "premium" starships line.

The Manifesto crew itself had relatively few Maquis in it but it did have a predominance of Starfleet veterans from worlds and territories abandoned to their own fate by Starfleet in the wake of the Mars Massacre. The Artemis also had a varied, but experienced, crew. Outbound Ventures had stepped in to regulate the worlds and defend them from interstellar predators and hostile planets. Generally the usual fees were waived owing to creative black bag financing from the SID.

Officers and enlisted from these beleaguered worlds had left Starfleet in disgust even before the unjust wars were begun in order to justify installing an autocratic regime in place within the Federation. Starfleet, still struggling to recover its numbers prior to the Dominion War, lost droves of experienced personnel and nearly every Bajoran residing within the Federation's heavily defended core worlds. But undefended worlds generally retained their Bajoran colonists and petitioned the Bajoran Republic for admission into Bajor's sphere of influence and protection. Their other viable option was the Iotian Federation.

The Bajoran Ministry cautiously began accepting these petitions while the Iotians gobbled up vulnerable worlds. So the sphere of protection enforced by the Militia's Colonial Defense Forces expanded rather than retracted after the war. The Federation Council made a show of blustering about Bajoran and Iotian increases in political and border spheres but in reality they were happy to divest themselves of the guilt associated with these former colonies and protectorates.

Clancy rattled her saber every time a world was absorbed. But her own policy making decisions prevented her from interfering or impeding these decision factors she'd herself driven to a head. Though, the Iotian Federation was beginning to look like a real rival rather than a parody. Starfleet itself had created the PR disaster that was the Federation's current relationship with Bajor. No one in Clancy's group of trusted advisors had ever considered that Bajor would defend the Cardassian position after they'd dispatched Lavelle in with a starship squadron to "liberate' the very Federation citizens they'd themselves consigned to Cardassian prisons in exchange for SOC and elite Security teams aiding the Cardassian Guard in putting down revolutions springing up on the Cardassian Subject Worlds.

Fed by stories of the Bajoran Resistance and the Maquis, these unfortunate souls thought they could throw off Cardassia's yoke and shackles as well. Without Starfleet's unofficial, but phasers blazing assistance, they might have succeeded on several worlds. Despite anti-slavery laws being the norm in the Federation, Clancy and Oh committed Starfleet forces to insuring the Cardassian Union retained control over a dozen worlds that dared rise up against their masters.

The Cardassian Guard was the hammer that crushed these revolts. Starfleet Security was the scalpel that removed the leadership, insuring that the Cardassians would win against a now-leaderless opposition. Only for the Cardassians to get even more heavy handed in dealing with their Subject Worlds. Commodore Oh's aforementioned cult of personality absolved the officers and enlisted from any guilt they felt by association. Then a handful of them were reassigned to oversee the Federation citizens Starfleet Security had been illegally detaining even now that they were removed from Federation black sites and placed under Cardassian care.

Even after their "liberation" by Commander Lavelle's forces, the prisoners were quickly transferred off of Deep Space Nine and ferried off into Iotian space rather than implicate Oh and Clancy in their complicity over the illegal detentions to begin with. The lack of debriefing the liberated prisoners and arranging transit to their new homes only fueled the rhetoric of war within the Federation Council. Itself unwittingly being led by Cell 51's Political Action Arm.

Cell 51 being the last extant splinter faction of Section 31. Even S31's Director had never known about his son's creation. James Fowler committed suicide rather than face prosecution. Blithely unaware of how his son, Jack, had arranged for the opportunity to do so to arise. But Fowler named names before he died implicating such war heroes as Vice Admiral Bill Ross amongst others.

Jack Fowler himself was secretly dead. Acting Agency Director Dylan Sorbo was just relieved that "Jack Fowler" and "John Browder" had survived a seeming certain death sentence when Fowler self destructed the starship they'd been aboard fleeing from the USS Defiant. Fowler had removed and ejected his positronic brain replacement into Dominion space as his last act of revenge. There, the Vorta named Eris recovered the positronic device and presented it to the dwindling number of Founders who wished to avenge themselves upon the Allies in the Alpha Quadrant that had led the Dominion to its first ever defeat.

So two Founders assumed Fowler and Browder's identities and returned to Redoubt Station, Cell 51's inherited bastion in the Taurus Reach and brought the Vortas named Eris and Kilana with them, proposing an alliance with the Dominion. They would collapse the Federation from within and crush its neighbors, putting them under the Federation's boot. The Federation would finally secure the peace through force that Jack Fowler had envisioned when he founded Cell 51.

Through the Federation, the Dominion would finally achieve a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant and begin its conquest before spreading out across the Beta Quadrant and smashing all Romulan and Klingon resistance. Finally, only the Delta Quadrant and the Borg would threaten the all encompassing Dominion. Even Odo's faction would have to concede the brilliance and necessity of the plan.

Every Founder wanted order to arise from the chaos. That order's pinnacle was the Founders themselves. Even if Odo's growing faction within the Great Link balked at the methodology, they all desired the peace that only absolute control could bring. They would conquer race after race until only the Borg remained. Then the feared Borg would be assimilated or be destroyed before the Founders' grandeur.

The Founders had genetically engineered and fostered the belief of their own godhood into the Vorta and Jem'Hadar. It seemed a bulk of the Founders had come to believe their own press. The very first step was to secure the Anomaly that led to the Gamma Quadrant. They would do so by eliminating the very beings that created and dwelt within the galaxy's only stable wormhole. No other gods could be tolerated.

The Bajorans and the Ascendancy would come to worship the Founders as the true gods of the Milky Way or be disposed of as so much solid waste matter. The Founders were inevitable. Anyone that safely realized that would be spared. All others would be driven into extinction.

"Jack Fowler" and "John Browder" could hardly wait to begin.

Macen and Rockford brought Korepanova and Liu into the operations loop as well as Riker and Danan and the captains and agents that would play a role in events to come.

"So what exactly is our role in this?" Captain Kitrina Bigelow of the Manifesto inquired. Her XO, Scott Bradley, seconded the question.

"And you want me to command the Eclipse?" Christina Noble was skeptical, "The Solstice can bring a lot more to bear in a fight than a crummy raider."

"This is an undercover operation," Rockford reiterated, "You're to assess the Patriots' strength. Not only militarily but in the fervor for the cause."

"We're the exit strategy for the agents Starfleet Intelligence has already placed within the Rekena Sector," Macen added.

"Chris has a point though, trading off a Blackbird-class starship for a raider is bad tactics," Shannon Forger, the CO of the Obsidian, opined.

"But it's good strategy," Joelle Jones, her XO and former Maquis, weighted in, "Macen, Xela, and Bigelow can make a flashy entrance in Starfleet type vessels but you can get inside with the barest invitation if you show up in a 'crummy' raider."

"I already feel like a collaborator," Noble complained.

"You're not going in to disrupt anything," Macen reminded them all, "We're simply observers assessing the strength of their claims and grievances."

"But not their ability?" Bigelow was skeptical, "That isn't very Starfleet."

"It also isn't our job. Outbound Ventures is covering ideology and legitimacy here," Rockford stressed, "You're to determine how just their cause is. Not to formulate a response. Starfleet already has Intelligence operatives within the Patriots. Their job is to assess strengths and weaknesses to enable Starfleet Command to formulate a reponse. Your job is to steer that response."

"These colonies were ready to secede from the Federation itself before Ardra 'sold off' some of their worlds to parties that demand a return on their investment. The Federation Council, in it s benighted glory, refuses to refund the sums that were paid to Ardra directly. So that leaves would-be slavers demanding uninhibited access to these worlds and even Starfleet support in enforcing their mandates over the settlers. You're making the case on whether or not Starfleet should honor Ardra's deal making," Macen explained.

"Why is that even a question?" Korepanova wanted to know.

"There are those peaceniks that want to honor Ardra's dealings because she was the president at the time she made these covert sales. Whether the sales themselves were even legal or not doesn't factor into the fact we have a half dozen parties escalating tensions throughout that border region. The Federation Council is looking to buy peace again," Riker grimly assessed.

"Tom's right. This another DMZ type trade off. Except this time the new owners don't want to vacate the planets to make room for their own population. They want to trade and sell the colonists off to parties unknown. The deal on the table is that if the Federation backs out of the deals Ardra made then the slavers will simply raid every Federation world in the Deeper Beta Quadrant until they meet their sales quota. Because apparently they've already signed the enslavement deals to buyers unknown," Macen shared, "That's the secondary portion of our objective. To discover who the prospective buyers are and why they want they want Federation citizens as slaves."

"So you're telling us the buyers are only interested in buying these colonists precisely because they are Federation citizens?" Bradley was dismayed.

"That is contingent on the deals. And the latinum has already traded hands. Whoever the buyers are, the slavers are more afraid of them than of Starfleet," Macen revealed, "So they won't renege on the deals made. Not that the buyers are even interested in refunds. They only want product."

"We know this for certain?" Jones inquired.

"One hundred percent certain," Rockford elaborated, "The buyers won't penetrate Federation space to simply take the people on their own. That's why they want a third party transaction. Ardra knew all of this in advance it seems."

"And we've ruled out the Orions?" Danan asked.

"The Orions are no strangers to slavery. But they employ their own to capture prospective slaves through raiding parties and piracy. And my sources in the Syndicate indicated that this was news to them. They in fact, are gunrunning materials into the Patriot zone," Macen explained, "They aren't ones to kill off a lucrative market. The longer the Patriots resist, the more the Syndicate makes."

"And two of my detectives uncovered the fact that Harry Mudd the Third and the Fourth are smuggling large quantities of weapons along with Thadiun Okona," Rockford added, "But we know they can't be the only suppliers. Everyone here knows it's only a matter time before the Iotians move in on this market."

"To which I've learned from Fleet Boss Kracko that the Iotian Starfleet isn't involved in the weapons trade with the Patriots. But that still leaves the Turkanans in the potential loop."

"Joy," Riker groused, "Just who we need pilfering about in a potential civil war."

"I seriously doubt Ishara Yar will let her people fight on the Patriots' side but she'll be more than willing to smuggle contraband in for them," Macen expressed his summation.

"So who do we send in to approach the Mudds and Okona?" Korepanova asked.

"Harri has been wanting to have a chat with her father and brother. I'd say now is good time for one," Rockford opined.

"But we don't send her in alone. She might kill them all," Macen warned everyone, "Mudd Kenra's hidden existence has Harri even more riled up against her father than usual. We need a neutral third party to go with her."

"I take it you have a candidate in mind," Riker guessed.

"Two, actually," Macen grinned, "Neela and Colonel Anara have been wanting something extra to do in between their usual Militia expeditions. If anyone can rein Harri in, it's them."

"What about Agent Delain," Forger asked.

"There are too many ex-Maquis around the area to risk Ziva's life on," Rockford shot down that suggestion before it was made.

"So we sail in and wave the flag," Bigelow assessed, "But whose flag?"

"Our own," Macen told her, "It's a simple business scouting trip."

"With three starships?" she sounded dubious.

"We might as well show off what services we can provide," Macen shrugged.

"A demonstrable show of force could go a long with revolutionaries," Rockford stated.

"Really? You're applying labels now?" Jones was upset, "It wasn't so long half the people in this room were labeled 'revolutionaries', 'terrorists', and 'rebels' by the powers that be."

"And we still are at the highest levels of Starfleet," Macen replied, "Commodore Oh and Fleet Admiral Clancy bandy those and other labels about every time our corporation and our Starfleet retainer are mentioned. Clancy just doesn't trust anyone out of uniform and Oh has an agenda all her own."

"She trusted Solarian Security Systems," Forger pointed out, "Of course, she was sleeping with its founder."

"Who is now a fugitive and 'person of interest' to both Starfleet investigators and Federation Security," Danan reminded them all, "Clancy and Oh haven't bullied them all into submission yet."

"It'll still be a whitewash no matter Prentiss and Senecka dig up," Riker grumbled.

"President Kilbrek could still ask for Clancy's resignation since Starfleet will be reluctant to court martial. But I rather doubt our sloth-like friend will ever do so," Macen acknowledged, "But we've been exonerated by the investigations. Unless Clancy and Oh can manufacture some realistic evidence that stands under scrutiny, our position is secured."

"Provided we don't self-destruct ourselves," Rockford warned everyone, "We're going into an area of space deemed hostile to Federation interests. Starfleet will be carefully observing us from a distance. So will Nechayev's agents on the ground. We can't afford to show overt support to any side."

"Why not?" Jones asked, "Isn't what an assessment is?"

"If we openly support Starfleet's position of simply retaking the colonies by force, as Clancy has pushed for, we blow any chance of connecting with the colonists. If we advocate for the Patriots as a group and act on their behalf, Starfleet will deem us as traitors," Macen advised them all.

"Don't they already believe that thanks to our corporate support of Bajor?" Forger asked.

"According to Clancy and Oh? Yes, definitely. But then your sister and her collaborators set up shop on this station to undermine President Sok's regime and coordinate resistance amongst Starfleet officers," Macen explained the technicality, "But both Presidents Perez and Ardra forbade disciplinary action against them and us as well."

"Which Clancy and Oh are going back on those presidential pardons in light of Perez and Arda's malfeasance," Pike revealed, "You can bet Admirals Akaar, Jellico, and Forger are next on the hit list."

"Then we might be next," Tyrol grated.

"Then it would be a breach of contract," Pike assured her, "Which is why arbitration would proceed a JAG court examination of the breach, their fault or your fault it still requires an administrative hearing before a JAG appointed special counsel."

Pike's intensity grew, "Clancy doesn't have the authority to unilaterally cancel your contract and retainer. If a settlement couldn't be reached in arbitration then the Judge Advocate General herself would rule on the matter."

Pike steeled herself, "That's true for any disciplinary actions Clancy unilaterally takes on an officer or enlisted rather than brings them forward to a Board of Inquiry for a determination of whether or not recommend a court martial. Nechayev was demoted in a symbolic showing of Clancy exerting her assumed power to dole out revenge for disobeying her express orders and assisting the Bajorans or refusing to engage them. Lt. Commander Senecka is already disputing Clancy's lack of adherence to regulations stating how to go about charging and punishing a subordinate officer. The SID is safe for now even if Admiral Forger is forced out. Clancy can recommend to BuPers who should promoted into the role but that promotion has to go before a review board and approve of her recommendation."

"Combat promotions are considered brevet promotions pending a BuPers review of the officer's record and assessment along with any commendations on record," Riker recalled his own drive to be promoted above the rank of lieutenant after his eight-year ordeal to survive.

"Look at the Voyager crew when they made it home," Bigelow stated, "They received three adjustments in grade based on Admiral Janeway's recommendations and the commendations she kept on file while they struggled to get home. But it was BuPers that certified those promotions after a careful review of Janeway's logs and the flight recorders. Only two officers received a single elevation in grade and that was largely because they took extended sabbaticals following their return."

Bigelow, of course, was referring to Commander Tuvok and Captain Chakotay. Most of the enlisted crew, having served their mandated seven year service tours, left Starfleet behind. Mariah Henley was the sole holdout and promoted to Chief Warrant Officer. She was reassigned to Voyager when she left Space Dock. First under Chakotay's command and now under Captain James T. Kirk.

Chakotay took the USS Protostar and delved deeper into unexplored regions of the Delta Quadrant Voyager had skipped over or passed by without stopping. That didn't include the vast swathes of the quadrant they'd never seen before. Doing so was the Protostar's mission.

Voyager too re-entered the Delta Quadrant but her five-year mission there wouldn't probe as deeply as the Protostar would before its disappearance. Vice Admiral Janeway took upon herself to track down the missing Protostar and her crew. Assuming command of the newly constructed USS Dauntless to do so. Kirk and the Voyager investigated every rumor concerning the Protostar's missing location but they still had first contact and surveying duties to attend to as well.

"Even Clancy can't reverse the terms of Starfleet's contract with Outbound Ventures," Pike concluded.

"Clancy expects Nechayev to appeal her demotion on the grounds that is against regulation and therefore invalidated," Macen offered, "It'll be the test case where the limitations, or lack thereof, of the Starfleet Commander are ratified or denied. Admiral T'Lara will probably preside over the matter to make it authoritative."

"By the way, should anyone care, Clancy sited a single use clause in the regulations following the First Klingon War," Rockford and her people had researched it, "Starfleet cited Captain Garth's war record as sign of habitually disobeying orders to remain clear of the fighting. It's never been invoked again until now. With good reason. "

"So who gets to break the news to Harri?" Forger asked.

"Celeste and I will inform Harri personally. Bryce will contact Anara and Neela and arrange for a meeting with Harri while later Celeste I explain the mission to everyone in attendance. Especially Harri," Macen referenced his own administrative aide, Bryce Fanning.

"So we're expected to just fly into hostile territory and say 'Hi! We'd like join up?'" Noble inquired.

"You'll have a nearly all Maquis crew. I'm recommending we send Sito Jaxa with you. She's a decorated pilot so she can easily slide into duties at the CONN," Macen told Noble.

"Sito and I were both incarcerated by the Cardassians in that prison. That credential wil get her past the Maquis leaders of this revolt," Riker promised.

"And everyone aboard ship should continue to ignore the corporate uniforms while away," Macen and Rockford's team never wore the corporate uniform anyway. They were always inserting themselves into civilian populations with the intent of blending in. Very few Corporate officers off the station wore Tyrol's recommended uniform. It had simply fallen out of vogue aboard the starships once the novelty wore off.

"So, given the Eclipse and Freehold's slower rates of travel, how many days head start should we give them?" Korepanova inquired.

"At least five," Riker told them, then the Obsidian, Artemis,and the Manifesto can depart here and arrive in the Rekena Sector near the same time frame."

"We'll reconvene in ten hours to strategize our mission. In the interim we'll inform Harri and the Militia liaisons that they're about to take trip across the quadrant," Macen decided.

"What happens if we don't bring a plan to discuss?" Bigelow asked.

"You're new to this side of the operations planning," Riker softened it for her and her XO, "Just throw out some recommendations when we re-gather. It doesn't mean they'll get ino the eventual outcome but it'll show that you're participating," Riker told her, "In the meantime, while you're dwelling on that, prep your crew for an imminent departure. As soon as Harri and Chris get into the conflict zone and signal us, the faster you leave here."

"I'll get Tulley getting everyone aboard," Noble said, "I'll brief them on the way."

Aric Tulley had been Ro's right hand man until he broke faith with her Maquis cell and went to follow Michael Eddington.

"I'll inform Jaxa," Riker wanted to give Sito the news personally.

"I'll begin war gaming scenarios," Korepanova informed everyone as she exited.

"I'll get every intelligence reports from the area and sort them out to everyone involved," Danan offered.

"And I'll inform Gerrit and Cardan they'll be short staffed for the duration," Riker referred to Gerrit Gren, the Chief of Security and Merrick Cardan, the Chief of Operations and original overseer of the Cardassian teams that constructed Serenity. Cardan had just wished to stay aboard and tend to his newborn baby.

"So we all know what we're doing to ruin our crews' days," Forger mirthlessly chuckled.


Chapter Two

"You want me to what?" Harriet Fedora Mudd was outraged to begin with.

"I need your father and brother stonewalled at the least and a detailed layout of who is supplying these weapons the Patriots are receiving," Macen repeated himself.

Mudd balked, "I've got no love for my Pops or my idiot brother but you just want me to tag them and someone will follow them wherever they go?"

"Precisely," Rockford interjected.

"And I'm bringing these two?" Mudd angrily stared at Anara and Neela.

"Both of them are pilots and engineers. Something you'll need since you might fly into a trap," Macen elaborated on his scheme.

"It does make sense," Anara, who was decidedly uncomfortable out of uniform. She had to wonder when that change had occurred.

"It makes perfect sense. I've seen this crossroad before and I know the only way we'll succeed is by working together," Neela imparted on them, "Besides, it's a Bajoran freighter. I know more about it than your wildest modifications could ever confuse me."

"It's strategically sound. It evens the odds of us versus them," Anara consented, "And Neela's right. We've jury rigged countless Cardassian machines and weapons to use against them. Dealing with something built by our people will simply streamline our efforts and shave time off of our repairs."

"What kind of engineers are you again?" Mudd inquired.

"Combat engineers," Anara answered first.

"I was Chief O'Brien's deputy at Deep Space Nine for several months before I was arrested, tried, and convicted," Neela said smoothly.

"What were you convicted of?" Mudd was feeling nosy now.

"I killed a Starfleet officer and disposed of his body in an EPS conduit," Neela told her, "I also attempted to kill Vedek Bareil Antos. I also blew up the school on the station's Promenade in an effort to segregate Bajoran and alien children from each other."

"Shouldn't you have been executed or imprisoned for life?" Mudd asked another question.

"I was. But the First Minister was convinced to pardon me by Kai Winn so that I could track and destroy the True Way terrorists," Neela finally explained to Mudd, "That was how I was reunited with Anara."

"Weren't you two in the same fight club during the Resistance?" Mudd made one last inquiry.

"We joined the Resistance cell together, fought side by side shifting from one cell to another as members died. We joined the Militia on the same day and were scheduled to rotate though Deep Space Nine at the same time," Anara explained, "But Neela was needed on Bajor to help diffuse explosives and clear them away. The Cardies left scattered fields of land mines, tree mines and explosives attached to reactor facilities and water treatment plants. They also left a lot of ground vehicles in states off disrepair. Neela handled them for months while my six-month tour at Terok Nor ended and I was returned to Bajor and volunteered for the Special Forces. Neela arrived at DS9 a few days after I'd left."

"We didn't contact or see each other again until the day of my release when Anara picked me up in one of the rovers I'd repaired a few years before that," Neela added.

"Okay, you I trust," Mudd told Neela, "But have no obvious flaws. That means you'll pull them out at the worst possible time. I'm keepin' my eye on you."

Mudd stood and the Bajorans rose as well. She hit her wrist communicator, "Freehold, three to beam over. Mark."

The transporter converted them into energy and then then reassembled them aboard the freighter.

"Now for the tour," Mudd announced, "She may not be pretty but she's a leggy bitch."

The two former engineers had differing views of the Freehold's enhanced warp core and drive systems. Anara though the freighter was a death trap while Neela applauded the work and the tested results. Additionally, when they arrived on the bridge, Anara blurted out, "Is that a weapons console?"

The console in question was to the right of the CONN/OPS dual helm control. The Freehold was adapted to be flown by a single individual.

"I may or may not have installed a forward torpedo launcher with a three round magazine," Mudd smirked.

"You also have five Type VIII phaser banks," Neela sounded just as impressed as she had in the engineering section.

"I've also got a small cache of small arms and a fully stocked wet bar," Mudd boasted.

"I see the shield emitters were enhanced as well," Neela had pulled up the Master Systems Display.

"The weapons are my last resort," Mudd encouraged her to read on, "First comes my 'sprint' mode that overdrives the engines to Warp 8.7 sustainable for fifteen minutes with a regular drive enhancement that allows me to choose Warp 6.7 for up to twelve hours instead of the sprint. The usual cruising speed tops out at Warp 4.8."

"So between your drive enhancements and shield strength your first reaction is to run. But you also have the limited capability to respond with force," Anara understood, "And since you tied the phasers to the warp core, you can't use them during warp speeds."

"But I can defend myself at my cruising speed with torpedoes or at impulse with phasers," Mudd congratulated Anara's sudden understanding.

"Its not that different from the Ark of the Prophets," Neela reminded Anara of their usual vessel given to them by the Bajoran Militia.

"But the Ark was purpose built to be a troop transport. This is a smuggler's sex dream," Anara scolded her friend.

"Better program the replicator to fit you out with some spare clothing. At our cruising speed, it'll take almost two weeks to reach the Patriot's zone," Mudd advised, "I'll take us out and set us on course and then run you through operating the bridge systems."

"We've operating in space craft since we were teens," Anara felt slighted.

"But these aren't spare parts cobbled into a sub-impulse raider," Mudd got terse, "This is a long range space faring vessel like your Ark. And I need to explain how idiosyncracies developed after all the mods were installed. I trusted Tom Eckles and Heidi Darcy's work while they helped me refit this thing. But she still balks on occasion. You need to know to operate around the problems while they fix themselves."

"It sounds more like software patches conflict with one another rather than a hardware issue," Neela said encouragingly, "I can root out and synchronize the wetware and software into something more consistently operable than not."

"I'll re-cable your ODN lines between the bridge and the computer core. You have cable bundles just hanging around waiting for someone to trip on them and disconnect the bridge from the computer. The backups will handle data transfers until I re-engage the primaries and then cut and restore the secondaries. Then I'll do the same for the trunk cables leading to the engineering space," Anara offered, "By the time we're in position, I'll have double-checked your lines running to defenses and weaponry."

"Damn, I shoulda had you two aboard when we were modifyin' everything," Mudd was impressed, "`Course I was supposed to have three more weeks in the yard before setting sail aboard her. So Eckles and Darcy did the best they could under the new due date."

Anara was stuyding the various ODN bundles, were mercifully labeled, "They were doing everything right accept run the primaries through the conduits. But they already had begun pulling cables into place and and activating the 'plug and plays' Federation tech is so well known for."

"The coding in these OPS systems look familiar," Neela confessed, "But whoever it was, they merely patched rather than rewrote with the necessary adaptations already embedded."

"I'll leave you two at it then. If anyone actually needs me, I'll be in the bridge," Mudd happily informed them.

It took the full two weeks to reach Patriot space beyond the Klingon Empire but the repairs had been completed just the day before. So they went to find the Class-M dwarf planet that orbited a brown dwarf. They were called Mensa and Rottero. Rottero in turn orbited the primary red sun. But centuries of neglect and heavy resource harvesting had left Mensa less an M-class world and transforming it into a Class-L marginally habitable world. Most of the inhabitants had already escaped the ecological collapse that their planet represented. But there were those that stayed on anyway.

The wind ravaged, dust storming Mensa had become the drop zone for Okona, Harry Mudd IV, and Harry Mudd III. There they could accept payment and leave the cargo in the hands of buyers and fly off to fulfill the next string of orders requiring attention. The original drop location had been found by detectives working for Rockford. With the site exposed, it was moved.

But Harri Mudd knew just who to shakedown to get the drop location. Currently, the exchanges took place at Isegaard, a world outside of the Patriot zone. Neela looked up the planet's survey and classification, "It looks grim."

"How so?" Mudd asked from the CONN/OPS station.

"There are only two super-continents," Neela explained, "One is typical of a temperate M-class world but the other continent is a vast desert. No polar ice caps or landmasses. Even the continents exist outside of those ranges."

"Population range?" Anara asked from the weapons console to Mudd's right.

"Less than 100 million. And almost all them living on the lush continent," Neela answered, "The locals refer to the desert as the Scorched Earth. The Enterprise-D made first contact over a decade ago. A second contact mission was able to delve into the population's history. Both continents had been lush and fertile. A war waged with nuclear and chemical weapons turned one into the desert. Certain zones are radioactive and others are still toxic from the chemical used in the attack."

"What about the populated areas?" Anara wondered.

"They took to fighting a nuclear winter and prevailing winds from blowing toxic fumes across the oceans. The USS Carlsbad's second contact mission was to construct terraforming atmosphere converters to screen out the heavy elements and the remaining chemical clouds into something breathable," Neela read off.

"Where were these towers built?" Mudd inquired.

"On the devastated continent," Neela was quick to answer.

"Then that's where we'll find Pops and my idiot brother," Mudd informed them.

"Why there?" Anara asked.

"Would you expect gunrunners and their buyers to intentionally land in a nuclear and chemical wasteland?" Mudd asked in reply, "And then do business there besides?"

"I see your point," Anara conceded.

"We're coming out warp," Mudd informed them.

"Will we be detected?" Anara asked.

"They'd just demonstrated warp capability which prompted the Enterprise to divert and establish first contact," Neela read from her screen scrolling the data the SID provided her with, "At that time each continent was thriving. But despite Picard's insistence that both continental leaders be present, they went to war with each after the Enterprise departed. The results of which are plain to see. The USS Carlsbad second contact team learned that it was a premeditated first strike that caught the other inhabitants by complete surprise. It seems sacrificial saboteurs gave their lives destroying their enemy's early detection systems and their air defenses."

"That's pretty extreme," Mudd assessed.

"We did the same getting the Cardassians to withdraw from Bajor," Anara reminded Mudd, "We never scarred the land though. Instead we stopped the Spoonheads from employing a scorched earth policy before they left."

"Instead, we scorched them," Neela said in a hardened voice.

Mudd had to be reminded that before Cardassia withdrew from Bajor, the pair had been branded as Resistance terrorists by the Cardassian Guard. Starfleet decided to look past the histories of the Resistance fighters that became the Bajoran Militia. Something they refused to do later when faced with Maquis threatening the peace treaty reified in the Demilitarized Zone.

The Federation Council was so desperate for peace they sold out their own colonists. The treaty even stipulated that the Cardassians had administrative control of the DMZ worlds. While the Federation or even Starfleet had never been threatened or attacked, the Maquis were reviewed as a rebel faction of terrorists. As such, Starfleet had participated in efforts to apprehend the Maquis. There had even been a joint Cardassian Guard and Federation Security counter-terrorism task force at one point. Ro Laren's plea deal after the Dominion War concluded liberated her crew but sent her back to Jaros II before her career was rehabilitated.

"Nav sensors have a lock on something orbiting the planet," Mudd suddenly announced, "Can you get a better view of the target?"

Anara activated the ship's defenses. Leaving Mudd to insure that they safely arrived.

"It's a modular space station. There are no life signs on it," Anara explained, "Wait! Three bio signs have emerged from a shielded area."

"Is it armed?" Mudd asked rather tersely.

"No. And one phaser strike would destroy the mod connectors and it would spiral down on the planet. If any mods survived re-entry that is," Anara had already calculated the shot.

"Let it be," Neela interrupted, "They're obviously helpless."

"And they will communicate with the ground forces if they haven't done so already," Anara conceded.

Mudd decided to buzz the station with one hundred meters off of the structure during the fly-by.

"That should have them pissing in their whatevers," Mudd gloated.

A traffic control station directed them to land and sent a 3D map of the area.

"No way am I gonna land my baby on a military base," Mudd growled as she accelerated forward at full impulse.

"Make for the other continent," Neela insisted, "It'll be the drop zone for the smugglers anyway."

"And you would know this with certainty?" Mudd inquired.

"We were the 'terrorists' you mentioned earlier, "Anara snarkily retorted.

"Good point," Mudd conceded, "Luckily I keep my war chest of rebreather masks and anti-rad ampules together in the armory. I think we'll need them."

"We will," Anara groused, "The radiation emanating from some of those hot zones is still lethal."

"But we noticed your decontamination area set aside from the main airlock," Neela added.

"Isagaard may not look like much but the locals have got murderous resolve," Mudd warned them, "They did nuke and sterilize half the planet. Just your basic genocide reducing half your population and living space in one swift move.

"But Starfleet condoned and embraced them anyway," Anara snorted.

Starfleet wasn't a popular conversation right now. Maybe not ever again.

"Oh shuk!" Mudd was suddenly alarmed, "These ass hats have crappy space stations but they have warp capable starships."

"I have them," Anara was all business, "I have a manual lock on the lead delta. Where the hell did they get that kind of tech?"

"Starting our run into atmo," Mudd announced.

"Delta wings are the most stable configuration for atmospheric operations," Neela warned her.

"Shuk frinx!" Mudd already had the shields up.

They bucked from the forced re-entry into an atmosphere and the phase cannons bursts that were undermining their shields.

"Why the hell are they picking on me?" Mudd lamented.

"Dive! Now!" Neela shouted at her. Mudd knew well enough not to question her.

"This scout-cargo runner isn't designed with atmospheric dog fighting in mind," Mudd warned her.

"Trim out and set course into that city at fifteen degrees true," Neela instructed.

"The delta wings are breaking off pursuit," Anara managed to be astonished.

"Welcome to the exchange site," Neela told them both.

"They were testing our loyalties," Anara understood now.

"We're outta the space the Patriots have claimed as their own," Mudd caught on as well, "The Isaagardians are 'officially' neutral. So they can't afford to be seen as arming the rebels."

"Especially with massive soil converters and detoxification towers purging the atmosphere and ground," Anara agreed, "And since the Carlsbad's second contact mission provided them all and Starfleet responds to repair requests from the locals."

"Processes that the natives can't afford to remain hindered as they continually have a population surge and desperately need to colonize the wastelands," Neela added for effect, "That's why we were never challenged and were given the opportunity to 'crash land' on the surface of the dead zone."

"So even when we move out, they'll play like we're dead?" Mudd was less than convinced.

"The Isaagardians will. But the Patriots will dispatch hunter-seekers to locate us," Neela predicted.

"Sensors have a high speed object headed straight for us," Anara was all business now.

"A probe?" Mudd asked.

"No, it's manned," Anara told her.

"Lock phasers on it but don't fire until I say so," Mudd instructed.

"This is a strictly terrestrial craft. In fact, it's a sub-impulse raider," Anara was intrigued. She and Neela had built and maintained such vessels during their days in the Bajoran Resistance. The raider barely veered off to avert a head on collision.

"They're hailing us," Anara reported, "And they're returning to get behind our aft and their weapons are priming."

Mudd activated her viewer but no image appeared on the side panel screen, "What the frinx?"

"It's audio only," Anara told her.

"Hey! Whoever is riding my ass, my name is Captain Harri Mudd and I want to speak with my father and idiot brother," she declared, "I know they're here."

"Follow us," came an almost robotic reply. As the raider soared over them, it began to guide them through the devastated city. Three more raiders formed up around the Freehold.

"Oh, for the luvva God," Mudd muttered to herself.

"Do you have EVA suits?" the robotic voice inquired.

"Of course," Mudd happened to have four in storage.

"You'll need them," the voice told her.

They were then guided to an area where both a soil and atmospheric distiller were located at. The air still looked toxic.

"You may land there," The raiders slowed their velocity as they came over what was left of an airport. Sitting on the tarmac below were several Ju'day-class raiders, a Ma'jel-class and two Peregrine-class couriers. But none of them muttered to Mudd. Only the two Federation Merchantman-type freighters did.

A quick transponder ping told her they were the Erstwhile and the Fortunate Son. One being Okona's ship and the other her brother's.

"Neela, do you think you could beam an emergency transponder beacon inside those Merchantmen where they wouldn't be easily discovered," Mudd asked, "And attach the sensor logs from our little encounter here?"

"Of course," Neela smiled brightly and went back to the cargo bay.

"We have to lower our shields to land," Anara reminded Mudd, "They know it and we know it."

"Do it," Mudd decided. Anara reluctantly did so as she also disengaged the phaser locks she'd placed on each sub-impulse raider. The raiders veered off.

"I'm initiating lock down procedures. From this point on internal anti-intrusion measures will ignore the three of us and blast everyone else to bits," Mudd advised Anara. They found Neela by the airlock stripped down to a body glove she'd taken from Mudd's stores.

"I remotely tied the beacon's into the ships' navigational systems," Neela told them, "When they re-enter uncontested Federation space, the beacons will begin broadcasting. They each have a sector-wide transmission range."

Mudd wore an evil smile, "Good."

They went through the decontamination chamber to reach the external airlock. Mudd activated the smart metal exterior ladder before purging the atmospheric gases from the chamber. Afterwards the hatch opened.

"Okay, I've officially arrived in Hell," Mudd grimaced at her first actual sighting of the locale.

"We have a welcoming committee," Neela warned Mudd. The armed strangers wore mid-23rd Century orange EV suits with atmospheric rebreathers. The only unarmed member of the group flashed his wrist computer display at them. It indicated a transmission bandwidth. The three adjusted their comms.

"Can you hear me now?" the leader inquired.

"For now at least," Mudd retorted.

"Mudd said you were a smart ass," the leader was humorless, "Follow us."

"Why the suits?" Mudd asked as she and the Bajorans fell in line "guarded" by their escorts.

"The soil reclaimator kicks up a lot of heavy elements, fallout, and irradiated dust that the atmosphere processors then purify along with the toxins already contained in the air," the leader answered. They saw the airlocks at every doorway and that the windows were sealed against the air seeping in.

"How did the attackers contain the toxins and fallout to just this super continent?" Anara had to wonder.

"The locals may not be the most spacefaring race in the sector but they did master weather control a few years before bombing the shuk out of these people," their guide answered yet again, "There's a vortex situated above the continent that traps the lethal by-products in, around, and on this continent."

Armed sentries in EV suits guarded a large building that seemed to be a terminal of some sorts.

"Inside," their guide tersely instructed them. Inside the main hatch was a decon chamber. Once it finished its cycle, the trio were led to a train terminal.

"Before you board, I need to extract a DNA sample from the one calling herself Mudd,"the group leader told them, "The train cars are airtight and pressurized so you won't need your helmets anyway."

They removed their helmets and Mudd identified herself. A hypo withdrew a small blood sample. A techie took te ampule and ran a comparison to Harry and Harry Jr.'s samples.

"She's who she claims to be," the tech reported in.

"Board the train," the sentry leader demanded, "It'll take you right to where you want to be."

"Want is overstretching it," Mudd snorted, "But it's time for a family reunion."

"As long as those phasers remain on your hips and undrawn you should do fine," the lead advised them. The train departed soon after they boarded. The station itself been fitted with a sealed barrier wall made of transparent aluminum and they proceeded through an airlock to board it. Once they were aboard, everything was remotely activated by a controller at the station stop.

The train departed the station and quickly rushed along on the mag lev system. The Patriots seemingly had spared no shortage of repair work. But a padd left behind by Starfleet engineers explained that they'd repaired the mag lev system and installed the airlocks at every point where an air processor and nearby soil reclaimator were located. Dozens of soil reclaimators were spread across the continent. The padd also revealed that the two great oceans had also been contaminated and radiation absorption/purifiers had been installed along the coastlines of both continents.

The train came a halt and an umbilical hatchway sealed itself against the train car. The lights went green and the airlock opened. They hadn't been certain what to expect but the sight of more armed sentries dismayed them all.

"Now, now. Boys," Harcourt Fenton Mudd III talked them down, "My little Harri isn't going to make trouble."

Mudd stepped out and handed Harry a right cross, "I haven't been your little anything for ten years and running. I simply need to clear the air with you about Kenra, the sister I never knew I had. But she knew all about me. Why is that, Pops?"

"Gentle beings, may I present Harriet Fedora Mudd? Harri here is perhaps the best of us all," Mudd wiped blood from his swelling lips and rose to his feet, "Can you take her and her companions to a changing station? I'm certain they'd like to dress down to the clothing they literally are carrying on their backs."

When the trio had finish changing, Harry Jr. was the one to panic, "You brought the Bajoran Militia with you?"

It was the first time Neela had worn Militia fatigues since her arrest and sentencing. Shakaar it seemed, had posthumously reinstated her to the Militia's reserves after her "death" in 2375 in one of the last border incidents during the end of the Dominion War when the Romulan force under Commander Donatra helped Bajor defend its colonies against a Breen strike force.

First Minister of the Bajoran Republic, Astris Beru, had reactivated Neela's commission as a Militia lieutenant. Taking Neela's record before and during the Dominion War, before her improbable disappearance after an explosive decompression sent her to her "death" in the closing days of the war and Neela's subsequent return without aging a day, General Kira personally fast tracked the paperwork behind promoting Neela two grades to be a major in the Militia's Special Forces-Engineering Division. This placed her under Colonel Anara's personal command. Yet the dynamic between them hadn't ever changed. It even earned Anara the complete truth behind Neela's impossible survival.

"We have no interest in your operation," Anara said with the phasers and disruptors aimed at the Militia officers.

"I say we throw them outside," a harsh looking woman voiced.

"Bajor isn't even part of the Federation anymore," Anara countered, "They have no idea that we're even here."

Neela spun and drew her own phaser as a woman that had been standing guard beside her erupted into applause. Then tensions crystalized as Neela kept her weapon aimed at the target of the rousing applause. The intended recipient wore an orange earring on his left ear, marking him as a member of the Pah-wraith cult. The oddest feature was that he wasn't even Bajoran. Though he had a small entourage of those who were native Bajorans.

"What now, Hand of the Prophets? Are you ready to kill me for just being alive?" the cult's version of a vedek asked.

"Why are you here?" Neela inquired sharply. Her weapon was still poised. Just as the rest of the room was prepared to cut her down.

"I serve the true gods of Bajor and am here on their behalf," the "Vedek" replied, "Why are here you interrupting the Patriots' divine work?"

"I have no interest in the Patriots. Their fight is their own," Neela told him, "I am here to question the Mudds and Okona."

"I'll see what I can arrange for you," the human vedek smiled.

Neela holstered her phaser, "If you would?"

"Harry and Harry, you and Thadiun will answer their questions honestly and without withholding even incriminating information. As she said, the Militia has no interest in you," the Vedek instructed them, "But you wouldn't mind, Major, if we discuss matters frankly and without recriminations?"

"Okay, I'll agree to that," Neela consented.

"How do we know she'll be safe?" Anara questioned his motive.

"I swear by the lost text of the Kosst Amojan that the Major will remain unharmed and will be free to exit our session at any time," the Vedek gave her beatific smile, "Just as you all will be free to go back to your ship when we conclude our multiple discussions."

"Neela?" Anara asked.

"I'll be fine, Anara," Neela promised her, "I think this is why we're here."

"She can handle herself," Mudd reminded the distressed Colonel.

"I'll be a comm badge tap away," Anara promised.

"I know," Neela promised before following the Pah-wraith cultists to an adjoining room.

"Pops, you and the idiot here are going to have a very frank discussion with me," Mudd warned her father and brother, "We'll start with Mudd Kenra and why you never told us about her."

"Mudd Kenra?" Junior it seemed was still clueless.

"That's leaves Okona for me," Anara advised the smuggler.

"You look great, Anara," Okona tried to deflect the severity of the room's mood, "How long has it been since we last saw each other?"

"Since you snuck out of my quarters," Anara said flatly.

"Ouch," Mudd smirked, "I wish could eavesdrop in on this one."

"I think we could all use some privacy," Harry decided, "They gave us some office spaces. Let's try this out there."

"Lead away, Pops," Mudd's smirk was gone, "And don't try ambushing us. You'll be the first one to die."

"Why all of this hostility?" Harry inquired.

"Maybe because you dumped me on Argelius II with a charged phaser, a deck of Fizzbin cards, a canteen, and some cups when I was fourteen and I never saw you again until today," Mudd's history had been altered so they'd never crossed paths on the world called Safehold, "And then there's this Mudd Kenra issue. So, you think I'm pissed now? I've had weeks to cool down. Otherwise I would have seared your flesh off layer by layer by now."

"Sounds painful," Harry's hand began to drift and Mudd pulled her phaser free.

"You never could outdraw me," Mudd reminded him, "Now, you'll remove your personal weapons and place them on that table over there. And I'll be scanning you with a tricorder. So don't think you can hide anything for 'just in case'."

"Damn girl remembers everything," Harry muttered. Mudd used her Bajoran made tricorder as the two men disarmed.

"And the fiberglass shivs," Mudd warned them. Harry and Junior both cursed and relieved themselves of the supposedly sensor-proof impaling blades.

"Now we can talk," Mudd told them.

"Why do you get to keep your weapons?" Junior sulked.

"Because I was the only one smart enough to demand that you disarm," Mudd smirked at her older brother. Harry face palmed.

"I could still take you out," Junior angrily declared.

Mudd holstered her phaser, "Try to."

Junior surged forward only for his nose to meet the heel of her hand.

"Yu bwoke my node!" he exclaimed as tried to staunch the bleeding.

"Come along, boy," Harry urged, "The infirmary is this way."

"You're such a baby," Mudd chided her brother.

"Shall we talk or should I just stun you?" Anara asked Okona.

"I'm always grateful for a chance to talk my way out of trouble," Okona admitted.

"Except this time you aren't in trouble," Anara explained.

"Then why all the bother?" he wondered.

"I need to know some of the local conditions. Specifically I need to know what you know about Reneka III and IV," Anara explained.

"That's a nice story. I think you just can't let a handsome man like me get away again," Okona playfully suggested.

Anara drew her phaser, "Care to test that theory, betting with your other eye?"

"Testy. I like it," Okona snarked, "Follow me. If you dare. I might sneak away again otherwise."

"I doubt I'll give you the chance to," Anara warned him.

Rather than skirt Klingon held space through the corridor between the Empire and the Thallonian Empire, the Obsidian, Artemis and the Manifesto went by Deep Spaces Four & Five and around the Romulan Star Empire. They'd briefly made port at DS4 so Macen could consult with Captain Erika Benteen. Benteen was an ally of sorts. Captain Alfonso Reyes at DS3 was definitely a friend.

But Macen needed information on Vice Admiral Elizabeth "Betts" Rager. Rager had been the admiral goading Admiral Duncan McNeil towards eliminating the witnesses who could identify then-President Ardra and tie her to her own criminal past and present. Despite Commodore Oh's best efforts using Starfleet Security as a bludgeon, the testimonies and Okona's affidavit were given to the Federation Council. The Council remanded the case to Federation Security and Ardra snuck off of Earth during the confusion. She was impeached in absentia.

"I'd wondered when you two would darken my door," Benteen confessed as she allowed Rockford and Macen access to her office. Benteen had been off duty when they arrived and she was called in.

"Let me guess, sweetened lattes all around," Benteen went to her small replicator and retrieved the items.

"You've done your homework," Rockford smiled.

"Blames Reyes over at DS3," Benteen shrugged it aside, "And since we didn't end up fighting each other here recently, you want something."

"What do you know about Vice Admiral Rager?" Rockford asked after taking her first sip of the coffee.

"You're headed into DS5's vicinity," Benteen chuckled, "And Betts has no love for you after humiliating Starfleet over the Admiralty's blind devotion to Ardra. Admiral McNeil spared her a Board of Inquiry but she was still tossed out here to 'oversee' exploration into the Deeper Beta Quadrant before the Romulans get back to it and guide the spear pointed thrusts Captains Kirk and Chakotay are making into the Delta Quadrant."

"You knew each other at the Academy," Rockford refined the question.

"Knew? We were the biggest rivals in our year," Benteen snorted, "If I hadn't been stonewalled and busted back I would've made Vice Admiral first. Something Rager won't let me forget. Before the Leyton Affair I always ranked up ahead of her by a year."

"And you were held back for twelve years," Rockford acknowledged that awful truth, "But you stayed in Starfleet."

"I'm not a quitter. And all of my ambitions in this life revolve around Starfleet," Benteen explained.

"Despite everything?" Rockford asked.

"They're scaled back. By a lot. But yeah, I'm Fleet through and through," Benteen realized she was being interrogated and said as much.

"We have to test your bias," Rockford said benignly, "We already knew about the rivalry. We just had to make certain you weren't embittered."

"Fair enough," Benteen allowed.

"Have you noticed an unusually high amount of potentially illegal traffic passing by the edges of your sensor and patrol radius?" Rockford asked.

"Like Okona and the Mudds obviously trying to stay clear of both?" Benteen countered.

"And so many more," Rockford confirmed it, "Starfleet is patrolling the outer approaches around the Klingons, Gorn, Metrons, and Thallonians looking for the supply chain feeding the Patriots. But what about here?"

"Okona and the Mudds lead convoys just beyond the station's sensor range. What they haven't realized yet is that we planted sensor pods across twelve parsecs. So we detect them anyway. But before you ask, they avoid the Border Zone and Federation space," Benteen explained, "We and DS5 may be the furthest reaches of Starfleet out here but we're officially in neutral territory. DS3 isn't much better off since they're in Federation space literally surrounded by neutral planets all around them and the former Neutral, turned Border, Zone next door."

"Which our Iotian friends are using to maximize their benefits," Rockford said dourly.

"Yet the Iotians backed both Bajor's resistance to Starfleet's illegal incursions and your getting witnesses before the Federation Council. Why is that?" Benteen wasn't judgmental, merely curious.

"They don't all play nice," Rockford reminded her of the USS Lakota's recent actions to curb Iotian flagged starships with an agenda all their own.

"Does he ever talk?" Benteen asked.

"Incessantly," Rockford chuckled.

"But...?" Benteen tried to coax more out Rockford.

"He's a better interrogator and I'm the better investigator. Put us together and..." she shrugged.

"So if he lights into me, I've gone from pleasant conversation to possibly incriminating myself," Benteen understood now.

"Which won't happen," Rockford promised them and stared hard at Macen, "Will it?"

Macen merely shrugged.

"Ever since Admiral Leyton duped me, I keep a weather eye for trouble. Okona made port three weeks ago. My Chief of Operations planted a tracker inside his ship's starboard nacelle while going EVA," Benteen explained, "Commander Perim took the Lakota out and followed at the very edge of the beacon's broadcast radius. Which was still further out than the Erstwhile could scan."

"I hear a 'but' coming," Rockford sighed.

"I had to advance the data and positioning further up the chain of command," Benteen grimaced, "Which in this case is Rager."

"And she downplayed the investigation?" Rockford already knew that answer. She and the team were here after all.

"She buried it. Just because I'm the one that reported it," Benteen wanted to spit that part out it was so vile to her, "But you're here now. Which means someone official caught wind of it."

"Except that whatever Okona and the Mudds are are up to, it may or may not be involved in our inquiry," Rockford warned her.

"I can't puruse this any more otherwise I violate direct orders. But if you happen to cross paths with them and their smuggling ring, punch their tickets for me," Benteen almost begged.

Rockford handed Benteen an isolinear chip, "This is a direct communications link up with Serenity Station. Starfleet comm buoys transmit at faster data rates and to keep appearances we have to use civilian traffic bands. A general hail will come your way and you'll insert this cipher key. Forward the data onward to Serenity and take a look at yourself before you re-transmit everything in the report to SID headquarters. Admiral Forger will give any further instructions to assist us."

"We're bringing you in on this, Captain, precisely because you've shown yourself loyal to the Federation's ideals despite political gamesmanship," Macen broke his silence.

"Then I should tell you Admiral Johnson and the crew of the USS Intrepid are conducting secret negotiations with the Patriots' leadership," Benteen shared.

"How secret?" Rockford inquired. Both she and Macen were surprised Forger hadn't clued them in.

"Only a handful of sector commanders know about it," Benteen explained, "Reyes and I because we could be facing Romulan backlash. Rager knows because she's part of the Admiralty. A few starships patrolling the sectors claimed by the Patriots are in the know in case Johnson and McKinley's crew need help in exfiltrating from those territories. The tight security was at Commodore Oh's insistence. She said it would a bad precedent if it was known Starfleet was 'negotiating with terrorists'."

"But they aren't terrorists yet. Merely secessionists," Macen clarified.

"Not in Fleet Admiral Clancy's playbook or in Commodore Oh's," Benteen said grimly, "It's all a ruse anyway. Rager boasted that she knew that Johnson's mission would fail but that the Intrepid's sensor logs would give Starfleet an advantage once they went in in force and suppressed the secession movement."

"But that's not the worst of it," Benteen added, "The Romulans are gathering a strike force on their common border with the Rekena Sector."

"And Starfleet hasn't requested their assistance," Rockford surmised.

"General Martok personally delivered the intel to Reyes," Benteen unhappily replied.

"The new Klingon Chancellor has expansionist ambitions but the empire is boxed in by the Romulans coreward and the Federation on two sides and the Gorn and Metron rimward. They have access rights to the Taurus Reach but no one has seriously considered colonizing it since the Tholians destroyed the Vanguard station," Macen reminded everyone, "We have non-SID cleared starships and crews working out there protecting individual Federation colonies and protectorate-state worlds now that Starfleet has abandoned the Reach."

"To be honest, I've been grateful for Outbound Ventures being able to take up the role left abandoned by the Federation's insular policies of late," Benteen confessed.

"Thank Admiral Forger and the SID's black budget," Rockford told her, "The individual worlds pay us of course but it's a pittance compared to the cost outlays," Rockford revealed, "As their Gross Planetary Product value rises so does their share of the fees involved. My agencies have footholds in different sectors as well."

"And Cardassia and Bajor are corporate clients as well as Starfleet?" Benteen wondered, "How does that even work?"

"Very carefully," was all Macen would say.

"We try not poke any bears," Rockford smiled.

"Yet you took up the Bajoran Republic's cause during the war and the subsequent investigation into Ardra's past," Benteen reminded everyone, "That is the very definition of poking the bear."

"The Federation launched an unjust and illegal war," Macen sad with conviction, "It was our duty to prove that out and keep our Bajoran friends and allies safe."

"And you allow a Cardassian Information Bureau agent live on your space station as well as a Bajoran Militia officer," Benteen pointed out.

"Two officers," Rockford confirmed for her, "First Minister Astris and General Kira reactivated Neela's Militia commission and ranked her up to where her grade would probably be had she been reinstated after her prison term."

"But she's also a religious figure amongts the Bajorans," Benteen struggled to understand.

"A very reluctant religious figure," Macen stated.

"Just like Captain Sisko was when he was declared the Emissary of the Prophets," Rockford invoked the historical precedent.

"Rumor has it Admirals Nechayev and Forger reactivated your Starfleet commission as well as Rab Daggit's and placed you in the active reserves," Benteen shared, "With no assignments or orders."

Macen shrugged, "Rumors come and go."

"The rumors equally apply to all your ex-Starfleet personnel," Benteen warned him.

"Starfleet does reserve the right to draft former officers and enlisted," Macen told her, "Just as they reserve the right to hand out brevet commissions and grades. As was proven to work in the case of Captain Chakotay's Maquis crew when they joined Voyager's crew or the reinstatement of Commander Tom Paris to his former rank of lieutenant. Of course everybody ranked up after their return from the Delta Quadrant and several brevet ranks become official commissions."

"And the most famous case being Doctor McCoy when they drafted him for the V'ger mission," Rockford smiled again.

"I personally met Admiral; McCoy when I served as Leyton's adjunct," Benteen disclosed, "He was an irascible old coot. But a medical genius. His own medical breakthroughs allowed him to live to be 152. That would have made him the second oldest Enterprise officer next to Ambassador Spock if Captains Scott and Kirk hadn't returned from extraordinary circumstances."

"I'm just surprised they wouldn't let Kirk command the Enterprise," Rockford admitted.

"Captain Scott offered him command of the Enterprise-M training vessel," Benteen had read the dispatches, "With Captain Chakotay being transferred to command the Protostar that left an obvious opening in Voyager's command staff. And Starfleet Command wants Kirk as far from them as they can get."

"Little wonder. They might actually learn something," Macen scoffed.

"Kirk is his hero," Rockford smirked.

"I'll tread lightly then," Benteen softly laughed, "But scuttlebutt is that Rager wants him far, far away from DS5."

"Well thank you for time and continuing assistance," Rockford ended the meeting.

"Just where are you headed for?" Benteen wondered.

"Rekena III and IV. They have a civil war brewing and there's competition for whose side anyone and everyone will be on," Macen explained, "Elements from the Patriots, the Star Empire, the Iotian Federation, and Providence knows how many others are looking for a seat at the table."

"Rekena IV is a manufacturing hub isn't it?" Benteen dimly recalled.

"It's where Rekena III sends all of its industry in order to maintain a pristine environment on their world for the noble classes that rule Rekenan society," Rockford detailed it, "Rekena IV is on the verge of an ecological collapse and the nobles simply raise the quotas whenever its mentioned."

"The limited data that agents on the ground have passed along indicates that the Patriots and Iotians are reaching out to Rekena IV while the nobles are hiring mercenaries," Macen told her, "The subject classes on Rekena IV have informally requested Outbound Ventures' assistance. So we're playing off our trip as a negotiating platform."

"And Starfleet has agents on the ground?" Benteen was curious as to why her security briefing hadn't covered that.

"Elite Starfleet Intelligence agents on both planets," Macen explained, "The type that don't exist."

"Like James Smart, Agent 0086," Benteen smirked this time, "I had the pleasure of delivering him to several target locations. And to test ride his new biosynthetic penis."

"Do tell!" Rockford's interest was piqued.

"He never goes flaccid if he doesn't want to. I never climaxed so many times in a row before. Or for that many at all. The man is a sexual god," Benteen enthused.

"Remind me to tell you about empathic cascades during sex and we can compare notes later," Rockford knew Macen was inwardly groaning over where the conversation had turned.

"That's a thing?" Benteen asked.

"Oh my frinxing god is it a thing," Rockford laughed delightedly.

"We should go now," Macen urged.

"I'm saying nice things about you and you want to leave?" Rockford was irked.

"Yes. Please," Macen urged even more insistently, "Before you ask me to demonstrate what it is with the good Captain."

Rockford scowled, "I see your point. `Cause I'm not sharing my favorite thrill ride."

"Thank you," Macen breathed a sigh of relief.

"Come along, plaything. We have work to do," Rockford grinned.

"Yes, ma'am," Macen grinned back. Benteen smiled over the banter. She'd been so consumed with restoring her career back onto track over the past twelve years she'd indulged in many James Smarts over the years but not grounded herself or allowed herself event he chance to with anyone significant in her life.

Benteen had settled the matter within herself that she'd probably peaked at captain so maybe it was time to find fulfillment in a stable and real relationship. She recalled those that had tried to develop such a thing with her and she'd brushed it off. She felt it was time to revisit that issue.

The desolate and poisoned super-continent on Isagaard that Starfleet was trying to render habitable for colonization hosted the SID's three unlikeliest allies. Neela was meeting with the human Pah-wraith vedek. Anara was "discussing" matters with Okona. While Harri Mudd interrogated her father and brother, both Harry Mudds. The assembled Patriots stood by uneasily and waited.

"You assisted in bringing Ardra's record to light for the Federation Council and Federation Security. But now you're silent?" Anara was annoyed beyond words.

"What's the Bajoran Militia doing investigating the Patriots?" Okona asked...again.

"I'm not investigating the Patriots beyond what their connection to the Rekena system is," Anara grated.

"So you are investigating the Patriots," Okona gloated. Anara punched him. Okona lay on the floor trying to staunch his bloody nose.

"Okay, no need to get worked up," he said as he rose with a handkerchief blocking the outflow.

"Then answer the damn question," Anara snarled.

"Can I sit?" Okona asked.

"There's a chair. Use it," Anara snapped.

"Here's what I know," Okona said with his head tipped back.

Harri Mudd was ready to beat Harry and Junior senseless.

"So it was all a mind frinx?" Mudd snarled at her father.

"You had Harry here to spur you on to excellence. Kenra needed you to compete against," Harry explained.

"I hate to tell you, but your son is son is a complete frinx up and was never any competition," Mudd deadpanned.

"Sadly you're right," Harry admitted.

"Hey!" Junior yelped.

"It's true," Harry sadly told him.

"Then why are you working with me?" Junior asked.

"So you don't frinx up a golden latinum cow," Harry told him. Junior looked crushed.

"Sorry, boy. But you've never excelled at this life," Harry regretted to have to say.

"And she has?" Junior demanded to know, "She's here as a police officer!"

"Secret agent, you idiot!" Mudd snapped at him, "And I earn more latinum in a year than you've seen since Pops here is probably handling the hard currency and taking 75% off the top."

Harry looked caught.

"Da?" Junior was crushed again.

"You really should check the books once in a while," Harry said miserably, "Consider it a learning lesson."

"Sis escaped from Bajoran custody. Any idea of where she'd go?" Mudd asked Harry.

"She'll follow the treasure. Just like you," Harry told her.

"What do you know about the Rekena system?" Mudd finally got on target, "What's the Patriots' interests there?"

Harry told her.

"Shuk! I need to go. Now!" Mudd exclaimed and stormed away.

"Why'd you tell her, Da?" Junior wondered.

"Because, Harry my boy, that girl may be the rebels' only hope," Mudd said dismally, "If she isn't already too late."

"Please, have a seat," the human Pah-wraith vedek offered as they entered small chapel.

"You built a temple here?" Neela was surprised.

"We prefer the term 'chapel'. A true temple will be built in the Pah-wraiths' honor when they return to liberate all Bajorans and their faithful followers not of Bajor," the vedek predicted.

"You'll forgive me if I have my doubts," Neela stated.

"Of course. As a devoted servant to the false gods of Bajor, you've been taught about the 'evils' of the Pah-wraiths," the Vedek allowed, "The Kosst Amojan aren't the demons they've been portrayed to be. They simply feel as we do rather than with the cold detachment of the Prophets. The Pah-wraiths understand our toils and our troubles because they've shared them."

"Is that why you were drawn into the cult?" Neela asked, "What's your name anyway?"

"My name is Brett Dillon," he answered, "And I was seeking and I was in fact found by the Pah-wraiths to lead the search for the Tear of the Kosst Amojan. Surely you know it exists."

"I was hoping it didn't," Neela sighed.

"It was through the Tear that they spoke to me," Dillon revealed.

"They can speak remotely from the Fire Caves?" Neela was alarmed.

"No," he chuckled, "Just as there was an Orb of the Prophets containing a Prophet, so the Orb of the Pah-wraiths holds a Kosst Amojan. It begged me to find it."

"Out here?" Neela was skeptical.

"Is that truly so hard to believe?" Dillon laughed, "Mika told me you'd be a hard sell."

"The woman who had Dukat's son?" Neela was well informed it seemed.

"The Emissary's son is ready to meet his exalted father. So we strive to make that happen," Dillon explained.

"Even if we have to use distasteful methods to do so," an eerily familiar voice said from a second entrance to the room.

"Jarro Essa," Neela smiled, "I was wondering when you'd reveal yourself."

"Many of the former convicts we were incarcerated with have joined the movement," Jarro told her.

"Of course they have," Neela softly laughed, "And you hope I'll be one of them."

"Of course," Jarro said.

"And when I refuse? Is that when Cardassian 'persuasive' techniques get employed?" Neela asked.

"The Prophets chose a Cardassian to be one of their Emissaries. Can you still follow them?" Jarro angrily demanded to know.

"Yes!" Neela exploded into action. First she kicked back the chair she sat in as she rose. The chair impeded Jarro's approach. She also drew her phaser as she literally kicked into action. She stunned Dillon and his "prylars". A backspin kick took Jarro down.

His aide de camp was then stunned before she could call for help. She stunned the already unconscious Jarro just to be certain. She kept her phaser drawn as she exited the storeroom to locate Anara and Mudd.

"It was one time!" Anara was exasperated, "And I haven't thought about it since."

"Then why'd you pick me to ask questions to?" Okona smugly asked.

"You were the only person left to ask anything from," Anara wanted to strangle him. She was counting the ways she'd been trained to kill him with just a single thumb.

"We need to leave. Now," Neela told her as she entered the room.

"You've got your phaser drawn," Okona only had one eye left but he was still observant.

"Problem?" Anara inquired.

"When they find the cultists they may not appreciate how we parted ways," Neela explained.

"Oooh! I can get you back to your ship. For a kiss," Okona offered.

"You're really going to blackmail her for a kiss?" Anara sounded weary.

"Not her. You," Okona waggled his eyebrows.

"Just kiss him and get it over with," Neela urged her, "You've wanted to since you learned he was involved."

"Never thought about it, huh?" Okona chuckled. Neela exited to track down the Mudds.

"Harri, we need to leave. Now," Neela said as she met Mudd in a corridor. All three Mudds gave her blank stares.

"Our Harri," Neela clarified.

"Troubles?" Mudd smirked.

"Just the usual kind," Neela downplayed it.

"Damn, we need an exit. Fast," Mudd properly assessed the situation.

"Follow us. We have a contingency," Harry told his daughter.

"Grab Anara," Mudd said.

"That'll be problematic," Neela winced.

"What the hell?" Mudd stormed off to retrieve the colonel.

"Trouble in paradise?" Harry inquired.

"It seems Colonel Anara and Captain Okona shares some...history," Neela said.

"That scallywag," Harry chuckled, "Can't keep his pecker out of any woman he fancies."

"Oh hell, no," Mudd shouted as Anara and Okona were in the process of undressing each other, "We're leaving even if you leave here naked."

"Something you'll remember next time you're in Barrinoran space," Anara picked up her uniform jacket and began putting it on.

"Barrinoran rather than Bajoran?" Okona zipped his pants back up.

"Long story. But the Bajoran writ for your arrest won't be an issue there," Anara winked at him as Mudd pulled her from the room.

"Damn," Okona sighed, "She always gets away."

"Are we quite finished?" Mudd scolded Anara as she rendezvoused with her family and Neela.

"The usual?" Neela asked ruefully.

"Always interrupted before we can get to it," Anara sighed.

"We set transporter pattern enhancers all the way back to the landing site. They should carry a subspace signal as well to your ship," Harry explained to Mudd as she held up a single finger to stop whatever protest Okona had followed them to make. He pulled Anara to him and they devoured each others tongues and lips for a brief interlude.

He handed her an isolinear chip, "My contact info. Don't lose it this time."

"Who said I ever lost it to begin with?" she smirked.

"Oh God, he's knee deep in smit," Junior noted how smitten Okona was with the one woman playing hard to least most of the time after that first illicit encounter when she'd been sent to arrest him.

"It's been real and it's been fun but it ain't been real fun," Mudd told her father before turning to her brother, "Find some guy and settle down. You don't have it takes to make it in this life. Following Pops into infamy will just get you sentenced to a penal colony at best and a real prison at worst."

She flipped open her wrist communicator, "Mudd to Freehold. Intensify anti-intrusion. Prepare take off systems activation. Lock onto these coordinates and prepare to transport three."

"Ready?" she asked Anara.

"More than ever," she smirked at the hang dog looking Okona.

"Energize," was the last thing they heard Mudd say.

"You really have it bad for that Bajoran colonel, don't you?" Harry asked.

"I could actually settle down with her if she'd let me," Okona smiled gamely.

"That's the lust talking, m'boy. Take it from ol' Harry Mudd. You'll never settle down with anyone" he said to Okona. That thought actually disturbed Okona. And Junior as he saw his life following his father's example. Harri had been right. Junior didn't have what it took to be alone for the rest of his life.


Chapter Three

"Now why are we in so much trouble?" Mudd demanded to know as the trio headed for the bridge unit. Mudd assumed her place at the helm.

Anara transferred weapons control back to her station Neela oversaw OPS and Engineering, "We have a green light to go. Warp core is at full capacity and impulse and warp drives are prepared for activation."

"I have shields ready to raise as soon as we dust off," Anara told Mudd.

"Hopefully the Patriots have signed up for a non-aggression clause for using the planet as a drop zone," Mudd began applying antigravs to lift the ship before throttling the impulse drivers.

"Shields raised," Anara stated, "Phasers charged and torpedo tube loaded."

"We have two sub-impulse raiders in pursuit," Neela advised Mudd.

"Inferior designs," Anara noted, "They tried to copy Resistance models but fell short."

"As long as they don't shoot, I'm happy," Mudd told her.

"We've cleared the toxic biosphere," Neela announced.

"Now or never," Mudd whispered to herself.

"They're breaking off," Anara told everyone, "We're now being monitored by the planetary defense systems."

"I'm going to warp as soon as we escape the gravity well," Mudd told Neela.

"Systems are a go," Neela informed her.

"Prepare for warp speed," Mudd watched the sensor readings as they exited the planet's atmosphere, "And we're a 'go'!"

The ship gracefully surged into subspace as they achieved warp speed.

"Now, tell me why the hell we had to leave in a hurry," Mudd reiterated her earlier demand.

"It's as bad as we feared," Neela said grimly, "There is an Orb of the Kosst Amojan and a Pah-wraith lives inside of it waiting to be freed to liberate the rest of its kind from the Fire Caves. Which would free Dukat as well."

"Which would prove the Emissary right. No wonder Ghemor came forward as the Emissary to the Ascendancy," Anara realzied at last, "We'll need to stand together in case the Pah-wraiths are liberated."

"Great. We just risked our lives over Bajoran mysticism," Mudd complained.

"You know the Prophets are real. You know from personal experience," Anara sounded jealous, "Then you should also admit the Pah-wraiths are real and a major threat to the universe of they get free."

"Lotta mumbo-jumbo over some crummy, interfering wormhole aliens," Mudd muttered to herself.

Anara heard, of course, but Neela intervened, "We can all agree they're real, at least. I promise you this, the threat is just as real."

Mudd had learned the hard way listen to Neela's assessments and predictions. The "crummy wormhole aliens'' spoke with her and frequently gave her added insight into situations.

"We need to warn Rockford and Macen about the Patriots before we reach the Rekena system," Mudd decided, "You two figure it out."

Neela knew she'd be chosen and just pre-empted Anara's arguments by hailing the Obsidian over the comm buoy network the Federation had established in their claimed space. The signal would be boosted on its way towards DS5. Neela also knew Vice Admiral Rager's staff would detect the coded signal and try to break its encryption. Whether or not they could beat the cipher team of Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith was another matter.

Since the identities were assumed, few people knew of their computer and linguistic skills. However, if the knew them as another Anara and Maarta of Ardana IV, they'd be impressed, and try and collect on the bounty on their heads. Maarta was the legitimate leader of Ardana IV. A position she didn't want and her uncle was more than happy to kill her over.

The Ardanan Anara had been brought Maarta as a child to be her handmaiden. What no one had expected was that the Troglyte girl would radicalize Maarta and the pair of them would join the Troglyte Freedom Coalition. A band of terrorists or freedom fighters depending on who was looking at it.

Macen had chosen the latter view when he located them ahead of the hunters and recruited them into his team of SID agents. Rear Admiral Amanda Forger gave Macen incredible leeway in choosing his own team. She'd tried influencing him in the past and assigning personnel to his unit. It usually ended badly for that person.

She supposed it was enough that Macen had stepped down as captain of the Obsidian and given her youngest sister, Shannon, the role. A role Macen had intended for Tom Riker but their egos conflicted and Riker found his calling as both CO of Serenity Station and its outrigger, the Charleston-class Indomitable.

Riker had recently upgraded from the small but powerful Emden-class escort vessel to t he prototype Charleston-class heavy cruiser. Macen no longer had the most advanced ship in Outbound Ventures' corporate fleet. Riker also now possessed the single most powerful ship in the fleet and the fastest. The ship that became the Indomitable, named after Ro's Maquis raider, had been a pet project of the Advanced Starship Design Bureau specifically testing new warp field propulsion systems as designed by Doctor Leah Brahms before she was recruited to the Vesta-class project to harness quantum slipstream drives.

Now Brahms was assigned to the USS Challenger, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers' test bed Galaxy-class starship under Captain Geordi LaForge's command. LaForge and Brahms had finally settled their differences and embarked on a romantic journey together. Unofficially she was pregnant with his first child.

LaForge was at the top of a very short list of potential COs. Captain Montgomery Scott had also been in the names bandied about but Scotty had been busy overseeing the construction of thre Academy training starship, the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise-M. The elective course prepared Starfleet cadets with handling and maintaining retrograde technology especially now that was being proliferated by the Iotian Federation.

Starfleet Intelligence had gotten word that the Iotian engineers copying old Starfleet designs had made a breakthrough with two original ships of their own based upon Starfleet's proven technology. Commander Sam Lavelle had reported in the veracity of those claims and showed real time evidence that at least one of each experimental class had been given to the Bajoran Militia.

General Kira assumed command of the more obviously advanced prototype and recommissioned it as the new Hand of the Prophets.

Colonel Ro received the other, which despite its throwback appearance to the original Constitution-class, the Iotians claimed from experience that the design was faster and more powerful than Starfleet's refitted starships of the class. So it became recommissioned as the Fist of the Prophets. Thereby clearing up an Excelsior- and a Constitution (refit)-class starship for new commanders and crews.

The Fist of the Prophets, Lavelle confirmed, had a similar drive system to a mid-24th Century era starship. The Hand of the Prophets, despite some seeming throwback elements, was considered to be more powerful than even the Excelsior-class starships that the Iotians had delivered for the Militia's System and Sector Defense Fleet.

Lavelle's secret report to Commodore Oh recommended Starfleet seize the sector before the Colonial Defense Force was re-equipped with refitted Asia- and Constitution-class vessels within the coming weeks. Lavelle was dismayed to report that Starfleet Security Chief Lt. Commander Jefferson Blackmer had rebuilt trust between Starfleet Security and the Militia Constabulary aboard DS9 and the chief could no longer be trusted to side with Lavelle in the advent of needing to seize control of the station and detain its majority share of Militia officers serving aboard it.

Lavelle's own senior staff had proven their loyalties lay with Bajor over him. A quick decisive action would also circumvent Outbound Ventures from redeploying starships from other projects and committing them to Bajor's defense. Of course the strike and occupation had to be established quickly before the Cardassian Guard could honor their mutual defense pact with the Bajoran Republic.

Oh praised his loyalty to her and "Starfleet" and ordered Lavelle to standby for further instructions. Then the Romulan in disguise contemplated how to persuade Fleet Admiral Kristen Clancy into mounting yet another invasion into the Bajor Sector when the last four attempts went so poorly. Drumming up support in the Federation Council after the fact would also be required towards legitimizing occupying Bajor and its colonies in the Alpha Quadrant.

The obvious tip of the spear would be Starbase 375 but Vice Admiral Bill Ross and its returning captain, Ignatius Freeman would problematical. Freeman had sat out the wars in a holding cell for objecting to his orders to report back to Starbase 375 to lead the invasion. Ross had similarly been detained but for the simple crime of failing to meet the President's expectations of an easy victory so they trumped up dereliction of duty charges that were easily dismissed as politically motivated. Neither would look kindly on a second attempt at a preemptive strike so soon after the peace accords had been signed. Clancy herself would hesitant to issue unilaterally politicized judgments if her case against Nechayev went poorly.

No, Oh would have fabricate a threat. A threat that would be impossible to deny after the successful retaking of the Bajor Sector for the Federation. Surely Starfleet could withstand a second Bajoran Resistance better than any Cardassian Occupation had the first. The variables that needed to accounted for were the Cardassians and the Iotians. Both had assisted Bajor the last time.

Starfleet needed to block any aid coming from those parties. That would require shifting forces from the Kalandra Sector and from Trill to blockading the Kalendra Sector on the Bajoran sector border. Otherwise, the Bajorans were boxed in by the Badlands, the Tzenkethi, the Breen, the Cardassians and the Kalandra Sector.

The Wormhole was also problematic since the already refitted starships were currently on patrol in the Gamma Quadrant and Bajor had apparently found an ally in the Ascendancy located on Sinhera. They were a people derived from Bajorans assimilating the local culture and a Cardassian renegade had declared herself their Emissary from the Bajoran Prophets.

Using the Militia has a reference, the Iotians had begun trading with the Ascendancy. The Bajorans, besides operating four shipyards across their sector, had built a J-class starbase near the intersection where the Bajor Sector met the Tzenkethi and Breen borders and a K-class Deep Space station in the Gamma Quadrant. Both were built with Iotians assistance and expertise. Starfleet would need to seize each.

Commodore Oh had a plan but needed Strategic Operations to vet it. She also needed to keep it away from Admiral Duncan McNeil: the Director for Starfleet Operations, Vice Admiral Edward Jellico: the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander Admiral Leonard James Akaar: the Beta Quadrant Theater Commander. Of course Rear Admirals Amanda Forger and Robert Tavar Johnson couldn't catch wind of it either or they'd warn Outbound Ventures and the Bajorans. They'd all proven themselves disloyal to Starfleet Commander Clancy during the recent wars with Bajor and Cardassia or the cover up of President Ardra's past.

Oh's grand plan as a Romulan operative in deep cover had been partially fulfilled by the Mars Massacre. Now she just had to keep the Federation focused on itself and engaged in protracted wars of attrition against real or imagined enemies. The hunt for Altan Inigo Soong went on as well as that for Bruce Maddox. Soong and Maddox had worked together to yield the production of the very synthetics that Oh used to destroy the Martian colony and the Utopia Planetia Yards. Thereby dooming millions of Romulan colonists to ecological disasters brought on by the Hobus nova blast shock wave.

Maddox disappeared after the Synthetics Ban was put in place by the Federation Council. Soong had already been in seclusion and his whereabouts were unknown. Maddox and Soong had pioneered cloning positronic neurons. But the positronic brains the single neuron from Data Maddox had smuggled out of the Daystrom Institute yielded production twins so Soong and Maddox created identical bodies for each of the new brains.

In thirteen years' time, they would create a pair of biosynthetic androids to undertake undercover missions inside the Federation and beyond, believing that they were human twin sisters with families and their true origins hidden even from them. Maddox would remain on the run rather than potentially lead antagonistic forces to Soong and their creations. A choice that would ultimately see him killed by his former lover, Doctor Agnes Jurati, in the Earth year 2399.

Oh wasn't cognizant of the future but she did stretch a dragnet across three quadrants looking for Maddox and Soong. Even the Starfleet explorers entering the Delta Quadrant would have Maddox's arrest warrant uploaded into their records. She just had to be patient and wait.

"Message for you, Detective," Edwin Zimbalist reported to Rockford from his OPS station on the Obsidian's bridge, "Actually, it's for both you and Commander Macen."

"I'll let him know when he returns aboard with Captain Forger and XO Jones," Rockford promised, "Meanwhile pipe the signal to my office."

Neela's face appeared on Rockford's screen, "Why don't I think this is a social call?"

Neela explained the results of their mission so far when Rockford's question reached her.

"I look forward to seeing you all at Rekena," Rockford promised, "I'll brief Commander Macen when he returns aboard ship."

That sparked Neela's curiosity, "Where else would he be?"

"The Outbound Ventures captains of the Obsidian, the Artemis, and the Manifesto needed an update to what we were all about on this mission," Rockford explained, "It also gives him more face time with the newest captains to be SID cleared."

"Any word yet from the secondary option?" Neela inquired.

"Still invoking subspace silence," Rockford said wryly, "And at these distances, the lag would be hours rather then the minutes passing between us at this point."

"Was Captain Benteen understanding?" Neela eventually asked.

"Very," Rockford answered, "However, I believe you'll be proven right once gain concerning Admiral Rager."

"Pity," Neela sighed, "I can only hope Bailey and Angelique's encryption holds."

"Starfleet will break it eventually. By then we should've moved on to new algorithms and ciphers," Rockford shrugged, "That's more Brin's side of the business."

"Starfleet will want this update," Neela assumed.

"They'll get it...eventually," Rockford told her, "Right now we just need a certain Vice Admiral Betts Rager to stay the hell out of our way."

"Copy that, out," Neela had signed off minutes ago but Rockford had just received the message. She knew her husband needed the news Neela had provided so she signaled the Artemis and had him paged.

With Captain Xela and her Exec, Daria Washington, occupied in the main briefing room that left 2nd Officer Wenonah Harrington in command of the Constellation (refit)-class Artemis. Forger and Joelle Jones had joined the command cohort filling the briefing area. Captain Kitrina Bigelow and her XO, Scott Bradley from the Manifesto gathered as well. Forger and Jones were the only ones present that Macen had briefed on their contingency plan.

Xela and Bigelow were still strangers to Macen despite his signing off on their vetting process to join the SID contract availability status for the starships commanders and crews. Their Starfleet liaison, Lieutenant Christine Pike had been the one to make the recommended change. Pike had a good eye for talent and Caity Floss had proven an expert at digging up all relevant information regarding each crewman from the captain down to the newest recruit. Tyrol had once again demonstrated her management expertise in selecting Floss.

Something that alluded Macen during his brief tenure as a Starfleet captain. Of course, modern records showed he'd resigned rather than accept promotion in an effort to highlight how the Federation was once again abandoning the former Maquis and imprisoning Ro. Even those that had served beside he and Ro in their behind enemy lines covert operations had been relegated as secondary citizens if they were allowed to return to Federation space at all.

Reneging on the promised pardons and repatriation efforts they'd been given when Macen and Ro recruited them to carry on the struggle against the Dominion that had killed so many of their friends and lovers. From Ro's side, Elfi Hendryks and Emjin Thool had accepted Bajoran amnesties and waited out Starfleet's burning desire to incarcerate them. Having served several years worth of probation on Bajor, they seemingly reintegrated into Federation life. Macen's crew all ended up in the Kalendra Sector working both sides of Federation law.

Everyone had been more than eager to set their livelihoods aside and join Outbound Ventures when Macen came looking for reliable people he could trust. Even recruiting former ideological opponents as Joelle Jones and Aric Tulley that had embraced Michael Eddington's total terror war philosophy. A philosophy that ended up deploying two biogenic weapons against Cardassian colonists. That fateful decision had sundered Tulley's working relationship with Ro and banished him from her Maquis cell. Yet his participation in Eddington's plans were held against her at her trial.

She'd barely acknowledged his capture by Starfleet just weeks before the Jem'Hadar purged the DMZ of any and all Maquis lives they could track down and eliminate. The remaining colonists were utilized as forced labor for the Dominion's ends and purposes. As a gesture of "goodwill", the Federation ceded the DMZ worlds completely over to Cardassia thereby terminating the Demilitarized Zone and making it wholly Cardassian territory.

The beaten and bedraggled colonists readily relocated this time around rather than remain under Cardassian control. Their stubbornness and resistance having led to thousands of deaths under Dominion occupation. The dead had been the lucky ones. The Cardassians, with the Dominion's blessing, had even enslaved the children over age six by the end and that generation had borne the heaviest price of seemingly random executions for trivial failures to perform.

Macen was paged as the briefing ended and he was told by Rockford that she had news from Neela regarding the particulars of the Patriots' interests in the Rekena system, Rekena IV in particular. The Patriots were radicalizing the Rekenans and arming them. Their masters on Rekena III were taking drastic steps to insure their comfortable lives and ecologically stability while pushing Rekena IV into an environmental meltdown with its heavy industry and fission battery production to power the nobility's consumption desires.

Though scientists on Rekena IV had developed a working warp drive, its power source had been a fission reactor rather than cold fusion or an antimatter/matter annihilation warp core. The Patriots, learning that Rekena IV's nuclear power industry had suffered several reactor meltdowns, offered clean energy in exchange for their overthrowing the Federation tolerant nobility.

Most of that intelligence had already been obtained by the undercover Single 0 and Double 0 agents on the ground on both planets. The nobles' reaction though came as a surprise. They'd hired what was left of Solarian Security Solution to wage a proxy war against the Rekenan subjects on Rekena IV and restore their subjection of the settlers and natives on Rekena IV.

The nobility was willing to suffer considerable disruptions to their comforts as Solarian was authorized to lay waste to the rebellion. A situation the Patriots had helped foster in hopes of the nobility on Rekena III overreacting. Even now, with the latest development, the Patriots were agitating the servant classes remaining on Rekena III. Food exports to the sister world had halted.

The ground on Rekena IV having been poisoned to the point no foodstuffs could be grown without them being toxic to the consumer if they grew at all. Solarian was threatening the rebels and the remaining population with the threats of starvation, military interventions, and even thermonuclear weapons. Old school tactics for an old school uprising.

"Neela says they won't communicate again until we rendezvous in the Rekena system unless there's an emergency arising from their entering the system," Rockford explained over comms.

"With Solarian involved, there might be," Macen heavily sighed, "Keep me posted. We're wrapping up here."

"Hurry back," she replied. Macen re-entered the briefing room from the corridor outside.

"Problem, Commander?" Captain Xela inquired. She was a Sulibi, an offshoot descendant from the Suliban race. Her people now outnumbered their ancestral forebearers. She'd been fast tracked for her own Starfleet command before resigning in protest over the unjust wars the recent presidential administrations had waged. Even an offer to return to Starfleet was tainted by the knowledge that she'd been removed from the preferred candidates list and her promotion to Commander canceled for at least seven more years rather than the single year she'd already earned.

Floss had easily pitched Outbound Ventures to Xela and found her most receptive. Her security clearances while at Starfleet impressed Pike and Admiral Forger's staff working with Floss easily vetted Xela for SID contracts. This was her first operational assignment with Outbound Ventures and for the SID. So Macen had wanted some "face time" with her and the similarly storied Bigelow after personally requesting their participation in this venture for precisely that reason.

If the Obsidian crew were to eventually entrust the Manifesto and Artemis crews with their lives, they'd best start now in order to build that trust. The Waylaid, Hammerfall, and Waveriser commanders and crews had recently proven themselves to the original SID approved crew through similar trials by fire.

All of them also employing late 23rd Century technology based starships. Jones had been offered one of the new commands but deferred the opportunity having just made a place for herself aboard the Obsidian. Jones' actions belied her stated goals of returning to an active command at all costs.

Macen, more than most, knew her track record as a vessel commander. In practice she seemed reluctant to assume that role once again even for a good cause. Tom Riker had suffered a command crisis as well at the beginning of his career with the SID. First he'd lost the original Eclipse and her crew.

he'd served as Macen's XO for a few years before assuming command of another ship that he also lost in action. They'd tried a power sharing arrangement aboard the Obsidian afterwards but Macen's command style differed too greatly from Riker's newfound caution. He'd persuaded Riker to assume command of the corporate station as he readied himself for a new starship command.

He'd even allowed Riker the honor of naming the station. Gaining an outrigger for Serenity's protection had shown Riker still had the capacity and flair for independent command. But he'd found a newfound peace at being Serenity's CO. Just as he'd recently demonstrated against Solarian his growth as a starship captain, even if it was only part-time.

His Emden-class escort vessel had been deemed sufficient to protect Serenity but newfound threats from within and without Starfleet escalated the station's needs. So when Admiral Forger was able to persuade the ASDB to part ways with the Charleston-class prototype, Macen made certain Riker was her commander and that she would be permanently assigned as the station's primary outrigger.

The Blackbird-class Solstice served a variety of needs under Christina Noble's command. She was Serenity's 2nd Officer so the Solstice rarely deployed but she was a fail safe in case the Indomitable was overwhelmed. Macen had commanded two such vessels, counting the Solstice herself, so he knew her capabilities and why the Cardassians still feared ships of her class.

Unlike DS9, Serenity was a privately owned Nor-class station and therefore ineligible for all the weapons upgrades the Deep Space station had undergone. Just as the Cardassians still referred to DS9 as Terok Nor, they'd named Serenity Antok Nor for their own records. Serenity simply had the defenses any standard Nor-class station boasted. Which meant she was severely undergunned in case of a dedicated attack. Though Macen had upgraded the shields to something less primitive.

He explained Solarians' involvement and the threats they represented to the rebels on Rekena IV as well as the average citizenry.

"Solarian no longer has a license to purchase decommissioned Starfleet vessels so we have no idea of what their starship support looks like," Macen explained, "The Freehold will reach the Rekena system before we do. So hopefully we can get some intel before we drop into the system unannounced."

"Will Captain Mudd be under threat?" Bigelow asked.

"The Freehold is a registered transport and scout, so she shouldn't be considered a threat. Mudd herself is a survivor and she has Colonel Anara and Major Neela aboard with her. So she has the necessary help she might require should Solarian prove belligerent," Macen told them, "Harri has talked her way out of worse situations."

"The mere presence of two Militia officers may complicate things," Bradley, Bigelow's XO, pointed out.

"If anything it should prove out that Harri isn't a Federation based threat to them," Forger opined.

"I've operated as a free trader. Mudd should be safe enough around Solarian forces," Jones added.

"Solarian was nearly dismantled following the conspiracy to destroy our company," Macen told them, "They'll be brutally efficient in putting down this rebellion in order to garner the word of mouth rehabilitation of their reputation. They'll instantly perceive us as threats since we did most of the dismantling."

"We'll warn our crews," Xela promised.

"Starfleet is taking no interest in these proceedings?" Bigelow wondered.

"Rear Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson and the crew of the USS Intrepid are secretly in talks with the Patriots even now trying to diffuse the situation in a way that retains Federation membership of the colonies Ardra sold off," Macen revealed, "Rekena was approached by Starfleet with first contact being achieved late last year by the Enterprise-E. In Starfleet's view the Prime Directive applies since its an internal dispute. The SID disagrees since the planet borders the Star Empire. Getting a friendly eye on the Romulans on this side of the Beta Quadrant is always a strategic goal. Likewise, they're a backdoor channel to the Patriots. Which could prove invaluable should Starfleet be ordered to intervene in the secession agenda the Patriots are pushing forward."

"Why do these colonies matter so much?" Xela had to wonder.

"Again, their proximity to the Romulans makes a difference considering there's no Border Zone on this side of the Empire buffering it from the expansion of the Federation in these areas," Macen told her, "You'll have to get used to strategic misdirection in this line of work."

"Meaning?" Bigelow sounded suspicious.

"We aren't Starfleet and most of us are no longer Federation citizens. So the Prime Directive doesn't apply to us," Macen spelled it, "It's a good rule of thumb. But when Starfleet's strategic goals aren't being met by adhering to the Prime Directive, we get sent in."

He let that get digested before continuing, "Also, the Patriots are an embarrassment to the Federation Council. They voted to elect Ardra as the President of the Federation so her misdeeds and actions reflect poorly on them. Her selling these colonies into slavery reflects poorly on the Council. So they want to quiet things down before the entire Federation learns of what has happened here. Johnson was sent in to negotiate the colonists' freedoms in exchange for special considerations from the local hostiles that bought the colonies without refunding the latinum."

"How is that even possible?" Bradley interjected, "Why is that even a consideration?"

"Because the Federation's hard currency supply is critically low after the reparation payments to Bajor and Cardassia. Ardra pocketed that money in accounts on Barrinor. As such, the Federation has no jurisdiction to seize them and Barrinor would invoke treaty privilege even if the Council agreed to attempt a legal recourse," Macen shared, "So Johnson has nothing to negotiate with yet is expected to deliver a miracle. The Rekena situation could easily flare into a disaster exacerbating the Patriots' potential for violence. We're to observe the domestic strife in Rekena while extracting Starfleet agents and the good admiral has to pull a rabbit out of his ass. Neither of us stands a chance in hell of accomplishing our assigned tasks. That's another reality you'll frequently have to come to grips with."

"You make it sound hopeless," Jones accused.

"There's always hope. It may be delusional, but there's hope all the same," Macen shrugged.

"Nice pep talk, Boss," Forger chided him.

"We get the assignments Starfleet can't authorize. If we're captured, detained, put on trial, whatever...Starfleet will disavow us as rogue mercenaries. That's the nature of the business," Macen told them all, "But I trust Amanda Forger and Alynna Nechayev. They won't abandon us. They'll find a way to make it right."

"Now that's a pep talk," Forger grinned, "And you get bonus points for mentioning my sister."

"We'll be jumping back to warp speed in twenty minutes. So everyone brief who you have to and get ready to land in the unknown," Macen advised them all, "The situation has become so variable and volatile we have absolutely nothing to go on or what to expect when we arrive."

"Again with the good news," Forger groaned.

"Were you always this mouthy as a kid too?" Bigelow asked.

"I was the youngest by ten years," Forger told her, "And I was born a genetic male."

"So you're really in touch with who you really are," Bigelow approved.

"I have those days," Forger snarked.

"I suggest we all get back to our posts," Macen urged everyone.

"Always so bossy," Forger grumped, "When he isn't trying to destroy the ship."

"Care to elaborate?" Bigelow asked as they strolled down the corridor to reach the closest transporter room.

"Ask me sometime how he ordered us to ram a building with our starship," Forger grinned.

"You're serious," Bigelow realized.

"Just be glad I'm in command now or you'd be flying into some hairy shuk after we arrived," Forger counseled her.

"I'll take your word for it for now," Bigelow promised.

"A building? Really?" Bradley asked Macen.

"Well, she's leaving out the outer defensive wall that we went through first," Macen replied.

"No shuk," Bradley refused to believe it.

"There were probably a dozen or so crewmen that had to change clothes afterwards," Macen conceded.

"Don't let him full you. Half the crew had to change their shorts," Forger laughed, "Fortunately, the Obsidian's a tough little ship. We got her space worthy again."

"So that's the same ship?" Bigelow was amazed.

"Like I implied, she's pretty damn amazing," Forger knew all of this was news to Jones as well. But her XO had explained a key element into Macen's survivor's guilt and seeming death wish.

"Rumor has it you were with Starfleet when you were in the Maquis," Bradley mentioned.

"The two interests happened to coincide. But In my heart and actions, I was all Maquis," Macen told him.

"So were you," Bigelow brought Jones into it, "You were captain of your own ship back then. What happened?"

"I retired," Jones said briefly, "It didn't stick."

"You even turned down your own command," Bradley was amazed.

"It's personal," Jones replied to force them to drop it.

"Obviously," Bigelow gave her Exec a hard stare to warn him off. The Manifesto officers transported back to their ship first.

Telrik awaited them aboard the Obsidian, "Glad y're all back."

"Problems?" Forger grew concerned.

"Some of the lads challenged Chief Kovic and Collins to a game a'springball. They got their asses whupped on and it got physical. They're coolin' it off in the brig. Chief Miller had a few words with the boys."

"They're lucky Jelena didn't break a few bones to prove her point," Jones mentioned about Security Chief Kovic.

"That mighta happened," Telrik confided, "Anyhoo, the whole crew is bettin' on what happens when Kovic and Abby Collins release them tomorrow."

"Joelle, take the Conn and brief the bridge officers. I'm headed for the brig," Forger decided.

"An' you, Commander?" Telrik inquired.

"I have my own briefing to conduct," Macen grinned, "But thanks for the head's up."

"Shore. Any time," Telrik settled into his easy chair and resumed reading the latest issue of a weekly Tellarite romance periodical. He'd had a subscription for as long as Macen knew him.

Macen's SID assembled in the briefing center. He'd had Chef whip up some snacks since the briefing had been planned for even before Neela reporting in. They were, by all reasonable accounts, an odd lot. Tessa was the ship's sentient EMH and dating the very corporeal ship's Sciences Officer. Lee Kang was a former Chief Inspector with Chung Kou's constabulary and now worked for Rockford. Shade had been a perennial thief aboard the Fabrini world ship Yonada before her exile eventually brought her to Rockford's attention. Arianna Forte was a teenager even older than Macen's four hundred years plus from the duplicate Earth called Miri.

Rab Daggit had served with Ro Laren and Macen during the Dominion War. The officer in charge of a platoon of Angosian augmented soldiers to "volunteer" in order to get their home world into the Federation in exchange for services rendered. His Orion wife, Parva, was also the ship's Chief Engineer. Tracy Ebert had been a teenager when Macen recruited her to be his pilot when he joined the Maquis and later to fight the Dominion. Smith and Kerber kept slightly to themselves.

Tony Burrows was disabled from serving in Starfleet's Special Operations Command but sound enough in mind and body for Macen's purposes. That left Rockford as the other Angosian Augment and just himself with Mudd gone. Rockford played back her exchange with Neela with time lags edited out.

"This'll be fun," Burrows complained after Macen explained about Solarian Security Systems becoming involved based on Harry Mudd and Junior's revelations. Strangely, it seemed Anara had failed to get anything useful out of Okona other than his personal contact information. Neela seemed to want to avoid that particular conversation.

Anara had no idea one of her superiors had noted in her personnel jacket that then-Captain Anara had apparently "interrogated" Okona in her private quarters for seven hours before releasing him from all suspicion despite overwhelming evidence pointing at Okona smuggling in contraband to Bajoran ports.

Macen gave a rundown of recently learned developments including Solarian's involvement after Rockford's presentation.

"While we were at DS4, a tight burst encoded transmission was received using a cipher key Elias Vaughn and I employ for private communications. It contains redacted personnel files for the Double and Single 0 agents we've been sent to retrieve," Macen stated, "We've also been cleared to undertake a separate assessment of the situation that has developed between the subject classes on Rekena IV and the nobility on Rekena III. The monarchy's pleas for military assistance having been rejected by Starfleet, they obviously went to private security contractors. By all accounts this contract is vital to Solarian's survival as a corporate entity. They have been authorized to use lethal force to subjugate the workers on Rekena IV. Our role is to learn why and what's so valuable about Rekena IV to the nobility," Macen explained.

"Starfleet Intelligence has been working this case since the Rekenan nobility first approached Starfleet and petitioned the Federation Council with a bid for membership in exchange for military assistance," Rockford added that key detail, "The more hawkish Councilors see the Rekena system as prime real estate to set up observation posts monitoring the Star Empire's expansion deeper into the Beta Quadrant. An ongoing development made even more vital by the Hobus supernova destroying Romulas and Remus and devastating hundreds of colony worlds."

"But they already have DS5 and the Klingons," Burrows made mention.

"Relations between the Klingon Empire and the Federation are at their lowest since Gowron broke the Khitomer Accords," Macen warned them all, "That's why Martok broke with the High Council."

"But the peace is holding?" Ebert scowled.

"For now," Macen replied, "As long as they have unrestricted access to the Taurus Reach, the Klingons feel they still have ground to conquer and hold to their warrior traditions."

"The Tholians have completely withdrawn from the area," Rockford told them all, "So the Klingons feel they can have the territory to themselves."

"Which is all contingent on the Federation remaining outside the Reach," Macen explained.

"But their traditional enmity with the Romulans won't sway them?" Parva was the one to ask.

"They feel the Federation has broken their trust by attempting, however briefly, to evacuate Romulan colonists and the work being done on the Artifact," Macen had to let the team down gently, "As long as our interests still align then we remain at peace. But even one more concession to the Romulans could re-spark the brief war we fought with the Klingons when the Founders duped Gowron. The current Chancellor was aligned with the Duras family during the civil war so their protestations are probably a feint just to bate Starfleet from interfering in their plans for conquest."

"And the Klingons are fine with the Federation taking control of the Rekena system?" Daggit wondered.

"They've ceded the Deeper Beta Quadrant by treaty. So the Taurus Reach and eventually Tholian space are their gambits for now," Macen explained, "Their previous ties with Director Sela may even be active again."

"Is this a bad time to bring up the fact the crew doesn't trust our escorts?" Tessa wondered.

"We haven't worked them yet. So anxiety is natural," Rockford conceded.

"That fist fight in the springball court won't be the last one," Tessa warned, "This isn't our old crew. They feel their lives have been in danger long enough without a decent furlough."

"Also, word is our recent assignments since being contracted by Starfleet aren't what these people signed on for," Lee mentioned, "There's a lot of talk about abandoning the crew when we return to Serenity."

"It's more than idle chatter," Shade warned them.

"Gilan and I working overtime in Engineering to settle disputes and manage expectations," Parva advised them.

"So cut them loose," Smith broke her usual silences.

"Or let them go when we reach Rekena IV," Kerber added.

"Angelique!" Forte chided her.

"No, they deserve a choice. Rekena is a major trading port in this sector. They could get rides back to wherever they choose to call home," Macen allowed, "After we've dealt with current crisis."

"They may not wait that long," Smith warned, "Some of them already know of Solarian's presence in Rekena. Their talking about jumping ship and singing up with Solarian Security Systems."

"You'd know this how?" Ebert wondered.

"Angelique and I upgraded Chief Kovic's interior sensors. We have keyword searches running at all times. Whether its electronic communications or idle chatter in the halls. We purposefully excluded quarters but we've been tracking larger and larger meetings taking place in private quarters," Smith described what they'd done, "Jelena and Abby agreed with us we didn't want to caught in the cold again and face a mutiny without advance warning."

"Does Captain Forger know," Macen's tacit consent was on display.

"Doesn't have a clue," Kerber answered, "We only warned you and Celeste."

"There is a lot of resentment concerning the senior officers and our team," Parva admitted, "I get twice the backlash since I'm both."

"My med staff are for us though," Tessa was gratified to say, "They love working for this crew."

"And if the crew leaves en masse?" Burrows asked sourly.

"We've operated with a skeleton crew before," Macen reminded them, "We already work twelve hour rotations. Most of the people balked at that at first to but since we're a short hauler they stopped giving Shannon grief. And Joelle only had a crew of four at the end before she hung it up."

"In an NV-class? Those things are personnel intensive. There are almost no autiomated systems or redundancies," Parva was amazed, "That didn't start to happen until Daystrom developed duotronics."

"I think that's why she retired," Macen said wryly.

"That and her crew wanted to retire," Forte spoke up, "I've talked with her about it. She was proud of her crew, no matter how many or how few people were part of it."

"Aren't you the little gossip?" Shade teased her.

Despite Forte's four centuries of life, she was still biologically and emotionally a teenager from an apocalyptic world.

"So do we let them walk away?" Ebert asked the looming question.

"We have nothing to hold them with. I'll share what we've discussed with Shannon and Joelle but odds are Jelena already briefed Joelle. What's she's told Shannon in return is an open question," Macen stated.

"I can pitch in at the helm so Aglaia doesn't have to work herself to death. Harri can fill in at a bridge station as well is she's willing to let Anara and Neela fly the Freehold home," Ebert brought up.

"Odds are Harri will transfer our Bajoran friends over here to help out rather than hand over her baby," Rockford chuckled.

"She's rigged every system aboard to be automated while she's resting or routed through her station when she's not," Parva agreed with the assessment, "She just got the Freehold flying. She won't turn her over to partial strangers."

"Anara and Neela aren't strangers," Forte argued.

"But they aren't family like we are either," Rockford pointed out.

"She'll let me ride along," Burrows offered, "I'm bridge station qualified and can give her a security presence."

"You just want to check out her bunk," Shade teased him, "And share it on those cold and lonely days returning to Serenity."

Burrows looked flustered.

"We've all noticed it, Tony," Daggit warned him.

He turned to Macen, "I can offer my services at Tactical for the crew. I held the post however briefly aboard the Enterprise-E as well aboard the Asimov before that. I was Chief Tactical Officer for you before Jaycee was promoted."

"Gilan and I can lock things down in Engineering if need be," Parva promised.

"Galen-3 is rated for OPS," Tessa reminded them.

"It seems we need to bring the ship's captain in on this," Macen decided.

Forger was already aware, to a degree. Jones had sheltered her from the worst of it.

"Were you two ever going to fess up that you've been spying on my crew?" Forger asked the Ardanans.

"Jelena had a problem. We offered a solution," Kerber shrugged.

"A rather elegant one. And people still have complete privacy in their quarters. Which is where they'll plan a prospective mutiny, by the way," Smith said coldly.

"They'll organize in a cell structure, like the Resistance and the Maquis were forced to do," Macen surmised.

"That way if any group gets discovered they're unaware of what the others are planning," Rockford immediately understood the reference.

"We know Abby is with us," Ebert mentioned, "What about the rest of Security?"

"Kovic and Collins will have that worked out," Daggit predicted.

"I think the springball incident was a test. They were trying to remove Jelena and Abby from the equation for at least a few days. About the time we'll make port in the Rekena system," Macen warned them.

"Why is it always Solarian?" Forger groaned.

"They're still our chief competition," Rockford related to her.

"And most of the crew have standing job offers from Solarian," Kerber told them.

"How long were you going to hold on to that?" Forger exclaimed.

"You didn't appreciate that we have the sensors looking for specific cues in the corridors and work spaces. How would we know how you'd react to our bugging everyone's mail?" Kerber wondered.

"Ever hear of trust and transparency?" Jones wanted to know.

"We told you when you needed to know," Smith countered angrily, "We told Macen and Rockford before we set sail."

As Kerber kept telling them, don't ever piss off the princess. Smith and Kerber ranked beside the Angosians as deadliest amongst the team and crew. Their skill set even freaked a professional commando like Burrows out.

"I'll need to get my senior staff together to warn them," Forger stated.

"I can take the Conn at the change of the watch and you can brief them in the Observation Lounge. It'll be empty," Jones suggested, "You'd better include Kovic and Collins since they'll be key to this."

"We'll sit in too," Macen suggested, "The team will back your play."

"Thanks, it means a lot," Forger confessed.

"We can hold the ship but it'd be easier with Security on our side," Daggit mused.

"With Angelique and Bailey's help I can devise lockouts to secure Engineering," Parva added.

"You'll have it," Smith promised.

"Someone had best warn Telrik too," Rockford reminded Forger.

"The new transport inhibitors Starfleet secretly installed will keep anyone from beaming from outside instead of using the transporter," Parva told them.

"There's a lock out in place," Kerber informed them all, "Only Shannon or Joelle can unlock it."

Macen and Rockford looked surprised.

"The assumption was you'd both be dead by that point," Kerber shrugged.

"Just what all has Jelena and Abby had you up to?" Jones asked. So Smith and Kerber came clean.

"Even the auxiliaries in Engineering will be locked?" Forger was impressed.

"And even Joelle can't override the lockouts unless you're dead," Kerber explained.

"You're assuming a lot of people will die," Tessa fretted.

"Your program is secured as well," Smith told her, "Only Angelique and I together can alter your ethical subroutines and memory."

"Okay, I can accept that," Tessa was relieved.

"We haven't faced things like this since Hannah Grace tried to take over the ship," Daggit reminded Macen.

Parva shuddered, "Don't remind me of being a cube."

"Fortunately the new Hannah never has and has turned her back on her people," Macen confided.

"That's tough," Rockford knew from experience.

She and a few other Augment Infiltrators had escaped being taken into custody upon returning to Angosia. Where Daggit sat out lunar imprisonment for ten years, Annika Ryst had roamed the galaxy as both herself and as Rockford building up each identity's businesses and reputations.

"Now that we know, we can plan accordingly," Jones stated, "I have some experience in suppressing a mutiny."

She'd never mentioned why her original crew had shrunk to just three other women. Now it seemed there was a telling story behind it, "We're several steps ahead now. And we know they won't try anything until we reach the Rekena system and are confronted by Solarian's presence there."

"Nechayev gave us a back channel to contact the Single 0 agents on Rekena IV and the Double 0's on Rekena III. I think it's time we called them," Macen decided.

"Sooner than later," Rockford urged him.

"My preferences are still programmed into the LCARS flight system," Ebert enthused, "Aglaia and I agreed not to erase them in case I ever needed to fly the ship again."

"Sound thinking," Daggit approved.

"Now, about our secondary problem upon reaching Rekena," Macen sighed, "Captain Yar and her allies have made their presence known there as well and so have the Patriots. The noble classes on Rekena III probably felt forced to call in Solarian. We won't know the extent of their desperation until we talk to the agents on the ground on those worlds."

"All the more reason to contact them before the watch handover," Rockford verbally prodded him again.

"Yes, mother," Macen sighed again.

"You don't want me for a mother," Rockford warned him.

"That I believe," he agreed.

"You'll know before the mutiny occurs," Kerber promised them, "We'll alert Jelena and Abby as well as the bridge officers in plenty of time."

"What about us?" Lee asked.

"You're the detective," Smith retorted, "Maybe you should figure it out for yourself."

"The crew has been increasingly standoffish since we made port at DS4," Shade explained, "They're avoiding us."

"That's when their Solarian contracts were signed," Kerber hated to tell them, "Jelena had us watching the crew's communication even while we were at Serenity. Most of the backdoor deals were made before we ever set sail on this contract. Rekena just gives them the perfect opportunity to hand over the Obsidian intact and whole. They can't purchase decommissioned starships from Starfleet anymore but they can search and seize."

"I'd hate to be you when explain that to Captain Riker and Security Chief Gerrit," Forte winced over Kerber and Smith pouring over station comm logs.

"There's no fear of the Manifesto and Artemis crews?" Lee wondered.

"It's their first SID contract. It's assumed they can be bought," Jones knew the type, "My crew was paid off to revolt as well."

"Then we need to confide in Captains Xela and Bigelow," Forger recommended.

"And if they warn our crew?" Daggit asked.

"It sounds like we can lock down the ship," Burrows replied, "So we may get taken by surprise but I'm assuming someone as clever as Kovic and as devious as Collins have security measures in place already for just this event."

"Ohhh yeah," Kerber wore a nasty grin.

"She took a lesson from Gul Dukat's playbook on Terok Nor," Smith offered up.

"So we want to avoid replicators when this happens," Macen immediately understood.

"Damn Cardies," Ebert grumbled.

"Your SID comm badges protect you and Kovic singled out the Senior Staff's biosignatures, so you won't be targets," Smith reassured them.

"Why not use our biosignatures?" Daggit asked.

"Someone here doesn't quite register correctly on the targeting sensors," Kerber stared at Macen.

"You spend an eternity in the Nexus while seconds pass by here and see if doesn't have a profound effect on you," Macen replied glibly, "Besides, the same comm badges that give us our authority and immunity are tied into our biosigns. If they're removed, they're no longer a shield against the targeting sensors."

"And they're rendered inoperable," Burrows recalled.

"What if someone can force their way into the Data Womb?" Parva asked.

"Biiig mistake," Kerber wore that nasty grin again.

"They won't survive the experience and only Angelique and I can use the equipment without repercussions.," Smith explained away that concern, "Just in case one of the team turns on the rest."

"Have a little faith woman," Burrows argued.

"I had faith. Until my uncle murdered my parents and had an execution writ for me pushed through the courts," Smith replied tartly, "Forgive me if I don't easily trust people anymore."

Which was more than Smith had given away about her life as Maarta in six months' time.

"We seriously need to talk," Jones suggested to the Ardanans.

"When we survive this," Smith promised.

"You'll note she said 'when' and not 'if'," Kerber pointed out, "Because we've planned this out with Jelena and Abby. We're not losing this ship."

"That's what Hannah thought until Commander Macen beat her half to death," Tessa recalled. Her memory still stored that data even if the ship's computer had never logged Grace's addition to the crew. Because in the now it had never happened. But for them, back home, it had. Now those lessons were learned for a different environment.

"Everyone has a task," Macen concluded, "Rab, and you and Tony run down the scenario with Jelena and Abby. See how many of their people will stand with us. Parva, you and Gilan test out your engineers. Tessa, you have the Sickbay staff to filter. Shannon and Joelle, play it cool until the watch change and then make an excuse for the senior officers to be briefed on some new development coming from Starfleet. Celeste and the Detective Squad will pick up surveillance duties and watch the corridors and common areas for hints of who the leaders are. Angelique and Bailey, you've done a wonderful job, now I want you to auto-program a defense system within the computer core if Shannon locks out the computer. I want the ship defending itself against Solarian boarding attempts."

"We can do that," Kerber's grin went from nasty to evil.

"Tracy, you're on standby after you lock down the Corsair so no one can steal our runabout." Macen instructed, "Our ETA in system is less than two hours away. So we have lot of prep work ahead of us and no time to do it in."

"I should be able to convince Gamma Watch to stand down and let us resume our posts owing to 'classified' data being squirted to us from SID headquarters. That should make them all scurry off to report to their new bosses," Forger offered.

"Which we will then amplify their concerns by giving them a false narrative to report," Smith stated.

"I'll contact Xela and Bigelow and warn them of expected trouble aboard ship and from Solarian. And I'll add Yar and her crews to that list of headaches right beside the Patriots if any and all show up," Macen volunteered, "Then I'll contact the 0 Section agents and find how badly things have gone wrong on our way here."

"Someone needs to warn Bob Johnson that he's being played," Rockford suggested.

"You just volunteered," Macen wore the evil smile now.

"I hate you," Rockford halfway lied.

"Two thing s about this worry me," Macen confided.

"Only two?" Parva was astonished.

"Where is the Orb of the Kosst Amogen? And why haven't the Romulans stepped into this situation on their own borders? That doesn't play out like the Star Empire we all know," Macen told them, "They know the Klingons won't respond and Starfleet is keeping their distance. So why not make a play for the system to keep Starfleet from acquiring it and setting observation stations here?"

"I already have a headache, thank you," Rockford groaned.

"Have Galen 3 begin searching for minute energy and visual distortions when we drop out of warp," Macen suggested to Forger.

"The Romulans can become our disinformation," Kerber latched onto it.

"Or a very harsh reality," Macen grimaced.

Agent 0086 confidently made his way through the corridors of power. James Smart had approached the monarchy as a broker of information and peddler of influence. Influence being weapons. Pytor Boromov gave him a stellar referral. It was that or Smart would kill him when they next came into contact. Boromov played along, not so much for the life and limb preservation, but for the latinum Nechayev would pay out.

003 and 0014 played along as fellow conspirators looking to buy Rekena's loyalty to the Federation. It was tactic they were all well grounded in. Starfleet had vowed not to intervene into what was becoming a civil war and/or a revolution to topple the noble classes. But that didn't mean the Federation didn't want access to the Crown's territory. After all, they sat on the Romulan border.

So Anita Blake played the information broker while Ardis Smellknot was the gunrunner. Smart was the chief financier and negotiator. It was he that had recommended hiring an outside security contractor to cow the subject classes on Reklena IV into submission. He'd recommended Outbound Ventures.

Someone else, unseen, had convinced the Queen Matriarch into bringing Solarian Security Solutions in instead. Smart needed to know who had and why. Today he was to meet his suspected competition.

He dressed formally in a tuxedo since the monarchy demanded you look your best when presented before them. What he hadn't wanted was what actually happened. The Romulans were in play.

Ambassador Aurelian was a cousin to Praetor Tal'Aura. But the most surprising figure here was the young token Empress Taralin herself. It made sense for the Romulans to bring forth the Empress in name only. It appealed to the Rekenan Queen Matriarch's vanity.

Two privateer commanders were present rather than mainline military warship commanders. He immediately recognized them both. Tekana had made a name herself lately through her actions in the Gamma Quadrant and back in the Beta Quadrant. Solara was another of the Director of the Tal Shiar's favorites . She was a rising star to rival Tekana in Sela's eyes.

Smart cursed to himself. Aurelian was one of the Star Empire's star ambassadors. And her kinship to the Praetor also presented a form of flattering the Queen Matriarch. Empress Taralin was still a teenager and held no actual power. All power within the Star Empire descended from the Praetor to the Proconsul to the Director of the Tal Shiar to the Imperial Admiral. These posts were held in turn by Tal'Aura, Donatra, Sela, and finally Tomalok.

Tal'Aura was one of the few Senators to survive both Shinzon and the destruction of Romulus. Donatra was a former Commander of a Warbird fleet. Sela was also a Commander but in the Tal Shiar. Rumor had it declined the role of Proconsul because the Directorate held more actual power in Romulan society. Tomalok was a military veteran. Possibly the most hailed soldier outside of Donatra.

Taralin was a figurehead but beloved by Romulan society. But looking at her, she knew the truth behind her existence. Taralin was the last surviving member of the Imperial Family. She'd been off Romulus pursing her education. As a minor noble, she could serve as a functioning member of society and truly serve the Romulan people.

The Hobus supernova had ended that dream. Taralin was stoic but her regret was plain to see. She was a puppet and knew it. Information coming from the Star Empire was that Taralin had voiced the opinion that the Imperial line was outdated and should be absorbed into the common citizenry. Apparently, that opinion hadn't been well received.

As much as Tal'Aura desired to secure the totality of her power as Praetor, the people needed the reassurance of their traditions now more than ever. The Imperial Family had lost real power after the Earth-Romulan War when the Senate stripped the line of their real political power. But the Praetor of that day knew the value of trotting out an emperor or empress for the crowds to rally behind so long as the same ruler was utterly dependent on the Praetor and the Senate for existence.

Taralin saw through the hypocrisy and wanted it to end so she could hold an actual service role in her society. Instead she'd been trotted out again. This time before a foreign dignitary.

Aurelian kept a sharp eye on Taralin. She was to be seen and only heard from from the approved script. Tekana and Solara were surprises. Utilizing privateers diminished a Romulan military presence but again limited the Star Empire's ability to project true power. The military generally preferred shock and awe tactics when courting a foreign power. A power that would be enslaved as soon as they signed to join the empire.

But if the Federation was using misdirection to avail themselves of foreign territory, it seemed the Romulans desired to upstage them at their own game. Once again proving Romulan superiority.

Agents 003 and 0014 joined 0086 in the courtroom. 003 was a beautiful black woman who kept her closely cropped hair bleached blonde. 0014 was mostly human but his alien DNA tinted his hair with bluish shades. They were as stunned as he it seemed when they arrived.

"Come, speak plainly in front of us," the Queen Matriarch commanded, "Our new friends here say you are deceiving us."

"And how are we doing that?" 0086 inquired.

"The Ambassador has suggested you don't have the wherewithal or authority within the Federation to deliver on your promises," the Queen Matriarch said plainly, "Please enlighten us."

"Queen Matriarch, we are simply background workers who bring together buyers and sellers. We have arranged for a coalition to supply your forces with Federation military grade weapons and technology. What we haven't promised is the troops to exercise the use of such tools. That will fall upon your iron will to suppress any and all dissent of your majestic rule," Smart said smoothly, "When you have achieved such a victory, the Federation will entreat with you officially rather than show favoritism now."

"Which the noble ambassador has indicated that you would entreat with the rabble should they dethrone me. All in order for the Federation to place its own forces in our beloved solar system," the Queen Matriarch accused.

"Yet it's the Federation's Starfleet, not the Iotian Starfleet nor the Romulan Star Empire that has cut off support for the rebels from those that label themselves as 'Patriots'," 0086 replied, "They are as much rebels as your unsettled subjects and advisors and assistants in the proxy war that is coming. The Patriots goading your subjects to overthrow your kingdom. The Federation does not seek that nor would it ever."

"Then perhaps you can verify or deny the Ambassador's report to us that Federation agents have been embedded within the ranks of the leading rebel factions," the Queen Matriarch demanded. That much was true. But the Single 0 agents were there as deterrents.

"Associates of mine are embedded with the rebel factions as deterrents to keep them from revolting," Smart confessed.

"You see the hypocrisy, Queen Matriarch?" Aurelian goaded the ruler.

The albino queen with her oblong head snapped her face towards the Romulan ambassador, "Do not gloat before me! You have delivered to us valuable intelligence yet it still does not pinpoint to where these so-called 'freedom fighters' are operating from nor their readiness. James Smart seems to have taken efforts to insert spies into their networks. Can you say the same?"

"But while James Smart inserts spies and recommends caution as he supplies weaposn to your domestic security forces we brought you military contractors far more suited to open warfare," Aurelian grew cold.

"The ambassador advocates for open conflict yet Rekena IV's biosphere is already on the brink of collapse. A total war scenario could render the planet uninhabitable. Then your Majesty would have to rebuild it s industries on Rekena III. The very cause of collapse that convinced your Majesty's ancestors to relocate all heavy industry and power generation on your larger, sister planet," Smart quickly rebutted Aurelian's proclamations, "My organizations efforts are meant to maintain the status quo but also to prepare your domestic forces in case that fails."

"Pretty words," Aurelian sneered, "My people provided you with Federation troops since you did not wish for us to intervene directly in your affairs. Surely that keeps us in your grace?"

"We have much to consider. Leave us now," the Queen Matriarch demanded.

"Ambassador, a moment?" Smart asked of Aurelian.

"Certainly, 0086," the Romulan delegate smirked, "And don't for a moment think that we're unaware of the nature of your Single 0 operatives on Rekena IV."

"And just so we're clear, I know those privateers are hardly your first response for this situation. They may play well for the queen's consumption but they're merely here to safeguard you and the Empress," Smart said candidly, "Your actual military forces won't be far away."

"It isn't Commanders Tekana and Solara's crews you should worry about but rather getting your agents off of Rekena IV while they're still alive," Aurelian mentioned.

"Meaning?" Smart asked.

Aurelian rippled her fingers across a wall, "The Patriots are coming. The Patriots are coming."

Smart quickened his steps and he chafed at Aurelian's laughter to his back.

Rekena III was a lush paradise of a planet. The Noble houses maintained castled estates with many servants/ The military, such as it was, was primarily used to enforce manorial laws against the servitudes. A synthetic workforce dominated Rekena IV but the nobles preferred living servants to exploit.

Even the synthetics on Rekena IV required a large supervisory work force comprised of relocated subject classes. Before relocating their industries to Rekena IV, the natives of Rekena III had briefly skirted ecological disaster. Which was why the nobility was so hell bent on repeating their troubles rather than developing cleaner ways of energy and physical production was such a mystery.

The natives on Rekena IV as well as the relocated subjects from Rekena III already had to wear hazard suits to brave the planet's outdoors. The toxicity of the air required surgically implanted filters before and into the lungs of every sentient living on Rekena IV. Visitors made due with respirators and hazard suits while in open terrain.

The buildings were hermetically sealed and filtered air was circulated within them. A team, posing as Patriots even within Patriot held territory, operated on behalf of Cell 51. The agents were code-named by the seven days of the human week. Seniority began with Monday and went through to Sunday despite Sunday being the first day of the week on the Julian calendar. But this was a working group therefore work began with Agent Monday.

The agents were all too aware of the arrival of both Solarian and the Romulan delegation. A human presence on Rekena IV had also been detected and identified as a troupe of Single 0 agents. They could assume that more of the senior and adroit Double 0 agents were on Rekena III.

The Single 0's had been inserted as employees of a Smart consulting firm. James Smart himself known to Cell 51 as Agent 0086. The humans on Rekena IV were supposed to be corporate observers feeding data to Smart for recommendations on how to diffuse the building conflict scenario.

Jack Fowler had given Agent Monday express orders to exacerbate the situation and to implicate the Patriots while doing so. Cell 51 agents across three quadrants were stoking various native tensions and strife. The Delta Quadrant would be exploited next.

Rekena IV had never been as lush as Rekena III. But it was devastated perhaps beyond typical repair measures. The planet would have to cease all gaseous, radioactive, and carbon emissions and be terraformed back into a viable biosphere. But soon even that effort would fail if implemented and the planet would evolve into a Class-Y "demon" planet and be beyond reclamation.


Chapter Four

Carolinius II had been the first Federation colony to secede from the Federation. A legal stance that wasn't recognized by the Federation Council. Johnson's "secret" arrival had been leaked to the Federation News Service by elements within Starfleet Command.

Journalists from FNS at Carolinius II ranged from the conservative Fiona Shaw and the two veterans that had covered the front lines of the Border Wars, the development of the DMZ, the Maquis resistance, and later the front lines of the Dominion War. Clarice Starr and Anna Shaw weren't going anywhere without an exclusive. Starfleet in general, and Rear Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson in particular, had been set up for failure.

The Patriot leaders knew they couldn't win a military engagement so they sought a political solution. At the cost of making the Federation appear to still be villains to the voting public. Like Turkanis, the planet had been built up and then abandoned by its natives for reasons unknown. But the refurbished technology, though old, was advanced even by Federation standards.

Fortunately, Starfleet Intelligence had ascertained that none of the advancements were applicable to military arms. The Starfleet Corps of Engineers had assisted the settlers' efforts to revitalize the old tech and to adapt that which they'd brought along into the old mainframes and power grids.

Still the cityscape was impressive by anyone's standards. Raleigh, Carolinius' capital, had a huge sphere construct nearby that served as the planetary power grid's warp core. The morning haze was burning off as dawn became day. One of the planet's moon's visible in the sky.

Johnson and his obligatory escort had beamed down. Johnson really would've preferred transporting down alone but regulations mandated a flag officer must have an armed escort when entering a potentially hazardous zone. Johnson had argued a Federation colony wasn't a hazardous zone.

Captain James McKinley had strenuously reminded his former CO that the settlers no longer felt they were part of the Federation but he would limit the escort to two officers. Johnson had been relieved and irked that Lt. Commander Ian Delaney, the USS Intrepid's Chief Tactical and Security Officer was one while the other was Ensign Brad Turner. Delaney was already taking Turner under his wing to mold him into an even better Security Officer.

Delaney knew, so the entire Command Staff was aware, that Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli's assault on Doctor Andreja Sikorsky had sparked an unofficial probe into the motives behind such a blatant act and why Sikorsky refused to file a report and McKinley had whitewashed it. So far Turner had wrangled another two Medical and Sciences lower deckers into the "investigation" as well.

Exactly the reaction Sikorsky had threatened to relieve McKinley over if he revealed certain facts and states of being to Massoli. But Delaney had exempted his wife, Hannah Grace, from the ban and Commander Robert Caplan and Lt. Commander Liz Liefers were demanding to share with Caplan's deputy in engineering, Lieutenant Emily Johnson.

Massoli had delivered a devastating right cross for Sikorsky even threatening to relieve McKinley from command for revealing the truth to a Starfleet Intelligence officer whose stock and trade was keeping secrets. And the demand to leave young Johnson in the cold was just plain stupid and therefore McKinley had allowed them to ignore unofficial "protocol" and inform Johnson of the truth,

Delaney had least persuaded Admiral Johnson to leave behind his two cadet attaches, Reeva DeBoer and Lyn Hadek.

"This escort should prove unnecessary," Johnson insisted.

"Let me worry about that," Delaney at least had Turner keep his phaser in its holster. They transported to the awaiting coordinates. Which placed them inside a conference room. It was large with a rounded control interface at its heart. Seats were arranged all around. Most with a clear view of the other negotiators .

"Funny, I thought someone would greet us," Johnson found the lack of protocol mildly annoying.

Turner took the initiative to scan the area with his tricorder, "Our scans are blocked."

Delaney tapped his comm badge. It chirped but otherwise remained dead.

"You were saying?" Delaney ruefully asked Johnson.

A door opened and a black masked assailant brandishing a ballistic weapon stormed in and took aim at Johnson, "Disarm yourselves or the admiral dies."

Johnson nodded and Delaney and Turner slowly, and carefully, pulled at their phasers with their thumbs and forefingers and dropped them on the polished floor.

"Now kick them to me," the persuader ordered. They did so.

"Clear!" the gunman called. More people filtered in through open door. One was obviously alien from a species none of the officers recognized. She was also apparently quite young.

Two woman accompanied the group, also younger. They took up station at the control interface. Four middle-aged to elderly men came in escorted by a younger man between Delaney and Turner's ages.

"You're obviously in control here," Johnson acknowledged, "So what happens now?"

"Now you sit and listen, Admiral," the armed persuader ordered. The four men were a curiosity. One, who was nearly nude, was obviously furious. The three elderly men represented variations of different ethnicities originally from Earth. Two were from Native American tribal groups. One North American and one South American. Johnson guessed that they were some of the few survivors from Dorvan V.

The European descendant wore his beard and hair long, though pulled into a ponytail . While the Doivan V survivors were studies in neutrality, the European was pensive. The youngest man sternly folded his arms across his chest and remained standing after he'd collected the Starfleet phasers.

The young women were a study in contrasts as well. The European woman wore long platinum hair and sported a rather large tattoo on her chest. The other, of African descent wore her hair closely cropped but a platinum shade. Rather than body art, she'd turned to body piercing.

The alien girl was a picture of great sorrow. Johnson could literally feel the waves of grief coming off of the apparently empathic child. Judging by her appearance, he guessed she was also amphibious.

"Either you lured us here under false pretenses or you have something you wish to say," Johnson ventured.

"Some great diplomat," the angry man practically spat out, "He's a frinxing genius, this one is."

"Just ascertaining the facts," Johnson explained calmly. Delaney was a picture of coiled readiness. But he was veteran of these things so he took it all in stride.

Turner on the hand was on his first deployment out of the Academy. He wasn't settling into the role of potential hostage very well. The young Patriot man tapped the phasers on the floor with a foot but never smiled. His mein was fixed and intent.

The persuader had lowered his weapon but kept it in his hand for an immediate response to hostile action.

"Admiral, My name is Raining Waters. I can recognize that you have deduced that Inkhut and I survived the holocaust on Dorvan V after the Federation ceded our world to the Cardassians. We're living witnesses of the loss of ancient cultures. We won't see a repeat of that again," the North American spoke.

"So you acted precipitously by seceding from the Federation as a preemptive measure," Johnson surmised.

"We were sold into slavery by the Federation's own President," the man named Inkhut snorted.

"That was proven to be illegal and we've moved to reverse the buyer's claims on your colonies," Johnson replied.

"Or it will be Dorvan V repeating itself," Raining Waters said sadly.

"I say we just kill them and send their heads back to their starship," the angry man, whose named turned out to be Roger Townsend, agitated for immediate action.

"That wasn't our agenda," the young platinum blonde European descendant woman reminded him. Her name would be revealed as Estella Barnes.

Her compatriot, named Choli Arkhura adjusted some settings but remained poised and confident. A placid sea in the tumultuous development.

"I understand you don't wish to be held against your will," the pensive man, named Gerald Englund, stated, "Neither do we. It seems that the Federation has other plans for us."

"All claims of sovereignty over your worlds and peoples have been settled," Johnson promised, "They won't be back to bother you again."

"But they 'bothered' us before the sale!" Townsend snarled, "They raided our worlds, took slaves, and committed piracy on shipments we desperately needed and never received because of them."

"Starfleet is ramping up patrols in this area. We weren't proactive enough because we had agreements with the Klingons regarding your security. The High Council is refusing to honor those pledges. With General Martok resigning as Chancellor those binding agreements are dead in the water. But with the wars, its taking time to adjust patrol routes and frequency of patrols," Johnson explained, "I know you felt abandoned after the Mars Massacre invoked Starfleet's more insular policies. But your worlds are still Federation colonies and we are moving to restore order and safe passage around and on your planets."

"Pretty words, Admiral," the terse young man, named Vlad Buckyanko, snorted, "But the pirates are still here and where is Starfleet?"

"We know the fate of the Protectorates Starfleet pledged to 'always' defend," Arkhura accused without affecting her outward emotional expression, "We won't rely on help that isn't coming."

"Increased patrols are on their way," Johnson repeated.

"We need assistance now," Raining Waters advised Johnson, "We have medical emergencies, crop shortages, equipment failures with no parts to repair them with. It's all cascading into a perfect deluge of calamity."

"He believes what he's saying," the young alien, who turned out to be named Ar'kana, told them.

"Belief isn't enough," Townsend grated.

"Is that why you're exporting revolution?" Johnson abruptly asked.

"You're referring, of course, to the Rekena system," Englund said, "The people there, the serving classes, are being poisoned and starved. Just as we're left to be. How can we ignore their plight? Just because Starfleet and the Federation want to make a treaty insuring them of planting an observation post to monitor the Romulans?"

"I feel for those people and so do many other in Starfleet Command. But the Prime Directive demands that we let locals sort out their troubles unless specifically asked to moderate talks when asked by both parties. Neither party wishes to discuss anything. In large part because of your actions and encouragements that a civil war would be profitable," Johnson broke script.

"At least we're willing to back a side. A side that has survival as its goal," Townsend snapped.

"Diplomacy will gain those people their health and safety restored to them where an open conflict will only create more death and suffering," Johnson warned them.

Englund looked to Ar'kana. She nodded.

"I can see you mean well, Admiral Johnson. But your facts are sadly out of date," he told the admiral.

"Starfleet Intelligence has agents on both planets assessing the situation so that we can better address it when formulating policy regarding the Rekenans," Johnson let slip.

"So do we. And the tipping point was reached when the nobility on Rekena III hired Solarian Security Solutions to prosecute a war that hadn't even begun yet," Inkhut informed him.

"What?" Delaney couldn't help but yelp, "Solarian is in the Rekena system?"

"They arrived yesterday in force. They've blockaded Rekena IV and are preparing to land troops," Englund sadly explained.

"How would the Rekenans even know about Solarian?" Johnson asked.

"The Romulan ambassador and their Empress told them about the agency," Inkhut stated.

"Why the hell would Romulans suggest that an independent world hire a Federation licensed security contractor to fight a war that hasn't begun?" Delaney was quick to ask.

"Commander, if you will refrain?" Johnson urged.

"No, he's right," Turner said hotly, "Why would the Romulans defer action to an enemy corporation rather than apply direct force and appear to be the heroes of the narrative?"

"I admit that's bothering me as well," Johnson conceded, "But it's out of the scope of our discussion here."

"I'd say it's pretty damn critical," Townsend snapped, "Why shouldn't we hire Solarian to protect us?"

"Commander Delaney has made a critical point, though. The Romulans never act without a plan. They don't even defecate without contingency plans covering all possibilities of how it'll come out," Johnson got a little crass, "Why swing business to a company licensed by their greatest rivals?"

"Look, Solarian is under multiple investigations for impropriety. They need a win to solidify their reputation back in the mainstream Federation," Delaney ignored Johnson's calling for his silence.

"So maybe they sold their souls to the Romulans to get that win," Turner jumped onto the point.

"It could work that way," Johnson conceded, "They re-establish the old order of things. The Romulans and Solarian both look like heroes and the Star Empire gets free access to the Rekena system, thereby shutting Starfleet out and the nobility keeping the status quo alive for as long as Rekena IV can still support life."

The Patriots all exchanged worried looks.

"What is it?" Johnson inquired.

"Tell him," Ar'kana urged.

Everyone hesitated until Barnes broke her silence, "We've deployed all of our available ships to support the rebels against Solarian."

"Leaving your 'Patriot Zone' undefended and with Starfleet semi-officially blocked from assisting you," Johnson groaned.

"Solarian isn't the only party the Romulans are double dealing with," Delaney explained.

"Meaning?" Raining Waters asked.

"Your new 'masters' have been patronizing the Federation's diplomats while making secret inroads with the Star Empire to take your worlds by force and hold them by the same. Afterwards, your planets would become Romulan Protectorates insuring the hostiles that bought your colonies retain rigid control while they enslave you all," Johnson elaborated, "The Romulans presumably being their slavery customers all along."

Now words struck at the fear and outrage the colonists truly felt about Ardra's seemingly high handed approach proven to be illegal in the Federation's supreme judiciary as well as drawn policy reversals in the Federation Council itself. Legislation had quickly been drawn up, proposed, and ratified banning any such sales in the future. That just left the Federation dealing with buyers that didn't want refunds. Just the lives and planets they'd bartered for.

Even those stellar governments that had secured access to non-Federation planets within Federation space, protected by the Prime Directive, refused to negotiate terms of surrendering said access. The major powers involved in such intransigence were the Cardassian Union, the Iotian Federation, and the Thallonian Empire. All argued that they'd negotiated and purchased in good faith. Was the Federation now going back on its word as signed and decided by its elected President?

Nothing any Federation diplomat offered or protested in exchange would budge these powers' positions. The "word and good faith" of the United Federation of Planets was at stake according to the three powers' representatives. It didn't assist the Federation's position that the Klingon Empire, the Orions, and the Romulan Star Empire sided with the stubborn "clients".

The banking cartels that held Ardra's accounts in Outbound Ventures' home system of Barrinor wouldn't even confirm the accounts existed. The solar system's security guaranteed by an interstellar treaty signed by every known major and minor power across the quadrants. Anyone violating the treaty would be the target of a united front of every other depositor. Barrinor's neutrality was guaranteed as was their immunity from indictments and seizures.

Ardra's accounts were untouchable and their holdings secret. Serenity Station orbited the Class-P colony of the glaciated planet Odin. Odin was settled by Barrinorans and screened foreign applicants and under Barrinor's legal system. Barrinor itself was populated by banking employees. Odin was considered an winter sports capital.

Most of the colonists were involved in the hospitality industry or artisans. The cool but temperate equatorial belt was heavily wooded and the primary source of the planet's breathable atmosphere. But Odin also represented investment opportunities for Outbound Ventures personnel.

The recently reunited Aric Tulley and Annabeth Frinks were pouring their savings into a chain of pubs scattered across Odin's resort towns. Meanwhile Tulley worked station security and as XO aboard the Blackbird-class Solstice. Frinks worked as a bartender at the station's Quark's franchise.

The Intrepid crew had a date with Frinks and Tulley's new establishments when the doors opened. It would be the planet's first official pub crawl. Johnson was aggravated that they might miss it because this mission was about to involve serious time overruns. It wasn't the simple, yet critical, opening of negotiations Fleet Admiral Clancy had billed it as being.

"I have to call in Starfleet reinforcements," Johnson announced.

"I knew it!" Townsend erupted.

"Not to force your colonies back into the fold. That's precisely what I'm here to prevent," Johnson snapped back at him, "Rekena is about to be overrun by hostiles and your ships are headed to their doom."

"Why is that?" Englund calmly inquired.

"Because Solarian will wipe them out, claim it was Romulan forces, and position themselves into being hired as your 'defense' against Starfleet and the Romulans. That's the real deal they've made with the Romulans," Delaney outlined it.

"Precisely," Johnson was exasperated.

"We'll need proof," Atkhura replied.

"I'll stay as your invited guest while the Intrepid crew gathers reinforcements and intervenes to stop a dual tragedy," Johnson offered.

"You would?" Buckyano sounded surprised.

"I told you we could trust him," Barnes reminded them all, "His reputation precedes him."

"He's telling the truth," the young, empathic Ar'kana confirmed it.

"We have a deal, Admiral," Raining Waters spoke first.

"I agree," Englund added.

"I concur," Inkhut added.

"I do on the face of it," Buckyano agreed.

"You already knew my vote," Barnes was giddy.

"It seems an equitable trade," Arkhura voiced.

"We are all going to get shuk frinxed here and you're all too blind to see it!" Townsend stormed out.

"I think he's dissenting," Ar'kana smirked like the child she was.

Arkhura deactivated the comms scrambler, "You can contact your ship now."

"Brief Jim, and tell him I don't need to hear an act of God," Johnson told Delaney.

"I'd rather stay here," Delaney groaned.

"Just go, We're already too late," Johnson warned him.

"You truly believe that?" Englund asked as Turner and Delaney stepped aside to arrange to transport back to the ship.

"I think we're too late to stop all the bloodshed from Solarian. But we may still be able to intercept and turn back your ships," Johnson hoped beyond hope.

"Meanwhile, we can show the admiral some common courtesy," Ar'kana took his hand, "And give you a tour of Carolinius II."

"You are lucky, Admiral. Young Ar'kana does not easily trust strangers," Raining Waters told him.

"I have to confess that I'm unfamiliar with your race," Johnson told her.

"Ar'kana is one of a handful of surviving natives," Inkhut floored Johnson with that revelation.

"But the Enterprise survey didn't find any survivors," Johnson's head swam.

"As they were meant to report," Arkhura told him.

"The surface dwellers left our world," Ar'kana informed him, "But not before poisoning our undersea realms. We adapted to freshwater and dwell within the deeper pools with a cavern system deep within the nearby mountains."

"Her people eventually revealed themselves to the colonists here on Carolinius II. We pledged to protect them from any other surface beings that would harm or exploit them," Raining Waters explained.

"And the people with a bill of sale for this colony meant to enslave you all. And probably this young lady's people once they were found out and the resource extraction byproducts would finally kill the rest of the natives off," Johnson understood now.

"We were chafing under Federation colonial policies already but President Ardra's betrayal affected more than her citizens," Inkhut told him.

"Why not inform Starfleet?" Johnson asked.

"Because would do what they always do with an indigenous species: put them under a microscope," Englund said bluntly, "They don't need or want that."

"I'm guessing your people never sought to achieve space faring capability?" Johnson asked Ar'kana.

"We've never sought to leave. Even after our waters were poisoned," she sadly answered.

"So you're protected by the Prime Directive. At least from Starfleet," Johnson surmised.

"But then they'd try to push us out," Barnes complained.

"Not if the natives invited you to stay. Officially," Johnson told them, "Policies have been adapted for situations like these."

"We prefer not to alert other outsiders to our presence," Ar'kana told him.

"I've a feeling you're older than you look," Johnson guessed.

"You land dwellers always assume I'm a child. And by my people's standards I am but I was alive when the waters were poisoned and the treatments and migration began," Ar'kana told him, "I persuaded our people to reveal themselves because I could sense what the settlers felt and knew they wouldn't harm us."

"The Enterprise survey indicated the surface had been abandoned for centuries," Johnson recalled.

"Closer to a thousand years," Barnes told him, "I'm a settler here and a xenoarcheologist. We're still struggling to understand why the departing race decided to eliminate the remaining race."

"They were jealous of us and how long we lived," Ar'kana said even more sadly, "They felt cheated because their lives were the merest of flickers in the dark."

"We've determined that the surface dwellers' lives were very similar to the life cycle of the Ocampa that Admiral Janeway and the Voyager crew discovered," Barnes told him, "They were born, reached adulthood in a single year as we'd count time and then lived for a dozen years or so and then suddenly rapidly aged and died."

"They left to find a world where they could change their destiny," Ar'kana explained, "But they couldn't leave us alone to outlive them all."

"And you've buried your work?" Johnson asked Barnes.

"Just the references to Ar'kana's people adapting and surviving. For the official reports, they all died out when the surface dwellers poisoned the oceans with biogenic weapons," Barnes informed him.

"I'll keep your secret," Johnson promised the native girl, "My two officers will simply log in your presence as an 'unknown' factor. They'll never know from me that you're native to this world."

"I know I can trust you, Admiral," Ar'kana told him, "And the other human who spoke with the group. But the younger human is full of questions and doubts. He's troubled by recent events. I couldn't sense what they were but they're foremost in his emotions and thoughts."

"I know the event that started him down the path," Johnson sighed, "Nothing good will come of those questions either."

"You are like my people when we first changed waters," Ar'kana stated, "You must learn to navigate the new world without losing the grandeur of the old world. Balancing these two drives is difficult. But you and others will make your peace with it."

"And you are an incredibly insightful young woman," Johnson smiled, "I would love to meet your people some day. Just to see how well they've coped."

"Then someday soon, I will tell my people to let you visit us under the waters," Ar'kana smiled brightly, "But I have been in the surface world too long already. I must return home swiftly or I'll fall ill. The last remaining vestige of the poisons used against us."

"I don't wish you harm. Safe travels and I sincerely hope to see you again," Johnson bid her farewell.

"We have a transporter relay network that will take her directly home to the caverns," Barnes explained, "She'll be fine in a few hours."

"Now that the reasons behind some of your politics have become obvious, tell me the rest," Johnson urged them.

"Let's take a tour then," Raining Waters suggested, "See the people and what they will lose if we are forced to vacate."

"Am I safe in assuming you're all leaders on your respective colonies?" Johnson asked.

"Very good, Admiral. Your guess is correct," Arkhura told him.

"Except for me," Barnes shrugged.

"We'll show you glimpses of all twenty-two colonies wishing to distance ourselves from a Federation that abandoned us even before Ardra sold our worlds," Englund offered. Johnson couldn't argue with that interpretation of events. It was all too true.

"I'm just looking to land and sell my wares," Mudd had been arguing with the same official on Rekena III for hours now.

"Rekena IV is being blockaded for a Special Security Operation," the official sneered, "We can't guarantee your safety."

"Look, I've traded wares in war zones before. I'll be fine," Mudd promised him.

"It isn't a war zone," the official fell back onto the official line.

"It's a 'special security operation', got it," Mudd beat him to the punch, "Now, can I land or not?"

"Solarian has established a what they term a 'Green Zone'. You can land there. But you will not leave the zone. Officials have overlooked your manifests and have specific items they would purchase. But all business will be conducted inside the secured green zone," the official laid out the policy.

"I won't step out anywhere," Mudd promised, "I'll just buy and sell cargo."

"Here's your flight plan. Do not deviate from it," the official warned.

"Yah, yah," Mudd switched off the comm viewer, "I'd hate to be what's wedged up his ass."

"I notice you forgot to mention Neela or I being aboard," Anara pointed out.

"I promised I wouldn't leave the Green Zone. I didn't say a word about you two," Mudd explained. Neela couldn't hide her smile. Even Anara appreciated the craftiness. It would probably even hold up in a non-military style court. But terminology or not, they were headed into a war zone. Fought on a planet with a toxic atmosphere and limited visibility.

As Mudd piloted the Freehold through the haze, she swiftly had to switch over to maneuvering by sensors alone. Traffic Control offered to take over and guide her in by remote. Mudd made certain that the systems were compatible before relinquishing control of the helm. She also made certain the secret systems related to weapons and fire control were isolated from any untoward digital inquiries. Smith and Kerber had encrypted sections of the main computer using Iconian as the cipher language. It was doubtful any local computer systems would contain a dead language from fifty thousand years ago.

"We're being escorted," Anara pointed out what the passive sensors were reading, "They're taking active scans of the ship."

"Too bad the cockpit is laced with kelbonite," Mudd shrugged.

"That'll be an issue later," Neela knew the inspectors on the ground would grill Mudd on why she'd shielded her cockpit from sensors.

"I speak fascist," Mudd shrugged again, "But we need to get you two outta uniform and into civvies."

"Which is why you insisted we replicate some," Anara realized.

"Hey, riding into a free port with military officers aboard is not a way to make friends and influence people. If they're criminals," Mudd reminded them, "Which accounts for mosta the people I know."

"We'll need to stash our uniforms," Anara reminded her.

"Smuggling compartment five should do it," Mudd told them, "I opened it up yesterday. You'll see it."

And sure enough, as the Bajorans sought to hide their duffels, they spotted an opening in the bulkhead just big enough to hide their bags or other small, stolen items or contraband. They kept their phasers and comm badges.

"Our transport window will be slight," Mudd warned, "So get your rebreather masks and goggles on and expect a jarring transition."

Mudd operated the transporter from the bridge. As predicted, the pattern enhanced beam down during landing was jarring. But it was also the fastest transporter effect that either had ever encountered.

Anara made mention of it, "I wonder if she'd sell the specs to the Militia."

"She probably stole them and doesn't want to draw attention to that fact," Neela warned, "She is Harri Mudd."

"True," Anara sighed and pulled her tricorder off her belt, "I can't see anything through this haze."

"Duck in here!" Neela pushed Anara into an alleyway. Heavily armored and armed troopers were patrolling the streets. As they made their way through the port city, patrols were everywhere. But not in a standardized armor. Solarian obviously geared up different units from differing suppliers. The troops weren't employing tricorders but their helmet visors had enhanced their vision because they stopped and question civilians walking the streets.

"If I were Starfleet secret agents and guaranteed to stand out on an alien world, where would I congregate?" Anara asked aloud, mulling it over.

"A port public house," Neela easily replied, "Think the 'Old Biddy' on an alien world."

"The Old Biddy was on an alien world," Anara reminded Neela that it had been located on Ronara Prime in the former Cardassian-Federation DMZ.

"This way," Neela steered her friend.

"How can you tell?" Anara wondered.

"Everyone's headed this direction. Probably needing a stiff drink after the invasion," Neela offered.

"That's sound enough thinking," Anara admitted.

The Obsidian, Manifesto, and Artemis dropped out of warp together in the Rekena system. Troop drop ships already orbited Rekena IV. Two starships patrolled the system. One was a decommissioned Starfleet vessel. A Korolev-class according to the data banks. The other was a privately built Federation starship. The data banks did some searching.

"The computer marks her as a Pincer-class. A recent design development from Grimes Weapons designed for export," Lee read off of his screen in the Situation Center.

Shade continued where Lee left off, "It seems they wanted to expand into the military starship market. So far they're meeting with mixed results."

"How mixed?" Rockford asked.

"Their biggest clients are stellar nations the Federation won't equip," Shade grimaced, "It's a who's who bag of cutthroat planets. Corporate projections indicate they're breaking even but don't expect the project to be profitable in the coming year."

"Meaning they'll start selling to criminals," Rockford huffed.

"It certainly isn't Starfleet but it is as well armed as our escorts," Forte scanned a little deeper.

"Meaning it's legal because Starfleet doesn't consider it a real threat," Rockford summarized.

"We changed their minds about that," Macen reminded her, "So officialdom may begin restricting exports soon enough."

"Those drop ships use detachable shuttle craft to land troops," Rockford assessed, "I'm familiar with the type. Angosia bought hundreds of them for the Tarsus Wars."

"Meaning everything here is dated," Lee realized.

Macen stayed quiet about operations until now, "Home in on that drop ship skating the atmosphere."

"Where?" Shade wondered.

"I have it," Forte altered the main viewer to show the ship skimming Rekena IV's atmo.

"They're dropping items," Macen pointed out.

"But what?" Rockford hated to ask. The first distinctive mushroom cloud lit up from the surface followed by six more along the ship's travels. It pulled into a higher orbit.

"They frinxing nuked civilians?" Shade shouted her disbelief.

"And now the patrol has taken an interest in us," Macen alerted them.

He tapped the wall comm panel, "Shannon, they mean to board us and wipe our computer scan records. That can't happen."

"We saw the nukes too," Forger grated, "Oh hell!"

"What is it?" Macen asked.

"Parva hit the panic button. The mutiny just started," Forger told him.

"Relay instructions to our escorts and tell them to resist at all costs," Macen ordered.

"Great. We're at war with Solarian again,"Forger grumbled.

"Commander, comms have been cut from Engineering. Daggit and Burrows areen route. Kovic and Collins have detained their entire Security unit and are moving to support Engineering. Tessa reports her team is loyal. Apparently Solarian doesn't care about recruiting medical staffers," Kerber's voice overrode the overrides, "Bailey and I have locked out the turbolifts and erected force fields around the bridge. That will by them additional time to set up. However, we're dead in the water until the warp core and impulse reactors come back online."

"We still have RCS thrusters," Macen replied, "Have Aglaia take note of that."

"Will do. I should mention an armed party is on this deck and headed for our positions," Kerber added.

"Lock down the Mess Hall as well," Rockford instructed, "Chef will be losing her water otherwise."

"The force field barriers are up. I suggest you use them," Kerber said tersely.

Macen led the detectives out. Ebert exited his office, "Already? We just got here."

Partial force field barriers made for cover and firing positions in the otherwise uniform corridor.

"Stun only," Macen instructed them.

"Tell it to Rab," Rockford replied, "They have Parva."

"I'll let him use his discretion," Macen decided.

"Gonna be a lot of blood to clean up," Rockford predicted.

The first phaser strikes hit the barriers. "Gun slits" opened in the fields and the SID team returned fire.

"I was hoping this upgrade would never be needed," Ebert sighed.

"The Starfleet Corps of Engineers thought I'd lost my mind when I asked them to design and install the system," Macen wore an evil smile, "They should be here."

"They're going into the Jeffries Tubes," Rockford noted.

"Bailey, gas them," Macen requested over the open circuit. Those that could escaped the Jeffries Tubes. The mutineers responded to the phaser fire by building barricade of their own, from the bodies of their stunned fellow crewmen.

"Well, that's almost original," Rockford muttered.

Phaser bursts flew in through the empty portal created in the force field barricades, stunning every assaulting crewman. The stunned defenders turned to face Bailey Smith.

"You're welcome," she said tersely as she holstered her phaser, adjusted her hat, and re-entered the Data Womb.

"I'll be a one-nutted jackrabbit," Lee was the first to break the profound silence that followed.

"I think this deck is secure," Rockford opined.

"I agree," Macen was wowed, "I guess we should head for engineering."

"That's a big 'yes' if you want to have anybody in the secondary hull left alive," Kerber's voice came through again.

"Oh hell," Rockford groaned.

"By the way, Tessa has everyone on Deck 2 that didn't head up the ladder wells towards the Bridge sedated," Kerber added.

"Go Tessa!" Ebert enthused.

"Lee, Shade, Arianna, report to Tessa and see if she needs any assistance beyond what her med staff can provide," Macen instructed. If Rockford felt cut out of the chain of command it didn't show. Instead she looked like as if it was the very order she wanted to give.

"Who all is headed to Engineering?" she asked instead.

"Everyone from every other deck," Kerber said direly.

"Looks like you're still with us," Macen told Ebert.

"Good," was all the bespectacled pilot said grimly.

"Jonez, I want you to target them with concentrations of phasers and photons. Target weapons and engineering first and foremost," Captain Bigelow ordered Jone Jonez at the Weapons station, "Ammodat, get us behind them stat! I'd rather be facing their chase armament,"

Ishtara Ammodat went evasive as she guided the helm to maximize Jonez's chances and get where the captain ordered them to be. The venerable Constitution-class faced a Korolev-class two generations beyond her design build even though she was built as a refit model type.

Bigelow signaled Engineering, "Chief Gallows, I need everything you can muster, madame!"

"On it,"Rose Gallows commed back.

"They have Type VIII phasers," Ginnifer Goodwyn reported from Sciences/Sensors, "They also have an added generation of shield emitters."

"I can punch through," Jonez promised, "It just takes some surgery."

The ship began shudder and overloads began manifesting as the shields took a battering and energy spillover struck the hull.

"Hold together, baby," Bigelow told her ship.

"Feric? What the hell are your security people doing here?" Gallows asked the security chieftain. Chief Vladimir Sushenko had armed sentries posted out of the engineers' way.

"Protocol states my people secure the most vulnerable sections in case of boarding parties," the Caitian told the human.

"Just keep your people out of the way!" Gallows snapped.

"On it," Feric promised.

"Oh! And don't shoot the damn warp core! Bad things will happen," Gallows yelled back at him as she stormed off to solve the latest crisis.

"Aye, aye," Feric chuckled.

"Keep the triage flowing," the crusty old Doctor Karl Whethers yelled at his Chief Med Tech, Jewlz Lipinski. Whether could never tell why Lipinski signed on as his assistant. She was a marvelous coroner but seemed to get along better with the dead than the living. He knew she hung out at cemeteries during shore leaves. She also wore pentagrams and upside crosses from an ancient religious practice he was unfamiliar with. He didn't care so long as she did her job.

"Have they tried hailing us?" Bradley inquired of Cas Tran, the Communications Chief.

"Negative, sir. They are running silent," Tran replied.

"I'm rerouting the affected primaries to secondary systems," Xian Mannh reported from OPS/Navigation. Mannh was nearly blind without her sensor glasses she rarely removed for any reason. She could see more normally than a patient with a VISOR but it was still electronic input being translated by implants into her optic nerves. She also preferred being a redhead.

Jonez had called up her Tactical relief, Tan Bo, to also double as a Security officer on the bridge. Through wild maneuvers that took the ship dangerously close to their Korolev-class assailant, Ammodat managed to get the Manifesto behind the newer design model.

"Now, shove a brace of torpedoes up their ass!" Bigelow snarled.

"CONN, evasive!" Captain Xela ordered, "Full impulse burn past them and then bring us about."

"CONN, aye," Julia Benz acknowledged the ordered and implemented the maneuver. The Constellation-class Artemis was of a newer design then her sister, Constitution-class, ship. But much of the defensive technology and weapons systems were still the same. But the phaser banks were Type VIII class like those of the adversarial Pincer-class.

"Tactical, target their engineering section and weapons as they're made available," Daria Washington added so Xela could concentrate in guiding CONN and OPS as she also managed her chief engineers.

The chimp-like Arkeles and rodent-like Merrick were only set of co-heads of department. They had two chief medical officers as well. A pair of sisters, Jocasta and Hera Lincoln, that were fraternal twins. And a couple. Incestual and same-sex relations were the norm on their colony. Heterosexual pairings were uncommon and culturally frowned upon. Reproduction was handled through artificial insemination.

Out of sheer coincidence, the two head nurse practitioners were also a lesbian couple. But totally unrelated. Darlene Hamilton and Davia Holmes kept their opinions of the Lincolns' sexual mores to themselves. Which earned them the doctors' gratitude.

"Tell me someone on that ship is listening to our hails?" Wenonah Harrington, the 2nd Officer manning the bridge Engineering station, inquired.

"I'm afraid to guess," Sergei Arsonov replied from Communications.

"So they're rude as well as homicidal," Washington snorted.

"I'm feeding Tactical every scan I can make," Denise Walsh reported from Sciences/Sensors.

Igmar Buress, the Tactical chief, grunted, "They are woefully unprepared for this fight."

"Then end it quickly," Xela ordered.

"I'm on their ass and staying there," Benz announced.

"Fire for effect," Washington unnecessarily ordered. Buress already was.

The tricorder translated the pub's name from the Rekenan script as "Fontzi's". Passage through an airlock and decontamination field ushered patrons into the public house. Inside was a smoke filled environ seemingly as toxic as the great outdoors.

Local workers, natives, and tramp freighter crews all drank, smoked, and commiserated their Solarian induced woes. A table of humans seemed slightly out of place to Neela, "That's them."

Anara had to admit they looked and acted slightly extra cautious and aware of their surroundings. Since they were Rekenans, it made sense that they weren't rebels.

"And they marked us," Anara cautioned her friend.

"Then I guess we should say 'hello'," Neela smiled brightly, "But first..."

"Ahem," a feminine voice cleared itself behind them, "Colonel Anara, Major Neela, we need to talk."

They turned to see Federation Security Agent Brittany Darque impatiently waiting behind them. Agent Darque hadn't changed much over the last decade. She still wore the mop of hair above her tapered undercut a soft pink to contrast her very dark, formerly red hair. Her green eyes flashed with mischief and her freckles made her seem even more impish.

"Now?" Darque asked.

She led them across the room away from the Single 0 agents to a table shared by fellow humans, Captain James Swallow and Commander Martina Harris of Starfleet Intelligence's uber-secret intelligence gathering platform: the tramp freighter registered as the SS Official Secrets.

"Commander Swallow, Lt. Commander Harris, almost a pleasure as always," Anara offered the banalities.

"It's Captain now in rank and in position," Swallow sad grimly.

"I've ranked up as well to Commander," the blonde Black woman chuckled. Unlike regular fleet, Intelligence officers advanced slowly after reaching senior grades. Their crew was made up of ensigns and lieutenant JGs just out of the Academy. All of whom took the covert side of their mission very seriously. Only none of the current crop seemed to be in the pub.

"Ditch the crew?" Anara prodded.

"Would you want shore leave on this armpit?" Swallow snidely asked.

Harris gave Swallow a longsuffering look, "Badly put but true nonetheless."

Anara noted the long term professional partners were now holding hands on the table, "When did you become a couple?"

"Seven years ago, just as your friend here predicted," Harris explained, "My wife took an early opt-out on our marriage contract and James' wife decided she didn't appreciate the fact I could could finish his sentences and he mine when she couldn't. So they divorced. We've been together ever since. But I don't think either of us would've ever bridged the personal and the professional without her speaking up first. How did you know?"

"The Prophets show me many wonderful, and some pretty strange at times, things," Neela shrugged.

"Well, thank them for us," Harris laughed.

"I'd heard you were dead," Swallow said more somberly, "And you haven't aged a day in ten years."

"The Prophets are merciful," Neela said.

"Yes, they must be. I'm so sorry Starfleet and the Federation went to war with your people. That wasn't right," Harris stated.

"I won't argue that point," Anara admitted.

"Yet, now our people are free, on both sides of the conflict," Neela offered.

"Surely you didn't know the Federation would endure three successive criminal regime changes within as many months?" Darque argued.

"Would anyone have believed me even if I had?" Neela countered.

"Ladies, our targets are here now," Swallow warned them both.

"To business then," Darque returned to her seat.

"Have a seat," Harris offered, "The show is about to begin."

She had a small parabolic dish aimed at the Single 0 agents' table and more humans were gathering there, along with a hazard suited Rekenan.

"Don't stand up on our account Agents 098, 0111, 0233, 0234, and 0249," Agent Monday instructed them, "This will go much smoother and less lethally if you spare us the denials."

098 was a beautiful Kenyan woman while 0111 was Colombian, 0233 was of European descent and had hair dyed a neon pink contrasting the milder blue tinted hair of the Ecuadorian 0234. 0249 was the oldest of the Single 0 agents present and the only male besides being another Euro descended human.

"Let's be frank, shall we?" Agent Monday asked.

"All right, Frank. Who should I be?" 098 asked.

Agent Monday was also from the United States of Africa and didn't have time for her sardonic sense of humor, "We all want Rekena IV freed and the nobility on Rekena III toppled so that a watch post and listening station can be placed in this sector."

"Except we don't require the government to change hands," 0234 replied, "In fact, we're to leave it intact."

"Pussy," Agent Thursday sneered.

"Just because I have one doesn't mean I am one," 0234 retorted, "Unlike some."

Thursday, who was decidedly male, began to lurch forward at her across the table.

"Take a walk, Thursday," Agents Wednesday and Friday pulled him back. Agent Tuesday had delivered the order.

"Right at this moment, Agent January is delivering a similar message to Mr. Smart and 003 and 0014," Monday went on to say while Wednesday straightened her cap after Thursday had jostled it.

"And Agent March is insuring their privacy," 0233 gave him a dull look, "We know. Just like we know the two leather clad bimbos at the bar are Agents Friday and Saturday."

"Did you really think Cell 51 could place agents on Rekena without us learning about it?" 0249 asked.

"We seemed to do all right on Cestus III," Agent Sunday retorted.

"You mean Elena Kita and her plant people," 098 said drolly.

"Agents Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday are all going for their weapons," Darque predicted.

"That's why," Swallow nodded in the direction of Solarian troopers shucking their ponchos to reveal armor underneath and they were fastening their air filtering and vision enhancing helmets.

"Let it be," Neela cautioned the Starfleet Intelligence and Federation Security agents.

"I'd listen to her," Anara urged. The trio of Cell 51 operatives did open fire. They drew the Solarians outside while civilians were caught in the crossfire.

"Now the meeting will quietly resume," Neela pointed out.

"How did you know?" Harris was amazed.

"The Prophets speak to me," Neela calmly stated.

Agent Wednesday and Agent Tuesday excused themselves to assist outside as needed. That left Monday alone with the Rekenan resistance leader and the Single 0s while Friday scanned the crowds for further unexpected threats.

"This is T'k'l'k'l, the planet's resistance leader." Monday made the introduction as the worker supervisor sat down and joined their table. Despite the biohazard gear nearly covering all of T'k'l'k'l, it was apparent to even the untrained eye she was female. Several synthetic workers entered the pub.

"What have I told you?" a bartender yelled out, "We don't lube your kind!"

A synthetic flipped him the bird. Apparently the bartender knew the Terran gesture because his sallow skin darkened.

"Solarian is sweeping the corridor. We must get you to safety," the leading synthetic told T'k'l'k'l.

"These two speak on my behalf to your Federation masters," T'k'l'k'l told them, "Listen well, lapdogs."

"This system, this whole damn sector, is about to fall into Romulan control," Monday advised the Single 0s, "Unless we depose the queen tonight."

"You can't be serious!" 098 yelped.

"Never more so," Monday explained.

Friday moved in, "Something isn't right."

"Explain," Monday told her.

"We've got eyes on us but I can't tell you from whom," she tried to explain.

"We'll reconvene in the hotel bar," Monday told the Single 0s.

"We're not going with you," 0249 scoffed.

"You don't and you lose all chances of getting a seat at the table," Friday snapped back at him. More Solarians entered in.

"Now!" Monday grated. The Single 0s all complied except for 0233. She remained behind as a "rearguard" to insure they weren't being followed. Friday obviously didn't trust her but Monday obliged the Singles. They all placed their filtration and eye protection gear back in place and exited.

0233 slowly followed as though keeping a secure trail void of pursuit. In reality, the pink haired woman was providing a small radioactive trail from a small squeeze tube. A trail Swallow, Harris and Darque could easily follow. They invited Neela and Anara to join them.

Swallow and Harris took the lead by several minutes, just a couple out for a stroll and headed back to their hotel room. There was only one hotel of note in the city. Brothels made up the rest of the trade.

Darque accompanied Anara and Neela.

"We pre-arranged this signal. We know they'll probably end up back at the hotel at some point. We're all staying there," Darque explained, "James and Martha will go straight to the hotel. We get to follow the bramble trail 0233 is leaving for us."

Surprisingly or not, the trail ended at a brothel.

"I don't suppose you're inclined to get rooms tonight?" Darque asked, "They cater to all sexualities or even groups."

"And you're?" Anara was peeved.

"I'm my actual gender. I was born a genetic male. But my true gender is female. So I like men. They like me because I know how to really get them off," Darque was smiling behind her mask.

"More than I needed to know to proceed with," Anara complained.

"How large of groups?" Neela wondered.

"I get it," Darque seemed to approve, "And it all depends on how much currency you have."

"We didn't bring any," Anara was set on being prudish about this.

"I have local and latinum. C'mon, let's get inside before the acid rain melts us," Darque snickered.

Anara glared at Neela, "What will the Prophets think?"

"Just think pure thoughts," Neela advised.

In the end they had a large room with three sex workers relieved to have the night off, since Darque had paid for the entire night.

She bought alcohol and food and the workers imbibed and indulged while Darque set up monitoring equipment, "Fortunately, 0111 is wearing an audio pickup in her ear. It's supposed to be for her tinnitus and vertigo. Which, of course, she doesn't actually have."

Anara confiscated the sex workers' universal translators. She noted though that they were very well endowed when it came to male sex organs.

"Pure thoughts," Neela teased her.

"Hand of the Prophets," Anara scolded her.

Monday and Friday could be heard conversing with Agents January and March. The Single 0s were restive while the Cell 51 agents were in a dispute.

"What do you mean Ambassador Aurelian and her staff are missing?" Monday was aggrieved. It seemed January was female while March was male and covering 0086, 003, and 0014 while she reported in with Monday.

"Our people are ready to move at this end," Monday chided January.

"The labor class here is also ready to revolt but the Ambassador not only vanished but the Queen Matriarch and her brood are missing as well," the Cell 51 lead agent complained.

"How well have you been watching the Romulan privateers?" James Smart could be heard asking.

"They returned to their Birds of Prey hours ago," January replied.

"And they set up a garrison position within the palace some thirty minutes ago. About the time you and yours decided to complicate matters," Smart said cheekily.

"What?" all of the Cell 51 operatives said at once.

"Really?" Smart was incredulous, "How many coup attempts have you people ever planned before?"

"Release them!" an imperious female voice could be heard as booted footfalls gained entrance into January and March's position.

"Ah, Commander Tekana. How good to see you again," Smart said appreciatively, "I take it our business here is concluded?"

"Tell your fellow agents on Rekena IV to stand down now," Tekana didn't request, "I expect you all off worlds in twenty minutes. But I did enjoy our negotiations."

Smart and Tekana had negotiated the takeover between silken sheets.

"This is goodbye then," 003 assured Tekana.

The Double 0s all requested transporter beam outs that the Official Secrets provided. Swallow and Harris had received word to transport back as well.

"What thefrinx?" Friday snarled as 098, 0111, 0233,0234, and 0249 were caught up by transporters. Solarian agents narrowed in on where the transporters had locked onto and hauled away a very combative duo of Cell 51 agents. It would later be revealed that the other "daily" agents were under arrest based upon martial law powers the Queen Matriarch had bequeathed Solarian.

"I guess we're done here?" Darque was mystified.

"Do you have a berth to get out of the sector?" Anara was worried.

"Let me check," Darque used her official comm badge to engage with a freighter captain who had already cut and run.

"Come with us," Neela offered.

"I guess I have to," Darque said glumly.

Anara contacted Mudd, who'd been bored since deceiving the Solarian search party that came aboard. They safely materialized on the pads.

"Whose your friend?" Mudd asked.

"Federation Security Agent Brittney Darque, meet Harriet Fedora Mudd," Anara introduced them.

"Harri Mudd? In the flesh? I have dozens of outstanding warrants with your name on them," Darque was astonished.

"Some friends you all are," Mudd groused.

"Look, today I'm just Brit. No 'agent' at all. I need a ride out of this shuk show," Darque offered a truce.

"What gives?" Mudd wondered.

"The Romulans are seizing the system and probably the sector," Neela told her, "The Federation seems to have negotiated the trade off."

"Trade off for what?" Mudd asked.

"That's the billion bars of gold pressed latinum question," Anara said gravely.


Chapter Five

"What the frinx?" Bigelow was out of her chair as Romulan Warbirds decloaked throughout the system.

"Now, they are hailing," Tran said.

"Put them on," Bigelow grumbled.

Arsonov gave Captain Xela the same message. With the same reply.

Director of the Tal Shiar Sela herself appeared in everyone concerned's viewers. Which included Forger and the Obsidian bridge crew.

"Hello, I presume I have everyone interested receiving my hail. So I'll be brief and to the point. This Rekena system is now under the Star Empire's control. No foolish heroics are needed. The Federation has vouchsafed this transaction. Which the two Starfleet vessels and three Outbound Ventures vessels now dropping out of warp or quantum slipstream will be able to easily assess. I suggest you deal with the incoming 'Patriots' laughingly called 'armada' and leave governance to the Queen Matriarch," Sela terminated the transmission.

"Who all just showed up?" Forger wondered as she stepped over a stunned crewman.

"I make the USS Aventine, the USS Intrepid, the Indomitable, the Waveriser, and the Hammerfall all entering the system. Long range sensors have a squadron of raiders of various design and capability," Edwin Zimbalist reported from OPS.

"Well at least we can hand off our prisoners," Forger shrugged.


Before the change of regency, Macen, Rockford, and Ebert made it to Engineering to find a bloodbath. Daggit and Parva were cuddling. She had a split lip that had probably provoked Daggit. Although several crewmen were missing limbs from meeting Burrows' katana blade. Gilan watched as Tessa and her med team assessed and treated the survivors. She heavily sedated them while cooler heads decided what to do with the mutineers.

"Shannon, you still with us?" Macen commed the bridge first.

"Yeah, Lee and the reinforcements arrived after we'd repulsed a takeover bid that came through my Ready Room," Forger reported, "The high and mighty Sela herself just declared Romulan sovereignty. We have Starfleet and Captain Riker showing up as reinforcements and the Patriots stupidly decided to show their faces."

"Call the Aventine. Captain Dax can relieve of us of our prisoners. Tell her we'll be pressing charges under interstellar law," Macen decided.

"Dax it is," Forger signed off.

"Why not Jim McKinley?" Rockford asked, "Or even dispersing them across our own forces?"

"Solarian is still out there under Romulan protection. They might decide to take issue with us even after we presumably beat them," Macen explained away.

"Commander?" Tessa approached, "Internal sensors have crewmen trapped in their quarters. I'm assuming they bailed on the mutiny."

"Route Jelena and Abby their way. I'd like you with them in case anyone was mistreated for being loyalists," Macen directed her.

"Tony, I want you to lead the Detective Squad in isolinear tagging the unconscious so Dax can lock onto them," Macen told him.

"I'd love to shoot them while they're down," Burrows smirked.

"Commander, Captain Riker is veeery anxious to speak with you," Forger cut in.

"Brin? What the hell happened?" Riker was immediately patched through before Macen could approve or disapprove.

"Mutiny," Macen said with all his anger focused in one word.

"Again?" Riker wondered.

"First time, remember?" Macen chided him.

"Yeah, yeah, remind me later," Riker replied, "What the hell is Solarian doing here?"

"The Queen Matriarch's bidding. And before you ask, apparently she's now doing the Romulans' bidding," Macen said wearily.

"Helluva day," Macen could hear Riker's grimace.

"Standby to transfer personnel," Macen requested.

"Personnel?" Parva seized onto that.

"Essential crew replacements," Macen told her, "Equally distributed between the Indie, the Hammerfall, and the Waveriser."

"I thought Angelique and Bailey just informed everyone about the mutinous crew," Daggit was irked.

"Neela suggested it," Macen told them, "We all know better than to resist her suggestions."

"Did she, Mudd, and Anara get off Rekena IV in time?" Rockford grew concerned.

"The Rekena system is bleeding commercial traffic," Riker told them, "And Osmont just got a ping off of their transponder ID. But Berent is reading an additional human life sign."

"A stray?" Rockford laughed.

"Seems like it," Riker confirmed, "The Freehold is definitely carrying two humans and two Bajorans."

"How's Jim doing with the Patriots?" Macen asked.

"They've turned back. The Intrepid is exiting the system to escort them home," Riker noted.

"Commander, Captain Dax is ready whenever we start tagging bodies," Forger cut in.

"Tell Tony and company to collect the gear from Security and to start there," Macen instructed since the bulk of the Security team was in the three brig cells.

"Tom, we'll be transferring to my office so we can start visual communications in a minute," Macen told Riker.

"See you then," Riker still seemed worried about them yet.

"Rab, stand by here while Jelena and Abby get the crew sorted out. Our replacements should start swamping even Telrik's talents with a transporter soon enough," Macen offered.

"Commander? Director Sela herself wants to speak with you," Forger warned him.

"Tell her to keep her tunic on," Macen grumbled.

Rockford and Ebert had comfortable positions on Macen's office couch. Riker was tied into the comm feed as were Kerber and Smith. He had no doubts Forger was displaying it on the main viewer while relaying voice only dictates to their fellow ships and Captain Dax's crews.

"Commander Macen, and everyone else that is listening in, I'm sorry about your circumstances," Sela smirked.

"No, you're not so don't bother," Macen replied.

"You're right. I'm not," Sela laughed.

She was clearly enjoying herself, "I'm afraid you've been badly used, Commander. Rear Admiral Forger dispatched you to try and prevent this from occurring. She was unawares that Vice Admiral Nechayev's vaunted Double and Single 0 Sections were here to yield just the opposite."

"So no happy Independence Day was ever expected," Macen clarified.

"No, and it never will be," Sela chuckled utterly pleased with herself, "Now, did something utterly unfortunate happen your ship and that's why Captain Riker has brought his in to support you?"

"Somehow I think you already know that answer," Macen said grimly.

"Too true," she boasted, "You have two hours to depart the system. Use them wisely."

She terminated the transmission then. Transporter effects could be heard outside the still open office door as well as the snap-hisses of the isolinear taggers. Forger had officers deployed to situate new crewmen and women. She was taking a tour of the ship.

"Jesus, Brin," she said as she popped her head in, "A literal pile of bodies?"

"I actually didn't do that one. Thank Bailey," Macen glibly retorted.

"Never piss off the Princess," she repeated the swiftly becoming frequent mantra.

"Amen to that," Rockford shuddered despite the warmth of her coffee, liberally laced with Bailey's Irish Cream. Ebert had just gone straight for the single malt. Macen, as always, stuck straight with coffee.

"Room for one more?" Riker asked, leaned in from the doorway.

"I disabled the synthahol restriction," Rockford told him about the replicator.

"I'll take an Irish Coffee," he grinned at her. She ordered up and gave it it to him.

He took the single empty chair, "So Sela was as snotty as ever."

"You got to miss the back half where she knew about the mutiny," Macen said with exasperation.

"She and Solarian are obviously in bed with one another," Riker took a sip of his coffee, "Whiskey rather Cream?"

'Your unspoken wish was my command, good sir," Rockford grinned.

"I may steal her," Riker warned Macen.

"But what would Lees think?" Macen warned him.

"True," he leaned towards Rockford again, "Sorry, Celeste. I can't offer you a helluva safer job."

"I'd miss certain people anyway," Rockford smirked, "Not that beast, of course."

"Of course," Riker saluted her with his drink.

"Ah, feel the love," Ebert grinned.

"Or lack thereof," Macen chuckled.

"If I had something to throw at you, I would," Rockford rolled her eyes.

"Now my secret of why there's no cushions is finally revealed," Macen chuckled and ducked as Rockford's comm badge came sailing over him.

"So violent," he tsked her.

"Clear the room and I'll show you 'violent'," Rockford warned him.

"It's the libations speaking," Macen shrugged.

"Or she's like most of the rest of us and gets horny after surviving violence," Ebert sipped her drink.

"You seem surprisingly settled," Riker observed.

"I never claimed to be 'most people'," you could hear the air quotes.

Macen deflected any further questions into Ebert's tragic past and sexual traumas, "Sela is in bed with Solarian. Nechayev pulled the strings to get Sela the victory. So that leaves everyone else wondering what did Starfleet get out of it?"

"It's one hell of a spot to get sensor sweeps deep into the Klingon Empire," Riker admitted.

"But we're allies," Ebert replied.

"Are we really?" Rockford wondered, "They conspicuously sat out the wars."

"Against the Bajorans I can understand," Macen confided, "But against the Cardassians? That's a deliberate political move since the Klingons hate the Cardassians almost as much as they hate the Romulans and the Dominion."

"Or as much as we hate the Borg," Riker added since Macen found the topic too close to home as an El-Aurian survivor of his race's assimilation.

"But why did Nechayev pull such a dangerous game and inform Amanda Forger that she had operatives in Rekena but not confide why they were there?" Ebert asked, "Sorry, it's the whiskey talking."

"No Tracy, it's a damn fine point," Rockford encouraged the pilot, "Why practically beg Amanda to send us while her operatives were working at a cross purpose to their purported mission and obviously didn't need extraction?"

"Commander, Commander Tekana wants a word,"Forger sighed.

"Put her on," Macen grudgingly said.

"She's just gonna gloat. That's what Romulans do best," Forger warned him.

"Cardassians run a close second if not pace them at the marathon," Macen chuckled, "But, she may let something slip."

"Your ear's funeral," Forger acquiesced.

"Commander, to what do I owe the displeasure," he asked the redheaded Romulan's image on his desk viewer.

"We always win in the end, Macen," Tekana took a head start in gloating, "Captain Yar sends her regards, by the way."

"I was surprised not to see her at the party, quite frankly," Macen confessed.

"Who do you think prompted Solarian into subverting your crew?" Tekana laughed, "You really should take better care of them."

In actuality, Macen was glad to be rid of most of the crew that still had lingering criminal connections but had been available to hire on when the Obsidian returned after its previous crew had been killed. Starship crewmen could be a rational or superstitious lot, depending on where you recruited from. The SID hadn't existed yet so Starfleet veterans were discouraged from signing on by Starfleet itself.

That was no longer the case. As the successful staffing of over three dozen starships proved out. Even the pool of SID vetted crews available for secretive missions had grown As the captains and crews of the Artemis, Manifesto, Hammerfall, and Waveriser proved out along with the recently approved Waylaid crew. Riker's own transfer from a small escort to the prototype Indomitable had relied on Caity Floss' services to adequately staff the fully sized capital ship.

With so many staff and crew, Serenity Station suffered from a distinct lack of guest quarters now. Which was becoming an issue since the station functioned both as corporate headquarters, corporate fleet rallying point, and commercial hub for the star system and the surrounding sector. Every business on the Promenade had to be guaranteed so many berths for employees. Yet if their staffs expanded, they now had to pay premium rates for quarters. Often times resulting in those employees being fired. The financial pressures were growing.

Tyrol's decision to construct a fleet tending yard relieved the station of much corporate fleet repair work and only requiring three of the starships to be docked at Serenity herself. The Indie and the Solstice were so berthed as the station's outriggers and the Obsidian was reserved an upper pylon for quicker deployment turnarounds. The Indomitable commanded a lower pylon as did the Solstice. There was no sense in placing all the military targets in the same hemisphere.. Especially since Tyrol and Macen had lobbied Forger and Nechayev for augmented station defenses but neither Admiral Duncan McNeil nor Vice Admiral Edward Jellico would approve the sale of advanced Starfleet weaponry to Outbound Ventures.

The Obsidian's upgrades and the transfer of the Charleston-class protoype had been the limit to which Jellico could be cajoled into. He himself had taken refuge on the station during the abortive wars against Cardassian and Bajor and felt the station was adequately defended by Barrinor's enforced neutrality. Yet President Chavy Sok had almost ordered Fleet Admiral Clancy to violate that same neutrality to get at Forger, Nechayev, Jellico, and Leonard James Akaar. Clancy's personal prizes would have been arresting Commander Michelle Prentiss and Lt. Commander Sakonna, the IA and JAG officers investigating the Starfleet Commander. Unknown to Clancy at the time, Lt. Commander Robin Lefler had been brought into the fold as well.

Clancy had forcibly re-activated Will Riker and returned him to command of the USS Titan to blockade the Barrinor system. Which in and of itself was illegal. The Rikers agreed to allow commercial traffic unlimited access but Outbound Ventures traffic would be halted from exiting or entering the system. Unspoken was the implicit implication that Starfleet traffic would also be halted regardless of Barrinor's granting them permission to enter the system or not. Thereby cutting the admirals and the investigators off from exiting while the blockade was in place. At least aboard a Starfleet vessel or Outbound Ventures ship. But once the blockade lifted the admirals and investigators returned to the Earth, much to Clancy's chagrin since then-President Perez had exonerated them, thus sparing them from the Fleet Admiral's wrath.

"Do you have anything worthwhile to say?" Macen asked Tekana.

"We'll be seeing one another again in this position. I promise you that," Tekana vowed and terminated the transmission.

"And we've been duly warned," Macen concluded.

"Wonderful," Riker grimaced.

"Sure is," Ebert sarcastically drank to that.

"To wonderful news!" Rockford toasted and they partook of their beverage of choice.

" work for the SID?" Darque was stymied.

"I work for Outbound Ventures. They just happen to contract with the SID," Mudd clarified.

"That's why all your warrants were canceled," Darque understood now, "Or at least put in abeyance."

"A little insurance to keep me on the straight and narrow," Mudd suddenly smirked, "Or at least the narrow."

"As I told your friends, I'm not a transbian," Darque advised her.

"I didn't even know you were trans," Mudd confessed.

With gender dysphoria pronounced early in life and the centuries' old acceptance of puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy in addition to masculanizing or feminizing surgeries, trans men and women were hardly distinguishable from genetic males and females these days other than their biological differences involving child birthing capabilities and even then only if transmen saw a need to give birth.

"I thought Tony Burrows was exchanging places with us," Anara quipped.

"What happens on the Freehold stays on the Freehold," Mudd winked, "Including with Tony."

"Captain Dax has offered me a ride back to Starbase 1200," Darque reminded them, "Her transporter chief should be signaling me any minute now."

On cue, her comm badge chirped. Burrows materialized minutes afterwards, "Ladies."

Telrik beamed Anara and Neela aboard the Obsidian afterwards.

"What's so funny?" he asked Mudd.

"Trade secrets," Mudd laughed.

"Colonel, Major," Macen greeted the Bajorans in the transporter room.

"That still takes some getting used to," Neela admitted.

"It took me years to get used to not being branded 'Sergeant Ryst' so I get it," Rockford shared.

"It seems, from Harri Mudd's statements, you had some excitement aboard even if you never made it to the planets," Anara stated.

"If you call a full crew mutiny excitement," Macen said drolly.

"He's kidding. Eleven members of the crew stayed loyal to the officers and team," Rockford softly punched his arm.

"Close enough to qualify then," Neela said softly.

"The Prophets never shared this with you?" Rockford wondered.

"They've fallen back to being mostly silent again," Neela told her, "It's a season for faith and not for revelation."

"I don't think I have the patience for your faith," Rockford confessed.

"Most don't," Neela shrugged.

"This one does. But I don't know how," Rockford pointed at Macen.

"It's that or surrender to chaos," Macen said softly, "But I don't dictate what to have faith in. Everyone has belief in something. Even if it's their own disbelief."

"Well said," Neela smiled.

"My husband: the preacher man," Rockford jested.

"Don't forget philosopher and poet," Anara joined in the joke.

"Too many labels to live up to," Macen said, "We have guest quarters available even with our staffing increase. You'll be sharing a room."

"It'll be like Resistance days," Anara chuckled.

"Anything will be an improvement over the caves and forests we slept in then," Neela said gratefully.

"I think I have permanent marks from rocks and branches," Anara jested.

"I did my time on the Cardassian border during the first war," Macen recalled, "I spent enough time in field conditions."

Macen had fought in the Border Wars as an Intelligence operative longer than either Anara or Neela had been in the Resistance. Yet he was able to parlay that experience into command of the Blackbird-class SS Odyssey for the Maquis struggle. A diminutive starship in its own right. One that rarely fought since its capabilities and crew lent themselves better to intelligence gathering efforts.

Ebert had become a hardened fighter after leaving the Maquis even after leaving the Dominion War behind.

"Is M in, Pennyfarthing?" Nechayev inquired outside the Sections Manager's office.

"Yes, but I..." Pennyfarthing was going to "manage" Nechayev. <

"Good," the door was automatically overridden by her approach.

Inside, M was discussing the operation's overview with Captain Mitchell Sheridan, the most recent former 0086, and the Sections' Counselor, the impossibly young, Doctor Artemis Crowley.

Sheridan wore a Starfleet uniform, Crowley and M did not.

"Dismissed, both of you," Nechayev told the subordinates.

"I'd prefer to stay," Crowley replied.

"I think you'd best listen," Sheridan wasn't one to usually talk back...too much, "0086 had some interesting insights that Counselor Crowley was just reviewing for us."

Sheridan had been promoted to M's Chief of Staff after giving up the official legend of "James Smart". His extensive field experience granting him additional insights Nechayev appreciated over a career administrator's like M.

"Very well," Nechayev allowed, "It seems to be your floor, Counselor. Don't disappoint the audience."

"Commander Tekana presented Commander Smart with an unexpected admission during their...negotiations," Crowley said delicately.

"I'm well aware of how 0086s negotiate," Nechayev said sternly.

"Tekana admitted to her position of Director Sela being threatened by Commander Solara but having found new venture opportunities with Empress Taralin and Ambassador Aurelian, Tekana felt her position was shored up," Crowley explained.

"And why would a Romulan privateer make such a confession?" Nechayev wondered.

"She thought Smart was passed out drunk after the sexual union had finally ended and was gloating to herself aloud as she dressed to leave," Crowley described the situation.

"Apparently, Commander Tekana is unaware of the liver implant Double 0 agents are given to metabolize the alcohol consumption that frequently comes with the assignments," Sheridan stated.

"And the Federation is known to be overly reliant on synthehol," M stated, "So after vigorous evening filled with Romulan ale and the musk of sex, Commander Tekana may have felt liberated despite herself and her cultural inclinations."

"That is a hell of a point," Nechayev admitted.

"0086 himself didn't report the incident until after being safely transferred from the Official Secrets to the Aventine several sectors away from Rekena," M added.

"And Smart himself utilized P's anti-surveillance?" Nechayev wondered, referring to the 0 Section Provisioner. P, along with Qute, developed the specialized tools used by all 0 Section agents. P himself was a male cardigan wearing, bespectacled lagomorph who was undeniably brilliant if somewhat overly fastidious. Qute was binary toned humanoid female whose skin tones altered between stark black and stark white. She was also the only engineer on staff capable of keeping up with P.

M herself was a native Russian like Nechayev. Unlike Nechayev, she'd never served in a field posting or on a similar operation. But she was the ablest administrator in Starfleet Intelligence. Her HUD glasses kept her immediately updated on her hundreds of underway operations. The degree of situational awareness M possessed was so great Starfleet had never risked losing it outside of the confines of Starfleet Headquarters.

Or now, inside the London Data Archive the 0 Section shared the building with the SID. As well as an active data archive. P and Qute had taken over the old Quartermasters' old sub-level when the secretive portions of the Archive had been Section 31's hidden in plain sight headquarters on Earth. The SID, even after S31's downfall and eviction had found Cell 51 operating in the hidden sub-levels. No one in Starfleet knew where Cell 51 was now operating from but the official hunt was underway.

Just no one had thought about returning to the abandoned Taurus Reach to look for the secretive Redoubt space station. But the Klingon surge into the Reach would provoke renewed Federation interest and rekindle the Klingon Empire's ire with Section 31 and its renewed successor.

Recently S31's abandoned shipyard in restricted space in Jupiter's orbit had been rediscovered and reassigned to the Special Projects Yards, or SPYards, after the original's loss along with Utopia Planetia and the Mars colony. A second yard was going in near Jupiter to replace Utopia Planetia though the term "replace" wasn't bandied about. Rather it would "supplement" the San Francisco single drydock and the three drydock Luna Yards. Another single drydock was being constructed near Mercury to mine it out.

Starfleet had an outstanding 212 Inquiry-class hulls to build besides other projects in the pipeline. The Antares and Copernicus Yards weren't considered sufficient to meet the growing fleet demands. Starfleet would admit it to the Federation citizenry, but the Bajorans and Cardassians had made Starfleet pay for their leaders' impudence. Starfleet didn't have an Iotian Federation or Outbound Ventures that backed their defiance. The Bajorans had had both and the Cardassian Guard.

the Cardassians had finally learned caution and measured responses and never followed the stricken starships that withdrew from sovereign Cardassian space. Thereby never leaving their defensive umbrella of defensive drones and orbital launchers. All of Cardassian industry was immediately applied to the defense effort. Whereas the Federation had to maintain the status quo, broken only by internments and rising recruitment drafts, in order to pretend the battlefield losses weren't occurring and that paradise was otherwise being maintained by great victories that the Ministry of Propaganda invented.

Eventually, Starfleet would've won had they fully mobilized. But that would've left countless worlds in the Greater Beta Quadrant defenseless against a surprise aggressor. Because certainly, the new Klingon Chancellor and Romulan Praetor were enjoying watching Starfleet knock itself out.

"So what possible gain could come from a relationship with an ambitious ambassador and a token empress?" Sheridan wondered.

"I think I know," M realized, "And I don't believe Tekana was as quite unaware of the liver enhancements we subject agents to as you believed, Captain."

"Do tell," Nechayev would indeed enjoy this conversation.

"Commander Jillenic, you're certain Commander Tekana planted the seed?" Sela asked her flagship's commanding officer.

"I don't see the appeal of using the privateer forces," Jillenic sneered.

"Than you're still the fool I pulled from the fleet because I needed an inferior commander to never second guess my decisions," Sela thinly veiled her threat. Jillenic's hand rested on her honor blade's handle.

"Please, do try," Sela laughed at her.

It was then that Jillenic spotted the palm sized disruptor in the Director's hand, "Are you testing my loyalty?"

"Yes, and your intelligence. It seems you fail at both at every turn," Sela told her, "Leave now."

Jillenic bristled a being dismissed from her own bridge. One day the half-breed would dare to go too far with her. By then she hoped to have Sela's avenging bodyguards paid off.

The Indomitable could make better cruising speeds than the Obsidian and its siblings. So Riker was safely home in back in complete command of Serenity by the time the SID ships arrived. It was a rare moment of respite for the SID crews.

The team, as well Forger's staff, was still mystified and downright irritated by the fact Kerber and Smith had intercepted Solarian's bidding war for the crews' loyalty months before. A motivating factor in helping get Caity Floss hired with Christine Pike and Amanda Forger's recommendations. Tyrol had declared a company-wide thirty-day leave as everyone's contracts coincidentally expired.

The new hires were put to work aboard the Obsidian on repair work and detailing as well apportioned across the station for fill in duties for vacationing crewmen. The station had regular duty shifts and relief schedules so their needs weren't as pressing. The shipyard was undertaking routine maintenance on most of the vessels that were overdue yard time. The routine passenger shuttle services were quickly overbooked. The only vessels not guaranteed a thirty-day respite were the Obsidian, Indie, and Solstice of the regular corporate fleet.

The Freehold was also on call for undercover work rather than potential combat operations. Like clockwork, Forger quickly determined a pressing need only Macen's team could fill. Rather than recall Forger and the Senior Staff, Macen opted to undertake the mission in the Solstice. They were headed into Patriot territory to support Noble's fact finding mission in the Eclipse.

It seemed they were looped in a giant circle as the request for Macen's team had come from Robert Tavar Johnson and dealt with the Patriots on a matter of some discretion. Even Admiral Forger was unaware of the nature of the request. She was trusting Johnson and Macen even more for not using his regularly vetted crew. The mission it seemed was a favor to Johnson and Starfleet was being left out of the loop. Try as much as she might to trust Johnson and Macen, she felt unsettled by the request. So she called in her own favor with Nechayev.


Last modified: 24 Jun 2024